If we’re just talking about the music — and isn’t that, like, the thing we’re talking about here? — then 2015 was a great year for metal. That should come as no surprise. The genre (to the the extent we can call this vast, ever-expanding universe a “genre”) has enjoyed a prolonged period of outstanding health and continued revitalization over the last decade or so. We’re now seeing four or five generations of metal bands delivering career-best work — and perhaps more impressively, being recognized for that work.
In September, Iron Maiden released The Book Of Souls — a double LP that arrived 35 years after the band’s first album — and it came in at #4 on the Billboard Hot 200, with first-week sales of 74,000, marking the band’s best domestic debut ever. In 2015! Less than a month later, Deafheaven dropped their third LP, New Bermuda, which debuted at #8 on Billboard’s Independent Albums chart. An American black metal band! It didn’t stop there, though: Ghost’s Meliora debuted at #8 on the Hot 200; Five Finger Death Punch’s Got Your Six debuted at #2; Disturbed had their fifth straight #1 debut. They tied a record set by Metallica! The Wall Street Journal did a story about it! And that demographic-spanning prosperity is represented in the list below, which includes bands like Satan (formed in 1979), Blind Guardian (formed in 1984), Paradise Lost (formed in 1988), Nile (formed in 1993), High On Fire (formed in 1998), Baroness (formed in 2003), Krallice (formed in 2008), and Myrkur (formed in 2014). That alone indicates an unusually high level of artistic vibrancy, not to mention audience engagement. In 2015, metal wasn’t slavishly reverent of its elders, and it didn’t overly fetishize novelty or newness. It welcomed all comers from all corners, and listeners were rewarded with music of limitless scope.
Beyond the music, though, 2015 was a pretty crummy year for metal. In a world where social media has come to supplant traditional media, where hot takes have come to supplant hard news, metal has been dealt a whole lotta black eyes over the past 12 months. That is, in part, because metal was allegedly doling out some actual black eyes. But mostly, more than ever before, metal found its very character scrutinized by a hyper-aware, politically divided public — a public largely informed by metrics-focused media outlets eager to weigh in on the issues of the day. This was a carryover from late 2014, when popular blogs like Metal Injection and Metalsucks ran essays with titles like “The Problem With Heavy Metal Is Metalheads: Stop Calling Everyone A Faggot” and “Why Is It Okay To Be Racist And Misogynistic About Babymetal?” And in 2015, the takes arrived on an almost daily basis, via articles like “Racism And Sexism In Heavy Metal Highlighted In New Study” and “Why Is The Convicted Murderer Of A Gay Man Being Celebrated At A Major Metal Festival?“
This past July, renowned metal journalist (and occasional Stereogum contributor) Adrien Begrand wrote a piece for Pop Matters titled “Some Talk, No Action,” putting the entire metal community on blast for failing to effectively flush out certain musicians whose art and/or actions seemed to suggest some form of bigotry or separatist ideology. Begrand called out by name such bands as Cobalt, Inquisition, Lord Mantis, and Bölzer, but he extended the indictment to include countless participants — primarily the media and fans who support (or fail to condemn) any artists who support (or fail to condemn) intolerant worldviews. Wrote Begrand:
When it comes to addressing issues of racism within heavy metal, a lot of lip service is paid but nowhere near enough action is taken, as nobody wants to upset the apple cart within the cozy little hive mind … Racism in heavy metal, like homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, must be addressed mercilessly, no matter what excuse given by the artist, no matter how “nice” or “cool” the artist is.
There’s certainly some truth to that, although it bears mentioning that every band named by Begrand has openly refuted any allegations of intolerance. And that’s where things get tricky.
