Seven members of T&E present their favorite singles, albums and EPs of 2018. Our list covers the commercial to underground, ranging from technical thrash metal to r&b to
chamber pop and beyond. Tell us your favorites in the comment section below!
Album: Dirty Computer
Artist: Janelle Monaé
Favorite Song: “Make Me Feel”
I’ve already been informed that I’m late to the Janelle Monaé party, but better late than never! From the first few minutes watching the album’s accompanying full-length “Emotion Picture,” I was hooked. Dirty Computer takes the deeply intimate storytelling of pop, hip hop, and R&B and frames it in a futuristic, sterile, dystopian world. It’s Beyoncé’s Lemonade meets THX-1138. Apparently this isn’t new territory for Monaé, as her earlier music also concerns itself with dystopian sci-fi themes. Though set in the future, Dirty Computer is equally influenced by the past and attuned to the present. Lyrical references that already sound dated and overdone (“If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back”) drift just above an extensive set of inspiration spelled out in the liner notes, like this one for the title track and album opener:
“INSPIRED BY PECOLA BREEDLOVE; GENESIS 3:16, GENESIS 9:20–27, AND LEVITICUS 18:22 AND 20:13; THE ZONG SLAVE SHIP; THE CORDED VIRGIN BELTS IN ANCIENT ROME; AND THE SECRET PRISONS AND DETENTION FACILITIES IN CHECHNYA.”
More importantly, the music is just plain good. Seamlessly flowing from neo soul to pop anthems to hip hop and funk, the album brings together Monaé’s varied music styles with contributions from Brian Wilson, Zoë Kravitz, Grimes, and Pharrell Williams. What’s strongest is the songwriting, as shown in the songs’ versatility: for example, Swiss DJ-producer EDX transformed “Make Me Feel” — the album’s funky banger, created in partnership with Prince — into an irresistibly heavy EDM wobble worthy of the best Las Vegas nightclub. Taking it back to her roots, Monaé performed the song dressed like a Rhythm Nation Janet Jackson while briefly singing and dancing James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin.’” More recently, the Easy Star All-Stars and producer Michael Goldwasser dubbed out “I Like That” so naturally that it sounds like it was always meant to be reggae. When resisting dystopia feels a part of everyday life, I’m grateful for artists like Janelle Monaé, turning pain and confusion into feel-good funky power.
Artist: Ravyn Lenae
Favorite Song: “The Night Song”
How many times have I listened to these 17 minutes? From the organ keys in the first fifteen seconds to Steve Lacy’s trademark rickenbacker to Ravyn’s seductive cooing, you’re stuck. Five songs, all straight up r&b, funk, and soul.
Single: "I Like It"
Artist: Cardi B
Take a classic song and turn up the bass. It’s hard to mess up the formula, and Cardi B and her crew did it to perfection. In this case, it’s a 50-year-old Latin boogaloo classic transformed into a ratchet amalgamation of salsa and trap. Perfect for the commute, the office, the bar, the outdoor party, the wedding, the strip club, and the morning after — not necessarily in that order.
Album: Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
Favorite Song: “Canary Yellow”
It seems like everyone in the metal community has one opinion or another about Deafheaven. So here’s mine: I loved their first two albums, but wasn’t terribly fond of their last effort, 2015’s New Bermuda. While I do enjoy some of those songs, I thought they were starting to stray from the uplifting crescendo-filled black metal that I fell in love with on their 2013 breakthrough album, Sunbather. I didn’t want them to move too far from that formula. They did it anyway on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, but this time, it’s growing on me. Deafheaven continue to deviate from their established norm and bring more poppy melodies and indie and post-hardcore riffs to the forefront. George Clarke’s raspy black metal vocals keep them rooted in their past, but they’re pushing into new territory, especially on songs like “Canary Yellow” and “Worthless Animal.” That doesn’t stop them, however, from harkening back to the old sounds they crafted in San Francisco’s Mission District at the beginning of the decade on a few songs, most notably “Glint.” Elsewhere, Clarke showcases his vocal versatility on “Night People,” a touching, clean-sung, piano-accompanied duet with Chelsea Wolfe. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is the sound of a band reinventing themselves and hitting their stride. Deafheaven are becoming even more comfortable with taking creative risks, and they’re silencing their critics in the process.
Album: Time and Space
Favorite Song: “Right to Be”
A few years ago, I included Turnstile’s Move Thru Me EP on my year end list. In my review of that EP, I said that while I hesitated to call Turnstile this generation’s Bad Brains, I was definitely drawing some comparisons between the two. A few years and a new album later, that hasn’t changed. And the more I think about it, I think that’s a good thing. While their influence is undeniably there, it would be unfair to call Turnstile the next Bad Brains. Turnstile is the first Turnstile. On Time and Space, the Baltimore boys dial back the 90’s funk/rap metal from their previous releases in favor of no-frills hardcore and rad riffs that make you wanna put on your dancing shoes and go two-stepping at one of their intense live shows. Turnstile are doing their own thing and refusing to pigeonhole themselves into the sounds of old. I suppose in a pop culture scene that’s so obsessed with nostalgia, that’s one of the most punk rock things you can do.
