Steel Druhm’s Top Ten(ish) of 2019

2019 is in the books as AMG stumbles into a brand new decade. I certainly didn’t anticipate a 10-year commitment when I first applied to help out with an obscure, oddly named blog way back in March of 2009. Things have changed a lot around here since then, and running AMG is now more like a full-time job than the casual writing gig it started as. Now we have over 20 writers to herd, brand and micro-manage, and the promo stream never, ever ends. Our readership has become vast and demanding, and we endeavor to keep them from storming the gates with pitchforks and torches by continuing to churn out quality reviews and terrible inside jokes. All these things will continue into this brave new decade and hopefully beyond if the stars align. And that’s because we love all you freaks, geeks, clowns and hounds who loiter about the Hall daily. You give us grief and complain an awful lot, but we know this is the best metal community on the inter-webz and we appreciate just how lucky we are for that. Keep being your awesome selves in 2020 and no one will have to go on extended sabbatical unexpectedly maliciously.

Now I must give my yearly thanks to those who make this website’s continued existence possible, and make working here such a worthwhile experience. A big thanks to my fellow editors Docs Grier and Wvrm. I couldn’t keep up with the deluge of posts without your hard work and attention to detail. And without Madam X‘s skillful and painstaking management of the promo sump, AMG Enterprises would be up the creek without a longship oar. She spends hours each week sorting, compiling and assigning promos, and she’s the unsung nerve center of the entire operation. Though her schedule doesn’t allow her to write reviews much anymore, I’m hopeful you’ll hear more from the Madam in 2020. AMG’s current stable of writers is healthy and vital – a fine blend of talented young blood and battle-hardened vets. They’re an unruly, unmanageable lot, but they’re good eggs. Lastly but never leastly, thanks to AMG Himself for creating this place, helping to keep it operational, and dropping by as much as possible to share his metal wisdom and instill fear in the rank and file. He’s our very own version of Sauron, and he’s always watching from beyond.

Music-wise, 2019 started out in underwhelming fashion from my perspective, and it wasn’t until the back-half of the year that a run of albums truly grabbed me and wrecked my annual scoring average. The last few months of the year especially made up for the rather weak start, finding us buried under top-flight releases more often than not. This year saw several bands I wrote off for dead return with big comebacks, and a few unknown acts came out of nowhere to sucker punch me in the medulla oblongata. All in all, a pretty good 365 days toiling in the metal salt mines, even if we end the year with a website that looks like it was ambushed by a morbid florist with a score to settle. See you in the new year, you mötley crëw. POWERS!

A Swarm of the Sun - The Woods(ish) A Swarm of the Sun // The Woods – This is a strange album from a strange band. From the beginning I knew it was a unique blend of gloom and despair, but as the year worn on, I found myself returning to its stark, minimalist atmosphere. The unhurried, sometimes opaque writing seemed excessive and purposely inaccessible at first, but the more one spins the record, the more it makes sense. The Woods doesn’t top The Rifts for sheer depressive beauty, but ends up being its own unusual entity and nearly as dark and smothering. It takes patience and time to really get inside the head of this thing though. If you like depressive and poignant music, make the time to let this one worm into your consciousness. It’s well worth the effort.

#10. Raventale // Morphine Dead Gardens – I’m not the biggest proponent of funeral doom, and I didn’t consider Raventale to be a purveyor of same. Their past works were in the vein of riffy, droning atmoblack, but that’s not what we got with Morphine Dead Gardens at all. This is 120% pure, unadulterated funeral doom and it’s done remarkably well. With Shape of Despair and Doom:VS influences aplenty, mastermind Astaroth drapes everything he sees with sad, trilling harmonies even as the doom riffs kick you into an open grave. The melancholy hangs heavy on this one, with long, plodding songs sounding like a marathon funeral procession, and somehow it never gets tedious. This is a funeral doom starter kit, as even those normally resistant to the genre will find something here to hold their attention. This album hasn’t gotten much buzz, but it deserves a cosmic ass-ton of it. Hear it and feel the feelz.

#9. Ivory Tower // Stronger – A relatively obscure prog-metal band I liked in the early aughts but lost touch with, Ivory Tower came back in a big way in 2019 with the aptly titled Stronger. This isn’t the same band I remember at all, as everything here is dialed to 12, with a big, burly and crunchy sound more in line with Symphony X than Dream Theater. Major technical chops are on display, but it’s the songwriting that puts this one over. This is an album full of highly addicting, soaring prog-metal ditties, at times sounding like a heavier version of Pyramaze or Anubis Gate. I played the living hell out of this thing this summer and it keeps elbowing its way back into the rotation all these months later. If you like some grit and gravel in your prog-metal, this is your huckleberry tenderloin.

