Saturday, January 12, 2013

2012 in review - top 66 albums of the year (final part)

And finally...

10. PALLBEARER Sorrow And Extinction
Pallbearer's 2010 demo made doom-friendly ears prick up all around the world - here was a band appearing seemingly out of nowhere (or Little Rock, Arkansas, which is similar, though a fertile breeding ground for awesome bands like Rwake and such) and giving the genre as a whole a huge kick into the next level. Their first full-length doesn't disappoint in the least, proof being that it was one of the first records on this list to be released in 2012 and it's still fresh in my memory, and that of everyone else who has heard it, as it will be for many years. With an emotional weight and impact similar to that of 40 Watt Sun (and armed with a similarly fascinating voice, that of Brett Campbell), Pallbearer build upon a very solid traditional doom foundation some of the most devastatingly intense and soul-searching heavy music I've heard within this genre in a while - I've placed them slightly above Saint Vitus on this list, and that means something. What genre, you ask? Well, you pick, as long as there's doom tackled at the end, because Pallbearer easily fit into anything from funeral to traditional to, I don't know, fuckin' majestically awesome. Whatever. Just dive in and hear it for yourself.

9. NIHILL Verdonkermann / ASH BORER Cold Of Ages
Well, these are no-brainers. Not just because they're so trve-kvlt and evil that they'll suck your brains out and feed them to Satan on a platter made of your carved out skull, but also because everything these two bands have done so far has been absolutely amazing and pushing the darkened envelope of black metal ever forwards. I had drooled on Ash Borer before and Nihill's bloody scary 'Grond' remains on my weekly playlist to this day, so they both just had to not fuck everything up on their new albums for me to bow down and worship. And they didn't. Plus, Nihill will play live for the very first time at this year's Roadburn, so grab a cup of someone else's blood and get your sorry ass down there. And KNEEL.

8. NACHTMYSTIUM Silencing Machine
Nachtmystium have earned a strange reputation among those who strive to be the truest cave troll in their mom's basement, just because they've dared to make records that don't sound like a swarm of bees, or because they're American, or because they write kickass tunes, or whatever. The fact is that they don't seem to give a shit about scene rules, and another fact is that no other black metal record released in 2012 is more malicious, more slithering under your skin like a black plagueworm, and at the same time more filled with memorable songwriting and bold steps towards other genres and movements. Fusing the more grim approach of their first albums with Sanford Parker's amazing electronic work and a remarkable integration of unthinkable (for lesser bands, that is) influences like The Cure or Fields Of The Nephilim, Nachtmystium offer true soul-emptying odes to barren desolation and misery like 'Borrowed Hope And Broken Dreams', 'The Lepers Of Destitution' or the supremely catchy title track, with its NIN nod and everything. Rules be damned.

7. LEONARD COHEN Old Ideas
Leonard Cohen is now 78 years old, but his spirit, his wit and his supremely wise observations on life, love, loss and joy are permanently young, to the point of making us all feel old by comparison with the unbelievable vitality of his song and lyric writing ability. Eight years after 'Dear Heather', the great man, in the midst of a flurry of activity, with world tours, live albums, DVDs and the whole nine yards, has managed to find yet another place of peace and contemplation, from which mature, seasoned and perfectly flowing songs like 'Going Home' (with a fantastic sort of separation between Leonard the performer and the real Leonard as puppet-master), 'Show Me The Place' or the upbeat, bittersweet 'Darkness' magically appear, like treasures being thrown out of Leonard's window on the tower of song. We are living in the same age as one of the most unique crafters of word and song ever, people. Let's make the most of it.


