The Astral Noize Albums of the Year 2019: 40-21

40. .gif from god – approximation_of_a_human

It’s rare that a record is equal parts bonkers and absolute genius, but that is exactly what .gif from god managed to achieve this year. The band’s full-length debut, approximation_of_a_human takes a few listens to really comprehend, but once it’s locked in, it’s a hell of a ride. Every single element of the album is unique and at times, as on ‘Possible Futures In The Minds Of Children’, there is a sense that they have simply thrown everything against the wall, it’s stuck and that is how the song has formed. There is both sophistication and playfulness to be found here too, with songs touching on serious subject matters, delivered with tongue-in-cheek presentation. Songs like ‘When You Yell At Me, Make Sure It Hurts My Feeling’ and ‘40,000 Jobs For A Cowboy & Counting’ are clear indications of the band’s more humorous side, but musically the chaotic nature of their sound is something that simply cannot be ignored. 

 

39. Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling

Writing about Yellow Eyes as a relative novice is a challenge – they’re a band this writer didn’t check out until all the recommendations for them hit critical mass (call it the Blood Incantation effect). After a crash-course in their earlier discography, Rare Field Ceiling came out at just the right time to hear the links to the albums that preceded it, but also the significant step-ups in musicianship, songwriting and production it represented. Tracks like ‘Light Delusion’ demonstrate continuity with Yellow Eyes’ previous LPs, moving from tumbling overlapping and interlocking melodies into dagger-sharp black metal riffs, its delicately-riven parts making up far more than the sum of their parts. Overall though, it’s the increased presence of drums and the emphasis on rhythm that sets Rare Field Ceiling apart from its predecessors. It feels wrong to talk about “groove” in a black metal context, but, like Ulver driving a Chevy Camaro, songs such as ‘No Dust’ took Yellow Eyes’ Swiss-watch intricate black metal and bolted them onto driving Motörhead rhythms in a way that was compelling but also (whisper it) fun.

 

38. Snow Burial – Ostrava

Chicago seems to always find a way into the accolades of the heavier realms of sonic output. Out of the overwhelming plethora of musical offerings from the city, Snow Burial’s Ostrava showcases a uniquely powerful dive into social observations through the wonderfully vast lens of post-metal. Theirs is a vitriolic message of the divisive political, philosophical and communal happenings in the United States and the world, catapulted forward by a bevy of outstanding musicianship. The album is also a beautifully written call to arm oneself with knowledge and understanding. The album reaches an apex of brimming social and personal introspection with ‘Gaping Wounds’ and ‘The Unforgiven’. Outlining not only the breadth of Snow Burial’s influences and intrigues, they also act as another sonic benchmark for a city that has always been at the forefront of the history and progress of so many musical styles and genres.

 

37. Memoriam – Requiem For Mankind

Initially formed in memory of late Bolt Thrower drummer Martin “Kiddie” Kearns, it’d be easy to dismiss Memoriam as a heritage act with little to offer in this current golden age of underground death metal, but over the course of three albums the band, led by ex-Bolt Thrower vocalist Karl Willets, have evolved into a truly enticing proposition. Requiem For Mankind, their third LP, surpasses its predecessors on almost every front, with a more polished production coming in particularly handy. This, admittedly, strips some of the rawness but undoubtedly helps the guitars to hit harder than ever, and Andy Whale’s (also a former member of Bolt Thrower) percussion simply booms out of the speakers. Though it does nothing no fan of death metal won’t have already heard elsewhere – in fact, even amongst the current crop of fantastic OSDM artists, Memoriam are resoundingly old-school – it reruns the genre’s tropes with such finesse that even the most pessimistic of those who spend their time bemoaning oversaturation will still struggle not to give in to the monstrous grooves and steamrolling riffs. Also key is the band’s political bent, with the band succeeding where many of their peers fail in that they refuse to glamorise war despite leaning on its imagery. Also, ‘Austerity Kills’ certainly holds an apt message for our times.

