Friday, 1 January 2016

The 2015 End-of-Year List

It was a busy year, and the motivation and time to write reviews has been lacking rather more often than I'd have liked. I hadn't been keeping as close an eye as I should have on the releases of 2015. Always, of course, I've continued to be a fan, but one at times contented to listen to well-worn releases and classics, or to diversify my musical horizons with other genres. That said, December saw a re-kindling of the will to explore and keep-tabs on the music, and the pleasure that doing so can bring. This return was fuelled in no small part by the realisation that I hadn't even listened to enough albums from this year to make a well-considered list - it would have been more like a top-seven, and would have incorporated all of the new albums I'd heard. That wouldn't do. As much as I may sometimes go months without writing a review, I nonetheless view Heavy Metal Spotlight as an active project. Omitting an end-of-year list would be a grave sin indeed. Over the month, I listened to close to fifty of 2015's albums, and, while I would have preferred a little more time to let some releases simmer and settle down in my mind, I feel that the time I spent intensively listening and exploring, while reading back-issues of Iron Fist magazine, was the closest and most involved with the genre I have felt all year. Without further ado, then, lets turn to the moderately hurried but, at least in my mind, vaguely considered list.


 #20: Slugdge - Dime and Slimeridden Kingdoms: The gastropods of Slugdge wouldn't normally be on my radar at all, at least in the way I presumed them to sound before listening to their work more thoroughly. Instead of the overly-clean and modern affair I was half expecting, Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms offers instead a true exhibition and feast of extreme-metal musicianship and composition. Monstrously heavy and well-produced, the record oozes with crushing, memorable and grin-causing moments a plenty, in a maelstrom of blackened bone-crunching nastiness bestowed by some of the best riffs in the business.

#19: Triumvir Foul - Self Titled: Oregon's Triumvir Foul make music which sounds exactly the way the artwork would suggest; an ominous, world-crushing roar of ritualistic and filth-ridden occult doctrine, rushing forth like stale, stagnant tomb-air infested with spores, plagues and effluvia. The dessicated voice of death. This, their self-titled full-length début marks one of the most excellently vile and marvellously sonically unacceptable works on the list. Cathartic, intriguing, punishing and about as legit as they come; a record dripping with decay, death and ruination. 

#18: Barshasketh - Ophidian Henosis: Vaguely-Edinburgh-based black-metal outfit Barshasketh deliver their most finely honed and perfected opus yet, in the form of Ophidian Henosis; forty five minutes of precise, well-measured black metal splendour. Intense, uplifting and sleekly diabolical, the clarity and sharpness of the record is given deeply satisfying exposition in its twisting leads and tremolos. Following the spirit of the bands previous works, Ophidian Henosis marks an enormous refinement and augmentation of Barshasketh's craft, and their work rightly takes a place amongst the finest the genre has offered in recent times.

#17: Hooded Menace - Darkness Drips Forth: Ghoulish though the revelries of Hooded Menace may be, they nonetheless possess quite some sense of sincerity. The dense, ambitious tracks of "Darkness Drips Forth" may well be the bands most accomplished and enjoyable yet. Favouring atmosphere more so than the fun, riff-focus of records like "Never Cross the Dead", the B-movie charm of some of the bands earlier work may not be so omnipresent here, but the gloom flourishes with more vigour than ever, in a record which both looks and sounds more serious, but equally succeeds in being fun to listen to.

#16: False - Untitled: The nameless full length début by US black-metal act "False" takes a little getting used to, for all the right reasons. The factors which contribute to that are the very same factors which make it an excellent record. Triumphantly idiosyncratic and at times bizarre, the record captures the pioneering, defiant and inventive spirit of the early nineties in a way that few records even attempt - it succeeds not by emulating, but by being interesting, forging an unusual, chimerical creation of blistering speeds and haunting, simplistic synth which probes at the atmospheric heart of the genre.

