My Top 6 Albums Of 2018

From Zeal & Ardor to Barren Earth and beyond, check out my top picks in prog, black, sludge, and more!

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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

zealVery 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

tribulationOne 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

behemothDespite 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

a0893421577_10Swedish 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_A-Complex-of-CagesBarren 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

a0655511429_10This 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?

Light Dawning on The Friday 13

Jesse Teller delves into characters, writing, and more in this new interview!

Fellow grimdark author Jesse Teller was kind enough to have me as a guest for his Friday 13 column discussing the craft of writing and delving into characters from Light Dawning and across the literary world.

We discussed everything from getting drunk with Tyrion Lannister to advice for new writers and a character from Light Dawning who made me feel very dirty to write. Excerpts from the interview follow:

JT: What character from your book fills you with hope?

Ty: Hah, yeah, that’s sort of the opposite of the point in Light Dawning. Not many characters have hope in a better tomorrow in this story, and those that do are usually shown the folly of their misplaced faith. If I have to pick a character who gives me hope, its probably Tala, because she has what it takes to endure any hardship, and she has the strength of will to do what needs to be done, even if it hurts.

JT: What character from your work frightens you, makes you feel dirty to write?

Ty: Probably Myrr, because he’s all of my worst qualities reflected into a craven character in a violent, low fantasy world. For some reason several reviewers have pegged him as the main character, but he’s absolutely not intended to be. He’s not necessarily a bad guy, but he will let down those who rely on him, and in the end anything good or noble he does will mean nothing.

JT: What is the most fascinating thing about your main character?

Ty: It would be easy to say that Tala being infested by insane whispers from a reality beyond ours – constantly struggling to keep them from escaping her mind and breaking into the physical world – is the most fascinating thing about her, but that’s not actually the case.

Tala sort of exemplifies the struggles of all women throughout history and in the modern day. She’s expected to be so many different things at once: a worker, a mother, a guardian, and more, and while she can’t expect any praise for when everything clicks into place and works, she will be vilified and damned in those moments when it goes off the rails and she falls short of expectations.

JT: If you could change any one thing about the writing industry, what would it be?

Ty: This may not endear to me to certain people reading, but honestly I’d get rid of the publishers. While I’ve met some great people who work for publishers that I consider my friends, on the business side I’ve never had anything close to a positive experience working with a publisher.

All you have to do is go to any writing group on Facebook and you’ll stumble over dozens of writers who haven’t been paid in months (or longer), whose publishers are breaking their contracts in various ways, who aren’t getting their books promoted with any level of actual effort, etc.

While there are plenty of lackluster self-published books out there in desperate need of editing or re-tooling, I am consistently surprised at the high level of storytelling and polish I find while discovering new indie authors. There are totally unknown people out there who are frankly much better at this than anybody hooked up with the major publishers in the fantasy and horror industries, but they don’t get nearly the exposure.

If you are only reading Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson, do yourself a favor and join a reader or writer group on Facebook or Goodreads and get to know the indie authors. I guarantee you will find someone who will blow you away who has been soundly ignored by big name publishing companies.

JT: What piece of art, that is not writing, moves you?

Ty: I’ll have to say music, specifically of the heavier variety. When hearing the opening notes to the Celestial Violence track off Ihsahn’s Arktis album, I immediately see Tala coming up out of the cellar, carrying a precious bundle and preparing to make her way through a sea of uncaring humanity. When Peccatum’s Parasite My Heart from the Lost In Reverie LP hits, I’m immediately outside the Lambent Chapel, watching Tala make a choice and trying not to scream at her to stop. Outside the realm of metal and more on the rock side, anytime I hear I’m A Believer by The Sheila Divine, I’m instantly taken back to the time when I first heard the New Parade album. I could name a hundred other tracks that have defined my life and give me that rush of brain chemicals people chase after in religious experiences or at the bottom of a bottle.

While it is clearly connected to writing, I’ve found that some visual depictions of specific concepts in graphic novels manage to provoke an emotional response better than words alone can. There’s one scene in particular from Mouse Guard, where Liam is about to face off against a snake with the phrase “It’s not what you fight, it’s what you fight for” barely visible in the background, that just gets me every time. That panel so perfectly encapsulates its idea that you forget this is a story about mice and genuinely start to feel something for the characters.

Check out the full interview here and be sure to leave a comment for Jesse about his awesome questions! Jesse’s novel Song can be found at Amazon.

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Unlocking the mystery of They Remain

remain-638x368

Haven’t been able to stop thinking about They Remain since watching it last night. I haven’t read the short story it was based on, but instead came into this based on the apparently Lovecraftian vibe and the presence of William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place).

