2015 In Review

The 50 Best Metal Albums Of 2015

20 Jute Gyte – Ship Of Theseus (Jeshimoth)

Jute Gyte — a one-man band better known as Adam Kalmbach — first appeared on Stereogum in February of 2014. The album we covered in that month’s Black Market column, Vast Chains, ended up in our Best Metal Albums Of 2014 feature. June 2015’s Ship Of Theseus is Kalmbach’s third full-length album since Vast Chains. (It’s preceded by 2014’s Ressentiment and this year’s electronic Dialectics.) That’s just how Jute Gyte rolls, though. Aside from the breakneck pace at which he produces music, Kalmbach is lately best known for his use of microtones in the eerie, cerebral black metal he produces. For the most part, these in-between intervals produces a queasy alienating effect, which makes sense for a guy who writes lyrics mostly about revulsion and meaninglessness. But on Ship of Theseus those same tactics produce a different result — there’s melancholy melody in there, or at least some alien parody of it. You can hear a good example of this effect in opener “Lugubrious Games (Sans Frontières),” which drifts and stomps like a My Dying Bride tune heard through a black hole, until climaxing in a terrifying vocal call-and-response sequence. This incredibly fecund project is one of underground metal’s most rewarding hidden treasures. –Doug

19 Kauan – Sorni Nai (Blood Music)

Kauan blend elements of folk and metal better than perhaps any other band today, clouding doom in a lush and weary atmosphere. I’ve found Kauan have always suited feelings of displacement. The sparse snare and woodblock echo in still silence, and simple little piano melodies feel as if they’ll be picked up and blown away on a cold wind, but not before searing into your soul. It’s a sound not pinned to any point in time, and soft keyboards and big chugging riffs can alter the cold pastoral vibe, though never forcibly. Kauan are Russian, but they sing in Finnish and now are based out of Ukraine, and the band captures a sad sense of loss — not maudlin but nostalgic. Sorni Nai is a conept album, and it’s actually one continuous song cut up into seven tracks for ease of listening. The album chronicles the Dyatlov Pass incident, a bizarre and horrifying event in which nine Russian hikers mysteriously died on February 2, 1959 in the Ural Mountains. You can certainly enjoy Sorni Nai without that context, but with it, you might imagine a bit of the doomed journey. For those who may have first heard Kauan on their 2014 offering, Pirut, you’ll see a slightly different side of the band here, one that draws upon Kauan’s more melancholic side. It’s interesting that on an album about getting lost in the woods, Kauan’s found a way forward that so expertly channels the band’s collective work. –Wyatt

18 Mg?a – Exercises In Futility (No Solace / Northern Heritage)

It’s tough to pin down exactly what makes Mg?a so special. They play fairly straightforward, riff-based black metal, with all the expected trappings — spare instrumental tones, tremolo-picked suspensions, mournful arpeggios, reverby snarling, blah blah. Lots of bands ply this particular trade, but Mg?a do it better than nearly all of them. It’s frustrating to chalk up such a surfeit of personality and emotional resonance to intangible clichés like “songcraft” and “attitude,” but whatever it is, Mg?a have it in spades. Their last LP, 2012’s With Hearts Towards None, was a minor masterpiece of orthodox black metal, driven by drummer Maciej Kowalski’s baroque rhythms and elevated skyward by mastermind Miko?aj ?entara’s gift for wringing the most grandiose emotion possible out of every harmony and transition. Both it and its predecessor Groza are structured as album-length suites broken up into numbered movements, and both got a lot of mileage out of cleverly revisiting motifs throughout their runtimes. Exercises In Futility, their upcoming third LP, shares this approach. This is fierce, epic, triumphant-sounding shit — almost painfully so at times. But despite its straining emotional tenor, Exercises In Futility retains the icy core of negativity that characterizes all of the best black metal. –Doug

