You know the rule: full lengths only. Beyond that it's all fair game, but I'll spoil it right away and say that the list wound up being all metal again. What can I say? It's what I listen to the most. There is one non-metal album I really expected to crack the top thirteen, but it feel just a hair short by the time I was done ordering and reordering the list. In the words of the immortal Captain Tenneal, "llllLET'S GO"
Three times now, Abnormality and Unfathomable Ruination have released albums in the same year, and for the second time now, the superior band has changed. I can't help but see these two as sister bands to one another by sheer coincidence, but the pattern held true this year, and just like in 2012, when Abnormality is the victor, they wind up on the list. In many ways, they're the band I wish Suffocation still was. That's not to say Suffo's last album wasn't great (it did win AOTY in 2017 after all), but I still see it as something of a fluke until a followup proves me wrong. Abnormality sounds straight out of the Cerrito era, with big heaps of modern tech death thrown into the savage hacksaw riffs of their obvious influence like Hour of Penance and Cattle Decapitation. This is brutality nearly perfected.
Sunn had two incredible albums this year, with Life Metal only ever so slightly edging out Pyroclasts for the purposes of this list. This is the first drone album to ever rank as a finalist on these lists of mine, but Stephen and Greg really went above and beyond with this one. This obviously isn't my usual genre but the way they blend ethereal soundscapes with overwhelming heaviness seems to hit the sweet spot for me. This percussion-less fuzz just washes over the listener and transports them to whatever incorporeal hellbliss in on the cover. I think one tiny change that really wound up helping was simply not including Attila on vocals. He's not always around, obviously, but on three of the albums I liked before, he was on two of them, and he's been their live guy for eons. Swapping him out for the breathy coos of Hildur Guðnadóttir was sheer brilliance.
If Bell Witch can be credited for anything, it can be introducing the world to Mariusz Lewandowski, apparently the only human being in the universe who can passably emulate the legendary Zdzislaw Beksinski's art style, and as a result this nearly 60 year old painter is suddenly the most in-demand artist in the entire metal world. Minnesota's False won the art lottery this year and were able to get his art to grace Portent, which, frankly, happens to be one of the best black metal releases of the year. For reasons I can't adequately explain, I could (accurately) sense that this was a band that would get random shit thrown at them, maybe for the overwhelming melody and meteoric rise in the scene displacing artists seen as more "deserving" or whatever, but the fact of the matter is that the three lengthy songs here are basically a forty minute long cumshot.
I've given these guys a review already this year, but Seattle's greatest secret held on to make the top ten here. Xoth's brand of death metal is more of the Mithras variety than anybody else, and I seem to be the only one saying such a thing. Maybe I need to listen to Mithras again, but this is exactly the kind of wild screaming I remember the lead guitars doing there, and it's just as good here as it is there. This is basically the musical equivalent of a cartoony but ultraviolent comic book, just wreaking havoc with reckless abandon at every turn, and those lead melodies I love so much keep this exceptionally stylish. Interdimensional Invocations is everything I ever wanted and more, and in a lesser year this would've been an easy top five finish. 2019 just happened to be particularly stacked.
Can I get a new color scheme finally? Thank you. I wanted to hate this album out of spite. I hate how Blood Incantation swims in hype and praise for basically doing the same thing hundreds of other bands are doing right now (though with more Morbid Angel influence than most, which helps) and I've gone on record many times saying Dark Descent Records is really fucking boring when it comes to death metal. But here we are, making the list again. I don't think this is perfect, I don't like how it only has four tracks, one of which is instrumental and a different one of which is nearly twenty minutes long. It's both lacking in material while being excessive. But despite my prejudices and despite the fact that I think Starspawn is their superior album, this is still in the top ten. Because it is seriously that fucking good.
This will probably surprise most of you, but this is actually the last death metal album on the list! It's true, my favorite genre just really didn't hit me as hard this year, but that didn't stop several stunners from landing on my radar regardless, and Venom Prison found themselves the best of the bunch. Venom Prison finds themselves among the front of the pack when it comes to the burgeoning scene of explicitly leftist/anti-capitalist/feminist extreme metal, and holy shit did they earn their place. My usual complaint with lefty metal is simply that it's never angry enough, but I'm not sure I've heard anything as caustic and visceral as Samsara this year. That grotesque blend of punishing groove and downhill-running adrenaline hasn't sounded this fucking dangerous in a long time. This is what I was hoping the new Misery Index would be.
