Top 20 Metal Albums of 2011

2011 started out with a bang, kept going in the middle, and ended with a surprise explosion. 2011 was, in a word, strong. But what does that mean for a the metal enthusiast? Death metal was up this year, although black metal didn't seem to suffer any significant decline. I heard my album of the year the second week of January, and said "This will be my album of the year." During the summer, it moved out of my top spot, taking second or even third to a number of fantastic albums, but ultimately it clawed, burned, and pummeled its way back to the top. This year marks a lot of return names to the list; Varg Vikernes collected his second consecutive year on my list with Fallen and New Zealand masters Ulcerate scored their second first place spot. Blut Aus Nord managed to bring their total up to three, with another practically guaranteed for 2012. And 2011 marks the second year that an Italian death metal band has taken the #20 slot on my list. So let's get down to it.

20. Fleshgod Apocalypse - Agony
I still have mixed feelings about Agony. On the one hand, the album displays incredible musicianship and song composition. It’s catchier than the swine flu and energetic enough to put you in the hospital. Yet, it’s difficult to tell the songs apart from each other, the drums are far too prominent in the mix, the listening experience varies dramatically depending on what speakers you hear it through; all features that would normally discount an album from Top List consideration. Still, at the end of the year I have to say that Agony was one of the most fun metal experiences of this year. Tommaso Riccardi’s aggressive vocals are powerful and blend well with Paolo Rossi’s soaring falsetto. Francesco Paoli pounds the skins like a madman, and the guitars churn and surge alone with the blasts. Often bands who use this extensive level of orchestration cover the laziness of their guitars with the grandiosity of the orchestra. These Italians take no shortcuts, putting a near inhuman level of power and intensity into every one of a billion notes, along with some fantastic guitar solos (particularly in “The Deceit”). When the music video for “The Violation” came out over the summer, it immediately became my go-to song to show everybody what I mean when I say “I listen to metal.” I expect nothing but good things from Fleshgod Apocalypse going forward, and simply hope they get a decent ear in the studio to help them mix the drums.

19. Burzum - Fallen
Many bands struggle to put out an album every other year. Some go longer without releasing new music, and sometimes the wait isn’t even worth it. Not Varg Vikernes. Fresh out of prison in March of 2010, he released Belus, a raw, hypnotic approach to black metal that was just what fans like myself needed. 364 days later, he released Fallen, which is just as excellent. This year’s album shows a slightly different side of the music of Burzum, with the rawest, starkest production I’ve heard all year. The instruments are just there, playing. No fancy effects. No pretensions. Just music. Even the reverb is minimal, especially compared to Belus, which tended towards the murky. It seems that prison has done Varg’s musical mind well, and he’s managed to be the only artist to appear on two consecutive year-end lists in the whole time I’ve been writing music criticism. In classic Varg tradition, all the lyrics are in Norwegian, and although this album contains a lot more clean singing than I remember Burzum featuring in the past, Varg’s voice seems to be improving with time. Some might consider the drumming or even the riffs simplistic, but that’s intentional, and considering the fact that Varg is the only musician to appear on the album, actually impressive. Fallen feels quite a bit shorter than Belus, mainly because the album feels over when the outro track begins. Still, it would be a mistake to skip it, as the tribal instrumentation leaves an eerie and stark feel to the album. I’m sure Varg was intentional in closing Fallen in this way. I’ll be keeping my eyes open in March to see if Burzum makes it a threepeat.

18. Aosoth - III
Quite possibly the least accessible album on this list, it’s a French black metal album with numbers for titles. The searing mechanical sounds conjured by the music are grating on the ears of normal people, and even an experienced black metal purveyor may be initially put off by the non-traditional approach to the style. Frankly, I am guilty of misjudging this album the first time I heard it. The fact that the tracks are named 1 through 6 makes it difficult to have any idea of where you are in the album, and the lyrics are nigh-on incomprehensible. When you actually give the album the time it deserves, however, it unfolds into an incredibly rich experience. The production is one of the meatiest of any black metal album—where Fallen feels like ice and wind, III feels like earth and fire. The guitars are tuned low and the kick drum sounds more like a classic death metal kit than the normal papery drums in the TRVECVLT black metal sound. In fact, the entire album is bottom heavy, from guitars to bass to vocals, and that gives it a monstrous, looming quality that is more typical of funeral doom. Hearing these tones blended with the speed and shredding intensity of black metal is a unique experience that only gets better with time. Don’t let this one pass you by because you didn’t give the time it needs.

