In the lyrics to “I Wish,” the title track of the album of the same name, rapper Skee-Lo wished for many things. He wished for cars, for girls, for a rabbit in a hat with a bat. Why the rabbit needed a bat is anyone’s guess, but it’s a fun rhyme. Most famously and immediately, he wished he was a little bit taller. It is even implied that he wished for said increase in physical stature to become a baller, but height on its own does not make one good at basketball, and as Messrs. Murphy, Bogues, Johnson, and Webb can attest, shortness does not prevent baller skills.
The musical world is loaded with great examples of bands choosing to keep it short, stupid. Sometimes these moments of brevity are used as introductions, sometimes as stopgaps, and sometimes as a way to get a really weird idea out into the world before it drives the musicians mad. Each plate of heavy metal tapas might be a classic “extended play” (EP), or it might be a demo, but in 2019, most demos are basically the same as an EP anyway. No one is still trading dubbed cassettes across continents to get the word out; rather, fans are sending Bandcamp links to friends to get the best new stuff available for a name-your-price download. Insta-spread for insta-cred.
With this in mind, we again voted on our favorite EPs and demos of the year. The results are unsurprisingly all over the place. When it takes less time to digest a music release, people cast wide nets to find the best quick bites around. The team voted for over 40 releases to arrive at the list below, so the EPs showing up in individual lists will give an even wider selection.
Don’t sleep on the short stuff. Spud Webb won the dunk contest, after all. [ZACH DUVALL]
10. GRABUNHOLD – UNTER DEM BANNER DER TOTEN
“One of the most notable elements of Unter dem Banner is the slightly medieval tones that waft from the guitars. The drums throughout this concise EP mostly flirt with a simple but effective blast or two-step, but their main function is to keep the air clear for the guitar leads. For proof of just how to use a lead to nail a mood, check the guitar-only outro of album opener “Gespenster,” which morphs its melancholy chorus with increasing use of bends and wobbles as it winds down. “Gespenster” hits the same balance between raw aggression and tragedy that makes Gorgoroth’s Antichrist so compelling. “Hexentanz,” meanwhile, emulates the slightly more burnished and complex mood of very early Abigor, with its initial shambling shanty pace that opens out to a seriously lovely tremolo melody.” [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
9. SABIRE – GATES AJAR
“The best part about “Rise To The Top” is that so much can be accomplished in its three minutes and fifty-five seconds – doing the dishes, working out, pounding a case of beer in one sitting, folding laundry, walking the dog, and, of course, railing an eight ball of cocaine off of the thighs of a burlesque queen down at Leather & Lace at three-thirty in the morning – because everything becomes a montage while it’s running. The driving mid-tempo was made for anthems, and the phased guitar tone builds upon the foundation as the vocals send it on home. Scarlett’s ear for vocal harmony is in full play here, as the oh’s and woah’s that weave in and out beneath the main vocal lines provide subtle touches that breathe full life into the track.” [RYAN TYSINGER]
8. MEGATON SWORD – NIRALET
“Hop or canter or skip straight to the middle of this EP (which is maybe slightly too long for an EP, but whatever) and you’ll find a band trouncing along lockstep between straightforward pacing and a halting chorus of battle-crazed enthusiasm. It’s also there that you’ll find “Born Beneath the Sword,” which is where things lean a bit into the theatrical, if only for a moment. Elsewhere, like on the, ahem, opening track (more about that in a second), the band opens softly: picture the sun cresting over a perfectly groomed field, enemy spread breast-to-breast as far as the eye can see. As your heart rate increases, Megaton Sword begins to break their mashed potatoes riffs—crispy on the outside, skin on and loaded with butter.” [MANNY-O-WAR]
7. VADER – THY MESSENGER
If you’re not already a Vader fan, you may be beyond redemption.
For decades now, these particular Poles have been churning out incredibly reliable death metal. Every Vader release is a reason to celebrate, and the only criticism anyone could throw at Thy Messenger is that there’s simply not enough of it. With three new songs, a re-recording of the title track from 2000’s Litany album, and a fun cover of Judas Priest’s “Steeler,” Thy Messenger is prime Vader, all carving riff and Peter’s throaty bellow, just pure classic death metal fury done by a one of the masters of the style. After all these years, what else would you expect? [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
6. ULTHA – BELONG
Ultha (Germany), not to be confused with Ultar (Russia), Ulthar (US of A), or Ulta (a beauty supply store; also US of A), traffic in blackened, atmospheric metal. Much like The Great Old Ones or Ash Borer, Ultha eschew meaty riffs for blended guitars, synths, and drums that ebb and flow to create epic tapestries, enveloping the listener. Having released over an hour of compelling, adventurous black metal on 2018’s The Inextricable Wandering, it was a pleasant surprise to get another 38 minutes across the two songs that comprise Belong, barely a year later. It was an unpleasant surprise to see that the band is going on hiatus after headlining a small fest in their hometown of Cologne this month.
