2019 can absolutely get fucked.
To be honest with you, dear reader, I’ve been dreading writing this intro. It’s hung over my head like an anvil held fast to a roof beam raised high by Seymour (or a carpenter). This year was, to put it mildly, the absolute worst of my life. And while I very much have avoided this practice of sitting in place and writing through my feelings, my fellow writers out there might understand the catharsis that will wash over me upon finishing the practice and getting out all of those emotions that have been bottled up deep inside and forced into place with whiskey, medication, Vulcan suppression techniques and hours of therapy.
Why was two thousand and nineteen such a horrible year, you ask? I can point to one absolutely life-altering event: the passing of my mother. It was three years ago on a Thanksgiving evening that my mother and I headed to the emergency room together to deal with her back pain. My mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis some years ago and, being the inspirational fighter that she was, refused to let that diagnosis, or the symptoms and side effects of medication, keep her down. She joined a Prevention Magazine team and walked the Hartford Marathon with other women suffering from painful ailments. She continued to crawl around in the garden and keep alive plants that have been handed down for generations in our family. She continued to work endlessly with children and dogs. I think you get the idea. So, on that night we headed to the emergency room where my mother was informed she had shingles. Or maybe it was a kidney stone. Or maybe it was a bladder stone. Either way, these pain medications would certainly help her. Fast forward two Thanksgivings and my mother was in similar pain on the couch. Again, we chalked it up to her rheumatoid arthritis acting up. How very, very wrong we were.
In early December 2018 my mother was informed that the pain she had been suffering was actually a tumor growing outside her kidney. Stage IV dedifferentiated liposarcoma. Those words I will never forget. My mother called me on the way home from Yale New Haven Hospital to let me know that she was going to do everything she could to fight and buy time, but the experts claimed it was a hopeless battle. Fight on she did, though. We spent most days at radiation or chemotherapy as my mother cheered on fellow patients and assured them that they could beat this.
She, however, did not beat it. Only three months later, on March 3, 2019 I sat in a hospice room at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital and held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath. To say my mother was loved would be the understatement of the year. Her celebration of life ceremony (which she wanted in lieu of a sad funeral) had so many attendees that the police were summoned to Temple Emanu-El to break up the party. (That would also be the last time I saw a good friend of mine alive as he chose to take his own life a few months later. That would be the second of my good friends to commit suicide in 2019.) Hundreds and hundreds of people streamed in from across America to let me and my father know just how much my mother meant to them and their children.
My father, for his part, took all of this relatively in stride. Being a master of meditation, poetry and professorship he threw himself into his pursuits, honored my mother at every opportunity and generally carried the torch of their loving relationship. On the other hand, I did not handle this well. My mother was my absolute best friend. Say what you will about the psychological negatives that go into that sort of relationship, but I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without her influence and encouragement.
As you probably know, I was born with a congenital heart defect known as Transposition of the Great Vessels. A pretty radical, black metal name for a condition if there ever was one. Leaning harder into the heavy metal analogies I spent many, many months in an iron lung awaiting my second open heart surgery. Through all of that, my mother remained strong—essentially willing me to live until my heart had matured enough for doctors to carve into it with knives. This kind of condition meant that I spent much of my youth either in my house or monitored by my parents (my mom, mostly) until I was old enough for a pacemaker and eventually old enough for my heart to grow, adapt and become just as strong (if not stronger) than non-defect hearts. The point is not to highlight my condition but to give thanks to that condition because it helped me remain bonded to my mother for the duration of my life (and hopefully beyond).
Now, through all of these hard months, and the months that followed, there was music. Angry music when I wanted to punch the walls. Brutal death metal when I wanted to kick tree stumps. Black metal when I wanted to tear my throat out screaming at the moon. Progressive metal when I wanted to have my heart ripped from my body. Funeral doom when I wanted to lay on the floor and let my soul sink down into the deepest depths of the hellish abyss. Traditional metal when I wanted to spread my legs and pump my fist in defiance.
Thus, you can say that the emotional journey that 2019 led me on greatly influenced the list below. You might notice that it’s not a list that screams “Manny.” It’s not merely a list of cave-dwelling death metal. Maybe I’m more mature, or maybe I’m less mature, but something has changed inside of me, and it is a thing that cannot be undone. And, as always, narrowing down my original “best of” list (which began in the 70s) to these 20 albums was something of an exercise in futility and patience.
While there are many people to thank for assisting me in getting through this miserable year a few in particular stand out. I have to thank: my sexy buddy Konrad Kantor (who will soon marry another lovely human named Maggie Morgan), our handsome leader Captain “Michael” Wuensch, Last Rites resident Finn Juho Mikkonen, Shannon Void of Perfect World PR who is somehow even better at being a friend than a PR maven, Sage Weatherford of Forest Passage Printing who graciously printed my mom’s “Terri’s Tumor Terminating Terriers” shirts and also shared his experiences and listened to me vent, my dear bicycle Allie who allowed me to pound out thousands of angry miles upon her, and my special lady friend Elena, without whom I would be lost face down in a puddle drowning in the muck of NYC. Elena helped me shed my unhealthy weight (more than 40lbs of it), kick my excessive drinking habit and conquer at least some percentage of my panic-laden anxiety. She also sat through a lot (I mean A LOT) of Star Trek with me. More than 27 (and counting) seasons worth. So cheers to a real trooper and proof that you can actually get a second chance in this life.
