Wednesday, May 27, 2020


Fourth verse, same as the first.  The next ten in the countdown, let's go!


20: Deathspell Omega - The Synarchy of Molten Bones (2016)
This is probably going to be a controversial choice for a few reasons.  The first is that this is only four tracks and under a half hour in length, leading many people to consider it an EP and ergo ineligible for this list.  However, the band themselves consider this to be a full length so dammit I'm going to count it.  The second point of contention is that this is the only DSO album on the list, meaning Paracletus, perennial favorite of Melonheads and RYM nerds and unquestionably one of the most influential albums of the decade (and one of the only 2010 representatives I even bothered considering for the list), is getting snubbed.  They made their mark years earlier with Circumspice but it feels like their 2010 juggernaut was the album that truly cemented the eventual avalanche of dissonant jangleblack that's been flooding the scene ever since.  It boils down to this: Paracletus is a great album and I'll never try to downplay its historical significance, but at the end of the day I simply like The Synarchy of Molten Bones more.  It could be nostalgia at play here, because this was actually the first DSO album I ever heard.  Obviously I dug into their back catalog soon afterwards and suddenly a lot of modern black metal started to make sense, but at the end of the day I think the only other LP of theirs that I truly place among the best of the best is Fas, which came out in 2007.  Synarchy subverts their usual style by retaining the absurdly dissonant technicality but keeping the full experience much more compact.  Deathspell Omega is a very intentionally disorienting band, with nearly everything they do aiming for total sensory overload, and I think the shorter, more focused chunk of insanity we get here is really the best format for them (or at least the most digestible).  Either way, I adore the shit out of this record specifically because of how catawampus everything is.  It's thirty straight minutes of dutch-angled lunacy where everything feels tilted 30 degrees counterclockwise.  How do black metal riffs sound?  Well imagine what you're imagining but with ten extra notes per bar, none of which fit and with rhythms more incoherent than the subway preacher.  How does black metal drumming sound?  Well imagine that but played by four different people at once all trying to keep their kits together amidst a tornado.  It's pure chaos and it should be clear by now that I fucking love that.

19: Jess and the Ancient Ones - Jess and the Ancient Ones (2012)
This is the second entry that isn't strictly metal but the crossover in fandom is big enough that I feel safe in honoring its greatness.  Jess and the Ancient Ones was part of that short-lived groundswell of bands that threw back to old hippie prog and occult rock like Coven, occasionally mixed with doom metal.  The scene was quickly saturated with groups, some of which were fantastic like Year of the Goat and Blood Ceremony, but the one that easily stood head and shoulders above the rest was JATAO here.  Maybe it was due to the metal connection of Antti Boman (of Demilich fame) on guitars, but I honestly kinda doubt that considering there was basically zero metal in their sound.  The band would eventually drop the overwhelming darkness of their sound as well and eventually become the reincarnation of Jefferson Airplane, but back when their tie-dye rugs were instead black candles, they were something special.  As far as I know, they're still kicking, but you won't hear them crank out a track as malevolent and arcane as "Come Crimson Death" or "Twilight Witchcraft" anymore.  I feel like they just barely missed their window of superstardom, because witchy aesthetic and dressing like Stevie Nicks is so popular nowadays, but didn't seem to be much of a thing in 2012.  The fact remains, Jess and the Ancient Ones's self titled debut (and Astral Sabbat EP the following year) are peak 60s/70s occult rock that really should've been a smash hit across several genres, and I'd actually be willing to go to bat for "Prayer for Death and Fire" as one of the greatest opening cuts of all time.  I'd keep going but really, just shut up and listen to the three songs I namedropped.  The whole album is fantastic of course but those three are otherworldly, and that's not even mentioning "Sulfur Giants".

