I am no spring chicken. More like an autumn chicken, maybe—cool (ahem) and slightly grim, in its prime, and pecking away on the gravel driveway of life in hopes of finding nourishment, but mostly ingesting rocks.
Where was I going with this.
This is my thirty-somethingth year of heavy metal listening, which means you can glue my picture next to whatever term is currently being used to describe an individual who continues to push metal that sounds older than uncles arguing over which was better, Tecmo Bowl or Punch-Out!! (The answer is Tecmo Bowl, by the way, and that matter is now closed.) This declaration will always be reflected in my yearly favorites, but I consider myself open-minded enough that the opportunity to break into my silly little top 20 will always be afforded to bands that really push the boundaries or provide something brand new. Well, except for this year, apparently, so forget everything I just said.
Despite nearly every band below either sounding like elder metal or being comprised of individuals who are closer to eating dinner at 4:00pm than they are to getting home from school at 4:00pm (Organectomy excluded), there is progression hidden in them thar hills. True, probably not “progression” of the most forward-thinking variety, but progression nonetheless.
Prog! As I mentioned last week in this year’s We Have The Power article, the trend that seemed to push a great many of 2019’s best releases was a strong presence of prog. As such, a fair portion of my top 20 is devoted to bands that either claim straight-up prog status or take death, doom, power and black metal to progressive territories. And in the instances where that ain’t the case, then yeah, the record probably sounds like something yanked right from 1984. Hey, in times of uncertainty and disorder—AKA contemporary life on planet Earth—we humans generally go the extra mile to stay connected with whichever era best represents bygone days when things at least seemed easier. Consequently, an equitable amount of my free time in 2019 was spent listening to elder metal, watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and playing Zelda off-shoots in bed.
To be honest, I often struggle with the idea of personal lists such as this. Not from a lack of content swimming around in the ol’ head, but because, when stripped to its essence, this sort of endeavor smacks of useless narcissism. Who the hell am I to think people care enough to discover what I deem to be “best.” Keanu Reeves, on the other hand… What fresh hell did he love in 2019? Sign me up for that list.
In the end, though, it’s not the “Look at me! Look at me! Look how interesting I am!” aspect that I’m interested in; I’m just another ape laboring to conquer crippling anxieties like the next ape. But I knowingly admit to being completely and irrevocably music-obsessed, and having been this way for the better part of the last three decades, I have also acquired a fierce craving to share the wealth… That wealth being knowledge of some particular corner of music’s infinitely rewarding megalopolis that I feel deserves further celebration.
I remain very proud of what the Last Rites collective continues to produce on a weekly basis. Our methods may be a little (or a lot) more old-school compared to the folks doing similarly on the next hill over, but by God, hopefully by now most who read our words are aware of just how passionate the members of this staff are about this wonderfully vital genre. If you were to meet us in the flesh, you would quickly discover that we talk about metal very much the same way we write about it: excitedly, learnedly, and…at great length; none of us are known for being terribly succinct. Which is probably the best lead-in to what’s featured below I could ever hope to muster.
2019, thanks for all the fish.
20. Sanhedrin – The Poisoner
Every time The Poisoner gets thrown on the ol’ deck, I wonder if I’ve screwed up by not pushing it into my top ten. I suppose that’s a sign of a really good record AND of my failing brain. It also reminds me of just how powerful this trio is in a live setting—tough, loud and tighter than Brian Blessed’s yoga pants. If you missed them with Slough Feg on tour, you missed one of the best shows of the year. The good news is that the same energy they deliver on stage gets magically woven into their releases, so stop wasting your money on all-over-print Smudge the Cat shirts and start throwing it at Sanhedrin. Or hey, buy ’em both—I’m clearly not the boss of you.
19. Organectomy – Existential Disconnect
If you crank Existential Disconnect loud enough in your car while parked in a grocery store parking lot, all the loose carts will collect and morph into the skeleton of a formidable beast that will then commence to ripping apart hapless patrons in order to add flesh to its hellish frame. The beast will continue to consume, crush and integrate as Organectomy’s delightful slams proceed, but it will eventually turn its lunatic fury on your shitty town by album’s end, because the only thing that makes this beast angrier than being forced to life is having the gift of brutally slamming death metal come to an abrupt end. Unfortunately, the tragic loss of thousands of lives will be on your hands. You can try to blame the piper, but it was you and your 2017 Honda Element’s beefy JBLs that tested bedlam’s patience, so it’s you who’ll eventually get the chair. You had a pretty good run, homeslice.
