2010 was a weird year. While there was a ton of heavy metal for the taking (the disparate lists of my colleagues will attest to this), I didn’t really have much time to digest it. Life, as they say, is a bitch. So, while there was a serious influx of brilliant music this year, I’m more excited to see what 2011 will bring, when my attention will likely be undivided. Whether we like it or not, the metallic page is beginning to turn, and there’s going to be some serious shifts. Think about it: Judas Priest, the absolute personification of heavy metal, is calling it quits next year, but not before a globe-spanning farewell tour. On the flipside, Agalloch is going into 2011 as our most critically-acclaimed act; eleven years and four LPs into their career, they’ve never even attempted a proper US tour. Such is the price of independence.
While artistic adventurousness and catalog density may be at an all-time high, this decade will largely relegate fandom to the bedroom, not the barroom. My early 30’s might end up looking a whole lot like my early teens: relegated to air-guitaring in the privacy of my own home. Interesting how things come full circle, isn’t it?
Anyway, I’ll cut the bullshit prognostication. The Best Albums of 2010, with some assorted musings thrown in:
Many instrumental records make the mistake of dictating the experience with a heavy hand. Beacons differs: While it’s a sweeping, varied piece of storytelling, it excels by allowing the listener to dictate their own plotlines. This is a record that should become a part of one’s life, rather than be used as an escape or a diversion. These tracks immerse themselves into the listener, not the other way around. Simultaneously personal and selfless, Beacons is the soundtrack to life itself.
Metal. As. Fuck.
A primitive descriptor, but apt nonetheless. Dagon unleashes riff upon riff upon motherfucking riff, drenched in unfuckwithable tone and backboned by one of the most efficiently devastating drummers in black metal. Controlled yet visceral (and destructive at every attempted tempo), Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm is 2010’s gnarliest tome of blackness. Complete domination.
Indoctrine is a bizarre beast. Some find it frustrating, others find it captivating, but one universal truth remains constant: This fucker is intimidating as hell. A no-frills combo of Axis of Advance‘s violence and Primordial‘s bombast (which, admittedly, sounds like shit on paper, but trust me…it kills), songs like “My Name in Blood Across The Sky” and “The Martyr’s Brigade” are as horrifying as they are empowering. One of the few records that will raise the collective brow of the jaded extreme.
When I first discovered heavy metal, the driving force behind my exploration was fun. I wanted big riffs, big solos, and endless headbanging fodder. I didn’t know it at the time, but the thirteen year-old version of me was looking for Polarity. On that superficial level, this is air-guitar heaven. From a historic perspective, this could be the record that finally kills this proggy-tech-death-in-outer-space thing, simply by virtue of its superiority. There’s nowhere to go from here; Polarity is the ultimate. Decrepit Birth may have reached their awesomeness threshold. Bask in the carnage.
2010’s nostalgia pick. Last year, Hypocrisy slid through the back door for sentimental reasons, but Mechanize is fortified with the technology to stand alone. Not only does it absolutely crush. but I’ve been pining for this album for literally fourteen years. Sure, Obsolete was cool for what it was, but this is the follow-up to Demanufacture that, until now, was nothing more than a pipe dream. Thank you, Burton and Dino, for finally getting your shit together. Better late than never.
While lacking the immediacy of A Spell for the Death of Man, QU makes up for a slight downturn in panache with an exponential improvement in dynamics. Chris Grigg–now surrounded by collaborators–has taken his songwriting to a new level, as the tracks “The Road From Recovery” and the jaw-dropping “Full Circle” can attest. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t give a fuck what your favorite press release factory says, Woe are the current kings of USBM.
Gylve and Ted have been hiking the same trail since 2007’s F.O.A.D., but they’ve finally nailed that shit on Circle The Wagons, making it the go-to record for this current ‘Throne era. The production is warm n’ cozy (in contrast to the abrasiveness of Dark Thrones and Black Flags), the tone is a touch more serious, and these songs….well, it’s their best collection in ages, rendering the recent predecessors practically irrelevant. Circle The Wagons is most fun you can have with a Darkthrone record, bar fucking none. (I might’ve said that about F.O.A.D., but I mean it this time. No bullshit.)
