Top 20 Metal Albums of 2010

The time has come to look back at the past year of metal and point out some of the highlights. I enjoy putting together these lists, because, like writing reviews, they allow me to think critically about what I enjoy about music, and they also give me a chance to share what I like with others. I think that music, perhaps especially metal, is best enjoyed socially. That said, there was an incredible amount of good music this past year, and on any given day I may prefer one album to another. There are plenty of albums that didn't "make the cut" for one reason or another, and I'd be glad to talk about them another day, and there are plenty of albums that made end-of-the-year lists of critics who I respect that I had not even heard of yet. I'm still catching up on 2009, never mind 2010, and 2011 has great things scheduled as well. Metal is alive, my friends. Let's enjoy it.

Hour of Penance - Paradogma
20. Hour of Penance - Paradogma
Compared to 2008 and 2009, 2010 was not the best year for death metal. Paradogma, however, proves that there are still some putting every ounce of their energy into the brutal genre. These Italians have certainly improved their songwriting skills in the two years since The Vile Conception. While that album had the ability to blow your mind with the sheer complexity of the riffs being played, it didn't stick in your mind after the record was over. Paradogma does. The riffs stay fresh and catchy, and the drumming is precise, tight, and invigorating. The brutal death sub-genre doesn't have a lot to offer in terms of philosophical content, but Paradogma delivers exactly what it ought to - 37 minutes of fun.

Ion Dissonance - Curse
19. Ion Dissonance - Cursed
I hope you didn't get the impression that 2010 didn't have any quality death metal releases in it, because Ion Dissonance will smash your skull into tiny little bits if you're not expecting them. After 2007's lukewarmly received Minus the Herd, these Canadians are back with a vengeance, and some new weaponry in the form of the recently created 8-string guitar. "Heavy" is a word thrown around too lightly (lol) in metal circles. Every album is "the heaviest thing" so-and-so has ever recorded. But it's at least a word to start with in describing the feel of this music. The band has "dissonance" in their name, so expect plenty of that. Lilting, off-tempo breakdowns abound, as does profanity and misanthropy, but sometimes that's just what you need. Are you angry? Throw on a pair of headphones and this record, and let it give you a little bit of perspective. You aren't actually angry, you're just a little bit less than blissful, that's all. This isn't Hot Topic-safe deathcore. This is the kind of music that eats bands like Bring Me the Horizon and Bullet for My Valentine for a midday snack and doesn't even bother to spit the bones back out. Just listen to it.

Burzum - Belus
18. Burzum - Belus
Some metal bands may sound like killers, or sing songs about how brutal and violent they are, but that's all posing. Varg Vikernes, the brains behind the pioneering black metal project Burzum (Vikernes is the only member of Burzum) was just released from prison in the spring of 2010 for the murder of Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth, and the burning of several churches. But he's not a Satanist, as he quite earnestly points out in the documentary Until the Light Takes Us, he's more of a traditional Norwegian pagan. Either way, the music he created in the early 90s was brilliant and groundbreaking, and although Belus may not be groundbreaking, it is still brilliant. If Filosofem was a barren wasteland, Belus is a primordial evergreen forest. I love music that transports you, and Belus does just that. This black metal is sung (snarled) entirely in Norwegian, adding to the foreign, ancient aura of the album. With an average song length of over 6 minutes and plenty of tremolo guitar riffs, the album (especially the last two tracks, which make up 17 minutes of the album's 50 minute runtime) is very soothing, which some might consider odd for black metal. I certainly hope Vikernes stays out of prison now, because this raw, traditional honest approach to metal is just what black metal needs.

