El Cuervo’s and Diabolus in Muzaka’s Top Ten(ish) of 2019

El Cuervo

Every time this time of year rolls around I’m encouraged to regard how great this part of my life and how great this community really is. It seems I have less time by the day to contribute but Angry Metal Guy always turns out high on the list when I reflect on which elements of my life are truly important to me. So a brief note of thanks to all that make this little world turn: Angry Metal Guy for founding it and occasionally wading in with his incendiary hot takes; Steel Druhm for managing it all; Madam X for her interminable reliability in promo-handling and project management; Sentynel for keeping the gremlins at bay; and Drs. Wvrm and A.N.Grier for editing the shite I ordinarily submit.

It says a lot when I could very easily formulate a top ten “prior years discoveries” list but can’t easily formulate a top ten “this year” list. That’s not because I have too many choices, but because I have too few. I don’t mean to suggest that this has been a weak year; it definitely hasn’t. But I want to honor the releases which are truly a cut above the rest on my list and the “cut above” records only number nine for 2019. I have selected a couple of -ishes as a placeholder tenth but I was unable to devise a comfortable list. Further, if nothing else, 2019 demonstrates that context matters: my top two are the two best records that I heard while on a six-week trek across Canada, also known as six of the best weeks of my year. Is there a correlation there? Probably, but they’re also two of the most boundary-pushing releases that I heard so they assuredly merit their accolades.

I hope your respective festive periods are enjoyable, relaxing and, that we will see more of your comments next year.

Fvneral Fvkk album cover(ish #3). Fvneral Fvkk // Carnal Confessions – I’m sure there has been no shortage of writers decrying the frankly appalling band name on show here but you’ll hear one more; in light of the all-too-sincere subject matter, Fvneral Fvkk is at best misguided and at worst disrespectful. It’s a good thing that the music is both somber and considerate. Carnal Confessions boasts some of the strongest, chewiest riffs of 2019 in its macabre, towering doom metal musings on child abuse perpetrated by the Roman Catholic Church.

(ish #2). Blood Incantation // Hidden History of the Human Race – Falling too close to the end of the year for true list consideration, Blood Incantation’s latest demonstrates why they’re heralded as one of the best modern death metal bands. Leveraging Timeghoul and Morbid Angel but also a healthy portion of post-Floyd psychedelia and atmospherics, Hidden History is the type of death metal that appeals to this Cuervo: riffy but thoughtful.

(ish #1). Hyalithe // As if Sunlight Could Warm the Deceased – As if writing a listing album in 2018 wasn’t enough, Jori Apedaile of Eneferens follows this with a new project, forging a raw, blackened experience which sounds very much like a band which I will not name but which is infamous within black metal circles. As if Sunlight is remarkably similar to that band except I can listen to it without feeling guilty which serves a very particular purpose for me. “The Light Upon My Shadow” was a Song o’ the Year shortlister.

#9. Green Lung // Woodland Rites – Another day, another Sabbath-worshipping troupe of doomsters paying tribute to the 70s. But not all worship is created equal and this particular worship is of very high quality. Simply put, Woodland Rites is composed of songs which are simply written, simply performed, but are also simply good. They’re stuffed full of great riffs, memorable vocal hooks, noodling solos and a significant appreciation for Satan through lyrics such as “Sister, you’ve been told that making love’s a sin. Open up your heart, and let the devil in” and “Once we were knights in the service of Christ. Now to Satan sworn on this unholy knight under the pale moonlight, we will be reborn: Templar Dawn!” I query whether the Satanism is sincere but the lyrics make for fun, imaginative lines to imitate. Derivative though Green Lung may be, their song-writing is beyond reproach.

#8. We Are Impala // Visions – I’m not typically a post-rock or stoner kinda guy yet here is an album bridging the two. I found the warm, vibrant atmosphere, incredibly sharp songwriting, lively synths, and uplifting crescendos all too difficult to ignore. We Are Impala is a representation of all that is refreshing and inspiring in life and a necessary reminder for me that people who prize brvtality for brvtality’s sake are so full of shit that I’m surprised it doesn’t come out of their ears as they headbang. I urge those who would not ordinarily listen these styles to sample this as Visions made me a believer.

