I have a confession to make: most people aware of metalhead in-jokes have probably put together that Angelo Sasso isn’t my real name. I’ve been writing here under a pseudonym, simply so I could try something new because I’ve actually been reviewing metal for well over a decade at this point for other sites and independently. In those 13/14 years, I’ve been doing this regularly, I’ve never, ever ranked a full 20 albums for a year-end list. My personal belief has always been that these types of roundups should be an honor, not a Wikipedia list. But as luck would have it, I noticed that a lot of the established writers I’ve been getting to know and growing alongside here tend to go for the big two-oh. So I figured, ya know what? Screw it; I can do that too. 2019 was an incredibly stacked year anyway, capping off the decade that probably saw the most explosive growth in the metal scene (thanks to the advent of Bandcamp and streaming services making the availability of our beloved niche genre orders of magnitude larger) with a slew of fantastic albums from both scene veterans and fresh-faced young whelps. Basically, every single subgenre has found themselves represented here in my Top 20, partly because I’ve never been one to totally ignore certain pockets of metal (though I’ll admit that I’ve never come around to enjoying prog metal still) and partly because just everybody pushed themselves to the brink this year. Both the displays of genre orthodoxy and the daring experiments fared extremely well this year, and essentially 2019 ended as one hell of a statement.
This ended up being mostly metal centric, simply because I listen to more metal than anything else, and “metal” is right in the site’s name, but music, in general, was on fire this year. Despite that, nothing was off the table when it came to ranking this, it just so happens that I’m a stinky metalloid. Anyway, I’m sure most of y’all skim the top portion here, so let’s just get on with it!
We’re gonna start off with an album that I thought for sure was going to be a top-five contender when I first heard it early in the year. This is pounding, infectious old school heavy metal with a flair for the doomy side and some of the best production you’re going to hear all year (thanks to my greatest unrequited love, Arthur Rizk), but Sarah’s vocals are really the only thing holding this back. She’s not a bad vocalist by any means, but I can’t stress enough that this would be nearly ten or fifteen slots higher on the list if she were able to command more power with her voice. The music itself is just too fucking good for a middling vocal performance.
Hive is braindead simple in theory, but on top of the world in execution. This sits pretty firmly on the hardcore side of the dichotomy most bands of their ilk find themselves treading, sounding more like a lost banger from His Hero is Gone or Racetraitor than anything recognizably metal, but the abundance of HM-2 guitars and furious d-beats should make this palatable for any headbanger who has found themselves skipping a few weeks when it comes to showering. This is filthy and raw and devastating, and I ask for absolutely nothing more when it comes to this sort of thing.
This album is dumb as hell, but I love nearly every second of it. I’m a big power metal fan, but I’ve been finding myself disillusioned with it in recent years (hence why this is one of the very few you’ll see here today), since lately, it’s been a genre of great individual songs buried on completely dull albums. Somehow, these Finnish weebs managed to craft one of the only consistently great power metal albums in 2019. A lot of people more in tune with the current zeitgeist of the genre assure me that this is mediocre, but I think they’re all nerds because I’ll take Everfrost over ShadowStrike or Eternity’s End every day of the week.
Hey speaking of power metal, though it didn’t hit me as hard this year as it has in some previous, I’d be lying through my teeth if I said that Paladin’s debut here was anything short of a gargantuan downburst of fresh air. Main man Taylor Washington sports an impressive pedigree of technically proficient bands that usually fall flat on a songwriting level like Arsis, Theocracy, and ShadowStrike, but when he finds himself with more control, he’s shown how much of a stud he can truly be. Power metal usually doesn’t mix well with more extreme variants, but Paladin figured it out by simply separating their Gamma Ray-isms and their Skeletonwitch-isms wholesale, creating an album that’s admittedly cut-and-paste but also completely unpredictable, and I love it.
