[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of four posts by our UK guest contributor Andy Synn looking back at the year in metal. We will post the remaining parts over the three days that follow, culminating with Andy’s Top 10 list(s) of the best metal albums of 2010. As always, we invite your comments.]
Whilst reviewing the year 2010 in metal, I’ve chosen to split all the albums I have listened to and feel that I am capable of judging into 3 different categories. First of all you’ll get the albums which I feel are the “Greatest” releases of the year, then the albums which were all of a high standard will be presented in the “Good” category – all highly respectable, but perhaps a hair or two short of greatness.
Finally you’ll see the albums which I feel have been “Disappointing” this year, varying between them in quality from good to poor, but none of which I could, in good conscience, include in the other categories due to their inherent flaws, regardless of my personal feelings towards either band or album. That column in particular is bound to draw down some real ire, although I promise it’s all done in my honest opinion and with no agenda in mind.
Anyway, here’s a list of all the albums and EPs from this year that I have listened to and enjoyed but which, as opposed to those in the “Good” category, I believe could/should be objectively seen as “Great” by a listener other than myself. Removing subjective considerations and biases as far as possible, I’ve tried to list and comment upon all the albums I think deserve the highest accolades this year. (Andy’s list, and his comments about it, follow the jump . . .)
Agalloch – Marrow Of The Spirit
Altar Of Plagues – Tides EP
Anathema – We’re Here Because We’re Here
Borknagar – Universal
The Crown – Doomsday King
Dark Fortress – Ylem
Dark Tranquillity – We Are The Void
Decrepit Birth – Polarity
Deftones – Diamond Eyes
Enslaved – Axioma Ethica Odini
Fleshgod Apocalypse – Mafia
God Dethroned – Under The Sign of The Iron Cross
Ihsahn – After
Ikuinen Kaamos – Fall Of Icons
Impending Doom – There Will Be Violence
In-Quest – Made Out Of Negative Matter
Iron Thrones – The Wretched Sun
Kataklysm – Heaven’s Venom
Keep Of Kalessin – Reptilian
Lantlos – Neon
Living Sacrifice – The Infinite Order
Ludicra – The Tenant
Mar De Grises – Streams Inwards
Martriden – Encounter The Monolith
Negură Bunget – Vîrstele Pămîntului
October Tide – A Thin Shell
Rotting Christ – Aealo
Son Of Aurelius – The Farthest Reaches
Triptykon – Epistaires Daemones (+ Shatter EP)
Watain– Lawless Darkness
Withered – Dualitas
Worm Ouroboros – s/t
The Wretched End – Ominous
1349 – Demonoir
Interestingly, this list contains a lot of Black Metal in a year where I’ve heard a lot of criticisms of the current sound and direction of BM as a whole, although to my mind traditional Black Metal got a welcome shot in the arm from several different sources this past year.
The much-maligned Watain are clearly at ease with their own sound nowadays, and showed themselves willing to push their “metal” elements just as much as their stereotypically “black” sound, regardless of convention or judgement from the more conservative elements of the scene. The always-blistering 1349 did not so much regress with Demonoir (after the negative reception afforded Revelations…) as they did rework their core sound to further and more naturally incorporate the darker, doomier vibe which they are pursuing.
Both Dark Fortress and Keep Of Kalessin also sought to expand the genre in their own particular ways, increasing technicality and shifting tempos abounding on both records. Ylem in particular came forward as a real force to be reckoned with, progressing the sound without appearing to be a stereotypically “progressive” black metal band; on the other hand Reptilian found KoK moving further from Black Metal in many ways, yet being increasingly comfortable in themselves and the core elements of their own sound.
Speaking of bands considered stereotypically “progressive” Black Metal, releases from Enslaved and Borknagar continue to demonstrate why both bands are artistically head and shoulders above the majority of their contemporaries. Axioma Ethica Odini easily recovered from the lack of energy which I felt weakened Vertebrae, managing to come across as both more “metal” and more “progressive” at the same time. The vocals of keyboardist Herbrand Larsen have also finally blossomed into their full potential. For Borknagar the tale is in many ways similar, Universal showcasing new elements to their sound, whilst at the same time managing to improve upon almost every aspect and old element from their previous records. Strangely, however, this record seems to have slipped through the cracks for a lot of people!
