2014: THE TOP TEN METAL ALBUMS

Between NPR’s continual repping of Agalloch, Rolling Stone casually sneaking a YOB album into their Top 50 album list of 2014, and Baby Metal now possessing their own subreddit, the trend of metal seeping out of the fringes and into the mainstream is showing no signs of slowing down.

Is this a good thing? I like to think it is. It’s still a little surreal at times, though. I don’t know; I don’t really have a deeper point I’m working towards here – this is just an observation.

So with that, let’s get down to the list…

…PSYCH! Haha, okay, so there is a list, and it is coming – but first, there’s something else we’re going to do. You see, there were five albums that I’ve adored this year that are – for lack of a better term – outliers. All five are definitely in orbit around the metal realm, but they don’t really “fit” anywhere on the list itself. And while that all may seem arbitrary, it’s not to me. So here they are:

THE OUTLIERS

SOEN – Tellurian

Soen - Tellurian While the comparison’s admittedly imperfect, in a lot of ways, Soen *feels* more like Opeth than whatever it is that Opeth has presently devolved into. Considering Soen boasts former Opeth drummer Martin Lopez among its members (in addition to Joel Ekelöf of Willowtree), this isn’t all that surprising. But Tellurian, the ensemble’s second album, and first to feature new members Joakim Platbarzdis and Stefan Stenberg, is surprising – not for how it at times resembles Opeth, but for all the ways it doesn’t. Void, which you can stream below, is a prime example of this; it reminds me a lot of Maserati or Tool, in the way it keeps expanding and building upon its central melody (and the drumwork, sweet Jesus, the drumwork; Lopez’s intricate, textured falloff in the last minute or so here is AMAZING).

No, Tellurian isn’t a substitute for Blackwater Park II, but it is a much purer distillation of the gentler direction Opeth began to take shortly after that album’s release. If Pale Communion or Heritage sounded anything like this, they’d be albums I’d go back to again and again. But they don’t. So I don’t. Fortunately, though, I’ve got Tellurian.

EMPYRIUM – The Turn of the Tides

Empyrium - The Turn of the Tides It’s been 12 years since Empyrium last released an album – and in that time, I haven’t really listened to any neofolk. It’s just lost its appeal to me somehow; I initially thought this odd, given that albums like Ulver’s Kveldssanger and Empyrium’s Weiland always made me feel rather introspective – but then I thought about how The Album Leaf and Stars of the Lid provide me that same inward focus now, so I guess it’s really not all that odd. I say all this because The Turn of the Tides is definitely *not* a neofolk album. It’s kind of like Elend? Or The 3rd & The Mortal, or even early, early Dead Can Dance – and it’s also not. Not really. The sound of The Turn of the Tides is big and expansive in its own way, as is the sorrow it imparts. You could easily dismiss a song like With The Current Into Grey as being laughable or cheesy, as you could the album as a whole. And I wouldn’t try and correct you if you did. But that’s not something I can do. As I love Rush, Estradasphere, and Danny Brown, so too do I love this.

CYNIC – Kindly Bent To Free Us

Cynic - Kindly Bent To Free Us In 1993, Cynic released their debut album, Focus – and then did nothing else for a long time. It took them 15 years to make a follow up (2008’s excellent Traced In Air), and they’ve been more or less active ever since. A few EP’s and a demo collection of a scrapped album later, and we now have Kindly Bent To Free Us. Only a six year wait this time. Not bad.

Cynic have always toed the line between death metal and a myriad of other genres – jazz, progressive rock, new age music, etc. – but here, on Kindly Bent To Free Us, they’ve jettisoned the metal portion of their sound almost entirely. People seem to split on the results, but I think it’s wonderful. The songs here are serpentine, melodic and adventurous. Hell, Mastodon kind of started to push into this territory with Crack The Skye a few years back, but sadly, they backed away from the precipice they were on with subsequent albums instead of diving right in. Refining your sound is always a bit risky, but Cynic nailed it here. The song below, Endlessly Bountiful, is one of my favorite songs of the year.

