BEST OF 2019: 50 tracks we like

It’s been a long year. Hell, it’s been a long week. If you’re reading this right after it posted at noon EST, I’m (hopefully!) recovering from a tooth extraction that has to be done under twilight sleep because did you know that novacaine is basically useless against an infected tooth? Yeah. I didn’t. Anyway, I planned to post this playlist early next year, but might as well celebrate the killer songs delivered in 2019 in 2019. Here are 50 of them. I like all of them. I recommend you shuffle play as I put this in no real order. Anyway, enjoy.

BEST OF 2019: Non-metal albums

Chelsea Wolfe (photo by Ben Chisholm)

If I had enough time, I easily could fill another site with writing about music that’s anything but heavy metal. I know just about everyone else out there also have interests that go beyond ruthless heaviness, and it’s important to keep an open mind about what we consume musically. So, as much fun as I have compiling the 40 metal records of the year, this piece is just as exciting for me. These are presented in alphabetical order, 10 of my favorite non-metal albums of 2019.

BIG THIEF, “U.F.O.F.”/“Two Hands” (4AD): It can almost be assumed that if Big Thief put out a record, it’s going to end up somewhere on my annual list of best non-metal albums. Only this year, the band released two full-lengths, both completely different from each other in sound and spirit, and both of them are magnificent. First up was “U.F.O.F.” in May that gave us “Contact,” “Jenni,” and “Cattails” on a quieter, more reflective record. “Two Hands” arrived in October, and it’s raw and rougher with standout cuts “Forgotten Eyes,” “Cut My Hair,” and “Not,” which is one of their best songs ever. Oh, and Adrienne Lenker is a force to behold, as usual.

JACKIE COHEN, “Zagg” (Spacebomb): Not quite sure what Jackie Cohen’s got to do to get noticed around here, and her debut full-length “Zagg” really should have put her over the top. Weirdly, the tastemaker sites largely ignored this gem of a record that goes all over the place. It’s catchy, fun, rowdy, romantic, and … weirdly worried about melanomas? It takes a few shots for the album to settle in, but it is impossible to avoid once you take on “Caught in a Feeling,” rumbling “Get Out,” breezy “Too Cold to Cry,” and island-flavored “Chico” that’s a blast and also kind of ridiculous. Listen to Jackie Cohen, already!

THE HOLD STEADY “Thrashing Thru the Passion” (Frenchkiss): It’s been a pretty interesting past few years for long-running rock band the Hold Steady. They welcomed back keyboard player/backup vocalist Franz Nicolay, who’s an absolutely vital cog, and they started slowly releasing new music. This year, we got their seventh full-length “Thrashing Thru the Passion,” an absolute return to form for them that contains some of their catchiest songs in years. Add to that vocalist/guitarist Craig Finn revived more of his talk-singing approach, which has been missing for years, and the rest of the band fires through “Denver Haircut,” “You Did Good, Kid,” “Entitlement Crew,” and great closer “Confusion in the Marketplace.” Cool to have them back in form.

MANNEQUIN PUSSY, “Patience” (Epitaph): Philly punk band Mannequin Pussy stepped up in the world this year as they put out their great Epitaph debut “Patience,” that’s a whipping mix on infectious rock, hardcore hammering, and dreamy playing. Vocalist/guitarist Marisa Dabice is an absolute force on these songs, mixing heartbreak, desperation, anger, and frustration into these songs that run the gamut of sound and emotion. “Drunk II” is the standout, a song about drowning one’s broken heart in alcohol, but there are plenty of killers here “Patience,” “Cream,” “High Horse,” and, naturally, “Drunk I.”

SASAMI, self-titled (Domino): Sasami Ashworth spent time playing keys for Cherry Glazerr, which turned out to be a pretty vital role. But she had more to her than that, as proved by her arresting debut record that is one of my most played this year. Her psyche-minded rock is emotional, earnest, and honest to a fault, and there are songs on here—“I Was a Window,” “Free,” “Jealousy,” “Turned Out I Was Everyone”—that climb inside you and make you confront the hurt and disillusionment in your own life. She’s a rare talent, and she’s just getting started.

