In compiling this best-of list for 2014, I had visions of it being a good old-fashioned top 10. Then I realized it had to be a top 15. After pouring over piles of releases and looking back on some of the brilliant music that emerged this year, it became apparent that this could only work as the top 20 you see before you.
Regardless of opinion, and beyond the minutiae of which album ranks above which album, one thing has been made abundantly clear. Between the stroke of midnight last January 1st down through the holiday season this month, we as fans of extreme music have been positively spoiled rotten with amazing releases. The voices of those cynical bastards who bitch and moan about how much better it was in the old days are being steadily muted. Talent and innovation are everywhere, as are bands who have rekindled and re-imagined the old-school spirit with ironclad authenticity. Scenes are springing up like flowers after a spring rain, as each passing day the internet shrinks the world ever smaller.
We are living in a renaissance time, folks, you can have no doubts about that. Whether you're talking about the lush, forested hills of Virginia or the volcanic, treeless austerity of Iceland; the lands may be different but the brilliance is palpable. From the windswept moors of England and Ireland, over to the rugged mountains of Norway, and on down to the gritty concrete slabs of Brooklyn, NY, out to everywhere in between, younger bands, veteran bands, reunion albums and fresh new projects; 2014 had it all. And my oh my has that American black metal scene truly come of age.
Let's take a closer look at the albums that stand just a little bit taller than the rest of the 2014 pack . . .
20. IRON REAGAN – The Tyranny of Will
If you grew up in the era of great crossover thrash, this offering by super-group Iron Reagan hits every sweet spot in the shout-along, punk cum hardcore cum thrash laden template that is so easy to ape, yet so hard to do right. The Tyranny of Will is an absolute shitstorm of circle-pit inducing mania, expertly executed and featuring every bit of honest, tongue-in-cheek chaos this kind of music demands. (Relapse Records)
19. BASTARD SAPLING – Instinct Is Forever
These days American black metal is every bit as dominant and creative as anything coming out of anywhere they pronounce the letter 'J' like the letter 'Y.' This band from Virginia has laid down a mighty gauntlet with Instinct is Forever, injecting elements of a sprawling, southern sound into a restless maelstrom of blasting drums and superb riffing. (Forcefield Records / Gilead Media)
18. MORTALS – Cursed To See The Future
Erupting out of the concrete sidewalks of Brooklyn NY comes the sludgy black metal racket of three determined ladies in the form of debut full-length album Cursed To See The Future. Vast and hypnotic, morose yet enraged, this is surely one of the best starts to a career in extreme metal you'll hear this or any other year. Experience the viciousness and watch yet another example of an American band finding even more twists in the serpentine path that is black metal. (Relapse Records)
17. PALLBEARER – Foundations of Burden
Elegant and elegaic, confident and timeless, the hype is indeed real my friends. Pallbearer evoke a swath of emotion with their long and winding songs, the dreary mood on Foundations of Burden beset by gorgeous, monstrous guitars and the wistful voice of Brett Campbell. There is magic in this group of guys from, of all places, Arkansas. Channeling everything that Black Sabbath began and Candlemass ran with, Pallbearer are leaders of this very big, very maudlin wave of doom that is sweeping metaldom right now. (Profound Lore Records)
16. WOLVES OF AVALON – Boudicca's Last Stand
Battles, legend, lore and lush retellings of the tales of ancient England once again emerge from the brilliant mind of the vastly under-appreciated Metatron (The Meads of Asphodel). On Boudicca's Last Stand, the Wolves of Avalon paint the sonic portraits on their second album with the help of many notable musicians, including Thurios from Drudkh, and Varggoth from Nokturnal Mortem. A varied vocal and instrumental approach, featuring female vocals, clean male vocals, as well as mandolin, flute, and violin weave effortlessly in and around one another to create a cohesive gem of Celtic pagan-themed metal music for the open-minded palette to savor. (Godreah Records)
15. SANCTUARY – The Year The Sun Died
Twenty-five years is a long time between albums. For Warrel Dane, the intervening years saw the man achieve creative pinnacles that needn't be mentioned here. Reestablishing the legendary Sanctuary, he and his colleagues (Hull, Rutledge, Sheppard, and Butler) have delivered a majestic beast of brooding heavy metal. The Year The Sun Died is the album Metallica and Queensryche wish they could still make. Honest, soaring, wonderfully depressing, yet oddly hopeful in places, this is an album not to be missed by any adherents to the classic metal sound. (Century Media Records)
14. WINTERFYLLETH – The Divination of Antiquity
English black metal is no longer laughed at by the world at large. It is envied, copied, and much respected in fact. Winterfylleth is a big reason why. On their fourth release, The Divination of Antiquity, the boys from Manchester have shown us that their take on the tales of their heritage, refracted through the lens of classic Emperor, has taken on a magisterial radiance all its own. As stunning a vision of black metal as one could imagine, this is the sonic manifestation of windswept moors, rife with the harrowing dirges of the ghosts of yore. As menacing as it is superbly played, it is quite simply not to be missed. (Candlelight Records)
13. BEHEMOTH – The Satanist
Despite their worldwide success, Behemoth is a band that I felt had developed a reliance on over-the-top histrionics – especially with the hyper intense vocals, getting away from the cohesive songwriting that once was their hallmark. Something, however, became beautifully rotten in the state of Poland this year. The Satanist is about as big a one-eighty as you will see in the world of ultra popular acts in extreme metal. Avoiding the pitfalls of trying too hard a la Morbid Angel, Behemoth have penned a glorious ode to the Lightbringer, Lucifer, with the greatest strengths on the album coming in the more unusual songs like the title track and 'O Father, O Satan, O Sun.' They f**king nailed it with this one, folks. Its the album they always threatened to make, and for now, it is the pinnacle of their career.
