In hindsight, 2018 was a pretty eventful year for metal, so much so that the harvest this time year very nearly seemed to leave the ground barren. As a recap, we had the first new Sleep album in 15 years, a new Deafheaven album, a new Yob album, no less than five Thou releases, a quadruple album (sort of) from Panopticon, and a new Judas Priest album. And a good one at that.
So what was left? A lot, as it turns out. Though 2019 didn’t broadcast a lot of obvious ringers from the get-go (save for a few, like Baroness or Inter Arma, what happened instead was a lot of underdog entries from bands whose best work we might not have seen coming. There were a number of great debuts, many of which came from bands whose name begins with “I”, as well as some next-level efforts from bands whose promise showed hints of brilliance in past years. So in some ways, this year ended up being more exciting, simply because there were a lot more surprises in the best way.
Here are the 25 best metal albums of the past year
25. Idle Hands – Mana
You have to admire a metal band that can deliver lines like “I dream of dragons!” and “I was only seventeeeen!,” completely straight-faced and, presumably, without any level of self-deprecating satire. Yet in doing so, there’s no way that Idle Hands aren’t having an absolute blast on Mana. God knows I am. The Portland-based group casts a witchy fusion of mid-’80s goth and post-punk with classic heavy metal roar—with just the right amount of glitter-and-hairspray glam to give their gloomy hybrid a proper sheen. Their sound is at once immediate and versatile, whether catalyzed into a soaring ’80s metal anthem like “Give Me to the Night” or the fiery riffs of “Blade and the Will.” Even when Mana in rare moments veers close to being the Vaseline-lens soap opera version of Tribulation or In Solitude, nothing derails the genuine thrills to be found here.
24. Sunn O))) – Life Metal
It’s always been something of a stretch to call Sunn O))) a metal band, seeing as how their heavy drones still have more in common with an artist like Tim Hecker than Iron Maiden (plus their strongest album overall is a graceful and meditative work whose closing track pays tribute to Alice Coltrane). But they did, after all, title their first of two 2019 releases Life Metal, and really, who am I to argue? It’s also an outstanding piece of work. While Sunn O))) have never evaded risks, experimentation or swatting at expectations—or if not swatting, gently nudging them away with their colossal vibrations—Life Metal is perhaps the band’s purest work, a massive yet spiritually nourishing piece of music. Yes, the guitars roar, and yes, this is probably still deafening in a live setting, but put this in your headphones and see how good you feel after being immersed in the duo’s colossal sound bath.
23. Schammasch – Hearts of No Light
It’s hard to know where to start with an album like Hearts of No Light, because there’s just so damn much going on. At the root of everything is black metal, ostensibly, but that’s not really what broadcasts the loudest here. There are Godflesh-style moments of industrial grind, dark beauty in the vein of Imperial Triumphant, the complex transcendence of 777-era Blut Aus Nord, genuine rock anthems and, yeah, even some pure black metal in moments. The Swiss band have never been ones to hew too close to the straight and narrow, and their avant garde elements are counterbalanced with a humanity that adds a moving, deeply affecting element to what’s already a spectacular 67 minutes of music. Somehow when I wasn’t looking, this became an exceptional year for black metal, and Schammasch have a lot to do with that.
22. Creeping Death – Wretched Illusions
The 13 seconds of eerie ambiance that closes “Consumed,” the final track on Creeping Death’s Wretched Illusions, is the rare moment of open, breathable space on the Texas death metal band’s debut. Which is just fine, really—death metal with a wide breadth of dynamics is great, but by no means necessary. Rather, Creeping Death charge forth like they’re in the Ironman race of their lives, each of the 10 tracks here raging and roaring with deliciously pummeling filth. Their secret weapon is tone; though it can often be a facile defense for otherwise mediocre works of chug-n-grunt, here, the band’s infectious crunch only makes a good thing better, augmenting their intensity with masterful aesthetic detail.
