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2018 Extravaganza

Year-End Extravaganza: Clayton’s 20 Favorite Albums of 2018

So..I had absolutely no intentions of doing a year-end list for 2018. Yet here I am, taking my fourth stab at writing an intro for my year-end list. What was wrong with the other intros, you may ask? And even if you didn’t ask, I’m going to tell you anyway.

The first was too curmudgeonly: ‘Year-end lists? Bah humbug! Now here are my favorite albums of 2018.’

The second ended up being a mini-think piece on the whole idea of year-end lists. It came off as both defensive and self-aggrandizing. After that one, I decided ‘fuck it,’ and deleted the post entirely.

A few hours later, I tried it for a third time and wrote an intro that was absolute gibberish. I mean, no one reads these fucking things anyway, right? Y’all just skip ahead to the lists.

So here’s my fourth intro – short and sweet.

I wasn’t going to do a list. So much excellent music came out this year, though, that I changed my mind. So here are my 20 favorite albums of 2018…

20. ArchgoatThe Luciferian Crown (Debemur Morti Productions)

While it may sound like something of an oxymoron to call a band an ‘underground powerhouse,’ there’s no one more deserving of that description than the feral Finns Archgoat. Easily the most influential metal band to ever come from the Land of a Thousand Lakes, they’ve spent the last 35 years blazing a blasphemous trail that many have tried to imitate, but no one has even come close to matching. At this point in the band’s history, they don’t even need to be releasing new music – they could tour based simply on their unfuckwithable reputation for as long as they want. But what do they do instead? Release the best album of their long and storied careers.

19. Corona BarathriNox Mali (Grey Matter Noise Productions/Noctivagant Collective)

Man cannot live on black metal alone – eventually, your ears are going to need some kind of break. Like seemingly every other black metal dude, I got into dungeon synth for a while. I still dig a few DS bands (like Fief), but this year I’ve been gravitating more towards dark ambient, thanks in large part to Corona Barathri. On the one hand, their lengthy synth and ritualistic percussion-driven compositions provide the exact sort of respite that tremolo-and-blast bruised ears need. Unlike a lot of dungeon synth artists, though, they aren’t making music about communing with fucking Ents or fairies. This is evil, Satanic music – Corona Barathri scare me in a way that no black metal artist ever has, which is about the highest praise that I can offer.

18. Suicide ForestSuicide Forest (Self-released)

Given how much I’ve written about this band over the last year, it should come as a surprise to approximately no one that they’ve made this list. Band mastermind Austin Kruger makes depressive black metal in the same vein as Xasthur, Striborg, and early Leviathan. With all three of those projects having gravitated various distances away from their black metal roots, Suicide Forest makes an incredibly compelling case that Kruger is the heir apparent to their blackened throne.

17. Spectral Wound – Infernal Decadence (Vendetta Records)

Q: How can you tell that being a metal blogger has officially changed the way you approach music?
A: You start thinking about music in terms of ‘trends.’

Yeah – in the immortal words of Bill the Cat: ‘Ack. Spit.’

That being said…I think this year I found myself noticing over and over last year is how many bands are still making vital, engaging, and even daring music within the Scandinavian second wave template. Is Montréal’s Spectral Wound doing anything you haven’t heard somewhere before? Probably not. Do they do it so fucking well that you aren’t likely to care about the familiarity of the musical ground they tread? Emphatically yes.

16. Ritual NecromancyDisinterred Horror (Dark Descent)

The other ‘trend’ I noticed in 2018 had to do with how many bands returned with new full-lengths after extended hiatuses. Disinterred Horror is Ritual Necromancy’s first full-length since 2011, and it was more than worth the wait. There’s a reason this is the only death metal album to make an appearance on this list: nothing else even came close to matching it.

15. L.O.R.E.Gateways: Between the Scales of Destitution and Ascension (Red River Family Records/Narcoleptica) 

Here’s Exhibit A as to why I’ve sort of soured on the whole year-end list thing, and wasn’t planning to do one this year. L.O.R.E.’s debut Litany of Ruinous Entities landed at #6 on my list last year. Its follow-up is sitting at #15 this year. Yet I think Gateways: Between the Scales of Destitution and Ascension is the stronger of the two albums. So then why does it rank nearly ten spots lower? Umm…because reasons? Honestly, its placement on this year’s list has less to do with its own merits than it does with how unbelievably strong a year it’s been in metal.

