It’s time for our annual countdown of the 25 best metal albums of the year. In 2015, the Big Story in metal seemed to revolve around mortality. Motörhead leader Lemmy suffered health problems which forced the band to cancel a string of dates on its US tour, inspiring multiple anxious essays about what we (the metal community) are going to do when he’s gone, and—more broadly—when all the genre’s heroes, most of whom first emerged on the stage close to 40 years ago, retire or die. And it’s a legitimate question; metal is more commercially driven than jazz, where there hasn’t been an expectation of real money, on the part of the artists or the labels putting out their records, since the 1950s. But very few new bands are selling the way Judas Priest or Iron Maiden sold in their heyday, and nobody’s doing the numbers Metallica does. Metallica aside, the biggest bands in metal right now are Five Finger Death Punch and Disturbed, and while their albums may go platinum, they’re ignored by critics and reviled by many metal fans. (N.B.: Neither Five Finger Death Punch nor Disturbed will be found on this countdown.) Metal is becoming critically and commercially marginal, which makes the good stuff that much harder to find, but also helps those fans and critics who are interested to focus what discussion does occur on the merits of the art, rather than worrying about attaching broad social significance to a record just because it’s selling a lot.
Anyway, this week we’ll be highlighting 25 of the best metal albums of the year, from a variety of genres. Shall we?
25. Alpha Tiger, iDentity
Power metal is a style that’s easy to get wrong, but when it’s done right, there’s nothing more glorious. Alpha Tiger, a relatively young German band (this is only their third album since changing names and styles in 2011—they used to be a thrash act called Satin Black), offer a punchy, melodic version of power metal, heavily indebted to Iron Maiden circa Somewhere In Time or Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son but less epic; they get in and get out, with fist-pumping choruses and new frontman Benjamin Jaino’s breathtaking (no pun intended) upper-register vocals keeping the listener riveted. They haven’t been around that long, but iDentity still feels like a new beginning.
24. Krisiun, Forged In Fury
This Brazilian trio celebrated their 25th anniversary this year, releasing their 10th studio album, and first since 2011. Like its predecessors, it’s a head-down, forceful assault, with the three brothers who make up the band dishing out brutal, stop-start riffs and harsh, barking, Max Cavalera-esque vocals atop militaristically thrashy drumming. There are few surprises here, for Krisiun fans or death metal fans generally, but the production, by Hate Eternal’s Erik Rutan, gives the music a physical impact their previous three albums, impressive as they were, lacked. Longtime Krisiun fans will be overjoyed; newcomers will find Forged In Fury a killer entry point.
23. Trivium, Silence In The Snow
Trivium’s seventh album is the next step in their journey from metalcore shredders to modern metal traditionalists. Frontman Matt Heafy has totally abandoned screams, adopting a clean, theatrical style explicitly indebted to Ronnie James Dio. Musically, they’ve always loved big choruses and heavy grooves, and that hasn’t changed. But they’ve slowed down here, in pursuit of a purer heaviness, and the result is an album that requires multiple listens to reveal its true power. Trivium have never broken through in America the way they have in Europe, and Silence In The Snow feels like it’s aimed directly at the people who see them headlining huge outdoor festivals, not those who see them as an opening act in a club.
22. Antigama, The Insolent
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This Polish grindcore institution seem to get stronger with each release. This album, their ninth, is a breathtaking display of their uniquely arty, jagged take on the style. At times, the almost free jazz work of drummer Pawel Jaroszewicz recalls Brutal Truth’s Rich Hoak (frontman Lukasz Myszkowski often sounds like that band’s vocalist, Kevin Sharp), but they’re just as capable of a song that’s almost catchy, like “Sentenced to the Void,” almost an epic at over four minutes and strongly reminiscent of Napalm Death’s adventurous late ’90s albums. Antigama are well known to grind aficionados, but deserve an audience among anyone fond of being screamed at and pummeled.
21. Enslaved, In Times
Norway’s Enslaved are hard to pin down; they started out as a Viking-obsessed black metal band, but have grown weirder and more progressive (and better) with every album since 2001’s Monumension. In Times is their proggiest album to date, swathed in keyboards and anchored by throbbing bass lines that make the occasional return to blast beats, tinny black metal guitar riffs, and particularly lead vocalist Grutle Kjellson’s guttural growls feel like concessions to a fan base that wants them to stay the way they were. The truth is, though, the farther they get from their roots, the better they sound.