(NCS contributor Todd Manning shares a diverse year-end list of top metal albums (15 of them), and a list of recommended not-metal too.)
This is my fourth year reviewing for No Clean Singing, and I found 2019 to be a bit of a mixed bag. Not that there wasn’t good Metal releases this year, but nothing that would’ve beaten out my top two from last year, Imperial Triumphant and Horrendous. Still though, lots of good albums and even a few great ones graced my ears.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for me in coming up with this list was trying to rate albums that were vastly different in character from one another. Over here you have paint-peeling Grindcore, over there some pastoral Black Metal, maybe a little bit of vile and filthy Sludge for good measure. I really enjoyed the variety, but it’s definitely a case of comparing apples to oranges. Even though my 2018 list certainly possessed some variety in material, it still, to me at least, possessed a bit more thematic consistency. Nevertheless, here goes trying to sort out my best of 2019.
- White Ward-Love Exchange Failure
Love Exchange Failure is a complete work of art. Ambitious and perfectly executed. These Ukrainians marry Black Metal with midnight-soaked Jazz along and a number of other stylistic influences. The heavy parts are vicious and the atmospheric sections evoke an awesome dark ambience. Even the cover art captures the essence of the music contained within. Imagine your favorite private detective from a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel, but given the visceral impact of Black Metal in order to express their inner turmoil. What began as a stylistic flourish becomes a harrowing emotional journey.
- Cleric-The Book of Beri’ah, Vol. 2-Chokhma
2017’s Retrocausal is one of Metal’s most challenging and impenetrable albums ever. The music was manic and constantly changing, often with the band members playing in multiple time signatures simultaneously. This newest release is also utterly insane, but one could argue a hair more accessible. As part of the culmination of John Zorn’s massive Masada Songbook project, the material Cleric uses as a jumping-off point provides small melodic anchors the listener can use to help stay afloat in the storm. There’s also a bit more of a pronounced Mr. Bungle and Secret Chiefs 3 influence as well, adding a greater dynamic range to the pieces. If Zorn, Bungle, and Secret Chiefs make your band more accessible, well that’s saying something.
- Blood Incantation-Hidden History of the Human Race
My inner curmudgeon didn’t want to like this just because everyone else did so much. Yet, this album deserves all the accolades it’s received. Blood Incantation may be deeply steeped in the Old School, yet they’ve forged their own brand of Death Metal, and they execute with pure mastery. These guys do for Ancient Alien Astronaut theory what Nile did for Egyptology.
- Lord Mantis-Universal Death Church
Filth, glorious filth. Lord Mantis has crawled back from the fetid sewers in which they dwell to infect the Metal world once again. Equal parts Sludge and Black Metal, with Noise, Industrial, and Experimental moments all creeping in around the edges. Their sound is intensely harrowing and there is not enough cleaning to become pure after listening to this opus.
- Nocturnus A.D.-Paradox
Another important nod to Old School Death Metal. These guys were there early on, but never really sounded like anyone else. Back in the day, their generous use of keyboards amounted to heresy, nowadays it’s not such a big deal. But they definitely still evoke a unique, Sci-Fi horror atmosphere all their own.
- Jute Gyte-Birefringence
Absolutely impenetrable and alienating. Like Mayhem being reinterpreted by an alien A.I. and played back on cassette being eaten by the tape player.
- Waste of Space Orchestra -Syntheosis
A collaborative release between the mighty Dark Buddha Rising and the even mightier Oranssi Pazuzu. An epic audio journey, like a transdimensional shamanic ritual, and certainly worthy of the soundtrack if they ever remake Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. This is mindbending in the best possible way.
- Immortal Bird-Thrive on Neglect
Grindcore seems at the beginning of either a revival, if not a full-blown new phase of development. Along with Cloud Rat and No One Knows What the Dead Think, Immortal Bird demonstrate the musical possibilities present in what many consider a limited genre, and they do so without abandoning the ferocity that is Grind’s primary calling card.
