When it comes to heavy metal, 2005 will be remembered as the year the promising Sounds of the Underground tour debuted, metalcore dominated the scene popularity-wise, and Iron Maiden got egged at Ozzfest. There weren't a lot of big hits (only nü-metal holdovers Disturbed and Mudvayne cracked the Billboard Top Ten), but the underground thrived with some of the most ambitious albums the genre has seen. In terms of technical inventiveness and progressive sounds, this was a banner year for headbangers.
1. Meshuggah, Catch 33 (Nuclear Blast): This is as close as metal gets to classical music, and Meshuggah has done it all without the usual touchstones -- you know, the crappy string sections and operatic wankery that longhairs employ when they want to appear cultured in something other than bong maintenance. Catch 33 is essentially one long song divided into four movements, orchestra-style, and then somewhat arbitrarily parceled into 13 tracks. The result is an album that's sweeping in scope, the Citizen Kane of Swedish thrash. Catch 33 ditches conventional songwriting for a mélange of teched-out proto-thrash, knotty acoustic embellishments and harsh industrial scrapings. It's a heady reimagining of heavy metal.
2. Pelican, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw (Hydra Head): Metalheads aren't supposed to like albums this pretty. Pelican's swelling, soft-hued jams often elevate subtlety and restraint over raw power, though the band's full-bodied instrumentals frequently crest into forceful explorations of metal's outer limits. The band's wide-screen songs are colored by nimble, willowy guitar playing that often eschews power chords, and an acrobatic rhythm section that can both pummel and soothe. Most bands with these kinds of chops can't wait to dazzle listeners with ambitious, progged-out noodling. But Pelican lets its songs gradually unfurl into stately epics. Slow and low, that is the tempo.
3. Early Man, Closing In (Matador): Consider the shortage of songs about steel eagles with eyes that shoot laser beams officially over: Early Man has arrived. This New York duo mines metal's Paleolithic era -- the early '80s -- for chugging, head-bobbing riffs, Ozzy-esque vocals and some sweet vintage Venom tees. The band's debut, Closing In is all about feeling 25 feet tall and punching out innocent bystanders. The highlight here is "Like a Goddamn Rat," a disco-metal romper with a galloping, Iron Maiden bass line and lyrics that call out your mom. Need we reiterate, this is what you play when crushing beer cans on your forehead on a Saturday night.
4. Nile, Annihilation of the Wicked (Relapse): Like history class with blast beats, Nile's latest is a survey in Egyptian mythology, complete with catchy song titles like "Chapter of Obeisance Before Giving Breath to the Inert One in the Presence of the Cresent Shaped Horns." Wicked blends old-world instrumentation like the baglama and the saz with detailed notes on Egyptian lore -- and did we mention all the crazy-ass shredding? Guitarists Karl Sanders and Dallas Toler Wade are vying to become death metal's answer to the classic guitar tandem of Dave Mustaine and Marty Friedman. Here, they deliver an all-you-can-eat buffet of riffs. This is one of the most elaborate and exotic death metal albums ever.
5. The Red Chord, Clients (Metal Blade): Clients is tailored to those who dig the ferocity of death metal but are put off by some of the genre's more pretentious conceits (e.g., songs about pharaohs and shit). An inventive, brain-bending mix of shouted-out hardcore and dexterous death metal, topped off with some jazzy breakdowns and blast beats, Clients is just plain overwhelming. And that's the only thing plain about a disc that merges dizzying, unorthodox time signatures with Keith Moon drumming, tasty duel guitar leads and memorable refrains that you don't need a lyric sheet to decipher. Though not a straight-up death metal album, Clients still manages to advance the genre.
6. High on Fire, Blessed Black Wings (Relapse): High on Fire finally fulfills its promise as the next Mötorhead on this mammoth LP. Cranking out riffs thicker than an offensive lineman's thighs, front man Matt Pike has officially become metal's most monstrous guitarist, a hybrid of Buzz Osbourne and Tony Iommi who must've sprung from the womb with a fuzz box in hand. On Wings, Pike drops his densest batch of jams yet, with lumbering power chords so heavy, they sound as if they were chipped from granite. And with the addition of badass bassist Joe Preston (Melvins, Thrones), this bunch has become tighter than a clenched fist.
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7. Hate Eternal, I Monarch (Earache): It seriously feels like your house is taking on mortar fire when I Monarch spins. Hate Eternal is all about concussive, no-frills death metal with some of the most haunting guitar work in the scene. Ace six-stringer Erik Rutan (late of Morbid Angel) forsakes velocity for atmosphere, coming with dark, lugubrious riffs that trudge and rumble like elephants marching though a tar pit. This bad boy will have you sleeping with the lights on.
8. Municipal Waste, Hazardous Mutation (Earache): This is an album meant to be blasted while tearing the sleeves off your jean jacket. With gang vocal choruses, rapid-fire machine gun riffing and tongue-in-cheek rippers like "The Thrashin' of the Christ," these dudes recall the glory days of '80s crossover, when metal and hardcore first swapped DNA via bands like D.R.I, the Cro-Mags and the Crumbsuckers. Oh, and "Terror Shark" is the year's most kick-ass ode to killer fish.
9. Old Man's Child, Vermin (Century Media): With sinister keys and one unholy incantation after the next, Vermin sounds like the score to a lost Vincent Price film. Essentially a one-man band helmed by Dimmu Borgir guitarist Galder, Old Man's Child adds some much-needed groove to the normally stiff and stentorian black metal ranks with swingin' death metal riffs. Black metal is intensely polarized between the more symphonic bands (Dimmu, Cradle of Filth) and their bare bones, underground "kult" counterparts (Leviathan, Xasthur). But while OMC is firmly entrenched in the former camp, Vermin is gritty and gruff enough to appeal to both crowds as they salute Satan.
10. Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Bestial Machinery (Relapse): Agoraphobic Nosebleed's manic Ritalin-core is the by-product of short attention spans and even shorter tempers. With pained shrieks delivered through clenched teeth, a drum machine laying down inhumanly fast blast beats, and thick 'n' chunky thrash riffing, the band is as scary and exhilarating as a near-death experience. The two-disc Bestial Machinery collection boasts 136 doses of bent and twisted grind with titles like "Death Takes a Shit" and "I Smell Bad," all culled from various seven-inches, split LPs and compilation tracks. Listen up, all you big bad metal dudes: If you can make it through this set in one sitting, you'll never have to prove your manhood again.