(Here’s Part 3 of Wil Cifer’s five-part year-end list. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.)
While death metal doesn’t get as much air time with me, I am no stranger to the genre, having bought my first death metal album Leprosy in 1988. From there Morbid Angel and Deicide would become my favorite death metal bands, with Incantation, Obituary, Cancer, Nocturnus, and Unleashed picking up the slack. As with all things, the darker the better, so that will factor in as we leave no grave unturned and dig into the best of 2015.
This list is going to touch on every aspect of the genre, sometimes getting so melodic I had to question if they were death metal and then give the album another listen to ease my doubts. There was not one sub-genre or genre that dominated this year. Though I tend to lean more toward the doomier and more blackened side, we still have more traditional, tech, and experimental death metal bands making good showings. So here are my top ten death metal albums, ranked according to which ones got the most rotation on my iPod.
10. Vehemence – “Forward Without Motion”
Certainly could have stood to listen to this one more, but I suppose I’m not always in need of this much shredding mixed in with my death metal. It was a guitar player’s album for sure. The drummer was no slouch either, but the focus is more on the sweep arpeggios.
It is pretty melodic in the post-Spiritual Healing or Heartwork way. As this one progresses it becomes impressively melodic, and not in the cheesy Dark Tranquillity way. It can be hard to take a more conventional approach to death metal and make it interesting, and these guys made it more than listenable, topped out with outstanding shred guitar.
9. Grave – “Out of Respect For the Dead”
It’s the eleventh album from the Swedish Death Metal vets. Along with Entombed, they helped hone a sound that bands have been trying to emulate ever since. There is a lot of groove to this album, which helps keep its dark and grisly vibe moving forward. This is pretty much everything you could want from this era of old school death metal . It’s an impressive display of power, that comes with seasoned songwriting.
8. Pyrrhon – “Growth Without End”
The album title must be this band’s motto, as this New York-based group headed in a more intense yet mathematical direction. The songs were short spastic bursts, not as herky-jerky as power-violence or grindcore. At times, this came across like a more death metal version of what Converge does, but with a meth-driven ADD. Where most of the so-called deathcore bands attempt something similar to this, Pyrrhon gets it right and understands the beauty in creating ugliness.
The production of the album is as in-your-face as the music that was recorded — not too noisy or lo-fi, but balancing out the layers like a Bosch painting.
7. Aevangelist – “Enthrall to the Void of Bliss”
This didn’t hit me like Writhes in the Murk did, as it’s not as dense and jazz-like. They shed some of the black metal elements to drag you deeper into the land of profane nightmares from a more death metal perspective. They drag riffs out of the murk, proving they are making metal and not just hell-spawned noise-scapes. The vocals stay at a bubbling gurgle, like lava being poured down a drain pipe. They have brought experimentation and metal to meet at a dark crossroads. This is like heavy machinery and should not be operated while on drugs, at risk to your own sanity.
6. Desolate Shrine – “The Heart of the Netherworld”
This is an album of dark death where the guitars lay their melodies over a fairly brutal battering. The production on this album is how death metal should sound. It’s not too clear, but it’s not under-produced to the point of sounding like they are playing in your crawlspace. Many death metal bands blow their wad after the first song, hitting the listener with everything they have. This leaves me waiting around to see what else they can do, which usually turns out to be more of the same. This album made me forget what I was waiting around for, as it’s evident from the onset and didn’t let up from there. It really grew on me with each listen.
5. No Trust – “The Cycle”
Despite having a slight black metal torment to the mid-range throat-scraping of the vocals, these guys play death metal that attacks like a very keen machine. The compact songs run around four minutes, getting in and getting the job done without losing you in the sprawl.
This is not straight-forward death metal, though it retains enough of the raw aggression to give the tightly coiled progressive metal influence more bite, always finding ways to work in catchy grooves. Tastefully finding ways to conform more to what today’s headbangers would want from death metal, the band doesn’t owe much to classic bands like Morbid Angel, but slight touches of Slayer can be detected. Keep your ears open to what the future holds for this band.
4. Howls of Ebb – “The Marrow Veil”
I hear too many bands in today’s metal that play it way too safe, so Howls of Ebb are welcome relief. They are not afraid of wildly deviating from the masses. I am not a fan of twenty-minute songs, but these guys are able to occupy the space. They kick in with a bizarre psychedelic fury and ebb down to linger in the awkward silence of whispers. This makes the silence as confrontational as their louder moments, in a manner similar to bands like Mr. Bungle.
There is a chance that when this album is over you’ll find yourself wondering what the hell you listened to, depending upon how stoned you are. It will take a few more listens and a half-dozen more bong hits to come to a conclusion. Stone-cold sober, I concluded that I need more of this in my life, though I would prefer it in smaller, more song-like doses and less like sprawling soundtracks. But if they do not choose to temper their wild creative streak with such restraint, then I’ll take that as well.
3. Nightfell – “Darkness Evermore”
The bar was raised pretty high, as their debut album The Living Ever Mourn really killed it. The same woefully melodic throb still flows through the veins of this beast. The guitars are masterfully layered, and production-wise this album sounds even better than their first. The arrangements are crafted in a way that other bands should take note, as it is so organic and fluid you almost don’t notice the transitions. The song-writing has also stepped up to the challenge. I would otherwise balk at opening an album with a ten-minute song, but they know how to make every second count. They gallop into the darkened landscapes with classic metal bravado, once again delivering the goods.
2. Archgoat – “The Apocalyptic Triumphator”
This Finnish band has been spreading the unholy word since the early nineties. They have left a trail of splits and EPs in their wake, but this is only the band’s third full-length… so it’s kind of a big deal. This band’s mission statement and role in the occult community is more in line with black metal, but intention and attitude alone don’t keep this album from being death metal, as the vocals are growled in a manner below guttural, like Angel Slayer is funneling a sewer from the bowels of hell down his throat.
At best it’s blackened death metal, but the band’s influences are pre-Darkthrone, a time when death metal was the heaviest thing going and Deicide and Acheron were the most satanic shows in town. Never numbing you out with blast beats, they raised the bar for metal bands in 2015. This album proved it was possible to be insanely heavy without forsaking songwriting. It has both the brutality and the attention to detail I want from my metal of death, black or otherwise.
1. Tribulation – The Children of the Night
I was a little torn as to whether this album even belonged here, until I went back and listened to it again, and “Music From the Other” sealed the deal. While I liked the band’s last album, I found them a much more fascinating creature on stage when I saw them open for Watain, so I was hoping some of those more progressive and wandering qualities had carried over from the road — and right from the first few chords of the opener, it seemed that they had.
There is an almost Opeth-like lushness to the sound. They don’t use the traditional metal crunch, instead just going for an organic tone that they are playing loudly. The vocals are more intelligible than on the previous album. When they dive deeper into the darkness, they answer the question what would it have sounded like if Deep Purple had written the soundtrack to The Exorcist.
This is another step forward for a band that continues to grow with every album. They blend the more classic metal elements in with their more ethereal colors with ease, as they are not afraid to push the bounds of what death metal can be.
Not sure if I would call this new Tribulation album death metal, but it’s a fantastic release regardless of how you categorize it. Props for Nightfell as well.
Thanks for including No Trust in your list. We’re in good company.