2014 seemed to be the most challenging year for our journalists to select albums from. Much discussion and consideration was given to choosing just three works to showcase what represented 2014 for them personally. It’s always there in the back of our minds throughout the year, and here, for the fourth year running, we present our rundown of the works that affected us the most through the difficulties and high points of the last twelve months – however moderate or biased that balance was.
If you’ve not kept up with the progressive metal scene these last few years, here are the Cliff Notes: there is Ne Obliviscaris, and then there other bands being ritually humiliated by Ne Obliviscaris. Following the jaw-dropping debut “Portal of I,” my pick for the best album of 2012, the Aussies returned with a follow-up that’s more concise in its running time but even more expansive and ambitious in its conception. The three centrepiece compositions reconcile explosive, mighty riffcraft with startling maturity and delicacy, every ten seconds seemingly bringing to bear some new wonder of euphonious, ornate instrumentation. It’s a gorgeous curate’s egg, a Grecian urn of an album that makes most other metal bands working with 10-minute-plus songs look like aesthetic barbarians.
2. Darkest Era – “Severance”
The Northern Irish troupe’s sophomore effort puts them comfortably on an even footing with their inspirations in Primordial, a marriage of craggy, earthy atmosphere with accessible rock sensibilities that finds a perfect balance between the evocation of primal, timeless landscapes and catchy, hooky songwriting. Its brilliance doesn’t jump out at you on the first listen, but with time the refinement of every element at work becomes more and more apparent. Soulful vocals and erudite guitar work abound.
3. Beyond Creation – “Earthborn Evolution”
Technical Death Metal
Modern tech-death is a tricky beast, all too frequently flatulent and indulgent, complex for complexity’s sake. These Canadians seem to have solved the dilemma of how to make it consistently interesting, even peculiarly beautiful. Hearing the guitars, bass and drums playing bafflingly complicated patterns which mesh together in perfect lockstep has the cathartic appeal of a puzzle box clicking into place or the solution to an equation revealing itself. Beyond Creation seem to realise this, constructing songs that are careful, measured in their pacing, meant less to overwhelm the listener than to allow them to savour every note and its relationship to the myriad notes around it. Whatever the reason for the appeal, this record is at the top of its genre, the standard-bearer for how to do tech death right.
I don’t in any way consider myself to be an Aphex Twin super-fan, but I was nonetheless excited about the album’s pending release. Unsure of what to expect from ‘Syro’ – I ignored the hype machine that announced the arrival of the album – I went in with little expectation of what I might hear. Upon first listen, however, it was clear to me that something magical was at work. The album comes across as being a much more sophisticated and mature release than any I’ve ever heard from Aphex Twin. Naysayers and fanboys be damned, it might be one of the most sophisticated electronic music releases in the last 10 years. The trademark frenetic rhythms, warped melodies and strange voice samples are all here, but they’ve been transformed, heightened and sharpened into towering works of astounding electronic art that are absolutely beautiful. Richard’s personal finesse, aplomb and mastery of a genre he himself helped to create is in full bloom here as he bends styles like house, techno, glitch to his own twisted will, creating something that is unmistakeably his own.
Some think the album doesn’t live up to the hype surrounding it or the long wait it took for it to see the light of day, but I couldn’t care less about their myopic views: this album has captured my attention in a way that caught me completely off guard. ‘Syro’ is like delightfully sticky digital honey slowly being poured over my anxious brain every time I listen to it. Last fall I traveled to Europe for two weeks with some of my best friends and ‘Syro’ was the only thing I listened to the entire trip; blissful sounds to an already once-in-a-lifetime experience that was full of many beginnings and endings. Much more than my number 1 album of 2014, this is going to be a favorite for a very long time to come and an essential part of my development as a human being.
2. Artificial Brain – “Labyrinth Constellation”
Technical Death Metal
Hailing from Long Island, NY, essentially the birthplace of brutal and technical death metal, (Suffocation, anyone?), Artificial Brain craft a creepy interstellar variety of the genre that serves up heaping amounts of dissonance, like genre-mates Gorguts, Ulcerate and Baring Teeth. Living on Long Island myself, I was thrilled when I first heard the band and became mightily impressed with their unique sound, visions of sci-fi horror and high levels of musicianship (some members of Artificial Brain pull double duty in bands like Pyrrhon and Revocation).
Artificial Brain tend to focus on the uglier side of things by primarily inhabiting realms of chilly, jangling harshness, which is a perfect match for the concepts of cosmic dread they hope to induce (and impeccably captured on the cover by artist Paolo Girardi). The band manages to carve out a small space of their own by incorporating moments of clarity and atmosphere within the cold and alien chaos: the two guitarists don’t limit themselves to only evil-sounding minor chord structures as they wind and unwind themselves in all manner of complex and elegant-sounding riffs and patterns, while the bass remains audible and crisp, successfully managing to forge its own path alongside the other members. As with most death metal bands, the drumming is also intense and skilful (and much more than mindless blasting). Vocalist Will Smith manages the almost impossible task of actually adding value to the album instead of gurgling away incessantly and covering up the superb musicianship by coming across more as a murderous and malevolent extraterrestrial than an angry, weakling human trying to sound tough and scary, Will’s deep roar and lyrical vision add an extra dimension to the whole affair. This is an extremely well-rounded, remarkable and intense collection of songs from one of the talented new breed of cutting-edge death metal bands.