18. Darkthrone – Old Star
Somewhere out there, at this very moment, a kid is scrambling for his or her AirPods because their dad’s best friend since the high school days just arrived for yet another evening spent ripping through a bunch of old-guy metal in the den. Who would’ve guessed that two of the individuals most responsible for blazing the northern sky nearly three decades ago would eventually morph into the sort of project that pisses off tweens who’d rather sit on the couch and watch youtube personalities reveal Fortnite easter eggs? The world is a funny place. Remember Black Sabbath, to keep it holy, and listen to Old Star when you want to liberate the saintly riff and drive off youthful barnacles in hopes of finally getting the entire couch to yourself.
17. Profetus – The Sadness of Time Passing
From a recent review written by a devastatingly handsome and reasonable individual: “Not exactly the sort of record to reach for in an effort to “let the good times roll,” but that’s very much by design. This is required listening for any and all introverted hermits who love it brutally slow, slower, and so-fucking-slow-your-head-might-fall-off. Five years in the making and landing just in time to help usher in winter’s inescapable grip, The Sadness of Time Passing is a true triumph of agony.”
Yeah, that. Also, when life hands you lemons, play life this record and bear witness to life suddenly becoming introspective about its own life and leaving you alone long enough to actually enjoy the lemons without worrying so much about where your life is going. Funereal ouroboros.
16. Obsequiae – The Palms of Sorrowed Kings
M’lords and ladies, hast thou grown weary of endless medieval hyperbole attached to yon minstrels, Obsequiae? Too bad, it’s as unavoidable as the Bud Knight during Sunday afternoon football. The good news? Obsequiae are a hell of a lot more enjoyable than the Bud Knight AND Bud Light, and you won’t feel like a hippo took a dump in your mouth the next morning after consuming it over and over and over again.
We know it’s “medieval metal,” but does that mean it’s more likely to appeal to black metal fans? Melodeath fans? Sir Gary, the Earl of Shaker Heights who has a personal tankard hanging behind the bar at Medieval Times? Yes. Yes to all those people, as long as they love dark-aged, chivalric Hœvy µe†äl that goes HARD in the melodic paint. And hey, the bass is particularly heavy this time around, so The Palms of Sorrowed Kings also manages to feel a bit heavier than previous releases.
15. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race
There are people out there who believe Blood Incantation is overhyped and / or “gotten too popular” and therefore should no longer be mentioned in the Hallowed Halls of Facetwit. Pardon me, I didn’t realize parents were out there picking up kids from soccer practice while blasting “The Giza Power Plant” from the windows of their Dodge Caravan. “CONNER, I’ll TURN IT DOWN WHENEVER YOU DECIDE TO NOT LOSE ANOTHER $30 JUNIOR YETI WATER BOTTLE.” And hey, guess which band has 763k followers on Facebook: Blood Incantation or The Avett Brothers? I guess look out for the Blood Avettation split 12” sometime in 2020.
Will the blessed notes behind Hidden History of the Human Race cure your nagging knee injury? Probably not. But if a proggier, more wormholed version of Morbid Angel tickles your poodle, you really can’t go wrong with this record. Endnote: you can start worrying about the band when they make their logo more legible.
14. Iron Griffin – Curse of the Sky
Here’s what I had to say about Curse of the Sky back in March: “You like swords, right? I mean, I assume any eyes reading these words belong to humans, and humans generally love swords. Put a well crafted sword into the hands of a pacifist and suddenly thoughts of chaining themselves to a 500 year-old oak become eclipsed with visions of challenging a bulldozer driver by using a strong guard stance. Put briefly, Iron Griffin create a heavy metal soundtrack that celebrates humankind’s covenant with steel.”
Adding to that, I would like to further stamp the truth that Maija Tiljander hands in one the most intense and scorching vocal performances of the year throughout Curse of the Sky, and anyone who counts themselves a fan of classic Sword & Sorcery metal will inevitably lose 5 charisma points for avoiding this record.
13. Atlantean Kodex – The Course of Empire
Maybe the most surprising thing related to my list is the fact that this record lands outside my top ten. Do you care? Have you stopped for even one moment to think about me?
