Here are my top five heavy metal albums of 2018:
- Khram by Arkona
Khram (Russian: Храм) means temple, and it’s a perfect description of this album from folk metal band Arkona. In a video for Napalm Records, lead singer Masha explains the concept in the context of the album’s song of the same name:
“It’s a song about the chaotic cyclical movement of our world, existence, the universe. I’m developing the theme of chaos, because at first, chaos is growing in ourselves, and when it overflows, it makes its way out and begins to affect the outer component of our temple. But everything in this world has its own cycle. The sun will always rise and set. At sunset, chaos will break out. At sunrise, chaos will fade away.”
Khram is steeped in pagan spirituality from start to finish. It opens with a chanted invocation of the Slavic goddess Mara and proceeds with lyrics about natural phenomena, life and death, the power of belief, suffering, and the union of nature, divinity and human being. The final track is another chant to Mara, this time asking her to return the musicians and listeners from Yav to Nav, from the spirit world to the material world, and from the transports of music back to solid earth.
Arkona has never been a light or quiet band, but the sound on Khram is strikingly bigger, denser and blacker — so much so that at first I had trouble penetrating it. Out of the thunder come jaunty licks on flute, cascading fills, tribal beats, disjointed riffs, children chanting, electronic grooves and more. Khram is less a collection of songs than a single chunk. But with each new listen, the album revealed itself more, and I realized this, and only this, had the substance to be my Album of the Year.
Open yourself to this place of worship, and you may find it speaks to you, too.
2. Vale by the Black Veil Brides
Arkona went black, but there isn’t a spot of black on Vale by Black Veil Brides. This is pop metal, enjoyable and comprehensible on first listen, with more hooks than that Christmas gift from Pinhead. The clear standout track is “When They Call My Name.” The harp and violin set the mood, the guitar solo is rousing, and then there’s that golden chorus. Sure, the lyrics are cliché as fuck, but that hardly matters, because they emote. Any band that can songwrite like this, anthem after anthem, deserves to make some end-of-the-year lists, and it’s made mine.
3. Downfall of Mankind by Nervosa
This has to be said: Downfall of Mankind is a better album than most thrash in recent years, even from veterans like Testament that are still making great music. And it’s far better than anything Metallica has done in forever. It kicks ass all over the place, mainly the asses of other thrashers, and it got me to write my longest blog post this year, about the song “Raise Your Fist.” Prika Amaral, Luana Dametto and Fernanda Lira make music like they mean harm, and you would do well to get in their way and take the punishment.
4. Esoteric Malacology by Slugdge
Another album that inspired me to write this year was Slugdge’s Esoteric Malacology. It’s a tale told in techdeath of a slug named Rhaexorog who has authoritarian tendencies on a cosmic scale — with a subtext decrying climate destruction and prophesying the end of our anthropocene era. The sound is monolithic but raw, rooted in guitar, bass and drums — few frills necessary. Esoteric Malacology plays like an interstellar horde subduing one planet after another, and each time you press play, it gets better.
5. Change of Generation by Unlucky Morpheus
Unlucky Morpheus plays what is known in Japan as melospee, short for melodic speed metal. In Unlucky Morpheus’s case, that means a J-popped version of power metal with obvious neoclassical influences. The group began by performing arrangements of video game music as part of the Touhou Project, but it now releases original music. Each member has talent to spare, but the real standout for me is violinist Jill, whether she’s setting the ether on fire with a solo or providing accompaniment while the others throw down. The vocal lines tend to be unremarkable and the production a bit noisy, but Unlucky Morpheus caught my attention this year and wouldn’t let go.
Other releases that stood out this year were Iona Death Cult’s Aid to Worship, Moonshield’s The Warband (my review), Thrashpipe by Millions of Dead Angels and Psycroptic’s As the Kingdom Drowns. These were albums that were enjoyable on first listen and kept calling me back, unlike disappointments like The Crown’s Cobra Speed Venom and River of Nihil’s Where Owls Know My Name. Both of those albums have received stellar reviews, but my initial excitement quickly turned to boredom.
Next year already looks to be a great one for metal. Arch Enemy, Queensrÿche, Soilwork, Children of Bodom, In Flames and Ancient Bards, just to name a handful of groups I’m interested in, all have releases scheduled for 2019, and I’m hoping to see new work from My Dying Bride. But those are all well-known bands. No doubt lesser-known groups will continue to create stunning music and make the best-of lists 12 months from now.
Reviews from 2018:
Summoning’s With Doom We Come
Slugdge’s Esoteric Malacology
Oceans of Slumber’s The Banished Heart
Moonshield’s The Warband
Gaylord’s The Black Metal Scene Must Be Destroyed
Cryptopsy’s The Book of Suffering — Tome II
Nervosa’s Downfall of Man
Leah’s The Quest