As we barrel towards the end of another year it's time to navel-gaze about past fuck-ups and triumphs alike. How did we get here? How did we let this happen? In the spirit of reevaluating questionable life-choices, Metal Elitist is presenting a series of retrospectives on past "Albums of the Year" lists. This edition reflects on what I thought were the best albums of 2015. Please, won't you gaze with me at my navel?
The overview is pretty positive on this one. I still like all of these albums (the ones I can remember, anyway!) Nor is the ranking so obviously incorrect as to turn my face red with shame. You'll just have to wait for the 2016 retrospective for that. Let's dig into it...
(10) Tengger Cavalry - Blood Sacrifice Shaman
Are Tengger Cavalry’s guitars manifestly awful? Unfortunately, yes. Are their traditional Mongolian and Chinese folk instruments and throat singing manifestly badass? Fuck yes they are. This was a late-year release that bewitched me into placing it in the tenth spot of my list even though there were more capable albums that I could have chosen instead. But I don’t regret the attention I gave it. A fictional Mongolian man once asked aloud, What is best in life? He was answered by another fictional Mongolian man: “the open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.” I would argue that though he was wrong (WRONG!), he was in the ballpark. And while Blood Sacrifice Shaman is not the best folk metal album, or even the best Mongolian folk metal album, it, too, is in the ballpark. Why? Because when you hear it you will undoubtedly imagine yourself galloping through the steppe firing off arrows and lobbing off enemy heads. And that feeling is hard to beat.
(9) Gruesome – Savage Land
Pure Death worship. It’s as though Gruesome gave Chuck a call on the old Ouija board every time a creative decision needed to be made on this album. I’m certainly fine with that—Mr. Schuldiner’s ghost still knows how to write one hell of a good death metal track.
I hadn’t actually listened to this album since 2015, so it apparently did not leave a lasting impression. It's an enjoyable album, though I'm not sure why I was so enamored with it to be honest. Moving on.
(7) Pissgrave – Suicide Euphoria
Now we’re getting to the meat of the list. See those bones in that bathtub? Those belong to all of our expectations about what death metal sounds like. Pissgrave murdered them and let them rot in a bathtub full of human shit.
Indulge me for a moment, as I’ve been thinking a while about how to explain the relationship between this album and its contemporaries. You know that trope in old cartoons and TV shows where people meet evil alternate versions of themselves? You know, where they basically look like twins except one has a sinister goatee and laughs a little too hard when someone slips on a banana peel? We are made to assume that bizarro-twindom is a symmetric relation like the standard twin relationship is—that the bizarro twin of the evil person is the normal person. But what if every evil bizarro twin had an even more evil bizarro version of themselves lurking in a dumpster somewhere? That’s how I think of this album. Suicide Euphoria is like the evil bizarro version of your typical death metal album. The structure is the same, you can recognize what it's meant to resemble, but all of the characteristics we already thought were sinister have been one-uped and twisted into something much more grotesque.
(6) Cattle Decapitation—The Anthropocene Extinction
If my album of the year were determined solely by the number of times I listened to it this would have been the clear winner. Whereas most gore metal acts strive merely to troll their weak-stomached listeners, it’s clear that the guys in Cattle Decap are using the genre as a medium to express profound anger and sadness. The two closing tracks are literally a funeral dirge for the end of humanity. And it works. Just try to listen to it and not feel a pang of regret at your years of driving SUVs, gorging on hamburgers, and tossing your recyclables in the trash can. Sad!
(5) Mammoth Storm—Fornjot
As the name suggests, this is some big, slow, beefy doom metal suitable for playing on repeat during a monster snow storm. In retrospect there’s nothing all that special about it. It's big. It's slow. It's beefy. That's about it. I suppose if I had to say what possessed me to rank it this highly I would cite the fact that big, slow, beefy doom metal rules. But if pressed further I would say that it does have some maddeningly catchy riffs that WILL get stuck in your head for days.
(4) Black Fast—Terms of Surrender
This is one of the few albums on this list that I still play on a regular basis. I remember having a really hard time justifying not ranking it higher. I felt like it had so much more character and emotional heft than a single blackened thrash album could be expected to carry. I’m still in awe of this band’s ambition as much as I am its technical prowess and speed. We need a follow-up to Terms of Surrender in 2018. If you’re reading this and you know someone in Black Fast, please relay the message.
(3) Leviathan—Scar Sighted
We are so lucky to be front and center for what amounts to an audio record of a genuine mental health crisis. Or a series of demonic possessions. Who can say? In my mind this is the apex of the satanic-one-man-black-metal-band genre in terms of creativity and production. It also takes first prize in abyss-staring. Recording an album like this should probably land you on some kind of FBI watch list.
(2) Rivers of Nihil—Monarchy
Monarchy has a cinematic quality that really rewards repeat listens (my records show that I’ve listened to this one 27 times in Google Play alone). The concept behind the album is fascinating—we’re told a first-person story of a pharaoh dying and going through the mummification process while still somehow being conscious through the whole ordeal. The album builds a ton of tension and then releases it in a magnificent series of tracks that express the movement of our protagonist from our world to the afterlife. The drums and guitars provide an appropriately awe-inspiring backdrop for this story. Technical death metal has rarely been so engaging.
(1) Panopticon—Autumn Eternal
I took some shit from my friends over this pick, so I feel the need to justify myself. Not only is this album not TRVE or CVLT, it’s downright UPLIFTING. How often do you feel warm and fuzzy and HOPEFUL after listening to a one-man-black-metal-band album? Never. The answer is never. But somehow the third and final album in an autobiographical series that tracks Austin Lunn’s journey from a miserable life in rural Appalachia to a great life as a craft brewer in the upper Midwest manages to do the impossible. Maybe it’s the fact that my life has followed a similar path, but I could feel the emotional contours of this narrative in the melodies before I heard the story or read the lyrics. The earlier albums express mostly anger at having to carry a heavy burden. This one expresses something more complex, like a mix of relief and mourning after the burden has been lifted. As a standalone piece this album presents a nice, unified musical vision but is ultimately less interesting and exciting than what Leviathan put out. But context matters, and it's hard not to consider the fact that this album is intended to tie up and cap off the story that begins with the much darker material in Kentucky and Roads to the North. Given this context I think it’s at least arguable that Panopticon’s is the more ambitious work (if you haven't realized it yet I really like ambitious albums.) No doubt that this was a tough decision, though, and it could have gone a number of ways. In the end I chose Autumn Eternal as my favorite album of 2015 because it moved me in a way that the other albums didn't. After listening to all of the albums again before writing this article I can confirm that it still does.
That's it for now. The third and final retrospective will be coming in the next week or two and will be closely followed by our Best of 2017 list--just in time to influence/determine your shopping decisions for the holidays!