I turned 30 in 2011. Looking now at the albums I enjoyed most over the course of this year, and what made them enjoyable to me, it seems that the older I get, the more I just want to hear good songs.
If you don’t write songs that engage me and leave an impression on me after I have listened to them, if nothing motivates me to replay your album after I’ve finished listening to it – I don’t care about your scene cred, how many times you’ve change meter in a particular track, what pickups you’re using, your AxeFX presets, who produced your album, or any other superficial fact you throw my way.
Just give me something that’s honest, that reflects your influences in a sincere and unique way without trying to ride the coattails of any particular trend or manufactured movement – just give me some real, straight-from-the-heart heavy metal. That’s all I ask.
These are the metal albums that I enjoyed most this year.
Textures – Dualism
With a heavy and obvious Meshuggah influence and a proclivity for creating delay-soaked melodic landscapes over hammering polyrhythmic riffing, Textures have all of the predispositions to become just another boring “djent” band in a sea of flaccid clones. With “Dualism,” they do exactly the opposite, carving a niche for themselves by purposely exploring territories that deviate from the norms of the genre in which they operate. Opting for a natural and roaring production style over the characterless, sterile and over-compressed sound most bands of their ilk seek out, Textures create an album that ebbs and flows like a restless ocean, with complex but still overtly melodic compositions, spearheaded by immensely talented new vocalist Daniel de Jongh (ex-Cilice), whose masculine and heartfelt tenor is yet another nice break from the whiny and sissified clean vocals so prevalent in modern metal bands today.
Ulcerate – The Destroyers of All
If you are looking for a fix of technical death metal that has more to offer than a wankfest of arpeggios and blast beats, Ulcerate is the band that you need to hear. The complexity of the music is only a backdrop for the band’s horrifically dense and smothering atmosphere that owes just as much to Neurosis and Deathspell Omega as it does to more obvious influences like Gorguts and Immolation. Churning with schizophrenic drum work and anguishing, dissonant and angular riffs, Ulcerate create an oppressive and suffocating atmosphere that pushes death metal into territories still unexplored.
Gridlink – Orphan
In the 12 punishing minutes that make up this album, Gridlink manage to outperform all of their peers in terms of scathing brutality and uncompromising fury. The most impressive thing about “Orphan” is the fact that amid all of the breakneck speed and utter chaos, Gridlink manage to write a fistful of melodic, memorable, almost anthemic riffs that really separate them from the rest of the pack in terms of sophistication and songwriting ability without compromising the savageness of their sound.
Fair to Midland – Arrows & Anchors
Successfully following up the brilliant “Fables from a Mayfly…” was a task that these Texans were clearly up to with this release. Though not as immediate and infectious on the surface as its predecessor was, “Arrows & Anchors” is just as impressive on repeat listens, with the band honing their songwriting craft to perfection, the only misstep being the pointless and completely unnecessary musical interludes between many of the songs.
40 Watt Sun – The Inside Room
It’s hard for me not to love this album, considering that Warning’s “Watching from a Distance” is one of my absolute favorite doom metal albums of all time. Picking up where he left off with Warning, band leader Patrick Walker continues to create some of the most honest and emotional doom metal ever recorded. The production is a bit of a departure from Warning’s sound, much warmer and more brooding, accented with glistening acoustic passages and Walker’s inimitable, sorrowful and beautifully tragic vocal delivery, which has been his calling card since day one.
Revocation – Chaos of Forms
Revocation has all the qualities needed to become a seminal metal band and maybe one of the best of their generation. Incredible chops, great songwriting, and a knack for not taking themselves too seriously – Revocation make metal fun and exciting again with their catchy, but still very complex death/thrash hybrid, led by Dave Davidson, who is easily one of the best young metal guitarists in the world right now. Revocation are the perfect combination of oldschool sensibilities and modern execution, which ensures that they will be around long after the thrash metal revival dies out.
3 – The Ghost You Gave to Me
This is one of those bands that needs to be ruling the world and on regular rotation on every radio station on Earth. Unfortunately, Metal Blade Records doesn’t ever seem to know what to do with the unique prog bands that it signs (remember Thought Industry?). Band leader Joey Eppard is one of the most gifted vocalists and songwriters of this generation, along with being a nasty guitar player to boot. It’s a shame that more people don’t know about this band, but hopefully their recent touring with Cynic has helped to up their profile. This album does not have one bad song on it and seriously threatens to knock “Wake Pig” off the throne as 3’s best album. A great return to form after a couple slightly lackluster releases.
Leprous – Bilateral
What would Pain of Salvation sound like in 2011 if they didn’t turn into a sappy hard rock band? Maybe a little bit like these Norwegian progsters. Great playing, lots of complexity and atmosphere, without losing the ability to write a focused and moving song – that’s Leprous in a nutshell. Leprous remind me of Pain of Salvation’s early records in the sense that they never sound like a derivative of any other bands, even though they are obviously not reinventing any wheels with their music. I managed to see them live twice this year, once opening for Therion and once as Ihsahn’s backing band, and they are easily some of the most exciting and electric live performers I’ve seen in a long time, especially in progressive metal.
