From metalcore to hardcore, guttural growls to soaring falsettos, and unabashedly sludgetastic to downright operatic, the cream of this year's metal crop is as eclectic as it is provocative.
The metal genre is so huge and diverse that if you were to ask any metal enthusiast to name the best albums of the year, you'd get a different answer every time. While my own list is far from definitive (is there even such a thing?), after a year of hearing innumerable albums, it should be a good indication of just how ambitious and rich in talent today's metal continues to be. These are definitely heady times for aggressive music; so much so that to include every great release would have blown up this column to a bloated, editor-infuriating length, so before I begin with the list, let me assure you, I have not forgotten about such key albums by the likes of Jesu, Hate Eternal, Torche, Animosity, Grand Magus, Strapping Young Lad, Napalm Death, Corrosion of Conformity, Enslaved, and Bolt Thrower, all of which deserve to be heard as much as the 20 following titles. Here's to a phenomenal year, and the hope that 2006 is just as strong.
20. Scar Symmetry, Symmetric in Design (Nuclear Blast)
Sticking to the traditional "Gothenburg" style of melodic death metal that the likes of Dark Tranquility, In Flames, and Soilwork helped develop, the debut disc by Sweden's Scar Symmetry is bold enough to focus on melody instead of power and intricacy, and the result is one of the more pleasant surprises of 2005. Like Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt, singer Christian Alvestrom displays astounding versatility, employing a massive death growl one minute, and soaring melodies the next. The band's overall performance is as tight as one would expect, but it's the hooks, not the riffs, that hold our collective interest, something all too rare in today's metal music.
19. Darkane, Layers of Lies (Nuclear Blast)
More similar to the Haunted rather than In Flames, Darkane's fourth album throws down the proverbial gauntlet toward the hordes of American metalcore imitators with nimble guitar licks and the authoritative bark of Andreas Sydow, while sneaking in some slyly contagious melodies. This album has two gears: stop and GO (propelled by drummer Peter Wildoer in a maniacal performance). The band pulls the rug out from under us once in a while: first on the stirring title track, and then during the incredible closing trifecta of the '80s styled "Maelstrom Crisis", the more progressive "Decadent Messiah", and the pure speed of "The Creation Insane".
18. Immolation, Harnessing Ruin (Olympic)
Now in their 17th year, the New York death metal greats sound reinvigorated. Harnessing Ruin doesn't so much break new ground in the genre as it confidently delivers the goods as only a group of veteran masters can. The music, replete with fast, churning guitars and the expected drum blastbeats, might sound no-frills at first, but underneath the slightly muddy production lies some very well-crafted songs, highlighted by "Swarm of Terror", the borderline black metal of "Challenge the Storm", and the astonishing "Dead to Me", which all prove that subtlety (both melodic and rhythmic) can be an effective device, even in extreme metal.
17. Minsk, Out Of A Center Which Is Neither Dead Nor Alive (At a Loss)
The latest in an ever-growing line of young bands who model themselves after avant-metal maestros Neurosis and Isis, the Peoria, Illinois quintet manage to raise the bar with this mind-blowing, richly textured debut. Sure, all the characteristics of that NeurIsis sound are there: the expansive guitars, the monolithic lower end, the deliberately paced drums, but what Minsk and producer Sanford Parker bring to the proceedings is a much bolder mindset, tossing in ambient moments, jazz-inspired interludes, and striking melodies, both vocal and instrumental. Richly produced and possessing a depth and diversity that Isis lacks, it's the cream of this year's avant crop.
16. Cursed, Two (Goodfellow)
Combining the intense hardcore elements of Converge with the more controlled, ultra-heavy tones of Mastodon, Canada's self-proclaimed loudest band unleashed one of the year's most unique albums. Expertly produced by Canadian rock vet Ian Blurton, Two boasts a startlingly muscular sound, something Mastodon's great Leviathan lacked, clearly indebted to the sludge of Entombed and Melvins, but with a much cleaner sound. The end result: a fiery, enormously entertaining disc that straddles two genres with ease. Monstrous tracks such as "The Void" and "Model Home Invasion" give retro headbangers Witchcraft and Early Man a run for their money. One of the year's buried treasures.
