Friday, December 14, 2018

Mick's Töp 15 Albums of 2018

It's been a much quieter back half of the year here then we typically are accustomed to, but life has taken over the driver seat for us : I was busy getting hitched, Durf was busy welcoming a new addition to his family, and as for Tom I do know those New York football Giants have been having a less than stellar year so I can only assume he's been finding some other ways to grieve. Despite all of these momentous event we had going on, we've kept up on all of what 2018 had to offer as best we could.

So without further ado, check out my Top 15 Albums of 2018 after the break!

15. Ursa - Abyss Between the Stars
Sometimes, it doesn't get much better than grungy guitar distortion driving stories about wizards, witches, and dragons. Formed by three of the four members from Cormorant, Ursa is a band that revels in traditional doom stylings that bring to mind genre progrenitors like Candlemass. However, while the band's influences are front and center in their debut, Abyss Between the Stars brings enough flourished nuances that gives the album a vitality that is unique unto itself. Fantasy-based themes always tend to have a timeless quality, but it's the instrumentation of everything else that gives these themes life. The guitars drown in distortion as their notes bend and swirl around the crashing drum beats while the reverberating vocals primarily soar to melodic highs but will also occasionally descend into deep growls. Abyss Between the Stars isn't a challenging listen, but if you're in the mood for something that is fun and engaging then this should do just the trick.

Favorite Tracks: "Serengeti Yeti", "Cave of the Spider King"

14. Psycroptic - As the Kingdom Drowns
 It's odd, I always find myself thinking, or writing on this blog - quite often, it turns out - that modern technical death metal isn't something I'm a huge fan of. Despite that, one or two of those albums find their way onto my list every year. Keeping in that self-contradicting tradition, here's number one of two. Hailing from Australia, Psycroptic has been around since 1999 but their newest release was my introduction to the band. What I love about As the Kingdom Drowns, and what will certainly make me go to back to listen to the rest of the band's discography, is that it mixes technicality with the attitude of thrash. Despite the guitar tones staying the same throughout the album's entirety, each track showcases guitar playing that naturally evolves into something really awesome that you weren't quite expecting. In other words, the album is an unapologetic riff-fest that will keep you coming back for more. No B.S. Just riffs.

Favorite Tracks: "We Were the Keepers", "Beyond the Black"

13. Judas Priest - Firepower
Priest is probably the biggest traditional metal band that I'm the least familiar with outside of their singles. Painkiller is the only album I've listened to in full of theirs prior to this new one (I can already feel Tom scheduling my crucifixion). But bless Rob Halford. This new album brings enough....ahem...firepower to hang with the best that this year had to offer. Halford's vocals sound like he hasn't aged a day and are as operatic as ever. And the riffs. Oh man. The riffs! Firepower is 14 tracks long which may seem a tad lengthy at first glance, but once you start listening it won't be enough. This is especially true once you hear "Spectre" for the first time. Let me make very clear that if you listen to "Spectre" for the first time and then don't immediately want to listen to it again at least five more times, then there is something legitimately wrong with you and you should go to your doctor to get checked out. I would assume your prescription would be a heavier dose of Firepower.

Favorite Tracks: ''Evil Never Dies", "Spectre"

12. Ihsahn - Ámr
 Over the course of his solo career, Ihsahn has output plenty of things that are either whacky experimental or super accessible but rarely anything that strikes a happy medium between the two. Ámr struck a chord with me immediately because it sounded like the perfect happy medium that I had been waiting for from an entire album. Whether Ihsahn goes into full Emperor-mode or is performing some melodic vocal gymnastics, what sets the tone for this album is the use of electronic elements. Album opener "Lend Me the Eyes of Millenia" wastes no time by leading with a synth-line that not only will be stuck in your head indefinitely, but also sets up some neat guitar tapping sections later on in the track. Other tracks, like "Sámr" and "Twin Black Angels", use synths not quite as intricately but they still remain the fulcrum that all others elements balance off of. Ihsahn's guitar-work remains top-notch. The riffs are crisp and precise yet they roll into each other with a certain charming elegance. I won't say this is Ihsahn's most adventurous work, but I will say this is what I'll listen to the most out of his solo material moving forward.