To illustrate, let’s talk about one band not mentioned in Begrand’s essay: the New Jersey-based death metal group Disma. In 2011, Disma released their debut album, Towards The Megalith, which received enthusiastic praise pretty much across the board — including at NPR, Pitchfork, and here at Stereogum. At the very end of 2011, though, somebody dug up a nauseating 2004 interview with Disma frontman Craig Pillard, in which he discussed his then-active noise project Sturmfuhrer, and in the process, unreservedly spewed the type of shockingly reprehensible hate speech most people probably thought had died when Beecher offed Schillinger in the Oz finale. Disma’s lyrics are notably apolitical, but when that interview was unearthed, it derailed the band. Almost immediately, they were forced to drop off the 2012 Chaos In Tejas lineup, even though Disma’s then-guitarist Daryl Kahan issued a statement attempting to clarify his band’s message, mission, and intentions:
Disma has absolutely nothing to do with politics, nor does the band support or condone racist beliefs or Nazi ideology of any kind. Craig may have a questionable past, but he has put that behind him and is solely focused on what the band is doing now.
Kahan’s quote comes from December 2011; Sturmfuhrer’s last album was released in 2006. But the controversy continues to follow Pillard and Disma. In fact, it no longer follows them. Today — even though they haven’t released an album since that 2011 debut — it precedes them. In 2015, it just about swallowed them. In February, Pillard offered a statement via his own Facebook, saying:
Disma in no way, shape, or form, has any significance to the ideas of project Sturmfuhrer. On my part alone, the solo projekt known as Sturmfuhrer was a musical and social experiment in the extreme; its purpose was not meant for your pleasure, but for your pain. If I have offended anyone, then it has fulfilled its intended purpose. I do not belong to, or associate with any ideological group in any capacity. To penalize the collective band known as Disma, would be hypocritical and absurd.
Once again, the attempts to distance Disma from Pillard’s past proved futile. In summer 2015, Kahan quit the band. A month or so later, Disma were dropped from the lineup of the three-day California Death Fest, without explanation or announcement. In October 2015, the people behind California Death Fest (who are also the people behind the country’s biggest metal festival, Maryland Death Fest) chose to remove Disma from the lineup of their inaugural Netherlands Death Fest, to be held in February 2016. According to Death Fest organizers, 10 other bands who were scheduled to play NDF (none of whom were identified) reportedly threatened to bail if they were forced to share a bill with Disma. Per a statement from those organizers:
This is the first time in 14 years of putting on festivals that we’ve been put in such an awkward situation, and in the end, just like a member of Disma who recently quit the band, we’ve decided to distance ourselves from the drama surrounding the band lately … We acknowledge that Disma are nothing more than a death metal band [but] all things considered, there would’ve been far too many negatives than positives for us to deal with by leaving them on the bill.
I’m using the example of Disma here partly because the controversy surrounding the band took on a new life in 2015, but also because Disma didn’t release an album in 2015, and thus, had no music eligible for this list. They provide a helpful object lesson without actually impacting our discussion of 2015’s best metal albums. Also: None of us here really rides hard enough for Disma to be conflicted about them, so we can talk about them as a theoretical subject rather than an especially sensitive, tangible one. But let’s not kid ourselves: One of these days, it’s gonna be a band we love, and we’re gonna have to take a real hard look at some shit we’ve largely circumnavigated so far. We’re gonna have to deal with this. We’re gonna have to ask ourselves some tough questions.
Well, we’re here now, and this isn’t going away, so let’s start asking.
What sort of music or musicians should we avoid or excommunicate? What sort of behavior would be egregious enough to warrant a penalty? Violent crimes? Nonviolent crimes? Alleged crimes? Immature epithets? Repugnant political or social views? Toxic social media presence? Who defines repugnant? How do we measure toxicity? What is the appropriate response to a band that publicly refutes allegations of intolerance, especially when there’s no concrete evidence suggesting said refutation is insincere? Where is the line drawn between art and artist? What if the artists’ personal lives are altogether unknown to us, but their art openly glorifies objectionable behavior or beliefs? Is it even possible to define such terms when discussing genres like black and death metal, in which lyrical themes such as anti-religion, gore, war, violence, suicide, necrophilia, and hatred are commonplace?
