2017 was a surprising year for me, at least on a musical level. I went into the year with really high expectations for a whole range of albums I knew were on their way, but actually very few of them really connected with me in the way I hoped they would; they were often good, or very good, even, but lacked that special something that makes an album great. Perhaps my expectations were too high given how phenomenal so many albums released in 2016 were. But on the other hand, I found myself surprised and delighted by so many albums about which I really did not have the highest of hopes, either simply because I wasn’t familiar with the band, or because I wasn’t particularly impressed with their previous output. I also spent much of the year returning to old favourites, and exploring older albums by bands both active and long-since defunct. So it was a year of surprises for me, both good and bad.
If you read my end-of-year list for 2016, I hope you already understand that when I write these lists, factors like commercial success or widespread critical acclaim have absolutely no influence here. I’m not interested in turning this blog into a trendy indie haven, nor am I interested in holding up deeply mediocre albums as though they were masterpieces merely because the band is popular or ‘legendary’. Authentic, true artistic and musical quality is all that matters, whether a debut or veteran band, and I see it as my task to be as honest with my readers as I can. Regardless of whether you agree with my list, I hope you find something in it that you enjoy.
Before I go on to the list I want to take a moment to celebrate some of the smaller releases of the year which nonetheless deserve their moment in the spotlight.
Sinmara‘s EP “Within the Weaves of Infinity” was one of the truly standout releases of the year for me, besting many full-length albums. This Icelandic black metal band have been a favourite of mine for many years now, and their 2014 debut album “Aphotic Womb” remains one of my all-time favourite metal albums, but to see the way they’ve developed since then is really something.
The precision and subtle melodic phrasing in the guitarwork is just stunning, and the way they’ve managed to grow and develop their own unique style as something which stands apart from their characteristic Icelandic and French influences is so impressive. I eagerly await their second full-length album due out next year. American death-doom band Void Terror‘s demo “Soul Harvest” stands out as one of the most impressive debut demos I’ve ever heard. It’s essentiall listening for all fans of grimy death-doom. And Svartidauði came through with yet another extremely strong EP this year, a perfect teaser for their second full-length album due out next year.
There were also a number of really solid albums which deserve a shout-out. We got some truly fantastic death metal albums through Necrot, Spectral Voice, Father Befouled, and Undergang. I do want to take a moment to highlight the albums by those four bands as some of the very best death metal of the year.
Beyond that, Power Trip delivered a very strong crossover thrash album in “Nightmare Logic“; Elder explored influences from even further afield with their stoner rock/sludge record “Reflections of a Floating World“, and Converge delivered a solid album in “The Dusk In Us” which, despite not quite living up to the high standards set by their previous record, still demonstrated they’re a band with more creativity, inspiration and talent than most. Trivium came through with a surprisingly strong album in “The Sin and the Sentence” that has plenty of crossover appeal to more underground, extreme metal fans. Myrkur released her best album to date with “Mareridt“, moving away from traditional black metal and instead exploring dark, historic soundscapes in all sorts of different styles. And Morbid Angel made a pretty strong return to form on “Kingdoms Disdained”, a good album hampered by poor production choices, but certainly an enjoyable record with some tracks I’ve found myself returning to with some frequency. So overall it’s not exactly been a terrible year for metal.
Here are the official runners-up to the final top 10:
- Spectral Voice – Eroded Corridors of Unbeing
- Tchornobog – Tchornobog
- Au-Dessus – End of Chapter
- *Pallbearer – Heartless
- *Loss – Horizonless
But now, on to the final list…
10. *Expander – Endless Computer
Austin, Texas crossover thrash crew and self-described “timezapped neuropunks” Expander dropped the year’s best thrash album with “Endless Computer”, no contest. It’s a furious, mind-warping thrash opus that’s as wildly inventive as it is relentlessly aggressive. There’s a borderline psychedelic quality to the music at times, with shimmering melodic leads in between the brutal crossover thrash bludgeoning, but it all comes together perfectly. One of those albums that I can’t ever listen to just once, because by the end of its 36-minute runtime I’m ready for round 2. Don’t miss out on this.