3. Kyle Bobby Dunn – “Kyle Bobby Dunn and the
Ambient / Drone
Being a fan of ambient drone in all its myriad variations, I was very pleased to hear the glorious ambient minimalism that Kyle Bobby Dunn creates. How such a prolific artist managed to fly under my radar is a mystery to me, (he’s got close to 20 releases out since beginning to make music in the late 90s), but I thank the heavens above that I discovered his latest album this past summer.
Long build-ups of looped and swirling guitar are essentially the only ingredients here and KBD knows how to take maximum advantage of his chosen method and instrument: by creating layers of thoughtfully-arranged sound with simple means, Dunn has created an epic, 2-disc album of droning ambiance that is as astoundingly beautiful as it is achingly gorgeous. Such is the personal and emotional weight that hangs in the air with each note Dunn creates that if I were to find myself standing within the vaulted cathedral of my own precious and wounded heart, with dust-filled sunlight shining through cracked stained glass, Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness would be exactly the sort of music I’d expect to hear. Thank you, Mr. Dunn, for creating the soundtrack to the summer of 2014: a summer which was over too soon and took more away from me than I’d ever have the courage to imagine. “Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness” is music that will surely stay with me, in the most beautiful and painful of ways, forever.
Throughout most of 2014, I found myself at a bit of a loss when it came to finding great new music. There were disappointments aplenty (I’m still waiting for the stink of the new Yes album to wear off) and a far greater number of albums too familiar or safe to provoke me one way or the other. Even with largely lacklustre competition against it, I am certain Morbus Chron’s Sweven would have stood out in this or any other year. It is the rare sort of masterpiece that lives in a world of its own: progressive rock and death metal have been married in times past (to varying degrees of success) but I’ve never heard it executed quite like this before. Comparisons between Sweven and Tribulation’s The Formulas of Death are not unwarranted, but it is Morbus Chron that have truly elevated the psych-death hybrid genre to realising its potential.
2. Thantifaxath – “Sacred White Noise”
Thantifaxath’s “Sacred White Noise” is a rare case of an album having entirely justified its early hype and acclaim. Especially given the fact many of us have had black metal in our listening diets for years now (if not decades!) it’s both exciting and challenging to come across a new black metal album that retains the ability to confuse and terrify. Even in a year saturated with fantastic observations from the twisted end of the metal spectrum, “Sacred White Noise” has managed to stand above the others… I feel like there are fucking bugs crawling up my spine.
3. Spectral Lore – “III”
Atmospheric Black Metal
For whatever it may have lacked in coherence, Spectral Lore’s “III” was one of the most enveloping musical experiences to come out of 2014. Though it’s essentially a freshly recorded batch of old compositions, the album carries a vastness of sound far beyond the limits of what is typically expected from a one-man act. In fact, I am almost certain that it could not have resulted from a collaboration between more than one musician: from the schizophrenic Deathspell-isms of “Omphalos”, the depressive resonance of “The Veiled Garden” and acoustic twang of “Drifitng Through Moss and Ancient Stone” right on to the heavily atmospheric black metal of the album’s second half, culminating with the breathtaking “Cosmic Significance” (think Tangerine Dream collaborating with Nokturnal Mortum), I cannot think of another black metal album in this or another recent year that tried to cover such a vast range of influences with such success.
There is more Burzum worship in this album of synth music than in most Black Metal copycats. Indeed, Grimrik (Germany) has included on the CD version of this release an immaculate cover version of “Tomhet” – Varg Vikernes’ first real foray into the realm of pure synth-based composition. Along with Mortiis and Satyr’s “Wongraven” side-project, Burzum is considered one of the forefathers of a genre today known as “Dungeon Synth” – all of Black Metal’s romantic, medieval spirit reincarnated within a Yamaha keyboard. “Eisreich” is a rather more minimalist and ambient take on dungeon synth, with masterful sound choices, clever build-ups and an overwhelming coldness. No-one has ever recreated the atmosphere of “Tomhet” as faithfully as this – or indeed expanded on it as convincingly – and for that reason “Eisreich” deserves the attention of both Burzum and dark ambient fans alike.
2. Grand Magus – “Triumph and Power“
Metal doesn’t need to be an underground, vinyl-only affair to be sincere, and Grand Magus once again proved this with another major release. The Bathory influence has become more pronounced over the course of the last few releases and on “Triumph and Power” it is balanced well with the Rainbow and NWOBHM sensibilities. No funny business here – just a set of anthems swathed in Norse lore and, dare I suspect, a dose of identity socio-politics and religion (the lyrics definitely have meaning – whatever that may be – and that makes them superior to most of the rehashed fiction passing for metal lyrics). Every song develops predictably, in a way that only natural songwriters can achieve, and the at-times simplistic instrumentation serves to showcase JB’s unsurpassed vocal quality.
