Top Albums of 2017 – Ivan Belcic
The eruption of the #MeToo movement in response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein revealed a societal truth that, for women and many others the world over, was far from groundbreaking news. Sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men have long been tacitly accepted components of many industries, a “cost of doing business” entrenched and normalized so as to be often cited as comic relief. “Who do I have to blow to get some food around here,” an obnoxious uncle might bellow during a holiday gathering to groans and awkward smiles from the rest of the family.
One of the most notorious alleged perpetrators still rages unchecked, the accusations against him largely unaddressed as they failed a year ago to hinder his ascendancy to the American presidency. Since then, the office has been appropriated by a cartoonishly petty, serially incompetent carnival barker as his newest vehicle for self-aggrandizement. This vituperative dog-whistler has spent the past year doing all in his power to enrich himself, his family and his associates, tweeting blithely as the country hurtles onward towards a future of frightening wealth inequality and global isolation.
Under Trump and his enablers, the US perseveres in its obstinate commitment to withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The president’s inability to swiftly and unambiguously condemn the heinous actions of America’s white nationalists all but confirms his ideological allegiance with them. Meaningful gun control remains a pipe dream in the recent wake of the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, five bullet-riddled years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
As 2017 draws to a close, Americans face increasing uncertainty going forward due to the shifting landscape of the nation’s health insurance system, tax structure and support for public schools and their beleaguered teachers. Next to the appointment of corporate agents including Ajit Pai, former Verizon attorney and current chairman of the FCC, Trump’s purported efforts to “drain the swamp” reveal themselves to be as transparently false as his uninterrupted stream of other lies.
At the time of my writing this piece, the future of net neutrality in the US is under serious threat. Should net neutrality protections be dismantled, as is the aim of Pai and his like-minded cohorts, it’s possible that content such as this list will no longer be available without additional fees demanded from both internet users like you as well as content creators and providers like this website. ISPs will be able to exercise control over traffic to selectively restrict or block access to any sites, channels or services which compete with their business models or espouse views contrary to their own.
In the metal community, we have seen icons and favorite artists exposed as predators, while others argued in favor of providing a platform for bigotry and hate. It is critical to speak out against such forces and support those who share their stories to keep metal a welcoming environment for all participants. With movements such as #MeToo sparking so many overdue conversations and consequences, it is all the more imperative that the internet remain an open and free forum for these voices to be heard.
This was a year filled with landmark albums from some of today’s most prominent names in metal. The Black Dahlia Murder, Mastodon, Wolves in the Throne Room, Goatwhore and Converge all released career-defining records that can hold their own against the Leviathans and Nocturnals of these bands’ respective discographies. You’ll likely see them included in many of these lists, and deservedly so.
This particular list will showcase bands with exponentially less visibility. To this end, I limited myself to albums from bands with roughly 10,000 Facebook likes or fewer. I know, this is somewhat of an arbitrary line, but it had to be drawn somewhere, and so this is where it lies. There’s a vast middle ground between 10k likes and Mastodon levels of prominence, and numerous bands in it also dropped impressive records this year — Pallbearer, Tau Cross, Arkaik, Cytotoxin, Amenra, The Kennedy Veil, Primitive Man, Bell Witch and Dyscarnate amongst them. Rules are rules, and so you won’t find them here.
The bands in this list all fit with varying degrees of flexibility under metal’s auspices, since that’s what you’re presumably here to read about. As a quick aside…the Mountain Goats, Torres, Ted Leo and Turnover all put out stunning releases this year.
Consider this list a collection of full-length metal releases I liked from rising and emergent groups who deserve your attention and patronage. There’s also a lot of stuff out there that I surely missed. If your hometown heroes dropped anything amazing this year, please do let me know in the comments. I’d love to check it out.
Neck of the Woods – The Passenger (Basick Records, USA)
Spill Your Guts – Hungry Crows (Independent, China)
Dawn Ray’d – The Unholy Assembly (Prosthetic Records, UK)
Sicarius – Serenade of Slitting Throats (M-Theory, USA)
Circle – Terminal (Ektro Records / Southern Lord, Finland)
Spook the Horses – People Used to Live Here (Pelagic Records, New Zealand)
Occasvs – Nocturnal Majestic Mysteria (Unspeakable Axe Records, Chile)
Black Kirin – Nanking Massacre (Pest Productions, China)
Friendship – Hatred (Southern Lord / Daymare Recordings / Sentient Ruin, Japan)
Necrot – Blood Offerings (Tankcrimes Records, USA)
(Relapse Records, USA)
Usnea’s record Portals into Futility is appropriately named, if speaking of the futility of maintaining any sense of positivity in the face of the quartet’s cruel onslaught. Recalling the work of sludge-doom savants Indian, the inhospitable music of Usnea annihilates all optimism underneath its monolithic wall of heavily fuzzed riffage. Precious few moments of lightness do exist, though they’re unfailingly ripped out from underfoot as the assault continues. The 19-minute album closer “A Crown of Desolation” is a particularly chilling trek through Usnea’s hostile landscape.
(Dark Descent Records, Finland)
Easily the evilest band on this list is Finland’s apocalyptic death crew Desolate Shrine with their monstrous release Deliverance from the Godless Void — though in reality, the album is much more an invitation into such a place as opposed to a window out of one. A demonic circus of sadistic riffs and merciless drums fuel the music’s malevolence, which is crowned by utterly bestial vocals. The smothering effect of the music is enhanced by the album’s purposefully murky production, with just a few brief respites of solitary clean guitar — the eye of Desolate Shrine’s hurricane that passes overhead all too soon.
