(This is the fourth of Andy Synn’s traditional week-long series of posts looking back on the year in metal. We’ve previously presented his lists of the Great, the Good, and the Disappointing albums of the year.)
Over the years I’ve moved further and further away from presenting this list as a classic, numbered ranking of albums, and more towards viewing it as a time-capsule of sorts, picking out what I think are ten of the absolute best of the year to represent the absolute pinnacle of the year in Metal.
Of course, limiting it to only ten entries means it’s far from exhaustive in capacity, but I’ve tried – as far as I’ve been able – to give a rounded overview of the past twelve months, embodied in these ten selections which I really think represent the sheer quality and diversity of metallic delights released over the last year.
Interestingly enough, there’s a LOT of clean vocals on the list – by my count there’s a good 6 out of 10 releases on this list which incorporate clean singing, in one way or another, across albums running the gamut from Black to Death to Doom… heck, two of these albums use 100% clean vocals! (You’re killing me! I hope the paramedics get here soon! — Islander)
There’s also a strong “Progressive” vibe to a lot of this year’s selections, no matter what genre they come from… though there’s also a couple of albums on here which prove that sometimes all you need to be the “best” is to play harder, faster, and heavier than the competition!
Overall this year’s top 10 is comprised of 3 acts from the UK, and 3 acts from the USA, a Swedish duo (not the only two-piece on the list, might I add), a bunch of German cultists, an unbelievably savage Polish ensemble, and one multi-faceted, multi-national collective… and those are all the hints I’m going to give you!
Before we get to the main event though, let’s take a moment to appreciate a few honourable mentions who narrowly missed out on the top slot(s) this year:
Der Weg Einer Freiheit – Stellar
One of the finest, most intensely cathartic Black Metal albums of the year, and probably the band’s crowning glory.
Kauan – Sorni Nai
Utterly spellbinding from start to finish, Sorni Nai is one of the most atmospheric and moving releases of the year, brimming with melancholy and bleak, depressive grandeur.
Mgła – Exercises in Futility / Misþyrming – Söngvar elds og óreiðu
Both albums showcase Black Metal at its absolute peak, though they were narrowly pipped at the post for inclusion on this list by another similarly breathtaking example of the Black arts.
Leviathan – Scar Sighted
Cripplingly emotional and about as harrowing as they come, this is most definitely Wrest’s magnum opus, taking his signature sound to new heights of rage and depravity.
Turbid North – Eyes Alive
A late entry indeed, but one which absolutely deserves its slot. Part Death Metal onslaught, part sludge-caked, sunburnt groove-a-thon, and part Prog-tinged game of sonic twister… it’s the sort of album which could/should/would be massive if only given the right backing and the right amount of attention by the right people. Meaning you.
Now then, with that out of the way… here’s the ten albums which I’ve selected which I truly think represent the absolute best of what 2015 has to offer.
Sarpanitum – Blessed Be My Brothers…
Truly cerebral Death Metal with balls the size and density of a neutron star, that’s what this album delivers.
Technical without being “Tech”… subtly blackened and progressively structured… without being “Blackened” or “Progressive” Death Metal exactly… and featuring some of the most astounding lead playing and devastating drum work I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing this year, Blessed Be My Brothers… is a Death Metal album that resolutely refuses to be pigeonholed.
Bursting at the seams with titanic, earth-shaking riffs, neck-snapping rhythmic shifts, and a seemingly endless series of spiralling, seditiously melodic solos and lead guitar parts, it’s as hook-filled as it is unerringly extreme, and so packed full of creative, unexpected twists and turns that you’ll find yourself discovering new levels and new layers to it on every listen.
Plus it kicks more ass than ten Chuck Norris movies… so what’s not to love?
Outre – Ghost Chants
This year’s best Black Metal album? I realise that’s a contentious statement to make… so I’m not going to make it (particularly since it’s not the only Black Metal album to make my list). Suffice it to say however that Ghost Chants narrowly fought off competition from both Mgła and Misþyrming (which, truth be told, is probably my personal favourite of the three) to take this particular slot on my list, which should tell you something about the sheer quality of this album.
The fact that the dissonant, dirge-like first track is built around a prominent display of eerie, ritualistic clean vocals should be your first hint that this is something quite special, and as the album blossoms into an esoteric eruption of pure, calculated chaos and rampaging misanthropy, you’ll find that it’s not only something special, but quite possibly a work of warped genius.
The band’s blending of Deathspell-like discordance and pure Polish fury makes for a marriage made in heaven/hell, a caustic cacophony of rippling dissonance and juddering, grating riffs, threaded with black veins of poisonous anti-melody and diseased, dysfunctional harmony.
