VINCE NEILSTEIN’S TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2008
2008 was a fine fucking year in metal if you ask me. There was such an abundance of quality, new metal at our disposal all year long that I found myself constantly struggling to balance keeping up with it all and still finding time to, ya know, rock out to the good shit and properly enjoy it. Not a bad problem to have.
In preparation for compiling this list, I did my best to go back and listen to every one of these to re-assess their potential awesomeness. And I’m glad I did; while some albums held onto their charm or even ripened with age, others didn’t seem quite so special a few months on.
Enough already; here’s my list.
10. Scar Symmetry – Holographic Universe: Sweden’s own Death Jovi delivered with another batch of delectable melodeath smash hits. Many bands have attempted this formula of good cop / bad cop melodic death metal, but where most have failed Scar Symmetry have perfected it. The heavy moments are the darkest, the melodic moments the sweetest, and most of all the choruses are the biggest, bombastic, giant-sized hooks known to man. Songs are where this band shines, and Holographic Universe is full of ’em; no other band in 2008 has perfected the art of the song like Scar Symmetry has. These guys could keep releasing albums like this until the day they all die and I’d be a happy man.
9. Trivium – Shogun. Trivium have worked hard to shed the “metalcore” and “Metalli-poser” tags unfairly slapped on them throughout their career, and with Shogun they were monumentally successful at that in a tangible way. Unlikely to appear on many other year-end lists precisely because of these pre-conceived notions, Shogun proves that Trivium’s sound has evolved into one that is completely their own, not derivative in the slightest. Shogun showcases the band stepping it up on all fronts; the riffs are tighter, bigger and more grandiose, the leads more intricate and impressive, the songs leaner and meaner. Matt Heafy has improved leaps and bounds as a vocalist, incorporating several styles into an approach that finally distinguishes him from the pack. Anyone looking for an incredibly solid, straight up metal record who missed this one the first time around ought to give a serious re-listen, pronto. This is Trivium’s best record to date, though the album is front-loaded with all the good stuff first.
8. Textures – Silhouettes: Even if not exactly pushing the envelope, Dutch progsters Textures hit a nerve with their blend of mind-bending, groove-laden Meshuggah style riffery and atmospheric metal soundscapes. The band’s musical aptitude is always on display, whether they’re ripping your face off with aggro guitar sledgehammers or bathing you in an audio bath of sweet, metallic goodness; but it’s actually frontman Jochem Jacobs whose performance pushes Silhouettes over the edge. Jacobs, like his bandmates, is capable of a wide range of styles, but his delivery is never predictable or mundane; his Jens Kidman bark and Patton-esque croon are equally convincing and equally critical parts of the band’s appeal and overall sound. Maybe some day they’ll come to America and unleash the fury stateside.
7. Made Out of Babies – The Ruiner: Brooklyn’s Made Out of Babies elevated their game to the next level with this cohesive collection of artsy, heady, yet accessible metal. On The Ruiner, the band’s unique brand of heavy finds them experimenting with metal, noise, punk and occasionally even indie rock; this ain’t your poppa’s metal but it’s no less heavy or awe-inspiring. Julie Christmas’ voice is haunting, dramatic, intense and supremely expressive, adding to the wicked brew of characteristics that make The Ruiner so unique.
6. Enslaved – Vertebrae: I’m not intimately familiar with Enslaved’s catalog, but I have no reason to doubt those who claim that Norway’s Enslaved are currently making some of the best music of their entire 15+ year career; but the thing is, even on its own, Vertebrae is an excellent, excellent work. The band is in no small part responsible for the current explosion of psychedelic black metal, and with Vertebrae they prove why they’re still the masters. Epic, classic rock-flavored guitars mix with black metal screeches and blast beats to create a blend of music that just works against all pre-conceived notions of what you’d think would sound good together. The played-down but still clear production works in the band’s favor, too: it’s raw, but not “lo-fi for the sake of lo-fi” black metal raw; there isn’t much in the way of gussied-up effects, but it’s by no means under-produced. It’s just simple, and for music that is so uncompromisingly un-simple, the production just serves to put the focus on the music. Enslaved are genre pioneers to be sure, and Vertebrae is a fantastic record that proves why. This is the black metal record for people who say they don’t like black metal.
5. Arsis – We Are The Nightmare: Whenever I seek to support my claim that heavy metal (some of it, anyway) is a modern extension of classical music, this is the album to which I turn. Jim Malone is a mad genius whose music school background is constantly apparent throughout this dazzling display of fast, furious, highly technical, Euro-influenced, neo-classical death metal chops that somehow never lose site of brutality, melody or songwriting. Everything is turned up to 11 performance-wise. The guitar and drum work on this album are stellar, but particularly the guitar work; riff after riff, solo after solo, melody after melody, We Are The Nightmare never lets up and never ceases to astonish, technically proficient and then some without ever feeling overbearing or bloated.
