Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mick's Top 15 Albums of 2014

Extreme sunburn is the new corpse paint.
Another year has come and gone, as they tend to do.  I’m sure that my fellow comrades here at Brutalitopia would agree that each year since our inception has gotten better and better, with 2014 certainly being no exception.  MDF was unquestionably the highlight of our year and one we won’t soon forget (read Durf’s remembrance of it here). But aside from making new friends at MDF, attending more concerts, and interviewing some of our favorite artists, 2014 brought a plethora of releases that were more than impressive, to say the least.

Check out my personal top 15 albums after the break and make sure to tell me how wrong I am in the comments!

15. Mono - The Last Dawn/Rays of Darkness
While instrumental post-rock seems out of place in a best-of metal albums list, this entry carries just as much emotional weight as anything else that will follow. The double album of The Last Dawn and Rays of Darkness was, admittedly, my introduction to Mono, and to put it plainly, it is simply stunning. If you imagine the sound of a band like Explosions in the Sky and then make it more melancholy, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re in for here. The albums are based on the theme of light vs dark, but while this theme may seem cliché to anyone who’s ever seen a movie, read a book, or played a video game, it’s executed flawlessly. Soft guitar notes are often interweaved with pianos and choral violins, gradually building up to loud triumphant bursts of energy. The Last Dawn and Rays of Darkness will take you on a journey through all of the emotions that make us human. Invest the time in these albums. It’s well worth it.

Favorite Tracks: "The Land Between Tides/Glory", "Recoil, Ignite"

14. White Arms of Athena - S/T
This band is one that I read a lot of buzz about when their debut album, Astrodama, dropped back in 2011.  After a quick listen, and admittedly probably not the most thorough, I realized that anything I liked about the music was something I liked more in the form of a band like Between the Buried and Me.  Fast forward to the present...White Arms of Athena releases their follow-up to Astrodama.  This new self-titled effort takes big steps forward in defining a sound that they can call their own.  It keeps a very small foothold in progressive metal but tends to lean more towards progressive rock.  Little to no screaming vocals are to be heard this time around; cleaner more operatic vocals are more emphasized.  Heavy riffs are countered with clean guitar sections and even some fun harmonic effects.  Songs take more abrupt and daring changes in structure, forcing the listener to be on their toes at all times.  Being predictable is something that this album doesn’t suffer from in the least; which in itself is enough to cultivate a listening experience that is fresh.  

Favorite Tracks: "Manifest; Withdrawal", "The "I""

13. Indian - From All Purity
To say that the latest release from Chicago-natives, Indian, is abrasive would be the understatement of the year.  However, the kind of doom that From All Purity brings to the table is undeniably intoxicating.  Droning guitars backed by slow, but menacing, drum beats are only matched in intensity by absolutely ear-piercing screams.  Albums can be so polished these days that albums with a raw and unembellished feel are too few.  It’s an enticing listen, but don’t get too comfortable, it’s out to keep you on edge.  It’s brutal and unforgiving in every way possible; but sometimes that’s what I want my metal to be. 

Favorite Tracks: "Rape", "Directional"

12. Decapitated - Blood Mantra
Despite the blows that real life has dealt Decapitated, they continually validate their position as one of technical death metal’s biggest innovators.  Blood Mantra serves up some of the familiar technical flourishes you’ve come to expect from Decaptitated, but is balanced with rhythms that are fast and pulse-pounding.  Some tracks borrow from guitar chug styling of djent, but the band makes it their own by consistently putting death metal at the forefront.  It’s an album that only knows one gear; but if you’re in the mood for an album that is heavy and fast from start to finish, then Blood Mantra is the way to go. 

Favorite Tracks: "Exiled in Flesh", "Instinct"

11. Intervals - A Voice Within
Switching genre from an instrumental band to a band with vocals, and not losing your identity, or your audience for that matter, is no easy task.  The first full-length from Intervals, aptly titled A Voice Within, proves that it’s not impossible, and, well, they knocked it out of the park.  Behind the guitar wizardry of Aaron Marshall and the vocals of Mike Semesky (who recently has departed the band’s lineup), Intervals manages to offer a fresh balance of djent, hard rock, and progressive metal.  Song after song churns out riff after riff and melody after melody that will satiate your need for hum-worthy tunes.  Any given track is chock-full of opportunities for air-guitaring, headbanging, or singing your lungs out along with the melody.  It’s safe to say Intervals has finally found their voice.  Here’s to hoping they continue to run with it.  

