# Matt’s Albums of the Decade, Part 4: #20 through #1

### 20. Enslaved – Riitiir (#2 of 2012)

It’s not hyperbolic to suggest that Enslaved’s entire nearly-twenty-year career was building up to the release of Riitiir. The opening bludgeon of “Thoughts like Hammers” evokes the swirling chaos of their mid-era experimental albums Mardraum and Monumension before settling into more comfortable territory akin to their Vertebrae prog-black sound. Tracks like “Veilburner” and “Materal” are comparable to their previous best work on albums like Axiōma ethica Odini, while the new heights they achieve with epic songs like “Death in the Eyes of Dawn”, “Roots of the Mountain” (I could run through a brick wall during that final chorus), and “Forsaken” transcend anything they’d ever approached before.

### 19. Soldat Hans – Es taut (#3 of 2018)

I compared Es taut frequently and diversely to a number of Kayo Dot releases, which is all you need to know to understand how it landed here. The music of Soldat Hans is slow and vast, somber and raucous, immersive and immediate; you must experience the sprawling splendour of each track to fully appreciate it. Droning organ undergirds calmly wandering saxophone and jangling guitar, fit snugly into song structures that are more than content to stay in exactly one comfortable place for as long as necessary, then a few minutes more. Soldat Hans craft music that nobody else is patient enough to, and it’s a treasure to absorb.

CTEBCM review

### 18. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth (#2 of 2018)

Kamasi Washington is not here for subtlety and minimalism. Coming off a 2015 debut triple album audaciously (and accurately!) titled The Epic and a 2017 EP that culminated in a fifteen-minute suite called “Truth”, Kamasi pushes even more of his chips in with the loftily named Heaven and Earth. This time, it’s only a double album, but the vinyl release includes a hidden record dubbed The Choice with yet another nearly forty minutes of music, pushing the total combined length over the threshold achieved by his debut. Kamasi, in his trinity of forms—saxophonist, bandleader, and orchestral arranger—is once again in top form across this afternoon’s worth of jazz brilliance. As on The Epic, almost all of the myriad sub-genres and styles of jazz are represented here: modern fusion, classic bebop, percussive latin, tender vocal, aggressive political and sentimental spiritual. Many tracks feel like natural evolutions of his previous work, such as opener “Fists of Fury” growing out of “Malcolm’s Theme”. But the most memorable moments come when something new is introduced, whether it be the synthesizer solo on “Can You Hear Him”, seventies’ city-funk guitar on “Connections”, or most beautifully the Daft Punk homage vocoder singing on “Vi lua vi sol”, one of the highlights of both the album and the year at large. Nobody does jazz bigger or better than Kamasi and company.

### 17. Cleric – Retrocausal (#3 of 2017)

I already praised Cleric’s unconventional approach to “music” as a whole; Retrocausal perpetuates this, but reins it in just enough to give listeners better orientation and frame of reference with which to absorb the boundless kinetic energy of their songs. Conventions like “key” and “time signature” remain thrown out the window, yet the band maintains 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, representing a necessary extremity that serves, if not to be particularly listenable, nevertheless to challenge other progressive and avant-garde acts to push their own boundaries and invest in their potential the way Cleric has.

### 16. A Forest of Stars – A Shadowplay for Yesterdays (#1 of 2012)

The psychedelic Brits changed their lineup a bit after 2010’s Opportunistic Thieves of Spring, and fortunately their new blood led to an absolutely outstanding third album. The troupe presented listeners with their first genuine storyline album, following the misadventures of one Carrion Crow. Perhaps the most surprising feature of the album is the prevalence of what one might call hooks—almost-poppy lead melodies on guitar or violin which burrow into one’s skull and refuse to vacate. Never before could psychedelic black metal be called “catchy”, until it was graced by the ending of “Prey Tell of the Church Fate” or either of the two thematic riffs in “Gatherer of the Pure” (don’t miss the accompanying music video!). The entire album is gorgeous in its ebb and flow and presentation, but the towering high point is also the longest track, “A Prophet for a Pound of Flesh”. The way it climaxes and builds, then refuses to resolve its central tension… being only the third song on the album, it would be too early for such a satisfying resolution, and recognizing that shows expert craftsmanship on the band’s part.

### 15. Azure – Redtail (#1 of 2018)

A picture-perfect marriage of narrative storytelling and ambitious musical score, Redtail is a twenty-minute theatrical work of pristine progressive rock. Chris Sampson’s stunning vocal delivery—maybe the vocal performance of the decade—conveys the drama and agony of this magical-beast fable, complemented by gorgeous guitar and synth melodies with recurring motives and technical performances. Sure, some of the instruments are programmed and may not have the optimal sound quality, but they all serve their function in supporting the incredible singing and storytelling. And as far as the real-live performances go, Galen Stapley’s extensive guitar solo that begins at the 15:50 mark might legitimately be my all-time favourite solo. The total result is nothing short of magical, and I probably listened to this track a hundred times after discovering it. I cannot wait to see what these guys achieve with a full band.

