To Venomous Depths
(Season of Mist)
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that one of the best debuts in metal this year was from a Georgia band. The Peach State has seen the rise of countless amazing bands, including Mastodon, Baroness, Kylesa and Harvey Milk, to name a few. Atlanta’s Cloak have been building up their metal bona fides for a few years, but their Season of Mist debut finds them arriving with the songwriting skills, ambition and haunted aesthetics that immediately make this set of songs stand out among 2017 releases. It’s only been out for a few weeks, and for that matter edged out some amazing stuff, so I don’t throw this endorsement around lightly. Cloak showed up at damn-near last minute with a hybrid of old-school heavy metal with black metal darkness and laid waste to whatever would have been here otherwise. It’s hard to remember after being treated to an album of metal this thrilling.
9. King Woman
Created in the Image of Suffering
On their Relapse debut, King Woman fulfill the promise of their 2015 EP Doubt and intensify it in various aspects, from the more pronounced doom-metal sound of the album to frontwoman Kristina Esfandiari’s emotionally wrenching lyrics. It’s an album of psychological anguish and personal trauma, reaching back to Esfandiari’s own fraught history being brought up in a cult. So while on an aesthetic level, Created in the Image of Suffering might not be as extreme as, say, Full of Hell, it’s one of the more emotionally draining albums of the year. And good god does it sound incredible. Across the album’s seven tracks, there’s a powerful mixture of darkness and hope, heaviness and gothic shoegaze ethereality. But the heaviest thing about King Woman’s debut LP is how real it is.
8. Bell Witch
Bell Witch’s music has always been slow, mournful, meditative. Mirror Reaper is that aesthetic taken to a devastating extreme. By no means the band’s heaviest album, it’s certainly their most affecting. Recorded after the death of their original drummer, Adrian Guerra, Mirror Reaper features some brief snippets of unused recordings with their former bandmate, and there’s a great deal of grief and sorrow throughout. It’s a heavy album in an emotional sense even more than it is musically, but that’s what makes it real. At 83 minutes long, with no track breaks, Mirror Reaper is perhaps a lot to ask of a listener. But what one gets in return is a breathtaking experience that pulls back the curtain and reveals the vulnerable humans behind such massive sounds.
Trance of Death
German death metal outfit Venenum pulled off the debut album of the year with their incredible mixture of old school death metal, psychedelia and prog-rock, revealing no shortage of thrilling surprises while handing out their share of killer riffs throughout Trance of Death. Essentially comprising two halves, Trance of Death‘s first and second acts offer two distinct sides of the band. The first is the band’s death metal bona fides, showcasing their brawny gallop in “Merging Nebular Drapes,” delving into an eerie and hallucinatory weirdness with “The Nature of the Ground,” and playing with tempo and time signature with the constantly changing “Cold Threat.” Yet the three-part saga of the second half is where Venenum reveals the depths of their creativity, offering an unexpected display of beauty, nuance and mood, the final piece of the three even nodding to Angelo Badalamenti’s “Theme from Twin Peaks.” This album is so expertly constructed, so intricately layered, it seems too sophisticated to be a debut. Then again, some bands just get it right the first time around.
The longer Little Rock doom metal heroes Pallbearer progress as a band, the more they seem to give into their prog-rock influences and balance out the vintage Sabbath, Candlemass and Pagan Altar influences with a touch of Pink Floyd and Yes. Heartless does this in spades, which is all the more curious in that it’s also their most accessible album to date. Starting off with the dire apocalyptic warning “I Saw the End,” whose ominous visions might hit a little close to home in 2017, the album takes on a variety of different progressions from Mastodon-style sludge throwdown (“Thorns”) to triumphant anthem (“Cruel Road”) to expansive progressive odyssey (“Dancing In Madness”). As it turns out, it’s also the most diverse album of the band’s career, which in some sense means a sacrifice of the band’s tendency toward cohesion—their first two albums are damn-near flawless. Heartless takes some major risks, but the payoff is worth it, suggesting that not only can Pallbearer pull off some of the most complex doom metal compositions of late, but also make them a hell of a lot of fun to listen to.
5. Yellow Eyes
Immersion Trench Reverie
Whether or not they’ve been recognized as such, New York City’s Yellow Eyes have been one of the most consistently interesting and, for that matter, amazing black metal bands in the U.S. since forming in 2010. Their 2016 album Sick With Bloom was a breakthrough of sorts, revealing the depth of their abilities in songwriting and arrangement, while Immersion Trench Reverie takes that a step farther. A progressive, psychedelic black metal album that transitions between stunning melodic passages and moments of righteous fury, Immersion Trench Reverie is more than a mere primal scream from the depths of hell, it’s an intricate and thoughtful release that reflects the band’s wintry origins while speaking to their monumental growth over the past half-decade. It’s increasingly becoming a Sisyphean task to find new creative avenues in black metal, but Yellow Eyes have proven they’re more than up to the task.
