Over the holidays, a good friend of mine suggested I create a “Top Metal Albums” list to go along with my plethora of other year-end lists. I at first scoffed at the idea. I’m far from an expert in metal, and when I do listen to it, my interests almost exclusively lie within the genre of doom. I completely ignored some of the most lauded metal albums of the year (Thou, Old Man Gloom, Godflesh) due simply to my inability to get past the grating vocals. Calling me a metal aficionado is like calling a guy who orders ShockTop a beer snob. Despite my limited metal knowledge, I do take pride in the fact that there were five metal albums on my “Top 40 Albums of 2014” list. In fact, my year end list featured more metal albums than all of the following publications’ year-end lists combined: All Music Guide, Alternative Press, A.V. Club, CMJ, Consequence of Sound, Drowned in Sound, Entertainment Weekly, Magnet Magazine, MOJO, NME, NPR, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Under the Radar (Rolling Stone put YOB at #50, NPR featured Pallbearer, and Spin had Earth – yes, I spent time scouring every single list). Now, more than any other genre, metal is mutating and evolving in fascinating ways, yet major music media outlets don’t give these innovative musicians the credit they deserve. I stand by the following “Top 10 Metal Albums” list, but please keep in mind this small caveat: I’m still just a metal-neophyte. However, if you have also found yourself intrigued by the allure of the dangerous world of heavy metal, follow me as I introduce you to some of the fiercer beasts of 2014.
Honorable Mention (or albums that aren’t metal but sure do feel like it):
Have a Nice Life, Unnatural World
Mastodon, Once More ‘Round the Sun
PC Worship, Social Rust
Pharmakon, Bestial Burden
Slough Feg, Digital Resistance
The Soft Pink Truth, Why Do Heathens Rage?
Swans, To Be Kind
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
Young Widow, Easy Pain
Foundation of Burden
[Profound Lore; 2014]
Pallbearer burst onto the metal scene in 2012 with their underground hit, Sorrow & Instinction. 2014’s Foundation of Burden may not have lived up to the greatness of Sorrow, but this is far from a sophomore slump. In fact, when it comes to technical prowess, the gang has sharpened their gears, grinding through their doom metal tour de force with poise and precision. The production is even more nuanced and deliberate, layers of guitars colliding into each other, resulting in a beautiful mess of muck and mire pouring out of your speakers. Even if they were unable to recapture the magic of Sorrow, Foundation of Burden illuminates the band’s growth as musician and is a promise of more to come from this ever-growing doom metal powerhouse.
Primitive and Deadly
[Southern Lord; 2014]
Earth’s 2012 release Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II was a confounding listen. On the album, stretches of 10-minutes slowly pass by as a single guitar played the same simple riff, over and over and over again. The heaviness that I loved about the first Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I album was all but gone. It almost seemed like two different bands were behind the anthologized albums. Based off of events in 2014, this theory may not be too far off point. This past year, frontman Dylan Carson released two albums – Earth’s Primitive and Deadly and his side-project Drcarlsonalbion – and the two albums presented the same divide. The Drcarlsonalbion album, Gold, is a meandering, organic listen that allows Carson to explore the environs created in 2012. With all of his experimental endeavors invested in Drcarlsonalbion, Earth is finally back to doing what they’ve masterfully executed for years – visceral, intense drone-metal that fills a room with an all-consuming darkness. Welcome back, Mr. Carlson (or is it Dr. now?).
[Century Media/Housecore/Daymare; 2014]
Early this year, a friend that is way more “metal” than me suggested I check out Eyehategod’s latest self-titled release. I wasn’t quite sure why he’d expect me to like them considering he knows my allegiance to doom metal, something they are far from. Despite my early reservations, he insisted I’d like it. Thank God (who I don’t hate) that I took his advice. Upon first listen I knew this – Eyehategod’s return to metal glory in 2014 is a dirty, in-your-face attack on the listener that is angry, crass, and downright sleazy. I loved it. It’s a series of punk rock songs dressed up to be a metal album. The riffs have their roots in metal, but the distortion is rough and rowdy, the vocals are gravely and curmudgeonly like the old man next door who took your ball away and won’t give it back. Feedback fills every blank space, an alarm warning the listener that the brutal beating is far from over. It’s an album that’s so damn great that I now have to delve into the band’s rich catalog to find out what I’ve been missing all of these years. I can now proudly say that EyeLove Eyehategod.
II Void Worship
[Metal Blade; 2014]
The future of doom metal looks bright (ironically). Pallbearer has given the genre a new precision and bite via their musical virtuosos. YOB on the other had has taken the plodding approach and drowned it in a suffocating pool of sludge. Despite these developments in a sound that dates back to the 1970s, Pilgrim remain true to the early incarnations of doom. These Rhode Island doomies are purists at heart. The riffs are simple and memorable, the beats measured and purposeful, the lyrics mystical and imagery-laced. II Void Worship continues in the band’s dissection of a genre that defined the early days of metal, mixing the sounds of Black Sabbath, Candlemass, and Saint Vitus all into their cauldron of murky melodies, resulting in yet another enchanting brew.
