In a year of eclectic album releases, the metalverse also followed suit this year and unleashed a wide-ranging spread of albums, much to the delight of headbangers around the world. As the musical landscape incorporates more experimental sounds and morphs into something wholly new, metal acts, which are traditionally slow to give in to change, also broke barriers by adopting unconventional elements into their sound.
While several legends like Judas Priest and Behemoth reclaimed their status as the genre's flagbearers this year, fresher acts like Zeal & Ardor pushed the boundaries of the genre by challenging traditional themes. There were also plenty of exciting comebacks and a few eyebrow-raising left turns, while others doubled down on their pre-established sound with relentless defiance. Before we gear up for a slew of big metal releases in 2019, including the new Tool album (hopefully) and albums from Rammstein, Slipknot and Megadeth, let's take a moment to acknowledge some of the most exciting metal releases of the year that was.
10. 'I Loved You At Your Darkest' - Behemoth
If you were expecting Behemoth to out-extreme their 2014 masterpiece 'The Satanist' this year, you'll be sorely disappointed. Instead, the Polish death metal legends decided to show surprising restraint in the carefully constructed riffs and breakdowns of 'I Loved You At Your Darkest'. What they didn't back down on was their anti-organized religion sentiment, something that takes the spotlight throughout the album. 'I Loved You At Your Darkest' is another strong addition to Behemoth’s remarkable run, which has now lasted more than a quarter century. Bringing in a children’s choir and a 17-piece orchestra, Behemoth has brought about a huge shift in a genre of metal that is otherwise stubborn to evolution.
9. 'Down Below' - Tribulation
On their fourth album, Swedish goth metal trailblazers Tribulation explore the underworld with their most thrilling and cohesive package yet. Picking up where 2015's 'The Children of the Night' left off, songs like 'The Lament,' 'Nightbound,' and 'Lady Death' combine soaring guitars, vintage horror cinema soundscapes while frontman Johannes Andersson's ghostly death growl with postmortem themes create something truly awe-inspiring. The new sound abandons many of the punk and goth elements of their previous works and adopts elements of psychedelia, adding several layers that invite a deep dive from the listeners.
8. 'Automata I' + 'Automata II' - Between the Buried and Me
Progressive metal icons Between the Buried and Me returned this year with not one, but two concept albums. Although the decision to split the two albums was a curious one (the combined length of both albums was shorter than 2012’s ‘The Parallax II: Future Sequence.’), the result was absolutely glorious. Centered around the concept of being able to view the dreams of others, the two albums are a scathing critique of the drip feed of online entertainment that millions are hooked onto in the present era. "We never want to repeat ourselves. We’re always trying to do something different, and this album fell right into that sort of pattern. We push ourselves into new places, while retaining our basic sound," said guitarist Paul Waggoner of the double concept album. And that's exactly what BTBAM did this year. They even scored an unlikely Grammy nomination for their effort.
7. 'Stranger Fruit' - Zeal & Ardor
Zeal & Ardor made waves in the metal scene two years ago with their unusual blend of black metal, blues and slave spirituals. The band’s debut release Devil Is Fine was a fascinating record that pushed the boundaries of the genre. This year, Zeal & Ardor furthered that journey with 'Stranger Fruit', an album that outshines Zeal’s debut in almost every way. From soulful anthems like 'Gravedigger’s Chant,' to twisted cuts like 'Fire of Motion', the album intermingles melodic symphonies and sheer black metal force like never before. With 'Stranger Fruit', the band has fine-tuned its initial sound, cutting away the sprawling interludes and replacing them with anthemic hymns and black metal screeches to produce their tightest work so far.
6. 'Firepower' - Judas Priest
When a classic heavy metal act announces their 18th studio album, you wish them well and hope for a few great tracks to update their greatest hits playlist. But Judas Priest refused to settle for just that to deliver an album that outdid all expectations. As the title suggests, 'Firepower' arrived with all guns blazing, best observed on charged-up tracks like 'Lightning Strike,' the title track and “Necromancer.” In interviews before 'Firepower' dropped, the band stated they were going for more creative songwriting while bringing back some of their heavier and speedier riffs. While delivering on that promise, they also offered tender ballads like 'Sea of Red,' demonstrating why they're a band that will go down in metal history as an all-time great.
