Another year, another influx of lists, and heavy metal remains hale and hearty. However, it’s no secret that extreme metal has flourished in particular. This year, the most potent blooms reside in the casket garden, where a perennial spring of blood blossom and revenant roses have crept over the landscape to throttle the opposition. A perfume of putrefaction haunts each breath as death metal persists as the root of all evil. As a fan, it has been indulgent to say the least but, as a reviewer, it has occasionally been overwhelming. As a result, my listening habits have been markedly singular, save for those releases that were hardy enough to ensure their time in the sun. Ironically, in the twelve months where I tackled the concept of personal and professional change head on, my tenure at AMG was solidified by the deathly zeitgeist of 2018. Looking over my list, my bias for killer riffing is confirmed. But there is also an emotional connection that bonds some of the choices together, kind of like that film Inside Out, except the characters are all engulfed in a corrosive tar and their faces are slowly melting off. Maybe I’m just getting old and introspective or perhaps my taste has, inconceivably, become even better. Either way, you’re fucking welcome.
As we draw another year of being angry and metal to a close, I’d like to extend a hearty thanks to the management and editors—even Doctors Grier and Wvrm—who consistently delete necessary vowels and punctuation so as to keep the war machine turning. Their patience and willingness to pretend I still care about deadlines is genuinely appreciated. Praise be to our thankless Sentynel for successfully fending off Skynet once again and even a nod to my fellow staff, despite their unforgivable taste. But most of all, thanks to the readers, both frequent and casual, for continuing to circulate the lifeblood of this communal dread beast.
Now, behold the very best that iron commands.
(ish) Alkaloid // Liquid Anatomy – While I suspect I’m in the minority for slightly preferring their debut, there can be no denying that Alkaloid delivered yet another leviathan of death metal this year. Liquid Anatomy sees the band dipping their toes into even more progressive waters, both musically and conceptually. Although the album is a tad front-loaded, the material is generally so potent that even the twenty minute cephalopod sonnet gets by relatively unscathed. Alkaloid continue to defy not only the supergroup curse, but also the sophomore slump, cementing Liquid Anatomy as a subtly flawed masterclass of progressive death metal.
#10. Infernal Coil // Within a World Forgotten – Sometimes albums just appear from nowhere to cause calamity without care or concern, but Within a World Forgotten arrived with a mind set only on ash. Although the album comes packaged within iron-clad layers, upon replay, riff patterns and nuance increasingly begin to emerge. What at first glance could appear one-dimensional soon gives way to unadulterated desolation. Infernal Coil will be most likely be remembered in 2018 as definitively love or hate. However, the tumultuous drumming, the deceptively evocative riffing and the voracious finality of it all is what will stand the test of the underground. Within a World Forgotten is most certainly not for the faint of heart and nor does it make for casual listening. But it just might be the most ferocious yet succinct compound of death metal I’ve heard in years.
#9. Construct of Lethe // Exiler – A brew of death metal, progression and blackened character is always sure to catch the attention in some way, but Exiler goes a step beyond. The album exhales a malady of awkward time signatures and dissonance but somehow remains consistently hypnotic. With the inclusion of some beautiful lead guitar work, Construct of Lethe‘s is simply undeniable. Although innately divisive, Exiler boasts enough unnatural talent and presence to enthrall any with a constitution hardy enough to withstand the cold content. Such opaque metal rarely offers an album so unique in atmosphere and creativity that the slightest twists and turns endure throughout the year. Construct of Lethe perfectly encapsulates the concept of progression by nature as averse to design, which is exactly what makes their music so unnervingly great.
#8. Antiverse // Under the Regolith – In a year when thrash almost ceased to exist, Antiverse descended from whatever cosmic fold they lie beyond and generously dealt us a severe beating with their melodically tinged riffage. An exuberance and love of the craft pours from each song in structures that combine melodic black metal with articulate thrashing. But most of all, it’s the fantastic songwriting that demands recognition. If you were missing something that alleviated the dense grind of more extreme metal but without inviting the saccharine mediocrity so commonplace in the melodic scene, then Antiverse have the answer. Put bluntly, Under the Regolith fucking rips.
