The 50 Best Metal Albums Of 2014
In last month’s Black Market, while wrapping up a short commentary on Decibel Magazine’s list of the 40 best albums of 2014, I wrote: “[T]his was a very good year for metal. Every year, though, it seems like the genre expands — to the point that, today, the thing we talk about when we talk about metal is not a thing at all, but an artifact of an idea.” And now that we’re here, about to present you with our own list of the year’s best metal albums, I find myself fixated on that notion:
What are we talking about when we talk about metal?
Everyone has an opinion — and all those opinions are valid. Here’s one, written for Popmatters by my friend and colleague Adrien Begrand, from his year-end writeup on the Japanese band Babymetal, which he (accurately) described as “a full-fledged bridging of extreme metal and J-pop [featuring] three teenaged girls singing atop a wickedly tight metal band”:
In a day and age where the notion of extreme metal is so antiquated and narrow that it’s practically a joke, Babymetal is a revelation, a breath of fresh air. Like it or not, it is by far the most truly extreme metal album of 2014, not to mention one of the most inventive.
Here’s another; this one is pulled from the intro preceding Rolling Stone’s list of the 20 Best Metal Albums Of 2014 — a list compiled by a group of writers whom I respect very much:
Metal may have the heart of a rebellious teenager (and keep it in a jar in the basement), but in 2014 it had the face of a grizzled vet … It was a year when wizened electric wizards rocking low and slow (YOB, Crowbar, SunnO))), Ommadon, et al.) crawled by the fast and the furious on the path to ascend. Grunge pioneers, avant-garde longtimers, and even a hip-hop O.G. got in on the metallurgy and made magic. But anyone under the age of, say, 30? Not as much.
So there ya have it: two declarative statements from two authoritative sources. And … they directly contradict one another. Everyone has an opinion! Here’s mine: I do not agree that Babymetal was “by far the most truly extreme metal album of 2014,” nor do I agree that Ice-T’s rap-metal novelty band Body Count made the 10th best metal album of 2014, and furthermore, that you can use the Body Count album, Manslaughter, as evidence that in 2014, “metal had the face of a grizzled vet.”
It’s not like there are no good counterexamples. Re: the “grizzled vet” thing: I can think of a bunch of young bands — Horrendous, Morbus Chron, Thantifaxath — who in 2014 made better (and more relevant) records than Manslaughter. Re: Babymetal: Extreme? In its own way, yes. But that Wolves In The Throne Room new-age record was just as extreme in its own way as Babymetal, right? And we’re not praising that one for being so extreme. In fairness, you can’t really define the WITTR record as “metal” in any way, shape, or form, but here’s the thing: I don’t really consider Babymetal to be “metal,” either. And while we’re on the subject: That Rolling Stone list includes a pair of records — the Austerity Program’s Beyond Calculation and Scott Walker + SunnO)))’s Soused — that I also don’t really consider to be “metal.” I’m not saying those are bad records, though — they’re good records! And I’m not calling anyone out on their definitions of metal, not saying anyone is wrong; I’m not the metal police over here. If there’s a problem, I’m part of it. It’s up to you. What do you think?
What are we talking about when we talk about metal?
Was 2014 the year of grizzled vets or the year of teenaged girls? Or was it, for you, the year of Pallbearer: a band made up of four 20-something guys who delivered 2014’s most-anticipated and best-received metal record, their sophomore LP, Foundations Of Burden? Or was it the year of Judas Priest: five 60-something guys who released their best album in two and a half decades, though only the 10th best album of their career? Was it the year of Bölzer: a two-piece from Switzerland whose three-song debut EP, Aura, ended 2013 making unexpected appearances in high slots on half the year’s best-of lists, who came to Maryland Deathfest 2014 an unknown entity and went home unquestioned champions, who then released another excellent EP, Soma … but truly came to prominence only when they publicly talked about their swastika tattoos? Or maybe it was the year of Myrkur: an artist who was introduced to us in 2014 as a “one-woman black metal project from the darkness of Scandinavia,” was later revealed to be 29-year-old Ex Cops member/one-time Chanel model Amalie Bruun (working with a drummer named Rex Myrnur), who closed out the year announcing that she’s in the studio with two of Norwegian black metal’s most-revered and highest-profile musicians, two of the genre’s genuine visionaries, prepping for the 2015 release of what could be a massive LP?
Was it any of those things for you? Or none of them? Let’s go broader: Was it the year metal altogether relinquished its commercial aspirations? Or the year in which a metal album unexpectedly debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts? Was it the year metal stopped being metal?
In January, Aaron predicted this would be “the year of hideous sludge,” citing as evidence the then-forthcoming LPs by Indian, Thou, Coffinworm, and Lord Mantis. That same month, I called Woods Of Desolation’s As The Stars “the one to beat” in 2014. There was some validity to those claims, but they were self-fulfilling prophecies, too; results of our own confirmation bias: They were true in part because those were the things on which we focused most intently. But when it came time to make this list, none of us — the five guys who write the Black Market column every month — seemed to agree on anything. There was a lot of, “Yeah? Well, you know, that’s just like your OPINION, man.” There were some areas in which those opinions overlapped, but there was little consensus. We all experienced metal differently in 2014. We all had different definitions.
Me, I listened to a lot of metal — a lot of metal — but there’s no question about this: My year was defined by At The Gates. In January, the Swedish band — one of my favorite bands of all time in any genre — announced 2014 would bring the release of At War With Reality, their first album in 19 years, the unexpected follow-up to their 1995 classic Slaughter Of The Soul — one of my favorite albums of all time in any genre. In May, I saw At The Gates play at Maryland Deathfest. In August I got an advance of the album. In September, its first single dropped. In October, the album was released. And here we are in December, talking about the best albums of 2014.
I spent just about the entire year either thinking about or listening to At The Gates. I love At War With Reality: I won’t say it’s objectively the best album of 2014, because I can’t be objective about the thing, but it’s the album I listened to the most. And I’m pretty comfortable predicting it will be the 2014 album I listen to the most in 2015, and 2016, and beyond. It is an album that means a lot to me — I needed it to be great, and I think it is great — but if it didn’t mean a lot to you, then you might disagree with my assessment. I get that. It all depends on who you are, and where you’re coming from, and what you want, and what you feel. You gotta answer this stuff for yourself.
What are we talking about when we talk about metal?
This list was compiled by me, Ian Chainey, Aaron Lariviere, Wyatt Marshall, and Doug Moore. The only album on here that achieved complete consensus was the one at the very top. That record got votes from all of us, and it deserved those votes. Beyond that, opinions split. Understandably so — the ear that appreciates Artificial Brain (hyper-technical progressive death metal) might not appreciate Woods Of Desolation (lo-fi melodic blackgaze), and vice-versa. Or it might. You gotta go with your ear, just as we went with ours.
Before you even look at the list, though, let me warn you: It is missing some stuff. Some of that is by design. We didn’t consider EPs or splits, which is why you won’t find Bölzer’s Soma or Necros Christos’ Nine Graves or Myrkur’s Myrkur or the Panopticon/Falls Of Rauros split or the Forteresse/Chasse Galerie/Monarque/Csejthe four-way split. There was one full-length, too, that we immediately eliminated from consideration: Pyrrhon’s The Mother Of Virtues. That’s because the guy who sings for Pyrrhon — Doug Moore — also writes for the Black Market. That kinda sucks for Pyrrhon, of course, because The Mother Of Virtues really should be on this list, and it really would be. I’m not gonna pretend to be unbiased, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. It is a fucking fantastic album. You don’t have to take my word. Listen to it.
But other things are missing, too, and when you don’t see them here, you will have questions: How do you make a list of 2014’s FIFTY best metal albums and not include, like, Mayhem? Coffinworm? Midnight? Electric Wizard? Earth? Motherfucking EYEHATEGOD?! I don’t know; I really don’t. But we did. There’s more: Trap Them, Cannibal Corpse, Lord Mantis … We didn’t forget about those albums, nor did we dislike them. We wrote about them throughout the year! We loved them! But when it came time to vote, none of us took the stump for them.