17 Obsequiae – Aria Of Vernal Tombs (20 Buck Spin)

Obsequiae are one of the best, and perhaps least recognized, bands of this young century. What’s most striking about Obsequiae isn’t so much the diversity of influences (which are easy to trace), or even the cumulative effect (which is nothing short of brilliant). No, it’s the way the sound metastasizes in your head after even a cursory listen. It’s like the buried transmission in Videodrome; once it’s in there, it’s in for good, pulling strings behind the scenes, demanding repeat listens. Nothing else scratches the itch. Obsequiae take a medieval approach to heavy metal, relying exclusively on melodic riffing in the Dorian mode. The guitars are in constant union, harmonized and swirling, a tone poem of woodsmoke and wind. There’s a faint whiff of metallicized folk, reminiscent of early In Flames or Dark Tranquility, but this isn’t death metal. Meanwhile, you’ll hear shades of all manner of outré black metal forms: Hellenic black metal melodicism (à la prime-era Rotting Christ), the Misty Mountain grandeur of Summoning, or maybe the pagan crush of early Empyrium. The closest overall analogue might be Agalloch, whose fans should find a lot to love here, yet this is clearly something else altogether. –Aaron

16 Beaten To Death – Unplugged (Mas-Kina Recordings)

Beaten To Death shares drummer Christian “AntiChristian” Svendsen with stonefaced Norwegian black metal stalwarts Tsjuder. To give you an idea of how different Beaten To Death’s presentation is from Tsjuder’s, consider that they credit Svendsen as “Christian Bartender.” Then consider the thoroughly sarcastic song titles on Unplugged, their outstanding third album. (Which isn’t actually an unplugged album.) Opener “Papyrus Containing The Spell To Summon The Breath Of Life Enshrined In The Collected Scrolls Of Sheryl Crow” bags on death metal legends Nile for their predilection for long song titles. “Don’t You Fucking Dare To Call Us Heavy Metal” (they are clearly heavy metal) shares space with “Death To False Grindcore.” You should Google “Robert Sylvester Kelly” if you don’t recognize the name. The last song is called “Troll,” for crying out loud. But despite the outward silliness, Unplugged is as intense and inventive as anything on the grindcore landscape these days. Against a familiar backdrop of blastbeats, belching vocals, and rock-salt bass, guitarists Tommy Hjelm and Martin Rygge twang away with clattering single-coil guitars that might sound more at home in a hard-charging ’90s indie rock band than in any extreme metal mutation. And at times, the material they’re playing sounds in keeping with that bizarre tone — they’re fond of chiming, layered arpeggios that would be positively beautiful if it weren’t for all the guttural mayhem belting out of their bandmates. –Doug

15 Murg – Varg & Björn (Nordvis)

After 20-plus years of innovation, ’90s second-wave Scandinavian black metal still serves as the gold standard for the genre. And for good reason — when the bands of that era carved out a sound of buzzing bleakness accented with rasps, croaks and minor melodic flourishes, they had a formula with lasting power that could be readily built upon but never clearly bettered. In 2015, Murg is one of the best examples of a young band nailing the classic sound with fresh vigor. Varg & Björn succeeds in attaining the kind of depth of character present in Scandinavian forerunners like Gorgoroth and Immortal as well as the catchiness and sense for big, hook-y melodies perfected by Taake. It’s awesome, and it comes from a Swedish duo that’s arrived out of nowhere, or, according to press materials, from a rural mining area filled with abandoned mines slowly being reclaimed by ravenous nature. –Wyatt

14 Acid King – Middle Of Nowhere, Center Of Everywhere (Svart Records)

Acid King frontwoman Lori S. knows how to bend a guitar string until she finds that feel-good frequency. Bassist Mark Lamb and drummer Joey Osbourne know how to ride a stoner-doom groove. Put them together and you get Middle Of Nowhere, Center Of Everywhere, a 53-minute celebration of a band at the height of its powers. Lori’s playing soars when she’s not engaged in tug-of-war with her amp, delivering a riff begging for your hummed accompaniment. The rhythm section is the secret weapon, ably supporting each other while supplying their own lead-worthy points of interest. But the true highlight is that Acid King is unhurried. They believe in their skills, knowing they don’t need to augment stoner doom’s natural slowness with showy proggy braincandy. When Lori responds to her riffs with a from-the-third-eye bluesy howl and then partners with it like a duet on “Silent Pictures,” it’s straight-up American doom at its purest. Finland’s Svart Records must’ve thought so, too. Maybe it’s time for us to win these San Franciscans back. –Ian

