Huck N’ Roll
Once again, two of Angry Metal Guy’s best have been paired up to bring you wildly divergent (but no less correct) year-end lists. Apparently, it wasn’t enough that you were subjected to Eldritch Elitist and myself in one post last year, you get it again this year. As we sat in the boiler room comparing notes, I was dejected to hear Eldritch say “I’ve only heard one of your albums.” Well, I’ve heard a lot of his, and though we once again only share a couple of picks, I can tell you that his list is killer.
As to mine, it was a lucky year for me. I listened to over 350 new albums this year, reviewed way too many of those, and out of it all, five of my top six happen to be albums that I reviewed at Angry Metal Guy. I was on quite the roll up until September, and hopefully I can carry that luck on into 2020 without getting fired too many times.
A quick thank-you to all of the AMG staff and writers, new and old, surly and exuberant, for making up what is an amazing behind-the-scenes community. We all love/hate each other, and we all have each other’s backs. It is glorious to know you can wake up in the morning to cool news like Doc Grier getting to meet King Diamond or Kenny linking us to nine more album recommendations. And finally, none of us here could do a single damned thing if it wasn’t for Madam X, who doesn’t raise her taloned hand often on-site but is the engine that drives AMG. We all appreciate her more than she knows.
#(ish). Tool // Fear Inoculum – Ish? Yes, because with Tool albums it can take years, and dozens of listens, before I settle on how much I’ll like it. Each of their last two took time to grow, and are now amongst my favorite records. There is stellar guitar playing from Adam Jones, his best work yet, and the usual excellent performances from Danny Carey and Justin Chancellor. MJK pops in and out as he sees fit, which detracts from the flow. Fear Inoculum lacks any immediacy but has some (to Tool fans) excellent material. I don’t find myself as emotionally engaged as I am on their past three albums, but ask me in a year what I think. This would either disappear completely or move way up.
#10. Wilderun // Veil of Imagination – We all endured months of nonstop fanboi hype from both AMG Himself and El Cuervo, as they managed to snag this record far earlier than the rest of us. Based on that, we all expected this to be The Greatest Album Ever Recorded, and it’s a damned fine piece of epic progressive metal, to be sure. At times it can be too epic and flamboyant, as the band strives to throw everything they can into the mix. But it’s adeptly done, and Veil of Imagination, while maybe not the greatest album ever, is certainly one of the best this year.
#9. The Odious // Vesica Piscis – Poor Kronos. Sometimes he has no friends. He pops into the office on rare breaks from bird and lizard watching, makes some awkward proclamations, and disappears. But he has a friend when it comes to Vesica Piscis, which I loved as much as he did. This complex, crazy record is like a progressive death metal version of The Mars Volta—oh, another band both Kronos and I love. On casual listen, this is a chaotic quagmire of noise, but pay closer attention: there is a method to all the madness. “物の哀れ” is one of my favorite songs of the year.
#8. Atlantean Kodex // The Course of Empire – Not every favorite album has to be some trendy sub-genre of metal. There are sites out there that only rank the most obscure releases in their lists. Poseurs. Not here! Atlantean Kodex capably demonstrate the fact that good old-fashioned epic heavy metal is a perfectly fine medium to play in. The Course of Empire is a fantastic frolic through fields of pure heavy metal. This album is a great example of avoiding the cheese because some bands will take this too far and devolve into the silly power metal fromage. To listen to it done right, go no further than this album.
#7. Obsidian Tide // Pillars of Creation – Okay, I’ll say it again. Thank you, TheKenWord, for making this recommendation. I love being surprised by debut albums, and for me, although stylistically different, this falls into the same category as Lör and The Reticent. A band you’ve never heard of that catches lightning in a bottle and releases a sterling album of modern progressive metal. You can hear the painstaking effort that went into this album, especially in the arrangements. My hope is that they can keep it going beyond this one, as I can envision Obsidian Tide taking a seat beside Persefone eventually.
