2018 has been a year attempting to actively bring as much positivity into my life as possible. As far as heavy metal goes, no that does not mean you are about to read a top twenty list of the best power metal albums of the year. My captain and great friend has already accomplished this and it should be mandatory reading if you care at all about power metal. However, I took quite a few steps to ensure my mental health would not decline as the rest of the world around me does, and although I am not going to bore you with the lot of them, I will briefly mention some of the things that most of my metalhead readers and friends will probably find special.
First, I visited Finland for the first time this year. It’s funny to think that a friend who’s wife was very skeptical about visiting his “metalhead bartender friend in New Orleans” a few years back would want to spend countless hours getting hammered and kicking my ass at Yahtzee at her home in Helsinki, but hey, I’m a charming guy. Aside from drinking and playing Yahtzee, I was able to attend Helsinki Deathfest, which was a blast. We drove up to the beautiful Lake Päijänne and went camping there for a few nights and listened to many of the albums you’ll see listed below on a shitty bluetooth speaker. I proposed to my now-fiance and didn’t drop the ring into the lake. We did manage to get shipwrecked on some stupid island the very next day, however, but that was my buddy’s fault for not properly debriefing us as to the whereabouts on where to dock the fucking rowboat boat on a small, uninhabited island surrounded by jagged rocks. So we were able to get rescued by the fire department as well, which isn’t quite as metal as swimming all the way back naked, but at least we’re still alive. It’s kind of a beautiful thing to be in a cabin with no running water and still have the capability to listen to metal albums via internet.
On the way back to Helsinki, we stopped in Lahti and went to Sarvilevyt to pay Mikko Aspa a visit. Obviously, fantastically curated record stores are usually on my radar, but ones that put so much emphasis on non-metal by a person with so much presence within the metal scene strikes home with me. Although we talked briefly about Clandestine Blaze, it was funny of him not to even mention the album he would be dropping just a few months later. That one missed the cut this year, but I remain a fan of bands that continue to uphold the sound of pure black metal the way Judas Iscariot and Darkthrone did for so long. I also purchased The Devil’s Cradle, The Story of Finnish Black Metal, and I highly recommend this book. After my two weeks in Finland I can confidently say that the country has the strongest metal scene I have experienced anywhere in the world. The output of quality Finnish bands per capita really speaks for itself.
Speaking of wishing the world consisted only of smaller villages and not giant cities, I decided to tackle Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series this year. I have to give a shout out to the two dudes from Salt Lake City that inspired me to finally read the series. Yes I am talking about Caladan Brood. This series was as close to anything life-changing that a fantasy series could have on an adult. If I have time, I’m going to make a video with no spoilers covering a review of the series. I’d rather you see the effect it had on me than read a bunch of rehearsed words on a computer screen. Plus, if you don’t care about fantasy, you don’t have to watch it! It seems the excitement for the series has carried over to a lot of the Last Rites staff as well, so I’m greatly looking forward to seeing how it will affect the team as a whole. Shared tears tend to bring close people even closer together, and our team has never been stronger. Hell, meeting up once a year for Deathfest isn’t even enough anymore. If our partners ever discover the real reason why we keep getting married is just a conspiracy to have more Last Rites meetups, they’ll probably take us for everything we’re worth!
And now for the hard part. Mark Shelton’s death was the most horrible loss heavy metal has experienced in quite some time. Yes, we are all getting older, and most of our heroes are older than us, but unlike metal gods that have come and gone leaving only their legacies, Mark left the world as someone who signed onto Facebook every day to tell people he hadn’t even met “happy birthday.” Do you think you possess that sort of compassion? The heart to do the little things that don’t really bring about any reward except for the occasional “thank you” or hope that you made a person smile. I certainly don’t, but I sure hope to one day. Mark wasn’t just a heavy metal icon with a beautiful voice who knew how to write riffs; he was one of us. Someone who was always hanging out with fans who were happy to share the worlds he created through his albums. Worlds to conquer… worlds to share. It seems the older I get, the less I can pinpoint what I really believe happens to a person the moment the light leaves their eyes. I suppose we will all kick open our own gates one day, and until then, I’ll be forever thankful that people like Mark passed their light on to us.
