Top Albums of 2017 — Andrew Rothmund
If you find yourself in here reading this, then you’ve been totally duped. Three reasons:
1) There are hundreds of other, better informed year-end lists out there by people with (objectively) superior tastes.
2) There are too many year-end lists out there, most of which (implicitly) claim their own authority while still following a standardized rubric.
3) The year-end lists out there are all (inherently) masturbatory, yet we gobble ’em up and then don’t give a shit about who the writer is, and whether he’s even a decent human being to begin with.
To counter these Harsh Realities, please consider my list differently. First, the order doesn’t matter. It’s funny that even though you now know the order doesn’t matter, just seeing Viscera/// as the “top” pick (spoiler, lol) will mentally solidify their latest album as “the one this asshole honestly thinks is the best this year.” To that end, and second, I don’t think any one album this year can be the best, because “best” is superlative and therefore objective. Music critique, unlike ranking, is not objective. Facts may be objective (e.g. Dave Mustaine* is an a-hole), but people themselves are certainly not (super e.g. Dave Mustaine), though they can sure try to be. Besides, music is irrevocably personal; to deny music the (flawed) human element is to deny that which gives it its very life to begin with.
Anyway, third: I gave up on trying to be objective because it’s impossible, and I’m both a perfectionist and a pragmatist; besides, the more you know about me personally, the more sense my list will make, and therefore the more value it’ll actually have. I want to convey how I feel vis-à-vis music by making you feel similarly without divulging how (or even why) I’m doing so, sort of like how you’d rather not see hot dogs being made so you can continue enjoying them. Yes, in the background, I still do all the necessary hard research, cross-checking, “i”-dotting, etc., and I definitely listen to a (quantifiable) ton of new shit. The point is that there’s work-like work involved, but it’s a purposefully veiled labor of love. Likewise, this list was laborious, taxing, draining, whathaveyou, and it’s important that you keep this normally-never-but-now-disclosed disclosure in mind while reading it.
Part of me didn’t want to write it (mostly because I figured it as pointless as trying to be objective), but duty calls just as doodie calls. Life lesson: never ignore the brown phone.
*Spellcheck’s suggestion for “Mustaine” was “mustiness.”
20. Hideous Divinity – Adveniens (Unique Leader, Italy)
19. Ulver — The Assassination of Julius Caesar (House of Mythology, Norway)
18. Becomes Astral – Paleblood Sky (Independent, Canada)
17. Tanakh – Chameleonic (Independent, South Dakota)
16. Yellow Eyes – Immersion Trench Reverie (Gilead Media, New York)
15. Biesy – Noc lekkich obyczajów (Third Eye Temple, Poland)
14. Burials / Exhausted Prayer – Split (Apes Who Looked Up, Oregon / California)
13. Amenra – MASS VI (Neurot Recordings, Belgium)
12. Hyrgal – Serpentine (Naturmacht Productions, France)
11. Sutrah – Dunes (Independent, Canada)
As far as “fuck shit up” metal goes, Dyscarnate have the formula nailed: ridiculously groovy riffs with oodles of chugs, core vocals, manic drumming, and crystalline production. With All Their Might is a testament to metal’s ability to invoke bodily movement (perhaps also bowel movements) — not headbanging (or whatever it is that you do) to this album is both a sin and a near impossibility. This isn’t to say that With All Their Might is a one-sided, single purpose product. Au contraire: catchy songwriting, focused aggression, and well-placed taco moments all serve to add nuance to the humongous fist charging toward your face faster than an comet. Consider it a fucking privilege to be knocked cold by Dyscarnate — indeed, that’s what they’re all about. Such blunt aggression is an important facet of metal often lost in the search for intellectual stimulation; remember, though, you can also affect your intellect with a well-placed uppercut. Sometimes — amidst rampant pedantry and elitism and all that daft malarkey — you need it… yes, that means you. Bonus description: With All Their Might works well as workout music. No pain, no gain (no, I don’t lift (I probably should), but I think it’s a lifting motto).
