As my wails for help in the midst of emotional and existential throes echo off my consciousness's chamber's seemingly infinite walls into the abstract but welcoming darkness which lies so unreachably beyond, only one hero remains who can deliver my weak soul to the serenity of this outlying void's true and total escape: heavy metal.

Almost like some kind of fucking megazord, I become almighty and masterful in my heavy metal powersuit, fused by actual lightning and assembled from the multifarious toolbox of heavy metal subgenres: black metal, death metal, doom metal, metalcore, post-metal, tech-death, deathcore, thrash metal, progressive metal, etc. In this state of being so chock-full of metal that I can simply crush existence (death, even) instead of submitting to it, I find not only sensational peace and at-oneness, but also the newfound freedom to explore and discover the extreme artwork which so routinely rescues me from my own internal abjection.

This is to say: relieved from a constant onslaught of interior torment (intrusive and circular thoughts, hyper-aware pangs of unprovoked embarrassment, unbelievable anxiety, crushing depression, profuse sweating), the mind's faculties become free to digest what they crave; in my case, they become gluttonously obsessed with that which gave them freedom. To wit, I'm genuinely surprised I don't shit titanium, sneeze magnesium, and vomit steel at this point. It seems the more metal I listen to, the greater its positive effect on my life becomes; obsession, then, becomes neurotic necessity, and I've never looked back, nor will I ever.

This very over-complicated arrangement means two things: 1) for me to remember an album for longer than a month requires at least somel "special connection," and 2) that "special connection" is always emotionally contextual and definitionally nebulous. This framework is ahistoric and fair: it explains that, for instance, the metalcore I loved back in the mid-2000s (what a great time for metalcore, by the way, and yes, the new Unearth album made my list) isn't no longer good just because I don't actively listen to it anymore. Those emotions were then, and so was that music, and it was nothing short of perfect; now, though, things have changed quite a bit, and I've found different, more esoteric metal to resonate with my current self.

It's interesting that emotions are always dependent on time, place, atmosphere, people, etc., and that metal -- as music which escalates emotions to their most extreme degrees -- is likewise just as flexible, even despite its penchant for the seemingly simple philosophy of maximization. (I've switched from imagining "cold, hard steel" when thinking about metal in a physical sense to envisioning a gargantuan cauldron of molten iron. I think the fluidity of molten metal -- plus the fact that molten metal is badass and can really fuck you up if you fall into it -- better represents how subgenres blend and mesh, especially deep within metal's thriving underbelly.) I make it a conscious duty to sample metal from every edge of its sprawling realm not necessarily because I'm interested in the variances of the sound (which I am), but because I'm interested in how those artists felt when they cracked themselves completely open and poured out everything they had inside onto tape. Whatever connection they had at that very moment, I want; whatever presence they had at that very moment, I want.

The real question is what the fuck is a "special connection" with music anyhow? I'm not entirely sure either, but I know it when I feel it, and hopefully you do too. The process, however, is always easier to describe: when listening to music, 50% of the time I spend churning through albums I've never heard hoping to uncover a gem, and 50% of the time I skip around my saved library (sometimes fruitlessly) until I find the perfect album for that particular moment's mood. The albums I at least want to listen to once more end up in the library; then, if they find themselves pulled off the shelf more and more often, it means that a "special connection" is being born. Think about emotional synchronies, mood compatibilities, aesthetic meshings, etc. between you and the music which seem to arise naturally but still require active nurturing. Think about who you are in relation to your music, but it's not "what does your music say about you?" Rather, it's "what do you have to say about yourself with respect to your music?"

To really answer the "special connection" question from an effectual perspective, the albums comprising the list which follows all did at least one of four things: 1) gave me full-on goosebumps/frisson for sustained periods of longer than one minute, 2) made both of my eyes water up at least to the point of unconscious blinking, 3) compelled me toward outrageous headbanging or fist-pumping alone in my office or shower, or 4) caused me to hoist the almighty invisible oranges (this is the ultimate expression I reserve only for the rarest and finest moments of metal triumphancy). That's at least how I react when a "special connection" is primed; emotionally, though, it's much more complicated and obscured from even my own admittedly delirious insight.