I don’t have answers to any of those questions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. As a journalist who covers this stuff, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to determine my own responsibility to Stereogum’s readers, the metal community, the world at large, and myself. Should we refuse to cover any artist whose work and/or personal life includes intolerant/abusive/hateful themes or statements? Or is that tantamount to censorship? Should we openly cover every metal band whose artistic output we deem notable, irrespective of that band’s affiliations or actions? Or is that an irresponsible misuse of the substantial forum we’ve been granted — an abuse of the trust placed in us by Stereogum’s readers?
I don’t know. Honestly. I think it often comes down to some impossible attempt to know the unknowable: What do these people feel in their hearts? What have they done in their darkest hours? Have they repented? Can they be forgiven? Should they? And by whom? Who among us has that authority? The authority not only to judge, but to offer absolution?
I spent most of 2015 thinking about this stuff, although it was put into a new perspective when I saw this recent interview with Metallica’s James Hetfield, in which he said something that really connected with me:
You wouldn’t really like me if you knew my story, if you knew what horrible things I’ve done. I’m coming to grips with that, ’cause I have groups of people that I’m able to share all my horrible stuff with — shameful, extremely shameful, dark stuff. Some of it is things I’ve taken from my parents and carried it a little further. Other ones, I’ve been able to drop some of that. Other ones I’ve picked up on my own and then created … Shame’s a big thing for me.
Lemme ask you something: What do you suppose it is that James Hetfield did? What sort of “horrible things”?
Do you suppose it’s worse than what Craig Pillard did? Not as bad? Let’s assume it’s exactly as bad. Let’s pretend that by “shameful, extremely shameful, dark stuff,” Hetfield means that he said a whole bunch of adolescent, abhorrently racist trash, like, a decade ago. (To be clear, I’m not accusing Hetfield of any such behavior; this is entirely hypothetical.) Would that be grounds to forcibly remove Metallica from our lives? Would you remove them from yours?
Me? I don’t know. I don’t want to know.
I don’t want to know James Hetfield’s story. I don’t care that he’s done some unnamed, nebulous “horrible things” — haven’t we all? — and I don’t want to know the details of the horrible things he’s done. I want to love James Hetfield without reservation. I want to love Metallica’s music without some nagging, lingering negative associations. That music is a part of me, and it has been for nearly three decades. If I knew the truth about the “shameful, extremely shameful, dark stuff” in Hetfield’s closet, would I have to dump Metallica from my own life the way Death Fest dumped Disma from its lineup? And where exactly would that leave me? Would I be a nobler person? Or would I be a hypocrite? Would I somehow feel absolved of the horrible things I’ve done? Or would I merely feel more alone with those things?
The last thing any of us here wants to do is give additional exposure to artists who peddle or preach hatred or intolerance. The other last thing we want to do is act as some Orwellian thought police slowly sanitizing metal by doling out oxygen only to those artists whose views reflect our own, whose actions meet our personal standards of acceptability. It’s easy enough to treat Burzum’s Varg Vikernes as a pariah: The guy is an enthusiastic, unrepentant bigot and a convicted murderer. (It helps, too, that he hasn’t released a decent album since 2011.) I often wonder, though, how the world would react to “Angel Of Death” or “Unsuccessfully Coping With The Natural Beauty Of Infidelity” if those songs were released today. This is dark music! It’s not supposed to be safe! It can be safe, but nobody ever got into this shit because it was safe; we got into it because it was scary and transgressive and primal. Who are we to make it safe?
Then again, who are we to promote art or artists fostering unsafe environments?
I’m not winding up for some big, poignant conclusion here, sadly. I’m leaving this as an ellipsis. Because, while 2015 was fraught with these questions, they weren’t specific to 2015, and they won’t end when we ring in 2016. If anything, next year, they’re going to be more prominent, more pronounced, more divisive, more troublesome. This was a great year for metal, and I hope next year is even better. But this was a bad year for metal, too, and I expect next year will be even worse.
