Well howdy, dear readers. This is it: Last and least. I usually take a powder on these personal best-of lists, and I’m still not sure I have any business doing one this year. I didn’t write very much, and I spent more time listening to Thin Lizzy than I did listening to new metal. That said, even though I haven’t had my finger on the pulse, there was a fair bit of metal that came out this year that I quite enjoyed, and so, in the interest of being a team-player, I figured I’d give the big list a shot. Besides, if I’ve learned anything these past few years, it’s that qualifications don’t mean god-damned thing—it’s who you know, who you can bribe, and how much bullshit you can sling that’ll get you places in this world. As it happens, I’m in in pretty good with the folks who run this joint, so all I have to do is buy a beer or two at Max’s Taphouse and maybe share some french-fries and they’ll pretty much let me do whatever I want around here. So stand back, friends, while I sling some bullshit.
20. Unfathomable Ruination – Enraged & Unbound
I haven’t had a lot of time to process this one, but Unfathomable Ruination have been among the most interesting of the brutal / technical death metal crowd over the past few years. Enraged & Unbound finds the band playing it a little straighter than it has in the past. The musicianship is still dazzling, the song structures still complex, but where previous albums had more clean passages and more melody, the focus here is more on brutality, and that’s just fine. Christ only knows when Suffocation is going to make another album, but Enraged & Unbound will fill the gap quite nicely.
19. Sanhedrin – The Poisoner
I find Sanhedrin’s melody-heavy blend of traditional metal and doom strangely soothing. The Poisoner is a smoothly flowing record, but at almost any point there is a great, heavy riff to be found as well. Easy listening for the hard-headed.
18. Smoulder – Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring
This album sounds like the cover looks: glorious, bombastic and epic doom metal. As a man fascinated with heavy riffs, sharp metal objects, and fantasy novels, this shit hits me right in the wheelhouse.
17. Xoth – Interdimmensional Invocations
This is another one that sounds like the cover looks: over-the-top and wacky. I’m not sure what to even call Xoth… Technical, blackened death / thrash? I guess I’ll just call it fun.
16. Darkthrone – Old Star
This is probably the lowest I’ve ranked a Darkthrone album in a decade. Old Star’s stripped-down take on doom is maybe a little too stripped down, but like most Darkthrone albums, it still has its treasures.
15. Nucleus – Entity
Nucleus’s brand of sci-fi death metal, with its labyrinthine song-structures and angular riffs, scratches that Demilich itch like few other bands do. Entity, however—much like its predecessor—is more progressive and outward looking compared to Nespithe’s insular tangle of riffs and words.
14. Traveler – Traveler
The older I get the more I find myself listening to traditional metal. And while Maiden and Priest never seem to wear thin, it’s great to hear a young band with a quality, energetic take on the classic style. Cheers to my colleague Ryan Tysinger for bringing the band to my attention.
13. Saint Vitus – Saint Vitus
Scott Reagers has twice departed and twice returned to Saint Vitus, and each time he has returned he’s helped make a motherfucker of a record. The band’s previous album, Lillie: F-65, felt like it had about three actual songs on it, so this self-titled disc is three times the album almost by default. But more than that, the band sounds as vital and heavy here as it ever has.
12. Crypt Sermon – The Ruins of Fading Light
Candlemass put out a record this year, but these young fellows in Crypt Sermon are doing the epic doom a bit better than the masters at this point. I might favor the debut a little more, but Crypt Sermon is still well on its way to being a top-tier doom act. Hell, they might even be there already.
11. Tanith – In Another Time
This one is certainly aptly titled. In Another Time sounds, for all the world, like some long-lost recording from the late seventies or early eighties. Yet, despite its retro stylings, I can’t say I’ve ever heard a band quite like Tanith. Their unique blend of prog rock and trad metal seems like it should have existed forty years ago, but somehow it never did. It’s here now, though, and I’m pretty god-damned happy about it.
