Conor's Top 30 of 2011

So here it is, the end of 2011. It’s probably been the biggest music year of my life, at least in terms of listening to the work of others is concered. I’ve probably listened to about two or three hundred albums this year, and it was pretty difficult to pick out the best of the best. There was plenty of mediocre stuff I heard, but there are more than enough records that came out of 2011 that I’ll be taking with me well into 2012. For most of these albums, I have included a link to the review I originally wrote for it. I understand that what’s written in the reviews may not align with what I say here, but my opinions are fluid and have evolved over the course of the year. I would recommend listening to at least a few of these albums; even though 2011 is over, this music is well worth checking out. At the bottom, I have included a few ‘extra’ awards. As always, comment, tell me what you think, and perhaps recommend a few albums (based on my taste) for me to check out and listen to. Cheers! Starting at number 30…

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30Dead Horse (Charts & Maps) | Post-Rock/Jazz Fusion

This is an album that took me by surprise. Finding it pretty late into the year, I went into it under the impression that it would be ‘another post rock album’, but for once in my life, I was wrong. Here is an album that blends styles so well that I can’t see the seams between them; a wonderful collision between jazz and post-rock. Awesome saxophone work over atmospheric rock soundscapes. Dig it. 29Exmilitary (Death Grips) | Experimental Hip-Hop

Not only is this the only hip-hop album that is on this year end list, it’s the only hip-hop album that’s ever made it onto a ‘year end’ for me so far, but after this, I’m definitely going to give some more credence to hip-hop. About as far from ‘bitches and money’ rap as My Little Pony is from Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials, Death Grips is an incredibly forward-thinking record that has got me thinking twice about hip-hop. It is an incredibly abrasive and avant-garde mix of psychedelic samples (from the likes of Link Wray and Pink Floyd) and dark, psychotic subject matter, typically revolving around insanity. The vocals are aggressive and remind me greatly of schizophrenic songster Wesley Willis.

28Rites At Dawn (Wobbler) | Traditional Progressive Rock

The whole ‘prog’ thing started to wear thin for me this year. I realized that so many bands were not only copying the old prog rock bands, but blatantly so. Norway’s Wobbler is no exception to this, but damn, do they do it well. This album is a tribute to my favourite classic prog band Yes in any respect, from the sense of organic production to the vocals and way the compositions flow. Although I was first turned off by the derivative feel of this album, the lack of originality doesn’t stop this from being a powerful, memorable, and deep release.

27World In Front Of Me (Mars Hollow) | Art Pop/Prog Crossover

Although prog is typically more about complex composition than more conventional elements of modern music, Mars Hollow is a band that puts strong melodies before anything else, and it works. This is their second album in as many years, and there is good reason for them to be spoken well of. I am looking forward to hearing more of them in the future!

26Snowtorch (Phideaux) | Modern Progressive Rock

Phideaux is practically a household name for modern prog. I first took notice of them when Phideaux Xavier did a quick vocal cameo on Ayreon’s ’01011001′ album back in 2008. On this album, Phideaux beautifully combines the old and new to make something fresh and enjoyable. Parts of ‘Snowtorch’ could have been edited out, but its high points have stuck with me throughout the year.

25For All We Know (For All We Know) | Progressive/Melodic Metal

A supergroup featuring members of Pain of Salvation and Within Temptation, For All We Know has really impressed me with a melodic, yet undeniably memorable and eclectic take on the progressive metal sound. Plenty of vocalists, musicians, and talent to go around here.

24Deconstruction – (Devin Townsend Project) | Symphonic Metal

Devin Townsend is one of my favourite artists of all time, but to be honest, I was not very enthusiastic about ‘Deconstruction’ when I first heard it. As my review indicates, I thought that despite its high production values, it lacked dynamic to a painful degree, and became difficult to enjoy consistently as a result. ‘Deconstruction’ has grown on me, as an album of that complexity tends to do. Not my favourite of the year, or of Devin’s career, but it’s very interesting and deserves several listens to properly get into it.