Excellent modern black metal is characterized by its lack of embellishments — certainly, any unnecessary diversions or distractions from the music’s core purpose are usually seen as cheap tricks. Is the artist trying, or are they trying? The obviousness of artistic intent goes a long way here (with respect to spoiling the end product), and Selbst in particular makes it clear that no weak shots or side roads need to be taken to arrive at a solid-hitting black metal album. Special effects and the like may be entrancing, but Selbst relies solely on wherewithal and grit in amounting to some of the best no-nonsense black metal of late. Its passionate and cleanly articulated tracks unfold organically across classic guitar riffs, dramatic transitions, and hugely varied intensities. The sheer breadth of emotion captured by this album (with relatively few moving parts) is a testament to the philosophy that less can actually be more. However, when the downs need to break, they break: Selbst knows how to unleash swaths of inspired and heavily atmospheric ascensions toward momentous climaxes, blast beats and the kitchen sink.
I chortled with blushing glee at the opportunity to premiere Lycanthropic Burrowing back in July, basically the complete opposite reaction one would have to an album so vile and evil and decimating. “Lycanthropic Burrowing is harrowing, all-encompassing, unrelenting, and malignant,” this asshole wrote, and most correct I was: even after numerous listens, it still lays utter waste to your ears’ tastebuds, rendering all subsequently listened music flaccid and sans edge. Really, if Lycanthropic Burrowing was a beverage, it’d be speed/crack-infused coffee served cold in hell’s cafeteria. Surprisingly, it goes down easy, but that’s the trick: a few supposedly safe gulps later, and you’re obviously in way over your head. The e-x-t-r-e-m-e album artwork is most fitting here, it really just wants to make your eyes explode. That is One Master vision, both distorted and clear, vivid and horrifying.
The social medias were alight with delight about Mirror Reaper, and the one thing common across everyone’s input (including mine) was that, yes, this album is indeed a big long single track. Nobody seemed to have the conception that this style was novel (it isn’t), which is good. What’s also comforting is that people seemed to understand Mirror Reaper not as a function of its length, but the other way around. Mirror Reaper‘s emotional underpinnings and artistic grounding necessitated such a format; therefore, its length is not a gimmick. Rather, it defines the listening experience: one steeped in tedium, the laborious dredge of doom, the suffering of prolonged and incessant pain, the essences of doom itself. That’s not to say that Mirror Reaper is a digestible listen — sitting down with this behemoth takes planning and focus. It is all but guaranteed that this doom album will make no sense (and bore you to tears) should you not be in the right mood. Let’s not let this fact detract from the art itself, however.
Siberian Hell Sounds / Convulsing
Having already dug deeply into Convulsing’s Errata, I expected new material to be more technical, less black metal, and a bit geekier. I am super-glad that my expectations were violated with this Siberian Hell Sounds split. And, having never heard of Siberian Hell Sounds before, I had no expectations whatsoever (open minds always), apart from that it should be good enough to accompany Convulsing. I am super-glad that one band got me into the other. These two 20-minute tracks are, for lack of a less passé word, insane. They’re shining works of mental madness: schizophrenic in their raw energy and endlessly fluctuating between poles of intensity both furious and touching. Moments of focus include Siberian Hell Sounds’ absolutely ripping introduction (now that’s how you start an album) and Convulsing’s beefy midsection/outro. In between are all manners of extreme expression — leaning closely most of the time to modern black metal — across the ups and downs of life, as it were.
When I chatted with Greg Fox about Ex Eye, it was obvious that the drummer had found the purest output imaginable for his articualte and impassioned style. Certainly his work with Liturgy and Guardian Alien helped hone his craft, but on Ex Eye, he hit another artistic level altogether. Perhaps this is due to collaboration with famed saxophonist Colin Stetson — or maybe he just woke up one day and figured out his masterwork — either way, Ex Eye stands firmly as a true experimental and collaborative album. People automatically think jazz when they think saxophone; however, Ex Eye is not a jazz/metal fusion outfit by any measure. Ex Eye features saxophone pushed to its limit, speeding along wildly across myriads of nearly incomprehensible notes to form more like an atmospheric wavelength of sound. Meanwhile, Fox’s manic drumming holds the line, only to ramp up to grand, blast beat-filled plateaus where the guitar and synths add to the mix for an incredible wall of noise. This is one of the rare instances where vocals would entirely ruin an instrumental album — though that’s not to say every (other) instrumental album would be improved by vocals.
