(As part of our year-end LISTMANIA series we present Andy Synn’s annual column about albums that failed to live up to his expectations. His preceding lists of the year’s “Great” and “Good” albums can be found here and here.)
For those of you unware of this, we don’t tend to go “negative” here at NCS. In fact I’m pretty sure this particular post is probably the most overtly “negative” thing we publish all year.
So, because I realize that this could ruffle some feathers, and runs somewhat counter to the site’s ethos which prevails for the other 364 days of the year, I thought it best to provide a few guidelines about how to read this post. And hopefully avoid any hurt feelings or shit-stirring as a result!
1. Just because I think these albums are “Disappointing” doesn’t mean you have to. I’m just providing an alternative viewpoint and, I hope, some reasonable justification for why I feel this way.
2. Just because I’ve rated these albums as “Disappointing” doesn’t equate to “Bad” – although some of them definitely are. Some of them are just disappointing when compared to the standards at which the band usually perform. Some of them see the band regressing, or spinning their wheels, and are thus deemed “Disappointing” in the overall context of their career.
3. It’s often difficult to communicate tone of voice over the internet, so please don’t read this as me gloating or glorifying in a band’s (perceived) mistakes. I’m not doing this to be controversial, or to make myself feel big or clever, nor am I trying to “troll” our readers, or any of the bands involved. Ultimately these are all bands I legitimately love/like myself, and the fact that these albums/EPs are a disappointment hits me as a fan just as much as it hits any of you.
4. If you’re the type to fly completely off the handle into an apoplectic rage just because someone else doesn’t think that album x, y, or z is the masterpiece you think it is… maybe don’t read this column? Again, I’m just providing an honest statement of opinion, in order to provoke debate and discussion – not a shit-flinging flame-war.
5. Please re-read point 4.
And there we have it. Hopefully that lays out a bit more clearly the why of this particular column. Now, onto the what.
Belphegor – Conjuring the Dead
The first of several painful inclusions on this year’s list, I think I summed up the main issue with Conjuring the Dead in my review of it earlier this year, stating that:
“Sometimes the album sounds far too much like Belphegor going through the motions of their own sound, while at others it sounds like the band trying to sound like someone else.”
An unfortunate sentiment that I still think rings true. There’s some good songs on it, no doubt, but the album as a whole falls surprisingly flat. These guys can pull off some absolutely bestial-sounding metallic magic(k) when they want to. For some reason though, this wasn’t one of those times.
Carcass – Surgical Remission/Surplus Steel
When we heard Carcass were issuing an EP of unreleased offcuts from the Surgical Steel sessions the mood here at NCS Towers was pretty darn ecstatic. Unfortunately one listen to the EP itself put paid to that very quickly.
The songs on Surplus Steel are a perfect testament to why some material is best left on the cutting-room floor. Ranging from uninspired to insipid, these songs share little in the way of their parent album’s fire and brimstone fury, and epitomize the stagnant and directionless post-Swansong sound we’d all been afraid of.
One to avoid, unfortunately.
Darkest Hour – Darkest Hour
Now this one really was a painful inclusion on this year’s list, not just because of how much this band mean to me, but also because the inevitable success of the album’s placid, mass-appeal sound pretty much guarantees that this is the direction they’ll be following in the future.
And don’t try and bamboozle me with that oh-so-predictable “you just don’t want bands to change!” rhetoric. If you know anything about me from reading the site then you’ll know that’s most definitely not true. I even agree that it was probably about time for Darkest Hour to give their sound a much-needed tune-up and a fresh lick of paint.
However, their self-titled album comes across as a cynical and calculated attempt to grab some mainstream success, sanitizing their sound and filing down all the sharp edges, with all the predictably generic lyrics and easily-digestible chorus melodies that entails.
I don’t mind bands changing. I never have. And I certainly don’t begrudge bands being successful. But please, don’t try and tell me this is an innovative new direction for the band. It’s nothing new, although it undeniably sells well.
Devin Townsend – Z2: Sky Blue / Dark Matters
I can already imagine several people out there rubbing their hands with glee at seeing the name Devin Townsend appear on this list. For some reason his success and general popularity stimulates a certain type of people to bide their time, just waiting for a chance to leap out and say “I told you so! He’s SO over-rated/terrible.”
Well, here’s the thing. I’m a big fan of Devin’s work. I enjoy the variety of modes and moods and styles he works in. I don’t love everything to the same level, but I enjoy his output as an unashamed expression of his own particular art and personality. But that also means I’m confident enough to say when something isn’t up to snuff.
In this case my complaints about the album are two-fold.
Firstly, the ridiculous Ziltoidian narrative of Dark Matters very much overshadows the actual music, with some solid songs getting lost in all the hustle and bustle as the story moves along. The balance just isn’t there this time around.
Secondly – and more damningly – Sky Blue just comes across as a less inspired, vacuously poppy, and altogether less well-realised version of stuff he’s done before. For every strong hook or glorious moment of unabashed melody there’s another generic rehash of previous material, tweaked ever so slightly (and to its detriment) with a heavy-handed helping of sickly-sweet pop or generic euro-dance that takes away from any actual emotional impact the music might have had.
