2015 In Review

The 50 Best Metal Albums Of 2015

30 High On Fire – Luminiferous (Entertainment One)

Whether or not you’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road, you’ve probably heard of the Doof Wagon: a rolling rock concert that accompanies one of the flick’s bloodthirsty scavenger tribes, featuring a huge stack of amps and a guy who looks like Voldo from Soul Calibur riffing out on a flamethrower/guitar hybrid. The Doof Wagon’s in-film music sounds like an ’80s hard-rock guitarist jamming with Chinese thunder drummers, but it really should’ve sounded exactly like High On Fire, who are the bog standard for highway-friendly heavy metal in 2015. More than almost any other band, High On Fire epitomize a strain of thought that wishes metal had never moved past Motörhead, Slayer, Frank Frazetta imagery, or 200 beats per minute; the thrills they provide are both as predictable and as viscerally satisfying as an action flick’s. If you’ve heard any of this band’s past three or four records, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect from Luminiferous. But given High On Fire’s Platonic perfection of this form, it’d be nuts for them to change now. After all, metal needs institutions, and it doesn’t produce many of them these days. –Doug

29 Judicator – At The Expense Of Humanity (Masters of Metal Productions)

Judicator, which originally paired American vocalist John Yelland and multi-instrumentalist Tony Cordisco, made a nice little niche for themselves on their last two albums. Those were power metal history lessons, equally notable for the duo’s shredability and their deep dives into dusty tomes for lyrical themes. Now a full band following the addition of Jordan Elcess (drums) and Tyler Sherrill (keyboards), Judicator has narrowed its focus: At the Expense of Humanity is a concept album concerning the passing of Yelland’s cancer-stricken brother. Naturally, it’s heavy stuff; not exactly a topic that lends itself easily to ripping power metal. However, Judicator approaches this material openly. Yelland’s narrator traverses each stage of grief without distancing himself from root emotions. That said, a dirge this is not. Judicator offsets the concept’s raw nerves with grandly composed, Euro-tinged, guest-solos-galore power metal. The catchiness reels you in, the humanity makes this truly resonate. And, if you’ve been a witness to cancer’s inexhaustible hunger to consume every part of a person, At the Expense of Humanity really hits home. It’s a reminder of existence’s terrifying tenuousness, but also why we endure and forge memories. –Ian

28 Misþyrming – Söngvar Elds Og Óreiðu (Terratur Possessions)

Black metal is the stuff of the frigid north, all ice and tundra and forests, but Iceland’s Misþyrming draw more from the palette of subterranean hellfire. I’m talking lava. That’s what the cover art looks like to me, and Iceland is no stranger to volcanic eruptions, so in that respect, Misþyrming’s debut is well-sourced. And Söngvar Elds Og Óreiðu is awesome, even if we’ll never be able to pronounce it (“Eyjafjallajokul”?). The album is a tour-de-force of muscular, dark, massively evil-sounding black metal. For those who prefer death metal to black metal because of the former’s propensity for low-end heaviness, there’s enough depth here to keep you happy. That doesn’t detract from the albums intensely melodic bent — in its own way, Söngvar Elds Og Óreiðu is gorgeous. –Wyatt

27 Psudoku – Planetarisk Psudoku (Nerve Altar)

Most genre mutation exercises and convoluted what-ifs lose steam after a few plays. If only the compositions were as inspired as the scenarios. But then, there’s Steinar. The Norwegian grindcore manipulator hit last year’s list with his duo Brutal Blues. This year he’s back with his mostly solo endeavor Psudoku, following up 2011’s aptly titled Space Grind with an even nuttier sculpture of barely recognizable shapes. “It was recorded next year in a parallel universe,” Psudoku’s Bandcamp states with a wink, “where grind didn’t develop from hardcore punk and thrash metal but from ’70s prog from the future, maaaaan.” And Planetarisk Sudoku is exactly that. Turbo-quick tonal shifts, brake-screeching tempo changes, Rubik’s Cube structures, rabbit-hole tangents: its prog lineage is clear. Yet, the grind is there in equal measure. When Planetarisk Sodoku blasts, it takes off. The two halves form a wholly evolved album, far more considered and labored over than any ear gag could hope to be. Tens of listens in, it’s a lot more fun, too. –Ian

26 Drowning The Light – From The Abyss (self-released)

Drowning The Light fit in comfortably amongst the grimmest of the grim in black metal, but the reclusive yet prolific band is one of, if not the founder of the mournful, anthemic and gorgeous black metal sound that comes out of Australia (think Woods Of Desolation). A lot of older Drowning The Light material — and there is a ton of it, given all the splits and demos Azgorh and a rotating cast of characters have put out over the years — is buried behind a wall of lo-fi hiss and fuzz, giving it a murky and mysterious from-the-depths quality. From The Abyss ironically steps out from behind that wall to shine a little light on rich harmonies in all their glory while revealing little more of the force behind the mystery. It’s a master class in this kind of metal –Wyatt