Those who know me well know that I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Atlantean Kodex Kids Club since, well, the Panoptipootietang Demo days. Additionally, put a gun to my head and demand my copy of The White Goddess and I will…hand it over immediately, because I’m not quite ready to be shot in the head. BUT, I will definitely be adding it to a cart again with my other free hand in a very sly manner. Point being, AK are a pretty important band to me, but I will admit that it’s taken precisely three months for The Course of Empire to find its way into the snuggliest part of my brain. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case—maybe a slightly more muddled production? Maybe a slightly more assholish me? Regardless, sometimes the albums that eventually move you the most take the longest to find their traction, and The Course of Empire’s trajectory has slowly been headed in the right direction. Check back with me in a couple months and I’ll probably lie about loving it like a family pet from the very first day.
12. Arch / Matheos – Winter Ethereal
Having this release outside my top ten also feels weird. Apart from the appropriately titled “On the Fence,” I consider Sympathetic Resonance to be a perfect record, and while part of that bliss is absolutely tied to the novelty the debut represented, that record also felt a little more intimate, warm and, I dunno…“connected to me.” However, if I’d somehow missed that release and jumped into Arch / Matheos with Winter Ethereal first, I’d probably be saying the same thing in reverse. Fact of the matter, both records from this windfall project are magical, and picking a favorite probably depends a great deal on which album you obsessed over first.
That said, 2019 probably doesn’t have a better close to a record than what’s delivered via “Pitch Black Prism,” “Never in Your Hands” and “Kindred Spirits.” And hell, that’s damn-near 30 minutes worth of music right there.
11. Obsidian Sea – Strangers
Here’s what I said about Strangers back in July of this year: “Truth of the matter, [Obsidian Sea] hasn’t released a bad record to date, but Strangers does “slightly weird” doom better than most anyone else who’s attempting to do similarly. This is traditional, hazy and slightly off-kilter doom done in a way that owes as much to Sabbath as it does a record like Paul Chain’s Alkahest. The songs are drifty, shadowy and periodically trippy, and as is often the case with three-piece acts such as this, everyone gets an equal share of the spotlight, even if vocalist / guitarist Anton Avramov’s fret sorcery is likely to stand out the most.”
If you like the idea of doom spiced with a healthy pinch of quirky prog and haven’t yet had the pleasure, it’s time to get correct with Strangers.
TOP TEN OF 2019 – AKA: THE NUMBER ONE TOP TEN LIST ON THE WORLD’S TOP TEN LIST OF TOP TEN LISTS
10. Coffins – Beyond the Circular Demise
People who get pizza with “everything on it” are touched in the head. That’s just a fact. Pizza is about the crust, the sauce and the cheese, plus a couplefew choice toppings to spice up the fun. Anything beyond that is called “I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing, so I guess I’ll just do everything. Please, please pay attention to me.”
Unsurprisingly, this also happens in death metal, which is why it’s so important to have long-standing purveyors of level-headed, head-leveling death metal like Japan’s Coffins in the mix. The overall production behind Beyond the Circular Demise is a little “cleaner” than previous Coffins’ work, but it doesn’t sacrifice the band’s signature heaviness in the least. This is fresh, orthodox death metal with the perfect pinch of doom and punk to round out the full flavor, so get this pie in your damned face. Also: “Forgotten Cemetery”—death metal song of the year.
9. Midnight Force – Gododdin
What is “the best?” Is it as close to flawlessness as humanly possible? Is it something that’s celebrated across the board? In most cases, no, it is not. Simply put, “the best” is whatever manages to resonate with you the most, and it includes blemishes because they add a necessary human element that’s very endearing. Ask any couple that’s managed to stand the test of time and they will eventually speak of their significant other’s flaws with same reverence as their perfections, even if they do so mockingly.
In a similar spirit, Scotland’s Midnight Force navigate a notably traditional course of heavy metal that’s raw, wild and a bit loose, but instead of ironing out peripheral blemishes with studio trickery or a masochistic sense of perfectionism, they opt to let it all hang out as part of the package deal. This gives Gododdin a very live and sincere sentiment not unlike what was once delivered by, say, Night On Bröcken in the earliest days of Fates Warning.
When it’s speedy, Gododdin occasionally feels like the cart is about to careen off the tracks. And when things are slower and a bit more folky, you get a sense that this journey epitomizes “friends gathered around a hearth to share a few stiff drinks and ward off the cold.” It works. The whole thing works, open to close. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Midnight Force happens to be damn talented at writing potent, engaging oldschool heavy metal, which is also the best.
8. Candlemass – The Door to Doom
Some bands become so iconic and responsible for helping to set a particular course for metal that—if they somehow manage to survive the years and all the trials & tribulations that come along with being an enduring group—abiding fans begin expecting things of them. They expect steady output. They expect records to “remain true,” but then get fussy about things sounding “too formulaic.” They expect stone-cold classics at every turn. It’s natural, probably, these sorts of expectations, because the fans stick by the bands’ side like true friends, even though in most cases the members have no clue who they are as individuals.
