In the 21st century, metal is defined by its sub-sub-microgenres…at least, if you ask most American metal critics. Blackened crust. OSDM (that stands for old school death metal, but it’s got to be played by young people to count, for some reason). War metal (isn’t most metal about war?). American metal writers seem to spend their days scouring Bandcamp looking for the most obscure, anonymous bands to champion, but the truth is, most underground metal never gets aboveground because it’s not really meant to. As Matt Hollenberg says in the latest Burning Ambulance podcast, dissonance and hyper-complexity and general sonic alienating-ness are at least partly political gestures now. They’re about musicians and fans saying, in effect, “This is how far out we’re willing to go—can you hang? Didn’t think so.”

There’s very little of that kind of music on this list, though. Because from BA’s perspective, metal should still make you want to pump your fist and bang your head, not fold your arms and stroke your beard. From our POV, the big story this year is that old men were absolutely killing it, across the board. Thirteen of the 25 albums below are from veteran acts (or new bands featuring veterans), some of whom have been on the scene 30 years or more. To pick a few examples: Body Count came back hot with their previous album, 2014’s Manslaughter, and compounded their achievement with the explicitly political Bloodlust, channeling Black Lives Matter rage (and frontman Ice-T‘s frustration at having been, in his words, talking about this shit for over 20 years) into a thrashing, screaming tour de force. Danzig, on the other hand, made a doom-haunted, blues-soaked groan of an album, his best since Danzig 4p. Cavalera Conspiracy (the current project of Max and Igor Cavalera, the brothers who founded Sepultura) continued exploring a unique blend of grindcore, primitive thrash, industrial and noise on an album that features guest appearances from Justin Broadrick of Godflesh—who also came back very strong this year—and Dominick Fernow of Prurient. Immolation showed lesser bands how to play death metal with emotion (the lyrics to “Lower” pack a real punch) while still remaining crushingly heavy. Obituary continued to shamble down the path of swampy, groove-oriented death metal they’ve been on since the late ’80s, but they added a shredtastic new lead guitarist to juice things up. Incantation and Cannibal Corpse just kept on being Incantation and Cannibal CorpseScott “Wino” Weinrich revived the Obsessed band name with an all-new lineup, and made one of the best albums of his career, covering Thin Lizzy and Mountain, the better to explicitly link his brand of biker doom with early ’70s hard rock and proto-metal.

Of course, younger bands did great work this year, too. Black Anvil continued to inject low-slung groove and New York attitude into black metal. Cormorant, Pallbearer, and especially Elder all played progressive metal of one stripe or another; one may be more stonerriffic than the others, but all three of their albums were epic as hell. Cranial Engorgement demonstrated the joyous power of pure, knuckle-walking death metal, while Spirit Adrift blended doom with power metal to create something glorious all their own. Myrkur continued to make metal one component of an introspective, sweeping musical hybrid all her own. Trivium recovered from a disappointing 2015 release with an album that played to all their strengths.

All these albums are great, and it would be very difficult to call one better than the rest. So instead of a ranked list, here are the 25 best metal albums of the year, in alphabetical order:

Black Anvil, As Was (Relapse)
Body Count, Bloodlust (Century Media)
Cannibal Corpse, Red Before Black (Metal Blade)
Cavalera Conspiracy, Psychosis (Napalm)
Cleric, Retrocausal (Web of Mimicry) Matt Hollenberg interview
Cormorant, Diaspora (self-released) BA review
Cranial Engorgement, Horrific Existence (Gore House Productions) BA review
Danzig, Black Laden Crown (Nuclear Blast) BA review
Elder, Reflections of a Floating World (Stickman)
Godflesh, Post Self (Avalanche Recordings)
Immolation, Atonement (Nuclear Blast) BA review
Incantation, Profane Nexus (Relapse)
Kreator, Gods of Violence (Nuclear Blast)
Mastodon, Emperor of Sand (Reprise/Warner Bros.)
Memoriam, For the Fallen (Nuclear Blast)
Myrkur, Mareridt (Relapse) BA review
Obituary, Obituary (Relapse)
The Obsessed, Sacred (Relapse) BA review
PallbearerHeartless (Profound Lore)
Prong, Zero Days (Steamhammer/SPV)
Spirit Adrift, Curse of Conception (20 Buck Spin)
Suffocation, …Of the Dark Light (Nuclear Blast)
Tau Cross, Pillar of Fire (Relapse)
Trivium, The Sin and the Sentence (Roadrunner)
Vallenfyre, Fear Those Who Fear Him (Century Media)


Burning Ambulance has been 100% independent since 2010, and we’re not going anywhere. But we have created a Patreon campaign, to which you can donate as little or as much as you can afford. This will permit us to continue things like the Burning Ambulance podcast, and pay our contributors.

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