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Top Albums You May Have Missed in 2015, by Dan Lawrence

valborg

Friends, life is fickle. The march of years grinds on with little care for our dreams and demands, but if you look for it, there’s a certain comfort in that cosmic indifference. Although a nagging army of self-conscious earthly voices continually conspires to convince us that the things we love are embarrassing and wrong, ultimately our time is nothing but what we make of it.

Taking that time to flail and howl and write about music, of course, is just such a choice, and choosing to do so during such a glut of production can feel like playing devil’s advocate endlessly against the arguments of convenience and disposability. The stoutly anachronistic exercise of ranking a year’s musical output and experience into a tidy, agonizingly fussed-over list, then, is just as much an act of stubbornness as it is devotion.

Rather than getting all “J’accuse!” up in your business, let me trot out this basic truth: there is more music out there than anyone could possibly process. The reason I love this time of year is that every list is a new universe, and, hopefully, a new chance to try and hear something from someone else’s perspective. By my selfish reckoning, the more broadly such lists scythe their way through the overgrown fields of heavy metal’s life-affirming proliferation, the better.

And so (I hope!) it is with this list. I’m already publishing a different, so-called “official” list of my 2015 favorites elsewhere. As I did last year, then, I’m hoping to use this list to shine a light on a handful of albums that, by my meager estimation, didn’t get as much chatter as some of the year’s heavy-hitters. These are not hopelessly obscure albums by any means, nor do I intend to bolster my non-existent cred with them. (Proof? I have cried in my pajamas while watching old Star Trek episodes no less than twice in the past few months.)

Instead, here’s the punchline: I liked a lot of stuff that I heard this year. Here are some of those things. Maybe you will like some of them too, and choose to fill what time remains to any of us with these and other things that bring you joy. No ranking, no strategic ordering: just the alphabet and 20 albums made by people just like you and me and everyone: sad, ugly, weird, and perfect.

—Dan Lawrence

abyssion
Abyssion – Luonnon Harmoni Ja Vihrea Liekki (Svart Records, Finland)

Although I’ve never visited, Finland seems like a pretty goddamned weird place judging by its musical output. From the foundational death metal weirdness of Demilich and the shape-shifting primitivism of Black Crucifixion to more recent acts like IC Rex or Oranssi Pazuzu, there’s simply no shortage of sideways excellence from the land of lakes. Abyssion cuts a fairly modest figure, but this album is no less striking for its economy. Starting from a fairly grim black metal orthodoxy, Abyssion disorients at every turn with swirling, psychedelic noise and near-motorik percussion, as if to turn over the stones under which Horna and Baptism and Clandestine Blaze and other such Finnish traditionalists hide and shine a light on the oddness that can grow from even the most stubborn root. If you prefer pithiness, call it Under a Fu-Neu!-ral Moon and be done with it.

atomicaggressor
Atomic Aggressor – Sights of Suffering (Hells Headbangers, Chile)

Atomic Aggressor loves Morbid Angel. You love Morbid Angel. Everybody wins. Not to say that these Chilean chaps are a tribute act, but they operate exclusively in the no-bullshit/maximum impact school of Morbid Angel/Krisiun death metal. Sinuous riffs, rhythmically sensible drumming, pinches, squeals, solos, actual goddamned songs with choruses and structure, and groooooooooooves so huge two countries could probably form within them and spend centuries fighting with each other over who owns the groove territory. If you listen to this for no other reason, listen to it because it is so resolutely unfashionable that you could probably peg it as future yacht rock for death metal tape traders in retirement. That’s a good thing, you squares: death metal oughtn’t be in fashion. Atomic Aggressor sees your caverncore, your tech death, your doom/death, your deathcore, your death/grind, your progressive death metal, your army of Swedish death metal bands inhaling a crushed-up pastiche of 70s tropes and limp goth rock, and still, STILL, Atomic Aggressor reaches for Altars of Madness.

