My, it’s been quite the year, eh? Well, now that it’s obvious that the world hasn’t ended, I guess I might as well post my year-end “best-of” list. Some of these, I’ve reviewed here before. Lots, I haven’t. So let’s take a dive into what I dug the most this past year. Jump with me below the “read more” link, and let’s proceed in no particular order…
Aluk Todolo: Occult Rock
The French trio Aluk Todolo have hand their mitts in any number of incredible projects, from the furious black metal insanity of Diamatregon to the psych-geetar-skronk of Gunslingers. But the improvisatory and instrumental Aluk Todolo project resurfaced this year with a sprawling nearly-90-minute set that proves that you can take cues from Coltrane and Krautrock and still come out on the metal side of the equation. Some might call it post-metal. If this is post-metal, that’s only because your definition of metal is too fucking limited. This is alchemical: it’s heavier than lead, and turned into gold. Pure metal.
Grave: Endless Procession of Souls
Their best album since 1991’s Into the Grave? You bet. These Swedish death metal pioneers may have only one original member still on board (vocalist/guitarist Ola Lindgren), but their putrid sound is practically of purest vintage. There’re few things sweeter than old-school Swedish DM, and this feeds my sweet tooth like few other things out there.
Occultation: Three and Seven
Doom metal played with black metal arrangements in an enormous ossuary. Hypnotic female vocals echo off the bone-built walls as shimmering tremolo guitar leads cascade. Effortlessly, it summons and evokes an atmosphere that envelopes as it disturbs. A lovely kind of death.
Pig Destroyer: Book Burner
Pig Destroyer come back swinging after a five-year absence, and proceed to punch you in the face repeatedly the moment you hit “play.” Riff upon riff upon riff combined with some of the tightest lyrics in grindcore belted out by JR Hayes’s insanely expressive voice. It’s a non-stop class in anger management with one lesson: you can’t manage this anger.
High on Fire: De Vermis Mysteriis
Sure, HoF might be labeled a “stoner metal” band, but few stoners can pummel you with the brute force that Matt Pike and co. can muster. Aggressive and epic, it’s their best album to date. AND THAT’S SAYING A LOT. And, might I add, Des Kensel’s drum intro to “Fertile Green” is the best one since the intro to Ozzy’s “Little Dolls.” That’s partially because it’s almost identical, but still. It might just kick its ass.
Marduk: Serpent Sermon
I’ve been constantly surprised by Marduk’s post-2004 releases. Before Mortuus (of Funeral Mist infamy) joined as vocalist, the band had been treading the same well-worn black metal ground. Not that this ground wasn’t worth treading, but there’s only so much constant blasting that a person can take, and that was seemingly their only raison d’etre. However, since Rom 5:12 and Wormwood, the Mortuus-fronted lineup of the band has pushed itself further into new terrain, beyond the tortured insanity of his vocals. Changing tempos, experiments in song structure and a dense, claustrophobic atmosphere only seem to amp up the out-of-control violence of Marduk’s traditional approach, resulting in one of their most dynamically effective albums. It may not be up there with Wormwood, but when black metal is this good, it’s hard to argue with the results.
Can a band manage to pull off a career essentially paying tribute to Pentagram and somehow make a go of it? No. There’s got to be something more there. And plenty try without having it. Witchcraft have that something extra, though, and it’s present in spades on Legend. They’re still mining the veins of 1970s psychedelic doom, but with a tightened and more accomplished musicianship, improved vocals and production that enhances their sound without robbing it of its power. They just get better and better, and even with a tremendously altered lineup this time ‘round, that trajectory stays true.
Neurosis: Honor Found in Decay
Ooomph. It’s a good thing that I was listening to Scott Kelly and Steve von Till’s collab with Wino on Songs of Townes Van Zandt before I ventured into the soundscape of Neurosis’ new LP, lest I be shocked into submission by the whiskey-soaked crooning of the duo. Yet somehow, SK and SVT manage to frequently and successfully incorporate these vocal stylings into some of the weightiest material the Oakland sludge masters have ever delivered, in the process delivering some of the most beautiful and emotional music they’ve done.
Woods of Ypres: Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light
GodDAMN, this album hurts. Woods fifth album was released few weeks after the death of bandleader David Gold in an automobile accident, and almost every word seems tailored to mark the end of his life. By far the most accessible album in their catalogue, Woods 5 represents a refinement of the blackened doom the band had perfected on Woods IV, tempered by a “Type O meets Katatonia over at Agalloch’s place” approach. Multi-layered harmonies compete with David Gold’s rasping shout for prominence over complex and lush arrangements. Devastating and heartbreaking.
Baroness: Yellow and Green
Baroness have moved farther and farther from their initial sound, to the point where it’s become an ongoing game in the metal community. Someone stakes out position A (either “Baroness’ new LP is one of the best metal albums of the year” or “Baroness’ new LP proves that they’ve abandoned metal completely”). Someone counters with position B (whichever one is left over) and they bat variations of their statements back and forth until everyone gets tired and goes home, or it all breaks down into furious cries of “hipster metal!” Like Agalloch / Ludicra / Worm Ouroboros drummer Aesop Dekker said on Twitter, “All metal in 2012 is hipster metal, unless the band formed in the 80s. Get over it.” All this is defensive preface to the fact that Baroness have delivered what I believe to be their best album. You may disagree, and claim that they peaked with First & Second. Whatever, I don’t care. Argue with someone else, I’m not interested. This album finds the band completely reinventing its sound, becoming more stripped-down and subtle; embracing psychedelic-fueled pop, gorgeous instrumentals and shimmering ambience. Is it real metal? Fuck if I know, man. I love it anyway.
