The Best Metal Albums of 2009

It seems every year I say it, but this year it’s truer than ever: this was one hell of a year for metal. Sure, we had our share of high profile duds come our way (Heaven and Hell, Ensiferum, Pelican, Killswitch Engage) and more than enough popular records that had many of us wondering if this was the end of not only metal, but music in general (Suicide Silence, Five Finger Death Punch, Winds of Plague), but when we got good albums, a very surprising number of them turned out to be great ones. In fact, not only was this year’s list of 20 the most difficult to compile in a long time, but I could easily take the next 20 that didn’t make the cut and make a formidable list out of those discs (come to think of it, that’s just what I’ll do). There was an embarrassment of metal riches in 2009, so much so that the rankings below don’t mean anything whatsoever; you cannot go wrong with any of the titles I mention. That said, if you merely dabble in heavy music and think the Mastodon record is good (which it most certainly is), just wait until you hear this list’s top three.

Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: Agoraphobic Nosebleed: Agorocalypse; Anaal Nathrakh: In the Constellation of the Black Widow; Augury: Fragmentary Evidence; Behemoth: Evangelion; Bloody Panda: Summon; The Gates of Slumber: Songs of Blood and Thunder; Ghost Brigade: Isolation Songs; God Forbid: Earthsblood; Greymachine: Disconnected; Hacride: Lazarus; Immortal: All Shall Fall; Megadeth: Endgame; Napalm Death: Time Waits for No Slave; Portal: Swarth; Saviours: Accelerated Living; Skeletonwitch: Breathing the Fire; Slough Feg: Ape Uprising!; Suffocation: Blood Oath; Wolves in the Throne Room: Black Cascade; Voivod: Infini

Artist: Revocation

Album: Existence Is Futile

Label: Relapse

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/r/revocation_-_cover.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-09-29

UK Release Date: 2009-10-05

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List number: 20

As much as it pains me to exclude Megadeth’s exuberant Endgame from 2009’s top 20, Revocation’s Relapse debut fully deserves the nod. In fact, the young Boston trio is cut from the same cloth as MegaDave’s band, their hyper-technical brand of thrash metal augmented by the shredding prowess of David Davidson, who finds a comfortable middle ground between the contagious aggression of Lamb of God and the progressive death metal strains of Neuraxis. If packaged and promoted properly, Revocation could have a huge 2010.

 

Artist: Cannibal Corpse

Album: Evisceration Plague

Label: Metal Blade

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/c/cannibalcorpse-eviscerationplague.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-02-03

UK Release Date: 2009-02-03

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List number: 19

The death veterans have experienced a creative rebirth ever since hooking up with producer Erik Rutan, and not only does their eleventh album continue the forward momentum that 2006’s Kill set into motion, but Evisceration Plague ranks among the best records they’ve ever put out. Not much has changed stylistically, as they’re as punishing as ever, but unlike bands half their age, songwriting takes precedence over pure brutality, the end result being the kind of confident work that only master craftsmen could pull off.

 

Artist: Krallice

Album: Dimensional Bleedthrough

Label: Profound Lore

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/k/krallice-dimensionalbleedthrough.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-11-10

UK Release Date: 2009-11-16

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List number: 18

The Brooklyn band wasted no time following up last year’s debut, and although it might seem that guitarists Mick Barr and Colin Marston haven’t deviated too much on Dimensional Bleedthrough, there are plenty of subtle differences on this 75-minute beast. The production is considerably more muscular in tone and the compositions focus on riff melodies as opposed to extended solos, while the increased roles of bassist Nick McMaster and drummer Lev Weinstein make this record feel much more like a complete band effort than before.

 

Artist: Marduk

Album: Wormwood

Label: Regain

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/m/marduk-wormwood.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-10-13

UK Release Date: 2009-10-05

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List number: 17

Who says you can’ teach an old dog new tricks? Having churned out plenty of good, reliable Satanic, anti-Christian, war-obsessed black metal since the early ’90s, the Swedish mainstays started to evolve subtly ever since taking on Daniel “Mortuus” Rosten as their front man in 2004, but their 11th effort is especially stunning. A blend of pure, old-fashioned speed, pulverizing slower passages, well-timed atmospherics, eloquent lyrics, and good production, it’s the perfect backdrop for Mortuus to deliver his most charismatic vocal performance with Marduk to date.

