(Andy Synn‘s week-long round-up of metal in 2019 continues with this list of his picks for the year’s “Critical Top Ten” across a range of metal genres.)
Let’s be honest, most “Best Of…” lists aren’t really about identifying the “best” albums of the year.
Most of the time they’re either just a single writer’s personal favourites or, in the case of the major magazines, a wholly predictable round-up, written by committee, designed to confirm and reinforce the expectations of their readership and sell future ad space.
And, you know what? I get it. That’s fine. But I’ve always felt that it’s possible to do better, which is why I came up with the idea for the “Critical Top Ten” in the first place.
Rather than presenting these ten albums as a strict, authoritative list of the “best” albums of the year, the purpose of this article is to provide a representative sample of both the brilliance and variety of the underground Metal scene in 2019, at least as it stands from my perspective.
This year’s selection includes three albums from the USA, two from Germany, two from Spain, and one each from Australia, Switzerland, and the Ukraine. The earliest release is from February, the latest from just last month, and at least three of these records are making an appearance here at NCS for the very first time, so, hopefully, there’s still a few surprises in store for all of you!
DISENTOMB – THE DECAYING LIGHT
Let’s start off with something that most of us can probably agree on, shall we?
Namely that, when it comes to pure, focussed brutality Disentomb are one of today’s apex predators, equal parts ominous atmosphere, subtle technicality, and punishing sonic force.
Every track here is a short, sharp, shock to the system, stripped of all extraneous fat and honed into a lean, mean, murder machine of massive, heaving riffs, coiled, neck-snapping bass lines, and relentless, bone-cracking percussion.
It’s also an extremely catchy album, despite its utterly monstrous guitar tone and sickeningly guttural vocals, infectious in the way that all the most devastating plagues are, incubating under your skin from the moment of exposure and transmitting itself from listener to listener like a virus.
There were a lot of albums this year that pushed the envelope of brutality, most often by increasing the speed and savagery of their delivery. But The Decaying Light triumphs over all of them by opting for a slower, but even more devastating, assault on the senses, one which wears you down through constant attrition and sheer, crushing weight.
It’s also an album I expect will have real staying power, and I can confidently predict we’ll be referring to it as the gold standard of brutal Death Metal for years to come.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: VENOM PRISON
Samsara came very close indeed to making this list, as it’s one of the most vicious and aggressive albums of the year (Larissa Stupar’s scalding shriek alone is harsh enough to strip paint at fifty yards). It’s also in possession of more sharp edges and nasty hooks than your local abattoir, and every single song seems designed to inflict maximum damage on your eardrums in the shortest space of time.
VANUM – AGELESS FIRE
As you can see from my “Great” list (check it out here if you haven’t already) it was a busy year for Black Metal, which made it particularly difficult to pick just one representative.
I tried several different permutations, but none of them felt quite right. It felt like I was trying to please or pander to an unknown audience. And, if there’s one thing I don’t want to do with this list it’s pander to the expectations or demands of other people
It was only then, when I stopped writing for others and began thinking purely for myself, that I realised there was only one band, and one album, which I could possibly feature here.
And that album, obviously, was Ageless Fire by Vanum.
Ageless Fire is, in no uncertain terms, a riveting refinement and a fusion of all the best parts of Black Metal, the fearless melody, the elemental majesty, the primal intensity, into a record which is equally informed by classic Bathory as it is early Rotting Christ and Immortal.
And yet the band never feel beholden to their influences or restricted by some regressive idea of what the genre “should” be. Instead they balance a respectable reverence for the past with an ambitious, uncompromising approach to songwriting which makes this album far more than the mere sum of its parts as well as one of the most striking and memorable Black Metal albums of 2019.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: MISÞYRMING
If Ageless Fire is Black Metal in all its elemental glory, then Algleymi is Black Metal at its most human, with all the sex, blood, and rock ‘n’ roll injected back into its veins. And while it’s got some serious style and swagger, it’s also got some nasty teeth and razor-sharp claws, and will have your arm off if you cross the line.
DISILLUSION – THE LIBERATION
To quote my own review:
“…all I really need to say is that The Liberation isn’t just the long-awaited follow-up to their semi-legendary debut (sorry Gloria fans) but might just be even better.”
Of course even if you disagree with that (admittedly provocative) statement, I think you’ll still agree that the long-awaited comeback from these German Prog-Metal maestros is one of the most richly rewarding and fluidly progressive albums of the year.
