In this collection of AOTY contenders, an alligator pear, a half-elf, and a shimmering polearm share their choices for best albums of the year. Mind the gap, because things are about to get wild.
10. Dead Letter Circus – Aesthesis | The End Recordings
Dead Letter Circus’ triumphant return to form after the more than disappointing The Catalyst Fire has stood the test of time. An emotive blend of thought-provoking rock and melancholic ambiance, Aesthesis takes the listener on an aural journey across landscapes barely lit in the fading of fall twilight to moments of glaring sun in the crispness of a spring morning. Energetic enough to headbang to, yet calm enough to put on late at night for quiet contemplation, Aesthesis has proved Dead Letter Circus was much more than just their debut album.
In a brilliant mix of middle eastern folk, jazz, and progressive rock, Mockroot stands out from the crowd of ho-hum jazz albums in startling uniqueness. Technical prowess serves as a vehicle for the varied stylings of Hamasyan’s piano work, but never detracts from the subtle beauty that is a staple of Mockroot. Complex rhythms, in a curious break from the norm, serve to give the songs a fluidity rarely found in music of similar difficulty. Instead of being music to dissect to understand, Mockroot is music that is first understood, then dissected.
As I previously stated in my review of this album, Steven Wilson has finally found his strength in balance. Moderating his self-indulgent progressive meanderings for a more polished pop sound has propelled this album above and beyond the rest of his mostly underwhelming solo career to the echelon of the greatest of his work with Porcupine Tree, all while retaining a truly separate voice. Moments of beauty and, in typical Wilson fashion, woeful melancholy play games of tag throughout the album, at one moment uplifting, at another, despondent, culminating in the sad — yet oddly satisfying — “Happy Returns/Ascendant Here On…”
Death Grips went full aggressive, in stark contrast to The Powers That B Part 1 – Niggas on the Moon, and it was the best move they could have made. Jenny Death, the second record in The Powers That B, is an onslaught of pure, bestial aggression that only Death Grips could pull off. MC Ride screams and shouts through violent drums and weaving, grimy synths, orchestrating a tangible tapestry of carnal rage that, in combination with Niggas on the Moon, perfectly exemplifies the multifaceted nature of Death Grips’ existence. An exceptionally welcome addition to the Death Grips discography.
Criminally underappreciated by the Toilet, IZAH’s Sistere is a haunting and beautiful post-metal/doom album, a soundtrack to a tale all but forgotten, lingering on the fringes of memory, one of long journeys through woods shrouded in gloom, across foreboding mountain ranges, along endless gray seas, fraught with memory and with naught to guide but a name. Sistere is an album to be experienced, to be heard from start to finish on a cold and lonely day, to be lost in. It is a bleak cry into nothing, yet it is not the answer that matters, but rather the existence of the cry itself.
After a lengthy career with many excellent albums, Keep of Kalessin have finally produced their Magnum Opus, the album they’ve been trying to produce for some time. Epistemology is heavy, fast, blackened, and melodic – hitting all the Keep of Kalessin checkboxes, yet delivering something more than just another Reptilian or Armada. Losing vocalists is often a challenge for bands to overcome, but Keep of Kalessin has managed to both overcome the obstacle as well as thrive through it. As a nod to and an escalation of their previous work, Epistemology boasts massive talent and peculiar accessibility.
4. Tempel – The Moon Lit Our Path | Prosthetic Records
On the Steps of the Temple, Tempel’s debut album, was such a strong offering I felt wary to listen to the band’s sophomore release, The Moon Lit Our Path for fear I’d be let down. But when the first track, “Carvings in the Door” was released, Tempel proved themselves as some of the best in the metal world. Dark and heavy, The Moon Lit Our Path continues on in Tempel’s established vein of writing music that sounds absolutely massive. As on their debut, the artwork perfectly matches the mood of the music: unsettling, gigantic, foreboding, rife with barely concealed energy. It writhes and broods with unsettled power, a force to behold in awe.
3. Those Darn Gnomes – The Years | Independent
What words can describe an album of this caliber? At times ethereal, at others brutal, simultaneously intriguing and off-putting, The Years is one of the most challenging works of art I’ve experienced. While harsh noise I find relatively easy to understand (and as such, somewhat boring), the Gnomes don’t bother with music of such simple dimensions, opting instead to redefine the definition of music on their own terms, terms not easily accessible. However, in challenge there is the promise of reward, and The Years delivers that reward in full for those brave enough to delve into its depths. This is not an album I expect to win many fans, but it is an album I think people should hear.