Favorite Tracks:"Lend Me the Eyes of Millenia", "In Rites of Passage"

11. Pig Destroyer - Head Cage
Let the record show that I am by no means a grindcore aficionado. What I and many other non-grindcore aficionados do share in common, though, is that we do love us some Pig Destroyer. Let the record also show that when it comes to Pig Destroyer, I'm a Phantom Limb guy through and through. Now that the record's set straight, let's discuss Head Cage and why I don't understand why it's been so polarizing. Just because the music isn't all going by at blistering speeds doesn't mean it can't be as equally pissed off and heavy. Listen to "Army of Cops" and "Mt Skull" and you'll realize that Scott Hull is still THE riff machine to end all riff machines. Listen to "The Torture Fields" and "Terminal Itch" and tell me J.R. Hayes can't sound as angry. He may not be squealing like a lunatic anymore, but that's just how vocal chords work. Get over it. This album slays.

Favorite Tracks: "Army of Cops", "The Torture Fields"

10. The Atlas Moth - Coma Noir
 For the Chicago natives in The Atlas Moth, Coma Noir was a big change in two major ways. Not only was it their Prosthetic Records debut, but it also marked a commendable evolution in their sound. 2011's An Ache For the Distance put them on the map for their psychedelia-infused brand of stoner/sludge metal. Coma Noir sees them take a more straightforward approach stylistically, but still keeps that hypnotic element of their early sound intact. Instead of being buried underneath tons of effects and distortion, the riffs and rhythms have a much crisper production quality which allows them to pack a more direct punch and even come across as heavier. The album also benefits from solid balances in speed. Tracks like the title track are a full-on assault while other tracks such as "The Streets of Bombay" operate on a mid-tempo that allows it to be more groove-centric. It's a great album for many reasons, but one that you'll most appreciate the most by listening to in full.

Favorite Tracks: "Coma Noir", "The Frozen Crown"

9. Panopticon - The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (I and II)
Speaking of albums that are best experienced by listening to them as a whole, here returns the mighty Panopticon. It may be two hours long, but The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness is an adventure that is more than worth your time. To its credit, it's the only album on my list this year that I specifically set aside time dedicated to listening to it. With I front-loading all of the heavy black-metal goodness and II containing the acoustic ballads, it's very much an album of two halves. Despite that, it forms a cohesive whole that will take you through several emotional peaks and valleys. Stand-outs from I include "Blåtimen," "En Generell Avsky", and "Snow Burdened Branches" which represent many of the core elements that you've come to expect from Austin Lunn. The standard black metal fare of blasting drums and barraging guitar distortion is balanced by soaring guitar solos, vicious guitar sweeps, and many ambient transitions that help you take it all in. II might not be your cup of tea if you're looking for the heavy, but that's where the majority of the acoustic and banjo material is and let me say that it is sublime. If you're listening to Scars next to a fire with a good pour of whiskey, then you're doing it right.

Favorite Tracks: "Blåtimen", "Snow Burdened Branches"

8. Møl - Jord
As Durf had already mentioned in his list, Møl's debut is what ended up stealing the spotlight for the blackgaze genre. It was the first album to come out this year that we were as equally thrilled with and subsequently out-Deafheavened Deafheaven.The main driver behind Jord's success is its immense energy. Blackgaze often prides itself on being sedative more than anything, but Møl manages to keep this core intact while also keeping up the intensity. The vocals are where you'll immediately make the Deafheaven connection, but as you progress through each track on Jord, you'll also recognize that Kim Song Sternkopf does quite a bit more to separate himself from George Clarke. While the high-pitched shrieks are nearly identical, Sternkopf also throws in plenty of deeper growls that do wonders in placing extra percussive emphasis behind the guitar riffs. And about those riffs; they seamlessly weave around each other, trading between bright, shoegazey chords and heavy, unrelenting guitar riffs. Jord is a beautifully paced experience, one that supplies as much ferocity as it does instrumental bliss.

