PALLBEARER – HEARTLESS
I’m pretty sure that it’s written somewhere in the heavy metal handbook that doom metal is not allowed to be pretty. Well, someone forgot to pass that section along this these Arkansas boys before they released Heartless, the most refreshing, unique, and yes, pretty doom release I’ve ever heard.
While most doom employs its fuzziness and despair to instill dread and fear, Pallbearer take an approach that I’ve never seen any other band in the genre take. With Ozzy-esque vocals (if Ozzy had ever bothered to take a singing lesson – fight me if you disagree) sprawled over most melancholic and sorrowful guitars, Heartless paints an amazing, mournful portrait with a delicate touch rarely ever seen in doom, and perhaps all of metal.
Heartless doesn’t serve anything up easy to you (most tracks are clocking in well over 5 minutes), but it is worth the investment to get lost in this record. There may not be a more emotionally charged album this year.
“I Saw the End”, “Thorns”, “Lie of Survival”, “Dancing in Madness”
THE CONTORTIONIST – CLAIRVOYANT
Wasn’t technically perfect
Couldn’t have been any better
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such meta lyrics on an album before in my life. Is Clairvoyant, the Contortionist’s most recent outing, perfect? No, no it’s not. One only has to see them live to see just how good the band can be when they embrace the screams that vocalist Michael Lessard is capable of producing. And those amazing screams are completely, totally, 100% absent from their newest record (the band has been moving this direction for a while now, but as far as I can tell this is their first album with totally clean vocals). But once you accept the shift in their sound, I’m not sure the band could have made a better record than this.
The truly standout aspect of this album is that there is no even remotely weak track. Every song not only works by itself, but each song weaves perfectly into the next, creating a truly unique sound on the record (even amongst their other works) that is both mournful and yet inspiring, all while being both heavy and jaw-droppingly beautiful.
“Reimagined”, “Clairvoyant”, “Return to Earth”
CONVERGE – THE DUSK IN US
Despite one of the more respected and recognizable names in hardcore punk/metalcore, Converge find themselves in a somewhat unenviable position. While they continuously churn out fantastic material, and have shown amazing growth and maturity during their entire existence, the hard truth remains that they will never be able to match 2001’s Jane Doe. One of the most influential albums in heavy metal history, Jane Doe is a generational album, and unfortunately most bands don’t stumble onto that type of genius twice.
Perhaps because of this, Converge has never tried to duplicate Jane Doe’s sound, moving further from the chaotic noise/grind sound of the album and increasingly leaning into their hardcore punk roots more and more as time has passed. The insane energy of Jane Doe will never be duplicated, but the more relaxed (relatively) tempo and focused pacing has led to more intelligible, nuanced music.
With The Dusk In Us, Converge find themselves embracing the hardcore punk element even more, with Jacob Bannon’s unrestrained shrieks replaced more and more by a punk-tinged yell. The breakneck pace of Jane Doe has been replaced by what is likely their mellowest, most methodical record yet (including two tracks that I would dare even call “slow”). Their growth as a band is on full display, as rather than relying on pure chaos and energy to form the backbone of their sound, Converge shows that they can all hold their own as songwriters.
So with that said, is The Dusk In Us as good as Jane Doe? Abso-fucking-lutely not. But this may very well be the 2nd greatest record in Converge’s history, and that is nothing to shrug your shoulders at.
“Eye of the Quarrel”, “Under Duress”, “I Can Tell You About Pain”, “Reptilian”
GONE IS GONE – ECHOLOCATION
People are a little too cavalier about tossing around the term “supergroup” nowadays in the metal community. Especially considering even the superest of the supergroups, frankly, haven’t been that super. No matter how great the individual parts are, it never adds up to some better than, or remotely equal to, the original bands.
That’s the frame of mind I was in when I first heard Gone is Gone, when I assumed they would be just another not-so-super group filled with great individual pieces (Troy Sanders from Mastodon, Troy Van Leeuwen from Queens of the Stone Age, and Mike Zarin from At the Drive-In). Their 2015 Self-Titled debut EP was a colossal disappointment, and the early January release date for Echolocation didn’t instill a whole lot of confidence either.
