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After listening to all the best and some of the worst in metal this year, I only have one question remaining: Can I go back to watching Bon Appetit videos now?
Any time Damian Master puts out anything as A Pregnant Light, you know it’s making my list. And in a decade of bangers, Broken Play is his finest work. He embraces the metalpunk he’s always been, making a full-length that’s as furious as his EPs. “Future Panther” is super thrashy, and the title track goes down some Swedish alleys, like Anti-Cimex running into Nifelheim, getting into a brawl, then making up with a couple more lashes. Two of his finest moments on here, and across his work, are “My Last Song” a coda as an intro that’s packed with hooks, and “Babychain,” one of his most furious songs that doesn’t stray from his inner heart. Broken Play is him, and better yet, it’s more him. Master has a cockiness I could never emulate but I still highly admire, mainly because he’s got the songs to back it up, and I just love that he has a song called “I Am The Man of Your Dreams” on here. And man does it shake. That’s not really something you hear in black metal. That’s why Master calls his music Purple Metal. It shakes, it thrashes, it moves in ways the traditional buzz and screech routine just doesn’t. (Read my initial review of the record in July’s column here.)
On November 22, Coldplay dropped their latest record, and it’s already a smash among NIMBYers everywhere for whom “milquetoast” would be too spicy to deem them. More importantly, Blood Incantation dropped their second full-length Hidden History of the Human Race on the same day, one of the most anticipated records in some time and one that overcame the late November critic attention deficit. History is written by the victors, and we will remember this Hidden History. Blood Incantation are insanely fluid, with guitarists Paul Ridel and Morris Kolontyrsky weaving in and out of crushing cosmic bulldozers and more proggy explorations with alarming ease. “The Giza Power Plant” is as thrilling when they’re going blast as when they really explore space in expressive soloing. Instrumental “Inner Paths (To Outer Space)” begins with dark drone and deconstructed guitar and ends with workout music for the Starship Troopers bugs. Morbid Angel has always been a touchstone, and here, their sound is rescued from over-production, namely in how drummer Isaac Faulk draws upon Pete Sandoval’s more natural, fleet-footed drumming. Closer “Awakening from the Dream of Existence to the Multidimensional Nature of Our Reality (Mirror of the Soul)” is Tucker-era Morbid Angel as prog epic, its searing psychedelic fully realized. Death metal has rarely been so exhilarating to listen to. Choose life. Choose Blood Incantation.
Vindsval’s worst works as Blut Aus Nord are merely really good, and his best works are transcendent genre-defining masterpieces. Hallucinogen leans, no, surges toward the latter end of the spectrum. Its key genius is the same as his other stunners in that doesn’t sound like any of his other records, but it only sounds like Blut Aus Nord. It shares a more obvious black metal front like his Memoria Vetusta trilogy, yet ventures into more rock territory. You can feel a twinge of the industrial repetition that he came into prominence with The Work Which Transforms God, and yet it’s a drastic mistake to call this a dark recording. Through extremity, there’s a real joy, a real want to love. There is the spunk of youth of Ultima Thulée, yet this is informed by wisdom and honing his attack. It’s his most soaring yet, his most mind-cutting, going further than trance and just shaking your brain into something it wasn’t before. Hallucinogen, at its core, is transformative. (Read my initial review in October’s column here.)
Funereal Presence’s second record Achatius is a masterclass in how a little convention, a little worship of the old, old ones, makes your esoteric attack a juggernaut. The first godhead is Mercyful Fate, whose melodies are all over this record, caught up in a malevolent whirlwind. They have that same succulent, inviting quality, winks and tongue lashes sending two different invitations, one sly and one profane, that are not mixed signals. That the melodies take some picking out only makes them sweeter. Where they clash with bells at the end of “Wherein Seven Celestial Beasts Are Revealed to Him,” or how they kick off “Wherein a Messenger of the Devil Appears” in demonic harmony, those Fate melodies are just as evil as they were when they came through Danish winds in the early 80s. The second godhead is even more ancient: Blue Oyster Cult. You may hear the cowbell in “Wherein Achatius Is Awakened and Called Upon” and may want to say “I got a fever, and the only…” and yeah, you are truly sick, you do not sully the Cult like that. You do not disrespect the romanticism of what’s behind death’s veil. It thrusts Achatius as it once thrust the Cult, grim and frostbitten meets blacklights and High Life. Achatius is uncompromising black metal, inflected by great heavy metal. It’s understanding what came before without unquestioning servitude. (Read my initial review as part of February’s column here.)
