Dave Mustein’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2014
I know you guys hate reading, let alone reading lengthy, personal blurbs at the end of the year, so feel free to skip the entirety of the next paragraph if you’re just intent on getting to the list. This list marks the end of my fifth year writing for MetalSucks. I’ve been writing for MS through the majority of my adolescence and the entirety of my adulthood thus far, and there’s no doubt that I wouldn’t be in place I am today if it weren’t for MS; if it weren’t for the way writing has taught me to approach music, and for the way having an audience has taught me to approach people. So it seems fitting that this list is my most coherent yet, and most representative of my current taste. If any one property unites the albums on this year’s list, it’s that of atmosphere, and the fact that each of these artists interprets “atmosphere” in a peculiar, individual way. Atmosphere isn’t merely about adding up individual qualities – about ambience, extended song structures, or spacey dissonance – it’s about the affect, the emotional resonance, and the staying power of a piece of music. It’s directly related to the authenticity of the music, or the lack thereof. The aspect of personal resonance, for me, is what constitutes atmosphere, and I feel that this is the one factor that’s going to sustain metal’s livelihood for the future.
One of the most interesting facets of the new wave of dissonant extreme metal is that it’s not confined to any one global region. Yeah, France has some heavyweights, and North America has its fair share, but pissed-off fans of peculiar chord voicings hail from pretty much everywhere. Ingurgitating Oblivion’s first album in ten years, Continuum of Absence, is carrying the torch for Germany, and it’s one of the most outré releases in recent death metal. Different musical elements slot uncomfortably into each other like wrong puzzle pieces, with incongruous tom fills spread over quizzically melodic chords. It’s almost as much doom as it is death, sounding like Wormed slithering headlong into Morbid Angel in half-time. Continuum is ambitious, dense, and rewarding; you’ll need to spend some time before you can wrap your ears around this one.
Listen: “Burden of Recurrence”
Taking a page out of Mammoth Grinder’s book, Yautja (the technical term for the alien from Predator, in case you were wondering) streamline the depressive crush of Primitive Man into a sleek, lubricated debris flow. At 14 tracks and 38 minutes, Songs of Descent has room to coil in and out, oscillating between speed and sludge; it’s equal parts jagged glass and putrid waste. Yautja dabble in all sorts of realms, both time-wise and style-wise; it’s hard to predict when Songs of Descent might dive into an off-kilter stony skank beat versus one of its uneasy interludes. Yautja are many things, but conventional is not one of them.
Listen: “Faith Resigned”
Cloudkicker has inspired numerous copycats, but few of those artists have managed to transport Ben Sharp’s progressions to new places. The aptly-named UK act The Mire are one of the few who have. Glass Cathedrals, the band’s debut album, is a compact journey through sludgy subtlety, easing back and forth between sharpness and murkiness. Uplifting melodies are submerged in viscous, paleolithic ooze, tempered on either end by lilting clean vocals and bestial roars. Glass Cathedrals is admirable in the way it creates new sounds through its manipulation of disparate contrasts, kind of like the aural equivalent of PB&J. The invention of that was kinda a big deal; this will undoubtedly be too.
Listen: “False Idol”
Nero Di Marte combine elements from two of my all-time favorite bands – The Ocean and Ulcerate – so it’s no wonder that their formula works so well. Derivae, the band’s second release, is a departure from the more metallic vibe of the band’s self-titled debut, haggling harsh treble for tenebrous murk. The soundscapes are elevated and atmospheric, but they’re anything but background noise: they’re inescapable, dense, and suffocating, like a paste stuck in the back of your throat. Drawn-out double kick passages are reinforced by Ulver-esque emotional fuckery, crafting unpredictable transitions that gag our senses more thoroughly than a prisoner in an isolation chamber.
There has been some truly nasty fast music released recently, shit that’s made me rethink heaviness and even metal as a whole. But while speed takes the cake in terms of acute, immediate brutality, I’m finding that the slower, more drawn-out pieces are those that keep me feeling fucked-up long after I finish listening to them. Case in point: Death Mask. In case you didn’t infer it from the album art, Lord Mantis’s third album is a uniquely twisted brew of sludge and blackened doom. It’s not single-minded in its brutality, though it might seem like it at first from the slow plods of gnarled, cancerous old chords. Bill Bumgardner’s drumwork especially makes this album punch – the double bass and snare patterns are ruinously anxious, lending Death Mask a disturbed current of anticipation you wouldn’t expect to find curled in its slow abrasions.
