[EDITOR’S NOTE: We finally come to Part 4 of Andy Synn‘s review of the year in metal. In previous posts, Andy identified the Great, the Good, and the Disappointing releases of 2010. In this final installment, Andy lists his Top 10 favorite albums of the year as well as a critical Top 10 list. Turns out that the same album is in the top spot on both lists.]
Well ladies and gentlemen, finally we come to my personal top ten of the year, followed by my objective, critical top ten.
The first list contains the albums that I consider my favourites, in some cases regardless of relative quality, and that I have gone to for listening pleasure most frequently this year. I love these albums despite (and in some cases because of) their flaws.
The second list contains the albums which I think were the most artistically ambitious and successful, performed the best, and contained the best and most interesting examples of song-writing as art. These are the albums which I feel set a gold-standard for objective value this year, regardless of personal feelings towards the music and/or artist.
There will definitely be some expected names on both lists, but also hopefully some surprises!
My Personal Top Ten
10) Setherial – Ekpyrosis
Full of proper, full-on and often technical riffs, blast-furnace drumming and a great production job, this album is an endlessly scathing assault of high-end black metal. Add to this a more interesting and bleak lyrical bent (as opposed to the cod-Satanism espoused by so many) and you get a perfect antidote to some of the more disappointing recent releases by more prominent Black Metal icons. Given that, it’s still not quite as good as predecessor “Death Triumphant”!
09) Living Sacrifice – The Infinite Order
Grooving and grinding, swaying and striking like a boxer in his prime, this is clearly (at least for me) the SECOND best comeback album of the year. Bruce Fitzhugh’s vocals are as powerful as ever, and the band’s rhythmic attack nimbly ducks and weaves behind him. A nice line in subtly uplifting lead parts and some killer growled choruses also help make this one of my most listened to of the year!
08) The Crown – Doomsday King
…and this is the best comeback album of the year. The vocals are easily a match for anything that has gone before, the riffs are never less than killer, the slow parts groove and smoulder, the fast parts explode and shred, the melodies are darker, the sound is better. It’s just superfluously good.
07) Dark Tranquillity – We Are The Void
Almost a comeback in my mind, after the disappointment of “Fiction”, the latest Dark Tranquillity album maintains its high level of quality thoughout. Mikael Stanne’s vocal patterns are far less predictable this time around, and both his growls and clean vocals are as powerful and distinctive as ever. The riffing has incorporated some different tones and even some black metal influences in places, whilst the drumming has loosened up and become more spontaneous. Key to the sound however is the more organic and now inescapably necessary synth work which provides a whole new level of depth tying each song together.
06) Engel – Threnody
The metal version of AFI? I’ve seen it written and in some ways agree. The thing is, I like AFI as song-writers, regardless of genre. As a band, Engel have great song-writing abilities and have more naturally incorporated their non-metal influences on this, their second album. Magnus Klavborn has revealed himself as a supremely talented vocalist, capable of matching growls and screams with many of today’s better known singers, whilst the overall sound of the band has grown into a huge beast, far surpassing the attempts of their countrymen In Flames at modernising elements of the Gothenburg sound.
05) God Dethroned – Under The Sign of The Iron Cross
Best Blackened Death Metal album of the year, bar none. Extreme at times, melancholic at others, it truly captures a morose sense of atmosphere and fatalism which one might well attribute to the mind-numbing horrors of warfare and its effects upon human lives. Whilst the band have never been afraid to ease off the acceleration a little in order to better allow the song to breathe, the addition of Mike Van Der Plicht on drums has also allowed them to ramp up the speed to new levels of extremity. Killer, killer riffs as well.
04) Martriden – Encounter The Monolith
Singular in terms of style and vision. Technically proficient and epic in scope. Grandiose in concept and execution. All these terms and more can be applied to the second album from Georgian progressive black metal band Martriden. The 6 songs on the album are each amazing compositions in their own right, yet clearly work best when taken as part of the album as a whole, each discussing and expanding upon it’s cosmological themes and otherworldly sense of dark melody and dehumanised displacement..
