Neil Ainger selects his top 15 albums of 2018!
#15 Judas Priest – Firepower
I would never have imagined that this would make it on to any end of year list, nevermind my own. Why should it? Why should the 18th studio album from a band formed in 1970 have any place on an end of year list in 2018? I would expect it from only the laziest of reviewers.
I heard the rumblings before I experienced them for myself. I heard the talk of the new Judas Priest record and how good it was. I was recommended it once or twice. I didn’t particularly take much notice. I mean, by ‘good’ they mean it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be or it was acceptable for an 18th run around the block. I had no reason to believe otherwise.
Firepower was unexpected and unprecedented. There is a passion and a fire in Rob Halford’s voice that has no business still being there but it is oh so impressive that it is. The impact really is immediate and the title track is fresh, it’s exciting and it’s invigorating.
There’s not a lot that even needs to be said about this record. If you know Priest then you know what it sounds like and if you don’t then I’d say that ship has long sailed. However please do not underestimate this record. Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkners guitars sound slick and untamed, Halford’s vocals are as potent as they have ever been and I say with a completely straight face that Firepower stands shoulder to shoulder with any and every album Judas Priest have ever recorded.
#14 Winterfylleth – The Hallowing of Heirdom
While it is most certainly a significant departure, UK black metal heavyweights Winterfylleths sidestep into acoustic folk also doesn’t feel like much of a surprise.
The Manchester band have always incorporated folk elements into their atmospheric and melodic brand of black metal and, with the release of the debut album from guitarist Dan Capps folk project Wolcensmen in 2016, this was perhaps the next logical step.
The transition is just seamless. The acoustic guitars are crisp and clean, the strings are heart-wrenching and divine and the moody, chanting vocals cloak everything in a surreal and warm glow. I can speak from experience when I tell you that there is no better companion than this album full of songs about English folklore for travelling through this beautiful country with the landscape falling past the window.
#13 Conjurer – Mire
“Brady Deeprose (guitars/vocals) has been quoted as saying, of their approach to making the record “Once you start thinking about songwriting in terms of genre, you’re automatically setting up barriers between parts” and this outlook is really laid bare. The band visit death, doom, sludge, black and beyond while some post-rock-style sections blend the frequent and abrupt mood swings of the record together seamlessly. At times the resulting sonic assault sparkles in an atmospheric glow, while always being destined to viscously return to depths of misanthropic bleakness and Converge-like violence.
Believe the acclaim and embrace the hype because Conjurer have created a debut album way beyond their years and the scary thing is that this band is only going to grow stronger with every show they play, and unless they show any signs of slowing down then the sky could really be the limit in the coming months and years.”
#12 – Geomancer – Khatt Al-Raml
“The Geordie doom trio does not exactly shatter genre limitations entirely nor provide the most diversified and complex record you are likely to ever hear, but they do refuse to be labelled easily or at least accurately without doing them something of a disservice. Plenty of fans of stoner rock, post-rock, doom and sludge will find more than enough to hold their interest here and if we can put genres and labels to one side for a moment, hopefully most of them will be able to agree on one thing, and that is that with a debut album such as this, Geomancer may just be a band worthy of paying close attention to in the coming months and years.”
#11 Desert Storm – Sentinels
“The growth in the band can be measured mostly by the track Kingdom of Horns. Beginning delicately with clean, ethereal vocals, the near 8 minutes that follow are an epic, melodic journey to every corner of the band’s musical make-up and back again, a journey the likes of which Desert Storm has never truly taken before.
Sentinels is the bands most accomplished, most skilled and, simply put, best record to date.”
#10 Weedpecker – III
Polish band Weedpecker may, on the surface, appear to be a predictable outfit but in reality, their third album has proven to have depths that may be somewhat unexpected.
III is a space-rock record with laid-back and ethereal vocals that support some long psychedelic jams. Where the five tracks excel is in their patience and the space they are afforded in which to organically grow and expand. With such freedom to roam the band are able to expand, experiment and build. Every eruption of hazy, colourful, psychedelic fury is all the more impactful for its otherwise tempered pace that sets this band aside from some of stoner rocks more predictable and recyclable artists.
#9 Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It
Never a band to provide the expected or the straightforward, Rolo Tomassi have hopped between genres for over ten years now to the point where you never quite know what they have up their sleeves for their next outing. With their fifth full-length album, they have perhaps offered up their finest yet.
Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It begins with restful, uncomplicated melody. The vocals of Eva Spence are tender and warm. For those not familiar with the band’s history, all signs point to a lush, affectionate and toothless foray into some kind of dream-pop-tingled college rock record. By the third track, Rituals, however, the teeth are certainly baring with a guttural scream and a mathy, technical and ferocious clash of drums and guitars.
For the 53 minute duration, the album battles contrasting styles and takes unexpected and confusing turns through math-rock, prog-rock, hardcore, post-metal and punk and always finds a way to bring any violent momentum to a sudden halt as well as jolt an instrumental section back to life without a moments notice. Rolo Tomassi make gutsy and brave decisions and have the ability to ensure that every single one of them pays off.
#8 Midas Fall – Evaporate
Sometimes it takes a little while for a band to really find their feet and that’s how I feel about Edinburgh’s Midas Fall. There doesn’t need to be anything amiss with a bands output, it just takes that one record to exceed all expectations and make you realise what they were capable of all along. The bands 4th full-length record Evaporate makes such a statement and dropped with a rippling boom in April.
With its roots in ethereal post-rock and a backbone of synths-and-piano-laden progressive rock, Elizabeth Heaton’s voice is beautifully strewn amongst a delicate and graceful tide of elegant melodies and, at times, softly swirling guitars, that can lie dormant and peaceful whilst always feeling dangerously at risk of violently crashing ashore – yet never quite doing so.
