By Brandon “B-Mac” McCarthy
It has been another wild year for hard rock and heavy metal. We have seen the release of amazing records from legends, newcomers, veterans, and up-and-comers. 2019 was chalk full of albums that made me proud to be a metalhead. Some of them I feel will go on to become legendary recordings that will eventually come new blueprints for future metal LPs and EPs. Before we get to our Top 20 of 2019, here are a few honorable mentions that did not make the cut but still rocked hard: In Flames’ I, Mask, Attila’s Villain, Any Given Day’s Overpower, Demon Hunter’s Peace/War, Michael Schenker Fest’s Revelation, KXM’s Circle of Dolls, Cyhra’s No Halos in Hell, After the Burial’s Evergreen, The Damned Things’ High Crimes, Chelsea Wolfe’s Birth of Violence, Possessed’s Revelation of Oblivion, Sabaton’s The Great War, Lacuna Coil’s Black Anima, and Saint Asonia’s Flawed Design. Without further ado, here are the Top 20 hard rock and heavy metals that sent 2019 into a raging firestorm.
20. Hellyeah – Welcome Home: Last year, the metal world lost iconic drummer Vinnie Paul. He was in the middle of recording drum tracks for the next Hellyeah album. With his job finished before his untimely passing, the band decided to ride it out and finish the record, Welcome Home. It was a solid effort by the hellacious supergroup that was hard-driven as well as somber. Vocalist Chad Grey continued to viciously bite into our eardrums with his snarling, high-pitched screams. From “Oh My God” to “I’m the One,” “Black Flag Army,” and “Bury You,” Hellyeah made damn sure Vinnie’s drumming did not go to waste. Welcome Home ends with a fitting tribute their fallen comrade, “Skyy and Water.” Let’s all have a shot of Black Tooth Grin (Crown Royale w/ Coke) and shout Hellyeah!
19. Blacktop Mojo – Under The Sun: Southern grooves, Texas hard rock charm, and whiskey-infused swagger is what drives Blacktop Mojo to the top with their third release. Vocalist Matt James still astonishes me with his razor-sharp singing that would make the late Chris Cornell and Jon Bon Jovi envious. Lead guitarist Ryan Kiefer lays down the pipe that is filled with lead licks that mud-stomps the listeners in the neck. After the success of 2017’s Burn the Ships, Under The Sun gets meaner and heavier with songs like “Set It Free,” “Come Get Your Coat,” “All Mine Now,” “The Lashing (Ghost),” “The Void,” and “Under the Sun.” Blacktop Mojo have earned their name because this record is pure mojo. They are one of the best groups to come out of Texas since Pantera.
18. Knocked Loose – A Different Shad Of Blue: The moment “Belleville” enters into your ears, you know you are in a hardcore mecca. The sophomore release by Kentucky’s Knocked Loose has knocked us right on our asses. This adrenaline-filled LP is mixed with hardcore, death, groove, and metalcore. There is something for everyone on this record that makes me pound my chest with intensity. Bryan Garris is all volume when he yells the next set of forceful lyrics, while lead guitarist Issac Hale, rhythm man Cole Crutchfield, drummer Kevin Kaine, and bassist Kevin Otten go for the knock out with their aggressive beats. From “Trapped In the Grasp of a Memory” to “A Serpent’s Touch,” “Mistakes Like Fractures,” “Forget Your Name,” “…And I Still Wander South,” and “Misguided Son,” we are treated to 39 minutes of hardcore excellence. Knocked Loose have knocked us down for the count, and we cannot get back up.
17. Lullwater – Voodoo: The late 80s and early 90s were angst driven by grunge and alternative rock. Lullwater have brought that sound back to this decade with Voodoo. This is the 3rd studio album brought forward by the Athens, Georgia outfit that has been reminding fans why grunge was so respected. What intrigues me about Lullwater is that they combined elements of all the Big 4 grunge acts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. Frontman John Strickland has an Eddie Vedder influenced voice that can move mountains, and he plays rough, raw alternative rhythmic riffs. The fast-paced drumming of Joe Wilson and silk lead guitar solos of Daniel Binnie make Voodoo a grunge masterpiece, thanks to tunes like “Dark Divided,” “Empty Chamber,” “Godlike,” “Fight of Your Life,” “Yellow Bird,” and “Suffer Not.” The spirits of Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Chris Cornell would hail Lullwater as next leader in the grunge movement. Voodoo is this generation’s Superunknown.