EP: Streams of Thought, Vol. 1
Artist: Black Thought & 9th Wonder
Favorite Song: “Making A Murderer (feat. Styles P)”
Black Thought’s first solo EP dropped on the same night as… *ahem*... a certain G.O.O.D. Music release this year, and the timing couldn't have been more perfect. It was nice to get such a dense, take-no-shit collection of songs to distract from a distraction. This EP is a real treat for hip hop’s old heads and indie aficionados. True to the name, Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 is Black Thought delivering whatever is on his mind and taking control of the spotlight with his impressive lyrical stylings in a stream-of-consciousness flow. Guest spots from Styles P, Rapsody, and KIRBY complement, but don’t upstage, him, while 9th Wonder’s soulful, vibe-out production further enhances Thought’s delivery. I added the entire EP to my snowboarding playlists upon first listen. THAT’S how you know it’s good.
Artist: Twenty One Pilots
Favorite Song: “Morph”
Listen. I have never considered myself a Twenty One Pilots fan. I am not a “misunderstood” junior high kid who thinks life is hard, nor am I one of those weird suburban moms that doesn't let her kids read Harry Potter. I enjoy ragging on Twenty One Pilots and their tepid, flavor-of-the-week mall-pop as much as the next fellow. If you had told me at the beginning of January that their new album would be on MY year-end list for 2018, I would have laughed at you and probably called you ugly. So I hope you believe me when I say: this album is really, really good. Twenty One Pilots are not only becoming more ambitious in their concepts and improving as songwriters, but they're sounding less whiny and pretentious in the process. Trench draws influence from a number of drastically different genres, hopping between bombastic garage rock, minimalist hip-hop, jazz rap, cool R&B, slow-burning piano ballads, reggae, and Oasis-inspired, shout-along indie rock. Despite the staggering amount of different sounds, it's a remarkably cohesive album that captures your attention and warrants multiple listens all the way through.
Single: “Mo Bamba”
Artist: Sheck Wes
Technically this song came out in mid-2017, but it took a full year for it to actually gain relevance, so I’m including it on this year’s list.
Here’s the deal - I’m getting old. I’ll be a year away from turning 30 in April, I got my very first old-man back injury over the summer, and nowadays on Friday nights, you’re more likely to find me kicking back at home with a six pack of mineral water rather than a few beers and a shot or two deep at the bar. But recently, on a rare occasion where I did, in fact, shut down the club at 1:30 am, the DJ closed his set with a song that made me make this face and made the whole club get IGNORANT on the dance floor. My friend’s college-aged brother told me the name of the song: “Mo Bamba” by Sheck Wes. When the lights came up and we complained that it was the last song, the DJ yelled to us “Of course that’s the last song! What can I follow that up with? NOTHING!” Fair point, but this song gets me too hype to the point that it’s unfair. I’ve since made a mental note to not listen to it before my bedtime because I know I won’t be able to sleep afterwards. It’s been a hot minute since a song had that effect on me. Thank you Sheck Wes. Thank you BasedGod.
The Black Queen - Infinite Games
Post Malone - Beerbongs and Bentleys
Travis Scott - Astroworld
Chvrches - Love Is Dead
Biffy Clyro - MTV Unplugged: Live at Roundhouse, London
Release: NTS Sessions
Favorite Song: “Column Thirteen”
Oh man. This release. This big motherfucker of a release. Electronic experimentalists Autechre partnered with NTS Radio to air 8 hours of material, broadcast in two hour sessions weekly. Everything about NTS Sessions challenged my well established ways of listening to music. First, the fact that the music was broadcast live was a music nerd celebration. Fans all over the world gathered to listen, writing their thoughts on Reddit and wondering what the next two hours would sound like. This felt special and exciting, compared to my usual method of keeping a list of "Listen To Later" albums.
Second, the material itself is utterly unpredictable and challenging. Autechre used the power of artificial intelligence and neural networks to generate their tracks. This wasn't left to the whim of the machine however. Rob Brown and Sean Booth exchanged the sound files over the internet, making back and forth tweaks and refinements until their creations were deemed complete. This resulted in songs that have a structure, but meander in surprising ways while heading to their destination. Some of the sounds I've heard in this epic "album" are completely alien and new to me, filled with mysterious crackles, ominous wooshes, and alarming bleeps.
Consuming eight hours of music, let alone music as abstract as this one, is no easy feat. At times I got tired and wanted nothing to do with this digital wankery. But at others I was floored by the fast paced, dancing beats of Session 1, or filled with wonder with the beautiful atmospherics of Session 4. I'm not sure if I'll follow Autechre in a suicide mission if they decide to release 16 hours of music in one go, but I am satisfied with the effort I put into NTS Sessions. I could describe it as a herculean task, and at times it certainly was, but I will mostly remember it fondly as a unique and rewarding musical adventure.
