The end of 2018 is approaching, as well as the darkest, coldest and more obscure months of the year (at least for those who live in the upper emisphere). It’s seems the perfect time then to embark in a journey into one of the most haunting and creepy regions of the music universe: Death Metal.
This article presents the best ten releases that we could appreciated since the beginning of the year. You’ll find below so many songs and information that I don’t feel the need to spend so much time in introductory comments. Let me just clarify that I’m including here a family of records which belong to the wider family of sub-genres that can be included in the Death Metal category. These includes, as an example, blackened death metal, melodic death metal and death & thrash. I’m aware that this may annoy the purists of the genre, but I believe it’s the only way to get a complete picture of the status of Death Metal today. Enjoy!
#1) Necrophobic, “Mark Of The Necrogram”
(Blackened Death Metal)
Necrophobic are not newcomers of death metal. The band is about to reach the milestone of 30 years of a career in which, between highs and lows and also many changes in the line-up, they have achieved the status of one of the prominent figures in the international death metal scene. And with their newest release, Mark of the Necrogram, they confirmed once again to be among the best interpreters of that specific sub-genre that goes under the name of blackened death metal.
One of the most interesting aspects of Necrophobic’s new album is the return – after over twenty years of absence – of the band’s first singer, Anders Strokirk, who participated to the recording of the the legendary debut album The Nocturnal Silence and then left the band for more than twenty years. It was 1993, rock radios were rotating the songs of Metallica’s Black Album and, at that time, there weren’t so many bands playing the kind of music that these guys developed for their debut. Fast forward to current times and we see that blackened death metal is nowadays a genre of music quite inflated, and it’s not easy to emerge from the crowd. What’s then the secret that allowed Necrophobic to push themselves on top of the list after so many years of activity and a good bunch of excellent releases? As soon as you launch Mark of the Necrogram you need only a few minutes to get the answer: their unique ability to write incredibly catchy and engaging death metal riffs, further enriched by passionate and intriguing melodic sequences and black metal tremolos. The natural way in which splendid riffs follow each other is almost embarrassing, and in the end it’s possible to say that the entire album is packed with some of the best guitar works we had the chance to listen so far in 2018.
From a musical point of view, the album manages to stay in that unstable point of equilibrium between the roughness and darkness of black metal and the greater complexity and articulation of death metal. Rhythms are sustained, sometimes furious, and the final effect is that of a train launched in the darkness without any brakes. There are no moments of stilness or pauses where you can catch your breath, it’s like a dive into the void, a blind flight that you would never want to end for the emotions that you feel on your skin. A particular note of merit, finally, goes to the general production of the record, which has succeeded in enhancing all the different components of the songs.
I am aware that albums like Mark of the Necrogram may be a little controversial for those purists of extreme metal who don’t appreciate the introduction of so many melodic elements into the songs, but when the quality of the riffs is so phenomenal we can truly appreciate the incredible balance that was reached between obscurity and accessibility.
#2) Skeletonwitch, “Devouring Radiant Light”
(Blackened Death Metal / Death & Thrash)
There are bands that play what others have already invented, perhaps adding some minor variations over a musical style that was conceived, perfected and affirmed by other formations. Instead, there are groups that bring with them the precious light of innovation. Groups that escape from being easily cataloged within one or more genres and that are able to offer, on every album, something completely new and unexpected, music that although initially may be difficult to be intepreted and included in the old schemes, then becomes itself the reference for the subsequent works. One of these groups is Skeletonwitch, from Ohio, in the U.S.
From the moment I falled in love with this incredible formation (it was 2011, I remember walking along the streets of Rio de Janeiro with the songs of Forever Abomination playing in my headphones), there was not a single moment of quiet in the musical and stylistic evolution of their music. In the case of the last album, Devouring Radiant Light, the change has been even more evident because of the dismissal of their historic singer Chance Garnette, who was replaced by Wolvhammer‘s frontman, the talented Adam Clemans. But despite the single cases, what’s really astonishing is that at every publication from the band the process repeats itself: initial surprise, some moment of refocusing, and then you remain open-mouthed when you start appreciating the further step that the band has accomplished in terms of musical maturity. Yes, because that’s what the band keeps showing at every stage of their career: the ability to transform wild and brutal violence into complex and precious musical architectures where a thousand influences and multiple styles merge into a single powerful voice of desperation. The song Paradise Fades is maybe one of the most clear examples of the above: thrash metal banging riffs enriched with southern grooves, implanted on a black metal substrate, with death metal constructions linking the various sections of the piece. Brilliant. Or also the opening track Fen of Shadows: am I the only one who get a clear hint of Led Zeppelin‘s Stairway to Heaven?
