After a relatively weak 2014, this year yielded a much more impressive and varied crop. I wonder if I said the opposite of that last year. I’m not going to look.
At the top of the heap: Zatokrev's Silk Spiders Underwater. It's heavier and more experimental than the Swiss band's excellent 2012 album The Bat, The Wheel And A Long Road To Nowhere, though perhaps not as viscerally abrasive. In the end it probably falls under the 'gateway metal' umbrella, although Zatokrev offers a couple more flattering tags on its bandcamp page: 'psychodelic' and 'apocalypse-metal', either of which is fitting. I love the wide-ranging journeys through "Discolouration" and "They Stay In Mirrors" and the brutal assault of "Swallow The Teeth", but the crux is "Loom", a beastly slow-burning masterpiece that I would rank among the best songs in the history of metal. Yet this band doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page. What the fock.
The album that grabbed me early in the year and never let go was A Northern Meadow by Pyramids. As sick as I get of trying to sort through the innumerable modern offshoots of black metal, this struck a chord—clean vocals, what a concept! The guitars are as twisted and tormented as a Blut Aus Nord record, but you've got the anguished melodies belted out by R. Loren in place of the expected screams and growls. When he sings "Just think of the blood you bleed" ("Indigo Birds"), it is liable to chill you as deeply as any guttural expletive.
Elsewhere in quasi-black territory, I still think Deafheaven sucks. The new New Bermuda features some new directions for the band but comes off as even more cobbled-together than the 'blackgaze' genre-defying Sunbather. I can't pick the musicians apart in terms of ability. They're similar to Liturgy in that I can't come up with a single good reason for them to exist as a band or why they make music at all, and what they have made, so far, I loathe.
On the more conventional black metal tip, the new Mgla album Exercises In Futility seemed to get a lot of love, and I found it pretty potent though not groundbreaking. Enslaved's (that's a fun word to say) In Times is also reliably great, not much of an evolution from RIITIIR but up to the band's high standard of songwriting if you have a taste for the proggier side. The new Krallice, Ygg Hurr, really surprised me. I felt their last couple releases had gotten a bit samey, and suddenly they blindside us with this technical, deathy sound and rich, clear production (Those basslines! My goodness!). It's absolutely glorious, reinvigorating my feelings from back in '09 when I was certain they were the best black metal band in the U.S.
There is a new-ish contender, though: Panopticon. I'll admit that my official policy on banjos in metal is 'fuck that'...actually that's my general position on banjos with few exceptions. But following a beautiful, melancholy intro piece, this album proceeds as very straightforward BM. It doesn't even get interesting until the middle of the fourth track, "Oaks Ablaze", which gets hacked down by some gruff riffage into a quiet interlude before building into a (Krallice-esque, now that I think about it) searing atmospheric peak. Then comes "Sleep To The Sound Of The Waves Crashing", after which nothing is the same. This is right up there with "Loom" as metal song of the year and one for the ages. First time through I was like 'why have you been wasting my time for the past half hour when you could've been doing this??' Fucking perfection. And the penultimate track, "A Superior Lament", is nearly as great; those twin guitar leads are heart-wrenching! So while only about half of this album is great, it still lands in the upper reaches for me.
I am late to the party and still digesting Ævangelist, but this Enthrall To The Void Of Bliss is the most gut-churning album I heard in 2015. If you can have banjo in black metal, why not harp? And it's actually a very natural—er, in a sick, twisted way—fit; it's the sound of divine torture, the ultimate perversion of beauty. It may turn out to be a purely superficial contrivance and I'm sure purists scorn this shit at least as much as I scorn Liturgy, but Ævangelist is my kind of sacrilege.
Finally, I have to mention Vhol. Their self-titled debut from 2013 was my introduction (I think) to the black metal/hardcore hybrid sound, and I was hooked. Now they come along with this new Deeper Than Sky album, and the blackness is virtually gone, replaced by a wicked NWOBHM theatricality and, um, a song that's mostly piano (titled, naturally, "Paino"), and, well, I'm still hooked. It's a bizarre album, but also probably more accessible than the first one, or maybe they just want me to think that. It sort of turns metal on its ear so I don't know what's extreme any more. I would love it even if I hated it. Dig?
Oh shit, I almost forgot there were other kinds of metal besides black for a minute. There were two insane experimental metal albums early in the year that I would recommend to anybody searching for the extremes of what's possible to incorporate into a metal framework. Japan's Sigh put out a dizzying and caustic work of avant-garde madness called Graveward, which I didn't find quite as engaging as 2012's In Somniphobia but it's certainly a more ambitious statement. I struggle with the vocals at times; I can't tell if I should laugh or be terrified. I suppose I can't hold that against them, though. The other wacko world-metal treatise was from Solefald: the endlessly jarring and weird Kosmopolis Sud. It's a super slick production that marries all kinds of multicontinental sounds into a suspension containing all possible emotions. It's not something I sit and listen to all the way through much, but its highlights—“The Germanic Entity", “Future Universal Histories” and especially the ludicrous "Bububu Bad Beuys"--give me endless pleasure.