(We continue a week-long rollout of a 2019 Top 50 list by NCS scribe DGR, counting down in groups of 10 each day. In this fourth installment we’ve got Nos. 20 through 11.)
When you reach the final twenty or so of your year-end list – as ridiculous as it may have gotten *cough* – you start to develop some sort of a mission statement. I can’t really say that I’ve accomplished that this time around, I’ve just continued to notice really small trends within each grouping. Last time I noticed that I wound up bookending the list with black metal and this time I found that the groups at top and bottom were deathgrind bands. In between there was a smattering of all sorts of different genres, including two albums that I can’t quite pin down to any one specific style, other than what could politely be described as “complete madness”.
2019 was an adventure musically, and I think part of that is reflected in some of the longer running times of the albums present on here as well. I discovered I was really open to the idea of exploring a whole bunch of massive soundscapes – which again is hilarious, given that the records at positions 20 and 11 are the punchiest of the no-bullshit style deathgrind bands out there. We’ve also got some of the earliest and some of the latest 2019 releases packed in here, as well as September continuing its hot streak for having been a fantastic month for music.
We’re only one day away now from the super-shiny, absolutely-unfuckwithable, proof that DGR has his finger on the pulse of the world of heavy metal, final ten of the year. So let’s enjoy this latest smattering of bands and see how many of you can still walk after being put through the wringer by this group.
20) Man Must Die – Gagging Order
Part of me feels like it’s chearting to sneak Gagging Order into the year-end list, given that a couple of these songs were released by Man Must Die ages ago. But then another part of me goes “fuck you, it’s Man Must Die, and it has new material,” so guess what? Say Hi to Man Must Die‘s presence on the year-end list with the Gagging Order EP, their first release since 2013’s Peace Was Never An Option.
Gagging Order is comprised of four original songs and two covers for a nice and neat twenty-four minutes of death metal. Man Must Die are one of the few bands out there who seem authentically pissed about whatever it is they’re talking about, and even six years later that flame hasn’t died down one bit. They’re still as ferocious as when they last checked in with us, even making their two covers sound like someone is about to get the shit kicked out of them.
If you’ve been following us for a while you’ve likely seen every single time one of the songs from this EP that found its way to the internet, because we posted about it immediately. So when “Silent Authority” found its way to the net in 2016, “Slave to the Animal” in 2014, and their cover of “Milk” in 2015, it really did seem like it wouldn’t be that long until we got a bigger release from the crew. Alas, we had to wait until October of this year before we finally got them all in one spot.
Man Must Die continue on their hot-streak of razor-sharp guitar lines and pummeling drumming being the method by which they get by, with vocalist Joe McGlynn more than happy to yell at you about the world over the top of it. The songs remain surprisingly intricate for the sort of violence they commit as Man Must Die play with a variety of different song structures on Gagging Order. While “Silent Authority”, “Gagging Order”, “Slave To The Animal”, and the two cover songs fit very well within their high-speed bombing-run style, it is interesting to find one oddball in the form of “Envy The Dead” — a slower track that isn’t one menacing groove for five minutes but instead a couple of surprisingly catchy grinders. Placing it in the middle of Gagging Order was a prime choice because it brings a lot of spotlight to it in between the two rounds of non-stop destruction.
Crossing our fingers that the gap between this one and the next release is a whole lot shorter than the last gap, because Man Must Die are one of those bands that the world needs to exist — even if they don’t know it yet.
19) Hope Drone – Void Lustre
So how does one go from a six-song EP that is about a half-hour long to a five-song album that easily doubles that time? By switching genres and completely different parts of the globe so that we land at the front-door of Australia’s Hope Drone and their end-of-August release Void Lustre.
Void Lustre has been criminally underrated, given that so much of the metal scene over the past few years has embraced the echo-heavy, shoegaze-absorbing, post-variety of genres style of black metal. It just seems like I’d be crossing paths with Hope Drone‘s name more often, especially given that Void Lustre is such a killer album. It combines a lot of what made their previous release Cloak Of Ash so good with a newfound appreciation of sludge and doom, and on top of that somehow managing to sound more miserable than they did back then.
