Best of 2019: Chris’s List

Best of 2019

Fourth verse, same as the first?  Or second, or third for that matter?

This is my fourth End of Year List for Nine Circles, and the more the music changes, the more the sentiment stays the same.  With each new dance partner our hands clasp; our eyes lock and I see and hear and ask the same thing:  What does this do for me?  What does it mean?  Why this, and not something else?

I tried to spend this year answering those questions, particularly the last one.  In a year where I finally acknowledged that – while still important and cherished – metal was no longer the driving musical force in my life, I wanted to understand why the metal that I was drawn to impacted me.  What was it about the way this riff, or that vocal line, or that lyric touched me in a way maybe some other song, track, or album didn’t?

It’s a question I can’t help searching for an answer to.  I’ve always been one that love and crave understanding of the process: audio commentaries, behind the scenes footage, demos and rough mixes…the more I dig in and try to *get* at the thing, whether it’s a film or an album, the more I find out about myself.  And the more the thing means, the more I find that with everything I write about on this list, in the end I’m just writing about myself.

Again.

The thought just crossed my mind that rather than reading about these album and learning a little more about the kind of person I am, perhaps you’ll read about these albums you’ll go to them and listen: for the first time, for the next time, and find out more about yourself.

Fourth verse?  Same as all the others, indeed.

The Inner Circle

My Top 25 Albums of 2019, Part I: Albums 25-11

25. Sermon – Birth of the Marvellous:  Twisting philosophical and theological rumination against the backdrop of impending death, the anonymous outfit Sermon have packed a progressive powerhouse in Birth of the Marvelous.   Touchpoints include Katatonia and Tool, but my mind keeps coming back to Junius, particularly on their last album.  Featuring incredibly restrained yet propulsive drumming by James Stewart (Vader) early songs like “The Descend” and “The Festival” move between dirge pop and progressive rock with ease, while later, longer tracks like “The Preacher” and closer “The Rise of Desiderata” move with a sinuous strength in and out of odd meters to create a hypnotic spell over the listener. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

24. The Wraith – Gloom Ballet:  Call it post-punk, call it death rock…it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that The Wraith have hit upon that exquisite vein of rock and roll that feels larger than life, pomp and theater of the gutter.  Straight out of the gate with “Ballad of Aeon” there’s no denying the way Davey Bales’s voice locks in with Paul Rogers’s bass to create a prayer for the hopeless and downtrodden.  When I wrote about the band back in November I said Gloom Ballet embodies all the heartache and bleak cool of raising a middle finger to the things that keep you down, and that sentiment has only loomed larger with every listen.  Read the review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

23. Pinkish Black – Concept Unification:  There’s a queasy sickness to everything Pinkish Black does, and as my friend Erik notes in his own assessment of Concept Unification, the band’s latest offering: “I don’t personally understand why they haven’t conquered the world while completely understanding that they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.”  To understand why they’re precisely my cup of tea, look (or listen) no further than “Until” which simultaneously is their most accessible song to date yet refuses to sacrifice even an ounce of the nausea and paranoia and filth that lays at the heart of the band’s music.  I hate that such beautiful music has to arise from such darkness (you can read about some of it here), but I can’t deny how much that same beauty and darkness resonates within me. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

22. Morne – Rust:  Is it a cheat to put Rust on this list?  The first half of the album is a remastered version of the songs from their 2009 split with Warprayer, while the second half is a remastered version of their 7″ single from the same year.  So, ten years old but new to my ears!  Sequenced as an album the songs have an attack and immediacy that is as good as anything put out this year.  The chug of “Twilight Burns” cuts at my core, and since this is my list I’ll do whatever I want… (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

21. Earth Moves – Human Intricacy:  I came across Earth Moves just as I started writing for Nine Circles, and their album The Truth In Our Bodies immediately jumped onto my end of year list for 2016.  So no surprise new album Human Intricacy does the same.  What is surprising is the way the band moves seamlessly from the Deafheaven blackgaze of the earlier release to a more emotional hardcore screamo sound and it works even better.  Our own Charles grooved “Into the Ether” in his November edition of The Third Circle of Bandcamp, and the rest of the album is a dynamic ride of merciless and painful exploration.  Not enough folks are hip to Earth Moves, so get on this one. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

