Here we are at the end of the year, and I am finally prepared to present my picks for the top metal albums of the year. I didn't get to all the material I'd have liked to this year, but I fully listened through somewhere around 100 new albums, in addition to sampling from another 100 or so that just didn't hold my attention long enough to keep me around for their full duration.
After some fiddling with my list of prospects, I found that 25 felt like an appropriate cutoff for my list. It's few enough to still have some meaning, since I had to cut dozens of records I liked, but it's big enough that I got to cover pretty much everything that I felt needed to be on a year-end list. There were a few particular albums by old favorites or exciting newcomers that I really wanted to include but simply couldn't fit, and that's how you know that everything I picked ahead of them had to work to earn its place on the list.
As always, these are just my opinions, yadda yadda disclaimer and so on and so forth. So now, without forther ado, here are my picks for the Top 25 Metal Albums of 2014:
#25. Alestorm - Sunset on the Golden Age
That's right, I'm starting off this list with an Alestorm album. Believe me, I'm even more surprised than you are. These pirate-themed cheeseballs have spent years residing in the guilty pleasure sphere of the metal world, but with this thrashy effort, they are making a good case that it might be time to actually take them seriously as a quality band with some real songwriting chops and instrumental skill.
#24. Behemoth - The Satanist
Back when this album came out in February and half the metal world was shitting their pants over how amazing it was, and the other half were screaming about how Behemoth are pop-metal sellouts, I said that I thought by the end of the year it would be good enough to earn a low spot on my top albums list. As you can see, I still agree with myself. This was a very good death metal album that has unfortunately become a bit too polarizing due to the "mainstream" popularity of the band who released it.
#23. Dead Congregation - Promulgation of the Fall
This was a good year for death metal. Innovation didn't abound, but a lot of veteran bands released really strong albums. In addition, a few newer faces worked their way toward the top of the pile. Dead Congregation's sophomore full-length effort was heavier and more powerful than most of the death metal I heard this year. While my initial assessment was appreciative but unenthusiastic, the record has stuck in my mind and worked its way up the ranks to earn a spot as one of the year's best death metal releases.
I listened to more black metal in 2014 than usual, and I was happy to find that there were several exceptional new releases within that sub-genre (though this list doesn't quite reflect that to the degree I believe it should. Lots of black metal barely missed the cut). Amongst the best was this release from Greek one-man ambient/atmospheric black metal outfit Spectral Lore. I really knew nothing about the band going into this (I mostly checked it out because the cover art looked cool) but after delivering this giant-sized slab of dynamic, intriguing, thoroughly pleasurable metal, they've planted themselves firmly on my radar. For the record, this is the album I'm listening to as I write this list.
#21. Coffinworm - IV.I.VIII
Blackened sludge from Profound Lore Records. That should be all you need to know in order to want to give this a listen. It's slow, murky, swampy, ugly, and all-around deliciously heavy. This is only the band's second album, so I don't think they've built up much of a following just yet, but they will be another name to watch for in the future.
#20. Teitanblood - Death
There are many ways to play death metal. From technical and progressive to simple and groovy, from melodic to brutal, there's a lot of room to find your own approach. Teitanblood's method seems to consist of opening a massive pit into hell itself, dangling a microphone over the hole, and recording whatever horrifying chaos claws its way out from the depths. This is a violent, hateful, evil, formless colossus of an album.
#19. Serpentine Path - Emanations
These guys are essentially a doom metal supergroup, playing a well-established style in a well-established way. They break no new ground, but they do what they do really well. I generally liken them to what Bloodbath are for Swedish death metal. Their second album, which I first experienced trapped in sweltering traffic this summer, expands and improves upon the formula they laid out in their debut. Given that this was kind of a light year for doom, this record stood out as one of the highlights of the sub-genre.
#18. Vader - Tibi Et Igni
Kings of Polish death metal, Vader are one of the most consistently excellent death metal bands in the world. On the heels of the 2011 masterstroke Welcome to the Morbid Reich, this actually felt like a small step backward. But then, K2 is a little shorter than Mount Everest. It's still a damn tall mountain, though. In any case, nothing has changed here. Peter's vocals continue to be some of the most unique and compelling in all of death metal, and Vader continues to be one of the foremost practitioners of their craft.
