SPECIAL FEATURE: Best of 2015 – Chris Dahlberg (TO Staff)
2015 brought plenty of great albums with it, and as with the year before there were so many outstanding efforts that it was hard to really narrow things down into a concise list. Instead of agonizing over it for too long, I simply decided to go through everything I had given high marks to since January and rank according to what I was still listening to in the months after the initial review. This list only reflects albums that I personally covered throughout the year, as I’m sure there are plenty more that would have been candidates had I been able to spend in-depth time with them. I’ve only recently started contributing to Transcending Obscurity, so hopefully anyone reading this will find some artists they may not have been exposed to before or reassert how good some of these releases are. Here’s to next year bringing more killer metal with it!
Decline of the I- Rebellion
French black metal continues to push the genre in a wide range of directions and over the past four to five years I’ve found myself captivated by so many artists from the country. Decline of the I was the first to really grab my attention in 2015, with band leader A.K. continuing to write experimental black metal around the theories and practices of French physician and philosopher Henri Laborit. “Rebellion” takes the ideas showcased on its predecessor Inhibition and pushes them to even further extremes, offering some of the elements one would recognize as distinctly black metal but twisting them into something that feels genuinely different. The resulting effort is a journey through the human psyche that is just as unsettling whether utilizing softer instrumentation or spine chilling screams and harsher riffing.
Released: February 27th
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Creeping’s third full length “Revenant” finds the long running New Zealand band fully merge the spectrums of black metal and doom together into a mixture that has a thick atmosphere which is equal parts inviting and suffocating. Whether slowly lurching forward with softer melodies that hang over the recording with a ghostlike presence or switching gears over to more traditional blast beats, “Revenant” piles the atmosphere on thick while still providing enough twists and turns to make each song distinguishable from the last. At times the layers Creeping builds up are enough to lull the listener into a trance, and it’s reminiscent of Emptiness’ most recent effort that won over so many people in 2014. It’s one of those albums that can really get under your skin, and that continues to be the case even months after release.
Released: August 10th
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My list may be dominated by bands that are within the realms of black and death metal, but you’ll also find a handful of records that touch upon other metal styles as well. Valborg’s latest album “Romantik” is a perfect example, as it finds the German band injecting a healthy dose of somber melodies into their heavier doom base. Falling somewhere between Celtic Frost and Type O Negative, Valborg has transformed their sound and written a record that’s as introspective and contemplative as it is heavy and dense. Over the years I’ve felt like this band has been criminally overlooked by quite a few people, especially when you consider the consistent quality of their body of work. Hopefully “Romantik” will be the breakthrough they need to reach a wider segment of the metal populace, as the rawness of emotion on display throughout this album has the ability to grab listeners of all tastes.
Released: May 20th
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Rosetta- Quintessential Ephemera
I lost track of Rosetta for a few years, so I hadn’t heard any of their recordings since 2010’s “A Determinism of Morality”. This year’s “Quintessential Ephemera” served as a welcome reintroduction, as it still has the crushing sludge and post metal that drew me in to “The Galilean Satellites” and “Wake/Lift” but pushes their sound off into different territory with an increased emphasis on cleaner textures from both the instrumentals and vocals. Despite my initial reservations about how clean singing would work alongside Mike Armine’s low pitched screams, Rosetta pulled it off perfectly and was able to expand upon their sound naturally. Where so many other bands that were part of the post metal explosion in the early to mid-2000s fell into a rut after an album or two and couldn’t keep their ideas feeling fresh, the ability of this material to be adventurous with post and space rock style melodies yet still provide plenty of crushing sludge sections proves these guys are here to stay.
Released: June 22nd
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Wolfheart- Shadow World
Melodic death metal was one of the first metal genres I really got into, but in recent years I’ve largely fallen out of love with the style aside from a few bands. Finland’s Wolfheart is one of these exceptions, as Tuomas Saukkonen’s newest project recaptured the perfect balance of high energy riffing and cold, wintery melodies that I liked so much. The band’s debut “Winterborn” was on my year end list in 2014, and I didn’t expect that not only would they return with a new album less than a year later but that the material would be even better than its predecessor. Given the quick turnaround the songwriting is one of the most impressive aspects of this recording, as Saukkonen is no longer the sole writer and the input of a full group has allowed the melodic peaks to reach even greater heights than before. Since a lot of the classic genre groups have fallen into mediocrity, Wolfheart seems like the perfect band to take over and show a new generation of fans how to do melodic death metal right.
