Thursday, December 14, 2017

Mick's Töp 15 Albums of 2017

 Howdy, fellow Töpians! As 2017 comes to an end, I'm reminded that despite the constant craziness of the real world, music is always something that can unite us. As much as writing about the music we love is a special kind of therapy, it's also been something that's fostered a community of amazing people. If you've ever checked out our infinitesimally small carving of the interwebz, we all humbly thank you. Your continued readership is what keeps us going.

So enough with the sentimentality and on to my top 15 albums of 2017!

15. Nekrasov - The Mirror Void
 For the past decade, the one-man Australian black metal project Nekrasov has been putting out some truly out-of-the-box black metal. The Mirror Void continues this pattern by balancing the coarseness of traditional lo-fi black metal with random highly-distorted electronic noise. Alluring as it is unsettling, the album takes you across the spectrum of sound, sometimes coming across more as a stream of consciousness rather than an album. Of the tracks that can even be considered "songs," the approach remains minimal. The rhythm of the guitars and drums are constant and rarely change pace or tune during the course of a track, but the inclusion of the shrill, distorted screams creates an abrasive mix that keeps swirling around in your head. Despite how grating it can be, The Mirror Void's ability to enrapture you on an existential level is something you should take full advantage of.

Favorite Tracks: "Whatever Pleases You, Keeps You Back," "The Ignorance of the 5 Elements"

14. Thantifaxath - Void Masquerading as Matter
Black metal is always at its best when there are aspects to the music that hook you in with familiarity but keep you listening because of other, more unexpected and unnerving approaches. Even though it's technically an EP, the Canadian trio Thantifaxath delivers this in a complete fashion with their latest material, Void Masquerading as Matter. The simplistic heaviness of the main riffs from the opening two tracks draws you in, establishing a dark tone right from the outset. The vocal screams echo in a way that feels as if they're a part of your inner dialogue; decipherable and clear, yet seemingly boundless. What makes this EP truly special, however, is how these dark tones descend into something much more bleak. By incorporating guitar stylings that bring to the mind the atonal tapping techniques of Buckethead with cacophonous violin sections, you realize that Void Masquerading as Matter all of a sudden becomes an apt album title. There are a good deal of rhythms and riffs to digest on the surface, but the heart of the album revolves around its uneasiness that gives off an "unraveling of sanity" kind of quality. Grim and chilling, Void Masquerading as Matter's austerity will be sure to lure you in.

Favorite Tracks: "Self Devouring Womb"

13. Isenordal - Shores of Mourning
 As the title suggests, Seattle-based Isenordal delivers a full serving of melancholy on their debut album. With each song seemingly encapsulated as its own threnody, the band marries together elements of black metal and funeral doom to create an experience that's both aggressive and heart-achingly captivating. The atmospheric groundwork is laid out by delicate piano and violin work, each playing its own part to effectively layer itself around the heaviness of the guitars and vocals. It's this extra emotional punch that puts them in the same kind of league as a band like Swallow the Sun. What Shores of Mourning really nails, however, is that it gets to the point. Only one track on the album eclipses eight minutes, but each of them manages to pack substantial movements and transitions. The shifts from softer drawn-out laments to shredding guitars, rapid-fire drumwork, and shrieking screams can happen in an instant. All these pieces fit together in a rather astounding way. Both atmospheric black metal and funeral doom can be a little too self-indulgent at times but Shores of Mourning mends those weaknesses beautifully.

Favorite Tracks: "Shores of Mourning," "A Gallows Prayer"

12. Trivium - The Sin and the Sentence
While it's been an amazing year filled with albums from bands that I've never heard of before, I would be remiss if I didn't also try to keep my finger on the pulse of what was coming out on the more mainstream end of metal. It's a good thing I did too because the metalcore stalwarts in Trivium released the Trivium album that fans have been waiting for for a LONG time. It may have taken nearly a decade, but the band's latest release, The Sin and the Sentence, finds that happy medium between their recent melodic leanings with the aggressiveness of Ascendancy and Shogun. Even on the more radio-friendly tracks, there's a certain prowess these tracks carry that is far more resolute than their past few efforts. Matt Heafy's vocals continue to improve. The riffs and rhythms remain dynamic, yet accessible. And the hooks are us invigorating as they've ever been. To be putting out music of this level while the majority of their contemporaries of yesteryear have fallen by the wayside speaks volumes about this band's efforts. If you're looking for a lot of catchy melodies but also want something that hits hard, look no further than at The Sin and the Sentence.

