SAMMY O’HAGAR’S TOP 15(ISH) METAL ALBUMS OF 2011
I’ll just come out and say it: what a shit year, huh? Natural disasters galore (up in my little corner of New England, we had a tornado, earthquake, and late-October Nor’easter that left everyone without power for a week, all in the span of a few months) following a brutal summer that included a “heat dome”; continued economic misery compounded with heretofore unseen governmental ineptitude due to partisan gridlock/higher-than-normal choad ratio in elected office; the death of The Last Great American Entrepreneur, Steve Jobs or the canonization of child labor enthusiast/capitalist sociopath Steve Jobs, depending on your perspective; new blockbuster Nickelback and Evanescence albums; and the continued existence of Dancing With the Stars, Fox News/MSNBC, Kardashian-related programming where none of them are naked, and of course, the Twilight franchise, which has made the GDP of a small country where emotionally vapid teenagers don‘t fuck each other. If you didn’t wake up a few mornings hurling your alarm at the fresh sunlight sneaking into your room, you had it lucky and were most likely in the minority.
Or perhaps I’m being dramatic. Or it’s certain I’m being dramatic. But even metal, at least on the surface, had less than a banner year. Morbid Angel violently shit the bed with their new album, as did Metallica. Limp Bizkit returned and Korn not only continued to exist but, with Skrillex’s assistance, provided dubstep with a pretty sweet shark-jumping moment. Even Jeff Hanneman got a FLESH-EATING VIRUS from a SPIDER BITE, which was bad enough without mainstream media outlets condescendingly pointing out how “metal” that was. But there were bright spots, as there always are. Hell, Autopsy, Exhumed, and Brutal Truth all put out excellent, peerless albums despite the noticeable handicap of being in the soccer dad demographic now. Perhaps we — and by “we,” I mean “I” — focus too much on the negative. But while theoretically the night is darkest before dawn, perhaps there will never be another dawn, and we have an eternity of endless night with a moon as black as sack cloth and boiling seas and lambs opening seventh seals and so on awaiting us. Here’s this year’s soundtrack to that possibility.
Much like how I feel that Justin Verlander should not have won the American League MVP — in that as a starting pitcher he a) doesn’t play daily like the other position players eligible for the award and b) has the Cy Young Award, one specifically awarded to him for his pitching talents — I believe EPs should not be considered for year-end greatness, seeing as they‘re, at best, quasi-albums. But this year had a number of at the very least interesting ones, from Cynic’s ambitious Carbon-Based Anatomy to the Scion-backed releases from Enslaved and Immolation (which I feel ambivalent about, probably due to how they were financed, which is a whole other essay altogether), so I felt like I should at least single one out. And orchestral blackened post-hardcore band So Hideous, My Love overcomes their painfully screamo name to release an incredibly fascinating four-track EP that handily volleys between beautifully crafted string sections and chaotic, swirling noise. Like Deafheaven’s demo last year, I’m not sure how this would translate into a full length. But as is, To Clasp a Fallen Wish with Broken Fingers ably fuses disjointed ire with gorgeous, lyrical sadness.
Though I decried this album for being overlong in my initial review — and still think it’s that to a certain degree — it also delivers the year’s fiercest and most misanthropic black metal. Scowlingly mid-paced and sounding like Celtic Frost clutching an A-bomb, Void angrily wishes for a coal-black Earth, all life a thing of the past. And with tightly constructed ass-kickers like “Come Resonance of Doom,” “I Want to Commit Murder,” and “Succumb to Sin,” it’s hard to not at least sympathize with their point of view. Though the year’s best black metal featured a lot to wilting under the awfulness of everyday life, Craft catered to those left sour and miffed by it. Most metal bands, corpse-painted or not, would kill for songs as vicious-yet-catchy as the best on Void.
Perhaps I’m the only one, but Jesu’s Ascension left me cold. After hearing that Justin Broadrick may be focusing more on new music from Godflesh, I found myself relieved, in that it may be a good idea to give the Jesu moniker a rest for a little while. Of course, that leaves a huge void in the realm of sad-but-beautiful doom, a void that 40 Watt Sun filled with aplomb. Like Argus’ solid Boldly Stride the Doomed, 40 Watt Sun are a B+ band put over the top by their excellent vocals. In this case, it’s guitarist/vocalist Patrick Walker’s expressive singing wavering over the slow trudge into oblivion, adding a beautifully vivid dimension to The Inside Room. A warm blanket for even the coldest of souls, 40 Watt Sun are as powerful as they are evocative.
