I’m more of an audio enthusiast than an audiophile. What does that mean exactly? Well, I can’t claim to know all the technical terms and intricacies of audio production and engineering, however, I consider myself a long time stickler for production with increasing devotion and addiction to beefing up my home audio and headphone collection. What I can say is, collectively here at Angry Metal Guy, we care about, and value, quality production, and dynamics in metal.
So in the tradition of the past Angry Metal-Fi end of year articles, some of the AMG team came together with a list of what we consider the best and worst sounding albums of 2019. Encouragingly, there were far more best-sounding albums on the shortlist than worst-sounding. Is this perhaps indicative of a subtle shift from extreme brickwalling in the broader metal market? We can only hope…
Firstly, a handful of acknowledgments:
Soen finally ironed out the sonic deficiencies which have plagued their career. Fourth LP Lotus came equipped with a robust, reasonably dynamic, and far superior production job. This finally allowed the breathing space for their emotive, melancholic prog metal tunes to truly thrive.
Whatever your opinion is on Wilderun‘s bombastic, highly ambitious and largely successful third album, Veil of Imagination, it’s difficult to fault the sound. Yeah, it’s a touch loud, but much credit is warranted to the band for handling production duties themselves, with assistance from the skilled hands of Dan Swanö and Jens Bogren for the mix and master respectively. With such busy, multilayered compositions, a subpar production could have seriously hampered the album and made a mess of its classy orchestrations and more traditional metal instrumentation.
Blood Incantation deserve praise as well for the throwback analog production on Hidden History of the Human Race, providing a natural vibe and earthy warmth, forming a refreshing sonic counterpoint in the digital age. Blood Incantation create cutting-edge death metal, splicing forward-thinking invention with old school values. This includes respect for dynamic and organic sounding death with oodles of heart and soul.
Dawn of Demise have a long history of churning out solid slabs of groovy brutal death. The biggest surprise about their latest album, Into the Depths of Veracity, was the change in tact with their production. While still containing their trademark polished, hefty tones, Dawn of Demise opted for a rich, dynamic master measuring a vastly improved DR9. Everything pops and pummels with newfound sonic depth, without sacrificing the usual blunt force trauma of their trademark formula. Keep in mind this was released on Unique Leader Records.
Mentioning The Drowning’s The Radiant Dark in negative terms is perhaps a little harsh. This well-executed slab of gloomy death-doom garnered much praise around the AMG Offices. However, the album’s odd duck production values left something to be desired. Vocals and drums are mixed too loud, pushing the guitars inexplicably into the background. Overall, the sound profile is a tad sterile, and the drum sound is particularly uninspiring, especially the lifeless cymbals.
Quality metal and a fine set of cans go together like peanut butter and chocolate. I’ve been steadily building upon my headphone collection in recent years, but up until recently, I had avoided the wireless option. That changed in 2019, as wireless technology continued to evolve and eliminate the stigma regarding the sacrifice of top-notch sound from the wireless alternative. After much investigation, I invested in a pair of Sony‘s outstanding WH-1000XM3 over-ear Bluetooth headphones.
Although not exactly cheap, they are worth every cent for listeners wanting to cut the wires while retaining excellent sound quality. While perhaps not the most portable model around, the sound profile is terrific, pairing well with a variety of genres, within and outside of the metal spectrum, revealing impeccable detail and a tight, punchy sound. Equipped with excellent noise-canceling features and solid battery life, the WH-1000XM3 comes highly recommended for those in the market for a durable, classy pair of wireless headphones.1
Cheers to my trusty AMG comrades that contributed to this piece. As usual, feel free to debate our choices and throw down your own best and worst sounding picks in the comments.
