Wow, 2019 was an incredible year for metal and related genres. Although I appreciate many styles of metal, most (but not all) of my favorite metal tends to come from bands that draw some degree of inspiration from the psychedelic tendencies of 1970s progressive rock, especially Pink Floyd, and apply them in a metal context. Thankfully for me, there are bands across the spectrum of metal sub-genres that do this, allowing me to populate my list with a nice range of styles and approaches. Here are my favorite albums from 2019.
20. OPETH In Cauda Venenum (Swedish Version)
(Moderbolaget, Nuclear Blast Records)
We all need to realize that, aside from live performances, death metal Opeth is probably gone forever. Nevertheless, In Cauda Venenum, the latest entry in the progressive rock phase of the band, is a worthy addition to Opeth’s illustrious catalogue. While not as good as the outstanding Damnation or Pale Communion, In Cauda Venenum easily bests the lackluster Heritage and Sorceress. Clocking in at nearly 67 minutes, this one takes some time to digest. A massive hunk of metal-inflected progressive rock, beautifully recorded and performed, In Cauda Venenum like most Opeth albums, rewards repeated listening and reminds that even if the elimination of death metal from their toolbox has contracted Opeth’s emotional range, they are still a whole lot better than most bands out there.
19. FEN The Dead Light
On The Dead Light, Britain's black metal/post-metal veterans Fen return with a more focused and riff-oriented sound than they’ve had on their recent albums. The album still has plenty of extended post-metal and atmospheric sections, sweeping melodies, and dynamic contrast, but it also offers lots of meaty metal riffing to sink your teeth into. Strongly recommended for any fans of atmospheric or post-black metal.
18. OBSIDIAN TIDE Pillars of Creation
Wow. This one came out of left field, but it’s good enough to hang with genre’s established acts. Obsidian Tide is a progressive death metal band out of Israel and on Pillars of Creation, their debut, they let loose with a full length slab of Opeth and Tool worship. What makes this album work so well is the riffs. Basically all of the riffs on this album are killers. And so even if some of the riffs occasionally sound a bit derivative, it’s a forgivable offense because this thing is a blast to listen to and one of my favorite albums of the year.
17. IN MOURNING Garden of Storms
On Garden of Storms, In Mourning resume doing what they have done their entire career–releasing killer prog-inflected melodic death metal anchored by awesome riffs, generous use of 12/8 time, memorable hooks, and great performances and production. In Mourning has always deserved a larger audience and this could be the album to make it happen. As always, In Mourning’s riffs and ensemble playing are top-notch. More importantly, while In Mourning’s deep death growls were always top-notch, the clean vocals have come a long way and are the best they’ve ever been on this release. With Opeth looking to have made a permanent transition to progressive rock (at least insofar as their new material is concerned), Garden of Storms marks a strong claim that In Mourning should become the standard-bearers for Swedish progressive death metal. If you’re into Opeth, Be’Lakor, Barren Earth, or Persefone, you’re probably already listening to In Mourning, but if not, stop reading this right now and play this album.
16. GYGAX High Fantasy
Holy smokes, this is a fun album. High Fantasy is an album of tight, tight, traditional melodic metal and is all about hooks, riffs, and killer lead guitar harmonies. The songwriting on High Fantasy is incredibly direct and concise. Gygax get to the point, make it, and move on before anyone has a chance to get bored. It’s more difficult than it sounds to develop impactful musical ideas in a heavy metal format so quickly without leaving your listener in the dust, and Gygax’s success is a testament to their skill as writers and arrangers. Although squarely in the traditional melodic metal category inhabited by bands like Enforcer and the sadly defunct Steelwing, Gygax will also appeal to fans of power doom (e.g., Argus, Slough Feg, Visigoth) and power metal.
15. SPIRIT ADRIFT Divided By Darkness
(20 Buck Spin)
Spirit Adrift straddles the divide between power doom (think Argus, Crypt Sermon, Atlantean Kodex, Slough Feg, Visigoth) and progressive metal, sprinkled with traditional doom and keyboard psychedelia. Their sound on Divided by Darkness is animated by tons of killer lead guitar harmonies, extended synth-driven psychedelic passages, and lead vocals that are more than a bit reminiscent of Ghost’s Tobias Forge. Divided by Darkness gets better with each listen and may well have ranked higher had I had more time to give it more spins. A tremendous accomplishment by a band that is clearly on the rise. I love the subtle homage to one of my all-time favorite albums, Pink Floyd's Animals, on album closer "The Way of Return."