#7. Heads for the Dead // Serpent’s Curse – Swedeath is so well-defined that current iterations have become a little too easy to write off. Fortunately, the likes of Jonny Pettersson have other ideas. Serpent’s Curse revels in its genre’s history by promoting everything from crusty riffs, to dark, predatory tempos. It just so happens that the subtle atmospherics that lurk between each chord are as necessary as the material itself. Ralf Hauber’s exceptional vocal performance defines one of the best paced metal albums I’ve heard all year. If you were missing something that riffs, dooms and diseases, then Serpent’s Curse has the necessary venom.
#6. Depravity // Evil Upheaval – Every year, list season forces me to recognize when I have under-scored an album. This year, it’s Evil Upheaval. I also confess to making some slightly unsubtle comparisons to Cannibal Corpse, and although I consider that a compliment, Depravity are very much their own beast. These Australians mix traditional death metal with an extra touch of brutality. The result is a fucking riff factory. If rhythms thick enough to choke a bison aren’t your thing then maybe the songwriting is. The album never misses a step with a foreboding sense of urgency inherent in the memorable structures. Evil Upheaval takes no prisoners; it delights in crushing bone into meal.
#5. Sulphur Aeon // The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos – These disciples of Lovecraftian lore have carved quite the name for themselves in recent years, and with a name comes expectation. The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos exhibits less immediate riffing than its predecessor, but instead, spreads its otherworldly oeuvre even wider. Clean vocals and plaintive melodies flicker through blackened cuts, but a world-devouring riff is never too far behind. In fact, these Germans were so confident of their apocalyptic abilities that they released their album right at the end of the fucking year and it’s still likely to seethe through list season. The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos makes no promises to love you at your darkest… it simply does so by nature.
#4. Slugdge // Esoteric Malacology – Sent from below, that god amongst gastropods has arrived to subjugate the invertebrate masses. But, ironically, Esoteric Malacology is anything but spineless. Slugdge have endeavored to write the very best album of their careers and this titan of extremity knows no bounds. A blend of melodic and progressive death metal with grave clean singing and such stellar songwriting, that Mollusca himself can only be responsible for such sage insanity. I always feel Slugdge could benefit from some self-editing, and while I still feel a little that way, no amount of minor quibbling can deny Esoteric Malacology‘s diabolical divinity.
#3. Convocation // Scars Across – Any spawn of Desolate Shrine is a friend of mine, but I was unprepared for just how perfectly purgatorial Scars Across would be. Crushing doom tempos wreathed in in a death-like demeanor are the order of the day, and nothing survives this funereal furnace. The sheer heaviness of the material weighs well against the lonely instrumental accents that reinforce the record. With the addition of ethereal clean vocals that weave in and out of vast death roars, Scars Across is one of the best albums of the genre I’ve heard in years. It beckons from beyond with the voice of centuries and I challenge anyone with a love for the style to defy the call.
#2. Hooded Menace // Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed – Hooded Menace have always been great, but 2018 was the year they became exceptional. Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed achieves this by opening its cadaverous heart to even more doom influences. Now, that typical death/doom signature finds itself sharing a page with the likes of Katatonia and Draconian. Suddenly, Lasse Pyykkö’s ever reliable writing dripped both poison and emotion and I haven’t been able to stop listening all year. Hooded Menace have always been adept at invoking a grim atmosphere, but this album invites an ocean of refinement into the fray. Whenever vocalist Harri Kuokkanen bellows the line “cascade of timeless ash,” I can’t help but think what an apt summary of the album it is.
#1. Altars of Grief1 // Iris – I could wax lyrical for hours over Iris. I could soliloquize over an infinity of superlatives and wallow in as much hyperbole as I can muster, but I may never quite put my finger on just why this album is so special. Black metal collides with funeral doom to encompass a concept of resigned and tragic loss. Somehow, Altars of Grief have managed to borrow from the work of the late, great David Gold without ever feeling derivative. The extra dimension truly elevates Iris into the upper echelons of extreme metal. A unique vocal ensemble, a perfectly utilized cello and, most importantly, a dichotomy of doom and black metal tempos converge to break my heart. And break my heart it does. It buckles me every time. It invites the winter even in the sweltering summer months and now, with the cold, it bids them stay. But, above all else, Iris reminds us that loss is elastic. That no matter how much distance we gain, sooner or later it always thunders back into proximity. Since its release, I’ve dared other albums to challenge its quality. Altars of Grief‘s immaculate and immersive craftsmanship has raised a monumental standard, and 2018 could ask for no better.