 

Artist: Liturgy

Album: Renihilation

Label: 20 Buck Spin

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/l/liturgy-renihilation.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-08-25

UK Release Date: Import

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List number: 16

At first listen, Liturgy might sound like an absolute mess of indecipherable screams, distortion, and some of the most manic, blindingly fast blastbeats you’ll ever hear, but let it settle and you’ll realize Greg Fox’s loose drumming lends the songs an undeniable groove, while Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s guitar work evokes both the swirling, standing-in-a-blizzard atmospherics of Weakling and the stately melodies of early Ulver. Yes, they live in Brooklyn, and yes, they distance themselves from underground black metal scene police. But don’t think of calling these talented upstarts hipsters.

 

Artist: Nile

Album: Those Whom the Gods Detest

Label: Nuclear Blast

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/n/nile-thosewhomthegodsdetest.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-11-03

UK Release Date: 2009-11-02

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List number: 15

Two years after the disappointing Ithyphallic, everyone’s favorite Egyptology-obsessed death metal band is back in a gigantic way with a record that returns to the form of 2002’s In Their Darkened Shrines and 2005’s Annihilation of the Wicked. Mastermind Karl Sanders and collaborator Dallas Toler-Wade waste no time in pleasing their fans: truly brutal riffing, chilling ambient touches, and some of the most beastly growls you’ll ever hear, but unlike Ithyphallic, songs like “Kafir!” and “Permitting the Noble Dead to Descend to the Underworld” are wickedly, unexpectedly catchy.

 

14 – 8

Artist: Between the Buried and Me

Album: The Great Misdirect

Label: Victory

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/b/btbam-the-great-misdirect.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-10-26

UK Release Date: 2009-10-26

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List number: 14

While it’s not quite the bold step that 2007’s Colors was, The Great Misdirect is certainly not lacking in ambition. The band’s eclectic musical taste continues to be their hallmark, as does their rather incredible ability to fuse together myriad sounds and create cohesive, disciplined progressive rock songs. It’s a challenging listen, but the many highlights quickly surface, from the King Crimson-esque breakdown during the latter half of “Obfuscation”, to the Kurt-Weill-meets-Mr. Bungle passages on “Fossil Genera”, to the soaring climax of the 18-minute “Swim to the Moon”.

 

Artist: Mastodon

Album: Crack the Skye

Label: Relapse

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/m/mastodon-cracktheskye.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-03-24

UK Release Date: 2009-03-23

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List number: 13

Weirdly enough, Mastodon’s big commercial breakthrough coincided with the release of their weirdest album to date, but better late than never. And although their shift from gargantuan metal riffery to polished progressive rock threw many for a loop, Crack the Skye is nevertheless quintessential Mastodon. The emphasis on clean vocals is still a work in progress live, but it works brilliantly on record, two and three-part vocals playing a very prominent role on such tracks as “Oblivion”, “Divinations”, and the astounding 11-minute suite “The Czar”.

 

Artist: Slayer

Album: World Painted Blood

Label: American/Sony

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/s/slayer-worldpaintedblood.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-11-02

UK Release Date: 2009-11-03

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List number: 12

Slayer hasn’t sounded this inspired, this bloodthirsty, this malevolent, in ages. Following up 2006’s Christ Illusion, a welcome return to form after some lean years, the ferocious World Painted Blood makes its predecessor sound tame by comparison, the dry production sharpening the foursome’s attack (placing Dave Lombardo’s drums very high in the mix), the title track and “Beauty Through Order” hearkening back to South of Heaven, the wickedly good “Psychopathy Red” reminiscent of Reign in Blood. They’re in and out in less than 40 minutes, leaving us with whiplash, craving more.

 

Artist: YOB

Album: The Great Cessation

Label: Profound Lore

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/y/yob-thegreatcessation.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-07-14

UK Release Date: 2009-07-13

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List number: 11

After a horrendous legal ordeal over the ownership of the band name Middian, Mike Scheidt decided to dissolve that trio entirely and resurrect his previous band YOB, and in the end, we’re all the better for it. One of the finest, most fascinating doom bands of this decade, their fifth album is their best, melding classic, bell-bottomed, doom-with-a-capital-D with psychedelic touches and Scheidt’s Buddhist-themed lyrics. Produced by Sanford Parker, who captures the sound of doom better than anyone today, it’s a welcome return by the masters after too long spent away.

