(This is the last installment in Andy Synn‘s week-long series of essays about metal in 2019, closing with a Top 10 list of personal favorites.)
In many ways today’s article, the last one of my seasonal “Listmania” (which is a lot like Hulkamania, only with better hair), is the easiest one to write.
After all, it’s not making any big claims about being “the best” albums of the year, nor is it trying to achieve any similarly lofty goal like my “Critical Top Ten” was. It’s just a list of the ten albums I’ve listened to most and/or which have connected with me most strongly, over the last twelve months.
But precisely because this is such a personal and subjective list, it’s been the one most constantly in flux, with the positioning and ordering of what bands/albums were included switching and changing right up until the wire.
Still, I think (I hope) a lot of you are going to discover (or rediscover) some cool new artists and albums here.
- VIELIKAN – BACK TO THE BLACK MARSH
Back to the Black Marsh is, by any metric, a ridiculous album. It’s ridiculously long, ridiculously intense, and ridiculously good. What makes it even more ridiculous is that it’s all the product of one man, Fedor S. Kovalevsky, who has somehow put together one of the best albums of the year practically all on his lonesome.
Those of you unfamiliar with Vielikan’s previous work who want to know what this album sounds like would be well advised to check out my review, or skip straight to the album stream below, but suffice it to say that if you’re interested in a record which takes the very best bits and pieces of Still Life and From Mars to Sirius, adds a darker more blackened sheen, and then patiently (and powerfully) plays out over seventy-seven(!) scintillating minutes, then you’re in the right place.
Each and every track here is equal parts complex, catchy, and cathartic, and Kovalesky has a real eye/ear for structure and dynamic flow, ensuring that the listener remains constantly and consciously engaged, keeping their attention firmly fixed on the music while never fully allowing them to become comfortable or complacent.
Nowhere is this more obvious, of course, than on the album’s monstrous penultimate track, “The Final Confrontation With the Soul Harvester in the Heart of the Black Marsh” which, at an intimidating thirty-three minutes and twenty-five seconds long (suck it Blood Incantation), is worth the price of admission on its own.
This album is a dense and demanding listen, that’s for sure. But, nine months later, I’m still coming back to it regularly and discovering something new each time.
- THE NEGATIVE BIAS – NARCISSUS RISING
One of the (many) great things about writing here is that I can always rely on my compatriots to uncover hidden gems which I might not otherwise have discovered myself.
Case in point, it was Islander himself who brought the second album from Austrian antagonists The Negative Bias to my attention with his stellar write-up back in July. And am I ever glad he did.
Eerily immersive and suffocatingly dense, this is the sort of music that sinks into your bloodstream and then metastasizes throughout your body, infecting every inch of you with its pitch-black poison.
First It tempts you in with haunting ambience and hypnotic chants, only to suddenly savage you with razor-winds of icy distortion and snarling fury, before finally enveloping you in a darkness so absolute that it chills you to your bones, leaving you craving another fix of pleasure/pain in whatever form it has to offer.
If there’s one thing that bugs me ever so slightly about this record, it’s that it’s subtitled “A Metamorphosis In Three Parts”… and yet it’s only made up of two tracks.
That being said, there’s a very obvious point just over halfway through “Insomnic Sermons…” where the album clearly transitions into its third act, so if you were to split the second track up here… well, I wouldn’t tell anyone.
Much like the album above, Narcissus Rising is an incredibly demanding, but also extremely addictive, record, and the more you listen to it, the more you want it.
- FALLUJAH – UNDYING LIGHT
I may be in the minority here (or maybe I’m just a member of the silent majority?) but I absolutely love the new Fallujah album.
Oh, I acknowledge that it’s not quite the game-changer that Dreamless was back in 2016 (although even I, as a long time fan, think the hype around that album was still excessive), but, on a personal level at least, it may well be my favourite thing they’ve done.
