Looking over the past few years of these “best of” posts, I’ve noticed that after my top 5, I usually end up with more and more reservations about the albums I call the “best” of the year. There are plenty of great albums released each year that are worth listening to, but the ones I really want to rave about much harder to find. Thus, I’ve cut my list back to just 5 albums, with an expanded “honorable mention” section to try to get a more focused, high-quality “best of” list (and, just maybe, avoid having to post some of the more reprehensible album covers).
Again, there are far more than 5 worthy albums each year, so I’ve greatly expanded my “honorable mention” section (and included it in the yearly playlist) to shine a little light on the near misses (and the flaws that kept them off the main list).
This year, in a first, my list is entirely black metal. It’s no secret black metal has been played out for decades now, but the current underground still manages to come up with fresh, interesting takes on the genre, either in entirely new ways (Wulkanaz, Akitsa), or by somehow making the old sound new again (Panphage). It also helped this year that two classic bands (Grausamkeit, Rundagor) released “lost” albums from black metal’s glory days–a bit of a cheat to include old-school ringers on a 2018 list, perhaps, but they are brilliant albums nonetheless.
I really didn’t find much “NWO[traditional]HM” that caught my ear this year…plenty of listenable stuff, but none that made me anxious to listen again. Traditional Heavy Metal will be back with that Traveler album next year for sure though. As for death metal, I really didn’t delve into the underground too deeply (though I will say the new Necros Christos was a huge disappointment). I’m sure there are worthy albums out there I missed, but probably not much that would dethrone any of my favorite black metal. What can I say, I’m just a sucker for simple, forlorn melodies, played sloppily.
Anyway, here are my top 5 (and the next 10, plus 10 more to grow on) metal albums of the year–if you listen only to underground bands that sound like shit. As with the previous years, almost the entire list would probably vote for Brexit, but, as I’ve said before, I cut my black metal teeth on Burzum, Darkthrone, and Graveland in the 90s, and, unfortunately, the bands emulating that style, don’t usually just stop at the music. So, steer clear if you are the kind of person that won’t watch Woody Allen movies anymore, but, if you can separate the brilliance of Manhattan from the pedophile that made it–and like music that sounds like it was recorded inside a running dryer full of angry cats, boy do I have a list for you!
5. Akitsa – Credo
Akitsa has been making quality music for the past 20 years, and is always worth listening to. Their penchant for extreme minimalism can sometimes make their songs feel more like a half formed thoughts than full on black metal masterpieces (I thought their last album especially was a little underwhelming), but with Credo they balance the formula just right!
This is an album full of varied, thoughtfully composed epics–no mean feat considering their minimalist style. Honestly, compared to the rest of Akitsa’s catalog, Credo is positively “accessible”!
Just check out the opener, “Siecle Pastoral” to get an idea of Akitsa’s punky charm. Sure, 10 minutes is a long fucking time to listen to 3 riffs, and sure, the middle section sounds like it was lifted from Filosofem, but for those with a bit of patience, Credo is incredible:
4. Wulkanaz – Self Titled
Wulkanaz (along with Tomhet, Wagner Odegard, and about 20 other bands fronted by the prolific Kumulonimbus) has been one of the most unique voices in the recent black metal underground. His music is a blastingly off-kilter (and key) mixture of folk, punk, and black metal, and it’s one of the freshest things you’ll find in a black metal underground full of the same old shit.
There is a slight unfinished/rushed quality to his songs that tends to keep him from the highest places on these year end lists, but there’s no denying both his importance in the modern black metal underground and the creativity of his music.
This song, “Skymmeng,” is a good example of Wulkanaz’s start/stop blasting folk/punk. The addition of a competent session drummer (the Craft guy no less!) adds a welcome bit of rhythmic complexity as well:
3. Panphage – Jord
Panphage is a name that has been thrown around the underground so much the last 5 years that I just kind of assumed they were some kind of Swedish modern death metal outfit that wouldn’t be my thing. Come to find out, they are actually folky sounding black metal that is absolutely better than anything else out there today (seriously, now I have to go back and add their earlier albums to my old best of lists!)
30 seconds into Jord, and I was already thinking “oh, this sounds a little clean/slick…not really my thing…” But, once I took another 30 seconds to get past my hangups about all new black metal needing to sound like Wulkanaz, I realized that Panphage was putting out some fantastically composed traditional black metal, of the brand I didn’t think anyone that isn’t called Satanic Warmaster even made anymore.
