Top Albums of 2014, by Jason Bailey
I didn’t go into 2014 thinking at year’s end I would be publishing a list of my favorite metal releases. Maybe if I had, I would have made more of a conscious effort to check out new and debuting artists, maybe find some Bandcamp pearls waiting to be revealed to the world. Then again, it’s also possible I might have failed badly at this. You see, a lot of the metal records I really loved this year were quite big, both in terms of length and ideas. Many of these took several close listens for their disparate parts to coalesce into a proper whole. Also, there were a number of veteran artists putting out work of the highest caliber that I found myself compulsively beholden to return to. Many of their albums were quite long and difficult, as well. I’m sure these hypothetical fledgling artists I’ve missed the boat on will become known to me in 2016 or 2017 when they release more well-promoted sophomore albums. I’m sure if I’m still writing about music then, I’ll lament not following said artists from the beginning, blaming this on the prosperous quantity of expansive doom albums and atmospheric black metal solo projects I had to digest in 2014. C’est la vie.
20. Vaiya – Remnant Light (Natural World Records) [Listen here.]
19. Mournful Congregation – Concrescence of the Sophia (20 Buck Spin) [Listen here.]
18. Incantation – Dirges of Elysium (Listenable Records) [Listen here.]
17. Inter Arma – The Cavern (Relapse Records) [Listen here.]
16. Bastard Sapling – Instinct is Forever (Gilead Media) [Listen here.]
15. Electric Wizard – Time to Die (Witchfinder Records) [Listen here.]
14. At the Gates – At War with Reality (Century Media) [Listen here.]
13. Wo Fat – The Conjuring (Small Stone Recordings) [Listen here.]
12. Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore) [Listen here.]
11. Thantifaxath – Sacred White Noise (Dark Descent Records) [Listen here.]
10. Wizard Rifle – Here In The Deadlights (Seventh Rule)
Imagine Lightning Bolt, Unsane and Corrosion of Conformity all engaged in a backyard Wrestlemania while Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum is playing, and you may start to get some sense of what Wizard Rifle has done here.
9. YOB – Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot Recordings)
Sure, the mastering job isn’t the greatest, but the same could be said for a lot of albums in the metal canon. What really matters is that the Eugene, Oregon, trio continues their hot post-reunion streak with another impressive slab of psychedelic doom metal. The first voice we hear is that of late British mystic Alan Watts imploring us to wake up; Mike Scheidt takes over from there. From the Immolation-ish growls of “Nothing To Win” to the near gospel-sounding melodies in closer “Marrow,” Scheidt has never sounded more emotional and expressive over the course of a record.
8. Thaw – Earth Ground (Witching Hour Productions)
Earth Ground stands apart from a lot of the great black metal released this year by being A., the work of an actual band as opposed to a solo venture, and B., having a short 40-minute runtime while offering just as much muscle and variety as the heavyweights. There’s the expected tremolo picking and post-BM phrasing in the guitars, but also textures reminiscent of Neurosis or the quieter parts of Ulcerate. Add in some top-tier rasps from vocalist/bassist Maciej Śmigrodzki, and the best (read: subtle) integration of noise elements into metal that I’ve heard in a while, and this is a band I’d expect to break big pretty soon.
7. Fu Manchu – Gigantoid (At The Dojo Records)
I kind of wrote these guys off after a string of less-than-stellar albums, but the mighty Fu have charged back triumphantly with their best effort since 2000’s King Of The Road. Simply put, Fu Manchu do fuzzed-out space truckin’ stoner rock better than anyone else on the planet: then and now.
6. Spectral Lore – III (I, Voidhanger)
Spectral Lore mastermind Ayloss doesn’t so much make albums as he crafts deep labyrinthine mazes for listeners to get blissfully lost in. III, his best work yet, contains enough progressive bonus features to attract the curious: crawling funeral doom, dark ambient passages, retro guitar noodling, warm Fender Rhodes, Steve Howe-aping acoustic guitar. But the Main Attraction here is the black metal. The sound is just clear enough to pick out the subtleties, but there’s more than enough mid-fi scuzz in the production to appease (most of) the purists. Despite the long running time, this record should be a uniting force in what has become metal’s most divisive genre.
