The most dreaded moment of the year is when I have to sit down and figure out what my end of year favorite metal albums are. As much as I find the process of revisiting some of the year’s most exciting releases exciting, having to narrow down and slowly, iterate through the list and filter out some excellent work is always painful.
Having said all that, this year’s list has been particularly difficult to establish, and that is something that speaks volumes to the quality of excellent musicianship, quality of compositions, and willingness to experiment that is afoot in the genre. This year has been blessed by an excellent mixture of old-school ethos, but also a progressive touch.
Death metal albums spawned across the spectrum, ranging from traditional beginnings to extravagant implementations. Black metal saw an explosion across various regional scenes, from the bitter US applications, the dissonant French onslaughts, and the UK’s forceful renditions.
We also witnessed the return of acclaimed acts, artists we have not heard for a while, and deeply miss, coming back to produce exquisite works. And what becomes clearer as time goes on is the endless potential that artists still uncover. It is this livid energy that continues to push the genre in different directions, be it through monolithic drone, otherworldly psychedelia, lavish shoegazing, crust infusions, post-metal applications, or anything else they find interesting. The list below tries to capture all of that. So dig in! It has been a very good year. – Spyros Stasis
20. Copperhead – Gazing in the Dark [PTP]
Experiments in turning back the clock and resurrecting an era in many ways long gone is a daring gamble. Most times, this process backfires, bringing in a dreaded sense of repetition, something like reheating a favorite meal. Thankfully, Copperhead’s debut does exactly the opposite.
Gazing in the Dark takes the essence of post-metal teachings and breathes in an aura of sweet nostalgia to the early, embryonic stage of the genre. Copperhead masterfully compose a Frankenstein’s monster of a record, featuring the forceful hardcore vocals of early to mid-period Neurosis, the precision and cold detachment of Godflesh alongside the dissonant and piercing riffs of Helmet. While Gazing in the Dark in many ways is paying tribute to the greats, it constantly feels like Copperhead has uncovered something new, even if it is unclear what that is exactly. – Spyros Stasis
19. Drastus – La Croix de Sang [Norma Evangelium Diaboli]
Even if the one-person project Drastus plays black metal and hails from France, your run-of-the-mill, Blut Aus Nord copycat, avant-black, this ain’t. No, this is a different kind of animal, with the characteristic dissonance of French black metal suppressed and compressed into a compact and ferocious package. Drastus’s take on the genre oozes with impact and immediacy, conjuring imagery of a hellish Vantablack train plowing through an icy, snowy landscape at full speed.
Minus the atmospheric interlude “Hermetic Silence”, the songs on Drastus’ sophomore release all go straight for the jugular. Contorted riffs buzz and wail as if trying to free themselves from the anchor of Sad’s frenetic blast beats. “Nihil Sine Polum” and “Ashura” are prime examples of this combination of unrelenting brutality, dissonance, and avant-garde tendencies. The two centerpieces, “Crawling Fire” and “The Crown of Death”, then vary the formula by occasionally dropping into slower and hazier segments adorned with clean vocals and sprinkled with scorching bursts of insanity. It’s pure bedlam enclosed in a controlled environment. – Antonio Poscic
18. Ossuarium – Living Tomb [20 Buck Spin]
Released early in the year, Ossuarium’s Living Tomb was a herald for death metal sovereignty in 2019. The onslaught would continue, almost every month a monumental work of death metal being released, but there was something about Ossuarium that subtly put them apart. For the band from Oregon does not see death metal as a fragmented entity, where different scenes have diverse sounds, but rather focuses on the commonalities between different aesthetic choices. That is how Living Tomb manages to spread so far and wide. The guitar sound oozes with the stench of the late ’80s/early ’90s US death metal scene, but the slow tempo has more in common with the groove and progression found in Sweden’s scene or the doom/death of Finland. And as easy as it is for this band to be absolutely brutal and unforgiving, with shining moments in “Malicious Equivalence”, it is equally simple to be elusive and atmospheric with the mystical “End of Life Dreams and Vision, Pt. 2”. A very rare quality. – Spyros Stasis
17. Have a Nice Life – Sea of Worry [Flenser/Enemies List Home]
Silently passing by in the initial phase of their career, Have a Nice Life have been quietly responsible for much of the experimental rock movement of the 2010s. Returning with their third full-length Sea of Worry, the duo of Tim Macuga and Dan Barrett invoke a work that pays homage to both their enamored view of post-punk and their tenacious sound crafting, experimental gaze. For the first half of Sea of Worry, you are lost in a new wave bliss, floating through a carefully crafted, 1980s induced nostalgia. It is fun and melancholic, but it’s the second half that sees the duo dive into their amorphous state, navigating through powerful noise and shoegaze, ambient overtures, and epic, verging on orchestral compositions that see the full glory of Have a Nice Life unfold. – Spyros Stasis
