The Top 10 Records of 2015

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2015 was a strange year for music. The reunion trend continued unabated (G.I.S.M.!?), metal blogs continued to waste time reporting on how much money top-tier bands earn and photos of celebrities wearing “designer” metal merch, and the debate on political correctness continued with embarrassing results for both sides. In the midst of all the bickering online, however, there were also some pretty great records released. I could almost argue that 2015 was one of the strongest years in recent history for punk and metal (almost), and the following 10 albums serve as the basis for my argument.

10. Iskra – Ruins (Yehonala Tapes / Sick Man Getting Sick // Bandcamp)

Iskra’s brand of blackened crust punk isn’t terribly unique these days, having been copied with varying degrees of success by countless bands from all over the world, but Ruins shows them settling comfortably into a sound that they’ve cultivated and made their own throughout their 13 year career.  The production here is a little clearer and there’s more of a thrash metal vibe to this one than previous albums (I’ve seen people compare this to Skeletonwitch, which was painful to read) but it’s still unmistakably Iskra. Songs like “Traume” keep things connected to the band’s black metal roots, while “Der Einziege” sees furious blast beats giving way to mid-tempo thrash sections in the blink of an eye. In a year that seemed nearly devoid of remarkable black metal, Iskra stood head and shoulders above most of their peers.

9. Bell Witch – Four Phantoms (Profound Lore // Bandcamp)

If you told me that an album by a two-piece bass/drums funeral doom metal band would have wound up being one of my favourite albums of 2015 back at the start of the year, I’d have laughed at you. If the example you later used to prove this to me was Four Phantoms, I would have laughed even harder. On one hand, everything about this album comes off as something that I should hate; two-piece bass and drums doom metal, sections with clean vocals, over an hour long with only four tracks… It’s basically asking for me to hate it with every fibre of my being. But I don’t hate it. In fact, quite the opposite: I rather like it. The songs plod along at a snail’s pace with agonized vocals alternating between reverberating death growls and melodic singing over top of droning, heavily distorted bass riffs and sparse drums. The singing isn’t exactly pitch-perfect, but who would honestly expect it to be? It’s rare that a single album makes me consider revisiting other artists from a given genre, but with Four Phantoms, Bell Witch have convinced me that funeral doom may be worth another look.

8. Thou & The Body – You, Whom I Have Always Hated (Thrill Jockey // Bandcamp)

I joked earlier this year that the new “doing a split with Agathocles or Archagathus” is “doing a collaborative release with The Body.” The Portland-via-Providence duo has released three collaborations this year alone (this one, plus efforts with Krieg and Vampillia), with this being their second with Louisiana’s Thou. Both Thou and the Body are formidable in their own rights, each producing consistently enjoyable doom-laden sludge albums, and both putting on some of the best live shows that I saw in the past 12 months. Together, they managed to make one of the few albums of this ilk that I found remotely interesting this year. Oddly enough, one of the standout tracks is their explosively volatile cover of Nine Inch Nails‘ “Terrible Lie,” which mutates the original into a pummeling dirge of guitars, squealing feedback and vitriolic menace via the dueling vocals of the Body’s Chip King and Thou’s Bryan Funck. The rest of the album follows a similar suit, combining the best elements of each band (Thou’s gut-wrenching, bottom-heavy sludge, the Body’s abrasiveness and forays into industrial) into a monument to negativity.
7. Genocide Shrines – Manipura Imperial Deathevokovil:  Scriptures of Reversed Puraana Dharmurder (Vault of Dried Bones // Bandcamp)

What is there to really say about this kind of stuff at this point? Whether you want to call it war metal or “bestial black metal” is up to you, but Genocide Shrines hail from Sri Lanka and are among the best bands currently playing this particular brand of Blasphemy-worshipping blackened death filth. After dropping jaws with their 2012 debut release Devanation Monumentemples, the South Asian horde returned this year with one of the best examples of this stuff that I’ve heard since I first discovered it. Where the basic formula to these songs can, at times, seem derivative of their influences, Genocide Shrines set themselves apart by including passages of hypnotic tribal drumming and by simply knowing when to rein it in and slow things down for a few minutes. As black metal’s bestial offspring becomes just as cluttered and overpopulated as its parent genre, Genocide Shrines manage to stand out among the hordes of Revenge imitators. An impressive feat evidenced by this absolute bone-breaker of an LP.

6. Napalm Death – Apex Predator – Easy Meat (Century Media)

Napalm Death have been a band for a very long time. Granted, at this point they have no original members remaining among their ranks, but the core line up of vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway, bassist Shane Embury, guitarist Mitch Harris, and drummer Danny Herrera has been intact almost continuously since 1991 (save for a break from the band taken by Greenway between 1996 and 1997). This is remarkable in and of itself, but what’s even more remarkable is that, unlike many of their peers, they have also remained consistently good. Save for a couple of missteps and a middling period throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, they’ve managed to continue to release music that is worthwhile and occasionally great. Now they seem to have entered a second golden era that began with 2005’s The Code Is Red… Long Live the Code, and continued all the way through this year’s Apex Predator – Easy Meat. Blast beats, crunching guitars, and Greenway’s acerbic bark are all Napalm Death standards at this point, and they’re all present in full force here. Couple that with the grinding, industrial-tinged intro and a return of the death metal elements that seemed all but absent from 2012’s Utilitarian and the grindcore legends managed to produce a late-period album that easily stands up to their classic material.

