(Wil Cifer has written a five-part year-end series that includes top albums in the genres of black metal, death metal, doom, and experimental/progressive metal, but the first part of the series is this one.)
First, before the weeping of the message board rises to a fever pitch, “Mainstream” here is not referring to bands selling out, playing arenas, or becoming a household name, though some of those things might apply to a few of the bands on this list. “Mainstream” in this case means too middle-of-the-road to belong on the Top Ten lists for more extreme forms of metal such as black metal, death metal, doom metal… you get the picture. They could appeal to your average metalhead who does not just listen to cassette pressings limited to only 200 copies. So in other words, in most cases these bands are not ones I would be able to cover over at my other home Cvlt Nation. The bulk of this is just fun, driving-to-the-liquor-store metal.
These are ranked thanks to my Last.fm in the order of which got the most rotation on my iPod. It’s fine for an album to be highly regarded for its artistic merit, but what is a great piece of sonic art really worth if it’s not inspiring me to come back to for repeat listens?
10. Lamb of God – “Sturm Und Drang”
This album is more of an honorable mention, since I only listened to it once. They are generally a band who are not my thing, as they are too straightforward for me. If I want to feel like I am strutting to the ring on Monday Night Raw while I’m working out, I’ll put on Pantera. But these guys surprised me with this one.
For what they do, they have grown as songwriters and are much more melodic than the last album I heard by them, which was Sacrament. Outstanding production, which comes with the kind of budget they work with, brings a wall of mean guitar that slaps you in the face and challenges my golden rule, “Cool riffs alone do not make a good song”. Like these guys or not, this album is hard not to headbang to.
9. Unleashed – “Dawn of the Nine”
I remember when I saw these guys opening for the “Blessed Are the Sick” tour — they seemed heavy as fuck. Now they strike me as a death metal version of Manowar. If you are a fan of their foray into Viking metal, then you already own this album and have raised thy horn of mead to it already, so I’m preaching to the Valkyries on this one. Didn’t occupy my iPod for long, but it is still on my hard drive in case I need to storm the gates of Isengard or narrate a barbarian raid for our Sunday D&D game. As much fun as you can have without raping a shield maiden.
8. Paradise Lost – “The Plague Within”
Here come the cries of why isn’t this on the doom list. It’s an impressive album and I applaud its creation. However, when it comes to how I like my doom, it’s darker and more depressing than what these guys dished out on this one. A vast improvement on the more Metallic turn they took on Draconian Times, which is where I parted ways with these guys until Tragic Idol, and one day I’ll go back and see what I missed while we were broken up. But in the present, His clean vocals shine for most of the album. As a whole, this album took me off guard and the band really proved themselves to me.
7. Enslaved – “In Times”
Like Paradise Lost and Unleashed, reconciling the past to the present was a theme with some other veteran bands this year. Once upon a time, when the long boats sailed east, these guys were one of my favorite bands. Even up ’til Axioma Ethica Odini they still had my attention and were killing it live. Then there was a bump in the road and they sounded like they were following in Opeth’s footsteps. This is not their triumphant return to black metal, but it is an album that reconciles me with who they are today with its stunning musicianship and evolved songwriting. I am OK with who they are again, as they hey have hit one of the better balances between their more classic sound and the progressive angle they have been going for.
6. Vattnet Viskar – “Settler”
It might have had the year’s worst album cover, but inside was an impressive display of chops and arrangements. These guys are on top of their game. Like Enslaved they take the songs through some interesting twists and turns. When they pound the point home and get mean on this album, it feels meaner than the last album, despite the fact that as a whole this album is slicker.
If you miss when Mastodon wasn’t writing radio songs and instead was really heavy with a sense of adventure, then you will certainly dig this album.
