Top Albums of 2015, by Avinash Mittur
I had a charmed year to say the least. I repeatedly jumped back and forth between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles with little consequence, and I still managed to learn more about the things I love and where my priorities lie along the way. 2015 was the year in which I traversed the farthest depths of my passion for engineering. I built and designed gadgets of varying functionality and usefulness, recorded and mixed music, inhaled a harmful level of solder fumes and for much of the year, I even made a living in the audio industry. I loved every minute of it. This was also the year that I hit the wall as a writer. Where thoughts once flowed through the keyboard, I now found myself slamming my head on a table struggling for the next word. Writing stopped being fun.
No matter what my hobbies and adventures entailed, I would have once turned to old standbys like Judas Priest, Slough Feg and Motorhead for the soundtracks to these excursions. This year I took some chances with more newer tunes than usual. The bay triumphed yet again with ace offerings from some of its most accomplished musicians, but Southern California brought its A-game in a massive way. The expansive community there reached an ignition temperature of creativity, with the Midnite Collective label in particular pumping out quality pieces like clockwork. It’s a beautiful time to be a metalhead with a car in Los Angeles. On any night, Temple of Dagon rips apart a downtown dive, Trapped Within Burning Machinery wrecks an Inland Empire domicile and Behold! The Monolith brings Silverlake hipsters to their knees. It’ll be difficult saying goodbye to Los Angeles after living there for four years, but the excitement that comes with returning to the Bay Area is boiling over. I’m ready to be geographically stable for the first time in years, and with that I hope will come even more great tunes to invade my earholes.
Also this year I drove to Canada to see Bolt Thrower with our esteemed editor. That ruled.
15. Napalm Death – Apex Predator - Easy Meat (Century Media, UK)
14. Immortal Bird – Empress/Abcess (Manatee Rampage Recordings, US)
13. Motorhead – Bad Magic (UDR, US)
12. Satan – Atom By Atom (Listenable Records, UK)
11. Enforcer – From Beyond (Nuclear Blast, SWE)
10. Ancient Altar – Death Earth (Midnite Collective, US)
For whatever reason, death/doom has resonated with me astoundingly well as of late. In Southern California, few have been doing that style better than Ancient Altar. Their latest record Dead Earth manages to lay its hands all around the doom color pallette however, with blackened flourishes complimenting New Orleans swing at a moment’s notice. The record peaks early with "Albion," poking me right in a soft-spot; organ solos get me every goddamn time, and it’s tucked just under the mix to where I have to crank the album to obscene volumes. Even when the solo is over though, I usually leave the knob where it is. Loud is good with these gentlemen.
9. Behold! The Monolith – Architects of the Void (Self-released, US)
Upon regrouping after bassist/vocalist Kevin McDade’s tragic passing, it would have been easy for Behold! The Monolith to let loose with a bevy of thrashy, classic metal ass-kickers. No one would have minded. Instead the band took a more diabolical route, crafting a record where the blows are unexpected and labyrinthine. New singer Jordan Nalley exercises his enormous range all across Architects of the Void, howling, screaming and growling his way across Matt Price’s chicken-fried riffing. Behold took their sound to new extremes here and it’s made for their knottiest album yet, where tremolo runs rain down like hellfire one minute and stop for a doomy crawl the next. Out of all the records I listened to this year, this is the one where I’m continuing to discover new claw-raising moments with every listen.
8. Paradise Lost – The Plague Within (Century Media, UK)
Pre-release hype made this record out to be Paradise Lost’s long-awaited return to death/doom. It was something that I was looking forward to greatly, a modern day take on the crushing tones initially sharpened on 1993’s Gothic. Well, the album turned out to not quite be a full-on death/doom bruiser, and I couldn’t be more grateful. The poppy melodies that Greg Mackintosh experimented with on the likes of Host have been combined with his early controlled brutality in a wonderful way; a pure death/doom record might have been cool, but what we’ve got in The Plague Within is even better. This album isn’t a regression, nor is does it contain a new direction entirely: it’s instead a cherry-picking of the sounds that Mackintosh has screwed around with over the last 25 years, slapped together in a way that sounds far better than it should.
7. Magic Circle – Journey Blind (20 Buck Spin, US)
Even though Magic Circle snuck this record on us without much of a warning, there’s less of a sense of shock on Journey Blind than what we heard on their debut--believe it or not, this is a good thing. Their instrumental prowess remains top-notch but most importantly, the band’s musical progression feels natural and welcome. Magic Circle’s foray into a more upbeat sound follows the success of "Rapture" from their debut, and the entirety of Journey Blind emits that same infectious and magnetic energy. Looking back, Magic Circle’s debut sounds more like a demonstration of their abilities, both as performers and as songwriters. A flexing of their heavy metal muscle if you will. Tunes like "The Damned Man" and "Antediluvian" let the swinging breaks and riffs speak for themselves however, moving just a little bit away from the big tempo shifts and gargantuan hooks of the debut. Perhaps Magic Circle’s first outing was a more immediate delight, but I’ll be damned if Journey Blind doesn’t have a stronger, more confident batch of tunes.
6. Wild Hunt – Scroll and Urn (Self-released, US)
I’d like to think that Wild Hunt’s Scroll and Urn would have ended up on this list if guitarist Drew Cook hadn’t passed away last April. On its own, this EP is a brilliant and focused consolidation of the sounds that they explored on their debut and contains about as much fat as a stalk of celery. That said, this piece of work inevitably changes with Cook’s shadow looming over it. His signatures as a riffsmith become all the more obvious, his tremolo bends and right-wrong licks poking through the mix just a bit more than what may have been heard before. It’s an undoubtedly weighted listen every single time but with every spin, Scroll and Urn gets closer to being a warm reminder of all that Cook gave us and steps further away from being a somber hint of what could have been.
