Mixtarum Metallum IV: The 20 Best of 2012

As 2012 flutters away into the ether, metal continues to stand tall as an imposing force. And if this year has proven anything, it’s that the future of metal will continue to thrive and remain resolute in the years that follow. To bolster PopMatters’ “Best of Metal” 2012 — a collaborative and entirely democratic top 20 metal albums of the year list conceived by PopMatters’ metal writers — we here at Mixtarum Metallum unveil our 20 powerhouse metal records of 2012 in our fourth instalment of this monthly metal round-up. In typical MM fashion no record takes precedent over the last: there is no ranking in order of preference, nor is there a score given. Each record that has made it to this list has done so because of its own metallic glory. Strains of black metal, doom and sludge govern here — and for good reason — as the bands practising these dark arts have created some of the most lasting and essential releases this year; experimentation and genre interpolation have been the key to their artistic achievements. And while MM now begins to look forward to what 2013 has in store for us metal fans, we will leave you with this infernal manuscript documenting 20 of 2012’s most devastating metal records.

 

Neurosis
Honor Found in Decay

Neurosis’s 10th studio album, Honor Found in Decay, was the band’s most intimate work in years. Following up the onslaught of 2007’s Given to Rising, Honor Found in Decay was tempered by traces of the darkened folk and psychedelic solo work of vocalists and guitarists Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly. It was a more fragile album, but its transcendental sway and emotional complexity was no less powerful or heavy than Neurosis’s brawnier releases — the album redirecting the band’s visceral punch for a more epiphanic momentum. Of course, Honor Found in Decay still contained an abundance of Neurosis’s bombastic vitality and all of its textural interplay, only in this case it was a slow steady burn — no less combustible, simply more controlled. Neurosis has always been defined by its integrity, and Honor Found in Decay was as creatively and emotionally honest as the band’s best work, showing once again why it has long been acknowledged as a true artisan of intensity. — Craig Hayes

 

Liberteer
Better to Die on Your Feet than Live on Your Knees

Better to Die on Your Feet than Live on Your Knees was not only one of the year’s most defiant statements, but also the title bestowed upon the incendiary debut from Matt Widener’s (Exhumed, The County Medical Examiners, Cretin) anarchist grindcore project, Liberteer. There is nothing new about anarchism in a genre as politically minded and violatile as grindcore, however, the way multi-instrumentalist Widener wielded major-key riff marches, blasting drumming and martial snare attacks, horns, banjos and mandolins took the basis of something tried and trusted and created songs of a triumphant, and dare I say, positive nature. There was a grand scheme to proceedings, and the brass accompaniments and favoured major keys, provided the soundboard for Widener’s Libertarian Socialist beliefs. But the genius of this record was Widener’s awareness that his anarchic ways may not sit well with everyone, and he made sure to insidiously wrap his message in songs that sounded eccentric at first but left those who spent time with them shouting along to his blazing rhetoric. — Dean Brown

 

Pallbearer
Sorrow and Extinction

Back in February, Arkansas doom band Pallbearer released its debut Sorrow and Extinction, and such was its seemingly never-ending resonance that it hasn’t left the top 10 list of many metal fans since. The roll call of doom bands that released great work in 2012 is long, but what sets Pallbearer apart is simple: virtuosity, creativity, and most importantly of all, authenticity. Sorrow and Extinction‘s gloom-laden ambience and prodigious riffs spoke directly of metal’s foundational elements, cutting straight to the heart of doom with its mix of profound somberness and strength. Awash in warm analog tones and achingly beautiful plaintiveness, Sorrow and Extinction was beyond reproach, moving you to tears with its breathtakingly delicacy while pounding its burliness home with riff after riff. Sorrow and Extinction was an absolutely classic debut, and heartache has never sounded so alluring. Pallbearer stands proud as an exponent of poignant artistry. — CH

 