With all that said, please allow me to present some albums that helped me get through all this by releasing various emotions within my cerebral cortex. Please note that I wasn’t going to put together a non-metal list this year but then I saw a few non-metal lists and figured that I actually had heard more than enough to make a determination and I decided to drop my list in here down at the bottom. If you want more non-metal, I recommend checking out Captain’s list and also Dan’s list / walk through the mind of James Joyce.
And thank you to Captain for the lovely banner artwork up top as well as some very special artwork throughout this article in addition to the amazing artwork and design he provides this site with on a daily basis.
And through the darkness into light we soar
Evolving day from night for evermore
Say then, these heroic tears –
These griefs endured through months and years
Obscured awhile, to be revealed once more
Blindness, dearer far than others’ sight
Sweeter grief than earth’s most sweet delight
For you have led the erring soul –
By gradual steps to this fair goal
And through the darkness soar into the light
But in his hands the wheel of fate
Turns, now depressed and now elate” – Crusades
This is a Sickness and Sickness Will End
20. Darkthrone – Old Star
Not many bands get a gimme but Darkthrone is one of them. When they announced Old Star it was more a matter of where it would end up on year end lists and not “if” it would end up there. Old Star doesn’t upset the Darkthrone apple cart. It’s full of blackened riffs, sick grooves, and heartwarming vocals. At this point in their career, Darkthrone has become an absolute riff machine churning out four or more infectious riffs per track. And we the fans are truly blessed to be able to gobble them all up. “Feed me,” say Darkthrone fans, mimicking Ezekiel Elliott gobbling soup. Well, Fenriz and Nocturno Occulto are only more than happy to deliver heaping trays of riffs. In their more than thirty years of existence the band has made so few musical missteps that it might be some sort of world record. They have expertly produced a number of different styles of music, all of them blackened save for their debut, and have done so with ease and aplomb. What group of guys could make black metal this much fun? Who but Fenriz could be such a lovingly affable character on social media, in person and on his radio show? The answer is none. None more Darkthrone. They are the best. They are the kings. Darkthrone forever. “I MUFFLE YOUR INNER CHOIR!”
19. The Lone Madman – Let the Night Come
Having a guy like Dave Pirtle on staff made this album instantly humorous to me. Because, as you probably know, David goes by “Madman.” The concept of him as the Lone Madman conjured up endlessly silly images in my old noggin. Of course, that belies the fact that Let the Night Come flipping rules and should be an absolute must for fans of the late great Reverend Bizarre. The fellow Finns in The Lone Madman craft a wonderfully bluesy affair for their debut LP. The doom styles also vary greatly across the album. Fuzzed out guitars haunt the 70s-style opener while tracks like “Häxan” reveal a smoother take on the doomy-cauldron. The closing track even turns up the pace in an unexpected turn of events while “The Downfall” is nearly poisonous in its assault. A particularly adept trick of composition found throughout is the ability to carve riffs that contravene the confines of the simple 4/4 time signatures. More than a promising debut, Let the Night Come is a polished work of doom history that carries strong the flaming torch of timeless doom. Four distinct styles of doom and four distinctly successful tracks. Also, this album contains hands down the year’s best flute solo.
18. Warmoon Lord – Burning Banners of the Funereal War
There’s no question that 2019 saw black metal coming under heavy fire for what is often perceived as the overarching political landscape of the sub-genre. Thus, the surprise debut album from Warmoon Lord (a project of Vechi Vrăjitor the mastermind behind Musta Risti, Loanshark and the synth wave bangathon Megahammer) was a welcome addition to the landscape. In the Finnish style of his forebears, Warmoon Lord’s riffs are jagged, energetic and mesmerizingly cold. And, of course, Warmoon Lord bears a resemblance to the French Vlad Tepes from which the name is derived. I’m not sure if Vechi has any friends or family given that he spends all of his time making above average music but I’d hope that if he does they leave him alone to continue making excellent music. His skill at every instrument is demonstrable on this LP, particularly his drumming. His deft feet bang out double-bass blasts in stark contrast to the ride cymbal-heavy, more melodic passages. If you’re looking for some black metal to accompany your winter fires, this would be the jam.
17. Vastum – Orificial Purge
So, when people say that death metal is silly, stupid or uninformed, simply point them towards the “V” section of your local FYE, Strawberries or other long-since-closed media retailer. There they will find Vastum releases that fly in the face of their invectives. (Particularly Orificial Purge.) They will find music that not only changes their opinion, but music that alters the very structure of their soul. They will find release for violent expression and long-repressed sexual “deviances.” And, should the chance arise, take these people to see Vastum live, where they will be treated with one of the best performances metal has to offer, and the single best live vocal performance in all of death metal.
16. Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen
Hallucinogen is another feather in Blut Aus Nord’s already well-worn beret, and it is a feather that should be worn without criticism. The album is… a perfect work that can (and should) be returned to time and time again in both the happiest of sun-filled beach afternoons and the most depressed of winter evenings soaked in glogg, dew-laden greatcoats and wet overshoes. Hallucinogen is at once both timeless and present, emotionally mature and painfully vulnerable. It is a masterpiece of the melding of black metal sub-genres while reaching beyond.
15. Organectomy – Existential Disconnect
The dictionary definition of fun has recently been changed to an audio clip of this album. Brutal death metal has never before had this much exuberance. Existential Disconnect is technically proficient, rhythmically infectious and floor-stompingly heavy. The kind of music that makes you want to rock your slamsweats and flat-brimmed Organectomy logo hat while pounding a family-size bag of Cheetos and moshing it up in the beer section of your local 7-Eleven or WaWa or Hebs or whatever. Albums that make you act embarrassingly in public are usually on the level of great and Organectomy’s Existential Disconnect is a prime example of that law. Throw caution to the wind and enjoy this one with all of the parts of your soul no matter where you’ve left them along the way.
14. Tanagra – Meridiem
Bafflingly released independently, Meridiem is another jewel in the trunk of America’s continually-burgeoning power metal scene. Despite a run-time of more than an hour, at no point does Meridiem feel tedious like the middle pages of the 30th volume in a fifty-six volume fantasy series. Josh Kay and Steven Soderberg work like a seasoned pair of pistons in a two-stroke engine, firing out line after riff after solo in perfect harmony. Erich Ulmer quietly plays the oh-so-familiar role of unsung hero on bass, effortlessly grounding each track and presciently guiding chord progressions into more complex terrain. Behind the kit, Christopher Stewart is stalwart and unmoving in his effort to keep the cavalry in lockstep.
13. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race
An excellent death metal record that was somehow viciously divisive. Blood Incantation dialed up the Nocturnus vibes for their sophomore LP, which in many ways topped their already acclaimed, loved and worshipped debut Starspawn. Sneakily groovy, this LP snakes along at warp 3.7 vacillating between chaos and unadulterated trench-deep riffs. So while the social media of metal fans will argue about which splatter-colored vinyl is the best true metal fans will know deep in their heart that it’s the music that matters and Blood Incantation fucking delivers in that regard. The vast space of the cosmos is becoming crowded these days with death metal paying homage to black holes, nebulae and long lost stars. With Hidden History of the Human Race Blood Incantation prove once again that they ride above the masses in composition and performance ability allowing their music to speak volumes.
12. Profetus –The Sadness of Time Passing
Never has an album title hit closer to home. As we sit in our cubicles (or whatever) clacking out words that will never cement our legacy upon this spinning rock of lava time passes us by relegating us to a mundane life without excellence or true meaning. Now that you’re in a super depressed mindset staring down the banality of existence we’ve got you in the proper mood for devouring some of the greatest funeral doom being made on the planet today. If you crave the slow, drawling burn of absolutely perfect funeral doom then Profetus is for you. This album took years to make but it will not take you years to enjoy. Just one spin of The Sadness of Time Passing is enough to convince you that this album will enhance your otherwise pathetic life for eternity relative to your existence.
11. Nile – Vile Nilotic Rites
When it comes to death metal, 2019 was indeed a down year. The amount of high-flying death metal releases certainly dropped off and the majority fell to the middling “good-to-above-average” range. So we are still being blessed with a deluge of quality death metal not found in the doldrums of the early aughts. Then along came Nile. Initial fear of the departure of Dallas Toler-Wade led to many fans fearing another disaster like At the Gates of Sethu. The possibility was certainly there. But what Nile did was somehow rip off an excellent death metal album in-line with their exemplary history proving that Karl Sanders had everything it takes to fly high the flag of Egyptian mythology through the audio lens of Nile’s riptastically brutal brand of death metal. One listen to “Revel in Their Suffering,” or really any of the closing three tracks, and you’ll know that Nile, even sans-Dallas, means serious business. To all death metal bands currently attempting to rip it up in the old school style Nile has written a very, very serious “fuck you” letter to all of you and it’s titled Vile Nilotic Rites.
Perhaps You Deliver This Judgment With Greater Fear Than I Receive It
10. Iron Griffin – Curse of the Sky
Where oh where has the world (particularly Finland) been hiding Maija Tiljander? Oskari Räsänen (the brains behind Iron Griffin and the drummer for Mausoleum Gate) has claimed that Toni Pentikänen could easily have sung on Iron Griffin’s debut LP. I disagree. While the EP was a great first effort (as were the early demos) the Iron Griffin LP has something special going on and that thing is absolutely Maija Tiljander’s voice. At once captivating, talented and energetic her healthy vibrato provides an urgent lead to the simple traditional heavy metal tunes over which she sings. Curse of the Sky is an absolutely perfect, majestic thirty-one minute romp through battles of ancient past where only the strong will survive. Iron Griffin, with their gosh darn debut, have achieved the path to glory.
