(Our year-end LISTMANIA series continues this week, beginning with NCS contributor Wil Cifer‘s Top 20 list.)
Yes, you can re-read the title: It says the top 20 “heavy” albums, not the top 20 “Metal” albums. I prefer for music to be heavy sonically and emotionally, more than I demand that they be metal. I think the more open-minded metal head can certainly appreciate heaviness in many forms, though those represented here are more often metal than not, since I have other platforms on which to rant about post-punk or shoegaze, and albums by Nothing or Marissa Nadler don’t belong in a conversation about heavy music even as good as those albums might be.
In 13 out 20 of these albums, screamed, growled, or otherwise tortured vocalizations are the primary method of delivery. Melody comes in many forms, for me the darker the better. No one sub-genre stole the show here; I think doom and black metal are neck-and-neck; there are also a couple of more hardcore albums, and some with a progressive leaning. The one unifying point is the dark and emotive current that runs through the bulk of these albums, which reflects the fact that I grew up a poor goth child, who was too metal for the clove smokers and too goth for the denim and PBR crowd (however, selling weed in the early ’90s made the most die-hard Cannibal Corpse fans tolerate my Type O Negative).
These are ranked by what I listened to the most. After all, we can gush about how genius something is to all the man-bunned art students at the coffee shop, but if it doesn’t make you want to listen to it throughout the course of the year, then how good can it really be? If you are upset that something is not ranked higher or that a particular album is on the list rather than the new Anal Repugnant Scrotum Thrasher, that is not because I didn’t hear it. It’s because I saw it in my in-box, clicked on it, and found that it sounded like the other blackened ass grind I had already heard, before re-heating my coffee.
Islander has informed you guys that I rarely respond to comments. I do read them, but am normally too busy thrashing my scrotum to reply; and if you read the article and have opposing thoughts, I also have the good sense to know that 20 more words on the subject is not going to change your mind. I also have a very strict Do Not Feed the Trolls policy. So don’t get your feelings hurt if I choose not to waste another second debating what is what. At best, what we are going for here is perhaps a way to turn you onto something that you have not yet gotten around to checking out this year.
So, thanks for reading. Maybe you will find your new album of the year below.
20. Fister – “No Spirit Within”
This album has plenty pf the wretched vocal howls and crunching slabs of low-tuned riffs as it also creates a mood that poses the question, where does doom begin and sludge end? They often have a woeful feel until the pace begins to pick up. The guitars capture a sonic atmosphere that’s dark, and impresses me. They go from almost jamming to the guitars becoming a demolishing swathe of pounding distortion. They weave in interesting shifts in dynamics that don’t go into all the normal places as the band keeps you guessing with their affinity for haunting melody.
19. Lychgate – “The Contagion in Nine Steps”
If you showed up for just blast-beats I can understand why this album might be jarring. It’s also really dark and interesting, so if you don’t recognize that and just want blast-beats, eat more glue and chase it with a bullet. This is a shifting landscape of angular chaos with a sense of adventure and rebellion against the black metal status quo, even at risk of not being black metal anymore. I think the atmosphere and melancholy make the angular math of the guitars more balanced. They get into some proggy abstraction to the point that it might be too much like free-jazz for even Deathspell Omega fans, but they are doing their own thing, so good for them. I am also impressed by the variety of vocal colors on this album rather than just monochrome screaming.
18. Svalbard – “Its Hard to Have Hope”
A British band named after one of the coldest parts of Norway and they are not a black metal band appropriating this, but a hardcore band with a chilling sense of isolation to their sound. The album is filled with sweeping passages that help expand the definition of hardcore. This is not drill-sergeant tough guy shit, but with emotive and delicately sung female vocals balancing out the more anguished bursts of rage.
17. Author & Punisher – “Beastland”
There is a more metallic nastiness to both the rasp of Shone’s voice and the sonic intent with which he assaults these songs. Machines create a dense throb that is rough around their overblown edges. Intense and abrasive are two words that best fit the first song, Shone sticks to his self-made devices of aural torture like a proud sadist while still caring about the songs. This is one of the project’s heaviest releases to date, while sitting nicely in the context of Shone’s body of work thus far.
16. Windhand – “Eternal Return”
While they are still fixated on Sabbath-like overdrive, Dorthia Cottrell‘s vocals have more hooks and they are sharper. Her lazy alto floats over the thick riffs. This is a good example of why I don’t need the wheel reinvented, I just need bands to give it their own spin. They step away from the bong to indulge in smokey country with a blues underbelly. This might be their most balanced album yet and shows a ton of maturity in their refined songwriting.
