Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #5

Kylesa - Spiral Shadow

On Spiral Shadow, Kylesa hit a near perfect balance between the aggressive, driving sludge metal that marked their early albums and the brighter, psychedelic-tinged material that has appeared more recently in their catalogue. One characteristic that has always identified Kylesa's sound is the dual drum tracks, which are as strong and engaging as ever on this release. The extra percussion serves, not to bury the listener under a full artillery barrage, but to establish grooves and rhythms that both drive the rest of the music forward and provide plenty of hooks on their own. The quality of the percussion is obvious enough on the record, but I can vouch for the fact that it is even more impressive in a live setting - possessing as much energy as you will find this side of a Taiko (linked for awesome) ensemble.

Exorbitant praise for the drummers aside, the rest of the band is certainly up to snuff. Most of these drop-tuned riffs are as big and chunky as ever and, when they do decide to brighten it up a bit, the guitar and key work is nothing short of masterful. On tracks like "Drop Out," Kylesa are able to go from pummeling metal to dreamy atmospheres at the drop of a hat and make it sound as natural as anything. Honestly, with most of this album being so damn perfect, I have to address the one reason that Spiral Shadow "falls" to the #5 spot: "Don't Look Back." I am not a fan of this track, the repetitive chorus is annoying and the rest of the song just seems lightweight and lacking substance compared to the album as a whole. If it weren't for this major negative right in the middle of the album, I may have put this atop the entire list this year. The rest of the album oozes awesome, so don't let that one negative deter you from giving this one a listen.

Best Tracks: Crowded Road, Spiral Shadow
Rating: 9/10

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #6

Melechesh - The Epigenesis

From the opening minutes of "Ghouls of Nineveh" it is obvious that this is going to be a fairly different album from Melechesh's brilliant 2006 album, Emissaries. Rather than the unrelenting black metal of their prior work, The Epigenesis slows the pace down a bit and comes off as quite a bit more experimental. The guitar work overall is excellent and extremely catchy - though you may note that the overall "Middle Eastern" feel has been toned down a fair amount from prior albums. The Phrygian scales and traditional chants still make fairly frequent appearances, but are not nearly so prevalent and ingrained as they have been in the past. Milder Middle East flavor or not, the sound is distinctively Melechesh. The fibers of Sumerian soundscapes and modern metal grooves are masterfully intertwined throughout, resulting in by far the most varied experience from this band to date.

Now, I can see where some "purists" would consider this new direction a step down - certainly, the music has been taken down a notch when it comes to intensity. But where a step may have been taken back there, I feel that it is more than made up for by the massive steps forward in diversity and overall artistry. Besides these, this album also shows marked improvement in the vocal and production departments for the band. The blackened rasps sound fuller and more powerful than ever - whether this is truly advancement by the vocalist or a product of the superior production quality is not entirely clear. The production job here is damn near perfect, clear and crisp with plenty of organic "thud" remaining (the drums sound particularly good). At 70+ minutes long, this might be a bit much to digest in one sitting - but trust me, you want to sample all of what is available here.

Best Track: Sacred Geometry
Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #7

Overkill - Ironbound

Overkill? They're still around? Well, surely they've gone the way of almost every other thrash metal band from the 80's and turned to complete and utter crap? Honestly, for the past twenty years or so, they've not been so much "terrible" as merely "unremarkable." But if ever there was a successful return to top form from one of these bands - this is the one. Other classic thrash acts have put out pretty decent albums in the past few years (Artillery and Megadeth come immediately to mind), but fans have been thrilled merely to get these passable releases. Truly great thrash albums have been unsettlingly few and far between - this is one of those truly great albums. What makes this album stand out from the crowd is that it manages to comfortably and seamlessly blend the modern and classic thrash eras - no out-of-touch conformity to the original 80's formulas and no embarrassing attempts by these "senior citizens" to trend-hop, just a pure thrash attack.

In true thrash spirit, this album will punch you in the jaw, kick you to the curb and send you running home to mommy - and you will love it all. This is one of Overkill's fastest albums ever and it rarely lets up - pretty damn impressive (and surprising) from a group of guys mostly north of the age of fifty. Monster riffs, frantic guitar solos, machine-gun drums and Blitz's incredible rasp - it all adds up to an incredibly fun journey at breakneck speeds. In the past, Overkill may have been overshadowed by their more famous peers - but today, they stand tall amidst a crowd willing to settle for just "good enough." For those whose necks are still a bit sore after The Sword, you might want to hold off a bit before listening to this one - that was little more than a warm up round compared to the workout you'll get here. Raise the horns, grab a beer and make sure the sound is at "11."

