(This is the last installment 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, as well as 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 we are, the last list of Andy Synn Week (maybe not the official title, but give me something here guys). Here you will find the ten albums that have made the biggest impact on me personally, the ones which make the most frequent appearance on my playlist. Rarely a day goes by without me listening to at least one of these albums, often several times.
You will note that, in contrast to last year, all my favourite albums this year are drawn from my “Great” list. For once, this is definitely coincidental; it just so happens that as I was paring down my overall list of favourite albums to a mere ten entries, I was left solely with albums that I believe are personally, as well as critically, my absolute favourites. It also covers a whole spectrum of albums, some released right back at the very beginning of the year, reaching all the way up to extremely recent releases, so it also serves as a reasonably comprehensive list in terms of the time-frame it covers!
There’s some minor cross-over with yesterday’s list, as some albums were always bound to be both critically and personally fulfilling, but largely you’ll find here a cross-section of my musical preferences from the year. Each album comes with a short explanation of why I love it; not necessarily why it’s the “Best” album of the year, but just why it clicks with me personally.
10) IN FLAMES – SOUNDS OF A PLAYGROUND FADING
Why I Love It: Because it’s quality In Flames!
Ok, maybe there’s more to it than that. It’s a major step-up from their woefully bad last album, and takes more risks than the solid Come Clarity. However, it also hearkens back to their roots more obviously, without rehashing old ideas and forms. The spiralling solos, twin leads, agile string-skipping riffs, and classically inspired acoustic parts all reach back to Whoracle and Colony, but the stompy riffs and accentuating electronica all stem from their post-Reroute period. It’s just that finally the two have been melded in almost perfect balance. Perhaps even more influential is that Anders’ vocals and lyrics have improved ten-fold, making this a far more interesting and rewarding experience for me personally.
09) A HILL TO DIE UPON – OMENS
Why I Love It: Because it’s crushingly heavy, black without being bleak, and massively empowering.
One of the year’s best revelations for me was my exposure to this band. Their stomping, monstrous take on blackened death metal hit me on a primal level with an unexpected uppercut of gut-wrenching grooves, sand-blasting tremolo riffs and roaring, cataclysmic vocals. It’s a black/death metal hybrid that uplifts and empowers the listener, sonic steroids that turn one into a corporeal colossus filled with unholy strength and primal might.
08) BELIEVER – TRANSHUMAN
Why I Love It: Because it sees these veterans improving on almost every aspect of their sound, incorporating some new tricks along the way.
What a difference a few years makes. Although its predecessor Gabriel was a damn fine album in its own right, and a welcome comeback from these under-appreciated legends (once considered peers of Death, Cynic, Sadus et al, lest we forget), Transhuman takes all the elements of Believer’s reborn sound and improves and refines them in a drastic manner. The artful juxtaposition of melody and dissonance, the unpredictable song structures, twisted and mathematically precise time-signatures, and strident, passionate vocals, all combine to make this such a memorable and irresistible listen that I keep coming back to it time and time again.
07) ISKALD – THE SUN I CARRIED ALONE
Why I Love It: Because it’s bleak and cold and refreshing. It makes an emotional connection whilst pummelling you with a torrent of razor-sharp riffage.
Progressively inclined, thrashy black metal with a penchant for blistering riffs and harsh, croaked vocals. Precisely my cup of tea. A glittering gem of an album, each song has its own distinctive character, rich with layers of dark melody that mix celestial light with bleak, foreboding shadow. Frostbitten and cold, yet fiery and ferocious, the tracks are equal parts melancholy and misanthropy, forming the crest of a new wave of melodic black metal which swamps the listener in chaos and complexity.
06) FLESHGOD APOCALYPSE – AGONY
Why I Love It: Because it’s so massively OTT and delivered with an irresistible verve and vitality.
Probably one of, if not the, most over-the-top and excessive albums of 2011. Everything is pushed into the red. The riffs are crushing, the drums are relentless, the death vocals uncanny and monstrous, the clean vocals strained and cracking with emotion. However, it’s the unfettered and engaging use of symphonic pomp and operatic majesty that really puts this one over the top. It doesn’t undercut or depower the death metal aspects of the band, it simply takes the brutality and gives it a cloak of malevolent, almost melodramatic, majesty.
05) KAMPFAR – MARE
Why I Love It: Because it’s rebellious and angst-ridden, cleverly technical and flows like liquid fire.
Easily the most uplifting black metal album you will hear this year, this is a record brimming with confidence and vigour. It fills my veins with black fire and wraps my heart in a barbed wire grip, refusing to let go until the last note has disappeared into the eternal silence. Taking the formula of early Enslaved and accenting it with impressive technicality and a punk-fuelled intensity, Kampfar have all the skills and talents necessary to carve their own path to the vanguard of black metal’s elite.
04) BELPHEGOR – BLOOD MAGICK NECROMANCE
Why I Love It: Because it makes me want to commit atrocities.
Vicious, sinful, and remorselessly evil, this record sees Belphegor accenting their blast-and-bludgeon approach with more seductive subtlety and nuance. The album is still an unforgiving display of Satanic glorification, overflowing with demonic blast beats and buzz-saw riffs designed to kill and maim with impunity, but the key to its new found lethality is in its more focussed and intelligent delivery, less a berserker frenzy and more a cold and calculated form of methodical musical torture, tormenting and toying with its victims before delivering the fatal blow.
03) CHTHONIC – TAKASAGO ARMY
Why I Love It: Because it uplifts the spirit while making my blood boil with rage.
Such a captivating listen, this is a perfect blending of black metal extremity, melodic death metal hooks, and superior song-writing, all wrapped up in a thick cloak of historical awareness and cultural character. An intellectual exercise in protest against the past atrocities perpetrated against the Taiwanese people, the album pulses with barely controlled fury and self-righteous anger, bearing a primal undercurrent of wounded indignation. Every song has its own tale to tell, filled to the brim with piercing hooks, scything riffs, earth-shaking drumming, and subtle use of traditional instrumentation and melody.
02) GHOST BRIGADE – UNTIL FEAR NO LONGER DEFINES US
Why I Love It: Because it drips with emotion, perfectly harnessed to exceptional song-writing.
The doomy melancholy and bitter rage of the album is so powerful, so undeniable in its sheer conviction, that it strikes a chord with me every time I hear it. While not altering their formula drastically, the band have still produced an album replete with a variety of unexpected nuances and surprising stylistic shifts. From those calm, despairing opening chords of “Into The Woods” right through to the slow burn-out of “Soulcarvers”, there is not a note misplaced or opportunity unfulfilled.
01) INSOMNIUM – ONE FOR SORROW
Why I Love It: Because Insomnium never fail to produce quality, but this time around they’ve taken a few careful risks with their formula to expand their sound.
Arguably my favourite album of the year, though the order of the top 3 does tend to vary with time and mood. This album comes within a hair’s breadth of recapturing the magic of the band’s magnum opus Above The Weeping World. In many ways in fact, this is a more wide-ranging album than its more famous predecessor; it incorporates some increasingly extreme elements, pushing the tempos higher while employing a wide array of more brutal, guttural vocalisations, increasingly technical riff work, and blasting drum patterns. Yet this is balanced out by the effortless expansion of their melodic side, songs like “Inertia” and “Decoherence” bringing an ambient post-metal undercurrent to the band’s traditional Finnish melancholia, while the expressive and emotive clean vocals lift the songs to new heights. Each and every song is different, yet functions as a seamless part of a greater whole. I cannot listen to this album without listening to it in its entirety.