(In the penultimate installment of his annual year-end series, Andy Synn today provides his list of the Critical Top 10 of 2017.)
Now although I say this every single year, I want to make something very clear straight away – the following list is in no way meant to be comprehensive or definitive, as it’s basically impossible for any one person to cover everything and to provide a perfectly accurate, utterly objective, list of the best albums released in any given year.
Instead, my selections for the “Critical Top Ten” (as opposed to my forthcoming “Personal Top Ten”) are meant simply to provide a representative sample of the fantastic wealth and variety of musical delights which the last twelve months have delivered, comprising a mix of big names, new faces, and cult favourites culled from across the metallic spectrum.
And though the process of whittling things down to a mere ten entries means that heaps of future classics were inevitably left on the cutting room floor (sorry Archspire fans), I’ve honestly tried my very best to be as clinical and objective as possible – checking and re-checking my own reactions and motivations, canvassing commentary and opinion on my choices from trusted sources, etc – and so I hope that what you’re about to read provides a clear and (relatively) accurate snapshot of what I truly consider to be the best and brightest (or, possibly, the bleakest and murkiest) albums of 2017.
For the sake of context and/or comparison, you can check out my selections from previous years by clicking the appropriate links below:
- 2011 Critical Top Ten
- 2012 Critical Top Ten
- 2013 Critical Top Ten
- 2014 Critical Top Ten
- 2015 Critical Top Ten
- 2016 Critical Top Ten
And while I stand by all (or, at least, most of) the choices I’ve made in previous editions of this column, I think that, by looking back at these lists, you can clearly see how I’ve grown both as a writer and as a “critic”, and get a feel for how the process of picking my “Critical Top Ten” has developed and (hopefully) improved over the years.
In the meantime though… here are the ten albums (presented in no particular order) which I feel represent the very best of the last twelve months.
BESTIA ARCANA – HOLÓKAUSTON
Let’s kick things off with something nasty, shall we?
When it comes to Black Metal at its most vicious and unforgiving, no other release this year managed to capture that magical blend of methodical madness and calculated chaos as Bestia Arcana’s second album.
Of course there was some stiff competition this year – not least from the band’s incestuous siblings in Nightbringer – but, for my money, no other album has better captured and exemplified the scorching ferocity and sulphurous atmosphere of Black Metal at its most adversarial and apocalyptic.
Simultaneously seductive, yet disturbing, frenzied, yet focussed, each of these four tracks is a miniature masterwork of the dark sonic arts, and just as capable of standing alone in isolation as they are together as part of one greater, more ghastly whole.
If you like this, try: Almyrkvi – Umbra
Similarly dense and atmospheric – albeit with more of a focus on oppressively cold and vast, all-encompassing emptiness – the debut album by Almyrkvi is a late-breaking contender which could easily have dethroned Bestia Arcana if the latter hadn’t been right at the top of their game.
WOE – HOPE ATTRITION
On the more melodic, song-oriented end of the Black Metal scale there were a few key contenders (one of which you can read about below), but ultimately the singular riff-craft and devastating dynamic energy of Woe’s fourth (and finest) album, Hope Attrition, ultimately won the day for the immensely talented quartet.
The seven tracks here, totalling a riveting forty-three minutes and thirty-eight seconds, are as densely packed with clever ideas, razor-sharp hooks, and raw passion, as anything I’ve heard this year, never once threatening to outstay their welcome or overplay their hand, and each one is delivered with the unwavering conviction of a band unwilling to compromise or be satisfied with anything less than the very best from themselves.
Blasting, grooving, raging, and galloping… this is one that’s destined to make a lasting impact, mark my words.
If you like this, try: Selbst – Selbst
One of the most complete, coherent, and brilliantly caustic releases of the year, Selbst’s self-titled album is a masterclass in melodic menace and potent metallic power, and very much deserves to be considered one of the finest debuts of 2017, Black Metal or otherwise.
LOSS – HORIZONLESS
While the previous two entries represented two of the many facets of Black Metal at its absolute finest, Horizonless takes us on the low, slow, soul-crushingly heavy path into the dark heart of Doom.
Throughout the album you’ll find a seemingly endless procession of humongous riffs, tormented melodies, and anguished, agonised vocals, bearing down upon you with all the irresistible weight and glacial momentum of an encroaching ice age, swinging slowly back and forth between oppressive misery and solemn despair, and leaving only desolation in their wake.
