Sammy O’Hagar’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2014
America loves a good redemptive arc. Even despite our raging hard-on for blaming people for circumstances that may be beyond their control, we love knowing that someone down on their luck could reemerge with a revitalized sense of purpose. And redemption was huge this year: A Prince record that’s easily the best thing he’s done since the mid-‘90s. Rust Cohle reintroducing the world to that “alright alright alright” guy. A Mike Tyson TV show to get those white tigers out of repot. A fairly enjoyable Weezer record in lieu of the chores they’ve been releasing for a decade. Shit, there was even a free U2 album that was way better than any of the ones put out exclusively by Best Buy or whatever. Rapidly aging mainstays proved why they’re, well, staying main. Upstarts continue bucking the anesthetized Clear Channel-ing of radio rock and pop. At its best, 2014’s music reintroduced the idea of hope back into waking life 5+ years after it was used as a marketing ploy.
This isn’t to say the year’s been a good one. (How bleak was this year? Bill Cosby was outed as a serial rapist and Robin Williams killed himself. I mean… Jesus.) But during a time of social upheaval not seen in earnest since the ‘60s, there’s still metal. And metal, completely unsurprisingly, made its presence count. The year was yet again filled with newly minted classics, worthwhile additions to excellent catalogs, and, yes, bands and/or genres redeeming themselves after years of uneasiness. We’re most likely entering a new boom in the guillotine industry, but as the shit continues its steady contact with the fan, there’s more than enough heavy catharsis to itch that window-breaking urge. To paraphrase one last year’s best reissues, sit back, maybe get into that new Yob or Origin record, and we’ll watch as the palaces burn.
Some have dubbed this the Year of the EP (alright, no one’s called it that exactly), so I figured it’d be appropriate to include the one I dug the most. This isn’t a shallow honor: blackened d-beatcore shitstirrers Anti Ritual beat out whippersnappers like Down and Godflesh, (whose Decline & Fall EP I may have liked a little more than their new full length) with a quick barrage of concentrated chaos. It’s an IED of white-knuckled hardcore, hateful black metal, and burly grind. Imagine if Rotten Sound put out their take on A Blaze in the Northern Sky: it still wouldn’t be as lean and nasty as Anti Ritual’s debut.
Listen: “No Second Earth”
In a summer filled with ball-drenching heat that culminated in the debutante ball for America’s Tiananmen-esque police state, Wo Fat provided both sympathy and relief. But more importantly, they provided deep-fried, fuzzy stoner doom. More accurately summoning Kyuss than Kyuss Lives!, the most remarkable thing about The Conjuring is how fun and vital it sounded: if you’d told me this time last year that one of my favorite records would be filled with hazy stoner rock and out-and-out JAMMING, I would have slapped you. Slapped you right in your goddamn mouth. Also, I would ask who you were and why you were inquiring about my year-end list for 2014.
Listen: “Read the Omens”
Before 2014, we’d been taking Jeff Loomis for granted (Lord knows Arch Enemy sure don’t anymore). Yes, his fretwork in Nevermore was unimpeachable; however, there was so much other excellence going on with them that it made Loomis look more like a useful piece than an essential organ. Not so with Conquering Dystopia, a band filled with ringers (Alex Webster? Alex Rüdinger? Which death metal nerd flipped through his wet dream Rolodex to staff this band??) to complement Loomis and Keith Merrow’s near-constant barrage of 50-ton riffs. Nevermind that the band doesn’t have a vocalist: every one of the 53 minutes on their debut is lush and vivid, saying more than a Warrel Dane knockoff ever could. And while there was a lot of transcendent metal this year, there wasn’t a lot of it that came close to topping Conquering Dystopia’s closer “Destroyer of Dreams.” Overwrought metal nerd prose does it no justice. The band very ably speak for themselves.