9. Monasterium – Church of Bones
You’ll reach for it on warm summer nights when the breeze carries the sound of hooves in the distance. You’ll spin it during the coldest depths of winter as a fire crackles softly in your hearth. In the fall, as wet leaves line the ground surrounding your root cellar, the powerful vibrato of Michał Strzelecki will strongly reverberate throughout the damp forest. In spring, as life bursts forth with great color and zest, Monasterium will be there to usher them on, force them to admit what they are before the Many-Faced God. Like a weighted blanket, Church of Bones will cuddle you and comfort you should you be wise enough to let it into your most intimate of emotional nooks and crannies.
8. Flotsam and Jetsam – The End of Chaos
Never in the entire history of music has an album cover been this bad and the music this good. I can’t really put it succinctly, but the ratio of terrible cover to excellent music is likely the greatest in music history here. So don’t take this as merely mocking the cover art (which, again, is horrifically stupid) but more as an exercise in praising the music contained inside these walls. I don’t think it’s a secret that it’s been a very long time since Flotsam and Jetsam were making music of this caliber, yet it’s unfair to say that it’s merely surprise that landed this album in my Top 10. Put any name on these tracks and this album would have rocketed into the Top 10 with ease. It is thrash as thrash was meant to be, with just a touch of progression added. Newcomer Ken Mary carries the rhythms as much of the original lineup (along with Steve Conley) simply shred letting their souls and hearts make music while their brains are on autopilot. It would be hard to choose a single “best song,” from the opener “Prisoner of Time” to the closing track aptly titled “The End,” but just go listen to any of them (maybe “Demolition Man”) and tell me this album isn’t perfect. Eric A.K. sounds fantastic belting out powerful melodies and infectious hook-filled choruses. And holy crap does that bass guitar POP. Thrash is on the upswing again and this foundation band is ready to train the younguns. “Live your life without regret or be a prisoner of time.”
Major, major thanks to Captain for coming through with that brilliant remix of the album cover.
7. Midnight Prey – Uncertain Times
Midnight Prey is the culmination of … [the] emotional fallout of our dumbest and most public blunders turned into the brilliance of experience that only those who have fallen can understand. Midnight Prey are rock and roll that transcends boundaries, that brings people together, that fuels your Menorah when Chanukah has long since passed. It’s the miracle of music and nostalgia that makes you excited to wake up every once in a while. It’s the best times informed by all the worst times, but advanced and separate from those low points. Midnight Prey is life.
6. Candlemass – The Door to Doom
In what is my absolute favorite review of 2019, my colleague, boss, thorn in my side and the guy who always gets the solo bed when it’s three guys, two beds, Captain spoke brilliantly about what made Candlemass’ debut Epicus Doomicus Metallicus such a special and odd record (links below). Such a moment in time that was somehow captured on tape. Plenty of that was due to Johan Längquist’s almost uncredited work on vocals. It took thirty-three years for Candlemass to become brave enough to even attempt to recapture that magick with Längquist on vocals. The Door to Doom thus marks only the second time that Längquist has recorded with the band, this time as a credited member. And the results are stupendous. Lars Johansson sounds inspired by the return of Längquist as his fingers soar over the fretboard. The composition is thick, inspired and ultimately doomy. The pressure of bringing Längquist back after all this time was a ballsy move and yet one that is totally Candlemass in that there are few things Leif Edling enjoys more than switching up vocalists. The fact that Candlemass are able to exceed not only expectations but also silence critics is remarkable. In a year where so many bands threw out doom that paid homage to Candlemass it’s nice to see the true daddies of doom step up and slay every imposter on the planet.
5. Devourment – Obscene Majesty
The Last Rites crew went through a pretty serious phase of listening to brutal death metal (slams, bro) in 2019. That was thanks to three albums (even though one doesn’t really fit): Devourment, Organectomy and Disentomb. We careened down ancient streets strewn with entrails clad in sweatpants, high tops and shirts torn open by our sick, glistening muscles. We fought about which albums were the most fun and which were the best. For me Devourment won the “best” competition handily. First off, it’s heavy without using any gimmicks or tricks to be so. How a guitar sound this pants-shittingly heavy was achieved is a secret known only to D. Braxton Henry. Secondly, the compositions are brilliant. Beyond using no gimmicks, the tracks are crafted like a whale carcass. Immovable, stinking, and yet gloriously captivating because of its sheer mass a whale carcass is an event (that usually ends with a very stinky explosion). That is Devourment. Obscene Majesty is a rotten whale carcass that ends with an explosion and you requiring new sweatpants.