Favorite Tracks:"Bruma", "Vakuum"

7. Tribulation - Down Below 
 In a year when Ghost laid a dud, this album fills that void and then some. They're a band that never clicked with me on their previous releases, but Tribulation knocked it out of the park with Down Below. Gravelly vocals drive a "black n' roll" adventure akin to a campy horror movie soundtrack, but one that never ceases to entertain in its eerie gothicness. Music boxes and church bells are among the most common of tools that Down Below utilizes to set its ambiance. However, these are evenly balanced with plenty of hard hitting rhythms and memorable riffs. Each of the album's elements are easy to pick apart once you hear them, but they're executed in such a way that the end result is something much more than a sum of its parts. This form of Tribulation fits pretty comfortably in the middle of a venn diagram with bands like Ghost, Occultation, and In Solitude, yet offers something totally unique comparatively.

Favorite Tracks: "The Lament", "The World"

6. YOB - Our Raw Heart
Due to Mike Scheidt's near-death experience, Our Raw Heart may just be one of the more introspectively evocative albums you'll ever experience. It brings to mind someone asking you if you'd think that The Dark Knight would be as amazing of a movie if Heath Ledger didn't die. Without hesitation, I would still answer an emphatic yes to that question and the YOB equivalent of that question. But I'd also be lying if I said I didn't think the circumstances added a bit of mysticism around it. There's just a different dimension brought to each guitar note and drum downbeat that strikes home. "Beauty in Falling Leaves" and the title track are the"Marrow" equivalents of Our Raw Heart and oh man will they make you tear up if you're in any type of sentimental head-space. But it's not just all tear-jerkers to be found here. Album opener "Ablaze" and "Original Face" also pack a wallop by supplying those crunchy tones you've come to know and love from YOB. Be it heavy or reflective, each moment throughout this album is raw and more than deserves a spot in your listening rotation.

Favorite Tracks: "Beauty in Falling Leaves", "Our Raw Heart"

5. Skeletonwitch - Devouring Radiant Light
 It's undoubtedly a poor reason to not get invested in a band, but I've never seen more fans with crossed arms at live shows that those with Skeletonwitch shirts on. Nothing could even be remotely as interesting as Skeletonwitch in these fans' eyes (ears?). Sweeping generalizations aside, Devouring Radiant Light was a much welcomed surprise. In short, it's an Enslaved album with attitude. But that's no slight as each track yields amazing things. The biggest compliment I think I can give this album is that no one track stands out to me as "the definitive black metal" track or "the definitive thrash" track. They all strike an alarming balance between what the band was and what their newer direction is ushering in. The addition of Adam Clemans (Wolvhammer, ex-Iron Thrones) to the vocals department payed off in spades. His shrieks have the perfect cadence and graininess to match the unrelenting vibe of the guitars and drums. "The Luminous Sky" and "Carnarium Eternal" best represent the album's unstoppable energy while "Fen of Shadows" showcases the more European elements being incorporated into the mix. Devouring Radiant Light is an album you'll love because the whole end-result sounds fresh while many of the individual elements sound familiar.

Favorite Tracks: "Fen of Shadows", "Carnarium Eternal"

