The notion that metal has become more expansive and has demonstrated a greater willingness to fiddle with other genres is, at this point, an old one. In fact, that very restlessness has come to define metal as it moves ever deeper into the 21st Century. Case in point: the albums that comprise our 25 Best Metal Albums list. Not one of them can be neatly summarized. There’s a doom album, but doesn’t it also remind you a lot of NWOBHM? And that black metal album — is that a fiddle solo in the middle of it? The albums on this list are the new sound of heavy metal, one that’s ever more elusive and nuanced, but as roaring and mercenary as ever.
25. Sun Worship, Elder Giants
Sun Worship is perhaps the most obscure entry on our list, but it might just be the one that deserves the most attention. Beneath a layer of oppressively thick sonic smog, this young German outfit churns out purposeful tremolo riffs that alternate between languid despondency and savage fury, style-checking the American take on atmospheric black metal, but increasing the level of urgency. Elder Giants heaves and roars through four long compositions, collapsing in a morass of noise in its finale. It's a stunning debut filled with malignant promise. — Kim Kelly
24. Alraune, The Process of Self-Immolation
The debut LP by Alraune announces a welcome newcomer to the saturated atmospheric black metal world. Unlike most of the new bands in that genre, though, this Nashville quartet isn't afraid to leave a few seams exposed. This isn't pretty music at first blush; its production values are more in line with the Norwegian Second Wave than the recent explosion of moody, Alcest-influenced bands. The Process of Self-Immolation obscures its beauty with intentional ugliness. While that's a fairly orthodox tactic by the standards of the black metal's glorious '90s, it feels fresh — even necessary — in a post-Deafheaven world. — Brad Sanders
23. Mastodon, Once More ‘Round the Sun
If you're wired a certain way, Once More 'Round the Sun is exciting the same way recent Queens of the Stone Age, Black Keys and Foo Fighters albums can be exciting. In a time when metal and mainstream rock are still too fractionalized to compete as pop, Mastodon are a throwback: "Ah, they still make 'em like this." Though they're no longer the hard rock oddballs that made Leviathan, Mastodon have grown into an ace hard rock band, one capable of burying genuine hooks beneath layers of molten-lava guitars. Some might call this a retreat, but to others, hearing a band at the top of their game hurl out anthem after anthem is downright exhilarating. — Wondering Sound Staff
22. Mutilation Rites, Harbinger
Motivated by the unrelenting bombast of Norwegian acts like Mayhem and early Darkthrone, New York's Mutilation Rites take their metal black and without a hint of irony. In addition, they possess a broad musical vocabulary and sharp songwriting acumen that take them beyond the icy, windswept Nordic bands cloned by so many of their peers. Elements of American hardcore and sludgy doom-prog echo through Harbinger. There's the sustained, near-atonal guitar chords and harrowing screams of "Tactical Means of Ouroboros," and the mid-paced Melvins-meets-Neurosis constructions of Ignus Fatuus." Even when drummer Justin Ennis (ex-Tombs) is on hyperdrive, the rest of the band is frequently playing skewed chords and chugging at half-speed, ever aware that what separates them from the rest if the sheep is the quality of their wool. — Jon Wiederhorn
21. Panopticon, Roads to the North
On Roads to the North, the fifth Panopticon full-length, sole member Austin Lunn hones the techniques he employed on 2012's Kentucky to devastating effect. Where a bluegrass lick may have once been placed at a safe distance from a blistering black metal riff, Lunn here ably combines his disparate musical interests within the same song — and often the same passage. "Where Mountains Pierce the Sky" lets a snaking fiddle follow the black metal action for much of its duration, even permitting it some beautifully bowed melodies while gnarled guitars churn beneath. Lunn has liberated himself from the demands of black metal orthodoxy, and his music is free to gaze homeward. — B.S.
20. Inter Arma, The Cavern
The Cavern, a one-track behemoth clocking in at over 45 minutes long, was conceived all the way back in 2009, but this year, it finally got the studio treatment it deserves. It feels both like an extension of Inter Arma's terrific 2013 sophomore effort Sky Burial, and a separate, multifaceted universe unto itself. To call it a "song" seems a bit disingenuous — it's constantly moving and morphing in unexpected, sometimes daring ways. But at the same time, it has the cohesion of a larger work, buoying recurring themes and motifs through maelstroms of earth-salting guitar. If Sky Burial hinted at the idea of Inter Arma being a post-rock band stuck in a metal band's body, the expansive Cavern all but confirms it, mixing dark blues and grays in with the pure blacks. — Zach Kelly
19. Bastard Sapling, Instinct Is Forever
Three of the members of Richmond, Virginia's Bastard Sapling also play in the acclaimed doomy progressive band Inter Arma, and while they formed Bastard Sapling to get their speed fix, they came to the carving table with impeccable chops. Even when they are locked into an Immortal-style groove, as on "My Spine Will Be My Noose," Bastard Sapling add in unconventional nuances and skillful frills. And when they stretch, they enter a realm foreign to most black metal, incorporating flourishes such as glimmering distorted arpeggios, bass counter-melodies, chanting choirs, and tribal flute intros. Instinct may be forever, but sometimes immaculate craftsmanship goes even further. — J.W.
