I almost feel bad ranking this one, even though it obviously fucking smokes, purely because the reasons I love it so much are so similar to Black Kirin a few spots ago. 1914 is phenomenal when it comes to faithfully recreating the hopeless futility of war. As the band name should telegraph, 1914 focuses specifically on The Great War, WWI. This guttural, visceral, nihilistic representation of the conflict that plunged basically all of Europe into bloody chaos is otherworldly. The atmosphere never deviates from the desperate panic and despondent helplessness that encapsulated the conflict, and the way it ebbs and flows between chaotic battle and pleading for mercy and forgiveness is heartbreaking. The Blind Leading the Blind is a monster of black metal rage deftly weaving between blasts of aggression and downtrodden dirges. I know I keep repeating words like "panic", "despair", "futility", and "hopelessness" but they really do sum up the album as succinctly as possible. This is bleak and depressing, and most of all furious that it all happened in the first place. I think what pushes this over Black Kirin, despite their similarities, is that this beautifully marries the overarching emotional atmosphere with the nitty gritty details. You know how in The Sum of All Fears there's an infamous moment where Tom Clancy devotes an entire chapter to painstakingly describing every tiny thing that happens inside a nuclear bomb in the brief window between the detonator being activated and the actual explosion? Nearly every song on The Blind Leading the Blind is lyrically similar to that. It's all about the details, numbers, and specs of what's going on. What that chapter in The Sum of All Fears is to military tech nerds, The Blind Leading the Blind is to whatever specific type of nerd I am.
This album pisses me off nowadays simply because it's the only one on this list that essentially doesn't exist anymore. Before his tragic passing, Nature Ganganbaigal had a terrible habit of constantly redoing old music, sometimes re-recording the same track seemingly dozens of times on dozens of releases, constantly tweaking his creations until they fit whatever whims he was feeling at any given time, and as a result almost the entire run of music he created while living in China has been more or less whitewashed out of existence unless you can find an original copy or get lucky during a pirate run. So I'll still include a few tracks here on the Spotify playlist, but it's with the caveat that they're going to sound a little different than the album I'm actually ranking here. The redone version is fine, but the original release of Ancient Call is what I'd consider to be the last truly great folk metal album (outside of the pagan/viking black/folk niche that never dies of course). Tengger's brand of melodic death metal with oodles of galloping riffs, resplendent Mongolian folk instrumentation (the melodies of those horsey fiddles are still one of the greatest sounds mankind ever created), and his absolutely visceral harsh vocals combined with his shamanistic throat singing were absolutely out of this world and as a result there was a good five year stretch where they could be argued to be one of the best metal bands in the world. The re-recording you'll hear here redoes the production to be a little more muddied and confusing and replaces those caustic screams with more normal death growls (at least during the tracks/versions where they weren't excised completely in order to replace every single vocal moment with deep throat singing), so please, take my word for it (or seek out an old version) when I say that the original incarnation of Ancient Call was already magnificently unique and in hindsight really should've been my Album of the Year for 2014. This sound was already totally unheard of at the time outside of battle music in the Dynasty Warriors games, and even then that little cultural primer was far more Chinese than Mongolian like it is here. This is the perfect ode to those nomadic cavalrymen from the steppes, and it breaks my heart to know that Nature felt the need to constantly fix what wasn't broken. UPDATE: A wonderful anonymous commenter pointed out to me that the original mix does indeed still exist on youtube. Listen to the good version (the one I'm basing this ranking on) here.
