What a dick-punch of a year. No use running it down – if it were possible to fart boogers in an unbroken 52-week stream, that would be the bodily-function analog for 2017. If it proved anything, it’s that the loudest voices humanity has to offer need to eat a razorwire burger with a side of beer-battered dynamite sticks and a big glass of aqua regia. Morons of every stripe have made heavy music as important as it has ever been, and the following artists took up the gauntlet and beat it into ploughshares, albeit convoluted ones with thorned handles. Art is a sanctuary, if not an answer. Here are just a few of the best shelters from this year’s shitstorm.
15. Cloak – To Venomous Depths
This album should probably sit higher on this list, honestly, but it just dropped like a minute ago and I haven’t really had time to absorb all of it. Cloak are a brand new Season of Mist signee, so it’s not like we got a lot of warning, or that the band had the kind of name recognition that would make them stand out from an inbox of similarly worded promotional emails. But Cloak’s music brings that WOW! factor with every moment, that nameless AHH! quality that is so relatively rare in the blast-n-crush world of metal. Their blend of black and traditional heavy metal balances perfectly on the fulcrum, being both lush and dangerous, like latter day Watain. Cloak inject blasphemous chords with drama and melody in ways that may not point the way forward, but sure give a rousing summary of where we should be right now.
14. Exist – So True, So Bound (Prosthetic)
When Exist toured with Gorguts this summer, they played their first shows in five years. To put that time lapse in perspective, it had been less than four years since the band had self-released Sunlight, whose lack of live support is forgivable (I suppose) given that band leader Max Phelps had taken on guitar and vocal duties with Cynic, Defeated Sanity and the Death To All Tour in the intervening time. Forgiveness aside, it was too long. These metal-steeped jazzmen need to haunt more death metal bills on a regular basis. Nobody else sounds quite like this. So True is swirling, manic tech-death coiled around a pensive, emotional core of elongated melodies and layered rhythmic motifs. Contemplation collides with catharsis, neither wresting full control from the other. Witness the raising of the bar.
13. Godflesh – Post Self (Avalanche)
A just world (so, not this one, obviously) would include an ongoing and prolific collaboration between Justin Broadrick and noisy hip-hop guru Dälek. I revisited Dälek’s new album, Endangered Philosophies, for this list, and just couldn’t make room for it this time around, but I queued up Post Self right behind it and the two artists seemed to lock together perfectly. Maybe their artistic purposes are somewhat at odds, making them a strange conceptual fit, but the sonic gains each could make by incorporating the strengths of the other are potent and enticing. Post Self turns its back on all the overt aggression that defined A World Lit Only By Fire, instead choosing a more muted version of the band’s signature mechanistic churn. It’s the perfect companion to that comeback record, and it widens the band’s options moving forward.
12. Cavernlight – As We Cup Our Hands and Drink from the Stream of Our Ache (Gilead Media)
Most music isn’t important. There, I said it. Maybe it makes you feel good, maybe you relate to it on some calculated, impersonal level, maybe it fills up some auditory space that howls in silence otherwise. But it’s rarely important. As We Cup Our Hands is important, because As We Cup Our Hands isn’t really music. It’s crippling human anguish molded into atmospheric wave forms. What makes it truly important, though, is the fact that it finds a way to be musical as well, and that’s a damned miracle. Cavernlight wallow in a sludgy darkness that could have collapsed on itself, and has, when fumbled by clumsier hands. But these guys spent years crafting these sounds in solitude, and their grief and depression are full and ripe. Don’t put on Cavernlight just to listen to music. Choose Cavernlight when you find it important to do so.
11. Cleric – Retrocausal (Web of Mimicry)
On first hearing Cleric’s Regressions in 2010, I asserted that it was the shitmypantsingest record that Web of Mimicry had ever released, then I promptly changed my pants. Until that wall of tar-choked jazz-grind of the damned, Web of Mimicry had been an outlet for ex-Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance and all the cinematic circus-noise-doowop-punk that he championed with his Secret Chiefs 3 outfit. Other bands appeared on the roster (Estradasphere, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, ASVA, etc.), but they mostly settled into a similar aesthetic. Not Cleric. Not then, and not now, but that’s far from a problem. Nothing on Regressions was less than exhilarating, and everything on Retrocausal is an improvement. If you like violent music rife with surprises, this should be your new favorite nightmare.
10. Dark Waters End – Submersion (self-released)
There will always be a time and a place for straight-ahead death metal, specifically the early 1990s in Florida. While competent, reliable death metal can be immensely satisfying, even comforting in the right circumstances, it takes a little extra to stand out from such a saturated scene. Philadelphia’s Dark Waters End have more than a little extra, and they bring it all to the table on this weighty record. Compositions, performances, production and mix are all punchy and professional. There’s rage here, and a thirst for wanton destruction, but there’s a precision and a collection of influences that portends even cooler things from these musicians in the future.
9. Bereft – Lands (Prosthetic)
Ever wonder what it might sound like if Isis and Esoteric got in a room and abused their instruments and psyches for 45 minutes? Want to find out? Me too, and it seems incredibly unlikely we’ll ever get that chance, so until then, we’ve got Wisconsin crushers Bereft to fill in the blanks. The four-extended-song format they’ve employed works here (and elsewhere – see Mournful Congregation’s Monad of Creation, Khanate’s Things Viral and Secrets of the Sky’s To Sail Black Waters for primer materials) to focus attention and carve specific visions out of the sonic megalith. In 2017, malevolent doom needs to come packing performances as powerful as its atmospheres, and drummer Jerry McDougal knows it. Guitarist Alex Linden knows it. Vocalist Zach Johnson knows it. Presumably, bassist Cade Gentry knows it, too, though he’s not as present in the mix as the others. Whatever. In every way that matters, Bereft lands.