18. Godflesh, A World Lit Only By Fire
Godflesh's seventh full-length, A World Lit Only By Fire is a slow-motion apocalypse that harks back to the brutality of 1989's Streetcleaner and 1990's Pure. "New Dark Ages" starts the barrage with an echo of feedback and cymbals that click and hiss before the first devastatingly heavy serrated chugs shake the ground like a 6.0 earthquake. "Life Giver Life Taker" boosts the tempo and adds more drone to the tone, while draining the vocals to a weary, sedated melodic echo. There's nothing pretty about A World Lit by Fire, but old-school fans fired up by fury should welcome the band's return as a four-legged hate machine and forgive (if not forget) the 13 long years between records. — J.W.
17. At the Gates, At War With Reality
Instead of revisiting their now predictable formula, At the Gates have thrown away the rulebook and written an album of heartfelt melodic death metal full of atmospheric arpeggios. Vocalist Tomas Lindberg based his lyrics on "magic realism," a literary device that places characters in circumstances that could never exist in the real world. They raise the bar right from the start with "El Altar Del Dios Desconocido" ("The Altar of the Unknown God"), a Spanish spoken-word piece backed by the sound of eerie, droning keyboards. Then "Death and the Labyrinth" blasts into thrash beats and tremolo picking, and "The Book of Sand" develops from slow and chuggy to blistering and brutal, ending with progressive guitar lines redolent of Enslaved or Opeth. The combined result is easily on par with their best material. — J.W.
16. Witch Mountain, Mobile of Angels
The metal world is still mourning Uta Plotkin's announcement that she's stepping down as vocalist for Portland's throwback doom crew Witch Mountain, but at least she's going out on a high note. On Mobile of Angels, her soulful vocals, which deserve every favorable Ann Wilson comparison they've received, sound more at home wrapped around Rob Wrong's post-Iommi riffs than they ever have. The album-closing diptych of "Mobile of Angels" and "The Shape Truth Takes" represents an audacious plot twist for a band that seems determined to show that, with or without their singer, they've got plenty more to say. — B.S.
15. Woods of Desolation, As the Stars
As incongruous as it may seem to call a black metal album beautiful, there's no other word to describe what atmospheric Australians Woods of Desolation have put into motion on As the Stars. Contributions from members of Drudkh, Nazgul and Pestilential Shadows only sweeten the pot on the band's third full-length, which has been steered since 2005 by founder and sole permanent member D. Intensely melodic, and as indebted to Katatonia's depressive masterpiece Brave Murder Day as it is to any pure black metal influences, the final result soars above what the likes of Alcest could only hope to achieve.
14. Eyehategod, Eyehategod
A full 14 years after the release of 2000's Confederacy of Ruined Lives, NOLA pioneers Eyehategod return with their fifth album, sounding like it's still the mid '90s. And that's a good thing. Eyehategod is equal parts sludge, groove destruction and agony — a symphony of sickness from five ill-fated souls who've suffered the wrath of drug addiction, industry hardships, natural disasters and the death of band mates and friends. Songs like the feedback-laden nausea-crawl "Nobody Told Me" and the sprawling, dizzying rant "Flags and Cities Bound" exemplifies the raw fury and cathartic ugliness of these 11 tracks, which are as well-crafted as they are brutal. — J.W.
13. Dead Congregation, Promulgation of the Fall
Whether lumbering lethargically on "Promulgation of the Fall" or crashing the gates with total abandon on "Nigredo," Dead Congregation never hold back their destructive impulses. They blast forth a spontaneous sounding series of riffs and tempos that are somehow complementary without ever resorting to such blasphemies as discernable verses and choruses. These Greek nihilists are influenced by a generation of '90s death metal pioneers including Incantation, Immolation and Suffocation, yet they're as untethered as experimental bands like Mitochondrion and Antediluvian. In an era of numbing repetition and pacifying melody, Dead Congregation's ceaseless barrage is music to our ears. — J.W.
