It’s that special time of year again, that all music nerds (ourselves included) have been counting down to since the clock struck 12:01 AM on January 1st! It’s a time when we all gather together…AND MAKE LISTS! Yup. End of year, top ten, list making time! Whether it’s our favorite records of the year, songs of the year or the year’s best reissues, for a lot of people, list making is as much a part of loving music as is actually loving music. And let’s not forget the even nerdier tradition of arguing about the actual making of lists that’s a big part of this whole list making thing too.
Before Pandora, I spent most of my adult life working in record stores, which of course meant making lists every year, and while those year-end lists rub a lot of people the wrong way (certainly the High Fidelity aspect of nerdy know-it-all list making), I always made those lists simply because I love music, more than almost anything, and a big part of that music love is wanting to share it with as many other music lovers as I can.
I’m also a voracious reader of other people’s lists, and each year I read every one that I can get my hands on, and without fail, I discover so much incredible stuff that I might not have otherwise heard.
Like the fans of any genre, metalheads love their lists too. And the bulk of year-end best-of lists (metal or otherwise) are packed with the usual suspects. For the metal releases of 2017, this includes killer records by Pallbearer, Mastodon, Bell Witch, Dying Fetus, Paradise Lost, Satyricon, Power Trip and tons more great stuff. You can hear all of those and more metal highlights from the last year on Pandora’s Metal 2017 station!
To whet your appetite for this dive into the best metal of 2017, here’s a handful of my personal faves from the last year, some weirder, maybe lesser known stuff that might have slipped under folks’ radars. So, adventurous metalheads, forge on and dig in! And potentially discover some new favorite records to add to your 2017 top ten! Or top 20! Or top 100!
The Cosmic Cornucopia gathers up three previously released albums of epic, progged out, blackened death metal from this crew of head banging gastropods. Slugdge set their morbid fascination with slugs, tentacles and also astronauts (?) to a frenzied, sprawling world of sci-fi-slug metal that sounds a bit like a heavier, meaner and WAY weirder Mastodon. These appropriately monikered metallic miscreants also manage to infuse some humor into their relentless heaviness, replete with an overarching concept of alternate dimensions and “netherslug” overlords, without ever slipping into dreaded joke rock territory.
There’s technical death metal, and then there’s an obscure and shadowy sect of dizzyingly deconstructed death metal dissonance, and Coma Cluster Void fall squarely into the latter category. Their sound is a thoroughly abstractified vision of what black metal could/should be: cosmic and chaotic, the sounds born of splintered shards of melody pummeled by relentlessly obtuse rhythms, atonal note clusters falling like acid rain and song structures that evolve as some sort of living, anti-math, musical algorithm. The songs tangle and unravel, melt and ooze, with CCV trafficking in tar pit sprawls of complex dirgery as often as bursts of furiously fucked up and confusional ferocity.
For nearly a decade now, this French one-man band has been creating some of the most bizarre and beautiful sounds in metal, electronica and in that utterly demented sweet spot right in between. A sweet spot that’s seemingly occupied by Igorrr and nobody else. Savage Sinusoid might be the ultimate distillation of Igorrr’s singular vision. Past records have been a bit easier to parse, one paired classical folk music with drill ‘n’ bass, another recontextualized metal into a strange field of glitch-noise splatter. But even then, every record seemed to be constantly pushing and pulling in a million different directions, all just barely reined in. On Savage Sinusoid, the reins have been obliterated and the sound has supernova’d into…well, into whatever the fuck Igorrr could dream up. And what he dreamed up is a wild assemblage of digitally altered classical pieces, opera, ragas, klezmer, a dizzying array of horns and harps and sitars and accordions, accompanied by hellish metallic shrieks, bursts of super distorted jungle and processed riffage, all careening and colliding and coalescing into a sound that might very well have you thinking your computer/cd player is malfunctioning, but malfunctioning beautifully! It all crystallizes perfectly on the track “ieuD,” which pairs insectoid black metal buzz, shimmery harpsichord thrum, angelic operatic vocals and a barrage of percussive savagery; all run through a fractured field of grinding glitches and staccato stutters.