8. Woe – Hope Attrition (Vendetta)
By now, USBM has many faces, many voices and many worthy sounds. Chris Grigg’s band, though, offers the purest, grimiest representation of what America has to offer the metal world. Hope Attrition is bleak, harsh, caked with all of our problems and the weight of all our needs. It is black metal as it was first imagined, but lensed through the disgust, shame and despair that infects our modern life. It is careful and sloppy and rude and perfect. Woe reach a high water mark with Hope Attrition, which is high praise in light of the band’s strong back catalog. If this record doesn’t make you want to burn it all down, nothing will.
7. Mord’a’Stigmata – Hope (Pagan)
Did I mention how much I like this four-protracted-songs thing? Polish demons Mord’a’Stigmata return this year with music that takes tonal cues from the sickest black metal, brushes it with some high-end production and a progressive bent to the songwriting, then corkscrews straight through your vital organs to do as much existential damage as possible. Abstract blackness excites me whenever it rears up – in 2012 it was the Netherlands’ Dodecahedron, last year it was Ireland’s Mortichnia, and Mord’a’Stigmata hit all those same sweet spots this year. Ooh, look, they’ve got four other records, too…
6. Spectral Voice – Eroded Corridors of Unbeing (Dark Descent)
I miss diSEMBOWELMENT. Actually, can you miss a band you only ever knew about more than ten years after they dissolved? Regardless, Denver’s Spectral Voice soothe that ache particularly well by playing thunderous, reverb-haunted death/doom the way it was always meant to be played. Funereal melodies soar above crashing percussion and seasick chords. A hulking nether-creature growls from the mists. Tempos clench and release, elevating Eroded Corridors from being just another funeral doom joint. The spirit of Decibel Magazine made flesh, Dutch Pearce, has been hyping this band for a couple years, and I’ve just recently joined the cult. It’s not too late. Grab a hooded robe, a torch and some dragonscale mail. Join us.
5. Oxbow – Thin Black Duke (Hydra Head)
Back when Neurosis was my sunrise and sunset, when Neurot Recordings was informing the best parts of my musical taste, those NR-released Oxbow records were a tough lobster to swallow. Now I know I have my work cut out for me, as I dig backward to reconnect with the band’s genius screwiness. We lost the artist behind the Thin White Duke almost two years ago, and Oxbow do a little reconnecting of their own with this year’s phenomenal collection of songs. The band are rarely as abrasive as they have been in the past; instead, Niko Wenner, Eugene Robinson and the boys exercise a kind of skewed pop-rock sound that is cooler than anything else you’ve heard this year. This is what artistry – honed, tested and aged – truly sounds like.
4. Enslaved – E (Nuclear Blast)
Enslaved sound rejuvenated on E, having recorded a focused, condensed version of the sound they’ve been building toward for decades. The Norwegians have, album after album, found some alchemical process that allows them to constantly progress without losing the frost-bearded bloodlust of their earliest output. E frames it all in a subtly new context, celebrating togetherness rather than their fallback theme of strength through individuality. What makes this band so extraordinary is their understanding that both mindsets can coexist, and this whole-self approach makes E a more complete picture of musicians who have been playing the heavy music game for quite a while.
3. Junius – Eternal Rituals for the Accretion of Light (Prosthetic)
Eternal Rituals feels like the Junius album I’ve been waiting to hear since I first learned about the band. Tough, sensitive, heavy, delicate, melodic, charged, lean and bombastic – all descriptors apply in the Boston band’s boldest statement to date. If post-metal ever promised to blossom into something greater than the sum of its crescendos, Eternal Rituals feels like the fulfillment of that promise. There are precisely zero boring moments; each song earns its place and tells its own story, while gelling with all the others into a cohesive whole that flies past in what feels like far less than 45 minutes. Next years great albums will compete with this one for listening time over the next twelve months.
2. Converge – The Dusk in Us (Epitaph)
Converge have made a habit of releasing albums late in the year, which matters to nobody except those of us saddled with making these year-end lists a month or more before the year ends. The ordinary, non-list-making audience can just let the elation wash over them whenever a new Converge record appears, while list-scribblers scramble to listen enough to weigh its merits against the music that we’ve been pumping from our speakers for months. (The Dillinger Escape Plan pulled a similar scam on us last year.) Somehow, The Dusk in Us is even better than it has any right to be, given that Converge have been grinding it out for the past twenty years and each album has arrived with its own distinct character and purpose, which is pretty absurd for this kind of metal/hardcore hybrid. Dusk demands attention now.
1. Pallbearer – Heartless (Profound Lore)
Heartless has been my favorite record of 2017 since it was 2016. My attitude toward the band’s previous two albums always stopped short of impressed, and a couple blocks south of admiration. It was all clean, family doom, I thought. Utilitarian, something that would suit in a pinch if YOB or Warning were momentarily out of reach. Damn me for a fool. “I Saw the End” hurtles toward the earth like a fiery asteroid carrying destruction and emotive melodies on its back. “Thorns” growls to life on the very same momentum. Then “Lie of Survival” descends to sorrow’s depths on a guitar-and-synth opening, “Dancing in Madness” swirls in a psychedelic haze that grows jagged spines in its churning center, and “A Plea for Understanding”… Man, that song’s emotional content defies verbal description. Every time I hear it, I’m gripped by the need to share it with everyone, despite the fact that nobody else in my immediate social circles gives a damn about heavy music. In a world that seems to have left sanity behind in favor of chaos and idiocy, I think we all might be better people if Heartless became a routine listen.