Matt’s Top 50 Albums of 2017

Some Introductory Words

There was so much good music that came out this year. After barely being able to scrape together ten good albums to make a list out of last year, 2017 redeemed my faith in music in a massive way. I shattered my personal record for new-music-listening this year, and, in the process, I discovered a ton of good, very good, and occasionally mind-blowingly good stuff in the corners and crevices – stuff that many outlets seemed to ignore. And while I admit that I have a tendency to get more excited about lesser-known artists, I assure you the rankings you’ll read here are not artificially biased towards those acts. I just happen to believe that the best music that came out this year came largely from unexpected places. I’m sure there’s a fair few readers who will have missed at least half of my top ten entirely. So if you’re looking for yet another review countdown singing the praises of Ne Obliviscaris, Blut aus Nord, Krallice, Elder, Converge, The Contortionist, Bell Witch, or Wolves in the Throne Room, you’re in for a shock, because – take a deep breath – while all of those bands released quality albums, six of those eight artists do not appear on this list despite the fact that it goes fifty deep. And each one of them was outdone in their own niche by some other, lesser-known act. Blasphemy? Don’t be so sure. Open your mind, expand your listening purview, and find out what monsters you missed lurking deep beneath the surface.

Top 50

50. Siberian Hell Sounds and Convulsing – The Breath of the Beast and Engraved upon Bleached Bone

I gravitate towards full-lengths, but a surprising smorgasbord of shorter releases demanded my attention this year. One of these was this dilogy of death metal deconstruction, featuring two twenty-minute slabs of biting, multifaceted berserker music. I have to confess that my affinity here lies primarily with the latter of the two artists; while Siberian Hell Sounds’ track is certainly nothing to sneeze at, Convulsing’s Brendan Sloan showcases a refined evolution of the experimental sound from his debut Errata that stamps him as one of the brightest young minds in the dissonant death metal scene. Other acts are content to chase after the coattails of Portal and Ulcerate, but Convulsing enters from a different angle, fusing black and doom elements into a dramatic rollercoaster of unhinged energy. Put it this way: if this had been a Convulsing full-length, with two twenty-minute tracks by Sloan, it could easily be about thirty spots higher on the list. Watch out for their next release, because Convulsing has death metal by the balls.

49. Progenie Terrestre Pura – oltreLuna

A long-awaited follow-up to their stunning debut U.M.A., cyber-black cosmonauts Progenie terrestre pura deviate a bit from the restrained sound of their previous work on oltreLuna. The production is much thicker here, and it does no favours to the music: the heavy guitars dominate what should be a more open and cinematic soundscape. On top of that, they do lean more towards the metal passages and shy away from ambiance – not completely, by any means, but noticeably enough to make the length of the album a tough obstacle. Interestingly, there are world music elements infused to the non-metal sections, which I found awkward to reconcile with the extraterrestrial aesthetic. I feel like I’m coming off entirely too negative, so let me make clear that the album is extremely inventive and well-composed, and occupies a unique and worthwhile niche sound that few artists are attempting.

48. Soror Dolorosa – Apollo

There are a handful of metal-adjacent releases popping up on metalhead year-end lists, but none of these acclaimed albums gripped me so thoroughly as Soror dolorosa’s Apollo, an extensive meditation designed to answer the question: “What if The Cure had been frozen in 1985 and thawed out today?” The worship is so complete that no other genre label is necessary – post-punk? Goth rock? Coldwave? Forget it, just tag it as “The Cure”. These depressive riffs will sink deeply into your subconscious and linger there for weeks on end. It’s not the most mind-blowing music, but it fills a necessary vacuum.

47. Mesmur – S

You can usually tell almost instantly whether a funeral doom album is worth your time. Mesmur hit all the right notes within the first minute, and keep plodding onwards from there. Crunchy guitars and reverb-drenched drums churn from the jump, conjuring visions of Esoteric and Monolithe, cavorting between shades of different keys to provide an unresolved feel to opening piece “Singularity”. Synth pads add a welcome layer of atmosphere, and a clean production helps expand the band’s titanic sound. Some doom bands get bored and dabble in blast beats or death-doom detours to spice things up; Mesmur, not being one of them, contently meanders down the stream of droning dissonance with occasional tributaries of industrial noise. As such, there’s nothing shocking here, but solid, uncompromised funeral doom is still a prize to be cherished.

46. Ne Obliviscaris – Urn

By this point, you should know about this Australian powerhouse who have risen to celebrity status in the prog-metal mainstream. Their musicianship and technique are as on-point as ever before on Urn, but I do feel that the creativity takes a small step back from Citadel. More pointedly, though, I continue to hold the opinion that drummer Dan Presland, tremendously talented as he may be, is not the right fit for this group and may be preventing them from reaching the same heights as peak-era Opeth. Presland is an absolute machine, which serves as his vice and virtue; his drum lines frequently sound downright mechanical, and he seems to have a switch that toggles only between “double bass” and “blast beats” with no alternate setting. This is fantastic for a group like Vipassi, his instrumental tech-death side project, but his lack of human feel and dynamics has been off-putting for three-plus albums of Ne obliviscaris’ material.

45. Big Big Train – Grimspound

These English progsters are one of the two or three best pure prog rock groups active, with the cornerstone of their legacy being 2012-2013’s outstanding and eminently re-listenable dual album English Electric. They expanded their membership a bit prior to releasing Folklore in 2016, and their sound seemed to take a step back – or, at least, a step towards a more simple and pastoral incarnation of their sound, losing some of the bombast and drama that they needed. Grimspound, in that respect, felt like a return to form: tracks like “Brave Captain”, “The Ivy Gate”, and the title cut were much more enthralling and creatively fulfilling than anything I heard from their prior album. As with any good prog act, there are a handful of musical motives that can be spotted across different songs. On the negative side, “Experimental Gentleman” hides some well-crafted solo sections in a too-humble, straightforward skeleton; purported epic “A Mead Hall in Winter” overstays its welcome by a good few minutes, not surprising for a Rikard Sjöblom-penned number. Overall, though, the trajectory is a positive one and there’s a lot of great work to take in.

44. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference

Following up an epic album can be a Herculean task. Following up a debut triple album literally called The Epic? Forget it. Modern jazz’s vanguard saxophonist chose to dial things back and head in another direction on this thirty-minute EP, which is presented as a quintet of deconstructed vignettes on one side and a single fifteen-minute fusion of the five on the other. The five shorter pieces serve more to introduce and cycle through musical styles and motives than to satisfy as standalone songs, and cover territory such as soulful chillness (“Desire”), brash uptempo fusion (“Humility”), sultry sensuality (“Knowledge”), smooth funk (“Perspective”), and Latin-infused percussiveness (“Integrity”). With those puzzle pieces laid out, Kamasi seeks to assemble the whole picture on “Truth”. The memorable melodies are immediately recognizable, but often switched to a different instrument than they were introduced on: guitar recapitulates the main tune of “Desire”, glassy keyboard replaces the intense horn battery of “Humility”, and so on. The performance changes tempo around the five-minute mark and gradually ascends to a cathartic climax with the full band, but the full picture ends up a bit lost in the shuffle – it’s hard to discern all five original pieces as they merge together. The gimmick is smart in concept, but ultimately leaves listeners wishing for greater and meatier ideas.

43. Violet Cold – Anomie

It’s always nice to see talented and capable artists from unexpected geographic locales. From Azerbaijan comes Violet Cold, the solo project of Emin Guliyev, who offers beautifully layered post-black with a romantic, nostalgic slant. The interwoven guitars are the highlight, a persistent presence throughout the album, although some tracks deviate into more atmospheric respites including a world-music breakdown in the opening, title track. The music conveys emotion effectively even if you can’t comprehend a word of the Azerbaijani lyrics, and varies from the expansive post-punk of “Lovegaze” to the explosive closing blasts of “No Escape from Dreamland”.

42. Heretoir – The Circle

The lazy review here is to just say that Heretoir made the best Alcest album since Écailles de lune, a comparison driven home by the presence of Neige himself on the song “Laniakea Dances”. But “The Circle” deserves more credit than that. While its core is ultimately that same transcendent, meditative melodicism that Neige made famous, Heretoir also plumb dreamier depths and explore more intense territory over this album’s hour-plus runtime. If you’ve missed the metal side of Alcest, tracks like “Fading with the Grey” will be a welcome listen. No individual chord progression or musical idea is particularly unique, but the overall flow and presentation of the album reflects expertise in the post-black paradigm.

41. Blood Command – Cult Drugs

I came to this album with absolutely no idea what to expect, and, having listened to it half a dozen times, I… still have no idea what exactly it is. Blood Command fuse raw Norwegian hardcore energy with electronic dance-punk, and flip a switch between catchy singalong choruses and throat-shredding yells. Norwegian wikipedia tags them as “deathpop”, as good a unique mononym as any I can conjure up. They can be alternately vicious (opening number “Ctrl + Alt + Delete”, first minute of grind-punk blaster “White Skin // Tanned Teeth”) and poppy (swingy Paramore-esque ditty “Nervous Laughter”, end of the aforementioned blaster), even within the same track (“Gang Signs”). I don’t know if metalheads are supposed to like this, but who cares? I listened to this album a bunch this year; it’s freaking fun. Why not enjoy fun music from time to time?

40. Bagarre Générale – Tohu-bohu

Instrumental music has to clear a very high bar to retain my interest. This French group accomplishes that by centering their apocalyptic funeral doom on a boisterous, abrasive brass section, backed by massive distorted synth pulses and propulsive percussion. The compositions are airtight and cinematic, unsettling in the sheer fact that they never devolve into chaos. This is the opposite of the kind of oppressive, atmospheric band that seeks to disorient the listener with tempestuous swirls of sound; this is more pin-your-eyelids-back-and-force-you-to-confront-the-awful-reality in its stark presentation. The constellation of traditionally heavy guitars, bass synth, and low brass is an amalgam of sound that provides a depth and weight other doom acts have only dreamed of.

39. Foscor – Les irreals visions

Foscor take an Enslaved-esque style of progressive melodic black metal, layer on Týr’s epic clean vocal approach, and perform it in straightforward song format. It’s a simple equation, but the output is powerful. Sometimes dreamy and dark, other times gritty and gothic, Foscor keep listeners guessing while sinking their hooks in via richly arranged melodies. Truly, any short snippet will clue you in to the band’s sound, but it takes a few minutes before you find yourself engrossed in the vivid spectre of their subtlety. Props to them also for being one of the few metal bands to employ the Catalan language!

38. Ayreon – The Source

Another staple of the progressive metal scene, you know what you’re getting by now with Ayreon. If you’ve liked him before, you’ll like this, especially if you liked The Human Equation, the seminal 2004 epic from which several vocalists return in this revisitation of the Forever mythos that defined Arjen Lucassen’s project from 1995 to 2008. The cast is not quite as impressive to me as 2012’s one-off The Theory of Everything, although the presence of Between the Buried and Me’s Tommy Rogers and Myrath’s Zaher Zorgati (who appears only on one track, “Deathcry of a Race”, which sounds structured around his freeform Arabic vocal calisthenics) is exciting. I mean no offence when I say that I don’t feel like Arjen really pushed his sound forward on this album, because I think absolutely everything he’s released since Into the Electric Castle is singularly brilliant and peerless. It’s more of the same, but the same is basically as great and grandiose as it’s ever been here.

37. Dvne – Asheran

You’ve read many words about Elder’s Reflections of a Floating World on 2017 retrospectives, but you should ignore most of that fluff and go listen to Dvne’s less-heralded full-length debut instead. This UK quartet is fully poised to kick Elder and Khemmis off their carrying-the-torch-of-old-Mastodon perch, because they stretch their sound from its core of uptempo, sludgy stoner riffs with layered clean vocals out to extremes of blackened hardcore (opening of “Thirst”, “Rite of Seven Mournings”) and heavy psychedelia (“Viridian Bloom”, “Scion”) in ways that other bands have yet to achieve. This is an album I kind of wish I had spent a little more time with this year, because it absolutely wins its genre, but I didn’t find myself in the mood for that genre as much. If this album had come out six or eight years ago, I would probably have lost my mind. There’s a great balance of mindless groove and cerebral technicality here; most bands fail to walk that delicate line this carefully. An hour of this style is a lot to take in, but those who persevere will be richly rewarded with righteous riffage.

