10. Behemoth - The Satanist (2014)
By the time 2014 rolled around, Behemoth vocalist Nergal was, quite literally, the death metal figurehead who had cheated death. In 2010 he was diagnosed with leukaemia, believed to be so advanced that chemotherapy would not help him. But in 2011 he underwent a bone marrow transplant and survived.
The Satanist was accepted by many as the sound of him squaring up to it, laughing in its face and then returning with an album that distilled the essence of everything that made Behemoth such a powerful entity. Taken in context then, right from the slow, syrup-thick and iceberg-heavy opener Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel, The Satanist was a roaring fuck-you of a return.
The likes of Ora Pro Nobis and Ben Sahar were the sound of the extreme metal bar being raised. And where less seasoned bands might have flagged, Behemoth sustained the power and dark atmospherics and kept on marauding through their self-created sonic landscape.
Behemoth avoided the production pitfalls that often claimed other blackened metal bands. Here the sound illuminated stabbing slabs of guitar, muscular drumwork, Nergal’s powerful death snarls and the foreboding keyboard groans that sounded like the cries of burning souls rising up from the underworld.
Behemoth are still considered standard-bearers of the extreme metal scene in 2019, though in recent years, for many of the band's fans, it's become difficult to discuss their work without some consideration of Nergal's growing reputation as one of the scene's more "problematic" characters. Wherever you fall on that particular argument, it's a fair shout to state that with The Satanist, Behemoth had thrown down the gauntlet for extreme music.
Our score: 9/10
9. Iron Maiden - The Book Of Souls (2015)
As we've discussed elsewhere on the site, in the 2010s it seemed like the world all but turned its back on the album. But Britain’s biggest metal band proudly pushed against the grain, reminding us of a time when The Album was an immersive spiritual experience explored in darkness through headphones.
That’s not to say it was some ponderous prog odyssey; it was still suffused with the fire and thrust of musicians who learnt their craft in sweaty 70s boozers, but it repeatedly demanded and rewarded your full attention, different songs and segments blossoming with every spin.
Bruce Dickinson, writing alone in Iron Maiden for the first time since No Prayer For The Dying, topped and tailed the album with its most thrillingly outré moments. Elemental curtain-raiser If Eternity Should Fail opened The Book Of Souls with a space-age blues vocal and mystical synth fanfare, culminating with demonic pronouncements over a dark acoustic coda, while elegiac 18-minute closer Empire Of The Clouds took us aboard the 1930 R101 disaster, piano and violin augmenting the song’s poignant leitmotif, arrangements lurching and surging in sympathetic evocation of the doomed airship.
Throughout and between these magnificent Dickinsonian bookends, the band proved themselves to be on the form of their reunited lives. Nicko attacked his kit with customary barefoot joie de vivre, imbuing even the smallest tom-roll with his personality. Steve Harris' bass sound was warmer and more integrated, with some of the most sensitive, creative playing of his career. Despite the dirty looseness of the strummed bass intro/outro of his sole solo credit The Red And The Black, the song was distinguished by its jubilant procession of infectious guitar lines.
A couple of songs perhaps conformed too readily to Maiden’s post-reunion archetype, but this was as bold as music could get. In the five years since its release, we've happily assimilated this treasure chest of densely wrought heavy metal gold.
Our score: 10/10
8. Within Temptation - Resist (2019)
Within Temptation bailed on the symphonic metal arms race a long time before Resist emerged. While their one-time contemporaries Nightwish ratcheted up the orchestral bombast to Wagnerian levels, the Dutch band opted to metaphorically burn their corsets and plunge headlong into the 21st century. It was a move that paid of.
At its finest, Resist was up there with the best albums this band had made. The pitch-shifted fanfare that introduced opening track Reckoning harked back to an earlier, cheesier age, but that soon gave way to an on-point collaboration with Papa Roach frontman Jacoby Shaddix. The bolshie chorus was prime arena-filling material, but there was an intricacy to the electronic-tinged verses in between that few bands of their stature could pull off.