16. As I Lay Dying – Shaped By Fire: The fire-pits of Hell, steroids, and prison could not keep down frontman Tim Lambesis. A few years ago, he was convicted of attempted solicitation murder, but like the Phoenix, he arose from ashes anew and As I Lay Dying found redemption with this skull-crushing 7th studio release. Armed to the teeth with blazing riffs from Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrosso, Shaped By Fire is a metalcore miracle that is full of tunes that deal with despair, redemption, forgiveness, and salvation. Lambesis is still a mighty force on the mic, and you can hear the torture, sorrow, and rejoice in his songs like “Blinded,” “Torn Between,” “My Own Grave,” “Only After We Have Fallen,” and “The Toll It Takes.” As I Lay Dying have reentered the metal world indeed shaped by fire.
15. Amon Amarth – Berserker: Viking glory and conquest have always been the calling for Amon Amarth. That conquest marches on with Berserker, Amon Amarth’s most powerful record since 2008’s Twilight of the Thunder God. Leader Johann Hegg pays tribute to the Norse God with his battle-worn death metal singing that sends chills down their enemies’ spines. Lead guitarist Olavi Mikkonen ravages the solos with his axe, while rhythm player Johan Söderberg plays glorious hooks that would open the gates of Valhalla. This is the first LP featuring new drummer Jocke Wallgren, and he is like a warrior tearing up the melodic death beats with bassist Ted Lundström. Viking metal still sounds perfect when it comes from the weapons of Amon Amarth, staying the course that has earned them a loyal following. Berserker, with pulsating tunes like “Fafner’s Gold,” “Mjölner, Hammer of Thor,” “Valkyria,” “Raven’s Flight,” “The Berserker at Stamford Bridge,” “Wings of Eagles,” and “Into the Dark,” yell out a victorious cry for Vikings everywhere.
14. Airbourne – Boneshaker: If there was any band out there that could carry the mantle of simple heavy rock ‘n’ roll, Airbourne would be that group. Hailed from Victoria, Australia, they are modeled after legends AC/DC, and are back to shake the Earth with Boneshaker. Frontman Joel O’Keeffe is like Bon Scott incarnate, full of life and weaponized with a tough, rough singing style. He also blazes on lead guitar with aggressive determination. Joel’s brother, drummer Ryan, is a keg of TNT when he crashes on the cymbals and snares, simple yet powerful. This 5th record also marks the debut of new rhythm guitarist Matt “Harri” Harrison, who ravages the rhythmic section with bassist Justin Street. Airbourne continue to bring humble hard rock pleasure to the world, showing they can run with big dogs as well as bite them in the ass when necessary. Boneshaker rattles with the pleasures of sex, drinking, and cars, thanks to songs like “Boneshaker,” “Burnout the Nitro,” “Sex to Go,” “Backseat Boogie,” “She Give Me Hell,” “Switchblade Angel,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll for Life.” Airbourne has created the ultimate party album of 2019. So bring the booze as well as the girls.
13. Bad Wolves – N.A.T.I.O.N.: Last year, Bad Wolves rocked the world, thanks to their debut album Disobey, which featured the hit cover “Zombie.” This sophomore release shows the band evolving into new territories while never abandoning their identity. Tommy Vext can sing sweet harmonies and belt out guttural growls in the same song. Lead axe-man Doc Coyle ventures into fresh lead riffs that dabble in a little bit of pop and classic rock, but with a metal twist that will sneak up on the listener when they are least expected. Drummer John Boecklin and bassist Kyle Konkiel get more vicious on the rhythm side of the album. With songs like “I’ll Be There,” “Learn to Walk Again,” “Foe or Friend,” the somber “Sober,” “The Consumerist New,” and “LA Song,” Bad Wolves are meaner than before. The next chapter in this Los Angeles pack’s hunt for glory takes an interesting turn but promising turn that will be closely watched.