Metalheads get sad in the club too. Yet there is not a lot of “metalheads sad in the club” music, save for maybe some Type O Negative joints. Portland’s Idle Hands seized upon this with their debut Mana, which takes Sisters of Mercy’s rock end of goth-rock and fuses it with forlorn NWOBHM. Gabriel Franco is Andrew Eldritch with more riffs and Ian Astbury with more attitude, and Sebastian Silva not only shreds vampiric, his cleans are just as deadly. “A Single Solemn Rose” is driven by pure shimmer, barely any distortion makes it onto the track. “Jackie” and “Dragon, Why Do You Cry” make you bang and weep at the same time, both dripping with longing far beyond their ages. You gonna stay dry-eyed singing about dragons crying? Me neither, bro, it’s cool. And lest you think they don’t have rockers, “Blade of the Will” and “Nightfall” will disabuse you of that quickly. Poison Idea had Feel the Darkness; Idle Hands are Feel the Sadness. (Read my initial review of the record in May’s column here.)
Sometimes, I wonder if I’m too driven by familiarity, only checking out bands I already love or new bands from people whose old bands I heavily fuck with. Do I thirst for the cosign? And admittedly, if you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll see some familiar names on this year’s list. Here’s the rub: I am not ignoring Jon Chang putting out new music, and I am especially not ignoring him working with Rob Marton again. That’s what No One Knows What The Dead Think and their debut (and possibly only?) record are, and it’ll remind you why their group Discordance Axis was the greatest. Chang can still screech like a lovelorn 20-something grind freak, and Marton hasn’t lost his touch at all, remaining as fast and melodic as he was in his prime. “Cinder” approaches the aching beauty of “Jigsaw,” Discordance Axis’ signature song. In fact, Marton seems to be leaning into his thrash roots more, chopping up Dark Angel and Slayer in a triple-speed blender. “Stars Hide Your Fires” might be the freshest thrash track this year, really! This record does sound a little more upbeat and clean than Discordance Axis, bringing it closer to Chang’s post-DxAx band Gridlink. By keeping up with the quality of all their bands past, though, No One Knows What The Dead Think stands on its own. (Read my initial thoughts on the record here in the September edition of this column, and also read my feature on Discordance Axis’ legacy here.)
If upon listening to Nocturnus’ The Key, you don’t like it, you vaporize. Sorry, I do make the rules, because that’s more honest than masking your tyrannical aspirations with “I don’t make the rules.” The Key is a singularly weird death metal record: ballistic guitars clash with cosmic, almost new age-y keyboards like headbangers on a major Enigma afterhours bender; there’s a song that basically describes going Terminator on Jesus Christ (“Destroying the Manger”); and basically any record where the drummer sings is a trip. Mike Browning is that drummer, and he’s revived Nocturnus as Nocturnus AD with members of his band After Death. Paradox is their debut, but it’s also the continuation of The Key’s vibe. And save for the more modern production, all of what made it whacked out and great is still there. “The Bandar Sign” goes into cosmic overdrive both through hyperactive leads and abusing the pitch shift on the synths; “The Return of the Lost Key” and “Seizing the Throne” are early Morbid Angel (of which Browning was a founding member) with a crucial missing ingredient: windchimes! And dig “Number 9,” where the keyboards are “The Final Countdown” to our actual demise. No one else has tried to make a record sound like Nocturnus, and only a key member could, a testament to how unique they were. DIE BY THE SIGN OF THE KEY! (Read my initial review of the record here.)
