Monday, December 31, 2018

2018



Don't ask me what the best albums of 2018 were. I wouldn't know. I tried to find the time to listen to everything that came out this year, but there just wasn't any.

I just couldn't keep up with or give the appropriate amount of attention to any of the important albums that came. If an album wasn't sent to me for review purposes or released by a band that I interviewed, chances are I didn't hear it.

I spent the year carving out little increments of time - on the train to work, during my lunch break, on walks to the supermarket - to listen to new releases, and try to form an opinion on them. It was never enough. Work commitments kept increasing. Training, late hours at the office and my daily commute kept me in a state of perpetual exhaustion. Eventually I just started adding albums to my phone as they arrived and in the hopes that I'd have time to listen to them some day.

A cursory read of a few "best of" lists brought home just how out of step I am with what's been going on in the music world. The AV Club's list of the year's best metal albums consisted largely of albums that I got to listen to once and then never again. The best metal albums from Bandcamp Daily  were ones that I missed out on completely, despite the fact that Bandcamp is my primary source for new music. Releases from Century Media, Relapse, Metal Blade and Nuclear Blast went almost completely unnoticed beyond a few preview tracks. Albums from Deicide and The Crown arrived and were treated like returning friends - appropriately so, since my relationship with these bands has spanned over decades. But I can't remember anything about them beyond that.

Having established that, these are the 10 albums that made the biggest impression on me in 2018. They may not have been the best, but they were the ones that I got to listen to the most.




I made no secret about how little I thought of the previous At The Gates album, At War With Reality. In truth, I can't tell if I like the 2018's  To Drink From The Night Itself more, or if it just disappointed me less. While its predecessor unabashedly cribbed from other, better ATG songs, To Drink sounds like a band reminding itself that it's more than than its most crowd-pleasing moments. Though the spectre of Slaughter of The Soul still looms over the proceedings - and the title track in particular - the album as a whole displays a renewed interest in building upon the band's varied career, and progressing beyond it. These guys named themselves after a Pink Floyd album, after all.




Matt Pike had a busy year. While the new High On Fire album is a fine piece of work, it was always destined to be overshadowed by something I had given up hope of ever seeing: A new Sleep album. Though there are really only two new songs on The Sciences  ("Sonic Titan" was originally released as a live B-side on Dopesmoker; "Antarcticans Thawed" has been floating around for years on Youtube; and the album is book-ended by instrumentals), this is still as good as anything else Sleep released over the years. And the band's commitment to shamelessly nerdy Sabbath worship has netted the best song title of 2018: "Giza Butler".




I don't know if I ever gave Daughters much thought - I heard their Canada Songs debut amidst a deluge of similar Converge-inspired bands (and during the period that Converge themselves were turning in their best work). But over the years, a number of bands that I've interviewed have cited Daughters as a major influence, and it seemed incumbent upon me to reassess their importance. That said, You Won't Get What You Want is barely recognizable as the work of the same band, operating in a post-punk/industrial framework similar to Swans and Godflesh. From start to finish, the album maintains a shuffling pace and pulsing rhythm, sounding for all the world like the work of a very angry factory machine. At a time when most bands are risk-averse (either out of fear of alienating their fan base, or reverence of their own early work), Daughters' bold reinvention from mosh pit instigators to avant noise makers is admirable.




It's hard to tell where Krisiun fit in the current death metal landscape. Despite the avalanche of old school death metal, and the role Black Force Domain had in triggering that particular seismic event, it seems obvious that the Brazilian trio has no interest in returning to the single-minded blast of their early albums. Scourge of the Enthroned is laudable for broadening the band's musical horizons - albeit in a very incremental, cautious fashion - adding start/stop blasts and some vaguely Coroner/Pestilence riffing to their patented death/thrash onslaught. Death metal is rarely a breeding ground for open-mindedness, but I suspect Krisiun have accrued enough good will throughout the years for their fans to embrace these very minor tweaks to the recipe.