- Convulsing // Grievous – A dark, emotional maiming from down under.
- Extremity // Coffin Birth – Deluxe death metal.
- Ihsahn // Ámr – Somehow cinematic and calculated.
- Black Royal // Lightbringer – Excellent death and doom diversity.
- Gygax // Second Edition – Rolls the dice on retro rock riffs.
- Amorphis // Queen of Time – An immortal stamp of excellence.
- Allfather // And All Will Be Desolation – Planet-sized riffs from the motherland.
- Psycroptic // As the Kingdom Drowns – Tech titans reborn.
- Visigoth // Conqueror’s Oath – The best opening three tracks this year.
Disappointments of the Year
- Remember thrash? 2018 didn’t. I’m looking at you, 2019.
- Myself, for largely forgetting to listen to anything other than death metal. Maybe next time.
Song o’ the Year
Visigoth‘s “Steel and Silver” – If you’re in the market for an appropriate theme to herald your presence on the battlefield, then look no further. This is also easily interchangeable with “Warrior Queen” or “Outlive Them All.” It’s a fucking great album.
It may come as a surprise, but rather than a flawless being of aetherial substance, I’m really just as human as most of you, and even moreso than the rest. I’m just your average bloke from the Netherlands, and as such it is still difficult to wrap my head around the authority on metal I’ve been granted by joining the Angry Metal Family two and a half years prior. Not that long ago, we hit our million-views-in-a-month milestone. There’s nineteen countries with a smaller population than that! It can be overwhelming to think such a tidal wave of people would tune in every month to read the opinions of my colleagues and I. What I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is thank you. Thank you for giving a shit about what we have to say. Thank you for making this the most cozy and most metal community on the web. Thank you for the comments, the compliments, the bickering, the love, the hate, the lurking, and even for the annoying memes like the four-square, the YER MOM jokes and the -erer bull. Because what’s a family if you don’t want to occasionally claw each other’s eyes out? Thank you, readers, for sticking with us in the year of our Adversary 2018.
And what a crazy fucking year it has been, huh? After an unexpected early peak of good records during winter, we all pretty much primed ourselves for disappointment when nary a real mind-blower was released for a long time afterwards. Just when the year seemed to go down as unremarkable, September hit like a ton of bricks and it has barely let up since. It’s been hard to stay on the ball in this madness, and the list below feels more like a snapshot of my current state of mind than a definitive declaration on the relative quality this year had to offer. If we released our best-of lists in May or June the following year, much of my list is bound to look quite different indeed, as I gaze upon the ruins of what I failed to listen to this year (sorry, Sulphur Aeon.) Our time on this Earth is limited, and reading the news it sometimes feels like it’s growing more limited by the day. So let’s simply use this opportunity to celebrate what’s really important: a selection of the best damn music to be released this year.
(ish). Tribulation // Down Below – Down Below seems to have been a divisive record. Some people love it, others pine for the band’s more death-oriented previous works. As my entry to the band, I carry no such nostalgia. My opinion is simple: these guys can write a hook! Track after track is filled to the brim with catchy, enigmatic melodies, riffs that stick like resin, transitioning into another with flawless flow. “Nightbound” is an easy favorite, with its ascending main riff and cascading chorus, but the vocal layers of “Subterranea” and the grandeur of “The World” are absolutely excellent. The dark Gothic atmosphere is executed perfectly, with subtle choral elements and keys supplementing the ominous compositions. Perfect for a night of partying at the cemetery.
#10. Gaerea // Unsettling Whispers – Black metal is among my least favorite metal genres, but I’ll make an exception for Gaerea. Brutal yet melodic, anguished yet refined, Unsettling Whispers demonstrates that you really can have it all. Though frequently employing shipping containers full of blast beats, an undercurrent of hooks drags you along across harsh and cold mountain terrains. Most albums can either make me feel uneasy or have me banging my head, but this platter manages both. Even the production shakes the lo-fi black metal yoke with ease, substituting treble overdose with a burly sound that assaults like a steam engine. Though the songs sometimes feel a tad too alike, there’s no denying the overwhelming power of Unsettling Whispers.
