(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 2 of a year-end list that sings the praises of 20 albums — the top 10 of them today, and you can read about the first 10 here.)
The top 10 was a tough one this year, but whittling it down to the final product turned out to be a helluva fun time. The theme of the year seemed to be “pushing boundaries,” and I think my #1 choice did that better than any other crazy genre-defying piece of music I heard all year.
While I go smoke the rest of this joint, go read the rest of my list.
- Opeth, “In Cauda Venenum”
It seems like the more Opeth reinvent themselves, the stronger they become. They’re like a Swedish hydra of musical efficiency.
In Cauda Venenum is their most accomplished work in their post-growl incarnation. Mikael Åkerfeldt’s refined croon has never sounded better, and the songs are no longer caught in the purgatory of a band that’s shifting into a new identity. I remember being less than impressed with Heritage, their first dive into their new sound. Though I wasn’t ready to write them off at the time, I had hoped they’d let loose a little more on releases to come.
Fast forward to 2019, and I suppose it’s fair to say that In Cauda Venenum is the next step beyond Sorceress in Opeth’s progression away from the vaunted folky death metal of yesteryear. But, this album is more than that. In a way, the songs somehow feel more like the softer moments from Still Life and My Arms, Your Hearse injected with a shot of proggy psychedelia. There’s even a riff midway through “Charlatan” that borrows from The Grand Conjuration, sans growls. Gotta say, I didn’t expect to hear anything like that on In Cauda Venenum, but Opeth are nothing if not unpredictable.
Standout tracks: “Dignity,” “Heart in Hand,” “Continuum”
- Dissentient, “Portal III”
Somehow, this album barely registered as a blip on the radar of most end-of-year lists. Of course, it could be that I’m a huge fan of Fear Factory and this record scratches that same itch of punctuated destruction you’ll hear on Soul of a New Machine and Demanufacture, so maybe I’m the weird one here.
Dissentient hail from Ottawa, where they’ve been unearthing the Canadian metal underworld since 2005. While the Fear Factory comparisons are probably going to be the first thing you’ll hear when you first take Portal III for a spin, there’s a lot of progressive elements here that help Dissentient stand on their own.
From start to finish, Portal III fucking shreds. It wedges itself firmly between the surgical-strike fury of ’90s industrial metal and the onslaught of modern tech death. Think FF meets Beyond Creation and a dash of Meshuggah. Guitars and drums are constantly in lock-step staccato throughout the record; most notably on “Serpent of the Void” and “Blood Digital”, with vocalist/guitarist/synth man Phil Campbell putting on a clinic of technical chops. Somehow, this band is only a trio, and when you hear everything going on during Portal III, it almost doesn’t seem possible.
Standout tracks: “Pthumerian,” “Blood Digital,” “Ghost and Martyr”
- Cable, “Take the Stairs to Hell”
I’m about to get all nostalgic again, so bear with me.
Early Corrosion of Conformity albums are still some of my favorite of all-time, namely Blind and Deliverance. There was a certain rawness about them that I found had several imitators, but few equals.
Enter Take the Stairs to Hell, a record by a band that I knew absolutely nothing about before its release date this summer. One listen to the single “It Cost Me Everything” was all it took to pique my interest, though. Where did this glorious, swampy, sludgy, slightly bluesy post-hardcore slab of heavy-ass grooves come from? It was like hearing my favorite parts of Deliverance all over again, except with the thunderous riffs of Woody Weatherman’s axe alongside the fuck-you snarl of Pepper Keenan distilled through some bongwater and midlife angst.
Turns out, Cable doesn’t get out much, as Peter Farris recently told Decibel magazine. Their last album came out in 2009, and they don’t play live very often. Sometimes, though, a good record is all you need to make an impact on a listener, and Take the Stairs to Hell is a damn great one.