20. Laster – Het wassan oog:  I love traditional black metal.  It will always have a place in my heart, but more often than not when I turn to the genre these days I’m looking for music that pushes the boundaries of what the genre can do musically.  Laster has been pushing that boundary since their debut back in 2014, and Het wassan oog does all of the same things.  Slippery percussion and full, open chords bump up against piano and clean vocals one moment on “Schone Schijn” before moving into a bass-heavy jazz exploration;  then the screams arrive in full force.  By description along that has the makings of a chaotic mess; the trick (and glory) of Laster is that it never is.  Read the Evcharist entry here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

19. Immortal Bird – Thrive on Neglect:  It was the ringing arpeggios on “House of Anhedonia” that I knew Immortal Bird had me.  I always admired the band from a distance, but Thrive on Neglect burrowed inward, becoming something I listened to repeatedly.  There’s a growth in songcraft, the band allowing the instruments room to breathe and in turn transforming their unrelenting attack to something more inexorable.  I don’t know if anything further needs to be said about Rae Amitay: not only does Thrive on Neglect solidify her standing as one of the best vocalists in extreme music, but her drumming gels and coalesces with the rest of Immortal Bird in a way that is simply outstanding.  This is what it sounds like when a band meets and then exceeds its promise and potential. Read the Evcharist entry here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

18. Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell – Very Uncertain Times:  There is nothing uncertain about the greasy, loose rock and roll swagger that inhabits every riff of the latest from the increasingly hilariously named Admiral Sir Cloudesly Shovell.  Motörhead and Sabbath are certainly influences, but the way the solos kick and the bass lays back to slide around the drums recalls the best of proto metal bands like Armageddon and Atomic Rooster.  Very Uncertain Times is most definitely heavy, but it is also unmistakably fun from the backwards vocals and masking of the Sabbath-like “The Third Degree” right down to the Lemmy stomp of “No Mans Land.”  Best enjoyed at speaker rattling volumes. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

17. Irata – Tower:  Take equal measures of Mastodon, Tool, and Torche and you get an approximation of not only Irata’s debut Tower, but the vibe that I’ve been drawn to for the past five or so years.  Sludgy, off kilter time signatures crash against a wall of fuzz on tracks like the opening title track and “Waking Eye.”  The prog elements are subtle, mainly in the way the riffs circle around each other.  There’s an unforced quality to the songs, refusing to warp out for form’s sake and sticking to what makes each track work for itself.  Tower went from okay to essential in my playlist this year, a surprise rise for such a stacked year. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

16. False – Portent:  Portent is a lesson in how control and restraint can draw forth even greater power.  There are few bands taking modern USBM to the heights False have been since their debut, but on Portent they dial back the fury just enough to allow you to hear what’s actually going on…and it’s magnificent.  “A Victual For Our Dead Selves” is an epic journey through everything the band has done before, with an uplifting lilt that lends an air of triumph.  At only three massive tracks (and one short outro) there’s no fat on Portent; just moment after incredible moment.  Read the review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

15. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race:  There are (excellent) bands like Gruesome taking the torch of Schuldiner and holding it high for all to remember.  And then there are bands like Blood Incantation who take that ideal and create their own stew of brutal, progressive music that sounds like little else.  For all the accolades of their previous full length Starspawn it’s Hidden History of the Human Race where I think the band really lives up to their promise.  On “The Giza Power Plant” they straddle this weird line where thrash, prog, and brutal cavernous death metal collide and it’s dense and evil and has a guitar tone I would kill for.  Then there’s the 18-minute “Awakening From The Dream Of Existence To The Multidimensional Nature Of Our Reality (Mirror Of The Soul)” which defies every expectation of what this band should be doing.  All that plus the kickass Bruce Pennington artwork make this essential. Read the Evcharist entry here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