Surviving 35 years and essentially being responsible for creating epic doom, Candlemass is an ideal representation of one of these steadfast acts. And as expected, their decision to switch vocalists (AGAIN) and return to Johann Längquist for the first time since their eponymous debut was a very gutsy, headline-grabbing move. It worked, though, as Längquist sounds rather magnificent throughout The Door to Doom, even if a little (delightfully) weathered around the edges.
What really sells this record and is largely responsible for attaching such a heavy replay value here? The fretwork of Lars Johansson, who has never sounded better than he does in 2019.
One small bit of advice: shelve your expectations and just, you know, be doomed.
7. Borknagar – True North
I’ve been away from the Borknagar camp for longer than I was ever in it. And to be perfectly honest, the fairly stock-looking photograph adorning the cover of their new record didn’t do much for lifting my expectations. The way the record opens completely crushed those misgivings—“Thunderous,” “Up North” and “The Fire that Burns” represent the strongest opening 20-plus minutes 2019 has to offer. This strength is rooted in an almost inconceivable level of epicness that’s paired with a totally delightful infusion of Yes (the band, not the answer… But maybe also the answer) in the progressive elements, particularly with regard to ICS Vortex’s extraordinary clean vocals.
That’s not to say the rest of the record isn’t deserving of high accolades—it is, especially the wonderful and lush “Mount Rapture”—but that opening slam dunk is done with such force that it’s inspired me to finally pick through the works crammed between True North and The Olden Domain.
6. Opeth – In Cauda Venenum
I’ve been “that guy” for the better part of the last eight years—the schnook who no longer has time for Opeth following the rejection of their death metal roots. Sure, I’ve dabbled here and there, and I don’t dismiss their more modern works outright, save for Heritage, because I’m also a big fan of progressive rock. But for reasons that would make this blurb far too long, none of Opeth’s rock has ever managed to get me giddy in the same way Still Life did back in 1999. Then they went ahead and dropped In Cauda Venenum.
If you think this record is out of place on a metal list, you are wrong, buster. If you think this record is out of place on a rock list, you are also wrong, slim. It’s the best of both worlds, really. (And finally!) The manner in which “Dignity” shifts from the lyric “He is waiting for darkness / He opens the door / He’s slithering” into that wonderfully heavy groove is…well, HEAVY. And all the shady nuances peppered throughout the record—especially in the opening “Garden of Earthly Delights”—gives the overall mood an added sense of darkness that augments the perception of heaviness.
The big hook has also returned. Partly because the songwriting has never been tighter, but also thanks to the truth that Åkerfeldt has somehow managed to uncover yet another gear. Who else could make a lyric as simple as “Oh no no no no no” so inviting and infectious?
Bottom line: In Cauda Venenum is wonderfully dark, bouncy, proggy, dense and loaded with interesting hooks, and “Lovelorn Crime” is the prettiest, saddest song Åkerfeldt’s written in close to twenty years.
5. Devourment – Obscene Majesty
3263827. Nope, not the number to call when you’re looking for a good time. Well, unless you consider a giant garbage masher to be really fun. I guess it COULD be fun if you’re on the outside looking in, but not if you and your buds accidentally find yourself inside one while trying to save a princess on the Death Star.
There were a lot of moments in Star Wars that stuck with me when I first saw it a thousand years ago as a little kid, but I’m fairly certain the trash compactor scene was the very first time I put thoughts to experiencing a slow death. It stayed with me—the notion of being trapped in filth and suddenly realizing that the hellish, metallic grating you’re currently hearing involves slowly compacting walls that will eventually press what’s supposed to remain inside your body to the outside.
Oh, and there’s another blood-thirsty creature swimming around in the filth that might eat you, too. Or at least part of you. The really bad news: not everyone is lucky enough to have droids smart enough to save them, so you will eventually be killed in about 45-minutes or so. That, in a nutshell, is what Obscene Majesty feels like as the relentless walls of riffs uncoil their crumpling annihilation. This record will turn you into pressed ham.
