(This is the third part of Andy Synn‘s five-part reflections on the year in metal that’s about to end.)
Today’s list collates those artists and albums which I felt represented the top tier of this year’s metallic output, drawn from a variety of styles and sub-genres, and a multitude of different countries.
Certainly there’s some variance in their quality too, from absolute game-changers to albums which some of you might argue belong more on yesterday’s list (and vice versa), but these records are honestly the ones which I think deserve the highest praise (for various reasons) this year.
Of course if you don’t see something here, and can’t find it on yesterday’s list, then that just means I didn’t get a chance to listen to it.
In fact, I can tell you now that, despite my best efforts and best intentions, I never got round to listening to the new albums from Mayhem, Spirit Adrift, Falls of Rauros, Wilderun, The Drowning, Devourment, or Ossuarium, so sadly you won’t be seeing any of them appearing in the list below. I do hope they were everything you wanted them to be though.
Anyway, that’s enough rambling from me, let’s get to it, shall we?
Whether it’s the blackened discordance and dissonant death-isms of Ceremony of Silence or the majestic Melodeath mastery of Eternal Storm, 2019 saw a bunch of new bands gatecrashing the scene with some truly stellar debut albums.
Hopefully a lot of you will already have checked out the massive, bone-crushing riffs of Towering and the take-no-prisoners ferocity of Fuming Mouth after my previous recommendation, or, if Black Metal is more your thing, maybe the foreboding De Val, by Dutch multi-instrumentalist Verwoed, or the crippling dread of Decoherence’s Ekpyrosis will be what you’re looking for?
And no discussion of “Devastating Debuts” would be complete without a mention for the face-ripping fury of Lament, from Blackened Hardcore crew Totaled, the ballistic brutality of Vitriol’s To Bathe From the Throat of Cowardice, or the blistering blend of moody ambience and metallic malevolence provided by Bull of Apis, Bull of Bronze.
BIGGER IS BETTER
On the other end of the scale, several of the scene’s most prominent stars (rising or otherwise) brought out their biggest guns yet, with Cattle Decapitation delivering their most accessible record to date with Death Atlas (even if it isn’t quite as good as The Anthropocene Extinction).
Similarly, Employed to Serve’s latest album was undeniably catchier and more accessible than 2017’s breakthrough The Warmth of a Distant Sun, without weakening or lessening their intensity or idealism one iota.
Speaking of idealism, Misery Index continued to match pissed-off political polemic with punishing potency on Rituals of Power, their most purely Death Metal focussed record yet, while Fit For An Autopsy fully completed their transformation from “ones to watch” into “ones to beat” with the powerful (yet surprisingly poignant) The Sea of Tragic Beasts.
DEATH IS ONLY THE BEGINNING
As we saw yesterday, Death Metal had a particularly busy and belligerent year, and things are just as busy at the very top, with both Bæst and Blood Incantation continuing to prove that they’re the future of the genre with Venenum and Hidden History…, while murkier, gnarlier releases from Vacivus and Krypts also finally brought both bands to the front of the pack where they belong.
I was also particularly impressed by Witch Vomit and their latest album, the evocatively titled Buried Deep In A Bottomless Grave, and multiple re-listens have only confirmed how much it deserves to be featured here.
And, of course, a special mention is reserved for Tomb Mold and their new album, Planetary Clairvoyance, which I happen to think is the band’s best yet.
BRUTAL IS AS BRUTAL DOES
Not that the preceding albums weren’t brutal, of course, but these albums were extra brutal, providing some of the most extreme and crushing sounds of the last twelve months.
NCS-approved Death Metal duo Gomorrah upped their game to a whole new level on their third, self-titled album (bringing in uber-drummer Hannes Grossmann probably helped), while Italian battalion Hideous Divinity somehow became even more technical and twisted on Simulacrum.
Two of Britain’s most brutal exports, Venom Prison and Unfathomable Ruination, refused to let the rest of the world outshine us, with Samsara in particular picking up new fans, new accolades, and new victims wherever it was heard.
Talking of “brutal exports”, Disentomb demonstrated that the most dangerous thing in Australia isn’t the inhabitants or the environment, it’s the sound produced on The Decaying Light.
TITANIC AND TERRIFYING
The harsher, grimier, end of the Death Metal spectrum was also rich with horrid delights this year, with Altarage kicking off hunting season early with the release of the utterly monstrous The Approaching Roar in January.
Underground legends Teitanblood returned from whatever hellish dimension they’d slithered off to with what is perhaps the best album of their career, while disso-death upstarts Apparatus did their very best to warp space and time with the angular, abrasive Yonder Yawns the Universe.
Then, of course, who could forget the proggy discordance of Haunter’s shockingly good sophomore album, Sacramental Death Qualia, or the latest piece of blackened, doom-laden deviance from Abyssal?
On the other end of the scale entirely, 2019 also delivered a wealth of introspected, introverted material which focussed more on mood and atmosphere, including the heart-rending new album from A Swarm of the Sun and the latest scintillating sonic soundscape from the ever-fascinating Ulver.