There’s some good moments, some truly heartfelt moments, I’m not denying that. But they’re almost drowned out beneath the album’s saccharine sheen.
In Flames – Siren Charms
I’ll put my hand up right now and say that I am still a big fan of In Flames. Particularly live (I have seen them absolutely own more than a few massive festival stages in my time, and would happily see them do so again). I’m also still a big fan of Sounds of a Playground Fading, which I thought had some damn good songs on it, as well as a welcome helping of the band’s ever-recognisable lead guitar melodies.
But this one is by far one of their worst albums. It’s well played and well-intentioned, I’m sure of that, but it’s also confused and muddled and directionless. The band clearly don’t know quite what they want to be anymore and, unlike, say, Katatonia (who handled their own transition to a new style with aplomb), have tried to have it all ways, resulting in an album that mish-mashes so many different stylistic elements together that it’s hard to tell what works and what doesn’t.
There’s a few songs here and there that aren’t too bad, but ask yourself this – how many of these songs would you actually want to see live, at the expense of their other, much better, material?
Insomnium – Shadows of the Dying Sun
Cool your jets sunshine, and step away from the keyboard for a second. Take a breath, and read what I have to say before jumping to the comments section to call me out for being an “idiot” or a “poser” (or something else even less pleasant).
This is not a bad album by any means. Heck, for my money Insomnium are basically incapable of putting out a bad album. But it does feel a bit like they’re spinning their wheels with this one, and too many of the tracks fall easily into the “generic Insomnium song” category for my liking.
Granted, “While We Sleep”, “Lose To Night”, and the title track are all fantastic numbers in their own right but, as with In Flames above, few of the other tracks make the sort of impression where I’d want to hear them live over material from the band’s previous albums. And yes, that includes “Ephemeral”, which is catchy as hell, but apart from that not really anything special.
It’s definitely got a lot going for it this album, but it also plays it very, very safe.
Sargeist – Feeding the Crawling Shadows
Another painful inclusion. I wanted to like this more than I do, because Sargeist really are masters at tapping into that undercurrent of filth and depravity that lies just beneath the thin veneer of civilization that we all cling to. It’s just that this album simply does not quite measure up to its predecessor, both in sound or in song-writing. Let The Devil In was an absolute masterclass in bile and blasphemy that positively seethed with venom and power. And somehow Feeding the Crawling Shadows lacks the same sense of Satanic strength and vitality.
Again, it’s not a bad album by any means, and it certainly has the requisite blackened bark… it’s just that its bite is disappointingly duller this time around.
Septicflesh – Titan
This may well be another one that’s guaranteed to get me some hate-mail (did I tell you I received my first piece of hate-mail this year? I really have made it as a “journalist” now), but please try and restrain yourself until you’ve at least skim-read my reasons, ok?
From my point of view, this album just seems quite forced really. While the symphonic pomposity and orchestral grandeur are thoroughly thrilling, they were also clearly given the lion’s share of the band’s attention this time around, to the detriment of the album as a whole. Basically, it’s a thoroughly unbalanced affair. The Death Metal parts sound like an afterthought, there to back up the symphonics as and when necessary, and completely incapable of anchoring a song on their own merit. Even the vocals sound blandly uninterested.
It’s a casualty of style over substance in my eyes, and the musical equivalent of a generic Michael Bay blockbuster – all sound and fury, without any real depth.
Soilwork – Beyond the Infinite
If you re-read what I’ve put about Surplus Steel above, and substitute the name Soilwork for Carcass, you’ll pretty much be right on the money. Another perfect example of why not every song can be a winner, these tracks utterly fail to live up to the incredibly high standards set by The Living Infinite, and I am very glad they didn’t make the final cut!
Whitechapel – Our Endless War
This one was oddly painful to include as well, since I’ve been a big supporter of the band for a long time now (though I still think 3 guitars is pushing it).
You may recall that I absolutely loved their self-titled album in particular, and felt it was the start of the band establishing a singular sound for themselves, one which stood strong against the band’s detractors and separated them from their peers in style.
Unfortunately Our Endless War sees the band taking one step forward and two steps back, with far too many of these tracks blending back in with the pack, their slightly Meshuggah-ised guitars and telegraphed breakdowns infecting each one with a generic, non-specific brand of over-processed heaviness that flails wildly in a desperate search for identity or direction.
It’s not all bad of course. The band clearly mean everything they do and say and clearly put their hearts into every song, with a number of them hitting home with real passion and vigour – the title track is a thrashy monster of a song, “Worship the Digital Age” and “Blacked Out” are both crushing and compellingly catchy, and the more melodic “Diggs Road” showcases a new side to the band that I for one find very welcome – but that’s not enough to save the album from being an unfortunate “also ran” in a year of so many stellar releases.
Oh, and the less said about the dumbed-down bounce of “The Saw Is The Law” the better, in my opinion.
So there we have it. I apologise to anyone I’ve offended, and I apologise to all the bands involved. It really wasn’t anything personal.
I just hope you can all forgive me…