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.

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.

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.

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