#6. Cult of Luna // A Dawn to Fear – I had high hopes for this album after the excellent Mariner a few years ago, and these fellows did not let me down. Here they proved that, even without collaborating with an excellent singer like Julie Christmas, they can still bring the heavy post-metal devastation like almost no other. Stellar performances in all facets of the music make this an incredible album. And the vocals are such that even I, an avowed detractor of harsh vocals, can get behind them. CoL are one of those bands that just work for me, and this album is no different.
#5. Pristine // Road Back to Ruin – Much like Cult of Luna, Pristine seem to be incapable of putting out a bad record. Vastly different, of course, as Pristine are a blues-rock outfit—and one of the best out there, in fact. If we would ever get promo for them we wouldn’t have to resort to TYMHM each time. Not only is Heidi Solheim the best singer in rock right now, but she also writes all these songs, and each one is so, so good. Plenty of influence from Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and more. If you like heavy blues and hard rock, you need to own this album, and everything else Pristine has done. Also, I was able to pass the favor back to Kenny on this one, my good deed for the year.
#4. Adrift // Pure – I concluded my review of Pure by saying I couldn’t explain why it was good, just that I liked it. Well, it’s good because it features stellar musicianship (the drumming on every song captivates me, the bass playing is subtly amazing, and the guitars are beyond impressive), excellent harsh vocals, outstanding songwriting, and near-perfect production. That’s a recipe for success every time here, and as you’ll see further down, some of this album stuck with me even more than parts of all the other albums on this list. If you liked Cult of Luna, you’ll love Adrift.
#3. Soen // Lotus – Recently I went to the office of AMG Himself and knocked on the door. There was silence, rather than the usual proclamation of “You’re fired!” Opening the door, I found our weary leader’s head laying on a desk covered in a pile of Ph.D. papers, drool extricating itself from his normally voluble mouth. Once he came to, I asked him if he still thought as highly of Soen’s Lotus now as he did a year ago, when we first heard it. He threw his inkwell at me and shouted “Yes!” I nodded sagely, left the office, and kept the album right here at #3.
#2. Idle Hands // Mana – I remember grabbing Idle Hands’ debut EP, Don’t Waste Your Time, earlier this year, and thinking the upcoming album might be pretty cool. Well, it caught on like wildfire, with dang near the entire staff getting on board with some aspect of it. Looking back, I’m pretty chuffed that I was the one able to snag this review, and turn a bunch of you onto their cool-when-it-shouldn’t-be brand of metal meets goth meets new wave. Front to back, this album is a blast to spin, with nary a single weak track. If you haven’t heard it yet, go get it!
#1. Sermon // Birth of the Marvellous – Everything else in this list fluctuated by the day, but almost from my first listen way back in March, this album has been firmly cemented in my top spot, and nothing has succeeded in knocking it off its perch. It’s an impeccable blend of Tool/Soen/Katatonia, with amazing arrangements, an impassioned vocal delivery, stellar drumming, and spot-on production. Top that off with a great conceptual storyline and you have an album that ticks off every box there is for me. And the cherry on top of the cake? The main Sermon fellow is top-notch, indulging El Cuervo and myself on all sorts of topics, but mostly Opeth, over pints this summer. In our newly-revised rating system, Birth of the Marvellous would get a 5.
- Arctic Sleep // Kindred Spirits – A superb two-man project. Hints of Anathema, Pink Floyd, and cellos. Fans of atmospheric progressive doom will love this.
- Black Sites // Exile – This does not, I repeat does not, sound like Animalize-era Kiss.
- Diamond Head // The Coffin Train – How did both Steel and I miss this? Excellent work from some olde-timers. At least a 3.5.
- Herod // Sombre Dessein – Lokasenna and I had opposite takes. This is excellent prog-sludge.
- Insomnium // Heart Like a Grave – Another that I liked more than some, top notch melodeath.
- Inter Arma // Sulphur English – Dense and complex, but rewarding. These guys are no Doomfuck.
- Palace in Thunderland // King of the Empty Aeon – Read my review!
