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Another year, another several dozen excellent metal albums to choose from: So begins the painful task of choosing 20 titles that represent the best the genre has to offer. And 2006 has been a good one, a watershed year for US black metal, one that featured a big creative resurgence for four legendary ‘80s metal bands, some fine music by the ever-reliable Scandinavians, plenty of examples of how the definition of “metal” continues to get blurrier, and in the case of one band in particular, who, saddled with enormous pressure, managed to exceed all our expectations and come through with an easy and obvious choice for the best metal disc of the year.


The year in metal has been so enjoyable, it’d be a shame not to acknowledge some of the other stand-outs from the past 12 months, so before we get on with the festivities, a quick rundown of honorable mentions:


Death metal mainstays Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation, and Krisiun put out their finest work in years. Gorgoroth, Satyricon, and Darkthrone all returned, but it was Merrimack, Drudkh, and Keep of Kalessin that delivered standout European black metal. We had devastating doom from Ahab and Asunder, while Amon Amarth and Tyr stormed our shores with their Viking metal. Lamb of God and Unearth were as steady as ever, while Trivium narrowly avoided self-parody on a goofy but likeable album. Motorhead and Napalm Death remained two of the most reliable bands around. Female vocalists stood out: Light This City and Fuck the Facts screamed as well as any guy could, the Gathering and To-Mera brought classy singing to the progressive side, and Julie Christmas turned in phenomenal vocal performances on albums by Battle of Mice and Made Out of Babies. Head Control System and I both showed how well a “supergroup” collaboration could work. Blind Guardian, DragonForce, and Cellador all impressed in their puffy-shirted way, but it was the irrepressibly charming Edguy that gave us the power metal CD of the year. Into Eternity, Insomnium, and Arsis gave us all top-notch Gothenburg metal, but ironically none of the bands are Swedish. Thrash mainstay Sodom released its best album in some time, but Toronto bands Rammer and Burn to Black did it even better, with contagious energy. The great Emperor enjoyed a brief reunion, but its two offshoots, Ihsahn and Zyklon, showed how ready the former members are to move on. And the Smackdown and Daughters added some welcome variety to grindcore.


Lest I go on and dig myself a 500-word hole listing more bands (Kylesa! Misery Index! Scar Symmetry!), here’s to a stellar 2006 and hopefully an even better 2007. As I go back to wondering just what Twisted Sister was thinking when they recorded that Christmas album, why I’m enjoying it as much as I am, and why the hell I’m telling you this, may I present to you Blood and Thunder‘s esteemed List of 20:


1. Mastodon, Blood Mountain (Warner/Reprise) There was a lot riding on Mastodon’s highly anticipated major label debut, as wary fans fretted over the thought the band would water down its sound and skeptics wondered if such dense, lofty sludge-tinged progressive metal could achieve mainstream success. Not only did Blood Mountain enter the US charts at #32, but it is arguably the most uncompromising major label debut by an American metal band since Slayer’s Reign in Blood 20 years ago. Everything has come together at the right time, as the album boasts vast improvements on all fronts. The songs are more adventurous than ever, but are disciplined and catchy, from the monster riffs of “The Wolf Is Loose” and “Crystal Skull”, to the challenging “Capillarian Crest” and “Colony of Birchmen”, to the psychotic almost-grindcore of “Bladecatcher”. Co-vocalists Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds have each found their own distinct voice, frenetic drummer Brann Dailor sounds like he has as many arms as Kali, and Matt Bayles’s massive production crushes 2004’s superb Leviathan. We’re witnessing something special here, as just three full-length albums in, Mastodon has created a musical hybrid all its own, emerging the unquestionable leader in American metal.


2. Boris, Pink (Southern Lord) Japan’s Boris has been artfully combining the sludgy riffs of the Melvins with the doom-ridden drone of Earth and subtle shoegaze influences for well over a decade.  As strong as previous albums like Akuma No Uta and Heavy Rocks were, Pink gives us the full spectrum of the Boris sound with a cohesion that we’ve never heard from the trio. You want melody? The dreamy “Farewell” treads the line between cacophony and tenderness in a way that would make Kevin Shields jealous. You want rawk? “Pink”, “Pseudo-Bread”, and “Electric” channel Blue Cheer, the Stooges, and the MC5. You want heavy? “Blackout” is a vicious blast of stoner/doom, guitar goddess Wata sounding more imposing than biker metal dudes twice her size. You want to be beaten senseless for 18 brutal minutes? The epic tour de force “Just Abandoned My-Self” does just that. There’s a reason indie kids and metal fans alike have been buzzing about this album online since late 2005: it’s first-rate heavy rock ‘n’ roll at its most magnificent.


