Metal indisputably has a penchant for melodrama, from the larger-than-life stage shows to the rumors and stories that weave their way into the fabric of heavy metal legend. Sensationalism has followed metal since the earliest days of back-masked suicidal messages to the age of the Satanic Panic in the 80s, followed by the blaming of metal for violent behavior in the 90s up to the heated politically-charged climate of today. While we are still a part of the society that surrounds us, whether we like it or want to admit it or not, we have, in a way, created a world for ourselves that operates in a distorted reflection of this outside world, and one that tends to be weighted in extremes. While plenty of what gets highlighted tends to be sensationalist and negative, there are plenty of extremities that swing the other way. Thinking back on the year, the amount of overflowing love, support, and unity that reverberated through much of the community when the news of Mark Shelton’s passing hit was a shining example of humanity amongst what was certainly a tragic and unexpected loss. Everyone that met the man had a story and nothing but fond memories, and on that day it truly felt like lifting a fallen warrior, an NCO, one of us down in the nitty gritty of it all, a true leader who lived his life for his passion and shared it in a way that made this world we’ve created just a little better. In 2018, the phrase “extreme music for extreme people” is embarrassingly cringe-worthy, but still applies. Everything in our world tends to be at least a little larger than life, from our passion for the music to our passions that motivate us, to the polar dualities that occupy our place in this grand mess of things that surrounds us. Growth cannot occur without conflict.
I went through my fair share of growth this year. And like the outside world, everything seemed to be firmly rooted in polarities. The lows sucked—I mean, really sucked, though I won’t bore you with my woes—but the highs, those were truly moments to be celebrated. Amongst the ranks here at Last Rites there were plenty of reasons for celebration: engagements (congrats to Zach), watching the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time (congrats to Manny), weddings (congrats to Andrew, condolences to his wife), accidentally pissing off a favorite musician (congrats to Dan), career achievements (congrats to Konrad), and the arrival of not one, but two King Diamond action figures (congrats to everybody). Local to me, the Rapid Fire II fest back in November was a terrific success thanks to the tireless efforts of a handful of bands and a certain mustachioed promoter really busting their ass to make metal not only survive, but prosper in our region. It is these shared moments of triumph that amplify our lives like the wall of Marshall stacks, pounding the point home over the often less-than-steady rhythms of everyday life. Through all the ups and downs, struggles, victories, and conflict that occupied the year, I can at least emerge from it all finally confident that Branded And Exiled is actually my favorite Running Wild album, and not Gates To Purgatory, as I so foolishly once believed. I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for it, after all, growth cannot occur without conflict. But let’s talk about the music of 2018, shall we?
It is somewhere between the lands of fantasy and reality that true magic happens. Being able to escape to another plane provides the opportunity to alter one’s perspective, which can, in turn, alter how we see the world around us. Music has always been the principle conduit for such exercises, at least for your truly. So much of the experience depends on the listener and where they are in that moment that it becomes something personal–a connection between the artist and the listener that is unique to the individual. I probably don’t need to spell this out in excruciating detail but it’s worth mentioning that everyone’s list is different for a reason. While some albums seem to gain a wider consensus of appeal, the matter of taste is ultimately singular. The moments that make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, the imagery you paint for yourself in the mind as you explore tales, experiences, bodily dismemberment, philosophies, ancient rituals, cultures, ideas, spaceships, experimental medieval torture, and of course, music from perspectives foreign to your own is indeed an intensely personal undergoing. This being said, here are the 20 albums that did the damn thing and made my world a little more bearable in 2018.
Albums That Did The Damn Thing, 20-11
20. Medieval Demon – Medieval Necromancy
This actually wasn’t on my original list, and I’m not usually one for last-minute additions, but this has been begging for so many listens the past month that I had to include it. All the epicness and bombasity one would want from Greek black metal, but with an old feel, as though its members were cryogenically frozen in 1994 and thawed out in 2018 to create some of the best black metal of the year with an expertly crafted combination of atmosphere and, most importantly, riffs!
19. Stunner – Turbo City
Not everything on a year-end list has to be groundbreaking or progressive. Stunner deliver straightforward, action-packed, high-speed heavy metal rock ‘n’ roll with all the fat trimmed down. What’s special here is that every single song is catchy, and it’s such an easy album to sing along to from beginning to end, with some real anthemic scorchers that lift the spirits with unbridled ease. Made explicitly for open roads and wild nights.
