Thursday, 1 January 2015

The 2014 End of Year List

Happy new-year! Perhaps the best way to commence a fresh year is to spend a while talking about the old one... or, at least, as far as metal is concerned. 2014 has been a year in which I saw more bands live than I ever imagined I could, and many bands in particular that I never imagined I would.  I've seen magnificent acts on-stage, and I've discovered the music of bands I now cannot imagine how I did without in the past. And along with all that, the year has spewed forth many a great record. When it comes to end-of-year lists, I like to wait until the year concerned has been truly laid to rest. After all,  nothing brings a dose of humility like discovering an album you truly love after already committing a list such as this into the ether, and while I guarantee I'll find dozens of  albums from this year in future, which I'll wish I could have put on the list, finding a new favourite before the year is even finished seems like a recipe for feeling a bit of a fool.

As the years go by, my focus moves further from attempting to capture any kind of  consensus by the metal community in terms of the albums which I pick. Instead, the focus leans more towards albums which have impressed me personally. By contrast, I do still try to create a list with plenty of variety on it, however - a reflection of my attempts to listen to plenty of variety in general - and in that regard, I hope I can write a round-up which doesn't pander to any audience in particular, but likewise manages not to disregard that this list has been created to be read. Regardless, all things considered, this year seems to have been quite a good one, as far as metal albums go - in fact, I'd go as far as to say it has offered something for everyone. For me, this is certainly a year in which I've managed to pay a lot more attention to upcoming albums than I have done in the past. I think the idiosyncrasies of the list will reflect that -  more pronounced now than ever before, and I hope that next year, I can say the same thing once again.

In no particular order, here are the albums that for me, made 2014 a good year...

Witch Mountain - Mobile of Angels: Mobile of Angels marks Witch Mountain's final album with departing vocalist Uta Plotkin. It exudes, from every pore, the essence of a band ending a phase of their existence with style. Melancholy and heart-rending, with powerful and and inventive musicianship from everyone involved, the whole record is a true showcase of what the band are all about; unique, thoroughly American doom-metal which swaggers, weaves and laments like falling snow; both billowing and slow, and all with flourishing excellence. I hope that the band's future is a positive one; Mobile of Angels is their best record yet.

Conan - Blood Eagle: Every bit as good as their full-length début, Blood Eagle delivers the trademark barrage of destruction which Conan are renowned for, and with all of the precision and less-is-more approach which made Monnos the beast that it was. Blood Eagle, as a record, is akin to poking your head of of your animal-skin tent to witness Cyclopean giants fighting in the distance of the primordial wasteland, their footfalls and blows translated into bludgeoning, minimalistic doom which could level the very heavens with its heaviness. They do so live, and they capture it perfectly once again with this record.

Midnight - No Mercy for Mayhem: No Mercy for Mayhem is one of those albums which is damn near perfect at being what it is; a well contained, well structured and super-cohesive assault of instantly memorable, infectiously melodic slices of blackened, rocking speed-metal with a snarl, sneer and swagger straight from the torture-dungeon. It compliments the band's first album perfectly, - precisely as a follow-up should be - I, in fact, have them side by side on my shelf. Screaming lead-guitar and filthy but wholesome production combine to create a splendid second instalment of Midnight, and a fantastic record in its own right.

Incantation - Dirges of Elysium: In the last few years, Incantation-worship bands have certainly been plentiful. Dirges of Elysium is a monolithic offering by the original - and still, as it goes to show - best band to sounds like Incantation: Incantation. Cavernous, winding tendrils of intense but atmospheric death-metal greet the listener, engulfing them without hope of rescue. The music, artwork and production-job all point forcefully towards the record being a solid one, and indeed it is; perhaps even up there with the band's classics -  a great feat for any veteran band, and one which always deserves acclaim.

High Spirits - You Are Here: If you're unfamiliar with the work of High Spirits, there are two things you need to know. Firstly, they sound exactly the way their name suggests. Second, they are, as best I can tell, the smoothest reconciliation of integrity and sheer sing-along fun that metal has produced in many a year. The second record, You Are Here, is no exception, with catchy, bouncy track after track, almost guaranteed to put you in a good mood, and to generally make you excited to be alive. It's gloriously uplifting, whilst maintaining a degree of sincerity which results in the perfect mix to accompany the ups-and-downs of your inner party.

