Metal grew out more than it grew up this year. Baroness got their groove back with anthemic triumphalism, "blackgaze" groups like Deafheaven and Bosse-de-Nage reveled in ecstasy and agony, Iron Maiden wrote their longest-ever epic, and Faith No More returned after 17 years with three-part harmonies. Here's the year in heavy.
Michigan blursters Cloud Rat turn tail on grindcore's neverending arms race for savagery and velocity, instead giving their tantrums a dynamic, cinematic feel that makes room for more far emotions than fury. Blasts are bookended or supported by gauzy 4AD vocals, blurry shoegaze textures, Tortoise-style post rock and all sorts of squeaks, squalls and rumbles from new electronics technician Brandon Hill. Without the mechanical precision of, say, Napalm Death or Pig Destroyer, their churn is closer to punk or hardcore — a more relatable and humanized swirl for vocalist Madison Marshall to bark out murder fantasies that take heel or boltgun to bigots, kings and oppressors. C.W.
Possessed by the minor key hooks of Black Sabbath, the grandiose keyboards of Deep Purple and the more tuneful excursions of Blue Öyster Cult, Ghost are a theatrical flashback to the sinister Seventies, when The Exorcist blew up at the box office and Parker Brothers marketed Ouija boards to the mainstream. Ghost's third album, Meliora, is louder and more direct than 2013's carnivalesque, poppy Infestissumam, yet it still caters to the (black) masses. The driving riffs are countered by soft vocal melodies, folk guitar arpeggios, chanting choirs and lilting strings; the warm sounds are almost seductive enough to make listeners overlook sometimes hokey occult lyrics like "We're standing here by the abyss and the world is in flames/Two star-crossed lovers reaching out to the beast with many names." For those wondering, Ghost's devotion to the dark is more Kiss than King Diamond, but its music is strong enough to impress even without the Satanic shtick. J.W.
The success of 2013's robust Earth Rocker and the constant touring that followed must have hardened Maryland's kings of go-go-infused muscle rock. Their 2015 release takes the band's psychedelic tendencies to dark and hungry places, full of government conspiracies and American witchcraft. Speeding ticket anthems like "X-Ray Visions," "Firebirds" and "Noble Savage" are complimented by hip-swingers like "A Quick Death In Texas" and "Our Lady of Electric Light," all of them glazed with atmospheric Southern blues. The result is a danger-fueled but stoner-friendly gem that reminds the listener of the days where the hippie and biker culture intermingled in psychotic harmony. C.K.
In 2013, experimental black metal band Deafheaven scored big with Sunbather, which juxtaposed savage blastbeats, blur-of-noise guitars and glass-gargling vocals with effects-laden shoegazer textures. With their third album, New Bermuda, they expand their sonic spectrum in both extremes. Bleak, desperate and at times suffocating, the songs are peppered with the rapid chugs and tumbling beats of Slayer and the multifaceted guitar work of early Metallica. At the same time, Deafheaven incorporate their lengthy compositions with lazy, loping guitar lines reminiscent of Luna and melancholy reveries redolent of the Cure and Red House Painters. But no matter how often or abruptly Deafheaven shift gears, each passage flows into the next, giving New Bermuda the type of cinematic majesty that inspires both reflective beard scratching and high-velocity headbanging. J.W.
Lamb of God were writing teeth-gnashing music long before June 2012, when vocalist Randy Blythe was arrested in Prague on manslaughter charges and held for five weeks. He was eventually exonerated but the experience left an indelible mark on the band. VII: Sturm Und Drang is hardly a prison album, but being in a Kafka-esque bind, just one court ruling away from a forced five-year hiatus, inspired a new level of creativity. In addition to performing an exhausting barrage of battering beats and dizzying buzzsaw riffs, Lamb of God mercilessly abused a talkbox on "Erase This"; Blythe tracked a heartfelt, clean vocal melody for "Overlord"; and Deftones' and Dillinger Escape Plan's vocalists added passages to "Embers" and "Torches." J.W.
The first Slayer album since the death of founding guitarist/main songwriter Jeff Hanneman and the (second) departure of founding drummer Dave Lombardo, Repentless is the band's most gripping, well-crafted release in more than a decade. Assuming the role of ringmaster, guitarist Kerry King grabbed the bull by the balls: In addition to penning hardcore-inspired thrash like "Take Control" and "You Against You," King channels his late bandmates in songs like "When the Stillness Comes" and "Cast the First Stone," both of which feature Hanneman's trademark style of haunting minor-key riffs and discordant atmospheres. Packaged with Hanneman's last complete song, the gruesome "Piano Wire" (originally recorded for 2009's World Painted Blood), the album also features some of vocalist Tom Araya's most convincingly angry recordings. J.W.
