2017 In Review

The Best Metal Albums Of 2017

Before we begin our discussion of the fantastic year for underground metal that was 2017, a few orders of business:

First, 2018 will see some adjustments to the Black Market, the monthly metal column whose contributors assembled this list. Put simply, future editions of the column will be shorter than the current format has been. Covering everything worth hearing in this vibrant musical niche is basically impossible in the space of one column, and the 15-song setup we’ve historically used feels like an unwieldy attempt to do so. So we’re gonna cut back to covering 10 songs a month, and abbreviate the intro essay. The goal is a version of The Black Market that you guys can reasonably get through in a sitting. We’ll see how it goes!

Second, I (Doug) won’t be back in the new year to implement these changes, for personal reasons. This may sound cryptic or dramatic, but it really isn’t. I’ve just been writing about metal for a very long time, since I was in high school, and the time has come to move on. The Black Market unofficially began when the current contributors helped SG editor Michael Nelson assemble a Best Metal Albums post back in 2012, and five years seems like a nice round number to stop on. Genuine thanks to all of you guys for reading (and reading, and reading) these columns, and for offering your own thoughts on this crazy music in the comments. It has been a privilege to be part of this community.

The rest of the Black Market guys — that’s Ian Chainey, Aaron Lariviere, and Wyatt Marshall — will handle the column going forward. You already know that these three are incredible writers with truly deep knowledge of the style. In the time that we’ve worked together, they’ve also become dear friends of mine. Reading their work has always been the most fun part of the TBM circus for me, and I’m looking forward to their commentary on what will likely be another overwhelming year of brutal riffment.

A few parting thoughts follow. I’ll try to keep this (relatively) brief in the spirit of The Black Market’s new vibe, but if I go on too long, you’ll find the Top 40 below the babble:

Pretty much since the word “go,” mainstream critics have largely held that metal is fundamentally stupid music for losers. Since the ’90s, that attitude has been amended to “it’s stupid music for losers, and nobody likes it.” Metal culture is largely about not caring what broader society thinks, of course, but this derogatory attitude has nonetheless been internalized by metal fans and musicians to a surprising degree. For evidence, ask most metal folks to explain anything about the style to outsiders and witness the apologetic tone that tends to emerge. (I may have contributed to this trope on occasion.)

If you’re still reading, you probably don’t agree that metal is in fact a garbage genre. (Though there is surely a LOT of garbage metal.) But even liking metal doesn’t really insulate you from this attitude. In fact, metal’s inferiority complex runs so deep that it colors the community’s response to basically all criticism. Say anything bad about a popular metal band in public — that they’re musically stupid, or redundant, or lyrically insipid, or openly bigoted — and at least one savvier-than-thou metal guy will smugly chime in to the effect that “of course they’re stupid / redundant / insipid / bigoted; this is metal!” The subtext here is not just that metal really is trash on some fundamental level, but that everyone involved knows it’s trash, and that therefore nobody does or should take it seriously, to say nothing of internalizing its content. Therefore, any attempt to hold metal to any but the most diminutive standards for style or content constitutes a form of ignorance.

But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that media consumption doesn’t work that way. People are much more suggestible than they realize, and the culture they consume — even, and maybe especially, culture they consume from an ironic distance — profoundly affects their attitudes in ways they might not even notice. This holds especially true for subcultural subjects that become part of the consumer’s self-image. When you get heavily involved in this kind of thing, the subculture’s values slowly become your values. Consider the way that online gamer culture — not a subject treated with much historical seriousness by outsiders — spawned GamerGate, which in turn served as a staging ground for a much broader online far right.

Music scenes like metal can work much the same way. I’m a fairly good example of this effect in practice. Growing up, my life plan was to become an attorney. I held to this plan all the way through college and then gave it up just before I graduated. What had changed? Principally, my values — I had become less interested in money as a measure of worth, more interested in novel experiences, more skeptical of the way society assigns value, and more focused on living a life I could feel good about than on conventional visions of success. It’s not an exaggeration to say that years of exposure to metal and adjacent styles of heavy music played a major role in these changes to my personality.

In my opinion, the subcultural ideas that underpinned these shifts are worthy, or at least defensible. But they came packaged in metal with a bunch of crappier ones: that Satanism is literally true; that war is awesome; that it is better to repeat someone else’s ideas than to articulate your own; that weakness is beneath contempt; that being shitty to women is not just okay but hilarious; and so forth. These are the part of metal that everyone theoretically knows are stupid and doesn’t take seriously. But in fact, these attitudes are actually very common among metal folks, as you can see by looking at pretty much any comment thread on MetalSucks or Lambgoat.

