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VINCE NEILSTEIN’S TOP TWENTY METAL ALBUMS OF 2009

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beardy mcbeardson vince neilsteinIn the weeks prior to —  and even during — the assemblage of this Top 20 list, I went back and listened to every album I’d selected as a candidate, sometimes more than once. Some weren’t quite as impressive as I’d remembered now that the sheen had worn off, some were equally as good, and some were even better.

But what I think speaks most to the high caliber of metal released in 2009 is the great variety of types of metal albums that dot my list. There’s the usual suspects that you’re seeing on the lists of other fellow MS writers and the entire World Wide Interwebs, but there are some curveballs too — there’s a tech-death brand from France, a couple of retro(ish) thrashers, two bands that were previously left for dead and three, count them, THREE instrumental metal albums… plus a whole bunch of others. It wasn’t just a great year for metal but a varied one too, and a fitting end to a decade which saw a huge explosion of sub-genres.

axetofalllarger20. Converge – Axe to Fall

I never liked Converge before this record. To me, Converge didn’t really have much relevance to metal… they were hardcore (with a little metallic influence, sure) and the band’s music just never spoke to me in any meaningful way. With Axe to Fall, that’s changed. I still can’t get down with the Converge catalog albums that everyone seems to think are the tits, and I stand firm that whether or not this band is “metal” is dubious; but Axe to Fall is a solid listen all the way through. I dig the new somewhat subdued sound the band is experimenting with just the same as I dig the bangers on Axe to Fall. It’s a really cohesive record that’s still extremely aggressive but isn’t afraid to explore other, more subtle territory as well.

Endgame19. Megadeth – Endgame

Dave Mustaine has made his best album in years with Endgame, his second for Roadrunner. Endgame‘s predecessor United Abominations was a solid album too, but Endgame one-ups it in every category; the songs are better, the playing is more interesting (thanks to some degree to the presence of ex-Nevermore axe-slinger Chris Broderick), and the overall album flow is more consistent. Dave’s almost got me believing in all of his crazy conspiracy theories… actually, no, not really, but his music still kicks ass.

anaal nathrahk18. Anaal Nathrakh – In the Constellation of the Black Widow

All 34 minutes and 10 songs of In the Constellation of the Black Widow speed by in a fiery maelstorm of blackened riffs, pounding drum [machines] and V.I.T.R.I.O.L.’s distorted, manic shrieks, making for an extreme and intense experience all the way through. There is no relenting; the band never pulls back, instead choosing to pummel at the highest velocity from start to finish. The memorable guitar melodies are what really make this album go by accentuating the brutality and providing a simultaneous safe haven from the madness.

goatwhore_cover17. Goatwhore – Carving out the Eyes of God

Goatwhore delivered a monster of a record with Carving out the Eyes of God, 40 minutes of freight-train rock n’ metal glory (see also: Rumpelstiltskin Grinder, below). Sammy Duet’s guitars are front and center, courtesy of Erik Rutan’s saturated and pungent production. Rutan is as close to a “transparent” producer as there is in metal today, meaning there’s no such thing as “the Erik Rutan” sound, and on Carving he’s captured a gigantic-but-still-raw sound that fits Goatwhore perfectly. This record just hits me in that special sweet spot that gets me all psyched up and ready to kick some motherfuckin’ ass.

gorod - process of decline16. Gorod – Process of a New Decline

Though Gorod aren’t a new band (they’ve been around since 1997 under a number of different monikers), they’re one part of the seemingly ocean-deep metal scene in France that’s just now gaining a slew of international attention. Gorod’s take on another burgeoning scene — tech-death — isn’t necessarily fully unique, but they’ve been doing it just as long as anyone and they do it just as well. Process of a New Decline is full of memorable riffs, complicated interplay between instruments, startling dynamics, and as could be expected, insane chops. It’s a winning combination for a winning band.

Devin Townsend - Ki15. Devin Townsend – Ki

Why Ki over Addicted? I liked Addicted too, but Ki has a special X-factor that really appealed to me. A lot of it has to do with the fact that’s it’s so different from anything Devin’s done before. And while sure, perhaps an album should be judged on its own merit independent of its creator, I think that a band or artist’s career trajectory is a very important factor when judging new work. It’s the reason I can’t get too into the new Killswitch Engage album… same shit, different day. But for Townsend, Ki is completely different shit on a brand new day. Devin really stretched his musical muscles outside his comfort zone on Ki and the results are, of course, great. Devin is a talented cat and he nails it here, aided by production that’s way more organic than most of his SYL or solo work. Ki was a fitting introduction to the promised 4-album suite, and Addicted was solid too; can’t wait to hear what’s coming next.

Lye_By_Mistake_-_Fea_Jur_cover14. Lye by Mistake – Fea Jur

Have you heard this record??! My guess is that you haven’t. But you need to. What these talented St. Louis lads are doing is absolutely astonishing. Fea Jur is like lounge jazz in metal form, dissonant notes and off-kilter meters jammed in with distorted guitars and an unprecedented comprehension of dynamics. Lye by Mistake are like Dillinger Escape Plan with Vernon Reid on guitar instead of hardcore kids; just when you think there’s no focus whatsoever and you’re questioning whether the band even knows what the fuck they’re playing, it all comes together in perfect synchronicity and rocks the fuck out. Talk about “next level” and “pushing the genre forward”… this band is doing it, leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else.