And they hadn't thrown out their innate grandiosity with the bathwater. Supernova was a digital-age anthem, complete with circuit-board-complex backing, a martial interlude and a neutron-bomb chorus, while the hypnotic ballad Firelight – featuring Belgian alt-rock singer Jasper Steverlinck – piled on the slow-burning ambience.
As befits a band who had released covers of songs by dance megaweights David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia, Within Temptation didn’t hide their pop influences. This was most apparent on Holy Ground, where stuttering vocals and crashing drums came on like a bulked-up version of arena-pop kingpins Imagine Dragons. It was brash and shameless, but it worked.
Within Temptation had put their troubles behind them. The future – whatever form it takes – will be bright.
Our score: 7/10
7. Babymetal - Metal Resistance (2016)
Let’s be honest: everyone had made their minds up about whether Babymetal were a good thing or an inexplicable monstrosity by the time Metal Resistance dropped.
But Metal Resistance put paid to all notions of a backlash. A bewitching and bewildering anomaly, the kitsune-wielding scamps pulled off the frankly mindblowing trick of winning over huge numbers of diehard metalheads while annoying the piss out of those who prefer their shameless gimmicks to be hidden under a layer or two of ‘authenticity’ – whatever that might mean.
The truth is that Babymetal became a phenomenon because the entire package – from all that endearing guff about the Fox God and the remorseless enthusiasm of the band’s (then) three vocalists, through to the kaleidoscopic pomp of the tunes themselves – was put together with such care and finesse.
Metal Resistance was destined to be a wildly successful record, but not because of some fleeting trend. Instead, it was because its songs got the balance between barking-mad genre juxtapositions and razor-sharp pop-meets-metal songwriting just right. Once you factored in a production job that went beyond state of the art and into some gleaming and demented futuristic realm where music actually can erupt from your speakers and give you a slap, Babymetal’s rise to global enormity seemed less like a point for discussion and more like a mission accomplished.
Genuinely, the average Slayer fan was far more likely to enjoy this album than anything by, for instance, Issues or Falling In Reverse. That’s because it sounded like a) the people behind the creation of these songs actually knew what they were doing and might even have owned a Megadeth album or two; and b) the whole band actively wanted to drag metal fans along with them.
That doesn’t detract from the incongruous presence of harmonised squeaky voices over the top of brutal 21st-century metal riffs – it was, and probably always will be, intermittently hilarious – but once you batted away your instinctive objections to anything ‘pop’ being assimilated into heavy metal, Metal Resistance had its fox claws embedded in your heart forever.
Regardless of what you might think of the idea of Babymetal, Metal Resistance was a ludicrous, but brilliantly executed, delight.
Our score: 8/10
6. Metallica - Hardwired... To Self-Destruct (2016)
For many Metallica fans, the wait for a follow-up to 2008’s relatively well received Death Magnetic was a mixture of feverish anticipation and premonitory nervousness. By dragging out the album’s gestation for the best part of a decade, Metallica hinted at a reluctance to commit to any one musical path. Turns out we needn't have worried. While it was far from perfect and, at 88 minutes, a good half an hour too long, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct was easily Metallica’s strongest album in 25 years.
It opened with the title track, a vicious burst of prime thrash with an irresistible chorus and enough spirit and venom to silence anyone who thought Metallica were too old to nail this stuff anymore. In contrast to much of Death Magnetic’s hideous production and distracting sloppiness, Hardwired… was precise and brutal. Maybe Lars had been practising more, or maybe some computer trickery was involved, but Metallica sounded closer to the devastating machine of Master Of Puppets than they have in decades.
In fact, nearly all of the album's first disc was up to the same standard, most notably Atlas, Rise!, with its irresistible Maiden-saluting guitar harmonies, strong whiff of NWOBHM worship and a blistering solo from Kirk Hammett. ‘Die as you suffer in vain!’ roared Hetfield, ‘Own all the grief and the pain/Die as you hold up the skies/Atlas, rise!’ Never mind the music, it was unbelievably thrilling to hear Papa Het singing lyrics like that, instead of the clumsy self-help twaddle he’d peddled in times prior.
