credit: Mike Teal
Greetings. I’m Judge Dredd. I practice law. Metal law, that is. In fact, metal IS the law as far as I’m concerned. Below, you will find my favorite albums of 2019. These are the albums that tickled my pickle the most this year.
While I’ll the wax poetic about the last decade in my “Judge Dredd’s Dreaded Top 10 of the 2010s” write-up, I’ll just reflect on my year here. One of the subjects that has been dominating my thoughts this year is my relationship to work, and thanks to a flurry of articles and podcast episodes about it from earlier in the year, I have a name for it: workism. Essentially, it’s the way that people derive self-value from work first and foremost. In this world, it’s a portfolio (forget the badge!) of honor to be able to describe in laborious detail how busy you are with different assignments and projects. I’m definitely guilty of this, but I’ve recognized it’s an issue, and I’m taking steps to address it.
It makes it hard that I’m in a temporary position that affords endless professional development opportunities – many of which are of my own making. Knowing that I’m in this position for a limited amount of time makes the temptation too strong to simply let go of the professional opportunities that abound around me. For me, it’s a battle to balance the plethora of professional opportunities with a healthy dose of regular ‘ol life.
So, here’s to 2020 bringing a better work-life balance: more time for friends, family, and free time away from work!
Now, on to the list:
Metal Top 10:
10. A Beacon in the Husk, Abyssal
Abyssal’s 2015 album Antikatastaesis was in my Top 10 for that year. I was initially a little disappointed with A Beacon in the Husk, and I think this is because there is a lot more plodding material on the latter as compared to the former. And quite frankly, I’m often bored by slow music (didn’t you notice all of the grindcore/hardcore on this list? Not yet? Oh, you will). However, what makes the slower aspects of Abyssal’s brand of blackened death/doom tolerable is the atmosphere of abstract horror and cavernous malevolence.
I don’t know if I’m crazy, but I get the sense that the production intentionally changes as the album progresses. The mix and production of the first two or three tracks seem especially muddled and buried, respectively, but by the last few tracks, the production is a lot more clear (albeit, still with that cavernous aspect). If I’m not crazy and this was done intentionally, I think it’s absolutely genius. In a way, this would play on the album title and what I can gather from the lyrics. A hidden (husk) light (beacon) that would need to be opened or revealed in order to transcend. However, in the context of the music, it gives the listener the feeling of emerging from the internal netherworld, the darkness of the soul, only to realize what one has transcended to something far from the revealing enlightenment one was expecting. Instead, just more unresolved darkness.
9. Sulphur English, Inter Arma
To be honest, I’m not sure if I have ever given Inter Arma a chance before. I know that a lot of their albums have been critically acclaimed, but for some reason, the tracks I’ve heard here and there have never piqued my interest.
That changed with the gargantuan monstrosity that is Sulphur English. Gargantuan monstrosity. Do I mean that in the best way possible? Yes. Am I being redundant? No, because it cannot be emphasized enough.
The music on Sulphur English is powerful and ominous, but the ways in which they express those sounds vary considerably between psychedelic tribal mysticism (“Howling Lands”), unholy stoned folk and blues space exploration (much of “Blood on the Lupines” and “Stillness”), and sheer brute force (“A Waxen Sea” and “Citadel”).
Inter Arma has finally caught my attention, and now I think I can explore their back catalogue with greater attention.
8. Broken Play, A Pregnant Light
A Pregnant Light (APL) is the solo project of Damien Master (a native Kansan, I might add). APL’s 2014 album, My Game Doesn’t Have a Name, was my #1 album that year.
You would be forgiven for calling APL’s style post-black metal, but the sound is far from Deafheaven copycats are and have been producing for the last decade. What APL does well is striking a unique balance between rock, melodic post-hardcore, and black metal. Throughout the album, one hears big rock chord progressions, hardcore barks, melodic arpeggiations, tremolo picking, and blast beats — sometimes all within the same song. However, the style here is cohesive enough where the mix of styles doesn’t sound slapdash. Far from it.
What APL doesn’t do well is straightforward aggro hardcore/black metal, found on the title track and “Future Panther”, without the melodic emotionality and other elements that really distinguish Damien’s style from any other artist I know. If he more consistently kept the balance among all of his musical tendencies in ALL of the tracks, this album would have been a lot higher on the list for me.