25 KEN Mode – Success (Season Of Mist)

The title of KEN Mode’s Success feels at least a little sarcastic. Even to the extent a discordant, abrasive noise/hardcore/metal band can achieve “success,” it’s of a tenuous sort. But in many ways, KEN Mode are the model of that success: The band’s two constant members — brothers Jesse and Shane Matthewson (vocals/guitar and drums, respectively) — were working as accountants until 2011, at which point they decided to quit their day jobs and make music their full-time gig. Success! That means near-endless touring, playing small venues with similarly loud, unwashed bands, broken up only by the occasional chance to record a new album, followed by more touring. Success! But as accountants, KEN Mode know how to work with lean margins, and as Muay Thai practitioners, they’ve developed almost superhuman discipline, and they’ve survived by living frugally and producing maximal yields from scant resources. As such, KEN Mode were ideal candidates to work with Steve Albini. Success is the Matthewson brothers’ first collaboration with the minimalist engineer. As you might expect, it’s a paint-peeling, concussion-inducing assault, introducing tiny elements of pop into the band’s backdraft-surge sound. The title’s sarcasm matches Albini’s worldview, of course, but so too does the title’s idealism. The defeated-looking dude on the album’s cover looks like he makes pretty good money as, say, an accountant. He also looks like he’d be a whole lot happier in a van, playing in a punk band. Success is what you make it, right? –Michael

24 Grift – Syner (Nordvis Produktion)

Black metal is typically associated with speed, but some of the best in the genre comes when things are slowed down a bit. Grift’s “Svaltorna” is a prime example — what starts as a ponderous mid-tempo groove turns into a sorrowful foundation for howls of loneliness and grief. (We really do operate in a funny milieu when what I just wrote actually qualifies as praise.) The bleak vibe and catchy song is the work of one Erik Gärdefors, and Syner is his debut full-length, an immersive and cinematic album that’s a highlight of the year. It will sit well with fans of Agalloch, cold weather, and introspection, and, for those who require it, Grift delivers full speed, lightly folk-inflected black metal that stands with the best of them. –Wyatt

23 Blind Guardian – Beyond The Red Mirror (Nuclear Blast)

For the uninitiated, Blind Guardian are the reigning gods of power metal, conquering worlds and nerd-hearts across 30 years and 10 albums. Despite my usual predilections for much uglier music, I’m a massive fan — and so are a lot of people, apparently, as Blind Guardian regularly headline European festivals, and even hosted their own multi-day “Blind Guardian Fest” (immortalized on DVD forevermore). Beyond The Red Mirror harks back to the proggish theatre of A Night At The Opera (their 2002 album intentionally named after the Queen album of the same name, because why not) — the guitars shred hard and fast, the production is ridiculous, and singer Hansi Kursch sounds like he’s singing with an army of 1000 — which is to say, this is classic Blind Guardian. –Aaron

22 Chrch – Unanswered Hymns (Transylvanian Tapes)

Chrch, or Church depending on when you found this thing, has that sludgy, slowly-stalking doom down. Now, as any recommendation algorithm or aggregator will show you, a lot of other bands do too. But Unanswered Hymns, the Sacramento quintet’s debut LP, is aimed at your gut. “Dawning”‘s trudge transitions into a planetary caravan traveling towards a blurred-by-barbiturates crescendo. “Stargazer” starts by mediating to reverb’s ghosts before crunching tributes to towering amp stacks. “Offering” sacrifices Eva’s voice, Chris and Shann’s guitars, Ben’s bass, and Matt’s drums. From a purely technical standpoint, Unanswered Hymns won’t surprise. It’s sludgy doom. But Chrch feels bigger, greater, more in ways that can’t be defined or measured, like describing vertigo or the vestiges of a dream. And the impact grows with each listen as landmarks become more familiar. There’s a million impersonal ways to find music these days, but it’s still the stuff with the emotional wallop that’s ultimately remembered. More than form, this for the feels. –Ian

21 Myrkur – M (Relapse)

Amalie Bruun took a pretty big risk enlisting Ulver’s Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg as producer for Myrkur’s full-length debut, M. The upside? A mutually beneficial artistic collaboration resulting in (at least) a great album. The secondary upside? An alliance that would eliminate any suspicions of dilettantism. The downside? A narrative that would shift focus away from Bruun’s achievements and transfer majority ownership of the music to Garm. To Bruun’s credit, she steered into the skid. Garm’s influence can be felt throughout M; the sheer magnitude of sound on display here reflects his decades exploring the possibilities of not only black metal but post-rock and modern classical. As a result, M sounds better suited to caverns and cathedrals than clubs. Perhaps it’s better, though, to ask not what Garm did for Myrkur, but what Myrkur did for Garm. By hiring the man to helm a black metal project, he was encouraged to return to his roots, to the one thing he did better than anyone else. Bruun’s voice is better suited to the choral stuff than Garm’s ever was, and here, she juxtaposes those soft textures over ripping guitars like freshly fallen snow over jagged rock formations. You don’t even recognize the inherent risks when they pay these sorts of dividends. You only wonder, why aren’t more bands doing this? Well, for one thing: They can’t. Also: They wouldn’t even dare to try. –Michael

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