This year was a waking nightmare, for reasons too numerous and too upsetting to mention here. Not coincidentally, metal sounded really good this year. Metal has always been a genre for a world gone mad, even when its practitioners don’t deliberately address the social issues of the day. The best metal albums of this year certainly weren’t written with our current political hellscape in mind, but they’ve nonetheless been necessary when the world has become overwhelming. The list below contains pure escapism, righteous anger, violent fantasies, utter despair, cautious hope. These albums served as the perfect soundtrack for a year of unhinged chaos—and, sometimes, they even managed to make us feel a little bit better.
[This list is ranked, counting down from #10 – #1 —ed.]
Dungeon Crawler is an album that depicts “a warrior transported through a dimensional doorway into a world of barbarism and arcane magick” (Legendry’s words), and also features the lyric “Heavy metal / Rock ’n’ roll / Yeah, yeah” on the badass “Quest for Glory.” That’s the contrast at play on the Pittsburgh trio’s sophomore LP, a pulpy swords-and-sorcery romp inspired by Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock that’s as comfortable employing soaring bombast as it is dirty hard rock. The underground U.S. trad metal bands Manilla Road and Cirith Ungol form much of the foundation for Legendry’s sound, but they’ve taken that blueprint and made it their own.
Legendry’s songwriting prowess is undeniable on the 10-minute, album-opening title track, which unfolds across three distinct, yet seamlessly-flowing, movements. “The Edge of Time” is a perfect closer, trading the crunching main riffs found on much of the album for a triumphant, lyrical lead guitar—the sonic embodiment of the Valhalla our warrior reaches at the end of his dungeon crawl. The songs between those bookends tend to lean into the more muscular side of the band’s sound, and they’re equally compelling. Legendry is a band on the rise, and the fact that they’ve already made a record this good is downright scary.
The Great Fish
When sludge/post-metal crew Giant Squid went on indefinite hiatus in 2015, the resulting hole in the heavy music landscape was devastating. The band’s commitment to boundary-pushing weirdness made them cult heroes in an often-staid scene for more than a decade, and their demise felt like the end of an era. Thankfully, it only took two years for Squalus to rise out of the ashes, seemingly fully-formed. They sound totally self-assured on debut album The Great Fish, which is as gloriously bonkers as Giant Squid’s best work.
First things first—all of the lyrics on The Great Fish are taken from Peter Benchley’s screenplay for Jaws. That, naturally, means your mileage may vary. For the sake of argument, let’s say you consider Jaws one of the greatest American films ever made. (It is.) If that’s the case, The Great Fish is a massive accomplishment, an avant-garde metal album that pays reverent homage to its source material while exploring it in an entirely new way. Frontman Aaron Gregory bellows like Quint and preens like Hooper over churning sludge riffs and bursts of prog rock keyboard. The album traces the arc of the movie, but it takes liberties with tone and pacing that make the listener reconsider even its most famous scenes. It’s both literary criticism and fan fiction; a brilliant dissertation on a classic film and a fun-as-hell metal album that can stand on its own. Not a bad record for this vicinity.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
Walpyrgus is what happens when kids raised on Mountain Dew and horror comics start a power metal band. Walpyrgus Nights, the North Carolina band’s debut full-length, is pure bliss—a fully optimized hook delivery device, positively giddy with sugar rush energy. These songs were designed to pump dopamine directly into the listener’s brain. What that ultimately reads as is power metal, but the Church of Walpyrgus is staunchly polytheistic. Helloween’s influence is evident, to be sure, but Walpyrgus Nights has been touched by the hands of Iron Maiden, Blue Öyster Cult, Misfits, and basically anyone else who’s managed to get a heavy song to sound like a pop song.
An album like this only works if it’s compulsively relistenable. Fortunately, this one is. Guitarists Charley Shackelford and Scott Waldrop bring enough grit to their riffs and twin leads to balance Jonny Aune’s buoyant vocals, and the rhythm section of guitarist Jim Hunter and drummer Peter Lemieux provide the rock solid backbone all great pop music deserves. If one American power metal act deserves to break into the mainstream, it’s these guys.
