It was a stupendous year for metal. I couldn’t even squeeze in all of the albums I thought deserved mention, and I guarantee there were twice as many equally brilliant albums I haven’t even heard. It’s literally impossible to comprehend the full scope of high-quality metal nowadays, all right there for the sampling on bandcamp. Yet here I am starting this piece with nu-metal thoughts for some reason.
As my guy Sahan predicted, nu-metal had its big comeback year. Spurred on by the no-longer-anticipated Tool album Fear Inoculum, 2019 saw all the has-beens of post-grunge sludgery (except for Limp Bizkit) come out of the woodwork. Korn released an album that I’m obviously not going to listen to. Staind went on its first tour since its singer officially came out as a Trump-loving redneck in a failed attempt to jumpstart his country career. Slipknot preempted Tool with its comeback album, We Are Not Your Kind, to unexpected critical acclaim for reasons/qualities I clearly can’t connect with, and then the Tool album followed suit.
While Tool (this should’ve been in the Alt piece, dammit) (also I don’t know why I felt the need to give this Tool history lesson but it’s kind of cute, I’m leaving it in) may be largely responsible for nu-metal’s existence, it has never been a part of that genre. Tool was once the heaviest and weirdest shit allowable on commercial radio, paving the way for these scores of quasi-heavy bands that only the mainstream would deem “metal” in any sense. Slipknot is probably the lone exception; the band was just dark and edgy enough to be the bridge between over- and underground back in the day. Tool was its own thing, morphing from a doom-grunge sound into the cynical goth-prog that emerged on the 1996 classic Ænima and which the band refined on its 2001 follow-up Lateralus. Up to this point, Maynard & co. could do no wrong in my book, but Lateralus proved to be the end of Tool’s artistic development. 10,000 Days (2006), although it had a few really good songs on it, was little more than a retread, and then the band toured sporadically for the next decade or so with the same exact setlist year after year. My guess is that the other guys wrote most of the music for Fear Inoculum without much delay, but then shrewdly decided to put it on hold. Thirteen years later, nobody will remember what Tool albums are like, so this recycling of all their past motifs will sound fresh, and anybody who does fondly recall vintage Tool will be too overcome by warm, fuzzy nostalgia to be concerned with originality. Well played, Tool.
Maybe I’ve just forgotten how to be a Tool fan, but the only new ideas I hear on this album are a few guitar gimmicks and a smattering of keyboards. Otherwise these songs are extremely formulaic exercises in how to construct a Tool song. Maynard, one of rock’s all-time greatest vocalists, plays it perplexingly safe; maybe he’s (understandably!) lost some of his range over the years, or maybe he’s lost his ambition. For an album that’s nearly an hour and a half long, there’s precious little singing; the lyrics are very on-brand, not bad by any means but they don’t offer much in the way of insight or inspiration. It’s not that I’m disappointed; I had almost zero expectations for this album, and I’m left wondering why anyone who still pays attention to current music should care that it has finally arrived. All that said, it’s not bad. But that’s way too much about Tool already.
Crap, now I have to talk about another non-metal band: Opeth. Like most Opeth fans I was dismayed when the band regressed to retro prog with 2011’s Heritage, but I was already dismayed by their last metal album so it wasn’t a huge deal. For a while I just thought ‘okay, la di da, I can just quit paying attention to them now’ but that didn’t work out, either. For one thing I simply lurve Mikael Åkerfeldt’s voice, whether he’s death-growling or not. I also really dig his number of fucks given regarding old-school fans’ opinions about Opeth’s new directions. And then, the band’s 2016 album Sorceress turned out to be pretty good. Huh.
The thing about being a metalhead is that once you’ve experienced the power of albums like Still Life and Ghost Reveries, there’s no way this lighter fare can possibly stack up. You know what they’re capable of, and simple prog falls below that mark. Still, In Cauda Venenum, already the band’s fourth album since abandoning metal, does have some moments that rival classic Opeth material. I wouldn’t have ever thought, for instance, that I’d be reminded of Secret Chiefs 3 on an Opeth album, yet the initial section of “Charlatan” is like a hybrid of the Chiefs’ Zorn-y math-metal and Opeth’s own “Grand Conjuration”, but fresh and perfectly executed. There are no trifles on the album, either; songs average six or seven minutes and generally snake through a multitude of themes and styles, even the ballads, which are far and away the low points of the album. Sure, it’s possible that I’m still getting used to the idea of Opeth having songs this cheesy, but…come on, I like Journey. I like power ballads. “Lovelorn Crime” and “Universal Truth” are still a bit too much for me to bear. The world doesn’t need shit like this! Yet I’m sitting here absolutely certain that this is Opeth’s best album since Ghost Reveries, wondering…could Åkerfeldt yet have something even better in store for us?
