Friday, 22 December 2017

A YEAR IN REVIEW: Ernesto Aguilar's Top 25 Albums of 2017

By: Ernesto Aguilar

Bell Witch

2017 was a fantastic year for music in general, and metal in particular. If you like other sounds, this was the year pop from Kendrick Lamar to Lorde handed in exemplary performances, and major artists went all in on Spanish-language music (not to mention actual Latin artists like Luis Fonsi, J. Balvin and Bad Bunny getting English-language exposure). We also got not one, but two, albums from avant-garde patron saint Diamanda Galas and the visceral entertainment of watching megastars fight like gladiators for relevance amid the surge of music's young lions. There have been far worse years to be a music fan, absolutely.

Paring down to the best 25 releases is no easy task. Veteran and new bands made some outstanding and highly recommended albums. Dying Fetus, Immolation and Kreator offered some impressive works and proved one can still be innovative decades into an arc. And you are seeing albums from Code Orange, Power Trip and Poison Blood on lots of year-end lists for good reason: their recordings were really great and worth your time.

If you liked the aforementioned Galas as I do this year's bubbling up of noise and just plain weird into metal, an admittedly weird music to begin with, was really stimulating. Cavernlight's "As We Cup Our Hands” and “Drink From the Stream of Our Ache," Xanthochroid's "Of Erthe And Axen: Act II" and Lorna Shore's "Flesh Coffin" are just joys in this regard… joys in a furious, metal sort of way, but nonetheless enjoyable for their tone, depth and diversity.

I listen to and write about music of all kinds, and may pick stuff you hate. That said, my metal releases this year:

25. Royal Thunder, "Wick"

Metal always has a lot of nostalgia for the 1970s, with major affinities for the arena rock of Led Zeppelin and the fathers like Black Sabbath. One of the best inheritors of that tradition is Georgia's Royal Thunder, whose bluesy, hard rocky sound is one of the more faithful homages to the old school you will hear. What vaults "Wick" into the best-of 2017 is vocalist Mlny Parsonz, whose awe-inspiring voice makes you hope Uta Plotkin gets into a studio soon.

24. Paradise Lost, "Medusa"

An all-time MVP like Paradise Lost this low on a list (but still on said list) is indicative of how great metal was in 2017. The placement of the monumental "Medusa" here is no shot; the UK's doom/goth trailblazers make consistently solid music that has, over the years, matured, but is nevertheless some of the best there is.

23. Spectral Voice, "Eroded Corridors of Unbeing"

It is as if atmospheric black metal were dipped like an ice cream cone into a thick, greasy soup of noise. Some may hate the churning of subgenres, electronics and volume. Thankfully for you, Judas Priest is coming back.

22. Succumb, "Succumb"

Virtually all the records on this list have some mammoth guitar work and riffs that are quite memorable. Succumb is not one of those bands. Instead its songs wind with at moments progressive, at other turns punk/hardcore inflected, guitars washed to the bone with noise, distortion and sheer modulation. 2017 was undoubtedly a year for sonority, with Primitive Man among the loud class. Succumb just happened to end up valedictorian.

21. Replacire, "Do Not Deviate"

The Boston band avoided the sophomore slump with a technical death metal record that is as exacting and overwhelming as anything released in 2017. From clean singing and growls to a superlative guitar attack, Replacire crafted songs that were original while being slightly familiar. And yet the quintet managed to stand out with an album that does death metal's history proud.

20. Introtyl, "Inside of Violence"

Music without understanding the people behind it is, we can probably agree, boring as fuck. Mexico's all-female death metal dynamos offered an EP early in the year that largely flew under the radar. Many reasons for that, surely. People ¯\_()_/¯’ing music from Mexico/Latin America or female-led metal is probably part of that, though you would probably hear lots of 'not me' to such insinuations. Coming back to it, "Inside of Violence" is affecting for its sound and its story of artists who have put in quite a journey to get here.

19. Cannibal Corpse, "Red Before Black"

Controversial for years, it is hard for Cannibal Corpse to make shocking death metal when one has been pretty much the standard by which death metal is judged. The band succeeded in lifting the bar a bit more with an album that shows off its musicianship and insane songwriting. As usual, Cannibal Corpse's storytelling is not for casual metal listeners, but its irascibility is certainly a treat.

18.  Tombs, "The Grand Annihilation"

Tombs' release was part of a larger movement that saw many bands blending sludge and black metal this year. No one in 2017 was quite as pensive as the Brooklynites, who have been doing it for a decade. Its newest offering introduces vocals that make this one an almost infernally operatic affair, while giving fans the slow-burn riffs and unrelenting rhythms they've come to love.