The shortest song on Void Lustre is over seven minutes, and the other four songs range between twelve and seventeen minutes, so this album is absolutely a journey. Hope Drone help songs reach the ten-plus-minute range by working a ton of ambient noise into their sound. When they aren’t playing extended passages of hopeless wailing, there will often be a time where it is maybe one instrument just echoing out into the void while vocalist/guitarist Chris Rowden yells over the top of it. Void Lustre is intentionally made to sound like the band are drowning in their own music, save for the bass guitar — which at times does get brought forth. You can clearly hear almost every instrument, but the sheer wall of sound that Hope Drone are creating here is meant to be oppressive. Much like the last album was meant to feel like it was veiled in smoke, Void Lustre does feel like a group yelling to you from the void.
Hope Drone‘s slightly augmented sound does them wonders on this release, so if you missed it in August, what better time than now to turn around and give it a shot?
18) Cattle Decapitation – Death Atlas
Another one of those releases that hit way in the back part of the year, right about the time the framework of this here article was being loosely established. I thought Andy’s review of Cattle Decapitation‘s latest album Death Atlas gave it a pretty fair shake, and ultimately I find myself coming to some of the same conclusions.
It’s a pretty safe disc by Cattle Decapitation standards, and what once was a sort of “nectar of the gods” gift, in the form of the bizarre passing that is clean singing in Cattle Decap‘s world, is now present in just about every song. I had figured they would probably wander down that path way back when I wrote about The Anthropocene Extinction, so honestly there’s nothing too shocking on Death Atlas if you’ve been following them for some time.
On the other side of the coin though, if you enjoyed what the band have been doing since they really blew up, then Death Atlas will absolutely leave you happy. Even playing it close to the chest, Cattle Decapitation are still fucking incredible from time-to-time, and what they write is still leagues above a lot of what the bending and breaking of the death metal scene is currently doing.
It’s interesting to see that Cattle Decapitation‘s answer to how they would continue forth after two massive albums was to try and make things more cinematic. Death Atlas‘ puffed-up tracklisting is the beneficiary of a handful of narration pieces that all boil down to the same message: “Humanity and the planet are fucked, and humanity caused it”. Now, by the time you hit “Bring Back The Plague” you’ve already figured this out — hell, “The Geocide” basically spells it out piece by piece beforehand — but perhaps Cattle Decap really need to hammer it through some of the thicker skulls out there. This has long been the band’s message and they continue to mine it on Death Atlas.
Cattle Decapitation‘s latest slab of “you’re all fucked and we’re all going to die” still slots in rather nicely with the group’s more recent discography and it still delivers on the unrelenting brutality front — even if now the group have themselves a couple of legitimate sing-along moments to sneak into their set.
17) Swallow The Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light
I reviewed When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light with a timely month-and-a-half delay after its release. Frankly, I found it a difficult album to review. Swallow The Sun‘s latest has an emotional backstory that felt weird to bring up because it deals so much with a person’s private grief over a loss; it felt like tearing open a scab in order to justify press quotes. It is also an album that feels like it has a fraternal twin in the release of Hallatar’s No Stars Upon The Bridge and that disc, I think, fully completes the picture that Swallow The Sun were painting with When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light.
On its own, When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light is a surprisingly pensive album. It’s more withdrawn and quiet than its immediate predecessor in the three-part Songs From The North release, sharing much more in common with that release’s second accoustic section than the slow and drawn-out funeral doom of the third. There’s plenty of slow-moving and cold doom on When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light, but it is rarely as crushingly heavy as the band have been in the past, instead casting vocalist Mikko Kotamäki as a much quieter figure than he has been before.
If it seems like he’s trying to withdraw deeper into his jacket in the music video for Firelights it’s because the music is written that way, and he spends much of the album channeling much of that through himself. It makes it so that songs like “Here On Black Earth” and “Never Left” are absolutely heartbreaking, and a song like “The Crimson Crown” just seems to hit that much harder being placed so early in the record. When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light leads off with its title song and that one becomes the vein from which most of Shadow’s mood is drawn.
