Saturday, March 19, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - The High Road

High on Fire - Snakes for the Divine
Another very solid album from High on Fire - big surprise, I know. Like previous albums, this is another pure shot of testosterone, sure to put hair on your chest and drop your voice an octave - as such it should been taken with care. Seriously though, despite being undeniably High on Fire, the band have drifted slightly off the mark with this one in my opinion. They seem to be going a more thrash route on the songwriting here, withdrawing somewhat from the more sludge and post-metal inspired previous albums - as such you lose some of the tension and build toward climax, in exchange for a bit more instant gratification. Comes down to personal listening preference I suppose, but for me it is a slight misstep.
Best Track: Bastard Samurai
Rating: 7/10

Accept - Blood of the Nations
This album was perfectly set up to be an embarrassment and a terrible stain on an otherwise pretty solid heavy metal career - reunion after fourteen years, replacing an iconic vocalist? Oh yeah, no way that could end well. Shockingly enough, it ended up being pretty damn good. It certainly isn't going to top Restless and Wild or Balls to the Wall, but Blood of the Nations is certainly a very worthy addition to the catalogue. Catchy riffs that drive like a tank, vocals that challenge Udo's classic gravelly howls and choruses that demand a fist in the air and vocal cords stretched to the limit. It's nice to see classic bands come along and show you they still remember how it's done - I just wish they would have edited this beast down a bit before release.
Best Track: Beat the Bastards
Rating: 7/10

Blind Guardian - At the Edge of Time
I think they are finally getting a handle on this new direction after their last couple of disappointing albums. They've run an interesting course from speed metal to symphonic, but I was beginning to fear that their days of being a good band in ANY subgenre were done. Fortunately, At the Edge of Time seems to indicate that the ship has been righted and the Guardian has not given up the ghost quite yet. Like I said, for the first time I'm convinced that they truly have a handle on the full-blown symphonic sound - seriously, check out "Wheel of Time" if you doubt me. This is the Blind Guardian I'm used to - Hansi spinning epic tales like the bards of old and power metal that will get the blood pumping. I just wish the middle were a bit stronger overall.
Best Track: Wheel of Time
Rating: 7/10

Chronic Decay - Justify Your Existence
Oh man, this album sounds like it is straight out of the early 90's... wait, what? It was recorded in 1994 and only just released? Well, that makes a lot of sense then. Fortunately, someone had the good sense to pull this little death/thrash gem out of the archives and finally let it see the light of day. Darkness Descends meets Pleasure to Kill and we witness the unholy union through the filter of the old Swedish death metal scene. Certainly stuff that deserved to be unearthed after all these years. The vocals, though certainly energetic, leave a bit to be desired and I'd really like to see these guys develop some of these songs more fully (only one of the thirteen tracks breaks the four minute mark), but overall well worth a listen if you like death/thrash of the old school.
Best Track: Mirrors of Death
Rating: 7/10

Inquisition - Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm
I really don't know if I will ever get used to the croak that passes for vocals in this band (it's like someone parodying Abbath, honestly), but the music is just way too damn good to let a silly thing like that turn me off completely. After a while, they even start to blend in and make sense - but I still would take the most generic scream in their place any day. Enough about the stoned frog - what could possibly allow an album featuring those vocals to score this high? Well, their blackened thrash sound is a bit like a mix of mid-era Immortal and Absu - riffs that will break your neck, soundscapes that call to mind vast mountain ranges and enough technical skill to blow you away at any given second. Now if only that swamp creature would shut up we'd really have something special here.
Best Track: Astral Path to Supreme Majesties
Rating: 7/10

Mar de Grises - Streams Inwards
A death/doom album that is extremely melodic and shows quite a bit of progressive influence, Streams Inwards captures the mood of beauty and sadness that Insomnium has nearly perfected in their works. As with Insomnium, the true strength of this album is in the mastery of elements that somehow manage to simultaneously contrast and complement each other - the sparkling, pleasant haze of guitar and keyboard melodies alongside roaring vocals and double bass. The atmosphere exuded by this album is not unlike that of a storm - the rain and dreariness of the now gives glimpses into the blooms and beauty that will naturally follow. As well executed as the atmosphere is, there really isn't a whole lot of variety or dynamic to this album which can make it drag just a bit by the end.
Best Track: Shining Human Skin
Rating: 7/10

