Top Albums of 2015, by Joseph Schafer
Consensus. It’s a rare thing, especially in metal. In the course of editing this site, I am exposed to such a large amount of music that attempting to identify any particular trend or theme becomes a daunting task (this probably goes double for Jon Rosenthal). I sometimes imagine myself as a spectator to the birth of the universe, isolated in a transparent bubble shortly after the big bang, watching white-hot clusters of gas and debris coalesce into spiral galaxies while speeding away from one another at incomprehensible speed. They grow increasingly complex as they travel further from the center and, sadly, from each other, until one day every piece of existence will be so far away from one another that they will be completely isolated and invisible.
Observing metal conjures a similar feeling. Various subgenres grow increasingly more complex and regionally distinct in relative isolation, virtually unexposed to one another. Black metal and doom, for example, seemed to contain multitudes of increasingly esoteric bands. How can one galaxy contain planets so alien from one another as Mastery, Furze and Sivyj Yar? My task in this space ought to be finding a unifying moment of zen with which to wrap up this solar year and blast us into the next one, but I’m consumed with the thought of even getting these distant galaxies within the genre to see one another—at it’s best, that’s what great music journalism does. My subjective reasoning skills are not enough to bring all of us—readers, bands, writers and I—together.
I thought I might look at hard, quantifiable numbers to find some kind of consensus. I took a tally of all the albums on the staff’s best of 2015 lists, and sure enough there are clear gold, silver and bronze medalists.
According to the Invisible Oranges Staff, the best albums of the year are:
3. MGLA - Excersises in Futility
2. Deafheaven - New Bermuda
1. Panopticon - Autumn Eternal
The consensus breaks down from there—each of those albums appeared on just one more list than its runner up, and there’s a four-way tie for fourth place. Literally one more staff member could have swung the vote entirely. There’s reason to suspect some kind of groupthink or myopia on our part as well: all three bands play black metal, and two are American. We covered all three bands, and sponsored a festival headlined by one of them.
Still, I’m aware that there is more to metal than one sub genre and bands from the United States. Older styles of metal are gaining new adherents daily, and in even more countries. My New Year’s resolution is to have our coverage here at Invisible Oranges reflect that.
Hell, I’m removed from the consensus myself. Two of those three albums are absent from my list.
Given that, I turn to the readers. Please, tell me your favorite album of 2015 in the comment thread below (one per comment, please). I’m going to compile that data, and see if it lines up with our staff lists in the early part of next year. The universe is cooling and our time on this earth is short. If I can leave one cold gift for you readers, let it be this: use your time wisely, listen to good music and share it with one another.
Invisible Oranges will return in 2016. Happy holidays.
10.Satyrasis - ...Of the Dead (Self-released, USA)
Two of the albums on my list appeared on Invisible Oranges as exclusive streams earlier this year, but didn’t receive a tremendous amount of attention. Consider this list a second opportunity to discover two of the most forward thinking death metal projects working today. Lansing, Michigan’s Satyrasis blend Deceased’s not-quite-extreme vocals and stellar storytelling lyrics with tasteful and multifaceted shredding. The band welds these elements into a handful of relatively straightforward bangers like “A Foot in Each Grave” and “Excision,” if by straightforward we mean allowing only the occasional genre divergence, such as a Spanish guitar solo or an 8-bit MIDI introductory sequence. Of the Dead spreads its wings on even more offbeat offerings, including a cover of Rush’s “Circumstances” and the Can-ish closing track, “In Ruins.” I know the staff loved Horrendous, but I think Anarata is still playing catch up to ...Of the Dead.
9.Ghost - Meliora (Loma Vista, Sweden)
I didn’t like Meliora when I first heard it. The stupid theremin at the beginning of “Spirit” pissed me off, and I’m still not quite over the colossal letdown that was the band’s sophomore LP, Infestissumam. As such, I pretty much put Meliora on my iPod, listened to it once and then forgot about it.
...And then my significant other got a hold of it. She became obsessed. I have never before seen an adult become enraptured with a band the way that she continues to be with Ghost. Meliora became literally the only record we listened to in one another’s presence for two months out of the year. Consider its placement here the result of Stockholm syndrome. What can I say? I’m convinced, I’m hooked. I was even excited to hear the fucking Japanese bonus track. I haven't tracked down a bonus track since Nachtmystium released Addicts.
