Max Heilman’s Top 50 albums of 2018: 30-21

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Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer

Janelle Monae

So, you made it to part three! I think these 10 albums might be the most eclectic installment of this series, paring technical death metal with sci-fi neo-soul. It just goes to show how good 2018 has been for music in general, regardless of what type of music you fancy. Start with part one and part two, then dive right in.

30. Inferi – The Revenant
While bands like Infant Annihilator and Rings of Saturn make technical death metal into a meme, Inferi reintroduces believable performances to the approach. The Revenant is still blindingly fast and ridiculously acrobatic, but the album never feels overproduced. From double kick drum rolls and monstrous screams to rapid-fire melodies, these songs sound sound like real people played them.

There’s a bit of the symphonic bombast akin to Fleshgod Apocalypse, but these guys recall seminal acts like Malevolent Creation or Spawn of Possession with their focus on, well, the songs! The riffs are challenging, but they’re still riffs. The solos shred, but they’re not insane. The epic multilayered melodies of “Condemned Assailant” and the baroque harpsichord intro of “Enraged and Drowning Sullen” exemplify how Inferi incorporates classical musicality into its brutal assault. But Inferi always circles back to memorable passages instead of befuddling barrages of notes.

29. Serpentwithfeet – Soil

I discovered this artist by covering him in a Tuesday Tracks column, and became very intrigued by his sound. Josiah Wise’s full-length debut essentially does to gospel music what Arka does to pop music. His vocal chops certainly recall the church music virtuosos, but he effectively contextualizes this approach to a visceral, orchestrated story of liberation and indulgence.

Wise’s training is evident as contemporary classical music and abstract hip-hop find common ground over his quivering trills and passionate delivery. Falsetto jumps and choral arrangements recall an old world charm, but the sultry woodwind modulations of cuts like “Cherubim” and “Messy” essentially borrow from Wise’s religious upbringing as means of embracing his identity and desires. In doing so, he’s well on his way to becoming one of the more unique songwriters in the game.

28. Soft Kill – Savior

Portland’s Soft Kill has inexplicably found a home on Profound Lore Records, more of an extreme metal label, playing post-punk. Where many post-punk revivalists tended to focus on accessibility for mainstream crossover appeal, Soft Kill revels in the meat-and-potatoes of its style. Savior leaves trendy production and becomes an exercise in vigorous arrangements. Tracks like “Trying Not to Die” and “Missing” have the reverb-soaked guitars, melodic bass lines and less-is-more drumming one could expect from this genre, but there’s distinction to be found even in these two tracks. From the energetic drums and intuitive guitar riffs to frontman Tobias Sinclair’s eccentric baritone, Savior transcends Joy Division worship without resorting to overblown synth.

27. Denzel Curry – TA13OO

This Miami MC’s third album dispels any notion that he’s underrated, firmly establishing him as a lyrical artists in a genre overcrowded with prescription pill-addicted cloud rappers. From the melodic grand opener “TABOO l TA13OO,” it’s clear that TA13OO has much more up its sleeve than lackluster triplet bars.

The album’s concept, while not quite fleshed out enough to fully merit its triple-album format, is a potent one for the current state of the rap game. Cuts like “Clout Cobain” shed light on the frivolous, and sometimes fatal pursuit of internet celebrity status. This isn’t to say TA13OO isn’t chock-full of absolute bangers. If “Sumo I Zumo” or “Vengeance I Vengeance” don’t make you want to flip over cars, turn up the volume. His flows are well-crafted, exhilarating and ultimately, thoughtful. TA13OO is a smart trap album made by an artist who looks beyond the bass-boosts and rattling hi-hats.

26. Bliss Signal – Bliss Signal

If anyone were to bind the worlds of intelligent dance music, shoegaze and black metal, it would be James Kelly of Altar of Plagues and Mumdance’s Jack Adams. The former came from black metal to electronic music, while the latter had the opposite transition. The middle ground they reach is truly astounding, mostly because it somehow works very well.

Granted, combining metal and techno isn’t anything new, but what Bliss Signal accomplish with this debut record transcends the genre-meld trope and becomes something entirely its own. Shrill tremolo-picked guitars and fast-paced beats combine with experimental house beats and waves of synthetic noise so seamlessly that it’s hard to discern where one influence ends and the other begins. This album reflects the extensive background these two musicians have with black metal and experimental electronica.

25. J.O.Y – No Light Below

If “blackened hardcore” doesn’t ring a bell for you, make sure you make this North Carolina quartet your first experience with the genre. No Light Below pours the best elements of chaotic metallic hardcore and raw black metal into a blast of violence and pessimism.

The style of hardcore these guys gravitate toward is the power-violence sphere of hardcore, which means breakneck tempo shifts, frenetic rhythms and grinding rage. Add some Darkthrone-inspired tremolo riffs and blast beats, and a genre-defining experience ensues. “Exist without” embodies how naturally the band can transition from pounding two-step riffs to frigid minor-key melodies, but J.O.Y’s evident creativity crops up a multitude of feels—even an acoustic folk conclusion!

24. Sophie – Oil of Every Pearls Un-Inside
Scottish producer Sophie should be mentioned alongside Bjork, Kirin J Callinan and Arca as a true avant-garde artist of the future. She’s not at all concerned with any preconceived notions of how electronic music should sound. The album might be downright bizarre at times, but there’s a definite method and a tangible human element to the madness.

“It’s Okay to Cry” starts the album accessibly enough with glitzy keyboards, catchy melodies and a relatable theme of freely releasing emotion, but the rest of it is gleefully abnormal. Sophie hurls harsh synth blasts like lethal javelins, connecting more glitch and industrial music than anything remotely pop. The contorted beats of “Ponyboy” and “Not Okay” seem purposely uncomfortable. Even the more hook-centric cuts like “Infatuation” and “Is It Cold in the Water?” feed the foundations of electro-pop music through a filter of surreal samples and bipolar dynamics. Enjoy Oil of Every Pearls Un-Inside for its challenging aura today, and wait for history to vindicate it.

23. Altar of Perversion – Intra Naos

After 12 years of silence, Italy’s most respected black metal band has returned with almost two hours of elegant, meticulous magnum opus. Band leader Emiliano Nannei recalls the sheer magnitude of the long-awaited sophomore album almost causing its downfall, but the results are well worth the wait.

In spite of its length, Intra Naos is incredibly engaging. With production as other-worldly as it is grounded, Altar of Perversion recalls the classic black metal with shrill chords, tumbling rhythms and bass used almost exclusively for harmony. Record Label The Ajna Offensive described Intra Naos as “timeless black metal as it was understood from it’s nascent core.” Honestly, that’s a bit of an understatement. This is literally a triple LP of nothing but true, inexorable black metal. It’s a bit much for one listen, but fans of the genre may as well make Intra Naos the soundtrack to their whole day.

22. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

I remember hearing “Django Jane” in a record shop and thinking, “dang, this is groovy.” I went home and listened to all of Janelle Monáe’s third album, Dirty Computer, and came away feeling the same way—along with much more. It’s an empowering, well-conceived album with a thought-provoking concept centered around Monáe taking ownership of her personhood and sexuality.

Dirty Computer still has the sci-fi-tinged neo-soul and progressive R&B flavors, but it spotlights Monáe’s pop appeal without losing her forward-thinking chops. The glitzy synth chords and electro-funk beat of “Crazy, Classic, Life” find their footing in sexy playfulness, yet the song’s basis in the unalienable right to pursue happiness. This contrast between depth and enjoyability is the album’s biggest success. Where there’s sticky hooks, there’s also complex flows. Where there’s contemporary trap production, there’s also futuristic synths and ‘80s pop. The songs work as catchy pop bangers, but looking past the surface reveals a fleshed-out worldview of feminist idealism. Dirty Computer almost begs for the “emotion picture” Monáe released in tandem with it. It’s simply too expansive and multifaceted to not give audio-visual treatment.

21. Thou – Magus

Louisiana sludge metal anarchists Thou own up to their slow evolution, which should come as no surprise considering their brand of lumbering doom. Magus doesn’t reinvent the wheel for the band, but it does its ultra-heavy sound the most justice in terms of heaviness, songwriting and lyrical profundity.

At more than an hour long, Magus is Thou doing what it does best. Thou has never been just about crushing eardrums, always leaving room for chord variation and tasteful syncopations within the chunky distortion. The band’s time-tested chemistry allows its forlorn melodies, skull-bashing riffs and grungy songwriting become absolutely seismic in its consuming weight. There’s definitely more at play here than on any other Thou release, but fleeting ventures into gothic neo-folk and noisy black metal pale in comparison to the band’s majestic volume worship. More than refining a recognized sound, Magus lives up to its name by taking the band’s worldview to its logical conclusion.

Thou has always supplemented its compelling music with thought-provoking, albeit dark and cynical themes. But Magus carries on where its predecessors’ nihilism left off. “Transcending Dualities” functions as a rallying cry for those pushing back against gender binaries and sexual constraints, but really the album calls listeners to extract truth from themselves. Where most metal and punk acts simply shout at the world for its injustices, Thou uses that anger to motivate a life-affirming catharsis. Magus introduces some pleasing textures to Thou’s uncompromising sound, becoming a vessel for the band’s unwavering progressive mentality.

Continued.

Follow editor Max Heilman at Twitter.com/madmaxx1995 and Instagram.com/maxlikessound.

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