Every year right after New Year’ Day I sit down and look at what metal albums are turning 25 years old, and every year I’m amazed at how much great music existed at that time. 1997 was no exception.
Personally speaking, 1997 was one of those college years that seems like just a blur now. I know I spent a lot of time going to shows, and I spent even more time doing countless hours of radio at my college’s station. Needless to say, 1997 was a year that was filled with a lot of music.
The metal world at the time seemed to be locked into this eternal struggle with itself. Legacy bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Metallica were lost in various musical wildernesses (leaving everyone in the mainstream press to bemoan the genre’s death). Meanwhile thrash, and to a lesser extent death metal, had already watered themselves down relentlessly, and yet there existed a massive, thriving underground where genres like black metal, doom, stoner rock, and grindcore, (and yes, death metal) continued to push new and interesting boundaries.
I can remember being asked to sit on multiple panels around this time at various music industry conventions. Almost every one of them would devolve into discussions about how metal could return to the “glory days” of bands selling out arenas. My response was always to apologize that the groupies and free coke had dried up and to constantly remind people that metal is a form of art where true artists can create lasting impressions. While that was never the answer these people wanted to hear, 25 years later I still stand by it. And so, with that said, these are just 25 of the the albums that created a lasting impression on me in 1997. I hope they did (or will) for you as well.
Acrid – Eighty-Sixed
There were quite a few bands emanating from the hardcore scene around this time who played an absolutely brutal style. A select handful of these bands could have (and sometimes did) fit perfectly on bills with death metal and grind acts. One of those bands was Toronto’s Acrid. The Canadian hardcore scene in particular was one that loved pushing the genre’s boundaries as far and as hard as possible, and Acrid was at the forefront of it all. They called themselves “emo kids who play grindcore” and while that might be an oversimplified description, it’s not without merit. Mixing in elements of sludge, doom, and noise as well, Acrid where a band that stylistically were all over the place, yet somehow made it work.
Assück – Misery Index
Speaking of heavy bands that blurred the lines between hardcore, grind, and death metal, there may have been no better example than Florida’s Assück. Brutally heavy, with a distinct grind aesthetic (clearly, as few of these tracks crack the one-minute mark), Assück played a ton of shows with hardcore acts as well, and even toured with previous entry Acrid. Their influence on the death metal and grindcore scenes should be obvious being one of the more popular acts to come out of both in recent years took their name directly from this record. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing this band live just prior to this album’s release and believe me when I say it was one of the heaviest shows I’ve ever attended. If you call yourself a grind fan this record simply has to exist somewhere in your top ten.
Belphegor – Blutsabbath
Just two years prior, Austria’s Belphegor had exploded onto the metal scene with a fresh take on the blackened death metal genre. 1997’s Blutsabbath would cement them as absolute powerhouses. Taking elements of brutal, technical death metal and washing them in the sacrificial blood of black metal, Belphegor were one of the few bands at the time that proudly walked the line between two extreme genres that often times didn’t like each other. With enough technicality to appeal to death metal fans, and enough grim Satanism to get black metal kids excited, this album was a breath of frostbitten fresh air for the times.
Borknagar – The Olden Domain
When you talk about progressive black metal (or progressive metal in general) Borknagar’s masterwork The Olden Domain better come up in conversation. After one album of more traditional, second wave black metal, Norway’s Borknagar decided to expand their sound on album two. Folk/Viking themes became much more prevalent, but what truly set this album apart from its contemporaries were the progressive elements. Clean vocals, soaring guitar work, and a tempo that rarely went into blast beat territory all sounded counterintuitive for black metal at the time, yet Øystein Brun and company made it work, and simultaneously helped usher in the next wave of progressive black metal. It’s easy to look back now and guess how groundbreaking this record was, but even at the time of its release this album simply felt special.
Brutal Truth – Sounds of the Animal Kingdom
One time I was having a conversation with one of the managers of Morbid Angel about death metal versus grindcore. He was lamenting about genre descriptors and felt that anything labeled “grindcore” was really just death metal. Brutal Truth, and this album in particular, were the examples he used of “Everyone calling a death metal band something else…” (True story.) For whatever reason I never forgot that conversation and every time I go back and revisit this album I think ‘how the hell does anyone not consider this a grind record?’ While Brutal Truth’s earliest output could certainly be considered more death metal than anything else, by the time they released Sounds of the Animal Kingdom they had gone full grindcore in my book. I spent a lot of time with this record and had the privilege of seeing them live multiple times during this touring cycle. It still stands as my favorite release from this band.