17. Wolves In the Throne Room - Celestial Lineage
I’ve been a fan of Wolves in the Throne Room for years, considering them to be a statement of what American Black Metal could be. With each release, they seem to sink deeper and deeper into the forests of Washington where brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver hail from. WitTR is not, however, a two-man project in the same way that Burzum is a one-man band, since Celestial Lineage features eight “additional” musicians who provide the album with everything from harps, bells, and chanted female vocals to a church organ and Vangelis-esque synthetic pads. That may sounds far too complex and pretentious for a black metal album, but Celestial Lineage doesn’t squander any of its resources. I’ve never been in the rain-soaked forests of Washington, just as I’ve never been in the snow-covered forests of Norway. But this music sounds like a lush green wood, just as classic Darkthrone sounds like a frozen wasteland. I can’t decide if Celestial Lineage is my favourite Wolves in the Throne Room album, but it’s certainly the most grandiose. Nathan’s guitar tone is fantastically both fuzzy and sharp, kind of like a bear’s paw, while his shrieking vocals are at their absolute best. The use of sound effects and synthesis is often a stumbling point for bands, who fail to integrate the electronics into the actual music, but not so on Celestial Lineage. There’s never a moment where a listener could say “Okay, this is a song, and this is an electronic interlude.” I think that Wolves in the Throne Room have perfected this art with Celestial Lineage, and I’m excited to hear where they’ll take it in the future.

16. Argus - Boldly Stride the Doomed
I would call Boldly Stride the Doomed the most traditional album on my list, but since it’s the only traditional album on my list, that accolade would be meaningless. Still, it’s the only traditional metal album that truly held my attention this year, and even a single listen to it reveals why. The riffs are just so meaty, the bass so groovy, and the lyrics so catchy. In fact, this may be the only album on my list where every word is distinguishable. Hailing from Pennsylvania, these five gentlemen have produced an album in 2011 that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in 1981, yet doesn’t sound dated or rehashed today. Andy Ramage’s bass playing is one of the stand-out elements of Argus’s sound, and his playing is nicely prominent in the mix. Many of the songs have an epic and up-tempo feel to them, but Argus can also wring the melancholy strings just as effectively. “42-7-29” features the best piano integration I’ve ever heard in a traditional metal track, and Butch Balich’s tortured vocals are surpassed in emotion only by the guitar solo. If you love doom or metal or just good music, you have to listen to Argus. If somebody wanted a simple answer to “what is Metal?” I would hand them this album. It’s a downright shame that the band isn’t getting more exposure. They barely have a thousand fans on Facebook. Seriously? Endworld, one of the worst ‘core bands ever created by a bunch of teenagers from Australia has more fans than this legitimately incredible band. Go out there and promote Argus. Promote Music. 

15. Krallice - Diotoma
It is pretty much an internet cliché to say that the most pretentious music comes from Brooklyn, and making fun of hipsters is easy. So Krallice has obviously taken a lot of guff for being hipster black metal. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Diotima is black, it’s metal, and it’s good. The entire album is built around swirling tremolo riffs, and that makes for a hypnotic listening experience. Diotima doesn’t have the heft of Aosoth, or the crystal clarity of Burzum, or the forest-floor sound of Wolves in the Throne Room. So what does it have? Krallice sounds like a crystal tornado, like sunlight in swirls, like a cloud of glass floating through a Van Gogh painting. Diotima brings air and sky to my mind, not rooted like Celestial Lineage or buried like III. Krallice takes the frustrations and jumbled emotions of the #OWS generation and puts them into pronounceable rage. Yet even that isn’t quite true, since Diotima doesn’t draw such a recognizable response from the listener. Rather, it’s a twisted pile of emotions that require dissection; it’s actually an effort to digest Krallice—an escalating experiment in catharsis building to nowhere. And that makes it a perfect expression of today’s world.

