Sammy O’Hagar’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2012
Election years, man. I’d say, “What is it about them that usually bring about such great music and movies?” but… well, the answer’s obvious: the world is all worked up over some shit, art reacts to the world, and people want to make significant statements. But back in the halcyon days of seeing Russia from your house and the last glimmer in the twilight of America’s economic dominance, metal didn’t seem this good. From week one (in fact, see my #15 for week one), great releases were falling into our collective lap. And not just interesting upstarts putting stuff out on Profound Lore or something, but big-ass names that’ve long been holding out on getting something together. I cheekily replied to a QOTW post regarding what our most anticipated release of the year would be that it would be either Pig Destroyer, Neurosis, or Gorguts, and perhaps to specifically make me look like an asshole, two out of three of them would release new music for the first time in five years (though Gorguts is still holding out. Pony up, you filthy hosers!) And not just shitting something out to keep their fans at shows, but magnificent, career-best stuff.
That was the kind of year it was: metal was just extra-good. I’d never given out a 5-horn rating at the end of 2011; this year I’ve gladly doled out two. I’ll most likely be playing catch-up well into March of ’13 (hell, I’ve only gotten around to hearing the first track off that new Krallice record), and I’m fine with that. This year had quite a few front-to-back excellent metal albums that need require being digested, so more time for what I missed would be better. Invisible Oranges recently asked when metal would die; after a year like this, I would safely say… not for at least another seven months.
Though I loved Écailles de Lune, the album felt like it was ultimately holding back: its great moments were great, but they could have been greater; it felt like a husk torn off of something more thoroughly assembled. Les Voyages De L’Âme fleshes more out, melding the songwriting of Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde with the rawness of their earlier work in a way that makes the record feel like the most complete thought Alcest have had so far. Perhaps the fascinating side projects of the band’s mastermind Neige gave him the courage to confidently stretch the band out to its limits, revealing a tapestry rich with detail and fulfilled potential instead of just a fascinating snapshot.
Listen: “Summer’s Glory”
Please note that the inclusion of Family on my year-end list has nothing to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars Metal Sucks scribe Kip Wingershmidt/Family guitarist Steven Gordon has arbitrarily paid me over the years with “Remember Family’s Portrait when it comes out, boss” written in the memo line on the dozens of checks I’ve received. Because really, after a decade or so of post-sludge/doom/metalgaze bands, they manage to find something quite substantial to draw from the heavy-‘cept-not-heavy well. Vocalist Kurtis Lee Applegate’s raspy sludegcore scream hovers over riffs that volley between genres ably. Similar to bands like Disappearer, Family happily reside in a gray area between metal and other seemingly disparate yet perfectly suitable genres like prog, classic, and heavier alt-rock. All this brought to you in part by the man who made it possible for me to buy that fleet of yachts instead of doing something silly like paying down student loan and credit card debt.
It’s so, so easy to take Cattle Decapitation for granted: on the surface, they’re essentially a novelty band, and being the road (humanely treated) dogs they are, they’re sort of always around. And yet, it’s easy to forget that they make some of the unquestionably goddamn best deathgrind there is, with each album building on the foundation of the ones that came before it. Monolith of Inhumanity is their most confident and expansive so far, sounding– perhaps for the first time–much, much bigger than the scrawny guys you’ve seen playing some shithole bar or sandwiched between medio-core bands that have already risen and wilted on some ‘fest lineup. Cattle Decapitation are more than those vegans who love Napalm Death; they’re some of death metal and grindcore’s most vicious defenders of all that’s blistering and fierce.
Listen: “Your Disposal”
If one of your fey, Sword-“loving” friends asks what death metal is, the first thirty-five seconds of “Haruspex” should sum everything up quite nicely.
Listen: “Invoked Infinity”
Post- Strapping Young Lad Devin Townsend has the Frank Zappa problem: I’m sure there’s plenty of it I’d like but there’s such an abundance of it that it’s hard to know where to jump in and have it make sense. So maybe it’s not fair to randomly re-board the Devy Express at Epicloud when the last solo(ish) project of his I spent significant time with was Infinity (which I still love). But… my God, is Epicloud something to behold. The “I Want to Know What Love Is” gospel choirs! The Meshuggah-on-Zoloft riffs on “Grace”! The relentless positivity and meadows of heavy-ass guitars! There’s screaming and double-bass, but the usual underpinning of negativity that bolsters it is entirely absent. Epicloud is like having an entire Thanksgiving dinner consisting of nothing but marshmallows without the accompanying stomach ache. Now all I have to do is catch up with those four albums that came out last year and that one about the alien who wants a cup of coffee or whatever and… see? I’m already tired.
Listen: “Collision Course”
In theory, we want our favorite bands to keep making the albums we love over and over. But what happens when they do and the results are… fine, you guess? Dying Fetus have had this problem for their last two or so albums, basically releasing finely-orchestrated reconstructions of Destroy the Opposition, which, while technically impressive, lacked the insistency and soul of that death metal hallmark. And I’ll be damned if I could tell you what exactly the band changed for Reign Supreme, but whatever micromanagements they made were profoundly effective. The result is probably the best record they’ve made since the one they spent a chunk of their career recreating. This gives us hope for the Dying Fetus to come, or at least for another excellent album 12 or so years from now with a few more Reign Supremes in between.