17. Cradle of Filth, "Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay"

The symphonic metal OGs have taken great pains to avoid categorization, but there is something about their 2017 full-length sure to please most everyone. Grand orchestration, striking riffs and prodigious vocals made Cradle of Filth's newest one of the group's better recordings in its 12-deep catalog. In a year where legendary symphonic acts like Carach Angren returned, "Cryptoriana" ably showed why Cradle of Filth is revered to this day.

16. King Woman, "Created in the Image of Suffering"

Kristina Esfandiari's doom project explored, in 2015's "Doubt," her upbringing in a cult. Now a full band, King Woman comes back to these themes in the 2017 full-length. With more contributors in the fold, the release sees Esfandiari turn in a sensational vocal performance. Here you will also experience lyrics that are vulnerable, reminding us all that, while violence scars us, betrayal cuts deeper. Accompanied by a pulverizing blend, "Created in the Image of Suffering" is nothing but sublime.

15. Elder, "Reflections of a Floating World"

Stoner metal torchbearers Elder turned lots of heads with "Lore," its 2015 album of massive chords and progressive tilts aplenty. Lofty comparisons to Kyuss and major bands ensued. Undeterred, Elder made 2017 an active year, with several recordings on the books. This one was by far the Massachusetts crew's best, taking its folky asides and dreamy stylings into its most comprehensive collection to date.

14. Pyrrhon, "What Passes for Survival"

If nothing else, this was a year for music and politics. Whether it was top-ten-dead-or-alive rapper Vince Staples, indie icons Broken Social Scene, Fiona Apple's anthem composed for the international Women's March in January, or Joey Bada$$' magnum opus "All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$," shit was not being taken from anyone in 2017. Metal, of course, has always explored oppression and resistance, and rarely have such subjects been nearly as potent. Pyrrhon presented by far metal's most socio-politically conscious record of 2017, taking on bigotry, inequality and climate change in the most fierce and uncompromising way imaginable. The result? Music as commanding as its message.

13. Heathen Beast, "Scam"

Heathen Beast brought out the punk/hardcore aesthetic to its edge on "Scam," a seriously extensive rabbit hole of social and cultural exploration of life in its native India. You might start Googling all the references and learning more about castes and income disparities in that country of 1.3 billion people. Or you may just take in the musicianship, which is stellar. Either way, metal is better because of bands like this, and "Scam," like many influential records, gives us a glimpse into lives most of us know nothing about.

12. Dodecahedron, "Kwintessens"

Where black metal has become a category of everything and nothing over the last minute or so, what it means to make or claim black metal remains a big question. Returning after a five-year layoff, Dutch masters Dodecahedron have risen up as the gatekeepers of some of the subgenre's best qualities: fearsome vocals, relentless guitars and a suffocating landscape of darkness. "Kwintessens" is Dutch for "quintessence," an apt description for a breathtaking album.

11. Monarch, "Never Forever"

France's doom outfit Monarch released an incredible album in September, featuring a KISS cover and plenty to talk about. Long known as a five-piece tending toward sluggish arrangements and complex compositions, "Never Forever" was a departure of sorts. Although its five songs came in at over an hour, with all the glacial goodness you expect from Monarch, selections like "Song To The Void" brought a ghostly sheen to the music. As always, the band shone again with Emilie Bresson on vocals, with her performance on the "Black Diamond" cover and on "Lilith" are among her best.

10. Below the Sun, "Alien World"

Who does not love a good concept record? And 2017 featured some great takes. Few were as compelling as Russian doom band Below the Sun's spin on the 1961 science fiction novel "Solaris." In the Stanislaw Lem book, scientists on a ship studying an ocean-covered planet discover the sea itself is a single, world-encompassing organism that has been reading their thoughts and fears and can cast those ideas into material form. Basing music in the Lem classic is ambitious, but Below the Sun pull it off with masterful atmosphere, weighty soundscapes and imagination that is rare, even in this creative genre.

9. Converge, "The Dusk in Us"

I confess Converge is in my top ten largely out of peer pressure. It is rather high on many best-of lists, though it felt like a (good and interesting) 1990s-style record when I reviewed it. Extraordinary? Nope. Important? Not really. However, what Converge does well, it does lavishly. As it is, "The Dusk in Us" is an arresting return for Converge and will likely be a sturdy album even in a year or two.

8. Aosoth, "The Inside Scriptures"

Over the years, you have no doubt come to respect French black metal, which has cultivated a reputation for extremity through the efforts of groups like Mütiilation, Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega. Gone since 2013's "An Arrow in the Heart," Aosoth rejoined the living this year, embracing the hints of technical death metal it has incorporated before more fully on this six-song package. While risky – there are many instances where black/death marriages can sound like dour dumpster fires – Aosoth makes the relationship work through attention to detail and its signature intensity. The result is magic… black, beautiful magic.

