Axl Rosenberg’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2014
Some years it’s really easy to make these lists. 2014 was not one of those years. Uptown problem, right? But really: I easily could have made a list four times as long as this — I had to make some HARD choices, bruh. AND I still feel like I’m playing catch-up on this year’s releases!
So let’s just call these the fifteen albums which made it the hardest for me to do my job; every time I made the choice to re-listen to one of them, I was making the choice not to listen to something I either hadn’t heard or properly digested yet. In my defense, listening to something new is always a risk, because sometimes it ends up sounding like Thy Art is Murder.
And on that note, my apologies to those who may take offense…
The only reason I’m putting this so low on the list is because a friend just recommended it to me a couple of weeks ago. But I’ve been listening to it pretty much non-stop ever since, and I give it all the credit for the fact that my family survived another Thanksgiving. Not even kidding: Svffer’s Lies We Live is the best thing to escape from Germany since my grandparents. This is brass knuckle powerviolence at its best (or maybe its worst?), the kind of album that’s so good you don’t even care that the band is using a “v” for a “u.”
The only reason I’m putting this so low on the list is because I’m enviable of the band members’ flowing manes (SO MUCH HAIR). With Slave to the Sword, Exmortus earn their club in the prestigious Important Young Traditional But Not Quite Trad Metal Bands Club, alongside Revocation, Sylosis, and Havok. Like those bands, Exmortus’ music is a codification of metal’s loftiest, most inarguably historic traditions — NWOBHM, thrash, and maybe some early DM — but it doesn’t sag with any been there, done that slothfulness. Basically, every song defies you not to have fun. Also, have you seen these dudes live? Holy shit, that thing they do where they cross guitars is fucking awesome!
Listen: “Ancient Violence”
The only reason I’m putting this so low on the list is because the title is discriminatory towards female fans and lovers of democracy alike. The band I always ignored because I thought they were the Cold War Kids (seriously, fuck that band in the nostril) dropped the “Kids” from their name and sonically bitch slapped me for being such an ignorant putz. I Am King answers a question I never even knew I had: “Is it possible to marry hardcore and grunge into something that isn’t nearly as irritating as its description would have you believe?” Yes, yes it is — in fact, it’s possible to marry them into one of the best albums of the year. Also OMG SO MANY MARCHING ELEPHANTS.
Listen: “Dreams in Inertia”
The only reason I’m putting this so low on the list is because it makes me feel guilty for not including Allegaeon’s similar, and equally sexcellent, Elements of the Infinite. III sounds like Death Cult Armageddon-era Dimmu Borgir mixed sexual fluids with the best Gothenburg band to ever come from Massachusetts, which might sound as unappetizing as a marriage between grunge and hardcore, but actually results in a record that’s basically a melodeath party in a box (or in an mp3 I guess). III is almost certainly the metal album I spent the most time dancing to in my underwear this year. I hope you never get that image out of your head.
Listen: “I Hold Dominion”
The only reason I’m putting this so low on the list is because Black Crown Initiate haven’t yet established the years of brand loyalty that the bands above them have. I strongly suspect that will change in the coming years: The Wreckage of Stars is the strongest debut of 2014, an album that hits the sweet spot between neck-breaking head bangage and semi-experimental show-offy music dork stuff. And BCI are the second great prog-laden death metal band to come out Reading, PA in as many years. For now, I can still make fun of Reading, because that scene has also spawned some horrible, brain-dead deathcore bands, but if the town spits out another killer group in 2015, that ship is gonna sail. Fuck.
Listen: “The Human Lie Manifest”
The only reason I’m putting this so low on the list is because I’m an atheist. But there was a solid five months where I thought this was gonna land about seven spots higher. It’s a superb release that oscillates, seemingly without effort, between being a death metal soundtrack to The Age of Innocence and a death metal soundtrack to A Serbian Film, the album I (and this is absolutely true) played for an ignorant asshole who claimed there was no connection between classical music and metal and the album I (and this is absolutely true) played while slaughtering the innocent denizens of Seattle in Infamous Second Son. Also: HOLY FUCK ADAM JARVIS.
Listen: “Conjuring the Cull”
Yeah I have no idea why I’m putting this so low on the list. The reaction I heard time and time again was, “Holy shit, can you believe Revocation actually managed to top themselves again?” But it’s true — Revocation just keep getting siqqer and siqqer, and it’s a wonder that other, envious young bands haven’t conspired to cut the brakes on their van or some shit. Revocation could very well be their generation’s band that will someday break up and make everyone all “Wait come back!” and fifteen years later they will come back and everyone will be “NOICE!” I am very grateful to be experiencing their heyday first hand.
Listen: “Madness Opus”
The best comeback of the year? Hard to believe it’s been almost a decade since they released Freakery — but the wait was totally worth it. Stranger is a hyper-violent, disturbing, repulsive, constipation-concluding record, the kind of music kids are afraid to let their parents hear, the religious are afraid to let young women hear, and everyone should be afraid to let their pets hear. In other words, it’s everything a fan could want in a grind album. I will commit horrible, degrading sexual acts if Cretin promise not to take another eight years before their next album.
