01. Beast in Black – From Hell With Love
Much like last year, Beast in Black might not be the most original album of the year, but I simply can’t deny how god-damned effective it is. From Hell With Love effortlessly, skilfully, beautifully melds classic heavy metal swagger with Europop bounce. Traditionalists may scoff, but then they’ll blink, look down, and realise their feet are tapping and their heads are nodding along just like everyone else. Songs like “Unlimited Sin”, “Die by the Blade” and the title track simply don’t care what you think: they will sweep you away and force you to join in with the fun all the same. I’m done pretending or denying, it’s just time to embrace this in all its synth-soaked, dance-demanding, cheese-filled glory.
02. Wilderun – Veil of Imagination
Sometimes you find something truly special. As you listen, every brilliant moment gives way to another, and every time you think “that has to be it, there has to be some filler now, it can’t -all- be good”, the band proves you wrong with yet more quality content.
Wilderun’s Veil of Imagination is just that. It is a solid hour of some of the most high quality progressive and symphonic metal around. This album doesn’t bear any of the all-too-common burdens: there’s no pointless wandering, no show-off noodling, no sitting around waiting for the good parts to arrive, because it’s all good parts. The album is just as comfortable blasting out death metal extremes as it is soothing you with gentler parts. The songs are ambitious in scope yet never lacking in catchy hooks. “Far From Where Dreams Unfurl” is every bit as grand and soaring as its title suggests, while “The Tyranny of Imagination” is an infectious head-banger that would do classic Opeth proud. Veil of Imagination is a bombastic, emotional masterpiece.
03. Avatarium – The Fire I Long For
Avatarium started off as a very interesting project. It was initially set up in 2013 by Candlemass mastermind Leif Edling, and that first album certainly carried over a lot of the epic doom vibe, while vocalist Jennie Ann-Smith lent a wonderful voice to it all. Following that debut, the band has increasingly brought in prog rock and heavy psych aspects to the music, giving the band a really unique identity. With The Fire I Long For, they have truly mastered this blend, and it’s this variety of flavours here that pushed the album so far up my list. Songs like “Porcelain Skull”, “Voices” and “Epitaph of Heroes” bring the crushing doom, “Shake That Demon” ramps up to a groovier, classic rock vibe, “Lay Me Down” basks in a smokey, blues-y world, “Rubicon”, “Great Beyond” and “The Fire I Long For” mix all of it up, while “Stars They Move” wraps things up with a beautiful piano piece. Something for everyone.
04. Devin Townsend – Empath
Hevy Devy never truly disappoints, though I did find 2016’s Transcendence to be one of his weaker offerings overall. With Empath, he’s back and swinging. This one, possibly more than anything he’s done prior, feels like a big, bold statement of an album. It has a lot of Epicloud’s brightness and vibrancy, but where that one felt like a cut-loose party, this one is like a grand exploration of the universe, with Devin taking us along like a demented tour guide. “Genesis” especially stands out as a masterclass in everything he’s known for, combining orchestral triumphs with extreme metal blasts and skull-smashing stomps, electronic beats alongside epic choirs. Empath mixes a lot of styles into a progressive, avant-garde tour-de-force, but always maintains a lively, positive feel that’s impossible to resist.
05. My Diligence – Sun Rose
My Diligence are a new band from Belgium, and rapidly made an impact on my musical favourites of 2019. Their exact style is tricky to classify, sitting in some mixture of metal, rock, stoner, prog, and some alternative influences, but the key thing is their ability to write music that is both heavy and accessible in wonderful combination. If you’re a fan of heavy music of just about any type, this one deserves a spin.
06. Rotting Christ – The Heretics
Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού from 2013 was one of my favourite albums of the last decade, so for Rotting Christ to be continuing in that dark metal vein is a-okay with me. The Heretics focuses on a loose topic of religion and religious persecution, a fitting subject for their powerful, bombastic style of melodic black metal. As on that masterpiece from 2013, they craft engrossing tracks even with straightforward ingredients, covering everything in this all-encompassing atmosphere that really unites the album as a whole. It’ll have you swaying hypnotically and banging your head in equal measure.
07. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Infest the Rats’ Nest
I hadn’t listened to King Gizzard previously, but this one was garnering a lot of attention. From what I’ve read, the band is known for dipping into lots of different styles here and there, and on this one cited a number of classic thrash influences and an intention to follow in their footsteps. A talented and varied band of rockers deciding to go thrash? Sounded interesting!
Those influences are loud and clear amid all the dirty guitar tones and pounding rhythms, with the album coming out sounding like a stoner rock band jamming out in their garage with a bunch of thrash punks. It makes for a great, flavoursome end result that has something to offer everyone. Just about whatever your tastes, if you like heavy music at all, Infest the Rats’ Nest will satisfy with its thick, groovy and often thrashy swagger. Oh, and “Superbug” is the best Sabbath worship in years.
