Metal has been having a transcendent year.
Such a transcendent year, in fact, that I feel comfortable calling 2018 the Year of Extreme Metal — a year in which bands across the extreme metal spectrum have been putting out some of their best, most interesting, and intricate albums of all time.
This was the year that bands like Skeletonwitch and Yob dug deep, looked inward, and perfected their artistry within the genre to create intense, visceral masterpieces. Other bands like Nekrogoblikon and Between the Buried and Me looked outward and pushed extreme metal into new, refreshing directions while holding true to that unmistakable metal spirit.
The problem is that most people don’t even realize this is happening, and most people have never heard of these bands.
To some, “death metal” and “grindcore” just seem like unapproachable musical styles. Some people are turned off by the idea of metal vocals or intense instrumentations. Others don’t like the overtly dark themes. And so extreme metal has never really had its big moment in the sun.
But metal doesn’t thrive in the sun. Bands like The Black Dahlia Murder, Cannibal Corpse, and Mayhem were born in the darkness, and in the darkness they shall remain.
I want you to come with me into that darkness, even if just for a moment, to look at this rich genre, to look beyond your preconceived notions and open your minds and ears to the unparalleled passion and raw talent that came from extreme metal bands in 2018. We’ll look at black metal, thrash metal, prog metal, death metal, goblin-themed metal, and some metal that can’t really be placed into a neat little subgenre.
And if you’re a metalhead yourself, please enjoy below some of the best metal albums not only of 2018, but of all time. This won’t contain every outstanding album of the year, of course, and it may not even contain your favorite. But that’s OK, because we’re all just here to have a good time.
Let’s begin with an album so gripping, so thoroughly entertaining that it alone could stand as metal’s standard-bearer for 2018 — a symbol of growth and mastery that has permeated throughout the genre.
Skeletonwitch, Devouring Radiant Light
Skeletonwitch’s latest album begins with a song that quickly establishes itself as one of the greatest singles of the year. “Fen of Shadows” starts with an orchestral black metal vibe that builds tension expertly, droning with beautiful operatic guitars, then digging in and adding bass-heavy drums and amping up the distortion to build anxiety. It builds for almost two whole minutes before unleashing one of the most cathartic death growls to ever grace the earth, and then doesn’t let up for six more minutes of black metal bliss.
This soaring song is the perfect opener for Devouring Radiant Light, Skeletonwitch’s deepest and most technically impressive album that masterfully blends soft, poignant moments with the hard-hitting thrashing they’ve developed since 2003. It’s a soulful album with some tracks like “Devouring Radiant Light” and “The Vault” pushing well-past the six-minute mark and exploring the depths of black, death, and thrash metal with a feral reverence.
With a new lead vocalist and few years between this album and the band’s last, something seems to have clicked deep within Skeletonwitch to deliver something special. Devouring Radiant Light is introspective, sometimes hauntingly so, and immediately became one of my favorite albums not just of this year, but of all time.
Between the Buried and Me, Automata I and Automata II
Between the Buried and Me released an album in two parts this year. Automata I dropped in March with six songs that show off what this band does best: face-melting prog metal. And then they followed it up in July with Automata II, a four-track coda that gets really out there and brings the band into new spaces like swing jazz (“Voice of Trespass” is a very interesting song).
What Between the Buried and Me brings with the Automata couplet is a showcase of their immense talent, built up over years and years of exploring progressive metal. Automata weaves between ethereal movements, tight melodic rocking, and head-banging abandon. A single song can touch most of these, switching between styles without missing a beat and making a cohesive-yet-dynamic experience all the way through.
Cult Leader, A Patient Man
If ever an album embodied pain and longing for help, it’s Cult Leader’s A Patient Man. In the group’s second album, Cult Leader takes its hardcore punk/metalcore roots and injects so much raw, aching emotion into it that what comes out is something completely unique to extreme metal.
Part of the majesty of A Patient Man is the album’s structure. With a song like “To: Achlys” we see something borderline emo with clean, clear vocals, but the song before it, “Isolation in the Land of Milk and Honey,” is pure metalcore thrash with guttural vocals and intense drumming. Cult Leader seems to reject the idea of fitting into a snug little box with its eclectic shifts, yet retains a consistent, deeply pained tone that drives a stake through every single second of every single song.
A Patient Man is an album worth listening to from beginning to end, experiencing it as a whole work of art. It’s brutal. It’s emotional. It’s surprising. And yet, it’s incredibly tight and composed.
Judas Priest, Firepower
Judas Priest is more of a heavy metal band than an extreme metal band, but I wanted to include an album that was at least a bit more approachable to people who aren’t all in on extreme metal already.
Judas Priest is one of the most influential metal bands to ever exist, having helped pioneer the genre starting in the late ’60s and establishing themselves as a household name in the ’80s. At least in some households. Their latest album, Firepower, is an incredible feat for a group that’s teetering on the edge of 50 years old, containing an onslaught of head-banging bangers that rock hard and raise hell.
Songs like “Necromancer,” “Evil Never Dies,” and “No Surrender” could be held up as iconic examples of heavy metal with its triumphant guitars, driving bass and drums, and the indelible screams of Rob Halford who is still belting out lyrics about demons, death, and destruction all these years on. Firepower is nothing less than a shining example of pure heavy metal fun.