2. KOMARA – KOMARA | Hevhetia
A sonic force of incomprehensible depths, KOMARA’s debut is an industrial psychadelic trip into the mind of madness. Oft times groovy, dabbling in eerie spoken word, always engaging, KOMARA is an album without mercy, a revolting beast relentlessly dragging the listener down endless black hallways through a house bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. One can’t help, while listening to the album, imagining the beast on the cover art writhing and contorting to the otherworldliness that is KOMARA in a sinuous, jerking dance, twisting to the beat of a dream you can’t escape.
1. Morgan Ågren – BATTERIE DELUXE | Independent
Eclectic and entirely unique, Ågren’s solo debut album is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. As a drummer, Ågren is acutely conscious of groove throughout the album, but is unafraid of incorporating varied and unusual instruments, sounds, effects, and samples throughout the album to create an unparalleled rhythmic and melodic soundscape. While not entirely dissimilar to his work with Mats/Morgan, BATTERIE DELUXE is clearly Ågren’s baby, eschewing most of the bubbly video-game-esque keyboards so common in Mats/Morgan for odder, darker grooves. Yet this album is not “dark,” except in rare moments where the music requires it, for above all, this album is a careful piece of music that never feels as though a sound has been misplaced. From the first moment I heard it, this album solidified a place in my top ten for the year, and it’s only gotten more enjoyable through repeated listens.
I am very impressed and very happy that Amorphis could write this album. It is a mix of their entire career and still feels so fresh and full of colors. The multi-layered texturing added another twist to the simple structures, and it just increased my replays.
Favorite song: “Death of a King”.
The pack is back! North American traditional metal maniacs successfully crowd-funded their project, and they pulled together an amazing record with a pristine production, kick-ass songs and a cohesive narrative along the entire story of Jack Frost, the dark hero known as Shadowman.
Favorite song: “Tower of Souls”.
8. Scorpions – Return to Forever | Legacy Recordings
It is their 18th (!!!) studio album, a feature not many rock or metal artists have yet to accomplish. Compared to their last few records, this one is a more laid-back effort, but the melodies and compact song-writing are still well-made by these gentlemen. Thanks, Scorps.
Favorite song: “We Built This House”.
This is my nature folk pick of this year. Navigating the Labyrinth is a record that explores the careful note-per-note acoustic formula; they even dare to add some percussion with a distinct doom metal-ish feel. This is a very dark, yet alluring record.
Favorite song: “To Fly Free”.
6. Obsequiae – Aria of Vernal Tombs | 20 Buck Spin
It is a crime that we did not discuss this record more in our community, so I rescued it from the shadows, took care of it and was rewarded with the medieval company of its vast instrumentation. With Aria of Vernal Tombs, Obsequiae developed a very unique sound that mixes ambient and folk with the black metal hypnotic abrasiveness.
Favorite song: “Pools of a Vernal Paradise”.
A masterly class of how to infuse the death and doom into their overall aesthetic, returning to the primeval sound, once again. The vocals and the musicianship enhanced the experience and it feels like Paradise Lost is a refreshed band, inspired by the youthful angst in this modern world.
Favorite song: “Return to the Sun”.
These Swedes continue to amaze me with how great their stylistic change has been since The Living Infinite. In their past records, they made this mix of modern metal that tired me easily, but on this one, they finally hit the feelings with the Scandinavian feel and the progressive elements. It is such an enjoyable ride.
Favorite song: “Alight in the Aftermath”.
Katatonia made the hard leap of arranging acoustic renditions of their material. The songs breathe whispers of melancholy and inspire sentiments in a whole new level. If this is the next direction of the band, I am more than sold.
Favorite song: “The One You’re Looking For”.
At this point, the bards need no introduction. Despite the troubled production, what we have here is a grandiose record that does not shy away from experimenting with new sounds and a huge orchestra. Hansi Kürsch conducts once again the theatrics and it excels once again in his work.
Favorite song: “Prophecies”.
A monument to the melodic death infused with hard rocking energies. Chris Amott made it again and with the aid of Sara Claudius. Together they’ve made an album with good musicianship and the face-melting narration of a space criminal.
Favorite song: “Equalizer”.