SHEER MAG, “A Distant Call” (Wilsuns RC): Their music might sound kind of cock rock-ish on the surface, because it feels so fucking fun. But dig deeper, and there are themes of self-doubt, employment issues, sadness, and the ruthless political structure delivered by this tight-as-hell band. Singer Tina Halladay is in complete and total command on these songs, and her power is impossible to deny when she and the band are ripping through “Steel Sharpens Steel,” “Hardly to Blame,” “The Killer,” and “Blood From a Stone.” Just a smashing record front to back.

STRAND OF OAKS, “Eraserland” (Dead Oceans): Timothy Showalter wasn’t treated so well by some of his fans and definitely the media after his last two records “Hard Love” and the sort-of make-good “Harder Love.” Those records are fine, by the way. But the torment and depression he felt is all over “Eraserland,” one of his best records to date and a collection that can challenge “HEAL” any day of the week. I had a depressing year that wasn’t fun and where I saw some people I care about fall by the wayside. It was confusing and painful. “Eraserland” was there to pick me when I needed it most.

FAYE WEBSTER, “Atlanta Millionaires Club” (Secretly Canadian): While she’s often labeled a folk singer, Faye Webster is far more than that on her third record “Atlanta Millionaires Club,” which is an absolute ear worm. She lets in strains of R&B and hip-hop onto this excellent collection that has stuck with me from the moment it arrived. This 10-track, 31-minute record has so many highpoints, but the mid-album run of “Johnny,” “Kingston,” and “Come to Atlanta” provide the heart to one of this year’s biggest breakout surprises.

WEYES BLOOD, “Titanic Rising” (Sub Pop): A friend of mine who hadn’t yet gotten into Weyes Blood asked me to describe the sound, which was easy since I’m prepared for this: Imagine Karen Carpenter making a record in outer space. “Titanic Rising,” their fourth, is the watershed moment for this project led my Natalie Laura Mering, and from the word go, it’s impossible not to get swept up into her cosmic folk that can make the inside of your face numb. Tracks such as “A Lot’s Going to Change,” “Something to Believe,” heartbreaking “Picture Me Better,” and  “Andromeda,” one of the best songs of the entire year, are shooting stars on a record filled with high points.

CHELSEA WOLFE, “Birth of Violence” (Sargent House): Chelsea Wolfe seems to have lived a multitude of different lives ever since her debut “The Grime and the Glow” landed nearly 10 years ago. On “Birth of Violence,” one might think on the surface that Wolfe is delivering another metallic barnburner, and emotionally she is. But these are stripped back, largely acoustic songs that are haunting and full of her power, making this one of the best collections in her arsenal. From “The Mother Road” to “American Darkness” to personal favorite “Deranged for Rock n Roll” to “Little Grave” Wolfe brings more of her personal shadows, delivered in a disarming presence of an album.

Death-doom cult Officium Triste spread misery and pain all over sixth record ‘The Death of Gaia’

Here we are, 11.5 months after we started writing up 2019 records, and we’re on our final one for this wretched calendar year. So, what better way to put a rusty dagger into this thing than with some gut-ripping misery and sadness? It’s how we’ve felt the entire run anyway.

That’s all delivered to you by long-running Dutch death-doom prowlers Officium Triste who are showing up later this week with their powerful sixth long player “The Death of Gaia,” their first record in six long years (that last one would be 2013’s “Mors Viri”). Everything you expect from this funereal band is here from the dreary rain that feels like it darkens and dampens every corner of this display to the guttural growls that feel unearthed from guts to the strings and synth that lather the music with unavoidable pain. The band—vocalist Pim Blankenstein, guitarists Gerard de Jong and William van Dijk, bassist Theo Plaisier, keyboardist/acoustic guitarist Martin Kwakernaak, drummer Niels Jordaan—levels you with an eight-track, 56-minute record that should keep them in the same conversation as My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost when it comes to bands that can change your mood to dour in a heartbeat.