Let’s leave that ellipsis dangling for now — along with all its attendant ambivalence — as we put a definitive and exuberant period on the year that was. This list was voted on, argued over, and created by the five guys who put together Stereogum’s monthly metal column, the Black Market — i.e., me, Doug Moore, Ian Chainey, Aaron Lariviere, and Wyatt Marshall — which is why it doesn’t mirror Stereogum’s list of the year’s 50 best albums. The five of us go pretty deep on this stuff on a daily basis, and our feelings and opinions often differ, sometimes radically so. This list represents the year as we saw it, from five fairly disparate vantages. And yet, looking it over today, I can’t help thinking it’s the best year-end list we’ve ever compiled. That’s not because we’re so great or anything; it’s because the music was undeniably great — maybe the best year for metal since I started writing about this stuff. And the worst, too! But honestly, mostly? It was just the best. –Michael Nelson
50 Délétère – Les Heures De La Peste (Sepulchral Productions)
Between bands like Forteresse, Monarque, Chasse Galerie, Ephemer, and more, I’ve been a big fan of what Quebec has been doing in black metal for a number of years. One of the bands I’m most excited about from this part of the world is Délétère, a duo with a couple of incredible demos of majestic but hard-hitting black metal behind them. Listening to Délétère’s debut LP Les Heures De La Peste is a good way to find out why. The record is a tear through what makes Délétère excellent — it’s intensely melodic yet decidedly muscular and gruff, with a subterranean low-end. Sinister stuff, and a couple well-timed mid-tempo breaks with choral vocals provide nice detours from the album’s headlong tilt. –Wyatt
49 Maruta – Remain Dystopian (Relapse Records)
When Maruta briefly broke up in 2011, they had just completed a classic grindcore-band career arc. Over their six-year run, they released two demos and two LPs in quick succession before dissolving. Most grindcore bands scarcely get past the demos-and-split-7?s phase, so by the standards of the style, these guys had plenty of time to say their piece. But Maruta are no standard grindcore band, and they’ve got more than enough ideas to pack their upcoming third LP to the gills. This stuff gets the “grind” tag largely by virtue of the breakneck pace at which they crank out their clipped tunes. Content-wise, though, Maruta have a lot more in common with death metal’s most deranged wing than with grindcore’s primitive power-chord fixation — most Maruta riffs are absurd sequences of tortured pick squeals and squawking chords that would make any guitarist’s fret hand ache. Remain Dystopian requires plenty of work to process, but it’s also incredibly satisfying if you manage to keep pace. –Doug
48 Violet Cold – Desperate Dreams (Violet Cold)
Offering an example of yet another new subgenre that would make Quorthon turn in his grave, Desperate Dreams is self-described “euphoric black metal.” While that might elicit (to put it mildly) contempt from purists, Violet Cold’s take on the genre is worth listening to. And, though you may be loath to admit it, it’s awesome. Here, sugary-sweet keyboards pulled straight from an Owl City song overlay top-notch atmospheric black metal built for soaring into the sunset. The lively drums and desperate vocals work in and out of full-on blasts and memorable refrains remarkably well, inducing heads to nod and pulling heartstrings. Everything about this is all the more impressive, and unlikely, given that Violet Cold isn’t even a metal band. This one-man experimental project from Azerbaijan (!) has, in the last two years, released 28 singles and EPs that fall under genres as diverse as witchhouse, minimal techno, neoclassical, indie electro, ambient, sludge, grind, jazz, and more — seriously, almost everything. The wizard behind Violet Cold — whose only expressed interest on Facebook is “Space” — is one Emin Guliyev. Blast off. –Wyatt
47 Undergang – Døden Læger Alle Sår (Dark Descent)