12. Whitechapel – The Valley: Tennessee made be home to country western, but it is also the home of deathcore cowboys Whitechapel. They have re-sharpened their blades after the dullness of Mark of the Blade and ventured into The Valley. Their signature death and hardcore sound has been a progressive melodic touch that makes the album an adventure worth taking. Vocalist Phil Bozeman continues to show off his clean singing skills all the while giving us his death growls and screams. Zach Householder, Ben Savage, and Alex Wade are especially vicious with the riffs of each tune. Session drummer Navene Koperwis nails the thunderous clashes and crashes, taking over for Ben Harclerode, who departed in 2017. Filled with progressively songs like “Brimstone,” “Forgiveness is Weakness,” “Hickory Creek,” “We Are One,” and “Doom Woods,” the vengefulness of Whitechapel has found its mate with harmony. Glad I took the journey through The Valley.
11. Opeth – In Cauda Venenum: Talk about progressive metal or progressive death metal, and Opeth will come up in the conversation. Since the days of Watershed, they ventured more into a 70s progressive jazzy rock sound while not completely abandoning the harshness of their metal roots, and they continue that tradition with their 13th release. Latin for “Venom in the Tail,” In Cauda Venenum packs a lethal sting into the ears. Frontman/guitarist and sole original member Mikael Åkerfeldt harmoniously nails the vocals that blends the fine lines between folk, progressive, and jazz. Along with guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, both of them mesmerize the record with bombastic riffs, and Åkesson digs deep into his psyche and pulls out captivating solos that would rival Rush’s Alex Lifeson. Hauntingly gorgeous with songs like “Dignity,” “Heart in Hand,” “Charlatan,” “Universal Truth,” “Continuum,” and “All Things Will Pass,” In Cauda Venenum is Opeth’s finest work yet.
10. Edge of Paradise – Universe: After giving us an immortal waltz that made rock feel alive, Edge of Paradise returned to provide metalheads a new frontier with Universe. Elegant, beautiful, passionate, and spiritual charged is how one would describe this gorgeous record. Frontwoman Margarita Monet and lead guitarist Dave Bates lead a new pack of dogs in guitarist David Ruiz, bassist Vanya Kapetanovic, and drummer Jimmy Lee. All five guide us on a symphonic journey where beautiful harmonies and vocals mate with heavy riff induced rock and roll. Monet is still a mesmerizing siren that captivates our attention and desires. What really stood out the most off of Universe was the closing track “Burn the Sun,” an instrumental number that is super-charged and thundering, especially with Bates’ lighting fast solos and Lee’s pulsating drum beats. From “Fire,” to “Universe,” “Hollow,” “Perfect Disaster,” “Face of Fear,” and “Stars,” Edge of Paradise have produced a record that allowed us to enter paradise.
9. Bravo Delta – Unbreakable: Hard rock has been given an artistic jolt thanks to Las Vegas’ Bravo Delta. This record marks the official debut of this remarkable act from Sin City. Unbreakable is full of sizzling riffs, poppy hooks, and fiery lyrics that gracefully roll off the tongue of frontman Brandon Davis. Not only can Davis sing graciously, but he can vicious when needs to be, and that is when his powerful screams take over. Guitarist Andy Ingraham is as slick as they come with his sick riffs and elaborate finger-tapping skills. Drummer Brian Scott and bassist Roman fill in the glitz of the hard rocking beats that Bravo Delta brings to the masses. All of the tunes written for this album are full of heart and fearless to the core. From “Unbreakable” to “Fire,” “Dark Room,” “Karma,” “Modus Operandi,” “Dreamless Sleep,” and “Knights of Desire,” Bravo Delta get off the right foot with Unbreakable.