03) Rotting Christ – Aealo
This album makes me want to go to war. With whomever I deem appropriate on which to unleash my wrath. The martial rhythms, the epic and melodic lead parts, the stately and commanding growl of Sakis Tolis, the guest crooning from A. Nemtheanga from Primordial, the subtle and indispensable use of keyboards, traditional greek instruments and choirs, all combine to make an album that truly gets the blood stirring. Utterly and undeniably primal, this record touches something in my mind that I wasn’t aware was there.
02) Keep Of Kalessin – Reptilian
The defining opus of this Norwegian band. Every song and every aspect just works perfectly. From the sheer musical talent and expert extremity found on “Dragon Iconography” to the symphonic grandeur of “The Awakening”, every song just sounds massive. The band know how to transport the listener away from the mundane grind of everyday life, songs such as “The Dragontower” and “Dark As Moonless Night” showcasing new sides and approaches to their ever-broadening sound, whilst “Judgement” and “The Divine Land” weave intricate melodies into their distinctive take on Black Metal, which channels a greater depth of emotion than most other bands of this style.
01) Dark Fortress – Ylem
Pride of place however goes to this brilliant piece of work. This showcases the brilliant talents of every single band member, effortlessly gliding between different back metal styles, mixing black ‘n roll groove with full on blasting and dark, almost Swallow The Sun style, melody parts juxtaposed against death metal riffs and crushing rhythmic sections. A mixture of singing styles provides both direction and melody, ably supported by the intricate and memorable bass-work, creative and interesting drumming and a plethora of different hooks. The concept and lyrical slant are key elements in enlivening the entire package, whilst the guitars are perfectly placed and written, always providing the right amount of bite and venom whilst effortlessly segueing into the darkest of melancholic melodies. Final track “Wraith” is also a true masterpiece in and of itself, providing the soundtrack to the aftermath of the world’s end. The album is a truly artistic piece of music which really pushes the limits of what an extreme, yet melodic, black metal band can achieve.
Honourable Mentions That Just Missed Out (No particular order)
Ludicra – The Tenant
In-Quest – Made Out Of Negative Matter
Abigail Williams – In The Absence Of Light
Withered – Dualitas
Soilwork – The Panic Broadcast
My Critical Top Ten
NOTE: These albums are those I would consider to have the widest and greatest critical impact, the ones which are perhaps the most artistic and driven out of all the albums produced this year. These albums are all drawn from my list of the *Great* albums of the year, and have been re-ordered to reflect their relative quality and position. Whereas the previous list was based entirely upon subjective affections and tastes, only the ordering is what I would consider subjective, as each of these albums is as close to objectively perfect as possible and should be welcomed by any fan of varying metal styles searching for a deep, and rewarding experience guaranteed to affect them. Whether or not they enjoy that experience is another matter
10) Negură Bunget – Vîrstele Pămîntului
After the crippling effects of the original line-up’s dissolution, few would have predicted that this record would have turned out quite as well as it did. Although a slow starter (and a slow-burner in many ways) the record is extremely rewarding to those who persevere, evoking a plethora of different moods and themes throughout it’s running time. The use of traditional instruments and melodies to flesh out the sound has led to the band being less of a black metal entity, and far more of an individual entity in its own special way.
09) In-Quest – Made Out Of Negative Matter
Post-Meshuggah, modernised death metal that is neither derivative nor populist in approach. Stuffed to the brim with masses of crushing riffs, eerie leads and shredding solos, the guitar work is impeccable and technical without ever going for mindless shred tactics, focussing more on lumbering grooves and poly-rhythms which crush the listener with their overwhelming power. Yet the band have not skimped on atmosphere, the cold, clinical and cybernetic sound working to add another dimension to their powerhouse approach. The band demonstrate a variety of styles and approaches, mixed organically to give them a wide-ranging appeal to all fans of Death Metal.
