Music

The Best Metal of 2014

Adrien Begrand, Dean Brown, Brice Ezell, and Benjamin Hedge Olson

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. Adrien Begrand

 
Artist: Babymetal

Album: Babymetal

Label: Toy's Factory

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Babymetal
Babymetal

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. Adrien Begrand

 
Artist: Dawnbringer

Album: Night of the Hammer

Label: Profound Lore

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Dawnbringer
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. Brice Ezell

 
Artist: Midnight

Album: No Mercy for Mayhem

Label: Hells Headbangers

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Midnight
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. 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. Brice Ezell

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