2019 was… a year. I know what you’re thinking, “Thank you, Grymm. 2019 was a year, and 2020 will also be a year.” What I mean by that is, like the last few years both with AMG and behind the scenes, a lot of good came this year, coupled with a little bad. Thankfully, it’s predominantly good by a good several hundred miles. Upward mobility at the day job, landing myself some reliable wheels, taking better care of my overall health, cutting some incredibly toxic people out of my life while strengthening the friendships I have… all good things, and my mood and disposition haven’t looked this positive in a long time.
Which is why the bad needs to be mentioned. Last year, I lost my older brother in September suddenly due to a short illness. I came back to both work and here a bit too early (all 100% my fault, and I own it), and just did what I normally do: bear down and charge forward like everything was normal. Only things were not normal. Putting it bluntly, grief fucking sucks. Couple that with depression, and… yeah. Thankfully, with the help and support of friends, family, my partner, and everyone at AMG (especially Master of Muppets and TheKenWord who made the mental health pieces what they were, and picked up my slack when things went comically busy at my job… you guys deserve all the credit in the world), I was able to get myself back onto stable footing, and go back to doing the things I love, and actually enjoying them. That, and helping me realize that all the good things that happened this year were especially good, and that I should never take them for granted.
And that’s key, folks. No matter how bad things get, or how overwhelming life can be, you’ve got people who will look out for you, and will be there for you when things go south or haywire. You do need to ask, though, so don’t be afraid in doing so. And if they shame you? Cut them out, and keep going. You are important. And don’t be afraid to give yourself space to grieve or mourn, and don’t expect that to ever fully end. Let what you feel happen, and then pick up and move forward. And keep moving forward, no matter what.
So, thank you to everyone at AMG, thank you to my surviving family, my friends who are still there with me, my partner of 10 years (out of hopefully many more), and thank you, the readers, for your patience and understanding. Have a great holiday season, and may 2020 overwhelm you with awesome music and even better positive life experiences.
#(ish). A Swarm of the Sun // The Woods – Only an (ish) due to the fact that I wanted just more material, there’s no mistaking the level of immersion The Woods inhabits. Jakob Berglund is quickly becoming one of my favorite newer vocalists, his delicate, quiet vocals adding a somber blanket over some of the band’s most powerful songs put to record.
#10. Lacuna Coil // Black Anima – If you told me a year ago that Lacuna Coil would not only bounce back from over a decade of nü-metal crappiness but would also put out an album that could easily rival their best work, I would’ve laughed at you heartily. And yet, here we are. Between Andrea Ferro’s powerful growls, Cristina Scabbia’s best vocals to date, tasty guitar solos, and easily some of the best (and heaviest) songwriting, Black Anima isn’t so much an about-face as it is a full-on resurrection. I’m eager to hear their next one if things continue to progress.
#9. The Great Old Ones // Cosmicism – The best French black metal going right now, the five-piece finally achieved a production worthy of their three-guitar onslaught, building an impressive set of songs that easily eclipses their earlier output (which was already impressive). Now, if someone could please bring them to the States, I would be eternally grateful.
#8. Mizmor // Cairn – I got some mad Hell vibes from this album, which is appropriate given how sole member A.L.N. has served time in that amazing band. Oppressive howls and shrieks, thick riffs, and some amazingly somber acoustic interludes, Cairn sees Mizmor bringing further attention to the Pacific Northwest as a hub for incredible doom/death metal. Cairn feels both overwhelming and cathartic in its approach and delivery.
#7. Varaha // A Passage for Lost Years – An absolute grower of an album, A Passage for Lost Years demands your full attention throughout its 68 minutes. Once you do, though, your patience will be well-rewarded with gripping melodies, atmospheric riffs, and immersive vocals by Fabio Brienza, whether he’s crooning softly or screeching sharply. A fantastic full-length debut.