5. G.L.O.S.S. – Demo (Self-Released// Bandcamp)

2015 saw a continued increase in awareness of transgender people, particularly of trans women thanks to the likes of a certain reality TV star, the continued popularity of Orange is the New Black, and Against Me! vocalist Laura Jane Grace generally being a swell lady as usual among other things. Outside of all of this, however, the trans punk scene dumped further fuel on the fires with the likes of Philadelphia grindcore duo +HIRS+ (who also dropped their second 100-song compilation this year, which is worth checking out), and Olympia’s G.L.O.S.S. both gaining further ground in the predominantly cis-male global punk community. G.L.O.S.S. play hardcore punk. Period. Musically there’s not much to it, really, but they do it really god damned well. Vocalist Sadie Switchblade bellows at the top of her lungs over pit-ready punk anthems about the trans experience, which is where G.L.O.S.S. becomes such a crucial element to hardcore in 2015. There have been trans women active in punk since the 70s, sure, but that presence has never been more important than now. Trans women face a tremendous amount of marginalization and hate, and having a band like G.L.O.S.S. on hand to represent them in the punk scene is absolutely necessary. Few things this year made me smile as much as seeing them play live in a basement venue in Toronto to a room full of trans women and genderqueer kids who completely overtook the pit for their entire set. G.L.O.S.S. is important. G.L.O.S.S. is great. Hail G.L.O.S.S.

4. Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss (Sargent House // Bandcamp)

I had never heard a single note of Chelsea Wolfe‘s music before this year. I had heard her name, I’d seen that she toured with Russian Circles in the past, but I had never actually listened to her music.

Apparently I am an idiot.

Abyss is, put simply, a strikingly beautiful record. The music is a mix of doom metal, folk, industrial, and the darker sides of dream pop. “Unique” barely begins to describe it. It’s really not that hard to understand now why she’s struck such a chord with metal fans. This is, at times, an immensely heavy record. It’s delicate yet crushing, ethereal yet densely layered. There are just a lot of great things going on with this album.

3. Revenge – Behold.Total.Rejection (Season of Mist // Bandcamp)

Edmonton’s Revenge are arguably at the top of the war metal/bestial black metal ladder right now. They broke through to a wider audience with 2012’s Scum.Collapse.Eradication thanks to more widespread press coverage and glowing reviews and have since toured with… er… Mayhem and Watain. With members associated with some of the most well-respected names in underground metal (ConquerorWeaponAntediluvianA.M.S.G.Axis of AdvanceBlood RevoltBlack Witchery, and more), it’s really no surprise to see Revenge now proudly riding high as the kings of their genre at this point, and Behold.Total.Rejection is yet another prime example of precisely why they deserve that title. This is punishing, chaotic blackened death metal that deserves to be used as a prime example of what one must do in order to play this style properly. Drums are a primitive, pummeling mess of blast beats, guitars alternate between a dull roar and squealing fretboard acrobatics, vocals switch from a gurgling mess of inhuman grunts to bilious wails, and every so often the bass bottoms out into a stomach-churning drone.

2. Vastum – Hole Below (20 Buck Spin // Bandcamp)

Vastum are easily my favourite currently-active death metal band. There’s just no other way to put it. Their take on the death/doom sub-genre is head and shoulders above their peers (not to say there aren’t other great death/doom bands out there). In addition to simply playing the style better than anyone else I can think of right now, they also manage to make themselves stand out by writing songs that touch on topics that can be infinitely more disturbing or “dark” than any of the yawn-inducing gore-drenched subject matter that death metal bands tend to dwell on. Sexuality and psychosis can be pretty heavy stuff to deal with, and Vastum tackle these topics in a way that is genuinely cringe-worthy at times. And I mean that as a compliment. Hole Below is the band’s third LP and second for 20 Buck Spin (who’ve generally been on fire for the past couple of years), and it plays much in the same way that its predecessor did. This is nasty, filth-ridden death metal with Daniel Butler and Leila Abdul-Rauf’s vocal trade-offs growling away over top of thick, chugging guitars and savage drumming. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this was hands-down the best death metal record of 2015.

1. Autokrator – Autokrator (Self Released / Iron Bonehead // Bandcamp)

This is it. Something that I stumbled across accidentally on Bandcamp one day while arbitrarily clicking tags. This is my favourite album of the year. France’s Autokrator is unlike pretty much any other band that I have ever heard. They mix black metal, death metal, industrial, drone, ambient, and doom metal into one huge mess of deadly noise. Lyrics focus on ancient Rome and oppression (their name roughly translates to “dictator,” if that’s any indication of what you’re in for), but you’ll have a difficult time making out many words among the near-constant barrage of guitar noise.
I predicted upon first hearing Autokrator that they’d probably be the next big thing for extreme metal by year’s end. Boy, was I wrong. But despite that, there’s still a hell of a lot of potential for these guys in the future, and I look forward to hearing a lot more from them.