At over an hour in length Horizonless is certainly a demanding listen, but if you’re looking for a true emotional workout, one designed to leave you wrung out, cleansed, and purged of every ounce of pain and heartache you’ve ever experienced, well… this is the one for you.
If you like this, try: Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper
What more can be said about this heart-breaking musical epitaph? Not much I suppose, as it’s rightfully been appearing on pretty much every list I’ve seen so far. And while I honestly believe that Four Phantoms remains the superior album, both the ambition and execution of Mirror Reaper are practically beyond reproach.
BENIGHTED – NECROBREED
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride… until now that is… while Benighted have long been slightly overshadowed by their more famous peers in Aborted, Cattle Decapitation, and The Black Dahlia Murder (who also released a fantastic new album this year), their eighth album finds them levelling up in style to become one of the most blistering, balls-to-the-fucking-wall, bands on the scene.
Practically every aspect of Necrobreed finds the band’s sound having been given a serious upgrade – the riffs are sharper, the hooks are bigger and more brutal, the drums are both more technical and more terrifying, and the songwriting in general is just that much better. Seriously, few albums released this year have managed to come anywhere close to being this violent and this venomous while also being as catchy as a particularly virulent venereal disease.
What a rush.
If you like this, try: Hideous Divinity – Adveniens
One of my personal favourites of the year (was that a spoiler? you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out), Adveniens finds Hideous Divnity leapfrogging their countrymen in Hour of Penance and Fleshgod Apocalypse to become the brand new face of high-tech blasturbatory excess.
IMMOLATION – ATONEMENT
How many bands can boast a career that spans over twenty-five years and ten albums? And how many of those can boast that their latest album ranks right up there with the very best of their back catalogue, and continues to set the gold standard by which all others should be judged? Not many I bet. But Immolation can.
Make no bones about it, Atonement is Death Metal in its purest, heaviest, most riff-centric form. It grooves and it grinds, it blasts and it bludgeons, it pisses lightning and it craps thunder, and it fears neither man nor beast.
But it’s more than just a retro nostalgia trip or a throwback to a bygone era. It doesn’t ignore the progress and development that’s been made since 1991, it simply rolls over them, swallows them up, and folds them into its armoury, ready for deployment right when they’ll do the most damage.
The war machine keeps rolling, as unstoppable as ever.
If you like this, try: The King Is Blind – We Are The Parasite, We Are The Cancer
Quite simply WATP, WATC is one killer slab of Old-school influenced audio violence, with a Major in Riffology and a Minor in Metallic History, whose every track seems to exist solely to remind you why you fell in love with the more extreme side of Metal in the first place.
PARADISE LOST – MEDUSA
You know what I said above about bands still producing some of their best work after more than 25 years behind the wheel? Well take that, and switch some of the names around, and you can just as easily apply it here, as Medusa is unquestionably Paradise Lost’s best work since… well, at least 2007’s In Requiem, if not their best since 1995’s seminal Draconian Times. It really is that good.
And the reason for that, from my perspective at least, is that they’ve finally, and emphatically, stopped giving a fuck what other people think of them and, in the process, finally seem comfortable in their own collective skin.
As a result, Medusa feels like eight tracks written by Paradise Lost and for Paradise Lost. Commercial concerns and outside expectations be damned. Although the ironic corollary of this is that it ultimately stands every chance of being the band’s most critically and commercially successful album in years.
That’s not to knock their more recent albums of course. It’s just that the sheer quality, the sheer potency, of Medusa makes them all seem like a trial run by comparison.
If you like this, try: Nailed to Obscurity – King Delusion
Much, much less well-known than their forebears above, German Melodic Death/Doom crew Nailed to Obscurity produced what is by far their finest work so far this year, with the majestic King Delusion, eight tracks of grief-stricken grandeur and elegant, emphatic extremity.
EMPLOYED TO SERVE – THE WARMTH OF A DYING SUN
Deservedly praised in some places, yet inexplicably overlooked in others, The Warmth of a Dying Sun is one of those albums which seemingly came out of nowhere to provide one of the most visceral and uncompromising musical experiences of the year, offering up ten tracks of pure, untrammelled catharsis without apology or restraint.