The point: this list is my list, not anyone else's list, and all of our lists are inherently and completely equal in every way, and they're cool inasmuch as we get to showcase the artwork which hit us the hardest as complex, emotion-laden individuals who yearn tirelessly to tell our stories and share our thoughts and feelings and experiences -- likewise and moreover, any consternation regarding the selections on anyone's list is inherently selfish (and annoying) and basically like saying, "no, this album actually didn't/couldn't elicit a 'special connection' with you (what you felt was fake because that music is bad based on Real Objective Standards), and by the way, I know best, so listen to this Objectively Better Music instead."

Growing up listening to metal (specifically, metalcore and deathcore), I had some people purposefully make me feel stupid or even wrong for liking this style of music I happened to like. This impacted me for sure, and caused me to hide myself and mask my genuine interests at certain times. That's no fucking way to live, and after a while, I fucking refused to live that way any longer. I realized that my connection to metal as artwork is always mightier than the pathetically weaponized insecurities of random losers. I realized this to the extent that I am here, now, putting into words these very thoughts about how unafraid I am to completely expose myself emotionally through the music I love. The real objectivity here correlates with my candidness and sincerity (ditto musicians') in expressing myself the only way I know how; everything else, though, including everything I've written above and below, flows through pure subjectivity's infinite and wondrous ether.


Honorable Mentions:

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    Unearth – Extinction(s)

    USA (Century Media)

    Unearth is my favorite metalcore band of all time. More than a decade ago now, someone in school handed me The Oncoming Storm claiming it was the heaviest album they had ever heard. I immediately fell in love: the bonkers melodies, the technicality and speed, the pump-you-up vibes, the many, many breakdowns. It was everything I wanted to hear; it was fun without the flippancy. Simply put, listening to Unearth made me feel almighty and unstoppable. And here's the honest truth: out of their entire discography, this new album is second only to The Oncoming Storm in that regard. Extinction(s) brought me back to those massive surges of positivity I used to glean from Unearth during my times of profound and sinister negativity -- this album captures the ethos of old Unearth but takes real advantage of the band's seasoning since. Unearth's technicality and songwriting have never been this mature; energy-wise, though, it's like these guys somehow got younger.

    What's more, I had the chance earlier this year to interview frontman Trevor Phipps himself about the band's newfound energy and how this insta-classic metalcore album came to be. Then, of course, I hit up the photo pit before hitting up the mosh pit for my first-ever Unearth performance. If something's worth doing, it's worth doing right: I devoured that evening and night like I too had gained back so many years of youthful vigor and spirit. Thank you Unearth for making me feel pretty damn alright sometimes. It means a lot.

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    Entropia – Vacuum

    Poland (Arachnophobia Records)

    It was a pure pleasure to premiere Vacuum earlier this year: moody, groovy, and psychedelic as shit, Entropia's trancelike modus operandi functions flawlessly in this latest execution. Actually, one commenter put it just so perfectly: "Oranssi Pazuzu opened a swing club?"

    You're goddamn fucking right they did!

    Anyway, let's look back to what I said back when Vacuum's suction was particularly strong on my psyche (I couldn't stop listening to the damn thing, it's just so exceedingly radical and catchy, and I think the word I used was "elevating," which I'd now like to augment with "invigorating"):

    Vacuum, if represented as a wavelength, would have multiple key moments of maximum peaks and minimum lows; utilizing the extremity of black metal, the abstraction of post-metal, and the urging drive of groove metal, Entropia has constructed a veritable mountain range of emotions and sensations. Everything feels afflicted and sensitive, a hyper-aware state of being. Troves of heavily layered melodies backbone each song — whether they’re ascending or descending, the music is always heading in a direction, and urgently so. This gives Vacuum an endless, driving, almost anxious feeling, compounded of course by Entropia’s superb and esoteric songwriting and arrangement. But the layering — especially when vocals and synthesizer are involved — smooth out the delivery entirely. It’s layering complexity, actually, which doesn’t distract from the album’s flow; in fact, it reinforces and defines it.

