This post was originally written for No Clean Singing. It’ll go up there in a couple of days (hopefully), but for the non-zero number of people that might see this, here it is early.
Another year, another list. I’ve always enjoyed doing these lists, starting way back in 2009 when I made my first post on The Number of the Blog. Since then I’ve managed to make one every year, with various amounts of effort put into them. It’s weird that I consider my main stretch of internet blogging to have been with Number of the Blog, yet I only made two lists for that, while this will be the fourth I’ve written for No Clean Singing. Anyways, my adoptive home has asked me back to write for them again, and I’m all too happy to do so.
2014 wasn’t quite the year 2013 was. Last year it felt like there was a huge deluge of just great releases coming from every corner of the planet. This year I really had to think about my top 20. The top 10 was easy, but after that it was a struggle to think of the truly great great albums that came out this year. Not to say that numbers 20 through 11 are forgettable albums. I think they’re all great. It’s just that last year the struggle came from whittling it down to twenty as there were so many albums I wanted to talk about that I couldn’t fit on the list. Some of this might be jadedness as I’ve listened to a lot of stuff that people have thought is awesome, and if I had heard it like two or three years ago I would’ve been all aboard that shit. But now I just get a “yeah that’s cool” reaction to so much shit. It’s kind of depressing, but it does make the stuff that breaks through all the better.
What follows is my list. The honorable mentions are in alphabetical order. Click the name to go to an album stream or youtube clip or whatever. For my top twenty, most of them should have the streams beneath the album art. Some I couldn’t find embeddable links so just click on the album art to get to the music.
PS: If you’re wondering where Dead Congregation is, it’s not on here because it’s a mediocre mass of nothing riffs wrapped in drums that sound like butt.
Honorable Mentions: Items in bold I strongly recommend
Ad Infinitum – Woven Within
Anthem – Absolute World
Anthropomorphia – Rites ov Perversion
Arizmenda – Stillbirth in the Temple of Venus
Bölzer – Soma
Ceremonial Castings – Cthulu
Children of Technology – Future Decay
Corpsessed – Abysmal Thresholds
Darkspace – Dark Space III I
Deathhammer – Evil Power
Deep Mountains – Lake of Solace
Diocletian – Gesundrian
Divine Ascension – Liberator
Domains – Sinister Ceremonies
Dragonforce – Maximum Overload (Yes I’m serious)
Earth and Pillars – Earth I
Empyrium – The Turn of the Tides
Execration – Morbid Dimensions
Fen – Carrion Skies
Have a Nice Life – The Unnatural World
High Spirits – You Are Here
Impetuous Ritual – Unholy Congregation Of Hypocritical Ambivalence
Kuolemanlaakso – Tulijousten
Marissa Nadler – July
Midnight – No Mercy For Mayhem
Nuclearhammer – Serpentine Hermetic Lucifer
Phlebotomized – Immense Intense Suspense / Skycontact Reissue
Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen
Reverorum Ib Malacht – De Mysteriis Dom Christi
Saor – Aura
Satan’s Satyrs – Die Screaming
Schammasch – Contradiction
Skull Fist – Chasing the Dream
Solstafir – Otta
Spectral Lore – III
Teitanblood – Death
Tengger Cavalry – Ancient Call
Triumphant – Herald the Unsung
Valdrin – Beyond the Forest
Vanhelgd – Relics of Sulphur Salvation
Volahn – Aq’ab’al
While Heaven Wept – Suspended at Aphelion
Woods of Desolation – As the Stars
And now, the top 20
20. Black Magic – Wizard’s Spell
This was probably the hardest pick on the list. I was seriously debating between Black Magic, Primordial, and Dragonforce (yes, I’m totally serious). This eventually won out because a true retro throwback album is a rarity these days. I mean, yeah you got a shitton of bands saying they play old school metal, but you have very few who actually play old school metal. Sure it’s easy to play a Maiden or Priest riff slightly faster and make it “80s”, but it’s another thing to actually sound like you came from the 80s. Musically Black Magic is a bit of a mix between Sabbath and Mercyful Fate, though the vocalist makes me think a bit of Danzig more than Ozzy or King. The production is where it shines. So many “retro” bands sound like modern ass and very very few nail the po-dunk, no budget, trad sound, but Black Magic did it and they shine for it.
