Sunday, April 17, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - Storming the Gates

Well, the "weekly" gap between postings turned into a month that time. Sorry about that. March Madness distracted me and then I revived my addiction to Oblivion (heavily modded, of course, vanilla is terrible). Yeah, we all know what they say about excuses, but there's mine. Either way, we're back and after this - only 10 remain.

Anathema - We're Here Because We're Here
Starting out in the early 90's as a doom/death metal band, evolving into progressive rock by the turn of the century - this album marks the point where the last remnants of Anathema's metal origins are stripped away and they now stand as a purely alt rock outfit. Possessing a bit of a post-rock vibe, the music is light and beautiful exuding a very airy atmosphere. In contrast with the heavy and sorrowful mood of their prior works, this release is peaceful and even uplifting. The aesthetic changes lead me to feeling like this album lacks some of the emotional punch Anathema once possessed, but the performances are far too strong and the music far too pretty for me to rate We're Here Because We're Here any lower.
Best Track: Summernight Horizon
Rating: 8/10

Alcest - Écailles de lune
Alcest's 2007 album, Souvenirs d'un autre monde, is certainly a very tough act to follow - being one of the most beautiful and nostalgic sounding albums in recent memory. No doubt this album suffers a bit from arriving in the lingering shadow of that full-length debut, nonetheless this is a wonderful release in its own right. The sound from Souvenirs... is still very much intact, though now shifted ever so slightly away from the extremely hazy shoegaze sound and reviving some of the harsh vocals found on the earliest works. Neige has once again created a very emotionally evocative album as, in my experience, listening to this record stirs feelings of isolation and longing that very few other musical works are able to do. If I didn't already know how amazing an Alcest album could be, I might have rated this higher (not necessarily fair, but what can I say?).
Rating: 8/10

Amplifier - The Octopus
This thing is an enormous beast of a double album. Clocking in at just over two hours, this is the definition of a prog rock epic. So, do they have the material to support an album of this length? Shockingly, the answer is "yes, for the most part." Sure, in a two hour timeframe there is material that could probably be trimmed - but there is a surprisingly low amount of fat here. Under the umbrella of prog rock, Amplifier is able to draw influence from a variety of sources, ranging from traditional heavy metal to psychedelic rock to classic prog bands. Given the sheer volume of music on display here, The Octopus is a bit difficult to digest in one, two or even three listens - however, the variety spread throughout almost guarantee that you'll find something to love on one of these discs.
Best Track: Interglacial Spell
Rating: 8/10

Zuul - Out of Time
Many of the bands in this so-called "heavy metal revival" movement fall flat because they are trying to copy Number of the Beast. Zuul start with a leg up on most because if they are aping the style of an Iron Maiden album it is one of the earlier (and superior) albums where Maiden still had a bit of a punk edge. This no Killers, but it shows that same style and energy - galloping riffs, prominent bass lines, catchy solos and gang vocals abound. Zuul show that they really "get" what made heavy metal awesome before it became overly obsessed with being "epic." Fun and energetic - I imagine that this material would really shine in a live setting and hearing it while sitting at a computer really doesn't do it justice.
Best Track: Out of Time
Rating: 8/10

Immolation - Majesty and Decay
Okay, so it's no Close to a World Below, but that is a ridiculously high bar that Immolation set ten years ago. Still, this is a great release in its own right. The riffs here are classic Immolation - slithering, groovy and yet utterly dissonant. The performances are top-notch as always, the guitar work is crisp and the drumming eschews the typical 150mph technical death metal performance, instead taking a more varied and accent-based approach. From the songwriting to the production, this release seems quite a bit more streamlined in many aspects - as such, it would probably make an excellent starting point for people who maybe aren't familiar with this band (though if you are a death metal fan at all, you really ought to be).
Best Track: A Glorious Epoch
Rating: 8/10

Dawnbringer - Nucleus
Mix one part Iron Maiden with one part Motorhead, stir in a pinch of Bay Area Thrash on high heat - once blended, let simmer for forty minutes - serve with a garage-rock garnish. Dawnbringer succeed here because if you didn't know any better, this album would sound right at home among early 80's heavy metal releases. Catchy riffs, gravelly vocals and acrobatic solos keep things very interesting throughout the length of the album - though the quality does flag slightly after an opening trifecta that's as good as any this year. One might complain about the rather pedestrian vocal performance; but to me the Lemmy-esque vocals really seem to complement the music, adding to that classic underground / garage sound.
Best Track: So Much For Sleep
Rating: 8/10

