So here we are again, another year gone by and another list with another requisite intro setting up another subjective view of the best releases that graced our vulnerable earholes. To be honest, 2019 was actually kind of a stellar year for the metal musics, which is not to say the few years prior hadn’t been. In fact, the last two years have also had some crazy good highlights (Godflesh’s Post Self in 2017 and the holy-crap goodness of Dirge’s Lost Empyrean from last year being the most obvious highlights), but collectively they haven’t been quite as densely packed with so much quality material to sift through as this year has been. Case in point: I’ve been lucky enough to discover a musical collective from the bowels of the Dutch city of Utrecht known as the Haeresis Noviomagi. This group of like-minded musicians comprise a myriad of different bands that share artists all playing different styles of black metal and, in some cases, murky and avant-garde death metal. I honestly cannot recall a time when such a small region produced so much quality metal at such an alarmingly prolific rate. While only a handful (relatively speaking) put out releases this year, two of them happened to make this list, and I have so much anticipation for the ones that await us in 2020.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the huge old-school death metal explosion that’s been happening lately. I am however not completely sold on this pervasive revivalism that currently has a stranglehold on metal at large. Some of it is quite good, with Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold being the obvious frontrunners and topping a lot of lists, but sadly, they don’t even appear on mine. I don’t know, maybe I’ve reached that point of middle-aged jadedness that it just doesn’t quite stir my rotten and decaying soul like it used to. Most of the time when I’m listening to it, I just get a hankering to go put on the albums from the creators of that movement (Morbid Angel, Death, Grave, et al.). That is not to say I don’t enjoy it—I do! I also appreciate that it has opened up the minds and ears of a much younger generation to this style of music as well as a much-deserved reverence for the OSDM founders. I just haven’t been doing cartwheels over it and shaking my Blood Incantation pompoms all over the webernetz. But that is all I will touch on on that subject. You should listen to whatever gets your soul all aroused, and imaginary gods be damned what anybody else thinks. So yeah, 2019, metal, here we go.
15. Obsequiae – The Palms of Sorrowed Kings
The masters of castle metal have returned from another journey through 13th-century England to give us a sonic scrapbook of their adventures. I discovered these guys late in the game (a full two years after their previous full-length, 2015’s Aria of Vernal Tombs) and feel like (once again) a complete dumbass for not having given them the time of day before, since the concept seemed corny as hell. Boy oh boy was I wrong, though, as mainman Tanner Anderson’s compositional and playing styles are wholly unique in the world of metal. From what I gather (lack of citations notwithstanding) he bases much of his music off of medieval manuscripts and does his own free-form interpretation of them, as written music during that time lacked any specific meter or dynamics. As a result, we have heavy-as-hell, modal-based music utilizing huge open chords and a lack of any real key, but you would be hard pressed to believe it since it is so doggone beautiful. So put on that chainmail, pour yourself some mead into the repurposed skull of your enemy, crank this at max volume and party like it’s 1299.
14. Opeth – In Cauda Venenum
Are Opeth heavy again? Uh, no, but goddamn they are really firing on all cylinders here. Since 2011’s Heritage, Mikael Åkerfeldt completely dismantled the core of Opeth’s identity and has been trying to reassemble it into a new vision ever since, with mixed and mostly maddening results. I thought 2016’s Sorceress came pretty close to that vision, as it seemed like less ego masturbation and more focused on just writing a good freaking song. Nevertheless it was still a disjointed affair marred by some huge misses amidst other seriously brilliant moments. However, In Cauda Venenum has finally righted the ship and we are treated to the most glorious vocal performance of Mikael’s career. Not to mention the music–dear God the riffing on this one is the best since Ghost Reveries. Seriously, listen to “Dignity” and the power of that main driving riff and the eight million permutations of it that follow. This is the sound of a man on creative fire and for the first time since the reboot, I think Mikael has finally achieved his vision. For the most part, it was a crap journey to get here but after hearing this, it was worth it. Can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next.