3. Empyrium – “The Turn of the Tides“
In my full review of this for Heathen Harvest I stated that the only underwhelming thing about Empyrium’s long-awaited come-back album is that it does not surpass expectations, but seeing as how high those expectations that I and many others held were, this cannot possibly count against “The Turn of the Tides”. The production and variation are among Empyrium’s grandest, and perhaps if they had not released a taster track on the “Whom the Moon a Nightsong Sings” and a live version of another new song on last year’s “Into the Pantheon” we Empyrium fans wouldn’t have expected quite so much. Either way, this is among the most complete and mature albums released by anyone in 2014.
1. VA –“Själablomster –
Paraflorala observationer i ljud och toner”
It’s been a while since I’ve heard something genuinely original. Swedish label Hibiskofon present an ambitious release here with a disparate bunch of tracks, but they gel effortlessly around the album’s “paraflora” theme. Ranging through field recordings, downer folk and lo-fi industrial, the album is conceptually pure and beautifully presented. Essential stuff.
2. VA – “Hatred is Nothing Without Action”
Released for the United Forces of Industrial festival in May 2014, this weighty compilation perfectly captures the current frontline of European power electronics. Rough, muscular and uncompromising, these are folk at the top of their game, from the consistently strong Unrest Productions.
3. Projekt Hat / Alfarmania – “Astral Slaktmask”
A match made in heaven for fans of post-mortem, lo-fi and just plain grimy industrial. The latest in the two projects’ occasional collaborations starting in 2006, they have refined their craft to this one glorious point: queasy synth, dingy field recordings and clatter a-plenty.
Rome’s latest album is a new high water mark for his songwriting. Foregoing the bashed-minor-chord, martial neofolk sound of the early albums almost entirely, “Passage…” is slow, morose and heartfelt. For the die-hards who sprung for the box set (myself included), the album is even more rewarding: a massive book of photos and notes which adds so much to the feelings of longing, displacement and lost homeland evoked by the music. A fully realised work in every detail and a massive slice above the competition, “A Passage to Rhodesia” consumed me this year.
2. King Dude – “Fear”
Neofolk / Gothic Rock
I saw King Dude on tour last year and could not understand them. They came highly recommended, but never clicked with me until I heard “Fear”. Finally plugging in, turning up and banging on that Gretsch like a rainy-day Brian Setzer, KD is at his best when he rocks. Classic mournful KD introspectives sit side-by-side with rock ‘n roll numbers about absent love, hard living and self-loathing. On Fear, KD illuminates all these everyday fears that haunt us with songs that nod to Tom Waits, The Beatles and The Clash – and still sound uniquely King Dude while doing it.
3. Trust – “Joyland”
Synthpop / Darkwave
Maya Postepski’s return to her main band Austra, leaving sole creative duties to frontman Robert Alfons, hasn’t slowed down Trust at all. He has abandoned the chemical creep of the debut album in favour of a more subtle, streamlined, anthemic sound. Every song is a journey through equal parts darkness and light, guided by Alfons’ almost cartoonishly versatile voice, moving from a strangled falsetto to a low murmur in the same sentence. The early 90s influences are even more evident – think Orbital. You’ll never catch me on the dancefloor, but “Joyland” stayed in my glove compartment for those solitary drives through the long city nights.
1. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra –
“Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything”
The most personally influential record of this year has to be this opus from fellow Canadians Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. Their shift to a more rock/punk based approach makes this their most immediately accessible and gratifying album yet. It is packed with amazing riffs, a uniquely crunchy production, explosive bursts of energy, chants and beautifully desperate lyrics bemoaning the current state of the Western world. The lamentations of What We Loved Was Not Enough affect me in a way that very little music can. I have to emotionally brace myself before listening to it, lest I break down with the weight of our world. There is not much of value I can write on this album besides encouraging you to open yourself and allow it the opportunity to speak to you as it does to me.
2. Agalloch – “The Serpent & The Sphere”
Atmospheric Black Metal
This spring saw the American dark metal masters return with an album much more cohesive and polished than their 2010 outing, “Marrow of the Spirit”. The performances and production are the tightest in the band’s history and the songwriting leaves little to be desired. The classical guitar interludes presented by Musk Ox’s Nathanaël Larochette provide the perfect dynamic break from the album’s forward push. The band’s shift in focus towards live performance in recent years has obviously influenced the way they approach recordings. Everything is punchier and more live. Those lucky enough to catch the band on their summer tour know how great songs like The Astral Dialogue and Dark Matter Gods come off in person.
