Gut-churning doom, hip-hop-influenced industrial metal, avant-garde black metal, thrash for the ages, and so much more
This list goes to 11 … and that Spinal Tap joke is about as far as headbanging traditionalism goes with this list of 2023’s best metal albums. The past year has seen beloved metal titans like Metallica and Godflesh expand their signature heavy riffage in unexpected ways, and it has given a platform for daring bands like Khanate and Agriculture to explore the avant-garde. What connects these records is the groups’ shared desire to push beyond listeners’ expectations, to question what “heavy” means. Metal has always been about individualism, so here are the year’s 11 most unique offerings.
Khanate, ‘To Be Cruel’
Cheech and Chong once joked that if you played Black Sabbath at 78 rpm, you’d see God. Well, listening to Khanate is essentially spinning Black Sabbath at 16 rpm and seeing the devil. To Be Cruel is the avant-garde downer-metal group’s first album in 14 years, and, as has always been the case with the band, patience is a virtue. Each of its three songs hover around the 20-minute mark, as guitarist Stephen O’Malley and bassist James Plotkin slowly pluck out long-vibrating drones, and drummer Tim Wyskida hits his instrument only a few times a minute. Meanwhile, vocalist Alan Dubin shrieks about his misfortune from deep in the mud, like a purgatory-bound Samuel Beckett character. It’s gloriously disturbing, and you really don’t want to know what happens if you play it at 78. —K.G.
Dethklok, ‘Dethalbum IV’
The first Dethklok album in more than a decade is totally brutal — and totally worth the wait. Once again, guitarist-vocalist-Metalocalypse creator Brendon Small and double-kick wizard Gene Hoglan do a brilliant job of bringing the world’s greatest fictional death-metal band to life, with the animated show’s agreeably twisted sense of humor shining through on punishing tracks like “Gardener of Vengeance,” “Poisoned by Food,” and “Mutilation on a Saturday Night.” But Small and Hoglan’s dexterous playing (and Ulrich Wild’s impeccable production) also make the music stand majestically on its own terms. You don’t need to be in on the joke to jump into the pit and mosh along. —D.E.
Code Orange, ‘The Above’
Code Orange’s latest, The Above, blends hardcore riffs and vocals with intricate melodies that squirm into the ear in ways that sound both timely and timeless. Their collaboration with Billy Corgan, “Take Shape,” seamlessly wormholes us from the Nineties to the present as Corgan looses his vampiric vocals against Code Orange’s melodic chaos. And frontman Jami Morgan and singer-guitarist Reba Meyers maintain that contrast throughout the rest of the record (sans Pumpkin), trading off between Morgan’s thrashy vocals and Meyers’ mellow croon on opener “Never Far Apart” and “Theatre of Cruelty,” which blends almost church-like tones with demonic growls. Each song changes shapes in unusual ways, often thanks to keyboardist Eric “Shade” Balderose’s blippy transitions, making it one of the most unpredictably great albums of the year. —B.E.
Wayfarer, ‘American Gothic’
On their fifth album, Denver quartet Wayfarer offer up a spellbinding blend of atmospheric black metal and gothic Americana, cherry-picking the best of both to create a truly singular elegy for the forgotten West. This is no gun-totin’ hagiography, though; American Gothic is haunted by the ghosts of empire. As his bandmates pick out meticulous melodies and ride bursts of percussion, Shane McCarthy’s commanding rasp tells of the murderous cattlemen, rapacious oil barons, and iron horses who stampeded across stolen land and left a trail of blood and smoke in their wake. It’s a violent, apocalyptic legacy, far more sinister than any demonic fairy tale. European black-metal bands used to look down on their American brethren for a perceived lack of identity and originality; here, Wayfarer have definitively laid that trope to rest, and buried it six feet beneath the dying plains. —K.K.
Avenged Sevenfold, ‘Life Is but a Dream …’
On their first studio album in seven years, A7X detonate a gigantic WTF bomb that makes even their most ambitious previous efforts seem modest and monochromatic by comparison. Metal is still part of the equation — thanks to Synyster Gates’ ripping guitar, M. Shadows’ dynamic pipes, and Brooks Wackerman’s punishing drums — but Life Is but a Dream‘s mind-melting roller coaster whips wildly through one musical realm after another, touching on jazz fusion, electro-pop, and ambient soundscapes. Even the most straightforward bangers, like “Game Over,” “Mattel,” and “We Love,” practically dare the listener to catch their breath before they’re suddenly turned upside down again. —D.E.
