The Best Music of the Year So Far

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The first six months of 2014 have been particularly miserable for metal, not only on the music side, but outside it as well. As I Lay Dying leader Tim Lambesis admitted to hiring a hit man to kill his estranged wife. The horrific crimes of the despicable Ian Watkins. Black metal darlings Inquisition responded to scathing accusations of neo-Nazi affiliations with something that wasn’t really a response at all. Lord Mantis made one of the more exciting extreme metal albums of the year, but flushed any critical goodwill away by including the lyric, “I am the raping ni**er.” A Vital Remains member is selling offensive Trayvon Martin hoodies. Varg is being Varg. Emperor is back touring with a drummer who not only murdered a gay man, but stabbed him 37 times in the process. An American metalcore band staging an abduction as a publicity stunt. GWAR visionary and twisted genius Dave Brockie died of a heroin overdose. Young prodigy Selim Lemouchi died so tragically, tragically young, as did Jason McCash of Gates of Slumber. Such stupid, so moron. Stop the ride, fellas. Metal isn’t fun anymore.

As for new albums, I listened to and wrote about at least 300 new metal albums from January to June, and only one is truly deserving of the adjective “exemplary”. The rest of that five to ten percent – no matter how many albums I listen to in a given year, the cream of the crop is always around five percent of what I hear – all hover around the more vague “very good” range, all highly enjoyable in their own right, but still a couple rungs below that top selection. That record is Triptykon’s Melana Chasmata, a very welcome return by Tom Gabriel Fischer that saw he and his post-Celtic Frost band deliver a much more complete sounding album than 2010’s Eparistera Daimones. Fischer was quick to admit online that he thinks the album isn’t that great, but geniuses are never satisfied. I for one am still enraptured by its pitch black themes and tones, that abyss within his tortured soul growing larger by the year, yielding such imposing, beautiful music.

As for the rest of the five percent that stood out for me, I’ll go in alphabetical order because at this point there’s no sense in ranking them anyway. British band 11 Paranoias absolutely blew me away when I saw them perform at the urging of friend Rob McAuslan the night before, and I’m glad I did, because their combination of doom, sludge, and space rock was intoxicating, as is the newest album Spectralbeastiaries, a hazy blend of groove and brute force. Agalloch’s The Serpent & the Sphere plays to the band’s pagan black metal strengths, but pulled back on the reins just a bit, the restraint resulting in some of the band’s best work to date. The Atlas Moth is a band whose sound is much harder to pin down, and third album The Old Believer is their richest sounding work to date, contemplative melodies continuing to creep into the music. Biblical’s Monsoon Season artfully combines desert rock and heavy metal, capable of powerful grooves but never afraid to tone things down a little. Speaking of brute force, Conan’s Blood Eagle is a good improvement over 2012’s revelation Monnos, the band’s pulverizing, primitive “caveman doom” exuding awe-inspiring power. If there’s one album that has the best chance at growing on me as the year winds down, it’s Diocletian’s Gesundrian, a staggering blast of chaotic death metal that always remembers to let the songs flow, never overwhelming them with overplaying. The real “underground” metal is not death, black, or doom, but actually power metal, and the much-maligned subgenre is led this year by German “happy metal” troubadours Freedom Call, whose Beyond is so exuberant and ebullient, loaded with major key melodies and sing-along choruses. Finland’s Mantar is another band that’s been growing on me, and weeks after I wrote about Death By Burning glowingly, I saw them play at Roadburn, and that cemented it; this duo is for real, and this album’s blend of sludge and rock ‘n’ roll is a big meaty blast.

Going into this year, one of the albums I was most excited about was the self-titled debut by Berlin band The Oath, but weeks before the album came out, the songwriting duo of Linnea Olsson and Johanna Sadonis had announced their break-up. Well, it was fun while it lasted. Psalm Zero, featuring the gifted guitarist Andrew Hock of Castevet, offers a creative blend of Godflesh’s pulverizing tones and the more melancholy gothic doom side of Katatonia on The Drain. Swedish band Salem’s Pot’s debut album …lurar ut dig på prärien might only consist of three songs, but this is wickedly good psychedelic doom that makes up for some awful puns with some spellbinding music.Canadian band Skull Fist knows what I’m a total sucker for, and the ridiculously hooky Chasing the Dream sounds like it could have easily fit on the Moose Molten Metal compilations in the mid-1980s. Mike Scalzi and Slough Feg came through with their best album in years with Digital Resistance, full of catchy NWOBHM-derived songs and often riotous lyrics. The Wounded Kings’ Consolamentum is particularly strong doom metal, the crushing riffs accentuated beautifully by the haunting chanting of singer Sharie Neyland.

As negative as the first six months of 2014 felt, there’s still plenty of reason for hope. I don’t want to come right out and brazenly declare a full-fledged “movement” happening in underground extreme metal, but although they didn’t make my cut, look at all the talented young bands who came forth with genuine, original ideas in the first half of the year: Morbus Chron, Waldgeflüster, Astrophobos, Thantifaxath, Emptiness, Noneuclid, Pyrrhon, Artificial Brain, Cormorant, Dead Congregation. All are capable of exciting work, proof that the future might be pretty bright after all.

As for the rest of 2014, things are actually, thankfully going to get a hell of a lot better, and fast. The first-rate albums coming our way in the next few months is awfully impressive: Judas Priest, Opeth, Pallbearer, Witch Mountain, YOB, Accept, Blues Pills, Mortals, Goatwhore, Electric Citizen, Monarch, Panopticon, Wovenwar, Cannibal Corpse, Solstafir, Ides of Gemini, Striker, DragonForce. I’ve heard all but a couple, and can easily say that they all have outstanding chances at making my year-end list, and hopefully all that negativity will be replaced by some genuine optimism for the rest of 2014.

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As for other music besides metal, Katy B’s pop masterpiece Little Red is still the best album I have heard in 2014 regardless of genre, although Swans’ spectacular, harrowing epic To Be Kind is creeping up, and fast. Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is nothing short of a triumph by a liberated Laura Jane Grace. Comet Control’s self-titled debut’s blend of psychedelic rock and garage rock was so good it compelled me to make it a last minute addition to my Polaris Prize ballot. Lana Del Rey’s heavily hyped Ultraviolence completely exceeded expectations, a moody, brooding, shockingly poetic opus. Fucked Up’s Glass Boys is not quite on the level of the previous three classic albums, but there’s still plenty on it to love. Scottish band Honeyblood shamelessly rips off Best Coast at times, but the hooks they bring on their first album are undeniable. Lykke Li’s I Never Learn is a minimalist tour de force, a “dark night of the soul” album that sounds more rewarding the more you hear it. Robyn made a welcome return on a vibrant, tetchy, and immensely enjoyable collaboration with Norwegian electronic innovators Röyksopp. St. Vincent’s self-titled album, meanwhile, is Annie Clark’s most inspired, wildly original experimental pop to date.

And as has been the tradition for the past 15 years, here are my ten favourite singles of 2014 so far, again, in alphabetical order:

Katy B, “Crying For No Reason”
Lana Del Rey, “West Coast”
Goldfrapp, “Thea (Twin Shadow Remix)”
Grimes, “Go”
La Roux, “Let Me Down Gently”
Lykke Li, “No Rest For the Wicked”
Paramore, “Ain’t it Fun”
Royksopp & Robyn, “Do it Again”
St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
Zola Jesus, “Dangerous Days”

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