Star One - Victims of the Modern Age
How many more times will Arjen be able to tread this exact same musical ground and how many more times will I sit here and gobble it up? These questions remain unanswered, because this is nothing we haven't heard from Arjen before (whether it was in Star One, Ayreon, Guilt Machine, etc.) and because, once again, I'm quite enjoying myself. Honestly, while he is still putting together some quality music, I might have finally gotten a bit tired if it weren't for the fact that he's got an absolutely amazing lineup singing on this one again - Russell Allen, Floor Jansen, Damian Wilson and Dan freakin' Swanö. So good. Your standard Arjen fare of "spacey" prog rock/metal with some of the best vocalists in the business lending their talents.
Best Track: Digital Rain
Rating: 7/10

Deftones - Diamond Eyes
Fifteen years and six albums into their career, we've finally got a great starting point for people who haven't listened to Deftones before. Their most accessible and catchy album, Diamond Eyes permits glimpses into the various evolutionary stages of the band's career - bits of the angry nu-metal early years collide with the more droning, layered sound of their middle years and the more experimental path they've taken since then. Big, chuggy riffs fill out the massive wall of sound as Moreno gives what might very well be his best performance - brooding, melancholy croon or classic scream, it all sounds fantastic. This one definitely blindsided me a bit with just how good it really is - despite a couple obvious fillers, this one should please old fans and new acquaintances alike.
Best Track: Diamond Eyes
Rating: 7/10

Cloudkicker - Beacons
Cloudkicker is an instrumental project that I've loved since I was first introduced - the music mixes the rhythmic mastery and guitar tone of a band like Meshuggah with a sense of atmosphere, beauty and texture found more often in post-rock. What we have here is essentially a lyric-less concept album, the music and song titles tell the story of a plane crash. I must admit that this is pulled off much better than I anticipated, some of the passages are pretty emotionally impactful. The approach to music leads to quite a bit of repetition and dwelling on certain riffs, sometimes lingering a bit too long for my taste. Nonetheless, this is a very good piece of instrumental music and since Ben Sharp is one of those guys that puts up his albums with a "pay whatever you want" deal, you've got nothing to lose giving this one a listen.
Best Track: Amy, I love you.
Rating: 7/10

Force of Darkness - Darkness Revelation
Sometimes you have a craving for downright evil and vicious blackened thrash - it's a bit like White Castle sliders in that you know there is no way that this could be possibly be healthy for you, but there is no denying that hungry beast inside you. Consider this your crave case of evil for 2010. The rhythm section causes the earth to quake and the guitar creates a swarm of devouring insects; meanwhile, the vocalist recites incantations that will summon demonic powers whose evil has been sealed away since the most ancient of times. Sounds pretty badass, eh? Well, it is. The only reason this doesn't score higher for me is that sometimes this badassery seems to come with too large a serving of cheese. But if you are able to stomach some dairy, this one just might cause you to break your neck.
Best Track: Summoning the Black Arts
Rating: 8/10

The Dead Weather - Sea of Cowards
Well, it appears that Jack White and his partners in crime picked up right where they left off on 2009's Horehound. This one never quite reaches the same highs as tracks like "Treat Me Like Your Mother," but overall I'd call it a bit more consistent and the fact that it rocks harder certainly isn't going to cause me to subtract points. This is some of the most aggressive and blues rock I've ever had the pleasure of hearing, with the guys absolutely beating the hell out of their respective instruments. In addition, Alison really seems to have hit her stride on this album - she has a real edge to her performance that sells the songs even when the lyrics might be lacking. As good as the Stripes were, this group is looking like it has the potential to become Jack's greatest project.
Best Track: Die by the Drop
Rating: 8/10