I foresee this being the entry that grants the heaviest eyerolls. The band name alone should turn off most people since they seem like such a joke, and most casual listeners who recognize the name probably recognize them as the band that played the nu metal tracks during the credits of Death Note. Despite that, I actually discovered them the third way most of the English speaking world was, which was via the music video for "A L I E N" going viral on reddit a few years ago. Most of the rubbernecking was from Americans doing their usual "lol japan so wacky" thing, but I found myself enraptured by how mercilessly heavy most of that song was. I totally get why this band doesn't resonate with most of the people in the scenes I usually hang around. They're goofy, with one of the few English words that comes through clearly during the album being "vagina", the drummer's vocals sound exactly like what most Americans imagine when they think "anime girl", they lean into punk and nu-metal influences, one of the four members' only job is scream-rapping, they're just a really bizarre confetti explosion that can be hard to take seriously. But if you take the tiny leap of faith required to accept the band on their own terms, they quickly reveal themselves to be secret geniuses who basically picked up exactly where System of a Down left off. Yoshu Fukushu is an album that's just... I dunno man fuckin' pure. There's no pretense of intellectualism, no mysticism, I'd even argue that the Japanese Weirdness that amuses so many gaijin isn't even a crutch or mask of any sort. This is just a very honest expression of juvenile rage and scat humor put to a soundtrack that melds the catchiness of punk with the aggression of metal. Honestly, learning that the album was written by guitarist Ryo with the intent of mostly expressing how he felt when he was 13 years old made the whole thing make so much more sense, because half of the album is about depression and having no place to belong while the other half is about Dragonball Z and masturbating. It's all the same reasons Descendents are so much fun. The immediacy of the frantic, off kilter riffage is only a thin gossamer over a wealth of cultural in-jokes and surprisingly intricate wordplay. Tracks like "F", "Mesubuta no Ketsu ni Binta (Kick Mo)", and "A L I E N" can completely pummel you into the ground while "Koi no Sperm" plasters a big stupid smile on your face. This is the exact blend of punk infectiousness and melody with sheer furious aggression that appeals specifically to me and I don't think a universe exists where I don't fall hopelessly in love with Maximum the Hormone.
Speaking of bands created specifically to appeal to me, regular readers of mine simply had to know that GTK was coming up eventually. As good as Legend of Shadow was, it ultimately wound up ranking in the low 50s and missed the final cut. I loved how warm and organic that album was, feeling like a death metal jam session that got recorded. But after that album, when two of the three members were replaced with instrumentalists just as insane as the bassist, they reached an echelon of intensity I didn't think possible. I don't want to go into too much detail for reasons that should be obvious, but the short version of why GTK kicks so much ass is that they sound like four bands playing at the same time and never take their foot off the gas. The addition of slap bass sounds like a dumb gimmick but I dare you to listen to the last minute or so of "Nadegiri" and say it sounds like anything other than the most natural thing a band this fucking bonkers could've done at that point in the song. The Final Stand is probably the most relentless of GTK's catalog (pretty sure I likened it to getting slapped with a bundle of stop signs in my review for this album and that's still apt) and there isn't one single moment I could ever fathom changing.
I wasn't kidding when I said Enforcer damn near ruled this decade with an iron fist. During this time, their prime, they didn't offer anything truly new, but god dammit they never needed to. From Beyond is pure molten speed metal straight from the heart. One of the most important distinctions when talking about these throwback acts is the difference between "sounding like an old sound" and "sounding like a lost relic from a different era", but Enforcer bucked that dichotomy by being one of the only bands in the genre that sounded like the latter while still being distinctly a product of their time. From Beyond is the kind of album that could only happen by transporting your brain back to 1985 and returning to the modern day with the expressed intent of taking only the elements of that old sound that worked and amping them up to 11 while discarding the unnecessary elements. There is no fat here, this is lean and tough and ready to rumble without one wasted second. You can't even accuse this of lacking variety since "Below the Slumber" does a great job of expressing numerous peaks and valleys, while "Hungry They Will Come" is entirely instrumental. Enforcer just hit bullseye with every idea they threw at the board. It's basically required that I discuss their always latent glam influence since Zenith made it impossible to ignore, but I think From Beyond is actually the furthest they ever distanced themselves from it, and it's great despite that, not because of it. I mentioned in the Death by Fire entry that they had reached a point of nearly inventing thrash a second time, and this is that point. It's still distinctly rough-and-tumble speed metal that gorgeously toes the line between the European and North American camps, but the aggression and attitude is off the charts on this one. The fact that they became the Minnesota Vikings of this blog and never took home the Album of the Year is purely because they always happened to release something in a really strong year where at least one more band would best them. Don't let that take away from their supremacy during the first half of the decade.
