And so emanates my refrain: 2015 was a shit year for metal. My colleagues, and you, reader, may disagree, but I stand firm in my ambivalence towards this year’s release schedule as a whole; it’s not that the big labels were all pushing out duds or that established bands like Sigh and Leprous shat the bed—they in fact were quite competent releases. But overall, there wasn’t too much exciting material out there – just a lot of solid metal that didn’t particularly move me. Because of the paucity of good tech/prog/avant-garde death for me to process, I have been forced to compensate, and my listening habits have focused mostly on the greats of 2014, including some of last year’s top picks that I didn’t give enough love at release (from Archspire and Wretched), fantastic records that I had no clue existed at list-time (the sophomore effort from blackened-mathcore outfit Plebeian Grandstand and the excellent debut from snare-tone sophisticates Under the Pledge of Secrecy), and a few non-metal favorites like Three Trapped Tigers.
But metal has to have off years; if it didn’t all of the brilliance of good years would be lost. And beyond necessity, it allows new voices to hop into the ring that is a reviewer’s perpetually cramped listening schedule. These are the scrappy underdogs that keep metal alive, unimpeded by the restraints of commercial sale and this year’s best records come from independent bands whose labors of love often went sadly unnoticed because of the sea of new music we all try to keep up with. This is their time, when the tides finally recede and they glint on the shores, cast up for all to see, to be picked apart by you; the seagulls of the metal ocean, who will subsequently shit them out into the waters once again where the sudden influx of nutrients will pollinate huge blooms of algae, the first link in the great chain that ends when some asshat pulls up a shark and chops off its fins to make a fucking soup, leaving it to die in anguish.
Yes, Cattle Decapitation made it onto the list.
#(ish) Beaten to Death // Unplugged – Repeated listens might send this further up my list, but as it stands I’m still gaga for Beaten to Death‘s uniquely melodic grind. The band has a knack for heavy riffs and pairs them with gurgling vocals and tender melodies that somehow fail to destroy each other’s impact. Maybe this is the sort of thing that Deafheaven is going for, but for whatever reason I can really get behind Unplugged and its catchy and irreverent grind.
10. Cattle Decapitation // The Anthropocene Extinction – Spending a summer working in California made the San Diego grind gods’ latest album all the more potent; when you see up close the insidious destruction that inspires their vitriol, you’re more capable of looking past how fucking brickwalled it is. While not as adventurous as Monolith of Inhumanity, this album is still packed with brutality and insane hooks, yet another great example of the band’s hybrid take on extreme metal. While I really love this album both for its music and its themes, I’m loathe to put something this compressed-sounding and loud high up on the list. Maybe if I complain enough they’ll send me an alternate master? It happened last year…
9. Lorna Shore // Psalms – Cue joke about the year being so bad that deathcore made it onto the list followed by the eating of words; Psalms isn’t just a great debut, it’s a great album through and through and an invigorating release that’s sure to challenge your preconceptions. The riffing is there, the band is tight, and the breakdowns are far from predictable – jarring rather than crowd-pleasing. A flawed but ambitious and successful album, this deathcore debut kicks more ass than it has any right to.
8. Okazaki Fragments // Abandoned – This album is solitary, nasty, brutish and short; its lack of melody as impeccable as its rhythmic asymmetry. It’s tight, strange and somehow really addictive despite its uninviting… well, everything. Abandoned isn’t a perfect record, and it seems it’ll be the only thing we hear from Okazaki Fragments, but it’s an excellent experiment in pushing the boundaries of deathgrind.
7. Beardfish // +4626-Comfortzone – My prog-rock loving friend got into Beardfish after reading Dr. Fisting‘s review and had me converted in due time. This band has a knack for storytelling and an unexpected energy that makes their ’70s prog wankery not just tolerable but fun. Comfortzone coverts everything depressing about small-town anywhere into a heartfelt and rambunctious album built around epic songs like “Ode to the Rock’n’Roller” and ” If We Must Be Apart (A Love Story Continued).” Prog rock this good is hard to come by, and I have to tip my hat to these guys for making an album completely devoid of growling and clashing semitones that I really enjoy.
