If these lists are to be of use to anyone, they require more than a summation of "I thought this stuff was really cool" or "I'd feel bad if I didn't include everything on my exhaustive list." I realize these lists are completely subjective and are more of a personal time capsule than anything else. But they can still be useful for readers who are looking to catch up releases they may have missed. So with that, let me re-introduce my (slightly modified) selection criteria from last year:
- Did I enjoy the entire album? Is there as little to no filler?
- Does the album advance metal (or hardcore) in a way that keeps it worth caring about?
- Does it innovate in an engaging way, instead of simply chasing the false thrill of novelty? Otherwise, does it follow older styles in a compelling way?
- Do I see myself coming back to this album a month from now? How about a year? Maybe even five years?
- Would I strongly recommend this album to a friend?
With this criteria in mind, here are my top 15 albums of the year. Metal in 2015 continues to grow, as each stylistic branch expands and yields sub-branches of its own. However, the source of this growth (i.e. the classic bands that can still pack arenas and bring legions of new listeners) is beginning to wane as the old masters age. How this will play out depends on a number of factors: the stability of demand for metal music, the ability of younger bands to build an audience, and the quality of the music itself. If 2015 is any sign, metalheads need not worry about the last part. But the other two are worth bearing in mind, as metal may go the way of classical music and jazz– art forms still very much alive, but with a smaller, more specialized fan-base. But in the meantime, I hope you enjoy the albums listed below, and don't forget to check out my Spotify playlist (including some non-metal stuff as well)!
15. LUCIFER Lucifer I
I was a huge fan of The Oath’s 2014 album. I was very disappointed when they broke up. I was very skeptical of Lucifer when their album came out. My biggest fear was that they’d add to the pile of unremarkable, vaguely 70’s-influenced doom which I call “lava-lamp metal.” But my fears were positively dashed away by the excellent riffs and irresistible melodies on this debut. Let’s hope US audiences actually get a chance to see this band live (maybe they’ll slip “Black Rainbow” into their set…yes/no?).
Favorite song: “Purple Pyramid”
14. DEATHHAMMER Evil Power
Wicked, thrashy and absolutely ridiculous. The neo-thrash movement could only go on for so long without becoming formulaic and stale. To make a thrash album worth investigating, you need to give us something outside the standard Overkill/Anthrax/DRI-influenced rubric. Deathhammer’s template is somewhere around early Bathory, early Slayer, Venom and perhaps a touch of Bonded by Blood-era Exodus (it’s in the vocals). Whatever it is, it’s positively manic, almost hilarious in its rage, keeping it together just enough to not fall off the tracks. And even if it did it'd still be fun as hell.
Favorite song: “Sinner’s Possession”
13. HORRENDOUS Araneta
But if you want something you can take more seriously, Horrendous is the death metal band for you. The metal press seems to be split on this record, somewhere between worshipping admiration and high-horsed cynicism. To be honest, I wasn't really into last year’s Ecdysis. But Araneta convinced me of Horrendous’ status as death metal’s new guiding force. In recent years, the genre has seen an oversaturation of bands aping the brutal-tech death style of Origin, Necrophagist and Obscura. Not that there’s anything wrong with this style, but we’re well overdue for a fresh, raw, creative elixir for our robotic, sweep-picking hangover.
Favorite song: "The Nihilist"
12. BONEHUNTER Evil Triumphs Again
Another gem from Hell’s Headbangers. It’s hard to argue with a band who puts a Doom tribute as its album cover (why does he have a bear head?!). And it’s impossible to argue with an album as ripping as this one. Self-consciously old-school, Evil Triumphs Again is a roaring mix of Kill em' All-swagger, early Bathory-style wickedness, and the stripped down attitude of GBH and The Exploited. And I have to stand up and applaud any band clever enough to name a song "Deliver Us to Evil." Amen.
