The Best Metal of 2014

Metal's shining moments in 2014 include a long-awaited reunion, a culmination of a nearly 20-year career, and a sophomore outing that rose to the occasion.

Artist: Witch Mountain

Album: Mobile of Angels

Label: Profound Lore

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Witch Mountain
Mobile of Angels

Talk about awkward timing. Mere weeks before the release of its new album, Portland band Witch Mountain announced that singer Uta Plotkin was leaving the band after a summer tour. That it came as a shock to many speaks volumes about the impact the diminutive yet powerful-voiced Plotkin had on the band and its audience. Possessing a voice that feels like equal parts Ann Wilson, Grace Slick, and Jinx Dawson, Plotkin brought a very unique, soulful style to doom metal, and on her swan song Mobile of Angels she is in phenomenal form, more comfortable in her role than ever, her vocal phrasing coalescing beautifully with guitarist Rob Wrong’s blues-derived riffs and Nathan Carson’s disciplined yet fluid drumming. Interestingly, more focus is placed on Plotkin than her previous two albums with the band, which makes for a spellbinding listen, especially on the pulverizing “Psycho Animundi” and the shattering closer “The Shape Truth Takes”. With the excellent core of Wrong and Carson, Witch Mountain is far too good to not carry on with a new singer, but Plotkin made a huge impression during her time with the band, and this album features her and the band’s finest work. img-873 Adrien Begrand


Artist: Babymetal

Album: Babymetal

Label: Toy’s Factory

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Combining heavy metal and Japanese pop culture is nothing new. From Loudness, to visual kei, to composer Yoko Kanno, to recent band Blood Stain Child, Japan has offered some highly unique takes on heavy music over the years, filtered through its own rich and vivid imagination. But there’s been nothing, nothing on the level of Babymetal, a full-fledged bridging of extreme metal and J-pop that initially attracted a lot of curious listeners attracted by the novelty of three teenaged girls singing atop a wickedly tight metal band, only to ingeniously show that this music is a whole lot smarter and more complex than anyone could ever have imagined. Brilliantly conceived by mastermind Key “Kobametal” Kobayashi, Babymetal uses metal as its root base, only to branch out wildly into trance, dubstep, hip hop, drum ‘n’ bass, always coming through with sleek riffs and delirious bubblegum hooks in the process. In a day and age where the notion of extreme metal is so antiquated and narrow that it’s practically a joke, Babymetal is a revelation, a breath of fresh air. Like it or not, it is by far the most truly extreme metal album of 2014, not to mention one of the most inventive. As for those accusations of contrivance by purists, pardon the rest of us while we laugh at their naïveté. img-873 Adrien Begrand


Artist: Dawnbringer

Album: Night of the Hammer

Label: Profound Lore

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Night of the Hammer

Chris Black’s traditionally-minded metal outfit Dawnbringer has become a name synonymous with quality metal, a fact solidified by the band’s stunning 2012 release, In the Lair of the Sun God, which topped PopMatters‘ best metal list that same year. Not but two years later, Black has delivered a worthy followup in the form of Night of the Hammer, an album which foregoes the somewhat grandiloquent concept album format of its predecessor in favor of a glum, doomy sonic landscape. The galloping, NWOBHM-indebted riffs and soaring vocals Black is renowned for are still present, but most pronounced of all are the malevolent riffs and clean, legato guitar passages, which taken together form a dynamic contrast. Black has, along with Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt, become one of heavy metal’s best coda writers; one need only listen to the final moments of “Alien” and “Crawling Off to Die” to get a sense of this overlooked skill. The ever-growing diaspora of metal remains a slippery thing to grasp, but the notion that traditional styles of metal are dead continues to be rebutted by the impressive discography of Dawnbringer, of which Night of the Hammer is a worthy member. img-873 Brice Ezell


Artist: Midnight

Album: No Mercy for Mayhem

Label: Hells Headbangers

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No Mercy for Mayhem

Over the past few years Cleveland band Midnight has been steadily attracting new followers in the metal underground with its simple yet irresistible and very raucous blend of Motörhead’s fierce rock ‘n’ roll and the deliriously sloppy blasphemy of Venom. As brilliant as 2011’s Satanic Royalty was — and it was one of that year’s finest underground metal releases — it had many, including yours truly, wondering just what Midnight had left in the tank. After all, when you’re a one-trick pony, it’s hard to keep audiences riveted; just ask Motörhead and Venom, who’ve had their share of duds. What makes No Mercy For Mayhem so extraordinary, however, is that it’s just as intense and primal as ever, but now there’s a flashier side to the riffs, often bringing a deathpunk swagger to the proceedings, guaranteed to remind many of Norwegian greats Turbonegro. Just listen to how the crazed boogie-woogie of “Prowling Leather” segues immediately into the title track, whose slick leads are more Hanoi Rocks than Jeff Mantas. The end result is one of the most undeniably fun metal albums of the year, one that’s far more musically rich than anyone could ever have expected. img-873 Adrien Begrand


