10 Deafheaven – New Bermuda (Anti-)
I wrote a review of New Bermuda back in September and, like … look, if I’d croaked immediately after hitting publish on that review, I think I might’ve been okay with that. When that thing was done, I was spent. Man, there’s a point halfway through that article where I wrote, “Once I’m done with this review, I’ll be happy to never again write about Deafheaven in any capacity.” And I meant it! Not because I’m sick of Deafheaven or want to quit covering them or anything, but because I feel like I’ve said it all. I still kinda feel that way. And yet, here we are. So rather than weigh down the album with another dozen or so adjectives, anecdotes, and metaphors, I’ll keep this simple and real: There aren’t many albums in the world that I love as much as this one. I treasure this thing. Just knowing that I have it with me all the time, on my phone and in my life, leaves me with this unreasonable feeling of solace and satisfaction. When I saw Deafheaven play these songs live last month, they were further elevated in my estimation — no small feat, considering they were all already like ~100 emoji~ or whatever. I was fully prepared for Deafheaven to follow up Sunbather with something slightly lesser; instead, they gave me so much more. I’m not saying everyone should love New Bermuda as much as I do, I just don’t get it when people tell me they don’t. I accept it, though. I’m not here to argue, not anymore. I’m not even here to talk, because I’ve got nothing else to say. From here on out, I just want to listen. –Michael
09 Nile – What Should Not Be Unearthed (Nuclear Blast)
Nile are a sneakily important band from a death metal history perspective. You don’t hear them mentioned alongside the genre’s forefathers very often — they came along too late, though founder Karl Sanders was part of Morbid Angel’s entourage in the late ’80s and early ’90s — but as Aaron pointed out in his Black Market writeup of this album, their early classics helped death metal retain its creative momentum during the dark years around the turn of the millennium. But after 2005’s triumphant Annihilation Of The Wicked, Nile seemed to lose their mojo. Three mediocre-to-decent albums over the past decade gave the impression that they were chasing their tails, relying ever more heavily on aimless shredding and production values as desiccated as the mummified corpses that populate their lyrics. And really, it would hardly be surprising to find that a band whose schtick amounts to “extremely fast death metal with lyrics about the ancient histories of Egypt and the Gulf states” would run out of ideas after four albums or so. But in what appears to be deliberate act of fan service, Sanders and company have put together their catchiest, hugest-sounding album since Annihilation. It’s not markedly different from what they’ve been doing for their entire career — it’s just fucking awesome, thanks to the band’s renewed interest in appealing tones and songcraft. Speaking of which: I can’t believe I’m saying this about a song that came out in 2015, but “In The Name Of Amun” might be Nile’s best song ever. Ever! In a 22-year career! That lurch at the end is just unreal in its viciousness, and co-frontman Dallas Toler-Wade’s unhinged rant about unleashing bronze-age genocide on a rebellious community is actually pretty unsettling when you consider that such things happened all the time during those days. But then, maybe things haven’t changed that much since — they certainly haven’t for Nile. –Doug
08 Krallice – Ygg huur (Gilead Media / Avantgarde Music)
When Krallice first appeared in 2008, they were the subjects of a lot of silly allegations and criticisms, many of which stemmed from the context of that moment — black metal, and especially American black metal, abruptly achieved a higher degree of cultural visibility than it’d had since the Scandinavian criminal melodramas of the ’90s right around then. Perhaps the silliest of these allegations was that Krallice were “tourists,” non-metal musicians who’d cynically appropriated metal ideas and consequently violated its norms. In reality, Krallice’s members are all next-level riff nerds with deep roots in metal and far-ranging knowledge of its more obscure and extreme reaches. Ygg huur effectively exposes those roots for all to see. After devoting four albums to a concerted exploration of black metal’s structural boundaries, Krallice let loose with all the other kinds of riffs they like to play here — which turns out to be everything but the kitchen sink, though dissonant death metal and thrash muscle aside the black metal buzzing most frequently. In doing so, they abandon their former template almost completely — aside from Mick Barr’s uniquely miserable shriek, this could be a different band from the one that produced the excellent Years Past Matter in 2012. (Notably, the longform 10+-minute compositions Krallice have traditionally written are gone entirely; the longest songs on this album are less than seven minutes, and the whole thing clocks in under 40.) Some older fans will surely be disappointed by the knotty, unpredictable turn Krallice have taken, but…well, they’re boring, and this album is a monster. Ygg huur marks the beginning of a remarkable second act for a band that already had nothing to prove, and there’s reason to suspect that the story will continue very soon. –Doug