It was hypnotic and mesmerizing — but exactly the sort of arthouse, pointless bullshit I’d normally hate for being too ambiguous and atmospheric at the expense of telling the actual story. Based on the reviews, it seems like most people ended up feeling that way… except that I think I figured out what it was all about, and now I kind of love it.

they-remainAt the beginning a voice says “You already know how this story ends,” which seems to be the big clue that whatever answer you come up with as a viewer is the correct one.

Here’s what I think happened:

The world was essentially ending. The orgy of lustful violence that started with the cult had spread to the whole world and society was in full on collapse.

This company the two main characters work for clearly had some inkling of what was going on and knew that both eldtritch and scientific means would be required to pull the world back from the brink, so they were sending two-person teams back in time and space to where it all started.

Their goal was to figure out what was causing the madness to spread (rather than stay localized around the horn) which is why they are focused on studying the wildlife. Its clear the infection wasn’t just hitting humans and was even affecting the insects.

4e9709_45661ea326f448c1bd6f21a19d592c68_mv2The problem is that they were stuck in a time loop, performing the experiments over and over and over, until it was breaking their brains. Chidi clearly didn’t know for instance that he found the horn out in the wilderness and dragged it back to camp, and neither of them realized he was the one whispering “where’s your friend?” and knocking on the door.

When they found the horn, the researchers became infected just like the cult did, first just getting sex crazed and then eventually becoming violent. The discussion about the cult “fucking to the sound of flutes” and the nature of the horn make it seem like a clear reference to the demonic piping that surrounds Azathoth.

hornThis had clearly happened a bunch of times before – both with this group and previous research teams.

The ending is where the difference comes in. Chidi stands at the door for a super long time, then lets out a ragged, nearly-crazed laugh before finally going into the wolf’s den. His partner asks him at the end “did you come to join us?”

It seems like they are asking us to decide if he laughed because he went nuts and was joining his fellow colleagues in madness… or laughed because he figured it out, and was bringing the answer to them.

We know he believed they would never find it, frequently talking about how the universal is fundamentally unknowable, so his insane laugh may have been his worldview breaking down as the truth came to him.

They-Remain-07

HeroForge Mini Challenge

Decided to try out that HeroForge challenge that’s been making the rounds on social to create your book characters into minis. Here’s (pre-horrible mutilation) Casterly, Tala, Myrr, Father Erret, and Fenton.

What do you think – did they end up something like you say the characters in your head?

Wanna try it out yourself? Head over to HeroForge and start building your team of grimdark heroes!

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Where are you on the Goodreads challenge?

We’re five months into the annual Goodreads reading challenge and I’m chugging along, having hit 13 out of my goal of 21, so its safe to say we will probably surpass that number before year’s end.

What did you set your goal to, and how far along are you? Cruising along or need to pick up the pace? Here’s the 13 books I’ve read so far this year:

conanConan – Adventures In Age Undreamed Of

2d20 RPG Campaign Setting

Modiphius Entertainment

2017

Read my review here!

 

 

1Xas Irkalla

Original System RPG

James Vail

2018

Read my review here!

 

 

devilsnightDevil’s Night Dawning

Dark Fantasy Novel

Damien Black

2016

Check it out at Goodreads

 

 

accursedAccursed

Save Worlds RPG Campaign Setting

Melior Via

2014

Read my review here!

 

 

uncagedUncaged: Faces Of Sigil

Planescape RPG Accessory

TSR

1996

Read my review here!

 

 

51nM0L2MRvLThe Eighth God

Dark Fantasy Novel

Paul Lavender

2017

Read my review here!

 

 

fiascoFiasco / Fiasco ’10 Playset

GM-less cooperative RPG / Adventure Set

Jason Morningstar

2009 / 2010

Read my review here!

 

 

gurpsmarksattacksMars Attacks

GURPS RPG Campaign Setting

Steve Jackson Games

2016

Read my review here!

 

 

horrorsHorrors

Earthdawn RPG Supplement

FASA

1995

Read my review here!

 

 

wraithWraith Knight

Dark Fantasy Novel

C.T. Phipps

2016

Read my review here!

 

 

darkmageDarkmage

Dark Fantasy Novel

M.L. Spencer

2017

Check it out at Goodreads!

 

 

Exalted_Second_Edition_Core_BookExalted 2nd Edition

RPG Campaign Setting

White Wolf

2006

Check it out at Goodreads!

