As a younger man I had no concept of the “EP,” nor the “demo,” nor the “split.” When was the last time Iron Maiden had to curb their excesses by squashing ideas into half an hour? When were Judas Priest not able to afford a professional recording studio and production job? And when’s that Metallica/Megadeth split due again? Such formats are reserved for the underdogs of the metal world, those bubbling beneath the surface of popularity who write music for the sheer creative expression and who will never see monetary reward for their time and effort. This fact is why I enjoy producing this year-end spotlight so much: exposing light on the unknown and under-appreciated. I don’t intend to ramble for a lengthy period considering this post covers releases which thankfully offer reprieve in this era of albums which habitually run over an hour, so withdraw your wallets are prepare to part ways with cash for these fragments of goodness.
Unicorn // The Weirdest of Tales – This little oddity is my hidden gem of 2018. One of the myriad projects with which Dan Swanö has been involved, Unicorn originally recorded this demo in 1991 but Mr Swanö has remastered and re-released it this year. It’s a highly unusual but highly compelling half hour of music which is most comparable with the melodic, neo-progressive rock of Marillion, boasting smooth, harmonized vocals, twinkling piano melodies and saxophone solos. Music such as power metal uses fantastical lyrics and imagery but this release musically evokes such fantasy much more accurately. If you listen to just one of my recommendations from this collection, make it this one. –El Cuervo
Superstition // Swirling Throngs of Evil’s Might – I’m unsure I’ve heard a title more appropriate than this ever. The atmospheric introduction, the imaginatively-titled interlude called “–” and the occasional keys could be described as ‘swirling’; it’s a sound of eerie ‘evil’. But the titular ‘might’ is grounded through the riffs which vary between fantastic grooves, wild squealing feedback and solos; the net sum is a corkscrewing effect which is nothing short of badass. The production may be raw and unrefined but I find the buzzing guitar and softened thump of the drums strangely comforting. My key concern is one of the follow-up: can a longer or more polished EP or full-length match the immediate impact of this demo? I hope so. –El Cuervo
Deströyer 666 // Call of the Wild – This is Deströyer 666. While this entails certain absolute truths – thrashy riffs, boundless energy, infectious melodies – Call of the Wild wanders further down the speed metal path trodden on the most recent album Wildfire. Black metal scarcely sounds like an influence these days; the most evident influence is Motörhead. So long as the absolute truths of D666 remain this is no problem at all. In fact, each of the new tracks here is so catchy in their shout-along choruses that I almost prefer this new form they are adopting. The EP is rounded out with a re-recorded version of “Trialed by Fire” from Terror Abraxas about which I am not entirely convinced but it doesn’t undermine the overall quality. –El Cuervo
Phrenelith // Ornamented Dead Eyes – “Look Simba, everything the light touches is your kingdom.” “But what about that shadowy place over there?” “Phreneliiiiiiiith!” roars Mufasa, mortifying his son with all of the terrifying force of a well-placed cucumber. And he’s right to, since the stubborn little cat would be destroyed as soon as it set paw inside that desolate endscape. Were that destruction to come to pass, Simba would witness death metal so utterly flawless that it has been declared inhumane, dangerous, and fucking excellent by a laundry list of dignitaries, philosophers, and popes1. It’s not my place to know why Phrenelith are better than every other death metal band, but they are, and Ornamented Dead Eyes is their victory lap after decimating the field. Two songs, eleven minutes of the best death metal released this year, or any year. Organ failure it causes notwithstanding, you need to hear this. –Kronos
Frosttide // Decedents – Despite a 2013 debut and 2015 follow-up, Frosttide never caught my ear. Who wanted knockoff Jari when Ensiferum and Wintersun were still the real deal? Fast-forward a few years and Decedents needs all of two minutes to light a bigger riff than either Jari-spawn have smoked in years. “Tranquility” is the star of the show, blending the intricate layering and symphonics of Wintersun and with Ensiferum‘s war-march melodies and victorious choruses. While you might sense that this is a “Tranquility”-vehicle—it is an EP—the smart use of Blind Guardian transitions as breathing room and weenie-tier synths on “Carved into Ice” add depth to Decedents. “Revenant” flies a little too close to the winter’s sun with its progressions, but it too has those superstar cuts that Jari and his ilk aren’t exactly providing these days. Frosttide needs more length in their production and less in their tracks (a holdover problem from Blood Oath), but if the riff quality of Decedents presages melodeath to come—and their competition continues to screw the pooch—Frosttide could be primed to explode. –Dr. Wvrm
Counterparts // Private Room – Last year’s You’re Not You Anymore was a career high for Counterparts and has steadily become one of my favorite melodic hardcore albums of all time. On Private Room, the Canadian quintet continue their tour de force with three previously unreleased B-sides that carry the same intensity, technicality, and raw emotion. Opener “Monument” pulls no punches, with its stampeding chords and wailing notes broken by a scream of “PUT A FUCKING BULLET IN MY HEAD!” “Selfishly I Sink” is less bludgeoning but just as desperate, as its plunging central riff is the equivalent of getting your heart ripped out by the person you love most. Fortunately closer “We Forgive” stands as an uplifting counterpoint with its jumpy melodies and rushing verses. Everything’s over in less than seven minutes, leaving Private Room a tight, diverse, and oddly cohesive EP that’s sure to please both longtime fans and curious newbies. –Mark Z.
