(This year we were joined by a Seattle-based writer who goes by the nickname Gonzo. He has contributed both lively concert reviews and equally lively album reviews, and today he brings us Part 1 of a year-end list that sings the praises of 20 albums — 10 of them today and 10 more tomorrow.)
Well, here we are — another year of music in the books, and another unnecessarily long stretch of time spent agonizing over which albums I felt worthy of compiling into another year-end list.
I won’t lie — 2019 made things crazily difficult. There were some truly bat-shit releases that laughed in the face of genre typecasting and raised the bar. Conversely, there were some albums that stuck to a particular mold and ended up kicking unholy amounts of ass while doing it. Truth be told, I haven’t had this much fun discovering new music in the better part of a decade
With that, I’ll stop blabbing. Here’s my list. Hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.
20. Swallow the Sun, “When a Shadow is Forced into the Light”
Released all the way back in January, it feels like an age has passed since the gloomiest band from Finland unveiled their follow-up to 2015’s monumental triple album Songs from the North I, II & III. Even still, great music is timeless. A tsunami of outstanding releases would follow When a Shadow is Forced into the Light during the course of the year, but few bands can craft epic doom on the scale that Swallow the Sun does.
Now that it’s mid-December and dark as hell in the Northwest for 872 hours out of the day, I recently spun up When a Shadow is Forced into the Light again. I was not only reminded that STS is the ideal soundtrack to long periods of waning daylight, but also that this band’s music makes me feel like I’m standing in the middle of a freezing lake in Finland in the dead of winter. And I mean that as the sincerest possible form of praise.
Standout tracks: “Firelights,” “Upon the Water,” “Clouds on Your Side”
19. Vukari, “Aevum”
Chicago’s Vukari flew under the radar this year with just how brilliant Aevum was. Almost suffocating in its density at times and brilliantly melodic at others, this album leaves no metal stone unturned – it’s like if Hope Drone pulled off a bricks-shittingly-heavy side project with Wolves in the Throne Room and Blut Aus Nord.
The thing I love most about Aevum is how each track feels like a journey into a terrifying alternate reality. There’s so much to get out of all 8 of them – one minute, you’re holding on for dear life (see the first half of the appropriately named “Abrasive Hallucinations”) and then you feel like you’re plummeting down a wormhole into a distant galaxy humans weren’t meant to be in (“Agnosia”). The underlying theme here is all about death, departure, and transition, and the band does a bang-up job of keeping the music matched with that narrative.
But the real crown jewels of Aevum start hitting with the Inter Arma-esque intro of “Voidwalker” as well as the absolutely spectacular “The True King is Death.” The latter is one of the most grandiose and commanding songs on any record I’ve heard all year, And that’s not even including the behemoth 11-minute closer “Vacating Existence (The Final Departure).” Goddamn.
Also, extra props to “Aevum” for the incredible album art.
Standout tracks: “Agnosia,” “Voidwalker,” “The True King is Death”
18. Smoulder, “Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring”
Admittedly, I have a thing for music that makes me feel like I’m charging down a battlefield on horseback. Think Sabaton, Hammerfall, that sort of shit. It’s an occasional guilty pleasure that I have to be in the right mood to enjoy, but, hell – you like what you like.
Enter the debut album Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring by Smoulder, a Toronto-based doom/power metal unit that seemingly revels in the sort of battlefield-charging soundscapes described above. The cover art says it all – a woman riding a horse wielding a sword while presiding majestically over an opponent about to get his fucking head chopped off. Listening to leadoff track “Ilian of Garathorm” is enough to picture vocalist Sarah Ann riding on that very horse, as her soaring performance is among the best you’ll hear on any record this year.
At only six tracks, Times of Obscene Evil… is a bit short, but the record is a shining example of quality over quantity. Each track manages to wedge its way into musical and lyrical territory that would be hard to take seriously if written by other bands doing their best Hammerfall impression. Smoulder scoff at this and craft a brilliant debut that hopefully will set the tone for a truly kickass run ahead of them.
Standout tracks: “Ilian of Garathorm,” “The Sword Woman,” “Black Gods Kiss”
17. Eternal Storm, “Come the Tide”
If you love melodeath, 2019 was a banner year. The debut full-length from Spain’s Eternal Storm is a masterful example of that.