5. 'Electric Messiah' - High On Fire
Guitarist Matt Pike had a very productive 2018. He dropped the first album in 19 years by his seminal stoner metal band Sleep, ‘The Sciences’ (on 4/20, no less). If that was not enough, he released the eighth album by his turbo-doom band High on Fire, ‘Electric Messiah,’ the follow-up to 2015’s bludgeoning ‘Luminiferous.’ While it’s just as loud and mesmerizing as ‘Luminiferous,’ ‘Electric Messiah’ also experiments with slower tempos to deliver a well-rounded record. Opening track 'Spewn from the Earth' explodes with a mammoth riff and a vigorous pace, underlined by fiery guitar leads. Pike’s vocals are ferocious, while the production is gritty and loud. The title track is a high-energy affair that maintains its energetic pace throughout its four-plus minute duration. With 'Electric Messiah', the Oakland-based doom metal icons remind listeners why they are one of the most dependable acts in the genre.
4. 'Prequelle' - Ghost
After their 2015 album 'Meliora', Swedish heavy metal giants Ghost went through a PR nightmare as the identities of one of the most secretive bands in the world became public. Some in-fighting in the band led to a few legal scuffles, but frontman Tobias Forge returned undeterred with a new lineup and a new character called "Cardinal Copia". Gimmicks aside, Ghost delivered one of the best allegories of modern times with their album 'Prequelle', drawing from the bubonic plague to make a scathing critique of modern times. The band's usual progressive metal affair is accentuated with pop-flavored synth hooks and Forge's guttural vocals, combined with his poetic lyricism steal the show. The high-energy tracks 'Rats' and 'Dance Macabre' are some of the best singles produced by Ghost while the Satanic ballad 'Pro Memoria' offers a grim meditation on loss and love.
3. 'Eat The Elephant' - A Perfect Circle
While we patiently await the new Tool album, Maynard James Keenan decided to appease pent up fans with a comeback album from his side project, A Perfect Circle. On their first album in 14 years, APC is angrier than ever, but channel that rage through mature restraint. Keeping the mood of the album full of doom and gloom as usual, Maynard's impeccable songwriting and Billy Howerdel's melodic piano and guitar compositions complement each other beautifully. 'Disillusioned' is a stark warning against the dangers of screen addiction. 'The Doomed' is a glorious celebration of humanity's decadence and hopelessness. 'The Contrarian' is an open letter warning the masses about autocratic rulers. They even throw in a Douglas Adams reference on 'So Long and Thanks for All The Fish.' 'Eat The Elephant' could very well be APC's most mature and polished work till date, and is a good sign that Maynard is still sharp as ever as we head towards the mythical new Tool album.
2. 'The Sciences' - Sleep
Another comeback album to die for, stoner/doom metal underground heroes Sleep returned this year with the glorious love letter to cannabis, 'The Sciences'. Packed with sludgy guitars and sprawling 10-minute+ tracks that emulate their jam-band aesthetic, Sleep's new album is a celebration of all things stonerly! The blistering 'Marijanaut's Theme' opens with a bong rip and thick, distorted guitars take over as the lyrics pay multiple homages to Black Sabbath (there are mentions of "Planet Iommia" and the "Iommosphere" and even a song titled 'Giza Butler'). More refined than 2005's one-hour marijuana-meditation 'Dopesmoker', the album is a reminder that Sleep are not out of touch with their element, but instead choose to lounge in the underground scene of metal out of choice.
1. 'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love' - Deafheaven
Blackgaze pioneers Deafheaven served up an instant classic that blew both critics and fans away with 2013's flawless 'Sunbather'. While they further fleshed out their unique blend of black metal and shoegaze on 2015's 'New Bermuda', this year, with 'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love', the San Fransisco rockers have emphatically announced themselves as the most innovative force in metal today. The sprawling cathartic soundscapes of 'Honeycomb' and 'Canary Yellow' are some of the band's best work till date. The ebb and flow of the ambient interludes and roaring black metal are intricately laid out, allowing each progression to fully bloom before seamlessly gliding into the next. Deafheaven are at the very forefront of the evolution of metal and it doesn't look like they intend to slow down anytime soon.