Similarly, the slow-burning, Sabbath-infused menace of Dream No More was gloriously grotesque, as Cthulhu made his first appearance on a Metallica album since 1984, ‘inhaling black skies’ as Hetfield vividly put it.
Hardwired… was a strong metal record with countless moments that will made you think ‘Yes! Metallica!’ Most importantly, it was confirmation that the excruciating eight-year wait was worth it.
Our score: 7/10
5. Gojira - Magma (2016)
More than any other band to emerge in the 21st century, Gojira pursued a course of fervent individuality, turning revered tropes into something extraordinary. When Magma dropped, it was is another robust riposte to the notion that modern metal was running out of steam.
Where L’Enfant Sauvage was rugged, vicious and taut, constrained by urbanity and yearning for escape, Magma was Gojira untethered and running wild. The band sounded exhilarated by the concept of limitless space and the freedom to roam. The lyrics reflected that refreshed, enhanced perspective, too: Joe Duplantier’s cry of ‘When you change yourself... you change the world’ could have seemed overly earnest delivered by anyone else, but the Frenchmen’s sincerity had long been a major selling point. Magma once again exuded heartfelt rage and a sense of genuine, if cautious, hope.
It wouldn’t have been a Gojira album without massive riffs, however, and here they were, as strident and bludgeoning as ever. This time, though, there was clear blue sky bursting through chinks in the band’s previously impenetrable armoury and a sense of imperious calm beneath the intensity and noise.
This was not wildly accessible music by any means, but it was hard to imagine any fan of heavy music hearing the lurching Only Pain or the prolonged squall of the title track without being forced to remark, “What the fuck is this?” Well, it was Gojira. One of the greatest metal bands on the planet who, on this evidence, had only just begun to blow our minds.
Our score: 9/10
4. Ghost - Meliora (2015)
It would have been a great shame if one had taken a look at Ghost around the middle of the decade, with their metallic masks and tailored uniforms, their Nameless Ghouls and succession of skeletal ‘Evil Pope’ front things, and dismissed the Swedes as a mere gimmick, a joke.
For beneath the lurid, macabre showmanship and spectacle, beat the heart of a truly accomplished rock band. And with its Latin title roughly translating as ‘a yearning to be better’, Meliora was easily the sextet’s finest outing to date, a meticulously executed, artful collection of black-souled retro doom-pop, as heavy as Metallica, as melodically sophisticated as ABBA.
Exhibit A for the defence was He Is, a chillingly beautiful hymn of praise to The One With Horns, which with its chiming acoustic guitars, stacked choral vocals and tinkling piano arpeggios, could have been the Beach Boys if Brian Wilson had grown up on Scandinavian black metal.
Elsewhere, Cirice boastsd a killer Slayer-indebted central riff and captivating ‘I can see through the scars inside you’ chorus, Devil Church was an archly atmospheric instrumental, and the thudding Majesty was prettier and more uplifting than any song discussing ‘rotting carcasses’ and ‘soulless sheep’ has a right to be.
As evidenced by the phenomenal success that culminated around 2018's Prequelle, this cult was only going to grow.
Our score: 8/10
3. Slipknot - We Are Not Your Kind (2019)
Few metal acts manage to carry the same youthful vigour and savage intent that definied their initial success, but there’s always been the hope that Slipknot were impervious to the cruel hands of time. In a live setting, when the masks and boiler suits were donned, they still exhuded danger and excitement, but it was starting to diminish on record.
Urgent singles All Out Life and Unsainted were taken as welcome evidence that the band remained more than capable of delivering a rabid clatter of percussion, fiendish riffs, demented scratches and stabs of electronics that still sounded unlike anything else.
