Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Ten in 2010

Dark Tranquillity - We Are The Void
It's no secret that Dark Tranquillity have a weakness for synthpop, and their latest album skews in that direction more often than not, leading to accusations that they've lost their balls. Prone as I am to resentment, I've taken criticism of modern Dark Tranquillity to heart. I have to say, though, of all the stuff I've heard this year, nothing has stuck with me as much or as well. Void is at times shamelessly commercial, proving that metal can be melodic and catchy, while still being intelligent and heavy. But DT also throw the listener for a loop with 2 songs of blackened doom ("Iridium" and "Arkangelisk") that are as bleak and epic as anything that Satyricon have written. And of course there's that title track, a neckwrecking 4 minutes that rivals the best of Character in sheer thrashing power. For a band with an already stellar discography, We Are The Void is a fine addition, and one that I'm confident will still hold up in 5 years.

Unleashed - As Yggdrassil Trembles
"VIKING DEATH METAL!" Johnny Hedlund informs us, and there's no arguing with him, since Unleashed 2010 give Amon Amarth a run for their money as Valhalla's house band. As Yggdrassil Trembles completely changed my perception of Unleashed; as I've written about previously, they were previously the Swedish death metal band that mattered least to me, and who I characterized as an also ran that paled in comparison to the rest of the Stockholm scene. Well, I've since reversed my position, because this album simply SMOKES; brutal, concise, and ending with a fantastic cover of Death's "Evil Dead," it puts the recent albums by Dismember and Grave to shame. It's rare that a single album forces you to reassess a band's entire catalog, but that's what AYT has forced me to do. The best part is I'm still only halfway through.

Agalloch - Marrow of the Spirit
Even platitudes from hipster-centric Pitchfork and Stereogum couldn't shame me away from this album. Though Agalloch's new post-rock inclinations are jarring at first, eventually they make perfect sense. Featuring Amber Asylum/Giant Squid/Grayceon cellist Jackie Perez Gratz (who knows a thing or two about mutating strains of metal), Marrow of the Spirit takes USBM from tremolo guitars and blastbeats into the realm where single notes ring the loudest. If you ever wondered what the Red Sparrowes would sound like crossed with Opeth, wonder no further.

Keep of Kalessin - Reptillian
In a year that featured solid albums by both Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, the title of "best symphonic black metal album" belongs to the Keep. What these guys lack in costumes and a video budget, they more than make up in their songwriting prowess and stellar musicianship. And balls, huge, dragon-sized balls: witness their bid to take the song "Dragontower" to the top of the European pop competition Eurovision: They made it as far as the Semi-finals. For a black metal band that spends their time writing songs instead of gussying around in silly costumes, that's huge, and "Dragontower" isn't even the best part of the album.

Enslaved - Axioma Ethica Odini
In contrast to the sometimes directionless Vertebrae, Axioma Ethica Odini is fantastically direct, and possibly the best Enslaved album since Isa. Axioma is the sound of black metal in 2010, of Vikings embracing a new kind of epic, of prog without the wanking connotations, and of space rock without the lazy stoner vibe. If I ever get chosen to defend the Rylan Star League from the Ko-Dar armada, I can only hope that this album is playing as I take on the mother ship. I'm not sure where Odin fits in to all this, but no doubt the All-Father is listening to Enslaved as he puffs on his pipe and rides through the sky.

Kataklysm - Heaven's Venom
Some bands reinvent, while others merely retool, and there's no doubt that Kataklysm belong to the Bolt Thrower school of "just like the last one, but with different songs." These French-Canadians sometimes come off like a death metal Hatebreed, alternating between chunky moshpit-baiting riffs and blasting melodic death sections. It can get a little samey, and the band seem aware of this, as Heaven's Venom shows them taking slow shuffling steps towards maturity, especially on the epic "Suicide River. In a year sadly bereft of blasting death metal, Kataklysm fill that particular cup for me nicely.

All Out War - Into the Killing Fields
This album is on my top ten because, unlike any other album I heard this year, I was compelled to get up and dance in my kitchen when I first heard it. That, my friends, is sway. Though I rarely listen to hardcore anymore, this album fired me up and took me back to my early 20's when the words "metal + core" had only the pleasant connotations of dogpiles and circle pits. Gloriously pissed off, thugged out, and wielding Slayer riffs like machetes, All Out War are the soundtrack to a bar brawl post-apocalypse.

Killing Joke - Absolute Dissent
While not as earthshaking as their 2002 self-titled album (featuring closet metalhead Dave Grohl), Absolute Dissent is still a modern post-punk masterpiece. Killing Joke are perhaps the only band capable of veering from metal to reggae to synthpop while still retaining their heaviness. Among the albums many gems is "The Raven King," a touching, appropriately bass-driven 7 minute tribute to their recently deceased four-stringer Paul Raven. The pied pipers of industrial malaise, Killing Joke have crafted the perfect soundtrack to dancing into the darkness.

Evocation - Apocalyptic
The wheel keeps turning, and as the gritty overdriven sound of Stockholm death metal comes back into style, there will be an inevitable hankering for the particular brand of searing melodicism that flooded out of Gothenberg in the mid-90s. Enter Evocation, who have stripped down their songcraft till nothing remains but catchy hooks that dig through your ears into your skull and won't let go. Though these days I prefer my death metal rawer and more blasting, Evocation took me back to my late teens when the likes of Sacrilege, Ebony Tears, and Ceremonial Oath were dominating my cd player. Though I'm intensely critical of revivalism, Apocalyptic won me over by being a death metal album from Gothenberg that reminded me why, 13 years ago, that used to be my favourite type.

Anathema - We're Here Because We're Here
No album has confounded my expectations this year like Anathema's We're Here Because We're Here. In the 8 years that they've been gone, Anathema have taken their love for Pink Floyd from their doom metal mantle and lovingly wrapped it around a piano-centric pop dress form that can be described as Coldplay-esque. That's right, Coldplay. At times, it gets gratingly Disney, but goddamn it, when it works (as on the luscious opening track "Thin Air") it's disarmingly moving. And more often than not, it does work. Before you run screaming in the other direction yelling "sell-out," spare a thought for poor Anathema; in this year of progged-out post-black, it should be remembered that these guys were one of the first extreme metal bands to take the chance and stride over those spaced out waters, almost 17 years ago. Though their current relationship to metal can be described as tangential at best, it's still an album I'm glad Anathema were at long last able to finish. Hopefully, it won't be the album that finishes Anathema.