This is definitely one of those albums that needs to be experienced in person, as words simply can’t adequately convey the raging, convulsive ferocity on display here.
Bell Witch – Four Phantoms
As far as titanic, glacially-paced Doom goes, this is most definitely the pick of the bunch from 2015. It’s four songs — each of colossal length and girth (two over 10 minutes in length, two over a massive 22 minutes long) — of crawling, soul-destroying grooves and morbid, funereal gloom topped off with a near-perfect blend of beauty-and-the-beast vocals courtesy of the album’s two members.
Lurching from heaving, brooding, doom-laden heaviness to solemn, bleak minimalism, each track remains utterly mesmerising throughout despite their monolithic size, the duo clearly grasping the importance of shifting dynamics in maintaining a sense of energy and vitality even when you’re bearing down on the listener with all the velocity of a leaking tar pit.
The icing on the cake, however, comes in the form of Dylan Desmond’s elegant fretwork, turning his multi-stringed bass into an instrument of profound creativity, the rumbling hum of the low strings drowning your senses in fuzz-soaked distortion while the high strings weave their own mystical melodic spell, as the songs wash over you, through you, and leave you utterly drained and exhausted in the best possible way.
One of 2015’s most vital, emotionally devastating releases, make no mistake.
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Taking what might be called “the Behemoth slot” this year – that of an Extreme band who’ve suddenly, by virtue of a mix of bloody-minded perseverance and blistering song-writing, broken through to a wider consciousness than ever before – California’s own morbid sons have produced what may well be the pinnacle of their career thus far (though I know opinions are divided relatively evenly over whether this, or Monolith of Inhumanity, is the quartet’s true crowning jewel).
Flitting between frenzied intensity and bleakly anthemic grandeur, this is a record that doesn’t sacrifice its underlying extreme nature in favour of catchy hooks and big riffs… it simply swallows them, chews them up, and spits them back out again in a hailstorm of blitzkrieg blastbeats and massive, bone-grinding riffs, all melted and mangled together into a series of unflinchingly vicious, grimly infectious, honest-to-goodness Death Metal anthems, topped off with the ever-versatile, ever-visceral vocals of one-man abattoir Travis Ryan.
For once this is an album most definitely deserving of all the hype and attention it’s been receiving, and then some.
A Swarm of the Sun – The Rifts
The word “crushing” gets thrown around a lot by Metal writers (including yours truly) in a variety of different contexts. From the crushing ferocity unleashed by a band like Anaal Nathrakh at full pace, to the crushing heaviness of a band like Triptykon at their slowest and densest, it’s a word that’s become almost synonymous with the Extreme Metal scene.
But music, heavy or not, can also be emotionally crushing… and that’s exactly what we have here.
Very much an outlier on this list, The Rifts is a brooding, emotive Post-Metal masterpiece of an album, one which builds its momentum and power slowly, layer by layer, constructing a series of bleached-white, post-apocalyptic soundscapes of shimmering keys, echoing drum beats and stark, clanging riffs as it builds towards its inescapable conclusion.
The vocals – sparing and minimalist in their use as they are – are entirely clean, aching with the pain and loss of faded hopes and dying dreams, and at times reminiscent of Anathema at their most desolate and isolated, while the music often reminds me of the early years of the much-missed Altar of Plagues in its bleak and cinematic scope.
Easily one of, if not the, most atmospheric albums of the year.
Abyssal – Antikatastaseis
Probably the densest and most unforgiving album on the list, Antikatastaseis is very much a work of disturbed (and disturbing) art, make no mistake. In fact one could be forgiven for thinking that this was an album of pure madness given sonic form. But beneath the crawling chaos and nerve-shredding discordance there are signs, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, of a malevolent method to the madness here unleashed.
It’s an ugly, often gruelling, listen… that much is certain… but one which reaps major rewards for the dedicated listener. Significant credit must be given to the impressive clarity of the production, which grants every grating, acid-etched riff and searing, disharmonic tremolo run, ever calamitous chord progression and every twisted, tormented lead part, a sparkling obsidian sheen, without robbing the album of its grimy coating and raw, bloodied underbelly of aural filth.
Perhaps most impressively though, as utterly unforgiving and uncompromising as this album is, the song’s each have their own distinctive identity – they don’t all blend into a morass of dissonance for dissonance’ sake. You can see the edges of these songs, feel their bones and gristle, and catch glimpses of the weird, unorthodox angles that make them what they are.
It’s a challenging listen, make no mistake. But it’s like a drug… expanding your mind even as your body starts to break down from the strain.
