(This is the fourth in Andy Synn’s week-long series of posts looking back at albums released this year. Andy previously provided his lists of the year’s Great albums, the Good ones, and the most Disappointing ones, and tomorrow we’ll have his Personal Top 10. Today, we have his list of “The Critical Top 10”. For more explanation of what all this means, plus Andy’s picks for the year’s best EPs, visit this location.)
So here’s the penultimate list of the week, the first of two ranked top-tens. This list will include the albums that I think are the very best of the best, the ones that best combine creativity, artistic ambition, song-writing, and performance. Regardless of my personal feelings and preferences, these are the albums that I think are critically superior to others. Though the ranking of them was difficult (as it always is when trying to compare artists and albums across metallic sub-genres), I’ve tried my best to give a sense about the critical and objective factors that led to each record earning its respective position on this list.
Although the potential candidates for the list were unavoidably influenced by my own listening tastes — I do, after all, only really tend to select the albums that I feel best qualified and most inspired to review – I have done my best to keep personal preference as far away from these judgements as possible, something that I hope will become clear when you see tomorrow how different the list of my top ten “favourite” albums of the year is from today’s list.
So here are the ten releases I think best represent the year critically. The ten that, ultimately, would be my choices to represent the year in metal music for posterity. Some of them have appeared quite commonly on other lists, albeit perhaps weighted differently, while others have largely been ignored by other sources thus far. Enjoy . . .
10) ALTAR OF PLAGUES – MAMMAL
Relentlessly emotive and endlessly rewarding, this album is truly a draining listen, one which requires a considerable amount of respite for listeners to truly absorb and process the wealth of sounds and moods they have just experienced. Putting the listener through the emotional wringer, this record deals with emblematic themes of emotional despair and furious, almost unhinged, rage. The fraught delivery and tense atmosphere keep the listeners perched on a knife’s edge of anticipation, their frayed nerves as vulnerable to the seductive calms of the record’s soothing post-metal ambience as they are to the raging tempests of its blackened frenzies. For the sheer depth and intensity of the emotional connection it makes, this record deserves to edge its way into the top 10 releases of the year.
09) NOVEMBERS DOOM – APHOTIC
A near flawless melding of progressive, melodic nuance and wounded, death metal ferocity, Aphotic is a varied and constantly challenging record that ebbs and flows with liquid grace between moments of towering riffage and sections of sweet, soothing ambience. A band that could just as easily ply their trade playing with Anathema as they could with Vader is clearly doing something right, their multi-faceted cross-over sound managing to balance these opposing dichotomies in a way that so few are able to do, producing one of the year’s finest progressive records in the process, and an album that simply begs to be replayed the moment it has finished.
08) SKELETONWITCH – FOREVER ABOMINATION
As flawless a thrash record as we have seen this year, as vehement a black metal album as any released by the traditional set, “Forever Abomination” sees the murderous machine of Skeletonwitch firing on all cylinders. While the core of the beast remains unchanged — a thrash-powered engine, coursing with blackened blood, fueling a deadly array of scorching riffs, blistering tremolo parts, weaving lead guitars, and raw, death-rattle vocals — the slight tweaks to the chassis — the more streamlined design, the minor accentuations of style and flair, the high octane turbo-boost of the drumming – have produced a game-changing creation of abominable power.
07) KRODA – SCHWARZPFAD
A dazzling performance, rich in light and shade, brawn and beauty, this elegant, almost indulgent, record takes the listener on an epic journey that never once becomes wearisome or predictable, despite its lengthy run-time. While this is an achievement in itself, it is the flawless integration of folkish melodic themes within black metal’s integral darkness and melancholy that earns this record its place in the year’s top 10 albums. Fearlessly incorporating long sections of purely folk-led instrumentation, unafraid of alienating even the more open-minded of its listeners, the album still retains a dark, almost predatory, aura throughout, rooted in the deep loam of black metal’s earthen past.
