(Andy Synn closes out his annual List-Week with a ranked round-up of his personal favourites)
And here we are, finally. Can you hear my sigh of relief ?
Don’t get me wrong, doing all these round-ups and lists is, ultimately, quite a rewarding experience – especially when people tell me that it’s help them discover, or re-evaluate, something they might not otherwise have listened to – but it’s also quite a bit of work, and no matter how early I start putting it all together I somehow always end up having to finish things off in a rush at the last minute.
Thankfully my final list of the week is, this year at least, relatively easy, as I’m 99% certain as I write this that I know exactly which albums I want to include as part of my “Personal Top Ten”.
These albums aren’t necessarily the biggest, or the best, or the most popular/well-known releases by any means, but they’re definitely the ones which have resonated with me the most on a purely personal level.
So let’s just crack on, shall we, and give you all some insight into my listening tastes/habits this year.
10. DISILLUMINATION – ВО ТЬМУ ПРЕДВЕЧНОГО СЛОВА
It’s always good to be able to kick off any list with a bang, and the debut album from Russia’s Disillumination is the musical equivalent of a Tsar Bomba-sized explosion of Blackened Death brutality, make no mistake about it.
To quote from my own review:
“[Во Тьму Предвечного Слова] combines shards and scraps of Altarage’s crushing, claustrophobic density, Belphegor’s blistering, blast-fuelled intensity, and Sulphur Aeon’s grandiose melodic malevolence, into something almost insufferably brilliant.”
But in spite of these comparisons, and despite the fact that this is the band’s debut, they’ve clearly locked down a distinct sonic identity for themselves, mostly by juxtaposing the gravity-distorting density of their utterly massive guitar tone against a penchant for sleek, sinuous melodies and bleak, ominous atmosphere.
A lot of Russian bands made a serious impression on me this year – including Crust, Morokh (both of whom almost made this list) and one other you’ll read more about below – but these guys were always going to make the top ten.
09. GRAVPEL – POWER TO THE FILTHY MASSES
Another new discovery (in fact, now that I think about it, half the albums on this list are debuts), Gravpel immediately got my attention with their punishing, pissed-off brand of take-no-prisoners Anarcho-Punk Black Metal, and have remained in near-constant rotation ever since.
As unrelentingly aggressive as this album is, however – and it really is, these guys piss lightning, crap thunder, and spit venom without an ounce of remorse or restraint – it’s also packed with so many gnarly riffs and snarling vocal hooks that pretty much every track could be considered an anthem for the dejected and the dispossessed, if only they weren’t so utterly filthy and furious and absolutely unforgiving.
Seriously, there’s so much wild-fire energy, so much wide-eyed intensity, propelling this album, from start to finish, that it almost takes my breath away every single time.
08. AUTARKH – FORM IN MOTION
How best to describe Form in Motion, the new album from former Dodecahedron guitarist Michel Nienhuis? Well, I think I said it best back in March when I wrote:
“…as much a cross-breed of Meshuggah, Mysticum, and Ancient Methods as it is an amalgam of Akercocke, Aphex Twin, and the more aggrotech influenced side of Anaal Nathrakh, the band’s sound is more than just the mere sum of its parts…
From the distressingly visceral (and surprisingly varied) vocals to the jagged, anxiety-inducing guitar work ensures that there’s always an edge of “what’s going to happen next?”… [but] what really surprised me about this record is just how disturbingly infectious it is, with the band injecting their quasi-techno, bio-mechanical Black Metal mix with multiple worms of viral melody and self-replicating hooks
Perhaps the one thing stopping me from rating it even higher is the sense that Form In Motion is just one small (albeit significant) step for the band, rather than a true evolutionary leap, and that the best, the true apex, of what they might one day be capable of, is yet to come.”
07. DÖDSRIT – MORTAL COIL
Let me ask you something. When was the last time that a Dödsrit album didn’t make my top ten?
Oh, that’s right. NEVER. Because there’s just something about this band that clicks with me on an almost primal level, their distinctive fusion of Black Metal and Crust Punk hitting me right in the gut even as it tugs at my heartstrings.
