Columnus Metallicus: The Best Metal Albums Of 2014 With Toby Cook
, December 16th, 2014 14:14
Toby Cook threw a party for his celebrity mates recently. The price of admission? They had to help him write about the best heavy metal albums released this year
A couple of years ago I submitted my top 20 albums of the year to one of the few music magazines who at this point still hadn't started to question the wisdom of actually employing me, only to almost instantly receive an email back informing me that one of my higher ranking choices had to be replaced (I forget the exact reasons, but they were certainly petty enough). Balking at the very temerity of someone trying to dictate to me what albums I could and couldn't include in my top 20 I dutifully complied with their request, by bumping every album up one place and picking Anal Cunt's Wearing Out Our Welcome as my number 20… When the magazine was finally printed, however, for some truly inexplicable reason my list had been printed backwards, and as such it appeared that I thought – in a year where Yob, Trap Them, Primordial and fucking Mastodon all put out records – that Anal fucking Cunt made the year's finest album. And no one even fucking noticed.
The problem with these end of year lists is that time and music are just constructs – an EP, a reissue, a split 10", a bootleg live recording, these are all no more than essentially meaningless parameters put in place simply for us to impose as much order on, and to try to make as much sense as we possibly can, out of an existence that is fundamentally lacking either sense or order. Ultimately, the frameworks imposed by end of year lists are flawed, and no one gives a shit if you fuck with them anyway. But it doesn't have to be like this. Yes, we all know that these lists are reductive and totally subjective, and trying to decide what the difference between the black metal album at number 11 and the harsh noise LP at 10 is a less worthwhile pursuit than scrimshaw, but what if we thought about it differently?
Personally I feel that the last 14 or 15 months have been particularly brilliant in the world of metal and all of its various satellite genres, but it's not just been because of the albums (of which there have been a multitude absolute blinders), and neither has it been solely for the reasons that are personal to me. This year I've been fortunate enough to get to know some tremendously dedicated people who have introduced me to bands who ostensibly have zero recorded output (Dead Woman's Ditch, for example) whilst at the same time some music as filtered through the usual industry channels that is so phenomenally good and of-itself that to include it in any genre specific list would be futile in the extreme (Swans and SunnO)))/Scott Walker, I'm looking at you here). And that's not to mention the festivals! Temples, Roadburn, Desertfest – the list of particularly astounding metal-related events, which ironically don't qualify for this list, is long indeed.
So how about we remember the fact that one of the deepest and most profound joys of being a serious music fan is to be found in the sharing that of that joy, yeah? How about we look upon the following list not as a definitive chart, not as a shallow confirmation of your own tastes, but as what it is: One feeble humans attempt to share some of the music that has helped keep him – at least for now – from doing a David Carradine in the stationary cupboard. Some of these you'll know, some you won't; none of them are Anal Cunt…
(And a huge thanks to those who helped me write some of the blurbs, sort of).
20. Coffinworm - IV .I. VIII
"Horrible, in the most absolute and total sense – just fucking horrible; like a rusty axe slowly and messily cleaving through the rotting forest of your nightmares. Whilst it might have taken the Indianapolis natives nearly four years to follow-up their debut record, When All Become None, from the sounds of the six abject dirges that make up IV .I. VIII, what's clear is that the quintet have not been spending that time merely sharpening their sternal saws and laying plastic sheeting in their basement. No. Sounding something like Winter on a very, very bad day, clearly that time has instead been spent shaping the likes of 'Black Tears' and 'A Death Sentence Called Life' into some of the most painfully abject slabs of death/doom you're likely to have heard all year…. Could use more piano, though." Billy Joel
19. Slomatics - Estron
(Head Of Crom)
"With cover art that looks like a cross between something they forgot to include in Dune and a scene from the most awesome episode of Bravestarr ever made, it's hard to fathom why Estron has so far been so overlooked… Where this trio of Belfast based bastards of the bludgeon have triumphed is in tweaking their sound just enough that Estron contains more than a few surprises when compared to its predecessor, A Hocht, whilst still dragging behind it the same monstrously sluggish slew of brain-injuring riffs that they've become known for. As [does] the Blade Runner-gone wrong 'Red Dawn' and the all-encompassing epic closer 'The Carpenter'."
