It’s a bit trite to say that 2018 was a good year for metal; every year is a good year for metal, if you’re willing to put in the legwork. Yet the range of this year’s crop of great albums is particularly impressive. Metalheads were fortunate enough to get multiple new entrants to the canons of funeral doom, atmospheric black metal, old-school death metal, Euro-style power metal, and more. Each one of the albums below (listed alphabetically) is worth spending the rest of your life getting to know.
When Bay Area heroes Ludicra broke up in 2011, the void they left in the American black metal scene was colossal. Three years later, when Ludicra vocalist Laurie Sue Shanaman and guitarist Christy Cather reemerged in the new band Ails, the expectations were sky-high. Somehow, Ails’ debut album The Unraveling lives up to those expectations. Where John Cobbett’s idiosyncratic guitar was typically in the foreground of Ludicra’s work, it’s Shanaman who commands the spotlight on The Unraveling. She is a zealous prophet of doom on the album, her maniacal voice now unleashed to run rampage over Cather and newcomer Sam Abend’s snaking post-black metal riffage. Ludicra were ahead of their time, exposing a raw nerve in the psyche of the creative class in the fallout of the financial crisis. Now, things are even worse, and Ails press on that nerve until the pain is blinding.
It’s been six long years since New Jersey’s Evoken released Atra Mors, perhaps the best-loved album in the funeral doom band’s peerless discography. The high-concept phantasmagoria that is Hypnagogia was well worth the wait. Lyrically, the album concerns the cursed journal of a dying World War I soldier that transmutes its writer’s suffering onto all who read it. Musically, it’s a daring work of funeral doom classicism that delivers some of strongest songs in Evoken’s discography. The goth-tinged “Valorous Consternation” reasserts My Dying Bride’s place as funeral doom’s foundational text, while the practically-catchy “Ceremony of Bleeding” challenges the notion that the genre is more about atmosphere than songwriting.
No Spirit Within
I think the album I listened to the most this year was Fister’s No Spirit Within. If 2018 had an overall feeling, it was one of visceral disgust, and if visceral disgust has a sound, it’s the drunken, miserable sludge found on No Spirit Within. The album is more than just layers of feedback and sonic filth. The noise is applied judiciously, like drop shadow on a Boschian hellscape. The unsung hero is engineer Gabe Usery, who recorded, mixed, and mastered the album. On a record where ugliness is the goal, it would be easy to let the mix swallow the nuance, but Usery ensures that Kirk Gatterer, Marcus Newstead, and Kenny Snarzyk’s performances shine through. The band display a surprisingly graceful dexterity on the tempo shifts on “Disgraced Possession” and the title track, and every song has at least a couple of riffs that will stick with you. Maybe 2019 will be better, but if it’s not, at least we have Fister to help us wallow.
Burst Into Flame
In its purest form, traditional heavy metal is essentially pop music. (For that truth taken to its logical extreme, see the entire Sunset Strip hair metal scene.) Haunt frontman Trevor William Church understands that better than most, and each of the nine songs on the project’s debut album Burst Into Flame is a Max Martin-level hook delivery machine that speaks in the vernacular of hard rock. The album is pretty airy for much of its duration, but when it occasionally turns wistful, as on “Frozen in Time” and “Can’t Get Back,” it finds a new dimension of emotional depth that Church settles into comfortably. Worth noting: The last band to synthesize the influence of Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, and Blue Öyster Cult into an album this good was Ghost on Opus Eponymous, and now they’re headlining arenas.
Philly’s Horrendous have been steadily evolving since the relatively straight-up death metal of the band’s debut album The Chills. Idol represents the fullest embrace of their progressive tendencies to date. New bassist Alex Kulick deserves a lot of credit for making this latest iteration of the band work so well. His bass is given the leeway to probe the sonic space, and it mostly roams around the edges of the guitar riffs rather than following them note for note. That gives Idol a free jazz feel that echoes the early ’90s work of Death, Atheist, and Cynic. The album’s high point is “Devotion (Blood For Ink),” a prog-death anthem that opens with a single screamed word—“emptiness”—before eventually opening up a void for Kulick’s exploratory basslines and Damien Herring’s recitation of his harrowing body horror lyrics. It’s the sound of Horrendous becoming the band they were meant to be.
The Last Emperor
In the late ’80s, the sound would later become modern Euro-style power metal was basically speed metal with frillier arrangements. That’s the moment in metal history to which Judicator pay homage on their Crusades-set concept album The Last Emperor. Like the early work of Helloween, Running Wild, and Blind Guardian, Judicator’s record spends a lot of time pummeling ahead at warp speed. The challenge for any band playing this fast is to write memorable melodies, and Judicator pull it off. The call-and-response chorus of “Spiritual Treason,” wherein frontman John Yelland trades lines with Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch, is the perfect encapsulation of what The Last Emperor does so well. It’s a sugar rush cut with just enough bitterness to keep it metal.
The Incubus of Karma
When you’re arguably the most acclaimed band in the history of your genre, it can’t be easy to keep raising the bar. Yet that’s exactly what Aussie funeral doom legends Mournful Congregation did on The Incubus of Karma, somehow their very best album, 25 years into their career. All the classic Mournful Congregation hallmarks are here—six songs, four of which crack 15 minutes, and two of which are guitar-led instrumentals. It’s a blueprint you’ll recognize if you’re familiar with their work, but the execution has never been more impressive. “Whispering Spiritscapes” emphasizes the neoclassical elements of the band’s sound, with swirling guitar harmonies bubbling up out of the crushing low end. “The Rubaiyat” is a doom devotional, opening with an organ overture worthy of a 19th century Catholic mass. It was a great year for funeral doom, but Mournful Congregation still managed to separate themselves from the pack.
