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I freely admit to being one of Invisible Oranges’ less conventional metalheads; the album that tops my overall best-of list for 2015 is 40 minutes of very sad folk music. Plenty of loud and sinister releases crossed my ears this year as well though. Metal and its associated genres are forms of music that I often get the most out of in a live setting – hence my role as Massachusetts concert correspondent for IO – but for the year’s conclusion I did roundup my 10 favorite recordings that qualify as such.

—Ben Stas

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10. Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss (Sargent House, US)

Though Los Angeles-based songwriter Chelsea Wolfe largely deals in gothic, folk-leaning songs as a solo artist, she’s long been associated with the metal community. Her August release, Abyss, seems to be her most direct stride yet toward actually making a metal record. Opener “Carrion Flowers” immediately growls with a Reznor-ian synth that’s characteristic of the record’s industrial undercurrent. This aggressiveness blends nicely with Wolfe’s more restrained inclinations for a dynamic LP that engages and challenges in ways surpassing its breakthrough predecessor Pain Is Beauty.

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9. Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower (Relapse, US)

Virginia doom crew Windhand’s third LP retains the group’s epic tendencies; it clocks in at well over an hour and stacks two 15-minute jams back-to-back, just for the hell of it. At the same time though, Grief’s Infernal Flower feels like the band’s most open and accessible work yet. In both the production and songwriting departments, they’ve dialed back a bit on the swamp-like dirges, pushing vocalist Dorthia Cottrell’s voice – truly the band’s greatest instrument – to the forefront and narrowing the focus on blues-y guitar interplay. It suits them well.

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8. The Body and Thou – You, Whom I Have Always Hated (Thrill Jockey, US)

The alliance between Portland, Oregon’s The Body and Baton Rouge’s Thou is a dangerous combination, as anyone who has seen the bands’ skull-shattering live shows can tell you. You, Whom I Have Always Hated, their second collaborative work following 2014’s Released From Love, doubles down on their deadly potential. Across six songs, the bands traverse an oppressive sonic landscape that melds The Body’s industrial shrieks with Thou’s more traditional doom-sludge in unsettling and satisfying ways. Plus, it’s got a pretty essential Nine Inch Nails cover in “Terrible Lie.”

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7. Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire (Thrill Jockey, US)

If Providence noisemakers Lightning Bolt left more than a few fans disappointed with 2012’s rarities/odds-and-ends/’lost recordings’ EP Oblivion Hunter, this year’s Fantasy Empire is here to restore the faith. For 48 very loud minutes, it exhibits what Lightning Bolt does best: screaming forward at breakneck pace in a storm of frenetic drums, insanely distorted bass and garbled telephone-mic vocals. It’s a collection of songs both abrasively noisy and playfully catchy, a combination no one pulls off quite like Lightning Bolt.

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6. Faith No More – Sol Invictus (Reclamation, US)

Alt-metal weirdos Faith No More reunited after a decade-long hiatus in 2009, and this year delivered their first studio record since 1997. Sol Invictus does a convincing job of making that lengthy gap feel all but forgotten, drawing on the band’s typically eclectic influences for another collection of fascinating and blatantly genre-defying music. Straight out of the gate, the subdued, piano-driven title track gives way to the dynamically heavy “Superhero,” and it’s one thrilling left-turn after another from there. In classically provocative fashion, the album’s back-half highlight and anthemic lead single is called “Motherfucker.” As I wrote in a live review back in August, Faith No More are no conventional metal band, but they certainly embody the nonconformist spirit of the genre.