9. Desolate Shrine – Deliverance from the Godless Void
There is no doubt in my mind that this is Desolate Shrine’s best album to date. They absolutely put their own stamp on this bleak, punishing album. The way they combine elements of death metal, black metal, and doom creates a totally morbid atmosphere of despair and anguish, but like some of the other best death metal albums of this year, this is built upon rock-solid fundamentals: crushing riffs, and a great sense for the importance of both dynamics and detail. I’ll quote the closing paragraph of my own review to sum up here:
The terrifying grandeur of this album is really something to behold, a morbid monument to death and decay. It’s a dense, punishing extreme metal album that rewards careful, repeated listens by a dedicated listener prepared to immerse themselves totally into this bleak, rotting soundscape. The terrifying crescendo of ‘…Of Hell’ is the soundtrack to the final nail being hammered into the coffin as the muffled screams are buried beneath the dirt. If you were looking for hope, you will find none here, but you may nonetheless find something like absolution in the roiling, chaotic world of Desolate Shrine.
8. Artificial Brain – Infrared Horizon
Artificial Brain remain one of the strangest bands in death metal, and that’s a great thing, their obscure sci-fi geekery is a refreshing change of pace from the usual affair. But the band have deepened and developed their devastatingly brutal, technically dazzling style of metal since their 2014 debut; they guitarwork is more dissonant, more unnerving, and yet it still captures a strange sense of discordant beauty. It’s like watching a star collapse in on itself, terrifying and sublime. The album features a really interesting, mature concept behind the wonderfully written lyrics, with an almost Blade Runner vibe to them which I really enjoyed. At times, Infrared Horizon is draw-droppingly beautiful, as Dan Gargiulo (also of Revocation) and Jon Locastro carve out haunting, unsettling passages of stellar death metal.
7. Incantation – Profane Nexus
This album received a fairly lukewarm reception from some listeners and critics upon release, but I absolutely maintain that this is Incantation’s best album in years. Frontman John McEntee puts in potentially his best vocal performance to date, and the band are firing on all cylinders here. This is a band that pioneered the death-doom style which has exploded in recent years, and they’re still doing it better than pretty much anyone else right now. “Profane Nexus” is crushingly, whiplash-inducingly heavy, with a rotting, unsettling atmosphere; the band still lurch between pulverising doom drone and ferocious death metal frenzies, and it’s a formula that still holds up well. I found the album to be a deeply satisfying listen, with tight performances, strong songwriting, and some of the band’s heaviest, most aggressive material in years. Read the full review here.
6. Archspire – Relentless Mutation
One of the biggest surprises of the year for me, and one of the most unashamedly fun metal albums I’ve heard in a good long while. One of the most astonishingly technical records I’ve ever heard, Relentless Mutation doesn’t rely on style as a substitute for substance; it’s easy to be distracted by the flashy delivery, but what keeps me coming back – beyond just how ridiculously fun it is to listen to a death metal album where the band turn everything up to 11, and then ask ‘OK, but what about 12?’ – is that there’s some genuinely fascinating, detailed songwriting here, which at times even delivers neoclassical flourishes. It’s an eccentric, fabulously fun album which does nothing by half-measures, but with genuine musical depths beneath the polished surface, as well as some of the most unique vocals (delivering genuinely horrifying lyrics) in recent memory. More than any other album this year, “Relentless Mutation” is the one that’s put the biggest grin on my face. Read the full review here.
5. Rebirth of Nefast – Tabernaculum
“Tabernaculum” is the long-awaited debut album from Rebirth of Nefast, the primary artistic project of Irish musician Stephen Lockhart, perhaps best-known for his work as a producer at his recording studio Studio Emisary in Reykjavík, Iceland, where he’s recorded and produced pretty much every Icelandic metal band worth listening to. “Tabernaculum” is his magnum opus, a powerful artistic vision, which pulls together a variety of styles and influences together, from black metal to death-doom and avant-garde, into a rich, sinister, and complex metal album. Read the full review here.