#7 Floex and Tom Hodge – A Portrait of John Doe
There are collaborations that are driven by demand, others as a result of a lack of individual potency. Floex (a.k.a Tomáš Dvořák) and Tom Hodge however, are a partnership seemingly made in heaven and the result is a focused and effectual project that was three years in the making.
The piano-driven, inventive, glitchy electronic ambience is beautifully arranged with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and transformed into an avante-garde, orchestral, modern-classical crossover on a huge, soaring scale.
Very ambitious a project it may be but when crafted over time with such obvious care and consideration, A Portrait of John Doe is an endearing and hopeful record full of beautiful arrangements and compelling positivity.
#6 Jo Quail – Exsolve
Oh, Jo Quail. Do the words really exist to accurately describe her ingenuity? After witnessing her astonishing support set for Mono earlier in the year, I sat down to absorb her latest triumph, Exsolve.
Armed with a heavy-duty electric cello and an array of pedals, watching her loop and layer melodies and harmonies into gradually ascending, grander compositions is nothing short of transfixing and with her fifth album she has truly outdone herself.
Assisted with guest performances from guitarists Nik Sampson and Dan Capp as well as vocalist Lucie Dehli, Exsolve is possibly her most left-field and inventive work to date. Classically trained but anything but conventional, Jo explores epic, symphonic pomp with as much ease and expertise as minimal, downtrodden, depressive industrial and post-metal. This is a record that is perfectly accessible while being so intricate and demanding of close attention as to be extremely difficult to completely and appropriately absorb every vital and stunning moment.
#5 Khemmis – Desolation
Denver doom quartet Khemmis followed up 2016s Hunted in June with the aptly titled Desolation. While Hunted and its predecessor Absolution could arguably be more neatly filed away as doom metal, Desolation is not quite so easy to categorise. It is, at its core, still a riff-heavy traditional doom album but the band definitely take more of a shift toward conventional heavy metal.
Dominated by crisp and clean emotional vocals, chugging, thunderous riffs and plenty of guitar solo’s the band channel the energy and flamboyance of NWOBHM-era bands while injecting blackened moments of aggressive growls and bleakness.
While certainly taking risks musically, Khemmis have managed to find a comfortable balance where Desolation seems to stay true enough to their two previous releases that garnered so much attention so as not to alienate, yet took enough strides forward as to keep things interesting.
#4 Bast – Nanoångström
2014s debut record, Spectres, from Londoners Bast, was a shot of adrenaline. It’s meaty, ugly doom/sludge was fresh and inventive and it was a record that really stood out that year. After a long four-year wait, during which time they would head out on the road with some of the genres big hitters such as Conan and Pallbearer, Bast returned with Nanoångström and in doing so became a heavyweight of the genre in their own right.
The record is divided into six chapters of long and experimental works that dance expertly between genres, from brooding doom, to fierce sludge, to atmospheric black metal. Never becoming tired or lazy, each sudden and explosive shift in direction and tempo feels essential and pivotal. The instrumentation, which is the albums greatest strength, is gleaming and shimmering and backs up every move it makes, no matter how optimistic or unexpected.
#3 Grave Lines – Fed Into the Nihilist Engine
“The record is sludge metal on a grander, Amenra-style scale. It is intelligent doom metal that is measured and never repetitive. It is dark neo-folk that probes at the most dismal of human emotions. It is bleak and misanthropic, it is cloaked in misery and yet it allows for brief but frequent moments of gleaming light. There can be beauty in darkness too, if you choose to look for it.”
#2 Earthless – Black Heaven
“This is a very different Earthless and the changes are very welcome.
It certainly isn’t a case of out with the old and in with the new. Earthless, at their core, remain a tripped-out space rock band and Mitchell still wields his guitar with a swirling, abstract ferocity, however Black Heaven more clearly embraces a number of “classic” and blues rock influences and a more conventional approach with defined and organised choruses and verses.”
#1 Jon Hopkins – Singularity
Enclosed in complete darkness, curtains drawn, alone and eyes closed I have pushed play on an album time and time again since its release and immediately felt at ease. From the very first beats of Singularity, time has seemingly slowed to the crawl of a much more manageable pace. I have been able to feel tension leaving my body and fears dissipate. It is a powerful sensation and something I experience less frequently as I age. That unique, emotional connection that I can make only to music. Music can make us happy, it can make us sad, it can inspire and motivate. It can heal and repair. It is the latter that has tied me to this record this year, as if I were desperately clinging to it like a life raft until the storm can be weathered. It is not just a record I have become a fan of but one I have depended on during the most stressful and traumatic year of my life.
From his humble beginnings playing keys for Imogen Heap in 1998, collaborating with Brian Eno and touring the world with Coldplay, Jon Hopkins journey to this, his fifth solo record, has been one of twists and turns. When it seemed as though his career as a solo artist may never truly get off the ground, Hopkins could have easily found himself earning a solid living as a producer. This could have even proven to be a fruitful path to take. Those first beats of Singularity therefore are an immediate relief.
Hopkins makes very grounding and human music, taking sharp turns from energetic techno and percussive IDM to joyful, gentle piano music. The lead single from the record, Emerald Rush, is a euphoric and sparkling floor-filler. Neon Pattern Drum is driven by ferocious, glitchy beats. The real beauty in Singularity however, is it’s rapid ascension followed by it’s gradual and steady decline into a minimal and transfixing state of beautiful solo piano, as contained in the unwinding Echo Dissolve and the perfectly tempered Recovery which plays out the record. This is a record that does not simply end but slowly winds down to a complete halt and, for me, the journey is one of tranquillity that is worth the ride time and time again.