18. 夢遊病者 (Sleepwalker) – 一期一会 (For This Time Only, Never Again)
Speaking of extremes, Sleepwalker have been pushing the very boundaries of not just black metal, but the whole of metal itself to the point where I was debating whether or not For This Time Only, Never Again should even be included on a metal-specific list. The lengths of experimentation this band goes to are much more suited for some sort of jazz comparison, and even more so on this release. Having developed a more diverse sandbox of nightmares to play in on their latest effort, Sleepwalker create a masterwork of an oddity so profoundly unique that only they could pull off.
17. Torture Rack – Malefic Humiliation
Something to be said for truth in advertising. Torture Rack’s grimy death approach is so convincingly well-executed that it makes you sticky with sweat just from listening to it. A lot of acts get lumped in with the “old-school death metal” tags, but Torture Rack are the real deal–bludgeoning riffs wallowing amidst a thick swamp of distorted low end to induce involuntary head-banging on the part of the listener. Sure, there are a plenty of bands that do it, but Torture Rack simply do it better than most.
16. Deathhammer – Chained To Hell
15. Rebel Wizard – Voluptuous Worship Of Rapture And Response
I’m always a sucker for when black metal bands take inspiration from the more traditional styles. While usually this comes across in a more Master’s Hammer type fashion (think Mortuary Drape or Malokarpatan), Rebel Wizard’s approach is almost all-out power metal played with the studio settings and equipment from Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse. Fuzzy and abrasive, yet at the same time lofty and uplifting, it borders on the extreme end of ridiculousness. This insanity, of course, only makes it better. Embrace the absurdity, embrace the chaos, and go on a journey of shred through the world of negative wizard metal.
14. Cultes des Ghoules – Sinister, Or Treading The Darker Paths
Cultes des Ghoules made a bit of a return to form on Sinister, and managed to put out one of the best riffs of the year on “The Woods Of Power.” I have no clue how they manage to make songs at and around the ten minute mark that seem like they are over in half the time using largely first-wave black metal riffing, but they do so with ease. The vocal performance is also of particular note; it feels both theatrical and evil. Combine all this with an atmosphere loaded with sinister intent for a record that could only be described as, well, sinister.
13. Jyotiṣavedāṅga – Thermogravimetry Warp Continuum
For whatever reason, I didn’t find myself listening to quite as much war metal (and war metal adjacent) bands this year as I normally do. But man, am I glad I stumbled across Jyotiṣavedāṅga. At the album’s start, it sounds like Blasphemy in the midst of an intergalactic space battle occurring at the edge of a black hole, but actually progresses a bit more in terms of song complexity and instrumentation as the record goes on. In a style that rarely sees much progression, it is refreshing to see a band pushing the limits and exploring while still maintaining the aggression at its root. One of the most ferocious encounters with total sonic assault to be found this year.
12. Oksennus – Kolme Toista
Oksennus make death metal that doesn’t sound like any other death metal, but still distinctly sounds like death metal. What sounds like chaotic, free-played noise on the surface is actually a multi-layered bizarro construction of unsettling hypnotic terror. It would be impossible to tell what is intentional and what is simply part of the chaos. While the band has a varied back catalog, the riddle that is Kolme Toista is undeniably some of the band’s finest (weirdest?) work to date, particularly in the drum department. Seriously, these guys manage to out-weird Portal, so if you’re looking to get lost in some sort of mind-altering nightmare, especially one involving omniscient carrots, Oksennus has you covered.
11. Altar Of Perversion – Intra Naos
Emerging after a twelve year hiatus, Altar Of Perversion made a huge leap in style from the days of excellent Darkthrone worship to become an almost entirely different entity of dissonant, hypnotic black metal delivered at a more labored, driving pace, as though weighted with the burdens that come with a more mature perspective. The band has always been long winded, and the almost two hour opus of Intra Naos is no exception. While ordinarily I have trouble staying engaged in such long works, Intra Naos kept drawing me back in for more, which is more than testament enough to the strength of the music to infiltrate the mind and engage the senses.
