2011, huh? Political and economic turmoil throughout the world, major life changes here on the home front, all the usual anxieties and insecurities and tiny insignificant victories, and through it all, a certified fuckload of downright delightful music. Despite the absurd glut of magnificent musical output this year, after all the hand-wringing, nail-biting, and obsessive list ordering and reordering, my favorites don’t seem to have followed any discernible pattern, and I guess that’s pretty nice. Take a bit of black here, plenty o’ death there, a walloping of doom, some post-ishness, the first proper serving of thrash to grace a list of mine in ages, and hell, why not throw in a bit of just plain sideways strangeness for good measure. Heavy metal’s a mongrel bastard, now more than ever, and that’s just the way I like it.
Due in no small part to the fact that this year was neatly bisected by the birth of my daughter, joy is a serious theme in the words that follow, as I found new cause on a daily basis to marvel at this world in all its beauty and oddity. New paternal mawkishness aside, I think it’s just good policy every now and again to remind ourselves that no matter how mean and nasty and filthy and ugly and disgusting and terrifying (and all that other business) the strains of extreme music we follow can get, if they don’t remain fundamentally animated in some way by the pure joy of creation, then they just ain’t worth the time.
And of course, inevitably, even as the stripped gears of one year work on grinding themselves down to a final halting collapse, the clanking engines of the new year are spitting and puttering off in the distance, so while I don’t have an official list of my most highly anticipated releases for 2012, there’s a fine raftful of glorious possibility already announced, including Alcest, Earth, Orange Goblin, Azaghal, Dodecahedron, Christian Mistress, Autopsy, Napalm Death, Drudkh, Asphyx, St. Vitus, and of course Black Sabbath (along with American release dates for Haemoth, The Devil’s Blood, Tenhi, Lantlos, Farsot, and the Norwegian Shining live album). Music is a fluid continuum, and the rigid segmentation into Year X versus Year Y will always be an artificial construct, but as we send off one segment and sprawl headlong into the next, here’s a panoply of favored selections and frothing recollections from my end of the continuum to yours.
As always, thanks for reading, friends, and thanks for rocking with us this year and every year.
THE TOP 10 METAL ALBUMS OF 2011:
1. Subrosa – No Help for the Mighty Ones
This wasn’t even a fair fight. This album has been nestled in the top spot since the very first time I heard it, and that’s no bullshit. No album in recent memory has so calmly wrenched out my heart and built in its place a permanent edifice of yearning vulnerability as this collection of mountainous laments. Yet, despite the album’s wounded keening, at its core it is an exercise in marshaling individual turmoil into collective strength and resilience. The end result is something very much resembling hope; it also happens to be a perfect album, and that’s no bullshit.
2. Esoteric – Paragon of Dissonance
…in which entire universes were birthed from shards of dystopian noise, and died howling anthems to the void. Esoteric‘s career to date is untouchable, so they had nothing to prove with this album. Nevertheless, Paragon Of Dissonance finds the laurels of these consummate craftsmen completely unrested-upon, with each song dredging a well of glacial desperation and rage inexplicably deeper than the one before. More importantly, Esoteric manages to suffuse an entirely miserable genre of painfully slow music with an unmistakable joy, so this holiday season, say hello to Esoteric, and say hello to gravity, entropy, anticosmic overload.
3. Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand
The danger with a band as impossibly consistent as Primordial is taking them for granted. Their vision is so singular, so strong, so all-encompassing that it seems as if it must have emerged fully-formed from the beating heart of Ireland, but such an impression does a disservice to the fire-tempered refinements that have been made to the band’s nakedly emotional and searing metal over the years. Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand is more patient than To the Nameless Dead, but in trading that album’s fiery pride for a worldly melancholy, its tendrils run deeper still.
4. Azarath – Blasphemers’ Maledictions
If there was another album in 2011 that better encapsulated everything M.E.T.A.L. than Polish death metal fiends Azarath, I sure as hell didn’t hear it. Sticksman Inferno (also of Behemoth) leads his foul-tempered compatriots through an unstoppable and irresistible clinic in diabolically precise and darkly melodic death metal devastation. The perfect album to throw on while hosting a well-mannered tea-time for elderly relatives, particularly if you are interested in watching the tea turn to blood and your relations grow hooves and fangs and jump through your window, hungry for neighborhood children, screeching, “WHO FUCKING WANTS SOME?”