I’ve come around to overlook the band’s corniness and embrace all the things they do so well on Meliora: ebullient choruses, searing keyboard leads and most importantly some of the most swaggering bass playing in any genre. The bass riff that drives “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” has the kind of iconographic punch that John McVie specializes in. Papa Emeritus can’t sing like Lindsey Buckingham yet, but his vocal delivery has improved from “forced” to “comfortable,” and more suited for sneaking insidious positive and self-affirming messages into his blasphemy. In fact Meliora has convinced me that Ghost may adhere more seriously to their satanic belief systems than I had previously thought—in a world where The Satanic Temple is proving itself a good democratic institution by suing for women’s rights, maybe encouraging self confidence and worker solidarity really is doing the devil’s work.
8.Immortal Bird - Empress/Abscess (Manatee Rampage, USA)
Earlier this year I interviewed Rae Amitay, one half of the creative team behind Chicago’s Immortal Bird, for another publication and she dropped this once-in-a-lifetime gem of a quote: “I am not the Taylor Swift of death metal.” In fairness to Amitay, I asked her a kind-of leading question right before she dropped that quote, so don’t read into it too deeply as I am about to do.
It’s a good quote, funny and preservative of her artistic seriousness—to be sure, Immortal Bird is a no-nonsense band, their debut album is just five songs and a little over a half hour long. That said, I’m not so sure that being the Taylor Swift of death metal would be so bad. Some things Swift and Immortal Bird are both good at: indelible hooks, blending traditional instrumentation with electronic elements, framing past trauma in a way that is both poignant and relatable. If anything, the death metal bit is the inaccuracy. Immortal Bird update the industrial-black sound so prevalent in Chicago with elements of crust, grind, and some gritty punk for good measure. It’s not going to fill your blank space, it’s going to pry that fucker even wider, but that’s better than all the music you listen to that makes you feel nothing at all.
7.Satan - Atom by Atom (Listenable, UK)
Of all the albums that we streamed at Invisible Oranges in the past year, Atom by Atom produced the response I was most happy with. Classic metal bands reform and produce great records all the time, but the blogosphere and Invisible Oranges readers rarely resonate with those albums the way people have with Satan’s newest offering. I choose to believe it’s a result of the obvious merit and talent on display in this record. Not only are these songs good in that satisfying and energizing way that the best old school metal albums are, but they also display a willingness to play with the conventions of the sound they originally played, when most simply regurgitate tropes. Their unexpected and dry guitar sound enables some curveball acrobatics like the chirping intro to the title track and the jarring flourishes in “The Devil’s Infantry.” That said, Atom by Atom is not an intellectual exercise, it’s a raucous and pleasing record that pairs memorable choruses with interesting lyrical themes as on the closer “Fall of Persephone,” or the news media bashing “Ahriman.”
6.House of Atreus - The Spear and the Ichor that Follows (Dark Descent, USA)
With respect to Black Breath and Satyrasis, this is the best death metal album I heard all year, and when we premiered it pretty much nobody listened. Consider this your shot at redemption. The Spear and the Ichor that Follows might very well have made No. 1 on my list were it not for two fair critiques. First, that the record suffers from a badly compressed production job, and second that the band’s style bears an uncomfortable resemblance to white supremacist metallers Arghoslent (I do not condone their ideology or buying their records and merchandise, in case there was a shadow of a doubt). True on both counts, but here are my rejoinders: It’s foolish to let bad presentation stand in the way of enjoying good music, and for my money The House of Atreus are much better than their obvious inspiration. Their galloping guitar style evokes the joy of forward momentum in the same way that Iron Maiden and Tengger Cavalry do, but House of Atreus write less busy compositions than those bands. As a result, when they finally do open up into a guitar solo or the sole blast beat during the climax of closing song “The River Black,” it feels earned and cathartic. They understand the value of minimalism in the same way that Bolt Thrower did.
More importantly, their more spacious songwriting style leaves room for bassist and singer Ben “Anxietous Nero” Huddleston to show off his apparently bronze-plated pipes. Anyone who can sell the line “upon my posthumous erection,” is a talent, but Huddleston’s extreme vocal performance on The Spear and the Ichor that Follows is the best I’ve heard all year. He cruises at high speed in his lower register, spitting out intelligible lyrics at rapid speed, and then on a dime goes for broke, pushing into his higher register as on opener “Trenches of Fortune.”