Standout tracks: “It Cost Me Everything,” “Black Medicine,” “Low Man”
- Klone, “Le Grand Voyage”
It seems everyone has their “pseudo-metal” selection on their list this year, and though I probably have several that don’t belong on this list (sorry, Tool), I’m making an exception for Le Grand Voyage. It’s too goddamn good to leave out.
Filled with soaring hooks and emotive choruses, Le Grand Voyage has more in common with Anathema or even Alice in Chains than it does anything metal. It’s simply transcendent music that ignores categories of any kind and works its magic on your ears, one song at a time. Opening track “Yonder” was released as a single well in advance of the album, and I found myself going back to it so many times that I had to stop listening to it so I could still enjoy it when the album came out. It’s a song that evokes so many visuals and emotions, but the lyrics tell me heartache, loss, and acceptance are what’s being conveyed.
Even with the drab themes, this record radiates hope. “Breach” is another great example, with lyrics that give a quiet middle finger to shallow, judgmental assholes. They say the mark of true tact is being able to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they’d enjoy the trip. Bravo to Klone for reaching that definition in musical form.
Standout tracks: “Yonder,” “Breach,” “Hidden Passenger”
- Refused, “War Music”
During times of social or political upheaval, a band with the right kind of eyes can catch lightning in a bottle. That’s what Refused pulled off this year with War Music.
Perhaps the most appropriately named record of the year, as I wrote about on NCS upon its release, War Music is timely, ferocious, and uncompromising. It’s the soundtrack to protest, and moves the needle beyond simply fanning the flames of discontent: It’s actually got something to say.
Known for his onstage diatribes and fiercely progressive political stance, frontman Dennis Lyxzen’s voice is a bullhorn to everyone who’s as pissed off as he is. “Level it all!” he shouts on “A Violent Reaction,” an urgent message about the importance of holding truth to power. When Refused hit their stride in moments like this, it’s all you can do not to charge through a brick wall and onto the Senate floor like the fucking Kool-aide Man. It’s the punk/metal equivalent to getting a pregame pep talk by a coked-up Lawrence Taylor.
Whereas some punk records shout for social change and positive recourse, Refused sounds just as content to burn it all down and throw a party afterwards. I point to the song “I Wanna Watch the World Burn” for the first example of that. And you know something? The world is burning, and Lyxzen might be onto something.
Standout tracks: “I Wanna Watch the World Burn,” “Blood Red,” “Malfire”
- Disillusion, “The Liberation”
I’d say something like “it’s not often that a band can reform after a 13-year hiatus and produce a comeback album that might be their best,” but seeing that more and more acts are following that formula lately, I’ll just add The Liberation to that list.
Disillusion have come back with a vengeance. The Liberation spares no details, miring in progressive territory and occasionally exploding into venomous, bottom-heavy death metal blasts. It feels like a more restrained Devin Townsend record at times, with that same sort of disregard for genres or labels. They just seem happy to do what they do, and excel at it in every way.
The Liberation is a record I found myself coming back to again and again during the year, and every time I fire it up, I get something new out of it.
Standout tracks: “Wintertide,” “The Great Unknown,” “Time to Let Go”
- Idle Hands, ”Mana”
My god, this album is fun. I’d be just as happy cranking this one up on an open road with the top down as I would be listening to it inside while it’s pouring down rain. I’m happy to say I experienced both this year.
Mana sounds like a band that doesn’t take themselves too seriously, but doesn’t let self-deprecation get in the way of writing some damn good hooks. The Portland-based outfit revives some of Sisters of Mercy’s best work at times; in others, they flirt with moments that Paradise Lost found less success with during their Host and Symbol of Life days. Tunes like “Cosmic Overdrive” and “Nightfall” are almost infuriatingly catchy, and the spectacular “Give Me to the Night” has been my pre-game anthem for bad decisions since the moment I heard it.
They don’t make music like this very much anymore, so when it’s done this well, it becomes all the more memorable. Idle Hands are going to have one hell of a fun ride.