14. VOLCANO The Island
Sometimes, you just want to kick out the feel-good jammy jams. One of the most fun records I’ve heard in ages, Volcano’s The Island is 40 minutes of jammed out psychedelic grooves with tons of auxiliary percussion fattening the mix and keeping bodies moving–a total party record. Think live, deep cut Santana from 1969-71 or the more exploratory live tracks that the Allman Brothers Band cut before Duane Allman died, amped up with a bit more funk and afrobeat vibes. I highly recommend this one for any fans of psychedelic rock, space rock, krautrock, or extended live cuts from the seventies. Now time for a hard truth PSA. The music of psyche/space-rock bands like Volcano and their contemporaries Ecstatic Vision is hip and awesome and has rightfully earned the appreciation of a lot of metal fans. It also, frankly, could be really successful if marketed to the commercially significant jam rock scene. Unfortunately, pursuing that audience would be risky for these bands as anything remotely associated with jam bands becomes instantly uncool in our scene, thanks to some closed minds. Too bad. These bands could use the extra fan base purchasing their albums and concert tickets.
13. LINGUA IGNOTA CALIGULA
(Sargent House, Profound Lore Records)
Caligula is not an easy or particularly fun listen, but it is an important and devastatingly powerful one. Kristin Hayter’s most recent collection of survivor anthems distills her rage and sorrow as a survivor of domestic abuse into an incredibly impactful slab of music. A testament to the complexity of resilience, Caligula should be required listening in our community in which too many bands are all too willing to casually embrace lyrical imagery that normalizes sexual violence and misogyny. Caligula will undoubtedly also prove itself a meaningful resource for listeners struggling with their own demons. However, don’t let my focus on the incredible thematic power of Caligula convince you that the album is one-dimensional or musically shallow. The ambitious compositions and arrangements here are deep, and the meticulous attention to detail in assembling this work is part of what makes it connect so vitally. Raw, polished and everywhere in between, Caligula is essential listening.
12. HEILUNG Futha
(Season of Mist)
Not for the closed-minded, Heilung’s Futha is not really metal, but rather an exploration of Northern European folk and pagan sounds warped into a psychedelic hellscape. The album is strange, at times disturbing, but also unspeakably beautiful and frequently spellbinding. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Futha is decidedly not for everyone. Even I question whether some more aggressive self-editing should have been applied to the extended spoken-word section toward the end of the album. But the music is so unusual–at once primal and sophisticated–that it should be heard by anyone who fancies themselves as musically adventurous. Particularly enjoyable on a nice pair of headphones.
11. WORMWOOD Nattarvet
(Black Lodge Records)
Swedish melodic black metallers Wormwood really nailed it with their 2019 release, Nattarvet. Although Wormwood’s drummer, credited only as D. Johannson, can certainly bring the blasts when he wants to, Wormwood has made the wise decision to dial back the blast beats in order to make more space in the music for the band’s melodic content. The approach pays off thanks to Wormwood’s great hooks and memorable riffs. You end up with an album where you often have standard metal and even rock riffs with blackened vocals over them, with more traditional black metal sections (blast beats, tremolo-picked guitars, etc.) serving as dynamic contrasts points. Wormwood further spices things up with some folk parts and psychedelic ethereal clean vocals for your true Swedish forest experience. Although the band’s attention to detail and instrumental part writing are superior throughout, they really kicked things up a notch on my favorite track, the album-closing “The Isolationist,” on which Wormwood create an almost prog-rock like psychedelic instrumental voyage before hitting the listener with one last bit of black metal fury. Awesome album.
10. ALCEST Spiritual Instinct
At this point in their career, Alcest have mastered their craft and elevated their brand of blackgaze to a true form of art. Forever tinkering with the balance between dreamy atmospherics and black metal, Alcest really dialed in a great mixture on Spiritual Instinct. If you don’t like what Alcest have done in their career to date, this one is probably not going to change that fact. But for those of us who like Alcest, Spiritual Instinct is another fantastic entry in their catalog–the work of an exceptionally talented band in the prime of their career, executing with a purity of vision that is nearly unmatched in metal today.
