Ranking heavy metal’s top ten reunion albums poses a challenge in definitions. Bands formally break up less and less, in favor of extended hiatuses and breaks. Earlier this month The Devin Townsend Project and Katatonia both went on hiatus. I fully expect new material from both of those bands sometime in the future, but will those be reunion albums? I don’t think so.
A reunion means a return not from cold storage but from the grave. Metaphorically they are magic records and, like most feats of magic, they tend to fall apart if you observe them closely enough, which is why they amaze so much when they succeed.
A true reunion doesn’t require all the original members of a band—some of the best reunion records feature new members in key positions, including lead vocalist. A great reunion only needs to rekindle some of the je ne sais quois that made a band indelible before they originally collapsed.
Reunion albums face tremendous scrutiny, even if they feature all the members of a classic lineup. They tend to follow sub-par albums that ended a run of classics (nobody breaks up when they’re on top except for At the Gates). We expect a band that reunites to just keep sucking the way they did when they disbanded. Nostalgia makes old classics seem better with age, which further raises the bar.
In the face of these odds, it’s a miracle that good reunion albums exist at all, and in fact, the great reunion album is a relatively new phenomenon in metal. Most of these records were released in the last fifteen years, but metal is almost 50.
Even so, narrowing this list down to ten posed a challenge. One could easily compose another list of ten excellent records by great bands released immediately after they returned from the void. Readers will, of course, have their own lists of grievous omissions (I’m expecting a whole lot Facebook posts to the effect of “What, no Souls to Deny?” Sorry, Suffocation, you were on the bubble with Amebix and Gorguts). In this writer’s estimation, though, these are the top ten reunion albums in metal.
10. Forbidden – Omega Wave
Many notable thrash metal acts returned in the early aughts with a newer, heavier sound (hell one of those bands appears later in this list—but few sounded so good doing it as Forbidden did. Original guitarist Craig Locicero brought out the band’s low end on Omega Wave without neutering the Combat Records vets’ fierceness. Vocalist Russ Anderson likewise mostly sticks to his lower register, but his emotive shrieks on “Dragging My Casket” still send a shiver down my spine.
9. Mercyful Fate – In the Shadows
The lone entry on this list from the 90’s, In the Shadows seldom gets referenced alongside Mercyful Fate’s more esteemed 80’s output, but the record has aged remarkably well. Hank Shermann and Michael Denner’s guitar interplay shines on this album, and King Diamond sounds energized by their reunion. Compare this to his work three years earlier on The Eye—that album rips but I’m not sure it has a cut as twisted as “The Old Oak”.
8. Exodus – Tempo of the Damned
Blasphemy incoming: Steve “Zetro” Souza is my favorite Exodus vocalist, and a huge part of my esteem for him comes from the performance he gave on Tempo of the Damned. His performance on songs like “Blacklist” has a genuine punk-inspired nastiness that the band’s legion of younger imitators never nailed down. Gary Holt hasn’t sounded better, either, even if the songs, in general, feel a little too long.
7. Satan – Life Sentence
Newcastle, England’s Satan had a unique tonal approach that helped them stick out during the 80’s when they recorded two criminally underrated albums, Court in the Act and Suspended Sentence. A guitar style that prioritized riffs played relatively high on the neck of the guitar, coupled with the unique voice of singer Brian Ross (also of Blitzkrieg and others) gave the band a sharp and distinctive style. Satan sounded as unique in 2013 when they released Life Sentence as they did in 1983.
6. Killing Joke – Killing Joke
Forget Probot, the best thing Dave Grohl did for metal was getting Killing Joke back on track. Honestly, Killing Joke is as much a goth or post-punk band as they are a metal band, which almost makes putting them on this list feel criminal, but their second self-titled LP hits with a violent drive that puts it in a completely different galaxy from “Love Like Blood”. The record’s industrial-tinged production aesthetic hasn’t aged as well as it could have (pieces of this record feel a little Rammsteinish) but songs like “Asteroid” have the kind of impact—pun intended— that their watered down successors cannot compete with.
5. Accept – Blood of the Nations
Wait. Stop. A band that hasn’t been good since the 80’s came back with a new singer? And a new album that’s over an hour long? And there are thirteen songs (bonus tracks always count)? And one of the songs is called “Bucketful of Hate”? Come the fuck on. There’s no way this thing can be good… right? Turns out there is. Every song on Blood of the Nations brings the hammer down. This record’s so good that the ensuing tailwind of great material only ran out last year.
4. Cynic – Traced in Air
Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert’s last album-length foray into the world of Cynic yielded one-of-a-kind results. The band’s storied debut, Focus, is a lovable ugly duckling, one whose odd aesthetic choices (those vocals) were vindicated by the passage of time and the normalization of technical guitar playing in death metal. Traced in Air escapes death metal altogether, and instead achieves an unparalleled synthesis of modern metal polish and Mahavishnu Orchestra-ish jazz fusion in a remarkably tight, catchy package. It won’t snap your neck, but you’ll never hear anything else like it.
3. Alice in Chains – Black Gives Way to Blue
Taking the place of esteemed and departed vocalist Layne Staley on a record that commemorates him is a tall task. Somehow William DuVall was more than up to the task. Black Gives Way to Blue presents a mercifully sober Alice in Chains that is pound-for-pound as great as it was when they released Dirt. Jerry Cantrell’s songwriting chops have not lapsed, but his sound has remained more-or-less the same as it ever was. Still, Black Gives Way to Blue offers a few interesting digressions. The Meshuggah-like stutter groove in “A Looking in View” is probably the heaviest and proggiest moment in a career that is otherwise relatively pop by Decibel standards.
2. Celtic Frost – Monotheist
It would take a hell of a record to take the historic pedigree of Celtic Frost’s classic run from Morbid Tales through Into the Pandemonium and render it obsolete. Monotheist comes close, though. From any other band, this record would be considered a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. From the band that innovated probably one-third of the blueprint for extreme metal all on their own, it’s just a damn great album. Slow and low in the extreme, Monotheist takes the classic Celtic Frost formula and stretches it into death-doom extremity. The gothic touches that intrigued but stuck out on Into the Pandemonium are here finally synthesized into the music seamlessly. Monotheist would also be a shoe-in for the best farewell record list, but fortunately for us, Tom G. Warrior has more or less continued this sound precisely in his new project, Triptykon.
1. Carcass – Surgical Steel
Here’s a work/life tip: people don’t actually hold you in higher esteem when you go above and beyond the call of duty. In general, we most value people who deliver on their promises exactly. For this reason, Carcass take top honors. Before the release of Surgical Steel, the band promised a midway point between their two unimpeachable classics Necroticism and Heartwork. Even with only two members of their original lineup, they succeeded. Surgical Steel delivers the same instantly-memorable melodic death metal that Heartwork peddled and augments it with some of Necroticism‘s progressive complexity (see: the requisite eight-minute “epic” album closer, “Mound of Execution”). Sure, a little of Swansong‘s boogie-woogie remains in the mix, but Swansong‘s better than you probably remember it anyway.