This list has been exclusive to the Sleeping Village's instagram for a few weeks now, but now is the time to place it in hallowed permanent ground. I’ll keep this brief: 2018 was a good year for good music. While few releases left me utterly gobsmacked, the sheer number of albums that fell--and remained--in the lovely range between “very good" and “quite excellent, actually” was impressive, to say the last. And, notably, many of these albums were the product of lesser-known bands. Whether freshly birthed from the primordial metal muck, or quality efforts from acts on the rise, 2018 belonged not to the established names, but rather to the little guys. It is my hope that this list, in large, reflects that.
In short, my top 20 albums met this criteria:
A). I enjoyed it.
B). I listened to it with great regularity across a significant expanse of time.
C). I believe it to be significant in either the reaffirmation of a core sound/aesthetic, or the development of a particular sub-genre.
Without further ado:
20. HOODED MENACE - Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed
Although this was released early on, no album impressed me this year with such a finely-tuned ability to straddle the line between death’s crushing riffage and funeral doom’s dismal gloom. Harrowing and heavy, the layers of grotesque yet melodically lofty leads form a near-tangible environment for these Hooded Menaces to dwell. Despite these leanings, “cavernous" remains an apt description for the atmosphere. I mean, just look at that album cover. Precision and restraint in the percussive department--and a killer vocal tone--further delineate Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed as a masterful album, easily their best (and most ominous) to date.
19. ARKONA - Khram
Well damn, how’s this for an aggressive about-face in terms of maturity between releases? Prior to this excellent batch of blackened folk, Arkona primarily dealt in pseudo-paganic power metal. Here, they maintain the ambiance (and the wind instruments/bagpipes, albeit a hell of a lot more judiciously) but lose the goofy schtick. Take the intro and first track as a prime example of this growth, as eerie throat singing leads into a thoroughly well-composed journey along medieval pastures. Arkona demonstrates a brilliant balance between harsh howls and wavering cleans, lending each track a certain aggression without ever losing sight of their whimsical foundation. Intriguing rhythmic interludes abound, illustrating a dedication to organic song structures. Besides being a compulsively fun listen, this album speaks volumes to Arkona’s willingness to try new things and demolish the boundaries they had previously established. If that isn’t enough of a reason to start taking a band seriously, I dunno what is.
18. MESSA - Feast for Water
Over the past few years, doom with female vocals officially transcended the realms of “known entity" into the arena of “crowded space.” This didn't stop me from becoming, at first listen, utterly enraptured with Messa’s dangerous combination of crooning vocals, pea soup gloom, and experimental tendencies. Feast for Water largely abandons the drone element of Belfry, and instead turns up the avant-garde approach, complete with a smoky jazz-lounge interior and a velvety croon. It’s blues, it’s post-metal, and at times, it’s vaguely dark ambient...and yes, it's plenty weird. Messa is heartfelt in their originality; the sonic expression of noir’s aesthetic and dour existential suspense. For a taste, try standout track Leah on for size.
17. HINAYANA - Order Divine
The issue with a lot of middling melodeath is a lack of dramatic flair. If one is following in the footsteps of heavy-hitters such as Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum, or Be’lakor, a certain appreciation for narrative and emotional development only goes so far if you don’t have that flashy approach. And oh, is Hinayana flashy. Vibrant guitar, dynamic bass, cathartic choruses, and the kind of songwriting that induces both heartfelt sorrow and triumph without subjecting the listener to some ill-conceived sonic whiplash. Return to Nothing is a high water mark, but there isn’t a track here that doesn’t leave me in a state of blissful satisfaction. Order Divine, simply put, is captivating. On Hinayana’s next effort I am hoping to see them reach further into the creative abyss in order to further distance themselves from the melodeath greats. That said: for a debut, such associations are hardly a legitimate downside, are they?
16. ALLFATHER - And All Will Be Desolation
Unlike a bullhead, Allfather has teeth. However, much like a bullhead, Allfather lurks in the cold & the dark, possessing the propensity to violently churn outward, extend its voluminous jaw, & swollen your arm up to your elbow. Feel your fingers in the muddy esophagus of this beast from the deep? That’s And All Will Be Desolation for you: an album constructed entirely on sludgy, sternum-cracking riffage, with liberal application of hardcore belligerence and doom’s murky atmospherics. And really, what’s a year end list without at least one big ol’ dumb skull?
