Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Best of 2003

I never had a "best of 2003" list, at least not one that was publicized in any way. In truth, at the time I was more enamoured with albums that came out the previous year: Napalm Death's Order of the Leech, Vader's Revelations, Vehemence's God Was Created, The Crown's Crowned in Terror, Mastodon's Remission, Behemoth's Zos Kia Cultus, Neuraxis' Truth Beyond. By contrast, 2003 was a shitty year, for both me and metal.

With this list I've included the reviews that appeared in the second issue of Dreams of Consciousness (with some minor editing), to give an inkling as to what my thought process was like at the time. With the exception of Naglfar's Sheol and the Disjesus demo, I haven't returned to any of these albums very much in the last 5 years. In fact, a couple of these are dead embarrassing, and will erase me from the KVLT logs for all time. But I'm including them here because I'm not interested in white-washing my listening habits so I can slot in with whatever the current fad in metal is. As best as I can remember, these were the albums released that year that made the biggest impression on me at the time.  - Adrian Sol, 9.06.2013

Vital Remains - Dechristianize

This is a band who've soldiered bravely on, despite numerous line-up changes and the rising and falling of the death metal fanbase.  A lot of the hype on this album seems to revolve around the fact that Glen Benton has taken over the vocals; frankly, that's one of the least noteworthy things about this album.  He opts for an uber-low growl that is at least as uninspired as the last Deicide album.

No, what makes this album noteworthy is just how amazing the music is, steering between hyperblast brutality and epic melody.  On the surface, it seems to be a pretty simple formula: start with an epic melody, dive into death metal brutality, and just when one's attention is tempted elsewhere, back to the melody.  Most of the songs are in the 6-8 minute range, and while my attention span usually cuts out at 3 ½, the extended length isn't something that's noticeable here.

These guys have a catalogue that goes back 3 or 4 albums, and this release makes it mandatory that I check out all of it.  In a word: amazing.

The Bottom Line: My vote for death metal album of the year.  Get this before you get the new Morbid Angel.

Naglfar - Sheol

Naglfar are back! These guys are hands down my favourite black metal band. They entwine brutality and melody better than anyone, and while they stick doggedly to formula, they never get as banal as Dark Funeral or as samey as Marduk. This album is pretty much Diabolical pt 2, in all its searing epic glory. Where Naglfar get it right is by never allowing style to come over substance in some cheesy bid for "cult" and necro", or by letting their egos run wild over the fretboard. These guys are, above all, songwriters, and the result is top notch. The riffs are surprisingly catchy and of a higher quality than most bands muster. And floating above it all is Jens Rydens' tortured rasp, which is surprisingly expressive for a black metal singer. The production is clear in that trebley blackened way, but it works for these guys, bringing out the nuances of their guitar playing. The keyboards are present but never overbearing, adding to the emotional impact of the songs subtly and yet succinctly.

In a scene bereft of Emperor, Dissection, and Immortal, Naglfar are poised to rise to the top and take the throne, and more power to them.

The Bottom Line:  Forget your opinions about black metal, pro or con; Naglfar are a brilliant metal band, period.  Highly recommended.

Nasum - Helvete

Nasum - even in the high-quality confines of the Relapse stable - are head and shoulders above the rest.  They make it seem so easy, as if just anyone can assemble the perfect mix of grind, Swedish death metal, and hardcore.  And they do it without make-up and scary pseudonyms.  Fancy that.

The production on Helvete is fuller and more dangerous sounding than that of Human 2.0.  Other than that, it's business as usual for Nasum, assembling 2 dozen songs that blow everyone else out of the water in barely over half an hour.  There are some unabashed catchy riffs and melodies that do nothing to take away from the power of the rest of the album; unlike, say, Soilent Green or Cephalic Carnage, Nasum meld the disparate influences into their grind framework without losing any sense of cohesion.

The Bottom Line: If you love grind, you need this.

Recommended for fans of: Napalm Death, Carcass, Repulsion, cramming as much noise, fury, and metal into 14 seconds as humanly possible

Entombed - Inferno

Spoiler alert: this is Entombed's "doom record." Their love affair with the likes of Breach and Neurosis is no secret, so it isn't surprising that half of this album emulates the same crawling menace of those bands, albeit twisted with some Sabbath blues. When the album does pick up speed, it's not in the vein of the Clandestine era but the amped up Stooges-gone-death sound of their later years.

