These days I wonder what I’d do without metal. This isn’t me opening up about any personal struggles or anything, and I don’t really have a “metal saved my life” story. But these are frustrating, infuriating times we’re living in, and every day I feel just a little bit more exhausted—we all know the feeling of letting out an exasperated sigh when we open up Twitter. It’s always something. And I don’t know how everyone else does it, but for me metal is the thing that gives me the extra jolt of energy and motivation that I need. It’s cathartic, yes, but it’s also fun, joyous, escapist, therapeutic, even spiritual. And yes, of course it’s dark, sometimes ugly and menacing, but it’s all wrapped together in one furious package.
I listened to a lot of metal this year. So much that I had to expand my list of favorites this year, after adding another 10 last year. So this year, it’s up to a top 25—and my honorable mentions list could go on even longer. Like I said, I listened to a lot of metal. Cutting out albums was more difficult than usual, as one of the bright spots of 2018 was discovering so much new stuff that was amazing and innovative and artful and gnarly. Some of it, technically, might arguably not be metal, but everything here is heavy, immense and devastating. And while I’m sure we all love the spirit of competition, that’s not what this is about. I hope everyone who reads this gets a chance to discover something new that they end up loving—if that’s all anyone takes from this, then I succeeded 100 percent. But feel free to argue if you want. Who am I to stop you?
It was a good year for metal, whether or not it was a good year for anything else. Here are the best metal albums of 2018.
(20 Buck Spin)
Death metal can be technical. It can be artful and progressive, and even after 30 years, still redefining what it means to be “extreme.” Extremity flex pretty hard on that front by actually calling themselves Extremity, though there are certainly bands more extreme than they are. That’s not what’s important about the Bay Area rippers, whose personnel includes current and former members of Cretin and Agalloch. With a narrative written from the perspective of being inside of a coffin and eight tracks full of old-school American death metal riffs, Coffin Birth is more about reckless, rowdy fun and sounding badass than pulling off superhuman feats of musicianship. Make no mistake: This is a band whose bona fides aren’t to be fucked with. But this is also a band that sound like they’re having more fun than most, right down to the ooky-spooky Halloween effects that open and close the record. It’s downright infectious.
The growing renaissance of old-school-leaning acts in thrash and death metal has produced countless amazing albums in the past few years, though it takes a band like Sepulcher to lead one to question just how old-school this really is. In the thrashy gallop of “Corporeal Vessels,” the leadoff track on the Norwegian band’s sophomore album Panoptic Horror, Sepulcher’s immediate concern is in laying waste to the path ahead of them. They’re loud and fast and reckless, but it only takes a few minutes before something weirder, darker and more complicated begins to surface. The band treads a realm somewhere between the psychedelic death-art of Morbus Chron and the heavy metal gloom of In Solitude, all the while powering forward with an intensity that never relents. Sepulcher don’t let on to their experimentation or psychedelic indulgences right away, but by the time you’ve detected them, their tentacles have already latched on.
23. 夢遊病者 (Sleepwalker)
For those who don’t read Japanese, this band’s name translates to Sleepwalker, and the album title is read as “Ichi-go ichi-e,” which translates to “for this time only,” or “never again”—a fascinatingly strange message that ends up being all too appropriate. And like many bands in the black metal arena, there’s more that we probably don’t know about this band than we actually do. A trio whose members live in New York, Japan and Russia, Sleepwalker don’t take anything resembling a traditional route to creating black metal. If this even can be called black metal by any measure. It’s just as much jazz, psychedelia, dark ambient and experimental rock, the twisted textures of John Zorn, Angelo Badalamenti, Oxbow and Oranssi Pazuzu haunting each of the six breathtaking, perplexing tracks on this peculiar album. There isn’t a moment here that’s less than captivating, as much a stunning whole as it is a collection of fascinating parts. So much of metal is about the physicality and in-the-moment presence. Sleepwalker offers a compelling counterpoint, a listening experience hallucinatory and otherworldly to the point of leaving one to question when and where this music came from, or if it’s just a twisted trick of the subconscious.