By all accounts, the process of writing and recording Gateways was not an easy one for L.O.R.E., and at one point I heard rumors they were going to disband before even completing the record. Fortunately, they survived the tempest, and the resulting album displayed a remarkable amount of growth in terms of their songwriting. That being said, I don’t think their output has quite yet matched their potential – as good as their albums have been, I truly think their best is yet to come.

14. DakhmaHamkar Atonement (Iron Bonehead)

If you’re into black metal and not paying attention to the burgeoning scene in Switzerland (yes, really – Switzerland), then you’re fucking up. At this point, most people are likely at least aware of Ungfell, but what they may not know is that they’re part of a collective known as the Helvetic Underground Committee, which also includes the Zororastrian Death Music of Dakhma. At 70 minutes, this album is a lot to digest in one sitting, but its mix of ritualistic black/death metal, dark ambient, and Iranian folk music is unlike anything else I’ve heard in this or any other year.

13. SvartidauðiRevelations of the Red Sword (Ván Records)

Since Dex from Black Metal Daily and I just gave this album the Kvltists in the Vault treatment, I won’t say too much more about it here. However, I will say this: if you’re like me and kind of stopped paying attention to the Icelandic scene, this album will VERY quickly convince you of the error of your ways. To completely misappropriate an Eminem line, ‘motherfuckers act like they forgot about Iceland.’ 

12. Ungfell – Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz (Eisenwald)

Speaking of Ungfell…can you name any other black metal band where one of the members is credited with playing accordion? Such is the adventurous spirit that defines Ungfell’s approach to their craft. Furiously melodic with definite Medieval overtones and some deftly incorporated folk elements, it’s easy to see why they’re the breakout band from the Helvetic Underground Committee and how they ended up signing with Eisenwald. While I do think last year’s Tôtbringære was slightly better overall, Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz is still an outstanding album and a perfect starting point for those not yet familiar with the HUC. 

11. ManesSlow Motion Death Sequence (Debemur Morti Productions)

Exhibit B as to why I wasn’t going to do a list this year: what to do with this album? Much like their countrymen Ulver, Manes started off playing black metal but have evolved into something much more avant-garde/electronic influenced. There are still heavy guitars on Slow Motion Death Sequence, but most of the album’s heaviness comes from the oppressive atmospheres and dark moods.

Earlier this year, I said that the album “feels like it could be the soundtrack to watching a loved one slowly die.” It was an oddly prescient statement, as I’ve ended up spending most of the second half of 2018 as the lone caretaker for my father, who is on a rapid mental decline from dementia. Over the last few months especially, Slow Motion Death Sequence has become a very important album to me. Whether I’ve needed comfort or a soundtrack for the shedding of many despondent and defeated tears, Manes has been there.

10. IskandrEuprosopon (Haeresis Noviomagi/Eisenwald)

Switzerland wasn’t the only country that really impressed me in 2018 – it turns out the Netherlands has some outstanding black metal bands as well, the majority of whom seem to be gathered together under the Haeresis Noviomagi banner. Many of them – Solar Temple, Turia, Lubbert Das, and Iskandr – feature an enigmatic musician known simply as O. All four of those bands released excellent new music in 2018, but I found myself returning most often to Iskandr’s regal-sounding, borderline progressive Euprosopon –– an epic, melodic, and truly awe-inspiring 45-minute ride that’s as engaging as it is challenging. Start here, and then listen to everything else the label has put out this year as well.

9. UlvesangThe Hunt (Nordvis/Fólkvangr)

For some reason, I’m not having the same existential musical crisis about including dark/neofolk duo Ulvesang on this list as I did over including Manes. Perhaps that’s because Ana Dujakovićis also one-half of the atmospheric black metal band Astral Path. Maybe it’s because the music Ana and Alex Boyd make sounds a bit like Agalloch stripped down to just the pretty parts. Whatever the reason, I vividly remember listening to The Hunt for the first time one cold morning in early February while watching it snow outside my front window — it was the perfect setting, and it was love at first note.

8. Crown of AsteriaThe Ire of a Bared Fang (Red River Family Records)

Including this one is cheating a bit, since it won’t actually be available digitally until Dec. 21 (likely after this list is published) and physically until some time early next year. However, there’s absolutely no way that I couldn’t include it – The Ire of a Bared Fang is probably the strongest entry in Meghan Wood’s remarkably strong discography. Denser, darker, and angrier than anything she’s ever released as Crown of Asteria, I think this album is going to end up surprising a lot of people.