#8. Arch/Matheos // Winter Ethereal – I’m a big John Arch fanboy and always will be. His work on the early Fates Warning albums remain some of my most cherished metal moments, and I think the man’s voice is truly special. Winter Ethereal marked his second outing with former bandmate Jim Matheos, and like 2011s Sympathetic Resonance, it’s a love letter to fans of the Arch era of Fates Warning and classic prog-metal generally. There are moments of sheer beauty like opener “Vermillion Moons” that take me back to the Awaken the Guardian days, and more modern pieces that showcase the duo’s prodigious talent in different ways. Arch sounds brilliant as always despite oversinging at times, and it’s only a few minor quibbles that keep this from a more prominent place in the rankings. It’s always a joy to hear John Arch though, and I’ve spent a lot of time with this here album. Good stuff.

#7. Avatarium // The Fire I Long For – I’ve truly enjoyed Leif Edling’s doom rock project since its self titled debut back in 2013. Powered by the amazing vocals of Jennie-Ann Smith, this band’s exploration of 70s rock has paired beautifully with a doom foundation similar to Leif’s early Candlemass days. The Fire I Long For plays to the band’s strengths, giving Jeannie a lot of space to work her vocal magic, and though the backing music is less doom-centric than it once was, the songs are well written, accessible and full of emotion. It’s a mood album, but not a one-note listen, as the band plays with 70s rock and even southern rock and jazz elements, while maintaining just enough doom crunch to still qualify as metal. It shows the band charting a course away from doom, but the future looks bright no matter which direction the winds may take them.

#6. Saint Karloff // Interstellar Voodoo – The true dark horse album of the year, this is simply the jammiest, whammiest, good timey stoner rock fuzz odyssey since Welcome to Sky Valley. A single 40-plus minute song is almost never a good idea, but this one is an absolute pleasure from beginning to end as it drags you across a rocky, bong covered landscape by the seat of your tattered bell bottoms. Hell, this is so much fun, I’d be okay with another 5 or 10 minutes worth of what these cats are cooking. Yes, I’m saying this is the rare album where 45 minutes might not even be enough. It’s all about the RIFFS, man, and boy does this deliver truckloads of em’, all hot, fuzzy and ready to eat. Do you want Ghost and Kadavar toppings spread over your Kyuss fudge sundae? This is the sketchy ice cream green machine you’ll need to visit. Cash only.

#5. Isole // DystopiaIsole has long been a dependable doom act steeped in the classic ways, but on Dystopia they stepped things up several notches, delivering one of the best classic doom platters of the year. The template they work from is a well known one borrowing heavily from vintage Candlemass, While Heaven Wept and Solitude Aeturnus, but the band does interesting things with the proven ingredients and crafts some great modern doom tunes. At times a Katatonia-esque mope-rock aesthetic creeps in as well, along with nods to black and death metal, providing for a nicely spicy set of tunes with a solid doom foundation. If you love the classic doom sound, you simply can’t miss this one.

#4. Lacrimas Profundere // Bleeding the Stars – This is not the album I was expecting from these guys at all. A long time fan of the German goth-metallers, I was very disappointed by 2016s Hope is Here. After that release, the band imploded, with original guitarist Olly Schmid forced to reconstruct and recalibrate. He brought in Julian Larre to handle vocals, and reintroduced elements of the band’s doom death roots, and BOOM! A much different and impressive beast was born. Bleeding the Stars is like an amalgam of the band’s entire history but with black and melodeath elements spiking the punch bowl. It’s at once catchy and accessible, heavy, and at times quite creepy. The writing feels entirely revitalized and fresh, but it’s still Lacrimas Profundere through and through. This is one of the big surprises of the year and a happy one at that.

