Sunday, January 30, 2011

Metal's Best of 2010


Veiled in lush melodic overtones, the resurgent Burzum has excelled once again in Belus, an album that could very well play a crucial role in the next stages of what we once called black metal (read more here). Belus is predominantly calm, relaxed, and somewhat melancholic in tone; this, in parallel with the lyrics which sing of the death of a god, helps to convey its tragic nature, but it is ultimately subsumed into a regal, apollonian heroism when Belus is resurrected and emerges over death victorious and shining in resplendent gold.


What makes Inquisition truly exceptional is not their bleak and satanic image, their stereotypical, almost goofy presentation of the occult; it’s not even because of the stormy, cosmic atmosphere that pervades everything with malicious intent; Inquisition are exceptional because of how seamlessly they can introduce a powerful riff or a starry melody: no great aesthetic evil of the whole narrative is sacrificed in foregoing the blast-beats for a moment or two, or to play a few lighter notes; and yet the entire album is strikingly enhanced by these catchy, melodic breaks that are actually a defining part of what makes this album really good.


Most bands that emphasize and focus on creating technical wizardry in their music do so to the detriment of the song as a whole; where there should be a moving, fluent rhythm the band throw in a few jarring extraneous notes; and where there should be a key melody the band fire in an ugly solo consisting of a thousand different notes assembled in a thoroughly discordant connection. Stargazer, on the other hand, are undoubtedly technical; and yet the strange arrangement of notes and the stranger time signatures are not invented to merely show off some obscure talent or musical knowledge, but to be part of a band’s greater vision. A Great Work of Ages is hardly a typical death metal album; A Great Work of Ages is an album that integrates the definite death metal traits into a special expedition towards the hidden, the overlooked; collecting weird patterns of percussion and guitar riffs, exciting transitions from phrase to phrase, and even sudden and surprising melodies, Stargazer set out on a bold endeavour to trace the untraceable, to find the unfindable.


Yet another superlative death metal band from the Lone Star State, Decrepitaph have effectively released the genre’s album of the year in Beyond the Cursed Tombs (the Stargazer is too weird to fairly count for the award). Building up an atmosphere that is dense and murky, although not so much as, say, fellow Texans Vasaeleth, Decrepitaph punch through it with hammers of war, otherwise known as a fierce guitarcraft spewing out malevolent and brutally rhythmic riffs. Beyond the Cursed Tombs resembles some stinking corpse, rotting and repugnant yet showing perverted signs of life; it is the musical embodiment of a zombie overlord that has been spat out of Hell to confront a safe and complacent humanity with the horrors of a cold and restless death.


Despair and ice abound in this greatly anticipated record from Mexico; In My Domains is draped in the cool climates of sorrow, reflecting a certain frigidity in its haunting cries of torment. The music is locked into the dismal tradition of black metal, albeit of the more nocturnal, defiant type originating in Mayhem and Sacramentum rather than the sentimental and self-deprecating poison of a Xasthur or an Abyssic Hate. In My Domains is lost and lonely, but its story is profound and universal, invoking strong images of the inconsolable sadness of the souls stranded at the pale shores of the River Acheron.


One of the most positive aspects in Blind Guardian is their firm grip on momentum, or the enchanting sense of fluency that most of their songs proudly flaunt. While the previous, more rock-inspired album seemed to lack this essential trait, At the Edge of Time shows it off at any available opportunity; the songs drive forward speedily, combining bold, percussive rhythms with dancing, sprightly melodies at a whim, carousing willfully in a way reminiscent of Imaginations from the Other Side. Blind Guardian is a band with an active imagination, and all evidence on At the Edge of Time points to the important fact that they are no less than brilliant at applying this eager mentality to the music itself.


