Top Ten Heavy Metal Albums of 2017

Top Ten Heavy Metal Albums of 2017

Dec 24

Top Heavy Metal Albums of 2017

Plus a few extras


I may be a somewhat jaded old man (in spirit at least), but not so much to give in to full-blown cynicism. Ambivalent skepticism sure, but I don’t traffic in the snooty sort of cynicism so many metal blogs seem to wallow in. And ambivalence would be a good way to describe my feelings for metal (and music in general) for this past year of 2017. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of great releases, some of them amazing even, but they were so disparate and random that no cohesive strands or trends could really be read from the past 12 months. There was some forward movement in death metal, but every boundary-pushing release like Ingurgitating Oblivion’s brain-scrambler seemed to be crowded out by a hundred tired established bands peddling the same stale music from the nineties (Immolation, Obituary, Incantation, etc.). Throw in some genre flipping, like the fact that Chelsea Wolfe moved into my metal section of the list while Leprous and Steven Wilson moved to the non-metal section, and you’ve got one hell of a wonky, weird year for heavy music. But I like wonky and weird; it keeps me on my toes and gives us records like Zeal & Ardor’s genre-warping Devil is Fine. It also helps keep metal from being too stable and safe, which is essential given that contemporary mainstream music seems to have hit rock bottom (hip hop: Lil Yachty, pop: Taylor Swift, country: Cale Dodds. Really?).

But enough yelling at clouds, because as I mentioned, there were many great releases that left little doubt heavy metal is strong and fertile. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be able to produce a regular two hour podcast featuring only brand-new killer music (you are listening to it, right?). So let’s get on to my picks for the year’s best albums.


Pain of Salvation – In the Passing Light of Day

The best way to start off a new year of album releases right is with a reliable band known for consistently strong records. In that, Sweden’s Pain of Salvation succeeded in strides with their newest offering. In the Passing Light of Day is a deftly-written record that is captivating and emotive throughout its runtime. To say the album feels like a deeply personal record seems like a redundancy given Daniel Gildenlöw’s history of opening himself up when writing, however, this latest collection of songs certainly has a power of conveying genuine emotion that is hard to come by.

A much more energetic album than the calmer (and excellent) preceding Road Salt releases, Passing Light sees the band returning to a heavier sound from past records and taking as many cues from the Scarsick era as Remedy Lane. Coming this far into the band’s career it’s good to see them releasing some of their strongest material, especially after the life-threatening medical issues Daniel confronted a few years back and which informed much of the writing on this album. I don’t feel that 2017 was necessarily a strong year for progressive hard rock and metal, but In the Passing Light of Day is certainly on top of the releases that did stand out.

Zeal & Ardor – Devil is Fine

[Yes, I know this technically came out last year, but it’s ‘official’ label release was this year.]

If you were to grade the past year’s releases by inventiveness and experimentation then this debut album from Zeal & Ardor would sit atop the chart. Fusing spirituals and proto-blues with black metal might seem unlikely or even gimmicky, but the execution of that amalgamation on Devil is Fine makes it sound natural. The sinister reverence of the turned-Satanic spirituals is complimented very effectively by the cold viciousness of the Norwegian blasts of blackness.

If there was one flaw with the album it was the slight lack of cohesion among the songs, a common enough first-album syndrome that plagues new projects before they (hopefully) find their real footing on second and third albums. Which is one more reason to be excited about what may lie ahead for the new project of Manuel Gagneux. In interviews he has said himself that Devil is Fine is not quite the fully realized idea it could be, so make Zeal & Ardor a name to look out for in the coming year because if this first record is anything to go by, there are great things coming.

Witherfall – Nocturnes and Requiems

Traditional power metal isn’t hard to come by these days, but good traditional power metal is a different story. To get to the meat you have to swim through a lot of cheese, but even in its most theatrical moments Nocturnes never feels schlocky. Instead, the tight songwriting and impressive performances by all involved demand to be taken seriously if for no other reason than just how awesome it is. In a metal world that has lately seemed more intent on mirroring Hollywood’s  focus on reheating retro leftovers from yesteryear it’s a breath of fresh air to hear something with feet planted in the past without sounding old, tired, and tried.

Often sounding like Stratovarius playing Mercyful Fate covers, Nocturnes delivers both neoclassical-influenced leads with the riff-work and vocal power of traditional heavy metal. With a pedigree including former members of Iced Earth, White Wizard, and Circle II Circle it would be a safe bet to expect something solid, but Witherfall blew it out of the park on the first go. This is what traditional elements in modern not only could but should sound like and I’m hoping to get more of it, despite the untimely passing of Adam Sagan shortly before the album’s release.