Elsewhere, it becomes apparent that their Jesus Lizard/Shellac inclinations were not exorcised by the commercial failure of Same Difference.  In fact, that album and To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth is what Inferno most resembles. Apparently there were a lot of ideas from that period that they left untouched and needed to explore, public opinion be damned.

It's understandable why Entombed are moving further and further away from their past sound. Their previous albums have been leeched by literally thousands of pretenders, and in that light it's admirable that Entombed continue to expand and search out new ground.  It took me a while to come to grips with it, but now that I have, I think it's great.

The Bottom Line: Give yourself a while to get into it and you won't be disappointed.  If you've never heard Entombed before, head straight for the first three records and discover for yourself the genius that put Sweden on the musical map.

Highlights: track 2 "The Fix is In", track 3 "Incinerator" (essentially "Out of Hand" pt 2) and track 13 "Night for a Day".

Sepultura - Roorback

The Sepultura split was like an affirmation about how clued in This Is Spinal Tap really was, especially with regards to how a band on the verge of greatness and immortality could throw it all away over egos and petty backbiting... Soulfy embraced nu-metal and its audience, and in retaliation Sepultura all but bought stock in Victory Records to establish their hardcore cred (in all fairness, Igor Cavalera was into Refused before any hardcore kid I know). And both of them have tried and failed in capturing the magic of Chaos AD.

I'm not sold on Roorback as being Sepultura's comeback album, but it is the most solid thing they've done without Max.  Though it thrashes safely along the Chaos/Roots axis, they experiment with some new tricks here, and it sounds more natural than the incoherent mess that was Nation. But the real magic of Roorback is in Derrick Greene, whose vocals are finally given to their full scope and character.  It may be stereotypical and quasi-racist to label a black singer's vocals as "soulful", but I can't think of any other way to describe them.  There is a real emotional purity to his singing, like a cross between Lemmy's throaty sermonizing and Johnny Cash's black coffee bass tones.

Musically, the hardcore cred is more in evidence than ever, as well as some exceedingly tasty Neurosis/Isis type slow parts.  The "tribal" aspects are played down a bit, but are still in evidence. Used sparingly, they give the material a sense of depth without sounding gimmicky. Speaking of gimmicky...the whole thing ends with a cover of U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky", which sounds fine, but a band of Sepultura's calibre shouldn't be using covers as their stepping stone into the mainstream. They have the songs, the cred, and one of the few truly talented singers in metal.

The Bottom Line: Die-hards like me may be forced to admit that the best days are behind us, but give these guys credit.  They haven't given up and have whipped out a damn fine album.  I see better days ahead.

Recommended for fans of: hardcore, metal, and all imaginary points in between.

Opeth - Damnation

I was underwhelmed by Deliverance, led to believe that it would be a much more deathly listen but finding it to be just another Opeth album, even though it had some neat touches.  Damnation, however, is exactly what I hoped it would be: all of Opeth's strange folky, melodic, and jazz tendencies given full reign. I think most people will find it mood or background music, but that's just fine with me.  While it's debatable that Opeth lose their impact by dropping their heavier side, I'd argue that this is as emotionally fulfilling as any of their earlier albums.  The highs and the lows here come without the help of a distortion pedal. And Mikael's voice has never sounded better.

The Bottom Line: Campfire songs for overnight visits to those spooky Scandinavian forests. Transcendant.

Recommended for fans of: Staring blankly into space, bringing lighters to concerts even though you don't smoke.

The Haunted - One Kill Wonder

I have a strange system for working out whether an album is killer or not.  I play it while I work out, and if it incites me to go above and beyond what my puny body is normally capable of, then it's killer. This right here is the epitome of killer.

It's become a trend while discussing music to stress technicality and musicianship over the virtues of succinct songwriting. The Haunted are the best kind of band, who have the ability but never let showing off get in the way of crafting a good song. When they dazzle, it's always in context, and when they keep it simple it never sounds dumbed down (something Arch Enemy and In Flames need to work on).