So know this: We fought for the records on this list. We challenged one another, put each other’s choices to the crucible. We sacrificed something else if it meant saving what’s here now. So, you ask: How do you make a list of 2014’s FIFTY best metal albums and not include [X]? It’s because one (or more) of us refused to let go of [Y]. I wasn’t gonna let go of At The Gates, and I didn’t expect anyone else to let go of a record he loved as much I loved At War With Reality. We made a lot of compromises, sure, but to compromise any more than we did would have resulted in a list that represented somebody else’s opinions, not our own.
I do think this was a very good year for metal, no matter how you chose to define it. And I’m really lucky and really thankful that I was once again able to cover it for Stereogum. I’m impossibly lucky and impossibly thankful that our metal coverage in 2014 constantly received such thoughtful, passionate feedback from you guys: I’m blown away to know that you care about this stuff as much as we do. Finally, I’m especially lucky and especially thankful to have shared this space this year with Aaron, Doug, Ian, and Wyatt. We all met working over at Invisible Oranges starting in 2011, and we’ve been friends ever since. The Black Market publishes only once a month, but I swear, we’re all talking to each other just about every day, throughout the day: talking trash, talking writing, talking records.
This is what we talk about when we talk about metal.
Start the list here.
Old Man Gloom - The Ape Of God (Profound Lore)
Even in a world where unconventional releases are de rigueur, the rollout of Old Man Gloom's The Ape Of God was ... unique. I did my best to unravel it back in November, but the essentials are as follows: Old Man Gloom told the world they were going to release one album -- they even sent out advances of that "one album" to journalists -- and then, a week before release, the big reveal: They were really releasing two albums! With the same title! It was actually considerably more complicated than I'm making it sound, and I'm honestly not clear how they imagined it being received in the best-case scenario. The band justified it afterward, saying, "We wanted to trick people into thinking it was only one [album] because the interweb has sucked all the fun out of releasing records and we wanted people to be fucking surprised by something again. At least we tried." To their credit, it was surprising -- but less "the twist at the end of The Usual Suspects" surprising, and more "Facebook has updated its privacy settings" surprising. But I'll give them points for trying. I'll give them more points for making an outstanding record. I'm hesitant to say they made two outstanding records though, because the two different albums called The Ape Of God don't seem distinct enough to exist apart from one another. (This is not helped by the fact that they have the same title and were released on the same day and were lumped together in the same hoax.) If you like one, you will like the other; if you do not like one, you will not like the other. You do not need to buy both to have a satisfying experience, and you might not listen to both in succession anyway. But both are full of pummeling, skyscraping, sludgy, vast, violent noise. You should buy both. --Michael [LISTEN]
Piss Vortex - Piss Vortex (Indisciplinarian)
This Danish grind band's name implies irreverence, but metal doesn't get much more intense than this out-of-left-field debut LP. Even at just 24 minutes, it'll exhaust all but the hardiest listeners. Piss Vortex's combination of absurdly dissonant riffage and sparse, Albini-esque tone make for quite a scabrous aural environment; the guitars here sound more like people attacking bridge cables with sledgehammers than they do like instruments. If you're the masochistic type who enjoys off-the-wall grind like Noisear and Maruta, or if the idea of Obscura-era Gorguts trading in the death metal trappings for punk brevity sounds appealing, this under-the-radar gem is mandatory listening. --Doug [LISTEN]
Ides Of Gemini - Old World New Wave (Neurot)
On Ides Of Gemini's vinyl-structured second album, Old World New Wave, two styles tell two different tales. Pinning a single identifiable essence to either one proves impossible, but this is in keeping with the album's grand theme, touching on the notion of the titular twins of Gemini. According to the band's guitarist (and Decibel scribe extraordinaire) J. Bennett, each side of the new album has its own character: the first being "old world" and the second "new wave," naturally. The thing is, it isn't bullshit -- both sides are distinct and both succeed on their own terms. On the "new wave" side, Sera Timms' huge Siouxsie Sioux-inspired vocals punctuate Bennett's simple post-punk chords. On the "old world" side, guitars and vocals swirl like fog and smoke over a burning field, or something equally distressing and depressing. Both halves taken their own, independent of one another, suggests two very different bands, both operating at full capacity; taken together you get a far richer experience -- transcendence laced with different textures. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Psalm Zero - The Drain (Profound Lore)
When established musicians start a band together, you can typically use their past work to guess what the fruit of their union will sound like. Not so for Andrew Hock and Charlie Looker of NYC's Psalm Zero. Their best-known prior bands -- the prog-metal trio Castevet and the genreless freakshow Extra Life, respectively -- have little in common aside from their basic strangeness. The Drain certainly carries on with that strangeness, albeit in unexpected fashion: It's a bleak amalgamation of industrial rigidity, prog-rock scope, and Gothic decadence. The Drain's quirky aesthetic will alienate some, but it's one of the most singular albums I heard this year. --Doug [LISTEN]
Anguish - Mountain (Dark Descent)
Considering Anguish are on their second album, these Swedes are pretty damn sure of themselves; content in their rightness since they're doing it the old way. They confidently serve up riffs they feel are the best riffs, only to better those with the next riff. And that's part of the appeal: Mountain has no intricate plot devices, rather it's just killer scenes. It's all Candlemass-ian epic intros and frozen-in-time Celtic Frost sneers. Anguish pull threads from old tapestries, but not in the smirking, look-what-we-found-at-the-Goodwill way. Mountain is authentic in its timelessness, as if Anguish were raised by Metallicus and Morbid Tales and told to run things the same way. Those forebears instilled traits that one wouldn't stumble upon, like how to trudge without losing momentum ("Master Of Peak's Fall") and use your inadequacies to your advantage ("Snowhammer"). It's cold and evil stuff, but it fosters the same warmth as paging through a photo album. --Ian [LISTEN]
Incantation - Dirges Of Elysium (Listenable)
Incantation are at the institution phase of their career. If your death metal crawls through a dirty dirge, you probably owe a debt to the Pennsylvanian masters of muck and murk. So, given their long-established credentials, guitarist/vocalist John McEntee and company don't have to reinvent themselves on new albums so much as they need to sound like themselves. If they can offer a couple cuts to freshen up the ultimate Incantation mixtape, then mission accomplished. Yet, there are points on their 10th full-length when they exceed expectations, such as the gloriously guttural "Bastion Of A Plague Soul," which serves up 160 seconds that are filthier than untreated sewage. A quarter century in and still redefining the redline. Incantation still does the best Incantation. --Ian [LISTEN]
Witch Mountain - Mobile Of Angels (Profound Lore)
It was a big year for stoner bands unloading trad-style gems: YOB, Ides Of Gemini, Earth, Electric Wizard ... Witch Mountain's Mobile Of Angels is a fuzzed-out, bluesy, plodding monster, a triumph of only-in-America psych-occult stylings. Witch Mountain took a career timeout, waiting 10 years between 2001's ...Come The Mountain and 2011's South Of Salem. On Mobile Of Angels, the band pairs big riffs with pensive acoustic breaks, all highlighted by singer Uta Plotkin's willowy yet forceful vocals (call me crazy, and I've said this before about other stuff I think highly of, but it reminds me a little of Portland, Oregon's Floater). Prior to the release of Mobile Of Angels, Plotkin announced she would be leaving the band, but she makes their final moments together count: Plotkin sings sorcery, an incantation to some retro magic worthy of the band's name. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Yautja - Songs Of Descent (Forcefield)
The intersection of Morbid Angel, Neurosis, and Converge: This is where Nashville's Yautja reside. Not the most intuitive alchemy, but somehow, it works really well on Songs Of Descent. A lot of this album is given over to frantic, grindy hardcore, but its best moments involve elephantine death/sludge lurches. The album's booming, almost Zeppelin-esque production makes the most of these massive grooves. This is one of the most physically dominating metal records you'll hear this year, and Yautja back it up with a mandatory live show. Guitarist Shibby Poole produces one of the best live tones I've ever heard from a DIY metal band, frequently using a signal splitter and a loop pedal to do the work of two guitarists. Quite a showing for a debut LP! --Doug [LISTEN]