Orphaned Land - The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR
Six years removed from one of the best progressive metal albums of the past decade, my expectations for Orphaned Land's new album were absolutely sky high. While I don't think this one will go down in the history books like Mabool did, it is a very strong album in its own right. For the most part, this picks up right where their masterpiece left off - you'll be able to instantly recognize that blend of mid-paced death metal, middle eastern folk and insanely awesome vocal melodies from the moment "Sapari" starts. Be warned, Orphaned Land do not take their music lightly - as such, their albums are epics and made up of exceedingly dense material. An initial listen will not reveal the true quality of this album, an attentive ear is key. The production by Steven Wilson is also worthy of note, the album sounds incredible.
Best Track: Sapari
Rating: 8/10

Enslaved - Axioma Ethica Odini
I must admit that Vertebrae had me very scared about the future of this band as they seemed to be taking a step too far into the prog/psychedelic rock arena, abandoning black metal and along with it, much of what made them a truly great band to begin with. Suffice to say, my fears have been calmed for the most part. While this album is certainly not a return to the pure black metal of Vikingligr Veldi or Frost, no one expected that. No, it seems that the band has taken the lessons they learned from Vertebrae and has incorporated the better parts into something more akin to Isa or Ruun. Still not my favorite era of Enslaved's sound, but one I like much more than the weak and muddled path they seemed they might have gotten lost on after the last album. A wonderful return to form and probably the second best "comeback" album of the year in my book.
Best Track: Ethica Odini
Rating: 8/10

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - The Middle of the Road

Angra - Aqua
About on par with their previous album, Angra once again manages to fall short of the bar they set with 2004's Temple of Shadows. The material is fairly solid overall, but it never achieves anything greater than slightly above average. A pleasant enough listen, but nothing sticks with you afterward. Another problem this album faces is the production - prog/power metal like this calls out for a rich, syrupy sound; however, this album sounds a bit too thin and crystal-clear. Shard of ice rather than a torrent of water, if you will. Fans of the genre should enjoy this, but there are much better examples out there - even in Angra's own catalogue.
Best Track: Arising Thunder
Rating: 6/10

Electric Wizard - Black Masses
Increased psychedelic rock influence, a faster overall pace and more focus on leads and vocals - certainly not bad things in and of themselves, but in the context of Electric Wizard's established sound they represent cracks in the foundation. Dopethrone, Let Us Prey, Come My Fanatics... etc. are hulking beasts made of stoner doom riffs, slowly heaving their way through layers of fuzz and static. Black Masses stacks up as a featherweight among heavyweights when viewed alongside the rest of Electric Wizard's monolithic catalogue - despite the fact that it is still a fairly solid record.
Best Track: Satyr IX
Rating: 6/10

City of Satellites - Machine is My Animal
Part shoegaze, part dream pop - this shows flashes of great promise but ultimately falls a bit short. The problem is that, despite being similar in goal, the two genres have a fairly different way of getting there - fuzzy haze versus smooth and shiny tones. I believe it is possible to mix these to great success; however, City of Satellites approach often tends to neuter both sides, leaving us with a muddled style. Shoegaze reverb disturbing the dream pop sheen which in turn stifles the rock energy when it tries to emerge. It seems the kids just aren't hitting it off here.
Best Track: BMX
Rating: 6/10

Enforcer - Diamonds
If you are looking for originality, I would certainly advise looking elsewhere. This is retro heavy metal done by the book, line for line. You've heard every riff, every lead, every gang vocal a thousand times before - but they've done their homework and gotten it right. If nothing else, this album is an incredibly fun listen. The tracks are reasonably varied, despite not being particularly original, and are all extremely well performed. One thing is for sure, Olof "Enforcer" Wikstrand would sound right at home amongst the top wailers of the 80's.
Best Track: Roll the Dice
Rating: 6/10

Briton Rites - For Mircalla
Traditional doom metal that basically plays like Witchfinder General worship? Should be good for a spin or two. You can basically take the review right above this, swap any references to "heavy metal" with "doom metal" and you'll not be far off. Once again, a very well executed retro/worship album, but not a whole lot in the way of originality. At over an hour is starts to drag a bit, but the material is generally strong enough to overcome that problem. If you're suffering severe doom withdrawal symptoms, I can prescribe this album - it's not a cure, but it should satiate your immediate cravings.
Best Track: Vampire Hunter, 1600
Rating: 6/10

