First off, I feel obligated to preface this “Best of” list by admitting that this posting will in no way bolster my metal cred. If I presented this list to any of my metal friends, I would probably be laughed out of the room. I would prefer to consider this list as more of a layperson’s guide to metal, a pair of floaties for those of you willing to get your toes wet in the vast, primordial ocean of metal.
That being said, it’s been a good year for metal. This year saw major releases from some of metal’s biggest acts, most notably Megadeth and Metallica (OK, maybe that one we would rather forget). The gigan-tour of the unholy quadrinity of Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth was a banner concert event, packing arenas nationwide. Outside of the mainstream, the underground scene remains alive and well. 2011 saw a glut of quality releases from death and stoner metal bands alike, both familiar and previously unknown. Compiled below are the year’s best.
A black metal band from Brooklyn with ties to Ezra Koenig. It’s good to know that someone is wearing Ray Bans in the depths of hell. Once you get past the occasional Gregorian chants and the headache-inducing shrill organ on “Helix Skull,” this album is about as approachable as black metal gets. The band is at its best when it ditches the death metal theatrics in favor of minimalist instrumentals like “Generation,” a song which allows Liturgy to expand on a single great riff and gives their perversely talented drummer room to improvise and show off his chops.
Blut Aus Nord feels like a black sheep in comparison to other black metal acts trending this year. 777 Sect(s) has an experimental bent, infusing its songs with dissonant detuned guitars, industrial drum beats, reverse vocals and ethereal synths. The result is about as unsettlingly dark of an album as you will ever hear, but it is also, in its own weird way, exciting. The dissonance can at times get exhausting, but 777 Sect(s) as a whole is intensely original.
Krallice is a band determined to pack as many musical notes into its songs as possible. What I would describe as Dick Dale death metal, constant tremolo picking and blast beat drumming combined with shifting time signatures, make Diotima so dizzying that it will literally shut down your brain. You can’t help but appreciate Krallice’s insane musical prowess, even if Diotima might transform you into a drooling mess.
Russian Circles didn’t invent the loud-soft dynamic, but they do it just about as well as anyone. The songs are impressive technically, creating discord out of furious guitar looping and tapping, intricate drumming, and the dirtiest sounding bass this side of dubstep. Songs stray towards atmospheric melody, then dive head first right back into the discord again. While this album is by no means an expansion of Russian Circles by now signature sound, it finds the band employing their Mogwai-inspired tricks as effectively as ever.
Slow burning is generally considered a positive characteristic, particularly for cigarette smokers and drug addicts. At least Rwake must think so. They seem determined never to abandon their slow motion, sludgy grooves prematurely. The songs on Rest may seem arduously long at first, but the riffs build steam and often diverge in surprising directions. Make it all the way to closing track “Was Only a Dream” and be rewarded with a seering guitar solo and grandiose finale. The song basically consists of the same riff repeated ad nauseum, but somehow it only seems to get more exhilarating each time.
If Invernal were a person, it would be your grubby, heavily tattooed neighbor who constantly reeks of pot fumes. Invernal is chock full of mid-tempo sludge metal riffs coated in a grimy layer of fuzz. Consisting of a single guitarist and drummer, Black Cobra nonetheless finds a way to conjure up as much noise as humanly possible. Vocalist Jason Landrian tears these songs apart, growling, screaming and shouting his way through each track. Invernal is the kind of raucous fun that makes you want to take a sledgehammer to your TV.
Alternating between post rock and black metal, Ash Borer is what God Speed You Black Emperor might sound like if they were bigger Cannibal Corpse fans. This album is probably best described as the soundtrack to a Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian nightmare. Ash Borer juxtaposes genres to jarring effect, frequently interrupting moody synths and reverb drenched guitars with sudden bursts of tremolo picking and demonic growling. It’s a nifty trick that breathes new life into the increasingly stale loud-soft dynamics of post-metal (call this post post-metal).
By now that southern rock/stoner metal sound is nothing new (see also The Sword, Baroness), but Black Tusk get extra points for how supremely catchy their hooks are. Set the Dial is metal-infused, deep-fried comfort food for the frat boy ready to rage in all of us, and I mean that in the most flattering way possible. Black Tusk don’t aspire to do much else on Set the Dial than pile riff on top of riff, but you’ll be too busy nodding your head and shotgunning beers to notice. Most exciting for my inner middle schooler are the Zach de la Rocha vocals that permeate throughout.
The word “epic” is a bit trite, especially in the context of a metal review. But this album is positively Homeric. Maybe “life-affirming” would be more appropriate. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine an album covering more ground than Celestial Lineage, spanning from punishing death metal to fuzzed-out psychedelics to moments of serene beauty (were those wind chimes I just heard?). Particularly surprising are the church organ and all-girls choir employed on “Woodland Cathedral”, a track seemingly lifted from Sunday service at the Church of Satan. Somehow, WitTR fit all of these disparate sounds together seamlessly to create a cohesive whole so “epic” (pardon my syntax), you’ll feel like you just went to Mordor and back.
If any band seems prepared for crossover appeal, it’s Mastodon. And with Metallica devoting all their energy to generating WTF moments with Lou Reed, the mantel is all but set for them. On The Hunter, Mastodon combines anthemic choruses, soaring riffs, and hyperactive drumming into a prog and pop metal gumbo channeling just about any conceivable metal touchstone imaginable (Sabbath, Megadeth, even Maiden). The remarkable thing about this album is Mastodon’s Bowie-like ability to take any sound they please and do it as well or better than anyone else in the game. Personal favorites include Mastodon’s take on those pensive Metallica monster ballads that to this day remain in heavy rotation on alternative radio playlists.
Tim Myers recently wrote about his coming of age as a metalhead.