4. Nachtmystium – Assassins: Black Meddle Pt. 1: Nachtmystium may well have laid the modern blueprint for the psychedelic black metal formula that Enslaved pioneered. On Assassins, these Chicagoans have taken everything to the next level, most notably the intensity. There’s just something about this record — reinforced by seeing the band live — that is just so fucking intense and serious. You can’t not feel the gravity of this music. What’s more, the album is a pseudo-conceptual tribute to Pink Floyd’s opus Meddle, both indirectly — in the form of subtle influence, atmospherics, chord structures — and outwardly — in the form of black metalized odes to particular Floyd songs from that album (“One of These Days” and “Echoes”). An acid trip of an album to be sure from a band with a very bright future.
3. Byzantine – Oblivion Beckons: Every list has that token “criminally overlooked” album, and this is mine. For the love of fucking God, Byzantine made a ridiculously solid, killer fucking metal album, and no one paid attention to it because they broke up 4 days after the album came out. People, you’re missing out!! Oblivion Beckons is by far the band’s best work; the album is chock full of groove-heavy riffs, artfully intricate guitar solos, and master song-construction. It’s heavy as fuck, the riffs are anything but stock, and the twists and turns of each song are anything but predictable yet make complete sense in retrospect. Every song is a winner, the musicianship is top-grade, and Chris “OJ” Ojeda’s voice constantly morphs to fit the need of the moment, even if his occasional vomiting rabbit howl is annoying. Nevertheless, every time I listen to this album it gets better and better, the true sign of a classic.
2. Protest The Hero – Fortress: Protest The Hero certainly win the award for “Breakout Performance” of 2008; no other band came from seemingly out of nowhere and took the metal world by storm as much as Protest did with Fortress. It was an unlikely conquest to be sure; the band previously made their living more often on the Warped Tour side of the fence than not, and its members don’t exactly all look like metal dudes. But make no mistake about it, this is a metal album, and a really special and unique one at that. The mix of Sikth-ish cookiness, Dream Theater-inspired neo-classical shred, a distinctly punk background, and an improbable metal vocalist in the form of the enigmatic Rody Walker make for a special brew indeed, and Protest have successfully turned the metal world on its head by changing the definitions and parameters of what could and should be called metal, all without necessarily simply being “more heavy.” Fortress is a genre-stretching, envelope-pushing album and is highly deserved of the heaps of praised it has received.
1. Gojira – The Way of All Flesh: With The Way of All Flesh, Gojira became the rare band who actually fulfilled all expectations and lived up to all the hype, finding new ways to be the heaviest fucking band in existence. But what’s special about Gojira and the monumental The Way of All Flesh is how Gojira have managed to push the boundaries of heavy not by subscribing to the “more, more, more” philosophy of faster/harder/bigger but by injecting it with a certain amount of artfulness and intelligence distinctly their own. The main riff in “Oroborus” and the opening sequence of “Toxic Garbage Island” are two of the most mind-blowing metal moments put to tape in years and are worth the price of admission alone. How this band is so adept at being so fucking heavy yet still artsy, cool and intricate boggles the mind. That the band’s lyrics are environmentally, politically and spiritually conscious is the icing on the cake that serves this point. Gojira are the thinking man’s metal band of 2008 and beyond, and The Way Of All Flesh captures them in their prime, which we hope lasts many, many more years.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
The Faceless – Planetary Duality: A face-ripper of an album, one of the more exciting young bands on the scene today. Progressive, technical death metal at its finest.
Cynic – Traced In Air: An excellent return to form by a legendary band. A reunion done right; for once.
Torche – Meanderthal: Though I can’t in good conscience put it on a list of metal albums, Torche made a helluva record in Meanderthal. I don’t quite get the seemingly endless praise this record receives from more punk and indie-centric critics, but Meanderthal is a really good record to be sure.
Shinedown – The Sound of Madness: See above about the rock vs. metal issue. But holy shit did Shinedown deliver with this one; a fine return to form, The Sound of Madness has songs upon songs upon songs. The year’s best hard rock record without a doubt.
After the Burial – Rareform: Excellent debut record that showcases the talent of a band on the rise. Look for big things from these technical masters in the future.
Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy: Nothing could live up to the 17-year hype, but Chinese Democracy is a fine piece of work that unfortunately suffers from being judged on factors other than the music contained thereon. The lofty production is to me really interesting, counter to the claims of many that it’s “over produced.”
Eluveitie – Slania: Best pagan/folk metal release of the year, hands down. And that’s saying a lot in these pagantastic times.
To-Mera – Delusions: Intricate but understated classic prog metal with haunting female vocals.
Thanks for reading. Agree / disagree? Discuss.