Favorite song: “Burning Skulls”
11. KAMPFAR Profan
This was actually kind of a surprise. Though I liked Kampfar’s previous album, it didn’t stick with me after multiple listens. It’s cool if black metal goes off in different directions, but I’ll always prefer albums where the approach is more straightforward. That doesn’t mean it has to rip off Under a Funeral Moon, but it speaks highly for black metal as a style when the orthodox sound can be regenerated time after time so successfully. Profan brings in an anthemic dimension through the use of clean vocals, something which adds a unique flair to this highly-satisfying listen.
Favorite song: “Icons”
10. GRAVE Out of Respect for the Dead
It’s a Grave album: The End. No but really, it’s difficult to argue with classic Swedish death metal when it’s executed so well, album after album. So while they'll be as innovative as they were on Into the Grave or as (basically) perfect as on You’ll Never See, that doesn’t matter anymore. Grave makes awesome death metal albums with great riffs, memorable grooves and solid songwriting. To ask fro anything else would just miss the point.
Favorite song: “Out of Respect for the Dead”
9. VIOLENT REACTION Marching On
It always feel good to put a punk album on this list. Not because there’s a particular novelty in me liking a punk album, but it seems like this kind of hardcore punk rarely produces new albums anymore (at least not ones also integrated with metal, ska or other influences). For anyone who wants to hear an authentic, well-produced take on classic 80s hardcore, look no further. I still can't get over that snare drum sound. And I'm still glad someone wrote a song like "Crust Fund."
Favorite song: “Leave me Out”
8. DEMONCY Empire of the Fallen Angel (Eternal Black Dominion)
Yes I know, this is a re-recorded version of the 2003 record, with only four new songs added at the beginning. But you know what? I get to put a Demoncy album on my Top 15 list. Compared to other USBM acts (including #7 below), Demoncy gets very little attention or recognition outside of a small, underground following. This is unfortunate, as their foreboding mix of Beherit and Incantation makes for an transcendent and terrifying listen. When you turn on this album, your senses are immediately purged into a dark, mysterious world of blaring guitars, pummeling drums and that eerie whisper that only Ixithra could produce. Whatever melody is present here is used to amplify the sense of sorrow and hopelessness, but not quite desperation. Like a lot great black metal, it manages to stimulate the listener’s emotions, but still keep a dark, ethereal distance.
Favorite song: “Risen From the Ancient Ruins”
7. LEVIATHAN Scar Sighted
Then again, some great black metal eliminates all distance and rips your soul right out of you. Leviathan accomplishes this on Scar Sighted through a brutal foray into death metal territory, along with horrifying voice-overs and effects. Scar Sighted is literally a child's night-terror put to record. The atmosphere of terror, dread and loss is unavoidable here, but laced with a strange undercurrent of hope at the end- as if a great, lost spirit was finally put to rest.
Favorite song: “Dawn Vibration”
6. MY DYING BRIDE Feel the Misery
Haunting, mournful, death-laden doom metal from one of the style’s undisputed masters. Though I was a huge fan of their previous record (and actually liked For Lies I Sire quite a bit too), Feel the Misery might be My Dying Bride's late career masterpiece. "My Father Left Forever" has some of the best riff-work the band's ever put together, and the title track give me chills every time I turn it on. When a record captures a band's vision so completely, it's nothing less than essential.
Favorite song: “Feel the Misery”
5. TAAKE Stridens Hus
I realize this one was technically released in Europe last December, but since it wasn’t available to me in the US until February, this excellent black metal album belongs in the top 5. Taake is one of the lesser-known acts from the early 2nd-wave Norwegian scene (originally starting in 1993 as Thule). More than two decades in, the band is still churning out released in the classic style, with their own signature touches. This purity of purpose is supplemented by an array unique guitar work that’s almost reminiscent of classic rock, but without losing an ounce of darkness. It moves, innovates and explores, but remains recognizably cold, grim and black. May Taake continue to rage for years to come.