ANATHEMA – Distant Satellites

Anathema - Distant Satellites Anathema’s legacy is backwards, if you think about it. I always seem to contextualize them with people who are unfamiliar with their work by beginning with their metal roots in the early 90’s, and then moving forward from there. It’s an interesting way of framing it, yes, but it’s not the honest way to do it. Truth time: save for Eternity, Anathema’s metal output isn’t all that great. It’s just not. The first time they really made me take notice came with their lone alt-rock(ish) album, A Fine Day To Exit, and it’s the celestial, gorgeous thing they’ve since morphed into (2003’s A Natural Disaster is one of my favorite albums of all time) that’s truly noteworthy.

One of the most unique things about later-period Anathema is the wonderment their songs take in being small. Not emotionally or intellectually small, but cosmically small; that feeling you get if you start to fathom how unfathomably vast the universe is and how petty and insignificant you are in comparison – that’s where Anathema’s songs have been mined from for the past ten years. Sometimes they find sadness or longing in that space, but they’re equally as likely to find joy there. Distant Satellites begins at the former end of the spectrum, and ends at the latter, with Take Shelter. If you only listen to one song from this Outlier section, make it this one.

THE SOFT PINK TRUTH – Why Do The Heathen Rage

The Soft Pink Truth - Why Do The Heathen Rage I saved this one for last, because it’s the most important album on here. A simple explanation of what Why Do The Heathen Rage is would be that it’s a collection of black metal songs reconfigured into industrial house jams (although “jam” is pushing it, at times). That’s technically true, but there’s so much more to it than that.

In the spirit of black metal, The Soft Pink Truth is comprised of one man, Drew Daniel (perhaps better known for his work in Matmos). But Drew didn’t just put this album out because he thought it would be funny to turn a Darkthrone track into a techno song; he put it out because, as both a gay man and a fan of black metal, it’s a direct way to at once pervert, mock and confront the vile homophobic and racist politics of the black metal scene (politics which continue to persist through all manner of ignorance even in an era when Deafheaven get a write-up in The New York Times).

At this point, I’m going to stop just because there’s no way I can continue to do this topic the justice it deserves. Below you can listen to The Soft Pink Truth’s cover of Venom’s Black Metal, and I’d highly encourage you to read this article, as well. I will say this, though: the need for albums like Why Do The Heathen Rage in the metal scene at large is incalculable.

So there we go. That, as they say, is that. And now:

THE TOP TEN METAL ALBUMS OF 2014

10) ENABLER – La Fin Absolue Du Monde

Enabler - La Fin Absolue Du Monde I always find at least one album a year that I inevitably gravitate towards that’s in the vein of Enabler’s La Fin Absolue Du Mondue (the title’s French for “The Absolute End of the World” – it’s also the title of the movie-within-a-movie of John Carpenter’s Masters of Horror season one contribution, Cigarette Burns [The More You Know!]). This year, there are more than a few higher-profile releases than this one that are racking up all the praise – but La Fin Absolue Du Monde is the best; it’s got more life to it then Trap Them’s Blissfucker, it’s leaner and meaner than Mutilation Rites’ Harbinger, and it’s not as unbearably serious as that awful new Young And In The Way album.

If I had to tie it down, I’d say that La Fin Absolue Du Monde is most reminiscent to what Weekend Nachos are doing, save that Enabler are far less likely to kick the beat out from under you. But the energy, the aggression and momentum the album generates is spiritually similar. That’s all, though. Both bands are assuredly their own thing. As for you, reader, you can check out I’ve Got A Bad Feeling About This below.

9) CORMORANT – Earth Diver

Cormorant - Earth Diver I wasn’t completely sold on Cormorant’s last album, 2011’s Dwellings; it just felt like it was missing something to me. Earth Diver does not have that same problem. The songs here feel unmoored from any specific place or time; they feel, for lack of a better word, classic. And new vocalist Marcus Luscombe (who replaced founding member Arthur von Nagel last year) slips into the songs better, his raspy wails not far removed from John Haughm (of Agalloch – you’ll see them below!).

In almost every aspect, Earth Diver feels more primal and raw than its predecessor, and the shift in tone is a welcome one. Mark The Trail, which you can stream below, exemplifies this; the galloping guitars, the push/pull tension of the drums against the rest of the music, the worn-around-the-edges production, it all feels so vibrant and alive. Yes, I was reticent for what this album had in store, but for the next one? Count me the fuck in.