22. High On Fire
Any year with a new High On Fire album can’t be all bad. Once you hear Matt Pike let loose with his barrage of crusty, sludgy riffs, there’s a flood of endorphins that overcomes you—it’s like a sugar rush or, more appropriately, a pretty potent hit. Either way, listening to High On Fire feels good, and they don’t reinvent themselves with each album, they simply get better and better at delivering a righteous pummeling, with plenty of melodic depth for that matter. On Electric Messiah, there’s a sort of tribute to Motorhead’s late frontman Lemmy Kilmister, and the title track was even inspired by a dream that Pike had. And it’s an appropriate connection—High On Fire, more than any other contemporary metal band, seem to be the heirs to the Motorhead throne. They don’t sound exactly like them, necessarily, but there’s a consistency, punchiness and almost hedonistic joy to what they do that’s undeniable. But really, I think I said it best when I tweeted this:
My favorite thing about High on Fire is that they're always High on Fire
— Jeff Terich (@1000TimesJeff) November 14, 2018
21. Chaos Echoes
(Nuclear War Now!)
French avant garde metal experimentalists Chaos Echoes technically feature vocals—three vocalists are credited on Mouvement—but there’s not much in the way of lyrics. A persnickety distinction, but a legitimate one—there are whispers, chants, groans, roars and bellows on Mouvement, but nobody ever really sings words. Not exactly. Rather, voices become the spectres that ooze out of the woodwork, the ghouls that lurk on the periphery. Yet Chaos Echoes have less in common with Russian Circles or Sannhet than they do with like-minded weirdos Oranssi Pazuzu; their awe-inspiring, psychedelic almost-instrumentals serve as a means of pulling the listener through an alien vortex. Just don’t let fear keep you from experiencing what’s on the other side.
20. Author & Punisher
Author & Punisher may or may not have been the first artist to prove that great metal need not come from guitars, bass and drums, but San Diego’s Tristan Shone has proven that a career’s worth of ideas can be forged without them. Beastland, his Relapse debut, builds on the promise of his earlier records and some of the more interesting experiments on recent releases like last year’s Pressure Mine EP to deliver both his most accessible set of songs and his strongest. This is a darkly atmospheric piece of work, ominous and agitated, but at its core it’s a work of melody and immediacy. Songs like “Nihil Strength” and “Nazarene” are some of the catchiest Shone has written—the latter even reminds me a little of Garbage (which is kind of awesome, and not too illogical now that I think of it). Author & Punisher has always been working toward something bigger, and it’s thrilling to hear that something bigger brings some stellar melodies along with it.
19. Jesus Piece
When someone uses “atmosphere” to describe a hardcore record, it’s usually in reference to a steamy pit full of dudes ready to throw down. And a Jesus Piece show is absolutely a good place to bring home some battle scars. But Only Self set the band apart from more traditional hardcore/metalcore groups with a more detailed attention to often overlooked elements in a style predicated on immediacy and aggression. Industrial, ambient and noise bleed into their sound, building a sphere of ominous darkness around their gut-punching riffs and the visceral bark of vocalist Aaron Heard (who also plays bass in Philly shoegazers Nothing). There’s a spectrum of color beaming through prisms of blood and saliva.
18. Mournful Congregation
The Incubus of Karma
(Osmose/20 Buck Spin)
Mournful Congregation take their time in letting each of their slow-moving, emotionally heavy compositions run their course. They also take their time in crafting those lengthy dirges; The Incubus of Karma is the band’s first new album in seven years, understandable given the scope of it. In six tracks and just a hair under 80 minutes, the Australian funeral doom metal band don’t so much build up their songs as allow them to gracefully crystallize into magnificent fortresses of darkness. Theirs is a massive sound, yet there’s a stillness and fragility in what they do—the 18-minute “The Rubaiyat” moves so gradually that it barely registers any BPMs at all. It all feels so precarious—like the songs could simply dissolve into the ether if Mournful Congregation were to let them, but when everything comes together, like the harmonized beauty 3:30 into “Scripture of Exaltation and Punishment” or the gothic gloom five minutes into “Whispering Spiritscapes,” it feels immovable, a powerful, glorious temple of darkness.
Black metal had an interesting year. In some ways, it was a landmark year in that the number of bands openly defying the racist and fascist factions that try to poison the well seems to be growing in volume (in both senses of the word). But it was also interesting in that many of the best black metal albums were those that cast aside a lot of what made them actually sound like black metal. Bay Area-based Ails, featuring former members of Ludicra, are a notable exception, having delivered The Unraveling, one of the strongest black metal albums of the year that involved little to no drastic reinvention. Rather, they simply delivered a powerful set of songs that punch hard and go straight for the throat.