#15: Windhand - Grief's Infernal Flower: A highlight of Windhand is, perhaps, the soaring vocal delivery, with memorable patterns and haunting sound. You generally remember a Windhand chorus. These are virtues which "Grief's Infernal Flower" possess to a greater degree than anything else that the band have created so far. Standing head-and-shoulders above the already very enjoyable "Soma", the record's saw-toothed mournful doom represents the pinnacle of the band's work so far, as they continue to carve out an identity in the over-crowded world that doom-metal has been in recent years.

#14: Scythian - Hubris in Excelsis: London's Scythian play what I only really know as "Destroyer 666 style-" black thrash. The bands second record, "Hubris..." strides triumphantly, with huge reserves of power and savage majesty, churning and flexing its muscles for the entire run-time with an infectiously energetic swagger and snarl. Coupled with this power comes a distinct and deeply immersing atmosphere, taking the record out of the realms of straightforward aggression, and melding that side of it with a choral splendour reminiscent of Bathory - and doing so excellently. 

#13: Under the Church - Rabid Armageddon: Under the Church are a relatively new discovery to me, but their bare-bones style of old-school death metal appealed to me instantly. The band combine the throaty, filthy elements of Autopsy and the catchiness of Nunslaughter, and wrap it in a crispy Swedeath style shell while the songs roar and rattle along with energy to spare. While it doesn't reinvent the wheel, "Rabid Armageddon" is a fantastically fun distillation of many of old-school death metal's most enjoyable elements, and one which has been done extremely well indeed.

#12: Bell Witch - Four Phantoms: Bell Witch have literally only got two members - this was what I discovered when I saw them live. The fullness of their sound, however, on record and live, certainly overcomes any conceivable logistical problems that such staff-shortages might cause. Indeed, Bell Witch's sound is, as a consequence, one of the most unique and innovative takes on doom out there, weaving a work of incredible sorrow and power, both with crushing heaviness and murmuring delicacy. "Four Phantoms" is an enormous and ambitious record which takes a number of listens to sink in, but rewards you for doing so.

#11: Crypt Sermon - Out of the Garden: Pleasingly organic and rough-edged epic doom records tend to be quite thin on the ground, and as such, Crypt Sermon are an especially pleasant discovery, with riffs which tantalisingly dance, and passionately delivered vocals with the perfect measure of grit; a record which is both paying homage to the such greats as Solitude Aeturnus, but  also bedecks itself with its own sense of identity. "Out of the Garden" eschews, and rightly so, the penchant of "epic" metal to inadvertently scrub itself clean and sacrifice its character.

#10: Obsequiae - Aria of Vernal Tombs: "Aria of Vernal Tombs" is, without misusing the word, a magical record; veiled, sparkling, in a thin and light beauty akin to the morning dew, or an early mist. Crisp, melodious and scintillating guitar-work dominates the albums run time, during both distorted and clean sections of music, deploying some of the most fantastically captured melodies to pass my ears. While consequently lacking the cruel bludgeoning force that most black-metal has in one way or another, this record instead has an air of gorgeous ethereal wonder which is every bit as valuable.

#09:  Bonehunter - Evil Triumphs Again: With a suitably corrosive guitar tone and pleasantly absurd artwork-theme, Bonehunter's "Evil Triumphs Again" is a raucous and frenzied rampage through the blackened metal-punk landscape, mounted on an oil and rust caked road-warrior-esque vehicle consisting largely of denim, leather and MotörBathory. Fast, ballsy, catchy, and just the right level of puerile for the sub-genre in which it resides, the whole album improves with subsequent listens, and/or cumulative intoxication. 

#08: Dan Terminus - The Wrath of Code: A non-metal addition to the list at the last minute, I have no idea how qualified I am to discuss the retrofuturistic electronic synthwave shenanigans of Dan Terminus. I've heard perhaps five albums of that genre, in total. What I do understand is that "The Wrath of Code" is an enthusiasm-enhancing selection of typically bouncy-but-dark tracks which capture the bizarre and effervescent possibilities of an odd, and perhaps even sinister future. The whole album leaves you with the lingering desire to live the sort of lifestyle portrayed in a space-opera. But then again, maybe that was just me.