15. ORPHANS OF DOOM - Strange Worlds/Fierce Gods
While there was a lot to enjoy in the realms of doom, sludge, and stoner metal this year, there were few albums that grabbed me by the ears and unceremoniously ragdolled my lanky frame. Strange Worlds/Fierce Gods is a hefty (yet remarkably nimble) minotaur of an album. Exemplars of consistently strong songwriting, these boys from Kansas City aren’t afraid to let the drums take the limelight. Intriguing tempo changes abound, maintaining constant interest. This isn't to say that the guitar ever truly takes a backseat. These riffs before ye mean business--think Lizzy by way of Baroness or early Sumac. Orphans of Doom inject a healthy dose of psychedelia and prog into their small (but ferocious) body of work, and this newfound fan is very excited to see where future efforts take them. As someone plugged into the happenings of doom, I can certify that Strange Worlds/Fierce Gods is the singlemost underrated album of 2018.
14. UNDER SIEGE - Under Siege
In the world of pleasant surprises, there’s really nothing like expecting to be serenaded by some freshly scrubbed Italian death...and, instead, promptly being trampled by a bagpipe-wielding party of marauders. On their debut, Under Siege packages a wide range of influences across the melodeath, pagan, and folk metal arenas into a surprisingly succinct and well-conceived album. They never overdo the symphonics and never underdo the mighty riffs: from what more could you ask? Much like Turisas, these fledgling warriors of steel know how to write songs that gets the ol’ blood pounding, while simultaneously maintaining a finely honed progressive edge.
13. WITCH MOUNTAIN - WITCH MOUNTAIN
Filling the unlucky 13th slot on our list is the incomparable Witch Mountain. I've been a fan of this powerhouse of an outfit since 2011's South of Salem opened (given limited experience) a door to the wide horizons of doom metal. I’ve been anticipating this latest release for a while--ever since that beautiful moment when, in the midst of undergrad’s bleakness, it was announced that Kayla Dixon would take over vocal duties. And if Kayla seemed like a confident addition to the crew then, she’s undoubtedly a seasoned pro now. New bassist Jason Brown also brings a lot to this soulful package, adding a little heft to Rob Wrong’s already substantial riffage. End of the day, everything I said in my review earlier this year rings true: Witch Mountain’s 4th album is a brilliant reaffirmation of their core identity and sound, and triumph reinvention for one of the best current bands in the American doom circuit. Witch Mountain got a lot of airtime this year, and if you haven’t given it a chance...this, dear readers, would be the opportune moment you’ve been waiting for.
12. KHEMMIS - Desolation
Khemmis have yet to release an album that hasn’t found a respectable hovel in my year end list. Hunted, most notably, was a moody doom blast of blunderbussian proportion. Needless to say, there was a whole lot riding on Desolation. While some of my fellow critics have said it’s a bit of a plateau, I vehemently disagree. The newfound focus on traditional elements--soaring choruses and galloping leads that would make the boys of Lizzy or Tyr brandish their manly chests--demonstrates that Khemmis isn’t one to adopt a formula and deny themselves self-refinement. Phil’s vocals in particular elevate Khemmis’ sound, which, generally speaking, is chock full o’ melody. This album remains their most consistent and sleek work to date, and if you’ve written Desolation off because it isn’t a Hunted clone, I highly, highly recommend a revisitation.
11. MERLIN - The Wizard
Hey, Yorick! Merlin has been a constant companion this year. Whether heading to a job I disliked mightily at 5am in the midst of a snowstorm, or traveling internationally after quitting said job, this warlock and his pointy hat have been whispering sweet nothings into my frostbiten (or sunburnt) ears all the while. To quote our original review of The Wizard here at ye olde village: “Merlin presents an album that feels original, untouched, and somehow beyond the scope of influence.” Proggy and tastefully experimental, this isn’t your standard exercise in doom. Forlorn yet assertive sax permeates the fold, and chanted vocals contribute to the general ethereal ambiance. It’s a pretty album filled with seemingly ugly moments, and that is a significant accomplishment in and of itself. As an expression of Merlin--the man, not the band--this slab o’ of dreamy psych-doom is an apt portrait. (And for those keeping count at home, The Wizard is my secondmost favorite doom album of the year).
10. OXYGEN DESTROYER -Bestial Manifestations of Malevolence & Death
There were a great many death metal albums that nearly made this list. Scorched, Monothiest, De Profundis, Convulsing, Outer Realm, and Our Place of Worship is Silence, to name but a few, all put out fantastic releases worthy of recognition. But regardless of their many merits, none of these bands delivered a death metal album that approximates the destructive tendencies of the most almighty harbingers of armageddon: y’know, the mighty Kaiju. Oxygen Destroyer are as brutal as they come, laying down track after Kaiju-themed track with an untouchable intensity and furious enthusiasm. I said in my review earlier this year that Chris Craven--a man unto like a monster himself--may have delivered the drum performance of 2018. In hindsight, I really don't think anything else can contest him for that title. Bestial Manifestations of Malevolence & Death is an album that wears its intentions and influences on scaly sleeves, and for that, I love the carnage it has to offer. If there was ever a death metal band qualified to cleanse earth of humanity’s existence, yer looking at it.