16. Judas Priest
One of my absolute favorite live music moments this year was finally getting to see Judas Priest—a band that’s not just responsible for opening my own personal gateway to metal, but one of the greatest metal bands to ever let their roar reverberate through the land. And while Glenn Tipton no longer tours with the band, seeing Rob Halford guide the group through a balance of their fist-pumping classics and about half of their amazing new album Firepower was a pure joy to behold. And if anyone dismisses the idea of the latter being a highlight, think again. It’s no exaggeration to call Firepower their best album since 1990′s Painkiller, a stellar front-to-back set of highlights that are as heavy as they are catchy. That’s not so surprising—even their least-loved albums have their share of honest-to-the-dark-lord hits. That Priest remain relevant—complete with lyrics heavy on social commentary—and sound so unstoppable more than 40 years after their debut album only solidifies their reputation as Metal Gods.
15. Tomb Mold
Manor of Infinite Forms
(20 Buck Spin)
Tomb Mold’s Manor of Infinite Forms is an embarrassment of riff riches. There’s a lot more to it than that, but if all you’re listening for is some righteous fretwork—and let’s be honest, sometimes that’s precisely what we’re looking for—this album more than provides its share. It’s enough to make one lose sight of the conceptual sci-fi narrative that runs through the work (which is pretty easy to lose in the context of the unholy growls), but more than merely proving themselves as innovative riff architects, the Toronto death metal outfit are compelling songwriters, delivering a classic death metal aesthetic while showcasing more versatile strengths on the whole. It’s top notch death metal in a year that’s been overwhelmingly competitive on that front, and yeah, those riffs fucking kill.
The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I & II
Austin Lunn’s built a singular catalog as Panopticon, bridging the tradition and aesthetics of American folk and bluegrass music with the intensity and sonic power of black metal. On The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I & II, he does something a little bit different, juxtaposing these seemingly contradictory yet complementary elements of his sound on two albums, which are in essence each other’s yin and yang. They’re meant to be heard in an extended two-plus-hour uninterrupted sequence (though Lunn did also sell them as separate albums, so do what you’re gonna do), and it’s worth hearing the juxtaposition firsthand at least once. While the metal half of the album is unquestionably the more overwhelming and arguably superior of the two, the stripped-down, earthy nature of his folk compositions reveals aspects of his music that didn’t garner the same amount of attention in the past. It’s in Lunn’s meditations on nature, the environment, and humanity’s self-destructive tendencies that the two sides find the adhesive that keeps them interconnected. Where so much of black metal is concerned with fantasy and pretense, Lunn puts his heart and soul into something real and genuinely worrisome. There is hope on The Scars of Man, but there’s also a lot of screaming in the face of a society that keeps on failing to learn the same lessons over and over again.
(20 Buck Spin)
Khemmis’ greatest strength is in making vintage heavy metal aesthetics sound new again, and their outstanding 2016 album Hunted was a refreshingly accessible and anthemic set of songs in a year marked mainly by pretty weird stylistic hybrids (which, as well, was a good thing). Desolation is that much more epic, more tormented and steeped in darkness, a balance of their melodic strengths and a more pronounced “evil” influence. That said, there are plenty of Mercyful Fate worshippers out there, and Khemmis have never been the type to stick so closely to one basic sound. There’s deep emotion and anguish here, but there’s also hope, as evidenced in the triumphant final track “From Ruin,” marked by some of the strongest vocal harmonies they’ve delivered to date. Khemmis can’t so easily be called old-school anymore—they’re designing their own curriculum.
I don’t know how we got so blessed to receive two albums featuring the burly riffs of Matt Pike—including the first Sleep album in 15 years—but it’s nice for a surprise these days to be pleasant for once. What’s remarkable is how Sleep, after having not recorded in ages and several years on hiatus from performing, have returned with their strongest set of songs to date. Granted, they don’t have that many albums and “Dopesmoker” is one really long song, but stay with me here. Amid the stoner-goof titles like “Marijuanaut’s Theme” and “Giza Butler,” the trio are delivering stoner metal that’s no joke, with the densest sound of any doombringers in 2018. That this exists is victory enough. That it’s phenomenal is reinforcement of Sleep’s status as one of the greatest to ever pack a bowl and let the fuzz fly.
