And so we come to the end of another year of music. It’s certainly been a very diverse year for me. Being UK-based, from a homegrown music point of view I would say overall it’s been a good year, if not a superb one. There have been some standout records, but nothing I’d describe as perfect. Without chucking any major spoilers in, only one of my Top 5 are from bands I would have expected to find there at the beginning of the year, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised frequently over the last 12 months. Maybe you’ll discover a couple of gems in here that you might not have otherwise listened to (I am arguably something of an outlier in the PN family in terms of primary genre focus) or maybe you’re already down with a bunch of this stuff. Spice of life and all that, right? As ever, this list is more subjective than normal reviews, so don’t feel the need to point out any inconsistencies related to records I’ve reviewed/scored, etc. Thanks folks. 2019 is dead. Long live 2020.
2019 Top 20
This sort of straight-up rock isn't my bag usually, but what Dinosaur Pile-up have done at this relatively advanced stage in their career is pull together a collection of some of the most undeniable and fun songs that you'll ever hear on a single record. There are big Weezer vibes but played through a 90's Britrock filter. Again, doesn't sound like my stuff, but these songs rip. All played whilst not taking itself too seriously, as well. As a guy who's primary tastes can be quite po-faced, this is a real treat and a perfect palate cleanser.
19. Puppy: The Goat
Spinefarm Records UK
Released longer after they first arrived on the scene than may have been strictly sensible; when it did come along it was just what we'd been hoping for. Fat, groovy riffs, huge choruses and a sense of melody that isn't seen in too many heavier bands, but then Puppy don't really sound like other heavy bands.
Big Scary Monsters
These guys are just what I need when I've inadvertently spent a few days down an extreme metal wormhole. I'm reluctant to use the word 'jaunty' - but it kind of fits. But there's more to it than that, the choruses are absolutely huge, the alt-rock guitar tone feels nostalgic and fresh at the same time, and the amount of hooks throughout the record means it absolutely flies by in what feels like about 5 minutes. The sign of a good songwriter more often than not, and that's definitely the case here.
17. We Never Learned To Live: The Sleepwalk Transmissions
From the point I heard this described as 'sci-fi post-hardcore' I knew I was going to like it, although not quite how much I would like it. It's kind of a thematic mood piece that evokes a dystopian used future nightmare, but one with moments of serenity and humanity amongst the rust and brutality. I've not heard a record like it this year and after seeing it live, it felt even more vital. If, you've been away a while (as the band had), this is a hell of a way to announce that you're still alive and kicking.
16. Cult of Luna: A Dawn To Fear
I'm slightly embarrassed to say I'd never been a huge CoL fan before but heard a lot of buzz around the record and the more I heard, the more I thought it sounded like it might be just my sort of thing. Wouldn't you know it? It is. The level of patience and subtlety that exists in these songs is enthralling. I know I'll be able to listen to it in 5 years' time and still be noticing new things about it that I love. It's languorous, often bleak, and delightfully hypnotic. Not everyone's cup of tea, but if you like post-metal, then this is a really exceptional example of it.
I reviewed this earlier in the year and I love it even more now than I did then. It's very rare to have brevity in black metal, but at 38 minutes long (admittedly over 4 songs), that's what we've got here. But what makes this record so impressive is how full of purpose and feeling every one of those minutes is. As ever, when it comes to black metal, the ability to conjure an ambience is key, and not only does Saor manage that, but the atmosphere is so infused with the Caledonian spirit of his homeland, you're transported there each time you press play. Yes, it's Tolkien-esque, but I dig that. A lot.
14. Blood Incantation: Hidden History of the Human Race
Coming in late in the year, I almost didn't have enough time to listen and unpack what Blood Incantation have brought to the table here, but a week or so of solid listening later, I knew this was as special as anything the Colorado death metallers have released before. Given the last record was Starspawn, then that is high praise in and of itself. There is patience, invention and originality here in spades. All the while remaining utterly true to the art form. I'm still in the honeymoon phase with this record and look forward to spending a heap more time being pulled into Blood Incantation's terrifying world over the coming months.
13. Tool: Fear Inoculum
Volcano Records, RCA Records
Is it as good as Lateralus? 10,000 Days? Aenima? Maybe not. It's hard to say at this stage, though. Tool records are a precious commodity and deserve to be consumed over many years and I'm sure I'll be doing that, but I can already say that there is more to get from this record than just being impressed by it. When listened to at the right time with the right listening equipment, it's a genuinely transcendent experience.
12. Varaha: A Passage For Lost Years
Atmospheric black metal with borderline folky and neo-classical tendencies. Some classical instrumentation, quasi-Gregorian chanting and an ecclesiastical feel mean this record carries a different sort of weight to most. An elegant, sinister weight, but one that can be felt more with each listen. Not often are grace and heaviness such comfortable bedfellows. An impressive achievement.