Sun of the Sleepless – To the Elements

Black metal isn’t generally the strongest genre for me, so when an album does catch my ear it’s because I think it really has something going for it. And indeed, To the Elements does have something going for it; it’s an amazing record that expertly matches its ferocity with atmosphere, a must for any top-shelf black metal album. And speaking of top-shelf black metal, this album seems to distill everything good about their major forefathers into a potent brand of their own. There’s a little Dark Throne sense of melody here, some Taake-esque blasting there, and a whole lotta Immortal riffage all over the place. All this makes for a strong brew that stays consistent throughout its runtime, maintaining the listener’s attention with smart songwriting, intensity, and an always-present sense of melody. Diversity is a strong factor as well; the record flows between ominously subdued atmospheric sections and furious blasts of rage, with plenty of fist-raising builds between them.

As a mere black metal dabbler (at least compared to the real nerds. NERDS!) I prefer to listen to the strongest on offer and this is as strong as they come. I look for fury, melody, and atmosphere, and Elements checks all those boxes in spades. If you’re trying to introduce someone (or yourself) to black metal this would be a great example to use for contemporary BM.

And just try to make a more majestic closing song than ‘Phoenix Rise’, I dare you.

Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun

Before hearing Chelsea Wolfe’s newest record I had assumed, based on her recent catalog, I would mention it in the Non Metal Releases section below. Two songs into my first listen I decided that if it was mentioned in my year-end list it would have to be in the metal list. Hiss Spun is a heavy, dark, and haunting album that tops a string of increasingly aggressive records. However, the aggression of previous albums was in their ominous atmosphere, a spectral threat that hung like heavy velvet over the music whereas the aggression on this newest offering is very much tangible and direct.

The music on this album seethes and smolders; it stalks back and forth, occasional gnashing its teeth. Where on previous albums the overall vibe is one of mystery, this record feels downright dangerous, and seductively so. While I didn’t expect an album this heavy it does make a logical step up from Abyss, and it’s her natural evolution as an artist that keeps me excited for each new effort. Of all the albums this year that I had been looking forward to, HIss Spun went the farthest beyond my expectations, and earned its spot on any year-end list, metal or not.

The Black Dahlia Murder – Nightbringers

Coming from the hardest working band in metal, this is probably the least surprising pick for a year-end list. It’s hard to image when the boys from Michigan even get time to write and record albums as they are constantly touring (they’ve hit my city twice within the last 6 months alone), but it’s good to see the grind of the road doesn’t dull the work that gets done between national and global jaunts. TBDM have successfully avoided the diminishing returns on albums that most bands fall victim to after more than a decade of recording and touring, and have instead offered up successively stronger releases for the entirety of their career. The newest release doesn’t change that trend at all.

Nightbringers is a vicious and deftly executed album that sees the band in peak performance as they deliver all the ferocity, intensity, and riffery they are known for. The songwriting is slick and everyone puts in a perfect performance; even with a newcomer on board (guitarist Brandon Ellis replacing Ryan Knight) the band sounds as tight as ever. Despite taking a while to warm up to the band in their earlier days for reasons I can’t even fathom, TBDM have long since become a death metal band I can look to for consistent and reliable releases alongside Cannibal Corpse and Kataklysm. Now that would be a tour…

Mutoid Man – War Moans

I’ll admit to not being familiar with this band other than the fact that it featured members of Converge, Cave In, and All Pigs Must Die. After the first listen to their newest collection of quirky and catchy sludge-rock I was a convert. Mutoid Man’s sound is filled to the rim with traditional metal flair and evokes the spirits of Priest, Maiden, and Alice in Chains through its thick soup of downtuned riffs. What’s most fun about the album is the tongue-in-cheek eccentricity in Stephen Brodsky’s vocals; they are animated and over-the-top without ever coming off as goofy or cheesy and really give the songs a unique energy. And energy is probably the biggest factor that makes War Moans a constant repeat listen for me; it very rarely lets up on its constant rollicking attack and when it does for ‘Bandages’, a laid-back and introspective song at the end of the record, the effect makes for a potent closer to a great album.

Off the top of my head I can’t think of another band that can make grungy sludge-rock sound like party music, but I’m glad these boys found a way to do it. For people who listen to metal day in and day out it can be easy to take the lighter side of the spectrum for granted. After hours upon hours of death metal in some variation or another, metal writers could use a nice break every so often from the gloom, doom, and anger for something a little lighthearted, and we owe Mutoid Man a huge thanks for reminding us to do just that.