15. Ruin – “Human Annihilation”
These guys offer a few things I like in my death metal. First and foremost, their shit sounds dark. The opener is pretty dense and they do not rely on just speed. There is certainly an old school feel in what they do, though it has a blown-out quality that is not over-produced, so I can see how it might appeal to hipsters who were into punk last year. Also their songs are very short and to-the-point. But also well-written.
14. Craft – “White Noise and Black Metal”
Things have changed for this Swedish band. I loved how Void was very hateful. People now say hate like it’s soiling their soul. I don’t want to listen to black metal that doesn’t have a soiled soul. The sprawl of their sound allows them to get away with more blast-beats than before. It is, however, the reduction of hate that took a period of adjustment for me. After sitting with the album, the melodic underpinnings of its throb became more pronounced. It’s less confrontational and more mature, a phrase that might not seem to be praise in many black metal circles, but here it works for what they are doing.
13. Necros Christos – “Domedon Doxomedon”
A step in a direction that is more melodic and straight-forward. They have come out from the murk of cavernous reverb to create a more organic sound. Gone is the darker Incantation worship. For that matter, there are few moments that sound like Morbid Angel. The vocals carry more of a croak, rather than the deeper growl I remember from these guys. Due to this, the lyrics are more discernible. They are also more of a focal point, with the opener being a clear-cut take on the Jesus myth. In a genre that often is a one-trick pony fueled only by aggression, this album has a range of dynamics and solid songwriting that proves death metal can be much more than that.
12. Dead Register – “Captive”
This Atlanta band return with their interesting blend of varied shadowy elements. They soar higher on this album with the croon of their lead singer sounding more nuanced and refined. It heads in more of an Interpol direction than a bellow. The metallic elements are more of a booming undertone and not the focus. They bring many layers together and weave them in a way that works well.
While you can tell they are influenced by doom, they are not a doom band, at least not how we define doom around here. After additional listens the guitar melodies really stick with you. The key selling point for me is it answers the question I ask about most music: “Is it dark enough for me?” I think this is a step forward for the band, not only in how they crafted these sounds, but also in how they came up with a songwriting thumbprint of their own. They are not tied to one genre. Heavier post-punk would be the elevator pitch for these guys.
11. Wayfarer – “World’s Blood”
This band from Colorado create some dark, brooding metal that makes you forget they are from the States. The vocals are a lower growl that leans more in the death metal direction. When they pick up the pace there is the shadowy feeling looming with a more black metal influence. So regardless of genre there is a great mood and atmosphere coating this album. Some songs ebb and flow into clean passages like a more kinetic version of old Agalloch. This album grew on me in the best ways possible thanks to its well-balanced sense of dynamics and a great dark guitar tone.
10. Watain – “Trident Wolf Eclipse”
Watain are back with a renewed venom on their sixth album. They hit you with a thundering combative thrashing dialed way up. There is more of a blasting, fury-colored, feral rawness, yet the music retains the more nuanced accents of their songwriting. In tone compared to The Wild Hunt, this proves to be a much more straightforward black metal album, as they return to their more mean-spirited roots. They could have easily said, “This album is going to be a return to our heavier, more punishing sound”, and they would not have been lying.
9. Ministry – “Amerikkkant”
Al slows down and gives into his anger in a way that digs back into the darkness of Dark Side of the Spoon; rather than a struggle with addiction, this album finds him struggling with the world around him. It’s easy to hear how this form of catharsis might find him returning back to true form.
I don’t think any Ministry album since Dark Side of the Spoon has fully captured who the band is from front to back. There have been glimpses since then, but it has mainly been a hyper punk metal hybrid with samples thrown at it. I like some of those songs and albums, as they can be fun on their own merit, but I think this finds them picking up where they left off on Dark Side. This album is well-balanced and works off of mood more than just being in your face. Sure, it has more of a smack-out feel than a speed-ball blitz, so perhaps that is why I am more partial to this side of the band.
8. Manes – “Slow Motion Death Sequence”
This album finds the band going further in a direction that is more electronic than metal, but the weirdness in and of itself is heavy. There is enough distortion and driving pulse to earn its place here. The vocals are very diverse and create the odd narrative this album needs. I liked the vocals right from the jump. They are moody, and the female vocals remind me of Bjork. The futuristic mood makes me think of what it might have sounded like if Gary Numan had been the first vocalist for Genesis rather than Peter Gabriel. As obtuse as some of the songs can be, they are really easy listening, which makes as much sense as half the crazy that happens here.