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    Rivers of Nihil – Where Owls Know My Name

    USA (Metal Blade)

    I had high expectations for Where Owls Know My Name, and Rivers of Nihil blew them to fucking smithereens with their completely unexpected, saxophone-saturated, synthy shift in sound. This band had two choices: 1) execute on the formula perfected on The Conscious Seed of Light and Monarchy (this would've worked fine actually and produced a solid if otherwise unremarkable album), or 2) rewrite the recipe altogether. If album centerpiece and magnum opus "Subtle Change (Including the Forest of Transition and Dissatisfaction Dance)" says anything, it's that the second option won outright -- weaving dozens of new techniques and sounds into something which ended up retaining that signature Rivers of Nihil sound couldn't have been easy at all. And so it seems, everything these guys experimented with worked out in their favor tenfold.

    Bonuses: check out my extensive review of the album, plus my interview with guitarist Brody Uttley.

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    LLNN - Deads

    Denmark (Pelagic Records)

    There are some pretty massively heavy albums on this list (of course), but Deads gobbles the cake like an emaciated grizzly bear. LLNN have blended abstract post-metal with raw groove and some absolutely sensational weight to create, quite literally, the antidote to deathcore. Nothing is heavier than Deads; on "Armada" especially, LLNN chugs and chugs and chugs toward such a tremendous climax. Meanwhile, synths scream overhead like jets, adding melody and atmosphere to offset the guitar/drum duo's magnificent brutality. I think of Deads as the album the first sentient computer would write the moment it turns evil and decides to smite us all. After all, what fun is total annihilation without the perfect soundtrack for the ride.

    More thoughts over in my full review.

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    The Armed – Only Love

    USA (No Rest Until Ruin)

    Magical. There's no other word for mesmerizing punk rock strewn across Only Love's 11 manically postmodern tracks, each one a complete but fantastic sensory overload. The Armed have written the urban avant-garde music of the sure-to-be dystopic future, as far as I'm concerned. I absolutely relish in the the shrieking, horrific visions of "Parody Warning." I bang my fucking head to "Role Models." "Luxury Themes" just drives my brain wild with its mountainous undulations and sheer aggression. Every goddamn song germinates a distinct mini-opera of luxuriously tapestried atmospherics, all played harder than fuck, and I love to bask in the sheer volume that Only Love absolutely demands from front to back. Also, The Armed is by far the coolest band on my list (style points count when you've already won pretty much everything else). Flawless victory.

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    Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology

    UK (Willowtip)

    There's nothing quite like the mollusk-obsessed tech-death of Slugdge -- the coolest thing, actually, is the juxtaposition between the ridiculousness of the content and the seriousness of the music. I often hesitate to use the word "unique," but hot damn, these strange-but-brilliant slug-masters are on to something with Esoteric Malacology's wild narrative, songwriting, and technicality. As a full tech-death package -- from lyrics to production and everything in between -- this incredible album demonstrates what the otherwise stale subgenre can actually do. As "Slave Goo World" goes, "cast off the flesh become one with the ooze." Slime me, baby… slime me good.

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    Estuarine – Sic Erat Scriptum


    Somebody, please, sign this guy. With Sic Erat Scriptum, project mastermind Hydrus wove together tech-death and grindcore with experimental threads of twangy, groovy style, and it's quite unlike anything I've ever heard before. This one-hour funfest of melody and destruction thrives within its DIY production and passion; in fact, there's something blatantly authentic about Hydrus's music that I routinely fail to discover elsewhere. Regardless if it's the immediate punch of "Slaves of Mammon" or the homeric scale of album closers "Choir of Infinity" and "Sic Erat Scriptum," Estuarine bleeds effortlessness and panache with songwriting mastery. Everything is honed and balanced to perfection: long songs, short songs, heavy songs, light songs, fast songs, slow songs, climaxes and valleys, simplicity and complexity... it's all rapturously furious and furiously rapturous.

