2010 Best Heavy Metal Albums

2010 was a very good year for heavy metal. Narrowing down the multitude of quality releases to the top 20 was extremely difficult, and ranking them even more so. After much debate and careful consideration, here's our list of 2010's best metal albums.

20. Overkill - 'Ironbound' (E1)

Overkill - 'Ironbound'
Overkill - 'Ironbound'. eOne Music

Ironbound is Overkill's fourteenth studio album, and they show no signs of slowing down. There are no huge surprises here, just track after track of first-class thrash metal. “The Green And Black” kicks off the album, and it's the longest Overkill song (8:12) since 1989's The Years Of Decay. It's packed with great riffs and enough changes and variety to maintain interest through the entire song.

Dave Linsk and Derek Tailer turn in standout performances on Ironbound, especially on songs such as “Bring Me The Night.” Their chops are showcased throughout, and whether they are playing thick riffs, intricate solos or rhythmic fills, the guitar work is spot on. What makes Overkill stand out is vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, whose high pitched singing is unique and instantly recognizable. He's able to dial it down and sing in a lower range, but can wail when it's required.

19. Forbidden - 'Omega Wave' (Nuclear Blast)

Forbidden - 'Omega Wave'
Forbidden - 'Omega Wave'. Nuclear Blast Records

Forbidden has been out of the spotlight for almost 14 years. But with this new release, and their new partnership with Nuclear Blast, the time is right for people to discover and/or rediscover what these thrashers have to offer. The core of the band, consisting of guitarist and founder Craig Locicero, vocalist Russ Anderson and bassist Matt Camacho, is still intact. On Omega Wave, they introduce Steve Smyth (Nevermore, Testament, Dragonlord) and drummer Mark Hernandez (Vio-lence, Defiance, Heathen, Demonica) into the fold.

Anderson is one of the most powerful thrash vocalists in the game today. His gruff vocals are mixed with aggression and melody. What he brings on Omega Wave is a crushing familiarity of intelligent lyrics delivered with forceful bellows. This, along with the distinct and mesmerizing guitar harmonies, was Forbidden’s forté back in the day. Smyth and Locicero’s riffs and leads carry on the familiar Forbidden formula.

18. 1349 - 'Demonoir' (Prosthetic)

1349 - 'Demonoir'
1349 - 'Demonoir'. Prosthetic Records

Demonoir pairs the interesting things 1349 tried on their last album with their militia-precision assault and other surprises. The result is an audacious and chaotic album that nullifies any criticism 1349 took after last year’s unexpected detour.

The band must have heard the rumblings of their long-time fans because they play with a sense of urgency missing on most contemporary black metal. “Atomic  Chapel,” channels the primal ferocity of their early album Liberation, and Ravn gives the vocal performance we were expecting  on the last album. Frost may have been held back on Revelations, but is seemingly playing with multiple limbs here; his performance on “When I Was Flesh,” requiring an almost inhuman level of speed.

17. Dark Funeral - 'Angelus Exuro pro Eternus' (Regain)

Dark Funeral - 'Angelus Exuro pro Eternus'
Dark Funeral - 'Angelus Exuro pro Eternus'. Regain Records

Angelus Exuro pro Eternus is a brave assault upon the black metal parapet, presenting a re-energized Dark Funeral who sound practically rabid; an established band with something to prove. Dark Funeral hasn’t sounded this vicious in years. Bassist/vocalist Emperor Magus Caligula should be particularly commended, as the man practically seethes his hatred through every hateful scream and hiss.

Meanwhile, Lord Ahriman’s riffs and melodies, which seemed to bleed into one another on the band’s recent releases, possess this diabolic spark to them which lend each track a sense of brutal, satanic urgency. Sure, there’s still a formula here, but who cares? Angelus Exuro pro Eternus is Dark Funeral’s best album in years.

16. Sigh - 'Scenes From Hell' (The End)

Sigh - 'Scenes From Hell'
Sigh - 'Scenes From Hell'. The End Records

Every album from this Japanese black metal group has been something completely radical, and Scenes From Hell is no different. Working off the blueprint of 2007’s Hangman's Hymn, Kawashima and company brought in a string quartet and brass players to add authenticity to the orchestrated sections.

The ferocity has not been displaced with the large violin and horn presence, a message the band wanted to make clear from the early going. “Prelude To The Oracle” is the fast descent into ground zero, as the chants of metal fans spawn into a choir of the damned that beckons the listener into the emitting darkness. The band is not bound by any conventional songwriting traits, as instruments come and go at will to fuel the chaos.