Listen: “Destroyer of Dreams”
Hipsters have done their best to drive doom into the ground over the last decade. Hell, the genre’s been on the ropes the last few years. Not so in 2014: you could very easily assemble a top 15 list comprised solely of doom releases and have it be perfectly valid. And while Coffinworm aren’t a straight-up doom band (they’ve got a ton of strip-mined black metal in there, too), IV.I.VIII is certainly near the top of the 2014 doom heap. That says a lot considering their company (Crowbar, Indian, Pallbearer, other bands coming up on this list). While the charm of some of 2014’s plethora of excellent doom lost a bit of its luster over the year, the curdled, diseased charm of IV.I.VIII never waned. If anything, it waxed magnificently.
Listen: “Lust Vs. Vengeance”
Gridlink mastered short-form tech-grind on their first two releases, so having their final release display a ton of progress is a cruel joke. But because their tightly-wound approach couldn’t lend itself to bloated experimentation, having the excellent Longehna serve as their swansong is completely appropriate. Yes, opener “Constant Autumn” and “Island Sun” clock in at over 2 minutes (or almost twice the length of the longest songs on their first two releases), but that’s not to say that the band’s charm still doesn’t lie in impossibly fast and dense microbursts. Longehna on the whole has a 70-minute album’s emotional breadth jammed into a package almost too small to hold it. Almost, though. Everything is carefully considered and executed. Gridlink burned too hard and fast to keep going, but that was kind of the point. They’ll still be dearly missed.
Goatwhore’s ability to thoroughly top their last record every time is both impressive and troublesome. Constricting the Rage of the Merciless is easily the best thing they’ve done so far, maybe even making their back catalog a non-entity. Whether the militant charge that powers “Reanimated Sacrifice” and “Unraveling Paradise” or the straight-up party riffs of “Baring Teeth for Revolt” and “FBS,” Goatwhore come close to being mechanical in their delivery of top-shelf, bullet belted metal. But the humanity’s still there, occasionally tipping its hand and revealing the grown teenagers in the band paying homage to Venom and Celtic Frost. But that doesn’t make them warm or relatable: Constricting the Rage of the Merciless still puts off the vibe that Goatwhore would skin you alive just to wear you as a poncho.
Listen: ‘”Baring Teeth for Revolt”
There’s been no band quite as grim and brutal in equal measure as Belphegor this year. Scientifically, that makes Conjuring the Dead a pretty big achievement. Black metal usually isn’t this heavy, and death metal usually isn’t this layered and dark. I don’t think many bands in either genre produced something as genuinely unsettling as the opening of “Lucifer, Take Her!” They’re neither silly ice giant nor scowling, elitist longhair. They’re just destructive—and maybe more so than ever—on Conjuring the Dead.
Listen: “Lucifer, Take Her!”
Eparistera Daimones was a pretty good metal record. But coming off of Celtic Frost’s peerless comeback/swansong Monotheist, one couldn’t help thinking that Triptykon were a pretty good retread instead of a separate and equal entity. Melana Chasmata thankfully sounds like the band clicking into place. Like Monotheist, it touches on all the hallmarks of Tom G. Warrior—big, moaning doom riffs, snarling thrash and death metal, and proto-black metal that simultaneously sounds new. Chasmata is monolithically dense and pitch black; for as bleak as latter day Celtic Frost and Triptykon were, this is new unhallowed ground. Yeah, it’s probably due to personal circumstances, but out of that trauma came Triptykon in earnest. Melana Chasmata is as confident and flawless as one would expect it to be. This is Triptykon’s arrival in earnest, and the world is simultaneously a better and worse place for it.
Listen: “Black Snow”
The problem with Agalloch is that they can make records that come off more interesting than they actually are. For every Ashes Against the Grain, there’s a smoke & mirrors take on grandiosity like the decent-but-flawed Marrow of the Spirit. Fortunately, The Serpent and the Sphere is classic Agalloch reservedly inching itself out further into the stylistic wilderness. For a band as broodingly epic as them, Sphere is still remarkably huge. Indulging in their post-metal journeymaking alongside their ably-executed folk and black metal, the record is an endearing reminder of what’s great about Agalloch. Which in the case of The Serpent and the Sphere is damn near everything.