The Ten That Did The Damn Thing The Damnedest
10. Street Force – Infinite Battles
Rampaging their way to the top ten are Street Force, delivering seven songs of battle-ready, blitzkrieg thrash that appeals directly to my tastes in both German and Brazilian thrash. In all honesty, I hear a lot more Sextrash here than anything, especially in the abrupt tempo changes that go from insanely fast to straight up ludicrous speed. And while not black/thrash in the sense of bands like Aura Noir or Desaster, Street Force retain the evil feel of the aforementioned early Brazilian scene, albeit not as sloppy or haphazard. Infinite Battles is a finely-tuned display of thrash destruction that is nothing short of hyper-aggressive from beginning to end for what is unquestionably my thrash album of the year.
9. Skulmagot – Skulled To Death
As far as old school death metal goes, Skulmagot have it dialed in on Skulled To Death. No fancypants technical wankery or artfully crafted death metal hybrids going on here, Skulmagot just want to, well, skull you to death with riffs. While not technical, the riffing is incredibly creative and simultaneously catchy–on every goddamn track. Picking a favorite song has proved to be a complete impossibility, any time I listen I have to play from start to finish. One could certainly be fooled into thinking this was a long lost gem of a death metal album, and it really is, just hiding in plain sight amongst the sea of death metal that has been released this year.
8. Messa – Feast For Water
Only one traditional doom record made it on my top 20 this year, though to call Messa traditional in any way would be a disservice to their sound. While so many doom bands tend to get lumped in as sounding like mono-dimensional gearheads trying to push fuzz through a Sunn amp, Messa strip the genre down and rebuild it from the ground up. Rather than fill every moment with a wall of sound, the band’s use of space creates incredible dynamics for their warm, smokey tones. The vocals are outstanding, filled with soul and passion, belting out over the bluesy haze laid down by the band. For example, a good portion of “The Seer” channels guitar stylings not unlike that of Stevie Ray Vaughan, naturally flowing licks of fire sparking brightly across the coals. Messa manage to keep things heavy on tracks like “Tulsi,” which has these little breakouts of black metal styled riffing that return to a smoldering single note tremolo that brings the smoke factor on Feast For Water up by a factor of 100, not to mention the sublime saxophone solo at the end. I could go on, but it’s time to talk about –
7. Varathron – Patriarchs Of Evil
For me, the classic Hellenic black metal acts just continue to get better with time. Varathron’s bombastic Patriarchs Of Evil is no exception. Thrashier in the modern day than their countrymen in Kawir or Rotting Christ, Varathron build on top of their black metal sound to create an almost symphonic experience. The drums add a lot of color, dancing across the cymbals rolling through fills of thunderous toms. The riffs are off the charts, constantly remaining at the heart of the songs, with everything else just making it sound larger and larger. Patriarchs Of Evil sounds absolutely massive, and Varathron have no trouble wielding the beast to deliver the goods, up to and especially including the epic closer of “Ouroboros Dweller.”
6. Satan – Cruel Magic
I was a bit disappointed in traditional metal this year. There were a handful of really solid albums that I enjoyed enough, but there wasn’t a whole lot that absolutely wowed me, at least as far as full lengths are concerned. Thank god for Satan. I’ll lay my bias on the line with this one: Satan are probably my favorite NWOBHM band (closely followed by Angel Witch and Raven, thank you), and Cruel Magic has usurped Life Sentence and Atom By Atom to be my favorite Satan album of their modern era. Chock full of brilliant melodies, plenty of soul, feeling, and frankly stunning musicianship, Satan continue to prove that they are indeed living legends worthy of the crown.
5. Golgothan Remains – Perverse Offerings To The Void
Breakout death metal act of the year as far as I’m concerned. Golgothan Remains create otherworldly death metal in a vacuum pit of high-gravity, low toned production, with creative riffs that pummel and groove their way across the coldest corners of the cosmos. Perverse Offerings To The Void creates melodies from dissonance in a way that is rarely executed so well, even by bands with much more expansive back catalogs under their belts. And while the amount of death and black metal bands embracing the concept of “The Void” has become sorely comical, Golgothan Remains are the real deal, sending their listeners hurtling through a bleak realm of cosmic terror.