Ultha is all about setting a mood and letting the listener immerse themselves in the purposeful meandering of their songs. Shrieks, wails, and the occasional baroque singing float among the guitars and synths, and the peaks and valleys carry heavy emotional weight. If Ultha do not return from hiatus, they have left behind an impressive body of work over the past five years. But Belong does not feel like a swan song, so here’s hoping that their melancholy inspiration strikes again in the not too distant future. [FETUSGHOST]
5. SUFFERING HOUR – DWELL
“But once things really get wild, that whole beginning seems as much like a deke as it is a dynamic framework. Soon the band is back to getting busy, with fluttery, twitchy riffs and some crazy dissonant “hooks” that feel like the song trying to scratch off of its own skin. Many of the riffs are more technical reflections of the earlier slow material and some really up the thrash factor, with the whole thing seeming to build and twist upon itself as if it’s an organism experiencing constant mutation. The song returns to the more expansive passages at key moments, but most importantly near the end. Here it goes back to the peaceful motifs to lull the listener into thinking there is going to be a happy ending before shifting to a much darker, trudging finale.” [ZACH DUVALL]
4. ELDER – THE GOLD & SILVER SESSIONS
Anyone who’s well-informed in the world of psych / sludge / stoner / doom metal is familiar with MeteorCity, an Idaho-based label (now owned by All That Is Heavy) responsible for an endless supply of grade-A releases over the last two decades. Earlier this year, the folks behind MeteorCity announced plans to begin a “curated, year-long series of exclusive limited edition records” (under the name PostWax) offered to subscribers interested in having said records delivered directly to their doorstep. The artists involved are given carte blanche with regard to musical direction, and one of those bands—Rhode Island’s beloved Elder—submitted The Gold & Silver Sessions EP as the very first entry in the series.
If you already count yourself a fan of the band, you know what to expect with each subsequent release: drifty, steadily bending heavy psych that displays a number of faces, but that also never fails to emphasize a spirit of warmth and a fierce feeling of righteousness. Elder’s music is the soundtrack to all that’s good in life, and The Gold & Silver Sessions offers up an ideal audible portrait of leisure and a sense of nostalgia that never sounds excessively dusty. There are no words this time around, and the music was recorded live with a deliberate intention to explore a more jamming approach that underscores a continual smoothness and enjoyment by virtue of floating. The results are, in a word, comforting, and the EP proves once again that Elder are operating at the top of their game. [CAPTAIN]
3. DOLD VORDE ENS NAVN – GJENGANGERE I HJERTETS MORKE
“Musically, Dold Vorde Ens Navn is a bit more straightforward and bent on sincerely burning bodies to ash. Song number two, “Drukkenskapens Kirkegård” (“The Cemetery of Drunkenness”), is the most immediate in its enthusiasm for intensity, but the rest of what’s offered still manages to burn like frostbite, even if it’s unafraid to occasionally turn on a dime for extended mellow stretches—the closing “Blodets Hvisken” (“The Whisper of Blood”), for example, or the recently released “Vitnesbyrd” (“Testimonies”).” [CAPTAIN]
2. WORMED – METAPORTAL
“Which means you are getting four killer tracks from a top tier band of murderers, lest you dismiss. “Remote Void” finds Wormed blasting in their patented start/stop/GO style, with passages that ring like cathedral organs taking you to the fade-out. “Cryptoubiquity” is likewise chock full of start/stop ferocity, compelling but oddly phrased, quirkily bent riffs, and gurgling gurgles—so essentially the same thing. It synth-fades to “Bionic Relic”…which does all the same things again. Killer riffing, running, chunking, gurgling.” [CHRIS SESSIONS]
1. MORTAL INCARNATION – LUNAR RADIANT DAWN
Unlike some of the bands on this list, Japan’s Mortal Incarnation is just getting started. As in, they formed in 2019, released this demo in 2019, and found their way to the top of our best demos and EPs list in 2019. How they got there is how just about any band makes a massive first impression, by going far beyond simple apery and understanding their influences on a truly foundational level.
On debut EP Lunar Radiant Dawn, said influences range from Autopsy (in the wonderfully natural drum sound and execution) and Incantation (the muddier, hefty parts) to that moment in the 90s when doom/death was evolving into funeral doom (the slowest moments and the ghostly, shimmery lines). Some passages speed along with fast riffs and harmonies, and these parts kill, but the speed seems largely there to set up the slow. Mortal Incarnation’s talent lies in how the sudden changes of tempo can feel as violent as hitting a brick wall or as exploratory as passing through a tunnel into a massive subterranean expanse where the only evidence of the ceiling is the echo. Lunar Radiant Dawn is ugly but beautiful, planet heavy yet wide open, and grimy but precise. Most of all, it sounds as delightfully ancient as the records that influenced it. [ZACH DUVALL]