Sulphur Aeon – Gateway to the Antisphere
Despite many of these albums showcasing a distinct “progressive” vibe (no matter their main genre), sometimes all you really want/need is a lethal dose of devastating Death Metal at its absolute best… and that’s exactly what you get with Sulphur Aeon and Gateway to the Antisphere.
Every track is a boiling cauldron of seething, roiling riffs and thunderous drum work, packed to the inhuman gills with coiling, leviathan grooves, menacing, razor-toothed hooks, and malevolent threads of deep, dark melody. It’s essentially everything you love about Death Metal in its purest form, all tied together in a nearly perfect package and blessed with the dark lord Cthulhu’s maddening touch.
I hesitated for a little while about including this album, if I’m being completely honest. But when I went back to listen to it again I realised that there’s just no weak points on it. Granted, you can argue that it’s not quite as “progressive” or nuanced as some of the other albums on this list… but does that really matter when it offers some of the most jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching, unadulterated Death Metal delights in recent memory?
I think not.
Code – mut
Yet another album that uses nothing but clean vocals, mut may very well be the under-appreciated British upstarts’ magnum opus, despite the fact that it sees them casting off what remains of their Black Metal roots like a snake shedding its skin.
Indeed, there’s remarkably little in the way of Metal… particularly “Black” Metal… on offer here, as the group have now transformed into what is, essentially, a pure Prog band in the vein of Porcupine Tree or Pain of Salvation at their darkest and most enigmatic.
Indeed, despite this new direction for the group (one which, in truth, they’ve hinted at before, in a more limited capacity), a gleaming shroud of spectral darkness still colours and shades all the songs on mut, the long shadow of their more blackened roots still hanging over the band’s music – though it no longer holds sway over what the quintet have become.
By leaps and bounds the least “extreme” and the least “heavy” (at least in terms of its pure Metal content) album on this list, it belongs here by virtue of being one of the most creative and captivating pieces of work I’ve encountered all year, the product of a band with a true sense of vision and a willingness to follow it as far as it may take them.
And, in its own way, this makes mut as impressive and uncompromising as anything else on this list, and easily one of the year’s best and most intriguing albums.
Akhlys – The Dreaming I
The bone-sawing drone of Black Metal’s buzzing tremolo riffs have long held common cause with many of the more Ambient and Atmospheric elements of the musical spheres, though rarely is this strange, often-estranged, relationship as well-realised and well-crafted as on The Dreaming I.
Narrowly beating out the similarly brilliant Scar Sighted to earn its place on this list, The Dreaming I is the corrupted brain-child of Nightbringer mastermind Naas Alcameth, and represents his second voyage deep into the recesses of his own subconscious mind.
The five tracks here blend frantic, skin-stripping Black Metal – all scything, searing tremolo riffs and bone-shattering blastbeats – with elements of hypnotic, ambient horror, combining together into a series of suffocating, nightmarish auditory hallucinations over which Alcameth’s choking, strangled vocals preach their incantations of glorious madness and insanity.
Though the blistering intensity of the album means it makes its mark almost instantaneously, it’s truly a record best experienced in its totality, as a singular piece of art designed to drag you down into an abyss from which you’ll never want to leave.
This is Black Metal with more bite, more brawn, and more brains, than most bands could ever dream of. And that’s why it’s on this list.
Alkaloid – The Malkuth Grimoire
If I were to pick the No. 1, “best of the best” album of 2015 though, this would probably be it. In terms of sheer creativity, mind-blowing instrumental prowess, ball-busting heaviness, and esoteric, progressive melody, it really can’t be beaten.
Perhaps it’s a little unfair considering that it’s a group made up of some of the extreme scene’s most respected (and feared) names – masterminded and fuelled by the irrepressible energy and untouchable drumming abilities of the legendary Hannes Grossmann – but the phenomenal fretwork and fearless songwriting on display here practically run rings around the majority of the band’s competition.
Complex-yet-catchy riffs, cryptic melodic phrasings, blissful vocal harmonies, gravity-defying drum work, monstrous growls, expressive, intricate bass lines, bulldozing heaviness, experimental and exquisitely structured songs… this album really does have it all, and yet it never feels stretched beyond its means, drawing influences from across the Metal spectrum (and beyond) and amalgamating them all into one cohesive, unimpeachable, whole.
Trust me on this, The Malkuth Grimoire is a true genre-bending Progressive (Death) Metal masterpiece, and you can take that to the bank.
So there we have it. Ten albums which I think truly represent not only the best of what the Metal scene is, but also what it can be… its power and potential and its all-round amazingness.
I’m sure there’ll be some disagreements in the comments section, there always are. But I think (and hope) I’ve made a pretty good case for why each of these albums, though not necessarily my “personal” favourites by any means, deserves to be held up as one of the highest exemplars of our scene today.