18. Prizehog - Re-Unvent The Whool
"Once, many years ago in my late teens, and no doubt inspired by unconfirmed stories I'd heard about Mike Patton and Wayne Coyne, I decided to try to experiment with sleep deprivation... After probably less than 48 hours, I was beat. But, by that point, pretty much every sound in my world had fused together to create a similar sort of strung-out, throbbing sonic melee to that produced by Prizehog. Imagine what the Melvins might sound like if Joe Preston was the main creative force and added galloping, squalling keyboards to everything, and insisted on washing everything in layers of disorienting echo."
17. Vampillia - Some Nightmares Take You Aurora Rainbow Darkness
"Owing as much to the plonking atmospherics and ethereal, epic reaching dynamics of Sigur Rós as they do to the symphonic blasts of Emperor and the lo-fi mentalism of Filosofem-era Burzum, the haunting, orchestrated dirges and bizarrely Scandinavian-indie-band sensibilities contained in Some Nightmares… somehow fuse together to create something both utterly fierce and deranged yet beautiful and almost childishly innocent – the way the chaotic squalls, death growls and muddled attack of guitars and orchestration of 'Rainbow On You' segue into the noir-ish, waltzing minimalism of 'Dream' being particularly astounding. Some Nightmares… is like some sort of 'Hansel And Gretel'-like fable, except one where Hansel stabs Gretel to death with a rusty screwdriver and then spends far too long gazing out to sea thinking about what he's just done."
16.Bongripper - Miserable
(Great Barrier Records)
"I fucking love Bongripper. But, then, if you've ever read even one of these columns or had the particular misfortune of bumping into me drunk at a gig, you'll already know this… So, Miserable. Expecting an ersatz Satan Worshiping Doom, then? As if only to fuck with us, the Chicago quartet have gone and made not only one of their finest records but also - and try not to choke on your chalice here - but a serious one at that! Miserable, as its name suggests, is particularly abject – whereas Satan… morphed rapidly from 'that kinda black metal part to that Sabbath-y part to that drone-y part', through its three tracks - 'Endless', 'Descent' and 'Into Ruin' - Miserable has consumed all that made Bongripper Bongripper - the doom, the drone, the punk-ish intensity - and disgorged it in one, cohesive mass that is about as much fun as watching a family pet get sucked through a lawnmower."
15. Witch Mountain - Mobile Of Angels
"Shiiiiiiiit, if you're going to go out, you may as well go out high… (on a high, whatever), which is exactly what now former Witch Mountain vocalist Uta Plotkin did when she opened her pipes and laid down one of the most sterling and deeply soulful vocal performances you're likely to have heard on any metal album released in this or any other recent year. Of course, it takes more than just great vocals to make a great doom album, you need the bong rattling riffs to back 'em up. And yet, whilst the slow Iommian dirge of 'Psycho Animundi' and 'Don't Look Around' have exactly that, throughout Mobile Of Angels it's Plotkin's bold and vividly textured vocals, and the way they slowly undulate and contort their way in, out and under the creeping doom, that proves so engrossing – never more so than during 'Your Corrupt Ways (Sour The Hymn)'… That's some funky shit right there." Bootsy Collins
14. Full Of Hell + Merzbow - Full Of Hell + Merzbow
"At first, as the skin peeling backdraft of furious, caustic grind comes exploding out of your speakers you'll ask yourself how the frayed sinews and torn gristle of tracks like 'Gordian Knot' and 'Humming Miter' are even holding themselves together, and you'll start to question exactly what Merzbow's involvement with this record actually was. It'll only be once you reach the album's terminal 24 minute mark, just as the blood starts to leak through your eyeballs, that you'll realize the true genius of this collaboration – piercing even the slightest gap in FOH's sonic maelstrom, Masami Akita's spiny needles of abrasive noise alternately dart through and at times totally envelop anything and everything that surrounds them, dragging each and every minute into a buzzing hell of static that you never even realised was….. Oh shit, is that the time?!" Flavor Flav
13. Trap Them - Blissfucker
"Having once again refreshed their line up – with Galen Baudhuin joining on bass duties as well as former Red Chord drummer Brad Fickeisen – and with Kurt Ballou's production causing them to sound more frenzied and ravenous than ever, what Blissfucker is not, however, is simply another Trap Them blast; this is Trap Them at their most distilled and most complete – even Blissfucker's cover art is uncomfortably disturbing in its very simplicity… Tangled in amongst the d-beat battery and caustic blast of 'Former Lining Wide The Walls', and dissolved in the brooding creep and grinding hell of 'Ransom Risen' are all the buzzsawing guitars, punk, hardcore and Euro death metal worship you'd expect, yet now it's more of a rusty needle stabbed directly into your brain than a relentless sandpapering of your face until it hits grey matter. Fucking bliss."