Nobody hears extreme metal quite like one-man-band Leviathan's mastermind Wrest. His latest, Scar Sighted, collects tortured haunted-house howling, Lynchian surf guitar, death-rattle blastbeats, sludge-rock boogie, Cocteau Twins plinking, Arabian Prince power-bass monologues and miles of punky trills — all while mostly sticking within the paradigm of black metal. It's pure, tortured expressionism and, following a string of records that weren't quite as daring, it's his best album since he dabbled in the dark atmospheres of his brilliant Lurker of Chalice side project a decade ago. It's one of the most outré metal albums of late, and it proves once again that Wrest is one of the most original voices challenging the black-and-white rigidity that's plaguing so many of his peers. K.G.
James "J." Read, drum tornado and vocalist of Edmonton, Alberta's Revenge, is one of the metal underground's most chaotic and pulverizing bashers. But he's also an auteur who wields filthy textures and brutish riffs as skillfully as Max Martin employs pristine sheen and unshakable hooks. In the macro sense, every Revenge album since their 2003 debut sounds exactly the same: Read's percussive shitstorm, guitar used as a siren-like noisemaker, shuddering blasts of distortion (the Revenge equivalent of a dubstep drop) and effects-heavy vocals that can suggest field recordings from a pigpen at feeding time. Behold.Total.Rejection, the band's fifth full-length and first for Season of Mist, follows suit but achieves an exemplary balance of harshness and coherence. H.S.
Napalm Death's 15th full-length, Apex Predator – Easy Meat, approximates the sound of whatever device ground up the "tenderized chunks of a weakling" on its album sleeve: mechanically pounding out rhythms, slowing down to smash up the big pieces and squelching the whole way through. But while they remain masters of the extreme, they've continued to throw new things in the grinder to keep them at the genre's vanguard: syncopated boogie-punk riffs ("Timeless Flogging"), ritualistic rhythmic death chants à la early Swans (the title track), gloomy doom swagger ("Dear Slum Landlord … ") and sludgy minimalism ("Adversarial/Copulating Snakes"). It's a top-shelf blend. This machine kills. K.G.
With heaps of chaotic, atonal mischief, Toronto's Metz channeled the thrills of early Nineties Sub Pop and Touch & Go on their 2012 self-titled debut. While the slash-and-burn approach was a memorable way for a new band to make an entry, II sees Metz digging beneath the charred surface into the grimy Amphetamine Reptile catalog. During the album's 30 minutes, the trio burrows further into the dark, malevolent recesses of punk, metal and experimental rock, unearthing some indelible, head-bobbing hooks. Scathing, demented cries bounce between throbbing chords, while festering pockets of reverb, delay and sizzling static help the fever to break. J.F.
Killing Joke deserve a list of their own. For nearly 40 years, the Brits — iconoclasts, Dadaists and humanists in equal measure — have perverted and bestialized metal and punk for their own pleasure, infusing grinding riffs with industrial sterility, cold New Wave vocals and synth soundscapes that actually sound tough. Though their sound is decades old, it's evident in no shortage of contemporary bands, including Foo Fighters, Faith No More, Tau Cross and Pinkish Black. Pylon, the group's 15th LP, is a masterful document of the Killing Joke experience: moody, distressing vocals against throbbing guitar on "Dawn of the Hive," cataclysmic clanging and growling war cries about the Middle East on "New Jerusalem," industrial disco thump propelling stabbing chaos on "I Am the Virus." It's Killing Joke at their best and it's what so many bands wish they were. K.G.
In a year roaring with American "blackgaze" bands scrawling bloody valentines to Nordic frost, no one made a stronger statement than Bay Area's press-shy, stage-shy Bosse-de-Nage. Probably because their Eighties and Nineties obsessions seem to bulge well beyond the Creation roster: All Fours revels in the hypnotic jumble of Midwestern math-rock, the keening chords of emo and the optimistic haze of Hüsker Dü. The cathartic feel and beaming chords are a sharp juxtaposition (or possibly, for the whips-and-chains set, a perfect match) to lyrics straight from a Pier Paolo Pasolini film, with vocalist Bryan Manning yelping tales of domination and humiliation. C.W.
Royal Thunder's 2012 debut made the Atlanta band one of metal's rising stars thanks to humid, corrosive blues and bassist/singer Mlny Parsonz's rich roar, which garnered comparisons to everyone from Ann Wilson to Janis Joplin. Since then, Parsonz's marriage to Royal Thunder guitarist/primary songwriter Josh Weaver ended, and the band's follow-up is unflinching in its resolve. At its core, Crooked Doors is both headstrong and heartfelt — a winding, visceral journey to reclaim an identity obscured by trauma. Gripping, evocative melodies shift between psychedelic dreamscapes and head-rattling reality checks, and Parsonz cements herself as one of the finest soul singers of her generation, genre be damned. Though there are moments when the struggle feels confounding, Crooked Doors is never bleak; grace is ultimately attainable. In a way, Parsonz is metal's Jessica Jones — a young woman battling murky, haunting memories and gunning for redemption and renewal. J.F.
