Rhys Williams’ Top Albums of 2019
What a year 2019 was for music! To me at least, it seemed that this year was host to a veritable bumper crop of both solid releases from new bands and strong returns from existing acts. It was a year where, to my eyes, everyone could find something to their liking, from the atmospheric black metal hipsters to the war metal maniacs and everyone in between. Riot City showed everyone how traditional heavy metal is done, acts like Red Beard Wall and Bask continued to explore new territories of stoner doom, and other artists like Lingua Ignota pushed the boundaries of what can even be considered “metal." For the last year of the decade, it was an eventful one!
However, for me, the big story of the year was death metal's new renaissance, or the explosion of numerous high-quality, ultra-brutal underground death metal bands that has really kicked off in the last 12 months. It’s a fascinating phenomenon which seems to occur every decade or so: periodically a new cohort of young people will discover classic death metal, which then is upgraded with current sensibilities to create a new death metal paradigm. After the initial creation of death metal in the mid-1980s, this happened with the death metal boom of the early 1990s and with an OSDM revival during 2009 to 2012. This latest renaissance could be thought of as simply the latest stage in this recurrent cycle.
While this current iteration of popular death metal is home to many fascinating sub-subgenres and iconoclastic bands, the trend I find most interesting is the role I believe this represents in the continuing symbiotic evolution of death metal and hardcore for millennial metalheads. Consider: in the early/mid-2000s, death metal had hit a momentary slump while hardcore, and in particular metalcore, had exploded. As a result, for me and for many of my fellow heshers of the same cohort, our first exposure to heavy music was hardcore and metalcore. Once kids a few years older than I were able to discover death metal, the result was deathcore, which started off as a hardcore/death metal hybrid before leaning into more accessible metalcore territory. For the majority of deathcore fans, who were more moderate in taste, this was an acceptable move, but those of us nerds who had liked the “freak collection” mentality of hardcore and metal wanted something more underground, where the “scene kids” couldn’t bother us (we were young, cut us some slack).
As a result, around 2009, we began to see slightly older ex-scene kids playing hardcore that was influenced by death metal, a trend which had two distinct periods. The first were the HM-2-core bands like Black Breath, Trap Them, and All Pigs Must Die: these bands started off as hardcore acts influenced by Swedish death metal, like Converge on a coke binge with Entombed. However, as their respective careers continued, we saw a swing more heavily toward death metal, with Black Breath eventually turning into a flat-out Swedeath band. This was the catalyst for the OSDM revival of the time, as it also spurred other metalheads into re-evaluating death metal over the reigning popularity of black metal and doom. By 2012 to 2013, however, this trend became flipped on its head as many heavier hardcore and deathcore acts began to incorporate more death metal (slam in particular) into their beatdowns. This resulted in bands like No Zodiac and Culture Killer, which again eventually moved into almost total death metal territory.
It is directly from this stage that we enter the current trend: an opening of the death metal and hardcore scenes to the point that the lines between them are breaking down hard. Consider Sanguisugabogg’s recent show with Knocked Loose, or maybe listen to Gates to Hell’s debut EP, which sounds like the second coming of Abnegation. Hell, go see Creeping Death live and check out their Hatebreed-style breakdowns in the midst of their Left Hand Path-type d-beat riffs. This phenomenon can be said to have started with bands like Gatecreeper, who were able to blend the OSDM revival sound with some hardcore stomp power to appeal to crossover sensibilities. As more hardcore and deathcore fans have subsequently entered death metal, thus have the common parameters of death metal now shifted into more groovy, chonky rhythmic stylings. It’s uncommon for me to go to a death metal show nowadays and not see young dudes spinkicking, something that would have been unheard of for a death metaller a decade ago.
I feel that this trend, fleeting though it probably is, represents a breath of fresh air for both death metal and hardcore. I have always been a fan of both genres, but I remember going to see Carcass and Suicide Silence in 2009 and watching a bunch of crusty goatee death metal rednecks heckle Suicide Silence by chanting “MySpace!” at them. Conversely, I also remember hardcore kids not talking to me because I had long-ass Legolas hair at the time and often wore death metal shirts to shows. That these subcultural boundaries have not only been removed but quite overwhelmingly so -- this gives me much hope for continued innovation in metal as we collectively continue to try to find the apex of “heavy,” particularly as they also allow older musicians to innovate more than was previously acceptable (see: Devourment’s latest album).