4. Deceased – Ghostly White
If you aren’t familiar with Deceased, it’s best to go ahead and familiarize yourself with their alloy of thrash and death metal with the heart of a traditional metal band. No, seriously, go ahead. This will still be here when you’re finished. If you are familiar with them, then you’ve probably already listened to Ghostly White and don’t need me (or the handsome and interesting Zach, whose review is linked below) to tell you that amongst a discography of list-worthy albums, this is deserved of its top five status. Metal DJ’s, if you aren’t playing “Germ Of Distorted Lore” in your year-end playlists, yer fuckin’ up. RIP Dave “Scarface” Castillo.
3. Mournful Congregation – The Incubus Of Karma
As with most people who aren’t outright lunatics (I know you’re out there), I tend to digest funeral doom in fairly limited doses. It takes a lot for me to stay engaged with, but Mournful Congregation went and took all the work out of it for me. Of all the earliest pioneers of the style, Mournful Congregation have had plenty of time to perfect their craft, and, to me at least, The Incubus Of Karma is about as close to a perfect funeral doom album as can be expected. It invites you in like a quiet lake, seducing the listener in beneath its lurid surface, suffocating you as it peacefully lulls you to the darkness with its sorrowfully beautiful lead guitar work. Mournful Congregation have stayed at the forefront of funeral doom since the earliest days of the style, and for me anyway, continue to push and perfect it with each release.
2. W.A.I.L. – Wisdom Through Agony Into Illumination And Lunacy, Vol. II
To attempt to fully explain the brilliance of W.A.I.L.’s massive undertaking on duality, destruction, and rebirth in just a few lines would be an impossible feat. (Luckily, our very own Konrad was kind enough to give a glimpse behind the curtains in his review.) To look at the unusual format of two songs at 25 and 35 minutes with a bit of skepticism would perhaps be forgivable, but any such misgivings will quickly be cast away by this megalithic tempest that elevates the band to the forefront of modern black metal. At the fulcrum of the two opposing megaliths is a haunting, ashen interlude that matches the tremendous weight of the destruction and ultimate re-emergence on its opposing sides. I am curious if there are plans for a continuation of the concepts of W.A.I.L., but I’ll wait, even if it takes another nine years for an album of this quality and depth.
1. A Forest Of Stars – Grave Mounds And Grave Mistakes
A Forest Of Stars are playing with fire. There are so many aspects of their approach that could backfire, or cause the whole ensemble to crumble. Grave Mounds And Grave Mistakes sits like a house of cards, a house constructed by a schizophrenic madman with enough gin on his breath to bring the delicate assembly crashing across the table top, whose lopsided legs are held steady with four sugar packets and wishful thinking now long forgotten. This isn’t the first dance with madness for the band so much as it is a culmination of elements of their previous works into a grandiose, unparalleled endeavor of auditory theatricality. The stream-of-consciousness vocals are spewed across the canvas of crescendoing black metal that percolates, intensifies, and reaches critical mass before detonating into a thunderous cacophony of sonic color. The dynamics across Grave Mounds And Grave Mistakes are extraordinary, and make full use of the members’ multi-instrumental talents to add lush and vivid pigmentation, not just to the imagery of Victorian lunacy but, and this is just as important, to the softer, more delicate moments as well. The concepts at the heart of the album focus on loss and remorse, on the frantic struggle for sanity in the face of the inevitability of death and decay, delivered in such dramatic decadence that I found it nigh-impossible not to be moved by the overwhelming passion put into this record, placing it firmly into what remained of my mind as the album that did the damn thing in 2018.
Lists That Are Not Full Length Albums, But One Kind Of Is
Ryan’s 10 EPs/Demos That Did The Damn Thing
10. Mortiferum – Altar Of Decay
Lurking death/doom, Mortiferum is the thing that skulks in the shadows, the terrifying fear of the unknown and the dread of decay and decrepitude. The drum work here is key, the swing of the plodding kick drums and loose style add a lot to the feel of the music, the eerie, doomy passages and the somehow still-weighted feeling of the blasts lumber along like a beast in the mire of an oily human compost. The riffs are simply hideous and grotesque, oozing with bile and rot. Death/doom is a dish often best served in deterioration, and, considering this was actually first released midway through 2017 and still made our collaborative staff list of the best EPs and demos of the year, I don’t think I am alone in this sentiment.