3. Musk Ox – “Woodfall”
While Ottawa’s Musk Ox operates as a “band” and is considered part of the neofolk genre, they transcend its tropes in presentation and sound. The band’s leader, Nathanaël Larochette, is a classical composer who performs his own pieces. His works are as influenced by his classical music education as by the dynamics and mood of metal and folk music. Larochette’s guitar is a complex, yet infinitely steady, root for the emotional ups-and-downs provided by the violin and cello. The music soars, dips, becomes frantic, then calm, reflecting all facets of hope and sorrow. Woodfall is less a traditional album and more a complete musical movement. Musk Ox gives us proof of the continued vitality and emotional resonance that classical music continues to have in the hands and fingers of those who understand how to make it relevant to our time.
I’m glad to say that 2014 was one of the better years for me in recent memory. It’s been a nice change: I was getting tired of saying, “year X was personally very difficult”, and this has been down to little else but the continued support of people close to me. In spite of my musical studies in the Middle East, there was nothing from the region that really toppled over into the quality of the releases below, or certainly nothing I have experienced [or understood sufficiently] at the time of writing. Coincidentally enough, the albums below are more than just disjointed, disassociated standouts in their respected oeuvres, but together they form a day and evening’s listening, working together fittingly.
1. Infestus – “The Reflecting Void”
One-man metal acts are mostly rough round the edges. I can imagine, sitting in the confines of their studios, practising trills and fill-ins, the average solo band wistfully fantasising about the day when he’ll be credited through Metal Archives as being responsible for “everything” on an album. But Infestus’ Andras deserves the accolade of an all-rounder more than anyone. He seems enviably in control of everything on this – the jagged, razored vocals; the thrilling guitarwork and deft drumming, it really is the complete package. And if that wasn’t enough – and it generally isn’t these days – the songwriting is first-class black metal of variety, skill and atmosphere. Lyrically a collection of sombre introspection and regret, “The Reflecting Void” ironically shows that the psychological ‘vacuum’ hinted at on its cover may well be perpetually, and modestly, in question for this ever-particular and critical artist.
2. Ambush – “Firestorm”
Heavy Metal / Speed Metal
It seems recently, with metal almost asphyxiating itself though crowbarred reinvention and experimentation, that the glory days are evermore shunted into the foreground. Sweden has already produced the excellent Enforcer who play a similar 80s-style shred-metal to Ambush, but Ambush’s debut outclasses Enforcer’s nicely. I didn’t even know there was a competition going on here – or maybe it’s just in my own mind – but when you have a quality debut like this which is genuinely hard to fault, it’s difficult not to think that somewhere in Sweden the retro metal bands are going at it hammer and tongs to outclass each other. And there’s plenty of class here, not a duff track, not a duff note, even the artwork screams “80s” in the most unashamedly lush way. Throw on Don’t Shoot, Close My Eyes, Master of Pain or Natural Born Killers and there’s no doubt you’re in the presence of an extremely sharp act.
3. LCC – “d/evolution”
Dark Ambient / Electro
How unusual for a country I would normally associate with sun, sea and Mediterranean stock phrases to be producing a work of dark ambient of this quality. 2014 was not a good year for dark ambient as far as I was concerned, in fact it was one of the poorest. LCC’s modest debut oozed into the scene early on and provided it with a new and far more effective tinge than that of strugglingly popular bands such as Demdike Stare. An all-female ensemble, and from one of the more unexpected corners of Europe, “d/evolution” is not only an atmospheric – and habitually replayable – success in the growing roster of evolving ambient, but a companion for any personally darker moments.
Now, let’s make it clear: I rarely listen to music based on its newness. My 2014 ears have been filled with great music, but not much of it has been released this year – I’ve been discovering the brutal rhythmic noise of Navicon Torture Industries, for instance, and delving through the incredible back catalogue of guitar madman Ocrilim, not to mention the endless afro-activist hypnotic jazz-grooves of old Fela Kuti. As far as 2014 releases go, they’ve mostly been okay, but not incredible – new Aphex, new Die Antwoord, new Mayhem, new Soft Pink Truth – all a bit ho-hum for me. So my top three releases for the year have been chosen by whether they made me go “wow” in some way, made me catch my breath and blink a bit, and say to myself “okay, so I haven’t quite heard that before”.
1. Swans – “To Be Kind”
Experimental Rock / Post-rock
What’s not to like about this new-era reborn Swans? It’s sprawling, it’s chaotic, it’s noisy, it’s solid as stone, it’s hypnotic, it’s almost religious – and not in a papal Vatican way – but in a small rural Jonestownish snake-handler venom-gospel way. It’s not really like old Swans, but at the same time it totally is. The heavy heavy grooves are still there, but now they ascend up the holy stairway into some rustic faux-paradise of ecstatic self-immolation, instead of down into the angry pits of no-wave pigfuck misery. The vague ebullient rantings of Michael Gira urge us to, I don’t know, do something-or-other, and to do it fervently, with our entire being, do it brimming with joy and rapture and unselfconscious dangerous bliss that fills our skins like we’re balloons. No idea really what he’s going on about a lot of the time, but it feels goooood. An album to get lost in, ‘To Be Kind’ is two discs of heavy magic, and definitely my pick of the year.
