As we come to the end of another year, it’s time to honor the best releases of 2019. Here are our picks for the cream of the crop, including 20 honorable mentions and the top 20 best metal albums of 2019.
Arctic Sleep – Kindred Spirits
Atlantean Kodex – The Course Of Empire
Bloodred Hourglass – Godsend
Crypt Sermon – The Ruins Of Fading Light
Downfall Of Gaia – Ethic Of Radical Finitude
Exhorder – Mourn The Southern Skies
Flotsam & Jetsam – The End Of Chaos
Haunt – If Icarus Could Fly
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Infest The Rat’s Nest
Latitudes – Part Island
Lord Dying – Mysterium Tremendum
Myrath – Sheheli
The Odious – Vesica Piscis
Pristine – Road Back To Ruin
Soilwork – Verkligheten
Spirit Adrift – Divided By Darkness
Swallow The Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light
Venom Prison – Samsara
Vltimas – Something Wicked Marches In
Wilderun – Veil Of Imagination
20. Opeth – In Cauda Venenum (Moderbolaget/Nuclear Blast)
The ten songs on In Cauda Venenum are lengthy compositions, totaling 68 minutes. Aside from the now seemingly mandatory intro track, only one song is less than six and a half minutes long. One might think that this would make the album tough to absorb, but it’s really not. That’s because Opeth have created an album that is both complex and simple at the same time.
Throughout all of In Cauda Venenum, the band displays a tangible improvement in chemistry, especially when looking back to Heritage. In many ways it showcases the band in their least derivative state since abandoning harsh vocals and blastbeats. Akerfeldt and company have their own identity, and fans of prog rock will find In Cauda Venenum an engrossing and entertaining listen.
19. Tool – Fear Inocolum (RCA)
If you just want to know if Fear Inoculum is good, here you go: Tool have delivered a sprawling, epic, and enthralling album. The digital release is 87 minutes long, spread over six 10 plus minute songs and four interludes (the CD is missing three of those interludes, so as to fit on one disc). The songs themselves range from déjà vu to stunning, in all and in part. By the time we get to “Descending,” it’s obvious that Fear Inoculum is very much Adam Jones’ coming out party.
I would put forth that Tool are no longer an alt-metal band with math-y, progressive tendencies; they are very much a progressive post-metal band, more comparable to acts such as The Ocean than contemporary counterparts such as Soen. Like the band’s previous two albums, Fear Inoculum is going to take a long time to settle into. But taken at face value, Tool have delivered an excellent album that lacks the immediacy (“The Pot”) and fury (“Ticks & Leeches”) of past albums, instead opting for pensive and deliberate, yet no less effective sprawling tracks.
18. Cattle Decapitation – Death Atlas (Metal Blade)
The transformation of Cattle Decapitation from edgy grindcore to nihilistic progressive death/grind over the last decade has been tremendous to listen to. With each album since 2009’s The Harvest Floor, Cattle Decapitation have reinvented some aspect of their sound to the point that makes them highly unique. Death Atlas, the group’s eighth studio album, uses the band’s new lineup to put forth another winner in a long stretch that spans four albums now.
There’s never been much hope from Cattle Decapitation, but on Death Atlas, this hopelessness is expressed on a universal scale. To express this vision requires a level of extremity that Cattle Decapitation thrive in. A slightly tuneful vocal line from Ryan doesn’t counteract the sheer instrumental audacity from this five-piece. At 55 minutes, Death Atlas is their longest album to date, and that can be a lot to take in even with the ambient interludes scattered throughout. All this build leads to the nine-minute title track, a gripping closer with an almost soundtrack-level quality to its musicianship. There are moments where it’s as if we have a bird eye’s view of the shell that will be left of our planet.
17. Idle Hands – Mana (Eisenwald)
After an EP last year, the Portland, Oregon traditional metal/gothic band Idle Hands emerge with Mana, their full-length debut.
A lot bands blend goth with doom, but mixing traditional metal with gothic elements is less common. Idle Hands play mostly uptempo songs with twin guitar melodies and a lot of memorable hooks. They do slow things down from time to time on songs such as “Don’t Waste Your Time” and “It’ll Be Over Before You Know It.” Gabriel Franco’s emotive vocals have an ’80s new wave style with a lot of similarities to singers like The Cure’s Robert Smith, but with a slightly lower pitch. Tracks like “Cosmic Overdrive” and “Give Me To The Night” have heaviness, guitar solos and melodies that you’d expect from NWOBHM, but the vocals give it a very distinctive sound. The album flies by in 40 minutes with minimal filler, a very impressive debut.