4. Esoteric – A Pyrrhic Existence
Like most of Esoteric’s published works, A Pyrrhic Existence spans across multiple discs (or vinyl plates, if you prefer). Like their 2008 masterpiece, The Maniacal Vale, Esoteric clasp tightly to a full sound. While aspects of the album are thin—perhaps a guitar calls out mournfully or a passage provides more ambient reflection—the work as a whole is as oppressive as a 200-pound blanket. Vocals have settled into a throaty, growling delivery gurgling with salty foam as they help keep the pace across the nearly 100-minute run time of this beautiful exploration.
3. Borknagar – True North
Being part of the Last Rites crew means learning how to admit when you’re wrong. My first spin of True North led me to believe that this was an example of Borknagar going soft. What an incredibly stupid, stupid opinion. Borknagar produced not only one of the greatest albums of 2019, but at least two contenders for best song in “Up North” and “Lights.” True North is a celebration. A beautiful, gorgeous, charming, delightful, stunning, glamorous, irresistible, cheerful, bewitching, beguiling, graceful, tasteful, stunning, splendid and joy-filled romp down the lanes of melodic, progressive metal. These nine (plus two bonus tracks!) Yes-inspired tracks will keep your feetsies tapping, your head bopping and your throat singing for the duration of the entire hour that the album happily spins for. And best of all, they did it all by themselves (with some help from John Ryan who provided violin and cello accompaniment). Unlike prior works where guest vocalists splatter the landscape here, ICS Vortex handles the remarkably perfect vocals on his own, letting his voice soar and glide over inspirational, positive melodies and bouncing rhythms. In fact, not enough can be said about his vocal ability. Easily hanging in among the best clean vocal performances in metal, True North is an album for all seasons, all moods, all celebrations and all lifestyles. It’s pure exuberance harnessed, infused with happy pills and set free upon the masses to create one giant population of smiling citizens ready to embrace each other in peace and love. Bass lines pop and dazzle as melodic guitars rocket over chromatic progressions and modal, relative-minor key changes lending a bluesy feel this masterpiece of modern prog. Fans of Borknagar will recognize True North as one of their best albums in the nearly thirty-year history, hanging in alongside their self-titled and The Olden Domain and, dare I say it, potentially eventually topping them both. Prepare all the arenas across the globe be they Parthenon or Acropolis. Send Yanni home and install Borknagar as the new standard of pleasure for the masses. True North is triumphant. Leave it to the great Borknagar to open the world and my mind.
2. Tanith – In Another Time
Imagine a soft layer of fuzz covering everything. Perhaps it’s a layer of dust. The light creeps in past burnt orange window dressings on the short windows haphazardly cut into the highest point of the basement wall. Your toes leave the rough-hewn wooden steps and sink into the plush carpeting sunwashed a touch lighter than the window valance. The stereo cabinet has been left slightly ajar, your favorite record poking out aching to be played. Lifting the lid of the turntable and placing the vinyl upon the platter a tiny electric spark flies between your finger and the plastic diffusing electric charges built up by the polyester in the carpet. You push the clunky “Play” button and the tubes light up filling the empty space between stereo cabinet and wall with a warm glow. The needle, unused for years, crackles out as dust and static are cleaned by the spinning record. The speakers, housed in wood cabinets larger than necessary, hum to life. The first sounds of the guitar begin to pour through them drowning out the low hum of a poorly soldered ground and you’re transported immediately back to the innocent days of your childhood. That record is the timeless In Another Time. Fantasy tracks (“Citadel” and “Wing of the Owl”) interweave with tracks of childhood curiosity regarding space travel (“Cassini’s Deadly Plunge”) to create an album that toys with the surreal and real effortlessly. Oh, and did I mention that this crew can flat out play? Some of the best musicianship of the year.
1. Arch/Matheos – Winter Ethereal
There was zero doubt that this album would end up sitting pretty at number one. Zero doubt from the moment the first notes rang out and John Arch began to flex his pristine pipes. I can swear to you, good reader, that this choice had nothing to do with hometown pride (Connecticut represent!). Even the reaction of my 75-year old father (a professor) solidified just how intrinsically special this album was, is and will forever be. Not only is it a vocal performance for the ages utilizing unique melodic lines and masterful harmonies, Jim Matheos presents a masterclass in multiple guitar styles as he shreds, meanders and effortlessly asserts his legendary dominance. A team of drummers lend energetic, inspired performances revealing just how lucky they were to have been part of this endeavor. I have had moments of pensive contemplation enhanced by this album. I’ve had glorious walks as the sun rises to this album. I’ve poured my energy out cycling while this album blasts on my little portable speaker. I’ve laid quietly in bed and drifted off to sleep to this album. Point: Winter Ethereal has positively enhanced every experience that it became an integral part of. The album contains perhaps the greatest song of 2019 in “Wanderlust,” a point I was convinced of by my dear, sweet colleague Ryan. Hell, throw a dart blindfolded at this tracklist and you’re likely to hit one of 2019’s greatest tracks. While I am often given to hyperbole in an exercise of laziness I feel no exaggeratory shame declaring Winter Ethereal an album that will battle Ihsahn’s After for album of the decade. In fact, ever year I revise an ongoing list of the 25 most important albums of my life. 2020 will certainly see the addition of this album to that list bumping another historic effort off the list and into distant memory.