7. GrayceonIV (Translation Loss Records)

One of my absolute highlights of 2018 was getting a chance to interview cellist/vocalist Jackie Perez Gratz. She’s barely been heard from since Giant Squid, the progressive doom/post-metal band she played in with husband Aaron John Gregory, went on hiatus after 2014’s Minoans. While AJG has stayed busy, releasing new albums with Squalus and Khôrada, it had been five years since JPG’s cello-prog band Grayceon’s Pearl and the End of Days EP, and seven since their last full-length All We Destroy. IV is a much leaner, more direct affair than their earlier works – not a single track on the album comes close to breaking the ten-minute mark – but no less daring or labyrinthine for its relative brevity. Who knew conciseness would end up serving the band so well?

6. Crimson ThroneOf Void & Solitude (Apocalyptic Witchcraft/Red River Family Records)

After releasing an incredibly promising self-titled EP last year, the UK’s Crimson Throne wasted no time delivering on that promise and then some. A dynamic, audacious album that visits virtually all points on the black metal spectrum without ever landing on any of them for long enough to fit neatly into any subgenre, Of Void & Solitude was the most pleasant surprise of 2018. Also: TH has some of the most painful-sounding shrieks in all of black metal – I want to send the dude a case of throat lozenges every time I listen to this record.

5. OccelensbriggThe Quest of the Star Mountain (Harvest of Death)

Hail Portugal! Hail the Aldebaran Circle!

2018 was another strong year for the clandestine collective, with Voëmmr, Ordem Satânica, and Degredo all releasing essential new kvltness. As a whole, though, the year belonged to Occelensbrigg. The one-man project released an excellent demo called The Cosmic Winter State, an even better split with shit-hot USBM newcomers Spiral Staircase, and topped it off with his first full-length The Quest of the Star Mountain. An esoteric and thoroughly enveloping listen, it’s the best example yet of why the Aldabaran Circle ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit.

4. Pa Vesh En – Church of Bones (Iron Bonehead)

Between December 15, 2017 and October 12, 2018, one-man Belarusian black metal project Pa Vesh En released two demos, an EP, a split with Temple Moon, and his first full-length Church of Bones. A little under 110 minutes of music total, every last second of which is absolutely fucking essential. Raw, violent, haunting – everything kvlt black metal should be. It’s probably unreasonable to expect that he’ll keep up that kind of productivity for very long, but I’m going to enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

3. Black HowlingReturn of Primordial Stillness (Signal Rex)

For most of 2018, I was sure this was going to be my Album of the Year, and it took two late-year surprises to knock it off that perch. Far more overtly melodic and emotionally raw than most of their Portuguese compatriots, Black Howling come remarkably close to crossing over into DSBM territory – think Xasthur during that incredible run of albums from Nocturnal Poisoning through Subliminal Genocide. The duo of P. and A. manage to achieve a kind of transcendence with their music, though, that Scott Conner never even came close to approaching. It’s bleak and anguished, but also triumphant and incredibly cathartic.

2. SargeistUnbound (W.T.C. Productions)

There is nowhere in the world where the black flame of the second wave burns brighter than it does in Finland, and there is no better practitioner of the style than Sargeist. Much like their countrymen Archgoat, they could tour forever based on the strength of their first three full-lengths. But that’s not Shatraug’s style. Not only is he still going strong fifteen years after the release of Sargeist’s landmark debut album Satanic Black Devotion, the songs on Unbound are strong enough to stand next to anything in the band’s seminal discography. Simply put: Sargiest is the best black metal band on the planet.

1. Megaton LeviathanMage (Blood Music)

All these outstanding black metal albums, and what album ends up taking the top spot on my year-end list? A synth-heavy psychedelic shoegazing drone/doom album with a heavy Krautrock influence. What else?

I was a fan of Megaton Leviathan’s last full-length, 2014’s Past 21 Beyond the Arctic Cell, but I was not even remotely prepared for what I was about to hear the first time I hit play on Mage – I ended up listening to it three times straight through, and I don’t even know how many times since. For Mage, main man Andrew James Costa rebuilt the band from the ground up with the assistance of longtime collaborator Mort Subite, adding classically trained violinist/vocalist Andrea Morgan (also of black metal outfit Exulansis), ex-Lord Dying/current Hands of Thieves drummer J. Reed, former Subarachnoid Space guitarist Russel Archer, and bassist Trejen. The results are positively exhilarating, and a lot of the credit for that goes to Morgan, whose vocals and violin work are responsible not only for many of the textures on the album but also its emotional heart.

I have a couple of friends who’ve seen Megaton Leviathan live since Mage came out, and I’ve heard tell that the new songs are even better in a live setting. Here’s hoping they end up making their way to the Midwest at some point in 2019.

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