Hah! I Am Not Real, I Stare At Choo From A Painting
(Here we have a best-album list from a prolific writer who seems to have a nom de plume for every site he frequents. In his posts at NCS he’s “Willard Shrapnelspear”. At The Number of the Blog, he’s “Rev. Will”. At PopMatters and Pure Grain Audio, he’s Dane Prokofiev. I’m probably leaving out some . . .)
For the sake of those curious to know, the guy in the painting above was Frédéric François Chopin.
The flaw of any personal “Best of” list is as much its strength as it is a quirk, however oxymoronic this may sound. As the legendary Cosmo Lee once said on Invisible Oranges before he left our blogosphere for good, “the only list that matters anymore is your own”. It’s one of those common sense conclusions we all know and arrived at in our heads long ago, but we were all just waiting for some prominent Internet blogger to type it out.
With that said, some groundwork has been laid for what to expect from this list. As personal “Best of” lists are shaped by individual experiences from many aspects of everyday life such as work, exercise, play, dating, sleep, philosophical moments and such, every list has its own unique taste that gives you a little hint of how the list-maker has been living his life for the past year. Hence, it is quite an intimate affair for metal writers/bloggers to be showing our lists to the world; it’s kind of like letting everyone know our darkest secrets, but hidden behind the indirectness of lyrics and the subjective nature of the music’s sound.
One exception to this observation, however, would be some of the paid metal writers/bloggers who mainly roll such lists out annually like a toy factory conveyor belt, simply because it is their job to do so. In my opinion, unpaid metal writers/bloggers still make the most intimate lists around.
Thus, do allow me to go a little further by providing some bonus (or needless) background information about my life over the past year. Let’s see, I went through a failed relationship, am unhappy with office life, was stressed out over an exam which only recently ended, and am just generally mad at how I could be better making use of my time if I had been born somewhere Scandinavian/European, and which doesn’t have conscription!
As a result, I have been really into extreme, experimental, misanthropic, and aggressive stuff. For the sake of having diversity in this list, though, I retained some of my inhumane objectiveness and managed to include a few albums that have unique traits I’ve never seen/heard before and which I happened to fancy as well—otherwise y’all would most probably be seeing 20 avant-garde/black metal albums being listed.
Also, I am really not a very “tr00” and “kvlt” metalhead even though I am aware of and do listen to underground metal acts. Apart from the glaringly out-of-place #9, most of the other albums listed here are catchy-sounding records with crystal-clear production and support from the major extreme metal labels. If you’re looking for lists that contain bands you’ve totally never heard of before, check out Grim Kim’s list at MetalSucks or simply Google that description and I’m sure you will find tons of “underrated album(s) of 2011” that sound as though they time-travelled to our current day and age from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering why no Profound Lore artistes are in this list, unlike the millions of other lists out there which have them, it’s because I am not on their promo list and haven’t had the time to check out their bands as well. The identity of the promo contacts with whom a metal writer/blogger are in touch is another very important factor in deciding the final outcome of a “Best of” list (I’m not implying “bribery” here; I simply feel that I have reached the stage where I generally keep myself reasonably busy to the point of having no time/not much incentive to actively seek out bands on my own), and so as all of you can see, I am good friends with Metal Blade and Relapse!
Yeah right, in other words, I am poorly connected. Although I’d like to stress that my picks were not superficially done and I just made the most of whatever resources were made available to me. My LinkedIn profile doesn’t seem to be doing me any good; I think I will just leave it lying dead for now.
Record Label: Metal Blade | Country: France | Genre: Southern Blues-infused Black Metal
You gotta hand it to the French for coming up with the most innovative black metal around these days. With all that avant-garde/post-black metal schizz going on nowadays, it is not surprising that many of us would have forgotten that good ol’, plain and simple metal has its roots in blues music. Glorior Belli are here to remind us of that well-known fact of metal history, if only to spice things up as well, as they play an exotic brand of Southern Blues-infused black metal that sounds so nostalgic and fresh simultaneously that I can only imagine that this queer feeling is similar to the one that those who first heard and loved Black Sabbath’s brand of heavy blues-rock back in the early ‘70s felt. Love the heaps of fuzzy ‘twangs’ dealt out by the guitars, and how the uncouth and throaty growls fit the blues-y tinge of the music so well.
