Saturday, December 31, 2011
Top 50 - Albums of 2011
Tamás Kátai is truly a genius when it comes to creating interesting black metal. Since he's now the sole member of Thy Catafalque he's now one hundred percent in control of the path that this project will take now and this album sees the project returning to a more metal sound whilst still maintaining their unique brand of experimentation. The influences from folk and orchestral music are clear, and have certainly been utilized by other groups before, but rarely have they ever been as catchy. Great songwriting all around.
Highlight: Fekete Mezők
Whether or not you find this band to be "hipster" or not is irrelevant because they do what they do extremely well. Their blending of styles is one that surpasses many other bands within the post-black metal/blackgaze style if only because their songwriting is above par and actually shows a definite influence from post-rock and shoegaze music. A lot of groups and projects recently have just been attempting to rip-off the Alcest sound, not here, you have a band that sounds like no one else. You can clearly see where the influences are from, but that doesn't stop it from being great.
Highlight: Tunnel of Trees
After their unique and boundary pushing debut, Oranssi Pazuzu decided to take their so called "blackened Pink Floyd" sound into an even weirder direction for this album. For me, this album exhibited a much stronger krautrock, space rock, and almost jam-band kind of vibe at times while at the same time being even more black than their other work. I really don't have anything bad to say about it at all, it's just a very interesting record that should've gotten a lot more coverage. It's like black metal from Saturn or psyche-rock from Neptune, I'm just guessing, but all I know is that it isn't regular and it isn't from this planet.
My introduction to the noise duo (now trio) known as Sutekh Hexen wasn't one that I would have thought would lead me to collecting pretty much everything they would release. While releases beforehand had done well, they obviously drew me in, at fusing black metal and noise together, I feel like they truly started to blend the two into a singular and unique sound on here. All the other EP/demo/7's have all led them to creating a sound that can only be their own with their first full-length. Beware and take care, Sutekh Hexen is now a fully developed killer and it's looking for its next victim.
I don't think anyone was expecting to see this album reappear on this list. To be honest, I probably would've just ignored this album if it hadn't appeared on my Ipod a few months ago. One song after another were just reintroduced to me after having not listened to this album in months. Not anything like his main band, this is an album of just experimental rock songs that bring to mind the likes of Muse, Radiohead, The Verve, and Faith No More. Songs vary from stripped down acoustic numbers to more textured metal and electronic bits. It's far from being focused, but the songs are all very well written and performed.
Highlight: Reverb Island
Coming from a band that I pretty much ignored last year, this record really turned me into a big fan. It's an intense record that just manages to sound interesting while rarely slowing down. It's a record that is truly entrancing, and I can say that it is not a record that you can fully experience when you're doing something else, you must engulf yourself in the sounds that band has created. I should be said that I have rarely heard black metal done this way sound so massive and epic sounding without treading over into cheesy territory. I really feel that this is one of those special bands that just does traditional "kvlt" black metal in a very unique and original way.
Highlight: Eater of The Black Lead
The duo from Njiqahdda create their most focused and well-rounded album yet from their other band. This double-album has some of the duo's most accessible and inaccessible material on it spread out across two discs. Tracks that are more focused and "song-based" lead you in with the first disc before the second disc expands and brings in more of the exploratory nature of the duo's previous work leading you into the realms of psychedelic drones and hypnotic soundscapes. It's easily the best album they've produced from this project to date and it's clearly an album that should not be missed this year.
I'm not the first person to hold this double-album in high regard, and I won't be the last, but if you listen to it, you'll know why. The hammered dulcimer led take on black metal is certainly an interesting idea, but is expertly crafted and performed with care and precision. Each track is an individual with its own personality that manages to stand out from one another despite being primarily composed around the same three instruments. It's just one of those albums where the melodies just seem to come alive and just weave themselves around in your head. So the question is if you're missing out by not hearing this; the answer is obviously yes.