If you want a virtual guarantee that I'll like you, play competent death-doom. If you want an absolute guarantee that I'll love you, play outstanding death-doom. This Detroit-based band only formed last year and released their debut album a scant three months ago, yet I already kind of love them. Like the previous couple of entries, this doesn't really do anything groundbreaking, but DAMN is it ever good. I'll anxiously await the band's future releases after hearing this.
#16. Saor - Aura
Doom may have been in a bit of a drought this year, but folk/Viking metal were an outright desert. I found myself getting excited about some pretty mediocre stuff when I had a hankering for new folk metal. Fortunately, there was a mid-summer oasis in the form of the one-man Scottish project Saor. This was the band's second album in their brief two-year existence, and while its predecessor was good, this built on that foundation to reach a level of true excellence. For months, this was the only worthwhile folk metal album I heard, so I'm thankful that it was so tremendous.
#15. Beyond Creation - Earthborn Evolution
Back in 2011, this Canadian tech-death band released a debut album that I retroactively proclaimed to be the best metal album of that year. A couple months ago, we finally got the band's follow-up. There was almost no way this album could live up to the stunning impact made by the first one, but it does a good job of getting close. Dominic Lapointe is the standout in this roundly excellent cast, with his masterful fretless 6-string bass work marking him as arguably the best bassist in extreme metal. His work adds a depth and flavor to the music that is lacking from so much technical death metal, and in my mind it sets Beyond Creation apart as the best and most interesting band in the sub-genre right now.
#14. Botanist - VI: Flora
If you know anything about Botanist, you know that the band and the music is utterly unique. Gorgeous, atmophere-laden black metal played on a hammered dulcimer is not something you encounter every day. This is not a terribly "metal" metal album, but it is dark and beautiful and truly wonderful. This isn't a band for everybody, it takes the right audience. That said, I think every metal fan (and maybe even every music fan in general) owes it to themself to find out if they're part of that right audience.
With a late November release date, this was one of the last additions to make its way onto the list. In the process, Primordial managed to snatch the label of "best folk metal album" away from Saor at the last minute. I've always had a bit of a hard time labeling them with such a stereotype-laden designation as folk metal, though, because (largely on the strength of their distinct lead vocals and grittier tone than typical folk outfits) they really don't sound like anybody else. Their 2007 release was one of the best albums of the decade, their 2011 release topped my end-of-year-list at the time, and with this added to the pile I think they've cemented their place in the handful of groups vying for the title of "world's best current metal band".
In a lot of years, this would be a frontrunner for the best black metal album. But as I said earlier, 2014 was good for black metal, so as it is these Canadians' debut falls a little behind some of the other top competitors. It's a really excellent release, though, and given that the bend is so new, I have really high hopes for the future. If they can maintain this level of quality, Thantifaxath could easily become one of the premier black metal bands in the world.
Quite frankly, I'm not fully convinced that this formerly-Viking-metal band is even playing anything you could call metal at this point. Their mellow, effects-laden, semi-ambient sound is way heavier on the "post" than the "metal" in their post-metal label. With all that being said, I found this album highly compelling, and I've listened to it more times than most of the records on this list. Besides, even if the style has changed, the spirit of the music remains true. There's still an overwhelming feeling of cold northern isolation, desolate winters, and echoes of past glory, all cried out in evocative Icelandic vocals. So whatever you want to call it, it gets my stamp of approval and then some.
And now, we begin the top ten. There are very few bands that can polish up black metal and still make it work. Carach Angren can do it. As it turns out, so can Nightbringer. This is a well-produced, well-developed, well-rounded album that manages the rare feat of bringing out black metal in a cleanly produced package without pouring bleach on all the contents. The result is one of the best black metal albums of the year, in a year with some solid competition.
As I pointed out in my initial review of this album, I make no secret of the fact that I like weird shit. Troldhaugen, who are effectively the result of Mr Bungle, Sigh, Finntroll, and a mariachi band conceiving a child during an acid trip orgy, are certainly weird. More importantly, they are strikingly skilled at weaving a menagerie of sounds together into a coherent and thoroughly enjoyable whole. The rare bands who can accomplish such a feat earn an instant place in my heart, and with their sophomore album this year, these Aussies did just that.
