49: Ultha – The Inextricable Wandering

Quick summary: The Inextricable Wandering is, as far as this writer’s concerned, the best black metal album of the last ten years. Ultha‘s brand of USBM has always drawn heavily from Weakling‘s Dead As Dreams, and this album feels close to being the equal of that mighty, genre-defining record. Part of its success is that it doesn’t reinvent the USBM wheel. Instead, The Inextricable Wandering marks the near-perfection of a genre that has always been exceptional, but has been inching towards this point for over a decade.

Few words can do justice to the vision and depth of The Inextricable Wandering. It is not just an album – it is the realisation of a vision, a defining statement, the kind of album that leaves you wondering what could possibly follow it. There is something deeply personal to this album, but also universal, as it taps into the common threads of darkness that run through the human condition – the sense of longing, of loneliness, of forever wanting to be part of something greater. This is mandatory.

Astral Noize

48. Beorn’s Hall – Estuary

Despite ticking many boxes on the melodic atmospheric black metal Bingo Card, the artwork of Estuary belies the contents within. Sure, this is still a record set within those walls, but one that it is not afraid to send out scouting parties to a varied set of influences that shift the eight tracks from mere enjoyable folk metal to an adjacent realm somewhere between early ’90s black metal and bombastic modern atmospheric black metal with twists of ’70s prog, particularly in the raw and room-reverbed production, and driving hard rock.

There is a rawness to be found here that is often missing from many of Beorn’s Hall‘s peers, the emphasis on passion and drive across Estuary sets it far apart and above many other similarly grandiose records from recent memory, and one can’t help but be floored by the intensity and ardour pouring from every faucet of this album. Lord Of The Rings-inspired this may be, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is just another so-so stroll through Mordor, this is an engaging journey from start to finish with plenty of surprises along the path.

Astral Noize

47. Howling Sycamore – Howling Sycamore

An odd one this, in that it currently exists as a one-off, despite being a thrilling listen. Born of Ethel Duath’s Davide Tiso, Howling Sycamore’s sole record is a truly dark, humourless album of austere prog-orientated heavy music containing one of this writer’s favourite musical moments of the year – “Come full circle into nothingness again/I am reborn into glimmering shards of starlight.” Perfectly enshrouded by the dense, shifting compositions on this fearless album, Jason McMaster of Watchtower’s incredible voice delivers one of the most earnest, devout performances on any release this year. Fully committed to his frantic, peerlessly desperate character, the exposed, too-human wiring of ‘Descent To Light’ and ‘Upended’ show that Howling Sycamore is a majestic stone pillar of a record, and if it doesn’t lead to a second, even better album there will be rioting in these parts. Boss.

Astral Noize

46. Pigs x7 – King Of Cowards

Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs’ second release clocks in at just 40 minutes – a ferocious chorus of rising chords and bloodcurdling psychedelia, with an intensity of spirit-summoning proportions. There is a darker tone to the vocals here, with a greater sense of despair conveyed in lead singer Matt Baty’s howling intonations than previously, but the band are careful not to take themselves too seriously. Over its six tracks, Baty and co. raise hell; swaggering across the record with the spit-laced charisma of Motörhead, embodying the louche, tongue-in-cheek confidence and unrepentant joy that metal often lacks these days. The album was recorded in a remote barn in the Italian countryside, and on it, Pigs x7 have kept the best elements of debut album Feed The Rats, and concentrated them into shorter, harder-hitting songs. If you like your music loud, brash and above all exhilarating, then King Of Cowards is the record for you.

Astral Noize

45. Self Defense Family – Have You Considered Punk Music

Self Defense Family‘s sixth LP came after almost a year away – extremely unusual for the otherwise prolific alternative rock ensemble. It seems the time away did them the world of good though, as Have You Considered Punk Music is their magnum opus, highlighting and emphasising their creative decisions with very little filter. With no room for unnecessary trills or production nonsense, Self Defense Family are at their most direct and, in turn, coherent.

‘Raw Contempt’ is exemplary of this, with more of a focus on the reverb reflections of those loose chords than the chords themselves. Repetitious and aimless, this would be considered an interlude or a filler track if it were any other band. Hell, most of these tracks would be. But that’s what SDF do and they do it a lot better than most: create an environment and a feeling with an instrumental, and allow Patrick Kindlon to let loose vocally and lyrically (although he ties everything together this time around, rather than leading). Cutting everything except the skeleton of what has earned them a cult following over the years, Have You Considered… possesses an energy that is challenging to replicate, even for SDF themselves, but an energy that is maintained throughout nonetheless, making this really something special.

