[17 December 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
A central tenet of metal music, from day one, has been To Sound As Imposing As Humanly Possible, but ironically, the more extreme metal gets, the more desensitized we become to wave after wave of bands trying to out-brutalize each other. But when we do get a record that pulls it off successfully, well, we practically swallow a teabag. Such is the case with Atlanta’s Harvey Milk, whose fifth album plumbs the collective imaginations of five truly sick individuals, spewing out the most emotionally taxing, sonically devastating record to come out in years. A take on rock ‘n’ roll from a gutter rat’s grim perspective, Life bleeds anguish and rage, filtering Southern rock and blues through a morass of sludge, all the while adding a savage dose of dark humor that can only come from someone who’s truly hit rock bottom. “Good Bye Blues” and “Skull Socks & Rope Shoes” deliver some of the best blues riffs extreme music has heard since Eyehategod’s Dopesick, “Roses” glories in its own self-loathing, and “Motown” turns out to be an ingeniously twisted exercise in conventional pop song structure, but opener “Death Goes to the Winner” steals the entire record, its plaintive Christmas tale morphing into menacing interpretations of “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “A Day in the Life”, and ending on the bleakest note possible. Bands can sing about gore, horror movies, and Satan all they want, but nothing is as genuinely scary as what true hell awaits us on this thrilling, exhilarating, one of a kind masterpiece.
Like Meshuggah’s ObZen, Opeth’s ninth album isn’t so much about breaking new ground than continuing to refine its signature sound, and Watershed sees the band excelling on all levels. No longer the stop-start exercise that frustrated some critics of the band, the distinct dynamic of goth-infused death metal, progressive rock, and acoustic interludes is more seamless than ever on the epic standouts “Heir Apparent” and “The Lotus Eater”, while Mikael Åkerfeldt’s own growth as a singer is noticeable on the entire record, his clean melodies more confidently sung than ever. The new members, drummer Martin Axenrot and guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, add a flamboyant touch the band has never had before, but it’s keyboardist Per Wiberg who continues to slowly emerge as an integral part of the current incarnation of Opeth, his solos on “Hessian Peel” and the gorgeous “Burden” adding richness to the compositions, while his from-out-of-nowhere funk turn in “The Lotus Eater” is inspired.
3For all the attention the much-hyped At the Gates reunion got in 2008, vocalist Tomas Lindberg’s other band was worth paying equal, if not more attention to. Staunch devotees of the “D-beat” hardcore punk pioneered by Discharge, a very strong metallic influence has crept into Disfear’s sixth album thanks to the addition of former Entombed guitarist Uffe Cederlund and producer extraordinaire Kurt Ballou, the end result a high-octane, unrelenting slab of rock ‘n’ effin’ roll that, dare I say, out-Motörheads Motörhead. Heresy to some hardcore fans, Ballou’s clean mix actually works wonders, as frenetic tracks like “Get It Off”, “The Cage”, and “Phantoms” carry themselves with a metal swagger, Cederlund letting loose some actual, honest-to-goodness guitar solos, “Fast” Eddie Clarke style, and Lindberg spewing out his surprisingly perceptive lyrics in his distorted roar.
4With a project like Ocrilim, Mick Barr’s biggest problem was that his flashy, repetitive shredding style was too free-form, his compositions at first sounding self-indulgent, and ultimately boring. Krallice, his black metal band with Behold…the Arctopus guitarist Colin Marston, turns out to be exactly what he needed, as his tremolo picking style is held in check by the genre’s parameters, and what we get in the end is extraordinary. Not only is this an album of towering, grim beauty on par with Burzum’s Hviss Lyset Tar Oss, but Barr and Marston bring a level of technical skill and mathematical complexity in their playing that most of us would never had thought would fit in the more moody, ambient confines of black metal. Staunchly traditional yet wildly inventive at the same time, it’s extreme music at its finest. A marvel.
2005’s From Mars to Sirius was the kind of breakthrough in America that all European metal bands crave, but for all the critical acclaim, plum tour slots, and Sirius airplay, it still felt like Gojira was still a young band on the cusp of something big. With their fourth album, however, the French foursome walks among the metal elite, perfecting their unique blend of post-thrash and death metal. Aided greatly by an immense, organic sound (perfectly suited to these avowed environmentalists), The Way of All Flesh focuses more on the muscularity of the riffs and tribal drumming, yet is presented in such a way that makes it seem surprisingly accessible, encapsulated perfectly by “Vacuity” and “The Art of Dying”.
