I don’t think a New Years rolls by that I don’t say something amounting to “odd-numbered years produce better music”. The trend inexplicably holds true once again. I actually listened to a good bit of new music this year–far more than I did last year at least–but when it came time to recap, my options felt… a bit lacking. The best of the best are still grand indeed, but the quality drifts away rapidly if I dig beyond a top 10. I’m pretty happy with the list I ended up with though, and I hope you’ll find something new and inspiring in the tracks I’ve sampled below:
10. Agalloch – The Serpent & the Sphere (track: The Astral Dialogue)
Marrow of the Spirit was a pretty bold divorce from everything we’ve come to expect out of Agalloch over the years, for better or worse. On The Serpent & the Sphere, the band make a return to a more direct evolution of their regular sound. The album offers a nice mix of vintage Agalloch and further dabblings into the post-rock/metal sphere. It didn’t grab me by the balls and thrash me upside the head like say, Pale Folklore or Ashes Against the Grain, but it’s definitely a solid entry in the band’s formidable discography.
9. Cormorant – Earth Diver (track: Daughter of Void)
I was a bit more critical than complementary of Earth Diver when I reviewed it a few months ago, but that mostly boiled down to the feeling that it could have done with better production. Honestly, if I don’t own the cd proper I have no business speaking of such things, because for all I know my copy is just a bit lossy. The raw songwriting on this album is stellar, and I hope to hear more out of this band in years to come.
8. Bast – Spectres (track: Outside the Circles of Time)
I am not sure where Spectres would have placed on my year-end list had I had a bit more time to listen to it, but it could only have moved up from here. I’ve only had about two weeks to check this out and make a call, but I was dead convinced that it belonged somewhere in my top 10. The freshman album by this dirty doom trio does it all, and better than your band. With ease they develop a post-rock build-up into a bassy doom dirge, bust into a stoner metal rockout, and then fuse it into some pretty sinister black metal sounds. When black metal leaks its way into headbanging rock, really awesome things happen. Case in point: “Outside the Circles of Time”.
7. Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry (track: Clarissima Mundi Lumina)
A bit more down to whatever planet these guys hail from than the 777 trilogy, Saturnian Poetry is still a bizarre journey into another dimension that only Blut Aus Nord can seem to access. Its constant whirlwind of motion blasts us into a haze of celestial chaos, wherein the band’s synth chords and clean vocals command us to stare in awe and reverence. Few black metal bands on the market can claim to have forged as unique a sound within the genre as Blut Aus Nord, and they’re still breaking my brain in 2014.
6. Saor – Aura (track: The Awakening)
I tend to think of Aura as a straight-forward album that serves its purpose beautifully. Top-notch woodwinds and string paint a majestic Scottish landscape where the old gods still tread in all their glory, at one with the earth and its people. Without ever really breaching any new territory beyond the tried and true boundaries of pagan metal, Andy Marshall has managed to craft what is probably the most grand Gaelic/Celtic variant of the genre I have ever heard.
5. Boris – Noise (track: Melody)
I fucking love Boris. You know that. They could literally shit on an LP and I’d claim it shear brilliance. But thankfully, they keep pumping out one masterpiece after another instead. Noise is so layered in the band’s two decades of perpetual evolution that I don’t think you could begin to grasp what the hell is going on here if you didn’t already know half their discography by heart. It’s a little bit of everything they’ve done before all crammed together in yet another novel new way. No other band in existence sounds anything like this, and at the same time few bands have borrowed more liberally and diversely from other musical scenes than the bastion of badass that is Boris. Boris Boris. Boris! God damn, this is awesome.
4. Woods of Desolation – As the Stars (track: Unfold)
As the Stars is 2014’s Aesthethica, albeit of more modest proportions. If the obscure Welshman known simply as “D.” could append to his public image anything approaching the epic douchiness of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, it might even be popular. (Ok, I’m one of the few people who’ve actually read Hunter’s writings and think he makes some valid points, but whatever.) This album is a bloody mess in the least figurative of ways, and it’s exactly the sort of raw sincerity that I love about post-black metal. In a new scene that divorces black metal’s brink-of-the-abyss soundscape from its machismo closet-bound harbingers, the bands that play with their hearts on their sleeves tend to touch closest to home. As the Stars offers neither the epic intensity of Liturgy nor the refined sound quality of Deafheaven, and the metal world is sure to forget it in time, but my brief love affair with Woods of Desolation will be remembered fondly. Its humble reach is part of what makes it endearing.
3. Harakiri for the Sky – Aokigihara (track: Jhator)
I hold my top three choices for 2014 in a league far above the rest. Aokigihara is an absolutely enormous bastion of sound that presses the weight of its world on your shoulders from start to finish. And that world is heavy indeed, because it is firmly rooted in reality. Harakiri for the Sky doesn’t play that tried and true metal game of glorifying violence. It shoves some real modern nightmares in your face and says “this is really, really terrible, and there’s nothing we can honestly do about it.” I can see this album attracting a “DSBM” label, which is typically shorthand for “wallowing in self pity”, but Aokigihara is the real deal. If it doesn’t leave you feeling a little sick inside, you aren’t paying enough attention.
2. Spectral Lore – III (track: The Cold March Towards Eternal Brightness)
At more than a dozen listens through this album, I am still not sure what to make of it. 87 minutes of music crammed into seven tracks is pretty hard to swallow, and to make matters worse, the first two tracks are its weakest by far. I find it next to impossible to commit myself to a full attentive listen from start to finish, and it’s not an album that offers much on the surface. Yet, I can’t escape the feeling that something really special is going on here. My mind may drift away for three or four minutes at a pop, but I am always drawn back into some beautiful synergy that dances on the brink of euphoria. 2014 might be at an end, but I haven’t finished listening to III by a long shot. I am going to keep plugging away until I’ve got it fully within my grasp, and when I do I think I might regret passing it by for the #1 spot.
1. Panopticon – Roads to the North (track: The Long Road Part 3: The Sigh of Summer)
The first time I heard Roads to the North, I was routing a rather lossy early leak through my Droid into the particularly horrendous sound system of my wife’s Mazda 6. (My 2006ish Nissan Sentra has godlike audio and the car was half the price. What’s up with that?) I definitely did not think on that initial listen that it would end up my favorite album of the year. With a properly purchased copy through my headphones, it’s easy to tell why an album as subtly mixed as this would translate to crap when pushed through crap. I am absolutely captivated by the melding of sounds on this album. It’s simply beautiful, and you couldn’t ask for a more conscientious artist to craft its folk, post-rock, black metal, and melodic death metal melodies than Austin Lunn. The lyrical and thematic content of Kentucky showed him to be one of the most honest musicians in the metal scene. On Roads to the North, he translated the spirit of Kentucky into sound. Kentucky is the album I think about. This is the one I actually listen to, over and over and over again.
Happy New Year!