In 2010, the metal world honored the memory of Ronnie James Dio in the coolest possible way: by making it the best year for new music the genre saw in a very long time.
In 2010, metal lost the single greatest voice it has ever known in Ronnie James Dio, which prompted an unprecedented wave of tributes from fans, musicians, and media alike. Dio's passing was indeed the biggest single metal story of the year, the most significant blow since the murder of Dimebag Darrell six years ago. But make no mistake -- despite the tragedy, we've been privy to some truly exciting releases over the past 12 months.
There were so many excellent albums put out by classic 1980s bands (including Iron Maiden, Overkill, Accept, Exodus, Armored Saint, Raven… even Ratt!) that at times it looked more like 1985 than 2010. Norwegian veterans Enslaved, Ihsahn, and Darkthrone came through with more vital music, while their peers in Dimmu Borgir became even more cartoonish than ever. Kylesa wasted no time in proving their breakthrough album was no fluke. Godflesh and Sleep played live shows again. Blake Judd kept challenging listeners by doing whatever the hell he felt like. Thomas Gabriel Fischer formed a new band after the demise of Celtic Frost and didn't miss a beat. A murderer, arsonist, and racist named Varg made his highly controversial return and came through with, in the minds of those who chose to separate the art from the artist, a surprisingly strong record. Sanford Parker produced so many consecutive great 2010 releases that it bordered on ridiculous.
While a disturbing number of unlistenable, talent-lacking young "metal" bands dominated mainstream charts, a handful of lesser-knowns reminded us that there are still plenty of American bands who know how to play traditional heavy metal. And small Canadian label Profound Lore strengthened its reputation as the very best label in all of metal, to the point now where they've got a stranglehold on the title.
In the end, the metal world honored the memory of Ronnie James Dio in the coolest possible way: by making this the best year for new music the genre has seen in a very long time. In fact, it was such a good year, with such a vast array of different styles of metal bands in this rich, diverse genre, that we would be remiss not to list 20 additional honorable mentions, in alphabetical order:
Accept - Blood of the Nations (Nuclear Blast), Across Tundras - Old World Wanderer (self-released), Armored Saint - La Raza (Metal Blade), Burzum - Belus (Byelobog), Cathedral - The Guessing Game (Nuclear Blast), The Crown - Doomsday King (Century Media), Daughters - Daughters (Hydra Head), Deathspell Omega - Paracletus (Season of Mist), Les Discrets - Septembre et Ses Dernières Pensées (Prophecy), Mar de Grises - Streams Inwards (Season of Mist), Melvins - The Bride Screamed Murder (Ipecac), Misery Index - Heirs to Thievery (Relapse), Negură Bunget - Vîrstele Pămîntului (Code 666), Overkill - Ironbound (Nuclear Blast), Rotting Christ - Aealo (Season of Mist), Slough Feg - The Animal Spirits (Profound Lore), Soilwork - The Panic Broadcast (Nuclear Blast), The Sword - Warp Riders (Kemado), Vasaeleth - Crypt Born and Tethered to Ruin (Profound Lore), Weapon - From the Devil's Tomb (Ajna Offensive)
20. Three Southern Lord Bands Recorded By Kurt Ballou - Heavy Breathing [Southern Lord]
I know, this is cheating, but the 2010 albums by Black Breath, the Secret, and Nails are so equally strong -- thanks in large part to the phenomenal tone by Ballou -- that you can't single one out without giving the others their due. Black Breath's Entombed homage (some might say rip-off) on Heavy Breathing is exuberant, no-frills fun. The Secret, whose Luce won us over six years ago, came through with Solve et Coagula, the best crust/metal hybrid since Cursed. Then there's Nails, whose d-beat hardcore on the scorching Unsilent Death (originally released earlier this year on Six Feet Under Records) is as irresistible as Disfear, and dare I say, Discharge.
19. High on Fire - Snakes for the Divine [E1]
The inimitable Matt Pike continue to be as reliable as ever, but like their past couple of records, he's not above experimenting just a little. Snakes for the Divine sees the trio cleaning up their sound with producer Greg Fidelman, with the riffs more thrash-oriented than sludge/doom, Des Kensel's drums mixed up front in Lombardo-like fashion, and Pike's unholy bellow prominent to the point where we can actually hear what he's hollering about for once. The tactic paid off, as the album turned out to be High on Fire's highest charting release to date.