#6 Inter Arma // Sulphur English – Definitely one of the most creative bands on the rise, the Virginian
okay so they don’t like being called doom so I won’t call them that quintet leveled me with the follow-up to 2016’s awesome Paradise Gallows. Between a greatly varied (and frenzied) vocal performance by Mike Paparo, monolithic riffs, and an absolute beast of a drummer in T.J. Childers, Sulphur English provides only the briefest of respites before driving you through the Earth repeatedly.
#5. Gomorrah // Gomorrah – While I’ve cooled off on it a bit since hearing it for a month straight when it was first released, the Canadian duo still wipes the floor with many of their contemporaries, marrying sharp, angular riffs, seething vocals, and plenty of technicality without being a wank-fest. And now that they’ve got the backing of Willowtip behind them, I’m sure bigger, better things are deservedly on the horizon for these gents, and this is a great album to spring that momentum with.
#4. Schammasch // Hearts of No Light – Definitely one of the most creative bands out there to have sprung out of the black metal scene, the Swiss quintet continues to captivate and throw out even more bizarre left-field turns and moments of incredible atmosphere. Also, “A Paradigm of Beauty” is a cool diversion within an already impressive set of songs. Both an abrupt about-face from Triangle and its logical continuation, Hearts of No Light easily stands out as one of the best I’ve heard all year.
#3. Otoboke Beaver // Itekoma Hits – What looks like a cheery, bouncy album on the surface, Itekoma Hits hooks you in with frantic gang-shouts and shrieks, tight-as-a-vice-grip musicianship, strong songwriting, and enough curveballs to leave you screaming “What the fuck?!” on a repeated basis, on practically every song. Many of you will scoff at this placing so high on my list unless you’ve actually heard it yourselves and nodded in agreement. Turn off your blinders for a half-hour and immerse yourself in the insanity.
#2. Vous Autres // Champ du Sang – Between the howls and shrieks seemingly from the aether, the droning guitar melodies that hover like a spider’s web after a long shower, and drumming so thick and powerful, you wondered if you’ve mistakenly put on a Godflesh album at a lower speed, Champ du Sang doesn’t so much toss you into a pit of unending despair as it just assumes that you’re already there, and merely just continues to press down on you until you are crushed into nothing. Not an album I reach for often, but when I do, I find Champ du Sang oddly cathartic in its brutal heft and spacious atmosphere. An excellent album to purge to.
#1. An Isolated Mind // I’m Losing Myself – One of the toughest albums I’ve listened to ever, I stated in my interview with sole member/mastermind Kameron Bogges that I couldn’t call this a “favorite,” with the sole reason being that it’s like saying this album is mere “entertainment” and that it should be looked at as such. Instead, I view I’m Losing Myself in comparison to Mount Eerie‘s deeply personal album, A Crow Looked at Me, an album that chronicled the loss of Mount Eerie‘s Phil Elverum’s bandmate and wife, Geneviève Castrée, to cancer. While Crow was an unflinchingly honest look at the loss, grief, and aftermath of losing your partner, I’m Losing Myself is an equally uncompromising look into Bogges’ battles with bipolar disorder, the hospitalization that came with it, and its harrowing aftermath. As such, I’m Losing Myself, while being musically and lyrically impressive on its own, left such an impression on me that I can’t help but talk about it to people who will actively listen, and it’s definitely a step forward in helping others be more aware of mental health disorders and issues.
- Haze Mage // Chronicles – After all this time, stoner metal needed one ingredient to make a heady mix: Danzig-esque vocals. Who knew? Seriously, one of the best stoner albums I’ve heard in a really long time.
- Polemicist // Zarathustrian Impressions – While it starts off on some shaky footing, Zarathustrian Impressions gets progressively better to the point of being almost frightening by the end. Between the insane drumming and all the icy tremolo-picked goodness that would impress face-painted Norwegians the world over, I’m excited to see where Polemicist goes with their next album. Definitely keep an eye out on them!
- Black Sites // Exile – Mark Sugar and company are waving the traditional metal flag high with their second full-length, taking cues from classic Queensryche and adding their own unique, modern spin to a well-tested and loved formula. With every release, Black Sites continue to tighten and grow, and on Exile, they’ve crafted some incredible songs filled with great hooks and incredible melodies.
