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My Best Albums of 2017 - Matt Mills

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Well, surprise, surprise: turns out I’m a little bit of a heavy metal fan.

If my sheer amount of articles written about the genre and its almost infinite canon of bands haven’t made that abundantly clear by now, this list definitely will.

While 2017 has elicited a ton of great albums from every genre, it is the heaviest end of the musical spectrum that has once again won my heart this year, its penchant for experimentation and subversion constantly enchanting and intriguing me. Both new and established bands alike have been wowing metalheads over the course of the past twelve months, with the extreme music scene as it is now feeling more postmodern and diverse than ever before.

So, if you’re one of those people that insists that heavy music is “just noise”, you may want to click away before these ten entries methodically explain just how stupidly incorrect you are.

(Note: These albums are listed in alphabetical order, because trying to rank them from one to ten would take me the rest of my life.)

Satyricon – Deep calleth upon Deep

Satyricon - Deep calleth upon Deep

I’ve long considered heavy metal’s relationship with music to be practically identical to the horror genre’s relationship with cinema: often terrifying, vilified or misunderstood by the mainstream, but also secretly able to pump out some of the greatest works that that medium has ever seen.

Deep calleth upon Deep is, for me, the centrepiece of this argument.

Both melodic and extreme, Satyricon’s ninth, sumptuously heavy record counteracts dissonant growls, harsh guitars and haunting backing vocals with anthemic melodies and rock n’ roll song structuring. Cuts like the album’s title track and ‘The Ghost of Rome’ are truly infectious hits, while ‘Black wings and withering gloom’ and ‘To your brethren in the dark’ resonate with a dark aura and sinister pacing.

Ergo, Deep calleth upon Deep is fun in the same way a movie like Friday the 13th (1980) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is fun. It is a work with a clear (and borderline campy) love of horror and the dark side, and its sheer enjoyment of what it is makes it a truly admirable achievement.

The album’s rock n’ roll DNA gives it a truly enjoyable edge, ready and willing to elicit big sing-alongs and bouts of headbanging at any juncture.

Zeal & Ardor – Devil Is Fine

Zeal & Ardor - Devil Is Fine

When their debut album saw the light of day in February, I – like many metalheads – quickly found myself asking, “What the fuck is Zeal & Ardor?!”

And after nearly ten months of repeatedly listening to Devil Is Fine, I continue to find myself asking, “What the fuck is Zeal & Ardor?!”

A sumptuous blend of gospel, African-American slave music and extreme metal, this brand new, enigmatic group is the one-man project of Swiss maven Manuel Gagneux, who provides sheer, avant-garde bliss, with metal cuts like ‘Come on Down’ and ‘Children’s Summons’ meeting the dark blues of ‘In Ashes’ and a disturbing title track. Thus, Devil Is Fine is one of the most unpredictable and alien albums of 2017 – not just from metal, but from any genre.

Its tunes may not be consistent, but its desire to create a disturbing, unhallowed environment over the course of its half-hour running time certainly is.

Enslaved – E

Enslaved - E

The fourteenth album from the Norwegian progressive/extreme metal titans Enslaved, E is a rabbit hole that only gets deeper and deeper the more one explores it. Behind a deceptively simple title (which is drawn from the Viking rune “ehwaz” in this instance) and a generic heavy metal band name lies a versatile, eclectic ride of undiluted grandeur and power.

E transcends subgenre, consisting of equal parts metal, melodic hard rock, prog, grunge, choir and folk. Gritty, growled verses perfectly punctuate harmonic choruses and gorgeously toned guitars to craft a truly exciting record, its rousing delivery rivalled only by its adventurous song-writing.

Of E’s six grandiose tracks, only one drops beneath the seven-minute mark, allowing the record to ebb and flow with a patient yet enthralling pacing that makes the most of every riff and every moment without stretching them thin. Such wondrously crafted moments as the saxophone-infused conclusion of ‘Hiindsiight’, the huge chorus of ‘The River’s Mouth’ and the tightly knit guitar violence of ‘Axis of the Worlds’ linger in the brain of the listener.

