All right, since we’re about 25% of the way through 2011, I suppose it’s time I finally finished up the last few reviews for my “Best of 2010” list. Hey – shoot me – I’m busy as fuck these days. Plus, the music in question hasn’t gotten any less awesome just because an extra month or two has gone by, has it? Hey, if you find something in this thread that sounds interesting, then go ahead and check it out. No one says you can only listen to 2011 releases in 2011. I know there’s a whole lot of good stuff out this year already, but if any albums can compete with the best of the best music that has been released this year, the next ten are definite contenders.
10. Kylesa – Spiral Shadow
Many folks know that I was a huge fan of Kylesa’s watershed 2009 album “Static Tensions”. Many of those folks agreed with me – some did not – but I suspect that there might be more than a few folks who would expect me to shower this album with praise no matter what it sounds like. Those folks don’t know me as well as they might think. I’ll be honest with you – at first, I only really liked the tracks which had been released prior to the album’s debut (“Tired Climb” and “Forsaken”) – I wasn’t feeling the rest of the album very much. But then I spent some time with this album, and I realized something. It’s more psychedelic than “Tensions” – and as such, it’s probably meant for closer inspection – specifically, listening with headphones – and as it turns out, not only did I find a lot more to love about this album when I did that, but later I would find out – when watching the bonus “Making of…” DVD which came with the special edition CD – that this is exactly what Kylesa had in mind when they made this album. These days, I am fully in love with this album – so you might say that the expected has basically happened…which may be technically true, but I certainly took an unexpected and circuitous route to being in love with this album as compared to “Tensions” – and in the end, that’s how I would sum up this album. It is more psychedelic, more of a grower, than “Tensions” was, but in the end, there is so much to love about this album that it has ranked among my overall favorites for 2010. Case closed.
9. Kvelertak – Kvelertak
Speaking of expected versus unexpected…this album fits squarely into the latter category for me for sure. I had no idea who these Norwegians were before listening to this album, and nor did I have any clue what to expect before I pressed “play” for the first time. All I know is, I’m extremely glad I did. Holy cow. This is an incredibly fun, catchy, intense, relentless and compelling album, and it might just leave you breathless at the end of its 48-minute running time. The Kvelertak boys wear their punk influences proudly on their sleeves throughout this insane beast of an album, and although I don’t know the actual ages of the members, I would say that this album has a youthful vivacity to it that can only be delivered by a group of folks who have infinite supplies of energy and stamina. The pace is fairly rapid throughout, the tone is always very high – as if the album itself is the soundtrack to a raging college party (albeit a decidedly metal-drenched one), and the listener can easily visualize the members of this band wearing either wide smiles or surprised, wide-eyed gapes like Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day while they’re playing. Although, make no mistake – this shit is decidedly heavier and more intense than Green Day’s music – it’s more like what would happen if Green Day were genetically fused with Baroness (and maybe a little Ramones). At the end of the day, I simply can’t recommend this album highly enough for fans of almost any sub-genre of metal. If you don’t like this album, then you probably just don’t like fun (and I feel pretty sorry for you).
8. Triptykon – Eparistera Daimones
Before launching full-scale into this one, let me just say that I was a fairly big fan of Celtic Frost’s early work. However, I did leave camp before “Cold Lake” (which wasn’t on purpose, but thank Satan it worked out that way), and because of that, I never really considered “Monotheist” to be worth checking out. All I can say is, based on what I’ve heard on this album, I’ll be checking out “Monotheist” very soon. Holy moley. Welcome back, Thomas G. Warrior – this album is truly a sludgy monster and a true force to be reckoned with. In fact, I’ll even admit that I really only started listening to this album because I heard that Triptykon was touring and I knew I could make the show, so I figured I’d better study up before going – even if it was mainly to hear them pull out a few old Celtic Frost songs. All I can say is, Triptykon picks up where the Celtic Frost I knew and loved left off – and then some. The music is dense and emotional at certain times – downright thrashy at others – and unfathomably heavy, forlorn and angry at still others. The point is, when you make the decision to play this album, you’ve booked yourself on an extensive tour of hell itself, with a guide who knows the territory like no other. Bon voyage.
7. Julie Christmas – The Bad Wife
Back to the expected versus unexpected theme, again – I was even more clueless about what to expect from this album while I waited for a few years for it to finally be released, even though I’m very familiar with Julie’s work in Spylacopa, Battle of Mice and especially the inimitable Made Out of Babies. I wasn’t even sure if this would be a metal album, to be honest. However, mere seconds into the first track, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the heavy guitars and intense drumming which signify an oncoming deluge of heavy music (although whether or not this album is to be considered “metal” through and through is a debate for another day). The other thing I heard almost instantly was Julie’s signature I-don’t-know-what-the-fuck-you-call-it-but-I’m-hopelessly-addicted-to-it-gimme-more-right-fucking-now vocal style. I guess you’d call it creepy and disturbed, with a healthy dose of pain and longing. All I know is that it moves me. Much of this album actually sounds a lot like Julie’s work with Made Out of Babies (an obvious example being the wickedly pissed-off “Bow” – those screams!), although there are moments when she makes quite a departure from that sound (one easily identifiable example is her chilling rendition of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, a song which is over fifty years old, and has been covered many times by many artists, but never more chillingly than this). I mean, quite frankly, this album was guaranteed top ten status on my list just for Julie’s scream at the 1:18 mark of the aforementioned “Bow” as it is, but the simple fact is that this entire album is an intense, emotional roller-coaster of psychosis-drenched beauty that only can be delivered by the delightfully twisted Julie Christmas, who I once had a chance to meet when she toured with Made Out of Babies in Cleveland, only I chickened out because I was honestly a little bit scared to actually meet and talk to her. This album isn’t helping things much as far as that goes.