- Anacrusis // Their entire remastered discography – Yes, this is cheating, but 1) it’s my list, and 2) Anacrusis were an awesome band. Metal Blade Records have re-released all four of their albums this year, completely remastered with some extra odds and ends. I tackled their legendary (and sadly, final) album, 1993’s Screams and Whispers, years ago, and now there’s no good reason to pass their music up. Oh, and if you’re one of the fortunate fans to be able to check out their “Evening With” concert in their hometown of St. Louis this month, then have a blast on my behalf. Oh, and I hate you, I hate you, I HATE YOU.
Disappointments o’ the Year
- Cattle Decapitation // Death Atlas – I was looking forward to hearing the follow-up to The Anthropocene Extinction about as much as, if not more than, everyone else here. I’ve spun the weird tunnel-throated “clean chorus” of “Manufactured Extinct” more than I dare to count, and once I heard that Travis Ryan would incorporate more of those bizarre-yet-awesome vocals, I was excited. Yes, Death Atlas is full of those vocals. Sadly, the music doesn’t match up as it did seamlessly on Anthropocene. Even worse, it’s almost as if Cattle Decapitation are settling into a formula, and punching in key ingredients into their template as they go along. After several spins, I’m left empty-handed and bummed that this could be a sign of things to come.
- Baroness // Gold & Grey – Honestly, I’ve tried to give Baroness a shot in the past, having heard a song here and there on previous albums, but it never really clicked with me. But when the metal review community was fawning over how amazing Gold & Grey was on an artistic level, I gave them another go. Musically, again, I wasn’t blown away or thought that the band took many risks artistically, nor was I hooked at all. And good fucking god, that production is horrendous.
- Rob “The Baron” Miller – …Damn. *cracks neck and knuckles, getting ready to unload* To paraphrase a famous quote from The Dark Knight, either you die an anarcho-punk hero, or you live long enough to praise a noted Holocaust denier prominently on your unreleased album’s Thank You list, causing your bandmates and label unnecessary stress and anger, and then proceed to throw said bandmates (and fans) under the bus in a crazed fever-rant after apologizing to them in a prior Facebook post, and thus killing Tau Cross dead before the release of the questionably-titled and unquestionably-canceled Messengers of Deception.1 As someone who not only loved Amebix and the first Tau Cross album,2 but also played “Sons of the Soil” continuously during the grieving process, I was so both disheartened and pissed that not only Miller would thank Gerard Menuhin and defend him in posts that are, quite frankly, insulting to both band and fans, but also doubled down when called on his bullshit, I made sure my CD copy of Tau Cross‘ self-titled debut would make tender, sweet love to our paper shredder in my bedroom. That said, I can’t help but feel for his Tau Cross bandmates, who no doubt got blind-sided by their leader/vocalist/lyricist’s actions, and also to Rob’s former Amebix bandmate and estranged brother, Chris, who went on record to disavow his brother’s actions and distanced himself from his brother’s recent beliefs.
Oh, and Rob? “…so on you go, join in the feeding frenzy of virtue signaling and outrage if you like”? Fuck off.
Song o’ the Year
Inter Arma‘s “Howling Lands” – I sat down with a huge list of songs that could have easily taken the top spot, but “Howling Lands” is simply too damn massive to not give the spot to. Between the tribal drumming, tar-thick riffs, and Mike Paparo’s bizarre chants and birdlike shrieks, “Howling Lands” scratches that primal itch that few others do.
Yes, I still write here. But at the rate at which my capacity to do so has been shrinking, I’ll be reduced to a twitterbot murmuring haikus about Dave Billia into the void by June. Until that beautiful future arrives, it is my honor to be here on the cleaner end of your workplace bathroom’s intermittent wi-fi connection, telling you what to like.