From the bizarre to the dependable we go. Incantation are another of that handful of veteran death metal bands who maintain such a consistent level of excellence that it becomes easy to take it for granted. This year saw a lot of really strong albums that were basically Incantation worship, but the big guys themselves stepped up yet again to show that when it comes to doing what they do, nothing beats the original. Everything these guys do is top-notch, but I think this was their best album in years.
This was, in my opinion, the best black metal album of the year. This young French group delivered lush arrangements and thick production that gave this an unusual sound, but the genre's essential ingredients all did their jobs properly too. So the album managed to be cold and hostile at times, but surprisingly full and heavy and warm in other places. A careful balance, expertly maintained, keeps this album strong all the way through. Plus, they lay on the H.P. Lovecraft pretty thick, and Lovecraft is to metal as bacon is to food.
Okay, so, real talk for a minute: this is basically a bunch of jam session material piled together into a record. It's more like evil jazz than metal, with a wide open mix and lots of drifting experimentation in negative space. It's also performed by a bunch of metal musicians, and it's one of the most fascinating albums I heard all year, so I'm counting it. Experimental, evocative, and compelling: this record is a sea of swirling, misty soundscapes where dark, barely-glimpsed horrors loom just beyond reach. It's not ideal for everyday listening, but if you can sit alone in a dark, quiet room, few records are capable of delivering this level of experience.
In the land down under, all the most violent parts of black, death, thrash, and crust punk seem to find energetic and destructive ways of merging. Well in mini-Australia (New Zealand) a version of that is happening as well. And at the top of the tower, overlooking the bloody battlefield from their throne of broken skulls, sits Diocletian. Typically labeled as a blackened death metal band, Diocletian are the epitome of all-out violence in musical form. With their third full-length, they put on a master class in beating the shit out of their listeners.
In 2012, Pallbearer grabbed a lot of attention in the metal world for their excellent (if somewhat unadventurous) debut. This year, they released a follow-up that improved and expanded upon that base. It was, without question, the best doom album I heard this year. With this release, I believe Pallbearer have entered the conversation alongside Evoken and Ahab as one of the absolute elites of the current doom world. They're a young, passionate band just reaching the height of their powers. That makes them one of the biggest causes for optimism in the doom world.
When I first heard this nebulously-defined extreme-metal masterwork from the second coming of Tom G. Warrior, I thought there was a good chance it was going to be my album of the year. Everything about this album is done right. I love metal, but in truth, too little of it feels like it has anything real to say. This does. It has a weight of experience and honesty behind it that makes it powerful in ways that you can't easily define. Warrior's vocals in particular are gritty, powerful, and deeply matured in a way that you just can't fake. And cover art theoretically shouldn't matter, but just look at that final send-off from the great H.R. Giger.
Putting this album in second place surprises me. For much of 2014, this was my standard response when I was asked to name the best album of the year. Typically when I latch onto an album and put it in the top spot on my running tally of new records, it finds its way to the top at year's end, and I spent almost as much time agonizing over which of these top two albums to put at #1 as I did on the rest of the list combined. I love this album. Its infusion of a shimmering, dream-like quality into old-school Swedish death metal makes this feel like an updated version of one of the genre's unappreciated all-time masterpieces, Gorement's The Ending Quest. Coming from me, a Swedish death metal band can't get much higher praise than that.
With a November release date, these Australians came barreling down the homestretch to snatch the top spot on my list. A couple years ago with their extreme progressive debut, I said that I thought this band was in a position to become the next Opeth. With Citadel, they have delivered an album that lives up to every bit of that promise. The vocals, while very good, don't quite reach the magnificent heights of Åkerfeldt at his best, but musically I'd say Ne Obliviscaris is already the superior band. This album is incredible. It's heavy, powerful, gorgeous, emotional, dynamic, and fluid. The wonderful guitar and drum work are just the beginning. Bassist "Cygnus" delivers one of the most completely perfect, beautifully nuanced, multi-faceted full-album performances I've ever heard from a bass in this or any other style of music. The violin, which could have so easily been a drastic misstep, is instead a wild, tortured, powerful, beautiful, evocative presence that weaves its own wordless narrative through the record. I kind of hate to come back to the Opeth comparisons since they don't actually sound the same, but I haven't been this captivated by a metal album since the first time I heard Blackwater Park. This is a flat-out great record.
So there you have it, those are my top 25 metal albums of 2014.