Looking beyond the fact that 2019 was another great year for metal— I will never get tired of saying that— what is even more heartening to me is the fact that four of my Top Ten Metal Albums of 2019 were debuts; new bands just coming out of the gate put out some fantastic metal in 2019, including the Number One spot.
On top of that, two well-established bands, each with a decades-long history of metal excellence and half-a-dozen albums under their belt, made the Top Ten as well, after a five-year-hiatus in one case and an eight-year-long split-up in the other; neither of these bands have lost anything in the years since their last releases.
On my end, 2019 saw me continue the more pro-active stance that I took towards finding new metal in 2018, listening to literally hundreds of new albums between January and December, and thoroughly dissecting the three-dozen-odd that proved to be contenders for the Top Ten. As with 2018, this approach introduced me to an increased number of bands that weren’t previously on my radar. In 2019, eight of the bands that made the Top Ten were new to me, up from six in 2018; in previous years, the norm was two to four.
So, who made the cut and how did they stack up?
1. Enforced – At the Walls
Richmond’s Enforced prove that they’ve got what it takes with this pummeling, riff-packed beast of a debut album. Formed in 2016, Enforced play an ass-kicking blend of blitzkrieg thrash and crossover, with the occasional more nuanced Bay Area thrash riff. At the Walls is a nine-track, 28-minute verse/chorus rocket ride with classic crossover production: a sense of aural distance, a dry, crunchy guitar tone, and big cymbals. An uptempo fusillade of lethal thrash and crossover riffing is tempered by down-tempo über-chugs and sick mosh parts, and well-punctuated by pinch harmonics and other sweet tremolo abuse. The drums support the carnage with traditional and thrash structures, using hardcore d-beats to push the action where necessary, and the requisite crossover shouts vent lyrical “outrage in a world of contempt.”
Standout Tracks: All of them.
2. Endseeker – The Harvest
This sophomore release from Germany’s Endseeker is a thick slab of old-school Swedish death metal done right. Endseeker expertly and effectively employ all of the OSSDM tropes, using them to full and compelling advantage, compared to the “by the numbers” feel one gets from a lot of other bands in what is a burgeoning resurgence of this venerable style. The fact that Endseeker always make interesting, seemingly perfect moves at just the right time— be it a backing thematic lead, a sample, a tremolo-picked rhythm break— is part of what makes this album stand out from the pack. Another key is the musicianship, which is a notch above the typical revivalist OSSDM, and it shows both in the writing and the playing. The icing on the coffin is Endseeker’s vertebrae-snappingly skillful deployment of key bits of syncopation and groove, particularly in conjunction with downward tempo shifts. The Harvest will make you want to break things.
Standout Tracks: Cure, Spiritual Euphoria, Vicious Devourer
3. Wraith – Absolute Power
Wraith’s second LP is a blistering blend of black/speed, thrash and hardcore punk that draws well-deserved comparisons to Midnight and Toxic Holocaust. Songs are short, lethal verse/chorus affairs assembled from speed metal riffs, thrash chugs, slower Joel Grind-style passages and sick mosh breaks, and are packed ten to an extended, half-hour-long sonic beating. The rhythm section follows the formula, employing a blend of speed, thrash and hardcore drumming, and the bluesy leadwork is to die for (think Midnight). There is no respite from the first blitzkrieg speed metal chug to the hanging outro distortion of the Misfits endcap. Stripped down, souped up and tuned for speed, this octane-guzzling metal machine is firing on all cylinders… and it’s bearing down on you.
Standout Tracks: Devil’s Hour, At the Stake, The Hunt
4. Warfist – Grünberger
Poland’s Warfist have been playing their brand of black/thrash since 2004, and 2019 saw their third full-length release. Clocking in at a little over 37 minutes, Grünberger is ten three-to-four-minute tracks of really well-done multi-tempo black/thrash in the vein of Toxic Holocaust. Excellent, well-varied mid- and up-tempo thrash riffs ride atop traditional thrash drumming, bolstered by d-beats and double-bass where necessary. Very nice use of crushing downtempo sections and breakdowns for build-and-release of tension, and nice placement of the occasional thrash lead, groove bit, gang chorus or crossover riff for variety. Production is nicely blackened, reminiscent of mid-era Toxic Holocaust, and the vocals are hoarse, gruff spoken bits and shouts that remind one of Deceased as much as anything else.
Standout Tracks: The Chapel of Death, The Burning Flames of Ignorance, Grünberger (Drinking with the Devil)
5. Possessor – Gravelands
Gravelands is the fourth LP from London’s Possessor: six tracks of great stoner/sludge that begins and ends with crackling flames— a great metaphor for the overall driven feel of this album. From the opening Motörhead bass chug, there is no letup until the final track, an eight-minute-plus hallucinatory trek through sand-blasted wastelands that caps a run of five mid-length, mid- and up-tempo rockers. Possessor’s stoner rock foundation is shot through with numerous influences; they seamlessly incorporate healthy doses of sludge, hardcore riffs and d-beats, expertly-wielded grooves and trad metal leads. The result shows flashes of a lot of disparate bands, from Helmet to Motörhead to Corrosion of Conformity, and unfailingly holds one’s interest. This well-oiled guitar-and-bass machine is propelled by solid, hell-bent trad/rock drumming, with the occasional d-beat, and the production is consonant with the sludge/stoner foundation: biggish, gritty, sun-bleached and fuzzed-out.