 

36. Immortal Bird – Thrive On Neglect

Chicago’s Immortal Bird might not have reached the lofty heights of esteem inhabited by the band sharing the first half of their name, but if they continue to churn out efforts like this year’s Thrive On Neglect, then it’s only a matter of time. The quartet’s blend of caustic crust and blistering blackened sludge has never sounded as sharp of tooth and nail as it does in 2019 – incisive lyrics confronting mental health, personal trauma and the world’s descent into madness cutting to the bone as readily as their razor-sharp riffing. A furious work ethic has suffused the band’s year, resulting in tours with the likes of Cloud Rat and a shared stage with death metal masters Cattle Decapitation. Having faced setbacks that would cripple lesser bands since the release of debut full-length Empress/Abscess in 2015 (lineup changes and van/gear thefts, to name but two) the ‘Bird have come back as vicious and vital as ever.

 

35. Candlemass – The Door To Doom

With the news that original vocalist Johan Längquist had returned to the Candlessmas fold (following a thirty-two year separation), most rejected any concerns that a rekindling of creative cahoots with chief songwriter Leif Edling could do anything but recapture the magic of their seminal debut Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, and instead concentrated on mopping up the tears of joy. In any case, any lingering doubts would swiftly ebb away as ‘Splendor Demon Majesty’, the opening track on The Door To Doom, lumbered out of the gate. Indeed, aside from being a potentially perilous return, The Door To Doom is an unabashed triumph across the board, its grim charisma and Sabbathian immensity (Tony Iommi even pops up for a guitar solo of heart-stopping proportions midway through ‘Astorolus – The Great Octopus’) coming together in a monstrously heavy masterclass in doom metal done right. Längquist’s now more weathered voice sounds as gloriously huge as ever, and the ensemble performance behind him thrums with a riff-writing potency that most bands will never capture. Simply put, The Door To Doom is a monumental, nigh-on career best from a band already considered legends.

 

34. Sleep Token – Sundowning

It’s often best to jump on the bandwagon early with mysterious, anonymous acts, because as we’ve seen with Ghost and Batushka in recent years, such acts seldom remain shrouded in mystery forever, and it isn’t always pretty when the curtains come down. Enigmatic outfit Sleep Token, who claim to be dedicated to an ancient deity known as Sleep, have managed to remain secretive since they emerged in 2017, and if you’re yet to find your place on the hype train, Sundowning marks the point where you should buy a ticket and climb aboard. Fronted by masked vocalist Vessel (perhaps the only member?), the band’s sound pulls from easily identifiable reference points, yet assembles these varied touchstones into a cohesive style that sounds unlike anything else. There’s the tender but cinematic post-rock, which is juxtaposed with pulsating, visceral tech-metal, and then there’s the sombre trap beats and the rich textures of chamber pop – all, of course, held together by Vessel’s poignant, Bon Iver-esque vocals. Some might scoff at what they see as little more than pretentious pageantry, but metal has always loved a good gimmick, and Sleep Token’s commitment to theirs makes it much easier to dive in and lose yourself. Come for the elegant, emotive and powerful music and you might just find yourself worshipping an ancient deity. It’s worth the trade-off.

 

33. Car Bomb – Mordial

In September, Mordial, the follow-up to 2016’s highly impressive Meta, saw Long Islanders Car Bomb deliver their most mesmerising work to date. Opening with the unsettling intro ‘Start’ – which sounds like a quiet descent into an unravelling nightmare – what follows is a kaleidoscopic dose of pummeling riffs, scattergun rhythms, dark haunting melodies and some of the nattiest guitar work released this year. The band’s influences range far and wide, jumping from S.C.I.E.N.C.E-era Incubus in one instant to Meshuggah the next, all laced with a hefty dose of downtuned Deftones melancholia throughout. There’s no let up in the dizzying mix either – from the groove-adorned aggression of ‘Vague Skies’ to the spiralling guitar licks of ‘Scattered Sprites’ and the spectral-like melodies of ‘Xoxoy’, Mordial is a chaotic tapestry of oppressive musical precision that is like nothing else released this year and stands as the band’s most impressive release to date.

