Throughout the year, Leonard Pierce, The A.V. Club’s most devoted metalhead, has steered you through the minefield of hard rock and heavy metal, hoping to guide you toward some of the best offerings in rock’s most diverse and fluid genre. This has been an especially rich year for metal, and so he’s happy to help kick off The A.V. Club’s best-of-the-year coverage with a Satanist’s dozen of the best albums in a great year for the heavy. So put on your black leather Santa cap, bust out your red and green corpse paint, and get that fucking “Wonderful Christmastime” off the stereo as Metal Box brings you the Year’s Best Metal!
Happy holidays, gang! This year has been an embarrassment of riches for hard rock and heavy metal, and for every record I listed, there were at least three others in contention. (Literally! I’m going to give you 13 of my picks for the best albums of the year and an equal number of runners-up, but these were pared down from a total of just under 80.)
My rules, just in case you’re only now arriving here at Metal Box: This list does not pretend to be definitive, and reflects only my personal tastes in metal. Since it’s already next to impossible to whittle it down to only 13, I’m not going to further torture myself by putting them in order of preference; this time around, they’re simply in order of their release date. Only 2010 releases are eligible (that’s why Temple Of Baal’s Lightslaying Rituals isn’t listed), and only complete original albums—no reissues, live albums, EPs, and so on. Obviously, I only listed stuff I’ve actually heard. And the definition of “metal” is mine alone.
The first 13 are my picks for the best metal albums of 2010, followed by 13 sleepers picked by category. I’m very eager to hear your own picks for the best of the best, and thanks once again for a great year of metal here at the AVC. This is the cool kids’ club on this site, no matter what everyone else might think, and I’m looking forward to getting back to our regular programming next year. Meanwhile, here we go: Metal Box’s Best Metal Albums Of 2010!
Shining, Blackjazz (Jan. 18, Indie Recordings)
Combining elements of black metal and free jazz risks a lot more than just accusations of pretentiousness; it puts two distinctly warring musical traditions against one another. Accomplished technical metal depends on a rigorously form-bound approach, while the best jazz must have elements of improvisation and swing. That Norway’s Jørgen Munkeby and his cohorts not only pulled off this alchemical fusion, but also did it with elements of terror, experimental audacity, and brilliance, is a testament to how diverse metal can be.
Sigh, Scenes From Hell (Jan. 19, The End)
Japan’s Sigh started out wearing monks’ robes and corpse paint and delivering accomplished but familiar-sounding black metal. In subsequent years, though, it’s evolved into one of the medium’s strangest and most unpredictable bands, and Scenes From Hell is its crowning achievement. Packed with screeching, demented scenarios, inventive instrumentation, and a poetic, dark approach to black metal that retains a sense of humor while never forgetting to scare the shit out of listeners, it’s an album that’s hard to listen to, but impossible to forget.
High On Fire, Snakes For The Divine (Feb. 23, E1)
Were this a less contentious time, Snakes For The Divine would be a consensus pick for best album of the year. Haters are gonna hate, but shirtless barbarian Matt Pike is gonna keep putting out records that pace the entire metal world for sheer fierceness and power. He even managed to squeeze a solid production job out of the iffy Greg Fidelman. If this doesn’t do it for you, you’re probably reading the wrong column; it’s simply a magnificent metal album from one of the best bands in the business.
Blood Of The Black Owl, A Banishing Ritual (Feb. 27, Bindrune Recordings)
A million miles away from sweaty headbanging arenas, a handful of bands in the Pacific Northwest are reminding everyone that at its best, metal can be genuinely threatening, unsettling, and frightening. None are better than Blood Of The Black Owl, whose latest LP is a creepy, moaning chant of such darkness and depth that there are moments you actually expect something arcane to happen. Whether the band is actually casting a spell or simply exorcising something ancient and ugly in the human soul, it’s undeniably making amazing music.
Ludicra, The Tenant (March 3, Profound Lore)
San Francisco’s finest experimental/black metal ensemble, Ludicra has been putting out consistently good records for quite some time, but The Tenant takes a lot of risks—and delivers a lot of rewards. Abandoning the band’s normal dark poetry for a gritty urban lyrical approach and finessing its sound to blend ferocious metal with intriguing rhythmic foundations, The Tenant finds guitarist John Cobbett, vocalist Laurie Sue Shanaman, and drummer Aesop Dekker putting out the best work of their careers in an album that constantly threatens to fall apart, but always manages to cohere.
Darkthrone, Circle The Wagons (April 5, Peaceville)
Norway’s Darkthrone has been together for so long, it’s hard to believe that it’s managed to progress so much through such sheer stubborn effort. Fenriz is the very definition of a hardworking musician, always unsatisfied, always pushing himself and his bandmates to do better and go farther. Here, the band ramps up the hardcore, crust-punk, and British speed metal elements that have been present in its music the last few years, and the result is a totally energized Darkthrone that sounds better than it has in ages, and, not coincidentally, delivers what is hands down one of the best albums of 2010.