16. Alcest – Spiritual Instinct (Nuclear Blast)
France’s Alcest (a duo comprised of drummer Winterhalter and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Neige) return with their sixth album, Spiritual Instinct, the follow-up to 2016’s Kodama. It is also the band’s first release on Nuclear Blast, which sometimes signals a shift in sound or style for bands joining the label.
In the case of Spiritual Instinct, we see the band not so much shifting as evolving their glistening take on shoegaze-y post-black metal to stunning effect. At a mere six songs and 42 minutes, this is not an album with any fat to be trimmed, and each song stands strongly on its own as a compelling and emotional journey. Spiritual Instinct is Alcest at their most engaging, and is quite possibly their strongest, most complete record.
15. Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen (Debemur Morti)
For a quarter century, the French band Blut Aus Nord have been changing and evolving, exploring different styles and pushing boundaries. With their thirteenth studio album Hallucinogen, the title points the way toward their current musical direction.
It’s a deliberate and introspective album with as the title suggests, some psychedelic and dreamy sections. The songs unfold slowly, with most in the 6 to 7 minute range. Black metal does make an appearance on tracks like “Nebeleste” and “Anthosmos,” alternating with melodic and ambient parts with a lot of atmosphere. “Sybelius” and “Mahagma” are heavier and more direct. The vocals on the album are buried in the mix, with the musicianship and songwriting at the forefront. It’s a dynamic and engaging release, a trip whose colors and shapes become clearer with subsequent listens.
14. Sacred Reich – Awakening (Metal Blade)
Sacred Reich’s fifth album, Awakening, is significant for a few reasons. It’s their first full-length album since they reunited in 2006, as well as their first since 1996’s Heal. It must be difficult to live up to unrealistic expectations from those expecting the second coming of Ignorance, one of great thrash records of the late ’80s. Awakening is not Ignorance, but it’s also far thrashier than their last two albums, Independent and Heal.
Awakening tops off right around the 30-minute mark, making it the shortest album of the band’s career to date. Their “get in and get out” approach is refreshing when bands tend to go bigger. There’s not one wasted note, no misstep like a funk song (looking at you, “31 Flavors”). Eight songs with no filler, Awakening shows Sacred Reich re-energized and ready to enter their 35th year in existence on a high note.
13. Candlemass – The Door To Doom (Napalm)
Ten albums have been released since Johan Langqvist helmed Candlemass, with many legends of the genre having filled the role over the years like Messiah Marcolin, Mats Leven and Robert Lowe. Newly minted as an official member for the first time, Langqvist joins a band that’s well established internationally and in one of the most important vocal roles in all of heavy metal.
Candlemass feel revitalized on The Door To Doom, which is easily their best work since 2007’s King of the Grey Islands. Careers don’t typically get another chapter, especially after a 33 year hiatus. Langqvist’s return shows the band adding an additional chapter with a vocalist who for the band has always remained more a memory than an actuality, his vocal performances legend. Now they are on display for the world to partake, returning to the man and the logo that made the band a force to be reckoned with.
12. Falls of Rauros – Patterns In Mythology (Gilead)
New England’s answer to American folk black metal, Falls of Rauros share the same wonderful aesthetics of nature, chaos, and beauty of fellow countrymen Panopticon and Nechochwen. Patterns In Mythology is their fifth full-length foray and it is a continued sonic evolution from 2017’s Vigilance Perennial, more passages that scale mountains and draw inspiration from nature.
The six tracks span just over 45 minutes, so it is more of a day trip than a weekend excursion and two of the tracks act as an opener and a palate cleanser before some of the more long-form pieces come together. This could be the album that helps to separate Falls from the folk pack.
11. Darkthrone – Old Star (Peaceville)
Fenriz and Nocturno Culto are synonymous with black metal. All of their contributions as Darkthrone have helped to make Norway such a metal mecca. They have danced the line between d-beat, traditional metal and black metal for years. Maybe they will find that balance between black metal and doom, with some great atmosphere to top it all off this time around. If anybody can do it, then this dynamic duo can. Enter Old Star.
Right from the opening moments of “I Muffle Your Inner Choir,” it’s clear that this has an old school Darkthrone feel to it. Nocturno Culto sounds absolutely great and the riffs hit on all fronts. There is absolutely no doubt that this is vintage Norwegian black metal, far removed chronologically from its heyday. In 2019 the black metal masters of Darkthrone have returned and given us their best album this decade next to The Underground Resistance. Old Star is one of the best albums this year regardless of genre.