I hope you enjoy the albums I am about to mention, but more importantly, I hope that you take the time to enjoy Manilla Road. Thanks in advance, as always, for reading and sharing. Hope to see you back next year.
The True KK
KICK OPEN THE GATE, WHISKEYJACK
20. Kriegsmaschine – Apocalypticists
There are things Apocalypticists is and things that it is not, and it is certainly far from the strongest Kriegsmaschine release to date. Not much has been written publicly about Destroyer’s (aka Konrad Ramotowski) lack of studio involvement on the album (great name, eh?)—one can’t help but feel that whatever element that made everything since Altered States of Divinity so special went missing this time around. However, Apocalypticists is one of the most real triumphs of both technical and creative drumming that has ever existed on a black metal album. If drum enthusiasts loved Darkside’s high-hat work on the latest Mgła album, they are going to be studying his work here for years to come.
19. Master’s Hammer – Fascinator
Have you been curious enough about Master’s Hammer’s lyrical content to translate the lyrics? Neither have I; predominantly out of fear that discovering the text isn’t as weird as it sounds would take away from the listening experience. But I want to think that it’s as bizarre as the artwork that has been occupying the band’s album covers as of late. Being a progressive, Czech version of viking/black era Bathory is cool, but pulling off the style while probably singing about really weird sea urchins terrorizing humans as they ingest radioactive psilocybin is even more awesome, and quite fitting after observing the band’s fun-loving stage performance.
18. Khôrada – Salt
Selfish actions are rarely thought out, and almost always result in negative effects that tend to reach far beyond anything that was ever initially intended. The formation of Khôrada was a result of a beloved band being forced to split apart, but also the fulcrum with which three members of Agalloch rested their desire and strength to begin their own healing process after being kicked out of their own band. Aaron Gregory, with his tragically beautiful vocals, ensnares his listeners so well that the performances of the other three members tend to hide a bit more than expected. But isn’t hiding something we all do when we are hurt? Keep listening, because they are here. Don, Jason, and Aesop are still here.
17. Solstice – White Horse Hill
I like to think of doom metal bands that are commonly classified as “epic” in a very similar manner as “high” fantasy literature. There is a richness to Solstice’s music that just takes extra steps to ensure all those giving it a serious shot will be swept away to an imaginative, well-thought-out place that’s not quite like anything else. For a band that has gone through enough lineup changes to look borderline disastrous on paper, the magic that happened on White Horse Hill certainly feels meant to be. Paul Kearns’ vocal performance alone is one for the ages.
16. Judas Priest – Firepower
Did you know we argue about things behind the scenes over at Last Rites? If you want a visual image of what day-to-day operations look like behind the scenes, put a bunch of Siamese fighting fish in the same tank and then place said tank in one of those silly mirror fun houses you used to try to crawl though in your youth. Yeah, it’s like that. You know what we don’t really argue about? The all-time top five bands in heavy metal. Maiden. Priest. Sabbath. Fate/Diamond. Death. And when one of those bands delivers the best material it has recorded in over two decades, you know damn well it’s going to make a lot of lists. Yeah, that’s right, I said it: over two decades. Now, the next thing we need to do is get the band to not play so many US shows in goofy casinos in the middle of nowhere, but that’s an argument for another time.
15. Acherontas – Faustian Ethos
Acherontas probably decided a long time ago that he was never going to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and his songwriting tends to be the strongest when that is kept fully in mind. There is something remarkable about the band’s ability to fuse extremely classic, Maiden-esque guitar melodies with… well, very standard second wave black metal. Sure, there are very obvious levels of Greek-ness that the band has always put on display, but if listeners are still not sold on Acherontas having very real top-tier potential, go ahead jump to the final track of Faustian Ethos. Just follow the guitars and everything else will fall into place. Faustian Ethos is a refreshing return to the same form that allowed Theosis and Vamachara to stand out so easily from all the albums that followed, until now.
