(This is the fifth and final installment in NCS writer Andy Synn’s week-long series of year-end lists. To see his lists of the “Great” , the “Good”, the most “Disappointing”, and the “Critical Top 10″ albums of 2012, go here, here, here, and here.)
Cards on the table here, this list is a lot more fun, and involves a lot less second-guessing and self-awareness, than the others. I just pick the ten albums I’ve loved and listened to most this year. Some of them might not be objectively the ‘greatest’, but I love them all the same. They’re heavy, they’re fast. They’re melodic, they’re brutal, sometimes they’re even a little beautiful. But they all just ‘clicked’ with me better than any other albums this year.
To add a bit of variety to things I’ve even included an extra list of my ten favourite songs of the year, each drawn from a different album, just to give you more of an insight into the workings of my twisted mind.
So, without further ado, here are the ten albums, and ten tracks, that have defined my experience as a listener and a fan (and not as a critic/journalist/blogger/whatever) this year.
MY PERSONAL TOP 10
10. Khonsu – Anomalia
The first of two debut albums on my list, Anomalia was a real surprise, taking elements of what I love about early Keep Of Kalessin and then filtering them through a fractured prism of strange electronica and unsettling, progressive influences. It incorporates unpredictable acoustic interludes, unexpected (and untouchable) clean vocals, as well as artful synthetic soundscapes, into a roiling pot of blackened cosmic chaos. Fast and furious, but at the same time cool and calculated, it’s black metal with both brains and brawn.
09. Job For A Cowboy – Demonocracy
How the years do fly by. I remember when the band first debuted with the primitive guilty-pleasures of the Doom Ep, and became poster boys for the ‘Myspace Generation’ of bands. Only, the ‘Myspace Generation’ never really got off the ground. But Job For A Cowboy did, using the flaming comments of their detractors to forge themselves anew, hammering their raw metal into a fiery sword of death metal vengeance! Ahem… basically, this is a stunning little record, uber-fast, crushingly slow, heavy, technical, uncompromising. I love it.
08. Hellish Outcast – Your God Will Bleed
The second of the debut albums on my list (and also the second to feature Thebon on vocals as well), Your God Will Bleed is a hellish firestorm of boundless aggression. It’s an album for the serial killer in all of us. The sort of record whose sheer intensity, rather than tiring the listeners out, instead imbues them with the strength to march up to the gates of heaven and murder the almighty with their bare and bloody hands. Yeah, it’s that sort of record.
07. Shining – Redefining Darkness
A late entry, but what an entry it is, Shining once again keep us all guessing with this album of monstrous metallic groove, progressive vibes, and dark, haunting beauty. But in the end these changes, all this growth, simply disguises the ever-beating, ever-bleeding filthy heart of the band, a group of twisted individuals who will always be black metal to the core, no matter what changes on the surface. White is definitely the new black here.
06. The Wretched End – Inroads
Of all the post-Emperor projects/albums, it’s Ihsahn’s solo work that generally gets the lion’s share of the praise. But people should never forget about Samoth and his furious fingers. Inroads is absolutely bursting at the seams with killer riffs, sizzling solos, and dominating drums, as well as a smorgasbord of smartly-vicious hooks. Does it offer anything new to the world… maybe, maybe not… Does it absolutely slay? Absolutely.
05. Enthroned – Obsidium
Finally… FINALLY… Enthroned have realised their full potential. Pitch black perfection in 9 songs of fire and brimstone and death. Fans of Watain’s Lawless Darkness would do well to check this one out, as it’s faster, heavier, and darker, in almost every way. With its ritualistic vibe, subtle hints of gloating melody, and generally ferocious nature, this is an album that will get under your skin and stay there. Altogether now… “Bow before your master!”
04. Bleeding Through – The Great Fire
Oof… so heavy. The band’s association with Dave and Mick of Anaal Nathrakh has certainly borne fruit on both their previous records, and The Great Fire might just top both of them when it comes to harnessing Bleeding Through’s nascent blackened intensity. It’s not that the band have changed their style, it’s just that ever since Declaration they’ve simply gotten heavier and more extreme, emphasizing their blackened side without losing touch with their bruising, hardcore roots. Toss in some carefully placed clean vocals, some unique and warped keyboard work, a smattering of sledgehammer breakdowns, ignite, and serve.
03. Anaal Nathrakh – Vanitas
And speaking of Anaal Nathrakh…
I wasn’t as passionate about Passion as I was Anaal Nathrak’s previous albums, even though there are definitely some songs on that album that I think may have permanently altered my genetic makeup. But Vanitas… oh Vanitas. What sheer, horrific splendour it portrays, what terrible glory it unleashes. An unrelenting cyber-grind symphony of blackened sickness, no one balances extremity and melody as perfectly as Anaal Nathrakh. And once they’ve got you, they’ll never let you go.