4. Eternity’s End – Unyielding
Between the review I wrote for this record back in February and my additional blurb in this year’s We Have the Power, you should absolutely be sick of reading what I have to say about Eternity’s End sophomore album, Unyielding. Suffice to say, it’s a triumph for those interested in mind-bending shred that redefines the POW in power metal. In lieu of more words, here is an actual gif of me writing about the record:
3. Tanith – In Another Time
It would be hard to argue with anyone who’d pick “nostalgia” as the single word that best exemplifies New York City’s Tanith. Theirs is a sound of bygone days when metal wasn’t yet old enough to ride free without hard rock sitting shotgun. A period when worries seemed less significant; joints were more for smoking and less for creaking; and bands like Blue Öyster Cult, Wishbone Ash and Budgie set the stage for the adventures metal was about to incur. In Another Time, indeed.
My bud Lone really put it best in his review when he said: “Naturally, then, any artistic embrace of nostalgia is going to resonate within a relatively narrow band of folks whose deep and personal remembrance includes signals from a common space in time. That’s why what feels real and true to some of us might just seem old to others. For a lot of the children of the 70s and many younger souls born too late, the rock-and-roll from that decade carries with it the sense of a simpler time, warm and carefree, brimming with possibility. Of course, in truth, the 70s had us all as neck-deep in shit as any other decade, but again, it’s the feeling that prevails.”
2. Vultures Vengeance – The Knightlore
I occasionally have discussions with like-minded metal nerds about classic albums that have never really been duplicated. There aren’t a ton of them left, it seems, because we live in an age where an endless supply of heavy metal bands fight for airspace, and all of them have the power to call up classics for inspiration regarding overall sound and production. Despite this, one particular record has remained wholly unique for over three decades and counting: Queensrÿche’s The Warning.
The interesting thing about that specific slice of 1984 is the fact that the members of Queensrÿche absolutely HATED the mix, and they still do today. The band had gone well over budget, so EMI threw the record into the hands of someone (Val Garay, a songwriter for Kim Carnes who also worked at The Sound Factory Studios in LA) who had zero hard rock / metal experience in an effort to button things up more quickly. The result: an admittedly strange sounding album that made the guitars almost seem as if they were warping into your ears from a mysterious tube located out in space. The entire mix was peculiar, but it also added to the otherworldliness, which is part of the reason it’s still held so dear by screwballs such as me.
Intentional or not, two albums from 2019 finally managed to touch on the sort of eerie, otherworldly mix pushed by The Warning: the wonderfully bizarre From Life to Death from Helvetets Port (to a slightly lesser extent), and The Knightlore, the debut full-length from Italy’s Vultures Vengeance.
Blackhole production? Space tube production? The Garay Effect? Whatever the hell you want to call it, The Knightlore’s mix is vintage 1984, and it attaches a wonderfully mysterious “looking into the future from the distant past” element that’s very unique and extremely nostalgic for anyone who’s been barking up metal’s tree for decades.
Boosting the enjoyment level is the fact that The Knightlore is a guitar player’s goldmine—really fun riffs and a seemingly infinite amount of (the year’s best) leads firing around every corner. Plus, Tony T. Steele’s vocals sound very similar to Cirith Ungol’s Tim Baker, but it’s almost as if he’s…struggling? Singing while on a rowing machine? It’s a quirkiness that’s certainly amplified by the record’s strange production, which only ends up elaborating The Knightlore‘s overarching uniqueness.
1. Dimhav – The Boreal Flame
Similar to Eternity’s End and Unyielding, I’m guessing people are tired of reading about how much I love and appreciate Dimhav’s The Boreal Flame, so I’ll offer a final bit of appreciation via a connection to my past.
Hopefully you’re already aware of this, but the world of Dungeons & Dragons fucking rules. I first fell hook, line and sinker as a kid, because that miraculous realm linked me to other nerdy, imaginative kids obsessed with defying reality. Plus, it gave me an early and true sense of fellowship, which quickly became invaluable. Unfortunately for me, shortly after my fellow adventurers and I had found our footing, my family moved to another state, thereby thrusting me into a strange new world comprised of precisely zero magic missile-hurling buds. It was a tough and sudden amendment, but I was still able to relive some of the feeling of those golden hours by poring through manuals, modules and accompanying Dragonlance books. But it wasn’t really moving forward.
Then, out of the blue one Christmas morning, my folks gifted me Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar for the family Apple IIe, and I became obsessed. All the imagination, adventurousness and joy that D&D delivered had returned in an entirely fresh and innovative way, and my love for that Ultima series endured for many years.
The parallel between that experience and Dimhav is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it’s still reasonable because my acute connection to a Daniel Heiman-fronted Lost Horizon became limited to the past, and then The Boreal Flame arrived unforeseen and reinvigorated the connection with an innovative, more progressive design.
