Ivan Belcic’s Top Albums of 2018
As a relatively new metal writer, I had the opportunity last year to create my first official AOTY list. It’s a rite of passage revered by many in this field, and to be given the chance to partake felt to me like an affirmation of all the writing I’d been doing that year. The process of sifting through favorites from so many months prior is a sacred one, making sure to reach back to January as well as December of the previous year, combing carefully through all the additions to my ever-growing music library to ensure no gems have been overlooked.
I decided at that time to narrow my focus, to use what sliver of a platform I’d been granted to refocus the spotlight for a moment on the multitudes of bands toiling in lesser renown, but with output no lesser than our contemporary giants granted the luxury of massive budgets, influential labels and legions of publicists. Accordingly, I set my limit for inclusion at bands with 10,000 Facebook likes or fewer.
As other lists began rolling out, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of commonality between the most oft-cited albums and the ones on my list -- an outcome I expected, and so it didn’t come as a surprise, but still a divergence worth mentioning. To be fair, 2017 was a standout year for many household names in metal. This year, things are changing. It’s not that the household names are any less impressive, but that there’s been an unstoppable eruption of quality from below.
Yes, Judas Priest and Yob released impactful albums, as did Rivers of Nihil, Skeletonwitch, Deafheaven, Tribulation, and other bands in the stables of top-tier labels. However, many of the year’s most innovative and enthusiastically celebrated records have been written by bands who don’t benefit from the backing that Metal Blade, Nuclear Blast and others of their ilk can render, and to witness this has been incredibly heartening.
Holy Roar. 20 Buck Spin. Transcending Obscurity. Pelagic. Gilead Media. The Artisan Era. Aural Music. Dry Cough. I, Voidhanger. I know I’m going to forget some, but the point is clear -- there’s a staggering overabundance of quality operating at these levels, and that’s even without considering all the amazing self-released records out there. If anything can be said about the absurdly fecund year that metal in 2018 has had, it’s that it’s inarguably been the year of the indie label, and I couldn’t be more elated about this development.
None of these bands and labels would be able to flourish without the ongoing patronage of music fans, who time and time again choose to trade their hard-earned cash for the music they love. Not just digital downloads, but physical media as well, still strong in the streaming era despite its typically higher price point and increasingly obsolete hardware requirements. You are the ones keeping this whole ship afloat.
Abraham – Look, here comes the dark! (Pelagic Records, Switzerland)
Portrayal of Guilt – Let Pain Be Your Guide (Gilead Media / Holy Roar Records, USA)
Frost Giant – The Harlot Star (Transcending Records, USA)
Horizon Ablaze – The Weight of a Thousand Suns (Leviatan, Norway)
Barren Altar – Entrenched In the Faults of the Earth (Independent, USA)
Future Usses – The Existential Haunting (Pelagic Records, USA)
Ygfan – Hamvakból... (Sun & Moon Records, Hungary)
Infernal Coil – Within a World Forgotten (Profound Lore Records, USA)
Defeat the Giant – Things We Grab In Shatters (Independent, Taiwan)
Eigenlicht – Self-Annihilating Consciousness (I, Voidhanger Records / Gilead Media, USA)
“Unsettling” hits the nail on the head, but outside of its slow-burning opener “Svn,” there are few whispers to be found on Gaerea’s commanding record Unsettling Whispers. From the hefty low end of the guitar and bass, to the booming snare, to the sepulchral vocal bellows, this album is massive in every sense of the word. Taking cues from sludge and death to augment their blackened innards, Gaerea have forged a deceptively melodic outing with ample emotional weight lurking behind its savagery. Soaring one moment and suffocating the next, Unsettling Whispers is a beastly triumph of a debut.
Alongside the all-encompassing OSDM revival of 2018 has burbled a quieter but no less potent resurgence in post-hardcore. Few records encompass the aggression, tenacity and sophistication of this genre as powerfully as Bind Torture Kill’s Viscères. Released all the way back in January, the band’s second full-length album jump-started the year with a wide-gauge needle of adrenaline straight to the heart. The trio’s mature songwriting crackles with rage, their weighty sound all the more impressive when one realizes that it’s birthed from one lone guitar. Bombastic drums and barbarous vocals round out BTK’s aesthetic for a fiendishly discordant and crust-laden experience.
LLNN’s second full-length Deads is a record so smothering, I’m almost tempted to advise donning a full set of scuba gear before listening, if only to ensure a reliable air supply. The Danish group need no reminding that the heaviest sonic assaults are perceived as such only through contrast -- consider this album a masterclass in pacing and mood. On Deads, LLNN deploy industrial-informed interludes that could easily double as horror/sci-fi film scores to buttress their toxic ooze guitars and meat grinder vocals. Even in these respites, however, creeping dread pervades throughout, and when the band steer a song to its impending zenith, the result is a thorough bludgeoning of the spirit.