Every single track is a masterful mix of shining melody, powerhouse riffage, and grandiose atmosphere, woven into form by the band’s nimble, nuanced songwriting, equal parts brooding and bombastic, and topped off with the vibrant, versatile vocals of Andy Schmidt, whose gritty growl and soulful singing are somehow even better than ever.
Perhaps its best trick, however, is that while it’s instantly engaging and easy to pick up, it’s also incredibly immersive and almost impossible to put down, and every song, from the humongous “Wintertide” to the streamlined “Time To Let Go” is riven with hooks that are as complex and intricate as they are catchy and insistent.
And while comparisons to everyone from Insomnium to Opeth, Devin to Ulver, have been useful to bring new listeners into the fold, the truth is that, even after all this time, there’s still no-one else who sounds quite like Disillusion.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: LUCIDITY
To quote from DGR’s review, “…If you’re a fan of melodramatic death-and-doom hybrids that are full of ethereal sounding keyboards and pensive vocal work, then Oceanum is an album almost purpose-built for you. It’s a long album, but it’s the kind of long in which you can get absolutely lost as it travels through multiple moments of beautiful-sounding, cold atmospheres and its suffocatingly heavy drags through the mud.”
CAR BOMB – MORDIAL
From the moment I first heard this album I knew it would be on this list.
Once again proving themselves the absolute masters of calculated chaos, Car Bomb’s fourth album is the sort of angular amalgam of sounds and influences (I can hear bits and pieces of Meshuggah, Pantera, Aphex Twin, Deftones, and more, all being fed into the grinder) which only these mad metallic scientists could come up with, and which in lesser hands would instantly fall apart (or blow up in their faces).
It’s also their most accessible album yet, almost shockingly so at times, with the fantastic foursome embracing and incorporating even more melody (the comparison to the Deftones made above is particularly apt) and even more hooks, than ever before.
And yet, unlike certain other bands I can name (I’ll leave it to you to speculate exactly which ones), this increased accessibility hasn’t forced them into a formulaic rut or robbed them of their edge. In fact, if anything, they’ve simply managed to expand their creative palette, and done so without losing even one nanogram of heaviness or mind-bending brilliance in the process.
Call them what you will (I like “Technical Progressive Avant-Garde Metallic Mathcore” myself), Car Bomb remain one of the most unique and unclassifiable bands in the business, and Mordial is, by leaps and bounds, their crowning achievement.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: EMPLOYED TO SERVE
The latest album from post-genre pugilists Employed to Serve may not be quite as artfully ambitious as 2017’s The Warmth of a Dying Sun, but it’s definitely punchier, more focussed, and arguably just as good, splicing together DNA strands from several different styles – including (but not limited to) Grindcore, Math Metal, Deathcore, and Nu Metal – into one heavyweight hybrid of sound and fury.
TEITANBLOOD – THE BANEFUL CHOIR
One thing which seems to be uniting all these selections (unconsciously as far as I’m aware) is how weirdly accessible most of them are.
Oh, I know. “Accessible” is generally seen as a dirty word in these parts, right up there with “mainstream” on the list of potential warning signs. Yet, as I think all these albums demonstrate, “accessibility” comes in many different forms. It doesn’t have to mean simpler, or dumber, or lighter. Sometimes it’s just a synonym for “engaging”.
Case in point, I still can’t understand how an album this sickeningly heavy, this oppressively dark and suffocatingly dense, can be as instantly (and consistently) engaging and accessible as it is.
Make no mistake about it though, Teitanblood haven’t weakened or diluted their poisonous formula one iota, and The Baneful Choir is every bit the looming leviathan that its predecessors were.
Every murky, malevolent riff and passage of percussive pandemonium seems designed to break your spirit and grind your bones to dust. Every spiteful snarl and grisly guttural sounds like an echo of hell itself. And every single track, from the nastiest piece of metallic malice to the most sinister slice of eerie ambience, positively shivers with an aura of morbid malevolence and impending doom.
The Baneful Choir may well be the greatest Teitanblood album yet. We can argue about that for as long as we need to. But, either way, it’s certainly one of the grimmest, grisliest, and most hypnotically heavy albums of the entire year,
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: ALTARAGE
Describing themselves as Chaotic Death/Blasting Doom doesn’t fully cover the horrific nature of Altarage’s music, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Cavernous, cacophonous, and utterly cataclysmic, The Approaching Roar is the perfect soundtrack to watching the sun burn out and the air turn to poison. Oh, the horror…
FVNERAL FVKK – CARNAL CONFESSIONS
If you’d told me at the beginning of 2019 that the debut album from a German band who describe their music as “Epic Pastoral Doom Metal”, and whose vocalist possesses one of the most impressively dynamic and dramatic clean singing styles I’ve ever heard, would find themselves on my “Critical Top Ten” list, well… I wouldn’t have laughed in your face (I’m far too polite for that), but I’d definitely have given you some significant side-eye and started edging slowly towards the exit.
