Not that I suspect anyone is keeping track (or cares), but I wrote a paltry 3 album reviews for Metal Nation in 2019. In no way, shape, or form is this an indication of the quantity and quality of this year’s releases—quite the opposite actually—and I have no real excuse to offer as to why I was so lazy in my writing in 2019. I’d like to change that in 2020, but we’ll see how things go…
As has been the case for several years now—and completely counter to what the arbiters of popular culture would have you believe—the world of rock & metal is a swirling cauldron of activity, full of creative, expressive music. If you are reading this, you probably already know this to be true. The list below is simply a collection of albums that spoke to me in some form or fashion this past year. Calling it a “Top 10” is a misnomer, because I am positive that there are albums that came out in 2019 that I’ll eventually get around to listening to (culled from the list of others!) which will likely impact the composition of this very list. But I gotta draw the line somewhere. Let us begin…
10. Grotto – Lantern of Gius (Stickman Records)
Instrumental music tends to be hit or miss for me. Not exactly sure why that is, but I think it has something to do with the fact that—even if the lyrics are somewhat generic—I enjoy having some sort of narrative to wrap my head around. Strange then, that an album comprised of two meandering 17-minute instrumental tracks got its hooks into me the way Grotto’s Lantern of Gius did [full review]. A relatively unknown 3-piece from Belgium, Grotto has already produced a solid body of work (see 2017’s Circle of Magi & 2016’s Smokonomicon), and if Lantern of Gius is any indication, Grotto has a bright future ahead of them. [Bandcamp]
9. Bask – III (Season of Mist)
When I heard that Bask would be working with producer Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Isis, Soundgarden, etc.) for their 3rd album—and first for Season of Mist—I fully expected the partnership would result in the heavier elements of Bask’s sound being pushed to the forefront. Instead, III finds Bask stripping their sound back a bit to explore their more melodic, rootsy side. The heavier passages that punctuated 2017’s landmark Ramble Beyond are not entirely gone, they’re just nestled a bit deeper within the songs themselves—resulting in an album that feels warm and approachable despite the ominous (yet still poetic) lyrical themes that run throughout. Lots of bands are mashing up genres these days, but Bask’s Americana-infused take on stoner and doom is a thing of beauty and III is definitely one of the highlights of 2019 for me. [Bandcamp]
8. Druids – Monument (The Company)
Druids hail from Des Moines, but before I address their killer new album Monument, I want to direct your attention to the website for a guy called Mark Facey who does the band’s cover art. Check him out here. Some truly stunning artwork! Ok, so Monument is a heavy-as-balls slab of sludge metal, reminiscent of early Mastodon, complete with crushing guitars, swirling drums, and psychedelic dalliances aplenty. If that description sounds like it’s up your alley, Monument is for you. If not, well, carry on. [Bandcamp]
7. Spirit Adrift – Divided by Darkness (20 Buck Spin)
As evidenced by the majority of this list, a good portion of what I listen to puts me in the minority amongst the tastes of the Metal Nation readership. Or so I assume. So if you are one of those people who still wears a jean jacket and has no interest in the goings-on in the more obscure corners of the psych/stoner/doom underground, you may as well just stop reading here because Divided by Darkness is the one album from this list that you absolutely MUST listen to. Spirit Adrift is basically the brainchild of guitarist/vocalist Nate Garrett, (also of Gatecreeper) and on Divided by Darkness –the band’s 3rd full length–I think it is safe to say that his vision feels fully realized. Spirit Adrift’s sonic inspirations are heavily rooted in traditional and classic metal, but the album never feels derivative due to the creativity & undeniable skill of the players involved—and if there is an album cover that would look better airbrushed on the side of a 1985 Ford Econoline cargo van…well, I’ve yet to see it. [Bandcamp]
6. Lord Dying – Mysterium Tremendum (eOne Music)
Big props to Neeka for exuberantly extolling the virtues of Lord Dying’s 3rd full length in her review earlier this year, because otherwise I very likely would have missed it altogether. Having never really taken the time to listen to their studio output, my only real experience with their sound was seeing them shred the stage at Portland’s annual Stumpfest back in 2017. Experiencing Mysterium Tremendum without a thorough understanding of their previous work probably lessens the impact of the leaps they’ve made here, but it was obvious from my very first listen that this album was both hugely ambitious as well as massively risky in terms of meeting the expectations of their fan base. It sounded nothing like what I expected, but it captivated me all the same. [Bandcamp]
5. Moon Tooth – Crux (Pure Noise Records)
Listening to Moon Tooth reminds me of listening to Incubus (particularly S.C.I.E.N.C.E) back in the late 90’s—not because the bands sound all that much alike, but because both bands demonstrate a knack for smashing diverse genres against one another in highly entertaining fashion. Crux—Moon Tooth’s sophomore album—is jam packed with hooks aplenty, heaviness in spades, acrobatic vocalizations, and the sort of eclectic musicianship you’d expect from an accomplished prog band. Yet, somehow, Crux is a breezy, uplifting listen—thanks in no small part to Moon Tooth’s pop sensibilities and tight, cohesive songwriting—making it a must listen for anyone who likes to have the proverbial rug yanked out from under them from time-to-time. [Bandcamp]
4. Tool – Fear Inoculum (Dissectional/Volcano/RCA)
