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Best of 2019

Matthew Castleman's Top 10 Albums of 2019

Honorable Mentions
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Bewitcher Under the Witching Cross
Speedy riffy fun. That’s what it’s all about, and man is it a good time.

Cloak The Burning Dawn
These sinister delights have sinister ends. Cloak’s rock foundation and black metal attic make for a great collection of evil tunes that find glee in shadows.

Angel Witch Angel of Light
Angel Witch are still going! That’s amazing in and of itself! Kevin Heybourne still writes a mean heavy metal ditty after all these years, and Angel of Light sounds like it could’ve been put out when the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was still new. Probably their best since their legendary debut.


10. HIGH COMMAND Beyond the Wall of Desolation
(Southern Lord)

High Command play a style of metal commonly associated with bubbling toxic waste barrels and molotov cocktails shattering against riot shields. It’s normally soaring power metal acts who prefer bubbling arcane cauldrons and bearded axes smashing against kite shields. That’s the most ear-catching part of High Command – Aggressive, high-impact thrash metal with at least one step in the crossover crosswalk, telling stories of grim warriors in chainmail treading the jeweled thrones of the world under their sandaled feet.
It’s fitting that the recent upswing of dirt-bound, grim fantasy – A Game of Thrones, of course, but also the work of authors like the excellent and bleak-minded Joe Abercrombie – has been met with a band that brings us sword and sorcery in a grimy thrash delivery. Beyond the Wall of Desolation is a straightforward but deeply satisfying thrash record that’ll have you banging your head right into the bridge of your enemy’s nose.

9. POSSESSED Revelations of Oblivion
(Nuclear Blast Records)

If ever there was a “Please be good, please be good, please be good” album, this is it. And it’s very, very good. Jeff Becerra’s return is both a great personal triumph and a powerful musical statement. Possessed gave us death metal all those years ago, and they can still show us how it’s done.
Stylistically, Revelations of Oblivion doesn’t stray too far from tradition, but this is a tradition they helped create, and you can feel the deep authenticity and earnestness of what they do in every riff. The songwriting is remarkably fresh and modern. The band twines new green into the wreaths of its laurels when it could’ve been forgiven for resting on them. Becerra’s vocals are as powerful as ever and sit in that perfect intersection of ferocious and intelligible. This is just a damn good death metal record for those who like well-seared meat and well-spiced potatoes.

8. SMOULDER Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring
(Cruz Del Sur)

This list wouldn’t feel proper with just one album about bold swashbucklers forging new paths through the old, dark places of the world. Smoulder deliver epic(us) doom(icus) metal(licus) that shows the dividing line between awesome-badass and lame-corny: Dedication and heart. They love this stuff, they believe in its power, and that is something you can’t fake. Nor can you deny.
Powerful, ominous doomy riffs and a solid rhythm section build up and support the centerpiece of Smoulder, Sarah Kitteringham’s big, heart-besleeving vocals. Her vocal imagery breathes beauty into these tales of swordswomen, archers, and long lost Tanelorn. (If you know what Tanelorn is, you need to listen to this album.)

7. ABBATH Outstrider
(Season of Mist)

When Abbath left Immortal, we feared it would halve the amount of galloping, icy, invisible orange-clutching black metal in the world. Instead, the split has doubled it. Both post-Abbath Immortal and post-Immortal Abbath are going strong. Where Immortal’s Northern Chaos Gods returned to the all-out blizzard of earlier days, Outstrider continues down the path of All Shall Fall and Abbath, moving to a somewhat more melodic and open sound.

Outstrider nails the balance between a harsh glacial core and an expansive, thoughtful elaboration around it. Abbath’s guitar work and vocals are as fiendish and distinctive as ever, and the band delivers a polished, coherent performance that brings the grim tundra of Abbath’s imagination to life, moderated by the playful, self-teasing smirks that have always endeared us to the frog-voiced axeman.

6. HELLRIPPER Black Arts and Alchemy
(Reaper Metal Productions)

Black Arts and Alchemy is an EP, but it absolutely deserves its place among the best full-lengths of the year. Hellripper has been on an utter tear in its young lifetime, giving the world plentiful cuts of blackened speed/thrash that stick tight to a well-honed formula while offering just enough variety to avoid staleness.
Black Arts sees a subtle but potent evolution of Hellripper’s sound, particularly on the hauntingly melodic title track. Production keeps the snarly guitars at the fore where they belong and fills out the rest of the sound with a proper sense of balance and atmosphere. Black Arts rips through its evil, gleeful tracks with no wasted motion, and beckons you with a black talon to spin it all over again.

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

The old school’s attracted some top new students lately. Long-haired pupils like Haunt, Idle Hands, and Eternal Champion are busily taking notes and producing some fine essays. Spirit Adrift is the kid at the back of the class whose stubble is coming in early, attentive but with his boots firmly planted on his desk. The band’s sound is classic and modern, melodic and heavy, steeped in the old school and too cool for it. Striking guitar melodies and forlorn vocals tell timeless tales of victory and loss, pride and despair. It’s angry when it needs to be and gentle when it can be.