Highlight: A Rose From The Dead
Christian Kolf really outdid himself with this album, an exploration of early death/doom but with a much more modern sort of twistedness to it. Every song has its own flare to it, whether it be more on the doom and sludge side or a more technical approach, it's all done in a way that feels cohesive and it works together. It's low, brutal, but it's an album that I just loved listening to over and over again. It's a long and chaotic nightmare that concludes in a lullaby.
Highlight: The Daimonion of Dying Summers Looming Through The Golden Mist of Dreams
I was told that I was one of the few people who gave this review a favorable review by a friend of mine (I was told this, I don't know if it's true), but I guess I'm just that big a fan of the band that I'll give anything they release more of a chance than other people. Maybe I just like ballads more than the average metalhead. I don't know, I really liked the album, and while my interest in it has waned since I first reviewed it, it's still an album that I'll spin every once in a while. Ulver doing experimental ballads is still better than most bands doing anything else.
Bruce Lamont and company release a really strong piece of experimental post-sludge metal that pushes the experimental influences to the forefront of their sound. It's truly a standout among all the other "post-metal" groups with its densely textured sound moving at a lurching pace that just fits so well together without resorting to now clichéd ideas. It's psychedelic without treading into progressive territory, it's sludgy without ever being muddy, and it's experimental without being weird. Lose yourself in the journey and be taken for a ride into dementia and a dangerous mind on the verge of going over the edge with this record.
Highlight: Dead Inside
When I first found this record a couple of months ago I had no idea that it would wind up on here, but low and behold here it is. In line with the great Australian death metal bands to emerge recently, this band fuses the now popularized Incantation atmospherics and blackened death metal sound with a more technical sound ala Suffocation or mid-period Gorguts to stellar affect. It's a joy to listen to this record and I was truly surprised by how much I wound up listening to it. It's a death metal album that wants your head so it can summon up the mighty universal collapse, do not deny it that pleasure.
It should come as no surprise that I am a fan of orchestral and classical music, so I am obviously a fan of when it's done well in metal, Septic Flesh are one of those bands that I would claim do it well. The fusion of their rather brutish, on this album, death metal with classical orchestrations is one of the few I would claim fit together without sounding cheesy or where one does not overpower the other. This is the pinnacle of their fusion at this point, with strong songs and orchestrations that range from being the main focus of a section to simply adding an extra flavor to a section. It's symphonic metal at it's finest.
Highlight: Mad Architect
No, they're not Agalloch's little brother, they're much better than that. The balance that is struck between more melodic black metal and folk music hits as close to perfect as I've heard in some time. It's also a record that doesn't feel fake or forced, the black metal and folk sections each have a place and all sound very appropriately constructed, along with a very dreary and "rainy" atmosphere surrounding the whole thing. Coming from someone who views the whole black metal-folk fusion genre as something that has worn very thin, this is a record that renews my hope for bands playing that sort of style.
Highlight: Awaiting The Fire Or Flood That Awakes It
Yes, that's right, I liked this album. I know a lot of long-time, and may I say self-declared die-hard, fans have already declared the band dead in their eyes, but coming from someone who enjoys the style of music that Opeth has chosen to pursue on here, I think they do a pretty good job. It's an interesting album that is perhaps more song based than they've been in years, with more concise pieces that are pretty efficient and streamlined enough to just stick in your head before dying, something Opeth has never been known for in the past. Though the shorter tracks are probably the best on here, I do think the whole album is interesting and a respectable take on 60/70s prog-rock.
Highlight: The Lines In My Hand
Easily the duo's crowning achievement thus far, branching out from their brand of electronic infused post-rock and bringing in a couple new ideas that mange to bring about some of the loudest and quietest sections the duo have written yet. Few things can compare to the absolute sadness and despondency that is expressed in Matt Finney's lyrics and monotone spoken word. It's a record that is depressing but dares to look you in the eye and tell you that you're just as messed up as it is. I can say now that I'm glad it's only four songs because any more and it'd be hard to really get out of bed in the morning.