The best comeback of the year? Hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since they released Hymns — but the wait was totally worth it. Despite some fans voicing concern following the release of their good-but-not-great EP, Decline & Fall, Godflesh basically schooled every band that has tried to be them this century. A World Lit Only by Fire is transfixingly heavy and hypnotic, like Dr. Caligari if Dr. Caligari were a rhinoceros. The only thing which might have made A World Lit Only by Fire better was if the drum machine used to make the album belonged to Scott Hull. I will commit horrible, degrading sexual acts if Godflesh promise not to take another thirteen years before their next album.
The best comeback of the year? Hard to believe it’s been seven years since Ziltoid the Omniscent — but the wait was totally worth it. Okay, okay, so Sky Blue seems to have been included with Dark Matters for no real reason other than some kinda vague thematic connections about intergalactic shit, and that half of the record, which is basically A² (Addicted 2), is actually the stronger of the two simultaneous releases. But Devy hits so many grand slams, it’s okay if every now and then he hits a mere home run, or even just a solid triple. I will commit horrible, degrading sexual acts if Devin promises to bring Ziltoid back in under seven years.
The best comeback of the year? Okay, so JFAC have never gone anywhere, and they’re not really in need of a comeback in any creative sense — but this album, the furthest they’ve ever strayed from the deathcore sounds which made them famous, seems to have awoken a lot of people who were continuing to be total nitwits by ignoring the band because they have the word “cowboy” in their moniker. And honestly, even for those of us who already loved JFAC, Sun Eater was a welcome surprise, yet another outstanding example of how a band can change their sound without writing songs about gasoline and whose bitch is whose. Sun Eater isn’t just the year’s best pro-bassist argument, it isn’t just another reminder that Danny Walker makes every band better, and it isn’t just more proof that Tony Sannicandro is a Marty Friedman-level guitar guru — it’s a remarkable symphony of melo-doom, the kind of album which will still be revealing its riches for years to come, while I’m committing horrible, degrading sexual acts in exchange for new shit from other bands.
The best comeback of the year? Certainly the best farewell of the year (unless the bands that made the three albums listed above all break-up in the next month). Everyone already knew that Gridlink could write a grind album that makes the listener feel as though he’s been doused in acid, so on Longhena, the band added an extra dose of melody to the proceedings, mixing in gorgeous orchestral work and riffs that, with some very small adjustments, could be upbeat, poppy ditties. And they did without sacrificing any of the schizophrenic tornado-iness that made us all love them in the first place. I will commit horrible, degrading sexual acts if somebody can cure Takafumi Matsubara’s tragic health issues and get Gridlink to make another record.
The best comeback of the year? Again, Machine Head never really went anywhere. But a lot of people — myself included! — thought they’d never match the greatness of The Blackening, and then with this album, they were basically like, “Hey, fuck your mother.” I mean, on “Sail Into the Black,” they manage to make me think about pirates without cringing. PIRATES! THE LAMEST THING EVER! What’s next, they’re gonna start a song with a chorus of circus clowns and somehow make it work? Fuck, I bet they could do that, too — every song on B&D is just so well-written and, pardon the over-used term, EPIC. I will commit horrible, degrading sexual acts just because why not?, I’m already doing it for all these other bands anyway.
Listen: “Sail Into the Black”
The best comeback of the year? Hard to believe that since the release of Eparistera Daimones, a student has started and graduated from high school — but the wait was totally worth it. This might actually be the single heaviest album of the year; the bleak, misanthropic, crusty, crushing riffs will make you feel like there’s two hippos fucking on your chest. Little wonder that Melana Chasmata also ends up being the year’s most cathartic release — I listened to this album basically every time I took the subway in 2014, and it probably saved a lot of innocent commuters’ lives. I loved Celtic Frost as much as the next metalhead, but I can’t remember ever feeling as passionate about a Celtic Frost album as I do about Melana Chasmata — like Darth Vader trying to lure Luke Skywalker to The Dark Side, there is something oddly, monstrously seductive about it. I will commit horrible, degrading sexual acts if it makes Tom G. Warrior feel better about the loss of H.R. Giger (I know mourning can be a really rough process).
Listen: “Altar of Deceit”
The best comeback of the year? Hard to believe it’s been almost two decades since they released Slaughter of the Soul — but the wait was totally worth it. At War with Reality is 2014’s most listenable album from start to finish, a Rorschach test of a record that seems to somehow adapt to any and every mood, an ultra-smooth shot of powerful whiskey drank for reasons celebratory or stressful. I’ve listened to this album so many fucking times that it’s almost embarrassing; like, basically, if you’ve seen me since October and I had earphones in and I wasn’t on the subway (see Triptykon’s Melana Chasmata, above), I was listening to this album. I’m sure I’ll finally grow tired of it at some point, but I have yet to hit that wall, and I suspect it’s still aways off.
Quick side note: people seem to feel some need to compare War with Carcass’ also-amazing Surgical Steel, which makes sense superficially, but creates a competition which is wholly unnecessary: why can’t we just be delighted that BOTH bands came back so strong?
In conclusion: I will commit horrible, degrading sexual acts if At the Gates promise not to take another nineteen years before their next album.