5. Vastum – Hole Below (20 Buck Spin, US)
On Patricidal Lust Vastum wrote good songs and paired them with lyrics that were imaginative and one-of-a-kind. There was a disconnect between the two; the well-performed and clearly produced music stood in sharp contrast against Daniel Butler and Leila Abdul-Rauf’s ugly musings. That juxtaposition has been wiped clean (or rather, wiped dirty?) on Hole Below. On their third record, Vastum have provided an aural hellscape where their horrors sound right at home. Whether it’s due to the new riffing partnership between Rauf and guitarist Shelby Lermo or Greg Wilkinson’s cavernous engineering, Vastum have achieved the sound and mental pictures that their lyrics have painted. It makes for the most sonically and visually evocative death metal album of the year.
4. With the Dead – With the Dead (Rise Above Records, UK)
The supergroup aspect of With the Dead never held much weight for me. Truth be told, I rarely listen to Electric Wizard’s post-Dopethrone output and in turn, Cathedral’s goodbye felt satisfying and well-earned. Shame on me then, for underestimating the sheer heaviness of this out-of-nowhere offering. More than any other record this year, With the Dead oozes tone: the guitar tone, the snare tone and even Lee Dorrian’s gloriously barbed vocals--his best in who knows how long--secrete the vibe. The best Electric Wizard records transport the listener to another land where the air is hazy and choking and With the Dead manages to accomplish that too, no doubt thanks to the presence of Mark Greening and Tim Bagshaw. That this album came with just about no hype was a treat in and of itself; for me, With the Dead was nothing but a shocking and towering surprise of a record.
3. Blind Guardian – Beyond the Red Mirror (Nuclear Blast, DE)
Blind Guardian’s prior studio album, At the Edge of Time was more promising than satisfying. The bookending tunes "Sacred Worlds" and "Wheel of Time" showed that they had finally nailed down the long-form orchestral metal sound that they’d so badly wanted to own but failed to on prior records, while the remaining tracks came off as throwaways. That’s anything but the case on Blind Guardian’s first album in five years. On Beyond the Red Mirror Blind Guardian’s two grand movements surround a white-hot batch of anthems, their most kinetic since storming beyond the coast on "Mirror, Mirror" 17 years ago. These tracks masterfully mix light punches with fire-fisted Shoryukens, finally bringing together the band’s early speed metal madness with their recent bombastic overtures. "The Holy Grail," "The Throne" and "Sacred Mind" in particular form an unholy triple-combo that propels this record to the finish line, and cements Beyond the Red Mirror as their first latter-day classic. Blind Guardian finally brought the hooks and the tunes to match their compositional ambition, and the results are simply wonderful.
2. Vhol – Deeper than Sky (Profound Lore, US)
There’s an element of joy and fun in Deeper than Sky that’s been missing from John Cobbett’s work for many years. It’s a speed metal love letter to his favorite records, with some of his fastest guitar solos yet and Aesop Dekker handing out d-beat goodies like Halloween candy. Vocalist Mike Scheidt goes for huge, sucker-punch hooks in just about every track except for one: "Paino." Sigrid Sheie’s baroque/jazz/thrash tour-de-force is a key-crushing clustersmash crammed into just a couple minutes. It’s bizarre and frankly fucking bananas. It’s also just another example of the spirit of adventure that rests inside Deeper than Sky, a spirit that rears its head during the fist-pumping chorus of "The Desolate Damned" and Cobbett’s sliding riffs in the title track. It’s the record that made me smile the most this year, the one that made me want to move faster every time I listened it. How I didn’t receive a speeding ticket with this disc in the stereo, I’ll never know.
1. Saviours – Palace of Vision (Listenable Records, US)
For the past four years, home has been an amorphous construct; it’s wherever I’ve slept on a given night. Five times this year, I got to hear Austin Barber introduce his band as "Saviours from California." Like myself, Barber and his bandmate Scott Batiste became Angelenos by way of the bay, keeping their roots intact the entire time. In the last year I saw Saviours conquer San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and Santa Ana and every time, the band felt like they were playing at home. Not just my home or their home, but our home. Palace of Vision breaks no new ground for metal music but it’s Saviours’ best album yet. Coming from the band that’s claimed an entire state as their place of sanctuary, that strength feels like a victory for me too. Pure objectivity in the appreciation of music is a bullshit proposition--hearing my own journey in Palace of Vision made this album sound all the more triumphant.
The easy description of this album is that it spins European classic metal in a way that only a group of all-American shredders could do it. In theory, that could fit any number of retro-styled bands from the bay or Los Angeles. But Saviours aren’t from simply one of those places; they’re from California. They marry Oakland’s punk soul with LA’s virtuosic swagger and when that spirit is set against their best songs yet, it makes for a record that’s inspired me to headbang and tear out the air-guitar (in public places mind you) more often than any other in this year. Sonny Reinhardt’s utterly smoking guitar solo in "Burning Shrine," Batiste’s double-kick cannonfire at the end of "The Beast Remains" and Barber’s mountaintop roars in the title track aren’t simply great moments on a record, they’re declarations of victory from the men who moved away from home and claimed it wherever their adventures took them. I can only hope that I accomplished something similar during my time in Los Angeles.