2019 wasn't a triumphant year for me; there were no amazing adventures to speak of though there was a fun filled football weekend in October and there was a short excursion to Quebec City. At this point M demands we visit the Great White North once a year so she can stop by Costco and acquire various home necessities on the cheaper Canadian dollar. The joys of being old and domesticated, I guess? (As long as I can stop at Freeson Rock in Montreal, I can be a good sport!)
This year for me personally was mostly just about the grind. The effort to build that financial nest egg and to cultivate the skills I need for my next professional step. M has basically been in the same boat, if feeling less urgency given she's a few years younger than me. The MBA has gone well enough to start, and while I'm not really one for New Year's Resolutions, because they never get followed through on, I don't think it's a big risk for me to say that M and I will be having another big adventure of some sort, if not two of them, in 2020.
Sitting here experiencing old man fog regarding the best live bands I saw this year, and there were two shows that really stand out. One was a lineup featuring Saor, Wayfarer, and DC locals Sickdeer at a Atlas Brew Works in Washington DC. It was miserably hot and humid inside the crowded backroom of a brewery, but it was a fantastic performance by all bands. The other M and I saw the night before, in the basement of a coffee house called Songbyrd, also in Washington DC, where Khemmis absolutely crushed with their stoner-influenced doom and Atlanta black metal/black n' roll act Cloak made a fan out of me. Between the local venues of Baltimore (MDF in particular) and Washington DC, in 2019 the other highlights included Sinmara, Suffering Hour, Spirit Adrift, Rippikoulu, Naglfar, Guttural Secrete, Tomb Mold, Theories, Full of Hell, Borknagar, Scour, Brutality, Blood, Disassociate, Shape of Despair, and Vanum. There was also a roadtrip to Richmond, Virginia because Hypocrisy was playing and who knows when they'll be back in the States again.
Best development of the year that I observed is the plethora of Agalloch and Ulver inspired atmospheric black metal bands that are now dropping records. I'm not suggesting that these artists are tremendously "original" sounding, because you can't recapture the way "Bergtatt" or "Pale Folklore" sounded when they first dropped again. But bands like Minnesota's Ashbringer, Italy's Enisum, and multi-national band Sojourner all released outstanding albums that aren't even making my top 10 list. Collectively, these bands are releasing albums that sound "fresh" and "relevant" to my ears. Maybe it'll be remembered in a few years the way late 90's doom or early 90's death metal is.
The worst development is the abundance of YouTube videos of "reviewers" (i.e. nerds with even more spare time than I've got) who spent inordinate amounts of time telling you if or if not something is good. I mean, obviously I'm writing my thoughts here so I can see a little bit of "pot, meet kettle", but do you need a 45 minute album review to tell you if a 33 minute album is good or not? Here's a crazy idea, google the band or search them on Spotify, give it a few listens, and decide for yourself. That's why I try to find links for each of my top 10 albums; I like that shit and I want other people to check it out, like it, and give those bands money like I did so that those bands keep creating more art.
Most Disappointing Record of 2019
Tool Fear Inoculum
So there's two Batushka's out there and I can't keep up with which one is the one that isn't a whorish money grab by Metal Blade Records (after a quick internet search, I guess the one that released "Panichid" is kvlt and trve and the one that released "Hospodi" is the Faketushka...). There's also a coked up Abbath playing mediocre black n' roll when he's not in rehab for alcoholism...the rest of the Immortal guys win that dispute in artistic terms for sure (I do hope for a reunion though.) Death metal in general hasn't had the abundance of high quality releases I'd expect this year. But that said, there hasn't been a lot that I felt failed to meet my expectations.
That brings me to "Fear Inoculum". I like Tool, and I like proggy Tool. But Tool is at their best not when they're being proggy or playing stupid fucking nerd bullshit Fibonacci Sequences or whatever. Tool is at their best when they're being bombastic and writing bangers like "Vicarious". I don't give a fuck how many notes a musician can play or how precisely they can play those notes that might involve complicated finger techniques on their instruments. Does your music fucking rock? Do I want to crank it at high volume? If you can bust out a bunch of musical wizardry like Spiral Architect or Augury and blow my mind while still rocking that's awesome and yeah, you get more kudos than Devourment does for playing cave man riffs. But if your music just sounds like a bunch of pointless doodling that doesn't lead anywhere, I don't give a shit how complex it was to play or how much thought was put into writing music that makes me want to go to sleep.