The debut album by Chicago’s Panegyrist is a work of crazed ambition that borders on religious fervency. That makes sense; project leader Elijah Tamu is a devout Christian with a brilliantly inquisitive mind, and the lyrics on Hierurgy tend to be rigorously theological in nature. The album isn’t merely an intellectual exercise, though. It’s an engrossing, thrilling listen—not to mention one of the most exploratory and genuinely progressive black metal releases in years. “Ophidian Crucifix” might be the most purely enjoyable black metal song of the year, a shredding, wild-eyed 10-minute odyssey in extreme prog that sounds like it could have come from the sessions for Emperor’s Prometheus, if Prometheus had been about devotion to the gods rather than stealing their fire.
The hot streak that Austin Lunn brought into the latest album by his Panopticon project was already unassailable—the bluegrass-tinged Kentucky, the wintry Roads to the North, and atmospheric black metal masterclass Autumn Eternal. He challenged himself to hit a new level with the two-part The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness, which he divided into a “black metal” album and a “country” album, though the lines blur. The result is his best release to date, a two-hour collection of new entries to the American songbook that’s shaggy, but never pompous. The album’s best moments let the metal and Americana sides of Panopticon’s sound freely commingle, as on the strings-accompanied “En Hvit Ravns Død” and the post-metal epic “(Cowering) At the Foot of the Mountain.”
Portal have been making confounding, inscrutable death metal since the ’90s—long before it could be considered even remotely fashionable. Now they belong to a (relatively) crowded subgenre, alongside newer bands like Mitochondrion, Abyssal, and Malthusian who clearly worship their work. ION is Portal’s first album in five years, and having explored the murkiest corners of their sound on albums like Swarth and Outré, they’re now bringing it into the light. As it turns out, that means a lot more guitar skronk to balance out the cavernous low end. It’s still a challenging listen, but far more than in the past, you can clearly hear each layer the band has assembled into these dissonant symphonies.
With Doom We Come
Apart from maybe the Bible (the Satan parts, anyway), no work of literature has inspired more metal bands than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Middle-Earth has been the setting for all of the Austrian black metal duo Summoning’s albums, and their synth-driven, often minimalist songs truly sound like they could be echoing from an Uruk-hai cave. With Doom We Come is another superb entry in the band’s rock-solid discography. Guitarist Protector’s lo-fi tone is still straight out of the ’90s Second Wave, and he and bandmate Silenius have never sounded better as vocal foils for one another. Closing track “With Doom I Come” repurposes a verse of Tolkien’s poem Beren and Lúthien to create what’s arguably the catchiest vocal hook in Summoning’s career.
Manor of Infinite Forms
If you believe that a death metal album is fundamentally only as good as its riffs, then Tomb Mold easily made the death metal album of the year. Every song on Manor of Infinite Forms has, conservatively, 500 perfect riffs. The album has riffs that menace at a doomy crawl, riffs that pummel like a battering ram, riffs that wriggle like serpents, riffs that all-out shred. Fans of early Autopsy will find a lot to love here; Tomb Mold even share their drummer-as-vocalist setup, with Max Klebanoff summoning unearthly death growls while working one of the grooviest kits in modern death metal. But it all comes back to the riffs. If “Abysswalker” doesn’t make you lose your mind, death metal might not be for you.
Patriarchs of Evil
Varathron, along with Rotting Christ and Necromantia, helped bring the Hellenic black metal sound to the world with their early ’90s work. Frontman Stefanos Karasavvas is the only remaining band member from those days, but Varathron is still the standard-bearer for Greek black metal, and Patriarchs of Evil is the band’s best record in two decades. The Hellenic scene is defined by its fusion of black metal tropes to the bombast and melodicism of traditional heavy metal, and on Patriarchs of Evil, Varathron marry the two as successfully as anyone ever has. “Hellwitch (Witches Gathering)” in particular is a stroke of genius, and maybe the closest thing Hellenic black metal has to an arena-rock anthem.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, American true metal has undergone a renaissance in the past few years. Whereas much of the new wave has tended toward the grittier end of that spectrum, Visigoth is stridently polished on their sophomore album, Conqueror’s Oath. A lot of that hi-fi vibe comes from the diaphragm of vocalist Jake Rogers, whose rich baritone is more Royal Opera than Rob Halford. The whole band rise to meet him, though, and these songs show the kind of compositional sophistication that bands like Savatage and Queensrÿche hung their hats on in the ’80s. They lend gravitas even to the goofy Utah tribute “Salt City” and Highlander homage “Outlive Them All.” Conqueror’s Oath is at its best when it embraces its most epic tendencies, and twin highlights “Warrior Queen” and “Traitor’s Gate” earn every bit of their impassioned earnestness.
Dorthia Cottrell’s powerhouse voice has always been the most compelling element of the Virginia doom band Windhand’s sound. On Eternal Return, the first album the band wrote after her debut solo album, she’s finally been given a batch of songs that fully plays to her strengths. Cottrell is a devout fan of ’90s alt-rock and grunge (she name-dropped Dinosaur Jr., Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Melvins when I interviewed her earlier this year), and those influences creep into Eternal Return on bangers like “Grey Garden,” “Diablerie,” and “Red Cloud.” On “Eyeshine” and “Feather,” the band stretch the runtimes into the double digits, something they’ve done to mixed success in the past. This time around, the results are stunning. Cottrell’s confident voice is set at the center, the droning low end and Sabbath-worshiping riffs orbiting around her like moons.