Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 15 of 2014

Another year, another list. 2014 has yet again proved that the world of harsh, emotional, and most importantly dark music continues to soldier forward with old favorites releasing brilliant new works and new faces offering imaginative and awe-inspiring debuts. 2014 will stand out for me personally in my ongoing pursuit of music, marking my entrance into the more experimental side of dark music, finally understanding what noise in all of it's various incarnations has to offer. As with any year there are things that I haven't fully digested like recent offerings from Trepaneringsritualen, Dead Congregation, Goatpenis, and Raspberry Bulbs, all of which I honestly didn't spend enough time with. Nevertheless, the albums found below are the 15 releases (in any format) that struck me hardest, the works that I continue to come back to over and over again, and those that surprise me with each and every listen.

Without any more painstaking reluctancy or anxious hesitation I present to you Horn of Woe's Top 15 Releases of 2014.

Weightlessness - Of Lachrymose Grief
(Graceless Recordings)

While it may have been originally released in limited CD format in 2013, Of Lachrymose Grief wasn't widely available until this year. The moment Graceless announced the impending release of Weightlessness' debut I checked their page everyday in order not to miss it. The band's combination of death and doom metal is emotionally immense. When I first heard "By the Lore of a Morose Stench" before the tape was even released it was evident that this was going to be a monster of a death/doom album. Melancholy melodic leads, equal emphasis on death and doom metal, gritty yet clear production, and most importantly a firm grip on aggression all help Weightlessness' debut EP carve it's way past the innumerable death/doom acts perfectly content to rehash the same atmosphere as their forbearers. Also, that cover of Sabbath's "Solitude" is absolutely immense.

Barren Harvest - Subtle Cruelties
(Handmade Birds)

Ethereal and somber summarizes Barren Harvest's approach to dark folk pretty aptly. A project consisting of Lenny Smith (Atriarch, Trees) and Jessica Way (Worm Ouroboros) the two create a haunting journey through dream-like atmospheres and the gorgeous vocal interplay of Smith and Way. Out of all the things I loved this year, this is definitely the most meditative and serene, but underneath the outer layer of calm exists a strikingly dense piece of music completely burdened by despondency. The entire album drips with melancholy, from the minimal piano and guitar to the swirling, suffocating synth work. The highlight of this is undoubtably the way both musicians use their voices. Smith utilizes a shuddering moan and Way has a contemplative and beautiful voice that melds perfectly with the grim hum of the synth. The entire experience is indicative of how minimalism can be used to great result if orchestrated expertly. Subtle Cruelties stands as this years best folk outing, bar none.

Malkuth - Tamahprabha
(Prison Tatt Records)

Tamahprabha is a swirling mass of black metal. Gritty and majestic, raw and exuberant. The twisted riffing of Malkuth's duel guitar mavens makes for an entirely immersive black metal experience. Impassioned and driven by a dedication to eastern mysticism the album is mystical and extremely dense. Numerous sittings are required to fully penetrate Tamahprabha's walls of distorted melody. Grotesque riffs slither through its raw muck while drums pound in a furious rhythm. While this is at it's core a raw black metal album Malkuth never shy from originality and are relentless in their quest for pure hypnotic immersion. The entire album washes over one as a sea of rawness and unhinged riffing. As I pointed out in my long-form review of the album the final track "Naraka" serves as the album's purest expression of Malkuth's ability to convey absolutely sinister atmosphere. A sprawling journey through shamanic rhythms and scathing riffs.

Arizmenda - Stillbirth in the Temple of Venus 
(Crepúsculo Negro)

Arizmenda (along with Kallathon) has long stood, to this humble listener, as the absolute peak of Crepúsculo Negro's prolific output. Stillbirth in the Temple of Venus further solidifies Murdunbad as the collectives most unique and impassioned individual and serves as yet another window into his psychotic and horrifically demented world. The album continues down the road Arizmenda has paved for itself, that of otherworldly, angular black metal. Screeching guitar leads, throbbing bass guitar, and manic howls are all at play here but what this album is really indicative of is a step forward for Arizmenda as a project. The song structures are more progressive, relying on dissonant melodies to push songs further towards the breaking point than ever before. While Crepúsculo Negro's ethics are certainly questionable (I myself lost money ordering from them) the ingenuity of the collective is certainly not, Stillbirth is a testament to that.

Skáphe - Skáphe
(Fallen Empire Records)

A. Poole has been busy this year. Guitarist for the most recent incarnation of Krieg who released the blistering Transient, complete operator of Chaos Moon who made a pretty convincing case for shoegazing textures in black metal with Ressurection Extract this year and this, his first harrowing release under the moniker Skáphe. Fallen Empire describes it as asphyxiating and I'm completely inclined to agree. Walls of plodding dissonance, eerie ambience, and most importantly suffocatingly bleak production. However, what makes this tape so completely captivating is what can be heard through the condensed murk. Waves of shimmering radiance accompany the mire, creating a feeling equally unsettling and disorienting. The album ends with a fittingly bleak piece of dark ambience, a perfect closing statement for such a brilliant debut.

