Picking and ordering my top twenty albums at the end of the year has always been a bit of a stressful task. Trying to find a balance of new bands and classic band revivals, trying not to be too biased toward one genre, trying to include an equal amount of underground bands as popular bands, etc. This year was even harder because I felt that there was a higher number of remarkable albums than normal. But with many revisits, here we are.
There are a few things to know before I dive into this. I am not including anything just based off of how much I like the band, so the newest Overkill will not be on the list. I’m also leaving off pop albums or anything that’s not even relatively close to rock or metal. So don’t worry, Taylor Swift will not be on this either. And lastly, I’m not including EPs or demos, so Gutless, Rank And Vile, and Galaxy won’t make an appearance here either. But enough about what’s not here, let’s get to it!
20) Sacred Reich – Awakening
This was really close to getting booted by Ectoplasma, but it’s too fresh in my mind to give it that power, so Sacred Reich are spared. I’ll admit that I liked this one a little bit better when it came out vs. revisiting a few months later. Awakening is an incredible album, and everything here is great. It’s short, and to the point, and after so many years, Sacred Reich have proved that they’ve still got the chops. “Killing Machine” is a beautiful power-rocker with concise vocals, great instrumentation, and meaningful lyrics. For the most part, though, this is very mild thrash that hardly touches hardcore anymore, and I still love every but if it.
19) Michael Sweet – Ten
The Stryper frontman took a lot of us by surprise, including me this year. Michael Sweet is known for writing softer pop-oriented AOR albums for his solo career, but Ten is anything but that. Getting the chance to talk to him about it made things even more clear. Songs like “Forget, Forgive” and “Better Part Of Me” are loaded with heavy riffs, the latter being quite a speedy one. Things are very clean and concise, and this delivered far more than what I was ready for.
18) Black Mass – Warlust
Just about every year brings one above and beyond blackened thrash effort, and the Boston metallers Black Mass brought that this year with Warlust. This has everything you could picture from looking at the cover. High pitched shrieks? Check. Raspy but comprehensible vocals? Yup. Rough production job? All there. What makes this one so good is the way it makes its statement and checks out, with a fluid connection between all the songs. “Hellhounds” taking form after a slow interlude slaps hard, and “Programmable Life Forms” is as speedy as it is threatening.
17) Seax – Fallout Rituals
Ah yes, another Massachusetts based band! It’s very seldom that we get bands that can keep speed metal this pure. Shadow Kingdom Records always has a handful of great bands, and as much as Seax took time to grow on me, Fallout Rituals displays their greatest work. There’s not a slow moment here, but tactful playing and unique (VERY high) vocal patterns help keep it interesting. It may be a bit predictable, but dammit do anthem-types like “Killed By Speed” ever get your blood running! The dual guitars and pummeling drums are icing on the cake.
16) Toxic Holocaust – Primal Future: 2019
It was difficult for me to not put one of thrash’s greatest newer acts higher, but I hold Toxic Holocaust to a solid standard. Primal Future: 2019 took a very different approach from their other albums, evolving away from the blackened crossover aesthetic. Instead, Joel Grind geared his focus towards melody and structurally tighter writing. “Cybernetic War” goes so far with this that it feels like a traditional metal track. Of course, rippers like “Chemical Warlords” still bring on the heavy hitting and marching rhythms.
15) Exumer – Hostile Defiance
Last year Mem Von Stein brought us a wonderful debut fronting Skull Pit, and this year he returned to his old roots. Hostile Defiance is a much cleaner take on what Exumer have always been about. The title track brings their heaviness to great heights, creating a deep pool of riffs from the double guitar attacks. Cleaner tones surface on songs like “The Order Of Shadows,” capitalizing on vocal clarity. This is very similar to what Kreator does nowadays, and anyone who likes that should dig this as well.
14) Bestialord – Black Mass Wedding
Only a year after the horror-obsessed Bestialord’s Law Of The Burning hit, they return with a fuming follow up that managed to top it titled Black Mass Wedding. Primarily, this is a dark and horrific doom/death disc that brings on new levels of filth and blackened tinges. “Vengeance Needs Blood” is a gut-wrenching number that capitalizes on all of this. “Now It Begins” plays with rock ‘n roll licks, and the grooviness of “Dr. Phibes” is too dense to not fall in love with.
13) Enforcer – Zenith
Sweden’s speed-metallers Enforcer took some heavy criticism this year with Zenith. While many saw this as too big a step away from their roots, I always thought the band had glam metal ingredients mixed in. This one did take it a step further if “Die For The Devil” doesn’t give that away, but man the tunes are still well written and memorable. “Thunder From Hell” still cakes on massive riffage like they always have, and “Forever We Worship The Dark” is loaded with passionate vocal delivery and booming basslines. The band may have played it safe here, and it isn’t their finest work, but this is still worthy in every way.
