Chris Rowella’s Top Albums of 2018
The year 2018 was the hardest since I started doing these lists to pin down a top-20. Outside of Iron Maiden and Triptykon, just about every still-active heavy band I love, or even just quite like, released an album, and a very good album at that. The original pool started with 146 and took more than a week to cull, with many late-night listening sessions deciding the fate of Street Sects (landing somewhere in the low 20s), Domkraft (holding the #30 spot) and dozens of others. It’s a good dilemma to have, but killing your darlings is never easy. I suppose this is where I would extrapolate my metal musings to world affairs or important cultural events over the last twelve months, but at my age and considering the way things are, two thoughts come to mind: 1) there are way too many people doing that now, and 2) it doesn’t matter. If I’m going to scream into the gaping black maw of the Internet, it might as well be about this loud, obnoxious, liberating, beautiful corner of the universe we’ve carved out for ourselves. May 2019 find things just as well.
20. Skinless – Savagery (Relapse, USA)
19. Drug Church – Cheer (Pure Noise, USA)
18. Voivod – The Wake (Century Media, Canada)
17. Judas Priest – Firepower (Columbia, UK)
16. Haunt – Burst Into Flame (Shadow Kingdom, USA)
15. A Place To Bury Strangers – Pinned (Dead Oceans, USA)
14. Tomb Mold – Manor Of Infinite Forms (20 Buck Spin, USA)
13. Deceased – Ghostly White (Hells Headbangers, USA)
12. Sleep – The Sciences (Third Man Records, USA)
11. Pig Destroyer – Head Cage (Relapse, USA)
Evolving from the Helmet worship on their debut, Wrong embrace more of what didn’t suck in the Nineties on Feel Great. Primordial alt-rock and indie gets shellacked in feedback and the riffs get turned up to 11. Singer/guitarist Eric Hernandez brings the melodic/abrasive balance found in his previous bands Torche and Kylesa to fruition here. Noise rock has come back in a big way over the last few years, and Wrong are making a strong case to join the pack leaders.
It’s weird to use the term ‘sweet spot’ for crushing death/doom, but that’s where Hooded Menace have always sat; somewhere between Autopsy and Winter, more melody than the former and less glacial than the latter. Ossuarium continues the band’s winning streak with brilliant pacing and monster hooks, and finds Lasse Pyykko relinquishing vocal duties to newcomer Harri Kuokkanen (Horse Latitudes) while doubling down on his impressive solos. Dig those Thin Lizzy vibes in “Cathedral of Labyrinthine Darkness”!
One of the most slept-on bands in sludge returns after seven years and not nearly enough is being spoken about it. It’s Greg Wilkinson -- you own a bunch of records that he engineered, whether you know it or not -- and two scene veterans carving songs out of cave rock and slamming mammoth skulls with impunity. No extended jamming, no ambient psych passages, no fucking around. The only time Singularity To Extinction lets up is to crawl through the graveyard of posers instead of sprint, like crust metal zombies whose only contagion is Eyehategod breakdowns. You should be listening to it right now.
After the divisive, Steve Albini-produced Success, KEN Mode strike back with a vengeance on Loved. Bringing in Andrew Schneider (Unsane, Keelhaul, Scissorfight) to work the boards was an inspired decision, and pays off on the relentless fury found throughout the album. Much like their stellar previous efforts like Entrench and Venerable, the lines between hardcore, post-hardcore and noise rock blur to the point of irrelevance. Whether it’s a wild saxophone freak-out from guest Kathryn Kerr or the unrelenting dirge of closer “No Gentle Art”, Loved finds the band firing on all cylinders.
Scheidt lived, Scheidt (almost) died, Scheidt has risen. You could say that YOB aren’t the best at what they do, but who wants to be wrong?
Dopethrone has unfairly carried the ‘Canadian Electric Wizard’ tag since their inception; some of that is self-inflicted with their chosen name, but their essence has always been dirtier and more direct than their Brit counterparts. The atmosphere and feedback are still there, but Transcanadian Anger might be the band’s most hook-heavy release to date. It’s nonstop riffs, and whether they swing (“Wrong Sabbath”) speed (“Tweak Jabber”) or lurch (“Miserabilist”) they just. Don’t. Stop. It’s nuts to think a band this good gives literally everything they’ve released away for free, but it’s true; now there’s nothing stopping you from adding more top-tier sludge to your life, starting with this album.
The history of heavy metal is littered with the corpses of bands that “decided to go in a more progressive direction”. Tribulation ran them all over on the way to becoming one of the better underground bands in the world. Johannes Andersson may still be growling, but Down Below has some of the most accessible music ever made by a (formerly) death metal band. This isn’t some gimmick where they abruptly abandoned a distinct sound to trot out some LCD mainstream trash (looking at you, Shining) but a measured, vivid shift that began with 2013’s The Formulas Of Death. Post-punk, goth, NWOBHM and classic rock all inform Down Below but the execution is singular and exceptional, which describes Tribulation circa 2018 as well.
While Uncle Acid’s 2015 effort The Night Creeper may have a few more misses than they’re typically known for, it’s a minor quibble for an overall great album. Wasteland knows no such errors and is as close to perfect as mastermind Kevin Starrs has come since the band’s inception. Building off the idiosyncrasies of their cinematic, melodic take on Sabbathian doom, the Deadbeats weave creepy tales and apocalyptic hymns with earworm hooks and a balancing act between pop rock and heavy metal that nobody else can convincingly pull off. Sorry, Ghost. This is the real deal.
Well, where else would I put this?
Look, this isn’t High On Fire’s best album. It isn’t even their best album of this decade. But when Pike’s vocals kick in on “Spewn From The Earth” and the band is going full steam within the first ten seconds, it’s the greatest thing in the world. I’ve said it here and elsewhere, but to reiterate, High On Fire is the best metal band of the last twenty years. Electric Messiah would have to be a pop country album for me to not put it in a top 10, and even then, I would be making excuses for it. But really, that title track? Are you kidding me? Play it loud enough and it will generate a second Big Bang formed completely out of circle pits. I can’t ask for more than that.