2017 has been a strange year at best – overshadowed by a sense of impending doom, it was inevitable that music’s dark side would rise again this year. And rise again it has.
Putting together this list has been a challenge for us here at Astral Noize – mostly down to such a high standard of innovation and quality within extreme metal (and beyond) this year – but without further ado, here are our top 21 releases of 2017.
21. The Bug Vs Dylan Carson- Concrete Desert
When two giants from two different musical spheres combine forces, it might not be wrong to expect the worst, as there is a history with the output of strange crossovers not being the greatest, but with this year’s collaboration between Dylan Carson (most famously of Earth) and The Bug, none of those predisposed feelings manifest.
The release is a barren cement wasteland with droned-out guitars over hefty low-end basslines, even featuring some vocals at the mid-point of the record which feels like new ground for this sort of collaboration. It sometimes comes across like a backward record as it starts off with some of the heavier tracks first then, as it progresses, the weight thins out through Concrete Desert‘s runtime and the longer, more delicate compositions come into play, undulating and reverberating in dreamlike textures.
Something says Concrete Desert won’t be the last collaboration between these two and itmaybe a start of something new in the drone/doom scene, with a lot of harsh noise and industrial sounds already finding their way onto notable projects in 2017.
20. Limp Wrist- Facades
Limp Wrist are a queer hardcore/punk band originating from Philadelphia, who returned this year with Facades – their first release in nine years.
Starting off with their pissed off, signature style of punk – Limp Wrist gallop along, with the percussion on this record keeping everything glued together. The vocals are also on point and probably the best they’ve sounded. Having moved from Limp Wrist’s hardcore roots, Facades also crosses over into post-punk realms and a myriad of other sounds.
One of the most interesting features of the release is the B-side (15-minute mark) on this album. After the track ‘Don’t Want You’, the sound switches from hardcore punk battery to queer techno rave, which on first listen is confusing and somewhat bizarre but upon repeated listens, begins to make more sense. Here’s hoping for an A-side and B-side fusion on the band’s next offering.
19. Wolves In The Throne Room – Thrice Woven
Thrice Woven is the culmination of 14 years writing romantic black metal and WITTR‘s most diverse release to date. They marry the post-rock and crescendo-0based riffs of their first four albums with their synth excursions from their previous album, combining to make an album which honours their roots in the natural past with an ear towards the cosmic future. While once their music would have been suited to melancholic walks through the Cascadian forests and pagan rituals, they now churn the chaos and fury of the earth in revolt with remarkable sensitivity, creating an album both more aggressive than their previous output while maintaining the ethereal beauty they originally injected into black metal. As such, Thrice Woven is the album where WITTR return to their roots while also marking a progression of their sound, and one which makes us curious to see where it will lead.
18. King Woman – Created In the Image of Suffering
In a year presaged by political disaster and stained by human trauma, King Woman’s Created In the Image of Suffering has been a much-needed balm for the soul. Born out of personal and spiritual pain, vocalist Kristina Esfandiari’s struggles with family, love and religion fuel King Woman’s debut album.
Mixing modern doom tropes with shoegaze and fuzzed out melodicism owing as much to Superchunk and Yo La Tengo as it does to Solitude Aeternus, Created in the Image of Suffering touches on the ethereal while staying musically and existentially heavy. Tracks like ‘Shame’ and ‘Deny’ move at a glacial and deliberate pace, by turns crushing and soothing, whilst Esfandiari’s sinuous vocals cut through the chaos like Moses through the Red Sea. Album highlight ‘Hierophant’ best captures the essence of King Woman, containing, like Walt Whitman’s Multitudes, a variety of conflicting voices and urges that somehow coalesced into a single, shimmering whole. Created In the Image of Suffering is ultimately a lesson in how to survive, of how to take a shattered self and shape the pieces into something you can learn to accept and, maybe, even love.