Cavity – Somewhere Between the Train Station and the Dumping Ground
I’ve written about Florida’s Cavity in this space before so some readers may already be well aware of my love for this band. Mixing hardcore with nasty, dirty, Southern sludge, Cavity were at one point contemporaries of the likes of Eyehategod and Crowbar. While not as sludgy as Crowbar, or as manic as early Eyehategod, Cavity’s sound was often times just as heavy as either band and their live shows certainly more unhinged. For my money Cavity are one of the more underappreciated bands of the late ’90s and this may be their best album.
Coalesce – Give Them Rope
If you asked me what my favorite hardcore band is I’d probably waffle back and forth between two acts, one of them being Kansas City’s Coalesce. I’ve told this story several times before, but I never feared for my life at a show the way I did at a Coalesce show at CBGB’s when the entire pit collapsed in on itself after their guitar player decided to leap into the crowd mid-solo. I was right up front and I’ll be damned if I didn’t think I was a goner, but then again that was pretty much every Coalesce show. Give Them Rope was their debut full-length album and really the first recordings that truly captured this band’s power. Credited now as being one of the godfathers of “mathcore”, Coalesce has spawned a million imitators who were never, ever able to capture the angular, discordant, cacophonous mayhem of this band. Good luck trying. There’s only one Coalesce.
Crisis – The Hollowing
One of my favorite bands of this era was New York’s Crisis. I wrote about this band in a similar article last year and espoused how criminally underrated I thought they were. A year later and nothing has changed for me on that front. A year after dropping their first album for Metal Blade, Crisis returned with their third overall album, The Hollowing. I love every record Crisis created, but pound-for-pound this one is my favorite. The songwriting took an even darker, heavier turn, the production was absolutely stellar, and the riffs went on for days. Their sound, which melded hardcore with thrash, sludge, and doom elements, felt even more dangerous and suffocating on this record. I could go literally years between listens and every song is still as memorable as when I first heard them. Easily one of my top albums of 1997.
Bruce Dickinson – Accident of Birth
Anyone who knows me at all knows that Iron Maiden is one of my all-time favorite bands. Yet, I’m not a “complete-ist” when it comes to their discography. The late ’90s were a dark time in Maiden history. The Blaze Bayley years were absolutely terrible, and prior to this record I wasn’t a fan of any Bruce Dickinson solo material. So needless to say I wasn’t expecting much when Dickinson dropped his fourth solo record in 1997. Maybe it was because fellow Maiden exile Adrian Smith joined him on this record, but for my money this was the best “Maiden” record since Fear of the Dark. While I wouldn’t include this record in the discussion with the first five Maiden albums that Dickinson performed on, there are still a ton of memorable tracks on here that will get your fists pumping and head banging. I got a chance to see Bruce Dickinson (with Adrian Smith) play at a small club (for Maiden members anyway) and it was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, complete with Bruce dragging a wannabe stage diver off the stage by one ankle. Brilliant.
Dimmu Borgir – Enthrone Darkness Triumphant
Before they became something of a punchline in black metal circles, Dimmu Borgir were writing progressive, symphonic black metal masterworks. 1997’s Enthrone Darkness Triumphant would complete what I believe to be their holy trinity of albums. Mixing second wave black metal with neo-classical aesthetics, Dimmu Borgir essentially took black metal from dank basements straight to Hot Topic with this album. While the end result of that stylistic shift is the stuff of absolute nightmares (and not the good ones ‘trve kvlt’ black metal can inspire), there’s no denying the songwriting chops on this album. I might lose some underground cred for including this record, but I think I’ve earned more than enough over the years for a few guilty pleasures.
Electric Wizard – Come My Fanatics…
I’ve been a fan of doom masters Electric Wizard for a long time and it was 1997’s Come My Fanatics… that solidified my love for this band. It’s everything you’ve come to expect in a classic Electric Wizard record – riffs galore, a thunderous low end, and just a general heaviness that pummels you into oblivion.