23Todo.s los colores del (Random) | Avant-Garde/Jazz Metal

The debut album of a new-ish Argentinian metal group, Random definitely lives up to their name. On this quirky album, I am hearing groove metal, jazz, The Mars Volta-esque psychedelia, death metal, Tool/Isis-post metal, and it all comes together into one very powerful musical journey. An excellent album that benefits from its diversity, like an Amazon rainforest of metal.

22The Hunter (Mastodon) | Psychedelic/Sludge Metal

I have not been a big fan of Mastodon in the past. While they have many aspects in their sound that I like and appreciate, it does not come together to make something that I have ever felt that I connect with. Take that and pair it with the news that Mastodon was simplifying their sound, and I had basically already written off Mastodon’s new album before it was released. Although they have focused more on conventional song structures here, Mastodon have not dumbed down their sound as I feared they would. Instead, their psychedelic tinge flourishes with a more concise sound and stronger songwriting. If they combine this passion with their complexity on ‘Crack The Skye’ next time, I think it will make for a total masterpiece.

21Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa (Moonsorrow) | Epic Pagan Metal

Moonsorrow were a band I got into this year, and their hard-to-pronounce latest album was the catalyst for me. Although it is not as powerful as some of the epic stuff they have done in the past, Moonsorrow have plenty of ‘epicness’ to pass around the table. The songs are long-winded, but there is plenty of depth in the sound and orchestration to be worth coming back for more.

20The Destroyers Of All (Ulcerate) | Technical Death Metal

Ulcerate’s latest album is one that’s been seen on plenty of year-end lists, and my list is no different. Taking the best elements of technical death metal and post metal and fusing them together, ‘The Destroyers Of All’ is a volatile onslaught of some of the most chaotic and heavy music I have heard this year. Although I’m prone to be turned off by such an unrelenting pace, the performance of this band is devastating. The drumwork here is some of the best I’ve ever heard in metal.

19Falling Deeper (Anathema) | Ambient Chamber

I wasn’t sure if I should include this album on the list due to it not being a legitimately ‘new’ release, but I like it enough to overrule that. Anathema used to be a death-doom metal band, but they have since mellowed up their sound, much like Katatonia have. With ‘Falling Deeper’, Anathema looks back on the doom songs they wrote, and gives them a lush do-over, turning them from gritty doom epics into soft, ambient journies. It’s one of the softest albums I’ve heard in the year, and while it doesn not grab my attention all the way through, there is plenty of depth given to these renditions.

18Agony (Fleshgod Apocalypse) | Symphonic Technical Death Metal

Fleshgod Apocalypse; possibly the best technical death metal band playing out there? Although that sub-genre is filled to the brim with soundalikes, this is a band that distinguishes itself with vast and bombastic symphonic elements, including orchestral arrangements, classical piano, and operatic clean vocals. ‘Agony’ takes their symphonic direction to new heights, to the point now where the technical death metal side of their sound is no longer dwarfing the orchestral sound. It’s basically a tech death symphony.

17Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (Explosions In The Sky) | Post-Rock

Explosions In The Sky have long been my ‘favourite’ post rock band, or at least one of them. ‘Take Care, Take Care Take Care’ (or ‘TC3′ for those with an aversion to carpal tunnel)  does not deliver much of the unexpected for this band, but they take their existing cinematic sound and do some beautiful things with it ‘Last Known Surroundings’ and ‘Human Qualities’ are two of the most beautiful songs I have heard this year. This is possibly my favourite post rock album of 2011.

16Passion (Pendragon) | Modern Progressive Rock

Call it ‘neo prog’ or whatever you want, Pendragon’s dark and brooding sound of progressive rock reminds me quite a bit of Porcupine Tree, one of my favourite bands. Taking a Floydian atmosphere and drenching it in a cloud of English rain, Pendragon’s latest LP is an exploration into anger and melancholy, through the lens of some very atmospheric rock music.