12. The Body, I Shall Die Here
Chip King and Lee Buford have been firing their shotguns at extreme metal's rulebook for years now, but enlisting the electronic producer Bobby Krlic (aka the Haxan Cloak) to guide I Shall Die Here might be their most radical act yet. Krlic adds textures to the tracks here that often reorient The Body's sludgy racket outside of metal entirely. Bursts of dubstep, power electronics and industrial music twist Buford's drums and King's shrieks into unrecognizable shapes, too harrowing to be contained by genre. The Body have always been adept at bumming us out. I Shall Die Here expands their arsenal. — B.S.
11. Winterfylleth, The Divination of Antiquity
The Divination of Antiquity is a grandiose statement on par with Winterfylleth's previous high-water mark, 2012's equally sweeping The Threnody of Triumph. Eight of its nine tracks crack six minutes, and each balances majestic riffing and screamed-from-the-mountaintop vocals with moments of quiet contemplation. "Whisper of the Elements" and "Forsaken in Stone" feel ancient, as though their soaring chords and chants were conjured by the builders of Stonehenge rather than four guys in black hoodies. Despite occasionally miring them in controversy, that uncanny connection to a Romantic past is what's made Winterfylleth's music stand above the work of peers like Wodensthrone and Fen. The Divination of Antiquity should put to rest all arguments that its makers belong anywhere but the apex of their scene. — B.S.
10. Diocletian, Gesundrian
As if the album art of Gesundrian, which features a knight on horseback, doesn't reveal the m.o. of this New Zealand quartet, the clanging swords, shouting soldiers and marching riffs of the album opener "Cleaved Asunder" should make Diocletian's message perfectly clear: War is hell, but great glory doesn't come without a fight. Gesundrian continues where 2010's War of All Against All left off, only without as many textural breathers. This is complete brutality, a merciless barrage of blast beats, buzzsaw riffs, trem guitar licks, martial midsections and lyrics about battles and bloodshed. In the hands of others, Gesundrian might come across as trite or silly. But Diocletian attack their material with the ferocity and conviction of proven war heroes like Marduk and Bolt Thrower. — J.W.
9. YOB, Clearing the Path to Ascend
The sound on Clearing the Path to Ascend is tactile: You can practically feel vocalist/guitarist Mike Shiedt's callused hands sliding up and down the guitar neck, pressing into the strings and visualizing the rapid, frenetic delivery of his riffing on "Nothing to Win." The chord structures and tremolo picking — perhaps influenced by Shiedt's recent blackened hardcore side project, VHÖL — is a departure from the rest of the album with a catchy, clearly-defined chorus. This might be the group's most accessible album, but Ascend also seems like a natural progression. This isn't a case of fixing what was broken; it's about becoming greater than they already were. — Laina Dawes
8. Thou, Heathen
Being so active in the studio (four albums and 19 EPs and split-albums since 2007) has allowed Thou plenty of time to perfect their potent amalgam of doom, sludge and post-metal. Heathen, which is over 74 minutes long, is hardly a quick or easy listen. Even at its most celestial moments, the record is bleak, oppressive and unrelenting. Discounting three relatively short instrumental segues, the songs painstakingly ebb and flow between melancholy arpeggios and visceral, soul-searing riffs. "Ode to Physical Pain" and "Feral Faun" are expressions of self-loathing and despair, and even the positively titled 14-minute-long album opener, "Free Will," suggests the best choices may ultimately be the most damaging. — J.W.
7. Coffinworm, IV.I.VIII
The post-apocalyptic bleakness that Indianapolis nihilists Coffinworm conjure up on IV.I.VIII is impressive in its totality. For nearly 40 relentless minutes, no light escapes. Genre is malleable in the hands of guitarists Garrett O'Sha and Carl Byers, both of whom are fluent in the languages of Norwegian black metal, old-school death metal and New Orleans sludge, and they always seem to find the right tradition to dip into at the right moment. Vocalist Dave Britts shows similarly impressive range, effortlessly moving between throat-ripping highs and guttural lows. This music won't soundtrack any upcoming Indianapolis tourism commercials, but for a certain subset of Hoosiers, these guys are the only ones who get it. — B.S.