Anyway, enough ruminating over death metal: trends come and go, but death metal stays eternal. Here’s my year-end list for 2019. Most of these are death metal, but there’s a good amount of other stuff there too, including black metal, stoner doom, and even some good-old fashioned “Hot Rockin’"-style trad metal. In fact, there was so much good heavy music released this year that I really had to stick to what could verifiably be called “metal,” for the most part (e.g. I could do entire separate year-end lists for post-punk/synthwave and hardcore). I am also linking my year-end Spotify playlist for the streamers among you, though some artists like Tzompantli or Dipygus you will have to go to Bandcamp for.
Encoffinized – Chambers of Deprivation (Maggot Stomp, USA)
Desecresy – Towards Nebulae (Xtreem Music, Finland)
Lepra – Wretched Creatures (Self-Released, USA)
Gates to Hell – Gates to Hell (Self-Released, USA)
Vitriol – To Bathe From the Throat of Cowardice (Century Media, USA)
Imprecation – Damnatio ad Bestias (Dark Descent Records, USA)
Dipygus – Deathooze (Caligari Records, USA)
Vulvodynia – Mob Justice (Lacerated Enemy Records, South Africa)
Vomit Forth – Northeastern Deprivation (Maggot Stomp, USA)
Creeping Death – Wretched Illusions (Self-Released, USA)
Who would have thought that Blood Incantation could top Starspawn? And yet, Hidden History of the Human Race quite handily blows its predecessor out of the stars. Everything is maximized on this album: the guitars are crunchier, the drum tone is much more audible (one of my few gripes with Starspawn was how they did the drums), and the riffs oh man, the riffs are simultaneously more brutal, more angular, and somehow also more melodic. And the production, holy balls: it’s so good, unpolished but somehow also detailed enough to hear every single instrument. Add in some ten-plus minute song lengths, and you have a bonafide instant space oddity classic.
One of the qualities I always enjoy seeing in a band is a singularity of vision. Like, that sense that, without one person or a particular confluence of people, this particular sound would never have been made, and it is sheer drive that has brought it about. Texas-based barbarian Aaron Wall is such a singular figure, and his two-piece endeavour, Red Beard Wall, is a very singular creation. It’s not particularly complex as far as arrangement goes: just drums, guitar, and vocals, sometimes sung in a Zakk Wylde-type yarl and sometimes screamed like Dixie Dave. However, this album has hidden depths. The riffs are able to adhere to conventional stoner doom modalities while not sounding derivative, and the songwriting has an interesting flow to it, with sing-song-y lyrics compliment the riffs in much the same way as a Melvins track. This album is a lot funkier than your average stoner metal record, and it has a drive to it that makes it hard to deny. It’s the sort of album that had to be made, by the kind of guy who had to make it, ya dig?
I expounded upon this album a good bit upon its release back in November, so I won’t retread too much here. Suffice it to say that Bask are arguably one of the best true rock bands to be playing in the United States right now, and III is a great example of why. Sure, they’re not “metal” in the strictest sense, but they can chug and they can get very, very loud, so why split hairs. This was without a doubt the road trip soundtrack of the year, and you bet your ass next summer I’m about to put that accolade to the test.
I covered Pig’s Blood back in 2017 for my War Metal year-end list, back during the brief explosion of war metal of that year. That explosion has since plateaued, but Pig’s Blood aren’t done by a mean mile. A Flock Slaughtered takes the war metal approach of their previous self-titled album and pumps in death metal like it's anabolic steroids to a strongman. A much brighter production, coupled with greater mids in the guitar mix, allow riffs to shine here with greater luminosity while losing no intensity, with a result that is less yaaagh! and more urrrgh!. The album is simultaneously technically stimulating and yet also unrelentingly aggressive; I hear more Immolation than Archgoat on this one, and hell no I ain’t complaining. A spectacular, visceral return!
The way I like to describe Fluids to the uninitiated is this: “they out-Mortician Mortician.” Obviously this is hyperbole, because nothing can or ever shall touch the legacy and primitive innovation of Roger and Will. However, Fluids are bringing their own spin to this unique flavor of death metal, injecting it with steroids and the sort of sludge you find on the inside edge of a public restroom toilet bowl to take inspiration from while never outright biting the morbid morgue masters. The guitars are crunchier, the bass is fuzzier, the drum machine is louder, the vocals sound like a plunger unclogging the aforementioned toilet, and most of all the samples are way more brutal than Mortician could ever dream of. This may be the one place where Fluids crosses the line for many listeners, as the samples used on Exploitative Practices are sourced from real footage of cartel torture, police brutality, and intense BDSM porn. However, if you have the stomach for it, the results transcend mere sleaze into beautifully degenerated art. Think of it in horror terms: if Mortician is "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," then Fluids is "Faces of Death." Grimy as fuck, and yet somehow completely irresistable to those who can take the punishment.