Rigor Mortis - Slaves to the Grave: The first record on this list which is, in some way, posthumous, Slaves to the Grave is the magnificently heavy swansong of cult-classic thrash band Rigor Mortis. A fitting tribute to the late guitarist, Mike Scaccia, the record goes straight for the jugular with agile but brutish abandon - a thrashing thunderstorm, a bludgeoning cannonade of bulldozing riffs, powerful vocals, agile solos and memorable choruses. Nobody played thrash quite how Rigor Mortis did, and this is a fitting blaze of glory as fate snatched the band cruelly away. The music lives on, even if we are all as individuals, ultimately slaves to the grave.

Trenchrot - Necronomic Warfare: I discovered Trenchrot the old fashioned way. At a show my band played at, someone among the crowd was selling CDs alongside the merch of the local bands who had played - a merch-swap of some variety, I gather. Intrigued - and informed that the band were signed to a subsidiary of Dark Descent - a seal of quality for sure - I decided to blindly buy Necronomic Warfare. In a year of old-school death metal, the record is a stand out. Pulsating Bolt Thrower inspired filth - eerie darkness meets headlong the scraping, thundering racket of the battle-field, with exceptional results. 

Children of Technology - Future Decay: Future Decay represents Children of Technology really stepping up the pace and finding a solid and sonically impressive identity - a mature release, but still bursting with power. Thick and substantial, frenzied and energetic, Future Decay is one of the best slices of post-apocalyptic metal-punk I've ever experienced, with fantastic guitar tone, evocative both of the attitude and swagger of metal, but also of a wider scale - an almost grandiose leaning - which adds a new dimension of excitement to the record. Bands like Carnivore are having their banner held high to this day, and long may it last!

Nunslaughter - Angelic Dread: When it comes to being filthy, blasphemous and profane, Nunslaughter are up there among the best in the business, and have been for a long time. Angelic Dread may not be quite as primitive and mucky in terms of its production when compared to their earlier work, but the spirit of rapid-fire, dirty and catchy extreme metal remains, and is as well executed on this album as it's ever been, as ever, an iconoclastic iron fist aimed at the fizzog of God. Call it what you will, genre wise, but one thing you can reliably call it is crushing, sneering, pounding and Nunslaughter.

Eyehategod - Self Titled: I saw Eyehategod in 2013, only a few weeks before the passing of drummer Joey LaCaze. It was my first experience of the band, but subsequently I sought out their albums, thoroughly enjoying all of them. As with its predecessors, the self-titled is a riff-fest of monster proportions, offering up wave after wave of edgy, bad-trip grade, reeling sludge, the way it was meant to be. This is quite possibly Eyehategod's best offering since "Take as Needed for Pain", with all of the rage and bile that classic. As I said about Slaves to the Grave, the record is a fitting memorial to those who never saw it's completion.

Horrendous - Ecdysis: Horrendous are probably tired of their album ending up on just about every list for the last couple of months, but I'm sorry guys, you'll just have to be on this one too. Ecdysis is, as I said when I reviewed it some weeks ago, one of the most interesting old-school death metal records I've heard in a long time. It is an album of unparalleled musical success, innovative playing, and a creative process clearly entirely unfettered by the limitations of genre boundaries. Ecdysis is probably the most interesting offspring born of a HM-2 pedal in years, and a jewel in the youthful crown of the old-school death metal revival.

Triptykon - Melana Chasmata: Unique as ever, the labyrinthine and destructively heavy follow up to Eparistera Daimones, Triptykon's "Melana Chasmata", is a worthy successor indeed. While it can broadly be considered "more of the same" with regards to musical progression, the seam of inspiration from whence Eparistera Daimones was gleaned is clearly not exhausted, leaving us with an album of equal majesty, fascination and intricacy as its predecessor. I expected no less from the black-sheep of extreme metal. Powerful, powerful music - a lush and sumptuous sonic feast.

