Photography by Jon Hadusek
To us, metal is a concept.
It’s not a specific sound or look, but an ethos, a philosophy. It’s a resignation to our imminent demise. It’s an openness to new ideas and infinite creation. It is romantic, though not overtly sexual. It is alive. It is free.
Sonically, metal can assume any form it chooses. Typically, it is heavy. Quaking bass triggers a visceral reaction — we close our eyes and lose ourselves in the drone. But then a killer riff brings us up, and a sick solo blossoms into a moment of euphoria. Metal can be sad, happy, thrilling, and profound all at once.
In 2015, there is no blueprint for a successful metal album. It is more in the mindset and approach and the emotions motivating the music. Traditional styles of metal remain relevant and vital, though a new guard — the practitioners of “post-metal,” if you will — have moved to the forefront of the genre. They have blurred the line between what is metal and what isn’t, fusing other styles with more recognizable elements of metal. Wrekmeister Harmonies borders on chamber music, while Windhand is like a doom-metal Mazzy Star; Monolord has mastered metallic minimalism, and VHOL have taken it to its most frenzied and complex. It’s simple, really: You can do whatever you want. Metal bands realized that in 2015.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We are experiencing a heavy metal renaissance. The following 25 albums are proof. Let us bask in the experimentation and utter freedom of their artistry. Because what better way to pass these heavy times than with the heaviest music?
Senior Staff Writer
25. Mgla – Exercises in Futility
Mgła creates that wholesome brand of black metal that derives from the deepest caverns of the earth. Full of blazing and interminable passion, the Polish band’s third LP emanates unabating and ruthless riffs along with vocalist M.’s diatribes against life and its self-destructive purposes. A vast, philosophical, and entirely harsh record, Exercises in Futility is something to study and behold. –Sean Barry
24. Magic Circle – Journey Blind
Journey Blind is a strikingly accurate tribute to the soaring ’80s metal of Dio-era Sabbath and the melodic doom of Trouble. Hailing from the same Bostonian metal scene as Elder, Magic Circle go as far as to replicate the analog recording techniques and straight-to-tape approach of vintage metal, essentially creating a lost artifact from a bygone era … in 2015. But they don’t fall back on retro production as a crutch, and the band’s performances are consistently thrilling, notably on highlight “Ghosts of the Southern Front”, one of the year’s best doom metal tracks. –Jon Hadusek
23. Sweat Lodge – Talismana
After slugging it out in the competitive Austin scene for years, Sweat Lodge finally dropped their full-length debut, Talismana, on Ripple Music. Featuring the soulful vocals of frontman Cody Lee Johnston, the quartet combines the Texas blues of ZZ Top with the heavy riffs of Sabbath to satisfying effect. Cuts like “Slow Burn” and “Black Horizon” build to an emotional grandeur often eschewed in this style of heavy rock. –Jon Hadusek
22. Ghost Bath – Moonlover
As controversies over their actual country of origin and raised suspicions of their too-close-for-comfort similarities with Deafheaven have subsided (this writer, who raised such ideas earlier this year, is particularly eager to drop such notions in order not to cheapen this record any further), Ghost Bath come out of 2015 for the better with a remarkably genuine and emotive work of post-black metal that withstands regrettable criticisms and spells a promising future for this pioneering band of purposefully unknowns. –Sean Barry
21. Sumac – The Deal
I’m not sure how this record slipped through the cracks, but Sumac (Aaron Turner of Isis’ new band) dropped their debut, The Deal, to muted fanfare despite it being the best sludge metal album of the year — and as strong as anything in the Isis catalog. The tracks are paced well, forming a narrative of bizarre rhythmic changes and droning ambience. Turner’s howls project an unrepressed anger, and the record casts an atmosphere of post-modern dissonance. If Unwound had ever made a sludge metal album, it might’ve sounded like The Deal. –Jon Hadusek
20. Vattnet Viskar – Settler
While surely the most optimistic album on this list, Vattnet Viskar’s sophomore triumph absolutely refuses to let up and envelops you with its infectious dreaming and ambition. Settler has accompanied me on my sunniest days when my eyes shined brightest towards the future and all goals seemed achievable. No musical moment this year has been as amp-worthy as the beginning of “Impact” with the sudden start of Nick Thornbury shouting, “I stood upon the ground with legs of fire,” as the rest of the band hits the line “and I leapt into the sky” with an explosive launch of riffs and everlasting glory. –Sean Barry