6. Red Sparowes – The Fear Is Excruciating, But Therein Lies the Answer
It’s funny – when folks mention post-rock, they usually mention bands such as Mogwai, Sigur Rós, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the like. When you ask them to think of more “metal-esque” post-rock groups, names such as Explosions in the Sky, Caspian, This Will Destroy You and Mono usually arise. The band nobody ever seems to remember is Red Sparowes…and I have no earthly idea why. Many folks have heard of them, but the name “Red Sparowes” just never seems to come to mind when people are discussing the best of the best in the post-rock arena, and in my opinion, this is either a tragic coincidence or a terrible travesty of justice. This is the third album by this insanely unique and monumentally talented outfit, which boasts present and past members of both Isis and Neurosis (so you know it’s got to be good, right?) – and to describe it in three words or less, I would choose the words “soaring”, “stirring” and “beautiful”. The signature pedal steel guitar that Red Sparowes has come to be known for over the years – as played by the group’s bassist Greg Burns – doesn’t debut until about halfway through the album, but still the sound of this album is unmistakably classic Red Sparowes. The melodies are both thoughtful and thought-provoking, speaking volumes of time and history without ever uttering a single actual word – which is exactly what this kind of music is supposed to do. There are peaks and valleys all throughout, but dissimilarly to bands such as Mono or GY!BE, it doesn’t take forever and a day to make the journey. The music is steadily mid-paced, oftentimes intense but usually surprisingly gentle, and always engrossing and compelling. The album’s closer – the chilling, creepy and ultimately cathartic “As Each End Looms and Subsides” – is perhaps the track which takes the longest time to build, but during its multiple crescendos towards the song’s end, it is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling post-rock compositions in recent memory.
5. Lair of the Minotaur – Evil Power
Remember when I said that I could easily imagine the guys from Kvelertak grinning like goofballs while playing their music? Well, with Lair of the Minotaur, I don’t have to imagine – I’ve seen it. This power trio from Chicago joyfully plays a somewhat punk-infused brand of classic death metal which is almost entirely themed upon mythical beasts, clanking swords, a great deal of fire, and gallons upon gallons of blood – and they have a damned good time while they are doing it. Their music is not only a fully-conscious but mild parody of itself, but mostly it is an homage to the music that these guys truly love – and they gratefully and whole-heartedly embrace it for all it’s worth while playing for the pure enjoyment of it. Lair of the Minotaur is an extremely fun band both to see live and to listen to on album, and this disc takes their signature style of music and strips it down to the bare essentials – hellacious riffs, blistering speed, pounding drums, and of course, lyrics which are so much fun to sing out loud one has to be wary of one’s surroundings while listening to this album because a spontaneous exclamation such as “Let’s kill these motherfuckers!” just might pop out at an inopportune moment. In short, this album is everything a metal album should be – heavy, fast, loud, fun and engaging – plus, it evokes massive headbanging and even a singalong or two (plus, the music video for the title track – especially the uncensored version – is quite possibly the most metal thing ever made).
4. IntrOnaut – Valley of Smoke
After the monumental masterpiece which was 2008’s “Prehistoricisms”, it was difficult for this reviewer to imagine how this insanely talented and extremely unique band could create a formidable follow-up album – and I’ll tell you one thing – I sure as hell didn’t think they would do it by using clean vocals – but they did. The third full-length album from California’s mind-bending post-metal prodigies IntrOnaut starts out with a disgustingly beautiful-but-bludgeoning bass line courtesy of fretless bass demon Joe Lester that gets heads banging right off the bat. Then the vocals kick in, and the first impression is that this album is going to be a brutally heavy landslide of odd time signatures, shouting and general mayhem – and in some cases, it is (except that the mayhem, ironically, has the precision of a Swiss watch at all times). However, a bit later in the track, the first of many clean vocals comes floating out of the speakers, and the listener is brought to the realization that whatever he / she was expecting…ain’t gonna happen. In just under fifty minutes, this band of expert musicians takes the listener on a sonic journey like no other – twisting through mind-bending melodies with a deftness that only the most talented of bands could even hope to achieve. In short, this album is a raging, burly gorilla at times, a deceptively smart velociraptor at others, and a stealthy cheetah at still others – but one thing’s for sure – you’re probably going to get your fucking face ripped off. Enjoy!
