There’s always bound to be some extra baggage when reflecting on the last year of a decade. How did 2019 cap off the 2010s and help shape it as a decade? What elements are being nurtured today that will fully encompass the 2020s? Can we examine the year’s merits in itself while still trying to gauge the bigger picture? Time is sloppy, devoid of vacuums, and ever-flowing in defiance of artificial transitions. Distinct eras can only be defined through hindsight and healthy distance yet attempting to do so while memories are fresh never ceases to be alluring for anal-retentive folks such as myself.
Personally speaking, 2019 proved to be a great year for expanding my musical horizons. In addition to my usual excursions into unfamiliar genres, my partner got me a record player for my birthday. I’m finally up to speed with the vinyl craze a decade after it started and dealing with the inevitable addiction that comes with it. These factors and more made this a difficult year in choosing albums for my list, but I’m as satisfied as I ever will be in dealing with such matters.
20) Gothic Stone – Haereticus Empyreum
2019 was an absolutely fantastic year for epic doom metal. Great as it was to have a comeback from the almighty Candlemass, I found myself enjoying the albums from the bands they inspired even more than the real thing. One such example was the debut album by Gothic Stone. Haereticus Empyreum does an excellent job of mixing the Epicus method with the quirky creepiness of their fellow Italian doomsters in Black Hole and Paul Chain. It was a late arrival in the year released under the radar, but still, an album that shouldn’t be passed up.
19) Chrome Waves – A Grief Observed
With Chrome Waves’ EP having made such a strong impression on me in 2012, it was great to see them deliver a worthy full-length seven years later. The project’s blackened elements are edged out in favor of post-metal and shoegaze, but these components make for a cohesive whole. The mixed vocals and strings are a refreshing change of pace, and the bleak atmosphere is perfect for days of emotionally fraught coldness. The Cold Light of Despair provides even greater insight into the band’s full dynamic spectrum, but A Grief Observed manages to stand alone.
18) Year of the Cobra – Ash and Dust
Year of the Cobra just might be my favorite two-piece group currently active. Their studio efforts showcase a wealth of striking riffs and memorable vocal lines with moods that vary beyond the aimless navel-gazing of their peers and that prowess is only enhanced in the live setting. Their second full-length album pushes this even further with their most varied and impactful songs to date. Whether it be the infectious tempos on “The Divine” and “Into the Fray” or the more contemplative “In Despair,” Ash and Dust shows a band making the most of a basic template.
17) Twisted Tower Dire – Wars in the Unknown
Twisted Tower Dire’s first album since 2011’s Make It Dark is an album that simply exudes fun. The tempos are blazingly fast and energetic, the vocals enthusiastically deliver a slew of over the top choruses, and the lyrics’ tales of sharks, ghosts, and flaming swords are the best kind of ridiculous. The band clearly isn’t taking these classic metal tropes too seriously, but the powerful performances are enough to indicate the effort behind the compositions. It’s nice to see a veteran band return after a lengthy studio break, but it’s even better when their enthusiasm is this contagious.
16) King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Infest the Rats’ Nest
I’d honestly avoided King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard for a couple of years, mostly due to their intimidating as hell prolificity, but even I couldn’t ignore the prospect of these psych-rockers dipping their toes into thrash metal. Granted, their vision of the genre is still packed with doomy fuzz and more in line with Voivod than Slayer, but it is a unique showing. The tempos have a certain swing even at their most intense, the vocal lines are gruffly catchy, and the sci-fi social commentary feels more relevant than the politics of any ‘actual’ thrash band these days. At the very least, it got me to check out some of those other albums.
15) Waste of Space Orchestra – Syntheosis
Of all the albums on my list, Syntheosis is easily the most ‘important.’ The prospect of two bands combining to form a single unit is incredibly daunting, especially when it’s the weirdos from Dark Buddha Rising and Oranssi Pazuzu, but the results make for a unique experience. This blackened space prog style has a disorienting atmosphere to it, but the musicianship shows much more intricacy than the chaotic presentation would suggest. I’m sure it was most potent at the 2018 Roadburn Festival with a couple of shrooms in your system, but I’m glad to enjoy this madness in the comfort of my very own home.