Avantasia - Moonglow#7. Avantasia // Moonglow – Who else but Tobias Sammett? Although my other true love, Mikael Åkerfeldt, also released new music this year, it’s the German maestro that won my fanboy heart in 2019. Moonglow evidences Avantasia at their bombastic best, knocking out poppy, melodramatic hits like it’s 1985 all over again. I’m unsure if there is simply no translation for “subtlety” in German but Sammet once again draws nifty guitar lines, ridiculous arrangements, a heavenly host of metal and rock vocalists, and his unparalleled ability to write outrageous hooks into a beautiful smörgåsbord of symphonic hard rock and power metal. Though the record has troughs, the overarching quality shines through and, in penance for having publicly shat on him on a number of occasions, I will shout out Geoff Tate’s excellent performance on “Invincible.”

#6. Kryptos // Afterburner – It delights me to present to you an Indian heavy metal band; for a country so full of people, very little has crept across its borders to achieve international fame. Kryptos is basically just Judas Priest on speed. The riffs are a little faster, the guitar tone is a little more overdriven and the vocals are a little harsher, but it cherishes the same insane guitar hooks and shout-along vocals which made the likes of Painkiller one metal’s best-known albums. If riffs, solos, fun, and headbanging are significant in your life, Afterburner is one of the best albums you could try from 2019. If they are not, they should be, and Afterburner is one of the best albums you could try from 2019. As if all this wasn’t enough, they even nicked this riff straight from “Rock Me Amadeus.” The balls on these guys.

#5. Vanum // Ageless Fire – I described this record when it was fresh as “hot shit.” Well that hot shit has remained just as warm and pungent as it was on release. Ageless Fire is a primal and aggressive black metal release, sounding (and looking) as if it draws from hot, fiery death more than the lonely, wintry perseverance. But the real draw is the melodies, which ensure that the scything riffs will sink deep into your cranium and refuse to leave for hours at a time. Vanum sound how melodic black metal should sound in 2019. It draws from the Scandinavian wellspring but with modern tones, and song-writing which is sharp but expansive enough to keep its listener invested even across a ten-minute track (“Eternity”). Elemental black metal? Count me in.

#4. Idle Hands // ManaIdle Hands were one of 2019’s revelations. Mana hits a magical sweet spot between classic metal, classic rock, and darkwave, ramping up the tasty guitar leads and gothic atmosphere while maintaining a focused approach to songwriting. The “favorite track” feature on Bandcamp so frequently favors the longest track on a release, as dumb, pretentious metalheads equate longer with better. 1 But I’m so glad I lifted myself from that delusion as no track here exceeds 4 minutes 11 seconds in duration and the record is all the better for it. Best of all is how each track is outstanding without standing out; they’re strong front to back and there’s an overarching sense of what Mana is trying to achieve but all feature a unique sonic signature or ridiculous hook which ensures the album has not lost its freshness, even after seven months. In short, it is a mature, well-written album that deserves esteem.

#3. Firelink // The Inveterate Fire – Besides my number 1, there are no “obvious” choices on this list demonstrating my love for dynamic music, exemplified in recent years by In Vain, Barren Earth, Ne Obliviscaris and Asira. But The Inveterate Fire by Firelink draws close to this line; it’s not overtly progressive but uses a long-form, contrasting approach to melodic black metal which confers on it a singular vitality. The memorable riffs, strong harmonic approach, and well-judged acoustic passages combine into a shockingly sophisticated debut. It was only after falling for it that I learned of its nerdy theme (Dark Souls) but this only bolsters my admiration for these gentlemen; so many leverage books, movies, and games into novelty, gimmick releases but the music always comes first here, as it should.

#2. White Ward // Love Exchange FailureLove Exchange Failure is the breath of fresh (or sterile…) air that both I and atmospheric black metal required. I’m not in the throes of atmoblack burnout that I experienced in 2016 when every release using the metal tag on Bandcamp was by persons with Cassio keyboards who were unable to write actual riffs. But I still needed a special release to reignite that fire. And it turns out that the necessary catalyst was a neo-noir, jazz influence. Love Exchange Failure is a brooding and melancholic yet romantic examination of modernity, utilizing shimmering guitars, lonely pianos, and a smooth saxophone. It never quite explodes but the creeping tension and ominous crescendos consolidate it as the most hypnotic and emotionally affecting release of 2019.

