A Thousand Flavors of Heavy: 2011 in Metal (and Beyond)
If you get paid to write about music, you have to make top ten lists at the end of the year. If you fail to do this Dave Marsh comes to your house and reads you Bruce Springsteen on Tour: 1968-2005 in its entirety. So, here goes, first with my metal picks, then hip-hop, rock/pop, and finally, on Christmas Eve, my favorite albums of the year. These reflect nothing but my personal preference, so please calm down.
THE BEST METAL ALBUMS OF 2011
1. Blut Aus Nord, 777: Sect(s) [Debemur Morti]
Even with a band as convincingly eclectic and constantly inventive as French black metal conjurors Blut Aus Nord, “three-album conceptual project” is a pretty gassy notion. Amazingly, though, the first two installments rank among the best work they’ve ever done; The Desanctification is trippy, phantasmal washes of mystical mayhem, and Sect(s) is as powerful and heavy an album as has ever graced their catalog. In America, people argue about black metal, but in France, they simply master it. Here’s proof.
2. Wormrot, Dirge [Earache]
A couple of guys from Singapore (and their drummer, who is apparently some kind of nuclear monster from outer space judging from the way he plays) come out of nowhere and deliver the most staggering, crushing, and enjoyable grindcore in ages. The hyper-velocity of grind isn’t there to show off technical flash, the way it is in thrash metal; it’s there for you to strap in and try to resist. The tracks on Dirge recall the best work of other grind legends, but it’s not derivative; it’s just flat-out light-speed fun.
3. Ulcerate, The Destroyers of All [Willowtip]
The most common knock against death metal — especially of the highly technical variety practiced by New Zealand’s Ulcerate — is that it’s an aesthetic dead end which, once mastered, can only one-up itself in terms of playing prowess. For three albums now, culminating with this fantastically deep slab of tech-death, Ulcerate has been proving that notion wrong, expanding the language of the genre and exploring its emotional power while never once letting up on the intensity that’s the form’s lifeblood.
4. Drugs of Faith, Corroded [Selfmadegod]
As with Wormrot’s Dirge, most of the material on Drugs of Faith’s Corroded was actually recorded and released last year overseas, and has just now been cleaned up and bestowed on U.S. metalheads. It was worth the wait. Drugs of Faith practice a kind of pop grind, with the grungy gut-punch power of Agoraphobic Nosebleed (Richard Johnson’s previous band) constantly in the fore but braced by a canny structural sensibility and some furiously hooky songwriting chops. Shockingly good at times.
5. Skeletonwitch, Forever Abomination (Prosthetic]
I’m not sure if they’d be pleased or dismayed at the comparison, but Skeletonwitch has more or less become to the 2000s what Iron Maiden was to the 1970s — not stylistically, though the two-guitar attack and the terrific blend of chops and hooks make the analogy a bit more robust — but in the sense that they put out one good album after another. It’s not that there’s something special that sets Forever Abomination apart; it’s just that it’s another great record from a band that seems to sweat them out.
6. Indian, Guiltless [Relapse]
There may be better records on this list, but there’s nothing heavier. Sporting an impeccable pedigree (frontman Will Lindsay is a veteran of both Nachtmystium and Wolves in the Throne Room) and a dedication to the hefty side of the heavy metal equation, Indian cranks out a psychedelic doom attack so weighty that the O’s feel like manacles. It doesn’t have the instantly memorable quality of some of the Birmingham revivalists, but it’s just so crushingly hard and heavy that you won’t be able to blink.
7. Wolves in the Throne Room, Celestial Lineage [Southern Lord]
Speaking of the Wolves, eventually they’re just going to fade away into a haze of ethereal wooziness, leaving behind a tangy-smelling cloud of incense, until Blood of the Black Owl figures a way to summon them back to our plane. In the meantime, though, they leave us with this marvelous piece of work — I can’t really say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, as that’s a dizzyingly high bar to hurdle, but it’s another supremely well-crafted and profoundly involving album, just as you’d expect.
8. Hammers of Misfortune, 17th Street [Metal Blade]
There will always be a John Cobbett. Metal trends and microgenres will come and go, but he will always be there, blending the best lick-heavy hardness of the past with the disjointed progressivism of the present, making sharp observations on urban alienation and doing it all with a wry sense of humor. 17th Street is marked by his usual intelligence and experimental tendencies, but it’s also catchy as hell, as if he’s been spending the last few months splicing the genes of ’70s metal into his own.
9. Mastodon, The Hunter [Warner Bros.]
A lot of critics seem to approach Mastodon as inherently untouchable, and are disappointed when their albums don’t achieve perfection. Me, I’m just the opposite — I always think of them as overachievers and keep figuring they’re going to settle back to a less glorified position, only to have them pull something amazing out of their skunky denim pockets at the last minutes. This time, it’s a ton of ferocious heavy riffs of the sort they haven’t fully unleashed since Remission — and, damn it, it works.
10. Today is the Day, Pain is a Warning [Black Market Activities]
Today is the Day has been one of my favorite bands for ages, and while I’d like to think I’m immune to the nostalgia-hound proclivities of so many other critics, I know I’m not. So take this with a grain of salt, but take it: Steve Austin’s first album in four years is a tremendous achievement, and very possibly the best thing he’s done since the Amphetamine Reptile years. With a new group of players sympathetic to his intentions and the same twisted, violent sense of musical unease, it’s a real stunner.