(Today we begin a week-long rollout of a 2019 Top 50 list by NCS scribe DGR, counting down in groups of 10 each day this week — or at least that’s the plan.)
These year-end archives — I’ve ceased any pretense of them being a list other than by the most basic description until the final ’10’ — are always a blast to write. They provide me an opportunity to be my most verbose while also touching base with everyhting that I enjoyed this year, including the many others I wound up bubbling out in my quest to finally have a ‘neat’ top 50 without a bunch of qualifiers.
This year was especially difficult on a personal front — which I’ve made small mention of, but there’s no need to have me dump that upon you in detail — and it resulted in a about a three-month period this year during which I wound up having to check out of heavy metal entirely. Turns out a musical genre that prides itself on being a sort of explosive catharsis isn’t exactly what one might need when going through massive life changes. So, part of 2019 has been me playing a very fucked-up and bizarre form of catch-up while also keeping in mind that I was going to do one of these before the year wrapped up and desperately wanted to dance around any sort of recency bias.
This year I’m not doing my usual schtick, other than having a massive list and panicking as to whether or not an album even came out this year or if it was a 2018 release. So I won’t be breaking out the non-metal shit, won’t be doing a separate EP listing (instead including them as entries in the whole 50-title affair), and probably won’t do an honorable-mentions segment (although just because something is not listed doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, it may be that I didn’t listen to it enough to feel confident in giving it a writeup).
And likely I won’t quite be aiming for War & Peace length this time — and may destroy my keyboard for its shitty fucking layout before getting close. It’s always been a private sort of amusement on these things to see just how far I can stretch my writing capabilities, but at the same time find myself getting less and less verbose as I get closer to the finish line, with the last few records near the end receiving a writeup that basically boils down to “ALBUM GOOD. ALBUM LOUD. YOU LIKE LOUD GOOD. I DO. YOU LISTEN”. But since we’re not at that point yet, feel free to join me as I dive into the first subset of albums that I enjoyed this year.
50) Endolith: Chicxulub – The Fossil Record
We start this event — in the midst of the aforementioned constant panic to make sure said release actually came out in 2019 — with one of the earliest releases of the year. Endolith’s Chicxulub – The Fossil Record hit in the middle of January, and in some ways describing it as an impact is playing it too kindly because Chicxulub is by design a very heavy record. Norway’s Endolith wrote an album with the sole purpose of sounding as huge as possible, which is fitting, given the band’s geological songwriting obsession, and they did so in such a way that you’d barely believe it’s just three guys handling the the instrumentation here.
Divorced from the Tom Waits cover that is on the vinyl release (which brings the album to a neat fifty minutes plus), the nine songs on Chicxulub total around forty-six minutes of music. Save for the occasional interlude, all of it is some of the weightiest death metal possible. Endolith are in their comfort zone whenever the song is a big, grooving mass of parts that throw their weight around. There aren’t too many times on Chicxulub when the band go incredibly fast, instead using any language of speed to add to the overall massiveness with which they write their music.
You’ll note throughout this whole list, and many of my previous ones in earlier years, that I tend to have a fondness for metal when it is a combination of big, brawny, and kind of dumb — but also makes clear that the musicians are basically embracing their caveman side more than it being a limit on how they write. The band putting a hefty layer of symphonic key-work over the top of it was enough to ensure that Chicxulub would be a constant listen throughout the year, even amongst the gigantic mass of metal that would eventually accumulate in 2019.
49) Devin Townsend: Empath
There’s something hilarious to me about including Empath in the upper reaches of this year-ender, partially credited to the sheer amount of hype and praise Devin Townsend‘s latest everything-and-the-kitchen sink release has garnered. Designed as an album wherein the creative shackles were completely removed and with an extensive budget to support it, Empath finds itself being the most Devin Townsend sounding album to date. This means that at first blush Empath is an incredibly fun disc not only to listen to but also to show people. Because its hard swings, many musical genre traverses, and ceaseless amount of instrumentation make Empath the sort of album that you can point to and go, “want to hear a metal musician lose their mind over the course of an hour?”.
