All right, I didn’t quite finish this in time for the end of 2014, so here it is now (I’ve still got an unfinished best albums of 2013 kicking around somewhere that I should really get around to completing).
Normally I feel like I have a reasonable grasp of what has been released over the year and so have a decent foundation on which to make my own best-of list. This year I’ve been reading some best of 2014 lists thinking “Who the fuck is that?” or “I remember reading about that but never got around to listening to it”, or “People liked that album? Wtf?”. Still, it’s been a few years since I’ve managed to compile a list, so that’s some kind of improvement even if I do feel like I didn’t have enough time to take in all the quality releases there have been. Meanwhile, I still don’t get all the fuss about Pallbearer.
• Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall
• Voices – London
• Stephan Forte – Enigma Opera Black
• Destroying Divinity – Hollow Dominion
• Near Death Condition – Evolving Towards Extinction
• Calm Hatchery – Fading Reliefs
• 1349 – Massive Cauldron of Chaos
Top Ten of 2014:
10. Godflesh – A World Lit Only By Fire
Despite having friends who worship this band and being fully aware of Justin Broderick’s wide-ranging influence on extreme music, Godflesh were simply one of those bands that I couldn’t get into. Then I heard this album and was pretty much blown away. Perhaps it’s the added heaviness of 7-string guitars, or simply that my taste in metal hasve broadened enough to encompass Godflesh’s singular vision, but I think I finally get it.
9. Sanctuary – The Year the Sun Died
To be honest, after my favourite fucking band split because Warrel Dane had a falling out with Jeff Loomis and decided to try recapturing some former glory with Sanctuary, I really really wanted this album to be rubbish and unsurprisingly that’s exactly what I thought on my first few listens. It was Nevermore-lite at best. Then I listened to it some more and gradually realised that Dane’s voice is still as great as ever (the fact that he was never going to hit the insane highs of the first two Sanctuary albums bothered me far less than it did for more dedicated Sanctuary fans) and the riffs and melodies evoke Nevermore pretty heavily (the chorus of “Let the Serpent Follow Me” is a fairly clear example). The soloing is obviously not the neoclassical shred of Jeff Loomis, but it’s still decent, and you can even hear the bass from time to time which is frankly shocking with an Andy Sneap production. Much as it pains me to say it, The Year the Sun Died is significantly better than Warrel Dane’s solo album*, and better than Nevermore’s two worst albums (The Obsidian Conspiracy and Enemies of Reality), which means it’s actually pretty good. Fuck.
* I’ve heard that he’s working on a second one. Here’s hoping it doesn’t use recycled Soilwork riffs like the first one
8. Hoth – Oathbreaker
If I needed a reminder to keep notes throughout the year, it’s the fact that I have no idea how I originally came across this album (the somewhat overblown Chronicles of Chaos review?). Anyway, let’s all give thanks to Bandcamp for helping another unsigned band get its music out there. Opeth is a definite reference point in terms of dynamic shifts within songs, but Hoth lean more towards black metal in vocal style and a more extensive use of tremelo riffs, along with the occasional symphonic moment such as the chants in the middle section of “Serpentine Whispers” and the cello opening of “Acolyte of the Tenebrous Light”. As noted in the CoC review, Hoth uses motifs extensively throughout the album, establishing a riff or melody that in continued in a lead part, or in a contrasting riff.
Additional kudos for the Star Wars references (the album’s concept is based on the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker) and the logo that looks like a TIE Fighter.
