Dave’s Top 10 of 2017

Years of bountiful harvest are often followed by years of drought, and that (for me at least) seems to be what happened in terms of great metal releases from last year to this. 2016 was filled with some absolutely phenomenal albums from long time heavy hitters like Dark Tranquillity, Fates Warning, Ihsahn, and of course Vader, and I went into 2017 with some big expectations, unfortunately many of which lead to big disappointments, with the new Xanthochroid probably taking the cake for biggest let down. Happily all is not sorrow however, indeed 2017 also brought a few very pleasant surprises.

This being a year end review I also need to discuss the status of the loudness war, and sadly 2017 brought very little progress on that front. I didn’t see too many DR3-4 disasters this year (other than the MOOOAAARRRR VOLUME!!!!!!!!!!!! Nine Inch Nails release) but if you were hoping for even a small nudge up to DR7 for your favorite albums, chances are you’ll be disappointed. This year has also cemented for anyone still unsure that yes, vinyl is indeed a thing, and it’s here to stay – all but one of my winners are available on wax, and if you want even a hope of a dynamic master, vinyl still largely remains the only way to get it. If you’re thinking about dipping your toes into the world of analog, stay tuned, I’ll have much more to say about it in the coming weeks.

All of that out of the way, let’s get on to this year’s winners! As always, this list is presented in no particular order, with the exception of the final entry which is my album of the year.

Oh what a joy to be able to put a Mors Principium Est album on my list of best of the year! For those not in the know, the band came close to falling apart after losing multiple guitarists following the release of 2007’s Liberation = Termination. They managed to claw their way back from the brink and released …And Death Said Live five years later, an album that let’s just say I was not a fan of. You can see more of my thoughts here if you’re curious. 2014’s Dawn Of The 5th Era was definitely an improvement (a low bar) musically, but sonically it definitely was not. Mors Principium Est albums have never been sonic standouts, so it was quite an achievement for that album to be the worst sounding of the lot of them. Happily Embers Of A Dying World returns to MPE’s usual serviceable sonic standards, and the songwriting is the band’s best since Liberation = Termination. They don’t really break any new ground here, but even having the album be on the same level as their releases from ten years ago is enough for me. Welcome back, gents.

Nokturnal Mortum is a band that for whatever reason has never really been on my radar. As soon as I heard the first proper song “Molfa” on Verity though, I was hooked. The the mix of traditional Ukrainian folk instruments, chants, and thundering riffs is an absolute delight, reminding me of my favorite aspects of Falkenbach. Were it not for another album knocking it out of contention, Verity may well have been my album of the year. It’s that good. Plus, it gives you the chance to say “With Chort In My Bosom.”

Enslaved albums can pretty much be divided into pre and post Axioma Ethica Odini. If you haven’t liked anything the band has done since the release of that album, E is unlikely to bring you around. If, like me, you enjoyed RIITIIR despite its unevenness, and were maybe a bit disappointed by the somewhat half hearted In Times, E has much to recommend. The album is not quite as strong as RIITIIR at its best, but it’s more consistent, and it certainly has plenty of moments that show that the old Enslaved magic is still in there somewhere, with “Axis of the Worlds” being a particular highlight.

Russia’s Kartikeya have been around for well over a decade, but Samudra is only their third full length in that time, and it’s my first exposure to the band. “Dharma, Pt. 1 (Into the Sacred Waves)” immediately makes it clear what you’re in for – Eastern tinged synths, and all of the Djent and blast beats you can eat. This isn’t the most original recipe to be sure, but the band is very good at it, and there’s enough variety here to keep things from getting to stale. “Mask of the Blind” is definitely worth your time.

This was quite the surprise for me. I was not a fan of the band’s debut Portal Of I at all, and I thought 2014’s Citadel was “fine” but it didn’t hugely move the needle for me either. While the band’s earlier albums seemed like a bunch of disparate ideas crammed together into songs, Urn feels much more like a complete piece of music, with their signature blend of hyper speed drumming and riffs blended with far more deftness to the more progressive and melodic elements. Sadly, as El Cuervo mentioned in his review for AMG, the smashed mastering does the album no favors whatsoever.

I thought Pallbearer’s 2012 debut Sorrow and Extinction was decent if not exactly spectacular, but what shocked me about it was the dynamic range – a DR10 death doom album on Profound Lore? What?? Sadly their follow up, Foundations of Burden, was an all too familiar story. A band releases an album, gets some popularity, hires a big name engineer for the next record, and there go all of the dynamics. Happily, Heartless doesn’t continue that trend, or follow literally every other album on this list down to DR6 mediocrity. Of course dynamics alone don’t make a great album, and there’s much to like here musically. Heartless scales back on the death elements for a much more progressive doom album, and it’s not one that’s going to immediately bowl you over. Give it some time though and repeated listens, and it will definitely grow on you.

This seems to be an unpopular opinion in metal circles, but Psychotic Symphony, the debut of super group Sons of Apollo, is one of my favorites of the year. Is it a lyrical masterpiece? Certainly not, but if you’re looking to power metal for great lyrics, you need to get out more. Where Psychotic Symphony succeeds is everywhere else. Each member brings decades of experience, and it shows in musicianship that’s second to none. It’s cheesy, and a bit ‘80s, and it’s a lot of fun.

This is likely another example where I’m the odd man out, but I much prefer Stranger Times to 2013’s The Tower. I suppose one could argue just exactly how “metal” it is, but I think if Ghost’s Meliora counts as a metal album, so does this. “As the World Burns” and “Something Vile” are ruthlessly addicting, and I love how this album keeps twisting and turning, always keeping you on your toes. It’s the antidote to musical boredom, for sure.

As with Ne Obliviscaris, a Persefone album being on my top 10 list is not something I would’ve expected going in to this year. Sure, I’ve heard all about how great Shin-Ken and Spiritual Migration were, but for whatever reason they just didn’t click with me. Aathma is different though, it takes its time pulling you in through two instrumentals before finally unleashing a hailstorm of furious riffs and blistering solos coupled with expertly placed backing synths and keys. It’s a long one and might’ve benefited from a bit of editing, but still a thoroughly enjoyable listen.

Some years it’s difficult for me to pick a number one, but this wasn’t one of those years. In Contact is an absolute monster of an album, and one I couldn’t stop listening to all year. “Dream The Dead” sinks its teeth deep into your skull, with a chorus so addicting it should be a class 1 controlled substance. Jim Grey’s vocal performance is superb, and guitarists Sam Vallen and Adrian Goleby are absolutely at the top of their game. I’m not sure that the completely spoken word “Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall” works for me, whether it will for you or not I suppose depends on what you think of the poetry. I just find it a bit out of place in this context. Other than that though, I have nothing to complain about at all. It also helps that the album sounds quite good, especially given how unnecessarily loud it is. The mix is perfectly balanced, and this is definitely one of Jens Bogren’s better masters. Usually DR5 sounds far worse. If you’re even remotely a fan of progressive metal, this is a must listen.