Dark Fortress - Ylem
17. Dark Fortress - Ylem
Here is a completely different approach to black metal. These corpsepaint-loving Germans use minor key melodies to and shifting tempos to give their metal an eerie, otherworldly feel. Ylem (prounced "e-lem") means roughly " the primordial substance from which all matter is formed," and the feel of the music fits well with the title of the album. Vocalist Morean has an absolutely incredible voice that brings to mind words like "cavernous" and "abysmal." He performs the traditional black metal rasps wonderfully, but the real highlight of his performance is the mutli-layered sung lines in the lowest registers. Innovative drumming from skin-master Seraph (also the drummer for Noneuclid and Obscura, two bands I also enjoy) employs blasts and kicks in non-traditional ways that simultaneously say "this is black metal" and enhance the otherworldly feel of Ylem. This album is long, clocking in at 74 minutes with bonus track "Sycamore Trees" (which I highly recommend), but unlike some epic-length albums, it holds you fascinated for the entire journey. This is certainly Dark Fortress's finest work yet. I wonder what they will do next.

Alcest - Écailles de Lune
16. Alcest - Écailles de Lune
Here we encounter something so left-field that some would debate over whether even including it under the category black metal, but I feel confident doing so, mostly just because nobody is going to stop me. If Belus draws on The Forest, and Ylem draws on The Otherworldly to flavor their black metal, Écailles de Lune clearly draws on The Moon (no surprise, since the album is named "Flakes of Moon"). Multi-instrumentalist Neige handles everything on the album except for drums, performed by Winterhalter. When the album starts out, you might believe that it's actually something by The Album Leaf or The Arcade Fire. Suddenly, the clean arpeggiated guitars and quiet crooned French give way to distorted tremolo guitars and still quiet shrieked French. This album is an incredible blend of black metal and shoegaze, something I should have seen was possible, but didn't. Black metal has long been involved with dark ambient music (Varg Vikernes produced two ambient albums under the Burzum moniker after Filosofem), so why not bring a lighter side of ambient music to the mix? Listen to the 4th track "Abysses" from 1:20-1:40 to hear how flawlessly Neige transitions between light and dark, major and minor. This album is truly something I had never heard before. The extra-roomy production produces an excellent soundscape for thinking, and I played this album four times back to back while finishing my senior thesis back in May.

October Tide - A Thin Shell
15. October Tide - A Thin Shell
There are certain melodies and tones that just hit me right in the chest, pull my emotions left and right, and make me scream out "Yes, I feel with you." A Thin Shell is written completely in that vein. The guitars, the keyboards, the drums, and vocals all build together into an incredible discharge of emotion, and they do all that without fast tempos or mind-bending solos. This doom band features former members of Kataonia, also masters of feeling, and I can hear the shared influence. With only 7 songs and 42 minutes, the album feels short, but each moment is worthwhile. Opening track "A Custodian of Silence" is my favorite, and also the longest on the album. I haven't October Tide's back catalogue, but I've read from other critics that while their first album was excellent, their second was a disappointment, and this, their third, recaptures that original intensity and goodness. Let's hope the musicians are able to keep it together for a fourth round, because A Thin Shell leaves me ready for more.

Overkill - Ironbound
14. Overkill - Ironbound
I first got into metal with Metallica's seminal Master of Puppets, so good classic thrash always has a place close to my heart. There were some good thrash releases this year, from Death Angel's Relentless Retribution to Exodus's Exhibit B: The Human Condition, but Overkill is the one that stuck with me throughout the year. Interestingly enough, I didn't care for the album when I first heard it - Overkill has never been one of my top choice thrash groups - but the album is a real grower. Bobby Ellsworth's gravely vocals are distinct in thrash, and can be the hardest part of the music to get used to. There isn't much NYC thrash left, with Anthrax mostly out of commission, and the style is incredibly catchy, and a nice change from the Bay-Area thrash that dominates the American thrash scene or the death/thrash that the Europeans tend to produce. The solos are appropriately ripping, and the tempos keep driving along, great for headbanging. This is an album that's extremely satisfying to blast in your car during the summer, or any other time of year.