 

Xas Irkalla: Black Metal Insanity In RPG Form

Xas-Irkalla

Did you see that image above and think it was a logo for a black metal band? Yup, me too, and I think that’s exactly what what the designers were going for with this ultra bleak (and ultra awesome) new tabletop game.

In a nutshell, Xas Irkallla is the RPG equivalent of the terrifying esoteric oddity of a Deathspell Omega album colliding with the blackened violence of any given USBM band. Its dark and grim and mind bending and unpleasant, like being trapped in a Gustave Doré painting.

1Rather than your typical d20 open game license entry, Xas Irkalla features a unique ruleset, and it is woven very well into the fabric of the game.

The rules are simplified and fairly easy, but show off the theme quite well. While a good deal different than players may be used to if they stick to Pathfinder or a system like Modiphius’ 2d20 rules, the mechanics here are easy to pick up and flow well.

Loads of character advancement options are available that reflect the dark insanity of the setting, but don’t get too attached, because characters are going to die frequently and messily. You are squishy like a Call Of Cthulhu character, and in a universe that’s more actively deadly, like an even more horror-focused Warhammer.

2While there are a couple of minor nit picks in the layout and formatting where you can tell this is more of an indie affair, overall I’m pretty impressed with the quality of everything on display, from the art to the design concepts.

Xas Irkalla is an incredibly disturbing version of roleplaying, and that can’t be said enough. As a vast intersection of wildly different worlds and realities pulled together by the dreams of dead psychics, things get deliciously weird.

You might have a qliphotic, tentacled sorcerer in a wheelchair next to a spear-wielding gladiatorial slave next to a soldier from an ultra-advanced space-faring society next to a mischievous trickster god in the party.

4The setting is just relentlessly grim. As someone who writes apocalyptically bleak grimdark fantasy novels, I’m down with that, but obviously a group who wants to play the heroic paladins saving the peasants from evil will not be on board with this setting.

What you get here is a radically different experience than the typical RPG. Xas Irkalla ends up somewhere at the cross section of survival horror, esoteric U.S. black metal, the Cthulhu mythos, a nightmare wrapped in an acid trip wrapped in a sweat lodge hallucination, and even darker, more dreadful things.

After a successful crowd funding campaign, Xas Irkalla is now available digitally, but this is the sort of game you want to hold in your hands, and I’m eagerly looking forward to a physical edition landing soon.

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Spring Into Fantasy!

A celebration of dark fantasy with 18 books for 99 cents each!

Prolific fantasy scribe M.L. Spencer–author of Amazon #1 best selling series The Rhenwars Saga–has teamed up with 16 other authors to kick off spring with dark visions of vile necromancers, hardened mercenaries, mad kings, foul-mouthed orcs, and eldritch madness.

A host of the best new voices in the dark fantasy scene have banded together to offer a stunning lineup of epic fiction for an exhilarating–and occasionally terrifying–ride out of the darkness of winter and into the dangers of spring.

From April 10th – 14th, all 17 novels (and a bonus anthology) are up for grabs for only $0.99 a piece, filling your to-read list to the brim with new worlds to explore throughout the whole year.

Spring Into Fantasy features stories from such luminaries as Andy Peloquin, Rosalyn Kelly, Frank Dorrian, Ty Arthur, Jesse Teller, Michel Baker, Damien Black, Paul Lavender, Angel Blackwood and many more. This grab bag of epic stories is now on massive sale to celebrate the return of spring:

▪ Light Dawning – Ty Arthur
▪ The Thousand Scars: Counterbalance Volume 1 – Michael R. Baker
▪ Steel, Blood & Fire – Allan Batchelder
▪ Devil’s Night Dawning – Damien Black
▪ Kindling – Angel Blackwood
▪ The Shadow of the High King: The Weaving Shadows Book One – Frank Dorrian
▪ The Dead God’s Due – Matt Gilbert
▪ A Wizard’s Forge – A.M. Justice
▪ Melokai: In the Heart of the Mountains Book 1 – Rosalyn Kelly
▪ The Eighth God – Paul S. Lavender
▪ Devil of the 22nd – Richard Nell
▪ Hellscape: The Fifth Horseman – Samantha Nocera
▪ Exile: The Nandor Tales Book 1 – Martin Owton
▪ Traitor’s Fate – Andy Peloquin
▪ Darkmage: The Rhenwars Saga Book 1 – M.L. Spencer
▪ Song: The Manhunters Book 1 – Jesse Teller
▪ The Hiss Of The Blade: The Celestial Ways Saga Book One – Richard Writhen
▪ Ragged Heroes: An Epic Fantasy Collection – Anthology

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