Yep, I survived into 2020. Yep, I still listen to ear-splitting heavy metal. Long time no see; let’s get on with the show. I’m kicking around the idea of doing a decade top 20 after this, but if I don’t get to it, see you all next January. 😉
20. Russian Circles – Blood Year
Sample track: Kohokia
Nothing new here; Russian Circles are doing what they’ve been doing for years. You can expect a long slow grind through a classic post-metal soundscape that occasionally latches onto a memorable melody but more often than not just sets a mood. Nothing I’ll remember a year from now, but it earned a dozen spins and that’s enough for an honorable mention.
19. Krallice – Wolf
progressive death/black metal
Sample track: Time Rendered Omni
Krallice have nailed more 10+ minute masterpieces than anyone else I can think of, but this 15 minute 5-track EP was surprisingly hard to process. There’s no coherent flow to speak of. It meanders along through a bunch of brief loops tethered together with barely coherent noodling. I enjoyed the chaos of it all quite a bit, and I’m curious what it could entail for the next full-length album. It’s just a bit too short to rise to the top of my charts.
18. Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen
Sample track: Nebeleste
Blut Aus Nord have a huge spectrum of sounds, and one of the great things about a new release is you can never be sure of what you’re getting until you’ve heard it out. Hallucinogen is neither as boldly experimental as the 777 trilogy nor as pleasantly atmospheric as Saturnian Poetry, and the band seems to have reserved their more experimental tendencies for a later entry in my list. Hallucinogen is very much an even-keel easy listening experience, and I think its greatest mark of distinction in their discography is an appeal to rock and roll. A lot of these songs have some pretty groovy licks and bump along moments that I never saw coming. The post-rock influence is heavy here too. Eh, it didn’t have very much time to grow on me yet, and the tunes aren’t as immediately catchy as they appear to try to be, but I’m sold. It’s a solid effort.
17. Boris – LφVE & EVΦL
Sample track: EVΦL
This album was a weird experience for a Boris fan. They went close to two decades releasing multiple substantial works every year and then just kind of fell off the map after Dear in 2017. Two years isn’t a terribly long wait for most bands, but it felt like an eternity given their precedent. Boris isn’t a band you’re supposed to go into with expectations. They can release a rock album and ambient drone side by side like it’s normal. You just know if the release of the moment doesn’t do much for you there’ll be something new to chew on in a few months. But the time built hype and expectations anyway. I was expecting something broad-ranging like Noise or Smile. They delivered Dear 2.0. The post-rock ballad EVΦL is an outstanding tune, and at 16 minutes it takes up a substantial chunk of the album, but it’s not enough to compel me to shamelessly hype this into my top 10. Not this go around. I listened to the album a hell of a lot and enjoyed its aesthetic as a background piece. They’re definitely still doing great things. I just couldn’t get into it enough for the probably excessively high ranking I’ve given them so many times in the past.
On that note, they just released a new album a week ago, vinyl only and limited to 800 copies. The lone sample on youtube is an extremely promising pop tune and I’m kind of irritated that they aren’t putting this up on Bandcamp for easy purchase, but I’m going to hunt down a copy sooner or later. They might earn a top spot in 2019 for me yet, just not in time for a year-end list.
16. Dead to a Dying World – Elegy
Sample track: Empty Hands, Hollow Hymn
Outside of the band’s kind of awkward name, this is a solid effort. They tackle the marriage of black metal and post-rock about as directly as it gets, and by 2019 I can’t say it brings anything new to the table. Still, the melancholy strings persistent throughout give it a lush and longing feel that strikes a mood relatively few bands are indulging in these days, and I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. Maybe it makes me want to dust off some old Panopticon or Waldgeflüster more than it directly captivates me, but I enjoyed it.
15. Misþyrming – Algleymi
Sample track: Með svipur á lofti
This should probably be a lot higher than I’m actually placing it. I loved Söngvar elds og óreiðu and would have ranked it really high in 2015 if I’d discovered it in time. I came in to Algleymi expecting the same instant appeal and had to work for it a bit more. Their sound isn’t a novelty to me anymore. I have to actually pay attention to the songs to grasp their originality. When I do focus, they consistently deliver. They push such a big bold sound and still keep it catchy. But black metal is a meaty genre that baits passive listening, and I never gave this the full undistracted 46 minutes it deserves. I anticipate continuing to spin this a fair bit into 2020 and reaping the reward.