Tobias Sammet's neverending metal opera is the exact thing I should hate wholeheartedly, and for years I did. The placement of Ghostlights here obviously means that I think it's a phenomenal album, but upon having my bias shattered by how much I loved it I actually went and binged the rest of the project's catalog and discovered that the rest of it actually does suck as much as I remembered. Ghostlights stands as some weird, brilliant fluke where all of the stupid elements of Avantasia coalesce into something astounding. So much of this is clearly inspired by Meat Loaf and that usually ends up terrible, but somehow overwrought schlock like "Mystery of a Blood Red Rose" hits bullseye. This is the only album in the top ten here that actually has weak spots, particularly the awful ballad "Isle of Evermore" and the sluggish and overlong "Seduction of Decay", but everything else is so good that they wind up not even really mattering. Every vocalist shines, Jorn Lande and Marco Heitala especially. Hell even my personal punching bag Michael Kiske turns in a good performance. The more traditionally power metal tracks easily stand out as the best of the best here. I don't know if you can find a single person that doesn't place "Unchain the Light", "Babylon Vampyres", or especially "Master of the Pendulum" as the strongest tracks on display. Despite Tobi's insistence on crafting these sprawling rock operas, I think it clearly shows that his strength is still in the high octane power metal he used to pump out in Edguy's prime. That may have been Ghostlights's secret weapon, simply having more "normal" power metal songs than the rest of Avantasia's discography. You don't have to sit through ten awful tracks just to hear "Devil in the Belfry" this time, and there are like six or seven iterations of it this time around. I'm not sure I can ever adequately explain why Ghostlights is such a knockout when it's constructed so similarly to the rest of the shitty Avantasia albums I still hate, but somehow all of these dumb, pompous, overblown ideas congeal into something magical this one time.
I'm obviously not all that big into doom metal, since you have probably noticed that only Khemmis and Tyranny wound up ranking here in the low 40s, and neither of them are really traditional doom, but Crypt Sermon nailed it in a way that cut straight to my heart. It really boils down to wishing less bands ripped off Sabbath and more ripped off Candlemass, and Crypt Sermon does that close enough for me to take notice. Luckily they stand on their own, and holy shit do they do it with aplomb. I saw a surprising amount of lukewarm enthusiasm for this when it first dropped, mostly from people preferring the debut (which was also great), but this is such an obvious improvement in every way I can't even fathom that line of thinking. Brooks's voice takes on a more trebly timbre this time around, sounding pradoxically confident and desperate. His more hoarse screams sound like a man at the end of the blade who just discovered all of his beliefs are lies The rough production fits so well with the tumbling percussion and oooo choirs, and the bass presence is absolutely devastating. They rarely rise above a brisk gallop (though "The Ninth Templar" opens the album with one hell of a bang and is far and away the fastest song), usually opting to just knuckle down and pummel you with a sledgehammer. I'd be lying if I said the best song was anything other than "Christ is Dead", which distills every single thing I love about this band (and genre as a whole) into six concise minutes that seem to fly by in under two. All of the emotion, the grandeur, the pounding riffage, the searing leads, everything is thrown into this one and given the most passionate performance these guys could possibly muster. The Ruins of Fading Light nails what I mentioned earlier, sounding like a lost relic from a classic age instead of simply imitating one, and as a result they're pretty easily my favorite band on Dark Descent's roster at this moment, possibly because they're one of the few bands that breaks from the label's usual formula of chaotic black/death and instead aims for sweeping epic doom and nails it with focus and intensity.
And here's the obvious reason I didn't want to spend too much time on The Final Battle a few spots ago, because I knew GTK would be reappearing just a few slots later. I can't understate their indomitable supremacy of death metal during this decade. I even mentioned Legend of Shadow just barely missed the cut as well, and even then there's a part of me that feels like I underrated it a tad simply to keep all four of their releases from this decade crowding the list. They are just that fucking good. As mentioned, they are a band that was invented specifically to appeal to me, because I don't think too many death freaks are clamoring for colorful hypermaximalist death metal with raucous slap bass. This particular album was such a revelation for me because even though my mind was thoroughly blown with their 2013 classic, I noted that one of their big appeals to me was how basic the drummer and guitarist were in comparison to the absolutely fucking wild bass and vocals, completely inverting the usual dynamic of death metal. So when both members were replaced, I was worried that the band would lose some of that character. "Insane Battlefield" opens the album and starts a 58 minute long streak of virtuosity that left me a pile of ash in my seat. It turns out that adding a drummer who can actually play super fast and a guitarist who can effortlessly solo with his feet made them even better. Even the nearly hour-long length isn't a deterrent despite the band never slowing down or entertaining too many different ideas. This is an anarchic whizbang avalanche of tumbling lunacy that punches you in the face from the word go and proceeds to take your lunch money and fuck your mom in front of you. There is so much muscle-bound superiority to be found here, with frantic tempos and swirling leads, often letting the rhythm section take total control and lead the songs through a completely chaotic path. Regional sounds aren't really a thing like they were in previous decades since the internet came along and gave everybody a global reach, but I feel like there's still an intangible character specific to Japan, and GTK exemplifies it in a way unlike the more melodic styles the island is known for. Japan simply does not do restraint. Everything is as fast, loud, and over the top as possible, and Retributive Justice personifies this during the ten billion somersaults it does during its runtime.