Standout Tracks: Backwoods, Savage Rampage, Breathe Fire
6. Legion of the Damned – Slaves of the Shadow Realm
Dutch death/thrash masters Legion of the Damned return with their first LP in five years, Slaves of the Shadow Realm, and it is exactly what you would expect: a clinic in hybrid destruction. They have lost no ground in the interim since 2014’s Ravenous Plague; this album is consistent in quality with the six that came before it. LotD follow a tried-and-true formula for musical domination: mid- and up-tempo thrash riffing, full of the neck-snapping riff and tempo changes that make thrash great, played against tremolo-picked death metal passages and those unique, bouncy death/thrash chugs. The drumming follows suit: primarily drawn from thrash, with double-bass runs and other death metal bits as needed, while the song structures have more in common with death metal than they do the verse/chorus simplicity of thrash. Production aesthetics are blackish, and consistent with their past work. In sum: what more do you want?
Standout Tracks: Slaves of the Southern Cross, Warhounds of Hades, Black Banners in Flame
7. Usurper – Lords of the Permafrost
Lords of the Permafrost, the first LP from Chicago’s Usurper in 15 years, takes home the Reunion Album of the Year title for 2019. Usurper split up in 2007 after 14 years of black/thrash dominance, two years after the release of their last album Cryptobeast, and four years after the departure of original vocalist General Diabolical Slaughter. This risen phoenix of an album shows that they have lost nothing in the interim. Usurper’s last three albums were uncharacteristically heavy-feeling for black/thrash; this, plus the vocal style and the “Motörhead meets NWOBHM, and they live happily ever after in Hell” tendencies of the music itself, have always drawn comparisons to Celtic Frost. This latest release is no different: thrashy compositions that masterfully employ the full range of tempos, with some classic NWOBHM sensibilities and black riffing that combine to add an elevating sense of grandiosity. Two-time vocalist Dan Tyrantor sounds so much like The General, I had to check the credits twice. Sure to please Usurper fans everywhere.
Standout Tracks: Lords of the Permafrost, Cemetery Wolf, Gargoyle
8. Okkultist – Reinventing Evil
The second debut album to make The List this year is from Portugal’s Okkultist. They play really thrashy, blackened death metal that masterfully uses groovish and thrashy feel and tempo changes to break up the faster tremolo-picked death metal riffing. The result is reminiscent of old Arch Enemy in places; a few well-placed trad metal sections range in feel from Nevermore to Danzig to Alice in Chains. The guitarwork includes some nice thrash and traditional leads and lots of pinch harmonics, and the drums utilize mostly traditional rock and thrash structures, punctuated by double bass runs and the occasional d-beat. Vocals have a black raspy growlish timbre and are spoken/spit; the production has a nice, rawish, black feel.
Standout Tracks: I Am the Beast, Plasmodium Nocturnus, Rise and Reign
9. Fetid – Steeping Corporeal Mess
Ever since Severed Survival dragged itself out of the primordial ooze, there have been death metal bands that wallow in the putrescent, subterranean noxiousness of Autopsy’s overdriven, overbearing, filthy death/doom riffing, twisted, macabre chord progressions and inter-octave morbidity. The past half-decade has seen these bands bloom in innumerable profusion like toxic, leprous cavern fungi spawning in a chaos that, as always, favors quantity over quality. Fetid’s noisomely engaging debut LP places them firmly in the latter category. Great riffs and expert use of tempo change— most especially their facility with crushing, monolithic downtempo passages— make Fetid the most noteworthy slime in the sewers of Metaldom this year.
Standout tracks: Reeking Within, Cranial Liquescent, Consumed Periphery
10. Deathswarm – Shadowlands of Darkness
Also ringing that bell right out of the gate is Deathswarm, a Swedish band formed by members of the OG OSSDM band Sarcasm; their debut release Shadowlands of Darkness rounds out the Top Ten for 2019. Shadowlands is nine mostly mid-length tracks of nicely-done death metal that vacillates somewhat schizophrenically between subterranean, Autopsyesque deathdoom and more uptempo old-school Swedish death metal, with the occasional thrashy chug or bit of somber melodicism (read: Bolt Thrower riff). This seeming thematic psychopathy works to Deathswarm’s advantage, as it gives them a broader musical palette to work from, and they make great use of it; this mental patient is deranged, but cunning. Production is old-school Sunlight sound with a bit more filth and more cavernous vocals.
Standout tracks: Let the Flames Devour, Tomb of the Universe, We Fade Away at Dawn