3. The Ocean – Heliocentric
It seems as if line-up changes have always been a constant for this experimental German post-metal outfit, which has always been led by Robin Staps, but has included literally dozens of other members – both permanent and collaborative – over the years. In fact, the group’s membership is so fluid that they are often referred to as The Ocean Collective.
Accordingly, “Heliocentric” marks the recording debut of vocalist Loic Rossetti, who provides a range of different vocal styles on an album which is itself a demonstration of perhaps the widest range of musical styles within an album from this band to date (and this is an outfit which is already known for having a wide sonic range). The vocals are, quite simply, astounding. The harsher screams are evocative of those which can be heard on much of The Ocean’s earlier work, and they are sufficient for their purpose – but it is the clean vocals (which again, are really nothing new for The Ocean) that are one of the true signature aspects of this fine album. Often, Rossetti’s vocals change from full screams to beautiful melodies almost instantaneously. This provides an additional level of beauty to the songs, which are already incredibly complex, yet well-written.
Also, a very wide range of instrumentation is used on this album – which again, is not completely unusual for this band – but the range of instrumentation used here is perhaps the widest yet for The Ocean. The best part of this aspect of the album is the skill with which the additional instruments are used. Instead of being employed merely on a whim or pretentiously to show a high degree of skill, the added parts are instead rather fitting and altogether complementary to the songs. Various strings can be heard at different points, as well as a variety of horns such as saxophone, trumpet and trombone. In fact, a total of eleven additional musicians – besides the five permanent band members – contribute to this beautiful album.
Last but certainly not least, the album is one of two volumes released in 2010, which together form a concept album which form a critique of Christianity from different philosophical and personal angles. The lyrics are thought-provoking and powerful, and again, this adds yet another layer of appeal to this outstanding album.
2. Ludicra – The Tenant
In 2008, my year-end list included a #1 and #2 pick that were a great struggle for me to ultimately differentiate. Meshuggah’s phenomenal powerhouse “obZen” managed to eke out the top spot against the now-defunct Swedish progressive post-metal(core?) outfit Burst’s masterpiece Lazarus Bird. The former was a relentless, punishing assault on the senses, whereas the latter was a beautiful, progressive (yet still plenty heavy in places) work of art that literally gave me goosebumps on more than one occasion.
Two years later, a similar pattern has emerged. Ludicra’s incredibly beautiful-yet-crushing magnum opus (at least up to this point) has been eclipsed by only the narrowest of margins by the stalwart powerhouse that is “Snakes for the Divine”. Call it survival of the fittest, if you will. Such is the way of the world; such is the way of metal.
However, if lists like these were based only on albums which demonstrated perfect combinations of carefully-balanced beauty and power (as some would argue that perhaps they should be), then “The Tenant” would indeed reign supreme this year – at least, on this reviewer’s list. It is a truly wonderful and vital album, and like its competitor “Snakes for the Divine”, includes nothing but highly compelling music – there is literally no filler here.
The album simply drips with memorable passages (to call them “riffs” I fear would be crass), and the songs flow effortlessly into one another. The musicianship, songwriting and production values on this album are all superb. In the end, all that stood between this album and the number one spot on this year’s list for me was a burly behemoth named High on Fire, and as I said, such is the way of metal.
1. High On Fire – Snakes For The Divine
Typically, my criteria for Album of the Year are simple. The album has to be perfect (or at least, closer to perfect than all other releases I heard that year). The reasons I feel comfortable labeling this album as “perfect” (or close enough), are primarily that all of the tracks are essential (the only “filler” track is “Path”, which is actually an intro for the following track “Fire, Flood and Plague”), the production value of the album is not only very good but well-suited to the music, and that every song on the album makes me want to bang my head fiercely. The fact that the version of the album I own also includes bonus tracks “Mystery of Helm” as well as live versions of perennial favorites “Eyes and Teeth” and “Cometh Down Hessian” are just a bonus.
As I stated above, many other excellent albums finally did emerge as 2010 marched on, but none of them managed to supplant “Snakes for the Divine” in my listening queue for very long. This album was a stalwart companion for me on many a long car ride as well as a personal trainer of sorts for many a workout in the gym. The songs on this album are some of the best – and most experimental as well, in some cases – that High on Fire has ever written, and that’s saying a lot. The title track is a monster, with a killer intro such as High on Fire have never written or performed before, and many tasty riffs / solos galore. “Frost Hammer” is another beast, with some of the best vocals and drumming of Pike’s and Kensel’s careers thus far. The appeal of the experimental (at least by High on Fire standards) track “Bastard Samurai” is only surpassed by its sublime presence when played live. The point is, this album is the total package, and it may ultimately prove to be High on Fire’s finest album to date.
When a band this good releases a collection of songs that are this solid, it’s awfully difficult – and in this case, impossible – to keep from elevating the collection it to sublime status – and so, for the above reasons as well as many others still left unstated, High on Fire’s “Snakes for the Divine” is simply my favorite metal album of 2010.