Andy O’Connor’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2012
Unlike most people assigned to do these things, I actually enjoy making lists. Sweating over who deserves the number nine spot? What a thrill! Deciding who I have to bump off? Motorboating Christina Hendricks couldn’t beat it. I’ve made lists of many different things before I had pubes, so of course it’s natural that I’d making a dumb list for this esteemed publication. As such, I have no clue why people get so butthurt over the idea of lists. Lighten up, you uptight fucks. They’re fun, and if you got beef with me (and you will!), what’s more fun than arguing about music? Those dudes that got incensed when Jam Master Jay and Skrillex were annointed as some of the “greatest guitarists ever” by Spin got fucking trolled, and they deserved it.
Here’s fifteen albums I listened to when I wasn’t blasting Pantera and Type O Negative in my car like I was 16 again.
Electric Wizard are known cheefers, but what if they recorded their last album as speedfreaks? It’d sound like Wild Beyond Belief, the first full-length from Satan’s Satyrs, the recording name for crazed Virigina doom-punker Clayton “Claythanas” Burgess. He makes tunes that sound like your favorite doom record played at 45 RPM. Fuzz is the buzz here, and like the Wizard, Burgess realizes that gnarly riffs deserve gnarly hooks. This is garage rock that got kicked out for looking too cool, playing too hard, and bringing over a bunch of biker assholes that drank all the cheap beer, tore up all the cheap furniture, and ran off with all the cheap chicks. That hot date you took to the Ty Segall show – s/he scared of metal, but there still may be something there? Wild Beyond Belief is your 12 Play.
Listen: “Sadist 69”
Mirai Kawashima is trippy, mane. He’s led Sigh for over two decades, and that freak flag hasn’t been torn to shreds yet. The weirdness doesn’t stop on In Somniphoria. The first two tracks, “Purgatorium” and “The Transfiguration Fear,” start off metal enough, albeit with organs and saxophone. From there, shit gets really wacky. Shattered radio signals, broken trip-hop, George Benson cool guitar runnings, Santana-esque noodling, and buried bird chrips get thrown into the mix during the course of the album. How is this not some Iwrestledabearonce-style mess? Kawashima has a background in composition for radio and television shows – his arrangement skills are stronger than most of his contemporaries. He’s got this chaos under control. Kawashima isn’t the only star of the show – Dr. Mikannibal, saxophonist, vocalist, and Kawashima’s lover, provides a stellar performance too. She’s got growls that will put most men to shame, and her saxophone licks are sensual. They’re a match made in blissful hell.
Listen: “The Transfiguration Fear”
This release, as well as the next one on my list, show how man can extract soul from electronic music. After all, man built the machines? In Author and Punisher’s case, it’s quite literal, as Tristan Shone builds all his instruments, aka “drone machines.” Seem like novelty that bloggers would get all cutsey over? Ursus Americanus says otherwise. Author & Punisher aren’t that droney, even the Broadrick-sippin’-lean “Set Flames.” There’s a weird tone throughout the record, sorta like a tinny buzz that gets supplanted with tons of low end. Truly the sound of a mechanized dystopia. “Mercy Dub” will make you nostalgic for Painkiller’s dub experiments, in a good way. The biggest loop, however, is “Below and Above You.” Synth strings and bass rumbles layer over muted R&B vocals. Did How To Dress Well cross Shone, and he captured him? Who knows for sure, but we do know that Ursus Americanus is one hell of a trip.
Man dominates machine, part 2. Theologian provide 2012’s answer for Bermuda Drain with The Chasms of My Heart. It’s a noise record, but an intensely personal one. Lee M. “Leech” Bartow really bleeds his suffering all over the record, with smatters of static, molested bass, Lustmord drifts, ambient stretches that Stars of the Lid would fancy, and synthetic horns and strings that barely resemble their original forms. Layers build upon layers, creating a sentient wall of tortured visages howling at you even though you can’t help them. You’ll snap. The title track sounds like Daft Punk is playing at Theologian’s house, and the screams of James Murphy being beaten to death are amplified to the forefront. Be advised of this when listening with a friend who cried during Shut Up And Play The Hits. “Every Road Leads to Abandonment” tells you to fuck off for 13 minutes, unleashing torrents of noise before the record comes to a halt. A challenging effort, but well worth the long running time.
Listen: “The Chasms of My Heart”
Torche weren’t in hibernation between Meanderthal, their breakout album, and Harmonicraft, but one can’t help but feel that things needed to pick up slack. Songs For Singles was a collection of great tracks, but it wasn’t the followup to Meanderthal that many were looking for. Harmonicraft is. There’s not much differentiating this from other Torche efforts – the hooks are huge, Steve Brooks has a great ear for melody, and there’s even a spacey jam towards the end of the record. BUT, everything is sunnier and heavier and prettier and “let’s get wasted!”-er. “Kiss Me Dudely” in particular would be blowing up radio stations in a parallel universe where Torche just wrapped up a week-long residency at Barclays Center. And as far as album art goes, it’s #1. You’re not too metal for rainbows.