6. MATT ELLIOTT The Broken Man
Matt is no stranger to drowning his songs in unbearable amounts of misery and woe, but usually they're wrapped in his by now typical, uncommon approach to songwriting, multi-tracked and filled with chants and layer upon layer of guitarwork and eerie electronics. On 'The Broken Man', Matt pays respect to the album title and concept more than ever before, it's as if he himself gave up on trying to dress things up too, and the result is his most uncluttered and understated album ever - which only heightens the impact of these long, drawn-out songs that are nevertheless packed tothe brim with subtle, far-reaching details. The 12 minutes of 'Oh How We Fell' that open the album do feel like the most resigned, shattered soul, murmuring its last emotionless reflections. It's the expression of abject failure, and it hits like a ton of bricks. The quiet repetition of the words "if it's dead" during the line "and how is one supposed to mourn if one is not entirely sure what has died? and if it's dead why can't i cry?" is simply savage, delivered in such a way that it seems your heart is being ripped out of you through your throat, while the near-deadpan delivery of "this is how it feels to be alone" on 'Dust Flesh And Bones', a line that could be disastrous in the musical hands of a lesser artist, sounds solemn and crushingly sincere. Every Matt Elliott album so far, especially the aptly titled 'Drinking Songs', sounds like the final thing you'll ever hear in your life before you die underneath the sheer weight of misery, but 'The Broken Man' is truly the sound of giving up. It goes further enough to wonder how he'll ever follow this up. I'll be eagerly awaiting, as usual.

5. BLACK SHAPE OF NEXUS Negative Black
Everyone's tried everything to be the heaviest band in the world by now, so it's hard for something to really stand out these days unless it's really, really special. 'Negative Black' isn't special, 'Negative Black' takes special and fucking stomps all over it. And then spits on its broken corpse, alright? Let's put it this way, when I sent out my best-of lists to the magazines I write for, I mistakenly wrote the title of this album as 'Negative Void', probably because the damn thing is a dark black void that sucks the life out of everyone who listens to it. Check out the review I managed to write for Terrorizer while I was suffering the first assaults by this beast of an album, it's a wonder I remembered any words at all:

"This is a band reaching their sound, and theirs alone. From the feedback-drenched intro, it’s clear B-SON have outgrown any categories or genres. What this massive album stands as, after its 80 minutes have passed, is an exercise in sheer sonic heaviness, and an unsurpassed one at that. Through all the changes of pace, it constantly sounds as if both the instruments and Malte Seidel’s agonizing vocals are all under unbearable strain, about to smash into a million pieces. Each song is a different battle - the colossal ‘10000 Uf’ goes on for 20 minutes seemingly on willpower alone, clinging on to existence by beating on a tortured ton-heavy riff, while the closing title track sounds like Crowbar being forced to play a Khanate song over and over."

4. AMENRA Mass V
Amenra vocalist Colin H. van Eeckhout is one of the most intimidatingly intense frontmen you will ever see on stage. With his back to the audience, Colin sways to the crushing, pitch-black rhythms of Amenra's cathartic pieces, spitting and scratching himself as he howls, screams and roars out evocative words of anguish, sorrow and pain. The biggest compliment that can be paid to 'Mass V' is that it will make you want to do all that while you listen to it even if you're comfortably sitting in your living room. There isn't a safe moment, a second of respite, not a single metaphorical foothold to rest your mind from the relentless assault, and yet, underneath it all, there's a very human frailty that makes everything believable, and much scarier as a consequence. I wrote this for Rock-a-Rolla when the album came out:

"Amenra’s art has always been painted with dark shades of black and grey, and while Mass V is no exception, the sombre hues are more numerous than ever. Throughout four songs in 40 minutes, Amenra are seemingly able to extract, from somewhere deep in their guts, an entire spectrum of human feelings that is rarely felt on any album, whatever genre it might be associated with. Vocalist Colin H. Van Eeckhout is instrumental in this with a career-defining performance - with piercing, anguished screams, quiet spoken parts, fierce growls and even some sober, quietly emotional singing, he’s at the forefront of  very dark and destructive whirlwind of gigantic riffs that would make Neurosis proud and opaque ambiances. The dynamics of Mass V are simply staggering. Amenra know how to pace themselves so that every part of this has its maximum impact – the way the slow down the initial sludge fury of Dearborn And Buried, the slow-burning build up of Boden towards an uncomfortable doom stomp, the uncomfortable shifting beauty of the first half of A Mon Ame that, when you notice it, has already exploded into the cathartic screeches of its second half, and the final all-encompassing climax of Nowena I 9.10, where Colin softly sings, before the inevitable crashing down that follows, “look into my eyes”. Sometimes, Mass V feels so profoundly intimate, that it’s almost like we really are ."