14. Nuvolascura – Nuvolascura
Sample track: Death as a Crown
Maybe I just haven’t been looking, but it feels like ages since I’ve heard a really compelling screamo album. That label definitely feels closest to home here, at any rate. I don’t know that I’d pigeon them down to one genre. The album has a lot of math rock appeal, loaded with guitar and drum noodling that feels a cut above what your typical carve open my chest and lay it all out emo assault can offer. There’s a technical appeal here that sacrifices nothing on the execution end so central to the genre.
13. Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling
Sample track: Warmth Trance Reversal
I love what these guys do, I loved seeing them live last year, and I think Rare Field Ceiling captures all of that without hedging much from their established comfort zone. They chill out in a sphere that’s rooted enough in classic bm to satisfy purist inclinations while still harnessing the inspiration of a genre that’s been defined of late by progression. Vibrant and memorable driving melodies have become their selling point now more than ever, I think. It’s an easy listen with great replay value despite its density.
12. Yerûšelem – The Sublime
Sample track: Triiiunity
It’s not particularly clear to me why this album was not released as a Blut Aus Nord title, because it’s literally just Blut Aus Nord and sounds unmistakably like them despite being their deepest indulgence into the industrial side of their sound. It’s 36 minutes of heavy, demented grooves that will grip your attention whether you really want them to or not. Blut Aus Nord have been playing with this sound off and on for a while now, and I think this is the farthest they’ve pushed it. Not an easy listen, but an intriguing one.
11. Tool – Fear Inoculum
Sample track: Fear Inoculum
For a few weeks after this launched, I thought it might win my album of the year. The title track is goddamn beautiful and sets a stage that appears to promise 80 minutes of broody, subtle, trance-like bliss. Subtle is probably the biggest key word going into this. Tool are masters of it, and through Fear Inoculum and Pneuma every note is delivered with a precision of dynamics that summons tremendous intensity into its slow, calmly-delivered shell. Somewhere in Invincible I start to lose touch. There aren’t as many sustained bass tones to carry it. Maynard’s lyrics are more prominent and direct. I start to remember that I’m listening to a band. The aptly named Descending is a great mid-point track with a transitional feel about it, shipping a darker vibe than the opening tunes and capitalizing on minimalism to bring about a petty groovy solo in the end that lets Tool indulge their rock sensibilities without breaking stride from the ambient vibes. Unfortunately it leads into Culling Voices, which feels pretty dull and uninspired to me, amplifying the disconnect I began to feel on Invincible. Mesmerizing celestial frequencies give way to noticeable structure and noticeable effort, culminating with the tryhard experimental Chocolate Chip Trip which, for all its oddball uniqueness in a vacuum, jarringly displaces the album from the easy-engagement feel-good vibes of its first 22 minutes. The closing track 7empest regains a lot of ground for me, but I ultimately walk away with the sense of a band trying too hard to still identify with some semblance of a rock sound that their talents left behind somewhere in the midst of Ænima.
This album really shouldn’t be 80 minutes long, and I’m saying that as a guy whose favorite song is 70-something. It’s unfortunate, because the first 22 are absolutely incredible and the remainder is peppered with outstanding moments. The collective is really hard to place on a list for me. I haven’t even made it to the end half of the times I’ve queued it up, but it contains some of my favorite songs of the year.
10. Kentaro Sato & Budapest Symphony Orchestra – Symphonic Tale: The Rune of Beginning
Sample track: Prologue
I tend to think of Konami as the quintessential example of corporate greed and ineptness crushing talent in the gaming industry. Suikoden brought together a brilliant team of developers and drove them off a cliff, establishing a vast cult following that virtually guaranteed small market profit and then canning it in favor of the trillionth Castlevania spin-off. Suikoden hasn’t seen a franchise title since 2006 and has zero prospects for a new sequel despite the demand. I don’t know how Kentaro Sato even managed to nab the rights to produce this album. But from the outset, Symphonic Tale had zero prospects of gaining the attention to turn a profit. It’s purely a labor of love from Sato and the fans who contributed to funding it, and what a fantastic job he did. Hearing the original Suikoden II soundtrack brought to life with the full orchestral grandeur of a professionally produced modern score has to be my favorite musical highlight of 2019. It’s kind of amazing how Sato not only indulged my nostalgia hard on the finest tunes but also brought forgettable ones into vibrant life. I’m so happy this exists, and I think Sato really poured his heart into it. Fantastic stuff.