Listen: “Possession Prayer”
Revocation have been dropping material almost every year since their inception, slowly transitioning from a technical thrash band to something else entirely. With Deathless, they’ve crossed over into a beautiful genreless realm, having adopted the pros of all styles of metal and the cons of none. It’s not an exaggeration to claim that there’s something for everyone on Deathless. All the virtuosity of tech-death without the wankery, all the vigorous groove of thrash, all the nastiness of black metal chords, and the combined variance of the best prog. The amount of time every member of Revocation has spent listening to and playing music is audible in every track. They’re making the exact kind of music that I aspire to make, and I can’t wait to hear where they go from here.
Listen: “Witch Trials”
I didn’t expect to find the new Botanist so fresh after last year’s excellent Mandragora, but it’s grown on me like a fungus on feces. Hammered dulcimer has proven steadfast over the years, constructing layer upon layer of dissonances that twine around each other in unexpected harmonies. The vocals make such little impact that this album feels instrumental; it also barely feels like black metal anymore. Flora adeptly manipulates time – it feels like decades pass over the course of a single three-minute track, as if we’re tracing the growth and senescence of an individual plant. It brings us right up close, microscopically focused, and it’s deeply personal in that regard. Some albums necessitate a certain mood before you can appreciate them, whereas other albums generate that mood. Flora is one of the latter. Put it on and watch your walls turn green.
Listen: “Cinnamomum Parthenoxylon”
Dissonant death metal usually encounters problems in its length – it’s hard to blast this stuff for hour and not have it start to run together. Perhaps that’s why Taman Shud, the second full-length from Canadian dissonance-mongers Auroch, works so well. Grooves and riffs are used sparingly and smartly, appearing only when they’re at their most useful instead of reiterating themselves ad infinitum. At a mere 26 minutes, the album sits somewhere between Portal and Cryptopsy, wedging aching, malignant timbres into a foundation of concrete technicality. Taman Shud was recorded almost entirely in one take and was barely edited; you wouldn’t guess from the crisp production and incredibly tight playing. Another incredibly solid addition to the burgeoning dissonant death metal (post-death metal?) scene.
Listen: “Death Canonized”
I’ve always viewed black metal as the most flexible subgenre of extreme metal, and artists like Thantifaxath only continue to reinforce that belief. Most people associate dissonant black metal with DSO and Blut Aus Nord, but Sacred White Noise is equally far removed from either. Crystalline structures of dissonance compact on one another, leading Sacred White Noise to appropriate the madcap skronk of Dodecahedron over the polished scream of new-school production. Thantifaxath are magicians at needlepoint, conducting swarms of operatics and chromatics with the finesse of an obsessive-compulsive acupuncturist. The band’s lengthy, dynamic song structures ensure that the trauma lasts a good long while, though they make sure to smooth things over from time to time with palliative blasts of static.
Inanimate’s second full-length A Never-Ending Cycle of Atonement might seem a little out of place amongst all these screeching purveyors of atonality; perhaps a little cold and artificial. And yeah, you’ve gotta admit, the actual notes and riffs generally don’t do a ton in the way of emotion. But there’s something about the album’s cyclical riffing and back-breaking repetitions that speaks to the soul. Dense, but not overlong, A Never-Ending Cycle is a challenge to keep up with, mentally stimulating far beyond the sheer amount of notes it incorporates. I concluded in my review that this album was tech-death with a spiritual dimension, and that’s a sentiment that’s only grown with the passage of time.
Listen: “Staring Through Fire”
Demonocracy was a kind of transitional release for these much-maligned AZ heavyweights, lying somewhere between the jagged tech of Ruination and the proggier, chord-dense structures of bands like Gorguts. Sun Eater is a realization of the two extremes wrapped into a tight little package. The transition is facilitated by the presence of session drums by Danny Walker (Intronaut), which break the album out of the death metal mold and into something totally new. Tony Sannincandro is positively radiant; he seemed to hold back a little on Demonocracy, but there’s nothing reserved on Sun Eater. No other band sounds like Racer X, Behemoth, and Gojira on the same album – especially while maintaining a definite sense of cohesion. Sun Eater takes a long time to unpack, and it’s the kind of release that fans will be dissecting for years to come.
