Wednesday, 20 December 2017

A YEAR IN REVIEW: Daniel Jackson's Top 25 Albums of 2017

By: Daniel Jackson

Couch Slut (c) Roger Hayn

2017 has been the worst year of my life. Between the death of my father, the unbearable state of American politics, and a host of other personal struggles, I’ll be glad to have this year behind me forever. Sure, the calendar ticking up a number doesn’t really mean anything, but there’s still something in the back of my brain that says a new year indicates a fresh slate of sorts. It’s a good psychological starting point to try and make things better for yourself, and for others.

Outside of my family, the only thing that made this year worthwhile was the music. You’ll no doubt have a wide range of opinions as to how this year fared versus years past, in terms of quality music. Some will say it was an awful year, some will say it was a great year, and some will fall somewhere between the two, as has happened every other year before this. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I hope this list introduces you to something you might have missed.

As is my preference, I’ll start with my favorite EPs this year, and then we’ll get into the top 25 albums list! Enjoy!

Top 10 EPs of 2017

10. Funeral Harvest -Bunker Ritual Rehearsal’ | Purchase Here

This is just dark, straightforward black metal primitivism. Nothing particularly original, but its conviction is undeniable. “Funeral Harvest” turns their orthodox approach into a real strength. 

9. Khandra - ‘All is of No Avail’ | Purchase Here

A rager, pure and simple. An excellent balance between melody and ferocity, driven by some relentless drumwork throughout. Khandra has quality riffs to spare.

8. Supruga - ‘Supruga’ | Purchase Here

Blackened hardcore isn’t as novel in 2017 as it might have been a few years ago, but Supruga do a remarkable job of new breathing life into the sub-subgenre by working some ugly, dissonant doom into the mix and being more dynamic than most in the process. 

7. Void Tendril - ‘Ensnaring The Demiurge’ | Purchase Here

This band throws black and doom metal together in an original and interesting way, and the unique vocals at work only add to that originality. While not totally polished yet, what Void Tendril has going for it in these early stages is very, very promising.

6. Druid - ‘Cill Dara’ | Purchase Here

‘Cill Dara’ is a release that toys with 2nd wave black metal’s strict musical confines enough to feel different. The result is a release that should instantly appeal to both early Burzum fans (thankfully without shitty philosophies, socially) and people looking for something outside the norm as well.

5. Kwade Droes - ‘Kwade Droes’ | Purchase Here

This is a weird one, no doubt. After a rather strange spoken intro, the EP sets into a grove of a droning but melodic black metal, which creates an engrossing atmosphere. At only 11 minutes, this goes by in a flash, but it’s punctuated with unusual effects and noisy flourishes that help differentiate this band from the scores of other black metal bands out there 

4. Sjelferd - "Fortid"

I wrote extensively about this release here. The story of this EP is an interesting one. A band who lived through the original 90s Norwegian black metal boom, reuniting to finally record the demo they weren’t ready to record in the mid 90s. If you’re a fan of “Stormblast”-era Dimmu Borgir, this should be for you.

3. Moray - ‘Temporal Majesty’ | Purchase Here

An astounding EP. Brilliantly balancing melodic black metal with everything from early Mastodon-ish post metal to melodic death metal. Despite the eclectic influences, it never once feels forced or thrown together. It all rages, and it all works, topped off with some of the best harsh black metal vocals I’ve heard this year.

2. Cetacean “Dichotomy” | Purchase Here

You can read my review for this release here. But the short of it is that this EP blends post metal, prog, and a pinch of black metal to create a rich, layered listening experience. There’s a ton of depth here, and it’s dynamic in a way few other bands can match.

1. Norrhem - ‘Voima ja Kunnia’ | Purchase Here

At the end of the day, there isn’t anything that speaks to me quite like raw, powerful black metal, especially when it’s as melodically gifted as Norrhem is. It’s a style that’s easy to phone in, and yet this Finnish duo do everything right here. Folk-influenced melodies that stop well short of falling into hokey folk metal, and the production fits the material damn near perfectly. If this were a full length, it would have likely landed in my top 3 for the year there too. 


Top 25 Albums of 2017

25. Wulkanaz - ‘Paralys’ | Purchase Here

Wild and unhinged, ‘Paralys’ is among the more unique black metal albums you’ll hear from 2017. Between the unconventional riffs, the thin and harsh production, and the odd keyboard choices, this isn’t likely to be on too many of these lists, which is a shame, because the whole album is devilishly clever and original.

24. Fornhem - ‘Ett Fjärran Kall’ | Purchase Here

On the other end of the spectrum, Fornhem is a decidedly straightforward album, carried by strong songwriting and conviction. This should appeal to any 90s Norwegian black metal scene fan, especially early Ulver and first album Borknagar fans, particularly in the opening title track, which is all about building atmosphere and utilising deliberate tempos. 

23. Enslaved - ‘E’ | Purchase Here

You can read my review for the album here. I usually prefer my Enslaved leaning more toward black metal than prog, but this album does a great job of showing that they’re capable of leaning more heavily on their prog side without becoming just another prog band (*cough* Opeth *cough*).