9. OF FEATHER AND BONE - Bestial Hymns of Perversion
Through some twist of fate, we have a second “Bestial” in our midst...and for good reason. If my old skool death metal isn’t A). grotesque and B). like unto a beast, I’m perfectly willing to show it the door. Thankfully, Of Feather and Bone nail both on the head. With a maul. The old skool aggression here is unprecedented, from the marshy riffage, to the dual vocal approach, to the lo-fi production reminiscent of a demo cassette left to rot in the breast pocket of John McEntee’s future cadaver. Of Feather and Bone aren’t trying to bring anything new to the table, but their execution is astoundingly top-notch. And really, at the end of the day, you aren’t looking for innovation when you gaze over the visage of such a viscerally exciting cover. You want blood and broken bones, and Bestial Hymns delivers.
8. ABORTED - TerrorVision
Describing why Aborted makes good death metal is akin to describing why water is good for you: no one cares about the technicalities. The fact of the matter is that, regardless of lineup changes, Aborted is on a goddamn streak. TerrorVision is but the latest victory on their grisly warpath. Caluwe has established himself as a premiere vocalist of the modern death metal era, and his exorcistic roars have never been more pugilistic. Majestic guitar work abounds, managing riffs-a-plenty on both the melodic and grind-influenced ends of the spectrum. Percussion is relentlessly precise, yet organic enough to avoid that dreaded clinical feel. Together, the elements work supremely well, and, as such, TerrorVision remains one of my most-listened albums of the year. To all the doubters, this particular Villager sees your cries of “Retrogore!” and raises you a Squalor Opera.
7. CHAPEL OF DISEASE - And as We Have Seen the Storm, We Have Embraced the Eye
This magnificent album has climbed the ranks with disturbing speed and acumen. A week ago it had found a place in my honorable mentions. Four days ago it rested neatly on the bottom shelf of my top 20. After numerous edits, it now resides here--and I’m cutting it off, dammit. If left unobserved, Chapel of Disease’s opus certainly has the ability to push and shove its way into the top 3. Here's why: a great album is, all too oft, one that challenges genre conventions. Here, we’re looking at a seamless dovetail of two seemingly distinct aesthetics, but Chapel of Disease have somehow managed to meld the exploratory world of 70’s prog and hard rock with the blunt edge of traditional death. The result is a hooky and lucid atmosphere, a vivid display of harsh vocals and a deliciously warm guitar tone. If metal has the equivalent of slipping into clothes that have just come out of the dryer, this is it. And as We Have Seen(…) is a brilliant exercise in blatant sonic exploration and structural deviation, and while their move away from the death confines has dismayed some critics, I find this to be one of the most fascinating evolutions of a band’s sound in recent memory. For a particularly acute taste of Chapel of Disease’s unique approach, album opener Void of Words comes very highly recommended.
6. JUDICATOR - The Last Emperor
Judicator appeals to a certain academic side of my existence; I wrote my dissertation on the 1st Crusade. So if you’re morbidly curious about where my fascination for the medieval aesthetic stems, there ya go. But Judicator’s brilliant latest didn’t end up 6th on this list simply for thematic reasons. Nay, The Last Emperor is a magnificent beast of a record, a shining example of how goddamn powerful power metal can be when executed with mature and adept hands. Glorious hooks abound, as do a wide array of lofty leads and comradious choruses. Epic bloodlust is the name of the game, and despite preconceptions associated with the genre tag, Judicator take their craft incredibly seriously, never sacrificing the sheer quality of musicianship. According to Spotify, 3 of my 5 most-listened songs of the year were cherry picked from this album. Highly, highly recommended, especially for ye olde acolytes of the Blind Guardian.
5. MORROW - Fallow
Alright, ye of little patience for small transgressions. This album was technically unveiled on Christmas Eve of 2017, but we’re going by the later physical release date. But in actuality, I’m not worried about the foibles, ‘cuz this album is one of the most devastating albums I had the pleasure of enjoying this year. Crust doesn’t typically lend itself to a gentle touch, but the liberal inclusion of violin and cello places Fallow in a category of its own. Hauntingly desperate, aggressively delicate. Catharsis isn’t merely a means to an end, but rather part of the journey. Gang vocals, purely reminiscent of hardcore stylings, serve both as a climax and a foil to mournful progressions. All told? An emotional masterpiece. Don’t let that release date scare you away.
