Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Top 10 Metal Albums of 2017

It's that time of year again: list time! After a scramble through much of November and December to catch up on everything I hadn't heard that felt vital to me, the day has come to give my own top 10.

Before I do that, though, I'd like to quickly make note of a few honorable mentions and other albums of significance to me.

First off, I'd like to say that this year I landed on 9 albums that I was really certain about, with 6 albums fighting it out for that final spot on the list. I had this group written down for weeks, constantly changing my mind about which to include. Then, at the last possible moment, another album raced in and grabbed a spot in the top 10, leaving these on the cutting-room floor. Those albums are: "Evil Sound Screamers" by Acid Witch, "Exuvia" by The Ruins of Beverast, "Tyhjyys" by Wolfheart, "Thrice Woven" by Wolves in the Throne Room, "The Black Tower" by Sons of Crom, and "Horizonless" by Loss (which incidentally had my favorite cover art of the year). Each of these records gets my hearty recommendation.

Additionally, I'd like to mention that I gave both "Lykaia" by Soen and "II" by The Devil and the Almighty Blues serious consideration, but I chose to exclude them on the grounds that I'm not sure I'd really call either of them metal albums. A looser definition of "metal" would likely have landed both records on my list.

Since I don't have a single thrash album in my top 10, I'd like to say that if I had included one it would have been "Nightmare Logic" by Power Trip. For all you old-school thrash fans, I'd really suggest you give it a spin.

Finally, I want to mention "Muukalainen puhuu" by Oranssi Pazuzu. Why am I bringing up an album that's 8 years old? Well, it's not a new album, but out of the pre-2017 material I listened to in the past 12 months, it's easily the best new-to-me album that I heard. If you haven't encountered this 60s-styled psychedelic black metal outfit, you should really check them out at your earliest opportunity.

Alright, with that out of the way, let's get to the main event. This is my list of the top 10 metal albums of 2017. Ready? Okay, here we go:

#10. "Heartless" by Pallbearer
The Arkansan group Pallbearer are a regular fixture on my year-end lists, so seeing them here again should be no surprise to anyone who knows my taste. This time around the doomsters often feel more Pink Floyd than Black Sabbath, which is an interesting shift that I have slightly mixed feelings about. Changing things up helps avoid growing stale, but I hope they don't wander too far from their roots. Overall this is not their best, and if it sounds like I'm being weirdly negative about one of my top 10 albums, it's only because I love this band's prior material so I'm grading on a ridiculously steep curve. I played this a bunch of times and I strongly recommend it to every doom fan.

#9. "Terra Damnata" by Nightbringer
In recent years, this Colorado outfit has morphed into one of the most solid black metal bands in the world, and this is now their second album to show up on one of my year-end lists. It's a cleaner, higher production value than some folks like in their black metal, but what Nightbringer lack in kvltness, they more than make up for in pure intensity and hostility. This is a ferocious band, and "Terra Damnata" is as good as they've sounded on a record. Also, while this isn't especially important, I do find that cover art frequently plays a role in my experience of a new album, either by helping to establish expectations or by providing an aesthetic focal point as I listen. On that note, this has one of my favorite covers of 2017.

#8. "Kwintessens" by Dodecahedron
In the non-folk black metal department, Dodecahedron and Nightbringer were neck and neck for top honors in my book. As you can see, Dodecahedron managed a narrow victory. The Dutch group have only released a pair of albums, but they've already established themselves as one of the strongest voices in the sub-genre. Their music tends to have a slightly impenetrable quality to it, with odd, dissonant passages that feel like they take multiple listens to start to digest. It's worth the effort, though, because this is the closest you're going to get to a Deathspell Omega release this year, and coming from me that's about as high of praise as a black metal album can get.

#7. "Desolate Endscape" by Phrenelith
In the past few years, I've noticed more and more really good death metal coming out of Denmark. 2017 brought a new entry in that category with the debut album by Phrenelith. The simplest, most effective way to describe this is to say that this year Phrenelith somehow released a better Incantation album than Incantation did. I've heard a couple complaints that this "cavern-core" approach to death metal is beginning to take over the sub-genre, but personally I love this kind of filthy, guttural approach. It's nothing groundbreaking, but it's a phenomenal incarnation of my favorite style of death metal. In fact, for a while this felt like one of the front-runners to top this list.

