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Best of 2019

Cody Davis' Top 10 Albums of 2019

Metal Injection's review editor makes his picks for the best albums from a very great year of heavy music.

Another year, another cycle of reflecting on the music that soundtracked my life. 2019 was a bit of a chaotic year, both for the best and the worst. Yet, the one constant throughout this year seemed to be great music. Subjectively picking the best music from a year is never an easy task. It also doesn't help that every year it seems no matter what someone decides on, no one really agrees on what they have to say. Ultimately though, this is the wrong way to approach the Album of the Year lists season.

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These lists are a great glimpse into an individual or a group of people. Music carries such a mental or emotional weight for the people who write and consume it. Whether consciously or subconsciously, those things come out in people's lists. Therefore, it's important to recognize these lists are, in fact, very personal and not really a piece of journalism or musical criticism. This is an opportunity to share a peek into potentially deeper connections to music without all the formality.

Personally, I use this list every year to not only look back on my musical taste but to see how they align with pivotal moments that happened in my life; or conversely, how my life has influenced what I listen to. It was certainly interesting in 2019. Typically, I tend to cast a wide net and spend a lot of time trying to discover new bands. This year was very different. I found myself clinging to a relatively small handful of albums.

My year began a bit rocky. 2018 concluded with heartbreak and subsequent self-reflection; the early months of this year were spent trying to emotionally put myself back out there amid a very chaotic period of time. Unfortunately, through all, some, or no fault of my own, none of it really panned out. Between that, repeatedly moving, finishing my doctoral program, and a litany of other things, I spent a lot of time returning to select records.

In the summer, I took a huge leap and moved all the way across the country to start a new chapter in life with my new career as a physical therapist. I love what I do—trust me, I'm a much better physical therapist than a writer—but, juggling the two really started to take a physical and mental toll. My capacity to write about the music I love took a nosedive and for a while, it really plagued me that I wasn't able to manage both effectively. I'm still struggling to manage it now, even as I write this. Yet, I think some transparency—as well as a select handful of albums—can be cathartic and help to clear the mind.

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Overall, I remain incredibly grateful to be a part of Metal Injection and part of the metal community as a whole. This year marked four years with this site and five years writing about music I love. I continue to thank Rob and Frank for the opportunities here—and their patience. I also remain thankful for everyone who has given me opportunities in the past to speak on bigger platforms and to everyone else I've met along the way. These opportunities have ultimately given me great friends and role models who continue to not only shape my musical tastes but who I am personally. As the year draws to a close, I'm feeling reinvigorated. I'm taking back my physical health, I'm surrounded by positive influences, I have a welcomed (yet, still foreign) feeling of stability. It sets up nicely for a fresh new decade.

Here are my 10 favorite metal albums from 2019 as well as some records that aren't necessarily metal.

Favorite Non-Metal Albums of 2019 (in alphabetical order):

2 Chainz Rap or Go to the League
Anderson .Paak
Ventura
Billie Eilish When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah Ancestral Recall
Drab Majesty Modern Mirror
FKA twigs MAGDALENE
Flying Lotus Flamagra
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib Bandana
Moor Mother Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes
Tyler, the Creator IGOR


10. FALSE Portent
(Gilead Media)

From my premiere of Portent and interview with False’s Jimmy and Kishel:

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“In the face of tragedy, the comfort of a creative outlet can temper the pain. Solace, like grief, takes many forms — and for Minnesota black metal sextet, False, that solace comes in the form of stunning long-form melodic compositions. Ferocious riffing and synth-heavy arrangements coupled with poetic vulnerability drive the band’s newest full-length album, Portent.

False has always emphasized a strong, familial bond amongst its members. Those bonds between friends not only bolster the black metal they brew but build vital lifelines for each individual. In the throes of writing Portent, those lifelines were woven together in a resilient display of extreme metal that amasses to one of the year’s strongest records.”