36. Manetheren – The End

Manetheren struck me at first as what Novembre might sound like if they focused solely on their black metal tendencies. The gothic atmosphere and counterpoint melodies of The End are very akin to Novembre’s signature sound, but the material is much less progressive and more nihilistic. This is plodding, patient blackened doom that sells itself entirely on its melodicism – no frills, no quirks, no multi-genre fusions. If you only do one thing, you must be exceptional at it, and… well, if they weren’t, I wouldn’t be writing about them.

35. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar

I’m not the author you should go to for an in-depth overview of the route Ulver took from raw second-wave black metal to gothic darkwave; I’ve heard only a handful of their previous releases, usually once each. But the sound they settled on with The Assassination of Julius Caesar was absolutely addictive, combining gentle industrial instrumentation with ‘80s new-wave croons that are impossible not to sing along with, even when the lyrics you end up singing reference the burning bodies of first-century Christians being used as street lamps. Opener “Nemoralia” easily has the most psychological staying power, with its seductive and simple chorus, but second track “Rolling Stone” has every bit as potent a progression and hook before devolving into a surprisingly chaotic industrial-noise second act that is unlike anything else on the album. Kristoffer Rygg’s ethereal vocals carry some of the less immediately catchy tracks, like “Angelus novus”, while another voice joins to add flavour to “1969”. An array of synthesizer sounds give each song its own character so that the album avoids monotony. Nearly-eight-minute closer “Coming Home” veers toward starker industrial (with scattered sax bursts in its second half) and away from the pop sensibility of earlier songs, a curious but likely deliberate choice given the time-hopping subject matter.

34. Slowly Building Weapons – Sunbirds

Ten years after a little-heralded debut, these Aussies return with a seamless fusion of blackgaze, hardcore punk, and post-rock into a genre swirl that works on every level. There are swaths of songs here that line up with the recent blackened hardcore trend, but in a rawer, unpolished context; however, there are also gorgeous clean breaks that divulge a savvier approach to song construction, such as on “Lyre Birds”, “Horses”, and the stirring conclusion of “Sunforest”. There’s also a lot of trudging, post-industrial murk (“Sunbirds”, “Purist”), a rarely-utilized style that provides a fantastic third colour between the vicious heaviness and spacious atmospheres. Good bands blend two styles well, but Slowly Building Weapons pulls off (at least) three in perfect balance and cohesion.

33. Bolt Gun – Man Is Wolf to Man

Somewhere between Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s apocalyptic folk and Nadja’s expansive dronescapes lies Bolt Gun, an Australian quartet whose two-track discourse Man Is Wolf to Man patiently unveils eschatological gloom. “Part 1” spends thirty minutes lilting over a simple synth pad, not getting to any semblance of a “riff” for seven of them, eschewing distortion until the ten-minute mark, and then roiling and decaying from heaviness to ambiance and back without ever losing momentum. For as stark and simplistic as it is, it is utterly entrancing the whole way through. This focus persists into “Part 2”, a bit more nihilistic and ferocious in its sparse distortion, cathartic climax, and ultimate descent into noise. This is a stunning statement that rewards the time spent with it.

32. Sun of the Sleepless – To the Elements

Sun of the Sleepless stake their claim as this year’s best provider of droning, repetitive black metal riffs that enthrall listeners who desire that kind of hypnotic, zoning-out approach. So complete is their commitment to this that, sometimes, as on the opening blast beats of “Motions”, the listener cannot even discern the time signature for the first few bars until more melodies are introduced for context. Folk elements and choral clean vocals accent the compositions, but the reason you come to this album is for the majestic mind-numbing segments. Markus Stock’s melodies are gorgeous and hook-laden, delightful sour-candy for the ears.

31. Thantifaxath – Void Masquerading as Matter

Nobody – and I mean nobody – puts as much math-minded technicality into their black metal riffs as Thantifaxath. That was established on 2014’s Sacred White Noise, which featured riffs or loops in counts of 15, 17, 19, 23, 25, and 35, among others. Their new EP (only eight minutes shorter than their debut – come on, guys, you couldn’t have come up with one more song somehow? – continues this tradition with some hard-to-follow additive metre right from the beginning on “Ocean of Screaming Spheres”. Another piece of their palette is a sort of mathematical approach to melody as well, abolishing any semblance of key in favour of structures centred on chromatic ascending and descending patterns. The EP format affords them license to experiment more than usual, with a noise-and-piano bridge on the first track, an acoustic guitar/violin/synthesizer trio closing “Self-Devouring Womb”, and an extended ambient bridge on “Cursed Numbers” before one of the eeriest atonal guitar constructions you’ll ever hear wraps up the song and sends the short album to its final number, a title track comprising seven minutes of choral vocals. I do wish they’d stretched this out into a whole album, but the limited amount of material offered here is magnificent and peerless.

30. Naeramarth – The Innumerable Stars

With some albums, I can tell you to listen to thirty seconds to see whether you like it. Naeramarth’s debut is the opposite – thirty seconds of this album won’t give you half a clue about the full picture. The Innumerable Stars treads ground familiar to fans of Ihsahn and Enslaved – blackened prog, heavier on the prog than the black, with rich melodies, occasional electronic beats or acoustic passages, and pensive lyrics. The standout here is “Luminous Beings”, a 10/8 electro-prog piece anchored by guest saxophone from Shining’s Jørgen Munkeby. The production is at times uncannily clean and crisp, a rarity for metal – I would expect a touch more reverb to wash things together, but then again you shouldn’t take my mixing advice on anything. All I know is it sounds somewhat canned to my ears, but that doesn’t diminish much from the writing and performance.

29. The Burden Remains & The Horns of the Seventh Seal – Touchstone

The ambitious formula of metal-band-plus-orchestra can often turn out sloppy, lazy, or poorly executed; a metal band who doesn’t know to compose orchestral scores can turn a rich symphony of instruments into a live version of an atmospheric synth patch. I had never heard Swiss thrashers The Burden Remains before this album, but I probably would not have expected them to effectively utilize an orchestra. However, they managed to find a willing collaborative partner in The Horns of the Seventh Seal, a 42-piece ad hoc orchestra, who invest themselves in the composition and hold their own in a dramatic back-and-forth. Each aspect of the orchestra is put to use – strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, each in turn, none dominant nor neglected – and the metal other half provides little more than a capable structure for the orchestra to layer on. There lies the main critique of the album; the metal itself is not especially innovative or progressive, though it is far from plain-vanilla chugging. The beauty is in the balance between these partners, which is quite possibly the best ever in an album of this ilk. The vocals, a bit on the heavy-thrash side, may be grating to some listeners, though I found they grew on me quickly and did not distract from the fascinating music. Whether it ends up suiting your taste or not, this is a landmark collaboration you need to expose your ears to.