Favorite Tracks: "Moment Marauder", "A Voice Within"

10. Woods of Desolation - As The Stars
Contrary to popular belief, Deafheaven withdrawal isn’t cured by slugging down a PBR and continuing a life of musical tunnel vision.  Rather, it’s remedied, and then some, by albums like the latest from one-man Australian black metal act Woods of Desolation. An album with a sound akin to bands in the vein of Deafheaven and Alcest, As the Stars utilizes warm undercurrents to beautify an otherwise cold and unforgiving black metal guitar sound.  This album is very much riff-driven but since these riffs are among the catchiest you’ll hear this year, it pulls it off rather well.  Along with distant shrill screams and ever pounding drums, As the Stars crafts a soundscape that is more than harsh music with a few pretty notes.  It’s a soundscape that induces introspection, one that will make you realize beauty can be found in even the darkest of places. 

Favorite Tracks: "Unfold", "Ad Infinitum"

9. Young and in the Way - When Life Comes to Death
If you happen to be low on adrenaline and need a quick pick-me-up, for whatever reason, this album is your answer.  Bringing to mind last year’s release from Nails, this album is pissed off and has no qualms about making it obvious.  By means of a blackened hardcore, each track has enough energy to be considered an instant pit-anthem.  Crusty and cold guitar tones cascade over ever-pounding drums, creating an environment of perpetual movement.  High-pitched throaty screams make the anger and viciousness in each track all the more contagious.  I consider myself a pretty optimistic, calm individual but this album gets my blood boiling instantaneously every time I throw it on.  For anyone who’s been looking to release some steam, consider this album your go-to.

Favorite Tracks: "Be My Blood", "Loved and Unwanted"

8. Swallowed - Lunaterial
Having been immersed in the world of metal for long enough, albums that creep me out or actually scare me anymore are few and far between.  Here to remind me that pure evil does indeed exist in music-form is this first full length from Finnish duo, Swallowed.  Variations in speed is what ultimately makes Lunaterial’s brand of evil both entrancing and unnerving.  At any given point, you may hear the extremely fast-paced barrages of blasting drums, unrelenting guitars, and vocal wailings (à la Deathspell Omega) juxtaposed with slow sections of droning guitars and demonic sounding whispers instead of growls.  It’s as if this album’s mission is to break your psyche by pulling back and forth constantly between these extremes.  If you’re looking for the soundtrack to your hell-bound descent into madness, look no further than Lunaterial

Favorite Tracks: "Reverence Through Darkness", "Black Aura"

7. The Mire - Glass Cathedrals
Post-metal and progressive metal share a few key traits, yet they are still considered to be uniquely their own.  Both endeavor to create vast and expansive adventures throughout the course of an album; but it’s obvious that an Isis album experience would be a far different one from say a Dream Theater album experience.  One will captivate us with dronier riffs and mellow segways while the other flaunts technicality and the grandeur of compositional throughlines.  On Glass Cathedrals, The Mire demonstrates how these two modes of thought don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  Tracks flow seamlessly between each other as a handful of groovy riffs are augmented just enough to be different from track to track but manage to keep an amazing sense of heavy unification across the album’s entirety.  The vocals vary between dramatically clean choruses to raspy growls that roar through many a verse; ultimately creating a soundscape that is both hopeful and melancholic.  Glass Cathedrals doesn’t overcompensate.  It’s an album that is very layered despite how easy it is to digest.  Give this one a spin if you’re looking for an album that rocks hard but is also extremely rewarding.

Favorite Tracks:  "Trance Monolith", "Stone Devils"

6. Morbus Chron - Sweven
I’m absolutely ecstatic that I didn’t miss the boat on this doozey of an album.  With Sweven, Sweden’s Morbus Chron serves up an entertaining take on death metal.  What’s truly impressive about this album is its self-awareness of good pacing.  It knows when to speed up, slow down, be melodic, or be harsh.  All of these elements have their time in the limelight on Sweven.  Surprisingly, the slower more melodic instrumental sections sometimes outshine everything else.  Simple, yet beautiful, clean guitar passages set an ominous mood but bring us closure from the previous onslaught of heaviness.  Speaking of “the heaviness,” this album shreds.  Echoing yells are given purpose with rolling riffs that bridge between each other so naturally and aggressively.  It’s ultimately the balance in Sweven that makes it a phenomenal album from front to back.  Be sure to keep Morbus Chron on your radar for the future.

