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Top Albums of 2015, by Jason Bailey

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Personally, I didn’t feel 2015 was as strong a year for metal as the past three years, which made compiling this list a little harder. Not because I couldn’t pick ten albums I really enjoyed—I could have easily picked 30—but because after settling on a top five or so, there was a large pool of albums that felt kind of interchangeable to me. To make things a little easier, I set the stipulation that I had to like a band’s new album more than their previous one. This disqualified a lot of notably consistent bands that I love like High on Fire, Enslaved and Krallice who could turn up on my list any year they put out a record.

Anyway, let the hair-splitting begin.

—Jason Bailey

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10. Howls of Ebb – The Marrow Veil (I, Voidhanger, USA)

Howls of Ebb bear similarities to venerated doomy-death groups like Incantation and Autopsy, but they expand on that foundation with a cinematic sound that incorporates ambient, noise and nightmarish psychedelia. This mini LP, comprised of two epics and an interlude, delves into as many grimy alcoves as albums two or three times its length. Here’s hoping some bold new director lets them compose the score to a deranged indie horror flick.

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9. Sorcerer – In the Shadow of the Inverted Cross (Metal Blade, Sweden)

I could have easily put epic doom rookies Crypt Sermon in this spot, but I have to give the edge to the long-awaited debut full-length by the mighty Sorcerer. These Swedes play a slightly more cleaned-up version of the genre that leans a little toward Soundgarden playing power metal, and there’s plenty of hooks, riffs and fiery leads by ex-Therion shredmaster Kristian Niemann to satisfy any classicist. Horns up—this is real heavy metal.

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8. Bell Witch – Four Phantoms (Profound Lore Records, USA)

With such a seemingly limited sonic palette, Bell Witch are able to evoke atmosphere, emotion and crushing heaviness with total ease. Dylan Desmond’s ambidextrous bass playing supplies plenty of rumble and melody and Adrian Guerra’s floor tom and cymbal crashes provide key accents. Listening to Four Phantoms reminds me of the floating camerawork in Gaspar Noe’s film Enter The Void, another artistic representation of being unmoored from the living body. Funeral doom has long been metal’s most misunderstood and neglected genre; I suspect albums such as this will begin to change that.

 

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7. Horrendous – Anareta (Dark Descent Records, USA)

In September, my beloved Morbus Chron announced they had broken up, leaving a huge void in old-school yet forward-thinking death metal. In October, Philadelphia’s Horrendous filled that void with Anareta. Though less proggy and more punchy than MC, Horrendous share a similar aesthetic. Take the comfort food guitar tones and production of classic death metal, then begin coloring outside the lines. Anareta is a rager from start to finish, but it has a raw emotional urgency, and a willingness to use ideas outside any traditionalist’s playbook in order to push these songs to new heights. Winner of 2015’s Most Improved in Metal award.

 

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6. Lychgate – An Antidote for the Glass Pill (Blood Music, UK)

Twenty years of weird black metal has helped set up this oddball grotesquerie. Lychgate’s fractured take on black metal features a very prominent church organ as well as several musical and compositional ideas inspired by contemporary classical music. Antidote is a challenging listen, but the album’s crisp production and energetic performances are more appealing to the ears than most other bands that use abstraction and dissonance to this degree. Just when it started to feel like black metal had run out of novel territory to explore, Lychgate find a dark little corner all their own.

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5. Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower (Relapse Records, USA)

Ozzy has often referred to Black Sabbath as a “people’s band,” referring to the group’s enduring populist appeal despite a lack of much initial critical acclaim. Windhand, a Richmond band who amplify many of Sabbath’s sonic principles, are a people’s band too. The metal press hasn’t always been kind to them; their albums have been criticized as being too drawn out, too repetitive, their sound too massive and guitar-driven. But the crowd at the sold-out show I attended this year loved every crushing note and begged for more. I’m with the people on this one. Oh, and it also helps that this is their best album yet. The pacing is better, breezy (by this band’s standards, anyway) tracks like “Crypt Key” and “Hyperion” light the way for the bulldozing epics to come. Dorthia Cottrell is also thankfully louder in the mix, her standout vocals bringing plenty of smoke and just enough heat.

 

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4. Cetus – The Remnant Mass (Dullest Records, USA)

Fans of early-aughts mathcore like Botch, Coalesce and Burnt By The Sun should be all over this thing like stink on an imported cheese. It’s got all the tricky rhythms and progressive flourishes one might associate with the genre (for bonus credibility, guitarist Matt Hollenberg recently played on three albums by John Zorn’s new Simulacrum project. Essential listening for fans of Zorn’s more metal-centric material) but it also just kicks a lot of ass and sounds better the louder you crank it. No band not named Converge is doing this kind of stuff better.

 

3. Satan – Atom by Atom (Listenable Records, UK)
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Atom by Atom easily brushes aside all the recent efforts by 80’s metal bands as well as the hungry upstarts trying to parrot that era. The closest contender is Satan’s last record, 2013’s Life Sentence. Since reforming, the group’s unique alloy of NWOBHM and proto-thrash doesn’t just pick up where cult classic Court in the Act left off, but the band keeps assimilating new information, drawing closer to a perfect nexus of “fun” and “evil.” There are no weaknesses here, but special shout-out to the shark-like guitar tandem that evokes not just the traditional stuff, but also traces of black metal, surf rock, and even a pinch of System of a Down.

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2. Ecstatic Vision – Sonic Praise (Relapse Records, USA)

Now we’re talking. Look, forget your preconceived feelings and biases about “stoner rock” or whatever; this glorious piece of heavy psych is more than just a headtrip, it’s also a whole lot of fun. If the motorik stomp of “Don’t Kill the Vibe” and Monster Magnet deep space probe “Journey” don’t convince you, then the wailing solos weaving through the brain-scrubbing “Astral Plane” will. Unlike many psychedelic albums where the lead guitar is just shambolic wah pedal mush, bandleader Douglas Sabolick’s playing is always expressive and memorable. There’s also some tasteful incorporation of Afrobeat influences, a rarity in heavy music. With five songs and a runtime under forty minutes, I couldn’t stop listening to this one. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing the band stretch out a little (or a lot) more on their follow-up.

 

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1. Skepticism – Ordeal (Svart Records, Finland)

Just like my AOTY last year, I wrote a review for this site already. 2015 was a great year for Finnish funeral doom bands to rise from their filthy tombs. Shape of Despair and Tyranny put out very worthy efforts, but Skepticism is on a different level. This album, recorded live in one take, is their best since Stormcrowfleet. Dim the lights and savor the privilege of hearing true masters at work.

 

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