Bruce Hardt-Valenzuela’s Top Albums of 2018
The year 2018 was polarizing for me. Neither quite bad enough to be shit, nor so good as to be great. It was just fine. The bad culminated in the sudden death of my beloved cat (rest in power my radiant KissKiss), while the good came in my fruitful search for a more lucrative career path. To lend a cherry to that exquisite topping, today happens to be my five-year anniversary with my husband, who, unyielding, is my constant rock, creative muse and most enduring fan.
Here I sit, in the calm waters between jobs, mulling over the spectacular year it was for heavy music. I keep musing over my playlists, reviews, and Twitter rantings to ensure I’ve given the most complete list I can, only to find myself forgetting so many solid works. What a rich culture to be part of, to be so spoiled as to find difficulty in choosing a generously allotted 20 releases. Daughters came back as bizarre as ever. Nothing mournfully tore down the walls of space time once again. Frontierer ripped my ears to shreds. Nicole Dollanganger cooed like an 1980s Madonna from hell. Such violent delights, truly.
This year, like the last the couple of years, I’ve gravitated almost solely to hardcore and metalcore. Whether it be the trove 2018 has offered in those categories, or the breakdown-drunk decadence of the mid-aughts, those have been my desserts of choice this year (mostly). Don’t worry though, if there’s not enough metal here for you, you could always watch Mandy, this year’s cinematic crown jewel, wherein a final form, LSD-fueled Nic Cage swings a Celtic Frost-designed battle axe into demon bikers with all bloodlust. No metal album this year can top that, my darlings.
20. Morning Again – Survival Instinct (Revelation Records, USA)
19. Vamachara – Despondent (Self-released, USA)
18. Year of the Knife – First State Aggression (Self-released, USA)
17. Gulch – Burning Desire to Draw Last Breath (Creator-Destructor Records, USA)
16. Wake of Humanity – FIGHT / RESIST (Bitter Melody Records / Ugly & Proud Records, USA)
15. Twitching Tongues – Gaining Purpose Through Passionate Hatred (Metal Blade Records, USA)
14. Tomb Mold – Manor of Infinite Forms (20 Buck Spin, Canada)
13. xGnapenstobx – Release of Pain (Bound By Modern Age Records / HEAL Records, USA)
12. Trail of Lies – W.A.R. (Edgewood Records / Farewell Records, USA)
11. Jesus Piece – Only Self (Southern Lord, USA)
I’m going to start this off by being a broken record by way of saying “go vegan.” What with the whole planet literally dying because of actual cow shit, perhaps this is a preaching you’ll consider. If not, Safe and Sound’s debut album makes a way stronger case than I ever could. Thoughtful, provocative and elementally angry, Only in Death is a spry funeral dirge for a flailing world, a crusading Captain Planet of hardcore that’s as moving as it is movement-inspiring.
This one has almost flew under my radar a few times. Not because it isn’t as impressive as Pig Destroyer's previous albums, what with it being among their most daring in their two decades. The likely culprit is the calculated pace that these grind legends release their material, what with Head Cage being their first since 2012. The furious pace that dominated their discography until this point gives way to midtempo delivered sucker punches. Their songwriting hasn’t been this catchy since Phantom Limb, my personal favorite, nor has their sound been this brutal since their seminal Prowler in the Yard. The results hew closer to hardcore than their usual grindcore, but like everything the band has ever done, said results are genre eluding and ever-impressive.
Have you ever mused about what a post-apocalyptic world sounds like? Rest assured that it would fall somewhere between the metal-meets-bone crunching of a Mad Max action sequence and Candy’s debut album. The sum of all slums depicted on its cover should give its doomsday leanings away, but if you’re ignorant to visual storytelling, then Candy has such sights to show you. Good to Feel hits every hardcore benchmark from Infest to Integrity, all while retaining a unique focus throughout, creating one of the year’s most ambitious punk records.
