Tuesday, December 31, 2019


I don't really know what value year end lists have anymore. In the past, they were valuable as a consumer's guide -  once the hype of an album's hype had passed, magazines took a more restrained view of the biggest albums of the year. [It probably helped that at there was less pressure to give an album a positive review at the end of the year - after the tie-in interview had been published.] But as with most things, the internet has made that redundant. The idea of "buying" or "owning" an album is asinine to someone with a Spotify or Apple Music account. [Anyone who doubts that millenials are trending towards socialism should consider the ways their music apps embody Marxist ideas about owning private property.] These days, "best of" lists seem designed to signal a reviewer's coolness - compiling the "best" albums of the year, as determined by the message board or reddit thread you most want to impress.

Credibility is an easy thing to fake if your past opinions weren't publicly recorded through a website or a magazine. [My own past lists included Machine Head and PJ Harvey. I regret nothing.] I try to be honest about my listening habits, and have no interest in being another dittohead parotting public opinion. Like the saying goes: Honesty is my only excuse.

I only belated remembered that Mayhem, Darkthrone and even Possessed released albums this year. Tracking them down would have been easy: Every album every recorded seems to have made its way inexorably to one of the streaming services, if not all of them. It was actually harder to ignore the biggest metal albums of the year than it was to find them. If I may use a Slayer quote as an analogy: Blood's cheap, and it's everywhere.

What was once an underground phenomenon is so easily obtainable online that any claims that a band is 'kvlt", "elite" or "underground" seem ridiculous. Those terms are meaningless now. Hellhammer and Bathory would never have been played on mainstream radio or MTV 30 years ago - and yet they sit alongside Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift on the servers of every streaming service, with only the thinnest of algorithmic membranes separating them.

Metal was always at its best when it was overlooked. Once metal bands reach a wider audience, they invariably lose their desire to take risks. The internet, which functions as an echo chamber for the most vacuous of opinions, is eager to shout down anything resembling individual thought or originality. The result, as evidenced by the tedium of the various old school revival cycles, is musical autophagia - if not outright coprophagia. Metal, formerly the provenance of rebels and iconoclasts, is now a genre for people who follow the rules closer than cops and referees.

Still, these things go in cycles, and I remain optimistic that a new boom period is only a few years away. Sometime in the mid-Nineties, soon after death metal was declared "dead", bands like Krisiun, Behemoth, and Origin emerged from nowhere to prove the naysayers wrong. I have faith a new wave of neck-breaking brutality is already simmering underground.

Exhumed were one of the bands who emerged from the mid-90's nadir with a chip on their shoulders. Though they've done their fair share of experimenting with cinematic interludes and concept albums, Matt Harvey returned his long time project to its thrashy roots for its seventh album. Horror has a Reign In Blood-like urgency, forcing the listener to either keep up or get run over.

Listen to my conversation with Exhumed's Matt Harvey here.

Since Earth's metamorphosis from experimental drone act to Pitchfork-feted post-metal icons, their albums have taken on a certain familiarity, if not outright predictability. Still, it was a happy day when I discovered Dylan Carlson put the band back together after a 5 year hiatus. Full Upon Her Burning Lips continues in the twangy neo-Western style that the band adopted in the mid-2000's, conjuring up images of dusty plains and barren wastelands.

Listen to my conversation with Earth's Dylan Carlson here.

Is "post-metal" dead? As "dead" as thrash or death metal were, I guess. Despite operating in a stagnating genre, former Moth Gatherer guitarist Alex Stjernfeldt managed to craft one of the best atmospheric doom albums of the year. Joined by a smorgasbord of metal's best screamers (among them, Grave's Jörgen Sandström, Dark Tranquillity's Mikael Stanne, and Breach's Tomas Liljedahl), Novarupta's debut Disillusioned Fire is an exploration of depression and uncertainty, attaining catharsis through firey riffs and rumbling rhythms.

Read my interview with Novarupta here.