12. Bong - Stoner Rock
"Taking the number one spot for 'Album Title Of The Year' the brilliantly sarcastically titled Stoner Rock sees drone luminaries Bong doing what they always do, and still doing it better than 90 percent of their imitators. Benefiting again from the subtle degree of polish that comes from recording in a proper studio, whilst the coarse, frayed edges still adorn the two lengthy and lethargic incantations that make up Stoner Rock, where Bong once again excel is in coalescing their minimal instrumentation to instil an almost contradictory sense of motion. With Ben Freeth's Shahi Baaja providing the sharp inhales to the exhaling drones it's the relentless and ritualistic drum work of Mike Smith that propels their 'staffs raised, hooded-robes up' sense of eternal journey. Just as the moon orbits the Earth, orbits the Sun, orbits the universe absolute, so do Bong… I actually wanted take a similar approach on 'When A Child Is Born', but was shot down at the friars club." Johnny Mathis
11. 11Paranoias - Stealing Fire From Heaven
"11Paranoias are simply one of the most exciting bands in the UK right now; subtly morphing their sound into evermore varied and divergent areas with each release, Stealing Fire From Heaven (an album summoned almost entirely from improvised dirges created live in the studio) represents the absolute zenith of this. From the narcotic, almost catatonic groove of opener 'The Great Somnambulist' and the demented saxophone augmentation and avant-jeremiad collapse of noise that is 'Surrealise' to the brutalised space rock and heavily Loop influenced, monotonous drive of 'Lost To Smoke', Stealing… is the sound of a band trying to create the sort of nightmares that exist in the same realm as the Max Ernst cover art, and succeeding… It just keeps going, deeper and deeper until you can't even feel your moustache anymore." Nigel Mansell
10. Triptykon - Melana Chasmata
"At once cold, mechanical and hissing under the sheer weight of [Tom G. Warrior's] brutal riffs and throat-shredding vocals, there is still, somehow, a fleshy vulnerability to this album. The range of emotions on display are narrow, and yet Triptykon express them with such diversity. The anthemic choral vocals at the close of 'Boleskine House', what sounds like R.E.M.'s lute undercutting the brooding slither of 'Aurorae' and the sullen, dark minimalism of closer 'Waiting' are all underpinned by the same, headbanging, 'none more metal' ethos. However, despite the broad range of augmentation to that ethos, nothing feels over-thought or ill-conceived. Like a severed cyborg alien penis, there's something quite uncomfortable and threatening at its heart, yet also a confusing familiarity."