The decision not to try to remake Dreamless was, I think, a smart one, and by dropping some of the ambient embellishments in favour of a more introspective atmosphere based around punchier, heavier guitars and limber, luminous lead melodies, the band managed to redirect and refocus their energies in a way that build on the past, without being beholden to it.
It helps, of course, that these songs also kick a significant amount of ass. “Glass House” is a heady, heavy, headbanger’s delight, all pneumatic rhythms and pulsing energy. “Ultraviolet” is moody, melodic, and satisfyingly meaty, all at the same time. “The Ocean Above” is sublimely melodic yet subtly technical. And those three songs are just from the first half of the record!
And while I know several people were put off by the unexpected change in vocalist, I find Antonio Palermo’s high/mid range screams to be more memorable, and more engaging, than his predecessor’s more guttural growls, and think they actually help the record (rather than hindering it) by giving it some additional emotional depth to match its increasing musical magnitude.
I’m not going to be able to convince everyone, obviously, nor am I going to try. But I really do love this record, and encourage you, especially if you’re a fan of their previous works who didn’t connect with this album when it was released, to give it another try and to listen with a fresh ear.
- BLUT AUS NORD – HALLUCINOGEN
It might sound weird at first, but the latest albums from Blut Aus Nord and Fallujah actually have a surprising amount in common, with both of them opting for a more introspective and introverted approach, without sacrificing their more widescreen vision in the process.
Both bands/albums also utilise a lot of lambent, live-wire lead guitar melodies too, although whereas Fallujah’s new record finds them becoming tighter and more focussed then ever, Blut Aus Nord appear to have gone in the opposite direction, loosening the reins and allowing their music to wander in whatever weird and wonderful direction it wants.
On every track you can practically feel the electricity crackling in the air as the band leap from one idea to the next, following the flow of elemental energy from moment to moment without hesitating or second guessing themselves, resulting in an album which feels thrillingly vital and spontaneous (especially when compared to the disappointingly formulaic nature of its predecessor).
It’s also got a surprising amount of swagger to it, and this blend of driving riffs and psychotropic melodies reminds me just as much of the bombastic boldness of bands like Led Zeppelin and King Crimson as it does the more extravagant and esoteric output of Dødsengel and Hail Spirit Noir.
This really does sound like the dawn of a new age for the band, and I, for one, am all in.
- PANZERFAUST – THE SUNS OF PERDITION, CHAPTER I
There are some dark and heavy albums on this list (and some proggier, more melodic ones, obviously), but this one may well be the most intense out of all of them.
Ever since I first heard the malevolent opening bars of “The Day After Trinity”, I’ve not been able to get this album out of my head. With an almost perfect blend of massive guitars, gargantuan bass lines, and some truly next-level drum work – all stained around the edges with dissonant blackened melody – these five tracks (including eerie, mid-album breather “Crimes Against Humanity”) really do represent the cutting edge of Black Metal in its purest, most punishing form.
And did I mention how horrifically dark it is? Over the course of thirty-one minutes it captures the fear and loathing, terror and hubris, of war in all its folly and futility and grim necessity, especially in the lyrics/vocals. Just take a look/listen to the following cruelly catchy, morbidly malevolent lines from “Stalingrad, Massengrab), which are delivered like a bleak benediction (or a curse):
I watched as the bodies hung from the frozen trees that cloaked the Volga
And beneath an oblivion sky the frantic cried to the streets that bore them
I watched as the fires scorched the million hands that bound a nation
Where life – and the lack of it – became clearer each day
It really is an ugly, uncompromising, and utterly mesmerising album, and I can’t wait to hear the next chapter, or to finally see the band live at next year’s MDF.
- ARCTIC SLEEP – KINDRED SPIRITS
In contrast to the choking darkness of the previous entry, this one is easily the most melodic album on my list, but also one of the richest and most rewarding, which I’ve been listening to pretty much non-stop since stumbling across it back in July. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Equal parts Anathema, Alcest, and Devin Townsend – but with a sound and identity all of its own – this is the sort of album that you just need to immerse yourself in to fully appreciate it. Trust me on this. Let yourself sink into its warm embrace, give yourself over to its majestic ebb and flow, and pretty soon you won’t want it to ever let you go.
