Full disclosure, I initially had this ranked much, much lower, off the list entirely in fact. I predicted this was probably the least great of the 120ish great albums I had initially selected for ranking. But in the process of relistening to a whole bunch of stuff, this is easily the album that crushed me the hardest compared to what I remembered. I think AN's decade as a whole was pretty mediocre, and the utter forgettablility of albums like Passion and Vanitas just soured my memory. Because in the middle of this decade in which they otherwise struggled to maintain their trademark intensity, The Whole of the Law was, somehow, a magnificent throwback to the utter chaos of Hell is Empty and In the Constellation of the Black Widow. I can't remember who said it first, but I recall somebody once referring to Anaal Nathrakh as "the sound of the apocalypse", and holy fuck this album captures that feeling more than almost anything else they've ever done. The tone is very much a Book of Revelations style apocalypse, with Dave Hunt's almost angelic operatic clean vocals touting the ultimate virtue of death and murder and genocide with a sound of pure triumph and victory, and it's contrasted against chaotic and nearly inhumanly intense music that straddles the line between black metal and grindcore, and when his vocals switch to their harsh register he sounds like an absolute monster. I don't mean this purely to say he sounds aggressive, I mean he doesn't even sound human at all. His shrill screeches sound like they're coming out of a feral creature, one that is rampaging through a panicked crowd and indiscriminately eviscerating every living thing in its path. It's so grandiose while being so intense that it seriously gives me fucking anxiety. The Whole of the Law is the sound of the clouds opening up, Jesus himself, surrounded by angels (and I mean the horrifying abominations in the Old Testament that were incomprehensible orbs of fire and eyeballs surrounded by wings) looking down upon humanity with disgust before hurling down tactical nukes and swearing that this is for our own good. There's a reason those old descriptions of angels open every message with "Fear not," and tracks like "Depravity Favours the Bold" sound like those clearly terrifying messengers trying to calmly assure you that you deserve this while the earth opens up around them and the entire planet erupts in fire and panic. (Side note: the cover of Iron Maiden's "Powerslave" that appears on some editions is a phenomenal example of why I believe bands should almost never do just straight covers without adding their own style to the original, because this rendition of a trad metal classic is nearly unrecognizable and absolutely fucking insane, and as a result it's one of my favorite covers of all time.)
Folk metal's heyday has really been in the rearview mirror for a long while at this point, and it was still true in 2016. Nowadays the only bands that really have any sort of clout are the more midpaced and black/viking metal based bands that focus on reverent pagan aesthetics, as opposed to the "battle metal" type bands like Ensiferum and Turisas or the dorky polka-metal bands that exclusively wrote about getting drunk like Korpiklaani and Finntroll that ruled the roost for a time in the 2000s, and even then these bands that persisted are mostly relegated to their own tiny niche of fandom that barely intersects with the rest of the metal world. One of the lone holdouts that still has a lot of crossover popularity is Moonsorrow, and to this day they stand as a relic of an era that was lost twice over. They were basically untouchable in the previous decade (and I 100% snubbed Verisakeet on the previous decade's feature, my bad) and only put out two records during the focus decade this time, but the second one, Jumalten aika, is every bit as good as their first five. These midpaced jaunts are overflowing with pomp and vigor, with vocals so venomous that they run the risk of clashing with the epic and heroic melodies. This one is kind of hard for me to write about because it's simply a style I'm less familiar with, but I know that every second of this is phenomenal and Moonsorrow has absolutely earned their place at the top of the heap when it comes to viking metal (and I mean actual viking metal, the stuff that sounds like mid-era Bathory) in the current age.
