Metal music is as broad and diverse as the many seas, and holds just as many mysteries in its turbulent depths. The steady tide of metal has brought bountiful offerings to the shores of 2019, and as night falls on an ocean of talent, both titans and newcomers stand as memorable contributions to the scene. Metal of both present and future has been challenged by the releases of longstanding legends that show no sign of slowing down, as well as fierce new talent unafraid of challenging what it means to shred in the twenty-first century.
With such a saturated market and so many stunning releases, it was difficult to wade through the waves of releases that have the privilege of calling themselves metal. From the darkest guttural growls of black metal to the shrieking crescendos of power metal, the Sonic Perspectives contributor team took on the challenge of listening to as many of these releases as possible, and we hope to shed a guiding light on albums that deserve particular attention as the year draws to a close.
It should be noted that this list is almost entirely comprehensive of metal as a whole, with the notable exception of progressive-metal and melodic-metal releases: Cattle Decapitation’s raw brutality simply cannot be placed fairly alongside the mystic orchestration of Wilderun’s latest foray into the realm of dreams or the arena hard-rock infused anthems of Eclipse. To resolve the conflict of sub-genres that are so fundamentally different, progressive metal and melodic metal has been classified in an end-of-year list all its own, which can be accessed at the link on the bottom of this page.
As for the rankings that follow, we at Sonic Perspectives understand that the experience of music is highly subjective, particularly in a genre as stylistically and thematically diverse as metal. This list is not an attempt to quantify any particular quality about an album, but rather approach the wide pool of talent with holistic measures to determine its greatness. Considerations include factors of production, musicianship, originality, technicality, and the innate values that keep listeners coming back again and again. If compiling this list has taught us anything, it is that metal is stronger than ever. We can only hope that you enjoy our judgements as much as we enjoyed listening to the following releases… without further ado…
TOP 15 METAL ALBUMS OF 2019
15. The Ferrymen – A New Evil (Frontiers Music SLR)
Nostalgia for the days when Ronnie James Dio reigned supreme, melodic splendor abounded and guitar gods were the order of the day collide in the second installment of Magnus Karlsson’s latest project. This is an album that truly shines when the tempo is brought back to more of a rocking groove, while the melodic hooks and vocal work takes center stage, though true to form Karlsson keeps it from throwback territory by loading things to the brim with bombastic keyboards and a Helloween-inspired lead guitar theme. Much like the haunting visual on the cover of Charon ferrying lost souls across the Acheron, the musical demeanor of this album is both cinematic and heavy from its very inception. Check out our review here.
14. Lord Dying – Mysterium Tremendum (eOne Music)
The lofty landscapes of olden epic metal that originally came roaring out of the late 70s meets a dark, murky skyline with a twisted cosmic glare of 90s sludge, adorned with occasional hints of psychedelic and progressive splendor. It has a level of accessibility that stretches well outside the confines of those who would be considered the style’s base, even to the most melodic fringes of the other side of the spectrum, it’s that artful in how it tempers the harsher moments of the sludge style to work with it rather than against it. They approach their carefully balanced style with such creativity that this album all but begs to be explored again both by this band and other future adherents to the scene. Our take on this album can be appreciated here.
13. Turilli / Lione Rhapsody – Zero Gravity: Rebirth and Evolution (Nuclear Blast)
In an era where the name of Rhapsody seems to duel for the coveted spotlight that shines on power metal, there is no question that Luca Turilli has never forgone the lessons he learned from his time in Rhapsody of Fire, even after years spent pursuing other projects. Reuniting his vision with the stunningly operatic Fabio Lione, the two reunite to create an album that has a combination of both stylistic eclecticism and intriguing nuance in songwriting. The unifying character of this whole opus is driven more by a sense of drama than that of triumph, where emotion and vocal prowess are unleashed across both ballads and speed-driven tracks alike. The end result is an exciting album that is not Rhapsody as many have come to expect from names so well known in the power and symphonic metal scenes, but not so ambitious that it transcends familiarity. Check out our thoughts at this location.
12. Baroness – Gold & Grey (Abraxan Hymns)
Easily their most dynamic, varied, and ambitious release so far, “Gold & Grey” sees Baroness playing with light and shade, melody and distortion, while maintaining the core of their sound. As the name suggests, “Gold & Grey” is an album focused on duality: exquisite melodies marred by distortion, delicate intros followed by frantic riffing, uphill battles, short-lived plateaus and vertiginous descents. This album has the potential to bring the band into the mainstream, but will certainly preserve their edge and their penchant for annoyingly beautiful songs. It’s an appropriate ending to their color-themed albums, which even with 17 tracks, does not overstay its welcome. Wanna know more? Read here.
