If you made a list of the best albums of 2015 and didn’t include at least a couple metal albums, I can’t help but think you might have miscalculated. Whenever you’re in the middle of it, any year seems exciting for new music, regardless of genre. But now that we’re at the end, it’s hard not to marvel at the talent in metal this year. Veterans, newcomers, game changers—just about every aspect of this increasingly huge and unwieldy genre saw some incredible releases. And as usual, narrowing it down was tricky. So I have some honorable mentions: KEN Mode, whose new album wasn’t exactly metal, but still pretty heavy; Magic Circle, who snuck in at the last minute; Locrian, who are about 18 different styles of music at once; and Baroness, whose new album still isn’t out, and will very likely be on my 2016 list. I could go on; I listened to more metal this year than last year or the year before that, and the deeper I dug, the more incredible stuff I found. But rather than belabor the point, let’s just get on to the best metal albums of 2015.
10. Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower
Richmond, Virginia has been fertile ground for innovations in doom metal of late, as well as those that skirt the lines (Inter Arma). Leading the charge in the River City’s pursuit of the dark and rumbling is Windhand, whose second Relapse-released outing, Grief’s Infernal Flower, builds on the promise of 2013′s Soma with a set of songs simultaneously more accessible and more ambitious. It feels even more colossal than that album, despite being a few minutes shorter (you’d be amazed how much space a 30-minute track can eat up), which speaks to Windhand’s growth in the past two years. In highlights such as leadoff track “Two Urns,” they’re turning doom into a platform for stadium-filling anthems, yet still craft a smoky catacomb dirge like no other on “Kingfisher.” Plenty of bands injected majesty and humanity into doom before Windhand came along, but in their hands that torch burns ever brighter.
9. False – Untitled
It’s hard not to admire False’s audacity. The Minneapolis black metal group is named after the mostly lowly, derogatory pejorative one could possibly slap on a band, and their new album is called Untitled, just like the one before it. But where their marketing positions them as antisocial, secretive or just apathetic, Untitled is crafted with heaping spoonfuls of give-a-shit. Were 2015 not already so overstuffed with towering achievements in black metal, this would be a shoo-in for Black Metal Album of the Year. Even still, it’s up there, each track surging in uncompromising intensity and relentless speed. Of the five tracks on Untitled, there’s not a dull moment of the bunch, but the thing that takes an already strong black metal album and makes it into a great one is its 13-minute final track, “Hedgecraft.” It’s all the darkness and evil of black metal with an extra coating of fun. I don’t claim to know anything about False’s methods or modus operandi, but I do know that they destroy.
8. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
The Iron Maiden name still means something. That can’t be said of a lot of veteran metal acts that have been rocking for more than 35 years, and some of those with some shred of dignity left are dangling by a ragged thread. Not Maiden though. Despite a rock period in the ’90s without Bruce Dickinson, the British metal pioneers are still thriving. The Book of Souls, a sprawling, 90-minute double album featuring their longest song to date (“Empire of the Clouds”), is Iron Maiden’s most ambitious album in decades. That it happens to be their best album in at least 15 years seems even more remarkable, the sheer magnitude of their vision pushing them to not simply think big, but to hone those grand ideas until near-perfect. A 13-minute epic such as “The Red and the Black” is worthy of applause on the merits of being as colossal as it is, but the melody and detail in composition doesn’t just make it a monument to be admired, but a wonderful song to truly be enjoyed. That goes for all 11 tracks on The Book of Souls, an epic journey whose path is worth revisiting again and again.
7. Horrendous – Anareta
Metalheads with a serious craving for classic death metal sounds probably weren’t caught entirely off guard by Horrendous’ Anareta. It’s the Philadelphia band’s third album, and they had begun to make a ripple throughout the underground metal realm with the release of 2014′s Ecdysis. And yet, it’s unlikely anyone could have predicted this much of a leap forward in just one year. Anareta is the ideal balance of death metal’s guttural ferocity with a classic heavy metal songwriting sensibility. Horrendous embrace melody rather than banish it from their domain altogether, and the eight songs on the album are that much stronger for it. Like all great death metal albums, Anareta overflows with heavy and menacing riffs, but they almost always converge in a melodic, triumphant climax, displaying both the band’s versatility and their attention to detail. Aesthetically, Horrendous might be taking inspiration from a familiar sound, but the end result is a thrilling and progressive new frontier.
6. VHOL – Deeper Than Sky
It’s hard to resist the urge to call VHOL a supergroup. It’s a tired term—you don’t have to remind me—but it’s hard not to dust off that chestnut when the combined talents of a band are so colossal. Comprising members of Yob, Agalloch and Hammers of Misfortune, VHOL mostly goes out of their way to avoid repeating the styles of any of those musicians’ other bands, instead fusing together a furious, psychedelic and endlessly thrilling alloy of thrash, hardcore and black metal. Any number of various other subgenre tropes work their way into sophomore album Deeper Than Sky, but it’s never simply for the sake of doing so. VHOL’s songs are airtight—every part has its place, and no element is put to waste. Leadoff track “The Desolate Damned” moves at inhuman speeds, and only grows powerful with each lightning riff and galloping drum beat. “Lightless Sun” is black metal bordering on religious experience. And “Paino,” well, it’s thrash metal with a piano. It would seem there’s no limit to what VHOL can or will do.
