Friends, we have officially reached the halfway point of our journey. We’ll go ahead and pull off the interstate at the next rest area so you can finally stretch your legs, visit a bathroom (that you will very much wish wasn’t as bright as one hundred suns), and force-feed battered singles into a machine that will eventually dangle a 30 year-old WHATCHAMACALLIT from its coil like the tastiest bait a hook has ever seen. Drink deep of the Pierian spring that blurts sepia “coffee” like a swampy geyser, adventurers.
So, how are you? Adjusting to all the terrible new norms? Tired of cooking? Tired of watching cherry pit-spitting competitions on ESPN? Sick to death of playing Jenga with a cat THAT SIMPLY REFUSES TO LEARN THE GD RULES. Well, did you at least get a chance to check out the absolutely bonkers amazing live show Enslaved put on through the good people of Verftet this past Wednesday? If not, here’s the vid (available until April 22nd)—please enjoy at your earliest convenience. Like, maybe right now:
Amazing, no? We also loved it. A heartfelt thank you is due to the fine gents behind Enslaved and to the Verftet folks for delivering such great goodness during a time when literally every human could use an extra EXTRA dose of great goodness. Also, this seems like something more bands will be undertaking in the very near future, but you might have to throw a few bones their direction in order to secure your front-row seat. Seems reasonable, right? Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum appear to be the next in line with a show set to stream live on the eve of April 10th. More info here: Insomnium & Omnium Gatherum Co-Headling Event.
Now, back to the subject at hand. Volume 5 has a couple obvious choices, but also a few that might be considered Last Rites darlings? That question mark is intentional, because it gets increasingly difficult to keep track of wether or not the general public’s sentiments mirror that of us Last Riters. It’s hopeless to expect total agreement, but that’s part of what makes a list like this so fun—agreements and disagreements and rediscoveries all under a single, tidy roof.
Right, here we go. Tuck in those elbows!
THY CATAFALQUE – SGURR
More than probably any band in metal, Tamás Kátai’s Thy Catafalque has a bit of a disparity between how schizo things may read on paper and how truly smooth and coherent the music is to the ears. On Sgùrr, his black / electronic / folk / etc hybrid throws everything at the listener: acoustic passages, blasting black metal, violin, organs for texture, trip-hop-styled synths for spaced out weirdness, programmed drums that flat out pop, and vocals that run the gamut from screams to singing and spoken word. In the hands of most musicians, such a myriad of sounds would form into a mess; in the hands of Kátai, casting such a wide net turned Thy Catafalque into one of the most consistently mesmerizing and addictive acts in recent metal history.
Sgùrr carries the best arc of any album in Thy Catafalque’s ever-expanding catalog, starting with hushed vocals and not getting to a heavier riff until the third track. It pulsates and dances as much as it soothes and calms, transporting the listener to distant worlds that amaze while already feeling familiar. It’s playful, menacing, gobsmackingly beautiful, escapist but somehow grounded, and above all else, just intensely cool. Very few bands are as high on the “feel good” scale as Thy Catafalque. Kátai has been on a peerless tear for over 15 years now, but Sgùrr might be the single greatest example of his brilliance. [ZACH DUVALL]
GIANT SQUID – MINOANS
The rumblings that Giant Squid are potentially back together and recording new material is something of a revelatory catharsis for fans. While various members have split off into projects (many of which also deserve praise), none of those rise to the level of Giant Squid and the magic that this quintet was able to achieve throughout their career, and primarily on Minoans.
At once heavy and sublime, the concept album tells the story of struggle between humans and the vast expanses of salty water that cover this globe upon which we attempt to reside. The compositions feel unconquerable, endlessly deep and powerful beyond belief, much like the oceans of which they sing. There are extremely unsettling moments like sections on “Sir Arthur Evans,” and there are harrowingly beautiful and somber moments like on “The Pearl and the Parthenon.” The combination of cello and electrified music is hardly anything new, but to find a band that does it so well is exceedingly rare. Throughout Minoans, sludgy guitars lurch forward only to be beaten back by layered vocals and sparse instrumentation as the story slowly unfolds.