At this point, you might say: isn’t this accounting a little dramatic? Sure it is. This stuff is my life, after all. Even if underground metal really can be a meaningful vector for attitudinal change, the absolute number of people involved is pretty small, so the implications of its content and dynamics are fairly minimal. But it’s worth remembering that small numbers of people with sufficient motivation can do big things. And if you’re listening to lots and lots of metal, it’s worth thinking good and hard about just what it is you’re ingesting. We are what we eat, after all.

Besides, it’s not like there’s a shortage of good options to choose from. Behold: the list below! So next time someone tries to defend something obviously stupid or crappy with a smirk and a “duh, it’s metal!”, tell them to fuck off. The nice thing about a small community like metal’s is that, unlike in so many other areas of modern life, individuals do have a meaningful say. Metal is only trash if we let it be trash. And life is too short to eat shit with a smile on your face. –Doug Moore

40

40 Sarcasm – Within The Sphere Of Ethereal Minds (Dark Descent)

Sarcasm’s original run, which lasted from 1990 through 1994, produced a pile of “legendary” demos and a debut LP in Burial Dimensions…which proceeded to lay around unreleased for decades after the band flamed out. Dark Descent, a steward of ’90s-style extreme metal if ever there was one, finally pressed Burial Dimensions as a standalone release last year. This year’s Within the Sphere of Ethereal Minds is Sarcasm’s second LP and first recording of the current era, but it too could easily have been tracked during the Clinton administration. Aside from sounding very 1996, it’s also extremely Swedish — its most obvious touchstones are the beefy (Swedish) melodic death metal of mid-period Edge Of Sanity and the harmonized (Swedish) tremolo blasts of Dissection. The approach is timeworn, but Sarcasm absolutely owns it. –Doug Moore

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39 Pillorian – Obsidian Arc (Eisenwald Tonschmiede)

There was a lot of handwringing and smug pontificating from the sidelines following the demise of Agalloch, a dearly beloved band that helped define a uniquely American style of black metal since before the turn of the millennium. But front-man John Haughm wasted little time in returning with Pillorian, a band that features many distinctly Haughm-ian qualities. On Obsidian Arc, the acoustic flourishes and woodland touch is still there, but Pillorian’s sound is less expansive than Agalloch. Instead, the trio is more direct and forceful, punching hard and employing more tricks straight from the black metal playbook while taking the route more sinister at each turn. Obsidian Arc has set the tone — we eagerly await what comes next. -Wyatt Marshall

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38 Délétère – Per Aspera Ad Pestilentiam (Sepulchral Productions)

From the first note, you’re hit with this monumental guitar hook — a melodic riff swung like a flaming sword into a horde of unarmored enemies. Epic song structures, perfect guitars, and a submerged organ combine to create one of the best black metal records of the year, from the consistently remarkable Quebecois duo Délétère. They draw on the fatalistic melodic energy of crust punk — I hear shades of Tragedy and Mgla in the leads — and pair it with an almost religious fury, with incongruous monastic chants and that ever-present church organ, perfectly subverted for infernal purposes. –Aaron Lariviere

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37 Ingurgitating Oblivion – Vision Wallows In Symphonies Of Light (Willowtip)

Ingurgitating Oblivion’s third album, Vision Wallows In Symphonies Of Light, is like if Close To A World Below-era Immolation was locked in the RIO section of Progarchives.com. “A Mote Constitutes What to Me Is Not All, and Eternally All, Is Nothing,” is as long and winding as its title: 22-minutes of jazzy aural establishing shots, avant-garde dissonances, and, oh yeah, brutal-grade death metal. But it’s, like, digestible? Instead of an hour of torturous thinky-pain, this German band does the heavy lifting for you through defragmentation, providing a rare bit of compositional clarity for music this dense. Cool shit to spotlight: Drummers Lille Gruber and Paul Wielan jointly deciding to ruin the lives of drum teachers. –Ian Chainey

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36 Jute Gyte – Oviri (Jeshimoth)

JG auteur Adam Kalmbach retains his claim to the one-man black metal batting title with Oviri, his 27th LP overall and the most recent in a long streak of increasingly inventive and compelling works. Jute Gyte used to be a heterodox project, alternating between bent black metal and various species of electronic music, with only Kamlbach’s penchant for noise and profound alienation serving as throughlines. On last year’s Perdurance, those distinct threads began to intertwine and become tangled. Oviri ties terrifying new knots with them, forcing the black metal element through a horrific series of compositional threshers until it becomes nearly unrecognizable. –Doug Moore