Ingurgitating Oblivion - Continuum Of Absence (Willowtip)
Those looking for pleasant melodies need not apply. These Germans ensure the room is cleared of everyone but dissonance diehards on opener "Eternal Quiescence," strumming a chord so sour it knots up your insides. From there, Ingurgitating Oblivion take giant, lurching strides, shaking the earth with each rise and fall. Closer inspection unveils the death metal herk-and-jerk of Immolation, or Gorguts' "Clouded." The lines are gnarled and entwined; the aural equivalent of a vine choking the life out of a tree. But here's the twist: Unlike similar purveyors who capture their performances in the deepest of caverns, Continuum Of Absence, like the band's under-appreciated 2005 debut, is smear-free. It doesn't hide the ugly and uncomfortable; a beautiful choice for those who are broken. --Ian [LISTEN]
A Pregnant Light - My Game Doesn’t Have A Name (Colloquial Sound Recordings)
Fun fact: Damian Master's one-man band A Pregnant Light has actually been featured in the Black Market more than any other artist. And there's more to Master than A Pregnant Light. The man is insanely prolific -- in addition to releasing more than a dozen APL EPs and splits in the space of just a couple years, he performs in Aksumite, This Station Of Life, Bound Bible, and more, all of which are damn good, punishingly heavy, and well worth your time. A Pregnant Light is Master's more emotionally raw and experimental baby, though, and it's his best. Despite those dozen-plus APL releases, My Game Doesn't Have A Name is APL's first full-length, and it's awesome. And it could fit in anywhere -- A Pregnant Light have moved further away from their black metal beginnings with each successive release, forging their own unique mix of incredibly catchy pop hooks, melodic hardcore, post-punk, and of course black metal. My Game Doesn't Have A Name is the purest expression yet of this sound, which Master calls "purple metal." Categories aside, this is one of the best things you could've heard this year. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Triptykon - Melana Chasmata (Century Media)
What a weird year it was for Tom G. Warrior. Triptykon's second album, Melana Chasmata, came out in April, to mostly superlative praise. A week later, Warrior slated those reviews, saying, "Melana Chasmata might be the most deficient post-Celtic Frost reunion album I have been involved in ... Frankly, I personally am utterly puzzled by the extremely favorable opinions the album has garnered from most in our audience as well as from reviewers, record company, management, and fellow band members. My own stance is far, far more critical, and I have so far been unable to listen to the album as a whole." Three weeks later, Warrior's close friend, mentor, and collaborator H.R. Giger passed away, causing the singer to cancel Triptykon's only scheduled US appearance, at Maryland Deathfest. Warrior offered a long, apologetic explanation, in which he included this note: "Within Triptykon, we discussed the possibility of playing the concert without me, with a close friend of ours filling in on guitar and vocals. The other members of the band did not see any merit in performing as an incomplete lineup, however." Warrior was obviously deep in grief, but that would have been a bizarre compromise: As far as the listening public is concerned, Triptykon without Tom G. Warrior is not an "incomplete lineup"; it's like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds without Nick Cave. Later in the year, prior to the European tour on which Triptykon were about to embark with labelmates At The Gates, Warrior lashed out on his Facebook page, saying: "The amount of contempt I feel for At The Gates is beyond description." He claimed At The Gates had undertaken "efforts to prevent Triptykon from performing a long-overdue headline concert in Switzerland, independent of the At The Gates tour." He then said, "I never wanted to play the ATG/Triptykon tour in the first place. But Triptykon is a band and not a Tom Gabriel Warrior dictatorship; the decision to join the tour was a band decision." Warrior has always been prone to melodrama, but any listener who kept up with these statements couldn't help but apply them to Melana Chasmata. If Triptykon was a democracy whose frontman could theoretically be temporarily replaced, why was Warrior publicly trashing the band's new album a week after its release, and semi-publicly trashing the band's tourmates months before the tour kicked off? Had the band co-signed those statements? What did they think? Was Melana Chasmata deficient? Or was Warrior just a loose cannon? And was his loose-cannon nature essential to his art? It's hard to separate the art from the artist sometimes, especially when the artist is telling you the art is bad; he never liked it and he never wanted to do it in the first place. But Melana Chasmata still sounds great, just as it sounds agonized and wounded and aggrieved and spurned. In fact, that's why it sounds great. --Michael [LISTEN]
Tombs - Savage Gold (Relapse)
Tombs' previous album, 2011's Path of Totality, earned the kind of critical acclaim that makes for tense follow-up recording sessions -- it took the top spot in Decibel's Best-Of feature that year, and placed high on seemingly every other metal honors list of note. There's nary a jitter to be heard on Savage Gold, though. After working with the interdisciplinary indie rock engineer John Congleton on Path, the NYC band opted for a far more austere and punishing production on their third album, courtesy of death metal legend Erik Rutan. The songs follows suit -- though Tombs' post-punk influences linger still, the majority of Savage Gold is given over to stone-faced battery that draws primarily on death and black metal for inspiration. Unsurprisingly, there's a lot more going on here than this summation implies, including a lot of out-genre touches; just don't call Tombs 'post-metal.' --Doug [LISTEN]
Diskord - Oscillation (Hellthrasher Productions)
The old-school death metal 'revival,' as folks used to call it, has now lasted for about as long as the original golden era of death metal did. Unsurprisingly, it's produced precious few indelible bands, but Norway's Diskord are among that happy few who've taken the hoary, gory vibe of the old guard and made it their own. Oscillations is a compact burst of frenetic, American-sounding DM that has a way of wobbling wildly off-center before darting in for the killing blow. The techniques all come from various '90s-era playbooks -- Autopsy, Ripping Corpse, early Atrocity, and Human Remains all come to mind -- but Diskord's songs are their own, and they're worth spending a lot of time with. --Doug [LISTEN]
Sargeist - The Crawling Shadows (W.T.C. Productions)
Arguably the best set I saw this year was at NYC's Martyrdoom Fest, a four-day affair that went down over the summer at the Brooklyn metal bar/venue Saint Vitus, featuring a bill of underground black and doom metal bands from all over the world, most of which you'd assume were on the no-fly list. Behexen, Forteresse, Mournful Congregation, One Tail One Head, and many more played, and while it's a spoiled metal fan who would pick a favorite out of everyone there, I'm going to go ahead and say Sargeist were the best. Their furious, incredible performance of what unfurled like a best-of set whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and Doug Moore and I may have lost our collective shit. (I said "arguably" up top because I managed to make it backstage to watch Agalloch the next night.) That set was a special moment, but we were all treated to new Sargeist this year, and the Finnish black metal band have never sounded filthier. Sargeist's Feeding The Crawling Shadows is a putridly necro, cobweb-cloaked work of hopelessness that, somehow, true to Sargeist fashion, is melodic and catchy as hell. Rarely does black metal sound so totally good and so goddamn evil. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Jute Gyte - Vast Chains (Jeshimoth Entertainment)
Even by metal standards, Jute Gyte have an unusual backstory. The catchall project of a plainspoken composition nerd from Missouri named Adam Kalmbach, JG have produced more than 20 albums during their roughly decade-long existence, most of them consisting of either black metal or dark electronic music. Kalmbach's metal output has always been unsettling, but it has recently become substantially more so thanks to his acquisition of a microtonal guitar, which allows him to produce the kind of alien harmonies that are normally the realm of detuned pianos and other prepared instruments. Vast Chains is the apotheosis of this thread in Jute Gyte's output to date. It's tempting to focus on this album's otherworldly guitar sound and various other unusual technical components, but its emotional charge is its most compelling feature. Many black metal acts address the idea that we're on our own in a blind, hostile cosmos, but rarely does the horror feel so real. --Doug [LISTEN]
