Top Albums of 2017 – Rhys Williams
2017 was another killer year for metal, particularly for established bands staging either comebacks or stellar additions to their extensive catalogs. Such greats as Cannibal Corpse, Dying Fetus, Goatwhore, and Incantation all released excellent new installments, and there were some absolutely killer returns to form from projects like Akercocke and Wolves in the Throne Room. Still, new blood continues to course and new innovations proceed apace. Bask was my personal favorite new discovery of the year (new to you, that is; I’d known of them since 2014, but this was the year they really blew up), and Forceps came out of a blue nowhere to knock my head off with their debut.
But really, it was a high-quality year across the board: hell, so many excellent war metal records got released this year from bands like Pig’s Blood, Heresiarch, and Crurifragium that I had to give them their whole article! Bearing all this in mind, it was hard to parse out a top 20 from the 2017 field: in the end, most of these albums are roughly equal to me in how much I enjoyed them, simply ranked out of necessity. And yes, some of these releases may stretch the definition of “metal” a good bit, but they were such a necessary addition to the landscape of the genre that I felt it mandatory to do so. Another year passes, another looms on the horizon. Here’s to more life, and more death.
20. Electric Wizard – Wizard Bloody Wizard (Spinefarm Records,FI)
19. Pyrrhon – What Passes For Survival (Throatruiner Records, US)
18. Mastodon – Emperor of Sand (Reprise Records, US)
17. Acid Witch – Evil Sound Screamers (Hells Headbangers Records, CA)
16. Primitive Man – Caustic (Relapse Records, US)
15. Khazaddum – Plagues Upon Arda (Self-Released, US)
14. Ragana – You Take Nothing (An Out Recordings, US)
13. Pallbearer – Heartless (Profound Lore Records, US)
12. Death Fortress– Triumph of the Undying (Fallen Empire Records, US)
11. Falls of Rauros – Vigilance Perennial (Bindrune Productions, US)
The high priests of Southern Goat Metal are back, motherfuckers! Goatwhore made their signature sound clear years ago with Sammy Duet’s distinctive sliding riffs, Ben Falgoust’s iconic vocals, and a driving rhythm section equal parts black and groove. Vengeful Ascension does not re-invent the goatwheel, but instead perfects their assault just that much more. The riffs are just that much punkier, the rock ‘n roll vibes have that much more swagger, the Celtic Frost influence just that much heavier. But there are new elements too: Falgoust experiments with low vocals, Duet gets more solos, and “Chaos Arcane” even has a chorus, which given Falgoust’s distinctive stream-of-consciousness lyrics is certainly new territory for Goatwhore. It’s a true banger of an album, a rough and tumble slice of American hatred and certainly as good as, if not better than, any of Goatwhore’s previous work. Who needs a God when you’ve got Satan?
This one was definitely my “Big Surprise” of 2017. I saw this band in a small bar about the size of a large living room with probably fifteen people, ten of whom were in other bands. Needless to say, they fucking brought it. This is the platonic ideal of brutal death metal: technical prowess without descending into wankery, spectacular musicianship, and most importantly the ability to switch from intricate shred into some seriously heavy riffage. And it’s this sense of songcraft that Forceps really shines on: they’re adherent to the Cannibal Corpse/Cattle Decapitation formula of interspersing insanity with crush, never afraid to slow it down and really chug on a few chords without descending into dull breakdown territory. 2017 was a championship year for brutal death metal, and Forceps was easily the rookie of the year.
I was overjoyed this year when I heard that the British gentlemen Satanists of Akercocke would be reuniting, but Renaissance in Extremis was not what I was anticipating. In many ways, Akercocke can be argued to be exploring a similar evolution to Behemoth before them: using an extended hiatus to refine their sound and ultimately shift their aesthetics in a more interesting direction. Just as Behemoth ditched their leather dresses and incorporated atmospheric black metal into their sound to craft their masterful The Satanist, Akercocke have abandoned the suits and turned their gothic-rock and Carcass-style melodic death metal motifs up to 666, making for an album that is entirely distinct from their past work and yet of a piece with it. Their cohesion is still incredible: David Gray remains one of the unsung virtuosos of metal percussion, and the dual guitar tag-team of Jason Mendonca and Paul Scanlan has never been tighter. And yes, perhaps Mendonca’s clean vocals are more uneven than on previous releases (though his growls are still top-notch), but he’s at least trying new ideas out, replacing the operatic soar of Leviathan with a widely ranging delivery that moves from almost Justin Broadrick-esque mumbling to something that almost sounds like Tom Waits. If this album is any indication, I will be extremely excited to see where Akercocke moves forward from here.
Right after the release of this album, I happened to catch All Hell at a show opening for Bask (more on them later). After their ripping set, I chatted a bit with guitarist/vocalist Jacob about their new album and noted that they’d appeared to shift from a more Celtic Frost-ian punk-influenced attack to a more first-wave black metal, Bathory-influenced sound. His response was simply “We replaced ‘OUGH!’ with ‘EEEAAGH!'” That, in a nutshell, is All Hell’s latest release: 41 minutes of vampiric, primitive black metal Necromansy that batters down the Golden Walls of Heaven in a triumphant Return of the Darkness and Evil. I’m sorry, I’m trying to fit too many Bathory puns in here. Just go listen to this album, it’s a banger.