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35 Vanum – Burning Arrow (Profound Lore)

The double threat of Michael Rekevics (Fell Voices, Yellow Eyes, Vilkacis, Vorde) and Kyle Morgan (Ash Borer, Predatory Light) returned this year with their second offering of meaty battle-ready black metal. On Burning Arrow, riffs are often pulled from a dark NWOBHM palette and, for two practitioners who are used to putting the pedal to the floor 24/7, are delivered at a powerful and purposeful marching pace that draws you into the swing of the endeavor at hand: victory. Of course they let loose for passages of intense blasting, but always behind a monumental guitar lead that echoes of destiny. The result: a soundtrack for triumph from two of the most impactful innovators in USBM. -Wyatt Marshall

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34 Dodecahedron – Kwintessens (Season Of Mist)

Dodecahedron are often dismissed as a knockoff of Deathspell Omega, which rather horrifically misses the point. Their music bears a cold, mechanical sheen, communicated tonally by a crystalline high-gain production and structurally by a penchant for disorienting rhythmic loops and spacious, resonant grooves. (Think Meshuggah, but way more evil.) On Kwintessens, their second LP, the band manages the feat of incorporating both seething complexity and trippy melodicism into an extremely ambitious suite-style album structure, which repeats key motifs throughout its 41-minute runtime. Given how many novel ideas the band packs into this tiny space, it’s easy to understand why it took Dodecahedron half a decade to put it together. –Doug Moore

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33 Necrot – Blood Offerings (Tankcrimes)

Having listened to an unhealthy amount of the stuff in 2017, as always, I can say with no shortage of confidence that the new Necrot joint is probably the best OSDM slab of the year, with a perfect balance of compositional subtlety and idiot aggression. I hear echoes of all my old-school death metal favorites: Grave, Bolt Thrower, Asphyx, and even a hint of Evisceration Plague-era Cannibal Corpse in the frequent warbling hammer-on leads, which lends some welcome unfamiliarity to the more traditional OSDM pummel, nudging this LP to the top of the rotting pile. –Aaron Lariviere

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32 Au Dessus – End Of Chapter (Les Acteurs De L’Ombre)

Au Dessus’s End of Chapter perfectly blends so many of the best elements of metal today, eliding technical brilliance with black metal and post-rock into an innovative package that could be the leading edge of a new kind of crowd-pleasing underground stuff. I say crowd-pleasing because seasoned veterans will find in End of Chapter a raging work that blasts and slams while also offering wide-open passages that permit breathing room. At the same time, the album is also a great gateway for neophytes — it’s polished, with catchy gloomy melodies, occasional great clean vocals, and enough recognizable features from other varieties of heavy music to make for an easy passage into some of the more outre subgenres out there. Plus, Au Dessus is from Lithuania — lotta cool points right there. -Wyatt Marshall

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31 Arkhtinn – V (Fallen Empire)

Arkhtinn’s V sounds like an interstellar transmission from a doomed spacecraft, a distress call emanating from the dark side of some distant moon. But don’t send help — the captain has been corrupted and consumed by some force of pure evil. The atmosphere on V is icy, fuzzed out yet regal in its cruel pomposity, with keyboards glittering beneath acerbic menacing riffs that cut any last illusion of hope. In the small but booming deep-space-metal genre (I mean this in all seriousness), V is the release of the year. File under soundtracks for cold cosmic horror. – Wyatt Marshall

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30 Demonic Death Judge – Seaweed (Suicide)

I feel like I’ve cited Finland’s Demonic Death Judge roughly a bajillion times when trying to explain how crucial a killer guitar tone and sense of dynamics are to ensuring sludge isn’t boring. So…maybe that makes up for me missing Seaweed when it surfaced this year? Whoops. Anyway, to make amends, let me introduce you to some rock-solid stoner sludge that has a subtle proggy wanderlust. Seaweed, like the band’s other two albums, scores points for trying to shake the stoner style out of a frat-invaded, Red Fang-caused fallow period. But, really, the songs just exhibit a near-perfect understanding of what made this style fun in the first place. –Ian Chainey

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29 Heretoir – The Circle (Northern Silence)

Heretoir returned this year after a five-year period of silence, and during the time away they’ve changed. The Germans once operated on the fringes of the lo-fi melancholic/shoegaze black metal world; now, they have embraced a bigger, brighter, proggier, and all-around livelier sound. For those unfamiliar, The Circle has its fair share of Neige-isms — Heretoir has been in this vein all along, crafting dream-like soundscapes and backing them with double kicks to delightful effect. The whole album is a work of beauty, but for my money, no song this year is as achingly gorgeous as “Golden Dust.” It alone is worth the price of admission. -Wyatt Marshall