Krieg - Transient (Candlelight)
It was a long year for Neill Jameson, aka Imperial, the man behind the seminal American black metal project Krieg. He had all that Blake Judd drama to deal with, then all that Thurston Moore drama, and then he quit his job at the record store. But here's the thing: As a musician, Jameson had the best year of his life. The record he made with Moore (though most assuredly not with Judd), Twilight's III: Beneath Trident's Tomb, was far and away the best album ever released by the black-metal supergroup, due in no small part to Moore's contributions, not to mention Jameson's improved vocal attack. Then, Jameson's primary band, Krieg, released their seventh full-length (and first in four years), Transient -- one of the finest USBM offerings of 2014, and a breakthrough for Krieg. Transient is an album of shifting textures; it opens with the walloping "Order Of The Solitary Road," a track that climaxes with one of the gnarliest black 'n' roll riffs you'll hear this year, buttressed by sections that are hypnotic, ambient, almost ethereal. That balance is examined throughout the album, as violent blasts of sheer crust ("Return Fire") lead into stretches of doomy melodicism ("To Speak With Ghosts"), and noise-rock skronks ("Winter") precede moments of expansive post-rock ("Walk With Them Unnoticed"). True to its title, Transient rarely stays in one place too long, but it feels like a coherent statement, largely due to the man at its center. Jameson is a complex guy, and Transient is a complex album. It's also a great album. --Michael [LISTEN]
Brutal Blues - Brutal Blues (Nerve Altar)
Norwegian grinder Steinar has been fraying the fringes of the style over the last few years with the futuristic Psudoku and the crusty Parlamentarisk Sodomi. But Brutal Blues might be his nuttiest soundbomb yet. Joined by drummer Anders (Noxagt, Blodsprut), the two juxtapose rapid-fire blasts and reverbed vocals to create a mind-spraining array of crossrhythms. It's as if the tablature to Discordance Axis' "Typeface" was carved into the drill bit of a jackhammer aimed at your temple and operated by a theremin. So Brutal Blues should be as messy as your splattered gray matter, but replays uncover something of an order; though admittedly the kind of airtight logic favored by the insane. All in all, it sounds like the end of music. Your roommates will hate it. --Ian [LISTEN]
Emptiness - Nothing But the Whole (Dark Descent)
We featured the title track from Emptiness' Nothing But The Whole in April's Black Market, and as Doug wrote about it there: "[S]tubbornly cyclic black/death metal stomps still anchor the songs, but they're tricked out with an array of ethereal production touches and druggy vocal washes that are just as engrossing as the more physical side of the music. In fact, they might be the real center of attention. 'Dreamlike' is an overused metaphor among music writers, but unlike the vast majority of stuff in this vein, Nothing But The Whole absolutely merits it." I agree completely with that assessment. Emptiness are a Belgian band, two of whose members (Jeremy "Phorgath" Bézier and Olivier "Neerath" Lomer) also play in the long-running black metal band Enthroned. There's a sort of weird irony there: Enthroned are hugely successful but sort of generic, while Emptiness are essentially unknown but totally unique. As Doug said, this is indeed dreamlike music: slippery, shifting, averse to patterns and logic, discomfiting, even frightening. And while lots of bands dabble in such hallucinatory sounds, few commit to it as fully as Emptiness do here, and fewer still succeed so completely. (I know you're not supposed to judge books or albums by their covers, but the cover of Nothing But The Whole is an unusually accurate visual portrayal of the the songs contained therein.) Like Morbus Chron's 2014 masterpiece, Sweven -- but even more so, actually -- Nothing But The Whole isn't just surrealistic music, it's music that provides for the listener a surrealistic experience. --Michael [LISTEN]
Nasheim - Solens Vemod (Northern Silence)
Nasheim's Solens Vemod came out as part of an unfairly good release drop from the German label Northern Silence that also included Woods Of Desolation's As The Stars and Ered Wethrin's Tides Of War. All three of those killer albums came out on Valentine's Day, giving even the grim a reason to celebrate. Anyway, Solens Vemod, eleven years in the making, is the first full-length from the Swedish one-man black metal Nasheim, and it's a masterpiece. Rich, dark, and ice-cold atmosphere defines Solens Vemod, an album that spends more time brooding than it does blasting. But when it does blast, it rips, as on "Jag fyller min bägare med tomhet," and "Atta v ödets trådar väva sorg," the latter a gorgeous track that rages forward before finding a seemingly perfect groove. It might not be the norm to call out an album's cover art in a year-end list, but credit is due to the gorgeous painting of an owl striking prey in a snow-covered, Aurora Borealis-bathed forest that graces the face of Solens Vemod. A majestic, icy, nocturnal scene where danger looms, it perfectly captures the mood. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
High Spirits - You Are Here (Hells Headbangers)
Chris Black released two new albums in 2014: Dawnbringer's Night Of The Hammer and High Spirits' You Are Here. Night Of The Hammer was a really good record that I couldn't lock into, for some reason, but You Are Here was a total goddamn blast that I couldn't get enough of. High Spirits are Black's feelgood metal band, the one that would have scored a drag-race scene in a slob comedy circa 1983. Here Black, finds his influence at the exact point before feelgood metal became a joke, before Poison and Warrant ruined it for everyone, when bands like Kix and Ratt were considered (and in fact were) every bit as unassailably great as Judas Priest and AC/DC. And every detail on You Are Here is spot on: the thin instrumental tones, the simple yet timeless song structures, the high-pitched melodic vocal attack. But while Black is an obsessive historian and sonic perfectionist, he's also a hell of a songwriter: His songs are focused, engaging, and insanely catchy. You Are Here may be of another era, but it sounded great in 2014. [LISTEN]
Couch Slut - My Life As A Woman (Handshake Inc.)
My Life As A Woman displayed metal's dualistic nature better than most albums this year. It was both engagingly smart and terrifyingly blunt, a night out in the streets of Couch Slut's native NYC if there ever was one. Within its huge walls of noise-rock distortion sat skronking jazz, the confrontational theater of Oxbow, and clever experiments in rhythm. But Couch Slut's lashing ferocity was their calling card. The vocal performance is undoubtedly affecting; sometimes feeling like an exorcism, other times an indictment. It's a pressure valve releasing what society keeps bottled. However, like the rest of the band's primal howl, it's also inclusive in a way a lot of these types of records aren't. It's not embarrassingly voyeuristic. You aren't pushed to the outside while these artists undergo catharsis. Instead, you're invited to join them while the painful tumult brought forth by their own hands evens inequities by leeching away pent up frustrations. --Ian [LISTEN]
Fluisteraars - Dromers (Eisenton)
Fluisteraars came out of seemingly nowhere to deliver the titanic Dromers: a three-song, big-riff, pissed-off, and seriously catchy tour de force. And while the album has drawn (and deserves) comparisons to Agalloch, the Netherlands' Fluisteraars can't be saddled with subgenre qualifiers like "atmospheric" or "ambient." Sure, there are extended instrumental sections -- acoustics included -- that even qualify as "pretty" on Dromers. But a complete listen quickly dispels the notion that we're getting into sweeping soundscape territory. This is black metal. The vocal delivery, overall necro sound, and driving pace keep this one pure and simple, making Dromers an example of what the genre could sound like in 2014 without rearranging the palette. Good news: We won't have to wait long for more from the band. A new LP is in the works. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Abigor - Leytmotif Luzifer (Avantgarde Music)
For an album marketed as largely free of studio effects, Leytmotif Luzifer packs in a ton of sonic data. Guitars squeal and rupture ears, rolling drums are released from every conceivable direction, and a choir of screams, grunts, and incantations underline all of the unexpected turns. It's busy, bombastic stuff, formed to function as a seven-movement "black mass" in the modern classical sense. It takes Austrian black metal OGs Abigor to new territory, though it's still identifiably Abigor. P.K. and T.T., joined by original vocalist Silenius and fellow Summoning member Protector, necrotize these tones, twisting them in service of espousing their brand of Satanism. But there's enough going on here to make this breakdown of The 7 Temptations Of Man, the album's subtitle, strangely invigorating. You go in expecting to grimace, you leave with the creative wheels in your brain spinning at full speed. It's the Fourth Viennese School of over-the-top evilness. --Ian [LISTEN]
