We’re close to the last circle of hell, so I suppose Code Orange applies in more way than one (take the hint). As the choices get harder these albums span from great bands doing what they’ve always done best to others that really push boundaries and try something totally new.
Either way, a few of these albums really came out of nowhere and blew my mind in ways I wasn’t expecting. This sentiment is much more noticeable in my top 10, so keep and eye out for that.
20. Pallbearer – Forgotten Days — At the very least, Forgotten Days solves the problem of 2017’s Heartless by reintroducing earth-rumbling heaviness. It’s definitely great to crank this thing and hear that massive low end, but this doesn’t come at the expense of the more melodic, progressive tendencies of Heartless. It proves that Pallbearer can write heartfelt, catchy songs while also remaining convincingly doom-y. Amid synth-laden callbacks to classic prog and psychedelia—not to mention some almost-grungy song structures—it really boils down to Sabbath-like singing and riffage. As long as bands like Pallbearer can revitalize those foundational ideas, Black Sabbath’s classic doom sound won’t be leaving anytime soon.
19. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville — The roaring ’20s are back, and Imperial Triumphant embodies what a frightening return it has been. Otherwise known as a jazz combo covering Portal and Deathspell Omega, Imperial Triumphant continues to amaze with its unorthodox virtuosity. With help from Colin Marston (Krallice) and Trey Spruance (Mr. Bungle), Alphaville doubles down on the jazz fusion element while providing some of its most raw and heavy material to date. This isn’t to say the band has compromised the complete insanity of previous albums—just that there’s more footholds in this sonic tornado. Beyond the percussive contributions from Meshuggah drummer Thomas Haake, the LP is full of interesting ideas. The concluding covers of Voivod and The Residents helps this band’s niche into perspective—showing how Imperial Triumphant represents a deeply artful crossroads between extreme metal and something else.
18. Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment — It’s hard to think of a band more over-the-top than Anaal Nathrakh, so the demonic duo has a special license to stick to its guns. That’s exactly what Endarkenment does, but it still stands out in terms of quality. Dave Hunt’s vocals are as insane as expected. His nihilistic diatribe is actually fitting for the madness of this past year (and what 2021 will probably be). He also comes through with some of his most rousing melodic choruses. Mick Kenney’s programming and guitar work are also in rare form, providing multiple shades of maddening evil. It’s easy to dismiss this as a never-ending barrage of blast beats and tremolo picking, but those leads and tempo shifts remain memorable within the brazen aggression.
17. Huntsmen – Mandala of Fear — In terms of concept, Huntsmen are the coolest band on this list. They essentially penned a tribute to “Mad Max,” with enough world-building to merit a short comic book adaptation. Accompanying the gripping narrative is the band’s unique brand of “Americana metal.” Mandala of Fear benefits from outlaw country’s vivid storytelling and a compelling nexus of progressive sludge metal and dreary desert rock. There’s so many cool ideas packed in by every musician, as the narrative thrust is carried effectively by the singing and growling. It’s surprisingly easy to follow as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale, but also just a solid addition to inspired heavy music.
16. Code Orange – Underneath — Code Orange has combined industrial nu-metal, heavy hardcore and WWE entrance music, and not only avoids sucking but remains worthy of the band’s notable success outside of metal and hardcore. Purists can argue about whether the electronic curveballs and outlandish production of Code Orange ruin the vibe, but Underneath provides a rewarding experience for those with an open mind. Its savage roots recur at opportune moments, but the way Code Orange incorporates post-grunge and nu-metal is pretty daring. There are so many ways this album could have fallen flat, but the forays into moody melody and noisy textures sound as convincing as the devastating riffs on which this band built its reputation.
15. Methwitch – Indwell — Cameron McBride wears a lot of hats, catering to various styles with a handful of projects and bands. Methwitch centers the most on the unhinged machinations of his musical mind. If 2017’s Piss felt indulgent, then Indwell goes down as McBride’s whole-hearted attempt to push away all but the most masochistic listeners. He intentionally made the production as ugly and uncomfortable as possible, defined by piercing treble and countless layers of twisted sound. McBride’s whistle tone and tunnel throat vocal techniques are extreme enough, but the controlled chaos that defines his instrumentation could make the most hardened listener flinch. It’s just so grimy and hateful, on par with any grind or slam band—and yet, McBride let’s his Slipknot influence shine through on several tracks. It’s somehow too accessible for the Slam Worldwide YouTube feed, but also completely inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t have a screw loose.
14. Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough Volume 1 — After releasing the genre-defining opus Mirror Reaper, the funeral doom gods have decided to collaborate with Aerial Ruin, the neo-folk solo project of Erik Moggridg. It’s far from unexpected, as Moggridg actually contributed to many of the most memorable moments of Bell Witch’s discography. Bassist Dylan Desmond and drummer Jesse Shreibman still come through with the leveling heaviness people expect from then, but Moggridg’s acoustic guitar and voice adds a more pronounced dynamic to the band’s more meditative sensibilities. There’s enough of both artists on display for Stygian Bough Volume 1 to not sound like “Bell Witch featuring Aerial Ruin” or vice versa. It’s an example of two artists pushing each other, and the payoff is stupendous.
13. Xibalba – Años en Infierno — In a livestream, Xibalba vocalist Nate Rebolledo compared the band’s progression to that of Bolt Thrower—who started out as hardcore and grindcore but ended up a death metal band. Xibalba began as a heavy hardcore band doing splits with World of Pain, and now Años en Infierno is an honest to goodness death metal album. The band’s original fanbase is along for the ride, but I wish more fans of Morbid Angel and Obituary would pay attention to these guys. The riffs pay so much respect to the legends with enough mosheable grooves to keep the hardcore kids happy. This is also the Xibalba album that does the best job with the band’s doom element. Guitarist Brian Ortiz has always lauded bands like Disembowelment and Corrupted, and this is where he properly realizes that part of his musicality.
12. Napalm Death – Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism — Remember when the defining grindcore band made a great post-punk song? Well no one did until Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism dropped. Napalm Death continues its late career gusto with yet another awesome record full of interesting choices. From industrial detours and the aforementioned post-punk cut to riff-a-minute onslaughts these guys have no business sounding as good as they do. But it does, and no amount of naysaying can dethrone these extreme metal tightens. It’s often simple in its execution, but this album is an undeniably fun listen. It’s amazing to hear Napalm Death hitting harder and taking more chances than man of the modern hardcore and metal bands they inspired.
11. Garganjua – Toward the Sun — If you take the last Lantlôs album and add death doom, you’d essentially get Garganjua’s this record. Toward the Sun has a lot of warm production and luminous singing, contrasted with lumbering riffs and barrel-chested growls. This might just sound like post-metal in general, but the ideas presented here are genius. Toward the Sun takes a genre rife with lazy reverb enthusiasts and makes sure you’re humming along with each melody and grimacing at each chug. It’s frankly astonishing that people aren’t talking about these guys more. It might be because Holy Roar Records is known for metalcore and post-hardcore, and only recently started aggressively promoting music like this. Either way, Garganjua knows what it’s doing and any fan of doom and post-metal should take heed.