Putrescine made some waves late in the year, though not necessarily for musical reasons. Because the world is stupid, they caught some heat on social media for daring to say some things that should be completely uncontroversial like “misogyny is a bad thing, and it’s disappointing that death metal is still obsessed with it.” After finding myself nodding along to their seemingly inflammatory remarks, I gave their lone EP a listen and was blown away by the sheer ferocity of it. I almost never rank demos, splits, or EPs particularly high on lists like this, but I’ll make an exception for Putrescine, who has shown more promise in twenty minutes than most new death metal bands do across entire careers.
You have no idea how happy I am to report that Slough Feg is back to making incredible albums again, something they used to do with startling regularity up until 2007, after which they’ve been struggling in a world that seemingly left them behind. New Organon sees them just getting back to basics and doing what they do best, presenting sleazy Thin Lizzy-isms coupled with raucous Brocas Helm-isms and creating something instantly recognizable as something only Mike Scalzi could have created. Nearly every track here sounds like a lost track from the early era (“Headhunter” literally was written over twenty years ago), and man sometimes I can’t help but adore a stellar throwback.
This one took me completely by surprise and made me a believer in these strange old-time rockers from Australia. The Neptune Power Federation has been quietly toiling around for years, honing their immense theatricality into tighter and tighter songs, and with Memoirs of a Rat Queen I think they finally nailed it. This is just damn good dirty rock and roll with a vocalist who is a dead ringer for Ann Wilson, and when you couple their over-the-top theatrics with such tight and concise rock, you’ve got a winner on your hands.
Three times now, Abnormality and Unfathomable Ruination have released albums in the same year, and for the second time now, the superior band has changed. I can’t help but see these two as sister bands to one another by sheer coincidence, but the pattern held true this year, and just like in 2012, when Abnormality is the victor, they wind up on the list. In many ways, they’re the band I wish Suffocation still was. That’s not to say Suffo’s last album wasn’t great (it did win AOTY in 2017 after all), but I still see it as something of a fluke until a followup proves me wrong. Abnormality sounds straight out of the Cerrito era, with big heaps of modern tech death thrown into the savage hacksaw riffs of their obvious influence like Hour of Penance and Cattle Decapitation. This is brutality nearly perfected.
Sunn had two incredible albums this year, with Life Metal only ever so slightly edging out Pyroclasts for the purposes of this list. This is the first drone album to ever rank as a finalist on these lists of mine, but Stephen and Greg really went above and beyond with this one. This obviously isn’t my usual genre, but the way they blend ethereal soundscapes with overwhelming heaviness seems to hit the sweet spot for me. This percussion-less fuzz just washes over the listener and transports them to whatever incorporeal hellbliss in on the cover. I think one tiny change that really wound up helping was simply not including Attila on vocals. He’s not always around, obviously, but on three of the albums I liked before, he was on two of them, and he’s been their live guy for eons. Swapping him out for the breathy coos of Hildur Guðnadóttir was sheer brilliance.
If Bell Witch can be credited for anything, it can be introducing the world to Mariusz Lewandowski, apparently, the only human being in the universe who can passably emulate the legendary Zdzislaw Beksinski’s art style, and as a result, this nearly 60-year-old painter is suddenly the most in-demand artist in the entire metal world. Minnesota’s False won the art lottery this year and were able to get his art to grace Portent, which, frankly, happens to be one of the best black metal releases of the year. For reasons I can’t adequately explain, I could (accurately) sense that this was a band that would get random shit thrown at them, maybe for the overwhelming melody and meteoric rise in the scene displacing artists seen as more “deserving” or whatever, but the fact of the matter is that the three lengthy songs here are basically a forty-minute long cumshot.
