(Andy Synn‘s week-long round-up of metal in 2018 continues with this list of his picks for the year’s ten best albums across a range of metal genres — one of which hasn’t been released yet and is reviewed here.)
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that any attempt to craft a “Top Ten” list that represents the wide variety and near-infinite density of the modern Extreme Metal scene is doomed to failure. There’s simply too much of it, too many different competing styles and sub-genres, for a mere ten albums to cover.
That doesn’t stop me trying every year though, so what you’re about to read is my latest effort to capture a clean snapshot of the very best of the best from the past twelve months.
Interestingly this list seems to differ significantly from the various other sites and zines I’ve been keeping an eye on, though that’s not by conscious design. It also skews in a surprisingly “progressive” direction overall, which is not something I anticipated when I first began trying to piece it together, with a massive 70% of the albums featured here making use of clean vocals in some form or another.
In demographic terms, this year’s list features two entries from the USA, two entries from Germany, one from Portugal, one from Iceland, and three from the UK – which, again, wasn’t by design – as well as one international collective whose members come from all across Europe.
It also runs the gamut of practically the entire twelve-month period, with the “oldest” album on here having been released all the way back in the first week of January, while the “youngest” entry won’t even be out until the 21st of December!
Before going any further you might also want to take a look at what I selected as the best representatives from previous years, just to give yourself a bit of added context in which to judge my choices, but otherwise… well, feel free to skip this part and head straight on down to the main event!
- 2011 Critical Top Ten
- 2012 Critical Top Ten
- 2013 Critical Top Ten
- 2014 Critical Top Ten
- 2015 Critical Top Ten
- 2016 Critical Top Ten
- 2017 Critical Top Ten
SLUGDGE – ESOTERIC MALACOLOGY
We’ll start things off with an album that you ALL knew was going to be on this list, right?
Marking yet another major step up in the band’s already skyrocketing trajectory, Esoteric Malacology is undoubtedly the best album Slugdge have ever released. It’s smarter, faster, stronger, hookier, groovier, more technical, more progressive… and just generally superior to anything they’ve released before. But it’s the strength of the songwriting, the way it blends and integrates each of these elements, which really makes this album stand out from the crowd.
To quote from my own review:
“…while Moss and Pearson are clearly consummate students of the game, to the extent that some of their previous work could have been accused of wearing their influences a little too prominently on their sleeve, Esoteric Malacology feels like the culmination of years of rigorous study and practice, the duo having carefully cultivated and harvested the very best parts of multiple metallic styles to produce a nigh-on perfect synthesis of form and function that is as distinctive as it is devastating.
“So make no mistake about it, this is one album which truly does deserve all the praise and plaudits it’s been receiving, and if it doesn’t feature prominently in a bunch of EOTY lists come December… well, then there’s just no justice in the world.”
Strong words indeed, but ones I still stand by.
If you like this, try: Gorod – Aethra
Similarly song-based in approach to the album above, Aethra is the sharpest, hookiest Gorod album to date, but still finds the band showing off their infamously eccentric technical talents as much as ever, only this time the proggy percussion and nimble, sweeping fretwork are all employed in service of the songs themselves, rather than the other way around.
ALKALOID – LIQUID ANATOMY
Alkaloid’s second album marks their second appearance on my Critical Top Ten, and with good reason, as Liquid Anatomy finds the German quintet thinking, writing, and playing not just outside the box, but actually outside the building where the box is usually kept.
Employing ever more complex structures and arrangements, some of them circuitous, some of them almost linear in construction, the band have fully embraced their wildest, weirdest, and most proggy proclivities this time around. Songs like purposefully provocative opener “Kernel Panic”, “In Turmoil’s Swirling Reaches”, “Interstellar Boredom”, and the outstanding “Chaos Theory and Practice” don’t just bend their own rules, but frequently break them entirely, while dense, distorted crushers like “Azagthoth” and “As Decreed By Laws Unwritten” deliver both impenetrable heaviness and impeccable technical precision in equal measure.
Culminating in the sublimely ridiculous, stunningly tumultuous strains of titanic twenty-minute closer “Rise of the Cephalopods”, Liquid Anatomy belongs on this list not just because of the impressive skills of everyone involved, but because of the way they’ve harnessed their uniquely impressive talents to create something totally and indefatigably unique.
