And here we are. A few more pages of the book before it closes.
Two thousand and seventeen years after we decided to start again at zero it feels like a reset is needed more than ever. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the collective chaos and suppurating hate that seemingly fills the space between the molecules in our media, our politics, and our increasingly hostile behavior toward each other. That poison surrounds but has yet to work its way into my bloodstream. It’s a selfish ask, entirely due to my own weaknesses, insecurities and inability to take the steps needed to be just a little better each day: as a husband, a father, a writer, a musician, but most of all as a human being. It’s been a challenging year, and I have a long road ahead if I want to keep on having challenging years, let alone any years.
More than ever it was music that kept my head above water, allowed a glimmer of land to guide me ashore. Last year I talked about the power of making lists, and how it allowed us to engage, converse together instead of blindly shouting into a data stream that does little but get lost in the wake of other loud voices. That’s needed now more than ever, even if the discourse is about what album did or didn’t make a list and why. Progress starts with a single step; why not metal? Between writing and releasing my first full length album and battling some alarming medical issues I constantly looked back at what I was listening to and why – what I wanted from my music and what I needed it to provide depending on the circumstances. Sometimes it was inspiration, sometimes distraction…more often as the year went on it was reflection and contemplation.
So a small caveat: this is an extremely personal list (though what list isn’t?). I don’t care a whit about being “objective” – I care about what moved me, and why, and the hope is if I can impart some of that to you, you might find something similar. It might not even be the album I’m talking about, but that doesn’t matter. You’ll react to something, hear something speaking to you…and it doesn’t matter whether it’s popular or trending with the forecasters and the tastemakers – all they’re ever talking to is themselves.
I hope you find something here you like. And even if you don’t, I hope you understand why I did. Let’s dig in…
The Inner Circle
My Top 25 Albums of 2017, Part I: Albums 25-11
25. Kohti Tohua – Pelon Neljäs Valtakunta: Fusing together a speed metal/punk hybrid that recalls Melt Banana with a sneering political punk edge, Kohti Tohua brought the end of the year down hard with the buzzsaw cut of Pelon Neljäs Valtakunta. There’s a frantic pulse to every note thanks to the pitch-perfect voice of Helena and the guitar tone of the year courtesy of Ville. In 2017 who’da thunk the protest album of the year would come from Finland? Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
24. DVNE – Asheran: Progressive rock/metal took many forms in 2017, but DVNE’s blend of prog and stoner rock stuck with me through many hours of walking, reading, working, and just mentally trying to find a safe place. It did for me what I wanted the new Elder to do, but wasn’t up to the task. “Viridian Bloom” takes some of the best space-prog sequences from Mastodon’s Crack the Skye and crafts a whole song out of it. Solos weave in and out of each tapestry and the drumming fills the universe, taking your brain for a twisted and groovy ride. By the time you get to the myriad movements of closer “Scion” you’ve been to another plane, one I was only too happy to return to time and time again this year. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
23. Venenum – Trance of Death: Old school European death metal with enough twists and turns to twist your head clean off. Venenum reach into a dusty and ancient bag, pulling out shades of psychedelia and and an almost prog-like mentality to their crusty death metal, and on tracks like “Merging Nebular Drapes” and the three-movement title track it can’t help but insinuate itself into your brain. Venenum know how to take a formula and shift it in unexpected directions, and Trance of Death is the rare slab of death where new intricacies reveal themselves with each listen. Our own Zyklonius had it on his mid-year report you can read here. (no streaming options available)
22. Ex Eye – Ex Eye: 2017 was a search for things that moved me and reminded me of the music of my youth. Ex Eye’s debut album may not sound like any of the albums I grew up with, but the sense of exploration and experimentation thanks to the partnership between Liturgy’s Greg Fox and avant-garde composer/saxophone player Colin Stetson brought back the feelings of discovering bands like Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Whether it’s the vamping bass pulse of “Xenolith; The Anvil” or the more unfettered attack of “Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil” every moment of Ex Eye is ripe with discovery. Is it metal? Does it matter? Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
