Best of 2018: Chris’s List

EOY 2018 Header 9C

What does music do for you?

In the end, it’s the only question that matters.  An admittedly hard question to hear, what with the screaming of every opinion in every corner of the internet, but in the end when you step away from the noise and muck of screen shouting and scene guarding it’s your opinion in the end.  Every year that I’ve written an end of year list for Nine Circles it’s been a variation of the same theme: when we write about music, we’re writing about ourselves.  What matters is what the music does to you, and only for you.

But what’s the point, if you’re really only writing for yourself?

The short answer is, of course, that you’re still writing for the most important person in the room.  The one person you have the best chance of reaching.  And there’s a power in that specificity.  It’s in the strength of those details and personal moments that we can find a commonality, an anchor that tethers us together.  I can’t find those moments in the black ether of social media, but I can find it in the sudden burst of 70s rock buried in a blast beat.  Or the way a vocal hook seamlessly resolves itself back to the root.  I can find it in a million tiny moments that make a song, or an album, or a fragment of sound; something to pierce my flesh and embed itself deep under the skin.  If I can get a fraction of that feeling out, spilled onto the page in such a way that one person picks up on it and maybe finds something of value then that’s something.

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom,” Socrates said.  If it was good enough for Shakespeare to appropriate, it’s sound enough advice for me.

Each of the albums here helped me to know myself.  Although they’re ranked, one thing I’ve come to realize over the past few weeks writing up my honorable mentions and alternate lists is that based on any given moment all of these albums are interchangeable.  They all have something that reached in and found anchor.  To pull it out would take a piece of me with it, and that’s something I’ll not tolerate.

So come look at the Pierced Man, see how he proudly bears his wounds!


The Inner Circle

My Top 25 Albums of 2018, Part I: Albums 25-11

25. Megaton Leviathan – Mage: The evolution of Megaton Leviathan from progressive funeral doom to the doom-gaze electronic hybrid present on Mage is a wonder, and the way they’ve been able to condense their enormous soundscape into something so concise without losing any of their energy is a marvel.  Opener “Wave” sets the tone for things to come, but it’s really on the later tracks, particularly the Depeche Mode heavy “The Bulldog” and the epic closer “Within the Threshold” moving to straight up synthwave mutating into industrial before climaxing into a melange of everything at once.  Side note that this has my vote for album cover of the year. Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


24. Allfather – And All Will Be Desolation:  I was going to make a case for “Black Triangle,” the kickoff track to Allfather’s excellent second album as my song of the year, but all you need to do is listen and it’ll make its own case.  This is the sound of a band firing on all cylinders, blending together all their influences and proudly wearing them on their sleeves instead of burying them in a muddy mix.  Everything on And All Will Be Desolation is massive, brutal, but most of all catchy as all hell, never content to take the easy repetitious path.  This album moves like a viper, even when the song is over 11 minutes long, as on the astounding closer “Lampedusa.”  Read our review here.  Hear our interview with vocalist Tom Ballard here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


23. Between the Buried and Me – Automata (complete):  With technicality never in question, it seemed Between the Buried and Me would continue moving into less extreme waters after the success of Coma Ecliptic. The turnaround back to monster heaviness on “Condemned to the Gallows” (couched as it was in BTBAM’s signature prog frenzy) was not only a surprise but a welcome return.  The are strengths aplenty on the two pieces that make up Automata: “Blot” is a standout on part 1 while “The Proverbial Below” and “Voice of Tresspass” are the frantic and frenetic highlights of part 2, but it’s the two mini albums taken as the conceptual whole that make Automata such a fantastic and deep experience, one I’ve been coming back to constantly since their releases. Read the Evcharist entry for Part 1 here.  Review the review for Part 2 here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


22. Agrimonia – Awaken: I’ll gladly borrow Zyklonius’s words when he reviewed Awaken back in early February: it’s a cannon blast of optimism wrapped in multiple layers of darkness and beauty.  It reaches the point where genre guessing becomes meaningless.  the quick double stop riff that comes in the middle of opener “A World Unseen” breathes guitar heroics before diving back below the surface to blackened sludge and eerie ambience, all narrated by a superlative performance from lead vocalist Christina.  There are moments of epic brutality and epic melody interwoven in a way that makes Awaken a highlight regardless of where you want to place them.  Read the review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


21. Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages: I’ve heard and read Barren Earth regarded as a Finnish Opeth crossed with Amorphis, but digging into A Complex of Cages there’s so much more at work.  Progressive death metal is the lynchpin that holds everything together, but the way the band incorporates cleaner, more prog rock passages adds a dramatic flair that changes the music into something else.  Huge kudos to vocalist Jón Aldará from Hamferð, whose multi-faceted performance manages the nifty trick of making me think about how good Morrissey would fare as a metal vocalist.  Start with “The Living Fortress” and marvel your way from there. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


20. The Antichrist Imperium – Volume II: Every Tongue Shall Praise Satan: “My purpose is to bring death.”  What if Akercocke emphasized the black metal instead of the death metal.  That’s the hook of The Antichrist Imperium,  another offshoot of Akercocke’s David Gray and alumni, and it immediately worked on me.  There’s an attack to the guitars on “Ceremonial Suicide Rites” and “Golgothian Hieros Gamos” that cling to my love of palm-muted riffage and extended solos and the disparate section of “The Dreadful Hosanna” that climaxes to a harmonized solo is just the bee’s knees.  Read our Evcharist entry here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


19. Skeletonwitch – Devouring Radiant Light: Holy shit the turnaround on this album.  With Devouring Radiant Light Skeletonwitch went from a modern metal thrash band I never really cared about to a furious melodic black metal band I can’t stop listening to.  After the trauma of firing vocalist Chance Garnette, brother Nate and the band picked themselves back up along with new vocalist Adam Clemans from Wolvhammer and did a 180° in terms of musical focus and direction and it pays off in spades.  There are shades of that thrash influence on tracks like “When Paradise Fades” but it’s souped up with a beefy production that doesn’t let the band down. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


18. Voivod – The Wake: It’s nice to have one of your most anticipated albums of the year live up to your expectations.  The Wake really leans into Voivod’s more adventurous tendencies, and it’s the band’s strongest effort in years.  Post-punk effortlessly mixes with prog rock and thrash metal recalling the heyday of the late 80s/early 90s and Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain absolutely owns his place in the outfit with twisted riffs on standout track “Orb Confusion” and “Iconspiracy.”  There’s also a beautiful darkness to the album I haven’t been able to shake since first hearing it.  At this point I expect nothing less from Voivod. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


17. Sleep – The Sciences: If “The Sciences” – the lead-off title track to Sleep’s comeback album after a 15-year hiatus is the sound of a sleeping (sorry) giant awakening, the rest of The Sciences is the soundtrack to that leviathan’s rampage across the sonic landscape.  There’s no mistaking that gargantuan combination of guitar and bass that rolls across your brain on “Marijuanaut’s Theme.”  Unlike the lackluster Electric Messiah, Matt Pike sounds like he’s giving it everything here – the ripping solos that carry closer “The Botanist” is some of the finest, most expressive playing you’ll find this side of the sun. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


16. Horrendous – Idol: I’m going to remember 2018 as the year a bunch of bands I never cared about before put out albums that made me care very, very much.  Horrendous was always a band whose technical brutality held me at arm’s length, but with Idol they finally clicked into marrying their chops with strong songwriting that focused on the riffs.  Tracks like “Golgothan Tongues” and “Obolus” truly earn the Death/Human comparisons with some incredible playing, particularly the bass acrobatics of Alex Kulick.  Moving to Season of Mist feels like a good fit based on Idol, and keeps the promise of robust and vibrant technical death metal alive in an age where guitar wankery is being passed off as the bar to excellence.  Read our Second Circle article here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


15. De Profundis – The Blinding Light of Faith: I keep losing count at the number of amazing riffs De Profundis lets loose on “Obsidian Spires” – and it’s only the first track off  The Blinding Light of Faith.  There’s a perfect balance between the technical and the bottom dwelling brutality, and even after dozens of listens I’m finding small moments (that stunning middle section in “Opiate for the Masses” and basically all of “Martyrs”) that make me stop what I’m doing and replay the section over and over again.  I’ve never made a secret of how I prefer my death metal to be deep and clear production-wise, and the way every guitar cuts through, the way every drum fill feels like it’s playing down your spine is a revelation. So many, many riffs… Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