9. Cosmin TRG – Hope This Finds You Well
Sample track: Paradigm Shift ASAP
“Ambient noise” isn’t really something that should be capable of competing in a top 10, but I really fell in love with this album and it’s become a bedtime staple for me to just let go and drift away to. It’s loaded with vaporwave aesthetic points. Down-tuned, drawn out celestial synth and machine-like oscillation drift through an urban landscape that’s so fogged over with minimalism that you aren’t even fading out to it. You’re just opening your mind for a barely conscious second and drifting back into the void of sleep.
8. Deathspell Omega – The Furnaces of Palingenesia
progressive black metal
Sample track: The Fires of Frustration
Deathspell’s been regarded as cutting edge for as long as they’ve existed, but this most recent run with Synarchy of Molten Bones and Furnaces of Palingenesia is doing it best for me. The production keeps getting better, and I feel like they’ve reached a peek where they can ship the relentless onslaught of their song-crafting without any of the not necessarily unintended but still distracting bombast of the delivery. The drumming has settled into a complementary role where it used to overpower everything. The thickness of the distortion has leveled out. I think they’ve really mastered how to mix an album that can deliver on their raw mastery, and Fires of Frustration is the consequence.
7. Drudkh – A Few Lines in Archaic Ukrainian
Sample track: Autumn in Sepia
Feels kind of odd, kind of nostalgic to be putting Drudkh in a year end list. It’s not that I thought they took a dive or anything, I just started to lose interest somewhere around A Handful of Stars, now a decade old. It felt like black metal was continuing to forge forward and they were lingering behind in the dust of the movement they’d helped to initiate. They weren’t bringing anything new to the table. And I don’t know, maybe they still aren’t, but when I gave this album the obligatory once over, something just stuck with me. I didn’t just nod my head and go “Yep Drudkh still sound like Drudkh.” It felt… maybe fresh isn’t the word, but more intimately gripping than I’d grown accustomed to. Maybe it was better song writing or maybe it was just me, but something in the melancholy melodies delivered through that classic bm grind got to me in a way they hadn’t since Blood in Our Wells back in 2006. I don’t have much to say about this album content-wise, I just really liked it, and I hope you do too.
6. Mono – Nowhere Now Here
Sample track: Meet Us Where the Night Ends
A good 15 years removed from the height of the post-rock scene, Mono are still producing the exact same sound they helped pioneer it with. Far from sounding stale for it, they just keep on proving why this genre was such a big deal in the first place. Mono have put out a lot of albums that I haven’t honestly paid much attention to since One More Step and You Die first blew me away back in 2003. I was busy sampling the younger bands who copied them, seeking out the next big thing, and eventually the trends of music drifted elsewhere. I can’t say whether Nowhere Now Here is the best thing they’ve released in ages, but damn is it good. They always knew how to rock out. Its the improvements to the slow rolls leading you there that sell this hard for me. The album has this really sweet and calming vibe about it. I walk away feeling like I’ve listened to something soft, pretty, subdued. I’m lulled by its mellow dreamscape into forgetting the ubiquitous post-rock explosions that will always define this band, and they catch me off guard every time. It’s a gift that’s kept on giving all year long, and I think I’m really appreciating Mono more today than I ever have.
5. Mechina – Telesterion
symphonic death metal
Sample track: The Allodynia Lance
Flash back to 2013, Mechina’s Empyrean launched into my #6 slot with a compelling and original sound that merged all the grandeur of an epic, power metal-rooted high fantasy sound with technical death metal in a sci-fi landscape long primed for this approach. It was the long-awaited heir to a vision Fear Factory’s Obsolete had barely scratched the surface on. The production was dubious at best, sometimes downright hard to listen to, with the drums tastelessly blaring over everything. I was just delighted by what they were doing and the raw songcrafting skill they were demonstrating in the process. But with 2014’s Xenon not really distinguishing itself further for me on limited spins, they dropped off my radar until I went to recommend an Empyrean track last month and found the mix just too unbearable to share. I bought their newest release on impulse hoping for progression, and wow, talk about exceeding my expectations. Not only have they left their studio shortcomings far behind, but this album is absolutely loaded with top notch orchestral accompaniments way above the level they were delivering at five years ago. This album has gone heavily unnoticed while establishing itself for me as the scifi equivalent of Equilibrium’s Sagas. In a weaker year with a few more months to spin, it could have easily nabbed a 1st place for me. Check it out.