#07: Chapel of Disease - The Mysterious Ways of Repetitive Art: I had my suspicions that this record would be included on my end-of-year list over a year ago when I first had the opportunity to hear some of it. The wilder, more innovative follow-up to the immensely enjoyable albeit solidly conventional "Summoning Black Gods", "The Mysterious Ways" sees the band successfully travel down a path of eclectic influences and imaginative song-writing, with the musics backbone of thrashy death-metal augmented throughout in too many ways, and by too many influences, to count off-hand.

#06: Magic Circle - Journey Blind: As soon as you see the artwork of this one; the regal, resplendent peacock colour-scheme, smooth and indulgent upon the senses, the music itself is foreshadowed. "Journey Blind" is grandiose, sublime, and spectacular, yet extremely down-to-earth at the same time. A fantastic collection of rockin' doom-with-a-touch-of-punk "Journey Blind" is vintage not just in intention, but in spirit too; perfectly capturing the early days of heavy metal without sounding tired or over-done. The delivery is passionate, legitimate, and insanely catchy without being cheesy. Few records have ever risen in my esteem so rapidly.

#05: Satan - Atom by Atom: "Life Sentence" may have been the single best comeback-album to ever reach my ears, and it's an absolute pleasure to discover that its follow-up, "Atom by Atom" is every bit as good. Intentionally slightly more technically proficient, the record merges this fact with its nigh-flawless production to create an album which is memorable, hooky and immensely enjoyable, but likewise one which has the agile chops to utterly draw the listeners attention and maintain it - everything about the record is immaculately planned and executed, and the result is magnificent.

#04: Enslaved - In Times: In my mind, the current "era" of Enslaved is marked by an increasingly reliable ability to create end-of-year list candidates. This "era" began with 2010s "Axioma Ethica Odini". Since then, we have borne witness to the equally excellent "Riitiir". The third record of this streak of superb progressive black-metal appears to have been "In Times" - in my experience the most enjoyable of the three. Leaner, more compact, more streamlined and all-together a perfect mission statement of Enslaved's current incarnation; the beauty, quirkiness and unique musical aesthetic, sharpened, and more on target than ever before.

#03: Midnight Odyssey - Shards of Silver Fade:  Possibly the longest album I've ever started listening to and actually finished in a sitting (I'll get to "Blood Geometry" one day), Midnight Odyssey's "Shards of Silver Fade" is an astonishingly vast, cosmically beautiful two and a-half hours of sublime atmosphere. Difficult to digest, certainly, but infinitely rewarding - the record is worth its whole running time - every desolate, gorgeous moment is wonderful to behold, and of moments, it has many. A truly haunting experience, leaving the listener frozen, enthralled and filled with wonder.

#02: Macabre Omen - God of War - At War: Perhaps the album, along with, I expect, Horrendous' Anareta - which I didn't find myself particularly interested in - to claim a place on the most end-of-year lists, I investigated Macabre Omen on precisely that basis, and I was not disappointed. Excluding perhaps Bathory, Macabre Omen conjure the most sincerely glorious atmosphere of any band I've heard, with songs like "From Son to Father" being utterly stirring and magnificent. "God of War - At War" is an inspiringly strong record with a dense and palpable atmosphere.

#01: Ahab - The Boats of the Glen Carrig: I'm a huge fan of Ahab - it's no secret. On all three - or rather, four, now - of their records, they managed to create some of the most powerful music I've ever heard; and "The Boats..." is no exception. Each Ahab record is different from the last - different from all of the others, in fact - but they have certain things in common, and this record delivered on such expectations. The haunting, cathartic clean-vocals; the crushing turmoil of the heavy sections, and the constant backbone of beauty. A welcome addition to Ahab's back-catalogue.