Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Best Metal Albums of 2010

Well, 2010 is almost over, and it was an incredible year for metal. The sheer number of fantastic releases, from both the old guard and the new, has been overwhelming. Of course, the number of disappointments has been pretty big too. So, let's take a look at the best (and some of the worst) metal albums of the year. I've split them into categories instead of trying to rank different genres against each other. That's like comparing apples to corpses. But I did pick a best album of the year, beating all other contenders.

This list is dedicated to Ronnie James Dio and Peter Steele, two irreplaceable, top-tier members of the metal pantheon, and Paul Gray, who set me on the path to extreme metal.

Debut of the Year

KvelertakWhat better place to start the list than with the best debut? Kvelertak defeated the competition soundly with their self-titled album, an incredibly energetic and fun blend of black metal, sludge, thrash metal, stoner metal, hard rock, hardcore punk, and just about everything else out there. As recently as May, nobody had even heard of this band, but now they're impossible to miss. I was one of their earliest champions, giving them a perfect score back on July 16.

Honorable Mention: Castevet's Mounds of Ash is an arty but entirely satisfying blend of black metal and hardcore.

Best Comeback

Deth Red Sabaoth Glenn Danzig had been off his game for the last 16 years, but he came back strong with Deth Red Sabaoth. In my original review I mentioned how it combined some of the best elements of the first four Danzig albums. It's catchy rock-and-roll played with a thunderous heavy metal sound. Anyone who stopped buying his albums needs to seriously consider this one.

Honorable Mention: Fear Factory's Mechanize is easily their best since 1998's Obsolete, proving that the core lineup is Bell and Cazares, and they know the futuristic industrial/death/groove metal style best.

Biggest Disappointment

The Panic Broadcast (CD/DVD)Soilwork should have come back stronger than ever. Their hook-writing skills had just reached their peak, and guitarist Peter Wichers came back to lend his capable hands to the mix. But Bjorn Strid put in his wimpiest performance ever on The Panic Broadcast. It's still not a bad album, but it should have been amazing. It wasn't. Read my review here.

Dishonorable Mention: Nevermore (The Obsidian Conspiracy) also put out a mixed-bag album marred by weak vocal performance from someone who is capable of much better. And Mastodon's Jonah Hex soundtrack, well, I won't even go there.

Worst Album of the Year

PeripheryPeriphery's self-titled debut is djent metalcore, and it would have been a pretty good album if it weren't for annoying radio-metalcore vocals and the cheesy joke they threw in. It's sadistic the way it draws you in with some cool instrumental work, and then, instead of rewarding you with better things, spits in your face. It was kind of like that M. Night Shamalamadingdong movie The Village, which started out really cool, but when the twist came it ruined it. But it's worse, because after this album was ruined, they promised it would get cool again, and then ruined it again, and kept repeating this cycle. For more on this one, don't read my brief review: Read the Wikipedia article on the cycle of abuse. It applies equally well here.

Dishonorable Mention: Anathema's We're Here Because We're Here is dull post-rock packaged up and sold to metalheads based on the fact that the band used to be one of our own. I had to mainline some Behemoth after listening to this. East of the Wall's Ressentiment is another pile of crap being sold to metalheads, although it would have been listenable if the tracks weren't so long.

Song of the Year

The rest of this list is going to be about albums, but I have to pick a song, because the winner is so freaking good.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Poll Results: Are you going to get the upcoming Motörhead album, The Wörld is Yours?

Well, it looks like a bare majority of my readers plan to get the new Motörhead, with 5 planning to get it, 3 not planning to get it, and one person who apparently doesn't even know who the legendary band is.

World Is YoursTo that person, and anyone else who doesn't know, Motörhead is Lemmy Kilmister's band. They are the first band to combine metal with punk, and they're legends in their own time. Non-religious metalheads will still pray to Lemmy, if they really need something.

Out of the people who plan to get it, 3 already have at least 5 Motörhead albums. I personally have 10 (half of them). The 3 who said they don't like the band--well, I'm not sure what they're doing here. How can you be metal if you don't like them? Nobody decided not to get it simply because they already have too many albums from the band. I asked the question because I wasn't sure whether I really needed another one, but since then I've made up my mind. Yeah, I'm getting it.

My end of the year list for the best metal of 2010 is coming tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Metal Briefs: Djent

The term djent was coined by Meshuggah's Fredrik Thordendal, who also pioneered the extensive use of the sound. Misha Mansoor (a.k.a. Bulb) of Periphery defines it as
The onomatopoeia of a heavily palm muted distorted guitar chord which is usually played as but not limited to a 4 string double octave powerchord, and as a result sounds much more metallic and sonically present than a 'chug' 'chugga' or 'djun' per se, and which is basically how Periphery would describe its palm muted guitar sound.
Whether or not you view it as a distinct subgenre of metal, there is a growing number of bands who identify with a particular djent-based sound, focusing on Meshuggah worship (the tone and love for odd time signatures) and with a Dream Theater-like appreciation for virtuosity and technique. Often, they'll use 7- or 8-string guitars (like Meshuggah), and they seem to be gear-heads, interested in different tones they can get out of different equipment. Many bands incorporate industrial sounds into the music.

