Dave Mustein’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2015
It’s been a hard year. That’s nothing new for the world at large, where each passing annum seems to spell doom earlier and earlier, but things haven’t exactly been a cakewalk in the realms of metal and music in general. Those hardships, however, haven’t adversely affected the music; if anything, they’ve made it better, as 2015 has been the best and most diverse year for music in as long as I can remember. To get a bit personal — it’s been an extremely difficult year for me, too, the hardest of my life, in fact. So I turned to difficult forms of this difficult music, and while plenty of those didn’t catch on at first, ultimately, many of those records held the most significance for me. In making my list this year, I often found myself detached, curious as to why metal fans turn to music that’s so difficult when facing or difficulty in our lives and the rest of the world. In my most pessimistic moments, I wonder why I don’t simply to listen to basic, uninspired music; music that soothes the day-to-day moans and groans.
But now that I’ve finished putting together the list, I’ve remembered that this is what makes metal music (and fans) unique — difficult music is the most rewarding, the most cathartic, and the most enlightening. The metal world is certainly not political at large, but perhaps subconsciously, as things get shittier in the real world, the metal world is encouraged to solve or at least consider problems on a greater scale. You could argue that most metal is apolitical, maybe even dramatically out of touch with with the real world, but art is made by people, and people can’t help but be affected by the goings on of reality even if they might write about oliphaunts, levitating spheres, German philosophers, or good old-fashioned blood and guts. I’m still a pessimist, but every single one of these records provides respite in one sense or another, and now that the year is coming to a close at least we can attach arbitrary significance to the changing of the calendar, say good fucking riddance to 2015, and get excited for what 2016 has in store. Thanks for reading.
For all its obsessions with space and time, technical death metal rarely gives thought to much of its own. Monarchy, however, eschews the vast majority of its peers’ errors, leaving enough breathing room to make the record listenable while still showing off those flashy tech-death chops. The themes are timely, too, but it’s Rivers’ obvious passion and solid songwriting that really keep the album grounded. Monarchy may not be groundbreaking, but it’s catchy, creative, and colorful, all of which make it a blast to listen to even at times when I otherwise wouldn’t want to listen to metal.
14. The Great Tyrant – The Trouble With Being Born (Relapse)
This record requires two disclaimers – one for the fact that it was originally recorded in 2008, and another because (in the interest of full disclosure) I recently began working for Relapse, but The Trouble With Being Born would have placed on my list even if neither of those things was true. The Trouble With Being Born is far more doomy and metallic than anything The Great Tyrant’s successor Pinkish Black has released, and these previously unreleased final recordings are the stuff of nightmares, like Mike Patton dreaming up a performance of a play written by Swans and directed by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s barbituate-addled uncle. The Trouble With Being Born might not be strictly metal, but its morbidity is so thoroughly fleshed-out in both theme and sound that anyone pushing for the edge of the Haptic Void had better take note. A feel-bad record for the ages.
13. Gloam – Hex of Nine Heads (Caligari)
Santa Cruz is known for stoner culture and tech-death more than it is for black metal, aside from one notable exception. But beyond the THC bacchanalia lie the kind of landscapes that have inspired black metal since the first wave, so it’s not unduly surprising to see another artist entering the scene. What is surprising, though, is how mature Gloam’s sound is after only five years of existence. Like the band’s aforementioned comrades in Fell Voices, Gloam makes palpably serious music; Hex Of Nine Heads is no casual listen. The band plays a form of black metal that sounds like it’s been brought up by funeral doom, but that influence manifests itself more structurally than in the album’s heady, winding progressions and curious, elusive riffs. At 63 minutes, Hex Of Nine Heads requires dogged persistence to get familiar with, but if you put in the effort, you won’t regret it.
I’ve listened to An Antidote for the Glass Pill at least twenty-five times by now, and I still can’t wrap my brain around it. Rather, it seems to wrap itself around my head, generating an immersive listening experience that’s somehow very resistant to interpretation. It’ll likely take me a few more years of listening to fully grasp its compositions, but I already know it’ll be worth it: difficulty merely for the sake of difficulty tends to generate a flat affect, but albums like An Antidote for the Glass Pill get better and better the more you push to understand them. The organ that makes up the bulk of An Antidote For The Glass Pill‘s dense sound is no token gimmick; the band has taken black metal to the next level by invoking modern classical-esque melodies and unpredictable rhythmic structures. There’s no reasonable comparison to An Antidote for the Glass Pill I can think of, so you’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
Blut Aus Nord’s inimitable drum programming and Colin Marston’s singular guitarwork seem like a match made in dissonant heaven. When blended with the impressionistic, Sigur Ros-esque vocals of R. Loren & M. Kraig on Pyramids’ A Northern Meadow, though, the previous context of those musicians takes on new meaning. Pyramids (which has had a bit of a rotating cast helmed by R. Loren, who brought Marston and Vindsval on for this release) utilize strange, intriguing harmonic shifts in both the guitars and the vocals that sound almost as if Vindsval had a hand in more than just the drums. Nothing here really lines up – the vocals enter and exit without warning while Marston’s characteristically long phrases appear to have no relation to BAN’s Godflesh-y rhythmic mindfuck – but clearly, it works. Most albums this nostalgic and emotional would normally be relegated to my “once in a while” playlist, but for some reason I haven’t been able to stop listening to A Northern Meadow since it dropped this past May.
10. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden Of Delete (Warp)
I wasn’t sure whether or not I should include this album, but I figured with artists qualifying simply by merit of label association, establishing a standard for the “metalness” of releases on these lists is a fool’s errand. Plus, while it’s true that Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin) primarily manipulates experimental electronics, his last few releases have been undeniably extreme. Lopatin has always been a fan of unpredictable structures, but that preference has now transitioned on to content as well. The motley mix of heavy bass, choppy synths, spastic transitions, and grungy guitar (yes) doesn’t feel unlike noisegrind in its meticulously calculated chaos, but while Lopatin is no longer interested in generating transcendent ambient mantras like on his 2011 masterwork Replica, the isolated moments of calm he does include on Garden Of Delete are that much sweeter for their brevity.
I don’t need to spend too much time on this record since I already waxed about its merits at length, but after a little more reflection, I have to say I’m a little surprised that nobody has conceived of anything quite like The Last Direction Of Things before. An ecstatic melding of progressive and stoner metals, Intronaut’s fifth full-length provides enough variety for fans of each camp, and is executed with the kind of aplomb that’s got potential to convert the most anal-retentive IMN into a couchlocked chiller (and vice versa). The Direction Of Last Things fills a previously untapped void, and the fact that the band boasts one of the best rhythm sections in modern metal doesn’t hurt, either.
8. Zs – Xe (Northern Spy)
If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then trying to accurately describe the 2015 record by NY experimental instrumental trio Zs is like doing capoeira about The Guggenheim. But I’ll give it a shot. Xe is quite repetitive, but it’s not cold, as the performance of this record is even more important than its composition (Xe was recorded unedited, straight to tape). In fact, Zs’ compositional approach for Xe was refined by repeated live performance and workshopping more than anything else, allowing the music to develop in a natural, almost improvisational manner despite being strictly composed. Like any good record, Xe tells a story. It does so by harnessing a meditative, immaculate rhythmic energy that takes the album on a whirlwind journey through noise, avant-wave guitar, tribal-sounding percussive patterns, incredibly tight changes, squawking sax that Shining would balk at, and even some blast (burst?) beats. All this is only a pale shadow of the actual music – I’m an awful dancer, after all – so let me just describe Xe this way: absolutely not to be missed.
If you’ve considered any other record on this list thus far a difficult listen, you likely won’t get too far with Jute Gyte. You can check out my Foul Alchemy for more details, but here’re the basics: Ship of Theseus is comprised of microtonal guitar, experimental electronics, and horribly abrasive vocals, all drawn out over six repetitive, ten-minute-long expanses of black and doom-influenced dissonance. To put it punnily: if you get on board the Ship Of Theseus, you’ll might literally get seasick before you even start moving. But once you find your sea legs it’s a total blast. Thought-provoking and inimitable, Ship Of Theseus is this year’s best example of a very difficult record whose payoff is worth the investment.
Hold that thought. I hated this album with an evangelical zeal when it first dropped, but since then I’ve had time to really consider the noble work that Liturgy is doing! In all seriousness, watching the band render The Ark Work live made a huge difference, and the album has grown on me track-by-track; each of its songs has been my favorite at some point in time. From the bizarrely hip-hop-inspired “Vitriol” to the long-form regality of “Reign Array” and the pop sensibility of “Quetzalcoatl”, what first came across as flaccid and one-dimensional has revealed itself as an album that’s as flexible as it is divisive. Really, though – if a quartet of forest-dwelling Norwegians that referred to themselves by symbols had released The Ark Work on a ltd-to-100, cassette, every blogger would be dubbing the record transcendental black metal themselves. Forget about the manifesto; ignore HHH’s Instagram; give The Ark Work a chance, for me. Please?
I haven’t been excited about a new folk metal record since melodeath got stale for me (unless you count Botanist), but after discovering West Virginia’s Nechochwen, I might have to reconsider what I’ve missed over the last few years. Despite my seemingly bottomless ability to ignore over-the-top vocals and lyrical themes in most metal, the themes of folk metal are always hard for me to get past (maybe because I feel like I’m encouraged to take them seriously… but that’s a whole other discussion). Not with Heart of Akamon. The themes of these tracks have inspired me to investigate the historical background of Heart Of Akamon, and have thoroughly enriched the entire experience. Even without the powerful subject matter, the album would already have been a killer relase – wind-tossed black metal, doomy riffs that sound like entire forests falling while nobody’s around, creative samples, deeply emotional flute passages, and a wide array of vocal articulations make Heart Of Akamon an unforgettable experience.
