Chris Rowella’s Top Albums of the Decade
Well, here we are. While this list comprises what I believe to be the best metal (and metal-adjacent) albums of the last ten years, 2019 also marks a full decade of my contributions to Invisible Oranges. Things looked a little different in September 2009, for both myself and this site; I believe we’ve been through some heavy shit since then, highs and lows, and those things have made us stronger and better at what we do. As for the world at large, despite the dour headlines, it continues to become a better, safer, and more prosperous place. Optimism has slowly eaten away at my lifelong commitment to cynicism. Perhaps that is personal growth, or maybe it’s a residual effect of being a husband and father (three times over, no less). It could be a combination of these, and other disparate things, but the source doesn’t really matter. The future is bright.
In terms of heavy music, the same notion applies. I don’t know if there’s a common thread connecting the last ten years, other than an ever-expanding output. More bands, more labels, more albums, more spontaneous subgenre booms. While there has inevitably been an increase in clunkers, this exponential growth has also led to a number of amazing releases. The 1980s may always be the sacred ground, but the 2010s have been a pretty special time to be a metal fan.
Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun (Reprise Records, USA)
Carcass – Surgical Steel (Nuclear Blast, UK)
Coffinworm – When All Became None (Profound Lore, USA)
High on Fire – Electric Messiah (eOne, USA)
Alice in Chains – The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (Capitol Records, USA)
KEN Mode – Loved (Season Of Mist, Canada)
Quicksand – Interiors (Epitaph, USA)
Messenger – Illusory Blues (Svart, UK)
High On Fire – Luminiferous (eOne, USA)
Crowbar – Sever the Wicked Hand (eOne, USA)
The first great album of 2010 still holds up as one of the best albums of the 2010s. Eparistera Daimones is just as much a spiritual as musical follow-up to Celtic Frost swansong Monotheist, continuing its themes of crushing, impending doom and hopelessness. From the funeral dirge of “Abyss Within My Soul” to the headbanging might of “A Thousand Lies”, it still stands alone in its singularity of vision and label-free heaviness.
End of Mirrors is, as the kids say, a mood. Drawing from an inky black well filled with post-punk, goth and psychedelia, Alaric found the sweet spot on their second album. Restrained, tribal drum patterns and heartbeat basslines lay the foundation for shimmering layered guitars and Shane Baker’s haunted vocals. It’s the soundtrack to a thousand rainy days.
“Time to wake up.” That’s the sample that starts album opener “In Our Blood," and it works as a clarion call to anyone that thinks they can put a YOB record on for background music. Following up the slightly uneven Atma, Clearing The Path To Ascend is YOB at their very best. Alternately melancholy and pulverizing, methodical and inventive, it puts more raw emotion and intensity into four songs than most bands can put into four albums. The hypnotic hammering of “Nothing to Win," the ethereal journey of “Marrow"; the peaks and valleys here are palpable, and the album is unforgettable.
Chris Spencer’s abrupt departure from Unsane earlier this year was sad news for the passionate fanbase they’ve grown over the last 25 years. As the godfathers of New York City noise-rock, Unsane could always be counted on to deliver the goods, both live and in the studio. Wreck represents the best of their post-millenium output, chock full of barbed-wire riffs, harmonica solos, and a dead-on cover of Flipper’s “Ha Ha Ha." Intensely emotional and about as subtle as a street fight on East Broadway, Wreck does exactly what its title sets out to do.
Death rock for the people. In an instance of seemingly divine intervention, the Fenriz-approved Beastmilk found superfans in the members of Converge, leading one Kurt Ballou to bring them stateside and producing the best post-punk album of the decade. Climax is not a grower; from the first thirty seconds of “Death Reflects Us,” listeners know they’re hearing something special, a dark vision of the past and a boldly energetic step into the future. Beastmilk’s subsequent demise is lamentable, but like Joy Division before them, the instant classic they created eclipses that and everything else.
Unsane is dead; long live Whores. The most exciting, intense, and fun noise-rock band to hit the national scene in years, if not decades, the Atlanta trio found perfection in the ugly, imperfect sludge on their debut full-length. The bloody, nihilistic “Baby Teeth” puts a ten-ton hammer into your brain, equal parts catchy and bludgeoning, while rubbing up against the serpentine grooves and pitch-black humor of “Mental Illness As Mating Ritual." Every song is an instant earworm, never overstaying its welcome, and feels at home in any hardcore, metal or hard rock playlist. Gold will still be in the conversation when the “best of the last 20 years” lists come around in another decade or so.
