I’m B, and I am a philosophy professor who is interested in horror and metal aesthetics (my Twitter is here). Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about immersive experiences, and what it takes to evoke them.
There were so many truly excellent albums this year that I had to find a way to cut through the complexity, and sort through the albums that did something unique for me. So I decided to focus on: albums that blur the boundaries between genres in interesting ways; and more importantly, albums that led me into a world that they had created. So my descriptions are brief accounts of where each of my 22 favorite albums took me!
22. Yatra – Born into Chaos
Ok, this isn’t really an atmospheric album, and it wouldn’t really take me anywhere on its own. But holy hell there are a lot of riffs on this album; and the thick, heavy sound of this album is a hell of a lot of fun. Initially, I didn’t know what to expect from a doom band who had decided to play old school death metal with blackened vocals. So it took a while for this one to hit. But after seeing the band play, I realized that this was a seriously good album, by a band that is an absolute blast to see live. There aren’t many surprises here; you get what it says on the package (Paolo Girardi’s cover art tells you everything you need to know about the sound). But this is an album I’ll be listening to for many years to come, because it’s so damn fun!
21. Sublation – The Path to Bedlam
I feel like there was a lot of hype leading up to the release of this album, and it was the first thing that I put on the morning it dropped. I had no idea how much I would end up loving it. This album nails the kind of experience that can only be evoked at the crossroads between black metal and tech death: it’s a powerful depiction of the hell that saturates our world. It’s a tight album; the execution and the production on the drums is probably my favorite of the year; and the riffs as well as the solos pull me into a deep focus on the world that Sublation is building. As you might expect from a band called ‘Sublation’ the lyrics are worth paying attention to, as philosophical perspectives saturate the album. This album just flat out rules.
20. Forlesen – Black Terrain
This album is hard to describe. I would suggest listening to it on good headphones, if possible, while walking in the woods. Many parts of the album are slow moving and world-building; but the moment you get comfortable with the doom and drone feel of the album, a seering and bleak black metal riff kicks in, before dropping you back into the dark and murky depths of the world that the album as a whole creates. I have a feeling that I will continue to find more things to love about this album the more I listen to it. The musicianship and the composition of both the songs and the album are amazingly intricate; and while it runs to almost an hour, this album is so immersive that I lose track of the time while listening to it.
19. Dream Unending – Song of Salvation
It’s a rare occasion where I will remember exactly where I was, what I was doing, what the weather was like, and how I was feeling the first time I heard an album. But this one hit so hard that I re-experience that situation every time I put it on. It is my favorite death/doom album from this year. This isn’t just because the level of technical proficiency is through the roof. More importantly this album builds a dreamy, emotion soaked, slightly gothic edifice that echoes through my body each time I listen to it. I also find the pacing of the album intriguing: the patterns of contraction and expansion are like a world that is breathing on its own—inhaling and exhaling in giant world-shaking sighs.
18. The Otolith – Folium Limina
I was never a huge fan of SubRosa. Maybe that was a mistake. But for some reason, I didn’t spend much time with their albums. So when I heard The Otolith on a comp, I didn’t realize they were mostly the same band. But The Otolith was my favorite band at Fire in the Mountains; and when I saw an announcement for this album, I got really excited. Folium Limina did not disappoint! The production is perfect, and it allows the band to convey a kind of dense melancholy that could only be conveyed with avant-garde doom. This album lays bare the ugliness of our world; and the use of a sample from an anti-fascist film (Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) works beautifully to make it clear what kind of world they are attempting to portray.
17. Spider God – Fly in the Trap
The album of cover songs that came out earlier this year probably warped my expectations for this album. I expected something silly and playful. But when I read the phrase “true crime black metal”, and saw the album art, my curiosity went through the roof. Before I listened to it, I read up on the Elisa Lam case, and I’m glad that I did. Because it made this album feel much darker; and the story pairs beautifully with the playful, catchy, melodic, and weirdly upbeat structure of the songs. The more I think about this album, the creepier it feels—but in a more mundane and everyday way than most black metal. I say that’s a huge win, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from Spider God.
16. Warforged – The Grove | Sundial
This is a technical death metal album that really demands your attention. It’s heavy as hell, and it’s dissonant in all the right places. At some points it drifts toward things that feel like they are best labeled as deathcore; at some points, you’re left to wonder why there are clean vocals and melodic progressions in the middle of this album; at some points jazz progressions and flourishes lurk just below the surface, in ways that force you to look just a bit deeper. The technical skill across the album is impressive. But what I like most about this album is the way that it twists, turns, contorts, and mangles my expectations. It drags me into a dense fog, and makes me search for the diverse and intriguing possibilities that saturate this album.