17. Elder – Reflections Of A Floating World
In a year lined with stellar stoner metal releases, Elder’s Reflections Of A Floating World was most definitely amongst the best. Where many in the genre seek to create a mesmeric form of metal spearheaded by monotonous riffs, the Boston band’s fourth LP was a considerably more dynamic and vibrant affair, with tracks that proved themselves worthy of their lengthy runtimes. The trio have often been lauded for their progressive nature, but Reflections… takes things even further than past efforts, retaining a penchant for crushing grooves whilst also exploring the expansive scale of doomy post-metal acts like Inter Arma. In such a well-populated scene, you either have to be extremely talented or utterly innovate to stand out, and Elder just happen to be both. Escaping the genre’s tiring proclivity for ‘Sabbath worship in favour of traversing a more diverse array of styles, Reflections Of A Floating World is certainly worthy of the critical acclaim it received.
16. Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun
As Californian singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe strays further from her folk roots, she continues to weave her way into the metal spotlight, garnering attention from even the more mainstream of metal and rock publications. A palpable tension runs through her most recent effort, Hiss Spun, bolstered by the doomy soundscapes that now accompany her gothic, Scandinavian folk-inspired sound.
Her enchanting brand of ethereality benefited greatly from taking an increased inspiration from metal on 2015’s Abyss, and Hiss Spun not only continues but furthers, this influence. The LP delves more wholly into a doom metal-esque style that ballasts Wolfe’s sometimes-vulnerable, sometimes-powerful, always-eerie vocals with weightier guitars and percussion, crafting a bewitching brand of chaos. Wolfe’s work has always lingered on interior pain, but whilst her earlier work explored it through mournful melodies, Hiss Spun also explores catharsis through violence.
15. Völur – Ancestors
Proving that a guitar-less existence in metal is possible, Canadian trio Völur’s brand of folk-woven doom switches out a lead guitarist for Laura C. Bates’ masterfully expressive violin. The second part in a planned four-part series surrounding Germanic folklore, Ancestors radiates a rural charm that’s dripping in a palpable atmosphere of heathen spirituality. Despite this omnipresent and coherent concept, Völur’s sound proves exceptionally varied, ranging from sections of all-out blackened metallic fury or sludgy power to rustic folk and ethereal ambient soundscapes that, at times, take on a near-cinematic scope. Plenty of bands find themselves enraptured by the alluring world of long-forgotten myths, but few do with such a genuine passion for and understanding of the subject matter, giving Ancestors a remarkably authentic feel that resonates throughout its four prolonged tracks.
14. Primitive Man – Caustic
The most impressive thing about Primitive Man’s music is their ability to flaunt rich amounts of creativity in the face of an unfaltering commitment to such a consistently stifling form of sludgy metal. Caustic, the group’s second LP, is undoubtedly the Colorado three-piece’s most ambitious release to date, clocking in at an endurance-testing 75 minutes, but it spends that time wisely. Though largely rooted in an audibly misanthropic mixture of noise and sludge, the LP is the band’s most multi-faceted affair yet, retaining an air of claustrophobic suspense no matter the genre, as they launch into steamrolling blastbeats (‘Sterility’), creepy ambient tones (‘Absolutes’) and blackened sludge (‘Sugar Hole’). Caustic’s encompassing noise and filthy riffs are instantly loveable, but patience is needed to truly appreciate its subtleties.
13. Necro Deathmort – Overland
Whilst the Saxophone has oddly become forward-thinking extreme metal’s most popular lead instrument over the years – it has definitively found its home on Necro Deathmort’s excellent 2017 opus Overland. As pop-culture’s fascination with science fiction sees itself reaching a critical mass, Overland sees Necro Deathmort turn their trademark sci-fi driven sound on its head – incorporating all manner of terrestrial textures into their sound. With a healthy inflection of jazzy neu influence – borne along by aforementioned saxophone, a multitude of twists and turns and most importantly, that trademark NDM scapecraft, Overland is an entertaining change of pace for the duo. The release is still definably a Necro Deathmort record, it’s also so much more, with the duo having taken such a huge step forward (and, according to our interview in issue 2, more of the same coming in 2018) – Necro Deathmort will march ever onwards.
