One of a series of articles getting into the weeds of the Metal Observer writers’ favourite music of 2014. Here, Ailo lists his favourite albums of the past year, as well as attempting to recall some of the best gigs he saw. Click the titles for our reviews of the albums, where applicable:
Top 30 albums
1) YOB – Clearing The Path To Ascend; Cementing their position as the heaviest band operating today, YOB went on to annihilate all expectations both on stage and in the studio in 2014. With Clearing The Path To Ascend, frontman Mike Scheidt channeled despair and anger into earth-shattering riffs and subtle fragility. From the thundering In Our Blood to the achingly gorgeous Marrow, this is a masterpiece through and through.
2) Earth – Primitive And Deadly; Ushering in a new era for the droning veterans Earth, Dylan Carlson recruited the vocal talents of Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Quazi to add a poetic dimension to their moody post-drone. The result was even better than expected, and Primitive And Deadly stands as a defining moment in the Olympia legends’ already sublime catalogue. It’s poetic, melancholic, and remarkably dreamlike, a lush oasis in an endless desert of sound.
3) Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry; Although French experimentalists Blut Aus Nord rarely miss their mark, their sprawling Memoria Vetusta-albums stand tall amongst the rest. The third entry is no exception, and Saturnian Poetry picks up almost precisely where II: A Dialogue With The Stars left off. Sweeping soundscapes and majestic melodies are interwoven with more traditional black metal touches, creating an awe-inspiring web spun by master craftsman Vindsval. Bluntly put, this is jaw-dropping stuff.
4) Teitanblood – Death; Naming your sophomore album Death might seem trite or pretentious, but for the enigmatic Spanish duo Teitanblood it stands as more of a grand statement. Following the revered Seven Chalices, the band’s new forays into the deepest chasms of hell is as devastating as it is ugly. Blackened death metal has been all the rage in 2014, but nobody does it better than Teitanblood. Death is a punishing testament to the darkest depths of extreme metal, and a terrifyingly sinister album.
5) The Order Of The Solar Temple – The Order Of The Solar Temple; A pinch of old school doom, a large helping of Blue Öyster Cult, and a whole lot of energy. Turns out that’s the perfect recipe for some damn good rock and roll. The Order Of The Solar Temple appeared out of thin air and grabbed me by the neck with the catchiest release of 2014. Shamelessly retro without being a pure nostalgia act, their self-titled album was the best debut of the year, and a loving tribute to the roots of the genre.
6) Goat – Commune; Once upon a time, a voodoo priest wandered into a remote village in northern Sweden, and nothing would ever be the same. With a blend of African beats that are ridiculously danceable and groovy kraut psychedelics, Goat’s sophomore album just adds more of what made their debut World Music so great. Their gimmick may seem over the top, but supplements their flamboyantly catchy music with style. Cultural appropriation or not, Commune is an invitation to dance around the campfire and feasting on peyote all night long, and it feels damn good.
7) Blood Of Kingu – Dark Star On The Right Horn Of The Crescent Moon; From the visionary behind Drudkh and Hate Forest comes another blast of terrific black metal. Blood Of Kingu might push closer to death metal than Roman Saenko’s other projects, but the mammoth riffs and esoteric atmospheres remain. Steeped in Sumerian mysticism, and lush with small touches such as throat singing and tribal drums, Dark Star is the sound of some Lovecraftian nightmare marching to war.
8) Sunn O))) & Ulver – Terrestrials; Of course a collaboration between Ulver and Sunn O))) was going to be great. Terrestrials is a marriage of two distinct sounds that nonetheless have a lot in common. The all-encompassing darkness of Sunn O))) is penetrated by Ulver’s tender rays of light, and the result is subtle yet completely engulfing. Playing on the strengths of both bands, Terrestrials is a glowing example of great artistic minds playing off each other with grace and musical passion.
9) The Great Old Ones – Tekeli-Li; A black metal concept album tackling H. P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains Of Madness” is an exciting prospect, and the French cultists in The Great Old Ones knocks it out of the park. Chronicling a gradual descent into madness, Tekeli-Li is rich with harrowing atmosphere and crawling crescendos. Although this particular Antarctic expedition goes horribly, gruesomely wrong, the post-black musings of The Great Old Ones are both elegant and vividly engaging.
10) Monolord – Empress Rising; Doom metal is, above all, meant to be heavy. The Swedish newcomers in Monolord prove that they are acutely aware of this, and holy shit do they mean business. Their debut album is a riff-fuelled work of monolithic proportions, with enough weight to crush and mangle an elephant. Other bands toy, Monolord destroy.
11) Fen – Carrion Skies; This would be the year that British gloomy gents Fen outplayed their American counterparts Agalloch. Carrion Skies is a masterful piece of progressive black metal, painting bleak and nostalgic landscapes that come alive before the ears.