15. Darkest Hour, Undoing Ruin (Victory)
Everyone is aware of how indebted the new crop of American metalcore acts are to the Scandinavian death metal explosion of the early '90s, but none more so than D.C.'s Darkest Hour. Teaming up with Canada's mad genius Devin Townsend, Undoing Ruin has the band sounding more focused than they ever have, Townsend's trademark production style focusing more on the metal element than the hardcore. This album turns out so well that songs like "Sound the Surrender", "These Fevered Times", and "With a Thousand Words to Say But One", led by the twin guitars of Kris Norris and Mike Schleibaum, beat the popular Arch Enemy at their own game.
14. Candlemass, Candlemass (Nuclear Blast)
In a year dominated by triumphant comebacks by several respected bands, it was Candlemass who wound up stealing the show. The Swedish doom greats sound in top form on this album, exploding out of the gate with the gloriously goofy "Black Dwarf", an unexpected uptempo chugger. Things settle down as the band goes back to what they've always done best (yeah, that's right, the slow Sabbath stuff), "Seven Silver Keys", "Copernicus", and "The Day and the Night" showcasing the vocal talents of returning howler Messiah Marcolin. The little guy sounds as great as he did on Nightfall 18 years ago.
13. YOB, The Unreal Never Lived (Metal Blade)
Comprising just four songs in a little over 50 minutes, Oregon's YOB follow the example of its Candlemass forefathers, creating some highly distinct epicus doomicus metallicus of its own on album number four, with a typically American sludge twist. Guitars are tuned down, the bass is teeth-rattling, and the drums move at a mastodonian pace; the trio takes its own damn time getting to wherever it's going. The production is as dense and thick as a tar pit, while guitarist Mike Scheidt screeches and blurts in a surprisingly versatile performance that separates this disc from the rest of the doom pack. Guaranteed to reward patient listeners.
12. High on Fire, Blessed Black Wings (Relapse)
Matt Pike returns, this time teamed up with the great Steve Albini, and the partnership is a perfect fit on this album. Albini transforms this most powerful of trios into a rampaging beast on record � Pike slashes away maniacally on guitar and delivers Lemmy-esque howls, while the rhythm section of Joe Preston and drummer Des Kensel manages to sound as huge as it does live. The title track and "Anointing of Seer" might hint at Pike's sludge past with Sleep, but it's the thrashers "Devilution" and "Cometh Down Hessian", along with the brutal stomp of "The Face of Oblivion", that prove to be especially thrilling.
11. The Red Chord, Clients (Metal Blade)
Grindcore has always lurked beneath the surface, out of earshot from the mainstream, but thanks to the Red Chord's masterful second album, ears on the other side are slowly starting to perk up. By adding more depth to the chaotic grindcore sound � from more controlled death riffs to churning sludge to midtempo metalcore breakdowns to some fantastic slices of '80s thrash and even some elements of jazz fusion � Clients balances pandemonium and precision superbly. As good as the first half hour is, the jaw-dropping instrumental "He Was Dead When I Got Here" steals the show, deservedly prompting comparisons to Metallica's "The Call of Ktulu" and "Orion".
10. Primordial, The Gathering Wilderness (Metal Blade)
The latest release by the Irish band embodies everything that is great about modern metal music, sounding progressive, yet still rooted in metal's past. Isis-style waves of guitars mesh with ornate black metal tones ("The Golden Spiral"); songs gallop at an Iron Maiden pace one minute ("The Song of the Tomb") and slow to a Sabbathesque crawl the next ("Cities Carved in Stone"). A.A. Nemtheanga's lyrics range from fantasy to pagan religion to historical accounts to the state of the world today, his vocals displaying admirable range from black metal snarls to soaring melodies. Melancholic, foreboding, first-rate heavy music.
9. Sunn O))), Black One (Southern Lord)
Slayer once professed, "Evil has no boundaries". That's certainly the case with the great Sunn O))), who continues to take its abstract metal/drone sound to new, darker extremes. Whether you're witnessing firsthand guitarists Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley blasting this music so loud that bottles are falling off tables, or you're sitting alone at night listening to this album with the volume turned down, it's impossible not to be affected by the sound of pure, unadulterated evil emitting from the speakers. Their most ambitious record yet, Black One is highlighted by underground black metal dude Malefic on the doomfest "Báthory Erzsébet", during which he was apparently locked in a casket with a microphone inside recording his wracked screams. Not for the faint of heart.