14. Revocation - Chaos of Forms
Revocation is one of those bands I’ve been fortunate enough to follow since their founding, and they’ve done nothing but improve with each release. With this third release, these Massachusetts locals have solidified their sound and increased their already prodigious musicianship. They take death/thrash and add a healthy dose of bluesy sensibilities (there’s a rockin’ B3 solo in “The Watchers”) and a few groovy hooks. These are spread about conservatively though the album, so it certainly never sounds as mainstream as fellow thrashers Evile (who also released their third album in 2012). Title track “Chaos of Forms” is a personal standout for me, probably mostly because shredman David Davidson channels Satriani and Vai so well. The fact is, though, that the entire album is filled with nothing but riffs and solos. The number of “oh yeah” moments is just stupendous. These aren’t throw-away cereal box prizes, these are the real deal. Just listen to the intro to “Conjuring the Cataclysm” or the chorus on “Cradle Robber.” The great thing is that when a Revocation song comes on, you don’t have to wonder if it’s Megadeth or Metallica or The Crown. You know it’s Revocation. They’ve developed a sound, and they play it to perfection. If this album doesn’t put a huge grin on your face, maybe you just don’t like music.

13. Iskald - The Sun I Carried
Once there was a band from Norway called Emperor, and they did things to black metal that no one had ever done before. Their riffs had a quality to them that the other bands of the time lacked, and that was mostly thanks to Ihsahn’s propensity to think in duelling-riff guitar lines. Sadly, Emperor is no more, and most black metal today adheres to the template put up by bands like Darkthrone and Immortal. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but sometimes you want the sheer cerebral challenge of Emperor’s style. I’m happy to say that Iskald carries that mantle today. Also hailing from frigid Norway, this duo writes that complex, challenging, and intricately faceted metal that seems to defy the stated simplicity of black metal. There are always at least two complementary riffs going on, and the pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The multi-talented Simon Larsen handles vocals, keyboards, and anything with strings on it, while Aage Andre Krekling pounds the skins, and he does so with both precision and variation. As I’ve said, this music is meant to be complex, yet understandable. It draws you in and enfolds you with its pieces. You can hear the guitars, drums, and bass all fitting together into a crystalline form to encase the reverb-drenched howls of Norse mythology. It isn’t psychedelic like Enslaved, or algebraic like Meshuggah. It’s an artistic work by two men who have diverse spirits and know how to express them. Clean guitar arpeggios, distorted tremolo lines, reverbed chord progressions, modal shifts and rhythmic syncopation—all are used to take the listener on a journey into the cold and back out again. Put on your headphones and take the trip.

12. Ravencult - Morbid Blood
As a contrast, other black metal is simple. Ravencult takes the intensity of thrash, the raw sound of punk, and the TRVECVLT barbarism of black metal and throw it together into one acid chugging, razor chewing, blood spewing trip of an album. Speeds stay up and riffs stay simple while these Greeks rip through forty minutes of black/thrash that gives Destroyer 666 a run for their money. There’s nothing fancy or profound about the lyrics, and you probably won’t understand what frontman Linos is howling anyway. Just assume it’s about the Devil and how he’s gonna getcha, and you’re probably on the right track. The thing that stands out the most to me on Morbid Blood is the raw, raw sound. The guitars just sound like guitars plugged into extremely loud amps, the drums sound like they’re sitting in a room with a bunch of dudes drinking beers and smoking fags, and the vocals sound like absolute throat destruction. It just catches you up and makes you believe in simplicity. Sometimes there’s nothing more powerful than three angry guys, and Morbid Blood is just waiting to sweep you along with it.

11. Nader Sadek - In the Flesh
Back to NYC pretentions; In The Flesh is a supergroup album of sorts. Nader Sadek is an Egyptian artist who happens to like extreme metal, and he decided that it would be a good idea to get some names together and make a concept album. You’ve got Flo Mounier from Cryptopsy on drums, Rune Erikson (better known as Blasphemer from Mayhem) on guitars, and Steve Tucker of Morbid Angel fame on vocal duties. Sadek put his name on the cover, and his ideas into the music. The entire thing is about oil, how it’s made out of dead things, and our dependency on it. In theory, it sounds a little hokey for a death metal album, but in practice it’s absolutely staggering. The musicians all put in top-tier performances, and the riffs are both catchy and brutal. You really have to read the lyrics (and interviews with Nader Sadek, a particularly articulate—if strange—artist) to get the full impact of the theme, but it’s apparent even without that understanding that the work is a concept piece. It sounds like machinery, yet organic. It sounds like something that runs on dead things—just what it’s supposed to sound like. Will Sadek continue work with this set of musicians? Will they come up with something on their own? It’s impossible to tell. All I do know is that Nader Sadek is working on filming music videos for the entire album, as part of his artistic vision. Since it clocks in at just under thirty minutes, and he has two out of eight videos already made, he may actually accomplish his goal. In The Flesh had incredible potential to be horrible—a supergroup of incredibly egotistical musicians and an incredibly esoteric and pretentious theme, all crammed into thirty minutes of music directed by a non-musician’s artistic idea. And yet In The Flesh manages to overcome all these challenges and convert them to assets. Quite an accomplishment.