Record Label: Spinefarm | Country: Taiwan | Genre: Oriental Black Metal
Everybody’s favorite East-Asian metal act at the moment have gone down the political side of things and abandoned their “ghost paint” and demonic imagery in favor of military-inspired costumes. Less mythological and more historical, this is a record that greatly embodies the highly political nature of the Taiwanese people. Less symphonic and more oriental, the inclusion of Hokkien group vocal chants (heard only in the song below), the Pgaku flute, and the guzheng expands on the exotic soundscape conjured by the erhu as well and brings to fruition what it truly means to be making “Asian Metal”. This is a case of NSBM being sent packing on an enlightening journey to the mountains of East Asia. [Editor’s Intrusion: Rev. Will reviewed this album here.]
Record Label: Metal Blade | Country: USA | Genre: Progressive Metalcore
Between The Buried And Me is one of those long-winded bands that can come up with an EP that is lengthy enough to be considered a full-length album for another ordinary band. These progressive metal masters are just getting started on a large-scale, sci-fi concept story that will span three records (this being the first), and it sure is sounding as eclectic and mind-blowing as they have always been since Alaska. Thirty minutes, 3 supercalifragilisticexpialidocious songs, 1/3 of an experience that is already seeming like one helluva turbulent ride through and beyond a black hole’s event horizon—and emerging in a psychedelic dimension full of swirling colors with a strong bout of existentialitis.
Record Label: Metal Blade/Cyclone Empire | Country: UK | Genre: Romantic Doom Metal
An emotional experience that is heavy and crushing, yet yearning, all at the same time, that is what makes this record a staple in many “Best of” lists for many bloggers and metal writers on the Internet. While I may not be a huge fan of doom metal, I know a unique doom record when I hear one—it is not everyday that you hear a doom metal band sing about relationships and the human desire to be accepted by others. It is like flakkin’ playing slam death metal and singing about how life and death are two sides of the coin and that you should cherish your life and make the most out of it because it’s short while death is inevitable and forever; you know, dealing with lyrical subject matter that is not directly related to the stereotypical stuff people sing about in a particular metal sub-genre, but relevant enough to be able to go with the feel and flow of the accompanying instrumental music.
Record Label: Roadrunner | Country: USA | Genre: Kornstep/Nü-Nü-Metal
I am disappointed with how this album turned out… in a positive way! You see, I was like one of those skeptical Korn haters out there initially, thinking that this dubstep/nü-metal experiment would definitely go wrong, just as that Morbid Angel industrial/death metal crossover experiment went horribly wrong. Deep down inside though, I was actually hoping that it would prove me wrong, because my affinity with hard rock and later on extreme metal started out from nü-metal acts such as the older incarnation of Linkin Park and Papa Roach, so you could say that I am already biased toward nü-metal bands in general.
And lo and behold, I was happily proven wrong. Thank the synth gods and drum machine deities for this miracle; somehow, the excessively “beaty” and highly electronic sound of dubstep just seems to go well with the simple guitar chord progressions nü-metal is well known for in general, and Jonathan Davis’ nasal clean singing too. [Editor’s Intrusion: Rev. Will reviewed the Korn album for PopMatters here.]
Record Label: Translation Loss/Waylon Recordings | Country: USA | Genre: Cartoonish Grindcore
The brainchild of Brutal Truth drummer, Richard Hoak, Total Fucking Destruction only does what its name implies in theory. In practice, its music is really just aiming to solicit some laughs from metalheads with a sense of humor while being decent grindcore at the same time.
Hater is probably the only hilariously cute yet offensive grindcore record I’ve ever come across to date. Don’t you just love the dark irony of that “peaceful” missile warhead with a smiley face and skull showing through? What about track titles like “Repeat Repeatedly”, “Meat Without Feet”, “Attack Of The Supervirus 2049”, “Attack Of The Supervirus 4863”, and “Attack Of The Supervirus 33a.D.”? The combination of clean shouting and sterile-sounding, groove-driven guitars not only goes against grindcore customs, but somehow works really well with the comedic nature of the artwork and lyrics as well. Man, I’ll pick Total Fucking Destruction as my go-to band for grindcore over the new Brutal Truth any day.