14. Crypt Sermon – The Ruins of Fading Light:  2019 feels like the the year of bands I liked upping their game and delivering albums transmogrify “like” into “love”.  Once upon a time I got to see Crypt Sermon live and up close and The Ruins of Fading Light captures that energy in a way their debut didn’t.  The rush of opener “The Ninth Templar (Black Candle Flame)” has an electric charge that strips the doom away in exchange for trad metal hooks that knock your head clean off.  The songs have so much more going on, guitars and keyboards adding levels and subtle counterpoints that make tracks like “Our Reverend’s Grave” and the mid-album epic “The Snake Handler” breathe with the fire of classic bands like Candlemass (and now hints of Iron Maiden) without being overly slavish. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

13. Wilderun – Veil of Imagination:  Maybe the biggest question of 2019 is how can Wilderun put out an album as amazing as Veil of Imagination and still be independent?  Fierce in their love of progressive power metal, each track has a fire and passion that strikes, from the chugging glory of “O Resolution!” to the ever evolving “Far From Where Dreams Unfurl.”  The album is bookended by monstrous 10-minute plus tracks; in between is all the imagination you could ask for.  Read the review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

12. An Isolated Mind – I’m Losing Myself:  Probably the most harrowing album on my list this this year, I’m Losing Myself is the embodiment of pain, depression, rage, and loss, from the solitary wail of a clarinet on “Afraid of Dissonance” to the whirling vortex of terror on “Turritopsis Dohrnii.”  That it’s equally a cathartic experience, stemming from solitary member Kameron Bogges struggles with bipolar disorder makes the experience such a wonder.  Black metal may be the foundation upon which the album sits, but it’s a loose one as drone, electronic,  and post elements come into play over the album’s 56 minutes.  At times confrontational, at times painfully confessional, An Isolated Mind creates music you experience rather than listen to.  (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

11. Arch/Matheos – Winter Ethereal:  We’re at that point where I’m second-guessing every entry on this list.  Listening to the absolute banging riffs on “Vermillion Moons,” the opening track on Winter Ethereal as I write this I can’t believe I’m not moving the album up to my top 5.  John Arch has never sounded better; there’s still no one who can wrap their voices around a vocal melody like he can, and even in his prime he didn’t match the control and dynamics on full display on songs like single “Wanderlust” and the crushing “Wrath of the Universe.” John Matheos is similarly on fire here, crafting some truly inspired songs that don’t feel like leftovers from the last Fates Warning album.  Read the review here.  (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

The Ninth Circle

My Top 25 Albums of 2019, Part II: Albums 10-1

clouds collide - they don't sleep anymore

10. Clouds Collide – They Don’t Sleep Anymore:  I’ve never made it a secret that Chris Pandolfo is one the reasons I have the courage to release my own music.  Beyond the DIY, one-man band component, it’s the naked emotion and catharsis that comes directly from his words and music and infects my soul.  They Don’t Sleep Anymore isn’t so much an evolution of Clouds Collide as much as it is a reinvention, eschewing the wall of sound blackgaze for something more exposed, ethereal, and vulnerable.  It follows the adage of specificity becoming universal, and combined with some of his most addicting music ever (I will again point out the way the drums attack on an emotional level on opening track “Entanglement”) has become a sacred album, one I turn to when things are at their darkest.  Read the review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

Moon Tooth - Crux

9. Moon Tooth – Crux:  I said it once already in my mid-year report, but I’ll say it again here: If “Trust,” the opening track from Crux doesn’t make you jump up and move, there is a fundamental difference in the way we are wired.  Moon Tooth take the speed and agility of my favorite hard rock from the late 80s and early 90s and give it a modern, aggressive polish.  The guitar work is amazing, the melodies dig in like leeches, and Joe Carbone’s vocals are golden honey.  I STILL say (with the upmost respect and compliment)  that there are shades of Pornografitti-era Extreme on this thing; mores than shades, actually.  There’s a reason it made the staff’s combined list, and one listen to  “Omega Days” or “Rhythm & Roar” will tell you why.  Listen to the interview with guitarist Nick Lee here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

