(Andy Synn is celebrating his decade of writing for NCS with a collection of 10 reviews, one for each year….)
You know what I discovered this weekend?
I’ve now been writing for NCS for ten years.
I know. Mind = blown.
Over the last decade I’ve had several different jobs, moved house multiple times, and seen various relationships – both good and bad – come and go. But NCS has consistently been one of the few constants in my life which has helped keep me going through thick and thin.
So I want to say thank you. Thank you to all the bands for all the great music over the years. Thank you to all the readers and commenters (the good ones anyway) for all the kind words, “witty” banter, and support. Thank you to the rest of the core NCS crew, for always having my back (even if/when they disagree with what I’ve written, which inevitably makes them wrong and me right).
And thank you most of all to Islander for allowing me to become a part of the site. Hopefully one day you’ll finally understand just how much you’ve helped change my life.
Anyway, in honour of this momentous occasion I’ve picked out ten albums – one from each year I’ve been writing here, including this year – which I overlooked when they first came out.
2011 – CULT OF ERINYES – A PLACE TO CALL MY UNKNOWN
Way back in the olden times of… 2011… Belgian Black Metal collective Cult of Erinyes released their debut album, A Place to Call My Unknown.
But although the band have gone on to become something of a cult (or should that be “kvlt”?) favourite in certain circles (their most recent album, 2019’s Æstivation, was especially stunning), at the time A Place… didn’t get anywhere near as much coverage as it deserved (heck, we didn’t start covering the band regularly here at NCS until the release of their next album).
Which is a pretty big mistake, in hindsight, since, from start to finish, A Place to Call My Unknown represents many of the very best elements of Black Metal in one vicious, visceral package (think Equilibrium-era Emperor meets latter-day Enthroned, with a touch of Shining’s malevolent melodic groove and you’ll be in the right sort of ballpark).
Opener “Call No Truce”, for example, is seven-minutes-and-forty-seconds of throat-scarring vocals, bone-rattling drums, and spine-tingling melodies wrapped around a gloriously proggy and expansive mid-section, while the blast-driven “Island” hits hard and fast but also makes space for a desolately doomy, bleakly bluesy bridge, and cathartic closer “Last Light Fading” is absolutely drenched in eerie ambience and haunting atmosphere from start to finish (and that’s just three of the album’s malevolent and multifaceted cuts).
Both an underrated gem and a thrilling glimpse into the band’s early days, this is one I’d recommend to anyone who calls themselves a fan of the blackened arts.
2012 – WARPSTONE – DAEMONIC WARPFIRE
Virtuoso Progressive Thrash/Death Metal is the name of the game on the debut album from this French trio, whose blend of jagged, jazzy riff-forms, complex, creative song-structures, and duelling clean/harsh vocals should appeal just as much to fans of Obscura and Opeth as followers of Sadus and Atheist.
Just check out the stuttering guitar work, rippling percussion, and colourful cleans of opener “Blood Painted Mountain”, for example.
Or, if you’re after something a bit more Death-flavoured (in more ways than one), then perhaps the propulsively proggy title-track or the twisty-turny strains of “Translucent Snailbeast” might be more your tempo?
Whatever you’re looking for – sharp-toothed, fleet-fingered riff work, lithe, limber bass-lines, soothing acoustic embellishments, precise, proggy percussion – you’ll likely find them all here (frequently within the boundaries of the same song), topped off with a mix of gavel-throated growls and crooning clean-sung melodies that help make this album one thrillingly unorthodox (and horribly underappreciated) piece of Prog-Metal mastery.
2013 – WHELM – A GAZE BLANK AND PITILESS AS THE SUN
Don’t bother looking for anything else from these Danish doomlords, as this is their one and only album, released posthumously after the band broke up in 2012.
However, as sad as it is that we’re never going to be graced with their august audio presence ever again, it has to be said that A Gaze Blank and Pitiless as the Sun is one hell of a debut/final statement and represents some of the finest Death-Doom of the year (and would probably be amongst the finest Death-Doom diamonds of any year to be honest).
The riffs are as heavy and humongous as you might expect, possessing both a brooding darkness and a sanguine warmth that helps them fill your ears with sound and fury, while the band also possess a gift for incorporating moody melody and weary melancholy in equal measure, to the point where songs like “The Brazen Bull”, “Perpetual Blindness”, and “Ghosts in the Undergrowth” frequently sound a little bit (or a lot) like My Dying Bride doing Monotheist.
Yeah, I said it. And I stand by it.
Another thing that’s great about this album is how the band aren’t afraid to go big – closer “Event Horizon”, for example, is an exhausting, but exhilarating, emotional odyssey that runs just shy of twelve minutes – but also have no problem delivering the goods in shorter, more concise chunks, which gives the record a consistently engaging dynamic despite its mammoth length and almost overwhelming density.
But don’t take my word for it, just give it a listen below!
