09 January 2020

Top 10 UK Underground Albums of 2019

2019 was another great year for music releases. We’ve all got down with the new Slipknot, Baroness, King Gizzard and Tool albums. But what about those albums that have slipped under the radar? In my spare time I love to go to as many gigs as I possibly can without bankrupting myself or losing a place at my job/university, and consequently I often find myself in a dark, beer-stained room watching a band who I’ve never heard of absolutely tear the place down. It is here that I want to give a shoutout to the lesser known bands in Britain at the moment. This isn’t an exhaustive list of the absolute finest of the underground rock or metal albums released in Britain over 2019. It would be a near-impossible task to hear absolutely everything going out there. I’m sure your band, or your mate’s band, or your dad’s work colleague’s nephew’s neighbour’s band has released a stormer that I just haven’t heard. These are just the ones that I have been enjoying. I’m using a loose definition of ‘underground’, as well. If they’re a household name, or at least a band that most people at your local rock pub would have heard of, they’ll be excluded for this particular list. I’m also restricting this list to EPs at the minimum. There were some fantastic singles released by my friends in Netherhall, The Ominous and Insurgent, but they won’t be in this list. So, which underground albums or EPs have stood out in the final year of the last decade?

 

Alunah – Violet Hour

Psychedelic doomers Alunah are no strangers to the scene, already on their fifth album. Yet on Violet Hour, they sound completely reinvigorated. With two (relatively) new additions to the cult, Alunah seem to have rediscovered and redefined their stride. Dean Ashton’s lead guitar work is tasteful and slots into the band’s sound perfectly – just as frontwoman Sian’s haunting yet ethereal singing is the ideal match for Alunah. In an interview I conducted earlier in 2019, Sian said that her lyrics would be darker and emotionally heavier than on previous Alunah records, and they carry a true weight and power to them. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, so to speak. Opening track ‘Trapped and Bound’ is a real headbanger and gets the energy flowing from the first second. The album closes poignantly and hair-raisingly on the atmospheric, 60s-style ‘Lake of Fire’. It’s uplifting, and a fitting finale. I find the second half of the record to really show off just how good Alunah are. ‘Unholy Disease’ is a personal favourite of mine, with seductive, bluesy verses that juxtapose against a chilling, anthemic chorus. The pace then picks up at the end, defying the listener to not nod along with a grin on their face. Throughout this album, each member shows a mastery of serving the song, not themselves, while still performing tightly, convincingly and with flair. Top stuff.

Ashen Crown – Obsolescence

Ashen Crown’s long-awaited debut finally dropped in November, and it’s a treat from start to finish. The record kicks off with an ominous rainfall and a tolling bell. When the song truly arrives it comes in like a kick to the teeth. Vocalist Kieran Scott’s powerful, guttural vocals suit the mood perfectly. The tempos are high for ‘Ultimatum’ and ‘Fall of Thine Eyes’, but the drum work from Mike is precise and keeps the songs in control. ‘Crimson Sea’ is my personal highlight, with its infectious breakdowns and blistering twin guitars. A moody, clean guitar-led mid section provides the track with light and shade – right before a beautiful, emotional guitar solo and a breakdown that will surely snap a few necks in the arena. Ashen Crown don’t use chuggy breakdowns formulaically in the way that out-of-fashion metalcore acts do. Rather, the riffs channel Lamb of God back in their golden era. They really add to the song when used and simply show off that Ashen Crown are truly a band with wide-ranging influences. ‘Blood Beneath Us’ even has a guest opera singer to really drive the atmosphere home, adding more contrast, this time from the filthy, sludgy riffs and the disgustingly doomy intro. Ashen Crown have already played at Bloodstock Festival and are regulars on the underground circuit – God only knows what’s round the corner for them.

Creature – Hound

Birmingham-based hardcore mob Creature embarked on a triumphant headline tour in support of the Hound EP, and upon listening, it’s immediately clear why they’re cultivating a committed following. Hound attacks the listener’s ear like a pack of rabid, well, hounds. ‘Cold Man’s World’ kicks off the EP, and it’s unbelievably frantic and chaotic, without losing control or precision. ‘Black Dog’ is more melodic, for the most part, before a dissonant breakdown section sets the listener’s body in motion. ‘Lifeless’ ups the energy levels again, with more typically hardcore stylistics, before ‘Fool’s Curse’ jumps in like an untamed animal. A section allows the bass guitar to shine, before the intensity ramps up again. The EP ends in a pure, brutal frenzy, leaving the listener wanting more. Tom Bradshaw’s drumming is commendable, expertly navigating through stop-start dynamics, tempo changes and jolty rhythms. The passionate vocals also stand out, ranging from hardcore screams to a few touches of clean singing. Creature will undoubtedly be stylistically compared to Converge, but this is no insult. All bands have their influences, but Creature already have their own sound, made up of multiple textures. It comes, then, as a surprise that the band are still very much in their infancy. The songwriting ability is on point and the band sound extremely tight on record. Hardcore fans – you must keep an eye out on this band.