9. Nothing - Guilty Of Everything
"Most likely to be this year's Deafheaven, in as far as I'm either going to get ironic praise for including a 'not-metal-but-released-by-Relapse-so-therefore-totally-metal-yeah' album or I'm going to have the necessity of my very existence called into question. So, call it shoegaze, call it skinny-jeaned, rehashed 90's recidivism – either way, I became completely obsessed by these Philadelphia natives from the first moment I heard 'Bent Nail' premier on the Roadburn festival website, and there's not an album on this list I've listened to more this year. From the crushingly melancholic, MBV meets Slowdive meets early Ride of 'Endlessly' to the maudlin fuzz of the title track, despite the statically charged chaos behind each it never slips into the trap of self-indulgence….. And they manage not to rip of T-Rex either!" Noel Gallagher
8. Godflesh - A World Lit Only By Fire
"It's one thing to play your old songs at festivals, it's another thing entirely to write new material that fits into the existing canon without sounding forced, stale, regressive or, worst of all, a mere pastiche – it may have taken two years to complete since Broadrick first revealed that new Godflesh was being laid to tape, but the results are fucking spectacular. Whilst his JKFlesh project may have looked, at the time, something like an ersatz Godflesh, few could have expected A World Lit Only By Fire to be such a stripped back and brutally focussed album. Far from revisiting his teenage rage, fears and frustrations, it seems to harness the deep and lasting passions born in that era and uses them as a frame work to craft something that is at once infinitely more articulate, and yet clever enough to know how to express it in the most punishingly simple way possible. Never more so that during the rigid, machine press groove of 'Carrion'… It's even more disturbing than listening to Songs Of Innocence, but (unlike us) I think Broadrick did it on purpose?" Bono
7. Electric Wizard - Time To Die
"Overhyped? One dimensional? They keep rehashing riffs they've used before? The people who say these things don't really get Electric Wizard, a band who want to 'Legalise Drugs And Murder' and, in Jus Oborn, have a frontman who once started an interview by saying, "I don't care what you write, just as long as make me look like a cunt." Time To Die is, without doubt, the finest British doom record made since Dopethrone. Full of analogue decay, cracks and wheezing, the riffs behind the likes of the title track and the grizzled 'Sadio Witch' seem merely to seep out of the thick, acrid haze which surrounds the entire LP. What really makes Time To Die, however, is the phenomenal performance behind the kit of the then-returned-now-departed-again drummer Mark Greening. From the militaristic roll of 'Incense For The Dammed' and the driving Neolithic thump behind 'I Am Nothing' to the swinging groove underpinning 'Destroy Those Who Love God', Greening's battery is always standout, yet never unnecessarily invasive… And so heavy it makes 'Helter Skelter' sound like a piece of crap." Ringo Starr
6. Old Man Gloom - Ape Of God
"For anyone whose childhood had far too many bank holiday drives to the Copacabana in Lowestoft soundtracked by The Travelling Wilburys, even the mere thought of a super group will bring you out in a cold sweat. And yet, Old Man Gloom have never been such as case, instead over the course of their 15 year history proving to be exponentially and cosmically greater than the sum of their parts, seeming to channel through their albums some greater simian super power to create music not just far outside of themselves and their day jobs but far outside of the easily definable parameters of metal itself. Fitting in with the almost Dadaist approach to subject matter that has underlined their careers, this time they released not one album, not one album split into two, but two separate albums both with the same name. And then they sent a condensed, alternately mixed third version to the press… All three contain some of the most mind-warping shit you're likely to have heard since the PG Tips monkeys covered 'Mandy'". Barry Manilow
5. Floor - Oblation
(Season Of Mist)
"Look, I don't know when 'melody' became such a dirty fucking word, but I love a good melody. Seriously. I mean, look, there's a time and a place for perching on the corner of the hard, feculent single bed in your cramped, darkened grief-hole of a bedroom, wandering what the fuck has gone wrong with your life as you indulge in the curious/horrible pleasure of Whitehouse's Great White Death, but you can't fucking sing 'You Don't Have To Say Please' in the shower. 'Oblation' on the other hand, the title track from the comeback LP from almost forgotten 90's bludge-o-pop-o-nauts Floor, you can most definitely sing in the shower. And, as with main-man Steve Brooke's other band, Torche, his brilliantly canny ear for sweeping, luscious melodies almost disguises the fact that what you're listening to is actually still heavier than an osmium elephant shitting cannonballs… Torche may have signed to Relapse on album number four, it's going to have to be pretty fucking magical indeed to top this."