7. Conquering Dystopia – Conquering Dystopia
At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, it was tough facing up to the fact that Nevermore was, uh, no more. Whilst Jeff Loomis’s first solo album Zero Order Phase was shred-tastic in the extreme, I was bitterly disappointed with the follow up Plains of Oblivion (who the fuck adds vocals to an instrumental album? Jeff Loomis and Marty Friedman apparently. Idiots) and wondered where Loomis was going next*. I should have known better. Opening track “Prelude to Obliteration” begins and it’s moreorless Zero Order Phase with added blastbeats – Loomis and Keith Merrow crank out riff after riff after motherfucking riff and then Loomis breaks out into his particular brand of neoclassical shredding**. Alex Rüdinger on drums adds a more technical flair to the drumming seen on Loomis’s other instrumental albums, including the aforementioned blasts, and allegedly Alex Webster provided bass but damned if I can actually hear any in the mix. Commence headbanging motherfuckers! \m/
* I don’t think anyone predicted he would wind up in Arch Enemy as a touring guitarist
** From what I can see of the playthrough videos, Merrow’s contribution is restricted to rhythm guitar, which is faintly odd as he’s an excellent lead guitarist in his own right, but I honestly don’t care if it means more shred from Loomis
6. Thantifaxath – Sacred White Noise
Bugger. Another band I cannot describe very well, other than to say the music is something that you might get if Voivod did black metal. Black as fuck tremelo riffs are mixed with proggy interludes and dark psychedelia, with surprisingly bright melodies providing a contrast to the otherwise unrelenting bleakness (like Bölzer but different). I think I would have rated the album much higher if not for the momentum killing five minute interlude placed slap bang in the middle, but the album is still great and I look forward to hearing more from the band.
5. Execration – Morbid Dimensions
Evoking a 90s feel but without recycling ideas from that era, Execration’s third album is packed full of riffs and mild experimentation that treads the middle path between devout retro worship and the Progressive Pit of Tedious Bullshit that has most recently claimed Morbus Chron and Tribulation. “Cosmic Mausoleum” gives no fucks whatsoever, taking over three minutes over a slow atmospheric intro before the pace picks up with distorted chords and blastbeats and then a harmonised tremelo riff. The production is quite dry and occasionally a little weak sounding, but it adds to the spacey sounding riffs and is a refreshing change from the usual Boss Metal Zone abuse that one expects from a retro band. More importantly it just works. The only negative point I can think of is that the album is an hour in length which is far too long for any death metal album worth its salt, but when the riffs are this good it’s hard to remain annoyed
4. Decapitated – Blood Mantra
In my reckoning, Decapitated peaked with Organic Hallucinosis so it was a disappointment that the first post-Vitek album was so stripped down and simplistic that there was nothing left worthy of attention. Blood Mantra isn’t vastly different and yet I find myself listening to the album over and over again. Whether it’s the beautifully simple tremelo riff that opens “Exiled in Flesh”, the hypnotic repetition of “Blindness”, the beautiful tapped solo of “Nest”, the full on thrash riff that concludes the title track (“Nation on Fire” anyone?), or bonus track “Moth Defect” evoking Meshuggah’s “Acrid Placidity”, the album is full of great moments and great songs and a far better successor to Organic Hallucinosis than its predecessor Carnival is Forever.
3. Arsafes – Ratocracy
Judging from the number of times I’ve listened to this album since its release, it should been the winner but Vyrion and Slugdge appeared late in the year and bumped Ratocracy down a bit. For anyone still mourning the demise of Strapping Young Lad, Arsafes pays homage to Devin Townsend’s old band with an added touch of 8-string djent to keep matters out of clone territory. The mammoth riffs, mosh-tastic grooves, synths and samples will be immediately familiar, but the vocals tend to be more on the death metal side of things with a lot of blasting to match. The fact that this all the work of a single man, Roman “Arsafes” Iskororstenskiy),makes me want to give up and weep when I consider my own pathetic musical talent.
2. Vyrion – Geo
I freely admit that I had never heard of this band until Vasilis Xenopoulos mentioned them in a comment on a Last Rites Staff Infections post, and holy shit this is excellent. “Aggressive progressive Australian black metal” is the band’s own description and it’s spot on and a darn sight better than some of Enslaved comparisons I’ve seen floating around. Okay, we’ve got black metal rasps, tremelo riffs, tempo and dynamic shifts aplenty, but Vyrion are more brutal and less proggy. At some point I feel like I need to write a dedicated review, but if you’re a fan of the progressive end of black metal such as the aforementioned Enslaved or Emperor, then you owe it to yourself to have a listen.
