Every December, young and old gather excitedly for the annual end of year list season, becoming intoxicated with joy or apoplectic with anger as they gaze upon the chosen fare. Such lists are a grand opportunity to unearth new sounds. Personally, their appearance fills me with a rapturous fervor—but then, I can get fairly orgasmic about a well-ordered shopping list, too. Obviously, not everyone is bursting with climactic joie de vivre during list season. Collective and individual lists carry all the biased passion of authors and editors, and understandably, opinions about their validity are hurled about. Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion of course, even if it comes wrapped in a torrent of feculent abuse.
Lists that delve into the cacophonous spectrums tackle genres already fuelled by vociferous convictions, and commentary boxes soon fill with the mutilated remains of writers’ opinions. (And you’ll find websites rating lists as well, granting space for second-degree burns.) Such is the way with the louder domains; they’re founded on sulfurous sentiment, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. At the end of the day, music is as intimate and visceral as you can get, and the fact that it provokes such intense reactions only affirms its significance—at least, that’s the mantra I sing to stop myself weeping uncontrollably because Goatfucker666 called me a very bad name.
Well, here at Ragnarök, we don’t go in for kvlt credibility, or worry about what’s stylish or cool. As a gray-bearded lump who spends most of my time pondering how to furtively siphon funds from the grocery money in order to buy a Lego Millennium Falcon, I have a distinct lack of said kvltness and coolness. Instead, in the six months of Ragnarök’s existence, the aim has been to highlight creative ventures with a strong sense of integrity—all of them linked in some manner to a loud aesthetic, even if delivered in a devilishly tranquil manner.
This year’s final Ragnarök continues that theme with an alternative end of year roundup, of sorts. Rather than counting down any top picks, this columns focus is on works that you may have missed during the year. You’ll find artists from black and death metal, drone and noise—plus another couple of cheeky choices I snuck in at no extra cost. Many of my favorites from the year are listed here, those I haven’t had the opportunity to write about elsewhere, and they all deserve to be mentioned.
It’s an incomplete list, chiefly because it lacks your contributions. While I’d encourage you to seek out the artists mentioned in this column (if you’re not already celebrating their work) there’s also that commentary box below. I want to hear about your choices of the year’s under-recognized albums, ones you’ve not seen on anyone else’s list. Whether this is your first visit to Ragnarök, or whether you’ve been following the column since its inception, thanks very much for stopping by, and happy Yule. (Special thanks also to my editor, Karen, who actually has to read this stuff.)
Welcome to Ragnarök’s inaugural end of year roundup—my own Gloomy Award nominations, if you will—where there are no winners or losers, just a raft of commanding and creative contenders. And this year’s nominees are…
Black metal is no stranger to colossal, ambitious works; endless symphonic twaddle is regurgitated every year. However, Imperator, the two-disc, 150-minute occult-fuelled epic from Norway duo Dødsengel, was the boldest black metal album of 2012. Dødsengel’s third full-length channeled orthodox and progressive black metal, psychedelia, and droning flourishes into a monolithic suite full of hypnotic and darkly tempting allurements. Admittedly, some would see Imperator‘s duration as pure self-indulgence, and they’d be right. But what is black metal if not brazen and arrogant? The heavily ritualized aura and sheer audacity of Imperator was reminiscent of the defiant shifts in Blut Aus Nord’s temper as it investigated black metal’s potential, and as a complete journey, Imperator was exquisitely baleful throughout. Imperator was unquestionably challenging, but Dødsengel’s vision, and its desire to experiment, was all bound together in a masterful display of recalcitrance and scornfulness—a true test of one’s mettle.
See also: adventurous, albeit not so lengthy, pursuits from Lunar Aurora (Hoagascht), Velnias (RuneEater), and Botanist (III: Doom in Bloom / Allies).
Stagnant Waters: Stagnant Waters
The self-titled debut from French/Norwegian trio Stagnant Waters pitched headfirst into an improvised ‘Dadaistic’ mire of crashing industrial guitars and electronics. Vocalist Svein Egil, drummer, electronics operator and clarinetist Aymeric Thomas, and guitarist and bassist Camillle Giraudeau crafted an album that was about as far removed from the band’s moniker as possible. With spontaneous recordings that barely came close to being accessible, Stagnant Waters‘s maniacal collision of black metal, ‘90s noise and experimental rock was a madhouse-bound plunge into a disharmonious orgy. Its obnoxious, clinging aftertaste would have made John Zorn, Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten blush. As you’d expect from an improvised work, it was all wild modulations and clanging intonations. If you can imagine a collection of serial killers playing avant-jazz on electronic cutlery in the midst of a chemical spill, you’re getting close to the free-for-all dementedness found here.
See also: magnificent insanity from Wizard Rifle (Speak Loud Say Nothing) and Furze ( Psych Minus Space Control).