#1. Wilderun // Veil of Imagination – Was there ever any doubt? Veil of Imagination is a symphonic, progressive, deathy, blackened, folksy triumph, from its dizzying, behemothic opener to the equally vast and delicate finale. Wilderun are transcending anything formerly done with symphonies in metal, intertwining the two strands to such an immaculate extent that I truly cannot imagine one part existing without the other; this is not the case for other symphonic metal bands. Words on paper are incapable of describing the scope of Veil of Imagination, so wide is the lens and so detailed is the picture. It is a masterfully composed piece of art that takes prior work and doubles down on every element, forging an experience which is symphonic in its true sense. More challenging than Sleep at the Edge of the Earth though it may be, it is a worthy successor and I cannot conceive of a greater compliment than that.

The album cover of Wilderun's - Veil of Imagination - a slightly surrealist, twisted tree covered in flowers

Disappointment o’ the Year
Varaha // A Passage for Lost YearsVaraha’s self-titled EP from 2016 is a perfect EP. It’s short, the music is immense and it’s incredibly emotionally-charged for only 14 minutes. A Passage for Lost Years is a reasonable follow-up and follows the same musical blueprint but is simply not that great. The melodies are blander, the quiet passion has become more lethargic and the record is far too long. This is enough to constitute a disappointment.

Songs o’ the Year

    1. Tanagra – “Witness”
    2. Voyager – “Brightstar”
    3. Idle Hands – “A Single Solemn Rose”
    4. Avantasia – “Moonglow”
    5. Hyalithe – “The Light Upon My Shadow”
    6. Skeletor – “The Hammer”
    7. Mitch Murder – “Frost”
    8. Vultures of Vengeance – “A Great Spark from the Dark”
    9. Wormwood – “The Isolationist”
    10. Fvneral Fvkk – “Chapel of Abuse”

Diabolus in Muzaka

I’ve pushed my time to the limit, and now I’m a few scant hours away from the deadline to turn this list in. The Sisyphean quest for a perfect or even adequate list of ten(ish) records to represent the year has to end sometime, and end it has; this is the result. It’s been a remarkably good year for metal, to the point where I’m thoroughly behind in listening and have given plenty of worthy records the short shrift; a small sample of notable omissions are Entrails, Blood Incantation, Unfathomable Ruination, Vulture, Rimfrost, Skald in Veum, Organectomy, Ram, Disentomb, and Diamond Head. I’ve also excised my contributions to all the “X You or We Missed” articles that weren’t in the Top Ten from my Honourable Mentions because there would have been a scandalous amount otherwise. As metal prepares to enter its sixth decade of aggression, this is a good problem to have.

On that note, this year sees us saying goodbye to Slayer. When they played their last ever London, Ontario gig, I headbanged myself silly and screamed myself hoarse knowing I’d never see my favorite band live again—I could hardly keep my eyes open after the show with the glorious throbbing in my skull, but I wouldn’t change that night for the world. To that end, another notable omission on my list is The Repentless Killogy “soundtrack”—a double-disc live set recorded during the final tour which acts as this incarnation of the band’s Decade of Aggression. Even the production is remarkably similar, and it’s a document of what my favorite band sounded like when I last saw them—something I’m thankful to have for decades down the road.

Continuing with the theme of thankfulness, I would as always like to thank my colleagues and the editors here—you’ve all kept me an avid reader of the site, not just a writer. To our readers, you’re a big part of why we all do this alongside our regular jobs. While I’m sure we all enjoy this enough to type into the void, it’s much better to have the readership we do. I appreciate how much content is available online, and the fact that you all spend some of your precious spare time (or perhaps your paid working time, but that’s not my business) here reading and talking about metal with us has not gone unnoticed, and I believe I speak for everyone here in saying, sincerely, thank you. When 2019 ends and the ’10s are over, years like this should remind us that while there’s much to look forward to, we shouldn’t forget to look back and revisit those records which mean a lot to us or discover older gems. This year has left me quite confident about the future of metal going into the next decade, but no matter what happens, I know I’ll be here listening—and I hope you will be too.