CTEBCM review

### 14. Seven Impale – City of the Sun (#1 of 2014)

Seven Impale’s debut full-length may not cover as much sonic territory as Contrapasso, but it lacks nothing in ambition and has no parallel in its tight execution. Laden with catchy vocal, keyboard and sax hooks, unafraid of brash heaviness or tranquil tenderness, and floating like a ballet dancer between all these dynamic extremes—City of the Sun represents the definitive balance between modern jazz and prog rock.

### 13. Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner (#1 of 2016)

After Vertikal fell into the camp of “good but not great, kinda tired”, Cult of Luna’s Mariner wasn’t really on my radar because I figured the collaboration aspect would be gimmicky and detrimental. I could not have been more mistaken. It turned out that Julie Christmas’s dramatic vocal performance was exactly the kick that the Vertikal sound needed. The result is a shockingly fresh and breathtaking album, and might go down as the finest in Cult of Luna’s laudable discography. From the opening plodding of “A Greater Call”, the success of the marriage is evident, but the payoff isn’t complete without the climaxes of “The Wreck of SS Needle” and “Cygnus”, the latter standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the best buildup-to-epic-climax songs in the genre (Rosetta’s “Au pays natal”, Huldra’s “Ursidae”, and Crib 45’s “Borderlines”).

### 12. Haken – The Mountain (#4 of 2013)

Perfect progressive metal. Dream Theater if they still had youthful vigour and vision. Soaring vocals, blazing guitar leads, crackling drums, frenetic keyboard and synth parts, intelligent and dynamic arrangements, a splash of self-aware good humour, and savvy pacing and construction make this album the essential prog metal release of the decade. “Atlas Stone” is an unimpeachable anthem, and the remainder of the album lives up to it.

### 11. Arcane – Known/Learned (#4 of 2015)

I already praised Jim Grey’s vocal prowess with Caligula’s Horse, but it finds even better support in this breathtaking double album. Almost as good as Haken, Arcane displays exceptional prog metal technique across two discs—bombastic and heavy on the first, subdued and acoustic-driven on the second, sharing some musical motifs between them. They are capable of flashiness (“Unturning”), or grandiosity (“Promise, Part 2”), or both (“Selfsame”), and always charged to the brim with electric emotion. I would rather have had the softer and heavier tracks mingled together to give the album a more dynamic flow and consistent concept, but the way they chose to structure it works well enough. And make no mistake, the lighter material is in no way inferior to the heavy, buoyed primarily by Grey’s exceptional vocals. Fans of prog must not forsake this record.

### 10. Dreadnought – Bridging Realms (#3 of 2015)

Not many bands have that seed of potential greatness in them. On Bridging Realms, Dreadnought showed so much potential, it was honestly frightening. I felt justified comparing the novelty, brilliance and importance of this album to Kayo Dot’s Choirs of the Eye, the all-time standard by which other music gets measured. The sparseness that Dreadnought plays with and the different combinations of active instruments at any given time produces a tension and energy that they can manipulate, enhance, and resolve in innumerable ways, enabling them to go places with their longform compositions that other artists can’t and won’t. “Odyssey” is my favourite expression of this, and could be a strong contender for best metal song of the decade. They dabble in complex timings, vocal harmonies, slide guitar, double bass, piano, synth, and so much more. At times they sound like a blackened Fleetwood Mac; at others, King Crimson at a funeral mass. A good chunk of the time, they wander in a neo-chamber-folk arena long enough that you could be forgiven for forgetting you were listening to a metal band at all (until Kelly Schilling’s banshee shrieks return to centre stage). There is so much to take in on this album and every single bite of it is delicious. It’s something you have to hear for yourself. There’s nothing else like it.

### 9. Persefone – Spiritual Migration (#3 of 2013)

Imagine if Haken’s The Mountain, which I just praised effusively, added in a metallic edge of blast beats, double bass, screaming, and rapidfire time and tempo changes, without losing any of its prog-metal mastery. Persefone’s epic Spiritual Migration is exactly that. Like an extreme Dream Theater or a more grounded Between the Buried and Me, the Andorran collective push their talents to the limits on this release. If you read my work, I’m always calling for bands to live up to the highest possible expectations, leveraging talent, technique, and creativity into a fully realized, polished product. Persefone absolutely nails this. Between the composition of individual songs, the album’s overall flow—balancing bursts of metal with “meditation” interludes, and the incorporation of Eastern musical and philosophical influences, this is progressive death metal at its absolute pinnacle. The highlight of the album is the two-part “Consciousness” suite, a perpetually-underrated instrumental that rivals “The Dance of Eternity” in quality and laudability.