14. Pale Divine – Pale Divine
Pale Divine contains so many elements of what basically everyone loves about heavy metal that it’s nigh impossible not to enjoy if you’re a fan of the genre. The bluesier aspects of the vocals and guitars feel a little like Clutch at times and Hendrix during others, while Darin McCloskey’s time signatures are reminiscent of Clive Burr’s work on the first trio Maiden albums, and the bass work hits that St. Vitus / Grand Magus / Sabbath sweet spot oh-so-nicely as well. As far as pure, classic doom goes, Pale Divine has released what I would easily consider the strongest contender for doom album of the year, and arguably the strongest album of its career to date.
13. Bong – Thought and Existence
Sifting through Bong’s entire discography is something that I’ll unfortunately never be high enough to accomplish, but having heard all of the band’s main material to date and also having never really enjoyed much of it, I can say with quite a bit of confidence that this is be best place to start if you love early to mid-era Earth. While Thought and Existence maintains quite a nice balance between drone and stoner doom, it’s a near perfect album for fans of music that allows one to drift off while still focusing entirely on the music and nothing else. Yes, getting extremely baked and blasting this sucker is enjoyable, but no more so than listening to it a few weeks sober over a nice bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios first thing in the morning. Whatever state of mind you’d like to have in preparation for the album, just be sure to crank up the volume and the subwoofer.
12. Michael Romeo – War of the Worlds, Pt. 1
Ever since the release of Symphony X’s The Odyssey, Michael Romeo has had much of the metal world convinced he can mop the floor with 99.9% of the world’s guitarists. What’s fascinating about his second solo album is just how fascinating the songwriting and production are outside of the guitars. At times, it feels like John Williams was one Romeo’s biggest inspirations here, while other moments gravitate toward songwriting not uncommon to Symphony X itself. Having Richie Castellano, multi-instrumentalist from Blue Öyster Cult, is certainly another added bonus, and although much of the world has never heard his voice, the influences from Queen / Yes / Genesis are as obvious as they are a welcome addition to the quality of the songwriting. Although the album feels a little rough around the edges during its rare moments of aggressive EDM experimentation, it is a much welcome addition to Romeo’s personal canon and a masterful display of world building through progressive metal.
11. Deceased… – Ghostly White
“We’re ten hours from the fuckin’ fun park and you want to bail out! Well, I’ll tell you something, this is no longer a vacation, it’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. I’m gonna have fun and you’re gonna have fun. We’re all gonna have so much fuckin’ fun we’ll need plastic surgery to remove our goddam smiles! You’ll be whistling “Zippity Doo Da” out of your assholes!”
While the above quotes and moments from which they came may not describe the music on Deceased’s latest album, they sure as shit describe the HORRIFICALLY FUN mood the band always puts me in! “Germ of Distorted Lore” may be this year in death metal’s crowning achievement. Friends and family of Dave “Scarface” Castillo should be proud and honored to have known a man that for so long carried the rhythm of a band that brought smiles to faces of countless fans worldwide. Rest in peace.
10. NAHTRUNAR – MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM
I… I still know virtually nothing about this band. But that’s quite okay, because we know that Nahtrunar can write serious riffs. Nahtrunar bears a striking resemblance to the era when Taake was playing much more straightforward, second wave black metal. Mysterium Tremendum is black metal’s best example this year of how to sound completely original without really being unique in the slightest. Forty five minutes of constant tremolo and backing guitar melodies on top of growling vocals and very competent drumming is really what’s presented here—meat and potatoes black metal if there ever was such a thing. If you’re really into that, this meal is accompanied by plenty of butter, garlic, salt, and rosemary to go along with the meat and potatoes.
9. MOURNFUL CONGREGATION – THE INCUBUS OF KARMA
The Incubus of Karma is the most challenging album that Australian funeral doom veterans Mournful Congregation have ever written. Whichever album of theirs is the strongest should be left to music historians one hundred years from now to debate, but if The Monad of Creation and The Book of Kings are in the running, this one at least deserves to be a part of the conversation. Out of the three albums—all of which are fantastic—Incubus certainly took the longest time to process, mostly due to the fact that it’s among the most complete concept work the band has ever pulled off. Prior to this release, the best of the band’s songs always felt as if they consisted of flawless examples of funeral doom that each had their own arcs. The current album at hand, however, really needs to be ingested at one time, which is what makes it so challenging. Thankfully, funeral doom might be the least diluted genre in heavy metal, which is what makes releases such as this one so few and far between. Mournful Congregation remains one of the heaviest hitters of the style since its inception, and my personal favorite outside of Finland.