Favorite Song: “Olde Guarde”
Portal are an anonymous band from Australia known for their chaotic and dissonant compositions. I had a hard time getting into their music in the past, since their production was very noisy, creating a wall of sound where it was difficult to distinguish the parts that created the whole. Even though this produced a sinister sound effectively, I felt that a different approach could grant them a more powerful way of portraying their lovecraftian themes. Lo and behold Ion, a completely different beast that granted my wishes for a clearer sound.
The instruments in Ion are relentless and have a very ominous presence that is genuinely scary. The guitars flow like electricity that powers sinister contraptions, serving a purpose that is beyond human imagination. Meanwhile, the mysterious Curator's whispers make their way into the listeners ears with an unnerving subtlety that makes one wonder if this isn't some sort of brainwashing technique. Last but not least, the band show an increased interest in atmospherics that make their songs flourish with detail. "Phathom" uses a set of metallic percussions that run with the cover art's theme of machinery, while "Olde Guarde" wraps up the album in a mesmerizing ambient section that sounds like an eldritch god communicating in the vastness of the cosmos.
Ion is a bone chilling experience that bewilders with its incredibly fast pacing. The album is more than the sum of its parts thanks to the added production clarity. Before, the wall of sound made the music feel chaotic and incomprehensible, as any terrifying lovecraftian entity must be. But in Ion we get the much more unsettling experience of taking a glimpse into the innards of the monster, making us realize that no matter how hard we try, we'll never understand its towering proportions and cryptic machinations.
Album: Vile Luxury
Artist: Imperial Triumphant
Favorite Song: “Lower World”
Inspired by the luxurious heights and somber underground of New York City, the trio Imperial Triumphant seek to capture the dichotomy of the urban landscape with their music. Their previous album, Abyssal Gods, is one of the most intriguing and terrifying experimental metal albums from the past few years, inducing terror like few other groups manage to. With "Vile Luxury", the band has solidified their vision into something more concrete, direct, and evocative. Here, the musicians are at the top of their game, displaying impressive bass, guitar, and drum work all around.
Perhaps the most distinctive element is the inclusion of jazz, lifeblood of the city that is muse to Imperial Triumphant. The choice is not only musically fascinating, but also conceptually. Being a genre born in the depths of poverty and later appropriated by suit wearing aristocrats, jazz provides the perfect vessel to the band's vision. Also mesmerizing are the atmospheric sections explored in the album. "Chernobyl Blues" explores post apocalyptic landscapes while "Lower World" uses samples of the subway to evoke the darkness below the city.
I am allured by the beauty and attractions of cities, but also disgusted with the capitalist machine that drives them. There is no better soundtrack to these mixed feelings than "Vile Luxury", which captures both the majesty and turmoil of the metropolis.
Album: Dead Magic
Artist: Anna von Hausswolff
Favorite Song: “Ugly and Vengeful”
I first became acquainted with Anna thanks to a serendipitous visit she made to my hometown of Querétaro, where out of the norm musical acts are incredibly rare. Her sprawling and dark compositions blew my mind and made me keep her on the radar. When her new album Dead Magic came out, I was excited to find out that it was her best so far. Before its release, Anna toured extensively with musical masterminds Swans; fact that has a very visible impact in this record. However, calling her a copycat would be a great offense. She draws inspiration from their compositions but adds her own distinctive flavor to the mix, making the music truly and unmistakably hers.
There are two stars of the show. First, Anna's mastery of the pipe organ, which seeps the music in a sinister aura keen to that of an old, haunted church in the middle of a cold and barren land. Second is her voice, which is both solemn and powerful. Tracks like "The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra" show her letting out spooky screams that you will remember long after listening. And on the 16 minute monster "Ugly and Vengeful", the organist weaves a thick and hypnotic atmosphere that engulfs you before being overtaken by towering distorted guitars.
There is a surprising attention to detail in the crafting of this album's tracks, favoring subtle sonic textures that slowly build a narrative. The progression of each of the songs is something to behold, as they captivate and keep surprising with the new ideas they introduce. If you like your music atmospheric and grandiose, definitely do not pass up on this one. Be ready to get lost in a somber and magnificent world.
Artist: Against All Logic
Favorite Song: “Know You”
I tend to listen to music that is more contemplative, atmospheric, or experimental. I always enjoy engaging in new sonic experiences that take me to new places. However, this last year has marked a change for me, making me shed my pseudo-intellectual skin in favor of a more open minded and lighthearted mood. 2012-2017 is one of the albums I had the most fun with this year, encouraging me to dance in the middle of my living room while I folded my clothes and making my office mate wonder what the hell was I doing by bouncing so much.
Against All Logic is a side project by electronic music producer Nicolas Jaar, where he leaves behind his more heady explorations to provide catchy grooves and funky rhythms. 2012-2017 is in essence a collection of house tracks, but enriched with the musician's production talents and smart usage of samples. The songs are textured by warm synthesizers, candid beats, and soulful vocal samples. Even if you are not in the mood to hit the dance floor, the songs are delightful to listen to thanks to their attention to detail and interesting progressions that tend to break away from the classic house formula.
