The Best Metal of 2011

Artist: Unearth

Album: Darkness in the Light

Label: Metal Blade

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List number: 20

Unearth
Darkness in the Light

Of the countless metalcore bands around the world, Unearth is one of the few groups that clearly understand what its style requires in order for it to work. And on Darkness in the Light, they’ve delivered every aspect that they needed to include — aggressive riffs, technical solos, the occasional mosh-worthy breakdown, intelligent lyrics, and just enough melody to keep things interesting. Not since Unearth’s 2004 album, The Oncoming Storm, has a metalcore record come together so perfectly, and Unearth remains one of the only bands able to deliver a pure representation of the genre on a full-length album. Chris Colgan

 

Artist: Primordial

Album: Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand

Label: Metal Blade

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List number: 19

Primordial
Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand

For more than 20 years, Ireland’s Primordial has been slowly evolving with each new record, fusing its Celtic influences with swirling black metal arrangements. It’s gotten to the point now where the band is so good at it that it sounds completely distinct from anything else in metal today. This seventh album might not waver from the formula too much, but it’s never sounded better, the tasteful, cleaner production giving singer Alan “A. A. Nemtheanga” Averill his best backdrop to date as he takes those majestic songs and sends them into the stratosphere with his powerful vocals and eloquent lyrics. After all these years, Primordial just keeps getting better. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Dir En Grey

Album: Dum Spiro Spero

Label: The End

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List number: 18

Dir En Grey
Dum Spiro Spero

Japan’s premier avant-garde metalers Dir En Grey have been quiet for three years…and that is with good reason. They never release crappy material, and they also never fail to surprise old and new listeners alike with their ever-evolving sound that pushes the envelope of extreme metal. Hence, when they take such a long time with a new record, you can almost be assured of another mind-blowing piece of art — and Dum Spiro Spero achieves just that. Imagine elements of deathcore, sludge, avant-garde jazz, ambient black, J-pop, and even ballad-style singing being thrown into the mix! And the overall music still manages to sound coherent. What compositional ability! Dane Prokofiev

 

Artist: Machine Head

Album: Unto the Locust

Label: Roadrunner

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List number: 17

Machine Head
Unto the Locust

Many critics said that The Blackening could never be topped, and some still say that it hasn’t. But Machine Head’s follow-up to their 2007 Grammy-nominated masterpiece is also a masterpiece in its own right. While the musical approach has grown to include more ambient sections within the groove/thrash hybrid sound, the lyrical composition is much more intensely personal, as if the words were torn from Robb Flynn’s very soul. With these factors combined, Machine Head has created an album that cuts to the very heart of each of us and gives us strength. Chris Colgan

 

Artist: Revocation

Album: Chaos of Forms

Label: Relapse

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List number: 16

Revocation
Chaos of Forms

Sometimes you come across a record so good that you are at a loss for words. In this case, the power of the groove reigns supreme here (bonus extras include cheeky lyrics, creative interjections of blues, and extremely inventive guitar solos). Since it does, reading these pathetic words that attempt to help you imagine how awesome this record sounds is actually quite a waste of time. A groove has to be felt after all, not read about. If dear ol’ Dimebag were still alive today, he would probably be proud of these guys. Dane Prokofiev

15 – 11

Artist: Scar Symmetry

Album: The Unseen Empire

Label: Nuclear Blast

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List number: 15

Scar Symmetry
The Unseen Empire

Scar Symmetry is one of the bands most responsible for the growth and expansion of melodic death metal in recent years, and on its second album with vocalists Roberth Karlsson and Lars Palmqvist, the group has taken its place as the new leader of Sweden’s melodic death metal scene. Going beyond the Gothenburg style into uncharted realms of beauty and brutality, The Unseen Empire demonstrates just how impressive melodic death metal can be when it’s not confined to a particular established sound. No album since Slaughter of the Soul or Colony has changed the genre as much as this one has. Chris Colgan

 

Artist: Krallice

Album: Diotima

Label: Profound Lore

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List number: 14

Krallice
Diotima

Diotima, the third album from Krallice, once again mystified those for whom kvltness is the only measure for “good” black metal. Musically, it’s a sonic banquet for anyone seeking blurring riffs, blastbeats, and tremolo highs. The band’s refusal to adhere to a nefarious aesthetic has seen its worked debated in regards to its — shock, horror — transcendental nature. Who cares about such irrelevancies? Krallice simply produced some of the grandest, albeit progressively minded, black metal in ’11, and, with a who’s-who line-up of incredibly talented musicians, long may they continue to do so. An astonishing example of sophisticated black metal. Craig Hayes

 

