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Columnus Metallicus

Columnus Metallicus: Kez Whelan's Top Metal Albums Of 2019
Kez Whelan , December 13th, 2019 11:30

With 2020 looming on the horizon, we once again find ourselves in that reflective time of the year wherein we cast our minds back, take stock of the last twelve months and wade through endless AOTY lists, each featuring the same handful of critically acclaimed records in slightly different orders, and argue about them until those cold, sobering January winds blow all this away and we begin the cycle again.

It’s difficult to summarise a year’s worth of metallic evolution in a single column – and make no mistake, the genre is still evolving before our very ears, with established sub-genres feeling increasingly ill-equipped to actually contain some of the weird and wonderful sounds certain bands are making. We might not be experiencing any drastic leaps like, say, the jump from thrash to death metal, for example, but it’s getting much harder to neatly summarise a band’s sound without resorting to ridiculous strings of words like “post-blackened atmospheric deathgrind”, or whatever.

Not that it matters though – as Shakespeare once famously said, “a riff by any other name would sound as gnarly” (or at least, I think that was the line), and it’s fascinating to see how endlessly nebulous and malleable metal is. There are still loads of bands out there creating classic, vintage sounds extremely well of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but if you’re after stranger, more disorientating styles you’re practically spoilt for choice – and you’ve come to the right place.

Metal is still evolving outside of the actual music itself as well. Hearteningly, a lot of the discourse surrounding the genre this year seems to have focussed on dismantling metal’s pesky habit of sheltering fascists, bigots and misogynists. We still have a long way to go, of course, and it’s frustrating that Phil Anselmo’s notorious “white power” incident hasn’t prevented him from blagging sought after festival slots; it’s frustrating that so many were eager to welcome Steroids McGee from those naff early 2000s metalcore also-rans back into the scene after conspiring to murder his wife (you know who I mean – if you don’t, you really don’t need to); it’s frustrating that, after hanging out with Nazi bands and laughing about the time he witnessed a sexual assault in his book, Nergal can literally call for violence against Antifa and STILL not be taken to task by the mainstream metal press, who just continue to publish fawning, sycophantic puff pieces that mistakenly paint him as some kind of lawless, free-thinking artiste instead of a dangerously misinformed idiot in a shit cowboy hat. It’s frustrating.

But, it seemed like metal’s more tolerant, empathetic and caring voices screamed louder than ever this year, with bands like Dawn Ray’d, Ithaca and Venom Prison continuing to fight the good fight.

Californian doom trio Body Void’s excellent EP You Will Know The Fear You Forced Upon Us felt like a righteous call to arms (its two tracks simply titled ‘Die Off’ and ‘Fascist Cancer’), and melodic black metallers Obsequiae donated all royalties from their latest The Palms Of Sorrowed Kings to Doctors Without Borders. In spite of those who seek to subvert the genre’s traditionally left-leaning principles for their own nefarious gains, metal in 2019 continued to remind us that this music is a powerful force for uniting people, and granting those shunned by society with a very, very loud platform.

Anyway, that’s enough navel gazing for now – I’m sure you’re all chomping at the bit to get stuck into another list, right? It’s easy to endlessly obsess over these things, and I’ll readily admit the following is by no means comprehensive. This isn’t a meticulously put together, peer reviewed, board room approved list of every important metal record that came out this year. It’s just a list of the metal albums that had the biggest impact on me personally, or the ones I had the most fun listening to. Well, OK, maybe fun isn’t the best word to use given some of the punishing noise below, but these are the twenty albums that spent the most amount of time damaging my cochlea this year. You’ll probably agree with some of these choices, likely disagree vehemently with others and I’ve almost definitely forgotten to include something vital, but hey, fuck it. Hopefully you’ll find something in here that you either haven’t heard, or just plain forgot to check out during the whirlwind of new music that was 2019, and that’s the true meaning of AOTY season anyway…

20. Darkthrone - Old Star
(Peaceville)

Who’d have guessed that, of all the early Norwegian black metal bands, Darkthrone would have aged the most gracefully? Whilst Mayhem earnestly but unsuccessfully tried to re-write De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas this year, Emperor kept plugging away on the festival reunion circuit and Varg tended to his racist Lord Of The Rings themed Twitter account, Gylve and Ted continued to dish out fantastic, unpretentious metal records, packed to the rafters with the kind of riffs you’ll be involuntarily humming on your way back from the pub in the wee, wee hours of the morning. Old Star followed in Artic Thunder’s footsteps, taking classic metal tropes and smearing them in buckets of icy, blackened filth in a supremely entertaining manner.