07 Fluisteraars – Luwte (Eisenwald Tonschmiede)
Fluisteraars catapulted to the front ranks of ambitious black metal when the Dutch trio put out Dromers in 2014. Following two demos, Dromers announced itself as a fully-fledged masterpiece, a gorgeous album that navigated subterranean darkness but roared back from the depths ablaze. And comprised of three tracks that clocked in around 11 minutes on average, Dromers introduced a fresh and exciting approach to long-winded black metal. You could call Fluisteraars’ style atmospheric, and while that would describe the sense of scale and scope at play on Luwte, this year’s even-better follow-up to Dromers, to some that might overlook the intricacy of the compositions. Instead, Luwte has an impressionistic edge, and feeling seems as important as anything else. The jangly, chiming guitars are played on strings attached to the soul, navigating through moments of rage, curiosity and triumph. The drumming, near-frantic at times, denotes urgency, and elsewhere booms with confidence and swagger. While there are more than a few moments of wide-screen beauty on Luwte, there’s just as much enraged blasting and weary wandering. Luwte is a journey, deserving of a front-to-back listen. But if we are to focus on one song for presentation here, let’s go with “Angstvrees,” when the band reaches a pinnacle of transcendent beauty unlikely to be forgotten soon by anyone who hears it. –Wyatt
06 Tribulation – The Children Of The Night (Century Media)
Not a week goes by without someone in the Stereogum comments lamenting the dearth and deficiency of guitars in modern music, and all I can think, every time, is: There are so many goddamn guitars, and so many people doing such amazing things with the instrument. And if you want evidence of that, start right here. Tribulation are a Swedish band, and The Children Of The Night is their third studio full-length. I already wrote a lot about the band’s backstory and their evolution, and you can find that here. In that same space, I said that The Children Of The Night was an early frontrunner for my Album Of The Year. I wrote those words in February — a few weeks after getting my hands on an advance of the record — and here we are in December, and nothing else has fully dislodged it. The Children Of The Night is an actual masterpiece; the type of thing that will stick around for the next few decades. And even though it’s 100% genuine-article capital-M Metal, it doesn’t follow any rules or bow to any masters. Tribulation came into this world as a death metal band, but that distinction seems woefully lacking at this point: There’s more Iron Maiden here than Cannibal Corpse; more Deep Purple than Morbid Angel. There are generous influences from numerous non-metal genres — namely classic rock, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, occult rock, hard rock, and gothic rock — but it would be impossible to mistake this for anything other than The Real Thing. –Michael
05 Sarpanitum – Blessed Be My Brothers (Willowtip Records)
It seems fairly incredible to me that we have two albums in our top 10 that consist of insanely fast, absurdly catchy death metal with lyrics about the bloody goings-on of pre-modern history, but that’s the wacky world we inhabit here at the Stereogum metal cavern. Unlike their likeminded fellows in Nile, Sarpanitum aren’t a particularly heralded band — this is just their second album, coming a full eight years after their debut Despoilment Of Origin. But you would never, ever guess that by listening to Blessed Be My Brothers, which commands the listener to rage with all the fanatical gravitas of a Crusader general. Like Obsequiae, this band makes frequent use of bright, archaic-sounding melodies designed to evoke the music of medieval Europe. But instead of embedding this sensibility in a framework of stately black metal, Sarpanitum supercharge it into a ridiculous technicolor blastfest, bedecked in layers of stratospheric guitar leads and borderline-choral keyboards, and jacketed in a speaker-destroying redline production. On paper, this approach has all the makings of a garish disaster. But Blessed Be My Brothers is actually compulsively listenable and even addictive — it was pretty much the only thing I spun in the gym for about two months earlier this year. And for good reason! The combination of chest-swelling, genuinely emotional melody and punshing physicality that drives this surprise hit could bring out the warrior in just about anyone. –Doug
04 Elder – Lore (Armageddon Shop)