Listen: “Devout Atrocity”
One of metal’s most consistent bands brought forth more sludgy Motorhead jams that rival their Albini-or-Endino-produced high water marks. Though to be fair, what more would you expect from Sexy Matt Pike?
Listen: “Bloody Knuckles”
I lost faith in Nachtmystium after Black Meddle Part 2, in that while expanding their sound far past where the band had been before, they surrendered their personality in the process. Silencing Machine is an appropriate step back into the band’s comfort zone. By reminding themselves and their audience that they’re fundamentally a black metal band—Blake Judd never sings on the album, and the production is caked in mud and reverb—they’ve managed to reconnect with what helped make them the big name they are: a band in love with Burzum, Darkthrone, and Pink Floyd all at the same time, liberally borrowing from the darkness, bleakness, and strangeness of each to make something brilliantly unique. Even adding Sanford “Yeah, slap some Moog on top of that tremolo picking, then we’ll go on and master it” Parker as a full-time member provided the band with a new perspective: he added sparse, interesting, and appropriate noise more akin to no-wave than King Crimson. Easily Nachtmystium’s best since before Assassins, and maybe even their best yet.
Listen: “The Lepers of Destitution”
They don’t make bands like Gojira anymore: not since the days when Pantera had a surprisingly uncompromising album debut at #1 has a band who borrowed so liberally from the commercial poison of the underground to produce something that could land so easily with both casual and lifelong metal fans. Combining the focus of From Mars to Sirius and the peaks of the ultimately uneven The Way of All Flesh, L’Enfant Sauvage fulfills the promise of Gojira’s Morbid-Angel-meets-groove-metal approach. While perhaps lacking the flow of a more thoroughly thought-out album, Sauvage is a killer collection of songs, featuring an endless succession of blissfully proggy metal riffs and Mario Duplantier’s turbulent, inventive drumming. Gojira are, at best, the coalescence of what’s great about metal right now. This is the strongest we’ve heard them thus far.
Listen: “The Gift of Guilt”
Like America’s own Anso DF and seemingly the rest of the internet, I was a bit underwhelmed by the singles Deftones released for their new album after the merely very good “Leathers”. And as Anso pointed out, when heard in the context of the album, they make total sense. Even “Tempest”, the most underwhelming of all, sounds like the grown-up brother of “Bored” in the sequence of Koi No Yokan. And grown-up seems to be a theme on the album: it’s probably the band’s poppiest release to date, as well as their most focused in quite a while. The choruses are all huge, and the snarl and rumble of Stephen Carpenter’s 8-string riffs sound as arena-ready as Escape-era Neil Schon. But this isn’t a sell-out album: it’s still as recognizable and distinctive as the band always have sounded. So go ahead, motherfucker. Call them nu-metal. How’s that new Parkway Drive album sound? Like it was made by 15 year olds? Of course.
The middle ground between the powerviolent self-mutilation of Prowler in the Yard and the meticulously-constructed longer jams of Phantom Limb. In other words, it’s exactly as good as a five-year wait would require. And to answer everyone’s question, yes, Scott Hull’s dick tastes like bacon; however, his balls taste like hash browns. I didn’t used to think hash browns had a distinct taste, but… well, here we are.
As a black metal band, Enslaved were an interesting listen. And I’m not sure you can safely or accurately call them a black metal band anymore. But as the band they are now, they’re just as good as any metal band you can name. And all 67 minutes of RIITIIR are worthwhile, shamelessly prog and grim in equal doses. We probably have another few years of formerly corpsepainted and obscure black metal bands slathering some organ or heavily-processed guitar over their raw grumbling, all of them sniffing around the base camp of a mountain Enslaved have already climbed over several times.
Listen: “Death in the Eyes of Dawn”
I had a deep, Republican Party-grade internal struggle while trying to decide which album to name the best of the year. Do I make a 1A and 1B and release a Top 14 list to sidestep the Metal Sucks charter? Do I award the number 1 album to another career-high album in a series of career-high albums that goes back 16-or-so years by one of my absolute favorite bands? Do I make Honor Found in Decay number one and risk drawing more attention to the fact that some 9-year-old shithead is after my job?
Listen: “My Heart for Deliverance”
1. Baroness — Yellow & Green (Relapse)
…or do I give it to one of metal’s most buzzed-about acts finally releasing an album that triumphantly lives up to their hype, so good I consider it the best metal album of the year despite the fact that it’s not really a metal album? Even when the album was released in July, it had the wind at its back; Yellow & Green was a real watershed moment for the band. Then the bus accident happened, quite literally crippling the band and giving the album a mythological, catastrophic narrative. Will Yellow & Green be their last proper album, and if not, will whatever they release next be able withstand the buildup that will inevitably come with what they sculpt together? They’ve already cleared their own impossibly lofty expectations once with this album, and maybe no band—especially not a band this relatively young—can pull something like that off twice. But before the tragedy, before the specter of John Baizley never fully getting the feeling back in his hand, Yellow & Green was a singular and special album. It could easily satiate its longtime fans that had been paying attention to the trajectory Baroness had been traveling on since starting out as Mastodon Lite, and it’s just as good as any other rock record that came out this year. This was Baroness’ year, and unfortunately, the latter half of it gave equal weight to unfortunate circumstance as it did to rightful ascendance. Which, in a prophetic, meta-textual fashion, was how Yellow & Green sounded before anything else happened.
Listen: “The Line Between”