Deathspell Omega - Paracletus
13. Deathspell Omega - Paracletus
This album is a real beast to describe. Paracletus is the final third in a trilogy by French black metalers Deathspell Omega. The theme of the trilogy has been God, Satan, and man's relationship to the two. All the albums have Latin titles, and they're all quite unique and obviously well thought out. The first album, Si Monvmentvm Reqvires, Circvmspice ("If you seek his monument, look around you"), is about Satan, and is frankly the darkest, most terrifying piece of music I've ever heard. The second album, Fas - Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum ("Divine law - Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire!"), explores the damnation of man and the emptiness of separation from the divine. The music on Fas was incredibly experimental, including long periods of near silence and noise. Paracletus (the Latinized form of "Paraclete," the Greek name for the Holy Spirit) is obviously about God, but I get the feeling that Deathspell Omega knows a bit more about Satan and damnation than God. That said, the album is still excellent. These unknown Frenchmen (the band doesn't play live, and have made no official statement of band membership) play black metal unlike anything else I have heard. Paracletus is by far the most melodic of the three albums, and contains songs of varying tempos, from the slow drawl of "Dearth" to the blasting frenzy of "Wings of Predation." If Si Monvmentvm's defining emotion was "terror," and Fas put "emptiness" into music form, the single word I would describe Paracletus with is "mystery." Although I hardly subscribe to their personal philosophical views, I think those three words can accurately describe Satan, Damnation, and God. Deathspell Omega has created a piece of art - something powerful. And that deserves to be acknowledged.

Finntroll - Nifelvind
12. Finntroll - Nifelvind
While Deathspell Omega immersed themselves within the metaphysics of the world and produced a sometimes horrifying, always fascinating work of art, Finntroll delved into the historical culture of Scandinavia, particularly their native Finland, and produced a party. Nifelvind is pure fun - extreme, headbanging fun, but fun none-the-less. If you don't believe me, simply listen to "Fornfamnad," which starts out as an evil polka and ends with Heffalumps and Woozles. Finntroll plays melodic folk metal, which is occasionally influenced by black metal, as evidenced in "Solsagan." Folk metal isn't know as one of the more serious metal sub-genres, and Finntroll isn't one of the more serious bands. So if you want to hear serious blackened folk, listen to Equilibrium. But for me, the fantasy-inspired Finntroll strike a perfect balance between the dead serious "we are so German" folk of Equilibrium and the cheese-heavy "pour me another beer" folk of Korpiklaani. The songs will get you pumped up and also get stuck in your head for days. Which could be irritating, since all the lyrics are in Swedish (yes, there is a Swedish speaking minority in Finland) and you won't have a clue what they're about.

Allegaeon - Fragments of Form
and Function
11. Allegaeon - Fragments of Form and Function
One of my favorite death metal releases of all time is the 2004 masterpiece A Celebration of Guilt by Arsis. My sophomore year roommates are all to familiar with the drum fill and intricate guitar riff that open "The Face of My Innocence." Unfortunately, Arsis have not yet created another album that so excellently ties together melody and technical, intriguing riffs. Colorado metalheads Allegaeon are more than ready to pick up the melodic tech-death flag and run with at a million miles an hour. Fragments of Form and Function may not introduce anything "new" into the genre, but it is 54 minutes of catchy, perfectly executed metal, and the guitar solos have a Vai-ish feel about them that makes my heart sing for joy. Fragments is the debut album for the group, and I hope to see them pushing forward with power in the future. Some reviewers have criticized Allegaeon as being "just another look-alike face in an already crowded scene," but I completely disagree. The songs of Fragments sound fresh, with headbanging breakdown moments, melodic guitar slowdowns, and solos that soar among the clouds. I hear influence from Arsis (obviously), but also Scar Symmetry, Pantera, and Hate Eternal. And thankfully unlike Arsis, whose 2010 album Starve For the Devil sounds completely phoned-in, with rehashed lyrics, cliched riffs, and way to freaking much hair metal influence, the science-fiction influenced lyrics of Fragments encourage the listener to shout and shriek along. I can't wait to see where this band goes in the the future. They've shown they can master the current form of melodic tech-death. Now let's see if they can create a whole new monster.