19. Mondo Drag – Mondo Drag
Prog heads rejoice: Mondo Drag have traversed time and space to deliver a minor masterpiece of heavy progressive rock in the vein of Atomic Rooster, Uriah Heap, and krautrockers Neu!. Though a mere 30 minutes in length, the album faithfully recreates a style rarely attempted by modern bands, the songs requiring musical virtuosity. Tracks like “Plumajilla” and “Pillars of the Sky” wander in beautiful directions, and the band is at their best when they’re mid-jam, unfurling scales and solos of effortless complexity. Discovered and signed by RidingEasy Records (my stoner-doom “Label of the Year” if I had to name one), Mondo Drag is wasting no time releasing a follow-up and will drop a new album, The Occultation of Light, on Feb. 26th. –Jon Hadusek
18. VHOL – Deeper Than Sky
Pacific Northwestern supergroup VHOL eschew their black metal influences on sophomore album, Deeper Than Sky, opting for a more classic heavy metal approach. The record opens with a fade-in on a shred solo and never relents as the band channels Voivod’s mathematical thrash, the epic vocals of Judas Priest (courtesy of YOB leader Mike Scheidt), and d-beat crust. This is the stuff of torn denim, Kreator shirts, and crushed backseat beer cans. Old-school headbanging of the highest order. –Jon Hadusek
17. High on Fire – Luminiferous
Here’s where Matt Pike reveals himself as a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist. Or conspiracy “factist,” as he would put it. The Shirtless One slays riff after riff on High on Fire’s latest, a politically themed record that preaches the truth about the Reptilian Elite and the fallacies of corrupt country. Fact: Crazy-ass conspiracy theories make for really good metal lyrics. This is High on Fire’s best record since Snakes for the Divine. –Jon Hadusek
16. WAND – Golem
I’m putting WAND on this list, too, because even if Cory Hanson sounds like John Lennon, Golem is a massively heavy psych album that’s just as dark, demented, apocalyptic, and paranoid as anything else we traditionally consider “metal.” The record captures an eerie dissonance, with fleeting moments of beauty (“Melted Rope”) giving way to crushing sludge (“Floating Head”) and insane pop (“Self-Hypnosis in 3 Days”). It’s a morbid and alluring album, motivated by a palpable psychosis that’s terrifying. –Jon Hadusek
15. Lluvia – Eternidad Solemne
Supremely melancholic, Lluvia’s second album is 2015’s most encompassing atmospheric black metal record. As its name, Eternidad Solemne, and cover would well indicate, the album is an immense, gray fog laden forever upon some graveyard full of medieval mausolea. Lord Vast’s sepulchral vocals weigh heavily upon chords that continue on forever and weave their way into your surroundings where nothing is felt but lingering spirits and a cold, light rain. –Sean Barry
14. Kill West – Smoke Beach
While not metal per se, the debut LP from Argentinean Kill West is certainly heavy. Mystic vocals cut through a wall of fuzz, and the album effectively acts like one continuous track of droning bliss. Smoke Beach was initially issued on Columbia, Mo.-based experimental tape label Dismal Niche Tapes and has since seen a vinyl pressing on Echo Drugs that instantly sold out and is now going for stupid prices on Discogs. The demand is warranted. Heavy psych doesn’t get much better than this. –Jon Hadusek
13. Liturgy – The Ark Work
The Ark Work is a transcendent achievement in that it is the audible equivalent of finally rising above all and reaching your final form. After years of facing plenty of backlash and criticism from black metal purists, Liturgy’s entirely unique brand of transcendental black metal comes into its fully realized form in a way that frontman and conceptual artist Hunter Hunt Hendrix seems to have been planning this whole time. –Sean Barry
12. Monolord – Vaenir
Vaenir is a cold and crushing exercise in blissed-out doom metal. Monolord are masters of the methodical lull, teasing songs that are heavy as fuck, but spacious enough to warrant stoned introspection (a la Boris). Occasional asides into psychedelic space rock and Sigur Rós-esque melodicism separate the Swedish trio from similar stoner-doom acts. –Jon Hadusek
11. Obsequiae – Aria of Vernal Tombs