08) Triptykon – Epistaires Daemones
Continuing the shadowy legacy of latter-day Celtic Frost, Tom G. Warrior’s new project and line-up have harnessed misery and misanthropy in an almost unparalleled fashion. Huge riffs backed up by monolithic drums and vocals torn from the depths of despair are the order of the day, whilst the songs themselves mix an abstract stream of consciousness approach with a more regular, linear progression. Slow building and ominous in tone, the dark incantations produced here oscillate between dark romanticism and pitch-black hatred. In this world there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
07) Ludicra – The Tenant
The American version of Enslaved? No doubt about it — although such a lazy comparison barely does justice to the music produced by this quintet. Elements of punk and thrash are filtered through a core of black metal, riff after riff piling on top of one another, bristling with taut energy. The alternating howls of Laurie Shanaman and Christy Cather perfectly encapsulate this modern and updated take on black metal’s inherent nihilism and disaffection. Never afraid to branch out into cleaner sections, the contrast is stark and striking when utilised, adding another string to their progressive song-writing bow. Where their forebearers brought the cold and very real isolation of the bleak and barren rural emptiness into their music, Ludicra have developed a sound based on the sense of personal isolation and despair which so plagues the modern, urban condition. Urban black metal at its finest.
06) Martriden – Encounter The Monolith
Heavy. Technical. Progressive. Blackened. Death. Metal.
05) Ihsahn – After
Not black metal… something altogether different. Fusing otherwise disparate elements of prog-rock and metal, taking and learning from all the projects he has been involved in so far, “After” strikes one as a singular vision by a singular musical genius. Few other artists would be willing to produce a record incorporating so many differing styles, whilst playing complex 8-string guitar riffs, and then release it solely bearing their solo-artist moniker. Yet Ihsahn is clearly one such unique individual. Flirting with 70’s prog tropes, mixing elements of death and black metal with straight up rock and more experimental jazz-based influences, the ingredients to this musical stew would have made a disgusting mess in the hands of someone less confident and less experienced in musical adventure.
04) Anathema – We’re Here Because We’re Here
Barely “metal” at all I suppose, but still rocking enough riffs and energy to warrant its inclusion, the latest record by the UK’s Anathema is perhaps their defining work. Confident and assured, it flows languidly from spacey, spiritual melodies to driving rock riffs and back again, unafraid to take its time building and developing a huge, transcendent sound, beginning from only the smallest seed of melody . The vocals are stellar and ably supported by the female backing which has now become a welcome staple of their material. The production, handled by the Progfather himself, Steven Wilson, is absolutely massive, allowing even the simpler or quieter songs to wash over the listener like the ocean. Every instrument is written and played tastefully, never overwhelming or undermining each other, and every song has it’s specific place on the record for a reason.
03) Enslaved – Axioma Ethica Odini
This is how you do it. Marginally disappointed by “Vertebrae” I am glad to say that Enslaved’s 11th album continues their tradition of expanding the basis of their sound, without ever abandoning the black, Viking metal that was their roots. From the strident opening riff of “Ethica Odini” to the final closing growl of “Lightening”, the album takes one on a grand and epic story, touching on multiple emotive cores.
Recapturing some of their early fire and vigour, some of the material here stands as their heaviest yet recorded, “Waruun” and “Giants” in particular, whereas at other times the band seem to be directly channelling the progressive spirit that also feeds their contemporaries in Opeth, particularly on the emotive “Nightsight”. Indeed. the harsh vocals of Grutle Kjellson and the cleans of Herbrand Larsen have never sounded better; their vocal interplay is perhaps the highlight of the record, high praise on an album where the riffs are as intriguing and the songs as interesting as they have ever been before!
02) Mar De Grises – Streams Inwards
Melodic doom/death metal of a particularly individual type. These Chilean natives have stumbled upon an entirely unique formula for producing beautiful and timeless music where every considered vocal nuance, ringing guitar chord and warped keyboard melody exists to serve the purpose of the greater whole. Mixing post-rock ambience with progressive death metal tendencies has allowed the band to craft intelligent and distinctive structures exploring cosmological themes and shifting, morose melodies in turn. Unafraid to push the evelope on occasion, their prog freak-outs, enhanced by the subtle and clever use of electronics and keyboards, show the band truly becoming lost in the natural and organic growth of each song.
01) Dark Fortress – Ylem
See above for my opinion on this album, which I personally consider a masterpiece of modern black metal.
Honourable Mentions That Just Missed Out (No particular order)
Rotting Christ – Aealo
Borknagar – Universal
Agalloch – Marrow Of The Spirit
Withered – Dualitas
1349 – Demonoir