7. Akercocke, "Renaissance in Extremis"

Since its 1999 debut, "Rape of the Bastard Nazarene," Akercocke has tended toward a quirky appearance (suits, really?) and intellectual Satanism somewhat reliant on postmodern liberal ideals (its debate with Christian activists is the stuff of YouTube fable). After 2007's "Antichrist," the band ostensibly broke up, wrapping a tantalizing black metal footnote. However, when a reunion and new album where announced, inquiries of where the English progressive black metal quintet would go next were abundant. The answers lie in goth, thrash and technical ministrations – all seemingly eccentric yet at home with one the last true metal iconoclasts. Although divergent from previous releases, Akercocke's latest is an honorable return to form, and better than 90 percent of the metal recordings out there.

6. Mastodon, "Emperor of Sand"

Now seven albums into its career, Mastodon is one of a handful of metal bands that can be covered by Pitchfork yet aren't abject garbage. Such a ruling was very uncertain for a second. The group saw mainstream exposure with "Once More Round the Sun," and you might have tasted the fear of Atlanta's favorite sons going into some "Black Album" territory. Never fear, for "Emperor of Sand" continues this impulse to be accessible while remaining obtusely heavy. Where there is the friendly "Stormbreather" there is also windier "Andromeda." These tensions between virtuous fidelity to metal and sinful coveting of dad rock are palatable, if not wholly a part of our narrative. Yet Mastodon manage to stay on the good side of that line in 2017, with a record that deserves all the recognition it is getting.

5. Zeal & Ardor, "Devil Is Fine"

That there is some consternation that this is even metal at all is endlessly amusing. No, Slayer it isn't, but if we're being real, how many Slayer fans are particularly metal these days? What was once an idea that came from a 4Chan exchange associating black metal and a racial slur has emerged as 2017's most subversive metal album, pitching Black music into a style disproportionately dominated by Caucasians. Manuel Gagneux's mash of black metal influences, African-American gospel, prison work songs, techno (?!?!), blues and noise fights actively against your expectations, gets topical without getting in too deep for those who avoid such things, uses evil as an effective lyrical device for human evil, and rages far harder than "Song 9,483 About Lucifer" by Pointless Metal Act. If you love artists who will do things that make you question your music, you may enjoy what this Swiss one-man act is up to.

4. Enslaved, "E"

If Enslaved aren't Norway's best-known metal export, it is safe to say the band is currently the biggest. 25 years on, the group has built a rabid following worldwide for its dense music borne of eclectic progenitors. This go around, Enslaved continues a tradition that it has gone with in recent years: a more celestial vibe that may at turns remind you of Pink Floyd. Enslaved's discography has leaned toward more driving tracks. On "E" the sound is purposeful, paced and melodic. Rather than punishing, this is a sound you intake. And what an injection it is.

3. Myrkur, "Mareridt"

Given how much praise "Mareridt" received when it was released a few months ago, you might think it would end up recognized by year's end. Alas, no, which is surprising, considering its merger of folkloric elements, black metal and exceptional musicians is one of the more forward-thinking metal releases of the year. Some of this exclusion could be chalked up to backlash. Myrkur's Amalie Bruun has received her share of attention this year – for matters like a Decibel magazine interview distancing herself from black metal to closing down Facebook messages over death threats she was getting. However, do know the world has a lot of myopic assholes in it. The astonishing album still deserves the praise it got, and a place at the table when we're talking about the best of 2017.

2. Pallbearer, "Heartless"

Arkansas' doom powerhouse is still young in its trip, but has won over many listeners with compositions that break away from traditional themes and subtle sonic environments that beckon you in. What is unique on "Heartless" and is most striking about Pallbearer is its sophistication. Vocalist Brett Campbell gives his best performance to date, conveying passion, hope and dread at many turns. The result is an album that has gotten well-deserved year-end buzz.

1. Bell Witch, "Mirror Reaper"

No releases were as courageous or satisfying as Bell Witch's glorious return this year. After losing half of the band's creative core to an untimely passing, it would have been simple to hang it up and call it a day. Yet Bell Witch reconstituted and dug hard, examining the duality of life and death, featuring posthumous vocals from their fallen comrade, in a single, 80-plus-minute track. A passing look might consider such packaging as self-indulgence. A close listen reveals a fearless and sorrowful exposition at a universal experience. "Mirror Reaper" had worthy company, but no peer this year.