4. Lingua Ignota – Caligula
dark operatic minimalist something
Sample track: Butcher of the World
Pretty hard to slap a label on Kristin Hayter’s sound. It’s a morbid, classical-infused dirge of minimalist noise that shows more than a hint of appreciation for the darker recesses of metal. Kristin airs the chip on her shoulder with a dramatic passion, gunning down a very human target with apocalyptic declarations of merciless vengeance. The lyrics are relentlessly brutal. The compositions masterfully exploit silence to build tension. Kristin’s professionally-trained vocals hard sell the image of a broken, hateful spirit in a way most singers don’t have the talent to pull off even if they possessed the vision. It’s an innovative, original work of art that can pretty well speak for itself. I doubt this will be an easy listen for anyone not accustomed to bouts of heavy distortion and screaming, but if you appreciate music as an artform, you really owe it a spin.
3. Obsequiae – The Palms of Sorrowed Kings
atmospheric folk metal
Sample track: Morrígan
This was definitely my most hyped album of the year. I’d heard Tanner had something in the works and kept poking my nose around all year to pre-order it. They’re my 11th most-played band of all time by the numbers, and I didn’t even know they existed until Aria of Vernal Tombs blew me away in 2015. That album and Suspended in the Brume of Eos have had hundreds of plays to grow on me and still don’t feel old, so it was probably wishful thinking to expect The Palms of Sorrowed Kings to rise to their pedestal in the roughly one month I’ve had to indulge in it. Third place for now and destined to grow. I’ve taken to describing this sound as the spirit of Summoning infused into a vastly refined spin on Opeth’s Orchid. If that means nothing to you, maybe think of it as one of those nature-inspired spiritual Celtic folk recordings occasionally misplaced into a “new age/easy listening” bin, except granted all the breadth and life that modern metal tones can offer. Tanner Anderson landed on one of the most beautiful sounds to ever grace my ears and has ridden it to perfection for three albums. Can’t wait to finally see them live this August. Perhaps I’m robbing the album inevitably destined to outlast anything else released this year on my playlists, but there were two other 2019 releases that just gripped me more in the moment.
2. Liturgy – H.A.Q.Q.
Sample track: HAJJ
Another year, another opportunity to rob the obvious best option for the #1 slot. This album solidifies Liturgy’s throne as the most innovative band making metal today, and I don’t have the energy to venture a description more specific than that right now. Once again I’m reminded of what Radiohead might sound like in some bizarre alternative universe where tremolo and blast beats are cool. H.A.Q.Q. lacks the gleefully defiant attitude of its profoundly underrated predecessor The Ark Work, and most people will be quite thankful for that. The package is more dense and refined. Hunter is screaming again. There are probably more notes in the first track than in half of The Ark Work combined. H.A.Q.Q. brings Liturgy back to the thick volume of a fundamentally black metal album, and you’re too busy trying to keep up to stop, breathe, and try to parse what the hell is happening. Somehow I think this makes it more accessible. The Ark Work still stands as my favorite Liturgy album, and a top 10 all time contender in general, but it will be well into next year before I’ve fully digested this late release. It blew me away on first listen, and 30 spins in I still feel like there’s a vast world of imaginative experimentation to discover.
1. Horsehunter – Horsehunter
Sample track: Nuclear Rapture
“Liars! Set your face on fire!” At least I think that’s what he’s screaming at the start of this album, and it’s metal as fuck so let’s roll with it. Horsehunter is the most uncompromisingly metal album I have heard in ages, and ten months removed from its release I am still maxing out my car speakers to this one every chance I get to drive somewhere without kids in the back. The bass tones are offensively thick but still feel completely raw. The solos catch a filthy, captivating groove executed with a blues aesthetic that holds up to the greatest legends of heavy metal. Every time Michael Harutyunyan opens his mouth he’s shouting something so over-the-top ridiculous that I just want to wind down my window and flash devil horns at random strangers on the street corner while banging my head into my dashboard. I never thought when I heard this back in March that it would hold up to my first impression, but here we are. This is the definition of turning it up to 11, and it will likely be years before I hear anything this goddamn metal again. It had to trump a lot of top-tier frontier-paving releases to reach the #1 spot, but as we are pleasantly reminded in the closing line of the grand finale, SUFFOCATE! THE PLAGUE WILL WIN!
Previous years on Shattered Lens: