Metal may have the heart of a rebellious teenager (and keep it in a jar in the basement), but in 2014 it had the face of a grizzled vet. It was a year of comebacks: from Slipknot to At the Gates, from Godflesh to Behemoth, whose leader Nergal fought off cancer to hail Satan in song once again. It was a year when wizened electric wizards rocking low and slow (Yob, Crowbar, SunnO))), Ommadon, et al.) crawled by the fast and the furious on the path to ascend. Grunge pioneers, avant-garde longtimers, and even a hip-hop O.G. got in on the metallurgy and made magic. But anyone under the age of, say, 30? Not as much. So study up, young'uns, and respect your elders: Here are heavy music's 20 best of 2014.
Nine years after helping ratify black metal as an obsession for American nerds, supergroup Twilight subverted the genre on their third album, which sounds more like a post-punk-indebted sludge record built on unwieldy static and industrial clanging. Part of the transition can be attributed to the group's lineup for the LP, which found members of black-metal mainstays Leviathan and Krieg playing alongside Sonic Youth's noisemaster general Thurston Moore. Together, they blend blastbeats with scraping white noise on tracks like "Oh Wretched Son" and "A Flood of Eyes" to expand extreme metal's frosty atmosphere. The punky closing track "Below Lights" rattles with machine-like rhythms and its murky feedback hints at a new sound altogether. However, its fadeout will be the band's last — their break-up was announced in January. K.G.
A U.K. side project cobbled together from members of Gallows, sikTh and other bands only Brits care about, Krokodil were thrust into the spotlight this year when their guitarist Alex Venturella's hand tattoos betrayed the fact that he was the new bass player in Slipknot. But really, the group deserved the attention on its own merits. The six-piece's first full-length — the most arresting metal debut of 2014 — revels in the blood and thunder of early Mastodon, the burly groove-core of Coalesce and, occasionally, the calm-before-the-storm chill-outs of Mogwai. B.G.
Given that a significant portion of Slipknot's first four albums derived from the artistic and rhythmic partnership of bassist Paul Gray and drummer Joey Jordison, the odds of the masked metallers moving forward without them — Gray died of an overdose in 2010, Jordison was ousted from the band last year — seemed slim. And yet, the 'Knot still somehow came roaring back in 2014 with their first new album in six years, a set full of ferocious songs ("Skeptic," "The Negative One," "The Devil in I") that are lent depth by the more atmospheric, experimental and melodic tracks that surround them. A worthy addition to an uncompromising catalog and a deeply moving tribute to a fallen comrade. D.E.
While Yob, Pallbearer and Thou spent 2014 shooting doom metal into the clouds, Glaswegian drone-sludge duo Ommadon were more than content to plunge it deeper in the soil. Their epic V is two album-length tracks on double vinyl — 47 minutes and 39 minutes respectively — that churn and roil with thunder-rumbling, earthquaking riffs that go absolutely nowhere. No noise breakdowns, no pained vocals, no transcendent chorus, no fun. A hypnotic, dead-eyed combination where patience, misanthropy and endurance collide; a zombie chained to a pole walking the same ugly circle. C.W.
In a year when seemingly every new band with a smidgen of Seventies-flavored swagger claimed some doom-metal influence, the return of English doom legends Electric Wizard from an extended slumber was particularly welcome — not to mention instructive. Time to Die is the real doom deal — it contans tracks that are druggy, claustrophobic and nihilistic enough to make early Black Sabbath sound positively whimsical by comparison. The album's interstitial audio snippets — lifted from a 1984 20/20 episode about the allegedly satanic murder of a Long Island teen — offer a brief respite from the onslaught, but also serve to further amplify the prevailing bad vibes. D.E.
During the last seven years, Tombs has worked through a mess of members and styles, from metals both black and industrial to punks both post- and hardcore. Their albums and EPs, particularly 2011's Path of Totality, could thrill, but not like Savage Gold, their riveting and refined third LP. Building atop a base of black metal with bits borrowed from Godflesh, Joy Division and even Slint along the way, Tombs consolidates its toughness into 10 tracks that aim to maximize one stylistic effect rather than adulterate through many. "Spiral" is a maniacal tirade that reinvigorates the aplomb of early Mayhem, while "Deathripper" is an unflinching, cold stare across a fence built with barbed-wire guitars and dense blastbeats. G.C.
Though not exactly the most mature statement of their career ("Piss Pisstopherson," anyone?), Hold It In is easily the most delightful Melvins record in a decade. Absorbing two of the Butthole Surfers — guitar texture visionary Paul Leary and hard-throbbing bassist Jeff Pinkus — the album hearkens back to the no-holds-barred eclecticism of both bands' brief mid-Nineties major label runs. That means a (mostly) straight-ahead Gibby-styled alt-metal screamer like "Brass Cupcake" can sit next to a cymbal-washed drone experiment like "Barcelonian Horseshoe Pit." There's room for weirdo rockabilly metal ("Eyes on You"), a vocoder-rocker like Neil Young's underloved Trans ("You Can Make Me Wait") and something that sounds like a demented parody of Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger ("Nine Yards"). C.W.
