This year was another reminder that the metal gods of yesteryear are indeed mortal. Slayer said goodbye to the touring grind. Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine is in the midst of a fierce battle with throat cancer. Ozzy Osbourne postponed all of his 2019 tour dates early in the year due to health issues of his own. Thankfully the genre seems poised to remain alive for many years to come, thanks to the plenty of rising bands and musicians that are putting new twists on the battle-tested sounds and remaining true to the adventurous spirit of heavy metal, as well as a few familiar faces still finding new mountains to climb.
This year’s Best Metal Albums list was tough to narrow down to ten, but whether it’s a Canadian genius condensing his lengthy career into a magnum opus, a Northern California musician using black metal to express his struggles with mental health, or a Colorado death metal quartet obsessed with alien conspiracy, these albums represent not just the high-end of the genre, but the diverse extremes that can co-exist within that high-end.
10. Inter Arma, Sulphur English
This Virginia act takes the apocalyptic doom-metal blueprint perfected by bands such as Neurosis and wraps it in an aura of caustic black metal and pounding sludge. The result is one of the more purely ominous-sounding records of the year. The ghastly vocal growls of Mike Paparo and the stuttering shred of guitarists Steven Russell and Trey Dalton would make for a dizzying listening experience on its own, but its the drumming performance of T.J. Childers – who proves adept at pummeling barrages and heavy prog-metal freak outs – that drives home the sound of aural destruction.
9. Spirit Adrift, Divided By Darkness
The third album from Arizona’s Spirit Adrift is the most engrossing mix yet of the band’s combination of doom-metal thunder and classic heavy metal melody. The group has shown a stronger flair for the latter with every subsequent record, while retaining the raw heaviness of their earlier work. If you are a long-time fan of heavy bands like Mastodon and The Sword, Spirit Adrift exists in the alternate reality where those bands evolved by embracing a love for Iron Maiden instead of going prog.
8. Crypt Sermon, The Ruins of Fading Light
Every year, there are literally hundreds of bands that aim for an “epic” sound, but fall flat on their face. Philadelphia’s Crypt Sermon avoids that fate with their second album, a record where every moment of their lengthy medieval doom-metal sounds well-crafted and hard-earned. Fans of the more melodic moments of Cathedral’s catalog will find a lot to sink their teeth into here. Vocalist Brooks Wilson doesn’t quite hit Dio-level registers, but one could easily hear that legendary singer’s vocal inflections in Wilson’s influence.
7. Tanith, In Another Time
The first proper full-length from this international act is perhaps the most appropriately-titled metal album of 2019. The warm throwback sounds generated by Tanith harken back to a time when heavy metal was defined by bands like Blue Oyster Cult and the lyrical obsessions were more fantastic than nihilistic. The engaging back-and-forth vocal interplay between bassist Cindy Maynard and guitarist Russ Tippins (also of British heavy metal pioneers Satan) gives an ethereal aura to the band’s catchy tunes to lift them well-above the status of mere retread.
6. Midnight Odyssey, Biolume Part 1 – In Tartarean Chains
Australian musician Dis Pater continues to find new galaxies to explore with his one-man cosmic black metal outlet, Midnight Odyssey. Pater looks to the unknown terrors of the stars above instead of the hell below for his metallic inspirations. If more straightforward bands are “Star Wars”, then Midnight Odyssey is “Star Trek”. His cerebral compositions balance the extremes of musical brutality and musical beauty, with Pater’s vocals alternating between ominous growls and melodic croons, rising and ebbing along with the musical mood, whether he’s delivering a black metal barrage or moody ambient synths.
5. Wilderun, Veil of Imagination
The third record from this Boston act is a sprawling monster of prog-death that manages to indulge in the best aspects of both of those extremes. Vocalist Evan Anderson Berry – who also handles rhythm guitar and piano duties – is perfect with every shift from clean croons to deep guttural growls when the moment calls for it. The symphonic elements of the band’s prog-metal ambitions are deeply layered, but never overwhelm the power of the murky death lurking underneath. Wilderun plays in a sandbox where the grandiose bludgeon of Behemoth and the flowery prog-rock of Porcupine Tree co-exist together, yet somehow manages to sound like a cohesive product.
4. Blood Incantation, Hidden History of the Human Race
If you have ever wondered what it would be like to take a bunch of hallucinogenics and listen to Morbid Angel while staring at the nighttime sky until you see aliens invading, don’t. It’s a terrifying experience. The second album from this Denver death metal quartet sees the band continuing to use the medium of blistering death metal to explore their fascination with alien races – past, present, and future. The influence of the aforementioned death metal legends is evident in the music, but Blood Incantation make their own mark by taking that classic sound and adding an aura of psychedelics-induced terror.
3. Obsequiae, The Palms of Sorrowed Kings
This Minnesota trio’s third album is the absolute platonic ideal of medieval black metal. An image of a castle standing atop a sea of green hills graces the album cover, and for the next fifty minutes Obsequiae transports the listener to that world. Yes, there are dulcimers, hurdy gurdys, and a band member credit for the contribution of “Medieval harp”. But those indulgences would be simple smoke and mirrors if it wasn’t for the incredible metal that lurks underneath. The vocal screams and melodic guitars of Tanner Anderson evoke the early ’90s melodic death of greats such as Paradise Lost and Amorphis, lifting this record far above the status of Renaissance Faire curiosity.
2. An Isolated Mind, I’m Losing Myself
Many musicians dabbling in the tropes of extreme metal put on a front of being tough and aggressive, and most of the time it comes off as insecure posturing. That may be why this record from Eureka musician Kameron Bogges – released under the name An Isolated Mind – is the most powerful black metal record of the year. Bogges uses this record as an outlet to share the emotions that come from his own battles with bipolar disorder and mental illness, with both the lyrics and music shape-shifting throughout the record to reflect the changes in mood that come during those battles. Every moment – from the blistering barrage that begins “Eternity in a Minute” to the haunting ambient album-closer, simply titled “I’ve Lost Myself” – feels brutally honest and by the end of the record, you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck.
1. Devin Townsend, Empath
The genuine musical genius of Canadian metal musician Devin Townsend has been well-documented at this point. His nearly thirty-year career has seen him master bludgeoning industrial-metal (Strapping Young Lad), alt-county (Casualties of Cool), rock operas about an alien trying to find a great cup of coffee (Ziltoid The Omniscient), and grandoise pop-prog (Devin Townsend Project). Empath is the culmination of that lengthy career. A single-track isolated from the rest of the album doesn’t do justice to the grandiose sprawl of this record, as just about every musical phase of Townsend’s career is touched upon in some way. The album-opening “Genesis” features blast beats, dance-pop rhythms, wind chimes at sea, short sharp metal guitar riffs, and a vocal choir. All of that happens in six minutes. There is a track that resembles an animated Disney musical gone awry, a track that is a symphonic journey punctuated by moments of new age ambiance and saxophones from Jorgen Munkeby (Shining), and a 23-minute album-closer that begins with a haunting guitar solo from Steve Vai. Yet, even with all of those extra bells and whistles, the music remains powered by an undercurrent of catchy and melodic heavy metal.