 

32. Wallowing – Planet Loss

In a scene as saturated as the UK extreme metal underground, it’s getting increasingly difficult to have anything new to say. While Wallowing’s constituent parts might echo other acts that have come before them (stage costumes, hefty sci-fi themes, lyrically influenced comic books, a caustic blend of sludge/doom/noise/grind) the way that these sonic technicians blend them into a throbbing, cosmic mass is entirely original. Debut release Planet Loss deals with an environmentally catastrophic Orwellian dystopia (wonder where they got the inspiration from?), channelling themes through a sonic weaving of pure bile-flecked disgust. Towering tones and deep groove-laden riffs are the name of the game, cut through by B-movie synth wobblings and inhumanly acidic vocals. The heaving, noisy soundscapes are, almost impossibly, eclipsed by the band’s live show – a huge and heaving tumult of rage, riffs and righteous indignation at both fictional and factual worlds beginning to collapse. Hail this creation. We loved this one so much that we had special effects prop designed Carl Crees help us create unique, sci-fi-inspired tapes for a special Astral Noize Records release.

 

31. Sunn O))) – Life Metal/Pyroclasts

2019 was definitely a prolific year for drone-metal titans Sunn O))). In April they shifted the tectonic plates under everyone’s feet with Life Metal, their first full-length LP since their last non-collaborative effort, 2015’s Kannon. In Life Metal, the band collaborated with recording guru Steve Albini to capture the truest possible form of their sound through an all analogue signal path resulting in an album that sounds a lot thicker than their previous works. Indeed, the added sonic layers of this specific recording method brought more colour to their sound – quite a contrast to their signature bleak and dense drones. Composition wise, the trio traded an overly experimental approach for simpler arrangements. During these recording sessions, Sunn O))) (with guests Hildur Guðnadóttir and Tim Midyett) also played modal drones as warm ups or as a way to finish the day and these parts of the sessions were used to create a counterpart to the album called Pyroclasts, which dropped in October. The tracks that comprise this second release, being all improvised pieces, bring an extension to the trance-like qualities of Life Metal. All four tracks are pretty minimal composition-wise but the calmness and bliss they transmit give this album a place to stand firmly among Sunn O)))’s discography. 

 

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30. Ghold – Input>Chaos

In the wild and crazy world of technological involvement with music, industrial and experimental metal concepts emerged from the sprawling web of sonic landscapes created by the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Clock DVA, and Test Dept. It was only natural that at some point the musical ideologies and philosophies of the early industrial scene would bleed into how metal ripped itself from, as Choosing Death author Albert Mudrian affectionately views, the rotting corpse of punk. Given the UK pedigree of the industrial line it’s also no surprise that there has been an exceptional release within the genre in 2019 from these humble shores. Astral Noize favourites Ghold have this year re-emerged from the murky depths of a dizzyingly exceptional year of musical output, with an underpublicised album that is truly unique and markedly refreshing. The melding of human textures with inhuman soundscapes create a distinct snapshot of today’s grapple with both human existence and the virtual society coming together. It is one of the most impressively unique and brutally honest albums of the year.

 

29. Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen

The avant-garde black metal subgenre has seen many changes and shifts in direction over the years, all seen through the evolution of French veterans Blut Aus Nord’s discography. From folk-driven, intense black metal through industrial dissonance and deep into atmospheric soundscapes, they’ve been at the top of the pack for some time. Hallucinogen sees them entering ambience-swathed psychedelic territory, packed with choral passages and layers of synth. Progressive without being prog, repeated motifs and cycles of mind-altering sound build a sonic tapestry of lysergic dimensions, held solid with a black metal backbone. The vocals are buried deep in the luminous mix, which makes them more of an instrumental addition to the music – it is this more than anything that creates the otherworldly atmosphere and a detached, cosmic climate, all adding up to a delicious, celestial journey. With Hallucinogen, Blut Aus Nord prove, once again, that they are the forerunners of the black metal future.