FINER THAN FROG HAIR
10. WEEPING SORES – FALSE CONFESSION
It always feels a little awkward publicly gushing about music made by someone you know. Weeping Sores guitarist / vocalist / chief architect Doug Moore wrote for us here during the Metal Review days, and we consider him part of the family, so to speak. That means impartiality regarding this album is out the window. All that being said, I think this is the best goddamned music Doug has ever made. I can appreciate the maniacal chaos of his other band Pyrrhon, but the more straightforward, crunchy, chugging riffs that make up the backbone of this album are right up my alley.
9. NOCTURNUS A.D. – PARADOX
This isn’t really supposed to happen; a band shouldn’t be able to reform with one original member and pick up right where it left off almost thirty years ago. But that’s pretty much what has happened, because Paradox is every bit the spiritual successor to The Key as one could hope. Nocturnus A.D. has captured that classic Nocturnus vibe better than it has any right to, even with Mike Browning running the show. If you’re looking for progression, there really isn’t any, but plenty of bands make the same record over and over, and most of those records aren’t half as good as The Key. With Paradox, Nocturnus A. D. has managed a more than worthy sequel to one of death metal’s most unique classics.
8. VASTUM– ORIFICIAL PURGE
I was a little late to the party with Vastum. Hole Below hit me just when I thought I couldn’t stand another murky death metal album, and it made me realize I had room for at least one more. Expecting another lava-thick and cavernous sounding slab o’ death, Orificial Purge surprised me by not sounding a whole heck of a lot like its predecessor. This album turns a lot of things up: namely the tempo, the mid-range, and the melody. It is then a tribute to Vastum’s death metal mastery that it can so drastically change up the sonic pallet and still crank out such an excellent quality album. The band makes it seem effortless, tossing off one throat-slicing riff after another, complemented by a massive vocal performance and plenty of tastefully dexterous lead guitar work. And, despite the aesthetic changes, Orificial Purge is every bit as heavy as Hole Below in its own way.
7. EXHUMED – HORROR
I don’t know how many times in my years of reviewing I have compared a short, vicious death metal album to Reign in Blood, but I’m about to do it again. With all but one if its fifteen songs under two-and-a-half minutes and a twenty seven minute total running time, Horror practically begs for comparisons to Reign in Blood, which is an abrupt about-face in contrast to the ambitious and comparatively lengthy concept album that was Death Revenge. But, additionally, Horror harkens back to Exhumed’s demo days, when the band was as much grindcore as death metal. Much like Carcass, to which Exhumed will forever be compared, the band has grown immensely both in technical and compositional ability since the demo days, but it’s refreshing to hear that the group can still get back to basics and rip off faces.
6. THE LORD WEIRD SLOUGH FEG – NEW ORGANON
In a manner similar to Exhumed, The Lord Weird Slough Feg somehow managed to turn back the clock twenty years with New Organon. The band established a sort of signature “Celtic-influenced take on traditional metal” sound with their first three albums, then began tinkering with that formula (usually to great result) beginning with 2003’s sci-fi gem Traveller. Since then, pretty much every album has had its own unique identity. 2014’s Digital Resistance took the tinkering a little too far for my taste, and despite the fact that Slough Feg has never been the heaviest of metal bands, that record also strayed a little too far into rock territory. Most metal bands make shitty rock bands—even Slough Feg, who are generally more rocking than most—so when New Organon emerged sounding like it could have been the follow up to Down Among the Dead Men… Well, if felt like friggin’ Christmas.
5. ARCH / MATHEOS – WINTER ETHEREAL
Every time John Arch makes music, I get pissed that John Arch hasn’t made more music. At sixty years old, this guy still has one of the most unique and powerful voices in metal, and he’s only made two-and-a-half albums in the 33 years since he was kicked out of Fates Warning for wanting to keep his day job. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much if the music he did make wasn’t so fucking spectacular. Of course, credit for such is also due to Jim Matheos and the other ace prog-metal musicians who have played on the two Arch / Matheos albums.
Truth to tell, I don’t listen to a whole lot of this style, but something about John Arch’s work really strikes a chord with me. The sun seems to shine a little brighter when he sings. I feel lighter, and my aches and pains fade a bit. I also appreciate the fuck out of the fact that, for all its complexity and multi-layered melodies, this album (like the one before it) is still heavy. The prog doesn’t end up outstripping the metal.