 

Artist: Funeral Mist

Album: Maranatha

Label: Ajna Offensive

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/f/funeralmist-maranatha.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-04-14

UK Release Date: 2009-01-26

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List number: 10

It’s been a good year for Daniel Rosten. Not only does the dude otherwise known as Arioch and Mortuus play a significant role on Marduk’s superb return to form, but his side project Funeral Mist has yielded one of the most exciting metal albums of 2009. Typical of any solo project, Maranatha leaves itself open to a lot more experimentation than the artist’s main band, and while that often leads to some awfully self-indulgent music, Rosten sounds absolutely inspired by such artistic freedom, especially during the adventurous trifecta of “Jesus Saves!”, “A New Light”, and the sample-heavy, 12-minute groove exercise “Blessed Curse”. A slam dunk for black metal album of the year.

 

Artist: Isis

Album: Wavering Radiant

Label: Ipecac

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/i/isis-waveringradiant.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-04-21

UK Release Date: 2009-05-04

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List number: 9

On the inevitable best-of-the-decade lists, many writers will be compelled to tout Isis’s past albums like Oceanic and Panopticon, and for good reason, but Wavering Radiant is actually the superior record, one whose reputation should grow with each passing year. No longer fully dependent on the predictable loud-soft-loud dynamic that dominated their early work, Isis’s music is far more refined now, arrangements graceful, not so much primal as luxurious. Elements of krautrock and early Pink Floyd permeate the entire record, thanks in large part to the subtle keyboard work of Bryant Clifford Meyer, while at the same time never coming at the expense of Isis’s trademark heaviness, those tidal waves of distortion exceptionally timed.

 

Artist: Amesoeurs

Album: Amesoeurs

Label: Profound Lore

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/a/amesoeus-amesoeurs.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-04-14

UK Release Date: 2009-05-11

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List number: 8

“Wait, is this even metal?” It’s always a gray area whenever a band starts off as extreme metal and steadily drifts toward other genres, and that’s definitely the case with France’s Amesoeurs, who have been inching towards classic 1980s goth/darkwave over the last few years. A much darker, pessimistic companion to the pastoral strains of guitarist Stéphane “Neige” Paut’s project Alcest, strong emphasis is placed on Joy Division-inspired guitar tones and especially the cool, detached singing of bassist Audrey Sylvain, which works beautifully on “Amesoeurs” and “Faux Semblants”. However, it’s when darkwave and black metal collide that this album truly shines, best exemplified by “Les Ruches Malades” and “La Reine Trayeuse”.

 

7 – 1

Artist: Sunn O)))

Album: Monoliths and Dimensions

Label: Southern Lord

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/s/sunno-monolithsanddimensions.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-05-26

UK Release Date: 2009-05-18

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List number: 7

Credible art or just tritone riffs dragged out? At its most tedious, Sunn O))) can lean heavily towards column B, but when Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson are on, the power is undeniable. Their seventh studio album starts out predictably enough, the lugubriously-paced “Aghartha” moving at a glacial pace as Attila Csihar provides a portentous narration, but the more the record goes on, the more diversity creeps in, from the piano and horns which creep into the aforementioned track, to the choir and Eyvind Kang’s arrangement on “Big Church”, to the gorgeous, downright tender 16-minute “Alice” that brings this surprising and striking album to a close.

 

Artist: Goatwhore

Album: Carving Out the Eyes of God

Label: Metal Blade

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/g/goatwhore-carvingouttheeyesofgod.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-06-23

UK Release Date: Import

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List number: 6

“Who needs a God when you’ve got Satan!” There’s not a lick of originality to Goatwhore whatsoever, as the New Orleans band wears their devotion to Celtic Frost and Bathory on their sleeves, and for the longest time that was just fine as they put out album after passable album. But with Carving Out the Eyes of God, it finally feels like the band is creating an identity of its own, Sammy Duet’s blackened riffs massive and contagious, vocalist Ben Falgoust’s lyrics provocative, Erik Rutan’s production pulverizing. After years of good, complacent-sounding work, there’s now palpable passion in Goatwhore’s music, and when that happens the results are always rewarding, no matter how formulaic the music is.

 

Artist: Kylesa

Album: Static Tensions

Label: Prosthetic

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/k/kylesa-statictensions.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-03-17

UK Release Date: 2009-03-09

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List number: 5

We all knew Kylesa was a promising band, and they’ve made steady progress over the course of their previous three albums. With Static Tensions, though, the Savannah, Georgia, band make the kind of leap we always hope to see young bands pull off but rarely ever do. Their brand of crust-infused sludge is as potent as ever, but the many understated touches make this album: the band’s dual drums set-up is brilliantly produced (the scorching “Scapegoat” a prime example), guitarist Laura Pleasants is getting better at incorporating melodic vocals (“Perception”), their musical palette is broadening considerably (a little Kyuss here, a little space rock there), and best of all, the songwriting is spot-on, all ten tracks immediate, audacious, and memorable.

