Sit with me, friend. Perhaps you are laboring under the misapprehension that, come year-end list-making season, writers and critics and dorks and nerds of all stripes turn thoughtful and circumspect, reflecting on the subjective and ultimately ephemeral nature of art and the conduct of criticism before delivering to your thirsty eyes a gentle love-letter to the things that made us feel something real, something powerful, something beautiful over the course of the year. Recognizing, throughout the weighing, that things could always have been otherwise.
Friend, this is a Wrong Idea. The albums and words to follow have been put through the wringer: made to plead their case before a a dispassionate bench impanelled to defend the notion that Heavy Metal is the Law; dissected and reassembled by the DoNotEntry-Bot X:RJD to eliminate any chance of False; and ultimately made to wade through a river of warrior’s blood while being hit with Klingon pain-sticks. It’s the same reason the Mona Lisa’s got that damnable smile: she’s sitting on the severed limbs of Da Vinci’s vanquished rivals.
Real talk, though: music is a refuge and an inspiration. Thanks to you all for sticking with us and exploring the wild world together. I have come across no single moment in music this year that lifted my spirits as much as Tau Cross’s “Our Day,” so I will let them have the last word:
“My brothers, my sisters – our victory shall be assured; /
Our day will come! /
All suffering will end when we manifest love as the law.”
20. Horrendous – Anareta
• Perfect moments abound on the third album from this promising young band.
19. Sarpanitum – Blessed Be My Brothers…
• The guitars sound like metallic snakes breakdancing in another solar system, so… duh.
18. Cradle of Filth – Hammer of the Witches
• Easily Cradle’s best album since Midian, Hammer of the Witches is pure adrenaline, with the band’s trademark gothic not-very-black metal an ever thinner veil atop a foundation of fist-pumpingly excellent traditional heavy metal.
17. Katavasia – Sacrilegious Testament
• This minor supergroup went sadly overlooked, even as they released the best Greek black metal album of the year.
16. Panopticon – Autumn Eternal
• Don’t know how he does it, but Austin Lunn stuns with another longform excursion into wistful black metal mastery.
15. Manilla Road – The Blessed Curse/After the Muse
• Manilla Road is the best, and this double album finds Shark & co. firing on all their many cylinders.
14. Nechochwen – Heart of Akamon
• Warm, autumnal black metal that awes despite its almost intentionally low-key delivery.
13. Indesinence– III
• Sad to see these Brits call it quits, but III is one hell of a high (that is, slow and looooow) note to out on.
12. Dodheimsgard – A Umbra Omega
• DHG makes music for breaking your brain exclusively.
11. Nile – What Should Not be Unearthed
• Woe to you if you dismissed Nile as having their best days behind them. This album is a colossal exercise in lightning tech and slow-motion whiplash. Crushing.
10. ABYSSAL – ANTIKATASTASEIS
Superficially, Abyssal might seem like yet another pretender to the “throw a bunch of riffs in a barrel of molasses and then chuck that barrel down a cave-monster’s gullet” throne. Scratch the surface of this tumultuous album, however, and one finds a deep thoughtfulness and measured madness in each jagged turn, each matted blast, each throat-stuck peal. If the night were an ocean and riffs were vessels, Abyssal would be a reclusive captain, stalking the below-decks and consulting maps upon maps to circumnavigate the very heart of nothingness. The sea churns endlessly but the craft is sound.
Released: Profound Lore, June 23rd
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9. MY DYING BRIDE – FEEL THE MISERY
Never count out sad bastard music, friends. There’s no other band in heavy metal that sounds quite like My Dying Bride, and so to hear the real thing finally returning to Peak My Dying Bride (check that album title again, you weepy cry-faces) after years of good but diminishing albums is a miraculous thing. I already wrote a bunch of goofy sad-sack words in my review, so you don’t need me to rehash: Feel the Misery is a beautiful album that finds My Dying Bride digging deep into their past while plotting a confident path forward.