5. Vattnet Viskar – Settler
There’s a conservative fundamentalism among certain black metal fans that finds anything that isn’t, at its core, the work of sinister ghouls to be something other than black metal. But that would mean that a style of music—which has been the subject of some amazing creative growth over the last few decades—wouldn’t be allowed to evolve. It would also mean that Vattnet Viskar’s Settler, an emotionally powerful and vulnerable set of songs, isn’t black metal. And if we’re splitting hairs, maybe it isn’t; stylistically, it’s only party to tremolo-picked riffs and blast-beat rhythms part of the time, the New Hampshire band frequently exploring the fringes of a nebulous genre by way of shoegaze, post-rock, thrash and hardcore. Their expansive palette becomes the backdrop for some truly moving, devastating tracks, such as the dynamic blackgaze beauty of “Heirs” or the slow-moving, gorgeously executed thunder of “Yearn.” All good black metal should be so draining, but more importantly Settler suggests black metal needn’t always have such a black heart.
4. Myrkur – M
It was unexpected, to say the least, to hear Amalie Bruun interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition in August about her debut album as Myrkur, M. In fact, I can’t ever remember another time that NPR featured a black metal artist on its weekend newsmagazine, on the sabbath no less. That speaks to Myrkur’s ability to reach an audience beyond those already indoctrinated in its dark ways (and to infuriate the irrational among them). M is classic black metal in the vein of the Norwegian second wave; in fact, members of Mayhem and Ulver even contributed to the album, the old guard passing the torch to a new generation, in a manner of speaking. Building on the promise of a strong but way too lo-fi debut EP, Bruun expands into more grand productions, blending choral arrangements with guttural feats of raw metal, with the proper touch of Scandinavian folk adding a rich, gothic tone. At times, Bruun steps outside the lines almost entirely, instead offering heavy shoegaze in standouts such as “Dybt I Skoven” and “Onde Børn.” There’s a lot happening in this fairly concise, 37-minute set, but credit to Bruun, no moment is wasted.
3. Bosse-de-Nage – All Fours
California post-black metal miscreants Bosse-de-Nage were headed somewhere interesting on their third album, III. That album felt like metal’s own response to Slint’s Spiderland, blending complex rhythmic arrangements with intense screams and spoken-word passages that added up to something arftul and poetic in execution. On All Fours, they surpassed that auspicious release, improving the production quality and intensifying the impact of their songs while lending greater attention to the nuances and subtleties, even when driving at full speed. At 55 minutes long, it’s by no means the longest metal album you’ll hear this year (Iron Maiden’s latest is almost twice that!), but it might very well be the most exhausting, and not just because of the depravity and explicitness of the lyrical content. It’s as much a post-hardcore album as a black metal one, with certain highlights reminiscent of the epic roar of Japan’s Envy, or the stop-on-a-dime dynamics of the short-lived Gospel. All Fours is both a manic, writhing beast and a work of elegant precision. It’s hard enough to just get one of those right, but Bosse-de-Nage have proven themselves both versatile and visionary.
2. Tribulation – The Children of the Night
While I was watching Sweden’s Tribulation during their set opening for Deafheaven in October, you couldn’t have slapped the grin off my face. I speak openly and often about how much I appreciate a metal band that can give a listener a good time, but Tribulation combines theatricality with accessibility brilliantly. Distancing themselves a bit from their more overt death metal recordings in past years, Tribulation embrace both the drama and melody of classic heavy metal on third album The Children of the Night. From the opening, spooky organ melody of “Strange Gateways Beckon,” Tribulation surges into an eerie and awesome dark metal anthem worthy of Mercyful Fate, touched up with a plink of one-note piano seemingly borrowed from The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” There’s goth-rock ambiance on “The Motherhood of God,” thrashy immediacy on “Melancholia,” and a galloping heroism to “Holy Libations.” You can pick apart the different elements and influences throughout The Children of the Night, and you’d probably find a million different details to footnote and annotate, but the end result is something much more awe-inspiring than the sum of its parts. Heavy metal simply doesn’t get better than this.
1. Deafheaven – New Bermuda
It seemed impossible. Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather was such a grand achievement—a defining statement—that surpassing it simply wouldn’t happen. At least not so soon. And yet that’s exactly what the Bay Area black metal group did with their third album, New Bermuda. On some level, it’s an album that continues what they started with its predecessor, its 47 minutes comprising an emotionally taxing mixture of black metal and shoegaze (and post-rock and screamo…) that no other band has balanced so nimbly and so elegantly. But New Bermuda is also a great step forward for Deafheaven, whose compositions have grown tighter, and whose extremes have been pushed even farther this time around. The aggression is more visceral, tracks such as “Luna” owing to their thrash metal influences as much as their more atmospheric or ethereal ones. And the moments of grace and beauty, such as the mind-blowing closing track “Gifts for the Earth,” are even more breathtaking. George Clarke still hisses like a demon, his harsh shrieks sometimes standing in stark contrast to the gentler passages, but even in the loudest and most intense songs, his vocals sound more dynamic—more human. It’s not wrong to say that Deafheaven bested their previous triumph by being themselves. More accurately, this is Deafheaven amplified and expanded, the sound of a band achieving that something greater that was in them all along.
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