Before hearing a single note from JoDöden, the album cover had already sucked me in: a longhaired Viking in a rowboat, in the sea, that sea INSIDE of an old wooden cabin and the album’s title framed on the wall. The whole image is like a painting of an old woodcut. JoDöden (who also plays in black metal outfits Sorgeldom and Whirling) conjures up a curiously compelling soundworld of loping, minimal, math rock mesmer, the sort of sound that wouldn’t have been at all out of place on Thrill Jockey in the ‘90s (albeit a tad more lo-fi and wreathed in a patina of metalgaze shimmer). That sounded is swaddled in a hazy tapestry of hauntingly lovely, stripped down Swedish folk. It’s spare and shadowy, almost as if it was recorded by the flickering light of a glowing fireplace inside an old cabin nestled in the Swedish forest.
Tomb Mold’s music is much like you might expect from their name – raw and primitive, cold, cavernous and deathlike. The production makes it sound like these tracks were recorded in some musty, crumbling, old sepulcher, the vocals even moreso: essentially a belched cloud of demonic, echo-drenched growls. These two demos from 2016 (collected and reissued this year) deliver dirty, old school death metal, very much in the style of ‘90s Finnish death metal. And while these Canucks are obviously beholden to those that came before, it’s not all caveman thud and knuckle-dragging chug. Their sound manages to be surprisingly polished, the arrangements and songwriting much more mature than you might expect, with occasional surges of straight up hard rocking riffage and brief bursts of lead-guitar shred surfacing from the murk.
Nordkarpatenland is the second full length from Slovakian, folkloric, black metal outfit Malokarpatan, and like their previous album, it’s another heady mix of classic black metal riffing and traditional Eastern European folk, with a streak of experimentalism that finds the band incorporating keyboards, jaw harps, handmade percussion, male/female vox and even samples into their sound. And that sound, is really something special, managing to channel the metal that came before, while somehow making it sound truly fresh and adventurous. The vocals are definitely unique, a gruff, reverbed bellow, as are the drifts of shimmery female vox, not to mention the folky interludes. And those guitar harmonies are to die for, making this both cerebral, emotional and eminently head-bangable.
Fifth (and final?) album from French dissonant dissidents Aosoth, and the last in their Roman numeral’d, conceptual, sonic story ark. Like its numbered predecessors, The Inside Scriptures is a worthy addition to the pantheon of French black metal, that also includes the collected works of Deathspell Omega, Antaeus, Hell Militia, Blut Aus Nord and others. The sound here is dense, and at times seemingly impenetrable. The riffing so frenzied and relentless, it exists more as heaving slabs of grinding, gristled sound. The blurry buzz, balanced by lumbering stretches of midtempo lope, adds a bit of droned out doooooom to the proceedings. The riffs throughout are so gnarled, the sound so discordant, and so demonically disharmonic, it transforms black metal buzz into an experimental, avant-garde heaviness that sounds less like classic black metal and more like some sort of blackened, 21th century metallic modernism.
Strap on those spiked wristbands, throw on your denim and leather, and try to figure out why the heck 2017 sounds so much like 1985! Satan’s Hallow manage to effortlessly conjure up the feral and ferocious spirit of ‘80s female hard rockers, but with a distinctly modern sheen. The band infuses classic “true” metal with the sort of pop sensibilities most other bands, metal or otherwise, would kill for. Vocalist Mandy Martillo boasts a serious set of pipes, reminiscent of both Warlock’s Doro Pesch and Kate De Lombaert of Belgian proto-metal hard rockers Acid. When coupled with SH’s riffage, harmonized guitar solos and some of the catchiest songs since Holy Diver or Fire Down Under, it’s hard not to imagine that had this band existed back in the day, they could have easily been one of the metal elite. So, while this kind of metal might be out of fashion in 2017, we should consider ourselves extremely lucky to experience the oversized, epic metal majesty of Satan’s Hallow in some decidedly undersized venues.
Originally released in 2016, but reissued in 2017, bow before whatever deity you worship and give thanks for a second chance to revisit what might be the weirdest record on this list. Black metal mixed with black spirituals. Yep, you heard right. Sounds kind of impossible, and unlikely and like it couldn’t possibly work. And shouldn’t work. But it does, and the resulting music is literally unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Buzzing blackened riffage, programmed drums, samples, field hollers, chants and old-time folk music are all woven into a sound as grim as it is soulful, as bizarre as it is beautiful. Spidery, Marc Ribot-like guitar lines are wrapped around low slung basslines, synthesizers unfurl mysterious minor key missives like strange soundtracks, dense swells of frenzied riffing wash over impassioned vocals, frantic blast beats underpin sonorous crooning, vocals are chopped up into stuttering electronica and bluesy stomps erupt into full bore black metal epicry. Mysterious and masterful and breathtakingly original.