More people also need to know about, and listen to, the latest album from Catalonian magicians Foscor (fans of Katatonia in particular will absolutely love Els Sepulcres Blancs), while those of you into something more sweeping and cinematic, yet brimming with raw emotion, should check out the spellbinding Part Island from UK Post-Rock collective Latitudes.
Sticking with the theme of bands who wear their hearts out on their sleeve, the final record from Post-Metal/Post-Hardcore crew King Apathy was a visceral plea for empathy and action in the face of an uncaring world (set to some impressively meaty, moody riffs), while the unique sound of Belgian three-piece Brutus cut through a sea of imitators and false innovators to shine like a veritable beacon of hope.
The bold decision of Polish Post-Black Metal crew Rosk to go entirely minimalist and acoustic on their second album, Remnants was a risk that paid off big time, as few albums this year have been as raw and vulnerable and instantly affecting in my opinion, while the choice by Alcest to return to their roots (ever so slightly) on the electrifying Spiritual Instinct helped them craft one of the best albums of their career.
MELODY AND MAJESTY
The more “Progressive” wing also showed a lot of life this year, with Klone delivering perhaps their deepest, most rewarding album to date, while multi-faceted, multi-national collective Archivist similarly stepped up their game on the intricate, immersive Triumvirate.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of bands stepping up their game, the massively underrated Prog-Metal maestros of Dreadnought produced one of THE best albums of the year too, and not enough people are talking about it/them!
On a more personal note, Arctic Sleep produced one of my favourite albums of 2019 in the form of the soul-stirring Kindred Spirits, as did the resurrected Disillusion, whose new album might even be better than Back to Times of Splendor (though I’m aware that’s a controversial suggestion).
You should also check out the Progressive Melodic Death Metal stylings of Lucidity, whose superb second album, Oceanum, has flown under a lot of radars, as well as the dramatic, dynamic stylings of Sunless by proggy UK Post-Metallers PSOTY, and the soaring, shining Melodeath magic of Iapetus (who I’ll be writing more about very soon).
Moving away from pure “Prog” into weirder, more technically tangled waters, underground heroes Car Bomb continued to prove themselves practically untouchable with the metamorphic madness of Mordial, while French phenoms Hypno5e gave us what may well be their best album yet in the form of A Distant (Dark) Source.
The cathartic complexity and propulsive, prog-tinged riffs of Dāmim and Vielikan (both of which made a significant impression on me personally) should appeal equally to fans of Carcass, Nevermore, Gojira, and Opeth, while ongoing NCS-faves Endolith continued to prove their mastery of post-Meshuggah proggery with the concept-driven Chicxulub.
And if you’re looking for something really weird and wonderful, then Waste of Space Orchestra (the collaborative project from members of Oranssi Pazuzu and Dark Buddha Rising) should help scratch that itch… and then some!
BORN OF THE BLACK
Black Metal has become such a broad, unholy church these days that it’s no surprise to see such a visceral and vital variety of albums and artists represented on today’s list.
There’s the elemental blood and thunder of Vanum and Misþyrming on one hand, and the oppressive, ominous atmospherics of The Great Old Ones and The Negative Bias on the other.
There’s the abrasive assault of Yellow Eyes and the punishing power of Panzerfaust, and then there’s the grim grandeur of Mephorash and the melodic majesty of Imperium Dekadenz.
The pure viciousness of Consummation and Barshasketh is balanced by the epic ambitions and soaring songwriting of Saor and Orm, while the dissonant depravity of Deathspell Omega is matched in turn by the raw energy and irrepressible idealism of Dawn Ray’d.
The prowling menace of Kampfar and the strutting swagger of Wormwitch showcase both the old and the new at their very best, even as the latest albums from Abigail Williams, Krater, and Vukari found each of them reaching a new pinnacle and finally receiving the credit and acclaim they’ve always deserved.
The dense riffosity of Mardom by Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult serves as a killer companion to the fluid melodic malice of Sinmara’s Hvísl Stjarnanna, while the more “immersive” side of things was dominated in singular style by the hypnotic Under Pale Moon by Ringarë and the depressive darkness of The Grand Disillusionment from Aussie iconoclasts Deadspace.
THE LEFT-HAND PATH LESS TRAVELLED
On the outer fringes of Black Metal the psycho-active new album from legendary experimentalists Blut Aus Nord delivered some of the year’s biggest shocks and thrilling surprises, the band boldly going to some strange new places on the aptly named Hallucinogen, while the return of The Deathtrip allowed us to once more explore the most sinister and otherworldly corners of our reality in musical form.
The masterful, if flawed, new album from Schammasch was a glorious display of unbound vision and unrepentant ambition that thoroughly rejected common convention, even as it embraced and inverted it, and the phenomenal Love Exchange Failure from White Ward asked us all to explore and expose our inner spaces under the harsh scrutiny of lurid neon lights and leering urban eyes.