4. Aosoth – V: The Inside Scriptures
French black metal band Aosoth have long been one of my favourite bands in the genre. The way their music manages to be both frightening and aggressive and complex and cerebral, as well as its sense of desperation and anguish all struck a chord with me. On their fifth, and perhaps final album, Aosoth take a look back at their musical journey and bring together the strongest elements, trimming away the fat and eliminating most of their weaknesses. It’s in many ways a deeply human album, but the trademark chaotic, dissonant guitarwork and abrasive, malicious anger are all on display here. It’s an album that benefits from careful listens and an attentive listener, but if this really is the end of Aosoth (and I hope it isn’t), then at least they went out on a high note. Read my full review over at Distorted Sound Magazine here.
3. Wolves in the Throne Room – Thrice Woven
Few bands can claim the kind of influence Wolves in the Throne Room have exerted over the development of American black metal over the past decade. After six long years since their last true metal album, to say that there was anticipation would be an understatement. On their sixth full-length album “Thrice Woven”, the band sound hungry and truly vicious in a way they’ve never sounded before. Those who claim that this album is a return to form are part right: in terms of quality, this is certainly one of their strongest releases to date; but stylistically, this is absolutely treading new ground for Wolves in the Throne Room, particularly in the way they return to the fruitful mines of the Norwegian fjords for fire and grit, and as they experiment with colossal, droning guitar and ambient passages, and uplifting melodic guitar leads. It’s hard to overstate how much energy the band bring to the table here, how urgent every single second of this album sounds, and how fucking astonishing the results are. “Thrice Woven” marks the triumphant return of a band who could have been forgiven for calling it quits , but who have returned with a vengeance to reassert their status as legends in the American black metal scene. Read the full review here.
2. Yellow Eyes – Immersion Trench Reverie
New York atmospheric black metal band Yellow Eyes really impressed me in 2015 with their album “Sick with Bloom”, a record which I still listen to regularly. Their new album “Immersion Trench Reverie” capitalises on the strengths of the sound they have developed. Their unsettling approach to black metal seemingly blends elements of Krallice’s technicality and dissonance with Wolves in the Throne Room’s natured-focused atmosphere, and benefits from wonderful production. The album was recorded live to tape in a Connecticut cabin owned by brothers Will and Sam Skarsgaard, and the tasteful use of field recordings from their time in Siberia gives the album as a whole a different, colder atmosphere to “Sick with Bloom”. The unsettling dissonance of the guitarwork is still here, as is the ever-talented M Rekevics’ drumming, but the atmosphere overall is colder, more wintery. It’s a beautiful, powerful black metal record which delivers a bit of bite with the enthralling, blistering atmosphere.
1. Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper
“Mirror Reaper” is one of the most astonishingly beautiful and profoundly moving metal albums I’ve ever heard. An immensely touching tribute and eulogy to their late drummer Adrien Guerra, this gargantuan 83-minute funeral doom opus is a devastating, haunting meditation on death, mortality and the loss of a friend. The album is shot through with such grief and melancholy, and an unbearable sense of anguish and loss. It’s a difficult, demanding album – emotionally draining and of course a significant time investment, but hearing “Mirror Reaper” from start to finish is one of the most genuinely beautiful musical experiences I’ve ever had. The closing section with guest vocalist and collaborator Erik Moggridge is one of the most utterly sublime moments on any album in recent memory, and very nearly reduced me to tears the first time I listened to it. This is an album that demands your time and your attention, it demands to be taken seriously, to be experienced, understood and appreciated. Totally unforgettable, “Mirror Reaper” will stay you with you long after the album’s final note fades. It’s an achingly beautiful, cathartic journey in the truest sense of the word, and the band’s masterpiece.
There we go, that’s the list! I’ve also curated a Spotify playlist of what I consider the best metal songs of the year overall, featuring songs from this top 10 but also many others. Check that out below.
* Denotes changes to order or inclusion