Yet that’s exactly where we find ourselves right now, as this is without a doubt one of the most brilliant albums of the year.
It would be easy, and a little too simple, to describe the sound of Fvneral Fvkk (I know, I know, it’s a terrible name) as being a perfect synthesis of Warning, Woods of Ypres, and Paradise Lost, but it wouldn’t necessarily be inaccurate, as the German quartet really do channel the very best elements of the world’s very best Doom bands, both past and present, on Carnal Confessions.
Of course, the band’s not-so-secret weapon is the astonishingly emotive voice of Cantor Cinaedicus (not, I might add, his real name or title), but every member of the band contributes to the album’s success, making each track a mini-masterpiece of bold, brooding riffs and bleak, beautiful melodies.
And while none of them ever stray particularly far from the traditional Doom Metal template, it’s the subtle ornaments and embellishments (particularly in the moody, melancholy guitar work and patient, poignant drums) which help make this record one of the very best of 2019.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: ISOLE
Isole are not a new band, or a young band, by any means, but somehow, fifteen years into their career, they’re putting out some of their best work yet, in the form of the sublime, striking strains of Dystopia, which takes the very best elements of classic Doom Metal, adds a dash of deathly heft, and whips up a vintage draught of melodic magic.
ETERNAL STORM – COME THE TIDE
It’s been a long time since a Melodeath band has grabbed my attention, let alone blown me away like Eternal Storm did earlier this year. But, when you’re this good at what you do, it’s practically impossible not to make an impact.
There’s not a single song, or a single moment, on Come the Tide, which doesn’t feel as vital and electrifying as the day the genre was born, yet, by the same token, Eternal Storm don’t sound like a throwback or a nostalgia act either.
What they seem to have done is simply rediscovered what makes this sort of Melodeath truly great, resulting in an elemental experience that’s as swift as lightning, as pure as the driven snow, and which ebbs and flows like the rising and falling of the ocean.
There’s subtle progressive touches, shamelessly extravagant lead guitar lines, pulse-raising blastbeats, and gruff, gritty vocals galore (along with an occasional splash of melancholy, clean-sung melody), and every track has its own unique hook and distinct identity, brimming with energy and emotion, while also contributing to the greater whole.
It is, in other words, a practically perfect example of this particular style at its absolute best, and deserves every bit of commercial success and critical acclaim it’s received.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: IAPETUS
Expect to be hearing/reading more about The Body Cosmic very soon, as it’s one of my/our biggest oversights of the year, and one I’ll hopefully be rectifying very shortly. In simple terms, however, if you like the sound of a band/album who combines the aggression and agility of Nightrage with the speed and progressive tendencies of early Ne Obliviscaris (but without the “jack of all trades” feel) then check this one out ASAP.
WHITE WARD – LOVE EXCHANGE FAILURE
As I alluded to yesterday, Black Metal comes in all shapes and sizes, and one of the most unique and engrossing of those shapes came from Ukranian urbomancers White Ward.
Telling a scintillating story of nocturnal ambience and metropolitan menace, Love Exchange Failure is a true feast for the senses, providing a vivid, almost voyeuristic window into the inner landscape of a humanity afflicted with an almost terminal case of existential ennui, all filtered through a neon-hued prism of gleaming Black Metal, doomy ambience, and sinuous, jazz-inflected melodies.
To quote my own review (again):
“It’s an ambitious, grandiose statement, make no mistake about it. And, at a hair over sixty-seven minutes in total, occasionally a little overwhelming too, demanding a significant investment of time, energy, and attention to fully appreciate all the different layers and subtle nuances involved (many of which will likely only become apparent on your second, third, and fourth time through).
“But it’s also (quite fittingly) an album whose greatest rewards are reserved for those most willing to truly open themselves up to and connect with it, and while its sheer length and daunting density might be off-putting to some, particularly during a song like “Uncanny Delusions”, which embodies every single extreme of the band’s sound in one shamelessly provocative package, I can honestly say that I’ve encountered very few albums this year simultaneously as scintillating and as soothing, as abrasive and immersive, as this one.”