Diocletian - Gesundrian (Osmose Productions)
Over the last few years, New Zealand has added "hotbed of ruthless metal" to its list of international identifiers, offsetting the nerdy yang of Peter Jackson's checkbook with an appropriately dark yin. Diocletian, like their mates (who include the related Witchrist), create quite a clatter, often sounding like two opposing forces meeting on the battlefield. Gesundrian's mass of blasts and all-buzzing-everything is staffed by the most brutish elements of death metal and black metal, frothing with a blinding berserker fury. But, like Nuclearhammer, war metal's other standout from this year, the band chooses their moves carefully, getting the most out of their comparatively simplistic sections. As with Diocletian's previous two LPs, Gesundrian is armed with an arsenal of old weapons, but the way Diocletian swings them is what accounts for the heavy damage. --Ian [LISTEN]
Slugdge - Gastronomicon (self-released)
You can't talk someone into Slugdge. The name immediately erects a barrier that's only toppled by someone hearing Slugdge. Sure, you could explain that this UK duo do a grinding, melo-accented, cosmic groove that places them on the pedestal of Carcass, Edge Of Sanity, and Arcturus. But people will only see the interstellar ancient slug concept, and in a SERIOUS genre about SERIOUS things like zombies, dragons, and bullet belts, that's not serious enough. But they'll come around once you sneak Gastronomicon under their guard. They'll hear the irresistible winding leads and giddy bombast of "Lettuce Prey" and the driving trems and spine-shifting riffs of "Invertahate." Then they too will praise Mollusca the Greatfather across their social media platforms, and you'll say, "Hey, I tried to tell you." --Ian [LISTEN]
Godflesh - A World Lit Only By Fire (Avalanche)
So, you wanted a new Godflesh full-length, huh? JK Broadrick and BC Green delivered, and then made you pay, with 54 minutes of skull-squeezing density. At first blush, A World Lit Only By Fire was impressive in the way it crunched the UK godfathers' formula, as if the 4,372 days between Fire and previous LP Hymns never happened. Broadrick's brushed-metal guitar tone and Green's crackling bass buzz ricocheted around the room in classic fashion, crashing together and forming a sea of heaving industrial, just as it was presaged on teaser EP Decline And Fall. But then Fire just kept raging, with each element growing hotter and more fervent with every recall. Broadrick answering himself to complete koans, Green testing and exploring the fallout area around the pulsating thrum, the drum machine striking again and again and again, pulping anything organic. On track 1, these components were pleasing. On track 10, the purifying repetition transformed them into something else. Only those who really wanted it hit replay. --Ian [LISTEN]
Teitanblood - Death (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)
Can these Spaniards' sophomore full-length win both Most and Least Descriptive Title Of 2014? Brutish, barbarous, blackened death is exactly what you get from Teitanblood, whether the two-piece is stretching out to prodigious lengths (the nearly 17-minute, and thus playfully dubbed, "Silence Of The Great Martyrs") or quickly cutting sections faster than fight movie editors. Musically, J and NSK are like a strain of early Venom or, yep, Death left to mutate, fester, and sour in a damp basement for decades. But that doesn't really get at Teitanblood's addictive duality. The playing has a straightforward punkiness to it, while the scope can accurately be described as "epic" without the need to point this writer towards a dictionary. On paper, that might look like an untamable mess of whammy-bar-snapping bloviating, but the opposite actually occurs: The "primitive," by today's tech death standards, musicianship ends up undercutting any pretension regarding the duo's progressive intentions and you-gotta-earn-it, long build-ups. But, intellectualizing aside, it's all about the vibe on this one. You can't fake evil and Teitanblood are no occult illusionists. Death is what they promise, death is what you get. Final question: Is it yours, theirs, or mine? Uh ... yes. --Ian [LISTEN]
Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore)
Pallbearer's 2012 debut, Sorrow And Extinction, was a great album, and a modern landmark for the doom subgenre. But the band's sophomore LP, Foundations Of Burden, is even better. Recorded and mixed by Billy Anderson (who also helmed Agalloch's awesome The Serpent & The Sphere), Foundations is entirely more confident, more diverse, and more immersive than Sorrow. All the great elements of old Pallbearer are still on display -- the dramatic, anthemic hooks, the intricate, intertwined guitars, the rolling, thunderous rhythms, and Brett Campbell's keening, angelic voice -- but here they seem steadier than they did before, as if they are merely the base of the songs rather than the songs' entire being. Pallbearer are now more comfortable working with alternate textures and rhythms, not to mention bolder vocal dynamics: For his part, Campbell is plainly a stronger vocalist today than he was two years ago, and his towering performances are aided by masterful harmonies, backing vocals, and even some stunning lead vox via guitarist Devin Holt and bassist Joseph D. Rowland. Pallbearer have now released two superb albums (and one superb demo), and I'm still convinced their best work is ahead of them. But there's no need to focus on what came before or what's yet to come: Foundations is here, now, and its moment should be recognized, celebrated, revered. --Michael [LISTEN]
Falls Of Rauros - Believe In No Coming Shore (Nordvis)
Falls of Rauros' Believe In No Coming Shore was arguably the best mid-tempo-ish black metal release of the year, and on it, the Portland, Maine-based band pull out memorable melodic riff after memorable melodic riff in a succession that should make the forest-dwelling black metal bands from the other Portland green with envy. Moreover, as a band that draws inspiration from nature (and Tolkien!), they successfully nail an organic sound like no other: Everything's a little muted, and it's melancholic in a way fit for a late-autumn camping trip. But it's also undeniably bright sounding, with quirky, clear bass and guitar tones and muffled drums that you don't hear in this type of stuff very often. The album's centerpiece, "Waxen Voices," is one of the best songs of the year ... and it may not even be the best song on the album. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Giant Squid - Minoans (Translation Loss)
2014 was a big year for sludge and doom metal: YOB, Pallbearer, Triptykon, Thou, and a number of other high-profile acts released critically lauded albums. For my money, though, Giant Squid produced the most distinctive and exciting low-and-slow record of the year. It's pretty much impossible to sum up this Bay Area five-piece's sinuous approach in a 100-ish-word blurb, and marveling at the way the band effortlessly stacks up serpentine harmonies and oddball instrumentation is one of the fun parts of listening to Minoans. Even more impressive, though, is the way the album balances perspectives. Minoans tells the epic tale of the titular ancient Mediterranean civilization's collapse, but Giant Squid weave the narrative with such personal intensity that you'd think they lived through it themselves. --Doug [LISTEN]
Gridlink - Longhena (Handshake Inc)
Longhena, Gridlink's third album, marks the conclusion of a long and storied creative arc. The band's mercurial frontman, Jon Chang, made his name singing for the influential '90s grind act Discordance Axis, who were among the first to introduce artsy aesthetics to metal's most unforgiving subgenre. Though he's the only holdover from that band's lineup, Gridlink have carried on much of that band's distinctive feel -- graceful but scarily athletic, like an Olympic gymnast. In an interview earlier this year, Chang told me that he considers Longhena his best work. Chang has now retired from music; the band's guitarist and songwriter, Takafumi Matsubara, has also been forced out to pasture by a debilitating brain infection. Sad on both scores, but this album is a fitting final testament: Its 22 minutes balance beauty and viciousness more delicately than just about any grindcore ever recorded. --Doug [LISTEN]
Panopticon - Roads To The North (Bindrune/Nordvis)
American black metal gets richer by the year, and there are certainly a number of schools and regional variations of the sound at this stage. But even among peers, Panopticon have a unique voice. Though now relocated to Minnesota -- where he serves as the master brewer at Hammerheart Brewery (I wish I was half as productive as this guy) -- sole member Austin Lunn flavors his blisteringly fast black metal with Kentucky twang. But that doesn't land Panopticon squarely in the folk black metal camp. There's hard-hitting energy in here that distances Roads To The North from that. Roads To The North soars. Every track is victorious, an epic ride on the back of blazing guitars and insane, impassioned drumming. In fact, everything about the album is passionate -- exploding bottled-up emotion that comes through so clearly not just from an overall sound standpoint but in Lunn's vocals and playing. Roads To The North is an intensely personal triumph, and it's one of the best black metal albums of the year. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Sivyj Yar - From The Dead Villages' Darkness (Avant Garde Music)