Highlight: Ain't No Night
I knew before I even heard this record that I was going to like it. Yes, they are a djent band, but it's a lot closer to being a "real metal" record than it is to what appears to be the new "nu metal." The fusion of djent oriented grooves and ambient, electronic, drone music influenced atmospheres does lead this album towards being sonically interesting, and deep. It's definitely an album that is likely to impress even hardened opposers to the sub-genre to at least notice their talent. Kudos to them for making an album that is both catchy and extremely captivating sonically.
Will I jump on the hype train and applaud this band, yes I shall. This three song full-length of raw atmospheric black metal (a mouthful of a genre if I ever heard one) is just great. To an extent there are moments that you could call "post-black metal", but to simply tag it that, or "cascadian black metal", would be stupid, cause you're really selling this band short by tagging them as such. It's a lot closer to what I've heard the underground German scene doing with the atmospheric black metal genre at times. Sorry if you don't like it, too bad, blame the band, they're the ones doing this stuff right.
Highlight: In The Midst of Life, We Are In Death
While I wouldn't describe myself as a long-time fan of Garry Brents' work, though I am a fan of most of it, I never expected this album to blow me away like it did. I said earlier this year that it was good year for grindcore, and while I meant it, this album managed to capture everything I love from grindcore and put it into an interesting post-rock influenced black metal sound. It's energetic and powerful but not without emotion. It's a rush of adrenaline that starts in the body and moves into more cerebral forms of energy.
Highlight: Amaranthine Figures
This is a record I haven't seen on a whole lot of people's lists, or any to be honest up to this point, but I really like this record. I really think that Josh Graham and co. really came into their own in terms of songwriting on this album. This easily holds some of the group's most accessible and catchy material on it, but the songs are great, so that isn't a problem. Whoever said that post-metal couldn't be catchy obviously never heard this record, because they will be proven wrong.
Highlight: Black Wolves
Obviously the most recent addition to this list, but one that I just couldn't stop spinning after I had first listened to it. A major step up from what I had heard with last year's EP, like I said in my review, this could be mistaken for an almost entirely different band/project. The explorations of progressive songwriting, interesting structures, nice use of variation among the songs, this definitely shows what might happen from bedroom projects if given the right chance to develop and experiment. I might be overestimating it just a little bit, but if you were disappointed by Opeth's album, this might be closer to what you were hoping for from them. A real surprise from this year and one that you should not ignore.
Highlight: Angel of Death
Despite being overproduced, this year Shining released another great album. Far from the raw and suicidal sounds of their first few releases, this album has the band in top form with some of their strongest and most forward thinking songs. The guest appearances don't distract from the power of the actual songs and manage to put this album among the band's best. Kvarforth may not be as psychotic as he once was, but his songwriting doesn't look to have diminished, if anything it's only gotten stronger. Here's to another great album from Sweden's fallen stars.
Highlight: Tillsammans Är Vi Allt
From an artist whom I had never heard of before a couple of months ago, I'm become a big supporter of Thomas Cowgill's work with this project. His songwriting is simplistic and minimalistic, but evokes extremely powerful emotions and haunting ambiances (though reverb is certainly a part of his work), he is an individual. Channeling the spirit of Johnny Cash into his songwriting while bringing a much darker lyrical perspective sets him apart from his contemporaries. It's part country, it's part neo-folk, it's part singer-songwriter, but it's all stellar.
Highlight: Hello Mary
Glorior Belli finally live up to the potential that they've always demonstrated in their past releases with their fourth full-length. After last-year's album under the name of 11 As In Adversaries, which was far more progressive and experimental than anything else the band would've released under Glorior Belli, this new album proves to be more of a return straightforward songwriting for this album. What you have are streamlined songs, but the band does a fantastic job at fusing blues, southern rock, and hints of jazz with more traditional black metal into something that hasn't been done before. It's rare that blues manages to sound this intense and interesting, even using another genre as a base, Glorior Belli have proven to be one of those bands that just stand out among all others.
Highlight: The Great Southern Darkness
If you had told me earlier this year that a duo by the name of Barn Owl who perform droning post-rock would make it onto my end-of-the-year list, chances are that I would have laughed in your face, but here it is. All it took was me giving their album a chance, knowing nothing about it, but giving it one spin and loving it. These guys absolutely blew my mind with this album and I've definitely been converted into a fan. Probably the finest drone album to come out this year by a long shot.