8. Sunn O))) – Pyroclasts/Life Metal:  If you had asked me my thoughts on Sunn O))) and their body of work a year ago I wouldn’t have been able to answer: I was never able to get past even a single track.  I’m still trying to suss out what changed with the release of Life Metal; my working theory is rather than being any different or better than their previous work,  something shifted within me, tuning my body to not only receive the droning waves of sonics the band created but align with it, open my mind to its frequencies and consume it whole. That was even more the case when a few months later Pyroclasts was released.  Originally the “jam sessions” that would produce Life Metal there was something in “Frost (C)” that spoke affirmation, well-being.  I’ve heard these two records represent more of an uplifting tonality than their other output, but I wouldn’t know…these two albums have so perfectly insinuated themselves into my daily life I haven’t felt the need to explore further…yet. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

Devin-Townsend-Empath (alt)

7. Devin Townsend – Empath:  In a lot of ways Empath has been the hardest to rank on this list.  When I hear the incredible anthems within “Genesis” and “Evermore” or the left field Zappa orchestrations of “Why?” and the way Townsend can bend and shape his voice to any note, there simply IS no other album for me.  There are so many layers to pick through in his music, from uncommon instrumentation to straight up glorious melodies and sequences that jolt from ridiculous level of heavy (Devy) like “Hear Me” to the fragile and gossamer threads of the aforementioned “Why?” and “Requiem” that hint at ideas Townsend might play with in his next incarnation.  And if Empath is the closing of a chapter, then there’s no better way to end it than the massive 23-minute “Singularity” which just might be the greatest thing the man has recorded to date.  Shine forever.  Shine on me.  Listen to our Album of the Month episode on Empath here.  (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

Idle Hands - Mana

6. Idle Hands – Mana:  The only thing that’s not an absolute joy about Idle Hands and their debut full length Mana is that we had to lose the excellent Spellcaster to get them.  Gabriel Franco channels his inner 80s goth rocker and the result is one of the most enjoyable, singable front to back albums released in 2019.  The touchstones are plenty and obvious, but that doesn’t stop the instant connection to songs like “Jackie” and “Give Me To The Night,” just to cite two examples that are my son’s (coincidentally named Jack) favorite tracks on Mana.  And that’s the other thing about this record, or any record on my list.  So my love for an album comes from the circumstances surrounding its discovery and place in my life.  For Mana it’s listening for the first time in the car and having my son subsequently request it every time we went anywhere.  At 12 years old he’s a sponge, and so within 2 listens had all the lyrics nailed down and we would sing at the top of our lungs whenever we had the chance.  At this point in my life I’ll take that memory over anything else.  Read the Evcharist here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

numenorean - adore

5. Numenorean – Adore:  There’s a certain smug satisfaction after giving Charles so much grief for him picking Allegaeon for the April Album of the Month and then seeing Adore (my pick) top his end of year list.  I’m not sure what you hear, but when I put this record on I hear a band unafraid to put their own stamp on the modern post/black/gaze thing being done by so many others but injecting it with a healthy dose of melodic death metal (via some crushing breakdowns) and DSBM to create a stunning riff-laden album that sweeps you up and roller coasts you along its path.  There’s that chorus on “Horizon” with Brandon Lemley screaming “I finally found myself again!” Or the entirety of “Portrait Of Pieces” but especially that riff at the 2:30 mark.  Or the smaller interludes like “And Nothing Was The Same” and “Alone” that not only bridge the longer, more aggressive songs but tell their own moments of loss and regret.  The best records take you on a journey no matter if there’s a narrative arc; in Adore Numenorean have  done that and further built upon the evolving role of black metal in a way that will continue to move things forward.  All in a days work. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

hawkeyes - last light of future failures

4. Hawkeyes – Last Light of Future Failure:  Hawkeyes was probably my biggest discovery of 2019, and after burning down the house with an incredible stoner/doom classic in 2013 Poison Slows You Down and a strong list of stellar splits (seriously, go get their splits with Shooting Guns and Radiation Flowers ASAP) the doom takes a knee in favor of some serious mixes of psychedelia and kosmische Musik jams in Last Light of Future Failure, and the result is some of the best music you’re likely to find this year.  From the swirling lush vibes of opening track “The Lickening” to the epic 18-minute spaced out solo frenzy that is “Full of Secrets” – a song that to me is the spiritual brother to Sleep’s mesmerizing The Sciences from last year – Last Light of Future Failure is a dream of sonic distortion and bliss, one of the best albums of the year regardless of genre.   (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