In June's Black Market, I wrote about the Sivyj Yar song "Distant Haze Was Arising," the centerpiece track on the rural Russian one-man black metal band's latest album. We named that song the best metal track of that month, and now that the year is over, I'd argue "Distant Haze Was Arising" is the best metal song that came out in 2014, period. It's incredible -- a heartstring-pulling, sweeping atmospheric stunner that's as close to perfect as possible. Best part: It's only one-fifth of this amazing album. From The Dead Villages' Darkness features arguably the most successful infusion of pastoral beauty into metal I've ever heard, an absolute masterclass in stirring atmospheric black metal. Coming across a Sivyj Yar tape from a small Minnesota distro that somehow managed to stock a few copies a couple years back was one of my best musical finds in recent memory -- sometimes buying based on cover art works. I cannot wait to hear more from this band. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Behemoth - The Satanist (Metal Blade)
These days, a Behemoth live set is as precisely structured (and elaborately costumed!) as a Cirque Du Soleil performance, so if you've seen the band at any point over the last few years, you've heard frontman Nergal "banter": "[Insert name of city], it feels good to be back! It feels even better ... TO BE ALIVE!" That may seem a counterintuitive statement coming from the frontman of a, y'know, death-metal band, but when you're in the room with the guy, the words will hit you like a hard wind, and if you know the context, they'll knock you down. In 2010 Nergal was diagnosed with advanced-stage leukemia, and over the next two years, battled and beat the disease. The Satanist is his first post-cancer album (and Behemoth's first since 2009, and their best, period) and it feels like the work of a man who bested death. It's an album of experience, confidence, vision, wisdom, and depth -- not to mention hugely dynamic performances and ridiculous hooks. It's an album of tremendous bombast, yes, but that bombast is earned; every song bellows great gusts of life, and they will all knock you down. --Michael [LISTEN]
Thantifaxath - Sacred White Noise (Dark Descent)
Bleak, twisted black metal is certainly seeing its critical day in the sun right now; bands like Deathspell Omega, Leviathan, and Blut Aus Nord are de rigueur for features like this one, and even obscure bands working the field can garner significant attention. (I feel like the Black Market crew talked up at least one per month this year.) Sacred White Noise may be the style's first arena-ready record, though. Despite its grim existentialist veneer -- it features a song called "Panic Becomes Despair" -- it's a surprisingly accessible, fist-pumpy record. Its winding, cockeyed melodies remind me of another band whose unhinged signifiers hide a weirdly relatable songwriting sensibility: the noise rock legends Today Is The Day, with whom Thantifaxath clearly share a visual sensibility as well. Stare into the void, and then party down with it. --Doug [LISTEN]
Indian - From All Purity (Relapse)
Back in January's Black Market, I wrote these words: "Only one month in, this year should be too young for trends to reveal themselves, but the narrative already looks clear: This is the year of hideous sludge." And in many ways, it was just that. 2014 delivered slabs of hideous sludge from a murderers' row of genre giants, including Thou, Coffinworm, Eyehategod, and Lord Mantis. But From All Purity, the fifth LP from Indian, might be the perfect embodiment of the style, and the purest to boot: There's nothing pretty here, ever, no respite at any point, just a torrent of bile under a wash of noise. Pounding rhythms mark time while battered electronics squeal; riffs explode in slow motion. But there's craftsmanship beneath the din, and it pays dividends when you spin the entire album on repeat, which is oddly easy to do for something so intentionally abrasive. The songs are rudimentary constructions, built of single riffs or simple patterns: crush, rinse, and repeat. Music rarely feels this punishing or nihilistic. More, please. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Dead Congregation - Promulgation Of The Fall (Profound Lore)
Greece's Dead Congregation are shaped by old-school death metal. The band admits as much in their Bandcamp bio: ''...Dead Congregation focus on lacking aspects [sic] in today’s death metal bands/releases: feeling, spirit, atmosphere and quality." And, true to their driving forces, 2008's debut LP Graves Of The Archangels hit those (admittedly amorphous) marks, creating spaces in the CD cases of Immolation and Incantation diehards. But here's where Graves and sophomore pounder Promulgation Of The Fall differ from other releases produced by the new crew of the old school: They're not rehashes built in the image of the gods, but extensions on what the elders (read: people) thought possible. Dead Congregation's moves are familiar, but the voice is updated; paving inroads of enjoyment for all generations. Promulgation Of The Fall -- with its roulette wheel double-bass kicks, gutturals that sound like stretched nattō, and tones that fill your nose with the phantom stench of sulfur -- could pass for '92, but it's also mechanized with 22 years worth of additional knowhow. Think of it as the old school album with the benefit of a time machine. --Ian [LISTEN]
Winterfylleth - The Divination Of Antiquity (Candlelight)
Back in 2012, in a short review of the song "The Swart Raven," I wrote, "I've never understood why Winterfylleth aren’t one of the biggest (or bigger, anyway) black metal bands in the world." That sound bite turned up in the press materials for the band's 2014 LP, The Divination Of Antiquity, and while such sentiments have a tendency to curdle with time, in this case, I find it to be even more applicable than it was two years ago. Where once Winterfylleth operated in the (admittedly long) shadows of bands like Agalloch and Wolves In The Throne Room, they're now functioning on the highest possible level. On The Divination Of Antiquity, Winterfylleth scaled back the folk elements that defined the band's previous work, not eliminating them, but integrating them in subtler ways, leading to an altogether more enthralling result. You can still hear them in the band's clear and abundant use of melody, which is even more pronounced here than it was on previous albums. The album's towering lead single, "Whisper Of The Elements," integrated a choral section at its incredible climax. In a statement about the song, Winterfylleth frontman Chris Naughton said, "This is the first time we've ever sung choral vocals over a blast beat section and done extreme vocals at the same time. I think it makes for a spine-tingling experience if you listen closely." I sincerely could not agree more. --Michael [LISTEN]
Martyrdöd - Elddop (Southern Lord)
The last album from Sweden's Martyrdöd, 2012's Paranoia, was a fire-starting collision of crust punk and melodic death metal with some lead-guitar heroics that occasionally lifted the whole thing to Iron Maiden-levels of fist-pumping anthemry; it landed at #8 on our list of that year's best metal albums. The band's 2014 release, Elddop, didn't merely improve on their already incredible body of work; it distilled Martyrdöd's sound to its most exciting elements, leaving everything but the highlights on the cutting-room floor. Elddop opens with a few bars of ominous doom, then quickly shifts into ultra-catchy, hard-shredding d-beat, similar to Disfear's incredible 2008 LP, Live The Storm -- but more -- and it stays in that gear for the next 45 minutes. A lot of metal in 2014 was either self-consciously mirroring legends of the past or uncomfortably evolving into something not always recognizable as metal; Elddop, on the other hand, felt totally fresh and thrillingly new, yet achieved those ends only using tools fashioned in the ancient forges. (It's worth noting that the name Martyrdöd looks and sounds an awful lot like the name Motörhead.) I can't imagine any generation of metal fan for whom Elddop would seem inappropriate -- in many ways, it's the very essence of metal. Or you could just call it essential. --Michael [LISTEN]
Primordial - Where Greater Men Have Fallen (Metal Blade)
Smoke drifts through the trees like a premonition. Everywhere the scent of burning pine, so sharp it stings. Tongues of flame lick at rotting timber; an inrush of wind stokes the glow on the horizon. Everything burns. The rains come too late to save anything worth saving, and what's left in the end? Soggy ash, smoking ruins, devastation wrought. And ... scene.
