I have thought about this often and watching this presentation only confirmed that, as metalheads, I think many of us might be naturally predisposed towards pessimism (I’m fairly optimistic when it comes to my own personal trajectory, but not when it comes to our collective future). Our choice of music expresses the ills of the world and the worst parts of the human experience without really offering any solutions. To paraphrase the presenter, we have our pulse on the conscience of humankind – and it’s not pretty.
But then I read books like this and articles like this, and I think, “Perhaps the world isn’t as bad as we think it is. Perhaps there’s hope.” Perhaps if our pessimism identifies social ills, then maybe the optimists out there can actually create and implement plans of action!
10. Awaken, Agrimonia
Like Martyrdöd, Agrimonia is easily able to balance melody and aggression with its foundation of crusty D-beat goodness. The forlorn melodies and acoustic passages are reminiscent of bands like Agalloch or early In Flames, but the heft of the low-tuned guitars and hefty bass drum adds a powerful punch. An excellent return after a five-year absence.
9. Life in Disgust, Suffering Quota
I was immediately reminded of Brutal Truth when I heard this album. Brutal Truth always had a slightly sloppy sound that was sometimes on the verge of spiraling out of control into complete chaos. This aspect of their sound had as much to do with Richard Hoak’s undisciplined drumming style as much as it did Brent McCarty’s off-kilter guitar style (to say nothing of Dan Lilker’s grinding bass or Kevin Sharp’s hoarse barks). Suffering Quota’s sound is reminiscent in both its straddling of chaos and order but also the band’s approach to grindcore in general: the songs are dynamic and eminently memorable.
8. A Patient Man, Cult Leader
Lightless Walk was one of my top 10 albums of 2015, so I was really excited about Cult Leader’s 2018 effort. I would say that they have really expanded their sound and have become more confident songwriters. Whereas many of the tracks from Lightless Walk were short and to the point, the new tracks on A Patient Man showcase their expanded songwriting capabilities (“Isolation in the Land of Milk and Honey”), their ability to repeat riffs in interesting ways (playing with time signatures, rhythms, etc.) (“I Am Healed”), and their penchant for repeating breakdowns until you’re shattered into a million pieces (“Autumn Recluse”). These are musical characteristics of Gaza (three of the four members of Cult Leader used to play in Gaza), but I would argue that Cult Leader executes them more effectively here.
On the other hand, I have never been a fan of Cult Leader’s slower material, and that same sentiment definitely carries over to A Patient Man. I feel like their slow songs lack direction. It often feels like they are repeating the same motif for six minutes with little to no buildup or dynamics. I feel like if they work on layering or developing a bit more progression in their slower songs, I won’t feel compelled to skip over those tracks. If it weren’t for those slower tracks, I think A Patient Man would be placed much higher on my list.
7. Magus, Thou
Thou had quite the year: one LP, three EPs, and one split. They explored a different sound for every EP (broadly: sludgy grunge, sludgy experimental noise, and experimental/acoustic) which culminated with an LP that not only combines all three of those disparate sounds but also most resembles a continuation of their downtrodden sludgy doom that they are known for.
While I haven’t kept up too well with Thou over the years (Summit was the last album of theirs I gave more than one listen to – and that is an incredible album, by the way), this album seems like a considerable step forward in the evolution of their sound. It seems like the focus they gave each of the aforementioned sounds on their three EPs this year allowed them to finetune each one of those aspects of their sound on Magus.
6. We Already Lost The World, Birds in Row
Birds in Row is a scrappy post-hardcore band from France. Their sound seems to have been derived equally from screamo, 90s post-hardcore, and metalcore à la Converge. There was a three-year gap between their 2015 album Personal War and We Already Lost The World, and it shows in how much their sound has expanded since then. We Already Lost The World shows a punk band not relying on sheer aggression, but relying on a wide range of influences to create a dynamic and eclectic sound.
5. Love in Shadow, Sumac
I’ll admit, despite being a huge fan of Aaron Turner’s two most high-profile bands, ISIS and Old Man Gloom, it took me some time to appreciate Sumac. Sumac specializes in slow plodding heavy dissonance with obvious nods towards Godflesh and SWANS accompanied by a metallic guitar twang that would make Steve Albini envious. Their first two albums, 2015’s The Deal and 2016’s What One Becomes, were both good, but I felt like they didn’t warrant multiple listens. Love in Shadow is the opposite for me.
There are dynamics here that I don’t recall existing on their first two full-lengths. The songs here not only structurally twist and turn, but those twists and turns are also accompanied by extended passages filled with a lot more explorations of empty space than you would normally expect from a band like Sumac. Sumac has experimented with improvisation and empty space a little bit before, but I would argue not to such an expert level as they demonstrate here. Some of these passages, like in the track “The Ecstasy of Unbecoming”, seem to exist in free time and seem mostly improvised. I’m guessing their collaboration last year with avant-garde extraordinaire Keiji Haino really influenced these new explorations. Keiji Haino is especially known for his noise and improvisation, and the boys in Sumac certainly obliged those tendencies of Haino’s musical repertoire their collaboration album American Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous To Look At Face On.
I typically balk at avant-garde music’s self-imposed obscurity and pretentious rejection of music norms, but I very much appreciate Sumac working these elements into their rhythmic onslaught as it adds a whole new layer to their sound that finally brought me around.