02. Secrets Of The Moon – Seven Bells
None more black? Maybe. Taking the riff-heavy, Satyricon-inspired blackened groove of their earlier material and dipping it in the viscous sludge of Celtic Frost’s tarry misanthropy is certainly one way to make sure than no-one can ever confuse you as being a light-hearted band. This is about as doomy as black metal gets without actually straying across the boundary, every dreadful utterance, every choking melody line, every painful blasting assault, coated in a layer of soul-destroying blackness.
01. Abigail Williams – Becoming
It was actually pretty close between the top 3 albums, but Becoming clinches the top spot by virtue of sheer stamina and will-power. It’s stayed with me ever since I first heard it and, despite a few flaws in its make-up, goes down as a truly definitive artistic statement from a band who’ve been fighting an uphill battle for acceptance since day 1. The slow transition (and I will always argue that you can see the roots of Becoming in both their previous albums, In The Absence Of Light in particular) has really led the group to refine their sound and fury, honing it to a razor’s edge while always expanding their horizons, always chasing perfection.
TOP 10 SONGS
Anathema – “Untouchable (Pt. 1)”
You may have seen I didn’t rate this album as a whole all that much, but certain songs definitely stood out, and this one most of all. Those touching, emotive vocals, the whispering wave-form of the clean guitars, the way it builds and builds, slowly and surely, to its soaring, shining climax – it’s all just… perfect.
Whitechapel – “Make It Bleed”
Whitechapel’s steady transition towards death metal’s core (no pun intended) has seen them slowly transform into a sort of American-Polish hybrid of sorts, with traces of Vader and Decapitated all over this track. It’s an absolute crusher, but it’s the clever moments – like the ghostly semi-clean interludes, and the vicious “Make it BLEED!” which transitions into the solo – which made this track an absolute stand-out for me.
Enslaved – “Roots Of The Mountain”
‘Roots of the Mountain’ is pretty much a perfect mix of Enslaved at their heaviest and at their most progressive. The weirdly chaotic, hammering opening bars setting the stage for a chorus so majestic, so utterly mesmerising, that it eclipses pretty much everything else released this year. The song is much more than just a massive chorus though, with some truly crunchy riffage, skittering, jazy drum parts, and some transcendent soloing all mixed in as well.
Borknagar – “Frostrite”
‘Frostrite’ is the song off Urd where Vortex is given his operatic, skyscraping vocals truly unelashing themselves during the track’s brazenly infectious chorus, while the rest of the song sets a galloping pace, blasting across the icy wastes like a jet powered monkey navigated rocket of pure Norwegian prog-metal. Plus, where else can you hear someone say ‘giddyup’ on a metal album this year?
Abigail Williams – “Beyond The Veil”
If Becoming is Abigail William’s magnum opus, then ‘Beyond The Veil’ is the album’s Pièce de résistance, a classically inflected piece of blistering melancholy and tumultuous black metal that draws from all the band’s influences and previous work, tying it up with a bow of enigmatic, piercing string work and an aura of esoteric malevolence. It’s over 17 minutes long, but not a second is wasted.
The Wretched End – “Cold Iron Soul”
Samoth is the riff-master, and he’s conjured up some utterly demonic, pitch black death metal riffs here, injected them with thrash-amphetamines, then called up Dominator to provide total drumming devastation. The cold blackened edge and industrialised power of the track add to the body-count, leading to the song’s crushing, monolithic chorus, matching Cosmo’s vicious bark with a dark and ominous vocal refain. Pure murder music.
Devin Townsend – “Where We Belong”
I’m a sucker for Devin at his grandly melodic, heartfelt best, and ‘Where We Belong’ is certainly that. At the start the acoustic guitar work is soft and sublime, the vocals soothing and captivating, but it’s when the track finally blooms, into a beautiful display of gorgeous dynamics and huge, yet restrained, metal power, that truly makes it something special.
Goatwhore – “My Name Is Frightful Among The Believers”
This has pretty much jumped up to be my ‘go to’ Goatwhore song. That killer black metal intro riff, the spitting, spiteful vocals, the nasty, swaggering groove. Yep, all present and correct. This is definitely a song made for inciting violence.
Anaal Nathrakh – “A Metaphor For The Dead”
Possibly an unexpected pick from this record, but it really sees the band hit the button marked ‘Epic’ with more gusto than ever before. You’ve just got to love those eerily melodic notes and sinuous bass-lines, followed by explosive, cyber-metal detonations and the song’s utterly humongous chorus, with an even more epic outro lead refrain.
Ihsahn – “The Paranoid”
Riff, riff, riff, riff, blast, blast, ravenous vocals, clean interlude, riff some more, atmospheric acoustic work, grinding 8-string riffage… hypnotic pop chorus? When Ihsahn is ‘on’, he’s really ‘on’, and this track is certainly ‘on’. Such a weird melding of ideas, from prog-pop melodies to vicious throwbacks to his time in Emperor and more atmosphere than your local class-M planet, means ‘The Paranoid’ not only gets stuck in your head, it stands out in any crowd.