21. No One Knows What the Dead Think – No One Knows What the Dead Think
It’s best not to do anything else while listening to the debut album by No One Knows What the Dead Think. You can’t really. Try to concentrate on another task while the New Jersey-based grindcore band goes into total-annihilation mode—which is the entire duration of their 19-minute debut album. You can’t. You won’t. Don’t even bother. Just become one with their chainsaw tornado and enjoy the reckless destruction as it happens. While technically this is a debut, the personnel behind it are old pros, specifically Jon Chang and Rob Marton, formerly of grind titans Discordance Axis. So the chaos they wield is controlled, even expertly constructed. If you can imagine what cybernetic killer bees on speed might sound like, you’re in the ballpark, but that doesn’t do justice to the fact that there are genuinely brilliant songs on this album. “Autumn Flower” might not be the pretty, delicate composition its title indicates, but it’s far more intricate than the bog-standard grindcore beater. They make destruction look elegant.
20. Full of Hell – Weeping Choir
The Full of Hell show I saw back in June featured a pit with the widest radius I’d ever seen. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone there participated—it looked kind of like a food processor, with the majority of people filling in the corners of the room while spinning blades of chaos whipped up a frenzy in the center. And though I steered clear of the bruising myself, albums like Weeping Choir tend to be exactly the kind of musical motivation needed to dive headfirst into a swirling mass of elbows and knuckles. Even more raw, visceral and destructive than the band’s 2017 album Trumpeting Ecstasy, Weeping Choir is all throttle, all needle-in-the-red mayhem, with occasional moments of noise-ridden doom and one noise-jazz saxophone solo. It ain’t subtle, but that’s not what Full of Hell is about. This is the album to reach for if you need 25 minutes of nothing but fucking shit up good and proper.
19. False – Portent
One of the funniest complaints about False’s Portent that I’ve seen is that it’s only four tracks, one of which was released as a single early, and one is just a short outro—so it was really just building suspense for two tracks. The buried lede here is that the single was 11 minutes long, and the other two are a combined 28. Not that I don’t understand human nature and how much anticipation colors our enjoyment of things, especially given that the short-attention-span nature of digital media has vastly diminished our ability to let something have a shelf life. But also that’s silly, because a 40 minute album with three tracks is positively epic. False are a black metal band—raw, visceral, harsh—and yet they use that surging dark energy to sculpt expansive and thrilling musical odysseys, and there’s rarely a moment that goes by on any of them that feels wasted or for that matter even ordinary. The opening moments of “The Serpent Sting, The Smell of Goat” should be enough to convince—and it only grows stronger from there.
18. Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling
If we’ve learned anything over the past decade in underground metal, it’s that New York black metal has a distinctive sound. It’s more progressive, more technical, infused with the proficiency of King Crimson and melodic intensity of ’90s post-hardcore. And few bands within its scene have consistently released albums as strong as Yellow Eyes have. Though they’ve flown a little lower under the radar than the venerated Krallice or the more flamboyant Imperial Triumphant, Yellow Eyes once again prove the depth of their songwriting and musicianship on Rare Field Ceiling. It’s not necessarily a surprise that they’ve once again delivered a great album. They don’t half-ass it. Though they may be plainclothes heshers who let their music do the talking for them, what it says is something profound and dynamic, providing aggression and endorphins that bring the listener closer toward transcendence.
17. Ithaca – The Language of Injury
The moment anyone catches a whiff of nuance or beauty on a metalcore record, watch how fast it ceases to be metalcore, at least in the eyes of that particular beholder. But when you cut through the biases, what shines through on the debut album from London-based mathcore band Ithaca is the level of depth and diversity among their riffs, screeches, harmonics and dissonance. In fact, that was more or less their mission statement: the band formed “out of a mutual love of metallic hardcore but despair at its lack of ambition.” Ithaca’s visceral, seething anthems and dizzying technical prowess are only part of the equation, though, as their tendencies toward more creative songwriting and the expert building of space is what stands out strongest here. On “Slow Negative Order” they employ melancholy arpeggios, on “Gilt,” an almost shoegaze-like density. And closing track “Better Abuse” is simply one of the most achingly gorgeous songs to come out of hardcore in a long time. So call it what you want, I suppose, but The Language of Injury is one of the strongest debuts this year in metal, hardcore and all spaces inside and around the venn diagram.