13. Schammasch – Hearts of No Light
Swiss avant-garde blackish/death metal collective Schammasch have been straddling the line between cerebral esotericism and caveman riffing for a while now. Each one of their statements has been a unique expression of their dogma, achieving peak success on 2016’s triple album Triangle and 2017’s masterful EP The Maldoror Chants: Hermaphrodite. However on this latest opus, I found myself a bit disappointed at first. I felt like the sound had been a bit too simplified, even for them. Additionally, there seemed to be a pretty strong commercial appeal, which turned me off. After a few repeated listens, though, I am happy to report that they have come out back on top. Sure, Hearts of No Light is much more streamlined than Schammasch have been in past. Hell, they even went full post-punk on “Paradigm of Beauty”, but overall the vantablack darkness is still alive and well. At this point I’ll still probably reach for their last two releases more frequently when I need a fix, but Hearts of No Light is still a strong statement from a band performing at their zenith.
12. Nevel – Leven
Haeresis Noviomagi members Nevel are probably the most psychedelic of their black metal brotherhood and have no problem creating catharsis through protracted, lysergic and repetitive black metal riffing. Their psychedelia, however, is dissonant and nightmarish and utilizes a lot of electronic and processed layering over the wall of noise that is the guitars and rhythm section. Leven consists of a single 44-minute song that evolves, transforms, dies, and is reborn in a glorious explosion of light, replete with a brass section triumphantly ringing in the arrival of the apocalypse. There is so much going on here that even with the many listens that I have given it I am still discovering new elements. I debated whether this album should be moved up the list but as stated before, this year was rough to qualify for great metal since there was simply so much of it. If this came out any other year before this one, I am confident it would have been in my top five for sure. Be adventurous, go to their bandcamp page and give yourself over to their hallucinogenic and welcoming void.
11. Slow - VI – Dantalion
As I have said many times before, funeral doom is not for everyone. If it were, I can guarantee you that the world would not have the population problem that it currently has. I can think of no other category of music that is more disconsolate or soul-crushing. It’s as though an entire genre was born out of the adagio movement of every classical requiem ever written. With their 2017 masterpiece of maritime despair V – Oceans, Slow crafted the soundtrack to killing all hope (and seriously guys, that freaking cover). With this year’s VI – Dantalion, the cerulean hues are still there, only now they share space with a bit of light breaking through the clouds. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t hear this as the backdrop for any motivational speeches any time soon, but there does seem to be an overarching theme of hope this go-round. There are some seriously gorgeous moments on this one and emotionally, I would say this is their most balanced work to date.
10. Wilderun – Veil of Imagination
Here’s an example of another band that has been around for some time (since 2012, to be precise) that I ignored because of all the “Opeth imitators” accusations thrown at them. After exploring their discography, I can’t exactly refute that claim but I can say that they are so much more than that. Wilderun play a very folky style of progressive death metal with lyrics that definitely tend to focus on the more fantastical side of the spectrum. In fact a very good friend of mine couldn’t get into it because it was “too cheesy”. Again, this is something I can’t refute as this album is at such a level of supreme cheesification that it would make Wisconsin dairy farmers blush. Once you get past that, however, you are presented with a world of contrapuntal brilliance that leans heavily to the classical side right down to the instrumentation (e.g. the outburst of woodwinds towards the end of “When The Fire And The Rose Were One”). Conceptually, I’m not quite sure what they were aiming for here, but the music is so damned brilliant that I don’t care about the poetic-to-a-fault lyrics. These dudes deserve to be way bigger than they currently are.
