This One Goes To Eleven: 10 best metal albums of 2014

AirheadsWith the capital-I Internet anointing 2013 “THE BEST METAL YEAR EVER!!” before it even ended, 2014 was a letdown by the time it began. Much hyped releases from the likes Agalloch, At the Gates, Mastodon, and Pallbearer couldn’t save it. The underground’s rescue missions returned with heads hung. Ludicrous precedent, and its attendant expectations, have a habit of souring even the best things and metal fell victim this year, issuing a jointly agreed upon “meh”, before moving on to 2015’s saliva soaked forecasts.

With list season outfitting every hesher the time to listen and willingness to dig, however, we now have the chance to unearth a very different, and more accurate, reality, one that hopefully begins and ends with the realization that this year spoiled us fucking rotten. Indie has been cut down by its own success, rock n’ roll poisoned after years of Rogaine and eyeliner abuse. Hip Hop survives on the free mixtape fringe while electronic edges closer to the minivan nexus each time NBC airs a cellphone commercial. Metal, though, continues to writhe in the dark, birthing twisted new permutations faster than we can assign genus and species. It won’t last, of course—the war drums of a nü metal revival can already be heard on the horizon—so let’s stop whining and enjoy it while we can, starting here, with This One Goes to Eleven’s 10 Best Metal Albums of 2014. They are my favorites, meaning they are probably not your’s, so proceed with a calm head and open mind. With any luck, you might just get both lopped off.

10. Pallbearer — Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore)
By far the pro-forma pick of December, and for good reason, Pallbearer’s Foundations of Burden lived up to the hype this year–an impressive feat in its own right–with one of the most refined distillations of metal ever put to tape. A sprawling collection of bogged-down rock n’ roll strapped to the rack and stretched until 10 feet tall, the Arkansas doom lords’ sophomore LP, especially on standout cuts like”Watcher In the Dark” and “The Ghost I Used To Be”, rears the artistic vision of 2012’s Sorrow and Extinction to full maturity, adding new elements like Rhodes piano, shouted choruses, and Billy Anderson’s deft production to an already potent formula. You could say Pallbearer make metal to be treated like grandma’s fine silver–trotted out for discerning guests on a special occasion–but the domestication only enhances its heavy by contrast, making Foundations a must-hear if by some chance (raised by wolves, time traveler, pop punk devotee) you haven’t already.

9. Sivyj Yar – From the Dead Villages’ Darkness (Avantgarde Music)
Music crit can essentially be divided into two areas of emphasis: The music itself, and the narrative, or context, of the music. We either evaluate an album on the quality of music it contains, or view that album through its contextual prism—the tragedy it was born out of, the political ideals it represents—and judge it thusly. It’s not often that a record forces us to do both, but Sivyj Yar’s From the Dead Villages’ Darkness is exactly that; a stunning, singular black metal record born from the Russian underbelly during one of that country’s most socially and politically troubling years on record. The one-man band, helmed simply by Vladimir, who even performs his own string arrangements, is brooding and at times gut-wrenchingly beautiful, but the narrative—a musician brave enough to produce such extreme music in an environment where ideological deviation is treated like treason—is all the more moving. In a year that saw black metal bands sell out shows with alt-rock legends and attract the attention of major corporate marketing divisions, Sivyj Yar was a much-needed reminder that sometimes, in some places, what we call recreation, is actually outright rebellion.

8. Nux Vomica – S/T (Relapse)
No band has benefited from full the 2015 album cycle quite like Nux Vomica. When the Portland ATVs dropped their self-titled opus this spring, it was met with solid reviews and this-one-could-go-overlooked cache, but as the year progressed along its preordained path, Nux Vomica, germinated by their epic trio of pulverizing hybrid compositions, morphed from underground namedrop to one of the biggest best-of-list darlings. Like Sunbather before it and Sorrow and Extinction before that, Nux Vomica has become THE metal record of the year for non-metalheads, and while that might sound like a backhanded compliment, it’s really not, with the band’s head-on collision of hardcore grit and post-rock pretty obliterating cynicism and eardrums alike.

7. Trap Them – Blissfucker (Prosthetic)
Contrary to popular belief, metal can have many objectives—to protest, to grieve, to educate millions of high school boys on the obscure battles of the Crimean War—but as far as pure circle pit catharsis goes, nobody did it better this year than Trap Them. A rank, writhing gore pile of maggot-devoured guitar tones and bile-slathered blast beats wrapped in a black trash bag and hucked into the Charles River, Blissfucker is undistilled, unrefined, and all the better for it, dragging hapless listeners into one downward spiral after the next. And although the Boston quartet remain steeped in the rampaging grind tradition, Blissfucker find its true speed on lumbering slowburns like “Sanitations” and “Savage Climbers”, flying the banner for one of North America’s most vicious extreme scenes in the process.

6. Pyrrhon – The Mother of Virtues (Relapse)
Love it or loathe it, once you hear Pyrrhon’s cacophonous, calamitous, clanging sophomore LP, The Mother of Virtues, you will never get it out of your fucking head. Easily the freshest take on the death metal genre this year, Virtues packs more sonic detail into each polyrhythmed bar than most bands can fit in an entire song, with whammy dives, pinch harmonics, blast beats, and even a sample of NYC subway cars squirming back into the mire just when you think you’ve finally got a grip on them. Former Invisible Oranges’ editor and Stereogum contributor Doug Moore nails everything to floorboards with his standout vocal performance, but this one is truly a sum of its disparate, schizophrenic parts—an infinitely challenging, bizarre, and addictive knot of noise that begs, no matter how much you scratch and how hard you scrub, for just one more self-flagellating listen.

5. Slough Feg – Digital Resistance (Metal Blade)
I’m pretty certain the irony of zipping compressed MP3 files of an album dedicated to the evils technology into web bloggers’ gmail accounts isn’t lost on Slough Feg figurehead Mike Scalzi, but even if it were, it couldn’t diminish the sheer magnitude of Digital Resistance. One of the few metal albums this year intent on tackling an external issue–the fraying effect of new media on the fabric of society–Digital Resistance is a must-listen on ideology alone, to say nothing of its crackling analog production, harmonized Thin Lizzyisms, and cache of Celtic influences. Sure, by the standards of today’s underground it’s a tame, almost hospitable listen (just don’t call it classic rock), but as far as throwback metal records go, its one of the finest in years, answering the modern world’s collective cry of “remember when?” with a simple reply: Yes.

4. Horrendous – Ecdysis (Dark Descent)
Horrendous have long been labeled a death metal band and, with their adherence to the old-school growl/thrash/shred formula and penchant for mountain-pulverizing epics, it’s not hard to see why. This year, however, as their stellar sophomore LP, Ecdysis, began to gather momentum, something important and exceedingly rare happened: The Philly trio, in a scene that clings to its sub-genres like the western world to the Treaty of Versailles, began to transcend theirs. By the time Metallica reached the B-side of Ride of Lightning, they had become something more than thrash—perhaps closer to “pure metal”, if there is such a thing. And so Ecdysis finds Horrendous, in the throes of a transformation into something both undefineable and timeless. It’s a lofty comparison to be sure, but the one-two centerpiece punch of “The Vermillion” (a “Fade to Black”-indebted heartbreaker) and “Nepenthe” (a Raiders of the Lost Ark-level face melter), alone justifies it, helping to make Ecdysis not only one the heaviest releases of 2015, but a harbinger of greatness to come.

3. Thou – Heathen (Gilead Media)
While it’s hard to believe that, in a year boasting new albums from the likes of Crowbar, Goatwhore, and Eyehategod, southern Louisiana’s cast iron crown would be worn by a DIY doom band on a small Midwest label, such was the magnitude of Heathen. 75-minutes of bayou blasting amplifiers and blackened rasps, interspersed by a series of instrumental interludes that momentarily part the album’s low-hanging blanket of gloom, Heathen toys with polarity throughout, and thus becomes one of year’s most audibly and emotionally punishing listens. The album is thus not without the occasional imbalance—one gets the sense there is some gristle left untrimmed, for instance—but Thou more than make up for the blemishes with a single-minded commitment to self reliance and utter destruction that, BPMs be damned, make them punkest band on this list.

2. Panopticon – Roads to the North (Bindrune Recordings)
With more than enough terrific pastoral black metal to go around this year—including new music from Blut Aus Nord, Woods of Desolation, and Winterfylleth—Roads to the North, the fifth full length from Austin Lunn’s one-man black metal outlet, Panopticon, left its mark in a simple way: By besting them all in sheer from-the-mountaintops grandeur. From the wind (and pick) swept arpeggios of “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong” to the carrion call of “Chase the Grain”, Roads to North, humbly tracked somewhere in rural Minnesota and produced by Colin Marston (of Gorguts and Krallice, to name just a few), never budgets atmosphere, lacing Lunn’s dexterous brand of USBM with the traditional Appalachian influences of his native Kentucky to bring the quiet power of winter to life in a very loud way. Detractors could argue there’s precious little innovation to be found in black metal in these days, but when it’s performed with Panopticon’s precision and conviction, who the fuck cares?

1. YOB – Clearing the Path To Ascend (Neurot Recordings)
Once the list season hype machine hits peak RPMs (see: “Xtreme” lists from institutions that have hardly written a syllable south of Mastodon this year) it’s tough for someone who has ate, slept, and breathed the torture dungeon asbestos of metal for years on end to not just simply throw their (OK, elitist) middle fingers into the fucking sky and puke a reactionary list of indigestible crust onto the page. Fuck the man, fight the power, and so on until the end of time. Thus, it’s a testament to the sheer magnitude of the music itself, not some sinister journalistic collusion or lack of personal conviction, that YOB’s Clearing the Path to Ascend—one of the most critically en vogue records of fourth quarter 2K14—appears here, at the top of the smoking, incinerated heap. An absolute monument of musicianship, songcraft, and raw emotion, this hour-plus slab of gut-wrenching, god-toppling doom, crafted by frontman Mike Scheidt in the wake of divorce and the decision to stop taking anti-depressants, operates on a grander scale, both sonically and philosophically, than any other album this year. “Time to wake up” the voice of legendary Eastern philosopher Alan Watts proclaims in its opening moments. “Time will fall inside the dream”, Scheidt wails over the final stunning movement. Subtlety is unaccounted for. Concision is inapplicable. Clearing the Path Ascend it is not concerned with life, but existence. Listen closely (or see them live—Vitus on Friday was as close to a religious experience as any self-respecting agnostic can have), and you might just hear what it’s saying about your’s.

Honorable Mentions

Best of the Big Boys
Behemoth – The Satanist (Nuclear Blast)

EP Phone Home
Wild Throne – Bloodmaker (Brutal Panda)

Splitting Up
Anicon/Belus – S/T (Dead Section)

We’ve All Got (Re)issues
Num Skull – Ritually Obsessed (Relapse)

On Lead Drums…
Inter Arma’s TJ Childers – The Cavern/every live appearance (Relapse)

Euro Trip
Swallowed – Lunarterial (Dark Descent)

Thrash Compactor
Foreseen HKI – Helsinki Savagery (20 Buck Spin)

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