Written by: Dave Cantrell
Some years make it hard, some years make it harder still, and then some years make it damned near impossible. Consider it, perhaps, a predictable response to the encroaching darkness toward which this world has seemed to be pulled this year, but whether it’s something as dramatically prosaic as that or simply the long-building resurgent wave reaching what seems a permanent crest, the crop of new releases this year has borne such a throng that the task of winnowing it down to even ‘just’ twenty-five has proven painful for both Victor and me here at the SEM post-punk desk. But, it is what you pay us – or, anyway, pay attention to us – for, so collectively we grit our teeth, sharpen our wits and steel our resolve to bring you our final decision. In the end, for all concerned, being forced to reduce an untameable torrent to the reader-friendly, navigable amount you find here – we could have tripled the list and still felt we were leaving a few out (hence the honorable mentions) – is a seriously wonderful problem to have. Such an embarrassment of dark riches. Lucky us. [How lucky? Be sure to check out the sprawling list of honorable mentions at the end, some – Soft Moon, Bambara, Idles et al – ending up there primarily due to their ‘massive enough’ status, others – Way Out, Blood Blush – because of their ’18 releases being EPs. The rest? Well, again, what a year].
1. (tie) ACTORS It Will Come To You [Artoffact] & KILL SHELTER Damage [Unknown Pleasures]
So, yeah, a delicious dilemma popped up straightaway. It seemed rather clear to us that one of these would top our list – they both blew out of their respective gates with such a beautifully contained fury and purpose – so we did what all self-respecting fans/journalists having been doing since time eternal: copped out! But truly, if ever there was an instance where such an editorial dodge would be called for it was here. One’s a classic band project, the other an almost decadent feast of collaboration, both were mind-blowingly present. Oh, and did we mention? Both are debut full-lengths!
3. BUZZ KULL A New Kind of Cross [Funeral Party]
Marc Dwyer of Sydney, operating as the craftily-named Buzz Kull (it’s the assonance that’ll get you every time), creates a harrowing darkwave with an EBM taste to its groove and an assault of hooks at every turn. Add to that a persistently enigmatic style aesthetic to the cover design and you get a nearly incomparable full package. None of which would mean much more than a hollow promise if the tunes weren’t there, and oh my, are they there.
4. TRAITRS Butcher’s Coin [Manic Depression]
From Toronto, on their third album in as many years and though their previous two could easily land in this list if released in 2018, we nonetheless suggest that Butcher’s Coin vaults them beyond what were already high expectations. Yearning and intense, bleeding compassion and desperation in equal volume, it’s simply a stunner. What other word for it?
5. SOFT KILL Savior [Profound Lore]
Well, here, we’re just going to cheat and direct you to our review of Savior. Otherwise we’d likely be driven to pretty much repeat everything said there, as this album merits the repeating of every superlative thrown at it upon its release. Soaked in personal pain that, at the time, knew but the palest shadow of possible redemption down the road, it is almost certainly the most emotionally powerful record not only on this year-end round-up but arguably in any genre these past twelve months. Blew us away.
6. ASH CODE Perspektive [Swiss Dark Nights]
Italian trio that formed in 2013 and immediately set to work with what seems a laser-focused sense of purpose, producing between then and now three remarkably good LPs and numerous singles/EPs to fill the spaces. Fierce, concise, synth-industrial when they want to be, unswervingly melodic, they continued their rise to eventual world domination with this year’s wonderfully unrelenting Perspektive album. Stopped us mid-stride, we can tell you that much.
7. CREUX LIES Hearth [Cleopatra]
In many cities where we have least expected a thriving post-punk scene we’ve been proven deliriously wrong. Salt Lake City comes to mind, of course, but another is Sacramento, for proof of which look no further than this five-piece. As hard-working and self-believing a band as we’ve encountered, there’s not only no give-up to these guys there’s an abundance of a kind of humble ambition that they should think about marketing. In short, wonderful, an assessment borne out on their thrumming debut.