This trio has continually impressed since I happened upon their Bandcamp by sheer happenstance years back. At that point, they were an already vicious grindcore outfit, dishing out killing blow after killing blow with their EPs, split, and debut LP, Embrace the Wretched Flesh. Since 2016, Of Feather and Bone has been metamorphosing into something darker, heavier and downright monstrous. The result is a dizzying murder spree of grimy, blistering death metal swelling with misanthropy-drenched riffs, skeleton-rattling blasts, and soul-quaking roars. Every bit as perverse as its title declares, this is a bleak, unapologetic masterpiece.
The glorious metalcore stylings of the late-1990s to mid-2000s has been making a vengeful, magnificent comeback over the last few years. Pages worth of these bands’ quality releases could be drafted alone, but that would undermine the distinct gem that is South Florida’s A Needle Under the Nail. To be fair, any art that references Neon Genesis Evangelion is going to catch my senses, but ANUN already had my attention with their 2017 demo. Their lovingly-crafted odes to Martyr A.D. and early Poison the Well aside, ANUN’s second EP is entirely their own, possessed of the same creative song structure that made their demo so special. The Third Impact shines in its immediacy, wherein it eschews the sample-heaviness of its predecessor in favor of panicked melodies, nimble yet exacting breakdowns and double the beatings. Take notice all thee casuals.
I’ll be honest here, I had no idea Portrayal of Guilt existed until a few months ago. This discovery led me to one of the hardest working bands in recent memory, with their brief existence yielding five releases in just under two years. Yes, any artist can do that, sure, but rarely is it of this high quality. Their singles, EPs, and splits are all brimming with screamo that is reverent of the genre’s heyday without being derivative, a feat accomplished only by contemporaries Slow Fire Pistol and WristMeetRazor. Their debut LP took me by surprise, threw me to the floor then stomped on my head until I realized I’d been remiss in sleeping on Portrayal of Guilt thus far. Reminiscent of the bone-breaking sorrow of Neil Perry, this Texan quartet holds your interest like a prolonged strangling, syphoning all your senses into a giddy tunnel vision that’s only misstep is in ending too soon.
I’m a sucker for immense, earth-splitting breakdowns, and Heavens Die are master smiths at forging such bone-breaking delights, though their downtuned and downtrodden metalcore is not so simple. Their second EP, released at the end of November, is infectiously written, laden with sweeping hooks, roiling breakdowns and a palpable world-weariness. These five tracks take cues from 3750-era The Acacia Strain, Grimlock, and a dash of Crowbar by augmenting its most barbarous passages with potent melodies, crafting a towering sound that is equally poignant and ruthless.
Few bands paint so effortlessly with so broad a palette as Vein does, with their schizophrenic metalcore drawing influence from myriad artists, namely those whose prominence was felt in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Shreds of Slipknot’s self-titled, Deftones’ eccentric non-nu-metal, Thursday’s seminal Full Collapse, and Jeromes Dream’s artful cacophony are found throughout Errorzone’s engaging though overbusy span. Vein shines not in their debut’s easily parsed, broader strokes, however, but with how fluent they are in each inspiration, splicing and recombining them into cutting-edge, virulent new forms.
Thou owned 2018, let’s make that clear. demonstrating their skills as jacks of all trades, masters of many, any best of list could be half-populated by their releases alone. Between the barbed grunge of Rhea Sylvia to the acoustic beauties found on Inconsolable, Thou bared their creative teeth for all to see this year. Each of these releases, among them also the shapeless drone of The House Primordial and their split with Ragana, were substantive, but in truth were but previews for the main event that is Magus. Thou infuses the signature elegant heft of Heathen, their until now undisputed masterwork, with the ambitious experimentation found on their sprawling 2018 output. A dash of sludge with a pinch of grunge here or a sprinkling of noise over molten doom there; it all flows with grace and foreboding.
Magus stood atop my generating list for months, that was until Cult Leader released “I Am Healed,” the first single from their second album, a track possessed of a bloodlust I had not yet heard this year. Then came the brooding, existential “To: Achyls” and its accompanying video, the sounds and images of which I found almost overwhelmingly moving. When my greedy ears finally consumed the collection in totality, I found my expectations were exceeded; like Lightless Walk before it, A Patient Man is perfect (hyperbolic, I know). Achingly lyricised across caustic bursts of venomous crust and baritone death rock elegies, A Patient Man is 2018’s heaviest, most affecting release.