6. Hope Drone // Cloak of Ash – AMG will have something to say about my bryophyte-loving ways, but no amount of bullying can make me not adore this record or this band. Simplistic but brimming with subtle textures, it’s an album that’s not catchy but still hooks you with its tone and atmosphere, an earthy mix of noise and distortion spread out over something like four hours. It’s not easy, it’s not going to help me woo the ladies, and it’s not something entirely healthy to like; this is nihilism made into sound.
5. Alustrium // A Tunnel to Eden – I slobbered all over this record when it came out and my opinion hasn’t changed; it’s prog-death with actual riffs paired with some great melodies and lyrics that aren’t cringe-worthy. Yes, it’s too long, but the thematic unity of the last three tracks allows them to be easily digested as separate from the rest of the album, cutting it down to a manageable size. A Tunnel to Eden is a must-have prog-death album and that cover art is gorgeous.
4. Trials // This Ruined World – I’ve met Dr. Fisting on multiple occasions – more than enough to know that he’s far too amicable to follow through on his threats to kneecap staff members that don’t heap enough praise on This Ruined World. And if you’ve heard the record, you know that he doesn’t need to anyway; Trials are in peak form and after a period of long and difficult introspection, I have come to see that This Ruined World is even better than In the Shadow of Swords. The band’s energetic, intelligent, and down-to-Earth thrash is truly peerless and heavier than ever. From the Gothenburg-rampage of “Digging My Own Grave,” which I’ve loved since I first heard them play it live sometime last winter, to the fantastic guitar harmony of “Truth Defiled,” every single song is awesome and must-hear moments are almost unrelenting.
3. Ad Nauseam // Nihil Quam Vacuitas Ordinatum Est – Some people like to complain that Obscura worship and wannabe-Ulcerate poseurs are running amok in the death/black metal scene. Let them run, I say. The style is starting to diversify and produce some very interesting albums like Baring Teeth‘s Ghost Chorus Among Old Ruins and the Okazaki Fragments release covered above. But I haven’t seen a band venture this far into 20th century avant-garde music since Dodecahedron. Listening to Nihil Quam Vacuitas Ordinatum Est is a hellish adventure full of abused grand pianos and scraped violins.
2. The Armed // Untitled – While I’ve been a fan of The Armed since their Spreading Joy EP, I never imagined they’d write an album this good. Every song on Untitled is fantastic and memorable in its own unique way, and pretty much anything on the album could be my song of the year. They’ve come a long way since their young Dillinger Escape Plan-aping days in the late 2000s and ended up somewhere they can call their own. With an intensity matched by inventiveness, the untitled album’s reckless punk rock partners smartly with piano and polyrhythm, perfecting a cynical, angsty masterwork from the band that’s armed, anonymous and anti-everything. I love it.
1. Acrania // Fearless – Never before has an album hit so many of my switches; Acrania are a band after my own heart, and the heart of every metalhead who has a soft spot for Latin music. What’s really stunning about Fearless is its cohesion; while it’s easy to write a genre-skipping break into a bridge or a little lick at the end of a chorus, it’s nearly unheard of to weave a half-dozen different styles of music into a song and make each one completely integral to the sound, and that’s just warming up for Fearless. Yet for music so dense and technically demanding, it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys playing Revocation songs, compelling you not just to bang your head but to jump out into the street, dance, and do shots with the stray dogs. All of this comes with a stunning lack of pretense from a band that draws both from existentialist holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl and the one-hit-wonder rock band The Champs. If you only listen to one album this year, make it Fearless.
Best Thing We Missed Last Year: Plebeian Grandstand // Lowgazers – The angriest band on the planet makes the jump from blackened mathcore to something way more evil.
Song o’ the Year: Beaten to Death // “Don’t You Dare to Call Us Heavy Metal” – Everyone I’ve played this song to has liked it, whether or not they had any idea what grindcore is. Truly pummeling, beautifully melodic grind.