On their latest work Diaspora, indie California genre-wanderers Cormorant resume their odyssey across musical barriers with four elaborate tapestries of monumental proportions, including a monster 26-minute closing track. Cormorant draw on a sprawling array of touchstones reaching back to 70s doom and prog as well as black and death metal to create compelling songs filled with seriously catchy riffs. Album opener “Preserved in Ash” is more or less a black metal track, but subsequent songs feature lush guitar melodies and robust clean vocals sure to please fans of Baroness and The Sword. Though the record’s 60-minute runtime across only four tracks might be for some a red flag signaling self-indulgent wankery, that’s not the case here, as the mature songwriting minds of Cormorant have crafted a cohesive set of songs that are as dynamic as they are disciplined.
The dirges on Isenordal’s full-length debut Shores of Mourning are bleeding with artful sincerity. Theirs is a black metal distilled from the wellspring of visionaries Agalloch, their songs elegies of loss draped in heavy chains of despair. Blast beats thrash along with malefic guitars, counterbalanced by melancholy violin, cello and ethereal voices that waver like ghosts flitting between the trees of an overgrown forest. Far from contrived, these additional elements are as intrinsic to the songs as are the more typically metal components, contributing much to the elegance of the music while taking nothing away from the dripping darkness of its black metal roots. As a debut release, Shores of Mourning represents a very capable and forward-thinking band with tons of potential for continued growth — which they’ve already shown once more with their follow-up acoustic EP Lughnasadh MMXVII.
(Southern Lord, Finland)
Kohti Tuhoa’s latest release Pelon Neljäs Valtakunta hits like a swift elbow to the kidney, and that’s exactly what they want. The album is a whirlwind affair of 12 killer tracks, with nary a trace of filler to be found. Vocalist Helena Hiltunen dominates, wielding her wild roar with seeming abandon yet retaining practiced control over her delivery even in her most primal moments. Behind her is a roiling cauldron of feverish D-beat that is every bit as aggressive as expected while also supremely catchy and engaging. I won’t pretend to understand any of what’s being said, but one doesn’t need to speak Finnish in order to realize that there’s no shortage of conviction in Kohti Tuhoa.
(Season of Mist, USA)
Coming in with one of the most accessible metal records of the year are rising Atlanta rockers Cloak with their blackened death-rock brew To Venomous Depths. Yes, they wear their influences quite visibly on their sleeves — Watain and Tribulation are oft-mentioned touchstones — but these are a few of many ingredients in Cloak’s debut offering. An infectious, uplifting energy, led by the band’s charismatic rhythm section, pervades for an end result that is irresistibly groovy. To Venomous Depths is a powerful record on its own, but especially so considering its authoring by a band with so little history under their belts. A deeper dive can be found in my review, but in short, it’s a propulsive, clever concoction that is really fucking fun.
(The Sign, Sweden)
Throne of Heresy’s ambitious concept album Decameron traces the journey of the Black Death from its beginnings in present-day Kyrgyzstan across the Eurasian continent to their home country of Sweden. Such an undertaking could easily be handled by lesser songsmiths in a manner that is either overly wrought with cliché or lacking in the degree of reverence demanded by the calamitous plague, but Throne of Heresy’s brand of blackened melodic death metal proves to be appropriate medium. Within the parameters of their aesthetic, Throne of Heresy exhibit considerable flexibility in shaping their music to fit the lyrical content of each song. The subtleties of the music are all sweeter thanks to crystal-clear production from Marduk’s Magnus “Devo” Andersson, and Mattias Frisk’s haunting artwork takes my vote for the year’s best album cover.
(Vendetta / Indisciplinarian, Denmark)
A warning in advance — look elsewhere for satisfaction if patience is not a virtue of yours. For those willing to put in the time, Solbrud’s Vemod is a masterful endeavor. The Danish quartet create massively moody atmospheric black metal epics oozing with the crushing sense of capitulation in the face of numbing agony. The aching melodies are driven by a pummeling rhythm section that imbues the music with an urgency that is further compounded by the throat-shredding vocals. This one is a record for solitude: headphones and a dark room required.
(Throats Productions / Tridroid, USA)
Void Ritual represents the labor of one Daniel Jackson, a singular black metal behemoth who is responsible for one of the year’s most exciting and polished records in the genre. Heretical Wisdom delivers intensity befitting world-ending cataclysms while also leaving tangible traces of reprieve within reach. Jackson recently released a darker and more violent EP under the alias Mendacium, but it’s Void Ritual’s slower tempos and omnipresent creep of melodic death metal that play a major role in establishing the music’s commanding presence. The songs of Heretical Wisdom surge ever onward through smooth transitions and meter shifts as unflinching guitars and convincingly organic programmed drums rage underneath Jackson’s full-bodied growl.
Vestigial is the follow-up album Sydney-based sludge demons Lo! needed to release in order to cement their position as one of today’s most exciting rising groups. Their instantly memorable video for the 2015 track “Orca” put them on the map, as vocalist Sam Dillon, covered in pink goo, writhed and screamed against the stark black background of his hazmat suit-clad bandmates. Vestigial further refines their brand of sludge-infused progressive death as a relentless torrent of ruin which dances between oppressive barrages of technical fury, obliterating sludge and adroit use of melody. Within its churning gyre of desolation is a deeply nuanced record that represents a band bolstered by ironclad confidence in their artistic vision.