But Echolocation is an absolute triumph, a prime of example of how the sum of the parts can equal something totally different than what you’re expecting. The album doesn’t sound like Mastodon, or QOTSA, or ATD. It only sounds like Gone is Gone. Whereas Troy’s other supergroup, Killer Be Killed, just sounds like the 3 frontmen alternating sounds from the primary bands, Gone is Gone have crafted a wholly unique sound, one that is not asking you to constantly compare it to the musicians’ day jobs.
“Sentient”, “Resurge”, “Ornament”, “Pawns”
CALIGULA’S HORSE – IN CONTACT
Remember back in 2015, when it seemed like you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an amazing prog record? (Also, why are you swinging dead cats? What the fuck is wrong with you?) When I put together my Best of 2015, the top 3 spots were held down by Periphery, Between the Buried and Me & TesseractT, all of which put together absolute monster prog albums that year. Since then? It hasn’t been pretty. In 2016 I ranked my Top 25 favorite albums, and I wouldn’t consider a single one of the prog. 2017 hasn’t been much kinder to what was once my genre of preference. But here comes Caligula’s Horse, riding in on some other kind of horse to save the day and provide a mellow, spacey alternative to the heaviness of the year.
In Contact is an impressive record, first and foremost for being massively heavy despite the vocalist’s high-pitched falsetto (seriously, I half-expected to find out that he was actually the most metal 12-year old of all time). If you are looking for death growls and screaming, you aren’t going to find it here. But the instrumentation more than offsets his lighter vocals, alternating between punishing heaviness and spacey atmosphere (think of a more mature Periphery).
In Contact stands alone as the one truly great prog record of the year, the ginger palate cleanser to a sushi roll of doom and death metal that have otherwise dominated the landscape this year.
“Dream the Dead”, “Songs for No One”, “The Hands are the Hardest”
MASTODON – EMPEROR OF SAND
Turn your nose up all you want, Metal Elitists, but Mastodon just keeps putting out awesome metal whether you like it or not. You can be mad that they have gone fully clean with their vocals, or that they seem to put out one radio-rock jam on every record (admittedly, “Show Yourself” is probably the worst yet), but Mastodon’s continued evolution has led to their strongest album since Crack the Skye.
The biggest shift in the band’s dynamic has been drummer Brann Dailor usurping the role of secondary vocalist from Brett Hinds, and in my honest opinion, not a moment too soon (I love Brett as a guitarist and screamer, but my god he cannot sing). Dailor’s clean vocals shine on tracks like “Steambreather” and “Roots Remain”, and his drumming continues to serve as the backbone of the band. Troy Sanders still carries the torch as the primary vocalist, and his voice continues to be one of my favorites in the genre.
Emperor of Sand is chock full of great, interesting tracks, despite the fact that the three singles released before the album are probably the weakest tracks on the record (“Sultan’s Curse”, “Show Yourself”, “Andromeda”). The rest of the album is full of varied sounds, but all thematically connected in an interesting & engaging way. I know everyone gets all weak in the knees over Crack the Skye, but I believe this may be the strongest post-Leviathan record that the band has released.
“Steambreather”, “Clandestiny”, “Jaguar God”
Mastodon released an EP, Cold Dark Place, this year as well. I don’t consider EP’s when it comes to my rankings, but Cold Dark Place is well worth your time. Much softer and more subdued than your usual Mastodon fare, the album showcases their songwriting better than any record I’ve ever heard from them.
The Body & Full of Hell – Ascending a Mountain of Heavy Light
Never has such an unholy union sounded so damn sweet. Bringing together the ugliest corners of extreme metal, the Body and Full of Hell’s second collaboration together is further proof that these two amazing groups should just join together once and for all and never be apart again (Full of Body, maybe?).
While both groups are quite good on their own (Full of Hell’s Trumpeting Ecstasy wasn’t far off from making this list), it’s on their collaborations together that both groups really shine. Full of Hell’s grisly, blood-curdling screams stand out even more against the industrial backdrop of the Body’s musicianship, while Chip King’s instantly recognizable shrieks are a perfectly hellish complement to Full of Hell’s noisy grind. The whole album is unsettling, unnerving, and more than anything, unbelievably good.
While not for the feint of heart, Ascending a Mountain of Heavy Light showcases just how good extreme metal can be, combining two of the ugliest sounds around to make something horrifyingly beautiful.
“The King Laid Bare”, “Didn’t the Night End”, “Master’s Story”