10. The Black Dahlia Murder - Ritual
The Black Dahlia Murder is one of the many American death metal bands from the ‘aughties who have been struggling for a distinctive sound. Their ’05 album Miasma remains one of my favourites, but their follow-up Nocturnal didn’t break any new ground, and ‘09’s Deflorate was, frankly, a disappointment. In the meantime, bands like Job for a Cowboy and Enfold Darkness started doing the Black Dahlia sound better than tBDM. But with Ritual, the band has shown that far from being in a slump, they’re at the top of their game. Their guitar and drum chops have never been tighter, the dual vocal attack is perfectly executed and in your face, and their ability to write melodic hooks is almost unparalleled. One of the best parts of Ritual is the guitar solos, and that’s saying something. On past albums, there has been “a Black Dahlia solo” that appears on several songs per album, and it always sounds exactly the same. On this release, however, leads are handled by Ryan Knight, ex-Arsis shredmaster, and they absolutely rip. Each one is unique and plays to the song instead of being just an example of musical masturbation. Standout tracks include “Carbonized In Cruciform,” “Moonlight Equilibrium,” and oddball “Den of the Picquerist.” This last 1:30 blazer sounds like a crazed Motorhead-meets-Suffocation by way of John Zorn moment, and just goes to show how unique and diverse The Black Dahlia Murder has become. They’ve released an album consistently every other year since 2003, so I can’t wait to see what they come up with in 2013.

9. Azarath - Blasphemer's Maledictions
It's not uncommon for geographic or national styles to develop within metal. We have everything from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal to Bay-Area Thrash and Norwegian Black Metal, and Swedish death metal sounds distinctly different from New York or Florida death. One of my favourite countries for death metal is Poland. From Vader and Behemoth to Lost Soul and Hate, these bands have always fascinated me with their energy and passion. Even Polish politicians are into death metal. This year I learned of another group from Poland, and they have done nothing but bolster my view that Poland is one brutal country. Azarath has been defiling the airwaves since 1998, but Blasphemer’s Maledictions is my first time hearing them. And what a time! This disc absolutely destroys from second one. Bassist/Vocalist Necrosodom has a grim snarl unlike the typical football-player yell of “Polish Death Metal Guy” (who seems to be the vocalist in every other PDM band), and it gives a harsh and venomous edge to Azarath that lets you know these guys are serious about fucking you up with a Satan stick. Skinman Inferno kills the kit, producing blast after blast, but not in a cheesy “okay, you can stop now” style like Fleshgod Apocalypse. These are some headbanging, furious drums, and the spashy cymbals and fresh ‘crack!’ of the snare stand out in the mix. Given the extreme stage names of the other two musicians, it’s rather funny that the guitarist is just named “Bart,” but his pinch-harmonic loaded playing certainly doesn’t suffer from having a normal name. From “Supreme Reign of Tiamat” to “Deathstorms Raid the Earth,” through “Harvester of Flames,” Azarath destroys. It’s albums like this that remind me why death metal is such a powerful force despite its limited lyrical content.