21. Mastodon – Emperor of Sand: Part of my love for Emperor of Sand is just how much of a bounce back it is after the lackluster Once More ‘Round the Sun; but it moves beyond just relief Mastodon still had some prog in them. Songs like “Sultan’s Curse” and the ridiculously catchy “Show Yourself” feel like the album might be a bit front-ended, but the back half is pure gold: just check out “Jaguar God” which hearkens back to some of the ideas on Crack the Skye. Pure brutality and aggression have been put aside for something more personal and expressive, and Mastodon play like they don’t give a shit if you care. I’ll take that every time. Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
20. Sannhet – So Numb: At what point do we admit to ourselves something has affected us more than we realized? When it came to So Numb, the latest from Brooklyn’s Sannhet, it was the almost droning tremolo lines in “Sapphire,” dripping with reverb and bouyed by pulsing bass and driving drum that spoke of being anything but being numb to me. The track ends with the sound of birds outside before diving into the title track, and the sonorous melodies capture the tonal palate of bands like The Cure at their best. Even as Sannhet remain on the outskirts of post-metal and a kind of blackgaze So Numb constantly threatens to escape in the best possible way. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
19. Unleash the Archers – Apex: Recently I had a great conversation about power metal and the fact people who like it still couch the genre in terms of “cheese” but be honest: how much different is it singing about dragons and epic fantasy than singing about robot wars or Lovercraftian beasts? The point is, kickass music is kickass music, and Unleash the Archers kick a whole lot of ass on Apex. Brittney Slays makes the most of a classically trained voice to soar and grind to earth the songs as needed, and the dual guitar work of Grant Truesdell and Andrew Kingsley is stellar, trading solos and harmonizing like beasts. Whether it’s a ballad, a blues-drenched rocker or straight up aggression Unleash the Archers pack it like few others on Apex. Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
18. Mord’A’Stigmata – Hope: Hope is the sound of no hope. Mord’A’Stigmata have taken black metal and thoroughly injected it with death doom and its hold on me these last few months has been deepening. The percussion in particular is a wonder, working with space and air to snap and hiss and pound the earth in such a way the mournful melodies are locked. There’s a hint of Katatonia, My Dying Bride, and more modern bands like Daylight Dies but this is still unmistakably black metal, each long song slowly building with repetition to a crescendo that breaks into nothing again, having to rebuild. It’s one of my preferred albums for walking at night, something I’ve been doing a lot these last few months. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
17. Sun of the Sleepless – To The Elements: I don’t think black metal will ever not be dear to my heart, but this year found me moving further away from the raw blizzard of the second wave seeking more atmospheric pastures. Sun of the Sleepless is the work of Ulf Theodor from The Vision Bleak, and he brings that band’s melancholic vibe to the fore on To The Elements. Keyboards drift in and out between tremolo riffs and cavernous drums on “Motions” as Theodor’s rasp signals the dying of beauty and embrace of frost. Having an album indebted to the early progenitors without being overly slavish in execution sets both Sun of the Sleepless and To The Elements apart from a growing crop of carbon copies. Read our coveragehere. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
16. Cellos – The Great Leap Backward: Noise rock has been a genre that eluded me for years, so 2017 marked a concerted effort to dive in and try to get my head around it. Cellos was one of the first to really hit me with their third album The Great Leap Backward. Every track finds the beauty in ugly sounds, and the emphasis on the rock in tracks like “Ghosts in the Sky” and “Bury Me on Highway 3” brilliantly juxtapose against the more morose and penetrating tracks, like the outstanding “Out of Phase” which feels like early Trent Reznor without thousands of dollars of equipment. Every song pulls me in a wash of conflicting feelings, leaving me exhausted. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
15. Leprous – Malina: I knew there was no way I was going to get a bad album from the group who serves as Ihsahn’s backing back, but Leprous’s fifth full length Malina was a startling album of dynamics and inventiveness. Moving closer to electronics and proggy ambiance as the central focus there’s nonetheless a power and heaviness in the way the music anchors the vocals of Einar Solberg, who at times seems like he’s struggling to escape the confines of gravity. This the kind of album I turn to when I need to sing loud, outside my range, and feel my own limitations, hear someone else overcome them, and have the resolve to try the same. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