The Sequence of Prime: Inter-
As Brandon Duncan, the mastermind responsible for the Sequence of Prime’s pan-dimensional, paradigm-quaking Inter- pointed out in a recent interview, “Everything about space, scientifically, aesthetically and metaphorically, is pure metal.” On Inter-, the follow up to 2010’s cybertronic bombardment Virion, Duncan explored the fabric of reality and the enormity of space, with a narrative focus encompassing theoretical physics, black holes, and all manner of cosmic horror. Aptly, Inter- was Tardis-like in its depth; Duncan packed a colossal amount of lyrical ideas and turbo-thrashing mayhem into 24 frenetic minutes. Hypotheses mixed with grinding vortexes, and bolide fireballs relentlessly rained down on technical wizardry. The music and conceptual scope of Inter- was hugely impressive. The fact that Duncan handled all the instrumentation and vocals, designed all the artwork, and gave the album away for free (as well as providing a handy reading list) only made the package more extraordinary. Inter- was superb, in very facet, and Duncan addressed the unfathomable interstellar void with an astronomical amount of inspiration and mad genius.
See also: pick of the year for digital zine, Backlit. This is a collaboration overseen by Brandon Duncan and overlord of the That’s How Kids Die website Josh Haun. Excellent contributions come from The Dragon of M87 and Metal Review authors Dan Obstkrieg (metal writer of the year, if we’re playing favorites) and Jordan Campbell. Backlit‘s aim is to “drag the old school metal zine into the future” and that goal was resoundingly met—issue #0 being beautifully presented and rich with nostalgic (but not dated) traces.
Ignivomous is routinely compared to death metal pioneer Incantation, but the Australian quartet is no tired imitation. Sure, Contragenesis, Ignivomous’s follow up to 2009’s nasty Death Transmutation, owed a debt to old school death metal, but it paid that with due reverence, honoring the core elements of early ‘90s death metal: brutality and filth. From its iron-fisted and unhinged riffing and soloing, to its dirty blast-beats and cavernous growling vocals, Contragenesis was all about obliteration—iniquitous, muddy melodies oozed from every song. Ignivomous’s focus was clearly on vicious old school authenticity, and Contragenesis reeked of the carnage and perversity of classic death metal. It was raw and chaotic, but its familiarity with days of yore took nothing away from its dark artistry. Ignivomous’s technicality, combined with Contragenesis‘s viscous, roily production, served as a wicked reminder of death metal’s finest, and most powerful, attributes.
See also: Revenge (Scum.Collapse.Eradication), Hooded Menace (Effigies of Evil), Deathevokation (Revel in Flesh) and Wrathprayer (The Sun of Moloch: The Sublimation of Sulphur’s Essence Which Spawned Death and Life).
Svartidauði: Flesh Cathedral
Comprised of four ten-minute maleficent tracks of ratcheting tension and degenerate menace, Flesh Cathedral, the debut full-length from Icelandic quartet Svartidauði, was dense, pernicious and utterly corruptive. A cacophonous blend of churning swampy noise laced with the lysergic taint of a trip gone very, very wrong, Flesh Cathedral didn’t so much as dive straight into the igneous heart of black metal, as tear it from its chest. The album mixed often-skewed tremolo riffing, rumbling bass and burly percussion—with croaking howls, growls and ear-splitting shrieks scattered among its deviant swerves. You’d hardly call Flesh Cathedral experimental or progressive, even though the songs stretched out—those terms seem far too grandiose for its feral barbarity. However, its fetid divergences drew from Killing Joke as much as from Deathspell Omega, and the band explored whatever musical route it desired, so long as it was stained with blood and bile. It’s difficult when presented with an album like Flesh Cathedral to compliment it without taking away from its inherent filthiness. Suffice to say, it was magnificently rendered squalor and ruination. A staggeringly good debut, from a band with much to offer to black metal’s wayward sphere.
See also: impressive self-titled debuts from Anicon, Vattnet Viskar, and Fhoi Myore, as well as Oak Pantheon (From a Whisper
Ruining You), Wildernessking (The Writing of Gods in the Sand) and Rahu (The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows).
Witchrist: The Grand Tormentor
Along with fellow New Zealand blackened death metal berserkers Diocletian, Witchrist are commanding exponents of begrimed and merciless war metal. The band’s 2012 release, The Grand Tormentor, was a 50-minute plummet into stygian depths and enigmatic mysticism. Mixing bloody and profane doom with cyclonic, über-distorted death metal, The Grand Tormentor emanated a clotted, oppressive atmosphere. It lurched from one heaving churn to the next, exuding all the maliciousness and murkiness required to seal its primitive, primal tension. The Grand Tormentor was less tenebrous and warped than Witchrist’s debut, Beheaded Ouroboros, but that change didn’t mark a lessening of intensity. Witchrist ensured its more straightforward mid-tempo dirges remained crushingly heavy—the slower, sludgy sections granting room for all the putrescence-dripping riffs to be admired. The Grand Tormentor still bludgeoned with ruthless abandon, but its tale of celestial battles was more readily understood. With clarity came even more strength.
See also: Diocletian (who released the Annihilation Rituals compilation and superb Disciples of War split with Weregoat in 2012) and Vassafor (with 2012’s Obsidian Codex full-length, andElegy of the Archeonaut compilation).