2014 – ARCTIC SLEEP – PASSAGE OF GAIA
One of the great things about discovering a new band part way through their career is that you then have the joy of digging through their back-catalogue to see what other gems you can uncover.
Case in point, after falling (and falling hard) for last year’s sublime Kindred Spirits, I dove deeper into the discography of Milwaukee’s Arctic Sleep and discovered that their previous album, Passage of Gaia, was also an absolutely stellar piece of gloriously melodic, thrillingly bombastic Prog-Doom too!
True, Passage… is a little bit beefier, and a touch heavier (though heaviness clearly isn’t its primary goal) than Kindred…, with more of a bright, shining, wall-of-sound aesthetic that’s strongly reminiscent of Devin Townsend at his most restrained and resplendent, though that doesn’t mean it’s in any way lacking in subtlety or nuance, as moments such as the simmering slow-build of “Green Dragon” and the soothing acoustic passages of “Solar Lament” and “Destroy the Urn” demonstrate.
But even at its biggest and boldest – such as the driving, doomy momentum of opener “The Staircase” or the surprisingly hard-hitting title track – Passage to Gaia remains hypnotically engaging and effortlessly listenable, thanks to an overarching melodic ambience that recalls the very best of Katatonia, A Perfect Circle, and other similarly (and shamelessly) hook- and harmony-friendly bands.
It’s a beautiful album, and one that just gets better with each and every listen.
2015 – DARK SERMON – THE ORACLE
The history of Metal is littered with examples of bands who should have made it… but didn’t. And sometimes it’s just because they came out at the wrong point, either coming too late to catch the wave or, in the case of Floridian furies Dark Sermon. by being just that little bit before their time.
Put it this way, if The Oracle came out today I guarantee it would be a much, much bigger hit, as it sits neatly between the grim, melodic grandiosity of modern-day Behemoth and the anthemic, hook-heavy aggression of Fit For An Autopsy which like it or not… sounds like a tailor-made recipe of success to me.
The thing is, even if the electrifying opening assault of “Ode to the Black Widow” or the punishing, predatory strains of “In Each Hand, A Talisman of Stone” didn’t set the world ablaze back then, they still hold up as killer, crushingly heavy, cripplingly cathartic, slabs of Blackened Death(core) today.
And while each and every track here has a distinct identity – from the doomy prowl of “Children of Gaia” to the reckless gallop of “The Myth of Sanity” to the stomping savagery of “Rat King” – it also has to be said that The Oracle gets steadily darker, denser, and doomier as it goes along, as the band’s groovier, grimier, deathlier influences come more and more to the fore, so that by the time the eerie ambience and churning riffage of “The Wraith” and the heaving Doom-core of “Gargantua” bring the album to a close the band have fully completed their transition into a straight-up Blackened Death Metal monstrosity.
So don’t miss out on one of the most instantly impactful, but horrendously underrated, albums of 2015.
2016 – RORCAL – KΡΈΩΝ
It’s no secret that last year’s Muladona is a) one of my all-time favourite albums, and b) one of the best albums of the last several years.
But did you know that the band’s previous record, the excoriating slab of sludge-soaked blackened spite known as Κρέων (or Creon) is practically just as good?
At only four tracks, each of which is well over ten minutes in length, it’s undeniably an imposing, uncompromising record, especially if you’re unprepared for how ugly and unforgiving the band’s sound – something akin to what might happen if you took the members of Dragged Into Sunlight, This Gift Is A Curse, The Body, and Amenra and threw them all into a woodchipper – actually is.
But my oh my, these songs are still as immersive as they are abrasive, as while the scorching riffs, blistering blasts, and bile-spewing vocals come blaring out of the speakers in an almost molten torrent of pure venom and vitriol, the band’s doomy dynamic and ever-present undercurrent of dissonant, droning ambience means they’re as hypnotic as they are harrowing.
I’ll grant you, the sheer length and ear-scraping fury of this record doesn’t make it particularly easy to pick up – you definitely can’t just drop in for a casual listen without adequate preparation – but, by the same token, its also almost impossible to put down once it has its claws into you.
So set aside a solid fifty-or-so minutes, make sure anyone with a weak heart or a nervous disposition is safely out of the room, and let this one blast you into breathless, bone-fracturing submission.
2017 – DEMONIC DEATH JUDGE – SEAWEED
I’ve got a confession to make – I’ve been meaning to write more about this fearless Finnish foursome for years now, but for some reason kept missing my chance to do so (hell, the band released their fourth album, The Trail, in March, and I still didn’t manage to write about it).
But hey, better late than never, right?
As it happens I still think that Seaweed is the band’s best record, and provides the best example of the group’s swaggering, riff-driven, fuzz-drenched Stoner-Sludge, which should appeal to anyone who loves getting down and dirty with a steaming blend of fat grooves and filthy vocal lines.
That’s right, I’m talking to you, the person out there who worships only at the altar of the riff and counts Down, EyeHateGod, and Crowbar as their (Un)Holy Trinity. Say hello to your new (or not so new) favourite band.