#3. Idle Hands // Mana – No album got more rotations in the House ov Steel than this one during in 2019. This odd duck goth-metal act rising from the carcass of Spellcaster took most of the AMG staff by complete surprise, managing to merge new wave, goth rock and metal in ways that shouldn’t work, but definitely do. The songs feel like 80s goth rock outcasts that turned mean over the decades, and even Gabe Franco’s bizarre Al Pacino-isms and werewolf howls can’t derail the good times train as it barrels through its 80s nostalgia tour. Every song is catchy and hyper-memorable, from the Overkill-adjacent speed of “Give Me to the Night” to the classic goth anthem, “Jackie,” you can’t shake these tunes out of your head once they’ve laid eggs. Yes, even the highly divisive “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?” is ear-wormy, and Madam X spent the better part of 2019 randomly shouting “DraGONE!” at odd, inappropriate times. Embrace your secret shame and admit you love this album.

#2. Atlantean Kodex // The Course of Empire – I always expect great things from Atlantean Kodex, and three albums into their epic career as epical metal maestros, they’ve yet to disappoint. The Course of Empire is a ginormous dose of Manowar and While Heaven Wept bombast with ample Bathory overtones, so essentially you get pulverized by machismo, leather and warhammers for an hour plus. And what a righteous hour plus it is! This is heavy metal writ large across a sky full of angry Valkyries, and the trveness runs fast and deep. As with Hagrid’s cottage, you’ll find no small glasses in THIS house. Everything is bigger than everything else and the king-sized atmosphere is well met by glorious songsmithery. Tracks like “People of the Moon,” “Lion of Chaldea” and “A Secret Byzantium” are all Song o’ the Year worthy, and each will make your back hair grow back hair. If you love vintage, pure, trve metal and missed this rich vein, your prospecting skills are highly suspect. Strap on your sharpest sword, buckle your buckler and press play. This is the stuff that legends are made of.

#1. Fvneral Fvkk // Carnal Confessions – Record o’ the Year was a neck and neck battle between this piece of classic doom sorcery and Atlantean Kodex. I went back and forth, but ultimately, Carnal Confessions gets the nod because it’s closer to a perfect album than The Course of Empire is, if only by a nose. A concept album about clergy sex abuse was definitely not what I was looking for in 2019, and a part of me doesn’t love awarding my grandest Steel ov Approval to a band called “Fvneral Fvkk,” but here we are. This is hands down the best doom album of the year as well as the best overall metal album. It manages to take the basic elements of doom, mix in liturgical influences and nail the formula to the wall like Martin Luther using Thor’s Gloryhammer. The songs are all accessible, addicting and chock full ov doomy atmosphere, but the strength of Carnal Confessions is how strong it is as a whole. I find it difficult to stop the album once it starts, and like only the very best releases do, it commands you to keep listening to the very bitter end. This is the special record no one saw coming. I don’t know where the band goes from here, or what their future plans are, but I hope we get much more from Fvneral Fvkk.

Fvneral Fvkk album cover

Honorable Mention(s):

  • Insomnium // Heart Like a Grave – The best sadboi melodeath of the year.
  • Rogga Johansson // Entrance to the Otherwhere – The best non-sadboi melodeath of the year and Rogga in peak form.
  • Borknagar // True North – Adding more rock influence to the Borknagar recipe was a bold move.
  • Pectora // UntakenMetallica meets Draconian Times era Paradise Lost on chest day. What you benchin’, chief?
  • Disillusion // The Liberation – Somewhere between prog metal and melodeath, a sweet spot was discovered.
  • Riot City // Burn the Night – Retro 80s metal gets another day in the sun, but at night.1
  • Avantasia // Moonglow – Yacht metal can’t be stopped when Tobias Sammet has Jørn as his copilot.
  • Tyr // Hel – The Faroe Islands are closer to Valhalla than you might think.
  • Ethereal Darkness // Smoke and Shadows – Unknown one-man act with a real ear from melodeath. Big future potential.
  • The River // Vessels Into White Tides – Bleak, meandering doom with indie rock elements is a nice canoe trip.

Disappointment o’ the Year: Candlemass // The Door to DoomI’m a big fan of the early Candlemass output. To me that’s about as good as doom gets. Naturally then I was excited to hear the band was back in the game and Leif Edling even recruited original vocalist Johan Langquist. Perhaps I expected too much, because The Door to Doom delivered very little that impressed me. It’s like a generic Candlemass clone without the energy and craftsmanship, and it bums me out that this is modern Candlemass. You can’t win em’ all I guess.

Song o’ the Year: Idle Hands – “Mana”

Show 1 footnote

  1. KryptosAfterburner was a very close second in this category and tons o’ fun.
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