Not only that, but for all its frantic technicality and spiteful aggression, it’s also shockingly tuneful and listenable, with the band more than capable of throwing down massive riffs, scorching hooks, and brutalising breakdowns with the very best of them.
Make no mistake about it, this is a landmark release from a band who are probably only going to keep getting better and better.
If you like this, try: Sunlight’s Bane – The Blackest Volume
Darker and more abrasive than the album above, but still possessing a similar gift for crushing cross-genre pollination, these Michigan monsters take the best bits of Death, Grind, Black, and ‘core, macerate and masticate them into a poisonous slurry, and then spit the resultant concoction right in your face.
FOSCOR – LES IRREALS VISIONS
Whereas the previous entries on this list have largely stuck to the heavier, more overtly aggressive side of the Metal spectrum, this one is a far more intimate, intricate, and introverted affair, which finds Foscor pushing out further than ever before into ever-more progressive waters with its spellbinding blend of morose introspection and melancholy atmosphere.
Of course this is all anchored by a rock-solid backbone of bleak metallic riffs and potent, progressive percussion (not to mention some brilliantly understated yet evocative bass work), which together provide the perfect foundation for the album’s distinctive, esoteric brand of moody melody and endlessly emotive, instantly captivating vocals.
Les Irreals Visions is one of those rare albums that manages to be both instantly accessible, but also a real slow-burner, and I guarantee you’ll still be discovering more exciting elements and hidden facets years from now if you give it a chance.
If you like this, try: Dvne – Asheran
A tad more bombastic than the album above, but sharing more than a few similarly proggy proclivities, you’re going to be hearing a lot more about this one tomorrow (yes, that is a spoiler), so for now I’ll just reiterate my belief that this is one of the year’s biggest, and best, surprises.
THE OMINOUS CIRCLE – APPALLING ASCENSION
As grim and as gritty as the previous entry was bleakly beautiful, Appalling Ascension is not only one of the most dense, uncompromising, and unforgiving albums released over the course of the last twelve months, it’s also the only debut album to make the main list, which is something of an accolade in itself, and hopefully speaks volumes about the high regard in which I think this album deserves to be held.
With a truly colossal and cavernous sound, coupled to a frankly rather stunning array of disgustingly heavy riffs, nightmarish vocals, and some truly titanic drum work, this is one hideously intense, godless monstrosity of an album.
What’s more, I’m still uncovering hitherto undiscovered layers of hellish atmosphere or lurking melody with every listen, making Appalling Ascension one of the deepest, darkest, and most devilishly rewarding releases of the year.
If you like this, try: Valdur – Divine Cessation
Picking the “runner up” here was particularly tricky. This slot has, at various times, been held by Venenum, Aosoth, and Spectral Voice. But, in the end, I had to give the nod to Divine Cessation, which successfully channels a similarly blackened, deathly aura to Appalling Ascension, making it one of the most gruesomely gripping releases I’ve heard all year.
AMENRA – MASS VI
By stages harrowing and heartbreaking, searing and soothing, this is the sort of album which effortlessly identifies all the chinks in your emotional armour, and then exploits them to maximum effect, stripping you bare of all your affectations and illusions in the process.
From start to finish Mass VI is a huge album, not just in sound but in scale and in scope, where even the calmest and quietest moments carry with them a sense of vast, portentous weight which could (and, inevitably, does) crash down upon you at any moment in an thunderous deluge of raw emotion and overwhelming sensation.
It’s also, arguably, the band’s best work yet – which is certainly saying something considering the sheer quality of their back-catalogue.
If you like this, try: The Drowned God – Moonbearer
Balancing furious intensity and aching tenderness, the debut album from Pennsylvania’s The Drowned God seamlessly fuses simmering Post-Metal and impulsive, emotive Hardcore into one truly electrifying whole.
In the final reckoning I’m hopeful that the above albums provide a solid cross-section of the many vital, vibrant, and visceral releases which have made 2017 another great year for Metal.
I will agree that there were perhaps not as many blatantly obvious, instant classics, released this year – but, in my experience at least, you didn’t have to dig very far to find that some of the very best albums of the last twelve months were hiding just beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered.
Tomorrow, if you’re sticking with me/us, you’ll be able to read about the ten albums which have most captured my attention this year on a purely personal, largely uncritical level. I’m honestly really looking forward to writing it… and I hope you’re looking forward to reading it too!