It happens every time: the gentle, acoustic lilt of “He Comes” lulls the listener into chill mode, despite the subtle tritone inflections haunting the background. Then wham! “Death Knows Where” bursts from the relative quiet, Mercyful Fate + Candlemass heaviness wrapped in aesthetics cribbed from The Cure and Coven. Evolving from the classic metal catchiness of their self-titled debut to the moodier, Gothic overtones of 2011’s The World. The Flesh. The Devil., In Solitude perfected their sound on Sister. The title track sounds just as much at home on an Argento soundtrack as it does on the mainstage at Wacken, and closer “Inmost Nigredo” traverses the metal landscape from ambient ballad to pulsating proto-doom to soaring epic. A modern classic.
Classic rock has never really gone out of favor, to the point where some of its oldest revivalists have been around longer than the original bands ever were. Of all the bands that have worshipped at the Zeppelin + Stones + Lizzy altar over the last several decades, Tony Reed’s Stone Axe sits head and shoulders above the rest. Despite its status as a side project to Reed’s main gig in the more prolific Mos Generator, Stone Axe is the vehicle that tracks closest to the mutton-chopped godfathers of yore, and their second album distills those influences into the best classic rock album since 1979, never mind 2010. “Old Soul” makes II’s intentions clear as crystal, while “Chasing Dragons” reinvents the FM rock radio staple and “Live for the Day” is as close to a long-lost Free b-side as anyone can get. The magic of II is in the details: yes, “Those Were The Golden Years” is a Thin Lizzy tribute, but not in a typical duelling-guitar fashion. It delves into Phil Lynott’s songwriting-as-storytelling style, a characteristic missing from too many would-be Lizzy worshippers. It’s one detail of many that makes II special, an enduring rock record in its own right, beholden to no era but that of its listeners.
A lush, cinematic, fully realized piece of musical art. Blood Lust is the short ends of Easy Rider left out in the desert somewhere after Fonda and Hopper drifted out into the ether, discovered by Crowley devotees, and then melted into copies of the Beatles’ self-titled album and Coven’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls. “I’ll Cut You Down” is a foot-stomping boogie born too late for the Manson crowd; it’s too good for them, anyway. “Curse in the Trees” is a doom crawl that rivals anything Rise Above has ever released, and perennial live staple “13 Candles” takes the word "jam" back from the musical cringe lexicon. Without a single bogus track, Blood Lust is Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats at their absolute best, solidifying a sound and aesthetic often imitated, but yet to be duplicated. It’s easy, and foolish, to dismiss Blood Lust as a throwback or a 1960s rehash. The only retort: okay, go find a classic rock record that’s both this heavy and catchy, at this level of musicality, produced this well. Granted, there are a few. They’re the best the golden era of heavy rock had to give. Blood Lust is their peer.
Lovecraft. Time travel. Jesus twins. Black lotus. Microhazing? Look, this is a High on Fire album. It’s best to not ask questions and just roll with it. But this isn’t just a High on Fire album (is it ever?) -- it’s their best album this decade, and since they’re the best band of this century, math tells me De Vermis Mysteriis is the best album of the decade. There’s no fuckery to be had here: Des Kensel’s opening thunderous tom rolls in “Serums of Liao," followed quickly by Matt Pike’s furious tone of the gods and acidic Lemmy howls, all announce Mysteriis to the masses as a big, bold statement of heavy metal. Before the listener even has a chance to breathe, “Bloody Knuckles” kicks down the doors in all its descending-riff beatdown glory.
De Vermis Mysteriis is nothing if not relentless. Even the relatively chilled instrumental “Samsara” is a showcase for bassist Jeff Matz’s insanely underrated playing chops, as well as Pike’s underutilized solo skills. “Spiritual Rights” kicks off the b-side with a vengeance, thrashy and tribalistic; when Pike bellows “I’ll scourge your ghost!” you believe it. “King of Days” is the metal ballad we don’t deserve, but desperately need. “Romulus And Remus”? Does an epic doom track about mythical Roman noble demigods and lyrics like “Geminis suckled of the wolf” need any kind of justification? Of course not, and neither does placing this glorious, infinitely listenable album at #1. De Vermis Mysteriis encourages us all to drop out, tune down, turn it up, and take a trip. Enjoy the ride.