Top Ten Metal CDs of 2018
2018 was another great year for metal. While a lot of my favorite bands did not release LPs this year— notably missing are Desaster, Overkill, Toxic Holocaust, Midnight, Vader, Nile, Ares Kingdom, Deströyer 666 and Cannibal Corpse— a lot of death metal and black/hybrid bands filled in the gaps with some really standout full-length albums that kept my year chock-full of delicious, high-volume metallic goodness.
2018 saw me step up my game in terms of pro-actively staying on top of new metal releases; I put about twice as much time into this as I have over each of the past few years, and I took a more methodical approach as well, regularly combing through the exhaustive Upcoming Albums list at the Encyclopaedia Metallum and building long lists of new releases to check out on YouTube and Bandcamp. I also routinely scoured the Twitter feeds of various members of #UnitedMetalForces, aka Metal Twitter, particularly the Twitter feed of @KManriffs; if you’re not following the K-Man, you should be; he is a goldmine of upcoming metal releases, complete with links.
The extra work has paid dividends, especially in terms of finding ass-kicking “new” bands: six of the albums in my Top Ten this year are by bands that I had not listened to prior to 2018, compared to four in 2017 and 2 in 2016. More tellingly, my top three albums this year all fall into this category; this was not the case in 2016 or 2017. The fact that doubling my effort yielded double the top-notch metal from “undiscovered” bands, rather than a “diminishing returns” scenario, gives the lie to the foolish perennial pronouncements by the Chicken Little Brigade that “metal is dead.”
So, who made the cut and how did they stack up?
1. Mentor — Cults, Crypts and Corpses. Mentor are a Polish band who play an aggressive, propulsive blend of hardcore, thrash and (to a lesser extent) death metal that smoothly, effectively incorporates bits of sludge, doom, speed metal, crossover, and Sabbath as well, showing that Mentor are children of metal in general, and not of one genre. At 28 minutes for ten songs, none of them overstay their welcome and some of them are really brief and to the point (see the “hardcore riffing/crossover mosh part” one-two that is Tub of Toxic Waste). This quick pacing fits the dynamic, mostly uptempo nature of the material nicely. Most of the songs show great use of both tempo change and genre shift, from the midpaced-thrash/blitzkrieg-speed-metal assault of Churchburner Girl, with its contrasting downtempo lead breaks, to the thrash-verse/hardcore-chorus dichotomy of We Dig, complete with a Sabbathy tempo break and CoC-ish final verse and outro. Mentor find the perfect closer in Gather by the Grave, a potentially lethal Sabbath-channeling crusher. The vocals alternate between a crossoverish, rough/raspy pissed-off shout and a higher-register, blackish, sneery spoken/spit approach. Bits of sung vocals are used effectively in places. The production is suitably gritty and blackened but not extreme— think Toxic Holocaust or Midnight; the guitar tone in particular is a dead-ringer for mid-era Toxic Holocaust. Standout tracks: Gather by the Grave, Churchburner Girl, Mists of Doom, Gut Bucket.
2. Feral — Flesh for Funerals Eternal. This is the third LP from Swedish death-dealers Feral, who play great, riffy death metal that is rooted in the 90’s Swedish style; the cavalcade of great riffs is what makes this album stand out from the pack. Feral know how to write them, and they know how to use them; there are riffs galore here, and a lot of them are flat-out steamrollers. Up-tempo, mid-tempo, crushing breaks; chunky thrash riffs, tremolo-picked death riffs, traditional metal riffs— it never stops. The riff changes are masterfully done as well; zero momentum is lost during any of the numerous riff and tempo changes, making for a wonderful barrage of non-stop musical carnage. Guitar leads are not neglected, and are as well-constructed and utilized as the riffs; structurally, they are generally consistent with the Swedish foundation of the music. The drumming is authoritative and relentlessly propulsive, forcing songs forward with breakneck d-beats, and then reigning things in when a change in feel is required. Vocal timbre is an admirable, midrange raspy growl that can quickly turn into a bottomless guttural or a shout; it reminds me a lot of Kam Lee’s work in The Grotesquery. The production is suitably reminiscent of the infamous Sunlight Studio sound, if a bit dirtier. This is how you do death metal. Standout tracks: Accursed, Of Gods No Longer Invoked, Dormant Disease.
