20 Best Metal Albums of 2017
Few years in recent memory have needed righteous, screaming rage like 2017, and metal answered the call, whether it’s Body Count’s starkly political screeds, Pyrrhon’s controlled confusion or Power Trip’s nostalgic, axe-swinging trip back to the Reagan Eighties. Bands like Unsane and Obituary stayed the course while Code Orange, Oxbow and Circle exploded genre entirely. Here’s the year’s best.
Krallice, ‘Go Be Forgotten’
The second of two albums they released this year, Go Be Forgotten may be the best thing that New York black metallists Krallice have ever done, breaking dynamic new ground for the quartet. The album’s sprawling title track seamlessly works synthesizers into the mix, adding a refreshing sense of space, texture and drama to the nearly 11-minute composition without ever compromising the bleak intensity or technical precision of the band’s attack. The seven-and-a-half minute ambient instrumental “Quadripartite Mirror Realm” perfectly sets the stage for a time-shifting, mind-frying assault (“Ground Prayer”). D.E.
Mutoid Man, ‘War Moans’
Mutoid Man, the hyperactive supergroup spearheaded by Cave In singer/guitarist Stephen Brodsky and Converge drummer Ben Koller, skillfully rides the rail between highbrow progcore and knuckleheaded hesher rock. Their second full-length is full of ripping, sub-three-minute rollercoaster rides jam-packed with finger-twisting riffs, head-snapping tempo shifts, oddball time signatures and jackhammer rhythms. Add in some well-placed, left-field guest spots – former Megadeth shredder Marty Friedman unleashes fury on the epic title track; Chelsea Wolfe lends her ethereal vocals to the crushing power-ballad closer “Bandages” – and you have an album that sounds like it was probably as much fun to make as it is to listen to. You can even hear Brodsky laughing in “Kiss of Death.” R.B.
Electric Wizard, ‘Wizard Bloody Wizard’
The odds of Electric Wizard ever making a return to the druggy, lo-fi sonic morass of 2000’s legendary Dopethrone are mighty slim, though that never seems to stop their fans from pining for it. Instead, these English doom-masters are still serving up plenty of Hammer horror-inspired lyrical imagery and bummer-inducing blues riffs. Wizard Bloody Wizard finds the band boiling their Sabbath-inspired attack down to its bare, glistening bones, with only the swaggering “Necromania” and the wah-laced occult epic “Mourning of the Magicians” deviating from the menacing, nihilistic trudge of tracks like “See You in Hell” and “Hear the Sirens Scream.” D.E.
Unsane’s grimy, grinding wallop, topped by Chris Spencer’s rueful howl, is one of the most reliable sounds in the American rock underground, as unchanging as their gore-splattered album art. A single bass player swap and the tragic overdose death of their original drummer aside, the NYC trio has been toiling away at a remarkably rigorous aesthetic since the late Eighties. But Sterilize, their eighth LP and first for Southern Lord, shows why, for Unsane, focus doesn’t equal stagnation. Opening track “Factory,” with its steely 6/8 rumble, a chilling guitar melody from Spencer and a brutally triumphant chorus, is as strong as anything they’ve ever done. Other highlights, like monolithic half-time groover “Aberration” and the uptempo “Distance,” epitomize the way the band wrings maximum drama out of a few minimal riffs. After all these years, Spencer & Co. are still out for blood. H.S.
Body Count, ‘Bloodlust’
Thanks to today’s uniquely fucked-up cultural climate, the palpable rage at their heart of Body Count’s curdled thrashcore feels more relevant than ever. On the first track alone, Ice-T takes a verbal blowtorch to racism, classism, the press, politicians, police and more while his band unleashes a mudslide behind him. From there, things only get more bleak. There are spoken-word interludes that try for interior exploration, but in truth there’s little looking inward on Bloodlust; it’s all lashing out. Cuts like “No Lives Matter” and “This Is Why We Ride” telegraph that fury and despair, but it’s closing track “Black Hoodie,” a modern-day “Cop Killer” dropping the listener smack in the middle of a senseless slaughter, that feels the most immediate and grim. “I’ve been talking about this shit for over 20 years,” Ice remarks early in the song. “Are you fucking serious?” R.B.
Pyrrhon, ‘What Passes for Survival’
A cyclone of controlled chaos, Brooklyn’s Pyrrhon turn technical death metal into an unpredictable head-boggle – a savage, blown-out bluster where proggy tricks parade around until they sound like sheer abstraction. Full of turn-on-a-dime time changes, jazzbo chops and dissonant, Snakefinger-style guitar solos, Pyrrhon go to gymnastic lengths to sound totally disgusting. The three-part suite “The Unraveling” – “a lament for the version of America that I read about in history and civics books as a kid,” singer Doug Moore told Bandcamp – is a dynamic highlight, mixing math grind, electronic tweaking, blurs of drums and sludge accents. C.W.