Astral Noize

44. Summoning – With Doom We Come

Summoning have a sound and they know that sound inside out. Their fans know it inside out too. Yet With Doom We Come is something of a marked progression for Summoning without straying too far from what we all know and love about the mysterious duo of Silenius and Protector. The drums are as bombastic and crushingly machine-like as ever, the vocals still howl and cry like the winds of Mordor but there are some darker, more considered melodies emerging throughout with the guitars taking somewhat of a backseat, a more foundational role, to let other instruments such as horns and woodwind take the music to new cinematic heights. Summoning remain a leading light in the genre of atmospheric black metal and still sound as out-there in 2018 as they did twenty years ago, a salute to their uncompromisingly unique vision of a genre that can at times end up too far down a path well trodden. With Doom… is the exact record 2018 needed from this part of the metal realm. An exercise in maintaining a legacy with pride and forward-thinking songwriting indeed.

Astral Noize

43. Bliss Signal – Bliss Signal

Bliss Signal’s eponymous release is the product of a collaboration between sparse grime, techno and rave experimentalist Jack Adams, aka Mumdance, and Altar of Plagues/Wife’s James Kelly. It came to fruition at Unsound in 2017 as a live show, followed this year with an LP. Over eight tracks, the pair explore the vectors at which their musical heritages connect, combining elegiac, sadtrance undertones and ambient weightlessness with the harsh noise and menacing atmospherics of black metal. It is a collaboration that stands apart from the previous work of either, more a sonic reflection of the artwork’s fog-drenched landscapes than the dark recesses of a nightclub, but a piece of art that teases out the power shared by both those secret places. The perfect record for cold winter nights, stumbling home through the engulfing darkness.

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42. Vilkacis – Beyond The Mortal Gate

There’s been some big-name black metal releases this year, but few have stood out as much as this. It’s in the depths of the underground that the truly exciting things have been happening, with Beyond The Mortal Gate being a prime example. The first Vilkacis full-length shows all the experience of sole member M. Rekevis (Yellow Eyes, Vanum, ex-Ash Borer), and delivers a masterclass of USBM. Raw, filled with belligerent atmosphere and driven by a singular purpose, Beyond The Mortal Gate is the kind of album that cannot be denied.

What really makes the album stand out, though, isn’t just the melancholic tinge to the riffs or the relentless momentum of the songs; it’s the way Beyond The Mortal Gate taps into something bigger than being “just” music. Talk of black metal being something spiritual is often hyperbolic, but Beyond The Mortal Gate is the kind of album that makes such statements seem accurate. This is an album that feels more important than simple music, it is simply too profound and vital.

Astral Noize

41. From The Bogs of Aughiska – Mineral Bearing Veins

Despite it being a heavily spiritual nether-realm (at least in the eyes of its denizens), rural Ireland, and it’s rich folk-mythology are a criminally under-venerated arena for folk-laden black metal.

With their latest instalment Mineral Bearing Veins, From The Bogs Of Aughiska have not only brought the nether-realm of the Irish countryside into a fully black metal context (compared with the blackened ambience of their previous discography), but have also crafted what is arguably one of the year’s most interesting black metal listens. Combining pummelling, minimalist black metal beats with their trademark futurist use of folk tales – straight from the mouths of the tellers – super-imposed over rumbling atmospherics, Mineral Bearing Veins is an engrossing and varied listen. It’s still definably From The Bogs’.

Astral Noize

40. Tangled Thoughts Of Leaving – No Tether

The polar opposite of “earthbound”, No Tether was further indication (if any were needed) that Tangled Thoughts Of Leaving are something very special indeed. A sinister, defiantly serious record that furrows its brow against the notion of joy or peace, every instrument on this incredible album pulses with a dark, committed energy that refuses to restrain itself. Wordless and all the better for it, ‘The Alarmist’, ‘Binary Collapse’ and ‘Inner Dissonance’ teleport the listener – willingly or otherwise – to a place of uncertainty and spiritual panic, and even in its quietest, most elegant moments of piano-led delicacy, the atmosphere is one of fleeing disaster, of running breathlessly from a burning city. If you don’t feel the compulsion to undertake a dangerous, clandestine mission after listening to this, your emotions have failed you. Utterly compelling from start to finish, TTOL’s latest is a soundtrack to the most willingly-fatal anti-hero movie ever made. Magnificent.

Astral Noize

39. Oceans Of Slumber – A Banished Heart

Released in March, Texan doom/prog merchants Oceans Of Slumber offered a truly beautiful album with the expansive and heartfelt A Banished Heart.