15Tales Of The Sands (Myrath) | Oriental Prog Metal

Myrath are a prog metal band from Tunisia; certainly not a hotspot for metal or any kind of ‘heavy’ music, and that makes Myrath all the more exciting of a band to listen to. 2011 had alot of turbulence in their part of the world, and Myrath’s collision of progressive metal and Middle-Eastern music is a sparkling reflection of the feelings that have been inspired from the conflict. A good comparison to make for these guys would be a combination of Orphaned Land’s oriental folk elements and Kamelot’s melodic metal bombast.

14Sympathetic Resonance (Arch/Matheos) | Progressive Metal

Back in the 80′s, John Arch sang for the classic prog metal act Fate’s Warning, then left to pursue a career in carpentry. He hasn’t been heard much from since, and that makes his full-length return much more exciting. Arch/Matheos is a collaboration between the old singer and longstanding guitarist of Fate’s Warning, and as one might expect, the resulting sound is much like Fate’s Warning. It’s been many years since Fate’s Warning has put out something this fierce however, and despite being out of the loop for so long, Arch’s vocals sound spectacular, dare I say better than Ray Alder’s (his replacement).

13Terminal Twilight (White Willow) | Art Pop/Prog Crossover

Norway has given some great bands and albums this year, although not necessarily from the traditional ‘black metal’ style they are known for. Like Wobbler, White Willow are a Scandinavian prog act, although ‘Terminal Twilight’ delivers on the noble originality that Wobbler lacked. White Willow thankfully do not fall into the potholes that so much modern prog tends to suffer from. The music is driven by some gorgeous female vocals, and plenty of lush keyboards. ‘Floor 67′ is one of the most touching tracks I have heard this year.

12Visions (Haken) | Progressive Metal

Last year, Haken made my top 10 list with their fantastic debut ‘Aquarius’, an album that I still return to and love. Although rightfully receiving accusations of being something of a Dream Theater clone, Haken’s potential and talent were readily evident from the start. ‘Visions’ does what any good sophomore does, and corrects manyo f the issues that the first dealt with. Most notably, Haken has achieved a more distinct sound, no longer sounding like Dream Theater or Symphony X, but now sounding like themselves. It’s not quite as impressive an album as ‘Aquarius’ was, but it is a more mature effort, and has not failed to impress.

11VII: Fodd Folorare (Shining) | ‘Suicidal’ Black Metal

Best known for their incredibly dark subject matter and the black metal shenadigans of their frontman, Niklas ‘Kvarforth’ Ollsson. Although they might be perceived as a gimmick band when you hear of some of the crap that Kvarforth does and says, they deliver some incredible music, both dark and forward-thinking. ‘VII: Fodd Folorare’ is not my favourite Shining album, and for what it lacks in terms of album flow, it makes up for it in amazing songwriting and incendiary performance. Opeth (as they once were) may be a good comparison.

10A Dramatic Turn Of Events (Dream Theater) | Progressive Metal

Dream Theater was probably my most anticipated album of the year, and after their drummer of 25 years leaving, I was not sure if it would turn out as a hit or mss. Dream Theater are one of my favourite bands, but they are not as consistent as I would like them to be, but ‘A Dramatic Turn Of Events’ is the best album they have done in quite some time. With (some of) the ego in the band gone, Dream Theater have re-traced their steps and come out with a collection of excellent progressive metal epics. ‘Breaking All Illusions’ is one of the greatest songs the band has done. ‘Build Me Up, Break Me Down’ still doesn’t sit right with me, but it’s a small bump in an otherwise brilliant trip.