19. The Great Old Ones – Tekeli-Li
The Great Old Ones are a criminally underlooked French quartet. Their approach to the Lovecraftian mythos takes the form of beautiful atmospheric black metal. Their debut album, Al Azif, was haunting, and gave beings like Cthulu and Nyarlathotep a sense of overwhelming majesty. A subversive take on horrible beings. Their new album, Tekeli-Li, takes us from beyond the stars and beneath the waves and transports us to even colder climes, amidst grinding ice flows and frozen mountain peaks. Heavier and more eerily foreboding than TGOO previous work, Tekeli-Li still manages to evoke a sense of wonder and majesty and is able to find a strange beauty amongst the cosmic horros that lurk at the edges of reality.
18. Lvcifyre – Svn Eater
2014 has been a really really good for this type of heavy, atmospheric death metal, and sadly, all the best ones came out at the beginnging of the year within like a month of each other. Lvcifyre, Corpsessed, Teitanblood, Lie In Ruins. Each excelling at a certain aspect. Teitanblood had the best atmosphere, murky and wild, living up to the album’s namesake, death. Corpsessed had the coolest riffs out of all of them. Lie in Ruins is later on in this list and I’ll just say they had the best overall mix of everything. And finally, here with Lvcifyre, we have the best sound. Svn Eater has PRESENCE, unlike all the other albums in this style that feel like they get lost too much in the murk and gloom of atmosphere. This album has weight and cool riffs and drums that don’t sound like butt. Overall a winning combination.
17. Seirom – …and the light swallowed everything
Mories de Jong is a man of contradictions, having released some of the most ferocious and terrifying music around with Gnaw Their Tongues and De Magia Veterum, his Seirom (Mories spelled backwards, clever) project is the complete opposite of everything he’s known for. …and the light swallowed everything is a cornucopia of lush, romantic soundscapes, slowly building and shifting in form to create a transcendent cosmic ambiance. This music seems to be repentance, of sorts, for the horror and ugliness unleashed onto the world by his usual music projects. Much like a diamond or a pearl is created out of the pressure surrounding it, something as beautiful as this can only be nurtured by the shell of Gnaw Their Tongues.
16. Varathron – Untrodden Corridors of Hades
Varathron were one of the original Greek black metal bands back in the day with the likes of Rotting Christ, Necromantia, and Zemial. They don’t release albums very often, so any time they do should be cause for joy. This album contains a lot of your standard Greek black metal tropes. Mid-paced riffing with a focus on eerie melodies and odd atmospheres. Thanks to the modern production, the atmosphere on this album is much more cavernous, and one listen to Kabalistic Invocation of Solomon should prove why Varathron is still at the top of their game.
15. Empire of the Moon – Πανσέληνος
More Greek black metal. I emailed Islander about this album back during the summer but he hates you guys so he decided not to share it with you. Empire of the Moon was a band back in the 90’s, but they only released a demo back in ’97. On Πανσέληνος (Panselinos, aka Greek for Full Moon) is firmly within the traditional Greek black metal fold. Mid-paced melodies and eerie occult atmosphere. Executed excellently, the only downside to this album is that it’s short and only really has for songs.
14. Noble Beast – Noble Beast
Noble Beast is a local power metal band from here in Minneapolis. On this, their debut, they’ve made one of the best power metal albums of the year. Cool, not terrible modern production. Great hooks and huge choruses, and an impressive vocal performance by Rob Jalonen, who has fairly deep and dignified voice. Everything about this release has gravitas that few modern power metal albums match. They try, but none achieve it as effortlessly as Noble Beast does.
13. V/A – Tliltic Tlapoyauak
Welcome to the land of black twilight. Rather than a single band, Tliltic Tlapoyauak showcases the entire black twilight circle, with both familiar names like Arizmenda, Volahn, Kallathan, and Kuxan Suum joining with newcomers to the circle like Shataan and Blood Play. If you’re familiar with the BTC, you know exactly what you’re getting here: lo-fi black metal that creates an occult atmosphere through long passages of twisting, winding riffs that build off of each other. Expertly crafted songs from all members. This compilation is a showcase of the very best black metal scene in the world.
12. Stworz – Coz Po Zyznych Ziemiach…
The best Drudkh album since Blood In Our Wells. Ok, I might exaggerate a bit, but yeah, this is Ukrainian black metal so it sounds a shit-ton like Drudkh. I enjoy the straightforwardness off it, Stworz doesn’t get too bogged down in being atmospheric or progressive or epic or any of the things that drag down all the recent Drudkh albums. The focus on this album is solid black metal interwoven with Ukrainian folk melodies and some cool uses of instrumentation.
