Rather than boring Sputnik’s readership with a numbered list of all the metal albums I liked and then spending three paragraphs bitching about how much metal sucked this year and how xSPONGECOREx is neither funny nor well made, I’ll instead bore you with a wall of text regarding the dichotomy that was metal in 2014. You see, this was one of the truly great years for metal – perhaps the best one in over a decade – but it was also filled with a smattering of laziness or just plain filth. Not filth in the way Innsmouth spewed out disgusting death metal riffs on their fantastic Consumed by Elder Sign, but filth in the way In Flames basically smeared some melodic guitar riffs with feces and then recorded Anders Friden crying and babbling as if he mistook a piss-flavored lollipop for a tasty and tangy lemon one.
So there was a lot that really isn’t worth mentioning in 2014, but for the sake of making this blog a presentable length I’m going to go ahead and talk about them anyway. As if we needed more of an indication that Agalloch were falling off their own bandwagon they managed to somehow defy expectations and release an album that was worse than Marrow of the Spirit. I’ll admit it: Marrow wasn’t all bad, in fact there are tons of moments that were pretty damn good, it’s just that it was all surrounded by moments where the band decided “Well, we’ve already included all the awesome riffs we managed to come up with in 4 years, so let’s just sort of play ad hoc and mask it with a sweet analog production” (read: make the drums ridiculously loud and the guitars like they are recorded through a pillow). I digress, because that’s child’s play compared to The Serpent and the Sphere, an album where they managed to come up with but one or two good riffs in the 4 year span since Marrow. I saw them play live for the first time this past July, and never in my life have I been more disappointed at a show than I was during their hour and a half set. In fact, the only thing that kept me there was the amusement drawn from watching drummer Aesop Dekker make some of the most humorous faces ever seen by man as he crashed away on his kit.
I’m being hard on Agalloch, though, because deep down I do still truly think they are one of my all-time favorite bands, so I’ll stop there. I’d rather talk about Empyrium anyway, as they displayed so much potential with “Dead Winter Ways” that I thought for a fleeting second that The Turn of the Tides was going to be the AOTY, but once again my expectations were utterly wrong. The album was quite simply a flop, and for much of its run time treads water amidst a complete lack of inspiration or direction. It is quite sad for a number of reasons, because aside from the promise set by the single it was also the return of the venerable act; veterans of the scene that have shown they know how to make a classic record. Alcest’s Shelter wasn’t much better, especially considering it was a follow-up to a really good album that contained my favorite Alcest song “Autre Temps”. Shelter was so bland it was almost sterile, and lacked completely the fine line between serenity and heaviness that the band’s previous two albums showcased with mastery. Instead we were left with a one-dimensional plod through a monochrome world, leaving behind the colorful landscapes of yore.
Opeth remained Opeth, and continued their string of mediocre albums with Pale Communion, and the return of At The Gates signaled the return of run-of-the-mill melodic death with At War With Reality, and even Drudkh managed to release a money-grab with Eastern Frontier in Flames, an odd collection of useless tracks from a band that is completely foreign to the term “filler”. The list really goes on and on, with such unsurprisingly awful records as In Flames’ Siren Charms, Arch Enemy’s War Eternal, or Cynic’s Kindly Bent to Free Us. Let’s leave all this negativity behind us, though, because I’m tired of being an eternal pessimist and I think it would do us all well to talk about the records that made 2014 truly special.
