Top ten metal/hard rock albums of 2019

In this, the year of our Lord 2019, I never thought I would find myself typing these words, but here we go: Rammstein created one of the best music videos of 2019. Now let me back up. The German outfit has been around for so long, it is sometimes hard to remember that there was a time when bands like Rammstein and Marilyn Manson were truly terrifying to a subset of parents and teachers. It was a different time, and as the Internet changed everything we know about religion, sex, politics, and personal boundaries, bands like these began to seem less and less important to people who now had to worry about their eight-year-old kids stumbling across hardcore porn  after clicking an innocent-looking link on a Geocities Pokemon fan site. Rammstein’s music always seemed purposely engineered to spark controversy, but by the time the group was packaging dildos with their new albums, it was all a little stale. Their low-budget videos didn’t seem so much thought-provoking or subversive, as they did a bunch of people in the active process of learning that art and taboo were not actually the same thing, and that pissing people off for the sake of it was an amateur’s game.

The music was one thing: Richard Kruspe is practically incapable of not writing a massive, chugging riff, but Till Lindemann’s message got muddled, and the band’s means of expression seemed hampered by their desire to first and foremost, provoke. Inevitably, intentions backfired after right-wing groups started co-opting their music, prompting the band to spell out their left-leaning political views and politely asking Nazis to get lost. Indeed, it’s like Rammstein has been waiting 25 years for someone with a better means of communication to corral all the interesting things they had to say in a meaningful way. That someone is Specter Berlin, and on March 28, he released “Deutschland” into the world.

Like all Rammstein videos, it is dark, violent, and makes for uncomfortable viewing. But due to the careful cinematography, its beauty makes it brutally remarkable. I cannot think of a music video that better captures what it is like to live in the ruins of a crumbling empire, of what it is like to love the freedoms and opportunities your country has given you, while knowing the truth of how those freedoms and opportunities were won. While watching those freedoms and opportunities narrow for more and more people. As Lee Seymour writes, ““Deutschland” makes clear [the band’s] intention: not to exploit or glorify, but to excoriate their homeland’s history of violent nationalism.” The video is a brief historical chronology of all of Germany’s worst moments, from the Middle Ages, to the Weimar Republic, and through two World Wars and the Iron Curtain. It does not sugarcoat, condone, or hide the atrocities committed by Germans against others and their own people (there are some great YouTube videos breaking the scenes down, for all my fellow history nerds). All this, set to words almost childlike in their simplicity, expressing the difficulty of reconciling the desire to take pride in one’s country, with that same country’s dark history. Is it possible when the future doesn’t look any brighter, when over and over again, we see that these fundamental evils have never really gone away, and return to the mainstream in almost clock-like cycles? You don’t have to be German to get it, though keeping up with current events helps. We are at a point in history when inroads are being made to rectify mistakes of the past, when responsibilities are being taken, but we are also at a point when a man who supports white supremacy lives in the White House.

These are scary times indeed, and making art of it is a tricky tightrope, one that I do not think Rammstein was capable of 15 or 10 years ago. For example, even their other recent attempts have been a bit dodgy, with follow-up song and video for “Auslander” making its point, but in a clumsy, cringey way (all you need is the shot of the butterfly being meticulously cataloged, studied and then slammed between the pages of the book — that’s it. Fin.). But “Deutschland,” both the song and video, manages to capture the shallowness, the fear, the confusion, the reckoning, the impossible reconciliation, and the unfulfilled promise of progress in a brief ten minutes. That doesn’t even begin to touch upon how great the music itself works to highlight all of these beats: the rhythmic verses, the chilly delivery of the chorus, the synths that journey in and out of the music like the red lights threaded throughout the video, connecting all of history, all of one nation’s self-contained life from the womb to outer space, while weaving in the band’s personal history through nods to past lyrics and imagery. It all works together like one great whole, like all of the world itself, self-contained by one action leading to the next, from one continent to another, like ripples on the massive timeline of world history. By the time the end credits, with its funereal take on “Sonne,” begins, as we watch one last macabre montage of devastating footage, all you can do is take one deep, collective breath and sigh, as Berlin wraps up with a mournful humble-brag of somber, haunting shots. As Leonid  Bershidsky concludes, “The discussion about the video is really about what’s bubbling close to the surface here — and about the importance of awareness, and bitter irony, in keeping the lid on.”