A band like Brutal Truth wouldn’t come back from nothingness just for the sake of cashing reunion show checks; they’re still as much of a grind powerhouse as they were before they called it a day. And while Evolution Through Revolution, their comeback album from 2009, was a fine slab of forceful, perpetually-stoned grindcore, End Time goes even further off the deep end, offering up fifty-three minutes of blistering chaos with the occasional uneasy calm. While there aren’t many riffs to grab onto, End Time is more about the ride than the details, and few grind bands can take you on the ride Brutal Truth still can. Being professionals and family men in their off hours have somehow made them even more ferocious.
After 2009’s lateral move in Black Cascade — a decent-yet-underwhelming album — Wolves in the Throne Room continued the evolution they began on Two Hunters with this year’s Celestial Lineage, simultaneously adding more folk asides while retaining their panoramic, Burzum-inspired black metal charm. And the band find new ways to occupy a lot of space, crafting a brilliantly unified journey through black metal’s pastoral past and it’s experimental present and future. More than some farmers for the hipsterati to name-check, Wolves in the Throne Room prove to still be a vital and important piece of the USBM mosaic.
Good God, is there any genre more beaten into the ground than post-metal? Maybe, but not by much. Russian Circles remind you why you loved it in the first place with Empros, an album filled with lush, occasionally long songs alternating between inspired cleanliness and sludgy heaviness. Attention to detail is where they nail it: check out the opening to “Mladek” in all its hopeful, triumphant glory, then see it be recast as uneasy optimism near the end of the song. Moments like that are all over Empros, which is what makes it the vivid masterwork it is. It says more in its wordlessness than a mangled lyric sheet ever could.
What it lacks in Helmet-meets-Celtic-Frost-meets-Pinback-style anthems it more than makes up for in space and intriguing expansiveness. The band tap all their resources — from burly blackened hardcore to bleak, moody post-punk– to create something sprawling, and make Path of Totality the first true demonstration of their ability. But while it builds upon the promise of their debut, it still retains their endearing personality. Path of Totality is both the culmination of something great as well as the promise of something great to come. Tombs’ trajectory remains on path.
I can’t really put my finger on what didn’t click with me about Absu before, but for whatever reason, Abzu set me straight. Perhaps it’s the perfect balance of depth and blackened thrash. Or maybe it’s “A Song for Ea,” one of the finest moments in metal all year (and would make for a great EP in its own right, really). Or even that Proscriptor McGovern is one of the best drummers in black metal (and he covers lead vocals, to boot), a perfect anchor for the band’s brisk thrash riffing. Or maybe this is punishment for me taking as long as I have to come around to Absu. Yeah, that’s probably it.
So, 100% of Krallice’s albums have wound up on my year-end lists. 100%. And yet, Diotoma is the first of their albums to truly feel like their best. Tweaked in some places and tightened in others, it’s a fine display of Krallice as a multi-headed force of nature. And “Telluric Rings” sounds just as great dozens of plays later as it does the first time you hear it, a dizzying peak after a preceding album of them. For a band that’s already done as much good as they have, Diotoma finds Krallice topping themselves yet again.
Sometimes all you need to shake things up is to change almost completely everything about your band. Gone is the muddy production and squirrely omni-grind; say hello to cock-rockin’ Steve Austin. While it’s not a complete about-face from Today is the Day’s usual fare, it finds the band surprisingly reinvigorated and playful, with “Wheelin’” and “The Devil’s Blood” approaching what some may refer to as “fun” (which is not a word one could use to describe the band’s prior inverted hellscapes). Austin’s tortured vocals remain — as does his penchant for top-notch rhythm section s– but for a band as long-running and dependable as Today is the Day, Pain is a Warning is still a welcome surprise.
To say Anaal Nathrakh softened up after their gloriously freezer-burnt debut The Codex Necro isn’t a diss: for the band to top the ferocity of that album, they would have had to put distorted audio of slowly decapitating a blind and deaf homeless person over blastbeats. But clean vocals and the occasion proggy song length aside, Passion comes closest, often recalling the white-knuckled misanthropy of their past. And even with those formerly outlier elements present, the album is front to back viciousness, capped off by a Gnaw Their Tongues-penned track. And really, any album that contains a song called “Drug-Fucking Abomination” deserves at least a shot at being on a year-end list.
