Having an overabundance of captivating music is the best kind of problem.
Here are five standout records from 2019, although this list is by no means excluding the greatness of anything not mentioned here, and the albums aren’t ranked.
Each one of these pieces is, quite simply, an enthralling piece of musical adventure. They’re music at its finest.
Lightning Bolt – Sonic Citadel
The Providence, Rhode Island-based duo Lightning Bolt were known for their impressively intricate and intense performances long before their 2019 album Sonic Citadel dropped via Thrill Jockey Records — but the album sure does make a splash. The songs feel like a fitting entry point for the band’s powerful discography.
For the entirety of the record, the band remain absolutely frenzied, but that’s not where they stop, and their progression beyond that point of mere frenzy (although that can be great too) helps this album really stick out. They perform with the energy of the most deranged punk or noise rock band, but on Sonic Citadel, Lightning Bolt also stick to the irresistible melodies and hooks that might define the most bombastic pop group. They sound like they’re performing some of the absolute catchiest melodies at the absolute highest velocity and overall intensity possible, and that process reveals fresh new sides of the experiences of these melodies.
The mixture gets grippingly unsettling and psychedelically disorienting — and it’s great. It’s a sonic roller coaster capturing an experience of hanging on for dear life while the candy sheen of the life carnival around us starts to peel away. It’s a refreshing, exhilarating look at even falling right off the edge.
Gold – Why Aren’t You Laughing
The ambitious Dutch group Gold’s 2019 Artoffact Records release Why Aren’t You Laughing? absolutely soars with alluringly soft, intricate melodic components packed right alongside devastating guitar-driven chaos that feels like the musical equivalent of a torrential storm. The synthesis feels beautifully exemplified on the definitely standout track “Taken By Storm,” on which singer Milena Eva never lets up with her relentlessly clear performance even while her bandmates build their musical intensity into a hypnotic, wild maelstrom of pounding guitars and drums.
The jarring contrast ultimately comes together quite beautifully cohesively in the final result, in which every moment feels like it’s bursting with realized potential. The band always perform with strong emotional gravity — no matter their precise speed, the group always sounds incredibly passionate.
The experience of the melody packed into this music right in the midst of super intense, occasionally blast-beat driven musical sweeps enacts a feeling of finding some shelter from a metaphorical storm. Repeatedly, Eva’s lyrics clearly feature the real-world perspective of a woman facing the social and personal hurdles put in place by entrenched sexism, which builds an additional extra “real” feeling in the music. Eva’s lyrics are also broader at times, and the rest of Gold keep the listener guessing but enthralled throughout the whole album as they perform their range from gentle trickles into full on metaphorical dam collapses of music.
Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling
The New York City-area black metal group Yellow Eyes sound absolutely massive on their thundering 2019 album Rare Field Ceiling, which dropped via Gilead Media. Here, the group have crafted visionary black metal that feels like a brutal foray into a frigid expanse in which some harbinger of death always lurks just a few steps away.
The music is so physically devastating that it easily leaps right into psychological territory. Their sound is so thick that it’s not like they’re just showing off this vision of some apocalyptic wasteland — rather, it’s like they’ve thrown listeners out of a plane flying low to the ground through the chaos. On tracks like “No Dust,” the vocal work sounds like tortured shrieks coming through a suffocating, immersive fog, the guitars sound thick and meaty, and the drums pound out a furious march that ensures that the only way to go through this intensity is forward, no matter how painful. Each of these elements twist together in a continuously building and reshifting mixture of snaking melodies that the band deliver with such backbreaking force that they’re like slowly tightening nooses more than they’re some kind of respite from or foothold in the midst of the frigidity.
The band do wind down their sheer physical force towards the end of this album, but the psychological might remains firmly in place. Closing track “Maritime Flare” dispenses with traditional band instrumentation almost entirely. Instead, it features unsettling operatic singing, demented accordion sounds, and other similar components punctuated by occasional screams. It’s like the soundtrack to a deeply unsettling horror movie — and you’re the star.
Nuvolascura – Nuvolascura
Available via Zegema Beach Records, Dog Knights Productions, and No Funeral Records, the Los Angeles-area screamo group Nuvolascura’s self-titled full-length album very quickly proves absolutely wild. Every element of the album rolls out with absolutely blistering speed and overall intensity, and the piece feels like it picks up the listener for a ride through emotional chaos. Just like the music, the lyrics are brutal — losing loved ones to death figures prominently, among other topics. One can’t easily turn away from this album.
And it’s not just because of the absolutely unflinching looks at some of the most volatile parts of human emotion. The band found their songs on a dizzyingly intricate tapestry of riffs and drum blasts. While their force strong enough to blast out a barely metaphorical crater remains clearly and inescapably intact, the band dive into musical explorations like the cathartically intense builds of opening track “death as a crown,” on which the band careen through a tapestry of vicious, powerful riffs that build towards repeated musical releases of tension when the music lets up just a bit for a brief moment — although with Nuvolascura, there’s always more tension where the last bit came from. The band’s music feels focused on the overall process of catharsis — every song has a unique and poignant musical identity to deliver a slightly different side of the band’s subtly freeing ride through mayhem.
Olam – I Will Guide Thy Hand
With their self-released album I Will Guide Thy Hand, the Indianapolis-area group Olam have delivered an incredibly memorable, personalized-feeling journey through some of the most emotionally blistering extremes that heavy music has to offer. (It’s available on tape from Zegema Beach Records.)
They play extra raw-feeling mathcore in the sense of the heavy chaos that Converge is known for rather than something more noodly or math rock-y. Olam’s metallic hardcore sounds are spectacularly heavy, like during the beginning of “Wounds,” where the band build up torrential blast-beat onslaughts punctuated, but not stopped, by brutal breakdowns. The incredibly thick sound remains just massive –and so does the emotional outpouring.
Overall, Olam share tightly wound, intense melodic guitar and drum blasts that are absolutely relentless, while the consistently harshly screamed vocals amp up the music’s caustic side even further. Vocalist Jake Hahn passionately screams through stories of violent interpersonal devastation, and the whole album culminates in the still stunningly epic title track, which closes the record. That more than seven minute long song builds and builds before the accumulated force from the devastating riffing culminates in a psychologically surreal sense of cracking through a web of chaos with the (slightly) slowed down, epic sweeps.