It’s not just about big riffs and booming vocals though, as there’s a squalling, psychedelic sense of melody threaded through pretty much every track, particularly in the lambent lead guitars and swampy bass-lines, which deliver a scintillating series of bluesy freak-outs and hallucinogenic hooks even as the record gets heavier, and hazier, over the course of just over forty-five minutes.
Oh, and what a band name right?
2018 – SUNNATA – OUTLANDS
People have been struggling to describe the sound of Outlands, the third album by Polish quartet Sunnata, ever since it was released, and there’s still no clear consensus.
For myself I’ve settled on Progressive Post-Doom, which I think at least captures the main thrust of the band’s hypnotic, ritualistic, bleakly atmospheric blend of Neurosis, Tool, and Alice In Chains.
Of course, like most genre tags, that doesn’t fully capture the extent of the band’s sound, which draws on bits and pieces of Post-Metal, Prog-Metal, Grunge, Sludge, Doom, and more to create this incredibly immersive amalgamation of influences and elements whose depth of feeling is matched only by the breadth of its vision.
Perhaps the biggest impression this album leaves you with is one of space (something which suitably spectral opener “Lucid Dream” immediately makes clear), as the band do a brilliant job of making a massive sound out of surprisingly minimalist elements – sometimes only a single chiming guitar ringing out over a slow, steady drumbeat, sometimes just a set of haunting, a capella vocal harmonies – that they allow to simmer and breathe for as long as they need to.
That’s not to say they don’t have their more intense moments though, as tracks like “Scars” and “The Ascender” find the band cranking up the distortion in a powerfully proggy display of roiling riffs, undulating bass-lines and intricate percussive patterns too.
The more I think about it, the more I feel like Outlands would serve as a perfect (albeit more pensive) companion piece to Dvne’s phenomenal Asheran (which came out the year before). And, if you know how highly I rate that album then you’ll realise that’s seriously high praise indeed.
2019 – TEMPLE KOLUDRA – SEVEN! SIRENS! TO A LOST ARCHETYPE
I can’t believe I missed out on this album last year. Honestly, I am a little bit furious with myself for overlooking this stunning piece of Blackened Death (with emphasis on the “Blackened”) devastation.
Yeah, there’s definitely some similarities to prime-era Behemoth (and there’s nothing wrong with that in my book), but the riff work and overall ambience also takes some major cues from Prometheus-period Emperor, and the ominous, almost claustrophobic blend of choking atmosphere and crushing brutality pays equal tribute to the terrifying sound of Teitanblood.
It’s not a perfect album, necessarily, but it’s about as fantastic a debut full-length as any I can recall hearing over the last few years decade.
From the face-melting blasts and devilish melodic twists of “Trimurti”, and the swirling dissonance and stop-start rhythms of “Vajra”, to the shamelessly addictive, sinuous strains of “Vertigo” and the bone-chilling, soul-scarring blend of metallic aggression and morbid ambience that makes up closer “White I Trance”, every track on this album has something to offer that makes it a vital piece of the overall puzzle.
And make no mistake about it, much like a certain cursed puzzle box, Seven! Sirens! only gets more complex and more compelling the more time you spend with it, with every twist and turn revealing another glimpse into the blistering blackened hell that awaits within.
2020 – SILVERED – SIX HOURS
Nine years is certainly a long time between albums but, you know what they say, good things come to those who wait, and Six Hours was definitely worth waiting for.
Released back in March but largely overlooked (including by yours truly) at the time, this captivating collection of nine songs delivers just over sixty-five minutes of thunderous riffs, melancholy melodies, and heart-wrenching vocals (both gargantuan gutturals and mournful cleans) whose blend of power and poignancy would put bands like In Mourning, Daylight Dies, and October Tide to shame.
And even though it’s a dense, often demanding, listen, there’s something about how Six Hours is structured and sequenced – whether it’s the way in which titanic Death-Doom opener “From A Letter of Sorrow” seems to get heavier and darker with each passing minute, only to pause for a moment of contemplative calm right before its even more crushing finale, after which “Ti Faccio Regina” crowns its booming, Ghost Brigade-esque bombast with a halo of majestic melodic misery, or the simple way that the brooding balladry of “Stigma Diaboli” opens things up and eases the tension for a few moments – that makes it endlessly and unfailingly compelling from start to finish.
But it’s the titanic twelve-minute centrepiece “Violent Circles” (followed by the semi-symphonic grandeur of “When Heaven Turns Into Hell” and the eloquent melodies and intricate arrangements of “Intempestae Noctis Silentio”) where the band’s vision and ambition truly achieves its ultimate form, to the extent that the entire album is almost worth listening to just for these tracks alone.
Thankfully, as I’m sure you’ll agree, the whole record is a pretty stunning piece of work, through and through, and one which, hopefully, more people will now discover!