1. Slugdge – Gastronomicon
Metal and gimmick bands have been a thing for years, but many bands seem to concentrate on making jokes at the expense of writing decent songs. Slugdge’s concept of several giant slugs that rule over multiple universes* leads to pun-tastic song titles (“Salters of Madness”) and faintly bonkers lyrics (“The Grand Vizier to the Sultan of slime / Beholder of he whose face is the void”), but the songwriting is impeccable. There are nods to Emperor and Anaal Nathrakth in the soaring clean vocals, riffs that evoke bands like Morbid Angel et al (plus that blatant Napalm Death build-up in “Slimewave Zero” at 2:52), but overall the duo have nailed a fairly distinctive style. In spite of my complete inability to describe the album, I haven’t been able to stop listening to Gastronomicon since I stumbled across it a few months ago, so it’s worthy of its place at the top of this year’s list. Best progressive death metal album about intergalactic slug overlords ever? Hell yes. All hail Greatfather Mollusca!
When people realise we’re all the same scared little organisms trying to make sense of something that makes very little sense, then maybe a cosmic slug that lives outside of our physical perception is the best option for everyone. Mollusca also doesn’t mind what you do with your alone time!
The best of the rest
- Best gig of 2014: Meshuggah at the Roundhouse, 22nd December 2014
Last time I saw Meshuggah was at the Kentish Town Forum for a joint headlining gig with the Devin Townsend Project. I was seated on the first floor and just nodded my head in appreciation for around an hour. I wasn’t able to get a decent seat this time, so decided to stand instead and it was a very different experience. As before, the rhythms and grooves are hypnotic and crushing, but I couldn’t stop headbanging for the entire gig. Still gutted about the lack of “Humiliative” though. 😦
- Best Comeback: Sanctuary (The Year the Sun Died – see above)
- Most Overrated Album: Horrendous – Ecdysis
I’ve tried listening to this repeatedly, but I just don’t see the appeal. The more mellow and melodic parts are devoid of aggression and I just switch off when the album is playing. Meh. Perhaps it needs more time but with all the other great albums released in 2014, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much
- Most Underrated Album: Vyrion – Geo (see above)
- Biggest Disappointment: At the Gates – At War With Reality
It wasn’t bad, but frankly it wasn’t the stone cold classic the hype train had been promising. It has been said in various places that the legion of imitators that appeared in the nigh-on two decades since Slaughter of the Soul undermined any success this album might have had, but imitation didn’t harm Carcass and Surgical Steel. That all said, At the Gates provided a stripped down template that was very easy to copy whilst no one has ever really captured the songwriting genius that is Bill Steer, so perhaps the two bands/albums do not make for a simple comparison.
• Album I didn’t listen to enough: Nero Di Marte – Derivae
I have a limit for that particular brand of dissonant, sonically dense music that bands like Gorguts, Pyrrhon, Ulcerate et al produce, and Nero Di Marte are at the extreme end of that tolerance (Ulcerate and Pyrrhon being past that limit). And so whilst I am able to appreciate the technical prowess of their music, I simply didn’t devote as much time to their sophomore album as I did their self-titled debut. I tried again and it’s a little more impenetrable than the previous album. Oh well. Understanding and appreciation will come with time
Best albums heard in 2014, but not released in 2014
- New Keepers of the Water Towers – Cosmic Child
Proggy like Pink Floyd, sludgy like Alice in Chains and occasionally a teensy bit like Opeth and Mastodon. It’s excellent and would undoubtedly have been my favourite album of 2013 had I heard it in the right damn year. Better late than never I guess.