bigbraves
Big Brave – Au de La (Southern Lord, Canada)

Although 2015 saw the release of an exemplary Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, the best thing that Montreal collective may have been involved in is Big Brave’s Au de La, which was produced by Godspeed’s Efrim Menuck. Despite being released on Southern Lord, Au de La would make equal sense on Constellation or Kranky, as it essentially takes the chamber post-rock model and amplifies it while simplifying it while also thrashing it senseless. In fact, Thee Silver Mt Zion’s Fuck Off Get Free… is a pretty decent point of comparison, but on Au de La Big Brave digs even deeper, riffs and swerves harder, and generally bashes together any and all shit on hand while vocalist Robin Wattie shouts her guts out with an uncanny similarity to Julie Christmas. It’s a shuddering, lumbering, noise rock-pilfering mammoth of an album, and yet still moves with a sly subtlety. Lift yr skinny fists and get fucked.

brulvahnatu
Brulvahnatu – Frozen Obscene Deliverance (Self-released, Canada)

There’s something a little unsettling about how matter-of-fact Frozen Obscene Deliverance is. A solo black metal project of T. McClelland (formerly of Canadian nasties Antediluvian and Begrime Exemious), Brulvahnatu’s fourth album is so jammed full of riffs that the songs sometimes feel impatient to get onto the next thing. From the guitars-only title track that sounds like Snorre Ruch’s earliest Thorns demos beneath a swarm of robot wasps to the reverby arpeggios elsewhere that goth like Negative Plane, Brulvahnatu rarely settles into a single clear identity. The real pleasure, then, is to just dive into the slipstream and let it rend your body.

chaosframe
Chaos Frame – Paths to Exile (Nightmare Records, USA)

Chaos Frame’s second album may occasionally feint in a power/prog direction, but it’s often fastened to a distinctly European hard rock foundation. Thus, while the guitars sometimes flash impressively, everything exists in service of the song, and, in particular, to support and highlight the impossibly radiant vocals of Dave Brown. On “Paper Sun” (easily one of the year’s best songs), Chaos Frame sounds awfully close to the majesty of Pharaoh, especially on a chorus that exists solely to inspire sky-punching amazement. Oh yeah, and that’s all BEFORE they break out a saxophone solo that works. In power metal. Exxxxxxactly. Put your goddamn ears on this magical album, you beautiful weirdos.

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degial
Degial – Savage Mutiny (Sepulchral Voice, Sweden)

Some death metal is built for subtlety, for progression, for contemplation. Not Degial. Much like Vorum’s Current Mouth, Degial’s second album Savage Mutiny is entirely devoted to swatting you over the head with the notion that death metal can be utterly disgusting and also a complete joy. Turbocharged and riffy-as-shit death metal made by people who love Slayer and Autopsy but probably grew up on metal already made by people who loved Slayer and Autopsy, Savage Mutiny is the sort of thing that some nerds will probably insist on calling “metal of death” or some nonsense, but get real: it’s death metal, and it rules. Ain’t no need to fancy up the beauty of an ugly racket.

downfallofnur
Downfall of Nur – Umbras de Barbagia (Avantgarde Music, Argentina)

Epic one-man black metal from Argentina that heavily features bagpipes and was released by an Italian label? Globalization at work, I suppose. It’s also the sort of thing that seems easy to parody: after a two-plus minute intro, the first song still takes nearly four minutes of awfully “scene-setting-intro”-sounding meandering to get to the real business. Just as you’re ready to write off Downfall of Nur as a lightweight pretender, however, the switch is flipped. Anchored by some piercingly high vocal shrieks (think early-Solefald-and-Fleurety high), Umbras de Barbagia is constantly working to earn its payoffs. But honestly, friends? I am a ridiculous sucker for this sort of thing. Give me a little reach-around with some flute or bagpipe or tin whistle or whatever and then drop me into a clatter-hands blast with some wistfully arcing tremolo? I’m sold. Umbras de Barbagia knew my weaknesses better than just about any black metal album outside of Panopticon this year.