Best Track: Bring Me The Night
Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #8

The Sword - Warp Riders

And so the progression continues - debuting with the solid but rather unremarkable Age of Winters in 2006, smart money was on The Sword falling into obscurity as yet another generic Sabbath/stoner-worship act. Their 2008 follow-up, Gods of the Earth, was mostly more of the same, albeit executed with a bit more maturity and overall skill. But here, on their third album, is where they finally come into their own and prove just how wrong their doubters have been. The change of lyrical scenery from standard fantasy to sprawling space opera comes with a marked improvement in the vocal department - typically weak and buried deep in the mix on prior releases, Cronise's vocals manage to stand their ground with the rest of the instruments here. Speaking of instruments, this album is a veritable buffet of great riffs - mixing a touch of blues into the stoner/doom/heavy blend seems to have really allowed these guys to find their groove. Some of these tracks really remind me of something that Clutch might have put out, and believe me when I say - that is definitely not a bad thing.

In a way, this album reminds me quite a bit of Crack the Skye from 2009 - both are concept albums, both pay proper tribute to the almighty riff, both show substantial improvement in the vocal department and, most importantly, both represent the bands really finding their own respective sounds. The one thing that stops Warp Riders from landing as high on the rankings as Crack the Skye did is its relative lack of atmosphere. In case you haven't noticed, I'm a sucker for music that oozes atmosphere. While this album is certainly a fun ride and brilliantly performed, it never becomes an "experience" for me - just an excellent album of music. I'm sure that last bit is very vague to any reader that isn't me, but I'm not sure how I could put it any other way without sounding ten times MORE pretentious. Pretentiousness aside, throw this one on and prepare to headbang (should commence with the very first riff of the album, if my own research holds true).

Best Track: Arrows in the Dark
Rating: 9/10

Monday, May 9, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #9

The National - High Violet

Where Arcade Fire fell a bit short with The Suburbs, The National pick up the slack and then some. On High Violet, The National manage to do something that many bands (particularly in the indie rock scene) attempt, but very few are able to execute - lamenting the fate of your average, middle-class citizen. So many bands attempt this and come off feeling overly angsty and grating or, perhaps even worse, seem to not be entirely in earnest. The lyrics are beautifully written and Berninger's melancholy baritone infuses them with a sense of disillusionment and gravitas that far exceeds the majority of the band's peers. "With my kid on my shoulders I try / Not to hurt anybody out loud / But I don't have the drugs to sort / I don't have the drugs to sort it out" - I can't think of many other bands out there that could pull this lyric off, but The National manage to build a very emotional song around this chorus.

As depressed as the voice of this album is, the songs are also extremely catchy. With as good as the lyrics and vocal performance are, it would be easy to look right past the work the rest of the band has put in here. While it is true that the other members take a backseat to the singer most of the time, it is also true that the drums are what actually make many of these tracks catchy and the guitar/piano/strings/horns perfectly set the mood for the lyrics to have the impact that they do. Certainly the most relatable album to crack the top ten - this is still another album that will not yield up its fruits easily, a bit of investment is required from the listener to unwrap the full experience.

Best Track: Afraid of Everyone
Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #10

Lantlôs - .neon

As good as Alcest's latest album was, it is not the best album that Neige helped to create in 2010 - no, that honor goes to this release, .neon from Lantlôs. Not unexpectedly, Lantlôs is a very similar project - combining post-rock and black metal into a foreign, yet somehow friendly and uplifting, soundscape. The sound meanders and shifts through lighter and heavier phases - though even the heaviest sections where black metal roots surface in harsh screams and double bass rhythms are still made bright by the chord selection and layered production that keeps things feeling lush and full. The lighter sections are highlighted by jazz-inspired rhythms that work amazingly well in smoothing out the entire listening experience. 

To be honest, the best description of the music here is post-rock with black metal and jazz elements - because, while we have jazzy interludes teamed with blast beats and Neige's harsh wailings, the song structures and overall approach to music are distinctly post-rock. This is an album that I will definitely label as a grower - the beauty in this marriage of sun and shadow, joy and melancholy may not be readily apparent. It may take a few listens (and certainly the right mood) for the emotional impact of this release to shine through; but believe me, it is well worth the wait. An excellent release that has me excited to listen to Neige's work for years to come.

Best Track: Pulse/Surreal
Rating: 9/10