4. At The Gates - At War With Reality
"Despite reforming in 2007 and the spending the next seven years embarking on 47 'last ever tours', this year Gothenburg's melodic death metal pioneers, At The Gates, surprised absolutely no one by announcing that they were in fact going to release a new album, 19 years after their last, the genre defining Slaughter Of The Soul. Where the sextet did surprise everybody, though, was when they actually released At War With Reality and revealed it to be conceptually, and even somewhat musically, a follow up their second and third LPs – 93's With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness and 94's Terminal Spirit Disease. Beyond the relentless pummel and cataclysmic chug of tracks like 'Heroes And Tombs', however, it's the lithe and emotionally gouging journey of 'The Book Of Sand (The Abomination)' (possibly the finest individual metal track of the year) that provides the albums insurmountable highlight… I mean, I say it – I don't literally say it, I don't literally mean it – but..." Nigel Tufnel
3. Sólstafir - Ótta
(Season Of Mist)
"As epic, uninhibited and adventurous as 2011's sprawling Svartir Sandar was, however, it somehow felt overly grand - escaping the tundra rather than embracing it. That the band have stuck someone who looks like the hermit subject from Two Years At Sea being battered by the indifferent force of the ocean on the cover of its follow-up, then, is particularly telling. Ótta finally captures the sense of isolation, that elemental expansiveness that has been so inextricably linked with their sound since they abandoned their more death metal leanings, and yet somehow manages as well to keep it tethered to a core of near classic rock that, far from being at odds with sparse tones, rather provides a tether from which to unfurl itself endlessly outwards. Never is this captured more perfectly than through the mourning strings and banjo-augmented gallop of the title track."
2. The Body - I Shall Die Here
"We're not trying to be scary, we're just sad." The Body, 2014
"Christs, Redeemers represented the zenith of The Body's ever expanding scope; if it showed the broadest, most varied ranges of their despair – their doom-based tribal bludgeon expanded equally by walls of harsh, claustrophobic noise and the often serenely dark presence of the Assembly Of Light Choir, then I Shall Die Here plunges to even greater, more remote and isolated depths, stripping back most of these existential adornments to leave behind something altogether far more nightmarish. With The Haxan Cloak's warped bass and electronic undulations bleeding through the Portland duo's actually rather restrained, but no less punishing assault, it's actually the comparative lack of clutter (not to mention the sound bites of people talking about suicide, as opens 'Hail To Thee, Ever Lasting Pain') that makes the record so much more threatening. And so painfully rewarding."
1. Yob - Clearing The Path To Ascend
"I don't think it's a stretch to say that many metal fans are fans of metal precisely because they are, in a multitude of unique and different ways, slightly ill at ease with the world. It's tough trying to work out who you really are and what you're really doing here, and it can feel like a lonely and futile fucking journey sometimes. When you hear an album that not only makes you feel less alone in this pursuit but, in whatever way, pushes you in directions you never before thought existed, there's no feeling in the world quite like it… Mike Scheidt has spoken at length about the fact that Clearing The Path To Ascend is perhaps the least abstract and most direct and personal album Yob have made to date, acting for him as it did as somewhat of a catharsis after his divorce and his struggle with clinical depression, and yet Clearing… is by no means a dark album; if anything it's redemptive, hopeful even, right from the moment Alan Watts utters "time to wake up" and opener 'In Our Blood' chugs out of your speakers. The relentless tsunami of taiko-like drumming in 'Nothing To Win' later reminds you of the first time you heard Through Silver In Blood, and yet, like the slow, honest and gulping breaths after a primal scream, it's the mournful, dynamically shifting fragility of closer 'Marrow' that is really going to stay with you."
And that's it – 2014, done. And now, the part where you ignore all these great records and tell me what a steaming mound of pustule discharge this list is because I haven't included Deafheaven…
Until next year then: Horns up, ya shitters!