forceandfire
Force & Fire – Disintegration Process (Self-released, USA)

No joke, I still really miss Unearthly Trance. Ryan Lipynsky’s muse has led him to a number of exemplary projects, from Villains and Thralldom to The Howling Wind and Serpentine Path (the latter of which is far from exemplary, but we can forgive), but Unearthly Trance has always been my favorite. While the relatively new Lipynsky-fronted three-piece Force & Fire doesn’t resurrect UT’s capacious, spaced-out misanthropy in quite the same way, it’s a nearer analog than any of his other recent work. If you imagine the lysergic doom of UT collapsing in on itself and forever speeding up in pursuit of early High On Fire, you might still be shocked at the bilious snarl of Lipynsky’s vocals, but you’d at least be in the right neighborhood. Truly, this is heavy as a really heavy thing.

grift
Grift – Syner (Nordvis, Sweden)

Bleak, beautiful black metal melancholy done the way only the Swedes can. Syner appears at first to be a somewhat diminutive statement, but over the course of 38 minutes you will find that what first kept you at a distance eventually pulls you in close. The jangle of the guitar, coupled with the starkness of the album art, brings to mind other Nordvis acts like Bergraven and Stilla, but the strained howl of Grift’s sole member Erik Gardefors gives Syner a decidedly more emotional edge. If you’ve ever accused black metal of monotony, take a gander at the guitar solo that closes out “Det Bortvanda Ansiktet” and kindly reconsider. Then, grab a bottle of akvavit and head out to the countryside to see where your legs take you. With songs as sweeping as these, you might just keep walking, ever in pursuit of that final, mysterious horizon.

ironsword
Ironsword – None But the Brave (Shadow Kingdom Records, Portugal)

Ironsword was made for Shadow Kingdom Records, and Shadow Kingdom Records was made for Ironsword. Or, to put it more bluntly: both Ironsword and Shadow Kingdom Records exist to hail the eternal greatness of Manilla Road. None But the Brave trims away some of the sprawl from Ironsword’s last album, Overlords of Chaos, in favor of punchier, more direct metal bruisers. It’s unfair to these Portuguese flame-keepers to label than pure Manilla Road worshippers, but swap out João Fonseca’s gruff delivery for Mark Shelton’s nasal cry and None But the Brave marches respectfully in the shadow of such early Road classics as The Deluge, Crystal Logic, and Open the Gates. In many ways, bands like Ironsword are the apotheosis of heavy metal, inasmuch as they would rather focus on the eternal gallop and riff than beating up nerds who use words like apotheosis. Riffs for the riff-starved, solos to water whatever bullshit dustbowl of atmospheric sludge you’ve been wallowing in.

judicator
Judicator – At the Expense of Humanity (Divebomb Records, USA)

An American power metal band following the time-honored mold of Blind Guardian is hardly earthshaking news. With At the Expense of Humanity, however, Judicator have not only advanced their sound by both turning more progressive and adding a perfectly modern chugging heft, but they have made an emotionally devastating concept album about Judicator’s vocalist John Yelland’s brother’s fight with and ultimate death from cancer. So, when the choir swells on a line like “I’m by your side until the end,” it’s hardly an idle conceit. That an album so raw and personal can still be so viscerally thrilling is testament to the enduring strength of power metal, and to the courage and craft of this excellent band.

umr1019inside
Kauan – Sorni Nai (Blood Music, Russia)

If it feels like Kauan’s sixth album Sorni Nai is the perfect thing to stuff in your ears for a long hike through a dense, snow-clotted forest or over a jagged mountain pass, there’s a reason for that. Based on the mysterious and grisly death of a hiking party in the Ural Mountains in 1959, Sorni Nai unfolds with a deliberate pacing and widescreen grandeur befitting its narrative intentions. Conceptual claptrap aside, the music’s every measure is drenched in thoughtful melancholy, with the atmospheric doom and folk elements swirling between and around each other in a way that merges such influences as Tenhi, Empyrium, and Anathema. The album is a continuous piece, and while it opens with such piercing loveliness, by the time it arrives, inevitably, trudging and wounded, to its conclusion, the listener is implicated almost bodily in the majesty and hopelessness.

