The Best Metal Albums of 2019

Rounding out the end of the 2010s in style, 2019 was a monumental year for metal music of all genres and persusations. As such, here at Pit of Plagues, we’ve found that limiting ourselves to ten mere records this year was just too difficult. Without further delay, here’s our extended list totally our picks for the top fifteen metal albums of the year, list is ranked in no particular order. 

Hath – Of Rot and Ruin

An open that will no doubt be heavily featured in many other end of year lists, Of Rot and Ruin is a landmark victory in death metal music and the album stands head and shoulders above a lot of its competition for countless reasons. Taking the lyrics of FromSoftware’s Dark Souls and running with it in the darkest and most sincere fashion possible, Hath combined their love of the series with their unrivalled technical ability and truly a second is not wasted here on a fantastic atmospheric record that will stand the test of time for years to come. 

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Gaahl’s Wyrd – Gastir – Ghosts Invited 

Gaahl is a man that certainly needs no introduction if you’re at all familiar with the black metal scene in recent years. Gaahl’s Wyrd sees the ex-Gorgoroth singer and former Trelldom spearhead use his unique vocal range and creativity to utilise a more matured and slower dark metal album than what he has been traditionally known for in the past. The result is a very cold, moody and artistic expression of possession that gets in your head and refuses to let go. Getting to see many of the songs present on the album, including standout for me, ‘Carving the Voices’ was one of the most intense live performances I have ever seen, and a true testament to the band’s commitment to their pioneering craft.  

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Darkthrone – Old Star

Good old Darkthrone. Heavy, old school and unrelenting in their approach against modern conventions. The duo’s latest effort is a slightly faster and punchier 80s inspired effort consisting of six songs and heavily inspired by the likes of Motorhead, Venom and the like. It may be short but Old Star is certainly sweet, tracks like ‘I Muffle Your Inner Choir’ and ‘The Key is Inside the Wall’ will make any self respecting metalhead want to shred away on their axe to the catchy riffs, and bang their heads until they develop brain damage. In short, It’s Darkthrone. You know exactly what to expect from these guys, they don’t disappoint. 

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Green Lung – Woodland Rites

One of the freshest things to happen to the metal genre in a very long time, Green Lung’s debut record Woodland Rites set the world alight with their ritualistic 70s acid rock/doom metal hybrid that’s as infectiously catchy and addictive as the substances available at Woodstock in 1969. Out of everything on this list, Woodland Rites is one of the most listened to albums here. I personally just couldn’t get enough out of tracks like ‘Let the Devil In’ or ‘Templar Dawn’. It’s clear that these guys are inspired by all manor of acid rock and stoner music and the Londoners take full advantage of modern production with that proto metal flair to create something very special here. 

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Insomnium – Heart Like a Grave

Insomnium have been one of my favourite bands of all time for well over five years now. Heart Like a Grave is another solid jewel in the crown of melodic death metal and continues that steady stream of atmospheric, folkish and melancholic melodic death metal that the Finnish rockers are well established for. Heart Like a Grave borrows and adapts from the band’s lengthy back catalogue in the best ways, it’s easy to hear something on this album and get that nostalgic feeling from The Day it All Came Down or One For Sorrow. That’s not to say that plenty of new and exciting things aren’t brought to the table here, because they are. Namely, the addition of Jani Liimatainen (Cain’s Offering) who brings an aura of bright and youthful energy to the guitar work which really works in the band’s favour, most notable on songs such as ‘Valediction’ as well as ‘And Bells They Toll’. Without question, Heart Like a Grave is not only one of Insomnium’s best albums, but also one of melodic death metal’s finest hours also. 

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Mgla – Age of Excuse

The ultimate criticism of humanity, a depraved and misanthropic account that humanity is a plague that needs to be rid from the earth. True nihilism, true darkness. Age of Excuse is a black hole, a vortex that sinks forever never letting the listener catch a breath or see sunlight again. Powerful atmosphere and technical pounding drums permiate every facet of this modern black metal masterpiece from start to finish. Mgla very much are leading the charge in showcasing the best of atmospheric black metal with their own identity and polish to boot and Age of Excuse may be their best album of their career yet. 