16. Dawn Ray’d – Behold Sedition Plainsong [Prosthetic]
Spurred on by enlightened centrism’s destructive defense of the status quo, the past few years have seen more and more (black) metal bands flaunt their reactionary social positions and coyly wink to the new, vaguely fascist normal. In these times, outfits like Dawn Ray’d became the most important phenomenon in the genre as their message and status reached beyond “just music”. As before, on Behold Sedition Plainsong the Liverpudlian trio raises a proud anti-fascist and anarchist affront to the aforementioned regressive forces and channels it through the rawness of black metal, softened only by the violin’s empathy and folk’s solemn swirls, into resistance songs for the 21st century. – Antonio Poscic
15. Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Calling [Gilead Media]
Being old-school does not simply mean rehashing ideas from past decades or just adhering to a certain attitude. You need to truly embrace a culture and ethos to make it your own. Very few accomplish this feat better than New York black metallers Yellow Eyes, who unleash an absolute storm with their fifth full-length Rare Field Calling. The excavation starts through DIY means, providing the necessary grit on the production end, but it is, of course, the complete absorption of black metal aesthetics that invigorates this work. Baptized through the American black metal scene, Rare Field Calling overwhelms with its bitter sense, filled with an ominous and grim nature capable of both unleashing hell in “Nutrient Painting”, setting up a strenuous groove in “No Dust”, and also plunging into the ambient depths with “Maritime Flare”. – Spyros Stasis
14. Necropanther – The Doomed City [Self-Released]
I hardly remember when I last listened to a band that’s as confident in their sound and outrageously fun as Denver, Colorado’s Necropanther. Much like their awesome 2018 record Eyes of Blue Light, The Doomed City is another non-stop blitz of melodic death and thrash metal constructed around sci-fi tropes. With the group’s thematic focus shifting away from Frank Herbert’s Dune and towards Michael Anderson’s cult flick Logan’s Run, the music gains a slightly harder edge. Riffs, blast beats, and growls hit more precisely and roll less freely, but lose none of their immediacies, as if trying to convey the urgency and fight for life of the film’s titular character. An album that I can wholeheartedly recommend to, well, everyone! – Antonio Poscic
13. Vimur – Triumphant Master of Fates [Boris Records]
It’s ironic how metal’s most orthodox subgenre became a most malleable source of inspiration for styles reaching well beyond the confines of the genre itself. Endangered by blasphemous fusions with shoegaze and dissonant avant-experiments, quality raw black metal became endemic. However, Atlantan trio Vimur are one of those rare flowers that still blossom with a very serious (or facetious?) worship of black metal’s origins. While deeply rooted in traditional black metal, Vimur infuse unexpected sounds into that crude framework.
Triumphant Master of Fates is thus a rolling, crushing boulder of black metal whose path is interspersed with harmonious tremolos, contagious melodies, and cyclical but fluctuating blast beats. Tempos and riffs constantly shapeshift on the opener “Seditious Apertures” as its ever-present melodic subtext and mid-paced, galloping segues evoke memories of Pale Folklore-era Agalloch. Vimur’s touch is progressive and delightfully technical. They toy with death metal on the utterly mad “Nuclear Desecration” before settling into a doom dirge on “Our Dearest Hopes Lie Buried Here”, the earlier pandemonium suddenly slowed down and suspended in the air. As the album closes with the epic, mercurial “Supreme Preemption of the Lightless Empire”, there is no doubt in mind—Vimur earned their place at the summit of black metal in 2019. – Antonio Poscic
12. PH – Osiris Hayden [Svart]
Endless transformations and masquerading have made Mr. Peter Hayden one of experimental rock’s most elusive acts. Yet, it feels like all these minimal leanings, electronic inclinations, and the post-rock sense have been paving the way to this very moment. Osiris Hayden is a work that dwells in the stratosphere of the krautrock domain, seamlessly navigating through pseudo-industrial aspirations, space rock experimentations, and ambient representations. In essence, PH thrive in their psychedelic nostalgia and wherever that can guide them. They can be levitating to the furthest heights, carefree and wondering at the beauty of their constructions, or they can dive to the pitch-black darkness and bitter quality, creating a hazy and otherworldly experience, highlighting the dichotomy at the heart of Osiris Hayden. – Spyros Stasis
11. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race [Dark Descent]