Black Breath
Sentenced to Life

Sentenced to Life saw the grizzly Seattleites of Black Breath tone down the Swedish death ‘n’ roll that entombed their debut, Heavy Breathing, and sharpen the metallic hardcore side of their mongrel sound into a rampant, no nonsense assault of ragged riffs, and noxious vocal hooks ripped straight from the scarred throat of Neil McAdams. 10 songs in 30 minutes, Black Breath’s sense of urgency was palpable: the band doled out beating after aural beating, whether running through the first three tracks at break-neck pace or careening into the heaving, serrated grooves that dominated the likes of “Obey” and “Endless Corpse”. In an effort to enhance the strength of the attack, Black Breath also made sure each song was paired back to the bare essentials — just listen to the face to face collision of Cro-Mags and Slayer on “The Flame” for a song without any excess — and because of this compositional directness, Sentenced to Life was a savage success. — DB

 

God Seed
I Begin

Vocalist Gaahl and guitarist King ov Hell (both ex-Gorgoroth) returned in 2012 with I Begin, their debut studio recording under the God Seed banner. Joined on the album by a motley assortment of artists, I Begin was an impressive amalgamation of progged-out ’70s keyboards, psychedelic and industrial rock, twisted effects, and rip-roaring screeds of bitter second-wave black metal. The album unequivocally manifested Gaahl and King’s ‘will to grow’ as bloodcurdling growls mixed with Hammer Horror keys, King Crimson-worthy breakdowns and sci-fi orchestrations — and it was all fantastically unflinching and unruly. Retaining the essential black metal core needed to secure God Seed’s cold-blooded roots, I Begin‘s adventurousness never obscured its pitiless heart, but there was no doubting the band’s clear desire to step outside genre restrictions. As the album’s title made clear, I Begin was an aggressive first salvo aimed at establishing God Seed as a distinctive entity, and the album was a superb launching pad for fresh journeys into blasphemous realms. — CH

High on Fire and more…

While Mixtarum Metallum now begins to look forward to what 2013 has in store for us metal fans, we leave you with this infernal manuscript documenting 20 of 2012’s most devastating metal records.

 

Royal Thunder
CVI

Sometimes the difference in song-writing class from a band’s first EP to studio album can blow your mind and leave you questioning whether it is even the same band at all. Atlanta Georgia’s Royal Thunder released their self-titled EP back in 2010; a collection of doomy songs that showed some potential but did nothing to prepare you for the sultry sludge and blues that was to become their full-length debut, CVI. CVI was evocative in an understated manner, and its combination of otherworldliness and earthiness added much to the record’s definitive allure. Vocalist Mlny Parsonz’s smoky tones and idiosyncratic delivery — moving from an eerie whisper to a powerful howl in a heartbeat — took the majority of the praise, and her instinctive ability to captivate and lure us through the tar-filled, Delta blues riffs and swinging rhythms that bubbled and burst, embraced and crushed at different stages through this dynamic record, was frightening as it was invigorating. — DB

 

The Secret
Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei, the fourth full-length from Italian blackened crust and grind quartet the Secret, contained enough causticity and abrasiveness to strip skin from bone. Recorded by Kurt Ballou, the Secret’s follow-up to the widely hailed Solve et Coagula was barbarous in the extreme. Opening with a black metal bombardment, Agnus Dei was an overpowering onslaught of feedbacking riffs, decimating percussion, and nihilistic snarls. With 13 songs spread over 43 minutes, the band relentlessly surged ahead, spitting out tales of doom and despair, hopelessness and fury. Where a lot of metal is presumed to be deleterious before it’s even heard, Agnus Dei is the real deal, providing an apocalyptic and blasphemous torrent of corrosiveness that is mayhem, hostility and hate incarnate. The Secret’s label Southern Lord has put out a lot of fantastic crusty metal and hardcore this year (see Black Breath, Wolfbrigade, Acephalix and Martyrdöd for some decimating battering) and Agnus Dei‘s unencumbered ferocity sees the Secret fighting for leadership of that pack. — CH

 

High on Fire
De Vermis Mysteriis

This year will go down as a bittersweet year for metal lifer, Matt Pike. His struggles with addiction way-laid the promotion of High on Fire’s sixth studio effort, De Vermis Mysteriis, but the intensity of the music and the intrigue of this record’s fantastical concept has not wavered in the slightest. An engrossing tale of Jesus’ time travelling twin set against the backdrop of Pike’s volcanic riffs/virtuoistic leads, Jeff Matz’s bellowing bass lines and the tribal war of Des Kensel’s drums, De Vermis Mysteriis finally fused the stoner doom of Pike’s now legendary time in Sleep to High on Fire’s prowling sludge metal. And it’s this sonic union of ravenous present meeting potent past — best heard when comparing the fierce blow-back of “Fertile Green” (find the official video, now!) with the Celtic Frost hammer drop of “Madness of an Architect” — that made De Vermis Mysteriis a highly intoxicating trip worth taking over and over. — DB