It takes either audacity or stupidity to release a self-titled album 30 years into your career. Luckily, Obituary have the guts (and the lyrics about guts) to pull it off. As one of O.G. death metal’s burliest and most churlish bands, the Florida crew stuck to what they did best on Obituary: chunky riffs that groove, gnarled vocals that provide a sweep of sound similar to an analog synth and rat-a-tat machine-gun drumming. Like AC/DC, they found their sound early and have been honing it ever since, inching closer and closer to perfection. They achieved that here on “It Lives,” and its souped-up Sabbath-ian outro, and in the confrontational invective of “End It Now.” K.G.
Bell Witch, ‘Mirror Reaper’
This long-form piece of foggy funeral doom is a wildly ambitious piece of slow-cooking riffs, existing as a single 83-minute track. But Mirror Reaper is more than just a long slog through a mossy forest; the Seattle duo also deal with triumphant and gorgeous melodies, sounding almost like Pallbearer slowed to a zombie lurch. A mellow, snare-free 20-minute stretch amps up the ambience, abetted by vulnerable coo and drummer Jesse Shreibman adding melancholy drones on the Hammond B3 organ. C.W.
Paradise Lost, ‘Medusa’
Nearly three decades since Paradise Lost first announced themselves as
masters of the morose, they’re still plumbing new depths of dejection. Their 15th album, Medusa, is both denser and darker than their gloriously gloomy 2015
offering, The Plague Within, thanks
to guitarist Greg Mackintosh’s plodding riffs – almost always set to a pulse
just above “life support” – and frontman Nick Holmes’ lonesome,
pained growling. In one lyric that captures the mood of the album, he sings,
“Feeling so alive in this hopeless dream,” as the chorus to “The
Longest Winter” – a crushing, psychedelic-tinged song that opens with
the sound of a raven’s caw. It’s like the soundtrack to a psychotic break. K.G.
Power Trip, ‘Nightmare Logic’
Sure, Power Trip like to thrash it up, but the Dallas five-piece’s sophomore effort is no mere battle-jacket-and-high-tops throwback. Rather, Nightmare Logic gathers the band’s source material – hardcore, punk and plenty of Eighties speed metal – and distills it into sharply focused and hooky aggo-blasts. Credit in part the clean, modern production of Arthur Rizk (who also worked on Code Orange’s Forever), which allows every open-string chug to tear through the mix with razor-sharp definition; but also the uncluttered arrangements and gut-punch performances, spiked with plenty of whammy-bar squiggles and gang-vox bellows. And then there’s frontman Riley Gale’s ferociously flabbergasted bark: Rather than trading in straight-up rage, he delivers lines like “You’re waiting around to die/And I can’t fucking stand it!” with something approaching bewildered indignation. R.B.
The industro-metal firebrands’ eighth
LP pairs all the
claustrophobic rage of early triumphs like 1989’s Streetcleaner
and 1992’s Pure with the somewhat serene
sounds of frontman/audial pugilist Justin Broadrick’s late-Aughts shoegazing
alter ego Jesu. The result is an eerie hopelessness that has never sounded as clear
as it does here. The drum machine throughout “No Body” shifts from a persistent rattle to a walloping, out-of-control battering ram by the end of the
song. Elsewhere, the guitar on the instrumental “Mortality Sorrow” grows
more and more ominous until it dissipates into the ether, while the noisy riffing
of “Pre Self” makes Broadrick’s echoey, gnashed-teeth ruminations sound all the angrier as it
adds layer upon layer of static-laden noise. K.G.
Morbid Angel, ‘Kingdoms Disdained’
Morbid Angel torched a quarter century of underground cred with 2011’s Illud Divinum Insanus, an album that combined their signature death-metal bravado with dated industrial beats. Kingdoms Disdained plays like bandleader and sole original member Trey Azagthoth’s savage mea culpa. In 2015, the guitarist parted ways with classic-era frontman David Vincent – now helming his own Morbid Angel repertory project, I Am Morbid – and joined back up with bassist-vocalist Steve Tucker, who appeared on three of the band’s harshest releases in the late Nineties and early Aughts. Tucker and Azagthoth pick up that thread here, conjuring a cyclone of blastbeat-driven fury punctuated with Azagthoth’s signature heaving, lunging grooves and Eddie Van Halen–on-a-bad-trip solos. The album largely avoids the moody dynamics and fist-pumping choruses that made Morbid Angel unlikely Headbangers Ball darlings in the early-to-mid-Nineties, but what it lacks in variety it makes up in sheer chaotic intensity. H.S.
Royal Thunder, ‘Wick’
In many spots on the third full length from Atlanta’s Royal Thunder, the instrument most responsible for bringing the heavy is Mlny Parsonz’s voice: rough, raspy, muscular and capable of conveying vulnerability and tenderness. Her bandmates conjure a sound around her that is similarly shapeshifting. Opener “Burning Tree” unfurls with a snaky riff and trancelike, tambourine-accented percussion; “We Slipped” glides along on a bed of jangly guitars before evaporating in a haze of orchestral strings; and the haunting title track juxtaposes watery picked notes against sheets of feedback and distorted power chords. Then there’s the slow-burning “Plans,” in which every musical element – the clean, strummed guitars; the angelic background vocals; the airy, heavily echoed drums – plays back-up to Parsonz’s searing shriek. Even when they’re not metal, Royal Thunder are still undeniably heavy. R.B.