11. Kenn Nardi – Dancing With the Past
If you’re unfamiliar with the name Kenn Nardi, don’t worry, he’s fairly obscure. Nardi is best known as the guitarist and singer for the cult prog/thrash band Anacrusis, who released some really cool shit back in the 90s. Dancing With the Past is a massive double album containing a bun ch of stuff that Nardi recorded and wrote over the years, spanning from when Anacrusis broke up in 1993 all the way up to this year. As such, the music on this album is a mix of prog/thrash and straight up prog metal, seemingly a continuation of the old Anacrusis sound. It’s a testament to the strenght of Nardi’s songwriting abilities that a sound so rooted in the early 90s sounds just as cool and relevant today as it would have 20 years ago.
10. Gridlink – Longhena
I’m not the world’s biggest grind fan, and it takes a lot for a grind album to impress me. Longhena fucking impressed me. I heard it described as super-emotional grindcore and I scoffed because how emotional can grindcore be? But the premise and the album art had me intrigued, so I gave it a chance. This album is pure rage, regret, and sadness channeled into pure musical catharsis. The intensity is overwhelming, and the sure emotional assault Longhena brings is enough to win over anyone who has even the slightest interest in the genre.
9. Panopticon – Roads to the North
Panopticon is one of my favorite bands. I’ve been big on Lunn’s project since Collapse came out back in 2009, and have followed along with his musical development with every release. So it pains me to say that this feels like a step back. At its core, Roads to the North is essentially a less powerful and well-done retread of On the Subject of Mortality. I’ve enjoyed each Panopticon album because each album has its own identity, and Roads to the North is the first album to really break this trend. It’s a testament to Austin’s skill and my own fanboyism of Panopticon that I rank it so high. It’s a good enough album to crack my top ten, but it could be so much better.
8. Twilight Force – Tales of Ancient Prophecy
A lot of people my age got into metal because of core and nu metal shit. Some people will lie and say that they were always true metal fans but we all know the truth. Everyone has their starting point in the genre. For me the bands that marked my formative years in the genre were bands like Gamma Ray, Hammerfall, Edguy, Dark Moor, Rhapsody of Fire, Freedom Call, Blind Guardian, etc. So I’ve always had a pot in my heart for the purest of pure European Cheese. And holy shit is this about as pure as it gets. Silly album art, silly fantasy lyrics, lots of melodic hooks and silly shredding, drenched in stupid amounts of keys, with Christian Hedgren’s insane falsettos flying over everything. The thing about this that I just love is that it’s so earnest in its goofiness. At no point does the band ever have its tongue planted within its cheek. Irony and cool metal are pretty incompatible, which is what bands like Alestorm and Gloryhammer don’t seem to get. But these guys get it, and they’re playing for the pure fucking love of glorious cheese. If you hate that type of power metal than this album will not change your mind, but for everyone else this is an insanely fun ride.
7. Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry
Blut Aus Nord are one of my favorite black metal bands, and the Memoria Vetusta series is probably my favorite work of theirs. Fathers of the Icy Age was a uniquely melodic and atmospheric release that came out at a time when nobody was doing shit like that, and each time they revisit that sound, I get super excited. Saturnian Poetry doesn’t fail to deliver, and offers absolutely beautiful atmospheric black metal. What I like the most is how they play atmospheric black metal without relying on the use of ambient or post-rock elements like so many other bands in the scene. Everything they achieve they achieve through the application of straight up black metal elements. Just another element of BaN’s genius.
6. Lie In Ruins – Towards Divine Death
Maybe the crowning jewel of Dark Descent’s 2014 roster. Towards Divine Death is this years pinnacle of Incantation-inspired super heavy death metal. It has twisting Finnish riffs that wind through the murky production without losing their weight. The sound is massive but not overly so, to the point where everything becomes obscure behind the spectacle. Just fucking top-notch death metal, and lots of it (of the nine songs on the album only two run under seven minutes). Not a lot to say that wasn’t already mentioned in the Svn Eater blurb, just that The Excellence of Execution counts for a whole lot.
5. Emptiness – Nothing But the Whole
It is very rare that I hear metal that stops me in my tracks, much less death metal. I have become the jaded cynic, when I hear stuff that I would have been super hyped for if I had heard it three years ago, I now just shrug it off and tend to go “eh, heard it before.” Emptiness avoids all that. They have made a death metal album that I’ve never heard before, subtly atmospheric and creepy, without relying overly on gimmicky tricks like keys, genre-mixing, and murky production. I’ve heard criticism that this album is riffless, but that’s not the case. The riffs are more subtle, less in your face and apparent as is the norm in death metal. The atmosphere of the music relies on excellent songwriting, everything has just the right amount of presence and impact without drowning in aggression. Nothing But the Whole is like nothing else I’ve heard this year or any other for that matter. And that is something I rarely have the privilege of saying.