It turns out to be a little bit of a monkey’s-paw wish though, as Devin Townsend using absolutely everything at his disposal means that Empath becomes something of a Devin Townsend career retrospective . If you’ve been lucky enough to follow his career for the two-plus decades he’s been playing music, then there’s a lot here that is going to seem familiar. “Genesis” opens the album strong, but also becomes a miniature mission statement of Empath as a whole, so much so that throughout the rest of the album it isn’t too shocking to hear certain motifs, refrains, different orchestral stings, and so on, and find yourself going, “Oh yeah, I heard this in Genesis!”.
It’s a fun adventure in hanging on to the music to see how far it can be stretched, but the batch of songs leading up to the sprawling “Singularity” closing suite can sometimes drift into changing things and swapping them around simply because the ability to do so was there. “Hear Me” and its brand of psychopathy is a lot of fun for me, as the heavy metal guy who still has his ears perked up for any moment Devin decides to start screaming — and likewise, the aforementioned twenty-plus minutes of music is fascinating even as they stretch outward to feel like a longer version of everything else attempted on Empath.
I still can’t help but be excited for the reception it has received, even if it didn’t personally stick as hard with me as I hoped it would, because I feel like someone displaying this level of ambition and songwriting skill can only inspire future writers to give it their all, and those sorts of ripple effects can do fantastic things for music as a whole.
48 – Wormwitch: Heaven That Dwells Within
In the meantime, Canada can notch another one in its belt with the arena-rock Black Metal of Wormwitch and their album Heaven That Dwells Within. Maybe it was seeing the band live that finally hammered home why Wormwitch have the appeal they do. There’s a righteous stomp in the way they write, and the way their riffs slither around like a pit full of snakes makes it hard not to sync up with the band from moment one. It’s insidious how stealthily the urge to nod along sneaks up on you as the band tear through Heaven That Dwells Within. I’d dare to throw the word ‘fun’ at it, as much as Wormwitch’s latest album has grown on me since its April 2019 release.
Like many of the releases in this upper tier of my year-ender archive, Wormwitch waste absolutely no time getting to the heart of what they’re about — you’ll note within about the first twenty or so seconds that you get a massive “Ooough!” and then its off to the races. The opening four songs of Heaven That Dwells Within may be one of the strongest four-song runs in some time, without them basically being iterations on the same song. “Disciple Of The Serpent Star” is a high-tempo affair, whereas “Vernal Womb” eventually reaches apocalyptic death metal speeds — its starting bit contains a glorious bit of guitar lead work that is nearly betrayed by the song’s shifting back half.
“Two Wolves” is the song that I tend to zero in on the most when I refer to the band having a righteous stomp in their songwriting, since that one seems to have absorbed the most pit-riffage of Heaven That Dwells Within‘s opening salvo, and “Spirit Braid” takes the opposite approach, hewing pretty close to the black-metal realm for its length. If, by this point, the opening of this album hasn’t grabbed you, then it likely won’t — but if so then you’ve also likely revealed yourself as a being that has no joy in its life at all.
I found myself enjoying a lot of albums for having the sheer gall to just be enjoyable this year, and while you can definitely hear the whole maelstrom of influences worming *ahem* its way throughout Wormwitch’s sound, the combination contained therein is a damned enjoyable one.
47) Carnal Forge: Gun To Mouth Salvation
Another January release fights its way into the fray and one that was a long time coming, if you don’t count the off-year single between their two albums. The distance between Carnal Forge’s album previous to their 2019 release Gun To Mouth Salvation is about twelve years, putting them among a pretty esteemed group of musicians who have huge gaps between album releases this year.
It seems that during that time Carnal Forge basically put themselves back in the forge and shifted their sound around into something different than before, becoming equal parts melo-death and thrash, and embracing the sort of manic fury a group like The Haunted are known to pull from. In some ways, Gun To Mouth Salvation comes dangerously close to becoming a better Haunted disc than that group has put out recently.
What this mean for me was that even though it took me forever and a day to review it Gun To Mouth Salvation was a constant spin in the first half of the year as the band tore through song-after-song with the sort of fiery passion one might expect from a band willing to have “forge” in the name. It didn’t break any boundaries but instead felt like a group of musicians who had long since honed their craft on a specific style, showing off what a solid collection of punchy-riffs, massive-grooves, and cheeseball soloing could do, with a vocalist snarling over the top to really send things home.
