In 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. The Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" was the biggest song of the year. Avatar ruled the silver screen. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl. Patrick Swayze died. And a slew of heavy-music artists released badass albums — including the 20 below.
In his continuous effort to push the sound of his bands, grindcore Svengali Scott Hull (also of Pig Destroyer) shook things up on Agoraphobic Nosebleed's fourth full-length, trading the group's typical five-second spazz-outs (this is the band that crammed 100 tracks onto a 3-inch mini-CD) for 13 hooky, doom-soaked actual songs. Yet despite the new cohesion, Agorapocalypse is even a wilder and more whip-lashing ride than previous ANb records, thanks to all the charging breakdowns, grooving programed drums and terrifying vocals from the group's then-newest member, Salome's Katherine Katz, who has since split with the band on acrimonious terms.
On Black Gives Way to Blue, their long-overdue follow-up to 1995's Alice in Chains, Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez, Sean Kinney and the freshly recruited William DuVall managed the seemingly unmanageable task of paying homage to the legacy of this hugely influential Seattle outfit in a way that feels loving and respectful, not sleazy and cynical. What's most remarkable about the comeback album is how full of life it sounds — no small surprise, given the amount of death and uncertainty the guys had faced. Muscular swamp-metal jams like "Take Me Out" and "Last of My Kind" pound with undimmed authority, while the rock-radio hit "Check My Brain" is as catchy as anything from the band's catalog.
Savannah, Georgia's Baroness aren't the heaviest-hitting band on the Southern sludge scene, nor are they its fiercest instrumentalists. They are, however, the most song-minded act in that crowded world, a quality they put to excellent use throughout their follow-up to 2007's celebrated Red Album. Whether they're breaking out the acoustics and going John Fahey folky ("Blackpowder Orchard"), rumbling through a six-minute barbarian-thrash jam ("Swollen and Halo") or layering creepy spoken-word samples over a speedy disco-metal beat, Baroness retained a sense of melody and structure here that had Blue Record resonating far beyond the bayou.
Polish extreme metallers Behemoth didn't exactly scorch new ground on their ninth album — demonic incantations, Middle Eastern scales and infernal blast beats were all still very much a part of their corpse-painted package. But what makes Evangelion stand out among the band's previous releases — to say nothing of the bulk of 2009's black/death-metal releases — is its fluid and organic sound. On sweeping tracks like "Daimonos" and "Lucifer," Behemoth leader Nergal tapped effortlessly into the heart of darkness.
BTBAM's '07 near-classic Colors hinted at a Mastodon-like mastery of shape-shifting suites. Their 2009 opus sealed the deal. The Great Misdirect only has six songs, but each is a monster, a brutal amalgam of screamo, prog, hardcore and free-floating excess. The main attraction is "Disease, Injury, Madness," a relentlessly nutty, relatively speedy (11-plus-minute) black opera that's as grueling, and as genius, as it sounds.
At first, the title of the Black Dahlia Murder's fourth album seemed like yet another vaguely unpleasant esoteric term. But following a few spins, Deflorate — which the band claimed refers to the act of deflowering a virgin — began to seem rather appropriate. After all, the Michigan-based quintet had worked methodically over the nine years before to shed their up-and-comer status, continuing to hone their technical-yet-melodic death metal until it became salient and unparalleled. Their catchiest, crushing-ist hour to that point, Deflorate provides undeniable proof that BDM had finally popped their proverbial cherry and could stand next to idols like Cannibal Corpse and Carcass as men, not boys.
The 11th(!) album by windmilling headbangers Cannibal Corpse is one of the few records to deliver meat-'n'-potatoes death metal with truly catchy hooks. "To Decompose," in particular, follows the same economy-of-riffing formula the band used on "Hammer Smashed Face" — the grunt-along that charmed middle America in Ace Ventura — but with more coherent vocals and a breakneck solo. On the rest of the LP, the group dabbled in the directness of hardcore ("Evidence in the Furnace"), primal thrash ("Scalding Hail") and, of course, their signature death rattle ("Skewered From Ear to Eye"), making it one of the Corpse's best.
Earlier records from Kansas City hardcore heroes Coalesce were excellent but imploded under their own relentless forward momentum. Their 2009 reunion LP remedied that with open space and quiet experimentation (seriously!). Album highlight "The Comedian in Question" refreshes with clean Ozzy-style vocals, and "Wild Ox Moan" lays down dirty, home-fried steel-guitar blues. "The Purveyor of Novelty and Nonsense" is just one of many insanely heavy songs that groove off-kilter like Meshuggah, but it culminates in a slow, epic crescendo, something a younger Coalesce never had the attention span for.
After nearly 20 years of shattering hardcore into a million jagged shards of sonic shrapnel, Massachusetts' whirling DIY dervishes Converge dropped the ultimate nail-bomb in 2009. A cavalcade of whiplash riffing, inhuman drumming and thunderous low-end, punctuated by the rabid howls of vocal berserker Jake Bannon, Axe to Fall still turned out to be the band's most accessible album to that point, a feat managed almost entirely by the epic closing tandem of "Cruel Bloom" and "Wretched World." Loaded with guest shots from members of Neurosis, Genghis Tron and Cave In (among others), it still stands as their most collaborative.
After saving the world economy, revolutionizing water-recordable technology and dodging countless assassination attempts, Dethklok seemed set to flop on the follow-up to their record-breaking debut. Instead, Adult Swim's favorite brutalitarians created a record undeniably better than its predecessor. Frontman/show creator Brandon Small's vocals sound fuller, and his lyrics focus on ire over irony. Gene Hoglan's drum work comes off tight and intricate, complimented by a slew of Skwigelf/Wartooth guitar harmonies that are catchier than Swine Flu. Dethalbum II proved that while Dethklok may be cartoons, they were no joke.