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28 Gigan – Undulating Waves Of Rainbiotic Iridescence (Willowtip)

Prog-death stalwarts Gigan are built around founding guitarist Eric Hersemann, who’s a rare singular player in death metal. Rather than opting for the bone-dry clarity that most shredmaster guitarists favor, Hersemann constantly layers on psychedelic washes and echoes from a massive pedalboard. In conjunction with the cramped material and a boatload of scraping, sliding, and tapping, this approach turns Hersemann’s guitar into a fluid shapeshifting sound that only occasionally recalls the original instrument. It’s a daring approach in a style that’s already so compositionally dense, and it works because of the digressive but orderly way Gigan’s songs proceed: by unfolding through long sequences of subtly related grooves, like King Crimson classics remembered in a nightmare. –Doug Moore

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27 Condor – Unstoppable Power (High Roller)

Paraphrasing what I wrote about Norway’s Condor in May: Everything here sits within the same general hypothetical timespan, as if the bands that were the bridge between NWOBHM/speed metal and chunkier/knottier thrash were fully cognizant of Bathory. Accurate, yet too academic for a band that makes fast riffs this fun. Like other dues payers in the Kolbotn Thrashers Union, Unstoppable Power’s inherent metalness is impervious to rot. There’s a riff here you’ll like or you just fundamentally do not like heavy metal. Special attention should be paid to “You Can’t Escape the Fire,” which contains a lo-fi ordnance detonation that snatches Bass Drop of the Year from slam’s smeggy fingers. –Ian Chainey

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26 With The Dead – Love From With The Dead (Rise Above)

With The Dead — the latest project from Lee Dorrian and guitarist Tim Bagshaw — push harder and deeper than the most of their doom peers, which means this record is the perfect non-narcotic treatment for the 2017 blues. Riffs shudder and collapse like dying animals in drying concrete; Lee’s lethargic vocals cycle through downtrodden patterns, often focusing on a single word as a mantra of defeat. If all that sounds dreary, and it should, the drums provide the needed spike in the vein to keep us from nodding off, bashing out surprisingly furious fills considering the drop-tempo proceedings. Doom is deceptively hard to nail, and these guys unfailingly nail it. –Aaron Lariviere

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25 Pallbearer – Heartless (Profound Lore)

Pallbearer’s towering third album is simultaneously more accessible and significantly weirder than previous releases. For my money, it’s the best thing they’ve done, already earning itself dozens of repeat plays. Heartless succeeds by shedding the original “funeral doom + Ozzy vocals” formula, drawing on a broader palette of prog, Pink Floyd, slowcore, and a whiff of sweet swords-and-sorcery trad ala Cirith Ungol. The result lands somewhere closer to progressive sludge, but the vocals take it somewhere else entirely. Brett Campbell’s voice is the heart of every song (rendering the album title somewhat ironic) and he’s never sounded better — yearning and world-weary and just the perfect foil to the gorgeous guitars. –Aaron Lariviere

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24 Paradise Lost – Medusa (Nuclear Blast)

If you’ve ever cared about this band throughout their three decade-long metamorphosis from death/doom progenitors to goth metal savants, and all the way back through a late career renaissance — I promise you will enjoy Medusa. It’s the heaviest thing they’ve done; yet they don’t shy from the gothic hooks that brought them fame. There’s more doom than ever before, more death than we’re used to hearing from these guys, and the production hits hard enough to rattle your teeth. Even better, the new one has the highest ratio of harsh to clean vox in forever, which makes it feel like they wrote this thing just for me. –Aaron Lariviere

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23 Turia – Dede Kondre (Altare Productions)

Turia’s Dede Kondre offers up acid-washed vistas of fuzzed- and chilled-out atmospheric black metal, conjuring a meditative trip from a lean set-up of hefty guitars, relentless drums, and piercing wails. Those guitars drive the record and often jangle brightly, but Dede Kondre is steeped in melancholy and tainted by something sinister — this is music for wandering the desert, lost, while hallucinating and suffering from heatstroke. The band, a three-piece from the Netherlands, exudes effortless style, capturing elements of Scandinavian design chic and mixing it with the occasional hint of Spaghetti Western quirkiness, all while maintaining ties to real-deal Scandinavian black metal legitimacy. It’s a suave and unusual combination for an unusually good album. -Wyatt Marshall

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22 Unearthly Trance – Stalking The Ghost (Relapse)

