After the turn of the millennium, professional baseball transitioned into what is now known as the sabermetrics era. Basically, those running the game began paying attention to more detailed ways of slicing up statistics, so that players were now being evaluated from more than just a few angles, and it grows more complex every year. Whereas in olden days it was just batting average, RBI, slugging percentage, etc., now teams (and analysts and fans) take a much more hybrid approach to how they view the game. Now a hitter might be evaluated for how they perform in different parks, the launch angle and exit velocity of their homers in addition to their total number of homers, and their expected performance as much as their actual historical stats.
What does this tell us about heavy metal in 2019? Well, not much. It tells you that I’m a big baseball geek that loves diving into all the minutia of advanced stats (my “esteemed” “colleague” Manny-O-War hates it with a passion). But it came to mind because of that word “hybrid.” Much like there’s no one way to evaluate a baseball player or build a team anymore, there’s no one way to make a metal band of any particular style.
“But metal bands have been making hybrid music for decades,” you say, and that’s absolutely true! This is nothing new; Into the Pandemonium came out in 1987. But the degree to which so many bands are successful at their blend is perhaps higher than ever, and much like the progressive, forward-thinking nature of sabermetrics, a lot of these hybridizing bands are also looking forward in ways both “proggy” and truly progressive.
Over half of my top 20 is some sort of hybrid metal, be it doom/death, power/prog, or the less conventional doom/death/black/prog/sludge… thing that Inter Arma does. Over half could also be considered progressive or more prog-as-genre in some way. Perhaps this is just the music that is the most exciting to me (let’s not be stupid; it’s obviously the music that is most exciting to me), but our full staff list reflected a lot of the same things. Playing it straight just didn’t hit me as hard this year as it might have in the past, and that’s exciting not just to me as a fan, but it’s exciting that so many metal musicians both young and old enjoy keeping it weird. People like Gaahl, Mikael Åkerfeldt, and Øystein Brun have nothing at all to prove, and yet they continue to explore and expand their talents.
It’s what the greats do, obviously, just as Mike Trout spends every winter finding what might be the tiniest of holes in his game and fixing them. It’s why he’s on pace for possibly the highest career “wins above replacement” (WAR) of any player in history (Mike Trout is very, very good at baseball), and why, if there was a metal equivalent (gWAR?), a guy like Åkerfeldt would be really high on the list.
Anyway, maybe the baseball analogy was a big stretch. Maybe it was just me reverse engineering an intro from my headings. Maybe it’s both of those things and neither of them. Maybe it doesn’t matter, because music and baseball… well they’re just entertainment, folks.
Or are they?
The very honorable mentions, numbers 21 to 50, as always in logo cloud art gallery form:
Seriously though, in another year, several of those bands could have been in my top 20. I’d say that picking albums was grueling, but it just involved listening to all this stuff over and over, which was the opposite of grueling.
GROUND RULE DOUBLES
20. Valborg – Zentrum
After the most insane and brutal record of their career (and my 2017 album of the year), Valborg got… clubbier? Zentrum takes the demented industrial of Endstrand and gives it an extra level of pulsating catchiness. But don’t go thinking that this record means you well; these thumping earworms invade your head like Ceti Eels.
19. Slow – VI-Dantalion
Slow’s Oceans saw the project join the upper crust of funeral doom, and Dantalion takes their sweeping, dramatic, goth-tinged sound to even greater heights. This is yet another example of how one of the bleakest, most barren styles of music ever created can also be home to the most captivating of journeys.
18. Drastus – La Croix de Sang
Sometimes I want black metal that is ice cold. Sometimes I want black metal that is proggy and high-minded. And sometimes I want black metal that is straight fire. Drastus’ second album is a cacophonous tornado full of flying lava. It’s a lavanado. Coming this fall on SyFy.