While Red Flag was breathless from beginning to end, each of the album’s other seething blasts were an ominous trip into uncomfortable realms and included a massive vocal from one of, if not the, best singers in our game as shown by Unsainted’s undeniable hook. It seemed there were plenty of new ways to tweak the established anthemic Slipknot formula.
As ever, different apparitions lurked behind every corner. Birth Of The Cruel saw a deformed monstrosity lurching and contorting itself out of the nu metal graveyard, the twisted lullaby of My Pain descends into a fog of dystopian synths, while the minimalist Spiders, with its eerie John Carpenter piano, got more sinister with every listen.
While many naturally but unfavourably compared it to the triumphs of yesteryear, We Are Not Your Kind, while not flawless, stood on its own merits, being both immediately arresting as well as having enough challenging depth to reveal new surprises with every listen.
Fierce, troubled, confrontational and more often than not bewildering, there was still no one else like Slipknot.
Our score: 8/10
2. Tool - Fear Inoculum (2019)
Thirteen years. Thirteen years of speculation, rumour and conjecture. Finally, the most mysterious album since Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy arrived. It boiled down to nine tracks – six songs and three interludes – and you had to wonder; having made so many people wait for so long, could Tool create something that matches the expectation?
Tool certainly knew how to build the drama. Pressing play and hearing Adam Jones’ guitar gently teasing the opening to the title track, morphing from a cello-imitating creak into something more recognisable as Tool, was a breathtaking start. The rest of the song set the album’s stall out. A lengthy, ever-evolving masterpiece, it used restraint expertly. Barely staying in the same time signature for more than one riff, it felt like an entire album’s worth of ideas all on its own.
Second track Pneuma followsd in a similar fashion, with a beautifully clean-sounding Jones riff opening before Maynard James Keenan came in with a stabbing, rhythmic vocal pattern. Again, it weaved in all manner of directions, less like preordained musical passages and more like random breathing patterns or flowing water – a living organism rather than a song. Then Justin Chancellor’s bass smashed you in the chest, a chugging riff came in and Tool spent a few bars just being a great metal band.
Keenan was on sumptuous form, although oddly used sparingly, but he gave an album of such outrageous density and grandiosity some genuine emotional heft. ‘We are all born of one breath’ he sang on Pneuma, and there is a sense throughout that Fear Inoculum was tackling man’s need for nature in an increasingly digital world, the two fighting for space.
This enigma inside a Pandora’s Box felt like a justification of why the world never grew tired of the idea of new music from Tool. And it’s why we’ll wait with bated breath again when 2032 rolls around for another dose.
Our score: 8/10
1. Rammstein - Rammstein (2019)
The wait was over: a decade in the making, Rammstein's self-titled new album finally arrived in 2019.
We'd known since the release of first single Deutschland that the follow up to 2009's Liebe ist für alle da was going to be special, but with Rammstein, it turned out the German industrial pioneers had made their finest album yet.
The themes which flowed through the album led to wild fan speculation: that Rammstein was a firm rebuff to growing waves of global nationalism; that it was a concept album following a tormented protagonist on his journey from abused to abuser; that it was a collection of songs designed to take the spotlight away from their hair-raising live shows and place it back on their identity as musicians.
Deutschland set a jaw-dropping precedent in terms of the size, scale and ambition of the album as a whole. Its video – a typically epic 10-minute short movie – traversed various eras of Germany’s complex history, looking the country’s darker moments squarely in the eye as it went. Ausländer was a delirium-inducing club banger that wouldn't feel out of place as a slightly left-field entry at the Eurovision Song Contest.
As always, the album's lyrical content was open to interpretation – especially with lyrics which for many listeners required translation, risking a loss of nuance and subtlety in the process.
But one thing which wasn't in question was that this was Rammstein at their most essential. Confrontational and raw all at the same time, it was an exercise in introspection and maturity as much as it was scandal or controversy. With this album, Rammstein established that they're still operating on another level.
Our score: 8/10