8. Baroness – Gold & Grey: It has been 4 years since Purple, but progressive sludge warriors Baroness have returned to bestow alternative metal a glittery make-over. Frontman & rhythm player John Baizley continues to push the envelope and develop new sounds that make us want to plunge ourselves down the rabbit hole and see Wonderland. Gold & Grey is the first to showcase new lead guitarist Gina Gleason, and her brilliant strokes give the songs harmony and illumination. This album is a trippy expedition that all progressive metal should experience because once the album is over they will feel a sense of enlightenment. Sludge metal is tricky to wrap around my head sometimes, but Baroness have this ability to make it relatable, frenzied, and understanding at the same time. From “Fronted Toward Enemy” to “Seasons,” “Tourniquet,” “Throw Me an Anchor,” “Cold Blooded Angels,” “Borderlines,” and “Pale Sun,” Gold & Grey is the longest record they have done since 2012’s double LP, Yellow & Green, the its beauty shines just like gold itself.
7. Devin Townsend – Empath: A touch of the eclectic Heavens is Devin Townsend provides us with Empath. The follow-up to the critical darling of Transcendence is a glorious spiritual metal voyage that stretches the artist’s imagination. Townsends enlists a slew of musicians that give each song a different flavor. When you listen to the record, you feel mesmerized, exploring your subconscious to areas that you never dared to journey through before. The musical dynamics that Townsend throws into Empath are unprecedented. Between “Genesis,” “Spirits Will Collide,” “Sprite,” “Hear Me,” and “Borderlands,” this album has different emotions with each new track. The finale, “Singularity,” is a 23 minute musical odyssey that is broken up into 6 sections, and at the end, the listener is washed over with positivity. Townsend never ceases to amaze me with his creativity.
6. Creeping Death – Wretched Illusions: The great state of Texas pumped out another guttural death metal outfit in Creeping Death. Wretched Illusions is their official debut on the scene, and it so heavy, you will break neck from all the headbanging. This album has razor sharp teeth that bites into you and will not let go. It is perfect blend of death metal and groove metal, something Texas has helped make famous. Reese Alavi has a menacing death growl that will make your skin crawl, while Trey Pemberton’s intense and speedy guitar riffs is earthshattering, and his solos pay homage to Dimebag Darrell. Drummer Lincoln Mullins is firing on all cylinders on the kit, go from one fill to next instantaneously without breaking a sweat. Bassist Eric Mejia is monstrous with his blast beats. One of the finest death metal records of the year, Creeping Death have created something that makes you want to get into the mosh pit. From “Ripping Through Flesh” to “Bloodlust Contamination,” “Sinner’s Torch,” “Peeled from Reality,” “Wretched Illusions,” “Dawn of Time,” and “Consumed,” Wretched Illusions is in a world of its own. Beware of Creeping Death, for they will creep up and knock you on your ass.
5. Korn – The Nothing: Korn’s newest release is anything but nice and sweet. It is full of sorrow, bitterness, and anger. Vocalist Jonathan Davis had recently lost his wife, so he all the pain, guilt, and anguish he was feeling, he let it all out on The Nothing and gave us his best vocal work since probably Issues. Combined with Fieldy’s funky bass beats, Munky and Head’s loud/abrasive riffs, and Ray Luzier’s head-crushing bashes on the drum kit, Korn have kicked down the doors and produced their finest album since Untouchables. They get truly intimate with “Finally Free,” which I see as a letter of apology to JD’s wife for failing to help her, and how she is finally free from the pain. Along with “Cold,” “You’ll Never Find Me,” “Idiosyncrasy,” “Gravity of Discomfort,” and “Surrender to Failure,” The Nothing is Korn’s newest magnum opus, a record that will be shared with for many years.
4. Killswitch Engage – Atonement: After many years and albums with Roadrunner, Killswitch Engage have branched out to Metal Blade Records, and produced a metalcore loyalist’s wet dream with Atonement. What made this record stand out the most was Killswitch Engage’s ability to broaden their metal horizons and bring together different ranges of sounds that blended together really well. From the crunchy breakdowns to the melodic death metal inspired hooks from Adam Dutkiewicz & Joel Stroetzel, and Jesse Leach’s intense singing/growling, these metalcore pioneers can still carve out new plateau’s on Mount Dio. The best song is “The Signal Fire,” where former KE leader Howard Jones returned and hammered it out with Leach, combining the 2 generations that provide fans with metal greatness. Throw in “Unleashed,” “I Am Broken Too,” “As Sure As the Sun Will Rise,” “Ravenous,” and “Bite the Hand That Feeds,” and you got the finest metalcore record of the year.
