Metal thrived in 2018, as bands from every imaginable genre, subgenre and microgenre tapped into deep wells of anger and disappointment for some of the most stunning heavy albums in years. Doomsters Sleep, Yob and Windhand stretched out their malice; black metal purveyors Immortal and Deafheaven supercharged it with labyrinthine melodies; extreme death dealers like Tomb Mold and Portal crushed it and compacted it; and metal legends Judas Priest rained hellfire down upon it. There were so many strong releases that some projected favorites, like Ghost and High on Fire, ranked too low on our critics’ ballots to make the cut. Here are 2018’s heaviest hitters.
On their second album, these Detroit screamers mixed the sunnier side of blackgaze with the harsh yowls of vintage hardcore, the cheery fuzz of electro-noize and the triumphant melodies of Hüsker Dü. Converge drummer Ben Koller anchored this sweep of smiley scuzz with pummel, and he told Modern Drummer he didn’t know there’d be a jet engine of art-hardcore on top of it. “The Armed had sent Kurt [Ballou] demos for the record and made him tell me they were Converge songs so that I’d start learning them,” he said. “So essentially, I was conned into playing on this album. I was so taken aback by these weird tactics that I just went with it.” C.W.
Deceased are a relic of a different era, when immersive storytelling and cinematic drama were highly prized traits in heavy metal. On their eighth LP, the Virginia vets, going strong since the mid-Eighties, reaffirmed their commitment to epic-scale, narrative-driven songs that reconcile Maiden-esque melody with thrash-like speed and grindcore-style grit. Frontman and bandleader King Fowley plays the maniacally charismatic ringleader, bellowing out tales of a murderous matriarch, a killer on the prowl at Christmastime and even a time-traveling Poe fanatic, all accented with guitarist Mike Smith’s eerily anthemic leads. (Sadly the album is the final recorded work from drummer Dave Castillo, who died just days before its release.) Ghostly White is another meaty, trend-oblivious statement from a treasure of the American underground. H.S.
At the Gates will never top their 1995 blasterpiece, Slaughter of the Soul, but it’s sure fun to hear them try. Their sixth LP overall and second since reuniting in 2010 presents 12 variations on Slaughter’s charging, gut-rattling riffs and cutting solos — but what makes it a standout is how fun it is. Who else can take a cornball phrase like “To Drink From the Night Itself” and turn it into a ripping death-metal party anthem? It doesn’t even sound all that cheesy. And that goes for equally goofy concepts like “Daggers of Black Haze” (a gothic, plodding midtempo killer) and “A Labyrinth of Tombs” (a galloping battle cry). Nearly three decades after they formed, they’ve found their vibe and they’re sticking to it. K.G.
Perhaps the world’s harshest math-metal band in the wake of Dillinger Escape Plan’s retirement, this Scottish splatter-calculus crew upped the ante with blown-out production and guitar squiggles that sound like Melt-Banana’s laser noises. Unloved — their first album with a drummer — was a hailstorm where time-signature confusion meets shrill noise-rock affects. C.W.
While the beastly growls of Tomb Mold’s drummer-vocalist, Max Klebanoff, might align the group with death metal, what made the Toronto quartet’s second full-length so thrilling was the riffs: the grotesque crunch, stomp, whine and heave that occupy nearly every second of these seven lengthy tracks. Whirlwind blastbeats are a key part of the band’s attack, but every speed burst comes matched with a swaggering breakdown, rendered all the more massive by the absurdly girthy production of noted underground-metal whisperer Arthur Rizk. Call it whatever you want: This record simply rocks. H.S.
The second album from Bristol gob-spitters Idles is a blast of Gang of Four’s arch, pointed post-punk played with the brutal heft of bands like Converge. Explicitly political but addled by media and irony, they take on the macho world with a middle finger and a raised eyebrow. Anti-sexist, anti-Brexit, anti-hate, Joy is both raging party and venom vent, sparkling with lines like “I’m like Stone Cold Steve Austin/I put homophobes in coffins” (“Colossus”) and “This snowflake’s an avalanche” (“I’m Scum”). The album’s vulnerable core spreads to a Birthday Party–ish cover of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.” C.W.
Eugene, Oregon, lurchers Yob have always subverted doom metal’s bleak conventions, painting the genre’s slowpoke churn with uplifting melodies, cosmic textures and leader Mike Scheidt’s existential howl like a dream-pop Dio. Our Raw Heart leaned into the mid-2000s rainbow repetition of bands like Jesu, Isis and Pelican — even sounding a bit like Glenn Branca’s guitar symphonies by album’s end. Literally written from a hospital bed while Scheidt recovered from a ruptured colon, a seizure and a staph infection, Our Raw Heart was no Bergman film. Instead it was a gushing affirmation of self and the feel-good deathbed record of the summer. C.W.