9. IMMORTAL BIRD Thrive on Neglect
(20 Buck Spin)

All hail the bird. The Chicago group, Immortal Bird, is a wildly unique talent in extreme metal and the four years between full-length records was well worth the wait. The incisive Thrive on Neglect melds death metal, grind, touches of prog and hardcore, and much more into a roller coaster of an experience. Vocalist Rae Amitay is a brilliant lyricist and a dynamic singer and her talents are on a fiery display throughout the record. She's matched by her bandmates, John Picillo (bass), Matt Korajczyk (drums), and Nate Madden (guitar), who weave jarring, dizzying compositions that emanate a gifted and technical radiance.

The band traveled to Westminster, Colorado to record Thrive on Neglect with Dave Otero early this year. Their continued unity and growth as a cohesive force combined with Otero's engineering made for Immortal Bird's fiercest output yet. This integration of camaraderie and creativity shows in standout moments like "Avolition" and "House of Anhedonia," which, personally, are the band's greatest individual moments to date.

8. INTER ARMA Sulphur English
(Relapse Records)

Inter Arma is in rarified air. The Richmond, Virginia quintet is one of the few bands that transcend any subgenre classification and construct beautiful metallic landscapes that rival some of metal’s most powerful names. Sulphur English, simply put, is flawless. It’s a striking balance of masterful and diverse song compositions and poignant atmosphere. From 90's death metal to southern-tinged dirge and folk, there is an overwhelming number of examples where Inter Arma seamlessly move between styles and sounds.

Even still—with all of its vibrancy and diversity—Sulphur English is Inter Arma at it's heaviest and bleakest. TJ Childers (drums) had a mission for making something much grimmer and grittier than Paradise Gallows and Mike Paparo (vocals) took a sociopolitical approach to a number of lyrics on the record (like the title track) as well as fleshing out his own mental strife into the words of songs like "Citadel."

7. MIZMOR Cairn
(Gilead Media)

From my premiere of “Cairn to God” and interview with Mizmor’s ALN:

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“Few bands in metal capture the raw anxiety and dilemmas of existence like Mizmor. The solo endeavor of ALN, the wholly doomed black metal entity began to reach a wider audience with the release of 2016's Yodh through Gilead Media. Long-form blackened doom and drone isn't the easiest pill to swallow, especially when it's fed through the lens of an existential crisis. Yet, Mizmor captures a feeling that is often hard to describe and that ensnaring demands attention. Yodh was objectively one of the best and most engrossing titles of 2016. Now, ALN returns with another full-length album entitled Cairn.

Cairn returns to the realm of lost faith and existential exploration. This time with an exit strategy. ALN has been at the helm of Mizmor for seven years vigorously documenting his struggles with a God that consistently failed and the purposeless vacuum left in the wake of its deterioration. Cairn brings that turmoil full circle by revisiting those memories and laying out ALN's grief one last time. It's a summary and a solution for his future—a new purpose.”

6. GATECREEPER Deserted
(Relapse Records)

Desert-dwelling death metal returned in 2019 with greater ferocity and range. Arizona’s Gatecreeper followed up their sweltering debut, Sonoran Depravation, with an even better Deserted. The quintet revel in blistering riffs reminiscent of early Florida and Swedish death metal. In addition to these deathly influences, Gatecreeper expound on their sound even more. Touches of sludge and funeral doom emerge, particularly in "Boiled Over" and the album's closing track, respectively. There is a greater prevalence of fiery dual guitar riffs and licks that could set speakers ablaze. Ultimately, Deserted is a gigantic step forward for one of death metal's brightest up and coming talents. 

5. SPIRIT ADRIFT Divided By Darkness
(20 Buck Spin)

From my premiere of Divided by Darkness and interview with Spirit Adrift’s Nate Garrett:

“Since 2015, Nate Garrett has been at the helm of the traditional heavy metal force, Spirit Adrift, and a member of the death metal quintet, Gatecreeper. The former has been a conduit for his own catharsis—a means for a release of the emotions surrounding his past vices, views of the present society, and his own personal growth. His passion project continues to evolve — turning from Sabbathian doom to outright arena-filling heavy metal. Consequently, it has put Spirit Adrift at the crest of a wave of nostalgic metal that has swelled in the past couple years — his newest album, Divided By Darkness, is the crescendo…

Between Nate’s constant competition with himself and his consternation from the world’s current state of affairs, writing the record pushed Nate to the limits of his being…

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Ultimately, the pressure makes for a diamond of a record. Divided By Darkness is not only Spirit Adrift’s greatest output, but one of the most electrifying and anthemic records of this decade. Across eight tracks, Spirit Adrift tackles the darkest areas of society today with a newly-honed and searing vocal delivery as well as a multi-layered instrumental approach featuring blistering guitar solos and vibrant, nostalgic synthesizers.”

