Ivan Belcic’s Top Albums of 2019
Last year, I dedicated my little intro bit to all the independent labels out there digging deep and grinding it out to platform legions of exciting and forward-thinking bands. This year has been no different, with a seemingly endless supply of inspiring records coming out of these houses.
But instead of returning the spotlight to these hardworking folks, though they deserve it, I’d like to redirect it onto the staggering proportion of debut albums that I fell in love with over the course of the year. This realization didn’t strike me until I sat down to put this list together and get my top ten blurbles written up, but of the 20 records featured in this list, 11 are the full-length debuts of their respective creators.
Some of these bands honed their sound over EPs, splits and live shows, others coalesced from the detritus of dead projects, while still others seemingly willed themselves fully formed into existence. There’s also a few follow-up albums here, and as any songwriter can attest, it’s one thing to write a killer album, but quite another to do it again.
I didn’t intend to shape my list in this way. I’m not trying to make any sort of contrived point by assembling a list along these lines. These are 20 records that grabbed me the hardest this year, and to see over half of them coming from new (or new-ish) bands instills in me a robust confidence in the ensuing years. Every album here is excellent, but there’s something a little extra-special about it all when an emergent band is already capable of executing at such brilliant heights.
The year 2019 has seen so many bands arrive with preternatural levels of conviction, quality, polish and drive. It’s an encouraging promise for what heavy music in the 2020s may look like and who will be leading it.
Ashbringer – Absolution (Prosthetic, USA)
Crepuscle – Heavenly Skies (Creator-Destructor, USA)
Botanist – Ecosystem (Aural Music, USA)
Chernaa – Empyrean Fire (Noizr, Czechia)
Kaleikr – Heart of Lead (Debemur Morti, Iceland)
Latitudes – Part Island (Debemur Morti, United Kingdom)
Waldgeflüster – Mondscheinsonaten (Nordvis, Germany)
Morild – Så kom mørket og tog mig på ordet En sort sky af minder I afgørende stunder Frosset fast til mit indre Jeg håber det forsvinder med lyset At dø eller blive fri (Indisciplinarian, Denmark)
Olhava – Olhava (Independent, Russia)
Clouds Collide – They Don’t Sleep Anymore (War Crime, USA)
It’d have been next to impossible to stay abreast of metal news in 2019 while avoiding any hints of the clusterfuck that is the saga of Batushka. Following the group’s landmark 2015 release Litourgiya, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Krzysztof “Derph” Drabikowski and vocalist Bartłomiej Krysiuk parted ways in a still-ongoing mess that left fans juggling two competing versions of the band. Панихида (Panihida) is the former’s follow-up to Litourgiya, dropped mere weeks before the Metal Blade-backed release from the latter, and it in no uncertain terms establishes where the talent and creativity responsible for the initial record resides. A return to his iconic blend of thickly chugged black metal and Orthodox chants, Derph’s second outing is a leaner, rawer and more aggressive vision for what is clearly the sole spiritual successor of the original band.
The Callous Daoboys’ debut full-length Die on Mars might be my pick for the tightest record of the year. The eclectic Atlanta seven-piece meld savage breakdowns and pinch squeals, frenetic barrages, rapid-fire tempo and time changes, left-field genre swaps, and sardonic lyrics rendered through an absurd spread of vocal styles into a record that manages to be as compelling as it is challenging to process. Peer into the chaos to find The Callous Daoboys in full command of the intentional and precise cacophony they’ve created. “This may be the single most chilling message you will ever hear,” indeed.
Idle Hands came tearing out of the gates with a holistic identity already honed into an airtight package. Their first full-length record Mana is irrepressible, goth-infused infectiousness capped by the sonorous and straightforward presence of vocalist Gabriel Franco. His at-times morbid, at-times fantastical lyrics resound across potent anthems swimming in reverb and writhing under the twinkling lights of the shimmering lead guitar melodies. Idle Hands are masters of the hook, but they’re equally adept in their more poignant moments. Good luck staying still while blasting this one in your ears. Huuah!
Ithaca’s full-length debut The Language of Injury is a challenge to every other metalcore and metallic hardcore band out there to transcend genre tropes and find a truly unique musical perspective. The band wield piercing dissonance, complex rhythmic shifts and brutal chugs with equal dexterity, often merging the three as in the breakdown on “Impulse Crush.” Add to that a vocal performance so visceral and genuine so as to make my own throat bleed, and you’re left with one of the year’s most emotionally concentrated musical experiences.