14. King Witch – Under the Mountain: I’m losing count of the number of bands with the word “witch” in their name, and it’s doubly hard when they’re releasing albums the same year and treading similar ground.  But for my money King Witch are nailing it with a mix of classic rock, doom, and a powerhouse vocalist in Laura Donnelly.  Under the Mountain is some vintage hard rock, with the groove stomp of “Beneath the Waves” pick sliding into the speed rocker that is “Carnal Sacrifice.”  The swagger of the entire band recalls the best of what came out of the 80s, and if there’s a better vocal showcase this year than what Donnelly does on “Ancients” then I really need to know, because right now I doubt it.  Front to back this is what an album should be: a cohesive, barn burning statement that all too often gets lost in the digital streaming age.  Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


13. Messa – Feast for Water: The roiling water that lurks beneath the strings on opener “Nanuet” is an indicator for the depths Italian doom bringers Messa reach forth from on their second full-length Feast for Water.  There’s a cavernous quality that evokes ancient ritual and ceremony and it draws you into its embrace even as the guitars echo early 70s Sabbath.  “Snakeskin Drape” alternates between hip swagger and mournful wail, and “Leah” weaves a spell with some full-on Sleep worship before moving to a somber and smoke filled dream where Sara’s vocals reverberate against bass and brick walls, duping you with a caressing croon until a roar erupts.  The disturbance in the water doesn’t stop you from sticking your head, even as you find you can’t breathe you don’t care. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


12. Judicator – The Last Emperor: I’ve said it a few times but it bears repeating here: Judicator is the band you turn to when someone says they don’t get the appeal of power metal.  With each release the combination of Tony Cordisco and John Yelland concoct a potent dose of tried and true metal, full of power and craft and heart – everything that the best of power metal can achieve.  But in The Last Emperor there’s just something more, something that pushes the already prestigious catalog the band have assembled and moved everything up to another level.  From the killer opening title track to the blazing harmonies on “Take Up the Cross” to the massive centerpiece of the album “The Queen of All Cities” Judicator continue to claim the crown when it comes to power metal, and news that they’re already working on a follow-up has me chomping at the bit to hear more.  Read our review here and our interview with the band here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


11. Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love: At this point the only thing certain you can say about Deafheaven is they’re going to sound like Deafheaven.  If you’re not on board, there’s plenty of other bands out there.  But if you are, let’s talk about that stretch from Sunbather to this year’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love and how with each release we’re exposed to another facet, a turn of the screw that alters the mood but never the intensity.  In “Canary Yellow” the band have penned their finest song to date, and to have it surrounded by the gorgeous melodies and expressiveness of tracks like “You Without End” and “Night People” with that sinewy Chelsea Wolfe guest appearance is just icing on the cake.  George Clarke’s vocals are an acquired taste, but his frenzy is tempered by how lush the songwriting is, whether it’s the mellow shoegaze of “Near” or the closing grace of “Worthless Animal.”  Kerry McCoy is fast becoming one of my favorite guitarists, and Deafheaven continues its streak of being one of my favorite metal bands.  Check out our concert review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


The Ninth Circle

My Top 25 Albums of 2018, Part II: Albums 10-1


The Atlas Moth - Coma Noir

10. The Atlas Moth – Coma Noir: It’s not until the second track, “Last Transmission From the Late, Great Planet Earth,” that Coma Noir really pulls me in, but from that point forward I’m enthralled.  The Atlas Moth have largely eschewed the gnarled sludge and filth of their (great) previous records for something with grander ambitions, and it’s a rush of great moments, from the killer opening riff on “Galactic Brain” to the exotic rush of “The Streets of Bombay.”  Melodies shine through in the guitars and vocals (shared across the band), providing a depth and variety that enhances the new-found sound.   None of this comes at the expense of some serious riff pummeling; the opening of “Actual Human Blood” chugs along ready to rip you apart.  Sometimes an album released so early in the year can get lost in the shuffle.  The Atlas Moth made sure to craft something not so easily put aside. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


