Inevitably, every best-of list incites comments of “what, no ___?”, especially in a year as overflowing with great music as 2015 has been. Among the staff here, it’s no different, because of our extremely democratic process towards ranking our best-of list. It’s a complicated, points-based process handled by senior editor Nick Cusworth, and, as all of our readers can see, it results in diverse lists that contain both triple-A and underground releases from the year. Although it’s highly representative of our taste as a site and as a collective audience, all of us have albums that didn’t make it on there, and sometimes they’re things that were pretty high up in our personal lists.
Presenting those albums is the point of the Outliers list: each album here was high on the list of a specific staff member, but didn’t make it onto the overall list for lack of votes from others. Make no mistake, we’re all proud of the way our best-of list came out this year, but sometimes, albums just slip through the cracks, and these releases just happened to be some of those. So, without further ado, the Heavy Blog Is Heavy Outliers of 2015!
Architects is the ultimate example of a slow-burn album. Every section feels like it builds towards some greater goal, some ultimate payload that seeks to explode with nuclear force, a sort of aural armageddon, if you will. Even from the first chords of opener “Umbral Vale”, this is apparent, and although the introductory track merely seeks to expose the palette of what is to come, it highlights the record beautifully: the 3 minutes and change build nicely into the first “real” track, “Philosopher’s Blade”, which wastes no time with getting into some headbanging doom metal, presenting a riff that it milks for all it’s worth, and builds off of it into a towering monolith (see what I did there?) of a song. Architects of the Void is one of the best doom metal albums in recent memory because of this criminally underrated band’s ability to write some fucking massive riffs and turn those into excellent passages of music. Every track is comprised of bleak, barren, atmospheric passages that build up an insane amount of tension, and riffs that violently burst forth from these parts with the force of an atom bomb. It’s loud, it’s furious, it’s in-your-face, and, most importantly, it’s dynamic. No other album this year manages to walk so softly at times yet still repeatedly bash you over the head with the proverbial big stick.
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When we wrote our dirge for post-metal, this album was stated as one of the possible hopes of the genre. That wasn’t a superlative or a quick draw but the result of countless listenings and an eventual romance with this album. It’s a difficult relationship, to be certain: The Rifts is an emotionally challenging album, delving deep pits of sadness, loneliness and despair. Regardless, it is well worth your time if you’re a fan of anything slow, ominous and well made. Its piano is sonorous, its guitars loud but intelligent and the overall composition shouts blue colored nightmares and lonely nights.
Its most refreshing quality is perhaps how little it relies on repetition; unlike its fellow post-metal colleagues, it prefers to grow and change rather than repeat its message over and over again. However, due to the clever composition and overall themes, it still comes across as a unit, something that shares parts with itself and just makes sense. The last point we simply have to make are the vocals and how amazing they are. Focusing on nailing the emotional package home, they are lost, clear and untethered, lonely in the midst of the music towering around them but yet somehow powerful. Strong in their solitude or perhaps, because of their solitude. Like this album itself.
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The technical prowess of jazz and math rock make the two genres natural fits for each other, so it’s surprising that there aren’t more groups out there combining the two to great effect. Chicago’s Monobody is one such case, however, and their self-titled debut should satisfy fans of each and then some. Growing out of the same scene that’s spawned classic jazz/rock/electronic hybrids like Tortoise, Monobody’s brand of fusion at times sounds like a much more technical and compositionally-dense version of the aforementioned post-rock legends. Impressive guitar and synth riffs fill up plenty of space, supported by bright and cheery grooves and the occasional horn breakdown (all, of course, playing in mathy time signatures). In fact, this album is far more of a pure riff machine than many, if not most, of the heavier albums I listened to and placed in my top 50 list this year.
Which isn’t to say it’s a purely academic or cerebral experience. Far from it, Monobody is an exceedingly easy and smooth listen, closer to the likes of fellow guitar shredders CHON and Scale the Summit, except with more compositional diversity and acuity. This band deserves to be huge because it hits so many sweet spots of fans looking for progressive and technically-challenging music of all stripes. Spread the word.