Released: Peaceville, September 18th
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8. MELECHESH – ENKI
Though the Curiosity Rover has yet to find such evidence, it seems only a matter of time before we discover that Enki is a long-lost transmission from a time-shifted civilization that shot Megadeth‘s Rust in Peace and the collected works of Absu into a roiling sea of mercury on Mars. Although Melechesh has made several exemplary albums in the past (including, of course, with Absu’s own Proscriptor on drums for a while), none of them has burned with the pure heavy metal riotousness of Enki. Make no mistake, this is carefully calibrated and controlled music that gleams like a thousand well-oiled, German-engineered pistons, but the joyous effusion of spirit that underlies each carpal-tunnel riff-run, each cackling vocal cadence, each time the song threatens to burn out only to twist itself sideways into an endless dance of tripping drums and bodies that can’t help but move… that spirit is eternal, and rarely captured better than here.
Released: Nuclear Blast, February 27th
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7. VISIGOTH – THE REVENANT KING
Can we all agree that it takes either supremely foolish chutzpah or several pairs of steel-clad balls to cover Manilla Road’s timeless classic (and all-time end-times singalong) “Necropolis,” let alone on a band’s debut full-length? Thankfully, SLC’s Visigoth, while clearly never besting one of heavy metal’s finest songs ever, are elevated rather than simply overshadowed by their influences. The Revenant King is stout, fleet, bold, and respectful in equal measure, offering anthem after gritted-teeth anthem to the hyperborean gods of yore.
Released: Metal Blade, January 27th
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6. MAGISTER TEMPLI – INTO DUAT
If swagger could be quantified, Magister Templi’s Egyptian-obsessed second album Into Duat would rocket so far off the charts as to jostle Zeus’s Olympian bidet. Marrying the swing of classic doom to NWOBHM licks and spryly occult Mercyful Fate-isms, this Norwegian band not only possesses one of contemporary metal’s finest and most charismatic vocalists in Abraxas d’Ruckus but also knows how to use his voice to highlight, contrast, and strengthen its trove of chewable riffs. One listen to the shuffling drums and stuttering syncopated guitars that play into THAT outrageous chorus on “Osiris” should be all the proof you need that you are in the presence of giants. Si monumentum requires, circumspeak now and bang your head to the curse of the deathless pharaohs forever.
Released: Cruz del Sur Music, October 2nd
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5. SELVANS – LUPERCALIA
These Italians have got some nerve. How else to explain Lupercalia, a debut full-length that not only evokes Emperor, Moonsorrow, Wodensthrone, and In the Woods… but also offers up several moments that honest-to-goodness match those luminaries at their standard-setting best? Most bands take several albums of gradually building promise and revision to arrive at such a triumph, but these jags have just gone and done it with nothing but an EP from earlier this year to their name. In any case, their hubris is your gain, because from Lupercalia‘s mystical beginning to its wounded, ferocious close, this is music to topple mountains, music to summon lightning, music to wake the dead.
Released: Avantgarde Music, October 19th
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4. BLIND GUARDIAN – BEYOND THE RED MIRROR
Look, if you hate power metal, I’m sorry; I’m no more interested in being an evangelist than you are in being converted, but them’s the breaks. Blind Guardian has long played the Platonic ideal of a certain strain of power metal, and their 10th album Beyond the Red Mirror is a brilliant recapitulation of their utter mastery. Ever wanted to multiply your voice a thousandfold into a sky-splitting choir? Blind Guardian knows. Ever wanted to shred your guitar into a million pieces? Blind Guardian knows. Ever felt like pouring every last ounce of bombast and grandeur into a song, and then cranking it up even harder for every other song? Blind Guardian knows your heart, and asks only that you join the grand parade.