8. SVARTIDAUDI – REVELATIONS OF THE RED SWORD
When it comes to the ridiculously interesting Svartidauði interviews that have taken place since the announcement of Revelations of the Red Sword, there are some things that intrigued the shit out of me and others that seemed a bit, well, overblown. I’ll save the metaphysics and religious philosophy for another time (or never), but if there’s one disagreement I’ve had with some statements that were made is the band’s refusal to cite many influences in terms of what continues to shape its music. Revelations of the Red Sword sounds a helluva lot like the cavernous, avant-garde black metal that Iceland is already famous for. AND THAT IS AWESOME! In fact, some of the problems I have with the overly massive, cavern-sounding black metal is that it isn’t usually backed by songwriting that is very enjoyable. I will say this, though: Whatever magical Icelandic deity Svartidauði and the Icelandic national soccer team have been praying to is certainly answering all of the sincere invocations. In fact, this is the first release from an avant-garde act that has successfully out-deathspelled Deathspell Omega.
7. VISIGOTH – CONQUEROR’S OATH
Jake Rogers has some serious pipes. Some singers, such as Patrick Walker, just knock listeners off their feet because every note comes directly from the heart. Others have the same effect because of the sheer power and ferocity of their vocal cords due to choir training. Jake Rogers seems to hit his fans from both of these abilities at once, and the rest of the band flanks him with the best traditional songwriting a US band has put on display since Eternal Champion took every traditional power fan by surprise two years ago. Conqueror’s Oath is a massive improvement on what was a very strong debut from Visigoth, and seeing the band members humbly react to great attendances from international gigs makes every ounce of the group’s recently acquired fame 100% deserved. But that voice… I know I recognize it from somewhere else. What’s that other band called? Nefarias Bredd? No, that’s not it. I’ll think of it sooner or later…
6. SLEEP – THE SCIENCES
I never saw any point to celebrating the “holiday” of 4/20, quite frankly, because I don’t understand why more people don’t just get high on a regular basis. I get it, you like getting really high on 4/20 and you can’t wait for it to come around again so that you can get super baked and have so much fun. Guess what? Good weed is readily available in so many places, now! You don’t have to wait for 4/20. You can smoke right now. Oh shit, there was a point to this rant, wasn’t there? Oh yeah, I actually celebrated this 4/20 by getting really high and listening to the most surprising album that was dropped on all of our heads this year. Sleep did an impeccable job not letting this secret very far from its chest, and now I really can’t wait to smoke lots of weed and listen to it. Just as soon as I finish this list. Where was I again?
5. SVRM – Лихиї вітри стогнуть без упину
Remember the days when you’d buy an album just because you loved the cover? Remember those rare albums that really, really, did a fantastic job not only being as awesome as their covers, but also made you feel the same emotions that the cover did? Ironically, I bought this on a whim because it made me feel like Drudkh’s Blood in our Wells as soon as I gazed upon it. Svrm, a solo project also from Ukraine, provided fans of atmospheric black metal with one of the most emotionally devastating musical experiences of the year. At times, the over saturation of half-assed “atmo-black” is enough to make me want to give up on any newcomers to the genre, but then a band like this comes along and just makes me want to go into the forest and cry. Where many bands pretentiously burden their listeners with 78 minutes of nature sounds and very few actual riffs, Svrm presents a humble, 25 minute offering that is truly stunning from start to finish.