 

Evoken
Atra Mors

Few bands can demoralize with the gut-wrenching efficiency of New Jersey-based Evoken. Atra Mors was the funereal doom quintet’s first album in five years, and it was as perfect a monument to anguish and disillusionment as fans could have hoped for. Crushing in its unrelenting misery, Atra Mors contained eight edifices of ruinous intimate weight. Ridden with reverb, the album’s ominous, protracted riffs were shattered by death metal fusillades, with John Paradiso’s guttural vocals communicating the emotional carnage, and keyboards and strings adding dramatic, haunting beauty. Atra Mors‘s mournful balladry was made for solitary listening as it explored the ravages of loss. As I said when it was released, the thought that life is nothing more than a lurch from lament to lament seems entirely plausible as you listen to Evoken’s red-raw lachrymosity (and watch it bleed indelible trails of despair). Atra Mors represents the pinnacle of Evoken’s celebrated career thus far. — CH

 

Martyrdöd
Paranoia

Southern Lord’s insatiable hunger for crust bands showed no signs of stopping this year when the respected label released Paranoia by the hostile Swedes of Martyrdöd. A thrilling pile-up of d-beat crust punk, hardcore, Michael Kjellson’s scathing vocal delivery, and black metal’s sneering attitude, Martyrdöd battled with their labelmates in Black Breath and Wolfbrigade, and managed to match the aggression and tenacity of these bands one scouring riff at a time. Recorded at the legendary Studio Fredman, these crust veterans (containing former members of Miasmal and Skitsystem) filled each song with enough rusty hooks and barbed guitar harmonies to keep things interesting: from the cruel intent of opener “Nog Är Nog”, to the spitting rock ‘n’ roll of “Köttberg” and “Det Sker Samtidigt”, and most effectively heard on the mid-album pairing of “Hör Världens Rop” and “Ett Hjärta Av Eld”. Paranoia, from top to bottom, contained no filler just a rough ride through crust’s most exhilarating characteristics — crust album of the year, no doubt. — DB

Napalm Death and more…

While Mixtarum Metallum now begins to look forward to what 2013 has in store for us metal fans, we leave you with this infernal manuscript documenting 20 of 2012’s most devastating metal records.

 

Conan
Monnos

In terms of sheer, skull-crushing tonal weight, the tectonic, bruising riffs that guitarist / vocalist Jon Davis dispensed on Monnos, the debut full-length from Liverpool-based trio Conan, were hard to beat in 2012. Comprising six carnage-strewn offerings to the elder gods, Monnos maintained a gargantuan, stomping mass throughout. Along with Davis, bassist/vocalist John McNulty and drummer Paul O’Neil constructed colossal walls of distorting noise. Chanted vocals, and epic battle-filled narratives added to Monnos‘s axe swinging, Frazetta-worthy mood, its reverberating creeps and bludgeoning low-end totality making for a fortress of doom smothered in clouds of sludgy reverb. Recorded at Wales’s famed Foel Studios, Monnos was, in one sense, remarkably straightforward, with drawn out, syrupy riffs and a ceaselessly plodding pace. However, far from being monotonous, Monnos‘s sepulchral rhythms ensured its crushing machinations were keenly felt in waves of formidable pressure, and the harmonious interplay between the trio was vividly displayed. — CH

 