10. The Ocean - Heliocentric & Anthropocentric
The Ocean - Heliocentric
Few bands create double albums anymore, but the format is a wonderful fit for metal, especially the more experimental and philosophical groups. Released exactly 7 months apart, Heliocentric and Anthropocentric offer a critique of Christian philosophy from two different angles. The first album, Heliocentric, gives a sort of historical accounting, starting with quotes from Genesis and the Book of Enoch (not recognized as Cannon by protestant or Catholic) and ending with Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins. The second album offers more personal attacks on Christianity, drawing from Dostoyevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor," Nietzsche, and more Dawkins. Both musically and lyrically, Heliocentric is the superior album, going through various musical themes that emotionally fit the lyrical story being spun. I can hear the influence of acts as diverse as Tool, Explosions in the Sky, and Enslaved, as well as jazz and classical music. Songs "Firmament" and "The Origin of Species" are highlights. Fittingly, the level of anger rises from open to close of the album, where "The Origin of God" carries on from the musical themes of "The Origin of Species" yet introduces more electronic manipulation and double bass drum fills to back vocalist Loïc Rossetti's emotional outflow, and closes with dueling melodic saxophone lines, which I believe to be one of the most beautiful instruments on the planet.

The Ocean - Anthropocentric
Anthropocentric is also a good album, but is not quite as shining of a star as Heliocentric (if Anthropocentric had been released alone, it probably would have been #19 or #20 on this list), it and should not (in my opinion) be listened to without first hearing Heliocentric, since they are a matched pair. The album is slightly faster, slightly heavier, and a good deal rawer than its brother. Many of the songs flow together seamlessly, and if you aren't looking at the track indicator on your iPod or CD player, you wouldn't know that the song has changed and a new theme is being addressed. Song highlights here are "Anthropocentric," the 9:24 opening track, and the first two pieces of the three part Grand Inquisitor Suite. The third piece of the suite is an electronic aberration that sounds like the sort of noise that would come out if you smashed Mike Shinoda in the back of the head with a baseball bat. Oh wait, he already produced an album that sounds like this... The violence and energy put into most of the rest of the songs, however, is well appreciated by this listener. Slow closer "The Almightiness Contradiction" includes some beautiful cello work, so that works too. The "philosophical" arguments contained within this album, sadly, seem to me to be merely regurgitation of the most banal arguments from the New Atheists. I wish that instead of reading so much Dawkins and Hitchens that they had spent more time actually reading Dostoyevsky and added some Camus and Sartre to their reading list.

Fear Factory - Mechanized
9. Fear Factory - Mechanized
A name like "Fear Factory" sets up high expectations for a band. First, they ought to be fearsome, and secondly, they ought to sound like a factory. Obviously. But until this point, the band has been a huge disappointment to me. Their work has certainly lacked in the "fear" category, and while "factory" came to mind when listening to it, it was more in the sense of "factory produced" i.e. "boring," and not in any exciting industrial way. But Mechanized, the long awaited (by fans) reunion of original members of the band, finally lives up to my thought of what a Fear Factory ought to sound like. The album sounds like robots. No, not like it was made by robots. It sounds like robots. And that's freaking awesome. Dino Cazeres is rocking the new Ibanez 8-strings on this album, and they make the songs thick and punchy. The riffs and the drums are blazing fast, and truly sound like machines, in that good, industrial kind of way. It's hard to describe the album in words, because so many of the adjectives that come to mind are typically used in a negative way, but my brain wants to make them positives in this case. Like anything else this high on the list, the songs will get stuck in your head, and that's cool. The factory is in business, people, and you're now part of it.