The eight tracks on Come the Tide effortlessly unfold like one cohesive experience, rather than a series of individual songs. Two-part leadoff track “Through the Wall of Light” alternates between blast-heavy blitzkriegs of double-bass ferocity and lighter passages with clean vocals and saxophone. That theme repeats throughout – just as they start to overwhelm you with brutality, Eternal Storm mercifully weave in moments of tranquility.
Songwriting this adept on a debut full-length is a rarity. Hell, the first four tracks on “Come the Tide” could stand on their own as an incredible album. It’s at that point, however, when Eternal Storm says “hold my beer.”
Track 5, “Of Winter is Treason,” is 10-and-a-half minutes of absolutely bonkers songwriting. Think of some of Insomnium’s greatest moments mixed in with the progressive chops of Be’lakor while on a rollercoaster ride through the gates of Valhalla and you’re scratching the surface. Flowing right into the interlude “Drifters,” the album closes out on a breathtaking bang with “The Scarlet Lake” and “Embracing Waves.”
Few of Eternal Storm’s peers have hit a high like this with their debut album. I can’t wait to jump on the next ride they take us on.
Standout tracks: “Of Winter & Treason,” “The Scarlet Lake,” “The Mountain”
16. Devin Townsend, “Empath”
I’m probably not going to tell anyone anything they don’t know about this album – those who love it and the exquisite batshittery Mr. Townsend excels at have been singing the praises of Empath since its spring release; those who aren’t into it are probably tired of hearing about it by now.
Half the fun of Empath is putting it on just to see someone’s reaction to it. Ideally, that someone would be somebody who’s never heard of Townsend before, and has no idea what they’re getting themselves into. Just be sure to watch their facial expression change during the transition from “Why?” to “Hear Me.” Good times.
If nothing else, though, Empath bends the known rules of musical genres and runs it through the Heavy Devy filter to create something really goddamn unique. You want it heavy and loud as fuck? You got it. You want some weird, folk-flavored moody shit? Yup. Polka? Fuck it, why not. Showtunes? Y….yes?
It’s a wild, schizophrenic ride that nobody else but Devin Townsend could pull off. After about halfway through it on my first listen, I started to legitimately wonder if this is what a psychotic break sounds like in the form of a 74-minute exercise in performance art. Whatever it is, it goes through genres like I go through underwear. You might even need to change yours after hearing it.
Standout tracks: “Genesis, “Borderlands,” “Singularity”
15. Downfall of Gaia, “Ethic of Radical Finitude”
Ambitiously, it seems like a lot of metal bands these days have adopted a “quality over quantity” approach when it comes to album lengths: Inter Arma, Yob, and Bell Witch have all put out fantastic releases in recent years, all featuring 5 or 6 songs, some of them clocking in at over 10 minutes each.
This isn’t Downfall of Gaia’s first foray into epic song-length, but it might be their best. Ethic of Radical Finitude is one of the year’s strongest entries in the “bleak but beautiful” department, joining the likes of Swallow the Sun and Wormwood. (More on them in a second.) On Ethic, Downfall of Gaia expertly navigate through blast beats, mid-paced doom, acoustic passages, and bruising instrumentals under a continuous theme of sadness and loss. The tortured howls of Anton Lisovoj and Dominik Goncalves dos Reis are used sparingly but effectively throughout, with more attention focused on the songwriting.
It’s to the credit of the band, then, that you find yourself getting lost in the world this album takes you to. When does “The Grotesque Illusion of Being” end and following track “We Pursue the Serpent of Time” begin? If you weren’t paying attention, you’d probably never notice. It’s not often that music this bleak and heavy manages to be so engrossing and beautiful, but these German doomsayers hit that middle ground with just as much grace as they do with fury.
Standout tracks: “The Grotesque Illusion of Being,” “Guided Through a Starless Night,” “Of Withering Violet Leaves”
14. Wormwood, “Nattervet”
According to the Metal Archives, there are five different bands with the moniker Wormwood, four of which hail from the US, and one from Sweden. The one we’re talking about here is the latter.
All told, Nattarvet is a black metal album, but a uniquely melodic one. There’s some elements of things I’ve heard from bands like Vreid and Moonsorrow woven in throughout, with some old-school tremolo guitar work heaped in generously. Wormwood don’t rush anything with Nattarvet – they take their time with song intros, and add in plenty of melodic interludes that don’t feel the least bit forced. I’ll point to the spacey Pink Floyd-esque break at the 4:45 mark in “The Isolationist” as the penultimate example of that, which underscores how fucking amazing this album truly is.