Gath Smâné - Transmuted Marrow 
(Blutige Magie)

Another debut release that finds itself leagues ahead of much released this year is Transmuted Marrow the first release by new death metal trio Gath Šmâné. The New Yorkers carry with them an interesting and diverse lineup with members currently and previously specializing in everything from black metal to brutal death metal. Diversity is the cornerstone for the entirety of this (unfortunately) two song demo. Running the death metal gambit from guttural devastation to cavernous decay Gath Šmâné offers something completely new to the landscape of the genre, originality comprised of many familiar elements. So much of what exists currently in the world of death metal is complete rehashing, a trope Gath Šmâné stray from completely. A refreshing combination of sheer brutality and ingenious songwriting with a heavy dose of noxious atmosphere makes a mere two tracks some of the most exciting music released this year.

Thantifaxath - Sacred White Noise
(Dark Descent Records)

Purely dissonant and otherworldly is cloaked horde Thantifaxath's take on the ever-evolving genre of black metal. A release seemingly focused on dragging the listener into some sort of void, pushing them further and further into endless, chaotic nothingness. The guitar work on the album is cyclical, continuously rehashing patterns in order to disorient the listener, however, each of them travels at the same trajectory, downwards. Sacred White Noise is akin to spiraling deeper and deeper into some terrible unknown, with each passing moment tension builds. Built primarily on the backs of the serpentine guitar structures and unrelenting drumming the madness is persistent throughout the entirety of the album. Regality also exists in flourishes as the album travels along it's dizzying coarse. The beginning of the latter half of "Where I End and the Hemlock Begins" presents the listener with a momentary release from madness as slinking guitar ushers in a gorgeous passage of melody and grandeur. Haunted melodies that seethe and convulse throughout the entirety of Sacred White Noise are the cornerstone of the albums ability to completely entrance and mystify.

Yellow Eyes - The Desert Mourns 
(Sibir Records)

The first of two stunning Yellow Eyes EPs released this year is The Desert Mourns. Opened with droning bells, the title track and the first of the two tracks launches forward abruptly and signifies everything that makes Yellow Eyes stand out as one of the highlights of not only United States black metal but black metal as a whole. Delicate melodies find their way through the whirling riffs and frantic drumming while a thick bass rhythm cuts through the cacophony and vocalist Will Skarstad spits poetic malice. Grief and strength are represented equally through the band's combination of traditional black metal (reminiscent of many Slavic progenitors) and their own unique way of writing. Songs weave between somber melodies and hellish assaults, always retaining a heavy focus on atmosphere and immersion. It's easy to get lost in the thick forest of sound Yellow Eyes presents the listener with; the cascading guitar, throbbing rhythms, and the utterly mesmerizing aura the EP exudes make it a triumph of black metal.

Teitanblood - Death 
(Norma Evangelium Diaboli & Ajna Offensive)

Hellish only begins to describe what Teitanblood bring to us with their long awaited return. Simply titled Death the album is for the most part as blunt as it's title. A churning wall of black and death metal combined into some sort of malignant force. There is no introduction, no prelude to the storming onslaught, from the very beginning there is nothing but bestial rage and unfettered insanity. A disregard for anything that lives and breaths is palpable through the albums absolute devotion to presenting the most barbaric bastardization of metal possible. Yet, through all this horrific madness there lies a startling amount of craft. Solos that would make Trey Azagthoth blush, complex rhythms that snake beneath the battery, and lyrics that are deeply religious and read like the complete inversion of the Bible itself. The whole album does not hinge on sheer brutality either, subtlety and ambience both play major roles in the more doom laden passages, noisy interludes, and the nearly ten minute ending of chanted incantations, droning instrumentals, and sinister bells. A harrowing execution of black and death metal where the line between them is erased and all that exists is punishment.

Old Wainds - Nordraum
(Negative Existence)

In all honesty Old Wainds is a project that is still relatively new to me. Earlier this year I became re-infatuated with Slavic black metal and all the region has to offer regarding the grim tradition. Of course staples like Drudkh, Walknut, and Hate Forest were well known to me but in my ceaseless hunger I stumbled upon Old Wainds and immediately was lost in their torrents of icy riffing. Immediately I was drawn to every facet of the band, especially their location in Russia (seriously look up a picture of Murmansk, bleak and industrialized in the shadow of mountains), I first sought out demos and older works but slowly made my way to Nordraum, which now stands for me as the pinnacle of the bands long and frigid journey. Swirling riffs, completely unrelenting drumming, and Izbor's impassioned and unhinged vocal performance combine to create a hypnotic tribute to all that is cold and grey. If you're not convinced, that the last track "Stoneweaver," takes the prize for best song title of the year and lives up to it's perfect name through it's dissonant descent into frosty madness.