What a time to be alive. After a 13 year wait, Tool’s long-awaited 5th album finally saw the light of day in 2019! As a long-time fan, I was fully expecting to be let down. Not because I expected Tool to deliver a dud—they are far too talented of a band for that—but because my tastes have evolved enough over the years, and I’d grown accustomed to not expecting new music from them, that I figured there was no way a new release was going to impact me on anywhere near the level that past releases had. Without going into a 1,500 word dissertation on the matter (as I am sometimes wont to do), I am happy to proclaim that I was very, very wrong. Fear Inoculum doesn’t find Tool meddling with their sonic underpinnings in any significant manner, but the album is easily the most progressive and rhythmically complex offering in their discography, and while I can’t rightfully say it’s their best album, I can’t rightfully say it isn’t either. And that fact alone makes Fear Inoculum a massive accomplishment in my book. [Official Website]
3. Green Lung – Woodland Rites (Kozmik Artifactz)
For my money Woodland Rites—the debut LP from London’s Green Lung—is far and away the most complete album I heard in 2019. There is not a single riff or a single note of this album that doesn’t just flat out work. Green Lung will draw the typical comparisons to Black Sabbath, and other assorted extrapolators of the doom and occult rock genres, but their sound is unique enough to be theirs and theirs alone. The primary reason for this is the incredible playing of guitarist Scott Black, whose skill as both a riff builder and lead guitarist is noteworthy in a genre filled to the brim with great axemen, but Woodland Rites’ is a stunningly cohesive effort across the board and easily one of 2019’s most compelling—and unholy—offerings! [Bandcamp]
2. Opeth – In Cauda Venenum (Moderbolaget Records)
I don’t care what anyone says, Opeth is a better band now then they were during their much celebrated death metal years, and In Cauda Venenum is their best album since Watershed. Bold statements, sure, but that’s how strongly I feel on the matter. Rich with nuance & atmosphere, and wildly eclectic, In Cauda Venenum is an engaging listen from front-to-back, and I’d argue that the closing 4-song run of “Universal Truth” through “All Things Will Pass” rivals any other half hour block of studio output the band has released thus far. Opeth will be remembered as one of the most revered bands of their generation—in 2 separate genres—and In Cauda Venenum is yet another triumph for one of Sweden’s finest and a clear sign that identifying their creative peak is an errand for fools. [Official Website]
1. Baroness – Gold & Grey (Abraxan Hymns)
Put bluntly, Gold & Grey is the most compelling piece of music on this list—or at least it was for me, but I’m actually still a little bit surprised that this album was received as well as it was by the band’s fan base. Baroness has never been afraid to experiment with their sound, but Gold & Grey marks a pretty major departure for even them. And when you couple that with the fact that this album is bathed in producer Dave Fridmann’s overblown sonic flourishes—the same sonics which drew heavy criticism (rightly so, in my opinion) on 2015’s Purple—it’s remarkable that things came together as well as they did. But when you actually consider Baroness’ track record—and the remarkable way in which band mastermind John Baizley keeps this band at the forefront of relevance in the ever evolving world of heavy rock…well, none of this should be a surprise at all. Whether it’s the primal roar of their earliest work, the urgent gallop of Red & Blue, the introverted hum of Yellow & Green, or the cathartic blast of Purple, Baroness has always made music that somehow feels both ambitiously forward looking, yet very much rooted in time and place. They sound like a band that has long since dismissed the notion of meeting expectations other than that which is fueled by wild, unbridled creativity. Gold & Grey is nothing short of a masterpiece and it is easily my favorite record of 2019. [Full Review] [Official Website]
Heilung – Futha (Season of Mist) – From Heilung’s Bandcamp page: “Their primeval musique concrete blends ancient Germanic tongues, lush geophonic recordings (crackling fires, breaking ice), and the percussive thunder of archaic weaponry (swords, shields, arrows) in a reverential ceremonial experience.” Yeah, that sums up the Heilung sound better than any description I could come up with. This is a truly fascinating band, with an ancient take on what music is and can be.
Monolord – No Comfort (Relapse Records) – In all actuality, this album probably belongs in my Top 10. Monolord’s past albums were a little too one-note for my tastes, but No Comfort finds the band weaving dynamics and melody into their lumbering song structures with satisfying results. Check No Comfort out, if for no other reason than to gaze upon one of the best album covers of 2019.
Angel Du$t – Pretty Buff (Roadrunner Records) – Angel Du$t is a “super group” of sorts, comprised of members of Baltimore hardcore bands Trapped Under Ice & Turnstile, but the music bears no real resemblance to that particular scene. This a sunny pop/punk album through and through, but it is performed by musicians whose talents far exceed what one would typically expect from that genre. A very enjoyable listen!
Kings Destroy – Fantasma Nera (Svart Records) – One of the aforementioned 3 albums that I actually reviewed this year, as I said it in my review, this is a very solid album full of well crafted & dynamic hard rock songs.
The Claypool Lennon Delerium – South of Reality (ATO Records/Fontana North) Nothing Les Claypool does can be considered usual, and his 2nd collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Sean Lennon is no exception. This album is trippy and weird—as one would expect—but also highly enjoyable.
Horseburner – The Thief (Ripple Music) – Horseburner reminds me a little bit of early Baroness, with their–at times, galloping, and at other times, serpentine–take on progressive sludge. The Thief is full of really great songs, and its frequent shifts and turns will yield ample rewards for the patient and persistent listener. If The Thief happens to suit your fancy, be sure to check out their 2016 release Dead Seeds, Barren Soil.
Year of the Cobra – Ash & Dust (Prophecy Productions) – Given that Year of the Cobra is a 2-piece consisting primarily of bass, drums, and the angelic vocals of Amy Tung-Barrysmith, it is especially impressive that they’ve expanded their sound as profoundly as they have since their 2016 LP …in the Shadows Below.