16. Waste of Space Orchestra – Syntheosis
One of my live highlights this year was finally (finally!) getting to see Oranssi Pazuzu, whose performance included some stunning sure-to-be-highlights from their upcoming Nuclear Blast debut. And yet, this year they—along with collaborators Dark Buddha Rising—already delivered a great, weird, psychedelic and consuming piece of sonic majesty under the name Waste of Space Orchestra. Syntheosis was born when the two bands came together for a special Roadburn performance, making this a kind of psych-metal opera that’s an immersive force of nature. Though it delves into realms farther out from the usual OP studio efforts, which is saying quite a bit, the two bands come together as one to deliver a masterful cosmic journey. Though it has its individual moments of glory, it’s best to sit back and experience its intense force of nature in full, 2001-style. Careful not to burn up on reentry.
15. Haunter – Sacramental Death Qualia
Texas’ Haunter contributes to their home state’s long legacy of metal by obliterating tradition altogether. The progressive black metal band doesn’t share much in common with the likes of Pantera, Power Trip or even Absu, but rather the expressionist shapes they fashion more closely resemble those of New York’s Krallice or Canada’s Gorguts. The band’s compositions are intricate and labyrinthine, as are their song titles (what does “Dispossessed Phrenic Antiquity” even mean, you ask?). But take each of these lengthy, ambitious tracks piece by piece and what you find is one stunning moment of breathtaking instrumentality after another, with grace, hooks and triumph, all stitched together to create a whole that’s even greater than its many impeccable parts.
14. Mizmor – Cairn
Looking back over my 25 favorite metal albums of the past year, I find that most of them fit fairly comfortably into one of two categories: 1. Metal for wild, debaucherous nights of eyeliner and whiskey shots; and 2. metal for curling into a fetal position as the weight of the world slowly crushes you. Mizmor’s Cairn is clearly the second, and perhaps more so than any other album to be found here. Its four tracks are each, in themselves, monolithic, all of them part of a lengthy examination of religion, nihilism, the inherent meaninglessness of life and the struggle to find that meaning for oneself. Party metal, this ain’t. But for how heavy it is on the soul, it’s pretty badass—when it’s not achingly beautiful. “Cairn to God”‘s slo-mo doom riffs stand up to both Sleep and Electric Wizard in their prime, while “Cairn to Suicide” is an immersion into transcendent black metal depths. Feelgood metal album of the year? Certainly not. Although, after enduring a work of catharsis like this provides, it’s hard not to feel as if a weight has been lifted.
13. Torche – Admission
For listeners of a lot of metal bands, a song like Torche’s “Admission” might be a line in the sand. Infusing Loveless-style shoegaze textures into a Siamese Dream-style alt-rock anthem, Torche offer up a single that’s a perfect fusion of pop, metal and indie rock. Which would be surprising for any other band, but for Torche it’s the next step on a long progression of making genre lines and stereotypes blur to the point of essentially erasing them. Admission is neither their most urgent album (that was Meanderthal) nor their most pop (that was Harmonicraft), but it is perhaps their most balanced, juxtaposing a hook-laden immediacy with Mack truck low-end and impenetrable fuzz that feels like Torche at their most potent. And of course there’s “Admission” itself, which is, to my ears, one of the best songs they’ve written to date.