Minoans is another level of engrossing—the kind of engrossing where you took a placebo but feel like you’ve been given the heaviest drug known to the Department of Defense. Simply put, this is one of the greatest progressive albums made to date, let alone this last decade. [MANNY-O-WAR]
SAOR – AURA
Andy Marshall has explored various facets of folk and atmospheric black metal in his bands Askival, Falloch, Saor, and Fuath, but it is on Saor’s Aura that his windswept melancholy reached its most achingly beautiful and yet coruscating heights. Marshall’s own tin whistle gives the album a crucial link to the Scottish Highlands, but equally intrinsic to the album’s full breadth of expression are the hauntingly lovely guest strings and the drumming from Panopticon’s Austin Lunn. Marshall and Lunn are clearly musical kindred spirits, and Lunn’s drumming is critical to Aura’s success, as his ferocious attack and blasting provides a perfect counterweight to the sweeping emotion of Marshall’s melodic themes. The album’s cover is an apt summary of the music, as the pummeling drums and delicately shifting tremolo melodies swirl together and wrap the listen in an atmosphere where a gauzy blanket of rain billows down the verdant hillsides. The pause and theme that emerges around 4:30 of “Children in the Mist” builds to one of the most stirring, breathtaking climaxes in all of atmospheric black metal, and demands to be heard by fans of Mono, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and generally anyone interested in feeling the biggest feelings that it is possible to feel. Atmospheric black metal can easily fall into the trap of being too fussy and precious for its own good, or getting bogged down by directionless repetition in the hopes of achieving hypnotic bliss; Aura sidesteps both pitfalls unerringly, and stands as a towering monument of searching, searing, yearning heavy metal. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
• Released: June 6, 2014
• Label: Fortriu Productions / Northern Silence Productions
• Killing cut: “Pillars of the Earth”
ANUBIS GATE – ANUBIS GATE
If you’ve heard it, Anubis Gate’s fifth album probably looks as though it just does not belong on this list of a hundred essential heavy metal records. It looks a little like a downy feather adrift on a tar black sea. If you haven’t heard it, Anubis Gate stands out so starkly because it embraces melody to an absurd degree, even for a progressive / power metal album. More to the point, it’s the only entry here with the kind of melody that feels good in a completely natural way; that is, it feels good without leaning on party adrenaline or medieval conquest or revenge fantasy or any other heavy metal trope. Instead, Anubis Gate draws its melodic energy from the same inspirational pools as the pop artists the band listened to in high school, from Tears For Fears and Simple Minds to Depeche Mode and Howard Jones. Henrik Fevre’s vocal melodies, regardless of the era they recall, are just plain wonderful, destined to lodge themselves into the deepest crevices of your earholes. Forever.
Okay, nice 80s radio melody that feels like Andrew McCarthy staring dreamily out a rain streaked window. So how in the popped-collar-and-swoopy-banged-fuck does that translate to an essential heavy metal album? Well, first off, let it be known that Fevre is a heavy metal singer, belting out these melodies with all the fire that designation implies. Then it’s the music all around. Sure those wonderful vocal melodies get plenty of support from piano accent and keyboard effects, as well as a whole lot of warm harmony from the guitars, but underneath and all around are cleverly composed and heavy riffs, bolstered by dark, driving bass and drums. And then, swirling throughout, there’s the ringing, chiming, floating feel of sci-fi, as if these songs are somehow emanating from cold, black zero-g, nearby celestial bodies lending a golden glow to edges and contours and reflected so beautifully in abounding guitar and keyboard leads and solos.