Rivers of Nihil - Where Owls Know My Name

9. Rivers of Nihil – Where Owls Know My Name: This is it.  This is how you make technical death metal that’s going to insinuate itself into my cells.  Rivers of Nihil have been plugging away at the formula for a while now, but Where Owls Know My Name is the first time they unshackle themselves and let the songs breathe.  And in the year where saxophone seemed to dominate metal (see also Arkheth, Burial in the Sky and KEN Mode, not to mention Imperial Triumphant) Rivers of Nihil made it feel the most cohesive and natural, as if sax should be on every death metal release (narrator: “it shouldn’t”).  Come for the blistering attack of “The Silent Life” and “Old Nothing;” stay for the Dream Theater prog of “Subtle Change (Including the Forest of Transition and Dissatisfaction Dance).”  You’ll get everything you could possibly want from death metal. Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


Khôrada - Salt

8. Khôrada – Salt: Using as its foundation the forward-thinking sense of adventure from their prior bands, Khôrada have constructed in Salt a devastatingly emotional sonic document.  By weaving together a collage of ideas ranging from black metal to post-punk and lush ambience tracks like “Seasons of Salt” and “Ossify” chart new horizons for how music can convey messages in tone and word alike.  The heartbreaking  “Augustus” is a powerhouse moment that shows how seamless Aaron John Gregory from Giant Squid blends in with the telepathic alchemy of Don Anderson, Jason Walton, and Aesop Dekker from Agalloch.  Few albums have been able to sustain the emotional resonance Salt has since its release, and to do that without sacrificing everything that makes the band rock like a powerhouse is no small feat indeed. Read our review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


rlyr - actual existence

7. RLYR – Actual Existence: And then RLYR comes and shows how you can establish these emotional connections without the use of words.  Actual Existence immediately punched me in the gut within the first two minutes of the title track, the way the guitar carries the melody bringing me right back to my childhood.  It comes across as the soundtrack to a life I dreamed about looking out a school bus window, or on a dirt road during one of a hundred hikes wondering how my life was going to work out.  Each tracks stretches to the point where it can encompass completely different moods and still feel like each section grew organically from the preceding riff or idea.  I’ve not made a secret of the fact that the trio format is my favorite in all of rock, and the way Steven Hess, Colin DeKuiper, and Trevor Shelley de Brauw are able to construct these beautiful lines and tones that express entire narratives without a word is something more bands should aspire to.  Timeless. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


satan - cruel magic

6. Satan – Cruel Magic: Speaking of childhood, I missed Satan when they came around the block in the 80s with the excellent NWOBHM entries Court in the Act and Suspended Sentence.  Almost 30 years later they’ve lost none of their step, and Cruel Magic continues the run of incredible classic heavy metal the band have excelled in.  Opener “Into the Mouth of Eternity” channels a bit of classic King Crimson before diving head-first into prime, epic heavy metal, channeling everything from Di’Anno era Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, and Diamond Head.  Brian Ross is still one of the best vocalists in metal, and you even get some cow bell on the title track.  Few bands are able to channel that classic vibe as well as Satan, and though others will point to their earlier comeback album, it’s Cruel Magic I find myself turning back to time and time again. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


Piah Mater - The Wandering Daughter

5. Piah Mater – The Wandering Daughter: We spent a lot of ink here at Nine Circles on Piah Mater and The Wandering Daughter.  That’s because a ton of bands are scrambling for the crown worn by Opeth before they abandoned the progressive death metal throne, but only Piah Mater nail it by injecting healthy doses of progressive black metal by way of Enslaved as well as a strong sense of rhythm owing to their South American roots.  They’re not afraid to break out some strong melodic solos on “Solace in Oblivion” or mix up some time signatures, but it’s always in service to the song: you’re dazzled by this or that idea, but you quickly return to how it blends into the overall vibe they’re trying to achieve.  Despite all the proggy dreamscapes they can also seriously rock your face off – just check out the majority of “Spring From Weakness” – preferably at top volume.  I had a lot of great discoveries in music this year from all over the genre map, but when it comes to metal this one takes my top spot. Read our profile here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