While the first track of Time Lurker is nothing short of brilliant, it was the opening of the second track “Judgment” — with its harrowing atmosphere and triumphant guitar lead-in — which totally sold me on Time Lurker. Basically, it’s how I want black metal to sound: ethereal and raw, yet polished and stylish, with a sense for flair. No doubt, Time Lurker was confidently articulate while crafting these seven tracks and honing the melodies contained therein. And it’s melody on which Time Lurker rests, breaking through the abstract distortion and harshness typical of black metal, giving the listener key points to remember as they traverse the undulating ups and downs. Each track features hummable moments (and moments for invisible oranges as well), a nod to the philosophy that everything needn’t be atonal and obtuse in order to be fresh.
Death metal, in all its armored brutishness, can sometimes be made to pirouette. Writing obtusely complex, sometimes delicate death metal without losing the hardened death element isn’t easy, not to mention being able to get creative with it. And so it was: Ingurgitating Oblivion released the mouthful/earful Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light, the complete inversion of death metal strung out over four incredibly dense and wickedly behemoth songs. If you only have a few minutes to spare (well, ten), the first track “Amid the Offal, Abide with Me” does the rest of Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light honest justice. You’ll find nothing to hum to (and plenty too fast to tap to) — indeed, this album is virtuosic in nature, but doesn’t dull any edge with the stilted softness of prog. It hits hard, blasts hard, slams hard, and crunches hard; its various elements seem in inherent opposition to each other, waging an endless and tense battle for room to let out their distorted bellows.
This album makes me think of how the city chokes people to death; urbanity can be killer. Faces Turn Away is claustrophobic like being stuck in a mega crowd, mechanical like the churn of traffic and pedestrians and various city-related machinery, and as deafening as Chicago’s subway system. It jarrs and impedes its way into your mind, forcing your neurons apart in violent aural assaults — incessant, intrusive, infernal. It shifts back and forth aggressively (ideas are interwoven and layered), turning you into its opponent. There’s rapture to be found is relinquishing all control to something all-powerful — in this case, all-powerful sound (mere vibrations in the air). A key focus here are the vocals: throat-ripping shrieks fuzzed nearly out of decipherability. If you can lock yourself into the flow of Faces Turn Away (admittedly, not the easiest task), then you’ll discover a wellspring of pained emotion and deep, introverted reflection.
3 | Release Yourself Through Desperate Rituals frustrates the hell out of me, but it’s my fault. It’s that kind of album so emotionally precise that it necessitates an equally precise mood. Viscera/// have pinpointed with razor ears the exact moment when pent-up joyousness inside you suddenly explodes outward. Those times where you can’t help but grin, when you make it obvious to the outside world that something inside you feel especially good for once. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to incite such moments, let alone seize them on the off chance they do occur. So, out of all my “favorite” albums this year, I’ve listened to 3 | Release Yourself Through Desperate Rituals the least. If you really needed to make some sense of the ranking here (trust me, no sense here), this album is Number One because coming to an understanding with it has resulted in the greatest and most damning realization of them all: it’s all downhill from here.
To wit, I guess I do “release myself through desperate rituals,” especially the ritual that heavy metal has become in my life. It’s desperate because it’s hopeless — in fact, metal as artwork admits its own hopelessness by engaging with it thematically and aesthetically, which is what makes metal special. What better way to truly know The Void than to force yourself into it over and over and over again. Doing this permanently separates a part of you from the real physical world, allowing you to access surreal and unknown lands. This is beyond obsession, this is about connection. 3 | Release Yourself Through Desperate Rituals spoke to me with such lucid fervor that I could barely contain myself, as if the object of my unguided and hopeless pursuit had been — at least for that moment — found at last.
Alas, it wasn’t. But life is about moments, and moments enjoy the infinite realm of memory, ever malleable but forever impactful. Memorialization is yet another ritual (as are the moments spent daydreaming, fantasizing about another life), and eventually we reach a point where everything becomes ritual and meaning can actively drawn from all aspects of existence. To be charged to such an excited state even once leaves reverberations which echo throughout your volition and subconsciousness, as if you were granted the power to see deeply into things otherwise mundane. And it gives things meaning, purpose, and a real point: always work toward those moments in which you felt so ecstatically separated from the dirge of life that hopelessness, even if just for a second, dissolved into the dark ether. Those moments, they’re all we’ve got left.