I can't talk about Batushka anymore. I've put more words to (metaphorical) paper about the drama surrounding the schism in the band than I ever expected, but I can't deny just how much I fucking adore The True Batushka's entry this year. It's painfully clear that Krzysztof wrote Litourgiya back in 2015, because Bart's Hospodi was a boring trainwreck and Panihida here sounds like a spiritual successor in every sense of the word. The overwhelming melody, the deep chants, the perverted sense of worship, everything that made the previous album a modern classic is here in spades, and while it may not surpass its predecessor, it's an extremely worthy followup that I've been spinning fairly regularly for more than half the year now. This is melodic black metal at its near-finest.
I'm not really a sludge guy, but Seer has smashed the door down and cemented themselves as modern titans to me with this album. Vol. 6 is, for the style, a pretty short album, and I think that works in its favor. There were very, very few albums I found myself finishing and immediately restarting this year, but this was one of them. The interplay between the wavering atmosphere and gargantuan riffs, against the backdrop of largely distant vocals, both clean and harsh, with a few rattling falsetto screeches (which you think would clash but only add to the madness) make this nothing short of a home run. My favorite part may actually be the short outro track, believe it or not. The way it ends on that cascading swell feels like a huge inhale, followed by silence. Seer managed to make a minor volume swell sound like a religious experience.
These Ukrainians wound up producing the metal album I never knew I wanted. Like Deafheaven before them, they've eschewed nearly every aesthetic hallmark of black metal and veered their headspace off somewhere no corpsepainted goat-hailers dare to tread. The small addition of something as simple as a saxophone, even (especially) during the loud parts, fills an open space that I didn't even realize most black metal had. There is so much emotion packed so densely into every second of Love Exchange Failure. The quiet darkjazz moments are somehow unobtrusive and unpretentious, and the screaming black metal that takes up the majority of the runtime is some of the most agonizing and soulful I've ever heard. Traditionalists be damned, the true future of black metal that was theorized on Sunbather is fully realized here.
The other future of black metal can be found here, in a small time one-man project from Midwestern America. This is more of the style that Deathspell Omega helped pioneer, with unabashed dissonance and mindblending technicality. Kostnateni is an absolute masterclass in the art of drowning you in walls of riffs so huge that they make even the most beefy of Tone Worship Stoner bands sound like 80s Destruction. The guitars sound like they have thirteen strings, everything feels just slightly out of tune, the drums sound like six dudes playing seven kits at once, everything about this is just... uncomfortable and wrong. The end result is a chaotic nightmare of twisting ghouls that never back off, and it feels like the musical manifestation of an anxiety attack. I mean that in the best possible way.
For all the intricate and emotional albums to be found on this roundup, I think it's actually pretty funny that a stupid grindcore album with one singular goal in mind wound up whipping my ass so fuckin' hard. No One Knows What the Dead Think is essentially a reboot of Discordance Axis, and anybody who knows them (or sister band Grindlink) knows exactly what to expect here. This is wild and uncompromising and features one of the most caustic vocal performances this decade. This release is barely 19 minutes long, but it feels like the scene in Robocop when ED-209 malfunctions and lights up an OCP executive in a hail of ultraviolent gunfire. It's a 19 minute gag reel of destructive violence and there's nothing more I want from my grind.
Mgla's train of excellence just keeps chugging along, rolling in with their fourth excellent album in a row, and the third that could easily be considered among the best of its respective year. At their core, Mgla is "just" black metal with loads of melody, but their knack for infectious riffs and Darkside's astounding drumming is nothing short of breathtaking. The interplay between these two elements helps keep everything just barely held together and creates an experience of total, overwhelming psychosis. Truly unique and instantly recognizable drummers seem to be a rare breed in metal, particularly in more extreme circles where it can be easy to simply dazzle with unearthly speed, and Darkside is a premier example of one. "III", "IV", and "VI" alone helped make this Mgla's best, and considering their pedigree that's really saying something.