12) Zig-Zags – You’ll Never Take Us Alive
Formerly a punk band, Zig-Zags mixed that background with speed metal and made something that comes very close to thrash territory in You’ll Never Take Us Alive. There’s a beachy aura cast over this, and as silly as some of the songs may seem, they’re sturdy as hell. “Why I Carry A Knife” and “Killer Of Killers” bring forth the riff barrage quite well. Others like “No Way Out” rest solely on punk build. The title track uses heavy bass and major scales, gang chants, and synths for a different feel entirely. Did I mention that the singer sounds like Ted Nugent doing thrash? There’s so much going on here, making it anything but black and white.
11) Insanity Alert – 666-Pack
I’ve been familiar with Insanity Alert for a few years now, but 666-Pack was the first album that made a real impression on me. Dropping way back in January, this introduced 2019 with an onslaught of crazy party-thrash riffs, hilarious references, catchy rhythms, and attitude out the ass. “Saturday Grind Fever,” “Two Joints,” and “The Ballad Of Slayer” tell you all you need to know just with the titles – total parodies that work. Others like “Skullcrushing Good Time” and “Mosh Mosh Mosh” are a bit more original and satisfy any crossover thrashers craving. If you didn’t like the new Municipal Waste EP (like me), give this a try instead.
10) Haunt – If Icarus Could Fly
This would be the second year in a row that Haunt makes my top twenty list, going through Shadow Kingdom again with If Icarus Could Fly. I found this to be a step up on an already great platform, as the guitar licks took an even sharper approach. “Cosmic Kiss” is loaded with fun guitar noodles, and “Ghosts” is full of vocal emotion and solid layering. “Run And Hide” borders speed metal, and overall there’s just tons of oomph. Buzzing rhythms and crunchy guitars give the smallest level of grit, acting like the album’s garnish. Trevor Church is all but a machine with this band.
9) Almost Honest – Seiches And Sirens
I can’t express enough how thrilled I am that an album this great came from a place so close to home, let alone friends of mine. Harrisburg stoner/doom boys Almost Honest made a promising start with Thunder Mouth, but Seiches And Sirens blew that out of the water. There’s a slightly more accessible sound in songs like “Keystone” and “Jenny Greenteeth,” but really the chorus’s and lyrics all over this get caught in my head all the time. “Dancing Shaman And The Psychedelic Cactus” reached a new level of skill with its building blocks. Seth taking the forefront made for something different as well, such as with “Interstellar Executive.” Shayne, Seth, and Quinton do not disappoint here.
8) Volbeat – Rewind, Replay, Rebound
You’d think that by now, Volbeat would have reached their peak and started crumbling down just because of the trends that I see with that brand of rock ‘n roll. What a bad assumption! Rewind, Replay, Rebound is a pretty long effort that dives even further into the things that made them stand out before. “Die To Love” and “Awakening Of Bonnie Parker” couldn’t be any more traditional rock ‘n roll if they tried. Pianos and saxophones make an appearance as well. The acoustics and somber feel of “When We Were Kids” and the ripping energy of “Pelvis On Fire” allow loads of variety to take some forefront. There are eerie, Dead Kennedys passages in “Sorry Sack Of Bones.” And of course, there’s plenty of pop to go around with “Last Day Under The Sun.” Way better a band than what most metal goers will give credit for.
7) Sacred Monster – Worship The Weird
Sacred Monster’s debut was another earlier record from this year, and it’s the best combination of doom riffs and blackened vocals that I’ve ever heard. Worship The Weird focuses around horror, gore, and monsters. The riffing is extremely accessible, contrasting the hoarse blackened shrieks that are still easy to understand. “Re-animator” is an easy one to get behind because of its familiar template and chanting chorus. “The Wraith” mixes in cleaner sounds that have such a smooth flow. Fret-happy tapping can even make its way into things without warning and still not come off as awkward. Best of all, the band doesn’t take themselves too seriously, and “High Confessor” displays some humor at the end.
6) Coffin Rot – A Monument To The Dead
As a huge death metal fan, I’m always finding bands of the type that I dig, but little do I find something that scratches the same itch as the old Florida acts. Coffin Rot took so many of us by storm with A Monument To The Dead, and rightfully so. “Miasma Of Barbarity” molds tremolos, slow-burning rhythms, and harsh riffs perfectly. “Saw Blade Suicide” is absolutely ear-splitting with its bridge construction, and “Forced Self Consumption” is as brutal as the title suggests. “Copremesis” is fucking disgusting in the greatest way, introducing the onslaught at an amazing rate. The song “Coffin Rot” itself didn’t sit as well with me at first, but the long run-time and replaying of this disc made it grow on me. This is death metal done with pure perfection. Tomb Mold and Blood Incantation should bow to this.
