By now, it has become customary for me to recall at the turn of the year how great the past 12 months were for metal and its myriad sub-genres and styles, and how difficult it has become to keep one’s head above the water in the face of the deluge of releases. I have been listening to metal for over 25 years but am still astonished and impressed on a daily basis by the boundless imagination on display, be it the ever-blossoming creativity of bands who have been operating for 20 years or the ravenous appetite of newcomers.
In 2019, many of my previous end-of-year list favorites and luminaries made returns both triumphant and expected, while some long-running bands finally clicked with me. I predominantly enjoyed releases from bands that merge both closely associated and seemingly disparate styles with ambition, vision and breathtaking execution. My love for increasingly atmospheric, ethereal, dense, complex and long-form takes on metal is admittedly such a far cry from the categorical refusal of my youth for anything else but maximum three minutes of straight-to-the-point, in-your-face pummeling, but I cannot deny the irresistible power of the almighty riff, unhinged brutality, bloodthirsty bursts of speed, technical wizardry and unreal performances. Thankfully all these elements are not incompatible but often coexist and thrive in spectacular permutations, as you will see below.
I tried my best to narrow down my list to the 20 releases I enjoyed most, but found out it was impossible to select the final album for inclusion from a teeming pool of heavy-hitters. Hence replacing the coveted #20 spot with a shout-out of majestic hails to Arch / Matheos, Archivist, Blut Aus Nord, Cattle Decapitation, Devin Townsend, Downfall of Gaia, Equipoise, Fen, Foscor, Fractal Universe, In Human Form, Martyrdöd, No One Knows What the Dead Think, Numenorean, Obsequiae, Sermon, Shabti, Sinmara, Takafumi Matsubara, and Vukari. Frankly, I could have compiled a list comprising the aforementioned albums and that bunch already would have been a fantastic representation of the diverse riches metal had to offer in 2019 and a reflection of the golden age we currently live in.
19. Vous Autres – Champ du Sang
There is something artfully elusive about the essence of Vous Autres’ style and approach, with elements that remind you of their luminary contemporaries. You feel the caustic chokehold of Celeste and subterranean rumble of Fórn, imbibe the cathartic atmospherics of Owl and recognize an urban cousin of Inter Arma’s magisterial heft and stately sense of epic. Front and center, a cloud of bleak nihilism recalling Lord Mantis permeates the album, hand in hand with the dehumanizing influence of Godflesh, yet there are moments of poetic beauty and downright serenity, such as during the pious heights of “Le Gouffre Es Devant.” Such associations contribute to Champ du Sang’s mesmerizing character, but the French duo’s debut full length never feels derivative; instead, Champ du Sang possesses a unique identity of cataclysmic blackened sludge rich in dark psychedelia and industrial gloom that makes it one of the surprise highlights of the year which demands wider attention.
18. White Ward – Love Exchange Failure
One of the inherent wonders of metal is its capability to convey a dramatic sense of place and ambiance; in the case of White Ward’s sophomore release, urban malaise driven by the tyranny of glowing rectangular screens and the omnipresent gaze of CCTV, the cold indifference of metal fences and gated communities, barriers both invisible and concrete separating us from each other and denying genuine human connection and fueling alienation and isolation. Still, Love Exchange Failure is by no means a sci-fi dystopia, but a somber reflection of contemporary societal ills and quotidian struggle that is grounded in reality. White Ward’s expressive post-black metal encapsulates warmth, owing to the fluid integration of the saxophone and the resulting Bohren-esque aura of neo-noir and smoke, which provides the album with rare neo-noir elegance while keeping everything equal parts relatable and adventurous.
17. Allegaeon – Apoptosis
With Apoptosis, Allegaeon found the Goldilocks zone with their amazingly tasty ideal-ration combination of technical, progressive and melodic death metal. Overflowing with impressive technicality and stellar performances both individual and collective, the album oozes creativity and wild fun. It rips, slaps and slays, but in a way that benefits the album’s conceptual content and enables enjoyment and appreciation both at the primal and cerebral levels. Most importantly, let it be known that Charles was on the right side of history.