4. DOMKRAFT - Flood
I originally reviewed Domkraft’s sophomore effort in a favorable light. What I didn't anticipate, however, was its ability to clamber so effortlessly up the rungs of the year-end ladder. It’s good. Really, really good. What more is there to say? Here’s a (slightly modified) summary quotation: “As a statement of pure dedication to their genre wheelhouse, Domkraft have done themselves proud. This isn’t an introduction to doom. As an example of the genre’s staying power, however, Flood is THE finest example of its ilk I have encountered this year.”
3. PAARA - Riitti
The premiere moments in this beleaguered scribe’s music listening existence more often than not involves being swallowed whole by an album. From nose to rump, Riitti is an engrossing and fantastic beast, defined by quality songwriting and a pervasive sense of growth and development. While admittedly a newcomer to the scene, I seldom find black metal to outwardly present so much depth and attention to natural flow from passage to passage, track to track. From melancholia and serenity to overt rage, Paara possesses the ability to meld and traverse a wide emotional range. The atmosphere is made complete by the inclusion of Finnish vocals, which add a certain ethereal ambiance to the whole package. Riitti is a special album--dare I say beautiful. And, as I mentioned in my review earlier this year, the entire album serves as a buildup to the final anguished minutes. Many listens later, this still remains my most anticipated conclusion of the year.
2. NECROPANTHER - Eyes Of Blue Light
Blackened thrash isn't exactly a burgeoning field, which, in some respects, automatically places Necropanther ahead of the fold. But Necropanther are so, so much more than a de facto replacement for the Skeletonwitch of yore. Simply put, this album--and the band itself--represents my favorite aspects of heavy music. The riffs are omnipresent, the harmonic melodies are unabashed, and the vocals are like unto Satan (the acid-refluxed) Himself. Moreso, this album possesses remarkable replay value--for a genre that generally encounters fatigue a few tracks in, Necropanther’s brand never falters or makes me reach for an alternative. Today, with a wealth of year end lists to peruse, filled with new music to discover, I nonetheless listened to Eyes of Blue Light not once, but twice. In full. Espousing Necropanther’s merits has been one of my favorite activities of the year. As my second favorite album of 2018, Eyes of Blue Light comes highly, highly recommended.
1. 1914 - The Blind Leading the Blind
As unfortunate as it may sound, context plays a very underrated role in the impact of an album. Listening to a world-class work whilst stuck, for example, in the mire in an ugly mindset, severely reduces the efficacy of the piece in question. The harsh reality of context, however, is particularly relevant in the case of my personal Album of the Year. Released 100 years after the conclusion of WWI, 1914’s exemplary The Blind Leading the Blind is a prime example of an album’s meteoric impact being significantly larger than the sum of its parts.
WWI was not a romantic war, and The Blind Leading the Blind is not a romantic record. Following the lead of its grisly subject matter, this album illustrates the horrors of a war fought outside the confines of dramatic or heroic narrative. It's not about a fight for a greater cause, or an attempt to right a grand injustice. The objective? To kill until there is nothing left to kill. “I know what we’re fighting for,” roars our narrator on Arrival. The Meuse Argonne. “Hopefully to end the war.” 1914 paints a grotesque, nihilistic, and realistic picture--and in this way, their commemoration is appropriate beyond compare. The Blind Leading the Blind captures the wide range of emotion experienced by the most emotionally broken. Thus, as an emotional work, it triumphs.
Musically, the genre--if it can be called that--is one of aggressively blurred lines. Blackened death, overt death, churning sludge, mustardy doom. All take solace in 1914’s muddy, bloody, yet au fait grasp. The result is an atrociously accurate atmosphere. The liberal inclusion of samples only enhances the feeling, to that point that listening is nearly voyeuristic, like you’re observing the (shell) shocking realities of senseless war from the safety of tidy modernity. Very seldom does an album inflict such a boggling barrage of emotion.
The Blind Leading the Blind is devastating. I’ll leave it at that.
Thanks so much to everyone who has followed along. We here at the Sleeping Village sincerely hope that this exercise has introduced you to some new music. Regardless of how small we may be in the grand scheme, its been an honor and a privilege. Support small artists, listen to good music. Happy (very belated, by this point) new year to you all!
A certain groggy-eyed, highfalutin' peasantry