3. PIG DESTROYER Book Burner
I'll put this as simple as possible, because Pig Destroyer aren't a band tha requires many words: the 80s have 'Scum', 'World Downfall' and 'Horrified', the 90s have 'Need To Control' and 'Inhale/Exhale', the 00s have 'The Inalienable Dreamless' and 'Human 2.0', and now the 10s have 'Book Burner', okay? Get on with it.

2. NEUROSIS Honor Found In Decay
Neurosis never make it easy for anyone. Even now that it's apparently "cool" to like them, after decades of toiling in the underground, this massively influential band doesn't succumb to any easy shortcuts or compromise. They will do exactly what they want to do and they will take the time they need to do it. 'Honor Found In Decay' appears five years after 'Given To The Rising', and it's very far from an immediate crowd-pleaser. Even if 'We All Rage In Gold' roars out of the starting gates with a riff thick enough to bury the entire world in dust and smoke, raw and subtly complex song-mountains like the bilious 'Bleeding The Pigs' or the shady 'All Is Found...In Time' require time, dedication and passion, just like all the very best records do. A career-defining performance by Noah Landis in particular, his eerily evocative soundscapes decisively heightening the impact of every song,  is the final piece required for 'Honor Found In Decay' to portray a very deep and very sombre part of Neurosis' essence. It only misses out on the top spot because, well, Michael Gira exists.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR
SWANS The Seer
A dear friend of mine, himself a brilliant musician, told me when we were still both on our first listens of 'The Seer', that it had been a while since he had listened to a whole album and reached the end with the notion that he had understood very little of what he heard. This is very true of the first times you allow 'The Seer' to rape your ears for its astounding length of two hours, but let's not give the wrong idea here. Nothing about this colossal tour-de-force is particularly complicated, or pretentiously avantgarde, that horrible word. Not at all. It's just that, such is the strength of its atavistic, stark, visceral attack, that even for us seasoned lovers of heavy and confrontational music, it's hard to take this all in one go. 'The Seer' is much more than just an album by a band. It's a lot of things. It's a challenge -  because it is, so far, the epitome of everything that makes heavy music great, all of the components that every band has ever used, taken to their logical extreme. After months of listening, it still feels like I'm just scratching its surface. It's an investment - because it isn't music that you just put on, because for those two hours you can't do anything else, just sit and let it wash over you, beat you, disorient you and discard you. It's a compilation - of everything that makes Swans, alongside the #2 of this list, Neurosis, the most important and decisive band of the past couple of decades, from the infuriating repetition of 'Lunacy' that opens it to the brain-destroying 23 minutes of the intimidating 'The Apostate' (we're on a ladder to god / get out), everyone in the band, plus guests that include Akron/Family (most of Michael's band in his The Angels Of Light incarnation) and, unbelievably, Jarboe, in a staggering everything-coming-together whirlwind, put on intense performances as if their very lives depended on it. Finally, it's a landmark - for Michael Gira himself, judging by the man's words used to describe the record: "It took 30 years to make. It's the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I've ever made, been involved in or imagined. But it's unfinished, like the songs themselves. It's one frame in a reel. The frames blur, blend and will eventually fade," Michael said about it before it came out, and I wouldn't be able to imagine a better description of it. Actually, after each listen to 'The Seer', I'm not able to imagine anything at all for a while - I'm left a bare, dried up, empty shell of a man, incapable of coherent thought or movement. And then, I listen to it again.

