Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #1

And the winner is...

Ihsahn - After

Imagine yourself as a little kid watching a magician for the first time - sitting there in absolute awe, mouth probably hanging agape - not understanding what is actually happening but still loving every second of the performance. That essentially sums up my reaction to this album - I don't fully understand the wizardry that holds this show together and I don't much care, I'm just happy to soak it all in. Taking pages from Opeth, Sigh and his own past work in Emperor and other bands, Ihsahn has written an impressively consistent album considering the diversity in mood and texture throughout. This turns out to be one of those wonderful outings that actually earns its title as progressive metal - by no means is this simply technical noodling masquerading as "progressive." How one manages to tie together black metal, free form jazz, and more groove-based doom and make it work is far beyond my ability to comprehend but I'll chalk it up to wizardry. Well, wizardry, impressive songwriting and excellent production.

To say that Ihsahn is an incredible songwriter is to state the exceedingly obvious, but even considering his incredible back catalogue, After seems like quite a stride forward. Both lyrically and musically, After is a much more complex and mature work than anything he has done before. Take, for instance, the riff work on "A Grave Inversed" - the main verse riff gives the feeling of falling through some sort of vortex and that sensation is only heightened when a masterfully incorporated saxophone comes into play. Really, this is the pinnacle of that wizardry I've referred to on multiple occasions - Sigh is the only other band I can recall adding sax to metal with any success and this well surpasses what they have been able to achieve in that realm. Honestly, I'm not quite willing to name this as the best album that Ihsahn has had a hand in during his career, but the mere fact that I'm willing to mention it in the same breath as all-time masterpieces like In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is pretty impressive for a solo work this deep into a career. Given the strong conclusion to his solo trilogy, I'm very interested to see what comes "after" for Ihsahn. (Oh please, you didn't think you were going to get out of this without the obligatory pun, did you?)

Best Tracks: A Grave Inversed, Frozen Lakes on Mars
Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #2

Agalloch - Marrow of the Spirit

"As wandering ghosts pass through the flames
A new age of rebirth lights the dawn"

These lines, taken from "The Watcher's Monolith," reflect my view on this chapter of Agalloch's career in a very interesting way. For, while there are many easily identifiable features (and possibly even an instance or two of self-plagiarism) from Agalloch's past endeavors on this album, the whole picture is seen in a slightly different light. Ghosts of Ashes Against the Grain and The Mantle pass through the flames of a more aggressive approach, filtered through a production not present on an Agalloch album since Pale Folklore. An almost retrospective work which is made to feel like something of a reawakening by the presence of a more pronounced black metal aspect than ever before.

Not sure if that bit will make sense to anyone besides the little voice reading it in my head, but hopefully you are able to catch my drift at least. My attempts to extract meaning from the phrase "it's the same, but different" always seem to end in a tangle of incoherent nonsense. Be that as it may, let's return to the subject at hand.

As with their prior albums, Marrow of the Spirit is woven from the three primary threads of black, doom and folk metal with myriad other influences for added color. Though, as I alluded to earlier, the use of black metal is far more predominant here than it ever has been before. Unlike previous albums which were exceedingly difficult to truly classify, Marrow of the Spirit plays out much more like an atmospheric black metal album than anything else. While other genres certainly remain in the mix, the overall presentation - from song structure and instrumentation to the production of the album - lends itself to a predominantly black metal album. Not to say that Agalloch have been formulaic in the past, but this seems to me to be a fairly noticeable change in direction for the band. Judging by reactions that I've heard, this album seems to have split the fanbase into two camps - based on the album's placement on the list, I think you know in which camp I've pitched my tent. As with all their releases to date, this album weaves a gorgeous tapestry of wintry landscapes and has the distinct ability to conjure a strong emotional response in the listener. With a perfect record coming into 2010, Agalloch have still yet to stumble and look to be affirming their position as one of the most influential and respected bands in the business today.