14. Satyricon – Deep calleth upon Deep: If we bring our own experiences to the music we hear, we are also subject to the experiences of the people making said music. In the instance of Satyricon, I brought the eagerness of devouring another record by one of the bands that got me into black metal in the first place, and found there a cathartic record of pain and anger and focused rage, a huge return to form from Satyr after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Deep calleth upon Deep feels like the culmination of what the band was attempting with Now, Diabolical and The Age of Nero, mixed with the experimentation of the 2013 self titled album and a firm appreciation for past masters like Nemesis Divina and even Dark Medieval Times. Read out review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
13. Falls of Rauros – Vigilance Perennial: There are some bands that aren’t afraid to put a little space, some quieter passages into their brutality. And then there’s Falls of Rauros, who on Vigilance Perennial revel in it. Each album since the debut Hail Wind and Hewn Oak has felt like a refinement of the folk/black metal that bands like Wolves in the Throne Room and Agalloch have perfected. Here, in tracks like “Arrow & Kiln” the band subtly shifts to encompass a wide view, including classic rock and it feels like the final puzzle piece fallen into place. You can read our review here as well as an interview with founder Aaron Charles here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
12. Farsot – FAIL·LURE: The allure of failure? No failure here from Farsot, the mysterious German black metal collective who follow up 2011’s excellent Insects with a more adventurous, genre-tipping experiment in FAIL·LURE. This was one of the first 2017 black metal releases to really sink its hooks into me, the dynamics between the more traditional black metal elements and the clean, chanted vocals on “Vitriolic” laying a course to uncharted territory. Lyrically I have no idea whats going on: apparently a portion of the album takes the Peter Greenaway film Drowning By Numbers but in this instance it’s the shift and shape of the music rather than any cryptic lyrical concepts that kept me returning to the album. Strangely meditative, complex, and technical without being distracting was my balm in 2017. Read our coverage here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
11. Ragana – You Take Nothing: No album better embodied the fury and indignation of 2017 to me than You Take Nothing, from Olympia, Washington’s black/doom duo Ragana. From the sparse, killer opening of “Spare No Man” to the almost Pixies-ish intro of “To Leave” that transforms into a blistering blackgaze assault in its second half, few albums brought the sense of rage You Take Nothing did. There’s a haunted quality to each track, magnified by the simple arrangement of drums, guitar and voice: you feel the air chilling and dead with each ring of a cymbal hit. For something so spare in arrangement it’s incredible how in sync Nicole and Maria – who apparently trade off on instruments as needed – are. This is one of the most vital albums of the year, and a must-listen. (no streaming options available)
The Ninth Circle
My Top 25 Albums of 2017, Part II: Albums 10-1
10. Circle – Terminal: 2017 was the year I discovered the eclectic insanity of Circle. Terminal wears so many influences on its sleeve you’d think it was a barely threaded patchwork but the magic of Terminal is how the threads never show. Moving from stoner to prog to straight up classic punk – the title tracks riffs so heavily on The Stooges there oughta be a law – except it’s wonderful and crazy and moves and breathes with a spirit few albums were able to maintain over the course of an entire album. The fact my colleague Zyklonius has this on his list too should only add to the necessity of checking out what Circle has to offer. Rock has never sounded so alive by digging into the past. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
9. Pallbearer – Heartless: “I Saw The End” is my favorite Pallbearer song. period. It takes all the lessons learned on the first two albums and distills it into a compact, tight as hell powerhouse of a song. The way the harmonies work on the last verse, lines weaving over each other to rise and lead into the solo – everything in that moment blends to a perfect storm of music. By stretching their wings and moving further away from the heavier doom elements that pinned their debut Sorrow and Extinction Pallbearer continue to find a personal space that holds a deep resonance for me. The way “A Plea for Understanding” uses the first four minutes to meander and find its way to one of Brett Campbell’s most fragile and affecting vocal takes strikes as the song explores avenue after avenue of empty rooms and words to express connection – it still haunts me after living with the album for months. Can’t ask for much more than that. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