Listen: “The Astral Dialogue”
Gorguts squiggliness over a gurgling tech-death tar made for a surprisingly diverse and palatable record in Labyrinth Constellation. In lieu of Artificial Brain getting lost up their own asses, they simply wrote some of the weirdest metal riffs I’ve heard in a while. And live, well, they’re a band that needs to be seen to be believed. If anything, 2014 belonged to the skinny, dorky longhair yelling “ABSORBING BLACK IGNITION!” between songs when I saw them a little while back. What a fucking debut, huh?
Listen: “Absorbing Black Ignition”
The dangerous, diseased yang to Neurosis’ weathered, soulful ying, Lord Mantis may take the crown for the best doom record in a very crowded year. And like Coffinworm, they pilfer more than a little from death and black metal to get the mood right. And that mood was nauseating: from the punch-drunk sludge of “Body Choke” to the upsettingly dynamic “Three Crosses,” Lord Mantis execute a commendable balancing act between overly vile and insufficiently fetid, producing something fascinating and moving. There’s something off about Lord Mantis, but the issue isn’t that it doesn’t color within doom’s lines; it’s that there’s still something human to be found in music this uncompromisingly repellent.
Listen: “Death Mask”
I wouldn’t say I’d given up on black metal, but I hadn’t heard any that made me feel good about where it was. (Even Taake’s Norges Vaapen was more impressive tribute than revitalizing force.) But Spectral Lore dropped a Peter Jackson trilogy’s worth of expansive, intricate black metal into our laps on III. It runs the gamut from angular Deathspell Omega/Blut Aus Nord blackened abstraction to Dissection-grade melodic black metal. Yes, there are post-whatever and folk elements, but they’re natural extensions of black metal’s grouchy MO. III is a metal record to get lost in, complete with 6-7 unimpeachably grim epics. Black metal’s still good, guys. At least for now.
Speaking of redemptions, this record. It’s been a hard 7 or 8 years to be a Mastodon fan: the “OH I’M SORRY BUT CAN’T BANDS NOT BE HEAVY?” snipes have been near-constant, ignoring the fact that people like me didn’t dislike Crack the Skye and The Hunter because they lacked heaviness; they just weren’t very good. Once More ‘round the Sun makes that point for me. Mastodon are clearly very uninterested in getting back to Remission territory, but where they’ve traveled to instead makes sense. No more awkward attempts at Rush and King Crimson concept records or, well, bad music. Instead, the band produced a pastiche of beautifully earnest and catchy hard rock. The wonderful irony of Once More ‘round the Sun is that Baroness needed to move beyond sounding like Mastodon to flourish, while Mastodon apparently needed to start sounding like Baroness to get back into the groove.
Listen: “The Motherload”
And speaking further on redemption, Tombs’ Paths of Totality is a perfectly fine record. However, it sounded like a more refined version of Winter Songs, whose charm was in how raw and unrefined it was. So instead of rehashing that approach a third time, Tombs took a sharp right into something just as impressive as their debut (if not superior). In lieu of veering deeper into hardcore, Mike Hill and the gang instead decided to get really fucking black metal on Savage Gold. The results are achingly sad and bulldoggish, moody and fierce with a wet and heavy heart. I believe in Tombs once again, and I’m really fucking excited to see where they go from here.
By now, you probably figured this would be on top. Shit, even I knew this would probably be the case back when I first heard it in January. Nothing topped Behemoth’s career moment, capping off around two decades of cagey black metal and brilliantly heavy blackened death. The difference between The Satanist and the last few Behemoth records is the humanity woven into the noxious, angular black metal and the poignant heaviness of the title track or appropriately-apocalyptic opener “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel.” The Satanist is something special. It’s too definitive a statement in granite to be anything less than metal’s capping achievement in whatever year it came out. Negral got cancer and saw the face of God. But instead of submitting, he told Him to go fuck Himself. Now he’s back here among us to writhe until it’s over. After all, better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. And Behemoth have the ability to reign over us all. As black metal originally greeted us, welcome to Hell.
Listen: “O Father O Satan O Sun!”