4. Full of Hell
Grindcore doesn’t often allow a lot of room for stylistic breadth, though it certainly happens, whether through Napalm Death’s collaborations with saxophonist John Zorn or Pig Destroyer’s noise-rock songwriting and embrace of melody. Maryland’s Full of Hell can more than hold their own when it comes to minute-long, pummeling speed-freak sprints. But Trumpeting Ecstasy also showcases how well they wield noise, often draping their guttural shrieks and sonic explosions in curtains of caustic static. Everything here sounds vile and filthy and like it could probably give you a nasty staph infection if you touched it. But beneath all that are some incredible songs, like the furious “Crawling Back to God” and the wall-of-noise title track, featuring vocals by Nicole Dollanganger. Full of Hell are as extreme as metal gets, but pull off the impressive trick of not letting it define what they can or can’t do.
Reflections of a Floating World
Elder’s 2015 album Lore is a hard album to follow. After a handful of excellent, epic stoner rock albums, the Massachusetts band redefined their boundaries and began exploring progressive, psychedelic rock in a way that put them in a class of their own. Indeed, that album was kind of a big deal—it placed highly on our list of the best metal albums of the millennium, as it turns out. But its follow-up, Reflections of a Floating World, only proved that the band still had a lot more exploring to do. At times crunchy, elsewhere dreamy and almost shoegazey, Reflections wasn’t so much a reinvention as an expansion. As the band grows and evolves, the limits to what they do fade into the effects-laden ether that drives their thunderous psych-rock. But while exploration is key to what makes the album unique, it’s the speedway roadtrip nature of their instrumentation—always engaged in a dazzling chase of one-upsmanship and harmonized stunts—that makes it fun. Heavy music is always evolving, but in the case of Elder, it seemingly undergoes a complete cycle of transformation in the course of a single album.
2. Power Trip
This was so close to being number one. So close. Dallas’ Power Trip came hard with a righteous fury on their second full-length album, opening 2017 with a sound backed by the kind of frustration that has fueled much of the best music of the year. An anti-fascist wrecking crew with an affinity for classic VHS horror, Power Trip cannonballs through Nightmare Logic with anger and determination, fighting their way through this waking nightmare with nasty whammy-bar riffs, blazing solos, a relentless power-chord crunch and the no-bullshit barks of frontman Riley Gale. The unstoppable rage and energy of Nightmare Logic would be enough to make it tool for survival in this fucked-up world, but the band’s songwriting has reached a new apex. The nonstop surge of aggression keeps it fun, but the melodies on Nightmare Logic are untouchable.
The Dusk In Us
It almost isn’t fair. When ringers like Converge release a new album, how are other metal acts going to compete with that? It’s not just Converge’s longevity or name recognition that earn them Metal Album of the Year honors, however. The Dusk In Us, arriving after a lengthy five-year hiatus, is at once the band’s most diverse set of songs and their most accessible. There are bits and pieces of past albums here—the hardcore aggression of No Heroes, the experimental sludge of You Fail Me, the post-hardcore dissonance of All We Love We Leave Behind—but by and large this feels like a renewed Converge, restating their sense of purpose by act of redefinition rather than reinvention. Converge don’t necessarily leave behind the best moments of their past records, they simply build something glorious on top. This time that splendid architecture comes in the form of the powerful post-hardcore leadoff track “A Single Tear,” the churning sludge of “Under Duress,” the sprawling gloom of the title track, the badass groove of “Trigger” and the climactic intensity of closer “Reptilian.” Converge go in a lot of directions on this album, but they’re all tied together with a common aesthetic thread. I won’t go so far as to call this the band’s new best album or anything like that, but it’s an incredible achievement all the same, and by all means my favorite metal album of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Ruins of Beverast – Exuvia (Van); Blut Aus Nord – Deus Salutis Meae (Debemur Morti); Spirit Adrift – Curse of Conception (20 Buck Spin); Celeste – Infidele(s); Acephalix – Decreation (20 Buck Spin); Boris – Dear (Sargent House); Mutoid Man – War Moans (Sargent House); Valborg – Enstrand (Prophecy); Unearthly Trance – Stalking the Ghost (Relapse).