A better evaluation of a year's best releases is done a few years later, as the passage of time generally provides a clearer perspective, but as of right now, 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. When doing a year end ranking, it's important to revisit the albums, and not go just on the original impression or review. Some CDs were growers, and others lost a bit of their luster since their original review. Several of the releases on our top 20 you'll see on many other lists, but others may surprise you. Not sure if that means we're idiots or visionaries, but in the end we're just metal fans with opinions, like everyone else. Without further delay, here's the About.com Heavy Metal Top 20 Metal CDs of 2010, plus some honorable mentions that just missed the cut.
20. Overkill - 'Ironbound' (E1)
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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.