### 8. Redshift Pilots – Moonlight Synthesis (#2 of 2017)

It’s been three years and I still can’t get over how underrated this album is. Redshift Pilots draw elements from all the posts: post-black (“Winter Lantern”), post-rock (“Crepuscular”), and post-hardcore (“From Dark Corners”), all in nearly equal measure. Some of the clean vocals particularly evoke a Saosin/Underoath vibe, 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 $$\frac{5}{4}$$ toward the end of “Overgrown”, $$\frac{7}{4}$$ in “When the Trees Are Gold”, $$\frac{9}{4}$$ 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”. These disparate styles are woven together using repeated musical themes and lyrical motifs, demonstrating expert album-construction technique. The production is thick and powerful, giving every instrument and effect space to shine. 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 manoeuvre the overall chord feeling. This album is a jewel that merits the highest praise and must not be overlooked.

CTEBCM review

### 7. Warforged – I: Voice (#1 of 2019)

Warforged’s debut locked down its album of the year spot the very first time I heard it, in March of 2019. It didn’t even take a full listen to be dead sure nothing else would come along to top it. Warforged filter the modern, extreme prog-death style of Rivers of Nihil, Black Crown Initiate, and Slugdge, perhaps with a splash of Slice the Cake’s suffocating relentlessness, through the dismal perspective of a group like Portal to capture the bleak and striking horror of a nightmarish psyche. I don’t think I have ever come across another band that so perfectly balances musical technique with aesthetic concept. The music roils and writhes with purpose, every riff meticulously measured and constructed to demonstrate both skill and storycraft. The seventy-three-minute runtime is divided into nine tracks, but they flow together almost seamlessly so that the complete experience is demanded and deserved—plus, the band created a full album-length music video to drive home this intention! A number of impressive guest solos and vocal spots are tastefully integrated into the album without impugning its continuity, and masterful production cradles the brutality in such a way that it’s not a burden to spend such a long time investing your ears into this album’s majesty. If there is any complaint to make, it is that the vocals lack dynamics, staying in the heavily distorted realm throughout (though I think this is defensible given the album’s context) and that the overall experience can be a bit much at first, difficult to take in (though I think this is defensible because good art often takes time to fully sink in). But ultimately, I don’t think there are any complaints to make. I think this is hands down the greatest pure no-frills metal experience of the decade, if not longer.

CTEBCM review

Well, well, well, look who’s been listening to Kayo Dot almost as much as I have! It’s Massachusetts chamber-metal sextet Hadean, who offer their own near-perfect spin on the “extreme, weird heaviness with keys and sax all over it” subgenre, very clearly influenced by the masters but with a few unique twists. “Noise Reduction Impulse” announces its presence bombastically, with chaotic piano and jagged saxophone over thick, sludgy guitars. Even though this intense track lasts just five and a half minutes, the band feels compelled to follow it with a three-minute synth interlude in “New Lows”. Then we get to the real meat of the album, the full demonstration of the band’s peak power: “Inertia” and “Saudade”. The former song allows the piano and sax to lead the way melodically with more patience and grace, a stark contrast to their usage in the album opener, before slamming in with another heavy sludge section which uses the keys as low-pitched percussive texture while the sax ambles in the background. When the melodic, almost poppy middle section comes in, the band finally puts some space between themselves and their more avant-garde peers, carving out a niche all their own. The bridge and ultimate climax of this song utilize familiar chord progressions but layer them with so much majestic nostalgia that the effect is sublime. “Saudade” delves into more intricate and mathematical melodies before settling into its own post-metal groove. Dan Howard’s piano skills get a full solo showcase to transition the song between heavy parts, while the eventual conclusion boldly embraces a pop-jazz atmosphere for its accent melody. After another interlude, the (too-short) album wraps up with its title track, which brings in a quartet of additional musicians on sax, clarinet, trumpet and trombone to amplify the doomy intensity. A splash of black metal spices things up before the song ends with another of their gorgeous, rich melodic climaxes. The band has since broken up, leaving an unfinished album in limbo, but the world of prog metal is a much better place for this one release they blessed us with.

CTEBCM review

### 5. The Hirsch Effekt – Eskapist (#1 of 2017)

This album dropped my jaw to the floor from its opening salvo, and refused to let me pick it up even once during its runtime. 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 Dillingeresque mathcore chaos, Blindsideesque post-hardcore, Leprousesque 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. I thought such a style had died in the early 2000s, but The Hirsch Effekt proved that its corpse can be reanimated stronger than ever—a genre-bending cyborg that lays waste to most other releases in recent memory.