6. Earth, Primitive & Deadly
While the songs on Primitive and Deadly aren't exactly a throwback to the crushing doom of Earth's primordial beginnings 25 years ago, the lengthy guitar epics that bookend this record do constitute the heaviest the band has been since reforming a decade ago. The real surprise here is the presence of vocals for the first time since 1996's Pentastar: In the Style of Demons. Founding members Dylan Carlson and Adrienne Davies couldn't have found two more appropriate voices than Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi. Lanegan lends his brooding croon to "There is a Serpent Coming" and "Rooks Across the Gates," and Qazi, of the Pacific Northwest's premiere psych outfit Rose Windows, conjures Broken English-era Marianne Faithfull across the 11-and-a-half-minute blues stomp "From the Zodiacal Light." Primitive and Deadly collapses Earth's entire quarter-century existence into one slow-burning boom of creation. — Ron Hart
5. Electric Wizard, Time to Die
Time to Die may be simplistic in structure, but it's overflowing with fuzzy guitars and hallucinogenic imagery — an orgy of demonic, down-tempo metal that rivals Electric Wizard's best records. This isn't a bunch of college buddies smoking bowls and listening to prog-rock. They're a volatile, hard-living bunch whose music resounds with chaos and disorientation. The title track is built with dense layers of distorted guitar and bass, creating a foundation for frontman Jus Oborn's echoing, fatalistic vocals ("Wake up children, it's time to die"). And "SadioWitch" is a death march with chugging, unrelenting guitars and a sustained wail of banshee feedback. Whether Electric Wizard are serious about their lyrical content or whether their tongues are firmly embedded in the acid tabs that line their cheeks doesn't matter. Even after two decades and multiple lineup shifts, these U.K. misanthropes still deliver some of the best, most devilish thrills in metal. — J.W.
4. Nux Vomica, Nux Vomica
A few songs from Nux Vomica's second full-length, 2009's Asleep In the Ashes, were over 10 minutes long. For their follow-up, the band has discarded all things short and simple. What's so impressive about the album's three songs isn't the band's ability to play for a quarter of an hour without stopping, it's the way the members weave together multiple styles, including, crust, doom, post-metal, thrash, melodic black metal and avant-metal without sounding schizophrenic or overwhelming. The opening cut, "Choked at the Roots," reveals Nux Vomica at their most eclectic and cohesive, gradually building from a droning, atmospheric haze to a caustic roar, with subtle ambient, propulsive prog and churn-n-burn stopovers in between. — J.W.
3. Blut Aus Nord, Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry
The revered Blut Aus Nord, led by French multi-instrumentalist Vindsval, have been quietly revolutionizing black metal with every release. The seven songs on Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry are unabashedly epic and touched with winter frost. Vindsval is a master of balancing beauty and brutality, grandiosity with grimness. The songs here are heavily driven by bright, almost-euphoric melodies, then scrubbed down with an abrasive finish. There's an ethereal quality to the work, but when the aggressive sections kick in, fingers fly in flurries of dense tremolo picking. It's a staggering work of uncommon genius. — K.K.
2. Triptykon, Melana Chasmata
It took four years of painstaking introspection for Triptykon to follow up Eparistera Daimones, and after hearing Melana Chasmata it's clear why: Fischer has distilled all of the best elements of his past bands (caustic guitars, agonized screams, orchestral arrangements, female background vocals) into a single release. You can still hear those unmistakable grunts and "ooh!"s that became Celtic Frost trademarks, but Melana Chasmata folds in Bauhaus-era goth, touches of industrial, and morose melodies reminiscent of The Swans. Fischer has channeled his misery into a masterpiece of futility, demise, and decay, one that retains elements black metal but none of its clichés. — J.W.
1. Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden
Imagine the expectations that have trailed Pallbearer since 2012. That's the year that the Arkansas doom metal quartet debuted with Sorrow & Extinction, an urgent espousal of most everything great about the low-lit, low-tempo subgenre. On Foundations of Burden, they answer those demands with unapologetic audacity and preternatural ease. What's most important about Foundations of Burden is the group's expert deployment of dynamics and their incorporation of stylistic touchstones usually left outside of doom's circle of darkness. During the "Ghost That I Used to Be," for instance, they hit a stride that suggests they're one risky DJ and track edit away from rock radio; "Foundations" climbs from an outgoing instrumental interlude to sudden post-rock heights, Brett Campbell's arching voice tracing the kind of coda that couples fall in love to, even if he's singing about the predestined disappearance of mortals. "Without dark/ the light burns out our eyes," Campbell offers with a perfect touch of falsetto during the album's first two minutes. On one of the year's best and most magnetic albums, Pallbearer has found its own balance of shade and shine, no pressure detected. — Grayson Haver Currin