Top 20 Metal Albums of 2009

2009 was a fantastic year for metal in general, and for death metal in particular. There were dozens of quality death releases in 2009 that didn't make the list, from Suffocation to Behemoth to Gorod, just to name three. There was no shortage of quality material in the other genres either, and picking twenty albums was particularly difficult. Still, I stand by the quality of these twenty, and hopefully you'll find something here that you haven't heard before.

Ghost Brigade - Isolation Songs
20. Ghost Brigade – Isolation Songs

Isolation Songs is an exercise in melancholy. Angry melancholy, but this album is certainly as close as most metalheads will get to reading weepy poetry about being alone. Don’t take that as a criticism, however, as these Finns deliver abundant goodness to weepy metal souls. The album isn’t in the least bit emo, yet effectively delivers a feeling of loss and pain that many bands (even if they attempt these emotions) simply drown in anger or bravado. The vocalist of this five-piece, Manne Ikonen, effortlessly transitions between melodic singing and harsh yells. These aren’t the typical metal growls, and the vocal delivery is heartfelt and skillful.  The music is as dynamic as the vocals, although it sometimes falls into the pattern of “clean, arpeggiated verse, distorted strummy chorus.” It’s that predictability that kept Songs from placing higher on this list, yet the production beautifully displays all the instruments. The bass plays a prominent role in giving the songs body, and although none of the parts are technically complex, they are melodically and harmonically rich. If you like bands like Katatonia, Opeth, and Amorphis, you will enjoy Isolation Songs.

Revocation – Existence is Futile
19. Revocation – Existence is Futile

Revocation is a relatively new band to the death metal scene. These Boston natives released Existence if Futile, their first major label release (on Relapse Records), a mere year after their self-released debut Empire of the Obscene. Empire promised great things in 2008, and Existence delivers. Like many of the bands on this list, Revocation play death metal, yet their style sounds especially American to me, drawing strongly from Bay-area thrash, as well as NYC metal masters Suffocation for their riffage, and even displaying an southern Skynyrd influence at times (unusual for Bostonians). And the three guys can certainly play their instruments. While the harsh, thrash-inspired vocals may not be for everyone, the riffs are undeniably catchy, and the drums drive the music forward with a well-produced fury. If you like your death thrashy (or your thrash deathy), Revocation is for you. These guys are a group to watch, as they should only get better with time.

18. Lost Soul – Immerse In Infinity

Polish Death Metal Guy strikes again! I love Polish death metal, and 2009 brought albums from greats Behemoth, Vader, & Lost Soul. It’s a private joke of mine that all Polish death bands have the same vocalist, since they share such a similar vocal style, although musically they all differ dramatically. These Wroclaw natives prefer the absolutely fast & furious style, mixing huge 7-string produced grooves with lightning speed blasts and noodly riffs. Drummer Desecrator is an beast on the skins, using his ambidextrous blasting skills to blend incredible cymbal work with unstoppable double-kick blasts. Unlike some bands, however, who just play as fast as possible for the sake of it, Lost Soul has crafted songs that, thanks to their infectious groove, get stuck in your head for days. What? Grooves at 230 bpm? You have to hear it to believe it. The solos are spacy and flawlessly executed, and the “interstellar travel” theme of the electronics and cosmic philosophy of the lyrics brings a nice change to death metal besides the usual War, Zombies, and Satan staples. This album may not be groundbreaking in the way that some of the other death recordings are on this list, but it’s 55 minutes of 1,000mph fun.