Rising from another time altogether, Obsequiae’s medieval brand of melodic black metal is truly something of a wonder when most of their colleagues have settled into a sound that’s wholly of the past century, at most. Inspired by the chamber music of the Middle Ages, Obsequiae perfectly weave classical and heroic melodies (with help from a medieval harpist) through stylings of atmospheric black metal so that, by listening, it is very plain to see how classical music begat heavy metal. –Sean Barry
10. Kadavar – Berlin
Kadavar finally made an album worthy of their stunning live show. Berlin is not only the German trio’s finest work to date, but arguably the best straightforward heavy rock album of 2015. Its riffs are the riffiest, and its hooks are the hookiest, with serious pop craftsmanship behind the soaring “See the World with Your Own Eyes” and saccharine “Pale Blue Eyes”. Compositionally, these songs are far beyond anything they’ve ever written, lending themselves to sing-along choruses and air guitar freak-outs. Knock it back. –Jon Hadusek
09. Deafheaven – New Bermuda
Where Deafheaven could have very easily ridden into this year upon the coattails of their massive 2013 success, Sunbather, they instead presented its antithesis. Rougher around the edges and more existential than wishful, New Bermuda is Deafheaven maintaining their peak form, fearlessly exploring new urban terrains lyrically from the inside looking outwards and sonically presenting a much heavier idea of themselves. The result is a welcome and thought-provoking interpretation and thankfully not just Sunbather 2. –Sean Barry
08. Wrekmeister Harmonies – Night of Your Ascension
Gathering 30 musicians for an immense and coordinated collaboration is an impressive feat to be sure, but to be done three times now requires an artist with steadfast vision and a story desperate to be told. Here we find J.R. Robinson returning with Wrekmeister Harmonies to present another tale of the mortal follies of man through music that begins meditatively and beautifully before assuming the doomed form of something more brutal and near bestial. Night of Your Ascension is worth its weight in research and continued exploration. –Sean Barry
07. Yellow Eyes – Sick With Bloom
Even though it was released just this week, Yellow Eyes’ newest album deserves such a high ranking by achieving, nearly immediately and obviously, the accolade as 2015’s best atmospheric black metal album. Riffs cascade atop one another, harmonizing in the unique sorrows that come with the first and final frost. Brothers Will and Sam Skarstad recorded Sick with Bloom to tape in a lonely cabin in the Northern woods of Connecticut, and the result is one of the purest and most refreshing black metal records of the year. –Sean Barry
06. Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls
Frozen Niagara Falls is the pinnacle noise release of 2015, but Prurient’s latest also deserves a spot on metal lists. What Dominick Fernow has created here is the closest we’ve come to the industrial nihilism of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. Fernow screams and shrieks with conviction above pulsing beats, high-frequency noise feedback, and the occasional guitar. It’s an unsettling record, obsessed with the deepest recesses of the human condition and the perpetual chaos of love and existence. –Jon Hadusek
05. False – Untitled
Truly unlike any other release this year, False’s first full-length is a difficult and wholly unpleasant experience that offers neither reward nor resolution. It’s also undoubtedly some of the best black metal of the past decade. Seeking to unsettle and explore the great faults of mankind, Untitled finds no comfort and progresses freely from idea to idea; musically, it’s extremely ambitious despite the thematic lack thereof. Rachel’s vocals are viscid and awful and seem to narrate the most nihilist desires of mankind. A small and haunting moment of beauty comes on “The Deluge” when a choir of women join her in hailing, “To cleanse the idea of self with the deluge of blood from flesh.” False flawlessly create music that is unforgiving, relentless, and often miles ahead of you. While you’re reminded throughout that your efforts to overcome it are Sisyphean, the album invites you to navigate the challenges therein as well as examine the inherent faults and futilities of your own existence, and what’s more black metal than that? –Sean Barry
04. Horrendous – Anareta
