Metal, in all its various guises and subgenres, “turned and faced the strange” this year, to steal a quote from one of Metallica’s inspirations, David Bowie. In 2019, Slipknot spaced out their onslaughts with ambient psychodramas, Opeth embraced their inner darkness, Aussie psych-rockers King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard finally thrashed out with a spacey, authentic metal LP, and Rammstein let their freak flag fly in ways we don’t even want to know. Elsewhere, Tool finally released their fifth LP after a 13-year wait and fan favorites from Dream Theater to Mayhem played to their bases with solid new efforts. But when we tallied up our critics’ votes, the 10 records that followed were the ones that made the strongest showings.
Between the recent sonic homage paid by hardcore bands Vein and Code Orange and the loose-fit fashion of young stars like Lil Uzi Vert and Billie Eilish, nu metal got its second wind in the late 2010s. But for a band commonly hailed as the genre’s progenitors, Korn never quite fit into the mold they created in the Nineties — and that’s exactly what’s made their music resonate for several generations of misfits. On their 1994 debut, frontman Jonathan Davis shirked traditional American masculinity and spun years’ worth of trauma from sexual abuse into a withering suburban gothic. The singer draws from that same well of catharsis on The Nothing, after losing both his mother and estranged wife in a matter of six months, and from the album’s onset, he champions the right to grieve in all his sloppy, dribbling unsightliness. “God is making fun of me,” laments Davis beneath the electro-metal charge of “Idiosyncrasy,” and on shattering goth-rock closer, he submits fully: “I failed.” S.E.
Beginning with the first track, “Garden of Earthly Delights,” there’s a tension flowing through In Cauda Venenum — Opeth’s best record since 2005’s Ghost Reveries — that leaves you in suspense for what will happen next. The second song, “Dignity,” opens with screaming Deep Purple–esque keys, a herky-jerky riff, and frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt singing about a “Prince of Lies.” It’s dark, imaginative, and distinctly “Opeth.” Although the band ditched its death-metal influences and embraced classic prog-rock sounds ages ago, you can still hear layers of angst in Åkerfedt’s voice, even when he’s humming. With its torch song declarations (“I’ll always wait for you,” goes one line in the sublimely acoustic “Lovelorn Crime”) and gritty riffs, the album is the apotheosis of what Opeth are now — so much so that they even put the same record out in Swedish, their native tongue. The album cover features shadows peering out from a dark mansion, and it’s the perfect metaphor for what lies within: a complex, haunting album that’s never quite what it seems. K.G.
There’s a quality to Rammstein frontman Till Lindeman’s voice that’s gritty and smarmy and yet appealing. It could be the melodrama in the way he fashions words, it could be the way his voice matches the band’s music, which is often dusky, bludgeoning, or Eurotrash corny all within a few minutes of each other, or it could just be the fact that he sings in German, and you know he’s saying the sorts of lubricious, edgy things that would get him banned from the radio in the U.S. if they were in English. His voice is the star of Rammstein’s first album in a decade, as Lindemann sings about his disgust for Germany (“Deutschland”), his tongue-in-cheek memories of Cold War–era espionage (“Radio”), and plenty of seedy sex (“Ausländer,” “Sex,” and “Puppe,” which we recommend not translating). Lindemann put out a solo album this year, and it’s also notable. But Rammstein served as a reminder that when this band finds the right spark, the fire spreads quickly. K.G.
On 2018’s outstanding Manor of Infinite Forms, Toronto’s Tomb Mold perfected the art of the death-metal drop. Much like in EDM, one of the grisly subgenre’s great pleasures comes when a given track’s headlong rush gives way to a seismic half-time groove, a thrill that Manor delivered by the bucket-load. On Planetary Clairvoyance, they’ve snazzed up the trimmings a little bit — an acoustic break here, a sci-fi soundcape there — but if anything, the payoffs are even more punishing. So when, for example, the blastbeat cyclone of “Infinite Resurrection” segues into a strutting, hardcore-style breakdown, the shift smacks you straight in the lizard brain. It’s that skillful play of crafty intricacy and dead-eyed bludgeon that helped Planetary Clairvoyance stand out in a year that also saw formidable death-metal releases by underground peers like Blood Incantation and Gatecreeper. H.S.
Maybe it was the sweltering Australian heat or maybe singer-guitarist Stu Mackenzie finally just needed to rage, but after nearly a decade’s worth of flirting with heavy metal, the noisy psych-rock collective King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard went full headbanger on their 15th LP. But what made the record surprising is how authentically metal it felt; where you might expect a group with indie-rock roots to approach the genre with a smirk, King Gizzard went in guns blazing. The music channeled everything from bassy, gurgly Motörhead friction to galloping Metallica riffs, and Mackenzie did his best Lemmy or Matt Pike growl as he sang about shooting dingoes (“Planet B”) and feeling contempt for wealthy people colonizing other planets (“Mars for the Rich”). But for all its cosmic trippiness — not one but two songs are about Venus, specifically — it’s the fact that the band gave in to its earthly urges to make something so primal that made the record a barnburner. K.G.
