20. High on Fire – Electric Messiah
Origin: Oakland, California
The Gist: High On Fire fans know exactly what there’re going to get when they spin a new record, as the Oakland-based trio has delivered dependable stoner/sludge metal for 20 years. The band’s eighth studio album, Electric Messiah, and its title track pay tribute to Lemmy Kilmister, with frontman Matt Pike acknowledging that his gravel-throated voice has often been compared to the late Motörhead legend.
Why It Rules: Opening track “Spewn from the Earth” explodes with a mammoth riff and a vigorous pace, decorated with fiery guitar leads. Pike’s vocals are ferocious, while the production is gritty and loud. The title track is a high-energy affair that maintains its energetic pace throughout its four-plus minute duration. Album closer “Drowning Dog” possesses an ’80s metal style intro, á la Judas Priest, combined with a brief “Children of the Grave”-esque Sabbath vibe, resulting in the most diverse track on the entire album. —Kelley Simms
Essential Tracks: “Spewn From the Earth”, “Electric Messiah”, “God of the Godless”, “Drowning Dog”
19. Cult Leader – A Patient Man
Origin: Salt Lake City, Utah
The Gist: Cult Leader were trying to make a dynamic technical record, so of course they hopped in the studio with Kurt Ballou to ensure every note of the band’s chaotic blitz of hardcore and metalcore rang through. On the band’s second full length project, they seek to distinguish themselves by offering up more than just wild arpeggios and in your face aggression.
Why It Rules: A Patient Man reflects a band stepping into maturity. The Salt Lake City band retains claustrophobic torrents of noise like on title track “A Patient Man”, but richly balance these moments of calamity with measured melancholy. The misleadingly titled “A World of Joy” is a dark, introspective track paired with beautiful brooding guitar and a deadpan delivery from singer Anthony Lucero that can lull listeners into an unflinching trance. Drummer Casey Hansen absolutely demolishes his kit throughout this recording and stakes his claim as one of the most technically gifted drummers in the scene right now. —TJ Kliebhan
Essential Tracks: “A Patient Man”, “A World of Joy”, “Isolation in the Land of Milk and Honey”, “To Achlys”
18. Windhand – Eternal Return
Origin: Richmond, Virginia
The Gist: Windhand have spent the better part of their decade together adjusting and refining their doom metal sound in response to changes within the band’s lineup, including the departure of co-founding guitarist Asechiah Bogdan. With the membership of the group feeling more secure, the quartet finally feels settled and locked in, joined together in a collective drive to bring their chosen genre back to its psychedelic roots and themselves back to their grunge and alt-rock influences.
Why It Rules: The mood of Eternal Return was set by the birth of guitarist Garrett Morris’ first child and the death of a close friend to the band. The former is literally what sets off the album, with a recording of an in utero heartbeat that sets the tempo for the opening track. But the latter is what sets the album’s course as the band grinds through a cycle of songs that wrestles with the beauty and terror of knowing that every day on this planet brings us all closer to our last breaths. Singer Dorthia Cottrell doesn’t wail these ideas but approaches them steadily, with understanding and a slight resignation. She lets the rest of her bandmates provide the muscle. All she needs to do is hold the prow steady and true. The destination? Infinity. —Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “Halcyon”, “Feather,” “Red Cloud,” “First To Die”
17. Monotheist – Scourge
Origin: Orlando, Florida
The Gist: Lo, the promise of Monotheist’s demo album Unforsaken and follow-up EP Genesis of Perdition is finally fulfilled. All it took was finding the right cadre of musicians to join in the cause and to hand control of the mixing and mastering to more assured hands (in this case, 7 Horns 7 Eyes guitarist Aaron Smith). Here at last is the vision that leader Michael Moore has long had simmering in his head, crystallized and solidified and achieving something close to perfection.
Why It Rules: Scourge is the culmination of the many years Moore took to find the right lineup, the right presentation for his technical death metal. The stars have finally aligned on his band’s first proper full-length, namely through the contributions of vocalist J.J. Polachek and the more recent additions of guitarist Tyler McDaniel and bassist Jose Figueroa. Versatile artists all, they ably follow Moore down his circuitous pathways that run headlong into a storm of swirling, jagged sound. —Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “The Grey King”, “Mark of the Beast 2: Scion of Darkness”, “Scourge”
16. Halestorm – Vicious
The Gist: Coming off their previous two albums — 2015’s Into the Wild Life, which yielded four Top 10 mainstream rock hits, and 2012’s The Strange Case Of…, which earned the band a Grammy for “Love Bites (So Do I)” — Halestorm set the bar high for their next disc. The resulting effort, Vicious, is an uncompromising, hard-hitting album with lyrics that exude equal parts empowerment and sexuality
Why It Rules: Few voices in modern hard rock are as powerful as frontwoman Lzzy Hale’s, and her pipes certainly are on full display on Vicious. In fact, her epic screams in the first 20 seconds of the blistering leadoff track “Black Vultures” make it clear that Halestorm are bringing the heavy on this album. The album’s opus, “Killing Ourselves to Live”, has a monster chorus that conjures up such artists as Dio and Heart. Despite popular music trends, Halestorm continue to wave the flag for hard rock with pride and power. —Spencer Kaufman
Essential Tracks: “Black Vultures”, “Uncomfortable”, “Killing Ourselves To Live”, “The Silence”
15. Tribulation – Down Below
The Gist: By expanding their sound to include shades of psychedelia and its more modern offshoots, Tribulation have wisely chosen to evolve the boundaries of death metal. It’s a move that requires more active listening at times to catch the nuances or to better appreciate the fluid movement of each song. That’s far from a bad thing. You gain more fans by coaxing them forward rather than pummeling them from the jump.
