(This is the second of NCS writer BadWolf’s multi-part series of posts about 2012′s top albums. Yesterday, we posted his Top 10 “Exceptions To the Rule”. Today, we get the straight hard stuff. The artwork above is “Assassin nocturne” by Olgenki.)
In all honesty this is what you come here for; what I came here for. My top 10 albums of abrasive and turbulent music reside in this post. Yes, some of these albums feature a few pinches of melodic vocalism, but these are the albums which speak to man’s primitive, violent natures—to paraphrase an album below, they are for wild children.
As much as I think the greatest strength of this blog is its ability to shine a spotlight on incredibly obscure artists, metal is an old man’s game, and my list leans hard on veterans, many of whom dropped, out of left field, pieces of incredible strength and ferocity. It also leans less on black metal and progressive metal—those two genres are perhaps dovetailing out of brief and brilliant Renaissances—and heavy toward death metal and hardcore. The HM-2 pedal’s revival is still soldiering on, as is the producing career of one Kurt Ballou.
Metal music and culture, to me, are about running against the grain of society at large, and the music below does that with aplomb. I tend to shy away from overly violent lyrics, but some of this music is absolutely depraved. Which is not to say that these aren’t intelligent records—some of 2012′s finest works move through tremendous meditations on serious and real evils in our world today, such as the plight of the American miner, our abusive relationship with the environment, and the possibility of a global surveillance state.
Gojira – L’Enfant Sauvage
Four years is a long wait for a relatively lean album, and one that looks less ambitious than its predecessor—that is if you’re judging based on superficial criteria like song length and use of synthesizers. Rest assured, L’Enfant Sauvage is the most challenging record these French environmentalists have penned. Its B-side flirts with post-rock-and-metal territory, shifting between subtly altered segments and wringing more variety out of in-amp distortion than most progressive metal groups get with thousands of dollars worth of pedals. But underneath all the complexity, Gojira have honed in on a simple songwriting ethos: nobody wants to hear a Gojira song without a monster-clobbering caveman mosh riff. You want heavy? Gojira gives you heavy.
Panopticon – Kentucky
Folk metal is a fickle mistress, and in general Americans cannot please her. Too often the genre falls into power metal’s empty bombast. And let’s be honest—polka beats get fucking irritating. Panopticon skirt all of those pitfalls.
Kentucky is a harrowing hour of technically proficient black metal mixed with bluegrass passages and classic working-class folk songs. A blackgrass album, if you will. Panopticon weave these disparate elements together with a stunning sense of melody, some serious technical acumen (the first series of guitar solos in “Bodies Under the Falls,” holy shit!), and the grim subject matter of the American coal worker.
I may have a bias: I’m from Ohio, and have taken many trips to and through Appalachia. The sound of banjo is never far. Whole towns in my state are dying with the coal industry, and yet I see great wickedness in the practice of mining coal. Still, anyone should be able to appreciate the raw beauty of Kentucky.
High on Fire – De Vermis Mysteriis
And the award for least pronounceable name goes to…
I’ve loved High on Fire since 2005′s Blessed Black Wings album, and unlike seemingly every other critic, I’m quite fond of 2010′s Snakes for the Divine album. I would not call this record some sort of magical improvement over it, as that album was a favorite as well. But what needs to be said is that for all his faults, Matt Pike is one hell of a songwriter. He’s been called the Lemmy of my generation. I disagree: unlike Lemmy his songwriting improves from album to album.
The revelation on De Vermis is just how aggressive High on Fire can be. As pounding and sludgy as Pike was in the past, I never saw his band as the kind of pit-agitating bomb squadron that wrote this record. Seriously, songs like ‘Bloody Knuckles’ and ‘Fertile Green’ feel like needles full of mainlined hatred. Some thanks goes to Kurt Ballou (you’ll read that name again here) for making the snare drum on this album sound like a pneumatic piston, and giving Pike’s guitar some of 2012′s hottest distortion.