Bison B.C., Dark Ages (April 13, Metal Blade)
Metal Blade seems to have had a bit of an identity crisis in recent years, signing bands both good and bad in a way that, for a label that once prided itself on the strength of its identity, seems a bit haphazard. But as long as it’s giving roster space to the likes of Bison B.C., why quibble? Vancouver’s best heavy band delivers crushing riffs, sky-high energy, and some of the most searing guitars in metal courtesy of Dan And. It’s also one of the most insane live bands out there right now, and any opportunity to see Bison B.C. play should be seized.
Iron Maiden, The Final Frontier (Aug. 13, Universal)
Too many critics—myself included—are guilty of taking bands like Iron Maiden for granted. Ever in search of the latest kick, looking for the new and the obscure, we tend to forget what’s right in front of our eyes, and when a band this huge releases an album, the temptation is to shrug and let the likes of Rolling Stone pretend to care. The fact is, The Final Frontier is a phenomenal metal album, the best work this band has done in well over a decade, and it would be a crime not to give it the credit it’s due. Iron Maiden didn’t get to be one of the greatest metal bands of all time by accident; it did it by making records like this.
Intronaut, Valley Of Smoke (Oct. 12, Century Media)
Finally, Intronaut fully delivers on the promise of its earlier work. Already working with the most skillful rhythm section in the business in the form of Joe Lester and Danny Walker, Intronaut comes together as a band like never before, adding powerful but subtle vocals and a vast improvement in overall song construction to what was already an impressive collection of like-minded musicians. Its blend of prog metal, post-rock, and blindingly good tech-death experimentation has never sounded better, and Valley Of Smoke is the sound of a band arriving at the point it’s always wanted to be.
Kylesa, Spiral Shadow (Oct. 25, Prosthetic)
Speaking of bands at the peak of their powers, Kylesa sounds, on Spiral Shadow, extremely familiar—there’s no mistaking that sludgy bottom under your feet combined with the hazy psychedelic swirl around your head. But at the same time, it also sounds rejuvenated, confident, and assured, almost like an entirely new band. Kylesa has picked up a few tricks from the rest of the Savannah scene; the melodic elements and guitar hooks are a welcome new development. But the untethered craziness at the ends, in the brutal drumming and the swirling, crazy guitars that take you to another reality, is the same as it ever was, and combines with the new songwriting direction to make the best album of the band’s career.
Electric Wizard, Black Masses (Nov. 1, Rise Above)
Jus Oborn always sounds like a man with something to prove. For years, he struggled to make listeners hear his brilliant British doom ensemble as something more than a Black Sabbath nostalgia act; once he finally succeeded, he faced accusations of letting the band stagnate. Impossibly heavy, low bass has always been a key element in the crushed-under-a-bale-of-dope sound of Electric Wizard, and new bassist Tas Danazoglou handles the transition well; the band hasn’t sounded this good since 2002. The sound hasn’t been tinkered with much, but Oborn and his gang have always done a lot with a little.
Deathspell Omega, Paracletus (Nov. 9, Norma Evangelium Diaboli)
With a seemingly constant stream of young French bands willing to demonstrate that their country is firmly in command of black metal (and, for that matter, a handful of other metal genres), it’s nice to see Deathspell Omega, one of the OGs of the current Parisian BM scene, come roaring through with the best European-style ambient black metal album of the year. Occupying some of its previously staked-out moments of creaky, suggestive open space with blazing guitars and judiciously applied rhythmic patterns, Paracletus opens up new vistas for French black metal, and defies the rest of the world to catch up.
Agalloch, Marrow Of The Spirit (Nov. 23, Profound Lore).
It’s taken Agalloch a while to get to where it is; while the band’s done excellent work in the past, there always seemed to be one element here or there that was lacking, something that made you appreciate the band even while you couldn’t quite bring yourself to call it great. Whatever that invisible hump was, though, it’s clearly gone now. Marrow Of The Spirit is the band’s first truly transcendent album, the break it’s been working toward for years. Dropping some of the more overblown theatrical elements from its previous sound and replacing them with an occult, tomblike mystical quality was just the right decision, and it pays off here in abundance.
And now, the runners-up, by category:
Best Incorporation of Non-Western Sounds: Aeternam, Disciples Of The Unseen (Feb. 16, Metal Blade)
Even in a year that saw a new Melechesh album, nobody more skillfully blended Asian and Eastern influences with solid technical death metal than Montreal’s hot prospect, Aeternam.