12. Slowly Building Weapons – Sunbirds
Some records only want to be given life. After a 10 year hiatus, Slowly Building Weapons swept all challengers aside with Sunbirds – a fabulous hymn to widespread shadow. Ignoring genre not out of malice but because such archaic notions simply don’t apply, Sunbirds is a world unto itself; assembled with the members spread across the globe, it sounds like it was written with immense care and attention, taking in everything from hardcore and black metal to noise and good indie. A record that has been allowed to be, Sunbirds is a masterpiece of Australian darkness.
11. Dvne – Asheran
The metallic concoction conjured up by Dvne is hard to classify. The band’s first LP, released by Wasted State Records back in July, is a musically diverse affair, drifting through stoner rock, post-metal, doom, death, psychedelia, prog and more. Yet Asheran is not the haphazard debut of a band still finding their sound, it’s a confident declaration of intent from a band with a sound that’s entirely their own.
Apt comparisons have been drawn between the quartet and Mastodon, but modern-day Mastodon would be afraid to traverse some of the dynamic terrain walked by these noise-mongers, who, in Asheran, crafted a sci-fi odyssey based on, in the band’s own words, “ideas behind the ongoing issues mankind has balancing technological advancement with the effect those advancements have on their environment.”
10. Paastö- Liikutuksia LP
Just cracking into the top ten and Hailing from Umeå, Sweden, are dual vocal anarcho-punks Paastö. Ferocious from the off with mouth-watering fuzzed out riffs, pounding drums and that wonderful blend of male/female vocals, Liikutuksia‘s intensity is kept up throughout the record with tracks such as ‘Punkkaripiru’ – and it’s reminiscence of Japanese skate punk – which will have the listener grinning ear to ear whilst looking for people/things to punch.
There’s not too much information on this band and this release seems to have somewhat slipped under the radar in 2017, but its ferocity and fun brand of punk holds up. Here’s hoping for more in this vein in 2018.
9. Owlcrusher – Self Titled
Born of Northern Ireland’s curiously obfuscated metal scene – Owlcrusher’s self-titled debut, almost nine years in the waiting, crushed fucking everything (hopefully no owls) this year [no more owl jokes from here on in – Ed].
With such an abundance of droning, synthy, neu-esque sounds floating around in modern black metal and doom in recent times, one thing that could be argued has been missing in 2017 is good quality oppressive, blackened doom. The masterstroke of Owlcrusher’s self-titled debut lies in its own particular embrace of electronically-inclined fuckery – building upon crushing, cavernous riffage with unnerving interludes of amorphous, synthetic rumblings into their aeonic compositions, whilst never losing themselves amongst overindulgent synthpaddery. What Owlcrusher does in spades is provide an unnerving cacophony of bludgeoning riffs, but at the same time, look to the droning futures of crawling, blackened drone for its atmospherics.
8. Full of Hell – Trumpeting Ecstasy
Like a Blade Runner replicant, Trumpeting Ecstasy uses machine-tooled inhumanity to shine an unflinching halogen beam on the futility and waste of human existence. As with their forebears in Carcass, Full of Hell have the ability to be simultaneously visceral and surgical, the mathematical grind assaults of ‘Branches of Yew’ and ‘Digital Prison’ dealing death with a thousand cuts, while the almost perverse prettiness of the clean vocals over the album’s title track revealed a still-beating heart under all the chrome and gore.
Trumpeting Ecstasy was a triumph of form and content, a riposte to all the naysayers who had Full of Hell marked down as poseurs and serial collaborators rather than serious artists. From the death-flecked barnburner that was ‘Crawling Back to God’ to the crippled sludge of ‘At Cauldron’s Bottom’, Trumpeting Ecstasy proved that Full of Hell are a band capable of synergising vaulting ambition and classically brutal metal chops into a coherent, compelling whole.