12. Devil Master – Satan Spits on Children of Light
This is one of those metal albums for wild, debaucherous nights I was referring to when writing about Mizmor above. I don’t want to ruin the sinister occult image that Devil Master has cultivated—including Satan, magick and other things I discussed with the band earlier this year—but the sigils they fly aren’t nearly as visible as their freak flag. This band absolutely rages and roars their way through Satan Spits on Children of Light, burning down spiderweb-covered stages with proto-black metal abandon and campy deathrock darkness. Though it’s not necessarily a stretch to find the commonalities between Venom and Christian Death, so far Devil Master are the first band to fuse the two so convincingly, doing so in a way that sounds way more hedonistic and irresistible than so many corpse-painted ghouls would have you believe. There are genuine bangers here—”Her Thirsty Whip,” “Black Flame Candle,” “Desperate Shadow”—which leads one to wonder why blackened goth-rock hasn’t exploded yet.
11. Cloak - The Burning Dawn
Cloak have openly made it their mission to bring some of rock ‘n’ roll’s showmanship and sense of reckless fun back to metal, which is a noble goal. While there are serious conversations to be had about metal, and that should be had about it, it’s also really refreshing to hear a band that might actually crack a smile while laying waste to every stage that they grace. Cloak started off strong in 2017 with To Venomous Depths, an auspicious debut that found the Atlanta-based band reconciling the gothic grandeur of bands like Mercyful Fate with some crunchy, classic rock ‘n’ roll muscle. The Burning Dawn builds on that foundation with even more ambitious and intricate compositions that balance dramatic flair with sheer, straight-for-the-pleasure-zone hooks. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely enjoying myself.
10. White Ward – Love Exchange Failure
The fusion of jazz and metal isn’t necessarily new, but most often it takes shape in its most aggressive, grind-meets-free-jazz form a la Painkiller or really anything else that John Zorn might be involved in somehow. Ukraine’s White Ward instead take interest in the texture and nuance of darkjazz in the vein of Badalamenti or Bohren, coloring their moody black metal epics with a heavier shade of noir. As such, Love Exchange Failure seems a little seedier and sexier than black metal ever deigns to be. Likewise, it’s also sadder and more mournful, reflective of a kind of contemporary loneliness and desperation that speaks to something more human and painfully relatable than occult escapism. Not that there’s no value in that, of course (see the two entries immediately above this one). But within the impeccably cool aesthetics of Love Exchange Failure is something real and emotionally powerful, and that can’t be manufactured.
9. Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance
I should have known that this was going to be a pretty huge year for Canadian death metal troupe Tomb Mold when, by the time I pre-ordered a vinyl copy, 20 Buck Spin was already prepping the second pressing. But the Toronto space-rippers more than earned it. After splashing down into extreme metal consciousness last year with Manor of Infinite Forms, the band tightened up, got a little weirder, got a little flashier, and let their alien tentacles fly. As much a step into more progressive territory as it is an embrace of bigger hooks, Planetary Clairvoyance feels like a hell of a leap in a remarkably short amount of time. But then again, it seemed inevitable. By the time I heard the opening riff of “Accelerative Phenomenae,” in all its ghastly death ‘n’ roll glory, it hit me: Tomb Mold are on a hell of a journey, and we’re lucky to be along for the ride.