lostsoul
Lost Soul – Atlantis: The New Beginning (Apostasy Records, Poland)

Do you want to know what doesn’t fuck around? Polish death metal, that’s what. Never quite attaining the profile of countrymates like Behemoth, Vader, or Decapitated, Lost Soul has nevertheless cut a wide swath of devastation across five increasingly honed albums. Although every bit as hyper-precise and ultra-blasting as much Polish death metal, Lost Soul digresses into wonderfully fluid leads and progressive solos with much greater frequency than its peers. This means that a song like “Unicornis” can chug along like a skipping-record Nile breakdown and also explode into an almost power metal outro. If you have somehow allowed yourself to be stripped of the ability to simply enjoy a band that wants to hammer you into dust with its proficiency, may I humbly submit that Lost Soul is just the tonic to kick you the fuck off whatever forum you’re currently crafting a wildly ironic meme for and into the real goddamned world?

psudoku
Psudoku – Planetarisk Sudoku (Self-released, Norway)

Beaten To Death’s Unplugged is probably the year’s best grindcore album. Revenge’s Behold.Total.Rejection is probably the year’s truest grindcore album. Psudoku’s Planetarisk Sudoku, however, is the year’s weirdest grindcore album by a fair distance. Clearly emerging from some distant black hole where Napalm Death and Tangerine Dream are somehow the same band, Planetarisk Sudoku’s four lengthy songs envision the collision of Boredoms, Naked City, and Flagitious Idiosyncrasy in the Dilapidation. But honestly, as head-fuckingly strange as that all sounds, the album is simply a downright pleasure to experience. Music for drinking a hundred neon red beers and throwing an asteroid belt at a Cylon.

spiritcabinet
The Spirit Cabinet – The Spirit Cabinet (Van Records, Netherlands)

The Spirit Cabinet is so much fun. Shouldn’t that be enough? Fine. To elaborate: The Spirit Cabinet is a gloomy doom & trad-leaning project formed by the members of several notable Dutch bands. No member is more essential to The Spirit Cabinet’s success than their vocalist, who is none other than Willem of Urfaust. In Urfaust, his drunken heckler vocals sit back in the distance and coat the music in a haze of confusingly directed emotion, but in The Spirit Cabinet they sit straight front and center, sat exactly on top of these infectious riffs. The immediate signposts made by The Spirit Cabinet are Mercyful Fate and late-period Darkthrone, which in my book should be enough to get you to sell your stupid car and send the money to the Netherlands to get these brilliant mopes to keep doing their thing. Don’t blow it.

thissuffocatingexistence
Striborg – This Suffocating Existence (Razed Soul Productions, Australia)

I had been worried about Sin-Nanna. After the better part of a decade of increasingly prolific activity, this one-man Tasmanian blizzard factory fell silent (apart from a few scattered splits and an EP) after 2009’s Southwest Passage. Happily (if that’s quite the right word), we were visited in 2015 with two new albums from this most hermetic of hermits: one from his noise/black ambient project Veil of Darkness, and This Suffocating Existence, his thirteenth full-length as Striborg. Gone is the impenetrable treble explosion of many of his earlier albums, and it sounds as though he actually spent the time away learning to play real drums. The drums, real though they may be, are not good, and neither is Sin-Nanna’s guitar playing particularly accomplished, and yet I still cannot help but love this demented little project, for although some of the impossible distance in which his albums used to be couched has disappeared, his songwriting has improved immensely and his devotion to a perfectly insular musical world is sturdy as ever. Ugly, sloppy, depressed music in the finest tradition of Ildjarn and Xasthur: perfect for your upcoming holiday gathering!

