AXL ROSENBERG’S TOP FIFTEEN METAL ALBUMS OF 2011
“Blogging isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.”
Looking over my list once I had completed it, what I came to realize was that Pig Destroyer once again did not release an album this year, those bastards. But the other thing I noticed is that pretty much every album which appears on this list has two things in common: 1) great songwriting, and 2) one twist on genre conventions, however slight, that allows the music to stand out from literally thousands of competing records. I know I’ve emphasized the importance of these elements many times on this site before, but I really just wanna hammer it home. The ongoing democratization of art — i.e., the fact that it’s getting cheaper to make professional-grade albums and self-distribute those albums, and that the gatekeepers’ powers are consequently decreasing — means that now, more than ever, there is a LOT of music out there. A lot of it is awful. A lot of it is pretty great. You need to give people a better reason to remember you than “We’re so competent!” Sorry. It’s not good enough anymore.
Every year that we do these lists, I become increasingly aware that they’re fairly meaningless. I don’t mean that to belittle the accomplishments of the artists who end up on the lists, because they are all worthy of your recognition and support. I really mean it as an apology to all the artists whose accomplishments we can’t recognize because we organize these things with some arbitrary number, and because we use the words “best” and “top” instead just “great.”
But whatever. We’re not writers — we’re just graffiti artists. And who cares what a graffiti artist has to say, right?
I declared this the first great release of 2011 way back in January, and here we are, nearly a year later, and I have only heard but fourteen albums that are superior. Owen Hart’s influences are always obvious, but whether they’re playing a Slayer riff or a Converge riff or a Napalm Death riff or a Whichever Band riff, they’re always playing the most epic damn Whichever Band riff that Whichever Band never wrote. And most of the songs are short — only three are over three minutes long, and only one of those hits the four minute mark or beyond. So Earth Control ends up being one of those great examples of “Leave ’em wanting more.” It’s like gorging on gourmet candy for thirty minutes… only the candy has razors and broken glass hidden in it. Still delicious, though! And did I mention that the last song is called “Fuck Morrisey, Fuck The Smiths, Fuck The Cure?” Well, it is. And it has that awesome Eyehategod riff no that no other bands were able to locate this year. So fuck everyone who doesn’t love this album, too.
Fuck the Facts just get better and better with every release, and Die Miserable is definitely their career high thus far. What I really enjoy about Die Miserable — besides just being, y’know, a totally awesome expression of I-am-going-to-eat-your-family-alive-while-you-watch level rage — are the moments when they do something which sounds really lame on paper, but in reality is painfully cool. Like towards the end of “Lifeless,” when they suddenly kick the listener’s ass with a bunch of totally awesome bass drops that put most slam and deathcore bands to shame. Or that section on “Census Bank” where they almost sound like a European power metal band, only if European power metal bands got laid every once in a while. I’m still used to thinking of Fuck the Facts as a grind band, and that’s really not true anymore — I mean, “Alone” is one of the best death metal songs of the year, and the title track is like white-noise-laden funeral doom. Awesome awesome awesome.
A lot of people, myself included, have really zeroed in on the banjo solo in the song “Myr,” and I totally get it. (Like I said, I am one of those people.) The banjo solo is incredible, and a prime example of that whole “same-but-different-is-awesome” concept. But it’s not like Oceano is one banjo solo away from being a good band. So let’s look at the bigger picture: we all Noregs Vaapen because it is made from a chain of great black metal riffs, each one catchier than the last. Noregs Vaapen is quite a bit longer than Owen Hart’s Earth Control, but the principle is the same: “No parents! ICE CREAM FOR DINNER!!!” Each section of each song is so catchy, in fact, that its conclusion is always a little bittersweet, because you never want it to end, but you know what’s coming next is gonna be fantastic, too. So the first time I heard this album, I listened to it three or four times on repeat. It’s that kind of addictive. In fact, my guess is, if I had heard it earlier in the year and had more time to sit with it, it probably would have been higher on this list. So, so very excellent.
If Taake are masters of catchy riffery, than Goes Cube are masters of structure — or, maybe more accurately, musical plot twists. Take album opener “Safety Coffin,” for example. The song starts, there’s this pretty sweet metallicized hardgrind riff, you’re into it, you’re into it, you’re into it, and then, at the :47 mark BAM! Shit winds down, like the spokes on a wheel when they stop spinning, guitarist/vocalist David Obuchowski shouts something really, really pissed-off sounding about people being on their knees and disease and all that good stuff, and the song becomes something else, and I wanna punch a stranger in the fact, hard. And they do something like that on almost every song — take it some place the listener didn’t see coming, but that is superior to the already-wonderful thing they were playing, which allows the song to climb to new heights of “OH HELL YES.” Sometimes, like on “Year of the Human” and “The Homes Of,” they even do it more than once. And it gives me goosebumps every time.