Even though Metal Archives seems to be taking the extremely unreasonable position these are not metal bands, I think it's pretty clear they are, even if they're coming at it from a different attitude.

Let's take a look at three examples of the style.

Animals as Leaders: Animals as Leaders (2009)

Animals As LeadersWashington, D.C.'s Animals as Leaders is probably the best-known act from the djent movement, having toured with technical-minded death bands like The Faceless, Cephalic Carnage, and Decrepit Birth. It's an entirely instrumental project of guitarist Tosin Abasi, and despite the silly name the music is quite good. The music alternates between heavy ("Thoroughly at Home") and light ("On Impulse"), often within the same song. The guitar playing is superb, and besides djent, a variety of unique playing techniques are used ("Behaving Badly" has a particularly interesting picking technique). Being instrumental, and being about virtuosity and exploration of techniques over songwriting, it's not exactly for everyone. But highlights "Inamorata" and "Song of Solomon" are fully fleshed-out cuts that will resonate with just about anyone. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Cloudkicker: The Discovery (2008)

Cloudkicker is another instrumental djent band, although this is a one-man band from Columbus, Ohio. The approach here lacks the electronic sounds of Animals as Leaders. In an interview he explained why he tends to release EPs rather than LPs: "I get bored listening to an hour of instrumental music . . . ." Well, The Discovery is an LP, and you'll probably get bored with it by the time it's over, too. There just simply isn't enough going on here, with the same riff getting repeated way too many times without much interest layered on top of it. There are several short interludes on here (all boring and soft, except "Triumverate!"), and a handful of full-length songs that sound like they're simply unfinished. It still sounds pretty cool, and would make great background music to a video game or movie/TV show, but background is all it can provide. I give it 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Periphery: Periphery (2010)

PeripheryMaryland's Periphery sets itself apart from the above bands by actually employing a vocalist, and being more obviously metalcore. Having a vocalist must have sounded like a good idea at the time, but he's one of those generic metalcore vocalists with that whiny, irritating clean vocal style. Well, I'm sure they'll have mainstream rock radio success because of it. Musically, this band is even more Meshuggah influenced than the others, so on the songs where he stays away from the clean vocal they sound really good (there's only one where he stays away from it completely, and another where he does until the last minute or so). But holy crap, that irritating vocal style makes the power ballads (like "Light" or "All New Materials") unlistenable. Even though these guys sound different from the others (a little), I can't shake how much all of these bands sound the same, with each of them using the same weird techniques they probably learned on Youtube. Throw in the faux old-timey carnival promoter joke at the end of "Icarus Lives!" (an annoying attempt at being charmingly funny), and the fact "Racecar" is about twice as long as it should be, and I could barely get through this album. I give it 1 out of 5 stars.

I went into this thing with the attitude that I was really going to like these, since they're all Meshuggah lovers like me. It turns out I was wrong. I think part of the problem is, the sound they're going for is not dynamic--it's all processed and played through modern-style amps, no tubes involved. Shame.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Goat the Head: Doppelgängers (2010)


For the last 20 years or so, Norway has been the home of ultra-serious, no-fun-allowed black metal. But in 2010, it seems Norway is showing a different side, with fun-loving, non-black metal bands like Kvelertak and Goat the Head.

Goat the Head is a death metal band. I have no idea what the name is supposed to mean (if anything), but the final track of sophomore full-length Doppelgängers seems to provide their manifesto: "Primal Caveman Death Metal". They sound a lot like their neighbors to the east in Unleashed. It's very simple, pure death metal, without anything technical, and no weird time signatures. Most of it's mid-paced, but they effortlessly shift to much faster tempo and back. The bass is just loud enough and the drums just exciting enough to keep it going, with nice fills that never sound like showing off. The vocals sound like an ordinary human growl, but primal.

In contrast to Unleashed, however, this music is done in a sense of fun. They may let that sense get slightly out of hand when they let gang vocals creep in on "The Hunt is On (Sexy Son)", but the rest of the time it works perfectly. The songs have have head-bobbing rhythms, killer riffs, just-flashy-enough solos, and memorable shout-along choruses. Despite their primitivism, they do show some slight tendencies toward experimentation. "This Tube Is the Gospel", with its samples, choir, and female vocals, sounds like a parody of the gospel music you'd hear on a televangelism TV show. Album standout "The Ubiquitous Cube" has slow, minimalist, dissonant verses.

This is the most fun you'll have with death all year.

The Verdict: Goat the Head have proven that getting more technical and more brutal are not the only ways to make a great death metal album, even in 2010. All it has to be is catchy and fun. I give Doppelgängers 4 out of 5 stars.