Artist: Ghost Brigade

Album: IV: One With the Storm

Label: Season of Mist

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Ghost Brigade
IV: One With the Storm

The legendary Swedish doom metal outfit Katatonia may have faltered with its most recent studio outing, 2012’s Dead End Kings, but numerous bands have picked up quite admirably where those Swedes left off. Chief among them is the Finnish group Ghost Brigade, who has been following an upward trajectory since its stunning 2009 LP Isolation Songs. IV: One With the Storm finds these Finns at their most accessible; tunes like “Departure” and “The Knife” (home to one of 2014’s best breakdowns) are as poised as anything in the metal underground to make a mainstream breakthrough. However, the accessibility of the music on One With the Storm is not anathema to songwriting maturation, of which there is plenty on the record. Vocalist Manne Ikonen’s increasingly prominent usage of clean vocals has been a source of contention, and not without good reason. His harsh growls (especially on essential Ghost Brigade numbers like “Suffocated”) hit home much more powerfully. Nevertheless, Ikonen’s clean vocals are used well on this album, particularly on emotionally resonant tracks like “Disembodied Voices”, which includes the haunting passage: “They said time heals / In a year or so, you’ll be alright / Time doesn’t heal / It only makes you forget.” One With the Storm is a perfect marriage of accessible and poignant songwriting. Above all else, it confirms that Ghost Brigade is one of the leading forces in melodic doom, resting comfortably alongside giants like Katatonia and Swallow the Sun. img-873 Brice Ezell

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Artist: Panopticon

Album: Roads to the North

Label: Bindrune

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Roads to the North

Panopticon’s seminal 2012 record Kentucky infused black metal with American bluegrass in a way that could have been an exercise in gimmickry, but turned out to be one of the most emotional and socially conscious American black metal records ever released. Expectations were high for its full length follow up, but somehow Roads to the North manages to not only match the high standards of its processor, but exceed them. While so many black metal bands throughout the world continue to tirelessly hump the leg of Norwegian black metal and parody themselves with tired corpse-painted silliness, Panopticon continues to make sincere, mature black metal for the ages. Roads to the North draws on numerous genres of American folk music, crust, and even death metal to enrich the tapestry sketched out in Kentucky. These are songs of homesickness, longing, joy, and memory. Panopticon makes black metal that turns the listener inside herself, asking us where we come from and how our sense of home defines us. Roads to the North is the sound of a band, and indeed a subgenre, realizing its full potential. What emerges is one of the most poignant and compelling albums of 2014. img-874 Benjamin Hedge Olson


Artist: Mournful Congregation

Album: Concrescence of the Sophia

Label: 20 Buck Spin

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Mournful Congregation
Concrescence of the Sophia

This two-song release by the Australian funeral doom overlords of Mournful Congregation is technically an EP. However, at 30 minutes, not only does Concrescence of the Sophia run a good bit longer than the average EP, but it also displays a compositional finesse that outstripped almost all of the metal records of 2014. On 2011’s Book of Kings, Mournful Congregation perfected its lengthy and lugubrious style of composition, with tracks like “Catechism of Depression” serving as a stunning distillation of all this band stands for. Concrescence of the Sophia carries on in this tradition, with the 21-minute title track weaving through passages of portentous riffs and fingerpicked acoustic guitars with an ease not unlike that of genre mainstays like Ahab. For Mournful Congregation to make an impact like that with an EP is no small achievement; it indicates that this is a group that knows how to do a lot with a little, an important quality to have when one’s songs regularly run 20 minutes or longer. For those needing a score to a funeral march, or perhaps an especially dreary day, Concrescence of the Sophia is a fine choice. img-874 Brice Ezell