Emperor – Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk
You could easily argue that 1997 was one of the greatest years in black metal history and these next two albums for me would be Examples A and B as to why. Emperor’s brand of black metal was always of the progressive and symphonic variety, but it was this album that really hammered home that well-earned reputation for being one of the genre’s most innovative bands. I listened to this record more times than I could count throughout 1997 and the years that followed. Still one of my all-time favorite black metal releases.
Enslaved – Eld
Few bands the metal world over have been going for as long and as well as Norway’s Enslaved. Enslaved have done an amazing job of morphing and adapting their sound throughout the years from gnarly second wave black metal to the more progressive post-black metal sound of today. Through it all Enslaved somehow maintained the heaviness and vitriol of their black metal roots while taking the genre on a hell-ride around a progressive sun. Eld was really the first album where their flair for the cinematic and their progressive elements first started to take hold. I mean, the opening track is a 16-minute epic complete with acoustic interludes and soaring clean vocals. This was a band that knew early in their careers that they wouldn’t be bound by genre descriptors, and this is the masterpiece that began cementing their legacy as one of black metal’s most innovative bands.
Enthroned – Towards the Skullthrone of Satan
We’ve talked a lot about progressive forms of black metal, but there were certainly bands in 1997 continuing to fly the flag of the no-nonsense second wave. Belgium’s Enthroned were one such band and their 1997 album Towards the Skullthrone of Satan offered up a brutal array of thrash-inspired black metal. If you’re looking for blast beats and tremolo-picking you’ve come to the right place. I thought this album was underappreciated at the time, and I think it’s even more so today.
Fu Manchu – The Action Is Go
It wasn’t all black metal in 1997. The stoner rock scene was as vibrant as any other at the time, and that year saw the return of one of the kings of the genre, Fu Manchu. I can remember that just prior to this release Fu Manchu lost a guitar player and their drummer (who would go on to form the equally amazing Nebula) and there was some question as to what this new line-up would produce. It helps that they added the mighty Brant Bjork (Kyuss) on drums, but I don’t think anyone could have expected what was possibly their bast album at that point in time. If you’re a fan of bombastic, ’70s-inspired heavy rock you could do a lot worse than to dig into this record.
The Gathering – Nighttime Birds
In last year’s article I mentioned what I’ve dubbed “The Great European Mellowing”. This was where a ton of bands around this time, especially European acts, decided to start mellowing their sound with varied results. One band though that made a completely natural progression to this sort of melodic metal sound was The Gathering. With the incomparable Anneke van Giersbergen on vocals, The Gathering already had the make of a band who took the term “progressive metal” to new and interesting places with their previous album. However, 1997’s Nighttime Birds was their masterwork, the culmination of years of perfecting their sound. While I liked a lot of the material this band did after this record, this one might still be my favorite from them. This is the type of record you throw headphones on for, dip the lights, and just let it take you away.
His Hero Is Gone – Monuments To Thieves
I still remember the day that my buddy Pete handed me a cassette tape with the first two His Hero Is Gone records on it, this being the second. I spent the last six months of 1997 wearing that cassette tape out completely until I had to order both albums on CD to replace it. To me there was no band that better encompassed the aesthetics and the power of crust punk than the way His Hero Is Gone did. This album may be their best, and certainly may be their most brutal. Musically as heavy and aggressive as any death metal act, yet as politically savvy as the most anarcho-punk, His Hero Is Gone, and this album in particular, were built to destroy all things oppressive and mundane. This record still makes me want to break stuff.
Immortal – Blizzard Beasts
Yet another entry into the discussion as to why 1997 was one of black metal’s best years. For my money Immortal has had one of the most consistently excellent discographies and Blizzard Beasts came right in the middle of a powerful run of records. The last record to feature Demonaz on guitar, Blizzard Beasts might not be Immortal’s most technical record but if you’re looking for brutal, frostbitten black metal there are few releases from this year that can top this one.
Integrity – Seasons In The Size of Days
Remember when I said Coalesce was one of two bands I go back and forth on being my all-time favorite hardcore act? Well, here’s the other one. There was always something more dark and sinister about Integrity that separated them from just about every other hardcore band in the world. Their sound, while rooted in punk rock, took elements from thrash, crust, and even death metal to create something wholly unique, especially around this era. Seasons In The Size of Days was the first Integrity album that sounded like a metal record masquerading as a punk record, and to this day remains one of their absolute best efforts. This is another in a long line of albums I wore out in ’97 and beyond.
