I don’t often write top ten music lists, because my taste in music has been called a) eclectic, and b) horrible. I don’t regard myself as an authority on what sounds good and what’s technically brilliant, as I’m a hopeless musician myself.
Nevertheless, a couple of readers have been bugging me for a top ten list, and it does seem silly to write a metal blog and hardly ever talk about music, so I thought I’d discuss some of my favorite releases of this year. In no particular order. Plus, this way you will see how awful I am at reviewing albums, and will stop bugging me to review albums.
1. Shining – Blackjazz
The lads at No Clean Singing brought this band to my attention, and I’m thankful for it. The fifth release from Norwegian avant-garde black metallers blows on the assumption that nothing new or interesting is going on in metal. I’ve never liked the term “avant-garde” which seems to be a catch-all for “fucking weird shit” but it’s an apt description here. I love the concept of mixing metal and free jazz, but I’ve never heard the two integrated in a cohesive manner until Blackjazz.
It’s like the soundtrack from some future science-fiction jungle jazzhall, space-junkie Fear and Loathing in Los Vagas. It’s not headbanging music .. it’s almost fit for a dance club. A dance club of your nightmares. Vocalist Jørgen Munkeby channels Frank Zappa. There’s a saxaphone. There’s a cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schitzoid Man” that you won’t believe. You’ll either love Blackjazz or hate it, but you can’t argue – it’s bloody unique.
2. Eluveitie – Everything Remains as it Never Was
Swiss Eluveitie is a recent love of mine. I’ve heard them on and off for the last couple of years but it wasn’t till a friend in Germany raved about them I actually sat down to listen to them. Slania, stands as their best record, and – like most bands – every other album must stand in comparison to it.
Everything Remains as it Never Was continues the Eluveitie signature sound – melodic death overlayed with multiple folk instruments, and high, almost metalcore vocals. I say “almost” metalcore, because I think associating metalcore with Eluveitie is a bit of an insult. There’s a sophistication here – a depth of sound – that metalcore lacks.
At first listen Eluveitie seem disorganised, a mish-mash of random sounds thrown together. But by the third listen you can begin to understand the theme and melody, and the sound just “licks”. You think “Fuck, this is awesome.” Everthing Remains … is not especially ground-breaking, it’s the same formula Eluveitie have used since their debut, but I don’t believe a band necessarily has to recreate themselves every album. As long as they put out an album of wicked metal songs, I’m still a fan. And this is exactly that.
3. Cynic – Re-Traced (EP)
I am probably going to get flamed for this choice. Revisiting your own songs is often a sore point with fans, and as a band, it can be a seriously stupid idea. I remember when Linkin Park (sorry to mention them in an article about metal) where huge, and they brought out a highly successful debut and everyone wanted more more more Linkin Park, and they decided to release a remix album. Dumb idea guys. But the time their second album Meteora was released, no one cared about Linkin Park any more.
However, I personally enjoy the concept of a song as a fluid entity, never entirely finished but able to be reworked and recreated. I love how Cynic have taken these familiar songs in a different, softer direction. “Evolutionary” (reimagining “Evolutionary Slayer”) strips down the harsh vocals, and replaces the heavy riffs with acoustic guitar. The soaring melody and clever structure of the song becomes the main focus. On “King” (“King of Those Who Know”) the drums and bass carry the song, coming to the fore to show their chops.
No one is really sure if “Re-Traced” was an interesting side-project of the band, or an indication of a new musical direction. I would be happy to buy a full length album of new material that sounded like this – it was nice to tone down the brutal for a little bit.
3. Gamma Ray – To the Metal
Maybe I’m biased, because I saw them live last year, and that made me pay more attention, but I think To the Metal is one of the better power metal releases of the year (this will change when Blind Guardian’s new album comes out). After Land of the Free came out and became known as Land of the Bland, they had to “bring it” on their next release, and brought it they did. It’s the Gamma Ray we know and love, doing what Gamma Ray do best – melodic speed metal as only the Germans know how.
Beautiful, cheesy, feel-good lyrics, catchy hooks and headbanging riffs. Nothing groundbreaking – just pure heavy metal.
4. Burzum – Belus
I’ve mentioned before how my love of Burzum’s music outweighs my repugnance of Varg’s various crimes. Sometimes you have to set aside differences and try to appreciate art on its own merits. Belus delivers on everything it promised. Varg’s vocals have moved away from his shrieks, which I kind of miss, but his more ordinary black metal rasp does feel a bit pleasenter on the ear. A reviewer called the songs “the same as usual – minimalistic and hypnotising”, and he said exactly what I would have said. You won’t find anything new, or some breakthrough genius here, but you do find the same misanthropic magic from the previous “metal” Burzum records.
Of all Burzum’s album, Belus has by far the best production (which isn’t saying much) and I think the shift from analogue to digital has been helpful here. A recommendation for those familiar and appreciative of the ambience of black metal.