4. Closet Witch, Closet Witch
Talk about last minute! I literally just heard this album in early January, and it instantly became one of my favorite grindcore albums of the year! I honestly know nothing about the band except that they’re from Iowa. Steely and precise without being clinically over-produced, this band rips through 13 tracks of cathartic rage.
3. Our Raw Hearts, YOB
Near-death experiences can be really inspiring. Of course, I wouldn’t know. But Mike Sheidt of YOB does. In January 2017, the man almost died of a disease that he had been managing for a time. What came from those experiences and his newfound appreciation for life are found on Our Raw Hearts.
One might expect the experience to placate YOB’s music – that Mike and co. would forego, or at least lessen, the muscle and intensity that so often has characterized their music. However, it takes one listen to “The Screen” to know that that’s not the case at all. On the other hand, “Beauty in Falling Leaves” is quite possibly the most beautiful and vulnerable YOB song that they have produced, and I have no shame in admitting that I have been nearly brought to tears on multiple occasions while listening to this track.
While YOB is known for their lurching, pounding aggression, they have always had a spiritual layer, especially as it concerns their lyrics
2. A Path Unknown, ION
I feel like the label “progressive black metal” conjures up very specific sounds for different listeners: some might think of bands like Enslaved or Ihsahn who have mixed elements of progressive rock into their metal sounds. Some might think of bands like Arcturus or Sigh who go to great lengths to reach outside of their black metal toolbox in order to confound their listeners. Some might think of the Ved Buens Ende style of off-kilter jazz-inflected black metal. Still, some might conjure other modes of the more outlier forms of the blackest of metals that suit their particular definition.
ION’s particular brand of progressive black metal can’t really be compared to any of the aforementioned styles or bands. The songs are long and structurally complex, sure, that’s one thing that stands out compared to the aforementioned bands (the shortest song is more than 17 minutes). But the thing that stands out the most for me is the transcendental nature of their music: ambient sections, huge guitar chords awash in delay and chorus effects accentuated by lush keyboards and synthesizers, and occasional tasteful clean vocals.
“I, II, III” features an extended ambient section that contains an increasingly serpentine synth sound and subtle guitar feedback that eventually bursts into tribal drumming and unhinged synth and guitar noise. “V” begins with a repetitive hypnotic chord progression that is eventually joined by monotone, ritualistic vocals reminiscent of Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley.
I realize this description makes it sound as if this album is all over the place. In reality, I believe ION do the “progressive” part tastefully while showing off their range and talented musicianship, and that’s why this is my favorite black metal album of the year.
1.Only Love, The Armed
One second. There is just one second of rapid arpeggiations emanating from an analog modulator before bursting open into pure, unadulterated chaos for the next 38 minutes and 22 seconds. This first track of Only Love, “Witness”, alone displays almost all of the musical angles the listener can explore during this audial puzzle of an album: unbridled dissonance, electronic tomfoolery, triumphant major-chord climaxes, and twisted pop sensibilities.
It’s hard to put into words what the aim of this album is, and I believe that this is intentional. There is a bewildering schizophrenia that accompanies the listener throughout the album, because, in my opinion, it’s an album that reflects our uncertain times: the fast-paced hyperconnectivity of our digital lives, the uncertain domestic and international political climate, the existential angst that accompanies a generation adrift in the aether of meaninglessness – all of this comes crashing together. But, I think underneath the chaos of it all, as cheesy as it might be, this album conveys hope and love. The band doesn’t make it easy to hear or identify, but there, lurking beneath the musical whirlwind of mayhem and the lyrical nods towards nihilism, is the epiphany of love and hope. When you give up on everything, perhaps those are the only things that you can hold onto. Motivational, if nothing else.
This sentiment is even felt during the climax of “Role Models” in which vocalist Randall Kupfer screams “EVERYTHING DIES!” In some ways a trite line of lyrics for this style of music, there is something hopeful and transformative in that recognition when that scream is accompanied by noisy, uplifting, percussively-accented major chords.
While anyone might be hard-pressed to call The Armed metal, they are certainly extreme. The intentionally obscure Detroit band has pushed their sound to new (and often, puzzling) extremes, both high and low, and that’s what made this the album my favorite, and most played, of the year.
Head Cage, Pig Destroyer
Vile Luxury, Imperial Triumphant
Viscères, Blind Torture Kill
The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness, Panopticon
Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It, Rolo Tomassi
Dark Days of the Soul, Voidhanger
Loved, Ken Mode
Glowing Civilization, Ramuh
Top Non-Metal Albums (in no order)
Here are some of my favorite non-metal albums of the year: everything from house music to emo to folk. I decided not to separate them out by genre this time.
Saved, Now, Now
Compro, Skee Mask
Knock Knock, DJ Koze
Forth Wanderers, Forth Wanderers
Rock Island, Palm
Swell, Tiny Moving Parts
On Watch, Slow Mass
Million Dollars to Kill Me, Joyce Manor
Tracer, Burning House
You Can’t Stay Here, Iron Chic
Minor Tantrums, Lifted Bells
abysskiss, Adrianne Lenker
Double Negative, Low
Third, Nathan Salsburg