VINCE NEILSTEIN’S TOP FIFTEEN METAL ALBUMS OF 2011
2011 was a year. Metal was released. Some of it was great, some was good, some was mediocre, some was bad. No one reads these intros or each album’s description anyway, right? You just scroll down to see we name #1 then fire off a stangry comment.
I do want to say one thing before you all start trolling: for the time ever this year I used iTunes play counts as a metric for determining the relative order of these choices. I didn’t use it as an absolute metric — so it’s possible that my #1 or #2 got less overall plays than something farther down the list — but when sussing out hard decisions about which of two candidates should be #2 and which should be #3, for example, it was a helpful tool that aided my decision. I listened to #2 more times than #3, so I must’ve enjoyed doing so more. And what are these lists if not really “favorite albums of 2011”? They’re completely subjective anyway; such a thing as objective music ranking is an impossibility and a fallacy.
Almost all of these albums are streaming in their entirety completely for free on Spotify! I’ve compiled a playlist; check it out here and listen along while you read.
So, the list:
15. Ulcerate – The Destroyers of All (Willowtip)
I’m kinda surprised at how much 2011 list love this album has gotten from all corners of the interhole. Yes, this is a good album, but there’s one major criticism I’ve seen bandied about and it’s a big one: all the songs kinda blend together / sound the same. That one song is a doozy, though, and the fact that so many people are praising this record shows that Ulcerate have really struck a nerve with folks and created something very unique. If Ulcerate can expand on what they’ve started to create an album with more dynamics, their next release (coming in 2012 [?] via new label Relapse) could place way higher than #15.
If ever a death metal album could be beautiful, this is it; Shining (the Swedish version) are a far cry from melodeath or so-called melodoom (Insomnium, Swallow the Sun, etc), but they’ve found a way to make blackened death metal that’s haunting, sad, melancholy and woefully aching yet somehow still absolutely gorgeous. Shining are a perfect example of a fantastic European band that should be receiving all kinds of acclaim in the states — from mainstream metal publications like Revolver to left-of-center indie outposts like Pitchfork, NPR and Stereogum that have been showing metal some love lately — and surely they would be if Shining had a proper record label deal here. Every bit of the small amount of praise this album has received is absolutely glowing, and with good reason. Imagine a much darker, blacker and depressed version of Opeth. Nota bene: this is not the same Shining whose Blackjazz album appeared on my list last year (that band is from Norway).
If you enjoy The Ocean or Burst, you owe it to yourself to check out Memfis. I loved 2006’s The Wind-Up but Memfis completely fell off my radar afterwards, so I was tickled by Vertigo‘s sudden appearance in November. After a spat with their former label held up the release of Vertigo — the band finished the record all the way back in 2008 — Memfis finally won the rights back this year and decided to self-release it. Without any financial backing and music industry expertise, Vertigo didn’t as much press or attention as it should have, but what a spectacular album this ended up being.
Sylosis deserve a whole lot more stateside attention than they’re getting for their blend of thrash, death, and Machine Head-inspired melodies. 2008’s Conclusion of An Age was a great start, but Edge of the Earth one-upped it in every single way. The songs are heavy, melodic, technical and epic all at once. I’m 100% certain that if this band had been ever-present in the U.S. touring circuit like their stateside metal counterparts they’d be 100x bigger here than they are now.
I don’t think there was much doubt that Decapitated would come back from the tragedy that took two of their band members away from them with an absolute ripper full of groovy thrash face-melters, but it’s always comforting when expectation becomes reality. The band found ample replacements in new vocalist Rafał “Rasta” Piotrowski and drummer wunderkind Kerim “Krimh” Lechner, both of whom assisted in helping Vogg crank out one of the best albums of his career.
Yeah, I know, I didn’t see this one coming either. I barely knew anything about Believer before listening to this record, but it impressed me on the very first-listen. Transhuman showcases a very different Believer than the thrash band you once knew; the thrash foundation is still there, but it’s become so progged out with varied time signatures, non-standard song structures and creative melodies that I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this was an entirely different band. Believer really focused on writing great songs this time out, which is what ultimately pushed this album onto my list.
East of the Wall are one of the best bands making heavy music today, bar none. They’re also one of the most balanced, equally at home bludgeoning skulls with skronky, off-kilter, post-hardcore-gone-technical riffs or summoning tears to my eyes with tender, expertly crafted atmospherics. Best of all, they’re masters of switching from one to the other seamlessly by constructing songs that should really just be called “adventures,” taking you there, back, there again and back again all the while letting you appreciate the journey, not just the destination.