11. Lacuna Coil – Black Anima (Century Media)
Following over a decade of lighter fare that catered more to the mainstream sensibilities of the post-Evanescence scene, one of gothic metal’s iconic pioneers has opted to up the aggression with their heaviest offering since “Comalies.” This is an album that is possessed of a uniquely modern and highly original character, one that stretches the definition of where gothic metal ends and certain newer sectarian subgenres such as groove metal and even djent begin. It doesn’t really possess the sort of vintage, organic atmosphere that nostalgia hounds may seek, but it does provide a much needed shot in the arm to a band that some say has been a bit too mellow as of late. Those who want a bit more metallic edge in their gothic metal are highly encouraged to immerse themselves in the unforgettable experience that is “Black Anima.” Our full review is here.
10. Alcest – Spiritual Instinct (Nuclear Blast)
Alcest returns with an emotional metaphysical experience that goes well beyond your average shoegaze material. Drawing inspiration from his own spiritual experience, Neige has written an album from the heart and forces listeners to bare their own souls, strip down their humanity and build it back layer by layer. Steeped in melody and accented by blackened shadow, the material is as rich as it is dark. With clean vocals trading off with blackened growls, there is a feeling of struggle, with dark riffs and clean choirs steering the agony with bright accents. Alcest creates the perfect ambiance for the journey of rebuilding and restructuring oneself to become better, and “Spiritual Instinct” is an album filled with enough melody and emotion overlaying the heaviness to see this experience through. Our full review at this location.
9. Fleshgod Apocalypse – Veleno (Nuclear Blast)
Listening to “Veleno,” it would be impossible to imagine that Fleshgod Apocalypse had ever hit any stumbling blocks in their sound or production. After 2016’s “King” began to guide the band back into a more favorable light, “Veleno” is a fitting follow-up that emphasizes the purity of actual orchestral instruments beautifully composed, and a production value that balances both grit and beauty with careful attention. Though this may seem to be a return to the roots of a sound that brought the band to international acclaim, “Veleno” dives deeper than a mere throwback, taking full advantage of their growth to provide a diversity in not just the contrast between orchestra and technical death metal musicianship, but in a set of songs that stand ready to be devoured as individual works of art or as a full, soul-consuming album.
8. Swallow the Sun – When a Shadow is Forced into the Light (Century Media)
In a style that drips with the darkest dredges of both death metal and doom metal, Swallow the Sun have pivoted from the wandering journey of their mammoth triple-album of 2015 to release their shortest offering to date. Though the songwriting may capture the best elements of the most shadowed styles that metal has to offer, the shining light of an album that is equal parts mourning and melody. The vocal capabilities of Mikko Kotamaki are perhaps the most stunning quality in a brief but noteworthy foray into a world where light is just a temptation among the night. In a duality that is born from genuine creative passion, “When a Shadow is Forced into the Light” gives Swallow the Sun yet another memorable release to their name.
7. Avatarium – The Fire I Long For (Nuclear Blast)
Avatarium spreads even more dark gospel on their fourth album, “The Fire I Long For.” Spellbinding and seductive, vocalist Jennie-Ann Smith casts such magic and voodoo that it leaves listeners helpless against her power. Doom-laden hooks and gorgeous solos from her husband Marcus Jidell add to the ambiance as the band weaves its most distinguished webb of musical genius, where an intriguing battle wages between uplifting and somber melodies. The album is yet another chapter in the discography of a band that continues to best itself time and time again, because no one else can. Though it would have seemed impossible that Avatarium could mature their dark, almost sultry temptation, “The Fire I Long For” is the noteworthy product of unforseen maturity and a successful venture to refine their atmosphere even further. Learn more about this terrific album at this link.
6. Cattle Decapitation – Death Atlas (Metal Blade)
Adding vibrant splashes of progressive influences across a dire picture of humanity’s destruction, “Death Atlas” crosses the confining boundaries of genre to deliver an exhilarating and unforgettable listening experience. Brutality reigns supreme as Cattle Decapitation takes on the weight of a dying world, tearing it apart with a relentlessly enduring spirit of both aggression and technical virtuosity. A band that has risen from a historic sound that was consumed by nearly pure grind, the compositional mastery and careful attention to songwriting have made “Death Atlas” as brutal as it is poignant, and the raw howls of vocalist Travis Ryan’s distinct vocal style marry exceptionally well with the band’s increasingly focused approach to refining their sound even further. “Death Atlas” may have arrived late in the year, but has already made its staying power apparent to fans of both death and grind alike. Read our review here.
