(For the third year in a row, we present a year-end list from our Iowa-based guest Ben Smasher.)
Welp, next time we drown in 86 gallons of buffalo vomit, we can think to ourselves, “It’s ok, it’s not as bad as that time we lived through 2016!”
I swear the only reason I didn’t put a bullet in my temple this year was because of all the records that would pile up outside my door in the wake of my departure. Though my rabid interest in metal music had waned somewhat over the last few years, this year I decided to begin a YouTube channel (here) where I talk about my collection and other metal-related topics, and that stoked the fires more than they have been in years.
So I feel that this year I have a more refined list to offer because of how much more time I spent delving into the far reaches of the genre. If you find yourself in the throes of the winter doldrums come January, there is certainly some solace to be found below.
1. Tardigrada – Emotionale Ödnis
I remember this band’s demo from a few years back being somewhat promising, but I never in a million years expected to be here today telling you that this group has released the absolute best black metal album that I have heard in recent years.
What a stunning and captivating debut. This album has it all: It’s melodic, and has those gripping harmonies that we all love, plus terrifying vocals and delay-ridden guitar leads that make you feel like you’re roving throughout the mountains of Transylvania. If I gush any further about this tremendous album I’ll start sounding like even more of an idiot. Phenomenal album.
2. Vektor – Terminal Redux
With bigger-name bands in metal I usually am turned off by how much it sounds like they aren’t even trying. Here, Vektor has pulled off an album without regard to limitations. While the obvious trappings of thrash metal are the groundwork upon which this band builds their sound, Terminal Redux is Vektor’s distinct and larger-than-life identity in full bloom. I dare say this is a modern metal classic. It’s so melodic, complex, and fantastic that it makes my brain hurt.
3. Blood Incantation – Starspawn
It’s time to succumb to the hype. Death metal has a new darling and they are reminding us that the genre some of us had forgotten about can still be played brilliantly. Starspawn couldn’t be more fun and bombastic, taking cues from Morbid Angel, Ripping Corpse, Demilich, and Timeghoul.
4. Wędrujący Wiatr – O turniach, jeziorach i nocnych szlakach
Their first album satisfied with a distinct atmosphere that had already been vividly explored in my mind for quite some time, but hadn’t yet been realized in an album. To have a band match that beloved place in my memory with brilliant black metal was a luxury. The new record sees that moonlit forest revisited again with further ornate details and embellishments, making this record something I will cherish for many years on.
5. Mare Cognitum – Luminiferous Aether
If the election of Donald Trump didn’t make you feel like an insipid homonid who definitely hadn’t been putting enough work into its stupid life lately, Luminiferous Aether certainly will. I have a feeling we are in for several more years of this sort of punishment because this record blows the fence posts off what we think a human is normally capable of, and straight into the voids of space.
6. Woman Is the Earth – Torch of Our Final Night
I was pretty unfamiliar with this band until they pretty much dissolved my skeletal system with their set at the first Hammerheart fest. Then I saw them play newer material at the last fest and I have an even greater appreciation for these brilliant dudes. No other band can be as utterly captivating and delicate with such thunderous might and passion.
Torch is an even more mature and effective utilization of elements that leave nothing between them and your most vulnerable of emotions, stringing them through the album from start to finish.
7. Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder
I’m personally overjoyed with the change in direction that one of my favorite bands has taken, because after that last album, I had written them off entirely. Obviously, Darkthrone can do whatever they want, but Arctic Thunder invites us to join in on the headbanging fun. Though at times the album seems like the merging of too-disparate genres that do not quite blend perfectly, it’s done as well as it could have been, by the absolute masters of black metal.
8. Ghoulgotha – To Starve the Cross
Ghoulgotha have emblazoned their name on a gnarled but distinct and fetid personality that imbues sweltering, repugnant, and dilapidated death metal with thoughtful and pertinent beauty. Death metal needs more artists like this to walk its reaches further beyond its sometimes stagnant boundaries.
To Starve the Cross is mature, challenging, ornate, and vital. I cannot recommend these guys enough for those seeking something starkly different from the herd.