Despite there being no narrative of thematic cohesion between the tracks, they are spaced in a way that flows effectively. Some tracks, like "I Never Dream", are more minimal and take their time to unfold, while songs like "Know You" start the high energy action right away. There is enough variety for the album to feel fresh and keep you on your toes, providing hit after hit. I certainly was captured by Jaar's take on house music, keeping both my body and mind engaged and in constant movement.
Parquet Courts - Wide Awake (Clever social commentary and wonderful rock/punk instrumentation)
Tim Hecker - Konoyo (The master of the apocalypse is back at it again with beautiful, confrontational compositions)
William Basinski and Lawrence English - Selva Oscura (Beautiful landscapes by two ambient music legends)
Aphex Twin - Collapse (Fast paced, crunchy, and delightful electronic sounds)
Skee Mask - Compro (Arctic IDM of your dreams)
Album: Esoteric Malacology
Favorite Song: “Putrid Fairytale”
The latest release by Lancanshire, UK natives Slugdge (pronounced Slugadge) completely floored me upon first listen. This year has seen a lot of surprisingly original takes on the death metal genre and this album is certainly no exception. The brain child of only two musicians, Matt Moss and Kev Pearson, this album is an incredible technical achievement. The lyrical subject matter tackles everything from slugs, the imminent collapse of society due to its insatiable gluttony and corruption, and well.… more slugs. They go into further detail on their Bandcamp page:
“Delve into the the mephitic melodies of Molluscas malodorous minions once more with Esoteric Malacology, the latest gastropodean gospel from Slugdge. Journey through the annuls of Slishic history; through the death and rebirth of the supreme cosmic overlord, and unlock mental gateways to even more horrendous and nonsensical realities than ever before”
It’s riveting stuff as it propels my imagination into levels of forbidden wonder I’ve rarely felt since childhood. In fact, every song I’ve heard by them is a play on words relating to slugs and other members of the Mollusk family; with titles like “War Squids” (War Pigs), “Spectral Burrows”(Spectral Sorrows), the album is peppered with mollusk-themed parodies of other metal songs. That’s not to say the lyrical content is all the band has going for them though. Vocalist Moss effortlessly alternates between primal screams and beautiful, melancholy vocals; an impressive contrast that brings back memories of older Opeth. On top of all the aforementioned traits, the album features technical guitar work that rips from the speakers into your eardrums and Black Dhalia Murder drummer, Alan Cassidy, relentlessly clobbering the drums. I implore you to give it a chance; you might find you had more love for slugs than you realized.
Album: Persona Non Grata
Artist: Authority Zero
Favorite Song: “Persona Non Grata”
Authority Zero has been a familiar favorite for a lot of Arizona natives for over a decade now and their new release is some of their best work in years. It feels fresh, faster, and the hooks are especially catchy without the impression that they’re pandering to anyone. It comes off as a genuine attempt at appealing to the downtrodden and the lyrical content is truly uplifting in exactly the right amounts. Lead vocalist Jason Devore stated recently in an interview with the local college newspaper, MCC Legend, that “Persona Non Grata is typically a political term, but to me where the idea came and stemmed from is that anyone feeling discriminated whether it be the punk scene, disabled, gay, straight or whoever. I just wanted to let people know they are all accepted”. Bassist Mike Spero has been credited with a good majority of the songwriting on the last couple albums and this release sounds like the band’s chemistry is at an all-time high, largely thanks to his clear musical talents and focus. Another new addition to the group, guitarist Dan Aid, is a phenomenal musician in his own right, having only one hand (employing the use of a stick to pick the strings attached to his arm) and playing just as fast as some of the best guitarists the genre has to offer. Overall, it’s a commendable message with nice call-backs to classic ska punk staples and the anthemic chorus chants we’ve all come to love from the band. Persona Non Grata is definitely worth checking out and reeling in the nostalgia you may feel around the band’s unique blend of genres.