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5. High on Fire – Luminiferous (eOne Music, US)

High On Fire don’t really release bad records. If one enjoys the dulcet tones of Matt Pike shredding a fretboard to pieces, listening to that happen at album-length atop the boomingly precise rhythm section of Des Kensel and Jeff Matz will always be a pleasure. Still, Luminiferous is a particularly great distillation of what makes High On Fire one of metal’s most reliable bands. With Converge’s Kurt Ballou at the boards, the band’s thunderous stoner-sludge has never sounded better, and Pike’s inspired riffs and solos are in no short supply. Late in the record, atmospheric departure “The Cave” offers up something unexpected, but not unwelcome, with its subdued, eerie ambiance. Luminiferous as a whole is a potent reminder that High on Fire are among the true greats.

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4. Swans – The Gate (Young God, US)

Swans are in the unique position of being a band whose live albums are arguably just as important as their studio work. From the very beginning, releases like Public Castration is a Good Idea captured the band at their savage peak, and in recent years, their live recordings have served the dual purpose of documenting tours and raising funds for subsequent studio time with limited-edition, handmade releases. The Gate captures Swans at the tail end of the touring cycle between 2014’s To Be Kind and their next record - bandleader Michael Gira says it will be their last in this incarnation. Topping the two-hour mark, the record immerses one in the cacophonous beauty of a Swans show, blending To Be Kind cuts that have been warped and twisted by additional time on the road with embryonic versions of songs for its follow-up. It’s best heard as a piece, but the concluding suite of “Bring the Sun / Black Hole Man,” which morphs from Kind’s beastly centerpiece into a frantic post-punk fury, is the real highlight.

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3. Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls (Profound Lore, US)

No one made a record like Frozen Niagara Falls this year. Dominic Fernow’s ambitious double-disc monster takes on the challenge of distilling all the ugliness and fractured beauty of his extremely prolific discography (as Prurient and otherwise) into one piece of work that feels like a statement of purpose. The record veers from industrial grind, white noise swells and piercing shrieks to ambient interludes, flashes of minimalist techno and tenderly-picked acoustic guitar. Fernow often howls, but occasionally he simply speaks. At 90 minutes and with so much stylistic fluctuation, Frozen Niagara Falls is an overwhelming, dizzying listen, but it’s also among the year’s most intensely harrowing and stunning pieces of work.

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2. Sunn O))) – Kannon (Southern Lord, US)

The kings of drone returned with a late-year LP in 2015, their first proper non-collaborative record since 2009’s career-highlight Monoliths & Dimensions. Kannon takes a different approach than its sprawling predecessor - it is the band’s shortest studio effort at just over a half-hour. Those clamoring for something epic may be put off by it, but the band finds beauty in concision here. The album is comprised of a three-song cycle that, due in part to its brevity, actually feels cyclical. The titular segments draw on classic Sunn O))) motifs—Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s wall of guitar and bass drones, as well as frequent collaborator Atilla Csihar’s otherworldly growls and chants—and present it all in a hypnotically compact LP that invites and rewards re-listens. Sunn O))) are frequently behind some of my favorite heavy releases in any given year, and 2015 is no different.

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1. Deafheaven – New Bermuda (ANTI-, US)

New Bermuda is the sound of a band with something to prove. Deafheaven were on the upswing from the moment 2013’s Sunbather both divided and enthralled listeners with its fusion of black metal and shoegaze aesthetics. It was a record derided by many but evidently embraced by many more, as the band’s festival billings and touring record can attest to. Rather than following it up with a palatable Xerox, however, the Los Angeles-based quintet went darker and meaner. New Bermuda isn’t wanting for pretty moments, but its heavier elements have the band baring teeth more so than ever before. Where Sunbather kickoff “Dream House” opened on a note of blinding light, an ascending riff exploding into euphoria with a crash of drums, “Brought to the Water” greets the listener with ominous chimes before a chugging guitar enters and heralds a much different record. Vocalist George Clarke has described New Bermuda as the dark side of Sunbather’s imagined domestic bliss, and Kerry McCoy’s songwriting illustrates that contrast beautifully. It may not outshine its masterpiece predecessor, but Deafheaven’s third full length offers a leaner, heavier follow-up that’s just as strong.

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