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1349 – The Infernal Pathway

1349 are a band that I feel have never really got their day in the sun alongside their genre contempories. All that has changed with the release of the bleak and blackened The Infernal Pathway with strips back black metal to its raw essentials, relying only on old school blackened shredding and thrash technique and catchiness to spread their message. This record doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but what it does it take you back to the times of the first wave (Bathory especially) and remind us all why we fell in love with black metal in the first place. 

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Embrional – Evil Dead

Evil Dead wears its black and dried up heart on its sleeve and is unashamedly primal in execution. It’s a record that isn’t afraid to slow down and let a knuckle-dragging caveman riff or tremolo bridge ride on for a few minutes and let the listener soak in the heavy and overbearing punishing nature of the music before unleashing on songs such as ‘Day of Damnation’. In a year with so many phenomenal death metal records, Evil Dead is one that fans of the genre should not pass up on. 

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Pissgrave – Posthumous Humiliation

Pissgrave are a band that don’t give a fuck about anything! If that isn’t already self-evident by the album cover or the raw and eerie approach to their simplisitic song writing prowess then I’m not sure honestly how else to convince you. On Posthumous Humiliation, the band boil down death metal to the bone and deliver a wretched abortion of grinding guitars, putrid drums and demented vocals in such a fashion that only they themselves could pull off without it all going to shit. A lesser band with the same parameters would crumble under the circumstances but Pissgrave rise above their unique soundscape and put out one of 2019’s most punishing records without breaking a sweat. 

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Absentation – The Intellectual Darkness

One of the most surprising albums of the year for me, Syria’s very own Absentation floored me with their catchy, punchy songwriting and melodic guitar playing. What was especially impressive, I found, was that Absentation is the work of one man, and you would be damned if you knew that from your first few listens. Without a doubt, The Intellectual Darkness has been one of my most spun death metal albums of the year and it’s mostly because I just can’t get enough of the thrashy and in-your-face attitude or catchy death metal riffs that can be found on tracks like ‘Thoughtless Thoughts’ and ‘Endless Insanity’. The man behind the band has promised that 2020 will yield an even bigger and more technically impressive album in the near future so stay tuned to the page people, you never know, this might not be the last time we see Absentation on an end of year list. 

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Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race

I’ve used the term old school a lot in this list so far and no more is it fitting than when describing Blood Incantation’s latest effort, History of the Human Race. Bands like Immolation come to mind in the latter portions of the record and it’s inspiring to see a death metal band in the late 2010s have the guts to throw a near-20 minute epic of a song as a finale to an album. There’s little more that I can add that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll keep it brief. Fearlessly blending psychotic death metal with trippy space-like atmospherics, Hidden History of the Human Race sounds and feels like an album that could have been released thirty years ago, giving it a a timeless feature in the halls of metal history. It’s something brave and exciting that definitely should not be glossed over. 

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Negator – Vnitas Pvritas Existentia

Without question Negator have pumped what is the standout black metal record of the year. Combining the likes of modern Dark Funeral with the straight up and uncomprimising approach of bands like early Behemoth, Negator’s newest album is as fast and as dark as the best that Norway has to offer whilst grinding away at fearsome speeds at times. It might not be the most wholely original effort on the list but Vnitas Pvritas Existentia takes the best of black metal’s recent years and polishes it to a mirror shine.

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Deadspace – The Grand Disillusionment 

Is it any surprise to anyone that this record would show up here? I’ll keep this review short as I’ve already written a lengthy review on this very site, link below. However, The Grand Disillusionment is a groundbreaking, bold and modern depressive black metal album that encapsulates the human condition, self-loathing and hatred for all of mankind in a way never done before. Its brazen and unforgiving approach is uncomprimising and the way the album never really slows down in its intensity makes it especially scarring. 

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Батюшка – Панихида (Batushka – Panihida) 

Forget the controversies, forget the in-fighting and the meme of a million bands all using the Batushka name and let’s focus on the original and the best for a moment. Derph’s true follow-up to 2015’s Litourgia hits every note that the debut did and more with an album that is darker, edgier and more chaotic in every way. Panihida stands head and shoulders above anything done by Bart’s poor imitation, (If you can call the trainwreck that is Hospodi an imitation and not a complete fucking failure to music) and shows all unequvically that the true king is here to reign forever more. Everything is more developed and more concentrated here than on the debut, such as the chanting and clean vocal passages and the thick blackened tremolo audio assaults. It’s more of something you love.