8.  Anaal Nathrakh - Passion
Passion. That’s almost all that needs to be said about this album. If you’ve ever listened to Anaal Nathrakh before, you know the unrelenting nature of their absolutely barbarous black/grind assaults, and they don’t disappoint. I’m convinced that Anaal Nathrakh are the most extreme, most malignant band on Earth, because they understand something that every Conan-worshiping, bullet-chewing, gore-spewing brutal death band fails to grasp—the brain can only take so much abuse before it becomes numb. Anaal Nathrakh never lets you grow numb. By infusing a little bit of melody and including almost melodramatic clean choruses in their music, the shredding edge of their music always cuts deep. The pure grime and corruption these two British misanthropes produce is an incomparable drug, and they know just how to cut it. For one thing, their albums never touch the forty minute mark, which always leaves me craving more. I’ve always said that if your lyrics are going to be “aaaahhhhaaaggggg!!!” then you’d better fucking mean it, and Anaal Nathrakh put their very souls into every note and shriek, and that is undeniable. On Passion, more than ever before, they’ve mastered the inclusion of slow-down passages and anthemic choruses. Highlight track “Drug Fucking Abomination” manages to enthrall you for seven and half minutes while absolutely slaughtering you, and the first blast beat doesn’t even appear until the three-minute mark, by which time your killers have lured you into smiling, happy death. When the absolutely haunting lyric “Oh, but such things I have in mind” hits you, you know you’re going to die, but at least you love your killer. This album is the ultimate aural Stockholm Syndrome. When frontman Dave Hunt (who goes by the stage name “V.I.T.R.I.O.L.”) invites his friends over to take a shot at you on “Tod Huetet Uebel” and “Ashes Scream Silence,” you’ll love them too. “You were fucking asking for it,” the album begins. Yes. Yes, I was.

 7. Obscura - Omnivium
While bands like Azarath use death metal as a catalyst for pure primal rage, some are so lost in outer space that the warp speeds and complex riffage of so-called “technical death metal” are the only expression possible. Led by the absolutely stunning fretless bass of Jeroen Paul Thesseling as he turns in the second best bass performance of the year (stay tuned for the number one best), these Germans pave a road across the stars and carve an inscrutable crystalline monolith out of an exploding star. Influenced as much by classical and jazz music as by the metal world, Obscura plays music that manages to be both cerebral and memorable without ever descending to the cheese-soaked clichés of neo-classical stringsters like Yngwie Malmsteen. I’m absolutely amazed by the progression from 2009’s Cosmogenesis to Omnivium. The biggest problem of the previous album—a less than stellar production—is completely rectified here, and the secondary but nearly as concerning problem of the album not being memorable after the first three tracks is also gone. Album closer “Aevum” is probably my favorite, but the entire album is loaded with riffs, solos, and grooves the like of which we haven’t seen on Earth before. The vocal diversity of Omnivium also lends to the outer space feeling with high, almost black metal snarls being matched by vocorded clean lines and subterranean lows (just take a listen to the last minute and a half of “Ocean Gateways”) bringing a diversity of feeling to the album that’s missing in much of today’s technical death metal. All the instrumental performances are top notch, from the dual-guitar attack of Steffen Kummerer and Christian Muenzner to Hannes Grossmann’s ultra-precise blastbeats. Thesseling’s bass has always defined the band, however, so the fact that he left Obscura after the recording of this album leaves me somewhat troubled for the band’s future. Hopefully they’ll be able to keep up this level of quality with their next release.

6. Blut Aus Nord - 777: Sect(s) & 777: The Desanctification
Quite possibly the least accessible album on this list, it’s a French black metal album with numbers for titles. The searing mechanical sounds conjured by the music are grating on the ears of normal people, and even an experienced black metal purveyor…wait a minute, what? It’s almost unavoidable to compare Blut Aus Nord’s 777 releases with Aosoth’s III, but despite the superficial similarities (they’re both French black metal bands playing unconventional metal with numbered song titles), these albums are incredibly different. I already knew Blut Aus Nord going into this project from their absolutely enthralling Memoria Vetusta II: Dialogue With The Stars two years ago, and had taken the intervening two years to explore their back catalogue. What I learned is that BAN is a band constantly reinventing themselves. They’ve explored industrial noise and nonconventional (even for black metal) song-writing before, and although Dialogue With The Stars was a somewhat traditional style of black metal, much of their music is not. So when I heard that Blut Aus Nord was planning to release not one, not two, but three full length albums in 2011 as a trilogy entitled 777, I had no idea what I was in for, but I knew that if they could pull it off, it would be absolutely fantastic. And they nearly did. Their failure is not that the albums aren’t absolutely fantastic, but in that they only managed to release two of them in 2011 (one in April and one in November), and the third is scheduled for early 2012. I’ve chosen to treat both albums as a single entry on the list, because the trilogy is obviously supposed to be listened to together. When the third album comes out, I’ll consider appending it here.