“The End is Nigh” begins with strings stretching and the song slowly opening its jaws, as the guitars work on your heart, and the music bleeds along with it. The music is melodic and misery-inducing as Blankenstein growls that this is “our final hour, our dying breath,” before he warns that, “The horsemen are riding out.” Not too hard to figure out what’s happening there, and it chews your psyche as the song ends by the strings fading. “World in Flames” has keys dripping before the playing bursts, while soulful guitars join up with gothy keys. The tempo swells as it sits in cold water, as Blankenstein howls, “Take a look at what mankind has become,” letting the song churn out in despair. “Shackles” reveals ceremonial doom as wrenching growls break through chest cavities, and the keys glaze. The track goes from dark to downright eerie later, moving in calculated fashion as Blankenstein wails, “I cannot take these shackles away,” as the track ends in a panic. “A House in a Field in the Eye of the Storm” is a quick instrumental track with clean guitars and keys whirring before the leads soar, and the track bows gently in echo.

“The Guilt” situates in a morbid synth fog as Mariska van der Krul lends her voice to the song, playing emotional tug of war with Blankenstein’s harsh growls. The pace trudges for the most part, though the keys add extra gray textures, and when van der Krul finishes the song by admitting, “I did my time,” you get the sense she’s both starting and ending a period of emotional tumult. “Just Smoke and Mirrors” is, in a sense, the one bright spot, as the track urges its subject to keep fighting and not give up despite the forces the person faces. “Hold back your tears, you’ve got to stay strong,” Blankenstein urges, while colorful guitars burst out of corners to offer solace briefly, as he ends his message by assuring, “There’s nothing that can hurt you,” as the track drifts away. “Like a Flower in the Desert” unloads guitars charging and the growls rumbling, as the words talk about the pain of being alone, with no one to offer their support. The track chews at your bruised nerve endings, reminding you pain is at your very fingertips. “Losing Ground” closes the record with clean singing pushing, growls slithering behind, and the tempo taking its time to exact its mission. The track gets darker as it goes as the keys rain down, and morose tidings creep down your back. The playing sprawls over its final minutes, letting the track’s life slowly drain away, as the record ends in a flatline.

It takes a soul full of blackness and a lifetime of misery to create music as churning and black as Officium Triste, and there’s barely a moment on “The Death of Gaia” that lets in any light. You feel the heaviness emotionally and physically from the start, and they don’t take their boots from your chest until nearly an hour later. This band’s name should come out more mouths when discussing the world’s great death-doom creators, and perhaps this album will make that happen sooner rather than later.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: Oak’s spacious doom spills pain, utter despair through center of debut ‘Lone’

It’s getting toward the end of the year, and while this is a magical, joyous time for some, for others, it brings with it pain, depression, and bad tidings. The same could be said for the winter itself as it can look absolutely amazing outside, but inside one’s head, it can feel like the absolute worst as the sunshine turns gray, and seasonal misery sets into the bones.

That sets the stage for “Lone,” the debut record from Portuguese death/doom duo Oak, whose four-track collection is arriving Dec. 20 by way of Transcending Obscurity. Yeah, we’re a little early with this, but that’s because this is the final full week of reviews for this year (we have one more coming up next week), but we’d be remiss not to jump on this one, which hit us right in the guts. The pairing of guitarist/vocalist Guilherme Henriques and drummer Pedro Soares opens up a cavern to despair and disillusionment, meeting up with those dark feelings you might be experiencing as the year winds down. It’s a strong record that mixes brutality and melody, atmosphere and chaos, as the band pours down on you all of the smothering pain they can pack into four songs.