7. Pallbearer – Heartless
Now three albums into their career, Arkansas doomsters Pallbearer have cemented their status as one of the scene’s most consistent artists with this year’s Heartless. Where previous efforts have seen them rise to the top of the doom metal pack through thunderous guitars and Sabbathian vocals, Heartless sees their sound galvanised through uplifting melodies and proggy experimentation.
The sonic grandeur of Pallbearer’s encompassing music is truly breathtaking, and despite doom’s rather niche appeal, it’s hard not to imagine the band’s more poignant brand of metal filling arenas. That’s not to say that Heartless sacrifices any artistic integrity, however, as crushing riffs and expansive, lengthy songs show that Pallbearer still care little for conventional four-minute long singles or hits.
The emotional segway of ‘Thorns’ into ‘Lie Of Survival’ may have more in common with post-rock than Electric Wizard, but when riled up – as evidenced on the outro of ‘Cruel Road’ – Pallbearer can cave in skulls with the best of them.
6. Bugg – Bugg LP
This release feels like an outlier in our top five releases of 2017, surrounded by the likes Bell Witch and Gravetemple, but the Bloomington, Indiana lo-fi punkers Bugg are treading fresh new ground on their debut LP. On Bugg LP, the band blend an overtly lazy style of play with a sprinkle of The Pixies, seemingly attached to a new movement of punk that is exploding both sides of the pond.
At just over 30 minutes, Bugg’s ten-track early Christmas present features an array of fuzzy guitar solos, catchy pop hooks and bridges a lot of gaps between garage rock and punk. Their sound has a lot of similarities to the sound that was coming out of New York a couple of years ago, akin to the lo-fi indie of Weed Hounds.
With an Astral Noize ‘Top 20 of 2017’ list you might expect to see an overview of the UK’s drone/doom/stoner scene but that is not the case, we like 30 minutes of catchy garage punk albums as much as we like hour-long single-track doom opus!
5. Gravetemple – Impassable Fears
Given the current turmoil sweeping the world in 2017, it was fitting that Gravetemple would make their return after almost a decade. Bringing together a veritable supergroup of experimental extremity, the on/off project of Attila Csihar and Stephen O’ Malley was never going to be a tour-de-force of easy listening.
Impassable Fears quite rightly puts the impending doom into it’s droning, deathly, almost ritualistic audial collage. Listened to as a whole, the record is a shamanic, ritualistic illustration of the collective angst of the entire human species. The releases arrhythmic percussive poundings, accentuated by screeching, off-kilter walls of guitar noise and topped off with Attila Csihar’s trademark inhuman croons, evoke a sound like nothing unleashed before. Impassable Fears dread concoction of noise is erratic – but this works in its favour, designed to induce ethereal trance states as opposed to pure audial consumption.
As stated in our review earlier this year, this concoction of sounds is arguably evidence of the existence of a post-death metal genre – and this is Impassable Fears’ biggest charm.
4. Bedwetter – Vol.1: Flick Your Tongue Against Your Teeth And Describe The Present
Vol 1… is the newest release from Lil Ugly Mane under his fresh alias Bedwetter. Released very early on in the year, the release has made a huge impression on us with ‘Stoop Lights’ potentially being of our most played track of the year.
Swapping out LUM’s broad, long-form style (see Three Sided Tape) for a sound far more polished and in a standard album format with nine tracks and a run time of 26mins 26secs. The lyricism on the release deals with mental health issues and is raw, unfiltered and emotively cleansing – it’s the sort of project that the world’s dispossessed (circa 2017) can relate to.
Vol 1… is manic and unhinged, the beats add an almost uplifting edge with the lyricism dwelling in despair but at the same time, it feels as if this is a catharsis for Little Ugly Mane. With rumours abound of a second volume in early 2018, give this a listen (or several) for a lesson in self-deprecating catharsis.