8. Skeletonwitch – Forever Abomination (Prosthetic)
Skeletonwitch nailed it with Forever Abomination! The riffs are more heabangable, the band sounds tighter, the performances are better, the songwriting is more concise and the hooks more memorable. This is Skeletonwitch’s best album yet, a fine addition to an already great catalogue that will surely elevate Skeletonwitch to the upper echelon of metal bands. I’d be very surprised if they don’t start seeing more mainstream attention by the time the touring cycle for this record ends.
My personal connection to this band notwithstanding (I was a fan long before I worked with them), Textures delivered precisely the album that their long-time fans wanted by continuing to expand the palette of their sound ever wider all while staying completely Textures-y. New vocalist Daniel de Jongh fits right in, and several of the songs on Dualism are instant classics that’ll remain live staples for years to come.
There’s not a whole lot more I can add about Revocation to what’s already been said by my many colleagues who also placed this album on their lists, so I’ll just say this: Revocation continue to dazzle and amaze with Chaos of Forms and they remain one of the best and brightest young bands rising through the metal ranks today. If fans of Existence is Futile or Empire of the Obscene had any doubts going into this album that Revocation may have lost their edge, all those fears should be allayed when the guitar solo of album-opener “Cretin” kicks in at the 2:00 mark; the double guitarmony strikes, and you know it’s ON!
Abysmal Dawn aren’t reinventing the death metal wheel, but hot damn are they really fucking good at rolling along with it. Abysmal Dawn’s forte is writing excellent songs; instead of using their technical skills as a focal point they use them only to better serve each song as a whole. Have you noticed a theme in my reasons for ranking the albums on this list the way I have? Good songs are really important, and Leveling the Plane of Existence has tons of ’em that kept me coming back for more all year long.
They did it! They really did. I’m a Bush guy through-and-through, but the songs on Worship Music are so good they can outweigh any perceived cons of any vocalist. Anthrax are making the most relevant new music of any of the Big Four bands. There, I said it! And I have to admit that Belladonna nailed it, too, even if he didn’t participate in the writing of this record.
Scale the Summit took what they did with 2009’s Carving Desert Canyons, heeded the criticisms that all the songs sounded too alike, and one-upped it with a marvelously dynamic album. Dynamic is so important for an instrumental band, and The Collective finds Scale the Summit diving deeper into valleys and climbing the highest mountain tops while appreciating everything in between, creating sweeping landscapes with their delicate, masterfully composed guitar orchestrations. Scale the Summit are absolutely one of a kind; they sound like no one else and no one else sounds like them.
2. The Human Abstract – Digital Veil (eOne)
Speaking of “masterfully composed guitar orchestrations,” Digital Veil is essentially one big orchestral piece arranged for heavy metal band instrumentation. Thanks the return of guitarist A.J. Minette and his graduate-level composition education for that. Close your eyes and imagine violins instead of guitars, cellos instead of a bass guitar, an operatic female singer instead of Travis Richter’s bellowed growl… it’s a not a stretch at all, because the composition, the interaction between instruments, the chord motion, it’s all absolutely perfect, and it’s stunningly beautiful.
1. The Atlas Moth – An Ache for the Distance (Profound Lore)
When I casually noted back in July that you should “look for An Ache for the Distance to make a few appearances on notable year-end lists,” I swear I didn’t already know it would be #1 on my own… but here it is. An Ache for the Distance hits the sweet spot between “underground” metal sub-genres like crust, doom and sludge and their melodic brethren on the more mainstream side of metal, and that’s precisely what’s great about it. This album is hooky and catchy yet sacrifices absolutely no brutality or grit in the process. While similar things could be said of certain other albums on this list, none are as singular and striking as An Ache for the Distance. Epic contrapuntal guitarmonies in a doom song? Fucking brilliant! The Atlas Moth have started something great with this album, and I have a feeling they’ve only scratched the surface. If they play their cards right, I bet they could become the next big metal band to break out; watch out Lamb of God, watch out Mastodon… The Atlas Moth are coming.
Almost all of these albums are streaming in their entirety completely for free on Spotify! Check out my “Best of 2011” playlist here.