So is Rammstein’s self-titled the best metal album of the year? Nah. It’s bogged down by a particularly slow second half, and there are definitely other albums that have a stronger track-by-track presence, such as the critic-panned Resist by Within Temptation, one of my most-played albums of the year (I think I am the only person on this planet who didn’t hate this album). There are certainly more cerebral albums, like Atlantean Kodex’s The Course of Empire, and more fun albums like the insanely cheesy and quixotic throwback-metal of Beast in Black’s From Hell with Love. There are are more technical albums like Aephanemer’s Prokopton, and darker, comfort-haunts like Idle Hands’s Mana. They all have a place on this list, a small piece of the variety and surprises that await us in metal every year (and don’t forget to check out a few more on our debut list). But to my mind, nothing beats the enormity and accomplishment of “Deutschland,” which is why it is so disappointing to me that many had already dismissed this dinosaur of a band, due in part to their less-than-graceful past, and are missing out on one of the most honest and important musical statements of 2019.

Within Temptation: Resist // Aephanemer: Prokopton

Rammstein: Rammstein // Idle Hands: Mana

Screamer: Highway of Heroes // Dayseeker: Sleeptalk

Diviner: Realms of Time // Atlantean Kodex: The Course of Empire

Beast in Black: From Hell with Love // Black Therapy: Echoes of Dying Memories

Honorable Mentions

Riot City: Burn the Night
Stormhammer: Seven Seals
Dream State: Primrose Path
Lacuna Coil: Black Anima
Gygax: High Fantasy

Midpoint of 2006: Time to play catch up

A lot of really awesome stuff has been released this year that I’ve been too lazy/busy to review. Here are some of the year’s personal highlights I missed:

Ayumi Hamasaki – (miss)understood: This CD was packed with so many songs (16) and bonus material (a large photobook and DVD filled with music videos and behind the scenes footage) it was almost ridiculous. Ridiculously awesome. However, it failed to meet my expectations, bearing a sad stamp of quantity over quality. Plus, Sweetbox ruined it. Although I will say this; “is this LOVE?” is one of the greatest B-sides ever written and probably the greatest music video of all time. Also, I applaud Ayumi for staying true to her eclectic genre distribution ratio; it’s hard to believe the rock songs “alterna” and “(miss)understood” are nestled among “fairyland,” “In The Corner,” and “Beautiful Day.” But they are. And though I don’t necessarily love those frivolous pop songs, I love their presence. In the end, I’m half and half on this album although “rainy day” almost makes up for all of that as the beat ticks to the tune of years rolling down your cheeks in it beautiful sadness. Almost.

ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION – FANCLUB: More bad than good. Between the fantastic tracks “Angou no Waltz'” and “TIGHTROPE” lays a band that has reached the point of monotone redundancy. Most of the good songs were previously released singles so the new material didn’t really hold up. If I was a teacher I would give them a C. But I’m not, so I’ll give them a hug and another chance instead.

Lacuna Coil – Karmacode: Surprisingly, I still have not gotten around to buying this CD yet, so I don’t know what it sounds like. However, I did hear “Enjoy the Silence” and as a huge Depeche Mode fan, I was surprised to find it a very well done cover song. “Enjoy the Silence” is one of those songs that is so good, you couldn’t imagine anyone ever being able to redo it on the same level, but it’s pretty damn good and about five million times better than that sad In Flames cover, although between you and me, I refuse to acknowledge its existence. That particular cover is dead to me.

T.M.Revolution – UNDER:COVER: The last time I spoke of T.M.Revolution, I spoke of his dwindling career. The last I heard of him, he was performing at nerd-tastic anime cons in the United States and sporting two tones in his longish mane of hair that oh so subtly split down the middle of his hairline. I was all set to mock this man and make fun of my previous obsession with him and his music, but god damnit, then he put out this album, which could very well be the best cover album ever produced. Anyone can cover Beatles’ songs or Bloc Party songs, but who the Hell has the balls to cover their own songs? Takanori Nishikawa, that’s who. For this album, he basically went back to the dusty archives of his discography and remade old singles and popular songs with so much energy and soul, you can’t even really tell they’re old songs they so sound so fantastically new. And delicious. Mm mmm. From the hard rock of “Joker” (this was once a pop song?) to the simple piano backing of “THUNDERBIRD,” to the rock orchestrated “Yume no Shizuka” to all the other songs on this CD, the songs grab hold of you, and by George, they will not let go. Not that you would want them to. Taka, you have made me proud to be a fan once again. I will no longer mock you for singing at the anime cons. All is forgiven.

Mindless Self Indulgence – Straight To Video: Awesome, awesome single. I already wrote somewhat of their single in a previous article devoted solely to them, but it’s worth repeating; buy this CD if only to own that Birthday Massacre masterpiece of a remix. Sure, the tune gets redundant after a while and the song is so catchy it almost hurts, but among the many remixes of the title track lays precise and deliberate melodies that without their parent tune, would still be free-roaming, brilliant arrangements. Well done, my dirty, Mindless & co.