5. Flotsam and Jetsam – The End of Chaos (AFM Records)
“The End of Chaos” is a ruthless declaration of calculated guitar riffs, eruptions of velocity combined with doomy bass lines, irritated vocal lines and unforgiving high-class drumming. These elements are hardened by a crystal clear mix and stunning production, bundling the best elements that have allowed Flotsam and Jetsam to succeed for so long into an easily digestible and extremely enjoyable opus. To continue creating fresh music after almost 30 years is a feat that few can achieve, and “The End of Chaos’ is proof that Flotsam and Jetsam can age gracefully in an era where the latest and greatest in thrash seems to evolve at the speed of light. This album proves itself to be yet another valuable addition in a long and impressive discography, and one that will find a comfortable place in hearts of thrash fans across the world. Our in-depth review is at this location.
4. Rotting Christ – The Heretics (Season of Mist)
A scathing citation of the supposedly celestial and their fraudulent flunkies by the heroes of Hellenic heathenry began the year with an album that is powerful in theme and composition. With scalding thematic imagery and an unforgiving onslaught of musical brutality, Rotting Christ seem to have won over the fans that were lost during the misstep of “Aealo” in 2010. The richness of the concept in “The Heretics” is layered enough to lose more adventurous listeners in repeated listens looking to tear each track apart, but still approachable enough that more casual fans of black metal or other extreme genres can listen to the album with almost immediate satisfaction. Here’s our full dissection of this album.
3. Insomnium – Heart Like a Grave (Century Media)
For a band that has been long recognized as one of the best at what they do, a new release is always a risk: some fans will be senselessly enamored as they always are, while others are disappointed that there was either a stagnation in style or some drastic change. However, Insomnium manages to find a seemingly intangible balance between adventurous and consistent, and once again rewards their longtime fans with their blend of exquisite melodies and neck-breaking passages. With many twists and turns across its thoughtfully paced tracks, “Heart Like a Grave” never overstays its welcome, and is a great addition to the band’s diverse and renowned catalogue of pure melodic death metal. More details here.
2. Death Angel – Humanicide (Nuclear Blast)
Dull moments are a non-factor on this album, whether the pace is running at full-tilt or creeping along in a ballad-like groove, the musical picture being painted is a balanced one where no instrument is permitted to slouch. For the steadfast thrashers out there who have stuck with it through thick and thin, “Humanicide” is yet another validation of this subgenre’s staying power out of a band that has been delivering the goods consistently, albeit while packing even more of a punch. The whole package is a brilliant hybrid of melodic guitar leads and pounding heaviness that runs the gambit of early west coast influences, though the chief ones continue to be that of Exodus and Testament. In short, the apocalypse has rarely kicked this much ass, so put on your ram-skull hats and catch this Armageddon train. Get “humanicided” at this location.
1. Borknagar – True North(Century Media)
“True North” is a continuation of both where Borknagar has been since their inception, and their deeper embrace of Nordic and progressive stylings that present a moderate shift away from their black metal roots. Battling with both the intensity of an unforgiving Nordic winter steeped in the history of black metal and the indomitable vocal prowess of vocalist Simen Hestnaes, “True North” is an exploration of sonic perfection that strikes listeners directly in their hearts. A seamless dance from opening hooks dredged in doom to a vocal-led closer to pure atmospheric melody, “True North” shines as brightly as an untouched field of fallen snow, and is yet another proving ground for a band that has never faltered in a long line of stunning releases. Read our metal album of the year full review here.
COMEBACK ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
Comeback stories are incredibly satisfying, and watching a band return from silence or near sonic destruction can be either devastatingly disappointing or excitingly enthralling. The following albums are the results of ghosts returning to the realm of metal in full force, bringing with them tastes of both their roots and the miracles of modern music production.
Possessed – Revelations of Oblivion (Nuclear Blast)
From start to finish, this album is a raging colossus of an opus that runs the gambit of every extreme idea that was novel when death metal was in its trash-based infancy. The tracks tangle with highly dramatic cinematic tracks all the way through a haunting acoustic outro. Between the atmospheric instrumentals is a ten chapter collection of high octane terror that only death thrash can deliver, largely cooking at high speeds with intermittent fits of machine gun double bass drumming and blinding guitar madness. Though this album may ultimately prove to be the biggest boon to old-school listeners who remember a time when death metal was largely bereft of grindcore influences, there is definitely enough of a current character in this album to make it equally appealing to any metalhead who was little more than a twinkle in their parents’ eyes when “Seven Churches” first hit the underground thrash metal circuit. Read more here.