Also worth noting: D&D eventually made a triumphant return to my life, and Ultima has now advanced to the point of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, so it would be great if Lost Horizon AND Dimhav continued their progression in a similar manner.
TOP TEN EPS & DEMOS
The black metal missing from my Top 20 blooms like a toxic mushroom inside my favorite EPs & Demos. For me, black metal is at its best when it’s twisting in its most raw form in mostly uncharted territory. I don’t need to know names, I don’t need endless doctrine scribbled in liner notes or inside press releases, and I certainly don’t need irrelevant bells & whistles. Just reconnect me to the primitive and the bush & bramble.
Happily playing alongside the black metal here are all the necessary death, doom and crust accompaniments that make life worth living.
10. Distant Fear – Mortal Column
Hey, thanks, Craig and In Crust We Trust, for shining a light on this gnarly, grinding filth from New Zealand that apparently wants to gnash me to ribbons with slow, pulverizing fury. The bass on this demo sounds like Cthulhu clearing its throat.
9. Alement – Onward
Hey, thanks again, Craig and In Crust We Trust, for shining a light on this epically grim and pummeling slice of Philly crust that sounds like a head-on collision between Axegrinder and the hardest edge of G-Anx. More old-school than your grandpappy pounding Schlitz in the garage.
8. Elder – The Gold & Silver Sessions
As stated earlier last week in our Best Of – EPs & Demos round-up, “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.”
7. Crypts Of Wallachia – Drifting in the Devil’s Maze
Raw, uncompromising Belgian black metal with a touch of punk and intriguing use of castley keys. Drifting in the Devil’s Maze is cold, repetitive, and makes you want to rip into the forest to take down a snuggly deer your bare teeth. (Sorry, deer.) The drumming here sounds like a hefty fellow chasing an ice cream truck that’s speeding away at 5mph.
6. Vendel – Dirge
Russia’s Vendel is in the business of whooping your ass to the dirt with a particularly satisfying brand of doom that sounds like… Well, the love child of the two bands their new demo pays homage to with a couple covers: the Reagers’ era of Saint Vitus and Manilla Road. So yes, it’s raw, melodic, soaring, and sounds a bit like a natural follow-up to Scald’s magnificent Will of the Gods is a Great Power. BOING! Give us a full-length sooner rather than later, please.
5. Dold Vorde Ens Navn – Gjengangere I Hjertets Mørke
From my review earlier this year of Gjengangere I Hjertets Mørke: “…not to downplay the EP’s penchant for moody, sometimes somber / sometimes unsettling atmospherics, but the clearest intention here is to remind folks that Norwegian black metal is best suited for rearranging faces with hellfire. Dold Vorde Ens Navn does exactly that, and Gjengangere I Hjertets Mørke accomplishes precisely what a debut EP is designed to accomplish: leave us wanting more.”
4. Heinous – Lucifer Vult
Not sure what’s in the water over in Belgium lately that’s producing such wonderful underground black metal, but I hope it seeps into the rest of the world’s water supply. Heinous is comprised of members of Slaughter Messiah, Possession and Dikasterion, and Lucifer Vult—their second 2019 release—sounds like the unholy offspring of Malign’s near-perfect Fireborn EP.
3. Ateiggär – Us d’r Höll chunnt nume Zyt
Holy hellfire does this EP ever rip in a splendidly lush, castley kind of way. The drums kick like pissed pig, the geetars are like razor-wire scraping your eyeballs, and the way those symphonic keys are melted into the formula remind you of a time when symphonic black metal (similar to Night Conquers Day, perhaps?) still knew how to kill with power.
2. Anthropophagous – Spoiled Marrow
From my write-up back in August: “Spoiled Marrow is cavernous, but it doesn’t really sound “cavernous” as much as it sounds like it’s played by people who very well might live inside an uninhabitable cavern. To be perfectly honest, this demo almost sounds…happy? Am I allowed to say that? People can be happy while they consume other humans, no? Whatever it is, it sure sounds heavy. I think the drummer might play the drums while standing—that’s how hard this Cro-Magnon hits the skins. And the bass tone is the sickest thing you’ll hear outside of an extremely active Ebola tent.”
1. Mortal Incarnation – Lunar Radiant Dawn
You love death / doom, yes? Good. Japan’s Mortal Incarnation (the least instant of the instant breakfasts) play a style of death / doom that mixes the impossible heaviness of Purtenance with the sickness of Autopsy, and then fills the corners with a strangely melodic, oddly gothy aura of hopelessness similar to… Godflesh? Sure, why not. Bottom line, this EP is hugely auspicious for anyone who enjoys having their brains beat in by great death / doom.
