2008 was an awesome year for metal in my eyes (ears?).  These are my favorite heavy metal releases from 08.  This is not a top ten list, just the best of the year.  They are sort of in order from best to worst – it changes.

Cynic – Traced in Air

This is a reunion album done right!  Tragically I missed the boat on Cynic’s initial praiseworthy release ‘Focus’.  I only discovered it this past year!  Traced in Air is a more melodic follow up to the it’s more death metal predecessor.  Some complain about that, too bad.  Take it for what it is, a brilliant, progressive metal masterpiece, not a brutal death metal assault.  The jazz influence is perhaps even more prominent than on Focus but it works very effectively as a contrast to the heavier passages.  My only criticism is the highly processed vocals which sound less robot-like than Focus and more like just modern pitch corrected.  It’s not overly annoying as it sort of fits with the the other worldly atmosphere of the record.  The great strengths of this record are the creative arrangements, unique lead guitar playing, superb drumming, and songs that fit together to create a consistent overall concept and atmosphere.  It’s a short record but that’s not a problem, just listen to it twice.

Warrel Dane – Praises to the War Machine

I certainly wasn’t expecting Warrel Dane’s solo album to be better than Nevermore – but it is (well maybe not Dreaming Neon Black).  When i first heard it I was not very enthusiastic about it but Praises to the War Machine grew on me in a big way.  The songs are obviously very pure and honest.  Every song is a winner although I could do without the Sisters of Mercy cover song.  This album is less technical than Nevermore but far from boring.  The songs flow nicely and the record as a whole has a nice mix of mid-paced crushers, slower numbers, and fast thrashers.  The vocals are fantastic!  The drumming also deserves special mention and the production is really nice as well.  It has a modern sort of loud thunderous feel but its not overly precise and the guitars don’t suck up all the bottom end and bury the bass.  Bravo Warrel!

King’s X – IV

King’s X are so fucking great!  15 albums and they can still crank out a first rate release!  If you don’t like them by now then I guess you never will.  This record is their best in years.  In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s one of their best, up there with Faith Hope Love, Tape Head, Gretchen, Ear Candy, oh hell they just have too many great records.

Enslaved – Vertebrae

Here’s another band that have just released too many great metal records.  I really like the way they have employed different textures and layers on this album.  The mix of clean and coarse vocals is the best in metal right now.  And the way they layer the instruments is brilliant.  It’s so interesting to listen to.  The production on past Enslaved records has been so cool; it’s so dirty and organic yet intense.  The production on Vertebrae is good but I prefer the sound of their last album Runn (which I love!).  The mix here is a bit off to my ears with the clean vocals sounding a bit too loud and the guitars too low.  A minor complaint on a superb ‘extreme’ metal release.

Hammers of Misfortune – Fields/ Church of Broken Glass

OK I’m guilty – I still don’t have their first album, but I’m still gonna say this is Hammers’ best album, or best two albums?!  They replaced two members (one being the great Mike Scalzi) and still created, dare I say, a masterpiece.  A clear improvement here is definitely the production most notably the female vocals.  To my ears they were off key at times on the last two records.  The pure 70s style keyboards sound awesome too. This is the kind of substantial material that reveals more of itself to the listener with each listen. If you like 70s hard rock/ prog rock, 80s metal, or just great melodic metal you owe it to yourself to explore these masterful records.

Sahg – Sahg II\

I love Sabbath, Sahg loves Sabbath, we all love Sabbath!  Granted you can’t listen to Sahg II without thinking of Ozzy era Black Sabbath, but this is more than just a copy-cat band.  These guys are doing it right. What a great fucking singer!  No modern production style bullshit on this record, this is real metal! Classic, heavy, dark, melodic metal!

Pharaoh – Be Gone

Get ready for some riffs!  Not only that, get ready for some killer vocals!  And drums and bass too!  But wait there’s more!  Songs!!  Great melodic headbanging metal songs!  Be Gone is a glorious improvement over Pharaoh’s previous disc.  The production is far better and Tim Aymar’s vocals are especially ripping.  This is pure guitar-driven metal.  And once again bassist Chris Kerns has torn a page from Steve Harris’ Book of Epic Metal in penning the song Buried at Sea.  Like the last album’s By the Night Sky, this tune soars!  Get this record.

Master – Slaves to Society

Here’s another band I am late to the game on.  Master has been around since the eighties and this is the first album of theirs I’ve heard.  This record sounds like it was recorded in the 80s and I mean that in a good way.  (Actually it was released in 2007; this is a re-release but it’s better than most of what I’ve heard this year.)  It has all the attitude and aggression of pissed off metal heads playing their instruments for real – pure and unfiltered.  This is what death metal is supposed to sound like.  Vocals like heavy chains being dragged over broken beer bottles and rusty cans.  Drums like dropping boulders.  Bass that makes the ground split open and swallow you whole.  And guitars like razor blades blasting from a shotgun barrel.  Oh yeah and the songs are fucking great.

Opeth – Watershed

This is a fine Opeth album but not one of their best. Still, a lesser Opeth record is better quality than most band’s output.  I think the arrangements meander a bit on this one especially on The Lotus Eater, and the end of the record hasn’t really stayed in my memory.  Also a main theme in  Porcelain Heart is lifted straight of their last album.  That said this is still a record worth owning.  The female vocals on Coil are something different for Opeth and it’s done well.  And Heir Apparent is awesome.

And now we have the best metal albums of 2009!