You’ll hear constant refrains back to earlier songs throughout the disc as a whole, so the record becomes one solid piece of music, rarely ever taken as a collection of separate songs. It’s the sort of album that haunts the listener when it wraps up, and it has done so with me for most of the year now. Here, the band are at their most heavy emotionally, and least traditionally heavy musically, but it is for sure an experience worth listening to.
16) Fractal Universe – Rhizomes Of Insanity
We’ve reached the “and now for something completely different!” segment of the year-end list as we shift from some of the most emotionally heavy music on here — seriously, without Cattle Decapitation to break it up, Hope Drone and Swallow The Sun would have been side-by-side, which might’ve been the doom equivalent of suffocating — to some of the dorkiest science fiction tech-death that came out this year. Believe me, I love me some dorky sci-fi tech-death.
Fractal Universe‘s latest release Rhizomes Of Insanity is just that. It’s the group’s second album in a very young career and one that has really had its hooks in me since it was released via Metal Blade in the middle of April. Full stop: It’s easy to pick apart what makes Rhizomes Of Insanity work. You can listen to it and easily tell that the Fractal Universe crew are playing in a space very similar to that of Alkaloid. In fact you can almost sense that they really like that band as a whole. Yet, and perhaps it’s because they hail from France, the group also write the sort of angular and off-kilter riff style one might attribute to Gorod, including the constant wall of guitar notes that darts around like a pissed-off wasp hive, which Gorod are known for.
So, the elevator pitch for Rhizomes Of Insanity quickly becomes an extremely reductive “What if Gorod decided to write Alkaloid’s Liquid Anatomy album”. I’ll be honest with you here, it fucking works on me. There are times where I like to act like I’m stronger than this, but damn if Rhizomes Of Insanity didn’t quickly catch my interest and find itself among my most-played albums this year. It panders solely to me at times, and if it somehow had managed to work in a whole shit-ton of really mean deathgrind, I’d be willing to bet it probably would have been up there in the top ten this year.
Rhizomes Of Insanity is one of the bigger albums on this year-end archive and it takes full advantage of every minute granted to it. Fractal Universe work in so many different segments and differing instrumentation across its fifty minutes that you can’t help but be at least mildly impressed. What makes it so good is that it is a journey of an album, with a panoply of sights and sounds to witness along the way. Sometimes diversions might surprise you, and at other times you won’t notice until a fourth or fifth listen.
While this is the sort of album you can easily break up into separate pieces, the sum of all of Rhizomes Of Insanity‘s parts made it so that it was a top 20 pick this year.
15) In Mourning – Garden Of Storms
As time has gone on I think I’ve come around to the idea that out of In Mourning‘s five albums, 2010’s Monolith has become my favorite. This is of course, extremely weird to say considering that I have ranked the two albums following Monolith, The Weight Of Oceans and Afterglow, extremely high on my year-end lists for the years of their release. I think the long and short of it is that I’m a sucker for In Mourning‘s sound, whether they choose to be a post-metal band, a prog-death group, a straightforward melodeath band, a death metal band with goth influences, or, as the group’s latest album Garden Of Storms has shown, a hybrid of all of those.
And that is partially why Garden Of Storms has stuck with me so much since its appearance in the first week of October (and before), because man, it feels good to hear In Mourning getting high-energy again. Given the dynamic of the first three songs on Garden Of Storms, you can see why I’ve described the album as such a large collection of different genre-scapes. Each of the three sounds like a polar opposite of the others.
Opener “Black Storm” feels like a summary of In Mourning‘s career up to this point, with just about everyone in the band (it seems like) contributing to the vocal attack, to add to the epic nature of the song. Follower “”Yields Of Sand” starts out as the most clean-sung and ponderous on the disc, yet by the end it has one of the most death-metal parts on Garden Of Storms, and “Heirophant” is a personal highlight, in part because it sounds like a song that picked the band up and baseball-pitched them all the way back to when they were writing “Amnesia” for Shrouded Divine all those years ago. Hearing the stuttering and sharp-and-pointy riff style in the opening of a song once again felt like a weird sort of homecoming.