Adrift // Pure – Honestly, you can wax eloquently about how great all of this year’s top prog albums sound, and you would be right. That’s really part of the equation for prog, though, isn’t it? Wilderun, Soen, and Sermon wouldn’t rank so high if they sounded like garbage. But let’s turn off the main road for a moment and look at some blackened, posty sludge metal. The best-sounding album in my collection this year is Pure from Adrift, produced by Santi Garcia. It’s almost perfect (the cymbals could be turned down just slightly). The sound stage is immaculate—close your eyes and blast it through speakers or headphones, and you are in the room with the band. Vocals cut through exactly right, guitars are amazingly rich in tone, and the bass really does make glasses rattle in the house. As good as all that is, the drums are immaculate, one of the best-sounding kits in years. If you want to hear a great-sounding album, this is it. – Huck N’ Roll
Devourment // Obscene Majesty – If you have the brain damage prerequisite for an appreciation of slam, Obscene Majesty sounds pretty much perfect. Obligatory requests for Brad Fincher to tune up and turn off his snare aside, I have no complaints. What I have is an explanation. You see, the brutal are gluttons for punishment, and few albums are more punishing than this one. What’s more, despite overwhelming low-end saturation, producer D. Braxton Henry captures the presence of each individual instrument here—the clang of the bass is very distinct from the guitar, even when Chris Andrews reaches down to the 8th string. Yes, it’s a uniquely crushing and distorted recording—Obscene Majesty sounds radically different through every pair of speakers or headphones I’ve piped it through—but it’s as meticulously hideous and adversarial as every other aspect of Devourment, and when you’re in the business of brutality, that’s a winning move. – Kronos
Vandor // In the Land of Vandor – Rare is it to find a power metal album in the modern era that sounds as good as this one. Vandor accomplishes the one thing that power metal bands ought to knock out of the park every time but scarcely do: feel powerful. When the double bass gallops drop, your entire body crumples beneath muscular hoof and tears asunder before razor-sharp claw. The low end is rich and vibrant; vocals are mixed perfectly just above middle ground; guitars give off a fantastic tone; every moment receives ample breathing room. I could go on for days. It might not be a great record—In the Land of Vandor features plenty of songwriting flaws and vocal missteps—but damn it all to hell if it isn’t the best sounding record I spun in 2019. – TheKenWord
Fvneral Fvkk // Carnal Confessions – My top album pick of 2019, Carnal Confessions blew me away with its disturbing themes, harrowing melodies, and gloomy take on epic doom. Featuring a combination of old school doom values and modern tropes, for all its mournful content, Carnal Confessions contained some of the most impactful, addictive and utterly compelling metal I heard across all genres in 2019. Beyond the obvious quality of the music, Carnal Confessions boasts an outstanding production job, adding the sonic depth and weight to compliment the excellent writing. The guitars and low end hit with seismic force and clarity, every note easily discernible, with an authoritative drum sound to match the mighty weight of the guitars and bass. Meanwhile, Cantor’s emotive, heartfelt cleans soar through the well-balanced mix in epic fashion. – L. Saunders
Sermon // Birth of the Marvellous – UK’s mysterious Sermon rose from obscurity to deliver an exceptional progressive metal debut opus with the stunning Birth of the Marvellous. Produced by the established Scott Atkins, Birth of the Marvellous is a sublime sounding album, even before considering the immense quality of the music. Everything smacks of professionalism and fine attention to detail. An album of such masterful songwriting dynamics is deserving of such sonic finery. The sound is familiar but distinctive, each instrument harmoniously sharing space in a vibrant mix and pleasingly dynamic master. Modern sounding but timeless, Birth of the Marvellous is a superb example of modern production techniques without ever sounding clinical or spit-polished. – L. Saunders
Tool // Fear Inoculum – Yeah, I know it’s fucking Tool, probably equipped with a Hollywood-style recording budget. But regardless of what you think about Tool‘s long-awaited comeback album, there’s no doubting Fear Inoculum sounds amazing. Each instrument is clearly defined with lively, crystal-clear detail within a near-flawless mix, bolstered by a dynamic master and punchy organic sound, adding sonic heft to the winding, progressive arrangements and intermittent bursts of genuine heaviness. Danny Carey’s drums sound particularly huge, armed with natural, pristine tones to compliment his powerhouse performance. – L. Saunders