I always tend to overanalyze things during year end list time. I started making my list and just from the spring season alone had over 100 albums, and I kept mulling over what I *actually* think deserves the top ten spot. So as an attempt to simplify things (as I’m pretty sure was my new years resolution or whatever anyway…), here are five albums that I really enjoyed with haiku reviews:
Artist: Kali Uchis
Favorite Song: “Your Teeth in My Neck”
Sweet bops, smooth bass lines
Reminiscent of Amy
One great pop album
Album: Burn Slow
Artist: Chris Liebing
Favorite Song: “Card House Feat. Miles Cooper Seaton”
Dancing in darkness
Ethereal and brooding
I love the Germans
Album: Queen of Golden Dogs
Favorite Song: “Paplu (Love that Moves the Sun)”
Now is making chamber pop
A welcomed surprise
Album: Orpheus vs. The Sirens
Artist: Hermit & The Recluse
Favorite Song: “Fate”
Looking through a lens
of Greek mythology
to understand life
Favorite Song: “Mindscape”
Inspired from Bollywood
With killer house beats
Exploded View - Obey
Idles - Joy as an Act of Resistance
Te'Amir - Abyssinia
Uji - Alborada
Sons of Kemet - Your Queen is a Reptile
Album: Now Only
Artist: Mount Eerie
Favorite Song: “Earth”
This is the first time writing for the collective, so I figured I’d start with my favorite song/album of the year. Anacortes-based (now hunkered down in New York) multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Phil Elverum has been diving deep into loss, questions of mortality and the meaning of each passing day for years now, first as The Microphones and for the past decade plus as Mount Eerie. Songs marked by a deep appreciation for the natural world and the futility of trying to understand it, Phil has always seemed to try and play the part of some cosmic narrator giving us insight into a story we tend to only see the broad strokes of, ignoring the smaller details that color the background. After the death of his wife Genevieve Castree, an equally talented & accomplished songwriter and cartoonist, Phil hesitated to allow us into that world of despair and ran deeper into the fog, but emerged with last year’s A Crow Looked at Me, 11 songs detailing the long road from diagnosis to death. His follow up, Now Only, continues that story but seen through the other side of a life after destruction. In the song “Earth”, Phil describes a moment that began on last year’s “Seaweed”, spreading ashes & leaving a chair for his wife on a hill to face the sunset. He’s returned to that chair in “Earth”, and now the remaining bones of cremation have melded into the foundation, “indistinguishable from...animal bones”, and he feels a moment of calm and solace. He recalls a song from Wolves in the Throne Room, reciting the lyric, “I will lay down my bones among the rocks and roots”, cementing us into the natural foundation, to lay down of the loss of his partner. Sometimes we need a song that will remind us that we will all return to the same earth, the same rocks and roots that his wife is now a part of, a common thread of existence, separated only by time and the path we took to get there.
Artist: Trochee Trochee
Favorite Song: “End of Speedway”/”Your Bronco at Arthur’s”
Trochee Trochee is a band that hit my ears around 2016 with their release Stress, Unstress, a great lofi collection of fuzzy cassette hiss and electric topography, “a chilly midnight jam in a young Michael Stipe’s basement”. Recording only with analog gear and to tape, the magnetic movements rang with the same warmth I’d wrapped myself in years ago with my first 4-track cassette machine and dusty acoustic guitar - it was love at first listen. With a new year came another release, Vigil on Swan, an album of tremendous weight that I don’t have room to adequately try to lift here in this space. No, this space is for Nightfall, released just in time for me to sing its praises while I’m dragged across the grooves like the peaks of the Catalinas. Songwriter Alex Whalen & Co. has crafted a breathless narrative of memories of a life in Tucson, mining details I could never even begin to recall if I was writing of my own youth. Divided into two distinct halves, the “Tucson Side” of the album definitely spotlights a more pronounced folk and country influence, immaculately played and arranged - recollections of burning journal pages on rooftops, post break-up hikes, and a friend’s Ford Bronco heading over River Road marred by a gray sunspot of peeled paint. My two favorite tracks from the album fall on the second side, or “Rincon Side”, marked by a musical shift back towards their well-worn and seemingly self-anointed “delta emo”. “The End of Speedway” is surrounded by a coming storm over the Rincons, presumably seen through the window of a moving vehicle. “The end of Speedway predicts the end of something,” the music solemn and slow, building with the same intensity as I imagine the storm. I’ve driven out to the Douglas Spring trail at the end of Speedway many times, sometimes for clarity but mostly to try and outrun “the end of something”, inevitably coming down from the hike exhausted and ready to stop running; “The End of Speedway” feels like a distillation of those moments, the impending storms we all try to outrun. “Your Bronco at Arthur’s” follows “...Speedway”, potentially highlighting a moment after the rain and clouds have cleared. The Bronco from earlier in the album returns, as does our narrator from a trip to the Adirondacks. Meeting up after a period of lost communication, the two friends share songs they had been working on, songs that no one else had heard yet in person. Despite the period where they seemingly had lost touch, they put aside the distance of time and play on, vulnerable and open. There’s a warmth in their encouragement, “...keep going”, but then the song ends and so does the moment. Trochee Trochee deals in these small breezes of memory so well, passing through the air and into our lungs across many years; we take a deep breath and then let them go.
Album: Nice Try
Artist: Nice Try
Favorite Song: “Micah”
I’ve been a fan of Madeline Robinson’s music for a number of years, ever since seeing her and her ukelele play small, DIY music fests as Madeline Ava on tours around Bloomington, IN. Her songs have always felt so clear and intimate, an open heart surgery on display. She’s picked up an electric guitar since then and formed Nice Try, taking those years of bedroom pop masterpieces and translating them into an infectious cacophony of fuzz pedals, sugary sweet harmonies, and lumbering riffs. “Micah” blends all these elements perfectly, with a hint of self-doubt and jealousy towards the seeming progression of title character Micah’s life with Madeline’s own stagnation and emotional hang-ups. It’s a scenario we’ve all seen played out in our own lives, yearning to grow but hindered by our own inability to let go.