Released: Nuclear Blast, January 30th
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3. TAU CROSS – TAU CROSS
Tau Cross’s debut is one of those maddeningly perfect albums that really has no right to strike with as much impact as it does. The riffs are simple, the tempos mostly mid-paced, and extraneous flourishes are kept to a minimum. So what does that leave us with? Well, nothing but the most stridently righteous folk album you’ve ever heard. Sure, this Amebix / Voivod / Tragedy summit is a metal album, but at its pulpy, beating heart it is folk music at its purest, evoking all manner of ghosts of wyrd Britain from Fairport Convention to Skyclad, all while Rob Miller descants his lusty, rabble-rousing poetry with the single-minded conviction of a man who never soured on the notion of music as a tool. Take this hammer, then, and make it your own.
Released: Relapse Records, May 15th
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2. AMORPHIS – UNDER THE RED CLOUD
If you need it short and sweet: Under the Red Cloud is Amorphis’s second-best album (after the unimpeachable Tales from the Thousand Lakes). More to the point, though, Under the Red Cloud continues Amorphis’s campaign – which has been building since at least 2006’s Eclipse – to claim the title of Classiest Damn Band in Heavy Metal. Throughout this masterful and irresistible album, the sweeping melodies are sweepier, the dancing keys dancier, the absurd climaxes and devastating downbeats… climaxier? Every single song is a cloudbursting irruption of almost impossible giddiness, and while I can’t guarantee that Under the Red Cloud will save you, it sure as shit sounds like redemption personified.
Released: Nuclear Blast, September 4th
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1. OBSEQUIAE – ARIA OF VERNAL TOMBS
I didn’t really expect this to be my favorite album of the year. I liked it immediately, but assumed its luster would fade as the months dwindled. Instead, the brilliant, burnished, spindly, constantly unspooling songs of Aria of Vernal Tombs have lingered in my head, never more than a moment’s thought away. Although Obsequiae clearly owe a great deal to black metal, I think that’s the wrong way to classify them, and on Aria of Vernal Tombs the thread leading back to the heart of the labyrinth gleams with the soft sharpness of classic melodeath. If In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, Edge of Sanity, and Hypocrisy at their nimblest wandered into the tableau painted on the cover of Mortiis’s Fodt til a Herske, it still wouldn’t sound anything like Obsequiae. But it makes the mind go to the same place, and when the world seems half a blink from wreck and ruination, the transportive power of music is more necessary and life-giving than ever.
Released: 20 Buck Spin, May 26th
HONORABLE MENTIONS, EPS, & DISAPPOINTMENTS
Seriously, there was a lot of great music this year. Here are a bunch of other things I really liked: Acid King, Adversarial, Ahab, Beaten to Death, Chaos Echoes, Crom Dubh, Crypt Sermon, Dead to a Dying World, Furze, Grift, Iron Maiden, Kauan, Leviathan, Locrian, Mefitic, Midnight Odyssey, Nachtreich & Spectral Lore, Onirik, Pyramids, Satan, Scythian, Slugdge, Sorcerer, Thulcandra, Valborg, Vastum, Vattnet Viskar, VHOL, Volahn, W.A.S.P.
TOP 10 EPS OF 2015:
1. Vorum – Current Mouth
Disgusting death metal that has about as much patience for subtlety as a frog with twelve sticks of dynamite in its ears. Do frogs even have ears? Fuck you. Listen to Vorum.
2. Grimoire –L’aorasie des spectres reveurs
3. Pyrrhon –Growth Without End
4. Malthusian –Below the Hengiform
5. Isabrut – Isabrut
6. Selvans – Clangores Plenilunio
7. Possession – 1585-1646
8. Spectral Lore – Gnosis
9. Urfaust – Apparitions
10. Owl – Aeon Cult
TOP (BOTTOM?) 5 DISAPPOINTMENTS OF 2015:
1. Christian Mistress – To Your Death
2. Enslaved – In Times
3. Tribulation – The Children of the Night
4. False – Untitled
5. Negura Bunget – Tau
• • • • •
TOP 20 NON-METAL ALBUMS
20. Med/Blu/Madlib – Bad Neighbor
• Madlib is the king of funky, soulful, crate-digging beats, and while nowhere on par with last year’s collaboration with Freddie Gibbs, Bad Neighbor is a strong, smooth throwback.