10. Insomnium – Heart Like A Grave (Century Media)
Melodeath act Insomnium are veterans of the Finnish metal scene, having been around for more than two decades. Heart Like a Grave is their eighth album. Arrangements are a big part of Heart Like a Grave’s appeal. Combining the band’s stellar songwriting with their increasingly progressive tendencies and the talents of veteran producer Jens Bogren has resulted in an album where each song has been painstakingly crafted, with appropriate symphonic and electronic flourishes augmenting most of the material but never overpowering it.
Insomnium have delivered a top-notch platter of progressive melodeath, loaded with great songs both fast and slow. Heart Like a Grave is a dynamic, well-paced, stunningly-produced record that should find its way onto many year-end lists, and will appeal even to those who are not usually fans of melodeath.
9. Arch/Matheos – Winter Ethereal (Metal Blade)
After nearly eight years since their first record under the Arch/Matheos banner, vocalist John Arch and guitarist Jim Matheos have completed Winter Ethereal. Compared to its predecessor, it packs a bigger punch and delivers an altogether more refined sound.
Winter Ethereal has more than enough fuel to burn furiously (which it does, by the way). The huge riffs and soaring vocals are awesome, but the detail in the drumming is often what elevates the music (like in “Wrath of the Universe” where the drumming is seriously out of hand). Furthermore, the band allowed themselves a long, relaxed writing process for this album and it’s all the better for it. It has more than enough variety and the musicianship is, to say it modestly, superb. Arch/Matheos have once again produced an exceptional album that manages to stay away from being a Fates Warning 2.0. Clocking in at over an hour, Winter Ethereal will have you satisfied by the time it ends.
8. Inter Arma – Sulphur English (Relapse)
Inter Arma’s excellent Paradise Gallows album came out in 2016, and not surprisingly ended up on a ton of year-end lists. Inexplicably, this has caused the band to give people the proverbial middle finger here, presumably for trying to pigeon-hole them into a purely sludge or doom genre. In fact, the band is far more multifaceted than that, and they prove it here on Sulphur English. Black metal, death metal, prog, post metal, and more, it’s all here in one vast and furious package.
The album seethes and groans under immense weight through blackened post-metal tracks like “A Waxen Sea,” but also offers far more. “Howling Lands” is a furious and primitive percussive blast, while “Stillness” is an introspective acoustic doom cut, and “The Atavist’s Meridian” is a complex, progressive animal full of jazz-inspired drumming and multiple time changes. Sulphur English tops Paradise Gallows in rage, fury, heaviness, and breadth of scope, and is sure to once again grace many year-end lists: I don’t know what that will do to the band’s mindset for their next album.
7. Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance (20 Buck Spin)
In the two-and-a-half years since Canadian death metal group Tomb Mold stirred up the metal underground with their debut album, Primordial Malignity, they’ve been in full throttle mode. Planetary Clairvoyance tops their previous two, an admirable feat considering the pristine quality of those records. Tomb Mold haven’t veered away from the rotted death metal of the past, but they branch out just enough to make this album a notch above what they have been doing.
Most of these songs have a chance to land a long-term spot in Tomb Mold’s setlists. Sometimes, the best albums come from bands not looking to completely change the genre, but only to tweak and prod what was already great about it. That’s where Planetary Clairvoyance lands, and it’s tough to say it’s the band’s best album when it could rotate between this, Primordial Malignity, and Manor of Infinite Forms at any time, but as far as 2019 goes, this is one of the essential death metal releases of the year.
6. Cult Of Luna – A Dawn To Fear (Metal Blade)
It has been six years since their last studio album, but Cult Of Luna have not been resting on their laurels. Since then they have issued two live records, an EP, a split with The Old Wind and a well-received collaboration with Julie Christmas, Mariner. A Dawn To Fear is highly anticipated, and fans will get their money worth as it is a whopping 79 minutes long.
Cult Of Luna inject a lot of ebb and flow into their compositions, as quiet ambient parts amp up into moments of extremity, shift to progressive sections and they top it off with sludge, doom and post metal. They have the ability to write songs that are compelling upon first listen, but reveal even more on subsequent spins. A Dawn To Fear is not a concept album, but is very cohesive nonetheless. From the relatively streamlined 6 minute “Lay Your Head To Rest” to lengthy opuses such as the 15 minute “Lights On The Hill,” Cult Of Luna bring depth, variety and emotion to an album that meets or exceeds all expectations.