"Old school' is a term that's often used to describe The Haunted. It's true, but not just in the sense of the 80's thrash aesthetic. The Haunted assemble riffs into songs and songs into albums the way bands used to, without any gimmickry.  There's a simple honesty to this album that makes it so good.  Let's hope there are lots more like it.

The Bottom Line: If you were duped into buying the last 4 Slayer albums, then this is what you need to re-affirm your faith in metal.  Pure headbanging bliss.

Highlights: track 2 "Godpuppet", track 3 "Shadow World", track 5 "DOA", track 8 "Downward Spiral".

From Autumn To Ashes - The Fiction We Live

More screamo, schizo-core, from a band whose drummer supposedly cries when he plays. I don't know if that's true or not, but it would be funny if it was.  While not as flat out brilliant as their previous album [the sublime Too Bad You're Beautiful], The Fiction We Live has some great moments. I've read a lot of online posts totally laying into the drummer's singing..okay, fair warning, they are kinda cheesey in that heartfelt whiny emo way, but jeez, he's not that bad.

FATA are at their best when they let it rip.  The sappy melodic parts are great, but what makes bands like FATA, Evergreen Terrace and Poison the Well special is the balance between the balls out metal and the introspective emotional parts.  I guess that's why this album isn't moving me; much too many Dawson's Creek parts, not enough devil horns....still an enjoyable listen though.

The Bottom Line: Good, but if you have a low tolerance for whiny yodeling, you may have to skip half of the album.

Cave In - Antennae

What do you say about a band that used to be peers of Converge and the mighty Coalese but now sounds more like Radiohead? Antenna is here to warn us that even the hardest metalcore crazies secretly, like, want to be Sting, and to beware, or something.

I didn't get into Jupiter when it first came out and am now only appreciating it.  But I like this a lot more than Jupiter.  I don't hear the "prog" influence they're supposed to have except for some isolated guitar effects, and only hear the faintest traces of their original sound.  This is, without a doubt, indie-pop for people who love Dashboard Confessional and wouldn't be caught dead without their denim jackets.  A lot of these songs sound like something the WB would use for their angsty-teen dramas.  Don't expect the kind of melodic melancholy that Opeth and Neurosis specialize in, this is just rock that doesn't rock out. But boy it's pretty.

The Bottom Line: Really enjoyable if you can get past the pop-factor, and one of the better mainstream rock albums released this year.  Inspect your navel for 40 minutes.

Highlights: The sweeping Isis-like atmosphere of "Seafront", and the haunting melodies of "Woodwork".

Blue Man Group - The Complex

I never wrote a review for The Complex; this was one in a huge spindle of CDs that my buddy Jon sent me in 2003, shortly after I crashlanded back in Malaysia and was living in my father's house in the small town of Taiping. It's not an exaggeration to say that package was the best thing that happened to me the entire time I was living in that place. I've never been adequately able to tell Jon how much getting those CDs meant to me; ten years on, and I still get emotional thinking about it. The rest of that time was pretty bleak.

I listened to The Complex almost every day; something about it seemed melancholic yet sanguine at the same time. I enjoyed disappearing into "Up to the Roof", "The Current", "The Complex" and "I Feel Love" (which only much later did I discover was a Donna Summers song). I look back on this album with a great deal of fondness; one of the few things from that period that I do. - AS, 2013

Disjesus - Crust Christ

Likewise, Disjesus never appeared in those first two issues of DoC, even though I listened to their music almost everyday for the latter half of 2003. The reason was simple: Disjesus was my band. I recorded this demo with some local guys in the area. The whole thing fell apart when the guitarist moved to a state up north and I moved to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. I planned on recording a second demo called What Starts With "G" and Rhymes with "Fraud"?; by the end of 2005, I had 8 more songs written and ready to go. But I never moved forward with it. Within a few years of living in Malaysia I lost confidence in myself and my creativity, and the idea of bringing more Disjesus into the world seemed pointless. I never met anyone in the scene, or saw a single show while I was living in KL until 2008. By that point I had enough. All I wanted was to get the fuck out of Malaysia or die trying.

10 years after that first Disjesus demo was recorded, I'm now a regular visitor at Rumah Api, and have lost count of the number of bands that play in the Scandinavian hardcore style that Disjesus aspired to. The mix of D-Beat and grind on Crust Christ was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. I wish more people had heard it. - AS, 2013