Aborted – Global Flatline
Any death metal album sampling The Human Centipede must earn that sample, and Global Flatline does. It’s depraved, rancid, but sports a shining modern production, making it perhaps the most compulsively listenable death metal album of 2012. I haven’t seen any other blogs besides this one represent for Aborted. A shame, really, because this is the most consistent record in their catalog. Global Flatline deals in an array of breakdowns, slams, and surprisingly hooky melodies. It is in every way the record that bands like Job for a Cowboy and Whitechapel have been trying to make since abandoning the deathcore song structure—perhaps in a decade they will achieve what Aborted have done in 2012.
A Life Once Lost – Ecstatic Trance
I’ve been excited for this album for a long, long time. A Life Once Lost’s catalog was some of my first extreme metal and hardcore. I celebrate their entire catalog, even the much-maligned Iron Gag album. Five years is too long a wait. But after a near-total lineup change, and half a decade of work, Ecstatic Trance represents the purest distillation of what A Life Once Lost is, as a band. The blues scales from Iron Gag, and the punk sneer of Hunter have been replaced with psychedelic undertones.
Oh, and some of the most punishing grooves I can think of. The influences here are obvious: Meshuggah, Ministry, and Killing Joke (the album even comes with a cover of “Asteroid.”). Bob Meadows pulls no punches in his most ferocious vocal performance on record. It is as if the group decided to show every Djent band on the planet precisely how awesome that subgenre could be with a bit of grit and a lot of heart.
Nidingr – G.O.D.
2012′s finest black metal release came from a bunch of guys who played second-fiddle in Mayhem and Gorgoroth. G.O.D. eschews most genre conventions: there are relatively few blast beats, the production is huge and bassy, and the vocals must be heard to be believed. Cpt. Estrella is the first vocalist I’ve heard in years who could stand next to Attila Csihar and Ihsahn as equally operatic and savage. This is what I wanted Mayhem’s Ordo ad Chao to be.
Cannibal Corpse – Torture
2012 was full of great releases by classic death metal bands: Cattle Decapitation, Cryptopsy, Unleashed, Grave, Napalm Death, Nile, and others released some of the best work in their carreers. And I like all of their careers more than Cannibal Corpse’s.
So why do I love Torture so? Because I cannot stop spinning it. “Encased in Concrete,” “As Deep as the Knife Will Go,” “Scourge of Iron,” “Intestinal Crank,” each infest with earworms. I think I can quote half this album, and have done so many times, at inappropriate times. Any record that can make me growl FOLLOWED HOME THEN KILLED in the middle of holiday gift shopping deserves great praise.
Meshuggah – Koloss
I have nothing to say that I did not in my review. Yet another perfect record in a catalog full of them. Meshuggah may be all of metal’s finest sons.
Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind
Damn you, Jacob Bannon and your bizzare psychic window into me. Songs like “Sadness Comes Home” and “Shame in the Way” state in simple, quite direct terms, things I’ve felt for years. Converge is one of my bands, the kind that resonate with me on a personal level. They also do not release bad records, and as much as I liked Axe to Fall, I found that its sprawling second act blurred together after the first listen.
But on All We Love We Leave Behind, every last song sounds distinct, with its own flavor. Kurt Ballou, Ben Koller, and Nate Newton must now rank as a hardcore three piece on par with classic Black Flag or Bad Brains, and like those bands they’re mixing new sounds into the mix: classic rock beats and trancelike ambient interludes that make already-strong songs stronger rather than prop them up. Oh and Kurt Ballou reserves his best production tricks for his own group. If Jane Doe was their Reign in Blood, this is their Seasons in the Abyss.
Black Breath – Sentenced to Life
This record dropped in March, two days before my birthday, and what a gift it was. To the rest of 2012, thanks for showing up, now die. I’m so jealous that Islander gets to live in the same city as this force of nature made flesh. Words do not sufficiently describe how much I love this record’s mix of d-beat, thrash, NWOBHM, and Swedish death metal. I’ve reviewed it already, but seriously, if you have not, go buy this album. Satisfaction guaranteed.