Another great year of metal is coming to an end!
It’s that time of the year again. We scramble around to buy Christmas presents, try to do all that last minute stuff we said we would accomplish for the year, and lament all those things that we didn’t have time to complete. The holidays are stressful! But for metalheads, this is a wonderful time of the year because we get to compile lists of all our favorite picks, and discover new albums that somehow slipped through our fingers. And perhaps more importantly, it gives us the chance to complain about the mainstream media, or even metal media, about how their top picks are all wrong. How could they possibly leave out that album, and how could they possibly pick THAT for number one?!
I feel like I say this every year, but this was a great year for metal. Technical death metal especially got some shiny new gems, including some releases from the big names, some surprise newcomers, and some bands that have been around the scene for awhile but just haven’t had that big breakthrough album. And then there is the weird – I can’t get enough of the strange, unorthodox, experimental, atmospheric, or whatever you want to call it; the bizarre death metal releases always impress me. But then again so do the over the top technical ones… Anyway, without any further delay, here are my top picks for the year. I hope to see at least one person complaining!
10. Hate Eternal – Phoenix Amongst the Ashes
Fronted by Erik Rutan of Morbid Angel fame, Hate Eternal consistently puts out face-crushingly heavy but densely intricate albums that never let their fans down (comparisons will not be made to Illud Divinum Insanus in this write up…wait…too late…). The riffs are monstrous and relentless, quickly changing yet never hitting the area of over technicality, the drums know when to kick up and when to play a more subdued 1000 beats per minute, and the vocals sound like demons straight from hell. This is a band that never forgets the death metal part of technical death metal, and Phoenix Amongst the Ashes is an album that brings that headbanging along with the dizzying technicality.
Key Cut: “The Art of Redemption”.
9. Monumental Torment – Element of Chaos
Not that I have ever been to Russia, but I would imagine extremely heavy metal would go over well. Maybe it’s just the language that I think sounds intimidating, or that the country is huge. Anyway, Monumental Torment mount their state of the art lasers on top of tanks with snowplows and bulldoze through 10 tracks of technical death metal that pays homage to brutal death metal. This album had me hooked from the first listen as Brain Drill weedly-deedlies crashed upon Origin ratta-tat-tat, all driven by Fleshgrind chug chug chugs.
Key Cut: “Lethargic Sleep”
8. TIE: Obscura – Omnivium & Beyond Creation – The Aura
The tie may seem like cheating, but whenever I listen to one of these albums I find myself thinking of the other as well since they both have that spacey, groovy, progressive, free-flowing progressive technical death metal going on.
Obscura consistently brings top tier progressive/technical death metal, showcasing their Atheist groove quite readily, yet also hitting some Necrophagist like technical spurts. A new addition is some (rare) clean vocals, ala Cynic; important to note is that said interludes are done in exactly the manner that a band like this should handle such vocals – briefly and occasionally, as a small addition, rather than becoming the mainstay of the song. The austral theme or their song titles and lyrics, as well as the album cover, gives the album that vast, endless, cosmic feel, yet the songs move quickly and smoothly. Although I played 2009’s Cosmogenesis a bit more often, Omnivium one will nonetheless be seeing a lot of spins in the future.
Key Cut: “Celestial Spheres.”
In continuation, Beyond Creation isn’t afraid to cross some lines and bend some strings in a very spacey-Obscura fashion, which perhaps lends to the cosmic imagery which I associate with this band. They do a great job of balancing technical, instrumental passages, with fiercely vocalized hits to the throat. Their technical moments demonstrate that they can keep up with the fret board antics of the new school, yet the rubbery bass echoes from yesteryear, in the heyday of Death and Atheist. Just like in Individual Thought Patterns, the bassist refuses to play simple backup, instead intertwining complex lines between guitar solos. Apparently someone forgot to tell him that bass isn’t supposed to lead the song, but it definitely won’t be me bringing it up.
Key Cut: “Omnipresent”
7. TIE: Baring Teeth – Atrophy & Flourishing – The Sum of All Fossils
These two bands hit a tie because I continually lumped them together whenever I wanted this particular sound on a play list. Both of them fall into that sort of experimental death metal sub-sub genre, filled with atonal squeals, but more strikingly, haunting and disturbing dead space.
Baring Teeth’s Atrophy maximizes on the quiet and weird factor, while combining it with a bit of the wind tunnel death metal style of Portal, as well as the unnerving spin of Ulcerate. It moves in ways things aren’t supposed to move, and reminds me of the terrifying and maddening creatures of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. More disturbing than technically over the top, or face crushingly heavy, this album is reminiscent of when death metal was actually scary. The deep, gruff, throaty vocals make an odd pair with the atonal interplay of the guitars. This one is a bit hard to describe – you’d best hear it yourself.