9. LEPROUS Pitfalls
Although the writing on the walls should have been clear for some time now, with Pitfalls, the metal world should collectively acknowledge that Leprous is no longer a metal band. Not to say that is a problem. On the contrary, the band continues to churn out top-notch material even if it really should be characterized as progressive rock. Pitfalls generally continues the trends of the previous three Leprous albums. This means arrangements with tons of space, huge dynamic shifts, and Einar’s vocals being almost the only melodic voice with the other instruments largely relegated to supporting rhythm and harmony. It’s an approach that has proven successful for Leprous, thanks largely to their superb execution composing, arranging, and performing these albums.
Pitfalls does not quite reach the heights of The Congregation, the strongest Leprous outing to date, but it nonetheless marks another excellent entry in the Leprous catalog and is sure to please fans of their post-Bilateral work. As always, Einar is incredibly emotive and simultaneously crooning and powerful. But this time around, there’s a palpable sense of vulnerability, both in the vocal delivery and the lyrics themselves. This newfound sense of vulnerability makes the completion of Leprous’ shift to a rock (rather than metal) sound feel more appropriate. Also worth noting is the stellar drumming of Baard Kolstad, now playing on his third Leprous album. Does anyone seriously question whether this guy is Norway’s best drummer? The album is worth picking up just to hear more of his playing. Notably, this album has Leprous’ first guitar solo since Bilateral.
8. MISÞYRMING Algleymi
Easily the heaviest album on this list, Algleymi serves up a ferocious assault of (barely) melodic black metal from Misþyrming, who have emerged as one of Iceland’s leading metal bands. Although the black metal pummeling only lets up for several key quiet moments, that doesn’t mean this album is monolithic. On the contrary, on Algleymi, Misþyrming constantly adjusts the intensity level and guitar and drumming styles (often within a song). Through this, Algleymi’s compositions frequently feel like little explorations of variations on a theme, with dynamic shifts and arrangement approach providing the avenues of exploration. This unusual approach works so well because the quality of the riffs and melodic part writing is so strong, making this the highest-ranking album on my list to feature only extreme vocals.
7. MONKEY3 Sphere
Although most bands that I love have long instrumental passages, I find that fully instrumental bands can come across as emotionally disconnected. Not the case with Monkey3, whose blend of instrumental stoner metal and psychedelic space rock keeps the listener coming back for more. The extended psychedelic workouts on the LP are sure to excite fans of bands like Yuri Gagarin or Ecstatic Vision. But Monkey3 may also find fans among open-minded listeners of post metal and metalgaze, if those listeners are open to a denser, more improvisational sound. And there’s even something here for the lover of progressive metal, with particularly excellent psychedelic synthesizer work. One to zone out to.
6. MOON TOOTH Crux
A follow-up in every way to Moon Tooth’s 2016 debut Chromaparagon, their 2019 sophomore effort, Crux, finds Moon Tooth further honing their particularly off-kilter brand of alternative progressive metal. As was the case with their debut, the most immediately recognizable feature of Crux is the unusual vocal delivery of lead singer John Carbone. His very unconventional melodic phrasing will undoubtedly be a turn off for some listeners but a major draw for Moon Tooth’s core audience. Anchoring the vocals are inventive, angular guitar riffs and heavily syncopated drumming. The combined effect is powerful and Moon Tooth seem to take great joy in doing the unexpected. This album’s production style is substantially more polished than their debut.
5. IHLO Union
Ihlo’s Union is a masterful and mature collection of compositions that are so fully realized that I have trouble accepting that this could be any band’s first album. The performances are outstanding as well. Union’s lushly layered synthesizer parts are the most intricate and complex I’ve ever heard on a metal album and Andy Robison’s remarkable lead vocal performance marks the arrival of a powerful new talent who is ready to be heard. Ihlo’s polished clean vocals–combined with the use, in places, of djent riffing–have drawn comparisons to TesseracT. Other influences–Leprous, Haken, Periphery, Devin Townsend, Caligula’s Horse–are evident as well.
Ihlo assembled Union with an obsessive attention to detail. The many layers of synthesizers and delays are clearly not off-the-shelf patches but have instead been meticulously customized to the needs of the songs, with the sounds evolving as each track unfolds. The individual tracks on Union are like little one-off psychedelic explorations of shifting dynamics–contrasting explosive dense sections with introspective and even ambient passages–but with every change feeling well-thought-out and each song very much a single cohesive whole. In fact, the relatively long compositions on Union (mostly clocking in between five and seven minutes) are frequently based around just a handful of musical themes that the band switches back and forth between, shifting the dynamics, adding nuances and otherwise evolving towards ever more complex and intense iterations of the parts as the songs build to their emotional crescendos.