See? On paper, Anubis Gate just kind of doesn’t make sense. Like chocolate-dipped potato chips or hockey in The South, it shouldn’t be as great as it is. Trust us, though: in your ears, this album is every bit the essential heavy metal album its inclusion here says it is. And, if you can let yourself let it in, you’ll never let it go. [LONE WATIE]
EXHUMED – ALL GUTS, NO GLORY
After releasing its most sophisticated and accomplished album Anatomy is Destiny in 2003, Exhumed’s future looked bright. But then founding Drummer Col Jones left the band to devote more time to his highfalutin science career, and the wheels just about fell off. Leader / guitarist / vocalist Matt Harvey managed to assemble a new Exhumed lineup and release a covers album in 2005, but what was intended to be a stop-gap only led to more gap. It would be six years before Exhumed recorded another album, but that album, All Guts, No Glory, was a doozy. Reconstituted and reinvigorated, Exhumed released an absolute triumph of relentlessly rampaging blood-spattered brutality. Yet, in a best-of-both-worlds situation, All Guts retains the tightness and technical proficiency of Anatomy is Destiny and captures much of the same maniacally savage spirit of the band’s earliest work. All Guts is not really a grindcore album, though, and it is a much leaner and meaner affair than its predecessor. At the same time, it is catchier, hold more memorable choruses, sharper riffs, more focused melody and some thoroughly heroic solos. More than anything, All Guts, No Glory just fucking rips. [JEREMY MORSE]
• Released: July 5, 2011
• Label: Relapse Records
• Last Rites review
• Killing cut: “Through Cadaver Eyes”
DEFEATED SANITY – PASSAGES INTO DEFORMITY
Skronked-up slamming brutech has had quite the run since Suffocation barfed it into existence in the early 90s, and perhaps no band has quite followed their lead like Germany’s Defeated Sanity. It took drummer Lille Gruber and his cohorts over a decade to get a proper record out, and another decade to release what is likely their slobbing, greasy pinnacle in Passages Into Deformity. The record could well be used as a litmus test for brutal death metal, as every element—winding, blinding, slithering, and churning riffs, rapid fire blasts, a thoroughly snareless, trash can snare drum, vocals that switch between dry heaving and toilet burps, and dancing, surprisingly sophisticated bass work—is just, well, thoroughly ludicrous. It ought to take about 30 seconds to know if you’re going to hate it or love it, and there might not be much of a middle ground. For those clearly down with gettin’ ignorant, few albums do it with this much variety in the riff craft and deft skill in the drumming.
Plus, just that sense of unabashed glee for the material. The particular Defeated Sanity lineup on Passages just operated at another level, seemingly able to predict each other’s moves, with each member ready to one-up their bandmates with the best, most ridiculous way possible. The result was one of the greatest records in the now nearly 30-year history of brutal death metal. [ZACH DUVALL]
• Released: February 5, 2013
• Label: Willowtip Records
• Killing cut: “The Purging”
ANTIGAMA – METEOR
“There’s a message for you,” says the disembodied female voice…
And the message is: It’s time to grind. Poland’s Antigama brings the blasting on this tech-y barrage of primarily Napalm Death-styled aggression, a relentless 29-minute affair, crammed full of grinding greatness born of Sebastian Rokicki’s dissonant riffage and Lukasz Myszkowski’s Barney-esque bellow. Though Napalm is the clearest antecedent, there are certainly more-than-subtle hints at Brutal Truth’s noisy experimentation, plus a sizable dash of (the good kind of) metalcore’s dissonance and mathcore-tinted arrangements. With all of those throw into a blender and whirled into one viscous mixture of ugliness, Meteor’s entirety feels at once futuristic and envelope-pushing and yet also very much an out-growth of the death and grind and core that came before.
And what an envelope-pushing it is, relentlessly violent and vicious, with myriad sidesteps and twists to keep things interesting without succumbing to spasticity or overwhelming oddity. Blasting bounces back against the jaunty “Fed By The Feeling” or the Killing Joke stomp of “Untruth,” all of it first-rate. One of the leading lights of modern grind at their finest, Meteor makes an extinction-level impact.
Get the message? [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
OPETH – IN CAUDA VENENUM
It seems unlikely that an album could be released so late in the game and be so immediately impressive that it claims a victory by placing on a list such as this. Hell, most albums require more time than that to accomplish such a regular, annual feat. But, if anyone is capable of such fourth quarter heroics, it’s Opeth (and apparently, also Patrick Mahomes).
