By Greg Maki
Metal—and rock music in general—is farther from the mainstream today than its’ ever been in my lifetime. But metal is a genre that thrives in the underground, and in 2019, there was no shortage of quality albums from new and established acts. Here are the best that found their way to my ears.
Gygax – “High Fantasy”
Hellyeah – “Welcome Home”
I Prevail – “Trauma”
Mark Morton – “Anesthetic”
Pounder – “Uncivilized”
10. Dream Theater – “Distance over Time”
Following up the divisive concept album “The Astonishing” (2016), Dream Theater brings back the heavy, with the most concise, song-focused record of its long career. Tighter song structures do not equal a sacrifice in musicianship, however; the playing is as godlike as ever, and there’s still room for proggy detours. It feels like drummer Mike Mangini, who’s been with the band for almost 10 years now, has fully found his groove, playing off the other musicians more fluidly and comfortably than he did on the three previous albums. This modernized, more direct version of Dream Theater shows that, 35 years after its founding, it remains the world’s leading progressive metal band.
9. Alter Bridge – “Walk the Sky”
On its sixth studio album, Alter Bridge adds to its sound with atmospheric electronics while maintaining the foundation of Myles Kennedy’s powerful, emotive vocals and Mark Tremonti’s huge riffs and searing solos over top the ferocious rhythms supplied by drummer Scott Phillips and bassist Brian Marshall. “Walk the Sky” is a near perfect progression at this point, tweaking and enhancing a tried-and-true formula while holding fast to what Alter Bridge always has been about.
8. Periphery – “Periphery IV: HAIL STAN”
Progressive djent masters Periphery spent an entire year writing the ridiculously titled “HAIL STAN,” and all that work is evident in every note. Screaming out of the gate with the 17-minute “Reptile,” the record is a collection of adventurous, polyrhythmic tracks ranging from hauntingly beautiful to brutally heavy. The band augments its sound with more orchestration and electronics—and even a choir—than it’s used before, giving it an almost cinematic feel. The players—Misha Mansoor (guitar, programming), Jake Bowen (guitar, programming), Matt Halpern (drums) and Mark Holcomb (guitar)—are among the very best, while vocalist Spencer Sotelo, one of the most versatile voices in metal today, is the heart and soul that brings it all together.
7. Killswitch Engage – “Atonement”
Killswitch Engage offers no real surprises on “Atonement,” its eighth album and third since the return of vocalist Jesse Leach. And that’s just fine, because this is a band that does what it does so well—and better than virtually anyone else—that it doesn’t need to stray far from the formula to hold the listener’s attention. The band members can focus solely on writing the best songs they can, and 20 years into their career, they’ve come up with one of their best batches of tunes yet, highlighted by “The Signal Fire,” featuring a guest vocal by Howard Jones, who fronted the band from 2002 to 2012. The record is one of the heaviest Killswitch offerings to date, packed with thrashy riffing over hardcore-style rhythms, topped with Leach’s dynamic vocal attack. It’s another all around excellent effort from one of the most consistent modern metal bands.
6. Volbeat – “Rewind, Replay, Rebound”
A rock record with moments of metal sprinkled throughout, “Rewind, Replay, Rebound,” Volbeat’s seventh studio album, is as varied and dynamic as anything in the band’s catalog. The sense of nostalgia that has permeated most of the band’s work in the past comes to the fore here, with rockabilly (“Pelvis on Fire”) and early rock ‘n’ roll (“Die to Live” featuring Neil Fallon of Clutch) influences running strong. If that, plus the album title, isn’t enough for you to get the picture, there’s “When We Were Kids,” on which vocalist/guitarist/principal songwriter Michael Poulsen laments the lost innocence of youth. The lyrical themes, the mashup of styles, the somewhat unwieldy album title—it’s all unmistakably Volbeat.
5. Fever 333 – “Strength in Numb333rs”
Music with a message—one that’s relevant and resonates—can have an uncommon power. Combine that with a creative, catchy sound, and you’re really onto something. Which brings me to the first full-length album from Fever 333, an impassioned collection of tunes from a trio that isn’t about to sit idly by in a world full of injustices. Rage Against the Machine comparisons abound, but there also are melodic, Linkin Park-style choruses, a seven-minute ballad and almost Nine Inch Nails-like electronics that add texture and atmosphere. As suggested by the album title, the central idea seems to be that it’s up to all of us—no matter our race, religion, gender or any other form of categorization people in power use to divide the masses—to change our world for the better. It’s a dramatic, provocative recording on every level.
4. Crobot – “Motherbrain”
The fourth album from Pennsylvania rockers Crobot is the band’s best work yet, packed with the grooves fans know and love, but also sporting a darker, heavier sound, mixing ‘90s grunge with classic rock influences, plus a little bit of the funk sound the group has embraced from the beginning. Frontman Brandon Yeagley takes a different approach vocally, singing in a lower—and more powerful—register. “… Sometimes it’s easier for other people to sing along … when I’m not singing like a dying cat all the time,” he told me when I interviewed him in August. The potential the band has shown in the past all comes together here, resulting in the best pure rock album of the year.
3. Cane Hill – “Kill the Sun”
New Orleans’ Cane Hill quickly followed up its sophomore album, “Too Far Gone,” which I named the best release of 2018, with a drastic change of pace. The six-song “Kill the Sun” is the band’s “Jar of Flies,” with acoustic and occasionally electric guitars, piano, percussion, electronics, even saxophone all swirling together in hypnotic fashion. The sound is that of a band opening itself up to the world in a way it never has and few seem to do these days. And while the Alice in Chains influence is strong, this is no imitation; it’s an artistic statement by a band that refuses to be hemmed in by genre or any other artificial boundary.
2. Jinjer – “Macro”
One of the breakout metal bands of 2019, Ukrainian act Jinjer started the year by releasing the “Micro” EP as a January appetizer, then followed with the main course, the full-length “Macro,” in October. The nine-song album showcases a sound that has evolved from metalcore in the band’s early days to a ferocious, progressive groove metal attack. Fans and critics naturally tend to focus on dynamic frontwoman Tatiana Shmaylyuk, and it’s warranted. Alternating between guttural, demonic growls and soaring melodic tones, she’s nothing short of a force of nature. But “Macro” makes the greatest case yet for the talents of the entire band. It’s a solid slab of modern metal, Jinjer’s best album yet and more than justifying the massive buzz the band has been building around the globe.
1. Slipknot – “We Are Not Your Kind”
I’ll admit I slept on Slipknot in the early days. Back then, I couldn’t see past the mask gimmick. I’ve since come to love gimmicks if the music holds up its end of the deal—Ghost is one of my favorite bands—and I’ve gradually come around on this crazy, nine-piece act from Iowa. Its sixth album, “We Are Not Your Kind,” turned me from a casual listener to an avid fan. It’s a diverse, dynamic recording, adventurous and unafraid to veer off in unexpected directions. Every other song is an instant classic, and no song sounds like the one before or after it. Twenty years into its career, I thought I had Slipknot figured out. Then it goes and unleashes a masterpiece like this.