3. Celtic Frost, Monotheist (Century Media) Not only did one of the most influential metal bands in history make a welcome return after an extended period of inactivity, but the resulting album turned out to be an unmitigated triumph, on par with To Mega Therion and Into the Pandemonium. Brilliantly co-produced and mixed by Peter Tagtgren, it’s one of the heaviest albums in recent memory, the band slowing things down to a doom crawl, adding enticing goth touches throughout. Thomas Gabriel Fischer sounds even better than ever, growling in a demonic, wizened roar one minute (“Os Abysmi vel Daath”), and crooning like Peter Murphy the next (“Obscured”). A remarkable, unexpected artistic rebirth.


4. Agalloch, Ashes Against the Grain (The End) Now with three spectacular albums to its credit, Portland, Oregon’s Agalloch have slowly emerged as one of the leading bands in America’s metal underground.  It has skirted categorization to the point that it’s actually getting harder and harder to lump the band under a tag as extreme as metal; its music has become that accessible.  Sure, Ashes is loaded with wicked metal moments (the Viking-themed “Not Unlike the Waves”, for one), but more often than not, headbanging gives way to reflection, blunt force succumbs to soaring melodies, black metal eschewed in favor of post-punk. A dazzling album (“Falling Snow”, especially), one that deserves a much broader audience.


5. Converge, No Heroes (Epitaph) Proof once again that it’s practically impossible for Converge to record an album that isn’t great, No Heroes treads familiar territory, but when it’s done this masterfully, what more could we ask? Actually, the record sees the band simplifying things considerably compared to the daring You Fail Me two years ago, the first five tracks an unrelenting assault of metal-fused hardcore. It’s when the crunching, screeching “Plagues” kicks in, though, that things really kick into gear, and from then on, we’re at the mercy of ace guitarist Kurt Ballou and prodigious screamer Jacob Bannon, one of many highlights being the astonishing “Grim Heart/Black Rose”.


6. Isis, In the Absence of Truth (Ipecac) It’s easy to forget just how masterful Isis is, how effortless the band makes it all seem while so many bands mimic its doom/shoegaze/post-rock/art metal sound with varying degrees of success. As on Oceanic and Panopticon, the musical growth here is subtle (the slow crescendos are ever-present), but discernable, the compositions more relaxed, unrestrained, and melodic than ever before. Aaron Turner wisely employs an effective clean singing voice, and not surprisingly, lyrics take a back seat to melody, offsetting the layers of chiming and roaring guitars, all underscored by a rousing, multi-layered performance by drummer Aaron Harris.


7. Intronaut, Void (Goodfellow) On the surface, it seems like the Los Angeles quartet is just another art metal clone, but although the progressive tendencies of Mastodon and the sheer power of Neurosis are undeniable influences, they bring a lot more to the table on Void than many would expect. Brute force is indeed a priority (“Teledildonics”, “Gleamer”), but a great importance is placed on melody, be it during jazzy breakdowns, stirring crescendos, or something unabashedly tender (the shimmering “Nostalgic Echo”). Bassist Joe Lester is the key ingredient here, his mellifluous bass lines adding welcome doses of jazz, funk, and progressive rock to an already fascinating mix.


8. Katatonia, The Great Cold Distance (Candlelight) Like Enslaved, Sweden’s Katatonia has been around for nearly 15 years, but only just now is the Swedish band truly coming into its own. The seventh full-length album follows the example set by the breakthrough Viva Emptiness, juxtaposing the soft, crooning singing of Jonas Renske against a majestic doom-metal backdrop, but this time sounds far more developed, the seductive melodies meshing with the restrained arrangements impeccably. “Leaders” and “Consternation” seethe with rage, while “My Twin” and “In the White” delve into more personal territory, everything hinging on Renske’s vocal delivery, which sounds detached at first, but before we know it, quickly becomes devastating.