Amorphis – Skyforger
17. Amorphis – Skyforger

What? This sounds like the Halo 3 soundtrack. Okay, that impression won’t last more than thirty seconds, but the pianos and electric guitars in album opener “Sampo” do remind me of the Broskis’ favorite non-beer related pastime. After that, it’s just the soaring melodies and powerful lungs of Tomi Joutsen and company. There aren’t a lot of aggressive vocals on this album, as Amorphis take a different approach to melodic metal which manages to be extremely European without being death-tinged. Still, Tomi can unleash a bellow when necessary, and the sparseness with which the band employs this death staple makes it all the more powerful when they do. Most of the songs are midtempo, similar to Ghost Brigade, yet while Isolation Songs is melancholy, Skyforger is triumphant. The mix is full, and while not incredibly dynamic is at least tone rich. Amorphis is all about big melodic moments, and so is probably the most accessible album on this list. It doesn’t hurt that both the guitar and vocal melodies remain with you long after the 48 minute album is done spinning. Amorphis has been around since 1990, and this is their 9th full length release. Skyforger is, in my opinion, their strongest release yet.

Augury – Fragmentary Evidence
16. Augury – Fragmentary Evidence

Canadian purveyors of death take an entirely different approach to the genre than Lost Soul, although both rely on interesting grooves to get the listener moving. Unconventional tempo shifts, at least three methods of vocal delivery, and an unusually prominent and flamboyant bass all combine to make Augury one of the most unique bands purveying the style today. Second track “Simian Cattle” is my favorite, opening with a complex bass line and disjointed drums. The interplay between the two guitar parts, the bass (essentially a third guitar), the vocals, and even the drums is incredible. We find deep growls alongside layered sung lines and harshly barked phrases. The bass (I keep coming back to it) is nothing less than fantastic, leading the song from one phrase to the next. The bass break at 4:00 is stupendously done, conjuring images of syrupy swamps and strange, wondrous monsters. The apparent traditionalism of the next song, “Orphans of Living” only serves to increase the quality of the experimentation of Augury, as all death metal phrasing is stripped away a minute into the song. Experimental jazz & classical music have often been mixed with metal before, but never before do I think the aesthetic of avant-garde musicians has produced such an experimental yet thoroughly musical piece. Unfortunately, after the production of Fragmentary Evidence, the band went through extensive lineup shifts, including the departure of bass wizard Dominic "Forest" Lapointe, so whether we’ll see this level of creativity again from the band is an open question.

Kreator – Hordes of Chaos
15. Kreator – Hordes of Chaos

Kreator has been around since 1984, and Hordes of Chaos is their 13th full length release, not counting live albums. A career of that length is hard to beat, and although it hasn’t been all metal thrashin’ goodness for Kreator (the 90s produced some terrible musical decisions), thankfully, on Hordes, Kreator is digging back to the raw, Teutonic thrash of their early, trendsetting albums. Much of this grand revival of greatness is thanks to producer Moses Schneider, who abandoned the far-too-digital and soulless production of their last offering, Enemy of God, and just put the guys in a room with some mikes. The power of four guys performing “live in the studio” can’t be beat, at least for these German thrashmasters. Hordes contains an infectious amount of energy, and Mille Petrozza’s snarling vocals haven’t sounded this fresh since 1987’s Terrible Certainty, and you’ll want to shout along to the choruses—“Violence is conquering the world!.” Trash was my first metal love, so it’s always a pleasure to hear some of the old stalwarts still producing music this good. I like to think these Germans have a couple more left in them, as Hordes is a bold blast from the past to show the mallcore generation what real metal can sound like.

Job for a Cowboy – Ruination
14. Job for a Cowboy – Ruination

Speaking of mallcore, Job for a Cowboy is often unfairly lumped into that group. Yes, the band got its start on MySpace, and their first release, the Doom EP, was assuredly deathcore, pig squeals and all. I actually found it to be enjoyable deathcore, but thankfully the band have matured tremendously since their 2005 debut. 2007’s Genesis, while a huge step forward from Doom, suffered from an over-reliance on groove and some truly atrocious triggered drums. Ruination sees the band transform into a true death metal band, in true American style. In fact, this album came out the same week as Suffocation’s Blood Oath (an enjoyable release, but not strong enough to make the year-end list), and I listened to Ruination immediately after hearing Blood Oath for the first time. My first thought on hearing Ruination was “Wow, they’ve out Suffocation-ed Suffocation!” The energy that this band puts forward on Ruination speaks great things for the future (and the present) of the band. New skinman John Rice provides the power on the drums that the band needed, and thankfully abandons the dreadful triggers of his predecessor, and the dual vocal style (reminiscent of The Black Dahlia Murder) keeps the lyrical delivery interesting and intense. While the whole album had the brutal energy of NYC’s finest death crew, album closer “Ruination” seems to draw from more European influences, such as Behemoth, using slowed drums and arpeggiated guitar parts to create an even stronger sense of brutality and power. I can’t wait to hear the where the band goes next.