Record Label: Relapse | Country: Germany | Genre: Technical Progressive Death Metal
So out pops a virtuosic technical death metal band from Germany, the land of Teutonic thrash metal and some rather infamous NSBM bands. Not only are they a blast of fresh air in Germany’s metal scene, they are hypnotizing the socks off foreign audiences as well. Obscura are not only huge fans of sci-fi (as evident from all of their album artworks so far), they are as technical as any standard sci-fi story can get too, but they don’t overdo it on this record and make music that sounds too much like scales and pointless guitar wanking/drum bashing. They make a conscious effort to come up with complicated but mesmerizing tunes. Their penchant for imaginative melodies of astronomically epic proportions is impressive and something that many technical death metal bands of today lack.
Record Label: Nuclear Blast | Country: UK | Genre: Theatrical Heavy Metal
Hell is certainly the most innovative band I’ve heard playing in a mostly traditional metal style for this year. While the riffs and solos have a NWoBHM flavor to them, that is about the only thing “traditional” about their sound. They should be praised for being so creatively bold by deciding to incorporate symphonic and power metal elements into their technical brand of Satanic, prosaic heavy metal. In particular, check out vocalist David Beckford’s theatrical style of clean singing—you can almost imagine him performing in a Shakespeare play, for he carries himself with such dramatic confidence! Hell yeah, I love that hellish album art and the blatantly cheesy usage of the 666 symbol, too. More 666 than Iron Maiden’s The Number Of The Beast I’d say. [Editor’s Intrusion: Rev. Will reviewed this album for NCS here.]
Record Label: Southern Lord | Country: USA | Genre: Ambient Black Folk Metal
It is said that isolation breeds talent, and although this phenomenon seldom occurs, we all should thank a barn somewhere in Washington for giving to us yet another brilliant record by the intriguing Weaver brothers. To be more specific, we should be thanking the barn and whatever farming activities the brothers were engaging in which gave them the inspiration for writing this record. How much closer can you get to the source of your art than this? I mean, death metal musicians certainly don’t kill people while writing or recording their music; but Wolves In The Throne Room certainly were in a largely natural environment when working on this album, which is yet another ritualistic and nature-themed outing that will get your ears all full of moss.
The final part of a trilogy that began with Two Hunters followed by Black Cascade (yet another black metal trilogy!), this record doesn’t disappoint and proves that Wolves In The Throne Room are still at the top of the black/doom/dark ambient/crust punk/folk fusion game. Despair and sorrow never sounded so good in sonic form until I delved into this record’s mythical soundscape.
Record Label: Candlelight | Country: UK | Genre: Blackened Industrial Deathgrind
The British duo with a name that I used to mispronounce pretty frequently (Anal Nathrakh) is back with! With! What? Less hate? They mellowed down a lot on this album as compared to 2009’s raw and intense In The Constellation Of The Black Widow, but it still works out really well. The huge increase in clean singing by V.i.T.R.I.O.L. might be too big a change for some longtime Anaal Nathrakh fans, especially those who prefer only harsh vocals in their metal, but not for me. I love the refined sense of dark aplomb it gives to this record, although I hope the instrumentals won’t sound as sterile on the next album. As usual, the insidious pair’s experimentation hardly goes too wrong. [Editor’s Intrusion: Rev. Will reviewed this album here and here.]
Record Label: Prosthetic | Country: USA | Genre: Progressive Black Thrash Metal
While I do like Toxic Holocaust’s stuff as well, Skeletonwitch’s unique brand of watered-down, clean-sounding, progressive thrash metal instrumentals coupled with vocalist Chance Garnette’s low, indistinct growling easily made this latest offering from them my black thrash metal album of 2011 instead of Conjure And Command. Honestly, Conjure And Command was merely okay, I still like An Overdose Of Death… much better. Yes, I think the “progressive” element is the logical direction modern thrash metal should move towards now in order to stay relevant as one of the biggest metal sub-genres around. Every track on this record is as utterly infectious as it is utterly vicious.
Record Label: Moribund/Obsidian | Country: Australia | Genre: Atmospheric Black Metal
Australia is one of black metal’s best kept secrets: It is home to a number of notable underground black metal acts that have achieved kvlt status among black metal fanatics around the world (e.g., Abominator, Bestial Warlust, Horde, Naetu, Nazxul, Portal), and this 6-year old “virulent black metal” project (Thrall call themselves) is vying for a place in that exclusive and evil coterie.
