Death, doom, black, traditional—this year’s crop of the best metal on Bandcamp ran the gamut. Included here are a few much-hyped bands who aced their sophomore releases, some dazzling newcomers, and even a couple of long-running veteran acts who clearly have more left in the tank. They all helped 2019 end the decade in metal on a King-Diamond-falsetto-level high note.
Hidden History of the Human Race
Vinyl LP, Cassette, Compact Disc (CD)
There’s nothing inherently accessible about a prog-infused death metal album with an 18-minute song called “Awakening from the Dream of Existence to the Multidimensional Nature of Our Reality (Mirror of the Soul).” Yet Blood Incantation’s Hidden History of the Human Race might be—deservedly—the most critically acclaimed metal album of the year. It is a living, breathing organism that expands on the death metal blueprint as it sees fit, bringing in elements of jazz, psychedelia, krautrock, ambient music, and ’70s-style prog rock. If that sounds like it’s running away from death metal, it’s not. If Hidden History wasn’t grounded in the fundamental building blocks of death metal, it wouldn’t work, and the punishing riffs, frenzied guitar solos, and guttural vocals are staunchly the focal point. The lyrics espouse the band’s heady philosophy about seeking understanding of the self to better understand the cosmos, and vice versa, using the imagery of ancient alien theory and interdimensional pathways to explore that self-interrogation. Whether you can vibe with their far-out ideas or not, you should certainly be able to vibe with their songs—which are the best that anyone in death metal is writing right now.
The Ruins of Fading Light
2 x Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
In epic doom metal, it’s often enough to get by on good riffs and an understanding of genre tropes. Crypt Sermon had that stuff down to a science on their first demo. Across two brilliant full-lengths, they’ve cultivated much greater ambitions. The Ruins of Fading Light has riffs for days, but it also boasts incredibly sophisticated arrangements, richly rendered textures, and characteristically provocative lyrics by the band’s powerhouse singer, Brooks Wilson. Wilson’s words on debut album Out of the Garden led fans and critics alike to speculate that Crypt Sermon were a Christian band, but it’s clearer than ever that that’s irrelevant (and that they’re probably not). He wrings deep emotional meaning from complex philosophical quandaries and clearly communicates it to the listener, and that’s no easy feat. It helps that his voice is accompanied by some of the best riff writers in the game. Steve Jansson and James Lipczynski can certainly conjure towering monoliths of doom, but they’re agile enough to change up the pace on a dime, and their melodic phrasing makes their riffs function as hooks, as well. Combine all that with a locked-in rhythm section and some thrilling uses of non-metal instrumentation—including harp, hurdy-gurdy, recorder, and tambourine by Obsequiae’s Tanner Anderson on the intro to the title track—and you’ve got one of the great metal bands of our time operating at their peak.
Satan Spits on Children of Light
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), T-Shirt/Apparel
It wasn’t clear what would happen when Philadelphia metalpunks DEVIL MASTER made the leap from demo tape to proper album for their Relapse debut. Would the DIY charm of those early recordings hold up over the course of a full-length with cleaner production? Satan Spits on Children of Light’s answer is a resounding yes. For 37 minutes, the band rip through hit after hit of their signature flanger-fueled post-punk/black metal hybrid. The haunted-house atmosphere they dress it up with is pure schlock, but it works for them because their whole thing is not to be taken too seriously. Crank “Desperate Shadow” up to 11; pair with beer.