“Sculptures” slowly drips open as the drums begin to rumble, and then the 16:34-long puncher splits up the middle and spills. The growls lurch in Henriques’ stomach as they enter into a sorrowful atmosphere that’s both melodic and morose. Clean playing enters and floods while calm darkness spreads, and the playing continues to lap. Growls roar as slow-driving playing bores through your chest, the drums hammer your senses, and everything goes cold as the song bleeds away. “Mirror,” which runs 19:13 and is the longest cut here, follows as its slow drip starts to openly burn and churn as the growls corrode, and melodies bubble through the center. The track charges as the vocals blast, while the drums slowly awaken and bring on a calm murk. There’s a long instrumental section that conjures further misery while the track punishes anew, and growls and screams blend. The deluge of playing floods as everything moves back into darkness, with synth spreading like plague. The track tears shit apart again before the growls crush, and everything slips away.

“Abomination” is the tiniest of the bunch, clocking in at 6:19, which is long for many bands. The track pounds flesh as the growls bubble, and the guitars catch fire. The grimness stretches its wings and flies morbidly while the mashing slows down but still murders, as the calculated burning scorches flesh, and the track suffocates as it slips away. “Maze” is the 8:58 closer, and it bludgeons from the start, delivering punishment that lasts and hurts. Death madness reigns and eats through intestines while the playing pounds at already bruised bodies, as strange layers keep setting up on top of each other. The growls smother as the playing destroys bones, hammering away while growls move their way into hell, and the track comes to a heart-stopping finish.

The slithering slowness and thick shadows that permeate Oak’s killer debut “Lone” can swallow you whole and rob the light as you find yourself pulled down their dark tunnels. Their mix of swelling doom and fiery death doesn’t try to emulate anything that came before it and instead takes those building blocks and creates an atmospheric hell all their own. As our final pick of the week for 2019, this album nicely encapsulates the despair and hurt we’ve endured the previous 11 months.

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Houston’s Oath of Cruelty bash skulls with death-filled thrash on ‘Summary Execution at Dawn’

We’re at a point where heavy metal never has been more intelligent. Though some pockets never have been denser. Anyway, there’s a lot of heady material out there that gets inside you and makes you think about things be it the state of the earth, our unraveling society, or even just our place on this planet or the vast universe as a whole.

Sometimes it’s OK to just be bludgeoned to death as Houston-based mauled Oath of Cruelty seem to have in mind on their spastic, rowdy debut record “Summary Execution at Dawn.” This isn’t to suggest the music is lunkheaded or that they lack intelligence, because the way these songs are structured and assault you suggests anything but that case. Also, the songs titles are great. But if you’re seeking for a record to challenge your knowledge or philosophical standings, you’re going to want to look elsewhere. If you want 33 minutes of absolutely sadistic insanity and clobbering death metal-driven thrash that’ll beat the fuck out of you, then look no further than this trio of heathens—guitarist/vocalist Dave Callier, guitarist Danny Hiller, drummer Matt Heffner.

“Pounding Hooves of Shrapnel” gets things started with a furious pace, guitars going off, and growls that feel like they’re trying to rub cinders into your eyes. The track stampedes from there as the leads just melt, rampaging toward “Stabbing Forth With Invincible Damnation” that’s equally as lava-filled and bloodthirsty. The vocals split throats while the speed makes things difficult for you to keep up, finishing the track off with blazing soloing and hefty thrashing. “Through Alchemy and Killing” has riffs attacking right from the start, as the pace delivers a slashing attack you can’t sidestep. The drumming is a double-kick assault before soloing ignites, and the gruff vocals send shrapnel into the hellish power surge. “Pathogenic Winds of Swarm” unleashes madness as the vocals breathe fire, following by playing that seeks to decimate its enemies. Wills are driven into the ground, and submission is the only way out as the band sets fire to whatever stands in front of it.