15. Salome - 'Terminal' (Profound Lore)

Salome - 'Terminal'
Salome - 'Terminal'. Profound Lore Records

Terminal is a completely honest, raw and poignant listening experience, one that relies more on emotion than technical trickery or virtuoso playing. What’s more remarkable is that there are only three people making this racket: even the legendary Saint Vitus had a bassist backing up Wino and guitarist Dave Chandler.  

Salome is a step removed from a street band: there’s just Katherine Katz’ overwhelming vocals, Aaron Deal’s sparse but muscular drumming and Rob Moore’s space odyssey guitar. The trio doesn’t just make enough noise to gather a corner crowd; Terminal could level a stadium.

14. Dawnbringer - 'Nucleus' (Profound Lore)

Dawnbringer - 'Nucleus'
Dawnbringer - 'Nucleus'. Profound Lore Records

Nucleus musically embodies everything Dawnbringer has consistently teased us with over the course of their fifteen year existence, scraping away every ounce of filler and trimming away all of the fat to create a lean, mean metal machine.

The band’s style is both nebulous and traditional; an amalgamation of everything classically awesome about heavy metal—from Bay Area thrash to Maiden, Motorhead and the NWOBHM—with a whip-smart assurance to boot. Much of this confidence exudes from bassist/vocalist Chris Black—also the frontman for the mighty Superchrist and High Spirits—whose intelligent lyrics and Lemmy styled swagger serves the band’s working class brand of metal perfectly.

13. Watain - 'Lawless Darkness' (Season Of Mist)

Watain - 'Lawless Darkness'
Watain - 'Lawless Darkness'. Season Of Mist

Lawless Darkness is much grander in scale than previous albums. Watain seems hell-bent on not succumbing to the temptations of black metal conventions, using them more as guidelines instead of strict rules. Make no mistake; this is still a sinister affair, with plenty of slicing riffs and thumping blast beats to go around. The band has not gone up and left their roots, which will undoubtedly let long-time fans breathe a little easier.

What Watain has done is used the increased running length to broaden their atmospheric touches. Each song is over five minutes long and invokes a feeling of epic carnage, even with the more standard songs like opener “Death’s Cold Dark” and “Reaping Death.” The pace of the music is never one speed for long, which makes for an album where unpredictability plays a major role.

12. Yakuza - 'Of Seismic Consequence' (Profound Lore)

Yakuza - 'Of Seismic Consequence'
Yakuza - 'Of Seismic Consequence'. Profound Lore Records

Like their previous work, Of Seismic Consequence blends varied influences into the Yakuza sound. Math metal, grindcore, jazz, death metal, hardcore and many other genres rear their head at different times on the album. After a fairly nondescript opening instrumental, things kick in with “Thinning The Herd.” There are dense riffs and harsh vocals along with melodic singing.

“Stones And Bones” is a catchy song that's dynamic and relatively straightforward for the first half, then a sax solo leads to a dark and doomy finish. Yakuza's experimental side is showcased more extensively on longer tracks like “Be That As It May.” The first half is mellow and acoustic with lower pitched vocals from Bruce Lamont. It then becomes brutal and intense with harsh vocals before finishing up with a melodic groove.

11. Intronaut - 'Valley Of Smoke' (Century Media)

Intronaut - 'Valley Of Smoke'
Intronaut - 'Valley Of Smoke'. Century Media Records

Valley of Smoke emphasizes long instrumental passages of progressive rock and free form, slower paced jazz. Clean vocals, lots of guitar melodies, dynamic, fluid bass lines that really remind me of work from greats such as Steve DiGiorgio, and excellent percussion with time changes galore are all over Valley of Smoke.

In short, the musicianship displayed by all members of Intronaut is outstanding, and each instrument is given a chance to shine. As far as progressive metal goes, Valley of Smoke ranks with the best. Any metal that creeps into the sound will undoubtedly garner comparisons to bands such as Tool, and even Rush given the dynamic musicianship, arguably bands that lie outside of what is normally considered metal.

10. Orphaned Land - 'Never Ending Way Of Orwarrior' (Century Media)

Orphaned Land - 'Never Ending Way Of Orwarrior'
Orphaned Land - 'Never Ending Way Of Orwarrior'. Century Media Records

The songs on The Never Ending Way Of Orwarrior are complex and layered, painstakingly constructed and diverse. There are elements of traditional metal blended with a lot of progressive parts and some Middle Eastern flavor. The 15 tracks on the album are weaved together to form a cohesive musical tapestry. If you deconstruct that tapestry, you'll find a multitude of tempos, intensities, textures and emotions.