Going by my personal circumstances mentioned above, this record made it onto this list because of how it struck a chord within my angst-ridden heart. Oh, and all that emptiness and misanthropy emanating from me, too. Of course, that alone is not enough to justify my action of placing this record so high up on this list. This record is atmospheric but not boring—a feat that I think is impressive—and has tinges of avant-garde black metal and plenty of creepy melodies that propel you along and make you want to keep on listening ‘til the end. Most underground choice of this list, and with good reason.
Record Label: Metal Blade | Country: USA | Genre: Melodic Blackened Death Metal
I was never really mesmerized by American melodic death metal. When I first encountered The Black Dahlia Murder, it was while I was listening to “Statutory Ape” off of Miasma, and although I found it exciting and aggressive enough to be heard in its entirety, I wasn’t as impressed with it as when I first heard “Everytime I Die” by Children Of Bodom. There is an intricate quality in Scandinavian melo-death that isn’t quite found in American melo-death after all, or that was what I thought.
Once I heard this record, however, I immediately took back my words. Not only have the guitar melodies become more intricate and catchier than ever before, the band have applied an extra tinge of black metal-esque darkness onto the ferocious music by the inclusion of (gasp!) string instruments, which provide haunting accompaniment, and the foreboding presence of both an atonal piano intro and outro in the song “Carbonized In Cruciform”! Vocalist and frontman Trevor’s trademark contrast between his low, guttural death growls and high-pitched shrieks are spot-on as always too, and with that, I shall now conclude that this is probably the best TBDM record so far.
Record Label: Candlelight | Country: UK | Genre: Ambient Folk Metal
I seriously drifted off to dreamland while listening to this (not in the bad way), and I even woke up feeling as satisfied as a baby. For someone who is forced to wake up early in the morning on weekdays due to my personal circumstances mentioned far above in the introduction to this post, this is an awesome feeling that I could do with more often. This is a beautiful debut by a pair from Scotland who wrench your heart with soulful melodies and yearning vocals; even if the desolate, snow-laden landscape depicted in the promo photos of the duo isn’t where they wrote and recorded this album, the haunting music certainly does conjure up that imagery in my mind and it is an extremely fitting visual aid to the sounds—I can almost taste the snowflakes on my tongue! There’s a lot of instrumental diversity on this record, too: I hear violins, the piano, some kind of folkish-sounding flute, acoustic guitars, and atmospheric synths.
Record Label: Candlelight | Country: USA | Genre: Thrash Metal
Havok aren’t “just another thrash metal band”. With this new record, they have effectively made themselves proponents of the “new school thrash metal” movement. While their dressing style seems to be stuck in ‘80s thrash metal fashion, their music is really quite modern. I mean, anything that has progressive influences these days can pretty much be considered “modern metal”, right? They may have killer riffs, catchy hooks, blistering solos, and even Tom Araya-ish, “Angel Of Death”-like screaming, as heard at the start of this album’s opening track, “Prepare For Attack”, but they don’t have that cliché “raw” and poorly-produced sound that so many traditional thrash metal bands revere (really, stop living in the past), which is a good thing to me.
Going back to the part about having progressive influences, it’s not the Vektor kind of outer-spacey prog thrash sound, but the riffs and solos have enough syncopation, speed, and various catchy motifs coming at a steady stream to keep things interesting enough. Only thrash metal bands who can pull off such a playing style are capable of composing lengthy, 4 – 5 minute-long numbers that don’t make me wanna skip them when they come up next on my shuffled iPod playlist. [Editor’s Intrusion: check out Rev. Will’s review of the album at this location.]
Record Label: Metal Blade | Country: Germany | Genre: Baroque Power Metal
First off, allow me to say that Metal Blade has had a very good metal year this year. As you all may have noticed by now, most of my list entries are signed to Metal Blade. Power metal is one of the most commonly ridiculed sub-genres of metal due to its generally clichéd and cheesy lyrical themes involving fantasy subjects such as dragons and elves, and also perhaps Manowar’s embarrassing imagery in their early days as well, and thus, it is very hard for power metal bands in our current era to be innovative and to capture a listener’s attention right from his/her first listen. Powerwolf have accomplished this, however, and they do it so gleefully and ingeniously that you can’t help but wonder why other bands on major extreme metal labels haven’t tried doing something like this before?!
I mean, singing about WEREWOLVES instead of DRAGONS? And throw in some religious satire going on in between the lyrical lines as well? Holy shit, there is even a pipe organ complementing the usual guitars and drums, the Romanian vocalist’s powerful voice with years of opera-training behind it, and even corpse paint. Before we all know it, werewolves will be the next cliché of power metal lyrical subject matter, and corpse paint will be the next faux pas of power metal fashion. [Editor’s Intrusion: Rev. Will reviewed this album for NCS here.]