A quarter-century ago, Darkthrone stood near the epicenter of the internecine shit storm and international media circus that was early-Nineties Norwegian black metal. In 2019, the duo are still celebrated as elder statesmen of that scene, but they have little sonic connection to that or any other easily defined movement. Having shapeshifted over the years from a high-tech death-metal outfit to champions of raw, lo-fi monotony and loutish retro nastiness, they’ve gotten to work perfecting an unclassifiable metal strain that feels both crude and elegant, ancient yet highly advanced. On Old Star, continuing in the vein of 2017’s excellent Arctic Thunder, they focus on patiently unfolding mini epics, wringing maximum drama out of lumbering, richly textured riffs and the pained growl of guitarist-vocalist Nocturno Culto. Gloriously crunchy sonics complete the picture of a band fully at ease with being out of step and out of time. “The environment that we recorded Arctic Thunder and Old Star in was this old bomb shelter that we used to rehearse and record some demos in the late Eighties,” Nocturno Culto told New Noise. “The acoustics there are horrible, and it’s like going into war when we are in the studio, but we like that kind of war.” H.S.
French blackgazers Alcest let in the light for their sixth LP. “These two extremes [are] fighting inside me,” singer-guitarist Neige said in Spotify’s Metal Talks series. “I have flaws, I have a dark side … and it’s a part of the spiritual path. You have to live with it and to accept it.” The exhilarating build of “Protection” pairs drummer Winterhalter’s relentless, battering-ram charge with Neige’s accelerating shivers of tremolo; and in “Sapphire,” the guitarist stealthily integrates a glowing post-punk riff into the fray. Waiting in the wings is Norwegian artist Kathrine Shepard, better known as Sylvaine, who shares an operatic serenade with Neige amid the thrash of “L’Île des Morts.” The beauty of Alcest hinges on such stark contrasts: Peeking out from beneath the blanket of noise lives something incandescent and sublime. S.E.
There’s so much that the world already knows about Gaahl, the forbidding Norwegian black-metal singer who has fronted Trelldom, Gorgoroth, and God Seed over the years: He’s openly gay, a vegetarian, and a visual artist. But for as revealing as he’s been about his life, he somehow remains one of the most enigmatic figures in metal, keeping his motives a secret. That mystery is what made Gastir — Ghosts Invited, the debut full-length by his latest group, Gaahls Wyrd so bewitching. In between all of the cranium-rattling metal riffing, the album is full of shadowy guitar breaks (check the eerie “Ek Erilar”), whispered lyrics (just try to decipher “From the Spear”), Bowie-esque drama (“Ghosts Invited”), and discordant arrangements that might make more sense in an Igor Stravinsky symphony (“Through the Past and Past”). It’s music that sounds possessed, and you can’t help but want to let it take you over, too. K.G.
An album that can remind you of Converge one minute and John Mayer the next? Bear with us. There’s something alchemical at work on the second LP by Long Island outfit Moon Tooth that turns what could be a scatterbrained genre mashup into an ingenious hybrid. There’s no channel-changing evident on songs like “Omega Days” and “Motionless in Sky,” just a harmonious mesh of prog-metal fury and R&B poignancy. And while we never envisioned that power-ballad crooning could flow naturally into beast-mode blitz, it now seems like pure wish fulfillment, thanks to Crux’s awe-inspiring title track. Not since the early days of the Mars Volta has a rock band managed to sound so wildly adventurous while delivering such unshakable hooks. H.S.
Five years after they mourned the death of bassist Paul Gray on .5: The Gray Chapter, Slipknot returned with more breakneck anthems for malcontents on their sixth LP. A collection of songs for “the bitter, the maladjusted and the wise, fighting off a generation too uptight,” as Corey Taylor spits in “Birth of the Cruel,” We Are Not Your Kind discovers a reinvigorated Slipknot sounding more like themselves this go-round — which is to say, like a rambling horror show. Contrasting gruff rock-rap with dark pop harmonies, Taylor adds levity to vulnerable moments with sneering braggadocio on the Clown-devised skirmish “Nero Forte”; and on the catch-and-release melody of “Critical Darling,” Taylor calls to mind the human-spurred apocalypse, as foretold by both evangelists and climate scientists. “What is coming has begun,” warns Taylor. “An ending I won’t live to see/We tell ourselves it can’t be hell if there’s no heaven.” Said Taylor in May, “You want a villain, I will give you a fucking villain” — but as in most Slipknot songs, there’s no villain more disquieting than the one who lives in every one of us. S.E.