08. Tyr – Hel
Tyr have been getting progressively…well, less progressive as time goes on, and to be honest, I approve. I know their early works generate a lot of love, but for me, they often felt too dry and lacking in punch. In recent times, the band has lessened the overtly proggy stylings there and gone in more of a straightforward folk/power metal direction. Hel continues their move, and continues to entertain too. It manages to be a great time without descending into outright silliness or self-parody, and the songs can shift between brighter and darker tones with consummate ease.
09. Atlantean Kodex – The Course of Empire
Atlantean Kodex are one of those bands that have had lots of positive attention, but never caught my attention. I listened, didn’t dislike what I heard, but wasn’t captivated by it either. With The Course of Empire, things finally seem to have clicked.
“Epic” might be an over-used descriptor for metal albums, but it’s honestly the only truly fitting on here. Every drum beat is a pounding footstep on a march to glory, every riff paints a portrait of grand quests and classical mythology, every sentence sung is another line of a classic poem to be told. The tempo generally sticks to a slow, stoic march, and you certainly need to be in the right mood for this particular meal of classic, doom-tinged heavy metal about mighty heroics, but when you are, it works fabulously.
10. Possessed – Revelations of Oblivion
I’m not even an especially big fan of Seven Churches (I’m just not a big death metal guy, though I respect the huge influence this record had on the genre’s development), and aside from frontman Jeff Becerra, it is a mostly fresh line-up. But nevertheless, to put out a new album more than 30 years after the last is impressive. Even more impressive is that Revelations of Oblivion is just the kind of vicious, blood-drenched slab of blasphemy that the newly reborn Possessed needed to re-establish themselves among the kings of the genre.
11. Myrath – Shehili
Shehili continues on much where 2016’s Legacy left off: fun, catchy folk metal rooted in and laced with Middle-Eastern sounds. While the progressive side of their music has lessened in recent years (and if you want that style you’re better off sticking to Orphaned Land), the tracks on show here are just so damn catchy that I find myself not caring, and the Tunisian flavouring adds enough spice to keep it interesting. “Monster in my Closet” in particular is one of the most enjoyably memorable songs of the year.
12. Belzebubs – Pantheon of the Nightside Gods
Many will already be aware of Belzebubs’ origins as a humourous webcomic about a black metal family (and if you aren’t, go check them out). The popularity grew to the point of an actual full-length album release, and given those origins this is remarkably impressive stuff. The identities of the actual musicians are (to my knowledge) not confirmed, though I have heard a lot of pointed comparisons to Insomnium. But whoever it is behind the music here, they know exactly what they’re doing, giving us an excellent melodic death/melodic black blending. Tracks like “Cathedrals of Mourning”, “Blackened Call” and “Nam Gloria Lucifer” should hold up strong in anyone’s book with their galloping rhythms, ominous atmospheres and icy melodies.
13. Thrashfire – Into the Armageddon
I didn’t get round to a lot of thrash this year, but Into the Armageddon was a fine gem to come across. It’s a relentlessly brutal ride of extreme thrash, but one that doesn’t neglect catchy riffs amid all the insanity. It’s one of those albums that doesn’t reinvent anything, but just does what it does really damn well. “Katacomb” and “Slaughtered by Hellgoats” will satisfy any thrasher, and “High Heel in the Hell” even has a bit of a sleazy, blackened Motörhead edge to it.
14. Slipknot – We Are Not Your Kind
Slipknot have always occupied a kind of middle ground in my tastes: I like a lot of their songs well enough, but none of their albums have truly blown me away. We Are Not Your Kind continues that trend, and fittingly it falls in the middle of their albums in quality for me, better than their weaker ones, but not ascending the heights of The Gray Chapter or Iowa. Still, it’s Slipknot as we’ve come to expect them these days, and there are plenty of kick-ass tunes on here like “Unsainted”, “Nero Forte”, “Orphan” and “Solway Firth”.
15. Mgla – Age of Excuse
Like a few others, this was one I didn’t have a lot of interest in initially, but seeing the great attention it was getting I decided to give it a go. Black metal isn’t usually my favourite style, but Mgla manage to put it together in a way that feels as thick and oppressive as the genre should be, while still sticking to quality melodies under it all. It makes for a set of songs you can really lose yourself in, sonic landscapes galloping past like the riders of the apocalypse, reaping all the way.
16. Firebreather – Under a Blood Moon
A stonking slab of sludgey stoner doom from Sweden. Similar to other purveyors of heaviness like High on Fire or early Mastodon, fans of music that’s crushingly heavy without neglecting a sense of songcraft will enjoy this one. There are some damn effective and catchy riffs buried amid the stomp and the fuzz, along with a delightfully old-school sense of epic journies.
17. Swallow the Sun – When a Shadow is Forced Into the Light
Sorrowful yet uplifting, When a Shadow is Forced Into the Light is a powerful piece. There are plenty of good slabs of doom around, what makes this one stand out is how it manages to feel so hopeful and empowering at the same time. When it wants to be dark and gloomy, it’s up there with Paradise Lost or Draconian, but there’s always that feeling of positivity under the surface, accentuated by the inherently forlorn feeling of the style. This one’s certainly worth a go if you fancy a piece of gothic/doom metal with a bit of a twist.