This is classic pagan metal imagery, part of a grand lineage passed down through the generations by the Promethean progenitors of this sound, Bathory (see Hammerheart and Blood Fire Death), and given to their spiritual descendants, a role embodied better than anyone by the long-running Irish metal band Primordial. Over the past 20 years -- Primordial formed in 1987 but didn't release an album until 1995's Imrama -- Primoridal have evolved from an almost-black metal band into something far more special, tapping their Celtic roots and drawing on various forms of heavy metal to create a hybrid style like no other. And Where Greater Men Have Fallen marked another leap forward, as they borrowed the weight and muscle of traditional doom and fused it with traditional pagan metal. Frontman Alan Averill (aka A.A. Nemtheanga) is a firebrand, channeling a mythic vision of humanity's pain through a personal lens of frustration, resulting in a swaggering, staggering bellow that would sound absurd out of context, but instead comes off absurdly powerful. It's pure theater, but closer to Macbeth than anything else. And the results are beyond what we've come to expect from ... anything at all, really. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Artificial Brain - Labyrinth Constellation (Profound Lore)
Full disclosure: I lived in a van with these guys for close to six weeks during an extended tour, so I'm hardly an impartial judge of this album. But even if I'd never met a single member of Artificial Brain, Labyrinth Constellation would still likely be my favorite album of the year. As with Thantifaxath's great debut, this album starts with a niche style that's typically tough for most to bear -- Gorguts-y progressive death metal, in this case -- and uses smart, almost poppy songwriting to produce an end product that's compact and even fun. Though the terse 3-ish-minute numbers that populate this album involve loads of twisted chord voicings, the surprisingly hooky melodic lines that skulk underneath the imposing exterior comprise its heart. Prog-death for the whole family: It exists now. And unsurprisingly, it's great live. --Doug [LISTEN]
Thou - Heathen (Gilead Media)
The catalog produced by New Orleans sludge band Thou can be daunting to consider: Right now it stands at 28 releases (over 7 years) but that number could seemingly multiply at any time, without much warning. Thou also have a reputation as being one of the most intense, punishing live acts in America, with some 400-odd shows already in their rearview. Longtime Thou fans treat the band with a devotion bordering on reverence, if not zealotry. So for a newcomer, the prospect of getting into Thou can be an intimidating one, and understandably so. But Thou's 2014 album, Heathen, is such a powerful, immersive piece of music that it reduces to rubble all barriers to entry. Heathen is the fourth full-length album from Thou, following 2010's Summit, but it is the best and most complete statement of their career. Where most sludge derives its power from relentless, grinding assault, Heathen achieves much wider-scale grandeur by not dedicating itself to any specific sound or tone. Huge stretches of the album are devoted to quiet acoustic or ambient passages. Even at its heaviest (and this thing gets very fucking heavy, too), the songs stay grounded with explosive melodic hooks and skyward-reaching guitars. Vocalist Bryan Funck remains a black-lunged psychopath screamer, but there are also occasional clean vocals here, cutting through the smoke like searchlights. The only constant, really, is the rhythm, which rarely exceeds that of a human heartbeat. Heathen is a dark, bombastic, hugely ambitious album of great sorrow, but perhaps even greater beauty. It is an album that demands and deserves obsessive attention -- an album that inspires and rewards such attention, as its hooks sink deeper and its priceless, gorgeous, terrifying treasures are slowly unearthed, piece by piece. --Michael [LISTEN]
At The Gates - At War With Reality (Century Media)
As I wrote in the essay that introduced this list, what you got out of At War With Reality was likely commensurate with what you brought into it. If you'd never forgiven the band for parting ways with original guitarist Alf Svensson -- and thus making the leap from The Red In The Sky Is Ours and With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness to Terminal Spirit Disease and Slaughter Of The Soul -- then you probably still haven't dropped that grudge. If you resent At The Gates for making a record almost 20 years ago -- 1995's Slaughter Of The Soul -- that inspired a bunch of lesser bands to make a bunch of lesser records, then At War With Reality probably didn't erase that resentment from your memory. For me, Slaughter Of The Soul was a miracle; I had grown up in death metal's now-classic era, and by 1994, I thought the genre was dead. When I heard Slaughter Of The Soul, I thought I was dreaming -- it was like At The Gates had, in one short album, delivered on the promises made by the very best bands of my formative years: Metallica, Kreator, Death, Entombed, Carcass. I was heartbroken to have found it late, after the band had already broken up (which they did in 1996), but I respected their decision to keep their legacy intact, to go out on a classic. When they announced in January of this year that they would be recording a follow-up, I was both exuberant and nauseous. It would not be a disappointment, could not be a disappointment, but if it was a disappointment, I was going to be crushed. I spent just about the whole year wondering what At War With Reality would sound like, and when I finally got my hands on it, I was deliriously happy and hugely relieved. At War With Reality doesn't sound like Slaughter Of The Soul so much as it does that album's predecessor, 1994's Terminal Spirit Disease. That's not to say it sounds like a 1994 record, but it also doesn't sound like 2014: Most modern Swedeath has either a deep metalcore groove or a buzzing, retro blast, but At War With Reality is an an agile, bright, clean-sounding album. The guitars sparkle with crystalline detail; Tompa Lindberg's vocals roar out over a sound that purrs like a Porsche. The songs are built with trademark Swedish efficiency, craft, and care. They were built to last. I look at it this way: At War With Reality isn't here to contend with 2014; it's here forever. And if At The Gates go away again, well, they've left us with an album that will grow over time, that will sound good in any era, that will sound better, in fact, with each passing year, until it too is simply understood to be a classic. Another one. --Michael [LISTEN]
Woods Of Desolation - As The Stars (Northern Silence)
Woods of Desolation's As The Stars came out all the way back in February, and when it did, we here at the Black Market made predictions that it would be one of 2014's best come year end. Well, here we are. As The Stars was one hell of a breakout album for Woods Of Desolation, a one-man Australian black metal band (sole "member" D picks a new team of talented studio musicians who bring their own style to each album). Woods Of Desolation have actually been active since 2006, and As The Stars is their third LP. Their last, 2011's Torn Beyond Reason, was my favorite album of 2011 -- it came in at #21 on the list we did that year, and I still felt it got robbed. This year, though, Woods Of Desolation got the attention they so richly deserve. As The Stars created what felt like a palpable buzz -- especially notable for a band that qualified as obscure before this release. As The Stars is gorgeous; a depressive black metal triumph that revels in pure, raw emotion. Those who prefer metal that performs technical and acrobatic feats should probably look elsewhere (or consult my colleague -- and friend! -- Doug Moore): With Woods Of Desolation, it's layers upon layers of big, melodic lo-fi guitars, blindingly blasting drums, and pained howls buried underneath it all. It's music that comes from -- and at times wallows in -- sorrow, but there's a victorious feeling, too, that makes it downright inspiring. As The Stars takes personal grief and turns it into triumph, rising above dread and causing chests to swell. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Morbus Chron - Sweven (Century Media)
Sweden's Morbus Chron released their debut album, Sleepers In The Rift, in 2011 -- the same year that gave us Disma's Towards The Megalith, Sonne Adam's Transformation, and Necros Christos' Doom Of The Occult. Those four bands/albums were the cream of that year's ridiculously fertile Old-School Death Metal (OSDM) revival crop, which seemingly sought to erase two decades of musical/technological progress and reboot death metal's evolutionary process starting sometime in late 1991 (which was, admittedly, the exact moment at which the genre reached its artistic peak). Sleepers In The Rift was an outstanding album built of well-worn components; it convincingly recreated a fleeting, bygone, perfect moment, and managed to forge an identity of its own in the process. But with its follow-up, the monumental Sweven, Morbus Chron altogether shed any and all OSDM tags -- and perhaps any and all tags, period.
If Sleepers In The Rift was part of a cultural reboot, Sweven suggested an entirely alternate history, one that might have emerged had death metal followed a different path than the one it did in the reality we know: a darker, weirder, more artful, less opportunistic path. Like Grave Miasma's outstanding 2013 release, Odori Sepulcrorum, Sweven feels hauntingly ancient yet utterly unfamiliar. There are tones and textures on the album that date back to the mid-'80s, but they're employed in bold, often bizarre compositions that might as well represent the heretofore-unheard influence of an actual alien culture. I'm hesitant to use words like "proggy" and "psychedelic," because there are plenty of proggy, psychedelic death metal bands, and they sound nothing like this (but what does?). That said, Sweven is indeed progressive, and it is a fucking trip. It goes to weird, amazing, uncharted places, and it will take you there, too. --Michael [LISTEN]
Agalloch - The Serpent & The Sphere (Profound Lore)
Agalloch's The Serpent & The Sphere wasn't the Agalloch album I was expecting. I didn't really know what to expect after the unbridled tour de force of Marrow Of The Spirit and the consuming and long-winded-in-a-great-way saga that was Faustian Echoes ... but it wasn't this. From song structure to the mix, The Serpent & The Sphere is for the most part incredibly functional and poised, but still gorgeous. It's clean. Whereas Marrow was an excursion into raw, dark beauty -- think about the insane blasting of "Into The Painted Grey" that started the album off like a tornado -- Serpent has slightly different aims. Even on tracks that creep toward ten minutes in length, everything feels so carefully planned, confident, and cleanly executed -- precise, a comparative economy of riffs spotlighted by the clear production from Billy Anderson. Another thing to note: The average song length on Serpent is shorter than any other Agalloch full-length, considerably shorter than Marrow, and closer to the song lengths on Pale Folklore. I don't mean for any of this to sound like I didn't absolutely love The Serpent & The Sphere. I do. I just feel like we saw a different side of Agalloch on this record, one that is as emotionally powerful and incredible as ever, but refined and with a greater focus on efficiency.