 

28. No One Knows What The Dead Think – No One Knows What The Dead Think

Sometimes, hope can only lead to disappointment. Such were the expectations that  manifested when two-thirds of grind legends Discordance Axis came together again under the moniker No One Knows What the Dead Think, the new band from ex-Discordance Axis members Jon Change (also of Gridlink) and Rob Marton, joined by drummer Kyosuke Nakano. And yet, their self-titled debut didn’t just do the legacy of Discordance Axis justice; it felt utterly modern, like almost nothing else out there. Self-styled as “bullet hell grind”, this is an absolutely frantic album that, in time, comes to reveal more, with an initial rush of enthusiasm over the sheer energy giving way to something deeper – grind not as protest, but grind as theoretical physics. As far as grind in 2019 goes, this is essential.

 

27. Heilung – Futha

In a year packed with stellar heavy music, it’s impressive that Heilung’s Futha can stand out so far from the pack while still feeling like it belongs among the metal and hardcore crews. By no traditional definition is Futha a metal album; it doesn’t have distorted guitars or a drum kit or any of the expected contemporary instruments. Instead, Heilung offer primal folk music inspired by Nordic mythology and performed entirely by voice and traditional instruments. Despite this, the highly ritualised songs on Futha strike home in ways not too dissimilar to that of black metal. Indeed, black metal itself has a long history of associations with Norse folk music and imagery, an aesthetic which carries with it an intrinsically extreme or “heavy” quality, and Futha is awash with similar qualities.  When Maria Franz isn’t carrying a track with her ethereal singing, Heilung’s songs are often driven rhythmically, the primitive drums pounding away viciously while other folk instruments craft chillingly ominous atmospheres or, elsewhere, Kai Uwe Faust’s guttural throat singing leads the way. Futha isn’t a black metal album, but it has the spirit of one and the musical quality and impact to match.

 

26. BIG|BRAVE – A Gaze Among Them

Throughout this year many fresh heavy albums came through the door to occupy our ears and to shatter all previous conceptions of what was a great album. One of the big hitters of 2019 was BIG|BRAVE’s A Gaze Among Them. Seamlessly blending loud amplifiers, repetitive song structures and a great deal of emotional impact, BIG|BRAVE raised the stakes even higher than with their previous work, 2017’s Ardor. Their new album ranges from repetitive drone rock pieces like ‘Muted Shifting Of Space’ and ‘Holding Pattern’ to more experimental works such as the first parts of ‘Body Individual’ and ‘This Deafening Verity’. However, the singular quality of this album is how it mutates itself throughout its 39 minutes without losing sense of what it is; a beautiful wave of drones and noise supporting Robin Wattie’s unique voice and using it to convey raw emotion.

 

25. Monolord – No Comfort

Amongst the glut of fuzz-drenched, Black Sabbath-worshipping stoner/doom bands out there, it can often take a lot to stand out from the crowd. Indeed, whilst No Comfort may not reach the emotional heights of contemporaries such as Pallbearer there are certainly indications that Gothenburg trio Monolord are starting to play with new textures and sounds, and beginning to embrace other influences into their riff-heavy sound. The strident ‘Bastard Son’ opens the album in typical fashion, led by an almighty, earth-shaking riff reminiscent of Kyuss at their dirtiest. This is followed by the frankly awesome ‘The Last Leaf’ which features a gloriously emotive, almost euphoric guitar lead of an outro that well and truly gets under the skin. However, it’s toward the end of the album where the Swedish trio let loose a little, incorporating acoustic textures and pulsating bass on the hymn-like ‘Alone Together’ and lacing the end of the mid-paced ‘Skywards’ with quieter, introspective, harmonised passages. With a change of producer too, there is a clearer, crisper feel to these songs, resulting in Monolord’s most concise, affecting and impressive collection of songs to date.