5. Khaotika – The Flame Unleashed
This is where we cross the line into bands whose albums have remained in rotation on my iPod. This band from Atlanta is more noted for the tragic accident they were involved in, which killed members of the band Wormreich. This album grew on me. If bands like In This Moment and Huntress actually played metal and committed to their more power metal moments, then the result might be something more along these lines. But this also serves as a lesson in “just because you wear corpse paint doesn’t make you black metal”. Not black metal here, but an orchestrated mix of power metal with heavier and darker tones that hits the same sweet spot for me as Dimmu Borgir’s symphonic circus act. It’s my kind of fun. Their singer has some killer pipes on her and never makes me think I’m listening to Nightwish.
4. Karyn Crisis – “Gospel of the Witches”
Having been a fan of her work in the ’90s, I can say this might not have the raw power of Deathshead Extermination, but it holds its own creative merit. Back in the day the only other female-fronted band that played music as dark and heavy as Crisis was the criminally underrated Fear of God. Both bands were ahead of their time, but it’s evident the times have caught up with them.
Karyn’s melodies sound more assured, and her voice is even more powerful than on the more classic Crisis albums. Along with husband, Ephel Duath guitarist Davide Tiso (who handles the bulk of the guitar on this album), she is backed by members of Tombs, Immolation, Vaura, and Intronaut, and the end result is like a mixture of those bands if they were fed on a steady diet of A Perfect Circle and the Cocteau Twins. This is the least heavy album on this list, but makes up for that with honest emotive power and convincing songwriting.
3. Deafheaven – “New Bermuda”
How could this band live up to the hype that surrounded this album is the question I had in mind when I first pressed play. They have had the metal community very split, drawing accusations of being hipster metal. The point was well made, and they had something to prove.
It now makes more sense why a band like Tribulation is opening for them. The dreamy parts on this album work better for me on this one than they did on the last album, due to the heavier moments, and the fact that Clarke’s vocals are not the same old, same old helps give this an edge over Sunbather. This album doesn’t pander to the mainstream, though the mainstream metal community might finally give these guys more of a shot if they actually bothered to give this one a listen.
Live, the crowd might have been more like being at a Modest Mouse show, but that is something I can try and forget while this is blaring in the car.
2. Killing Joke – “Pylon”
Before you scream they are not metal, first listen to the album. Second, you have to admit they are much more metal than many bands I have seen on Metal lists thus far, like Royal Thunder, Faith No More, Ghost, and Strung Out. Not to mention the obvious influence (which can be heard on this album) that they have had on bands like Metallica, Voivod, Ministry, Amebix, Neurosis, Faith No More, Tool… you can see where this is going.
On this album they touch on the varied sounds they have collected throughout their career, some heavier than others, but together giving a broad range of dynamics. Some things are pretty constant, like Jaz Coleman’s voice, which is smooth over the frantic drive of Youth’s bass lines. This is more organic than most of their output since Pandemonium. Flourishes of futuristic effects passing over the mix and some of their more tribal post-apocalyptic chugs would not have been out of place on the soundtrack for the last Mad Max movie.
1. Iron Maiden – “The Book of Souls”
Right behind Black Sabbath when it comes being one of the most revered classic metal bands of all time. This is for good reason, as they have they have maintained tons of integrity over the years, even if they did break down and use keyboards and made the poor choice of trying to replace Bruce with Blaze. This album upholds their legacy, and I would not be surprised if it was their last, as it feels like they want to try everything they have yet to do and make the most of every solo.
It would not have been out of place if I had decided to make a top ten power metal albums of the year, or a top ten prog albums of the year… the latter being more likely as I doubt I listened to ten power metal albums this year — however, Iron Maiden transcend both of those genres. They have done better, and it might not be on the level of the albums that came before Fear of the Dark, which is a bar held incredibly high, but they never outright miss the mark; even if this was just dialed in, it would still be better than everything else.
But that is the beauty of this. They are still committed to putting their all into what they do, and there is a lot of heart put into this. They are just older and wiser, with that wisdom compensating for the fire that was in their music when they were a younger band. This is still an album made by one of the greatest bands ever.