I’ve given these guys a review already this year, but Seattle’s greatest secret held on to make the top ten here. Xoth’s brand of death metal is more of the Mithras variety than anybody else, and I seem to be the only one saying such a thing. Maybe I need to listen to Mithras again, but this is exactly the kind of wild screaming I remember the lead guitars doing there, and it’s just as good here as it is there. This is basically the musical equivalent of a cartoony but ultraviolent comic book, just wreaking havoc with reckless abandon at every turn, and those lead melodies I love so much keep this exceptionally stylish. Interdimensional Invocations is everything I ever wanted and more, and in a lesser year, this would’ve been an easy top-five finish. 2019 just happened to be particularly stacked.
Can I get a new color scheme finally? Thank you. I wanted to hate this album out of spite. I hate how Blood Incantation swims in hype and praise for basically doing the same thing hundreds of other bands are doing right now (though with more Morbid Angel influence than most, which helps) and I’ve gone on record many times saying Dark Descent Records is really fucking boring when it comes to death metal. But here we are, making the list again. I don’t think this is perfect, I don’t like how it only has four tracks, one of which is instrumental and a different one of which is nearly twenty minutes long. It’s both lacking in material while being excessive. But despite my prejudices and despite the fact that I think Starspawn is their superior album, this is still in the top ten. Because it is seriously that fucking good.
This may surprise those of you who know me, but this is actually the last death metal album on the list! It’s true, my favorite genre just really didn’t hit me as hard this year, but that didn’t stop several stunners from landing on my radar regardless, and Venom Prison found themselves the best of the bunch. Venom Prison finds themselves among the front of the pack when it comes to the burgeoning scene of explicitly leftist/anti-capitalist/feminist extreme metal, and holy shit did they earn their place. My usual complaint with lefty metal is simply that it’s never angry enough, but I’m not sure I’ve heard anything as caustic and visceral as Samsara this year. That grotesque blend of punishing groove and downhill-running adrenaline hasn’t sounded this fucking dangerous in a long time. This is what I was hoping the new Misery Index would be.
I can’t talk about Batushka anymore. I’ve put more words to (metaphorical) paper about the drama surrounding the schism in the band than I ever expected, but I can’t deny just how much I fucking adore The True Batushka’s entry this year. It’s painfully clear that Krzysztof wrote Litourgiya back in 2015, because Bart’s Hospodi was a boring trainwreck and Panihida here sounds like a spiritual successor in every sense of the word. The overwhelming melody, the deep chants, the perverted sense of worship, everything that made the previous album a modern classic is here in spades, and while it may not surpass its predecessor, it’s an extremely worthy followup that I’ve been spinning fairly regularly for more than half the year now. This is melodic black metal at its near-finest.
I’m not really a sludge guy, but Seer has smashed the door down and cemented themselves as modern titans to me with this album. Vol. 6 is, for the style, a pretty short album, and I think that works in its favor. There were very, very few albums I found myself finishing and immediately restarting this year, but this was one of them. The interplay between the wavering atmosphere and gargantuan riffs, against the backdrop of largely distant vocals, both clean and harsh, with a few rattling falsetto screeches (which you think would clash but only add to the madness) make this nothing short of a home run. My favorite part may actually be the short outro track, believe it or not. The way it ends on that cascading swell feels like a huge inhale, followed by silence. Seer managed to make a minor volume swell sound like a religious experience.
These Ukrainians wound up producing the metal album I never knew I wanted. Like Deafheaven before them, they’ve eschewed nearly every aesthetic hallmark of black metal and veered their headspace off somewhere no corpsepainted goat-hailers dare to tread. The small addition of something as simple as a saxophone, even (especially) during the loud parts, fills an open space that I didn’t even realize most black metal had. There is so much emotion packed so densely into every second of Love Exchange Failure. The quiet, dark jazz moments are somehow unobtrusive and unpretentious, and the screaming black metal that takes up the majority of the runtime is some of the most agonizing and soulful I’ve ever heard. Traditionalists be damned, the true future of black metal that was theorized on Sunbather is fully realized here.