Speaking of knowing what they’re capable of: Blut Aus Nord, the greatest black metal band in the history of Earth, isn’t into making black metal any more, possibly not even metal at all. This new Hallucinogen album is still pretty dark—and not, despite its title, remotely psychedelic—and has metallic flourishes, but mostly it’s just an onslaught of proggy riffs and lead guitar wankery, as if Vindsval went on a Buckethead binge and this is the ensuing purge. I happen to love Buckethead, and after an initial period of scoffing I realized I have no excuse for disliking this album. It’s definitely worthy of Vindsval’s loony artistic vision. Maybe he’s pulling a Garm and there’s a synthpop album in Blut Aus Nord’s future. More power to ‘em, but by no stretch does this rank amongst my favorites of the band’s albums.
As we get into black metal, a quick word about the genre in general. You might find yourself perusing Wikipedia some time, exploring the history of this genre. And you might find that nazis have essentially commandeered many of the primary pages of this genre’s history.
Believe me, I’ve spent a lot of years paging through this web; this focus on NSBM and such is a new trend, even though the nazi elements have been entrenched since basically the beginning. You might think it’s activists on our side who are making such a point of it, but I doubt it. It’s the nazis who want more attention drawn to them. It’s the nazis who benefit from any and all notoriety on Wikipedia. They’ve gone around and stuck the word “Burzum” in every conceivable orifice of the website, as if it were Varg who invented the second wave. To be clear, respectable black metal artists (and others) throughout time have namechecked Burzum as an influence. The reason for this is that Burzum was colder, more sterile, more sinister, and ulp, more pure, than Mayhem. Even though everyone is well aware that it was the guitarist from Mayhem who invented the shit. Yes along with Blackthorne but nobody drops that poor bastard’s name. And now they went and made a movie about Euronymous, well now what do you think. Should we really admit that that cute lil’ big-eyed longhair Rory Culkin is our messiah?
I mean, have your delusions and eat them too, okay. Pretend that Varg EVEN THOUGH YOU TOTALLY OBJECT TO HIS IDEOLOGY was actually the one true spirit of Norwegian black metal. Be titillated by your own edginess, even. People I respect follow this line of belief; I promise I’m not judging your character but I’ll never agree. Burzum’s music is boring trash. All I’m saying is that when you read that such-and-such band was influenced by Burzum, realize that they were actually influenced by Euronymous and Mayhem, a style which Burzum happily streamlined and codified and yes helped to make legend but did not by any stretch of the imagination invent or innovate. And nazis are a tiny fraction of the black metal community, even though the ideological concentration there is almost surely higher than in most other genres of music. I think a lot of people would say the same thing about the U.S.A. genre of societies, so put that in yr pipe.
By the way, speaking of Mayhem. The band, such as it is (a cobbled-together ensemble barely recognizable as the entity that invented this genre), hasn’t put out an album since 1994 that’s made any waves. Nowadays, what can a Mayhem fan reasonably hope for in a new release? How about something that features a handful of decent songs that won’t sound completely out of place alongside the De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas material when they go on tour? On that criterion, Daemon is a success. There are even some interesting, memorable riffs, particularly “Agenda Ignis” and “Daemon Spawn”, and while overall the album is the sound of a band devouring its own cadaver, this is a less contrived and more rewarding approach than the series of identity crises they’ve been putting out since 2000’s Grand Declaration Of War. It doesn’t really deserve mention here, but it is the only thing they’ve put out this century that I wouldn’t mind listening to occasionally.
Then there are a bunch of albums I can’t stop listening to, several of them straight outta Utrecht. There’s a label/artist collective based there called Haeresis Noviomagi which has been garnering a lot of attention the past year or so, although their only major release this year was Nusquama’s Horizon Ontheemt, an invigorating, primitive onslaught that I assume has actual lyrics but I’ll be damned if I can make any of them out. They are probably in Norwegian anyway. It’s a visceral thrill of an album without a doubt. Nusquama also shares members with Laster, not technically a Noviomagi band but given the intermingling of members, I’m not sure where these distinctions lie. Laster was my first love in this particular community and their Het Wassen Oog remains a somewhat mind-boggling smorgasbord of ideas and moods; obscure dance music indeed. The group’s entire catalog is dizzying and fascinating and I think they’ve got a ways to go before they reach their full potential; I’m in for the long haul as far as this whole collective goes.
I also have to mention Verwoed, another Utrecht band that’s actually not affiliated with these others as far as I can tell; in fact, it appears to be just one guy named Erik B. His debut full-length, De val, is a slick, grinding version of black metal, not super-polished like Enslaved but crisp in production and remarkably technical for a solo act. Such a gloriously punishing approach, guttural rather than screeching vocals, serpentine riffs that will leave you squeamish. And before we leave the Netherlands, Golden Ashes was another new discovery this year, another one-man (Maurice de Jong) act whose debut LP, Gold Are The Ashes Of The Destroyer, is that oppressive, hazy style, where the guitars blend with a keyboard drone and almost obliterate the shrieking vocals going on behind them. That might give you the impression that it’s a grand production but it’s extremely lo-fi; in fact there are some tracks that you can barely tell if there are guitars at all, and the music approaches a more euphoric feeling in the vein of Krallice only much much simpler. This is all about immersion; I can’t blame anyone for not feeling this but I feel it.