Opener ‘The Decay of Disregard’ sets the emotional tone of the album, an eight-minute-plus epic in the truest sense that marries Cammie Gilbert’s exquisite voice with chugging riffs, atmospheric keyboard and precise and intricate drumming. These elements are blended perfectly to create a unique sound, and the album itself is a huge leap forward in terms of their songwriting abilities. Everything feels more organic than on previous effort Winter yet also more thought-out, the melodies and song structures more considered.

There are heavier moments to be found here too. In particular, the furious riffs and blastbeats of ‘A Path To Broken Stars’ and the intricate guitar work and death growls of ‘Etiolation’, but for this writer it is the quieter, introspective moments in which the album’s true beauty is realised. The melancholic and haunting vocals that adorn the the title-track and the soaring melodies of album highlight ‘No Colour, No Light’ offer up some of this year’s finest moments in metal. A truly unique, memorable and beautiful album from a band that deserve our attention.

Astral Noize

38. Kurishimi  What Is Chaos?

Deliberately mad and seemingly designed to prevent rest and relaxation, wilfully nuts noise/jazzists Kurushimi continued the onslaught of sound butchery initiated on their self-titled full-length and the what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it contrariness of the Shototsu EP. Foregoing such a medieval concept as “the song”, Kurushimi dive into What Is Chaos? with a bare-chested disregard for the listener – each and every sound is at odds, from production to melodic intent. The bass is a blunt, muffled club, the guitar a spidery free-agent, and the chirps, barfs, blurts and hymnals of their various guest stars push the whole album past absurdity and into another realm where there was never any order. Tracks like ‘Yuruyaka Na Shi No Ma No Kanbi Naru Mezame’ inhabit a horrid dream state that lurks rather than hovers, before filtering in shards of actual jazz, sort of. A record that lives outside of whatever you think music’s supposed to be, it’s like having five dreams at once that don’t belong to you. Mental.

Astral Noize

37. Limb – Saboteurs Of The Sun

Thematically Limb have gone the full 360 degrees on their third album, Saboteurs Of The Sun. Whilst the first release the London four piece put out for New Heavy Sounds, the swampy EP Gift Of The Sun celebrated our system’s celestial body, Saboteurs… is the alarm call mourning the demise.

Musically the two records could hardly be further apart, though, as Limb set out to move away from the often suffocating sludge/stoner/doom scene and into new territory. The sound is crisper and jangly, with much heavier use of synths to create atmosphere than before, resulting in a proggier, experimental vibe alongside moments obliging with the prerequisite stomping heaviness. Limb’s new direction is best showcased on opener ‘Wych Elm’, a track based around the mysterious story of an uknown women’s body found stuffed in an Elm tree, believed to be a Nazi spy.

Astral Noize

36. Mantar – The Modern Art Of Setting Ablaze

What do Mantar offer to us this year that isn’t being offered elsewhere? Pure nihilistic aggression. To that you may instantly think of many records this year that offer that up, but none deliver it with the spite and brutal honesty that Mantar do. The Modern Art Of Setting Ablaze feels untamed, uncontrollable and genuinely dangerous because they mean it. It has the same danger you feel when hearing Mayhem for the first time. There’s an integrity to the anarchist hate letter Hanno Klänhardt is writing to the contemporary world, which is backed up by his scorched-earth vocals and thunderous riffs, which sound like they’re echoing around the Thunderdome. With stripped-back songwriting, the two-piece sound as primal as ever, whilst the sharper production only gives Mantar a higher platform on which to unleash their rage. On the days when you hit your limit with the barrage of blood-curdling headlines as the world descends into bedlam, this is the album to reach for.

Astral Noize

35. Sleep – The Sciences

2018 was the Year Of The Pike. If Electric Messiah saw his other outfit, High On Fire, produce a career-high distillation of their Sodom-meet-Sabbath turbo doom, then The Sciences witnessed the unexpected rebirth of Matt Pike’s much-loved stoner metal trio Sleep. 2018 didn’t offer up many opportunities for escapism, but getting to delve into nearly an hour’s worth of glorious bong and sky-kissing hymns to weed, Geezer Butler and space exploration was an unexpected delight in an otherwise testing year.

Singer and bassist Al Cisneros was on top stoner-mystic form, billowing freedom songs from challic cups, thawing Antarcticans and inhaling rifftrees, while Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder added a playful sense of levity to Sleep’s slab-heavy riffing. And speaking of those riffs: for all the problematic “but the riffs” arguments that sprung up this year, Matt Pike could have had a basement full of beheaded corpses and still got let off on the strength of The Sciences. Whatever gods he was communing with, whatever he was smoking, Pike brought the fucking riffs to 2018 and turned a bad year into a bearable one.