5. The Vision Bleak – Set Sail to Mystery
The title of this album always makes me think of those old Nancy Drew books. Another German band – this time a duo of gothic metallers – who stand at the forefront of their genre. One reviewer said “not only entertaining … but educational” – referring to the numerous references to gothic literature and tropes. Think Cradle of Filth without the pretension. I love anything that can evoke an atmosphere of dread – and The Vision Bleak do this with authenticity and skill.
“I dined with the Swans” is my favorite track – perhaps an unorthodox choice, but the interplay of melody creates a perfect atmosphere. I want to create a painting now called “I dined with the Swans”. If you thought “gothic metal” was a signifier for “toned-down pop-rock guitars with female vocals”, then you need to hear The Vision Bleak.
6. Orphaned Land – The Never Ending Way of ORWarriOR
A Jewish folk-metal band from Jerusalam, Orphaned Land came to my attention through the Global Metal. “The never ending way …” is their best album yet, and if you wanted an album to see if you would like this band, this would be the album I recommend. Exquisite interplay of the folk and metal elements, and an overall improvement in song structure that seems clearly influenced by bands like Opeth, make this a stand-out album for 2010.
While many folk bands are opting for fun, catchy drinking songs, Orphaned Land have used their music to create an emotional, soaring epic of pain and hope and salvation. No wonder it took 6 years for them to write – they took their time getting it right, and that effort shines through on this brilliant album. I am still discovering details of “the never ending way …”
7. Svartsot – Mulmets Visor
I interviewed Svartsot back in May, and – although I prefer their first album, Ravnenes Saga, over this one – Mulmets Viser gives us much to enjoy. Ravnenes Saga is a catchy melodic death metal album ala Amon Amarth with a whistle following the guitar melodies. On Mulmets Viser, Svartsot bring in more folk instruments and counter-melodies to create a more interesting and dynamic sound. They’re moving away from “death metal with a tin whistle” and into territory now glutted with other folk metal bands. I think their superior ear for catchy riffs will see them through in the end, but for now they seem to have moved away from a distinct, although perhaps to some boring, sound into the realm of “just like everybody else”.
Being just like everybody else isn’t a bad thing when you release a great album, however, which they have. It’s fun, it’s catchy, it’ll get your neck rolling. I like it.
8. Krokus – Hoodoo
I first heard of Krokus four years ago, when I went with a group of friends to a metal tribute night and a bunch of guys in the pit started heckling the band. “Play some Krokus!” they would yell over and over. Of course, the chant was taken up by most of the venue, since Krokus is such a silly name, and of course the band didn’t know any Krokus, so after every song they would say “and that was Krokus’ ‘Enter Sandman'”, and “From Krokus’ seminal record Chaos AD …” It was great fun, and I had to look up Krokus when I got home.
I own a couple of albums, and they are mediocre. I think that was the joke. I expected Hoodoo to be the same, but it’s actually quite good. The original lineup are back after a 20 year hiatus and are kicking the ass of the Swiss music charts. If you’re looking for a record blazing with pure old-school rock’n’roll, ala ACDC, with a little metal thrown in, Hoodoo is it for 2010. They cover “Born to be Wild”, which I think is a little overdone – especially when they don’t exactly wow you with their rendition, but ignore it and listen to the rest of the album. The best song is definitely “Hoodoo Woman” with a little jungle vibe with the drums and sliding guitars. Yeah, its an AC/DC knock-off, but don’t let that spoil an otherwise enjoyable album.
9. Howl – Full of Hell
In trying to keep this list as well-rounded as possible, I present Howl, a sludge band from Rhode Island (called “post-doom” by some reviews but I hate any genre with the word “post” in it). I love how US metal, especially US doom / sludge / stoner metal, has this vibe to it – the atmosphere of all my favorite horror and western films mashed into music.
Full of Hell has this vibe, and more besides. ‘m not a huge stoner / sludge fan, so I can’t tell you if their sound is particularly ground-breaking, or well-received, but I can say that when I listen to it I feel as though I’m inside Alfred Hitchcock’s head, or perhaps the main character of And the Ass Saw the Angel. If you listen to one track, make it “Heavenless”, and then tell me I’m wrong.
10. Sabaton – Coat of Arms
I am a sucker for any metal referencing historical events and people, so Sabaton’s brand of “slightly-less-cheesy-than-usual” power metal based on historic battles totally appeals. Coat of Arms is, again, nothing groun-breaking, but a great power metal albums of headbanging power metal songs about historical battles. Apparently the band asked fans to send in ideas for songs, and you can see the current media trends appearing in the lyrical themes – the title track concerns brave Leonidas and the Spartans fighting without hope against the Persian hordes. No cheesy “This is Sparta!” spoken word sections, which was a wise decision. “Screaming Eagles” is about dog-fighting (planes, not dogs). There’s a bit of chaff on this album – which doesn’t approach Art of War in its structure or delivery, but the wheat makes it a worthwhile buy.
See – this is why I don’t write music reviews. I don’t know what to say beyond “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”. Anyway, please feel free to agree / disagree with any of my choices, and list your favorites in the comments so I an see what I’m missing out on. I haven’t included tracks because (I bet you figured) I’ll be featuring a lot of these bands in this week’s Metal Mixtape.
Have at it!