14) The Riven – The Riven
Very few things hit my sweet soft as a listener, quite like well-made blues-rock. The Riven’s self-titled debut isn’t a groundbreaking release by any means, but its impactful execution of beloved tropes really scratches that itch. I love how earthy the guitar and bass tones sound and how the vocals carry these hooks with a sultry confidence. The production is organic without sounding too retro, and the atmosphere has a rustic aura that is inviting yet mysterious. I find myself comparing it to classic Badlands and the last Red Dragon Cartel album, which makes me wonder if there’s a way to get Jake E Lee in on this.
13) Black Road – Witch of the Future
Black Road made a great showing on their 2017 EP, but the band pushes their strengths to even further extents on Witch of the Future. The mood is darker, the riffs are heavier, the vocals are better layered, and the lead guitar work has all the dexterity and charm of Stevie Ray Vaughan without the milquetoast tendencies seen in many of his imitators. Between the trippy bluesiness of the ten-minute long title track and the hard-hitting doom of “Torches,” it’s a breezy listen with a great deal of replay value.
12) Fvneral Fvkk – Carnal Confessions
I don’t think the guys in Fvneral Fvkk expected their debut album to get so much attention. That is not to say they don’t take themselves or their work seriously, but their name certainly made it easier for some listeners to dismiss them. Either way, Carnal Confessions is a powerful effort that features some of the darkest music and most distraught lyrics ever played under the epic doom banner. It’s an album that takes some time to get a feel for, but the riffs and vocals are striking. The religiously themed lyrics will also hit close to home for many listeners and thankfully avoid getting too edgy. Consider giving the album a chance if the name was a dealbreaker.
11) RAM – The Throne Within
As much innovation as traditional metal experienced in 2019 (More on that later), you can still get high-quality stuff by making the most of the familiar. RAM has always been a solid band, but their sixth album really put them on the next level in regard to songwriting and energy. The speeds on songs like “The Shadowwork” are thrilling, and the hooks on “Fang and Fur” and “The Trap” get stuck in my head on a regular basis. I find myself comparing the album to Defenders of the Faith, among other classics, which can only be a good sign.
10) Crypt Sermon – The Ruins of Fading Light
Crypt Sermon’s second album was probably my most anticipated on this list. Having been such a big fan of 2015’s Out of the Garden, it’s great to see their Candlemass meets Solitude Aeturnus worship to even more distinct and grandiose levels. The vocals are broader, the classic metal influences are always welcome, and the riffs on songs like “The Snake Handler” and “Christ is Dead” strike the perfect balance of catchy and splendorous. The interludes might not amount to much beyond extra fluff, but it’s hardly a concern when the album flows so well. If you’re gonna go with any pure doom metal album in 2019, this just might be the one.
9) Spirit Adrift – Divided by Darkness
Spirit Adrift’s third album reaches the greatness that the band was just on the cusp of on 2017’s Curse of Conception. The songwriting is much more focused than before as the greater emphasis on classic metal tinges, and catchy hooks enhance their emotional core rather than diminishes it. Songs like “We Will Not Die” and “Hear Her” are fantastic anthems, but the album’s real beauty comes with “Angel and Abyss,” a cathartic listen with its power ballad beginning and climactic Randy Rhoads-style speed up. It’s a compact, impactful listen that I feel could become influential in its own right.
8) Mirror – Pyramid of Terror
Although Mirror’s second album is classic metal rooted in 70s traditions, they don’t have the same bands in mind as many of their peers. Rather than aiming for the likes of Sabbath or Budgie, Pyramid of Terror has its eyes on the tighter, neoclassical style demonstrated by bands like Rainbow, Scorpions, and Judas Priest circa 1978. The predominately Eastern guitar phrasings and urgently catchy songwriting also give the band a unique edge. Metal fans are sure to welcome this album as old school comfort food, albeit with a different flavor than they’re usually presented.