9. An Isolated Mind – I’m Losing Myself
I think the easiest starting point for this album is Blut Aus Nord’s supreme masterpiece The Work Which Transforms God, not because this album shares the same abyssal plane musically (even though they are technically both experimental black metal), but rather the harrowing shock of listening to it unprepared. I’m Losing Myself is the musical pilgrimage through a man’s descent into mental disintegration, in particular bipolar disorder. The man in question is Kameron Bogges and the following quote is ripped right from his bandcamp page and describes what this album is all about:
“‘This album was written and recorded after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spending a week in a psychiatric hospital,’ Bogges reveals. ‘I spent the following year walking the fine line between psychotic delusion and spiritual epiphany, systematically doubting and reconstructing my psyche to accommodate my newfound reality.’”
Shit don’t get any heavier than this my dudes. As someone who has struggled with depression my entire life each and every day, this album speaks to me on a very personal level. The fact even outside this gravitas that the music itself is freaking stellar is indeed a testament to its greatness and rightful inclusion on this list.
8. Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen
Hey, speaking of Blut Aus Nord, here we are with their follow-up to their mildly disappointing death metal album, 2017’s Deus Salutis Meae. Prior to Hallucinogen’s release, BAN mastermind Vindsval was quoted as saying it was time for a new era for the band as he felt he had taken his vision of sickly, dystopian, Silent Hill black metal to its logical end. The next chapter apparently is a successor to the sound established on the Memoria Vetusta albums–i.e., beautiful and melodic black metal that is totally comfortable existing in only one or two keys per song and for sure doesn’t use fretless guitars. Where that theme ended, Hallucinogen begins. It combines strong melodic themes with gentle psychedelia awash with disembodied choirs raining down radiant light from the cosmos over the icy cold and stoic guitar riffing. In fact, I would say this album is the most emotionally neutral I have ever heard them sound. Instead the focus is on abducting the listener to an astral plane full of alien wonders. This is the purest form of headphones music, and I am super excitebike about where they go from here. Even at their worst, BAN always keep it interesting.
7. Laster – Het Wassen Oog
Here is another member of the Haeresis Noviomagi that declare themselves to be performers of “obscure dance music”. I know, right? Weird title to bestow on an avant-garde black metal act that is clearly having fun at what they do. While previous album Ons Vrije Fatum was rife with melancholy that clearly hung its post-punk influences on its sleeves, Het Wassen Oog is another beast entirely. Another writer on this site has compared some of it to Mr. Bungle and honestly, he’s not wrong. There is a pronounced schizophrenia that presides over most of the proceedings as the band can effortlessly switch from traditional black metal to angular, discordant, proggy death-ish metal to Kurt Weill-esque (the composer) carnival side adventures, and we have only just covered the first song ”Vacuüm≠behoud”. In fact, all eight songs on this album feel like they’re being played by eight different bands, such is the talent displayed by the musicians on hand. It seems to me that Laster is the figurehead of the Haeresis Noviomagi and I cannot think of a better mission statement than what is given here. Leave your safe zone and come dance with the Dutch masked musical jesters.
6. White Ward – Love Exchange Failure
Wow. Seriously, just wow. While White Ward’s previous album Futility Report had hints of greatness on it, I had no idea they had this album in them. Sure, some of the same elements exist on both albums, such as strong and melancholic black-metal riffing with a little added sax spice, but on Love Exchange Failure they have tapped into something otherworldly that is just a total sonic haymaker. The Ukrainian act said that this album represents man’s desire to be an individual that is so strong it creates a permanent disconnect between people, causing permanent isolation. Heavy stuff, I know. Fortunately, you don’t need to wax philosophical to appreciate the masterwork on display here. There is so much happening that it’s hard to wrap your mind around all of it. There are plenty of moments of introspective piano and brooding sax participating in a relay race with white-hot guitar riffing that is more crestfallen than our planet’s future. It’s clear these gentlemen have a deep appreciation for late-90’s Swedish melodeath, but rather than ape the same riffs as the masters (looking at you, OSDM revival bands), White Ward are deconstructing these riffs and re-assembling them into new and bizarre and overtly powerful statements of pure heartache. This is black metal to listen to while binge drinking in a jazz bar.