Thy Contagious Darts – Top 3 EPs & Demos
3. Mortal Incarnation – Lunar Radiant Dawn
Beyond merely a promising demo, Japan’s Mortal Incarnation dropped a sixteen-minute EP containing two dope tracks. Building on the oh-so-familiar mold laid out by bands such as Tomb Mold, the trio of Mortal Incantation use a commercial-sized blender (something like the elite Vitamix Model No. 36019) to infuse doom, melodic elements and punk-inspired spoken word. Despite the infusion of doom, with some of it being relatively slowly-paced, this little two-track gem is relentless in its aural assault. There’s also plenty of cosmic, spaced-out influence to keep those lovers of the more open, panoramic death metal entranced beyond the wormhole. The second track, “A Dismal Propagation into Decay” (sweet title), spans just over ten minutes and provides the most diversity on the EP. Vacillating between epicly melodic skyscapes and pummeling metals of death. Another positive aspect of this burgeoning career is the production value across Lunar Radiant Dawn. Mortal Incarnation have eschewed the cleaner, digitally enhanced production of comparable bands. Rather, the triumvirate have powered ahead with reduced treble and neck pickups jacked all the way up. The murk factor created not only creates a pleasantly warm pie-filling-like aspect to the creation but also creates separation when the band chooses to softly weave melodic layers into their compositions creating a pleasant juxtaposition to the pummeling riffs that make up the magma-laced core of their tracks. Simply put, the island of Japan has been underappreciated in the arena of death metal for far too long and Mortal Incarnation is a band that will likely change that factor. We urge you to get in on the ground floor and follow this band’s career as the sky (maybe the one on the cover of this EP) is their only limit.
2. Sedimentum – 2019 Demo
Hailing from Québec, these filth lords have bands like Outre-Tombe and Ültra Raptör on their curriculum vitae. With riffs so tough they’ll turn your tummy-control, contour-waisted trousers into super badass cut-off jorts in ten seconds flat. Why is it the gem of the bunch? For starters, these boys is polished shinier than your great granpappy’s spittoon. (The one he kept in the smoking lounge that grandma didn’t like.) Stringed instruments function as one; a quiver of swords battle-sharpened to reveal nicks and rust that are sure to tear and tend flesh in ways not ideal to wound recovery (free band name there). Their compositions curl forth eagerly the flames, bass often leading the way with its resounding slaps and thwaps – a comic book superhero chasing down a pack of rogue miscreants. The guitars follow spitting riffs and spiraling leads that complement and enhance, yet never impede, the main drive of each track. If your neck isn’t straight broken after the riffs dropped on “L’océan Encéphalique” then perhaps the guitar solo on “Momifié Dans La Vase” will ruin your brand-spanking-new jorts. Either way, this demo kicks ass and you should make crepes and sit down and enjoy it immediately.
Megaton Sword – Niralet
If you’re in the mood for some traditional-influenced “retro” (if you insist) metal then Megaton Sword should reside on the top of your list. Whether you’re a bed-ridden infirm or a beer-chugging intimidation enthusiast astride a murdered-out Harley Davidson Dyna Wide Glide, the troops of Megaton Sword (to reiterate their actual, literal given birth names: Unchained, The Axe, The Sorcerer and Thundersteel) will inspire you to kick ass in all the ways that you are capable. And let’s face it: your year has been shitty, your character has been suspect and your commitment to the cause of eternal battle has been middling at best. Step up your game with Megaton Sword and learn to drop riff-bombs all over the battlefield as your smite your enemies.
The Sun is Down and the Night is Riding In – TOP 20 NON-METAL ALBUMS OF 2019
20. Midland – Let it Roll
Few bands bring more fun to the table than Midland. Their former underwear-model-turned-country-music-honky-tonk-frontman Mark Wystrach is potentially one of the most intriguing personalities in Nashville. His colorful Elvis-inspired outfits, controlled vocal ability and a shocking songwriting prowess are on display on the band’s second album which they somehow found time for despite an incredibly demanding tour schedule. It’s hard to believe these three smiling men have any of the true sadness that leads to the drinking problems they sing about but nevertheless they are an absolute blast down at any honky tonk across this gigantic country.
• Genre: Country / Honky Tonk
• Official Website
19. Ceremony – In the Spirit World Now
Yup. It’s the same Ceremony that played hardcore or powerviolence or whatever they felt like in previous eras. So, since they will likely pivot yet again and never make another album that sounds like this one, it makes it all the more important that we stop and smell the roses that exist in this spirit world. Sure, it’s an album that pays homage to their idols and perhaps remains in a limited framework as a result. But it’s undeniable that In the Spirit World Now is a very pleasing romp down memory lane and yet another impressive shift for a band of musicians that have spent years being unafraid to take on anything that caught their fancy.