Death Grips getting signed to Epic was a surprise. Hip hop trios built on sampling Black Flag, Zach Hill going off on the drums and a seriously angry MC usually don’t get major contracts or comparisons to Whitney Houston. Them getting kicked off was anything but a shocker. Drama’s for the theater, we’re gonna save that for another time. For all the trouble, they did get a great record in The Money Store. It’s not as outright abrasive as Exmilitary, their debut, but they retained a lot of intensity for being more “accessible.” Take “I’ve Seen Footage,” for instance. It’s got the makings of a club banger with its supercharged hyperfuturistic beat. MC Ride gets his hype man on, but one that’s confrontational. You’re dancing AND fearing for your life. Hill’s reputation is largely built on his drum prowess, but he scales back the technicality and embraces the beat on Store.
Listen: “I’ve Seen Footage”
Flo Mournier, feeling a rumbly in his tummy, yelled, “It’s Dinner Time.” Lord Worm, never one to turn down a culinary battle, handed him Unrelenting Fucking Hatred. Perhaps it’s unfair to always compare Rage Nucleaire and Cryptopsy to each other. Then again, maybe Cryptopsy should find a new vocalist. Lord Worm is one of the few who truly has his OWN voice, and his snarls and barks are welcomed back into the consciousness of metalheads. Symphonic black metal is a genre that’s been left for dead, and Rage Nucleaire bring it back to life by sheer virtue of remembering what it is to be vicious, not frilly. Hatred is not a subtle affair, from the constant blasts, the wall of tremolos, Lord Worm’s lyrics (here’s a sample, from “The Gift of the Furnace”: “One doesn’t get to watch people burn as often in life as one might like to/because humans burn like nothing else: this fact alone makes it all worth it”), right down to the album title itself. This is total war.
Listen: “Sorrow Children At Morningside”
On Deathless Master, San Francisco’s Acephalix have become the death metal equivalent of Tyrant from Resident Evil. In their human form, they were a crust band with heavy leanings towards death metal. Now they have mutated into a death metal killing machine, shedding nearly all of their crust influence. Daniel Butler’s growls have gotten even deeper, and Kyle House’s guitars are rattier and knottier. Sweden remains one of their chief influences, but they don’t aim for that buzzsaw ripoff deal. There’s nary a D-beat on Master, as Dave Benson’s drumming is much more straightforward. No fat on this bitch – and you better run. Master serves as a fitting coda to producer Jef Leppard, who passed away earlier this year. RIP to a crucial part of Bay Area Metal.
Listen: “On Wings”
Patton Oswalt once referred to Virginia as “the strip-mall South,” but the Old Dominion can get plenty deep in that Dirty South stank too. Enter Richmond’s Lil Ugly Mane, the grimiest dude in the game right now. Like any Southern rapper worth his candy paint slab, he may not have the vocabulary of Kool Keith, but his rhythm carries tons of serial-killer confidence. Lil Ugly Mane is obviously influenced by the woozy, menacing stylings of Three 6 Mafia’s earlier material, but he applies his own twisted sense of humor to the Memphis-flavored brew. On “Bitch I’m Lugubrious” – real talk, is there a better song title than that? – his desires are simple: “I ain’t really nothin’ like a hero/I just wanna get my dick sucked and multiply them zeros.” So do we, so do we. “Slick Rick” sees Lil Ugly Mane becoming the evil twin of Too $hort, cumming on girls’ church dresses and “leaving ’em messy in the presence of God.” He’s as blasphemous as he wants to be, and he needs to record his own take on “Freaky Tales” stat. Lil Ugly Mane doesn’t sip syrup – he’s got a “Cup Fulla Beetlejuice,” complete with a beat that sounds like DJ Screw strangling a monster movie. Most of his beats go hard, but he can slow it down too, as evidenced in the RZA-esque jazzy pianos of “Lugubrious” and the smooth Clams Casino vibe on “Breezem Out.” Isolation is clearly not from our plane, and that what makes it so amazing.
Listen: “Slick Rick”
I’m not a huge punk guy. It takes something monumental to get me to even notice. The Men’s Open Your Heart assuredly commanded my attention. They’ve got the expansive eye of Sonic Youth and the pop sensibilities of Husker Du, and that penchant for catchiness is a greater part of Heart than their earlier material. “Turn It Around” has all the energy of a Springsteen song, but meaner and leaner. They’ve got a country ballad for kids who’ve longed escaped the plains, in the form of“Candy.” And they’re not ashamed to jam on “Oscillation” and “Presence” because they’ve got a better idea of what it means to “jam” than competitive hacky-sack players living in Boulder. A perfect soundtrack for making your own version of the “Dirty Boots” video.
Listen: “Turn It Around”
High on Fire have never suffered from a shortage of good songs, but for a while, it looked like only PT Cruiser appreciator and professional curmudgeon Steve Albini could truly capture their shirts-optional power. Not that the records following Blessed Black Wings were soft – Snakes For The Divine made my 2010 end-of-year list – but when it came to productions values, Albini’s touch was the only one burly enough. High on Fire brought Converge’s Kurt Ballou to produce De Vermis Mysteriis, and as a result, it challenges the dominance of Wings. Ballou really brings out the golem-smash force of Des Kensel’s drums, the subterranean rumble of Jeff Matz, and most importantly, the valkyres that fly out of Matt Pike’s guitars. It’s nice to see a Ballou success not on Southern Lord. Is Mysteriis too loud for the crowd? The crowd ain’t for us. Now that I’ve lathered on the praise, I gotta ask: what is up with that album art? Atrocious.