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Inferi – The End of an Era | Rebirth 

It’s hard to exactly pinpoint just what makes Inferi so special on a record such as The End of an Era but any speculation going into the album are quickly washed away by some of the most captivating and spellbounding technical guitar playing to ever grace modern melodic death metal, or modern metal generally speaking. A very tightly focused and incredibly sharply executed release, End of an Era encapsulates the many amazing developments in the way we perceive metal music and how the genre can transcend the boundaries of our known understanding and evolve into something greater of almost indescribable energy and passion. It’s a true marvel to relish in and yet another example of just how talented this band are and how earned their rise through the ranks in recent years has been. 

inferi

Honourable Mentions:

‘I, The Mask’ – In Flames
‘The Heretics’ – Rotting Christ
‘Vale’ – Burden of Sight
‘Entity’ – Nucleas
‘I: Voice’ – Warforged
‘Sulphur English’ – Inter Arma
‘Violently Expunged’ – Disgruntled Anthropophagi
‘Steeping Corporeal Mess’ – Fetid

 

In Flames – I, The Mask Review

As the years pass, the memories still last, when the sky is clear we will remember. In Flames’ love letter to their mid era. 

I, The Mask is an album revolving around angst and pain which fuels a lot of mid era In Flames material. Everything from the lyrical themes to Anders’ reinforced vocal aggression demonstrate that even throughout shifting line-up changes and battling bad press, the band in recent years, the band can still deliver something great.

The first half of the album are what I believe to be the strongest output from the band since 2008’s A Sense of Purpose. Album opener Voices sets the framework well for things to come; lead synths blend into aggressive riff heavy guitar work as Anders growls in a way we haven’t heard in the best part of ten years.

Everything from our opening track through until Follow Me show an understanding of what the mid era for the band represented. This was the time between 2002’s Reroute to Remain and 2008’s A Sense of Purpose, where an alternative modern metal sound was preferred over their established melodic death metal flavours that had made them world famous.

Tracks in the former part of the album do an amazing job in demonstrating exactly why In Flames are one of the most revered melodic bands in the genre to this day. Call My Name and the previously released I Am Above show off all the hallmarks and staples of the best that this band can offer in modern times; powerful and fast verses that bolster up an impressive sweeping and catchy chorus, permeated with hooks and screaming, mixing in that blend of harsh and clean vocal styles.

I, The Mask, despite dealing with some complex themes of loss and regret, is up beat and bright throughout. It’s a large sounding and inspired release which capitalises on the raw emotion and masterful execution of lyrics by Anders in his strongest written material since 2004’s Soundtrack To Your Escape, up there with arguably their darkest period.

Speaking of Soundtrack To Your Escape, what I believe to be the band’s best produced album in their modern era, Howard Benson does an excellent job on bringing a sharp and clean but heavy and crisp flare to everything on this record. Despite also producing 2016’s Battles, Benson has adapted to the band’s evolved sound structure and finally given the majority of Rickard’s drum work the depth and weight it deserved on the prior record. Everything is well balanced and flows incredibly well with no point on the album where loudness war takes place as in Come Clarity’s battle for instrumental dominance did in areas for example.

Anders undertook vocal coaching lessons three times and week and it shows masterfully here. His new and improved growls and high pitched fried screams are unparalleled to anyone in the industry at the moment. Anders has been experimenting with clean vocals in varying degrees ever since 2000’s Clayman and only grew more confident using his clean range since. I can confidently say that all the training and the effort paid off and when Anders effortlessly switches between growls, screams or hitting those new found high notes, it all comes together wonderfully and should be commended as such.

Bjorn Gelotte demonstrates some of his most inspired guitar riffs since 2008’s A Sense of Purpose or 2011’s Sounds of a Playground Fading here, with the occasional lick or track bringing back found memories of Colony, Come Clarity and Reroute to Remain found in certain moments on Deep Inside and All The Pain in particular, acoustically or otherwise.

