Friday, January 4, 2013

2012 in review - top 66 albums of the year (part 4)

I had all but given up on Enslaved, remember? Because I've always loved Enslaved to bits, I was prepared to just kinda forget about them until they got off their prog kick of the past two meaningless albums. But then, they didn't, and everything clicked all the same. Songs rage, twist and progress, Herbrand sings wonderfully and his vocals actually feel like they're part of the song (!), while Grutle croaks more majestically and extremely than ever. 'RIITIIR' was album of the month for Terrorizer and I was the purveyor of praise, so here's that review for your re-reading pleasure:

"Let’s all try to ignore the fact that the (admittedly awesome, but still) artwork looks just like Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ and focus on what’s essential. It doesn’t take long to realize it, either, as the first couple of minutes of opener ‘Thoughts Like Hammers’ offer a precious insight into the remarkable hour that follows. A brief second of feedback announces the arrival of a cascading wall of guitars, then a distant, muffled gang-roar is heard, as if the Vikings, such an important image in Enslaved’s history, are coming out of the mist to invade, and then a huge, huge riff drops, simple but devastatingly potent. Grutle croaks majestically as if he’s doing ‘Eld’ all over again, and suddenly Herbrand’s clean vocals also kick in, this time not trying to be soaring or epic, just simply delivering a titanium-strong melody that is fully interweaved with both the song and Grutle’s harsh vocals, at long last. The song then mixes and matches all these elements, and more, for the duration of it’s almost 10 minutes, and that’s when you realize you’re hooked, regardless – and this is the kicker – of whether you liked the disappearance down the prog-hole of Enslaved after the ‘Ruun’ album. Of all the many different avenues the Norwegian band has taken in their career, this seems to have been the hardest to consolidate – though they were widely praised, there was something clearly lacking in ‘Vertebrae’ and ‘Axioma Ethica Odini’, two records of which even a vocal detractor such as yours truly will admit to being a necessary climb, if the summit they helped reach was this. Conceptually more abstract than usual (RIITIIR is in fact a made up, “Norse-ified” word meant to signify “the rites of man”) yet dramatically concise in the evocative power of its songs and the oneness of its songwriting, ‘RIITIIR’ has it all: aggression, immediacy, depth, catchiness and staying power, to a degree that makes its 67 minutes seem like a few exhilarating seconds you must repeat as often as possible."

19. BLACK BREATH Sentenced To Life
There's no fooling about with Black Breath. No need to complicate things. They were born with their style fully solidified, so they will keep hammering away at it with the catchiest and most relentless songs this side of 'Wolverine Blues' after a night out with 'Seizures In Barren Praise', destroying stages everywhere (Roadburn included) and just generally being awesome. That's all we really need.

18. SEIROM 1973 / GNAW THEIR TONGUES Eschatological Scatology / DE MAGIA VETERUM The Deification
The usual gamut of Mories releases this year sees the man pursuing different paths for each of his projects, including the creation of a whole new entity that is shockingly different from everything he's done before. Seirom, which, you will notice, is Mories backwards, is indeed the reverse of his usual musical persona - vast swathes of consumingly beautiful (!!) soundscapes, full of longing, grief, melancholy and nostalgic vibes for a past that's gone, but not gone enough for us to not remember it. It's like The Angelic Process and My Bloody Valentine and Nadja all rolled into one healing mass of droning peace that will wash away all your sins. All the sins, of course, that you can find on Gnaw Their Tongues - though Mories' main vehicle had taken somewhat of a turn towards cleaner pastures (with 'L'Arrivée De La Terne Morte Triomphante' in particular), it's as if Seirom took all the clean bits away and left only the grime. 'Eschatological Scatology' is further pushed into the realm of utter terror once more, filthy black doomnoise for you to smear yourself with shit and commit atrocious murder-suicide rituals to. Or just listen to it, I don't know. De Magia Veterum runs the risk of going by unnoticed with the strength of the other two releases, but don't overlook it, as it's a supremely chaotic and complex blast of industrial black metal that goes one step beyond the already amazing 'The Divine Antithesis'.