22. Wiegedood - ‘De Doden Hebben Het Goed II’ | Purchase Here

This thing is a real fucking fury-fest. Meaner and more chaotic than its predecessor, ‘De Doden Hebben Het Goed II’ sees the band showing that it can focus on ferocity and darkness just as admirably as it can melody and atmosphere.

21. Krallice - ‘Go Be Forgotten’ | Purchase Here

Krallice are a band incapable of being anything short of technically dazzling. But where ‘Loüm’ failed to connect with me style-wise, this is exactly what I hope for when a new Krallice album is announced. Experimentation is important, especially for a band as free-spirited as Krallice. But for my money, this style is where they’re at their best. If I’d had more time to spend with the album before coming up with this list, it would likely be higher.

20. Satyricon - Deep Calleth Upon Deep’ | Purchase Here

You can read my review for the album here. In short, this album is to their black n’ roll era what ‘Rebel Extravaganza’ was to their 90s black metal era.

19. Morbid Angel - ‘Kingdoms Disdained’ | Purchase Here

You can read my review for the album here. Morbid Angel compensate for the mistakes of their last album by swinging the pendulum in nearly the opposite direction. As ugly and unforgiving an album as the band have ever made.

18. Dödsrit - ‘Dödsrit’ | Purchase Here

Christoffer Öster is a one-man show here, and he absolutely destroys everything with this gorgeous combination of atmospheric black metal and Tragedy-esque crust. One of the most deeply satisfying albums of the year, even though it wears its influences on its sleeve.

17. God Dethroned -The World Ablaze’ | Purchase Here

You can read my review of the album here. An album that puts all of the best qualities of both their early and recent work into a one album. I have a deeply personal reason to love this album, but the music backs up its inclusion on this list anyway.

16. Tyrannosorceress - ‘Shattering Light’s Creation’ | Purchase Here

Offering an excellent balance of Norwegian-style black metal and USBM, the key here is songwriting and a virtually perfect production job. Varied in all the right way, this album is a joy from front to back.

15. Venenum - ‘Trance of Death’ | Purchase Here

Death metal with a flare for the dramatic. For those who thought Tribulation took their sound a bit too far beyond the death metal realm, Venenum fill that void excellently. Much more dynamic than your average death metal album, and brimming with creative ideas.

14. Thantifaxath - ‘Void Masquerading As Matter’ | Purchase Here

A continuation of everything that made ‘Sacred White Noise’ so great. ‘Void Masquerading as Matter’ is both instantly recognizable as Thantifaxath and a genuine refinement of what the band has done before. It’s the work of a band finding that there is yet more to be done with the sound they’ve already crafted, while managing to successfully avoid becoming trapped in their own tropes.

13. Cradle of Filth - ‘Cryptoriana - The Seductiveness of Decay’ | Purchase Here

As much as ‘Hammer of The Witches’ saw the band regain their former glory, ‘Cryptoriana’ is even better. Cradle of Filth are writing songs that rival the best of their career, and are bolstered even further by some absolutely fantastic lead guitar work. It’s hard to imagine how a Cradle of Filth album in 2017 could be any better.

12. Neverending Winter - ‘Хиус’ | Purchase Here

Despite having a full length, and EP and a demo prior to this, Neverending Winter has come from seemingly out of nowhere. The Russian band’s blend of thrashy black metal, crust and hard rock sensibilities make this absolutely infectious. This occupies that space between EP and LP at twenty-seven minutes, so it’s a breeze to get through, and the band excel at memorable songwriting. By all rights, this band should be picked up by a bigger underground label sooner rather than later.

11. Artificial Brain - ‘Infrared Horizon’ | Purchase Here

Much in the same way as I mentioned with Thantifaxath earlier, Artificial Brain take their gnarled, alien approach to technical death metal and hone it, further exploring the sound they established on their debut. Whatever peers they have in this subgenre are simply incapable of matching the band for unique atmosphere and memorability.

10. Catacombes - ‘Le Démoniaque’ | Purchase Here

Straightforward, sorrowful, melodic black metal has been my favorite subset of the genre for a long time now, and with a couple of notable exceptions coming up, Catacombes have done it better than just about anyone this year. At first pass, it might strike you as a “good not great” sort of album, but these riffs have major staying power.

9. Árstíðir lífsins - ‘Heljarkviða’ | Purchase Here

Featuring members of Helrunar and Carpe Noctem, this Icelandic and German band have put together an engrossing sound. It’s the sort of music that you can close your eyes and listen to, while it provides the soundtrack to fictional fantasy worlds. The non metal sections here are an important part of the whole, not unlike Moonsorrow, though the tone here is a lot more morose. Not to mention some of the most ludicrously deep-voiced singing this side of Peter Steele.