Aura Noir, Aura Noire
Moving back to extreme metal and taking a bit of a departure from our theme of blending styles and reinventions of sound, we have Aura Noir’s almost self-titled album Aura Noire, which sets its heels in black and thrash metal and refuses to relent for even a single second.
Aura Noire is an album that exudes indignation and aggression. It’s pure, in-your-face brutality rife with tenacious distortion and heart-pumping blast beats. Between the mosh-inspiring music and the blasphemous lyrical themes, Aura Noire presents the epitome of metal rage that undoubtedly has caused individuals to clutch their pearls around the globe.
With its seventh album, Aura Noir says “fuck your innovation, we want to play loud, fast, and angry,” and succeeds with nine chaotic tracks that clock in at just under 40 minutes of aural assault.
Palo opens with triumphant jubilation, embracing everything that makes melodic death metal such a fun subgenre to listen to with its driving core and soaring lead guitars and keyboards.
With Palo, Kalmah takes a bit of a departure from its usual focus on swamp-themed death metal seen in albums like Swamplord, Swampsong, and Seventh Swamphony. Sure there are still swampy references like the song “Into the Black Marsh,” but Kalmah steps away from the mostly successful gimmick to create an album that one could ride into battle with.
Palo is so thoroughly Scandinavian and emblematic of melodic death metal that if I was asked to describe that subgenre was, I would just point at this album. The album is tight, powerful, and well-produced, spotlighting Kalmah’s experience in the space without ever feeling overwrought.
Yob, Our Raw Heart
Yob’s latest album Our Raw Heart comes from an incredibly dark place. In 2017, frontman Mike Scheidt revealed that he was suffering from an incredibly painful intestinal disease that sent him to the hospital numerous times for multiple surgeries. In his own words, “I did almost die, and was within hours of death.”
While that was going on, Scheidt took that experience and his energy and turned it into music, writing some of the most heart-wrenching songs that have ever graced the doom metal genre. The enrapturing tone of the music, that unmistakable labor that permeates throughout Our Raw Heart, is a perfect way to capture that experience.
In nine tracks, most of which stretch past nine minutes (with the achingly light “Beauty in Falling Leaves” pushing past 16 minutes), Yob delivers its most impassioned album to date. Yob utilizes the molasses-like, behemoth quality of doom metal with delicacy to look at life, death, anguish, and perseverance in songs that crash with wave after wave of unadulterated emotion.
Tribulation, Down Below
Down Below is another album on this list that defies many of the preset categories that metal fans love to squabble over. Instead of taking a predetermined sound or two and working within them, Tribulation seems to pull inspiration from every corner of the metal world and produce something that feels very unique.
The talent expressed throughout Down Below is hard to match, even in such a rich year for metal. From the almost anthemic “Nightbound” to the deep dark bowels of “Subterranea,” Tribulation crafts moods with each song that are all-encompassing, transporting listeners into vivid scenes dripping with dark atmospheres.
Sleep, The Sciences
While I wouldn’t consider Sleep to be extreme metal, exactly, they are an iconic band in the doom metal/stoner metal scene, having gotten their start in the ’90s and having major influence over metal bands to this day. The Sciences, only Sleep’s fourth full-length album, is a flooring display of doom prowess.
The Sciences dropped, appropriately, on April 20, and stands up as one of the greatest stoner metal albums of all time. With a heavy focus on deep, distorted bass lines and shredding guitars, this album is masterclass in infusing dank, slow, doom-y tones with the drive required to keep things interesting. It’s like getting hit with a wall of sound and being completely enveloped by its cold, hazy embrace and lifted inexorably upward.
“Antarcticans Thawed” is a prime example. It labors on with a melody that feels like trudging through deep snow, but cooks in enough tension and layering of sounds to make a song that can keep heads banging ever so slowly for 14 minutes.
Nekrogoblikon, Welcome to Bonkers
Finally, we come to perhaps the weirdest band on this list, and possibly the weirdest band you’ve ever heard of: Nekrogoblikon. Nekrogoblikon is a band that plays songs about goblins and from the viewpoint of goblins, which according to the lyrics are immortal beings from space.
Up until their latest album Welcome to Bonkers, the focus of Nekrogoblikon seemed to be more on creating goofy metal rather than creating really good metal. Their songs have always be fun and entertaining, and honestly pretty good, but nothing they’ve put out thus far compares to Welcome to Bonkers.
This album is astoundingly good. From beginning to end it’s a blast, mixing its absurd themes with some of the greatest metal (and non-metal music) of the year. It doesn’t take itself seriously, which can be very refreshing in the metal scene, but at the same time it’s so well-produced, thoughtful, unique, and downright awesome that it can stand side-by-side with other, more serious metal contributors of 2018.
There are more traditional extreme metal songs like “Dressed as Goblins” and “The Skin Thief” that hit hard and never stop, and they’re great, but some of the standouts are the tracks that break free from metal’s constraints. “The Magic Spider” blends death metal with psychedelic pop. “Killing Time (and Space)” mixes death metal with bluegrass, of all things. The album is full of fun surprises, each one more shocking and delightful than the last.
Part of the beauty of metal is its diversity of sound. There are so many styles that fit under the metal umbrella, each one of them with their own strengths and distinct voices. And like other, more publicly popular genres of music, it’s constantly going through transformations and evolutions.
This happens to be a high moment for metal, one of many its had over the years, and it looks like things are only going to get better.