If you like this, try: Augury – Illusive Golden Age
Described by our own DGR as “an immense and intimidating undertaking”, the long-awaited third album from Progressive Death Metal legends Augury is almost (but not quite) as shamelessly OTT as Liquid Anatomy, although the Canadian quartet tend to be less perplexingly proggy and more overwhelmingly in-your-face than their German brothers. Either way, though, both these records deserve your full attention.
OUTER HEAVEN – REALMS OF ETERNAL DECAY
Potentially the most divisive entry on the entire list, purely because of just how many options there were for who was going to represent the “pure” Death Metal side of things this year, there are several reasons I stumped for Outer Heaven here rather than say, slightly more obvious choices like Zealotry or Tomb Mold.
For one thing Realms of Eternal Decay is just packed full of massive, hammer-smashed riffs and bloody, barbaric hooks from front to back, with nary a weak point, or a weak song to be found.
More importantly however, while it definitely pays an appropriate amount of tribute to its forefathers – I don’t just hear Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel, but also some solid chunks of Dying Fetus and Jungle Rot, and a nasty dose of Autopsy/Obituary too – it doesn’t ever sound exactlylike any one of them and instead fuses these imposing influences together into a creeping, crawling, crushing hybrid of mutated Death Metal DNA that’s as furiously fresh as it is utterly fetid.
I’d imagine there’s going to be a fair bit of debate about this album’s placement regardless of everything I’ve written above, but I have a very good feeling about this record, and would confidently predict that people are going to be talking about it for years to come.
If you like this, try: Baest – Danse Macabre
Perhaps the best way I can sum this album up, and give you a reason to check it out, is by comparing it to some sort of combination of early Bloodbath and latter-day Misery Index, only with a spritelier, more energetic delivery than the former and a looser, more raucous approach than the latter. But really it’s the riffs, those choppy, chainsaw riffs, that make this one such punishingly good fun.
SINISTRO – SANGUE CÁSSIA
One of the earliest albums released this year, the third record by Portugese Post-Metal prodigies Sinistro remains one of the most intensely intimate, moodily mesmerising releases of the year.
And while much of this can be attributed to the enigmatic, emotionally-charged vocals of Patricia Andrade, whose instantly striking and utterly singular delivery manages to be exhilarating, ethereal, and erotic all at the same time, her voice is only one important part of the band’s many-layered, multi-faceted sound.
Stunningly cinematic in scope and scale, the electric, organic soundscapes of tracks like “Cosmos Controle”, “Vento Sul”, and “Gardenia” (just three of the album’s many, many highlights) ebb and flow, throb and pulse, through circadian sequences of light and shade while towering guitars wail and whisper, surge and crash atop a procession of pounding percussive beats and shimmering, ambient embellishments.
Dramatic, dynamic, and effortlessly distinctive, Sangue Cássia is something truly special, and I sincerely hope that its inclusion here leads more people to discover its many wonders.
If you like this, try: Morne – To The Night Unknown
If you’re after something with even more weight and an even darker, denser atmosphere than the album above, look no further than the tectonic heaviness of To The Night Unknown, the fourth, and quite possibly finest, album by brooding Bostonians Morne. I’m hopefully going to give it a proper review next week but, until then, I urge you to set aside a solid block of time to really immerse yourself in this one.
SPIRES – A PARTING GIFT
When it came to the more “classic” form of Progressive Death Metal (as opposed to the more warped, and warp-speed, approach espoused by Alkaloid above) I honestly couldn’t think of a better album from the last twelve months which portrayed all the very best aspects of the style – the epic, enveloping songs, the complex, inventive riffs, the evocative trade-off between clean and harsh vocals – than the latest masterwork by Mancunian maestros Spires.
It helps of course that frontman Paul Sadler possesses what I honestly consider to be one of the best voices in Metal today, capable of switching between a gravelly death-growl and a heart-rending croon within the space of a single breath, as well as a sublime grasp of mood and melody to go with it, and that the rest of the band are just as talented on their own respective instruments as their leader, but all this would be for naught if the compositions weren’t up to scratch.
And that’s where A Parting Gift really stands out from the crowd, as although each of the six songs here – the shortest of which clocks in at just over six minutes, the longest, entrancing closer “Etchings in the Emptiness”, at more than seventeen minutes in length – is, without exception, a miniature metallic odyssey in its own right, each one remains just as compelling as the last from start to finish.