Look I fuckin' love Black Dahlia, alright? I think the era of them copping shit for no reason is pretty much over but there will always be some lingering bitterness at being erroneously labeled a poser for a decade (I'm a poser for much more valid reasons, dammit!). Either way, their seventh album, Nightbringers has seen itself consistently inching its way towards my favorite over the years, at this point in time even overtaking fan favorite Everblack. I don't know if they'll ever top the brilliance of Nocturnal but this is probably the closest they ever got. Now that Verminous is out and kinda disappointing, this sentiment has been tempered somewhat, but I'll still stand by my initial claim that bringing Brandon Ellis into the fold was a stroke of genius for the band. Brian Eschbach has been the main creative force of the band for eons, but bringing in a kid like Ellis reinvigorated the band into such a form they hadn't reached in years. This is hungry, and the single-minded focus on blistering intensity interwoven with their signature melodic touch hasn't sounded this feral since that 2007 masterpiece. "Kings of the Nightworld" is right next to "I Will Return" and "Deathmask Divine" for me at this point, and that's not even mentioning the fucking insanity of tracks like "Widowmaker" and "The Lonely Deceased". Even the slower and more overtly In Flames influenced title track is a fucking destroyer. Nightbringers is likely the most straightforward and intense album they've penned since the early years, with none of the more esoteric touches of Ritual or Everblack, but you know what? That's fine. Turns out Black Dahlia doesn't need to get all that creative in order to put out something truly brilliant.
God I wish I hated this band. There will always be a troglodytic part of me that reflexively wants to push back against bands that pick up a ton of hype out of seemingly nowhere. But try as I might, Blood Incantation is really fucking good and I can't take that away from them. I think their much lauded (and record breaking, if we're considering the yearly polls on MA to be worthy enough to count) followup to this, Hidden History of the Human Race, kind of collapses under its own weight at points (though I still like it a ton), but their debut Starspawn is every bit as fantastic as the hype would suggest. This is murky, but less in that "cavernous" sense that so many new death metal bands get tagged with. This is murky in the sense that it was picked up from a high powered satellite from some farflung pocket of outer space where nothing logically should live. Tracks like "Chaoplasm" directly refute the Fermi Paradox because oh yes, there is intelligent life beyond the stars, and they have visited Earth, and they do plan on eradicating us. I could do the Responsible Journalist thing and describe this coherently, mentioning how Blood Incantation takes the reins from Tucker era Morbid Angel and cranks the twisted atmosphere up to a billion while pummeling with more riffs than should feasibly exist. Instead, I'm gonna do the BH thing and describe it abstractly. I mentioned the Fermi Paradox up there, and the shortest explanation of that is "If there is intelligent extraterrestrial life out there, how come they've never made contact? Where is the evidence of such a thing throughout the billions of years of Earth's existence?" My personal belief is that this is super narcissistic because what the fuck makes us so special? Maybe there is some ridiculously complex Rick and Morty styled intergalactic senate but why should we be involved? If you were building a ten lane superhighway through a mostly desolate stretch of land, would you really bother hiking five miles over to an anthill so you could try to communicate with them and explain what a highway is? Fuck no, you wouldn't even think of them. Starspawn is the sound of somebody specifically seeking us out with the expressed purpose of pouring napalm into our anthill.
I was so hard on The Lucid Collective because it felt like all flash and no substance. I was so put off by their hypertechnical approach to death metal that I kind tossed Archspire into the bin with Brain Drill and Rings of Saturn. As a result, I wound up sleeping on Relentless Mutation and snubbing it on a level of the Grammys inventing the heavy metal category just to give the first award to Jethro Tull instead of Metallica when I did my "best of 2017" feature. When tech death was completely oversaturated in the late 2000s, I lost interest almost entirely because Origin set the high water mark for absurd-speed-and-technicality-while-still-being-coherent-and-catchy with Antithesis in 2008, and every other band in the scene was constantly caught under that looming shadow. Nobody could one-up one another anymore because Origin did it too well, and it was no longer fun to follow the scene as it grew. Nearly a decade later, Archspire finally managed to do it. Where The Lucid Collective rivaled Origin on a technical level but completely failed to write enrapturing music while doing it, Relentless Mutation surpassed them on both levels and cemented their place on the top of the heap. Vocalist Oli Peters and drummer Spencer Prewett have become undeniable superstars in the genre for this reason. I know it's cliche and kinda pointless to say "Wow Archspire is really fast" but god dammit they are. Prewett's feet move so fucking fast that he sounds like a washboard and he has the rare combination of absurd technical skill and a lot of individual character. Metal doesn't get a whole lot of drummers like that, instead usually falling into the ol' Rando McBlastypants trope where 99% of tech death drummers could change bands tomorrow and I'd only really notice in a few instances. Peters on the other hand very obviously barely uses death metal as an influence for his vocal attack. Yeah obviously he's growling and all but the minute you learn that his main influences are Tech N9ne and Twista (I had to ask my brothers about this and they tell me their style of rapping is called "chopping", so I guess Frank Mullen has competition now) his rapid fire staccato starts to make a whole lot more sense.