#9. Amorphis // Queen of Time – What else can be said about Amorphis? One of the biggest bands from Finland, their reputation for folk-tinged progressive metal is well deserved, something demonstrated again by Queen of Time. Grand and highly infectious, any track here could be a single, from the upbeat and catchy “Message in the Amber” to the bombastic “We Accursed.” But it’s Anneke van Giersbergen who lifts the music to greater heights with the fantastic “Amongst Stars,” which came very close to being my song of the year. With Queen of Time, Amorphis continues to be one of the most solid and reliable bands on the scene. Let’s hope they stay that way.
#8. Crone // Godspeed – Sir David Gilmour is probably my favorite classic guitarist, and yet there are few bands that successfully draw from his emotive style that plays on the heart more than the mind. Crone, however, manage just fine, from the first notes of “The Ptilonist” on. The weeping, sweeping six-strings produce some of the more heartfelt solos of the year, but where Crone sets itself apart is the ability to take a small, melancholic song to increasingly grand heights, and focus on the soul every step of the way. “Leviathan’s Work” is the best example of this, with its massive, wordless chorus that begs to be played at maximum volume, yet still manages to sound like a tearful tribute.
#7. Huntsmen // American Scrap – One of the best surprises of the year, Huntsmen came out of nowhere with a combination of Americana and progressive sludge metal, and though that combo seems a gimmick, the result sound completely natural. Weaving American tales like Neil Young with the brawn of Mastodon, tracks like “Canary King” and “The Barrens” grab with nostalgic moods and heavy hooks, supported by a great and emotive set of vocals. The band’s greatest strength is how the music underlines the stories told; “Canary King” is claustrophobic and stilted, “Atlantic City” slowly moves from summery melancholy to ominous as violence threatens, and final track “The Last President” is devastating in its portrayal of impending nuclear war. Like classic Americana, American Scrap gets its depth from its portrayal of the dark side of the land of the free.
#6. Rolo Tomassi // Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It – Our comment section is as good a source of great music as we are, and here is testament to that fact. Rolo Tomassi was mentioned a few times by the likes of you and as it turns out, Time Will Die is an absolute gem, formed from the clash between atmospheric indie rock and chaotic mathcore. Unconventional and uncontrollable, the record veers between moods, with frontwoman Eva Spence proving herself equally capable of terrifying shrieks as warm, pop-friendly vocals. The instrumentation consists of gentle acoustic string plucking one minute, dizzying riffs seemingly free from time signature constraints the next, before topping it with dense layers of keyboards on “Flood of Light.” It’s a startlingly unique combination, and yet the British band makes it sound effortlessly natural.
#5. Dire Peril // The Extraterrestrial Compendium – Less than a month ago, I was convinced that this would be the year where no power metal would grace my list. Manticora was cool but overlong, Michael Romeo didn’t stick. But out of nowhere comes Dire Peril, an Iced Earth-type record that restores the power to power metal. With hard hitting hooks as infectious as The Thing, an earnest love for science fiction movies and an all around superb execution, Compendium wasted no time in climbing my charts. The vocals are clean, epic, and devoid of the falsettos that make the lactose intolerant spray the walls. No glitz and glam on this album: just pummeling drums, heavy bass and barely a keyboard in sight. Add to that a Brittney Slayes cameo and you have the obvious choice for power metal album of the year, regardless of its extraneous length.
#4. Emma Ruth Rundle // On Dark Horses – The link between this album and metal is very tenuous at best, but as I stipulated in my review, it qualifies due to the links to Red Sparowes and early Chelsea Wolfe. What makes it qualify for this list, however, is the sheer emotional heft put out by Miss Rundle. Its post-rock washes forth like crashing waves, her fragile voice enthralling like a siren on the rocks. Despite regularly erupting in grandeur, it feels small, personal and deeply intimate. Reverb-laden strings are plucked with precision, the sound bubbling up as if echoing through a great hall, the drums sparse and hard-hitting. On Dark Horses is an enchanting album whose heaviness is found not by the density of its music, but by the weight of the melancholy it summons.