18: Cradle of Filth - Hammer of the Witches (2015)
Cradle of Filth has a long and bizarre history with metalheads.  I don't really know what their perception was early on, but I can gather from older folks and past interviews that they were generally seen as a decent band with a penchant for publicity-whoring, but I was introduced to them the same way many people my age were: sparklegoth nerds buying all of their merch from Hot Topic in middle school.  The metal scene around the time of Damnation and a Day completely turned on them and started throwing around idiotic terms like "faggoth" while throwing the baby out with the bathwater and declaring their previously good early work was just as tainted.  Opinion seemed to shift around 08ish and now the moral panic has died down so people can admit they just had a down patch in the mid 2000s.  Despite all that nonsense, their brand of symphonic black metal never really gelled with me until Hammer of the Witches here, which seemed to help an awful lot of people convert back to Cradle's side.  The weird part is that, for me at least, it was an instant conversion.  This wasn't a slow burn, nor was it a long unfurling of past prejudices, it was like two seconds into "Yours Immortally..." when I threw my hands up and yelled "what the fuck dude this rules".  After exploring their back catalog, I can see pretty clearly why this was such a fluke hit.  This is easily the most focused and intense album they've written since the 90s, with the sleazy vampyric theatrics complementing a wide array of balls-heavy riffs from across the entire spectrum of extreme metal, touching on black, death, and thrash metal.  Hammer of the Witches is a shimmering epic that stands impossibly tall thanks to the soaring orchestral moments remaining attached to the talons that keep pulling up the loose earth.  The entire hour is an enjoyable deluge of pagan blasphemy, but I'd like to single out "Blackest Magick in Practice" as the greatest feast of crushing riffage and otherworldly melody.

17: Suffocation - ...of the Dark Light (2017)
I think I've made it pretty clear that I think Suffocation in the 90s was the hands down greatest death metal band of all time.  They've stayed good at least since then, but they were truly otherworldly with Cerrito filling the other guitarist role with Hobbs.  2017 was a treacherous time for them and I have to admit I approached this album with a lot of trepidation.  Cerrito had been out of the band for nearly 20 years, Guy Marchais wasn't as good but he was definitely a worthy replacement and he had just left as well, Mike Smith is one of the most iconic drummers in the game but he was gone too, and Dave Culross was a great fill-in for him but he was gone too, and even Frank Mullen, the face, spirit, and frontman, had announced his retirement just before this album, and even though he planned to stick around through recording it was still a black cloud over the band.  So almost the entire classic lineup is gone save Terrence Hobbs (and Derek Boyer, who wasn't around in the early days but had been a mainstay since the reunion), and otherwise every single slot had been filled with kids younger than me who weren't even alive when Effigy of the Forgotten came out.  The look of the album, the song titles, the lineup, everything felt wrong entering this one.  And yet, somehow, they put out their best album since the classic run with Doug Cerrito.  The fact that this is so hungry, so youthful, and so full of vigor made me reevaluate the entire death metal scene, because a huge reason the early stuff was so good was because they were a bunch of kids trying to prove themselves, and until this album it had never once crossed my mind that it'd be a good idea for old bands to add young members to regain that fire.  Legacy acts always replace members with other scene veterans, and I can understand this since guys they've known for decades are probably already in tune with the remaining members and likely have great chemistry already, but the simple act of stacking the deck with unproven kids way over their heads has now been proven to be a successful method for reigniting the fire that made any given band's early era so exciting in the first place.  Charlie, Eric, and Kevin all completely dominated in their new roles and helped pump out an album that I thought Suffocation could never make again.  I've never been more excited for the future of a band that's existed for over 30 years.

16: Black Kirin - The Nanking Massacre (2017)
It might seem weird that this album is always the counterpoint I use whenever I talk about how much Sabaton sucks, but if you've read my reviews for either band I hope it makes sense.  Sabaton takes bloody warfare and turns it into pumping aerobics-metal anthems from a "soldiers are baby angels" perspective and rah rahs about how fucking cool it is from their mansions in Sweden.  Black Kirin takes bloody warfare and tears the curtain down to show you the miles-high piles of bodies directly from their homeland in China, the same place where this incredible tragedy that the album is about actually took place.  There is nothing cool or badass about your ancestors spending a terrifying month being raped and slaughtered for sport by an invading force, and The Nanking Massacre presents the ordeal in a horrifying light, with no tone-deaf ticker tape parades celebrating the "brave heroes" who impaled your grandma on a bayonet.  This is extreme, disorienting, and uncomfortable, just like the war crime itself.  Despite only featuring three "real" songs and four interludes, The Nanking Massacre perfectly captures the cycle of senseless violence that befell upon Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War, cowering in fear from the bombs and marauding soldiers interspersed with tense moments of mourning between the chaos, unsure if it's finally over.  This is one of the most harrowing and uncomfortable albums ever recorded just for how visceral it is, exploding with frantically mournful melodies amidst violent blasting and shrieking.  Yes, I know Black Kirin sounds nothing like Sabaton, but that's exactly the point.