Listen: “The Celestial Antidote”
4. Morbus Chron – Sweven (Century Media)
Sweven seems to want to escape its medium: it seems more akin to the open-ended assimilation of visual art then to the temporally-bound musical form. Ideas drip and distort, sticking with you days and weeks after a listen, articulating themselves only obscurely within a song – a record with a true “album” feel. With their second full-length, Sweden’s Morbus Chron have peeled back the tough, spiny exterior of death metal to reveal the firm, sweet fruit beneath. It’s damp and dark, but bright and angular, one of the most colorful death metal albums I’ve ever heard. Organic melody intersects with heaviness in a delightful paradox, like the richest of psychedelic contradictions. There’s no faux-brutality here, neither overcomplicated blasts nor overproduced guitars; only a pairing of classic old-school foundations with fresh, spacious ideas. Morbus Chron don’t try – they just do.
Listen: “Towards A Dark Sky”
There’ve never been many viable combinations of electronic and extreme metal. Or, rather, there have been combinations, but they’ve leaned too far to one side to really attract many fans – either towards metal (annoying fx) or towards electronic (goofy, over-industrial sample manipulation). Turns out that the insidious dark ambient of British producer The Haxan Cloak is the perfect complement to The Body’s debauched sludge. United by harsh noise, the two have created the most cohesive blend of metal and electronic music yet, amputating the gritty amplification of one and appending it to the screaming synthesizers of the other. I Shall Die Here makes you question your own perception as unsettling timbres protrude out of the tracks and get stuck in your craw. Nightmarish ideas come to life like they were jettisoned from a 3-D printer. The album is perfectly paced: slow, and long, long enough for all the ideas to start digging their unbearable little hooks in your sides. I Shall Die Here is the kind of music that’ll make your body react in ways your brain can’t control, that’ll make you scream without even hearing it. You might not like it, but you’re not really supposed to.
Listen: “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain”
NYC noiseniks Pyrrhon have caused plenty of hubbub around their Relapse debut The Mother of Virtues. Some see it as an incoherent mess; others as the new coming of tech-death. The only thing people seem to agree on is that the album’s stuttery structures, screeching noise, and philosophically provocative lyrics make for one far-out extreme metal record. But for all that’s been said about the extent of Pyrrhon’s depravity and insanity, there’s not much attention paid to why that depravity is bearable (or even enjoyable?). Pyrrhon dose us with hints of sanity, tastes of reprieve, before tearing those ideals down after we’ve had just a split second to appreciate their relief. There’s no denying the prettiness of the melodies in “Eternity in a Breath” or the triumphant nature of the harmonies in “Invisible Injury,” but everything is soured soon after by waves of aching dissonance and whammy-bar flurries. An Excellent Servant But A Terrible Master was all entropy and insanity, to the point of being simply inaccessible to most listeners. The Mother of Virtues provides us a more, uh, maternal interpretation of those qualities, allowing us to get comfortable enough with them to feel weird instead of just scared. Pyrrhon’s music is unexpectedly emotional, cruelly spontaneous and intellectually unsettling. It might take you a dozen listens to start feeling The Mother of Virtues, but when you reach that point, you’ll know.
Listen: “Invisible Injury”
Bizarrely, Artificial Brain somehow wound up being one of the most accessible bands of all those featured on this year’s list. Labyrinth Constellation’s furious blasts and conflicted melodies probably wouldn’t be called straightforward, but at the same time, the music’s remarkably linear in places. Far from being a disadvantage, this is what allows the Brain to stand out amongst their numerous skronky contemporaries – they’re not tame, just organized. There’s something almost poppy about tracks like “Absorbing Black Ignition” and “Moon Funeral;” despite the dissonance, the intervals and riffs trace through logical, familiar structures, leaving us with something that’s simultaneously comfortable and terrifying. If you need more reasons to check out the best modern death metal record of the year, read my review from January. 2014 is The Year Of The Brain. I, for one, welcome our new AI overlords.
Listen: “Wired Opposites”