Greetings, you husks. This year, instead of some State of the Scene Address, we’re going to talk about consensus in music fandom, and how it doesn’t really exist. Yes, seeing the same albums top every list and thinking we’ve witnessed the crowning of New Masters and New Classics makes us feel nice and cuddly and wonderful (and makes for catchier headlines), but guess what, it’s all poppycock.
Sure, humans that communicate – including those that write on a certain webzine together or communicate over social media – tend to gravitate towards certain albums because people discuss things they like, which causes other humans to experience these things and sometimes like them, with the cycle repeating. Add to that how labels push certain albums hard, and you do tend to have a collection that shows up lots of places. But consensus? Leave it for public discourse and board meetings. The idea of consensus is insulting to the nature of how we experience art. (Confession: I like a lot of popular albums, as you’ll see below.)
We all approach music with vastly different experiences and expectations, and different set of ears connected to different minds, so even though we’re all singing in unison to “Aces High” doesn’t mean that every mind in that arena isn’t its own little concert venue. More than that, our circumstances are always changing, so we shouldn’t necessarily put pressure on ourselves to like everything we expect to like or get into every album by bands we’ve traditionally been into. In 2014, Clearing the Path to Ascend was one of my favorite records, but I’m not nuts about Yob’s latest. The band changed, understandably going further down the vulnerable path in the wake of Mike Scheidt’s extreme brush with mortality, and I changed in that I’m feeling less into the “Marrow” vibe. But just because a lot of people are clearly enamored with Our Raw Heart didn’t mean I was going to binge it like crazy to try to “get it” or appreciate the supposed consensus. That isn’t fair to me or the album. Maybe a time will come when I want or need that version of Yob again, maybe it won’t.
Getting to this point when you’re comfortable just letting go is liberating. A lot of supposed experts are going to tell you what is important and crucial, but time gives albums importance, not critics or press cycles. Beware the fan or critic who loudly disagrees and claims clairvoyance, for he or she is likely overcompensating for ignorance. (Confession: I used to be this kind of critic; I was an idiot.)
The point: there is no consensus, and there are very few actual experts. Lists like the one below are just the preferences of individual humans at one point in one year during one life. I personally find this much more comforting (not to mention interesting) than thinking there’s some hive mind consensus to glean from all of the countless opinions. (Confession: big fan of Rotten Tomatoes.) Our blogger opinions matter no more than the opinions of any random fan. Are our opinions more informed? Sometimes, maybe, but I’ve read enough reviews over the years to know that a lot of people writing them aren’t the most learned of music fans. (Confession: there are and will always be a ton of gaps in my knowledge.)
You don’t know much. I don’t know much. We don’t know much.
So what do I know? I know that Iron Maiden is the greatest metal band in history, that some bands (*cough* Thou) are undeservedly given awards just for existing, that Lars Ulrich has been unfairly vilified by metal history, and that freshly harvested corn-on-the-cob is one of the greatest foods on the planet.
I also know that all the music listed below got me hotter than Cornballer oil in 2018. We’ll start with the honorable mentions, numbers 50 through 21, as always in logo cloud form:
Get that popcorn. There’s a whole lot more.
SOME REAL CREAMED CORN: 20-11
20. Hooded Menace – Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed
The death and funeral styles of doom had a great 2018. Ossuarium continues Hooded Menace’s habit of getting better with each album, and their layered, semi-progressive take on doom/death’s roots is sorrowful, gorgeous, crushing, and irresistible.
19. Deceased – Ghostly White
Another long wait, another album that was more than worth waiting for. Ghostly White‘s rawer production ups the spooky vibes and gives yet another stellar set of deathrashtrad tunes a unique aura in which all the great leads can play and King Fowley can weave his ghost stories.
18. Owl – Nights In Distortion
Owl’s latest continues the Zeitgeister family’s crazily good recent run. It’s simultaneously a masterwork of doom/death metal and darkwave, riding massive riffs and tense synths over one complete journey, all hinging on the centerpiece/fulcrum of “Anamnesis.”
17. Portal – ION
Portal’s labyrinth of dizzyingly technical riffs and suffocating noise is as fitting for staring the decaying postmodern world right in its decaying heart as it is for imagining unspeakable Lovecraftian horrors. Perhaps to them, these things are one in the same. Spiral into the second half of “Phreqs” and experience this nightmarish duality.
16. Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology
Kev Pearson and Matt Moss continue their prodigious run, finally getting a deserved label partner in Willowtip and delivering their best and deepest album to date. They continue to honor their godly influences while carving out a unique identity. Being massive is Mollusca’s business, and business is good.