3. Alter Bridge – Walk The Sky: After 15 years together, Alter Bridge can still put together stellar alternative metal music, and it is evidenced in their 6th release, Walk The Sky. Frontman Myles Kennedy and lead guitarist Mark Tremonti are dynamic on this record, creating sonic riffs that ascends to Heaven. Kennedy still as soulful as ever when he lets the words flow out of his mouth. His surreal technique has made him one of the best singers in music, and not just in the world of Rock. Drummer Scott Phillips and bassist Brian Marshall are a thunderous on the rhythmic beats of the tunes. While they try different styles to freshen up their sound, Alter Bridge continues to perfect their alternative precision. Walk The Sky is filled proficient and skillful songs like “Wouldn’t You Rather,” “In the Deep,” “Godspeed,” “Native Son,” “The Bitter End,” “Forever Falling,” “Walking On the Sky,” and “Dying Light.” At the rate that Alter Bridge is going, they will walk the sky for many more years to come.
2. TOOL – Fear Inoculum: 13 years ago, TOOL dropped 10,000 Days, and that was the last of new material. Fear not, for the Picassos of the metal world have returned with their long-waited 5th record. Believe me, it was definitely worth the wait. Maynard James Keenan, Adam Jones, Justin Chancellor, and Danny Carey have emerged with their most progressive inspired album that has made a huge splash across the pond. Ever the eclectic mastermind that he is, Maynard spills out words that reaches the core of our souls, and experience euphoria. Jones is ever the guitar virtuoso with his many techniques with power chords and minimalism, making the riffs bigger than they seem. Danny Carey is astounding on the drum kit, especially on his jazzy/electronic solo number “Chocolate Chip Trip.” Hearing that instrumental number, I now understand why he is so illustrious. With the inclusion of “Fear Inoculum,” “Pneuma,” “Invincible,” “Descending,” “Culling Voices,” and “7empest,” TOOL made us metalheads feel more enlightened. As I said, Fear Inoculum was worth wait and trip.
1. Slipknot – We Are Not Your Kind: Insert coin. Let the wretchedness of Slipknot flow through veins and boil your blood. After the release of their single “We Are Not Your Kind” in 2018, the extreme nu metal kings looked to kick us in the nuts with their 6th release. This is their most balls-out, throw-yourself-against-the-wall, neck-breaker album of all time. Corey Taylor (#8) is more sinister with his screams, and he mixes in his melodic singing in there perfectly. The build-ups, the hooks, the riffs, and the crashes makes We Are Not Your Kind the kind of record that will make the most fucked-up seem sane. What makes this record unique is the instant gelling between nu metal, extreme metal, groove metal, and hard rock. The penetrating riffs by Mick Thomson (#7) and Jim Root (#4) pierces through our ears like a sledgehammer. Drummer Jay Weinberg fills the entire album with menacing beats, while percussionist and leader Clown (#6) never lets up in his custom drum work. From “Unsainted” to “Birth of the Cruel,” “Nero Forte,” “Critical Darling,” “Red Flag,” “Spiders,” “Not Long for This World,” and “Solway Firth,” We Are Not Your Kind is Slipknot’s anthem and message to the pop and country masses: we are not going anywhere, and we are not your kind!
2019 has come to a close, as does the decade of 2010s. Hard rock and heavy metal was in full force, staring in the faces of the people and knocking you down. If 2010s were good to us, I have faith the 2020s will be just as kind, if not kinder. That is our list, and we are sticking with it, bitches! Horns up!!!
I am dedicating this article to my father, Dennis McCarthy, who recently passed away. Though not a metal fan, he introduced me to rock ‘n’ roll, and changed my life forever. He was my hero, and our rock star. To you Dad, I salute you. Horns up!!!