2018’s almost over, and for the first time in a decade I don’t have dozens of top picks to whittle down to find my favorite releases over the course of the year!
Plenty of my old haunts like Amorphis, Between The Buried And Me, Haken, Chrome Division, and In The Woods all released decent to great albums, but they didn’t quite hit the best releases of the year for me.
Instead, I’ve got six albums that all combined very different sounds in unexpected ways, from prog to depressive black metal to sludge. Let’s dive in!
Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit
Very few albums out there will equally appeal to fans of Norwegian avant-garde black metal and Childish Gambino, but here it is.
Zeal & Ardor hooked me hard with the Devil Is Fine album, which was supremely scatterbrained and bizarre, but had enough knock out hits among the misses to become one of my favorites.
The big draw here is the concept — what if old African American spirituals were re-imagined with black metal influences?
The sort of “storyline” behind the whole concept is to imagine what might have happened if American slaves had worshiped the devil instead of accepting the Christian religion of their owners.
That’s an idea ripe for all sorts of amazing storytelling, and they really nailed the combination of the two ideas on that first album. The second goes in new directions, adding in some radio-friendly elements but still keeping the black metal edge.
Highlights for me are Gravedigger’s Chant, Built On Ashes (a song that is bleak to an apocalyptic degree and is basic the personal anthem for poor Fenton from my upcoming sequel to Light Dawning), and Waste.
Of course, there’s also a song drawn from Jordan Peele’s breakout horror hit Get Out, simply titled Coagula.
Tribulation – Down Below
One of the highlights of writing for a metal site over a long span of time was watching certain bands grow and mature over time.
Sadly I don’t get that as much as its now been more than a year now since I parted with Metalunderground, but there are still a handful of bands I follow closely on my own time.
Tribulation is one of those bands that’s been steadily improving and experimenting over every single release, changing radically from 2009’s The Terror to 2013’s The Formulas Of Death and onto 2015’s Children Of The Night.
With the Down Below album this year, Tribulation continues to see a wide range of styles and influences converging for unexpected results.
There’s a lot going on in this album, but the best way I can think to describe the overall sound is to say this could be what Nachtmystium might sound like with a sober Blake Judd who was more into ’70s prog rock.
Behemoth – I Loved You At Your Darkest
Despite the group’s cult status, Behemoth didn’t really hit my radar or pique my interest until the 2009 album Evangelion with that video for Alas Lord Is Upon Me.
For the anti-religious crowd, Behemoth was firing on all cylinders there, and it only got even better with The Satanist in 2014 after Nergal shrugged off leukemia and gave the middle finger to his home country of Poland when they tried to lock him for violating blasphemy laws.
I Loved You At Your Darkest can be seen as the natural extension of those two previous albums, with a solid mix of standard blackened death metal like Wolves Of Siberia and more distinctively Behemoth styled stuff that’s more experimental such as Bartzabel or Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica.
I’ll have to admit I had a bit of an unintentional laugh at the line “Love me orgasmically, fuck me ecstatically” in Sabbath Mater, but other than that this is pure solid gold and a must-hear if you liked the previous few Behemoth albums.
Shining – X Varg Utan Flock
Swedish group Shining (not the Norwegian blackjazz group of the same name) grabbed me really, really hard in 2015 with the album IX – Everyone, Everything, Everywhere Ends.
In the midst of a suicidal depression, that bleak blending of sounds stuck with me, so it made sense I’d have to hear what would happen with the follow-up.
X – Varg Utan Flock offers more of what made the previous album such as powerhouse, with darkly melodic song structures punctuated by sudden bursts of black metal violence.
Life is terrifying, shitty, and suddenly awful, and this music reflects that.
Of course, with Shining, there’s an element to take into account here and a hurdle that every metal fan has to deal with at some point — separating art from artist.
Whether its racist scum like Varg Vikernes or black metal bands that turn out to be spouting NSBM garbage, there’s always someone who has to take it too far and piss in the punch bowl.
With Shining, its the antics of band mastermind Niklas Kvarforth. To be fair, Niklas is legitimately mentally ill, but by all accounts he’s also just an extreme asshole apart from his illness.
While his particular blend of sickness and personal human failings create music that speaks to me on a visceral level, i can’t imagine I’d ever want to meet him or go to a show and be subjected to his abusive behavior. C’est la vie.
Barren Earth – A Complex Of Cages
Barren Earth is another one that’s been through major changes over the years, most notably with a vocalist swap a few years back, and its been a pleasure to hear how the Finnish group’s sound has evolved since breaking onto the scene in 2009.
I think debut album Curse Of The Red River will always be the band’s magnum opus for me, but 2015’s On Lonely Towers and now latest release A Complex Of Cages both come pretty close.
What I dig about Barren Earth is how the group took a base of the death/doom that the individual members were known for but threw in a melodic and progressive touch that you don’t get with the originating bands.
In A Complex Of Cages, you get everything from folk music to soaring melodies, soothing atmospheres, harsh and clean vocals, and an undeniably metal sound.
Mantar – The Modern Art Of Setting Ablaze
This German duo is one I haven’t paid a lot of attention to over the years despite posting a fair share of news about the band in my Metalunderground days.
The Modern Art Of Setting Ablaze has changed that, and I’ll definitely be going through and giving the back catalog another listen now.
If you couldn’t tell from the picks above, I’m a big fan of any metal that blends together different styles so its not just one sound.
Mantar does that exceedingly well here, with an excellent grasp of how to work groove and melodic rock elements into extreme metal.
In some ways, The Modern Art Of Setting Ablaze reminds me of a slightly sludgier take on Melechesh.
If you liked the combination of sounds and styles on the Enki album but prefer a bit of groove-edged doom and sludge in there, you’ll fit right in here.
Now that my inbox isn’t flooded with a dozen new albums a day I’m probably missing quite a few killer releases, but of what I heard this year, these were my top 6 albums of 2018! What did you think of my picks, and what made your list?