19. Gets Worse - Snubbed
(Dead Heroes)

Ironically enough, Leeds powerviolence squad Gets Worse have only been getting better as time goes on, and Snubbed is arguably their most complete, definitive release to date. Following their torrent of great EPs and splits, Snubbed felt like a proper album experience, conjuring the ghost of Spazz with a deluge of blastbeats, hulking great caveman riffs and every member of the band delivering riotous vocals.

18. Blind Monarch - What Is Imposed Must Be Endured
(Black Bow)

How’s that for a great title for a doom record? Funnily enough, this is a record I “endured” many a time over the last few months, its gripping blend of torturous Burning Witch style doom with nihilistic Graves At Sea-esque grooves proving to be as captivating as it is physically punishing.

17. Mizmor - Cairn
(Gilead)

Portland solo outfit Mizmor continued to blur the boundaries between harsh black metal and pulsating drone/doom on Cairn, a concept album about struggling with the inherent absurdity of existence – and if you think that sounds heavy, just wait until you hear songs like the soul-wrenching ‘Cairn To God’, an oppressive combination of sub rattling bass drones and harrowing existential dread.

16. Obsequiae - The Palms Of Sorrowed Kings
(20 Buck Spin)

With their medieval aesthetic still seeming endlessly evocative, Obsequiae’s third album was one of the year’s most beautiful black metal releases. Whilst “beauty” may not be something you’d readily associate with the genre, this three piece really make it work without sacrificing any metal cred, marrying exquisite harp with soaring, triumphant guitar harmonies and a truly ancient atmosphere.

15. Ghold - Input>Chaos
(Crypt Of The Wizard)

“Chaos” is the word, with this little oddity feeling like the weirdest entry yet in what is already a fairly obtuse discography. Having been a fully-fledged power trio for several years now, it seems Ghold are still finding creative new ways to exploit the format, with Input>Chaos finding room for more expressive vocals, disorientating soundscapes and avant-garde flights of fancy amongst their usual sludgy din.

14. Venom Prison - Samsara
(Prosthetic)

With all eyes on them after their 2016 debut Animus quite rightly blew up, Venom Prison responded by somehow getting even meaner. Samsara continued to dish out hardcore influenced death metal in the vein of Suffocation or Dying Fetus, but it felt like the intensity levels had been ramped up even further than Animus; the breakdowns are heavier, the vocals are nastier, the leads shred harder than ever and the combined whole hits with the force of a runaway freight train.

13. Ithaca - The Language Of Injury
(Holy Roar)

Ithaca have had quite a year; whilst their dissonant metallic hardcore has been a favourite of those with their ears to the underground for a while now, their debut The Language Of Injury seemed to propel them into the stratosphere, playing bigger and better shows and blasting as many ears as possible with their intense, cathartic assault. They don’t really sound like any other hardcore band around right now, squeezing an astonishing amount of wild, expressive sounds out of their instruments during dazzlingly technical riffs that are just as fun to start pits to as they are to dissect and nerd out over.

12. Teitanblood - The Baneful Choir
(Norma Evangelium Diaboli)

This Spanish duo continue to make most other war metal bands look like the staid, uninspired Blasphemy clones they really are with their blisteringly aggressive third album, another deep dive into an oppressive subterranean world of inhuman blastbeats, colossally thick guitar tones and vocals that sound like towering goat demons speaking in tongues. It may not be as abrasive as their last album Death, but the sinister atmosphere conjured here is just as irresistible.

11. Full Of Hell - Weeping Choir
(Relapse)

I wasn’t expecting another standalone Full Of Hell full-length so soon after 2017’s Trumpeting Ecstasy, nor was I expecting it to be this much of a mindfuck. Weirder and more experimental than Trumpeting, Weeping Choir nevertheless pushes the band’s grindcore maelstrom to the Nth degree, dispensing with the more mosh friendly cuts in its first half before really getting stuck in to some bizarre, noisy, dissonant madness.

10. Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen
(Debemur Morti Productions)

This was another surprise; although you could say there’s always been something psychedelic about Blut Aus Nord’s murky, industrial black metal, I’d never expected Vindsval to lean this heavily into the psych angle. The results are astonishing though, and incredibly listenable, with this album’s fusion of scorching, blotter quaffing guitar leads and atmospheric black metal amounting to a genuinely mind altering experience.

9. Cult Of Luna - A Dawn To Fear
(Metal Blade)

After experimenting with electronics on 2013’s Vertikal and the new sonic areas opened up to them by having Julie Christmas in the band for 2016’s Mariner, Cult Of Luna’s eighth album feels like a return to the band’s roots. They come back to their earlier post-metal bluster with a much more weathered, mature approach however, with slow-burning, deeply textured and immensely powerful cuts like ‘Lights On The Hill’ and ‘Inland Rain’ simultaneously delivering some of the most crushing and beautiful sounds of their career.