It’s a shame that Gun To Mouth Salvation seems to be flying a bit under the radar for those same reasons though, as the praise of it being an excellent genre piece can also prove to be a double-edged sword in a heavy metal world that invests so much of its identity in the constant quest for ‘new’, when it isn’t too busy praising groups for sounding like time-capsules. Gun To Mouth Salvation was not only a fun listen throughout the year but even when shuffled against a massive collection of other music, its three-to-five-minute concise songs were just the right amount of headbanging fun to get in and out of just as fast.
Gun To Mouth Salvation proved to be melodeath candy for me this year, and so even amongst the giant collection of music I listened to, it still wound up sticking out enough to make it here.
46) Astronoid: Astronoid
I can definitely understand why fans of Astronoid may have found themselves disappointed with the group’s self-titled album, their follow up to Air. They feel like entirely different albums in some ways. While Air may have been overwhelming in its almost dreamlike positivity, their followup album takes that dreamlike production and brings it a little closer to Earth — a little less focused on making blastbeats sound ‘happy’ and as a result takes a slower approach to songwriting.
However, I also think “Ideal World” and “I Wish I Was There While The Sun Set” are two of the best songs Astronoid has in their arsenal, so this blurb may become less a treatise on an album as a whole and more about how the strength of a handful of songs can carry some of the less distinct tracks on a disc. For one: I think Astronoid find themselves put in the ‘metal’ realm because the music is genuinely heavy — each of their releases so far has been impressive as hell on a drumming front alone — yet the group’s sung-vocal work obviously puts that in sharp contrast.
If anyone were looking for a good demonstration of that sense early on, I’d recommend the opening of “I Dream In Lines”: The song’s opening minutes sound like it’s being played by an octopus on a drumkit, and the guitar work behind it moves from angular groove to angular groove before one brief moment of peace, and then you get an absolutely hammering double-bass roll (if that were Amon Amarth, you’d be circle headbanging to it, but since its Astronoid I guess you just stare at a pretty light show and probably suffocate on a half-million fog machine clouds?).
It’s the sort of dynamic that makes Astronoid an interesting group. While the first album may have been the equivalent of a heavy metal rainbow farting unicorns and all the majesty granted therein, the new disc still remains an interesting journey and one that could likely be the last time Astronoid find themselves characterized as metal — there are plenty of hints that they could dive headlong into a shoegaze realm by the time their next release comes around.
45) Abnormality: Sociopathic Constructs
This Massachusetts brutal tech-death hurricane ranks consistently high with me whenever they put out a new disc. The band have yet to fail to blow my hair back, each release seeming to ratchet up the scale at which Abnormality dish out music. Sociopathic Constructs comes in hot, a tiny bit over three years after the group’s previous album Mechanisms Of Omniscience and basically picks up the baton right from where that disc stopped — almost literally, as there’s maybe one second of silence from hitting ‘play’ and then the song’s opening number “Monarch Alpha” piles out on top of you.
“Monarch Alpha” also provides a fun thematic throwback for longtime fans, as the opening song two albums ago on Contaminating The Hive Mind was “Monarch Omega”. Whether this is meant to be some sort of brutal death metal musical suite is hard to tell, because Abnormality’s music is so hyper-kinetic that it’s easy to get lost within specific songs as they toss the listener around with enough force to give us whiplash.
“Kakistocracy” is the first time on Sociopathic Constructs where there’s a really solid groove to catch onto. Both “Monarch Alpha” and “Penance” prior to it are blinding displays of fretwork, drum destruction, and multi-level vocal attack that initially overwhelms. Abnormality rarely let up from that feeling, and so any time the band shift from the eye-popping technicality to the rock-stupid brutality side of their musical formula becomes a welcome reprieve. Any moment to headbang and punch someone quickly becomes a port in a storm.
“Curb Stomp” may represent Abnormality at their most straightforwardly-angry, no Echoborgs, no world-ending descriptions or massive frenzies of destruction, just an act of revenge and personal violence delivered about as suddenly and as brutally as its title might imply.