Other Stuff I Really Fucking Loved (O.S.I.R.F.L)
Krimewatch - s/t
Rik and the Pigs - A Child’s Gator
Coherence - of alternate spaces
Daughters - You Won’t Get What You Want
Eiko Ishibashi - The Dream My Bones Dream
Sumac - Love in Shadow
Album: The Blind Leading the Blind
Favorite Song: “Stoßtrupp”
World War I, the Great War, or contemporaneously The War to End All Wars was one of humanity’s most savage exercises. The combination of technological advancements and industrialization of weaponry and the careless, thriftless treatment of human lives lead to an estimated 16 million casualties as a direct result of the war and another 50-100 million in the resulting genocides and pandemics. The sheer brutality of this history makes it an obvious candidate for metal lyrics, but until I ran across Ukraine’s 1914, I had never heard a band nail this subject matter and theme so flawlessly. Their dedication to such a singular vision is restrictive and risky, but boy do they pull it off. What sets 1914 apart from the plethora of other bands that have explored war in their music is the diversity of mood and atmosphere they create. The Blind Leading the Blind is a doomy death metal album at its core with just the right dash of black metal. The WWI theme ultimately ends up being window dressing, but their continued exploration of this theme results in powerful songs spanning the brutality of trench and biological warfare, the patriotic aggression the various combatants, the psychotic mindset needed to continuously kill enemies in barbaric conditions, and the haunting emotional toll the extreme sorrow, futility, and terror took on these soldiers. Whereas many bands focused on themes of war end up being somewhat one note, The Blind Leading the Blind manages to transform this restricted subject matter into a lens onto the human condition when its subjected to its worst creations. This approach allows 1914 to explore wholly different subject matter within the context of an overarching narrative, a feat few in metal music pull off so well. Now the band’s dedication to the WWI theme alone doesn’t make a good album; independent of subject matter entirely, this album fucking rips! 1914’s mastery of massive, crushing blackened doom-infused death metal is the rock-solid foundation this album is built upon. But it’s the attention to detail throughout the length of the record and how it ties the music, imagery, and themes together that takes it from an amazing album to a near perfect one, and easily to the top of my end of the year list.
Album: The Sciences
Favorite Song: “Antarcticans Thawed”
The surprise reformation of stoner/doom metal pioneers Sleep in the mid-2010s was a welcome return to the metal scene, even if it only appeared to be for sporadic live shows. Fast forward to 2018, and much like their surprise reformation, the weedians suddenly drop an entirely new album, 20 years after their last record, the legendary monolith, Dopesmoker. While The Sciences is not Dopesmoker 2.0, its endless, massive Sabbathian riffs on the majority of the album’s songs are a clear offspring of the band’s experimentation with the human limits of cannabis consumption in the 1990s. Ultimately, the Dopesmoker influences are strong throughout the album’s runtime, but they’re more carefully used and augmented with moments that harken back to Sleep’s Holy Mountain, such as the up-tempo and more aggressive “Marijuanaut’s Theme” and the relaxing closer “The Botanist”. Still, when the enormous Dopesmoker-esque drones do appear on tracks “Sonic Titan” and album highlight “Antarcticans Thawed”, the modern incarnation of Sleep, now rawer, but more seasoned, make them sound all the more impressive. The Sciences is clearly a combination of the group’s best two albums – something worth high praise alone. But it’s more than just a call back to and amalgam of their legendary output; each of the members brings something they’ve learned along their travels back to the table. Matt Pike’s heavier guitar playing and greater emphasis on solos in High on Fire surfaces on nearly every track, while Al Cisneros’ meditative, spiritual turn in Om translates into dreamy bass grooves and a firmer command of his vocals, now a hybrid of his Om and later Sleep style. Original drummer Chris Hakius has unfortunately retired from music, but his replacement, famed Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder, appears to be the perfect fit for the modern version of Sleep, with his slightly more aggressive approach better fitting Pike’s grittier guitar lines. Since their break-up, myriad stoner/doom metal bands have come onto the scene, matching or arguably exceeding the original Sleep albums in some cases. But the godfathers of stoner doom, long lying dormant, but now older, wiser, and infused with new energy, have returned to retake their rightful places on the throne.