Dödsrit is the work of one Christoffer Öster, who after the 2017 dissolving of his band Totem Skin made the decision to continue as a solo artist. His self-titled debut, released in the same year, drew out the unconstrained fury of Totem Skin in the pursuit of a more subtle and meticulous vision, though no less potent than before. Just under one year later, Öster released Spirit Crusher, a colossal album which both solidified and further evolved his marriage of atmospheric black metal and crust. The surging blasts and merciless D-beat frenzies are soaked through with Öster’s torrential, grief-laden vocals, and even in the calmer moments, the songs glow with a smoldering intensity.
Cosmic Church’s transcendent record Täyttymys is a bittersweet release, in that it represents a musician both in full command of his creative powers as well as at the conclusion of his devotion to this particular project. The grandiose, mystical meanderings of Cosmic Church’s second work Ylistys re-emerge on Täyttymys with far more precision and focus than before, sole member Luxixul Sumering Auter twisting Finland’s rich history of raw black metal into contemplative odes to sylvan majesty. The weighty atmospherics shroud the songs in a dewy haze, evoking glimpses of long-forgotten glens enchanted with ancient magicks -- not unlike the scene represented in the album’s entrancing cover art. Translating to “attainment” or “finality,” Täyttymys is a poignant elegy for Cosmic Church’s expansive and ambitious body of work.
There are myriad pulverization-related devices one could use as serviceable metaphors to describe the experience of feeding one’s brain into the cavernous maw of Secret Cutter’s second full-length Quantum Eraser. Meat grinders, woodchippers, lawnmowers and more are all worthy comparisons for the Pennsylvania trio’s soupy amalgam of sludge and grind. The sounds on Quantum Eraser are so mucousy and oppressive, throbbing with so much urgency and weight, it’s hard to believe there isn’t a bassist involved. With drums, a guitar, and one ruthless vocalist, the group achieve a degree of cacophony dreamed of by groups with much more fleshed-out lineups.
Since 2012, Slugdge have cultivated a passionate following devoted to their comprehensive worldbuilding bolstered by unimpeachable melodic, blackened and progressive death metal. The duo, who have since expanded to a full lineup of four, continued their molluscan saga this year in its most sophisticated and fully-realized incarnation yet with their fourth full-length album Esoteric Malacology. The album’s sprawling scope is home to an infinitely deep rabbit hole of moments to discover, with the band in full command of their technical prowess throughout. The mercurial music is ablaze with ferocity, with vocalist Matt Moss a powerhouse in all the singing styles he employs. The drum programming on Esoteric Malacology is some of the year’s most convincing, and now that The Black Dahlia Murder’s Alan Cassidy has joined the group behind the kit, I’m even more excited about what Slugdge will deliver next.
Wall-to-wall impact is Svalbard’s songwriting recipe of choice for their impeccable second full-length release It’s Hard to Have Hope. The eight tracks of immaculate blackened post-hardcore present a masterful exercise in efficient composition. Each song matter-of-factly confronts a specific societal ill or ethical failing, including unpaid internships, the harassment of women in the metal scene, dog breeding and more. In approaching these issues so directly, the band leave no room for misinterpretation or ambiguity, challenging the listener to question their own attitudes in the midst of Svalbard’s furious tempest. The music, purgative in its pummeling obliteration, bolsters the sincerity of the band’s ideology as channeled through the scorching vocals.
Where many bands dive headlong into the quest for greater bombast, trans-continental duo Insect Ark shape their tenebrous doom anthems through a careful and deliberate manipulation of the limited palette they choose to employ. Comprising drummer and synth-whiz Ashley Spungin along with founding member Dana Schechter on bass, lap steel guitar and additional synths, the duo create lugubrious explorations of sound that caress the soul one moment before crushing it beneath pummeling waves the next. Spungin’s subtle and sparse drumming, cognisant as she is of the space she creates between her notes, is the perfect partner for Schetcher’s haunting textures and melodies, lurking ominously as they rise to sinister yet cathartic pinnacles. The record is refreshingly organic, the two musicians of Insect Ark completely synchronized as they navigate the towering swells and melancholic valleys of their music.
Messa dropped their second full-length record Feast for Water all the way back in April, but from my first moments in their lush embrace, I knew the rest of 2018 would be hard-pressed to issue forth a challenger that’d unseat this crowning achievement for my top pick of the year. The record is a whirlwind evening in a velvet-drenched lounge, awash in oaky whiskies and plumes of smoke from all manner of substance, as Messa reach deep into various blues and jazz traditions to inform and guide their sound. Above the thickly-fuzzed guitars, Rhodes piano and lockstep rhythm section, vocalist Sara is a resplendent goddess. She oozes charisma whether breathing languidly over sparse meditations or commanding from atop a lofty peak -- the band craft both with equal aplomb throughout their fluid compositions -- with her counterpart found in the ever-tasteful melodies and embellishments of lead guitarist Alberto. By celebrating their strengths and reaching beyond the scope of today’s crowded doom lineup, they’ve carved out an identity that's fully their own.