19. L’Orange & Kool Keith – Time? Astonishing!
• L’Orange’s typical hazy jazz and lounge noir instrumental hip-hop gets a paranoid pulp sci-fi sheen while the god Kool Keith hangs waaaaaay back on the beat.
18. Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color
• Still no clue what to call this. R&B? Not really. Soul? Well, sure. Rock and roll? Kinda. Prince-ified all-over-the-placeness? Definitely. Most importantly: Brittany Howard belts it out like a motherfucker. Voice of a future superstar.
17. Clutch – Psychic Warfare
• It’s another Clutch rock and roll show, goddamn your eyes.
16. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
• “We’re all gonna die.” Sufjan strips it all back to devastating truths, delivered simply.
15. Vijay Iyer Trio – Break Stuff
• Calm yet tightly wound trio jazz that imbibes both the spirit of hip-hop breaks and the thought of birds in flight.
14. Venetian Snares – Thank You for Your Consideration
• Aaron Funk released this album to raise funds for an unspecified emergency. The gift to you is that it’s a beautiful grab bag of most of the styles that have made VSnares such an impressive force in drill and bass.
13. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
• Three discs of supremely 70s Stevie Wonder and Pharaoh Sanders jazz highlighted by Washington’s fluid, forceful, nearly free soloing.
12. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
• Shoot the goddamned moon with this most Canadian of crews. Apocalyptic chamber rock for the ages.
11. Chvrches – Every Open Eye
• Brilliant pop music. Bright, stabbing synths and breakdowns that burst with the joyous frenzy of a thousand orgasming angels.
10. Nosaj Thing – Fated
• Melancholy, distant instrumental hip-hop that trades blunt haze for the smog of a dead and dying metropolis.
9. Marriages – Salome
• Dark, dark, dark and doomed romantic rock from Red Sparowes members.
8. Steel Tipped Dove – WANT
• Hard to justify tapping a beat tape as one of the best albums of the year, but WANT has a ridiculously smooth arc from start to finish, and Steel Tipped Dove is one of the best unheralded producers out there.
7. Royal Thunder – Crooked Doors
• Maybe not quite as good as CVI on the whole, but Crooked Doors is an emotional powerhouse that chronicles breakdowns and breakups of all sorts while still solidifying Mlny Parsonz as perhaps the most electric voice in rock and roll today.
6. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
• It’s the most talked-about hip-hop album of the year for a very good reason: its wild sprawl embodies struggle and contradiction at every turn. As dense and difficult as it is wide-open and conversational, it thankfully underwrites its inevitable Very Important Album status by being packed with musical detail and, frankly, a lot of fun to listen to.
5. Bjork – Vulnicura
• The most emotionally raw album of the year. Its inviting, rigorous beauty is almost uncomfortable given the pain it documents, but Vulnicura is a heart-breaking photo-negative version of Vespertine.
4. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
• Rather than try to top the none-more-righteousness of their last pre-hiatus album The Woods, Sleater-Kinney cut these songs to their barest, juiced them with new wave, and then clearly had a fucking awesome time recording them.
3. Joanna Newsom – Divers
• I just can’t get enough of this album. Yes, it sounds like a drunk Muppet humping a Portlandia sketch, but Newsom’s songcraft and wordplay are astonishing, and she possesses a rare control over her admittedly unusual voice. I get lost for days just in her vocal melodies alone.
2. Low – Ones and Sixes
• Duluth, MN’s finest turn in one of their finest albums in ages. From the emotionally crippling “The Innocents” to the heavy-as-Earth drop of “No Comprende” to the blown-out psych drone of “Landslide,” Low cements their position as simply one of the finest bands to ever walk this blighted planet. Turn it up and get crushed by yr own tears.
1. Holly Herndon – Platform
• As difficult to describe as it is easy to love, Holly Herndon’s second album sounds a bit like if the internet itself became sentient and turned to song. Herndon speaks of anxiety and desire with such fluidity that the emotions become one, which is a hell of state to be suspended in over the course of this rich, jarring, and powerful album.