As gorgeously melodic and soothingly atmospheric as it is, Kindred Spirits doesn’t necessarily lack for heaviness when it needs it, as mainman Keith D (who handles everything but the drums on this recording) certainly knows his way around a mighty riff or two. But it’s the emotional heaviness, the clear honesty and unabashed vulnerability, which really makes this one hit as hard as it does.
Does loving this record so much make me a big softy? You’re damn right it does. And I wouldn’t change it for a thing.
- ABIGAIL WILLIAMS – WALK BEYOND THE DARK
I’ve been on the Abigail Williams bandwagon for… let’s just say a long time now. In fact I still go back to both In The Absence of Light (“Final Destiny of the Gods” is a hideously underrated tune) and Becoming (“Beyond the Veil”… ‘nuff said) pretty damn regularly.
So it’s been gratifying to see the rest of the world finally catch up to what I’ve been saying all along, which is that AW are one of the best Black Metal bands in America, constantly evolving, constantly improving, yet never losing sight of who they are and where they want to be.
It’s no surprise that Walk Beyond the Dark is the album where other people finally came around to my way of thinking though, as it really does blend all the best aspects of all the band’s previous releases, alongside an ever improving musicality and a revitalised sense of passion and drive.
Picking out high points is also extremely difficult. There’s not a single bad or extraneous song on the album, and it’s likely that every listener will have a slightly different set of favourites.
For me though, it has to be the brooding brilliance of “Sun and Moon” (the vocal layering alone is perfection), the blast-tastic, shamelessly melodic “Into the Sleep” (I cannot get that chorus out of my head), and “The Final Failure”, with its shift from slow-burn solemnity to savage potency, which really stand out. Though, if you ask me again tomorrow I might have a very different answer.
One thing that won’t change though, and which I really want to stress and highlight, is just how good the drumming is on this record. Mike Heller puts in what might well be a career best performance on every track, not just in terms of speed and power, but by using his drums as a much more intricate instrument, playing with and not just over (or under) the rest of the music.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to it again.
- GOMORRAH – GOMORRAH
Canandian Death Metal duo Gomorrah have been something of a cause celebre (and a pet project for me personally) here at NCS ever since I/we wrote about their killer second album, The Haruspex, but I don’t think any of us could have predicted how utterly stunning, and stunningly heavy, their self-titled follow-up would be.
At only eight songs, and just over twenty-six minutes, in length, Gomorrah is a coiled, compact ball of sound and fury, make no mistake, but it also packs more ideas into those twenty-six minutes than most bands do in twice that, fusing elements from multiple sub-styles into one crushingly heavy, weaponised Death Metal monstrosity.
It’s blisteringly technical (“For Those of Eld”), but never falls prey to Tech Death cliché. It’s got the rugged, rhythmic density of Deathcore, without actually being Deathcore (“The Blade Itself”). It possesses a keen ear for mood-enhancing melody, but deploys it with subtle, minimalist menace (“From Earthen Ruins”). And it’s unflinchingly brutal (“Frailty”), yet doesn’t just rely on boneheaded brutality to get its point across.
It’s also phenomenally hooky, and I challenge anyone not to feel their heads start to involuntarily respond to the prowling, predatory grooves of “Ember” or the gigantic, gigaton riffs of “Of Ghosts and the Grave”.
And, of course, it benefits massively from Bryan and Matheson’s decision to not just get the superior drummer himself, Hannes Grossmann, onboard, but to allow him free rein to totally cut loose, in a similar manner to when Testament brought in Dave Lombardo for The Gathering and just said “go nuts”.
For all these reasons, and more, it’s not just my favourite Death Metal album of 2019, but one of my favourite albums in general.
- DOWNFALL OF GAIA – ETHIC OF RADICAL FINITUDE
One of the most wonderful things about Metal, about music in general, in fact, is when you stumble across a band that just fits you like a glove. A band that speaks to you on an intimate level.
