So much metal. So little time. Three decades into extreme metal's history, bands are still finding ways to squeeze something fresh out of its carcass. Unfortunately, most people, even metal fans, don't have the bandwidth to accommodate it all and a few big albums can clog up the works pretty fast. Much of the conversation this year was dedicated to albums like Deafheaven's blackgaze epic, Sunbather, which wormed its way into the mainstream and spawned endless debates in the underground over authenticity and "trueness." These albums weren't necessarily conversation starters but shredded with unholy fervor nonetheless. So, without further delay, dive deep into the shadowy pits of the best metal albums you might've missed.
See also: The ten best faceless metal bands
10. Lycus - Tempest (20 Buck Spin) Lycus's brand of slow-burning funeral doom/death was all the rage in the mid- to late-'90s, with the likes of Evoken and Thergothon leading the charge, but it's fallen by the wayside in recent years in the wake of more experimental doom outfits. Still, Lycus fly the flag high and proud with these three hymns of spirit-draining melancholy. There's plenty of melody on Tempest, such as on the wonderful "Coma Burn," but it's aimed at tearing your heart open rather than giving you a moment of respite from the darkness. The tempos, while all certifiably slow and doomy, are varied enough to keep boredom from setting in, and then band even throws in a few speedier sections to momentarily wake the soul from its slow death for one last desperate gasp.
9. House of Atreus - Into the Brazen Bull One of the biggest surprises of the year, Minnesota's House of Atreus achieve the nearly impossible on Into the Brazen Bull: The band makes death metal fun. Opener "Bastards in the Hillsides" tears out of the gate with a hyper-kinetic riff that practically thrusts a beer into your hand and commands your head to bang. The riffs even contain ever-so-slight hints of bluegrass, reinforcing the "good ol' times" vibe throughout. "Melodic death metal" became cursed words a decade ago when Scandinavia flooded the world, both directly (See: In Flames) and inderectly (See: Killswitch Engage, et al.), with sugary-sweet, dual-harmony garbage, but Into the Brazen Bull is a stark reminder that the style still has a lot to offer.
8. Grave Upheaval - Untitled It's strange that an album so dense and devoid of traditional structure could be so engaging. It hasn't been conclusively proven that Australia's Grave Upheaval isn't just an epic troll job by someone determined to prove that metalheads will praise anything if they think it's cult enough (the band members are even credited as "-" and "-"). This is technically death metal, but there are no riffs to speak of, really. Just a constant drone, like two great slabs of earth slowly grinding together, punctuated by ritualistic drums and distant blast beats. Otherworldly vocals call to you from just beyond the veil, beckoning for you to surrender your soul to chaos. This is the pinnacle of murk.
7. Wreck and Reference - No Content (The Flenser) People often say that the hardest part of getting into extreme music can be the vocals. If that's the case then this EP is an excellent starting point. The vocals, though heavily distorted, are strangely tuneful, painting the image of a mournful lover, slumped over in a bathtub as he calls out to the nothingness for comfort. Even the harsher moments are layered over music, which, while extremely dark, is less abrasive than, say, a full-on dose of Origin.
6. Antediluvian - λόγος (Nuclear War Now!) On the "cavern-core" scale of murky, indecipherable death metal, Canada's Antediluvian are in the seven to nine range. It's absolutely twisted as fuck, but there are songs and riffs here if you're willing to look for them in this maelstrom of sticky, pulsing, prehistoric death metal. Whereas Grave Upheaval engulfs you in a cloud of pure black, there are discernable textures adorning λόγος. It's just they're repulsive. Imagine being digested slowly by some kind of malevolent demi-god and you'll have some idea of what it's like to navigate the churning, belching walls of this album. Antediluvian keep you disoriented. Just when a passage begins to make sense, the song spirals off into another, completely new organ, forcing you to figure out which was is up all over again. If that sounds tiring, you're not wrong, but there's something cathartic about giving up understanding and handing yourself over to chaos.
5. Villains - Never Abandon the Slut Train (Nuclear War Now!) This is a weird one. It's not quite black metal. It's not quite punk or rock. It's just filthy. Brooklyn, New York's Villains base their own brand of "street metal" not on frigid northern landscapes or dragons, but the ugliness and sleaze of man's great cities, the drugs, the booze, the deep dark holes. Your world is a wastedland. Unlike most black metal, Never Abandon the Slut Train is devoid of blast beats, but its mid-paced punk stomp is no less virulent. The production is raw and clattering, giving each of Villains' five member an equal share of your ear, with some especially shiny baselines that shine in the filth.
4. Bölzer- Aura Switzerland duo Bölzer made the leap this year from near total obscurity to underground darlings with the release of Aura, a three-song collection of truly mystifying black/death metal. Frontman KzR (aka Okoi Thierry Jones) sounds as if he's standing atop the world's highest peak, casting down windswept riffs like lightning bolts and howling dark commandments across the world. While KzR drops into the traditional death growl from time to time, it's his epic half-sung bellows that help set Aura apart, painting another world where the Gods still roam and strike down men with impunity. He's no slouch in the riff department either, as "Entranced by the Wolfshook" alone would have earned recognition here.
3. Inquisition - Obscure Verses For the Multiverse (Season of Mist) Frosty black metal from space has come to destroy you. In the wake of Immortal's demise, Inquisiton felt like the natural heirs to the Norwegian giants' throne. The Seattle-by-way-of-Columbia duo share plenty with Abbath and company, the frosty riffs, the frog's croak vocals, but have always been willing to take the sound to the next level. Inquisition abandoned Immortal's fictional land of Blashyrk, with it's fjords, long ships, and snowy peaks, and headed straight for the terrifying black of the cosmos. Like on 2011's Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm, frontman Dagon draws up legions of extremely 'bangable black metal riffs from the frosted ground and warps them with strange forces until they bend and snake like moonworms hunting their prey (Check out "Spiritual Plasma Evocation" for some really twisted riffing).
2. Cloud Rat - Moksha (Halo of Flies Records) A modern grindcore record where you can tell the songs apart? Verily, it is so! A lot of grind comes down to the vocals. It's a genre that's exhausting by design. You will, and should, feel like you've ground your face off with an enormous cheese grater, but the best bands keep you invested in your own demise somehow. A thunderous, hyper-technical drum performance, some off-kilter Vovoid riffing. On Moksha, the second full-length by Michigan's Cloud Rat, it's the vocals, surprisingly. Cloud Rat frontwoman Madison Marshall can bludgeon with her voice, and does, but while a lot of grind vocalists have the acoustic personality of a Cuisinart set to "pulse," Marshall brings her lyrics to life with convincing emotion.
1. Loss of Self - 12 Minutes (The Flenser) Not to take anything away from Defheaven's Sunbather, but there were, believe it or not, other forward thinking occasionally shoegaze-y black metal albums released this year. Australia's Loss of Self are capable of reaching similar height's as Sunbather's spiritually uplifted, "happy" black metal, but possess a special knack for the loosely controlled chaos of their darker experimental peers. Loss of Self likes to get weird and when it does, like on opener "Paradise Overgrown" and "Twelve Minutes," it sounds like two bands playing at once in the same room, vaguely aware of one another. But out of these blackened fuckclusters emerge soaring, post-inspired riffs. Whereas so much black metal channels feelings of claustrophobia, paranoia, and isolation, 12 Minutes feels open and breathing freely, as though it just emerged from a coffin. Even the bass player gets some space to himself and shines, such as on the cathartic "Isolt."
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