200px-Steel_panther_feel_the_steel13. Steel Panther – Feel the Steel

It’d be easy to write off an ironic band like Steel Panther if they weren’t so fucking good at everything. Everything. Every detail is JUST right; the lyrics, the mood, the musicianship, the production… it’s just all done so well, because ultimately these are cats that’ve lived the lifestyle and know what it’s like. It’s real… but they’re old enough and wise enough to be able to take a step back and make fun of it. And not for nothin’, they’re living out the dream of every dude who’s ever been in a local bar cover band; they got signed to write and record original material, and by a huge label that spent a ton on promotion and will never ever recoup. Well played, sirs!

animals as leaders12. Animals as Leaders –  Animals as Leaders

The Internet has done amazing things for instrumental metal bands like Animals as Leaders, Tosin Abasi’s solo brainchild in band form. Namely it’s allowed bands like this one to even exist. Ten years ago no such thing would have been possible; the audience was too geographically divided and the technology didn’t exist (or wasn’t sufficient enough) to bring a project like this to life, but the Internet allows obscure micro-genre fans from the world over to connect with whatever very particular thing it is that tickles their aural fancy. To wit, a Prosthetic Records employee told me that Animals as Leaders’ self-titled debut was the best-selling pre-sale in the label’s history. Abasi’s virtuosic 8-string guitar playing is the center-piece of Animals as Leaders — both rhythm and lead tracks — supported by the mind-bending Haake-esque polyrhythmic grooves of everyone’s favorite session drummer, Drum Kit From Hell. The two work in tandem to create an incredibly atmospheric and sonically lush instru-metal release. While there may be many would-be bedroom one-man-banders on MySpace, nobody does it better than Abasi.

scalethesummit-carving11. Scale the Summit – Carving Desert Canyons

While most instru-metal bands are following the Misha Mansoor / Tosin Abasi template (with results not up to par with either of those two), the Houston, TX kids in Scale the Summit go a completely different direction. Instead of channeling 7 (or 8)-string mind-fuck Meshuggah rhythms as their building blocks, Scale the Summit draw from a much lighter prog rock palette in their sparkling Tom Beaujour-produced Prosthetic Records debut. I haven’t spoken with these lads yet, but I’ll bet they’d cite bands like Cynic, Russian Circles, Intronaut, and even Dream Theater as influences. Though Carving Desert Canyons is instrumental, there’s absolutely zero musical masturbation (not that there’s anything wrong with that); it’s all about composition and song-writing for these guys, no small feat for music that’s likely to wear thin the patience of most listeners due to the lack of vocals. Scale the Summit are a young band to keep an eye on.

ox10. Coalesce – Ox

Pounding drums, meaty over-driven guitars and bass, and the rawest, guttural vocals on any record all year made Ox a fantastic comeback record for Coalesce, their first since 1999. Even so, Coalesce’s uncanny ability to combine jarring grooves with frenetic spazzes, unpredictable melody and uncompromising punk rock aggression would’ve made Ox one of the best albums of the year completely independent of the band’s history. This is music to be drunk and angry to in a bar packed with scary non-hipster beardos.

fedthroughtheteethmachinebiggest9. The Red Chord – Fed Through the Teeth Machine

Where did this album come from? I can’t remember a Red Chord album, or even Red Chord song as good as anything on Teeth Machine… but maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention (confession: I definitely wasn’t). It’s as if Guy, Gunface and co. looked around at what was going on in the metal scene around them, particularly the proto-deathcore scene from whence they came, and said, “Psshhhh! We can beat that, no problem.” And then they made it so. Fed Through the Teeth Machine pummels, annihilates, shocks and awes in equal measures, even taking a musical page or two from our favorite environmentalist Frenchmen.

200px-Behemoth_-_Evangelion8. Behemoth – Evangelion

Nergal was quoted in an interview surrounding Evangelion‘s release as saying that this is the first Behemoth album he’s been 100% satisfied with. That should speak volumes about how good this records is, but the music does a fine job of speaking for itself. The production may have something to do with it — Daniel Bergstrand recorded the drums, and Colin Richardson mixed the full record — as it’s far and away the band’s best-sounding recording to date. But good production does not a good record make, and the songs on Evangelion are as pointed and refined as any in the band’s career. Evangelion is a steamroller of a record all the way through, heaping black and death metal upon the listener an equally generous and furious helpings.