Sociopathic Constructs is the sort of album you recommend to people when you want to watch them get absolutely blindsided. It’s long been the Abnormality modus operandi to overwhelm their listeners, and now three albums and an EP deep into their career, Sociopathic Constructs is a clear demonstration of just how good they’ve gotten at doing so.
44) White Ward: Love Exchange Failure
Love Exchange Failure is one of those vaunted albums where I drop the phrase, ‘I think about this disc a lot’. You’ll see that reaction from time-to-time throughout this year-end archive, and I will likely point it out each time, because ‘disc that I think about a lot’ happens infrequently enough throughout the year that even in this one mass-writing exercise I’m going to gloss on when I gift such words to an album.
I usually reserve this for discs where at first blush I may not have immediately gelled with it; something may have prevented me from getting into it, something may have distracted me, or even if I wasn’t sure I immediately enjoyed it, there was some nebulous reason that I kept getting dragged back to it — critical praise and the like (especially here) be damned. Yet, Ukraine’s White Ward and their album Love Exchange Failure wormed its way into my skin and became one of those albums that long after listening to it, I continually thought about it.
While I think the realm of sad-boy black metal going headlong with the introverted college philosophy major shoegaze genre has definitely gotten saturated over the past couple of years, we’re still in the phase where there’s a lot to be mined from that vein, as different groups tinker and toy with the vast possibilities open to them. But a release like this one manages to do something many other albums don’t do. It feels like it truly captures that depressive sense of isolation that can develop even though you’re in a massive city surrounded by people. The album’s artwork exists to hammer home that fact, along with the spartan nature of the logo and the album’s title treatment. It’s a very blank and bold-faced statement.
Love Exchange Failure opens with the smoky dreariness of being in a jazz-club as the night winds down before launching its opening assault, and then continues to use that atmosphere throughout the album, giving a sense that whatever city-scape for which White Ward are providing the soundtrack to is also in a constant state of ‘winding down’. So why, given the peculiar fascination with it, does Love Exchange Failure find itself so high up?
I think in part it’s because it’s the sort of album that feels like it’s coming for the throne of a band like Harakiri For The Sky, and comes damned close to taking it, but then it buries itself in a muddy mix. While the vocals are dominant, it still feels like they could’ve rung through so much clearer. Beyond that, there’s so much going on within Love Exchange Failure that I found myself frustrated with just how much more clarity I wanted out of the album — bringing forth different elements far more than what can be gleaned in this maelstrom.
The vocals have an excellent howl-of-anguish quality, but the band behind becomes a constant thrum. And so this album becomes one that is consistently fascinating as well as personally frustrating. I absolutely would not hesitate to recommend it to people, but man, this disc is such a lush and gorgeous album that feels like it is being forced into a compact corner. If, however, you are a better person than I — a low bar, to be sure — and that one qualifier can be gotten past, then Love Exchange Failure is an easy recommend this year.
43) Murder Made God: Endless Return
I think the short story behind why I like Murder Made God‘s latest album Endless Return is because it’s the sort of death metal that appeals to the dumb side of my brain. As high-minded and pretentious as I would like to pretend to be, as much as I pontificate on the idea of pushing metal forward as a genre into new and uncharted realms, I am just as much a fan of death metal when its base formula is the equivalent of taking two large rocks and smashing them together. And thus, Endless Return and its near-forty-minutes of death metal groove and bellowed vocal work found itself in constant rotation since its September release.
Murder Made God slot into one of my ‘default band’ spots when I can’t really settle on what exactly I want to listen to. Their specific brand of music is just perfect to fill the space with solid, crushing metal, done in such a way that you can’t help but want to mosh to it. Endless Return at times can feel like an alternate-universe take on the group’s previous album Enslaved, save for a few more experimental moments, but it seems like the career-path that Murder Made God have set for themselves is one of those excellent ‘shuffle’ groups, the overall collection of music just as fantastic to put on at random as it is to go through album-by-album.
The whiplash nature of “Trials and Enemies” consistently found its way back into my brain, as well as its follower “Cognitive Dissonance”, which seemed hellbent on steering the band toward a musical apocalypse. Endless Return does get a little indistinct at times but it’s sort of fitting. Murder Made God‘s music so far has just been one big, dense, heavy block after another with minor iterations on each them. An album release feels more like the four-piece going on musical bomb runs than a thematic collective of songs. Yet its caveman-like approach to music, as mentioned before, meant that Endless Return was a constant go-to in the back half of the year.