The second album by one-man black metal project Funereal Presence is a work of singular ambition. Sole member Bestial Devotion (also of Negative Plane) offers a fantastical retelling of the story of the Christian martyr Achatius across four unhinged acts, each a dizzying evocation of the anything-goes spirit of first-wave black metal. These songs are chaotic, constantly threatening to come apart at the seams, and yet they never do, despite each of them crossing the 11-minute mark. Bestial Devotion adheres to the repetitiousness of black metal, with many of his raw, dissonant riffs serving as leitmotifs for the long compositions, but he retains a looseness that leaves room for unprescribed experimentation.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), T-Shirt/Apparel
Arizona’s Gatecreeper use the entire history of death metal as an all-you-can-eat buffet—a slab of Sunlight Studios Swedeath guitar tone here, a pile of knuckle-dragging Morrisound riffs there, a nosh of Gothenburg melodicism for dessert. They’re adept at every style they borrow from and, impressively, they manage to use those elements to create something that’s uniquely theirs. The songs on Deserted evoke the sweltering environs of the Sonoran Desert that Gatecreeper calls home. There’s a hallucinatory oppressiveness to all that desolation and heat, and it comes through in the band’s stomping, heavier-than-hell riffs, and in frontman Chase Mason’s mad-prophet howl. Stay hydrated.
An Isolated Mind
I’m Losing Myself
Vinyl LP, Other Vinyl, T-Shirt/Apparel, Cassette, Compact Disc (CD)
The most harrowing listen of the year was I’m Losing Myself, the debut album by Kameron Bogges’s solo project An Isolated Mind. After a brief intro track, the first lyric we hear is “I fear my mind and its bizarre contortions of the past.” Thus begins a bleak journey into a consciousness affected by mental illness. The next four songs are a reflection of Bogges’s mind expressed in fractured, discordant black metal, performed brilliantly but without anything approaching joy. Nothing can prepare you for the last two tracks, “I’m Losing Myself” and “I’ve Lost Myself,” and they’re best left unspoiled. A warning: You might want to give yourself time to lie down after listening.
The Palms of Sorrowed Kings
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
The melodic black metal played by Minneapolis’s Obsequiae feels stuck out of time. It’s easy to imagine band leader Tanner Anderson in medieval England, playing music very much like what he plays today, on different instruments. The sound of his piercing, achingly melodic guitar, paired with the medieval harp played by Vicente la Camera Mariño, feels at once stately and tragic all at once, like a gilded scepter given over to rust. The Palms of Sorrowed Kings has been promoted half-jokingly as “castle metal,” but that’s as good a term for what Anderson and his collaborators are doing as any other.
Grand Guignol Orchestra
Compact Disc (CD), 2 x Vinyl LP
For their sixth album, French avant-garde black metallers Pensées Nocturnes invite us to take a seat under the Big Top. “Circus music” is often used as shorthand anytime offbeat, zany sounds make their way into metal songs, but Grand Guignol Orchestra is almost literally circus music, an imagined soundtrack for the real-life horror shows at the famed Grand Guignol theater in Paris. Guitars aren’t even the focal point of most of the songs, with tinkling jazz piano and klezmer horns often taking over the main melody. Frontman Vaerohn plays the lead clown, presiding over his insane orchestra with spine-chilling, unhinged vocals. The evil clown is a horror cliché, but he breathes new life into it by placing the clown back in the circus. Beneath the shtick, there’s a deep understanding of the culture of the Grand Guignol here, and Pensées Nocturnes take great care to introduce black metal to its iconography.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Despite metal’s origins as a heavier, more distorted permutation of the rock n’ roll tradition, very little on this list scans as rock music. Brooklyn power trio Sanhedrin are a glaring, glorious exception. The songs on The Poisoner barrel forward with a tough, streetwise energy that mimics the city they call home, even in their most stirringly melodic moments. Erica Stoltz’s expressive, full-throated baritone has a lot to do with that; its natural ruggedness gives the band its edge. Drummer Nathan Honor plays with a bit of Bill Ward swing that’s missing from most metal bands in 2019, and Jeremy Sosville’s riffs, dexterous but never flashy, anchor the whole operation.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
The Lord Weird Slough Feg himself, Professor Mike Scalzi, has been in the true metal trenches for almost 30 years without a break. He’s seen traditional heavy metal go through so many boom and bust cycles that it’s heartening to see him in his rightful place today, canonized as a saint of the world he helped create. His renaissance comes on the back of the sinewy New Organon, the best Slough Feg record in a decade. Scalzi leans on his academic background for the most overtly philosophical lyrics of his career, and the songs are tight, lean, riff-rock machines. Here’s to 30 more years of the Feg.