09The Inside Room (40 Watt Sun) | Traditional Doom Metal

Best known for his prior band Warning, Patrick Walker is a modern legend of doom metal. Although I first knew doom as a gothic mixture of down tempo riffs and death growls, the traditional sounds of doom were actually quite melodic, and Walker continues to bring this older sound to listeners with 40 Watt Sun. Recorded over the course of three nights in a library, 40 Watt Sun’s ‘The Inside Room’ is an intensely personal journey, with massive layers of fuzzy guitars and martial drums poudning underneath Walker’s nasal, but passionate and distinctive voice and lyrics.

08777 – The Desanctification (Blut Aus Nord) | Post/Black Metal

French industrial/avant black metal project Blut Aus Nord released two albums this year, the first of which being ’777 – Sect(s)’. That record blew me away when I first heard it, but ‘The Desanctification’ takes BLut Aus Nord’s sound even further down the proverbial rabbit hole. The second of a prospected trilogy, ‘Desanctification’ emphasizes Blut Aus Nord’s roots in industrial music, fusing that together with blackened post metal in a terrifying way.

07Torn Beyond Reason (Woods Of Desolation) | Depressive Black Metal

Woods Of Desolation is the continuation of the depressive black metal band Austere. ‘Torn Beyond Reason’ was recommended to me as one of the greatest depressive black metal albums to come out in ages, and I tend to agree. Much like Austere, there are many riffs of beauty here, and the focus of the music is not to be grim and frostbitten, but rather beautiful, in a classical way. The sound is vast and epic, and to touch things off, there are recurring themes throughout the album to give it a grand feeling of togetherness.

06Mammal (Altar Of Plagues) | Post/Black Metal

Ireland’s response to Wolves In The Throne Room, Altar of Plagues is a ferocious black metal act with a more post-metal oriented sound than the vast majority of black metal acts I have heard. ‘White Tomb’ was a debut that turned heads, and I think ‘Mammal’ virtually perfects their formula. Although they pursue a similar musical style to that of Wolves In The Throne Room, their sound is anything but wimpy; incorporating some intense sludge heaviness into the black metal souffle. ‘Neptune Is Dead’ is one of the most intense black metal epics I have ever heard.

05Fables Of The Sleepless Empire (uneXpect) | Avant-Garde Metal

When this album came out, I was in absolute love with it, and made no secret of that fact. uneXpect are masters of the avant-garde metal school, and as chaotic and mind boggling as they were on previous efforts, they have upped their game this time around. Much like Mastodon’s ‘The Hunter’, they have made their music a little more concise, and has it ever benefited from it; ‘Fables Of The Sleepless Empire’ is not quite as perfect as I thought it was at first, but it’s a work of quirk and genius.

04A Scarcity Of Miracles (King Crimson) | Modern Progressive Rock/Jazz Fusion

First, I know this is technically called a work of Jakszyk, Fripp, and Collins, but really, anything with Robert Fripp at the helm can count as a King Crimson album, right? King Crimson has been going for decades now, and Fripp has been the only constant member, but that fact aside, ‘A Scarcity Of Miracles’ is probably not what King Crimson fans were looking for. It is an incredibly mellow album, a huge departure from the last Crimson in 2003, which sported some intense experimental metal. Like many people, I was not a big fan of ‘A Scarcity Of Miracles’ at first; I found the laid back textures and incessant saxophone playing to resemble a progressive Kenny G. There is obviously much more to this album though; it is a rich and dark tapestry detailing what an apocalypse must feel like. With saxophones.

03Epoch (Fen) | Post/Black Metal

Much like the better-known band Agalloch, Fen take the sounds of atmospheric black metal and inject a liberal dose of post-rock and modern prog into it, creating a sound that I find very attractive. ‘Epoch’ is possibly the best post-black metal album I have ever heard; a sprawling work of purposeful songwriting, dreamy production and plenty of amosphere to feed my ears. It came out airly early in the year, but it has stuck with me, and it still takes me to a different world every time I listen to it.