4. NILE – VILE NILOTIC RITES
I found it shocking, concerning and a little sad when the twenty-year partnership between Karl Sanders and Dallas Toler-Wade went up in smoke seemingly out of nowhere. Happily, from a musical standpoint, Nile hasn’t missed a beat. Granted, the band hardly sounded tired on 2015’s excellent What Should Not Be Unearthed, but Vile Nilotic Rites finds Nile sounding re-invigorated. This album is as epic, technical and brutal as any that came before it, and if anything, it’s perhaps even a little peppier. In the end, as important as Dallas was to Nile, the band has always been Karl Sanders show to run. So, while Brian Kingsland brings a different voice and lead guitar style to the proceedings, he doesn’t change the band’s style in any significant way. Instead, he ends up adding some interesting new colors to the pallet.
Thanks to the band’s incredible consistency, it can be easy to take Nile for granted. And having emerged after the late 80s’ / early 90s’ death metal boom had dried up, the group might not get as much credit as the likes of Morbid Angel or Suffocation. However, Vile Nilotic Rites is yet more proof that Nile is one of the greatest death metal bands to ever do death metal.
3. ORGANECTOMY – EXISTENTIAL DISCONNECT
The promo for this album came out pretty early in the year, and my appreciation for it has only grown in the intervening months. Existential Disconnect might not be quite as brutal or meat-headed as the next album on this list, but it is way the fuck over on the right on the grand scale of brutality. The formula for this kind of music is pretty simple: tune everything way down and, if you’ll forgive the technical terminology, pound the fucking shit out of it. The secret, of course, lies in the proper placement of those brief instances when you’re not pounding the fucking shit out of everything, so when you return to pounding the fucking shit out of everything, it sounds like everything is getting the fucking shit pounded out of it even harder than it was before. Organectomy has really mastered those subtle nuances, and that, in addition to thoroughly pounding the fucking shit out of everything, is what makes Existential Disconnect one of the best brutal death metal albums of the year.
2. DEVOURMENT – OBSCENE MAJESTY
Speaking of pounding the fucking shit out of everything, Obscene Majesty is probably the most brutal album I’ve ever heard. I literally laughed out loud at how ridiculously heavy it was the first time I listened to it. Amelodic, subtlety-free, and with a one-dimensional vocal delivery, rhythmic variation is Obscene Majesty’s only nod to actual music, yet it’s somehow exhilarating in a “getting-trampled-by-elephants” kind of way. There is an admirable purity to Devourment’s approach—there is no effort to impress with any sort of technical ability or inventive songcraft, and everything exists solely to serve the brutality. If relentless, merciless, insane musical butchery can be considered art, then Devourment is Michelangelo and Obscene Majesty is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
1. BLOOD INCANTATION – HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE
In a way, this seems foreordained; Hidden History of the Human race was probably my most anticipated album of 2019, and here it sits atop my best of 2019 list. However, the position is well-earned, because Blood Incantation has achieved the difficult feat of expanding its sound without losing any of its core elements.
There is only so much time on a record, so a band has little choice but to give you less of something for every new element introduced. With Hidden History of the Human Race, however—an album most would agree is relatively short—it feels like we gained without losing.
Truthfully, Hidden History isn’t a dramatic departure from Starspawn, but the band’s reach seems greater. The compositions are more daring, more complex, more melodic, and, at the same time, more cohesive. Blood Incantation has given me everything I could have hoped for and more, and the band has lived up to all the hype surrounding them.
That about does it, folks. To conclude, I just want to say thanks to you for reading—not just my list, but anything and everything you might have read here at Last Rites. I hope we’ve managed to turn you on to some good tunes in 2019, and I hope we can do the same in 2020. Finally, thanks to my friends, my brothers on the Last Rites staff. It’s great being a part of this site, but its greater being part of your lives. The hangovers are a bitch, though. I’m getting too old for that shit.