12) Mare Cognitum – Phobos Monolith; A new discovery for me, Mare Cognitum blew me away with dense atmospheric black metal that feels positively transcendental. Remaining a one-man project, Phobos Monolith still feels about as far removed from bedroom black metal as you can get. The four lengthy tracks traverse the deepest burrows, and more poignantly, ascend to somewhere far beyond the stars. Like Blut Aus Nord’s newest masterpiece, this is a triumphant and ethereal take on black metal that feels simultaneously sublime.
13) Rome – A Passage To Rhodesia; The brainchild of Jerome Reuter, the martial neofolk project Rome might be the best thing that’s happened to the genre since Death In June recorded Rose Clouds Of Holocaust. A Passage To Rhodesia is an intensely passionate and deeply political album about colonialism and strife, brought to life through Reuter’s unique crooning. Folk, industrial, or experimental music, the soulful songs of ROME are enough to convert even the grumpiest genre purists.
14) Spectral Haze – I.E.V.: Transmuted Nebula Remains; On the surface one could describe Spectral Haze as “Hawkwind meets Black Sabbath”, and be pretty much correct. Dig a little deeper, though, and the spacey grooves and psychotropic jams on Transmuted Nebula Remains reveal a multifaceted tapestry of psych and deep-seated doom. A brilliant debut, the future looks exceptionally bright for these hippie revivalists.
15) Panopticon – Roads To The North; Besides being an all-around humble guy, Kentucky-native Austin Lunn has an impressive knack for writing folky black metal. With roots in bluegrass music, Panopticon stand out from the USBM scene by remaining true to local folk traditions. Roads To The North continues the journey from the marvelous Kentucky, with more intricate songwriting and more banjo interludes. More than a gimmick, the blue-collar roots of Panopticon remains weaved into the very soul of the music, marking a unique and increasingly enjoyable band.
16) Wovenhand – Refractory Obdurate; A little more psych and a tad more rock, David Eugene Edward’s last outing is, unsurprisingly, a great one. It’s catchy, and at times surprisingly heavy, but Edwards’ tormented voice and Old Testament lyricisms remain front and center. As a result, Refractory Obdurate continues a profound religious journey, but progresses to a sound that has henceforth only been lurking in the shadows of Wovenhand’s music.
17) Satanic Warmaster – Fimbulwinter; In all honesty, I did not expect Satanic Warmaster to claim a place on my end of year list. Nachzehrer was a rather boring and forgettable album, and I assumed the same would be true of Fimbulwinter. To my surprise, mainman Werwolf has gone to some lengths to reinvent his sound this time around, with longer and more ambitious songs and a cleaner presentation. Lo and behold, it did wonders for his signature icy black metal assault. Fimbulwinter is the best Satanic Warmaster album since Carelian Satanist Madness, if not his best to date.
18) Bong – Stoner Rock; It’s difficult to accurately describe Bong’s newest album by resorting to mere earthly concepts. Akin to slipping into a deep trance, Stoner Rock undoubtedly wins the “cheekiest album title of the year”-award. A slow journey through some nameless void, the meditative drone and immense monotonous riffs can move mountains. Bong are doom hypnotists, and their art is suitably mesmerizing.
19) Thou – Heathen; When it comes to sludge, Thou are about as magmatic and tormented as they come. Heathen is a massive undertaking, and a rewarding album if you can endure the pain dripping from every chord.
20) Bastard Sapling – Instinct Is Forever; Sometimes referred to as a side-project of sludge titans Inter Arma, the black metal consortium Bastard Sapling unleashed an immense force with Instinct Is Forever. Filled to the brim with excellent musicianship and surprising twists and turns, this is a fulfilling experience for the patient listener. A varied and sometimes impenetrable experience, Instinct was one of the year’s biggest growers for me.
21) Agalloch – The Serpent & The Sphere; By now it’s no secret that many people felt let down by Agalloch’s latest album, and The Serpent & The Sphere admittedly does fall short of most of their catalogue. Perhaps victims of their own brilliance, The Serpent & The Sphere nevertheless feels like an accomplished release. Darker and denser than their usual material, Agalloch took a step for the more metallic this time, and the results are different but at times incredibly moving. Time will tell how the fans look back on this one, but for me it remains a solid addition to one of the finest discographies in metal.
22) The Body – I Shall Die Here; After the nightmarish slab of noise that was Christs, Redeemers, one could be forgiven for assuming The Body must have exorcised all their demons. Not so. I Shall Die Here is, as the title suggests, a mournful monument to death and suicide, filled with ugly sludge and harrowing screams. Listening to The Body is an intensely unpleasant experience, but the duo is damn effective at what they do. I Shall Die There is the most uneasy listening of 2014.
23) Midnight – No Mercy For Mayhem; If you like Venom, Motörhead, or Nifelheim, Midnight should be extremely your shit. Spikes, bullet belts, and big sunglasses are one thing, Midnight bring the madness with killer riffs and headsplitting choruses.
24) Paramnesia – Paramnesia; Yet another debut album making its way onto my list this year, Paramnesia’s self-titled release contains a mere two tracks. Those tracks, however, clock in at more than 40 minutes, and represent a varied and grueling black metal endeavor. Comparable to Weakling and Ash Borer, Paramnesia transplants the Cascadian black metal template to a French setting. More than a mere imitation, their massive and pitch black approach is a feast for the ears.