As usual, I have to make some adjustments to my appraisal of last year’s top records. First off, Exlimitir’s It Weighed Itself in Silver yanked Demilich worship forward by two decades (I’m looking at you, Tomb Mold et. al). At once angular, extravagant, and anthemic, this album should have been way up on my year-end list. Then there’s Daughters’ You Won’t Get What You Want, a terrifying piece of anxious, droning noise rock that’s even more difficult to listen to than the frenzied mathcore of the band’s past. And early in 2018, Basalte released the pensive and raw Vertige, an experimental black metal album that continues to resonate with me.3 If you have any recommendations for records I might like that don’t appear on this year’s list, please leave them in the comments section of a different website so I can finally stop writing this paragraph.
Contrary to that, I am always happy to write a brief paragraph to thank the people that make my contributions here possible and rewarding to me. Madam X, Steel Druhm, and the entire editorial staff have kept me abreast of new shit I should cover and made sure that I cover it. Despite their terrible taste, or perhaps because of it, the rest of our contributors are a joy to work with and writers that I’m proud to share space with here. You, the squabbling and fickle commentariat, have pathetic bench press stats, but thanks for posting anyway. We have a lot of fun planned for you next year.
This is going to be a quick list, so, you know, put your feet up on a little stool or something. It’s more natural that way.
#(ish). East of the Wall // NP-Complete – While this record has its flaws, I’m continually impressed by its nuance and honesty. Whether playing prog metal with a hint of restraint or jazz fusion with a hint of danger, East of the Wall know their strengths and stick to them. The album’s most complex moments are also its most memorable and even its lengthiest songs feel reined in and tight. Greg Kuter’s vocals can be hit or miss, but his weary delivery sells the low moments in songs like “The Almost People” like nothing else could.
#10. Immortal Bird // Thrive on Neglect – Though at times wearing their influences on their sleeve (as we all know, battle jackets require only torso coverage) Immortal Bird can still carve out a recognizable sound and write some killer songs—see below. Thrive on Neglect feels tantalizingly close to being a fully realized expression of their creative vision, but I can’t quite put my finger on what’s missing. Don’t let my inarticulate objections to Neglect stop you from hearing it. It beat down some sick death metal albums to land on this list and I know I’ll be spinning it in the future.
#9. Varaha // A Passage for Lost Years – Though it’s a little outside of my bailiwick, A Passage for Lost Years was one of the records that most impressed me this year. Varaha hired talented chamber musicians to perform Passage’s interludes, and their skill and nuance elevate the record far above what it could have achieved otherwise. Even at over an hour long, I wouldn’t cut a note from this morose, intimate, and beautiful-sounding record.
#8. The Odious // Vesica Piscis – There was a time in my life when I would listen to The Odious’s That Night a Forest Grew EP every day. While Vesica Piscis had little hope of being that addictive, it’s still an incredible trip. The band’s eclectic and psychedelic progressive death metal is a must-hear, and the band’s sudden return after a long absence was one of the year’s most welcome surprises.
#7. Venom Prison // Samsara – Samsara’s fluidity marked it as an early contender for the year’s best death metal album and the longer it stuck around the more I killed it. Its twisting songs effortlessly transition between grindy riffs, full-blast death metal, and surprisingly melodic leads without feeling arbitrary while Larissa Stupar’s lyrics alternately engage and defy death metal tropes and contemporary injustice. Speaking of injustice, this record was apparently recorded by a cell phone in the third row of a Venom Prison show. It sounds terrible and could have been further up this list with a decent master.
#6. Altarage // The Approaching Roar – This band got really good really fast. The Approaching Roar sees the Spanish band’s Portal-inspired death metal look its influences square in the empty eye sockets. Sure, neither party can blink, but who would want them to? Lurching rhythms, stomach-turning riffs, and vindictive pacing conspire to make this a career highlight for a band that gets nastier and more creative with every release.
#5. Hope Drone // Void Lustre – Atmospheric black metal seems to have a flavor for just about every metal fan. Prog nerds like old Agalloch and Saor records, sad bois listen to Eneferens, hardcore heads take to Downfall of Gaïa—at least that’s how it works around here. As Angry Metal Guy’s resident Hope Drone stan, I loved Void Lustre the first hour I heard it. The band’s take on the post metal/black metal amalgam uses gritty timbres and droning intensity to capture an unparalleled vastness and seething energy.