For 20 years, Vindsval, leader of French black metal project Blut Aus Nord, has restlessly pursued the next phase of his chosen field — his recent 777 trilogy flirted with industrial metal, shoegaze, electronica and noise. This year, he returned to complete another trilogy that he launched in 1996, returning to his band's black metal roots but adding a perfect amount of modern accessibility: instant melodies acting as bait sandwiched among high-volume guitars and Thorns' relentless drums. These six songs often start with belligerent blastbeats and serrated riffs before easing, over time, into colorful psychedelic smears. It's easy to get lost somewhere between rupture and reverie as Blut Aus Nord brightens black metal from the inside out while never once forsaking its savage origins. G.C.
Too neat for pigfuck, too nasty for indie rock, Austerity Program have eked out a unique place within heavy rock with their swirling collages of drum-machine rhythms, undulating bass riffs and nihilistic narratives. Without frontman Justin Foley's nerdy diatribes, the duo's harsh industrial chug would come off like a metal take on organ-grinder music. But he's got quirky stories for days, like the one about a four-foot tall dude named Jake who spits in food and pisses in pools ("Song 30") as well as first-person takes on home foreclosure ("Song 32") and some apocalyptic visions ("Song 33"). K.G.
These Chicago venom-spitters are a phenomenal noise band in metal clothing. Contemporary blackened-doom serves as a launching point for the quartet to cycle through all sorts of Eighties and Nineties pigmuck-fugliness: the punching-bag repetition of early Swans but drowning in white noise and black-metal screeches, the lurch of Neurosis as if remixed by Bastard Noise, a vintage Amphetamine Reptile scuzz-rock banger that eventually unravels into oscillating glop and a four-minute feedback workout with Whitehouse-style screams. C.W.
Who says a cranky 56-year-old TV star can't make some of the most entertaining metal of 2014? Beyond assembling the most dexterous line-up of his band's 20-year career, there's a wily and comedic twist to many of Ice-T's latest rants. The title track eulogizes "manhood" as a casualty of our post-adult era; "Talk Shit, Get Shot" is a watch-what-you-say anthem from someone with a very engaged Twitter audience, and "Institutionalized 2014" fast-forwards the suburban angst of the Suicidal Tendencies classic into middle age: Ice fends off a self-righteous vegan, an overseas ISP customer service agent, and an Xbox-hating nag of a wife. Plus two versions of "99 Problems" for the kids who think Jay-Z came up with that one up himself. K.H.
Time Heals Nothing goes the title of the Nola sludge-core heavyweights' landmark 1995 slab, a phrase that bandleader Kirk Windstein has lived out over Crowbar's 25 years and 100-plus doomy anthems. But while many rock miserablists wallow in the comfort of being sad, Windstein treats heartbreak like a full-contact sport, his earthquaking Iommi-on-steroids riffs turning lyrics that might otherwise read as emo or goth into motivational slogans for Team Suffering: "Existence Is Punishment," take it like a man. On Symmetry in Black, Crowbar’s finest hour in over a decade, the singer-guitarist doles out plenty of his macho masochism and bare-your-scars catharsis, but he seems to have finally found some healing, as well. "Walk with knowledge wisely," he commands on the album’s inspirational opening cut, while elsewhere he goes mellow and acoustic for "Amaranthe," a Crowbar love song of sorts, suggesting that this king of sorrow has glimpsed some light at the end of the tunnel, not just more black. B.G.
The bold hooks and sharply defined riffs of Mastodon's sixth studio full-length makes it easy to hear this album as their evolution from prog-sludge wizards to straight-ahead hard rockers — but the reality is actually far more, er, complex. While the songs of Once More 'Round the Sun aren't bound to a conceptual framework like 2004's Leviathan or 2006's Blood Mountain, even the album's more accessible tracks like "The Motherload" and "The High Road" are crammed full of unexpected twists and turns. Its lengthy epics, "Chimes at Midnight" and "Diamond in the Witch House" (the latter a collaboration with Scott Kelly of Neurosis), reveal no loss of adventurousness in the band's instrumental excursions. Ultimately, the best part of Sun is Mastodon's ability to make hooky and visceral music without sacrificing either their metallic muscle or their innate weirdness. D.E.