28. Krallice – Go Be Forgotten

Krallice’s self-titled debut was the first black metal album I truly fell in love with, and I continued to love the band up until Years Past Matter, when I felt (apparently contrary to every critical outlet, who began to fawn over them right around this time) that they had started to recycle ideas and lost a lot of the connective tissue that allowed to synthesize chaotic riffs into coherent songs. This devolved even further on the barely-black Ygg huur, and I began to lose hope of seeing the old Krallice again. But with the second of their late-year releases in 2017, Krallice briefly re-conjured their classic spirit, added some synth layers for good measure, and produced their finest collection of tracks since the good old days. The title track is the shining star here, with the second half rivaling any climax in their catalogue. Critical outlets tended to prefer the more experimental collaboration of Loüm, which had its moments (namely the frenetic finale, “Kronus Deposed”), but I found far more joy in the simple pleasures of Go Be Forgotten – an album that deserves not to be.

27. Merkabah – Million Miles

I was a huge fan of Moloch, the 2014 album of these Polish avant-garde jazz-metal purveyors. On Million Miles, they rein in some of their wild energy, letting tracks unfold more patiently and minimally at times to contrast the bombast of their more intense moments. Merkabah plays a bit like an instrumental, metal-minded version of Seven Impale, and the stylistic shift here mirrors the one taken from City of the Sun to Contrapasso. Merkabah meanders through vast, mathematically convoluted compositions, guided prominently by Rafał Wawszkiewicz’s saxophone and Kuba Sokólski’s drums. The sax performance is worth commending in particular; it is perhaps the best integration of a truly jazz-centred approach to the instrument within a decidedly metal band. You can hear this skill on every track, but the middle of “Glaucous Gardens” is an especially notable showcase. Merkabah, unlike many metal-meets-jazz artists, truly sound like they have the chops to quit metal and start playing highbrow jazz standards at any moment. The world is certainly better for the fact that they’ve chosen not to.

26. Vinsta – Vinsta wiads

It is both accurate and reductive to describe Vinsta as a torchbearer of the “classic” Opeth sound long since abandoned by Åkerfeldt and company. You can’t get through a minute of any track on Vinsta wiads without being swept back to Morningrise or Still Life, but, as you listen more deeply, the band’s unique characteristics begin to shine through as well, perfectly complementing the bits they’ve appropriated from their forefathers. The blast beat section early in “Gedonknschwa” is more aggressive than most of what Opeth ever dared, as is the sweep-picked mini-solo that intersects it. But vibrant, jazzy bass and flowing lead guitar melodies saturate the album in an addictive way. I dare you to listen to fifteen seconds of “Bluatlauf” and not want to continue.

Top 25

25. Fleshkiller – Awaken

You may not know the name Fleshkiller, but you should know the mastermind behind it: Ole Børud, legendary paragon of the Christian extreme metal scene primarily praised for his work with Extol. You can spot an Ole Børud guitar part from a mile away, marked by a unique blend of technicality, unexpected key-bending melody, and sparkling jazzy chord choices that sound smarter than what any other guitarist concocts. With Extol on another hiatus after an exceptional comeback album in 2013, Ole recruited a new band to perform a fresh brand of heavy, thrashy metalcore-adjacent compositions. You can certainly hear the Extol roots in Fleshkiller’s sound, but a more aggressive, guttural vocal delivery from Elisha Mullins and unabashedly death metal drumming from Andreas Skorpe Sjøen separate the two entities. Ole’s soaring clean vocals often run counterpoint to the complex guitars, making the sound even more refreshing; no other band would come up with the progression that opens “Secret Chambers”, for example. One could argue that the album is a bit samey from front to back, but when that sameness is so unique, it’s easier to forgive. This is Ole at his most refined and confident, proving two decades after his earliest work with Extol and Schaliach that he still reigns supreme in the Christian metal world.

24. Nightbringer – Terra damnata

Naas Alcameth has made quite a name for himself in the black metal scene, between well-received projects such as Nightbringer, Bestia Arcana, and my personal favorite, Akhlys. Terra ddamnata is an astonishing continuation of his compositional cascade, featuring a razor-sharp and lightning-fast brand of occult black metal that at times veers into levels of ferocity that rivals artists like Anaal Nathrakh (if one can even say there are other artists “like Anaal Nathrakh”). Take for example the opening salvo of “Misrule”, a missive so blistering it’s hard to believe the drums are human-performed. Immense credit to Menthor for being up to his task as Alcameth’s percussion battery! Perhaps my greatest qualm with the album is that it keeps itself too high-strung, with the intensity becoming too much to endure in one sitting. Certainly in the times you want black metal that rips your face apart, you won’t find a better candidate than this.

23. The Great Old Ones – Eod: A Tale of Dark Legacy

France’s The Great Old Ones have been perfecting their approach to Lovecraftian black metal for several years now, and their vision has finally come to full fruition on the remarkable Eod. Their previous two albums never quite stuck with me; I found them lacking a certain punch and urgency, underwhelming in light of the subject matter they had chosen. Eod wastes no time rectifying this, as the band rams full speed ahead after a suitably disconcerting intro sketch. The opening riff and blast beats in “Shadow over Innsmouth” are precisely what I listen to black metal for. They do switch things up with brooding dynamics and interspersed acoustic passages, but in a more tasteful and cohesive way than in their prior works. The jazzy bridge of “The Ritual” affirms their technique, while the brutal one-two punch of “In Screams and Flames” and “Mare infinitum” to close the album demonstrates that they know how to finely craft a complete record, bombastic to the last note.

22. Chaos Moon – Eschaton Mémoire

There are a few very specific sets of factors I look for in black metal, and Chaos Moon’s latest offering fits the bill for the “suffocating, occult atmosphere” paradigm immaculately. All the checkboxes are ticked: furious drumming, soaring synth pads, extensive tracks, creative and unique arrangements, memorable melodies. The thematic riff of the title track, which comes in around 8:20 of the twenty-minute bandcamp version (streaming services split this track into two), is one of those parts that just sticks with you. It’s an all-time classic black metal part, and it’s not the only one you’ll find here. There’s a lot to love.

