It’s not enough to say that 2015 was a great year for metal. For the better part of the last decade, as the genre has enjoyed it’s most prolonged period of success since the 80s, almost every year has been great for metal. If that mutes the sweeping, metal-meant-this overtures that often accompany these things, apologies, but there is nothing I could write that would better illustrate how far the genre has come since the nü metal wasteland than this: Bands like Baroness, Deafheaven, and Tribulation all released new and—by most accounts—pretty great records this year, and none appear below.
That’s just how deep, and diverse, the field is now. From bandcamp basements to MSG, the across-the-board quality is higher than ever, and all we as listeners have to do is sit back and drink in the inky black spoils until we burst, pass out, or both. So in that spirit, a toast. To 2015’s 11 best and baddest. To metal as it is and will hopefully continue to be. In a music industry where nothing is sacred and there are no gods, there’s no telling how much longer we have, so let’s enjoy the fire while it burns.
11. Cloud Rat — Qliphoth (Halo of Flies): A blog-ready tornado of seething grindcore, ambient beauty, and feminist power, Qlipthoth transcends the hype on the back of frontwoman Madison Marshall and her frothing conviction(s). In hindsight, Qliphoth, as I wondered aloud earlier this year, probably won’t do for grindcore what Sunbather did for USBM, but that’s due more to the sonic realities of grind than the music entombed within this ferocious, essential, and soon-to-be seminal sarcophagus.
10. Visigoth — The Revenant King (Metal Blade): For trve fans of the genre, metal that tackles real issues with real heart and real brains, is some of the most important stuff on earth. Nothing goes further in validating the culture that we love in the eyes of a society that refuses to see it as anything more than a “phase” for “violent” teenage boys, and for that, it deserves all the media dry-humping it gets. Sometimes, however, you just want to turn something the fuck up and forget the world, and no record enabled that this year like Visigoth’s The Revenant King. File it under “guilty pleasure” if you must, but Visigoth’s NWOBHM-stained D&D power metal isn’t ashamed, wearing its love of big riffs, bigger hooks, and Manila Road like a backpatch.
9. Panopticon — Autumn Eternal (Nordvis): This is where my objectivity goes to die. Austin Lunn’s one-man black metal outfit, Panopticon, make highly personal black metal that crests and crashes with the tenacity of a lovesick ocean, and when I get caught in the undertow, well, I start saying crazy things. Things like “Austin Lunn is the most important (yes, even more than the Weaver Bros, Wrest, M. Rekevicis, George Clarke, or Kerry McCoy) musician in modern USBM.” Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s not—Panopticon makes me lose sight of little things like “fact” and “reality”—but one thing is certain: Autumn Eternal, Lunn’s most orthodox work to date, is all-consuming, unrelenting, and one of the year’s finest black metal specimens. If you haven’t checked it out, do it. If you have, do it again, only this time with the volume cranked to the satellites.
8. Bell Witch — Four Phantoms (Profound Lore): A four-part opus conjuring the phantoms of death by earth, fire, water, and wind, Bell Witch’s Four Phantoms—though suffocating in its straight-faced solemnity—is far and away the most literal slab of funeral doom ever set to tape. Simultaneously terrifying and mournful, horrific and beautiful, Four Phantoms is proof that nobody in metal is currently doing more with less (tapped six-string bass, drums, and vocals) than Bell Witch.
7. Sivyj Yar — Burial Shrouds (Avantgarde Music): One of three returning bands from last year’s best-of breakdown, Vladimir and his one-man Russian black metal outfit, Sivyj Yar, more than earned the back-to-back accolades this year with Burial Shrouds, a hyper-focused distillation of just what made 2014’s From The Villages’ Dead Darkness work so damn well. By turning down the tempo and ratcheting up the melody, Burial Shrouds blends Vlad’s most saccharine and sorrowful inclinations into one breathtaking, pastoral smear, standing alongside the likes of Panopticon and Winterfylleth as some of the most anthemic black metal currently in production. In another world—hell, even another country—Sivyj Yar might be charting alongside the likes of Deafheaven and Ghost, but for now we will simply have to content ourselves with this.
