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SAMMY O’HAGAR’S TOP FIFTEEN METAL ALBUMS OF 2010

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Sammy O'Hagar

In 2008, my #1 album of the year was Nachtmystium’s Assassins: Black Meddle Part 1, a record of experimental bits still deeply rooted in the band’s particular brand of black metal. I’ll still throw it on every now and again, and it still sounds pretty damn exciting, sax solos and all (take that, Blackjazz!). But when Black Meddle‘s Part 2 came along this year, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Though folks could insist that maybe it was too challenging for me — perhaps even that I’m simple to the point of wearing overalls and a permanent grin — I still insist that something about it felt off. There’s “experimental” where bands try something decidedly different and execute it with resounding confidence, then there are bands that experiment with ideas out of their comfort zone, essentially throwing things at a wall to see what sticks. Black Meddle Part 2 felt like the latter to me. I found myself respecting its risks more than I actually liked their results.

But Addicts: Black Meddle Part 2 may be the centerpiece of metal’s mood in 2010: often challenging and complex, but also rewarding if you just gave it time. And many of my favorite albums this year were ones I didn’t like initially, if not actively disliked at first. But that spark of something brought me back to them, and ultimately, that often made them more rewarding than something I would have excitedly spun a dozen times or so, only to eventually get sick of and forget. Obviously not every album put up a seemingly impenetrable wall on first impression — High on Fire and Darkthrone both released pretty balls-out awesome records, too — but the year seemed to be rich in albums that challenged the notion that metal is chiefly a genre where one shoots first and asks questions later. For Christ’s sake, one of the year’s early triumphs was by an outspoken racist and anti-Semite who did a bid in Norwegian prison for stabbing a guy to death; everywhere, divisiveness seemed to be the governing feeling. But once things fell to one side or the other, there was quite a bit to choose from. My choices would be:

15. Triptykon, Eparistera Daimones (Century Media)

Despite the presence of a pointless goth aside (“My Pain”) and “The Prolonging”‘s patience-testing 20 minute length, Tom G. Warrior’s fitting resurrection after Celtic Frost’s demise had some of the year’s heaviest moments. And although “heavy” and “heaviest” are descriptors that get thrown around a lot, Triptykon’s riffs are lifted from the same primordial ooze from which Sabbath and their OG doom disciples mined theirs. Dramatic and massive, Eparistera Daimones straddled the line between black, thrash, and doom metal like only a guy who had his hand in creating all three could. Heavy to a degree that’s almost silly, the album’s permanent scowl was a perfect soundtrack to any rainy day in 2010, bleak but never fragile or resigned. Have I said heavy? Because it’s fucking heavy. In fact, the feedback-building-up-to-nothing moment about 2/3 of the way through opener “Goetia” may have been the heaviest thing to happen all year.

14. Intronaut, Valley of Smoke (Century Media)

Like Eparistera Daimones, Intronaut’s Valley of Smoke succeeded despite a seemingly fatal flaw: really lousy, fairly unnecessary, incredibly uncreative clean vocals. In fact, I still cringe at them each time I throw the album on. That being said, I’ve thrown Valley of Smoke on as much as I have any other album this year despite it being released more than halfway through it. Clean vocals aside, it’s the band at their most charming: dense, unpredictable heavy riffs countered by brilliant prog and post-metal segues and codas, both in massively uneven portions, leading one to believe that it’s just the band doing what they want to do in lieu of plugging parts into a formula to please a particular party. Nary a time signature with 3, 4, 6, or 8 at the top to be found, Intronaut never sound complex for the sake of being complicated, but instead need unconventional riffs and rhythms to get their point across. A challenging and immensely rewarding listen that almost makes up for that cringeworthy bellowing. Almost.

13. Fleshwrought, Dementia/Dyslexia (Metal Blade)

An Animosity-style riff bouillabaisse with only one of the guys from Animosity and the guy from Job for a fucking Cowboy on vocals? In theory, yeesh, no thank you. In fact, Fleshwrought’s debut was better than it had any right to theoretically be. A nearly non-stop array of tightly wound tech-death riffs violently springing into being (with a few uneasily tense intro tracks and outros for one to catch their breath), Dementia/Dyslexia is brilliantly all over the place, like a friend trying to tell you about a month-long stint in Gitmo after 40 cups of coffee. One would assume this would be a mess, but when every riff is top shelf and resident genius Navene Koperweis dominates every instrument but vocals with an inhuman virtuosity, you want to hear as much as you possibly can over the span of an album. Fleshwrought succeed ably there. Even Jonny Davy’s vocals sound great.

12. Krieg, The Isolationist (Candlelight)

A decade and a half in, Krieg may have made their career album: palatable yet filthy, claustrophobic yet expansive, cold yet personal, The Isolationist is the kind of beast of an album that those who think black metal is more than either fuzzy basement meandering or fruity keyboard jaunts have been pining for. Taking Mayhem and Darkthrone’s punk apathy and filtering it through OG USBM kingpins Weakling’s epic stomp, Krieg made an album full of the sort of horror most of their contemporaries think they’re evoking. Though, admittedly, you could throw frontman Imperial’s chill-inducing shrieks over a Carrie Underwood track and ratchet up its grimness quotient, The Isolationist is way better than that. Perhaps they’re not as capital-T True as they used to be, but they’re all the better for it.