11. Gouge Away
There’s some irony in this being Gouge Away’s debut on Treble’s best metal of the year list, considering their 2016 debut , Dies was arguably crustier, nastier and more uncompromisingly aggressive. But the amount of growth the band’s undergone in just two years is really something to behold. The Florida hardcore group remain searingly intense, going for the throat in 90-second increments, yet there’s an incredible amount of depth to sophomore effort Burnt Sugar that reveals a melodic, more intricately structured side of the band that, at times, doesn’t sound much like straightforward hardcore at all. They’ve veered closer to the realm of post-hardcore titans such as The Jesus Lizard and Unwound, without letting go of the cutthroat urgency that makes heavy-as-fuck punk like theirs all the more thrilling. Whenever a heavier band adds more overt pop elements to their approach, it can go awry really quick. In the case of Gouge Away, it made for an album that I can’t stop listening to.
10. Imperial Triumphant
Imperial Triumphant’s Vile Luxury opens with a climactic blast of horns, and it doesn’t get any less peculiar from there. The New York City black metal band’s third album is more Blue Note metal—their avant garde realm populated not just by the progressive black metal sounds of contemporaries like Krallice, but likewise the free-jazz experimentalism of giants like Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman. The result is a vision of hell that feels like some opulent nightclub in the underworld—or perhaps the hesher annex to the Black Lodge—aggression jutting up against free improvisation, jazz chords bleeding all over their blast-beat menace. And true to its name, it feels luxurious—a metal sound that aims to wrap the listener in rich, sumptuous details as it pulls them deeper into the abyss.
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
I’m just as shocked as you are that Deafheaven didn’t crack the top five this year. But that’s less a reflection on their own output than that of so many other bands this year. Let’s be clear: Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is a phenomenal album. It’s a work of both power and grace, of melody and dissonance, of contrast and dynamics. A weaker band might have given into the criticisms that have plagued Deafheaven since Sunbather at least and simply adopted rote black metal tropes whole cloth. But Deafheaven were always better than that, and Ordinary Corrupt Human Love finds them reveling in the beauty of their work, making powerful black metal that sometimes sounds more like dream pop or darkwave—there’s even a duet with Chelsea Wolfe and moments of melodic, clean singing from frontman George Clarke. It’s a bold, brave step from a band that have set an impressive new precedent for modern metal.
8. Portrayal of Guilt
Let Pain Be Your Guide
Now this is a debut. Austin, Texas’ Portrayal of Guilt are, like many of the best bands in heavy music right now, far from any specific stylistic center. Arguably in the sphere of screamo, hardcore or, if you really want to call it that, “emoviolence,” Portrayal of Guilt can’t be viewed as necessarily being outside of metal any more than a band such as Deafheaven or Bosse-de-Nage, as there are so many moving parts, even when the pace surges and vocalist Matt King’s throaty screams are their most piercing. There’s a complexity to what they do—a progressivism that catalyzes their musical roots into an ever-evolving, overwhelming force—that makes the twenty-something minutes of their debut full-length not just exciting or even intense, but stimulating well beyond power and volume alone.
Sweden’s Agrimonia blew the doors open on 2018 with this six-track monstrosity of soaring sludge metal, crust-punk and post-hardcore, and 11 months later it’s lost none of its potency. A progressive, consistently evolving set of music that evades easy comparisons—though a kind of hybrid of Neurosis, Amebix and Agalloch is somewhere in the ballpark, just for starters—Awaken is boundless creative freedom in thunderous packaging. Still, for the sheer magnitude of the band’s 10-plus minute dirges, complete with tempo shifts and any number of changes in direction, it’s stunning to hear so many incredible hooks and melodies throughout. “A World Unseen” is punchy and direct. “Withering” is haunting. And “The Sparrow” ends triumphantly. I wasn’t prepared to be in awe of an album so early in the year; I didn’t imagine it’d still have the same bulldozer impact nearly a year later.
(Season of Mist)
Death metal had a really great year. I recognize that this list might not explicitly make that clear, considering it’s pretty stylistically all over the map, but any metalhead will tell you that death metal’s been better in the past three or four years than it has been in, I don’t know, decades? That’s no exaggeration, and Horrendous is arguably the best band playing death metal right now. Progressive without specifically being “prog,” melodic without recycling Gothenburg’s leftovers, and nodding to old-school greats like Death without sounding anything like a tribute act, Horrendous have crafted a death metal sound that delivers thrills at every turn. The riffs alone are dazzling, but their structures are architectural wonders. And in their most nuanced moments, like standout “The Idolater,” Horrendous also showcase a knack for psychedelia and even restrained grace. Yes, death metal had a hell of a year, but no death metal album this year is quite as spectacular as Idol.