Portal’s visual aesthetic is insane: The members of the Brisbane band take the stage clad in robes, masks, nooses and, in the case of vocalist the Curator, all manner of bizarre headpieces, including a papal mitre and an ornate grandfather clock. Improbably, their music is weirder still: a violent collision of angry-bee-swarm guitars, drums that alternately stumble and hurtle, and rasped vocals that sound like the ravings of a mad deity. Portal’s fifth full-length featured their clearest recorded sonics to date, and fortunately, their demented aural creations make no more rational sense than before. Some metal strives to make you bang your head or pump your fist; but like a horror movie where the killer’s motives are never explained, Ion’s nine tracks — which include ominous abstract intro “Nth,” deep-in-the-red noise-metal onslaught “Spores” and a ghostly scratchy-record outro at the end of “Olde Guarde” — are seemingly designed only to induce dread and dislocation. Good luck looking away. H.S.
Windhand wade lithely through their signature murk on fourth album Eternal Return, a departure from the high-flying necromancy of the Virginia doom outfit’s 2018 split with Satan’s Satyrs. Producer Jack Endino, best known for safeguarding the raw grit of Nirvana’s Bleach, takes a delicate sander to the sludge-fest, keeping bassist Parker Chandler’s every plunk and thud from receding into the mist. Vocalist Dorthia Cottrell commands with cool asides; her smoldering bellow hangs spectrally above the surface of the band’s swamp-gazing dirges. “Won’t you suffer through the year/Dead and dreaming of the water?” she sings in the damning opener “Halcyon” — her voice taking on a tinge of brimstone when she adds, “I wish you would.” S.E.
Imagine Thin Lizzy reborn as a shred-happy Eighties metal band and you’ll get a good sense of the staunchly retro, unabashedly over-the-top appeal of Haunt. The brainchild of guitarist, singer and songwriter Trevor William Church — whose dad played bass for Montrose back in the day and who also leads the more Sabbath-indebted Beastmaker — the band specializes in the kind of songs that would sound kitschy if they weren’t so sturdily built and righteously catchy. And the band’s debut didn’t just nail the flash and fury of the era they emulate, as on the relentless, worthy-of-its name title track; on songs like “Reflectors” and “My Mirage,” they also tapped into a subtler sort of world-weary pathos. This is the stuff denim-vest back-patch dreams are made of. H.S.
The discipline-and-punish ethos of Uniform’s third full-length mirrors the internal turmoil of frontman Michael Berdan, a lapsed-and-reborn Catholic struggling to reconcile his altruistic values with the Church’s tarnished legacy. Steered by Berdan’s grisly squalls and the prickly guitar work of Ben Greenberg, the Brooklyn noise-metalists wean themselves off the stony austerity of their drum-machine–powered prior releases and recruit Liturgy drummer Greg Fox to cram the space with blown-out flesh-and-blood brutality. The record closes with a drone-laden meditation, but clearly the battle rages on. S.E.
Renowned for their anarchic live shows, Baltimore hardcore punks Turnstile opened the pit to a broader range of sounds and collaborators on their refreshingly free-form major-label debut. The band borrows from the Nirvana playbook on garage-rock shredder “Moon” and shyly flashes a freak flag on slinky jazz interludes “Bomb” and “Disco.” Longtime fan Diplo makes an understated cameo on “Right to Be,” his synths splashing neon onto Turnstile’s concrete political protest. Hardcore purists may bristle, but Time & Space offers fans new and old some room to breathe. S.E.
Voivod took an improbable leap forward with 2013’s Target Earth, recapturing some of the sci-fi–inspired weirdness that made them heroes to fans of left-field metal back in the Eighties. This follow-up was even better. New chief songwriter Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain, who replaced the band’s late founding guitarist “Piggy,” touched on the many facets of Voivod’s sound over the years, from hard-grooving postpunk to brain-bending prog and skewed yet sunny art-pop. Meanwhile, vocalist Denis “Snake” Bélanger delved deep into the rich dystopian narratives that have always made the band feel like a musical universe unto itself. The result was the year’s most gloriously geeky feat of heavy-metal escapism. H.S.
Immortal had a lot to prove on this comeback effort, their first album in nine years and first ever without longtime vocalist-bassist Abbath, who split in 2015 following a trademark dispute. But with guitarist and vocalist Demonaz, who hadn’t actually played on an Immortal album since 1997, taking the reins, the black-metal heavyweights delivered a no-frills rager, filled with anthemic riffs, relentless speed and their signature frosty imagery. Songs like the buzzsaw title track and “Gates to Blashyrkh,” with its eerie, clean-toned guitar work and old-school heavy-metal might, sounded like new classics from veterans intent on reasserting their dominance. H.S.
Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Nü-Metal Revival? Whereas the legacies left by alumni of Dischord or Earache still carry a certain level of prestige for hardcore bands in 2018, Nineties alt-metal has gotten a bad rap since its inception. But Boston five-piece Vein seem up for a challenge: Their debut LP borrows as much from the techno resistance of digital-hardcore forebears Atari Teenage Riot as from the bass-heavy dissonance of the Headbangers Ball class of 2003, matching breakdowns with breakbeats. Vein cherry-pick the best of both scenes and fashion a metallic glitch monster from the entrails. “I will not deny what I cannot delete,” yawps frontman Anthony DiDio in closer “Quitting Infinity,” a poetic conclusion to the Frankencore opus that is Errorzone. “Please rewrite me.” S.E.
After 2015’s middling, ultra-metallic New Bermuda, Deafheaven got their groove back on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, which contains seven doses of heartbreaking acrimony set to glorious post-rock balladry and crushing, quasi–black-metal riffage. It’s the unusual commingling of light and heavy that makes the LP compelling — opener “You Without End” is like Billy Joel trying prog rock while the next track, “Honeycomb,” is a blur of tremulous extreme rage with the occasional Beatles rip-off riff thrown in for good measure. Each track is its own melting pot of hard-rock subgenres, and in Kerry McCoy’s guitar lines there’s a certain joy that serves as a counterpoint to all of singer George Clarke’s hopelessness. It’s maximalism at its most nuanced. K.G.
A little more than a decade has passed since System of a Down reached their creative stalemate, and the band still has no current plans to make a new album. So Dictator, by guitarist-vocalist Daron Malakian’s side project Scars on Broadway, filled a gap for fans of the band’s manic, skittery punk-metal this year. Lead track “Lives” is a danceable, hook-filled ode to survivors of genocide, while the down-tempo “Talkin’ Shit” is the sort of groovy, heavy hippie-stoner freak-out that Malakian specializes in. The fact that the album ends with what sounds like metal’s answer to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” — the disco-imbued “Assimilate” — is just another welcome reminder of all the punky celebrations we’ve been missing out on all these years. K.G.
Judas Priest may be heavy metal’s most interesting comeback story of 2018, simply because they never went anywhere. They’ve had ups and downs creatively since the late Sixties, but no one could have expected their 18th album, Firepower, to sound this fresh and vibrant. Founding guitarist K.K. Downing split in 2011, and his foil, Glenn Tipton — who plays brilliantly on the LP — announced he wouldn’t be touring with the band due to Parkinson’s. Nevertheless, Judas Priest sound anything but tired on Firepower: Frontman Rob Halford sings his tales of specters, necromancers and the ruins of war with more gusto than on the group’s prior record, 2014’s Redeemer of Souls, and the band plays with true bloodlust throughout, recalling their crushing work on 1990’s Painkiller and the melody of 1978’s Stained Class. “Flame Thrower,” the title track and “Never the Heroes” all scream with vengeance like classic Priest, but they also sound thick and modern — not like the work of a band entering its 50th year. K.G.
Close to two decades since Daughters first erupted in a burst of explosive grindcore on Canada Songs, their reunion LP, You Won’t Get What You Want, captures a darker, more shadowy side of the group. Each track builds slowly, reveling in noise and unusual rhythms, as frontman Alexis Marshall moans and croaks about disillusionment and uneasiness. It’s like a unique combo of noise-mongers the Jesus Lizard and art-punks the Birthday Party — but so much heavier — as the group seems to experience a nervous breakdown on tracks like the dirge-like “Long Road No Turns” and plodding “The Reason They Hate Me.” They may have ditched the more obvious metal influences, but there’s a sense of menace throughout the record that reflects their past through a glass darkly. K.G.
In the nearly two decades since Sleep’s last album — the monolithic, single-track odyssey Dopesmoker — they’ve gone from underground heroes to stoner-metal legends. So when they surprise-released The Sciences on 4/20 (of course), the happy shock was just how great it sounded. After three minutes of unwieldy feedback riffing, dubbed “The Sciences” (duh), you hear vocalist-bassist Al Cisneros take a bong hit like Popeye downing spinach, and the trio kicks into a chunky, plodding groove on “Marijuanaut’s Theme.” Each of the album’s tracks is a deep dive into a hesher shadow realm where Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi is God (he’s namechecked on the Sabbath-punning “Giza Butler”) and time is only a construct. Guitarist Matt Pike, who also put out an excellent High on Fire album this year, plays measured, wah-wah–inflected solos, drummer Jason Roeder keeps everything on track and Cisneros spaces out, singing his fantasies in a gloriously stoned monotone. It’s a mood, man. Don’t question it. K.G.