This being In Mourning though, none of the songs on Garden Of Storms is shorter than six minutes, so even when you reach an incredibly high-energy section like the opening of “Huntress Moon”, you’ll still have about seven minutes of music to trek through as the band organically grow each song out from its initial grooves.
It’s crazy to think that the purpose of Garden Of Storms was to complete a trilogy of works because, as mentioned above, it sounds like an entire career summary for the group. It’s In Mourning‘s largest and most exploratory work by far, never content to stick with one style, and it has a whole lot more scrappy energy than the other two albums before it — you just wouldn’t know that, given its gorgeous artwork.
14) Eternal Storm – Come The Tide
From Garden of Storms to something a little bit more long-lasting.
I thought Spain’s Eternal Storm were onto something six years ago with the release of their debut EP From The Ashes. They demonstrated over the course of eight songs – two instrumentals, and six other tracks – and a half hour that they had a very good grasp of melodeath in both its modern and past forms and could meld the two together with an expertise that few new bands have been able to master. What I did not expect was how the six years in between From The Ashes and their first full-length album, 2019’s Come The Tide, would change the band.
They returned to us this year with another eight songs but this time it’s double the length and a lot more ambitious than before: seven songs, one instrumental, a little less At The Gates, a whole lot more prog-death and Be’Lakor, and fucking awesome for the entirety of it. Eternal Storm pack a lot into Come The Tide and do so with ease. They’ve jammed every song with all sorts of things to discover while also keeping an eye on the modern metal scene, which has resulted in them calling in numerous guest vocalists across the album as well as working a little of metal’s current love affair with the saxophone into the mix.
Eternal Storm start things off with an ambitious two-part song in “Through The Wall Of Light” and from there put on a master class of progressive death and melodeath hybridization that makes an hour just fly by. There’s only one quiet bit in the fray in “Drifters”, a minute-and-a-half track placed in the back third of Come The Tide to help break up some of the longer songs. That said, Eternal Storm close out their late-August release with a great finale in “Embracing Waves” — which also turns out to be one of the longest on the record.
Come The Tide feels like a bit of a re-launch for Eternal Storm; six years of time between an EP and a debut album will likely do that. Not even “The Great Wings Of Silence” — the one song they put out in 2014 — hinted at just how expansive their sound would become by the time Come The Tide released. I looked forward to this album greatly, and it’s awesome to say that it met and exceeded my own personal hype for it.
13) No One Knows What The Dead Think – No One Knows What The Dead Think
The next two entries are going to be a very specfic brand of heavy metal nerddom, and they further the case that heavy metal had a pretty good time losing its mind this year.
A lot of the reason people were really excited for the release of No One Knows What The Dead Think‘s debut self-titled album is that the lineup is a spiritual successor to the sort of grind-madness created by in the long-since-disbanded Discordance Axis. Musically, it would prove to be the same thing as the shrieking madness of that band. No One Knows What The Dead Think‘s first album doesn’t feature a single song that clears the three-minute mark, and at ten songs barely scrapes up against the twenty-minute range. If you count the instrumentals the band included for “karaoke” purposes, you still have a disc that is only about thirty-six minutes long.
It’s a mood album, and one of strict adrenaline and the sort of mania one experiences when there are way too many thoughts going on in one’s head all at once. If it feels like the band can’t sit still for more than half a second, then you’re giving them too much credit because much of No One Knows What The Dead Think shows that musically the band can’t sit still at all. Each and every movement on the album is one that is bound to hurt someone with the force that comes from the sudden shifting around. The shrill screams at the front of it make it seem as if the whole purpose of this album is to simulate the skidding sound one hears right before slamming into a wall.
The videogame side of me appreciates the bravery in naming a song “Yorha”, and then just as quickly obliterating any impression that song might’ve left with the following track “Autumn Flower”, which then itself gets obliterated by what comes next. It’s an album of hard stops and starts. One song stops, the next song annihilates your memory of it. That I can even remember how apocalyptic “Stars Hide Your Fires” gets is probably a testament to how much of a standout that song might actually be. Either way, the “blink and its over before you kno…oh god everything is on fire isn’t it?” nature of No One Knows What The Dead Think made it an easy recommendation in this year-end archive, especially given just how often I’ve showed it to people under the auspices of “check out this crazy shit” since its release in September.
