Over the course of a couple trips to my local record store, I recently picked up 8 new metal albums that have come out this year. Now that I've taken each of them for a spin, I've decided to set myself the arbitrary task of ranking them from worst to best. I haven't had a lot of time for these to marinate, so this will be more a series of quickie first impressions than a real set of proper reviews. Also, note that since these are all albums that I actually went out and bought on CD, there's a certain baseline assumption of quality that you may not find in reviews of free online material. None of these are outright terrible. Some of them are just distinctly less good than others.
Anyway, let's get to it, shall we?
When Wintersun alienated half of their fan base by stringing us along for 900 years with the Chinese Democracy-esque production cycle of "Time I," I stood up and defended the album as much better than many gave it credit for at the time. At this point, it's becoming harder to keep making apologies for Wintersun. I can't say that I hated this, but it was weak. There were some cool moments here and there that genuinely grabbed me as they reached for the epic scope and vital energy that this band once showcased. Those moments were the exceptions. Disappointingly, though somewhat unsurprisingly, far too much of this just felt like a mediocre Children of Bodom knock-off in sparkly pajamas.
Are Sólstafir even a metal band anymore? I mean, they've been drifting further and further into this atmospheric post-rock style for a while now, and at this point it feels like they barely have any connection to their roots. I have no problem with bands experimenting with their sound, and if Sólstafir don't want to play metal anymore, that's fine. They can still be a good band. The thing is, while this was nice and pretty and perfectly pleasant to chill out to and all, it was also kind of boring. I'd play it in the background if I just wanted something mellow to fill in the silence, but that's about it. This is not something I can see myself putting on to actually listen to unless I'm in a really weird mood.
I'll admit right up front that I've never been a particularly big fan of these guys. That said, I actually think this is better than most of their material that I've heard. They definitely embraced the technical side of their style, and the musicianship on this is razor sharp and ultra clean. Too clean, in fact, for my taste. I accept that this is a personal preference, but I like a little dirt in my death metal. This felt like watching a doctor perform complex, delicate heart surgery in a sterile operating room. What I want to watch is a maniac with a rusty meat cleaver hacking his victims to pieces in a tool shed. Still, this is a strong release worth checking out if you're the kind of death metal fan who would rather listen to Origin than Incantation.
This is the point where we enter into the albums I really liked. Unfortunately, one of them has to be the bottom of the really good stuff, and by a razor-thin margin Impetuous Ritual loses out to their Profound Lore label-mates in 4th. This is an intense, chaotic, go-for-the-throat death metal release from a band that shares two members with Portal. Teitanblood and Diocletian were the names that kept running through my mind as I listened to this, and while these guys don't really do anything that those bands don't, that's hardly grounds for complaint. This is a really strong record that hits hard as hell. As an incidental, petty aside: the album cover is so obnoxiously dark that you have to put it under bright light just to read the band name and song titles. That doesn't really matter, it just kind of annoys me. Regardless, this gets my hearty recommendation.
Doom bands usually have one of about four directions they can go. They either try to be super crushingly heavy, super stonerifically groovy, super beautifully mournful, or super Black Sabbath-y. Loss go for the achingly beautiful, mournful approach. They really excel at creating an atmosphere of tragedy and, well, loss. Musically, I'd say they're up there with the likes of Ahab on the funeral doom spectrum of greatness. The one gripe I have is that the vocals are just kind of quiet and weak. They are mostly there for atmosphere, so it's not the end of the world or anything. It's just that the human voice is obviously a tremendously effective tool for evoking emotion, and since that seems to be the name of the game here, it would be nice to see them get a little more mileage out of their vocal performances. Honestly, though, I really enjoyed this album and I expect I'll listen to it plenty more times in the coming months. Also, since I already brought up album covers once, I'd like to point out that this is my favorite cover art of the year so far.
Have you ever listened to an album, enjoyed the hell out of it, then when it came time to describe why you liked it, all you could seem to muster was "umm, I liked it because it was good"? Well, that's sort of where I find myself with this one. This French blackened death metal outfit is new to me, so while they've released several albums, I don't really know how this stacks up within their discography. What I do know is that it's energetic, catchy enough to be fun, heavy enough to be satisfying, and overall strong enough to leave me with nothing to complain about when it finished. I just had a really good time listening to it, and at the end of the day, I think that's all you can reasonably ask for from an album.
Since they burst into the metal world's collective consciousness in 2012, Pallbearer have asserted themselves over the slow, heavy end of spectrum to such a degree that it's almost impossible to argue against them as the best doom band in the world right now. Evoken are probably the only group who are capable of surpassing them in that sphere, and those guys haven't released an album in 5 years. On this newest record, Pallbearer step into some fresh territory. The basic core of what has always made them work remains, but they've adopted more melodic elements and really excellent lead work into their sound as well. Traditionally, doom bands in this vein sound like heavier versions of Black Sabbath. There were times on this album where it felt like I was listening to a super heavy version of Pink Floyd instead, complete with some awesome David Gilmour-style soloing. All in all, it's a great album from a great band.
Remember earlier, when I said I like some dirt in my death metal? Well in their debut album, Phrenelith gave me that in spades. (Hur hur, I make joke). All I knew about these guys going in was that they were supposed to be somewhere in the vein of Incantation and Disma. Those are some damn good names to pull out if you want to sell me on a death metal release, and Phrenelith did not disappoint. If anything, I'd say this Danish crew bring a little more variety to the formula than either of those bands, which helps keep this album fresh while still staying heavy and guttural and wonderfully filthy. There are points that slow down to murky, Autopsy-like crawling. On the other end, there are a few pretty high-energy, intense moments. Home base, of course, is in that cavernous slow-to-mid-range groove with drums providing a rumbling drive under churning tremolo riffs and Craig Pillard-esque demon growls. The common complaint with this type of death metal is that it's unadventurous, and honestly this isn't particularly groundbreaking. What it is, however, is an absolute masterclass is how to do this brand of death metal right.
So there you have it: given their incredible proficiency in one of my absolute favorite styles of metal, Phrenelith sit atop the pile of my recent album purchases. Thank you, and good night.