8. Mantric - The Descent
Mantric - The Descent
Mantric is a band formed from the ashes of Extrol, a Norwegian band that I happened to greatly enjoy, and they also happen to be the only band on this list who identify themselves as Christians. Thankfully, the band has gotten off Solid State Records, who may be a "Christian label" but tend to stifle the kind of experimentation that Extol was trending towards and Mantric fully embraces on The Decent. Just try counting the time signatures in opener "The Asylum 2013." The instrumental track segues right into "Tower of Silence" which shows that Ole's vocal talents have only increased since leaving Extol. The hectic musical atmosphere reminiscent of Mahavishnu Orchestra continues intermittently through the album, and things never become boring...or simple. Every time you listen to the album, you find new layers to the songs. That's one of the features that makes the album so appealing to me - replayability. Interestingly enough, the formula also means that the album doesn't hold in your mind nearly as well as many of the other things on this list. So I rarely get a Mantric song stuck in my head and think "I need to go listen to that," as happens with most of the other albums on this list. Instead, I have to make a decision "I'm going to listen to Mantric now," but whenever I start the album, I always end up listening through to the whole thing. Engaging, yes. Fascinating, yes. Compelling, yes. Memorable? As an album, yes, but as songs, no. Few people are able to make pieces of music that work well that way. Most bands think of an album as a ten course dinner, each song its own course with its own ingredients. Mantric sees an album as a single, grandiose confection, with each song a separate ingredient. Don't cheat yourself - sit down and enjoy this album. Don't try to force it into your 15 minute commute or your 30 minute workout. This album needs your devoted attention for an hour in order to properly experience it.

7. High on Fire - Snakes for the Divine
High On Fire - Snakes For
The Divine

 Some music, like Mantric, is fascinating, yet incomprehensible at times. Other music is defined by one big, fat riff. High on Fire looks to the second category in order to write good songs, and the tapped out riff of album opener and title track "Snakes for the Divine" is absolutely fantastic. You just want to crank it up and rock out, and when the 8 minute song is over, you want to start it over again. But you would be cheating yourself if you do, though, because there isn't a weak song on the album. High on Fire plays, thick, fuzzy doom metal at moderate tempos. "Snakes for the Divine" is one of their higher tempo songs. "Bastard Samurai" is one of their slower, and love them both. The guitar tone is thick and incredibly meaty. Guitarist Matt uses a custom 9-string guitar (the highest three strings are doubled like a 12 string guitar) tuned to C. The guitar is made of a solid piece of mahogany about half an inch thicker than a Les Paul, and he blasts it through a cranked Marshall stack, so the tone is quite classic, if more than usually heavy. This is a great album to share with all your more timid metal friends, as it's offensive in neither lyrical content or vocal delivery (many people can't handle the shrieks of black metal and mock the "cookie monster" vocals of death metal), and the album is excellent in so many ways. It reminds me a lot of early Mastodon in its aesthetics, so if you miss the days of Remission, do you self a favor and check out Snakes for the Divine. And if you love classic metal, or fuzzy doom, or if you just like good rockin' music, listen to this album. It will grab you and hold you. This album came out in February, 2010, and I'm still listening to it 11 months later.

6. Iron Thrones - The Wretched Sun
Iron Thrones - The Wretched Sun
Iron Thrones produced such excellent work on The Wretched Sun that the first question you will ask yourself after finishing the album is, "How the hell haven't these guys been signed yet?" Yes, Iron Thrones are currently an unsigned band, so if you work for a major metal label (or just a major good music label), get in touch with them. Because I can't imagine that talent like this is going to remain open for long. For the rest of us, though, the music is absolutely excellent, and hasn't lost anything from not having the financial backing of a major label. In fact, The Wretched Sun is crystal proof that you don't need the financial backing of a major label to produce a stunning piece of metal. You can't fit the music of Iron Thrones in a genre box - there's death metal, doom metal, Pink Floyd-esque prog, even the rise-and-fall dynamic of post-rock bands like Isis and Explosions in the Sky. I can also hear the influence of my favorite band, Opeth, although it's merely an influence - Iron Thrones rip nobody off. The entire album is gold, but the standout song is definitely 11:44 epic "I Once Had The Crown." The musical emotion captured in that piece is absolutely astounding. The lyrics could speak to someone who has been through a human-relation breakup, but I believe the song has more weight when viewed as describing a crisis of faith. Either way, the power of the song is incredible. And that is just one song from the album. I certainly hope that Iron Thrones is signed quickly, and I hope that they put out even more quality metal. The number of metal albums that are able to move me to tears is very small, and Iron Thrones' The Wretched Sun is one of them.