Friday, January 4, 2013

2012 in review - top 66 albums of the year (part 4)


20. ENSLAVED RIITIIR
I had all but given up on Enslaved, remember? Because I've always loved Enslaved to bits, I was prepared to just kinda forget about them until they got off their prog kick of the past two meaningless albums. But then, they didn't, and everything clicked all the same. Songs rage, twist and progress, Herbrand sings wonderfully and his vocals actually feel like they're part of the song (!), while Grutle croaks more majestically and extremely than ever. 'RIITIIR' was album of the month for Terrorizer and I was the purveyor of praise, so here's that review for your re-reading pleasure:

"Let’s all try to ignore the fact that the (admittedly awesome, but still) artwork looks just like Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ and focus on what’s essential. It doesn’t take long to realize it, either, as the first couple of minutes of opener ‘Thoughts Like Hammers’ offer a precious insight into the remarkable hour that follows. A brief second of feedback announces the arrival of a cascading wall of guitars, then a distant, muffled gang-roar is heard, as if the Vikings, such an important image in Enslaved’s history, are coming out of the mist to invade, and then a huge, huge riff drops, simple but devastatingly potent. Grutle croaks majestically as if he’s doing ‘Eld’ all over again, and suddenly Herbrand’s clean vocals also kick in, this time not trying to be soaring or epic, just simply delivering a titanium-strong melody that is fully interweaved with both the song and Grutle’s harsh vocals, at long last. The song then mixes and matches all these elements, and more, for the duration of it’s almost 10 minutes, and that’s when you realize you’re hooked, regardless – and this is the kicker – of whether you liked the disappearance down the prog-hole of Enslaved after the ‘Ruun’ album. Of all the many different avenues the Norwegian band has taken in their career, this seems to have been the hardest to consolidate – though they were widely praised, there was something clearly lacking in ‘Vertebrae’ and ‘Axioma Ethica Odini’, two records of which even a vocal detractor such as yours truly will admit to being a necessary climb, if the summit they helped reach was this. Conceptually more abstract than usual (RIITIIR is in fact a made up, “Norse-ified” word meant to signify “the rites of man”) yet dramatically concise in the evocative power of its songs and the oneness of its songwriting, ‘RIITIIR’ has it all: aggression, immediacy, depth, catchiness and staying power, to a degree that makes its 67 minutes seem like a few exhilarating seconds you must repeat as often as possible."

19. BLACK BREATH Sentenced To Life
There's no fooling about with Black Breath. No need to complicate things. They were born with their style fully solidified, so they will keep hammering away at it with the catchiest and most relentless songs this side of 'Wolverine Blues' after a night out with 'Seizures In Barren Praise', destroying stages everywhere (Roadburn included) and just generally being awesome. That's all we really need.

18. SEIROM 1973 / GNAW THEIR TONGUES Eschatological Scatology / DE MAGIA VETERUM The Deification
The usual gamut of Mories releases this year sees the man pursuing different paths for each of his projects, including the creation of a whole new entity that is shockingly different from everything he's done before. Seirom, which, you will notice, is Mories backwards, is indeed the reverse of his usual musical persona - vast swathes of consumingly beautiful (!!) soundscapes, full of longing, grief, melancholy and nostalgic vibes for a past that's gone, but not gone enough for us to not remember it. It's like The Angelic Process and My Bloody Valentine and Nadja all rolled into one healing mass of droning peace that will wash away all your sins. All the sins, of course, that you can find on Gnaw Their Tongues - though Mories' main vehicle had taken somewhat of a turn towards cleaner pastures (with 'L'Arrivée De La Terne Morte Triomphante' in particular), it's as if Seirom took all the clean bits away and left only the grime. 'Eschatological Scatology' is further pushed into the realm of utter terror once more, filthy black doomnoise for you to smear yourself with shit and commit atrocious murder-suicide rituals to. Or just listen to it, I don't know. De Magia Veterum runs the risk of going by unnoticed with the strength of the other two releases, but don't overlook it, as it's a supremely chaotic and complex blast of industrial black metal that goes one step beyond the already amazing 'The Divine Antithesis'.