Downfall of Gaia have been one of those bands for me ever since I stumbled across them many years ago. There’s just something about their sound, a combination of absorbing atmosphere and frantic urgency, that touches a chord with me every single time.
That being said, I wasn’t as blown away by their previous album, Atrophy, as I’d hoped (though now I’m thinking it might be time to give it another shot).
Ethic of Radical Finitude, however, is everything I want from this band.
Every song is like being caught in a sudden downpour, a deluge of energy and emotion seemingly out of nowhere. It’s vibrant and visceral, dynamic and dramatic. It’s got heart, it’s got brains, it’s got guts. It’s immediate and itnense, yet also poetic and poignant.
It is, to use a hoary old cliché, a true feast for the senses, and every time I listen to it I find myself discovering something new.
- BRUTUS – NEST
To bastardise a quote from The Big Lebwoski, “…sometimes there’s a band, and I’m talking about Brutus here. Sometimes there’s a band and, well, they’re the band for their time and place.”
That pretty much sums up how I feel about this Belgian three-piece. They’re just the right band for me right now, and Nest has barely left my listening rotation since it was released because of that.
This isn’t the first time, of course, that my favourite album of the year has been distinctly un-metal, or full of soaring clean-sung vocals from top to bottom, so Brutus aren’t necessarily the anomaly they might seem.
That being said, they’re definitely a left-field choice, operating as they do more on the edges of Punk, Post-Hardcore and Post-Rock, with a sound which shares more in common with bands like Refused, Thrice, and Explosions In The Sky than they do the rest of the bands on this list!
Still, there’s some really good riffs, and big, beefy bass-lines here – just give “War” a listen if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking – and every single track is positively bursting with emphatic energy, blinding melody, and nimble, nuanced fretwork.
And then, of course, there’s the stunning vocals of drummer Stefanie Mannaerts, who packs some seriously massive lungs and an amazing ear for melody, as well as some impressively punchy percussive prowess, into her diminutive frame, and acts both as the band’s driving force and its not-so-secret weapon.
To be entirely truthful, I was going back and forth between this and Downfall of Gaia for my number one spot right until the moment I submitted this article, and either one of them would have been a worthy choice.
But, ultimately, what put Brutus over the top was just how different their sound is from anything else I’ve listened to this year. How unique and distinct their lyrics, their melodies, their way of thinking and writing, were from everyone else on this list. And also, generally speaking, just how earnest and heartfelt every single second of this album is.
So, there you have it. The ten albums which, for the most part, have really defined my listening over the last twelve months.
If there’s one notable omission, it’s Muladona by Rorcal (which took pride of place in my “Critical Top Ten” yesterday) as while I have a very strong feeling that this is going to end up as one of my all-time favourite albums, at the moment I’ve spent so long assessing it with a purely “critical” eye that I’ve yet to fully put all my thoughts and feelings about it, on a personal level, into their proper order.
I want to close by giving a shout out to all our readers who’ve stuck with me/us and put up with my weird non-sequiturs and random political/personal/philosophical interjections this year.
Hopefully they’ve all served to add a bit of character, and a bit of context, to everything I’ve written over the past twelve months, as I find it boring just talking about how loud, or how fast, or how “brutal” the music is.
For me it’s always more important to have a unique perspective, or an interesting way of looking at things, than it is to just blindly praise whatever a band puts out, and I think the majority of our readership appreciates that, so I just wanted to let you know that you’re appreciated in return.
I’ll probably be easing back a bit on my writing for NCS over the next few weeks (although there’s still a bunch of albums I want to write about, so we’ll see if that actually happens), as I’ve got quite a few things on work-wise and band-wise (we’re playing Nottingham, London, and Brighton next week with Hour of Penance by the way, if anyone wants to come along?) that require my full attention.
Rest assured though that I’m not going anywhere, and already have this month’s edition of The Synn Report, plus several reviews for NEXT year, planned out in advance!