I’ve heard people referring to Textures as a djent band a lot lately, and while I definitely get that, it still seems kinda weird to me. In any case, lumping them in with that pack for the sake of easy description, allow me to assert that if Meshuggah are the new At the Gates, then Textures are the new Darkest Hour: a band that pre-dated the trend by several years, and who are so good that they simultaneously justify and nullify the existence of that trend. And, again, those whole “being able to write a memorable song” and “incorporate some new elements” things are key — I haven’t listened to this album a gajillion times just because I couldn’t find my copy of Destroy Erase Improve, and that’s really a whole different beast for a different kind of craving, anyway. Bonus points for Daniël de Jongh being able to sing each and every note perfectly in a live setting, too, thereby making the autotuned hordes all look like the schmucks that they are.
10. Rwake, Rest (Relapse)
The other day, a friend was all like, “I need to spend some more time with Rest,” and I was all like, “You can’t just have it playing in the background. You need to get blazed, sit down, and listen to it.” And then, after a second, I added: “Preferably in the dark.” And if you haven’t tried it, I’d recommend you listen to Rwake that way, too. It’s not just that the band has made yet another masterpiece of sludgified doom — in fact, the production on Rest sounds an awful lot brighter and cleaner than that of previous Rwake releases (See how there’s some sun shining over the dead tree on the cover? That seems downright optimistic by Rwake standards!), which I’m sure bothers the close-minded. But what really makes Rest so great — and what justifies the somewhat-different production style — are the all textures on the album. Listening to Rest might be the aural equivalent of reading a really good novel. It’s not for the impatient, or those prone to ignore details. ‘Cause the details are what make it so memorable. A beast of a record.
In what seems like very little time, Mike Keller has established himself as a songwriter with a style that is both highly unique and easily recognizable; the cinematic equivalent would be a director whose movies are identifiable from a single frame of film. This fact was already apparent on MiM’s first release, Mosquito Eater, but now Keller has the aid of genuine collaborators — namely, drummer Frank Godla, bassist Sam Brodsky, and producer Kurt Ballou — to help him realize and enhance his vision, and the results are mind-blowing. Punkish experimental grind that evolves into epic, elegiac rock, every second of which is delectable… I gotta be honest, I really wanted to get involved with this album just so I could hear it as early as possible. I was not disappointed.
Hunter & Arnold’s (Davis & Arnold’s?) place as one of the premiere songwriting teams of the NWOAHM should be secure by now, but just to be safe, they decided to kick everyone’s asses with this album anyway. Chimaira continue to do what they do best, which is evolve: The Age of Hell has Infectious slow grooves like “Powerless” and “Trigger Finger,” Reasonable ragers like the title track and “Born into Blood,” and the prerequisite-for-Chimaira new element, too — Hunter’s use of haunting, echoey, Staley-esque clean vocals, and some riffs that are, frankly, more hard rock than metal, in the best possible way (“Beyond the Grave,” “Time is Running Out”). And, of course, it’s Chimaira, so there’s really no hope of ever not getting it stuck in your head… earlier today, D.X. Ferris made reference to the song “Scapegoat,” and just reading the title trapped the damn chorus in my brain. It’s not yet clear if The Age of Hell is going to be Chimaira’s swan song or just a farewell to Arnold and co-guitarist Matt DeVries, but whomever the going away party ends up being for, it’s clear that they’ve tapped out the bar and demolished the ballroom, that’s for sure. A very high note on which to end an era indeed.
It’s been no secret these past few years that Skeletonwitch are an incredible live band — but Forever Abomination is their first studio effort to truly convey all that power and energy. The band didn’t change their patented blackened death metal flavor so much as they just did everything kind of the same but better: better songs, better production… hell, even the album art is just that much cooler. It’s hard to think of many other modern bands doing traditionalist metal with this much verve; Forever Abomination sounds capital-“E” Evil, as though, if you were to play it backwards, it might actually summon a skeletonwitch. Of course, she’d probably just wanna get you fucked up and watch horror movies. But still.
The risk of a comeback album, of course, is that the band might fail to live up to expectations; so the fact that Decapitated’s competition of “comeback record of this young century so far” pretty much consists of Alice in Chains and Cynic is no small feat. The phrase “back with a vengeance” doesn’t do Carnival justice. I have no idea what his actual intentions were, but if you told me that Vogg literally sat down and listened to all the most popular death metal albums that have come out since 2008 and then set out to blow everyone else out the water, I’d believe you. Vicious and unmericiful, Carnival is Forever is heavier and techier than pretty much all the tech-death bands the kids so seem to favor these days, but never at the cost of song craft. In other words, Decapitated schooled everyone’s collective ass.