7. Voivod – “The Wake”
The 14th album from these legends finds them embracing all of their sides. The album takes you through a wide array of dark and melodic places, with more of a proggy Nothingface-like drive rather than the thrash aggression of their earlier work. In terms of heavy, it’s more like Dimension Hatröss than War and Pain. Snake’s voice sounds great on this album, where many of his peers feel the effects of time. I think while it only comes close to the very peak of the Piggy years, you are talking about the best albums by one of the very best metal bands, so that is a high fucking bar. It does however hold ground against their body of work as a whole, and it is clear they are not content to fall back into rehashing the past, but continuing to progress.
6. Ilsa – “Corpse Fortress”
This band is refusing to hold back on their debut for Relapse Records. Their fifth full-length finds them continuing to hammer skulls in with the sheer density of their blown-out sludge, dirty and squealing with feedback. The vocals are phrased in a way that gives the coarse scathing shouts almost more of sung feel. The lyrics cut through better with this delivery. They shift back into more of a low-end pounding that owes more to doom when it comes to the ominous rumble as the momentum continues to build. The flatulent bass can be heard in the din at times, but it generally hits you as one frequency. This album earned multiple listens. I think it is a huge step forward for the band.
5. LLNN – “Deads”
Hardcore might be at the beating heart of this monster. What I like most is the sonic intensity. They are brutally aggressive, but don’t stop there, possessing a wider scope of dynamics, not unlike bands such as Nails or Hexis, where many different sub-genres collide. This band is powered by a dark metallic hardcore draped in cinematic ambience.
4. Voices – “Frightened”
Former members of Akercocke formed this progressive metal band. The dark sense of melody has drawn me further into this album with each listen. It also has a wide array of vocal colors. The metal core of what these musicians create from doesn’t hamper them in bringing in other elements ranging from post-punk to post- hardcore, though I guess these post-men aren’t just ringing twice as any other post-subgenre can also be found. This album is very impressive; when I got it back in April it was what I thought to be one of the first contenders for album of the year, as I could not imagine someone else bringing it in the dark and aggressive fashion these guys do, but alas three other bands did in fact do it better.
3. Totalselfhatred – “Solitude”
Seven years since their last album, they once had a more aggressive take on depressive black metal, but it is hard to complain about what goes down as it’s so well done. My ears cannot escape the fact that the first song falls neatly into the depressive black metal box, where their earlier work had more of an unhinged feral quality to it. I also don’t remember synths and the piano playing as big of a role as they do here. The album really needed to be played loudly in order to soak in all the layers. Maturity is one of this album’s characteristics. Gone are the rock god solos, but everything is well-played, leaving no doubt they are excellent musicians who have grown up to serve the song. They are a little more mellowed with time, but with a wider depth of emotion.
2. Evoken – “Hypnagogia”
After six years of waiting, the Jersey doom band prove why they are America’s best when it comes not only to funeral doom, but also to doom as a whole. This album finds them picking up where they left off with Atra Mors. Sonically it feels similar from a production standpoint. Mood-wise, the atmosphere might be thicker. It’s pretty dark, though perhaps not as filled with despair as the previous album. Lyrically it uses World War I as a metaphor for things they were going through at the time. This is done without the need to maintain some contrived narrative that concept albums tend to have. These guys are masterful songwriters who don’t feel the need to drone on to make their point. The beginning is dreamy, with low goth-like vocals to bring a darker shade against the music. It builds as needed to give them a big metal ending draped in mournful strings; the album gets better with each listen.
1. Hangman’s Chair – “Banlieue Triste”
This French band has been around for 13 years, so I am not sure how they have eluded me. In terms of conventional metal, they might not fit neatly into the box. They are heavy in the bleak mood they create. This depressing mood brings them closest to doom if they have to defined. The vocals are the key selling point for me, as not a note is wasted and they really sell me on the lyrics. They are in a similar zip code as Viva Emptiness-era Katatonia, but carrying even more despair. The reason they beat Evoken is that while Hypnagogia is a beautiful album, it’s so dense and grandiose that the songs haven’t hooked me in to demand as many listens as this album has done, which is what I need when I forget to take my meds in the morning.