Burning Ambulance’s week-long countdown of the year’s best metal albums continues with the first half of the top 10. Here we go!
10. Cannibal Corpse, A Skeletal Domain (Buy It)
Cannibal Corpse’s first album since the career-spanning Dead Human Collection: 25 Years of Death Metal box is as consistent and simplistically pleasurable as everything else they’ve released since the arrival of frontman George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher. The band’s early albums with original vocalist Chris Barnes documented the gradual development of their sound; the last two decades’ output has been about consolidation, with a few minor experiments here and there like the doomy “Scourge of Iron” from 2012’s Torture. A Skeletal Domain features edgier guitar riffs, and less bludgeoning, than the trilogy of albums they made with producer Erik Rutan. Mark Lewis, who’s worked with younger bands like The Black Dahlia Murder and Whitechapel, has pushed them in a slightly more listener-friendly direction; “Kill Or Become,” with its chorus of “Fire up the chainsaw!”, is almost catchy. Cannibal Corpse will never surprise, but their levels of energy and inspiration do fluctuate slightly from album to album; this one has lots of both.
9. Incantation, Dirges of Elysium (Buy It)
Incantation are one of the great exemplars of what critic Hank Shteamer calls “death metal conservatism.” They deserve to be ranked alongside Cannibal Corpse, Immolation, Obituary and Suffocation, not only because of the consistency of their output, but because of its consistently high quality. There are no bad Incantation albums, but there are some amazing ones. Dirges of Elysium fits in the latter category. It’s one of their doomiest albums, its riffs slowing down and speeding up like a “bullet time” special effect. It ends with an epic death march, the 16:23 “Elysium (Eternity is Nigh),” which lurches along with torturous slowness, an eight-note riff disintegrating, over and over, into a sustained, distorted chord as John McEntee growls like a grizzly and Kyle Severn pounds out a rhythm that could have driven Viking-era oarsmen. It’s a perfect ending to one of the strongest albums ever by one of death metal’s most individualistic, even visionary bands.
8. Body Count, Manslaughter (Buy It)
Manslaughter is easily the best thing Body Count’s done in 20 years, and it might be their best album, period. Ice-T’s vocals have all the power of his ’90s work, and the music—featuring original lead guitarist Ernie C—is punishing metalcore that fans of Hatebreed, Throwdown and Ringworm will love. “Pop Bubble” calls out pop singers who sing about materialistic bullshit while the economy implodes and the government spies on Americans; “I Will Always Love You” is a nod from former Army Ranger Ice-T to U.S. veterans (including a musical quote from Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun”); “Back to Rehab” and “Enter the Dark Side” are similarly serious. On the other hand, tracks like “Pray for Death,” “Black Voodoo Sex,” and a cover of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” bring a dark and violent sense of humor to the fore. Manslaughter proves that Ice-T and company are undeniable metal contenders, far more than a pop-cultural footnote.
7. Cavalera Conspiracy, Pandemonium (Buy It)
For 30 years, Max Cavalera has been pursuing a unique, highly individualistic vision of metal as a vehicle for spirituality and global awareness. Across Sepultura, Soulfly and Cavalera Conspiracy, his voice has remained undiluted and instantly identifiable. The CC sound is raw, primitive and thrashy, his brother Igor’s beats a relentless jackhammer. On Pandemonium, they introduce elements of industrial, creating a sound not unlike early-2000s Ministry (particularly the 2004-7 trilogy of anti-George W. Bush albums). Marc Rizzo’s guitar riffs are sharp as a bandsaw, with squeals and bursts of fretboard pyrotechnics erupting at key moments, particularly on the intense “Cramunhão”; bassist Nate Newton of Converge fills out the bottom end with a distorted rumble; and Max’s vocals are fed through a distortion box, giving his guttural roars a more demonic and threatening cast than ever before. Thirty years since forming Sepultura, he’s making some of the most aggressive and powerful music of his career.
6. Opeth, Pale Communion (Buy It)
A lot of people, bandleader Mikael Åkerfeldt possibly among them, might aver that Pale Communion isn’t a metal album at all. But that’s only if you judge it by the standards of progressive death metal, where they got their start years ago. When you lay it alongside an album like, say, Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny, it makes perfect sense within the metal canon. While there are complex, stop-start funk grooves and prog-rock keyboard solos all over the thing, layered vocal harmonies for which the only proper adjective is “lovely,” and some quite emotionally powerful strings, these eight tracks still have plenty of elements any headbanger over the age of 30 can easily recognize and appreciate as belonging to his or her beloved genre. Opeth may not be modern metal, but they are definitely metal, and Pale Communion features sweeping, epic songs full of fury, sorrow, excitement—and riffs.