Aaron Maltz’s Top Albums of 2018
Before assembling this list, I would have answered to the general public that 2018, while producing a few bright works, eroded the last of my worn thin tolerance. Most weekends I would optimistically embark through the week’s releases with a fresh pot of coffee and finish with a dead stare, jittery fingers, and utter dejection for what subjectively should not exist. My detective ear concluded that scenes appeared to double-down, more so than years previous, on their already established traits to endlessly promote their authenticity. Retro sounds clashed with eye-watering dissonance, backed by either high-end or intentionally piss-poor production, and so on with every permutation that the metal world has already developed and driven into the soil. It fully dawned on me that music journalists, at least on our level, now completely fulfill the glamorous task once relegated to label interns of vetting the absolute worst from the mildly tolerable.
Once I got over myself, my despair eventually gave way to mild clarity. A number of bands had made some damn fine albums and I could discern a positive trend when not consumed with existential anguish.
Metal has struggled for some time with clean vocals that creep dangerously near the crevice of radio rock, yet on the other end of the spectrum, and with a few exceptions, generic growls have to retire; I loved them as a teenager but they do little to presently distinguish one band from another. Rather than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ the whole thing, singers like Jason McMaster from Howling Sycamore brought power metal into the extreme metal arena, while Alexis Marshall of Daughters preached the folly of abuse with the passion of an ex-addict. Yes, these vocalists clearly existed before 2018 but their presence among others in an otherwise sorry year points to momentum. A much needed update has begun.
While the majority of modern metal seems content replicating itself into obscurity, great music will endure, no matter how strong the herbicide. My lineup reflects the bands that need to sound different lest they wither and die; and while they may not scratch your aesthetic itch, they avoid recycling the same riffs approved by precedence, a feat alone worthy of consideration.
20. Cortez – No More Conqueror (WOOAAARGH, Switzerland)
19. ATKA – Untitled Album 1r (Self-released, Germany)
18. Cryptopsy – The Book of Suffering: Tome II (Hammerheart, Canada)
17. Bisbâyé – Synkronyk (Self-released, Canada)
16. Yamantaka//Sonic Titan – Dirt (Paper Bag, Canada)
15. Innumerable Forms – Punishment In Flesh (Profound Lore, USA)
14. Lume – Wrung Out (Equal Vision, USA)
13. Panegyrist – Hierurgy (I, Voidhanger, USA)
12. Organized Chaos – Divulgence
11. Alkaloid – Liquid Anatomy (Season of Mist, Germany)
Just before pressing play on the hottest new instrumental prog release, a rational question emerges: am I in the mood to digest dense, technical passages that last the duration of a sitcom or would I prefer something I can absorb while browsing reddit? Instrumental (adj.) provide both. Reductio ad Absurdum packs in Steve Vai level shredding with groove oriented math and prog rock that focuses on swagger and space more than abstraction. Rather than cause a minor stroke dissecting time signatures, the riffs, supported by superhuman drumming, sound as they should. At just twenty-minutes, the three-track EP leaves you satisfied and craving more.
The best narrative reveals itself without clutter and Radiant Knife serve their tunes extra lean. They love to innocently present a riff, one that seemingly wants to meet your parents, before it transforms with controlled twists and turns into a steamroller that flattens your expectations. The duo navigate their territory, from grunge to thrash to classic rock, with the familiarity of a seasoned farmer and Science Fiction bares its soul to form a unique and unpretentious sound.
If anyone doubted whether a reunited Hot Snakes could match the fury of their legacy, Jericho Sirens opener “I Need A Doctor” alleviates those fears with fourteen years of fermented energy uncorked. Formed almost twenty-years ago by Rick Froberg and John Reis of Drive Like Jehu, the San Diego group write with the intention of a full and visceral band performance, capturing jagged strength in two to three minutes bursts influenced by punk, hardcore, and garage rock. Alternately fun and dark, their unique phrasing feels wildly unpredictable yet wholly grounding. To save money and time, “Why Don't It Sink In?”, works better than a cup of coffee in the morning.
I wrote about Ottone Pesante twice this year, once for The Listening Party and the other to praise the beauty of Apocalips. To summarize, the Italian three-piece play frenzied and barbaric metal, often at a breakneck pace, as a unit of trumpet, trombone and drums. Despite the lack of strings, the music never lacks for vigor and conjures the hysteria of ancient soldiers storming the gate; I blame the brass for this vision from lore. The unique instrumentation qualifies as a revolution and feels tailor made for fans of the best ska-punk without any of the ironic tendencies.