16. The Great Old Ones – Cosmicism
Once again, the merry Frenchmen descended from the mountains of madness to let loose their latest avalanche of Cthulhu-approved monstrous wall of sound and horror worthy of their namesakes. The tone and atmosphere remain oppressive and obsidian, but with a massive forward-momentum driven by interlocking layers of furious riffs and surprisingly catchy icy melodies that guide the listener through the blizzard and into the maw of untold horrors.
15. Borknagar – True North
I owe Borknagar a huge apology. Displaying willful ignorance and prejudice, until now I had fully ignored them on account of ostensibly embodying the worst clichés of black metal, inexplicably somehow equal parts hackneyed second-wave corpse paint galore and pompously operatic avant-garde. Imagine then my embarrassment and surprise when the cinematic hooks and anthemic magnificence of True North and highlights such as “Up North” hit me, full of masterful melodies and evocative compositions, and all this crowned by ICS Vortex’s soaring, inimitable vocals.
14. Panzerfaust – The Suns of Perdition – Chapter I: War, Horrid War
Few bands can claim to sound as massive as Panzerfaust’s wall-of-sound carnage. On the first chapter of a planned tetralogy, Panzerfaust discharge a monstrous death roar of humanity and the tens of millions who perished in the senseless madness of war in the past century. Make no mistake, this is brutal and harrowing music that channels its subject matter in grim hues and evokes the oppressive weight of our collective failure as a species, owing to our capacity and willingness to unleash hellfire capable of nation-devouring, planetary-scale devastation.
13. Inter Arma – Sulphur English
Sulphur English is like Cormac McCarthy dropped acid and wrote a tale of burning prairie vistas. Inter Arma operate in their own pocket of reality, doing their peculiar thing where they continuously readjust the boundaries of its sonic landscape by combining every imaginable sub-genre of extreme metal and dystopian Americana into a world-ending sonic concoction. The palpable threat of the impending apocalypse is omnipresent on Sulphur English, immanentized with primal fury, tribal rhythms, howling madness and dark psychedelia.
12. Syberia – Seeds of Change
Syberia’s previous album Resiliency claimed a spot on my best of 2016 list, where I lauded its “optimism and an adolescent sense of wonder, exploration and endless possibility that is notably absent in much of metal.” I am delighted to report that Seeds of Change blows Resiliency out of the water and quickly made its way on my list of best instrumental post-rock/post-metal albums of the decade. It exceeded my already high expectations by being simultaneously colossal, triumphant, epic, resplendent, propulsive, thrilling, uplifting and painted with vivid colors and passionate brushstrokes.
11. Cult of Luna – A Dawn to Fear
Almost 20 years after their debut album, Cult of Luna still have not ceased to redefine, surprise and amaze. A Dawn to Fear is saturated with majestic trepidation, where everything is always about to collapse under the pulverizing weight of colossal riffs and the earth shall be riddled by raining mercury. At this stage in their illustrious career, Cult of Luna have mastered the art of stoic restraint that is harnessed to create and sustain an enveloping ebb and flow, which carries the listener through shadowy soundscapes and chasmic valleys, patiently ratcheting up tension before the hammer inevitably falls. By opting for warm textures and an organic tone and imbuing their music with haunting serenity and room to breathe, Cult of Luna transfigure the familiar and terraform the barren into something gorgeous and exalted.
10. Cognizance – Malignant Dominion
Let me be perfectly clear: the gents comprising Cognizance form an incredibly lean death metal muscle machine. Malignant Dominion emits charm and a sense of absolute control and lockstep operation, and the music on display is jam-packed with tactically executed hairpin turns and curveballs that are delivered with surgical precision that impressively eschews sterile technicality. Cognizance spew nimble fretwork, soaring leads and carefully sprinkled dashes of atmospheric magic with dazzling gusto, yet they manage to make the execution of their technically demanding trade seem so easy-breezy, thanks to incisive songwriting and razor-sharp riffing devoid of meaningless showboating.