8. System of a Down, Mezmerize/Hypnotize, (American/Columbia)
Although System of a Down's much-ballyhooed double album ultimately fell short of expectations, it was still an admirable effort, a typically eclectic 75-minute opus that had as much haters as lovers. Guitarist Daron Malakian obnoxiously steals the spotlight from the supremely skilled Serj Tankian, but his nasal whine seems to work well as a foil to Tankian's more forceful bellow: songs like "B.Y.O.B.", "Hypnotize", and "Stealing Society" feature inspired exchanges between the dueling frontmen. "Attack", "Question", and "Sad Statue" continue the band's evolution into a remarkable metal act, with the impassioned "Holy Mountains" serving as a stunning climax. It's not without its faults, as Malakian's abysmal "Lonely Day" is the worst song the band has ever recorded, but viewed as a whole, the two CDs mesh nicely, both musically and design-wise. An endearing mess.
7. Cryptopsy, Once Was Not (Century Media)
Not only does this new album by the Canadian death metal innovators mark the return of charismatic vocalist Lord Worm, but the Montreal band's fifth release is its most inspired since 1996's None So Vile. This is technical death of the highest order � guitarist Alex Auburn wears out his fretboard with his frantic riffs, and Flo Mounier, arguably the best drummer in the biz, puts in a jaw-dropping performance, as if the entire album was constructed around an extended, 46-minute drum solo. The album isn't without the odd accessible moment, but the real thrills are to be had on the more cacophonous numbers, most notably "Adeste Infidelis", which packs more into four and a half minutes than most bands are capable of on a full album. Awesome in every sense of the word.
6. Nevermore, This Godless Endeavor (Century Media)
Woefully ignored by the mainstream, but greatly respected in metal circles, This Godless Endeavor has the Seattle band sticking to what made it great in the first place, incorporating the various styles of their previous six releases and making for an assured, near-masterful record. As always with Nevermore, the past and the present coexist comfortably, as midtempo '80s American progressive metal gives way to more death-inspired churning and blastbeats. Jeff Loomis is as versatile a guitarist as he's ever been, and vocalist Warrell Dane, seemingly one of the last of a dying breed, pulls of some soaring, operatic yet restrained melodies that few American bands are willing to attempt these days. It starts very strongly, but late tracks "The Psalm of Lydia", "A Future Uncertain", and the epic title track serve up the kind of stylistic twists and turns that makes this band so damn great.
5. Nile, Annihilation of the Wicked (Relapse)
Many complained that Nile sounded too formulaic on its 2005 album, but really, if the formula works so well, why do anything different? While the drumming might be the centerpiece of other notable death albums by Cryptopsy and Hate Eternal, it's all about the guitar work as far as Nile is concerned. Karl Sanders and Dallas Toller-Wade let loose some of the most ligament-straining chord progressions and solos we've heard in a while (just listen to "The Burning Pits of the Duat"). And what production by Neil Kernon, who balances brute force and cleaner tones perfectly, best exemplified on the album's most listener-friendly track, "Lashed to the Slave Stick". This is old-school American death, impeccably performed and recorded (not to mention lyrically well-researched). Nile displays enough flash and verve to make an otherwise stale genre sound fresh again.
4. Behemoth, Demigod (Olympic)
Like Nile's album, Demigod boasts highly a highly polished sound, but the Polish band takes a much more accessible approach, focusing on more structured compositions (as opposed to the free-form style of most death metal) and more melodic solos, which works tremendously. The songs are much easier to absorb, simultaneously bludgeoning and catchy, the dense death metal tones offset by subtle hints of more theatrical, ornate black metal, best exemplified by "XUL", "Sculpting the Throne ov Seth", and the contagious "Conquer All". The disc comes to a rousing crescendo on the lengthy "The Reign of Shemsu-Hor", in which the band tosses in every gimmick you can imagine, the song never wavering from its focus, Behemoth displaying remarkable restraint in spite of the grandeur of it all. Demigod is aggressive enough to take chances, but grounded by enough harmonies and well-read lyrical content to prevent it from sounding too aloof for new listeners.