Highlight: Temple of The Winds
I have loved this album since I first heard it. I was a huge fan of Kvohst's vocals in all his metal projects, and though I do think it's a shame that he quit most of them (if not them all), I do think what he's done with this band is fabulous. It's one of those albums where if I played one song I just had to listen to the whole thing. His take on psychedelic folk music from the 60s managed to accomplish everything I love from the genre while adding something unmistakably occult and ritualistic to it at the same time, but none of it feels like something you could hear from another artist.
Highlight: The Death Knell Tolls
One of the few records that I've found this year to really encompass the sound of winter so perfectly. The cold atmospheres that introduce us to the album give way to a frozen chill that isn't too dissimilar to the brutality of winter. It's an album that holds just as much precedence in ambient music as much as doom metal. As the tension rises within the music, you, as a listener, are slowly overcome by the music. It's just as beautiful as it is haunting.
Highlight: Clarity II
Since I first heard this album I would it would be one of those albums that I knew would make my list, but never really knew where it would land. Probably being the band's most melodic record yet, from what I hear it's the first time both guitarists had played the same thing together on a song, so it does feel like it's a bit easier to grasp onto. It also features some more mid-tempo-ish material, which is something that hadn't been used that much on the band's prior two albums either. Still an intense and brain-melting album, but it's a little less of a middle finger to you.
Highlight: The Clearing
This was a record that had a lot to live up to, which I know may sound surprising cause Panopticon is still a pretty underground project. Claims that this was going to be a raw, intense, and emotionally brutal record set the bar high, even for A. Lunn, who has surpassed all bars that have been set for him in the past. While I don't know if this record exactly lives up to all of those traits, it is without a doubt A. Lunn's most creatively inspired and best album yet. Like I said in my review for this album, Mr. Lunn is one of the most talented and creative musicians to have emerged from the American black metal scene.
There's been a lot of praise for this album, and for good reason I believe. These Irish boys done good with their second full-length, amping up everything from the debut and making a rawer sounding record in the process. This thing just has everything that a "post-black metal" record should have. If there's a band trying to blend black metal with post-rock/post-metal, this is how I want it to be done. At the core of a dying world full of misery is a core that's even blacker, that is humanity, and that is this record.
Highlight: Neptune Is Dead
I'm a huge fan of Carcass, which has lead me to being a fan of any band that can copy that sound, originality be damned, so I was obviously a fan of Exhumed, but who knew they would put out such a great album for their return this year. The riffs are extremely catchy, the drumming is intense, and the vocals are exactly the way I like them, nasty and brutal, all vomitous. Every song on here just hits you in the face and makes you remember them. Don't gut yourself because you can't write songs this good.
Highlight: As Hammer to Anvil
I said earlier this year that this was my favorite death metal album to come out this year, and it hasn't changed, this thing is an absolute killer. It has everything I want from a death metal album, it can be progressive, melodic, brutal and primal, and interesting while always walking a fine line between being modern and old-school. I haven't seen a lot of people mentioning this album and I don't know why, this thing is amazing. Best death metal album this year, check it out if you haven't already.
Highlight: Soul Maggot
To be honest, I wasn't sure if this thing was going to make it onto my list or not about half-way through the year. I mean, I really enjoyed the album when I listened to it but I just wasn't sure. It wasn't until a couple of months ago when I realized that I actually listened to the album quite regularly, and that I just hadn't realized it. It's just a mesmerizing record that isn't so much memorable because it's not catchy, but one that just takes you into a deep calm and shows you all that can be done when floating among the nothingness. Faith Coloccia and Aaron Turner's masterpiece of post-noir ambiance, not an album to be missed.