8. Lingua Ignota – Caligula
Extreme metal is boundless, and yet it has limitations—a paradox that might be difficult to wrap one’s head around, much as my high school physics teacher’s similar statement about the shape of the known universe made my brain briefly malfunction. You can keep getting more and more extreme, but no matter how fast or loud the music is, the intensity has a ceiling. Which is why artists like Kristin Hayter, better known as Lingua Ignota, are all the more necessary in the realm of extreme music. Caligula isn’t in the strictest terms a metal album—it’s something more like industrial operatic darkwave, and the opening strings of “Faithful Servant Friend of Christ” are closer to Angel Olsen’s new album than Tomb Mold’s. But there is perhaps no listening experience more harrowing in 2019. A sprawling and ambitious depiction and examination of depravity, abuse and violence, Caligula contrasts its most wrenching extremes with beauty and grace, then pulls out the rug via fire-breathing screams and crunching moments of incendiary distortion. I’m not necessarily saying that an album of piano-driven avant garde dirges—if that even really gets at the heart of what Hayter accomplishes here—is the heaviest album of the year. But, well…
7. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race
It’s tempting to read pure escapism into the aesthetics of Colorado’s Blood Incantation—pulp sci-fi alien art adorns the front cover of their down-the-rabbit-hole-conspiracy named second album, Hidden History of the Human Race. And I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a lot of fun to be had when diving into their space-age death metal vortex. Yet what Blood Incantation crafts on just their sophomore release sounds like leagues beyond their already strong debut. Building on the triumph of 2016′s Starspawn, the group packs a lot to process into a relatively slim 36 minutes: relentless pummeling (“Slave Species of the Gods”), technical wizardry (“The Giza Power Plant”), interplanetary instrumental travel (“Inner Paths (To Outer Space)”) and a true epic, sidelong journey (“Awakening from the Dream”). Blood Incantation do more in four tracks what most bands can pull off with 10, crafting forward-thinking metal that doesn’t need to wear out its welcome to make its point.
6. Cloud Rat – Pollinator
A grindcore band will sometimes save space at the end of their typically brief albums for a doom metal song, and sometimes they’ll even drop a 20-minute long sludge metal opus when nobody’s looking. But Michigan grinders Cloud Rat are the rare band who’ll supplement a full-length collection of blistering, breakneck hardcore with an EP of synth-laden darkwave. Do Not Let Me Off the Cliff was an interesting surprise, but even without the gloomy synth-pop bonus material, Pollinator itself would have stood apart from the grindcore pack. Taut and relentless as ever, Cloud Rat on their fourth full-length showcase the true breadth of their exercises in aggression, be they in the form of full-frontal face rippers, arpeggio laden art-metal anthems, gloomy sludge dirges or post-punk-influenced pit-starters. There’s nothing about Pollinator that feels traditional in the slightest, save for the idea of a band of road warriors using volume and sheer sonic power as weapons in a war for the soul. That’s punk as fuck.
5. Immortal Bird – Thrive on Neglect
In the act of documenting the year’s best metal, it seems appropriate to take a moment to ask ourselves what it is that we love about metal. It’s a bit like opera or professional wrestling; we get deeply wrapped up in the complex mythology, terminology, rules and form, but at the end of the day, it’s the adrenaline rush of hearing or seeing a human being doing something that most of us are simply physically incapable of doing. That happens quite a few times on Thrive on Neglect; in just the first track, “Anger Breeds Contempt,” Chicago’s Immortal Bird make their way from being a well-oiled machine capable of breakneck, technical death ‘n’ roll that’s sounds as fun as it is hard to play to a hushed passage of prog fusion that’s both delighfully nerdy and kind of pretty. But mostly Immortal Bird stick to the utterly ripping—and stop-on-a-dime precise—bursts of blackened death metal that set them apart as an exemplary case of metal that’s easy to love not just because it’s good metal, which it most certainly is, but because it’s a feat of human excellence.
4. Spirit Adrift – Divided by Darkness
Two things we know to be true in 2019: Everyone is pretty miserable, and the state of the world (America being a pretty big part of that) is dire. One isn’t always the cause of the other, but the two are certainly related, and escapism isn’t really getting us much of anywhere. Most of the time, anyway. Spirit Adrift’s soaring, stunning third album could in large part fall under some form of escapist entertainment, but there are far more layers to the Phoenix band’s old-school riffstravaganza. The power chords and marching drums of opening track “We Will Not Die” provide context for the motivational charge behind the album, as much a statement of self-determination as it is a condemnation of forces of corruption and oppression. Badass though it might be, around the four-minute mark when the guitar solo really begins to cook, the idea of survival and protest begins to seem really goddamn fun. That’s really just a small sliver of what makes this topical yet musically triumphant album such a joy to return to; “Angel & Abyss,” the six-minute centerpiece, is an even grander piece that only gets better after a few more spins. As a whole, however, it’s something of a heavy metal ideal: A healthy distrust of authority catalyzed into pure catharsis for the listener.