"Fear Inoculum" has exactly one good song, "7empest", and if you listen to the album in sequence you're going to be asleep when it begins as track nine, 1 hour and 10 minutes into the record. Knowing that, I just go to Spotify and listen to the one good song, rather than sit through the snoozefest that leads to it. The worst part? This album will cost you a fortune to buy, see for yourself! (That's just the audio cd version, not the spiffy one that has it's own music player and visual do-hickey..)
My expectations for this were never that inflated, but given the nerds clutching their pearls about this band and dropping dumb money to buy the CD and see them perform at inflated prices and who have some bizarre belief that being willing to sit down bored out of your mind for 1 hour and 26 minutes makes you smarter and more sophisticated than the next music fan, I guess I'm gonna call this the big disappointment of the year. Much like Opeth, this band was better before 2010.
Belzebubs Pantheon of the Nightside Gods
Blood Red Throne Fit To Kill
Ceremony of Silence Outis
Cloak The Burning Dawn
Continuum Designed Obsolescence
Dead To A Dying World Elegy
Devourment Obscene Majesty
Disentomb The Decaying Light
Encephalic Brutality and Depravity
Enisum Moth's Illusion
Esoteric A Pyrrhic Existence
Exhorder Mourn The Southern Skies
Fen The Dead Light
The Great Old Ones Cosmicism
Glare of the Sun Theia
Hath Of Rot and Ruin
Hideous Divinity Simulacrum
Imperium Dekadenz When We Are Forgotten
Isenordal Shores of Mourning
Mgla Age of Excuse
Nile Vile Nilotic Rites
Obsequaie The Palms of Sorrowed Kings
October Tide In Splendor Below
Officium Triste The Death of Gaia
Organectomy Existential Disconnect
Pathology Reborn To Kill
Prostitute Disfigurement Prostitute Disfigurement
Sinmara Hvisi Stjarnanna
Spirit Adrift Divided by Darkness
Sojourner The Shadowed Road
10.) Mortiferum Disgorged from Psychotic Depths
Dark, ominous doom/death of the sort that Profound Lore Records is known to release. I love the tone that they capture, and they manage to be plodding and miserable without losing my interest, which is what happens when you're slow and heavy but not actually creating a harmony or building to anything epic in your songwriting. Swampy, dank, and guttural. The way it should be.
9.) Nightfell A Sanity Deranged
Take someone from the hardcore scene during the "Entombed-core" revival, and introduce them to Celtic Frost and Bolt Thrower. That's what this sounds like; perhaps a WW1 tank plowing through trenches and murdering everything in sight on a particularly grey, miserable, damp day.
8.) Dawn Ray'd Behold Sedition Plainsong
Absolutely ferocious and dark at the same time. Anarcho-Antifa punks with a healthy dose of Napalm Death's politics playing second wave black metal with serious urgency in their delivery. Heavy use of violins to carry a lot of melodies helps create a distinct sound. Incredibly righteous and a welcome counterbalance to the conservatism and NSBM bullshit that often plagues underground black metal. Not that it doesn't rage pretty fucking hard regardless of one's personal politics.
7.) Vitriol To Bathe From The Throat Of Cowardice
Featuring a few songs from their debut EP, this is a ferocious blend of Hate Eternal and death-metal era Behemoth with the anger of Man Must Die. Raw vocals, non stop blasting drums, and just all around fast and furious top tier death metal in a year where I feel that there were a lot of death metal releases that were rather ordinary.
6.) Falls of Rauros Patterns Of Mythology
One of the many well crafted albums by the emerging flock of post-Agalloch bands, FoR occupies the same space of warm, mellow acoustic passages that melds into tremelo heavy black metal that feels like it ever so pensively seeks something more grandiose and epic. Drenched with sorrowful melodies and even a smidgen of Spirit Adrift-styled guitar theatrics, I think the best way to experience Patterns of Mythology is on an open highway in a single complete listen.
5.) Alcest Spiritual Instinct
Full admission; I'm a "Johnny come lately" to this French band. I think they opened an Anathema show that M dragged me to some years ago. By this time, Anathema sucked ass and ceased playing any of their old, good songs, so I was probably drinking and in the mood for something much more bloodthirsty. So my impression of Alcest wasn't great, and it wasn't until some years later when I heard them randomly on Spotify that I "got it"; I soon bought "Ecailles De Lune" and became a fan. So while I'm not really familiar with their more black metal incarnation, and barely hear anything black metal about the band, I deeply enjoy the ethereal, atmospheric sort of slightly "post" metal they perform. "Spiritual Instinct" is a bit more bombastic, a slight bit of the black metal influence is present, and overall this album is a whole lot catchier than the previous albums I'm familiar with. Is it still shoegaze-y and trippy? Absolutely. But it's constantly going forward, and flows in such a way that these 6 songs come and go before you know it, leaving you wanting a bit more.