12) Waste Of Space Orchestra – Syntheosis
You know how I mentioned metal was getting weird with the last one? Well, huh. Let’s, uh, try to even half-explain what is going on within the boundaries of Waste Of Space Orchestra‘s release, Syntheosis. I think I might get a quarter of the way there if I myself could get things figured out — and I’ve had the time since the album’s April release to do so.
Waste Of Space Orchestra are a collaboration between musicians from Oranssi Pazuzu and Dark Buddha Rising and it is easily one of the wilder releases that came out this year. Spacey and psychedelic, Syntheosis is about as ‘arthouse’ as a heavy metal album may become, with album art that barely even hints at how abrasive and avante-garde an experience this one is. Its extended intro “Void Monolith” already sounds like the band attempting to fold their instruments back over themselves, and then they layer a whole bunch of horror-movie theramin on top of it in order to set the mood. Even then you can only half-guess where the album will head from there.
Waste Of Space Orchestra spend much of Syntheosis taking the album through some real hard swings, with its first few songs rapidly building into massive and overwhelming explosions of sound, and then along about song four things start to take diversions into the weird, like you’ve stumbled into a nightclub where the band is playing.
Part of me wants to recommend “Journey To The Center Of Mass” on its own, simply because the slow start to that song and the way it transforms kept me transfixed throughout the entirety of its ten minutes. It joins a vaunted few on Syntheosis that leap well past the eight-minute range. While most stay within four-to-seven minutes, the songs on Syntheosis are clearly part of a greater whole, so even though there could easily be a few standout singles — as loosely as that definition can be used – this is one of those albums that is an easy front-to-back experience.
There’s a pretty damned good reason why a lot of people have been covering this one this year, and it’s because Syntheosis is such a fascinating experience.. While I’m not sure I 100% enjoy everything that is happening at a base level, I know that I am constantly drawn to this bizarre piece of work and all its avante-garde aesthetic.
11) Misery Index – Rituals Of Power
It’s fun that the last edition of this list was bookended with black metal entries, and this one seems to have become bookended by deathgrind groups that are pissed off about the state of the world. Misery Index and Man Must Die are groups that I feel should always be around, and so the periods of silence from them between releases tend to be frustrating, because it isn’t just the lack of music that grates, it’s the lack of voice. It also makes it so that each release from them tends to hit harder than a standard album release.
A little under five years after the release of The Killing Gods, Misery Index returned to us with Rituals Of Power — no ambition to make a five-part song and then add an album to it this time, just nine very, very angry songs all built around the band’s two-pronged vocal assault and grind-fueled death metal behind it all. While I don’t think Misery Index topped Heirs To Theivery as my personal favorite, I still really enjoyed the half hour or so that the band kicked out anyway.
They embraced a melodic side that they were somewhat playing with on The Killing Gods, and the punk and grind-fueled side really bled back into their formula, resulting in the last two songs of the disc, “I Disavow” and “Naysayer”. On the front half of the disc you have the relentless “Decline and Fall”, and there’s a surprising number of songs with choruses meant for the crowd to shout along with them. I could easily see “New Salem”, “The Choir Invisible”, and the titular “Rituals Of Power” all inducing people to scream along to them — though part of that probably comes from both Jason and Mark tag-teaming them on the album itself.
Rituals Of Power is as lean as Misery Index get musically, with every movement written to keep the song moving from blast to blast. Drummer Adam Jarvis gets plenty of workouts here, as the shift away from The Killing Gods means there’s no minute-long, somewhat peaceful. interlude with which to take a breath, just a couple of hefty caveman chugs so that we’re not all dying under a snare-assault.
Misery Index are constant NCS faves — a reputation I’ve been more than happy to contribute to — so Rituals Of Power was an album that was watched very closely around here up until its March release, after which it became one of the more common “go-to” albums for me this year. I just hope this means we’ll be hearing more from the crew sooner than later because. world knows, there’s plenty of shit for them to mine and yell at us about these days and we need that now.