I can't stress enough how much better Dark Descent Records is when they're not pushing their usual brand of death metal on listeners, and Crypt Sermon's sophomore album here is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. That pummeling morbidity and swirling mass of non-riffs that plagues so much of their roster is nowhere to be found here, instead showcasing an exercise in soaring epic doom. For the second year in a row now, after Visigoth last year, I've found myself absolutely blown away by a sophomore followup to a debut that, while I liked plenty, had taken the metal world completely by storm and as such has found itself facing the inevitable critique of a "sophomore slump". I didn't hear it with Conqueror's Oath and I certainly don't hear it with The Ruins of Fading Light either. Everything that made Out of the Garden great has returned here, but with so much more splendor and grandeur. Everything about this is simply bigger, and I adore that. The riffs are stronger, the hooks are more powerful, the vocals are more passionate, everything about this is such a clear step up that I'm frankly baffled at the general reception of this album being anything less than uncritical worship from the underground. Their review scores on MA are only 1% apart and this did land really high on Decibel's famous yearly list, but if you spend any time toiled in the filth-ridden underground of metal forums and chatrooms you'll find the response is much more lukewarm on the whole. I shouldn't spend so much time defending an album as nakedly phenomenal as this, but here we are. "The Ninth Templar" is one of the best openers in recent memory, "The Snake Handler" and "Our Reverend's Grave" are loaded with flawless riffage, and "Christ is Dead" is so good that I'd be willing to speculate that this would be album of the decade if every song was as good as that one. I can't ramble forever but here we are, and I'm proud to present Crypt Sermon with the fabled (valueless) BH Award for Album of the Year 2019.
And now for something completely the same!
The Neptune Power Federation - Memoirs of a Rat Queen: This one took me completely by surprise and made me a believer in these strange old-time rockers from Australia. The Neptune Power Federation has been quietly toiling around for years, honing their immense theatricality into tighter and tighter songs, and with Memoirs of a Rat Queen I think they finally nailed it. This is just damn good dirty rock and roll with a vocalist who is a dead ringer for Ann Wilson, and when you couple their over-the-top theatrics with such tight and concise rock, you’ve got a winner on your hands.
Paladin - Ascension: Though power metal didn't hit me as hard this year as it has in years previous, I’d be lying through my teeth if I said that Paladin’s debut here was anything short of a gargantuan downburst of fresh air. Main man Taylor Washington sports an impressive pedigree of technically proficient bands that usually fall flat on a songwriting level like Arsis, Theocracy, and ShadowStrike, but when he finds himself with more control, he’s shown how much of a stud he can truly be. Power metal usually doesn’t mix well with more extreme variants, but Paladin figured it out by simply separating their Gamma Ray-isms and their Skeletonwitch-isms wholesale, creating an album that’s admittedly cut-and-paste but also completely unpredictable, and I love it.
The Lord Weird Slough Feg - New Organon: You have no idea how happy I am to report that Slough Feg is back to making incredible albums again, something they used to do with startling regularity up until 2007, after which they’ve been struggling in a world that seemingly left them behind. New Organon sees them just getting back to basics and doing what they do best, presenting sleazy Thin Lizzy-isms coupled with raucous Brocas Helm-isms and creating something instantly recognizable as something only Mike Scalzi could have created. Nearly every track here sounds like a lost track from the early era (“Headhunter” literally was written over twenty years ago), and man sometimes I can’t help but adore a stellar throwback.
The Meads of Asphodel - Running Out of Time Doing Nothing: There's a real chance this could have made it onto the final list if I had only bothered to check it out prior to last week. Meads is a name I've always been sorta familiar with but never really felt the need to explore, but after falling in love with their newest album I feel like I really snubbed a potential future classic here. This is highly eclectic weirdo-black metal that is basically everything I wished the last two Sigh albums were.
Blut aus Nord - Hallucinogen: Ditto on the "probably snubbed this one" with BaN here. I'm not really familiar with most of their work, if I'm being honest with you, but I can tell based on my vague memory of what I've skimmed that Hallucinogen here is yet another wild experiment for the band, with heightened psychedelic influences that make the entire experience a mindbending cavalcade of fuckery.
There are many, many, many more, but I'm gonna cut myself off here. 2019 was absolutely fucking stacked.
