Words by Andrew Lampela
Andrew Lampela was an employee and eventual co-owner of the 40-year old institution, Haffa’s Records in Athens, Ohio, just outside of the dark woods from which Skeletonwitch emerged. Over his years there he has played in a number of bands ranging from rock to noise to metal and has taken his lifelong knowledge of music into contributing to a number of publications.
I know that there probably aren’t lots of people that pay attention to this column every month, but for those keeping track at home, I definitely said fuck it and dove into that Quietus list with gusto! I’ve been devouring lists like it’s going out of style at midnight. I can’t help myself, and it’s a damn glorious mess to be in. On the other side of that, our fearless editor asked me to comb through and come up with my top ten this year, and in scouring through playlist after playlist, I realize how many albums got set aside this year. I literally named a playlist “for later use” that I never got around to checking back on! Man, it was full as hell.
I started this year in a weird place, not even sure I wanted to continue writing, and here I am twelve months later pretty sure I’ll never actually hit a deadline [sorry Dave!]. The digital world is a hellish maelstrom of information overload, so if you’ve read any of my columns or articles, I thank you. Hell, even if you found yourself on Off Shelf’s site and ignored my shit, thank you. I feel like Off Shelf is a lot like most of the bands I’m in, just a bunch of nerdy dudes with too much equipment to quit, just trying to carve out a little space to get that energy out there. So yeah, thanks for joining in.
The end of the year has always been a weird time for music. December and January are usually pretty bleak as far as that goes, more a time for reflection. I could write a couple thousand words on albums I missed in the rush to stay current with this column. So I’ll end the year with a little mix of the two. There were a handful of notable releases in the last month, some good, some not so much. Going in to the new year, however, I think I’ll just try to take things as they catch me. There is way too much good music out there to be able to crush Witch Vomit or Tomb Mold all day and keep up on the neurotically comical amount of playlists I make of shit I intend to listen to. Also, my memory is complete garbage because sadly, I back-burnered the Cult Of Luna album, obviously on someone else entirely’s stove, as I completely forgot that it actually came out. Truthfully, I haven’t really given the band my full attention since my buddy Kris moved, ten years ago? Twelve? This is through no fault of theirs, as A Dawn To Fear (Metal Blade) gives definite notice that they didn’t start sucking. We all know what Cult Of Luna sounds like, right? Comparisons seem insulting, as they are very much their own thing now. From the crushing “The Silent Man” to the mournful stateliness of “A Dawn To Fear”, all the hallmarks are here. If anything, there is almost too much of a good thing here at an hour twenty, but who am I to bitch? Nice reminder to give their catalog a good dusting off, especially that Julie Christmas one, another casualty to the pit in my brain.
Houston’s Oath Of Cruelty name-drop Kreator and Sodom in their bio, so count me in. Summary Execution At Dawn (Dark Descent) is a ripper right out of the gate, dirty enough to harken back to my glorious high school Walkman, yet updated enough to be much more than mere homage. There are some stellar riffs going on here, notably on the absolutely blazing “Through Alchemy and Killing”. What a great fucking song. This whole album is worth a listen or three. Dark Descent nails it again.
I always thought the cover to Wormwitch’s Heaven That Dwells Within (Prosthetic) was intriguing, but never pulled the pin on actually playing it before this. Not sorry I did. It’s a nice blend of Goth-tinged black metal and crusty-but-clean blasting, with some dashes of Renn Fest pagan folk. I will fully admit that this stuff rarely makes it through to the end of the record, as I’m allergic to more than a dash of Renn Fest pagan folk, but Wormwitch throw some zingers in at the end, a la “Iron Woman” and the mid-paced-to-ripper closer “Alone Before The Doors Of The Silent House”.
Throw the word ‘supergroup’ out there, and I’ll be honest, I get a little skittish. I’m not sure I would ever wonder what a group consisting of David Vincent (Morbid Angel), Rune “Blasphemer” Eriksen (Mayhem, Aura Noir), and Flo Mounier (Cryptopsy) would sound like, but this is 2019 and times are pretty weird, so here we are with VLTIMAS. I love me some Morbid Angel, but Vincent’s vocals don’t really click with me here. The drums are insanely fast and there are some pretty awesome riffs, so Something Wicked Marches In isn’t a complete wash. A valiant effort, and for those inclined to superhumanly fast death metal so clean you could set your watch to it there is plenty to dig into, but this is not for me.
I’ve never given Cattle Decapitation much of a shot. I remember years ago when they really blew up, I just didn’t really get it. Part of it was probably just me being a dick about popular things. As a bona fide ‘highly anticipated release’, I thought I would go into Death Atlas (Metal Blade) with a fresh perspective. I now get it, at least the part where tons of people like this stuff. Really clean, super technical, blindingly fast death metal full of whiplash changes and plenty of ‘holy shit is that drummer even real?’ moments. This kind of stuff just doesn’t really do much for me. In my old age, there are such things as ‘too fast’, ‘too well produced’, and ‘too technical’. This unfortunately is all three. These guys don’t give a shit what I think, nor should they. They’re wildly talented, and deserve everything they’ve achieved, but alas, this is also not for me.