02Grace For Drowning (Steven Wilson) | Eclectic Modern Prog Rock/Jazz Fusion/Art-Pop

Before I go into talking about the last two, know that it was an incredibly tight race. In a million parallel universes, this made the number #1. Steven Wilson’s  ’Grace For Drowning’ is an extension of one of my favourite bands, the legendary Porcupine Tree. Anyone who is familiar with him however knows that with his solo work, he likes to throw some of the material that wouldn’t be so suitable for the much narrower PT project. Suffice to say, if Wilson had tried to pass a twenty-plus jazz fusion freakout into the work of his flagship band, it might not be suitable, but with ‘Grace For Drowning’, that’s just a taste of the sort of brilliance that he does here. ‘Grace For Drowning’ is a sprawling double album that will likely be the album people think about years from now when they are thinking of 2011 in progressive music. With plenty of guest appearances and orchestrations up the wazoo, there is every indication that Steven Wilson’s entire musical career has been leading up to this, and it pays off. Porcupine Tree does not necessarily pale in comparison to this, but the vast sense of ambition and creative freedom that Wilson enjoys here has me more excited for another solo album than his band’s work.

01Bilateral (Leprous) (Progressive/Art Metal)

Here we are, number #1, and to be honest, I am very surprised that this beat out ‘Grace For Drowning’. It was only until recently that Norwegian progressive metallers Leprous beat out Mr. Wilson with their hird album ‘Bilateral’ in my books. Perhaps best known as he backing band for Ihsahn’s (of Emperor fame) live backing band for his solo material, Leprous have developed from what I would only describe as a promising, yet lackluster prog metal clone, to what they have evolved into now. The first two albums of Leprous were fairly easy to digest, with plenty of Dream Theater cliches to lean on. Their second album ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ even managed to do a fairly impressive job of pulling it off. Even so, I was not entirely sold on what Leprous was doing with their music, and that’s a great reason why I was so damned shocked by ‘Bilateral’. Although it’s not as ‘out there’ as Wilson’s ‘Grace For Drowning’, it has been years since I have heard a progressive metal album (or even metal album) that sounds so coherent and powerful. Despite their youth, these guys have incredible musical chops, but they manage to channel their musical skills through brilliant songwriting. They have finally crossed the threshold from being a mere prog metal band, into an incredibly inventive and surprising act. A vocal cameo from Ihsahn and trumpet solo only add to my opinion that this is the greatest album of 2011.

Honorable Mention(s)

Fly From Here (Yes)
Summereve (Hostsonaten)
Deep Politics (Grails)
Parasignosis (Mitochondrion)
A Rose For The Apocalypse (Katatonia)
Nine Paths (Knight Area)
A Grounding In Numbers (Van Der Graaf Generator)

Albums I still need to (re)listen to:

Outer Isolation (Vektor)
Hisingen Blues (Graveyard)
Mare (Kampfar)
Paragon Of Dissonance (Esoteric)
La Roi Du Monde (Runaway Totem)

Best EP(s) of 2011

Cynic’s ‘Carbon-Based Anatomy’ or Blotted Science’s ‘The Animation Of Entomology’. I interviewed both acts this year, both are amazing, and both continue to impress me each time I listen to them. I don’t think I can choose one over the other.

Most Disappointing Albums Of 2011

Albums that may or may not have been bad, but left me wanting more? There were plenty of them this year.

First and foremost: Opeth’s ‘Heritage‘. I appreciate them going in a new direction, but the amount of cliches they pull out of the bag with this one gives me the impression that this a joke album, or- in the parlance of the typical mongoloid internet user- a ‘troll’. I know plenty of people love the album, but I do not.

Besides that… The Decemberists’ ‘The King Is Dead’ Pain of Salvation’s ‘Road Salt II Morbid Angel’s ‘Ilud Divinum Insanum’ (although I’ll mention that I’ve had plenty of fun with this album, regardless of its quality.) Worst Album Of 2011? Aube’s ‘Variable Ambit’. I don’t wanna talk about it. What do you think? Like, comment, discuss.

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