15: White Ward - Love Exchange Failure (2019)
Like Paracletus, there is another album that I liked a lot that I considered including purely for historical significance but decided to cut during the final ordering, and that was Deafheaven's Sunbather.  Like Liturgy, they took an abrasive style associated with coldness and misanthropy and created something warm and bright with it.  Pardon me for spending so much time talking about different albums during this section, but I feel like White Ward's Love Exchange Failure is the best possible version of Sunbather despite taking a notably different approach (namely focusing on jazzy instrumentation above old school skramz and shoegaze elements).  This record brilliantly toes the line between cold misery and warm life, placing a style of music so often associated with wilderness and desolation and instead placing it thematically within the lonely concrete jungles of modern life.  This feels like a long walk through a crowded city, surrounded by strangers, the loneliest man in the world.  It's much more about the overall mood and emotional color here as opposed to individually great tracks, but each track is a knockout anyway.  White Ward has an incredible knack for giving the songs a lot of space to breathe and develop, so every climax is well earned and cathartic, shifting from atmospheric post-soundscapes to film-noir-y darkjazz piano to explosions of wailing black metal blasting.  The frequent use of the saxophone is a stroke of genius as well because those legato melodies have more soul than Shang Tsung's trophy case and do a lot to keep the feel distinctly urban, even during the more traditional black metal segments.  It doesn't add a new dimension as much as it fills in a space that I had never realized was empty before.  I know this sounds like the most pretentious hipster bullshit on the planet, and hey, maybe it is, but it works so unbelievably well for me.  Love Exchange Failure was actually the last new album I listened to in 2019 and there was some lingering worry within myself that I was rating it too highly on my year-end list at #5 since I hadn't given it too much time to sink in yet, but in reality what it did was cap off the decade by sending me on a spiritual journey that I didn't even know I needed to undertake.  It's only gotten better since then, marinating like a porterhouse.  I'm obviously writing this during the Covid quarantine so the idea of urban loneliness is hitting me even harder than that.  Maybe it's a personal thing for me, but this is very much a "right place, right time" album for me and I think I'll always love it to some degree.

14: Mgla - Age of Excuse (2019)
In an early draft of this list, all three Mgla albums from this decade had ranked.  But at the end of the day, after relistening to all of them, I still can't quite speechify what it is about them that makes them such a standout to me.  Everything they've ever done has been similarly evocative semi-melodic black metal with incredible songwriting and an impeccable ear for hooks, but I think if I'm honest with myself the only one that ever truly blew my socks off was Age of Excuse.  Funny since I've gathered that many fans see this as the first album in their discography to not be an improvement on the previous one, but something about this one just hit me in a way that With Hearts Towards None and Exercises in Futility didn't quite manage, as great as they are.  I think it comes down to simply having a stronger personal connection to this one, since this was the album where I finally realized that the X factor for the band was Darkside's drumming.  I've mentioned before that it's rare for a drummer to have an immediately recognizable personality, especially in extreme metal, but the way he dances across the cymbals amidst the chaotic blasting and pummeling grooves easily puts Darkside in that upper echelon.  If I’m going to split a drummer in half, I can tell you that his feet are pummeling away at the bass drums as well as any BM drummer can reasonably be expected to play, but his arms seem to be possessed by Durgha. His cymbal work is absolutely out of this world, and he takes what 95% of bands would use as a simple blasting section to smash the ride or hi-hat as fast as possible and instead flips it on its head, skipping around like Neil Peart in a dynamic whirlwind of off-kilter rhythms and cacophonous splashiness.  And it's all intertwined with riffs that you've heard a million times before, but are constructed in such a way that they've become something splendorous.  It's like building a 1:1 scale replica of the Eiffel Tower entirely out of legos.  They've grown so much in a way that's rather understated, because the more primal misanthropy of With Hearts Towards None doesn't seem all that different than the more magniloquent Age of Excuse until you really sit down and dissect it.

