Zach Duvall’s Best of 2014: Santorinian Poetry

If you follow along with a lot of the heavy metal blogosphere closely, you might get the impression that 2014 was a down year for heavy music. I absolutely, positively refuse to accept that notion. Total, complete bull honky, as my great uncle would say. Did it start a bit slow, at least with high profile releases of top quality? Sure, but there was a ton of brilliance to be found below the surface, even for a guy like myself that doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to the Bandcamp landscape (Blandscampe?). Plus, the late year surge for known acts was nuts, and largely without disappointments.

Or maybe I was just really in the mood to digest oodles of music and lucked upon a bunch of stuff that tickled my particular fancy. Art moves in waves of style and quality, and a person’s hunger and perception of art shifts through equal movements.

This year, I was feelin’ it, and my curiosity was rewarded. As usual, my tastes flew all over the place, and there were likely some items that fell through the cracks, if only because I was looking elsewhere for variety. And among the stuff I did hear? Total overload of high quality, so much so that my usual list of non-vote-getting honorable mentions is way more substantial and honorable than usual. So apologies to the extensive list of bands and artists that really got under my skin in a great way, but didn’t quite make my ballot: Pallbearer, Horrendous, At the Gates, Devin Townsend, Darkspace, Dimesland, Tombs, The Lord Weird Slough Feg, Battleroar, While Heaven Wept, Murmur, Jute Gyte, Nasheim, Yautja, Agalloch, Godflesh, and many more. Obviously, more than a couple of these didn’t need my help making our full team list.

As for those that got my vote…

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THE BACK TEN

20. The Great Old Ones – Tekeli-li
– Black metal with a post rock touch can be malevolent too, folks.

19. Dark Fortress – Venereal Dawn
– “Polished extreme metal” greatness. “On Fever’s Wings” must be heard.

18. Execration – Morbid Dimensions
– Part The Chasm, part Inquisition, part Floydian death metal. All perplexing.

17. Astrophobos – Remnants of Forgotten Horrors
– The Dissection/Dawn/Naglfar torch is being carried proudly.

16. ThantifaxathSacred White Noise
– Weird proggy black metal that isn’t nearly as weird as it pretends to be, and is irresistible because of it.

15. Bloodbath – Grand Morbid Funeral
– Nick Holmes, I’m sorry I doubted you. And damn, what a production for that set of tunes.

14. Pyrrhon – The Mother of Virtues
Mind-boggling, and far less random than it seems. The title track must be heard.

13. Darkest Era – Severance
– I share Captain’s confusion.

12. YOBClearing the Path to Ascend
True evolution, and quite possibly their most complete album. “Marrow” must be heard.

11. Sanctuary – The Year the Sun Died
– I’m a pretty giant Nevermore fan, and even I’d admit that Warrel has never sounded so good. The title track must be heard.

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10. ARTIFICIAL BRAIN – LABYRINTH CONSTELLATION

At first, I thought my appreciation of Labyrinth Constellation was based purely on the band being located somewhere between Gorguts, Atheist, Demilich, and Pyrrhon, because let’s face it, that’s a serious list of bonafides within the realm of experimental death metal. And honestly, if this was the only aspect of the album that had appealed to me, I’d have still loved it. But something else crept into my consciousness… the realization that this is equal parts organic and synthetic, and each side depends on the other. Artificial Brain: The Borg of death metal, bringing every bit of the power and dominance that such a comparison would imply

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9. PRIMORDIAL – WHERE GREATER MEN HAVE FALLEN

I will admit to being a bit off of the Primordial bandwagon for a few years after finding Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand to be a solid, if rather standard release that failed to offer much freshness. My anticipation for Where Greater Men Have Fallen was therefore slightly lowered, which might have made the shock of the album’s quality that much higher. From the very opening notes of the title track, Primordial sounded charged, resulting in their most complete album since at least The Gathering Wilderness. It also benefited from enhancing the few bits of variety, with the doom doomier, folk folkier, and black the blackest since the early days. Some may miss that feeling of being adrift in sorrow, but it’s still very much present, just mixed in with a whole heap of Alan Averill’s rage.

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8. OPETH – PALE COMMUNION

Leading up to the release of Pale Communion, a question entered my mind: did we all really think that Mikael Åkerfeldt was done as a ground breaking artist? After all, the guy had made one single misstep, not years of them. I chose to hold faith in a man that has provided me with some of my most cherished music of all time. Thankfully, Pale Communion was the album that Heritage desperately wanted to be: a prog rock album that does far more than pay simple homage to Åkerfeldt’s heroes of the 70s by injecting it with many of the lessons and songwriting techniques learned from years in metal. And holy bejesus is it lushly produced and performed, with Åkerfeldt’s clean vocals being a particular highlight (“Faith in Others”… I mean, come on) and Martin Axenrot providing a particularly nuanced performance at the kit. Faith: rewarded.

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7. OVERKILL – WHITE DEVIL ARMORY

I wrote in my review of White Devil Armory that this might be Overkill’s strongest album of their resurgence, and time has only supported that argument. What Ironbound started and The Electric Age built upon, White Devil Armory brings to full fruition. The band has not sounded like this cohesive of a unit since Horrorscope, with every Blitz rant accompanied perfectly by leads and blunt rhythms, as exemplified in such ragers as “Down to the Bone” and Feel Good Hit of The Summer “King of the Rat Bastards.” With apologies to the resurgent Exodus, this is 2014’s finest thrash record, and it really isn’t even close. 