Judas Priest - Firepower

4. Judas Priest – Firepower: Have I written enough about how much I love the new Judas Priest yet?  Let’s see, there was the initial most anticipated albums post, then a full review that clocked in at just under 1,500 words, then my participation in our Maiden/Priest post reunion rankings (for the record my ranking is the correct choice), then finally a look back at how my most anticipated albums fared.  And here we are, ranked fourth on this list.  If all that doesn’t tell you something about the razor sharp riffs and volcanic vocal energy,  I don’t know that anything else I say here will help you see the light.  Go about your business; I’ll be here cueing up Firepower one more time… (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


here lies man - you will know nothing

3. Here Lies Man – You Will Know Nothing: It’s possible that Here Lies Man is the furthest from the metal spectrum on this list.  But its unique mix of psych rock, Sabbath sludge and Afrobeat was one of the best things this year, regardless of genre.  You Will Know Nothing has a guitar tone that is simply dripping with thickness, and the way the duo of Geoff Mann and Marcos Garcia embed a sense of groovy propulsion on every track is both instantly catchy and deep with subtle layers.  There’s a slinky pattern to “Summon Fire” that’s both danceable and heavy, and later tracks like “Taking the Blame” have a swagger and stomp that Tony Iommi would nod and approve of.  But there’s also the slower, more contemplative moments where the percussion really shines, as on “Voices At The Window” and closer “You Ought to Know” that I feel like is really the place where Here Lies Man grabbed me for good. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


YOB - Our Raw Heart

2. Yob – Our Raw Heart: I can’t stress the theme of all my posts this year enough: we change every moment, and any moment a piece of music can hit you differently.  In that way all of these albums have been #1 for a given period of time.  Listening back to Our Raw Heart as I write this up I’m reminded how much this helped me to get through my own continued medical issues, and how devastating the track “Beauty in Falling Leaves” is.  It’s the best thing Yob have ever done to my ears, and the rest of the album, from the transcendent first track “Ablaze” to the stuttering doom of “The Screen” and all the way to the heartbreaking epic title track, Yob have reached a level of emotional resonance and communication through music that no one else in metal even touched this year.  For all intents and purposes this is my #1 metal album of the year, which will make more sense when you read the entry below this one.  Read my very long review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)


earthless - black heaven

1. Earthless – Black Heaven: There’s so much I want to talk about when it comes to Earthless and their new album Black Heaven.  About how a psych rock stoner jam band known for albums with 20 minute songs and no vocals suddenly turned in a crisp, 40 minute album with no song over nine minutes, and not only are there vocals, but holy shit the vocals…falling somewhere in between Ozzy and Don Brewer from Grand Funk Railroad, they are incredible.  Or how about that talk box solo on opener “Gifted By The Wind”?  Or the fact that yes, they are a trio so I already give them bonus points for being in my favorite rock configuration.

But it’s so much more than that.  By zeroing in on the things that made their extended jam songs so great and adding in vocals, Earthless have gone from a really good jam/psych rock band to a killer unit that takes no prisoners in their version of 70s stoner hook rock, and the sheer amount of joy emanating from each riff, lick, and break sets my heart in a frenzy and brings me back to sitting in the backseat of my Dad’s car as he introduced me to Grand Funk Railroad, Kansas, Blue Öyster Cult, and dozens of classic hard rock bands that formed the musical DNA I carry with me to this day.  A lot of bands try to emulate the vibe of the late 60s/early 70s gold mine that was rock and roll, but Earthless have a direct channel there.  Listen to the solo in “End to End” and follow along to Isaiah Mitchell’s lines and he sings out:

45° of the hammer, coming on down again.  Nighttime dreams of peace are now shattered, darkness inside my brain.  5000 miles track, going from end to end.  I wish that I could take me back to the place where it all began.

Oh, there still are instrumentals.  And they are amazing.  “Volt Rush” is less than two minutes, but in that time everything that I came to love about rock and roll in that backseat came roaring back.  And “Black Heaven” is the Sabbath groove dug up from the planet’s core after years of fermenting.  But none of that really matters, because in the end Earthless and Black Heaven carry the charge of rock that saved my miserable life again and again as a dumb teen and an even dumber adult.  It chases away the black and replaces it with searing notes of distortion, with the pounding blast of a kick and snare locked in perpetual love with the bottom end of the world pushing out the pulse of the universe.

In other words, it’s just rock and roll, and this is the way I like it, baby.


Every second that races by is another permutation of ourselves if we let it.  Nothing need be constant, except that which we choose.  I choose to listen to what moves my heart, and this year these albums, and the other 35 I listed over the past two weeks did just that.

It would be cruel and selfish to ask for more than that.

Be well, and let’s see what moves us in 2019.



8 thoughts on “Best of 2018: Chris’s List

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