Jord has riffs for days, and the compositions are constructed perfectly, evoking all manner of epic imagery in your mind as the effortless melodies flow from the beginning of the album to the end. Take a listen to the opener, Odalmarkerna to get an idea of the kind of well done black metal that can still catch my ear, even in 2018:
2. Grausamkeit – Der Triumph des Todes
Grausamkeit is one of my all time favorite bands, so lost B.S.o.D. material was automatically going into my top spot on any modern best of list. True, this material was recorded at the same time as the amazing Nostalgia – Okkultes Blut album, and most of these songs just sound like early versions of the final (markedly superior) tracks on that album. However, someone as prolific as B.S.o.D. is bound to lean heavily on experimentation and improvisation, and even the songs that are obviously from Nostalgia – Okkultes Blut are so wildly different (in both sound and structure), only the most grizzled Grausamkeit fan would be able to realize it.
It is telling that Grausamkeit’s worst, throwaway material is strong enough to reach the top of this list, but that’s the bizarre outsider genius of B.S.o.D. To some, this might sound like 4th rate Emperor worship that is in no way better than Panphage. To others it’s the pinnacle of true underground black metal. Check out “Track IX” (the closest to a straight up copy of a Nostalgia – Okkultes Blut song–“Freude am Töten”–the one with the amazing whistling) to see where you fall on the Grausamkeit appreciation scale:
1. Rundagor – The Beastrealm
Blazebirth Hall was really just like 4 racist Russian dudes living in the same small town, juggling a half dozen black metal projects between them. Impressively, for that inauspicious start, they still managed to create a handful of all-time great mid 90s black metal albums from the basements of their parents homes in Novomoskovsk.
Kaldrad was the undisputed leader of the scene, and cofounder of Forest (one of the pillars of Blazebirth Hall) with Dagorath. Dagorath’s other band was Rundagor–though he only managed to release one (excellent demo) under that name. At some point in the mid 90s, Dagorath realized all his friends were racist dicks (and said as much). Shortly after breaking with Blazebirth Hall, Dagorath disappeared (along with his recordings of the still unreleased Rundagor debut)–which caused the rest of the “Hall” to claim they had murdered him as a race traitor or something. Long story short, rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated, and Dagorath resurfaced 21 years later to finally release the long-awaited first Rundagor album–and holy shit is it fantastic (it is so good it even knocked those Grausamkeit B-sides down a notch on this list).
Kaldrad always got the lion’s share of the credit for the Forest material, but this Rundagor album shows that Dagorath was probably mostly responsible for Forest’s droning, repetitive songs that positively dripped with atmosphere (opinions differ on how good the Forest material is–I happen to love it). Rundagor actually improves on the Forest formula by inserting more folk elements into the mix (as well as spending a bit more time focusing on the riffs over the atmosphere).
Like Akitsa, this one takes some patience, but I was absolutely unprepared for this lost masterpiece from Blazebirth Hall to come blowing into 2018 on some kind of temporally dislocated freezing Russian wind. The album is varied, epic, and still full of the Blazebirth atmosphere. If it feels like people don’t make songs like “Embrace the Vast” any more, it’s because they don’t…if only every year could bring us a lost time capsule from the 90s like 2018 did:
All of these bands passed the “I want to listen to this more than once” test. All of them also missed out on the top five, mostly due to some murky conception of failing to maintain interest for a whole album/feeling uninspired despite sounding great on the surface. Still, check em out, it’s all good stuff!
- Nécropole – Solarité: This is a fantastic album full of great riffs and memorable melodies from the Caverne guy. And yet, it just seems to kind of lack the heart/thought behind a real black metal classic. Like a lot of newer stuff, it kind of wears thin by the end of the album.
- Blutkult – Alte Werte – Neu Beseelt: Blutkult has been releasing brilliant RAC infused black metal for the past decade, but their latest feels a little flat. There are some good anthems, but nothing here that they haven’t done on their last few albums (and the production is a little lacking too).
- House of Atreus – From the Madness of Ixion: An improvement on their last album (which I also enjoyed), this comes blasting out of the gate, but ultimately fails to maintain their Arghoslent-worship energy for the full run-time.