“Into the Chamber of Death” delivers heavy blows as the leads catch fire, and the growls punish over a massive chorus. Riffs twist into infernal insanity, leaving a trail of blood and broken bones behind it. “At the Tyrant’s Behest” has horses galloping on their way to battle, and when the song opens up, it’s clear you’re in the midst of violence and bloodshed. Raspy growls spit venom while the guitar work gets lathered up into a frenzy, and cool leads and vocal drone bring things to a weird conclusion. “Victory Rites of Exsanguination” bursts as echo settles in before the band starts to open fire wholly. It’s a break-neck pace that delivers the bulk of the damage while the guitars char a path, leading to a smoke-filled ending. “Denied Birth (Merciless)” brings with it menacing guitars and a tempo that chews the ground and vomits it back at you. The drums destroy, fueling the clobbering pace, while the title of the song is wailed repeatedly before the life is sucked away. The title track draws the album to a close as it charges up, brings vile growls, and then the track loses its mind. Fists fly as the growls explode from Callier’s mouth, while monstrous destruction follows, and the track comes to a suffocating end.

It may have taken nearly a decade for Oath of Cruelty to deliver its debut full-length, but shit takes time, and there should be no complaints once people finally get to hear “Summary Execution at Dawn.” Every bit of this thing delivers violent intent and thrashy beatings that’ll leave your flesh raw after you’re done wrestling with these nine tracks. This is metal that is here to be an agitating force, with zero concern for your mental or physical well-being, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need.

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Québecois black metal kingdom gets even stronger with Trépas’ calamitous ‘L’héritage du monde’

Quebecois metal, huh? What are they doing up there and how are they poisoning the waters in order to cultivate such a savage movement that’s running out tons of goods bands that absolutely destroy? Don’t get me wrong: It’s always been ripe territory for great music, but something has really happened in the past few years that have forced up to pay attention or else.

We have a new contender with blood smeared across its jaws in the form of Trépas, a band combining formers members of Outre-Tombe and Morgue, two other noteworthy crushers from the Great White North. This band is getting ready to deliver their debut offering “L’héritage du monde,” a six-track smasher. It’s a great late-year delivery, one that’ll get your blood racing through your veins as you head outside to face the inevitable frigidity. At least I think it’s going to get cold at some point. The band—vocalist Goliatt, guitarists Harfang and Orme, bassist Fleau, drummer Averse—don’t have a lot of info circulating besides their Facebook page, and not a lot of information is readily available about the band. And that’s not a big a deal as how the music sounds, and it feels massive, doomy, and punishing, another fine example to stand alongside Forteresse, Hellebore, Monarque, Gris, Tenebrae, and so many others carrying their province’s banner.

“Rivages Sombres” bursts open and pounds away as vicious cries rain down, and the drumming hammers the senses. Strong leads blend into atmospheric clean guitars the send chills, while wrenching growls burst out of that, opening up a black stampede that rages to the song’s surging finish. “L’aube” unleashes a melodic charge that heads into an assault of massive shrieks, while the playing races underneath the array of colors. The playing is jolting, while the vocals pierce your eardrums, and the song ends with a strong stormfront that leaves behind thick sheets of ice. The title track also gets off to a ravaging start, which gets the air jostling in your lungs, all the while the band is going in between clean passages and massive blasts. Growls and shrieks mix and blast the surface with icy refuse, with a flood of chaos bringing a rush of guitar work that lathers and leaves strange textures and markings behind.

“Charognes” has riffs strangling, shrieks blasting, and the guitar work running circles all over everything. The song tries to take you down and smother you, though some mercy is allowed when clean guitars circulate, swimming with the current. That later detonates with savagery as the track gains dangerous amounts of speed, and the song has a massive final burst. “Trépas” has a different feel when it gets started, changing the mood a bit, but then the drums are unchained, and the growls punish you. Melody again courses as the shrieks jab at your flesh, while growls strike before the song barrels into its final resting place. “Errance” is your closer, and it makes its way in calmly before its guts are ripped out. The drums pound hard as the pace jostles, with strong guitar work making its black metal soul even more apparent. There’s a killer solo that paves the way for some classic metal pockets, and the track stays on a melodic turn as its finds its way into the darkness for good.