Artist: Amon Amarth

Album: Surtur Rising

Label: Metal Blade

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List number: 13

Amon Amarth
Surtur Rising

Amon Amarth has never rested on the laurels of success. The veteran group has always sought broader musical horizons and loftier heights of metal excellence, never compromising its stringent, high-quality standards. Surtur Rising is just the latest step of Amon Amarth’s quest for legendary status, and it’s a big step in the right direction, too. Packed with technical riffs, mind-blowing solos, and enough Viking imagery to burn a small village, Surtur Rising raises the bar once again for all others wishing to refer to themselves as a Viking metal band. Chris Colgan

 

Artist: Blut Aus Nord

Album: 777: Sect(s)

Label: Debemur Morti

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List number: 12

Blut Aus Nord
777: Sects

In April, enigmatic and idiosyncratic French black metal visionaries Blut Aus Nord delivered 777:Sect(s), the first album in a projected trilogy. Coming from a band that is consistently experimental — thematically and musically — it’s an apocalyptic narrative envisioning the destruction of humanity’s belief systems, and the nullifying void that follows. It’s an ambitious tale, reinforced by some of the band’s most mesmerizing material yet. Melodies are buried in a corrosive and intensely sinister mire, with atmospheric passages battling against gurgling, scoured vocals and industrial strength riffs. Confrontational and punishing, 777:Sect(s) is a malevolently creative indulgence and a wonderfully disturbing prophecy. Craig Hayes

 

Artist: Russian Circles

Album: Empros

Label: Sargent House

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List number: 11

Russian Circles
Empros

It’s an amazing thing to watch a band reach its peak. Over the course of three brilliant recordings, 2008’s Station being the best of the three, Russian Circles increasingly demonstrated their skill at making a genre that has become increasingly worn sound entirely fresh. Empros is a bold step forward, one that takes all of the band’s requisite skills — hammered on-and-off guitar riffs, looping, and perhaps one of the most outstanding rhythm sections currently working — and magnifies them, even taking the time to throw in some new elements. The greatest of these is “Praise Be Man”, best described as something of a post-metal hymn, beginning with a faint vocal atop delicate acoustic guitar, only to be shaken from its dreamlike reverie by a jarring, powerful bass. The only worry to have with Empros is that it’s hard to imagine how the band could top something as good as this. Brice Ezell

10 – 6

Artist: Between the Buried and Me

Album: The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues

Label: Metal Blade

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Between the Buried and Me
The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues

Portentous and epic as only a progressive metal band could be, Between the Buried and Me cram into 30 minutes what it takes most prog metal bands over an hour to do. Just as the band did on its previous two records, 2007’s Colors and 2009’s The Great Misdirect, Between the Buried and Me manages to include all sorts of musical ideas into its consistently brutal metal sound, ranging from dark contemporary classical to polka, sometimes within the course of one song. As a whole, the record isn’t anything particularly new for the band, but the incredible songwriting and musicianship evident in every second of this record never ceases to amaze. Given that this short album is the first of two parts of a concept record, this is a promising beginning to what will hopefully be something quite grand in the end. Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Becoming the Archetype

Album: Celestial Completion

Label: Solid State

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Becoming the Archetype
Celestial Completion

It has always puzzled me how there are Christians who want to bring across their religious beliefs/opinions through the aggression of metal music. So here we have another bunch of ‘em joining the fray — but with much crazier genre-crossings than your average Christcore band. Trying to describe them with conventional subgenres fails (which is a pretty amazing feat in today’s ocean of subgenres), and the closest I arrived at was “progressive death metalcore”. I don’t know if Jesus really keeps an ear out for these guys as much as Hillsong in his cozy kingdom upstairs, but, even if he doesn’t, I feel your love, guys. Dane Prokofiev

 

Artist: Obscura

Album: Omnivium

Label: Relapse

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Obscura
Omnivium

Obscura are very obviously huge fans of sci-fi. ALL of their album covers to date have featured some kind of alien object juxtaposed against some kind of epic and apocalyptic-looking background, and this time, we’ve got a…er, three-tentacled jellyfish with an extremely large head? It looks like it is turning green because of consuming that very obviously toxic-looking egg with its lower half glowing a luminous green, too. Well, this German quartet is as technical as any standard sci-fi story can get, and they also have a penchant for imaginative tunes of astronomically epic proportions. Seems like the imagery suits them. Dane Prokofiev

 

Artist: The Atlas Moth

Album: An Ache for the Distance

Label: Profound Lore

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List number: 7

The Atlas Moth
An Ache for the Distance

With a sound that dips into so many different styles of metal at the same time — sludge, psychedelic, doom, black — it’s remarkable how far the Chicago band has come in such short time. Interestingly, it’s the influence of jazz and blues that makes this second album so engaging, the band lending its new tracks a swing and groove that, coupled with the hypnotic vocals of guitarists Stavros Giannopoulos and David Kush, make tracks like “Holes in the Desert”, “Perpetual Generations”, and the title track some of the more original-sounding American metal we’ve heard in the past year. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Leviathan