TOP 20 NON-METAL ALBUMS OF 2019
Jazz won the jump in 2018, but this year belongs to electronic and all its relations. Hell, this particular off-shoot has been prolific enough in 2019 that, despite a valiant effort to stay on top of things, my favorites when stacked next to the reputable rankings from Stereogum netted precisely zero overlap. If this proves anything, it demonstrates the truth that, 1) I might not know what the hell I’m talking about, and 2) the realm of electronic / ambient / drone / EDM / etc. is considerably expansive, rewarding, and glorious.
20. Daniel Herskedal – Voyage
What can I say, I’m a huge sucker for solo tuba in jazz. Voyage also happens to very much sound like its title, but sans any of the hardships that often crop up on the journey. All smooth sailing here, mateys.
• Genre: Jazz
19. Yagya – Stormur
If you prefer ambient music with a hook, Yagya never disappoints. Stormur sounds like a cold Norwegian murder mystery without the actual murder. (Hopefully.)
• Genre: Ambient / Dub-techno
18. Yosi Horikawa – Spaces
No one combines field recordings from everyday life into experimental electronic music in a more compelling way than Yosi Horikawa. On Spaces you’ll hear birds, motors, goats, pigs and virtually anything else that might whir, bump and bleat, and Horikawa finds endlessly fascinating ways to fit them all together.
• Genre: Experimental Electronic / Field Recordings
17. Zeitgeber – Transforming The Random Crushing Forces Of The Universe Into Manageable Patterns
Most people associate handpan (steel drum) music to Trinidad and Tobago, or at least a less specific form of “feel-good island music.” Zeitgeber offers up a different perspective that’s moodier (thanks to the liberal doses of clarinet), inventive and extraordinarily captivating.
• Genre: Handpan / Electronic
16. A Winged Victory for the Sullen – The Undivided Five
If the name Jóhann Jóhannsson means anything to you, then you probably mourned his unfortunate and early passing in 2018 just as I did. Similar to Jóhannsson, A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s latest album finds the perfect meeting point between modern electronic / ambient and film score that results in a work that passes through your mind like the pages of a particularly emotional and often heart-rendering story.
• Genre: Electronic / Modern Classical
15. OHIO – Upward, Broken, Always
The thought of summing up everything that happens on Upward, Broken, Always in a couple sentences makes my head spin, so let’s settle on: this is what it sounds like when you gently fall asleep on the grass on a warm afternoon and remain aware of your everyday troubles, but allow them to drift off into the clouds for about an hour.
• Genre: Ambient / Electronic / Minimalism
14. Steve Hauschildt – Nonlin
There’s a lot going on beneath Nonlin‘s veneer of rhythmic, (s)lightly glitchy reverie, but the overarching temperament underscores a sense of gratifying escape, which Steve Hauschildt has all but mastered in his decade-plus career of electronic phantasm. Be sure to grab the LP version if you dig creative layouts.
• Genre: Ambient / Electronic / Downtempo
13. Wingtips – Exposure Therapy
The pop of early Thompson Twins, the movement of Depeche Mode, and the sullen grace of late 80s’ Cure—Wingtips’ debut record is an absolute must-hear for anyone who’s ever frequented goth clubs that keep them out until 2am on a Sunday with a brutal Monday morning looming.
• Genre: Synthpop / Gothpop
12. Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet – Metamodal
The Byzantine lyra rules the school here, but Sokratis Sinopoulos and his quartet also blend piano (in particular), bass and drum into the picture, painting an overall image that’s equal parts meditative, antediluvian and Utopian. Metamodal is absolutely sublime.
• Genre: Jazz / Folk / Modern Classical
11. Allison Miller – Glitter Wolf
There’s just something uniquely exciting about jazz that’s lead by a dynamic drummer, and Allison Miller is nothing if not stacked to the the very top of her head with an endless abundance of swing and force. Glitter Wolf is thrilling, inspired and, most importantly, fun as hell.
• Genre: Jazz
10. Tomeka Reid Trio – Old New
The cello is not exactly the first (or second or third) instrument most people think of when considering contemporary (or classic) jazz, but Tomeka Reid obliterates that stereotype by throwing down 47-minutes of pure cello’d bliss on this, her second album with this quartet. Similar to Allison Miller’s outstanding Glitter Wolf, Old New is packed to the rafters with energy, charm and playfulness.