9. Isgalder – To The Hall Of The Stars
I enjoyed this enough when it came out, but it wasn’t until the music started echoing through my head even weeks after my initial run of listens that I started to truly appreciate Isgalder’s brand of pagan black metal. Dipping back in, I found myself emerging to a misty mountain land of old, with fjords of such awe-inspiring majesty that they would make Slartibartfast himself jealous of their divine workmanship. The dreamy atmosphere pairs well with the belted epics, and the alternating vocals manage to avoid the pitfalls of overcheesation.
8. Viölence – MotörDemon
A discovery from earlier in the year, I remember first hearing this right after I heard about the passing of Fast Eddie Clark. Goddamnit, that was this year too. Fittingly enough, the Motörhead influence is strong with this one, in case the umlauts aren’t enough indication. I found myself returning to this over and over again throughout the year and always enjoying it’s high energy black ‘n’ roll speed metal and punkish attitude. Viölence has been picking up momentum throughout the year, having gone from a one-man studio project to a fully-formed band now gigging around their native Australia.
7. Sodom – Partisan
Thrash bands are, possibly more so than any other sub-genre (perhaps some death metal bands could give them a run for their money), notoriously guilty of promising a “return to the old days” and promptly falling flat on their faces like it’s 1984 and they’ve been shotgunning beers by the case in mom’s basement after recording their fourth rehearsal demo. Sure, there have been comeback records, but rarely do bands pull this off with the return-to-form avenue. It feels like something only a band like Sodom could do, and well after the days of thrash resurgence have come to a close. I feel like this is attributed to three key factors: 1) obviously, the return of Frank Blackfire, 2) it felt like a logical time for the band to do it, and, most importantly, 3) the decision to revisit an era circa Tapping The Vein rather than their most beloved black metal years or undisputed thrassics like Persecution Mania or Agent Orange. It’s still an era of the band I thoroughly enjoy, but could be improved upon, like finally getting around to restoring that old Vietnam-era Huey that’s been gathering dust and rust in the backyard, perhaps upgrading some of the equipment to something more modern. There’s room to grow, and I hope it pays off as well on the new album as it did on the Partisan EP.
6. Heavy Sentence – Edge Of The Knife/Heavy Vengeance
Manchester, England’s Heavy Sentence sound like they are powered strictly by a healthy diet of booze, motor oil, and open roads. As one Bandcamp reviewer commented on their debut 7” last year, Heavy Sentence is “music to ride a motorbike through a shopping center at 3am high on cocaine to.” The sentiment holds true with both “Edge Of The Knife” and especially “Heavy Vengeance.” If the two 7”’s the band have released thus far are any indication, Heavy Sentence should command some serious attention from any fan of free-wheelin’ speed metal. Ride to Valhalla!
5. Ültra Raptör – Ültra Raptör
The first of three Canadian traditional/speed acts to make this list, Ültra Raptör are exactly what you’d expect: the barbaric rites of Omen meeting the sci-fi powered speed and agility of Agent Steel in the midst of battle, then giving birth to a laser-guided velociraptor powered by a supercharged 6.2L V8. The melodic, yet aggressive riffs conjoin with powerful, throaty vocals with plenty of mustache behind them to put you right where Ültra Raptör want you: at the mercy of their prehistoric steel. Being torn to shreds by serrated claws/serrated solos never felt so fun!
4. Shelton Chastain – The Edge Of Sanity
Loss is tough to cope with, but there is a bit of closure to be found when there is some sort of farewell. The Edge Of Sanity is precisely that, an unearthed demo of Mark doing what he made his life about: making music with his friends. Granted, it helps when you’re friends with David Chastain. Really though, The Edge Of Sanity sounds exactly what you’d expect from Shelton in the thrashier era of Manilla Road at the end of the 80’s: faster, harder, but with the classic, epic storytelling of Manilla Road and no restraints on the soloing. It may be farewell, but goddamn if he doesn’t go out in style.
3. Manacle – No Fear To Persevere
Ok, I don’t know what happened here as I could have sworn this was initially an EP, yet Metal Archives has it listed as a full-length. Probably has something to do with the twists and turns the band had to go through to finally get this released. Who knows. Granted, it’s almost exactly the length of Reign In Blood and would definitely have made my top twenty of the year, but here we are. Manacle come from the increasingly fertile metal forges of Canada, which seems to be on the brink of eruption, and not for the first time in the country’s history. Manacle have chosen a more US-styled power metal as their primary weapon of choice on No Fear To Persevere, and waste no time at all making every minute of it’s relatively short run-time count with its riffing, hooks, soaring vocals, and some incredibly chonky bass. Hopefully the release of the record helps ground the band’s shaky lineup issues, because I would love some more Manacle.