- Spite – Antimosiach: Like House of Atreus, this is Gelal Necrosodomy worship (this time with an eye towards GBK), and well done. But, also, like House of Atreus, it fails to maintain interest by the end of the album.
- Purity Renaissance – Self Titled: This Canadian band is full of promise (this may even be better than the Necropole material), but this remastered demo still feels a little amatuerish and slightly samey.
- Peste Noire – Split: Peste Noire has been at the forefront of intelligent, creative black metal, so, even though this is strong material, it just feels a little uninspired compared to their last few. The “degenerate” half of this was mostly pretty boring too–though the final full on “trap” song was fantastic!
- Mooncitadel – Moon Calls to Wander… …the Winter’s Majesty: Really strong material, though this is awful short, and definitely doesn’t break new ground as far as black metal goes. I’ll be watching closely on their next one.
- Xibalba Itzaes – Ah Tza Xibalba Itzaes: Xibalba is back, 25 years after their last brilliant full length, and they are…fairly solid. The new sound works well and still captures a bit of that outsider feel of their first album. My biggest complaint is that it’s all a little samey, and the riffs don’t quite manage to pull you in.
- Haunt – Grimoires of Undead Power: Haunt continues to charm with their lo-fi aesthetic, but this one, even more than last year’s strong outing, leans a bit too heavily on the trudging Celtic Frost style riffing that I don’t tend to enjoy.
- Black Magick SS – Spectral Ecstasy: Black Magick SS continues to put out fantastic music that is far catchier than it has any right to be. These albums would always make my top picks, but they really aren’t “metal” per se, more like The Doors with black metal vocals. Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself so I don’t have to include the covers on these posts.
Worth a Listen
Like the honorable mentions, these are all good albums, and worth checking out, but they seemed flawed enough that I also doubt I’ll be listening to any of them 10 years from now. Check em out though if you’ve really got nothing better to listen to…
- Sex Messiah – Eastern Cult of Sodomy: I really wanted to like this, from the start it sounds like a nasty, perverted version of Sabbat. Unfortunately, the songs are mostly inadequately fleshed out and kind of lacking.
- Wytch Hazel – II Sojourn: There is no denying this is strong material (and could easily creep up my list), but there is also no denying that the Christian stink here has infected the music with a kind of rotten smell of major key, bible thumping, Hallmark-movie hope. If you can get past that, it’s a fantastic album.
- Varathron – Patriarchs of Evil: This could also shoot up a lot higher on my list if I could get over the slick production and actual technical skill. Varathron made a hell of an album, it’s just too bad it sounds like what I imagine Behemoth sounds like now.
- Autarcie – Sequania: Autarcie has moved away from the Peste Noire worship a bit to make a strong album of epic French black metal. Still, overall, it just feels too generic to really get a grip on me.
- Baise Ma Hache – F.E.R.T.: Baise gets a lot of hate in the underground (probably warranted, they ARE overly concerned with image, probably posers, and direct clones of Peste Norie), but I’ve always thought their music was fine. This one advances the music into a bit more of their own unique style, but it’s still only fine, and undoubtedly will be quickly forgotten (except for that ridiculous cover art).
- Ungfell – Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz: I had high hopes for this one, and it does do a good job of moving on past the Peste Noire influence. However, much like Malokarpatan’s second full length, this one just kind of leaves you with an empty feeling by the end of the album, making me suspect that there’s really not much depth here despite how great it sounds on the surface.
- Runespell – Order of Vengeance: Their debut was super promising last year (though perhaps not as good as I thought then), but the latest effort just kind of feels like Graveland from their last 20 boring albums.
- Moenen of Xezbeth – Ancient Spells of Darkness: I wouldn’t fault anyone for putting this in their top 5, but, this kind of plodding Beherit worship (like their other band, Perverted Ceremony) just makes me want to shout “play faster!”
- Ultima Thule/Forbidden Temple – Split: Fantastic old school black metal split (that is perhaps a little too close to old Graveland for comfort). I’d happily revisit this one in the future, but at the end of the day I know I probably won’t.
- Dreadful relic – Hyborian Sorcery: You can hear the Der Sturmer influence, but, unfortunately (like Wodulf) this jettison’s Der Sturmer’s energy, and just keeps the repetition. Fun enough, but also kind of dumb.
Finally, here is this year’s list (and honorable mentions) in convenient playlist form: