(This is the last installment of Wil Cifer’s year-end series. Part 1 focused on “Mainstream” metal, Part 2 on black metal, Part 3 on death metal, and Part 4 on doom.)
The emphasis here is sometimes on the experimental and sometimes on the more progressive side of things. Some of these bands have pushed the bounds of what they do so far that it’s hard for any label to confine them, much less “metal”. They are all in their own way heavy. Heavier emotionally than most of the more conventional metal that came out this year. There are jazz artists throwing up their horns, and a New York hipster who wants to burn the traditions of metal like a church in Norway. Some shred, others show a more difficult level of mastery in connecting their instruments to their bared hearts.
Here are the albums that gave their middle finger to what you thought heavy was supposed to be. They are ranked according to what Last FM told me I listened to the most.
10. John Zorn – “Simulacrum”
This slab of wonderful weirdness, is more accessible than his classic Naked City album. He has put John Medeski together with the guitarist from Cleric, who I had no clue could shred like this. Yes thats right, it’s the dude from Medeski, Martin and Wood, playing with a dude from a metal band. There is more Crimson and Zappa influence on this one than what you normally hear from Zorn.
This is not the first time Zorn has touched upon metal, he just commits a little more to it here, with very deliberate intention rather than just giving you spastic bursts.
9. Ahab – “The Boats of the Glen Carrig”
You might remember these guys as a doom band. I certainly did when I went into this album hoping my hunger for funeral doom was going to be sated. Instead, the band threw my expectations into the vast ocean of their creative aspirations.
This is not to say these changes were not growth, they were just different. The album opens with something more like the kind of ’70s prog rock that Opeth once gave ample nods to. The metal comes crashing in at the three-minute mark. The production on this album is very lush, the low growled vocals carrying a bigger ’90s Morbid Angel roar. The album ebbs and flows with the crunch dissolving into clean guitar and the vocals taking on an Islands-era King Crimson croon.
While part of me mourns for the doom band I once knew, they have created something pretty breathtaking here.
8. Sigh – “Graveward”
Once upon a time one of my favorite black metal bands put out an album called Scenes From Hell and they transformed from one of my favorite black metal bands into one of my favorite prog-metal bands. Their new album finds them getting some of the aggression back as they study the various aspects of death.
This album is much heavier than anything they have done since Hangman’s Hymn. So fans of the band’s older work will not feel like they are listening to a Mr. Bungle album despite the weird electronics attacking a few songs. Some of the riffs on here grind into you more like death metal. I am glad they are embracing the heavier side of what they do here, though I think the song-writing as a whole was better on a few of the previous albums.
7. The Black Heart Rebellion – “People, when you see the smoke, do not think it is the fields they’re burning”
Here is one of the bands on this list that is very heavy, both emotionally and sonically, but eschews drenching their guitars in such thick distortion that it falls into the typical metal chugga-chugga. This gives their guitars a more anxiously organic tone.
After the stunning Har Nevo, expectations were high. The vocals are more refined, having grown by leaps and bounds this time around. Dynamically, the intensity level has more muscle to it. Synths play a larger role, and when the drugs kick in they give things a ’60s-like psychedelia. They sometimes crawl into a similar place in the shadows as “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”. The vocals are a more dominate element here than they were for Floyd’s darker early days, though on some songs they manage to creep into a more post-punk slither that almost touches upon death-rock.
A perfect soundtrack for the days I forget to take my meds.
6. A Forest of Stars – “Beware the Sword You Cannot See”
At one point in time these guys presented themselves as steam punk black metal, but now this album encompasses a much more traditional prog metal sound, if you were to run it through a filter of folky black metal, which are this band’s roots that they re-embrace on this album.
They frequently throw so much at you all at once that sonically it feels like you are running into a wall. Female vocals play a larger role on this album, though some of their more tried-and-true vocal colors such as the harsher growls and maniacal ranting also makes appearances here. They fill the songs with many twists and turns, but it all flows rather elegantly.
5. Pyramids – “A Northern Meadow”
Here is an album that received a fair amount of hype upon its release, and once I sat down to really listen to it with headphones it won me over. It glides over you like a dreamy hybrid of Cynic mixed with Enslaved.
The guitarists get points for the unorthodox guitar tone they chose to play metal with. They do use sounds loosely connected with black metal, but I would not say they are a black metal band. The drummer seems to be counting these songs with fractal mathematics as the drums wander beneath the guitars. The thing I like most about this album is its ability to give me the same jarring feeling one might get from not being able to distinguish dreams from waking life.
4. Liturgy – The Ark Work
Hunter and the boys catch a lot shit for some of their overt hipster pretense, but I’ve remained a fan and have ignored some of Hunter’s thesis papers on black metal. Ben Fox is an amazing drummer who complements the band as they blister into songs that split the difference between Sun Ra-like jazz and the black metal of old.
Here is where you must be warned — the band’s take on rap-metal is Hunter chanting in sing-song voice intervals similar to those Bone Thugs-N-Harmony use. The chanting is more of a drone than anything resembling nu-metal. The lyrics are like something from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” as interpreted by Layzie Bone. The so-called Bone Thugs elements are more toned-down than what the buzz on this album might have suggested upon its release, and more often than not the mood blasts you, into a shimmering sunrise rather than the grim winter’s dusk most black metal travels to.
3. Dodheimsgard – “A Umbra Omega”
Rather than just write songs, these guys have constructed dark chaotic passages of an aural labyrinth. If you like post-rock but haven’t given black metal much of a chance, this might be the album for you.
The guitar-playing is consistently mouth-watering as it layers over the disjointed groove in a way that somehow manages to stand on its own two feet. They morph form a Current 93-like ambience to folk-metal-jazz in the span of a song, and that is only the tip of the frost-covered mountains on this one. They might not be black metal anymore, but that is only because the genre could no longer contain them.
2. Strangeweather – “S/T”
Another album that forsakes metallic overdrive and instead employs a more organic yet dark-hearted Neo-folk with an Appalachian breeze blowing through it. The members switch off vocals, resulting in a wide range of moodiness to the dirge-like mourning, allowing the embrace of each instrument and voice while adding another swathe of gray to the sonic tapestry. They have really created something unique here.
The lyrics carry the indignant unease of post-punk, while they sit upon the soundtrack with the elegance that is the x-factor many wanna-be goth bands just don’t get. This brings the emotional weight, making it heavy in feeling rather than metal. When I played this for my wife she just dismissed it as more of the droning drug music I like, so you have to listen to this as a whole work to really get the full effect, or have to have been involved with heavy narcotic use for a period of more than five years. Do not play while operating heavy machinery.
1. Eye of Nix – “Moros”
This is more experimental than prog, though it is progressive in the sense that the songs go somewhere. That is more than can be said for many so-called prog bands who remain stagnant in favor of wanking on the fret board.
The album starts off as a more post-rock version of Dead Can Dance. Lead singer Joy Von Spain lets it all out in an operatic soprano as things get blasty beneath her. Male growls add a grit to their shifts into crustier paces. While Myrkur gave us similar dynamics earlier this year, each end of the dynamic range here is pushed a little further. Joy‘s dynamic range extends into the not-afraid-to-shred-her-vocal-chords-a-little with some screams.
Sometimes they play by the more typical metal rules and the veer off into slow-core. They sometimes build into the type of chaos that can be found in some of Swans‘ freak-out moments but with a more metallic command. They incorporate every element of music that I love into this one album in a cohesive fashion.
As an alleged prog fan, I’m familiar with precious few of these. Thanks! Lots to dig through here.
Forest of Stars are really good, and while not my favorite of theirs, the Sign record was predictably wacky. I remember not liking the Dodheimsgard, but it’s gotten so much placement on year-end lists that maybe I should try again. Pyramids left me cold also, but this also warrants a revisit. Both Eye of Nix and Strangeweather sound promising.
I’m really glad to see Sigh and Eye of Nix here. Moros was in summer my choice for evening cooking with a glass of vine in dim light. A welcome contrast to the harsher sounds I’m more familiar with.
Sigh, Eye of Nix, Violet Cold, Todesstoß and Mastery were the extremes of my collection this year, all expanding the limits of my musical horizon. So, I especially like your choices here (though I didn’t like your Black Metal Top 10).
Big fan of that Ahab record, though I haven’t seen it on as many lists as I would’ve hoped. I really need to check out that A Forest of Stars record more too.
I was proud to have released the Strangeweather album on vinyl & cassette! Awesome band, great people.
Also, that Eye of Nix album is incredible. Good job by Brick Mower Records on that one!
The Forest of Stars album is a belter and thank you for alerting me to a new John Zorn album, how did I not hear about that before? Excellent list Mr. Cifer, there’s some great albums to check out.
“thank you for alerting me to a new John Zorn album, how did I not hear about that before?”
Possibly because Zorn puts out, like, 20 albums a year?