Fauna Timbre // Altering Echoes – Altering Echoes is the debut EP from Norwegian trio Fauna Timbre, and is a compelling and intriguing introduction to the band. Doom metal/rock is the order of the day, but not just doom. Maybe post-doom, with some melancholic, progressive tendencies and plenty of low-end noise and buzz, and heavy on the bass lines. The heaviness is more hinted at, or implied, than forced upon us. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Marius Sjoli is clearly in charge, and he shows a deft hand in the production department. His wistful, arty vocals will turn off the trvly brvtal amongst our readers, but those interested in checking out a few songs that live outside the boundaries of doom will be well served by Altering Echoes. –Huck N Roll
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Blame // Almanac – Tech-death: an overpopulated field if there ever was one. Blame decided that this was inconsequential and constructed a monster tech-death EP with Almanac. These Ukrainians level metropolises in a scant nineteen minutes via pummeling riffs, mammoth drumming, and songwriting twists from a category 5 hurricane. Take opener “War” as a prime example. Right off the bat, Blame show their chops with a furious eruption of tech-death blended with Dyscarnate-style deathcore. What differentiates Blame, though, is an unexpected shot of bombast by dint of ceremonious melodic flourishes. Every song has something in this vein and all are utilized effectively (especially on “Almanac”). Despite heavy compression, every instrument pops and repetitive listening at high volumes hasn’t induced any headaches. Final point: just look at that album art. Can you Blame me for loving this? –TheKenWord
Voracious Scourge // Our Demise – Mike Smith (Suffocation’s best drummer) teams up with a couple of dudes from Suture and Sinister’s vocalist Aad Kloosterwaard in Voracious Scourge to deliver a quick burst of refreshing death metal. It sounds like a mixture of all three of those bands, and that’s a good thing. The riffs are agile yet not too technical, able to move into some hefty beatdowns or break open with a bit of melodic lead guitar. That this often happens throughout one song makes for a varied and engaging. Our Demise flies by and merits repeated spins. –Diabolus in Muzaka
Mire // Shed – In a year replete with a nigh-incalculable amount of quality technical death metal, Denver’s Mire was responsible for perhaps the most cogent offering. Shed places an emphasis on huge rhythms that immediately challenge the neck but never without a layer of engaging progression. This two-man project deploys a profusion of Gojira-dense riffing seasoned with the nuance of Cynic. But more than just instrumentally, Mire excel at songcraft. Each track manages to be almost immediately memorable and evocative whilst technically impressive. The combination of clean and harsh vocals injects a subtle amount of variation between the jackhammer riffs and tasteful soloing to foster a sense of undiluted accessibility. Shed sloughs off the implication of its author’s moniker and revels in its replayability. It practically demands you do too. –Forgotten Ferrous Beuller
Necropanther // Oppression – Necropanther saw fit to push three more songs out the door before 2018 fades to memory. The band writes their full length records as a collaborative unit, so Oppression is rather unique in that it’s written entirely by bassist Marcus Corich. The resulting compositions are the filthiest, most instrumentally intricate tracks the band has recorded yet. Picture the raw, scathing aesthetic of Skeletonwitch’s Breathing the Fire paired with Necropanther’s power metal-esque lead guitar melodies, then prog it the hell up with engaging, unpredictable rhythmic shifts, and you have a rough idea of the sheer potency on display. Oppression may not be as immensely satisfying as Eyes of Blue Light, but it makes for a fantastic companion piece nonetheless. –Eldritch Elitist
Anomalie // Integra – It’s been scientifically proven that everything graced by Harakiri for the Sky becomes blackened gold, and Anomalie‘s Integra is no exception. Lead by HftS guitarist Marrok, Anomalie lean more toward the obsidian side of things, doling out goodness more heavily steeped in trve black metal than in the sweetened atmospherics of HftS. On Integra, this charge to blackness is furthered with a vengeance; though much of the dark melodic sensibilities of predecessors Visions and Refugium are retained, each of Integra‘s 4 tracks are more aggressive than anything previously unleashed by the band. From the eery scales the guitars lurk in to the increased harshness of Marrok’s vocals this time around, this EP seems to hint at a more straightforward black metal approach in the future and I’m already ridiculously excited to hear what that will sound like. –Master of Muppets