Key Cut: “Distilled in Fire”
Continuing with the weird, Flourishing’s The Sum of All Fossils similarly suffocates with the strange. Like Baring Teeth, this band draws parallel to Ulcerate and Portal. Fans of Isis may appreciate the wavering tones found in some songs. The vocals are a bit more mid-ranged, almost reminiscent of hardcore, and the songs tend to rise and fall a bit more than the lurch of Baring Teeth. However, the weirdness is nonetheless present. The atonal squeals of the faster spots and the haunting silence of the slower spots are not for the casual death metal listener, but those willing give this album a listen will no doubt find some interesting parts…or nightmares.
Key Cut: “A Thimble’s Worth”
6. Anomalous – Ohmnivalent
It makes sense for a band to put their strongest songs in the beginning of an album, but as listeners, sometimes it becomes frustrating when an album fades off as it progresses. Such is the opposite of Anomalous’ Ohmnivalent; the album opens with the band showcasing their technical chops, but steadily intersperses Meshuggah-esque lurches and time changes. Like a demonic possession that occurs over the course of 55 minutes, the Nothing era nuances gain strength and solidify into a polyrhythmic beast born into the world to spread havoc on the standard death metal imitators. If you have ever wondered what Meshuggah would sound like if they added the guitarist from Brain Drill here is your answer, and it’s a menacing force indeed.
Key Cut: “Demiurge”
5. Illogicist – The Unconsciousness of Living
The first time I listened to this album I didn’t know quite what to think, which was somewhat of a problem since I had already decided to review it. After two more listens I found myself simply unable to escape it; I was humming the songs at work, and how often do you get to say that about death metal? The technical melodies are like hooks that sink into the brain and will not let go. The album is delightfully old school, influenced by Death more than Origin or Brain Drill, yet never sounds like a Schuldiner copy. Absolutely essential, The Unconsciousness of Living is one to play for that old guy at the cd shop who won’t stop saying that modern metal is all soulless wankery. It’s technical, it’s progressive, it’s heavy, it’s innovative, it’s fresh, and somehow it’s still ridiculously catchy.
Key Cut: “The Mind Reaper”
4. Gigan – Quasi-Hallucinogenic Sonic Landscapes
Cosmically dizzying, Quasi-Hallucinogenic Sonic Landscapes is exactly what the title suggests, in addition to swirling, decapitating technical metal. Like Origin, Gigan takes us to the center of a black hole in the depths of space. Unlike Origin, Gigan also dwells in the dimensions beyond with their Ulcerate like lurches. At the same time, they also introduce Mithras like ethereal melodies. An excellent album blurring together numerous styles of death metal, Quasi-Hallucinogenic Sonic Landscapes will make a peerless addition to any death metal collection.
Key Cut: “Mountains Perched Like Beasts Awaiting the Attack”
3. Ulcerate – The Destroyers of All
Mentioned three times already in this list, it should be no surprise to metal enthusiasts that these New Zealanders are again topping year end charts. Ulcerate’s 2009 output Everything is Fire was a fist to the face of anyone who claimed that death metal was dead and stale. Building on the unnerving lurch of Immolation, Ulcerate brings listeners into a new realm of death metal discomfort. Often repeated descriptions are the Deathspell Omega of death metal, and the frequently used tags of unorthodox or atmospheric death metal seem appropriate. Already their influence on the scene is being felt – see aforementioned Baring Teeth and Flourishing. Like Meshuggah, we will continue to hear from these innovators, and more likely than not, we will continue to hear from their followers as well.
Key Cut: “Burning Skies”
2. Origin – Entity
Again, referenced four times already in this list, it should be no surprise to technical death metal fans that Origin is on the top of year end lists. A vocalist change has not inhibited the band at all, although he seems to hit a bit less of a range than before. Fans of the band know what to expect; over the top technicality, interspersed some serious headbanging, yet never veering into the repetitive weedly-deedlies that Brain Drill is accused of. In contrast to what has continued, the album also features five songs that hit only two minutes and fifteen seconds or less. These grindcore length bursts of technicality showcase a focused band on top of its game, while the longer ones (like “Saligia”) flaunt the occasionally slower riffs that won the band so much praise on 2008’s Antithesis. Origin are leaders, not followers, and Entity is what those followers should be trying to emulate.
Key Cut: “Saligia” for the fans of the slower parts, and “Committed” to showcase their grindcore explosiveness and technical innovation.
1. Mitochondrion – Parasignosis
My top pick for the year is certainly a strange one. A large part Onward to Golgotha, a large part Everything is Fire, a chunk of black metal, and a large part drug induced hallucinations, Mitochondrion spews forth a haunting yet crushing black hole of despair. Fans of experimental or unorthodox death metal need to look no further than here for their fix, because Parasignosis is far weirder than even its title suggests. Fans of the technical deathcore style seen recently may be put off, as may fans of purely old school death metal, but this album belongs in the halls of blasphemous glory of true death metal. If you are a death metal fan, you owe it to yourself to give this album a listen.
Key Cut: “Trials”
I can’t wait to see what next year brings us. I have confidence it will be just as great. I definitely have some releases I am looking forward to: in the comments box, feel free to let me know the albums you are anticipating most (or argue with my picks.) For anyone interested in such things, I also have a list of numbers 11 through 20 as well.