It may be refined, but The Serpent & The Sphere is gargantuan. While Agalloch have long drawn inspiration from nature, The Serpent & The Sphere is cosmic in scope, reaching into cold depths of space to call upon a different kind of natural beauty. I couldn't name a favorite track; the strutting "Vales Beyond Dimension" sometimes seems to be the one, but then I love "Celestial Effigy," too, which, to me, vaguely recalls another Agalloch classic, "Hallways Of Enchanted Ebony." Don Anderson's sweeping guitars are as powerful as ever, hitting those tones that run through Agalloch's catalogue like arteries. When Agalloch played here in NYC back in August, they closed with "Plateau Of The Ages," the album's penultimate track, a hammering monolith of a song that is emotionally -- and for the band, physically -- exhausting, a 12-minute builder that ends with a glorious, banged-out crescendo. It was stunning. That finale is a moment of transcendence, and hearing it on the album makes you feel like Agalloch have outdone themselves this time around. But I'm sure they haven't, and I can't wait to see what they have in store. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Nux Vomica - Nux Vomica (Relapse)
Portland, OR-based quintet Nux Vomica have been together since 2003, when they formed in the Baltimore underground, an offshoot of anarcho-punk act Wake Up On Fire (who broke up a year after the formation of Nux Vomica, before the latter band relocated to Cascadia). The band's name is basically a synonym for strychnine, and their self-titled 2014 LP was their third full-length release, following 2007's A Civilized World and 2009's Asleep In The Ashes. Anyway, they've been around for more than a decade, so I'm kind of embarrassed to admit I hadn't heard of them till this year. But I spent a whole lot of 2014 listening to Nux Vomica. Their self-titled album comprises three songs, which range from roughly 12 to 20 minutes each, and over the course of those three songs, the band delivers one of the most enveloping, transporting, and aurally satisfying listening experiences I can remember. Rhythmically and texturally, Nux Vomica (the album) has an epic breadth, with hints of melodic death metal, doom, crust punk, ambient, sludge, and hardcore. It is generously melodic -- it is very, very catchy -- and it traverses deep valleys of post-rock. It also seethes and rages; in one of the most immediately audible lines in album opener "Sanity Is For The Passive," vocalist Just Dave screams, "We stopped watching the news/ 'cause we couldn't take it anymore." I hope for their sake they've stuck with that policy. Watching the news in 2014 was enough to cause meltdowns in even the most dispassionate viewers. Nux Vomica was a perfect soundtrack for such brain-burning fury. --Michael [LISTEN]
Horrendous - Ecdysis (Dark Descent)
In August's Black Market, Aaron suggested that Horrendous were part of a subgenre that might be called the "New Wave Of Progressive Old-School Swedish Death Metal." That's a mouthful, but it sounds about right. There are two things separating Horrendous from that pack, though: 1) Horrendous are an American band; and 2) compared to the other bands that might fall under that subgenre tag (Morbus Chron and Tribulation most prominently), Horrendous' music isn't quite so ... bizarre. It's unusually direct, song-based. What I'm trying to say here is, it's really fucking catchy. Unlike most American "HM-2-core" bands (Black Breath, Nails, Trap Them, etc.), Horrendous didn't merely write some badass riffs and hire Kurt Ballou to make them sound awesome (and I don't mean that as a slight against those bands, who do in fact write badass riffs, work with Kurt Ballou, and sound awesome) -- instead, Horrendous followed Entombed's Left Hand Path and were carried by Dismember's Ever Flowing Stream and emerged from those voyages at a place where song structure, melody, iconoclasm, and power are given equal weight, and those elements combine to create something that feels bigger than both the music's subgenre and its era. My exact words upon first hearing Horrendous' sophomore album, Ecdysis (which followed the outstanding 2012 debut The Chills) were: "These guys are on some Metallica shit." And I'm not talking about Load or even "Black Album" here: I'm talking First Four, when Metallica were, like Horrendous, a young American band synthesizing obscure European influences, making them sharper, harder, bigger, and absolutely undeniable. --Michael [LISTEN]
YOB - Clearing The Path To Ascend (Neurot)
The best music writing I did this year was in my review of YOB's Clearing The Path To Ascend, but rather than repost my entire review here, I'll leave you with the two sentences that matter:
"YOB are the best doom band in the world today, and Clearing The Path To Ascend is the best doom album you'll hear this year. It is, quite possibly, the best metal album you'll hear this year, maybe the best album of the year, period."
Clearing The Path To Ascend isn't in the top spot on this list, and I'm OK with that decision. But I'll tell you this, too: When it came time to cast my vote for the year's best album -- both here and in the balloting for Stereogum's Top 50 list -- I pulled the lever for YOB.
Even in a year full of big albums, Clearing The Path To Ascend felt HUGE. Of course, that's nothing new for the Portland, OR doom trio, who'd released six albums of elephantine majesty leading up to the new one, but Clearing The Path To Ascend is massive even by the band's own standards. That thundering grandeur is evident in the album's spiritualistic lyrical themes as well as the music, built like a castle using only four component parts -- guitar, bass, drums, vocals -- each one galloping through the mix with the fury and bombast of the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse across the sky. That charge is led by frontman/visionary Mike Scheidt, one of modern metal's truly great artists: a songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist with few if any peers. Clearing The Path To Ascend is YOB at their most frenzied ("Nothing To Win") as well as their gentlest ("Marrow"), but taken as whole, its four songs feel like the seasons or the elements: powerful, eternal, wondrous, and bigger than all of us. --Michael [LISTEN]
Blut Aus Nord - Memoria Vetusta III - Saturnian Poetry (Debemur Morti)
I hope we're not taking Blut Aus Nord for granted. In a genre where debuts cast career-long shadows, they've been on a hell of a run. Along with a handful of EPs and splits, the French black metallers have issued ten full-lengths since band-brain Vindsval, then 15 years old, recorded Ultima Thulée in 1995. But what's more impressive is Blut Aus Nord managing to develop not just a distinctive voice, but distinctive voices. There are the Lovecraftian event horizons, the deathly industrial monstrosities, the rhythmically off-kilter avant-garde discoveries, and the blustery contrapuntal blasts. At worst, these branches have been interesting. At best, they've become touchstones. They all add up to the kind of run netting more mainstream composers a textbook chapter. Really. The only reason that reads as hyperbolic now is because our subject is still active. Perceived permanence always lightens the scales.
Memoria Vestusta III: Saturnian Poetry is a prime example why we're going to miss these guys when they're gone. Despite their well-earned title of "challenging," Blut Aus Nord craft supremely listenable black metal albums, keying in on prime traits generally attractive to metalheads. One of those traits is right up front: Saturnian Poetry follows in the spirit of the series' second entry, 2009's Dialogue With The Stars, by freeing up a really good guitar band to write really good guitar riffs. True to form, this album is a feast of textures sprouting from seeds sown by wind-swept, medieval tremolos.
That said, Saturnian Poetry's patience is perhaps its greatest virtue. Some albums use a manipulative smash-cut momentum, shoving you through a fake journey where you feel every push. Those albums fall apart when interrogated by silence because there isn't any logic to supply a binding. Saturnian Poetry, though, runs like clockwork. Great care is given to balancing tension and release, surprises and resolutions, and letting those musical elements work in the background so they don't obscure or interrupt the glorious flow of time.
And time is on Saturnian Poetry's side. Because of its fastidious construction that ticks the boxes of what we've internalized a metal album to be, and Blut Aus Nord's continued commitment to eschew the novel and be Blut Aus Nord no matter the voice, Saturnian Poetry will still sound rich long after its newness fades. So, it might not be your favorite album this year, but it has a chance to be next year. Or the year after. Or the year after that. Or even when Blut Aus Nord come to an end, and their greatest albums turn out to be the ones we already have. --Ian [LISTEN]