 Favorite Tracks: "Beyond Oblivion," "Thrown Into the Fire"

11. Ulsect - Ulsect
I don't take comparisons to Deathspell Omega and Ulcerate lightly, but in the case of the self-titled debut from Ulsect, they are accurate. The coming together of Joris Bonis and Jasper Barendregt of Dodecahedron along with former Textures bassist Dennis Aarts, Ulsect delivers a flurry of colossal riffs and tempos that are accentuated with rapturous transitions that wallow in dissonance. The guitars and drums often compete for who can establish the heavier sound but this unison ultimately creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The vocals also contribute to this mix by creating a surprisingly dynamic range for an all harsh-vocal performance. The more growlish-type vocals accompany the denser distortion while emphatic screams tend to coincide with the composition's higher notes. While every element of the band's repertoire trades off with the others in having its time in the sun, the album overall remains unapologetically heavy. Even in its asynchronous, more restrained build-ups, it's always building upon itself and embellishing its own intensity. Sometimes you just need something that cuts through the shit and goes right for the jugular. Ulsect's debut does exactly this tenfold.

Favorite Tracks: "Fall to Depravity," "Unveil"

10. Junius - Eternal Rituals for the Accretion of Light
 Junius is band that's stuck in a very unique in-between. On the surface, it's hard not to simply pin them as a hard rock band that belongs cutting tracks for mainstream radio but there's something deeper to their sound. A serene melancholy permeates the band's music, giving it an emotional weight that's been embraced by the metal community. Eternal Rituals for the Accretion of Light sees the band embarking on their heaviest endeavor yet, taking this emotional weight to the next level. While clean vocal melodies hang and linger throughout, the guitars and drums create impenetrable walls of sound that accentuate these melodies in grand fashion. Synths are also harnessed to bring the full power of the music to fruition. I wouldn't call Junius' sound technical, but the ease with which the band's elements mesh together, creating an experience so expansive, is a sign of calculated and well-crafted tracks. Its somber undertones can be slightly haunting, but Eternal Rituals can kick the heaviness into gear in a heartbeat.

Favorite Tracks: "The Queen's Constellation," "Heresy of the Free Spirit"

9. Immolation - Atonement
 When it comes to old-school death metal, I worship at the altar of Death's discography, but in terms of the rest of the genre's mainstays I would consider myself "slightly familiar" at best, with Immolation being a prime example. On Atonement, the band's tenth full length album, the error of my ways has been made painfully clear. As death metal should be, it's relentless and unforgiving. Track after track becomes a carousel of riff after riff. The oppressive heaviness of each drum beat, each vocal gnarl, and each guitar note is all encompassing. The album's onslaught of aggression is so consistent that it quickly becomes intoxicating. Pinch harmonics become a key component of the guitar work, often adding an extra flare to the attitude of the riff at hand. The deep vocals of Ross Dolan also play an interesting role. In a constant back and forth with each other, the vocals and guitar tones are in constant competition with each other over who can go deeper. For those (myself included) not as familiar with one of death metals torchbearers, Atonement will indeed be your reckoning.

Favorite Tracks: "Lower," "Above All"

8. Aosoth - V: The Inside Scriptures
 The Inside Scriptures is supposedly the last outing for French blackened death metal project Aosoth but man what a way to go out on a high note. Pummeling tremolo riffage, inexorable drumwork, and screaming vocals that come from the deepest depths of your throat all combine to create a musical fervor that is dizzying. Despite their constant onslaught, each component is transparent to you as a listener. Nothing gets lost in the shuffle, but the sheer power with which these elements are executed can be daunting. Bringing to mind last year's release from Gevurah, Aosoth's guitar melodies on The Inside Scriptures are simple but massive and are always using slight variations to slowly escalate its grandeur. The drums follow a similar pattern, switching up between steadfast rhythms with effective symbol crashes and blazing fast double bass beats. The Inside Scriptures is truly a swirling muck of guitar distortion, but one that's enticing and oddly melodic. Its unabashed pursuit of perpetual heaviness is exhilarating.