Godflesh's clanking, crunching industrial death-march has always been one of heavy music's baddest trips, inspired by its members' experiences as Eighties teenagers popping psychedelics while watching Hellraiser and Altered States in the shadow of Birmingham, England's dehumanizing factories. Twenty-six years since the band's formation, and 12 years since its breakup, main man Justin Broadrick's nihilistic outlook has not mellowed. Now a parent, he sees the world as a scarier place than ever, and Godflesh's harrowing comeback reflects that. Sculpted out of scrap metal and bloody sinew, it's a monument to what he sees as a new Dark Age where humanity still breeds like rats under a fiery, polluted sky. B.G.
So you've won a hard-fought battle against life-threatening leukemia and are writing your triumphant first album since. With what words do you open the record? If you're Nergal, frontman of Polish blackened death-metal veterans Behemoth, the choice is clear: "I saw the virgin's cunt spawning forth the snake." Behemoth have never been ones for subtlety, and The Satanist is their brashest, boldest declaration yet. A corpse-paint-slathered embarrassment of unholy riches, the album overfloweth with doomy riffs, hyperspeed blasts, exultant horns, choirs and eerie spoken-word exhortations as if Nergal, having nearly died, attempted to work every musical idea he'd ever had into the record's 44 minutes. The sound of one of extreme metal's best bands at its most extreme. B.G.
On the five-song Soused, long-running avant-crooner Scott Walker teams up with glacial sludge duo SunnO))) for a perfect blend of two different yet complimentary ideas about What Makes Something Heavy. On songs like "Brando" and "Herod 2014," Walker’s three-penny operatic voice belts like a secular muezzin calling the faithful to pray while SunnO))) opens up the earth with drone and scrape. Though on "Lullaby," the way Walker sings "too-night…" like he’s about to break into West Side Story reminds you that he might not be taking all this capital-A Art as seriously as his fans might think. J.G.
On some wild Peter Gabriel trip, Old Man Gloom — featuring current and former members of Converge, Isis and Cave In — put out three albums titled The Ape of God in 2014 to spark maximum confusion. The first, and most concise, was a "fake" promo sampler of the other two that they wanted to leak online as a prank; but in some ways it's also the best. A mix of staticky noise, pummeling sludge-core riffs and a few faint glimpses of operatic melody, the record played out like a sci-fi soundtrack spinning too slow and jacked up too loud. The two proper Ape of God LPs, which have distinct track lists and catalog numbers, can be just as impactful as the truncated version and offer different mixes of the songs, as well as a handful of longer slow-burners (including the standout "Burden") — though they lack the rawness and concision of the red herring. No matter which ones you listen to, you get the same thing: acrimony and anguish unraveling in slow motion. K.G.
It's fitting that in the twilight hour of the metalcore subgenre that they inspired, At the Gates should drop the comeback full-length they promised they would never make, as if to show everyone how it was supposed to be done all along. No emo vocals, no mosh-pit-appeasing breakdowns, no keyboards; just strangled screams, irresistibly hooky guitar melodies, some soundtrackish interludes and fantastic riffs. Have the Swedish melodic death-metal pioneers matched 1995's Slaughter of the Soul, their former swan song and easily one of the most influential metal records of the last two decades? Of course not. But At War with Reality does miraculously pick up 19 years later right where it left off, delivering everything fans could realistically hope for, plus plenty to inspire another generation to try to rip At the Gates off and fail. B.G.
Three decades ago, Triptykon frontman Thomas Gabriel Fischer wrote extreme metal's playbook with the pugilistic riffs and grunted vocals of his trailblazing bands Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. On Melana Chasmata, he refigured the rules. While so many of his disciples have been playing up the genre's expressionism with temper tantrums, Fischer's Triptykon subverted it with gloomy introversion. Much like the record's slithery, serpentine H.R. Giger cover, Triptykon's second album is total darkness, a finely tuned cocktail of death, doom and goth metal spiked with a hefty side order of 4AD ethereal new wave for optimal pessimism. A statement about loss and anger that's intoxicating and beautiful. K.G.
The seventh album from Oregon doom metal sky-gazers Yob — a mere four tracks that just eke just past the hour mark — makes perfect bedfellows of volume and beauty, pain and transcendence. Written in the wake of a divorce and frontman Mike Scheidt's decision to quit antidepressants, Clearing sounds like the diary of a survivor, seeking perseverance through meditation and empathy. Opener "In Our Blood" extends a simple riff into complex arches, tracing Scheidt's voice as it moves from an exquisite falsetto to a death-metal bellow in the course of 16 minutes. And during the colossal closer "Marrow" — possibly the best metal song of the year, one that uses low notes to play uplifting melodies — Scheidt sings "Time will fall inside the dream." His voice suddenly reaches out like a clarion's call, clear and telling and beautiful. It's a pronouncement from the living, a semaphore pointing into the future. G.C.