Angry Metal in 2019

Let’s get right down to brass taxes: Given all of the geopolitical instability and market volatility that plagued 2019, what the fuck happened to Metal-Fi? One has got to wonder if the serious lack of updates on the site are because of these issues or are they in fact the root cause? I honestly don’t know. Certainly, neither Dave nor I could have possibly foreseen that our unannounced hiatus last year would kick off Ragnarök. But unfortunately, that’s what all of the facts seem to indicate. Our bad.

For the n00bs: The B&W list represents the best and worst sounding records of the year. Now by “sounding” I mean a record’s production – so that’s either its mix, its master, or in a lot of cases, some combination of both. In this regard, 2019 had a lot of DR highs and lows (literally) with a few surprises in between as you shall soon discover.

But before all that, I would like to thank all the folks who still frequent the Metal-Fi forums. Honestly, you’re all a bunch of crazy SOBs; I’m just relieved that the forum provides a semi-constructive outlet for your pent up aggression thereby making the world a safer place. I’d also like to give a big shout out to Steel, AMG, and good ole Doc for always giving Dave and I an open invitation to troll this site from time to time.

The Best

Insomnium are melodic death legends. But despite that fact, I can’t really say they have ever released a well produced record. Sure, their earlier albums are certainly passable by modern standards (hovering around industry standard levels of compression) but most of their recent ones are barely passable on the sonic front. What’s ironic is after the release of 2014’s Shadows, I wrote an email to the band expressing my displeasure with their current production choices and recommended that they seek out immediate medical help in the form of Dan “The Man” Swanö. Ironically, that’s exactly what happened. But the result, 2016’s Winter’s Gate, didn’t exactly turn out how I envisioned. Yet I suspect Dan’s production tutelage on Gate somehow rubbed off on them, since when they sought out for its follow-up one of metal’s most illustrious engineers, Jens Bogren, a strange thing happened: they released the most dynamic record they have ever released to date.

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Heart Like A Grave sounds so fucking awesome even a power metal loving, half-deaf Viking Gorilla noted it in his half a point too low review. One has got to wonder if the production choices here were pushed by the band or by Jens himself, but either way the result is nothing short of spectacular. This record has become my recent standard of what well-produced, highly dynamic metal can sound like. Warning: I suspect Century Media done fucked up and asked Jens to over compress the CD before its release while all the digital versions kept their FDR master intact, i.e. Avoid the CD like the grave.

Jesus fucking Satan, it’s about time. It wasn’t so long ago that HevyDevy found himself on the wrong side of this list. But if it took a good ribbing to get him on the “sounds good” side, so be it. GardenTale’s fantastic review spelled it out nicely, “Often justifiably accused of brickwalling the production for his beloved wall of sound, the master here is rich and warm, able to handle the massive range of styles, the quiet passages as beautiful as the brutal pummeling. There are hundreds of layers to juggle, but the mix is never less than immaculate, every detail at the right level for its ideal impact. If this doesn’t turn out to be high on the list of best produced albums of the year I will eat my hat.” Let’s just hope Devy continues this kind of high caliber production going forward and has once and for all divorced himself from that stupidly compressed wall of sound approach that haunts a lot of his previous works. Cross your fingers.

This might be my comeback record of the year. Doc’s what the fuck a 3.0 review said it nicely, “But, once again, fuck you ole Grier. Hexed turns out to be one of the best sounding records in the band’s discog. It’s clean, it’s open, and it’s as warm as a snuggly kitten.” You betcha. Score squabbles aside [Dave: Were you just in a bad mood that day?], Hexed is not only just an order of magnitude better produced than their previous one, but probably sounds better than most of their back catalog too. Clocking in at a very healthy DR8, the record’s high level of dynamics gives you an extremely immersive experience; I’ve blasted this record on both ear buds straight out of my smartphone as well as on my Focal Utopias powered by an iFi Pro stack, and it never, ever disappoints. Moreover, it takes a lot of guts to be industry heavy weights and yet still release a record with this high level of dynamics. Fuck me running.

Good bless you Neige! Not only is Spiritual Instinct another high quality record from blackgaze’s All-Father, but it doubles down on its production quality too. Roquetin’s elegantly written review summarizes Instinct beautifully, “It leaves us with a sense of ambiguity, of belonging to a dream within a dream in which occasional glimpses of hymnic, passionate singing try to wake us up or lull us into an even deeper sleep. The warm and soft blanket of production then makes the music flow around us, underlining the immersion in Neige’s sonic narratives and gifting us comfort.”

An important corollary: This record was Alcest’s “big label debut” as they recently signed a contract with Nuclear Blast, which I’m pretty sure comes with “a low DR score” clause somewhere in it. But fear not, not only is Spiritual Instinct a statement record in its own right but may very well be the duo’s best sounding one to date.