Ares Kingdom have established a reputation in the last few years of being a band that has stolidly kept the death-thrash flame alive, and this album is no different: Incendiary is an thrilling slab of thrash metal, written in the vein of Darkness Descends but with more focus on melody and thematic development. The chief, the central engineer in the industry of Ares Kingdom is still the first guitarist, and this is patently evident due to how crucial the riffs are in every song, and due to their sheer quality; the album marches along only so far as those fiery riffs keep marching along. The greatest reason for this album’s significance, however, is how tightly the music executes the initial vision of the band: the apocalypse envisioned by the album’s aesthetic is clearly realized through not only the deadly nihilism of the main rhythmic phrasing, but also through the slight moments of sadness and remorse, the inevitable feelings of wistful sorrow as the entire world washes away.


As opposed to seemingly all war metal acts, which are without exception virulently and objectively impersonal, Blood revolt attempts to recollect the emotional turmoil and individual struggle of a single terrorist; similarly unusual, the vocals are devoid of the typical grunting and shrieking qualities, using instead ‘clean’ vocals that are often distorted by the effort to convey said emotional turmoil. The percussion is particularly impressive, acting as the primary means of creating confusion and chaos; it does not work alongside the vocals so much as compel the riffs forward, daring and demanding them to keep pace. While a good portion of the album is dedicated to representing the turbulence of the ‘terrorist’, a significant part of it is also motivated to affect a ‘softer’ side of the personal crisis; even the drums slow down slightly as the vocalist visits a sensitive moment upon the narrative, allowing a small bit of pathos to creep in unannounced.


The ringing of an air raid siren commences this militant and methodical foray into the vibrant chaos of the battlefield: an aural slaughter soon follows, doing its best to mimic the rolling explosions of a midnight bombing run. Although Truppensturm come from a genre that is notoriously stale and oversaturated by spirited but unimaginative Blasphemy and Archgoat clones, the band clearly have something outstanding, a peculiar quality that lifts it from sterile mediocrity. The magic resides simply in the relentless dynamism, the shifting impetus of the synchronism between the guitars and percussion; so, while at surface all war metal sounds more or less the same, Truppensturm possess a tireless musical depth that drives the music onwards into the very real and very Hellish nightmare of modern warfare.


Since Gothic Kabbalah is the crowning achievement of Therion’s post-death metal career, this succeeding album will necessarily be judged based on its princely predecessor. To put it bluntly, Sitra Ahra falls well short of even the most modest expectations: the confidence, the melodic eloquence, the philosophical majesty, all of the excellent trademarks of the former album are diluted or downright absent. Nevertheless, Sitra Ahra is still the positive emanation of a creative genius, and it is wholly deserving of a place in this most esteemed of year-end rankings. The crucial difference in style resides in a heavier, more rhythmic approach to the songwriting; while this evidently did result in the diminished quality of the transcendent melodies, the sublime beauty that was found in Gothic Kabbalah, it did not prevent such things from leaving their mark on the present record, making it a comfortable creation that makes allies of, among other things, a cool, titanic riff, sensitive female chorals, and that exceptional sense of melodic timing which really is this band’s foundation.


When it comes to brazenly mixing the caustic, venomous qualities of black metal with the sheer power of pure death metal, there are few nations more successful than Canada, the Great White North. Adversarial is an heir to this tradition of reckless speed and militancy, and is evidently proud to be putting together a more chaotic, abrasive record than any Canuck has done since the days of Revenge, even going so far as to include the trademark hollow drum tone, a staple in virtually all Canadian war metal. The rhythms are quick to show themselves, and equally quick to depart; all instruments, infact, follow this pattern, resulting in a dynamic, varied album that actually reflects the black and tempestuous atmosphere that so much war metal aesthetic tries and fails to accomplish.


Music is often at its best when it is used to introduce mythological themes; these allegedly ‘imaginary’ or ‘anachronistic’ ideas actually serve to imbue the music with a strong connection to the Epic, or at least to that distant sense of the ‘larger-then-life’, that other world where reality seems so much clearer and resolute. Atlantean Kodex is one such band that succeeds in this, basing their brand of slow, doomy trad metal in lyrical concepts that might as well belong to a recent fantasy novel; the music is no weaker for this, however, but stronger, forming an album developed around the clean union of a powerful, crawling rhythm, a keen use of medieval, almost ‘folky’ melodies, and riveting, emphatic vocals that suit the task of storytelling very well.