5. Mayhem – Daemon (Century Media)
Black metal legends Mayhem are back with a new salvo in Daemon. It is certainly well within the mold of classic De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas with a much cleaner production quality. Attila sounds great as ever with his demonic delivery and Teloch and Ghul finally get to soar on an album that revitalizes Mayhem’s ability to produce quality black metal in 2019. There is nary a clunker on the entire album, which flows from start to finish and is an excellent and cohesive effort overall.
Mayhem continue to influence the scene in many ways, through their music, through their actions and just by continuing to thrive in a scene that they helped to create. If Mayhem can deliver near career highs after all this time has passed, then we are certainly in their debt. One of the best black metal albums of the year, a highlight of the band’s discography.
4. Blood Incantation – Hidden History Of The Human Race (Dark Descent)
Denver death metal astronauts Blood Incantation are back with their proper sophomore album Hidden History of the Human Race. The atmosphere on the album is omnipresent; something to keep that edge and fear alive in the listener. The idea that humans were enslaved by aliens to serve said masters as an unwritten history would make late night viewers of The History Channel blush, yet it serves as the lyrical bedrock for these four tracks, one of which is an 18 minute suite.
Blood Incantation have continued to hone their craft and travel further into the depths of the universe. For an album that starts out as chaotic as it does, it certainly does give the impression of domination of one species by force and then leaving without a trace by album’s end, something that isn’t immediately noticeable. In a year full of great death metal releases, Blood Incantation manage to carve their own niche. Hidden History of the Human Race is one of the best and well rounded releases of the year.
3. Possessed – Revelations Of Oblivion (Nuclear Blast)
Few bands have had as widespread an influence on an entire genre of metal like Possessed do with death metal. 33 years after their last album, frontman (and only original member) Jeff Becerra and crew have put out Revelations of Oblivion that has been more than eagerly anticipated for what seems like eons. First off, Becerra sounds like his classic self vocally. Fans of Seven Churches will recognize his distinct thrash chants. It also feels apparent that the newest members of the band are not trying to simply emulate past members’ contributions in a soulless attempt to appease others. There is certainly enough individuality that helps set the band apart from the genre and its former self.
For fans of Seven Churches and death metal in general, it is impossible to pass up Revelations of Oblivion, an album that sounds like it was created by the forefathers for a new generation. A band that was clearly influenced by the Paul Baloff era of Exodus along with Venom, Possessed have clearly has not skipped a beat in all this time and the world of extreme music is about to be leveled by this album.
2. Sermon – Birth Of The Marvellous (Prosthetic)
The anonymous British band Sermon come out of the gates strong with their debut album Birth Of The Marvellous. It’s a theological concept album, though the band is neither pro or anti-religion. Instead, they say it’s about equilibrium.
The band’s progressive style will draw comparisons to bands like Katatonia, especially in the clean vocals. Tool and Opeth are other musical touchstones. Tracks like “Chasm” utilize melodic vocals exclusively. While singing is the prevalent vocal style, there are some periodic harsh vocals on songs such as “The Drift” that add variety. The arrangements are atmospheric with a lot of twists and turns, but Sermon prove with songs like “Festival” that they can inject catchy hooks as well. Equally adept at compact tracks and more epic songs like “The Preacher” and closer “The Rise Of Desiderata,” Sermon deliver a dynamic, cinematic and yes, marvelous debut.
1. Soen – Lotus (Silver Lining)
Four albums into their career, Swedish progsters Soen have established themselves as one of the genre’s heavy hitters. 2017’s Lykaia was an honorable mention on our best of 2017 list, making expectations for their latest release Lotus pretty high. It includes a lineup change, with guitarist Marcus Jidell exiting, replaced by Cody Ford.
After recording the last album in analog, Soen used a more modern production style this time around, resulting in a bigger sound. The Tool and Opeth influences remain, with arrangements that give the songs time to develop and breathe, whether it’s a mellow track like “Martyrs” or “Lotus” or a heavier song such as “Covenant” or “Rival.” Joel Ekelof’s vocals are very expressive, the music very dynamic, making for an engaging and engrossing listen. Soen have met or exceeded expectations with Lotus, which could be their strongest album to-date. It also nabs the spot as our best heavy metal album of 2019.