Trépas are just taking their first steps as a band, but their debut “L’héritage du monde” is a burning example of just how devastating this group is even in its infancy. The tracks here are rich and explosive, massive jolts coming from the north and warning about their impending arrival into the great black metal battleground. This is a really good time to get on with some bands that are just scratching the surface, and Trépas would be an excellent place to start.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: In Human Form twist their vile progressive art to insane darkened levels on ‘III’

The day after a major holiday here in the States has the tendency to leave us sluggish and lying in piles, with our bodies still trying to work its way through the endurance test it faced yesterday. Yet, it’s not time to lie down and take it easy at all. What better opportunity to put your mind and body through a sort of metaphysical workout musically the day after heavy intake?

With that said, get ready to be wrestled to the ground by progressive black metal force In Human Form, who are about to deliver their impossible-to-classify third record “III.” Really, complicated compositions and metal that’ll challenge you heart and soul is nothing new for this Massachusetts-based wrecking unit, as they’ve been doing this thing going on a decade and a half now. As their time has gone on, they’ve refined their machine, sharpened edges, and thrown caution to solar winds, which they do on a whole different level on this three-track, 47-minute album. You’re reading that right, so as you can guess, you’re in for an enthralling endurance test when tackling these songs. The band—Patrick Dupras (vocals, lyrics), Nicholas Clark (guitar, alto sax, keyboard, samples), Dave Kaminsky (guitars), Shalin Shah (bass), Rich Dixon (drums)—is joined by special guests Evan Crandell (alto, tenor, and baritone sax) and
Hannah Pitkin (vocals) on this consciousness-expanding collection that demonstrates that you shouldn’t abandon your musical year in October or November, because relevant, striking records are release well into December, with this being a pulverizing test case.

“Apocrypha Carrion” opens the record with a blast as shrieks hammer away, the bass bubbles, and guitars slither through spacious terrain. The band sets an early tone of daring playing, sprawling away while the vocals are wailed, leading to a dramatic shift to heavily proggy waters that then soak the land. Dupras’ shrieks explode as he calls, “You’re grasping at straws,” following with, “You’re feeding on lies, you’ll be thrown to the lions.” Soloing erupts and roars as Crandell’s saxophone bursts in, feeling like a 1980s blast into strange territory while the leads flutter and cause adrenaline to surge. The track then slowly trudges as the playing spills gloriously, rushing to the drowning finish for the 18:37-long track.

“Weeping Stones” greets you with synth waves and a dialog from Clark about the Medusa, begging for her arrival. The journey is calm for a while as the sax blends in and jazzy leads follow, as an icy flow is achieved before heat melts that away. The pace then charges up, bringing a wall of horns with it with the music sweeping dramatically to the mammoth closer. “Canonical Detritus” is a 20:28 adventure that quakes the ground with devastating shrieks striking while the pace is fluid and burning as the guitars smash through prog castles. The growls get darker and devious as the brain-tangling playing snarls and tricks, spitting into the void and getting chaos in return. A nice run of classic-style metal floods as the sax rolls in again, while the punishment cools and lets the blood congeal. It isn’t long until any hope of calm is forever disrupted while black metal-style melodies rage, and Dupras wails, “The hour has come, the event horizon.” The track pushes into a melodic haze as emotion is at its apex with the music bustling and the track coming to a punishing end that feels like its pumping blood into the stars.

In Human Form’s music long has been a challenge to fully absorb mostly because there are so many different elements to search through, and every time you think you have answers, they get scrambled again. “III” keeps going their furious pace to build new metallic structures that act differently than what came before them and force you to reimagine what heavy music sounds like. This isn’t a record you can put on and let simmer in the background; it demands total participation otherwise you’ll be left painfully behind, struggling to close the distance.

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