It’s in the second half of the album where the momentum for I, The Mask begins to come wain. With such a promising start, my hopes were high that this album could have reached the upper echelon of their catalogue, yet the cracks unfortunately begin to show rather obviously. I believe this point to be made excellently represented by the prior released track (This is our) House, a contender for what easily could be the worst song In Flames have ever released.

Building upon the idea first explored in 2016’s Battles with the song The Truth, the children’s choir meant to excite a huge crowd reaction, once again falls flat on the record. (This is our) House is an awkward song which seems to be there to fill for space and I believe the album would be much stronger with it omitted. ‘

This is the fight, the fight for our lives, scream out loud this is our house’ Anders says this song is a general call-to-arms yet there is no anger, aggression or energy to any of this song to speak of. The weakest vocal performance on the album by far, maybe by Anders ever recorded, uninspired four chord riffs from Bjorn and a frankly underwhelming debut for newcomer Tanner Wayne behind the kit, who filled in for the underrated Battles drummer Joe Rickard, a waste of a cool idea that might be executed well one day.

The second half of the album following on from that song display a conflicted range of emotions and musical influence that whilst varied, can’t quite decide on a solid foundation for what it wants to be and this erratic writing style shows both the strongest and weakest elements of modern In Flames. We Will Remember for example is a track that took a lot of listens for me to fully appreciate.

In a song littered with constant callbacks to the band’s prior material, ‘We have crawled through knives and artifacts, we had a purpose and a reason behind space and time’ or ‘From the colony to the hives, I’ve come to realise it’s not an ordinary story’, We Will Remember stands out as the band defiantly saying that they know where they came from and they still retain the same fire that fueled the flames all those years ago.

The same Reroute to Remain and Soundtrack to your Escape era darkness and aggression can be found in Burn aside from a few modern liberties with the chorus. It’s only as the album draws to a close that I begin to understand how I, The Mask came into existence and where things began to tie together and fall into place.

It’s in the title track that speaks a thousand words to me and this is where I realised that we are listening to the best that the modern era of this band will ever be and I am elated at the results. What is the mask? Is it the jester? Is it the band trying to adhere to its older identity? It’s entirely up to speculation and what you believe. The chorus tells us, ‘Who am I? So many faces dressed in rags for all to see, Here I am in the mask, the jester that wants to be free’.

Freedom comes at a high cost and It’s to my understanding that the band knows they will never please everyone and they aren’t trying to. I won’t pretend that everything here is for me, but this is my favourite band of all time and it’s an incredible album full of amazing ideas that sometimes falter through experimentation and struggling with that identity of who and what they want to be in 2019.

With that said, I genuinely do love I, The Mask. Were I to rank it on my listing from a few weeks ago it would place at number 8, up there in my mind with Come Clarity and Reroute To Remain in terms of impact, aggression, production, the staying power of the choruses and general darker themes.

Anders described every album the band creates a photograph as to who they are now. In Flames aren’t the angry Gothenburg kids anymore making music inspired by Ceremonial Oath and Iron Maiden, they aren’t influenced by 2000s nu-metal bands or proving ground in the Sony rock territory, I, The Mask feels like the band is finally comfortable in their identity, that they have found their footing and will only get stronger from here. If they can commit to a sound they want to pursue instead of searching, they will once again make records up there as their best of the best. Until then, It’s a love letter to their mid era sound that can’t fully commit to what it wants to be, but when the band finds focus here, they make music that’s truly special. Not everything flows together seamlessly and its a little fragmented because of that yet despite that, I, The Mask is a confident return to form in almost every respect. In Flames we trust, and always will.

Ghost – Prequelle Album Review

The not-so Dark Ages, the Swedish metal outfit’s take on the black death.

It has been a difficult and troubling time for Ghost leader Tobias Forge in the last two years, following a very public lawsuit leading to his ghouls being fired and him taking up arms to helm an album entirely of his own vision with new talent onboard.

The resulting release is the 2018 album Prequelle which follows three years after the highly successful breakthrough album Meliora and is headed by Cardinal Copia (Forge) as the cult’s newest leader.