The first album, Sect(s) is “darker” and “heavier” than Dialogue With The Stars, but I don’t mean that in the cliché “this is our darkest, heaviest album ever” way that so many bro-core bands wank off over. Comparing Sect(s) to Dialogue, the guitars are tuned lower, the bass is more prominent, and the riffs are more dissonant. The rich, horn-like guitar tone remains, however, and it’s obvious that this is a Blut Aus Nord record. A thick patina of industrial grit covers Sect(s), placing it firmly in the midst of factories and rust in the same way that the drenching of reverb on Dialogue put it on the tops of mountains and fog. The tempos are also much slower throughout, drawing out chord progressions and melodies into expansive soundscapes. Chanting voices and arpeggiated clean guitars allow warm sunlight to sometimes filter into the scene, and then the churning and burning reasserts itself, like in the transition from “Epitome II” to “Epitome III.” Sect(s) is brash and mechanical, a slurry of shrieking metal fragments and overheated oily water flowing out of some rusted refinery that produces God knows what chemicals for unimaginable purposes. The Desanctification slows it down even more, mixing more doomish and even ambient elements into the music. The drums sound much more electronically processed, and the blast beats are far reduced. If Sect(s) is the factory that pollutes, The Desanctification is the hazy smog that covers the city. “Epitome VII” sets the tone for the album, carrying on cohesively from “Epitome VI,” the final track of Sect(s). If you put both albums on a playlist, and listen to them straight through, you can tell where one album ends and the other begins, because there is a distinctive tonal shift, but it’s certainly thematically consistent. Interestingly enough, although The Desanctification is definitely more ambient, it is, on occasion, less melodic. The sounds seethe and churn; imagine the billows of noxious yellow and brown fog roiling in the wind, all wrapped in a liberal phaser envelope. And although it’s a song longer than Sect(s), it’s several minutes shorter. This gives the album a more languid but brief feeling, and by the time we get to “Epitome XIII,” we’ve been completely saturated by the grime and wonderment of the world Blut Aus Nord has spun ex nihilo. I can’t wait to hear 777 - Cosmosophy when it finally releases. It will be good to finish the journey.

 5. Hate Eternal - Phoenix Amongst the Ashes
“Oh look, another death metal album,” you may be thinking at this point. “It bet it’s fast and brutal and has a lot of ‘riffs’ and blah, blah, blah, why should I care?” And you would be right, superficially. Hate Eternal’s latest slab has many of the same ingredients as the albums by Azarath, Nader Sadek, Fleshgod Apocalypse, and even Obscura and Revocation to a certain extent. But flour, butter, eggs, and sugar are the same ingredients you use to make pies, cakes, cookies, and bread. Phoenix Amongst the Ashes is significant because it is what it names itself—a rebirth. In 2008, Hate Eternal released Fury & Flames, an album that made my Top 20 list, although it suffered from an incredibly bass-heavy and muddy production. Phoenix sees the band revitalized, and everything from the production to the instrumentation is done with an intensity that few other bands can match. Jade Simonetto has vastly improved his drumming skills since Fury; anyone who can lay down 290 BPM (!!!) double bass deserves some respect. This album just has a weight to it that even Blasphemer’s Maledictions can’t match. Perhaps it’s because Erik Rutan writes songs that are metaphors for his personal life experience, not just ‘ooh, ooh, guess what? Satan!’ shock material. Speaking of Erik, his vocals have done nothing but improve with time. I’m more than willing to believe that Erik stole all the talent from Morbid Angel when he left, because his writing is everything that Azagthoth’s is not. Anyone who wants to play extended solos (or any length solos) in brutal death metal has to listen to the lead in “Phoenix Amongst the Ashes.” This is how it’s done, people. Tone, technical precision, and passion. Phoenix has incredibly depth, from the opening thunder of “The Eternal Ruler” to the strangely “inverted” riffage of “The Art of Redemption” to the military “The Fire of Resurrection.” Hate Eternal shows us how it’s done, Florida-style. All other death metal bands from the North-in-the-South (and I’m looking at you, Azagthoth and Benton) need to take note and learn.

