Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

The 20 Best Metal Albums of 2017

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man’s inhumanity.

Some might say that this year we can throw that mirror away, since cruelty glares menacingly at us around every corner or tap of a phone screen. That does indeed seem to be the case, but the emotions in the aftermath of what we experience still need to be processed, and the chaos, pain, and hard fought resolve found in heavy music can go towards our understanding and healing. PopMatters’ Best Metal of 2017 list is a collaborative effort by writers with different tastes, and yet, there is common ground found between all 20 albums chosen below despite musical differences: the ability to provide cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right we need it most. – Dean Brown

20. Cloak: To Venomous Depths (Season of Mist)

Cloak take their cues from a variety of stylistic corners (black metal, death metal, glimmers of NWOBHM and even prog) and lay waste to our ears on this near hour-long adventure. If the hair on your arms doesn’t stand on end during “Within the Timeless Black” and “Beyond the Veil”, it may be time to rethink your musical affinities. While elsewhere, the 10-minute “Deep Red” is a great closer, thrilling enough to make your blood stand still once or twice throughout its run-time. Cloak are clearly a band out to carve a niche of their own. – Jedd Beaudoin

19. Mastodon: Emperor of Sand (Reprise)

With a concept about a nomad who has been handed a death sentence at its core,
Emperor of Sand takes on themes of death and dying with unexpected clarity and profundity. That doesn’t mean that the heft of Mastodon’s new material gets in the way of the listener having a good time, however. Singles “Show Yourself” and “Steambreather” demonstrate plenty of the collective’s hook-writing strengths, while “Roots Remain” and “Jaguar God” sweeten the deal. This is a decidedly smart and, yes, mature album from one of metal’s greatest modern bands. – Jedd Beaudoin

18. Succumb: Succumb (The Flenser)

Succumb’s first full-length is an old-school album in a modern guise. Fuelled by the extreme metal spirit of the early ’80s, in all its thrash and proto-death metal glory,
Succumb takes on the attitude of yesteryear and combines it with a clear, modern production courtesy of Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Oathbreaker). The band’s schizoid lead work, heavy groove, and technical aptitude coupled with vocalist Cheri Musrasrik’s insane delivery makes Succumb one of the strongest metal debuts to come out in 2017. – Spyros Stasis

17. Ex Eye: Ex Eye (Relapse)

This was inevitable, right? Colin Stetson, one of the greatest saxophonists of our generation was always going to find an opportunity to meddle with the technical side of extreme metal, and that is exactly what
Ex Eye is about. Alongside him are three excellent musicians in Greg Fox (Liturgy, Zs), Shahzad Ismaily (Secret Chiefs 3) and Toby Summerfield, and together they go into an sharp recital that ranges from black metal to free jazz by means of abstract and experimental notions, guided by the free-falling dynamism of improvisation. – Spyros Stasis

16. Royal Thunder: WICK (Spinefarm)

WICK is the least immediate album in Royal Thunder’s short but impressive discography, the band’s ever-improving song-writing prowess is undeniable after repeat listens. The Atlanta, Georgia four-piece’s shrewd musicality honed in on forming a versatile base for the gritty, passionate and hook-wielding vocals of front-woman Mlny Parsonz, a fiery blues singer with an old soul and demons to chase. Due to its seamless transitions, atmospheric layering and tight, song-servicing performances, WICK is proof positive that Royal Thunder have an ageless nature—kind of like metal’s own Fleetwood Mac. – Dean Brown

15. Spirit Adrift: Curse of Conception (20 Buck Spin)

Spirit Adrift’s turned into a break-out heavy metal act this year with the release of their second full-length album,
Curse of Conception. There are very few musicians capable of writing and arranging riffs like Metallica did in their prime, yet multi-instrumentalist Nate Garrett (also of Gatecreeper) does so singlehandedly, as heard during the neo-classical opening moments of “Earthbound” or the stunning harmonising solo section of the title track. Like Pallbearer, doom metal might be Spirit Adrift’s foundational sound, but Garrett is also not satisfied to just hurl out second-rate Iommic riffs. Instead he clearly wants his band to be world-beaters – you can hear his ambition in the melodically rich and powerful music – and we will put our money on it that Garrett will achieve this goal in the future. – Dean Brown