Astral Noize

34. Svalbard – It’s Hard To Have Hope

Svalbard are without a doubt one of the countries’ best, and It’s Hard To Have Hope is the proof; their battle cry going out across heavy music; “THIS is how you do it”. Mixing hardcore, D-beat, and the atmospherics of black metal, this album comes out of the gate snarling and doesn’t stop. Crushing urgency flows unfettered from the speakers via pounding drums and roars of anguish, rather incredibly managing to come very close to capturing the raw intensity of Svalbard’s wall of sound and fury, brick-to-the-face live presence.

Soaring melodic leads that pierce the heart and mind, rumbling bass, and superbly graceful yet disciplined drum work define Svalbard’s mission statement; grab ’em by the throat and don’t let go. And as if the unstoppable weaponised instrumentals were not enough, the fearless and admirably socially conscious lyrics are the shining tip to this mighty spear of a record that is poised to take down the bad apples in our world with pure ferocity and passion. An authentic headbanger if ever there was one, It’s Hard… takes absolutely no prisoners.

Astral Noize

33. Eisham Ensemble – Nim Dong

Not that it’s all that surprising, but one of the most invigorating albums of the year comes snaking out of perpetually-reliable Aussie stable Art As Catharsis Records. Centred around the mind of Iranian composer Hamed Sadeghi, Eishan Ensemble’s Nim Dong takes traditional instruments like the tar, clarinet, upright bass and guitar and uses them to cast seven spells over the listener. That the last track on this bewitching album is the single is an indicator of Sadeghi’s belief in the rest of the material, and though ‘Solo Tar & Double Bass’ was this writer’s personal favourite, the woven shawl of ‘Future’ and swirling sunset of ‘Behind The Window’ can’t be denied if you have ears. In truth, this was easily the most listenable record of the year, an invocation of jazz melodicism and far eastern grace that acts more as a gateway to otherworldly ascension than 35-odd minute of banging tunes. Excellent to an insulting degree.

Astral Noize

32. War On Women – Capture The Flag

The self-titled debut album from War On Women was one of the best punk albums of recent years, combining humour and political protest in a way rarely seen outside of the Dead Kennedys’ back-catalogue. But Capture The Flag makes the debut seem like a bit of a warm-up. There’s no big secret as to why, no unexpected twists or grand changes. Instead, Capture The Flag is a perfect distillation of everything good in punk rock, with tight songwriting, lyrics that are intelligent and passion that can’t be faked.

The background of Trump’s presidency looms large over Capture The Flag, but whilst a lot of political hardcore can quickly feel dated, the vast array of topics covered on the album gives it greater staying power. As well as the expected protest songs, there’s also songs such as ‘Pleasure & The Beast’ and ‘YDTMHTL’ which are about sexual pleasure, personal control, and self-love. This is a modern classic.

Astral Noize

31. Harakiri For The Sky – Arson

Few bands can balance melody and heaviness without sacrificing one in favour of the other. On Arson however, atmospheric black metallers Harakiri For The Sky manage to blend both perfectly to absolutely devastating effect. Despite being over nine minutes long, opener ‘Fire, Walk With Me’ is one of the catchiest and immediately striking songs released this year – the listener is drawn in instantly. The vocals are raw yet accessible as they soar over uplifting and emotive guitar lines.

The album continues in this vein with each song sounding ever more urgent and euphoric – the final minutes of ‘You Are The Scars’ and the devastating ‘Heroin Waltz’ being perfect examples of this. There are moments of respite from the unrelenting urgency too, notably the slower melodic passages of ‘Voidgazer’ and ‘Stillborn’, which only serve to further highlight the band’s knack for creating moving melodies. The album could arguably benefit from a wider palette of emotions and even a bit fat trimmed here and there, but for this writer, Arson is one of the more affecting pieces of music released this year.

Astral Noize

30. Under – Stop Being Naive

Under make weird music for weird people! Sure, on the surface you could compare their sound to Melvins, but Under take it to a much seedier and more surreal territory. Their music exists in some undefined, weightless netherworld somewhere between Narnia and The Black Lodge. Inspired just as equally by Swans and The Dillinger Escape Plan, Under have this sensational way of letting a riff hang on too long, or twist and turn through odd, springy time signatures, always taking the listener off guard.