Bummers always come in threes, right? And it really does bum me out that I don’t dig the new Nile more than I do. These dudes have been consistent as all get out for so long now that I can usually count on them for a healthy diversion with each new album. Well, there was that one a few years ago that truly sucked, but I can’t be bothered to look up the title. Anyway, maybe that’s the problem with Vile Nilotic Rites (Nuclear Blast). It’s just so…Nile. Nothing really sticks with me on this one, and unfortunately, there was a shit ton of good death metal this year that did stick with me. You still can’t go wrong if you’re a Nile fan, but doubt this will be one I grab when I’m in the mood for some Egyptian pummeling.
Speaking of pummeling, it took a handful of listens to even acclimate myself to what Serpent Column were trying to achieve with Mirror In Darkness (Mystiskaos), because holy shit does this thing blast. This is my kind of technical, teetering on the edge of losing it completely but catchy in its chaos. This is crazy stuff, well-produced but still kind of scuzzy. Imagine mainlining coffee all day and throwing a bunch of fucked up Botch riffs into already crazy black metal arrangements. This is an intense listen, but give it a few to sink in and it unfurls wonderfully. The chaos starts to make sense and little things like the chug riff half-way through “Amphiclasm” absolutely kick your ass harder and harder with each listen. Super cool album if you’re feeling adventurous.
Schammasch holds a weird place in my heart. As someone who generally shies away from overly symphonic black metal, I’m as shocked as anyone that I’ve pretty much enjoyed their entire catalog. Things got ambitiously out there on their last album Triangle, though, and it was honestly a bit much to sit through at once. You can never tell what an artist will do after that bold of a move. Take things even further? Dial it back and risk regressing? There certainly was no replicating it. I’ve gotten over the weakness of being beholden to a group’s output based solely on name, so rest assured I’m not afraid to call bullshit. Hearts Of No Light (Prosthetic) is, however, no bullshit. Refined without losing ambition, there is a wide array of textures on display here, but none seem out of place or, more importantly, cheesy. The juxtaposition of piano and electro beats on “A Bridge Ablaze” with the technical black/death of “Qadmon’s Heir” works infinitely better than it has any right to, and fifteen minute closer “Innermost, Lowermost Abyss” sounds like an unreleased Dead Can Dance song, to great affect. Schammasch is chasing something a little different than the rest of the pack, and Hearts Of No Light is another winner in their discography.
Okay, so maybe that’s a lie. I love the shit out of Fen’s 2014 album Carrion Skies, so based solely on that album, I went deep into their catalog. While it’s all enjoyable, nothing hit me quite a deeply as Carrion Skies. Still I try, eh? As a result, I didn’t have wildly inflated expectations for The Dead Light (Prophecy Productions), but knew damn well I’d throw it on a few times. Maybe I’ve been neglecting the atmospheric black metal realm, maybe it’s the perpetually shitty grey skies of winter time Ohio, but I’m really digging this one. I’ve always felt that Fen fall into that rare Agalloch-and-Wolves-In-The-Throne-Room space, where it works for black metal fans, but also works beyond the genre. There is a grandiose air to this album, yet it’s streamlined enough to appeal to a much broader audience without losing the visceral edge. This is another one that reminds me I should dust off the catalog and dig back in.
The one good thing about this particular best-of list season is it also brings out the decade lists. Most of them have been chock full of hot garbage that sucks just as hard now as when it came out, but as my memory is hot garbage, it’s been fun nonetheless. Totally worth wading through multiple trash heaps to be reminded of the absolute stunning glory of Morbus Chron’s 2014 masterpiece Sweven (Century Media). I played the fuck out of this back then, and somehow forgot it existed for the last couple years. This album is just…I mean…fucking beautiful. A masterpiece. It is back with full force, eating up a fair amount of my playlist again, and I can’t recommend it more highly. It makes me wonder what other albums have fallen by the wayside. Another album that has recently resurfaced is Nasum’s 2003 face-melter Helvete (Relapse). Man, did I crush this album, and then poof, forgotten until an offhand comment made it one of the most jammed albums on the canning line this year. There isn’t a note out of place here, just pure grind perfection, start to finish. Another one I can’t recommend more highly. I’d put both of these in my best of every year from here on out if I could.
Well, that’s it for this year. Thanks for sticking it out, my one or two loyal reader(s). It’s been fun getting back into the swing of things, if not a little nerve-wracking doing it publicly, and it’s been a blast reigniting my love of all things metal. Here’s to seeing what the new year brings! Hope your holidays are happy and safe, or at least tolerable and event-free!