15. Tómarúm – Ash in Realms of Stone Icons
This is an incredible melodic technical blackened progressive metal album, if that’s the right way to categorize it. The songwriting is brilliant; and the drums drive a sense of urgency across the 60 min runtime. It evokes the sense of trying to claw your way out of a deep dark cave into a hostile, barren, and unbelievably beautiful hellscape. A dark and claustrophobic atmosphere pervades parts of the album; but it also opens onto beautiful vistas. To my mind, however, the most interesting thing is the way the atmosphere builds over the course of the album, pulling you further and further into a world. It’s an amazing debut, and I expect to see great things from this band in the future.
14. Rolo Tomassi – Where Myth Becomes Memory
Wow. I haven’t spent nearly enough time listening to Rolo Tomassi. But this album blew me away when I put it on back in February, and it’s stayed in my rotation ever since. It runs though so many different genres, from something that sounds like it could have come out on 4AD in the 90s, to in your face hardcore, to massively intricate polyrhythms that push in a progressive direction. The intriguing use of synths, alongside the densely structured walls of noise, produce a kind of stability across the album. But it’s always clear that the moments of stability will shift into something unexpected. This album rules, and in any other year it would have been in my top 5.
13. Ellende – Ellenbogengesellschaft
This album discloses a world that is cold and dark, mournful and baleful. It’s a world that lies on the edge of collapse. This is the world that we all live in. It is a world where many people are looking out for themselves, and always trying to get ahead. But it’s also a world where there are scattered moments of beauty, and this album draws upon some aspects of post-black metal to remind listeners that there are possibilities that tend to get left on the table. It reminds you that such moments often only emerge within a cold and lonely space; but it also shows us that if we pay attention to them, there might be some intricate forms of beauty that lie just below the surface of this Ellenbogengesellschaft.
12. Fallujah – Empyrean
This is my favorite Fallujah album. It’s emotionally rich. This is not what I expected when I first put it on; and this is something that I’ve grown to love more and more with each listen. This album flows through an expansive and complex range of pummeling riffs, melodic progressions, and moments of deep melancholy; but it does so in ways that capture my attention for the full 52 min runtime. I mention this because one of the main things that I attend to while listening to tech death is the number of times I disengage. It’s not that I get bored; but tracking complex structures often leads to a less immersive experience for me. This album is fully immersive, and I hope that Fallujah keeps putting out albums like this!
11. Wake – Thought Form Descent
I loved this massive and dense album the first time I heard it, because it’s stuffed to the gills with complex riffs, melodic interludes, and all around fantastic drumming. But it only really clicked when I picked up the vinyl release. The three songs on the first side work together beautifully. The second side then starts with a melodic track, which is a beautiful opener. Two songs then constitute a second movement, and the final song integrates the musical structure from the first and second movements (there’s also a short closer). Pausing to turn over the album at the end of the first side made it clear how the two sides work together. Wake is at the top of their game, and this album is incredible at every level of organization.
10. Sonja – Loud Arriver
I listened to this album the day it dropped, and I definitely enjoyed it. I shared it with some friends, but I didn’t think that it was an album I would be coming back to. A week later, I put it on again while I was making dinner. Then I put it on when I went for a weekend walk. And again while I was walking to work. At some point, I realized that I had put this album on more than any other album from this year. I wouldn’t say that this is my favorite album—but at this point, I don’t trust that judgment. It’s an album that I enjoy listening to, and it rules in so many ways. The song writing is fantastic, the guitar work is beautiful, and Melissa Moore’s vocals are incredible. For the foreseeable future, I am sure that I will often put it on, turn it up loud, and enjoy the vibe it builds over its tight 37 min runtime!
9. Mamaleek – Diner Coffee
This album almost sounds like what you would get if someone who loved Tom Waits spent a lot of time listening to sludge, and free jazz, then tried to write a cohesive album. It’s an album everyone should check out. But I doubt that it will be an album that everyone loves. It is fun, and even if it’s not your thing, there is no part of the album that is boring. Every time I put this album on, I hear something new; and every time I like it more than the last time I listened to it. It’s unlike anything else that I listened to this year, but it’s beyond awesome. I don’t know their back catalog, but if this album is any indication, I need to carve out some space for a lot of complicated, anxious, and uneasy hours of listening.
8. Ashenspire – Hostile Architecture
This album is two parts 80s no-wave or downtown NYC jazz (think The Lounge Lizards, or maybe some periods from the work of John Zorn). It is one part seering black metal. And it is one hundred percent scathing social commentary. The music passes in and out of beautiful, chaotic, and really dark spaces; and at every point the shouted vocals drive home significant messages about the structure of our world, in ways that allow the message to resonate through your thoughts for hours after you listen to this album. The violin and saxophone are memorable; but the thing that really makes this album work is the jazz-style drumming. This is an album that will certainly be in my rotation for the foreseeable future!