Listen: “Spiritual Rites”
In recent years, some of the best metal, doom in particular, has been made by duos. Black Cobra’s charging sludge, Dark Castle’s psychedelic nightmares, The Body’s psychotic offerings, to name a few. Seattle’s Bell Witch, made up of bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond and drummer/vocalist Adrian Guerra, are another duo that make supreme noise with minimal personnel. Their music is drawn-out and painful, with most songs on their debut, Longing, exceeding the ten-minute mark. For fuck’s sake, the opener, “Bails (Of Flesh),” is 20 minutes long! If you can’t handle that, you’re not ready for the rest of the record. It may get somewhat more concise, but it does not get easier to digest. Desmond and Guerra seem possessed, as if they’re less trying to play music and more trying to exorcise something corrupting their bodies and souls. There’s also a Jekyll-and-Hyde effect with their vocals – Desmond’s cleans suggest some unfulfilled longing, while Guerra goes for more guttural agony. Funeral doom that has the potential to join the greats of Thergothon, Esoteric, and Skepticism.
Listen: “Bails (of Flesh)”
There are such things as new directions in glam metal. Sleigh Bells, comprised of singer Alexis Krauss and guitarist/drum programmer Derek Miller (formerly of Poison the Well) may not think of their music as such, but they really are the natural progression of 80s radio metal. Big guitars, teenage dreams and a “fuck you!” to subtlety are all present, fused with modern dance beats. Reign of Terror sees the duo streamlining their noise-pop, placing even more focus on overdriven guitars, Krauss’ angelic-cheerleader vocals, and Godflesh-on-X drums. Yeah, they were on the cover of Spin, but if it’ll get kids interested in loud guitars instead of wanting to be The Shins, Sleigh Bells are fucking humanitarians. The standout track is “Comeback Kid,” which should have been the biggest pop single this year. Brightness can’t stop, won’t stop. Krauss has video-vixen looks, but on “Kid,” she proves she can be a bit of a smartass too. “Road to Hell,” which leads off the ballad-y last four songs, is Judas Priest’s “Love Bites” filtered through Sade, creating Lovers Metal. Don’t be afraid to move on the floor. Just dance.
Listen: “Comeback Kid”
Book Burner was the most anticipated album of 2012, AND of 2011. Did the quartet live up to the hype? The quote from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer at the beginning of “The Bug” sums up record best: “This here? This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty, what you will.” So, yes. Scott Hull provides a reliable battery as usual, but once again, the real hero of Pig Destroyer is J.R. Hayes’ lyrics. “Eve,” sung by Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s Kat Katz, goes beyond rote Bible-bashing, especially in the latter half: “As she bled gold/I told her/I’d build her/A slaughterhouse/Of her very own.” Hayes also achieve the nearly impossible in metal: presenting lyrics that describe violence towards women without promoting it. This is demonstrated in “Baltimore Strangler,” where he screams “The other day, I followed her all the way from Hopkins to the harbor/I lost her in the crowd when the O’s game let out/I never saw that girl again/It’s a shame/I just wanted to hold her like an anaconda.” He’s got a skill for making characters, and using locales like Reptilian Records and Rocket to Venus in “Strangler” heightens the realism. Enough textual citations, let’s grind.
Listen: “Valley of the Geysers”
1. Pallbearer – Sorrow and Extinction (Profound Lore)
Pallbearer dominated the metal game in 2012. It’s not even close. Sorrow and Extinction is one of those records that, should things play out, people will talk about years from now. “Foreigner” leads off the record with an acoustic segue that gives way to thundering doom. Brett Campbell’s vocals are a little lower in the mix than on Pallbearer’s 2010 demo, but they still soar. “Devoid of Redemption” and “The Legend,” rerecorded from the aforementioned demo, are warmer compared to their earlier incarnations. Bassist Jospeh Rowland commented to me at the beginning of the year that they wanted Sorrow to sound more like their live sound, and boy, did they succeed. From there, “An Offering of Grief” takes us on a crooked road, with jagged soloing and angrier vocals from Campbell. The whole affair ends with “Given to the Grave,” one of the most beautiful metal songs of recent memory. Lyrically sparse, filled with choral effects and mournful dirges, it really must be heard to be believed. Sorrow does deal with dark themes, but at the same time, the quality of the music itself makes it a joyous record. If folks can make music this well-crafted, this heart-wrenching, there is beauty in the world, and life is worth living. The fact that Sorrow came out in January made 2012 quite difficult for doom bands, save for the earlier mentioned Bell Witch. None of them could come close to Pallbearer’s mastery. This is way, way beyond Side B of My War. We can only hope our memories won’t fade.
Listen: “Devoid of Redemption”