9. Kaleikr – Heart of Lead
Kaleikr’s progressive death/black metal carries the influence and charm of Enslaved (post-Axioma Ethica Odini) and Opeth (circa early-2000s) and with Heart of Lead the Icelandic duo take it to the next level and new dimensions with their twisting compositions, serpentine structures and uncanny melodies which possess a magically shapeshifting texture that is simultaneously permeated with a frosty, crystalline tone and a volcanic radiance of a warm psychedelic haze and earthy hues. Heart of Lead reaches staggering summits from the get-go and constantly erupts with brilliance and memorable turns toward even greater transcendence.
8. The Moth Gatherer – Esoteric Oppression
The Moth Gatherer wield the power to shift tectonic plates and make them gracefully glide over each other like the layers and electronic soundscapes that are omnipresent on Esoteric Oppression, an album that is simultaneously sorrowful and defiant as well as droning and punishing. At the level of songwriting, an elemental fury meets numinous beauty, in moments where Victor Wegeborn’s hoarse bellow shatters coastlines and the band’s performance reaches a level of impeccable tightness, where an unfathomable weight and pressure magically coexist with a sense of weightlessness, in sumptuous sonic harmony and thematic unity.
7. Saor – Forgotten Paths
To my ears, most folk-infused metal sounds artificially rustic or groan-inducing, but Andy Marshall’s Saor is a rare exception, owing to his mastery of epic songwriting and soaring melodies which paint awe-inspiring, vivid vistas that convey the rushing swell of ecstatic emotions when experiencing the sublime inherent in nature. The compositions are grandiose yet breathe with immediacy and brim with poetic authenticity, where you can smell the moss and morning dew, hear the streams and feel the first rays of the rising sun on your face. Very few metal albums make the heart pound and you feel alive as Forgotten Paths does.
6. Gruzja – Jeszcze nie mamy na was pomysłu
In a year when my preferences in metal often prioritized densely layered complexity and artful sophistication, Gruzja provided an unexpected exception with their rambunctious, beer-soaked black metal debauchery that is infectious as syphilis at a drunken orgy. Jeszcze nie mamy na was pomysłu has earworms and hooks aplenty, coupled with raunchy weirdness and sandblasted riffing, and permeated with raucous crust punk energy and gloomy coldwave influence, like Fenriz, Damian Master and Hank von Hell eloped to a grimy suburb in Poland and binged on cheap lager and shrooms to fuel their creativity. Gruzja’s music is utterly bonkers yet immediately accessible, a rare feat and commendable achievement for any band operating in the left-field fringes of metal, also serving as a stellar example of the amorphous quintessence of black metal and its boundless artistic possibilities.
5. Alcest – Spiritual Instinct
It took Alcest until their sixth album to completely win me over but it was well worth the persistent wait, given the sensational beauty of Spiritual Instinct and the way the album masterfully finds a way of being at once strikingly immediate and abundantly lush, where aching awe and dreamlike immersion wrap you in ethereal gossamer and Neige’s vocals achieve seraphic qualities, while the album’s undeniable heart of black metal pumps injections of liquid aggression that transform into unforgettably stirring melodies and fist-pumping emotional impact, revealing that invisible oranges grow amply in the trees of Neige’s dreamland.
4. Warforged – I: Voice
On the heels of two banner years for envelope-pushing death metal, I observed a relative lack of such releases (with some magnificent exceptions) during the first half of 2019. Then Chicago’s Warforged arrived and delivered their mind-bending debut full length I: Voice, an astonishing feat equal parts demonic fury and weightless bliss where the core often melts and approaches sublime abstraction, before reintegrating from the brink of annihilation and shape-shifting into something truly terrifying and destructive. The lysergic flow of the songs dissolves any boundaries between, and imbues the whole with infinite marvel to explore, while new layers and pathways appear upon successive listens. With I: Voice, Warforged claim membership in the pantheon of truly progressive and visionary death metal bands.