Record Label: Debemur Morti Productions | Country: France | Genre: Avant-garde Black Metal
I’m a sucker for avant-garde and post-whatever metal, especially the creepy and eviiiil-sounding type. So what better way to fill up 2 of the top 5 slots of this list than with Blut Aus Nord, another esoteric band up there on the same high and mighty pedestal inhabited by the equally omnipotent Deathspell Omega? Honestly, Blut Aus Nord sounds like Deathspell Omega on this album, but with FAR fewer vocals. Since there is no new Deathspell Omega full-length record this year, Blut Aus Nord will have to do for now in order to sate my ravenous appetite for out-of-this-world tunes.
With this as the first in a trilogy of albums revolving around the holy Christian number of “777”, expect the 2nd album (mentioned next on this list) to be as atmospherically chilling and slightly catchier, and anticipate the 3rd and final record to be an impressive and malignantly grand finale to yet another essential French black metal trilogy. Few bands make me have as much faith in their as-yet unreleased records as Blut Aus Nord.
Record Label: Debemur Morti Productions | Country: France | Genre: Avant-garde Black Metal
Yes indeed, Blut Aus Nord are one of those bands who make sure every record they put out is of quality material, and hence the entry of another of their albums on this list. The second in a trilogy of albums revolving around the more-important-than-it-looks-at-first number of “777” (Google it and you’ll find out that it represents the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit), Blut Aus Nord have taken the same approach as their peers Deathspell Omega and decided to touch on subject matter very uncommon to black metal these days: that of the mythos of the Abrahamic religions, and not, I stress again, not simple bashing of them or shallow Hail Satan-ing.
It is extremely interesting to see such maliciously intelligent bands tackle the interpretations of Bible scholars from a radically different point of view, and hearing such foreboding yet malignantly uplifting instrumental music to go along with it is just pure mental masturbation. In fact, this record reminds me a lot of the soundtracks to the various installments of the Silent Hill video game series, mainly because of the frequent usage of industrial beats to make the creepy music sound excitingly creepy instead.
Record Label: Firewall Div./SMEJ/The End/Okami | Country: Japan | Genre: Avant-garde Metal
Japan’s premier avant-garde metallers Dir en grey have been quiet for 3 years, and that is with good reason. They never release crappy material, and they also never fail to surprise old and new listeners alike with their ever-evolving sound, which pushes the envelope of extreme metal. These ex-visual kei rockers perfectly encapsulate the Japanese spirit of manipulating something not indigenous to them into something that bears their indelible mark much later on (this was the case with the Western art form of the “cartoon” and the eventual spawning of the Japanese art form of “anime”). Hence, when they take such a long time with a new record, you can be rest assured that another mind-blowing piece of art is hurtling your way.
Imagine elements of deathcore, sludge, avant-garde jazz, ambient black, J-Pop, and even ballad-style singing being thrown into the mix; and the overall music still manages to sound coherent and mysteriously alluring. Don’t just keep an eye out for those French avant-garde black metal bands, keep up with some Japanese avant-garde metal groups as well. [Editor’s Intrusion: Rev. Will’s review of this album can be found here.]
Record Label: Relapse | Country: USA | Genre: Technical Death/Thrash Metal
Sometimes, you come across a record so good that you are at a loss for words. In this case, the power of the groove reigns supreme here (bonus extras include cheeky lyrics, creative interjections of blues, and extremely inventive guitar solos). This is a markedly excellent improvement over the thrashier and more brutal sound of the earlier two full-length albums, with David Davidson showing off his talent at writing crazily hooky riffs, bridges, solos, and demonstrating just how guitar wanking can be both cool and musically relevant on this instant classic of a post-sophomore full-length album. An excellent post-sophomore record even after a really good sophomore full-length album!
Few bands achieve this consistency in quality, and I am certainly looking forward to seeing how Revocation will top this album on their next record. This might sound like shooting myself in the foot, but y’know, reading these pathetic words, which attempt to help you guys imagine how awesome this record sounds, is actually a waste of time. A groove has to be felt after all, not read about. Now, scram and download/buy yourself this masterpiece. [Editor’s Intrusion: Rev. Will review Revocation’s album twice — here and here.]