- Obsequiae– The Palms of Sorrowed Kings
This is one of those albums I referred to earlier when I talked about comparing apples to oranges. No one sounds like Obsequiae, and it’s hard to compare them to other bands because, as a listener, I am throwing on The Palms of Sorrowed Kings to experience something unique, something other acts don’t really provide. Mystical and baroque, reflecting on a time or place that probably never existed, yet still very Metal.
- Diocletian– Amongst the Flames of a Burning God
Apples and oranges, right? Diocletian is the polar opposite of Obsequiae, a pure firestorm of War Metal. I always like to keep something in this vein in my rotation, something that leaves only scorched earth in its wake. Diocletian do this particular brand of Metal better than most.
A hellish, in-the-red sort of listening experience. Punir is an unholy marriage of Swedish Death Metal and Sludge, and like many of my favorites, willing to paint outside the lines. When I reviewed this elsewhere, I called it “ugly and traumatizing” and I still can’t think of a better way of summing this up.
- Pinkish Black– Concept Unification
Another wild bit of Experimental Metal, Pinkish Black are a blend of modern Ulver with Doom Metal and lots of John Carpenter-esque synth work. Maybe we used to call stuff like this “futuristic”, but there is no future anymore so this might just be the sound of now.
- Altarage– The Approaching Roar
Suffocating and subterranean Death Metal. When they aren’t paying homage to Portal, they are hinting at early Godflesh, which is never, ever a bad thing. This feels like drowning in burning sulfur.
- Ossuarium– Living Tomb
A late addition to my listening rotation but an awesome album. Old School Death Metal with crushing Doom and intense melodies as well. Kind of like early Swedish Death Metal coupled with the dream state transcendence of Disembowelment.
- blackQueen– The Destructive Cycle
Is this what I was talking about earlier saying Grindcore is expanding its palette? This is like a Grind band learning moves from Deathspell Omega, but also just pulling in influences from all over the Metal spectrum. A fascinating listen.
The Obligatory runners up:
Monte Luna– Drowners Wives
Tusk– Eternal Ice
Darkthrone– Old Star
Veilburner– A Sire to the Ghouls of Lunacy
…and probably a lot more I’m forgetting.
For the adventurous (a.k.a. Not Metal):
- Monotrope– Immutable Future
Experimental and Instrumental Indie Rock that seethes with drama and tension. Masters of their respective instruments, these guys often sound like they are about to burst into a crushing Metal riff, but instead they just let the drama keep building.
- Moor Mother– Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes
Noise Sculptor. Spoken Word Artist. Beat Goddess. Warrior spitting in the face of Empire. Moor Mother is as intense as she is prolific. An extremely dark record for extremely dark times.
- Fly Pan Am– C’est ça
A merging of late night Techno ambience with the Motorik rhythms of Krautrock, and then the occasional Black Metal shrieking vocals. A weird one indeed, but also the perfect pairing with White Ward’s Love Exchange Failure.
- Sean Noonan Pavees Dance– Tan Man’s Hat
A unique mix of Prog Rock and Avant Garde Jazz. This hallucinatory journey is fronted by original Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney and features Ornette Coleman alumni as well. Utterly different.
- Zonal– Wrecked
There’s a strain of Techno that carries all the weight and gravity of Metal sans the guitars and this is a prime example. And consider it no coincidence that one half of Zonal is Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick. Also, look for an appearance from the aforementioned Moor Mother.
Nerd statistics: I listened to 181 albums released in 2019 at least once all the way through. This doesn’t include anything that was just a song here or there. Last year, I listened to 153 albums, so to make up for the increased volume in 2019, I bumped the list from a Top Ten to a Top Fifteen.
So there it is, another year in the books. In looking back, this is definitely a contender for my weirdest list, but I feel like that’s kind of my specialty. Old School Death Metal will always be a passion for me as well, but I’ve heard so much that sometimes it’s hard to impress these jaded ears. Doom, Thrash, and Traditional Metal are all dope too, but give me that unconventional shit and I’m all over it. Thanks for reading if you made it this far, and best of luck surviving 2020.