Sólstafir – Berdreyminn

This is another band I’ve been aware of for a while but never took the time to check out. Oh man, I was missing out. Berdreyminn was an instant hit for me on account of the wide open and loose rock songs it offered. While their brand of music drifts between post and psych rock the Icelanders play with enough grit that it’s not surprising at all to learn of their black metal origins, no matter how far into the hard rock spectrum they’re in now. The music is emotive as well; singer/guitarist Aðalbjör Tryggvason’s vocals are rough-hewn and straining with emotion, it not only sounds great but the feeling it conveys–simultaneously tragic and uplifting–also helps build a bridge across the language barrier. Another key to this new album, and Sólstafir’s music by large, is the space; each song is given as much canvas as it needs to feel complete and the pace of the painters giving it life is unhurried and deliberate. The breathing room really lets the band build simple but effective melodies into big grand things that simply soar.

My two favorite kinds of picks when I do these year-end lists are albums from debut bands and off-my-radar releases from established groups that turn me into a new convert. Berdreyminn certainly accomplished the latter; I’ve been spinning it regularly since it came out, drawn to back and back again by its wistful post-rock majesty. And the best thing about those latter bands? Unlike debut bands, they have a read-to-go catalog of past releases to dive right into. And I’m diving hard.

Grave Pleasures – Motherblood

2013’s Climax album from Finnish rockers Beastmilk was a definite stand-out for me; its goth/doom-tinged brand of post-punk was an addictive fix that I had a hard time getting enough of. Though it would be the only release for the band under that particular incarnation, two of the original members would continue on as the repurposed Grave Pleasures without losing a single step. Motherblood quite possibly sits at the apex of what they started with Climax as the band have perfected and tightened their sound into a potent weapon of swaggering rock music. Mat McNerney commands the stage with his always-lively wails, cries, barks, and croonings while guitarists Juho Vanhanen (Oranssi Pazuzu) and Aleksi Kiiskilä create an explosive energy with punk chords and spring ‘verbed plucking. Add in the solid punch of the rhythm section, comprised of Valtteri Arino on bass and Rainer Tuomikanto (Ajattara) on drums and you have a catchy style of modern post-punk with plenty of hooks and earworm melodies to haunt you for days after listening.

Like I mentioned in my entry for the Mutoid Man album, it’s nice to step away from all the gurgling death metal, blistering black metal, and slogging doom metal and get a breath of fresh air; if any album did that for me most this year it was Motherblood and it’s going to be doing that for years to come.

Archspire – Relentless Mutation

This is what recorded insanity sounds like.

Though hooks and grooves aren’t uncommon visitors in the tech death genre (indeed, they are often main features) it is rare to hear those qualities put to use this expertly. In fact, these Canucks have put out what may well be the catchiest record in the sub-genre’s history. Technical death metal’s achilles heel has always been the genre’s tendency to lose itself in a bland wash of pointless wankery and tiringly consistent blast beats. Relentless Mutation avoids that with smart songwriting that favors succinctness and brevity that leaves nothing out past its sell-by date. There are occasional moments of breathing room, creating a dynamic often missing from the style and helps make the blasts of fury even more impactful. The music is immediate, effective, and above all absolutely face-crushing in its intensity. The trick of matching of vocal phrasing to rhythm isn’t a new technique by any means, but the application of it at the speed and brutality Archspire deals in is an absolutely mind-blowing feat that requires a live concert experience to lose any notion of studio-dependent trickery.

In case this year’s list was looking too ‘soft’ with the preceding entries, Relentless Mutation should assure anyone that I found plenty to appreciate in the metal world’s offering of balls-out brutality in 2017.


Worthy Mentions


Avatarium – Hurricanes and Halos

As one of my favorite new bands in the last handful of years, these Swedes had a very high bar to reach after the excellent The Girl With a Raven Mask album. While I don’t feel they quite reached it I absolutely believe Hurricanes and Halos is a great album of bluesy doom metal. Jennie-Ann Smith’s vocals are still stunningly good, equally beautiful and powerful while Marcus Jidell’s guitar playing is given a little more room to play, which he puts to good use. With three very solid records under their belt in just four years this band is definitely a force in the world of doom metal.


Memoriam – For the Fallen

Bolt Thrower is dead; long live Bolt Thrower. Institutions, even great ones, are all bound to fall eventually and the proper way to honor them is to clear a path for the phoenix to rise from their ashes. I spend the vast majority of my time with new music from new bands, but the metal world always needs a few old-guards around to show the fancy fresh-faced boys how things are done, and Karl and the gang are doing just that with this album. For the Fallen is a full-on assault of pure death metal with a decidedly punk attitude that isn’t content to merely carry the Bolt Thrower flag, but instead marches to its own crushing beat. March on Memoriam, march on.