Enforcer - Zenith: I mean, what else could it have possibly been? Enforcer has landed in the top four with each new album this decade, so this was penciled in near the top the day it was announced. And now here it is in the disappointments section. Enforcer were the best in the world when it came to this resurgence of wild-out 80s speed metal revival, and their ear for catchy glam hooks helped them stand out as far and away the best of the bunch. Then Zenith happened, and they leaned into the hooks so hard that they completely forgot the speed and adrenaline that acted as the base ingredient of their genius. They're great at hooks, and there are some great songs here no doubt ("Die for the Devil" is a fucking banger), but trading the best band in the speed metal scene in return for a decent Def Leppard clone is the exact opposite of what I wanted to happen. The album following this one in this section is significantly worse, but in terms of personal-hype-to-letdown ratio, nothing this year even came close to being as disappointing as Enforcer this year.
Battle Beast - No More Hollywood Endings: After years and years of sticking up for Battle Beast, they finally fucked off and made an album exactly as terrible as their detractors claim they always have been. Their last album was shaky and uneven, but it did seem like surviving the (awful) decision to fire the sole songwriter was a real possibility. Yeah that didn't pan out at all. Anton has gone on to do... well, decently okay things sometimes with Beast in Black, but his former brainchild has lost everything that made them so special. There is no bite whatsoever in this album, it's just fluffy pop metal with weak hooks and no personality, which is something I never thought I'd say about Battle Beast. I can sum up everything I don't like about this album by simply asking you to listen to Endless Summer and leaving you to bask in the awfulness that is a One Direction b-side on what is ostensibly supposed to be a metal album. Pop metal is one thing, corsetcore is another, and Battle Beast was always very good about never crossing into the latter, but holy shit did they lean into the bullshit this time.
Idle Hands - Mana: I just recently spelled everything out in a pretty lengthy review, but the short version is that this current trend of heavy metal cum goth rock isn't a bad thing, but it does seem pretty easy to do and garner fuckloads of praise in the process. Idle Hands has a couple of very good songs on here, but overall it's a huge waste of time that delivers mediocre hooks via mediocre vocals and completely inconsequential instrumentals. This is a huge nothing-burger of an album, which is a shame because you can tell they have grand aspirations and it seems like a huge contingent of metal fans agree that they hit it, but it just doesn't work for me.
Unfathomable Ruination - Enraged & Unbound: I say this every time either one of these bands come up, but Unfathomable Ruination and Abnormality are sister bands to me, and with their third album they've flip flopped as to who the superior band it yet again. Ruination crushed skulls with Finitude, but this new one falls super flat. Awful production (as opposed to raw), uninteresting tracks, everything just feels like a step back from their previous stunner.
Mayhem - Daemon: I'm already stretching pretty hard to fill this section out, because frankly I didn't expect this to be any better than it wound up being. Mayhem hasn't been spectacular in nearly two decades, and this is a really safe regular old BM album after a few that flirted with interesting ideas that didn't really connect and if there's one word I never thought I'd use to describe a Mayhem album, it's "safe".
I dunno - The new Ripper EP I guess?: I think the combination of my musical dowsing rod getting better, 2019 being such an overwhelmingly strong year, and me finally learning to temper my expectations has led to the second year in a row where I really don't have much to say here. The disappointments section is growing more and more obsolete and I may just do away with it entirely next year.
We are gonna do something slightly different here though. I always make the main list exclusive to full length releases, mostly because that's just what I usually listen to and what people mostly care about anyway, but y'all may have noticed that my productivity spiked last year as a result of me taking promos seriously for the first time in a decade. As a result, I've heard way more demos and splits and EPs than I usually do. So with that in mind, we're gonna indulge in a little side section this year and talk about:
Blacksoul has apparently had a pretty tempestuous history in terms of evolution. Everybody I've spoken to who is familiar with the band pegs this as a pretty notable departure from their usual sound. The gothic influences are here in spades of course, particularly in the deep and theatrical male vocals and their interplay with the clean strength of the female vocals, but the riffs are almost 100% bluesy, Sabbathy doom. There's a lot of bounce as the riffs dance around your ears, and it keeps it relatively light hearted despite the aesthetic darkness. It's by no means a home run, but it's a lot of fun and I found myself replaying it more often than I expected to as the year ran on.