- Schammasch // Hearts of No Light – If I have to like black metal, it’s this kind of black metal.
- Source // Totality – Angry Contrite Guy? Still an exceptional album, but I didn’t come back to it as often as I thought I would.
- Woodhawk // Violent Nature – Stoner rock meets classic rock in my city’s best album of the year.
Biggest Disappointment: All the lists that include Baroness. I mean, world record-setting shitty production and mastering aside, there are only three decent songs on this album. Also, Leprous!
Worst Album: Baroness // Whatever Color is Their Thing Now. We didn’t review this, because we hate streaming albums. Lucky for them. It would have been my only 1.0 on the year.
Albums that probably would have made my list if I had enough time to listen properly to the damned things: Avatarium // The Fire I Long For, Big Big Train // Grand Tour, Disillusion // The Liberation, Fvneral Fvkk // Carnal Confessions.
Songs o’ the Year
- Adrift – “The Call”
- Idle Hands – “Give Me to the Night”
- Ian Blurton – “Kick Out the Lights”
- Mother of Millions – “Cinder”
- The Giraffes – “Can’t Do This in Your Head”
- Children of the Sun – “Sunchild”
- Black Sites – “Feral Child”
- Raketkanon – “Ricky”
- The Odious – “Mono no Aware”
- Diamond Head – “Until We Burn”
So, 2019 was a good year for metal music. More than just good, actually—in my fifteen-ish years as a fan of the genre, it might be the single best year I’ve experienced firsthand. The eleven enormously wordy blurbs you’ll find below are testament enough to that, so in lieu of some wistful preamble, I’d instead like to present a pair of facts that I believe speak to the vitality of the current scene. Firstly, four of the albums on my list come from unsigned bands. Secondly, seven—seven!—of them are debut records. The folks over at Loudwire would have you believe that some of the best records of this year come from the likes of In Flames, Korn, and Within Temptation (yes, really). Meanwhile, the new blood being injected into the scene is stronger than it’s been in ages, made up of bands which might find a deservedly wider audience were it not for the mainstream blogs’ ludicrous clinging to the old guard. Don’t be like them. Read my list, and be like me.
#(ish). Galneryus // Into the Purgatory – I fucking love Galneryus, and I love what Into the Purgatory represents for the band. 2010 saw Galneryus starting fresh with a new vocalist and a revitalized sound. Nine years and seven albums later, they have firmly cemented themselves as the decade’s strongest power metal act. Into the Purgatory is a celebration of what they’ve accomplished in the last decade, a glorious summation of their second era that is outrageously over the top and astonishingly aggressive. Even if it doesn’t meet the heights of the band’s best material, every track on Into the Purgatory is a win, making for one of Galneryus‘ most consistent offerings to date. If only there was a way to import the CD from Japan without having to skip meals for a week…
#10. Necropanther // The Doomed City – My all-time favorite bands are those with lengthy, consistently high-quality catalogs. Necropanther isn’t quite at that level yet, but considering they’ve made my numbered list twice in as many years, they’re getting there in record time. The Doomed City retains much of the fun of last year’s incredible Eyes of Blue Light, and while it’s not quite as entertaining, it completely outclasses its predecessor in terms of songwriting and sheer weight. This is one of the year’s heaviest sounding efforts, a feat achieved through beautifully efficient death metal riffs, all while strengthening Necropanther‘s grasp on thrash, doom, and even prog. Skeletonwitch comparisons can officially be tossed; Necropanther is the realest fucking deal, and they’re churning out unclassifiable melodic metal unlike anything else in the scene.