I know The Revenant King is commonly seen as the superior album, but Conqueror's Oath has rapidly entered the halls of "super popular and self-evidently great albums I find myself needing to defend for some reason". I obviously fucking love the debut, but the followup here irons out every tiny little issue I might've had with it and adds sequins and spiked gauntlets on top of it. This is everything I ever wanted in a throwback metal album. It's a massive, veiny, throbbing rod of riffs and choruses straight out of 1982. Even with an order as tall as topping the mountain that was the debut, Conqueror's Oath blew it away like it was fuckin' Krakatoa. Everything that was great about the debut is greater here, and it's done with the added benefit of a veritable cornucopia of new ideas. Visigoth didn't rest on their laurels here, only reusing the template that carried the previous album on a handful of songs and filling out the rest of the tracklist with epic odes and furious barnburners. The sheer speed of "Outlive Them All", the massive chorus of "Warrior Queen", the pounding march of "Steel and Silver", the entirety of "Traitor's Gate", I'm getting chills without even listening to the album as I write this. If nothing else, they deserve a trophy for making motherfucking Utah sound like the most exciting place on earth with "Salt City". It simply boils down to the distinction between the two albums for me being that Conqueror's Oath is a much more exciting album. It's exactly as muscular as The Revenant King, but with more tempo shifts, improved bellowing baritone vocals, stronger hooks, and more ideas all crammed into an even more focused and succinct passage. I don't think it's exactly helpful to pontificate on what makes a "perfect" metal album, but considering the fact that I've only given like five throughout my reviewing career (three of which are 12 years old from the time when I scored albums differently and likely wouldn't score the perfect three digit 100% nowadays if I bothered to rewrite them) it's something I don't take lately. Conqueror's Oath is a 100% album. Not one single second is wasted, from the starting gun this tramples over listeners like a bloodlusted cavalryman. The fact that this is something I'd consider a perfect album yet still sits at #2 should tell you how much I adore the last entry here. So let's not waste any more time.
1: Sigh - In Somniphobia (2012)
Mirai seems to have absolutely lost his mind in recent years, but before the unceremonious ousting of long-time guitarist Shinichi, there was one triumphant swansong in 2012 known as In Somniphobia. Part of the reason I love this so much is that I should logically hate it thanks to the heaps of jazz influence (notably one of the few genres of music I just can't fucking stand) and the 40 minute suite made up almost entirely of trippy noises. I can't fully describe why this was preemptively penciled into this slot eight years ago without descending into extreme pretension, but it's really the only way to make sense of it for me. "Somniphobia" is the fear of sleep, and all sixty four minutes of this masterpiece feel like exactly this, a crippling anxiety that takes over the minute you lay down. It's an extended nightmare that tumbles through so many different sounds, themes, and ideas, all of which are haunting and horrifying. In Somniphobia is art, full stop. What this album is to me, is being on your deathbed, mere minutes left in your existence, everything you'd done in your life is about to be rendered moot and nobody is there to share in your sorrow in your last moments. What you experience in your last conscious moments awake are a series of twisted hallucinatory fever dreams and nightmares from your past, all flooding back to remind you that no person is perfect, and no matter what good you've accomplished in your life, you've caused and equal amount of harm and suffering and heartbreak. In your last moments, you aren't who you used to be, you are instead broken down into fragments of what used to be a whole consciousness, now splintered and scattered across landscapes adorned with horrible, shameful memories and twisted, deplorable monsters. In Somniphobia is a journey through those last moments to me, as evidenced by the occasional punctuation of what sounds like a flatlining heart monitor, and the closing lines of "I'm sorry, but I must go now...". Was this Sigh's intent? Most likely not, but that's why it's so gorgeous. I'm not having my hand held through a linear narrative, Sigh doesn't paint picture for me to marvel at. Instead they give me a gigantic canvas and all the materials they have and say "Now paint me a picture". The sheer imagination is given vicariously to the listener, and is then allowed to project whatever twisted nightmares one can imagine on to your own psyche. This is an album that you, the listener, write as you listen to it. By experiencing and embarking on this journey, you have become the creator of your own nightmare, and In Somniphobia merely supplied you the tools. The pacing, atmosphere, and sheer breadth of weird twisted ideas that all hit bullseye cemented this as a modern classic and time has done nothing to soften it. Despite the sheer length of this entry, I didn't even talk about "The Transfiguration Fear", but take my word for it when I say it's the greatest metal song written since 1984. This album is untouchable, and long before I even began truly working on this list, a part of me knew this would take home the BH Award for Album of the Decade.