21. Dodecahedron – Kwintessens – Through Bodies Measureless to Man

Dodecahedron forced everyone to sit up and take notice with 2012’s self-titled debut (whose opening thirty seconds, the intro of “Allfather”, should be in the metal hall of fame), packaging the breakneck dissonance of Deathspell Omega in a slightly more conventional and palatable musical œuvre. Kwintessens cashes in the credit they earned themselves by pushing the envelope further from convention, pulverizing the listener with swarms of non-Euclidean chaos, not unlike a faster and rawer Thantifaxath at times. Industrial and harsh noise soundscapes infiltrate the metal on tracks like “Tetrahedron” and “Icosahedron”. There is no regard for catchiness or listenability here. This album does not meet you halfway; you have to come to it ready to accept it for what it is, or it will spurn you instantly.

20. MindSpring Memories – The Binary Ocean

Look, you’re gonna be confused by this, I get it. Albums #24 through #13 on this list are all more or less black metal, and right smack in the middle is an album that sounds like slowed down Weather Channel jazz from an underwater Donkey Kong Country level. I don’t care. The Binary Ocean opens with two (!) fifty-minute chillwave excursions that each comprise a single main musical idea that is tilted and warped at a glacial pace, then rounds out with several “shorter” pieces in similar veins. All I know is that, as I listened to it for two solid hours, at no point did I ever not want to be listening to it. There’s a place for complex, chaotic metal, and there’s a place for mind-cleansing zen meditations. Angel Marcloid knows both, as she’ll prove a bit further down the list.

19. Cormorant – Diaspora

Cormorant play a very specific, intelligent brand of proggy black metal: they paint with the colours of black metal, but the resulting portraits are very much classic progressive rock pieces. The band is equally capable of blasting away (as they quickly demonstrate on “Preserved in Ash”) or slowing things down to a ruinous, doom-like crawl (7:30 mark of the same song) – a synthesis of styles reminiscent of Inter Arma or fellow Californians Ash Borer, but employed much more effectively through the creative framing around the disparate parts. The opening of “Sentinel” utilizes angular, sludgy riffs that would not be out of place in an older Mastodon track, then cavorts into harmonized clean vocals over blast beats, and that’s just the beginning of the dozens of directions that song goes over its sixteen-minute duration. There are even elements of old-school death and thrash woven into the sound, as on the shortest song “The Devourer”. All their skills get summoned and synthesized for the epic twenty-six-minute closer “Migration”, an ambitious style of song rarely seen in extreme metal even among bands renowned for their progressiveness.

18. Vexovoid – Call of the Starforger

Three days after I assured some fellow redditors that nothing else in the world sounded like Vektor, I heard Vexovoid and was pleasantly proven completely wrong. It’s okay to rip off a band if they’re literally the only current band in their style, and Vektor’s blackened sci-fi thrash was just singular enough to merit a clone. Vexovoid prove themselves up to the task, with ripping guitars, driving drums, and harsh screams that most thrash bands refuse to employ, every bit as capable in every facet as their comrades. In fact, while Call of the Starforger is absolutely not superior to the magnum opus that was “Terminal Redux”, there are subtle aspects of it that improve on some of the flaws in the sound. With nine tracks summing to forty-seven minutes, Vexovoid’s record is much more digestible than Vektor’s seventy-three-minute voyage. The compositions themselves are a bit less cluttered; Vektor’s technicality is virtuosic but also exhausting, so Vexovoid’s toned-down riffage (and easier-on-the-ears production) serves to enhance listenability without sacrificing any demonstration of talent. These guys prove they can shred without actually doing it nonstop. This is a worthy addition to a very niche style.

17. The Ruins of Beverast – Exuvia

Are you sick of American bands raiding Norse mythology for their lyrical concepts? Then maybe you’ll be intrigued by a German band appropriating Native American themes. Tribalism aside, Exuvia is a striking juxtaposition of styles, starting with what is easily the best iteration of Alexander von Meilenwald’s signature blackened doom. The production and composition form an excellent foundation, enabling von Meilenwald to launch full-speed-ahead on the end of “Surtur barbaar maritime”, bring in haunting female wails on “The Pythia’s Pale Wolves”, or dwell on a hypnotic motif in “Exuvia” or “Takitum tootem (Trance)”. The album writhes in ayahuasca and peyote, and emerges as a vision unlike any seen in the metal realm before it.

16. Der Weg einer Freiheit – Finisterre

Dissonance, technique, creativity, and speed – rare it is to find the band that features all these tools in equal measure. Germany’s Der Weg einer Freiheit pull it off, though, from the opening ferocity of “Aufbruch” to the Opeth-invoking outro of the closing title track. This is post-black at its most extreme, at one moment sounding like Nightbringer in their blitzkrieg of blackened blasts, and, at the next, exploring a sprawling sludge riff with post-rock tremolo leads piercing the sky overhead (just listen to “Ein letzter Tanz” for a fourteen-minute crash course in the band’s diversity). Finisterre does not stumble at any step, five tracks absolutely jam-packed with intensity and respite of the highest caliber. There is just enough breathing room in the slower and atmospheric passages (including gorgeous string orchestration in the title track) to help the casual listener endure the barrages of double bass and blast beats that surround the album.

15. Yellow Eyes – Immersion Trench Reverie

Originally a cryptic, intriguing alternative to Krallice in the scene of New York black metal, Yellow Eyes have matured from the dissonant riffmasters who wrote Hammer of Night into a completely unique amalgam of sprawling black metal, noise, and field recordings. The album opens on a bell melody from Siberia; the band kicks in with sparse snare drum and guitar, which ramps up into a lurching, hypnotic riff. It must be acknowledged right away that the drum production on this album is shockingly lo-fi and will absolutely grate on you at first, but please do not disregard the album because of it – it actually becomes charming after a while and suits the feel of the cabin-recorded songs very well. While there are blast beats and double bass sections in abundance, the band is at their most breathtaking in the moments of reprieve, when the counterpoint guitar work of brothers Will and Sam Skarstad shimmers. Every track is suffused with sounds alien to the genre, from the scattered string plucks that open “Blue as Blue” to the chirping bugs that close “Shrillness in the Heated Grass” to the clinking glass bells of “Jubilat”. Some bands dredge the Lovecraft mythos to force elements of horror upon their sound or lyricism; Yellow Eyes instead concoct a whole new terrifying experience with no gimmicks. When the long blast beat passage of the title track has been pounding my ears for two minutes, I am convinced my consciousness is no longer present in the earthly world – I feel like the typical man-who-has-seen-something-awful-and-been-driven-mad of any good Lovecraftian tale. I am not sure which New York these guys hail from, but it might not be the one in our dimension.