5.MGLA - Exercises in Futility (Northern Heritage/No Solace Records, Poland)
I never got MGLA before I saw them live at No Quarter November. I remember listening to their older material and finding it kind of run-of-the-mill. I have no idea what I was thinking. Exercises in Futility doesn’t rewrite the black metal playbook, but executes my favorite tricks in the genre's history with consistency and aplomb. MGLA is the band Watain have been trying to be since 2006. That is to say: Dissection with a more modern and aggressive edge. Anyone seeking the kind of life-affirming melancholy provided by most of the American black metal bands that have appeared on staff lists ought to look elsewhere: I haven’t heard a more nihilistic and furious black metal release this year. If you get the chance, see them live.
4. Paradise Lost – The Plague Within (Century Media, UK)
No surprises here. Paradise Lost have been one of my favorite bands for years. I celebrate their entire catalog. It’s edifying to see this band finally getting some of the attention and respect that they’ve always deserved, in my opinion. That said, my inner cynic stands at attention when I remember that Paradise Lost has been putting out albums this good for years, but it took Nick Holmes growing again for many people to take notice. The death metal vocals do add some texture to the mix, but still the big pop moments make The Plague Within an album to remember. Listen to it, and then listen to everything else they’ve ever done.
3.Crypt Sermon - Out of the Garden (Dark Descent, USA)
The recipe for a Crypt Sermon is not difficult: Combine equal parts Candlemass and Gates of Slumber over ice, shake and serve with Dio as garnish. Those seeking surprises and complexity will not find them in this particular drink. You don’t order a Crypt Sermon because it’s going to look cool in your hand (ok that album art is amazing), or because it’s some artisanal craft cocktail. If you want something like that, you go order a Sannhet. You order a Crypt Sermon because it is a classic. That it was first innovated in Pennsylvania a little over a year ago is not relevant. A classic is not denoted by the passage of time, the passage of time just weeds out options which are not classics. Classicism is something that comes from the perfect blending of elements, of bite and sweetness, of songwriting and heaviness. Listening to Out of the Garden is like tasting a Rob Roy or a Sazerac for the first time. Nobody’s making new classic cocktails, but they are making new classic doom albums. Go order a Crypt Sermon, maybe have two. Hell, have enough and maybe you’re going to take your local prince or princess home with you, wake up shit-wrecked the next morning, saddle your horse, and ride into the sunset to topple the Catholic church. Oh, and anyone who thinks they’re a christian band also thinks that there’s vodka in a Martini. False.
2.Royal Thunder - Crooked Doors (Relapse, USA)
Putting just one hat on every metal band is a bear, but if you put a gun to my head, I guess I’d say that metal as a whole is about wrongdoing. To its detriment, the genre ignores that the greatest wrongdoing happens to one person at the hands of another. Frequently, it’s the people closest to you that do you the most wrong, and that simple truth is at the very heart of Royal Thunder’s sophomore album, Crooked Doors. When I interviewed singer and bassist Mlny Parsonz at Stereogum about her breakup from ex-husband and Royal Thunder lead guitarist Josh Weaver, I said that Crooked Doors is “the contemporary hard-rock equivalent of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors — not just in terms of the emotions inside, but also in terms of songwriting.”
But maybe you’re not the kind of person who thinks lyrics matter. Maybe hearing someone turn their life inside-out for your enjoyment doesn’t sound like a good time. If so, at least enjoy Crooked Doors for its furious stomp and for my favorite metal ballads I’ve heard since Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power.
1. Tau Cross - Tau Cross (Relapse, UK, USA, Canada)
For two years in a row now I’ve chosen for my album of the year a record by one of metal’s elder statesmen returning after a long absence. I love a good curmudgeon with something to say, and I love a Rocky story. For my money 2010’s Sonic Mass was a good comeback, but Tau Cross is Rob “The Baron” Miller’s knockout blow. He returned with this new project liberated from the expectations that come with his historic previous project, Amebix, and with that newfound freedom created something that sounds like standing in the middle of a see-saw with Killing Joke on one end and Strawbs on the other. Miller understands better than most the joy of simple pleasures, be that the stillness of country life or just a good grinding riff married to a deep groove.
Wisdom comes from the mouths of the older and reclusive according to the myths and stories we tell children. Miller plays the hermit on this record and in life. His advice is simple: Stay loyal to those around you, respect the earth and stay suspicious of the powers that be. In a year full of bile and self-loathing nihilism (stuff I do like), it’s good to keep The Baron’s words close.