Elder has a future in soundtracks. After hearing Lore, the US stoner/doom trio’s third album, that’s a low risk bet. Proggy with a punky bite, Elder constructs cinematic vistas rich enough to conjure close-eyed visuals. Also: five songs, 59 minutes. Unlike other bands with a penchant for extended forays, Elder’s excursions have a purpose; less an excuse to impress other musicians, as the great Chris Sessions would say, and more an intricately drawn map guiding attentive listeners. Nick DiSalvo (vocals, guitars, keyboards), Jack Donovan (bass), and Matt Couto (drums) have done this together long enough to really know each other, anticipating when they need to lead or support. That ever-flowing dynamic gives these long songs movement. Lore’s title track, this year’s high water mark for the genre, is a 16-minute epic that doesn’t denigrate that long-abused descriptor. 16 minutes? It has to drag somewhere, right? And yet, “Lore”‘s sections roll along with a steady sense of direction. As the band itself notes, it’s almost kosmische in spirit. But, to pull back from the how, this is all about the way Elder makes you feel. Lore enlivens experiences. This is a band made for the drudgery of day jobs, long commutes, and unending instances of ennui. Lore restores the balance. It’s a much-needed infusion of whoa. It’s also the best movie you’ll hear this year. –Ian
03 Horrendous – Anareta (Dark Descent)
Horrendous are nominally modern-day practitioners of old-school death metal — most evident in their retro instrumental tones and production touches — but they’ve expanded the parameters and possibilities of that subgenre, so that their output today feels less like a throwback and more like a long-overdue course correction. And Horrendous aren’t living in the past: On Anareta, they’ve taken the very best elements of their influences and cut away all the fat, delivering intricately structured songs that showcase technical prowess and odd time signatures, but openly prioritize hooks above all else. For all its studiously atavistic elements, Anareta might be the catchiest metal album of 2015. The melodic/anthemic elements are present in every song on Anareta — even the album’s most off-kilter track, “Acolytes,” eventually leads into a euphoric closing section. Throughout Anareta, Horrendous are fearlessly reaching skyward, peeling off guitar leads that climb like clock towers or church steeples. There’s nary a dud to be found on this album — not a single song here that I couldn’t genuinely call “my favorite,” assuming superlatives weren’t limited to a single entity. On that note: When listening to Anareta, I find myself applying qualified praise to Horrendous, only to strip away those qualifications one by one. I want to say, “They’re the low-key best metal band in America” … but metal is the genre I listen to most, so why am I diminishing them based on their genre? So then I want to say, “They’re the low-key best band in America” … but America is still home to many of the best bands in the world, right? So then I want to say, “They’re the low-key best band in the world.” But why “low-key”? Isn’t that just hedging on my part? Which leaves me wanting to say, “They’re the best band in the world.” Period. Now, you know, I’m not gonna say that. I can’t say that. But goddamn if I don’t feel it. –Michael
02 Leviathan – Scar Sighted (Profound Lore)
There’s a lot of context to contend with when you listen to Leviathan. This project is as important — legendary, even — as they come in the world of American black metal, with roots that go back to the late ’90s, an outstanding discography of influential LPs and short-format releases, and ties to a host of other notable acts that includes SunnO))) and Twilight. There’s also the uglier non-musical context of sole contributor Jef “Wrest” Whitehead’s 2011 domestic assault charges — most of which were ultimately dropped, though he was ultimately convicted of one count of aggravated domestic battery — and the drama that ensued, which included Leviathan’s only disappointing album to date, the jury-baiting True Traitor, True Whore. Michael wrote a great piece back in January that delved into this stuff in more detail, and I’d encourage you to read it if you don’t know the story already.
But I also think that all this context, both positive and negative, can get in the way of experiencing Scar Sighted for what it is, as a thing-in-itself. And here’s what Scar Sighted is: an unbelievable, almost alien creative accomplishment. One-man bands are relatively commonplace in metal these days, but it’s mind-boggling to think that the incredible range of hallucinatory vocal and instrumental sounds on this record all came from the same guy (though producer Billy Anderson deserves a great deal of credit for the richness and power that each instrument benefits from). And it’s even crazier to think that one man conceived all of these bizarre ideas and integrated them so seamlessly into epic, thunderous, deeply emotive songs. Scar Sighted is an immensely complex and outré recording in terms of its components, but it’s also a unified whole that never feels showy or self-conscious — a unique and beautifully frightening voice crying out in the hinterlands between extreme metal and dark ambient music. Wrest’s substantial menace looms throughout Scar Sighted, but melancholy and regret lurk in the gloom too, seeping in only after pulverizing riffs clear out any defenses.