6What started as an abrupt change in direction five years ago has become the most graceful metamorphosis from extreme metal to progressive rock since Voivod pulled off the same feat 20 years ago, and these Norwegian veterans have outdone themselves on their tenth album. Unlike Nachtmystium’s considerably more blunt approach, Enslaved displays their progressive tendencies much more subtly, songs like “To the Coast” and “Reflection” alternating between icy atmospherics and warmer melodic movements, while the majestic, mellow “Ground” sees the band treading completely new ground, mining early-‘70s Floyd and early-‘80s Rush with jaw-dropping results, led by the sumptuous lead vocals by Herbrand Larsen.
On the heels of the middling Catch Thirty-Three, the only blemish on an otherwise sterling career, the Swedish greats righted themselves in spectacular fashion, unleashing an album not preoccupied with experimentation with song structure, instrumental innovation, and drum programming, instead focusing solely on honing their distinct, inimitable sound. Elements of the band’s recorded past abound, vicious exercises in thrash (“Combustion”) giving way to churning slower exercises (“ObZen”) and the mind-boggling cadences of “Bleed”, but while lesser bands might end up regressing by returning to their roots, Meshuggah, while acknowledging the past, continue to drive metal music toward the future.
8Striking while the iron was still hot, Andrew Curtis-Brignell wasted no time in preparing the follow-up to last year’s inspired Mourner, and Caïna’s third album one-ups its predecessor by a considerable margin. The ambition that made Mourner such a head-turner is still there, but Temporary Antennae is far more cohesive, Curtis-Brignell displaying remarkable growth as a songwriter, his black metal quickly giving way to daring forays into darkwave, 1980s goth, and shoegaze, while delivering some of the most thoughtful, indelible lyrics you’ll ever hear from a Satanic metal band. In barely a year, he’s established himself among the forerunners of a bold new movement in black metal.
With Blake Judd continuing to wash his hands of the underground US black metal scene from which his band spawned, Nachtmystium’s Assassins is an even bolder venture than 2006’s attention-grabbing Instinct: Decay, embracing the full-sounding production of Sanford Parker, and most notably, the more sedate sounds of Pink Floyd. Judd’s references are far from subtle (Black Meddle, “One of These Nights”), but for all the blatant Floyd worship, the songs themselves are extraordinary; while the lengthy “Seasick” and the breathtaking “Code Negative” are effectively sedate progressive rock jams, “Ghosts of Grace” and “Your True Enemy” show just how potent this band can still be.
Three years ago Steve Brooks’ idea to incorporate more melodies into his music resulted in one of the catchiest stoner rock albums ever released, and the heavily anticipated follow-up takes things several steps further. So much so, in fact, that it’s mind boggling that Meanderthal hasn’t yet become a crossover success. Not only do you have the immensely satisfying contrast of soaring harmony vocals and monstrously heavy tones, but Torche also tosses in some Dischord-style angularity, textured guitar melodies, and the kind of hooks that the Foo Fighters want to pull off, but never could, as evidenced by the brilliant “Across the Shields”.
11Not precious enough to lure indie scenesters, a little too eclectic for traditional metal crowds, Wetnurse find themselves in an odd little niche, but it’s one that only they occupy, as their second album is completely one of a kind, straddling metal, hardcore, and avant-garde all at once, yet remaining disciplined enough to know when to sit back and let their songs breathe. Vicious, lucid, abrasive, and undeniably catchy, it’s a sound that’s frustrating for us writers to pin down, and all we can say is, “Just check out ‘Life at Stake’.” Which you should do.
12The fact that it took 15 years for Cynic to follow up its seminal debut Focus was reason enough to have fans crossing their fingers that the new disc would at least measure up somewhat, but not only does Traced in Air sound like not a day has passed between releases, but it’s actually the superior album. Far more preoccupied with the hybrid of jazz and progressive rock, the death metal element is toned down considerably, and the music is the better for it, the arrangements far more fluid, Paul Masvidal replacing the robotic vocals of Focus with dreamy, vocoder-tweaked melodies.
13In what was a terrific year for pagan metal, it’s fitting that the most fervent Viking band of them all came through with the best album of its career. Always adept at neck-snapping riffs and rousing choruses, the Swedes finally deliver the kind of massive production this music deserves, as Jens Bogren has the band sounding monolithic, from the mighty, layered roar of drinking horn-toting vocalist Johan Hegg, to the bracing, instant fan fave title track, to the surprisingly stoic “Free Will Sacrifice”, its throttling double-kick beats underscored by mournful melodies.