The other future of black metal can be found here, in a small-time one-man project from Midwestern America. This is more of the style that Deathspell Omega helped pioneer, with unabashed dissonance and mind blending technicality. Kostnateni is an absolute masterclass in the art of drowning you in walls of riffs so huge that they make even the most beefy of Tone Worship Stoner bands sound like 80s Destruction. The guitars sound like they have thirteen strings, everything feels just slightly out of tune, the drums sound like six dudes playing seven kits at once, everything about this is just… uncomfortable and wrong. The end result is a chaotic nightmare of twisting ghouls that never back off, and it feels like the musical manifestation of an anxiety attack. I mean that in the best possible way.
For all the intricate and emotional albums to be found on this roundup, I think it’s actually pretty funny that a stupid grindcore album with one singular goal in mind wound up whipping my ass so fuckin’ hard. No One Knows What the Dead Think is essentially a reboot of Discordance Axis, and anybody who knows them (or sister band Grindlink) knows exactly what to expect here. This is wild and uncompromising and features one of the most caustic vocal performances this decade. This release is barely 19 minutes long, but it feels like the scene in Robocop when ED-209 malfunctions and lights up an OCP executive in a hail of ultraviolent gunfire. It’s a 19-minute gag reel of destructive violence, and there’s nothing more I want from my grind.
Mgla’s train of excellence just keeps chugging along, rolling in with their fourth excellent album in a row, and the third that could easily be considered among the best of its respective year. At their core, Mgla is “just” black metal with loads of melody, but their knack for infectious riffs and Darkside’s astounding drumming is nothing short of breathtaking. The interplay between these two elements helps keep everything just barely held together and creates an experience of total, overwhelming psychosis. Truly unique and instantly recognizable drummers seem to be a rare breed in metal, particularly in more extreme circles where it can be easy to simply dazzle with unearthly speed, and Darkside is a premier example of one. “III,” “IV,” and “VI” alone helped make this Mgla’s best, and considering their pedigree that’s really saying something.
I can’t stress enough how much better Dark Descent Records is when they’re not pushing their usual brand of death metal on listeners, and Crypt Sermon’s sophomore album here is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. That pummeling morbidity and swirling mass of non-riffs that plagues so much of their roster is nowhere to be found here, instead showcasing an exercise in soaring epic doom. For the second year in a row now, after Visigoth last year, I’ve found myself absolutely blown away by a sophomore followup to a debut that, while I liked plenty, had taken the metal world completely by storm and as such has found itself facing the inevitable critique of a “sophomore slump.” I didn’t hear it with Conqueror’s Oath and I certainly don’t hear it with The Ruins of Fading Light either. Everything that made Out of the Garden great has returned here but with so much more splendor and grandeur. Everything about this is simply bigger, and I adore that. The riffs are stronger; the hooks are more powerful, the vocals are more passionate, everything about this is such a clear step up that I’m frankly baffled at the general reception of this album being anything less than uncritical worship from the underground. Their review scores on MA are only 1% apart, and this did land really high on Decibel’s famous yearly list, but if you spend any time toiled in the filth-ridden underground of metal forums and chatrooms, you’ll find the response is much more lukewarm on the whole. I shouldn’t spend so much time defending an album as nakedly phenomenal as this, but here we are. “The Ninth Templar” is one of the best openers in recent memory, “The Snake Handler” and “Our Reverend’s Grave” are loaded with flawless riffage, and “Christ is Dead” is so good that I’d be willing to speculate that this would be album of the decade if every song was as good as that one. I can’t ramble forever, but here we are, and I’m proud to present Crypt Sermon with the fabled (valueless) Angelo Sasso Award for Album of the Year 2019.
And that’s all for this year, folks! Honorable mentions go to Hellripper, Musmahhu, Insomnium, Prajna, Sanhedrin, and Crestfallen Queen for also putting out stellar records that I simply couldn’t justify putting up against the other heavyweights here. I hope you all have a great time with the holiday festivities, and if you think I screwed up this list via omission or just purely bad taste, please feel free to call me an asshole in the comments!