Album: True Traitor, True Whore

Label: Profound Lore

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Leviathan
True Traitor, True Whore

Controversial, and befouled before its release, True Traitor, True Whore was deemed untouchable by many after Leviathan frontman Wrest was arrested for an atrocious crime in ’11. The album serves as a reminder of unsettling horrors: In a burst of caustic energy following his arrest, Wrest blended a diverse set of black metal, gothic, and post-punk influences to craft a claustrophobic suite of erratic, volatile, and nightmarish tracks. Tendentious, uncompromising, and undeniably challenging, True Traitor, True Whore retains the perversity of black metal, but is more structurally and philosophically akin to the most intransigent noise artists. Craig Hayes

5 – 1

Artist: Liturgy

Album: Aesthetica

Label: Thrill Jockey

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List number: 5

Liturgy
Aesthetica

One of the year’s best metal releases stands out not only musically, but also as a statement of philosophical intent. Liturgy’s frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, with his article Transcendental Black Metal, proposed an entire reconstruction of how black metal ought to work; in doing so, he both isolated black metal purists and invited in new ideas in a genre that many have a monolithic image of. Whether one finds Hunt-Hendrix’s philosophy pretentious or brilliant does little to take away from the brilliance of Aesthethica, the culmination of Hunt-Hendrix’s vision. Ranging from repetitive, riff-driven instrumentals (“Generation” and “Veins of God”) to furious bits of glorious cacophony (“High Gold” and “Harmonia”), this is a record that never ceases to amaze and challenge. A fine work of music, philosophy, and absurdist theology all in one, Aesthethica is a powerful listen through and through. Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Opeth

Album: Heritage

Label: Roadrunner

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List number: 4

Opeth
Heritage

Opeth’s musical skill is so notable that its least metal offering since 2003’s Damnation still managed to be one of the year’s finest metal releases. While the band’s past offerings have balanced tricky, labyrinthine progressive rock with the pummeling intensity of Swedish death metal, the pendulum swing that constitutes the material of Heritage gravitated strongly in the former direction. Still, Heritage isn’t completely devoid of metal: the Ronnie Dio tribute “Slither” is a prime example, a track that in a live setting is just as heavy as anything from the band’s past work. Heritage is not the sound of a band ridding itself of its roots in metal (as the album’s gorgeous artwork indicates ), but instead the sound of re-interpreting those roots into something quite beautiful, while remaining in the spirit of metal. Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Wolves in the Throne Room

Album: Celestial Lineage

Label: Southern Lord

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Wolves in the Throne Room
Celestial Lineage

Over the course of three albums, Wolves in the Throne Room have been slowly working at developing a style of their own, while deriving heavily from American underground black metal and the ambient sounds of Burzum and Ulver. Their fourth full-length finally takes that big step where it sounds less lovingly derivative and more fully realized. The Weaver brothers’ (guitarist/vocalist Nathan and drummer Aaron) preoccupation with environmental themes, long a bone of contention among black metal “purists”, is far less grating than genuinely beautiful, the music a vivid reflection of the Pacific Northwest that reaches majestic heights. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Hammers of Misfortune

Album: 17th Street

Label: Metal Blade

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Hammers of Misfortune
17th Street

San Francisco’s Hammers of Misfortune are nothing if not consistent, with five excellent albums already behind them, but they seem more impassioned than ever on their latest. Downplaying the folk/psychedelic influence in favor of a much more direct, traditional heavy metal sound, songwriter/guitarist John Cobbett has both looked back to the classic 1970s records of his youth and looked out his own window at his rapidly gentrifying city for inspiration. The end result is an album that feels like one of those old great records, where songwriting took precedence over flashy musicianship, yet at the same time, in the social commentary of “The Day the City Died”, couldn’t feel more relevant today. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: 40 Watt Sun

Album: The Inside Room

Label: Metal Blade

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40 Watt Sun
The Inside Room

Three days — that’s all it took to craft the metal album of the year. The Inside Room is the phenomenal debut from British three-piece 40 Watt Sun. A masterpiece of downtempo introspective grimness, it is achingly, hauntingly beautiful. Fronted by Patrick Walker, the album has a poignant, expressive density that is perfectly balanced against sublimely fuzzed-out and distorting tones. With a monolithic percussiveness, and Walker’s soulful vocals, The Inside Room negates the isolation of wretched emotionality, welcoming us all to consider universal themes of despair. It is meditative and richly rewarding. Three days — an extraordinary achievement. Craig Hayes

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