5. Falls Of Rauros – Patterns In Mythology
Man, I really wanted to dislike this album. The first time I heard it I wasn’t sure what the band was trying to say. The melodies and riffing seemed too technical and disjointed that whatever message they were trying to express came across as just confused and nebulous. Well, after about three or four listens, it clicked, and clicked hard. Maine’s Falls Of Rauros play a very nature- and folk-centric take on black metal, and it’s clear once you become familiar with the music that there is a deep reverence for nature here. Conversely, there is also an inescapable sadness that inhabits this album because of man’s continued insolence towards it. And once you really tap into the spirit of what they’re trying to express, the riffs just flat out wreck you. Well, at least that’s what happened to me. I recall seeing someone on the Twitters ask if you ever get teary-eyed just thinking about a riff or a particular melody because of its profound emotional effect on you, and for me there are plenty. As far as 2019 goes, one of the biggest to do that is the main riff in opening intro track “Détournement”, which sees its logical conclusion during the denouement of the next track, ”Weapons of Refusal”. I mean goddamn, I am tearing up right now just thinking about that riff as I write this. Granted, music is definitely subjective and affects everyone in a uniquely personal way, but I have to believe that the emotional heft of this album can have the same effect on other people. But even if it doesn’t, those two tracks and the rest of this nature-centric album are gleaming examples of the power of the riff and if you appreciate a good hook, seek this out post haste.
4. Esoteric – A Pyrrhic Existence
Yup, this is me you’re dealing with here so for sure there is going to be another funeral doom album on this list. England’s purveyors of fine psychedelic funeral doom have waited eight goddamn years to give us some new music. 2011’s masterstroke Paragon Of Dissonance was my top album that year and saw the band leave harsh and discordant territory for more melodious and austere pastures. Given the long gap in between albums, I wasn’t expecting them to continue that theme but here we are. The dismal and despondent spirit is still there in full and quite resplendent if not a bit stripped-down. In fact, I haven’t heard Esoteric ever sound this efficient before. That being said, the song lengths haven’t gotten any shorter; rather they have gotten longer. I can’t think of many bands that can get away with a 27-minute opening track, but they do it here with aplomb. “Descent” is actually a perfect microcosm of the entire album. It starts out slowly and patiently, emerging from the darkness with a very deliberate and dissonant riff that eventually burns itself out. Then a jarring wall of dissonance accompanied by a banshee wail appears which allows a new riff to build pianissimo until the whole band kicks in and explodes that riff into the heavens with double bass pummeling you into the dirt as a demon roars at the sky blowing back the hair of God himself. It’s exhausting and like good sex requires some time to get your shit back to normal so you can human normally again. Esoteric have always had this ability to crush/resurrect/crush ad nauseum but they do so here with the grace and professionalism of a neurosurgeon. If you like your riffs slow, meaty and salty from the tears of a thousand disappointments, you can’t go wrong here.
3. The Great Old Ones – Cosmicism
As it turns out, in 2019 France can still produce some pretty amazing black metal (sorry Haeresis Noviomagi, you don’t have the monopoly on that market yet). On their last jaunt, 2017’s EOD: A Tale Of Dark Legacy, I don’t think I could have been more disappointed. Their prior two albums simply floored me with their unique, dissonant upper-string riffing and HP Lovecraft obsession. However, EOD felt rushed, ugly and incomplete. I was almost ready to write them off for good, but then I got a short snippet of what was in store with Cosmicism, and hoo boy was I downright hot and bothered. As far as black metal is concerned, I haven’t had riffs hit me like this in a long time. By the time “The Omniscient” kicks in and that tremolo picking gets its hooks in you like the Cenobites from Hellraiser, you can only acquiesce to the power of the riff. This shit is cold doggies. I mean hyperborean arctic cyclone levels of cold here. All the counterpoint seems to fall into place perfectly as though every note was fawned over during the composition process. The highlight for me is by far “Of Dementia”. The despondent urgency of the main riff is simply unrelenting. It takes every fiber of my being to stop myself from cranking this at full volume at work and start windmilling on top of my cubicle’s desk. This is the year’s best black metal album by a longshot, and if you like the genre even a little bit, you need to hear this. Now.