It feels a little weird placing this one so high, especially considering that the more “metal” aspects of Azimuths to the Otherworld are the record’s weakest moments. However, Aaron Carey’s acoustic passages–like the tear-jerking “Graves of Grandeur” and the lilting “Noameatha, You Are the Ghost in the Water”–are some of the year’s most profound pieces of music. Despite the dexterity on display, this is more about heart and soul than flash and sizzle…a rarity in our increasingly self-indulgent climate. If properly preserved, Azimuths to the Otherworld could live forever.
Okay, fine. The album’s basically a twenty-minute build to “I Am Space.” But it’s a hell of a journey, and a weird one at that. Prog sans pomp, odd but not too off-the-grid; Valborg swing ten-ton mallets of quirky havoc on Crown of Sorrow. Their trademark Frost-meets-Godflesh swagger is in ample supply, meshing quite crushingly with this one-act play’s crazed fluidity. Brief, but brilliant.
Much like Valborg, Ihsahn scores extra points for oddity and adventurousness. After (worst pun ever) some lackluster outings in The Adversary and angL, the Shawn Michaels to Samoth’s Marty Jannetty has finally found his voice as a solo artist. Forcefully robbing the heavy metal saxophone from Am Universum‘s fetid grave, After is a seamless journey through off-the-charts madness (“A Grave Inversed”) and understated beauty (“Undercurrent”). In an arena where the term “progressive” is becoming ironically synonymous with stagnancy, Ihsahn is carving a new path.
…and the rest of the best:
This is the only way to digest Pro-Tooled, brutal-as-hell DM, as Fleshgod Apocalypse and Beneath the Massacre proved with their respective wreckers. But the shining effort came (again) from Cloudkicker, with the impossibly-titled ]]][[[. These three tracks of lockstep, percussive aggression (arguably his heaviest material) have since been reworked, retitled, and re-released as A New Heavenly Body. Go get ’em.
BEST NON-METAL ALBUMS:
Dax Riggs released his greatest solo effort to date in Say Goodnight to the World; Ryan Bingham bailed on the happy-go-lucky bleedthrough of Roadhouse Sun and unleashed some satisfying weariness on Junky Star; Crippled Black Phoenix rode the strength of “We Forgotten Who We Are” and “Bastogne Blues” to success on I, Vigilante; and Grinderman finally boast the chops to justify their bravado, hitting the sweet spot on Grinderman 2.
Grand Magus finally went flaccid with the lackluster Hammer of the North; Agalloch‘s Marrow of the Spirit, despite acquiring unprecedented acclaim from both underground and mainstream sources, is poorly paced, directionless, and tiresome; Arckanum‘s Sviga Lae was boring as shit, as was the long-awaited Karma to Burn comeback; Nachtmystium‘s misguided foray into whatever the fuck they think they’re doing flat-out sucked; and, whoa…Nevermore put out an album this year? Oh yeah, I remember. It was 65% filler…
Though conventional wisdom states that the music video is all but dead, two offerings reaffirmed my belief in the format. Deftones‘ gorgeous “Sextape” clip channels a dreamy high-schoolish-ness that Jesu would absolutely kill for. (Also, it makes me feel kinda old, ’cause this is the best song they’ve written since “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away),” which came out when I was actually in high school.) This is the cool-breeziest, night-drivingest, longingly-reminiscingest work of the year.
And Triptykon‘s striking “Shatter” was simply monumental. Not only was it visually arresting, but it shook free the shackles of the Monotheist albatross and re-branded Tom G.’s current aspirations as wholly superior to the ill-fated Celtic Frost reformation. In an era where heavy metal’s visual aspect is severely endangered, “Shatter” is a towering statement.