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6. Obsequiae — Aria of Vernal Tombs (20 Buck Spin): Trad metal sounds were hotter than Hansel this year, but Midwest mad scientist, Tanner Anderson, eschewing the usual Dio-era Sabbath trudges for a lush, modal brand of black metal, managed to craft an undeniably singular, and enchanting, listening experience in Aria of Vernal Tombs. Stitching traditional harp work, medieval laments, and verdant USBM into a wonderful sonic Frankenstein, this unmistakable, and oft uplifting, blast of blackened goodness is a must-hear for anyone who needs a break from static second-wave blast beats, ill-defined chugga-chugga, and the “I can’t believe you haven’t heard ______” hype machine.
5. Slugdge — Dim & Slimeridden Kingdoms (Self Released): Not a lot has changed for Slugdge in 2015. Last year at this time they were an unsigned melodic death metal duo shilling a free and impossibly catchy space slug-themed LP on the backwaters of bandcamp and 12 months later they’re still unsigned, still unknown, and still dishing out mollusk-worshipping insanity for the price of your time alone. Needless to say, stuff like Dim & Slimeridden Kingdoms doesn’t come with a huge fanbase baked in, but man if it doesn’t deserve one, rattling off some of the year’s biggest, baddest, and slimiest metal moments simply for the fuck of it. If that, plus prime real estate on plenty of year-end lists, isn’t enough to get these dudes a record deal, then justice is not only dead, but hanging from a lamppost by its entrails.
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4. Mgła — Excercises in Futility (No Solace): Excercises in Futility is depressive black metal as the Gods, if you believe in such things (and Mgła certainly don’t), intended it: Cold, unfettered, and nihilistic to a self-destructive extreme. It’s not fun and that’s not the point. It’s beautiful in the same way that funerals sometimes are. It’s the third record from a little-heralded Polish duo whose name no one knows how to pronounce, and yet it’s somehow become one of the most acclaimed, and vital, extreme records of the year. Ignore the hype or believe it, either way, this one is a truly miserable time.
3. Horrendous — Anareta (Dark Descent): Last year, a few days after Horrendous’s stunning sophomore LP, Ecdysis, landed on the 2014 edition of this list, I came home to an email from the band waiting in my inbox. “Yeah,” they said, “we’d be down to headline a show at The Acheron,” and sure enough, on a bitter January night a few weeks later, they drove out from Philly, blew a smoldering hole in the East Williamsburg Industrial Park, got in their van, and promptly drove back. I mention all of this not to plug the #TOGTE brand, but instead to make one thing very clear: Horrendous are a band who know hard work is part of the deal—the cost of getting to play in a band that regularly draws comparisons to first-three Metallica—and Anareta—their Master of Puppets, for those of you keeping score at home—is that ethos made whole. More technical, more ambitious, and, somehow, still as fist-pumpingly epic as Ecdysis, Anareta has certainly earned such comparisons, but perhaps the more important parallel is that of Nile: A disruptive force that altered the parameters of death metal in the early oughts, transforming it from obsolete relic to industry touchstone in the span of a few short years. That is Horrendous’s true potential, and if they continue pumping out albums this great every year, we won’t have to wait long to watch them eclipse it.
2. Elder—Lore (Armageddon Shop): While it’s tempting to say that Elder is “vest metal” done right, that would be doing their latest LP, Lore, an incredible disservice. Sure, this is stuff you could thrown on at a dive bar and watch the locals nod along, but it’s also so much more—the entire 45-plus year history of psych, stoner, doom crammed onto a single LP. The sound of a little power trio from Providence reaching the peak of their powers right before your eyes. So come for the songs, as they are spectacular technicolor labyrinths, but whatever you do, stay for frontman Nick DiSalvo’s jaw-slackening six-string performance, easily one of finest put to record this year.
1. Locrian — Infinite Dissolution (Relapse): On a hypothetical list of albums that have been unjustly ignored throughout the year, Locrian’s Infinite Dissolution is at or near the top. The most accessible record on the Chicago outfit’s impenetrable bell curve by a wide margin, Infinite Dissolution, whether brooding in some placid dark or cresting with tsunami-like black metal mayhem, deserves all the accolades both its forebearers—such as Isis and Russian Circles—and progeny—anything with the words “black” and “gaze” in the liner notes—receive regularly and en mass. An ancillary vocal approach and protracted ambient passages (see “Index of Air” for a masterclass in build-and-release tension) ensure that will never happen, of course, but metal has never been a popularity contest, and the fact you’re digging through a local blog’s yearly best-of just to find something new to listen to is proof—should high school not have been enough—of that and more.
Best of the Big City