2. Hiatus Kaiyote – “By Fire”
I heard the title track from this EP on the radio only a week or so ago, and I had to just sit in the car until the song was back-announced so I could find out what the living fuck I had just experienced. Probably most folk out there in Heathen Harvestland will hate this shit, but it absolutely blew my tiny little mind. It’s really just the title track I’m talking about here, I haven’t really heard the rest of the EP, but I just don’t care: “By Fire” is super-impressive enough to be on my top 3 for the year. Just like that. It’s like they’ve taken the proggiest elements of classic Yes and the smoothest elements of Eryka Badu and genetically fused them to algorithmically spawn some sort of slick soul-funk-pop bastard baby. It’s like complex electronic music played by polyrhythmic jazz virtuosos who all have ADD. It’s weird and poppy and choppy and brash and majestic and eclectic and energetic and cool and just not really like anything else. And you probably won’t like it.
3. IPK – “ioviix i”
Noise / Black Metal / Power Electronics
Madness. Pure madness. Foulness chokes this release like black air; inconsolable screams buried beneath thick pummelling noise, chased by frantic cyclonic drums. Layered in hopelessness and mystery. I’m pretty sure there’s no actual guitars here, but it’s honestly hard to tell what is making these noises, everything’s been entombed in so much auditory filth. Apparently these guys are from the Blue Mountains, but they might as well be straight from the Nightosphere; grinding black noise shoots at you from unexpected angles, songs finish in the middle of something like they’ve been sprung; voices wail unintelligible tales of anger and woe; beats gallop in furious attack, or desperate escape. Something between black metal and abstract industrial noise, I haven’t heard anything quite like this before.
Bonus self-promotion: out of all the stuff I’ve released this year, my faves are Grist’s “The End of Fear” and Haraam’s “The Throat of Empire”. Entheogenic ego-death noise 4 lyf! May your particular arbitrary-point-in-the-cyclic-year celebrations be festive and may your personal demons all be purged. Peace and love, Mat.
Okay, this is cheating a little bit since this is technically two releases from 2014, but Endlichkeit is possibly the most evocative black metal project I’ve heard since Paysage d’Hiver. Delivering their brand of winter landscape inspired tremolo shredding, but please rest assured that this is not your clichéd “kolder than thov” black metal. Fallen Empire has a knack for finding hidden gems and Endlichkeit is the icy crown jewel of them all.
2. Volahn – “Aq’ab’al”
All of the mystery, drama, and rumor surrounding the Crepusculo Negro contingent just can’t erode the fact that they release some damn fine and original black metal. Volahn’s Aq’ab’al might be the best thing CN ever released, better than already brilliant releases by Dolorvotre and Kuxan Suum. Volahn have perfected their elaborate, serpentine, and exceptional black metal formula here. This record is just incredible.
3. Lawrence English – “Wilderness of Mirrors”
Drone / Ambient
It has been a long time since we’ve seen a full length anywhere near this good from Lawrence English, owner of the near infallible Room40 Records. This might actually be his best work ever. Unbelievably gentle and gorgeous drone/ambient from a man responsible for spreading some of the most beautiful sounds ever made. Room40 has released albums by Ben Frost, Rafael Anton Irisarri, and Tim Hecker, but Lawrence English might just have outdone them all. While stunning and sparkling as ever, English seems to have tapped into a bit of the aggression of the recent Ben Frost album to produce arguably his most powerful album yet.
Throughout our lives, certain albums become soundtracks of a sort which mark a particular time period. The year of 2014 consistently had this album playing in the background, from social gatherings to the night of the birth of my child to simply sitting by the fire reflecting on life. From a review to an interview, I fully immersed myself in this work without any choice, and from this “Palingenesis” has firmly marked itself on my very subconscious, becoming a part of my identity as much as a tattoo or favorite food. Nebelung has made an album reflecting a Germanic Romanticism with a melancholic hint and a less subdued reverence for nature, perfectly reflecting my own personality in many ways. This album has synthesised with the core of my spirit, and when I hear it a decade from now I will look back at my woodland wanderings and various events of 2014.
2. Lux Occulta – “Kolysanki”
Experimental Rock / Trip-Hop
Although I have given this album a few listens, I have still yet to fully understand what an interesting and marvellous album this is. Due to a forthcoming review, I shall focus more on the why than the how, for Lux Occulta has been a staple in my love for avante-garde black metal since my youth. Although hints of anything to do with metal are subtle at this point, I am amazed at how much it remains the same, yet completely different. Lux Occulta always was one of those special bands that sounds completely unique with each release. It is amazing to think the “Mother and the Enemy” came out over a decade ago, for nothing that comes out today can even come close in style and downright solid songwriting. Not only was the release of this extremely surprising in that it was happening at all, but to hear what they did and just how powerful and unique the music is has left me completely in shock. Without a doubt, Lux Occulta’s “Kolysanki” is the most under rated album of 2014, nothing even comes close for so many of today’s music fans who have no idea of the significance of this band, so they will have little appreciation for something so far outside anything to do with the metal genre. I could not recommend this enough, and find it depressing that not only will the world of metal largely ignore such a phenomenal piece, but this exists so far outside of the genre that few will experience an album that music fans of all kinds would enjoy.