(ish). Angel Witch // Angel of Light – A tremendous heavy metal record. Slower overall than lead single “Don’t Turn Your Back” suggested, Angel of Light took some time to grow but grow it did. The songs here develop over time, and while they’re not “punchy” in the “Angel Witch” by Angel Witch from the album Angel Witch sense, they’re all great, thoughtful compositions executed wonderfully, especially “Condemned,” “I Am Infamy,” and “Window of Despair.” The glorious ending harmony of “Death from Andromeda” is well-earned, and “The Night is Calling” builds up to an explosive surprise riff perfectly. The Black Sabbath influence which pervades much of Angel of Light lends it an earnest, unpretentious heft, and Kevin Heybourne’s vocals are unique, imperfect, and compelling as always. No, it’s not better than Angel Witch, but it’s in the upper echelon of the genre this year and that certainly counts for something.

#10. Devourment // Obscene Majesty – A grand return from the slam band most slam bands try to be, Obscene Majesty is easily Devourment’s best material since Unleash the Carnivore. This thing is as ferocious and heavy as a rabid hippopotamus and caked in more grime and filth than a toilet at a combined Taco Bell and White Castle. It also has the most fitting title of the year—this is a slam Leviathan that doesn’t hide its contempt for you, produced to sound impenetrable at first blush to weed out the weak. It treats the slam-loving gymgoer like a Dutchman treats someone who eats in moderation at an all-you-can-eat buffet—you need more plates, you coward, more! I can say this because I’m part Dutch. I can also say that Devourment didn’t disappoint and made a monumental contribution to the genre they dragged screaming, chugging, gurgling, and burbling into the world long ago.

#9. Demon Hunter // War & Peace – This is Demon Hunter’s version of Soilwork’s The Living Infinite in one sense: the band had enough material to make a quality double album, and so they made one. In another sense, it differs: Demon Hunter spends War crafting their aggressive, melodic, modern metal in the vein of Outlive’s more aggressive moments, but Peace shows them as an exceptional hard rock band, with Ryan Clark exploring the full range of his considerable vocal talents. As with The Living Infinite, I like each song here and would cut nary a one. Both War and Peace end with a definitive closer: “Lesser Gods” cranks both the melody and aggression to eleven for a concluding triumph, while “Fear Is Not My Guide” is a touching piano-led ballad. War & Peace represents two sides of the Demon Hunter coin that the band has honed over the years and devoting an album to each side was the right choice, as each side allows the band to focus on what works best in both.

#8. Horrific Demise // Excruciating Extermination – This is the most fun I’ve had with death metal all year. Excruciating Extermination is quick and brutal like a speed-run of Splatterhouse. Great riffs come harder and faster than passes from Brett Favre in his prime. Slams hit with the force of a pile driver aimed at your groin. The solos shred so hard that the guitar used here probably became a flamethrower like the one on Yngwie Malmsteen’s Trilogy cover. Excruciating Extermination is more infectious than a hug from Typhoid Mary who has just added Leprosy as her middle name. It’s bloody and memorable, like when I saw Kraanium in Detroit this year, caught an elbow to the nose in the wall of death whilst holding an inflatable hammer, and twice filled the bathroom sink with blood. That was a great night, and this is a tour-de-force of reasons why people like death metal.

#7. Bewitcher // Under the Witching Cross – This is everything I love about speed metal rolled up into one convenient package. Bewitcher gets the “making Tipper Gore mad in the 80s” schtick right here, delivering their Venom-esque lyrical silliness via consistently great riffs and vocals that are just the right shade of clean to really sell the plentiful hooks. I wasn’t alive when speed metal got a full head of steam in the 80s, but I’m guessing the giddy excitement I get from Bewitcher’s music is something like what people who got into speed metal at ground level felt when they heard their genre favorites for the first time. Under the Witching Cross may not go down as a classic, but it won’t stray far from my rotation either. It’s a masterful demonstration of how much fun metal can be when it takes nothing but speed, riffs, and speedy riffs seriously.

#6. Idle Hands // Mana – I had a hard time placing this, and so it just ended up where it currently sits without much thought. Mana is a ton of fun, with the energy of NWOBHM and the dark emotive nature of goth rock combined into eleven great songs with more hooks than the mouth of a gullible bass. Residing at the top of the “sunglasses-core” heap, Idle Hands have made a record with little to gripe about save the odd stupid lyric or few, but those misfires are delivered with enough conviction that it’s tough to truly care. For my money, this is the rock record of the year, but this is rock made by metalheads for metalheads. Idle Hands has their finger firmly on the pulse of what people who like trad metal would want on a goth rock album, and the result of this intuition is a great record that doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard this year and is all the better for it.