3. Inter Arma – Sulphur English
The burning forest image that adorns the front cover of Inter Arma’s fourth album, which encapsulates the feeling of the album better than most words we have at our disposal. Initial buzz pegged this as the band’s “death metal” album, though the presence of said influence proved only one piece of a much more complex whole, as is typically the case with the ambitious, iconoclastic Richmond band. Inter Arma, for all their power and proficiency, are second to none in terms of crafting eerie, all-consuming atmosphere, their furious instrumentation like the flames consuming the forest: terrifying, destructive, yes, but also breathtakingly beautiful. And Sulphur English, for being as thorny and sinister as it is, contains some of the band’s most beautiful moments, like the chilling doom-folk of “Stillness” or the Twin Peaks sludge of “Blood on the Lupines.” It takes only TJ Childers’ eight-armed percussive pummel in “The Atavist’s Meridian” or Mike Paparo’s commanding scream in standout “Howling Lands” to remind us the kind of damage they’re able to inflict.
2. Baroness – Gold & Grey
There was some consternation early on about the title of Baroness’ fifth album. It’s called Gold & Grey, even though the color palette actually looks more orange, and orange would, in fact, complete the secondary color cycle they’ve already almost finished (also Michael Nelson at Stereogum brought up the Orange Amplifier connection, which seems like a given on the heavy rock checklist, but far be it from me to argue with a professional visual artist on his vision). But frontman John Baizley explained that the conceptual contrast is about more than mere hues: “Life is this far more complicated, difficult thing: neither gold, nor grey; nor black, nor white,” he said in a recent Kerrang! interview. “It’s not about those precious, shining, eye-catching, valuable moments, or the dull, drab, melancholic ones. This album represents that space in-between.” Even more than 2012′s Yellow and Green, Gold & Grey is an album about harmonious contradictions. It’s an album of both triumph and defeat, of both grit and glory. The album begins with one of the band’s harshest tracks to date, the crushing “Front Toward Enemy,” and reaches a stunning headphone climax with closer “Pale Sun.” Gold & Grey is rich and sumptuous, it’s prickly and difficult. And it also contains some utterly jaw-dropping songwriting moments (“Seasons,” “Cold Blooded Angels”). Though they’ll likely never make another record that resembles Blue Record, I’m not sure it would be worth the effort for them to try. Baroness are at their best when taking on the unexpected and pushing beyond their comfort zone, stepping beyond the familiar to arrive upon something brilliant.
1. Big|Brave - A Gaze Among Them
Embracing the music of Big|Brave requires openly inviting in the overarching concept of the band itself. “The question we posed to ourselves is ‘how do we make something interesting enough for the duration of a song that is one chord?’, basically,” said the band’s guitarist and vocalist Robin Wattie when I spoke to her earlier this year. On paper, that might seem like an intellectual exercise more than anything, but in practice what the Montreal trio creates is truly dazzling. Their greatest illusion is in convincing the listener that the one chord they carve out over the length of a nine-minute song is, in fact, much more than that. And it is—their songs, while rooted in a minimalist tension, spiral out into psychedelic soundscapes of resonant, heavy drones, noise, feedback and ambience, and with a greater emphasis on melodic immediacy, all without abandoning their central M.O. That A Gaze Among Them contains such a breathtaking range and diversity of sound in spite of this is testament to their creative vision, and a fascinating counterpoint to the idea that limitations are as we perceive them. This album is beautiful, massive, even crushing while harboring a delicateness, allowing ample room for space within their towering mass of sound. I should also note that Wattie wasn’t convinced, herself, that Big|Brave was actually a metal band. But this is the most stunning set of songs to emerge from a world of heavy music this year, and after hearing it my perception of music is a little bit different than it was before I heard it. And that, to me, feels like exactly the kind of thing the best metal album of the year should do.
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