After taking me by storm in 2014 with Tekeli-li, France’s The Great Old Ones took a step backward with their next album and have now retaken me by storm with Cosmicism, further shaming me for still not having read any Lovecraft whatsoever, I need to get around to that soon. The album pulls the classic move of the brief mellow intro track followed immediately by BRRRRAAUGUGGHGGH, oscillating between utter violence and folky interludes and quasi-psychedelic/prog and post-metal elements, but mostly the utter violence part, including some of the most inspired riffs in recent memory. It’s such a magnificent complete vision, leaving you with that supreme feeling of gratitude, fists or devil horns in the air, for ever having discovered this world of music.
Moving on to Ukraine, some of the most thrilling progressive black metal I’ve ever heard: White Ward’s Love Exchange Failure. You simply never know which way a song will turn, and the band is so fucking adept at so many different styles, it’s almost Bungle-esque at times. Piano! Sax solo! Barely-audible Jeffrey Dahmer news report! But Bungle was more into the sonic ambush, whereas White Ward makes it all flow together so majestically, and there’s certainly nothing upbeat or humorous. It’s eerie, it’s crushing, it’s caustic in all the right places and it also gives you those gigantic hook riffs when you need them. Even the under-ten-minute songs feel epic. I need to examine and reexamine this band’s back catalog to determine whether I wasn’t paying close enough attention or this is by far their crowning achievement.
As far as the United States go, Falls Of Rauros take the cake for this year. Yes, another Tolkien-inspired metal band, these guys are on the folky side of black metal but their songs also have the anthemic qualities you’ll find in Primordial’s best work. I didn’t really dig Patterns In Mythology at first but it really dug into my psyche the more I listened to it; there’s a fierce longing in the riffage that signifies for me a lamentation of modern convenience and privilege that I suspect these dudes benefit/suffer from as probably anyone who might read this does also. Part of what draws me to metal is escaping into agony that I haven’t found my own expression for; Falls Of Rauros has ultimately helped with this.
There’s also a new California two-man band called Ossomancer that’s getting lumped into black metal even though they’re really not, they’re just very into occult and evil themes and they have that satanic feel to their music. Artes Magickae is more of a stoner/doom/thrash record with occasional black accents, almost like a more extreme take on the Ghost concept in that when I first heard it I was completely turned off and thought it was a laughable self-parody, and then eventually I remembered that it’s all laughable to a degree and authenticity is a ruse, and then I started to really enjoy it for what it is rather than worry about what it purports to be.
Token death metal album! No but seriously Blood Incantation’s Hidden History Of The Human Race is ridiculously good. I can listen to it just for the drums. I’m not generally bowled over by the more clinical drumming you usually find in death metal; Isaac Faulk is spastically unhinged and precise, he just makes you constantly worry that he’s going to lead you into a trainwreck. It’s quite cruel.
Now that I’m writing this, it occurs to me that Inter Arma is kinda-sorta death metal now, too, which I have to admit I didn’t see coming. Unless I am wrong, and I am never wrong, Sulphur English is the most brutal, challenging music this band has ever unleashed. This album puts your ears through the wringer; there’s still a backbone of doom or sludge-type stuff, but each listen is almost a physical challenge, and that’s not to say it’s pure chaos or noise for noise’s sake. It’s supremely well-crafted; the intent is to be jarring, to bewilder, and it’s a great success, an absolute beast of a record and possibly the one on this page that I’ve kept coming back to the most this past year.
Let’s finish with the best metal album of the year shall we. The first song, “Descent”, reaches its initial climax about 17 minutes in. At this point you are already out of breath. You feel suffocated by the intensity of what has so gradually come to be. It was classic Esoteric until it morphed into something new and greater; you can’t pinpoint at what stage that happened. The band continues to push its boundaries throughout the record, and you marvel at how constrained and ritualistic funeral doom once seemed to you. Don’t get me wrong; Paragon Of Dissonance was revolutionary; still, with A Pyrrhic Existence Esoteric opens the floodgates of possibility even further. The songwriting is so fresh, the atmosphere so deep, the riffs so cathartic, it’s exceedingly rare that such a momentous, all-encompassing metal album comes along. The kicker is that the penultimate track is called “Culmination”, of course it is, and you think about that as it’s fading out, what is this last song going to bring? What could possibly be left to express after that? It’s been five songs totaling an hour and 22 minutes, and you find yourself rabidly eager to find out what.