How does everything come together? Well in a word, polarising. There’s no doubt that what we are hearing is that of Ghost, there is the same focus on the old school sound and of course Forge’s operatic high vocals soaring across every track. However, It’s the song structures that have changed the most, as the sinister atmosphere and depth of prior records have been somewhat reduced and lost in translation in favour of more sweeping catchy choruses and conventional songwriting.

ghouls

Instrumentally, Prequelle boasts some of Ghost’s best work yet with a real influence on the technical and rhythmic side being brought to the forefront as the 1980s flare is worn on its sleeve. Ghost are no longer a band mimicking that of Mercyful Fate or Blue Oyster Cult, this is instead a whole new interpretation of the material and it is demonstrated as that of an experience, a singular flowing dark show of epic proportion.

Yet it is in that side of the presentation where some of the cracks begin to show on the record. Prequelle’s high points are some of the highest that the band have ever reached before, case and point; Rats, Dance Macabre and Life Eternal taking center stage as quintessential songs from the band that can stand on their own as flawless metal tracks in their own right.

With that said, the songwriting takes a severe hit in the lyrical department. Unfortunately, the backstage drama of the last two years has crept its way into the songs on this album too in a way that is difficult to look passed. See the Light is about Forge coping with people giving him abuse online and tarnishing his reputation following the accusations brought up against him and it is presented in quite an unpleasant way where Forge is almost adding insult to injury.

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This is a different Ghost and this is very much Forge’s vision now wholly, he stated in interviews that the album would tackle a lot of dark subject matter and would do it whilst being bright and optimistic at the same time; wearing its heart on its sleeve and with a tongue firmly planted in cheek.

What we have here is a fantastic album but it leaves me wanting a lot more and asking where the other third of the release really is. There are two main instrumentals and whilst both of them are wonderfully performed, they mainly serve as roadblocks to halt the steady flow of the album. As a result, there is never a consistent tone or speed to a lot of what we hear. The release starts really strongly and winds up at the very end with a beautiful and moving closer however that still leaves the middle portion lacking.

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Pro Memoria for instance starts strongly but goes on for way too long and the instrumental lead in is used several times to daisy chain the other songs to it as if its being led up to. Yet, the song itself does not really go anywhere special in its almost six minute long run time. It’s equally as confusing when considering that it is sandwiched between the great Dance Macabre and the haunting, classic sounding Witch Image.

To summarise, Prequelle is a valiant effort that has a lot of good ideas and isn’t afraid to step out of the comfort zone and try something new and daring. Not everything pays off and the execution and questionable choices leave room for speculation, but these small issues do little to tarnish what an intriguing and catchy album that this album truly is. Sometimes when taking a bold step forward you have to take risks and not everything will pay off and I admire Ghost for taking that step, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.

In Flames – Down, Wicked and No Good (EP) Review

It’s strange what desire makes foolish people do.

Gothenburg greats In Flames return with a surprise end of year EP launching to coincide with their UK headlining tour. An EP consisting of covers; Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains and Chris Isaak.

It’s clear by now that In Flames have continued towards their alternative rock sound since the release of Battles, and this cover EP continues that trend. It’s very much driven by electronic beats, synth-lead elements and very little guitar work from Bjorn Gelotte, nor Joe Rickard’s drumming.

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Anders’ clean vocals take centre stage and, this late in their career, you either love his voice or you don’t. I personally happen to really appreciate Anders’ soaring highs and was especially shaken by his anger induced screams during the live rendition of Hurt.

The songs being covered themselves are all catchy and enjoyable for what they are. It’s a synth rock EP. The band is getting older, they are covering songs they liked when they were young and the passion shows. It’s a fun, brief time for what it is. It’s not metal, it’s a big departure from anything they have done before and I personally enjoy it on its own merit, but I know many won’t share my sentiment.

It’s produced well. Everything sounds striking and sharp. The melodies are still there, they have just manifested in unorthodox ways. It’s surprising, completely unexpected and commendable for being something different, something unique and special.

In Flames are no stranger to cover songs, and in 1997 on their Whoracle record the band covered Everything Counts by Depeche Mode. It’s been a long and winding road for the band in 20 years; Colony, Clayman, Reroute to Remain etc. all these albums have all come and gone. All these styles were worn with pride and now In Flames are a heavy metal band.

If you weren’t a fan of Battles, or of the album’s released without Jesper Stromblad, then this EP won’t convince you otherwise but for fans of the band who stay with them no matter what, there’s going to be enough here to enjoy.