Somewhere someone labeled these guys “old school death” and completely missed the point. Undergang play next-level death metal, so far beyond what mortal ears can effectively understand that it wraps back around again and starts to sound stupid, in a good way. I’m not kidding when I call this idiotically brilliant. It’s everything that ever made Obituary great mixed with everything that still makes Autopsy horribly good. But riff after riff, this is better than anything made in the olden days. Doug pointed out that Undergang actually sounds a lot like Coffins; while he’s right, Coffins lack the nuance necessary to write something as special as “Kogt I Blod.” It’s the sequencing of riffs, the push and pull that keeps us tumbling forward, and more than anything, it’s the details that make this thing shine. Listen to the little tinkling cymbal fill in between the pseudo-breakdown riff at 4:18 — that shit slays me. Anyone who doesn’t listen to death metal all day every day (even nights and weekends) might not recognize what makes this different, but for those of us that do, this is fucking mastery of form.–Aaron
46 Hate Eternal – Infernus (Season of Mist)
Hate Eternal frontman Erik Rutan may bear the strongest death metal pedigree of any living human. He’s probably best known these days as the driving force behind Florida’s well-regarded Mana Studios, where he’s engineered albums by such extreme metal mainstays as Cannibal Corpse, Goatwhore, Vital Remains, and Tombs. But for death metal dorks, Rutan is best known for his work as the frontman of Hate Eternal, whose five albums have established a gold standard of intensity by which countless younger bands have measured themselves. Incredibly, their upcoming sixth LP Infernus may their fastest album to date, thanks to a jawdropping performance by new skinsman Chason Westmoreland. His blinding speed will no doubt please HE’s many technique-oriented fans, but it’s the songwriting here — which is their strongest since I, Monarch — that should really get people excited. Hate Eternal may be standard-bearers for the mindblowing physicality of ‘modern’ death metal, but their successes have all relied on catchy, traditionalist structures. Infernus has no shortage of crazy blasting and shredding, but all the brutal noise serves to drive home the somber melodic sensibility that has colored Hate Eternal’s sound since the beginning. –Doug
45 Macabre Omen – Gods Of War (Vàn Records)
OK, so if you’re reading this, you hopefully have some familiarity with Bathory. (If not, there’s no time like now.) Bathory were a lot of things to a lot of people, but in their middle phase, where Quorthon was churning out classic after classic like Blood Fire Death, Hammerheart, and Twilight Of The Gods, the defining characteristics were mythic power and ragged fury. Macabre Omen channel that combination better than any band in recent memory. Macabre Omen actually belong to a long-running scene of their own: along with fellow Greek legends Rotting Christ and Varathron (both incredible), Macabre Omen are one of the original Hellenic black metal bands, having formed in 1994. They only sporadically release music, but what little exists is brilliant. Hellenic black metal stands in melodic opposition to the more caustic sounds of their Scandinavian counterparts; classic heavy metal trades blows with gothic melancholy, and black metal subsumes both into something unique to Greece. Gods Of War channels everything I’ve just mentioned — Bathory, Hellenic black metal, and a sense of triumph — into one of the best albums of the year. Play it loud. –Aaron
44 Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud (Nuclear Blast)
Amorphis is near and dear to my heart. They were the gateway band that grabbed me and led to my initial deep dive into metal. It was thrilling and foreign. Finnish metal! A palette that evoked the cold exotic climate perfectly in my mind, accented with Middle Eastern vibes. Heady stuff for a teenager. Around the turn of the millennium, with Am Universum, really, Amorphis lost some edge, but it didn’t last. Original lead singer Pasi Kokinen, who had taken over all vocal duties from guitarist Tomi Koivusaari and backed away from growling, was eventually replaced by the able Tomi Joutsen. Joutsen delivers both growls and clean vocals, and Amorphis has now released six original albums with him at the helm. Some of that old edge is back on the excellent new album Under The Red Cloud. Twenty-five years into their career, Amorphis still hits with vigor, delivering exciting and uplifting melodic death metal with panache. –Wyatt