Any left wing folks who hang around those spheres of Youtube are probably familiar with Patricia Taxxon, a musician/video essayist who pops up from time to time. She recently did a video about the arrogant futility of trying to "objectively" critique art that aligns very closely with my own beliefs, and in that video she posited a variation of Newton's Third Law of Motion (the equal and opposite one) that I'd like to begin referring to as Taxxon's Law, which states "The act of establishing a rule or convention in regards to art or artistic practice will necessarily result in the implicit formulation of an equal and opposite 'anti-convention'." Liturgy absolutely embodies this idea, and I'm fuckin' here for it. They had a lot of notoriety around the release of this album due entirely to non-musical factors, namely the fact that the band presented themselves aesthetically more akin to an indie band, an infamous interview where frontwoman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (she literally came out as trans on the day I wrote this so if this winds up being an accidental deadname I'll come back and edit this) rambled semi-incoherently about the band's ethos, and a really goofy "manifesto" she wrote essentially decrying everything black metal was "supposed" to be about. This is that equal and opposite anti-convention, Aesthethica concerns itself so much with subverting the cliches of black metal by using it as a vessel intertwined with a (frankly impossible to understand) unique philosophy that this wound up creating something wholly unlike anything else. The shrieks, tremolo riffs, and blast beats are here, but they're used in a very organic, almost jam-like way to evoke an atmosphere completely antithetical to what Burzum is about. This is jubilant, anti-nihilist, expressive, and exploratory. I have an aversion to wacky experimentation for the sake of it, but I can't help but feel like Aesthethica has something more to say beyond "wow look how weird we are". I realize it can seem hypocritical to say that objectivity has no place in art criticism and then imply that everybody's subjective tastes are clouded by extramusical factors. I get it, maybe it's not your thing to hear a band jam on one two note riff for seven minutes, lengthy a capella interludes, or a complete intentional inversion of an atmosphere that you've grown to associate with a specific sound, this type of organically sprawling chaos isn't for everybody. But I do think there's something important (frankly, historically so) about a band taking a sound so intrinsically linked with danger, misanthropy, and blasphemy, and using it to create something wholly positive and expressive, and in the process managing to offend the very people who flock to the genre specifically because it's offensive.
And what better way to completely undercut my point than to follow up a reverent piece about subverting the darkness that breeds the toxicity in black metal with a band that sticks very closely to genre conventions and absolutely revels in the hatred that made black metal so infamous in the first place? Sargeist is fucking nasty and caustic, and despite loving the exuberant atmosphere that Liturgy posits, I can't help but adore the traditional black metal itself just as much. What sets Let the Devil In apart from its contemporaries is how they approach the melody in their music. Shatraug manages to straddle the line between subtle and grandiose extremely well, though this particular release leans much more towards the latter than something like Satanic Black Devotion. This is really an example of a release that is, by a long shot, greater than the sum of its parts. If you break it down to its base components, this album could be any given album that worships the second wave of black metal out of Scandinavia, but there's just some sort of intangible grandeur and craftsmanship portrayed in Let the Devil In. This is going to be a comparatively short entry because that's really all there is to say about this particular album. It's everything you expect a great black metal album to be, but even better.