2. Borknagar – True North
Twenty-one years removed from their greatest album, The Archaic Course, Borknagar have created their second-greatest album. The cast may have changed quite a bit (only mainman Oystein G. Brun and bassist/vocalist extraordinaire ICS Vortex remain from the 1998 lineup) but the same spirited character perseveres. The band post-Vintersorg seem rejuvenated and have an energy they haven’t possessed in a very long time. The energy of this album rivals that of bands composed of people half their age and you can’t help but just get lost in the infectiousness of it all. Oystein’s riffing is back to being the driving hammer that it used to be, and ICS and keyboardist/co-vocalist Lars Nedlund give a performance for the ages. ICS in particular sounds like an absolute superstar here, especially on chief single “Up North”. The vocal acrobatics he does on this opus rival the batshit-crazy stuff he did on Arcturus’ La Masquerade Infernale. Honestly, if you claim to love metal and don’t want to get up and sing and air guitar to “Up North”, well, clearly you’re metaling wrong. There are just so many other highlights on this album: the gentle and subtle beauty of “Wild Father’s Heart”; the war march into a snowstorm that is “Into The White”; and the glorious Hammond-heavy organ and solo vocal performance by Nedlund on closer “Voices”. I really enjoyed their previous album Winter Thrice even if it was a bit derivative of their other material. On True North, however, they sound like a band reinvigorated with a purpose and confidence that is awe-inspiring to hear. It would have been number one on this list if not for the jerks you’ll read about next.
1. Cult of Luna – A Dawn To Fear
Well kiddos, here we are, number one of 2019. I will admit, I was very surprised with this one. I definitely enjoyed their last effort (2016’s Mariner collaboration with Julie Christmas) but didn’t think it was something so spectacular that I needed to tell the world about it. Also, I really didn’t think they would ever top their one-two masterpieces Vertikal I and Vertikal II. But now that double-disc A Dawn To Fear is here, I feel compelled to proselytize the incredible greatness of this album. Not so unlike 2008’s curveball Eternal Kingdom, Cult of Luna have returned to a more heavy and oppressive sound. This time around, though, they have married that style to a better-suited ambience and much more obvious reliance on keyboards to augment the sound (the spirit of Vertikal lives on). As with all Cult of Luna releases, this album is very picturesque, a trait which is further accented by the fact that this is a concept album. I won’t bore you with the details but it involves the circular nature of existence and how everything is connected. The compositional style itself is much more barebones than prior releases, lending a raw quality to the driving melodies that make them that much more blunt and affecting. Take the second track, “Lay Your Head To Rest”, which opens with a single held then muted bass note while a simple drum arpeggio plays in the background. This eventually gives way to the main “riff”, which is just a double-octaved motif that contains maybe five or six notes. But the genius of this melody is its simplicity, as it acts as the harbinger for the absolutely heartbreaking bridge that occurs towards the end of the song. When that burns out, it’s back to that same riff played maximum fortissimo. This simple interplay works so well at eliciting pure pathos and when coupled with the accompanying unbelievably beautiful video, the context falls into place. The minimalism carries through the ballad “We Feel The End” as well, which begins stark and vulnerable but then fleshes out the same opening melody into a warm and hazy sway that gently rocks you until the end of the song. The real star of the album, though, is “Lights On The Hill”, which in reality is just one simple minor-key riff and countermelody along with variations of it played over and over at different tempi and dynamics. But again, it’s this less-is-more ethic they employ on this album that really hammers the pathos home. I’m usually just a wreck after listening to this album which is why I had to stop putting it on at work. While this isn’t the best post-metal album of the past decade (that distinction belongs to Dirge’s Lost Empyrean and it’s not even close), if you have 80 minutes to spare, and want to feel something spiritually supercharged, look no further than A Dawn To Fear.