Northumbria, the Toronto-based ambient metal duo of Jim Field and Dorian Williamson, released its powerful, entrancing self-titled debut this year. Comprising five exquisite and lengthy ür-drone suites (improvised and recorded live in a 19th century church) Northumbria was, aptly, a cathedral of sounds. Using nothing more than amplified guitar and bass, Field and Williamson’s hymns were thunderously moody, but, like the site of their recording, they also offered sanctuary and great comfort. Tinkling gothic timbres and ethereal wisps of post-rock tranquility drifted throughout Northumbria. While the James Plotkin-mastered release reverberated with tumultuous movements, there was diaphanous, heartbreaking ambience aplenty. Northumbria‘s plaintive waves conjured images of stumbling across snow-covered prairies, post-apocalyptic vistas or lying safe in a loved one’s arms. Through it all Northumbria‘s unfurling, moving passages offered catharsis and clarity, and while drone can be barren and featureless, Northumbria was stunningly fertile—rich with emotional resonance and simply beautiful noise.
See also: Menace Ruine (Alight in Ashes), Vozrozhdeniya (La Naturaleza del Cansancio), Thomas Köner (Novaya Zemlya) and Sunn O)))/Nurse With Wound (The Iron Soul of Nothing reissue).
Dragged from Our Restless Trance
(Forcefield Records; US: 29 Feb 2012; UK: 29 Feb 2012)
Bastard Sapling: Dragged from Our Restless Trance
With its first full-length, Dragged from Our Restless Trance, US black metal five-piece Bastard Sapling released one of the best black metal albums in 2012—debut or otherwise. Taking its cues from old school Scandinavian legends such as Immortal and early Ulver, Bastard Sapling drew from the guts of black metal’s forefathers (note its remorseless iniquity and malice), but branded its work with an individualistic sigil. Dragged from Our Restless Trance‘s mix of primal, lo-fi black metal with a strident tempo saw Bastard Sapling setting its eye firmly on tradition. However, rather than creating a rote revision, those orthodox elements were one of its greatest strengths; its frantic tremolo picking, snarling vocals and sustained aggression proved there was still plentiful creativity to be found in black metal fundamentals. Still, Dragged from Our Restless Trance wasn’t all a celebration of a bygone era. The album also had an abundance of contemporary zeal, particularly where lachrymose atmospherics touched upon death and doom metal, and adroit technical fills emerged from the fusillades of fury.
See also: 2012’s Odz Manouk and Tukaaria reissues on Profound Lore, label Rhinocervs’ RH-12, RH-13, RH-14 and Muknal (self-titled demo, and split with the Haunting Presence).
Year of the Goat: Angels’ Necropolis
Satan sells, and the past few years have seen a steady stream of ‘occult’ rock acts trading in magic and mystery. Unfortunately, many of those bands have produced nothing more than clichéd bilge, but thankfully there are bands for which occultism is more than a symbolic crutch. In 2011, Germany’s indomitable VÁN Records ended the year spectacularly with an avowedly magickal release courtesy of the Devil’s Blood’s The Thousandfold Epicentre. In 2012 the label did it again with Swedish sextet Year of the Goat’s Angels’ Necropolis. Given Sweden’s dominance of the retro rock market, it was no surprise to find Year of the Goat’s ‘60s and ‘70s jangling psychedelia and doom-prog having certain sonic similarities to fellow Swede hard rock luminaries Witchcraft and Graveyard. But when Year of the Goat spoke of Angels’ Necropolis as an “an alternative gospel”, there was no doubting the band’s ill-omened sincerity. Angels’ Necropolis had hooks galore—riffs, harmonies and mellotron melodies flowing freely throughout. Yet, while Year of the Goat showed plenty of musical mastery, it was the band’s dedicated diabolism that truly underscored the significance of Angels’ Necropolis. About as perfect a Christmas present as Old Nick could deliver.
See also: two other top contenders in the sinful rocking game: self-titled debuts from Jess and the Ancient Ones, and Devil.
Árstíðir Lífsins: Vápna lækjar eldr
Árstíðir Lífsins’ sophomore album, Vápna lækjar eldr, was a rich, hauntingly beautiful and spirited affair. The nine-member band (from Iceland, Norway and Germany) sang rousing odes to hearth, home, nature and heritage, in a historic Icelandic dialect—weaving traditional Scandinavian folk and heathen black metal throughout. Vápna lækjar eldr was expertly paced and arranged, and with a tale based on historical literature and recent research it told of medieval Icelandic culture, minus the clichés. Rollicking Viking metal is endless fun, but Vápna lækjar eldr‘s blending of traditional, acoustic and electric instrumentation was distinctive and veridical—perfectly balancing its delicate sections with ferocious, exhilarating passages. Backed by vocals—mixing baritone barks and folkloristic choirs—the music and saga aligned seamlessly. This bolstered the album’s overall evocativeness, and underscored the stouthearted feel of its fiery songs. Vápna lækjar eldr was a true work of art.
See also: evocative fare from Skagos (Anarchic), Wheels Within Wheels (split with Merkaba and full-length with Aptrgangr), Women is the Earth (This Place That Contains My Spirit) and Finsterforst (Rastlos).