42) Noctem: The Black Consecration
Noctem’s previous album Haeresis felt like the natural conclusion of a musical arc they began all the way back in 2011’s Oblivion. The group’s sophomore album saw the band shifting from a blackened death metal sound ever so slightly into something a little more nightmarish and straightforward. Their subsequent releases Exilium and Haeresis were the continuation of that as Noctem’s black metal sound began to congeal around razor-wire guitar riffs and some very high-speed songwriting, at times yanking Noctem out of a realm inhabited by groups like Hate and Behemoth and into the noiser extremity of a group like Anaal Nathrakh.
Haeresis found itself pulling impressively hard on its genre-boundaries though, and saw the band seemingly push as far as they could into that specific style. What that meant was that a whole lot about Noctem’s fifth album The Black Consecration was up in the air from a punditry front, and it was hard to tell where the band might land next.
The Black Consecration is Noctem’s second album with their current lineup, so there was definitely a sort of hopeful look-forward in seeing what a group of musicians all united by one singular purpose without having to adapt to changing ranks could do. The Black Consecration is evidence of that, and then some. It completely blindsides people who might have expected another high-speed, guitar-centric black metal disc and instead dishes out some solid, rumbling black metal that sounds like it was recorded in a nearby cavern for atmosphere.
The Black Consectration starts with its title song, and it is one hell of a gatekeeper, partially due to its eight-plus-minute runtime (the only other song that does that is the excellent “Court Of The Dying Flesh”), but also because it really does display all of its elements at once — the atmospheric mix, the constant hammering of the drum kit, the drill-like precision with which many of the album’s riffs have been constructed, and the way vocalist Beleth seems to have turned completely feral in his lyrical rantings.
It’s such an interesting shift in Noctem’s sound that really only suffered this year because of the fact that it came out on November 1st, right around the time it seemed like a small flood of metal releases were hitting. Unfortunately, I found myself without the time I would’ve loved to dedicate to this one. As it stands, the constant listening I’ve been giving this album’s abysal thunder made it an easy inclusion on my year end list.
41) Nile: Vile Nilotic Rites
Nile’s newest album Vile Nilotic Rites was actually a pleasant surprise for me. The first occasion in a long time since the band have recorded as a four-piece, and the first since Dallas left the group, Vile Nilotic Rites is somehow one of Nile’s longest discs yet feels much shorter. It’s a scrappier album that seems obsessed with how fast it can go at times, leading to a from-all-angles assault style of songwriting that really only lets up for the briefest of interlude moments.
For a long time I used to joke that the best Nile songs on each disc were actually the interludes where Karl Sanders got to break out all sorts of different and unexpected instruments for the purpose of atmosphere. The biggest reason behind that is because after Annihilation of The Wicked, Nile felt like they became an institution in the death metal scene, having been around for so long, and at that point having found a sound that worked for them and really settling into it. Nile were the one-stop shop for suffocatingly heavy discs that felt like being crushed by increasing weight over the course of listening to them. Those were huge albums, super-dominant on the low-end, making Nile seem like a massive behemoth whose only purpose was to leave craters behind it with each step.
While I generally enjoy their discography as a whole, there’s a big mass of albums right in the center of their career so far that are perfect to be thrown on for a mood, but become distinctly hard to recall for specific moments. Vile Nilotic Rites is a different beast, and though I can completely understand why people may not be enjoying it as much, I think the frenetic songwriting, the guitar-dominant mix (though George Kollias still finds plenty of ways in which to destroy his kit throughout), and the working in of many a modern death metal scene trope alongside the group’s monstrous scale works for them.
I’ve always been appreciative of a group that finds a way to catch people off-guard while being deep into their career, and Vile Nolitic Rites seems to have surprised quite a few people, maybe by not being massive Nile but more being chaotic Nile. I mean, it even has broken away from each album’s track listing reading like an historical essay by its word count. It’s one that I found myself deeply enjoying anyway.