Holy shit this is the first album to utilize clean vocals as the primary delivery style in like twenty entries. What can I say? Extreme metal brought the fucking heat this decade. Despite my fascination with watching the evolution of metal happening in real time keeping me drenched in extremity, there are always some bands championing a traditional style that keep things fresh and exciting. Visigoth is, by far, the most visible and popular band in the epic metal niche to emerge in the last decade within the underground, with so much crossover appeal that I wouldn't be shocked to see this album top a similar list if all metalheads the world over were polled. I can barely disagree, because Visigoth is the second coming of Manilla Road in some alternate universe where Mark Shelton wasn't an awful singer. The Revenant King even goes so far as to cover the Road classic, "Necropolis" halfway through the album, and frankly blows the original clean out of the water simply by virtue of taking such an energetic song and replacing Shelton's nasally nerd-voice and replacing it with Jake Rogers's incredible booming croon. The lion's share of The Revenant King is midpaced and epic, conjuring images of entire Conan the Barbarianesque tribes of fur-clad berserkers maiming several opposing armies at once. This is a triumphant slab of muscle-bound gallops and pounding percussion, and basically every single second is the sound of a brutal pillaging. From the mournful clean passages of "Vengeance" to the high octane fervor of "Blood Sacrifice", this is pure molten steel straight out of the early 80s with a modern sheen that takes away nothing and adds forty tons of weight. I sometimes joke about albums being "big and large and huge" but damn if that doesn't fit Visigoth like a glove. The whole album stands out as great but the opening salvo of the title track followed by "Dungeon Master" and "Mammoth Rider" is nothing short of divine brilliance. I could rant forever about how this album makes me feel a million feet tall but I think you get the point. If any of my readers have found themselves rolling their eyes at all the blood drenched satanism I've championed on this list and just want some good old fashioned heavy metal, you owe it to yourselves to go binge some fucking Visigoth.
Let's get heady again. Chapel of Disease was previously a solidly good death metal band that flirted with some interesting ideas in the realm of prog and doom, but with Long Title they have fully embraced these outside influences to create something unlike anything else. One hugely hyped album from this decade that I was never able to latch onto was Ecdysis by Horrendous, but everything people said about that album is what I'm hearing here. This is truly out-there, forward thinking metal achieved, oddly enough, by reaching backwards. The only elements of their old sound that have really stuck around in any capacity are the harsh vocals and occasionally aggressive rhythm section. For the most part though, this is a very bright and evocative album, with a significantly lighter guitar tone than they had employed in the past. The production is very shiny and 70s, with twisting guitar lines expressing a jubilance and flourish rarely associated with such a grimy subgenre. This is another one that's kinda difficult for me to really go in-depth with simply because it pulls from so many areas which I'm unfamiliar, but I can't deny the absolute splendor of Long Title. The first three tracks in particular flow into each other so well that even after countless listens I have trouble distinguishing where the track breaks are, creating a stunning accidental 21 minute epic that, just like Liturgy up there, takes established aesthetics and completely upends them. This isn't dark at all, it's a luminescent sunburst that just so happens to growl at you. 2018 was obviously a good year, it's come up a few times already, but there's no denying it was littered with legacy acts and shameless throwbacks, and Long Title was the sweet petrichor after a long, dry summer littered with the Judas Priests of the world wheeling their old asses out of the retirement home.
Hey speaking of Priest, Chicago's Satan's Hallow stands as the worthiest successor to their brand of fist pounding metal from the early 80s. I briefly spoke with guitarist/songwriter/mastermind, Von Jugel, shortly after he moved out of state and unfortunately ended the band right when they were catching fire, and he described to me that his intention was to create something ineffably tight, akin to a killer setlist. I'd be lying if I said that isn't exactly what this feels like. All killer, no filler, that's Satan's Hallow in a nutshell. There are no nifty tricks here, it's just straightforward old school heavy metal that follows all of the rules but posts up a huge middle finger while doing it. I sense a lot of Stained Class thru Defenders of the Faith era Priest in here with a heaping helping of early Mercyful Fate, and as that should signify, that means this thing is loaded with balls out riffage that tears listeners to shreds with ease. Mandy Martillo's vocals are a huge draw as well, with a wavering vibrato that always sounds like she's just about to go over the edge and break into a banshee wail. She never does, but she doesn't need to. This is frenetically upbeat trad metal from the NWOBHM era with heaps of solos and a lot of speed, it's basically everything I want a good throwback to me. It takes the elements that aged well and injects them with new life, creating a 28 Days Later style Fast Zombie from a bygone age with the strength of an olympic wrestler. Years later, I still listen to "Beyond the Bells" every fucking week.
I half-lied when I said less extremity was coming this week. We got some Visigoth and Satan's Hallow this round, but looking over my list again, it's gonna stay brutal for a while. So buckle up, buttercup, tomorrow is gonna wreck shit too!