12. EINHERJER – Av Oss, For Oss
Embracing thematically all the tropes, ideals, and imagery of the pagan/Viking metal scene, Einherjer are O.G. godfathers of a scene that appears to have relinquished its reign as the hot sub-genre of metal post-2010. Despite not having the stateside pull of Amon Amarth and Tyr, Einherjer have soldiered on for themselves and their rabid faithful only, and trends be damned. Av Oss, For Oss is a powerhouse of folk-y anthems and dark atmospheres, inducing a jig or two without ever approaching the more lighthearted realms of the Finntroll's and Korpiklaani's of the world. As epic in scope as this music is supposed to be, Einherjer continue to cut the surface of the water with their own keel, sailing their longship in the name of Bathory without rehashing anyone's sound. (Indie Recordings)
11. KAMPFAR – Djevelmakt
For me, pagan black metal begins and ends with Fredrikstad, Norway's own Kampfar. Long a bastion of superior song craft and traditional minded, freezing cold melodies, anything they have put out since their inception in 1994 has been, without fail, of the highest quality. Djevelmakt continues this upward trend, as melody and traditional instrumentation combine with Dolk's rasping scream to tell the tales of the unforgiving Nature and timeless folklore of their homeland. Sharp as the scything ax blade, their sound continues to evolve and surpass virtually any other band currently attempting this kind of folkloric black metal. (Indie Recordings)
10. 1349 – Massive Cauldron of Chaos
Continuing the Norwegian theme going on in the middle of this list, 1349 emerged with a bit of a surprise this year, which in itself is not a surprise. The enigmatic troupe has certainly marched to their own blast beat, and while past releases have ranged from scorching hammer-blows to eyebrow raising curve balls, I've always felt a high degree of genius was lurking in the mind of Ravn, Frost and company. Massive Cauldron of Chaos is the realization of that potential. Though the foundation of Moonfog Records/Thorns/ millennial Satyricon is in use here, the boys truly give it a monstrous and unique twist of their own. The result is some killer black metal showing the Norse originators won't be outdone. (Candlelight Records)
9. WOLVHAMMER – Clawing Into Black Sun
Another amazing band in American black metal, Wolvhammer incorporates elements of sludge and punk into their varied and scorching take on the genre. Having Jeff Wilson (ex-Nachtmystium) on board doesn't hurt either, as the more focused songwriting on their third long player has brought Wolvhammer to another stratosphere of awesome. From killer opener 'The Silver Key' through magnificent closing opus 'A Light That Doesn't Yield', the all important third album is most certainly a breakthrough for Wilson, Adam Clemans, and Heath Rave. The black sky is the limit for these lads. (Profound Lore Records)
8. WALDGEFLÜSTER – Meine Fesseln
From the wonderful Bindrune Records comes a very special album by German mastermind Winterherz. Incorporating elements of pagan black metal with wistful clean sung passages, as well as a seamless infusion of mandolin, violin, kantele, and piano, Meine Fesseln embodies the longing and melancholy of the misanthropic spirit of black metal. A vast monument to emotion and isolation, each song is a journey, each passage a bend in the autumnal forest path. For fans of Agalloch, Drudkh, and Woods of Ypres/Thrawsunblat. Stunning. Unforgettable. (Bindrune Recordings)
7. PANOPTICON – Roads To The North
Bluegrass and American folk music meets black metal. Never think you'd see those genres all in the same sentence? I didn't either. Austin Lunn has made this happen over numerous albums and with Roads To The North, the paradigm of perfection has completely shifted. For all the dozens of European bands who incorporate their respective nation's folk music into their metal, it is fairly incredible to see something so distinctly American find its way into music so extreme. Far more amazing than any mere blending of disparate genres, Roads To The North is a transcendent tour de force of progressive, black metal influenced heavy metal music. Near perfect production and a tremendous vocal delivery ensure its soon to be classic status among the greats. (Bindrune Recordings)
6. INSOMNIUM – Shadows of the Dying Sun