Barren Earth - Curse of the Red River
The problem with supergroups is that many fans of the individual members tend to build up utterly unreachable expectations and doom the project to fail from the start. I must admit that I probably fall into this category in regards to this particular release - with members from Amorphis, Moonsorrow, Kreator and Swallow the Sun coming together, how could it not be incredible? By being passable, but wholly unremarkable melodic death metal. Sure, there are some very cool passages here and there - but nothing compared to the earth-shattering material the mind conjures when glancing through the lineup.
Best Track: Curse of the Red River
Rating: 6/10

The Black Keys - Brothers
The album is a bit overlong and gets pretty thin during the second half, but the first fifteen minutes put some fantastic blues rock front and center. Much like their fellow two-piece garage rockers, The White Stripes, this band really excels when they pare down their sound to its most simple, straightforward roots. This is the case during the first five tracks - simple, rocking riffs and some of the band's best vocals equate to a very enjoyable opening act. Unfortunately, they start to lose their way after that - meandering, experimenting and generally losing the listener's attention. They might very well end up running away with the "Most Original Album Art of the Year" award though.
Best Track: Tighten Up
Rating: 6/10

Asteroid - II
Some nice retro-sounding stoner rock on a moderate dosage of psychedelics, this album is just missing something to kick it to the next level for me. I think one thing that prevents the album from sticking in my mind is the guitar tone. Something about the guitar leaves me with an impression of it being soft and rounded, rather than having the edge needed to really drive these riffs home. Another problem I have is that the album shows a consistent, if only slight, decline in quality from beginning to end - this doesn't really generate a desire for repeat listens.
Best Track: Garden
Rating: 6/10

Wuthering Heights - Salt
This is no Far From the Madding Crowd, but even on an off-album, Wuthering Heights are still leagues ahead of many of their contemporaries in the power metal scene. The musicianship is as excellent as ever, guitars and keys complementing each other exceedingly well and creating a lush canvas for Johansson's vocals. The vocal performance itself is also fantastic; however, the lyrics seem to have taken a step down in quality and the choruses in particular feel weak on this album. One of the best things that power metal generally has going for it are the fantastic sing-along choruses - take those away and the entire product is weakened significantly.
Best Track: The Field
Rating: 7/10

Gravity - Midnight Sonata
Gravity have shown on their first two recordings that they have the chops to play with the big boys in prog rock/metal and the good sense to show some restraint when needed. On this album they display yet another important characteristic that shows their maturation as musicians - cohesiveness. More than either of their prior releases, Midnight Sonata sounds like a single entity rather than a collection of songs. The guitar and keys are both up to the challenge of taking center stage and both really soar as they trade riffs and leads. Some great material here that will only get better as the band further refine their sound.
Best Track: Nightmare Sonata
Rating: 7/10

Ares Kingdom - Incendiary
This is the second album from the death/thrash outfit and shows some signs of a sophomore slump. The slump is certainly not in the execution of the guitar work as the tone, riffs and solos are as excellent as the debut. My only complaint in that department might be that they are slightly less focused than on the debut, though that certainly is more the fault of the songwriting itself rather than the actual guitarwork. Not much here that we didn't hear in the 80's/90's from bands like Possessed and those that followed in their footsteps - but that doesn't take away from the fact that this album is really fun and will certainly start your head banging.
Best Track: Gathering the Eagles
Rating: 7/10

Ludicra - The Tenant
Melodic and melancholy, Ludicra have managed to establish their own unique black metal aesthetic without resorting to outrageous gimmicks. The lead work on this album is wonderful and the sense of loneliness and abandonment are quite strong. A bit less consistent than the albums that came before, The Tenant hits its low point in the center of the album, but the songs coming before and after "The Undercaste" are easily strong enough to cover for this weak point. While I would rate their other albums a bit higher, this really does nothing to tarnish their track record.
Best Track: Truth Won't Set You Free
Rating: 7/10