Released more than three years after Baroness' near-fatal bus accident, Purple resounds with the urgency of an athlete longing to return to the team following a lengthy recovery. For leader John Baizley, the album is an opportunity to prove that he's still in command of his craft despite having long strands of wire wrapped around metal plates in his playing arm. Most of the songs are built around a series of charged, hard rock riffs, then colored with psychedelic and prog-rock hooks. But while the music pulses with upbeat energy, the lyrics wriggle with pained vulnerability, exposing the raw nerves that throb under Baizley's scarred flesh. About four minutes before "Chlorine & Wine" bursts into a triumphant Pink-Floyd-meets-Queen climax, Baizley laments his medical condition: "She cuts through my ribcage and pushes the pills deep in my eyes/… /And my doctor's unable to cut through the cable that leads to my mind." J.W.
"We will never play together again and we will never try to glorify or celebrate what was," proclaimed Swedish anti-capitalist hardcore band Refused when they broke up in 1998. A lot has changed in 17 years — especially the group's core sound. Having played in non-punk bands like (International) Noise Conspiracy and Text, the band members have learned to radicalize with a more user-friendly touch. "Old Friends/New War" weaves urgent, undistorted strumming, programmed drums and wah-saturated bass through a combination of sung and screamed vocals and "Françafrique" features syncopated hip-hop beats, boogie-woogie guitars, horns and a slick chorus. Such stylistic flourishes make heavier songs like "Dawkins Christ" — which starts with a mélange of cooing female vocals and delicate notes and builds to a crescendo of serrated guitars and machine-gun rhythms — all the more destructive. J.W.
Given their 40-year history and massive international fanbase, Iron Maiden could have easily rested on their laurels and released Number of the Beast Number Two. Instead, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal valedictorians created a vibrant, powerful, sprawling 92-minute double disc that takes risks and satisfies the appetite for their classic formula of fist-pumping riffs and soaring choruses. Frontman Bruce Dickinson screams epic tales of black magic rituals and airship disasters with as much power as ever — no small feat for someone who just vanquished throat cancer — while the triple guitar attack of Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers take a wild van ride back to 1984. C.K.
The seventh full-length by Oakland's stoner-metal warriors sees vocalist Matt Pike fighting the very real demon of alcoholism. Luminiferous is the first High on Fire album written and performed by an entirely sober Pike, which some fans worried would dull the shirtless wonder's edge. But the music tells a different story — a ferocious blast of charging guitars, blasting drums and Pike's inimitable hoarse roar. Tracks like "Carcoas" and "Slave The Hive" are breakneck assaults, while moodier moments like "The Falconist" and "The Cave" have practiced precision: Pike's drying out has revealed a focused predator. C.K.
Tau Cross made as confident a metal debut as we've seen in ages — but the band's three-plus-decade collective pedigree makes them a bit of a special case. The international quartet features two survivors of the Eighties underground: bassist-vocalist Rob "The Baron" Miller of British crust-punk originators Amebix and drummer Michel "Away" Langevin of Québécois sci-fi-thrash machine Voivod. No lazy supergroup effort, Tau Cross stake out clear aesthetic terrain — in this case, a melding of moody, Killing Joke–style postpunk and anthemic, post-Motörhead hard rock. Miller's lyrics can skew cornball ("Night falls; these walls are leaking memories again"), but he sells the material with conviction, singing in a gravelly, yet determinedly melodic croak. H.S.
The alterna-metal square pegs return 18 years since their last LP and still refuse to fit anywhere. Though you could fill an Ozzfest and an All Tomorrow's Parties with the bands they've influenced, Faith No More instead lean into post-punk rhythmic hypnosis, goth-tinged atmosphere, castanet-flecked Morricone metal, three-part harmonies and one barking anthem featuring a metaphor about breakfast cereal. Vocalist Mike Patton has spent the last two decades extending his throat into a versatile instrument that's at home gurgling moist splatter-jazz alongside John Zorn or crooning silky Italian pop with Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini, and now he absolutely floats above the monolithic grooves of drummer Mike Bordin and bassist Billy Gould, still a hard-hitting, sui generis rhythm section 30 years on. C.W.
With The Pale Emperor, Marilyn Manson finally realized the goth-metal album he had been threatening to make since he declared himself the "Antichrist Superstar" back in '96. All he needed was a little restraint. Where the Manson of yore reveled in over-the-top, garish showmanship — the first words he bellowed on his 1994 debut were "I am the God of Fuck" — the stately Pale Emperor, age 46, would rather swagger his way through eerie textures, primal drums and whining guitar to whisper about feeling lonely before, naturally, dubbing himself the "Mephistopheles of Los Angeles" on one of the record's standouts. Moody tracks like "Third Day of a Seven Day Binge" and "Odds of Even" serve as treatises on the after-effects of decadence, while the disco-ish "Deep Six" is the best dance-floor banger he's come up with since "The Beautiful People." Gone, though, are the thumping signposts of nu-metal (save a couple of cheeky one-liners), replaced instead with echoes of Bauhaus, Bowie and, most surprising, the blues. For once, Manson's true voice — husky, morose, full — shines through. Our boy's all grown up. K.G.