Favorite Song: “The Idolator”
Horrendous’ album to album evolution is similar to Tribulation in that their debut, a straightforward occult and horror themed death metal affair was completely replaced with a more progressive and evolving sound on each subsequent release. Like Tribulation, with their fourth outing, Horrendous seem to have found their comfort zone, largely extending and expanding upon the sound of their third album. Unlike Tribulation, whose now gothic/heavy metal incarnation shares few if any traits with their progressive death metal past, Horrendous’ Idol is a more direct fusion of their original death metal sound and the genre-melding progressive and power metal influenced Ecdysis. Still, Idol clearly builds upon the riff-tastic, varied experience delivered by their previous release, Anareta. The addition of dedicated bassist Alex Kulick is Idol’s most immediate change, with his warm tone and contrasting patterns shining through the crisp and busy guitars, bringing a fantastic depth to their sound akin to Death’s Individual Thought Patterns. While Horrendous have clearly found a niche they want to explore further, their sound is still evolving in subtle ways. Delving deeper into the album reveals so many different looks, from the doomy prog opening of “Obolus” to the more straightforward death metal breaks of “Devotion (Blood for Ink)” which are brilliantly joined to melodic, clean-sung sections. Idol is so many good ideas executed flawlessly, both within each song and the overall album, that it doesn’t feel fair to simply group this under technical or progressive death metal. Yes, those are perhaps the most apt descriptors of the band’s latest release, but there is so much going on here, and so much to be discovered upon repeated listens. With Idol, Horrendous demonstrate further mastery of their craft, delivering mind-bending musical ideas in the form of eight intricate progressive death metal pieces, resulting in an album that ends up being greater than the sum of its parts.
Album: Beyond Celestial Echoes
Artist: Sacral Rage
Favorite Song: “Vaguely Decoded”
Sacral Rage’s 2015 album, Illusions in Infinite Void, was one of that year’s best albums – a razor sharp, relentless USPM onslaught sprinkled with old school tech thrash and fundamentally built upon the band’s songwriting and instrumental chops. To see such a fantastic album coming from the debut of a very young band made the exceptional promise these guys had clear. Incredibly, Sacral Rage manage to one-up their debut with the complex, thrashier, and more technical Beyond Celestial Echoes. Whereas technical thrash elements where used to spice up the Helstar-focused USPM amalgam of Illusions in Infinite Void, on Beyond Celestial Echoes, the leads, solos, and song structures are a technical thrash mixture of the likes of Realm, Coroner, and Watchtower first and foremost. Add to the more aggressive, tighter riffs the increased King Diamond-esque soaring falsettos of singer Dimitris K., and you get the dramatic icing on the cake to make the entire lofty space opera theme work effortlessly. Sacral Rage attempt to mix together the best parts of old school tech thrash, prog, power and speed metal, and succeed largely everywhere. From the Watchtower inspired “Vaguely Decoded” to the heavier and more extreme metal “Samsara (L.C.E.)” and the epic 15 minute closer “The Glass”, Sacral Rage appear incapable of doing wrong. As a result, Beyond Celestial Echoes delivers an incredible ode to the band’s varied influences while decidedly solidifying their own unique sound with a secondary outing that is a more than worthy successor to their already fantastic debut.
Album: Down Below
Favorite Song: “Nightbound”
The ever-changing sound of each Tribulation release, from raw, high-octane, macabre death metal to a dark, progressive mixture of black and death metal, and ultimately to gothic-infused heavy metal made each new album a thrilling listen. But by sticking to and expanding upon the gothic/heavy metal sound of The Children of the Night with Down Below, Tribulation has been able to shore up some of the holes brought upon by constant change. Whereas the excellent moments of The Children of the Night were joined by some less than stellar meandering exercises in the album’s latter half, Down Below is a tighter, more streamlined affair. The raspy, black metal style vocals return to join a stronger songwriting base defined by rich, memorable leads, tasteful licks and solos, and an overall stronger, unified sound. While many, including myself, yearn for the unhinged death metal of their debut, with Down Below, Tribulation are finding their groove with their melodic, subdued, but unique approach to heavy metal. The guitar driven rockers are better than ever, while the atmospheric-focused numbers feel organic, keep the listener captivated, and further enhance the overall album, altogether avoiding the main pitfalls of similar pieces on The Children of the Night. With their latest album, Tribulation have improved a great sound to an excellent one, providing a slick, sexy assortment of gothic metal to fill our heads until their next exciting release.
Favorite Song: “The Pallid Scourge”
Kriegsmaschine, the alter ego of Mgła members M. and Darkside, couldn’t be more different from Mgła. While both bands are black metal, the duos outing as Kriegsmaschine ditches the melodic, orthodox black metal riffing, instead focusing on atonal, gloomy, and atmospheric guitars that provide a backdrop for the unbelievably complex, nearly impenetrable rhythm sections. Darkside has always provided unique cymbal work and rhythmic moments in Mgla – it’s one of the reasons that band is so great. But in Kriegsmaschine he really stretches his legs, showcasing ever-present, somewhat tribal, and ridiculously creative drumming spanning all aspects of the kit. Fans of Ulcerate will feel right at home with Apocalypticists, though the firmly black metal rooted album brings forward a more ominous, dare I say, apocalyptic, atmosphere. Like past Kriegsmaschine albums, Apocalypticists is an exhaustive listen: the richly layered, rhythmic-based songwriting coupled with its oppressive, melody-averse soundscape both demands repeated, focused listens and punishes you for daring to stare into its darkness. Despair and futility are common tropes in black metal, but albums like Apocalypticists truly embody them and manage to push the boundaries of black metal along the way.