- Paradox – Heresy
This was released in 1989? Nineteen eighteen fucking nine?! Why the fuck did no one tell me about this band sooner? I was oblivious until I stumbled on a retrospective review by autothrall written back in 2010, and just wow. If you like melodic technical thrash, then buy this album. Fuck it. If you like metal, then just buy this album. Oh wait, good luck finding a copy as its availability is on a par with hen’s teeth (assuming one ignores that Greek guy on Ebay who seems to have about ten copies and is clearly selling knock-offs). I’ll bide my time, but meanwhile you can listen to the entire album on YouTube
- Wargasm – Suicide Notes
Like many people in the UK who got into metal in the early 90s, I can thank Headbanger’s Ball for introducing me to many metal bands, one of which was Wargasm, I remember seeing a video for “Dreadnaught Day” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY4St3-yDPQ) in the mid 90s and thinking “Yeah, this is pretty good”. However, mail order shops only had an EP for the band which I couldn’t be bothered with and so I forgot about the band almost completely until Angry Metal Guy did a retrospective review of Ugly which led me to the band’s third and final album Suicide Notes. Apart from that one riff that sounds so close to “Five Minutes Alone” it jars me every time I hear it, Suicide Notes is a great album. Since I can’t seem to find any tracks on YouTube anymore, here’s a playlist for Ugly instead.
A friend once remarked that late-era Nevermore is death metal in all but vocal style. Clean singing combined with death metal riffing is a form of extreme metal that has crossover appeal, albeit one that has remained relatively unexplored. Blistering.com suggests that this is because “few can figure out how to do it properly” and I have to agree with this assertion. Even the progressive death metal masters Opeth saved clean vocals for clean/acoustic guitar passages, which is all the more disappointing when “The Lotus Eater” (from Watershed) demonstrated that Mikael Åkerfeldt was capable of the more jarring mix of clean vocals with full-on death metal. At least until he disappeared up the prog arse of the Universe with Heritage but that’s a rant for another time.
Meanwhile Sweden’s Desultor has taken this potential and run with it, producing an accomplished debut album that skilfully layers traditional heavy metal vocals atop pummelling riffs and blast-beats. The earlier Nevermore citation wasn’t an idle one as vocalist/guitarist Markus Joha evokes Warrel Dane on numerous occasions, such as during the chorus of “Another World”, with a hint of Fracture‘s Paal Strand  in the background. The vocals aren’t always an unqualified success, such as the shrieks that wobble all over “Black Monday” without hitting a proper note until the pre-chorus, but by and large Joha utilises his range to great effect. There are occasional snarls that will help those coming to Desultor from a more brutal background, but his clean vocals are front and centre as both the biggest selling point of the band and the greatest potential hurdle to overcome. I have to admit that it took me a great deal less time to adjust to the idea as I have no issues with clean singing, despite mainly listening to death metal these days, and I’ve also listened a lot to the rather excellent Satan’s Host album By The Hands of the Devil (which can only be described as power black metal and comes highly recommended).
Elsewhere the riffing doesn’t let up at any point, smoothly shifting between aggressive thrash, melodic death and black metal tropes. Tremolo picking is mostly used, along with Gothenberg-esque palm-muted pedal riffs and the odd chord progression. It’s not overtly technical but then it’s not all that varied. Whilst he’s not on the same level as Nevermore’s former guitar god Jeff Loomis, Joha’s soloing is both tasteful and melodic, which is more than can often be said for the excessive guitar acrobatics of most power metal. Michael Ibrahim’s drumming is tightly in step with the music, providing a solid foundation for the rhythm guitar work, albeit confined to two modes of playing: a fast double-kick assault and blast-beat battery. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but I would have preferred either a wider range of basic patterns or more creative fills.
At 34 minutes, Masters of Hate doesn’t outstay its welcome and is refreshingly free of bloat, but I remain unsure as to whether an album this immediate will have staying power. There is little in the way of intricacies to be teased out with repeated listens, and if one ignores the short but largely redundant instrumentals, there are only eight proper songs that mainly sit in the three to four minute range.
That said, this is a great debut and will appeal to any fans of progressive death metal, or indeed those who enjoy death metal music but can’t be having with grunted/growled vocals. Here’s hoping Desultor find their niche and go on to bigger and better things.
 Blistering cites Communic‘s Oddleif Stensland, a band which I’m not all that familiar but both Communic and Fracture hail from Norway.