Why It Rules: Many are the metal albums that promise to take you on a journey of some kind, while leaving you right where you started. Not so with the latest from Swedish quartet Tribulation. Down Below is a true odyssey that dares you to follow every steep climb and long trek through the flatlands. Your guides are four loose-limbed long haired gents in corpse paint with a facility to move between elaborate guitar solos and pensive piano melodies. Just slip this little treat under your tongue and enjoy the scenery. —Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “The Lament”, “Nightbound”
14. Amigo The Devil – Everything Is Fine
Origin: Spicewood, Texas
The Gist: Rock troubadour Danny Kiranos, known as Amigo The Devil, may not create music as heavy as the other acts on this list, but his folk-rock songs have resonated with the metal and hard rock community. Singing about topics like serial killers and depression, his lyrics are as heavy as they come, even if delivered with an acoustic guitar.
Why It Rules: Amigo The Devil writes songs that are both lyrically deep and infectious as hell. Everything Is Fine was produced by Ross Robinson (Korn, At the Drive-In), and has a big sound for an acoustic album. The song “Cocaine and Abel” is a haunting gem, and the track “Everyone Gets Left Behind”, featuring drumming from Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk, will get stuck in your head upon the very first listen. —Spencer Kaufman
Essential Tracks: “Cocaine and Abel”, “Everyone Gets Left Behind”, “Hell and You”
13. A Perfect Circle – Eat the Elephant
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: Fifteen years after their last LP of originals, A Perfect Circle made a striking return in 2018. In place of the alt-metal sound for which they’re known, Eat the Elephant is more reflective of guitarist and principal songwriter Billy Howerdel’s recent foray into film scoring.
Why It Rules: Much of the album was built around keyboards and piano, supplemental orchestration, and vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s dynamic range. Soaring post-metal riffs do make appearances, but the album is much heavier in mood and subject matter. It’s a beautiful and eclectic album that addresses sociopolitical issues with Keenan’s lyrical dexterity. —Scott Morrow
Essential Tracks: “The Doomed”, “TalkTalk”, “Hourglass”
12. Khemmis – Desolation
Origin: Denver, Colorado
The Gist: Three albums in, doom metal quartet Khemmis have their internal engine working at maximum efficiency and power, having spent the previous six years fine tuning and oiling their sound. The music on their latest full-length, Desolation, shows no sign of strain or effort, however. It’s a seamlessly constructed work that purrs and snarls, with the edges fleshed out by small interludes of respite and beauty.
Why It Rules: The focus of Desolation has set on the vocals of Phil Pendergast. Make no mistake, there are witheringly hot riffs, complex arrangements that turn and twist through a pocket history of heavy music, and some screeching contributions from the band’s other guitarist-singer, Ben Hutcherson. But it’s Prendergast that is pushed to the foreground of this band’s controlled burn. His lyrics — meditations on the flimsiness of existence surrounded by visions of sharpened talons and “the gilded door of the abattoir” — and ringing voice are the blue flame at the center. —Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “Isolation”, “Bloodletting”, “Flesh to Nothing”
11. Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit
Origin: Switzerland / New York City
The Gist: Zeal & Ardor made waves in the metal scene two years ago with their unusual blend of black metal and slave spirituals. The band’s debut release Devil Is Fine was a fascinating, but interlude-heavy album that found band leader Manuel Gagneaux still working out the kinks on this innovative sound. Stranger Fruit was a highly anticipated follow-up, with fans wondering if this novel hybrid was a gimmick, or a sound that can be expanded on.
Why It Rules: Stranger Fruit takes everything that is great about Devil Is Fine and improves on it. The 8-bit Final Fantasy-esque interludes have been kept to a minimum, clearing the room for shout-along hymnals and black metal screeches. Tracks like “Row Row” and “Don’t You Dare” have melodic qualities and anthemic structure, further distinguishing Zeal & Ardor as one of modern black metal most creative forerunners. –TJ Kliebhan
Essential Tracks: “Gravedigger’s Chant”, “Row Row”, “Don’t You Dare”