CTEBCM review

### 4. Unexpect – Fables of a Sleepless Empire (#1 of 2011)

This album begins with Leïlindel’s lilting vocals musing “They twist and tangle in this circle of sand, unclassified.” On that last word, the full band kicks in with music that matches this lyrical description perfectly, an unclassifiable mélange of funky nine-string bass, distortion, dexterous drumming, screaming and singing vocals, swirling synths and sombre violin, and plenty of tricks up their sleeves to push things into the avant-garde realm of cacophonous circus music at a moment’s notice. The sheer unbridled potential here rivals Cleric, except if they were trying to create a Diablo Swing Orchestra album. Crisp production provides this dizzying myriad of musical elements ample space to make themselves known and helps orient and anchor the listener amidst the ever-revolving chaos. Make no mistake: despite all the bells and whistles (sometimes literally) surrounding the music, the core is molten-hot metal that’s capable of melting your face off at full tilt. Nobody else can pull off that kind of juxtaposition so classily. The technical performances on display here are all virtuosic, from Chaoth’s bass to Landryx’s drums to Borboen’s violin and beyond. Balancing that much talent, while also utilizing it all to craft interesting and well-composed music, is something I can quite confidently assert nobody else has ever done. This album is why progressive extreme metal was created.

### 3. Skagos – Anarchic (#2 of 2013)

Kayo Dot is a band without peers, so the only way to understand Hubardo is relative to all the work that came before it. After releasing the greatest musical achievement of all time in Choirs of the Eye, and a worthy yet inconsistent follow-up in Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue, Toby Driver tired of the metal world and explored alternative avenues on the avant-jazz Blue Lambency Downward and goth-rock-tinged Coyote. Gamma Knife, a sort of disjointed precursor to Hubardo, saw the band (with a heavily revised lineup) dabbling in metal again. Finally, Toby went all-in for one last burst of heaviness with this concept double-album, both a synthesis of all past Kayo Dot sounds and an expansion beyond them. As a longtime fan, my early reaction to this album was “It’s Choirs of the Eye 2! It’s metal-Kayo-Dot again!” But it took me a while to work out exactly why this comparison doesn’t pass muster. While both albums are metal on the surface, Choirs has a fluid, liberated feel that comes from its reliance on live cues rather than click tracks. You can clearly hear that there’s no temporal grid being played to at any time; rather, the band cohesively ebbs and flows in mystical unison, as if the music itself breathes with a single set of lungs. Hubardo’s approach to metal is, if we’re honest, more akin to the Maudlin of the Well ethos. (And oddly enough, MOTW’s 2009 reunion album Part the Second fits comfortably into the arc of Kayo Dot’s discography almost better than Hubardo does.) The band filters out casual listeners with the abrasive opener “The Black Stone”, featuring dry growls over sparse musical backing before rolling into an accelerating $$\frac{23}{8}$$ rhythm loop. Once you pass that test, “Crown-in-the-Muck” introduces more conventional structure and musical ideas, whetting the appetite for the chaotic trio of tracks that follow it (“Thief” / “Vision Adjustment to Another Wavelength” / “Zlida Caosgi”), which more deeply explore the psychedelic and progressive contours of Kayo Dot’s new take on metal. The middle of the album exhales into two drawn-out gothic/darkwave excursions, “The First Matter” (focused on synth melodies and subdued-yet-complex rhythmic patterns, somewhat prefiguring the later material of Plastic House on Base of Sky and Blasphemy) and “The Second Operation” (a revisitation of the atmospheric, jazzy sonic framework utilized on the extremely underrated Stained Glass EP, with Mia Matsumiya returning on violin). “Floodgate” crashes back in with intense, contorted drumming and blaring saxophone; “And He Built Him a Boat” and “Passing the River” develop more slowly and deliberately, crescendoing with the final metallic flourish of the album. This opens the door for yet another new sound, as fourteen-minute album closer “The Wait of the World” leans into a modern jazz-fusion angle with tricky timing and excellent woodwind and keyboard performances. I do wish the ending was a bit more satisfying and conclusive, resolving the hundred-minute journey, but this is something that’s plagued Kayo Dot for their entire career. Randall Dunn deserves commendation for the production on this album, with its dense arrangements and diverse instrumentation perfectly showcased in his mix. Cherish this album; we will never get another one like it from Kayo Dot, and therefore probably never at all. “Masterpiece” is too small a word for it; the decade contained several albums I’d call masterpieces. Hubardo is something bigger, more important than that: it is the greatest album of the 2010s.