    Check out my interview with Hydrus earlier this year (he also recorded some playthrough videos especially for us which are embedded in the interview).

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    Ultha – The Inextricable Wandering

    Germany (Century Media)

    I was thrilled to steep myself in the journey-like narrative of The Inextricable Wandering the moment it hit my inbox -- little did I know, though, how powerfully it would suck me into its dark, mysterious ether. As I wrote in my premiere of "Cyanide Lips," "...Ultha, in their fourth active year, have made wild progressions soundwise while retaining a core thematic essence: that of sensational melancholy, that of profound self-doubt, that of existential suffering." While other albums on this list are downright fun, The Inextricable Wandering exudes pain, suffering, and death (things which are generally not-fun); indubitably, life's lows have their own dynamic range as well. It's actually that range and dynamism which sets Ultha apart from other black metal acts: this band illustrates low-down suffering at its deepest but also the climactic, overwhelmed highs of finally realizing that there's simply no way out. And at those blasting moments, when the downs break and everything comes into focus, Ultha's dark light shines more intensely than even hell's own negative radiance.

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    Basalte – Vertige


    In my premiere of Vertige's showstopping opening track, I explained that this Quebecois black metal outfit elicited a "blossoming" feeling which contrasts the sometimes claustrophobic headspaces other black metal acts manifest. (It's actually the same feeling I get from listening to Spectral Lore, which is the only other place I've ever discovered this kind of lid-opening emotional intensity.) When Basalte blasts, they move the universe; when they approach doom, time itself seems to cease altogether. As a four-pronged weapon for your mind, Vertige ranges the gamut from lofty atmospherics to straightforward assaults, from highly technical variations to abstract noise, all conducted like a symphony. Each of the four songs stands alone as a story with its own climax (or anti-climax); together, though, they gradually weave layers and layers of black metal fluency which culminate in a fittingly incredible send-off.

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    A Forest of Stars – Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes

    USA (Prophecy Productions)

    All the albums on this list are great for different reasons, but great nonetheless. Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes, the absolute magnum opus from English avant-garde black metal troupe A Forest of Stars, is great for every reason. I called Mr. Curse's vocals "pained, almighty cries" in my album premiere, and no matter how many times I re-listen to this album, they always carry me to the same extreme lofty peaks and destructive depths. Ditto the wild, sprawling instrumentation and symphonic musicianship which comprise this hour-long headtrip. I never tire of Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes -- it never fails to replace whatever mood I'm in with one far more cathartic. Even this band's style (the whole Victorian-era thing) is enough to transport me to fantastical interior places, not to mention their musical esotericism and humongous power.

    Of course I'm lost, we all are on this outrageous journey. But listening to albums like Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes makes me feel found. Not by a person or even an entity, but by a feeling: a feeling that no matter how hopeless life is, at least there's extreme art to give that hopelessness meaning. Something, anything to hold on to. We can call life meaningless, existentially at least, but we cannot call art purposeless. In fact, it has only a sole purpose: itself. When heavy metal albums feel honest -- not written for a particular listener, not to engineered to a formula -- it's because they are speaking to themselves, and nobody else, in the most extreme degree. It's the reflection of artist within art that we connect with. It's right there where we find beauty, the bleeding edge of how much emotion can be conveyed with mere vibrations in the air.

    And when Mr. Curse piques at the midpoints on "Tombward Bound" and "Scripturally Transmitted Disease," for instance -- the band always following suit, harboring up tense intensity toward blasting, tear-jerking denouements -- it both destroys and creates me anew. For this much we can only hope as each year passes: to be torn down by the throes of life, but rebuilt by the fruits of others' pain. Let us creatively share everything that hurts so we can maybe hurt a little bit less. That's how Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes hits me, and that's why it's my favorite album this year.

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