9. Voivod, Katorz (The End) Not only did Voivod ingeniously construct an album using the demo tracks recorded by Denis “Piggy” D’Amour in the months before his death in 2005, but the 14th album by the renowned Quebec band just happened to be its finest since 1989’s Nothingface. Piggy’s trademark wonky riffs are as brilliantly idiosyncratic as ever, but the dominant musical theme here is one of simplicity; the majority of the tracks all cruise comfortably, propelled by Michel “Away” Langevin’s gliding drum beats. And in an awesome tribute to the dude’s legacy, thousands of kids are now playing Piggy’s tres formidable riffs from “The X-Stream” on Guitar Hero II.


10. Enslaved, Ruun (Candlelight) Fifteen years into its long career, Norway’s Enslaved is only just starting to find its niche in the metal world, and in the wake of the stupendous Below the Lights and last year’s bold Isa, Ruun proves to be even more daring. The band continues to gradually shed its black-metal skin with songs such as “Entroper” and “Api-Vat” more simple and groove-oriented, but the sonic ambience of that darkest of genres is still prevalent, from Grutle Kjelsson’s sinister screech to plenty of tremolo picking. Mood and melody mesh most impressively on “Essence”, which starts as a stately ballad, but explodes into an exhilarating coda near the end.


11. In Flames, Come Clarity (Ferret) The Swedish greats made a triumphant return in 2006 with their eighth album, their most spirited in years. Oft-criticized for abandoning the classic Gothenburg sound it helped create, In Flames appeases both generations of fans with Come Clarity, finding a neat balance between the fury of The Jester Race and 2002’s accessible Reroute to Remain. Thrashers “Take This Life” and “Vacuum” feature the dual guitar interplay that became the band’s early calling card, but the real highlights are the more melodic fare, such as the crunching “Leeches”, the shoulda-been-a-hit title track, and the duet between Anders Fridén and Swedish pop star Lisa Miskovsky on the elegant “Dead End”.


12. Iron Maiden, A Matter of Life and Death (Sanctuary) Whether it was their infamous confrontation with Sharon Osbourne, enduring another dark year riddled with war and terrorism, or the band’s renewed chemistry, something lit a fire under the legendary band, inspiring it to put out its finest album in 18 years.  Producer Kevin Shirley, who recorded the album live off the floor, creates a darker, yet warm tone, apt for an album so preoccupied with war and its repercussions on both sides. At 72 minutes, it’s challenging, but ultimately rewarding, as on the astounding D-Day epic “The Longest Day”, the majestic “The Legacy”, and “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg”, Maiden’s greatest single in a very long time.


13. All That Remains, The Fall of Ideals (Prosthetic) With excellent, high profile albums by Unearth, Killswitch Engage, and Trivium, it was the third album by All That Remains that leapfrogged them all, catapulting the Boston band to the top of the 2006 metalcore heap. The Scandinavian-inspired guitar tandem of Oli Herbert and Mike Martin has always been the band’s strength, proven on the blistering “Six”, but it’s the revelatory performance of vocalist Philip Labonte that holds us spellbound, shifting from guttural growls, piercing screeches, and a phenomenal singing voice that previous albums only hinted at. If there ever was a CD that proves the worth of vocal coach Melissa Cross, this is it.


14. Wolves in the Throne Room, Diadem of 12 Stars (Vendlus) With four songs in just over an hour, the debut full-length by the remarkably unpretentious Olympia, Washington threesome is all about atmosphere and not about face paint, each song taking its own sweet time to develop. It’s the kind of ambient journey that requires a fair deal of patience, but it’s worth it in the end, as sumptuous female vocals waft above swirling blastbeats, acoustic folk passages appear from out of nowhere, and otherworldly screams emanate from somewhere in the middle of this black metal maelstrom, all evoking the finest, chilliest qualities of Norwegian black metal, but sounding as beautifully desolate as a Pacific Northwest winter.