A sludge-leaning doom band, Unearthly Trance evinces all of the low-end firepower and dragging tempos common to the style. But their defining trait is their remarkable songwriting — frontman Ryan Lipynsky has the melancholy melodic instincts of a singer-songwriter to go with his Matt Pike-esque solo chops, and has capitalized on them with some of the most memorable doom songwriting of the past decade-plus. Stalking The Ghost marks an excellent return to Unearthly Trance’s fighting form after a few years out of the picture, loaded with galumphing riffs and searing choruses. –Doug Moore

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21 Chaos Moon – Eschaton Mémoire (Blood Music / Fallen Empire)

Chaos Moon’s Eschaton Mémoire is so much more than black metal for middle-distance staring. True, it steps real close to the void that caught Lurker of Chalice’s gaze, but this is a different sort of thing. For one, it’s impossibly grand and lush with atmosphere…just of a melancholic nature. I keep thinking something like “Wellbutrin-dependent, USBM Mahler,” so you’re welcome, metal.txt. Anyway, yeah, Eschaton Mémoire’s depth: the multilayered approach washes up new elements whenever you listen to it, which is perfect because repetition further enriches the emotional payoffs. If your psyche is tuned this way, this’ll provide a lot of solace. –Ian Chainey

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20 Psudoku – Deep Space Psudokument (PSUDOKU)

Can’t explain it. Some music just matches your internal rhythms, and world-class Norwegian nutter Steinar’s grindy output matches mine. Way back in the more innocent days of October 2016, I wrote this: “…”KATASTROFALEjusteringer” sounds like someone dousing a Superball in nitroglycerin. This is a riot of rhythms and styles. Blink and you’ll miss the surf rock, turbo prog explosions, musique concrète electronic doot-dooting, and so much more.” That reads so wrong and yet it sounds so right. I won’t pretend like Deep Space Psudokument has any mass appeal or growth potential; in fact, you’ll know very quickly if PSUDOKU is for you. That said, fans will still find this clusterfusion exhilarating past the (kinda optimistic considering humanity’s current arc) intended release date of December 31, 2037. Can’t think of a better soundtrack for when we’re all forced to race Johnny across a ruined highway. –Ian Chainey

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19 Grift – Arvet (Nordvis)

No band is writing better folk-inflected black metal right now than the one-man band Grift, and, arguably, no one ever has. Arvet is a masterpiece — a deeply moving, soul-searing work of tortured isolation. On Arvet, Erik Gärdefors pulls in traditional Swedish instruments and field recordings, and their presence is keenly felt, taking already memorable passages to another level while grounding them in the soil. And when Grift gets rolling, a woodsy swing is unusually catchy and invigorating, causing human hearts to beat with some forest undercurrent. Throughout, Gärdefors’ devestated howl and other incredible vocal arrangements stand out, bringing a vividly human, imperfect, and temporal element to timeless instrumentation that seems to have sprung from the earth. -Wyatt Marshall

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18 Jassa – Incarnation Of The Higher Gnosis (Fallen Empire)

Just last year Jassa was on this list with the mind-bending Lights in the Howling Wilderness, and here they are again with another late-in-the-year work of skronky, filthy insanity. Incarnation of Higher Gnosis comes from the netherworld, a place where intermittent mouth harp, rattling metal, and other crazy effects accent absolutely brutal riffing, bonkers drumming, and a hoarse throaty yell that sounds like a mutant general barking orders. It is HEAVY, emanating from some dark, strange atmosphere where fires burn black and time moves in uneven measure—throughout, deep thuds emphasize some sort of infernal stomping. Jassa is unlike any band on this list or anywhere else, a unique vision of black and death metal of the highest caliber. -Wyatt Marshall

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17 Verge – The Process Of Self-Becoming (I, Voidhanger)

Call it what it is: misanthropic Finnish black metal with the style fluidity of a jukebox. I tried as much in September, writing, “The Process of Self-Becoming is both a despondency-dealer in the grand tradition of blasting depresso black metal and a hulking, progressive monster, lacing up big-ass Gordian knots of time signatures and riffs.” Let’s insert the obligatory ‘yes, but.’ While the previous quote could describe a lot of up-and-comers, particularly of the blackened variety percolating this decade, Verge is one of the few so far that have nailed it. Think the equally strong (when it wants to be) Code, but earthier. Still, if The Process of Self-Becoming must have a definable thing pinned upon it, the comparable variety within the three suites is the thing. Nihilism is rarely this free of listening fatigue. –Ian Chainey

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16 Yellow Eyes – Immersion Trench Reverie (Sibir)