7. Tanya Tagaq – Tongues
This is an album that is structured around dark industrial and experimental soundscapes, which aim to evoke a nightmarish atmosphere. The lyrics are interspersed in complex ways; and they are all poetic excerpts from Tagaq’s mytho-biography. They also contribute to the nightmarish character of this album, and they make it clear what kind of nightmare this is. Each of these nightmares has been constructed from Tagaq’s experience of the ongoing violence of colonialism, which mangles and distorts the beautiful features of our world. Reflecting on this album drives home the depth of the critique. But just as importantly, it is filled with flourishes of Tagaq’s playful style, and that’s what makes this album work so beautifully.
6. Knoll – Metempiric
I put this album on when I want to overwhelm my senses. When I turn it up loud, I can’t think about anything beyond what’s happening on the album. Yes, it’s a grind album, and that’s part of what allows it to overwhelm my senses. But it’s not just grind; it’s also noise, and at points it’s almost doomy. Sometimes it reminds me of the energy of Naked City. So it’s almost got a grind-jazz feel. But there’s always more going on than I can wrap my head around—that’s cool as hell. It’s also just a kickass grind album. 12 songs take you through a wide range of weird and interesting spaces in the first 25 min; and the last song takes you on an 8 min romp through spaces that you didn’t know you needed to explore at the end of a chaotically awesome grind album.
5. This is Oblivion – This is Oblivion
Everything about this album is stark, minimal, and cinematic. More than any other album I listened to this year, this one has the power to pull me into the world it is trying to create. There are definitely post-metal vibes. But saying that isn’t exactly helpful. So let me try another take. I’m not saying that I’m the kind of person who would go into the woods, open a portal to hell, and call a demon into our realm to destroy my enemies. But if I were that kind of person, this is the music that would play over that scene in the movie of my life. It would contribute to the thick atmosphere of evil that would follow from messing around with black magic. (But remember, kids, don’t mess around with dark magics!)
4. Autonoesis – Moon of Foul Magics
I have to be in the right mental and physical space to listen to this album. So I haven’t listened to it nearly enough times to figure out precisely where in my top-5 it should land. But it blew me away the first time I listened to it, and I knew it had to be here somewhere. I listened to it in a dark room on the night that it dropped; the melancholy guitar on the opening track pulled me into an immersive experience of the album; but when the riff on the second track hit, I put down my tablet, and sank into the world it was creating. The thrashy, riffy and atmospheric features of this album are all technically beautiful. And while I rarely feel like I can dedicate 66 minutes to listening to this album closely late at night, I’m sure I will be returning to it for many years!
3. Altars – Ascetic Reflection
This is a massively atmospheric album, which is densely layered, and wickedly complex. It landed in my top-5 because it pulls me into a world, drags me though it. In the process, it creates a pervasive sense of uneasiness, which opens up space for further reflection. I’m never quite sure how to put this. But listening to this album feels sort of like wandering through a densely structured wetland on a cold and moonless night; it feels like getting lost and continually circling back to places you have recently been; and it feels like calling out to an unnamable elder god in hopes that they will destroy the mangled hellscape we are all forced to inhabit. So the atmosphere is seriously brutal and dissonant; but it’s also awesome (in every sense of the word).
2. Wormrot – Hiss
I never would have expected a grind album to land this close to the top of my list. But this album draws upon a much wider range of sub-genres than most grind albums, yielding moments of absolute chaos, moments of cool respite, and even moments of weird experimentation. It builds a world that feels like the closing act of the recent novel by Steven Graham Jones, My Heart is a Chainsaw. Everything from the album art, to the structure of the soundscapes, leads me to imagine a chaotic situation—probably on a lake—where all hell has broken loose. This pushes it beyond the kinds of bloody imagery that commonly saturate classic Japanese horror films, to yield a wicked fun, blood-soaked, and chaotic 33 minutes—and that’s all that really matters.
1. Allegaeon – Damnum
It was clear from the moment that I first heard this album that it would end up somewhere in my top-5. But the more that I listened to it, the higher it rose. The emotional character of this album lives up to its Latin name: feelings of loss and damage pervade the album; but they don’t just hang there, they confront you with an incredible energy that saturates its brutal riffs, it more melodic riffs, and its classical and flamenco interludes. The diversity in the drumming, riffing, and vocals is impressive; but it’s never overwhelming. Moreover, while the hour-long runtime is demanding, it builds a vibrant and emotionally complex world, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I think that’s why I find more to love about this album each time I put it on.