This is another short EP that, on the surface, doesn't really introduce too many new ideas, but I found myself replaying rather often. This is just damn solid and mean old school death metal with no frills and an excess of excellent riffs. This is probably an odd comparison, but nearly a decade ago, back when I was writing for Metal Crypt, I was assigned an album by an Italian deathgrind band named Natron, and not much stuck out about them other than a few fantastic riffs amid a bunch of mediocre ones, but Third Chamber here sounds like an entire release based exclusively on the handful of great riffs Natron spat out. "Mind Rot" in particular makes me want to find the nearest living thing and punch it to death.
All riffs all the time. Cathartic Demise is a very young band but they're already showcasing an understanding of how to deftly intertwine thrash metal with many other families of extreme metal (most prominent being death metal) on par with the greats. This is a very specific subniche of thrash that I don't really have a name for, but the overwhelming melody and proclivity for progressive noodling that never gets out of hand puts them in a class next to Satyrasis and maybe even Skeletonwitch at their best. This is just a neverending onslaught and I love every second of it. It's densely packed with so many riffs and solos that I swear there are two or three of each playing at every single time, and I can't get enough of it.
This Midnight-esque "Motorbastard" (as it is sometimes called) style of metal is steadily growing into a pretty formidable subniche, not exactly overflowing with new ideas but the best bands in the style are fucking phenomenal. Obviously Midnight is arguably the biggest, and Toxic Holocaust could be seen as kickstarting this wave, plus Whipstriker, Deathwish, Bewitcher, Wasteland Riders, and many others, and right near the top of the pack is Hellripper. Venom + Motorhead + Discharge is such a lethal combination and it honestly astounds me that it took so god damned long for a unified scene to crop up in this age of nostalgia. Hellripper is one of the best for the reason, and this is just four tracks (five if you count the excellent Running Wild cover) of unending speed and blasphemy.
There's just something about a band that can modernize a classic sound without shamelessly ripping it off that I can't help but fall in love with. Putrescine is very much in the vein of Altars era Morbid Angel with huge heaps of Suffocation influence, and any death metal freak worth their salt should understand why that's a fantastic base to work with. I checked this out not because of the promoshit like I did with the rest of these, but entirely because they caught some heat for posting something on Twitter about how misogyny is bad and it's disappointing that it's so prevalent in death metal still, and because the world is ridiculous that wound up being a controversial statement. I figured I'd give them a listen just because I've been dying to hear some good lefty metal, and we finally got some with Putrescine.
And lastly, a segment I swore to only bring back when something truly exceptional came along:
What the fuck are you doing, Chicago? That's two god damned years in a row where my hometown has produced the worst metal album of the year by a gargantuan margin. I don't even want to talk about this, it's transcendental how inept this album is. Aftermath is proof positive that I've been correct all along that the current age of nostalgia is a recipe for fucking disaster. Apparently their early work is excellently unique prog/tech thrash, but I don't want to listen to even see if that's accurate because There is Something Wrong is my first impression and I will never be able to shake this association from my head. I want to go in depth with this but I just can't. This is like, Star Wars Prequels level bad-at-everything. Every single thing about this is wrong. What can I point out? The whispered (madafakka....) in "False Flag Flying"? The hilarious bit in the same song where the vocalist shouts HOLLYWOOD! VATICAN! FBI! CIA! and manages to completely fall out of time despite each bit being a simple three syllable word? The rapid fire nonsense lyrics of "Diethanasia" followed by the chorus where the gang shouts are completely off time from the riffs? The entire band constantly falling out of time is a baffling problem that never stops. You guys are in a studio! You have infinity tries to get it right! The back half of the album is largely just weird clippings of news segments and documentaries, and it isn't assembled in a way that's clever or subversive, it's just weird and noisy and incoherent. This truly needs to be heard to be believed, this is The Room of metal and that isn't an exaggeration. Imagine the incoherent Infowars ancap ranting of Conformicide era Havok but played by a bunch of fifty-somethings who haven't touched their instruments in decades. There is a moment about three and a half minutes into "False Flag Flying" where the song is so clearly ending, and then the band just... I dunno, remembers that they wanted to do more with it so they just repeat the first two minutes again, nearly verbatim, awful off-time vocals and all. This whole thing is bewildering. Please kill me.
And that's all folks! I hope you've had a great year and an incredible decade! It's been a wild ride running this blog for nearly ten years and I hope I stop only when I die. Here's to the roaring 20s, everybody!