#9. Arctos // Beyond the Grasp of Mortal Hands – When Wormwood announced that they were going for a darker, more mature sound with their sophomore record, I met them with trepidation. The end result was… well, let’s just say I regret spending so much money on my vinyl pre-order of Nattarvet. And then came Beyond the Grasp of Mortal Hands to fulfill Wormwood‘s promise, offering a very similar take on black metal that is at once dark, melancholic, and exhilarating. Arctos, though channeling sounds as wide-ranging as Wormwood, Skeletonwitch, Summoning, and Dimmu Borgir, have nonetheless cultivated an aesthetic that unifies many of my favorite aspects of black metal. Their lonely atmosphere captures the essence of atmoblack without resorting to that style’s droning pitfalls; Beyond the Grasp of Mortal Hands is bold and unpredictable, as towering and dramatic as it is autumnal and introspective. This is my favorite black metal record of the year, and easily one of the genre’s most criminally overlooked offerings in recent memory.
#8. Idle Hands // Mana – Mana is an oddball choice in the context of an Extreem List 4 Extreem Folks such as mine, but even I—someone who doesn’t regularly consume traditional metal or gothic rock—can tell that Idle Hands‘ debut is an instant classic. It’s an immensely hooky work of exuberant sadness, its simple grooves electrified by bursts of rhythmic energy that make it perfectly viable as a metal record. Gabriel Franco’s rich, mournful vocals fully sell the theatricality, and unlike Huck N’ Roll, I dig his Al Pacino grunts immensely. It fails to reach the upper echelon of my list due to one or two lesser tracks, but it’s so accessible and addictive that it nonetheless might be my most-spun record of the year.
#7. Eternal Storm // Come the Tide – Eternal Storm is a melodic death metal band through and through, but Come the Tide feels more like atmospheric black metal. Where my favorite melodeath is defined by flighty speed and sugar-fueled folk melodies, Come the Tide appeals to me through its winding, contemplative tremolo riffs and dynamic, long-form compositions. There’s a lot of Be’lakor and Insomnium in them hills, which lends Eternal Storm considerable rhythmic weight, but their heaviness is balanced by remarkably organic texturing. There’s a beautiful simplicity to Come the Tide that can be felt in every corner of its performances, melodies, and production. This makes for a sound that feels more sincere than just about anything else in its genre. For a debut record, such a distinct sound is a monumental achievement.
#6. Xoth // Interdimensional Invocations – Sure, Interdimensional Invocations is a prime specimen of blackened death thrash. Its riffs whip ass, its taut songwriting ensures an utter absence of dullness, and its eccentric melodies strike an irresistible balance of corny and sinister. Xoth‘s sophomore record is excellent on these merits alone, yet it’s the mind-bending lead guitars that vault it to unmissable status. The lead harmonies, paired with impeccable whammy control, make for a sound that is really, truly one of a kind. I absolutely adore that such an innovative sound was cultivated in service of Xoth‘s charming B-movie atmosphere, effortlessly proving that technically sophisticated music can—and perhaps should—make for unabashedly cheesy fun.
#5. Paladin // Ascension – Paladin is, functionally, the inverse of Necropanther. Where Necropanther reminds of Skeletonwitch with an extra shot of power metal exuberance, Paladin channels the essence of bands like Lost Horizon and Galneryus while executing whiplashing turns into thrashing melodeath. I may have enjoyed more albums this year as well-rounded packages, but none of them match Ascension‘s sheer moment to moment fun. Every riff, hook, and solo on this debut is a slam dunk, exhibiting near mythical levels of qualitative consistency. I have no clue how Paladin will proceed from here because this debut already exhibits a nearly perfect execution of their burgeoning sound. The only other thing I can say is, holy shit, see Paladin live at the soonest opportunity. They sound as precise and fiery live as they do on this record. If you’ve heard Ascension, you’ll know that’s an unmissable performance.
#4. Iapetus // The Body Cosmic – It’s been said that the October/November window is the ideal time to release music for would-be list contenders. I disagree. My best-of lists have historically been packed with music released in the first half of the year, as the passage of a few months serves as a perfect barometer for a given album’s staying power. But sometimes, you just know—and The Body Cosmic, a November release, is one of those times. Iapetus‘ sophomore offering is the year’s most thematically cohesive record and damn near its most compelling. Its spacey blend of death and black metal is the inverse of the hostility typically associated with extreme metal. It’s downright hopeful, even, channeling relentless blastbeats and tremolo riffs into an unshakable faith in humanity. Pair Iapetus‘ novel thesis with an immaculate sense of flow and surprisingly impactful sample usage, and you have a singularly unforgettable experience.
