Friday, December 20, 2019

Mick's Töp 15 Albums of 2019

If the lack of our posts wasn't any indication, it's been one hell of a busy year. My shortcomings have mainly been due to never-ending travel, most of which was for weddings. I did manage to pump out a super fun interview about video game music, but that sapped most of the little energy I had to give. Belly-aching aside, just because we didn't put a ton of content this year didn't mean there wasn't a ton of great music to consume. It was a good sign to me that it was difficult to narrow down a list of the albums I enjoyed the most. Per usual, when it comes to promises for the new year ahead, we will do our damndest to write up what we can. But know that just because we're not writing doesn't mean we're not listening. You at least know you can be 100% guaranteed you'll get Best of 2020 lists.

So without further ado, my Top 15 Albums of 2019:

15. Blyh - Awake to Emptiness
Of anything that can call black metal an influence on my list, this album is the one channeling the genre's most severe and punishing characteristics. From high-pitched shrieks to inexorable drum bombardments to cold, draining guitar tones, this checks all the boxes for a roller coaster ride of adrenaline. There are short breaks in the action in between tracks that set an ominous atmosphere, but the album's true aura is crafted by the every evolving guitar chords. I'd be hard pressed to say there's any one riff that stands out because there aren't too many to speak of. The guitars constantly are pushing forward and layering on top of each other in such a way that the album feels like one consistent train of thought. Put simply, Awake to Emptiness is straightforward black metal fueled by raw emotion. If you've had a rough day and need an album to scream into the void with, there are few better candidates out there.

Favorite Tracks : "What a Man Can Bear", "Utica Crib"

14. Venom Prison - Samsara
Let's transition from abrasive black metal to abrasive death metal, shall we? If your gym playlists have been letting you down lately, Venom Prison's latest will have you set for the foreseeable future. Samsara provides a never-ending carousel of pissed off screams, blast beats, frantic breakdowns, pinch harmonics, and surging guitar solos. It's a huge wall of sound to take in all at once mainly due to its speed, but there's an impressive level of dynamism to it all. While there's not much variance in terms of tempo across the whole album, they manage to pace things out by being judicious about how they harness each element of the aforementioned carousel. These elements are recycled throughout Samsara in some form or fashion but the amount of permutations that these elements can mix with each other is surprising. While listening through each track may start to sound familiar, the details of each track never become stale. Samsara is an album that only knows how to hit the gas pedal. Buckle up.

Favorite Tracks : "Uterine Industrialisation", "Asura's Realm"

13. Gatecreeper - Deserted
While the previous entry is for anybody searching for extreme(ly fast) death metal, this one is for all the old school death metal fans out there. Deserted serves up some Bolt Thrower worship that hits all the right notes. While maintaining thick and grungy tones, Gatecreeper's guitars put out some of the best riffs of the year, "From the Ashes" being a prime example. The vocals usually remain within the realm of the cavernously low growling variety, but, on occasion, you'll be treated to some high pitched screams that will catapult the whole band into a new gear of fierce, albeit short, aggression. Deserted keeps a pretty mid-paced tempo overall (that could all be relative compared to other entries on my list I suppose), but that's not to say that's to a fault. This just means that each riff, each strike of a guitar chord, each drum crash, and each growl are allowed to linger around and reverberate enough that they take on a whole new menacing tone. It's not necessarily anything new, but there's something to be said for putting a modern wrapper around a genre that is (or should be) near and dear to our hearts.

Favorite Tracks : "From the Ashes", "Boiled Over"

12. White Ward - Love Exchange Failure
I try to avoid using the word "artsy" as often as possible, but it fits in this case and not in a derogatory sense. Even amongst the most experimental/progressive metal bands, piano and saxophone are two instruments that, in combination, you rarely, if ever, hear as the focal point of setting ambiance. Ukraine's White Ward does just that and within the context of black metal no less. It's certainly jarring to hear smooth jazz side-by-side with fierce barrages of blast beats, pained screams, and swirling guitar distortion at first, but the longer you let this concoction of implausible noises permeate your ear canals, the more its brilliance becomes apparent. Not only do these two distinct types of music create a dichotomy that fosters intense moments that often go from zero to sixty, but they also blend together in a surprisingly seamless fashion. Whether it's obscured, distant screams being bellowing out behind discordant piano progressions or saxophones taking the place of guitar solos, I would bet the farm on this being the most unique thing you'll take in from this past year. It may not be progressive in terms of genre, but it's assuredly progressive in the forward-thinking sense.