18. Rammstein – Rammstein
It’s been a while since Rammstein’s last album, and that last one (Liebe ist für alle da) felt lacklustre to me, so it was really a question whether they could rekindle their classic sound. Ultimately, while it doesn’t so often go for the real stomp of Mutter, it does more often than not pull off that signature mix of bounce and crush. “Deutschland”, “Radio” and “Halloman” are fine additions to their catalogue, and the more experimental “Puppe” is among my favourite Rammstein numbers, with Till really letting go and going wild with his vocals atop hypnotic, pounding rhythms.
19. Gloryhammer – Legends From Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex
Being a project of Alestorm mastermind Chris Bowes, it’s unsurprising that Gloryhammer have unashamedly built themselves on pure power metal cheese, and Legends From Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex…
…it absolutely continues that. Did you really need to be told that given the album title? Yes, it’s all as silly and over-the-top as it sounds. It doesn’t care, it’s just here to craft some infectiously catchy, fist-pumping power metal songs. Some tracks on here fall into more forgettable territory, but when the band are on fire, as in “Hootsforce”, “Masters of the Galaxy” or “The Land of Unicorns”, they truly soar, and you -will- sing along.
20. Lamassu – Into the Empty
Lamassu’s Into the Empty is an album that shows a lot of promise for the future. While the Australians base themselves predominantly in stoner/doom metal, there are some clear alternative influences on show here that could make for some really fun songs going forward. Vocalist Chris Fisher channels Chris Cornell as often as any traditional doom singer, his lines carrying a nice vulnerability to them, and the rough, gritty riffing calls Alice in Chains or Jerry Cantrell’s solo work to mind. One to watch.
Best Concert: Powerwolf @ Trädgår’n, Gothenburg, 17th November
You can catch the full review here, but in short, this was one of the best gigs of my life, never mind this year. It was a perfect affirmation of my love for heavy metal music: big, bold, bombastic, cheesy and empowering all at once. It was over-the-top, it was skilful, and above all it was FUN. Anyone reading this should definitely catch them live at any given opportunity.
Favourite Discovery of 2019: Wilderun
Beast in Black might’ve claimed my personal top spot, but Wilderun was an extremely close second, and they’re definitely the most invigorating discovery I’ve had this year. Progressive and symphonic metal merge together with harsher influences into something really special, something that captures the best of both styles and trims away any semblance of fat or filler. I look forward to both investigating their back catalogue and seeing what comes in the future for such an obviously talented band.
Best New Band (debut full length from 2019): My Diligence
I hadn’t heard of these guys until their album landed into my review pile, but I’m glad it did. The music itself is hard to succinctly sum up, sitting somewhere in a mix of stoner, prog, rock, metal, and probably some more I can’t accurately point to. But whatever you want to label it, Sun Rose is a great album, catchy and crunchy in equal measures, like a heavier kind of Smashing Pumpkins. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Best Comeback of 2019: Possessed
How could it be anything but Possessed? Yes, it’s mostly a new line-up, but with Jeff Becerra at the helm and such a natural continuation of their sound, it still feels good to welcome back one of the godfathers of death metal.
Best Local Band: Firebreather
I missed out on the chance to catch them live this year, but will be hoping to rectify that in the near-future. As in the top 20 above, Firebreather are a solid band full of great riffs and early Mastrodon-esque crunch. Gothenburg may be best known for its melodeath contributions, but these sludge/stoner boys definitely deserve some attention.
Disappointments of 2019: Exhorder + Nocturnal Breed
A lot of the weaker albums I tried this year were just from reviews, but these two stood out as ones I was excited for myself:
Nocturnal Breed’s one I was somewhat braced for: while I loved the rough and dirty Motörhead-does-blackened-thrash of 2007’s Fields of Rot, Napalm Nights was a much more limp offering. But I was hopeful. One listen to We Only Came For the Violence put that to rest, one of the most lifeless and flimsy thrash albums I’ve heard in a long time.
Exhorder put out their first album since 1992, and I was curious how the lesser-known legends would sound. Would they continue the groovier side of The Law, revert to the all-out thrash assault of Slaughter in the Vatican, or do something new? In the end it didn’t really matter, because what Mourn the Southern Skies is above all else is boring. The riffs are feeble, the vocals are flat and the songs often excruciatingly drawn-out (the title track itself is a prime offender, a lifeless drudge that gets boring about 1 minute into its almost TEN MINUTE runtime).
Hopes for 2020:
There’s already plenty of my musical horizons for 2020: we’re due follow-ups to great albums by Brothers of Metal, Body Count and Carcass, all of which look promising.
Two of the UK’s premier thrashers, Onslaught and Evile, have new releases on the way too (if the rest of Onslaught’s album is as good as “A Perfect Day to Die”, I may have an early contender for my album of 2020 already…).
And as if that wasn’t enough, we’ll also be seeing the long-anticipated studio return of two legends: Demons & Wizards, the epic collaboration of Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kürsch and Iced Earth’s Jon Schaffer, will release their long-awaited third album, and the living legend himself, King Diamond, will be gracing us with The Institute, his first new album in 13 years.