#5. Midnight Priest // Aggressive Hauntings – This is the whole heavy metal package: the logo is Mercyful Fate with candles, the cover is a great B-movie that never was, the album title is the perfect mixture of spooky and hilarious, and the songs are uproariously fun. It’s uplifting to see and hear about people enjoying things, and I firmly believe that the fellows in Midnight Priest absolutely live for heavy metal. Fortunately, they’re a group of talented dudes who can share that passion for metal with the rest of us by creating great records like Aggressive Hauntings. There’s no real innovation here, but then again, Mercyful Fate hasn’t put out anything since the underrated 9 from ’99 a full twenty years ago. Aggressive Hauntings does the style justice like the best of Portrait and Attic. I’m glad this little niche is still going, and Midnight Priest have a shot to the top of the Fate-core heap with Aggressive Hauntings.

#4. Dawn of Disease // Procession of Ghosts Dawn of Disease is a starter in the all-star lineup of Kataklysm, Amon Amarth, Hypocrisy, and Insomnium, and the team has just taken to the court. Dawn of Disease gets a pass and drives into the paint, launching powerfully into the air. Every melodeath record from this year stares in shock as Procession of Ghosts soars gracefully above them; they’re helpless to defend against the coming domination. As the ball slams into the basket, their eyes begin to grow misty—how could they have failed to stop this? The answer is, they couldn’t—Dawn of Disease simply has abilities, skills, and powers far beyond theirs. The ball hits the hardwood, and the echo rings endlessly as time stands still. Dejected, melodeath in 2019 lets slip the tears of defeat. Dawn of Disease, meanwhile, is drunk with power. Having definitively taken names, Dawn of Disease decides to assign a new name to the defeated collective: James. This leaves us with a final question: why is James cryin’? ‘Cause he just got dunked on.

#3. King Diamond // Songs for the Dead Live – For the sheer amount I’ve listened to this, I’d be remiss to not include it. There’s nothing “new” here, and the meat of the record—the entirety of Abigail—is quite old. Nonetheless, King’s performance breathes new life into the music, as him and the band are effectively recording the whole record live in one take. There’s no room for mistakes and none are made. The recording is excellent, full-bodied and clear, and it truly sounds energized and alive—it’s a great way to hear a classic anew. Having had the pleasure of seeing King Diamond this year in Louisville (absolutely worth the eight-hour drive), Songs for the Dead became even dearer to me. The theatricality and joy of a King Diamond performance are captured beautifully here, which I can verify because I’ve experienced it in real life. Having such an incredible and indispensable recording of one of metal’s greatest performers giving his audience ten times more than what they paid for is something not to be overlooked by anyone.

#2. Tyr // Hel – This album is, to my ears, Tyr’s triumph. Hel mixes gorgeous traditional music from Faroese and Scandinavian cultures with truly epic sword-swinging heavy metal and, because apparently that alone isn’t enough for these overachievers, they went ahead and threw in the best guitar solos of the year too. These leads are absolute show-stoppers, with “All Heroes Fall,” “Sunset Shore,” and “Fire and Flame” leading the unstoppable pack. Like Alestorm, Tyr make songs that, once you’ve heard the first chorus, the second becomes impossible not to sing along to and when you do, you feel like you’ve known the song for years. To that end, the number of great choruses here is nothing short of bewildering, and while 75 minutes may appear too long of a runtime, Tyr somehow makes it work. I’ve always liked and respected Tyr, but with Hel they’ve made something truly special that is both epic and excellent.

#1. Mayhem // Daemon – This year marks the 35th anniversary of Mayhem, and to celebrate they’ve released an excellent record which is the defining moment of their Teloch/Ghul era. I’ve spent a lot of time this year revisiting Mayhem’s discography, and each of their records has more thematic and musical expression to unpack than most bands do in an entire career. This is a band that have never dropped the ball, a band that demands your time and attention and handsomely rewards both. I can’t call Daemon the new bar for black metal moving forward, as Mayhem is a band in a league of their own. In this sense, they’re truly progressive—they develop new techniques and refine old ones to express the theme chosen for each individual record. Daemon is second-wave black metal like I’ve never heard it before and will never hear it again. That’s for the best, as Mayhem’s discography is one of metal’s finest anthologies, defined by experimentation and excellence. Ultimately, some of the highest praise I can give Daemon is that it’s well and truly a Mayhem record.