#3. Southern Empire // Civilisation – A must for the retro prog purists among us, Civilisation is an ambitious seventy-minute-long journey through the annals of Yes and Rush, among many others. Simultaneously light in sound and bombastic in sheer scope, the four tracks here show exactly how to keep lengthy, wandering compositions consistently engaging, with superb transitions and a clear, warm production that ranks among the best this year. “Cries for the Lonely” in particular displays an astonishing range of moods, and features one of the best instrumental opening sections I have yet heard. The many layers are carefully balanced, and a wide range of instruments are employed to retain the feeling of an epic journey through unknown lands. With the execution as well-considered as the compositions, Civilisation is a magistral prog rock album the likes of which don’t come around often enough.
#2. Hamferð // Támsens Likam – Támsens Likam was among the first albums released this year and for the longest time I did not think it would be toppled from pole position. The heart rending tale of darkness and loss is rendered beautifully in the band’s native Faroese, led by the godlike voice of Jón Aldará, whose tear-filled throat imbues each syllable with longing despair. Each note feels precise and deliberate, considered for maximum emotional impact. Yet despite the slow pacing, it’s a highly dynamic album, from the quiet folk buildup of “Frosthvarv” to the thundering death-doom of “Hon Syndrast.” Rarely does every single chord feel essential on an album, but here not one moment is wasted, every bar vital to building the cold and rainy grey that permeates the record from the first second to the last.
#1. Madder Mortem // Marrow – Could this be any less surprising? I have been extolling the virtues of Madder Mortem for almost two years, ever since I got into their previous record Red in Tooth and Claw. Yet nothing could have prepared me for the absolute emotional smackdown that is Marrow, an album that improves upon Red in every conceivable way. With shimmering vitality, Marrow is deeper, more layered and more complex than its predecessor, revealing more detail with each listen. “Until You Return” unpacks this ambition flawlessly, with its astounding transitions between small and personal to explosively grand. Agnete is the tantalizing centerpiece, a voice beautiful not despite the occasional flaw but because of it, a raw and bottomless well of unbridled emotion. All this is wrapped in one of the best, most meticulous productions of the year, one that allows the bass to shine at key moments, increasing the depth of sound in a mesmerizing fashion. The album is structures like a slow descent into darkness, a ray of hope growing steadily smaller, until the final plunge into the oubliette that is “Waiting to Fall.” It is a journey I have taken many times over the course of the last few months, and one I will take many times more over the years to come. For me, Marrow stands head and shoulders above everything else released in 2018.
- The Ocean // Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic – Progressive metal rarely sounded so massive.
- Usurpress // Interregnum – A quirky, eclectic death metal record that continually defies expectations.
- Messa // Feast for Water – Jazz lounge doom with tons of atmosphere, no one sounds quite like Messa.
- Voivod // The Wake – My first brush with Voivod has certainly left an impression. Deeply strange thrash that takes eons to unpack fully.
- Gorod // Aethra – The perfect blend of dizzying technical skill, insatiable groove and progressive compositions.
Disappointment o’ the Year
I don’t have a singular disappointment of the year. No album where I expected something amazing and got let down in a major way. I never felt stabbed in the heart by an artist this year. But I have experienced death by a thousand cuts. Aside from Marrow, nearly every album I was anticipating this year was good, but not great. Both The Night Flight Orchestra and Clutch bloated their albums with weaker tracks, like the unbelievably dull “Pretty Thing Closing In” on the former and the paint-by-numbers “A Good Fire” and “Paper & Strife” on the latter. I am one of the posers who likes Ghost, but the ABBA tracks at the end of Prequelle are too cringy even for me, and I like to pretend “Witch Image” and beyond were never recorded. But King Goat just hurts a little bit more, as Conduit was my Album of the Year 2016. Despite the absolute bangers “Rebirth” and “Doldrum Sentinels” and two other solid tracks, the nonsensical interludes and utterly forgettable closer leave a bad aftertaste.
Song o’ the Year
Madder Mortem‘s “Waiting to Fall” – After first considering it one of the weaker tracks on Marrow, the immense closer kept growing on me, even after my hype on the rest of the tracks died down. With a less linear structure and one of the heaviest riffs the band has written so far, “Waiting to Fall” plunges into the darkest, most desperate depths of the record, Agnete’s voice running raw and ragged as she hangs on to the edge of the abyss by her fingernails, knowing she must soon let go. It’s the most beautiful pit of despair that has taken me this year. Maybe it will take you too.