Favorite Tracks: "A Heart to Judge," "The Inside Scriptures"

7. Cloak - To Venomous Depths
 In case you were wondering, black 'n' roll ain't goin' nowhere. Although entertaining in a live setting, bands in this vein, such as Tribulation, never fully clicked with me. It's taken the full length debut from Atlanta's Cloak for me to see the light (or the darkness, if you please). From To Venomous Depths' opening moments, anthemic guitar riffs establish themselves as the lifeblood of each track. It's immediately clear from these riffs that Cloak is not a black metal band that's trying to remain as obscure as possible. Rather, they're here to bring their jams to the masses, packing as large of venues as they can muster. As much as the term "mainstream black metal" seems like an oxymoron, Cloak makes clear that is has plenty to offer. Beneath the main guitar melodies, the album's foundation is formed by constant, immovable rhythms mixing with raspy vocal attacks. These elements together result in tons of climatic buildups and memorable progressions that will linger in your head long after you listen to them. Creating a sound that's wildly accessible but equally threatening and dark is no easy feat, but To Venomous Depths proves to have this winning formula.

Favorite Tracks: "The Hunger," "Forever Burned"

6. Somnium Nox - Terra Inanis
 Atmospheric black metal has been around long enough that the genre has a pretty well defined stylistic structure. Yet, bands continually find ways to stand out from the pack while operating within this system. The standout from this year is Australia's Somnium Nox and their debut, Terra Inanis. Beginning with echoing acoustic guitar, the album seduces you into a sublime melody; one that's perfect for your autumnal and/or winter playlist. Where Somnium Nox hits their stride, though, is in the transitions from soft to harsh and vice versa. Both ominous and enthralling, the themes throughout the album steadily build themselves up until they burst into these explosions of intensity. With the guitars, drums, and screams all working in unison to create an all-out assault, these moments juxtapose the softer buildups beautifully. The guitars resound a few choice notes back and forth with the drums cascading around them, using repetition to drive home the ambiance. The vocals, meanwhile, wail away with a pronounced squeal that is concurrently uncompromising and powerful. Even didgeridoos are used to establish this unique soundscape. A product of seamlessly-woven compositions, Terra Inanis is an album that will have you bobbing your head as much as it will have you mesmerized.

Favorite Tracks: "Soliloquy of Lament"

5. The Minerva Conduct - The Minerva Conduct
 I suppose stranger things have happened, but hearing of progressive instrumental metal coming out of southeastern Asia is an oddity. Hailing from the brutal death metal scene of Mumbai, The Minerva Conduct is a coming-together of members from various acts such as Gutslit, Reptilian Death, and Demonic Ressurection. The outfits self-titled debut is nothing short of extraordinary. With the aid of Navene Koperweis (ex - Animals as Leaders), the album covers territory that is familiar yet also refreshing. The overall tone does instinctively bring djent to mind, but rest assured that no rhythm or riff overstays its welcome (something djent should take a cue from). Each section evolves fluidly and never bores. With breakdowns, vivacious riffs, softer ambient passages, and electronic-laden backdrops, The Minerva Conduct creates a mixing pot filled with many elements but utilizes them all in a balanced and shrewd manner. It's bright, full of energy and groove, and chock-full of melodies that will keep you coming back for more.

Favorite Tracks: "Vile," "Metanoia"

4. Tchornobog - Tchornobog
 The one-man project of Markov Soroka, Tchornobog crafts a hellish soundscape for the listener, one that constantly evolves and dives deeper into madness. With four tracks running the distance of just over an hour, this is an album that's best enjoyed as a whole. Each track has a unique structure unto itself but also fits the bigger picture of the album too. Tchornobog primarily knows two gears. The album either hits like a ton of bricks or is building tension. The opening of the album starts out of the gate with the former, but the music soon reveals itself to be much more layered and complex than your standard pummeling death metal. High guitar notes are often sustained to ring in the background, creating an ever-present peril that feels like it's just around the bend. Every pounding of the drums echos without end, further defining the vastness of the album's infernal expanse. The deep guttural vocals also share this type of reverb but emanate more that they're emerging from the abyssal depths. Sections of saxophone are even implemented in order to establish that nothing is off limits. It comes across as a more experimental version of a band like Gorguts, but Tchornobog has carved out its own niche. With great structure, relentless heaviness, and nightmarish interludes, Tchornobog is a "full-album experience" in every sense of the term.