3. Atriarch – “An Unending Pathway”
Sludge Metal / Doom Metal
To be perfectly honest, I find the vast majority of anything related to heavy music today to be mediocre at best. Outside of a very select few, despite the hundreds of bands that seem to come out daily, only a small percent are doing anything of significance. Atriarch is one of those bands, keeping my interest in the current development of the various subgenres of metal alive. Three albums in, they have found a sound completely their own, with the requisite riffs and powerful vocals that invoke the spirit of Rozz Williams raising him from the dead, so no need for the corpse paint. It is rare I get excited about anything heavy that is new, outside of Wolvserpent, Bloody Panda, and a few select others, Atriarch are leading the pack and showing all these young bands how to make heavy music that is relevant. Without a doubt, this is my metal album of the year.
Perhaps the most authentic sounding album of the year, “Renewing” explores themes of rediscovering the self through a spiritual connectedness with the natural world. Novemthree’s effortless style of forested psyfolk is as stunning as it is mesmerizingly dreamy on this release. After listening, feeling as if you have experienced someone expose a vast portion of their being is hard to deny. This album is real and cathartic, much akin to a gentle caressing of our primal roots.
2. Wychdoktor – “Totem”
Dark Ambient / Noise
A true aural journey into the Underworld, “Totem” acts on the senses in a way that makes the music literally feel alive. Throughout, blackened ectoplasm-drenched synthesizers slither around hypnotic tribal grooves and disembodied voices in a swirl of sacred rites. Wychdoktor has created a masterpiece of atmosphere, pushing dark ambient and noise music towards its natural regression into genuine primitivism.
3. Ben Frost – “A U R O R A”
Industrial / Electronic
Ben Frost returns in 2014 with an ecstasy-inducing mad dash through the ages by way of his newest original release, “A U R O R A”. To no surprise, the music lives up to the title with this exceptionally vibrant and futuristic vision of classical-inspired sonic alchemy. A must-listen album for anyone because of its ability to shift perception in such, at times, shocking ways; giving a taste via a cosmic rollercoaster of the impending all-too-possible synthetic drug-fueled apocalypse that awaits civilization if this path is followed.
Honorable mention: Lord Mantis – Death Mask, Anilah – Warrior, People Eaters – Disincarnate, Stormloop – Cluster, Heathen Harnow (Forndom) – Flykt
While the obvious candidate is traditionally never my choice for the best album of the year, it’s hard to argue with the perfection that was Rome’s latest on Trisol if you consider yourself a fan of neofolk first and foremost. Everything surrounding “A Passage to Rhodesia” fell perfectly into place upon its release, and while “Flowers from Exile” retains a place in my heart as the pinnacle of Jerome Reuter’s semi-prolific output, his latest contains a special mixture of continuing the tradition of profound historical depth and complexly poetic lyrics while also taking a detour towards the project’s musical roots. While some may not have cared for the path that Reuter has taken with recent releases, there’s no denying that “A Passage to Rhodesia” is his strongest work yet. …and this is even before the additional literature for the boxset is taken into account.
2. Sonne Hagal – “Ockerwasser”
Neofolk / Dark Folk
Sonne Hagal is undoubtedly what made this decision so difficult. While the music on “Ockerwasser” displayed the same profound melancholy and instrumental class that has been represented on previous efforts–to the extent that it challenged and actually surpassed “A Passage to Rhodesia”, musically, as a whole–it simply lacked the same critical, album-wide depth that made this year’s top album come to life in such magical fashion. Performances from Kim Larsen as well as Bo Rande (The William Blakes, Choir of Young Believers) helped to push “Ockerwasser” towards an unprecedented brilliance in the genre, and with this effort–if there was ever any doubt after the similarly remarkable “Jordansfrost”–Sonne Hagal’s name is now permanently enshrined among the genre’s most memorable artists from Forseti to :Of the Wand and the Moon:.
3. Blood & Sun – “White Storms Fall”
“White Storms Fall” was seemingly a frontrunner for most neofolk year-end lists earlier this year when the album was finally released on Pesanta after a great deal of anticipation within the scene, namely due to their–by all accounts–outstanding performance at Stella Natura. However, with strong releases from Current 93, Rome, Sonne Hagal, Spiritual Front, and Nebelung among several others, Blood and Sun’s debut seems to have gotten lost within the tides to some extent. My first experience with “Merciless Master” and the brilliant dual-string performance from Thomas Ashe and Angela McJunkin is unforgettable, and Erik Wivinus’ sparse percussive accents still send chills through me. Luke Tromiczak’s unique vocal style is perhaps the project’s primary signature though, and his powerful approach to bass-end vocals will be what propels the band into a greater spotlight moving forward.