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Shamefully, Finland’s Hanging Garden are a band we did not get to talk about at all in 2015, and despite my efforts in placing it in my personal top 10, their new album Blackout / Whiteout never made it to the final 50. However, I still believe that Blackout/Whiteout is one of the best records on offer this year. In the world of doom-adjacent melancholic metal occupied by the likes of Katatonia and Anathema, Hanging Garden are crafting equally captivating stuff. Blackout / Whiteout is the type of music you play on rainy nights if you need something with atmospheric depth and a sense of longing. This record is massive and it will resonate with your heart and soul if given the opportunity.
While I was sad this album got left off of our Top 50 as a website, it placed extremely high on my personal list, and there’s a reason why. Every now and again I get recommended something by one of our staff members that I absolutely fall in love with, and that’s not always related to metal. This album is not metal, and is in fact a rather fine jazz album, but it’s the way this album is composed that makes it truly unique and worthy of mentioning. From the moment the album begins, the piano overwhelm you with its sense of beauty. However, as the album progresses, you notice that the album is actually composed not by a pianist, but by an instrumentalist. He composes his piano parts, much of the time, as if it were a guitar. There are some key moments on this record, such as songs like “Entertain Me” and “To Negate” where the parts would sound equally as great if played on guitar. To me, this album is progressive metal if it went to a jazz club or something similar. It’s very special, and I haven’t heard another album that’s done anything close to what Tigran has done on this album. Believe me, if you are wary about it because it’s technically jazz, I promise that if you simply give it a shot, you will not regret it.
In Colour stands in sharp contrast with the vast majority of my tastes, but there’s something about it that draws me to it over and over again. Its gentle minimalism certainly evokes some sense of nostalgia, and with it a strange kind of warmth; as “Stranger in a Room” puts it, the kind of warmth that comes with being surrounded by joyful people, but with the undertone of quiet hollowness that comes with feeling disconnected from every last one of them. It therefore seems fitting that another album highlight, “Loud Places”, is anything but, with The xx vocalist Romy Croft gently singing about a past love coupled with a highly stripped down backing save for the muffled chorus of backing vocals now and then. That’s not to say all is lost — the unexpected Young Thug feature that is “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” is a reminder that there’s certainly another side to the lived experience In Colour brings to life. But the dreamlike rush of “Girl”, whose intro (“You’re the most beautiful girl in Hackney, you know”) is followed by a single repeated verse (“I want your love/Give me your love”), manages to bring the overall message home quite sufficiently: between the emotional thrills and pitfalls of our colourful (if sometimes hazy) everyday lives, we’re all longing for something.
Although it might be their debut solo LP, Entropia is one out of seven releases Serbian duo Ontal have been involved in this year. That’s not even counting the numerous stand-alone tracks appearing on compilations, or the heap of remixes commissioned by other artists. With an output rate like that, one would be fairly reasonable to assume that the music would at some point fail to uphold whatever standard it set for itself, even without being familiar with the band. Well, one would be wrong…so, so very wrong.
With Entropia, Ontal have created a monolith of modern industrial music, one that is as punishing as it is profound. As I’ve recently become quite obsessed with the genre, the album pushed all kinds of right buttons for me from the get-go, and it didn’t take long to cement its place as my album of the year. Of course, it doesn’t just follow this style uniformly – the sounds of grinding machines and urban decay make up the blueprint, but there are almost as many genres showcased on here as there are songs. Take, for instance, the odd-time grooves and eerie piano of opener ‘Foray’, which hark back to the glory days of IDM pioneers Autechre, or the hellish 303 synths that combine with rapid-fire kick drums to make ‘Sojutsu’ one of the more innovative acid tracks out there. Then there’s the complete noise spazz-outs in the title track and ‘Steel Forms’, the latter of which delves further into dementia by incorporating some seriously distorted vocals that sound as if being shouted out of an alien megaphone. Hell, there’s even a drum solo on here, a concept pretty much unheard of in the realm of dance music and anything remotely associated with it.