Pissgrave’s second album Posthumous Humiliation is bar-none the most fucked up record of the year, and maybe only 10 percent of that is the uncensored cover. (If I tell you it’s NSFW? It is. Google if you dare.) It’s a reprehensible display of unwilling exhibitionist gore… a great metaphor for life, really! Message records are for suckers, and this certainly ain’t one, but what’s really jarring is how it reflects how turbulent internal violence can be. Shit, if you’ve learned anything from reading me, you should expect I am really about to say a band called Pissgrave has a lot to offer about the human condition, more than just shock value. They smear everything in noise and war metal battery and grunts that take death metal’s treatment of vocals as just another texture to its most disturbed extreme, bringing the messiness of hate too close, where outside and inside prove impossible to make out. In going through this in several cycles that are barley distinguishable to the next, it proves how vicious these cycles are. When you’re beaten down you can’t think straight; Pissgrave recognize that and continue to thrash unabated. “Emaciate” is just totally unhinged guitar squeals and cries, made for the sickest metal maniacs who can draw an uninterrupted line from Kerry King’s nonsensical soloing to Albert Ayler’s blistering saxophone wails. Music is the healing force of the universe, and Humiliation will burn your skin off and give you a haphazard graft to heal you. “Rusted Wind” is the most deranged song on here, because it descends into not chaos, but melody. It’s throwing your body out by the wayside, the one supposedly healed, with the air of a grander proceeding. We are but piss in the rusted wind. (Read my initial review here.)
Spirit Adrift’s third record Divided By Darkness touches upon a lot of my formative metal influences, when my walls were painted blacker than my heart: Metallica’s Black Album, Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, and thee holy Sabbath, especially the Dio era. Teenage nostalgia is only a small part of why this record just smokes: it takes all of these influences and refuses to look backwards. Black Album stomp gets lifted up by soaring doom (“We Will Not Die,” “Hear Her”); the Tears-esque keyboards go to Krauty and proggy realms (“Living Light”, “The Way of Return”). You could throw a huge list of reference points and most of them would be right to some degree, but nothing sounds like this record. Mainman Nate Garrett had made huge strides in his riffing and his vocals; he took a massive leap with Curse of Conception, and this just secures him as a Hetfield-Iommi hybrid to be reckoned with. “Angel & Abyss” is proof enough, a “Fade to Black” that starts as gloomy but ends on a more shreddy, ecstatic note. That is a metal song right there.
You wanna know when this record really clicked with me? When I was driving back from San Antonio at three in the morning after celebrating one of my best friends’ last nights as a resident of Texas’ most metal city. There is no stronger endorsement for a record. My car was no longer a car, it was a chariot for the riff, striding back to Austin on sanity held by caffeine and the joy of metal. It’s really too bad that we’re gonna have to upend our transportation system as we know it to save civilization, because this is an excellent driving record, on top of being an excellent record on the whole. Maybe the future isn’t worth it. We don’t know if it has metal, where we know that now has metal. (Read my initial review here.)
You may think there is nothing left to say in drone metal with Sunn O))) in their second decade. How wrong you are. Life Metal is their record since 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions, though they are two entirely different records. The latter was highly experimental, bringing in strings and choirs and naming songs for Alice Coltrane and fusion-era Miles; Life is the core Sunn O))) sound made ultimate, with Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio room giving them their hugest sound. They’ve never sounded as enveloping as the first crash in “Between Sleipnir's Breaths,” and trust, they didn’t have to flex that hard. “Breaths” harkens back to their primitive Earth-worshipping days with more serious firepower and more understanding of the space in their drones. It’s not just the ginormous riffs that excite, it’s the cackles and squalls in between them, it’s the organ that lifts “Troubled Air” into another dimension, it’s the electric strings in “Novae” that sound like their own feedback, slight but ever so present. There is a lot going on here and it’s just so rich and moving, even if all you hear is the glacial yet burning guitars; drone is their way and a launchpad for so much more. (Read my initial thoughts in April’s column here, and a feature I did with the band here.)
Andy O’Connor heads SPIN’s monthly metal column, Blast Rites, and also has bylines in Pitchfork, Vice, Decibel, Texas Monthly and Bandcamp Daily, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas.