Lamb of God, Sacrament (Epic Records). Sacrament -- which surprised a lot of people by debuting at No. 8 on the Billboard charts this year -- is Lamb of God's most technical album to date, favoring atmosphere over aggression. The band still slays us with thundering thrash and death metal, but except for a few tracks -- most notably "Foot to the Throat" and "Beating on Death's Door," which assail the listener with LoG's usual jackhammer-to-the-head vibe -- Sacrament is a sonic step forward for the band, employing more guitar solos, more demonic vocal dubs and more furious fills that show off skin hitter Chris Adler's dexterous drumming. Producer Machine (Clutch, King Crimson) helped clean up the band's usually raw sound, simultaneously capturing the group's mind-blowing musical prowess in layers of dark harmonies and monstrous melodies.
Sulaco, Tearing Through the Roots (Willowtip). Sulaco re-creates grindcore as a fluid, forward-reaching form that will still sound vital and ultra-heavy 100 years from now. Band leader Erik Burke has got jaw-dropping guitar chops, but it's Sulaco's imagination that yields song structures so staggeringly complex that your memory will go slack trying to grasp them. Throw in an unprecedented infusion of buzzing, darkly colored melody and the future of grindcore looks promising indeed.
Gojira, From Mars to Sirius (Prosthetic). Gojira's leading the latest wave of red-hot French metal bands, and one listen to this potent and progressive album shows why. This is a band that can create both extremely heavy, grinding, guttural songs ("Backbone") and gentler, technically twisted tunes ("Unicorn," "From Mars") without sacrificing either power or precision. On From Mars to Sirius, the band expresses its concerns about our environment in almost every song but takes a positive rather than apocalyptic stance. Gojira's often compared to Swedish tech-metal band Meshuggah, which delves even deeper into experimental song structures, but Gojira's scorching compositions-wrapped-in-optimism make the band an anomaly in a genre characterized by darkness and violence.
Mastodon, Call of the Mastodon (Relapse). Though press and fan anticipation was no doubt concentrated on Mastodon's Warner Bros. debut this year, the acclaimed band managed to top itself via this reissue of some of its earliest recordings (essentially the Lifesblood EP expanded to include four songs from the same sessions). If praise for Mastodon ever seemed premature, this release should give you ample pause to reconsider. Mastodon's stock-in-trade has always been to blend thrash, extreme, stoner and prog varieties of metal, and here the band distills them into a seamless, compelling whole.
Cannibal Corpse, Kill (Metal Blade). Kill contains the same blitzkrieg of searing guitars and Cookie Monster vocals for which Cannibal Corpse is known, only more gory and brutal than before. With song titles such as "Five Nails Through the Neck" and "Submerged in Boiling Flesh," there's nothing quaint or kitschy about this kind of metal. Songs such as the fast and furious "Purification by Fire" and "Brain Removal Device" (with its chaotic, crashing guitars) only further illustrate the sonic terror of which this band is capable. Every moment on Kill -- with the exception of "Infinite Misery," a lurching instrumental that closes the album -- is an ear-shattering, nightmare-inducing experience.
Celtic Frost, Monotheist (Century Media). Ambitious to a fault, Celtic Frost returned this year with its most challenging work to date. And, as fans know, that's saying a lot about a band that could never keep still. After an initial rush of energy in the first two songs that resurrects classic, signature thrash with breathtaking modern production clarity, the reunited Frost proceeds to make short work of your expectations. It's slow and at times even plodding, but this music rewards the faithful. More than ever before, Celtic Frost captures the despair, rage and tragedy of a human race marooned in the middle of a universe with an absent god. As if to grasp the infinite sprawl of this solitude, the band seems to reach into space itself and returns with a picture as beautiful as it is bleak.
Children of Bodom, Chaos Ridden Years: Stockholm Knockout Live (Universal Music). This live album from these Finns is packed with the band's melodic mashup of black metal, thrash metal and death metal. Culled from a February 5, 2006, concert in Stockholm, Chaos Ridden Years provides a variety of songs from CoB's five-album catalog for newer listeners, including a wicked rendition of "Follow the Reaper." Some longtime fans complained that this album wasn't as intense as CoB's first live album (1999's Tokyo Warhearts), but the band was able to pull material from three more albums for this release, and the Bodom basics we love so much -- the blast beats and breakneck tempos, the elaborate keyboard and guitar solos, the croaky vocals -- are all alive and kicking hard here.
Napalm Death, Smear Campaign (Century Media). After a mid-'90s experimental period, Napalm Death returned to its straight-ahead grindcore roots, but it's only now that their return has been captured with optimal production. Any band that invents a genre must eventually come to terms with its past, and Napalm Death has found the balance to work within the terms of its legacy with dignity, renewed drive and freshness. On Smear Campaign, Napalm is at the peak of both its writing ability and anger, thanks to the Bush administration. No other band has channeled left-wing politics into hard-hitting outrage on par with Napalm Death's, and in our political climate, the band's caustic soundtrack to power abuse sounds reassuring.
Goatwhore, A Haunting Curse (Metal Blade). This New Orleans quartet manages to stay faithful to a traditional black metal style while adding ambient elements to its songs. Prime examples here are the songs "Alchemy of the Black Sun Cult," which combines mid-tempo grooves with sadistic riffs, and "In the Narrow Confines of Defilement," which employs trippy bridges over a relentless drum beat. Singers Sammy Duet and Louis Benjamin Falgoust II have toned down their usual high-pitched screams and opted for more howling and rasping here (the title track contains some particularly vicious vocals), and ex-Morbid Angel guitarist Erik Rutan's production is immaculate.
Cretin, Freakery (Relapse). This entire album consists of songs which tell sensationalized tales of deformed/mentally handicapped people from isolated rural communities who do things like kidnap babies and raise them as feral animals, drag young girls into vans and climax while shocking them with Tasers, etc. As the CD booklet declares, "The stories in this album are mostly true...we are everywhere." Now, in the time it takes to say "gimmick," it also becomes clear that Cretin brings rickety punk energy to its grindcore. That's no small feat, considering that Cretin forgoes precision altogether for a slurring, repetitive approach that sounds like you're listening from inside a nearby garbage can, but it still manages to hold your interest. With two alums from gore-grinders Exhumed and such gleefully graphic lyrics, you'd think that Cretin would overplay the shock hand. With some wit up its sleeve, however, the band comes up with a rousing work of comedy-horror.