2. Chevalier – Chapitre II
The standouts in the ever-expanding wave of traditional metal that has been occuring are those who are master alchemists – managing to blend elements of their predecessors in a way that hides the seams, creating a work of inspiration rather than outright worship. When I try to deconstruct Chevalier, I hear elements of some of the best melodic speed metal has to offer: early Helloween and Sortilège thrown under the blanket of the fuzzy dream-state production of albums like Waiting For The Twilight, the, in my opinion, vastly underrated debut of France’s Nightmare. And they play fast. The urgency behind the songs blitzes across the fantastical melodies that paint the world of might and magic Chevalier have been crafting. These guys could just continue releasing EP’s and splits every year and I will happily purchase every one.
1. Traveler – Demo 2018
As I sit down to write this, I am putting Traveler’s demo on for what seems like the thousandth time. I missed two opportunities to cover this in the past year, the first being the initial release and the second being the vinyl release as a split with Coronary. Both times I regretted not doing so, but at the same time, I knew I would get to write about it at the end of the year. It hits the sweet spot – everything I love about traditional metal is here. But what’s more than that is the capacity for these three songs to deliver an emotional upswing unlike anything else I listened to this year. Traveler’s got a great thing going, and I’ll be keeping lookout with a watchful eye and a hopeful ear for the debut in February 2019.
Best Judas Priest Album Of 2018
1. Judas Priest – Firepower
It just feels weird judging those who played such an essential role in the development of our beloved heavy metal that I found it impossible find a place for it amongst my top twenty of the year. I mean, what other artists commands a week’s worth of feature articles when they release a new record? To be on the eighteenth album of their career and still doing the damn thing with bangers like “Firepower,” “Lightning Strike,” “Traitors Gate,” and even the call to arms of tracks like “Never The Heroes” is a clear testament to their divine status amongst the true believers. Firepower is a strong late addition to their discography (it’s been said a million times, but easily the best since Painkiller) and one I will happily reach for in the years to come.
Priest Week features:
• Judas Least: In Praise Of Filler
• Making A Case For Nostradamus
• Judas Priest Indebtedness Guest List: A Musician’s Perspective
• Last Pose Of Summer: Priest’s Fetching Fashions
Booze Hounds: Ryan’s Beer-End List
I haven’t kept up with enough music outside of metal that was released this year to do a list of non-metal releases (though Ashbury’s Eye Of The Stygian Witches does deserve a mention), so in lieu of a list of “other” albums I present my beer-end list.
5. National Bohemian – National Bohemian
• Not every beer on a beer-end list has to be flashy or groundbreaking. Much like Stunner delivered the goods in a straightforward manner with Turbo City, Natty Boh gets the job done in a way that goes down easy. Plus, they’re only two bucks at my local watering hole and I think they taste a little better than PBR.
4. Birdsong Brewing Company – Jalapeño Pale Ale
• My favorite brewery in my home city. The Jalapeño has been an off-and-on standby for me, and much like Cultes des Ghoules was on point for me this year, this beer just felt fresh to me again. It pairs great with wings, too!
3. Foothills Brewing Company – People’s Porter
• Much like I tend to be picky with funeral doom, I’m very selective about the porters I choose to enjoy. This one is delicious and not too dense. I don’t know how often I’ll be returning to it, but it’s certainly great while I’m drinking it.
2. New Belgium – Accumulation White IPA
• Winter beer rules.
1. Flying Dog – Raging Bitch IPA
• A heavy, Belgian-style IPA that packs a wallop. Way too delicious for its own good, this 8.3% ABV beer will quickly had me babbling about how how A Forest Of Stars was my album of the year and how Judas Priest can’t be judged amongst anyone else.
Cheers, and see you in 2019.
Dedicated to the Last Rites staff, who(m) inspire me to write better and, most importantly, listen better. (Sorry, Andrew, that doesn’t mean I’m giving up Darkthrone.)