15. Aorlhac – L’esprit des vents
Aorlhac falls somewhere between the icy, blue-cover melodic black metal of 90s Sweden and the windswept and harrowing work that often comes out of Québec. It threads a pretty thin line between violence and unabashed beauty, and L’esprit des vents is almost constantly stunning for its near-hour length.
14. Judas Priest – Firepower
Calling Firepower the best Priest album since Painkiller sells it short, as you could combine the best songs from the rest of the interim and this might still win. Richie Faulkner has breathed new life into a legend and Halford’s voice is as ageless as it is timeless.
13. Madder Mortem – Marrow
Agnete Kirkevaag is one of the most talented, charismatic, and commanding vocalists in metal. She’s so great that she often overshadows the sneaky versatility of her bandmates and their ability to transition from Katatonia goth to Devin Townsend prog to (yes) chugga chugga aggro-nu seamlessly. A stunning, deep record.
12. Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods
Demonaz has to earn the Comeback Player of the Year award. Not only is Northern Chaos Gods a frosty bit of black metal goodness that manages to call to mind all eras of Immortal’s past, but it absolutely kicks the tar out of that solo Abbath record.
11. Abysmal Torment – The Misanthrope
Brutal death metal is ridiculous and preposterous, so it’s fun when bands know how to be ridiculous and preposterous in really sneakily smart ways. Abysmal Torment nails it on their latest, annihilating the listener for 31 minutes of megaton riffs, squeals, and slams, even tossing in the slightest hint of an album arc for good measure.
FRESH CORN ON THE COB: 10-1
10. MOSS UPON THE SKULL – IN VENGEFUL REVERENCE
“Hey, you got Gorguts in my Ved Buens Ende!” Hey, you got Ved Buens Ende in my Gorguts!”
In the tradition of two-great-tastes-tasting-great-together musical sounds, Moss Upon the Skull is here to show you how weird and wonderful you can be when you combine two of metal’s most legendarily experimental and influential bands. There’s always a risk looking to really exploratory bands as inspiration, as the fuel that kept the fires of such acts going was often as much a mentality as it was an distinctive musical goal, but Moss Upon the Skull sounds seamless beyond their years while adding a few extra flairs of their own. There’s a lot of twitchy semi-tech-death riffs, shimmery and dissonant VBE/Virus-isms, oddball clean vocals, and super catchy parts that seem to come out of nowhere. Mostly, it’s a spry, music nerd type of record that should appeal to everyone from tech-heads to fans of the 90s’ particularly wackadoodle avant-garde acts.
9. HATE ETERNAL – UPON DESOLATE SANDS
In my review of Upon Desolate Sands, I talked about how Erik Rutan had become one of the most dependable figures in all of death metal, releasing now seven records over nearly 20 years with each being some degree of excellent. Like all the others, Sands carries that uniquely muscular and blasting sound, but also like those, it maintains and even enhances Rutan’s tendencies towards melody and just a bit of exploration. Hate Eternal has long had a reputation as one of the more brutal and technical bands in death metal, but they’ve also secretly always been one of the smartest. Rutan has never written a single bad song, and with new tracks such as “All Hope Destroyed” and “Portal of Myriad” still bringing new form to classic sounds, there’s a good chance he won’t produce a clunker for many years to come.
Plus, the cover art is yet another reason why Eliran Kantor is the current MVP.
8. HORRENDOUS – IDOL
Horrendous was getting a lot of buzz on their first two albums (Ecdysis was our team album of the year in 2014), but it wasn’t until I’d had time to really get to know Anareta that I was fully on board. Their increasing use of the 90s progressive death metal of Death, Atheist, Pestilence and the like was right up my alley, but that added layer of filth from their roots imitating classic Swedeath made it extra sweet. Idol might not quite be the leap from Anareta that that album was from Ecdysis in terms of quality, but that’s only because its predecessor was so great to begin with. Luckily, these boys from Philly didn’t stand pat stylistically, adding even more progressive and atmospheric elements to their sound and making one of the most downright dynamic death(ish) metal records around, with each song serving as its own epic journey. It’s a harrowing, thrashy, melodic, nasty, and complex record. Most of all, it still manages to be really damn fun.
7. OUTRE-TOMBE – NÉCROVORTEX
Listen, I’m one of the first people to make fun of a list that is nothing but faceless old school death metal, and I take a lot of crap for that around the Last Rites offices, but a guy wants variety and freshness. Sitting up in Québec, ready to make me contradict myself, sat Outre-Tombe, because this record riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiips. At its most basic, it’s like a glorious mash-up of Bolt Thrower (when it lurches) Dismember (when it bounces, plus that tone and meanness), and even speedier death metal. It also helps that vocalist Crachat brings a whole heap of personality with him, spitting out hoarse, throaty vocals that communicate more emotion and vitriol than 90 percent of the monotone bottom-growlers of today. A brutally efficient, super heavy, and cutthroat death metal record that proves you don’t need an inkling of innovation to spread wanton destruction. En spirale dans le Nécrovortex, perdants.