Favorite Tracks : "Dead Heart Confession", "No Cure for Pain"

11. Dreadnought - Emergence
Dreadnought's brand of progressive doom continues to evolve in new and interesting directions. "Free-flowing" may seem like a cop-out descriptor for a progressive album, but Emergence embraces this concept whole-heartedly. The trade-off is that you're not getting quite as many melodic hooks as often as you did with their previous effort, A Wake in Sacred Waves, but this allows for a wholly different kind of listening experience that is just as rewarding in its own way. But fear not, everything you love about Dreadnought is here and accounted for; the downtuned guitars, the saxophones, the mix of soft laments and harsh screams, the keyboards. Melody does develop across the album, but more as a slow burn. This liberated nature of the music makes it come across as the aural equivalent of a fever dream. Many different things are happening, often simultaneously, but in a way that each pivot-point ties together a vaguely familiar thread. This is a shining example of where you need to listen to an album in its entirety. The ambitiousness of exploration is what ultimately defines Emergence.

Favorite Tracks: "Pestilent", "The Waking Realm"

10. An Isolated Mind - I'm Losing Myself
Here's to filling my year end list's quota of featuring an album that emanates your unraveling sanity at every turn. In this case, however, that description couldn't be more on the nose. An Isolated Mind is the solo project of one Kameron Bogges who wrote and recorded I'm Losing Myself after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and having spent a week in a psychiatric hospital. The album is a delightfully unusual ride. Featuring numerous heavy barrages that build irrepressible amounts of tension in short spans of time, an aural clutter constantly emerges and is suffocating. But these frantic, snowballing spurts of blast beats and growls are only part of the puzzle. I'm Losing Myself's true hook is the ambiance it surrounds all of these heavier elements with. For as fast as things can ramp up, they can ramp down just as quickly, creating a numbing atmosphere that can only be described as a serene oblivion. The individual components of the music are a rather disjointed bunch, but coalesce into something that might just make you lose your own self in your own mind.

Favorite Tracks: "Afraid of Dissonance", "Turritopsis Dohrnii"

9. Immortal Bird - Thrive on Neglect
This one is all over the place but in the best way possible. Whether it's the speed and ferocity of death metal and grindcore, the coldness of black metal, or the turn-on-a-dime nature of progressive metal, Thrive on Neglect has something for all walks of metal fandom. It's immediately apparent from its opening seconds that the album is an all out assault. While there are plenty of tempo and melody shifts throughout, every instrument in the bands repertoire takes to heart a "hit hard, hit often" mantra that makes everything directly resonant. What really puts Immortal Bird's performance over the edge though is the vocals. To be effective, these vocals have to be just as dynamic as the instrumentation. They do just that by hit the highest shrieks and the lowest grunts in all manners of cadence. It actually matches the instrumentation so well, it almost feels as if they take on the additional role of being an extra percussive instrument. Thrive on Neglect provides plenty of extra oomph by not pulling any punches and it's all the better for it.

Favorite Tracks : "House of Anhedonia", "Avolition"

8. Russian Circles - Blood Year
We all have those bands that can seemingly do no wrong. After perusing my year-end lists from years past, it appears that Russian Circles is one of those bands for me. Blood Year stands out just like any other album from the instrumental three-piece does; by cohesively establishing a mood that ranges anywhere from the serene to the ominous. This time around, the focus is more on the ominous but there are still plenty of ambient highs along the way. Whether it's the thick bass tone, the crunchy guitar riffs, or the continued brilliance of the drumming, each element of the band sounds and feels like they have a life of their own. Despite of only having three instruments at their disposal, they come together to create something that is impressively dynamic. It should also be mentioned that the closing track, "Quartered," is on par with "Deficit" for the heaviest track they've ever put together. Blood Year is not an album to be passed over.

Favorite Tracks: "Sinaia", "Quartered"

7. Crypt Sermon - The Ruins of Fading Light
I understood the appeal, but I wasn't quite as swept away by Crypt Sermon's 2015 full-length debut, Out of the Garden, as much of the metal community was at the time. I'm sure better production values are a part of it, but why The Ruins of Fading Light has resonated with me more is that it leans more heavily into its classic doom and old-school metal influences. It just takes everything to the next step. The vocals hit more operatic highs and menacing lows. The drums hold stronger rhythms and the guitars strike more triumphant riffs. Of any other bands trying to pull off the whole medieval vibe, this is your masterclass. While you may be a bigger fan of other sub-genres of metal, listening to The Ruins of Fading Light will remind you of what metal is really all about at its core. Dio smiles fondly on this one.

Favorite Tracks : "Key of Solomon", "The Ruins of Fading Light"

6. Alcest - Spiritual Instinct
2016's Kodama may have been a solid return to form, but Spiritual Instinct goes even more above and beyond in reminding us why the birth of "blackgaze" was ultimately a good thing. Recency bias can be a hard thing to shake off, but this is the most floored I've been by an Alcest album since the seminal Ecailles de Lune. Keeping in line with the tried and true Alcest formula, Spiritual Instinct strikes an amazing balance between the cold harshness of black metal with the warm serenity of shoegaze.  Steadily building drum rhythms drive along dense guitar distortion while Neige's harrowing vocals echo throughout. There isn't anything particularly out of the box in terms of the compositions, but they all are so well paced that it's near-impossible to not be satisfied as each track goes by. The push and pull between melody and heaviness hits all the right spots. I was cautiously optimistic when seeing so many good reviews of this album come out before its release, but I was shocked after my first listen. These reviews are 100% warranted.