3. Between the Buried and Me, Alaska (Victory)
The most wildly inventive American metal release of the year, Alaska is possessed with such blind, gonzo ambition, it makes the rest of the American metalcore bands look like rank amateurs. It's one thing for a metal band to cop a style from one or two different metal subgenres, but in Between the Buried and Me's case, it employs every metal style imaginable, sometimes in a single track: progressive metal coexists with metalcore, Swedish death metal sits side by side with goth, math metal and grindcore mesh with black metal. It's completely nuts, as "All Bodies" and "Alaska" overflow with so many stylistic variations, one can hardly believe the two songs make up only ten minutes of the 50-minute CD. The longer the album goes on, the greater the revelations: "Selkies: The Endless Obsession" successfully cops the technical metal of Meshuggah and the more melodic side of Opeth; "Backwards Marathon" has vocalist Tommy Rogers switching from a death metal roar to a jaw-dropping falsetto; and the instrumental "Medicine Wheel" sounds inspired by Dead Can Dance. With so many surprises lurking around every corner, Alaska seems to unveil something new with each listen.
2. Clutch, Robot Hive/Exodus (DRT)
Clutch's eighth album might not be the most innovative metal album of the year, and hell, it borders on not being "metal" at all, but one thing's for certain: it's easily one of the most satisfying albums of this past year. After recording and touring doggedly for 14 years, Clutch finally got it right and released the album of its career. Southern rock has always lurked within Clutch's perpetually evolving sound, and on Robot Hive/Exodus, it finally rises to the surface. Continuing where 2004's Blast Tyrant left off, the quintet turns down the riffs and turns up the grooves, creating a stoner metal/jam band hybrid worthy of the title "Bonnarroo metal". A big reason for the improvement is new organist Mick Schauer, who adds a new dimension to the band, his Hammond B3 punctuating each song, adding much-needed depth. Meanwhile, singer Neil Fallon is at his demented best, proselytizing like a mad preacher, spewing impassioned stoner poetry about locust plagues, rockin' with Dokken, and binary code. If that weren't enough, Clutch tosses in a couple inspired blues covers; among them, a rip-roarin' rendition of Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Gravel Road", which switches from faithful homage to triumphant Southern rock explosion in the blink of an eye.
1.Opeth, Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner)
After the experimentation of 2002's Deliverance and 2003's Damnation comes Opeth's magnum opus, an utterly flawless, complete realization of Mikael Åkerfeldt's artistic vision, topping early masterpieces like Still Life and Blackwater Park. An exhilarating marriage of the haunted and the haunting, aggressive death metal commingles with gorgeous, undistorted melodies so seamlessly that the stylistic shifts sound natural, not arbitrary. The unflagging ambition of the Swedish band remains, as "Ghost of Perdition", "The Baying of the Hounds", and "Reverie/Harlequin Forest" are the kind of convoluted, meandering epics we've come to expect. This time around, Åkerfeldt is in full command of his songwriting skill, letting the songs run their natural course, yet never allowing any song to deteriorate into needless self-indulgence. New keyboardist Per Wiberg makes the Opeth sound even richer, specifically on "Beneath the Mire" and "The Baying of the Hounds". Still, Åkerfeldt remains Opeth's focal point, and he is in fine vocal form here, his death growl sounding demonic yet comprehensible, while the more intimate, cozy production suits his "clean" vocals well, as he displays tremendous range during mellower tracks like "Atonement" and the gorgeous "Isolation Years". The crown jewel of the entire disc is the stately "The Grand Conjuration", a perfect example of Opeth's newfound moderation, constructed around a simple primary riff, meandering languorously, shifting from explosions of distortion to hushed verses, for an enthralling ten minutes. The year's single most essential metal release, it is fully deserving of attention and respect from both fans and non-metal listeners, a dark, ghostly masterpiece that's more beautiful than skeptics can ever imagine.