A quick look at the geopolitical landscape in 2017 shows that things were not exactly tranquil. It was similarly a time of discontent for the dark arts. The very soul of the genre was debated more fiercely than ever before and often parallel to global events. The nebulous Antifa was not just the liberal boogieman for followers of Fox News, but also readers of Metal Sucks. The internet was saturated with think-pieces pondering how a genre steeped in violence against women, religion-bashing and anti-authoritarian tropes will evolve in a world of #metoo hashtags, rising anti-Islamic and anti-semitic sentiments, and Donald Trump.
Even if Black Sabbath didn’t play their last shows as the founders of metal alleged, Paul O’Neill (Savatage), Chris Cornell, Gabriel “Negru” Mafa (Negură Bunget), Martin Eric Ain (Celtic Frost), Chuck Mosley (Faith No More), and Warrel Dane (Sanctuary and Nevermore) all have. They will be missed.
On a personal note, 2017 was the year that I came out of retirement to write about metal (and other music) after several years away pursuing family, food, and shelter. Despite everything, I cannot help but think I picked a good year to come back based on the strength of the albums that came out this year.
There were some brilliant releases that didn’t crack my list below. Established artists such as Paradise Lost, Ufomammut, Godflesh, Obituary, and Overkill are still churning out classics, while new bands such as Laster, Zeal & Ardor, Venevum, King Woman, Selcouth, and Big Brave show the future is bright. It wasn’t easy limiting my list to 10 but after a lot of thought, here are my top 10 metal albums of 2017.
Scott Weinrich has had a legendary career spanning four decades of doom. His Brontosaurian riffs and distinctive gritty wail are heard on landmark albums of the genre. Although his time spent in Saint Vitus brought him worldwide acclaim, he had to disband The Obsessed in order to join the group. He revived the project in the early ‘90s, which included a stint on major label Columbia Records before retreating to other projects. Seemingly out of the blue, he announced another revival, and Sacred came out soon afterwards. Kicking off with a new version of “Sodden Jackal,” the first song The Obsessed ever recorded back in 1983, Sacred touches on everything that has made Wino so great for so long.
Some of the most unique extreme music has come from Norway, and Slagmaur does nothing to tarnish that heritage. The project is cloaked in anonymity and mystique; bandleader General Gribbsphiiser is supposedly a professional photographer who mostly listens to classical music. He and his bandmates wear outlandish, grotesque costumes when performing. Thill Smitts Terror, the band’s first release since 2009, compiles evil fairy tales set to Wagnerian melodramatics and buzzing gothic black metal dissonance that is far more accessible than such ambitious music should be.
Azerbaijan sits in between Russia and Iran, a country of nine and a half million people. Hopefully Emin Guliyev isn’t on the tourism board there, since the huge number of singles, splits, EPs and full-length albums he has released since 2013 as Violet Cold would imply that there’s nothing to do. Last year’s self-released Anomie is where you should start. A lot of blackgaze seems cold and detached. Not so with Anomie, which has Middle Eastern mysticism and rhythms within beautiful, pensive melodies that seem genuinely inspirational.
When you hear the term “gothic metal,” you likely think of the current crop of bands that have neither the passion of gothic music nor the power of metal, diluting both genres rather than invigorating them. Leave it to an album whose title literally translates to “night” to finally embrace the darkness that draws in practitioners and devotees of both subcultures. The debut full-length album from the UK band Light of the Morning Star, Nocta incorporates enough black metal trappings to confuse the corpse-painted into thinking they are being serenaded, but the morose vibe that permeates the album is really far more Andrew Eldritch than Azaghal or Emperor. “Coffinwood” makes me want to drink absinthe and howl at the moon.
After toiling away in self-imposed one-man black metal band obscurity for a decade or so as Nekrasov, Bob Nekrasov started releasing material under the name Rebel Wizard, proffering what he deemed was ‘Negative Wizard Metal.’ This attracted the attention of Prosthetic Records who are now releasing both projects and reissued 2016’s self-released Triumph of Gloom to a wider audience last year. The disc is rooted in low-fi, first generation raw, explosive black metal but invigorated with NWOBHM guitar histrionics, the perfect combination of Emperor and Iron Maiden.
It can be argued that The Midnight Ghost Train has moved past the metallic inclinations that saw the Kansas band signing with Napalm Records and playing the legendary Roadburn Festival in 2013. On Cypress Ave. the band does move beyond the stoner-blues inclinations of earlier material, but there’s more than enough loud riffs to keep a metalhead happy. Steve Moss approximates not only Tom Waits’ raspy, gravelly scowl but also his storytelling ability on the sympathetic but stern “Red Eyed Junkie Queen,” minimalist burlesque twirler “Break My Love,” and the salsa-rap “The Boogie Down,” which features Sonny Cheeba from Camp Lo. Like Toto, you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Don’t call it a comeback as Wolves In The Throne Room never went anywhere. But Thrice Woven sure feels like it after 2014’s Celestite. The earnest but ultimately unfulfilling take on spacey synth-rock was a misstep that possibly the band itself now realizes. Thrice Woven is not just a return to form for the reclusive proto-hipster black metallers, but possibly the best album the band has ever released. All of the facets of the band’s past are here—female vocals and recorded spoken word passages that break up the metallic screaming, furiously cascading and shimmering guitars, droning percussive rhythms—but they are all coordinated flawlessly. It’s epic and stunning and glorious to behold.
Chelsea Wolfe’s first few releases were the kind of dark folk you might expect from a disaffected dramatic art school student, quite good but not particularly metallic. However, in 2015, she started working with members of Russian Circles and incorporating electronics and post-metal drone into her repertoire which raised eyebrows among metal consiglieres. The transformation is completed on Hiss Spun. The Kurt Ballou-produced album is emotionally devastating, embracing darkness instead of fighting it. No matter how much goes on around her, including searing riffs courtesy of Queens of the Stone Age’s Troy Van Leeuwen and Aaron Turner (Isis, Old Man Gloom) providing growling counterpoint to her breathy vocals, she remains the center of attention. As she should be.
Paraphrasing my Agit Reader album review, it’s not that shocking that Brutus began life as a Refused cover band. The Belgian trio emulates the standard bearing Shape of Punk to Come by being completely uncompromising, challenging punk and hardcore sensibilities and transcending genre politics, yet doing so in ways that are as accessible as they are subversive. Although Lars Ulrich is supposedly a fan, this album did not get nearly the love it deserved from metal and alternative media. Maybe it’s because they have yet to tour much beyond their homeland or maybe because Burst doesn’t easily fit into classification. With songwriting this good, though, their time can’t come soon enough.
When it comes to inclusivity in metal, I am quite guilty of overreach. Yet I was shocked when fellow metal scribes were falling over themselves in praising Thin Black Duke. Which isn’t to say the album isn’t brilliant; it is. However, it seemed like shoe-horning an art-rock album that took influence from David Bowie as a metal release was unlikely. Still, Oxbow has always attracted a metallic following, sharing stages with the likes of Neurosis and The Melvins. The decade-in-waiting comeback album is unsettling, chaotic and clattering, free jazz in a world where nothing is free, noise as melody and vice versa, all tied together by Eugene Robinson, a man who can intimidate with brains and brawn or sometimes just the way he stretches a syllable out. Oxbow’s music may not be metal, but that didn’t stop them from making the best metal album of the year.