Most Slept-On Doom Metal Of The Year: Hour Of 13, The Ritualist (Feb. 26, Northern Silence)
Criminally underlooked at the time of its release (including, shamefully, by me), The Ritualist delivered some of the most pulverizing doom anthems of the year, to little notice. That may change when it gets a wider release in 2011 on new label Earache.
Best Argument For Letting Girls In The Metal Clubhouse: Howl, Full Of Hell (May 11, Relapse)
In a year already rich with female talent in Kylesa and Ludicra, it was easy to overlook Howl. Easy, but a mistake: The Rhode Island quartet is as ferocious and head-splitting as the best of its peers, and guitarist Andrea Black delivers Matt Pike-style riffs and hooks with hellacious energy.
Best Way To Party Like It’s 1983: Enforcer, Diamonds (May 25, Earache)
Throwback metal is a tricky proposition: Too sincere and it can be boring, too smirky and it just seems smug. It also has to be carried out with consummate skill; if you don’t have a plentiful supply of unforgettable hooks, you might as well not bother. Sweden’s Enforcer manages to get just about everything right, sounding like Exciter and Accept did when you—and they—were 22 years old.
Best Example Of Americans Taking Europeans To School: Lightning Swords Of Death, The Extra Dimensional Wound (May 25, Metal Blade)
Too many American black metal bands get stuck in a rut, slavishly imitating the basement-dwelling sounds of Scandinavian black metal’s second wave. L.A.’s Lightning Swords Of Death take a broader, all-encompassing approach, delivering American BM that’s both recognizably influenced by Europe and obviously distinct, with elements of death metal and raw punk giving it an edge.
Best Example Of Europeans Taking Americans To School: Eibon, Entering Darkness (June 6, Aesthetic Death)
Having largely ceded black metal to the French, American metal fans used to thinking of doom metal as the sole provenance of English-speaking nations were shocked when Eibon rolled out of bed and, just for the hell of it, proved that France could do that style of metal just as well or better than its American counterparts.
Just Don’t Give A Fuck Award For 2010: Watain, Lawless Darkness (June 7, Season Of Mist)
The Swedish black metal provocateurs that make up Watain have built a career on pissing off fans, the press, and anyone else that happens to be paying attention. But the band’s not some talentless collective of media hackers: It backs its headache-inducing behavior with raw, savage, cutting-edge black metal, throwing in thrash, punk, and death elements just to keep things interesting.
Best Example Of Creeping Sludge: Zoroaster, Matador (July 13, E1)
There’s so much good Southern sludge/doom/stoner rock coming out of Georgia and the Carolinas these days that if you aren’t paying attention, some of the best of it can slip right past you. A perfect example is Atlanta’s Zoroaster, a highly skillful outfit whose Matador full-length starts strong, but grows on you after repeated listens.
Best Excuse To Indulge In Hipster Metal: The Sword, Warp Riders (Aug. 24, Kemado)
I’ll tell you what, Metal Box readers: I’ll agree to drop the whole “hipster metal” thing if you promise to listen to The Sword’s terrific concept album Warp Riders with fresh ears and tell me it’s not straight-up the work of a damn good band stuffed with excellent musicians with keen ears for a hook.
Hardest Partiers In Hungary: Drünken Bastards, Horns Of The Wasted (Aug. 31, Hell’s Headbangers)
Don’t ask me why Hungary, of all places, is producing album after album of hugely fun retro-thrash and party-hearty speed metal. And don’t ask me why I get such a kick out of a band featuring guys named D-Beat Hasselhoff and The Evil Skeletonizer. Just get hold of this album and a bottle of Everclear and try not to have a good time.
Best Evidence For The Existence Of Music Critics: Dawnbringer, Nucleus (Sept. 17, Profound Lore)
“Professor” Chris Black has been writing about metal for over a decade, but don’t hold that against him: His band, Dawnbringer, is truly excellent, an unpredictable blend of death metal riffs, NWOBHM song structures, and throwback classic metal style. It manages to sound both familiar and strange at the same time, a potent and highly listenable combination.
Best Argument For Getting Out Of The House Once In A While: Woe, Quietly, Undramatically (Oct. 12, Candlelight)
It’s not that Woe wasn’t a perfectly serviceable black metal bedroom creation when it consisted only of singer/multi-instrumentalist Xos (a.k.a. Chris Grigg). But it wasn’t until he brought in a full band (including guitarist Ben Brand and the hotshot Madden brothers rhythm section) that Woe really became a force to be reckoned with.
Best Reason Not To Completely Blow Off Deathcore: Oceano, Contagion (Nov. 9, Earache)
Deathcore has always been a bit of a bastard son that no one really wants to admit being a part of, and the inconsistent work of sometimes-excellent, sometimes-terrible bands like Whitechapel and Job For A Cowboy hasn’t helped. But Chicago five-piece Oceano proves with its thick, ultra-heavy, riff-crammed second album that the genre still has something to offer.