14. Fen – Winter

Fen’s 2013 album Dustwalker, to me, might be the most perfect post-black album ever, with the way it fuses metallic intensity, mathematically-minded progressiveness (there’s a 13/8 part!), and swampy atmospheric ambiance. They followed this with Carrion Fields in 2014, which got them a lot of buzz but didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. Winter is a powerful, sweeping seventy-five-minute declaration that the masters haven’t lost a step at all. Right from the 10/8 clean intro with its ghostly vocals, the trio’s musical prowess is on display. Fen have smarter chord progressions than most of their peers, with one of my favourites hitting at the 10:20 mark of “I (Pathway)” – the way they close it by lingering on a root major to minor chord swap is subtle, but savvy. They repeat this trick around 7:30 into “II (Penance)”, one of several motives that connect songs through this massive work. Another thing Fen gets right is the prominence of Grungyn’s bass, which always adds to the rich texture and melody of each track, and sometimes leads the way (as in the 9/4 intro of “III (Fear)”. By the way, the shortest track here is just shy of ten minutes, so settle in for a long ride when you get ready to check this one out. It’s well worth the full listen.

13. Enslaved – E

After Enslaved released the crowning jewel of a two-decade discography in 2012’s masterpiece RIITIIR, I was pretty vocally disappointed in 2015’s In Times, which brought few new ideas to the table and meandered in repetitive and largely uninspired territory. I’m pleased to report that the Viking legends have returned to form on E. Many reviews credit this rejuvenation to new keyboardist and clean vocalist Håkon Vinje (imported from CTEBCM favourite Seven Impale), but there seems to be more fresh spirit here than one member can be responsible for. The songs have vigour, liveliness, and a certain Norse mysticism that is exactly what their previous record seemed to lack. Opening cut “Storm Son” in particular is a massive anthem in two parts, drifting in on a lilting post-rock guitar twang before expanding to a melodic, late-Opeth-tinged rock segment. The tone shifts around the 3:15 mark to a sound that will immediately remind veteran listeners of Vertebrae and Axioma ethica Odini material. At the six-minute mark, drummer Cato Bekkevold begins a persistent double bass roll that runs, ignoring one very brief pause, for three consecutive minutes – a feat of stamina that makes my legs hurt just thinking about it. The chorus in this song earns every bit of the oft-overused descriptor “epic”, and while that is certainly the high point of the album, the remainder does not disappoint. “The River’s Mouth” treads closest to the black-rock style that bothered me on In Times, but creative chord construction and spectacular clean vocals make that forgivable here. Newcomer Vinje gets an organ showcase on the beautiful track “Sacred Horse”, which climaxes with some haunting Nordic tribal music. Album closer “Hiindsiight” is a satisfying long-form prog piece which wraps things up satisfyingly, always important to me. All in all, I am thrilled with this album; too many classic bands start to lose it toward the end of their careers, but Enslaved’s catalogue continues to be perhaps the strongest from beginning to end in all of metal.

12. Persefone – Aathma

One of extreme prog’s best artists for over a decade now, these Andorran artists have attempted a career-defining centrepiece in Aathma. The thing is, they didn’t need one; 2006’s Core already cemented their legacy, and 2013’s Spiritual Migration modernized their technique for a broader audience. At this point, I don’t know why anyone would not like Persefone’s music; they have successfully pierced the public consciousness without sacrificing their creativity in any way. Every musician in this group is at the top of their craft, with blistering guitar calisthenics, machine-gun drumming, sweeping synth and keyboard soundscapes, and balanced harsh and clean vocals. Persefone is unquestionably the modern metal archetype, in that they combine virtuosic technique with intelligent composition, while everybody else seems content to settle on one and forget the other. After singing all their praises, though, I must confess that I gave Aathma plenty of opportunity to grow on me, and while I clearly love it, I don’t find a place for it in the Persefone pantheon beside the two aforementioned albums. I think the musical and conceptual ideas are just fresher and better executed on their prior work.

11. Kardashev – The Almanac

After a long period of anticipation, the world finally got the full release of an album Kardashev had been teasing us with – and it was only an EP, albeit a pretty hefty one at almost 32 minutes. Length aside, the unique sound they’ve captured on this stunning record – like a fusion of Fallujah’s post-death brutality and Sigur Rós’ hypnotic harmonization – absolutely deserves consideration alongside their greatest contemporaries. I listened to the majestic “Between Sky and Sea” as much as any other single song this year; its ethereal refrain of “come now wind, take me to the planet’s edge” is delivered exquisitely, impossible not to sing along with and continue singing long after the track concludes. The perfect balance of musical elements is not quite achieved through the rest of the tracks, but they’re close enough to whet the appetite while making listeners crave the full meal. There is a tantalizing sci-fi concept behind the release that is an extension of an earlier EP, as well as use of a language written specifically for this storyline. Please, Kardashev, hasten to bring us a full-length look into this world!

10. Death’s Dynamic Shroud – Heavy Black Heart

Being a metalhead with extremely limited exposure to the broader œuvre of vaporwave, I struggle to intelligently describe the few outstanding releases I find in that style. Suffice it to say that when the slow, twisted atmospheric new jack swing beat laid down the groove ten seconds into opening track “CD Player IV”, I instantly knew Death’s Dynamic Shroud had compiled exactly what I wanted. The sample of “Lenna’s Theme” from Final Fantasy V that closes the track only sealed the deal. The ‘Shroud knows when to allow a catchy rhythm and melody to linger, not rushing frantically from one sample to the next as many artists do, but allowing each one time to take root in your mind as they layer and chop and introduce new ideas on each established foundation. Make no mistake, there are glitchy, broken-beat elements that will challenge casual listeners, but there are enough huge melodies and waves of synth here to provide grounding for curious audionauts to test the waters.