Highlight: We Speak In The Dark
Funeral doom is a genre that has been, and will continue to be as it happens to look right now, covered and pretty much beaten to death since its inception. While many attempt to get it right, very, very few manage to get it right and develop it into a sound that is uniquely their own. Australia's own Mournful Congregation are not only one of the handful of bands that manage to do that successfully, but manage to nearly trump nearly every other band/project out there doing this style. A good funeral doom record can pull you down into the pits of despair, a great funeral doom record, something that is extremely rare in my opinion, can do that and more, with this record going above and beyond what is expected of those in the genre and creating something truly special in the process.
Highlight: The Book of Kings
The experimental Chicago trio have certainly released their fare share of great and groundbreaking material, but this new album is among their best material. It should also be said that this is the trio's most cohesive work as a whole, with each of the four tracks being an individual yet all feeling rather relatable to each other in a way that I felt wasn't always present in the band's earlier work. From their now trademark blackened drone to more somber acoustic bits, this is a definite highlight in the band's career thus far. It's a fantastic piece of work that definitely deserves to place among the best releases of this year for certain.
Highlight: The Clearing
I know it's probably no great shock that this is on yet another person's end-of-the-year list, but I just loved this record. I'll admit that I'm not the biggest fan of hardcore out there, but Trap Them has always done hardcore/metalcore/whathaveyou proud. This is a record that just has so much passion and energy emitting from it, it's contagious and there wasn't a time when I was listening to this that I didn't feel the need to play air-drums or bang my head along. You want a record for headbanging, this is, without question, the album you need.
Highlight: The Facts
There wasn't a chance that this album was not going to appear on this list. From the first time I listened to this album I was absolutely in love with it. I can honestly say that I was not a fan of country music in any capacity until hearing this record earlier this year and just loving what the songs embodied, how they were presented, and how they made me feel. It's an absolute classic and a record that really opened my eyes to a genre of music I had long since lost touch with. I have to say that ignoring this record would be a big mistake.
Highlight: Social Wedding Rings
I knew even before I had heard this album that it would be great, how could it not be? The four guys in Aenaon had definitely taken black metal into some weirder areas with their previous releases and I just knew that a full-length would solidify their sound. But what a sound it is. This thing just blends various ideas from jazz and prog-rock to black and death metal whilst maintaining a very claustrophobic intensity that gives the entire record this very off-kilter vibe. But it's also a record that showcases a lot of power, every player just comes through with the impression that this is them actually giving the best performances they can. Good. Check yourself. It's better than that.
Highlight: Black Nerve
Ever since I heard "Urfe" when it came out in 2009 I knew that this band was weird as all hell, and I was proven correct with this release. I'm a big fan of the urbanized version of black metal that they churn out and their psychotic take on the genre because it doesn't sound like anyone else. One could really only describe the sounds on this album with a really long and overcomplicated genre tag that would be totally irrelevant to what is actually going on. These guys are absolutely crazy and their music is even more so. Ordained is also one of the best tracks I've heard all year.
There is nothing more enthralling than hearing a band you've seen evolve since their inception create something so amazing that it even blows away your expectations. Smohalla have slowly been crafting a sound that pools together elements from various sources and makes something that is actually boundary pushing. This is an album filled with so many subtle details and ideas that I doubt I've even found them all after a couple of months listening to it. It's progressive, it's orchestral, it's aggressive, it's abstract, and it's totally off-the-wall. This is the sort of stuff I live for in extreme metal.
Highlight: L'homme Et La Brume
What hasn't already been said about this album, it's great. For me "777-Sect(s)" is the better album if only because it's an album that focuses more on the chaos rather than the unbalance of the world to be, like I felt "777-The Desanctification" was. Obviously it's the more metal of the two, which did help it in my opinion, but I just found the songs more engaging. It definitely leans on being some of the band's most heady stuff yet, though that's really subjective, I think it's a nice balance of being brutal and intense with being more cerebral and dissonant.
Highlight: Epitome I
Is it at all shocking that this album made it this high on my list? I'm a huge admirer of Steven Wilson's work, whether it be his work in Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, or No-Man, or just his production work, he has a sound and I love it. While some of it has come off a bit overproduced at times, this double-album is filled with his signature production ideas but retains a much more authentic kind of atmosphere. More in the vein of 60s and 70s jazz-fusion and early prog-rock with extended solo passages and dense orchestration, this is a monster of an album.