Self-proclaimed “ecstatic black metal” outfit Agriculture came onto the scene in 2022, but its members have deep roots in the experimental-music world. Those unorthodox leanings saturate their self-titled debut, from the lilting pedal-steel guitar on opener “The Glory of the Ocean” to the bright, tumultuous tremolo of “Look, Pt. 2.” Agriculture is not a typical black metal album, or even a typical post-black metal album; this is something new, and oddly … joyful. It’s an emotional manifesto. Black metal is extreme music for extreme people, after all, and here, Agriculture are extremely blissed-out. —K.K.
Cannibal Corpse, ‘Chaos Horrific’
Chaos Horrific, the Florida death-metal institution’s 16th album — and the second Cannibal Corpse album featuring producer and former Morbid Angel axman Erik Rutan on lead guitar — is a nonstop sensory assault with George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher’s sepulchral roar and Rutan’s fretboard wizardry leading the agreeably repulsive charge on vicious tracks like “Blood Blind,” “Pitchfork Impalement,” and “Pestilential Rictus.” Chaos Horrific may not break new ground for the band (or genre), but there’s something deeply comforting about the fact that, more than three decades since their debut, Cannibal Corpse are still snapping bones and slurping guts with the best of them. —D.E.
Jesus Piece, ‘… So Unknown’
Delightfully caustic and giddily loud, Jesus Piece’s latest is mosh-pit-ready while also surprisingly tender. In addition to dwelling on doom, loneliness, and other familiar hardcore tropes, frontman Aaron Heard also delves into losing familial relationships on the gut-wrenching album closer, “The Bond,” which deals with the singer’s gradual estrangement from his brother, and straight-up love (“Silver Lining,” about Heard’s son is an absolute rager). Other tracks dance on the edge of nu-metal pastiche, like “FTBS,” but the absolute heaviness of the vocals and instrumentation counteract any potential corniness. Cry, thrash, or just chill out. —B.E.
Ragana, ‘Desolation’s Flower’
On Desolation’s Flower, Ragana’s fourth LP, multi-instrumentalists Coley and Maria trade off on drums, guitar, and vocals, inscribing their proudly queer, anti-fascist politics into the poetry of their lyrics. Tracks like the deceptively quiet “DTA” and powerfully fragile “Winter’s Light Pt. 2” showcase Ragana’s powerful pathos, and the innate synchronicity of their approach yields a deeply layered, heavily atmospheric tapestry of black metal, doom, shoegaze, and crust punk that ebbs and flows with all the dangerous beauty of a melting glacier. It’s the duo’s spotlight moment. —K.K.
“Army of Non,” a highlight on Godflesh’s Purge, sounds like a radio stuck between stations, picking up the sound of a guitarist tuning up, some Nineties hip-hop breakbeats, and an angry trucker growling into a walkie-talkie. But the cacophony works together to create a gorgeously brittle whole. The industrial-metal champs used the formula on their celebrated 1992 album, Pure, but they’ve perfected it with simpler guitar riffs and even more opaque lyrics. It all works best on “The Father,” which marries a moaning guitar riff with drum-machine stabs that resemble a haywire nail gun, as Justin Broadrick sings, “No one can be trusted.” Try using it as your alarm. —K.G.
Metallica, ’72 Seasons’
Although Metallica would have you believe that the title 72 Seasons refers to surviving the first 18 years of life, the group’s 12th album shows how you cope with the years that follow. James Hetfield turned 60 this year and his bandmates are in the same neighborhood, so cries for help like “Am I too far gone to save?/Help me make it through the day” on the Misfits-y “Too Far Gone?” and throwback lyrics that recall going “full speed or nothin’” on “Lux Æterna” ring a little differently as the guys approach ages at which average Joes retire. But since Metallica are far from average, they pushed themselves on 72 Seasons to expand their sound while retaining their identity (and neck-breaking tempos). “You Must Burn!” features some disturbingly eerie vocal effects, courtesy of bassist Robert Trujillo, while the 11-minute “Inamorata,” Hetfield’s love letter to misery, is the audial equivalent of falling into a trash compactor and loving it. Metallica may be older, but they’re far from sounding old. —K.G.