In more general terms, Devouring Radiant Light shows a clear drift towards black metal, which becomes the main and binding element for all the tracks of the album. At the same time the new record is also one of the most melodic and atmospheric of the vand’s entire discography, whilst still remaining brutal, fierce and painful like a brick on the teeth. And perhaps it’s exactly this capacity to float between sensations apparently so distant and divergent which makes the record fascinating, unique and absolutely longeve. Every time I listen to one the songs of Devouring Radiant Light I happen to discover something new, while at the same time there are sections so poignant and moving that I still shiver even after many subsequent listens.
#3) Kalmah, “Palo”
(Melodic Death Metal / Folk Metal)
I have undoubtely a passion for melodic death metal and I admit that I tend to overappreciate the bands that play this kind of music. But every so often there is an album whose value transcends the borders of its specific genre and objectively becomes an interesting work of art, regardless of the type of music it offers. This is the case of Palo, the latest release from the Finnish melodic death band Kalmah.
Palo is in fact a solid and powerful album, which has the merit to merge brilliantly a series of incredible melodies with the frantic rhythms and the complex structures of death metal. One of the most impressive elements of their new record is the maturity that the band has achieved in balancing the various components of their sound: the catchiness and intensity of the thrash metal sections, the articulated dynamics of death metal riffs, and of course the folk elements that have always been one of the main characteristics of the band’s style. And it is no coincidence, then, that Palo is probably the first album where Kalmah succeed in going above that threshold of quality which separates good records from exceptional records. Maturity, in this case, derives from the fact that the band have now reached the eightheth album of their discography, and it’s further consolidated by the fact that the line-up is pratically the same since fifteen years ago, except for a change of keyboardist in 2012.
In the evolutionary process that has led the band to consolidate their current sound we recognize an almost constant growth of the role of the guitars, which today maintain an absolutely central role in the development of the songs of Palo. Both from the rhythmic and melodic points of view, the two guitars of Pekka and Antti Kokko dominate totally the scene and polarize almost constantly the listener’s attention. All the remaining instruments seem to support the game of reinforcements and chasing that the rhythmic and lead guitars like to play across all the songs of the LP.
As a futher element of interest, Kalmah have tried keep their style fresh and “modern” somehow “modern” with the introduction of a few “groovy” sections, which may even annoy the purists of death metal but that dont’s spoil the general quality of the work.
#4) Unleashed, “The Hunt for White Christ”
(Blackened Death Metal)
There is nothing to do: the experience and brilliance that are accumulated through years and years of records, tours and collaborations cannot be matched by the young bands unless you come across to something really phenomenal. And when you listen to an album like The Hunt for White Christ, which is the last release from the legendary Swedish band Unleashed, you perceive in just a few seconds all the value and the weight of what the band has acquired in thirty years of honorable career in death metal. And that’s why, in spite of the thousands of publications that are released every year by masses of young bands, in the end we find ourselves listening for most of the time to the old legends of metal.
Sacred monsters of metal like Unleashed manage to shape the musical material according to their will and this is done in such a natural way that they make appear easy what’s in reality complex and challenging: to combine the heaviness and aggressiveness of death metal with a language that’s direct, immediate, and easy to be assimilated. And that’s basically the content of The Hunt for White Christ.
The sound of Unleashed’s newest release doesn’t differ substantially from the traditional style that they have consolidated over the last decade. Basically we have a fierce and violent version of death metal but where all the components, starting from the guttural voice of the leader Johnny Hedlund, are extremely understandable and clear. This peculiar characteristic of their music, together with the capacity to write engaging and banging riffs, make the songs of The Hunt for White Christ easy to appreciate for all the fans of the genre. Their style is further enriched by intriguing black metal components that contribute to the creation of the dark and disturbing atmospheres that we like so much in their music.
The album is compact, solid and homogeneous from the beginning to the end, and you can’t find any sign of fatigue or repetitiveness in their music. Some of the band’s longtime fans were demanding a return to the more crude and unpolished sounds of their early works; but I’m among the ones who believe that both the effectiveness and the enjoyability of their music benefit from the unique sound that they have refined and consolidated in the last ten years.
