Last year I wrote a list of my top ten metal albums for the first half of 2010, then revisited my top ten metal albums of 2010 at the end of the year. It was interesting to see how my tastes changed over the next six months – what albums dropped off to make way for new releases. So I’ve made another mid-year list for 2011.
I know all of you are going to disagree with at least seven of these albums, and I got a ridiculous amount of emails from people calling me a poser and a crackhead after last year’s lists, so I would like to remind you – my blog = my opinion. I don’t have some all-encompassing metal power to make any record popular over another, so instead of telling me how much I suck for not including your favorites, write your own choices in the comments. Please! I’d love to hear what YOU think are the best metal releases of 2011. Chances are, you’ll introduce us all to some awesome music we’ve never heard before, and that’s never a bad thing.
Amon Amarth – Surtur Rising
I wrote a review of Surtur Rising back when it was released, and I’m not going to repeat it here. Suffice to say that the Swedish metallers delivered all they promised on this, the most-anticipated metal record of 2011.
Sun Caged – The Lotus Effect
Dutch Progressive metallers Sun Caged released their third album, The Lotus Effect, to critical acclaim in June. No Clean Singing reviewer Israel Flanders said “Sun Caged is Dreamtheater if Dream Theater didn’t suck”. I agree.
I struggle with prog metal because it always builds towards something that doesn’t quite come, with Symphony X’s Paradise Lost album approximating what I think prog metal should sound like. Songs like “Tip-Toe the Fault Line” demonstrate the devotion to complex keyboard and guitar arrangements, while “Ashes to Ear” and “Let It Wash Away” create just the right balance of darkness and accessibility to make this an album I’d recommend to non-metal listeners.
Isolation – Closing the Circle
Five years after their first demo, the chaotic black metal release Striding on the Path of Nihil, Isolation finally released their debut album, Closing the Circle, in Europe this June. The band’s sound has changed drastically since their early days, with Closing the Circle floating in a kind of droning, atmospheric sludge rock with twisted hints of the black metal roots poking through. This was not an album I expected to like, and I find myself returning to listen to it again and again. The tracks “Closing a Circle” and “Fan the Flames” stand out as interesting mixes of melodic riffs, slow, droning vocals, and upbeat, almost rocky hooks.
The only thing I struggle with on this album is the vocals, which suit the music perfectly 85% of the time. But sometimes they seem to screech when the song demands softness, or fall away when the music demands their attention.
Ulcerate – the Destroyers of All
Even though I don’t get this kind of chaotic death metal, even I can tell that The Destroyers of All is something special. They remind me of Immolation the way they manage to create layers of sound, separate suites of cacophony that blend seamlessly into order. First, you notice the drumming, sharp and penetrating, erupting into blastbeats and complex fills at just the right time. The guitars, heavy with fuzz from effects pedals, carry you through riff after impressive riff. Listen to “Cold Becoming” and tell me that’s not genius. Painful to listen to, but genius.
Other reviewers compare them to Psycroptic, and I can hear why, but Ulcerate really do bring a sound that’s uniquely their own.
And I’m not just saying that because they’re local boys.
While Heaven Wept – Fear of Infinity
Virginian doom metallers While Heaven Wept return with the follow-up to the stunning Vast Oceans Lachrymose – and they prove that they’ve still got the chops to create music that evokes sorrow and fear and longing and beauty. While Heaven Wept blend doom metal with symphonic and power metal elements to create a songs that tell stories. From the deep, doomy depths of despair on “Obsessions New Effigies” and “Finality” to the beautiful vocal harmonies of “Destroyer of Solace”, Fear of Infinity will paint a world of ghosts inside your skull.
My only complaint is that, at seven songs long, even seven EPIC songs, Fear of Infinity feels too short to me.
Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s hand
Anyone who’s been reading my blog for a long time will know I’m kind of a Bathory-fangirl. Although the vocal style is a bit different, Primordial have always reminded me of Bathory, and that gets them big bogan brownie points in my book. Redemption at the Puritan’s hand doesn’t sound quite as good as To the Nameless Dead, which I think is their best album to date, but it’s still bloody good.