8. ANTIPOLE Perspectives [self-released]
Normally we wouldn’t land an album of remixes on our year-end toppers list – not to mention one only available digitally – but when it’s this duo from the ‘Kingdom of Norway’ (as they put it), and the remixers concerned are the creme de crop of the insanely thriving pan-European scene and the material being remixed comes from previous Antipole debut Northern Flux and/or culled from their perfectly-named EP Getting Frequent Now, we really had little choice. Even the fact that the selection ensured two albums with basically the same name in the top didn’t deter us, so…
9. SLIGHTER Cause/Effect (Expanded) [Confusion, Inc.]
Prolific? You want prolific? The output from dark electronic artist Slighter makes that word shudder at the prospect of having to shoulder the volume. Amazing thing? The quality is so consistent it makes one’s head spin. An expansion of an earlier-in-the-year EP, Cause/Effect in either length format will likely land you somewhere along the matrix of timelessness so the distinction barely matters. We have little doubt this year-ending list will become a frequent home to Mr Slighter.
10. PLOHO Where the Birds Fly to Die [Sierpien]
A band from that bottomless well of post-punk goodness Novosibirsk in the Russian Federation, Ploho could easily have placed either or both of their two 2018-released full-lengths on this list (New Buildings emerged in January, two months before Birds – titles are translated from the Cyrillic, by the way. The band, like She Past Away in Turkey, have yet to submit to anglicization) and what can’t help but stun in that assertion is how unrelentingly strong their material continues to be despite a release schedule that others would find punishing. It would seem, in fact, their own well drilled deep within that one mentioned above. In any case, we expect they’ll be making frequent year-end appearances around here for years to come.
11. KAELAN MIKLA Nótt Eftir Nótt [Artoffact]
Tapping into the numinous darkwave spirits with the instincts and intuitions granted them by their birthplace, this Icelandic trio made massive strides in 2018, not least due to their live performances over the few years since their attention-getting, self-titled second album on Fabrika arrived in 2016. While the magic evident from those clips is indeed captured on Nótt, making the album not only worth owning but essential for the sharp hypnotism it’s guaranteed to deliver, it’s those live appearances that hooked us in, which explains why we’ve taken the rather unprecedented step of featuring exactly that instead of a standard album track. If the idea of all this ‘loving music’ business is to be amazed, well…
12. Delphine Coma Leaving the Scene [Swiss Dark Nights]
One of those peripatetic restless artist types, this duo/couple – Ashe Rüppe and Amendoa Lizzbeth Tamburri – live in
Portland, live in Austin, live in Asheville NC (and, no, we’re pretty sure they didn’t temporarily settle there just because of the name, though I must admit that if I could live in Daveville it would be pretty cool), but in any case it hardly matters, as, one, in this digital age we live in everyone lives everywhere, and, two, the sound these two concoct would crash gloriously across borders if they put down roots in the far northern tundra. The riveting going toe-to-toe with the swirlingly gothic, with vocal tropes running from the plaintive to the achingly sinister, Leaving the Scene, in the most darkwavy way imaginable, is a trip, and yes, we dug it.
13. SUPERNOVA 1006 Blackout [Sierpien]
Another duo, this one a particularly intense one with a, umm, superhuman work ethic that’s comprised of Andrey Yukhovich and Elizabeth Dolgikh out of St Petersburg, Russia, SN 1006 have long ago featured on our NEXT lists, have produced an even dozen pieces of work encompassing singles, full-lengths and EPs since emerging with the self-titled EP in 2014. Not surprisingly, then, a certain driving dynamic underpins their synth-and-bass heavy sound, which is why we’ve chosen to highlight the track “Juggernaut.” How could we not?
14. European Ghost Collection of Shadows [Unknown Pleasures Records]
A trio from Bologna, which we’re rather certain is the only time we’ve typed that phrase either on a year-end list like this or on a NEXT list which they, too, long ago appeared, European Ghost rather outdid themselves this year on Collection of Shadows. Released on the profoundly ephemeral Unknown Pleasures label (if you know their story you know what we mean), the record is a master class on how to construct a post-punk album that’s both contemporary and exemplary of all that’s come before it. Passionate, desperate, perfect.