Rating: 10/10

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #3

Grand Magus - Hammer of the North

Several heavy metal albums have poked their head up throughout this list already - often getting tapped back down for coming off as forced and artificially "retro." Now, Grand Magus is no wannabe band looking to make their name with yet another uninspired Iron Maiden clone (come to think of it, Maiden made an appearance way down at the bottom of this thing already, didn't they?). For those paying attention, Grand Magus have already released four great albums prior to this one, which stood at the three-way intersection of stoner, heavy and doom metal. On Hammer of the North, Grand Magus have done away with much of the first genre, opting to go for a more traditional heavy/doom sound on this outing. As much as I love their earlier albums, I have to say that I like this change. The writing here seems far more focused and consistent than ever before - there really are no weak points in this set of songs. Every track sports crunchy, classic heavy metal riffs and excellent vocal work from Janne Christoffersson.

Speaking of Janne, he may not be nearly as technically skilled as Halford, Dio, Dickinson, et al... but at this point I'm willing to throw my vote his way for inclusion in the pantheon of heavy metal vocalists. Whether he's channeling Rob Halford ("I, the Jury") or Rob Lowe ("The Lord of Lies"), the performance is top notch and perfectly befitting the material. Think about that for a second - how many bands (much less vocalists) are out there today that can channel Judas Priest and Candlemass on the same album and make it entirely their own? I honestly can't think of anyone else off the top of my head, though I would certainly welcome being proven wrong. As much as I've talked up Janne Christoffersson's vocal performance, I really don't want to sell his axe skills (or his band members' performances) short. For the most part the rhythm section isn't doing anything particularly mind-blowing, but they do their job to complement the riffs and perfect that infectious groove that permeates the album. Just for good measure, and to complete the full heavy metal experience, Janne throws some pretty sweet solos into the mix. Grand Magus has gone pretty under appreciated for the early part of their career, hopefully they'll maintain this level of quality and ride their new deal with Roadrunner to the accolades that they richly deserve.

Best Tracks: I, the Jury, At Midnight They'll Get Wise
Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #4

Man's Gin - Smiling Dogs

Remember Gin, Cobalt's 2009 effort? (You should, as it was a great album and found its way into my top ten for the year.) Assuming that you are on the right track so far and hungry for more material from Erik Wunder, you're in luck here. Man's Gin takes the lighter part of Cobalt's sound and builds on that with additional American folk elements. While the album is primarily acoustic rock and has its fair share of up-tempo and hopeful tracks, do not mistake this as a complete abandonment of what we heard on Gin. Despite the departure from the realm of metal, Man's Gin still manage to weave a convincingly dreary tapestry for the more lyrically gloomy and pessimistic tracks on this release. Wunder's vocals are surprisingly strong on either side of this coin and show a pretty strong grunge influence - actually, for whatever reason, I get the impression that Wunder is a Meat Puppets fan by listening to his performance on this album. But maybe that's just me.

Whether the Curt Kirkwood comparison is warranted or not, it's certain that Wunder has established himself as a very capable vocalist who has a definite flair to carry this kind of material. Seriously, take a listen to "Nuclear Ambition" and tell me which vocalists could pull that one off as well as he does - go ahead, I'll wait... Just as I commented on Gin last year, this is another piece of work that sounds utterly organic and natural and the vocals play a huge role in bringing it all together. Even at its darkest and most angry, the music is undeniably catchy - and not the "sick to your stomach from and overdose of processed sugar" kind of catchy, but the real honest-to-goodness kind that you'll be happy to have stuck in your head for days. Recommended for fans of Alice in Chains, Meat Puppets, Nick Cave, Dax Riggs, Tom Waits (namedrop much?)... hell, I'll recommend this to anyone. With two top ten albums in two years, I am extremely excited to see what path Wunder will follow with his musical future - if the past is any predictor of the future, it is sure to be quality.

Best Tracks: Nuclear Ambition Parts 1&2, Doggamn
Rating: 10/10