Jordan Blum's Top 10 Albums of 2019
As usual, my favorite metal albums of 2019 represent a mix of longtime favorite artists and acts that I'd previously never heard of (but who absolutely deserve the spotlight). Anyone who's read my writing before will not be surprised by my top choices—especially my #1 pick, as much of a fanboy as it may make me seem—while the later selections came out of nowhere and blew me away (including one band whose latest colors turned me into a fan despite none of their earlier collections leaving any impression).
As always, I'm curious to know your favorites of 2019, so please share them in the comments below!
10. ARTIFICIAL LANGUAGE Now We Sleep
Californian progressive metal septet Artificial Language introduced themselves masterfully with their unforgettable first venture, 2017's The Observer. Thankfully, its follow-up, Now We Sleep, finds them doing an even better job of evoking titans like Karnivool, Native Construct, Between the Buried and Me, and especially Leprous while also upholding their own identity. Right away, the effort defies the dreaded "sophomore slump" by making "The Back of My Mind" a towering display of unfaltering determination that veers away from its initially tranquil and organic impetus to offer a stampede of lustrously uncontrollable melodies and music. While much of the remaining set maintains that persona, other tracks—namely, "Pulses" "The Wild Haunt," and "Trail of Lights"—achieve for a more meditative and atmospheric environment. Also, the title track finishes the disc with support from guest singer Michael Lessard (The Contortionist), whose softer tone complements the lower and richer register of lead vocalist Shay Lewis exceedingly well. Although they're only two records in, Artificial Language are already climbing to the top of today's most indispensable progressive metal bands, and Now We Sleep is a must-hear for fans of the style.
9. THE NIGHT WATCH An Embarrassment of Riches
As impressive as their first two collections were, An Embarrassment of Riches is surely The Night Watch's greatest trek thus far. After all, the Canadian instrumental progressive metal quartet (violinist Evan Runge, bassist Matthew Cowan, guitarist Nathanael Larochette, and percussionist/pianist Daniel Mollema) push themselves further than ever to craft “emotional and cinematic narratives through expansive journeys of dynamic sound." In particular, its combustible influx of acoustic guitar decorations, symphonic heft, and general playfulness means that it's always unpredictable yet welcoming. Starter "Land Ho!" conveys the mounting tension of the album's concept—an explorer who's “forced to face an overwhelmingly perilous situation without being crushed by the weight of their own doubt and loneliness”—while also incorporating Pirate-esque cheers and sea shanty antics. Later, "Mendoza" is more introspective, delicate, and patient, whereas the two-part "The Summit" alone packs a plethora of variety, technicality, and allure. There's also “Dance of the Mountain People,” a danceable and jazzy number with appealing interlocking vocal harmonies and a clear nod (intentional or not) to the theme of The Addams Family. Clearly, An Embarrassment of Riches is charmingly self-aware and captivatingly daring and demanding at the same time.
8. WILDERUN Veil of Imagination
Boston's Wilderun have a stupendous formula that commonly fuses classical, folk, metal, and rock into staggeringly dramatic and vibrant concoctions. Thankfully, Veil of Imagination totally capitalizes on those idiosyncratic elements. It even works as a continuous seventy-minute piece, never letting up from its relentlessly colorful clusters of genre-melding fineness. By its nature, Veil of Imagination is difficult to highlight in segments. That said, its glorious trajectory contains some very remarkable features. For one thing, it starts and finishes with spoken narration, automatically gives it weighty continuity and purpose. Likewise, the gentle evolution of "The Unimaginable Zero Summer"—from an acoustic ballad with bucolic strings into absolute progressive death metal theatrics and back again—is exceptional. Afterward, "Sleeping Ambassadors of the Sun" makes great use of piano and operatic chants within its tidal wave of minimalist monologues and roomy complex hedonism. Then, lavish instrumental "Scentless Core (Budding)" uses a larger scope of classical timbres prior to the turbulently hectic yet accessible "The Tyranny of Imagination". All in all, Veil of Imagination validates the fact that some of the most notable progressive music comes from relative newcomers.