I’m a sucker for a good trad heavy metal band, the kind that makes you wanna put on some fingerless studded leather gloves and scream yeaaaahhh! at the top of your lungs in the highest falsetto possible. Riot City is, to me, the apex of this form of trad-throwback: unlike High Spirits, Riot City’s vocalist can hit the glass-shattering Halford/Dickinson notes, and unlike 3 Inches of Blood, their recording quality actually sounds like it came right out of 1987. Couple with some incredibly deft fretboard acrobatics and the best airbrushed-mecha-bird album art since Screaming for Vengeance, and you got yourself some heavy motherfuckin’ metal, man. If "Hot Rockin’" is your speed, Riot City are here to fill that need!
Out of this recent wave of throwback hardcore-laced death metal, Texan deathers Frozen Soul have been able to stake their claim as one of the dominant players of the scene. They have an Autopsy vibe to them in their bass-heavy guitar tones and raw production values, but they blend the Autopsy-style mid-pace stomp with some floorpunching hardcore grooves that really show what can be done with the old-school death metal template if you throw in some slam and hardcore influences to really spice it up. If Fluids is “greasy,” then Frozen Soul is “icy,” a deep glacial rumble that doesn’t move too fast but will mercilessly kill your ass if you’re not ready.
Tzompantli (“Skull Rack” in Nahuatl) is the brainchild of Brian “Bigg O)))” Ortiz, best known for his work as guitarist in Cali hardcore champs Xibalba. Accordingly, Tzompantli builds on themes that Ortiz had previously brought to the Xibalba table with his playing: where Xibalba was hardcore with substantial death and doom elements, Tzompantli is death-doom with substantial hardcore elements. It’s a mega-heavy mixture, and the huge production, heavy tones, and tasteful programming are all the more impressive for being it a solo project. Furthermore, Tzompantli’s aesthetic and lyrical themes are based around the bloody heart-ripping rituals of the ancient Aztecs, Toltecs, and other pre-Columbian cultures. The deep brutality of the project’s sound provides a respectful intensity to the subject matter in a way that the many Latino black metal bands who approach the same material are simply unable to provide. This record sounds like being slowly flayed alive to provide the arrogant storm god Tlaloc with skin to wear, or perhaps burned at the stake to appease the fiery Huehueteotl. The death-doom debut of the year for sure, and I definitely can’t wait to hear what rituals Bigg O))) has in store for us next.
At a quarter of a century of existence and virtually no original band members, Devourment have hit us in 2019 with what I feel is their best album to date. I can already hear the slam purists warming up some hands, and of course I still have a place in my heart for the raw proto-slam of “1.3.8.” and “Molesting the Decapitated.” But Obscene Majesty truly does live up to its title with its epic scope and insanely huge production. Those guitar tones will eat you for lunch, and I doubt faster blasts were heard this year. But it’s on tracks in “Dysmorphic Autophagia,” at the 2:34 mark when the slam comes in, that you understand why this album is so fucking good. It’s primal slam perfected by years of disgusting evolution into a single massive black hole of brutal slamming pit riffment. Devourment has done what I had thought impossible and made an artful slam record, one that reveals the rhythm to be the backbone of heavy metal as an experience, not simply as a musical genre.
This album, this fucking album, was everything death metal should be in 2019. Hell, it was everything metal itself should be in 2019. Consider it, this is the complete package: an insane band name that doesn’t really mean anything! A logo that takes “unintelligible” to new extremes! Songs with titles like “Turkish Blood Orgy”! And before you think I’m making Sanguisugabogg out to be some kind of joke band, let me nip that right in the Sanguisugabud and say that this album is almost fucking flawless. The production is just a thing of savage beauty, just clear enough to hear everything perfectly but still grimy as sin. Their riffs are the perfect balance of technicality and chonk, complex enough for you to pay attention but loose enough for you to mosh hard. And you can’t help but love a death metal band with a song where the lyrics are just, “here I come to piss out the waste from my filthy fucking nozzle!” Make no mistake, if Sanguisugabogg can continue this sound on their upcoming debut LP, they could well become the new “face” of death metal. Highest possible fucking recommendation.