8. Less Art – Strangled Light: I wanted to say I’m still struggling how to classify Less Art’s monstrous debut Strangled Light, but the fact of the matter is I rarely give it any thought. What I do think about – a lot – is the clarity of direction and purity of intent, how you can put across the idea of being “heavy” in music without resorting to obscene amounts of gain. The final seconds of “Diana the Huntress” is as piercing and primal as anything I’ve heard this year, and yet on the next track “Mood 7 Mind Destroyer: Guilt” there’s moment of almost pop infectiousness before diving back into rage. Far from the chaos of noise rock Less Art strike an incredible balance in terms of balancing the music, whether its the angular attack of “Pessimism as Denial” or the quieter, more introspective “Shapeshifter.” Strangled Light is the sound of reaching and finding a handhold in the evil of the world. Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
7. Twilight Fauna – The Year The Stars Fell/Procession of the Equinox: I imagine at some point I’ll stop talking about the work Paul Ravenwood is doing as Twilight Fauna, but based on 2017’s double shot of The Year The Stars Fell and Procession of the Equinox, his split with Evergreen Refuge, I don’t think that time is coming soon. The black metal that’s conjured on these records speaks of the land, the toil and work put into it, the ghosts that stay behind and tie you to a location, and I still marvel at how this specificity translates so well to anyone who has felt the pull of a home miles away. The addition of Josh Thieler (Slaves BC) on drums expands the sonic palette considerably, and the three tracks that comprise Twilight Fauna’s portion of the split with Evergreen Refuge feel like the turning of a page, musically. Ravenwood has never sounded this confident, this assured in the direction and focus of his craft, and he remains an inspiration to me as I find my way to a voice in my own music. Read our coverage here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
6. Lo-Pan – In Tensions EP: “Revise the vows that you’ve made / Yeah, every word that you know / Step heavy, for to live is bittersweet.” By the time Jeff Martin finished the first verse on “Go West,” the lead-off track from Lo-Pan’s excellent In Tensions EP I immediately knew this was going to be a favorite for the year. We can talk about the sludge thunder pop the band wields like a weapon, taking the best of bands like Torche and blending a keen sense of hard rock melody. We can talk about the punch of the guitars on “Sink Or Swim,” or how every hook buries itself deep into my soul, pulling out the childhood memories of singing all my favorite hard rock songs in front a mirror, a tennis racket for a guitar. But in the end it comes down to Jeff Martin’s voice. The emotion and pull and how it works against the grit of the music reminds me of Jonah Jenkins’ work in Only Living Witness, which is some of the highest praise I can give to an album I haven’t stopped listening to since it came out. Read out review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
5. Sorcerer – The Crowning of the Fire King: The march of that riff on “Sirens,” the pick slide right before the drums kick in on “Ship of Doom.” The way every guitar sounds absolutely crushing on The Crowning of the Fire King, Sorcerer’s mammoth “proper” follow-up to 2014’s In the Shadow of the Inverted Cross is reason enough for me to rank the album in the Top 5 for 2017, but then I go back to Anders Engberg’s voice, how it carries every song, guiding it in what seems to be an inevitable ascent to the heavens and I’m transported. When I think of what “heavy metal” is in my head, this is the kind of music that plays. Crushing and melodic, exotic and soaring with range and power. Did I mention the solos yet? Because I should…check out what is happening on “Unbearable Sorrow” – there’s nothing to cry about when those guitars take off (I might have had too much to drink at this point). The title track is a powerhouse of melodic doom, solidifying Sorcerer as the heir apparent to bands like Candlemass and Solitude Aeternus. All hail the new Kings. Read out review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
4. Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper: I wasn’t a particular fan of Bell Witch prior to Mirror Reaper – I don’t know if I am now. I picked the promo because the online social media community was lit with folks bemoaning having to cover an 83-minute, single track album. Admittedly I was too – until I was diagnosed in the beginning of October with not one but two life altering illnesses. The next few weeks were spent in a daze of doctor appointments and walking – a lot. Those walks were filled with Mirror Reaper, and as I walked I listened: to the way Dylan Desmond and Jesse Shreibman worked with tension and long, often trembling melody lines to pay tribute and voice the pain and anguish of losing their friend, original Bell Witch drummer/vocalist Adrien Guerra. The expressiveness of the music, the solemness with which the vocals intone: all applied out as the soundtrack to my life those first few weeks. Time and again I’ve come to realize how music has the capacity to transcend specific circumstance to expose more universal truths about life, about loss, and how we struggle to just continue on, putting one step in front of the other. Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