17. WOVENHAND The Laughing Stalk
Though still very much a lonely anomaly in whatever scene you think Wovenhand belong or should belong to, more and more people are beginning to catch up on David Eugene Edwards' genius - his unique vocals, his labyrinthine compositions, his powerful lyrics that, after a little scrutiny, can be read far beyond their potentially off-putting (for us devil folk at least) biblical inspiration... everything about the man is unusual, impressively heartfelt and incredibly refreshing, even after a ton of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand albums, and now that its popularity seems to be at an all-time high, it's a good time to release an album like 'The Laughing Stalk'. Not only is it the heaviest Wovenhand album ever, as it had been described even before anyone had heard it, but it's also the one where the various components of the band's sound better amplify themselves, from the Native American influences (the chanting on 'Maize' is astounding) to the somewhat under-appreciated intricate guitarwork the band has always displayed (on the hypnotizing 'King O King', for instance), and even a sort of loose punk vibe, like on the energetic and certainly soon-to-be live favourite 'As Wool'. It all culminates on 'Glistening Black', arguably the best song David has ever written and a showpiece for everything that makes Wovenhand essential.


16. CHRISTIAN MISTRESS Possession
"I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice," Leonard Cohen croons majestically on 'Tower Of Song', and he could well be referring to Christian Mistress' vocalist Christine Davis. Hers is a voice that was created to sing heavy metal. Not only does her coarse, powerful and very feminine without being whimpy-operatic voice will breathe life into all but the deadest of songs, so fortunately the rest of the band know how to whip out awesome NWOBHM-influences proper metal tunes to accomodate the rare, rough diamond they have fronting the band. 'Possession' is actually so good that Christine blends in the whole amazing musical package rather than stand out like a sore thumb. Get it, get 'Agony & Opium' as well if you don't have it, and just revel on the best true metal on offer these days. Oh, and you know what? I've interviewed her, and her voice is really like that, even when she's just talking. Be still, my heart.

15. SCOTT KELLY / STEVE VON TILL / WINO Songs Of Townes Van Zandt / SCOTT KELLY AND THE ROAD HOME The Ghost Forgiven In Me
Scott Kelly in particular has been a champion for the cause of keeping Townes Van Zandt's remarkable musical legacy unforgotten, mentioning him in interviews and playing his songs live ('Tecumseh Valley' in particular), so it was only a matter of time that something would be done about it. One wouldn't expect, however, that it would be such a fabuous undertaking as 'Songs Of Townes Van Zandt' is. Joining forces with his Neurosis bandmate Steve Von Till and another brother-in-arms of the past few years, the great Scott "Wino" Weinrich, the three men lay down a deep, moving, heart-wrenching tribute to some of Townes' most affecting songs (nine of them, divided equally - three each - between the guys) like no one else could have done. At the same time maintaining a profound respect for the emotional weight of the originals and, in the process, turning each song very much into their own personal versions, Scott, Steve and Wino left a deep mark on 2012 with this special record, that one also hopes will be the starting point for many listeners to go and investigate Townes' body of work. Let no one in our world of heavy music have any excuse from now on to not be familiar with the songwriting genius of Townes Van Zandt. Sandwiched (in terms of release dates) between this and the Neurosis album, Scott Kelly took yet another leap on his ever-blossoming career with his third solo (well, sort of) record, this time with a few familiar friends around to help out. The result is a more expansive record than the stark minimalism of the unforgettable 'The Wake' (2008), but nevertheless still a sombre and intensely personal collection of songs. A particular reference has to be made to closer 'We Burn Through The Night' (which some of you might recognize as the title of Scott's former blog), the song of a lifetime, where the great man sings about his most treasured gift, his family. It'll make you want to rush off and hug the ones you love.

14. CONVERGE All We Love We Leave Behind
If you had just risen from an isolated cave where you had been living for 20 years and someone would show you, say, 'When Forever Comes Crashing', you'd probably be amazed at how awesome that record was, but you'd never believe that this band could keep on building and building and building on their unique brand of fiery hardcore/metal for years and albums on end, be able to reach 2012 still on the peak of their powers (have they ever been off that peak, really?), still charging ahead and doing new things. That's the staggering truth, when you look at Converge's discography, and when you put on 'All We Love We Leave Behind' for the first time, especially as they hit you with one of the biggest sound-leaps of this record straight away, 'Aimless Arrow'. It's still instantly recognizable as Converge, that super-condensed energy, like a lightning bolt captured and coiled to the maximum, sparks flying off all the time as the whole thing threatens to explode constantly, but there's new things hitting you from all directions, most noticeably Jacob Bannon's (further) expanded vocal weaponry. Eschewing the bunch of guests they had on previous effort 'Axe To Fall', this seems to be Converge stripped to their bare minimum, which is still immensely overwhelming, even (even more, I'd say) when they slow down like on the harrowing 'Coral Blue'. Until the riveting finale that is 'Predatory Glow', there's simply too much to absorb, digest and coherently discuss, not for a few years at least. So, take this time to catch up until they hit us with the next chapter of revolution.