Dying Coast – From the Ashes

Stoke-based metalcore sextet Dying Coast returned in 2019 with a new lineup, a new EP and a new fire in their bellies. Opener ‘Destiny’ channels old school Bullet For My Valentine with its riffing, and Brad Arblaster, a new addition to the band, shows great restraint and control throughout. ‘Breaker’ is the strongest song on the album, with tight guitar leads and euphoric key changes. Dying Coast is a band made up of several smaller partnerships, from the impressive six string attack of Zsolt and Alex, to the tight rhythm section. Yet the twin vocal attack from James and Bruce is one of the most effective and novel things about this band, adding a touch more contrast that otherwise wouldn’t be there. In every song, Dying Coast switch up seamlessly from Parkway Drive-esque breakdowns, heavy rock-style beats and tightly controlled uptempo sections. They have a bit of everything, and do it very well. ‘From the Ashes’ is another highlight. It’s catchy, with a cleanly sung section that will surely get the masses singing along back at their shows, and has an irresistible groove to nod along to. Dying Coast are obviously a band with lots of ambition, and only seem to be on the upwards incline at the moment, with shows already lined up for 2020.

The Grand Mal – The Grand Mal

This Oxford stoner rock four piece, half of which have cut their teeth in Desert Storm, the other half in Mother Corona, released their first album in October. It’s downtuned, sexy and heavy. Vocalist Dave-O is almost like a British Josh Homme, but with more of a bite than a croon, and his snarl fits the music perfectly. The groovy opening song ‘Explode’ shows straight away what the band are capable of, with some lovely bass fills that push the instrument to the front of the mix, with well-placed effects for good measure. Ryan Cole’s guitar work is similar to that in Desert Storm, with his unmistakable downtuned approach, but the riffs are very much The Grand Mal’s own. ‘Synapse Transmission’ is my favourite song on the album. It’s easy to fall into a trance, nodding along to it, but the band manage to sneak in a few left-of-field changes in time signature and keep it all interesting. Basically, the record just plain rocks. It’s clever, but not pretentious. It’s smooth, but still dangerous. ‘Glitch’ has an unsettling punk energy, whereas the finale ‘Significant’ is driven by pianos and acoustic guitars, that builds up over the course of eight minutes. If you like low, raucous bluesy numbers with an undeniable level of songcrafting, you could do worse things with your day than to listen to The Grand Mal.

Opium Lord – Vore

You’ve probably guessed from the album title and band name that this isn’t easy listening. Put the album on, and dissonant guitars build up the atmosphere immediately. Nathan Coyle’s tortured vocals enter the mix, and it’s downright unsettling. The guitars turn more blackened and frantic, the beat drops out. Only three minutes have passed by this point, but the scene is already set. ‘Lead Magnet’ is more conventional, with filthy sludge grooves rather than an ominous wall of sound, but even darker, if we’re being honest. You get the idea. Opium Lord give the listener a foreboding, relentless sense of emptiness, despair and nihilism throughout the album, but delivered with razor-sharp precision where all bandmembers are allowed to shine. There is melody on this album, but brought across with an intense bleakness. ‘Columbia’ is a highlight, with a new element of light and shade introduced with a guest appearance from Yob’s Mike Scheidt on vocals, which are admittedly no less tormented. The guitars alternate effectively between crushing sludge/doom riffs and atmospheric post-metal sections, with the contrast serving to allow each different soundscape to hit home harder. The gloom is real, not least with Coyle’s lyrics about the turbulent political climate. I’ve used a lot of grim, miserable words in this piece, but Vore is absolutely brilliant. A masterclass in blackened sludge.

Pijn and Conjurer – Curse These Metal Hands

Curse These Metal Hands, a project formed between Conjurer’s two frontmen/guitarists and Pijn, is a brilliant release that kind of sounds like both bands, kind of sounds like neither of them, kind of sounds like its own thing. Interestingly for a record so deeply sonically rooted in sludge metal, CTMH does not shy away from happy-sounding major keys, providing a wide colour palette for the listener. There are, of course, crushing blackened sections and mind-bending progressivism. Just try and count the first riff to ‘The Pall’. 4/4? 6/8? No chance. With three guitars, there is ample opportunity for some beautiful, soaring twin-guitar leads that are akin to Thin Lizzy or Iron Maiden, yet updated for fans of Torche and Mastodon looking for something more extreme. The vocal performances are also very strong. Dan and Brady bring their haunting dual screams from Conjurer, but with an added layer of clean vocals that are largely absent from their heavier main project. Contemporary singers can often fall into the pop-punk trap of sounding a little too whiny and nasally, particularly over major key sections, but this is deftly eluded on CTMH. Over the summer, some Conjurer fans shared memes comparing CTMH to a superior Baroness. Without taking anything away from the Georgian legends, the respect is deserved. Hopefully this isn’t a one-off thing.