…A DREAD OF SOME STRANGE IMPENDING DOOM
If slow and suffocating is more your jam, then may I recommend the crushing I by Epitaphe (which begins and ends with a pair of titanic, twenty-minute compositions) and the oh-so-appropriately named Slow and their latest (and greatest) record, Dantalion?
If you want something a little nastier then you should consider dosing yourself with the psychedelic Death/Doom of Astral Death Cult by Dö, which I would argue is one of the most overlooked and underrated albums of 2019, whereas if you’re after something as epic as it is emotionally devastating then Carnal Confessions by Fvneral Fvkk could (and should) well be your new favourite album.
And, speaking of “epic” albums, Isole’s Dystopia is easily one of the most epic, and impressive, of their lengthy career… although at “just” forty-eight minutes long it has nothing on the sheer immensity of Esoteric’s gargantuan double-disc effort, A Pyrrhic Existence, an album which demands a lot from its listeners, but rewards their dedication several times over.
ENCOUNTER THE MONOLITH
Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the line between monstrous Doom and monolithic Post-Metal is, particularly on an album like Carrion Mother’s despair-driven Nothing Remains, which has been dragging down my mp3 player with its dense, desolate weight since the start of the year.
Similarly the underappreciated Dead To A Dying World blur the lines between Doom and Sludge (with even a bit of Black Metal breaking through the crust now and then), while the stupendous second album from Cranial balances bruising Post-Metal dynamics and Sludge-y heaviness in equal measure.
Of course, no discussion of this particular corner of the Metal universe would be complete without mentioning the legendary Cult of Luna and their new album, A Dawn to Fear, which, even if it’s not quite a match for their previous two records, still stands head and shoulders above most of the scene.
If the albums mentioned immediately above blur the lines between Post-Metal and Sludge a lot of the time, then the albums in this section go a step further, annexing and amalgamating ideas and elements from multiple styles and sub-genres – Black Metal, Hardcore, Doom, Drone, Sludge, Prog, Grind, and more – to create some of the most dynamic and dizzyingly intense music of the year.
The most well-known name here, Inter Arma, have yet to put a foot wrong in their career, and Sulphur English, their grittiest, grimiest, release yet, only continues this long string of successes.
That being said, they’re not the only notable figures, or even the best, to be featured in this section, as German firebrands Downfall of Gaia arguably produced an even better album with the Blackened Post-Sludge brilliance of Ethic of Radical Finitude.
A little bit Death, a little bit Grind, a little bit Sludge, and brimming with progressive ambition, the fourth (and, sadly, final) album from Call of the Void was easily the band’s finest work, as is the concept-driven catharsis of Muladona by Rorcal, which saw the band becoming more intense, more ambitious, but also even more tightly focussed.
This Gift Is A Curse effectively perfected their proprietary formula for Blackened Sludgecore on the blistering A Throne of Ash, while Italian Black/Doom trio Naga finally achieved their true poisonous potential on the venomous Void Cult Rising.
And we can’t talk about “intensity” without raising a glass to the emotionally devastating output of one-man Blackened Doom machine Mizmor and his soul-crushing new record Cairn.
SLAVES TO THE GRIND
Of course, if you want to talk “intense” then you’ve got to talk “Grind”. And boy howdy, do these three albums grind with the very best of them.
Weeping Choir, by Full of Hell, is an obvious choice, I know, but that’s because it’s their most savage, spiteful, and sickeningly harsh album yet, the band seemingly only getting angrier and heavier with age.
Alienated Despair, by Implore, too richly deserves to be held up as one of the best examples of grisly grind and apoplectic fury which 2019 has produced.
The diamond in the rough, however, is the uncompromising slab of pure ugliness and aggression that is Harrowed’s new album, Chaotic Nonentity, which can easily go toe-to-toe with either of the bigger or more (in)famous names mentioned above.
Rammstein… ‘nuff said.
That’s it from me again, ladies and germs. I hope you’ve all enjoyed what you’ve read, what you’ve heard, and are going to follow this up by checking out a few new bands and albums you may not be familiar with.
I also hope you’re not too disappointed by certain omissions. After all, even someone as talented and handsome and debonair and… cough… what I meant to say was, even someone who spends as much time listening to, and searching for, new music as me can’t listen to everything, and hopefully you won’t hold that against me.
Tomorrow it’s time for the big show, my list of the “Critical Top Ten”, the ten albums I think represent the best and most varied picture of what 2019 has given us.
I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by some of my choices.
In the meantime, here’s the complete list (including links wherever possible) of the albums which made up this year’s “Great” list:
Bæst – Venenum
Endolith – Chicxulub: The Fossil Record
Hideous Divinity – Simulacrum
Implore – Alienated Despair
Klone – Le Grand Voyage
Lucidity – Oceanum
Rammstein – Untitled
Vitriol – To Bathe From the Throat of Cowardice