Red Before Black
Reliability isn’t an especially sexy trait in a band, but for longtime heads, metal comfort food can be just as satisfying as any plate of meat and potatoes. Cannibal Corpse has been serving up (human) meat and potatoes as good as anybody’s for the past 30 years, and Red Before Black is one of the death metal legends’ greatest triumphs to date. If anything by a band who made a song “I Cum Blood” can be called “mature,” this is it: An impossibly tight, ruthlessly executed bloodbath that will rip your throat out without ever overextending itself.
Red Before Black feels like the album Cannibal Corpse has been building toward since the 2006 release of the career-revitalizing Kill—their first to chart since 1996, and the beginning of a still-unbroken streak. It’s certainly the most successful synthesis of songwriting, performance, and production since Kill and, perhaps, in their entire discography. It boasts three songs that should become live staples: “Only One Will Die,” “Code of the Slashers,” and the title track. George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher’s growl hasn’t aged a day in 21 years. So, no: Cannibal Corpse hasn’t done anything surprising in a long time. But Red Before Black asks why in the hell you would want them to.
T-Shirt/Apparel, Vinyl LP
If you’ve enjoyed a dissonant, noisy, chaotic, or otherwise fucked-up-sounding death metal album that’s come out in the last 25 years, the odds are good that its makers were inspired by Incantation. Their debut LP, Onward to Golgotha, continues to echo through death metal’s caverns, and its influence has yielded some truly great records in recent years, by artists all over the world. That makes it all the more remarkable that the best band doing Incantation worship right now is Incantation.
Profane Nexus is classic Incantation, on par with Golgotha and fan favorite Diabolical Conquest. Founder and frontman John McEntee is absolutely on fire on this album, his riffs as demented as expected, and his vocals as strong as they’ve ever been. “Muse” and “Rites of the Locust” are two of the best songs the band has ever written, and they’re essentially warning shots, brilliant but relatively orthodox in the context of the back catalogue. McEntee and co. are toying with the competition by the time they get to the transition from the crawling funeral doom dirge “Incorporeal Despair” to the minute-long, ludicrous speed ripper “Xipe Totec.” It’s time for Incantation’s disciples to step it up.
Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
You weren’t misled: Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper is, in fact, a difficult listen. If you’ve heard anything about it, it’s probably that 1.) it’s a single 83-minute song, and 2.) founding member Adrian Guerra died while the band was making it. Those are critical pieces of information, but once you’ve listened to the album a few times, they start to recede. “Difficult” gives way to “rewarding,” which ultimately gives way to “essential.” There simply isn’t another experience in metal akin to listening to Mirror Reaper. Dylan Desmond and Jesse Shreibman have made a new kind of metal album, one that has more in common with Mark Rothko and Béla Tarr than it does with Black Sabbath.
Mirror Reaper is, at its core, a meditation on grief. Even if it wasn’t conceived that way, Guerra’s passing ensured it would be. At times, it feels eternal, Desmond’s bass leaving vast spaces between its notes, Shreibman’s drums nearly silent. Other times, it sounds like a dam of tears bursting open. Funeral doom has always been death-obsessed, but it’s never truly grappled with the void it leaves the way Bell Witch does here. Death is never easy. Desmond and Shreibman made it exactly as difficult as it’s supposed to be.
Immersion Trench Reverie
Even when it’s not explicitly marketed as “atmospheric black metal,” most truly great black metal derives its power from the atmosphere it creates. Brothers Will and Sam Skarstad of Yellow Eyes are genius-level conjurers of worlds, but they aren’t content to stick to the tropes that govern atmospheric black metal in the established sense. Immersion Trench Reverie sees the brothers transforming their experiences—and field recordings—from a trip to Siberia into, yes, an immersive sonic realm.