Yellow Eyes have been churning out some of the most exciting and ambitious black metal in the United States for the better part of a decade at this point, yet despite critical acclaim, the band is still decidedly underground. Many are missing out. Gorgeous guitarwork still defines Yellow Eyes’ sound, and never has their obsidian kaleidoscopic riffing felt so vivid and alive. You can still get lost in the meditative brilliance of it — you’ll never predict where the meandering melody is heading — but a new level of regal refinement adds a measure of icy distance. Immersion Trench Reverie is another intoxicating, warped triumph for New York City’s very own. -Wyatt Marshall

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15 Tchornobog – Tchornobog (I, Voidhanger / Fallen Empire)

The brutally heavy madness of Tchornobog comes through a wormhole, a transmission of wonky death and black metal horror that originated in the mind of Markov Soroka. Soroka is almost shockingly young when you look at his body of work, which includes the post-drowning netherworld imagined by Slow and the deep space, lost-satellite dread of Aureole. With those projects, he brought to life surreal atmospheres to disturbing yet addictive effect. On Tchornobog, a record that Soroka told me took him seven years to write (did he start when he was, like, 14?), he conjures some sort of fucked-up space hydra to devastate your eardrums — gnashing, writhing, and voraciously devouring everything in reach. (See the cover art.) What a joy. -Wyatt Marshall

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14 Hell – Hell (LowerYourHead)

That this entire blurb-space isn’t padded out with an elongated “riiiiiiffffffssssss” makes it false. Because, truly, on this Portland-based project’s fourth LP, the sludgy doom riffs reign. Sure, there’s more. The execution is top notch. Like fellow list-finalist Demonic Death Judge, Hell innately knows why stupidly heavy music of this flavor is appealing. As I said in September, “…Hell hits so hard is because a lot of stuff in its vicinity doesn’t anymore.” Plus, the way the band plays with sound is extraordinary; various string-instrument overtones colliding together like neutron stars. That aspect alone is a mind-expanding paradise for the chemically enhanced. But, friends, between you and me: riiiiiiffffffssssss. –Ian Chainey

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13 Elder – Reflections of a Floating World (Stickman)

Of all of the albums featured on this list, Elder’s Reflections of a Floating World received the most acclaim from the mothership, netting multiple track features and an Album of the Week nod. Hard to say the heat wasn’t deserved. Like 2015’s Lore, a previous Black Market year ender, Floating World, first and foremost, is a 21-century guitar-heavy rock album that rekindles snuffed embers. On some alternate plane, gotta figure that Elder and Earthless are engaged in a six-string standoff to decide which is the true deity to receive our air guitar prayers. But, ultimately, Floating World’s songwriting leaves the lasting impression. Basically a 64-minute aural novel, the album is a peregrination through a classic rock radio playlist as filtered through punk’s much-needed course corrections. Mellotrons may billow, but the adrenaline-fueled crunch of RIFFS is never far around the corner. –Ian Chainey

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12 Sabbath Assembly – Rites Of Passage (Svart)

On Rites of Passage, Sabbath Assembly stitches together something new and alien from a patchwork of haunted prog, wiry heavy metal, and ethereal post-punk, combining disparate moods and modes into intricate webs of melody and menace, one left turn after another. It feels like an act of epic cross-pollination, like a drug-induced fusion of Gorguts, Wovenhand, and Cocteau Twins that actually stands as tall as each of those bands. It feels like the result of multiple idiosyncratic musicians stretching out and breathing polyamorous life into complex arrangements, while an unseen hand guides the songs to greatness. The combination is pitch-perfect, riffs and vocals subsumed into one of the most affecting records of the year. –Aaron Lariviere

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11 No Faith – Forced Subservience (Iron Lung Records)

Forced Subservience, No Faith’s second album, documents a handful of loud-and-fast veterans proving they still got it. Shit is ferocious and will continue to shine even when these dudes’ long-ass CVs inevitably get longer. You really don’t need much more info than the measurements: 23 tracks, 29 minutes. As that track-to-minute ratio confirms, shit just zooms, a pure powerviolence slugfest that uses bursts of noise like round-ending boxing bells. I mean, talk about cutting to the chase: as soon as “Permanent Weapons” is out of the gate, it obliterates the finish line with a devastating groove. Spry as ever. Beats the hell out of whatever Millennial Spazz is currently supporting the ask-a-punk legacy act touring your hood. –Ian Chainey

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10 Couch Slut – Contempt (Gilead Media)

