Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Top 20 of...2012? Part 1

Now that we're nearly at the end of April, you've probably all been enjoying a number of 2013 releases. I happen to know that there are a number of great albums coming out next Monday. Be sure to check out the new Arsis album, Unwelcome, which I just reviewed over at Last Rites. If death metal isn't your thing, there have been plenty of excellent releases in all genres, from doom to power metal. But I'm going to take this chance to actually look backwards. Now that we're a quarter of a year removed from 2012, how are last year's best standing up against the newest releases? Time to finally bring out my Top 20 of 2012 list. Here are the first five.

20. Allegaeon - Formshifter

I'm more than willing to admit that Allegaeon's second album isn't as strong as their excellent debut Fragments of Form and Function (which ranked at #11 on my list in 2010). Perhaps the fact that they lost their drummer sometime in 2011 and recorded Formshifter with a session musician contributed to the lack of growth for the band. But I'm still as sucker for this kind of super catchy, melodic, technical death metal. In a year when bands like Spawn of Possession and Gorod failed to impress me, Allegaeon showed me that I'm still open to some great melodic shredding. From the industrial drill breakdown of "Behold (God I Am)" to the off-kilter groove of "Iconic Images," to the flamenco-inspired acoustic guitars of "Secrets of the Sequence," Formshifter kept me smiling. Yes, the album has flaws. Most of the songs are in the same key and around the same tempo, leaving a lot less distinction between tracks that one might hope for. But I've always picked my albums because they make me happy, not because I would necessarily hold them all up as examples of flawless execution. Allegaeon is one of those bands that drives me back into the woodshed time and time again. Let's hope that the sudden abundance of legal weed in their home state of Colorado doesn't distract Allegaeon from pushing technical death metal to new levels.

19. Unleashed - Odalheim

Unleashed have been around since the beginning of death metal, way back at the end of the 80s. Their first full-length, Where No Life Dwells, released in 1991, is an all-time classic. And in 2012, with their eleventh full-length album (not counting two live albums), they're back at the top of the Swedish death game. Odalheim is everything that their last few releases haven't been—immediate, powerful, catchy, and brutal. Instead of relying on the buzzsaw guitar sound of the other Swedish death elite, Unleashed brings knife-edged tremolo guitars to the mix, but still with plenty of chuging riffs and melodic solos—this isn't black metal, after all. Johnny Hedlund's vocal delivery is stronger than ever, as he delivers songs about ancient warriors from all over the world in both snarled and bellowed form (the word "battalions" is by far his favourite). I've found Unleashed's last several albums to be somewhat less than remarkable, but Odalheim is bursting at the seams with catchy, thrash-along moments. Album opener "Fimbulwinter" is my personal favourite, but the album continues strong all the way through closer "The Great Battle of Odalheim," touching on the Mayans, the Celts, and the Germans in their round up of global warriors. Appropriately apocalypticly themed, Odalheim was a great album for a year the world was supposed to end.

18. Christian Mistress - Possession

Here's an album in a completely different style. Christian Mistress is the best of a crop of female-fronted "occult rock" groups that have cropped up in the past two years. Christine Davis matches powerful vocals with the extremely retro-styled riffage of Oscar Sparbel and Ryan McClain. Skinman Reuben W. Storey keeps it loose and quick, and Johnny Wulf fills out the sound with bass groove. Bands like Christian Mistress often raise the question "what is metal?" as these groups seems to have more in common with hard rock groups like Led Zeppelin and Motorhead than modern metal bands. A careful listen, however, reveals plenty of Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest influence—just listen to the opening riff on "Black To Gold." It's metal. I for one love this style, and don't care about sticking it in a genre box (although I did move Jess and the Ancient Ones to my Top 5 Non-Metal Albums list). Title track "Possession" is probably my favourite, but I often find myself with other song stuck in my head as well. The album features a slightly drier and even more retro feeling production than 2010's Agony and Opium, which suits the music well. If modern metal has you feeling like this guy from Brutal Legend, then you need to listen to Christian Mistress. The past is alive again, and stronger than ever.

17. Meshuggah - Koloss

Meshuggah have been shaping the face of progressive metal for twenty-five years. They've built a reputation for heavy sounds and off-kilter polyrythmic drums and ridiculous eight-string guitars. Yes, these are the guys who first tuned down to F#, who first encountered tones so low that they needed to stretch the scale and add an extra string just to keep the intonation right. The fact that Koloss is only their seventh album (not counting 2006's rerecording of Nothing or their several EPs) hides just how staggeringly influential this band has been. They're even credited/blamed with creating the entire sub-genre of "djent" music (just listen to "Stengah" and you'll know what I'm talking about). So does Meshuggah still have anything left to contribute? Absolutely. Koloss has a primordial and organic heft to it that's missing from some of their old music. Just compare album opener "I Am Colossus" to the aforementioned "Stengah," and you'll see that the near-sterile digital quality of the older track has been enrichened with an absolutely cavernous reverb. I think that the greatness of Koloss must be dug for, as opposed to 2008's obZen, which put all the Swedes' brilliance on display. In many ways, this album is simpler than obZen, much in the same way that Nothing was simpler than Chaosphere. Meshuggah continue to use the eight-string guitar in exciting and new ways. I would encourage you to keep listening to this one, and you will hear it unlock.

16. Pallbearer - Sorrow and Extinction

This four-piece from Little Rock has produced one of the most exceptional piece of doom metal that I have heard in a year that was absolutely stuffed full of great doom metal. The album starts out so slowly that if you approach it in the wrong mindset, you'll actually get bored. But when you come at this right, this music wraps itself around you and carries you away. The production is absolutely fantastic. You can hear every note, particularly of the bass, which burbles and growls its way through some catchy lines, and the whole thing has this analogue warmth to it that some of my favourite doom bands were missing this year (Daylight Dies and Swallow the Sun in particular). Also in contrast to those two bands, Pallbearer features only clean singing. And what lyrics they are! Album closer "Given to the Grave" is one of the most powerful expressions of funeral doom that I've ever heard, and this band doesn't even play "funeral doom." Brett Campbell's voice is actually sprinkled fairly sparsely through this album, interspersed with lyrical lead guitar, and the ballance is excellent. It's rare that you hear true sadness rendered this beautifully. It's been a great year for Pallbearer, with a full length release on Profound Lore and two showcasings by Scion A/V. I can't imagine this band has anywhere to go but up.

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