On the surface, there's nothing particularly special about Big|Brave. With most of their riffs consisting of big open chords, it seems like anyone could pick up a guitar and write an album like this. And yet, these songs have stuck with me more than any other that was released this year. Maybe it's the album's minimalism, which is indebted to the feral simplicity of early Swans. Maybe it's the production, which recalls Nine Inch Nails at their MTV-commandeering, Woodstock-headlining peak. Maybe it's Robin Wattie's vocals, which radiate vulnerability even as they're cocooned by a wall of guitars. Or maybe it's that Big|Brave fulfill a promise made by punk rock 40 years ago: That rock music wasn't solely the dominion of bands that had the biggest hair, the most money, or dazzling technique - but by any pleb who had a vision and the drive to see it through.

Horror God filled a niche that was sorely lacking this year: Death metal, of the unabashedly evil and fast variety. With Cursed Seeds the trio turned in a flawless album of twisted riffs and all out blast. The debt they owe to Morbid Angel is obvious (just look at that album cover), but the Moscovites temper that influence with dissonant riffs and an emphasis on atmosphere; and let's face it, this is better than anything Morbid Angel has put out in decades. In Russia, the sick bless you.

Richard Hoak - the nicest man in metal, by the way - is making grindcore great again with Total Fucking Destruction. Partly a political diatribe, and partly a comedic roast , #USA4TFD takes aim at the architects of our impending doom without taking itself too seriously.

Listen to my conversation with Richard Hoak here.

Waste of Space Orchestra is a Voltron-like assemblage of avant garde black metal band Orannsi Pazuzu and drone legends Dark Buddha Rising. Syntheosis combines the sensibilities of both while establishing the project as one worthy of its own following. Gliding on the Winds of Hawk, WoSO succeeds in being something that most avant and drone acts don't: Fun and listenable.

Denver's Dreadnought eschews the typical prog metal cliches (except long songs - most of the songs stretch past the 10 minute mark). Filling the void left by (the criminally underrated) Giant Squid, Emergence keeps it doomy whilst conjuring the ghosts of King Crimson and Jethro Tull by employing a saxophone and flute. That's some old school prog cred for you right there.

Read my interview with Dreadnought here.

A long-running band that's been operating under most people's radar, Jon DeRosa's Aarktica is unlikely for many reasons. Due to an ear infection, DeRosa is deaf in one ear, which makes it impossible for him to hear in stereo - and yet he makes music that's so immersive, it often feels like you're swimming in it. A life-long fan of Glenn Danzig and the Misfits, DeRosa isn't above covering his hero's songs - and yet his own spiritual music is so completely divorced from the B-movie and comic book schlock culture that spawned Danzig, they might as well have come from different planets. As an introduction to Aarktica's 20-year long history, you couldn't do worse than their most recent album Mareción. Much like Earth, Aarktica's twangy, guitar-centric approach to drone relies less on distortion and more on creating songs that reverberate - both sonically and mentally.

Listen to my conversation with Aarktica's Jon DeRosa here.

Clearly not lacking in ambition (or hubris), Murk Rider split their 80 minute debut into three parts, mimicking the three act structure espoused by anyone with a television writing credit. Inspired by Joseph Campbell, the album is itself a kind of hero's journey, employing female vocals, acoustic interludes, and a brass section. Add a bassist so intent on stealing the show you'd think his name was Steve Harris, and you've got a band who have the potential to make waves in the coming years.

I don't know if these were really the best albums of the year. But they were the ones sent my way that stuck with me longer than most, and that's all I really expect these days.

The Best Podcasts of 2019:

Mixtape 99:
Episode 103:
Paul Masvidal
Episode 112:
Mixtape 98:
Mixtape 88:
Richard Hoak
Episode 100:

The Best Interviews of 2019:

an interview with
Live Skull
an interview with
an interview with
Cloud Rat
catching up with
catching up with
Ross Sewage
an interview with