Highlight: Remainder The Black Dog
This isn't R. Loren's favorite album for nothing. This cult duo have been pumping out material consistently since 2006 and this proves to be among their best. Transforming their unique brand of blackened post-punk into something new entirely and almost singlehandedly reshaping the landscape for black metal to come. Extreme, not really, groundbreaking, most definitely, if you haven't heard this you don't know what you're missing.
Highlight: Shadows Lead
I know this album has divided fans even further than "Crack The Skye" did, but I loved that album and I love this album. I'm not big into mainstream rock, obviously since I don't ever cover it, with an exception here and there, but this thing is just great songs from start to finish. Not quite as progressive as the stuff they've been leaning towards in their last couple albums, but the songs are just well written and super, bubble-gum pop, catchy. Huge harmonies and more hard rock based songs made this record different, and it's what makes it good.
There's been a lot of hate for this record from some other reviews I've seen and I just don't get it. While this record wasn't a masterpiece on first listen either, which I bet a lot of reviewers did base their opinions on, it grew on me with each listen, even to this day. The whole thing flows as a single piece while each track is still strong enough to stand on its own. Is it a djent album, yes, but it's also so much more than that. It's one of those records that goes beyond the djent tag and crosses into realms of tech/math metal and death metal. This is an extreme metal record.
Highlight: All These Feelings
I'll admit that my first experience with the music from the duo known as Servile Sect wasn't exactly the best. "Realms of The Queen" is still my least favorite thing the duo have released, including their demos. But this album definitely turned me into a fan, and helped me to understand what they were going for on the "Realms..." album. It's a totally unique experience listening to it on vinyl, and I feel sorry for you if you haven't, because I can only relate it to tripping on mushrooms and LSD while you're locked inside a space dome at night, with you Ipod on shuffle in the background, alternating between Satyricon, Burzum, The Orb, and Hawkwind. In fact, I'd say it's even better than that.
I know people are gonna hate that this album is so high up, but I love this album. While the ideas are all very good, it is definitely still very centered within the djent style of riffing and it doesn't branch out from it all to often. But what made this record so high up for me were the vocals. Ex-vocalist Daniel Tompkins just made these songs come alive with his vocals. It takes a good vocalist to make a song catchy, it takes a great vocalist to make a song memorable, and there isn't a song on here that isn't memorable to me.
Highlight: Concealing Fate I: Acceptance
This was one of my most anticipated records for this year, if only because I knew it was actually going to be released this year, and it did not disappoint. The dream pop-meets-post-rock via blackgaze sound of this album probably threw quite a few people for a loop due to it not really being anywhere near metal at all. The somber and moody nature to these songs can just break your heart, like it did with me, and make you fall in love with it still.
Highlights: Forgetting to Remember to Forget
Only the duo known as Njiqahdda could release two amazing albums and make my life miserable because I have to pick one over the other for this list. What the deciding factor was between the two albums, this one and "Agni Yoga (Disciples of Flame)" was simply that I listened to this one more. This is just one of those records that really makes you wonder how the band can top it because they were firing on all cylinders on here. In my opinion, and people will probably hate on me for this, but this is REAL transcendental black metal. This is an album that transcends genres and just starts something unique that has yet to be matched in any way.
Highlight: Sky and Earth Remembered Only As Blood
There was never a moment of doubt in my mind that this wouldn't be my album of the year once I heard it. This record just moves me in a way that I can't describe. There hasn't been a time when I haven't gotten goosebumps while listening to this and every song has it's place, whether it be as an actual song or more of an ambient interlude, it all works and I can't take out any song without the record losing something. I know this isn't Devin's heaviest record by far, but this album actually might top my favorite from him, "Terria." It's such a beautiful record and me talking about it here doesn't even begin to do this record justice. If you haven't listened to this record at least once, I feel sorry for you because you are sorely missing out.