Honorable Mentions

  • Paladin Ascension // Great, fun, uplifting power-thrash with loads of energy. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a bit too long, but I wouldn’t cut any of these tracks. Either way, this album rules.
  • Vehemence Par Le Sang Verse // More life-affirming stuff, but this time it’s medieval-themed folk-adjacent black metal. Outstanding guitar harmonies and raucous cleans that sound like shanties give this one some real vitality and help it stand out.
  • Visceral Disgorge Slithering Evisceration // A blistering return with exciting riffs and pulverizing slams. Nothing wasted, nothing wanting. Ridiculous snare, great vocals. There’s also an expertly used Mortal Kombat sample.
  • Obey the Brave Balance // Under 30 minutes of non-stop hooky energy that reminds me of A Day to Remember with better heavy parts and less iconic poppy parts, though the latter are still quite good here.
  • Exumer Hostile Defiance // A barrel of fun with riffs and attitude, this is the type of groovy, snarling, and aggressive thrash I like to hear.
  • Ceremony of Silence Outis // Blackened Portal with more exciting harmonies and riffs. Outis manages to sound, in both composition and production, simultaneously airy and oppressive. This is no small feat and makes for quite the atmospheric experience.
  • Lothric Adversarial Light // Dear Hollow was right to say this is clearly made for die-hard Norwegian second-wave fans, because I think Adversarial Light rules. Lothric focuses on melody and harmony in the Gorgoroth vein and packs the eight well-written songs here chock-full of that.
  • Desecravity Anathema // This is seriously fun tech-death. The staccato riff in “Deprivation of Liberty” wrecks the neck and scrambles the brains – this is what tech-death is all about. The rest of the album follows suit.
  • Sammath Across the Rhine Is Only Death // Sammath gives us devastation in musical form. This record is exhausting in all the ways it should be.
  • October Tide In Splendor Below // My favorite death-doom record of the year. The Brothers Norrman have packed a lot of heaviness—emotional and riffing—into this record.

Disappointment o’ the Year: Too Much Good Slam to Write About

Originally this was going to be Lords of Chaos getting released. As a history buff, Mayhem fanatic, and someone who isn’t a fan of cringe-worthy teen psychodramas, this film is as unappealing as can be. Plus, given that paint and surfaces on which it will dry are readily available, there are clearly better uses of my limited viewing time than watching what looks like Riverdale with black metal trimmings directed by a guy who does Madonna videos. I never watched it, and judging by the box office data available, everyone else in the world minus about 60 or so people didn’t either. Moving swiftly along, this year I am disappointed that the following good slam (and occasional brutal death metal) records couldn’t and/or didn’t get a write-up from me or anyone else at AMG: Esophageal Craving Delusions; Carnal Lecherous Acts of Hedonism; Decomposition of Entrails Abnormality; Disgruntled Anthropophagi Violently Expunged; Fulci Tropical Sun; Sentenced to Dissection Between the Worlds [Reissue] (slamming deathcore); Remnants of Tortured Chainsaw; Heteradelphy Inundated with Decomposing Torsos.

Songs o’ the Year

    • King Diamond – “Black Horsemen (Live at the Fillmore)”
    • Dawn of Disease – “Autumn Days”
    • Mayhem – “Malum”
    • Idle Hands – “Cosmic Overdrive”
    • Slayer – “Hell Awaits (Live)”
    • Týr – “Fire and Flame”
    • Demon Hunter – “Lesser Gods”
    • Angel Witch – “Condemned”
    • Bewitcher – “Too Fast for the Flames”
    • Smoulder – “Ilian of Garathorm”
    • Tech N9ne – “Like I Ain’t”

Lyric Video o’ the Year to End All Lyric Videos for This and All Subsequent Years

Crepitation – “Arhaeological Clacker Valve Array”

Show 1 footnote

  1. Stop sniggering at the back
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