You Won’t Get What You Want
I understand the argument that Daughters might be a strange fit for this list, by virtue of being a kind of avant-garde industrial noise rock album (if that even really covers it). I also reject it. Eight years after releasing their stellar then-final self-titled album following a fairly anticlimactic breakup, Rhode Island’s Daughters made a return that they’d quietly hinted at over several recent tours but the scope of which eclipsed even the greatest of their past works. You Won’t Get What You Want is massive, especially by their standards, amounting to more than three times the length of their one-side-long debut album and harboring an even more harrowing darkness. It’s intense music, heavier than most battle-vest-ready metal this year and darker than black metal at its most evil. You Won’t Get You Want pummels and scrapes its way through an at-times unexpectedly groove-heavy sequence of nightmares and does what exactly what a great metal album is supposed to, whether or not it is one: It redefines what heavy music can and does sound like.
Love In Shadow
Sumac began the year by releasing a lengthy collaboration with noise icon Keiji Haino titled American Dollar Bill, featuring massive compositions with even longer titles that found them straying from metal and embracing the freeform peculiarities of their collaborator. And if they stopped there, it’d still be a solid year for the avant garde sludge trio. But they didn’t—seven months later, Aaron Turner, Brian Cook and Nick Yacyshyn fuck around and release their masterpiece. Love In Shadow is their best album to date, yet it’s also a remarkably dense work that heavily incorporates improvisation throughout four sprawling tracks. It’s achievement enough that the array of sound on the album comes from just three musicians, but the directions in which they steer these sounds is the even greater accomplishment. Love In Shadow isn’t jazz metal—at least not in the way Brain Tentacles or Ex Eye might be—but the spiritual nature of the Coltranes (both John and Alice) courses through the album, however thunderous it might be. It feels like a revelation for heavy music, a search for enlightenment through a beautiful kind of chaos.
Tribulation have come a long way. The Swedish band’s 2009 debut The Horror presented them as raw, badass death metal old-schoolers, but it only took a couple of years before that template was blown wide open, and since their reinvention on 2013′s The Formulas of Death, they’ve transformed into something entirely different. Death metal still courses through their unholy veins, but Tribulation’s evolved into a gothic metal band with the stadium-ready hooks of old-school influences like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Mercyful Fate. On Down Below, they’ve distilled that into its most potent essence, not only essentially perfecting the Transylvanian hunger of their 2015 album The Children of the Night, but making it more melodic, anthemic and radio-friendly. These are, simply, the best songs they’ve written, finding the point at which stylish and ghoulish intersect and backing it with the kinds of hooks that could convert the subterranean-curious. And they sound like they’re having a blast doing it.
Our Raw Heart
One of Yob’s greatest assets as a band is their ability to tap into things that most metal bands don’t or can’t. Don’t get me wrong—I love escapism, or an uncomfortably dark level of catharsis sometimes. But with Yob, the experience of hearing their music is one of vulnerability and spirituality, a quality that extends both from the psychedelic nature of their massive doom metal compositions and the emotional directness behind it. And to date no album of theirs feels as exposed and open as Our Raw Heart. The title track finds frontman Mike Scheidt addressing an experience that brought him precariously close to death (“From holes in my gut, to love from miracles“), and there’s a genuine sense of healing and open-heartedness throughout the album. Which makes it all the more interesting that the album contains a seemingly dualistic nature, balancing ferocious burners like “Ablaze” and “Original Face” against something as delicate as “Beauty in Falling Leaves.” These elements have always existed within Yob, just never delivered in such pure, distilled form. Their ability to merge tenderness and intensity is essentially peerless in metal, but it’s cool to hear them push even farther toward both extremes.
It’s complicated enough to get a handle on Thou’s ample catalog, but with five new releases in just this year alone, it got a little more messy. But one shouldn’t look three gift EPs and a split with Ragana in the mouth. That they were all really good says quite a bit about the Louisiana sludge metal band, particularly because Magus is a powerful achievement on its own, a double-LP length sprawl of devastating dirges and the murkiest guitar sound in the world. And despite setting the bar ever higher over their career, Thou have crafted a stunning career summary with Magus, an album that balances their ethereal bleakness, grungy tunefulness and abrasive roar into one truly outstanding set of songs. I’m not sure if I’m ready to call it their best album—they have some other really spectacular ones. But I do know that this is nothing short of brilliant, a metal album that brings all the heaviness, intensity and riffage that a metal album should yet still offers a great deal of nuance, intricacy and introspection. There aren’t many bands like Thou, simply because Thou doesn’t follow any example but their own. We’re fortunate to be living in the same time as a band that delivers an album that contains as much to explore as this.