Entropia definitely packs a slew of surprises for new fans of electronica and experts alike, but the way all these sounds come together is just as exciting. The production on this album is one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. Everything simply sounds huge, and it manages to strike a perfect balance between the organic and the surgically clear. It also displays the flipside to Ontal’s love of machines – beyond the fascination with their aesthetic lies a genuine dedication to master their practical usage and reach a perfection in sound craft.
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How the finest tech-death release of 2015 failed to make our aggregate Top 50 albums of 2015 list is simply beyond me. The record begins with a foreboding acoustic intro before proceeding to rip your face off for the next 37 minutes. Its brevity makes masochists of us all, forcing us to listen to the record again and again, leaving us powerless to escape the guitar hooks which tear away at our minds. There is no doubt that the guitar takes centre stage as Joe Haley shreds through the tastiest licks you’ll hear all year.
What makes this record, and Psycroptic in general, all the more impressive is the fact that Joe is the band’s sole guitarist. When I first stumbled upon this fact I was certain my ears had deceived me, surely it was not possible for a single guitar to dominate a record as such, yet play-through and live videos quickly proved me wrong. However, there is more to Psycroptic’s arsenal than just the catchiest hooks in tech-death, for the musical chemistry between Joe and brother Dave Haley on the drums is simply unmatched. Parallels can be drawn with the Abbott brothers of Pantera, with Dave’s drumming locking in with and complementing the guitar more-so than the bass, the brothers relentlessly powering this monstrous album along.
The hardcore-esque vocals complement the band surprisingly well, Jason Peppiatt having well and truly found his place in the band as his furious delivery helps differentiate them from their peers. Rounding out the band, I’m sure there is a bass in there somewhere, but I’d have to listen past the guitars to find it and they’re simply too good to ignore, even for a moment. In addition to the exceptional playing, the guitar tone is perfection incarnate and marks the cornerstone of Psycroptic’s masterful production qualities. Fans of the genre will have a hard time looking past this as 2015’s album of the year, so buckle your seat belts and unleash this hurricane of riffs, licks and solos below!
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My favourite album of the year wasn’t the heaviest and definitely wasn’t my number one contender… Up until I actually heard it, that is. Dead Lung is an absolute beaut and I challenge anyone into hardcore or metal (even if you just dig on “post” genres) to come out of this listening experience without at least one new favourite song. Released on Basick Records and 100% the best thing on the label, Dead Lung is a growling beast that gives as much cerebral pleasure as it does big, fat, fuck-off riffs. Some of this material may sound thrown together but believe me, every note is exactly where it should be. While it is a dense piece of work, Murdock have managed to write a record that careens from track to track, picking up momentum exactly where the last left off. Boundless energy and superb technical ability in equal measures (all perfectly recreated in a live setting too) are the principal components of what should be regarded as one of the catchiest metallic hardcore releases of the last decade. Heartfelt, devilish music played by lads who are having a real good fucking time. Get ready for them drop another album of the year for me with their next one.
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Sumac’s incendiary debut, The Deal, flew under the radar for a lot of our staff here at the blog, but that’s not to say it didn’t deliver over 50 minutes of some of the most twisted, angular, and intriguing post-metal in 2015. Bookended with two terrifyingly-beautiful ambient guitar passages, the album’s four middle tracks traverse through some of Aaron Turner’s (ex-Isis, Old Man Gloom) angriest musical ideas in years. While Turner may be best known for his sludge-heavy aesthetic, which is definitely still here in full fucking force, The Deal takes things in a much more technical direction than before thanks to drummer Nick Yacyshyn’s (Baptists) frantic, dynamic, and brutal performances. The band perfectly weaves in and out of Botch-esque technicality (having Brian Cook on bass definitely helps), free-time improvisational freakouts, soul-crushing doom, and so much more. Round all of this up with Kurt Ballou’s masterful touch behind the mixing board and you have yourself a winning recipe. It’s so great to see these veteran musicians gel together so well and seem like they’re not just going to be another flash in the pan supergroup. The fact that they’re already recording another LP right now just makes things that much more exciting. If you’re looking for that one piece of ball-busting heaviness that you may have glanced over a few months ago, let this serve as your wake up call. The time of Sumac is upon us.