Incantation needs no introduction, but perhaps a little context. Over the past decade, the whirlwind, cavernous death metal of Onward to Golgotha has become in itself a death metal sub-subgenre, with bands such as Vasaeleth, Antediluvian, Portal, and others upping the murk factor to make insanely creepy, occluded, blast-beat driven death. One might worry, then, that Incantation might get lost in the murk, so to speak; however, Profane Nexus is just the latest example that McEntee and co. have no intention of sticking with the mob. As the other “caverncore” bands got murkier and whirlier, Incantation got cleaner and simultaneously thrashier and doomier. The production on this album is crisp and big, with just enough grit to keep it real. Kyle Severn is back on drums, and his delivery is perfect, switching seamlessly from grody death/doom on “Incorporeal Despair” and “Visceral Hexahedron” to blitzing Kreator-style deathrash on “Xipe Totec.” The best death metal bands are those who hit their distinctive sound early on and have since continued to augment it with new influences, adding new towers to their mighty fortress. Incantation have, once again, proven that their fortress is one the mightiest of all
With The Dead
Cathedral was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Lee Dorrian truly outdid himself in his successor project, With The Dead. Allied with ex-Electric Wizard guitarist Tim Bagshaw, With The Dead made itself instantly distinct from Cathedral and the Wizard by adopting an entirely different musical and philosophical outlook. Bagshaw’s tone doesn’t so much crush as pulverize, his low-end scraping the eardrums like a glacier over bedrock. What really sets Love From With The Dead apart from the average 21st century doom record, however, is its completely nihilistic outlook. Imagine if you took Electric Wizard’s “legalize drugs and murder” mantra and replaced the nostalgic Satan/biker imagery with the bleak, misanthropic outlook of, say, eyehategod. Songs on this album touch on mental illness, drug addiction, and the industrial degradation of Dorrian’s beloved hometown of Coventry, closing with an ear-splitting collaboration with harsh noise artist Russell Haswell. This isn’t feel-good bong-hit doom; this is the bleakest doom metal yet witnessed, and a brilliant achievement in the marriage of heavy music and heavy emotions.
Wolves In The Throne Room
I’ve been a Wolves in the Throne Room fan since their inception, but the one thing I always thought about their music was that it could be a little too “ethereal.” It was excellent for setting a mood of wildness and awe, but sometimes felt low on substance, particularly on their 2014 ambient/neofolk experiment Celestite. With Thrice Woven, WITTR did what I have always wanted from them and have synthesized their graceful sweep with a newfound grit and muscle. The drums have a weight that they didn’t before, the guitars sound bigger and beefier, and Nathan Weaver’s vocals are more savage and immediate than I’ve ever heard them. Yes, there are still plenty of ambient and neofolkish sections, particularly on “The Old Ones Are With Us” and “Angrboda,” but they now have a firm backbone of robust black metal to stand upon. This juxtaposition is key, and at times brings to mind the best work of such black metal legends as Windir and even Emperor. I don’t think I would be alone in saying that Wolves in the Throne Room have, with Thrice Woven, crafted their best record to date.
I AM BE DANGEROUS NOW. NOT ME HURT WHEN STAIRS FELL DOWN. BE PUNCH BY YOU ME HIT HEAD. ME NOSE BROKE SOON YOU BE DEAD.
Jokes aside, this record is the sound of one Neanderthal bashing another to death with a big-ass rock, and I couldn’t get enough of it. John Gallagher is a fucking master of brutal slamming riffment, and the rhythm section remains as equally dynamic and pounding as ever. And the production! Clean, crisp, but not compressed, the platonic ideal of what brutal death metal should sound like, period. The title alone is dumb genius: WRONG ONE TO FUCK WITH. WHO THE FUCK YOU PICK TO FUCK WITH? THE WRONG ONE, MOTHERFUCKER. WALK ON HOME BOY! This was hands down my number one gym album of the year, and lemme tell ya, if you need a 2017 album to improve your deadlift PR with, accept nothing else.
In a reference that will no doubt confuse some metal fans and ennervate others, it has been said of Weird Al Yankovic that “every album is his comeback, until his next one.” To me, this would seem to be the equivalent condition to Cannibal Corpse. The Corpse is quite possibly the greatest death metal band, ever. A lofty qualification, but how else could one possibly describe a band formed in 1987 that released four albums now regarded as unassailable classics of death metal and then, after a middling decade, began a jaw-dropping streak of superb albums that is now entering its eleven year? No other classic death metal band comes close: not Suffocation, who have traded members like baseball cards; not Deicide, whose recent albums are best described as mediocre, or Obituary, whose workmanlike music is always enjoyable but has never truly excelled? Only Cattle Decapitation can hold a candle to Cannibal Corpse, and even then its clear to whom the glory must go. For on their latest offering, Red Before Black, Cannibal Corpse have released a fucking masterful death metal album. With all members pushing fifty, they’ve crafted an album whose energy and intensity runs laps around bands half their age. Hail to the masters of death!
Perhaps Bask is not “metal” enough to belong on this list. But then, where do we put them? They tour with metal bands regularly (hell, as I stated above, I saw them with All Hell this past spring, who are as metal as metal gets), they have metal side-projects (bassist Jesse van Note plays in NC underground black metal legends Black Mountain Hunger), and dammit, their music is heavy as fuck. So what if it’s not “brutal” or “ripping”? Bask, like Baroness and U.S. Christmas before them, have perfected the art of being ‘heavy” without brutality: it’s a monumental sound, encapsulating the joi de vivre of being alive and rambling. The production is magnificent, the riffs memorable, and above all the sense of place is palpable. This is an Appalachian band, lest you forget, and easily the most evocative of such projects since Panopticon’s legendary Kentucky. And let’s not overlook how cohesive this album is: you can sense both a narrative and melodic arc running effortless from the invigorating opener “Asleep in the Orchard” all the way through to the epic closing of “In the Black Fir.” Ramble Beyond is the perfect package of melody, volume, aesthetic, and songwriting, and thus deserves to be at the top of every discerning listener’s 2017 best-ofs, metal or not.