Negura Bunget - Vîrstele pamîntului
Yet another artist on this list that released a great album this year that is simply overshadowed by the masterpieces already in their catalog. In Negura Bunget's case that masterpiece is, of course, OM, an absolute gem of black metal. On this latest release, they've shifted their focus and become more of a blackened folk band, rather than a black metal band with folk influences. Depending on your view of each of these genres, this change may be seen as a marked improvement or a staggering disappointment. Attempting to take genre bias out of the equation - the quality of this album is still extremely high, though probably not quite "masterpiece" status. I have found this album to be a definite grower, so don't judge this one by its cover.
Best Track: Ochiul Inimii
Rating: 8/10

Triptykon - Eparistera Daimones
This may have been released under a new moniker but make no mistake about it, this is most definitely a follow up to Celtic Frost's last album, Monotheist. This album is insanely heavy - from the monolithic guitar tone to the pounding bass to the wooly mammoth that passes for a drum track, there's enough weight behind this one to grind the listener into a fine powder. Similar to Monotheist, this release is also hard to tack down to a specific genre - I suppose one could label it doom metal, but there are enough black and gothic metal touches to pretty much throw labels right out the window. The only slight problem I have with the album is that the music can be a bit too repetitious at times. Had a pair of editor's shears seen some use, this might have reasonably landed atop my list for the year.
Best Track: Goetia
Rating: 8/10

Intronaut - Valley of Smoke
If I gave out AOTY awards based solely on the performance of a rhythm section, this album would win - hands down, no contest, any argument is a complete joke. Sludge usually lends itself to some fairly entertaining drum performances, but when you kick it up a notch and add in progressive/jazz fusion elements... just listen to the album and then try to find your jaw, I think you might have accidentally kicked it under the couch. Honestly, the vocal and guitar work is pretty "middle of the road" for the genre - serviceable, but certainly not spectacular. I never really paid much attention to this band before, but tracking down any recording that Joe Lester and Danny Walker have contributed to has climbed high on my musical to-do list after this.
Best Track: Elegy
Rating: 8/10

Rome - Nos chants perdus
Another year, another very good album from Rome - just like clockwork. On this album, they've taken a slightly different direction - toning down the martial industrial side of things in favor of a more straightforward folk approach. In doing so, this new material lacks some of the grandiosity that made Flowers From Exile and other prior works so impressive. Even so, the writing is still quite impressive and Jerome once again shows why he has one of the bast voices in the genre. Because of his vocal delivery, this much more down to earth and personal album still carries with it a serious weight and importance. Stripped down and simplified, the lack of bells and whistles might lead one to believe this a lesser work from Rome, but that quality core is still very much intact.
Best Track: L'Assassin
Rating: 8/10

Stargazer - A Great Work of Ages
While Intronaut can lay claim to the best performance by a rhythm section, the individual award for bassists goes to Damon Good for his part in A Great Work of Ages. Imagine Steve Harris, Tony Choy and Steve DiGiorgio combining to form one enormous super-bassist and you're on the right track. Riffs, leads, fills and mellow interludes are all masterfully executed in an impressively technical yet deliciously smooth display. My drooling over this performance aside, I do consider this album to be a step down from their debut (which should show the high regard I hold that album in). Still, the sound of this album remains the unique blend of black/death/heavy/prog that they so neatly carved out in their previous release. That step down is thankfully a very small one.
Rating: 9/10

Deathspell Omega - Paracletus
Paracletus is the final installment in DSO's trilogy of albums and definitely lives up to the quality of the first two. The cover art is a perfect representation of the music contained within - a dark, writhing mass that never comes into perfect focus and feels all the more sinister for that fact. Time signature changes, dissonant tremolo riffs and a complex drum performance contribute to the chaos - a precise vision from the band that nonetheless keeps listeners off balance and feeling a step or two behind on early listens. As with the two prior albums, DSO has once again pushed the boundary of what black metal is capable of achieving. From an artistic perspective, Paracletus is just about as "important" as any album released in 2010.
Best Track: Dearth / Phosphene (cheating a bit here, but they need to be heard together)
Rating: 9/10

Slough Feg - The Animal Spirits
Slough Feg may just be the most consistent band in the business of heavy metal - over the course of twenty years and eight albums, none of their albums deserve less than a "very good." This album continues that streak by stepping back a bit from the sound of Ape Uprising! to something more in the style of Traveller. As I said, they are nothing if not consistent, so if you know Slough Feg there are no surprises here. Scalzi's awesome and distinctive vocals, classic metal riffs and some ripping solos. The only reason that this one doesn't break into my top ten for the year is that it lacks those standout classic tracks that can be found littered throughout their back catalogue.
Rating: 9/10