Another year, another flood of superb heavy metal releases by artists who are pushing the boundaries of what can be done within the confines of the genre, as well as artists who excel by simply reinforcing what we love about metal in the first place. Below are the records that accomplished both of those things in 2015.
The Children of the Night
The third album from this Swedish quintet effectively slams the door shut on its more humble death-metal beginnings. The Children of the Night is a hook-laden beast. The gruff vocal delivery of singer/guitarist Johannes Andersson lends a blackened, sinister edge to the catchiest metal songs this side of Mercyful Fate, with adventurous forays into psychedelia tempering the band’s increased hard rock swagger. The band is far removed from their more objectively brutal early days, but the genre is better off for Tribulation learning to love the hook.
9. Mutoid Man
The sophomore effort from this collaboration featuring members of hardcore greats Cave In (guitarist/vocalist Stephen Brodsky) and Converge (drummer Ben Koller) sees its core toss aside their histories in favor of generating infectiously rocking rippers. The group’s two-to-three-minute power rock bursts are supported by sweeping riffage, Brodsky’s hearty vocal bellows, and drum smashes by Koller that rain down like a hailstorm. The angularity and chaotic time-signature changes of Brodsky and Koller’s parent bands are still present, but here they just feed the massive rock frenzy.
The Revenant King
D&D and heavy metal have a storied history of crossover appeal. This Utah act is a throwback to the days when heavy metal album covers were adorned with dragons and dragon slayers. Visigoth specializes in kick-ass wizards-and-warriors metal, with nary a tongue in cheek to be found on their debut full-length. Their hard-driving power metal is equally reminiscent of the heavier moments of ‘80s Judas Priest and current Viking metal acts like Amon Amarth, with vocalist Jake Rogers displaying Rob Halford-like charisma as frontman.
These Swedes are known for their over-the-top band imagery, but three albums into their career they have also proved that there is substance to back up the image. The songs on Meliora retain the feel of a more Satanic Blue Oyster Cult that Ghost has cultivated on previous works, and Papa Emeritus’ melodic croons are as hypnotizing as ever. But for the first time, their music is underpinned by thick-sounding production that provides a truly heavy feel, and the band rises with the heaviest riffs they’ve generated so far.
6. Bell Witch
Dozens of bands slung records this year that were full of lurching, slow-paced funeral-doom. But few of those were memorable beyond an initial listen, and even fewer were truly great records. The dirges delivered by this Seattle duo are mesmerizing in their bleakness and even more impressive when you consider that they were accomplished with only a bass guitar and drums. The warm tones achieved by bassist Dylan Desmond on his leads lend an IMAX-sized, cinematic aura that cuts through the apocalyptic sense of dread delivered by their din.
Since the release of their polarizing 2013 album Sunbather, Deafheaven have relocated to Los Angeles from the Bay Area and on New Bermuda, doubled-down on their majestic blend of blistering black metal and gorgeous shoegaze, a combination that enraged some closed-minded metalheads and endeared them to those with more adventurous ears. The balance of darkness (George Clarke’s guttural shrieks and grunts) and light (Kerry McCoy’s soaring guitar solos) have cemented Deafheaven as a truly special act in the heavy metal genre.
4. Vattnet Viskar
This New Hampshire group makes a strong case for being the answer to the question of “What’s next for black metal?” On their second album, Vattnet Viskar chews up the more expansive elements of progressive black metal and spits them out in compact four-to-five-minute eruptions of harshness. In addition to the black metal base and the more progressive elements of the genre, there are frantic moments of that resemble those perpetrated by hardcore acts like Converge. These elements sewn together result in one of the more daring releases of 2015.
This Georgia act introduced progressive-rock elements into their sludgy alt-metal blueprint on their ambitious 2012 double-album, Yellow & Green. The group’s newest record, Purple, sees Baroness tightening those colliding forces into a streamlined record full of equal parts power and beauty. Settling into the comfortable median between Mastodon and Queen, Baroness twists the adversity they have battled since an August 2012 bus accident nearly derailed the band for good and channels it into the finest release of their already impressive discography.
This one-man outfit remains one of the most compelling forces in modern metal. Band mastermind Austin Lunn continues to refine his unique approach to atmospheric black metal. The moments of Appalachian-inspired folk music that peppered his previous records have been reigned in, but symphonic violin and other quieter moments throughout Lunn’s sprawling opuses continue to lend additional texture to his overall vision. In the end, the window dressing wouldn’t matter if Lunn wasn’t so adept at crafting dizzying guitar-and-drum compositions that steer the listener through many black metal twists and turns.
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We are encouraged by the fact that there are still artists finding ways to push the now decades-old genre of heavy metal in new directions. Taking a cue from the era when Scandinavian black metal acts turned to their ancestry for lyrical and musical inspiration, Volahn mastermind and Los Angeles metal musician Eduardo Ramirez pays tribute to his Mayan ancestry and the rituals and the civilizations of centuries past. Volahn’s music is appropriately caustic for the black metal genre, but the moments of colorful atmosphere inspired by Mexican ranchera music, classical Latin guitar, and ancient flute-like instruments are what make this record special and worthy of repeated listens.