Favorite Tracks : "Protection", "L'île Des Morts"

5. Schammasch - Hearts of No Light
This was my introduction to Schammasch, so I've been missing out big time. Hearts of No Light brings to mind a lot of what I loved about Behemoth's The Satanist. It's very straightforward blackened death metal but with plenty of creative twists along the way to keep it fresh. From piano-lead interludes to saxophones to guitar harmonics, plenty of curveballs are thrown at you with this album that instill an eerie quirkiness about the music as a whole. At the heart of all this though, are layers upon layers of heavy guitar riffs that build upon each other in intensity and noise like none other. Simple riffs are taken and deconstructed in every which way to craft a soudscape themed around a hellacious pandemonium. It's chaos but it's a very structured chaos. The heaviness can be demanding at points, but the melodies underneath will give you an odd sense of satisfaction.

Favorite Tracks : "Ego Sum Omega", "Rays Like Razors"

4. Pelican - Nighttime Stories
It was a hell of a year for post-rock/metal, in general, but Pelican was the biggest standout. The recipe hasn't changed for Chicago's own instrumetallers, but what won me over with Nighttime Stories is that it made me feel as though I was listening to a live playthrough. Forcing you to be sucked into each moment, every down-tuned, crusty guitar note can be felt as much as the next. The album also does a fantastic job of building intensity. Constructing this intensity through layering rather than speed, droning riffs will be shrouded with a slew of guitar feedback and other harmonized riffs that lifts any moment into one of grandeur. It's smart music, but it's easily digestible as well. Also, I can say from personal experience that it's an exquisite soundtrack to have on any road trips filled with beautiful expanses.

Favorite Tracks : "Cold Hope", "Nighttime Stories"

3. Wormwitch - Heaven that Dwells Within
Out of all the entries on my list this year, this one has to be the most fun. Heaven that Dwells Within embodies an attitude that is so easy to get caught up in, you sometimes forget that it is black metal at its core. It toes a similar line that "black n' roll" bands like Tribulation do, but ends up not falling into that mold completely. Wormwitch differentiates themselves not by pushing a gimmick but rather by pouring everything into their riffs and melodies. Each track that goes by is filled to the brim with a large arena-rock type of vigor. Every rhythm and tune is crystal clear yet always passes through the filter of gnarly guitar distortion and forceful howls that carry a palpable animosity. Tracks are also broken up with tastefully placed breakdowns and folky acoustic guitars. It's by no means reinventing the wheel, but the moment to moment flow of this album is untouchable.

Favorite Tracks : "Disciple of the Serpent Star", "Two Wolves"

2. Tomb Mold - Planetary Clairvoyance
In the same way I wasn't swept away by Crypt Sermon's debut, I can say it was the same case for Tomb Mold. Not for lack of trying, but the critically acclaimed Manor of Infinite Forms did not click with me. Planetary Clairvoyance, however, is the complete opposite. I was hooked immediately from the first moments of the opening track. For those not aware, Tomb Mold's lyrical themes are loosely featured around Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and other video games of that ilk, which is fitting when you examine this next to the band's actual sound. Much like the "Souls-borne" games, Planetary Clairvoyance is dark, punishing, and unrelenting; but once you accept that is the whole point, the whole experience is given this unique charm. Cavernous growls, bludgeoning guitar riffs, and cascading drums all swirl together along with some lightly-ambient accents to form a beatdown so resounding that you can't help but fully embrace this filthy brand of death metal.

Favorite Tracks : "Planetary Clairvoyance", "Accelerative Phenomenae"

1. Eternal Storm - Come the Tide
It's one thing to to bring a myriad of styles into play, but it's quite another to seamlessly meld them together into one cohesive listen. Spain's Eternal Storm does just that with their full-length debut, Come the Tide. One moment may present the growls and ferocity of Amon Amarth-esque death metal, while the next will boast lingering guitar notes that bring a soul-sucking devastation in their wake, much akin to the funeral doom of Ahab. Every facet of the music often is intricate, though not for the sake of being so. Regardless of the tempo, each track pushes the album further into ever-evolving, captivating directions. Come the Tide strikes a near perfect balance of energetic heaviness along with introspective melody. In terms of debuts, this is about as strong as strong gets.

Favorite Tracks : "Through the Wall of Light Pt. II (Immersion)", "Detachment"

- Mick

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