4. CRYPT SERMON The Ruins of Fading Light
(Dark Descent Records)

Crypt Sermon's newest effort, The Ruins of Fading Light, is another example of a band making huge strides from their debut album. Out of the Garden was a solid introduction for the Philadelphia quartet, but The Ruins of Fading Light is something else entirely. Grittier in tone and more diverse in arrangements and decision making, Crypt Sermon make their claim for the flagbearers of modern epic metal. Like Mercolin-era Candlemass, there is such a triumphant and grand swagger to their music.

The band funnels a narrative of loss and the limits of faith and family through a dark age lens. Visions of alchemy and conjurations in a time after Christ make this an album that—from start to finish—does not have a dull moment.

3. OBSEQUIAE The Palms of Sorrowed Kings
(20 Buck Spin)

Tanner Anderson's "castle metal" project is one of the more unique entities in modern metal. Anderson, along with Vicente La Camera Mariño and Eoghan McCloskey, flawlessly seam melodic black metal and medieval ambiance and arrangements. Third time is the charm for Obsequiae. Their newest full-length record is a densely-layered and refined offering that truly sounds unlike anything else this year. Individual moments like "In the Garden of Hyacinths," the title track, and "Asleep in the Bracken" are enough to transport listeners to the Age of Discovery. In addition to these blackened bard's tales are wonderful harp-driven interludes that work wonderfully to ground the album in castle courtyards. These gilded string sections amplify the ornate beauty that weaves its way through The Palms of Sorrowed Kings.

2. BLOOD INCANTATION Hidden History of the Human Race
(Dark Descent Records)

Death metal’s relentless year reached its pinnacle just a mere few weeks ago. Denver’s Blood Incantation finally re-emerged with their follow-up to 2016’s Starspawn in grand fashion. The four-song Hidden History of the Human Race, sonically, is a concoction of death metal’s various subgenres. Swaths of slam, progressive, and funeral doom-tinged death metal populate the nearly 38-minute runtime—it’s all expertly packaged into a cosmic motif.

Their lyrics delve into alien mythology as a parallel for indigenous cultures’ early explanations for the phenomena that regularly occur on planet Earth. The combination of the quartet’s musicality, as well as the brilliantly executed subject matter, result in an album that simply cannot be put down.

1. YELLOW EYES Rare Field Ceiling
(Gilead Media)

From my premiere of Rare Field Ceiling and interview with Yellow Eyes’ Will and Sam Skarstad:

“Solitude is a volatile climate in which creativity can reside, but it is something Yellow Eyes revels in. Rare Field Ceiling is the band's fifth full-length album and their latest display of black metal majesty. The New York quartet—led by brothers Will and Sam Skarstad—are approaching a decade since the inception of their project. The last ten years have seen the band morph from a bedroom project into an eclectic and prismatic entity that stands as, arguably, the best representation of black metal's possibilities as a genre.

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Their process never changes though. It's the members of the band who are more selective and savvier in their decision making for their sinuous arrangements. Yellow Eyes does it all on their own, living within their own technical limitations and collection of equipment in total isolation and self-reliance. Between the numerous months spent in their family cabin deep in the woods of Connecticut or their travels across European expanses, writing and recording music involves total immersion, spontaneity, and recklessness.

On Rare Field Ceiling, they're at their most jarring and unnerving. The brothers, joined once again by Mike Rekevics (drums) and Alex DiMaria (bass), tap into atypical riff structures and untethered narrative to paint a fractured drama of scaling to great heights then descending into mania. The album builds and folds from the opening drone of "Warmth Trance Reversal" to the extensive field recordings and wandering guitars in "Maritime Flare." It's a hypnotic progression built from madness, remote Siberian villages, and constant personal challenges.”

View all of our best of 2019 coverage here and make sure to vote for your favorite album of the year.

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