#6. "Medusa" by Paradise Lost
If sheer volume of listens were the sole criteria for my rankings, Paradise Lost would top the list this year. These guys are seasoned pros at this point, with a long history of solid releases, and if there's one thing the death-doom pioneers understand, it's how to make an album that is easy to listen to and enjoy. "Medusa" is ridiculously easy to get into regardless of mood, so it became my all-purpose go-to album for quite a while this year. It does lack, in my estimation, a bit of the intangible "it factor" that marks some of the albums I have in front of it, which is what keeps it just shy of the top 5. Basically any metal fan should be able to enjoy this, though. I know I did.

#5. "Till Fjälls, del II" by Vintersorg
Long ago, in a bedroom far, far away, a younger me first discovered the beautiful and nebulously-defined world of Viking/pagan/folk metal. One of the first bands he encountered in that sphere was a Swedish act called Vintersorg. He loved their music, but time passed and they drifted away from his tastes. This year, Vintersorg released a thematic sequel album to their full-length debut, and it brought all the magic of that time rushing back. This is a wonderful record. Also, between his work on Borknagar's phenomenal "Winter Thrice" last year and this release with his own band, I guess Andreas "Vintersorg" Hedlund is probably my favorite musician in the Viking metal world these days.

#4. "Codex Omega" by Septicflesh
These Greeks have, all things considered, one of the best overall catalogs in extreme metal. With that in mind, it should carry a lot of weight when I say this is one of the best Septicflesh releases I've ever heard. Balancing death metal intensity, symphonic bombast, and gothic melodrama is not always easy. Their spotty 2014 effort "Titan" proved that. This time around, though, all the pieces are in place and everything works perfectly. It's beautiful, it's dark, it's powerful: it thoroughly delivers all the things I want from one of the best heavy bands in the world. The particular standout feature is Spiro's harsh vocal performance, which is quite possibly the best it's been on any record they've ever released.

#3. "Істина" by Nokturnal Mortum
I mentioned earlier that at the last possible moment, something new charged its way onto the list. This was it (I should note that the album came out back in May, I just finally listened to it). It had been 8 years since the Ukranian blackened-folk gods had last graced us with a full studio album, and their return was absolutely glorious. For me, this was one of those records that you immediately know is going to be a favorite well before you've even finished listening to it. It's also one of those records that demands to be called "epic," regardless of how tired the word may be to some ears. If you have even a passing interest in folk metal, this is absolutely essential listening as far as I'm concerned.

#2. "Hrelia" by Tongues
Denmark gave us not one, but two great debut albums this year. Tongues fall into the rapidly growing category of extreme metal bands who defy typical sub-genre classifications by straddling and blurring the lines between them. Metal Archives calls them "Black/Death/Doom Metal" and that sounds about right to me. Regardless of how you define them, this is one hell of a sinister album. Nothing else I heard this year did quite so effective a job at conjuring a mental scene and filling it with a sense of looming, overwhelming dread. I am really anxious to see what these guys have in store for the future, because this release launches Tongues to the top of my exciting new metal bands list.

#1. "Cloak of Skies" by Drug Honkey
I really didn't want to top my list with such a stupidly-named band, but "Cloak of Skies" is unquestionably the album that most deserves this spot. The Chicago-based psychedelic doom outfit delivered an absolutely filthy, lumbering colossus of a record that provided me with the most intense listening experience I encountered all year. The long-lost crushing heaviness of vintage Electric Wizard is fused with nightmarish soundscapes, hatefully rasping harsh vocals, warped psychedelia, and an irresistible bass groove that hypnotizes you and pulls you down deep into the dark, murky waters. It's one of the best doom albums I've ever heard, and it's a worthy recipient of the title of "Best Metal Album of 2017."

The band name is still stupid, though.

1 comment:

  1. Nice list. Mine is coming out eventually, but I am still working on it. Some of these might make it on there, and I guarantee Power Trip made my list.