Obscura – Cosmogenesis7. Obscura – Cosmogenesis

Amidst a flurry of tech-death releases in 2008 and 2009, along come some vets of Necrophagist and Pestilence to show all the kids how it’s done, out-teching, out-playing, out-melodicizing, and out-composing the masses. Likely to be forgotten or under-appreciated by many year-end list compilers because the album came out in January of 2009, Cosmogenesis is the blueprint for how tech-death should be done. It’s technical without sacrificing melody and soul, and the composition and arrangements are first class. It’s alternately fierce and epic and maintains integrity from start to finish.

blackgiveswaytoblue6. Alice in Chains – Black Gives Way to Blue

That Alice in Chains were able to come together and make such a vibrant and relevant album after 15 years and the death of their iconic frontman should cement Jerry Cantrell’s legacy as a skilled musician and songwriter. It also underscores his role in the band’s prior albums; turns out Jerry was always the man behind the curtain after all, no disrespect meant to Layne. Black Gives Way to Blue sounds like old Alice, but it also sounds updated, older and wiser, and some of the songs stand up against (or certainly close to) the band’s all-time best. Bands that reunite and make relevant music after the death of an important member or a long hiatus are few and far between, but Alice in Chains can now include themselves amongst limited company.

rumpelstiltskin-grinder-living-for-death-4325. Rumpelstiltskin Grinder – Living for Death, Destroying the Rest

When this record came across my e-desk I was not expecting to fall as hard as I did for the Pennsylvania-based Rumpelstiltskin Grinder’s own brand of self-proclaimed “criminal thrash.” There’s something that RsG do right that other bands who closely emulate their ’80s thrash idols just miss completely. For RsG, it’s in their party-hard attitude and their irresistibly anthemic songs; perhaps these two traits go hand in hand. With Living for Death, RsG wrote an album full of can’t-miss party hits that I connect with on a visceral level. Insanely catchy guitar riffs meander in and out of vocal hooks that get me all fired up. Great music to drive down the highway to at no less than 100 MPH.

revocation - existence is futile4. Revocation – Existence is Futile

These Boston younguns sure get a lot of hype but they lived up to it with Existence is Futile, a non-throwback, modern take on the best of ’80s thrash. There’s a difference between letting influences show in your music and imitating them, and fortunately Revocation fall into the former category. The unquestionable highlight of this record for me is the virtuosic guitar playing of David Davidson. Remember when solos had direction, purpose, artfulness, and overt melodic structure? Solos that tell a story and take you for a ride with every twist and turn? Solos that give you THAT FEELING, that uncontainable emotion that makes you feel so good but you just can’t quite put it to words? Davidson’s solos do just that for me. But it’s not just the David Davidson show… the whole band’s song-writing acumen and musical skill give Davidson the tools he needs to do his heavy lifting. Revocation are a really, really good band and I can’t wait to hear this album’s follow-up.

concealers3. Daath – The Concealers

Who says the art of writing catchy metal songs is dead? Daath somehow managed to write an album without a single dud; every song is not only memorable but thoroughly head-bangable. Through Eyal Levi and Emil Werstler’s trained technique, The Concealers is musically interesting and extremely varied, too, a rarity in the realm of — for lack of a better way of describing it — commercially viable metal music. There will surely be naysayers who claim I’m just giving our boy Eyal some love, but I swear to you all I’ve listened to The Concealers as much as any record all year (and we only first met Eyal in February).

god forbid - earthsblood2. God Forbid – Earthsblood

Bands that try to change the musical formula from one album to the next get extra respect in my book, and God Forbid have always done that — significantly but not drastically — with every album they release. It’s way too easy to find a formula that works and stick with it, and it’s funny that guitarist Doc Coyle should find the need to defend his peers in Killswitch Engage for staying within the confines of their own self-created (and oft imitated) sound, because Doc’s band does anything BUT the same thing over and over. On Earthsblood, the band brought 7-string guitars into the mix to further heavify their true dual-guitar attack. They experimented with longer, non-standard song structures (without sacrificing accessibility at all) and they gave the now-departed Dallas Coyle a lot more microphone time. Combine those elements with an ever-growing understanding of song-writing and composition, and the result is the most developed God Forbid album yet, a record that’s far outgrown the band’s metalcore roots and propelled them into a world and sound that’s all their own.

200px-Cracktheskye1. Mastodon – Crack the Skye

There are two kinds of Mastodon fans: the crusty kids who like them for the mosh factor, and the intellectual types who like them for the prog factor. If you fall into the latter category (as I do), then Crack the Skye was  the culmination of everything the band’s been hinting at and building towards for their entire career, and it’s everything you hoped it would be. You could feel it coming… Mastodon hinted at it with Leviathan, peered into the rabbit hole on Blood Mountain, and full on jumped right down that bitch head-first on Crack the Skye. Crack the Skye is epic, dynamic, and put together in all the right ways. Basically, it’s perfect. It’s a modern masterpiece, and people are going to be talking about this record for a very long while.

That’s it for now. See you in 2010.

-VN

Honorable mentions:

Iron Age – The Sleeping Eye: A killer retro thrash album that evokes Metallica’s early work.

Between the Buried and Me – The Great Misdirect: Ultimately this album escapes my Top 20 because I don’t feel like there’s much growth from Colors, especially in light of the transformation from Alaska to Colors. But I’ve still got loads of respect for what the band is doing, and The Great Misdirect is an impressive piece of music indeed.

Cannibal Corpse – Evisceration Plague: Still doing brutal death metal better than anyone else all these years later.

Chimaira – The Infection: Chimaira are another band that grow and push forward with every new release, and The Infection finds the band further evolving their sound.

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