4.  Vektor - Outer Isolation
My longstanding love for thrash is well known, and every year I seek out the best sounds of the great style. Unfortunately, releases by old-time staples Megadeth and Anthrax were mediocre at best this year, and the album Lou Reed made with some guys from San Francisco doesn’t even count as music. Evile put out a good album, but it sounds so much like Metallica that I found it a little hard to determine what exactly had happened to the Evile sound. I has thought the year would be a bust for thrash when this absolutely stunning album exploded out of nowhere at the beginning of December. These Arizona thrashers go with the classic line-up—two guitarists, one of who handles vocal duties, a drummer, and a bassist. Their music is obviously influenced by Slayer, Kreator, and Testament (among others), but moves beyond the thrash revival movement with its own sci-fi progressive twist. The album opens with ten minute opus “Cosmic Cortex,” giving you a good taste of everything in store for you, and then the rest of the album delivers on that promise. “Tetrastructural Minds” is the number one standout to me, amongst a field of standout tracks. With timings and phrasings reminiscent of Voivod, yet also drawing on black metal influences, the song absolutely staggers. From David DiSanto’s howling shriek through the down tempo solo to the shimmering arpeggios of the breakdown, back to the howling shriek to close off the song, “Tetrasctructural Minds” gets inside your head and breaks your neck. Okay, put your head between your knees and take several deep breaths. You feeling okay now? Good, ‘cause you’ve just passed the halfway point, and you have twenty-five minutes of nonstop head banging left to go. Ready to have your mind even more blown? "Echoless Chamber" is based on Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," a fact that Vektor promoted on their own Facebook page. I've not had nearly as long with Outer Isolation as I have with the others on this list, because of its late release date (in fact, I told one of my friends the day before this came out 'I doubt there's any good music left to come out this year'), but I know it will continue to receive enraptured listens in the years to come. Published on the little known Heavy Artillery label, this album is a little hard to find, but not to be missed.

3. Unexpect - Fables of a Sleepless Empire
Remember how I said that Omnivium had the second best bass performance of the year? This is number one. Canadian madmen Unexpect are back with their absolutely unique blend of everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything. Jazz, classical, metal, rock, blues, Chinese traditional music, gypsy folk, even circus music all find their place in the stupendous work that is Fables of the Sleepless Empire. Still, it's not entirely accurate to describe Unexpect by listing the musical sources that they draw from, because they are none of those things. The music (and the band) is more than the sum of its parts. ChaotH’s nine-string bass (yes, nine) plays a prominent role, but so does Borboen’s violin and ExoD’s keyboards. In fact, every instrument seems to be given a fair shake on this album, with as many fantastic fiddle solos as there are guitar solos, and more vocalists than I can keep track of. Of course, front-woman Leïlindel is the “face” of the band, and her soaring voice usually defines a song, but the various snarls, shrieks, and growls of the two guitarists are just as essential, often trading off lines of bizarre poetry with her in the midst of a phrase. A believe me, it is bizarre. With songs about everything from pumpkins taking over the world to a zombie wedding, Unexpect pretty much runs the gamut of strange, with standout lyrics like “She tasted spontaneity with an honorable mission in mind just to spit out intense squares of uncolored ink,” “Rejecting cellular laws, this melanoma eludes the immunologic system’s control by fighting off lymphocytes,” and “The loving look in your dripping eyeballs gives me hope
of a most memorable honeymoon. Maybe we could jump off the highest gallows, swinging the rope, or craft for ourselves a gory cocoon.” Where their last album was critically acclaimed, but staggeringly inaccessible, Fables does the seemingly impossible by combining extreme avant-garde stylings with instantly infectious and memorable songwriting. This isn’t easy listening by a long shot, but while In A Flesh Aquarium was an album you had to fight to listen to, Fables is an album you’ll have to fight not to listen to. Once it gets its claws in you, you’re in for it. But don’t be afraid. After all, it’s only a little madness.