And that's it! Holy shit, thank you all so much for undertaking this journey through the recent past with me. The scariest part of this, for me, is the mere knowledge that I know I missed a ton of great albums that deserved placement. This was such a jam packed and busy decade, with the proliferation of global internet distribution like Bandcamp opening the floodgates to so much new music for me that I could never keep up with everything. So please, let me know what unforgivable snubs I'm responsible for! I genuinely want to know what amazing things I've forgotten.
Of course, the honorable mentions. As usual there were some repeats, though I did manage to avoid a situation like my 90s list where the same six bands dominated 30% of the list. As such there were much less than usual, with only Hour of Penance, Gargoyle, Gotsu Totsu Kotsu, The Black Dahlia Murder, and Visigoth landing on the list twice. My usual shtick for honorable mentions is to list the albums that would've made it had I instituted a "one album per band" rule, but that'd only give us five this time around, which is much less than usual. So instead, here's an arbitrary number of them in no particular order.
Foxy Shazam - Foxy Shazam (2010): I mostly just want to make it clear that if I had expanded the list to include obviously non-metal stuff instead of cutting myself off at the borderline, this very likely would've been #1. Foxy was/is without a doubt one of the greatest modern bands and their self titled is flawless from start to finish. Very few bands bother trying to sound like Queen and even less of them are any good, but Foxy just shits all over everybody from a monumental height.
Craven Idol - The Shackles of Mammon (2017): I've mentioned before that Dark Descent's roster is fucking incredible when you look for bands that don't sound like their usual niche, and Craven Idol is an amazing example. This is black/thrash to the fucking bone and rips faces like they were old mail.
Dynazty - Titanic Mass (2016): Before these guys turned into Amaranthe for Dudes, they were one of the strongest and hookiest trad/power bands on the planet. As disappointing as Firesign was, Titanic Mass was basically everything I wanted from a modern take on throwback arena metal.
Malokarpatan - Nordkarpatenland (2017): I still don't really know what this is exactly, it's some sort of black-metal-by-way-of-trad-metal thing and I feel like there's probably a huge scene of bands who kick ass in the exact same way, but I never really bothered exploring further despite falling instantly in love with this modern classic.
Kostnateni - Hruza zvitezi (2019): This sat in the #50 slot for a very long time before the final reordering finally nudged it off. Don't let that sound like a condemnation, because this chaotic black metal release is basically everything I want as a DSO fan and this was by far the most painful release to snub in the end.
Striker - City of Gold (2014): I mentioned that Enforcer ruled their niche with an iron fist despite a few incredible contemporaries. Striker is the most obvious of those contemporaries and this is their best album despite me ranking Eyes in the Night as AOTY in 2010.
Wombripper - From the Depths of Flesh (2018): This is one of the nastiest albums ever fucking recorded and that's all I have to say about that.
Smoulder - Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring (2019): I'm always kind of wavering on whether or not the vocals are weak enough to prevent this from being a truly great album, and right now I don't think they are. Despite having an obvious weak link in the band's sound, this was one of the more painful snubs in the end.
This is usually where the mass of youtube links to two songs each goes, but frankly I don't want to grab a hundred fucking youtube links. So instead, y'all're gonna get the Spotify playlist, which includes everything except Gargoyle and Satan's Hallow, which aren't on the service. So you'll get those six links, the rest of it is in here. It's the exact same as usual (two songs per album, with the exception of False because the album is only three fifteen minute tracks, so you only get one there), but hopefully much less cumbersome. If for some reason you can't access the playlist or simply hate Spotify and want to shit in its mouth, let me know and I'll put in the labor to grab all of these songs separately.