Deströyer 666 – Defiance
13. Deströyer 666 – Defiance

 I love thrash. While Revocation is death/thrash, and Kreator is old school Teutonic thrash, Deströyer 666 is a blend of black metal and thrash metal, and a spectacularly awesome blend at that. These Australians have only managed to produce 4 albums (including this one) since 1994, but they are all powerful examples of blackened thrash, featuring the rasping vocals of K.K. Warslut & Shrapnel (seriously?) and a dearth of high-speed tremolo riffs. The bravado oozing from this album from Oz is something to behold. Practically every track is about war and standing up against your enemies. While that may seem like a small pool to draw from lyrically, it’s certainly more invigorating than the typical “Satan is my homeboy” nonsense of many European black/thrash bands. Deströyer 666 are pioneers of this style, and they’re still proving that they do it better than the other guys with Defiance. The raw production and gritty guitar tones of Defiance sound like the hot Australian desert, in the same way that the chords and synths of Enslaved conjure images of fjords and snow-covered evergreen forests. An inspiring album.

Mastodon - Crack the Skye
12. Mastodon – Crack the Skye

Mastodon are hit and miss for me. On the one hand, they’re extremely experimental and fully embrace the concept album. They’re also extremely talented musicians (especially drummer Brann Dailor), and Time Magazine recognized Crack the Skye as one of their Top 10 Albums of 2009. On the other hand, sometimes they’re just plain boring (I just can’t get into Blood Mountain), and Time Magazine recognized Crack the Skye as one of their Top 10 Albums of 2009. But the songwriting talent of the group as displayed on Skye cannot be denied. The album is a concept album dealing mainly with Rasputin, the Mad Monk, and exploring astral projection and all kinds of fun stuff like that. Mastodon makes heavy use of swirling modal harmonies on this album, increasing the spacey, “astral” feel of the songs, further enhanced by use of the Melotron synthesizer. On the one hand, it’s typical for the band, but it’s also incredibly well done (unlike on Blood Mountain). Most of the songs are over five minutes, and two are over ten, yet the album never feels like it is dragging. Tradition song structure is mainly rejected for composition based on movements and themes, many of the themes being incredibly hypnotic in nature. Crack the Skye is undoubtedly the strongest, most cohesive concept album Mastodon have released to date.

Giant Squid - The Ichthyologist
11. Giant Squid – The Ichthyologist

Mastodon is experimental and it moves them towards mainstream acceptance. Giant Squid (why the obsession with large prehistoric beasts?) is experimental and it puts them solidly in the fringe. All metalheads ought to seek out The Ichthyologist, however, as it is a fantastic piece of progressive metal. Vocalist Aaron Gregory sounds somewhat like Serj Tankian from System of a Down, but that’s probably the only thing about Giant Squid that’s mainstream. Their songs are a cyclopean convocation of guitars, distorted and clean, drums, bass, cello, and trumpet. Their riffs climb like vines and wind like clockwork. These songs are incredibly hard to describe in words. They seem primitive and swampy,  yet complex and evolved. The album tells the Kafka-esque story of a scientist (the Ichthyologist) who slowly transforms into a sea monster. As the album proceeds, he becomes less and less human, claiming in one brilliant moment that “If you sever my legs, I will grow two more, and while I regenerate, I’ll still crawl upon the floor” (“Blue Linckia (Linckia Laevigata)”). It sounds absurd on paper, like a movie that AMC would show at 2AM, but the musicianship and sheer artistry of the band make it work in unbelievable style. I’m most reminded of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka when I listen to this album, and I think that The Ichthyologist is worthy of that comparison.

