Here it is, metalheads: our take on the best metal albums of 2014. It’s been a righteous year in metal, and 10 picks weren’t quite enough. So in the spirit of the genre, our list goes to 11.
We listened for albums with a unique musical point of view, for fresh ideas that stand out from a crowd of trends. We looked for superior skill tempered by musicality. We listened to many, many hours of heavy metal. Without further ado, here’s the best of the best.
11. Piano Nights, Bohren and Der Club of Gore
This is the choice on our list that’s most likely to piss people off. “That’s not metal!” you might protest. We beg to differ. Bohren achieve with sax, piano, vibraphone, bass, and synths what doom bands create with more typical rock instruments. The band was founded by four German musicians who started out playing hardcore music, and their dark influences are quickly identifiable. This patient, minimalistic novelty proves you don’t have to wail on guitar or blast-beat the drums to evoke a metal mood. There’s a pensive gloom to this album that’s like a dense fog: It’s not hard, but it’s definitely heavy.
10. Cursed to See the Future, Mortals
2014 has been the breakout year for Brooklyn’s all-female power trio with their crushing first full-length LP. This record gets better with every listen, as the tunes refuse to be pigeonholed into one neat little metal subgenre. “Blackened sludge” is our best attempt to label this thunderous fare. There’s a delightful yin-yang contrast among the band members (whose live sets are ferociously tight); Caryn Havlik may be the smiliest drummer in metal, while bassist/vocalist Lesley Wolf and guitarist Elizabeth Cline are stoic counterparts. They infuse their tunes with a similar feeling of opposing forces that create the mysterious balance that sets this record apart.
9. Labyrinth Constellation, Artificial Brain
To call this technical death metal album challenging would be putting it mildly. It is extreme in every way, from the postmodern guitar melodies to the subterranean vocals, from the dystopian lyrics to the overwhelming difficulty of the compositions. From start to finish, the album offers the head-trip density you’d expect from elite guitarist Dan Gargiulo (of Revocation) with Colin Marston recording, mixing, and mastering. The chops on this record make it impossible not to include on this list, but perhaps the only thing aesthetically “pleasant” about it is the album art by Paolo Girardi. Not for the faint of heart.
8. Slaves to the Grave, Rigor Mortis
The first album in 23 years by thrash band Rigor Mortis is both a comeback and a swan song. Lead guitarist Mike Scaccia died suddenly onstage in 2012 but had laid down the final tracks for a new record just days before he passed. The remaining band members ran an IndieGoGo campaign to fund the album’s release, and the result is a moving memorial to Scaccia’s legacy. The tremendous guitar solos here frequently span two minutes; they could stand alone as songs unto themselves. The passion of Scaccia’s playing is best captured in the final third of “Blood Bath,” in the solo that begins at 4:26 and stretches to the end of the song. Such moments suggest Scaccia may have been one of the most under-praised talents in metal, and certainly one of the greatest losses in the last 10 years.
7. Stranger, Cretin
Bay Area, CA
Sneaking in at the end of 2014 (the release date was December 9) is this monster of an album, Cretin’s first in eight years. Stranger harks back to classic, ’80s-era death metal, when bands like Napalm Death and Bolt Thrower were just cutting their teeth. Even the production sounds reverently retro, like a 25-year-old relic that might have crawled out of Scott Burns’s now-defunct death metal studio in Tampa. Rather than feeling anachronistic, this music reminds us of what made those early years of extreme metal so great: savage aggression and speed, speed, speed.
6. Omnipresent, Origin
Here is technical death metal at its most punishing. We’re tempted to describe this album as barely music — and mean it as a compliment. It’s more like what you might expect to hear if a group of power tools formed a choir. As hammering as mechanized construction outside your window on a Saturday morning, Omnipresent can be downright infuriating if you’re in the wrong mood. Good luck concentrating on anything else with this barrage of sweep picking and percussive micro-precision in your ears. Still, you have to respect music this brutal. It’s like the Carolina Reaper pepper of metal: Some people just enjoy pain.
The top 5 are on the next page.[
5. The Beast of Left and Right, Lazer/Wulf
Atlanta and Athens, GA
Sometimes math-happy bands get so heady they cease to be fun; fortunately, that’s not the case with Lazer/Wulf. You can easily headbang to this album, which strikes the right symmetry of unpredictable yet groovy. Drummer Brad Rice lends a jazzy touch, and there’s a delicacy to his playing that stands out in quieter passages. Bassist Sean Peiffer and guitarist Bryan Aiken are as locked in with each other as two human beings can be without being conjoined twins. But the secret ingredient on this record comes from the subtle sense of place you get from so many of Georgia’s terrific metal groups. Like a dish of Southern comfort food, they’ve got soul.
4. Blissfucker, Trap Them
Boston, MA and Seattle, WA
Noise! Bedlam! Rage! Every description of this record should include an exclamation point to aptly express the ferocity of these tunes. Trap Them bring youthful punk energy to their grindcore/metal mash-up in this high-spirited assault on the senses. The album begins deceptively slowly before ramping up into a 47-minute attack of dissonance battling for dominance over power chords. Ryan McKenney is a firecracker of a frontman who probably shouldn’t have a voice box left in his throat by the end of this. This record is more than just a beast of an effort: It’s hella fun to rock out to.
3. The Joy of Motion, Animals as Leaders
Guitar phenom Tosin Abasi is only 31 years old, but he plays with the wisdom of a seasoned artist. This instrumental album shows off the limitless versatility both of Abasi and of metal by exploring prog, jazz, and funk inspirations. The metal here is of a gentler sort, elastic but never simple, as all three of the musicians in this band have attained a skill level that would seem inhuman if not for the sensitivity in their playing. The record leads the listener on a journey through cinematic soundscapes, heightened by tasteful uses of synths and a diverse range of guitar tones. In a genre marked by aural abrasion, The Joy of Motion provides a welcome haven of relative tranquility.
2. The Mother of Virtues, Pyrrhon
We chose Pyrrhon as this year’s Best New York Metal Band, and this album had a lot to do with it. Experimental, technical, and wholly original in style, the record also has the rare asset (in metal) of literary-caliber lyrics. Over the well-organized chaos of the music, vocalist Doug Moore delivers poetry like he’s out to terrorize a spoken-word open-mic night. The Mother of Virtues is art rock at maximum intensity. It takes a long, hard look at the often ugly experience of living in New York and sets it to music created with the same uncompromising courage required to survive here.
1. Obsolescence, Abysmal Dawn
Los Angeles, CA
Abysmal Dawn have been cranking out respectable albums for eight years, but this one should place them squarely at the forefront of the metal world’s collective awareness, if not make them a household name. At a time when it’s trendy in death metal to be “technical” 100 percent of the time, guitarist and vocalist Charles Elliot remains committed to writing catchy grooves — and succeeds in doing so on every single song. The technical flare appears during solos (shared by Elliot and co-guitarist Andy Nelson), which are tirelessly inventive, revealing a virtuosity unleashed from the restraint shown in crafting melodic riffs. (It’s worth noting that these daring, high-wire solos are not just studio feats; Abysmal Dawn replicate them live, too.) Interwoven are lyrics examining modern society through a cynical lens, coupled with a feeling of trepidation toward where we’re headed. Their outlook may be bleak, but the future looks bright for this band. This is the closest thing to a perfect metal album that you will hear this year.
Blind Rage, Accept
Death Mask, Lord Mantis
Blood Mantra, Decapitated
Clearing the Path to Ascend, YOB
Sacred White Noise, Thantifaxath
Lies We Live, Sveffer
Constricting Rage of the Merciless, Goatwhore
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