Yellow Eyes are far too musically adventurous to be accused of orthodoxy, but one of Immersion Trench Reverie’s strengths is the common thread it maintains with Norwegian Second Wave black metal, which remains the genre’s blueprint. The Skarstads’ riffs are always within a few degrees of classic black metal, and that provides the foundation that enables their boldest experiments. Here, that means a thrilling indifference to conventional song structure, and a wholehearted embrace of sounds outside of the typical metal band instrument palette. Chimes, chants, and barking dogs are every bit as important to the world of Immersion Trench Reverie as guitars, drums, and bass. It’s a cold, unforgiving world, but it’s one you’ll want to live in for a long time nonetheless.
Compact Disc (CD)
Pallbearer’s debut album, Sorrow and Extinction, was an unmitigated critical success. The Arkansas doom band easily could have just rewritten it a few times and the praise would have kept rolling in. So it’s truly incredible how much they’ve continued to expand and refine their sound, first on sophomore LP Foundations of Burden, and now on Heartless. While Heartless is still recognizably a melodic doom metal record, it seamlessly incorporates elements of dream pop, prog rock, and shoegaze, making this the biggest Pallbearer album to date. Singer/guitarist Brett Campbell’s vocals, though always impressive, used to sit low in the mix, seemingly a consequence of his tentative presence behind the microphone. Now Campbell is at the very center of the songs. His confidence as a singer seems to have had a liberating effect on the rest of the band, who are now free to wander on long excursions away from the main riff. It gives the songs on Heartless a looseness Pallbearer has never had before.
The album’s high water mark is “A Plea for Understanding.” It’s the longest, most emotionally resonant song Pallbearer has ever written, and it sees them unlock a whole new level of power. At first, it’s patient and methodical. Vocals don’t enter until the 4:30 mark, and by then, the song has long since worked its hooks into the listener’s brain. Once the first wave comes, they just keep crashing, making a tune that started with a lonely, delicate guitar line into a maximalist, Floydian epic. At the song’s climax, Campbell reaches for the highest part of his register to belt the line “These feelings are real.” You’ll be too choked up to say it’s on the nose.
Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, Attic really loves King Diamond, and it might seem odd to rank a band whose entire sound is based on one main influence this high on a list of the best albums of the year. But what else can you do when the student makes a record better than all but one or two of the teacher’s? Sanctimonious is the album King Diamond fans have been waiting for since Conspiracy, and it represents an enormous leap up in every way from Attic’s debut, The Invocation. That album was essentially the sound of a tribute band with chops set loose in the studio. Sanctimonious is a full-fledged masterpiece.
Meister Cagliostro is the band’s stand-in for the King, and the things he does with his voice on Sanctimonious are just astonishing. His falsettos, mids, and growls are all crystal clear, and the ease with which he transitions between them on the album’s many vocal hooks is remarkable. Sanctimonious tells a classic gothic horror story—cloistered abbey, unwanted pregnancy, demon possession, grisly bloodbath—and the band is more than happy to play up the theatricality inherent in the premise. The riffs are all epics in miniature, and every song has about a million of them. Many of us first came to metal—or, indeed, sided with metal over punk—for its over-the-top escapism. Sanctimonious is for us.
Compact Disc (CD)
Not only is Power Trip’s scorching second LP the best metal album of 2017, it’s also the one that feels like the most appropriate response to the world burning down around us. Across eight tracks and 33 minutes, the Dallas thrashers never let their foot off the gas. The songs on Nightmare Logic are offerings of righteous fury, pointed not specifically at Trump or Congress but at failed institutions, empty promises, pathetic apathy, and religious hypocrisy. They also happen to totally shred. Every riff is so tight it sounds like it was created in a thrash laboratory, and every breakdown holds the key to mankind’s mosh pit lizard brain. These are songs that will make you want to take to the streets, but you’ll want to be rigged up to the Doof Wagon from Mad Max: Fury Road when you go.
For longtime followers, there’s some borrowed nostalgia in seeing Power Trip conquer the metal world as a thrash band. It feels like a small-scale version of being a fan of Slayer before Reign in Blood, or Metallica before Master of Puppets, and watching their subsequent domination. What Power Trip is doing now feels more impressive, given the fractured nature of metal fandom and the music press. Metalheads should be so lucky as to have a band with this much fire in their bellies as a unifying force. See you in the streets.