The amount of hype and attention devoted to Denver, Colorado’s death metallers Blood Incantation is so excessive that it’s impossible not to be skeptical of it. But as it turns out, this is one such occasion in which the overflowing elation is completely justified. Hidden History of the Human Race is not only the quartet’s best record to date but one of the high points of the decade in terms of the genre. This is cosmic, progressive, and technical death metal of the highest order whose drum and bass vibrations threaten to shatter old stars while riffs and growls ignite new ones. And to parrot another cliché, there’s nothing else quite like it out there. – Antonio Poscic
10. Lord Mantis – Universal Death Church [Profound Lore]
Some age, others mature. As fitting as these words are for good whiskey, they can also perfectly describe the evolution of Lord Mantis through the years. With a sound encompassing the finest that extreme metal has to offer, cherry-picking across black metal, death metal, sludge and whatever else they find worthy, Lord Mantis don’t merely return to form with Universal Death Church but produce their finest work to date. Experiencing the band’s latest record is a hellish ride, from the downright eerily haunting and abrupt “Santa Muerte” to the heavy, dense wall of sound onslaught of “Qliphotic Alpha”. It’s a depiction of an ever-present abyss, one that can be immediate and alarming like a sharp pain in the chest, or a dull sense of being suffocated and filled with crushing hopelessness. – Spyros Stasis
9. Immortal Bird – Thrive on Neglect [20 Buck Spin]
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” wrote William Shakespeare (or someone for him). Chicago’s crust-infused black metal foursome Immortal Bird arrived on the scene with hints of greatness embedded within 2013’s Akrasia EP, whose raw inner core cradled crust, death, black, and sludge metal influences. Then they crawled and screamed, fought with their personal and society’s demons while focusing sonic attacks into surgical incisions on 2015’s Empress/Abscess.
Thrive on Neglect, Immortal Bird’s sophomore release and first on 20 Buck Spin, builds on top of all these past pains and channels the torrent of styles through mesmerizing cuts. It’s an album with which the group continue their journey of self-discovery and start fulfilling promises of true greatness. The seven songs thus constantly transmogrify themselves, moving from style to style, guided by an eternally blazing rage. As metallic hardcore becomes grindcore, then slows down into old school black metal, and right until the last moments in which the band subsume everything under sludge heaviness. I’m left with my mouth open. Yearning for another spin of this polychromatic, motley roller coaster. – Antonio Poscic
8. Exhorder – Mourn The Southern Skies [Nuclear Blast]
Twenty-seven years after their last record, New Orleans thrashers Exhorder return with what is undoubtedly the best release of their career and one of the fiercest and most purposeful (metal) revivals I’ve ever heard. Whereas both 1990’s Slaughter in the Vatican and 1992’s The Law were interesting and, at the time, well-loved rethinkings of thrash metal as a groovier form, Mourn the Southern Skies reaches a whole different level of musicianship and songwriting. The abundance of enthralling riffs and grooves here is commanded into tastily composed, lean cuts whose each second emanates a captivating boldness. Listening to this album, it’s clear that the remaining original members, guitarist Vinnie LaBella and vocalist Kyle Thomas, came back only because they had something left to say. What a comeback! – Antonio Poscic
7. Esoteric – A Pyrrhic Existence [Season of Mist]
There are dark records, and then there are Esoteric records. For the purpose of this legendary doom/death band is to find the darkest, most asphyxiating corner in the abyss and then slowly drag you down there. While many extreme doom/death acts will rely on the slow, crushing quality of their progression, Esoteric make it their purpose to explore the space in between fully. The slow strums echo through the distance, delays, and crazed reverbs taking over the soundscapes while each drum hit makes the resolving scenery erupt. The path through the 27-minute long opener “Descent” is simply marvelous in this regard, as Esoteric twist and contort through doom/death riffs, endless feedback, psychedelic influences, and a rich textural background applied through sound design. And yet there is even more to explore, beautiful melodies adding a tragic effect in “Rotten in Dereliction” and the brutal, punishing stampede that occurs in “Consuming Lies”. It all works together to create this magnificent dire, starless tapestry that is A Pyrrhic Existence. – Spyros Stasis
6. Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance [20 Buck Spin]
Primordial Malignity was very good, especially for a first release. Manor of Infinite Forms was excellent, built on top of the debut’s groundwork while tightening the sound and introducing various technical flourishes. Now on their third full length in three years, Planetary Clairvoyance, Toronto death metallers Tomb Mold deliver a near-masterpiece of not-quite-old-school death metal.
