Last year there figured to be about twelve or thirteen albums I was trying to shove into my top ten. This year there are easily eight or nine trying to wiggle their way into the top five, and a battle for number one that literally went on in my mind for most of the year. There have been new classics all over the place, spread delightfully over a very wide spectrum of styles. Just the names that didn’t make my top ten are an all star team on their own. Plus, the trend of strong non-metal artists being pushed by metal labels is both a testament to those labels’ good taste and the general state of loss in the regular rock industry. Might not make sense, but I’ll thank Metal Blade and Relapse for releasing Astra and Royal Thunder. Without a doubt.
That’s about it. For once I really don’t have some sweeping summation of the year or grand thoughts about the industry, but if you’re desperate a bold point about the state of metal going into 2013….
IT’S REALLY STRONG.
TOP 20 METAL ALBUMS OF 2012
1. Ancestors – In Dreams and Time
Rarely before has the choice for numero uno been so difficult. The entirety of In Dreams and Time is pure prog/doom mastery, but the decision ultimately came down to album finale “First Light,” a 20 minute epic that is not only my song of the year, but a masterpiece that will likely be part of my listening experience for years to come. (Okay, the up-tempo heaviness in “Whispers” is beastly too, and the soloing in “On the Wind,” and the female vocals in “The Last Return,” and on and on.) Ancestors was great from their first note, but here their potential is fully realized, and any extended run of the quality shown on In Dreams and Time ought to be quite something to behold. I welcome it.
2. Woods of Ypres – Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light
Call Grey Skies & Electric Light #1B if you want. In my review I stated that this seemed like more of a celebration of life than a mourning of death, despite the morbidity of the lyrical subject matter, and months later I stick to that. This beautiful heartbreak and sprawling journey realized David Gold’s full potential as a songwriter before he was tragically and prematurely taken from the world. It also happens to surpass the vast majority of doom, black, goth, and dark metal albums that might be seen as its predecessors, a claim that seems ludicrous until these songs are really taken in. Peerless stuff.
3. Pharaoh – Bury the Light
Another Pharaoh album, another few months before I finally discover the magic within. Sure, Bury the Light was instantly great — the band is incapable of mediocrity — but it wasn’t until I had gotten to know every note that I was putting it in the same league as Be Gone. The turning point was being told to pay closer attention to the lyrics of the proggy Rush-influenced “The Year of the Blizzard.” From then on out I knew we’d gotten another classic from the best goddamn band in traditional metal today.
4. Wodensthrone – Curse
The follow-up to my 2009 album of the year, Wodensthrone debut Loss, had some big expectations attached to it. The pleasant surprise: that Curse is every bit as good as the debut, and wisely different. Curse really emphasized the aggression, bringing the knack for riff-craft to the forefront without sacrificing any of the epic blackened glory. While it also features a track named “First Light,” it is the monstrous, exhausting closer “The Name of the Wind” that nearly beats out Ancestors for song of the year.
5. Enslaved – RIITIIR
Twelve albums in, Enslaved continues to evolve without losing the small things that make them the catchiest damn band to come out of the Norwegian Second Wave (seems decades ago, because it is). RIITIIR took many of the same riff and melody ideas as Axioma Ethica Odini but applied them to far more complex arrangements, resulting in an album that is less immediate but equally rewarding. Rewarding, and when harsh and clean vocals are layered over an already irresistible chorus in “Roots of the Mountain,” utterly chilling.
6. Dordeduh – Dar De Duh
Okay, so the version of Negura Bunget that still exists is putting out some great music, but even Virstele Pamintului seems a tad underwhelming compared to what Dordeduh delivered with their debut. In Dar De Duh, Hupogrammos, Sol Faur, and Co. have delivered nothing less than the true successor to the immortal OM. This is the sound of true folk metal, transported from the past and morphed into dynamic black metal of the highest order, with a barren honesty that the NB 2.0 works have yet to tap into.
7. Devin Townsend Project – Epicloud
When I first heard Epicloud (and heard, and heard, and heard…), I was praising it has Devy’s best album since Terria, and it seemed poised to make a run at my top album of the year. While it dropped a few notches, it is clear that Townsend is back performing at the level that made him a legendary solo artist, and with the same variety. From Infinity and Biomech to Addicted and Accelerated Evolution, there are threads of Devy’s best works all over this rocker. And that “Kingdom” remake? Yeah boy.