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The song variety on Divided by Darkness is one of its strongest traits. “We Will Not Die” gets things off to a rollicking start. The opener’s initial oomph grabs you by the ears and allows the rest of the album to vary its pace and intensity, trusting that you’re still invested. “Angel and Abyss” is an album highlight, showcasing that anger/gentleness tension brilliantly. Everyone has their own tastes in sub- and sub-sub- and sub-times-infinity-genres, but of the albums on this list, I’m most confident saying: If you like metal at all, you’ll like Divided by Darkness.

4. GATECREEPER Deserted
(Relapse Records)

It’s been a hell of a year for Nate Garrett and Chase Mason, huh? Not a lot of people can say they’ve released two great albums in two different bands playing two different styles of metal in a twelve-month span. Whatever’s in that Arizona desert soil (lizard skeletons?) has bloomed a mighty fruitful collaboration between these two, bandmates in both Gatecreeper and Spirit Adrift.
Note that Nate Garrett is not to be confused with Skeletonwitch guitarist Nate Garnette, which would also be an awesome collaboration for reasons mostly but not totally unrelated to their names.

Deserted builds on the plutonium-dense foundation of Gatecreeper’s debut, Sonoran Depravation. It takes the same absolutely satisfying classic death metal framework and builds something more melodic and memorable on it. Nate’s work as Spirit Adrift’s principal songwriter may be to thank. Deserted chugs and roars, but also takes time to ponder and mourn. Meanwhile, Chase Mason and his cybernetic super-stache bellow some of the richest death growls in the business.

3. TOMB MOLD Planetary Clairvoyance
(20 Buck Spin)

Space is a cold and unforgiving place. It will pull the breath from your lungs, scorch you with gamma rays, and crush you at the bottom of lightless gravity wells. Yet space is also full of wonder and beauty. Its expanse offers hope, resources, and unthinkably ancient mysteries. Planetary Clairvoyance hurls out of the ecliptic on a blazing ion stream, intent to leave no sun unturned as it rides the edge between forlorn hope and unforeseen tomorrows.

Tomb Mold have carved us a pristine work from a fine ingot of asteroid iron. Planetary Clairvoyance has its roots in the OSDM renaissance we’ve all been enjoying so much. Its flights of interstellar fancy never decouple it from the strong rhythms and heavy riffs that we love and need. Those roots don’t hold them down, though. Planetary Clairvoyance is a waltz through cyclopean alien megastructures and eerily-glowing nebulae. They experiment with tempo and key, creating mind-bending passages of metal that is heavy both sonically and thematically. In the same way that Deserted is a near-seamless blend of old school death metal and more melodic sounds, Planetary Clairvoyance is a spot-on blend of old school death metal and weird avant-garde sounds.

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

Crypt Sermon made a lot of waves with their debut, and the anticipation around this sophomore effort hit a boiling intensity weeks before its release. Could these (trad/doom/epic/can we chill with the genres) firebrands hope to even meet, let alone exceed, the power and glory of their first record?

Yes.

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Tempting to leave it at that for literary effect, but we can talk a little more about this album. The Ruins of Fading Light is a soaring work, pushing the bounds of emotional storytelling through classic, inspired songwriting. The twin guitars of Steve Jansson and James Lipczynski push and play through crushing passages and beautiful harmonies. Leading the way is Brooks Wilson’s smoky baritenor voice. He’s as elegant and melodious as on the first album, but his performance has a rough new edge to it, like the notches in a well-used sword blade. The band’s larger than life tales of mystery, self-reflection, and turmoil aim straight at the heart, and no armor will turn aside their points.

1. GREEN LUNG Woodland Rites
(Self Released)

In every interest or hobby, you will occasionally unearth a gem that deserves a special, near-ineffable accolade: This reminded me why I loved [interest] in the first place. In metal, Woodland Rites is this year’s reminder. The album’s various aspects of songwriting, performance, and production can be examined, discussed, and assessed, and they should. Above all, though, is the sheer joy, the love of the music, that suffuses every corner of this album from first note to last.

Green Lung trade in an energetic, playful style of psychedelic-ish, doom-ish, blues-ish metal that their album title captures the spirit of "this music urges you to run into the woods and dance around a fire, reminding yourself that the trees and stones are not separate from you, that we are the Nature we seem so cavalier about killing, and we live and die with it." A key part of the lush atmosphere in Green Lung’s sound is organist John Wright. Hammond organ is a mighty mood shaper, especially when sinister and shadowy is a key part of your mood.

Woodland Rites is ominous and exuberant. It draws from old horror films and folklore and its songs will make you move to their sinewy, snake-charming rhythm. As the bass and drums lay down hypnotic grooves, the guitar and organ paint in heavy saturated tones and the seductive vocals close the trap. By then you’re bought in, bobbing your head and baying at the moon. Open up your heart, and let the Devil in.

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