18. Gnaw Their Tongues - L'Arrivée De La Terne Mort Triomphante [Crucial Blast]
The bazillionth release in four years by Dutch multi-instrumentalist Mories as Gnaw Their Tongues couldn't be more aptly titled. Translated as "death in all its ineffable grandeur," this album artfully meshes black metal, industrial, dark ambient, and even a tough of neoclassical, and comes up with something as beautiful as it is harrowing. A lot more refined than 2009's disturbing All the Dread Magnificence of Perversity, it's a surprisingly accessible piece of work, one where even at its densest it's underscored by a haunting melody that slowly envelops the listener.
17. Ghost - Opus Eponymous [Rise Above]
Permanently stuck in 1978, this enigmatic Swedish band delivers a theatrical take on Satanic heavy metal that's made all the more unsettling by its simplicity. Tracks like "Con Clavi Con Dio" and "Ritual" are infectiously catchy, yet at the same time, the anonymous lead singer sells the Devil shtick with the fervor and falsetto of King Diamond. So insidious is Opus Eponymous that you find yourself singing along ebulliently, "This chapel of ritual smells of dead human sacrifices from the altar," before realizing just what the song's about.
16. Ihsahn - After [Candlelight]
Since starting his post-Emperor solo career basically from scratch, it's been a slow, steady evolution for Ihsahn, but on his third release, it's the first time it feels like we're hearing the artist finding his true voice. A blend of straightforward black metal influences with more progressive rock-oriented fare, it's not unlike what Enslaved has been doing, but with his knack for smooth vocal melodies, his disciplined songwriting, and the inclusion of Shining saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby, he's created something quite unique, exemplified perfectly on the standout "On the Shores".
15. Ratt - Infestation [Roadrunner]
Many '80s pop metal relics have still been puttering along putting out new music, but nobody saw this coming. The best singles band from that era, Ratt not only reunited for a seventh album, but managed to totally recapture the feel and swagger of their 1983-86 period: sharp, nimble riffs, unapologetically lascivious lyrics, and hooks aplenty. It hearkens back to a time when melodic metal/hard rock was fun. Songs like "Best of Me", "Eat Me Up Alive", and "Lost Weekend" make this the finest Ratt 'n' Roll record since Dancing Undercover.
14. Shining - Blackjazz [The End]
Following up 2007's excellent Grindstone, Norwegian experimental band Shining decided to capture the staggering intensity of their live shows more accurately on their fifth record, and the end result is a loud, frenetic slice of prog/math/jazz. Drums deliver lurching cadences reminiscent of the Jesus Lizard, synths echo the hyperkinetic sounds of Genghis Tron, guitars shred like the Dillinger Escape Plan, while bandleader Jørgen Munkeby (there's that name again) ties it all together with his insane vocals and crazed sax solos, making for yet another gem by a constantly surprising group.
13. Ludicra - The Tenant [Profound Lore]
The San Francisco favorites returned after a four year absence with the strongest album of their career, a seven-song meditation on loneliness amidst the urban sprawl. The way the quintet incorporates traditional heavy metal into their black metal-influenced compositions has always been their strong suit, but it's especially noteworthy here. Nuanced melodies, be they from voice or guitar, open a crack of light on to the darkness, with John Cobbett's wonderful, NWOBHM-worthy solos providing payoff after emotional payoff.
12. Kvelertak - Kvelertak [Independent]
Part Converge, part Stooges, part Turbonegro, this debut by the young Norwegian band is some of the most fun you'll have all year. Produced by the always-reliable Kurt Ballou, Kvelertak balances ferocity and accessibility with ease. The vocals might be delivered in an ungodly scream, but the arrangements are so hook-laden that it's easy to get taken in by the exuberance of it all. We might not know what the hell these guys are saying (save for the gleefully inebriated "Mjød", the metal single of 2010), but when it's this catchy, who cares?