3. Wrathrone — Reflections of Torment. This ass-kicking ten-track slab of old-school death metal is the second full-length release from these Finnish metallers. Stylistically, it draws heavily on early 90’s Swedish death metal, but other influences show too, from the bits of Cannibal groove in Gut Goddess and the Ghoulish bass and guitar breaks in Bloodline to the Ares Kingdomesque thematic leadwork of Dead Inside Me and the Bolt Thrower-worship that is Bloodshroud. The overall tempo and pacing of the songs is quite varied, and good use of tempo changes keeps the individual songs engaging as well; really solid riffing helps here too. The material, well-performed throughout, is largely old-school Swedeath: a largely d-beat-driven rhythm section with occasional blasty or rock-style passages, supporting tremolo-picking-heavy riffing that is accented by reverb-drenched thematic leadwork and rifflets. Primary vocals are an excellent deeper growl, alternated occasionally by a more blackish raspy snarl. Production is cleanish, and about typical for the style. If you love old Entombed, Dismember and Grave, this can’t miss. Standout tracks: Bloodshroud, When All Light Died, By Dawn They’ll Hang.
4. Gruesome — Twisted Prayers. Gruesome is old-school Death worship. Literally. The will tell you this themselves, and have; they make no bones about it. Twisted Prayers is their tribute to Death’s iconic third album, Spiritual Healing, which saw the ever-evolving band in transition from the more traditionally brutal first two albums to the paradoxically progressive death metal of later work. To my ears, Gruesome does an ace job of capturing the essence of Death at that point in time; they don’t just ape the tremolo riffing, sweep picking, virtuoso lead-swaps and atypical structures, they create stunning new compositions that accurately reflect the style and intent of one of death metal’s most influential founding bands. They don’t miss on Death’s unique sound, either, from the phrasing of the vocals to the guitar tone and the production (which is a bit thicker and cleaner than that on Spiritual Healing). Standout tracks: A Waste of Life, Crusade of Brutality, Fate.
5. Unleashed — The Hunt for White Christ. This is Unleashed’s thirteenth full-length release, and it pretty much follows a well-blazed trail of excellence littered with the corpses of those who have not survived Unleashed’s decades-long bellicose reign of Viking brutality and beauty. Unleashed explore the history and beliefs of their forebears, as well as modern-day cultural echoes of the past, using an uncompromising, well-honed approach that deploys traditional Swedeath tropes atop a bedrock of thrashy, martial riffing and uncluttered traditional metal structures. As always, they utilize well-crafted, exquisite mid- and down-tempo sections to provide an atmosphere of grandiose triumph tempered with sobering darkness that creates a relevant, stirring counterpoint to the fundamental warlike feel of the music. Indeed, this rousing blend of epic triumphialism and relentless march to war, perfected over 27 years, is perhaps the most identifiable characteristic of Unleashed’s work, and is what makes them stand out from the countless other bands that work in the medium of old-school Swedish death metal. The Hunt for White Christ is an exemplary Unleashed album: nothing is out of place here, and everything that you would expect is present, polished and perfect as always. Standout tracks: The City of Jorsala Shall Fall, Terror Christ, They Rape the Land.
6. Hekata — Ruin. Russia’s Hekata play blackish crusty death metal, and Ruin is their debut LP, following an EP and a split in 2016. The songs on Ruin are characterized by tasty feel and tempo shifts, as Hekata bounce between Swedeath-style tremolo picking, typically driven hard by blasts and double bass, and mid-paced thematic sections, pushed by more traditional-style drumming, that are reminiscent of Ares Kingdom. Structures inspired by other influences round things out and smooth the transitions, from hardcore breaks and rockish verse riffs to grungy bridges and crunchy, crushing thrash riffs. There are some really well-done, well-placed guitar leads as well, ranging from reverb-heavy Swedeath-style leads to thrashy virtuoso solos and bluesy CoC-esque swagger. While a smooth, eclectic mix of styles like Ruin is challenging to describe in a sufficiently complimentary manner, imagine a fluid blend of Ares Kingdom and Goatwhore, with bits of thrash, Immolation, Midnight-style speed and Corrosion of Conformity. The vocals are a great fit for the material; the vocalist uses a rough, coarse growly shout or a ghoulish mid-range rasp as appropriate. The production reminds me of Goatwhore more than anything else, but dirtier, and leaves a bleakish, dystopian patina on thematic sections that might otherwise exude hints of exhilaration. Standout tracks: Liar, Psalm, Skyforge.