It’s hard to imagine Wrest ever matching this incredible album, but it was also hard to imagine him equalling Massive Conspiracy Against All Life, his previous masterpiece. He’s done so here — and in some ways, even surpassed it. “He’s experienced as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered…and he still has hell to look forward to,” intones a sample from Se7en on Scar Sighted’s title track. Perhaps so; perhaps Wrest is truly a lost soul. Only he knows for sure. But judging by the commanding blastbeat that ensues, he’s also more than ready for whatever comes next. –Doug
01 Panopticon – Autumn Eternal (Bindrune Recordings)
More than any other metal subgenre, black metal lends itself to exploration and experimentation. Where styles like power metal and death metal are largely hidebound by rigid conventions, black metal blends naturally with a record store’s worth of disparate sounds: free jazz, folk, ambient, shoegaze, post-rock, punk, dream-pop, slow-core, classical, new age, noise, prog, emo… And for the better part of the last decade, for good or ill, American bands have been at the forefront of black metal’s expansion.
Austin Lunn has been adding new ingredients to the old recipe since kicking off Panopticon in 2008. At his most iconoclastic, he was mixing generous helpings of bluegrass into his epic black metal, giving his chosen genre an infusion of Appalachian flavors reflective of the American South in which he grew up and resided. This was totally unexpected, but by no means irreverent: Black metal has always found inspiration in the traditional sounds of the region in which it’s been written, but because the genre’s roots are Scandinavian, so too are its most common base elements: Bathory embraced viking lore; Burzum invoked the Norwegian countryside. By adding banjo to the mix, Lunn wasn’t rejecting black metal’s codes and practices; he was embracing them.
Last year, though, Lunn relocated from Kentucky to Minnesota so that he could open a craft brewery with his brother-in-law. (As it happens, that brewery is called Hammerheart, its moniker borrowed from the classic Bathory album.) It’s no coincidence that Minnesota’s NFL franchise is nicknamed the Vikings: The state was primarily settled by Scandinavian immigrants, and the great majority of its existing population is of Nordic or German descent. So when Lunn started writing Panopticon’s sixth album, Autumn Eternal, he drew less from his Southern past, and more from his adopted Midwestern home. It just so happens that the place in which he landed has many of the same traditions as those found in the place where black metal was born.
In that respect, Autumn Eternal is perhaps the most recognizably “black metal” album of Panopticon’s career — competing for that mantle only with the band’s 2008 debut, which found the artist at a nascent stage, before he recognized the genre’s broader possibilities. But Autumn Eternal is also an unmistakably American album: raised in the place that gave us Bob Dylan, Prince, and the Replacements; finding inspiration in the Minnesota wilderness, in the folk music that first came to this country from Europe, and evolved here into something more inclusive and more beautiful still. Autumn Eternal takes a melting-pot approach to sound, and incorporates lots of contemporary American bands into its slow-simmering stew. The album’s acoustic opener, “Tamarack’s Gold Returns,” could have come off Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts Of The Great Highway. The dizzying guitar-drum interplay on “Pale Ghosts” recalls some of the heavier songs on Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. On Autumn Eternal’s behemoth centerpiece, “Sleep To The Sounds Of Waves Crashing,” Lunn shifts from furious, arrhythmic, unnaturally warped guitars into a lovely and serene string-quartet section, and the whole hallucinatory affair reminds me of nothing so much as USBM royalty Leviathan — whose own 2015 album sits right alongside Autumn Eternal on this list, and whose mastermind, Jef Whitehead, is perhaps the only American black metal auteur today who belongs in Lunn’s class. Like Whitehead, Lunn isn’t exactly attempting to hybridize black metal with other genres; he’s finding unexpected tones and textures that work within black metal’s parameters, and then, crafting ambitious compositions that reveal entirely new facets of the genre.
That’s just pedantic shit, though, academic shit. And while Lunn’s work is worthy of a thesis, Autumn Eternal isn’t heady or dispassionate. This is a cathartic, visceral album. Lunn is dealing in bold, bracing melodies and sweeping sonic vistas. He’s balancing windswept fury with lush pastoral grandeur, his guitars bending like branches or driving like rain. He’s writing captivating, satisfying songs with structure, purpose, momentum, and arc. He’s harnessed black metal’s essential power and deployed it in the service of a singular vision and voice. Autumn Eternal is a triumphal statement from one of this country’s great artists. Listening to it, you can hear the entirety of black metal’s history; you can also hear limitless possibilities for the genre’s future. Or you can just turn it on, turn it up, and be blown away. –Michael