Vader - Tibi et Igni: Vader are, in short, a band that can be relied upon, and Tibi Et Igni is no exception to this rule. It represents the achievement of  a band still filled with inspiration after an already long career of extreme integrity. Tibi et Igni is one of the most thickly-layered, potent, grandiose and melodious Vader releases ever, combining the band's distinct approach to death metal with an exceptionally high-calibre of song-writing. It not only lives up to Vader's reputation, but also lives up to the monumental benchmark left by it's predecessor, "Welcome to the Morbid Reich."

 Bast - Spectres: I have nothing but good things to say about Bast, and this remains true of their début record, Spectres; a fascinating and to my knowledge quite unique melding of black-metal, doom-metal, sludge, and plenty more besides, creating something transcendentally atmospheric and compositionally exceptional - varied, and yet immensely cohesive. Bast are a band who really illustrate what it is that  the UK does best in the current metal world; not always the biggest bands, or the most accessible, but often some of the most interesting and curious. Spectres is sublime.

Blut Aus Nord - Memoria Vetusta III: After the last few years of Blut Aus Nord being characterised by the cold, industrial side of the band - a side which I do love - the return to the uplifting, soaring majesty which is synonymous with the Memoria Vetusta albums is refreshing. The song-writing skill and quality of the music does not miss a beat, returning into the style with absolutely no problems acclimatising to it. The result is a record of sheer edges, extreme beauty, and vast atmosphere. There is little wonder that Blut Aus Nord are one of the all time greats.

Vampire - Self Titled: Vampire's début is an album thoroughly oozing and dripping with old-school sound. Like a movie packed with references, hearing every trope of the old-school adds a lot to the fun of a record almost absurdly abundant in fantastic distorted vocals, Celtic Frost worship here and there, and generally a tightly-knit blend of everything from old-school death metal right through to black-thrash and first-wave black metal - in short, a record like this is one heck of an amalgamation of everything I like - and it does so while still sounding distinct and fresh, to boot.

Bunker 66 - Screaming Rock Believers: Another Italian band, along with Children of Technology, Bunker 66 have likewise really grown tendrils since their solid début. Screaming Rock Believers follows things up with an extremely pleasing mixture of everything from blackened metal-punk extremity, right through to early-eighties style stadium-filling rock, all united under a surprisingly cohesive and exceptionally catchy banner. Raucous, beer-drinking shenanigans and d-beat debauchery are always in the wake of records like this.

Diocletian - Gesundrian: Primal yet martial, a stampede of iron-shod hooves and unforgiving tank-tracks bring Diocletian's war-metal destruction to bear, unleashing sonic warfare on an unprecedented scale. Empires topple, as roving hordes set fires and sow the fields with salt. Gesundrian is ferocious; the crushing, speaker-rattling riffs reverberating the skull, and the striding might of the music strikes like a mace or a clenched fist. The sheer power which war-metal can hold by amplifying some extreme metal traditions while comparatively disregarding others is well exemplified here, in obliterating fashion.

Electric Wizard - Time to Die: I was always a fan of later Electric Wizard albums, particularly Witchcult Today. Time to Die is similar in many ways to these, but perhaps most importantly also connects to the earlier ethos of the band. Unhinged and possessed with a penchant for glorious narcotic meandering, Time to Die would be some sort of comeback album, were it not for the fact that Electric Wizard never really went away. Regardless, some of the most enjoyable songs the band have conjured from the pentagram in recent years are present on the record.

Yob - Clearing the Path to Ascend: As well as being one of the first metal bands I ever saw, Yob have an impressive back catalogue of solid records. Clearing the Path to Ascend, however, is more than solid; it is, I would dare to venture, the bands most plausible candidate for an outright classic. The atmosphere is immediately distinct - flowing, wave-like, and wherein mirth is juxtaposed with mournfulness in equal measure. Clearing the Path to Ascend is a real showcase of everything Yob do best, without showing any signs of the contrived-feeling that some albums which try to be such possess.

I hope that 2015 proves as generous in dishing out fantastic records.