6. SOLSTICE – WHITE HORSE HILL
I was initially a bit bummed that I had heard a good amount of the material on White Horse Hill on the To Sole a Thane demo a couple years back. But given time, it was clear how much more life these songs had within a full album (plus re-recorded and actually finished), with the intro/interlude tracks going beyond being merely window dressing to being crucial parts of the total journey. More than that, however, is that White Horse Hill is so good, so stunning, so overwhelmingly emotionally powerful as to make it easy to forget that I had heard some of these songs before. To put it bluntly, this is one of the finest epic doom records made in years, with vocalist Paul Kearns again proving that he’s the best voice Richard Walker has ever brought in to sing for Solstice. The record has the feel of something that was meticulously crafted at every level, but loses none of the grandiose Candlemass / Hammerheart /”The Coffin Ships” emotional heft. It just soars, and as soon as it’s over you just want to hit play again, knowing that little else in recent recorded memory can be simultaneously so draining and rejuvenating. Magical stuff.
5. URFAUST – THE CONSTELLATORY PRACTICE
The Constellatory Practice is the type of record that you play for a friend that is largely uninitiated to the achievements and breadth of underground heavy metal (or underground music as a whole). It is, after all, still a metal record at its roots, but like most of Urfaust’s records has moved so far into their unique realm as to feel independent of the scene. This is black metal, but it doesn’t have raw production or icy riffs. It is doom metal but its lumbering and towering riffs are more beacons through the mist than they are immovable objects. It’s a near-perfect expression of how slowness and space in music leave room for the listener to fill the void with individual memories, visions, and imaginative expressions. It’s as dark, sad, uplifting, cathartic, and/or escapist as you want it to be, but it isn’t a blank canvas. Rather, The Constellatory Practice is the type of lush minimalism that takes years to master, and a really great example of how heaviness comes in many, many forms.
4. MONOLITHE – NEBULA SEPTEM
I was about halfway through my first listen of Nebula Septem when I came to a very basic but very appealing conclusion: Monolithe had made Slow Crimson II. While that’s a simplification of an album that is extremely deep both musically and thematically (read about all those sevens), there’s no escaping the feeling that these previous funeral doomsters pulled a Swanö. There’s a ton of interplay between colossal riffs and particularly spaced-out synths, and the whole thing moves forward as a single composition despite being seven unique tracks. But the way in which it moves through this journey is wholly unique. The band’s funereal past is still evident, as Nebula Septem often remains far more oppressive in nature than a lot of doom/death, and there’s a feeling that this corner of space is filled with a lot of slow moving threats. In this way, it doesn’t just call back to Crimson II, but feels a bit like a companion to the Owl record discussed above. Both are synth-heavy doom/death records that have a cohesive arc, but where Nights in Distortion maintains a feeling of comfort no matter how heavy it gets, Nebula Septem leaves the listener with the impression that there is no escape, even in its most beautiful moments. Escape from what – inevitable doom, fear of inevitable doom, the Agony Booth – isn’t as clear, but you’re trapped, and it sounds so good.
3. W.A.I.L. –
WISDOM THROUGH AGONY INTO ILLUMINATION AND LUNACY VOL. II
I’m not going to sit here and try to interpret the lyrics of W.A.I.L. II; you’re more than willing to head on over to Metal-Archives and take a stab at that maze yourself. But musically, this record heads in several unique directions without ever feeling even the slightest bit disjointed or failing to excel at every single sound. At its loudest it is a maelstrom of riffs that manage to be as melodic and hooky as they are determined and dark, and at its quietest… it is bleak. The hefty parts include a lot of The Ruins of Beverast-ish blackened doom, stretches of atmospheric black metal, and some legit death metal that even nears progressive terrain. The soft parts include sounds similar to Deathspell Omega’s most terrifying quiet moments and a stretch of piano and violin that would seem tacked on and overlong on most any other album. This passage is particularly striking, and might just define what makes the album special to me. That’s right, the distinctly not metal (or even rock) part of this hour-long record is what pushes it from something that is merely extremely good into truly unforgettable territory. It calls to mind the long quiet in “Blackwater Park” in that it is the least aggressive part of a long song (however, at over 34 minutes, “Reawakening through Anguish into Gestalt of Absolute” is quite a bit longer than that Opeth classic) but manages to be the most tense part of the whole track, if not the whole album. It holds you in ghostly stasis, unsure if the tension will ever be released. Anyone can play loud metal, but the ability to weave such tension out of the softest moments and have that tension lead to a truly earned resolution is rare. The ability to do this and have every single second be made of solid gold elements is even rarer. A special record, opus, whatever you want to call it.