Alter Bridge - III
When it comes to "radio rock" these days it seems that Alter Bridge and Shinedown are pretty much alone in their competition for the top spot. After The Sound of Madness, it looked like Shinedown had taken a convincing lead, but Alter Bridge apparently isn't going down without a fight. Just as good if not a touch better than Blackbird, III's only offense is that at over an hour it can get a bit same-y. Fortunately, that just means that it is consistently above average. You'd probably do best taking these mid-paced rockers in small doses, but they really are very good. Can Scott Stapp be gone for good now, Mark? Please?
Best Track: Isolation
Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - The Low Road

Godsmack - The Oracle
Let's face it, if you've listened to Godsmack albums in the past there won't be any surprises waiting for you here. The singles, as usual, kick a pretty fair amount of ass - and in keeping with the usual formula, most of the rest is utterly forgettable. The sun rises, the sun sets and Godsmack churns out an album with a small handful of hard rock anthems and a bunch of filler - it is nice to know that some things don't change.
Best Track: Saints and Sinners
Rating: 5/10

Defeated Sanity - Chapters of Repugnance
If you are looking for pure, unadulterated brutality your search ends here. This is far and away the most devastatingly brutal album I listened to from this past year and these guys certainly know how to pulverize their audience with slam riffs, unrelenting blast beats and the rest of the standard brutal death arsenal. The problem is that they seem to be so wrapped up in writing the most devestatingly aggressive album possible that they forgot to write a memorable one. Once you pick yourself up off the floor after giving this a spin, you'll be hard pressed to remember much of the actual music.
Best Track: Consumed by Repugnance
Rating: 5/10

The Ocean - Heliocentric & Anthropocentric
Despite the separate releases, Heliocentric and Anthropocentric are companion albums from the same year, so I'm essentially approaching this as a double album. Coming off of an absolutely incredible double album in 2007's Precambrian, I was expecting big things from The Ocean - unfortunately, they only live up to those expectations about half the time. They still put together some high quality sludge-y prog, but the new vocals and failed experiments tend to drag the material down pretty often. I'd probably rate the second disc a bit higher than the first, but overall I'd consider this a major step down from their last outing.
Best Track: She Was The Universe
Rating: 5/10

Nevermore - The Obsidian Conspiracy
Five years later and THIS is what we get? This certainly is sour compared to the sweet taste that This Godless Endeavor, honestly one of the best metal albums of the last decade, left in our mouths in 2005. This is so "middle of the road" it is ridiculous - I'm guessing Dane and Loomis must have exhausted their respective creative tanks with their solo projects and when it came time to write a new Nevermore album they sat down, listened to the back catalogue and said "yeah, let's write one like that... and one like that..." A die-hard Nevermore fan will find much to recognize and enjoy, but don't expect anything new here.
Best Track: Without Morals
Rating: 5/10

Sigh - Scenes From Hell
Sigh have consistently pushed genre boundaries and have always been willing to experiment and re-invent their sound. Most of the time this has succeeded, resulting in an excellent string of albums stretching back to the early 90's. But all good things must come to an end and such an adventurous band was certainly due for a stumble. Here we see Sigh utilizing the same basic formula that made Hangman's Hymn such a fun listen, combining blackened thrash with bombastic symphonic elements, yet this time it's much more bizarre overall and they've inexplicably decided to go with a muddy production that doesn't suit the music at all and added trad metal/hard rock solos that come out of left field. The changes feel forced and certainly aren't for the better.
Best Track: The Soul Grave
Rating: 5/10

Burzum - Belus
Varg is back and making music - but it is much as I feared - he's been left in the dust by the very artists that followed him. Saying that a musician was able to pick up where they left off over a decade ago is usually a sign of a strong comeback, but in his absence Varg's followers have advanced the banner so far that listening to this album now seems quite bland and dated. Additionally, the album seems to be significantly weakened by the lack of layered keyboards providing atmosphere behind the repeated riffs. Hopefully this was just a "warm-up" and he'll be back producing albums on the level of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Filosofem; sadly, I find it more likely that this is simply the first confirmation that Varg is no longer a truly relevant voice in the black metal genre.
Best Track: Belus' Død
Rating: 5/10