Titan
Burn

In a year that resulted in a series of scintillating full-length debuts, Titan’s Burn was one of the most dominating and relentless. Taking the sludge/post-metal template as perfected by Isis and Cult of Luna, and destroying by fire some of the more genteel aspects of the genre as a means to cleanse their sound, Titan built a juggernaut of an album that begged to be described by a series of fiery adjectives. Represented by the band as “an anthology in survey of the cycles of madness, procreation, destruction and restoration of the final generations of our species,” the depths of this record’s highly-involved lyrical themes were counterbalanced by the cyclic surge of elemental riffs and rhythms that overwhelmed at will. This instrumental offensive was backed by the screams of James M — possessor of the same vocal tonality as Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato — who alongside the throats of Cursed’s Chris Colohan on “Myopic” and Mare’s Tyler Semrick-Palmateer on “Telepaths” poured some real passion into the truly punishing Burn. — DB

 

Napalm Death
Utilitarian

After three decades of ceaseless grind you’d forgive Napalm Death for showing signs of age. However, Utilitarian was a ferocious and dynamic album, as powerful as many of the classic works the band has released over its long career. Never a band to rest on its laurels, Napalm Death was in a powerfully combative mood throughout Utilitarian, and while it was chock full of quintessential Napalm Death detonations, the band also brought original ideas to the table. Texture and depth was added to the album via drone, doom, experimental rock and cleaner vocals on a number of tracks, and John Zorn contributed, adding his atonal fusion too. Utilitarian sounded colossal and fervent. Napalm Death delivered its dispatches in a hard-hitting yet erudite fashion — proving the band’s passion had not been blunted — and those new sounds illustrating it’s not likely to be stagnating any time soon. Utilitarian reflected Napalm Death’s vision of ‘never surrender’ perfectly. — CH

 

Dordeduh
Dar de Duh

Dar de Duh was the full-length debut from Hupogrammos and Sol Far, formerly of Negură Bunget and now of Dordeduh, and through an arsenal of traditional Romanian instruments and the spirituality and archaic practices of its members, this record drew similarities to Negura’s transcendent black metal masterpiece, OM. An ambitious affair, Dar de Duh set black metal to folk and world music, to the point where you could almost hear the rainfall trickling down through the sombre trees of the Carpathian Mountains — such was the scope and attention to detail displayed. The labyrinthine layers of guitars, keyboards and folk instruments coalesced to create a unique tapestry, whether revolving in cold, Burzumic repetition or laying out amongst the pastoral folk and new age contemplation of its instrumentation. Once fully absorbed Dar de Duh revealed an austere splendour that was entirely homogenous to the Romanian hinterland from where it was conceived. — DB

 

Witch Mountain
Cauldron of the Wild

Cauldron of the Wild was the third full-length from Portland, Oregon quartet Witch Mountain. Expectations for the album, the follow-up to 2011’s outstanding South of Salem, were high, and the band delivered on all fronts. Uta Plotkin’s vocals sat at the core of Cauldron of the Wild’s success. Her voice — whether howling or honeyed — infused the album with a heart of dirty soul and forlorn blues. Accompanying Plotkin were bassist Neal Munson, drummer Nate Carson, and guitarist/vocalist Rob Wrong, and together they crafted down-tempo opuses that oozed Sabbath-sized, groove-laden, amp-fusing riffs. Like Profound Lore labelmate Pallbearer, Witch Mountain had no issue with bringing the thunder or drawing from more introspective depths and not a note was misplaced on Cauldron of the Wild. Its psychedelic solos, fat and sludgy ringing tones, and dirge-like grinds combined with a thickness that evoked the finest ’70s heavy rock. Cauldron of the Wild had gravitas and grunt in abundance. — CH

Nachtmystium and more…

While Mixtarum Metallum now begins to look forward to what 2013 has in store for us metal fans, we leave you with this infernal manuscript documenting 20 of 2012’s most devastating metal records.

 

Nachtmystium
Silencing Machine

After the successful side-step of the Black Meddle LPs, Blake Judd assembled the most fearsome Nachtmystium line-up yet (Parker, Lindsay, Fell and Markuszewski) and unleashed Silencing Machine’s atmospheric black metal on an unexpecting world. Where the dastardly duo of Black Meddle: Assasins & Addicts rippled with Judd’s newly inherited influences (post-rock/industrial/post-punk/prog) at the expense of the band’s black metal origins, Silencing Machine inverted the approach using these atypical influences as a means to accentuate the burning black metal; similar in effect to 2006’s Instinct Decay. This almost retrogressive progression produced some of the band’s most engaging songs: “Dawn Over the Ruins of Jerusalem”, “I Wait in Hell”, “The Lepers of Destitution”, “Give Me the Grave” and the emotional downpour of “These Rooms in Which We Weep”, not to mention, as a whole, the most realized record of Nachtmystium’s notoriously toxic and wildly experimental existence. DB