There’s a sense that Contempt, Couch Slut’s sophomore record, was powered by ‘why not?’ Noise rock shouldn’t be this ambitious? Cringe shouldn’t be this catchy? Dark music shouldn’t also have a sense of humor? Well, why the heck not? But it’s not like Couch Slut forsakes the, particularly metallic-inclined, music that laid the foundation for what it’s doing. And the seemingly alternate approach is not really due to askew perception, either. Contempt fits in better with the pre-codified first wave than the subsequent high tide of lame imitators, mainly because Couch Slut taps back into smart, adventurous, fearless songwriting. Like this so clearly isn’t made of the same stuff that gave rise to years of faux-drunkard, bro-dude Jesus Lizard knockoffs that missed the point by trying to recapture a misunderstood ideal. Nah, Couch Slut plots its own path, which is much more in the original spirit of this style than a copy ever could be. Plus, the songs are dope. –Ian Chainey

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9 Morbid Angel – Kingdoms Disdained (Silver Lining Music)

I owe Morbid Angel a bit of an apology. Still smarting from the disappointment of 2011’s Ilud Divinum Insanus (it was that bad), I greeted the lead single from Kingdoms Disdained with: “haha, maybe this band doesn’t suck anymore!” They do not suck anymore. Actually, they’re back to being the greatest death metal band ever. The return of frontman Steve Tucker to Morbid Angel fold has coincided with their densest, most brutal material to date. Even the goofy keyboard interludes of yore are gone. In their place: more deranged lurches, more crisp blasts, and more psychedelic Trey Azagthoth guitar insanity. The surprise of the year and possibly the biggest 180 in quality between two albums in death metal history. P.s.: complaining about the production is for cowards. –Doug Moore

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8 Locust Leaves – A Subtler Kind Of Light (I, Voidhanger)

Locust Leaves pull from anything and everything — Hellenic black metal smashes face first into the early prog-trad stylings of Fates Warning, and that covers a few minutes of the first song. They swerve through Watchtower-esque thrash-gone-weird and Confessor-inspired math-doom, only to downshift and burn through a few Human-era death riffs. Swirl in clean vocals and portentous spoken word, scattered fits of exotic instrumentation, multifaceted through-composed song-suites, and over the top artwork…and it’s all just the pinnacle of serpentine progressive metal, styles stacked over and through one another, every second more exciting than the last. Everything about this record screams timeless metal glory, from one obsessive detail to the next. –Aaron Lariviere

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7 Succumb – Succumb (The Flenser)

Succumb is a new quantity working in a crowded field; they play crusty, rusted, spidery-riffed death metal of the cavernous North American persuasion. But Succumb have struck upon a clear identity of their own right out of the gate thanks to a few unconventional aesthetic choices. The most obvious of these is Cheri Musrasrik’s reverby warbling, which gives Succumb an aura of vivid, up-close derangement that death metal’s taxidermied evils can rarely evoke. Guitarist Derek Webster follows suit with a riffing vocabulary that transcends the standard genre box by including an array of harrowing scrapes and slides, charging his playing with a livewire intensity. Most importantly, the songcraft is outrageous; death metal this ugly has no business being this catchy. And this is their debut! Succumb is already scary good, and the upside is hard to fathom. –Doug Moore

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6 Kairon; IRSE! – Ruination (Svart)

These Finns built a big following on Rate Your Music by combining the slightly heftier variants of prog and pysch with shoegaze. So, yeah…I come clean: This is not really metal. Barely heavy. “Proto” would be charitable. (Confession: If this crosses the threshold, Oxbow should’ve, too. My bad, I’m the worst, etc.) And yet, the first two tracks on Ruination swallowed me up like few other pieces of art this year, so here it be. From the counterpoint to the textures to the wax and wane of the songs themselves, “Sinister Waters” I & II were engrossing as fuuuuuuck. The why is largely personal in that explicitly YMV way: Kairon; Irse! captures what I was conditioned to believe made good music when I was growing up and reforms those ingrained lessons into something palatable by modern standards. As I said way back in January, “Ruination is…a record that could only be made now, because the late 2010s are a perfect vantage point to see what ’70s and ’90s innovations are still intriguing.” But this album contains something else, something ineffable that separates it from other musically adept young adults who were also gifted Red, Nuggets, and Loveless. Saying “a soul” or “heart” would be groan-inducingly stupid, but there’s a clear-eyed, unburdened sense of wonder humming away here that I thought I was too old and stupid to hear again. –Ian Chainey

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5 Violet Cold – Anomie (Tridroid/Fólkvangr)