king gizzard - infest the rat's nest

3. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Infest the Rats’ Nest:  At this point I don’t think there’s anything King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard can’t do.  Even after the powerhouse five records released in 2017 covering everything from prog to jazz to – yes – metal, I wasn’t prepared for the fuzzed out Motörhead meets early Metallica that is Infest the Rats’ Nest.  And there’s the added bonus that a band that is ostensibly not a “metal” band put out one of the best metal records this year…a theme you’ll see with the next two entries on my list as well.  Sometimes I think it takes an outsider to really see what there is to love about the genre and then just represent it to the hilt.  I defy you to listen to the 1-2 punch of “Planet B” and “Mars For The Rich” and not bang your head like a lunatic.  Somewhere in the universe there’s a place where Lemmy never died; he just exited the spotlight and moved to Australia to carry the torchlight of righteous metal in weirder and more bizarre corners of the world.  Remember: there is no Planet B. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

Opeth - In Cauda Venenum

2. Opeth – In Cauda Venenum:  I already spent almost 1,000 words in my written review of the latest Opeth album, as well as made it the September Album of the Month.  So what more can I add to In Cauda Venenum at this point?  We can have the argument that Opeth isn’t technically metal at this point, but frankly I don’t care.  They’re *heavy*, and that’s the signifier I’m choosing to go with with in regards to including it in my list.  every album they’ve released since their change in direction has been better and better, and In Cauda Venenum – whether you listen to the English or Swedish version – is chock full of incredible riffs, solos, and Åkerfeldt’s best vocal performance of all time.  The chances taken on songs like “Lovelorn Crime” and my favorite “Universal Truth” show a band in complete command of its capabilities, unafraid to take chances and so confident it’s frightening.  Opeth have long stopped caring what you think about them, and that freedom has allowed them to craft one of the best albums of the their careers.  Read the review here. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

Darkthrone - Old Star

1. Darkthrone – Old Star:  If you’ve been following me since 2016 you know there was never a doubt what the #1 album was going to be.  Darkthrone have always served as the reminder, the voice in the back of my head that tells me this is something I can believe in, this is something I can do.  Something I can use to expel the demons and the pain and the doubt and the loss, something I can make myself, and not care what anyone else thinks.

Old Star feels like, as Fenriz has noted in interviews, the older brother to Arctic Thunder. It’s more assured of itself, and has less to prove.  And in that confidence lies some of the most catchy, rocking songs the band has ever put together.  Whether it’s the Dio-influence of the doom crushing “The Hardship of the Scots” or the straight up killer old school black of “Duke of Gloat” there’s not a wasted moment on Old Star.   Once again ceding the volcano to Nocturno Culto (forever Ted), there’s a consistency to each song even as it alternates between songwriters.  I want to give the edge to Ted with “Duke of Gloat” and the knock the doors down opener “I Muffle Your Inner Choir” but then there’s Fenriz with “Hardship of the Scots” and the epic “The Key Is Inside The Wall.”  Everything is so old school and buried in a lifetime of influences and you know what?  So am I.  So are you.  So are we all, and the fact that Darkthrone revel in that make each week riff more potent than the last. (Spotify/Apple Music/Google Play)

The thing that has always gripped me about Darkthrone is how tangible it is.  I’ve heard people say it’s simple, that they could learn the entire album in about an hour.  Sure, you could learn it – I have, and I’m not even a good guitar player.  But that’s not and has never been the point.  Can you WRITE it?  Can you so completely absorb the influences of Darkthrone and Celtic Frost – and Dio and a million more – and craft something so prehistoric and simultaneously addicting that it will make millions bag their head?

I doubt it.  When I hear Darkthrone, and especially Old Star, it reminds me of what’s possible to make.  That all I need is right here.  And that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks.

If I can create it, that’s enough.

– Chris


 

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