8. Nekromantheon – Rise, Vulcan Spectre
Leave it to some young fellers from Norway to take the thrash crown in a year that included new albums from Overkill, Testament, and Kreator. Rise, Vulcan Spectre is a violent, relentless, blindingly fast, and irresistible homage to early 80s Slayer that has to be heard (and heard, and heard, and heard…) to be believed. I knew when I reviewed it that it ripped, but only months later is it clear exactly how much. That’s a lot, in case you were wondering. It rips a whole fuck of a lot.
9. Mgla – With Hearts Toward None
Mgla has already formed a stout reputation within the harsh/necro realm, and With Hearts Towards None add yet another layer to their already outstanding catalog. This time they took the numbered song title approach to its natural conclusion, crafting an album that is very much more than the sum of its parts by building to an intense climax in the seventh movement. It shows that Mgla is every bit as adept at crafting multi-faceted epics as they are providing vitriol; and there’s still plenty of that.
10. Asphyx – Deathhammer
Lots of bands rely on complex arrangements, innovation, crazy musicality or some other supposed virtue. Not Asphyx. Not now, not ever. Deathhammer found pure glory by being one of the year’s most predictable albums. It’s a bulldozer of riffs and drums delivered through the thickest sound possible, topped off with Martin van Drunen doing his usual “I swallow sand before recording vocals” thing. Gentleman, this is heavy.
11. Necrovation – Necrovation
12. Overkill – The Electric Age
13. Anaal Nathrakh – Vanitas
14. Blut Aus Nord – 777: Cosmosophy
15. Hellwell – Beyond the Boundaries of Sin
16. Meshuggah – Koloss
17. Torche – Harmonicraft
18. Satanic Bloodspraying – At the Mercy of Satan
19. Corsair – Corsair
20. Ahab – The Giant
HONORABLE MENTION LOGO CLOUD!!!
Top 5 EPs:
1. Agalloch – Faustian Echoes
Faustian Echoes isn’t just the best EP released this year, it’s one of the best things Agalloch has ever composed. At 20 never-wasted minutes, it could easily meander, but instead this long piece builds its narrative with notes as much as words. Agalloch is even playing the piece live, which is all too rarely the case with such a release.
2. Blut Aus Nord – What Once Was…Liber II
The first of the What Once Was vinyl series was a cacophonous, eerie, and suffocating plunge into some abysmal hell, and the second part dives even further down. Anyone worried that Blut Aus Nord lost their really dark side ought to buy a turntable.
3. Deathspell Omega – Drought
Drought continued the technical, aggressive wall of sound that DsO really began with Paracletus, offering as destructive a package as might be humanly possible within only 21 minutes.
4. Argus – Blood, Fire, Beer
A great new tune joined by a nice choice for a Thin Lizzy cover, a ballsy one for a Pink Floyd song (Waterless era, no less), and a few nice live recordings adds up to a great stop-gap release.
5. Dimesland – Creepmoon
Craploads of Atheist, Voivod, Coroner, and Pestilence influence all mashed together in this wackadoo little debut? Shit yes. More please.
Top 5 Non-Metal Albums:
1. Royal Thunder – CVI
You may have noticed that a few of the crew put this on their main list. I opted to leave it out due to its lack of any real metal, but it needed to be recognized. CVI is blues rock magic, shifting, grooving, pounding, and melting its way into your heart with one of the best vocal performances of the year. (For the record, it would have been #8 on my list.)
2. Astra – The Black Chord
Any fan of classic 70s prog in the styles of King Crimson, Yes, Camel, Floyd, et al who doesn’t like Astra is deaf. Period. No other way to explain it.
3. Rush – Clockwork Angels
Congrats on your enshrinement into the half-legitimacy that is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guys. Keep up the major resurgence you’re experiencing, your fans really appreciate it.
4. Van Halen – A Different King of Truth
Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay better than it should have been, and fully worthy of wearing the VH name. Welcome back guys, especially you Dave.
5. The Gathering – Disclosure
Proving that there is indeed life after Anneke, Disclosure sounds far more confident than The West Pole, thanks in no small part to Silje Wergeland really coming into her own.
Other Stuff That Ruled:
The Complete and Total Hell compilation by Midnight
Hell’s Headbangers reissuing Deceased‘s Supernatural Addiction
The Manilla Road catalog being almost completely reissued
Seeing Manilla Road live
Classic bands maintaining newfound momentum (Testament, Overkill, Rush, others.)
Reunion albums that don’t suck
The cover art for the Sulphur Aeon debut full length
Huge sales over at Nuclear War Now!
A Few Things That Sucked:
The new Nile
Almost getting killed by a small tornado when seeing Manilla Road live
No new Gorguts or Voivod
The mistreatment of Bill Ward by his Sabbath bandmates
Tapes? Yeah tapes
Onward to 2013…