Hearing Genghis Tron’s frantic Dead Mountain Mouth two years ago, one could sense that the threesome had the potential to do some extraordinary things on subsequent records, but to take things this far? Sure, the grindcore with programmed beats remains the foundation, but the band is now toying with actual songwriting dynamics, adding contemplative passages to create tension, vocal and synth melodies to entice the listener, and even creating a towering epic in “Relief” that reads as a bizarre combination of Tool and Squarepusher. And to think this is only their second full-length.
15The Brooklyn band’s ascent has been rapid over the past three years, but so revelatory is their third album that it feels like they’ve only just now started to find their own identity. Their blend of the visceral sounds of the Jesus Lizard and Big Black with the more expansive tones of Isis have always been compelling, but The Ruiner is especially brave in how it opens up the band’s sound to accommodate the astonishing vocal range of Julie Christmas, who steals the show on such harrowing, enthralling tracks as “Cooker”, “Invisible Ink”, and “Stranger”.
16. Jucifer, L’Autrichienne (Relapse)
At first Jucifer’s 70-minute, 21-song concept album about Marie Antoinette feels like a bloated mess, but while it does feel overwhelming initially, the deeper you delve into this extraordinary opus, the more rewarding it becomes. It’s clear that great care went into this project, guitarist Amber Valentine’s detailed liner notes providing a thorough back story, but it’s the eclectic nature of the songs themselves that eventually win us over, running the gamut from swaggering Southern rock, to crust punk, to acoustic folk, to gargantuan, Melvins-style sludge, Valentine and hubby Edgar Livengood not for a minute sounding in over their heads.
17. Intronaut, Prehistoricisms (Century Media)
The prehistoric theme that dominates Intronaut’s second album suits them to a tee, the slow evolution of the earth its inhabitants reflected in the slow, deliberate crawl of the music. As is always the case with this Los Angeles-based foursome, an unusual amount of attention is placed on the rhythm section, Joe Lester’s mellifluous fretless bass and Danny Walker’s expressive, tasteful drum fills leading the way, which in turn allows guitarists Dave Timnick and Sacha Dunable to explore more textured, abstract sounds, so perfectly displayed on the spellbinding, five-part “The Reptilian Brain”.
18. Hate Eternal, Fury and Flames (Metal Blade)
We always expect each new Hate Eternal album to be another exercise in death metal in the most brutal sense, and Erik Rutan certainly delivers on Fury and Flames, his constantly rotating band lineup bolstered by the addition of bass legend Alex Webster and sickeningly talented drummer Jade Simonetto, but what drives this record in particular is the heavy heart Rutan carries throughout the ten tracks, the majority of them centered on the passing of his friend and former bandmate Jared Anderson, making for an album that’s as elegiac as it is punishing.
19. The Gates of Slumber, Conqueror (Profound Lore)
The Indiana trio’s approach might be formulaic, heavily derived from the post-Sabbath doom metal of St. Vitus, but the Gates of Slumber are so devout in their approach that it’s utterly convincing, no matter how many Wino Weinrich albums you own. Completely old school in its approach, right down to the comfy-sounding analog mix by Sanford Parker, Conqueror doesn’t so much pummel you as slowly envelop, the stately gallop of “Children of Satan” giving way to the majestic, 16-minute Robert Howard tribute “Dark Valley Suite”.
20. Origin, Antithesis (Relapse)
Three years after the underwhelming Echoes of Decimation, the Kansas death metal heroes returned with renewed vigor, their fourth album boasting major improvements on all fronts. The guitar work, evenly split between Paul Ryan and Jeremy Turner, is fluid, intricate, and deceptively melodic, Mike Flores’ nimble basslines are dazzling, Justin Longstreth’s blastbeats are certifiably insane, and the production is crystalline, but most importantly, underneath such undeniably pulverizing technicality lies actual songwriting craft. When an album this good places at #20, you know it’s been a great year.
Adrien Begrand has been writing for PopMatters since 2002, and has been writing his monthly metal column Blood & Thunder since 2005. His writing has also appeared in Metal Edge, Sick Sounds, Metallian, graphic novelist Joel Orff's Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll, Knoxville Voice, The Kerouac Quarterly, JackMagazine.com, StylusMagazine.com, and StaticMultimedia.com. A contributing writer for Decibel, Terrorizer, and Dominion magazines and senior writer for Hellbound, he resides, blogs, and does the Twitter thing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.