06) OMNIUM GATHERUM – NEW WORLD SHADOWS
The album that pushes Omnium Gatherum directly up into the company of Melodic Death Metal’s A-List, New World Shadows incorporates a wide variety of influences into its bubbling cauldron of sonic stew, the Finns carefully tasting and testing their recipe, adding a dash of Edge Of Sanity’s progressiveness here, a touch of Dark Tranquillity’s rage and melancholy there, garnished with spices of electronics and keyboard flavours and coated in lashings of prime riffage drawn from across the metal spectrum to produce an album that incorporates a wide spectrum of flavours and a wide palette of inspirations. Ultimately their creation, cooked and season to perfection, New World Shadows manages to utterly transcend its influences, emerging as a signature dish that tastes of Omnum Gatherum at their finest.
05) DECAPITATED – CARNIVAL IS FOREVER
Regardless of the conditions and events preceding its inception, this album stands as one of the finest and most intriguing experiences I have had with modern death metal in a long time. Vogg is a master riff-smith, forging an array of death metal weaponry whose angular, unorthodox, construction would be unwieldy in the wrong hands. Yet in the hands of a master – around whom are arranged the new blood who have won the right to call themselves Decapitated – each iron-clad riff and molten guitar lead is as utterly lethal as anything the band have ever produced in any of their incarnations. Smelting down the old elements of the group and re-forging them into a new form has enabled these unstoppable warriors to hammer out any dents or flaws in their armour entirely, to present a newly polished and impenetrable façade.
04) GHOST BRIGADE – UNTIL FEAR NO LONGER DEFINES US
In almost every way, this record is a positive reflection of its predecessor, the similarly awesome Isolation Songs. Yet between the mirror and the image, something has changed. Not for the worse, mind you, but in a subtle manner that slightly shifts the angle of this new image, so that each subsequent observation, every brittle shard of sound, portrays a slightly different aspect of Ghost Brigade’s now well-established musical identity. Delivered with unwavering confidence and conviction, and perhaps even more sharply focussed than its predecessor, each song here balances out the others, making the album one of the most singularly complete and vital entities I have heard this year, every element acting in perfect synchronicity with the others.
03) MOONSORROW – VARJOINA KULJEMME KUOLLEIDEN MAASSA
Of all the albums on this list, this is the one that tells the greatest story. Not only that, it is also the one which most wilfully disregards the prescribed structure of the traditional album, choosing instead to tell its tale of loss and sorrow through a series of lengthy musical chapters and short, atmospheric interludes. Captivating and evocative enough on their own, when taken as part of the greater whole their combination produces a hypnotic flow of devastating anguish and uplifting, melancholic nuance that ebbs and flows with meditative grace and crushing power. A truly epic and genre-defining experience, this is a record that refuses to compromise or conform, twisting the traditional methods of story-telling and musical expression to suit its own needs and desires.
02) VREID – V
Audaciously ambitious, this album takes two particularly volatile compounds – the thrashy energy and classical aspirations of early Metallica and the primal ferocity of black metal’s fire-and-brimstone attack – and attempts to meld them as one to create a new element of nearly unlimited potential. One thing that makes this such a worthwhile experiment, and such a rewarding result, is that these elements are extremely difficult to handle effectively on their own, let alone when combined; one slight miscalculation in the ratios and formulae and it could all so easily have ended in disaster. As it is, we have a real contender here that takes the legacy of albums such as Master Of Puppets and The Somberlain as a starting point to produce something wholly unique and brilliant.
01) LEPROUS – BILATERAL
There really could be only one winner though. If we’re talking sheer creativity, ambition, and utter brass balls, then Bilateral wins hands down. Aiding and abetting this almost criminally good endeavour are the exceptional performances delivered by each and every member of the band, with particular praise going to the constantly shifting and varied vocals, which deliver a wide range of emotions and characters, and the agile, mesmerising drumming, which conjures up a whirling, polyrhythmic percussive storm with obnoxious ease. Throwing out the rule-book in a fit of pique, these Norwegian madmen choose to completely disregard the common conventions of song-writing and structure to produce a cavalcade of infectious hooks and shimmering, ethereal compositions that entirely justify their distinctive and inimitable form of self-indulgence and self-expression.