8) GODFLESH – A World Lit Only By Fire

Godflesh - A World Lit Only By Fire Justin K. Broadrick has been so prolific with Jesu and Final the past six or seven years that the idea of Godflesh coming back into being seemed almost non-existent. I had kind of resigned myself to the fact that the closest we’d get to that sound again from Broadrick was the nebulous and ultimately disappointing Greymachine album he did with Aaron Turner (of Isis). But lo and behold, Godflesh whirred back up again; they resumed touring, released a new EP, and then, a few month later, this – their first album in over a decade.

Godflesh’s sound is singularly simple: abrasive, pulsating, and repetitive. Guitar and bass heave about like mechanical monsters. The drums are sampled (courtesy of an Alesis 16 drum machine). And the song Carrion, in particular, underscores superbly well what Godflesh’s music does: it picks at you. It picks and gnaws and prods you until you just get lost in it.

7) FALLUJAH – The Flesh Prevails

A2000 Fallujah make the kind of death metal I get easily excited about; I mean, the genre’s sound is so stark and specific that I can’t deal with it in long bursts unless it’s, like, Carcass or Necrophagist (or Meshuggah, or any of the other brawny, technical bands). The Flesh Prevails, only Fallujah’s second album, is incredibly technical – but not impenetrable. Likewise, it’s extraordinarily melodic, too – but lest you think it’s a Soilwork album, it’s not. It occupies a space that, for me, is *the best* of both worlds.

The key to Levitation, the song I’ve shared here for you, is largely personal. The song is track five (out of nine), and it’s right around this point that if a death metal album isn’t doing it for me, I begin to zone out. Levitation had the opposite effect on me. I was transfixed, completely so. Hopefully you will be too.

6) WO FAT – The Conjuring

Wo Fat - The Conjuring I admit, I didn’t know what the hell I was getting into with The Conjuring. All I had to go on was the cover art. Which, yeah, it kicks ass, but the metal behind that madness could sound like pretty much anything. My expectations were wide open, but I’ve got to be honest with you – the lumbering hellspawn lovechild of Kyuss and Spiritual Beggars striding out to melt my face off was not high on my list of expectations.

It’s not all that difficult for a five song album that’s nearly fifty minutes long to morph into a laborious task to undertake, but Wo Fat continually command your attention throughout The Conjuring via both their hypnotic, resin-caked guitar solos and a few thoroughly unexpected flights of fancy (an all too brief cowbell breakdown surfaces to incredible effect on one of these songs; I won’t say which one – I needn’t spoil that for you). The first track on the album is below; it’s roughly ten minutes long, and it’s worth listening to every second of it.

5) AGALLOCH – The Serpent & The Sphere

Agalloch - The Serpent and The Sphere I can’t think of another band who’s success and increased exposure in recent years has pleased me more than Agalloch’s. I’ve been a fan since I picked up a copy of The Mantle from The End Records back in 2002, and I’ve never looked back. The music they create is completely unique to them. They’re a signpost band, and an impossible one at that; “sounds like Agalloch” is enough to get me to listen to pretty much any album, even though I know that nothing sounds like Agalloch.

The Serpent & The Sphere is the band’s fifth album, and overall, it’s just a bit lighter than their previous effort, 2010’s Marrow of the Spirit. But “lighter” is relative, and as is the case with all of Agalloch’s music, there’s a tremendous amount of beauty in the bleakness that they conjure up (of which there is still plenty). I can’t think of a better song to share with you than the album’s opener, Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation; it’s the best example of what makes Agalloch who they are. May the accolades continue to flow their way.

4) ELECTRIC WIZARD – Time To Die

Electric Wizard - Time To Die A week or so ago, I made an unusual discovery while taking a long (90-ish minutes) train ride: Time To Die is a great album to fall asleep to. No, really. It did the job with gusto on a particular noisy train when all the old standby “albums for sleepin'” on my iPod failed. I thought about this, and actually, it makes perfect sense. Time To Die pushes you towards oblivion. It’s not so much an album as it is a soul-punishing gauntlet. That might not sound particularly appealing or enjoyable, but at least for me, I’ve found that it is. The music bores into your soul, and in doing so, puts you into an almost zenlike state. You’re everything, and nothing, asleep and awake, alive and dead.