Obscura - Cosmogenesis
10. Obscura – Cosmogenesis

Obscura hail from Munich, and are the premier German death metal band, and one of the greatest technical death metal bands playing today. Their bassist, Jeroen Paul Thesseling, is truly the star of the band, and the best bassist in heavy metal today. Playing a fretless bass, his lines lead and command, not follow. Everything about this album impresses, but it’s the basslines that stick firmest in the mind. Just listen to album opener “Anticosmic Overload,” or the first 45 seconds of “Choir of Spirits,” and you’ll immediately see what I mean. Guitarists Steffen Kummerer (who also handles vocal duties) and Christian Münzner are also masters of their craft, and skinman Hannes Grossmann’s staggering chops are worthy to be compared to more famous death drummers like George Kollias and Derek Roddy. Obscura is an aptly named band, for “obscure” is certainly a word that comes to mind when listening to their noodling riffs and grooves. “Cerebral” is another word that undoubtedly comes to the mind of the listener while these Germans work their magic. There is a strong Cynic influence that can be heard in the use of vocorder on vocals, but unlike Cynic, the aggression of Obscura is never lost in shoe gazing electronics, even when they venture into acoustic passages like in “Universe Momentum.” There are only two real flaws in this album—the first is the production, which although it allows the bass to clearly play through sounds somewhat too brittle. The other is the sheer overwhelming nature of this album, because while it certainly has memorable riffs and passages, the whole 50 minute journey gets somewhat lost in the mind, unlike the instantly memorable brutality of Nile or the shocking dissonance of Ulcerate. Still, this is the third best death metal album of the year, and if you enjoy bass or even just raw musicianship, you can’t go wrong with Obscura.

9. Ahab – The Divinity of Oceans

Ahab are a funeral doom band with a gimmick—they only sing about Moby Dick, describing their music as “nautik funeral doom.” The quality of the music, however, easily drowns the almost silly nature of dedicating a band to a single story. And drowned is absolutely the right image for Ahab, as they summon the weight of the ocean itself into their music. While 2006’s The Call of the Wretched Sea focused specifically on Herman Melville’s whaling story, The Divinity of Oceans tells the story of the Essex, the historical whaling vessel that inspired Melville’s Pequod. The music is rich and thunderous, with just the right guitar tone and reverb to truly make you feel that you’re there, in the middle of the ocean. Daniel Droste’s vocals, when chanted, give the impression of sailors upon the sea, and his cavernous growls sounds like the very beast itself. If a band is going to devote itself to singing about whaling, this is how it should be done. Take some time an immerse yourself in the nearly seventy minute journey that is The Divinity of Oceans. You won’t mind if you drown.

8. Altar of Plagues – White Tomb

These Irishmen are part of the new wave of hipster black metal, but although obscure bands are oozing out of the woodwork everywhere nowadays, Altar of Plagues crawls firmly to the top of the pack. White Tomb features two acts of two songs each, making for four songs and a fifty minute album. The first part, “Earth,” tells of the environmental damage that Earth’s children have wrought, and the retribution that Earth takes on them to purge the world and heal herself. The second part, “Through the Collapse,” tells the tale of those living through the end, until the final song contains only the lyrics
There is a mist that chokes the land.
The waves attack. Relent.
The skies attack,
they come, relentless.
Altar of Plagues at first seems to have more in common musically with post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky than black metal like Mayhem or Darkthrone, but the music is undeniably black, from the guitar tones to the blast beats to the howled, reverb-drenched vocals. They certainly draw heavily from Burzum, as well as Enslaved, and listeners will certainly draw parallels to Northwest USA pagans like Wolves In The Throne Room, especially in the environmentalist message of the album. White Tomb is a trance-inducing journey into the dark, and it’s certainly exciting to hear this quality of black metal being produced.