After the “YOU GUYS LIKE DRUMS, RIGHT? WELL HERE’S AN ALBUM WHERE THAT’S ALL YOU CAN HEAR!!!” production on Fury & Flames, Hate Eternal returned to form with a well-balanced scorcher in Phoenix Amongst the Ashes, further expounding on the band’s ethos of “when life gives you lemons, you then reduce them to nothingness.” Unrelenting yet memorable, Phoenix focuses on the band’s strengths: AK-47-grade riffs, near-constant forward momentum, and blistering solos. Their trademark sheet of pummeling sound has rarely sounded more immense. Hopefully it won’t take several years of the world shitting on Erik Rutan to get a worthy follow-up.
I don’t like being marketed to. It bothers me on a fundamental level to know that people spend time trying to get me to buy shit based on careful studies of things I may and may not like. That’s why I was so skeptical of Ulcerate’s “Neurosis meets brutal death metal” descriptor, because goddamn, that’s like a hypothetical someone pulled right out of my head. That had to end in an ad for DirecTV or something. But no, Ulcerate are the real deal, mining the immense riffs and string bends from post-metal and the ferocity and drums (provided by human cyclone Jamie Saint Merat) from death metal to form an apocalyptic hybrid, going both for the heart and the throat. By focusing on what each genre was missing — depth in death metal, brutality in post-etc. — they managed to become much, much more than the sum of their parts. Destroyers of All could end with a song about Old Navy and I would have been just as hooked.
Several times throughout Chaos of Forms, I find myself thinking, “Now THIS is metal.” The impish spirit of heavily-back patched denim jackets, the noodly tendencies of the most Schuldiner-aping guitar nerds, the barrage of death-thrash riffs… I dare you to find something you don’t like on Chaos of Forms. Revocation — certainly not slackers before now by any means — stepped it up on their latest, simultaneously expanding upon and remaining faithful to their MO. The master class solos on “Conjuring the Cataclysm,” the jittery tech caginess of “Fractal Entity,” the oddball orchestration thrown into the end of “The Watchers”… once again, this is metal, with genres just a semantic aside. If anything, one of the best live bands in metal have captured on wax (or plastic or a fraction of a fraction of an inch of your hard drive) the intensity of what they bring to the stage on a fairly-nightly basis. You’d be hard-pressed to find more genuinely enjoyable metal anywhere else this year.
After the decentralizing of black metal a decade and a half or so ago, the best of it regularly began to come out of non-Norwegian places. But after the last few years of year’s best releases from the US and France, Norway remind us why they’ve still got this down with Taake’s fantastic Norgens Vaapen. Inverting USBM’s obsession with integrating as many exotic elements as possible (often obscuring much of their roots in the process), Taake stay close to the template, peppering their wonderfully organic black metal with brilliantly-selected seasonings. “Du Ville Ville Vestland” and “Myr” are great songs on their own; with clean, shoegazey arpeggios and banjo, respectively, they’re fucking anthems. Norgens Vaapen answers the question “Is it possible for a genre so thoroughly obsessed with ridiculous orthodoxies to evolve?” with a resounding “I don’t know. Probably.”
1. Decapitated, Carnival is Forever (Nuclear Blast)
In which Decapitated completed their transformation from a great technical death metal band (alright, one of THE great technical death metal bands) to Decapitated. Picking up where Organic Hallucinosis left off, Carnival is Forever is set in the middle ground between odd time signatures, polyrhythms, and big-ass grooves. Of course, the damn-near Oprah-worthy turmoil (Vogg having to rebuild a new band around him after a bus accident took half the previous lineup from him) doesn’t weigh down the album in the slightest, with the band sounding elastic and natural propping up Vogg’s dense riffs. In fact, Decapitated have never sounded this loose, though that points less to the harmoniousness of the new lineup than the persistent spirit of the band. Carnival is Forever is full of life. On the rare occasion melancholia seeps in — on closing track “Silence,” the intro to “A View from a Hole”, and the minute of queasy stillness that opens the title track (though it’s followed by the year’s heaviest riff, if two notes can constitute a riff) — it’s not melodramatic or saccharine. You don’t revive a band like Decapitated to rehash or demean; you pick things up where you left off. Life can empower and life can cripple. But either way, life goes on. Carnival is Forever is a fitting reminder of that.