Sully Erna - Avalon
Having heard every release and seen several shows, I can pretty definitively say that Sully IS Godsmack. So what is a solo record going to show that a Godsmack record wouldn't? A hell of a lot, to be perfectly honest. If you go into this album expecting a hard rocker, you'll be sorely disappointed. Instead, go in expecting songs more along the lines of "Voodoo" and material from Godsmack's The Other Side EP. Driven by tribal rhythms, orchestral flourishes, and soaring vocal harmonies with his female counterpart, this album shows us a much more mature side of Sully as a songwriter than any Godsmack album ever will. My only major complaint is that, considering its length, the album could have used a bit more stylistic variety - but songs taken individually are very good.
Best Track: Avalon
Rating: 6/10

Dark Moor - Ancestral Romance
The album opens and closes on excellent notes, with the weaker middle section reaches its nadir on the laughably bad arena rock wannabe "Just Rock." For the most part, this is just Dark Moor doing what they normally do - fans will certainly not be disappointed and those who don't see the appeal will probably not be converted. As flowery European power metal goes, Dark Moor certainly has earned a position in the upper echelon over the years. The thing that drags this release down for me (aside from the aforementioned joke of a song smack in the middle of the album) is that the vocals, front and center as they are, don't catch my interest nearly as much as they should. Musically, it is an overall solid release.
Best Track: Gadir
Rating: 6/10

Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
But... but... I though Swans Are Dead, shouldn't that have been the end of the band? After all, it would have been a fantastic way to end a career. It's tough for me to approach this one with an open mind, as I have to assume going in that this is basically a Gira solo project forced under the Swans name. Be that as it may, this is by no means a bad album, it simply doesn't have the same apocalyptic mood that made the 90's albums so incredible. This seems quite a bit lighter and safer, maybe that's a product of age or simply a magic that can't be truly recaptured. Solid material throughout, but it pales in comparison to the "old Swans."
Best Track: Jim
Rating: 6/10

Sabaton - Coat of Arms
This is easily the weakest album the band has put out aside from their debut (and equally poor re-recording). If you've heard Sabaton before, you should know exactly what to expect from this album - fist-pumping power metal, impossibly manly vocals, lush keyboards, irresistible shout-along choruses and a lesson in military history. They execute their formula admirably, but I see this as a regression after they at least attempted to branch out with their The Art of War concept album. Eventually, even the best recipes become a bit boring, I hope they find a way to add some spice before this starts getting too stale.
Best Track: Uprising
Rating: 6/10

Seventh Wonder - The Great Escape
You know, I'm getting a bit annoyed by the fact that just about every prog band at least once in their career decides that they absolutely must record a massively long track to stand as a monument, eternally commemorating their instrumental mastery and progressive songwriting tendencies - the latter claim belied by my earlier observation of that being an extremely typical tendency of bands that wish to validate their use of the progressive moniker. If that sentence didn't prove to you that "longer doesn't mean better," I don't know what will. I actually like Seventh Wonder quite a bit and the first half of the album is great - but the fact of the matter is that the mess of a track that takes up the last half hour is simply not very good at all.
Best Track: King of Whitewater
Rating: 6/10

Borknagar - Universal
To be honest, this isn't far from the progressive / symphonic black metal sound that I absolutely loved in their earlier albums. There are many wonderful vocal melodies, keyboard soundscapes, and original writing ideas - but somehow this release seems far less focused and weaker than their prior work. As for the vocals, I have nothing but respect for Vintersorg's work as a vocalist (in all of his projects); however, I can't help but feel that this particular set of material would have worked far better with Vortex on vocals - the sheer volume of clean vocals certainly plays into this feeling and is backed up by Vortex's appearance for the song "My Domain."
Best Track: For a Thousand Years to Come
Rating: 6/10