3. Junius – Eternal Rituals for the Accretion of Light: Somewhere in the nexus of Bauhaus, Joy Division and Dead Can Dance lie Junius and their latest Eternal Rituals for the Accretion of Light. It’s a flashing, hypnotic room of gauze and memory, where Joseph Martinez – working sol after the departure of longtime partner Michael Repasch-Nieves – wrote and recorded everything himself. The result is a sensory imprint of past, present and future where layers come in and out of focus on tracks like “Beyond the Pale Society” and the ethereal, keyboard-driven “The Queen’s Constellation.” Even when Martinez remembers to bring the growled vocals on “Clean the Beast” the ambition and scope of Eternal Rituals for the Accretion of Light ensured the heady and contemplative direction of Martinez’s music will lay couched in a dark corner whenever I need it. Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
2. Biblical – The City That Always Sleeps: If my heart found any musical muse this year, it was Biblical and their incredible second album, The City That Always Sleeps. Expertly taking all of my absolute favorite music and rolling into a cohesive yet eclectic sound that is bracingly modern even as it clearly calls back to early 70s psychedelic and prog rock (early Pink Floyd is a huge but not solitary touchpoint – there are beautiful shades of Yes, Soft Machine, and Zeppelin). The production treads this careful line of being almost overblown, but every keyboard nuance and hiss of a cymbal hits feels like it’s right behind your eyelids. I’ve probably listened to Biblical more than any other 2017 release this year – including my number one pick – because the DNA of “The Last Thing I Remember,” “Spiral Staircase,” and especially “City Fugue,” feel like they’ve been a part of me forever without seeming remotely nostalgic. Sometimes an album just speaks to you, and you’re helpless to listen. In 2017, this was that album. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
1. Converge – The Dusk In Us: And here we are again, Boston’s hardcore crew growing more bold, more experimental and ambitious than ever and it paying out in spades on The Dusk In Us. Although it had been coming for some time (really, since You Fail Me), Converge have purposefully moved away from the sonic sheet that was Jane Doe to explore aggression and intensity with space. If Jane Doe was the expression of youth raging without a single breath, The Dusk In Us is the realization of the toll life has on us when youth is leaving, and finding that a deep breath can revitalize and reignite that rage anew. The Dusk In Us is all about those breaths: Converge have never really opened up their sound like this before, and the room Kurt Ballou, Nate Newton and Ben Koller explore on “Under Duress,” “Broken By Light,” even in the minute cracks between the agitated notes of “Arkhipov Calm” tell of a confidence that only comes when you’re at the top of your game sonically and compositionally.
Those breaths and spaces give Jacob Bannon a chance to spread his wings as well: The Dusk In Us is without a doubt the best showcase for the variety Bannon can bring to bear with his vocals on a Converge record. Lyrically the tracks show a mature, more thoughtful though no less passionate point of view (Bannon broke each track for Pitchfork and you can read that here), and with the added clarity came the first time I connected with a Converge record for more than just the music. The role of fatherhood outlined in “A Single Tear” the pain and anguish detailed in “Under Duress” and early single “I Can Tell You About Pain” immediately latched their claws into me and I became obsessed, not only with the album but needing to dive back further, re-evaluating all their previous releases in light of this newfound connection. That spark, the drive to dig deeper, is what sustained me this year, and it’s what I needed from music this year more than any other, to hear the messages the songs that connected could tell me. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)
“Reptilian,” the closing track on The Dusk In Us, has this verse, and it served to keep me going when I didn’t know if I could:
We must lose sight of the shore, to know what courage means.
We must lose sight of who we are, to know what we can be.
It’s okay to be lost, because it’s then that you can be found. It took a while, but I think I found myself in 2017.