17. Insomnium – Heart Like a Grave
Last time out, Insomnium recovered from the worst album of their career with the best, the incredible Winter’s Gate. This time, they responded to their best work with something that is obviously not as ambitious, but could possibly be their most diverse and sweeping. Epic, progressive melodeath at its best.
16. No One Knows What The Dead Think – No One Knows What The Dead Think
There’s obviously a ton of legacy on this record – Rob Marton reunited with his old Discordance Axis bandmate Jon Chang for the first time in nearly 20 years – but more important is what that legacy means: about 19 minutes, and about 4,825 riffs. One of the catchiest and most walloping grind albums in recent memory.
15. Inter Arma – Sulphur English
Yet another brilliant – and punishingly long – blending of extreme metals and prog. Sulphur English might not have quite the flow of its predecessor, but the second half is the best stretch of tunes Inter Arma has ever put to tape. “The Atavist’s Meridian” sees them teching and blacking up Neurosis like no one else.
14. Gaahls Wyrd – Gastir – Ghosts Invited
As Enslaved has become a touch predictable in recent years, there always seems to be a band willing to take up the prog/black mantle. A few years ago it was Klabautamann with Smaragd. This year it was Nyss and the latest project from Gaahl. Gastir is a riff-centric but often beautiful and Floydian foray, and features the best, most diverse vocal performance of the man’s career. He sounds like four different people in “The Speech and the Self” alone.
13. Borknagar – True North
In a month or a year I’m going to regret not having this album higher. It’s likely no coincidence that Borknagar sounds more focused than they have in decades by focusing on just one vocalist, the incomparable I.C.S. Vortex. Their best album since at least The Archaic Course, but more than that, it’s an infinite bounty of glorious melody and escapism. Metal rarely gets more truly beautiful.
12. Esoctrilihum – The Telluric Ashes Of The Ö Vrth Immemorial Gods
On his fourth album (all since 2017), Esoctrilihum’s Asthâghul finally released a record that realizes his obviously crazy talent. An absolute whirlwind blend of the most caustic black metal and riff-godly death metal, The Telluric Ashes never manages to drag despite pushing past the 75-minute mark. At his current pace of growth and output, the extremely young Asthâghul may just be getting started.
11. Weeping Sores – False Confession
Sure, it’s doom/death metal, and you can hear strains of the genre’s originators, but there’s as much Yob and Morbid Angel in here as there is Paradise Lost. Like the best doom/death, it’s both brutal and beautiful, with the beauty coming from the interplay between thumping riffs and some very elegant and chilling violin work. “Valediction Prayer” is one of the best songs of the year. I’m proud of my friends.
TATERS, DINGERS, ROUND-TRIPPERS, FOUR-BAGGERS, WALLOPS, JACKS, AND OTHER FORMS OF YARDWORK
10. CRYPT SERMON – THE RUINS OF FADING LIGHT
2019 was a banner year for doom and its many hybrids, but even with great comebacks from the likes of Saint Vitus and Candlemass treating our ears, it was the sophomore effort from Crypt Sermon that hit me hardest. The Last Rites crew was fairly split on whether or not The Ruins of Fading Light topped the band’s debut, a split that seems equaled elsewhere based on some cursory glances across the blogosphere. Some wished the record was a touch more subtle and understated like Out of the Garden, while others – myself obviously included – love all the extra bombast and drama they added to their epic doom formula. What is harder to debate is the songs. From “Key of Solomon” and the monster mid-album duo of “Christ is Dead” and “The Snake Handler” to the harrowing tones of the closing title track, The Ruins of Fading Light is packed with songs that just beg for a righteous singalong. Oh, and the soloing. Hot goddamn it’s smooth stuff.
9. BLUT AUS NORD – HALLUCINOGEN
Hallucinogen was touted as somewhat of a new era for Blut Aus Nord following the decent but ultimately forgettable Deus Salutis Meæ. And sure, it’s different than its predecessor, but it also could have been called Memoria Vetusta IV without anyone really calling shenanigans. After all, it carries the deeply melodic and enchanting sounds of that side of Vindsval’s work. But just as importantly, it carries the unflinching quality fans expect of a MV record.
Few guitarists can weave a tale as completely as can Vindsval, and Hallucinogen is so loaded with the types of lines and (sometimes surprisingly rocking) riffs that the various vocal parts – choir chanting, clean singing, black metal screeches – often seem unnecessary. That isn’t to say that they don’t add anything (they do, quite a bit), just that the riffs and quality of songwriting here are so high that these songs were apt to be winners no matter what was added after the guitars were put to tape. Just a stunning, intoxicating record, this one.
8. ETERNITY’S END – UNYIELDING
There’s something fitting about the way Unyielding‘s drum intro is an obvious nod to Painkiller, as Eternity’s End’s brand of power metal is usually the ALL THE ENERGY ALL THE TIME brand, much like how that Priest classic never eased up on the gas. Unyielding really earns its title, in other words. It’s a constant onslaught of triumph, wonder, glory, soaring melody, drives and gallops, and most of all, pure, unadulterated shred. (Fists raised in triumph or constant air guitar? IT’S A REAL DILEMMA, FOLKS.) Eternity’s End, already a ridiculous collection of talent, added Phil Tougas (Chthe’ilist, First Fragment, about 100 others) on second guitar to up the level of instrumental acrobatics to Cacophony levels. But it’s the rare moments when this who’s who of talent does ease up (the stunning “Horizonless,” for example) that really solidify the record. These songs and passages allow the energetic, shredtastic majority of the near-hour run time to flow and not wear out the listener.
In other words, all of the blinding shred and paragraph-long lists of associated acts on Metal-Archives doesn’t make up for great songs. But all that shred certainly makes a great set of songs that much greater.
7. NILE – VILE NILOTIC RITES
Consider my foot firmly planted inside my mouth. I half expected Nile to fall on their mummified faces after the departure of Dallas Toler-Wade. His departure still feels a little strange, and the way the band hid the announcement in the second paragraph of a Facebook post will always seem insulting to The Second Most Important Nile Member, but whatever. It’s done.
It’s done, and Vile Nilotic Rites kills. It has some of the most blistering tracks they’ve penned in years (the irresistible and sub-3-minute “Snake Pit Mating Frenzy”) and plenty of the sprawling epics that dominated albums like Annihilation of the Wicked (“Seven Horns of War”) to balance things out. Mostly, however, it’s just Karl Sanders doing what he does best: writing supremely technical, sophisticated, brutal, and almost laughably infectious death metal. It says so much about Nile that a firmly second tier record from them is still among the best death metal of the year. Absolute masters, no matter the supporting cast, it seems. Never again will I ever doubt the Sanders.
6. BLOOD INCANTATION – HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE
Interdimensional Extinction: “Well, this does sound promising.”
Starspawn: “Really good first full length from this righteously rifftastic death metal act. They get it.”
Hidden History of the Human Race:
Blood Incantation’s latest has that perfect mix of a clear lineage to its unassailable influences – Human, Nespithe, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, Dawn of Possession, etc. – and a really unique voice that can shape those influences into something fresh. Hidden History isn’t just fresh, however, it’s almost constantly thrilling, with a dynamic A-side that sees them taking on more of a complex and prog scope, and a B-side that laughs at the paltry level of complexity and prog on the A-side. Blood Incantation’s compositional skills have graduated from a great kind of riff salad to advanced and gripping in a very short amount of time.
Folks that say Hidden History reshapes and revolutionizes death metal are dingdongs, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong about the record being great, it just means they don’t understand the deep death metal heritage that leads to albums like this. The rest of us love it because of how it honors and builds upon that heritage. Also because it DESTROYS.