Liberated from the shackles that ‘groove metal’ has imposed upon their last couple decades, Overkill are finally able to show us what we have been missing since the late nineteen-eighties. Beyond anything else, the relationship between the percussion and the guitars is the strongest improvement: whereas ‘groove’ is content to drop a simple, mid-paced linear riff backed up by an even simpler ‘1-2-1-2’ drum format, real thrash metal relies on a gutsy, dynamic role of percussion, which is of course the core foundation of those hard and fast riffs. Besides a clear, modern production, this album is fundamentally old-school; the song structures follow the basic verse-chorus template, the chorus’ are short and pronounced, and the solos are as visible as ever, flying along like it is 1985.


Coming off of the triumphantly apocalyptic Doomcult, Diocletian are swiftly re-mobilized to initiate their sophomoric storm, the second wave of the assault upon organized society. War of All against All does not deviate all that much from its predecessor, a fact that perhaps points to the suggestion that chaos, a negative force sometimes deemed synonymous with change, is itself not privy to change; from the perspective of constancy and order, at least, this much is often true. Whipping downwards in sick demonic ecstasy, the music is akin to the four perilous winds:  each has a titanic concentration of power, and yet the dominion of each is contested by the other three, resulting in the endless struggle between four insatiable entities vying for a supremacy that they cannot enjoy for more than a very brief moment in time. Diocletian seems to be the musical representation of this chaotic reality: never content, never satisfied, War of All against All marches inexorably onwards into the vast cosmos of space and time, more than happy to pick a fight with anyone or anything along the way.


Yearning to burst forth from the black gates of Hell, Prosanctus Inferi resemble the impetuous demon-god, Apollyon, unleashed to wreak havoc upon humanity by means of a wicked, fiery pestilence. Unrelenting percussion punches the pace forward aggressively as Australian-styled blackthrash riffs trumpet rampantly, barely reigned in by the album’s wider sense of control. Leering voraciously upon the world beneath the eye of a very red Sun, the great imps screech wildly and gnaw at their bones in a dire impatience; while these barbaric, demonic hordes are presently harnessed by the unfeeling masters of Apocalypse, they eagerly and hungrily await the day when their bloody Sun will rise to announce the dawn of humanity’s fiercest struggle.


Australian thrash metal is a truly wonderful field of modern music: perhaps it is due to the oppressive heat, perhaps due to their somewhat sketchy history, or perhaps it is because of the limitless number of gawking tourists from Asia or North America, but whatever the reason, Australian metal bands have this invariable and exquisite urge to express their fundamental need to BURN THE MOTHERFUCKING WORLD; from Hobbs’ Angel of Death to Bestial Warlust, from Destroyer 666 to the very title of this record, Australian countrymen clearly have an available outlet wherein they can vent their eschatological demands. World Cremation in all honesty does not provide much by way of innovation or substance in their band’s direction; but does it really need to? We are quite certain that, if there is a musical equivalent to country music down in Oz, it would benefit astronomically from their fellow Australians’ rather incessant appeal to the Lords of Apocalypse; infact, who is to say that there aren’t already country crooners invoking the rise of Antichrist; or, better yet, performing redneck rituals along the beaches, strumming quietly as they await the crowned heads of the Beast to rise from the sea? Somebody needs to give us the down-low on this, STAT…


In the second ascension of old-school death metal, even countries without the strongest tradition in the genre are getting in the act, Australia’s Cemetery Urn being just one example. Riveting and impulsive from the get-go, The Conquered are Burned is steeped in a rich, luxurious production that really enhances the blasting and especially the more ‘groovy’ passages with a smooth clarity that emphasizes the deep, immersive power of the riffs. Thematically and visually, Cemetery Urn unearth a tellurian vista into the labyrinthine underworld, an old and dirty place littered with countless piles of skulls and bones arranged awkwardly around blazing bonfires, the only sources of light in the place. Not even us seemingly neutral listeners are entirely face from this vision, however, as more and more of the roof above the fiery caverns is falling in, bringing down with it countless multitudes of broken and distressed souls screaming in the brutal agony that conforms evenly with the nine levels of Hell below.


