Generally, you’ll find one of two types of music writers at the end of the year: Bitter codgers who bemoan that there’s not enough to write about and that there are no noteworthy albums, and the hyper-excited “EVERYTHING WAS AWESOME” type that honestly can’t pick a true “best” album of the year. It is, of course, easy to get bogged down by the amount of mediocre, unremarkable crap that you subject yourself to over the course of an entire year as a reviewer — or alternately follow the hype machine on everything — but all things considered, 2015 was a good year for basically every sub-genre of metal.
Quite a few of the major label releases were really solid, but to state the obvious, the real gold this year was to be found on smaller labels. (I’m so kvlt, guys.) Were there some hideous albums released this year? Undoubtedly. Fortunately, my exposure to them was short-lived. Let’s forget about them and focus on the gems from 2015, from best to still-awesome-but-not-my-absolute-favorite.
The Top 9
Horrendous – Anareta
With the already fantastic Ecdysis having established them as the premier band in the OSDM revival, Horrendous expands their frontiers into even more progressive and daring territory on Anareta. Featuring elaborately twisted technicality, winding structures, and smart songwriting, Anareta is a tour-de-force that showcases the band’s chemistry and musicianship. All the while, it is a frighteningly accessible and even catchy collection of songs. Anareta should not be viewed as a mere passerby in the saturated niche of death metal; this may well be the type of album that will be viewed as pivotal years down the road.
Panopticon – Autumn Eternal
Further continuing the vast, expansive sound that made Roads to the North so successful, Autumn Eternal twists through passages of melodic, climactic black metal, folk, and post-rock crescendos. Never once does Austin Lunn lose the black metal foundation, though, and even the album’s most uplifting moments are filtered through layers of deft drumwork, screaming-from-mountaintops vocals, and intricately harmonized tremolo picking. One of Autumn Eternal’s main strengths is its ability to create a narrative arc over the course of individual songs as well as collectively over the album’s runtime.
Ahab – The Boats of the Glen Carrig
While I was cold toward portions of The Giant, I can see now how it was a transitional work that led to this. Simultaneously heady and savage, Glen Carrig distills the prog meanderings of The Giant while also bringing back the immense, hammering riffs of the band’s first two albums. Additionally, some of the overly bright mix issues from the previous album have been remedied, with the rhythm section being positively monolithic. This is by far the most satisfying effort so far in Ahab’s discography and smacks of true artistic maturity from top to bottom.
Crypt Sermon – Out of the Garden
2015 presented listeners with quite a few excellent traditional metal albums, and this one happens to take the cake for me. Out of the Garden may as well be a lost Candlemass session from the late 80s, but what it lacks in modernity, it makes up in convincing power and strong songwriting. Brooks Wilson’s haunting vocal melodies shimmer atop of brilliantly paced and tasteful doom riffs, which range from bluesy Iommi-inspired stomps to dreary, foreboding minor key figures ala Solitude Aeturnus and Trouble. Equal parts gloom and grit, Out of the Garden is not to be missed.
Ethereal Shroud – They Became the Falling Ash
An entrancing intersection of funeral doom, black metal, and chilly ambient atmospherics, They Became the Falling Ash sucks listeners into the type of place depicted on its front cover, and over the course of three long-form tracks, never releases its grip. Its gnarled beauty, soaked in reverb, fuzz, and soaring lead guitars that decay into a void, is enrapturing from start to finish. Even the daunting 24-minute opener “Look Upon the Light” never feels belabored or forced as it hammers down upon the listener’s senses.
Paradise Lost – The Plague Within
It’s hard to call The Plague Within a return to form since, frankly, Paradise Lost have been on their game for the past few albums. What makes this such a success is the fact that Nick Holmes and his crew haven’t just put in death/doom riffs for the heck of it; they went back to their roots without abandoning what they’ve become in the 21st century. Furthermore, they’re navigating through various forms of doom and gloom all while proving that they’re the masters of just about every trade in which they’ve dabbled. Triumphant, bombastic, and victorious metal for the downtrodden.
My Dying Bride – Feel the Misery
Feel the Misery is the spiritual successor to The Angel and the Dark River, while in many ways continuing the narrative songwriting of the past three albums. Aaron Stainthorpe’s vocals sound genuinely pained and full of longing here, the riffs have an added flair of classic MDB thanks to returning original members, and the slow burn numbers are nuanced and intricate. As the band return to the dreary guitar harmonies they’re so well known for, there’s never once a feeling of “been there, done that”—just a reminder that the masters are still guarding their throne.