11. Yakuza - Of Seismic Consequence [Profound Lore]
For the longest time a band that hinted at big things but never quite got there, Chicago band Yakuza took a major step towards greatness with their fifth album. Bruce Lamont's jazz saxophone continues to interweave with the rest of the band's churning blend of hardcore and Neurosis-style doom, but the songwriting is so much stronger, with dynamics used to superb effect. Better yet, Lamont's trancelike clean singing voice has improved greatly and is placed prominently in the mix, which only adds to the record's hallucinatory aspect.
10. Christian Mistress - Agony & Opium [20 Buck Spin]
Stylistically, there's nothing new about Christian Mistress at all, but the Portland, Oregon, band's take on traditional, NWOBHM-inspired heavy metal is one of the most refreshing sounds to come out of American metal in years. Songs like "Riding on the Edges", "Poison Path", and "Home in the Sun" are raw, furious rockers in the vein of Angel Witch, but it's tough-yet-tender-voiced singer Christine Davis who's the key ingredient here, her unique style giving the music more character than any tarted-up child cover girl for Revolver magazine could ever hope to manage.
9. Castevet - Mounds of Ash [Profound Lore]
Another year, another debut album by a band the black metal purists will decry as "false" because the band mixes genres and isn't Satanic. The scene police can caterwaul all they want, but the rest of us can sit back and enjoy what Castevet does on Mounds of Ash, combining two sounds that many would never have figured would fit: raw black metal and noisecore. Not only that, but this trio can write songs, the seven tracks ebbing and flowing so gracefully we barely even notice that those are actually horns on "Wreathed in Smoke".
8. Dawnbringer - Nucleus [Profound Lore]
Not so much a traditional metal record than a simple, energetic tribute to everything that's great about heavy metal music in general, this album by the underrated Chicago band is the year's biggest surprise. Led by Chris Black, who is actually best known for his work with Nachtmystium, Nucleus dives headfirst into metal cliché, from Maiden-esque gallops and twin leads, to thrash riffs inspired by Kill 'Em All, to the arena rock of UFO, to the proto-black metal of Bathory. You can't claim to like metal and not love this record.
7. Triptykon - Eparistera Daimones / Shatter EP [Century Media]
Essentially an extension of the incarnation of Celtic Frost we heard on the 2006 masterpiece Monotheist, Thomas Gabriel Fischer's new band doesn't lose a step on the hugely anticipated follow-up. After an extended period of creative dormancy, the Swiss metal legend is on a massive creative roll, and Eparistera Daimones feels timeless: provocative, atmospheric, and as "The Prolonging" attests, astoundingly heavy. It's also worth noting the companion Shatter EP as well, as the title track proves to be the strongest song on the two must-own records.
6. Kylesa - Spiral Shadow [Season of Mist]
Savannah, Georgia's Kylesa have been making significant strides with each new release, but their fifth album outdoes everything they've done in the past, a simultaneously bruising yet very accessible record that couldn't give a damn about genre limitations. The headphone-friendly production trounces 2009's breakthrough Static Tensions, the songwriting is bold yet disciplined (incorporating sludge, psychedelic rock, and classic 1990s indie), the two drummer set-up continues to show surprising subtlety, and the dual lead vocals of guitarists Phillip Cope and Laura Pleasants complement each other perfectly. Scooch over, Mastodon and Baroness, you've got some company at the top.
5. Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier [Universal]
Fifteen albums in, some 35 years after forming, Iron Maiden continues to astound. Rather than complacently putting out passable albums while performing the old standards time and again, they keep challenging themselves and daring their fans to come along for the ride. The 76-minute The Final Frontier is one of the most ambitious albums they've ever put together, a rousing combination of stadium rockers and labyrinthine epics that plays to every one of the sextet's strengths.
Infectious, catchy fare like "El Dorado", "Mother of Mercy", and the title track eventually give way to daring, progressive-oriented material, led by the explosive "The Talisman" and classic-in-the-making "Isle of Avalon". A true communal effort with every band member making significant contributions, Maiden came through with flying colors, and better yet, the world responded, as the album topped the charts in 30 countries. No metal band, and few rock bands for that matter, has ever sounded this relevant this late into their career.