I spent enough time with the new Behemoth album to cement my opinion that it's probably not going to eclipse their earlier work in my eyes. Still, I appreciate Nergal's insistence on separating himself from the death/black pack, and his apparent willingness to embrace his auteur status. I Loved You At Your Darkest scans Behemoth's discography, and re-integrates bits from the band's pagan folk past into their reign as corpse-painted festival headliners. If Behemoth is indeed outgrowing the genre that spawned them, we'll always have this one last blasphemous hurrah to remember them by.



In the rare moments I did get to listen to music for pleasure, and not research or obligation, Fallen Empire Records provided the perfect accompaniment to fury and despair. It's hard to pick a favourite, but a few cycled through my morning commute more than others. Among those: The sixth album by the mysterious Arkhtinn, which fulfilled my appetite for both epic black metal and ambient music, and showed that the band (?) is nothing if not committed to their routine of pairing the two together.




In a year when the most discordant faction of the death metal scene was strangely quiet, the second full-length from Adelaide's Convulsing filled that niche ably. Despite the obvious technical skill and progressive mindset behind it, Grievous never compromises its brutality, even as songs morph and tempos fluctuate from start to finish.




I had no knowledge of Dutch duo Solar Temple prior to three months ago. But their second release Fertile Descent racked up more plays than almost any other album released this year. Through dogged repetition, this two song EP pulled me into its hypnotic orbit; and even after reaching the end of its 35 minute playing time, I found myself compelled to hit play again and again. Though the idea of mixing shoegaze with black metal seems less revolutionary with each passing year, releases like this show that in the hands of skilled songwriters, so-called "blackgaze" can still be as entrancing as ever.




A growing interest in drone and ambient music led me down some unexpected paths, and I found myself inexplicably drawn to Toby Driver's blissed out solo album, They Are The Shield. Driver is probably best known for his work with Kayo Dot; but he was also a founding member of progressive doom metal band Maudlin of the Well (about whom Jeff Wagner devoted a significant amount of ink in his prog metal treatise, Mean Deviation). Despite Driver's pedigree, and the album's release through Blood Music, nothing about this is particularly heavy or metal. Aside from a violin-saturated Pink Floyd-esque ambience, it seems like it came from heads of Portis or Radio - like trip hop stripped of its electronic gimmickry, or an "alternative" band that forced itself to grow up.




In a year where my interest in experimental and ambient music was pushed to an all-time high (thanks to the number of noise artists and labels I interviewed for my podcast), Colin Stetson's soundtrack to the horror stand-out Hereditary commanded my interest immediately. It goes without saying that a movie centered around demon worship, dysfunctional families, and decapitations would be right up my alley; but I doubt the movie would have been as affecting without Stetson's score. Using traditional orchestral instruments (particularly - surprisingly - clarinets), Stetson crafted a droning, unsettling score that would make both Penderecki and Glenn Branca proud. Hereditary was a movie that stuck with me long after I finished watching it, and it was paired with a soundtrack that did the same.

It's hard to tell what 2019 has in store. Fallen Empire is shuttering its doors, thus taking the music I was most enamoured with this year. But the label ended 2018 with a slew of stellar releases - hopefully another upstart label will snap up the wealth of talent that Fallen Empire unearthed.

As over-exposure and repetition causes Eighties' metal to lose some of its luster, I foresee a re-appraisal and revival of the groovy and genre-blending Nineties just around the corner. Time is a flat circle.

In truth, very little of what's released nowadays holds my interest for very long. I find myself more interested in the music of the past (prog rock, psychedelia, avant-garde composers, hard bop) than anything that the big metal labels churn out that invariably appropriates those eras.

This isn't just true about music. I'd rather watch the Twilight Zone than Black Mirror; will pick Cronenberg and Carpenter over the A24 assembly line any night. I figure since everything in pop culture was recycled, repackaged, and repurposed, I might as well go straight to the source - to the actual innovators who had the balls to take chances, and weren't content to just go along with consensus.

I'm finally allowing myself to turn into the kind of snobby, insufferable elitist that I've always secretly harboured inside. You've been warned.


The Best Podcasts of 2018:

The Best Interviews of 2018:

an interview with
New Old Skull
an interview with
Blind Idiot God
an interview
with Daggra