5. Decrepit Birth - Polarity
Decrepit Birth - Polarity
Decrepit Birth has come a long way in my book. Their first album, ...And Time Begins, was typical brutal death fare. Kind of a joke, actually, but sometimes fun to listen to. Or at least, they had one track that was fun to listen to, and it would get stuck in my head and I'd go around muttering "jugga jugga duh duh duh duh" to myself and banging my head for no apparent reason. Their second album, Diminishing Between Worlds, was actually interesting, and made (the bottom) of my year end list in 2008. It topped the list at a metal review site that I frequent and generally respect, so I kept listening to the album to make sure I "really got it." And although I enjoyed it, nothing stuck in my mind. It was fun, but there were so many better tech death albums in 2008. But Polarity is a whole other beast. From opener "A Departure of the Sun" through "Darkness Embrace," there isn't a boring moment in the album. Bill Robinson has significantly tightened up his vocal delivery, and although he still lacks the dynamics of say, Randy Blythe or Mikael Åkerfeldt, he doesn't sound like nearly as much of a joke as he has on past albums. And the guitars! Wow! The spacey licks are absolutely overwhelming, not only in their abundance, but in their utter unplayability for us ordinary mortal guitarists. It's hard to decide who's the musical leader here - Matt Sotelo on guitars, or KC Howard (who has left the band since the recording of Polarity) on the skins. Both musicians absolutely rip - there isn't a sloppy or misplaced note in the album, and there must be millions of notes. And unlike some bands (Origin, cough cough), you never get the sense that they're just playing fast and furious for the sheer sake of it. Rather, melody and harmony abound, and the science fiction themes of the songs are clearly apparent in the music, even if the lyrics are often (read "always") indecipherable. Just listen to "Ignite the Tesla Coil," "Metatron," or "Solar Impulse," and you'll immediately see what I mean. These are actual songs, not just noodle-fests. Which is wonderful. Polarity explores the utter heights that technical death metal can be taken to. It will be quite a job for Decrepit Birth to top this, although they have an excellent track record so far. I'd almost advise them to throw in the towel now, when they're on the top of the world. On the other hand, I'd love to hear where they go next.

4. Enslaved - Axioma Ethica Odini
Enslaved - Axioma Ethica Odini
As both a critic and an avid music lover, I often describe an album as "a grower," meaning an album that has depths that only become apparent after repeated listens. To some extent, using this term in a Top 20 list is redundant, because in order to make it through the year to the end of the list, the album must have had some lasting appeal and stood up to repeat listens. Yet, the term undeniably describes some albums better than others. Paradogma (#20) can be understood fairly completely within a couple of listens. It's just memorable enough that you keep going back to it. Axioma Ethica Odini, however, is like a flower slowly unfolding before you. On first listen, it's just a green stem, but going back over it, the bloom unfolds. This is the trademark of Enslaved. They haven't produced a bad album. Ever. And they've been around for 20 years now. But since 2003's Bellow the Lights, things have slowly changed in the Enslaved camp, and for the better. With each album, the band departed a little more from the TRVE black/folk roots of their early days and introduced more psychedelic, progressive elements a la Pink Floyd. And the more you listen to each album, the more wrapped up you become in it, and the more convinced you become that it's utterly brilliant and the band will never top it. I refuse to say what Enslaved's "best" album is - 2003's Bellow the Lights, 2004's Isa, 2006's Ruun, 2008's Vertebrae, or now 2010's Axioma Ethica Odini. The more you listen to each album, the more "the best" it seems. For 2010, Enslaved seem to have perfected their blend of psychedelia and black metal, as each flavor has become perfectly blended. Unlike some of their earlier works, you can never say "oh, this is the prog part" and "this is the black metal part." The music is seamless. Sometimes you think it's softer than their past work, sometimes you think it's the darkest, grittiest thing they've ever done. It's that complex, and the more I listen to it, the higher my esteem of this band and this album grows. In fact, I'm very tempted to elevate this album from #4 to #2, although I'll explain why I haven't as I go on. Enslaved's signature sound is their chord heavy progressions and their unusual harmonic phrasing. It's incredibly rewarding to just lay back and listen to the notes in "Ethica Odini" and "Giants" unfold around you. Believe me, the more time you put into this album, the more you will be rewarded.

3. Dimmu Borgir - Abrahadabra
Dimmu Borgir - Abrahadabra

I've already written extensively about this album on this very blog, and if you've read that review, you'll know that I absolutely love Abrahadabra. I think it's the best piece of music that Dimmu Borgir has produced, ever. The orchestration is good enough that it could be a movie soundtrack - and not a cheap action movie soundtrack, but a good soundtrack on the level of Lord of the Rings or Batman Begins. From the didgeridoo opening note of "Xibir" through the last fading "Abrahadabra" of "Endings and Continuations," this album bleeds epic. Still, I tend to hesitate when putting an album from a band as well known (and disparaged among the TRVECVLT) as Dimmu Borgir. Am I selling out to the corporate plan of "what I ought to listen to" by putting a Dimmu album higher on my list than the absolutely excellent Axioma Ethica Odini? No. This album really is that good. These Norwegians have pushed their talents to a whole new level and given themselves a necessary shot in the leg by ditching several band members and that old stalwart of metal themes, Satan. Yes, Satan is out. In his place, Aleister Crowley provides occult inspiration (Abrahadabra is Crowley's special variation of ancient magic word "abracadabra"). Lead single "Gateways" and its accompanying video forcibly demonstrate the new direction for the band. White is the new black, and the music is both menacing and inspiring - the final chorus sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it. If, like me, you've were disappointed by 2007's In Sorte Diaboli, now is the time to give the band another try. This is the first Dimmu album I've heard where every song is excellent, but highlights include "Dimmu Borgir," "Endings and Continuations," "Chess With the Abyss" and the aforementioned "Gateways." Let's hope that the inspiration provided by the new blood and new theme will stick with the Norwegians for another couple albums, less they get boring again. And read my review on The Blackened Edge if you want to know more details about the album. 

2. Triptykon - Eparistera Daimones
Triptykon - Eparistera Daimones
People tend to use the same words to describe things they like. “Heavy,” “extreme,” and “brutal” are all thrown around the metal community by cheap listeners who probably smoke too much marijuana and wouldn’t know quality writing if it bit them in the ass. When you hear an album like Triptykon’s Eparistera Daimones, however, it is hard to bring words to the table that will uniquely and adequately describe it. Brilliant, yes. Unique, yes. Groundbreaking, even. But those are all weak words to describe the piece of art that towers, Monolith-like in its immediacy, yet God-like in its obscurity, in seventy two minutes of music. Unfortunately, the first reaction that most people have to the album is “That’s a lot of dicks.” I personally love H.R. Giger’s work, but the choice of Giger’s painting “Vlad Tepes,” which does feature an overdose of phallic imagery, seems slightly unfortunate, because it alienates a large segment of listeners who aren’t familiar with Giger’s work and so misunderstand the meaning of the art and prejudge the album. The fact is, however, that you have to keep an open mind when interpreting Triptykon (or any work by front-man, guitarist, and brains Tom “Warrior” Fischer), because the lyrics draw heavily from occult imagery, and if taken literally would seem to be treading the same waters as the Satanic dick-wagging of Deicide or Slayer. Yet if you read any interviews with Tom Fischer, who is an incredibly intense speaker, you’ll know that the songs are all drawn from his own life experiences, and he uses Satan and the Occult as a metaphor for the betray and evil that he has experienced in his own life. Even within the image of Satanism, however, the album is deep and compelling. Album opener “Goetia” opens with haunting strains of guitar rendered in rich analogue distortion, and then plows into the driving, Celtic Frost (Fischer’s previous seminal band) style main riff while Fischer shouts “Satan! Master, Savior!” in his tortured basso growl.  After pledging himself to evil, The Man goes through nine incredible tracks of growth, gaining power over men but nothing but pain and lies for himself. The album closes with the twenty minute epic “The Prolonging,” in which The Man is finally taken over by the monster that has been growing inside him. With the words “As you perish, I shall live,” the evil takes over, and destroys all that he had hoped to build. Eparistera Daimones is an absolute masterpiece that you must experience. From the chilling tones of “Abyss Within My Soul” to the piano interlude of “Myopic Empire,” to the abyssal, fuzz-drenched main riff of “The Prolonging,” Triptykon will take you from height to height, exploring realms you never considered to be artistic. The sonic richness of this album has to be heard to be believed. If you can make the investment, I would whole-heartedly recommend spending the $100 to purchase this album on vinyl, because the organic, fuzz laden essence  of it will come through best in that format. But you must hear this album.