Leather Chalice - Luna
(Broken Limbs Recordings)

Yes, this release is a single track, but in that one fifteen minute long track lies the true genius of Jan Slezak and his (mostly) solo project Leather Chalice. A mere two years into it's existence Slezak has refined his blend of black metal and punk with a heavy dose of post-punk moodiness and noise segues. Relying heavily on reverb drenched guitar work that rises over the clatter of discordant punk and fragmented black metal to make an EP that reinvents the ever-so-common black/punk union. What's so striking about Luna is how unique the entire experience is, obviously there is stomping punk ferocity but at almost all times it is accompanied by some sort of impassioned guitar expression or strange synth or noise ambience. The track carries both a feeling of reverential passion and misery, at times hunkering into sulking dirges but also soaring to great heights of unabashed release of energy directed upwards to the supposed source of inspiration for this release, the moon. A triumph in it's own filthy and cryptic right.

Nuclearhammer - Serpentine Hermetic Lucifer
(Nuclear War Now! Productions)

The second full-length from Canadian war-mongers Nuclearhammer is maliciously hypnotic. Taking cues from the immersive element of black metal and combining that emphasis on atmosphere with death metal barbarism Nuclearhammer have taken Canadian war metal (a lame term but one that is indicative of the style) to new places. The often imitated style has been championed in unique ways before by the likes of Rites of Thy Degringolade and Lust but never before has a war metal been taken to a place of pure mesmerism as it is here. Nuclearhammer take the style and bend it, making it unbelievably more vicious than their predecessors, thanks to two distinct factors. The aforementioned emphasis on hypnotic repetition in order to disorient and crush and the inclusion of harsh noise and dark ambient interludes. The entire release is a monumental work of unrelenting forcefulness, a perfect example of a band constructing a path of their own from the fragments of a worn-out style. 

Herukrat - I Bear Witness
(Total Black)

Visceral and impassioned, Herukrat's I Bear Witness is absolutely my favorite noise release of the year. An album dedicated to it's creators recent conversion to Islam, I Bear Witness is one man's pledge of devotion and declaration of faith, and those facts are almost painfully evident throughout its entirety. Comprised mainly of harsh walls of static noise, sound samples of traditional songs and prayers, and savage bursts of shouted vocals the album makes use of minimal tools to implement maximum emotional and psychological toll. The conviction of his faith is fully embodied by his relentless shouts of reverence. At times the voice is hateful and full of scorn for those who taint the word of his God, at times it is passionate and reverent. The apex of the album is the finale "Taking Shahada," which contains an actual recording of him making his conversion to Islam as the introduction, his voice is then singled out, shouting with whats seems to be boundless fervor, proclaiming his devotion to his God. An absolutely brilliant piece of power electronics that helped me to realize what noise as a medium had to offer. This is the most passionate piece of music I heard all year, not for the faint of heart but the purest emotion can be found within.

Vorde - Vorde
(Fallen Empire Records & Psychic Violence Records)

Black metal that tows the line between traditionalism and ingenuity is always my favorite variety of the diverse genre. I am admittedly a huge fan of traditional Transylvanian Hunger-esque black metal but when bands take black metal's core elements and elevate them to some new plateau I am often enraptured, and that's what Vorde has done. On their first full-length, Vorde utilize tremolo picked guitars, blast beats, and jagged production to conjure spiraling black energy. That, however, is only the beginning of Vorde's ability to create stunning black metal. Aziel's gurgled and moaned vocals were the first indication of Vorde's pursuit of their own distinct vision of a genre often stooped in tradition. Reminiscent of Inquisition's Dagon but less frog-like, each horrid word comes out slow, deliberate in execution. He sounds as though he's chanting in order to create some sort of communion with something other, calling to them throughout the course of the record. The rest of the band works to amplify this almost religious feeling of the album through conjuring sprawling black madness that spins deeper into the unknown with each passing moment. Vorde is a mystifying and captivating journey through a swirling black cosmos.

Impetuous Ritual - Unholy Congregation of Hypocritical Ambivalence
(Profound Lore Records)

After copious amounts of time spend with this record upon it's release I enthusiastically declared it the greatest death metal album of all time and eight months later I completely stand behind that statement. Unholy Congregation of Hypocritical Ambivalence contains every single aspect I look for in a death metal album and offers new horizons for the entire genre. From the raw, cavernous production that carves itself into your brain to the frantic riffing and absolutely malicious soloing that accompanies it and lastly the vocals, sparingly used and completely demented. The whole album exudes palpable feelings of dread, torment, and most importantly complete and utter devastation. Hopeless and bleak, powerful and furious the album has no regard for anything and stands as an impenetrable monolith. Most importantly the album is raw, not paper-thin or tinny, instead it's rawness is unintelligible, difficult, and cryptic. The intensity never relinquishes, it only get's pushed further and further until the album resembles HNW as much as it does death metal. This is the new pinnacle of brutality, the new purest expression of malice I have ever heard. It is sheer grotesque brilliance hurtling towards the void with disregard for everything, ushering in the end of all things. 

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