4.) Horrific Demise Excruciating Extermination
What happens when you pull a bunch of seasoned veterans from the Midwest death metal scene of the early 2000's? Featuring members (and ex-members) of Gorgasm, Lividity, Sarcophagy, Necrotic Disgorgement, and Human Filleted, the sum of the parts here surpasses all of those bands. Horrific Demise hits the right notes to recapture the glory days of late 1990's/early 2000's riff driven brutal death metal yet it sounds fresh enough that it's not some crappy attempt at nostalgia. The production and performances sound top notch professional, the songs are lean, mean, and have a lot of that early Dying Fetus "bounce" to them, and this album just feels fun. Absolutely no filler to be found in this collection of songs, the only sad thing is that because it lacks the sort of originality that tastemakers in the scene look for, it didn't get the attention it deserved. This is nearly perfect death metal and my hope is that the members of this band make Horrific Demise a priority.
3.) Borknagar True North
First album with just ICS on Lead Vocals since "Quintessence" came out almost 20 years ago yet none of the evolution over that time has been lost as Borknagar still sounds like a massive, epic, ambitious melding of folk, 70's moog drenched prog, and black metal. Vortex shines in all of his varied vocal deliveries, and "variety" might be the best word to use to describe this album, which ranges from the fury of "The Fire That Burns" to the subdued yet majestic closer "Voices". Borknagar has created a space for themselves to create a wide range of sounds that seemlessly flow together and feel "right". Borknagar is long in the tooth, but still feels fresh, vibrant, and essential. There isn't a weak album in their catalog, and "True North" may rank among the best of them.
2.) Saor Forgotten Paths
2019 was the year I discovered this band, and I consider that, along with the opportunity to see them perform in July of this year (where I eagerly purchased their entire back catalog), to be highlights of the year. Saor plays an epic, melodic style of black metal with occasional nods to Scottish inspired folk music. Tasteful usage of keys, flutes, violins, and gentle guitar interludes lend further in creating an emotional sounding ode to Scotland while distinguishing Saor from the American bands looking to Agalloch for inspiration. More importantly, none of it sounds like cheese! It could be easy for something like this to fall of the rails, but the performances by multi-instrumentalist Andy Marshall (only permanent member of the band) are absolutely top notch, the production quality more than adequate, and the songs may be too drawn out for some, but I feel that the extended lengths of the tracks (3 out of the 4 songs surpass 10 minutes in length) give space to allow the harmonies to implant themselves in the listener.
1.) Blood Incantation Hidden History of the Human Race
I probably gave this one away when I put it on my "best of the decade" list. I tried to think of reasons why it shouldn't be number one, and nothing was valid. I can't hold the fact they've got some buzz behind them against them; hell it's not like I was handed a copy of their demo and followed them since. I got into the band because "Starspawn" was a straight-fire album and I discovered it because there was hype. I guess now that they're starting to become less obscure (which is silly anyway, this is death metal released on Dark Descent Records, if it sold 10,000 copies I'm shocked) that certain elements of the underground predictably shit on them. Heaven forbid they get signed by Relapse or Nuclear Blast. The thing is, this record is recorded the way death metal should be recorded. It sounds murky yet clear, there's warmth in the guitar tones, all of the instruments are audible, nothing sounds overly compressed. I see more bands, if they have the means, going this route in the future, especially as vinyl becomes the predominant physical media people purchase (I'll stick with CDs since I don't have a vinyl turntable in my car, where I consume most music.)
Musically, it hits the notes of the more "progressive" 90's death metal bands, especially Immolation and Death. Maybe Morbid Angel to a lesser extent with its obsession with themes (Morbid Angel had ancient Sumeria, Blood Incantation has space aliens and ancient Egypt.) Reverbed growls layer over churning, twisting riffs and healthy doses of over the top guitar theatrics and tones that would have made "Sound of Perseverance" era Chuck Schuldiner proud.
Blood Incantation made a thoughtful, intelligent record that clearly had a lot of work and love put into it to make it sound great. The fact it's only 4 tracks, including the 18 minute epic closer, leaves you wanting more when its over. I'm won't award them the championship belt for best band in death metal quite yet, but another release of this quality would probably be all that it takes.