9. Fire-Toolz – Drip Mental

Unlike death’s dynamic shroud, which is pure electronic vaporwave with no particular appeal to metalheads, Fire-Toolz is a completely novel juxtaposition of vaporwave and black metal elements. If you haven’t been exposed to this album and you go put it on right now on this recommendation, you will… probably not be sucked in immediately by the brittle opening melodies and samples of “Subconscious Pilsen Relics, Part 2”, nor the caterwauling vocals that come in with the beat. But stick around for just a minute, and you’ll begin to see the dense, warped layers of harmony shine through, and maybe that’ll be enough to hold your attention. As you keep listening, you will hear the upbeat undersea-elevator techno of “All Deth Is U”, the twisted ravings of “All Deth Is U2”, and quasi-industrial pop of “The Graying of the Crocs”. Things will spiral erratically from there, dragging you along until you reach the nirvana of album closer “?” which is without question the song of the year. Far more conventional than its predecessors, “?” juxtaposes Angel’s tortured vocals against some of the most wistful synth waves ever laid down, with a guest sax spot putting the icing on the cake. I’ve probably listened to this song fifty times this year. Several tracks have accompanying music videos with incredibly impressive digital-glitch visuals that suit the music perfectly. There should be no talk of this album “not being for everyone”; you deserve to try to appreciate this. Fire-Toolz takes two genres that are too often stagnant and manages to push both of them forward on one landmark album. There is honestly nothing else out there like this.

8. Xanthochroid – Of Erthe and Axen, Acts I & II

I reviewed this dual-album in full after the release of Act II in October. It is an outstanding, majestically orchestrated melding of symphonic folk with progressive black metal, exceptional on both ends of that spectrum and at every point in between. This album is expertly crafted as any fine work of art should be, from the overall concept and album flow to the minute details of every vocal harmony and chord progression. The drumming is precise and dynamic, carrying the metal sections along beautifully, while the bard-like folk interludes feature a cinematic tapestry of instruments and voices that rival any in the genre.

7. Caligula’s Horse – In Contact

I came to Caligula’s Horse by way of vocalist Jim Grey’s other band, Arcane. Both bands tread in heavy, melodic progressive territory, with the primary distinction being that Arcane tended toward the metal end of the spectrum while Caligula’s Horse kept in the rock realm. With Arcane broken up after 2015’s breathtaking Known/Learned, Caligula’s Horse has made strides to collapse the distance between the two acts, employing thick guitars and more aggressive drumming, so fans of both should be right at home here. Grey’s vocals continue to be the best in the business, evoking a more mellifluous Maynard James Keenan, comfortable and majestic whether belting at full volume or quietly lilting along in falsetto. The guitar work, which frequently blurs the line between lead and solo, is stunning and stands tall alongside Grey’s voice to make a combination that no prog fan should be able to resist. The album construction is largely excellent, with diversity between longform prog pieces (“Dream the Dead”, “Graves”), almost-poppy riff-driven songs (“The Hands Are the Hardest”), and brief interludes like the electronic “Love Conquers All”, the dreamy acoustics of “Capulet”, and the skippable spoken-word indulgence “Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall” (the album’s lone misstep). This is unquestionably the band’s best work to date, and should serve to embarrass, and (hopefully) inspire, their prog-metal peers.

6. Fuoco Fatuo – Backwater

Imagine being in a space station, orbiting the dark side of some distant moon. Alone on your voyage, you decide to take a spacewalk, so you enter the airlock and press the button to release yourself into the infinite cosmic void. However, just as your finger pushes down, you notice that you forgot to put your helmet on. The split-second the airlock depressurizes, your eyes are sucked from your skull and every wisp of oxygen is violently extricated from your lungs. If you could capture the feeling of that fatal split-second and stretch it into sixty-two minutes, the accompanying soundtrack would sound like Backwater. This album, easily the most impressive funeral doom offering I’ve heard in half a decade, is unrelenting from the moment you press play. The riffs and production combine to form a disorienting onslaught of sound that might best be described as what Portal would sound like if they calmed down and wrote some more conventionally structured songs. Melodies do weave through the ravenous ether, but not to offer hope or respite to the listener. The album is punishing and persistent, yet immersive in a way that makes it easy and engrossing to listen to. Funeral doom is already not for everyone, and with Fuoco Fatuo pushing it even further to the fringes, there’s probably a very small niche who will appreciate this album. But I am very much one of them, and as such I place this high on my list without hesitation.

Top 5

5. Dreadnought – A Wake in Sacred Waves

After being completely floored by Bridging Realms, the second full-length from this Denver quartet, I entered 2017 anticipating its successor could easily claim the throne as album of the year. While it didn’t end up attaining that lofty title, it is nonetheless a worthy follow-up that has further cemented the young band in the collective critical consciousness. My favourite description of Dreadnought’s style continues to be “Stevie Nicks’ fever dream” (credit to my dude Zack for coining that), as they play a dreamlike, folksy take on blackened doom metal. Each band member is multitalented – drummer Jordan Clancy doubles capably on saxophone; bassist Kevin Handlon occasionally intersperses mandolin; guitarist-vocalist Kelly Schilling shifts between siren voice and banshee wail, and summons Peter Gabriel’s prowess on flute; and keyboardist-vocalist Lauren Vieira wields a plethora of sounds from sparkling synths to rich organs. While that sounds like a lot in text, it never sounds that way on record, because the band – perhaps stubbornly – adheres to a compositional style that rejects the magic of studio overdubbing, sticking to live-feeling songs where each member contributes only one instrument at a time. This makes their live shows remarkable and faithful to the material, but one wonders what kind of recording they could craft if each instrument were used to its full potential more of the time. As for A Wake in Sacred Waves, its watery aesthetic manifests as four dynamic, patiently-unfolding songs loaded with intricacy, but without as many hooks as their previous release. The slow tidal ebb of “Vacant Sea” is mesmerizing for the first five minutes, before a more uptempo progression of diminished chords takes over and injects an uncharacteristic cacophony to the mix. Vieira’s synths and Schilling’s screams crest in this part, before the wave breaks around the seven-minute mark, opening up an extended exercise in minimalism that takes its time returning to the intensity of the previous section. When it does, though, the payoff is huge. The polymetric piano lines around the fourteen-minute mark rise in harmonious glory, lifting the rest of the band’s contribution; I think the song would have been better served by ending there, without its brief clean coda. “Within Chanting Waters” follows, and its first few minutes gleam more brightly than anything else on the album, with Clancy getting to show off his blast beat chops, and Handlon and Vieira performing an enchanting call-and-response descending melody. I have so much more to say but this is starting to turn into a full review, so: just listen. This is one of the best, most progressive young bands in metal right now. (As they keep with their elemental, Zelda-temple-inspired string of albums, I’m personally hoping for fire next.)