Overkill – The Grinding Wheel

And speaking of the old-guard…

The Jersey speed junkies have long been my steady reminder that all is right in the world whenever they release an album. As the band most criminally overlooked when thinking in the narrow terms of who the ‘Big Four’ of thrash should be (for my money they should be in Anthrax’s spot) it’s good to see them carrying on as the hardest working of ‘em all. Just look at their release history, their touring schedule, their stubborn we-don’t-give-a-fuck refusal to ever take the slow lane even this far into their career; none of the other titans come close. The Grinding Wheel is another solid platter of old-school thrash straight from the gutter, and if you’re not wrecking your neck to you must be lying on the ground. Or something like that.


Pallbearer – Heartless

I still can’t decide if this band is better at setting bars or raising them. They became an institution in the doom world with their first record alone, which they soon topped with 2014’s Foundations of Burden, so there was a lot of eagerness to see what their newest effort would bring to the table. Quite a bit actually; though some might bemoan the proggier elements of Heartless, I welcome them with open arms. The album sees the band fully comfortable in their sound and they deftly craft classic doom metal aesthetics and modern prog structuring into a true gem of the genre.


Dead Cross – Dead Cross

Remove any notions of a ‘supergroup’ when it comes to this release; yes, it features Dave Lombardo and Mike Patton but this is no novelty record. This a serious dose of hardcore mana from the heavens; every bit of it means business and hits like a spin-kick to the neck; it’s frenetic, chaotic, and just a little bit weird. I know it’s redundant to say that a project involving Mike Patton is unique, but DC certainly qualifies for the adjective; Mr. Patton hasn’t been heard this consistently animated and hysterical in some time and it’s great to see he has no qualms about jumping almost spontaneously into a new hardcore project on the spot (according to Dave himself, Mike agreed to the project without so much as a minute’s worth of consideration). There’s no solid word yet as to whether this is a one-off record (Patton has expressed interest in more albums, but it’s not set in stone), but if there’s any fairness in the world we’ll be seeing more of this lunatic material soon.


Non-Metal Mentions


Zola Jesus – Okovi

Everyone needs some intelligent pop music created by an R&B forest witch in their lives, right? Okovi marks the strongest release by this amazing talent, and what makes it such a moving album is the continuing trend (starting with 2011’s Conatus) of bringing Zola’s powerful vocals to the fore. Seeing her live shortly after its release also marked one of the strongest live performances I saw this year.


Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar

With their new album, Norway’s Ulver have fully completed their evolution into a modern day Depeche Mode. And unlike most metalheads I don’t mean that as any kind of slur; this is an absolutely gorgeous collection of music that dives deep into the experimental electronica that the band have been playing with for years now. Thankfully, I can’t say if this a ‘culmination’ of any sort because Ulver is not a band that reaches a place of comfort and stays put; they constantly move forward and make their own way. And because of that I can’t wait to hear what comes next.


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

The ironic name of the album pretty much says it all for this outstanding release from Jason Isbell as he and fellow contemporary Sturgill Simpson, far and away the best country artists in modern music, are the black sheep of Nashville. In a genre long since hijacked by corporately-produced radio pop it’s great to hear authentic Americana, and this particular record sits at the apex of Jason Isbell’s still somewhat early catalog (when not counting his work with Drive-by Truckers). The songs are all personal, honest, and heartfelt; qualities that come through the speakers with genuine sincerity. If the shit you’ve heard on ‘country’ stations has left you with a bad impression of the genre, give this one a try and see what it’s really supposed to be about.


Steven Wilson – To the Bone

While I wouldn’t call his last few releases ‘metal’, had they been included in my year-end lists it would have been in the metal section. To the Bone on the contrary is a decidedly pop album and it is quite unapologetic about that fact. And why not? Music is music and if you can make a great pop album then go for it. Well, Steven Wilson went for it alright and the result is a brilliant explosion of jubilant celebration, an unadulterated love letter to the pop standards of Wilson’s childhood executed with his own prog sensibilities. I had no qualms when he had originally announced his intentions for the album despite the departure from the two incredible preceding albums (2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing and 2015’s Hand.Cannot.Erase are modern prog-rock masterpieces); he long ago proved he is an artist that can be trusted to follow his muse, wherever it may lead.


Leprous – Malina

Another band that made the switch from the metal category to…something else. And just like Steven Wilson the shift in direction was decidedly for the better. Malina is a beautiful progressive rock album with sweeping choruses and emotive builds directed by Einar Solberg’s soaring vocals, which take center stage throughout. The only flaw may be the absence of some self editing; there isn’t a ton of fluff but it is noticeable when you hear it in a few tracks that would have done better trimmed down. All in all though, Leprous’ new record is another solid release in a stellar catalog; not the strongest (that’s Bilateral, obviously) but perhaps its gentle shift in style will mark it as a cornerstone in the band’s history as they go on.