I’m going to come right out and say it: I like pretty metal. And that is not to say that I dislike heavy, bludgeoning, drop D metal, but I just like pretty metal. But what do I mean by “pretty metal” exactly? Well, Bosse De Nage just so happens to provide the perfect example for my argument with their newest masterpiece, All Fours. It is a metal album driven by metal roots, but diverts far from what would traditionally be considered “metal” to delve into brighter, twinklier sounds. The pains howls of black metal are still present, but instead of being buried under walls of grim, frost bitten riffs, they echo loudly over clear, clean bursts of guitar and show the emotionally driven aspect of the performance. It is a metal album that is not afraid to push its boundaries and test what it may be, weaving in elements of shoegaze, post hardcore, and even a bit of harsh wall noise, to create a more intricate, varied final project. And the result is simply stunning all around, at times sounding like the soundtrack to a peaceful dream about floating on the ocean, while other times sounding like the agonized howls you make in your nightmares while you realized you have accomplished nothing in your life. Bosse De Nage never allows the listener to get too comfortable in any one setting, which is precisely what makes them so very interesting and challenging.
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After more listens than I can count, I still find it amusing that my album of the year arrived in my mailbox through sheer coincidence. I Love You, Honeybear landed in my collection thanks to the fantastic record of the month club Vinyl Me, Please, and while I’d heard promising things about J. Tillman, his sophomore album as Father John Misty wasn’t on my radar until I slipped the record out of the sleeve and plopped it on my turntable. As soon as the opening chords of the title track gave way to grandiose indie folk, I looked up from my desk and became acquainted with Tillman’s brilliant songwriting. Everything about I Love You, Honeybear broaches the cusp of utter perfection, from the way in which Tillman’s lyrical poignancy is soaked with the perfect amount of sarcasm to how incredibly meticulous he is at crafting gorgeous compositions. But despite Tillman’s complex approach to folk and its adjacent genres, when his pristine vocals allow his lyrics to soar with a crooked grin, he reveals the simplicity of his album’s central theme. During “Holy Shit,” Tillman ponders:
Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty/What’s your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?/Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity/What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me
Tillman wrote this track on his wedding day, and it illuminates what the album as a whole is trying to say. Love, sex, religion, politics, existentialism: the world is rife with complexities that muddy the joy that we seek within our own lives. Yet, in the face of all of these distractions, Tillman has but two things to say: “I don’t give a fuck,” and more importantly, “I love you, Honeybear.” Love and preserving its pureness is Tillman’s only concern; the rest is all inconsequential bullshit.
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Bands that come out with an album after a longer-than-expected period of silence and some internal turmoil always interest me. This was the case with Keep of Kalessin’s Epistemology, an album that came out five years after its predecessor and following the sacking of their vocalist who was presumed lost in an African jungle but was simply in hiding (no, seriously). With Arnt “Obsidian Claw” Gronbech, one of the most talented and distinctive-sounding guitarists in metal stepping up to handle vocal duties as well, Keep of Kalessin have achieved a new height. Synths and vocals that can only be called “epic”, songs that are fast and intense yet emotional and boisterous, Epistemology is nothing short of a progressive metal masterpiece. Sure, the band started out as black metal and traces of that is still in their sound, but at this point the evolving song structures and composition are the centerpiece. Making an album full of longer songs that are all energetic, unique and compelling is no easy task, yet Arnt and co. managed to do so with ease. The feelings Keep of Kalessin evoke on Epistemology are too powerful to just put into words, it must be experienced in full. Go ahead and do so!