#5) Skeletal Remains, “Devouring Mortality”
(Old School American Death Metal)
Skeletal Remains, from California in the U.S., are active since 2011 and have released in 2018 the third LP of their discography, named Devouring Mortality. Their music has always taken inspiration from the legacy of American death metal and even their new latest is in many aspects strongly reminiscent of the early works from Obituary (especially regarding the use of the solo guitar), Death and Pestilence. The band, however, has managed somehow to combine all these influences into a relatively new formula and despite their style may appear as a tribute to old school death metal, in the end they consolidated an approach to this genre of metal which remains interesting and valuable even in modern days.
One of the elements that we may appreciate in Devouring Mortality is the attention that was put on the precision of the songs’ execution and also on the brilliance and clarity of the sound. These two aspects have been considered more important than pure brutality and ferocity, something that many other bands use nowadays in order to mask lack of ideas of poor songwriting skills. This is not necessary for the Californian band: they have learned from the masters of death metal how to build up good and exciting songs and now they do everything thay can to make their music understandable and clear.
At the same time it’s impressive to see how much passion and dedication was spent by the band for the preparation of this album. All the songs have articulated structures, different from each other, and every track features a surprising number of riffs and technical variations. There are no gap fillers in Devouring Mortality, every song has its own story and this makes the album particularly interesting and longeve.
#6) Voidhanger, “Dark Days of the Soul”
(Death & Thrash)
One day in the future, historians of music will have found the reason why in the period of time that approximately initiated in the second decade of the 21st century, Poland has started to produce so many valid and impressive metal bands. And until we get the explanation from the experts, we’ll keep enjoying the incredibly good music that is released in Poland by a number of metal formations that seems every year larger and larger.
Voidhanger, active since 2010, are definitely a member of this prestigious club. With their latest release, Dark Days of the Soul, they confirm their winning recipe consisting of a nice mix of blackened thrash merged with death’n’roll, filled up to the top with aggression, brutality and exciting riffs.
The most impressive characteristic of this album, however, is that sense of spontaneity and naturalness with which the songs manage to release their charge of heaviness and ferocity. You really visualize the energy that passed through the body of these three Polish metalheads before it was turned into music, and screams.
Dark Days of the Soul is the third entry in Voidhanger’s discography and it’s a solid, genuine and valuable compilation of exciting death metal songs like it’s difficult to find around nowadays. Maybe an area for improvement for these guys could be to develop a greater variety of styles and sounds among the various tracks. This shouldn’t be difficult given the impressive number of musical ideas that are already present in their songs. The future looks bright for Poland, and also for this band.
#7) Atrocity, “Okkult II”
(Symphonic Death Metal)
For better or worse, German extreme metal band Atrocity has never ceased to surprise their fans along their entire thirty-year career. As a matter of fact, the evolution of the style of this group has been so articulated that it makes no sense to put a unique summarizing label on their music. What is worth emphasizing, rather, is that the band still has the strength to launch and pursue the challenge of an epic musical project in more episodes, in which their new album, Okkult II, evidently represents the second chapter; but even more important is the fact that Atrocity, in their third decade of activity, appear absolutely in a state of grace. Their new album arrives 5 years after the previous chapter of the “occult” challenge, which has also some extra-musical derivation of which I honestly care very little about. This period of time between the two albums didn’t bring to dramatic changes in their sound, at least not as evident as those occurred in the previous two decades of their career. During the last five years, however, the band has evidently further fine-tuned their “fast and furious” version of death metal, enriched by significant symphonic elements.
As far as I’m concerned, among the different styles of metal that have been played so far by Atocity I feel that the one they play in Okkult II is one of those which best fits with their capabilities. The new album offers in fact a collection of of very good quality tracks, without any major misstep and gifted with a few particularly engaging tracks.
Okkult II benefits also of an excellent production, which enhances both the riffing and the rhythmic sections. And at this point we have something really good to enjoy in preparation for the third and final chapter of the saga, hoping not to wait another five years for this to happen.