While the introductory “Beg for Life” leads with ambiance and a solitary buzzing guitar, the rest of the run is dominated by a sense of focus. Sludgy, warped death metal is interspersed with tempo and rhythm changes, Carcass-like grooves, exquisitely cacophonous guitar leads and solos, and brutally fast technical sections. All of it underlined by the deepest of growls. Like Suffocation, Incantation, Gorguts, and Immolation blended into a pulp. Planetary Clairvoyance manages to both beguile with visceral impact and stun with layers of details and complexity while retaining an aura of genuine brutality and enmity. – Antonio Poscic
5. Baroness – Grey and Gold [Abraxan Hymns]
The evolution of Baroness through the years has been nothing if not astounding. The progressive sludge wave of their early days has washed away, and through it, a transcendental act has been born. Grey and Gold is the pinnacle of this transformation, a record standing between the weight and grit of heavy rock and the immediacy of the indie scene. Songs like “Throw Me an Anchor” and “Front Toward Enemy” find a band unwilling to compromise between their melodic heart and their progressive brain. Yet, it is the abundant nostalgia and melancholy that oozes through the psychedelic-inclined, balladesque moments in “Cold-Blooded Angels”, “Tourniquet”, and “I’m Already Gone” that brings to life all the magic at the core of Grey and Gold. – Spyros Stasis
4. Inter Arma – English Sulphur [Relapse]
Caught in an awkward moment in time, just when the zenith of progressive sludge and apocalyptic blues was relapsing, Inter Arma chose to make the most of it. And in a short time, they proved that they were amongst the best the scene had to offer, through the caustic blackened sense of Sky Burial, the abrasive Paradise Gallows and the long-form psychedelically inclined adventure in The Cavern. In the latest entry in this path of fury, Inter Arma release their most mesmerizing opus in English Sulphur, drenching their death informed brutality and sludge weight with further progressive elements and psychedelic flourishes. Yet, the shining emblem of English Sulphur is this in-between state, with Inter Arma paying tribute to their brutal, unyielding nature and at the same time strive towards pure transcendentalism in the likes of “The Atavist’s Meridian”. – Spyros Stasis
3. Sunn O))) – Life Metal/Pyroclasts [Southern Lord]
Sunn O))) have nothing to prove. The duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson forcefully ushered the drone aesthetic in the metal domain, realizing the feverish dreams of the mighty Earth. Yet, Sunn O))) still manage to transform exquisitely, even when they perform a return to their roots. The regression back to a minimal origin, dictated firstly by the sound sculpting of amplifier feedback, was a successful experiment with the dual releases of Life Metal and its companion piece Pyroclasts. In this case, the collaboration with Steve Albini, which provided a more organic sound for the drone mystics, and the careful choice of guests yielded a record that revelled in rays of light, radiating with a warmth that was never imagined to be possible. – Spyros Stasis
2. BIG|BRAVE – A Gaze Among Them [Southern Lord]
“You don’t get to do this,” Robin Wattie intones again and again on “Muted Shifting of Space”, with a voice simultaneously potent and compassionate. And with each repetition, her resolve grows stronger. Her delivery is fiery. It gives this simple line power and turns it into a rejection of the status quo of patriarchy. An incantation. An act of defiance. Backed by pulses and crashes of compressed riffs, it’s a maxim that infects all of A Gaze Among Them, the triumphant fourth full-length of Montreal’s BIG|BRAVE.
Coinciding with the lyrical and emotional theme, the music is often oppressively heavy and suffocating, but ultimately liberating. Soothing drones transition into aggressive bouts of shoegaze and drown in rhythmic, decidedly dynamic sludge crescendos. But it’s always the magnetism of Wattie’s vocals – and her personal experience – that holds everything together. Mathieu Ball’s riffs and Loel Campbell’s drums gravitate towards her, creating a contrasting harsh wall of sound on “Body Individual” or a sparse, punctuating texture on “The Deafening Verity”. Their message is felt and heard. We just have to listen. – Antonio Poscic
1. Waste of Space Orchestra – Syntheosis [Svart Records]
Originally commissioned for Roadburn Festival 2018, the studio-recorded version of the ritual called Syntheosis is a masterpiece of psychedelic black and doom metal performed by two legendary groups, Finnish avant-black metallers Oranssi Pazuzu and cult droners Dark Buddha Rising. As the title subtly suggests, when donning the Waste of Space Orchestra moniker, the two bands synthesize rather than just collaborate to create a highly conceptual album. First, it ascends among stories of magical realism supported by psychedelia, post-punk rhythms, and space rock choruses. Then, it plummets into occult horror awash with metallic monoliths, low resonating frequencies, meditative drones, and progressive sludge monsters. But despite its idiosyncratic concept and cornucopia of styles, the true triumph of Syntheosis is how coherent and captivating this heady voyage feels. – Antonio Poscic