This far into their career, Enslaved have to come to a realisation that many bands never discover at all: that to craft a truly perfect and lauded album, every single song on the record must stand out with its own unique tone, structure or technique, while also maintain a constant flow that never wavers too violently. It’s an inordinately tricky balance to get right, but E does so easily.

Thus, mere weeks after its release, it already finds itself able to stand mightily alongside such acclaimed titles of modern metal as Behemoth’s The Satanist (2014), Gojira’s Magma (2016) and even Mastodon’s Crack the Skye (2009).

Kreator – Gods of Violence

Kreator - Gods of Violence

“Rise, god of violence, in immortal majesty, / The forces of separatists to arms! / Malicious titans and the fear their words can breed, / The one commandment echoes forth as clouds of drones attack.”

As the gloriously apocalyptic lyrics of its title track demonstrate, Gods of Violence is a powerful lamentation on war and civil unrest: one inspired equally by psychological horror movies and modern politics. The fourteenth album from Teutonic thrash veterans Kreator, the disc represents a deliciously macabre union of classic speed metal and melodic death metal, with the leads of shredder Sami Yli-Sirniö crafting harmony after harmony over stunningly quick rhythms.

Responsible for some of the most badass guitar riffs of the year (‘Satan Is Real’, anyone?), Gods of Violence is a meaty slice of ballsy metal, and as twisted as it is rousing.

Savage Messiah – Hands of Fate

Savage Messiah - Hands of Fate

The fourth album from the melodic Brits Savage Messiah is not the most progressive entry here, nor is it the most extreme or the most diverse. But Hands of Fate makes this list because it is a straight-forward, harmonically enchanting journey that fully understands its band’s strengths and, as a result, is one of the most fun and consistent rock records of 2017.

A true sequel to Savage Messiah’s prior disc, The Fateful Dark (2014), Hands of Fate continues the rocking quartet’s journey away from the quick, Metallica-like thrash that they began their career with. Instead, the ten grandiose compositions that make up this album’s corpus harken back to the powerful choruses of the 1980s’ New Wave of British Heavy Metal, taking increasing inspiration from such groups as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.

Songs like Hands of Fate’s title track and ‘A Wing and a Prayer’ are pure, enormous rock n’ roll anthems, with soaring refrains punctuated by the harmonic lead guitars of frontman Dave Silver and a debuting Sam S. Junior. The duo’s powerful solos then proceed to bring the heavy metal thunder, with the bridges of ‘Eat Your Heart Out’ and the groovy ‘Lay Down Your Arms’ especially ready to blow the roof of any venue clean off.

As a result, Hands of Fate is a meaty chunk of adrenaline-pumping rock with a big voice and big balls, and a perfect soundtrack to jumping around your bedroom in a one-man moshpit at three o’clock in the morning.

Caligula’s Horse – In Contact

Caligula's Horse - In Contact

The word may be overused, but In Contact – the fourth album from experimental Aussie sensations Caligula’s Horse – truly is an “epic” in every sense. The emotions, the song-writing, the melodies, the pacing, the instrumental work, the singing, the lyrics, the sheer complexity… all of it is flawless down to the smallest detail.

A tightly woven concept album, In Contact utilises its ten progressive suites to tell four stories of individual struggle and humanity’s innate desire to constantly reach forward in the face of adversity.

But if that all sounds a little artsy and pretentious for you, worry not, because, in layman’s terms, the music still kicks all kinds of ass. From metal to folk to jazz to alternative rock to spoken-word poetry, a plethora of genres get tossed into In Contact’s gigantic corpus, yet still the album flows with a melodic, invigorating quickness throughout.

From the heavenly acoustics of the soft ballads ‘Love Conquers All’ and ‘Capulet’ to the avant-garde interlude ‘Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall’ to the heavy metal bang of ‘Will’s Song (Let the Colours Run)’ to the soulful journey that is ‘Graves’, any listener would be extremely hard-pressed to find something to dislike about In Contact.