Right off the bat, “Sapari” introduces female vocals to the mix along with Kobi Farhi's singing and growling. “From Broken Vessels” is a seven minute plus song that combines heavy riffs and harsh vocals with lengthy instrumental sections, folky parts and catchy melodies.  One of the many highlights of the album is “Disciples Of The Sacred Oath II,” the longest track on The Way Of Orwarrior that encapsulates all the varied elements Orphaned Land brings to the table in one song.

9. Immolation - 'Majesty and Decay' (Nuclear Blast)

Immolation - 'Majesty and Decay'
Immolation - 'Majesty and Decay'. Nuclear Blast Records

Immolation have always been a band to buck death metal conventions. Rather than resorting to all out blasts to convey a sense of brutality, Immolation rely upon totally unconventional song structures; that is, within what is usually classified as brutal death metal, to give their music a feeling of spiraling, uncontrolled chaos. Immolation have adopted this unique approach to death metal, and have honed their craft to near perfection on Majesty and Decay.

What's most impressive about Immolation is their ability to write and perform very complex musical compositions without resorting to the progressive/ technical tricks, if you will, that are prevalent in most overtly technical death metal outfits operating today. The unusual time changes, the different riffs that flow within a song, the precise vocals from Ross Dolan, all are written together seamlessly.

8. Nachtmystium - 'Addicts: Black Meddle Pt. 2' (Century Media)

Nachtmystium - 'Addicts: Black Meddle Pt. 2'
Nachtmystium - 'Addicts: Black Meddle Pt. 2'. Century Media Records

Addicts: Black Meddle Part 2  is a brave and passionate album that will have its detractors much like its predecessor. But anyone who gives this album an honest listen would have a hard time disputing that it is startling and original. Much of the credit again rests with frontman Blake Judd.  His devil-may-care attitude is the reason Nachtmystium continues to release such ambitious music.

Judd rolls the dice on each song and lets the musical jukebox in his head take listeners to unexpected places; “Nightfall” is close to radio friendly, yet rooted with a catchy '80s metal groove; “No Funeral” pays homage to his early love of Nine Inch Nails and industrial music and “Blood Trance Funeral”  is a classic black metal track (outside of the lyrics) with hints of a Moog synthesizer.

7. Decrepit Birth - 'Polarity' (Nuclear Blast)

Decrepit Birth - 'Polarity'
Decrepit Birth - 'Polarity'. Nuclear Blast Records

The musicianship and sheer technical prowess displayed by the musicians in Decrepit Birth is hard to top, even in a genre known for the technical skills of the top acts. Unbelievably fluid guitar and bass work is backed up by exceptionally precise drumming, covering a wide range of tempos, throughout the course of the entire album. In short, Polarity is a tour de force of precise musicianship.

Further aiding the cause of Decrepit Birth on Polarity is a production with the expected clarity enhanced in heaviness with more prominence given to the bass. The mix is flawless, and there’s no denying the sheer heaviness of the album. Given the near flawless qualities of the album thus far described, the remaining question becomes this: is the songwriting catchy and engaging enough for those simply looking for good, well constructed songs? The answer is yes.

6. Melechesh - 'The Epigenesis' (Nuclear Blast)

Melechesh - 'The Epigenesis'
Melechesh - 'The Epigenesis'. Nuclear Blast Records

Melechesh, the masters of Mesopotamian metal, return after a four year absence with The Epigenesis. It builds off the steady foundation of Middle Eastern-tinged black metal the band diligently crafted on Emissaries. Experimenting with song structures and varied tempos keeps the album from stumbling into pretentious babble.

The Epigenesis is a hefty album, the longest by the band so far, but there are several songs that count as the best material the band has ever written. The catchy undertones of “Grand Gathas Of Baal Sin” is a concert favorite in the making. “Mystics Of The Pillar” balances all the band’s elements, both heavy and melodic, into one tight package. The 12-minute closing title track is a blackened progressive rock jam for the ages. The band lets loose in the studio armed with a plentiful supply of lead guitar licks and unplanned shifts in tone.

5. Agalloch - 'Marrow Of The Spirit' (Profound Lore)

Agalloch - 'Marrow Of The Spirit'
Agalloch - 'Marrow Of The Spirit'. Profound Lore Records

Agalloch immediately leap out as a band that pays great attention to musical detail within their compositions. The album’s base is a semi-melodic form of black metal with a few blasts scattered here and there, some fast riffs, and generally gruff vocals. Elements of progressive folk metal, melodic black metal, samples of bubbling streams and other sounds of the forests of the Pacific Northwest, all play a part in Marrow of the Spirit.