13 Satan – Atom By Atom (Listenable)

Satan technically fall under the NWOBHM banner, meaning they formed in the late ’70s, they play some variant of traditional heavy metal, and they’re rather British. This describes thousands of bands, ranging from Iron Maiden to Angel Witch, from early Def Leppard to Tygers of Pan Tang…and then there was Satan, out at the edge of the scene with a sound of their own, operating on another level in terms of songwriting. Their first album, released in 1983 and playfully/awkwardly titled Court In The Act, is probably one of the best, least-known NWOBHM albums of all time, and it established their bizarrely legal-themed heavy metal. Its guitars were surprisingly technical, but fairly clean and not especially heavy; near-shreddy melodic passages flowed over rolling, rollicking drums and the sometimes-soaring, always-manly vocals of Brian Ross. The music is hard to describe because Satan sound so little like their contemporaries. They released another album in the later ’80s, then changed their name and eventually vanished. After decades in dormancy, the band randomly resurfaced in 2013 to release what has quickly become one of my favorite trad metal albums of all time, Life Sentence. Two years later, I’m loving their second comeback album, Atom by Atom, which picks up where the last one left off — squirrelly leads chasing carnivalesque melodies in circles, while Brian Ross shouts through uniquely Satan-like choruses. –Aaron

12 Slugdge – Dim & Slimeridden Kingdoms (self-released)

Consider: A band with a concept revolving around interstellar slugs just put out one of the best albums of the year. Again. In the grand metal tradition of harnessing imagination and a boundless reserve of badass riffs to transform a ridiculous conceit into something affecting, Kev Pearson and Matt Moss have, once more, turned in eight gloriously grinding tracks far better than they need to be. So, yes, Dim & Slimeridden Kingdoms’s trail of slime is similar to last year’s sophomore outing, Gastronomicon. Modern Carcass-ian madness is further whipped into a frenzy by black metal accents, death metal descents, and baited-hook solos. But, Slugdge go deeper here, producing a set that’s isn’t as immediately catchy, though more able to withstand the erosion of multiple replays — in part because of the smoother structures, which are somehow more progressive, in the Edge of Sanity sense, and more digestible. “Flying Snails”‘ centerpiece polyrhythmic thump shrugs off the spotlight other acts would shine on it and, instead, fits snugly within the surrounding sections. Same goes for “Pellet In The Head”‘s Ihsahn-isms or “Unchained Malady”‘s nod to Enslaved. These aren’t just parts, but components of songs. Of course, thinking solely of single-element surface pleasures, it sure doesn’t hurt when you’ve discovered a guitar tone as filthy as Kev Pearson’s. It adds up to 55 more minutes of infectious metal with an insatiable appetite for playlists. The unconverted, those who can’t get over the name and gimmick, will be confounded. Again. Whatever. Praise Mollusca. –Ian

11 Sivyj Yar – Burial Shrouds (Avantgarde Music)

Like its two jaw-dropping predecessors, Sivyj Yar’s third album, Burial Shrouds, takes inspiration from the Russian countryside and rural life. Vladimir, the man behind Sivyj Yar, has crafted a unique brand of deeply moving, melancholic atmospheric black metal. That said, there’s often a sense of playfulness to his songs. Folk elements arrive in lush swells of mournful strings, which are both complemented and partly offset by the lively, organic-sounding bass. Vladimir enthusiastically kills it on drums — album closer “The Snow Shall Fall A Long While” is a prime example — and often opts for bright guitar tones. Still, it’s forceful and soaring stuff, and Vladimir’s howls carry a sense of urgency. Agalloch fans might experience a sense of déjà entendu when they hear the first few bars of the title track. But unlike much nature-reverent atmospheric black metal, Burial Shrouds is rooted in a different experience, one forlorn and weary but resolute, with calloused weathered hands from centuries of agrarian life. –Wyatt

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