Two particular legends returned once more, with their own particular sounds. Triptykon (ft. Tom G. Warrior of Celtic Frost as well as V. Santura of Dark Fortress) continued the dark, melancholic and altogether monolithic legacy of latter day Celtic Frost, albeit with new elements and more than their fair share of new surprises. The organic compositions created reflect both the majesty and horror of the human condition in equal measure, coupled with a truly monstrous guitar sound and a mix of vocal styles which serve to give each song a devastating heaviness and a haeart-rending sense of dark romanticism.
Meanwhile the godfather of prog-black metal mayhem, Ihsahn delivered unto us the mind-bending array of musical dexterity entitled After this year, an almost flawless melding of disparate styles, over-flowing with sincere emotional content. His influence, particularly as a member of Emperor, is also prevalent throughout Fall Of Icons, the second album from Finnish band Ikuinen Kaamos. Whilst the band clearly wear their influences on their sleeves (Emperor and Opeth mainly) the quality of their recorded output is undeniable, a near perfect mix of the best parts of both bands. A case where the whole is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
From what I have seen/heard, US black metal also had an outstanding year. Martriden, Ludicra, Withered and Agalloch all provided us with phenomenal records showcasing different elements of the Black Metal spectrum. Martriden proved themselves the band to beat in the underground with the release of one of the best and most unexpected surprises of the year, Encounter The Monolith, a 6-track album of technical, progressive black metal following the path laid down by Emperor and Enslaved without ever coming across as derivative or unoriginal. Hot on their heels with The Tenant, Ludicra have successfully condensed all the positives and promise from their previous work into one near-perfect synthesis of light and shade, ebb and flow, whilst Withered produced a deeply disturbing and darkly focused record in Dualitas, an album almost crippled by the weight of despair and disillusionment harnessed within. My recent discovery of Agalloch has also borne fruit, their latest album captivating my interest with its natural and organic mix of warm, folkish tones and bleak black metal atmospheres.
Regarding folk-influenced Black Metal, the two key releases in this area this year seem to have come from Romania’s Negură Bunget and Greece’s Rotting Christ. Both have incorporated traditional elements and sounds so perfectly into their music that neither band can truly be considered simply a “folk-influenced Black Metal” band anymore; both are singular entities in their own right. A genre of one, you might say. It is particularly impressive in the case of Negură Bunget that such a masterful album has been produced in the wake of such a drastic line-up shift, where the future of the band was in fact in question. Two further bands with roots in, but not bound by, the conventions of the Black Metal scene are Lantlos and Altar Of Plagues. Both “Neon” and “Tides” contain a series of songs with more power and variety than a lot of bands demonstrate in their entire careers.
In the realm of Death Metal, God Dethroned and Fleshgod Apocalypse managed to incorporate new sounds and new ideas without ever compromising on speed or violent intent. The sparing and considered use of clean vocals and piano helps Under The Sign Of The Iron Cross to evoke the terrible horror and futility of war, whilst simultaneously blasting the listener into submission. The sheer wealth talent on display in the Mafia EP helps hammer home why Fleshgod Apocalypse are considered one of the premier upcoming talents in Death Metal today – technical, vicious and unrelenting yet equally symphonic and progressive, the band continues to improve in leaps and bounds.
On the other end of the scale in terms of overall technicality, Kataklysm seem to have finally reached the pinnacle of their sound post-Serenity In Fire, effortlessly matching steamrollering grooves to blistering blast-beats, whilst also introducing some greater elements of subtlety and nuance on new album Heaven’s Venom which serve to keep their formula from growing stale. A similar thing holds true for the debut by The Wretched End, which continues the legacy of the much-missed Zyklon, but with a few new twists and more personally relevant themes. The musicianship and well-harnessed sense of modern misanthropy are almost beyond compare on this one.
However, as death/thrash hybrids go however, nothing this year can match Doomsday King by Sweden’s The Crown. Their comeback record is killer, start to finish, with new vocalist Jonas Stålhammar proving the perfect, last missing piece in the band’s armory. His delivery mixes the best elements of both the band’s prior singers, whilst the rest of the band have brought their best to the table, laying down killer riff on top of killer riff, mixing song styles and taking the best elements of their own history and combining them into something new and utterly compelling.
Interestingly enough, another comeback record this year, namely The Infinite Order by Living Sacrifice has also proven to have both the instant impact and the staying power to make me consider it a truly *Great* record of 2010. Again the band have concentrated on laying down a seemingly endless array killer riffs, although this time the focus is on heavy, pummelling grooves rather than raging blasting.