Meanwhile, the plodding mid-paced chugger “The Achromatic Road” is cut from the same evil cloth Darkthrone used generously to craft this year’s Old Star, and that formula works just as well for Wormwood. “Arctic Light” is just as ferocious as it gets, and don’t miss the violin at the end of “Sunnas hadanfard.”
Standout tracks: “Arctic Light,” “The Achromatic Road,” “The Isolationist”
13. Sinmara, “Hvisl Stjarnanna”
Iceland’s Sinmara have been decimating the Reykjavik underground scene with their violent, discordant blackened death metal since 2013. Their first full-length, 2014’s Aphotic Womb, was raw, dark, and a great reflection of the band’s live show intensity.
Hvisl Stjarnanna (“Whispering Stars”) is a next step from Aphotic Womb in almost every conceivable way – the songwriting is insane, the mix balances every instrument and vocalization perfectly, and everything just feels more focused on utter destruction. Vocalist Ólafur Guðjónsson sounds like he’s crawling from the depths of an erupting volcano, while drummer Bjarni Einarsson pounds the kit like a Viking war god. In its entirety, Sinmara has released the soundtrack to an ice giant emerging from beneath a glacier to do battle with Thor in a lightning storm.
Now that I’ve exhausted every Icelandic metaphor (metal-phor?) imaginable, I’ll say that Hvisl Stjarnanna is one of the best slabs of Scandinavian metal that’s been released in the past few years. Given that region’s propensity for tirelessly crowding the genre with quality, that’s no small accomplishment. This album deserves a listen from every fan of the genre.
Standout tracks: “Apparitions,” “Mephitic Haze,” “Hvisl Stjarnanna”
12. Wilderun, “Veil of Imagination”
I’m legitimately shocked that Wilderun is an American band. No disrespect to the creativity of our fellow Yanks, but the brand of epic, symphonic metal this Boston-based quintet specializes in has more in common with Opeth, Ne Obliviscaris, or Wintersun than it does with many bands from anywhere in North America.
I’m not even sure where to start with this one. Equal parts brutal and majestic, Veil of Imagination is another 2019 release that throws genres out the window and replaces them with a larger, all-encompassing cinematic feel. (Is it just me or was this the year of the low-key concept album?) Starting off with a spoken-word intro on the 15-minute “The Unimaginable Zero Summer,” Wilderun morph from subtle beginnings into all-out devastation, and then quietly return back to ithe tranquil origins.
By the time “O Resolution!” starts, you’re flat on your ass after only one track. The formula repeats itself from here on out – soaring vocals give way to death growls about halfway through “O Resolution,” with a sizeable portion of keyboards and orchestrations thrown in. Worth noting: this album simply wouldn’t be what it is without the imaginative use of Wayne Ingram’s orchestral arrangements throughout. They’re never forced or added in where they don’t belong.
“Far From Where Dreams Unfurl” is the song that had me absolutely floored, though. The bold, triumphant opening lead has the grandiose feel of Turisas at their best, while the chorus is one you’ll get stuck in your head and be content to leave there.
Standout tracks: “Far From Where Dreams Unfurl,” “The Tyranny of Imagination, “When the Fire and the Rose Were One”
11. Amon Amarth, “Berzerker”
I hold some bands to a higher standard than others simply because their consistent output over the years leaves me no other choice. Amon Amarth are way the hell up on that list, as I’ve been a raving fan of the Swedes for the better part of the past 15 years.
Picking up where 2016’s Jomsviking left off, Berzerker is 56 minutes of Amon Amarth firing on all cylinders from start to finish. It’s their strongest album since 2006’s essential With Oden on Our Side. Firmly rooted in Norse mythology, vocalist Johan Hegg’s lyrics are on-point with Berzerker’s overarching concept of the eponymous warrior. Tales of war, vengeful gods, murder, and battle are what you’ll be treated to here, and if you expected anything else from Amon Amarth at this point, I can’t help you.
There are too many high points on Berzerker to adequately count, but the warlike stomp of “Crack the Sky,” the absolutely monstrous riff of “Mjölner, Hammer of Thor,” and the impossible-not-to-sing-along-with-your-fist-in-the-air chorus of “Shield Wall” are everything I fucking love about metal. Worth mentioning, the band’s live set at this year’s Copenhell was one for the ages.
Standout tracks: “Mjölner, Hammer of Thor,” “Raven’s Flight,” “Crack the Sky”