(Joseph Schafer, the ex-editor of Invisible Oranges and current writer for Decibel, was one of this site’s earliest regular writers under the pseudonym BadWolf and has been a steadfast friend of all of us ever since. This week he returns to NCS once again with a year-end list. This year it comes in two parts. In this Part 2, Joseph lists his Top 10 albums of 2017. Yesterday’s Part 1 (here) named 25 albums that narrowly missed his top slots.)
Picking a ranked selection of ten records to represent the best metal in 2017 presented an unusual challenge. As I outlined in my previous list of runners-up, narrowing in on a single trend or trajectory of the genre proved untenable. Of course, metal globally is at what seems like peak production. Literally every week of the year produced at least one record in the genre worth revisiting.
Moreover, focusing on anything, least of all music, seemed difficult. Much of this has to do with the trouble international and domestic political climate. How are we supposed to appreciate the nuanced aesthetics of a record when for a while there every morning news update seemed like a potential nuclear air raid siren. Metal ought to comment on and illuminate these affairs. At least the best metal of the ’80s and ’90s accomplished that feat while delivering great tunes as well.
Instead, metal seems unable to agree on what its own identity is. Instead of the music reflecting the world at large, the culture around that music exhibits the same symptoms of our global culture’s disease. Partisan dogfighting. An unwillingness to think beyond the short term. A total breakdown in shared moral consideration. Fuck picking a record, how are we supposed to pick one problem to fix first? Or at least to write a song about?
The likely culprit seems to be social media, which in my non-expert view also seems to be the engine which has allowed metal itself to flourish by connecting so many art lovers with art tailored to their expectations by algorithm. I’m making this critique as someone whose social media savvy has become a critical career tool: I have no idea if this stuff is worth the cultural cost we pay for it.
Well, that’s a lie. My gut reaction is of course: no.
A vast majority of the top albums of my year would not have ever reached my ears without internet distribution. At the same time, all of the cultural cancer that makes being a metalhead so often a burdensome and alienating experience would probably have not existed either.
I’m reminded of that famous scene in The Matrix: you may take either the red pill and its downsides, or the blue pill and its downsides. Instead I think we has metalheads have clocked Morpheus right in the noggin and gobbled both existential opiates as quick as we could, leaving us in this simultaneous state of hyper-aware ecstasy and overdose. Here, take all the music you could ever dream of. Also take all the horrible dirty laundry about musicians that you could possibly stomach.
In that musical malaise, ask again, how are we to focus? How are we to find excellence?
My best answer is surprise. In the end, to decide on these records, and in so doing give myself some kind of skeleton or framework to hang 2017 on once it is over, I had to remove myself from enjoyment, or satisfaction. I enjoy all these records, but I enjoy other things more. And for sure not all of them satisfied me.
But they did all surprise me. Each shot through the gloomy digital tempest that has become modern living, and offered a simple childlike joy: open the gift, behold an unexpected charm.
10 Cormorant – Diaspora
California’s Cormorant knocked my head off my shoulders when they released Dwellings. To my mind that record remains an unimpeachable high water mark of the US underground, which was why it hurt to watch vocalist, lyricist, and bassist Arthur Von Nagel depart the band. When Cormorant found a suitable replacement in Marcus Luscombe and released Earth Diver I couldn’t find the same spark.
Turns out it just took the band a little while to recharge, because Diaspora is an achievement in-step with its storied predecessors. Emphasis on the storied. Maybe no other band understands narrative the way Cormorant do, as evidenced on their sprawling half-hour opus, “Migration”. The energetic and melodic climax of that song singlehandedly puts most of the remaining “progressive” outfits of all stripes on notice.
9 Tau Cross – Pillar of Fire
Rob “The Baron” Miller’s post-Amebix project made my record of the year in 2015, and while its follow-up didn’t light everyone’s fire the same way, I think it’s a more than worthy follow-up. The original’s sound issues are thankfully resolved, so that Miller and Co’s crusty robot rock now shines with clearly defined instruments. None of that matters if the songs don’t deliver, but they absolutely do.
“Raising Golem” and “Bread and Circuses” set the historical, cynical tone of the record. Miller’s penned a modern masterpiece with “The Big House”, a gothic crusher that tickles multiple emotional responses during its tight runtime. If only the rest of the record was so concise—Pillar of Fire’s just a tiny bit too long.