15. Slayer, Christ Illusion (American) Slayer ended a decade-long dry spell with the vitriolic God Hates Us All, and five years later, the band sounds even more focused on the hostile Christ Illusion, a blistering, 39-minute assault that hearkens back to the glory days of the late-1980s. Guitarist Kerry King dominates yet again, but this time, his lyrical bile is aimed straight at the jugular of fundamentalist religion and wars fought in its name (“Cult”, “Flesh Storm”), while Jeff Hanneman contributes his usual unflinching depictions of war scenarios (“Jihad”, “Black Serenade”). It’s the return of drummer Dave Lombardo that is the album’s real highlight; he masterfully ratchets up the sound while sounding as effortless as ever.


16. Jesu, Silver (Hydra Head) We expected Silver to be good, but Justin Broadrick’s 28-minute, four-song stunner of a follow-up to Jesu’s acclaimed eponymous debut winds up topping its full-length predecessor, giving us a richer, far more dynamic sound thanks in large part to the increased presence of Broadrick’s vocals. “Star” contains subtle hints of Godflesh, but is quickly usurped by vocal melodies that border on lilting; the title track, meanwhile, is drop-dead gorgeous, Broadrick’s shoegaze-drenched guitars unleashing a tear-jerker of a melody as elegiac and stately as Joy Division, Ted Parsons’s drumming adding just the right amount of percussive punctuation, the band immaculately balancing the aggressive and the accessible.


17. Nachtmystium, Instinct: Decay (Battle Kommand) Typical of most US black metal, Nachtmystium’s fourth album is drenched in lo-fi, bedroom style production, but unlike the majority of its grim, misanthropic peers, the Chicago band makes the most out of such claustrophobic sonic confines, creating something altogether spacious, adventurous, and at times awe-inspiring. Black metal remains the core sound, but it’s not long before it gives way to thrash breakdowns, sludge riffs, gorgeous E-bowed guitar melodies, and best of all, echoing squalls and squeals of guitar synth that give the album its alluring psychedelic/prog-rock glint. The ultra-catchy “Chosen by No One” stands out the most, focusing more on pure groove and less on atmospherics.


18. Sunn O))) & Boris, Altar (Southern Lord) This joint project (perhaps in more ways than one) by two of the most hyped bands of the last 18 months not only lived up to the hype, but yielded an album worthy of the same kind of praise as the bands’ past work. Both bands meet halfway, adding texture to the minimal; Sunn O)))‘s doom-drenched drone (“Blood Swamp”, “Her Lips Wet With Venom”) renders Boris’ powerful sound even more spacious (“Etna”, “Fried Eagle Mind”). Best of all, the five musicians (along with a host of guest contributors) pull off a couple of jaw-dropping surprises in the form of the sublime ballad “The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)” and the synth-laden “Akuma No Kuma”.


19. Genghis Tron, Dead Mountain Mouth (Crucial Blast) Grind, noise rock, hardcore, and IDM violently collide on the Philadelphia trio’s genre-defying full-length debut.  For all the cacophony, Dead Mountain Mouth displays a discipline that few bands are willing to exhibit, thanks in large part to producer Kurt Ballou of Converge, who reins the band in just enough to keep everything from flying off the handles. The resulting tension is thrilling at times, as on the well-constructed title track, the insane laptop rat-tat-tat of “White Walls” which gives way to an inexplicable bridge and a punishing breakdown, and the contagious blend of riffs and synths on “Asleep on the Forest Floor”.


20. Ludicra, Fex Urbis Lex Orbis (Alternative Tentacles) One of many American bands to take traditional black metal and toss the so-called “rules” out the window, San Francisco’s Ludicra draws from a wide musical palette that includes hardcore punk, post-rock, post-punk, goth, jazz, and traditional metal. One of the only black metal bands to feature dual female lead vocals, it affords Ludicra tremendous range in mood, as heard on “Dead City” and “Only a Moment”. Everything comes together in superb fashion on “Collapse”, a 12-minute epic that runs the gamut, shifting moods effortlessly and defying categorization every step of the way, keeping us enthralled throughout.

Adrien Begrand has been writing for PopMatters since 2002, and has been writing his monthly metal column Blood & Thunder since 2005. His writing has also appeared in Metal Edge, Sick Sounds, Metallian, graphic novelist Joel Orff's Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll, Knoxville Voice, The Kerouac Quarterly, JackMagazine.com, StylusMagazine.com, and StaticMultimedia.com. A contributing writer for Decibel, Terrorizer, and Dominion magazines and senior writer for Hellbound, he resides, blogs, and does the Twitter thing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.


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