Album: From the Depths of Flesh
Favorite Song: “Torn by the Nails”
I’m all for layered, thoughtful, and progressive-tinged metal; artists that incorporate unique elements or songwriting into extreme metal have produced some of the most interesting and memorable albums I’ve heard. However, sometimes you just want a band to cut that shit out and blast your face with vicious riffs, monstrous grooves, and skull-crushing drums played with reckless abandon. In a surprise twist, this year’s single best example of this ethos comes from Russia’s Wombripper, and their sensational take on the classic Swedish OSDM sound: From the Depths of Flesh. While it’s clear Wombripper is determined to win this year’s most relentless album award with tracks like “Immolation Rites” and “Frantic Exhumation”, From the Depths of Flesh has some surprising slower moments in its latter half, with songs like “Locked in the Iced Coffin” and “Godless Slaughter (In the Name of Doom)” showcasing macabre, atmospheric riffs shining through the disgusting, muddy production. On the surface, Wombripper appears like another OSDM throwback – something supported by the band themselves as they describe their music simply as ‘Pure HM-2 sound Old School Death Metal’. However, beneath the murky production lies a fantastic, well-written death metal gem I revisited this year again and again.
Album: White Horse Hill
Favorite Song: “White Horse Hill”
England’s Solstice return 20 years after their last full-length to deliver the massive, triumphant epic doom metal album White Horse Hill. With such a long absence, several questions arise, namely regarding the quality and approach to songwriting of the new incarnation. In the case of Solstice, the band appears to be in its strongest form yet, with White Horse Hill exemplifying their epic heavy metal core while paying homage to their English folk influences. Interestingly, the melancholic, gloomy tone of previous releases has been largely relegated to the folky interlude songs, with the three big doom metal epics, “To Sol a Thane”, “White Horse Hill”, and “Under Waves Lie Our Dead” all bursting with a triumphant, uplifting sound. The shift in tone is partly due to the guitars, which while still providing enormous, crunchy riffs, tend to favor the clean, melodic side of the epic build-up, and partly due to new vocalist Paul Kearns, whose bombastic, opera-like bellowing can’t help but stir you to action. This is perhaps White Horse Hill’s greatest triumph; the new incarnation of Solstice stays true to their roots, delivers on the epic doom fans expect, and manage to smoothly transition to a newly focused sound, an epic heavy metal sound where each song is the stirring, swelling magnus opus that would lead warriors of yesteryear into battle.
Favorite Song: “Onirism”
Mahr, a faceless entity with no known location, band members, or lyrical themes, still managed to produce one of the most memorable debut albums of this year: Antelux. With nonexistent details surrounding the band or the albums creation, listeners are only left to take in the atmospheric monstrosity that is Antelux. A monolithic, crushing, and oppressive combination of black and doom metal with elements of cavernous death metal thrown in, Mahr’s debut revels in its thick, suffocating darkness. The most apparent influence is clearly Darkspace, but whereas Darkspace exemplify the shear scale, emptiness, and futility of space, Mahr manage to hone in on a particularly ominous and terrifying subset of this already grim sound. Darkspace makes me think of being alone in a spaceship as it travels through the expansive and punishing blackness of space, stopping only for its inevitable destruction. Mahr on the other hand brings forth the feeling of being on a more claustrophobic ship that is on a one-way, irreversible trip into a black hole – your demise all the more apparent and ultimately, as bad as it can be. While Darkspace’s industrial flavored darkness more specifically captures that space feeling, Mahr’s more general, unbearably grim, and psychosis inducing variant is altogether more horrifying.
Artist: Funeral Mist
Favorite Song: “Cockatrice”
The side-project of Marduk frontman Mortuus, Funeral Mist, has been his more experimental and atmospheric outlet for several releases now. However, with Hekatomb, more of the trademark direct and violent Marduk sound creeps into the fold. The end result is one of the most interesting black metal albums of the year. This fusion of weird, vile, and evil experimentation with Marduk’s trademark black metal brutality at the drop of a hat is unsettling, powerful, and all the more captivating. Take for example the almost uplifting rocking beginning of “Naught but Death”, which while already showing signs of weirdness with its eerie choral-style chants, manages to get the head bouncing with its mid-tempo jaunting. Just as we’re settling in, it drops into a tremelo-riffed backdrop to a vocal heavy declaration of evil. It’s a jarring transition certainly, but just as the song winds down to some sort of reprise, an even more jarring change occurs as “Shedding Skin” blasts your teeth in with military grade black metal violence that sounds more unhinged than ever. Hekatomb is a highly unique take on the traditional, albeit Swedish-flavored, black metal album. Fancy instrumentation and atonal, dissonant tricks are avoided – the strength of this album is in its ability to take existing, established black metal sounds and add just the right dash of creativity to reinvigorate the depravity and wickedness we’ve come to expect from the genre.
Convulsing - Grievous
Ripped to Shreds - 埋葬 (To Bury)
Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods
Drudkh – Їм часто сниться капіж (They Often See Dreams About the Spring)
Ivar Bjørnson & Einar Selvik – Hugsjá
Culture & Random Beat