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I kept putting off making this list because the list of albums I liked this year was REALLY LONG and I didn’t want to have to do the hard work of sorting out an absolute number one. It’s always difficult to pin down a clear winner for me because my favorites change from day to day, but this year was a great year for metal, making my task even harder.

This year’s list contains a lot more black metal than my last year’s list did, partly because I’m paying more attention to the scene and also because there is just so much good black metal out there right now. And loyal as I am to the music being made in the darkest reaches of Cascadia from whence I hail, the global black metal scene is seriously strong right now.

As an overall theme for the year, I found there to be more variety than ever. Just take a look at the top 10 lists of IO contributors; they are all hugely different with a vast number of genres represented. That variety feeds my interest, even if I don’t love all of it, and it also keeps me humble, as I recognize with increasing clarity how much good stuff is out there that I’ll never get a chance to know. Even as I was working furiously last week to get this finalized, more good promos were still rolling in. Here’s a run-down of what I did get to know and love. Honorable Mentions presented in no particular order.

— Vanessa Salvia

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Honorable Mentions:

20. Akhlys – The Dreaming (Debemur Morti, USA)
Moody, ambient black metal from the Nightbringer dude.

19. Eye of Nix – Moros (Belief Mower, USA)]
One of the most crushing and complex recordings I’ve heard.

18. Cendra – 666Bastards (Xtreem Music, Spain)
The first song is called “Satànic D-beat” and the second is called “Argh!!!,” so you know what you’re gonna get.

17. Sabbath Assembly – Midnight Memories (Svart Records, USA)
True Satan worship based on the teachings and liturgy of an apocalyptic cult.

16. Fórn – Weltschmertz (Gilead Media, USA)
Two compositions of black sludgy funeral doom.

15. Canyon of the Skull – Canyon of the Skull (Self-released, USA)
Epic instrumental black doom.

14. Harmonic Cross – It Is Finished (Magic Bullet Records, USA)
The only true outlier on my list, this is darkly ethereal instrumental music with a creepy true back story.

13. A Pregnant Light – All Saints’ Day (Colloquial Sound Recording, USA)
The latest exploration of “purple metal” in a vast discography from this one-man musical master.

12. Hope Drone – Cloak of Ash (Relapse Records, Australia)
Epic (80 minutes) album of bleak noise.

11. Dispirit – Separation (Self-released cassette, US)
Lo-fi swirling chaos black doom.

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10. Bell Witch – Four Phantoms (Profound Lore, USA)

Using only bass, drums and wizard-like skill, Seattle’s Bell Witch continue to make music that is spacious and mournful. Their sophomore album, Four Phantoms, presents each of the album’s four songs as ghost stories about the four classical elements: earth, fire, water and air. The music alone is funereal doom, and the quiet, glacially paced lyrics seem drawn right from the ether of eternity.

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9. Wrekmeister Harmonies – Night of Your Ascension (Thrill Jockey, USA)

The two songs on this track have long running times. Both, but especially the first, which starts with 15 minutes of a sacred choral arrangement, take a long time to build to their conclusion. That’s just fine though, and the patience pays off. The tracks are inspired by true crime events, one from the modern day about a pedophile priest who was killed by a fellow inmate, and the other about a composer in the Italian Renaissance who murdered his wife and her lover in a vengeful, bloody slaying, and knowing this makes the sense of terror and dread as the songs build up all the more powerful.

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8. Sivyj Yar – Burial Shrouds (Avantgarde Music, Russia)

Burial Shrouds album is the work of one Russian man, Vladimir, and reveals the grim determination of people who must survive the brutal Russian winter. It’s melancholy and atmospheric, but also energetic and surprisingly bright, as folk elements find their way in unexpected places.

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7. Vardan – Between the Fog and Shadows (Moribund Records, Italy)
The latest of numerous projects by this one-man black metal force based out of Italy. Classic, riff-filled, raw black metal that explores sadness and solitude.

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6. Awe – Providentia (Pulverised Records, Greece)

A triptych of transformative black metal songs about man’s meaningless existence ranging from 15 to 20 minutes. The musicians are anonymous members that are said to be part of other noteworthy bands who worked on this album off and on for a decade or so. The result is a seriously good, experimental album that is unpredictable and forceful, with clean production that lets you hear every note.

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5. Kalmen – Course Hex (Van Records, Germany)

This debut album by Germany’s Kalmen is a transfixing combination of doom and gloomy black metal. The four musicians add a pinch of swirling dark psychedelia which makes much of this album hazy and hypnotic. While it’s cold and dark, there’s also an old-school stoner vibe deep underneath which makes it more flowing than most black metal.

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4. Leviathan – Scar Sighted (Profound Lore, USA)

As I mentioned in the introduction, one theme for the year is variety. The other theme that runs through 2015 is controversy. There were numerous large and small rumblings throughout the year of musicians getting (rightly) called out on their abusive, anti-feminist, racist, bigoted bullshit. It’s become increasingly difficult to separate the art from the artist in some cases, and how to deal with this issue is something that the staff at IO spends a lot of time thinking and talking about. Leviathan is on my list and I argued for it’s right to be there, but I know it’s a controversial choice. In my opinion, if you strip away the hearsay and take the music on its own merit, it’s a killer album that reflects deep personal turmoil.

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3. Vanum – Realm of Sacrifice (Psychic Violence, USA)

Realm Of Sacrifice is the debut album by Vanum, the new band formed by Kyle of Ash Borer and Predatory Light and Michael of Fell Voices and Vilkacis. This is an elegant slab of Cascadian black metal full of tremolo riff magic, harsh, whispered vocals and unintelligible roars. The four lengthy compositions that make up Realm of Sacrifice revolve around a slow-fast dynamic with prolonged leads that over-arch into each song. Each song has enough of a mid-tempo to bang to, but the overall effect is majestic, devastating beauty.

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2. Mgła – Exercises in Futility (No Solace, Poland)
This album is high on a lot of people’s year-end lists, and it should be. It nearly made it to number 1 on my list but I put it at number 2 in favor of an equally amazing but very different album that has not had nearly enough attention paid to it. Mgła has everything I want in black metal: Futility, nihilism, huge melodies and galloping riffs. Two guys made these six tracks that have no names, but that beat with a steady pulse of relentless, exhilarating energy.

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1. Dead to a Dying World – Litany (Gilead Media, USA)

A friend whose musical taste I trust told me about this album shortly after it came out in October and I’m glad he did, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have discovered it. The album is a more-than-an-hour-long hybrid of doom, black metal and crust punk with spare, classical moments that reveal a grim yet determined hope. The band’s compositions are big—the opener lasts more than 17 minutes and the record includes such diverse instrumentation as upright bass, viola (by Eva Vonne of Sabbath Assembly), cello, piano, hammered dulcimer and guests vocalists such as Jamie Myers-Watts, also of Sabbath Assembly. Its questions are big—"Do we choose to follow, or can we break away?" The post-apocalyptic world it evokes is a frightening mirror of what we’re actually facing as the world continues to kill itself through environmental degradation and war. Its foundation is crusty sludge but the transitional experimenting lends moodiness that reveals something new with each listen. It’s fine-tuned in some places and open and raw in others. It’s beautiful, ugly, epic and perfect.

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