All three members add in wonderful vocal harmonies and rounds that just sound like nothing anybody else in the doom or sludge scene is doing. Whether Under are delivering insanely crushing riffs on ‘Malcontents’, serene Radiohead-inspired weirdness on ‘The Climb’, or a song that sounds like Nirvana covering Macc Lads (‘Happy’), the results still sound uniquely their own. Truly one of the most exciting live acts in the UK right now, Under are unforgettable and just refuse to be pigeon-holed, comfortably defying critics and even their peers in the doom scene.

Astral Noize

29. Jóhann Jóhannsson – Mandy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy may be remembered as the film that finally found a fitting use for the infamous Cage rage meme, but it was also perhaps the most metal film to be released in 2018. It’s soundtrack, appositely, followed suit, making great use of menacing soundscapes and doomy atmospheres. The film itself may show a fondness for metal, with the titular Mandy wearing (amongst others) a Black Sabbath shirt, but the soundtrack is less ’70s riffs and more disconcerting drone.

Drawing from the film’s hallucinatory visuals, the late great Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who tragically died earlier this year aged 48, collaborated with the likes of Stephen O’Malley (Sunn O)))) and Randall Dunn to craft an album that walks the line between unsettlingly sinister auras and poignant ambience. Even it’s delicate love theme, driven by forlorn guitar swells, is imbued with a latent sense of dread. The wailing guitar of ‘Dive-Bomb Blues’ and the low-end thuds of ‘Waste’, though, aren’t enough to make the Mandy OST a metal album. Its first half lingers primarily on poignant ambient music and piercing orchestrations, whilst the latter half picks up the pace to draw more heavily from drone-doom. A dark and despair-ridden score for a gory and psychedelic film, but the true tragedy here is that we’ll never hear another Jóhannsson score.

Astral Noize

28. Pascagoula – The Path, The Cross,The Aftermath

The UK’s south coast, and in particular Brighton, has become a hotbed for all things heavy in the past few years, with a burgeoning underground scene obvious if you scratch the surface even just a little bit. Pascagoula are by no means a new band, having played on the local circuit for four years, but this year released their debut full-length through the always excellent Dry Cough Records.

The Path, The Cross, The Aftermath is eight tracks of doom-laden noise rock dissonance, like a sludgy Jesus Lizard crossing multiple heavy spectra, lurching between chaotic flourishes drenched in feedback with a variety of anguished vocals spewed over the top and into the mix. Pascagoula excel in maintaining the intense atmospheres created throughout, especially on standout ‘The Unnerving Certainty Something Is Wrong’. Unnerving is certainly a good word to sum up the listening experience. An imposing beast that’s not for the faint-hearted.

Astral Noize

27. Hamferð – Támsins likam

Metal bands are always taking inspiration from their homes, but in Hamferð’s Támsins likam, you can hear the harsh climate of the Faroe Islands in the windswept melodies, and you can feel the rugged terrain in the impenetrable riffs. Taking inspiration from their homeland’s environment as well as it’s mythology, Támsins likam is the third instalment in a trilogy of releases that begun with 2010 EP Vilst Er Síðsta Fet. “At its core, Támsins Likam is the story of a husband and wife who have lost a child to disease and are struggling to process the grief,” frontman Jón Aldará told us earlier this year, and you can truly hear that struggle in its mournful funeral doom. The band’s sound began as a homage to ‘90s death-doom, and that bleak intensity remains, but it is now more nuanced, informed by the grand scope of classical music and the morose aura of traditional psalms and hymns.

Astral Noize

26. Body Void – I Live Inside A Burning House

When it came to realising the full possibilities of doom metal as both mirror to suffering and cathartic transcendence over it, few did it better this year than Body Void. Drawing on the legacy of such luminaries as Grief, Winter and Primitive Man, Body Void took the blackest of riffs and dragged them through long-form songs that contained everything from cosmic, cavernous doom to raw black metal blasts. While the length of their songs looked monolithic, Body Void made masterful use of tension and dynamics to build and then unleash fury over I Live Inside a Burning House’s hour-long run time. With lyrics that dealt with the harsh realities of living with gender dysphoria and mental illness, ILIABH was a monument to pain, but also a manual for survival.

Astral Noize

Click here for the final instalment, including the Astral Noize Album Of The Year. Picks 100-75 and 74-50 also now available.

Words: Tony Bliss, Adam Pegg, Stuart Wain, George Parr, Greg Brooks, Red Sismey, Rich Lowe, Chris “Frenchie” French, David Brand, Jack King, Andrew Day, Tom Kirby, Bill Waters, John Tron Davidson, Alex McFadyen, Joe-Julian Naitsri

 

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