3. Waste of Space Orchestra – Syntheosis
To shamelessly quote Vincent and my collaborative review at length, listening to Waste of Space Orchestra’s Syntheosis is akin to “witnessing abstract concepts swirling and coalescing around us,” a profound encounter where “concrete meets abstract and both are reconciled to pure absolute,” “in the sublime manner of an eternally recurring sonic metamorphosis equal parts primal and cerebral.” Furthermore, “Syntheosis embraces perfection in moments when different constituent elements break free, assume momentary dominance and set direction of travel for the evolutionary journey, until a melting point is reached and everything dissolves and is finally engulfed by the boiling ether; black metal, doom metal, krautrock, psych, free jazz, and ambient all play leapfrog with one another, undulating between genres when not shattering dividing lines between them outright.” What makes the album so remarkable is “the power and texture of Waste of Space Orchestra’s vision and musical narrative, and how its movements and dramatic arc develop into an amorphous state of resplendent and splendorous ever-blossom. In essence, Syntheosis is truly visionary.”
2. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race
I did not necessarily count myself among the zealous fans who awaited Hidden History of the Human Race like the second coming of Cthulhu. Granted, I liked Starspawn and even included it on my 2016 end-of-year list (even if mostly on account of its title track’s death metal perfection), but stellar releases from other death metal luminaries (e.g. Chthe’ilist, Mithras, Setentia) overshadowed the album. Ever since, their tight and thrilling live performances have blown me away and I was admittedly intrigued and excited by their promise of a more progressive and psychedelically adventurous approach on their forthcoming album. But boy oh boy, my embarrassing underestimation of what the band had in store nearly got my metal cred utterly nullified. Hidden History of the Human Race forms an astounding combination of the elements that I love about death metal, by being simultaneously progressive, melodic, technical, visceral, brutal, weird and psychedelic as well as cosmic in scope and scale, essentially channeling a platonic ideal of death metal that is testament to their mastery of cosmic metallurgy.
1. Schammasch – Hearts of No Light
Both Triangle and The Maldoror Chants: Hermaphrodite ended up among my albums of the year in 2016 and 2017, respectively, so there was no doubt Schammasch would once again claim a spot on my list, but with Hearts of No Light they surpassed my loftiest expectations. I already gushed about the album on our podcast, so will recap and paraphrase myself by portraying Hearts of No Light as an artifact of sublime beauty and alchemical purity, best described and understood, with a nod to the group’s past releases, through contradictions and geometry; a point in space where the band operates at the circumcenter of an equilateral triangle of geometric perfection, in absolute symmetry and harmony, equidistant from all the different elements and constellations it has coalesced with its gravitational pull and now radiates in all directions. In terms of contradictions, the album reveals new layers and complexity upon repeat listens, but is at once immediate and knows how to dazzle with riffs and melodic hooks (“A Paradigm of Beauty,” anyone?). It is avant-garde to the bone yet simultaneously visceral and gripping, as well as cerebral, but never navel-gazing. Remarkably, it never degenerates into monocle-wearing whimsy or pretentious oddity for its own sake but finds extravagant ways to constantly up the ante in terms of spiritual connection and emotional impact (witness the genius of the sequence on “I Burn Within You” where Aldrahn the guest maestro brings the song to a dramatic halt with an operatic exclamation that quickly transforms into a beautiful passage of weightless catharsis followed by a rapidly swelling thunderstorm which culminates in a rhapsodic epiphany for the ages). It cannot be happenstance that Schammasch are located in the birthplace of LSD, as the terroir of Basel must have inspired their music with an alluring lysergic texture and otherworldly mood. Everything serves a higher purpose, be it a seemingly errant note ringing or a drone echoing (case in point: the sonorous timbre and grain of the sparse bass guitar plucks that enrich the vibrant flamenco guitars and trancing tribal percussion on “Innermost, Lowermost Abyss,” a 15-minute instrumental which traverses hallowed worlds without overstaying its welcome). The way the Hearts of No Light flows as though according to a great plan, without showing any seams, is nothing short of miraculous and even with a 67-minute duration, the album is absolutely immersive and redefines time, space and being. Breathtaking and full of marvel, Hearts of No Light excites the senses, emotions and intellect into a state of ritual, rapturous ecstasy. A true masterpiece and a crowning achievement, which leaves everyone breathless and wondering where the band will head in the future.