7) Hexvessel – All Tree
While Hexvessel’s fourth album isn’t as psychedelic as 2016’s When We Are Death, there’s considerable variety under its Ren Faire folk umbrella. Moods go between the upbeat vibrance of “Wilderness Spirit” and the introspective ritualism of “Closing Circles” while genres dip into the bluesy “Birthmark,” the carnival “Luminal Night,” and the Jethro Tull touches of the title track. Through it all, the band’s earnest enthusiasm and commitment to a rustic pagan aesthetic keep things consistent. Sometimes you just gotta have something whimsical on your playlist.
6) Gold – Why Aren’t You Laughing?
Pulling from a mix of post-punk and noise rock with some blackened tinges, Gold’s fourth album strikes a beautiful balance between melody and dissonance. While the guitars are very prone to textured noodling and songs frequently give way to extreme blasts, they never overwhelm the vocals or make them sound out of place. The songwriting also benefits from these clashes as tracks will vary between experimental excursions and melancholic catchiness. It’s a guaranteed shoo-in for fans of groups like Joy Division, Sonic Youth, and classic Swans.
5) Idle Hands – Mana
Much has already been made of Idle Hands’ first album as the overabundant hype is beginning to experience some minor backlash. It’s not on the levels of Ghost quite yet, but these camps will likely intensify if this band ends up on a similar commercial trajectory. Either way, Mana is an overwhelmingly goth fun. The songwriting is catchy as hell, and the mix of classic metal and post-punk is one that I remain a sucker for. Other bands have certainly opted for this style fusion before, but it’s refreshing enough for outsiders to take notice. I’m excited to see where Idle Hands takes it on future efforts.
4) Tanith – In Another Time
Tanith’s debut album is another 70s-inspired adventure, taking cues from groups like Uriah Heep, Pagan Altar, and classic Rush. The style can make it easy to initially diminish as derivative fluff, but the two singers’ trade-offs and harmonies make for something truly inspiring. The choruses on songs like “Citadel” and “Dionysus” come out to be even more uplifting, and the wistful attitude is all the more endearing. These factors, in combination with a breezy songwriting approach, results in a refreshing old school vibe. It may not be the most important debut out there, but it’s easily one of the most pleasant.
3) Sanhedrin – The Poisoner
Sanhedrin’s second album feels tailored made to my tastes. In addition to a style that teeters between doom and classic metal, the vocals have a nasally flavor that gives the hooks a unique edge. The variation between songs like the marching “Meditation (All My Gods Are Gone),” the leaner “Blood from Stone” and “For the Wicked,” and the doomy title track is also quite enjoyable. It’s another album that hits a nice stylistic sweet spot and gets the job done in the most efficient way possible with plenty of replay value.
2) Rosalie Cunningham – Rosalie Cunningham
Having been unaware of Purson until just before their disbandment, frontwoman Rosalie Cunningham’s debut as a solo artist was a major shock to my system. I love how it mixes 60s and 70s rock influences in a way that doesn’t feel too much like a throwback thanks to the bombastic arrangements and in your face performances. The hooks and overall pacing are relentless, but there’s enough personality and dynamic variation to keep it from getting too overwhelming. If you’ve ever wanted to hear what it would sound like if Grace Slick fronted Queen or ELO, consider trying this out.
1) Atlantean Kodex – The Course of Empire
Atlantean Kodex is the sort of band that encompasses everything there is to love about heavy metal. The White Goddess made a notable impact in 2013, and The Course of Empire goes even further with its gritty guitar chugs, operatic vocals, and sprawling yet triumphant epic metal pacing. Individual songs are gloriously memorable, and the transitions between them are some of the smoothest out there; I try to not judge albums too much on the first listen, but I knew this would be my album of the year from the moment that I heard “The Alpha and the Occident” transition into the righteous “People of the Moon.” If a blending of Powerslave, Tales of Creation, and Hammerheart doesn’t sound like it’d be the best thing ever to you, I’m not sure if we can be friends anymore.