4. White Ward – Futility Report

My earliest contender for album of the year, Futility Report came to me in January and I reviewed it at length in April. This outstanding debut from Ukrainian sextet White Ward takes post-black metal and stretches it wide enough to comfortably accommodate melo-death, industrial, jazz, and even tasteful metalcore elements in a natural, cohesive, and fluid way. You’ll hear Lantlôs’ brooding noir ambiance, Shining’s jazz-metal hybridization, and Soilwork’s sizzling guitar solos, sometimes within the same track. Every song reveals a new facet of the band’s sounds, a savvy bit of album construction that makes it feel much longer and richer than its forty-minute runtime.

3. Cleric – Retrocausal

If you’ve read this far, you might have picked up on my tendency to critique bands for not living up to their creative potential. Cleric is almost as far away from that critique as humanly possible; they are pure potential realized, in an often overwhelming way. Their approach to song construction and sound design is not just unparalleled, it’s practically inhuman. It makes it hard to evaluate their album objectively because there’s nothing to compare it to. You just kind of have to click play, experience it, and then try to figure out what just happened. Conventions like “key” and “time signature” are thrown out the window here, yet the band remains in lockstep as they navigate together through the darkness they inhabit. Tortured screams gild the erratically churning guitar-and-drum patterns with a maniacal delivery that feels suitable for its pairing with the musical components. Smatterings of piano occasionally interject the metallic entropy. Avant-garde masters Mick Barr and John Zorn pop up in guest spots. The raw talent and execution here are mind-boggling, but at the end of the day, is the album “good”? It is a challenging listen, not unlike Swans or Orthrelm. I think it is an extremely important and necessary album. I’m not sure what a toned-down, more-listenable version of Cleric would sound like; it might very well turn to dreck. The most favourable thing I can think to relate this to is some of Kayo Dot’s more intense discursions, like “Aura on an Asylum Wall”, or Dillinger Escape Plan’s “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things”, each of which showed how a chaotic approach could be used as just one shade in a diverse sonic palette. Cleric, rather than hopping between shades of sound, stay largely in their chosen lane. But albums of this type, and this caliber, need to exist in order to show other bands how to push the limits of their own sound.

2. Redshift Pilots – Moonlight Synthesis

Some bands are underrated, but some are criminally underrated. Californian post-everything outfit Redshift Pilots have under 250 listeners on last.fm and triple-digit Facebook fans, and Moonlight Synthesis doesn’t even have the threshold of supporters on Bandcamp where you can click to see more. That’s an absolute cosmic injustice, because this Californian quartet put together a debut album that is simply jaw-dropping. I wasn’t kidding when I said “post-everything”: the band draws elements from post-rock, post-hardcore, and post-black in nearly equal measures. Both of my top two artists go out of their way to resuscitate styles I thought had died long ago; much of Redshift Pilots’ post-hardcore philosophy has its roots in late-career Underoath and Saosin, a style that has largely gone by the wayside. Some of the clean vocals particularly evoke that Aaron Gillespie/Cove Reber feeling, namely on the choruses of “Apparitions” and “Forest Child” and the beginnings of “From Dark Corners” and “Leaver”. These screamo parts find lighter contrast in the atmospheric post-rock sections, which often incorporate unusual timing – some 5/4 toward the end of “Overgrown”, 7/4 in “When the Trees are Gold”, 9/4 in “From Dark Corners”. In some of the interludes, they fully commit to atmosphere, sometimes with an electronic component (“Crepuscular”, “Awake”), sometimes without (“Storm through the Window”, “Sapphire Grove”). The blackened influences manifest only on the first half of the album, kicking things off in “Storm through the Window”, fully blossoming on the Deafheaven-if-they-were-better number “Winter Lantern”, and concluding with a magnificent climax on “Overgrown”. That full-throttle climax is introduced by a repeated lyrical theme first seen on “Winter Lantern” and incorporates a melodic motif that was foreshadowed on the preceding interlude “Sapphire Grove” and is referenced again on outro “Awake” – once again, smart album design at work. Good album design also necessitates a satisfying ending, which Redshift Pilots guide us to with the massive, drum-driven buildup of “Leaver” that exhales into the dénouement of “Awake”. The mix is thick and powerful, with the bass especially cutting through with punch. The harmonic layering is perfect in its subtlety; one of my favourite examples is right after the tempo shift in “Winter Lantern”, where the various instruments change notes at different places to gradually maneuver the overall chord feeling. This album is a joy and a treasure and I wish I could scream louder and wider about it, because it has immense range and appeal and these guys deserve all the recognition they can get.

1. The Hirsch Effekt – Eskapist

This album stopped me dead in my tracks when I heard it in August, and, five months later, I continue to be flabbergasted that an album like this can even exist. Like Redshift Pilots, Germany’s The Hirsch Effekt assemble a wide spectrum of styles, some of which I thought were long dead, into a cohesive whole that is better than almost any of its parts could possibly be. Eskapist references Dillinger-esque mathcore chaos, Blindside-esque post-hardcore, Leprous-esque prog metal, screamo, electronica, punk, and more, and everything that they touch on this masterpiece turns to gold. The production on this album is a revelation, with the heavy parts punching right in the gut (see “Tardigrada”, “Aldebaran”) and the poppier melodic parts crisply balanced (“Natans”, “Inukshuk”). In many ways, this is the best metalcore album that has ever been written, and may well be the theoretical maximum of the genre. If your year-end list has Converge at #1, you should be ashamed of yourself, because nothing they’ve ever done holds a candle to this. I thought metalcore died fifteen years ago, but The Hirsch Effekt prove that its corpse can be reanimated stronger than ever – a genre-bending cyborg that lays waste to all the other releases of an absolutely loaded year.

On January 16 2018, this entry was posted.
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