tanagra
Tanagra – None of This is Real (Self-released, USA)

Honesty time: if you start a power metal band with a name inspired by the single greatest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (that’s season 5’s “Darmok,” by the way), you’ve got my goddamned attention. Occasionally bringing to mind both Falconer and Battleroar, Tanagra excels at both straightforward power metal anthems (“Tyranny of Time,” “Planeswalker”) and complex, emotive compositions (such as the album’s real standout “Antietam”). For a long time, power metal was one of the genres least likely to be successfully handled via self-recording and independent distribution, but plenty of newcomers are happily putting that sad truth to rest. Bands like Breitenhold, A Sound of Thunder, and now Tanagra, while different in many ways, have demonstrated that power metal doesn’t need a label budget or the exposure of European metal fests to succeed wildly. Power metal of the people, by the people, for the people. Go and Gettysbang your stupid head.

valborg

Valborg – Romantik (Zeitgeister, Denmark)

The Zeitgeister collective of bands should, by all rights, have long since been household names. Island, Woburn House, Owl, Klabautamann, and Valborg (among others) make music that, while different enough from each other on the surface, clearly radiates from a shared core. On their fifth album Romantik, the Valborgian trio of Buckard, Kolf, and Toyka have whittled everything down to the essentials: dirge tempos, gloomy riffs, keys that split the difference between Type O Negative and Of the Wand & the Moon, and a wide range of vocal styles that rarely draw unnecessary attention to themselves. So why does it all work so well, and wind up feeling so soothing to boot? Hell if I know, chums, but I DO know that you’ll be shouting along to “Blitz aus Sodom” in your sleep without even noticing. Plus, the triumphantly sad outro to “The Haunted Womb” is just begging to be played over the end credits of your new favorite movie. You need Zeitgeister in your life.

thevisit
The Visit – Through Darkness into Light (Self-released, Canada)

The Visit’s debut full-length Through Darkness Into Light is not the sort of thing you live with casually. Instead, this is an album to sink into fully, letting its simple but impossibly rich tapestry of sound envelop you like a heavy snow in sunlight yet untouched by footfall. The duo of Raphael Weinroth-Browne (also of too-beautiful-for-this-world favorites Musk Ox) on cello and Heather Sita Black on vocals invest each of these five twisting compositions with a gossamer darkness. Weinroth-Browne’s coaxes a proliferation of voices from his cello, with precise pizzicato and double-tracked bowing trading off with sharp accented downstrokes and whirlwind sawing, while Black inhabits all vantages, from distant melodies barely above a whisper to spoken word to wordless ululations that suggest all the finest resonance with Dead Can Dance. Let this impossible strength live in you, and then take it with you out into the world.

WASPGolgotha
W.A.S.P. – Golgotha (Napalm Records, USA)

Look, am I seriously being forced to put W.A.S.P. on a list of under-the-radar albums? Never mind the band’s somewhat inconsistent track record in recent years: Blackie Lawless’s energy and songwriting chops have always been impeccable. And, sure, W.A.S.P. devotes whatever time it used to spend fucking like a beast to, I don’t know, praying like a holy beast, but if you’re going to dismiss out of hand overt Christianity in heavy metal, then hey, congratulations! You never actually believed in heavy metal’s oppositional spirit. In any case, to overlook Golgotha would be deprive yourself of one of the most forthrightly joyous heavy metal albums of the year. The chorus to “Last Runaway”? Amazing. The chorus to “Slaves of the New World Order”? Amazing. The chorus to every other song? Amazing. The guitar solos that flare and flash and spool and promise almost to never end? Amazing. Call it epic gloomy glam trad metal or whatever else you need to feel okay with your image, but for sweet mercy’s sake, listen to this album. The power of Blackie compels you.

But now, I want to hear your stories. What music brought you happiness this year that barely rose to a whisper above the din and clamor of life, the universe, and everything?

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