17. WOVENHAND The Laughing Stalk
Though still very much a lonely anomaly in whatever scene you think Wovenhand belong or should belong to, more and more people are beginning to catch up on David Eugene Edwards' genius - his unique vocals, his labyrinthine compositions, his powerful lyrics that, after a little scrutiny, can be read far beyond their potentially off-putting (for us devil folk at least) biblical inspiration... everything about the man is unusual, impressively heartfelt and incredibly refreshing, even after a ton of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand albums, and now that its popularity seems to be at an all-time high, it's a good time to release an album like 'The Laughing Stalk'. Not only is it the heaviest Wovenhand album ever, as it had been described even before anyone had heard it, but it's also the one where the various components of the band's sound better amplify themselves, from the Native American influences (the chanting on 'Maize' is astounding) to the somewhat under-appreciated intricate guitarwork the band has always displayed (on the hypnotizing 'King O King', for instance), and even a sort of loose punk vibe, like on the energetic and certainly soon-to-be live favourite 'As Wool'. It all culminates on 'Glistening Black', arguably the best song David has ever written and a showpiece for everything that makes Wovenhand essential.

"I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice," Leonard Cohen croons majestically on 'Tower Of Song', and he could well be referring to Christian Mistress' vocalist Christine Davis. Hers is a voice that was created to sing heavy metal. Not only does her coarse, powerful and very feminine without being whimpy-operatic voice will breathe life into all but the deadest of songs, so fortunately the rest of the band know how to whip out awesome NWOBHM-influences proper metal tunes to accomodate the rare, rough diamond they have fronting the band. 'Possession' is actually so good that Christine blends in the whole amazing musical package rather than stand out like a sore thumb. Get it, get 'Agony & Opium' as well if you don't have it, and just revel on the best true metal on offer these days. Oh, and you know what? I've interviewed her, and her voice is really like that, even when she's just talking. Be still, my heart.

15. SCOTT KELLY / STEVE VON TILL / WINO Songs Of Townes Van Zandt / SCOTT KELLY AND THE ROAD HOME The Ghost Forgiven In Me
Scott Kelly in particular has been a champion for the cause of keeping Townes Van Zandt's remarkable musical legacy unforgotten, mentioning him in interviews and playing his songs live ('Tecumseh Valley' in particular), so it was only a matter of time that something would be done about it. One wouldn't expect, however, that it would be such a fabuous undertaking as 'Songs Of Townes Van Zandt' is. Joining forces with his Neurosis bandmate Steve Von Till and another brother-in-arms of the past few years, the great Scott "Wino" Weinrich, the three men lay down a deep, moving, heart-wrenching tribute to some of Townes' most affecting songs (nine of them, divided equally - three each - between the guys) like no one else could have done. At the same time maintaining a profound respect for the emotional weight of the originals and, in the process, turning each song very much into their own personal versions, Scott, Steve and Wino left a deep mark on 2012 with this special record, that one also hopes will be the starting point for many listeners to go and investigate Townes' body of work. Let no one in our world of heavy music have any excuse from now on to not be familiar with the songwriting genius of Townes Van Zandt. Sandwiched (in terms of release dates) between this and the Neurosis album, Scott Kelly took yet another leap on his ever-blossoming career with his third solo (well, sort of) record, this time with a few familiar friends around to help out. The result is a more expansive record than the stark minimalism of the unforgettable 'The Wake' (2008), but nevertheless still a sombre and intensely personal collection of songs. A particular reference has to be made to closer 'We Burn Through The Night' (which some of you might recognize as the title of Scott's former blog), the song of a lifetime, where the great man sings about his most treasured gift, his family. It'll make you want to rush off and hug the ones you love.

14. CONVERGE All We Love We Leave Behind
If you had just risen from an isolated cave where you had been living for 20 years and someone would show you, say, 'When Forever Comes Crashing', you'd probably be amazed at how awesome that record was, but you'd never believe that this band could keep on building and building and building on their unique brand of fiery hardcore/metal for years and albums on end, be able to reach 2012 still on the peak of their powers (have they ever been off that peak, really?), still charging ahead and doing new things. That's the staggering truth, when you look at Converge's discography, and when you put on 'All We Love We Leave Behind' for the first time, especially as they hit you with one of the biggest sound-leaps of this record straight away, 'Aimless Arrow'. It's still instantly recognizable as Converge, that super-condensed energy, like a lightning bolt captured and coiled to the maximum, sparks flying off all the time as the whole thing threatens to explode constantly, but there's new things hitting you from all directions, most noticeably Jacob Bannon's (further) expanded vocal weaponry. Eschewing the bunch of guests they had on previous effort 'Axe To Fall', this seems to be Converge stripped to their bare minimum, which is still immensely overwhelming, even (even more, I'd say) when they slow down like on the harrowing 'Coral Blue'. Until the riveting finale that is 'Predatory Glow', there's simply too much to absorb, digest and coherently discuss, not for a few years at least. So, take this time to catch up until they hit us with the next chapter of revolution.