4. Menace Ruine – Venus Armata
The continued evolution of Menace Ruine’s sound is one of the most engaging things in music right now. Each album develops on the previous album and evolves logically while maintaing at its core the essence of what Menace Ruine is. Venus Armata continues to evolve the distorted, drone-inspired Dead Can Dance sound that they developed on Alight in Ashes. Geneviève’s haunting vocals are further emphasized on this album, with long lyrical passages covering the occult and esoteric world of Menace Ruine’s odd spirituality. Musically, they seem to have gone back a bit to Union of Irreconcilables, interweaving medieval folk melodies and song structure into their world of esoteric drone. From start to finish and absolutely captivating album, and one of Menace Ruine’s best.
I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t seen Venus Armata on any year-end lists. I mean, I know they’re reactively obscure, but I would have thought that some of the “artier” or “quirkier” mainstream publications like The Wire or something would have picked up on them. Oh well, don’t fucking sleep on this album, it’s amazing.
3. Dawnbringer – Night of the Hammer
Sometimes there’s an album that clicks with you in a way that makes the rest of the band’s discography better. This is one of those albums. For me, I’ve always liked Dawnbringer. I liked their weird and unorthodox approach to traditional epic metal. I liked them, but I always felt like there was something missing, something holding me back from fully appreciating them. Night of the Hammer is that something.
This album is so close to being on the verge of boring. This album is surprisingly minimalistic. I say that without fully knowing what I mean. The riffs are stripped down and their are no extra bells and whistles and all the songs are fairly short. No big out of nowhere epics, no real surprises once you’ve heard the opener (outside of one song that sounds like a Mercyful Fate knock-off). But the minimalism also leaves a soulful essence bared. Without any tricks to hide behind, Night of the Hammer is surprisingly revealing and personal, and relies on the pure strength of Chris Black’s songwriting skills to carry it forward. I fucking ate it up even if I know this isn’t for everyone.
2. Trenchrot – Necronomic Warfare
In a year where I hype the shit out of cool new stuff I haven’t heard before like Emptiness, it seems weird that I would put a blatant throwback band like Trenchrot so high on my list. What can I say? I’m a fucking sucker for both Dismember and Asphyx, and Necronomic Warfare is basically a blend of those two bands. There’s not a lot to say about this album really. If you’re a fan of Aspyx or Dismember than you’ll love this. Way better than those boring Morbus Chron and Horrendous albums. The sickest guitar tone combined with the sickest riffs and the sickest songwriting. Sometimes to be the best you don’t have to be that new or original, but you do have to be extremely fucking good. And if Trenchrot are anything, it’s Extremely Fucking Good.
1. Rome – A Passage to Rhodesia
Oh my god you guys Rome is so good. Rome’s been showing up on my year-end lists ever since I discovered Jérôme Reuter’s project with 2010 Nos Chants Perdus. His 2009 album Flowers From Exile has since become one of my all time favorite albums, and my absolute favorite Neofolk album.
Rome is ridiculously good. So good that it makes everyone else in the modern neofolk scene look like children picking up an instrument for the first time. One of the defining features of Rome has come to be Jerome Reuter’s deep, haunting voice. Romantic and breathless, he spins tales of love and loss, frequently picking up on historical themes that few other artists touch. Flowers From Exile was the story of his grandparents meeting and falling in love, set to the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, and the lost generation that was exiled from their home by the fascists coming into power. Nos Chants Perdus was about the French Resistence under Nazi occupation. And finally, A Passage to Rhodesia is about the struggle to create the lost country of Rhodesia (what is now Zimbabwe). Throughout all of these albums are themes not just of loss of loved ones, but the loss of home and identity, and the terrible violence that this loss reeks upon the individual. It’s more than just the loss of home, but the loss of one’s identity. The fact that Reuter is able to find repeated instances of this theme playing out in history and is then able to translate them to the modern world is nothing short of astounding.
Musically, Rome has embraced the industrial roots of the genre, with militaristic rhythms running throughout the more driving songs, like One Fire. The understated guitar work contrasts nicely with the heavier aspects of the album, and serve as the backdrop to the gentle, romantic melodies of Reuter’s vocal performance.
I was astounded by this album. Nothing this year, metal or not, has connected with me the way that A Passage to Rhodesia has. Just fantastic from start to finish, and my album of the year.