I’ve never experienced, nor desired, a thirty-minute orgasm but Only Love clearly aims to replicate the experience. The Armed have created an air of mystery surrounding their members but left no guesswork over their intent: to level the listener into a state of submission with maximum compression, anthemic choruses and great melodies. They identify as punk but take up residence in hardcore and metal to set up a fireworks display directly in your retina. The instrumentation blends into a singular entity with the exception of Ben Koller, who punches in for an utterly ridiculous performance. The harmonies stick despite all this mayhem, bolstered by bouncy keyboard lines that lie buried underneath.
The smoke, the grit, and the grime of early 20th century New York all dwell in Vile Luxury, which follows a narrative born from the likes of Dashiell Hammett and proposes a three-way between atonal extreme metal, jazz and the avant-garde. This era bred plenty of American success stories but Imperial Triumphant want the failures for whom one is always too many. Gorgeous piano sections at the end of “Gotham Luxe” pair with the moody jazz of “Mother Machine” and fight the dense chaos of “Swarming Opulence.” The guitar, often drowning and late for a court appearance, slinks in the background with minimum distortion and a massive hangover. Technical, difficult, and exhausting all pertain as adjectives; make sure to pour a strong glass of optimism for afterward.
Metal nerds love to throw around jazz references to earn super cool brownie points but I legitimately hear the hard bop fever of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy when jamming out to ION. Portal once relished in a downtuned, tenebrous murk but have since discovered the upper half of their fretboard and its bottomless pit of nightmares. The blitz of notes barely abates for forty-minutes and feels ready to fall off the rails, like an album of composed Kerry King solos. Even though they never take a smoke break, the bad acid trip they conjure fails to overstay its welcome.
When Italian avant-garde metal band Ephel Duath disbanded in 2014, guitarist and mastermind Davide Tiso cited that “this band mattered so much to me that I didn't get any joy in letting it be heard and dissected by you any longer.” A few years later, Tiso wrote guitar lines based upon established drum parts for another band that never manifested. Rather than scrap his work, he took those riffs and founded Howling Sycamore on three simple principles: it needed classic heavy metal vocals, extreme metal drumming, and layered, downtuned guitars. When the ingredients work, who needs a complicated recipe? Ephel Duath operated without restrictions but writing from a percussive vantage point forced Tiso to simplify his approach. Plenty of experimentation occurs, including guest saxophone spots by Bruce Lamont of Yakuza, but overall the music seems intent on honing a particular vibe. Jason McMaster really makes this soar, singing with passion and tremendous depth; he digs particularly deep on the classic ballad, “Chant of Stillness.”
Antisoph’s self-titled debut caught me more off-guard than any other release this year. They clearly love metal, from classic heavy metal to avant garde black metal, and synthesize those influences into their own undefined genre. At every step, they uphold the need to either induce a circle pit or find a strong groove supported by forceful clean vocals. With songwriting and chops this good, why haven’t they been picked up by the greater metal community? “Distant Scream”, a thirteen minute epic, ascends the wings of power black metal, while “Teleport Maze” utilizes dizzying riffs to craft the album’s most accessible track. “Ghostking” drills in an epic outro before “Rejoice” ends on an acoustic and experimental note. They show tons of promise for a debut album and I only ask that they include more guitar solos in the future.
After Canada Songs and Hell Songs, two interesting but questionably good albums, it became important to ask whether Daughters popularity stemmed from talent or provocation. They greatly improved their songwriting on their 2010 self-titled release, leaping confidently from the genre tags that shackled them, and promptly broke-up from the strain of creating something more palatable (being broke played an issue as well).
Eight-years later, we have You Won’t Get What You Want, the portrait of a once imploded group now having grown out of their egos to produce a menacing dose of avant-garde noise rock. It seems fitting that a band once notorious for stuffing riffs into short durations now plays to their greatest strength: repetition. Claustrophobic, brooding, and thoughtful repetition performed to its maximum intensity at all times. Alexis Marshall barks poetry from the barstool above this litany, while Nicholas Sadler punches like Andy Gill with more cinematic tendencies. A Gang of Four reference fits as the repeated rhythms and pervasive dissonance brainwash you into moving your limbs.
The saying, “Art for art’s sake,” has taken on negative connotation in modern times but Daughters, whether conscious or not, embody the phrase; they create art for their own meaning. All four members have developed an individual voice incongruent from one-another and the sounds they collectively create, thankfully, cannot be replicated as the world couldn’t handle another.