Arcturus’s first album in ten years is one of those metal albums that’s so excessive and fantastical, it’s even riper for hyperbole and ridiculous description than the rest of the metal world. More appropriately: The Arcturian Sign is the sonic equivalent to a game of Two-Headed Giant with Interpol and Perdition City pitted against Dimmu Borgir and the Hubble telescope, spectated on by whatever version of the SF Symphony occupies dimension C-137. As per Arcturian custom, The Arcturian Sign walks a tightrope between theatricality and histrionics, but never devolves into a blackened Mr. Bungle worship project like so many bands that try to add a dose of drama to their metal. The band’s use of electronics has evolved, much like ICS Vortex’s now genuinely excellent vocals, keeping the record modern and hook-laden while still sounding raw and old-school. Things stay orchestrated and tight even when it seems like they’re about to fall apart; if we’re talking circus metal, The Arcturian Sign is Cirque Du Soleil: carefully constructed to build tension and performed with the energy and spontaneity required to realize its narrative.
Krallice’s Ygg Huur is just as esoteric and obscure as the band’s name, imagery, and promotional techniques, but none of those things are new. What is new is how this time around, the music contains far less prettiness and resolution than most of Krallice’s previous works. Or, rather, those things are still there, they’re just buried amidst the more concise songwriting. Ygg Huur twists and turns like a writhing eel; it you take your ears off it for more than a few seconds it escapes and often can’t be caught up with. The album clocks in at barely half the length of most of the band’s past releases, yet despite that brevity, there’s more going on than ever. You can hear the mathy heft of Colin’s Arctopus and Indricothere; the bass-heavy riffage and rhythmic aggression of Weinstein & McMasters’ Geryon (or Gath Smane… I don’t have enough space to mention every Krallice side project) and above all, the seemingly-infinite tremolo & chromatics of Mick Barr. This is why Ygg Huur is so good, and why I have no qualms about declaring that Krallice is one of the all-time best metal bands active right now – you know every member in this band, you know how they sound alone, and you can recognize any member’s particular style whether they’re performing independently or as a combined unit. When I die, please embalm me in fluid made out of molten copies of Ygg Huur.
Few releases this year blew me away on the first listen like Antikatastaseis. Shadowy UK black/death/doom metallers Abyssal have now teamed up with Profound Lore, but Antikatastaseis is no less tyrannical than either of its excellent predecessors. Bearing tighter production and a much greater focus on atmosphere and melody, Antikatastaseis blends an almost post-metal triumph into its hellish synthesis of extreme metal, making the music much more memorable than the band’s earlier works (and occasionally even hummable). It doesn’t feel right to treat Antikatastaseis as anything but a complete album – the track divisions could almost be arbitrary, as the album rocks between sections of lengthy, technical heaviness and ominous ambience. Just like the spectacularly incongruent piano that somehow makes sense against the blasting fury of “Veil Of Transcendence”, Antikatastaseis as a whole bridges tightly orchestrated gaps between otherwise distant worlds and disparate textures. (Fun fact: the art used to be a lot sunnier, but I think I like it better cloaked in doom and gloom.)
1. Imperial Triumphant – Abyssal Gods (Code666)
There’s no better feeling than watching your favorite up-and-comers realize their potential. After one full-length and a slew of well-received EPs, Abyssal Gods now sees New York black metallers Imperial Triumphant broadening their scope far beyond their previous accomplishments. The album may be rooted in black metal, but that feels like a gross oversimplification – Abyssal Gods writhes from death metal skronk to psychedelic doom to free improv jazz without missing a beat (other than what they selectively removed to make those rhythms even crazier). Imperial Triumphant’s sound, especially the wild out-of-tune bending and whammy bar abuse that characterizes Ilya Goddessraper’s riffs, has much in common with Pyrrhon – it’s no coincidence that the bands have shared drummers and bassists before. Like Pyrrhon, they’ve got both their short and long game down. The album’s first half winds through a series of concise, noisy statements, while the latter half demonstrates the band’s songwriting skills on tracks like the mind-boggling “Black Psychedelia” or the sprawling 8-minute epic “Krokodil,” which sounds exactly how I’d imagine krokodil withdrawl to feel. It’s far from polished, boasting plenty of spontaneous noise and a very unique production job by Colin Marston, but that’s exactly what this record calls for – Abyssal Gods is about New York City, and it accurately conveys the dichotomous senses of magnificence and derision, wealth and poverty, power and weakness, ecstasy and misery, that pervade the metropolis. I was fortunate enough to have this album as my introduction to the city when I relocated to NYC earlier this year, and it was the perfect soundtrack. In spirit and in sound, Imperial Triumphant is the black metal of the future.