These are my honorable mentions. These are some records that I enjoyed too in different moods:
Trying to pare this list down to a paltry ten albums very nearly killed me. The sheer volume of metal that came out this year is obscene, and a list of ten doesn’t even begin to cover how much of it was good. There are too many albums that I wasn’t able to give a proper listen and many more yet that I just didn’t have room for on this list. In the end, there’s just no way I can do justice to every band that deserves to be on these lists, but here we go:
Kardashev took a turn for the awesome on Peripety. Their deathcore roots have been expunged from their sound, clearing the way for them to explore their atmospheric side. It’s a death metal album very much in the same vein as last year’s The Flesh Prevails, but Peripety gives even that a run for its money. Kardashev’s new path points them to a bright new future.
Even with the plethora of amazing black metal releases this year (Panopticon, Misþyrming, Hæthen, and Mgła to name a few), this one stood out for the sheer pleasure it brings my ears. This is an absolutely winning combination of crust and black metal. From the triumphant opening of “Blame Chord” to the final crumbling notes of “f.s.,” Ancst and Ast are unrelenting. This is a split to be reckoned with.
Realistically, this album probably would have made my list solely on the absurdity of its concept, but then it turned out the music was actually good. Like, really good. Gloryhammer have significantly upped their riff game on Space 1992, and the vocal melodies are incredibly infectious. Even months after my first listen (and several re-listens), I find these songs getting stuck in my head. Couple that with a story about space wizards and eagle-riding knights and you’ve got yourself a winner.
I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered an album that has made me want to hurt people more. Tomb of Broken Sleep is a whirlwind of spite and rage, and even at about 25 minutes of pure headbanging goodness, it’ll break your neck if you’re not careful. Whether it’s the grinding fury of “Narcotic” or the sludgy groove of “Mighty Steed,” this is pure mosh material.
To be perfectly frank, I think that Orakle put out a better BTBAM album this year than BTBAM did. It’s not that they play exactly the same style, and Coma Ecliptic wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination (it very nearly made this list), but they occupy much of the same space musically, and Eclats outdoes Coma in almost every respect. They share a lot of the same kinds of off-the-wall moments and use similarly progressive song structures, but in the end, Orakle’s intensity won out for me over the laid-back approach BTBAM decided to take.
I’m not sure there’s much I can say about this that W. didn’t already cover in his glowing review, but damn if this isn’t a gorgeous album. The band and the orchestra’s respective parts are interwoven on a level that few groups achieve. Of the experimental black metal pieces that have come out this year, Laurestine is easily my favorite. It’s a thrilling and moving experience that’s best consumed in a single sitting, and I recommend it to everyone.
A Tunnel To Eden is less of a collection of songs and more of a machine built with the sole purpose of crushing dicks. Alustrium’s pseudo-tech opus features some of the best guitar work all year, with riffs and solos that absolutely rip. Their approach to crafting songs is similar to Allegaeon; while it’s very technical music, the virtuosity takes a backseat to tasteful writing. It never tries to be lofty and never goes up its own ass, and it’s all the better for it.
Power metal albums rarely venture into territory as personal as Judicator’s At the Expense of Humanity, making it an instant standout for me. The death of a loved one, especially a sibling, is a very hard thing to handle. This experience is masterfully conveyed through powerful, pained vocals and lyrics. The guitars are equally emotive, carrying with them all the sorrow and rage of loss. Fortunately, for those of you just looking to bask in the music and enjoy some siqq riffs, the album holds up equally well without scrutinizing the lyrics. At the Expense of Humanity was an early contender for my AotY, and though it didn’t get the number one spot, it is very much worthy of that position. Don’t skip this one.
I try to stay away from labeling anything as “perfect.” Perfection is a very hard thing to define, especially when it comes to something as abstract as music. People will disagree with you, and rightly so; when it comes down to it, perfection is oftentimes subjective. With that being said, in my humble opinion, Time Stands Still is as goddamned close to perfect as you can get. Everything on this album clicks. Listen to that voice! Listen to those riffs! And that’s not even to speak of the variety on this album; each song is very distinct, from the rollicking “Tonight We Ride” to the vicious assault of “Crypt” to the fist-pumping anthem of “Time Stands Still.” I love everything about this album.
You know how I said I don’t like describing things as perfect? I’m doing it again: The Malkuth Grimoire is perfect. Alkaloid features some of my favorite musicians ever, and did they ever deliver. “Cthulhu” alone probably would have secured this album the number one spot, but every other track brings it just as hard. There’s so much going on here, so many layers that lock together in strange and beautiful and terrifying harmony, that it’s easy to get lost in the dense and foreboding mists of The Malkuth Grimoire. It’s a journey through alien landscapes that ponders the weird, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.