43 Vhol – Deeper Than Sky (Profound Lore)
This band is a full-on supergroup, staffed by names that routinely crush the annual best-of circuit: Mike Scheidt (Yob) on vocals, John Cobbett (Hammers Of Misfortune, Ludicra) on guitar, Sigrid Sheie (Hammers Of Misfortune, Amber Asylum) on bass, and Aesop Dekker (Ludicra, Agalloch) on drums. Like all supergroups, Vhol is doomed to register as less than the sum of its parts. But given that Vhol’s parts are insanely stacked, that fate still leaves a lot of headroom for excellence. On Deeper Than Sky, Vhol have shuffled around their constituent influences — ’80s thrash and hardcore, ’90s black metal, and ’70s progressive rock — in a way that takes more advantage of that upside than their debut did. Deeper Than Sky emphasizes Cobbett’s thrash riffing far more than did its predecessor, which is welcome. All of Cobbett’s projects have featured his powerful pedal-tone work on occasion, and he’s a total fucking monster at the style, with a commanding delivery and a brushed-steel tone that reminds me of James Hetfield’s salad days. Hearing him lock in with Dekker and Sheie on those masterful thrash riffs delivers serious joy on this riotous record. –Doug
42 Onirik – Casket Dream Veneration (Iron Bonehead)
Music is like business in that luck is a huge factor. It feels like everyone fakes it until they hit the lottery of making it. This random success is so widespread, it’s hard not to grow comfortable with the idea that no one really knows what they’re doing. Then, in bounds a legitimately skilled person like a soul-crushing unicorn, a rare beast reminding all that the previous baselines of acceptability have been ego-protecting lies. Onirik is that, an expertly-crafted project sweeping a year’s worth of black metal good-enoughs and right-place-right-times under the rug. Cosmic horror guitars exhale progressions of paranoia, rhythms click together like clockwork, and ethereal chants echo throughout the catacombs. At first blast, it’s Vindsval, but the half-life of that comparison is one listen. Onirik’s regionalism hews closer to under-appreciated countrymen Bosque, in the chants at least. Yet, it’s not like this brand new territory, like Casket Dream Veneration doesn’t venerate the classics. Those faint moments of familiarity are by design. Onirik main man Gonius Rex checks his black metal boxes. Elsewhere on Casket Dream Veneration, there’s mad laughter, wild-eyed ritual recitation, and brief moments of mutated beauty burning through the neuroses. That’s black metal. It’s also legit good. –Ian
41 Paradise Lost – The Plague Within (Century Media)
Time has been kind to Paradise Lost, then as now. Their first album, 1990’s Lost Paradise, birthed an entire genre unto itself (death/doom), and then they moved right along, restless and ever improving. With a trio of untouchable classics that intermingled metal and gothic rock in various formulations — 1991’s Gothic, 1993’s Icon, and 1995’s Draconian Times — prime-era Paradise Lost is the stuff of gods. And just like that, in the wake of several near-perfect metal albums, they gave it all up; 1998’s One Second effectively abandoned metal for goth-inflected rock indebted to Sisters Of Mercy and Depeche Mode, and so it went for several albums. It was still good, but metalheads were understandably depressed. So it was a ridiculous treat when Paradise Lost randomly rediscovered their metal roots and came back as strong as ever on 2005’s self-titled album, which was followed by a string of modern classics. Here we are in 2015, staring down the barrel of something majestic, miserable, and magical in the form of the heaviest pure doom Paradise Lost has written in decades. I could rave about the album as a whole: about Adrien Erlandsson of At The Gates fame and his phenomenal drum tone; about the positive influence of having both Gregor Mackintosh and Nick Holmes playing legit death metal in Vallenfyre and Bloodbath respectively; or the fact that one of metal’s best bands is once again one of our best metal bands. Or you could just listen to this thing for yourself. –Aaron