4. DREADNOUGHT Emergence
On Emergence, Dreadnought draws on an unusually wide range of influences: doom, prog, psychedelia, black metal, jazz-fusion, and ambient/atmospheric music, weaving these diverse influences into a single melancholy sound that is uniquely their own. Although the album features plenty of dynamic shifts, the aesthetic is always constant. It’s beautiful, atmospheric, and heavy–a sad, dreamy sound that washes over you. The otherworldly clean vocals of Kelly Schilling and Lauren Vieira (along with Schilling’s occasional black metal shrieking) evoke a feeling of being underwater. Schilling and Vieira’s ethereal vocals are Dreadnought’s primary melodic voices and their guitar and keyboard work supply layers of textured atmosphere and harmonic complexity.
Although Schilling certainly plays riffs on this album, more of her energy is spent sustaining unusually voiced chords–allowing the listener to luxuriate in her simultaneously jangly and snarling guitar tones–or adding atmospheric and psychedelic embellishments with beautiful, effects-laden clean tones. In the absence of omnipresent guitar riffing, the band’s excellent rhythm section carries the movement of the songs forward. Drummer Jordan Clancy’s performance on Emergence is stunning, displaying chops, complexity, and dynamic touch. But it is Kevin Handlon’s bass grooves that really provide the foundation on which Dreadnought’s songs are built. The anchoring effect of his grooves is what allows Schilling to play such an exploratory style of the guitar without the songs falling apart. It makes for a captivating whole that is highly recommended to any fans of psychedelic doom, introspective prog, or melancholic, atmospheric metal.
3. BORKNAGAR True North
Anyone who was concerned when it was reported that Borknagar was losing both its long term lead vocalist and the amazing drummer Baard Kolstad (who was just too damn busy with other projects) needn’t have worried. True North may well represent the strongest collection of songs that the progressive black metal stalwarts have ever released in a nearly 25-year career that has seen them release consistently great material but never break through commercially at the level they deserve. Hopefully the incredible True North is the album that will take them to the next level. Every song on this album pulses with energy and fury, supported by incredibly memorable hooks, deft arrangements with constantly shifting dynamics and exacting attention to detail, and killer individual performances (including the drumming and vocals). This album has more clean vocal parts than blackened vocal parts, but no complaint from this author. The clean vocals are frequently delivered in huge multipart harmonies and the blackened vocals serve as the perfect dynamic contrast. Awesome album.
2. VORNA Sateet Palata Saavat
On Sateet Palata Saavat, Vorna masterfully blends melodic black metal, pagan and folk metal, atmospheric and post-metal, symphonic/cinematic metal, and Finnish melodic death metal in the style of Amorphis, Insomnium, and Omnium Gatherum. Attempting to pull off so many styles could lead to an incoherent mishmash but Vorna manages to weave all of these influences into a cohesive, melancholic whole. Top-notch riffs, arrangements, melodic composition, along with beautifully executed instrumentation and excellent clean and blackened vocals make this an extraordinary outing. And it is topped off by unusually poetic Finish lyrics that explore the effects of Finland’s wintery climate as allegory for the lives that are colored by it. Easily merits a spot this high on my list. Check out my full review here: [link].
1. CULT OF LUNA A Dawn to Fear
(Metal Blade Records)
Although it’s not the most even and consistent album of 2019 (a task that would be made difficult by its massive 79-minute running length) Cult of Luna’s A Dawn to Fear hits the highest highs of any album offered this year and does so often enough to notch the top spot on my list. The album’s lengthy post-metal explorations of different themes and riffs frequently culminate in astounding and entrancing moments, in which evolving textures and interwoven parts blossom into beautiful crescendos of spellbinding psychedelia. The album is remarkable for its ensemble playing. There are almost no parts of the album that feature one instrument or voice over any other. The entire album is crafted so that all of the instruments are constantly working in unison to create a collective effect on a listener. Even the vocals sit in the mix rather than on top of it–just another player in an incredible ensemble performance. Required listening for any lover of psychedelic metal and my number one album of the year.