As a newbie to the world of music journalism, constructing a Top 20 list of metal albums was a unique challenge and an exciting quest. I had a lot of catching up to do. I quickly became overwhelmed by the substantial number of worthy albums that were released in 2017, so I put a couple limitations on myself. First, and most notably, I limited myself to bands based in North America. There were a lot of European bands that made me regret this decision, but I hung onto it to make compiling the list simpler for me.
I come from a different musical background contrasted to the rest of the staff at IMV, and my tastes are considerably outside the masculine, angry fare typical of metal music. My first loves were jazz and blues music, and I tend toward derivatives of those two genres, which means I’m drawn to experimental, avant-garde, and post-metal as well as stoner and doom metal. My second decision was to showcase my proclivity for these genres, and for bands that raise a middle finger to conforming to any genre, rather than attempt to abide by what the metal community may expect on a Top 20 list. In the short reviews that follow, you’ll find everything from noise jazz to Sabbath worship, from math rock to funeral doom, with lots of sludge and psychedelia for good measure.
#20 Beastmaker – Inside the Skull Rise Above Records
Stoner metal, Sabbath worship from Fresno, CA.
#19 Radio Moscow – New Beginnings Century Media
Psychedelic, blues, heavy metal from Story City, IA, based in San Diego, CA. Radio Moscow put out a solid 70s throwback album this year, staying true to their style and highlighting the members’ chemistry. Acid rock influences are plunged deep and soaked in heavy, technical, soulful blues and then set out on display. New Beginnings is the quintessence of the West coast heavy doom scene.
#18 Here Lies Man – Here Lies Man Riding Easy Records
Proto-metal/afrobeat fusion from Los Angeles, CA. Fuzzy riffs and West African beats combine to expand the psychedelic/stoner metal genre into some seriously funky territory that’s fresh, hazy, and trippy. Here Lies Man was one of the most refreshing things to happen to the genre this year, and I look forward to their sophomore effort as the band develops their songcraft.
#17 Cloud Catcher – Trails of Kozmic Dust Totem Cat Records
Psychedelic, heavy metal from Denver, CO. Sounding much more mature than a band that formed only four years ago, Cloud Catcher enters the Denver heavy music scene with a fervent brand of neo-psychedelia. Seventies style heavy metal vocals are belted over acid rock guitar, featuring prolonged improvisational solos, frantic fretboard athletics, and trippy explorations on themes and motifs. Big fuzzy bass backs the guitar and carries the riffs through long solo sections, and the songs are interspersed with gratuitous drum fills. For fans of Earthless, classic acid rock (Jimi), and proto-metal (Blue Cheer).
#16 King Woman – Created in the Image of Suffering Relapse Records
Doom metal from San Francisco, CA. King Woman, a female-fronted four-piece, put out a solid debut album this year. Ethereal vocals lament over lyrical themes reflecting on an introspective and personal journey, emerging from the confusion of religious indoctrination, mental anguish, and oppressive relationships inherent to the patriarchy. The breathy brooding is anchored by deliciously slow and expansive doom instrumentation. The songs feel desperately imploring with overtones of longing and undertones of utter futility and defeat. “Hierophant” is the climax of album and most developed composition, running 7:59 minutes. In addition to guitars, bass, and percussion, violin and cello also make appearances in the atmospheric sections and outros, such as in the song “Manna.” With this very strong debut, Created in the Image of Suffering is a wonderful annex to the upsurge of female-fronted doom.
#15 Bison – You Are Not the Ocean You Are the Patient Pelagic Records
Sludge, heavy metal from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Returning after five years, Bison have developed as songwriters and added punk influence to their sound. Powerfully shouted lyrics are supported by highly technically doom riffs, which make their sound uniquely at the intersection of doom/sludge and hardcore punk. The album manages to be exceedingly heavy while still applying progressive ideas and refreshing the band’s sound. The first three tracks of the album showcase bangers that fans love and expect, and then the instrumental track “Kenopsia” transitions the project into more searching, textured compositions. “Tantrum” and “Water Becomes Fire” are my favorite tracks. At about seven minutes each, they encompass all of the heaviness and raw intensity from “Side A” while allowing for slow, delving, open sections which contrast beautifully and add surprising voices such as violin and flute. With You Are Not the Ocean… Bison has reinvented themselves in the best way possible, and they now stand out from the ocean of sludge.