Released: August 21st
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Outre- Ghost Chants
Outre’s debut full length “Ghost Chants” came out way back in April, but it’s an album that I’ve thought about and listened to regularly since then. The Polish black metal band has a lot of the elements that one would expect from the genre, but they’re not just another in a long line of groups throwing blast beat after blast beat at you. Instead, each song is able to provide twists and turns that move between all-out aggression and slower breaks that are caked in grime and filth. Combine that with the performance of guest vocalist Stawrogin, whose screams and shrieks genuinely sound like poltergeists that are going to burst out of your speakers, and you have a release with real staying power. I am curious how Outre is going to proceed with their current singer Tymek Jędrzejczyk, but given the songwriting ability on display throughout “Ghost Chants” I feel confident they will impress again in the future and are a band to keep on your radar in the coming months.
Released: April 14th
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CHRCH- Unanswered Hymns
I didn’t listen to quite as much doom in 2015 as in previous years, but out of those that came across my radar CHRCH was easily the best newcomer around. Originally called Church, at some point in the year they dropped the vowel so you may see “Unanswered Hymns” listed online under either name. But no matter what they’re called at this point, what matters is how damn good the three songs on this record are. Each spans between eleven and twenty minutes in length and the group uses this period of time to hit the listener with absolutely crushing riffing and hazier leads that have a psychedelic feel to them. The vocals follow this trade-off of heavy and mellow as well, with lead singer Eva providing softer, almost ethereal singing and guitarist Chris throwing in some harsh growls. CHRCH has managed to take a lot of elements that on their own are reminiscent of a number of different sludge/doom bands and combine them into a mixture that feels fresh. It’s hard to believe they’ve only been together for about two years or so, as they’re already at such a high level.
Released: April 9th
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Hivelords- Tapered Limbs of a Human Star
Hivelords had my attention in 2013 with their first full length “Cavern Apothecary”, which exposed me to their variant of black metal that pulled in elements of sludge and doom and added downright scary vocals over top of it. Two years later, the band has expanded upon every element from that record on “Tapered Limbs of a Human Star” and fully diverged onto their own path. The instrumentals are even more expansive and sprawling than before, with airier leads bringing in a psychedelic vibe that slowly twist into something nightmarish and otherworldly as each song moves forward. Hivelords also switched up their vocals quite a bit, with the psychotic and unnerving screams sometimes giving way to cleaner chants that have a ritualistic feel. It’s the type of album that reveals more layers as you spend additional time with it, and I find it exciting to watch the band become that much more adventurous with each recording. The next time someone tries to tell you that U.S. black metal doesn’t have anything unique to offer compared to its European counterpart, show them a group like Hivelords.
Released: August 4th
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Adversarial- Death, Endless Nothing and the Black Knife of Nihilism
Adversarial’s newest full length was one of my most anticipated releases of 2015, especially after watching them deliver a destructive and jaw dropping performance at Maryland Deathfest. “Death, Endless Nothing and the Black Knife of Nihilism” certainly didn’t disappoint, as this is an incredibly dense recording that continually assaults the listener with complete and utter chaos. But unlike the fairly one dimensional black/death metal that is so common, Adversarial’s take has riffs that are distinguishable from one song to the next. It’s also worth mentioning the performance of C.S., as he has one of those growls that sounds demonic and downright inhuman at times and his vocals have been put front and center on the recording to achieve maximum impact. As my tastes continue to skew towards the most extreme variants of black and death metal, this group is one of the few to hit that peak level of intensity that I’ve been looking for. The strange placement of the intro and interlude does still bug me a bit, but it ultimately doesn’t take away from how powerful of a record this is.
Released: August 21st
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Acid King- Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere
It’s hard to believe that ten years have already passed since Acid King released “III”, but the wait between albums was definitely worth it. Previous material may have emphasized a crunchier doom/stoner metal sound that had a healthy dose of blues influence, but “Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere” switches things up considerably by taking that base and injecting a healthy dose of psychedelic melodies into it. This approach works perfectly, as Acid King is still able to bring the heavy grooves fans want but now has a more dynamic sound that results in even greater climaxes and some of the most entrancing melodies I’ve heard in the genre in recent years. Lori S. isn’t as buried in the mix compared to previous efforts, allowing her vocals to soar over the instrumental work and further contribute to the warm and inviting atmosphere that went a long way in making this my favorite doom/stoner release of 2015. Whether you’re a fan of heavy groove oriented metal or hazier psychedelics, this album is a mandatory listen.
Released: April 7th
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Dreadnought- Bridging Realms
Progressive metal/rock is another area I neglected a bit this year, as it’s hard to choose from the sheer number of albums that I receive for review on a weekly basis. But when it came down to choosing one album for this list that would represent this area of metal, Dreadnought’s sophomore effort “Bridging Realms” was a no brainer. The Denver group couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate title for this recording, as each of the songs is an expansive journey through ideas that bridge the gaps between metal and rock. At times it sounds like you’re listening to a progressive rock epic that is ripped right out of the 70s with soft vocals and airier guitar leads, while the next the angelic vocals have turned into demonic shrieks and the instrumentation has shifted to the cold chill of black metal. There are so many different elements encompassed within “Bridging Realms” that I feel like it took me close to a month to really get a handle of them all. Dreadnought’s clearly an ambitious group like so many of the others out there, but the difference is they have the technical ability to fully realize their ideas and that allows them to stand above so many of the other prog oriented bands.
Released: August 11th
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When it comes to black/death metal, Revenge is one of the most intense bands out there. They’ve perfected the ability to take down tuned riffs and unrelenting drums that bludgeon the listener into submission, coming as close to completely breaking down song structures into complete chaos as one can get. With “Behold.Total.Rejection” J. Read and Vermin haven’t reinvented their sound in any particular way, but they’ve continued to make subtle tweaks and squeeze out even more intensity than I thought possible. The biggest change comes in the recording itself, which is a bit fuller than previous albums and gives the vocals even more prominence than before. J. Read sounds completely barbaric and inhuman throughout, with some of his vocal ranges seeming impossible to imitate and often on the verge of complete collapse. I’m sure there will still be plenty of people that find Revenge too much to handle or can’t pick out the subtle nuances from one song to the next, but if your tastes are like mine and you are always looking for the most destructive and intense forces in metal “Behold.Total.Rejection” will hit the spot.
Released: November 13th
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Shrine of Insanabilis- Disciples of the Void
Shrine of Insanabilis seemed to come out of nowhere, dropping this monster of a debut with no prior EP’s or demos to their name. Not much is known about the group aside from the fact that they’re based out of Germany, but identities aren’t important when the music itself makes this much of a statement. Each of the songs on “Disciples of the Void” is immense, with layers upon layers of distorted guitars building up until they completely level everything in their path. At the time of the album’s release I was most drawn to Invocation which is a two part song that unleashes a wall of blasting upon the listener before fading out and then rising from the ashes of its destruction with even more intensity. But since then I’ve come to appreciate the material as a whole, as even the interludes fit the overall tone and theme Shrine of Insanabilis presents and don’t just merely feel like throwaway filler. This group has set a high bar for themselves, but if they can maintain this type of dynamic black metal that’s able to provide real substance wrapped in that dense and occult aesthetic so many other bands go for they’ll remain a force to be reckoned with.
Released: September 22nd
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VI- De Praestigiis Angelorum
The second French black metal band to grace this list, VI’s full length debut has been a long time coming. Formed in 2007 by musicians that have been involved with groups like Aosoth, Antaeus, and The Order of Apollyon, the experience that these guys have from their other projects is evident on “De Praestigiis Angelorum”. Comparisons to Aosoth may be unavoidable, as there are a lot of similar elements to the razor sharp edges and density of that band displayed on this recording. But VI finds ways to distinguish themselves, particularly in their use of dynamic guitar leads that utilize both melody and technicality in ways that feel different from the norm for this type of black metal. It makes each song jump out and grab your attention, and just as you feel as though the band might start to fall into a predictable pattern there is a section that heads off in a completely different direction. With guitar leads that get under your skin with razor sharp edges and eerier melodies that will send shivers down your spine, this is black metal at its highest point.
Released: September 25th
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Adversarial and Revenge may have delivered some of the most unrelenting black/death metal around, but it’s Destruktor’s sheer amount of standout riffs combined with that same intensity that vaulted it into my top spot. Compared to their debut, the Australian group has mixed and mastered their recording so much more in your face and razor sharp from beginning to end. They’ve also gone for a more concise songwriting approach, with each song flying by fairly quickly and not falling into repetition. The riffs keep coming from beginning to end, and compared to the usual black/death habit of blast after blast Destruktor incorporates quite a bit of thrash into the mix which makes for songs that are much more diverse than one might initially expect. Compared to all the other releases in this genre that made this list, “Opprobrium” is the one that has found its way into my stereo the most and stayed with me almost six months after its release. This is definitely the embodiment of every element that makes extreme metal appealing, and whether you want to categorize it as black/thrash or black/death, the blistering intensity and catchiness of the guitar work make it my top pick of the year.
Released: July 24th
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