5. DIMHAV – THE BOREAL FLAME
Beauty and bombast and blasting and belted-out vocals and bodacious riffs and braggadocios melodies and blistering soloing and well… EVERYTHING. I haven’t been this floored by a power (or power-adjacent) metal record in… god knows how long. Because I’m a loser that doesn’t listen to the power metal recommendations of his friends, The Boreal Flame was my introduction to the phenomenal pipes of Daniel Heiman, and just holy schnikes. His absolute touch might be unparalleled. The only guy I can think of that sounds so refined during what should be the most difficult vocal passages (those that are both very high and very delicate) is Rain Irving, but Heiman mixes that touch and nuance with a huge amount of OOMPH.
Joining Heiman in Dimhav are the Brothers Lindroth, who weave several sprawling and distinctive power/prog tracks that go beyond being a mere statement of purpose. This album is a flex, all the way down to how it opens with a 10-minute instrumental, follows it up with a much more understated song (that is also almost 10 minutes long), and then gets down to the full prog labyrinth on the next one (also almost 10 minutes long). It’s a perfect 30-minute sequence, and man, if you aren’t sold by the way the band, and Heiman in particular, delivers the chorus of “The Flame Transcendent,” you might need a check up from the neck up.
Oh, and at that point this basically perfect record is only about half over.
4. DEVOURMENT – OBSCENE MAJESTY
Brutal death metal is a great, ridiculous thing. There’s something joyous and perplexing about how these grown men spend hours upon days upon weeks upon years honing their craft to a pinpoint precision only to play music that sounds like… this. Devourment’s level of slam-ridden brutality could almost be considered a high art form. There’s not much else like it, and if you get past all of the riff chonk, squeals, slams, breakdowns, brutal grooves, blasts, and splattering explosions (but why would you want to?), you’ll realize that this band is smart. Really smart. The individual tracks of Obscene Majesty aren’t just written well on their own; that alone would make the record a top notch example of this most ludicrous of musical styles. No, this record flows. It’s a subtle flow, to be sure, but Devourment manages to make almost 50 minutes of brutal slamming death metal seem like an efficient listen. It’s also just one of the best sounding brutal death records I’ve ever heard.
Do you know how fun this crap is? I used to not be the biggest fan of the ugliest of brutes, but it isn’t hard to go from laughing at the ludicrous nature to appreciating it as a kind of perverse art form and enjoyable pastime. Schedule your precision slam-sliming today.
3. ORGANECTOMY – EXISTENTIAL DISCONNECT
Organectomy, meanwhile, appreciates all the slam-as-depraved-avant-garde mentality of Devourment, but wants to maintain the overt sophistication heard in post-millennial tech-death. Some of the overt sophistication. A little bit of the over sophistication. Okay okay okay… there’s a lot of clinical precision and widdling tech harmonies and all that, but let’s face it, this record wants to hurt you. Existential Disconnect is the sound of mid-80s Mike Tyson wearing titanium boxing gloves and punching a redwood tree until it falls over. This record is what happens to the couch and chaise lounge when someone brings Brian Blessed his FRESH HORSES too late. This record is 10,000 alpha male gorillas all pounding their chests in unison until they match the harmonic vibration frequency of the whole planet and everything crumbles. This record is all the videos of sandwiches in hydraulic presses. This record is Cryptopsy and Suffocation and Necrophagist and Anata and Decapitated and the Number 4 Band on this list all entering the Royal Rumble, but you’re seven years old and wrestling is still real and they’re really all beating each other into a pulp and it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever witnessed even if you’re a little worried about how Frank Mullen keeps getting redder and redder as the match goes on.
Man, this record. People that don’t like death metal are silly people.
2. OPETH – IN CAUDA VENENUM
People that discount a band just because they dropped the death metal are also silly people. That said, Opeth’s first few straight progressive rock albums didn’t quite live up to the astronomical standard they’d set for many a year. They were all at least pretty good, with Pale Communion being mostly pretty great, but they still felt like extremely enjoyable records from a veteran band that was somewhat winding down.