 

Artist: Baroness

Album: Blue Record

Label: Relapse

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/b/baroness-thebluealbum.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-10-13

UK Release Date: 2009-10-12

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List number: 4

All eyes were on Baroness, to see whether or not they’d be able to come through with a worthy follow-up to 2007’s highly acclaimed Red Album. Interestingly, what listeners got wasn’t a huge stylistic stretch from Red. Far from the kind of curveballs that Mastodon continually throws our way, Blue Record faithfully stayed the course, but the gigantic difference between those two albums is that the new one is much more well-rounded, more musically rich, more developed. The big, riff-oriented gallopers are still there, as “A Horse Called Golgotha”, “The Sweetest Curse”, and “The Gnashing” attest, but the more diverse tunes are what tie the entire album together, such as “Jake Leg”, “O’er Hell and Hide”, and the terrific one-two punch of the Moody Blues-esque “Steel That Sleeps the Eye” and Fugazi-like “Swollen and Halo”.

 

Artist: Converge

Album: Axe to Fall

Label: Epitaph

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/c/converge-axetofall.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-10-20

UK Release Date: 2009-10-19

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List number: 3

Converge just keeps getting better, now nearly 20 years into their career. After fusing hardcore and metal on the 2001 classic Jane Doe, the Massachusetts foursome kept their sights forward, tweaking their sound, experimenting with various changes in direction (the brooding You Fail Me, the explosive No Heroes), but at the root of Converge’s sound has always been a level of intensity that no other band, hardcore, metal, or otherwise, has ever been able to equal. Not only is Axe to Fall as viscerally powerful as anything the band has previously put out, but there’s an effortlessness to it all that makes this record especially astonishing. Whether it’s furious exercises in d-beat punk (“Dark Horse”, “Wishing Well”), the post punk angularity of “Effigy”, the brooding “Cruel Bloom”, or the unsettling epic “Wretched World”, the band and their numerous collaborators (including members of Coalesce, Neurosis, and Genghis Tron) make it all so utterly blistering and affecting.

 

Artist: Katatonia

Album: Night Is the New Day

Label: Peaceville

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/k/katatonia-nightisthenewday.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-11-10

UK Release Date: 2009-11-02

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List number: 2

It was only a matter of time until Katatonia released this kind of album. Ever since streamlining their music and abandoning harsh vocals more than a decade ago, the Swedish band had been inching closer and closer towards a hybrid of doom, mainstream hard rock, and ’80s goth, and although we saw it coming from a mile away, Night Is the New Day still pulled the rug out from under us. The trappings that made 2003’s Viva Emptiness and 2006’s The Great Cold Distance so memorable (brooding arrangements that complement the velvety-voiced singing of Jonas Renske) are all there, and Renske puts in his strongest vocal performance to date, but what knocks this particular record out of the park is its atmosphere, as keyboards and electronic touches add tremendous depth to the already rich production. Its portrait of melancholia is absolutely lavish, and compels us to wallow along with it. Drop dead gorgeous.

 

Artist: Cobalt

Album: Gin

Label: Profound Lore

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/c/cobalt-gin.jpg

US Release Date: 2009-03-17

UK Release Date: 2009-03-17

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List number: 1

It’s fitting that one of the most eccentric musical collaborations in all of metal would yield an album that bucks convention as much as Gin does. Cobalt is certainly an interesting pair: on one side you have the talented multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder meticulously writing and arranging instrumental tracks at home while his co-conspirator Phil McSorley continues his life in the United States Army (most of his 2009 having been spent right smack in the middle of Baghdad), using his time on leave to write tortured poetry and lay down on tape some of the more anguished lead vocals you’ll ever hear. It’s a unique chemistry they have, something that’s worked well on 2005’s War Metal and 2007’s superb Eater of Birds, but with Gin we get something truly extraordinary, a record savage enough in tone and sentiment to attract underground metal aficionados and daring enough to capture the attention of fans of rock and metal’s more progressive side. Melding black metal, blood-curdling crust punk, introspective passages reminiscent of Tool, and the ominous tones of both Swans and Johnny Cash, and boasting lyrics that veer wildly from harrowingly personal to downright eloquent (the record is dedicated to their literary heroes, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson), this is extreme music at its most forward-thinking, cathartic, and exhilarating.

 
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