2. VOIVOD – THE WAKE
Voivod’s renaissance defies rules about age, output after the loss of a long time creative force, expectations for journeymen musicians, and really what it means to be a veteran classic band. For nearly every other band, the loss of someone as unique as Denis “Piggy” D’Amour would have been the end, and with the band releasing no fewer than three Piggy records posthumously, they were obviously reluctant to move on. But when the Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain era finally put out a studio record in Target Earth, it showed that there was not just a ton of energy left in the Vodtank, but that Mongrain was the perfect guitarist to drive it forward. While Target Earth was great and the ensuing Post Society EP material was better, The Wake eclipses both. Despite already playing on a Gorguts classic and Martyr’s killer records, The Wake feels like Mongrain’s big moment in the sun. He channels Piggy and the Voivod tradition while understanding that he’s allowed to be himself. Chewy, along with Snake (who gives a great performance and even sings quite often), bassist Rocky (who is good enough to make us miss Blackie a little less this time) and of course drummer extraordinaire Away, made an album as detailed as it is immediate and technical as it is loose and free of its own bounds. It’s a sometimes startlingly theatrical record (touches of Brian May in the soloing) that stands strongly next to the band’s main trio of classics – Killing Technology, Dimension Hatröss, and Nothingface, obviously – while not being directly indebted to any of them.
No one is out there putting an asterisk on Voivod in 2018 because of the lineup. At least, no one with a functional set of ears. This is again one of metal’s most brilliant and exciting bands, and The Wake is the freshest thing they’ve done in over a quarter of a century.
1. AMORPHIS – THE QUEEN OF TIME
Amorphis deserves the world. Their colossal talents, impossible hooks, and infectious nature should all be granting them one of the largest fan bases in the world, but this isn’t meant to be another bitter rant about the lack of popularity of heavy metal bands (Amorphis is already really popular by the standards of bands with growling vocals). Rather, this is meant as yet another celebration of their achievements over nearly three decades despite seeming settled, if not a bit lost at a couple moments. It’s impossible to overstate where this band has come since Tomi Joutsen took the microphone 14 years ago, or just what they have done recently. The Queen of Time is their second straight masterwork, and like its predecessor Under the Red Cloud is capable of standing up to the band’s watershed achievement Tales from the Thousand Lakes.
At its most fundamental, Queen is simply one of their greatest sets of songs, but there’s more to it than that. The record can be unabashedly beautiful just a few seconds before getting borderline brutal. This is nothing new for Amorphis, but there’s something extra powerful on certain passages – the symphonic peak of “Heart of the Giant,” the aggression/escapism of “We Accursed,” the Anneke van Giersbergen guest spot in “Amongst Stars” – as if they’re still finding a way to grow in confidence. And then there’s Joutsen. Although he didn’t come on board until the band was a decade removed from their most iconic album, he has long since been the voice of Amorphis. More than that, by having not just one of the best growls in the business but also one of the most powerful and nuanced singing voices, he has fully ascended to the true hall of fame for metal vocalists, and Queen is probably his greatest performance yet.
This is larger-than-life music being played by people that find true joy in bringing it to your ears, and you can hear that joy in every note, every unforgettable chorus, every drum hit, and every playful keyboard part. For me, it’s impossible to feel bad while I share in that joy. That’s the magic of great music.
BABY CORN: TOP EPS
5. Owl – Orion Fenix
Prior to releasing one of the coolest doom/death-ish albums of the year, Owl put out another captivating, single-song EP that works as a great companion piece to Nights in Distortion. This EP is as towering and intimidating as it is gorgeously haunting and cathartic.
4. Progenie Terrestre Pura – starCross
I’ll admit that starCross felt like a bit of a letdown after the mastery of oltreLuna, but that likely says more about the full length than the EP. This is still another infectious, weird, and spaced-out bit of spacey industrial blackened space metal. Keep ’em coming.
3. Sodom – Partisan
Only two new songs? Who cares. The best Sodom was 80s Sodom, and this not just brings back a core 80s member in Frank Blackfire, but it sounds like those old classics. The way Tom Angelripper screams the title of “Conflagration” creates a whole lot of anticipation for their upcoming 2019 full length.