5. Triptykon – Melana Chasmata (Century Media)
Most metal bands don’t have the knowhow to make albums that demonstrate a sophisticated level to attention to details like pacing, variety and cohesion. To make a record where each individual song succeeds at fitting a specific slot within the whole, while being mindful of how all the other songs around it function. Most metal bands don’t need to; it’s a genre that’s commonly judged on the basis of how its core elements operate, like the nature of the band’s sound or the quality of the playing. But Tom G. Fischer sculpted Melana as a capital-A album, and imbued it with an unnaturally high degree of emotional access for a heavy metal record. With his eminence, he didn’t need to make an album as good as
4. Swans – To Be Kind (Young God Records)
Speaking of living legends pushing themselves into new creative territory in their advancing age, here comes Michael Gira, shouting, barking, crooning and ululating, as he and his bandmates push their sound higher and higher into ekstasis. The cosmic sprawl of modern-day Swans may come from a totally different place than the proto-industrial militancy of Cop, but make no mistake, To Be Kind is an equally savage animal. Those early, brutal Swans records influenced a score of forward-thinking metal bands such as Napalm Death, Godflesh and Neurosis. I can’t wait to hear the future music from the kids having their young, impressionable ears currently warped by this beautiful monstrosity.
3. Panopticon – Roads to the North (Bindrune Recordings)
“Blackgrass.” It’s a catchy enough term to describe the perceived aim of Austin Lunn’s Panopticon project: to synthesize black metal with the folk and bluegrass musical tradition of Lunn’s native Appalachia. In reality, Panopticon, and Roads To The North are much more than that. Roads is as preoccupied with surrendering to the majesties of nature as any Cascadian band, but there are always people in Lunn’s music. When he titles a song “One Last Fire,” you can picture the crowd sitting around it in the night, faces and clothes lit glowing red as they pluck banjos and mandolins. While this album may not be as conceptually vivid as 2012’s Kentucky, I think it’s more musically satisfying on the whole. Lunn turns in what may be the metal drum performance of the year and piles on with righteous black metal and melodeath riffage, as well as all the expected acoustic embellishments. Unlike some people, I’ve always thought it was the right idea to keep the metal and folk elements largely separate. There’s only so much a tin whistle can be expected to compete with such an accomplished musical maelstrom.
2. Morbus Chron – Sweven (Century Media)
It’s fitting that this is an album thematically linked to the idea of dreaming—there’s the Franz Marc color palette of the cover art, and the album title is the Middle English word for “dream”—because the sui generis sound world of Sweven is something I’ve long dreamed about. This record blurs the boundaries of early ’70s progressive rock and late ’80s death metal so smoothly that those boundaries cease to exist, informing and flowing into each other like watercolors to create a rich new pigment. There are moments of loud thrashing and stirring lyricism, but never does the record feel like it’s shifting abruptly into one extreme or the other. You couldn’t find a review of Morbus Chron’s first album that didn’t rightfully compare them to Autopsy. That influence is still part of the dream, but it’s hazier now. The better comparison is Voivod; they’re the only other metal band that fitted themselves with a progressive sound that so expertly fused a feel for the classic with a style all their own.
1. Scott Walker and Sunn O))) – Soused (4AD)
I don’t have much to add to my glowing review that I originally wrote for this site. It’s difficult to predict what Soused means for metal going forward. After all, it’s a collaborative album between a drone metal band and a septuagenarian avant-garde vocalist. I do know no other album this year gave me as much to think about—in terms of lyrics, song structures, instrumentation, name it—or resonated so strongly with me. It’s a testament to the things metal can be, to the possible spaces it can explore when it fights back against its binding conservative strictures. Nothing in 2014 made me more proud to be a metalhead.