7. Buried in Light, Call of the Void
Sadly, this is Call of the Void’s final album, but what a way to go out! While they continue their balancing-act sound of hardcore, sludge, and grindcore, Buried in Light is by far their best, most memorable effort. While a lot of bands playing any of those subgenres alone or in combination struggle to make stand-out songs (IMHO, of course), Call of the Void draws on each one of those influences equally to make memorable songs that absolutely CRUSH. One way that they accomplish this is by having notable vocal refrains that serve as simple shout-along choruses à la old school hardcore coupled with somewhat catchy riffs that balance technicality and brutality.
Rest In Power, Call of the Void.
6. The Grand Descent, Fuming Mouth
In terms of dimed-out HM-2 pedal-worshipping, death metal-influenced hardcore bands (and despite all of the modifiers, there are A LOT of those bands — and a lot of uninspired ones at that), Fuming Mouth takes the cake this year. The Grand Descent absolutely destroys from beginning to end.
5. IV, Die Choking
The first grindcore album you will see on this list, but most certainly not the last! Die Choking is by far one of the most musically impressive grindcore bands I’m aware of. They definitely take the approach of quality over quantity: their last album was released four years ago and contained 11 tracks for a grand total of 13 minutes and 50 seconds whereas IV contains 13 tracks with an impressive 19 minutes and 36 seconds worth of music. After reading their interview with Decibel earlier this year, it’s clear that it’s not just this approach that contributed to the creation of this particular collection of songs or the long intermittent period between albums, but the band was also beset by several instances of personal loss — experiences that very much influenced this album.
But the quality is most assuredly there. The songwriting is detailed. The musicianship is precise. Basically, these are some of the most memorable, technical, and powerful minute and minute-and-a-half long grindcore songs I’ve ever heard.
4. Pollinator, Cloud Rat
While Cloud Rat has put out numerous quality splits and compilations since 2015, nothing they have put out quite compares to the brilliance of that year’s Qliphoth LP. From my perspective, Qliphoth seemed outwardly directed. The music is generally more on the aggressive side with some occasional pensive moments and experimentalism. The lyrics, although abstract in nature, often seem directed at others through snapshots of vivid descriptions and nameless accusations. It’s an outwardly directed indictment at the world which surrounds the self.
On the other hand, Pollinator seems to be more inwardly focused. There are moments when the desperation in vocalist Madison Marshall’s voice sounds like she’s being subsumed by quicksand and she’s clawing for something — a branch, a sturdy rock — anything to keep from asphyxiating in the perceived sense of self. The lyrics are still abstract, but they now seem centered on Madison’s struggles as a woman to define herself against forces that would keep her silent and subservient. This inward exploration and assertion of the self matches the music as many of the songs are musically more reflective but full of righteous anger. Just like the LP before it, Pollinator is still filled with expert-level musicianship (see: drumming on “Wonder”), but it’s also emotionally draining grindcore lashing back at Prowler in the Yard‘s anti-hero’s male predatory gaze.
3. The Furnaces of Palingenesia, Deathspell Omega
DsO has been one of my favorite metal bands ever since 2007’s Fas-Ite Maledicti In Ignem Aeternum. Since then, I’ve continued to be intrigued by every aspect of the band: the shroud of mystery, the inhuman musicianship, and the convoluted philosophy behind the music and lyrics. Regarding the latter, the release of The Furnaces of Palingenesia was accompanied by an extremely rare interview with an unnamed source who is supposedly part of the band. The answers to the interview questions read like a dense, meandering philosophical manifesto that seemingly name-drops every philosopher of note for the last few hundred years: Hegel, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hobbes, Heidegger, Arendt — you name it. On top of that, the interviewee references various authors, musicians, composers, sociologists, and theologists. Pompous though it might be, I am a sucker for high-minded art.
From Fas-Ite Maledicti In Ignem Aeternum through Synarchy of Molten Bones, DsO went from musical extreme to musical extreme. However, on The Furnaces of Palingenesia, the band took it down a notch. It’s difficult to know if it was because it was recorded live with analog equipment or if they were simply just aiming for a more streamlined sound, but everything is dialed back except for the philosophical density of the lyrics and concept. According to the unnamed source in the interview, it sounded as if they had the intention of performing the music live at some point.
The effect that the dialed-back sound has is that it makes the album sound more human. And I think that is especially noteworthy because, while their previous albums have focused on the theosophy behind their Bataille-influenced “Orthodox” Satanism, this one is firmly grounded in the human experience. Conceptually, it seems like much of the album is a commentary on the power of private and public institutions to subvert the autonomy of individuals, whether that be by modern methods such as surveillance capitalism, or by more traditional methods such as using brute state force.
