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

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