 

24. Cattle Decapitation – Death Atlas

Cattle Decapitation need no introduction, already a household name of the brilliantly extreme. Their catalogue is monolithic in the metal realm, cleverly conveying messages of misanthropy stemming from their disgust over how humanity treats other animals. However, their most recent release is much more pointed towards how humanity has treated its home. Death Atlas is a stunning condemnation of the human race in the wake of the consequential choices it has been making. The album is arguably the most well-constructed studio work that Cattle Decapitation have produced. Each section is preceded by an opening announcement that aids in drawing attention to the record of offences that have been committed against the planet. What is equally unique is that at first glance the album may be more “tame” compared to the overt/graphic track-listings of other albums, but the content is some of their most pointed and introspective, with the vocal work standing out as powerfully as it ever has. The monumental title-track looms over the album like the shadow of death across the Earth. It caps off an outstanding album from the giants of the death metal genre, and soars like a vulture over a tortured land into the upper echelons of this year’s offerings.

 

23. Mizmor – Cairn 

To describe Cairn as a vast album would be an understatement – but then, all of Mizmor’s work has tended towards the huge and epic. Not in the typical sense – there is no bombast here, no choirs or synth flourishes – but in the way that each record feels like a treatise upon humanity. Musically, Cairn is as much minimalist, atmospheric black metal as it is doom; all-consuming, hypnotic, but with enough sense to introduce moments of contrast and texture. It makes Cairn feel like a journey, both musically and spiritually – a sense of progression and understanding that gradually reveals itself over time, with each forward step a tiny moment of revelation. Whether it is the equal of previous album Yodh is something only time will determine, but three months on from release, it stands as a towering monument of introspective metal that easily ranks among 2019’s best. 

 

22. Russian Circles – Blood Year

2019 saw this Chicago-based, instrumental three-piece return with their heaviest and most succinct work to date. Indeed, with the exception of a couple of moody, quieter interludes, Blood Year finds Russian Circles sounding more angry and focused than ever before. Packed with charging riffs and grooves, from the locomotive-style hypnotic rhythms of ‘Arluck’ and epic, soaring ‘Milano’ to the heavy-as-lead closer ‘Quartered’, everything here is delivered with incredible precision and a great sense of immediacy. The production is a little less muddy than on previous releases too, pushing the flawless drum work of Dave Turncrantz to the fore and highlighting just how effortlessly these three musicians interlock with each other. Already renowned as a stunning live act, Blood Year only serves to bolster an ever impressive catalogue of albums.

 

21. Cloud Rat – Pollinator

Covering a ridiculous amount of musical ground, Pollinator is a fascinating introduction to the oeuvre of Cloud Rat, spanning everything from harsh blackened grind to blissed-out post-metal. A diverse album, Pollinator serves up challenging shifts in structure and changes in pace whilst keeping the listener on board with liberal splashes of melody, death metal riffage, and from-the-grave vocal shrieks. From ‘Wonder’ onwards the album takes on an increasingly experimental turn (even more so on companion EP Do Not Let Me Off That Cliff) that seems to be born out of curiosity and instinct rather than an omnivorous appetite for genre experimentation. ‘The Mad’ progresses from a Thou playing Jeff Buckley songs beginning into a black metal midsection before d-beating itself into oblivion, while ‘Al Di La’ crams the whole of Oathbreaker’s Rheia into two minutes and still finds time for an ugly hardcore breakdown. In fact, it almost seems a sin to mention other artists when talking about Pollinator because Cloud Rat have created all of this while sounding entirely their own.

 

Thanks for reading. Check back tomorrow for the top 20.

Words: Adam Pegg, George Parr, Richard Lowe, Tony Bliss, Garrett Tanner, Stuart Wain, Brett Tharp, Nick Spooner, Benjamim Gomes, Jay Hampshire, John Higham, John Morrow, Gregory Brooks, Andrew Day, Tim Birkbeck