Lately I’ve been listening to more music through headphones, usually while I’m reading news online—not always a good combination. Considering some of the music I listen to, and how dire the headlines have been over the past few days/weeks/months (as I write this I’m reading reports of yet another mass shooting, this time in San Bernardino, California), I’m starting to wonder if walking into my back yard and shoving my fucking head into a freshly dug hole for a few weeks isn’t the best option. Of course, if I did that, my 10-month-old would get into my records.
It’s been a bittersweet year. While humanity truly seems hell-bent on imploding, I became a father for the first time. I’ve watched my son grow and marvel at the simplest things: “Heeeey, I can see my reflection in the window, daddy!” Or, “this computer cord tastes better than bananas!” And “this Venom record sounds like the devil!” In other words, everything is going to be all right…I think. I’m holding my kid’s fuzzy, warm little head closer to my cheek this week just to make sure.
Even the world of heavy metal faced its own mortality in 2015. Former Mötorhead drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor died on Nov. 11 after a lengthy illness, and Twisted Sister drummer A.J. Pero died of a heart attack back in March. Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickenson battled cancer (and kicked its arse). Even Mötorhead were forced to cancel shows due to Lemmy’s—aka God—ongoing illness. And AC/DC’s Malcolm Young hung up his Gretsch after it was discovered he had dementia. Well, this is depressing.
Of course, metal—and music in general—helps me, and I imagine some of you, through difficult times. It always has. And there was plenty to keep even the most cynical jerkwads happy in 2015. I mean, L7 fucking got back together! And I listened to a lot of records over the past 12 months. I’ve swished the metallic ones around my grey matter, and now I spew out my favorites right here. Behold, the 13 (duh) metal albums that grabbed my ears and wrapped them around my head in 2015. May 2016 be heavier on metal, and lighter on bad news.
There are a lot—I mean, a lot—of classic metal revivalists these days. Some bands just ape their forefathers, while others (including a few on this list) do it right and move the genre forward. Magic Circle is one of those bands, fusing NWOBHM, punk rock, and even doom into one molten metal slab.
This one was a grower. At first Joy Von Spain’s vocals came off as overwrought, but soon I found myself listening to see what she would do next. There are a lot of “witchy” vocalists out there, but Von Spain truly conjures dark powers, singing in a calming lilt, chanting in other languages, and breaking into rabid screams. The music also defies labels (members also play in several un-metal bands), combining doom and black metal with psychedelia, with raw production that allows the parts to breath.
Leviathan head Jef Whitehead—better known as Wrest—has been wrestling his own demons for years, blurring the lines between his life and his art. On Scar Sighted the American black metal outcast has created something tortured, but less nihilistic. From a musical standpoint this might be Leviathan’s most realized work, as black metal, doom and noise come crashing together (with help of producer Billy Anderson), with plenty of strange twists lurking around every corner.
A lot of doom bores me to tears, but Windhand knows dynamics and knows how to drop a memorable riff on your head. It doesn’t hurt that frontwoman Dorthia Cottrell’s voice hovers like a ghost just below the noise, giving the guitars and drums their space. I imagine this is what heroin sounds like…OK, maybe more like four beers in a hot tub.
J.R. Robinson took 30 musicians to interpret a couple of true-life horror stories. The result is a heady listen that unfurls slowly like a bad dream, from a lilting 15-minute choral arrangement to the final black metal bloodletting. The lingering sense of dread is what makes the two compositions on Night of Your Ascension so mesmerizing. I guess—at least this year—I like my metal to lift me up with a raised fist, or scare the bejesus out of me. This one scares the bejesus out of me.
Why is this record not on more year-end lists? These British metal oldsters run circles around the kids stealing their riffs. Oh yeah, the riffs. Steve Ramsey and Russ Tippins deliver plenty of those and some ripping leads on Atom By Atom, and Brian Ross shrieks with power and soul. I mean, Christ, can you really go wrong with a band called Satan?
The familiar influences are all here, but how the hell does VHÖL manage to make it sound new? Members of Hammers Of Misfortune, Yob and Ludicra have put together a psychedelic metal masterpiece, whose influences extend well beyond metal and punk. It’s a supremely weird record (an instrumental featuring heavy metal piano called “Paino”?) that could only be made by this group of individuals.
I’ve been keen on this band since their excellent 2014 debut The Living Ever Mourn seemingly fell from the sky. This Portland death metal duo is right in my back yard, releasing records, but never playing live (yet). Darkness Evermore balances bursts of fury with surprising dynamic turns and precision. Sometimes a scalpel is better than a machete.
This record just came out last month and leaped to the top of my list. Utterly fried vocals are met with one of the most ear-wormy assemblage of riffs in 2015. Indeed they worship the altar of The Big Four, but on their third record Horrendous has gathered enough elements from other genres that they ended up constructing their own metal monolith.
Yes, everyone’s talking about this record…because it’s that good. Swedish death metal meets New York glam rock. Tribulation hits so many goddamn heavy metal pleasure centers, there should be a way to inject this album right into your veins. Believe me, I’ve tried.
I haven’t heard a metal record with such an ear for pop melodies since, maybe, RATT’s Dancing Undercover (not a typo). Horisont’s fourth full-length is easily their best, and they get right to it on the 10-minute opening title track—heavy metal riffs, prog dalliances, hooks, sci-fi geekery, and Axel Söderberg’s sweet Lou Gramm-inspired vocals. Metal that’s this fun and feels this good should be celebrated with a fucking fist in the air, which is making typing difficult.
Absolutely sinister in content and composition, Vastum took their primal death metal to frightening new places on their third record Hole Below. As guitarist-vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf put it to me last month, it’s like a Slayer 45 played at 33 RPM. Lyrically the band continued its plunge human depravity, coming off starkly real rather than simply a caricature of evil. I listened to this a lot in my car at night, and it felt like I was inside a rolling torture chamber.
Inspired by ancient Nordic history, this Icelandic/German trio traverses black metal, folk and classical music into a completely riveting and cinematic listening experience. Monk-like chants and spoken word give way to gutteral screams—all in Icelandic—and songs rarely run under eight minutes, usually separated by the sounds of crackling fires and thunderstorms. Aldaf?ðr Ok Munka Dróttinn occasionally threatens to bury itself under its own ambition, but taken as a whole this is truly a complex work of art. Even if you don’t understand a single word, you’ll understand all of it with a good pair of headphones and the right amount of THC.
RAM – Svbversvm (Metal Blade)
Death Alley – Black Magick Boogieland (Tee Pee Records)
Hooded Menace – Darkness Drips Forth (Relapse)
Disenchanter – Strange Creations (self-released)
Clutch – Psychic Warfare (Weathermaker)
Zu – Cortar Todo (Ipecac Recordings)
Myrkur – M (Relapse)
Mg?a – Exercises in Futility (Northern Heritage)
Visigoth – The Revenant King (Metal Blade)
Satan’s Wrath – Die Evil (Metal Blade)
Mark Lore writes for Paste and other places, and enjoys metal with his coffee. You can find him listing lists @TheDaysofLore