13. EAGLE TWIN The Feather Tipped The Serpent's Scale
Similarly to Converge, Eagle Twin are an example of how music can be so overwhelming that it physically tires you after an intense listen to a particular album. This duo doesn't even pretend to try and sweeten things for you - the first four songs are, respectively, 10:17, 10:09, 10:18 and 12:30 minutes long, and not a second of those is wasted meandering around. On the contrary, 'The Feather...' always seems spectacularly dense, as if they've compressed hundreds of giant riffs and beats into an all-consuming blitzkrieg of intensity. Towards the end of the album, the already quite pacey (although strangely doom-laden and foreboding in feeling) sludge-fest speeds up even more, hints of dirty punk even creeping in on the short-and-to-the-point instrumental 'It Came To Pass The Snakes Became Mighty Antlers', where Gentry's scary, full-throated rasp gets a couple of minutes rest. I can't wait to see this stuff played live, and you'd better not stand next to me when I do. I'll probably rip your head off, just because.

12. ROYAL THUNDER CVI / GOLD Interbellum
There's a little bit of genius on GOLD's facebook page that sums them up, and to a certain extent Royal Thunder too, more perfectly and concisely than I ever could: "GOLD is a comtemporary rock band that's heavy because of the songs, not the sound." Now then, this doesn't mean that there aren't some mean riffs lurking their heads on these records (Royal Thunder in particular lay down some ragers that even surpass their awesome EP from late 2010 that made me go crazy about them), but it does mean that it's in the songs themselves, deeply rooted in the melodies, the structures and the approach that the heaviness lies. Throughout the energetic rockouts of Royal Thunder, it's the little things that get you and that will weigh on you the most, like Mlny's little sigh at the very end of the colossal 'Whispering World, and the same happens with GOLD, where the luminous, quietly epic final crescendo of 'Ruby' will compress your heart more tightly than any extreme band ever could. The last questions which is why I bundled these two bands together, doesn't have a clear answer. Sure, they both have kickass, versatile, talented girls fronting them, who can both sing and rock out with the best of them, and they even have similar names (Mlny / Milena), but it's a much deeper unintentional connection that I feel between these two bands that led me to join them - they both understand what makes rock music so vital, they are able to extricate the very best of the past decades both soundwise and writingwise, and then are able to come up with contemporary, non-retro amazing albums that are looking forward without forgetting what's behind them. That's the true genius. Oh, and if you need further recommendation from a much more credible source than me, Fenriz himself selected GOLD as his band of the week today, so there.

11. SAINT VITUS Lillie: F-65
"Why do I scream at them? They never listen," Wino wails in his welcoming, typical howl as his first sentence of this album. Well, Wino, my dear lad, a few of us still do, and a few of us waited for over 20 years to hear you belt out those disenchanted, depressive odes on top of Dave Chandler's almighty riffs. Yes, the legacy was already immortal, with the unholy trinity of 'Born Too Late', 'Mournful Cries' and 'V' seeping into our very own blood during all these years, but hey, if we can have one more, why not? And make no mistake, this is one more fantastic album worthy of being stacked against those classics. In 34 minutes of pure fucking doom like only these guys know how to deliver, there's no bullshit about it: it's uncluttered, unpretentious and devoid of any desire to try anything new. The Wino+Chandler incarnation of Saint Vitus was never broken, so fortunately no one tried to fix it, and that 'Let Them Fall' opener, the immense 'Dependence' or, above all, 'The Bleeding Ground' and its riff-of-the-year will surely be hailed as classic Vitus just as all our old favourites are today. Welcome back.