Another group of Swedish legends, the mighty Dark Tranquillity, have made up for the somewhat disappointing Fiction with new album We Are The Void, which continues along the same path but with overall better songs, more interesting drumming and a more fluid amalgamation of their characteristic melo-death riffing and esoteric electronic elements. Two other, much less well-known, groups have provided us with their own take on a more melodic/progressive form of Death Metal this year, namely the USA’s own Iron Thrones and the Belgian metal-merchants who make up In-Quest. With a sound referencing both Opeth and the much-missed Burst, Iron Thrones have shown so much growth in the past year it’s a little unbelievable that they aren’t already a much bigger band, their progressive grooves revealing layers upon layers only after repeated and careful scrutiny.
Similarly In-Quest only reveal their true genius after multiple listens, although their almost flawless fusion of modern and traditional death metal elements does provide a more instantaneous head-rush of aggression and energy. Each subsequent listen, however, reveals more clever and subtle layers and ideas than the last. A rare gem of an album that is both instantly rewarding and yet able to develop over time.
The latest albums by Decrepit Birth, Son Of Aurelius and Impending Doom all showcase how new, younger bands are capable of taking the Death Metal baton and running with it. The perennially uncool Impending Doom may seem like an odd choice for this list, but I believe the band have successfully moved beyond the aimless posturing and self-indulgent cliché of many of their peers, harnessing their own clear passion for music and directing it toward the production of a succinct and direct slab of heaviness and carefully formed aggression which transcends the childish and petulant limitations so often associated with the “deathcore” genre.
On the other end of the “cool” spectrum, Son Of Aurelius have come seemingly out of nowhere with an epic, heroic take on the technical death metal genre, impressing nigh on everyone whom they have encountered. The songs on The Farthest Reaches have a character and individuality not usually found in the sort of music which usually contains technical wizardry of this level. The supremely talented Decrepit Birth have finally found the perfect platform for their own technically-minded take on traditional Death Metal values. The production and execution of Polarity has allowed the band as a whole to demonstrate that their music is capable of both emulating and expanding upon the legacy left behind by the unfortunate passing of Death’s Chuck Schuldiner, justifying much of the hype and faith that has been placed in them over the years.
As come-backs go, two of the best have been provided by Diamond Eyes by Deftones and A Thin Shell by October Tide. Whilst the former is a double surprise, not only due to the unfortunate events surrounding the affliction of Che Cheng but also the often patchy nature of their recent work, the latter album is one that came as a complete surprise to many who believed the band were done and dusted. Thankfully, both albums showcase all their members performing at the peak of their talents.
The often avant-garde leanings of Deftones’ previous work have been tempered by a truly heavy low-end of metallic guitar grinding, without losing that spark of uniqueness that makes the band’s best moments so rewarding to revisit. Clearly not as well-known, but in many ways just as anticipated, the return of October Tide has seen band mastermind Fredrik Norrman gather an entirely new line-up to support his doom-drenched, melancholic riffs and help bring his epic Death Metal infused song structures to life. The vocal performance by In Mourning’s Tobis Netzell is particularly commanding.
As far as doom-laden, melodic Death Metal goes however, the best release this year has been Streams Inwards by Chilean band Mar De Grises. An entirely singular take on the sound popularised by Swallow The Sun, et al, the album is a mesmerising piece of work capable of capturing the imagination and captivating the attention of the listener from start to finish.
Finally, to cap off the *Great* albums of the year, both Anathema and Worm Ouroboros provided records that, whilst not strictly in any way as “metal” as the other albums here, still owe much to the legacy and emotional catharsis so important to “metal” at its heart. Anathema have somehow managed to be both more rock-y and more laid back and spacious at the same time on We’re Here Because We’re Here, a careful and deliberate exposition on the joy and sorrow of life and death, which has resulted in them composing a truly honest and compassionate piece of art that may well be their crowning achievement.
Just as melodic, but arguably more progressive in scope, Bay Area three-piece Worm Ouroboros delivered their debut, self-titled effort with more confidence and grace than I would really have thought possible for such an unknown band. The whole record is dreamlike and trance-inducing in the most positive way imaginable and, although perhaps not to every metal fan’s taste, is a record I highly recommend for anyone who simply loves good music made with real drive and real emotion. (to be continued . . .)
[Tomorrow: Andy’s post on the “Good” metal albums of 2010.]