Transfixing from the very first howl, surprising throughout, and as progressive as it is brutal, Horrendous’ Anareta comes out on top as 2015’s best death metal album, leaving hardly any room for competition. Tracks shape-shift within themselves to move through and pull from the best of other genres. The beginning of “Stillborn Gods” sounds like what every Mastodon fan wishes Mastodon would sound like today, and the end of “Acolytes” pulls from the very best of post-black metal to create the most cathartic moment on the record. That’s not to say, though, that this record isn’t wholly Horrendous’, because with such musical proficiency and willingness to explore and expound upon all influences, to author something so unexpected and so fulfilling is deserving of the highest acclaim. –Sean Barry
03. Elder – Lore
Perhaps no record on this list is as immediately gratifying as Elder’s Lore — at least if you’re a fan of badass riffs and adventurous songcraft. The intro of opener “Compendium” sounds like something off Marquee Moon, a symphony of interwoven riffs to kick off the five-song epic album. The idea of music as an escapist journey is at work here, movement flowing into movement, solos begetting solos, time signatures flip-flopping at precise and dynamic intervals. Nick DiSalvo doesn’t pretend to be any sort of vocalist that he’s not, but his lax stoner-metal delivery is almost kinda punk. Totally amorphous, Elder falls somewhere between Dinosaur Jr., Rush, and Metallica — the ultimate post-metal concoction. Lore is their masterpiece. –Jon Hadusek
02. Bell Witch – Four Phantoms
Whereas ancient civilizations told myths of gods and men, as well as Earth and its creation, relatively more recent cultures have grown to favor the ghost story. Our beginnings are traceable, but the next step for us will forever remain a mystery while we live, so why not enjoy some speculation about the afterlife and get a little frightened in the process? It’s with this concept that the mighty doom duo of Bell Witch (who are named after a ghost story themselves) have succeeded in creating what’s arguably 2015’s most fantastic work of metal.
The album’s four lengthy tales of spirits tortured eternally by the four natural elements engross you in their intricately crafted atmospheres to become like some terrible haunting that won’t ever end. And even when they do, they tend to linger in your mind, inviting you back, making every re-listen seem a little more like home. At some point, Four Phantoms stops feeling like an album and begins feeling like an actual presence, and I cannot give an album any higher praise than that. –Sean Barry
01. Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower
It was a cold, shitty night in Denver, and the members of Windhand looked beat. They had just finished playing a string of sold-out West Coast dates and were on the tail end of a hugely successful tour alongside Danava and Monolord. As I approached the band for our scheduled interview before their show at the Bluebird Theater, I could see the weariness in their slouched figures. Windhand weren’t just at the end of their tour, but the end of the journey.
“A lot has changed,” drummer Ryan Wolfe said exasperatingly.
Suddenly and for good reason, Windhand has become the touchstone band for heavy music and doom metal, finding that rare balance of accessibility and classicism as to draw in new listeners — not even metalheads, but fans of slow, alternative music in general — and still appeal to metal’s inner circle, the traditionalists who’ve long guarded the sanctity of the genre. Not that Windhand cares.
“I don’t consider us a metal band,” guitarist Asechiah Bogdan said. “It’s like heavy rock. Pop songs, really.”
Perhaps that’s why Windhand have succeeded in creating the best metal album of 2015. Grief’s Infernal Flower has its own vivid personality; aesthetically, it might be rooted in ominous, down-tuned sludge of doom, but these songs exist on their own plane, due in large part to frontwoman Dorthia Cottrell, whose cool, deep delivery and tragically romantic lyrics have more in common with Lisa Germano than Black Sabbath.
“I love a man whose love is violence
Who always comes, who goes away
Who never brings me any flowers
To blossom in my blazing shade”
Grief’s Infernal Flower copes with dying love in a dying world. It is not a happy album, but a pastiche of grays, blues, and blacks. In a state of despair, one can literally live through these songs, and there is a comfort in that catharsis. Acoustic numbers like “Sparrow”, which features the above lyrics, are scattered amongst crushingly heavy drones (“Hesperus”, “Kingfisher”) and Bogdan’s “pop songs” (“Two Urns”, “Crypt Key”), creating a record that’s both thematically cohesive and musically diverse.
Years from now, when I recall 2015, I will think of Grief’s Infernal Flower. And when I think of Grief’s Infernal Flower, I will remember 2015 — the year of Windhand: the year metal grew the fuck up and wore its heart on its sleeve proudly and without shame.