• Genre: Post Punk
18. Theon Cross – Fiyah
Feels like I’m the only person on earth not dropping tuba phenom Theon Cross’ latest work at the top of the list. This album is beat-central. It’s fun, dancy and if you feel like improvising along you can feel free to join for nothing more than the cost of your ego. It’s a great chance for Theon Cross to step out from behind the Sons of Kemet billboard and prove that he’s got what it takes to shine on his own. The album is… fiyah.
• Genre: Jazz
17. Allison Miller – Glitter Wolf
If I was ever to have an awesome drag name it would clearly be Glitter Wolf. Thus I was instantly drawn to this one. Despite “featuring” her band Boom Tic Boom Glitter Wolf is yet another brilliant record from acclaimed drummer Allison Miller. She manipulates the uniquely composed sextet deftly across ten tracks leaving fans with no option but to place her on par with the greatest jazz drummers in history.
• Genre: Jazz
• Official Website
16. Isotope – Isotope
I can’t say it enough: the studio in which Isotope was planning to record was flooded with raw sewage. Be crustier. I dare you. From my review: “One thing you might notice is that Isotope demands to be played at high volume. Whether in-ear monitors, circumaural cans, speakers on your wall or just some shitty Apple AirPods, you’re going to want to crank that volume way the fuck up. Two factors contribute to this. First, the album is awesome, energetic and infectious. Your legs will betray you in furious stomps as your face tenses up into what you’d look like if someone was throwing pieces of jagged plastic at you. Your hands will become fists, banging intermittently on inanimate objects that surround you. Second, the production—slightly muted and flat with emphasis paid to the tremendous drumming—lends itself to increased volume. It’s the kind of production that you can crank up without injuring your ears or blowing out the speakers in your 1996 Toyota Camry.”
• Genre: Punk / Hardcore
15. Boy Harsher – Careful
Boom. Thump. The drum machine pounds out a house-style rhythm that forces your rump to get out of that chair and onto the dance floor. This Massachusetts duo provide exciting synth-based tracks that are at home in an industrial club, a bespoke cocktail bar or James Beard-award winning restaurant that will never obtain a Michelin Star because they refuse to stop playing music like Boy Harsher in their dining room. Careful reveals a modern take on the global scene that will be as at home on the Dalmatian Coast as it would be in a burned out Berlin church. Oscillate the synths and spin the record. Move your feet. Repeat.
• Genre: Dance / Goth
14. Vuono – White Dots
Finland is a thrilling land of artistic creativity. It seems like whatever genre these happy people take on turns out to be one that they make entirely their own. Combine that with the winners of the Finnish Export Music Award, Svart Records, and you get gems like Vuono. The quintet creates beautiful pop songs without being tied to the three-minute formula made popular by the 1950s founders of the genre. That means you can expect pop hits upwards of eleven minutes on this limited edition output. This one is a gosh darn winner.
• Genre: Pop
13. Erin Enderlin – Faulkner County
With some crossover on tracks contained on her major-label debut (Whiskeytown Crier) Enderlin’s second major album shows off not only her brilliant songwriting but her heart-wrenching lyrical prowess for herself whereas she spent her early career giving her tracks to high profile stars. It’s nice to see Enderlin getting the credit she’s always deserved and it would be even better if you let her into your life. So spin this one and keep the whiskey bottle close by. Tears are to be expected with true country built upon a blues foundation. Thanks, Andy Edmunds!
• Genre: Country
• Official Website
12. Taylor Ho Bynum 9-tette – The Ambiguity Manifesto
While I’m unclear on where a band consisting of nine people can even find space to rehearse, it’s clear that Taylor Ho Bynum put in the hard work to reserve a spot. This is another place you can find the brilliant trio of Tomeka Reid, Mary Halvorsan and (shocker) Tomas Fujiwara (as well as a number of other excellent musicians) plying their craft. The so-called “9-tette” brings a fun, fresh take to a sound usually reserved for five or less. Taylor Ho Bynum has been leading this group, in some form, for almost 15 years and the world is a better place for it. Ride this one hard.
• Genre: Jazz
11. The Foreign Resort – Outnumbered
My 2019 travels were made all the better by endless spinning of The Foreign Resort’s Outnumbered. The serene backscape created by the Danish post-punk trio created a perfect ambiance whether the weather was rainy, sunny, cold or viciously hot and the scene was country, urban, desert or oceanic. It’s a timeless album for late nights and early mornings. For singing along or sipping coffee. That this band isn’t making waves across the globe is a crime. Spin this one multiple times. Please.
• Genre: Post Punk / New Wave
10. Joan Shelley – Like the River Loves the Sea
Another year and another beautifully simple Joan Shelley album slotted into my Top 20. This being her fifth solo album this Kentucky singer/songwriter intricately weaves love songs with organic tunes celebrating the land from which she was born. Her voice can calm even the most anxious chihuahua and it’s rumored that multiple wars have been brought to peace by a single Joan Shelley track. Pour her voice into your soul.