Sacred Reich – Awakening (Metal Blade)
Following a period of studio silence comparable to the plotline of an American tall tale, one of 80s thrash’s iconic acts returns to deliver the goods in a manner not heard since the days of yore. In direct contrast to the majority of older bands that have been more prolific, it is a less modernized, less exaggerated take on modernity that sports a sound less like the towering mammoth that has been Testament’s output over the last 15 years and more like the lighter, greyer sound that dominated the style in the early 90s. Musically it trends more towards the rugged, working class simplicity that was this band’s staple during their formative years, and has earned itself a notable listening value in present times. Here’s our review!
Candlemass – The Door to Doom (Napalm Records)
Following a seemingly endless revolving door of prominent helmsmen leading the charge, the original purveyors of epic fatalism and despair of the most grandiose kind rediscover their roots with the return of the original captain. The best way to describe the sonic workings of this vintage yet fresh take on things is as a slightly darker, and perhaps a tinge more mechanized reflection of its 1986 equivalent. The same general atmosphere aesthetic of reverberating minimalist riffs, thudding drums, and occasional layers of keyboard work crosses paths with a much more experienced and aged Langquist, whose powerful pipes have more of an old school metal attitude to them. This album is an organic return to an era where Candlemass thrived, as though they were frozen in time and are now prepared to make their triumphant return. Check out our full analysis of this record in this link.
Nocturnus AD – Paradox (Profound Lore)
Like an interstellar mirror reflecting back into the turbulent world of early 1990’s death metal, a thought to be long-dead pioneer has returned from the great beyond to remold the cosmos into their former glory. Despite the heavily chaotic character of the songs that fill out the tracklist on “Paradox,” there is definitely a sense of cohesion and even classicism at times that gives each individual chapter in this auditory story a heavily distinctive character. The old-school death metal world has seen a healthy swarm of new classics in the past couple years, devouring corpses of the naysayers, but this is one of those albums that is just in a class by itself. We wrote about this album here.
SURPRISE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
These following albums snuck out of the shadows and were propelled into the spotlight by their stunning originality, unique creative vision, and stellar musicianship. Unpredictable and unprecedented, these are the two albums that surprised us the most this year.
Equipoise – Demiurgus (The Artisan Era)
As technical death metal devolves into a competition of whose fingers can perform the most superhuman feats of electrified strings, master of composition Nick Padovani emerges with one of the most complex and thrilling death metal projects to date. Instrumental interludes interspersed with vibrant touches of flamenco tie together an album that is defined by complexity and complete vision in songwriting. With vocals that roar and howl with the strength of undying hellfire painted atop thundering and relentless drums, the sheer speed and unforgiving intensity of this creative project propel it forward with both wonder and tantalizing intrigue. A natural story that weaves itself seamlessly from the building first track to the concluding riffs, “Demiurgus” is an ouroboric work that not just consumes the best features of itself, but refines the elements that makes technical death metal a feat of modern ingenuity into a priceless masterpiece.
Paladin – Ascension (Prosthetic Records)
At first blush, this highly polished, technical, and speed-driven masterpiece may seem to have been born from the hotbed of power metal that lives in the confines of northern Europe. However, the thrash roots of this young American act are the drivers of an album that bites with sheer ice in blistering riffs and soaring vocals that reach to the heavens and beyond. In an ambitious debut, Paladin approaches their craft with the confidence of seasoned veterans, vocalist Taylor Washington transitioning from throaty growls to melodic choruses that have the staying power of any old-school Rhapsody classic. Solos fill out the cores of songs that dive from heavy bass lines to piercing falsettos, tied together with a gleaming production quality that would be expected from a band with a much more mature discography. The wiley youth and creative vision of this new band has rightfully earned them attention after an exciting and unexpected debut that brings together the best of power metal and pure American thrash in one of the year’s most unanticipated releases.
DEBUT ALBUM OF THE YEAR
E-An-Na – Nesfariste (SoundAge Productions)
As the sub-genres of metal grow increasingly nuanced, E-An-Na still manages to stand in a category alone in their unique brand of death-driven folk metal. Hailing from Romania, tales of spirituality and folklore drive the pipes and flutes that keep blistering speed with the lead vocalist’s tormented shrieks and unceasing guitar. A combination of bagpipes, accordion, violin, and flutes bring the folk elements to the same transcendent greatness that has given Eluveitie international acclaim. Stunning pacing pulls listeners from pure folk instrumentals to tracks that would not be out of place among death metal classics, forgive the lamenting wail of a tortured flute vying to keep pace. E-An-Na has cast their net broadly as they begin to gain a true feel for what their style will be, they already have shown a firm grasp on all of the tenets of death metal and folk metal, and are already far along in their mission to seamlessly combine them in a unique musical experience that comes roaring out from the heart of Romania.
If you are still here, and you are curious about our picks in some other genres, make sure to check out the lists below!