As you increasingly become engrossed as Marrow of the Spirit progresses, though, the harder hitting elements of black metal become much less prevalent. The album downshifts quite often into mild acoustic guitar, piano and violins. Choruses of clean vocals appear, nicely complementing the quiet, progressive melodies. Agalloch periodically veer off the beaten path, as well, with a couple of truly strange moments of dark ambient music on the fourth track, “Black Lake Nidstang,” a song of considerable songwriting variation. 

4. Ihsahn - 'After' (Candlelight)

Ihsahn - 'After'
Ihsahn - 'After'. Candlelight Records

Each song on After is painstakingly composed and arranged, and the album flows extremely well. Ihsahn utilizes many different tempos, textures and intensities throughout the album, embarking on a musical ride with many ups, downs, twists and turns.

After is my favorite Ihsahn solo album. While all three are very well-done, this one resonates more because he continues to experiment and push musical boundaries while still maintaining a readily identifiable sound. Adding the sax was risky, but it fits in very well. The sonic palette on the album is painted with many shades and colors, and you'll discover subtleties and nuances with each listen.

3. Iron Maiden - 'The Final Frontier' (Universal)

Iron Maiden - 'The Final Frontier'
Iron Maiden - 'The Final Frontier'. Universal Records

The Final Frontier is a complex, intricate, epic, challenging and ultimately fulfilling effort. When a band has been around for 30 plus years, there usually aren't going to be many surprises in their sound, and with each successive album, it becomes more difficult to avoid repetition. And while The Final Frontier fits firmly in the Maiden sonic pantheon, there are enough twists and turns to set it apart and give it a distinct identity.

The second half of The Final Frontier is really strong. “Isle Of Avalon” is my personal favorite song on this CD. Its 9 minutes ebb and flow in tempo and intensity, with singalong choruses alternating with more complex and progressive sections. “Starblind” is another standout, with some great guitar work. Dickinson's voice is as potent as ever, which is evident throughout.

2. Triptykon - 'Eparistera Daimones' (Century Media)

Triptykon - 'Eparistera Daimones'
Triptykon - 'Eparistera Daimones'. Century Media Records

Triptykon is the logical extension of Celtic Frost version 2.0. Monotheist's contemporary flare, commercially accessible and modern crunchy guitars, and doom laden passages remain in tow; however Eparistera Daimones is darker (though less gothic), more bleak and hateful.

Eparistera Daimones is also heavier and more aggressive, and while these elements are packaged as distinctly as everything else, they are relatively conventional compared to what Tom Fischer normally offers (though the thrashing death march of "A Thousand Lies" is simply unstoppable, somewhat akin to modern-day Sepultura). Musically and vocally, the argument can be made that Fischer has never sounded this disturbed or twisted. His screams are so tortured, his rage so venomous, the riffs so unsettling and/or melancholic ("Abyss Within My Soul") that one might logically infer some level of discontent in Fischer's life

1. Enslaved - 'Axioma Ethica Odini' (Nuclear Blast)

Enslaved - 'Axioma Ethica Odini'
Enslaved - 'Axioma Ethica Odini'. Nuclear Blast Records

Enslaved has met all expectations, and even exceeded them in some cases with Axioma Ethica Odini. “Ethica Odini” kicks things off, a traditional black metal song with harsh vocals for just over half the song, then more progressive influences kick in along with melodic vocals and even a guitar solo. Enslaved expertly blends the brutal and jagged edges of black metal with melodic and progressive elements throughout Axioma Ethica Odini.

In addition to majestic black metal and progressive metal, Enslaved gives a nod to '70s progressive rock on “Night Sight,” at least in the first part of the song. “Lightening” brings the proceedings to a close, and is one of the best songs on the album.  Axioma Ethica Odini is the type of album that will satisfy black metal fans, but may also appeal to progressive metal aficionados that can handle the harsh vocals. It's another home run for Enslaved, and our number one metal CD of 2010.

Honorable Mention

Great albums that didn't quite make our cut:

Accept - Blood Of The Nations
Alcest - Ecailles de Lune
Atheist - Jupiter
Black Anvil - Triumverate
The Body - All The Waters Of The Earth Turn To Blood
Castevet - Mounds Of Ash
The Crown - Doomsday King
Dark Tranquillity - We Are The Void
Dillinger Escape Plan - Option Paralysis
Exodus - Exhibit B: The Human Condition
Heathen - The Evolution Of Chaos
Krieg - The Isolationist
Kylesa - Spiral Shadow
Nevermore - The Obsidian Conspiracy
Ratt - Infestation
Sabbath Assembly - Restored To One
The Sword - Warp Riders 
Woe - Quietly, Undramatically