Artist: Behemoth

Album: The Satanist

Label: Nuclear Blast

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The Satanist

Behemoth’s chief songwriter Nergal stared death in the face and lived to put all the physical and emotional pain wrought by his battles with leukaemia into his music. The Satanist is the embodiment of his personal struggles, as Behemoth re-emerged in 2014 more human, more vicious and more defiant than ever before. A modern masterpiece created by an esteemed metal band at the cusp of the mainstream, Behemoth’s tenth full-length is the power of free will personified and amplified. From the regal occultism of “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel” to the Dissection-esque riffs that slice through “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer”, and the towering conclusion of “O Father O Satan O Sun”, The Satanist sounds cinematically conceived without surrendering the aggression or melodicism at the pith of this Polish act since its formation in 1991. Borne from chaos and eternal night, Behemoth’s enhanced clarity of vision and compositional strength is astounding here. img-874 Dean Brown


Artist: Godflesh

Album: A World Lit Only By Fire

Label: Avalanche

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A World Lit Only By Fire

The gears of war cranked into position this year as the industrial metal pioneers of Godflesh released new music for the first time since its termination in 2002. First came the EP Decline and Fall in June 2014, which, although prescient, did little to prepare fans for what would follow in the form of Godflesh’s seventh full-length, A World Lit Only By Fire. For their return album, guitarist/vocalist Justin Broadrick and bassist G.C. Green revisited the mechanics of seminal Godflesh records — Streetcleaner (1989) and Pure (1990) being two precise blueprints — to construct an unforgiving album that is respectful of the band’s past but also forcefully focused on the future. The Birmingham, UK-based duo’s biting lyrical invectives sound-tracked by coruscating riffs and booming progressed beats were always ahead of its time. On A World Lit Only by Fire, Godflesh’s juggernaut-like death-march continues towards humankind’s imminent demise. img-874 Dean Brown


Artist: Judas Priest

Album: Redeemer of Souls

Label: Epic

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Judas Priest
Redeemer of Souls

It’s always good for a veteran band, one that’s been around for decades, to have something new to prove every once in a while. Six years ago Judas Priest bit off a little more than it could chew with the highly ambitious and deeply flawed double album Nostradamus, and then in 2011 guitarist K.K. Downing retired after 41 years of service, replaced by Richie Faulkner, an axe-slinger nearly half the band’s age. What’s the best thing for a band to do after a bloated misfire but simplify, and 17th album Redeemer of Souls found Priest not only getting back to basics, revisiting the classic sound of Defenders of the Faith and Screaming For Vengeance, but sounding completely rejuvenated in the process. Clearly given a dose of youthful energy thanks to the addition of Faulkner, the rest of the band sounds potent and powerful, singer Rob Halford in tremendous form on such highlights as “Dragonaut”, “Halls of Valhalla”, and “Hell & Back”. Judas Priest is back doing what it does best, and all is right with the world. img-874 Adrien Begrand

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Artist: Agalloch

Album: The Serpent and the Sphere

Label: Profound Lore

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The Serpent and the Sphere

Ever since its 1999 debut Pale Folklore, Agalloch has been hitting me right in one of my most sensitive musical sweet spots. Agalloch shares my love of early Ulver and Enslaved, but the students started exceeding the teachers sometime around 2002’s The Mantle. Throughout its career, Agalloch has shown a different aspect of who it is as a band with every new release while always retaining its distinct sound. The Serpent & the Sphere offers the listener Agalloch’s doomier side. This subtle but devastatingly effective gesture makes The Serpent & the Sphere a high point in what is already getting to be a formidable discography with absolutely no mediocrity to be found on it. Don Anderson’s guitar work continues to be some of the most potent in all of metal and John Haughm’s multi-faceted vocals continue to be the very cream of the extreme metal crop. The Serpent & the Sphere takes its time, reaching its thorny roots down into the furrows of the listeners mind. The relationship between nature, mysticism, and time have always been central to Agalloch’s music and The Serpent & the Sphere takes us further into that misty, haunted forest that it has created for us. img-875 Benjamin Hedge Olson


Artist: YOB

Album: Clearing the Path to Ascend

Label: Neurot

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Clearing the Path to Ascend

Ensconced in the mossy, marijuana smoke clouded environs of Eugene, Oregon, YOB has been pumping fuzzed out doom since the late ’90s. Clearing the Path to Ascend is the record that it has been threatening to make all these years, but it had yet to really nail until now. It makes perfect sense that this is YOB’s first record with Neurot Recordings, as the fingerprints of Neurosis are more clearly evident here than on any of YOB’s previous releases. The emotional depth and sense of space that Neurosis does so well can be found throughout Clearing the Path to Ascend, and the expanded atmosphere really gives this record extra oomph. While the first four tracks on this record, none of which clock in under ten minutes, show YOB in fine form, it is really the 18 plus minute closer “Marrow” that pushes this record into classic territory. The clean vocals found on “Marrow” are the most beautiful and compelling that YOB has ever recorded, building to a glorious, exhilarating climax that has not yet failed to produce goose bumps on my arms. img-875 Benjamin Hedge Olson