Oh, and also, there’s lots of Satan on Time To Die, too. You know, if that’s your thing. Dude’s everywhere.

Now at this stage in their career, I really didn’t expect Electric Wizard to have an album like Time To Die in them still. Their last couple of albums were good, but not great. The cynic in me just assumed this dovetail would continue. Good thing there’s a demonbat thing on the album’s cover to tell that dove where to piss off to (hint: anywhere). I’ve shared the title track below; there are better songs on the album than it, but it showcases best what the album does to you in perhaps the most accessible manner possible.

3) DESTRAGE – Are You Kidding Me? No.

Destrage - Are You Kidding Me No Of all the albums on this list, Are You Kidding Me? No. was the only one that left me giddy with a big dumb smile smeared across my face the entire time it was playing. It’s a genre-jumper, but it’s not an aimless one; every vault is precise and executed impeccably. Heady Dillinger Escape Plan riffage collides with breakneck power metal solos, which bounce atop half-beat breakdowns, and then…shit, I don’t know. There’s music box melodies. Vocal harmonies erupt out of nowhere, there’s soulful warbling, death growls, glitchy electronic bursts, symphonic keyboards, and that’s all in the FIRST SONG.

I’m not going to try and deconstruct this anymore for you; the album resists deconstruction. More to the point, deconstructing it makes it all sound exhausting – and nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t know anything else about Destrage save for this one album, so I don’t know if they’ve always been like this, or if this gleeful wall-smashing of theirs is a recent development, but either way, I am sold. Oh, and that first song I mentioned previously is below. Go ahead and hit play, and toggle repeat on, too, while you’re at it. You’re going to want to do that.

2) NE OBLIVISCARIS – Citadel

Ne Obliviscaris - Citadel When I was younger, I used to be big into progressive metal – Evergrey, Dream Theater, Pain of Salvation, pretty much anything on InsideOut. But I’m not anymore. With a few exceptions, it’s just so goofy, it’s hard to still be moved by it at age 30 in the same manner that I was when I was 15 or 16. Citadel, the second album by Ne Obliviscaris, has a few fleeting moments of overly-gooey sincerity, but these moments come and go, and they fail to take anything away from what is one of the most startlingly realized and passionate metal albums I’ve heard in a long long time.

Much of this is due to Tim Charles’ violin work, which isn’t treated as a sort of novelty, but is fully integrated into the music. It’s every bit as vital as the guitars, and it adds a surprising burst of color to the songs whenever it surfaces. And the songs themselves (most of which approach if not exceed the ten minute mark) are winding, thrilling endeavors. They never run out of steam and they don’t get bogged down in repetition or pointless noodling. They carry you someplace, and it’s someplace you’ve never been before. So, if you’ve 17 minutes on your hands, give Triptych Lux a listen. You won’t hear anything else like it.

1) ANIMALS AS LEADERS – The Joy of Motion

Animals As Leaders - The Joy of Motion Metal or otherwise, there’s not a truer album title to be found this year than The Joy of Motion, the third album by Animals As Leaders. Just read it again: The Joy of Motion. That’s EXACTLY what the album showcases, and in doing so, it pulls of some kind or miracle. The Joy of Motion never, ever, ever stops its forward momentum. It changes it, twists and reconfigures it into strange and exciting new forms before you, but it never gives you a serious reprieve from motion of the music.

I usually hate this, because nonstop motion negates itself over time; if everything is always moving, then nothing is really moving. Excitement is then reduced to boredom. And it’s easy, oh so easy, to surmise if an album is going to go barreling off towards that limbo with no hope of ever coming back. The Joy of Motion openly defies that limbo. It’s a breathless and thrilling declaration, a declaration that yes, actually, you can keep moving and not lose anything – you can actually keep moving and gain everything. I had thought that impossible. It’s good to be wrong sometimes.

There’s no metal album I’ve listened to more this year, and to be continually reminded that (in the words of Billy Corgan) the impossible is possible every time I listen to it, well, there couldn’t really be any other choice for my number one metal album of the year. Spend a few minutes with Tooth and Claw, below. It’s its own reward.

Well folks, if you made it this far, thank you. That’s all I’ve got for now. More lists are coming soon, so stay tuned!

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