Vektor – Outer Isolation
If there’s one retro thrash band that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the masters of the 80s and 90s, then it’s Vektor. They do not sound like Voivod per se, but there is something about their attitude and approach that is very reminiscent of the Canadian legends. Realistically, the only thing that makes them retro is their haircuts and hi tops, because this is forward-thinking thrash metal with a penchant for experimentation and complex playing that puts them in the same league as the best progressive thrash bands of the past.
Esoteric – Paragon of Dissonance
The most consistent doom band on the planet, Esoteric really can do no wrong. Even though this double album is packed with all of the down tempo bereavement you have come to expect from the band, certain changes have been made to the sound this time around. The music is nowhere near as noisy and chaotic as most of its predecessors, with Esoteric choosing to give a more crystalized and clear definition to their bludgeoning riffs and haunting melodies instead of draping them in layers of horrific, Lovecraftian noisescapes.
Arch/Matheos – Sympathetic Resonance
A reunion with his original singer John Arch is exactly what Fate Warning leader Jim Matheos needed to get his creative juices flowing again after the dull “FWX” and OSI’s lackluster “Blood.” Though still very much an acquired taste, Arch hasn’t lost his edge, and still writes some of the most intriguing and unique vocal melodies in all of metal. This is melodic and engaging prog metal at its finest and easily the best Fates Warning-related project since 1997’s “A Pleasant Shade of Gray.”
Mastodon – The Hunter
Even though this is probably the least great record that Mastodon has released in their careers, it’s still better than most anything else that’s come out this year. Mastodon follow the ambitious “Crack the Skye” with an album that puts more of an emphasis on memorable and to-the-point songwriting than anything else, showcasing Mastodon as a band that really has nothing left to prove and is simply enjoying making exactly the kind of music they want to make. Though the sludgy anger of old Mastodon is almost nonexistent here, the band’s melodic sensibilities and ability to write great songs are continuously showcased in this modern day arena rock juggernaut of an album.
Earth – Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I
The subtlety and sophistication of the music that Earth have been making in the second half of the band’s career is unparalleled in the world of droning, doomy rock. Hypnotizingly beautiful, the craftsmanship of this band is astounding. Earth weave together sprawling, expertly performed, circular compositions that tease the listener with mesmerizing melodies and themes that hint at crescendoing into a climax, but never actually do. This is music that both demands your full attention, but at the same time, invites you to get lost inside it.
Immolation – Providence EP
This is what death metal should sound like. Immolation continue where they left off with last year’s “Majesty and Decay,” showcasing five new songs that offer up some of the most evil and merciless riffs you’ll hear anywhere. All the Immolation intangibles are there – dark and sadistic atmosphere, unique drumming, dissonant but still incredibly memorable riffing – as the band continues to age like fine wine.
Protest the Hero – Scurrilous
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There’s not much that’s different in “Scurrilous” compared to 2008’s “Fortress.” Regardless, Protest the Hero is at the top of the heap of today’s younger prog metal bands and has one of the most charismatic singers in all of metal, Rody Walker, who effortlessly creates memorable and impressive vocal lines over incredibly complex and busy music.
Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand
The same goes for Primordial. Not much different in style to 2007’s “To the Nameless Dead,” though it may not be as interesting and complete on the whole. However, these Irishmen continue to write some of the best, most emotionally engaging metal in existence. Long, expansive songs chock-full of Primordial’s signature black metal meets Irish folk music style melodies, along with the passionate bellow of singer Ian Averill, put the signature Primordial stamp on yet another album by a band that looks to be one of the most consistent metal groups of all time.
Cynthesis – DeEvolution
After the departure of original Zero Hour singer Erik Rosvold, the band was never really the same. Cynthesis marks a reunion of the creative core of this great prog metal band, with the brother’s Tipton joining forces once again with Erik. Replace Zero Hour timekeeper Mike Guy with Enchant drummer Sean Flanegan and you have Cynthesis. Think a lighter, catchier, more prog rock oriented version of Zero Hour’s classic first two albums with Erik and you’re on the right track to what Cynthesis sound like. A great return to form for the Tipton brothers, which proves that they and Erik share a very rare and unique musical connection.
Yob – Atma
Not as good as 2009’s “The Great Cessation,” but nevertheless, Yob remain one of the premier acts in the increasingly boring and one-dimensional stoner/doom metal scene. Though the album features Yob’s signature combination of crushing doom riffs and astral, psychedelic explorations, the dirges are not as urgent and earth-shattering and the melodic sections are not as transcendental on “Atma” when compared to the near-perfect previous record.
Trap Them – Darker Handcraft
Enlisting Kurt Ballou of Converge to beef up the production and provide some focus to the songwriting, Trap Them have crafted their most memorable album to date. Their sound is still heavily influenced by the chainsaw buzzing Swedish death metal style of Entombed and Dismember, but this album is less one-dimensional than their previous ones, with plenty of really catchy and pummeling mid-paced fist pumpers to go with the speedier Swedish death metal and D-beat influenced chugging usually associated with Trap Them.