4. Enslaved - Axioma Ethica Odini [Nuclear Blast]
Enslaved's gradual, graceful metamorphosis from Norwegian black metal pioneers to progressive metal stalwarts has been very fun to watch, but as strong as past studio experiments like Ruun and Vertebrae have been, one thing they've been unable to nail is capturing their live power accurately. Compared to the rather even-keeled sound of their recent albums, the aggressive approach on Axioma Ethica Odini is a big surprise.
A return to the chilly heaviness of the landmark Below the Lights, the album explodes out of the gate, but the deeper we get into it, the more we hear the prog rock elements rising to the surface. The guitar solos are more expressive than just empty shredding, while keyboardist Herbrand Larsen ditches the David Gilmour impersonation for some shockingly beautiful singing that offsets the grim snarl of bassist Grutle Kjellson nicely. Everything comes to a head on the towering closing track "Lightening", as the entire band's mastery of dynamics -- a skill often ignored by young extreme metal bands -- makes for a sublime end result.
3. Alcest - Écailles de Lune [Prophecy]
Three years after the jaw-dropping Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde, Stéphane "Neige" Paut returned with a follow-up that sidesteps the themes of youth's innocence and pastoral settings, moving out of the sunlight and into the shadows. The result is the nocturnal, moody Écailles de Lune, which sees Neige creating an even richer sound than ever before. A master of blending black metal influences with classic shoegaze and dreampop, he shows remarkable musical growth on Alcest's second full-length, balancing the seemingly disparate styles with ease while showing improved strength and confidence as a singer.
Harsh vocals are brought out from time to time for effect, which certainly adds to this record's dark element, but Neige's most significant achievement is the pure lushness of the songwriting and the arrangements, as time and again he hits us with soft explosions of sound that instantly hearken back to Slowdive, a track like "Solar Song" showing us he would have been perfectly at home on 4AD Records 20 years ago.
2. Nachtmystium - Addicts: Black Meddle Part 2 [Century Media]
We all knew Blake Judd & Co. would have some surprises up their sleeves when Nachtmystium's fifth album came out, but it's doubtful anyone could have expected what the band pulls off on Addicts. After a cursory "See, we can still play it" black metal track, the songs run the proverbial gamut. Judd throws practically everything at the wall, and incredibly, it all sticks: "Nightfall" marries Queens of the Stone Age and Killing Joke, "Blood Trance Fusion" incorporates goth and industrial, "Ruined Life Continuum" shamelessly rips off Joy Division, while the haunting "Every Last Drop" is a dark metal epic, the perfect mood piece if you want to be cripplingly depressed. However, it's "No Funeral" that packs the biggest wallop, an absolutely audacious foray into dance groove that dares metal fans to drop their prejudices, uncross their arms, and move. Fluke, or masterstroke? Either way, you can't deny Judd caught lightning in a bottle with this album.
1. Agalloch - Marrow of the Spirit [Profound Lore]
It was practically a given that Agalloch would not disappoint when they ended their long, four-year wait for their fourth full-length, but as optimistic as many of us were, it's safe to say that Marrow of the Spirit far exceeded expectations. Before October, the number one slot on this list was a toss-up between three or four titles; when this one came along and slowly won over yours truly more and more with each listen, the choice for the best metal album of the year was an easy one.
The sumptuous blend of folk, post-rock, and black metal that has played a major role in the Portland, Oregon, band's music since 1999 is still present, but this particular album is far more challenging, as its seven songs subtly expand Agalloch's sound further than ever before. Striking cello melodies reminiscent of Kronos Quartet bookend the album in cinematic fashion, the intense yet beautiful "Into the Painted Grey" finds a middle ground between primal extreme metal and moments of aching beauty, and the gorgeous "Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires" incorporates the Cure's melancholy tones into metal as well as anyone has.
Best of all is the 17-minute centerpiece "Black Lake Nidstång", a progressive metal epic that is almost krautrock-like in its form and willingness to experiment. When it comes to forward-thinking, poetic, life-affirming metal music in 2010, it doesn't get any better than this.
This article was originally published on 23 December 2010.