8. Tomb Mold - Planetary Clairvoyance

(20 Buck Spin)

Last year’s Manor Of Infinite Forms may have cemented Canada’s Tomb Mold as one of the new school of old school death metal’s most invigorating practitioners, but Planetary Clairvoyance took them to a whole new level, proving there’s more to these guys than just mere Incantation and Demigod worship. The influence of those bands is still there, of course, but this third record finds Tomb Mold really establishing their own identity and delivering a supremely satisfying death metal that feels timeless, cosmic and cavernous all at once.

7. Saint Vitus - Saint Vitus
(Season Of Mist)

With original vocalist Scott Reagers back on the mic for the first time since 1995’s Die Healing, the doom legends’ second self-titled album (and ninth overall) felt like both a return to the band’s early days and a bold look into the future. Saint Vitus delivers classic anthems as well as some of the sparsest (‘Last Breath’) and punkiest (‘Useless’) songs they’ve ever recorded. I’m hoping for many more Vitus albums, of course, but if this was to be their final one, it would be a perfect way to end of doom’s most flawless discographies.

6. Cloud Rat – Pollinator
(Artoffact)

One of the many, many great things about Cloud Rat is just how layered and involved their albums feel. There’s an immediate, visceral kick to them all, of course (this is grindcore, after all), but even after so many listens I’m still hearing new things in Pollinator and untangling fresh intricacies in this dense, blistering and emotionally exhausting collection of songs.

5. Torpor - Rhetoric Of The Image
(Truthseeker)

Torpor’s debut From Nothing Comes Everything was my album of the year back in 2015, and I was worried the band would be no more after losing distinctive vocalist Nats Spada. Thankfully, here we are four years later and the London trio are still one of the most powerful post-metal bands around. Rhetoric Of The Image goes beyond your standard Neur-Isis worship and summons up some of the weightiest, most catastrophically heavy riffs of 2019 – this thing feels like a million tonnes of shining black concrete suddenly being dropped on your chest and it’s fucking great.

4. Wallowing - Planet Loss
(Sludgelord)

There were a lot of good debut albums released this year, but none that squeezed my pineal gland quite as hard as Brighton’s Wallowing, who delivered half an hour of absolute filth that I’ve been replaying over and over and over again. As if their grotty cocktail of doom, noise, grind and death metal wasn’t already delicious enough, Planet Loss’s surprisingly rich story depicting the enslavement of mankind and destruction of Earth by malevolent aliens is the icing on the cake.

3. Inter Arma - Sulphur English
(Relapse)

They finally did it – Inter Arma released a no holds barred masterpiece this year. That’s not to disparage their older albums, which are all great, but none of them have felt this cohesive, this hypnotic or this downright powerful. Flowing as one continuous piece of music, I’ve practically lived inside this thing since April and I’m still not sick of it. It’s like 90s Neurosis and Formulas era Morbid Angel having tantric sex in the heart of the fucking sun and if that doesn’t sound like a good time to you, then you’re reading the wrong column, quite frankly.

2. Blood Incantation - Hidden History Of The Human Race
(Dark Descent)

It seems like all but the most hardened cynic hopped aboard the Blood Incantation hype train this year, and with good reason. Simply put, the Denver quartet delivered the best death metal album of the year, a lean, intoxicating and imaginative voyage through technical fretboard wizardry, jaw-droppingly furious blasting and spacious, progressive psychedelia, all wrapped up in the kind of timeless death metal atmosphere that sends a chill running down the centre of your spine. The band cover more ground in just 36 minutes than many of their peers have done throughout their entire discographies, and yet the whole thing feels focussed, well-structured and memorable.

1. Dawn Ray’d - Behold Sedition Plainsong
(Prosthetic)

Behold Sedition Plainsong is exactly the kick up the arse metal needed in 2019. Of all metal’s sub-genres, black metal has always been the one most susceptible to the creep of fascism, so it’s been incredibly refreshing to watch this outspokenly left-wing Liverpudlian trio’s ascent over the last half a decade, with the band passionately urging us not to concede any cultural ground to the far right. Their second album is easily their most furious, cohesive and eloquent statement so far, railing against deceitful politicians, the arduous struggles facing immigrants coming into the UK and even the muddled, pseudo-Satanic ideology that so many black metal acts blindly parrot without even really thinking about it, all in lyrics that are as poetic and thought-provoking as they are immediate, articulate and direct.

Even without the band’s strong message however, this would still be the year’s most incendiary metal record, with its ice cold black metal seamlessly augmented by righteous anarcho punk and atmospheric folk influences without ever blunting its seething, visceral power. The trio’s stripped-back set up keeps things sounding raw and organic even during the album’s lushest, more atmospheric moments, and there’s a stirring, fiery sense of empowerment throughout.

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