9. Cantique Lépreux – Cendres Célestes
This year I became much more acquainted with the Quebec scene. With some of it I find myself circling around bands or albums looking for a comfortable entry point, but Cantique Lépreux had me the second I saw the album cover. A vast expanse of moonlit snowy pine trees upon a hillside. You couldn’t make this more inviting if it had cheese and brown gravy on it.
Anyways, this debut is just as confident and stern as any other veterans out there. Atmospheric, frost-bitten, and pummeling black metal with just enough brilliant riffing (those invisible-orange-grasping leads!) to get the message across. Excellent, succinct, and devastating.
10. Cultes des Ghoules – Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love
FUCK YES. Displaying more ambition than most bands can muster, this album seriously knocked me on my ass. I cannot believe that someone has pulled off what is essentially a “black metal play”, without abandoning many of the necessary pillars of the genre. What a tastefully done feat.
As I write this I’m still waiting on my copy to arrive so I can’t speak to the actual content of the play / lyrics, but I’m looking out my door for the mailman every hour or so.
11. Vordr – In the Shadow of the Wolf
Vordr is really the only band on my list that I would say is bringing anything primitive to the table. I guess I’d say we’ve all somewhat outgrown this sort of thing, but then Vordr comes along and releases this neck-breaker.
It’s great to hear a Finnish band doing this sort of thing without taking itself too seriously and without getting bogged down by blasphemic rites and that sort of nonsense. It’s been nice to have a reminder that I still need black metal like this every now and then to bang my head until I get a nose bleed.
12. Saor – Guardians
I’ve closely followed this band’s evolution since they were known as Arsaidh and I’m glad to glad to say that Guardians finally feels like the band finding its boldest footing from which to operate. Guardians is inspired, intricate, and vast — vaaaaaaaast. I can see Saor having a lot of lasting influence on how other bands achieve this element of their personalities. The violin playing on Guardians brings so much depth and emotion to these songs.
13. Forteresse – Thèmes pour la rébellion
I’m still becoming familiar with Forteresse, but their latest feels like their mighty step into the limelight. It’s rife with razor-sharp riffs and super-speedy instrumentation at every turn.
14. Stilla – Skuggflock
Skuggflock is such a departure from the norm, I’m tempted to call this a “prog-black metal” album, but that may give you the wrong impression. Stilla have been boldly walking their own path for quite some time now and Skuggflock sees them at their most flourishing moment in their path. I’m very impressed by how challenging and yet accessible Skuggflock is.
15. Lycus – Chasms
Chasms is a somewhat refreshing take on funeral doom because it incorporates tendencies that I identify as being sludge or even drone, depending on your mood. I was unfamiliar with this band until their confident and poised style of doom was too good to ignore. Probably the most accessible album in my list, but it’s a heady and atmospheric nightmare nonetheless.
16. Odal – Geistes Unruh
Holy shit, I didn’t expect another album from this already beloved band, and certainly not one so melodic and aggressive!
17. Eneferens – In the Hours Beneath
Just the massive breadth of styles utilized so cohesively and effectively on this album is something I could get lost in. What a beautiful and powerful full-length from this Montana solo project. I will definitely be keeping my eyes on this brilliant project, who remarkably released two full-lengths this year.
18. Panopticon – Revisions of the Past
Though the time in which these albums were originally released has long since passed, and we have come to enjoy a more refined version of Panopticon, this painstaking project breathes so much new life into what are undeniably wonderful, passionate, and intense albums. I couldn’t be more impressed with how well these were cleaned up. Don’t miss this release if you are a fan of Panopticon.
19. Old Graves – Long Shadows
Probably the album on this list I pined for the most. After hearing the Paths split and the demo, I saw so much undeniable potential. I still can’t quite put my finger on why, but I don’t feel like this full-length lives up to the potential. That being said, however, this is a great band and I will definitely see what he has in store in the future.
20. 40 Watt Sun – Wider than the Sky
Wider than the Sky isn’t just any album you can approach any old time. This record deserves your undivided attention because it has the capacity to connect with your emotions like nothing I’ve heard in metal. While this really isn’t quite a metal record, it earns a place on my list because it is just an amazing artistic accomplishment.