American death metal has always had a lethal proficiency in crafting a slow, doomy breed of ‘traditional death metal’: bands like Incantation and Immolation have proved it in the past, and bands like The Wakedead Gathering are reminding us of it in the present. Elongated and twisted riffs, a carefully formulated percussive system, and a production that is as clear as it is deep are evolved into a dense and cloudy atmosphere; Tenements of Ephemera is nevertheless unafraid to occasionally bolt into a fast, uninvolved break from the album’s main patterns. On the whole, The Wakedead Gathering’s debut is not a hostile, dirty, or even an overtly murky album; Tenements of Ephemera is rather to the contrary, emitting a positively pristine aura, electing to develop a transparent and precise medium through which its morbid and gloomy ethos can be displayed in all of its dark purity.


With Sweden enjoying a bright resurgence of death metal bands more or less rooted in the classic style of their country, bands like Nominon are quickly sprouting up everywhere. That said, the music of Monumentomb is fairly simple ad straightforward, relying on basic riffs to propel the songs forward; the structure is similarly simple, recycling the main components now and again to preserve the small-scale integrity of the individual track. Nominon are clearly not cut out for leading the vanguard in any novel and innovative movement in global death metal; Monumentomb, like the band’s previous recordings (with the possible exception of their excellent debut, Diabolical Bloodshed), is instead quite suitable to maintain the band’s rightful place in helping to strengthen the newly reforged line of old-school death metal in Sweden.

The Five Best EPs of 2010


Old comrades Helmkamp and Read reunite in the Kerasphorus camp, prepared to once again deliever the sonic warfare upon the unsuspecting masses. The biggest surprise is that the percussion is actually relatively modest and tidy, really helping out the mid-paced sections to maintain a sinister tension; the riffs, on the other hand, are as one-dimensional as they ever were, and we mean this in the kindest way possible. So, the vestiges of Angelcorpse and Revenge are once again concerted in militant application, but this time they are involved in a fresh aura of ‘divide and conquer’; the music is more contained, and this new sense of control acts as yet another potent weapon in the arsenal of the Read-Helmkamp alliance.


In a defiant response to the frequent accusations of stagnancy leveled at Graveland in the past eight years or so, Graveland has finally crafted a stable piece of music, an EP that focuses on shorter, sharper paths to the Epic rather than the long, dragging narratives the past. The result is a closer representation of heroic and mythic themes; Graveland has, in other words, managed to firmly associate the dry and cold aspect of his black metal with the warm and sonorous quality than an intimate involvement with the Profound freely gives.


Grave Miasma stand at the precipice shearing away this world from the one beneath us; peeling away the thin layers one by one, we realize how nearly the vacuum of the abyss really is to our mortal condition. Utilizing a soft, velvet sense of creeping melody, the Grave Miasma atmosphere is nocturnal, cultic, strongly resembling the aura surrounding an intensive ritual involving the deceptively sweet fragrance of sable candles and yearning, stretched-out whores locked in an unrequited passion for the immortal fires.


Working in a dry, bleak, and faint production, Innumerable Forms come up with a fairly dismal piece of music that practically quivers under the weight of the morbid torment that it conveys.  A particularly promising little EP, Dark Worship should be the initial insight into a band that will positively radiate death and suffering throughout their career.


Texan old-schoolers Imprecation return in this avowedly blasphemous EP, immediately announcing their convictions to remain true to their original spirit; this being all that we could ask of them, Imprecation exceed our requests and wage an almighty war to gain the ground that was won in The Sigil of Lucifer, a crushing ode to battle and to His Fieriness, Satan himself.