Hooded Menace: Effigies of Evil
Death metal and doom metal work together so sweetly. And when they’re all combined with odes to grindhouse horror classics by the shambling hordes of Hooded Menace, all the better. I go back and forth between whether this is their best album, or if it’s their previous one, Never Cross the Dead, but it’s all a moot point, really. What it comes down to is this: does this album succeed in pummeling my mangled corpse into the dirt? Without a doubt, every single time.
Napalm Death: Utilitarian
Why haven’t more people been talking up this release? Not only is it evidence of Napalm Death’s continued relevance and almost impossibly consistent quality, it displays a band with 30+ years under its belt still unafraid to push its sound in new directions. Doomy tempos, electronics and John Zorn sax contributions provide surprises around every musical bend, while Napalm’s deathgrind pounds away as ferociously as ever.
Evoken: Atra Mors
Well, this album is the perfect answer to the “no keyboards in metal” bozos. That aside, though, this is, quite possibly, the high water mark of funeral doom metal. Evoken have gazed long into the abyss, and reflect the desolation and isolation they’ve witnessed back to the listener through sorrowful epics fueled by down-tuned guitars, thunderous drumming, and vocals that sound like anguish personified. It’s a remarkable achievement by an always remarkable band. If they can manage to outdo this album, I fear that no one may survive the end result.
Atriarch: Ritual of Passing
Old-school L.A. deathrock crashes headfirst into blackened doom metal, wielding lyrics that utilize magickal theory as a tool against the powers of oppression and fear, and lands on this plane of existence calling itself Atriarch. If the sound of Christian Death (Rozz era, natch) kicking the ass of The Man while practicing metal at its most potent sounds the slightest bit appealing, then (a) I want to be your pal, and (b) you need this goddamned album.
Bell Witch: Longing
Spare and spacious, Bell Witch’s debut album is immense. Composed of merely bass and drums (with both members contributing vocals), the album carries a weight that is inescapable. It’s like being trapped under a concrete slab in the middle of vast tundra. You can sense the wide expanses all around you, but you’re being slowly crushed with no means to move.
Dutch doom/death veterans Asphyx are here to claim their territory, and will not stop bludgeoning you until you cede it to them. Aiming more towards death than doom (yet with all tracks carrying the slowly rotting vibe of the foulest doom), this album marks the band’s 25th year and does so with a maniacal rabidity that few bands younger than them can match. This album dares you not to get swept up in its thrashing, putrid madness.
An amazing, moving effort. The best thing that Panopticon (and its sole member A. Lundr) has ever laid its name to, and it’s got some stiff competition. Black metal and bluegrass combine, using the emotional content associated with either to represent a human whole. Sorrow, anger, anguish and pain mix with rousing joy, calls for solidarity and a celebration of place. It pulls you through such a full spectrum of human emotion that—if you have an ounce of empathy within you—you come out the other end feeling as if you’ve gained new appreciation for the land and the people who work it. Just beautiful.
Testament: Dark Roots of Earth
Testament returned from a nine-year hiatus with 2008’s surprising The Formation of Damnation. Surprising, because band leader Chuck Billy had kicked the ass of the cancer he’d been diagnosed with in 2001 and was ready to kick ass once again. Four years later, they roar back with the incredible Dark Roots of Earth, showing a band not only revitalized, but increasingly willing to engage with new sounds and techniques: most obviously, in the embrace of blastbeats as practiced by the almighty Gene Hoglan (Dark Angel, Strapping Young Lad, Death, Fear Factory, Dethklok). Chuck Billy’s embrace of his Native heritage bears eloquent fruit as he speaks in his lyrics of oppressed people and humankind’s shameful treatment of its home, while guitarist Alex Skolnick tears on leads that echo the best of Randy Rhoads. In a time when two of the “Big Four” should just hang it up (hint: both start with the same letter…), Testament prove that they’re as vital as ever. If not more.
Pallbearer: Sorrow and Extinction
How can this be this band’s debut? How can a band so goddamned young be so accomplished? Hell if I know. All I know is that this album is almost incomparably sublime. Classic, classic, classic doom presented—despite the band name, album title and subject matter—in an almost joyous fashion. Soaring leads and dynamic riffing couple with melodic vocals so effective that Sabbath-era Ozzy would time travel to the present just to be jealous of ‘em.
Everyone’s favorite Norwegian Viking progressive black metal horde returns with this, their most all-encompassing album. Pushing their progressive influences farther than ever before, while still embracing the howling black metal from whence they sprang, Enslaved have again delivered an album that stands apart from everything else they’ve done, yet could still have only been composed by this band. Constantly shifting, the album is an energy-building entity all its own, creating tension as it pulls back and forth between seemingly unstoppable aggression and stunningly beautiful passages of subtlety and grace. Enslaved reside in a place all their own.