5) War Cloud – State Of Shock
Ripple music has a pretty stable level of quality output, and War Cloud are one of the best examples. Although they were more of a psychedelic rock band previously, State Of Shock shows that they can surround that with heavy riffs and hard rockers and still sound perfect. There’s such a wide variety of influences here. “White Lightning” has a speed metal base that throws back to acts like Venom. Yet there are also clean and clear tracks like “Dangerous Game” that lose all of the rasp. Hell, they even bust out “Do Anything,” bordering KISS influence with a power-pop center. Best of all, they keep it intricate without losing the firm appeal. The instrumental “Tomahawk” shows that, and despite all of the different angles, it’s all-natural sounding.
4) Salem’s Bend – Supercluster
If War Cloud wasn’t enough, Salem’s Bend should prove that Ripple drops some hot stuff. Supercluster is the LA act’s second album, a doomy effort that leans a bit closer to rock than heavy metal. Hints of early classics can be found everywhere, and the start/stop rhythms of “Ride The Night” get me every time. This effort mostly avoids darker subjects, but closers “Thinking Evil” and “Infinite Horizon” bring on the minor keys and psychedelia even more. The percussion tactics on this were quite smart, using bells and a guiro (the ribbed “fish” instrument) to either fill or assist. Give “Heavenly Manna” a whirl to get an idea of what I mean. This is pretty much a perfect disc in every way possible.
3) Woodhawk – Violent Nature
Woodhawk were one of the very last bands I found for the year, giving us their gem Violent Nature at the beginning of November. This is one of those discs where I’m not sure I’d call it a metal album, but stoner metal influences definitely make up a lot of the riff work. If Black Sabbath’s riffs and Thin Lizzy’s attitude blended together with something along the lines of Chevelle, you’d get this. There’s so much to it. “Dry Blood” fuses melancholic passages with a speedy takeoff, while others like “Old Silence” exaggerate how great the vocalist’s delivery is atop bouncy bass passages. The piano and electric organs in “Clean The Air” have an amazing progression, and “Weightless Light” loads in tons of catchiness in the chorus backed by doomy desert-rock type riffs. The title track is very precise with timing and start/stop sequences. Any band that can make such concise music seem so accessible and catchy is brilliant in my book.
2) Idle Hands – Mana
Ah yes, the big one. Idle Hands are quickly becoming the new Ghost, with their classic metal roots and bright, welcoming delivery. They’ve even spawned a lot of grumpy naysayers if that’s not enough. What makes them different is their gothic overcast with everything, and extremely depressing or emotional lyrics. Mana’ s biggest strength is that it knows when to bust out heavy riffing vs. cleaner licks. The opening track “Nightfall” does that perfectly, with its blistering drum work and massive energy that follows the chorus. “Give Me To The Night” is also a heavier one, and “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?” is packed with stellar instrumental breaks that lead to a poppier outro. On the somber side of things, “Jackie” is a good example of how they invoke the emotions they feel so well into the musicianship. “Don’t Waste Your Time” lets on a feeling of hopelessness, only matched by the heartbreaking execution of “A Single Solemn Rose.” I’m thrilled that something like this took the scene by storm. Portland, Oregon has all grounds covered.
1) Black Sites – Exile
It was really tough to pick a favorite out of these top three, but if I’m being as honest with myself as possible, Black Sites crafted the most solid record with Exile. Right out of Chicago, Illinois, this is the only album on the list where the intricacy reaches the levels that I’d call progressive, yet maintains endless hooks and remains consistent no matter what approach they take. Picture something along the lines of Queensryche’s instrumentation with Iced Earth’s vocals and production (after all, they covered “En Force” as a bonus track). “Feral Child” implements energy that you can feel with steady chugs bottomed by complex rhythm. “Dream Long Dead” probably has the best lead/rhythm combo, particularly on the song’s outro. “Focused Totality / The Psychic Knife” adds speed metal riffing into the mix, as well as harmony, and shifts into groovier strumming. The bass guitars are super vibrant, and all of the layering is done well. “Coal City” is another favorite thanks to its smooth flow and deep emotion. No harsh vocals or falsettos are needed anywhere on this, just straight-up solid singing. This may sound like a lot to take in, but the band makes it super easy to digest, and as I said, it runs together perfectly.