11. Electric Wizard, Black Masses (Rise Above)

Black Masses is a blast from a past that may not have existed, one where kids wore Pentagram shirts instead of Supertramp ones and Anton LaVey succeeded Richard Nixon. Through a cocktail of all the things that made trad metal great– riffs, reverb, horror movies, basic Satanism, and buckets of weed– Electric Wizard sound like they always do: seemingly incoherent, but actually incredibly thorough. The songs are more outright enjoyable than they’ve been since 2000’s classic Dopethrone, and Electric Wizard’s hard-on for analog equipment provide an organic and tactile listen. It’s a hazy journey, but certainly one well-worth making your way through.

10. Castevet, Mounds of Ash (Profound Lore)

One of premier outre-metal label Profound Lore’s finest hours in 2010 (one that also included excellent albums from The Howling Wind, Stargazer, Dawnbringer, and, well, other albums coming up on this list), Castevet are black metal tweaked, inverted, and rebuilt to the point where it barely resembles the original element. But in a time where seemingly half the bands that refer to themselves as “black metal” are doing that, Castevet seem to have a purpose to it aside from “wouldn’t it be cool if we…” With shades of post-hardcore (check out the Poison the Well-like ending to “Red Aura”) and even math rock (parts resemble an alternate universe where a blackened Shellac exists, perhaps called Sheblac), Mounds of Ash is as dense as it is inviting. If Krallice– the band’s NYC counterparts– are reinventing black metal on an expansive, broad canvas, Castevet are cramming as much into as little space as possible. But whereas this should sound like an ADD mishmash, they sound thoroughly unique, focused, and refreshing. Ideally, we’ll be hearing more from them soon.

9. Woe, Quietly, Undramatically (Candlelight)

Of all the bands infusing post-hardcore chords and energy into their black metal this year, Woe took the cake, then added another layer or two to it. Full of BM with a surprisingly anthemic backbone, Quietly, Undramatically provided a great front-to-back record in a genre known for trying the listener’s patience after 63 minutes of buzzing guitars and shrieking. But Woe’s inclusion of gang vocals, propulsive d-beats, and not-just-crossover-thrash-punk-but-other-punk punk rock riffs felt appropriate instead of blasphemous. The tremolo-picking, harsh vocals, and epic song lengths were all there, just from a slightly different angle. But “slightly different” can feel like a revelation in black metal, and thus, Quielty, Undramatically felt quite revelatory.

8. Enslaved, Axioma Ethica Odini (Nuclear Blast)

It’s fitting that Enslaved would follow up their most accessible and immediately pleasing album with their densest since ISA. But even though Axioma Ethica Odini took quite a few listens to truly get one’s head around (it took about five for yours truly), it was worth the effort. Monolithic guitars under good cop/mythical demon cop vocals alongside Enslaved’s permanent hard-on for prog, it had simultaneously everything you’d expect from them as well as exploring avenues they’d never trod down before. It even includes the band at their heaviest (the tech part about 2/3 of the way through “The Beacon”) and at their Opeth-aping best (“Night Sight”). While we’re used to throwing an album on our hard drives and abandoning it if it doesn’t take after a listen or two, Enslaved remind us that they’re a band that demand time and attention, that what sounds like a wall of pretentiously dense guitars is actually their meticulously crafted and brilliantly executed brand of post-black metal. Those who wrote it off may want to give it another shot.

7. Agalloch, Marrow of the Spirit (Profound Lore)

Staring solemnly into the middle distance in the the deep woods is right up there with corpsepaint and medieval weaponry in terms of what makes black metal inherently silly. But for Agalloch, it’s serious business, making their “walking through a snow-covered forest” MO stick. It probably helps that the band’s folky blackened post-metal has finally gelled, yielding a gigantic album that is immensely satisfying on the whole, even with the inclusion of a meandering-yet-fascinating 17 minute-long track (“Black Lake Nidstång”) right in the middle. The band’s vaguely emotional, overwhelmingly epic skills are in full force on Marrow of the Spirit, perhaps the best example so far for the reason for all the critical thrusting in the band’s general direction. This– plus whiskey and hot chocolate, perhaps– will get you through winter 2011.

6. Immolation, Majesty and Decay (Nuclear Blast)

Immolation appear in the same sentence as “underrated” so often that you begin to wonder what the hell is wrong with people. So it’s fitting that while many of the contemporaries that have stuck it out as long as them have declined in embarrassing fashion (Chris Barnes being the token grunting scarecrow for D-grade death metal bands comes to mind…), Immolation top a recent string of still-quite-impressive albums with Majesty and Decay, a record of Failures for Gods proportions. It’s all there: sickly grooves, atmospheric riffs, thunderous drums, and Ross Dolan’s voice inexplicably still intact. Like most great “genre” bands, it’s an Immolation album that’s just more Immolation-y than the others. Even a casual death metal fan can find a lot to like about Majesty and Decay. As an Immolation fan, you were greatly, greatly pleased, though probably not surprised in the least. Putting out excellent Immolation records has been the band’s plan of attack for the last 20+ years.