Inculter // Fatal Visions – Not only did Inculter produce one of the very best thrash albums of the year, they also delivered one of the best sounding records overall. Beautifully mastered and mixed, Fatal Visions is full of blazing riffs and leads and has enough dynamic range to allow each element of the music to shine. A refreshing oasis in the wastelands produced by the Loudness Wars, no other album had me cranking my listening devices higher this year. Keep your eyes on these young Norwegian thrashers—it’s amazing how well they nailed their chosen style, and the way it sounds is just as impressive. – Holdeneye
Coffin Rot // A Monument to the Dead – There was a glut of fantastic Portland death metal releases in 2019 and Coffin Rot’s A Monument to the Dead is probably the best sounding of the lot. The guitar tone is to die for, the vocals reverberate in disgusting glory, and everything is mixed together in the perfect ratio. The analog production is clear and quiet and sounds just as great as some of the early 90s death metal classics that inspired Coffin Rot’s sound to begin with. A Monument to the Dead barely missed out on being included in my top 20 albums of the year, but it easily made my shortlist of the best sounding. – Holdeneye
Sounds Fucking Bad:
Baroness // Gold & Grey – Believe it or not, there was actually a fight in the AMG cafeteria over who would get to write about this dumpster fire of an album. I won, and oh my god where do you start with this aural travesty? Well first, I think The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a brilliant album. In fact, I own a DVD-Audio copy of it, and it is glorious. Apparently Baroness thinks that if they have Dave Fridmann producing their work, they too will generate masterpieces.2 Sadly, the pieces do not come together here like they did back in 2002. Instead, we are left with an album brickwalled harder than most grind records, with so many layers of poorly-chosen effects as to make Hysteria seem under-produced. The drums are so compressed, every hit of what passes for a snare makes your eardrums bleed. No album all year sounded so bad on so many different audio systems with so many different EQ settings as this one. Um, congratulations? – Huck N’ Roll
Venom Prison // Samsara – Samsara just sounds like shit—extremely compressed and distorted, instruments bleeding into each other, constant clipping, the works. I should have skewered it for this—it sounds way worse than The Flesh Prevails, though this sort of distortion is less jarring on a record that denies the existence of the clean channel. But even nasty records deserve good production, and I can’t figure out why Samsara didn’t get it. Venom Prison‘s first LP, Animus, sounded much better, with Tom Diring handling the engineering and mixing before handing it off to the ever-reliable Alan Douches. This time around, Diring is listed as a producer, with the mix and master going to Arthur Rizik. OK, so this Rizik guy must not know what he’s doing, right? Wrong—Rizik might err on the loud side, but he’s no slouch. If you don’t believe me, listen to Planetary Clairvoyance, Nightmare Logic, Mute Books, Realms of Eternal Decay—the list goes on. So why does this album sound like he bounced the mix at 96 kbps and then just rolled with it for the master? I wish I had the answer. – Kronos
Python // Astrological Warfare – This record is bad enough to put the fear of God in the Devil himself. But, somehow, the production is worse. Guitars don’t sound remotely the same in tone or in strength from one track to another. The low end is either demolished by noise and feedback or it’s just plain weak. Vocals are simultaneously obnoxious and miles away, an effect I never thought possible until Python came along. Furthermore, the overall sound quality of the album fluctuates wildly enough to convince me that this was recorded in separate sessions spanning several decades and using vastly different equipment each time. What an absolute fucking mess. – TheKenWord
Moon Tooth // Crux – I copped some flak in the comments when I fell hard for this proggy, hard-rocking gem early in 2019. It didn’t quite have the legs to find its way into main-list contention but I stand by the album’s high quality and addictive modern rock. Although I was fortunate to have an improved yet still bricked vinyl master, the original digital copy was sadly crushed down to a miserly DR4. As I commented at the time, “the everything-cranked-to-11 loudness detracts from the album’s subtleties and dynamics.” Furthermore, the vocals are mixed too high, and the overall sound is a touch too squeaky clean and polished. – L. Saunders