#14 The Company of Serpents – Ain-Soph Aur Independent
Sludge, doom metal from Denver, CO. The Denver based two-piece utilize their skill set fully on Ain-Soph Aur. The strings emanate everything from huge, heavy, fuzzy chord changes and structured, hypermobile riffs to intricate clean picking and spare instrumental dissonance. The somber instrumental passages include surprisingly welcome guitar twang that brings to mind the lonely, desolate old West. The vocals are always rough and guttural while remaining melodic and are sometimes used to whisper, groan, or sigh and at other times to bellow dramatically. The oscillation between raw, powerful exclamations and contrastingly hollow space is used to build anticipation, break up the intensity, and spiral out codas and results in an absorbing and satisfying album that has distinct personality and approach.
#13 Ex Eye – Ex Eye Relapse Records
Free jazz, avant-garde, atmospheric black metal from New York, NY.
#12 Yowie – Synchromysticism Skin Graft Records
TAvant-prog, math rock from St. Louis, MS. Self-described as “post-apocalyptic dance music for the coming age,” the three-piece progressive rock outfit reject standard time signatures and melodic structure and opt instead for complex polyrhythms and dissonant keys. The two guitarists argue, goad and support each other and over sporadic drums. The beats are generated by a clinical psychologist who uses his expertise to get inside your head and alter moods and perceptions. The album is very cerebral, uncanny, and intriguing.
#11 Wear Your Wounds – WYW Deathwish
Post-rock from Essex, Massachusetts.The solo project of Jacob Bannon (Converge) added members Kurt Ballou (Converge), Mike McKenzie (The Red Chord), Chris Maggio (Trap Them), and Sean Martin (Hatebreed) for the 2017 self-titled album. WYW unfolds with slow, deliberate, and layered songs that showcase the somber hopelessness that lies under the surface of Converge’s more violent and energetic exhibition.
#10 Mutoid Man – War Moans Sargent House
Punk, stoner, progressive, metalcore from Brooklyn, NY. The three-piece group was formed by Stephen Brodsky (Cave In) and Ben Koller (Converge) in 2012, adding Nick Cageao on bass guitar. Their sophomore album speaks to our troubled times in which our leaders are hungry for war and our men are suffering from oversexuality. It is fierce, enthusiastic, and relevant. Mutoid Man’s sound is hard to put in a box. It’s heavily influenced by punk rock, especially thematically, but also has deep roots in heavy metal and tendencies toward psychedelic and math rock. War Moans is a high energy, highly technical, engaging listen from front to back.
#9 Telekentic Yeti – Abominable Sump Pump Records
Psychedelic, stoner, doom metal from Dubuque, IA. I love two-piece bands, and I especially respect the ones who fool me into believing there are more members than actually exist. Telekinetic Yeti offers huge, fuzzy guitar riffs backed by spirited and engaged percussion. Their music is powerful, driving, and diverse in its composition. Some stoner metal bands have a tendency to sit on a riff until it becomes dull and monotonous, but Yeti keeps things interesting with syncopation, space, interspersed and alternating effects, and dramatic transitions.
#8 Low Flying Hawks – Genkaku Magnetic Eye Records
Sludge, drone, doom metal from Texas. Low Flying Hawks is a two-piece outfit, who identify themselves by only the initials AAL and EHA, with friends in high places. Their sophomore album features Dale Crover of [the] Melvins and Trevor Dunn of Mr. Bungle, with appearances from Buzz Osborne and producer Toshi Kasai (Big Business). It’s heavy, fuzzy, and oddly soothing. The musicians proclaim the goal of the project is to lead listeners on an inward journey through trance and confusion. The overall sound could be considered aggressive for ambient metal or subdued for sludge metal, but it is assuredly a psychedelic trip into the dark recesses of the shadow self, if you can relinquish control and let the music move you.
#7 The Flight of Sleipnir – Skadi Eisenwald
Psychedelic, stoner, doom metal from Denver, CO
#6 Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers Constellation Records
Dark ambient, post-metal from Montreal, Quebec. Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s new release is a dystopian concept album. The introduction is the fall of a glory age, ominous and discordant with space for the hellish wind to blow through the ruined cityscape. The first movement, in three parts, is the rise of the proletariat and the upheaval of an oppressive system. The interlude, “Fam/Famine,” and speaks to the emotional and spiritual vacuum of modern society. The second movement, also in three parts, paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic world; one that’s empty, rotted, and yet hopeful. I picture nature reclaiming the ruined metropolis. This instrumental album is intricately textured, thoughtfully structured, fluidly composed, and uses interesting voices, such as flute and trumpet, in addition to the keys and strings (both picked and bowed) we expect from GY!BE. This album surpasses all others they’ve previously released, in my opinion, and is the darkest and most transformative.