25) Bongripper – Miserable; Renowned for their ability to destroy amps and wreak havoc upon the ears, Bongripper returned in 2014 with their darkest album yet. Simply titled Miserable, the band plunges into a swamp of shit and comes through on the other side with gold in their pants. Bleak, misanthropic, and an all around bad time, Miserable still hits that Bongripper-itch for thundering grooves and elephantine heaviness.
26) Bölzer – Soma; It might just be an 18-minute EP, but Bölzer possess something special that has catapulted them around the world without releasing a single full-length. The cataclysmic and weirdly psychedelic sounds of Soma continues the fierce assault heard on Aura, with a sound that feels as appropriate for a dark catacomb as for the black vastness of space. The most mind-boggling thing about Bölzer remains that they are only two guys, yet they sound like a hellish battalion.
27) John Gallow – Violet Dreams; John Gallo is best known for fronting traditional doom metallers Orodruin, but in his solo debut he really lets the Paul Chain-influences come through. Violet Dreams genuinely sounds like a doom metal classic from the 70s, complete with lots of prog elements and trippy keyboards. Epic in the truest sense of the word, this is a remarkable statement by a keystone of the doom metal scene. Not to mention the utterly brilliant artwork by the prolific Costin Chioreanu.
28) Death Penalty – Death Penalty; A spiritual successor arising in the wake of Cathedral’s demise, Gaz Jennings’ new project Death Penalty is a sweet mix of his old band and Witchfinder General. Catchy hard rock numbers and weighty doom tunes are carried by the pipes of ex-Serpentcult frontwoman Michelle Nocon, and the result is weirdly fun. The riffs are the main attraction, however, and Jennings delivers in spades. Death Penalty is probably the most accessible album in this list, and a terrific addition to the heavy metal canon.
29) Truckfighters – Universe; It’s fair to say that Truckfighters really come into their own when they’re on the stage. Their explosive presence doesn’t necessarily translate well to a studio setting, but Universe expands their stoner rock sound with ass-kicking results. These guys are all about the fuzz, and although that aspect has been somewhat toned down, Universe is a bombastic collection of hard rocking songs. In the Swedish stoner scene Truckfighters reign supreme, and this album just further establishes their position as kings of the riff.
30) Tumbleweed Dealer – Western Horror; If desert rock can be considered its own genre, Tumbleweed Dealer qualifies with flying colors. Although their sound is closer to Yawning Man and various post rock bands than it is to Kyuss, Western Horror is an instrumental romp through the sandy wasteland. A soundtrack to an imaginary film, this is perfect music for riding around, even if you’re not actually Clint Eastwood.
Memorable gigs of 2014
I attended many concerts in the past year, both as a journalist, as a fan, and as a drunken fool. Some of these gigs were obviously better than others, and here are five that stood out as utterly brilliant.
1) Selim Lemouchi’s Enemies at Roadburn; The worst music-related news of 2014, the sad passing of The Devil’s Blood mastermind Selim Lemouchi came as a shock to many of us. Only two weeks after his death, his new project Selim Lemouchi & His Enemies were slated to make an appearance at the Roadburn festival. As a touching tribute to the man and his music, members of The Devil’s Blood (including Selim’s sister Farida) and the Enemies played the set together, with a video backdrop rich with imagery related to Selim himself. Personally, I never knew the guy, yet I am not ashamed to admit that this show put me on the verge of tears.
2) YOB at Høstsabbat; Not a band to put on less than stellar shows, YOB blew the audience out of the water when performing in Oslo. Plowing through the entirety of Clearing The Path To Ascend, in addition to a few classics, Mike Scheidt and his boys nearly stripped the paint from the walls.
3) Vemod at Laudata Nex Magicka; Atmospheric black metal usually doesn’t gain any favors from the live setting, where lackluster sound and over-excited fans tend to get in the way. It’s remarkable, then, that Vemod outclass almost every other black metal band on stage, using nothing but their music and simple visuals to create a transcendental and heart-rending atmosphere.
4) Mystifier at the Inferno Festival; Appearing alongside black majesties Blasphemy, Black Witchery, Mgła, and Necros Christos, it is quite an achievement that Brazilian veterans Mystifier came out on top. With a ferocity and conviction that is rarely seen, the band proceeded to crush the sweaty Inferno audience.
5) Carbon Based Lifeforms in Oslo; This might be considered cheating, but ambient/electronica/chillout duo Carbon Based Lifeforms put on the most relaxed yet somehow energized show of 2014. No, there are no guitars or riffs, no there’s no dark or massive atmospheres, but yes, this was an absolutely fantastic live show. Admittedly I listen to relatively little electronica, but CBL sets the bar very high.
Honorable mentions: Bong, Bölzer, Goat, Goblin, Mgła, Monolord, Monster Magnet, Necros Christos, Purson, Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats
That’s all folks, see you in 2015!