Rimfrost get it. I mean they really, really get it. As Doc points out in his now half a point too high review (he just can’t win today), “Now for the cherry on top: like Rimfrost, this is one of the best sounding albums of the year. Every instrument is accounted for and Hravn’s vocals and solo work are as prominent here—if not more so—then they were on Rimfrost. The dynamics are so alive that you can almost climb in and walk around inside the music.” I’d go out on a limb and say this is the best sounding pure black metal release of the year full stop. It’s that good.

On a personal note: I occasionally get an email from some half-deaf, black metal weenie [Dave: Alex is a black metal weenie!] [Alex: I resemble that remark!] claiming that I have no idea what I’m talking about and that a band must compress the bejesus out of their record to appease Satan and be trv3. Uh, no they do not: Just listen to the last two Rimfrost records as a shining testament to that fact. Horns up!

The Worst

I’m not going into this record’s atrocious production job – the DR3 is so obvious it literally hurts; I’m pretty sure at this point that John Baizley of Baroness is either legally deaf or at least pretends to be. That’s not the point. No, the real tragedy here is how the industry as a whole accepted it: Between a glowing review on Pitchfork and many other notable media outlets, I think it was downright criminal to write a glowing review of Purple without critically talking about its most dubious production – even if you ultimately enjoyed it. Until the mainstream media balks at this kind of production insanity, albums like this will continue to exist and that makes me sad. Personally, I’ve given up.

Soilwork’s Verkligheten (Swedish for “sounds like shit”), is a DR4 sonic abomination. Our overlord and master himself wrote in his original review, “Worst of all, Thomas Johansson’s production is even more of an ear-slaughtering abomination than Jens Bogren’s ever was. It’s so masterfully bricked that the studio execs probably needed a new set of under-roos after they received the final product. The bass is hypothetical, the spacing sub-atomic, and the drums pummel everything into submission, to the point that tracking new kitman Bastian Thusgaard’s (Dawn of Demise) performance legitimately frustrates me at times.” Bingo. I really think AMG should have stuck to his guns on this one: I too agree that Verk is a slow burn, and has a lot to offer, but the master is still so problematic that it is very hard for me to recommend it let alone have it earn a year-end spot. And this is coming from a guy who drove two state lines to see them (read: I’m a fucking fan!). Verk is the Loudness War incarnate which is a damn shame.

God I love GardensTale and his spot-on review, “I am fully prepared to receive another tidal wave of discord from die-hard Allegaeon fans when this goes up. I anticipate remarks about mindless bashing and trying to stir up controversy. But you know what’s really controversial? Musicians of this caliber, with the backing of a label this size, handing in mediocre albums with shit production time and time again.” No argument from me. This band has consistently put out terrible sounding records and this isn’t even the first time this band has graced this side of the B&W. I said it in 2014, and I will say it again: Add a few points of dynamic range and this record would start to sound more reasonable. It really is that simple.

n Kronos’ most excellent review he writes, “Contra the previous paragraph, I’m not bitter—Death Atlas is not a bad album, but that’s entirely due to Ryan’s performance. Without that, there’s really nothing here to hang on to. The big melodies are fun but between them the songs are uninspired and lack the rhythmic grist to effectively contrast the choruses.” Look, I get that Cattle Decap’s back catalog isn’t exactly a testament to highly quality production, but I would argue that a big part of the problem Kronos is talking about above has a lot to do with Atlas’ DR4 hatchet job. For such an energetic band, their latest sounds lifeless from soup to nuts. Even if you get past the master’s hyper-compression, its mix sounds like one garbled mess. Hopefully on the next one, the band will sort out these technical issues as they still remain one of the most talented extreme metal acts today.

Ted Jensen strikes again! Why does anyone in their right mind let this guy get within a mile of their mix I will never know? Megadeth decided to remaster some of their “classics” in 2019 which included The World Needs a Hero, Endgame, The System Has Failed, and United Abominations [Alex: Dave secretly has an unhealthy relationship with this record in particular so every year I pick a random day and proceed to walk behind him and chant “Gears of War” incessantly. He loves it.] [Dave: No I do not.] So what does Ted do? What he always does: Compresses the living shit out of it until your ears bleed. As a result, these remasters sound abysmal. Look, I agree with you that the original masters aren’t pillars of production excellence, but these remasters are outright criminal and sound like utter shite. Avoid at all costs. If you must own these records (and honestly you don’t), go with the wax which many reports have seem to confirm come from less compressed masters. Oh, and repeat after me, “Gears of Wars”, “Gears of Wars”, “Gears of Wars”, “Gears of Wars”…