2. Aeviterne – Sireless
Again… only two songs? And again, who cares. Aeviterne reintroduces two thirds of the great, unheralded Flourishing to the metal world through music that does their former band’s death/prog/post-hardcore/noise hybrid but with even more of that prog-skronk whirlwind. Castevet drummer Ian Jacyszyn is a perfect fit, and this will be another of my most anticipated albums of 2019.
1. Abhorrence – Megalohydrothalassophobic
This was perfect timing for me personally. Being the forever-behind pose(u)r that I am, I needed a crash course in Finnish death metal, and some of the other idiots that write at this site were willing to oblige. Part of that was being insta-hooked on those beastly early Abhorrence releases. This isn’t as dirty in tone as those (which I had to convince myself wasn’t a bad thing), but it’s just as mean where it counts: the riffs. This thing is HEH-VEE and about as catchy as you can get with that many irons on the barbells. The only question that remains is… why the hell aren’t these guys playing MDF next year?
• Heavy metal as a global phenomenon continues to be extremely strong, with 19 different countries (including Malta and the Faroe Islands!) represented in my top 50 albums.
• With Amorphis, Abhorrence, W.A.I.L., Hooded Menace, and several albums on other folks’ lists… Finland really stood out.
• Some great splits this year. Starkweather and Concealment released one that managed to have probably the best material ever by the former band while the latter more than held up their side. Squalus and Shadow Limb, meanwhile, both took on oceanic fiction themes with their rollicking, spry progressive sludge.
• Getting to see Frank Mullen’s final hometown show in NYC was beyond fun. The man has lost none of his charisma or vocal prowess over 30 years, so while it’s sad to see him leaving the band permanently, it was awesome to see him go out on top. Death chops for eternity.
• Lordy, I sure did listen to a lot of Cannibal Corpse this year.
• I really enjoyed writing a primer about Edge of Sanity.
• Biggest disappointments of the year: Clutch and Pig Destroyer. Both bands sound tired, and neither is a band that can afford to sound tired.
• The world is rotten and yes, there are bands loaded with garbage humans that have garbage views and do garbage things. But propping up bad bands just because they make liberal politics into a gimmick isn’t making political activism better, it’s just making heavy metal worse. There are heaps of great bands with progressive views.
Apologies to albums I just didn’t spend enough time with prior to list-making, especially the new Veilburner.
HE WAS A SHARK
It was with great sadness that we bid farewell to Mark “The Shark” Shelton of Manilla Road in 2018. Shark was perhaps the ultimate warrior for underground heavy metal, keeping his band mostly active for over 40 years while releasing countless great records. The 80s quartet of Crystal Logic, Open the Gates, The Deluge, and Mystification was especially masterful, and as good a run for epic heavy metal as has ever been written. His output was so great that even in 2018 a lost demo by the short-lived Shelton-Chastain project was released (the other person was David T. Chastain of… Chastain). The Edge of Sanity isn’t just a neat curiosity for hardcore fans, but a really great set of epic 80s metal. Chastain’s riffs were colossal, and Shark’s vocal prowess was at its peak.
But more than just his music, Shelton’s warmth and huge smile made him incredibly approachable. His band never experienced great financial success, but his enthusiasm for the life of heavy metal never waned, giving any fan time with a hand shake or huge pat on the back. In the summer of 2012, a few of us Last Ritesers went to a festival in rural Ohio to see Manilla Road headline. During power outages caused by some really crazy storms, people and bands were all just hanging around talking, and we got to meet Shark and have a little chat with him and his bandmates. I talked to him for all of 15 minutes, but he remembered who I was when we saw Road again at Maryland Death Fest the following year, running up to say hey and even watching the Melvins set with us. Laughing, rocking, and most of all smiling endlessly.
This unfaltering exuberance for fans, friends, family, and music is more than just admirable—it’s all too rare in an industry as cannibalistic as music. I’d like to think that Shark lasted 40 years in the business not just because he never lost his passion for the music, but because he never lost his passion for the people.
Shark was the rarest of souls. He leaves us with a glorious musical legacy, but also a hole in the world of heavy metal that can never be filled again.
Finally, as Captain so lovingly stated in his personal article, Last Rites really is a family. Our meetups are the best times of the times, and I really can’t overstate how much these goons mean to me. I even met my soon-to-be-wife on the old MetalReview Forums Ov Yore. I’d say that’s a pretty big something, eh? Not sure where I’d be today had I not listened to a college pal that said I should be spending times on those forums to learn about music, make friends, and generally act the fool. Some place not nearly as cool, I imagine.
Thanks for reading, everybody. Talk to you in 2019. Up the hammers.