7. Filii Nigrantium Infernalium — Fellatrix. This complete re-work of FNI’s 2005 debut LP, Fellatrix Discordia Pantokrator, is a unique blend of black/thrash/speed with a heavy dose of traditional metal and rock influences and bits of NWOBHM; the net result lies somewhere between the black/thrash of Nocturnal Breed, the black/speed of Midnight, and a strip-club house band that plays really sleazy rock-metal. Every song has a different feel, from the alternating anthemic uplift/chaotic downpull of Moïra to the NWOBHM-ish thrash assault of A Forca to the trad-metal rock-out of Sacra Morte. What really makes the varied feel of the album work is the guitar, which seamlessly employs the idiosyncratic ingredients of the different influences: chunky thrash riffing, catchy rock hooks, glammy pinch harmonics, virtuoso trad metal solos, and ripping thrash solos. The drumming is similarly varied, ranging from d-beats and thrash-style work to more standard rock arrangements; all of the disparate styles are used to create a unified, ass-kicking whole. The vocals are a sleazy-sounding blackish raspy shout that reminds me of Nocturnal Breed more than anything else. Production is fairly big, providing a very crankable sound, and is suitably dirty but not too raw, about the equivalent of Nocturnal Breed’s “medium” level of filth (see The Tools of the Trade, for example). Standout tracks: Vermes de Guerra: Cona Nuclear, Eixos do Caos, Calypso.
8. Subtype Zero — The Astral Awakening. This is the debut LP from Ohio death/thrash upstarts Subtype Zero, and they definitely prove that they have the chops to blend death metal and thrash, with an accent on thrash. Stylistically they use d-beats and uptempo, propulsive thrash drumming as the foundation for Bay Area thrash riffing that is offset by occasional death metal breaks and fills, and punctuated emphatically by frequent thrash leads; Slayeresque solos in particular abound. Subtype Zero are not afraid to use different feels for contrast, either; the intro of the first track, Blinded by Light, is a proggish bit that would be at home in an old Queensrÿche song, and the start of The Astral Awakening would have worked on Number of the Beast. At 29 minutes for 12 tracks, the compositions are brief-and-to-the-point, but they are not the rocket-ride-only songs that the average-time-per-track might predict. Like any good thrash band, Subtype Zero are adept at using tempo changes within songs to build and release tension; your neck will confirm this. There are plenty of tempo and feel variations between songs as well, keeping the listener engaged and providing plenty of replay value. The vocals remind me of earlier Black Breath as much as anything else: a hoarse, pissed-off crossover shout that suits the overall aggression of the material well. The production is full-bodied and just a bit dirty, and everything is at an appropriate level in the mix. Standout tracks: Twisted Obsession, Inhumane, Cerebral Cage.
9. Skinless — Savagery. As I’ve said elsewhere, New York’s Skinless is hit or miss with me; 2018’s Savagery is one of the hits. Savagery is just that: a ruthless, relentless bloodthirsty death metal assault that sees the brutal/slam style heavily tempered with a righteous dose of technicality and hints of melodicism and sludge, devastating everything in its path with heavy, crushing riffs propelled by d-beats, double-bass and slam beats. Bits of occasional sonic contrast are provided by atmospherics and funereal old-school Swedish thematic guitar leads, and sickeningly effective tempo and pacing contrasts abound throughout. Two-tone vocals consist of a really nice low guttural growl and hoarse, intelligible ghoulish barks. A pair of two-minute instrumentals— the acoustic, Swedish-feeling, dirgey Reversal of Fortune and the sludgy badlands menace of The Hordes— provide brief respites from the sonic assault, and an ace cover of Crowbar’s High Rate Extinction brings it to a close. Production is cleanish and full, about par for the course for modern American brutal/technical death metal (think Cannibal Corpse) and plenty crankable. Standout tracks: Medieval, Skull Session, Line of Dissent.
10. Supreme Carnage — Morbid Ways to Die. German death metal band Supreme Carnage put out their third LP this year, and it’s a corker. Morbid Ways to Die is nine tracks of thrashy old-school death metal that blends 90’s Swedeath’s characteristic d-beat/tremolo-picking riffage and reverb-drowned “background” thematic leadwork with chunky, neck-snapping thrash riffs and some choice mosh parts; bits of sludge, Asphyx and Autopsy are seen as well. The thrash riffs are devastatingly effective, whether propulsive or crushing, with the high-speed tremolo picking providing an effective counterfeel and the Swedish leadwork tying them together. Tempo shifts and riff changes are performed masterfully and to great effect, maximizing the motive capability of the music, and the leads are always just the right thing at just the right time. The vocals are a paradoxically dry guttural growl that contrasts nicely against the characteristically wet-sounding Sunlightish production. The net result simply kicks ass. Standout tracks: 1008 Pints of Death, The Word is Lost, Fountain of Suffering.
(c) 2018 Old Man Metal