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6. SLUGDGE – GASTRONOMICON

A list of influences containing some of my favorite things like Hypocrisy, Edge of Sanity, Anaal Nathrakh, and Arcturus? Check. Slug-based, pun-driven song titles like “Salters of Madness” revealing a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor? Check. A doctoral level understanding of how to combine these things into a beastly melodic death metal album for the ages? Check. That latter point is the most important, as Slugdge’s tingling of the metal senses tends to overshadow a huge point: this is expertly written and performed. Everything in its right place, including the moments of obvious homage. Sure, the gimmickry is fun stuff, but the music is serious business. Get slimed.

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5. MARE COGNITUM – PHOBOS MONOLITH

Add Jacob Buczarski’s Mare Cognitum to the list of acts finding gold through a combination of black metal and a kind of sci-fi aura. Swirling, aggressive, ever-changing, emotionally charged, and at times even brutal, Phobos Monolith is a continual unraveling of image-conjuring music. If Darkspace III I presents the horror of being lost alone in the vastness of empty space, Phobos Monolith provides the soundtrack to a great, ages-spanning galactic drama. Fitting, as Buczarski’s bottomless barrel of tremolo riffage often cuts like The Shrike, while the tales he weaves shift with the deftness of that monster’s mighty Cantos.

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4. MORBUS CHRON – SWEVEN

If you try to explain exactly what is going on during Sweven using conventional terminology or labels, you’ll probably hurt your brain. Odd, considering its easy-on-the-ears nature. Morbus Chron went from being a promising death metal band to a brilliant act slinging some odd combination of death metal’s riffs with 70s prog’s scenery and a deep atmosphere. But even that is less of a key to the album’s success than the tight, constantly engaging, and deep compositions. Riffs and melodies draw you in, the secrets keep you coming back. Yo, newer Swedish death metal bands, just keep doing your “we’re gonna grow as artists and stop really being death metal bands” thing. The fruits are tasty.

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3. GIANT SQUID – MINOANS

I have not heard every band in existence (no one has), but I have heard enough to know that Giant Squid should be clearly in the running for Greatest Band in The Universe. It is not in their nature to create music that is less than a words-cannot-do-this-justice level of entrancing. Minoans combines melodies that are as serene as they are haunting and lyrics about the ancient Minoan society with the band’s trademark dynamics (love the crushing doom), resulting in what may very well be Giant Squid’s greatest work to date. Among the places mentioned in these stories is Santorini/Thera, a place that is particularly close to my heart. I am absolutely bursting with the desire to listen to this album when I am back in that magical land in 2015.

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2. SAOR – AURA

Confession: I’m a sucker for folky black metal that employs a flute with expertise. Alan Drimus’ work in both Negura Bunget and Martolea is something I still go back to quite often, but what Saor does is different. In short, this is as Celtic sounding a metal album as I’ve ever heard, both in terms of melodic sense and overall feel, and all with a scope comparable to Viking-era Bathory. I have spun this album nearly constantly since hearing it (admittedly) later than I should have, but rather than cause burn out, this has only added to my yearning for the imagery and emotions that are conjured by this beautiful music. Mr. Andy Marshall, I’d like to buy you a fine single malt.

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1. BLUT AUS NORD – MEMORIA VETUSTA III: SATURNIAN POETRY

Naming Saturnian Poetry my #1 was both obvious and difficult, due to liking this ever-EVER-so-slightly less than its predecessor in the series, Dialogue with the Stars. So how could I name it album of the year if it isn’t even my favorite album in a series, let alone in Blut Aus Nord’s entire library? Well, seeing as how The Hanzo Sword Argument applies to Memoria Vetusta entries, pretty easily. Saturnian Poetry took the melodic sensibility of the first two albums and morphed it into a living, breathing, churning monster of black metal. The music is so dense that it is utterly overwhelming for its first few listens, even if it is thrilling from the beginning. Hints to Blut Aus Nord’s past are littered everywhere (the aforementioned melodies, familiar drum patterns performed by an actual drummer), while the combination and vision is looking ever forward. With this band, it can be easy to get stuck wondering where things are headed next, but Saturnian Poetry is yet another brilliant reason to just stand still and appreciate the gifts that we have already been given. Very little in music or art thrills me more than when Vindsval and his cohorts are firing on all cylinders. Magical escapism.

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RANDOM BONUS MATERIAL

Not one but two great EPs from Owl in 2014.

Blut Aus Nord also won the split battle in 2014 by teaming with P.H.O.B.O.S. for Triunity.

Best evidence that Judas Priest is back in great form: “Sword of Damocles.” Best evidence that they’re still plodding in veteran mediocrity: “March of the Damned.”

I didn’t listen to enough trad and power metal this year. Must fix.

2014 album I wish I’d have gotten to hear before putting all this together: Taake – Stridens hus. (I still haven’t heard it, dammit.)

Tour I’m most appreciative for hitting the metal-starved Cincinnati area: CarcassExhumed, and Obituary.

Metal bands are winning, but so are people making cover art for metal bands. Outside of my top 10, a few favorites here, here, and here.

Thing that still sucks: the somehow-not-dying cassette revival.

Thing that still rules: the healing power of music.

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Never stop digging.

As always, thanks for reading.

Posted by Zach Duvall

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; Obnoxious overuser of baseball metaphors.

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