14. Elder: Reflections of a Floating World (Armageddon Record Shop)

Elder are master craftsmen at layering riffs into vast tapestries that have the technical nous usually displayed by a math rock band but with the classicism of prog/psych rock, and the swingin’ groove and might of doom. In other words, their career-best album,
Reflections of a Floating World, sounds as though multiple David Gilmours are jamming Josh Homme’s riffs from Kyuss’s Blues for the Red Sun. Sure, the strained clean vocals may be a sticking point for some listeners at times, but the grandstanding guitar heroics on display throughout are jaw-dropping enough to quell any minor criticisms. – Dean Brown

13. Aosoth: V: The Inside Scriptures (Agonia)

The legendary French black metal band have manifested the fifth chapter in their discography, and continue to expand the ever-growing musical heritage of their country’s respected underground metal scene. Looking back at the Aosoth’s previous records and their progress, it feels as though
V: The Inside Scriptures is the final stage of their transformation. Brutal and uncompromising, with an additional dose of ’90s death metal wrath, Aosoth switch their modus operandi to include a more direct and heavy assault, altering their usual dark atmospherics into something much more potent. – Spyros Stasis

12. Power Trip: Nightmare Logic (Southern Lord)

Not many bands stirred as much fire in the hearts of metal listeners this year as Power Trip. The Texas quintet’s latest offering,
Nightmare Logic, fuels comparisons to Crass and Discharge while summoning memories of thrash’s earliest, finest years. The arrangements are taut, while the lyrical content focuses its attention on big pharma (“Waiting Around to Die”) and metal’s perennial favorite—religious hypocrisy (“Crucifixtion”). Does it help that guitarists Blake Ibanez and Nick Stewart give us more than a little reason to woodshed via “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)”? Undoubtedly. The only thing one could image going down better than this LP is catching Power Trip tear up a live arena. – Jedd Beaudoin

11. Code Orange: Forever (Roadrunner)

2017 was Code Orange’s year. The young hardcore band, now three albums deep, have pounded their potential into dust and emerged triumphant with a statement-making Roadrunner debut under their belts, WWE live performances smashed, and the acclaim of both the critics (a Grammy nomination) and influential metal veterans such as Randy Blythe and Corey Taylor. By incorporating Youth Code-esque industrial elements, alternative rock song-writing sensibilities (album highlight “Bleeding in the Blur”), false stops and starts and other studio trickery into their confrontational hardcore and noise rock, Code Orange have gifted us the most exhilarating ‘first listen’ album this year—a bruising thrill-ride we are happy to take over and over. – Dean Brown

10. Akercocke: Renaissance in Extremis (Peaceville)

Comebacks are never easy, since some of the magic and purpose that existed before is usually lost in the process. Akercocke’s return after ten years is the exception to that rule, as the band immediately found their footing and unleashed a work that can proudly stand next to their two strongest releases—
Choronzon and Words that Go Unspoken, Deeds that Go Undone. With focus on their death metal identity, the band still uses their blackened aura to cloak the sound in a thick veil of mystical energy, while their progressive tendencies are sharper than ever. – Spyros Stasis

9. Enslaved: E (Nuclear Blast)

While still a preeminent progressive metal act, there was a disconcerting sense of familiarity starting to creep into Enslaved’s music over the course of their previous two albums. Keyboardist/vocalist/guitarist Herbrand Larsen’s departure from the band and the addition of his talented replacement, Håkon Vinje (a young musician who dreamed of being Deep Purple’s Jon Lord growing up), have given the Norse kings the impetus to shake up their song-writing and they sound revitalized and focused on the exquisite
E, arguably their heaviest, most evocative and adventurous album since 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini. – Dean Brown

8. Dodecahedron: Kwintessens (Season of Mist)

At an age where experimentation in black metal usually comes with post-metal infusions and/or shoegaze aesthetics, Dutch nihilists Dodecahedron move into the avant-garde sound of the late ’90s and project the nightmarish vision of Dødheimsgard
in perfect view. Long-form tracks, pure dissonance and disregard to offer any sort of respite to the listener, Kwintessens moves through the philosophical dimensions of the band’s concept, and by each passing minute Dodecahedron accelerate their complexity and thicken their layering, to form a relentless result. – Spyros Stasis