Favorite song: “Gamle Norig”
4. MGLA Exercises in Futility
Every metal journalist seemingly went nuts over this album, which made me both very curious and a little skeptical. But every once in a black moon, the hivemind gets something right. The riffs, song structures and drum-work on Exercises in Futility is so well-constructed that the only way to describe it is "High Black Metal Drama." Mgła does what so many bands try and fail to do: create emotionally engaging metal without becoming overtly sentimental. And the band manages to create a style that brings in unexpected elements (the Paradise Lost influence should not have escaped anyone here), but still be recognizable as black metal.
Favorite song: "Exercises in Futility I"
3. PARADISE LOST The Plague Within
Speaking of Paradise Lost, what an incredible release, and at this stage of their career. Like My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost emerged out of the early 90s death metal explosion and brought in a sense of romanticism and gloom that forged a sub-genre all its own. Rather than let longevity turn into complacency, Paradise Lost has honed experience into expertise with those unmistakable vocals, heavy riffs and an enveloping background of piano and classical instruments. "Punishment Through Time" might be my driving song of the year, and "An Eternity of Lies" might contains some of the most effective vocal harmony work metal has ever produced.
Favorite song: “An Eternity of Lies”
2. PANOPTICON Autumn Eternal
Well, there's no fighting this one. I’m an easy sell for anything reminiscent of Agalloch, Blut Aus Nord (the Memoria albums), Fen and Bergtatt-era Ulver. This makes Panopticon a natural choice for this list, but on Autumn Eternal, the Appalachian-folk instrumentation is trimmed down to a minimum in favor of straightforward black metal. Great as Roads to the North was, this album is far and above that record in terms of songwriting and atmosphere. Autumn has a special, evocative effect on people, one that works both through the beauty of the season and the foreboding of the coming winter. This effect is captured brilliantly here by the clever construction of emotive riffs, weaved in such a way that maintains the aggression necessary for a great extreme metal record. Only the slightly-awkward clean vocal section on "A Superior Lament" prevents this record from overtaking the one occupying the top spot.
Favorite song: “Into the North Woods”
1. OBSEQUaiaeAria of Vernal Tombs
Metal has always had a fascination with the middle ages. The tales of glory, battle and a hint of magic make it a natural set-piece for metal's tendency for transcendence and escapism. You might be giggling to yourself, and that's for a good reason. Much of the “medieval-themed” metal out there still reminds one more of a Renaissance Fair, rather than taking the listener back in time. In an accomplishment that is nothing short of canonical in its brilliance, Obsequaiae has crafted the ultimate medieval metal album, one steeped firmly in the black metal tradition of bands like Sacramentum, Dissection and Vinterland. The melodic riffs, reverb-heavy vocals and smooth transitions between slower journeys and faster gallops paints a picture of mysterious forests, holy pilgrimages and grand ceremonies. It's a record that calls to mind grand literary classics like The Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Night and The Once and Future King. For extreme metal, a class of music often mocked as cheesy and over-the-top, the ability to evoke such a rich atmosphere is only attainable by the greatest of artistic talents. Listen to this record, and then listen to it several more times.
Favorite song: “Until All Ages Fall”
The selections below are less of an "honorable mentions" list and more like an addition to an essential 2015 playlist. Each act below put out fantastic songs, but placed them on albums that didn't quite meet the criteria above. Chelsea Wolfe is essential non-metal listening for all metal fans. Tsjuder and Marduk will always be reliable, brutal black metal units ready to strike ("The Blond Beast" might be the most dance-able black metal song ever made). Thulcandra keeps the spirit of The Somberlain alive on "Ascension Lost." And finally, while the album itself was a little underwhelming, Myrkur's "Onde Børn" is Ulver-worship at its absolute best.
Myrkur "Onde Børn"
Chelsea Wolfe-"Iron Moon"
Marduk "The Blond Beast"
Thulcandra "Ascension Lost"