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: WASTE OF SPACE ORCHESTRA
Though it often errs more towards Sludge and Post-Punk than the above album, the blackened bona fides of Syntheosis shouldn’t be in any doubt, considering that Waste of Space Orchestra is partly made up of members of Finnish psychonauts Oranssi Pazuzu, whose musical fingerprints (along with their collaborators in Dark Buddha Rising) are all over this album. It’s a seriously weird and wonderful record, regardless of genre, however, and deserves much more love and attention.
TOMB MOLD – PLANETARY CLAIRVOYANCE
That’s right, Tomb Mold. Not, as you might have expected, Blood Incantation. But there’s a reason for that. A very simple reason indeed.
Planetary Clairvoyance is a better album.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, Hidden History… is a great record, and BI most assuredly represent the future of Death Metal (I said as much in my “Great” list yesterday). But Tomb Mold are the NOW, and when it comes down to brass tacks, when the chips are down and the metaphors are mixing wildly, Planetary Clairvoyance just hits that little harder, and has just that bit more staying power.
Of course, this selection will be controversial for another reason, namely that a lot of sites (and a lot of you, I’m sure) had the band’s previous album, Manor of Infinite Forms, pegged as one of the best albums of 2018, whereas I thought the hype surrounding that record was ever so slightly disproportionate to its actual quality (i.e., I didn’t think it was quite as good as everyone else did).
Planetary Clairvoyance is an even better album though. It takes the best parts of …Infinite Forms, and the best parts of Primordial Malignity, adds a dash of early Death, a hint of classic Carcass, and a touch of technical wizardry a la Zealotry, with the result being an album that is, in my own words:
“…a stunning affirmation of the band’s standing as one of Death Metal’s modern-day big-hitters.”
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: BLOOD INCANTATION
I may not be as fanatical about this band as some people I know, but even I can see how great their new album is (“Slave Species…” in particular is one of the best songs Mithras never wrote). Yes, I still contend that one more killer track before “Awakening…” (which, obviously, is the album’s MVP) would have put it over the top, and knocked Tomb Mold off their perch above. But, ultimately, there was very little in it, and if you love one of these albums you’ll definitely love the other too.
RORCAL – MULADONA
Last, but by no means least, we come to an album which I purposefully didn’t review before now, as I wanted it to be a surprise (plus I just didn’t have time!).
Sometimes a band stumbles across something, a new idea, a new sound, or a new concept, which totally changes them and transforms them into something even better than they were before.
That’s exactly the case here, as Muladona (named after the terrifying tale by Eric Stener Carlson, who actually provides the album’s voiceovers himself) takes the band’s already formidable foundation of Sludge, Doom, and Drone, and injects it with a lethal dose of blackened savagery, to create one of the most intense, immersive, and unforgettable musical experiences of 2019.
Bestial snarls and throat-rending screams howl like the shrieks of the damned over a densely packed landscape of lurching, low-tuned riffs, seething, atmospheric tremolo passages, and calamitous, doom-laden chords, all interspersed with passages of droning dread and haunting ambience and driven by a furious, almost maniacal performance by drummer Ron Lahyani, who pounds and pulverises, bludgeons and blasts, like a man possessed.
And, considering the devilish nature of the concept which underpins this record, that’s not necessarily out of the question. In fact every single member of the band seems to be in the grips of some sort of divine, or demonic, inspiration this time around, with the result being an album of pure, unparalleled catharsis.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: CALL OF THE VOID
You can’t do much better for an epitaph than Buried in Light, that’s for sure. The fourth and final album from Colorado crushers Call of the Void whips up a storm of Grind, Punk, Prog, Stoner, and Sludge, and then sets it loose on your eardrums for forty-five furious minutes. Losing these guys right when they were at the top of their game was a real blow, but what an album to go out on!
So there we have it. Ten of the best that 2019 had to offer.
Of course, ten albums isn’t enough to represent every facet of this year’s rich metallic crop, and these choices have, inevitably, been constrained by my own listening habits (you can see the full list of potential candidates on my “Great” list).
But I’ve honestly tried my best (and probably overthought things massively) to pick out a selection of albums and artists which spans as many different styles and sub-genres as possible, so as to give the best possible picture of what I think represents the very best of 2019.
Stay tuned tomorrow for my fifth, and final, list of the year, where I’ll be revealing the ten albums which make up my “Personal” favourites.