3. Amenra – Mass VI
Following a five-year wait, Belgian post-metaller’s Amenra returned this year with their most powerful album to date. Mass VI is the accumulation of all they have achieved with their first five albums, combined with inspiration from the various projects they’ve been involved with since.
There is the definite feeling of being taken on a pain-ridden journey from start to finish, with singer Colin H. Van Eeckhout’s emotive vocals laying personal trauma over cinematic blackened soundscapes. Mass VI also features outstanding use of light and dark timbres that give the whole album a breathless epic feel, most obvious on standout track ‘A Solitary Reign’, where both angst-ridden screams and delicate harmonies combine, evoking stunning dynamics. This offering is more than an album and even goes beyond simple art, reaching the realms of a religious experience that’s bound to leave you as a convert.
If Amenra hit on a winning formula with Mass IV & V then Mass VI takes them on to new heights, so much so that repeated listens are more than just rewarding, they are obligatory to allow Amenra’s sonic mastery to be truly appreciated. All hail the Church of Ra.
2. Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper
Seattle-based duo Bell Witch had already proved themselves adept writers of lengthy compositions before this October album, but where they were once another doom band pumping out captivating prolonged tracks, Mirror Reaper saw them become the experts of The Long Song. A funeral doom masterpiece, reaching an inconceivable 84 minutes, the album is sure to be considered the group’s magnum opus for years to come.
As we said in our review, it’s hard not to think of the circumstances surrounding the album’s creation whilst listening. The release is in many ways in memoriam of founding member Adrian Guerra, who passed away last year. His legacy lives on in Mirror Reaper – his voice can even be heard near the album’s middle, as ‘As Above’ (aka part one) becomes ‘So Below’ (aka part two). Perhaps informed by their tragic loss, Bell Witch infuse the release with a sorrowful emotion that makes it a more challenging listen than any down-tuned guitar ever could.
The album would work well as a more predictable half-hour composition, but Bell Witch are not concerned with its commercial viability. Instead, every note, drum beat and atmospheric drone rings out to its fullest conclusion, giving the release a cavernous, unrivalled enormity.
1. Bolt Gun – Man Is Wolf To Man
Yes, this is about the third time in as many months that we’ve touched upon Man Is Wolf To Man, but perhaps that’s a testament to exactly why this album is Astral Noize’s album of the year. Following on from two rather by the book black/post-metal releases, Man Is Wolf To Man, released on the excellent (and still underrated) Art As Catharsis – who have, by all accounts, been fucking slaying it this year – is a transcendent experience as much as it is an enthralling listen.
Having left behind the conventionally black metal trappings of their genesis in favour of a sound far more grandiose in scope and concept – Bolt Gun‘s sound on this release is centred around Lopushansky’s arthouse opus Museum Visitor, a film based on life in an oppressive Soviet Gulag. In this context, Man Is Wolf To Man’s atmosphere is melancholic and oppressive, but grandiose in its cathartic soundscaping. The album’s concept is incredibly important to its audial endpoint, lending a harrowing context to its dystopian rumblings, resulting in a Blade Runner-esque dystopian aesthetic. The album’s multi-faceted approach – taking blackened post metal, and searing it together with lashings of crawling, darkened doom (à la Bell Witch) – tied together with atmospheric synth pads – flawlessly builds and releases tension in the same way any number of masterfully composed film scores do.
The cinematic mastery of Man Is Wolf To Man is indicative of everything that’s been great about metal this year – from the cinematically minded music, to the genre-fluid, synth-laden long-ass songcraft – Bolt Gun have proved that doom, post and black metal synergy can be more than just riffs, drones and 20-minute-long songs.
Words: George Parr, Andrew Day, David Brand, Tom Kirby, John Davidson, Joe-Julian Naitsri and Richard Lowe