Favorite Tracks: "The Perennial Link", "Terminus"

5. Agalloch - The Serpent & The Sphere
It seems like every time Agalloch comes up in discussion between Durf and I, we can’t help but bring up how awe-inspiring the consistency throughout their discography is.  Over the nearly 20 years of their existence, Agalloch continues to establish themselves as pioneers of atmospheric black metal.  The Serpent & the Sphere certainly doesn’t buck that trend.  With short instrumental acoustic guitar passages bringing the album full-circle, the vocal shrieks of John Haughm and ever-flowing guitar and drum rhythms combine into what is unquestionably some of Agalloch’s most compositionally astounding work to date.  The heavy riffs of a track like “The Astral Dialogue” will induce tons of head-banging while an instrumental epic like “Plateau of the Ages” will force you into a life-pondering daze.  Everything you love about Agalloch is encapsulated within The Serpent & the Sphere.  Not listening to it on a continuous loop is doing yourself a disservice.

4. Triptykon - Melana Chasmata
There’s something inherently dark about Triptykon’s music that never ceases to ensnare me.  With Melana Chasmata, Tom G. Warrior upstages the project’s debut album, Eparistera Daimones, in a big way.  There are two very distinctive traits of Melana Chasmata that make it a stand out album.  Firstly, the riffs are huge.  Tracks like “Breathing” provide fast-paced grooves that are full of energy and movement.  On the flip side, other songs like “Boleskine House” and “Black Snow” showcase riffs that are thicker and more grueling.  These dronier soundscapes create thunderous walls of sound that tie into those faster passages without a hitch.  Combine both of these types of riffs with an emotionally bleak overarching lyrical theme and you have one intensely draining album.  It’s this perfect storm of elements that not only makes the album sound heavy but also makes it feel heavy on your soul. 

Favorite Tracks: "Breathing", "Black Snow"

3. Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden
Considering that the sophomore effort from Arkansas’ own Pallbearer has made an appearance on just about every year-end list under the sun, this is probably the least surprising entry on my list.  It’s all for good reason, though.  Considering how the metal-world was taken by storm with their 2012 full-length debut of Sorrow & Extinction, the bar was set unbelievably high.  It’s safe to say with Foundations of Burden, though, that Pallbearer doesn’t know the meaning of the term “sophomore slump.”  Boasting a cleaner sound production-wise, the doomy down-driven riffs you knew and loved from Sorrow & Extinction are back in full force and are all the more palpable.  The soaring clean vocal melodies are also as crisp sounding as ever.  With lines like “Each moment carves a piece away; of the sculpture shaped by the passing of days,” Foundations of Burden will haunt you with its submissiveness to the reality of death but will do it in the most melodic, heavy, and appealing ways possible.  Believe the hype people.  Lightning did indeed strike twice in Little Rock.

Favorite Tracks: "Foundations", "Vanished"

2. Panopticon - Roads to the North
Black metal and bluegrass may be a head-scratcher on paper, but Austin Lunn from the one-man band Panopticon has shown us, in a rather convincing fashion, that this amalgamation can yield amazing results.  An anthemic take on black metal mixed with the charm and calmness of banjo-driven bluegrass is what makes Roads to the North nothing short of a masterpiece.  Being based on a major life transition, this album not only purveys the grandiose power in change but also the introspective nature that accompanies that change.  Banjos, flutes, violins, sweeping guitar solos, and blasting drum beats are but a few components that comprise this album.  Roads to the North is such an emotional ride with so many intricate facets, it’s nearly impossible not to be wowed by it.  Do yourself a favor; sit back and take this one in.

1. Behemoth - The Satanist
Behemoth frontman, Nergal had been dealt a raw deal with a near fatal case of Leukemia, but he not only overcame Leukemia, he beat it into the ground and left it for dead, and The Satanist makes that crystal clear. Never has Behemoth’s very real Satanic (imagine that) sentiments sounded so evil, so powerful, or so all-encompassing.  The blaring guitar rhythms and blast drums are only outdone by Nergal’s raw vocal roars that feel as if they’re out for blood.  However, what makes The Satanist a true masterpiece aside from its raw power is the artfulness of what was crafted around these sections of blackened death metal.  For instance, the track “In the Absence Ov Light” (a personal favorite) harnesses acoustic guitars in accordance with a spoken word passage, in Polish, and dissonant sax solos.  It’s changes like these that make Behemoth’s latest output more memorable, more dynamic, and all the more epic.  The Satanist has not only opened a new chapter for Behemoth, but has also elevated them to new heights making it hard to deny the power of their sound and aesthetic. For an album that was released in February, this glorious return still hasn’t skipped a beat.

Well that wraps up 2014, folks!  I can say with confidence that all of us here are looking forward to bringing you much much more content in 2015!  Until then, take care.

- Mick 

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