#4. Unfathomable Ruination // Enraged and Unbound – This. Band. Fucking. Slays. For two albums running these Londoners have put contemporary brutal tech death releases to shame. They’re impeccably precise as any tech death band but remain lively, unpredictable and vicious. Whether through brain-rending riffs or subliminally quick rhythmic shifts, Enraged and Unbound spends every minute of its length convincing you that other albums are not worth your time. For the most part, it’s right.
#3. Ars Magna Umbrae // Lunar Ascension – I’ve probably listened to Lunar Ascension more than any other record this year. True, it had an early start, but even now I’ll spin it two or three times in a row just to hear all of the songs again. K.M.’s guitar work blends the technicality and dissonance of Deathspell Omega with a sense of pacing and purpose that his influences could never quite maintain. Every riff and every song on Lunar Acension is killer and you need it in your library.
#2. Senza // Even a Worm Will Turn – This will be the album that got me into screamo. You’re skipping the rest of this paragraph like a good, blinkered metalhead and, hey, I salute that. But Senza’s screeching howls and emo drawling work hand in hand with the most frantic, heavy, and blackened hardcore out there. Even a Worm Will Turn never left my rotation after I first heard it. It’s both a great piece of music and a prescient but never-heavy handed meditation on violence born of fear and fragility. Shoutout to TheKenWord for always letting the staff know what’s good on Bandcamp.
#1. Devourment // Obscene Majesty – The public is of two minds on Obscene Majesty. One half expresses a bemused indifference towards the album’s bone-rattling torrent of filth. The other sees that torrent and scramble over each other for the chance to pipe it at deadly pressure directly into their skulls. Long since having burst my cranium at the top of the pile, I have never been prouder to take part in such self-mutilative fervor. It’s at the top of my list for one reason and one reason alone: Obscene Majesty is the heaviest album ever.
- Lingua Ignota // Caligula – If I had spent more time with this record it probably would have made the list. But Caligula’s emotional and musical tenor requires commitment that I haven’t often been able to give. But when I’m ready for it, the album is rapturous.
- Mizmor // Cairn – Like Caligula, Cairn is a deeply personal album from an artist with a unique vision of musical self-presentation. As someone who has experienced many of the internal struggles Cairn starkly describes, it rang particularly true to me.
- Gomorrah // Gomorrah – The best songs on Gomorrah’s self-titled don’t grip me as much as the heavy hitters from their debut. But the duo still delivered enough tight, nasty tech/blackened death metal to keep me looking back at Gomorrah throughout the year.
- Organectomy // Existential Disconnect – This year has been good for the death metal bands with the best names (see Venom Prison and Unfathomable Ruination above), and Organectomy are definitely among them. The first five seconds of this album never fail to fill me with joy.
Songs o’ the Year
- Organectomy – “Severed from Humanity”
- Immortal Bird – “Avolition”
- Madder Mortem – “Vigil”
- East of the Wall – “Non-Functional Harmony”
- Ars Magna Umbrae – “Fallen Star’s Light”
- Devourment – “Profane Contagion”
- Gomorrah – “Frailty”
- Chelsea Wolfe – “Little Grave”
- Altarage – “Hieroglyphic Certainty”
- Hope Drone – “In Shifting Lights”
- What’s especially adorable is that it was Miller who broke the news via Tau Cross‘ since-deleted FB page that Relapse Records not only ceased the album’s production dead in its tracks (and rightfully so), but also handed the masters of their entire discography back to Miller, and he coyly didn’t give the reasons to us as to why. Labels don’t just up and give your entire discography back to you, especially when a heavily-anticipated new album of yours is about to drop unless you’ve done something incredibly fucked up. Good on Relapse for distancing themselves of Miller. ↩
- Pillar of Fire was “meh” in hindsight. ↩
- Its stunning cover art doesn’t hurt my appreciation. ↩