#8) Crescent, “The Order of Amenti”
(Blackened Death Metal / Folk Death Metal)
Crescent, from Egypt, represents a curious case of a band which is formally active since almost twenty years but which has a discography of only two LPs, the last one, The Order of Amenti, released on early 2018 and the debut LP, Pyramid Slaves, four years ago. In the wide timespan between their formation and the release of the first full-lenght work, these guys from Cairo worked hard to perfect and characterize their peculiar musical style, which today consists of an interesting blackened death metal with strong ethnic and folk influences from their homeland.
The songs of their newest album are extremely interesting and fascinating, of course as a death metal song can be, and the band shows also remarkable technical skills. Maybe the experience of listening the entire LP in one single go highlights an excessive homogeneity among the tracks (many of them seem to me played on the same musical scale), but it still remains a solid and valid collection of modern death metal, with an intriguing Middle East flavour.
#9) Barren Earth, “A Complex of Cages”
(Progressive Death Metal)
Barren Earth, from Finland, represent one of those fortunate cases of a band that was initially born as a side-project of a more established group (in this case Amorphis) and that over time managed to mature to such a point that it becomes a musical reality by itself. Founded in 2007 by Amorphis’ creative bassist Olli-Pekka Laine, Barren Earth arrives in 2018 at their fourth full-lenght release, A Complex of Cages.
In addition to the usual mix of death metal, folk and progressive, the record is specifically characterized by a particularly accentuated vein of gothic metal, which seems to be the leitmotif which guides the listener throughout the entire record. Another extremely positive element which we find in the album is the confirmation of the ability and capacities of the new singer Jón Aldará, who joined the band in 2014. A Complex of Cages is really a good record, rich, deep, and full of many interesting moments.
And arrived at such an advanced point in their musical journey, we can say without any doubt that the evolution of the band has definitively freed itself from the legacy which characterized its birth.
#10) Deicide, “Overtures of Blasphemy”
No many words of introduction are required for Deicide, the historical and controversial death metal band from Florida, at least for all the die hard fans of this genre of music. For all the others it may be sufficient to say that Deicide have been among the protagonists of the extreme metal of the last thirty years; in all this time they have spread their violent and iconoclast music through twelve studio albums and many turbulent live concerts.
I’ve never been a big fan of the band and there have been other formations from the same area that I’ve appreciated definitely more than Deicide, such as Obituary and Massacre. Anyway, it’s impossible to neglect the influence that Deicide had on the death metal scene of the 90s, and this happened not only because of the exaggerated image they gave to themselves, but also thanks to the consistency and the peculiarity of their style of metal. Over the years, however, the interest in the band has slowly diminished and for this reason I approached their new LP, Overtures of Blasphemy, without particular expectations. After having listened and analyzed this record for many times, however, somehow I had to change my mind. As a matter of fact, if we compare Overtures of Blasphemy with the latest works that have been released by other legendary representatives of Florida death metal, I must admit that the new LP from Deicide is presumably the most solid and consistent one. Rather, the quality of the riffs and the overall feeling that emerges from Overtures of Blasphemy are second to a very few albums among those which were released in recent times by more modern and young formations.
The songs of Overtures of Blasphemy have two main characteristics. First: they are fast and devastating, and some tracks will leave you literally breathless if you try to follow the groove. Second: what comes out from the amplifiers is substantially a compact and deadly wall of sound, something which hits you with ferocity and brutality, a unique stream where Glen Benton’s guttural voice becomes one single thing with the guitars of Kevin Quirion (at the second LP with the band) and Mark English (at the first studio experience with Deicide). Every so often there is a short guitar solo that seems to interrupt the sonic attack, but it’s just for a few seconds and the machine will quickly start to grind new riffs.
Other notable mentions for 2018:
- Sathanas, Necrohymns (Blackened Death Metal from USA)
- Memoriam, The Silent Vigil (Death Metal from UK)
- In Vain, Currents (Progressive Death Metal from Norway)
- Skinless, Savagery (Brutal Death Metal from USA)
- Bombed Up, No Excuses For The Living (Death & Thrash from Canada)
- Bloodshot Dawn, Reanimation (Melodic Death Metal from UK)
- Avatar, Avatar Country (Experimental and Progressive Death Metal from Sweden)
- Alterbeast, Feast (Technical Death Metal from USA)
If you enjoyed this article and the music, you will love THE ANTAGONIST, the continuously updated playlist that I’m curating on Spotify with all the best and latest hits in Death Metal. Listen to it, follow it, and spread the word!