8 The Black Dahlia Murder – Nightbringers
The core NCS staff doesn’t agree on much. We’re brothers, but pretty well distinct in our tastes. That said, we can come together to love The Black Dahlia Murder’s modern classic Nocturnal¸ an essential slice of technical melodeath which the band hasn’t quite matched since. To be honest I never expected to like a BDM record again after Abysmal. Trevor Strnad bounced back out of nowhere on Nightbringers, the band’s best record since Nocturnal by a huge margin. Some neoclassical shredding from Cannabis Corpse axeman Brandon Ellis gives tracks like “Kings of the Nightrealm” a flavor distinct from earlier work by the band. Strnad remains a remarkably quick and agile-mouthed frontman, but he used to sound like the only working part of a broken machine. The van is up and running. Nightbringers begs to be listened to again and again.
7 Immolation – Atonement
This year I read through the entirety of Decibel editor Albert Mudrian’s wonderful book Choosing Death. It deserves every piece of critical acclaim that it’s accumulated, but If I have one critique it’s this: the world needs to know more about Immolation.
The classic NY death metal stalwarts have aged maybe the best out of any first wave death metal band in America. As technical and precise as Suffocation or Cannibal Corpse without either’s sameyness or stupidity. Bob Vigna’s guitar style is as distinctive and eldritch as Chuck Schuldiner’s or Trey Azaghoth’s. The man builds constructions of laser light with his music. The band’s music is as blasphemous and evil as Deicide or Incantation, but avoids the murk of shitty sound or immature anti-christian tantrums. Immolation’s vision is clear. Their blood runs cold. Their observations cut to the bone.
Atonement is another masterstroke in a career full of them. Yeah, Morbid Angel’s back but they don’t have a song like “Lower”. Now will someone please get them a better art director?
6 Mutoid Man – War Moans
Even with Cave In’s Steve Brodsky on guitar and vox and Converge’s Ben Koller on drums, I always thought of Mutoid Man as light entertainment. All the classic rock covers and 2 Minutes to Late Night live performances don’t combat that idea. Their previous albums were, to say the least, slight, and full of incomplete ideas. War Moans¸ though, is a robust recording full of honest-to-satan songs.
Verses, choruses, lyrics, humor, attitude—add them together and divide them by a scene full of aesthetics without tunes and you find a band with a sense of purpose. Almost as if by sheer accident, Mutoid Man has found the classic pop rock/metal hybrid sound that Torche, Mastodon, and Baroness have been trying to master since 2008. This record alone makes the rest of their discographies look like silly misfires by comparison. “Kiss of Death” and “Date with the Devil” sound like metal for a college baseball team coached by Jack Black and directed by Richard Linklater. “Bandages”, god damn it, is the best ballad of the year.
5 Locust Leaves – A Subtler Kind of Light
The always-obtuse I, Voidhanger Records delivered a singular work of uncompromising music. Greece’s Locust Leaves take post-black metal and fold it into origami animals which then pantomime the sounds of Fate’s Warning. It’s all obviously DIY and made with a whole lot of love. In a lot of ways it feels like a high school play with the ambition of a major Broadway musical. As such, it’s not too hard to see where the costumes have been repaired before, and the pieces have been outsourced, but the production itself is masterful.
These four songs tell a sort of biblical allegory about the hero’s quest, gender, and somehow about the journey of being a metalhead itself. Do you remember the way you felt when you first heard Darkthrone? What about Metal Church? What about Mercyful Fate? Didn’t they give you the creeping sensation that loud guitars could be something more than just the soundtrack to your afternoon? Locust Leaves remember. They want you to feel it again and again.
4 Leprous – Malina
Leprous didn’t seem ever destined to drop a masterpiece. Their pretty-good first two records sounded an awful lot like Ihsahn’s solo work, which was further complicated by the band acting as Ihsahn’s live band. Not that songs like “Restless” and “Bilateral” aren’t great. They are. They just don’t sound like the work of a band that knows exactly what it wants to be—they sound like the work of a band that knows what it likes. And that’s great! Most bands don’t ever figure out what they really like. Then Leprous started to play a little. Things got ethereal, less intense. They lost me. I chalked them up to front man Einar Solberg’s vanity project. And that’s fine too, people need vanity to survive sometimes.