6. Woods of Desolation
As the Stars
[Northern Silence; 2014]
We are living in a post-black metal world, and I like it. Not to say I’m happy to wave goodbye to the black metal movement, quite the contrary. What I’m excited about is how artists like Deafheaven, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Woods of Desolation have taken those definitive black metal elements and softened them up a bit. Woods of Desolation is one of the few bands staying loyal to the lo-fi characteristic, giving their 2014 album As the Stars a more authentic and personal sound. As the Stars also features some brilliant guitar work, front man D moving from crushing distortion to shimmering shoe gaze bliss with ease. This subtle movement from one environ to the next creates moments of emotional upheaval countered by the blistering black metal sound, bringing you back down to earth. Black metal has always been about sadness and despair, but Woods of Desolation have added another unlikely emotion to the miserable mix: hope.
When Lantlôs parted ways with singer Neige (of Alcest fame), it seemed like the end for the German black metal band, and I guess in a way it was. Other than the second track, “Cherry Quartz,” all remnants of the band’s black metal background have been swept away and replaced with a dreamier, more spiritual sound. Markus Siegenhort’s baritone vocal delivery calms the listener rather than sending them into a frenzy. The guitars twinkle and swirl, a dramatic, shoe-gazey wall of sound, soothing the listener rather than knocking them down. It’s weird to describe music this colossal and thunderous as calming, but it’s a strangely serene listen. It’s weird to think of a black metal band having such a warm, welcoming sound, but then again, this is no longer a black metal band – it’s much, much more.
Dark Space III I
This album probably should have made my year-end “Top 40 Albums” list. I’m sure you’re wondering why I left it off in the first place. Let me defend myself. This album is overwhelming, and as a result, prior to making my list I probably only listened to it in its entirety a total of three times. Giving this amount of focus and attention to this chaotic, expansive black metal odyssey can be an inundating experience. The first song alone is 27-minutes of break-neck, machine gun drums and cacophonous vocals gargling just below the surface. Occasionally the epic attack takes a break, but there’s rarely enough time to catch one’s breath before the imposing machine is put back into full gear. In preparation for this list I gave the album another listen, and while I definitely still experienced the rise in palpitations, I realized what a dire mistake I’d made. Please forgive me for my error, Darkspace – I’d hate to see what happens if you don’t.
3. Electric Wizard
Time To Die
In a year where young, up-and-coming bands dominated the doom metal scene, it feels kind of weird for me to proclaim that one of the best doom metal albums of the year is by legendary Electric Wizard. It’s not that I don’t have respect for the band’s storied history; it’s just that bands are supposed to have a fall-off as they get older. Time To Die features an un-containable energy throughout thanks in large part to the return of Mark Greening and his animalistic drumming. New bassist Clayton Burgess rattles the low-end throughout with his booming dirge, pacing the plodding death march. Elizabeth Buckingham’s head-nod inducing guitar riffs truly make this album worth repeated listens. When not laying down an unforgettable riff, she’s filling up the blank space with reverberated, caterwauled guitar lunacy that can whip one up into an instant, frothing frenzy.
Clearing the Path to Ascend
Most up-and-coming doom metal bands (Pallbearer, Pilgrim, Windhand) borrow heavily from the stoner-charged sounds of the 70s, but YOB’s brand of doom doesn’t sound like it comes from the past or from this planet for all that matter. It’s gargantuan; it’s suffocating; it’s spellbinding. It’s music that is so dense that it can make you feel like you are either floating or drowning, depending on your outlook. The album also provides a few breathers, allowing softer, more psychedelic moments to calm the seas before the next swell capsizes you again. It’s an intergalactic, Moby Dick of an album that will have you returning again and again, searching through the muck and mire for those elusive pearly gates.
The Serpent & the Sphere
[Profound Lore; 2014]
Instead of pummeling the listener incessantly on The Serpent & the Sphere, Agalloch has learned how to provide contrast, adding hills and valleys to their musical landscape. Interspersed throughout the album are acoustic breakdowns by Ontario musician Nathanael Larochette, providing softer moments to counter the eminent chaos lurking in the atmosphere that surrounds his intricate guitar work. The best part of this varying move from crescendo to diminuendo is that the timing is spot on. The tracks don’t follow expectations; instead, they use that anticipation like a carrot on a stick, leaving you second-guessing when the crushing surge of noise will return. And even when the band is in full distortion mode, they’ve tinkered with the speed of their attack, often moving from black metal speed into doomier environs at the drop of a hat. 2014 was Agalloch’s year to shine with an album that melds the multitude off metal genres into one magnificent amalgum.