In Cauda Venenum, on the other hand, is the sound of a band and its leader fully renewed. Mikael Åkerfeldt keeps growing as a vocalist, with his performance here handily the best singing of his career. This is also the best set of songs that Åkerfeldt has penned in the (mostly but not entirely) non-metal portion of his career, and it can stand up proudly next to the band’s greatest works. The chugging heft of “Heart in Hand”; the heart-wrenching, soulful melodies of “Lovelorn Crime”; the demented rhythms of “The Garroter”; and the impassioned, larger-than-life finale of “All Things Will Pass.” So much of this record is striking and unforgettable in a way that only Opeth at their absolute best can be.
There is no band like Opeth. Long may they reign, no matter the throne they choose.
1. ARCH / MATHEOS – WINTER ETHEREAL
The Arch / Matheos debut, Sympathetic Resonance, was basically an instant prog metal classic. Winter Ethereal is even better. John Arch, always one of the most unique and spellbinding vocalists in metal when he decides to grace us with his pipes, delivered perhaps the most spellbinding performance of his career. That he could ever do the things he does is amazing; that he’s still doing them as he ages into his sixties is unfathomable. From his playful vocal cadences in “Wanderlust” and semi-maniacal wailing in “Wrath of the Universe” (one of the best songs of the year) to his peerless use of off-kilter phrasing, Winter Ethereal is truly the sound of a master at work.
Of course, it’s actually the sound of two masters at work, with Jim Matheos writing an unforgettable set of songs alongside Arch. Matheos seems as in the zone right now as does Arch, and not only on this record, but also with Fates Warning proper. That Winter Ethereal and Theories of Flight both sound 100 percent tailored to the guy on the mic says a lot about his talent, but as good as the last Fates record was, this is… something else entirely.
It’s impossible for me to listen to this record without being in absolute awe. It’s the kind of album that gives plenty of material for a more analytical look, but it’s all the more better when just taken in as an emotional expression. It’s a stunningly diverse set of songs, each with their own set of secrets. It’s a wonderful collection of talent that includes plenty of Fates Warning Family members past and present. And it’s an expression of positivity that acknowledges darkness but refuses to let the light be extinguished. Like it’s predecessor, it’s also an instant classic.
Truly a top notch year for the almighty EP. Here are my favorites (with a great debut demo thrown in for good measure).
10. Ripper – Sensory Stagnation
One of the only thrash-related things to really hit me this year, Ripper’s latest EP brings that delightfully violent (capital D) Death/thrash mix that was at its height from about ’88 to ’92. It even has the bubbly, fretless bass to give it a bit of a DiGiorgio touch and sophistication amidst all the pummeling.
9. Visigoth – Bells of Awakening
Sure, it’s only two new Visigoth songs, but it’s two new Visigoth songs! Both of these tunes are absolute bangers that reaffirm a couple undeniable truths. First, Visigoth is absolutely at the height of today’s traditional, epic-tinged metals, and second, Jake Rogers is already a legend behind the mic.
8. Galaxy – Lost From the Start
Every member of Australia’s Galaxy has a ton of experience in other acts, so it’s no surprise that debut EP Lost From the Start does not sound like a debut EP. This blends a hefty, busy style of trad/power riffage and vocals that are the exact midpoint between Rob Halford and King Diamond. Need more convincing?
7. Mortal Incarnation – Lunar Radiant Dawn
Talk about a killer first strike. Mortal Incarnation sound fully formed as an Autopsy-meets-Incantation-meets-Thergothon type of doom/death that is just downright ugly. And because it’s top-notch doom/death, it manages to find beauty within the ugliness. Please keep this “demo” production for future releases, guys.
6. Suffering Hour – Dwell
Dwell took Suffering Hour’s already great The Chasm-meets-acrid-black-metal sound and gave it the scope of a cohesive 18-minute monster. In other words, it’s a significant leveling up. This track goes by in no time by being constantly gripping, and only increases the expectations for the band.