Abhorrent Decimation – The Pardoner

Abhorrent Decimation - The Pardoner

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, for the sophomore album from London death metal up-and-comers Abhorrent Decimation is a relentless slice of visceral macabre, easily among the most unforgivingly heavy albums of 2017. The near-ceaseless blast beats of drummer Alex Micklewright, Ashley Scott’s pummelling growls and the guttural riffs of ex-Reign of Fury guitar god Ross McLennan… all of it is designed for the sole purpose of pure, aural destruction.

A gloriously dark concept album, The Pardoner anchors itself around the character of the same name from Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales. Finally proving that the Middles Ages were, indeed, metal as fuck, such topics as greed and corruption find themselves front and centre in this powerful ride. But the real aspect that makes The Pardoner a true titan of this year is its symphonic interludes, adding an aura of grandeur to the enormous title track and the titanic opening chapter ‘Soothsayer’.

Putting the “heavy fucking metal” into “Jesus Christ, this is some pretty heavy fucking metal”, Abhorrent Decimation’s magnum opus is so punishing that it genuinely took me a few attempts to actually get through the entire album in one sitting.

And I’m, like, a narrow-minded, puppy-killing Satanist or something.

Trivium – The Sin and the Sentence

Trivium - The Sin and the Sentence

I love every album on this list for different reasons, but some of you reading this may have noticed by now that I have a bit of an affinity for music that helps to push heavy metal forward as a genre, either through its eclecticism, extremity or experimentalism.

I adore The Sin and the Sentence not for this reason. Rather, I love it because it has the ability to kick your ass like a remorseless hitman thanks to its pummelling riffs and despondent growls, then enchant you back to consciousness with its muscular melodies and expertly taut song-writing.

The Sin and the Sentence nails the core of why so many people love metal. It’s an hour-long opus that is both brutal and operatic, possessing an energy strong enough to rupture the shackles of reality so that you can get lost in a world of sublime heaviness.

Particular Brownie points should be dispensed to newcomer Alex Bent, who single-handedly provides one of the best drumming performances of 2017, as well as to front-man Matt Heafy, who has finally let his growls return to centre-stage after two albums of his harsh vocals gradually disappearing.

Wolves in the Throne Room – Thrice Woven

Wolves in the Throne Room - Thrice Woven

In 2006, Washington’s dark progressive/ambient trio Wolves in the Throne Room totally redefined extreme music with their ground-breaking debut, Diadem of 12 Stars. Mixing black metal vocals and riffs with atmospheric interludes and ethereal production, the record brought one of the ‘90s’ most over-the-top subgenres into the 21st century, trading corpse paint and church-burning for massive, ten-minute-plus compositions and sublime imagery.

Thrice Woven is easily the closest Wolves in the Throne Room have ever come to recapturing the magic of their debut. Adding European folk as another ingredient in the band’s already eclectic style, the album resonates with lengthy movements and echoing guitars. Despite its ambience, Thrice Woven provides a true excitement and power that atmospheric rock almost wholeheartedly lacks. The first distorted, guttural riff of opener ‘Born from the Serpent’s Eye’ is a massive hook for blackened fanatics, with that hook refusing to let you go until long after the closer ‘Fires Roar in the Palace of the Moon’ wraps up.

Sun of the Sleepless – To the Elements

Sun of the Sleepless - To the Elements

Containing songs entitled ‘Where in My Childhood Lived a Witch’, ‘Forest Crown’ and ‘In the Realm of the Bark’, To the Elements is a full-length debut just as darkly fantastical and addictively Gothic as its track listing suggests.

The rejuvenated solo project of the prolific German Ulf Theodor Schwadorf (best known in his homeland for his dark ambient/folk project Empyrium), Sun of the Sleepless mixes traditional black metal with the folky and choral tones that the lauded front-man specialises in. And unlike previous black metal entries in this list like Wolves in the Throne Room and Zeal & Ardor, To the Elements roots itself very much in old-school black metal, harkening back to the bygone days of Burzum and Mayhem, with a desire to subvert such innocent notions as nature and nostalgia.

Less anarchic and more clearly produced than other extreme metal records – as well as heavily relying on such genres as folk, doom rock and choir music – To the Elements is a perfect album not only for metalheads, but also for any music lover that’s curious to peek behind the curtain and explore a subversive, rarely tapped dark side.

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