Kiss It Goodbye – She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not
While Integrity and Coalesce hold special places in my blackened heart, I’d honestly put this record up against not only those bands, but just about any other hardcore act. Born out of the original ashes of New Jersey legends Deadguy (and technically Rorschach as well), Kiss It Goodbye would release only one full-length album, 1997’s She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not. Filled with angular riffs, crazy time signatures, and some of the best vocals in the hardcore galaxy, this record was an absolute stunner upon release. I had the privilege of seeing this band live twice after this record hit the streets and they are still two of the most memorable shows I’ve ever been to. This band was the definition of unbridled intensity. I still lament their demise to this day. Needless to say if they had stuck around for another record or two we’d be talking about this band alongside some of the other genre greats. (Frankly, even with only one full-length record we still should be.)
Logical Nonsense – Expand The Hive
New Mexico wasn’t anywhere on my musical radar prior to 1997, but damn it should have been. Logical Nonsense came exploding out of the deserts of New Mexico with an instant crust punk classic in ’97. Expand The Hive absolutely knocked me over the first time I heard it. It was this swirling, grinding collection of sonic explosions. It was one of the most pissed off records I had heard up to that point, and frankly it hasn’t lost an inch of its edge. When we talk about criminally underrated bands from this era, Logical Nonsense needs to be in the discussion. If I’m not mistaken, these guys would split up not too long after this release and the underground metal scene was worse for it. I had the honor of catching them at a show in New York right after this record was released. They absolutely brought the house down the same way this record does every time you put it on.
Mayhem – Wolf’s Lair Abyss
I’m going to cheat a little bit here and include an EP on this list. But at the time it wasn’t often that a seminal band literally returned from the oblivion to drop new material the way Mayhem did. Wolf’s Lair Abyss was indeed the return of a band who had infamously gone up in flames. While De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas finally received a postmortem release in 1994, at that point the thought of any new Mayhem material was laughable. But the wolves returned to hunt and they were thirsty for the blood of the non-believers. Stellar second wave black metal from the scene’s most infamous band.
Today Is the Day – Temple of the Morning Star
If you’re looking for possibly the most unique album on this list, you’ve found it. Today Is The Day’s sound mixes elements of noise rock with grind, crust, and various avant garde elements. Temple of the Morning Star was their first album with Relapse Records, which meant that despite three fantastic albums with the AmRep label, this was the first taste of Today Is The Day for a large swath of the metal scene. This record was as bizarre as it was fierce, and I’m not sure some fans knew how to compartmentalize what they were hearing. But there was no denying how heavy this record could get, and Steve Austin’s vocal performance was scathing. Their live shows at this time (which included what would eventually become half of Mastodon) were the stuff of legends as well.
Ulver – Nattens Madrigal
No band has tread as unique of a musical path as Norway’s Ulver. Originally a raw, folklore-inspired black metal band, Ulver’s output over the last decade-plus can’t even be considered metal at this point. Yet they are still beloved by large portions of the underground, and for good reason. Nattens Madrigal was the third and final album of their “Black Metal Trilogie”. We’ve all heard the rumors about this record by now – that the band took their recording budget, blew it on suits, cars, and cocaine and recorded this record in the middle of the woods on an 8-track. Whether that’s true or not, this is without a doubt one of the rawest second wave albums you’ll ever partake it. Whether they were purposely going for something this abrasive or just taking the piss, we may never be sure. Regardless, if you like your black metal in the “trve” and “kvlt” variety then look no further.
Will Haven – El Diablo
I can remember when this album was first released and everyone comparing them to Deftones, which honestly kind of pissed me off. (It didn’t help that they also toured with Deftones at one point…) I thought the comparisons were lazy at best and completely inaccurate at worst. Born out of the Southern California hardcore scene, Will Haven were one of the bands that relied on a distinct noise rock vibe to convey their heaviness. El Diablo was the band’s debut full-length and an album that caught me a bit off guard with how powerful it was. This was another band I got to to see live a couple times during this touring cycle and they blew me away every time.