This is the sort of album that it’s possible to lose a lotof time to, and which rewards the dedicated listener with an ever deeper and more satisfying experience as the various layers are peeled back to reveal even more musical delights. Yet, at the same time, even the most casual listener will doubtless find something here to draw them back in again and again.
If you like this, try: Wills Dissolve – The Heavens Are Not On Fire…
While they might not have the same sense of polish and panache as their UK cousins above, Texas’s own Wills Dissolve still made one heck of an impressive opening statement with their genre-blending debut album, The Heavens Are Not On Fire…, whose ambitious creativity and artful execution immediately catapulted them to the front of the Prog-Metal pack.
CARPE NOCTEM – VITRUN
Of all the Black Metal albums I’ve listened to and loved this year… Funeral Mist,Mare, Kriegsmaschine, to name but a few… none of them hit me quite as hard, or left as indelible an impression upon my soul, as Vitrun.
Haunting, harrowing, and steeped in pitch-black poison, these six tracks are equal parts dissonance and doom, and positively dripping with ominous atmosphere and venomous aggression. There’s not an ounce of mercy, remorse, or restraint to be found here, and yet the spiteful savagery and callous disregard for convention which underpins this album is tempered by a coldly calculated creativity which ensures that every part of every song ends up exactly where it needs to be in order to inflict maximum mental agony and anguish upon the listener.
Nietzche famously once said that the danger of looking into the abyss was that, eventually the abyss winds up gazing back. Well this album isn’t just the sound of the abyss gazing into you, but the sound of it stripping away all your defences and delusions in the process, until there’s nothing left but a raw, gaping, wound in the shape of a person.
If you like this, try: Svartidauði– Revelations of the Red Sword
Acting like an inverted, evil (well, more evil) twin to their countrymen above, the second full-length by Svartidauði is more aggressive, more hateful, yet less oppressive and less haunting, than Vitrun, and while it makes a more instantaneous impact, it also doesn’t cut quite as deeply overall. Still, there’s very little to separate the two in terms of their stunning quality when all is said and done, and the likelihood is that if you like one you’ll definitely like the other too.
AKLASH – WHERE THE OCEAN MEETS THE SKY
I said back in March that Where The Ocean Meets The Sky, the superb second album by Progressive Black Metal quartet Aklash, could potentially “…make a not inconsiderable dent in more than a few EOTY lists come December… including, quite possibly, my own…” and, lo and behold, it turns out I was right.
The thing is, I didn’t necessarily have this album in mind as a contender for one of the slots on this list when I first began winnowing down the original 90 candidates from yesterday’s “Great Albums” post. But the more I worried away at the list of potentials, cutting and trimming wherever I could, the more I found myself reflecting on just how brilliantly composed and constructed this album is, displaying a clarity of voice and vision above and beyond the majority of its peers.
To quote myself once more, “…every aspect of [this] record, from the eloquent intertwining of clean and harsh vocals, to the endlessly captivating array of guitar leads which litter each track, to the potent yet restrained performance of Tony Lake behind the kit (not to mention the impressively nuanced and nimble bass work provided by Chris Kendell), showcases a band who have gone the extra mile to fulfill all the nascent promise and potential of their debut.”
Ultimately Where The Ocean Meets The Sky is a masterclass of melodic, blackened melancholy that refuses to be confined by the limits of the genre.
If you like this, try: Claret Ash – The Great Adjudication
Firmly establishing themselves as one of the Southern Hemisphere’s best bands, the third album by Aussie iconoclasts Claret Ash was originally released as two separate EPs, yet still feels like a singularly cohesive piece of adversarial art which practically revels in its own sense of bleak, bitter atmosphere.
CHURCHBURN – NONE SHALL LIVE… THE HYMNS OF MISERY
Nastier, gnarlier, and several shades of filth darker than almost everything else on this list (with the exception, perhaps, of Carpe Noctem), the second album from the confrontationally-named Churchburn is a choking, churning, smoking and burning slab of pure sonic sickness.
Part Black Metal, part Doom, part Death Metal, and part Sludge, this hideous amalgamation of all the vilest and most visceral elements of Extreme Metal as we know it delivers one unforgiving blast of pure nihilistic rage and misanthropic misery after another over the course of forty-five furious minutes.
The glass-chewing, bile-spewing vocals in particular are a thing of unrepentant ugliness and venom, but the album in general is just so foul, so addictively abrasive, that it makes you want to dive in and wallow in all the sickness and depravity for as long as possible.
