Chris Rowella’s Top Albums of 2019
I dread writing these intros each year. I don’t have any grand introspections into "This Year In Metal." I feel less and less connected to this genre as a community, as a scene (bleh), or as anything besides a collection of bands and albums featuring loud distortion. There are plenty of other writers who are more than happy to tell you the way things are, or ought to be, or who’s right and wrong. I began my life with metal alone in a bedroom, endlessly spinning records and popping CDs in and out of a stereo; as different as things are at 37 compared to 14, I find myself returning to that place more and more. I see my responsibility as a music writer right now as twofold: to be as objective as possible (hence my use of first-person restricted almost exclusively to these end-of pieces) and to champion quality releases that may otherwise go unnoticed. These 20 albums and the reasons they’re listed below mostly live up to those goals, so my job here this year should now be complete.
Salem’s Bend – Supercluster (Ripple Music, USA)
My Diligence – Sun Rose (Mottow Soundz, Belgium)
Creeping Death – Wretched Illusions (Self-released, USA)
Disparager – Existential Dread (Self-released, USA)
Meatwound – Culero (Dark Operative, USA)
Full of Hell – Weeping Choir (Relapse, USA)
Spirit Adrift – Divided by Darkness (20 Buck Spin, USA)
Gygax – High Fantasy (Creator-Destructor, USA)
Year of the Cobra – Ash & Dust (Prophecy Productions, USA)
Ghastly Sound – Have a Nice Day (Magnetic Eye, USA)
Following up 2015’s career-defining Journey Blind, Boston’s Magic Circle have crafted another epic slab of classic doom with Departed Souls. Simple, effective songwriting and respect to the past (without being a slave to it) elevates Magic Circle above many of their peers, to the point where jams like “I’ve Found My Way To Die” and “Nightland” sound like they could have been released in any year of the last five decades. But Departed Souls came out this year, and we’re all the better for it.
If you can get through the first track without someone cutting onions, I don’t know what else there is to say.
After the relentless battery of their 2017 debut Hatred, Japanese powerviolence/grindcore powerhouse Friendship delivered a worthy follow-up with Undercurrent. Containing furious, unforgiving riffs that still find space to stomp and groove, this album is simply suffocating. Friendship fills a void the dearly departed Weekend Nachos left behind, and the band still has the potential to get even better.
In the ocean of new and notable metal releases this year, one could be forgiven for forgetting that the kings of sludge-pop Torche put out a new album too. That is, until you listen to it, and kick yourself for dismissing it as "just another Torche record." Admission is the band at their most cohesive and forward-thinking, skewing much closer to forebearers Floor than anything they’ve done this decade. Big, catchy, arena-worthy tunes like “Slide” and the title track should appeal to anyone who likes rock-'n'-roll, regardless of how mainstream their tastes may be. Torche is for the people.
One of the most welcome comebacks of 2019, stoner rock godfathers Nebula emerged from a decade of hibernation and got down to the business of making one of the best rock albums of the year. Sun-soaked desert grooves, old-school production, spaced-out interludes, wah-wah for days: Holy Shit fits right into the seam that Nebula created over 20 years ago, and stands tall with any of their previous albums. And just like those earlier releases, this one is familiar and infinitely replayable.
The power of the live performance: Monolord’s new album was on pace to end up somewhere in the back-end of my top 20, but seeing them onstage in Brooklyn a few weeks ago changed everything. Yes, they’ve been improving with each release, making No Comfort arguably their best album to date; but after its September release, it fell into the din of the countless other stoner/doom albums being churned out this year. Witnessing the sheer brilliance of "The Bastard Son," "Larvae," and "The Last Leaf" in person, feeling the waves of distortion, fuzz, and overdrive flow through the packed room, blowing minds and sparking trips, shot Monolord right past the worthy competition. They’re leading the pack now -- get in line.