13. EAGLE TWIN The Feather Tipped The Serpent's Scale
Similarly to Converge, Eagle Twin are an example of how music can be so overwhelming that it physically tires you after an intense listen to a particular album. This duo doesn't even pretend to try and sweeten things for you - the first four songs are, respectively, 10:17, 10:09, 10:18 and 12:30 minutes long, and not a second of those is wasted meandering around. On the contrary, 'The Feather...' always seems spectacularly dense, as if they've compressed hundreds of giant riffs and beats into an all-consuming blitzkrieg of intensity. Towards the end of the album, the already quite pacey (although strangely doom-laden and foreboding in feeling) sludge-fest speeds up even more, hints of dirty punk even creeping in on the short-and-to-the-point instrumental 'It Came To Pass The Snakes Became Mighty Antlers', where Gentry's scary, full-throated rasp gets a couple of minutes rest. I can't wait to see this stuff played live, and you'd better not stand next to me when I do. I'll probably rip your head off, just because.

12. ROYAL THUNDER CVI / GOLD Interbellum
There's a little bit of genius on GOLD's facebook page that sums them up, and to a certain extent Royal Thunder too, more perfectly and concisely than I ever could: "GOLD is a comtemporary rock band that's heavy because of the songs, not the sound." Now then, this doesn't mean that there aren't some mean riffs lurking their heads on these records (Royal Thunder in particular lay down some ragers that even surpass their awesome EP from late 2010 that made me go crazy about them), but it does mean that it's in the songs themselves, deeply rooted in the melodies, the structures and the approach that the heaviness lies. Throughout the energetic rockouts of Royal Thunder, it's the little things that get you and that will weigh on you the most, like Mlny's little sigh at the very end of the colossal 'Whispering World, and the same happens with GOLD, where the luminous, quietly epic final crescendo of 'Ruby' will compress your heart more tightly than any extreme band ever could. The last questions which is why I bundled these two bands together, doesn't have a clear answer. Sure, they both have kickass, versatile, talented girls fronting them, who can both sing and rock out with the best of them, and they even have similar names (Mlny / Milena), but it's a much deeper unintentional connection that I feel between these two bands that led me to join them - they both understand what makes rock music so vital, they are able to extricate the very best of the past decades both soundwise and writingwise, and then are able to come up with contemporary, non-retro amazing albums that are looking forward without forgetting what's behind them. That's the true genius. Oh, and if you need further recommendation from a much more credible source than me, Fenriz himself selected GOLD as his band of the week today, so there.

11. SAINT VITUS Lillie: F-65
"Why do I scream at them? They never listen," Wino wails in his welcoming, typical howl as his first sentence of this album. Well, Wino, my dear lad, a few of us still do, and a few of us waited for over 20 years to hear you belt out those disenchanted, depressive odes on top of Dave Chandler's almighty riffs. Yes, the legacy was already immortal, with the unholy trinity of 'Born Too Late', 'Mournful Cries' and 'V' seeping into our very own blood during all these years, but hey, if we can have one more, why not? And make no mistake, this is one more fantastic album worthy of being stacked against those classics. In 34 minutes of pure fucking doom like only these guys know how to deliver, there's no bullshit about it: it's uncluttered, unpretentious and devoid of any desire to try anything new. The Wino+Chandler incarnation of Saint Vitus was never broken, so fortunately no one tried to fix it, and that 'Let Them Fall' opener, the immense 'Dependence' or, above all, 'The Bleeding Ground' and its riff-of-the-year will surely be hailed as classic Vitus just as all our old favourites are today. Welcome back.

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