This one in particular has the distinction of being the band’s first album written and performed as a quartet, something which – in my opinion at least – has only made them stronger.
When I first wrote about this album I dropped in a bunch of names – everyone from Bathory to Amenra, Darkest Hour to Dissection – as musical touchstones for anyone thinking of jumping onboard the Dödsrit bandwagon with me.
And while these references still make sense (to my mind, at least), it’s probably worth pointing out that on Mortal Coil, as on every other album they’ve done, Dödsrit continue to sound like the best possible version of themselves, and no-one else.
06. DORMANT ORDEAL – THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS
A very late entry here, but one which I’d been anticipating for quite a while, since I was such a huge fan of their previous album, We Had It Coming.
And, let me tell you, they did not disappoint, as this is one high-octane, blast-fuelled, riff-driven rager of an album that takes pretty much everything I like about Death Metal and cranks it all the way up to 11.
In fact, there’s every chance that it would have ended up even higher on this list (and may well, even, one day replace its predecessor in my affections) if I’d have had it for longer, and perhaps the only reason it failed to crack the top five is simply because I’ve had more time to digest and absorb and come to terms with the albums I’ve ranked above it.
If you haven’t already heard this one, make sure anything breakable is securely fastened down (that includes pets and/or loved ones) and crank… it… up.
05. MASSEN – CONTRAESTHETIC
I liked this one so much I bought the tshirt. That’s the pull quote for #5 on my list of personal favourites from this year.
Of course, if you want more than that then I’m more than happy to oblige, as this is an incredibly rich and rewarding album, one which mixes the fiery energy of Black Metal with the melancholy melodies of Belarusian folk and delivers it all with a sense of rebellious passion and revolutionary fervour that bleeds through in every rippling riff and soaring solo and savage, snarling vocal.
It’s just an incredibly dynamic, unforgettably infectious, album, from start to finish, with the incorporation of weeping violin and rapturous clean vocals only adding to the haunting, heart-wrenching aura of the music, resulting in a record where every caustic, cathartic track serves both as a call to arms and a lamentation for all that’s been lost.
04. REDEMPTOR – AGONIA
This band’s last album, in 2017, ended up on my “Personal Top Ten” too, so it only stands to reason that Agonia would wind up here, and at an even higher placing than its predecessor, especially since it finds them expanding their sound and evolving their mindset into something even bigger, better, and more ambitious.
To quote from one of my favourite writers:
“I suppose this is the key idea, the key observation, to make while working your way through Agonia. It’s not so much that the band have abandoned the traditional elements of Death Metal – far from it, in fact – but that they’ve focussed even more on how, and why, these various elements interlink and intertwine, finding the space between them and letting the layers of distortion, melody, and atmosphere breathe a little bit more.
It’s still dense as a dying star, make no mistake, but there’s an impression of volume – in more than just a physical sense – underlying each of these tracks, especially slower and/or more atmospherically-inclined numbers like “Further From Ordeal” and “Wounds Unhealed”, whose more spacious songwriting (and, lest I forget to mention it, impressively immersive and organic production) never once threatens to detract from the electrifying intensity of the music.”
FYI – the separation between the bands in my top five is absolutely razor-thin, and on a different day I might have ranked them all differently, so rest assured that, no matter the number attached to it, this album isn’t going to be leaving my regular listening rotation any time soon.
03. OMINATION – NEW GOLGOTHA REPVBLIQ
While not a new band – New Golgotha Repvbliq being their second album – Omination are a new band to me, but one I fell in love with so quickly, and so deeply, that I immediately went and sought out a copy of their debut (also excellent, I might add) in addition to this one.
NGR is a perfect example of how my favourite albums aren’t always the ones I’ve listened to the most – let’s face it, when a record is this incredibly dense and demanding you can’t necessarily listen to it every single day – but are still capable of making a real and lasting impression on me.