True melodic death metal is just about gone, chewed up and turned to mush by In Flames and the rest of the weak, derivative whatever-core that has hijacked a once verdant genre. Finnish band Insomnium are a maudlin fist in the face of such dilution of talent. In the past providing many quality moments of sheer melancholic bliss, with Shadows of the Dying Sun the band has truly gotten it dead right. From start to finish this album will raise the hair on your arms as well as rock your face completely off. Fall into it and you won't want to come out; it is a true masterpiece. (Century Media Records)
5. SLOUGH FEG – Digital Resistance
It is one of the great misfortunes of life that there are some bands who will never get the recognition they deserve. San Fransisco, California's Slough Feg were once called The Lord Weird Slough Feg, and beneath the guidance of visionary/vocalist Mike Scalzi have released several high quality albums. Digital Resistance crowns them all, arguably, as their blend of classic NWOBHM elements combined with bardic storytelling will endlessly captivate their listeners. For those unfamiliar, the album is like taking late '70's/early '80's Iron Maiden and mashing it up with classic Jethro Tull. Need anything more be said? (Metal Blade Records)
4. ANATHEMA – Distant Satellites
Sure, their relationship to metal is growing more tenuous by the year, but the former doom metal merchants from Liverpool, England have gone from playing any one definable genre to creating some of the most timeless, unforgettable, tear inducing music to be heard anywhere today. Distant Satellites sees them soaring to even greater heights than before. The male/female vocal tandem of Vinnie Cavanagh and Lee Douglas continues to cut straight to the heart, while the lush soundscapes take simple song structures and layer them into one another until each track becomes a swell of symphonic, progressive splendor all its own. There's even a few surprises in there . . . electronica, noisy post-rock; its all here and it is an absolute stunner. Do not miss it. (Kscope Records)
3. DAWNBRINGER – Night of the Hammer
Chris Black not only helms some of the highest quality underground acts in existence, he does so with an honesty and authenticity rarely eclipsed in today's ultra-modern world of studio gimmickry and effects. The new Dawnbringer album packs a different, more measured punch than past works. Black writes songs purely from the standpoint of love and respect for the act of writing. Classic metal with no regard for decade or trend, Night of the Hammer is the answer to the prayers of anyone fed up with shallow, cookie-cutter metal music for the masses. (Profound Lore Records)
2. SOLSTAFIR – Otta
Iceland's greatest metal export Solstafir turned a lot of heads with last album Svartir Sandar. 2014's offering from their bleak isle has taken many steps forward, featuring mesmerizing vocal lines and only the most exquisitely morose guitar and piano passages. Each song is its own world, showcasing a band who has found a stride few artists of any kind can hope to achieve. (Season of Mist Records)
1. PRIMORDIAL – Where Greater Men Have Fallen
Album of the year for 2014. Primordial have once more crafted a work of profound and utter gravitas, combining sprawling melodies and aching vocals, all the while waxing lyrically on the ills of existence with poetic fervor and unwavering intent. Where Greater Men Have Fallen shall make its mark upon music history with the force of ten thousand hammer blows. The redolence of its simple genius will never go away nor will it fade with time. Virtually no other musical entity in existence today can even hope to match the mastery that is Primordial circa 2014. (Metal Blade Records)
KHOLD – Til Endes . . . . . Black-N-Roll excellence, chock full of killer riffs and raspy Norwegian vocals.
IMPALED NAZARENE – Vigorous and Liberating Death . . . . Frenetic black metal punk from these old school purveyors.
NIGHTBRINGER – Ego Dominus Tuus . . . . Black metal with a hint of the symphonic; move over Dimmu Borgir its Colorado time.
MYRKUR – Myrkur . . . . Keep an eye on this one-woman band from Denmark. Black metal with ethereal female vocals. Stunning.
ACCEPT – Blind Rage . . . . The Teutonic thrashers have gone from strength to strength since hiring singer Mark Tornillo.