I mean, really, really good.
“No grave deep enough” could have come from any Bathory record, with lyrics that remind me of another of my favorite bands – Skyclad. “The Puritan’s Hand” and “Death of the Gods” are two of the best tracks to come out of any band this year. The two dirge-like tracks with cleaner vocals from Alan Averill – “Bloodied Yet Unbowed” and “The Mouth of Judas” – break up the album and give a little bit of variety to Primordial’s usual sound.
Also, I must admit when that Irish accent comes through in the vocals, my heart melts a little.
Orpheus – Bleed the Way
Bleed the Way is the debut album from Orpheus, a melodic death metal from Australia. Warning – this album is quite heavy on the keyboards, but the compositions are so original, I think it works. The keyboards on “Unscathed” in particular remind me of the power metal band Battleheart, but the song itself is better than both Battleheart albums I own.
This album has a clean, sophisticated mix, allowing you to appreciate the thick-walled guitars and crushing bass to their full potential. Orpheus have the kind of euro sound I’d expect to see gracing the stage at a major festival.
Vexillum – The Wandering Notes
Fans of Elvenking will appreciate this album. These Italians follow the same formula adopted by their countrymen, but pull the folk elements back in the music to expose blistering guitar solos. I found The Wandering Notes sounded more like a classic power metal release than a lot of the music being released in this genre lately, and that’s why it appeals to me so much. Check out “The Traveller” for a great power metal track, and “The Brave and the Craven” and “Neverending Quest” for more besides.
I don’t think this album will be talked about in a years time, and I’d like to see Vexillum deliver something more unique on their next release, but for now, this is a fun, classic, engaging power metal album from a bunch of talented Italians, and I can’t complain about that.
Conflicted – Never Be Tamed
I don’t know about you, but after the awesomeness that was Paradise Lost, I found Symphony X’s Ironclast a serious let down. Never fear, because Conflicted will wipe your proggy tears away. Mixing progressive arrangements with the melody and catchy hooks of power metal, Never be Tamed has to be one of the best albums released this year.
I listen and I try to find some kind of weakness in this album, but I just can’t find it. Each song is perfectly executed, each solo flawlessly carried off, each rise and fall of frontman Jason Orton’s mammoth vocals justify critics comparisons to Ripper Owns, Geoff Tate and King Diamond. The keyboards don’t overwhelm, and the songs don’t break down into overly-theatrical wankery – Conflicted have created a prog metal album with a real classic metal edge, and I think it’s an album that will still sound just as amazing in ten years time.
Battle Beast – Steel
Such a terrible name for such an awesome band. I am a sucker for songs with lyrics like “Shake the World with Metal …” and Battle Beast deliver with their debut album of classic metal anthems. Female vocalist Nitte Valo doesn’t disappoint – her performace devoid of any of the usual criticisms for female vocalists in metal. Her husky, punchy vocals match the soaring solos and high-voltage melodies to perfection.
You won’t find anything complex or drawn out on Steel – just fist pumping, head banging tracks, many of which would have been amazing stadium songs back in the 80s. Songs like “Victory” remind of 3 Inches of Blood on Advance and Vanquish. Check out “Steel”, “Justice and Metal” and “Enter the Metal World” for a sampling of this awesome Finnish metal band.
Other releases I enjoyed:
Scar Symmetry – The Unseen Empire – love the techy/melo-death Soilwork sound, but was a bit too “poppy” in places.
Alestorm – Back through Time – having drank from the Pyrex jug of doom with these guys, I’ve come to embrace the ridiculousness that is Alestorm, and this album is a testament to the fact that metal is, about all, about having fun.
Hibria – Blind Ride – probably one of the best power metal releases of the year, but so disappointing compared to their last two releases, so it missed out on the top ten.
Blackguard – Firefight – one of the first albums after Eluveitie with this style of vocals I’ve enjoyed.
MIWA – My Wish is Your Command – see my review HERE.
Onward We March – The Golden Vine – see my review HERE.
Arch Enemy – Khaos Legions – see my review HERE.
What are your favorite releases of 2011? Let us know in the comments below!