Oxbow, ‘Thin Black Duke’
On their first album in nearly 10 years, dissonant avant-metal crew Oxbow tighten up their interplay and loosen the distortion, creating a broken indie-pummel not unlike Shudder to Think, Chavez or early Rollins Band. The loose cannon amidst this mix of swinging grooves and odd-angled strings is, of course, singer Eugene Robison, who rasps, yowls, falsettos, whispers and laughs through the storm. C.W.
Arkansas’ Pallbearer have never been much of a conventional doom band, and on their third full length they stray even further from their sludgy roots, leaning harder on shimmering guitars, yearning vocals, downcast prog atmospheres and hooky classic-rockisms. The album’s pleasures, like its sound, are immense, unfurling slowly and deliberately across seven lengthy and expansive cuts. The overall effect is a beautiful melancholia: Guitars ring and chime and snake around one another, voices overlap in pristine harmony, arrangements ebb and flow and eventually swell to gargantuan proportions. If anything, the thick, bowel-shaking distorted chords often feel like they’re there to punctuate, rather than anchor, the music. R.B.
Elder, ‘Reflections of a Floating World’
On their fourth LP, Massachusetts’ Elder prove they’re masters of the dying art of epic-scale rock composition, fully earning their jumbo-size track lengths, lofty lyrics and neo–Roger Dean album art. The key to their appeal is a skillful cherry-picking of around five decades worth of riffy awesomeness – not just the tectonic art-doom of the Neurosis school and the geeky proto–math rock of obscure proggers like Gentle Giant but also the Allman Brothers’ way with a tasty melodic flourish and Hawkwind’s spacey throb. An expert sense of pacing and guitarist Nicholas DiSalvo’s soulful vocal hooks improbably make “Sanctuary,” Reflections‘ 11-minute opener, one of the year’s catchiest metal songs, and the intrigue stays high throughout the LP, even when the band indulges its minimal side on krautrock-y instrumental “Sonntag.” For sheer gatefold-era grandeur, Elder had few rivals in 2017. H.S.
Mastodon, ‘Emperor of Sand’
The great strides Mastodon made on breakthrough albums like Leviathan and Crack the Skye have given way to small tweaks. An ambitious, cancer-inspired narrative framework aside, the band’s seventh LP ends up sounding more like a refinement of its predecessors Once More ‘Round the Sun and The Hunter than a bold next step. Still, everything that has made the Atlanta quartet one of the most beloved heavy bands on earth is here in spades, from raging, dynamic prog-metal (“Sultan’s Curse,” “Ancient Kingdom”) to hooky hard rock à la Queens of the Stone Age (“Show Yourself,” which shows off drummer Brann Dailor’s supple pipes) and an appropriately majestic multipart closer (“Jaguar God”). H.S.
Calling Finnish cult heroes Circle “prolific” would be a humorous understatement (they’ve released more than 30 albums since forming in 1991), and calling the septet “eclectic” would likewise fall short of the mark. Their first release for Southern Lord veers from chugging krautrock grooves to Stooges-style bulldozer riffing to spacey Pink Floyd interludes to Seventies prog-metal excess to Queen-ly pomp-pop without any warning. However it’s all fluid and organic – and especially impressive when the multi-layered assault of the band’s three guitarists kicks in gloriously on “Rakkautta Al Dente,” “Sick Child” and the title track. These guys are very much on their own trip, but it’s an addictive thrill to have a seat on their spacecraft. D.E.
Converge, ‘The Dusk in Us’
Few other hardcore bands have matured as gracefully into something bigger and better than what they started as. The band’s first album in five years and ninth overall, The Dusk in Us, boasts all the savagery of the quartet’s original heyday in the late Nineties but with more drama. Guitarist Kurt Ballou now spaces out his guitar in a way that sets the mood and pummels with metal ferocity, depending on the way frontman Jacob Bannon is shredding his vocal cords at the moment. In “I Can Tell You About Pain,” Ballou and his bandmates dole out a feedback-saturated pile driver of a riff as Bannon yowls, “You don’t know what my pain feels like,” while on the more straightforward goth-rocker “Thousands of Miles Between Us,” they all work in concert as Bannon near-croons about coping with death and emotional distance. Grownup and effortless. K.G.
Code Orange, ‘Forever’
The Pittsburgh hardcore-from-hell outfit delivers state-of-the-art heaviness with its third full-length LP, and its first for storied metal imprint Roadrunner. Befitting drummer/vocalist Jami Morgan’s well-documented love of Nine Inch Nails, Forever thrives on atmosphere as much as aggression. Merciless precision bludgeonings are still the focus – aptly, the band soundtracked the entrance of menacing wrestler Aleister Black at a recent WWE event – but the ominous ambient passages in tracks such as “The Mud” only heighten the album’s thick aura of dread. The most riveting moments belong to guitarist Reba Meyers, who provides eerie melodic vocal turns on “Bleeding in the Blur” and “Dream2” in between the other tracks’ beatdowns. H.S.