5. Woe – A Violent Dread
A Violent Dread is a perfect example of a stop-gap EP. It features one original – the monster title track, which is one of the best song’s of Woe’s career – and a cover. While the original is more impressive for obvious reasons, the band is obviously having a blast running through the Dawn classic “The Knell and the World.” Who wouldn’t?
4. Sky Shadow Obelisk – The Satyr’s Path
Of course Sky Shadow Obelisk again changed directions on this latest EP, taking on more aggression and precision in their doom/death/oddball hybrid. Peter Scartabello has never been as downright riffy and rocking as he often is here, but he’s thankfully just as weird as ever.
3. Dold Vorde Ens Navn – Gjengangere I Hjertets Morke
Because the Ved Buens Ende family needed another band… This time, Vicotnik and his band of merry maniacs focus on an extremely aggressive, occasionally punk-friendly attack first, and their typical brand of eccentricities second. Of course, you can take Vicotnik out of the outlandish band, but you can’t really take the outlandishness out of Vicotnik. Thank god.
2. Dead Kosmonaut – Rekviem
Leave it to an EP of moody, doomy metal fronted by [checks notes]… Hellbutcher Gustavsson of Nifelheim (?!) to really floor me. Rekviem is a frequently stunning release, capped off by a magical 10-minute title track that is somewhere between Warning, Reverend Bizarre, and a really textured, almost pastoral form of prog rock. It’s easy to get distracted by the golden pipes on Gustavsson, but that would be discounting what the rest of the band brings, which includes some truly buttery lead guitar. Can’t wait for the next release, which is coming [checks notes] at the end of January! Sweet.
1. Wormed – Metaportal
The tragic death of former drummer Guillermo Calero could have been a death blow to many a band, but the collection of cosmo-mechanical terrors that make up the great Wormed just kept going in their eternal conquest for tech-death world domination. Metaportal picked up right where Krighsu left off, offering the kind of mind-bending technicality and utterly wacky sci-fi lyrical content that fans have come to expect. It doesn’t add much new, but when you’re already operating at maximum, world-harvesting gravitational efficiency, there isn’t much to add. Wormed remains one of the most unique, nutty, and irresistibly fun bands in all of metal right now. BIONEEEEEEEEEEEK RELEEEEEEEEEEEEEK.
As always, I am not the guy to go to for a comprehensive non-metal list, but the new double albums from Nick Cave and Swans are both fairly stunning, with the former sounding like the capping of an era and the latter the beginning of a new one.
Danhammer found a way to get me into his beloved Autechre. I’m pushing 40 and here I am suddenly really digging electronic music. Life is weird and exciting in weird and exciting ways.
Finally went to see King Diamond live. The man sounds impeccable after all these years and his recent health scares, and appears to be in great shape and ready to keep it going. I lost my damn mind during “A Mansion in Darkness.” Officially stoked for The Institute.
I read Jeff Wagner’s Mean Deviation book earlier this summer, and recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in how metal has progressed and grown more technical and experimental over the decades. It covers everything from Rush and Dream Theater to Opeth and Ved Buens Ende. It has also had me listening to nonstop Anacrusis, Psychotic Waltz (new record in 2020!), Sieges Even, Watchtower, and plenty of proggy, techy others since.
I’m an idiot for not going to see this Maiden tour. I mean, I’m an idiot for a lot of reasons, but in 2019 not going to see Iron Maiden was pretty high on the Reasons I’m An Idiot list.
Finally, a super duper special note. I got married this fall. I met this fine gal online on the old MetalReview forums long before we became Last Rites. So it’s not at all an exaggeration to say that this website, crew, and extended family has been one of the most important parts of my life and will continue to be so for a very long time.
We got married at a bar and left the digital juke to the controls of the guests. This was a wise choice. “Hallowed Be Thy Name” definitely happened. So did some Dying Fetus. Love was in the air.
Thanks for reading, friends. When you find the good stuff, keep it close.