• Genre: Jazz
9. Richard Skelton – Till Fabrics
What might the extended erosion of glacial landscapes over millennia sound like? That’s a question best left to the landscapes themselves, because humans have all but lost the patience required for such quiet, continuous, meditative listening. If you’re keen on a summation, however—stretched over two similarly packaged 22:29 songs that incorporate washed out, weathered cello and violin (that sounds a lot like a synthesizer)—the wonderful Till Fabrics is ready to step in. Richard Skelton is obsessed with landscapes, and I, in turn, am obsessed by the sounds created by Richard Skelton.
• Genre: Ambient / Drone
8. M. GRIG – Mount Carmel
Isolated, haunting, lonesome but not lonely, blurred, pensive, enchanting, delicate, ephemeral and, above all else, beautiful—M. Grig’s fourth release (and first on 12k) is a triumph of floating, brushed escapism.
• Genre: Electronic / Lap Steel / Dobro / Ambient
7. Loscil – Equivalents
I’ve been a fan of Scott Morgan’s Loscil project for years, but it feels like it’s been a while since something he’s released from this camp has all but refused to leave my ears. Inspired by a series of black and white photos of clouds made by Alfred Stieglitz in the ’20s, Equivalents offers up a similar sort of drifting and always shifting portrait that clouds themselves might yield over the span of an hour’s worth of observation.
• Genre: Ambient / Drone / Electronic
6. Theon Cross – Fyah
As I said earlier, I am a sucker for solo tuba in jazz. However, where the Herskedal release from this year feels like an exquisitely calm trip on cool waters, Fyah is the record that will ignite the third wind necessary to keep the party going long after the bars trumpet last call. Theon Cross (also a member of Sons of Kemet) is part of the spirited London scene, but this record would sound just as comfortable marching in the French Quarter in full parade regalia.
• Genre: Jazz
5. Vieo Abiungo – The Dregs
Trying to place The Dregs inside one tidy box is challenging. The full trip feels largely shaped by the sort of rhythmic strength you’d hope to experience while traveling Africa top to bottom, but as is typical of William Ryan Fritch projects, there’s also a strong film score impression that folds in a “drifting shadows” sensation that almost feels supernatural. One thing for certain, these are the dregs you’re looking for.
• Genre: Experimental / Folk / African / Electronic
4. Kankyo Ongaku – Japanese Ambient Environmental & New Age Music 1980-90
An exhaustive but far from exhausting collection of most everything great from the Japanese realm of electronic / ambient / new age music spanning the decade of 1980-1990. Essential release for anyone interested in the development of electronic music.
• Genre: Electronic / Ambient
3. Vaura – Sables
Here’s what I had to say about Sables back in August: “the dominant approach here focuses on delivering a modernized darkwave / electro / synth-pop sci-fi gothic script that has more in common with the dreamier side of bands like Xymox and the Cocteau Twins (and maybe a bit of Catherine Wheel when there’s a little more bounce) than anything close to metal, and it’s filtered through a sound that has now become imminently ‘Vaura.'”
• Genre: Goth / New Wave / Avant-garde
2. bvdub – Explosions in Slow Motion
The individual known as Brock Van Way would probably explode into a billion pieces if he weren’t capable of expressing emotions through music. Luckily for us, he does indeed vent this way, and quite prolifically. Explosions in Slow Motion was the result of a six-month crash as a complete stranger in Poland during winter, so the sounds here underscore matters of isolation, alienation and despair, but BVW’s unique sense of acceptance and longing always sneaks through the cracks, and that’s what ultimately makes this record so intimate and rewarding.
• Genre: Ambient / Drone
1. Mono – Nowhere, Now Here
I have seen the criticisms of album number ten from Japan’s Mono floating around out there on the internet’s tendrils: when it does what the band typically does—drift / crescendo / detonate / lessen / repeat—it does so in a manner that’s too formulaic; and when the new elements are introduced—deeper orchestration / electronic effects / a smidge of vocals—they suffer because the album as whole is in desperate need of a tighter edit. To an extent, I understand these criticisms, but I opt to absorb them as ancillary trifles because Nowhere, Now Here is a one hour expedition that never found itself overstaying its welcome across the countless times it was spun in 2019. New drummer Dahm Majuri Cipolla hits the skins as if his life were at risk, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times these notes have caused me to stop what I’m doing to fully allow myself to be bulldozed by their sentiment. Stunning from start to finish.
• Genre: Post-Rock
Thanks for reading, you readers. Thanks for writing, you writers.