Artist: Pallbearer

Album: Foundations of Burden

Label: Profound Lore

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Foundations of Burden

The follow-up to a critically acclaimed debut can either make or break a band, but with Foundations of Burden, Little Rock, Arkansas’s own Pallbearer has established itself as an act with artistically rewarding future ahead. Noticeably more dynamic than Extinction and Sorrow, Pallbearer successfully emphasizes melody on its second studio album, drawing audible inspiration from progressive and classic rock while still crafting heavyweight doom riffs that go beyond mere Black Sabbath and Saint Vitus worship. With guitarist Brett Campbell’s increasingly confident vocal melodies given more space to ascend through the thundering riffs and rhythms, Pallbearer has a figurehead to base its songwriting around going forward. For now, we have this wonderfully colourful record that displays refined musicality, spatial awareness and movement, all the while subtly incorporating the panoramic sounds of outside influences into the traditional tenets of doom metal. It’s ambitious, yet it all sounds natural to Pallbearer — a contemporary band that deserves every drop of praise that has fallen at its feet. img-875 Dean Brown


Artist: Triptykon

Album: Melana Chasmata

Label: Century Media

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Melana Chasmata

Four years after the monstrous debut of Thomas Gabriel Fischer’s Triptykon, metal’s greatest innovator this side of Tony Iommi returned with a follow-up that continued the remarkable career arc started with his highly influential band Celtic Frost. Although Melana Chasmata doesn’t break new ground in the way such classic albums as To Mega Therion, Into the Pandemonium, and Monotheist did, it sees Fischer showcasing all his strengths as a songwriter, conveying unrelenting intensity – be it via ferocious speed or disciplined slow tempos – malevolence, and mystery. Whether on a barnstormer like “Tree of Suffocating Souls”, the eerie seductiveness of “Boleskine House”, or the epic, doomy show-stopper “Black Snow”, the unifying factor of all of this is, remarkably, beauty, which, whether awe-inspiring or bleak, permeates this wonderfully dark art like few other albums released in 2014. img-875 Adrien Begrand


Artist: Opeth

Album: Pale Communion

Label: Roadrunner

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Pale Communion

Leading up to the release of his band Baroness’ 2012 double LP Yellow & Green, frontman John Baizley told Pitchfork this about the album, which largely eschewed the band’s sludge metal roots: “The Baroness-circa-2012 definition of heavy… [is] not a tuning and it’s not necessarily a volume; it’s more of a feeling or an idea or some goal post that we’re headed towards.” Two years later, Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt said almost exactly the same thing to Metal Injection, a view that’s particularly important in light of Opeth’s 2011 LP Heritage. Opeth has long been known as a progressive metal outfit, but with Heritage the band left metal largely out of the equation, save for rollicking numbers like the Ronnie James Dio tribute “Slither”. Pale Communion, the band’s followup to that record, similarly leaves out much of the metal found on classics like Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries. For Opeth, ’70’s prog like Comus and Pink Floyd are now the key sonic signposts, with growled vocals and downtuned riffs largely absent from its sonic repertoire. Hell, Pale Communion‘s most stunning moment, “River”, displays vocal harmonies that wouldn’t be out of place on a Boston album.

This isn’t to say that metal is entirely absent from the style of Opeth. Lead single “Cusp of Eternity”, with its Hungarian minor guitar leads, displays a menace that nearly all of the metal records in 2014 failed to show. The ten-minute epic “Moon Above, Sun Below” displays the compositional depth and intensity that is present on LPs like Ghost Reveries. But the beauty of Pale Communion, beyond the fact that it is a natural progression of Opeth’s sonic journey up to this point, is the fact that it puts into question our basic notions of what constitutes “heavy” and “metal”. To use Åkerfeldt’s words, “Turning up the distortion, tuning down, and triggering the drums doesn’t make it heavy to me anymore.” Had Opeth merely replicated the sound of Blackwater Park over and over again, it might have found some success. However, over time, it’s more than likely that it would have lost its heaviness. By committing to “progressive” music in the truest sense of the word, all the while retaining the signature sound we’ve come to expect of it, Opeth remains one of contemporary metal’s greatest treasures. And, yes, that holds true even if there are no growled vocals. img-875 Brice Ezell