5. Tombs – Path of Totality
After a stellar EP and debut album, Tombs had opened enough musical doors that they could have gone almost anywhere with this album. Path Of Totality opted to take any remaining latent aggression, dip it in shards of black metal glass, goth gasoline, and bleak hardcore nails, set it on fire, and chuck it down a bottomless pit. Mike Hill’s snarls are more from the gut, and the music’s rhythmic sway is rich enough to keep celestial bodies in its thrall. The whole album lunges forward with a ramshackle momentum – don’t fight it; you’re already in its grasp.
6. Hammers of Misfortune – 17th Street
17th Street may be the most simultaneously elegiac and joyful Hammers of Misfortune album yet, not to mention the perfect union of tradition, innovation, and expert composition. New vocalist Joe Hutton is quite similar to Mike Scalzi without ever letting charismatic delivery overwhelm the song, and Leila Abdul-Rauf’s bruising rhythm guitar provides a stout counterpoint to John Cobbett’s gracefully unfolding melodies. Moreover, despite delving the deepest into classic and progressive rock territory of any Hammers album, this is an undeniably contemporary piece of work, its lyrical content and emotive pull an organic reaction to a world weighed and found wanting.
7. Graveyard – Hisingen Blues
Hisingen Blues rocks like a motherfucker and that’s a fact. Sweden’s retro-fondlers Graveyard knocked it well and truly out of the park with this album crammed full of enough swaggering, hollering, leering, boozing glory that these tunes might just summon John Bonham, Keith Moon, and Boris Karloff back from the dead just to kill ’em all again with grooves so smoking that they’ll be compelled to release a joint statement: “We the undersigned hereby attest that Hisingen Blues rocks like a motherfucker and that’s a fact.” Out-of-this-world fun backed by drop-dead serious songwriting chops: feel-good album of the millennium.
8. Mitochondrion – Parasignosis
One gets the sense that something utterly wrong is happening throughout Parasignosis, but it’s not just that you can’t look away, it’s that you actively submit to your own debasement and destruction. In a year absolutely stuffed with stellar death metal of all sickly stripes and off-kilter hues, Mitochondrion has spat out the most horrific incarnation of gnawing terror and barely-controlled chaos. For all its ugliness, though, Parasignosis is seductive, its peculiar structure and undercurrent of skin-crawling noise turning any attempt at a casual listen into a week-long undertaking of paranoid backwards-glancing and night sweats. That’s a good thing.
9. Blut Aus Nord – 777: The Desanctification
The eerie pulsations of The Desanctification feel like the soundtrack to a dark matter dance party at the center of the universe. Vindsval’s guitars are forced through a prism that only emits black light, and their woozy cadence finds a perfect complement in The Desanctification‘s industrial sheen and zoned-out trip-hop beats. Ulver‘s Perdition City has finally found a worthy successor, but the roiling violence with which the notion of melody is deconstructed is inimitably BAN. This is a band without peer, and knowing that part three could explode in an infinite number of unhinged directions is the definition of ‘anticipation.’
10. Dark Castle – Surrender to All Life Beyond Form
Atavism is a bit too tidy a word for this earthly racket; prehistoric excavation might be more apt, as Dark Castle‘s second album heaves like the churning of Pangaean seas. The psychedelic treatments on Stevie Floyd’s guitar throughout the album make of the songs an unbroken chain of dire filiation, but the tectonic riffs, especially when erected on the sterling architecture of Rob Shaffer’s percussion, give each song an epochal identity. For an album that is nominally sludge, Surrender consistently feels like a surpassing of genre limitations and an opening to the sheer joy of possibility.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE: ALBUMS 11-20:
11. Ravencult – Morbid Blood
12. Vektor – Outer Isolation
13. 40 Watt Sun – The Inside Room
14. Virus – The Agent that Shapes the Desert
15. Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage
16. Darkest Era – The Last Caress of Light
17. Blasphemophagher – The III Command of the Absolute Chaos
18. Revocation – Chaos of Forms
19. The Atlas Moth – An Ache for the Distance
20. Negative Plane – Stained Glass Revelations
Honorable Mentions (and not that it particularly matters, but these are actually in descending order from 21 through 50 because I’m a hopelessly anal-retentive nerd):
Peste Noire, Grayceon, Krisiun, Hell, Altar Of Plagues, Today is the Day, Anaal Nathrakh, Vader, Arch/Matheos, Loss, Opeth, Nader Sadek, Amebix, Absu, Axis Of Perdition, Dream Theater, Antediluvian, Blut Aus Nord (Sects), Satan’s Host, Midnight, Hate Eternal, KEN Mode, Morne, Aosoth, Tsjuder, YOB, Nightbringer, Seidr, Wolvhammer, Goatmoon.