4. A FOREST OF STARS – GRAVE MOUNDS AND GRAVE MISTAKES
If you read my review of Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes a few months back, you will find a statement that may have been entirely incorrect. After many, many listens of the most recent effort from these British wackjobs, I am not quite sure that it isn’t the A Forest of Stars’ greatest accomplishment. Where A Shadowplay for Yesterdays was the band’s first real triumph in production and also contained its most cohesive songwriting from start to finish, Grave Mounds refines those ideas by pushing the psychedelic chaos much more gently into the its listener’s ears. I can’t help but feel that the construction of an album such as this really requires each member of the band to fully participate in every step of the way. The instrumentation is as meticulous as it is powerful, and the album’s conclusion is mind-blowingly astonishing. A Forest of Stars will always be somewhat of a niche band, but it certainly deserves to have a more massive following once this one fully sinks in.
3. OKSENNUS – KOLME TOISTA
Oksennus is one of those bands that presents the following question: Is it straightforward death metal that’s done kind of weird, or is it weird death metal that’s done rather straightforward? Although my carrot intake has increased since the album dropped, I have yet to come up with an answer. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Kolme Toista is that it can take the form of a groovy, fun, easy listen on the surface or a challenging, meticulously-timed masterpiece that requires months to properly dissect. It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story that’s fun for the whole family! Especially if your family consists of a bunch of Finnish weirdos who really love eating carrots! Porkkanat is the word for carrots in Finnish, just in case you were wondering. Just what is in the water over there, anyways?
2. MÖRKÖ – ULVOVA TYHJYYS
All of Mörkö’s bizarre experiments have been fun to observe over the years, but the band often came off as a once-listen and then forget-about experience until a new album arrived. However, knowing full well what its members had obtained in other projects such as Jumalhämärä, there was always hope that Mörkö could really deliver something as perfect as it was otherworldly. Well, after nearly twenty years of attempting to reach the sky, Ulvova Tyhjyys shoots clear up out of the Earth’s atmosphere. The beauty of Ulvova Tyhjyys is that it’s constructed with elements of psychedelia that are not overly monotonous (early Paul Chain), or difficult at times to grasp if you’re not in the right mood (early Darkspace). If there’s a metal album meant for open-minded fans and non-fans of heavy metal in 2018, this is the one. Minimalist, psychedelic, violent chamber black metal from outer space has never sounded so orgasmic!
1. W.A.I.L. – VOL. II
Wisdom through Agony into Illumination and Lunacy was supposed to be the album that never was. Recorded over four years ago now, there was almost no chance of it ever seeing the light of day. And then, one day, it came to be. While physical copies of the release were far less limited than that of its predecessor, Vol. I, it hasn’t made nearly the impact in the world that it should have.
I can still remember vividly, in 2009, sitting in a goddamn coffee shop on the 1200 block of Decatur St. attempting to write about the first W.A.I.L. album. I had been listening to it for weeks, and I listened to it all morning while I was painting houses before going to the coffee shop that Saturday. The words failed me entirely. Just a shitty review that took me five or six hours and I didn’t even come close to describing the brilliance of that first release.
In 2018, I did the same exact thing, and I did it having been a fan of the unreleased album since I was sent the mastered tape of it four years ago. Hundreds of listens ago. I even wrote the damn thing the night before flying to Finland, in hopes that my excitement of visiting one of my very best friends would spawn the inspiration I needed to make the thing read like it was written by someone who at least knew what the slightest fuck they were talking about. I do and I don’t, and that will always be the case. And I’m fine with that.
The albums that have always reached the top of my lists throughout the years have been extreme albums. I am in the business of writing about heavy metal because I believe that extreme music is the greatest art form on the planet. While Amorphis was a wonderful staff choice that absolutely deserves the number one spot on any list this year, I am not here to push radio albums that little league Nordic soccer families are singing along to in their cars on their ways to and from practice.
Wisdom through Agony into Illumination and Lunacy is the greatest extreme metal album this year because it demonstrates absolute mastery of heavy metal’s three most important genres since the late 80’s: Doom, death, and black metal. And the proficiency with which W.A.I.L. seamlessly blends these styles together has, quite frankly, never been matched. Oh, and on top of all that, the band has written and incorporated a 7.5 minute classical piano segment that would have hit even Beethoven like a freight train.
W.A.I.L. – Vol. II: The greatest album of 2018. The album that was.