When we named Dave Davidson modern metal’s best guitar player this past June, I wrote that Davidson’s “style is a true amalgamation of everything and everyone that has come before… Davidson is modern metal guitar.” Well, likewise, Chaos of Forms is modern metal. It sounds too fresh to just be lumped into the re-thrash pile, but it’s influences are very clear; it’s tr00 enough not alienate the cool kids, but populist enough to inspire a whole new generation of guitar players. They should be uniters, not dividers — the Wyld Stallyns to a scene fractured by too many trends shoved down our throats at too-rapid a pace — and if you told me that in five years Revocation will be their generation’s Pantera, I’d believe you. Yeah, there were a few albums I enjoyed ever-so-slightly more this year, but I don’t think Revocation’s place in metal history is clear just yet; we’re going to have to keep watching them with a very, very watchful eye.
Sometimes people ask me to describe East of the Wall’s sound, and I’ve never really come up with an answer that I find personally satisifying; jazzy-proggy-techy-but-not-navel-gazily-sludgey-yet-sharp-hardcorish-rawk? That sounds ridiculous, right? And The Apologist isn’t really helping me find the right words. I just know I love every second of The Apologist, even more than I loved every second of last year’s Ressentiment, and that, like Revocation, I think East of the Wall are steadily marching forward into the annals of metal history, and could end up being a really, really important band. And, oh yeah, seriously has to be one of the best live bands out there right now. There is nothing not-righteous about East of the Wall, and there is nothing not-righteous about The Apologist.
Like Skeletonwitch, The Black Dahlia Murder haven’t changed their game so much as they’ve just mastered it — in BDM’s case, to the point where the game is pretty well demolished. I mean, holy shit you guys, how good are these songs? How memorable are these riffs? Why aren’t more drummers as creative with their parts as Shannon Lucas? Why can’t more albums sound this good? Why couldn’t Metal Blade have sent this to me literally a week earlier, so I could have pushed for Ryan Knight to be on the Top 25 Modern Metal Guitarists list? His style is so fluid it almost sounds like he’s playing water, fer Chrissakes, and there really isn’t another guy in metal who sounds quite like him. Ritual is just so much damn FUN, there’s really never a bad time to throw it on — it works equally well whether I’m cranky or slightly-less-cranky. (Those are the only two moods I ever experience… if you’re the kind of person who is actually happy — yucky! — I imagine it will work during those times, too.)
And then I was like, “Morbid who…? Never heard of ’em.” I worried when Phoenix Amongst the Ashes was released that no other death metal album this year would be able to top it, and as it turned out, no other death metal album could (even if at least one got close… see above). If there was any reason to doubt that Hate Eternal deserve a spot in DM Hall of Fame alongside Rutan’s former band, than Phoenix went to that doubt’s town, killed its men, raped its women, burned it to the ground, and then ate the ashes and shit them on the road as it travelled to the next town. It’s hard for me to find enough kind words to say about Erik Rutan, who is obviously some kind of frickin’ wizard who can do anything, be it write, play, produce, or turn discord and anarchy into something at once beautiful and legitimately horrifying. But Phoenix should also be remembered as the album on which Jade Simonetto — who, we should never forget, is basically a kid that Rutan plucked from MySpace — really came into his own and established his place as one of metal’s most formidable drummers. Phoenix is as vitriolic, vicious, and crushing as anything Rutan has ever made before.
1. The Human Abstract, Digital Veil (eOne)
Bar: raised. There is, in simplest terms, no single album I listened to more this year than Digital Veil. Proving that bookish intellectualism and pure, unadulterated joy don’t have to be mutually exclusive, the compositions on Digital Veil are so intricate that they remain fascinating even after spinning this record again and again and again and again and again…; and yet, those intricate compositions are all in the name of making something supremely hookey. Digital Veil is an album I kept playing for non-metalhead friends who “just don’t get it, man.” I’d scream at them: “See! Holy shit! IT’S BASICALLY CLASSICAL MUSIC WITH SCREAMING AND DOUBLE BASS DRUMS!!!” I don’t think A.J. Minette and company had anything less than perfection in mind when they set out to make Digital Veil… and they may have achieved that goal. In fact, I gotta stop typing this right now… I wanna go listen to this thing again. Later.
Real Men, Don’t Have Honorable Mentions (uLabonte Media)
Best Album of 2012:
I’m just gonna keep saying it every year until they finally release a new record… whatever Pig Destroyer puts out.