11. Lingua Ignota: CALIGULA
Profound Lore Records
I feel vaguely ridiculous trying to find a place for this in the list, I just know that it needs to be in here. It's a record unlike any other I think I've ever heard. It's deeply harrowing and uncomfortable to listen to and all the more so when you understand the context and concept of it. That aside, as an artistic statement and in terms of displaying/relaying emotion, I cannot think of anything I've ever heard that does it more effectively. Not fun, but genuinely important.
When I was searching for an honest-to-goodness punk record with singalongs, big choruses and a boozy feel at the beginning of spring, along came this record and barely left my ears for more than a day over the whole summer. Smart, funny and this year's drinking album for me.
Ah, ETS. For me, they're one of the most well-rounded bands in modern heavy music at this point. Earth-shaking riffs, diverse compositions and intelligent themes delivered through Justine's very own throat-shredding filter. All of this, coming from the heart of a band who feel like a real unit and also one finally coming to terms with their own abilities and massive potential. They're 3 for 3 at this point and the mind boggles as to what they could come up with next.
8. Numenorean: Adore
After falling in love with blackgaze and atmospheric black metal over the last few years, there was always going to be a few in this list and I have to say that this record surprised me more than any other release of its ilk this year. The sheer emotional weight that bleeds from these songs is extraordinary. At its zenith, atmospheric black metal conjures a whole world for you to exist within for its duration and this does that whilst still making time for blistering blast beats and all of the black metal tropes, yet somehow makes it sound like a cohesive piece of art that feels inexplicably positive, too. Having listened to this record A LOT, I cannot imagine this existing in any other form. Glorious.
If I could have stipulated exactly what I wanted from Venom Prison for their sophomore effort, this would have basically been it. Unbelievably heavy and dense with riffs, bursting with ideas and the band have moved even more firmly into the death metal territory, with nods to classic heavy metal all over the place, too. There's even space for groove in these songs and Larissa's vocals have never sounded as varied or caustic.
6. Nervus: Tough Crowd
Big Scary Monsters
I fucking love Nervus. I adored both the first 2 records and Tough Crowd follows in the same style in some respects and changes things up hugely elsewhere. This is a far more externally-focused record compared to the last one, but Em approaches the subject matter with the same sideways look, the same honesty and the same incredible natural talent for songwriting. Equal parts rabble-rousing and thoughtfully beautiful.
When this debut dropped early in the year, I wasn't entirely au fait with Ithaca, but as soon as I heard this record I knew I was a fan and would have to go back to the earlier EP's. Techy metallic hardcore is maybe the most concise way to describe a sound that is entirely Ithaca's own. The live show is spectacular and they're another outstanding addition to the Holy Roar roster as well, it bears mentioning. In a year where metallic hardcore has made something of an impact, this hit harder than most.
Big Day Records
God, I love this record. Big, rollicking rock 'n' roll punk that is utterly effervescent with its own energy and excitement. When you consider the guys come from a relatively small town in Norway without much of a scene to speak of, then it's clear this shit is in their hearts and souls. But you can tell that from the record anyway. Gets me moving more than any other record this year, probably.
20 Buck Spin
Yes, I'm a fan of death metal, but that doesn't mean that I like all death metal. Not by a long shot. But this? I can't conceive of anyone who does like death metal not liking this. It succeeds in everything it attempts almost faultlessly. Crushingly heavy, but beautifully nuanced and with real discernible songs under the filth and muck of the perfectly-realised sonorous production style. Have hardly stopped listening to this since it came out and that's going to be the way for a long time yet.
I simply cannot imagine The Menzingers making a bad record at this point. Ironically, my main reservation here is regarding the production, which was handled by the usually-flawless Will Yip. The edges may have been rounded off a little too much and some of the vocal production is slightly baffling, but the songs, as ever, are stunning. There are maybe 7 of my favourite Menzingers songs on this record and it's only because it follows After The Party (one of my favourite records of all time) that it felt mildly underwhelming when I first heard it. A worthy addition to their stellar discography.
1. SeeYouSpaceCowboy: The Correlation Between Entry and Exit Wounds
So here's the major surprise record for me of the year. I heard their collection of EP's (Songs For The Firing Squad) in early 2019 and thought it was exciting, but just too spasmodic too ever be truly cohesive. How wrong I was. With this debut full-length, SYSC have demonstrated what they're capable of doing when it comes to crafting full works of emotive, contemporary hardcore (with nods to 00's metalcore, emo, post-metal and more) that can still leave you peeling yourself from the wall at the end. Savage, beautiful, ambitious and stunning.