2. Altar of Plagues - Mammal
I have long advocated that music is a spiritual expression, but it’s easy to ignore that aspect of things when you’re too busy banging your head to Vektor (or scratching it to Unexpect). Altar of Plagues, though…that’s another matter. The key to this album may well be dynamics. Listening to a masterpiece like this and experiencing the full force of true changes in volume should be a wakeup call to sound engineers everywhere who adhere to the plastic sound principles of compression and digital triggering that are sadly prevalent in modern music (see Fleshgod Apocalypse). When the guitars open up at the beginning of “Neptune Is Dead,” it’s a full explosion of power and tone and emotion. There are only four tracks on Mammal, but the album still clocks in at a full 52 minutes. The album is so enthralling that you’ll immediately be ready to spin it again. These Irishmen already have an impressive legacy under their belts; in five short years, they’ve produced three EPs and two full length releases, all without ever invoking Satan, devils, or zombies. Altar of Plagues cares about the earth, and they make their message compelling. Al Gore needs to take training from these guys. If you want to effect change on the world, you need to care about it, and it needs to be obvious is every word and every action. This is true green metal—black metal stylings wrapped around an intelligent and heartfelt message that our world needs our care. The album is built on themes and modal phrasing more than riffs, so unlike the cerebral scatterings that Krallice produces, Altar of Plagues is able to conjure waves of sound and then drown the listener in them. “Neptune Is Dead” is my pick for song of the year—at 18:45, it seems like it would be incredibly long, but it isn’t. This is an album that can draw you away from the clock and into the wonder of music, humanity, and Earth. It’s amazing what this band is able to do with just guitars, drums, bass, and a few simple effects, especially when contrasted with albums like Celestial Lineage. Mammal is a testament to the power of true Music. Let it engulf you.

1. Ulcerate - The Destroyers of All
This is it. The biggest, baddest, most powerful album of the year. 2009’s Everything Is Fire absolutely devastated my definition of what death metal could be. Between Jamie St. Merat’s absolutely astonishing drumming, Michael Hoggard’s unconventional approach to riffage, and Paul Kelland’s massively powerful bellows, these Kiwis took a genre that had grown stale and simply torched it. I had never imagined anything like Everything Is Fire could exist, and I became absolutely devoted to it. Ulcerate isn’t an easily accessible band, even for those steeped in the extreme music scene, just because they’re so unconventional. In fact, the first time I heard Everything Is Fire, it disappointed me, because I was hoping for Necrophagist's Epitaph. And so I became an Ulcerate evangelist, playing the album for all who would listen, and even some who didn’t wish to hear it. I knew that their next release would be a big deal, and when I first heard The Destroyers of All on January 11th, 2011, when it was streaming on two weeks before its release, is said “This is going to be the album of the year.” But as time passed, I reconsidered my bold proclamation as somewhat hasty. Destroyers didn’t seem to be as strong an album as Fire, and Altar of Plagues had an astonishingly good 2011 release. But the more I listened to Ulcerate, the more I began to realize that they actually had improved from album to album, and Destoyers was not only as good my initial impression made it out to be, it was better. The band has developed their sound, their technique, and their ability to play together as a unit. While Everything Is Fire is a cask-strength 10-year whiskey, Destroyers is the 21-year vintage Scotch that anyone would recognize as “good” but takes a developed and trained palette to truly appreciate just how good.

Ulcerate plays music unlike anyone else on this list. Where the drums in Obscura’s music drive the music at warp speed through the interstellar edifices created by the riffs, Jamie’s drums are a primal whirlwind, whipping the music in ever-changing circles around the listener. The guitars and bass don’t play riffs that build a structure, but rather form an impenetrable morass of swirling, seething gasses and liquids. And Paul’s vocals are the volcanic spark that ignites the entire thing into a world of burning, burning, burning. If Hate Eternal is a phoenix risen from the ashes, Ulcerate is the fire that consumed the phoenix, and will reclaim it and the entire world with time. Even as a guitar player, it’s difficult for me to determine how Michael Hoggard plays the sounds that he does. With these other bands, I can understand it—I can’t do it, because it’s incredibly difficult, but I at least understand the notes played and the techniques involved. But here, I cannot even begin to fathom how one would build layer upon layer of guitar into such an organic, roiling mass. Even the tone of the guitars is dynamic and eviscerating, as it flows back and forth from clean to growling organic distortion. This is the most unique sound in all of death metal, and when you see the album listed as “technical death metal” all over the internet, that’s only because they haven’t invented a term to actually describe what this band plays. It’s hard to imagine where Ulcerate will go from here. But if the past is any indication, it will be original, fascinating, and absolutely mind-destroying.

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