1. Ihsahn - After
Ihsahn - After
I might be guilty of prejudice when it comes to this album. I have loved Ihsahn’s work since he was the front-man for Emperor, and have enjoyed his solo albums as well. His last album, Angl, was my top album of 2008 (tied with Opeth’s Watershed), and when I heard pre-released track ”Frozen Lakes On Mars” in December of 2009, I knew After would make my Top 20 list of 2010. When I heard the album in full upon release in January of 2010, I knew it would be album of the year. And here it is, Album of the Year. But believe me, I have seriously questioned its position, testing every other album that has come along, and while the year has been full of wonderful metal albums, nothing comes close to After. It’s currently March of 2011, and I still listen to it several times per week (it’s in my car and I listen to it frequently when I go out). The tracks have only risen in my esteem, and there isn’t a minute of the album that isn’t absolutely golden. The entire album deals with the theme of death, and what comes After. It engages that theme with melody, energy, and true poetry. This album is not “heavy” or “brutal,” and for the most part cannot placed in the typical metal category of “extreme.” But it is Beautiful. Truly beautiful, in a way that even non-metalheads can appreciate, and that may be the greatest strength of the album. It includes elements of black metal, progressive metal, and thrash, but it transcends every category. It contains a true richness of sound and pure, human emotion that I have not heard in any album that I can think of that has been produced in the twenty-three years of my life. Yes, there are albums that capture certain human emotions better—anger, sorrow, the sappy enthrallment that teenagers call love—but in order to find a piece of music that resonates with the drive to be truly human, to know the answers to What and Why, you have to reach for the true classics of other musical styles—Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Mahler’s 2nd, or Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Yes, I am speaking of a heavy metal album, and I believe that it deserves to exist until the end of the human being as a species. But let’s talk about the music. I won’t put it in a box of “this kind of metal” or “that kind of metal.” You can’t describe it that way. Every track stands out in my mind, which is also not helpful for describing it. Like Ion Dissonance, Meshuggah, and Fear Factory, Ihsahn uses Ibanez’s new 8-string guitar, but he uses it in a way completely different from the other bands. While they tend to fixate on the low, low heaviness of the instrument, riffing on the low E extensively, Ihsahn is more than happy to plant his riffs on the B string, leaving the lowest string as an occasional touch-point, giving the impression of bottomless depth to his songs (“Frozen Lakes on Mars” and “Heaven’s Black  Sea” are two examples of this technique that spring to mind). Ihashn is also not afraid of branching outside of the traditional metal instruments of guitar, bass, and drums. The saxophone, which I earlier revealed as one of my favorite instruments, is played to great effect by Jørgen Munkeby. The use of saxophone is certainly not one sided, either. In “A Grave Inversed,” the instrument blazes with barely retrained fury, imbuing frenetic energy to an already uptempo track. In “Heaven’s Black Sea” it provides a compelling solo equal to many jazz masterpieces. And in the two ten minute tracks of the album—closer “On The Shores” and my  favorite track “Undercurrent”—the brass instrument, in conjunction with the extended range guitar and the brilliantly played fretless bass, produce one of the most beautiful chords I have ever heard in my life. It brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. I know, from scientific experiment, that certain crazy people who I know are not moved by this sound. I do not understand that. After is fifty-one minutes of music, but it permanently enriched my life, grabbed my heart in steel claws, and caused me to bleed humanity. Can you say the same about your album of the year?