1. Giant Squid – Cenotes
2. Enslaved – The Sleeping Gods
3. Immolation – Providence
4. Dirty Projectors + Bjork – Mount Wittenberg Orca
5. False – False
1. Blut Aus Nord – The Mystical Beast of Rebellion (Debemur Morti)
2. Death – Human (Relapse): All three deluxe Death reissues done by Relapse this year (Human, The Sound of Perseverance, and Individual Thought Patterns) have been exemplary, and though ITP has the best bonus content, on a pure sound quality level, none of the albums has benefitted from the thickening, brightening, and punching-ing treatment as much as Human.
3. Sigh – Scorn Defeat (Deepsend)
4. Manilla Road – The Deluge (Shadow Kingdom)
5. The Chasm – Procreation of the Inner Temple (Lux Inframundis) – Try to track down the entire Chasm catalog for less than several hundred dollars, I dare you. If Lux Inframundis continues the long overdue work of reissuing the remaining out-of-print Chasm records, it will have done a great service for death metal disciples everywhere.
6. Alcest – Le Secret (Prophecy)
TEN ALBUMS THAT I FAILED:
These are albums that I’m pretty sure are all great, but that I wasn’t able to give sufficient time to in order to determine just how great. Thus, shame on me and/or late-year release scheduling:
Mournful Congregation – The Book of Kings
Oranssi Pazuzu – Kosmonument
Wounded Kings – In the Chapel of the Black Hand
Panopticon – Social Disservices
Manilla Road – Playground of the Damned
Rwake – Rest
Leviathan – True Traitor True Whore
The Flight of Sleipnir – Essence of Nine
Solstafir – Svartir Sandar
The Atomic Bomb Audition – Roots into the See
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS* (IN HAIKU):
1. Morbid Angel – Illud Divinum Insanus
From “Maze of Torment”
to “Radikult”; no one will
ever forget this.
2. Megadeth – Th1rt3en
Dave can piss and moan
all he goddamn wants. Just give
me some fucking riffs.
3. A Storm Of Light – As the Valley of Death Overburdens Our Album Title with Portentous Words
Hey, remember when
this band was pretty alright?
Not so much, this one.
4. Necros Christos – Doom of the Occult
“Hey, let’s play boring
death metal riffs too slow for
way too long. High five!”
5. Root – Heritage of Satan
Big Boss: still awesome,
but at least half the album
is silly and sad.
*NB: Lulu was not under consideration for this list, given that next to no one expected it to be anything but an unmitigated disaster.
These bands didn’t get the nod in any of the above lists, but their first full-length albums all suggest great things. The future is alive.
1. Bones – Bones
2. Vastum – Carnal Law
3. The Konsortium – The Konsortium
4. Deafheaven – Roads to Judah
5. The Botanist – I: The Suicide Tree / II: A Rose for the Dead
6. Fyrnask – Bluostar
7. Moonreich – Loi Martiale
8. Disma – Towards the Megalith
9. Pyrrhon – An Excellent Servant but a Terrible Master
10. Falloch – Where Distant Spirits Remain
TOP 20 NON-METAL ALBUMS OF 2011:
1. Austra – Feel it Break
2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
3. Zola Jesus – Conatus
4. Ulver – Wars of the Roses
5. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
6. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
7. ASVA – Presences of Absences
8. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
9. Boris – Attention Please
10. Earth – Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I
11. James Blake – James Blake
12. Hexvessel – Dawnbearer
13. Bjork – Biophilia
14. Devin Townsend Project – Ghost
15. Amon Tobin – Isam
16. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
17. Low – C’mon
18. The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble – From the Stairwell
19. DJ Shadow – The Less You Know, The Better (Chances are I’m overvaluing this, but after the disastrous hyphy nonsense of The Outsider, this is such a sweet breath of relief.)
20. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972