There’s a lot of things I didn’t expect that surprised me in the best way possible, and perhaps no album made me shut my mouth more than Wolves in the Throne Room’s Celestite. When they announced this record I immediately dismissed it, but as things turn out it is actually a very, very good record that is about as good as could ever be imagined given the way the band initially described the record. It is a sojourn in the world of electronic ambiance; a way of breaking away from their signature Cascadian black metal sound if only for a moment, and it proves to be creatively invigorating as the keys and unearthly synths wander from movement to movement. Similarly pleasant was Behemoth’s The Satanist which is their best record in decades, and Panopticon’s return to black metal form on Roads to the North. Even Rippikoulu emerged from whatever fetid hole they were hiding in for 21 years to unleash Ulvaja, an EP which showed serious rust but also serious, doomy death metal riffage.Nothing quite took my breath away, though, like Spectral Lore. III came out of nowhere to steal the top spot as my album of the year, and through pure realization of concept turned out to be the most well-made black metal record I have heard in years. It drags black metal out of the nihilistic depths that it was born in and instead asks questions about finding our place in a universe we really don’t understand, and does all that through mind-boggling progressive black metal the spews out tremolo riffs like most second-wave bands could only dream of. “Cosmic Significance” is so god damn good I lack the creativity and will to attempt to describe it through metaphor, but let’s just say it builds from a synthetic beginning up through a gargantuan crescendo that basically had me looking like Randy Marsh after he finally got his internet porn back. Couple this monumental release with the return of Darkspace and you have, through two albums alone, an amazing year for black metal, as Darkspace spun us through another sci-fi epic by way of buzzizng tremolos and crushing chords. Don’t forget: It wouldn’t be Darkspace without a movie sample!
Lest we forget the festering lairs that contain this year’s death metal offerings, with Dead Congregation leading the charge of well-produced riffage on Promulgation of the Fall, proving to be a staple for how to mix and master modern death metal in a way that is clear yet retains that crunch and vivid texture of more amateur production values. Diocletian killed my whole family by blasting them with Gesundrian, and then Swallowed cannibalized their corpses (hehe) with the maniacal dirges of Lunarterial. Being without a family and in shock by the state of their half-eaten, mangled bodies I jammed some death metal that wasn’t so depraved, and found that Morbus Chron were absolute masters of their craft. Sweven was my favorite death metal record of the year, and proved that being formulaic was the bane of creativity, and that sometimes it was ok to rummage around and pull influences into death metal that aren’t traditionally considered complementary to the genre. It turned out to be a weaving epic consumed with riff after riff after riff until I discovered that, had Diocletian not already killed everyone I knew and loved, Morbus Chron would have stolen their affection away from me because it’s simply impossible to not forsake your loved ones and bow in worship at the altar of Morbus Chron riffage.
There was more to 2014 than just death and black metal, though, with some albums crossing genre lines or just straight up not being metal while still being more than worthy of mention. Musk Ox pulled at heart strings with Woodfall, and had Vali not released Skogslandskap last year I would say it was the best neofolk album in recent memory, but Woodfall tackles soundscapes that Vali never has the complexity to touch. Rather than being a pure, earthy, natural record, Musk Ox aim for more grandeur, and through the use of string movements and mournful tones seizes these more complex emotions with vigor, creating a record that makes you ask questions that don’t necessarily have easy answers. Falls of Rauros’ Believe in No Coming Shore is another album that makes you think, proving itself a more than worthy follow up to The Light that Dwells in Rotten Wood as my local black metal act attempt to break the world stage – a place they surely belong with their unique blend of folky atmospheric black metal that is distinctly different from the Cascadian crowd. Woods of Desolation showed once more with As the Stars that post black metal doesn’t have to forsake the raw, abrasive roots that it owes its existence to, and Vindensang prove that less is more in the lumbering fear that builds on the oceanic Alpha – an ambient record with extremely dark underpinnings. Even my beloved Insomnium showed a willingness to adapt and bridge the gap between the old sound I am enamored with and the new sound I’m still apprehensive about. I still listen to Shadows of the Dying Sun on a regular basis.
I could write for 2 or 3 thousand more words about every album I liked in 2014, and if that doesn’t reveal my true feelings I’ll just go ahead and say it: 2014 was just superb for metal. I know I made a lot of fuss early on about how there were some really awful records that found their way into the light, but the reality is that they pale in comparison to the records that stole the show and proved that this year was a special one. All of the genres and sub-genres I love had multiple 4.5 offerings this year – in the past I’d be hard pressed to find one single album in a year that deserved a 4.5. Am I getting softer as a critic? If my In Flames review didn’t already clue you in to the answer, I will go ahead and say no. I can’t possibly list every album I loved and keep this thing a reasonable length, as I’m sure the few of you who are still reading are ready to fall asleep in your chair, so I’ll end it here. Just know that if you haven’t heard what metal has given us in 2014, you better stop complaining about Casualties of Cool or D’Angelo in the staff year-end list and krieg.