7. BARONESS Gold & Grey
If I’m being honest, I could never get into Baroness—that is, until Gold & Grey. For some reason, this one instantly and continuously struck a chord with me. The addition of guitarist/backing vocalist Gina Gleason is certainly a major factor, as she adds plenty of engaging nuances to flesh out the formula. Likewise, the forceful drive, subtly intricate musicianship, and sheer hookiness of songs like opener “Front Toward Enemy,” “Throw Me an Anchor,” “Borderlines,” and “Seasons” make them instantly unforgettable. Naturally, lighter and/or more emotional and ornamented inclusions—"I’m Already Gone,” “Tourniquet,” and “I’d Do Anything”—wonderfully reveal Baroness’ wider range. What elevates Gold & Grey even further, though, are the interludes and transitions that help foreshadow and/or connect pieces, suggesting a more seamless sequence. For instance, the brief “Sevens” is basically an unassuming hypnotic loop of wavering piano notes, whereas “Anchor’s Lament” cleverly sets up its successor with a mix of bellowing chants, modest strings, and a descending piano progression that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Pineapple Thief record. Far more than just a raucous rocker, Gold & Grey is a work of art.
6. LEPROUS Pitfalls
Touted as "the biggest production and musical departure we've done" by Leprous frontman Einar Solberg, Pitfalls moves significantly away from their heavier roots and toward sweeping synths and faint moodiness. That's not to say that it's a lesser effort compared to its precursors; rather, it's a winning concession between the qualities fans love and a crucial need to innovate. Primarily, it finds Solberg openly dealing with his battle with anxiety and depression. Therefore, tracks like the intensely fragile "Below" and the irksome heavenly "Alleviate" give listeners a front-row seat to his stunningly pure pain. There's a more robotic but danceable charm to "I Lose Hope" and "Be My Throne"; conversely, "Observe the Train" is pacifyingly quiet, "At the Bottom" swells with morose strings and bursts of angelic annoyance, and "Foreigner" rests upon striking guitar work. As a result, Pitfalls may just be the thematically darkest and most worthwhile record Leprous has done.
5. BORKNAGAR True North
(Century Media Records)
Norwegian progressive/black/folk metal outfit Borknagar deserves to be a household name. For nearly twenty-five years, they've resourcefully combined hellish and angelic passages within abundantly precise instrumental twists and turns. While 2016's Winter Thrice remains immensely popular among fans, its frostier and more focused successor, True North, likely tops it. Bassist Simen "I.C.S. Vortex" Hestnæs takes up vocal duties once again, aiding the dynamo of icily emotive splendor. "Thunderous" establishes the record's vibe with hysterical rhythms, guttural outcries, cascading clean verses, and piercing guitar lines. It does a great job of showcasing Borknagar's fluid and compressed approach to majestic temperamental shifts, a trademark that's also present on later standouts like the more keyboard-driven "Up North", "Mount Rapture", and "The Fire that Burns." Along the way, the sparser "Lights" requires you to sing along, "Wild Father's Heart" soothes with sophisticated rustic tapestries and remorseful songwriting, "Into the White" impresses due to its mesmeric stacked singing, and the tribal "Voices" is a calming and succulent way to finish. Really, True North is a perfect introduction to Borknagar.