As a gifted wordsmith once wrote:
“It’s also, as befitting its “Post Apocalyptic” moniker, an album clearly crafted in the ever-present shadow of the end times… whether represented by the current social and political situation surrounding its creation or a hangover from Kovalevsky’s own heritage as a child raised in (and then renouncing) Catholicism in a predominantly Muslim country, who can say… and as such is very much painted in multiple shades of brooding black and gloomy grey, with very little in the way of light or hope to break up its desolate, doom-laden aesthetic.
This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s a purely one-note affair by any means, as the album’s crushing combination of massive riffs, ritualistic rhythms, and remorseless momentum, all interwoven with a scintillating series of sombre melodies, soaring solos, and sacramental synths, ultimately produces a rich and surprisingly varied – not to mention unexpectedly dynamic – tapestry of sounds and sensations.
This is particularly true of the vocals, as not only is Kovalevsky’s gritty, gravel-throated growl somewhat atypical of this particular style of music, but the use of grandiose, pseudo-operatic cleans and passages of portentous spoken-word at key points also helps to expand the album’s creative and emotional palette even further, making for a deeper and more immersive experience all-round.”
02 MOANHAND – PRESENT SERPENT
Despite the name up there in the header, I actually love bands with clean singing – although this year my “Personal Top Ten” is unusually light on bands of that nature.
However, the inclusion of Present Serpent, the debut album from Russian multi-instrumentalist Roma Filatov, aka Moanhand, should more than make up for that lack, as basically every song here is an absolute masterclass in how to incorporate both harsh and clean vocals into your band’s sound without falling into the dreaded “good cop, bad cop” formula.
Of course, it helps that the music – brooding and doomy, bleak and gloomy – proves to be more than worthy of its self-declared moniker of “Blackened Dream-Sludge”, all mesmerising rhythms, majestic leads, and mesmerising tremolo melodies, and serves as a gripping canvas upon which Filatov (who handles all the vocals and instrumentation on the record) can paint his passion with his vivid, varied, and visceral voice.
It’s not just that both the throat-blistering harsh vocals and the sublime, soaring cleans are absolutely stunning in both their execution and the level of raw emotion which they convey, but there’s also the way in which they’re used – some songs being all sung, others all snarling venom, some holding off on the melodies until late in the game, other presenting them right up front, or switching back and forth between them as the song dictates – which keeps things vibrant and vital and unpredictable throughout.
Utterly unique and unforgettable, from the very first note until the very last.
01. ZAO – THE CRIMSON CORRIDOR
There really was only ever going to be one winner this year though, not just because Zao are one of my all-time favourite bands, but also because The Crimson Corridor is clearly one of the best albums they’ve done in their long and celebrated career.
Darker, moodier, and subtly proggier, the band have embraced an almost Post-Metal-influenced, Isis/Cult of Luna inspired, sound on their latest album which fits them like the proverbial glove, and which allows them to take the more atmospheric tendencies they’ve occasionally displayed on previous records and elevate them to a whole new level.
Don’t get me wrong, the album still delivers more than its fair share of ragged-edged riffs and absolutely vicious vocals (Dan Weyandt sounds as absolutely abrasive now as he ever did), but it’s songs like “Croatoan”, “R.I.P.W.”, the captivating title track, and the mournful “Nothing’s Form” – not to mention the artistically ambitious, atmosphere-heavy album closer, “The Web” – which really demonstrate how, even this far into their career, Zao are more than willing to embrace change without changing who they are.
This is one of those albums where my favourite song changes on an almost daily basis – they’re all that good – and yet my opinion on it as a whole hasn’t changed at all since I first heard it back in March/April. Mark my words, this one is built to last.
So there you have it. Maybe on a different day I’d have made slightly different choices – or maybe not, because a lot of these were a lock from the moment I heard them – but I’d say this is still a pretty accurate representation of where my mindset has been, and how my music tastes have developed (or not) over the course of the last twelve months.
Let me close by saying thank you – not just for sticking with me through this year’s “List Week” and for all your comments, but also for your support for the entire site over what has, let’s be honest, been a difficult period for all of us. We appreciate you, I appreciate you, and I hope you all know that.