Smart money would bet that one of the strongest metal albums of 2009 would not be the one that has a song named for a character on The Office and another for a Scientology-derived alien galactic ruler. But goofy titles are about the only light moments on the Devil Wears Prada's third record. The Ohio-based six-piece blew up their brand of spastic, crushing Christian metalcore to widescreen proportions on With Roots Above, with ethereal synths ("Dez Moines"), faux orchestration ("Big Wiggly Style") and even actual choruses ("Ben Has a Kid") providing counterpoint to the brutal, streamrolling riffs and shredded-throat screams.
These really are devils you should know. The metal pedigree of this album's players — the reunited Black Sabbath lineup of Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Vinnie Appice and Ronnie James Dio — simply cannot be denied. While this didn't mean that every song on this long-awaited follow-up to 1981's classic Mob Rules necessarily hit the mark, when the tracks do — check the likes of "Atom and Evil" and "Fear" — Iommi's inimitable riffs, Geezer's titanic rumble and Appice's determined percussion converge with Dio's inexplicable lyrics and theatrical delivery to create some truly apocalyptic doom.
After a seven-year hiatus, Norwegian black metallers Immortal slathered the war paint back on and created an epic comeback in All Shall Fall with all the aplomb and fireworks fans hoped for. Throughout the record, front-demon Abbath vomits vocal bile about Immortal staples like fantasy kingdoms, ice and the apocalypse while his bandmates buzz out jagged near-orchestral arrangements. The album never sounds forced, though, as is sometimes the fate of reunion records. In fact, the building, triumphant-sounding intro to "Nordens on Fire" and the nuanced chorus of "The Rise of Darkness" could be unused bits off classics like At the Heart of Winter.
The fourth record from Savannah sludge peddlers Kylesa has some of the most glorious, spiritually minded hooks of any 2009 metal record. And that's no small feat considering how they built a jubilant monument with the ugliest tools imaginable: downtuned stoner muck, the strained barks of vocalist Phillip Cope and two drummers who turn a headphone listen into a dizzying surround-sound headfuck. More than just an heir to bands like Melvins and Neurosis, Kylesa made widescreen sludge-pop with centerpiece "Running Red," combining melancholy pianos, Lord of the Flies drumming, Laura Pleasants' haunting coo, and totally ginormous riffs.
The Sex Pistols' John Lydon said anger is an energy. For Lamb of God, Wrath proved to be, specifically, a creative impulse pushing them to higher realms of inspiration. The group's fifth album wasn't just another kick in the crotch; while the songs hit hard, smacking all the thrash touchstones — hyperactive kick drums, speaker-stressing guitars, larynx-torturing vocals — what lifts the band above the competition is the wit and precision with which each punch is delivered. And its secret strength is its ear for instrumental texture, something that makes every bit of riffage bristle a bit more.
With Crack the Skye, Mastodon crafted a densely-layered concept album that takes multiple listens to reveal itself as the work of twisted genius that it truly is. The band sanded off some of their Georgia grit in favor of a Pink Floyd–worthy sonic sheen that totally fits the album's ethereal themes, yet doesn't dilute the wild-eyed intensity of previous outings. Whether burning through a three-and-a-half minute rager like "Divinations," or stretching out on the 13-minute "The Last Baron," Mastodon played like a band at the peak of its musical and conceptual powers.
Producer Andy Sneap wanted Endgame to sound like old-school Megadeth, but frontman Dave Mustaine refused to repeat himself. In the end, both men got what they wanted: The legendary thrash band's 12th album recalls the urgent energy of classics like Rust in Peace while also allowing Mustaine to pursue new horizons. The twitchy paranoia of "44 Minutes" and the title track are the works of an talented songwriter who was only getting angrier as he pushed 50, but Mustaine resisted easy pigeonholing — amidst Endgame's fury, "The Hardest Part of Letting Go…Sealed With a Kiss" is one of the most emotional love songs he's ever crafted.
They say that good things come to those who wait, and with Rammstein's sixth record, the band's longtime followers were rewarded for their patience since the firestarters' last album, 2005's Rosenrot. If lead single, "Pussy," comes off like a rather cheap, if hooky and hilarious, shot at selling out, the rest of Liebe Ist Für Alle Da reveals an ambitious scope and surprising subtlety. Songs like "Waidmanns Heil" and "Wiener Blut" embrace Rammstein's trademark Sturm und Drang, while "Haifisch" feels like Depeche Mode on steroids and "Frühling in Paris" is a soaring power ballad that'll have fans reaching for their lighters.
The kindler, gentler Obama world order had apparently not made much impact on the men of Slayer, who were as pissed off as ever on their 11th studio album and follow-up to 2006's Christ Illusion. Filled with righteous rage, World Painted Blood's 11 tracks have a foot in Slayer's past and present, as the knotty riffage and sinister melodicism of Seasons in the Abyss blends with the more measured intricacies of later works. Bassist Tom Araya's vocals are more prominent in the mix this time, but it's still the face-melting interplay between guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King that painted the broad, bloody strokes here.
Fast, frenzied and full of strangled pig squeals and lunging breakdowns, Suicide Silence's second LP defined the shape of deathcore to come. But what really made No Time to Bleed so special is the way it incorporates elements from metal subgenres beyond death metal and hardcore. There are seasick guitar noises reminiscent of nu-metal pioneers Korn ("Lifted"), minor-key licks that smell of thrash icons Slayer ("Disengage"), and samples and sound effects manufactured on the assembly line of industrialists Fear Factory ("Wasted"). Best of all, despite the mishmash of influences, Suicide Silence's own vision always comes through loud and clear.