4. PERIPHERY Periphery IV: Hail Stan
American quintet Periphery's knack for mixing djent, symphonic atmospheres, climbing melodies, self-reflective bridges, and weird textural coverings makes them an essential part of modern progressive metal. While Periphery IV: Hail Stan doesn't outright surpass its closest predecessors—the two-part Juggernaut and Periphery III: Select Difficulty—it's still a gratifying demonstration of Periphery fortes that any fan of the style will adore. At nearly seventeen-minutes in length, opener "Reptile" is an epic onto itself, with the band's textbook harshness and transcendental beauty ruthlessly intertwined. Its chorus is also very strong, and the same can be said for the outright demonic"Chvrch Bvrner" and the purifying "Sentient Glow." In-between, "Garden in the Bones" is dynamically decorated with wonderfully engaging timbres, "Crush" paints a modestly straightforward metal method in sleek electronic beats before suddenly morphing into a cinematic symphony, and "It's Only Smiles" is complex yet almost radio-friendly. From start to finish, then, Periphery IV: Hail Stan still represents the peak of Periphery's prowess.
3. THANK YOU SCIENTIST Terraformer
New Jersey septet Thank You Scientist's first two records—2012's Maps of Non-Existent Places and 2016's Stranger Heads Prevail—sold them as masters implementing silly antics and high-pitched hooks into frenetically fun orchestral prog rock/metal and jazz fusion. Undoubtedly, however, their third venture, Terraformer, tops them in every way. For nearly ninety minutes, Terraformer astounds and intimidates, with instrumental starter "Wrinkle" offering a youthful explosion of intersecting horns, percussion, guitars, and more to welcome you in. Next, "FXMLDR" acts as a bipolar assault that sees catchy melodies and tasteful lulls permeating Mars Volta-esque structural madness. Beyond them, "Everyday Ghosts" embodies their treasurably irreverent songwriting, "Birdwatching" is a majorly luscious break from the chaos, and the concluding title track is amazing for its percussive tricks alone. Inarguably, Terraformer is the best example yet of why Thank You Scientist are the best at what they do.
2. OPETH In Cauda Venenum
(Moderbolaget, Nuclear Blast Records)
Opeth's move away from progressive death metal—and toward a retro '70s prog rock/jazz fusion aesthetic—during the 2010s has left many longtime listeners unhappy. Despite In Cauda Venenum (their first to be recorded in both English and Swedish) feeling very much connected to its three nearest predecessors, its apparitional essence and gothic fury also make it seem like a throwback to the heights of their 2000s output. Thus, it should please diehard fans in ways that Heritage, Pale Communion, and Sorceress didn't. Its ghostly core is immediately apparent, with prelude "Garden of Earthly Delights" offering a chilling collage of choral chants, rising organ tones, programmed beats, church bells, whistles, and children's banter. Afterward, "Charlatan," "Dignity", and "Heart in Hand" encompass the compositional twists and melodic punches you'd expect from Opeth this decade. In contrast, "Lovelorn Crime" and "Continuum" are two of mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt's most beautiful ballads ever, whereas "Universal Truth" is a sublimely orchestrated acoustic reflection with bizarre rhythmic changes and "The Garroter" presents pleasantly nightmarish jazziness. If not for 2014's Pale Communion, In Cauda Venenum would undoubtedly be Opeth's greatest album in a decade.
1. DEVIN TOWNSEND Empath
Few artists are more colorfully wide-ranging, bold, and consistent than Canadian virtuoso Devin Townsend, and in many ways, Empath is the full realization of his genius: a wildly multifaceted and all-encompassing look back on his career thus far. From beginning to end, it serves as an essential existential examination within a terrifically wild blend of styles. Specifically, the countrified grit of "Borderlands" evokes Casualties of Cool, "Hear Me" captures the comical viciousness of Deconstruction, "Evermore" houses the dense pop-rock glory of Addicted and Epicloud, and "Genesis" is itself a celebration of genre-shifts. Sure, his sardonic playfulness is definitely here, but it's his emotionally resonant introspection that reigns supreme. Tracks like "Spirits Will Collide", "Why?", and the ingeniously multifaceted epic closer, "Singularity", find him beautifully surveying self-doubt, hope, love, and other relatable issues. Thus, Empath is equally rewarding for its madcap musical cohesion as it is for its catharses about mental struggles.