#5 The Body | Full of Hell – Ascending a Mountain of Heavy Light Thrill Jockey Records
Industrial, noise, grindcore from Portland, OR (The Body) and Ocean City, MD (Full of Hell). I like the experimental nature of The Body and Full of Hell’s 2017 split, and I appreciate the way these bands worked together to push the boundaries of hardcore and bend genres out of shape. I normally have an aversion to industrial noise, but on Ascending a Mountain of Heavy Light the banging and clanging seems to fit the theme of making a space for self-expression where nothing existed before — of constructing a niche and building out a soundscape to fill it. Lots of noise and lots of space comprise the songs, but there isn’t much by the way of melody or structure, probably unsurprisingly given the bands’ previous bodies of work. This new synergistic release is at the same time jarring and refreshing.
#4 Crystal Fairy – Crystal Fairy Ipecac Records
Alternative rock, sludge, stoner metal from Los Angeles, CA and El Paso, TX. After touring with Le Butcherettes, Melvins collaborated with front-woman Teri Gender Bender and Omar Rodriquez-Lopez (The Mars Volta, At The Drive In) to deliver a bold full-length album under the name Crystal Fairy. The four musicians complement and support each other perfectly, evolving together into a heavy band that doesn’t necessarily break new ground, but definitely succeeds in elevating each member to new heights. Teri’s raw delivery and immense presence adds urgency to Melvin’s sludgy and rhythmic riff rock, with Omar adding psychedelic undertones via fuzzy, jumpy bass lines. There is so much chemistry and synergy on Crystal Fairy — you just have to hear it for yourself
#3 Squalus – The Great Fish Translation Loss Records
Sludge, progressive, avant-garde metal from San Francisco, CA. When Giant Squid announced they disbanded after their 2015 hiatus, I was crestfallen, but from the rotting corpse of the mighty cephalopod rises Squalus, sharing four of the same band members. I miss Jackie Gratz’s cello (which makes guest appearances on “USS Indianapolis” and “He Ate the Light”) and sweetly contrasting vocals, but Squalus is a markedly different fish. Churning and thrashing in the open water, the Jaws themed album uses synthesizer to fill out the arrangements and add texture over crunchy, invigorated dual bass guitars (no six strings) and passionate, precise percussion. I was disappointed at first that the “samples” were not from the original movie… until I came to the track entitled “USS Indianapolis.” Vocalist Aaron Gregory’s rendition of Quint’s famous monologue is raw, sinister, and satisfying. Clean keys offer the contrast that cello and female vocals once did in Giant Squid, but Squalus is rougher and more turbulent than the band’s previous incarnation. The Great Fish will sound familiar to Giant Squid fans, but it’s a beast all its own with black eyes — doll’s eyes — that will chill you to your soul and devour you alive.
#2 Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper Profound Lore
Epic, funeral, doom metal from Seattle, WA.The single track, 83 minute long album Mirror Reaper from two-piece doom outfit Bell Witch has been on everyone’s lips and lists this year and for good reason. The epic composition ranges from ethereal and melodic to colossal and otherworldly, sweeping out the full range with effortless transitions and thoughtful dynamics. Sinister, guttural growls and eldritch intonations alternate over painfully slow, droning melodies that are punctuated by sparse, almost ceremonial drums. For me, Mirror Reaper represents the epitome of funeral doom while still managing to break away from the status quo by edging into devotional. It is at once morose, terrifying, and beautiful, which makes for a truly cathartic listening experience.
#1 OXBOW – Thin Black Duke Hydra Head
Noise, experimental rock, avant garde jazz from San Francisco, CA. Intricately layered, intelligently composed, and viscerally performed, Oxbow’s 2017 release, the first in 10 years, is one that invites repeated listen. Each revisit is an opportunity to delve more deeply and unravel the conscious compositions. The songs explore innate primal urges and the masculine inner life with their lyrical themes, and widely varied instrumentation is used in interesting ways. Musical phrases and motifs are restated and developed throughout the album to give it a cohesive feel. Thin Black Duke is a cerebral exploration of the internal struggle we all face, and the band’s expertise in “tension and release, structure and dissonance, and melody and abstraction” make it a captivating listen.