Standout tracks: “Cosmic Overdrive,” “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?,” “Give Me to the Night”
- Insomnium, “Heart Like a Grave”
Considering that I’m still recovering from how incredible 2014’s Shadows of the Dying Sun was, more Insomnium music was something of a luxurious addition to 2019. (Winter’s Gate just didn’t nail it for me like its predecessor, for some reason I still can’t figure out.)
I’m happy to report, though, that the Finns have once again knocked it out of the park and into a frozen lake 200 miles away with Heart Like a Grave. This record practically drips with brooding intensity – so much so, that it took me several listens to really take it all in. It bears a lot of resemblance to Shadows in the way it’s structured, with dark, melodious riffs piled on top of Niilo Sevanen’s gravely roar. Guitarist Markus Valhana continues to prove why he’s one of the best at his craft, as his leads seem to pierce the cold of the winter sky like a hot knife through frigid butter.
Where Heart really hits the hardest, though, is with the lyrics. “Pale Morning Star” will do everything in its power to rip your heart out every time you hear it, with its searing emotional crescendo cresting while Sevanen howls:
“For you left before me
My pale morning star
Now you walk in undying light
And I’m still chained in this rimed soil”
Oof, yeah, I need a minute.
Heart Like a Grave is brutal, both emotionally and musically, but Insomnium’s visceral brand of melody and melancholy is truly something special. They’ve captured that essence almost flawlessly with this album.
Standout tracks: “And Bells They Toll,” “Pale Morning Star,” “The Offering”
- Borknagar, “True North”
Looking back over my list, it seems like Scandinavia had another banner year for metal. True North might be the crown jewel of them all.
After 22 years, Borknagar have created their finest work as a band with True North. ICS Vortex’s vocals have never sounded better, as his range from operatic clean signing to black metal shrieks are one of the many highlights here. Borknagar have always reminded me of Enslaved in their forward-thinking black metal ways, but the best songs in their back catalog never seemed to stick as much as their fellow countrymen’s.
That’s decidedly not the case with True North. It’s all over the place stylistically at times, but its creativity never becomes too idealistic. Dare I say, this is Borknagar’s most accessible work in their discography? Maybe so, but that’s not to say they sell themselves short – there’s still plenty of heaviness spattered across its nine tracks, with folky influences also interlaced where they need to be.
True North is as complete an album as you’re likely to hear this year. This is music that stays planted in its foundations, but its level of creativity and craftsmanship is the kind of epic shit that moves the needle and raises the bar.
Standout tracks: “True North,” “Thunderous,” “Mount Rapture”
- Dö, “Astral Death Cult”
Album art doesn’t always accurately reflect what the music sounds like once you listen to it. But I can’t think of a better pairing of album art to music than the absolute nuclear fucking bomb that Finland’s Dö dropped on the world with Astral Death Cult.
The cover arts tells the story here perfectly: A vast desert landscape with a demonic presence ripping itself into the frame through an interdimensional portal in the foreground. Dö is stoner metal with a nasty, sludgy edge. Imagine Dopesmoker-era Sleep if Matt Pike decided to drink a fuckton of ayahuasca instead of taking a bong rip. It’s stoner metal, but a monstrously unpredictable and sinister version of it.
I kind of freaked out a little when I first heard the whisper-growl of vocalist Deaf Hank that complements the uneasy bass fuzz of the amazing track “Atmosfear.” The real beauty of it, and the rest of the material on Astral Death Cult, is that there’s absolutely nothing fancy or complicated about any of it – it’s just three guys playing their own breed of acid-soaked doom that’s heavy enough to shake the dust out of a parallel universe.
If there was one record that caught me completely off-guard this year, Astral Death Cult would easily be it. Pushing boundaries of doom far beyond this reality and into the next, Dö have created an unexpected masterpiece in a year where so many bands unleashed their strongest albums in years – and in some cases, decades. If you’re a regular around these pages of NCS, take Astral Death Cult for a spin. It’s truly an experience worth hearing.
Standout tracks: All six of them.