Eclipsing the rest of their work during this period isn’t as impressive as doing so against the rest of the field. Many fans had fallen into a bit of complacency as Akerfeldt and Co. continued to transition away from the heavier blackened metal sounds of their youth, the run from Heritage through Sorceress still triggering debates to this day. For me, they were good, not great; I haven’t listened to any of them since their release.
This is what made In Cauda Venenum all the more impressive, finally striking a balance between the savage and the serene that was mesmerizingly engaging. They sacrificed very little in making the contrast less stark; nothing went on so long as to become boring or uninteresting. Everything fits together so perfectly to form something that can finally rival Blackwater Park.
As if that wasn’t enough, they just had to show off and release it in both English and Swedish. We get it, guys—you’re awesome. You don’t need to spike the ball. [DAVE PIRTLE]
VHOL – DEEPER THAN SKY
Supergroups should be fun. Whether the members are massive stars or just relatively well known in their corners of the underground, they should enjoy the chance to just JAM, maaaan. And if you are going to get fans excited about members of Yob, Agalloch, and Hammers of Misfortune getting together, well then the tunes should bring out the best of those bands (or show a new side of the members, since you won’t hear much of Yob’s doomy sludge or Agalloch’s nature-inspired melancholic black metal). Hot damn, mission accomplished! Much like Ricky Bobby, VHOL just wants to go fast. They rip through hardcore punk, garage thrash, blackened rock n roll, and plenty more with absolute glee.
Yes, 2013’s self titled debut was a fun proof of concept, but Deeper Than Sky realized their full potential by not playing it safe. Piano ‘n’ drum ‘n’ bass jams? No “Paino,” no Gaino, yo! Twelve minute epics that don’t feel half that long? DTS is DTF, baby! John Cobbett’s deft songwriting touch is seen throughout the album as he writes love note after loving note to his favorite inspirations.
It should come as no surprise that a band whose members were already featured in this list would be essential. After all, they were #6 in our combined staff list back in 2015. But VHOL manage to stand on their own and have crafted a true peer to all these essential albums. Deeper Than Sky is party music for party people, so get in the pit and try to love someone. [FETUSGHOST]
VOIVOD – THE WAKE
As abiding fans of heavy metal, we are all subjected to an endless cavalcade of classic bands that endure under a colorful array of “state of affairs.” Many keep the kiln fires burning just bright enough to remain on the road playing classics they know people want to hear; others lay dormant for decades and become drawn out of hiding by one-off fest appearances that ultimately provide evidence that new material might be well received.
For their part, Voivod is fairly unique (hell, the word “unique” in picture form is probably drawn by drummer Michel “Away” Langevin): no matter who ends up lauding them—Metallica, for example—they never seem far from being tagged “the most underrated band in the history of metal”; they’ve never really broken up (for about a minute in 2001), despite shouldering more than their fair share of line-up shifts and personal tragedies; and their career arc has seen significant stylistic shifts without ever fully losing sight of the punky thrash the band is known for pioneering.
Amidst all that ebb and flow, Voivod albums have all spanned solid-to-great. But what a number of us probably didn’t expect was for them to suddenly drop a record as energetic and brain-meltingly fun as 2013’s Target Earth. And the fact that they somehow managed to follow that boon with a 14th record that not only eclipsed its predecessor but stood toe-to-toe with ultimate classics such as Dimension Hatröss and Nothingface?? Nothing short of a true spectacle. Yet here we are, with the extraordinary The Wake towering as high as Mount Logan and expertly reweaving the most progressive face of the band into their brand of slightly off-kilter punk thrash.
You can thank whatever you want for The Wake‘s triumphantness: the (continued) seamless fit of Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain (guitars) and Dominique “Rocky” Laroche (bass), the simple fact that it came from an entity as steadfast as Voivod, or maybe even the curious inclusion orchestral elements this go-round—what’s not up for debate is the truth that The Wake is not only one of Voivod’s best, it’s one of the very highest points of the entire 2010s. [CAPTAIN]