Reflected in Adam Burke’s bleak cover art, Hath’s Of Rot and Ruin is an uncompromising listen, but the New Jersey quartet also know when to scale back in order to maximize the impact of their debut’s most crushing moments. I knew I had to stick my greedy fingers in this pie and premiere something from this album, and, thankfully, I was able to. Of Rot and Ruin was impressively recorded and mixed by drummer AJ Viana, and eight months after its release, it still stands as one of 2019’s strongest death metal records. I’ve been returning to it over and over again all year, and I don’t see that ending any time soon.
We’re in the midst of a melodic death metal upswing, and leading this year’s charge is Eternal Storm with their first full-length album Come the Tide. Eternal Storm spin compositions that swell and flow, intertwining around themselves, sculpting each moment with painstaking arrangements of textures, techniques and vocal styles. Come the Tide’s melodic death is a melancholic one, calling forth surges of longing and despondence even in its most animated passages. Eternal Storm accent their own ample talents with a diverse roster of guest features, none of which feel superfluous as many collaborations for their own sake can -- every creative partner is integrated into the tapestry.
Immortal Bird’s unyielding blackened, techy deathgrind is in full blossom on their second record Thrive on Neglect. The Chicago-based quartet spent nearly four years fine-tuning the album into what would ultimately become a unceasingly sinister, genre-unifying barrage channeling equal parts fury and finesse. The harrowing experience of the music contained within is aptly represented with cover art, both unsettling and somehow at the same time charming, by frequent collaborator Kikyz1313. Thrive on Neglect is a celebration of Immortal Bird’s creative prowess and technical capabilities, reflecting a band perched at the forefront of contemporary death metal.
I arrived a bit late to the Friendship party, having missed their initial EPs and learning of them only after they crowd-killed their way into my heart with their face-pulverizing 2017 debut full-length Hatred. In a genre full of people doing their best to appear as aggro as possible, these brutalizers stand out due to sheer noxiousness and an utter lack of mercy. After an ominous swelling of noise -- the only drawn-out aspect of this otherwise nonstop 22-minute blast furnace -- Undercurrent this-is-Sparta kicks listeners square in the solar plexus and commences a thorough and phenomenally percussive bludgeoning that epitomizes everything implied by the term “powerviolence.” This record is sludgy, it’s technical, and it wants to destroy everything you love.
I’ve been an ardent devotee at the Violet Cold altar since first coming across his 2017 album Anomie. While blackgaze has blown up in the post-Sunbather era, nobody pushes it to the same distant reaches as does Violet Cold’s Emin Guliyev. Compared to its predecessor, kOsmik runs a tighter ship that incorporates each of its touchpoints with absolute purpose. Guliyev bleeds confidence, folding in elements well outside genre norms and unafraid to lay himself bare in the emotions he evokes in his listeners. kOsmik is meticulously structured down to the second, culminating in the clean pop vocal payoff which closes out the title track, and when that voice hits, the world disappears. My only lament with the album is that there isn’t more of it -- it’s always over before I’m ready for it to be.
With Love Exchange Failure, White Ward find resounding success where so many other bands fall short: following up on a magnificent debut record with one that surpasses it by nearly any metric. Imagining 2017’s Futility Report as a proof of concept, Love Exchange Failure is the collective crystallization and expanded realization of the band’s defining principles.
The ambitious dynamism underwriting White Ward’s approach to this album is what makes it so effective. Marathon explorations alternate with more focused and grounding songs, and even as the shortest track comes close to six minutes in length, at no point during the album’s hour-plus duration does the music ever drag — a testament to White Ward’s impeccable grasp of pacing and arrangement.
White Ward examine the urban metropolis and how tormenting it can be to carve out an existence in such places. They grapple with the paradox of isolation among millions, of crushing loneliness in endless crowds and constant overstimulation. While so many of their peers escape to picturesque wilds, the remote cosmos, or mythical realms, White Ward remain rooted in a world of concrete, lights, engines and screens. Love Exchange Failure is unrelentingly noir, in its respites still grim, and obliterating in the throes of its peaks.