Just make sure you wash your ears out after every listen, because you really don’t want to get infected… or, maybe you do?
If you like this, try: Leeched – You Took The Sun When You Left
Equal parts Brutal Truth, Godflesh, and Obituary, You Took The Sun When You Left is the sound of pure desolation and despair all delivered through the medium of Leeched’s uniquely ugly brand of industrialised Doom-Grind. Both physically and emotionally exhausting, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but never fails to get the blood pumping (occasionally directly out of your ears).
CLOUDS – DOR
Moody, doomy, gloomy, and positively bleeding melody and melancholy in equal measure, Dor is the sound of a band ripping out their collective heart and displaying it for everyone to see.
By turns sublimely beautiful yet soul-crushingly bleak, the steady stream of sombre, slow-burning guitars and ominous, oppressive percussion which characterises tracks like “Forever and a Day” and “When I’m Gone” (which also features the yearning vocals of Gogo Melone) lays down a clear path for Daniel Neagoe’s grim gutturals and plaintive cleans, both of which are practically overflowing with raw emotion, while spine-tingling synths whisper and weave themselves into the warp and weft of every song with delicate, dynamic grace.
As an expression of pure catharsis and grief in all its forms – from anger and denial to sorrow and acceptance – Dor is practically unparalleled, with every titanic yet tremulous track offering the listener yet another chance to heal and move on from whatever losses they have suffered.
Make no mistake about it, while this may, in parts, be the softest, quietest album on the list, when it gets heavy – both physically and emotionally – it gets very heavy indeed.
If you like this, try: Woebegone Obscured – The Forestroamer
It was a close-run thing which of these two albums was going to take the top slot for Doom on this list, but while Clouds might ultimately have won the day, The Forestroamer is a deserving companion to Dor, supplying all the churning riffs and yearning melodies you could ever ask for.
SULPHUR AEON – THE SCYTHE OF COSMIC CHAOS
While this album won’t even be released for general consumption until the 21st, I’m here to let you know right now that The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos is undeniably one of the most gloriously gargantuan albums of 2018.
In many ways Sulphur Aeon’s third record is exactly what I wanted from the new Behemoth – locked and loaded with a frankly flabbergasting array of monstrous riffs, slithering grooves, and scything blastbeats, yet also displaying a keen grasp of melody and atmosphere that transforms each and every track into something both uncompromisingly epic and unflinchingly malignant – but to compare them so directly to Nergal and co. seems almost unnecessarily reductive.
Because while the core of the band’s sound remains the same as on Swallowed By The Ocean’s Tide and Gateway to the Antisphere – part Hypocrisy/God Dethroned, part Morbid Angel/Immolation, with a heavy dash of Dissection and Emperor influence thrown in for good measure – the truth is that every second of The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos is instantly recognisable as Sulphur Aeon first and foremost.
The addition of clean vocals this time around has, if anything, only allowed the band to become morethemselves, expanding their sound to allow for an even greater sense of creeping dread and morbid majesty. Whether it’s the ominous, rumbling introduction of “Cult of Starry Wisdom”, which eventually gives way to a devastating deluge of punishing blastbeats and writhing riffs, the raging, ritualistic “Yuggothian Spell”(which you can check out below), or the phenomenal finale of “Thou Shalt Not Speak His Name”, these brooding vocal embellishments help give unholy life to each and every track where they appear.
Of course Sulphur Aeon are smart enough not to rely solely on clean vocals to give their music the necessary hooks, and killer cuts like early album highlight “The Summoning of Nyarlathotep”, the brutally blackened “Veneration of the Lunar Orb”, and the hypnotically heavy “Lungs Into Gills” find other ways to inject the necessary dose of malevolent melody into the proceedings, ensuring that the delicate balance between light and dark is maintained throughout the album.
So mark your calendars people, as on the 21st of December life as you know it will come to an end!
UPDATE: The full album is now available for streaming, and we’ve added it below.
If you like this, try: Construct of Lethe – Exiler
It was really only at the last minute that Construct of Lethe were bumped from the main list, which should tell just how fantastic Exiler is, so densely packed with discordant, blackened riffs, merciless drum work, and cold, calculated hooks that it takes multiple listens to begin to unpick them all from the general devastation on offer. As dynamic as it is devastating, even if it didn’t quite make the main list here, it’s still one of the best albums of the year in my book.