Darkspace have once again delivered an album that feels like the very essence of the cold blackness of the void. Bleak lifeless atmospheres, grinding guitars and alien vocals truly capture the unknown desolate expanses of the cosmos. Few bands truly master the craft of mixing black metal and ambient structures but when it comes to Darkspace it’s a bloody work of art. This is probably their finest album up to date and if Darkspace continue to raise the bar they will soon go beyond the very space they try to emulate. If you have yet to hear “Dark III I”, do yourself a favour and experience it. Darkness, emptiness, and beyond.
2. TeHÔM – “Lacrimae Mundi”
I have a deep love for all things ritual and TeHÔM’s brilliant ritualistic ambiance really swept me away on dark brooding wings. Spoken words merge with swirling drones and rhythmic drums, lending the album a majestic subterranean feeling that merges well with its ritualistic nature. The verses speak ancient truths and the rhythms are perfect for nightside cavernal meditation. “Lacrimae Mundi” is more than an album, it is a beacon in the void-born darkness calling out into the abyss. It is an experience beyond the ordinary and has a solid place in my list of truly great ritual ambient. Chaos, ceremonial aspects and serene infinity.
3. Hans Zimmer – “Interstellar: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”
Film Score / Space Ambient
Hans Zimmer is a fantastic composer and when “Interstellar” hit the big screen all I could do was awe at what was probably the finest piece of dark brooding epicness I had encountered in a long time. The brilliance of the almost symbiotic mixing of booming drones, swirling keys and majestic brassy crescendos is beyond me and really added a whole new dimension to the confined spaces of the cinema where I first encountered it. Some of my friends experienced it as a wall of sound, but personally I found something that really captured the very essence of time and space. With “Interstellar”, Hans Zimmer has proven once more that he really posses a unnatural talent for crafting orchestrations far beyond the ordinary. Isolation and darkness far beyond time and space.
I have broken my top three down in a matter of variation. As exceedingly difficult as it was to narrow these down, each album deserves their own fair share of appreciation with one not overexerting the other and keeping things at an admixture of genres which I appreciate equally.
1. Lana Del Rey – “Ultraviolence”
Dream Pop / Art Pop
There are very few releases by “top 40” artists which grab my attention and hold on to it for dear life. Even looking back upon my earliest childhood memories, music would enrapture me more than most – certain songs or melodies take me back to specific memories and moments in time. Lana Del Rey happens to be one of those artists who has helped me hold on to those recollections and the feelings which accompany them in various transmissions of nostalgia, misery and ecstasy. Unlike a large majority of mainstream female pop artists, Lana has separated herself from the safety of shallow waters and dived straight into the deep end. “Ultraviolence” demonstrates just that, and in comparison to her previous, more ‘poppy’ sounding release, “Born to Die” (2012), this is much more sincere in content and delivery. “Ultraviolence” is both solemn as it is soothing – everything from its orchestrated, blues-pop melodies in tracks such as Sad Girl, to the slow tempo, memoir-like melodies in Fucked My Way Up To The Top. “Ultraviolence” is a musical sage to the senses and pure poetry of the soul.
2. Diocletian – “Gesundrian”
Diocletian are a band which have rarely, if ever, come off as underwhelming for me. Upon discovering their first full-length release “Doom Cult” in 2009, then witnessing their first live U.S. performance only a year later, I began to keep myself up to date on what further audio atrocities this band has to deliver. This year, “Gesundrian” was unleashed to the world and it is exceedingly vicious and much more powerful than I envisioned it to be. As recording artists and live musicians, Diocletian have always made a dynamic impact in the black-death metal community and have become a prolific name which they triumphantly live up to. In comparison to the previous releases, Gesundrian is a huge step forward in growth, content and overall album production. Although the quality sounds a bit more “cleaner” on this record, it is never overproduced or excessive on doses, but just the right amount. A tremendously powerful, barbaric release which has been set free from four years of confinement in its cage.
3. Hateful Abandon – “Liars/Bastards”
Another long-awaited release which made it into my top three of the year is the third full-length “Liars/Bastards” by the Bristol-based, experimental post-punk duo, Hateful Abandon. The most appealing aspect of this project to me has always been the efficacious fusion of genres in both past and present material. HA’s debut release, “Famine (or Into The Belly of Worms)”, grew to become one of my most favoured albums and still remains such at the present day. Although critics and reviewers alike would incorporate the “black metal meets post-punk” description to describe their sound, “Liars/Bastards” is the indicative proof of creative evolution in HA’s music. It has resulted in an unconventional formula which is both psychedelic and catchy – certain parts resembling that of early Swans “Cop” era meets Killing Joke. A classic spin of synthesized algorithms of a modern day dystopia.