Divided by Darkness
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
The heavy metal championship belt that Black Sabbath forged in 1970 and handed off to Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Metallica, and so on, has been passed down once again. The world of metal is Spirit Adrift’s oyster now. Divided by Darkness is the true heir to the world-changing classic metal albums of the ’70s and ’80s and, like Mastodon’s Leviathan, it is subgenre-agnostic, sounding like nothing in particular so much as all of the greatest things about metal in one band. Nate Garrett plays everything except the drums on this record—those are played by Marcus Bryant—and the only thing that exceeds his vision is his execution. He can sing like prime Ozzy, riff like Hetfield, shred like Rhoads, harmonize with himself like Smith and Murray—yet none of those touchstones quite define Divided by Darkness’s sound. His monomaniacal greatness hasn’t translated to arena-show success yet, but people will catch up. They won’t have any choice.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
You can’t argue with Tomb Mold’s hit rate. Three years up, three great death metal albums down. Planetary Clairvoyance follows Primordial Malignity and last year’s monumental Manor of Infinite Forms, emerging as the most compositionally adventurous record of the trilogy. It’s clear that they’re out in another galaxy when the acoustic break comes in four minutes into opening track “Beg for Life”—for my money, the coolest moment on any record this year. From there, the stars are the limit. The riffs, while still total ass-beaters, are more technical and complex than on past Tomb Mold releases, and the songs seem to spiral off in multiple directions at once without losing their ultimate thrust. We’re fortunate to have a band this good that keeps challenging themselves to get better.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, T-Shirt/Apparel
On the self-titled debut album by Traveler, the Calgary band pull off the rare feat of playing worshipful traditional heavy metal that holds its own against the classic bands to which they pay homage. Judas Priest and Iron Maiden are the key reference points, and Traveler don’t shy away from them, borrowing the title of Priest’s “Starbreaker” for an opening track that namedrops Sin After Sin, and nodding to Maiden’s wall-of-guitars “Flash of the Blade” with the cheekily named “Behind the Iron.” Hell, singer Jean-Pierre Abboud has been known to use the nom de plume J. Priest. This would all be a bit much if the band wasn’t truly awesome. Luckily, they are. Abboud might be the best pure singer in the current wave of true metal (it’s him or Visigoth’s Jake Rogers in a coin flip). He elevates the ceiling for these songs, which are perfectly built vehicles for his vocal hooks. Too many new trad metal acts see the genre’s history strictly as an underground one. Traveler embrace the possibility that it could become pop music again.
Compact Disc (CD)
The black metal that Vanum plays on Ageless Fire sounds like it should be blasting while a doomed army marches across a burning battlefield. It is epic, melodic, melancholy, yet brazenly defiant. “Under the banner of death, I am alive / I declare my being in the language of fire,” howls Mike Rekevics (also of Yellow Eyes, Vilkacis, Ruin Lust, etc.) on the album’s finest track. Rekevics is a drummer, first and foremost, and while Vanum don’t reveal who plays what in the liner notes, it feels safe to say that these songs were composed with percussion at the top of mind. The riffs feel tied to the drums, rather than the other way around, reinforcing the band’s signature martial feel.
Rare Field Ceiling
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
An air of mystery surrounds New York black metal band Yellow Eyes. Their albums weave in field recordings taken in the frozen wilds of Siberia, and their lyrics are abstract poems you could spend all day staring at without understanding, beautiful though they often are. Meet them at the level of the riffs, though, and Yellow Eyes become pretty damn easy to access. Rare Field Ceiling is the band’s best album yet, and for all the extratextual trappings, that’s really thanks to the riffs. Brothers Will and Sam Skarstad are among the most inventive guitarists in metal today. When you listen to a lot of metal, it can be tempting to finish humming a riff as you listen to it. If you try that with a Yellow Eyes riff, you will be wrong. They consistently map out exciting new routes for melody and dissonance that feel thrilling the first time you hear them, or the 50th.