Piston – Piston

It was a busy 2019 for Piston, supporting the likes of The Cult, Glenn Hughes and Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons. Oh, and they released a festive cover of Slade’s ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’, too. But first and foremost, the Cannock rockers have planted themselves firmly on the map with the release of their debut album. The songs are all wild and carefree, with tasteful lead guitar parts throughout and a satisfying balance of tight restraint and animated explosion on the drums. Lead single ‘Rainmaker’ is infectious, with its unapologetic AC/DC worship and memorable chorus. Many of the songs are no-nonsense, old school rock and roll, but ‘Carry Us Home’ offers a welcome change of pace in the middle of the record, with a country vibe and a vocal delivery as if frontman Rob were telling a tale by a dusty campfire. One of the things I really like about this record is that the band don’t rely on one or two key signatures with the music, but employ a range of them. It adds necessary colour and contrast to what is, for the most part, a groovy, no-frills, hard rocking album free of pretension. I have no doubt that by the next time Piston release a record, there will be no need to include them on any kind of list for the lesser known rock acts. The sky’s the limit for these boys.

Shot Down Zed – III

I first saw Coventry blues rockers Shot Down Zed supporting legendary bassist Nick Oliveri on his acoustic tour a few years ago. In September, they finally made a string of EPs available on streaming platforms. It is the third EP that stands out the most. All the songs are distinctly memorable and reek of good, old fashioned bluesy hard rock with a grungy feel to them. The defiant opener ‘You Won’t Take Me Down’ has a main riff that sounds like it could have been the theme for ‘Friends’ in a parallel universe. ‘Good To Be Bad’ utilises guitarist Lewis Concannon’s pedalboard, before building up into a ripping, shredding solo. All four musicians are allowed room to shine on all their instruments/voices, and are doubtlessly all individually talented, yet still gel as a band should. ‘Dead Stare Death Rattle’ is a clear highlight, with its bluesy, layered main riff and infectiously grungy verses and drum solos from Dom McAvera. My favourite lyrics of the record are on this one, with ‘How do you like a role reversal? Baby, life is not a dress rehearsal, we all know sex sells, and I’m buying if the truth be told’. The bouncy ‘Badlands’ ends the album on a high. It builds up to a lively section where bassist Nick shows an impressive slap technique and the band almost – almost – sound like they’re about to spin out of control. Badlands? Badass.

Tumanduumband – Cursed With Blackened Tongues

Stourbridge horror doomers Tumanduumband (as in, two man doom band) released a couple of EPs in 2019. Although both are strong releases, the latter one edges it for me. Drenched in fuzz and horror samples, the riffs are catchy and the atmosphere is menacing. The first thing you’ll notice about the record is the lack of vocals (except in the Satanic samples) and the fact only a bass guitar and drums are present on the recording. It takes real mastery of songwriting and bleak atmospherics to carry this for a whole release, but by their second outing, Tumanduumband hit the nail on the head. My favourite track is ‘Thou Shall Burn’, which starts off with a clean, calm bassline from Scott, before the distortion pedals are hit, the cymbals are smashed and the riff goes into a lower register. By the time the song explodes, it suddenly sounds a bit like Sleep, if they’d been cast into an old-school horror movie. The tune even builds up into a particularly menacing section that could have been a forgotten riff from Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone. ‘Drowned in Acid’ is a lot more experimental, but keeps it fresh with its unconventional structure and chilling vibe. Who’d have thought you could do so much with a pedalboard and a worship of all things macabre?

 

That’s our ten, then. What do you think? Have you heard any of these yourself? Being based in the West Midlands myself, it’s true that most of these bands are from the same neck of the woods. I’ve done my best to include a range, from upbeat blues rock to the darkest death metal, but you’ve probably worked out I’ve got the biggest penchant for downtuned, sludgy, post-Iommian riffs. Which bands in your area that no-one’s heard of (yet) have been killing it? Which releases are in your top ten for your preferred genre? Let us know. The music scene is a difficult graft and mustn’t be taken for granted, and if we don’t support smaller bands, it’ll simply die out. As Bon Scott put it, it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.

Thanks for reading.