VHOL – Deeper Than Sky
If you would have given me a blind listening of this album and didn’t tell me that’s it’s a conglomeration of some of the most genius people in metal today, it would still end up on this list. It’s just that good. Deeper Than Sky takes the least likely playmates – noisy psychedelia, thrash, hardcore, and way-out-there progressive metal – and makes them all not just play nice, but work with each other smoothly, seductively, and tastefully. The weirdness here is more compelling than alienating, and in any other set of hands, it would have flopped. But it hasn’t, thankfully.
Dhampyr – Oceanclots
A disorienting, nauseating blend of psychedelia, depressive black metal, lo-fi acoustics, and post-rock, Oceanclots is one of the most challenging albums I came across this year. “Under-produced” doesn’t do justice to the overwhelming sensations of grief and despondency created by the thick haze of guitars, distorted vocals, and trippy effects over the album’s runtime. Underneath the washes of white noise, though, is an album that unfurls itself on the listener like a blanket of fog and carries them to a place of introspection, half-remembered tragedies, and painful nostalgia. It’s like Xasthur on LSD, filtered through painful personal experiences.
For those that may have not been my absolute favorites but are no less deserving of praise and recognition.
Twilight Fauna – Shadows of Ancestors
Building on the success of last year’s Hymns of a Forgotten Homeland, Twilight Fauna’s blend of post-rock, lo-fi black metal, and traditional Appalachian music reaches its apex on Shadows of Ancestors. Heavily reliant on reverb-laden guitars to create a soundscape, it’s an entrancing, heavily introspective release that requires much patience. Listen here.
Draconian – Sovran
When it comes to the goth/doom niche, Draconian stand as an outfit that have done little wrong. Sovran is further proof of that as it winds through beauty, darkness, and doom. New vocalist Heidi Langhan is dynamic and engaging with beautiful melodies, and the band are writing some of their strongest riffs and song structures to date. Listen here.
Bell Witch – Four Phantoms
Four Phantoms may not be as close to my heart as Longing, but it’s still one of the best doom releases this year. Simultaneously more focused and more expansive that their debut, it is an emotionally crushing and initially off-putting listen— but as Desmond and Guerra slog through their distinctive sound of pain and misery, it’s clear that Four Phantoms is meant to separate the goats from the sheep. Listen here.
Vattnet Viskar – Settler
“Catharsis” gets used a lot in metal today, but very few bands achieve it to the same degree as Vattnet Viskar. Throwing off the “post-black” shackles they were first associated with, VV have created an album that is as joyful as it is poignant. I’d dare say that “Impact” is probably my favorite song of the year. Listen here.
Ecferus/Sea Witch – Of Water & Wood
Sign me up any time you talk about joining black metal with doom metal. Rather than a split, Of Water & Wood is collaborative in nature and highlights the mystical properties of Ecferus’s black metal while providing Sea Witch’s dense and melodic funeral doom as the foundation for most of the tracks. “Upon Shoulders of Wear” is not to be missed. Listen here.
Khemmis – Absolution
If this is what happens when states legalize marijuana, then for God’s sake, legalize it. A potent blend of traditional doom, hard rock, and modern sludge that capitalizes on melodic hooks and accessibility, Khemmis are one of the most distinct bands in the modern doom/sludge scene. Absolution is a burly beast, soaked in smoke and baptized in brews. Listen here.
Cradle of Filth – Hammer of the Witches
Lineup changes really can do wonders. Not so much a return to form as it is finally getting their feet planted, Hammer is possibly the band’s strongest album since Midian. With all of the band performances ripping on all fronts and Dani’s vocals sounding listenable again, CoF are delectably savage again. Listen here.
Dead to a Dying World – Litany
A lot of bands are stretching listeners’ attention spans with long-form songs, but Litany is one of the few albums this year that is able to keep constant momentum through the emotional arc created through the instrumentation. Genre-wise, it’s not easy to pin down, and that is part of what makes Litany such an intriguing listen. Listen here.
Napalm Death – Apex Predator-Easy Meat
Like the past few records, Apex Predator is the sonic equivalent of being fed into an industrial shredder. It’s full of vitriol and righteous indignation, and Greenway’s lyrics never cease to be confrontational yet tactful in addressing the ills of the modern world. Musically, this tightens up the progressive tendencies from previous works, weaving them in effortlessly to the carpet-bomb aggression that ND is known for. Listen here.