5. Alcest, Écailles de lune (Prophecy Productions)

Never mind black metal: is it even metal? And if not, since when are banshee-screams and blastbeats used in shoegaze? (Was there an especially brutal Slowdive album I missed?) But begging this question has been the goal of Alcest mastermind Neige since the band’s lo-fi beginnings, looking to harness melancholy beauty via early Darkthrone-worthy necroisms. And like the band’s entire career, Écailles de lune does this masterfully, putting a kind of beauty typically not associated with metal in the forefront. Trve kvltists, tweenagers in deathcore regalia, and cranky longhairs all balked at Alcest’s surprising sweetness, but those sympathetic to it found solace in Neige’s unique vision. In theory, metal shouldn’t make you feel warm. In fact, well, shut up.

4. Kylesa, Spiral Shadow (Season of Mist)

Kylesa on a year end list? Who’da thunk? Me, that’s fucking who. The Georgian quintet hit their stride with (this writer’s ’09 #2) Static Tensions, and continued to hit the shit out of it with Spiral Shadow, an album utilizing the band’s newfound appreciation for song brevity to maximum effect. Undoubtedly a Kylesa album, it doesn’t sound like the band’s other work, but instead one that seeks to improve upon what they’d already done well. Though it may not have completely succeeded in that, what they produced is a record that states that, as excellent as the band are now, their best days are still forthcoming. This isn’t to say Spiral Shadow is a footnote, though. It’s a collection of sludgy heavyness, Pixies-worthy workmanlike catchiness, and psychedelic tendencies reined in enough to not have the album descend into pointless wanking. It’s a metal album for metalheads who listen to other stuff on occasion.

3. Deftones, Diamond Eyes (Warner Bros. / Reprise)

So, yeah, confession time: I’ve liked Deftones more consistently than probably any other band, dating all the way back to when I was a wee O’Hagar in the halcyon days of the mid-’90s. And, though my bias is evident, there may be no better band to grow up with than them, dudes who went from skateboard-obsessed rap-metallers to Ozzfest-headling nu-metal sympathizers to surprisingly mature gentlemen capable of combining their loves of My Bloody Valentine, Suicidal Tendencies, and Meshuggah in an alarmingly natural-sounding way. And though the band have yet to put out a bad album (though I’ll admit being 14 probably made Adrenaline a lot more charming than I would find it today), this year’s Diamond Eyes is among their best (certainly since White Pony, if not outshining that record altogether). It’s full of big-ass Deftones singles (the title track, “Rocket Skates”), the best ballad of their career (the gorgeous and unfortunately titled “Sextape”), and a sorta-sexy, totally ballsy, groove-heavy number based on a riff they totally lifted from Meshuggah’s “Dancers to a Discordant System” (album centerpiece “You’ve Seen the Butcher”). Though the band have gone through a number of changes that would make you concerned that they’d jump the shark– from hiring a DJ as a full time member to fighting with the guy who produced The Wall to former bassist Chi Cheng’s tragically career-ending car accident– they still manage to greatly impress, to the point where you wonder why you’d ever thought of them as anything less than completely reliable. They’re not a band to which one should be an apologist; calling them nu-metal is so 1999. Diamond Eyes is the band at their best, even if it’s a best some of us are already used to.

2. Deathspell Omega, Paracletus (N.E.D. / Ajna Offensive)

I’ve said my piece on this album fairly recently, so I’ll just add that the fact that I’ve been referring to it as Paracletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel hasn’t diminished how phenomenal it is.

1. Decrepit Birth, Polarity (Nuclear Blast)

It’s hard to make technical death metal pervious beyond melting one’s face off with brutality and instrumental prowess. It’s even harder to combine it with melodic death metal and prog without sounding like a novelty, even if a very pleasing one. But Decrepit Birth did so ably on Polarity, harnessing tech-death’s relentlessness and 14-hour practice session musicianship with actual songs that not only stuck, but affected. It’s an emotional journey as much as it is a heavy one, and the fact that the two work almost constantly in tandem makes Polarity not just an album to admire, but one to invest oneself in. The Pro-Tools era has often buried any sign of humanity under a sheen of alien perfection and pre-packaged anger and extremity, while the rise of emo and metalcore have made the default mode for expressing humanity cheesy choruses equipped with tone-deaf (or worse: Autotuned) bellowing. Decrepit Birth pander to neither side on Polarity, instead opting to translate what they’re trying to say via extremely accessible (well, for metalheads, anyway) yet seriously uncompromising death metal. Albums this purely enjoyable don’t come around often.

-SO

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