 

Nihill
Verdonkermaan

Netherlands-based black metal trio Nihill returned in 2012 with the harrowingly dissonant invocation Verdonkermaan, the final vile screed in a traumatic trilogy (see equally disturbing predecessors Krach and Grond). Verdonkermaan was a nerve-shredding howl of raw black metal combined with vortexes of cataclysmic noise, made all the more effective by its discomforting, unorthodox nature. Like fellow avant-garde black metal brutes Gnaw Their Tongues, Nihill craft corruptive suites that eschew any hooks or, at their best, any sense of predictable structure. Verdonkermaan‘s five lengthy songs buried hints of melody under waves of remorseless abrasiveness, with static-ridden riffs, frost-bitten feedback, distortion and drone smothering all. The album’s finest moments came when its raging pyres of chaos and cruelty overwhelmed with their intensity — misanthropic murderousness was heaped upon atonal annihilations till all became a singular blur of black-hearted nefariousness. The band clearly reveled in the demoniacal glee of elongated churns of depraved and discombobulating noise. — CH

 

Gaza
No Absolutes in Human Suffering

Viciously opinionated, anti-religious, with the intellect to back his beliefs, Gaza vocalist Jon Parkin’s deadly serious but often witty observations on life and politics — articulated through his caustic scream — continued to serve as a lethal weapon when matched with the sheer severity of Gaza’s grinding hardcore on their latest release, No Absolutes In Human Suffering. Musically, as dangerous a fist full of pit vipers, and twice as venomous, Gaza constructed a record that pulsed and probed throughout; the equivalent of tearing open a chest cavity just to see what humanity lay inside, only to find there was a glimmer of beauty found amidst the bile, rage and blistering fury. Gaza’s talent for writing serious music for serious times, and their capacity for creating songs that lodged themselves inside your brain despite being complex and grating, while at the same time causing you to think and re-evaluate your own thought-process/beliefs, stands as No Absolutes in Human Suffering’s greatest achievement. — DB

 

Ufomammut
Oro: Opus Primum & Opus Alter

Italian Hermetic sludgelord Ufomammut has always crafted ambitious albums. But the sheer operatic (and psychedelic) scale of the band’s 2012 interlinking albums, Oro: Opus Primum and Oro: Opus Alter, deserve a medal for audacity alone. Released six months apart, both albums were infused with an intoxicating elixir of the oracular, metaphysical and the sonically stentorian, telling an overarching tale of alchemical sorcery. Each album was stacked with undulating and distorting riffs, drone, tribal percussion, and celestial keyboards charged with the energy of hitherto obscured secrets. Heavy on the esotericism and bong vapors, the engrossing, lengthy songs were created to run as a singular 90-minute epic, united in spirit. Opus Primum brought the mind-altering uppercut, Opus Alter the trippy rumination, and each simmered with shamanistic enticements. Each track underscored the transcendental nature of Ufomammut, but the transformative tenor of the band has never been so explicitly explored; the Oro saga is the band’s true magnum opus. — CH

 

AMENRA
Mass V

With the only mass worth attending, Belgian post-apocalyptic terrors AMENRA returned this November with Mass V. Signed to Neurot and with Scott Kelly’s unmistakeable vocals on the annihilating album closer, “Nowena | 9.10”, Mass V kept the sonic totem of Neurosis burning red in the background. But it was the band’s own brand of opaque post metal — the kind that exposes nerves and plagues your spiritual being — that established AMENRA as a singular entity worthy of the same levels of worship as its forebears. A frightening and instinctual control over song structures steeped in harrowing atmospherics was found on each of these four, massive compositions: “Boden”’s expression of extreme emotion through cataclysmic climaxes stood as the album’s zenith — an insurmountable peak of despair, and amongst the horror, enlightenment. Mass V was the sound of this tribe of Neurot finally marching defiantly beside those who have journeyed through silver in blood before them. — DB

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