15. HOLYGRAM Modern Cults [Cleopatra]
A five-piece from Köln (so much cooler than saying ‘Cologne’), Holygram, aside from being rather perfectly named, are the only of the many striking European bands that made this list this year to make an attempt at, if not breaking, then at least spreading their brand of the darkwave gospel across the United States, touring the country with VNV Nation just this past November. Not sure how the headliner fared, but the support was well worth the trip to the sketchier part of Portland. Sonorous, somehow intimately epic, you’re welcome back anytime, lads.
16. ARCTIC FLOWERS Straight to the Hunter [self-released]
There’s little as gratifying as being witness to a local band summiting. Arctic Flowers have been powering up their own mountain of sound for almost a decade now, in the process perfecting their blend of punk, peace punk, death rock and searing post-punk until arriving here, at what might be considered a defining moment. Straight to the Hunter takes the lunging-forward dynamism they’ve never been in want of and blends it with the songwriting prowess that’s been growing since day one. The result is a record that retains all that surge we ask of them but with a finesse that’s always been present but is not in full, ahem, flower. Hallelujah, we say, hallelujah.
17. WHISPERING SONGS Image [S.M.I.L.E.]
That rare thing these days (like Holygram), a five-piece, Whispering Sons emerged from Brussels with their first full-length after a fairly long gestation period during which a couple 7″s and an EP had, yes, given some indication of the powerhouse LP that was building in them but in reality, little prepared us for this. Scything, punchy, full of a dark dread both tremulous and unrelenting, Image was one of 2018’s most startling releases.
18. PALAIS IDEAL No Signal [Dark Vinyl Records]
OK, so here’s the deal. In olden times, generally speaking, a band from the Netherlands, like Palais Ideal, would tend to sound a certain, nationally identifiable way, similar but slightly different from a band from Belgium which itself would sound more idiosyncratic than one from France. That’s all gone now, and for the good, we say. It’s as if a dark mysterious orb is being feverishly passed around from Russia to Italy to the UK to Oakland and everyone’s inscribing it with their own signature and passing it on. And it’s fabulous. Witness said Dutch band Palais Ideal. While not entirely eschewing the new wavey perk of Minny Pops or The Tapes’ engrossing herks and pop jerks, the band at its essence wraps themselves in a sort of global post-punk aesthetic that proves both entrancing and grounded. We were thrilled by their debut however one parses their provenance.
19. GANSER Odd Talk [No Trend Records]
Imagine a triple cross between an Iggy-fied ESG, Delta 5 with the arty nous of Kleenex, and Naked Lights with a touch of free-form experimentation and you may be within throwing distance of Chicago’s inimitable Ganser. The fact they’re not ones to chase after the chimerical heights of the so-called ‘post-punk elite’ (you know who we mean) is ironically offset by one simple truth: Ganser out-class the lot of them. Subtly inventive, on top of their game even when they seem to be sidestepping it, everything they touch turns to, well, an oddly beautiful and intriguing gold.
20. KORINE New Arrangements [Born Losers Records]
Where the hell would we be without synth-based, 80’s-besotted new wave pop? Not sure, but a world without, say, Wingtips would be a sad one indeed. And on this debut from Korine we found our 2018 shot of that incomparable blend of supremely constructed synth-pop and the inevitable heartbreak it comes with. Call us sentimental, but New Arrangements was one of the many debuts this year that brought us a kind of blinkered hope, exactly the type we needed in 2018.