#3. Kull // Exile – You know that scene in Ratatouille where the curmudgeonly food critic is instantly won over by a reinvention of his favorite childhood dish? Exile is that for me. Bal-Sagoth is a band that I have treasured like few others in the last decade-plus as a consumer of metal music, and one that has been completely inactive for that entire length of time. Kull, a resurrection of that band featuring all original members sans Byron Roberts, has with this record given me an invaluable gift. It’s a slight deviation from (what is for now) Bal-Sagoth‘s final record, taking The Chthonic Chronicles‘ burly aesthetic and stripping it down to its gleefully barbaric essentials. As a result, Exile is a relentlessly raucous ride, outrageously theatrical yet packed with effectively crushing riffs. I’ve already bought it twice—once on CD, and once on vinyl—because I couldn’t bear to live in a world where I didn’t play my part to prevent such unique, valuable music from falling into obscurity. Not again.
#2. Firelink // The Inveterate Fire – The Inveterate Fire is so good that it makes me fucking angry. Firelink is just two guys recording music in a tiny bedroom with programmed drums. The Inveterate Fire should not be one of the best—and best-sounding—releases of the year, and yet it indisputably is. In the span of this debut, Firelink firmly establish themselves as masters of long-form songwriting. Each composition marks a compelling, self-contained epic that melds black metal and melodeath into a unified, deeply atmospheric aesthetic. If its final track weren’t ever so slightly meandering towards the end, I would be encouraged to call The Inveterate Fire a perfect record. Dark Souls-themed bands are becoming commonplace in metal, but none of them have quite so expertly captured the games’ sense of lost glory and utter despair. Even more impressively, Firelink simultaneously encapsulates the sense of triumph from overcoming their soul-crushing challenges. Considering the great lengths this unsigned duo must have gone to release a work of such staggering quality, I find the latter aesthetic downright poetic.
#1. Warforged // I: Voice – When I was a child, I was plagued with nightmares of apocalyptic proportions. These dreams involved me trying to escape some intangible, cosmic threat. When I was inevitably caught, the world around me would dissolve into a sea of darkness as a deafening, dissonant chord drowned my screams. I don’t know if the brilliant boys in Warforged ever experienced dreams of this nature, but the abrupt dives into atonal cacophony found within I: Voice are disturbingly accurate aural recreations of my childhood nightmares. Moreover, the record represents a rare case in which none of the artist’s monumental ambition feels lost in translation from conception to the final product. This is technical death metal with all the sophistication of jazz fusion. This is post-metal which actually feels like a genuine leap forward. This is black metal that evokes palpable dread. It’s all represented in a deeply progressive template that works equally well whether treated as a multi-track work or as a long-form composition. I: Voice is undoubtedly the most fascinating piece of music I’ve encountered this year. Dedicate ample time and patience to exploring its pitch-black catacombs, and you will understand why.
- Blood Incantation // Hidden History of the Human Race
- Dream Tröll // Second to None
- Gloryhammer // Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex
- IATT // Nomenclature
- ShadowStrike // Legends of Human Spirit
- Thormesis // The Sixth
- Violet Cold // kOsmik
- Wilderun // Veil of Imagination
- Wormwitch // Heaven That Dwells Within
Songs o’ the Year
- Twilight Force – “Blade of Immortal STEEEEEEEEEEEEEL”
- Xoth – “Mountain Machines”
- Paladin – “Awakening”
- Warforged – “Voice”
- Idle Hands – “Jackie”
- Gloryhammer – “The Fires of Ancient Cosmic Destiny”
- Firelink – “Beckoning Sun”
- Necropanther – “Argos”
- Wormwitch – “Dancing in the Ashes”
- Beast in Black – “Cry Out for a Hero”