4. The Ocean - Phanerozoic I : Palaeozoic
It's amusing to me how The Ocean has taken fairly lengthy breaks between their most recent albums, then they fall off of our radars for a while, and then return to remind us how they're one of the most important bands in the evolution of post-metal. Their latest endeavor, Palaeozoic, is no exception to this pattern. What has always put The Ocean over the top for me is that their compositions have fit so well within the context of their album themes. In this case, they focus on the Palaeozoic era, the first of three eras within the Phanerozoic eon that started with the Earth's largest emergence of diverse life and ended with the Earth's most devastating extinction event that took 30 million years to recover from. That's some heavy shit. As you can imagine, there are plenty of thunderous moments on this album. The bookends of the album, "Eternal Recurrence" and "The Great Dying", might be two of my favorite tracks of theirs ever. The album, as a whole, isn't the most technical thing they've ever done but I would venture to say it's among the hardest hitting and best structured. With electronic synths, thick bass tones, dynamic levels of both clean and harsh vocals, and dense guitar rhythms, the album offers enough varying elements that, along with the underlying subject matter, the album is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Favorite Tracks: "Cambrian II: Eternal Recurrence", "Permian: The Great Dying"

3. Rivers of Nihil - Where Owls Know My Name
And now for technical death metal album number two of two that I alluded to earlier in this list. I was a big fan of River of Nihil's debut, The Conscious Seed of Light, back in 2013 but, to be honest, I never thought I would think much of the band again. Bands of the technical death metal ilk typically don't expand their horizons all that much once they've found their niche, but that couldn't be further from the truth in the case of Where Owls Know My Name. Varied tempos, well placed vocal melodies, and even saxophones are harnessed to bring more depth to the heavy barrage of blasting guitar riffs and drum beats that Rivers of Nihil have already well established as a part of their repertoire. It's an effort that hits hard but knows when to pull back to keep things interesting and balanced. Front to back, this album is easily the band's best and opens up the whole playbook for them moving forward.

Favorite Tracks: "Old Nothing", "Hollow"

2. Grayceon - IV
While I haven't listened to them yet, I've heard plenty of good things about both Giant Squid and Squalus, as Durf swears by them both. Despite not doing this, my compromise is getting into a band that's comprised of members from the aforementioned projects. With only three members, Grayceon concocts a form of sludge rock that is as entertaining as it is atypical. Jackie Perez Gratz's vocals entrance through many soft and moody passages but will also change on a dime into either lofty melodies or shrill screams. The guitar and drum-work are equally as dynamic and altering in nature. Let's also not forget the power of the cello which provides an unbelievable level of depth to the overall soundscapes. By thinking outside of the box while limiting themselves to three instruments (four if you include vocals), Grayceon strikes me as a sort of progressive version of Subrosa. IV was my first time listening to Grayceon, but it surely won't be my last.

Favorite Tracks: "Sliver Moon", "Scorpion"

1. Gaerea - Unsettling Whispers
I've seen some reviews here and there, but with the way Mgła's Exercises in Futility was universally lauded a few years back, I'm a little shocked that Gaerea hasn't exploded. Unsettling Whispers is an unquestionable successor to Exercises in Futility, but takes things in a heavier direction that helps it stand apart. Gaerea's latest is also a testament to how well-produced black metal can (and should) be a thing. From my review of it earlier this year, I referred to it as deathened-black metal as opposed to the other way around and I still stand by it. Droning, ambient transitions and tremolo picking are certainly aplenty, but there numerous moments on Unsettling Whispers  that the intensity is kicked into another gear, "Absent" being a prime example. I remember distinctly on my first listen of the album having the thought of "Oh wow, I didn't expect it to get that heavy!" With deep shrieks being interchanged with bellowing roars, the vocals follow suit, as well. Gaerea's full-length debut is one without any cracks. Each element of the band unselfishly contributes to create something that will continue to push black metal forward. To steal another line from my review, "It may not be gritty production-wise, but it packs a huge punch in every other area that counts."

Favorite Tracks: "Absent", "Extension to Nothingness"

Another year come and gone in a flash! While we had comparatively less to check out in 2018 than years past, we sincerely thank those of you who checked the little we did have to offer. We aim to be back in fuller force in 2019 so be sure to stay on the lookout! 

- Mick


  1. Did you hear Gorod, Spires or Alkaloid this year!?

    1. Out of those, I only listened to Alkaloid. I wasn't a huge fan but I also didn't give it very much time. Will check out Gorod and Spires though.