Favorite Tracks: "The Vomiting Tchornobog," "Hallucinatory Black Breath of Possession"

3. Pallbearer - Heartless
 It seems like Pallbearer forever has a spot locked in on my year-end list. Ever since their stellar 2012 debut of Sorrow and Extinction, each release has been a unique listen while staying true to their brand of doom. Heartless is no exception. This new album sees the band taking their stylings to their next logical step. The guitars remain heavy and down-driven, except this time around they mix in riffs and faster (comparitively) tempos that not only make the compositions more dynamic but also establishes an uplifting undercurrent not as fully embraced on previous efforts. Guitar feedback is even harnessed to accentuate the transitions in intensity from softer sections to heavier ones. Brett Campbell's vocals also expand to new territories, particularly unexpected high ranges that allow even more melodic hooks to come to the forefront. The heavenly sustain on the guitar tones on "Lie of Survival" will continue to ring in your head long after your first listen of it, the opening riff of "Thorns" hits fast and hard, creating a lot of power, and the softer passage in the title track with the vocals lingering like whispers will give you chills. Heartless goes through plenty of peaks and valleys, but Pallbearer manages to keep them even-keeled and thus gives us another album of material that won't be leaving your daily playlist anytime soon.

Favorite Tracks: "I Saw the End," "Heartless"

2. Der Weg Einer Freiheit - Finisterre
 Black metal can be punishing, catchy, grandiose, and even moving, but rarely is it all these things simultaneously. Germany's Der Weg Einer Freiheit proves with their fourth full length album, Finisterre, that this is not only attainable but also yields amazing results. The album ultimately succeeds by thematically aligning both lyrically and sonically. Brooding over loss and mortality, the lyrics and music work together to craft an intense baring of ones soul that's so raw and deliberate that it strikes a serious chord. With throaty vocals and speedy tremolo picking on the guitars backed by a constant flurry of double bass on the drums, the album's black metal elements are fairly standard fare. However, there's something about the mix of the album that makes everything sound strikingly audible, especially in the case of the drums. This clarity ends up making everything sound louder and thus more intense. Finisterre knows how to slow things down though too. Each movement paces itself with spurts of black metal fury into slower sections of guitar chords deftly reverberating throughout. Both of these elements play off of each other and continually build anticipation either through melody or volume. Finisterre represents the best of what 2017 had to offer in terms of black metal and is an emotional powerhouse of an album.

Favorite Tracks : "Ein Letzter Tanz," "Finisterre"

1. Dreadnought - A Wake in Sacred Waves
 The third album from Denver's Dreadnought will be the one that puts the exclamation point on them being a force in the progressive metal genre. When too many bands start sounding alike, you know the spirit of the term "progressive" has lost its way. A Wake in Sacred Waves breathes new life back into the genre by establishing a sound that is unlike anything I've ever heard. Granted, it uses many familiar elements but the overall result is nothing short of stunning. The album boasts four long-form tracks that allow a myriad of elements to saturate the tone. The more aggressive aspects of the music feature female black metal shrieks and grungier, almost doom-metal type guitar tones cascading around one another. On the other end of the spectrum, mellower progressions bridge these harder hitting sections together through the use of melodic vocal intonations, saxophones, and gradually climbing piano scales. On paper, it's an odd mix, but this dichotomy establishes a symbiotic nature between these two extremes that ultimately makes the album, as a whole, stronger. Dreadnought has ambiance, heaviness, and experimentation all wrapped into one captivating package with A Wake in Sacred Waves. It's a tremendous forward-thinking album that I can't recommend enough, which is which is why it takes my #1 spot for 2017.

Favorite Tracks: "To Luminous Scale," "A Drifting Reign"

- Mick

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