Much has been made of heavy metal’s diversity, especially over the last 15 years during which the breadth of the genre has far exceeded what was once perceived as “metal” 30 years ago. With expansion, however, comes division, and with each passing year it feels like metal is being divided between different audiences who want different things from their heavy music. Underground fans want to keep their music insular. Mainstream fans like the status quo. Traditionalists prefer metal to be more song-oriented than technically proficient. Prog-oriented audiences love the increasing technicality of extreme metal. Others like it when metal bands venture outside the genre for inspiration. Some want theatricality, some would rather see bands perform in street clothes. What was considered heavy metal 30 years ago might not be what a teenager considers to be heavy metal at all. Escapism versus catharsis. Cartoonish rubber masks versus kvlt corpse-paint (both are wonderful contrivances, come on, people!). Decibel, Revolver, Chips & Beer. Great variety, yes, but often little common ground.
Which makes this year’s list of the ten best metal albums all the more fun. In fact, it’s a very good reflection of that variety metal brings. There’s something for everyone here, from extreme, to melodic, to underground, to progressive, to traditionalist. Best of all, though, in a year where few people could agree on anything that was released, along came the greatest band in heavy metal history to bring the entire heavy metal world together with a late-career masterpiece.
So on behalf of fellow contributors Jeremy Ulrey, Chris Conaton, Jedd Beaudoin, Brice Ezell, and Dean Brown, who all provided their own unique perspectives in the making of this year-end list, I hope you enjoy. And of course, Up the Irons. Forever and ever.—Adrien Begrand
Ghost remain one of the rarest of heavy acts: interested in high concepts, disinterested in comic book Satanism and other brooding shenanigans, the band continues to pen memorable melodies that deliver dark news. The music sometimes throws hints of a heavier, darker Fairport Convention despite dwelling in the house that Sabbath and Purple built. The opening “Spirit”, the heavy, heavy “Mummy Dust”, the remarkable complex “Cirice”, and “Deus in Absentia” are among the highest of the highlights but “Absolution” ain’t bad either. Ghost offer us the perfect blend of classic heavy elements tempered by the knowledge that we’ve seen it all before but still can’t wait to watch.—Jedd Beaudoin
High on Fire
Matt Pike and the mighty High on Fire returned leaner—literally and figuratively—and a hell of a lot meaner on their seventh album, and from the opening salvos of “The Black Plot” onward, the band feels re-energized. They’ve never been lacking in intensity, but that rampaging volatility, so masterfully harnessed by producer Kurt Ballou, is offset by some of Pike’s catchiest riffs in a very long time. High on Fire are at their best when Pike’s classic metal inclinations are allowed to rise to the surface, and whether it’s the simple swagger of “Carcosa”, his wonderful, nonsensical hesher poetry, or his authoritative, shredding solos, the man is firing on all cylinders here. It’s the finest High on Fire record since Blessed Black Wings.—Adrien Begrand
Royal Thunder’s third album was created under unusual circumstances: in the wake of the dissolution of the relationship between bassist/singer Mel Parsonz and guitarist Josh Weaver. The result is an astounding album rife with passion, tension, and sadness, even if you don’t know the backstory. That said, the back story plays an integral part, as Parsonz pours her soul onto her lyric pages unflinchingly and eloquently, with Weaver adding emotion with his own voice: his guitar. So what you have is a remarkable continual exchange between the two, Parsonz crying in pain, Weaver’s solos wailing away, sometimes simultaneously. Because the guitars aren’t riff-oriented but textural, there’s been some debate about whether Crooked Doors is metal or hard rock, but considering the emotional power and force of the album, which is so foreign to heavy metal, its heaviness is undeniable.—Adrien Begrand
Deeper Than Sky
Following up a promising debut that hinted at very big things to come, the West Coast indie supergroup realized some of that potential on Deeper Than Sky. Featuring guitarist John Cobbett and bassist Sigrid Sheie (both of Hammers of Misfortune), guitarist Mike Scheidt (YOB), and drummer Aesop Dekker (Agalloch) the foursome achieve a psychotic but oddly cohesive blend of classic 1970s heavy metal, ‘80s thrash, and progressive hard rock that is truly unlike anything that ever came out in 2015. As much as it is a marvel how the band is able to stop on a dime and shift from passage to varying passage—the 12-minute title track is a perfect example—Cobbett ties it all together thanks to melodic riffs and expressive solos. From the deranged d-beat piano tune “Paino” to the godly “The Desolate Damned”, one of the finest metal tracks of 2015, VHÖL have fun all the while, and what you hear is the glorious product of such wonderful chemistry.—Adrien Begrand
Apex Predator—Easy Meat
As hard as it seems to believe in 2015, back in the late ‘90s Napalm Death had a bit of a hit-or-miss reputation. In short, they tended to retool their sound fairly radically from one album to the next, to the extent that even the most open-minded of their fans had a hard time engaging in all of it. Then, in late 2000, Enemy of the Music Business happened. That blistering assault on the recording industry reached back to the band’s beloved grindcore roots out of sheer necessity, and Napalm Death haven’t looked back since. Apex Predator -– Easy Meat arguably outpaces even the aforementioned Enemy of the Music Business in sheer ferocity, but tunes like the title track and “Hierarchies” demonstrate a band still comfortable in their own skin when it comes to experimentation. Apex Predator strikes an almost utopian balance between giving fans what they want and dropping jaws with renewed expectations at the same time.—Jeremy Ulrey