7. Spectral Voice: Eroded Corridors of Unbeing (Dark Descent)

While Blood Incantation’s death metal probes the cosmos in search of esoteric answers, Spectral Voice, the death-doom band which shares three members with BI, plow downwards towards the universe’s dank and pitiless core. Their highly anticipated first full-length arrives in a year jammed with noteworthy debuts and still manages to devour all like a sudden, seismic earthquake. Spectral Voice take the listener through a transformative experience, channeling extreme magick sourced from the unholy wells of Finnish funeral doom, US/UK death-doom and the Aussie otherness of diSEMBOWELMENT. – Dean Brown

6. Endon: Through the Mirror (Hydra Head)

There are extreme bands, and then there is Endon. The Japanese act continues to bend every aspect of the extreme music spectrum into a single, consolidated form. Black metal and noise, industrial and grindcore, free-improv and experimentalism alongside blues, all fit in Endon’s vision of destruction. As curious as we are to uncover what it is that Endon found through the mirror, it’s probably best that we do not know since this album is enough of a hellish ride through the band’s unique mindset. – Spyros Stasis

5. Rebirth of Nefast: Tabernaculum (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)

It took over a decade of obsessive creation for Rebirth of Nefast mastermind Stephen Lockhart to feel satisfied enough to release
Tabernaculum upon the world. For those of us who keenly awaited this album, the time it took to finish was entirely justified now that it is out. The Ireland-born/Iceland-based multi-instrumentalist/producer showcases a masterful command of death/black metal aesthetics, composition and execution throughout Tabernaculum, to the point where you could tell that not a moment of this debut is out of alignment. Such songwriting precision and resounding album production does not come at the expense of soul, however, and Lockhart’s erudite thematic depth perfectly suits the enigmatic label he has partnered with. – Dean Brown

4. Pyrrhon: What Passes for Survival (Willowtip)

It is always good to see a band warp the norms of an established genre in an attempt to deliver their own interpretation of the ethics and philosophy of the scene. Pyrrhon have been on such a course since their formation, bending technical brutal death metal to their own will. They have released their most convincing attempt towards that end with
What Passes for Survival. Apart from the usual death metal influences, grindcore leanings and twisted technical ability, the band utilize slower pacing—which increases the weight of their sound—and have crafted a record which appears boundless. – Spyros Stasis

3. Converge: The Dusk in Us (Epitaph

Nobody could ever accuse Converge of resting on their laurels. The Boston hardcore legends have always aimed to expand hardcore’s parameters through experimentation with outlier styles; and the great thing about this band is that, no matter what they try, it still sounds like Converge. From the ’90s screamo-influenced “A Single Tear” to more typical hardcore ragers like “I Can Tell You About Pain”, “Wildlife” and “Cannibals”, to the expansive post-metal of the title track, the straight-up noise rock of “Trigger” (their catchiest song yet), and the cleanly sung and downcast “Thousands of Miles Between Us”,
The Dusk in Us is paced perfectly. Stylistically, it’s on par with Axe to Fall as the most varied album of their lengthy career. – Dean Brown

2. Pallbearer: Heartless (Profound Lore/Nuclear Blast)

Every album/tour cycle seems to give Pallbearer’s members greater confidence in their individual abilities and collective chemistry.
Heartless, their fourth album and the first they’ve self-produced, is the crowning jewel of their lauded discography to date. While doom still forms their central inspiration, these players are influenced by much more than that. Previous album Foundations of Burden displayed prog rock flair for the first time, and now they’ve taken that genre’s dexterity further within the context of doom while also drawing upon the timelessness of traditional heavy metal. Pallbearer’s supreme melodic instrumental interplay and statuesque riffs, sky-searching guitar solos and emotional, rousing vocals all come to a heart-wrenching conclusion on “A Plea for Understanding”, their most affecting song yet and perhaps a glimpse of their future. – Dean Brown

1. Bell Witch: Mirror Reaper (Profound Lore)

Doom-death has been going through a renaissance of sorts, with many acts spawning on the scene, releasing works of melancholic darkness and unbearable heaviness. From Loss to Lycus, and Funeral Moth to Fórn, the list is almost endless; but one band that stands above the rest—Bell Witch. The Seattle-based band unleashes their most devastating work in
Mirror Reaper, their first album following the tragic passing of ex-drummer Adrian Guerra. The 83-minute long opus passes through all the modes of extreme doom-death—the sorrowful manifestations, sonic grandeur, deep vocals and ceremonial pacing—to produce an emotionally and physically draining pivotal moment in the history of extreme metal. – Spyros Stasis