13: Nails - Abandon All Life (2013)

12: Enforcer - Death by Fire (2013)
As I'm sure you've noticed, I absolutely adore bands that take something familiar and then twist it into something new.  Metal is such a young genre and the possibilities are endless, so as a general rule I tend to not be all that interested in throwbacks.  However, the throwbacks that I do love, I love a lot.  When it comes to the boom of retro traditional/speed metal throwbacks, as great as some bands in that niche can be (Striker had two absolute scorchers that missed the list), nobody ever truly held a candle to Enforcer.  Their third album, Death by Fire is a ripper of a nearly unparalleled magnitude.  I mused at the time that it sounded like Enforcer was on the way to accidentally inventing thrash metal a second time, and this album exemplifies that, sounding like some alternate universe where Metallica had all of the same influences in 1983 sans Motorhead and The Misfits.  Blazing fast, gorgeously melodic, and maddeningly catchy, there isn't a single thing that I wish this album had done better.  The obsession on blistering speed is one of the album's greatest strengths, because even when they drop to a mid-pace tempo they still bring the fucking heat.  I suppose I was being a tad facetious two sentences ago, because one thing Enforcer has that Metallica absolutely lacked was an appreciation for glam metal.  I feel like it was always sort of understated in the band's classic era (until Zenith came along and leaned into it whole hog), but there's an undeniable undercurrent of early Motley Crue in here, especially thanks to Olof Wikstrand's vocals, which are eerily reminiscent of prime Vince Neil.  Death by Fire is just a fuckin' riot and listening to it nowadays is actually somewhat depressing since the band has so wholly abandoned this reckless speed.

11: Vektor - Outer Isolation (2011)
Vektor is such a frustrating band.  Black Future was so fucking good that I managed to overlook the obvious songwriting problems where the band would jam on something for too long and write themselves into a corner, ultimately moving forward by taking a page out of Opeth's book and just smash cutting to a new riff with no thought for adhesion.  Terminal Redux had the exact same problem, but my love for the record definitely faltered over time due to the extreme overloading of disparate ideas.  Outer Isolation, on the other hand, is the one time I think they truly nailed it.  While it doesn't have any individual songs or riffs as phenomenal as "Oblivion", "Black Future", "Liquid Crystal Disease", "Ultimate Artificer", and so on, it's easily their most coherent and focused attack.  Vektor's biggest problem has always been their devastating inability to trim the fucking fat on their records, always bloating them down with so many riffs and squealing solos and Schmier-esque shrieks that it becomes total sensory overload in a way that only works about half the time.  Outer Isolation, simply by being twenty minutes shorter than the surrounding albums and pulling three tracks from their demo era, completely solves that issue.  This is a much more simple, focused attack than their more acclaimed albums and that absolutely works to its benefit.  You'll never hear a ripper quite as succinct as "Dark Creations, Dead Creators" on Terminal Redux, and even though "Cosmic Cortex" breaks the ten minute mark it's structured in a much more coherent way than they typically approach their songs.  I wish there was more to it but that's really it.  Outer Isolation is the same whacked out mega-technical hyperthrash as the rest of their oeuvre but paradoxically more spaced out and sardine-packed into a more digestible package.  That's all it took for Vektor to truly create a start-to-finish modern classic.  Yes, I know Black Future ranked two places higher on my previous top 50, but that really had more to do with how absolutely fucking stunning the first five tracks were in conjunction with the later four still being good.  Outer Isolation already starts at a cosmically high echelon and never dips from there.  I said it back then, and I'll say it again now: Vektor became living legends because they proved definitively that thrash didn't have to be an artistic dead end with no room left to explore, and they pushed the genre forward by moving it sideways, and even though DiSanto eventually revealed himself to be a wife-beating shithead in addition to being impossible to work with, there's no denying that he cranked out some of the best riffs the genre has seen in decades.

Well my dudes, we are almost there!  Tomorrow comes the big one, the top ten!  I'll save the grandstanding for then, so until then just hang tight and enjoy the ride.

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