21. THE PRIDS Do I Look Like I’m in Love? [This-A-Way Records]
From post-punk to shoegaze to dream pop and back (and forth) again, the Prids’ journey has encountered its fair share of obstacles and vicissitudes, not least – and this is after a major van rollover on I-5 – singer/bassist Prid queen Mistina’s life-threatening encounter with a subarachnoid hemorrhage in the spring of 2015. An attack that kills half it hits, seriously brain damages the half it doesn’t, the face of the Prids escaped relatively unscathed, and the band’s triumphant return with this fabulous double LP not only proved the old ‘doesn’t kill ya…’ adage but resolutely [re]established them as arguably this country’s best dark 80’s amalgam band, sounding simultaneously like the Cocteaus gone heavy in Robert Smith’s back pocket and the truly true spirit of won’t-quit Portland. May sound odd, but we’ve never been prouder of a band in our life.
22. RENDEZ-VOUS Superior State [Artefact]
To some extent proving that 2018 was in fact the ‘year of the 5-piece,’ Paris’s Rendez-Vous at least didn’t start that way when first formed back in 2012. Then, it was just Francis Mallari and Elliot Berthault deciding to start a band and not worrying about anything but that origin spark. Wasn’t long, though, the flame grew and attracted the other three members into what is now an unleashed force of bass-driven magnitude. Releasing their initial EP in 2014, the band took the smart route of letting a debut LP gestate, the result being an impressively realized first full-length lunging out of the gate with hunger and finesse. You must def check it…
23. ZANIAS Into the All [Candela Rising]
If you know Linea Aspera then you know Alison Lewis and you almost certainly are well aware of Zanias and are not surprised to see them on this best-of list. The solo project of Ms Lewis after providing that mesmeric darkwave outfit its bewitching vocal focal point, with this project the singer, adopting the nom de synth of Zoe Zanias, enlisted the help of Alex Akers and the two of them created a sound that advances Lewis’s transfixing remit to the next level. Just as bewitching, more propulsive, indebted to her Berliner forebears only insofar as the basic elements of electronics, melody and mystery are concerned, Zanias from the moment the needle hits the groove is a sorcery all its own.
24. TWIN TRIBES Shadows [self-released in US; Manic Depression & Dead Wax in Europe]
Well, we tell ya, the more we listen to this Twin Tribes record the more we’re second-guessing their numerical placement here. Yes, among a very strong class, and yes, the rankings past the top five are in many ways interchangeable – but shhh! Don’t tell anyone – but in any case, at this point most of the world would probably agree with that doubt. Emerging out of the relatively far-off outpost of Brownsville, TX, the duo of Luis Navarro and Joel Nino Jr have of late been turning heads and capturing the dark hearts of the denizens of the darkwave community all around the world. As the below track states, entirely different context beside, it’s only a matter of time before they’re vaulting upward in (very deserved) renown.
25. HøRD Parallels [Avant!]
Hailing from the heady wine region of France (well, one of them), Bordeaux-based HøRD is masterminded by a man of such mystery that every link on every platform steadfastly masks his identity – no surprise then that one of his EPs was released on Les Disques Anonymes – but whomever this Howard Hughes of darkwave electronica is, he’s very VERY good at what he does. Svelte, elegantly headlong instrumentation that leaves one suspended between the urge to dance in sinuous ecstasy or stand stone still and behold the effortless finery of the groove, in the end HøRD the artist simply transcends his own identity. As fine a way to finish this list as is imaginable.
HONORABLE MENTION (in no particular order): Echolust Loomer, Blood Blush Trust EP, Night Nail LA Demons, Sex Park Atrium, WAY OUT Arc of Descent, Public Memory Demolition, Radioaktivists Radioakt 1, The Anix Shadow Movement, Vogue Noir Strange Days, The Soft Moon Criminal, Idles Joy as an Act of Resistance, Ashbury Heights The Victorian Wallflowers, Kiss of the Whip Like Love Only Real, Negative Scanner Nose Picker, New Apostles Born Again Free Thinkers, Preoccupations New Material, Shame Songs of Praise, Sierpien Renovation, Bambara Shadow on Everything, Shadowlands 002 and no doubt a couple dozen more that our overtaxed brains have left out. To all of you, holy hell, you make life worth living. To all our readers, buckle up for 2019. We can only imagine…