8. Dawn Ray’d - ‘The Unlawful Assembly’ | Purchase Here

There has been some debate regarding this band and their album, and whether or not their politics overshadow their music. While their anarchist views might provide people who don’t connect with the music something to point at to explain their popularity with a certain section of the genre’s fans, the truth is that they’re just great at what they do. The music is sorrowful and melodic, made all the more emotionally devastating thanks to the presence of violin accompaniment throughout. But more than anything, this album is a testament to the emotional power trem n’ blast black metal can still conjure.

7. Father Befouled - ‘Desolate Gods’ | Purchase Here

Over the last 10 years, there have been hundreds of bands and albums that have attempted to recreate that filthy, blasphemous magic Incantation conjured from from 1990-1998. ‘Desolate Gods’ is one of the few albums I’ve heard that truly captures it all. It’s not just the production and nailing the blasting parts. Father Befouled have mastered that bleak death doom crawl too. That this album aims more toward ‘Diabolical Conquest’ than ‘Onward to Golgotha’ or ‘Mortal Throne of Nazarene’ helps too.

6. Wolves in the Throne Room -Thrice Woven’ | Purchase Here

You can read my review of the album here. When we get to this point in the list, the variances in quality start to get into “hair-splitting territory”, which is to say it can be only minor things that make a difference to me. In this case, the only thing keeping this album out of the Top 5 for me is that as I’ve had more time with the album, the dry, thin drum sound has become a bit of a distraction for me. Musically, it’s a brilliant return to black metal for the band.

5. Délétère - ‘Per Aspera Ad Pestilentiam’ | Purchase Here

I struggled a bit with whether to include this as an EP or a full-length. At 27 minutes, I felt that was close enough to include here. Délétère are true masters of balancing raw power and fury with melody, melancholic or otherwise. They tap into that unique Quebecois atmosphere, but bring a layer of medieval mysticism that isn’t conveyed any better anywhere else. 

4. Havukruunu - ‘Kelle Surut Soi’ | Purchase Here

With Finland largely taking hold as the current-day Scandinavian black metal capitol, Havukruunu seem poised to occupy their own unique corner of that scene. They reside in a country whose output was defined early on by primitive brutality (BeheritImpaled NazareneArchgoat), and then later by balancing that brutality with sorrowful melody (SargeistHorna). But now they’ve built a foundation upon a sound that Moonsorrow had played with, but to which they wouldn’t fully commit. The folk melodies and rich singing are there, but the majesty in this album is in being able to transition from folk sounds into darker, more mysterious atmospheres. They’ve given themselves a broad range of sounds to work with for the future, and the band are a testament to just how musically diverse the Finnish scene has become over the years.

3. Sarkrista - ‘Summoners of the Serpents Wrath’ | Purchase Here

As far as traditionalist black metal goes, there’s not been anyone that’s done it any better than Sarkrista this year. Despite being a German band, they’ve captured the very essence of the Finnish melodic black metal sound, and perform it at the highest level. This isn’t a band that’s pushing the genre into new musical terrain, but they are getting the most of what the genre has already uncovered. When you’re a sucker for straightforward black metal like me, this album’s as good as it gets.

2. Yellow Eyes - ‘Immersion Trench Reverie’ | Purchase Here

The most harrowing and imaginative black metal album of the year. The way the guitars interact with and collide into each other is ingenious. In a sense it sounds like two alien beings speaking and singing together in a musical language. Sometimes, they’re harmoniously speaking as one fused lifeform, at others they’re screaming over each other in an attempt to be heard. It’s hard to describe an album that sounds so immediately familiar as a black metal album, and yet distorts it in a way that feels foreign and, again, alien. There is no black metal album quite like ‘Immersion Trench Reverie’, and that’s why it’s my black metal album of the year.

1. Couch Slut - ‘Contempt’ | Purchase Here

Aside from this album, every other album on my list is either black or death metal. That’s because I’m a creature of habit. Once I find something I love, I just want more of that same thing forever. When I go to a restaurant/fast food/etc., I usually eat one of the same two or three things from the menu and that’s it. Branching out is not my strong suit. And yet, when I heard Couch Slut’s ‘My Life As A Woman’, it struck a deep chord with me. I don’t really know how to classify Couch Slut, because I have no real frame of reference. I’ve seen it described as noise rock or as sludge, and I guess those make sense.

But more important than where they fall on the broader hard rock/metal map is that the band is capable of a raw emotional honesty I just can’t find anywhere else. Vocalist Megan Osztrosits leads the way, but the rest of the band do an incredible job of channeling that same unfiltered emotion into the music. Osztrosits’ screams are painfully human; terrifying in a way that only Khanate’s Alan Dubin has come close to otherwise.

I mentioned at the beginning of this that 2017 has been the worst year of my life. When I close my eyes and listen to ‘Contempt’ at full volume, it feels like it lashes out at my troubles with me. The crushing depression I’ve felt for years now. The anxiety I face when I get out of bed and walk out the door for work. Even though it obviously wasn’t made with this intent in mind, ‘Contempt’ is the album I listen to when I want to tell the world that I’m not dead yet, and that I’m going to fucking fight. I can never thank the band enough for giving that feeling a soundtrack.