S.T.A.B. Electronics – “Instrument for Operating on Mutant Women”
Power Electronics / Noise
One of 2014’s most articulated and successfully-executed power electronics releases that manages to crystalize said genre’s industrial historical roots, while pushing the musical frontier forward. Perfect merger of: Thematic content, artistic delivery, sound production, visual design and tactility in physical LP presentation = Pure malignant elegance bordering to potential clinical masterpiece. Props to imprint Urashima for professional execution, and its continuing focus on quality in visual presentation, post-production plus manufacturing. UK filth at its best.
Bizarre Uproar – “Vihameditaatio”
Power Electronics / Noise
Latest full-length of Finnish hate extremist and anti-social l’enfant terrible Bizarre Uproar. A psychosexual ritualistic power electronics album exploring themes: hate, violence and sexualized rituals. Slow meditative compositions with monumental and brutal ambiance that harvests inspirations from: religious music, metal, hard core to doom. Album concept and recordings have been thoroughly developed over several months during 2013-2014. Thus, resulting in a complex and vital unorthodox physical document – that succeeds in its exploration of novel musical territories – while at the same time grounding benchmark genre premises for 2014 and further. Hard iron cock.
VA – “Själablomster –
Paraflorala observationer i ljud och toner”
Six track cassette compilation featuring Swedish stable: Semilanceata, Red Room, B. Åström, Krökta Rum, Thilda Persson and Kristian Olsson. The material presented on “Själablomster” covers a vast musical territory. From the bleak psychedelic mushroom folk excursions of Swedish black metal outfit Semilanceata; to the field recording – loop – and collage-based works of Red Room, B. Åström and Krökta Rom; in glide with Kristian Olsson’s well-established industrial Armageddon – and new comer Thilda Persson’s dissonant acoustic guitar poetry. The musical production on each contribution is unique and expectedly crafted. All artists commissioned have delivered their best possible works. Seen as a whole, each composition complements the other. The musical production and structure flows successively as a chain, giving the listener an impression matching a colorful book’s chapter-like narrative. This is much in gratitude to Hibiskofon’s excellent curating and post-processing.
The visual execution and design of Själablomster is masterly put together. The tactile physicality of the brown cardboard sleeve with two-colour silk-screened printing is a perfect blend with the music accompanied within. Pure – tentative – quality all the way. In its totality, “Själablomster – Paraflorala observationer i ljud och toner” is a perfectly-assembled encyclopedia containing some of Sweden’s most articulated contemporary musicians. Here: True beauty, vertical industrial angst, appropriated musical expertise and auditory geographical mappings all converge. If you are looking for a compilation tape to pick up in 2014 this might be one of the best releases to date. “Själablomster” is simply a must. Total support.
1. Current 93 – “I Am The Last of All the Field That Fell (A Channel)”
“I Am The Last Of All The Field That Fell” finds Current 93 treading the same path that was introduced on “HoneySuckle Æons”. Collaborations with prominent names like John Zorn, Ossian Brown, Nick Cave, Antony and Andrew Liles – among others – enhance David Tibet’s apocalyptic visions. Apocryphal lyrics and obscure orchestrations are the transcendental means provided to the initiated listener. With an authenticity that Current 93 has managed throughout the years to impose on its faithful followers, this album is yet more proof that the vehicle called Current 93 will not only get you somewhere you secretly desire, but that the trip will be worth it as well.
2. Sonne Hagal – “Ockerwasser”
Neofolk / Dark Folk
Sonne Hagal continue to be undoubtedly talented. Having released only three studio albums, two live releases and a considerable amount of singles and EPs, they have established themselves and carved their name with unfading letters (or runes) on neofolk’s golden book. Ockerwasser is supplemented by artists like :Of The Wand And The Moon:’s Kim Larsen, Ordo Equitum Solis’s Leithana, Bo Rande of The William Blakes and Ericah Hagle who is best known from her work with Unto Ashes. An album enriched by Ulver-ish trumpets (“Silence”), discreet electronic elements, an underlying yet resonant ambiance, and – most of all – a constant and grandiose feeling of sadness, it prevails on any audience and offers no easy way to deal with the sentiments introduced.
3. Scott Walker & Sunn O))) – “Soused”
Experimental Rock / Drone
Scott Walker’s – musically and lyrically – obscure phase of his career is summoning on “Soused” the drone walls of Sunn O))). The dominant aspect is, nevertheless, Scott Walker, as the participation of Sunn O))) is quite limited. Which by no means is an issue of concern. It’s not over-filled with differentiated sounds just to make themselves noticed but they simply – and delicately – make their contribution. Sunn O))) don’t need to prove their worth by showing off. Scott Walker supplies the songwriting which has, more or less, determined the era spanning from “Tilt” to “Bish Bosch” and actually seems to be at the peak of it. Sunn O))) are there merely for fun. And I’m glad it’s that way.