• Genre: Folk
9. Vaura – Sables
What a weird year for Kevin Hufnagel. The celebrated metal guitarist played on a number of albums (as usual) but none of them were in squarely in the world of heavy metal. Among other things, he proved in 2019 that Vaura showcased his ability to use minimalism and create an aura in lieu of his usual face-melting shred style. Vaura is an album that can be played over and over again in front of an audience comprised of fans of any genre. It’s a crowd-pleasing stroll down a beautifully twisted lane in the dreams of a hyper-intelligent space dweller.
• Genre: Goth / New Wave / Avant-garde
8. Tomeka Reid Quartet – Old New
Hello. Have you an enjoyment for some mind-blowing guitar work? Because Tomeka Reid Quartet delivers that in heaps with Mary Halvorson’s work on Old New. Her chemistry with drummer Toma Fujiwara is apparent from the outset (they play in a number of projects together). As always Reid’s cello playing is spot-on and Jaon Roebke rounds out the quartet brilliantly on bass. Think of this one as this year’s Maisha. But, you know, a bit different.
• Genre: Jazz
7. Ohio – Upward, Broken, Always
On a cold, early morning trek to collect coffee I chose to spin this album for the first time. I found myself stuck on the corner of 90th street and 1st avenue unable to move forward, backwards or sideways. Planted in position I let track after track wash over me and Upward, Broken, Always became part of my depressed psyche. This album is a deeply moving as it is superficially beautiful. Spend some time with this gem and see what long repressed memories it drudges up. You, or maybe your therapist, will be happy you did.
• Genre: Ambient / Electronic / Minimalism
6. Eleni Karaindrou – Karaindrou: Tous des oiseaux
Quiet. Serene. Beautiful. Classical. There are really no better words to describe Karaindrou’s beautiful 2019 performance. The compositions, all original, are for two projects. The first is a play by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad and the second is from Bomb, A Love Story, a film by Iranian actor-director Payman Maadi. The compositions blend seamlessly and are performed in luminous genius by Karaindrou. Perfect for fancy dinners, quiet nights and becoming a better person.
• Genre: Modern Classical / Soundtrack
• Label Website
5. Wingtips – Exposure Therapy
Naming your band after a style of shoe is always a risky bet. Thankfully, the LA-sounding Chicao-based goth pop duo do everything in the way of backing up that ballsy name. Their sophomore album has catapulted them to the very pinnacle of the goth scene through their combination of The Cure, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears and Echo & the Bunnymen. Throw in a bit of the Thompson Twins and you’ll be out all night dancing in your platform boots. Or, more likely, staying up late at home staring at the ceiling and singing along to this absolutely infectious album that dares you to press “stop” at your own risk of mental meltdown.
• Genre: Synthpop / Gothpop
4. Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet – Metamodial
Holy zen meditative beauty. The Byzantine lyra work on this album is as hypnotically entrancing as it is relaxing. An album for bath time, romance time or merely driving distant roads to the future. With the track “Red Thread” woven throughout all compositions on the album you will find yourself plunged into the experience in a manner akin to slipping into a warm pool filled with delicious pudding. Release the bannister and allow yourself to be captivated by this exceptional work of utter beauty.
• Genre: Jazz / Folk / Modern Classical
• Label Website
3. Drab Majesty – Modern Mirror
It’s tough to pick a “best” when it comes to the dark wave, post punk and goth rock of 2019 but no band combined the three better than Drab Majesty. Their almost Daft Punk take on the genre came across as smooth as caramel and as infectious as Hepatitis C (which is curable now). Modern Mirror is an immersive ride through the dark trolley ride through the underground sounds of LA’s dark wave. How can a city with so much sun and beauty somehow produce such stellar darkness? I have no answers and I don’t plan on visiting to find out.
• Genre: Dark Wave / Goth Rock
2. Yazz Ahmed – Polyhymnia
Unlike my counterparts Dan and Captain I had the luxury of time to hear this gem after Cap’s list was published. Thus, it rocketed to towards the top of my non-metal list. Often described as “psychedelic arabic-jazz,” Yazz’ music is a captivating blend of musical history, culture, feminism and a shocking amount of straight-forward jazz mixed in. The welcome feminist spoken word comes across in the very lovely style Shabaka Hutchings (Sons of Kemet). of A talent beyond her years there’s no telling how high this star can fly and I very much look forward to her continued, exciting career.
• Genre: Jazz
1. Branford Marsalis Quintet – The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul
Always being my favorite Marsalis has its benefits. For one, I’ll immediately listen to anything that’s put out by Branford. Second, it’s likely that I will fall in love with it. Third, and finally, It’s probable that I will never shut up about how brilliant it is to anyone that will listen. Are you listening? Ok. Good. The range on this album is astonishing. Coming from a family celebrated for dixieland and traditional jazz means that jaws will drop as Branford adroitly guides his quintet into experimental, modern territory. While that daring ability may come as no surprise to those who have adored his work in the past, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul may have the desired effect on even the most hardened Branford fans. Look for influences ranging from African polyrhythmic drumming to the classical theater of European opera. With this album Branford Marsalis has elevated himself among an already elite group of historic jazz saxophonists.
• Genre: Jazz
• Official Website