I’ve spilled plenty of digital ink around these parts about noise rock’s glorious resurgence, so suffice to say that when one of the best bands to ever do it puts out a new album, it’s probably going to catch my ear. And when it’s this good, it deserves a position this high. Immaculada High is a gloriously fucked-up masterpiece; soaked in feedback and reverb, attacking from every angle, swinging from beautiful melody to acid-tongued venom at the drop of a hat. Cherubs’ 2014 comeback album 2 YNFYNYTY is great, but Immaculada High is a milestone. “Sooey Pig” is like Torche filtered through a mud pit, whereas “Old Lady Shoe” is straight from the Jesus Lizard playbook. There are new things to love with every listen, along with revisiting everything that made you love it in the first place, and that’s the most you can ask from a classic album.
Compression is usually a dirty word when it comes to records, but this album bucks the trend. It’s tight, compact, and once you cut it open, there’s no getting it back in. Boasting two-thirds of legendary grindcore act Discordance Axis, No One Knows What the Dead Think build on the past to create a vision for the future. While it may be tame by some grind standards, their self-titled release is chock-full of carefully planned ideas and thoughtfully constructed songs. They move at a blinding clip, but never sacrifice clarity for speed. With each riff, Jon Chang’s signature howls and drummer Kyosuke Nakano’s rapid-fire fills are all accounted for. No One Knows What the Dead Think is also the rare grind record that could prove to be a gateway drug to the genre for listeners put off by more abrasive entry points. It’s polished but not slick, and at 18 minutes, you can listen to the whole thing three times in one hour just to drive the point home. Closing with a cover of the classic “Dominion” from Discordance Axis’ Ulterior shows an incredible evolution, both for this project's members and the genre they helped define.
Unquantifiable, resistant to categorization, and undeniably brilliant, Inter Arma have not-so-quietly built a case for being one of the best bands of the 21st Century. Sulphur English profoundly strengthens that argument, weaving styles, moods, and influences like few (if any) other heavy acts can. From the Morbid Angel sludge of “Citadel” to the blackened Neurosis of “Howling Lands” to the epic peaks and wicked valleys of the title track, the album is a leap forward in Inter Arma’s sound that builds on their hitherto legendary catalogue. They fully grasp the idea that heaviness isn’t just a sound, it’s an emotion. Tapping that particular vein is difficult, but Sulphur English does so from start to finish. Given more time, it will rightly move into its place among the other great albums of not just this year, but the whole decade.
The debut album from Workshed being my favorite album of the year is not surprising. The fact that it encapsulates both everything I love and hate about the music industry in 2019, however, is a bit more astounding. Two ex-members of Cathedral got together and recorded an album with Jaime Arellano that sounds like Tom G. Warrior wrote and sang most of The Ethereal Mirror?
With that kind of pedigree and a fully realized, catchy, instantly recognizable sound, Workshed should be all over the metal sphere. But if I wasn’t a music writer and had the promo sent directly to me, it’s more than likely I would have never heard it. By all accounts, its release went under the radar; while it’s increasingly harder for every new metal album to get the right eyes and ears on it, some effort is still required. Rise Above won’t even add their releases to Bandcamp, the indisputably best platform for artists, instead opting for Spotify and its terrible business practices, among other perhaps less egregious platforms. But it would be a true shame if that was the central point of discussing my favorite release of the year: “The Windowpanes at the Lexington” sets Workshed’s style right off the bat, a buzzing Celtic Frost guitar tone and blackened, doomy riff leading into a stomping rock beat and Adam Lehan’s Dorrian-meets-Warrior vocals.
Lyrics might be an afterthought to a lot of bands these days, but a chorus like “‘Cause I’m lost, but I’m home / So why do I feel so alone?” begs for a sing-along. The song is emblematic of the album in that it’s familiar, almost like you’ve heard it before; it sounds like it could be on one of your Trouble or Obsessed records, but not quite. Then you get to “Nowhere to Go" which boasts the best riff of the year, and it’s only the third track, but you’re sold.
I was, and I still am.