Violet Cold has popped up on The Black Market regularly over the past couple years, and it continued its incredible run of releases in 2017 with Anomie. And I do mean incredible — by Metal Archives’ count, the one-man band has put out nearly 40 releases (including EPs and singles) since 2014. Each is better than the last and refines a style of atmospheric black metal awash in dulcet electronic tones, crafting an ethereal soundtrack for space travel and floating cities. A desert vibe takes control from time to time on Anomie, most crucially on the opening album-titled track that achieves a rare type of searing beauty. Elsewhere, melancholic introspection comes to life in pretty instrumental interludes, evoking the majesty of planetary bodies in motion. That all may sound like a lot of conjoined parts, but I assure you it works — and it’s incredible. For Anomie, we give gratitude from afar to the artist from Azerbaijan who continues to blow minds and explode hearts. -Wyatt Marshall

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4 Rope Sect – Personae Ingratae (Caligari)

Personae Ingratae is the most stylish record to land on the Black Market this year, an album of morose cool that straddles death rock and goth and various aspects of metal. Rope Sect plays night music — anthems for well-dressed, disaffected and death-obsessed nocturnal deviants wandering the streets of Berlin. I was hooked from the moment I heard the opening track “Fallen Nation,” which rocks as hard as anything released in 2017 and is, essentially, perfect — in some other world this is a #1 radio single. The haunting excellence continues for an all-too-brief five more songs. The formula of deadpan but playful vocals combined with catchy yet restrained riffs have earned the band some comparisons to Ghost, and fans of Ghost will certainly find a great deal to like here. Everyone else will find an alluring brand of dark rock that will pull you into Rope Sect’s fascinating underworld. -Wyatt Marshall

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3 Cleric – Retrocausal (Web Of Mimicry)

Feels weird writing this about the third-best metal album of the year, but I still don’t know what the heck this is. Last month, I desperately tried to convey that Retrocausal, Cleric’s second album, was a mindfuck and we’d be many more lists deep until the WTF fog burned off. One list later…well, yeah. Of course, I can make a go of the taxonomy: like its last, this Cleric album is a metal- and metalcore-adjacent journey as role-played by the avant-garde. But as far as saying anything definite about it? Forget it. And that’s…nice? In the age when even purposefully ephemeral shit gets explainered to ash, a little this-is-way-above-my-paygrade mystery feels real good. And, despite having the entire history of music at your fingertips, that gives you a reason to come back. The appeal of trying to figure Retrocausal out will keep a certain kind of listener (who will become a writer and write about this ad nauseam) engaged in nut-cracking for a long, long time. Whatever Retrocausal is eventually turned into by its fans, be it a beginning or end or Bigger Luke Theory, simply inspiring that old-school pursuit in 2017 is an achievement. –Ian Chainey

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2 Artificial Brain – Infrared Horizon (Profound Lore)

Take death metal, melodic black metal, noise rock, and hellish skronk and shove it all inside the
telepod from David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. The result, transmogrified into the apotheosis of death-skronk, is the new Artificial Brain LP — a sonic Brundlefly of disgusting strength and unnatural ability. Compared to the first record, Infrared Horizon feels less fussed over in terms of production, while the playing feels even sharper. Amp tones are surprisingly low-gain, with an aggressive twang to the guitars and a jagged edge to the bass, which draws out the detail in the playing. Whatever this is — a hybrid of experimental death metal styles fused into some kind of alien ideal — it’s absolutely killer. –Aaron Lariviere

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1 Krallice – Prelapsarian / Loüm / Go Be Forgotten (Gilead Media)

Choosing a single best album of the year is an arbitrary matter of opinion. The question of metal’s creative MVP for 2017, though, is pretty much objective. All of the three albums that Krallice released in the last year are good enough to land spots on any self-respecting year-end list, and dropping all of them in a 12-month span is an unmatched feat in metal history, as far as I can figure. (You might object that Prelapsarian was released in December 2016, but it came out after our prior year-end list ran, so here it is.) Inventive from the first, this band has become a mind-boggling ideas factory, turning out inventive refinements of their dense, epic core sound at an unbelievable clip. And damn, it’s all so good; I’ve been tumbling into the wheels within wheels they contain pretty much nonstop for the last six weeks. I went on about the two newest of these three Krallice albums — one of which, Loüm, features the bear-throated Dave Edwardson of Neurosis on lead vox — at great length last month, and Ian did the same for Prelapsarian way back in January, so read on there for a deeper dive. Suffice it to say: there has never been another band quite like these guys, and there never will be. People are gonna be looking back at this run and marveling for years, so enjoy living through it. -Doug Moore

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