But Malina is more than fine, Malina is a cold shower after a sauna, as well as the tingling that follows. Finally Leprous sound utterly like themselves. The guitars couldn’t be less metal, but the bass grooves and hums like a chromed car motor. Einar’s keyboards sound like signals from a distant spacecraft. Best of all he’s found himself as a vocalist. My friend Greg Majewski likened his performance to Loic Rossetti’s on The Ocean’s masterful Pelagial. Both albums find the microscopic sweet spot between progressive metal and atmospheric rock that remains utterly thrilling.
3 Grave Pleasures – Motherblood
Former Code singer Mat “Khvbost” McNerney started Beastmilk on a lark. Almost without question the otherwise completely Finnish outfit’s cold-war-obsessed and sexualized goth rock was never meant to be a hit. Nobody in 2013 saw their sole album, Climax, coming. That record hit me like a Satan-2 ballistic warhead and as promised left a Texas-sized hole in my listening habits when the band rebranded as Grave Pleasures, cleaned up their sound, and, it seems lost some of the old spy flick mojo (and this is coming from someone who actually liked their first LP, Dreamcrash). Grave Pleasures two, though, is the sequel to Climax that so many people wanted.
People who think this band is just Interpol for black metal dweebs won’t be swayed. For me, though, Motherblood is another modern classic, the American twin to the Soviet kitsch of Climax. Songs like “Joy Through Death” and “By My Hiroshima” contain no blast beats or growls but hit just a little too hard to be rightly called post-punk. McNerney’s 2017’s great goth metal evangelist and he’s got the songwriting chops to get all of Baltimore’s Ram’s Head attendees wearing guyliner and leather gloves. It’s criminal that Grave Pleasures aren’t already a crossover hit of Ghost-level success: only Tobias Forge is writing songs as catchy as “Mind Intruder”.
2 Coldfells – Coldfells
Coldfells hail from Ohio, the same as me. Not the same part of Ohio, mind you. I’m from the Northwest bit, a former swamp with more culturally in common with the wet flatlands of Michigan. They’re from the Eastern side of the state, the more rugged Appalachian end, the bit that’s a little more East Coast but also a little more Amish. Long I’ve felt that there’s some piece of the character that Ohio breeds that’s kindred with the “black metal” feeling. Of course I’m projecting, trying to work myself into a narrative that isn’t mine to begin with.
That said, there is something from the rust belt, the land the economy forgot. It’s a scar. It swung the election in 2016 all by itself. It turns the world toward a darker timeline. It hurt and it moans. You carry it with you your whole life. Coldfells call it “The Rope”. They’ve wound it into a knot, and spent just under an hour of chilling, gothic black-death-doom recounting its turns and parsing its fibers. Coldfells do what most metal bands don’t have the guts to do: they tell the truth.
1 Paradise Lost – Medusa
When I started writing this list I told myself I wasn’t going to overthink it. I was just going to report what came to mind naturally. I was going to Darkthrone it: one take, straight to tape, that’s the song. I’m sure Gregor Mackintosh, Nick Holmes, and Paradise Lost did not record their parts of Medusa in one take. It’s their roughest album in years but still displays a lot of structure and polish. Still, something about it seems natural.
Holmes’ return to growling on 2015’s The Plague Within was good—his performance was natural and strong—but the way those vocals were woven into the tapestry of the songs seemed unnatural, and the recording itself was overburdened with decisions. Here, though, everything sounds lean and easy. Sure, Holmes’ lyrics are still nonsense but it’s easier to imagine him jotting them down on napkins between takes, rattling them off in a sound booth, smiling, and then taking off his earphones. Mackintosh is still one of metal’s most underrated soloists and songwriters, but there’s no trying to prove himself, here. He could have written these riffs with an acoustic guitar on his porch.
Maybe that ease in the band’s own skin is the trick to how easily they’ve re-assumed the sound and aesthetic of their early ’90s heyday, and that sound means the world to me. Medusa may not be the most popular album of the year, the most current, or the most important in a narrative sense, but it was, as far as metal goes, my most pleasant surprise.