Essentially, The Furnaces of Palingenesia is a well-thought-out anti-authoritarian manifesto for a new dark age.
2. Nothing Left to Love, Counterparts
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t believe in guilt; I only believe in pleasure. If there is an album in my top 10 this year that could be construed as a “guilty” pleasure, then this would be it. But, since I don’t feel guilty about listening to it, we’ll just leave it at “pleasure”. While 2017’s You’re Not You Anymore was one of my honorable mentions of that year, it may be the album from that year that I’ve most often returned to. Compared to that album, Counterparts has largely outdone themselves with Nothing Left to Love. I’m not generally a fan of melodic metalcore (or metalcore in general), but Counterparts (and the recently broken up Napoleon) hit all the right spots for me. Songs like “Separate Wounds” contain instantly memorable choruses juxtaposed with slamming breakdowns with enough impressive technicality in between the two to keep things interesting.
Similar to the lyrical melodramaticism of A Pregnant Light, Counterparts have nothing to hide regarding their proverbial heart on the sleeve, and that’s one of the reasons I like it: it’s sincere. If there is anything that I’m tired of in the music world, it’s that so much modern music has lost its sense of sincerity and instead is buried under layers and layers of irony.
Nothing Left to Love is cheesy. It’s melodramatic, for sure. But it’s MY kind melodrama.
1. No One Knows What The Dead Think, No One Knows What The Dead Think
Without a doubt my most highly anticipated album this year. I was keeping up with the progress of this album since I first saw vocalist Jon Chang post about it on the old Discordance Axis Facebook page a couple of years ago. As anyone familiar with my metal tastes knows, The Inalienable Dreamless by DA is one of my favorite metal albums of all time. When I found out that the aforementioned Chang and guitarist Rob Marton would be reuniting, I was very excited, to say the least.
Obviously, because of The Inalienable Dreamless’ legendary status, both in my eyes and in the eyes of the international grind freak community, I knew that the chances that this release would pale in comparison were quite high. And honestly, it does.
Having said that, I still think this is the best grind album of the year. This is most definitely not an attempt at The Inalienable Dreamless 2.0 (and despite Chang’s implication that this project was the logical conclusion to what DA started). While DA has spawned several copycat bands in the intervening years between their dissolution and the formation of this project, there is now no other band that can lay claim to sound like No One Knows What The Dead Think. This is because Chang and Marton do an adept job at balancing some uniquely DA qualities with some new elements. In particular, Marton’s playing is significantly more melodic than it ever was with DA.
A friend once told me that he thinks that the best bands are “world creating”. Interpret that as you will, but that’s exactly how I feel about No One Knows What The Dead Think as well as Chang’s other projects — the aesthetic, the worldview, the emotions. I feel like I’m entering into an unreplicable creative world when I listen to a Chang project, at once cohesive and abstract. And even moreso when Marton is part of that world.
Honorable Mentions (in no order)
Terminal Threshold, Dysrhythmia
Syntheosis, Waste of Space Orchestra
To Bathe from the Throat of Cowardice, Vitriol
Curse These Metal Hands, Pijn/Conjurer
Love Exchange Failure, White Ward
I: Voice, Warforged
III, In Human Form
Sacramental Death Qualia, Haunter
Jord och aska, Nasheim
Alizarin Refraction, Human
Par Le Sang Vérse, Véhémence
Het Wassen Oog, Laster
Clairvoyant, State Faults
Favorite Non-Metal (in no order)
Overall non-metal favorites
Means to Me, Long Beard
True Love, Devon Welsh
Optimal Lifestyles, Pkew Pkew Pkew
Basking in the Glow, Oso Oso
Un-becoming, J. Robbins
i,i, Bon Iver
Venus in Leo, by HTRK
New Hell, Greet Death
Phoenix, Pedro The Lion
Of Violence, Town Portal
Sea of Worry, Have A Nice Life
Four of Arrows, Great Grandpa
Ad Matres, Ventura
Reap What You Sow, Better Off
I Am Easy to Find, The National
Somewhere City, Origami Angel
breathe, Tiny Moving Parts
Volume II, Topdown Electric
Dreams are not Enough, Telefon Tel Aviv
It Should Be Us, Andy Stott
Dawn Chorus, Jacques Greene
XYZ, Iglooghost feat. Kai Whiston & BABii
Heavy Merging, Patricia
Modern Mirror, Drab Majesty
Dreaming the Dark, Tamaryn
Clarity, Kim Petras
Inside the Rose, These New Puritans
Ventura, Anderson Paak
Flamagra, Flying Lotus