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Monday, 2 January 2012

Persona 101's top 50 releases of 2011

So here we have it, the fabled end of year list. Don't read too much into the order - whilst in general, the higher up the list, the better the album is, it isn't so precise that two albums next to each other couldn't happily be swapped around.

50) Wolves In The Throne Room
       Celestial Lineage
       [Southern Lord Recordings]
As it turns out, this is the final release from the band who have essentially epitomized 'atmospheric' or 'hipster' black metal over the last few years, depending on which way you look at it. Appropriately, it is the culmination of everything they have produced over the years - it has the harsher approach of debut Diadem Of Twelve Stars and the demos, and at the same time uses the somewhat more airy approach of Malevolent Grain and Black Cascade
 49) Sólstafir
       Svartir Sandar
       [Season Of Mist]
I was wary of this album before listening to it for two main reasons: 1) it's a folk metal album and 2) it's a double album. Fortunately, the album itself assuaged my fears of intense boredom. One hears the term 'epic metal' bandied around all the time, but rarely does one encounter a band or album who actually merits the term. Well, this is the album. Like Atlantean Kodex last year, Sólstafir have managed to combat the challenge of a longer album length with massive riffs and fantastic structures.
48) Iced Earth
      [Century Media Records]
Let's face it, with more than 25 years of experience, Iced Earth should certainly know how to write a damn good power metal album. This is demonstrated once again here; whilst many power metal bands flounder around with 10 minute songs which don't really go anywhere, Iced Earth get straight to the point, with hooks, catches and melodies beautiful galore. Every song on here is a winner - and isn't that the point of power metal?
47) Devin Townsend Project
      [HevyDevy Records]
Anyone who's been keeping up with my Weekly Album Analysis will know that I haven't exactly been enamoured with much of the strange Canadian's recent work, but this is a strong exception to the rule. A modern progressive metal tour de force, this visits all the strong points of Townsend's career, from the Strapping Young Lad craziness to more recent progressive tendencies, largely derived from Terria and Ocean Machine. Excellent choices of guests only improve the album.
46) Brutal Truth
      End Time
      [Relapse Records]
Brutal Truth are one of the undisputed gods of grind, but after their 2009 album Evolution Through Revolution, I feared that they would be another reunion flop - it sat uncomfortably between the classic grind of their debut Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses and the experimental approach of Need To Control and Kill Trend Suicide. Fortunately, here they have fully embraced a newly developed style - a mixture of those experimental albums and the modern dissonant techgrind of Discordance Axis and Noisear to name a couple.
45) Anaal Nathrakh
      [Candlelight Records]
It was always going to be difficult to follow their career highlight In The Constellation Of The Black Widow, and here some would criticize Nathrakh for taking the safe route with what is essentially more of the same. To get the elephant out of the room, no, it's not on the same par as the previous, but yes, it is a worthy Anaal Nathrakh album, and thus perfectly worthy of this spot within this top 50. Musical nihilism perfected once again.
44) Turisas
      Stand Up And Fight
      [Century Media Records]
The first controversial entry in this list, Turisas are maligned by many for being 'too fun for metal' (or something like that anyway). Well... I like fun. And I'm not ashamed to admit it. Bombastic? Check. Massive hooks? Check. Will have you shamelessly donning your viking gear, raising a fist and singing along by the third listen? Depends where your inhibitions lie. If you don't like Turisas, you're not going to like this, but for those who don't mind their extreme levels of cheese, they have struck again.
43) Sheer Ignorance
      Conditioning EP
And so, the first crust EP in the list for a year which has had an abundance of excellence for crust newcomers and old-timers alike. This has the barest hint of black metal in it, but what it really is is a speedy, aggressive EP with variation in tempo and riffing styles. Although the standout track of the five is opener 'Pay Your Dues To Punk', there is no filler on here; the band even manage to pull off the slower tempo on the longest and centrepiece track.
42) Nunslaughter/Nekrofilth
      [Hell's Headbangers Records]
I'm not normally Nunslaughter's biggest fan, but on this, they not only hit my buttons hard, but they also picked one of the best bands to make a split with that they could. Nunslaughter's best material that I've heard is on this release, and Nekrofilth are criminally underrated thrashy death metal. The split format is perpetually underrated, even though I've not heard much fantastic in the format this year, and this is a strong example why. Two bands doing what they do best without stretching it out for too long.
41) Merzbow & Balázs Pándi
      Ducks: Live In NYC
      [Ohm Resistance] 
I've never professed to be the biggest expert of noise or Merzbow, but I've always got that age-old idiom 'I know what I like' to fall back upon. And I like this, very much. I've liked Merzbow's more percussive approach to his recent body of work, and this is another fine example. Includes more variation than one would usually find in noise music, and in this case, that's a virtue (unlike recent Prurient). I'm not quite sure which bits are the Balázs Pándi's contributions, but the two together do make a damn fine live album.
40) Fifteen Dead
      NecroCrust EP
And another crust EP. This one is only three tracks and from Scotland, but the black metal influence has been pumped up quite a bit here. Socially relevant lyrical themes can only help the EP up its quality, and the multi-faceted vocal approach really brings some freshness in a scene that has begun to become a little stagnant recently. Softer moments and sampled spoken word sections allow reflection on the band's intentions and what has been achieved here. A highly promising EP.
39) Em Ruinas
      From The Speed Metal Graves
      [Mutilation Records]
As if their recommendation by old-school master Fenriz wasn't enough, here's a recommendation from me. The album title is pretty accurate - this is essentially a speed metal album. It certainly takes some influence from extreme metal though, particularly their native Brazilian scene - a raw, unkempt feeling pervades throughout this album, which is well juxtaposed with more than enough hooks to keep the album interesting throughout. If they have even more to offer in the future, it could be astounding.
38) Lock Up
      Necropolis Transparent
      [Nuclear Blast Records]
Lock Up, the deathgrind supergroup have survived through the death of guitarist and grindcore legend Jesse Pintado and have come back with this album, which is far better than 98% of reunion albums. Is it on a par with Hate Breeds Suffering? Not quite. That said, it is still one of the best grindcore albums of this year and should certainly not be overlooked in any of the members' considerable legacies. You knew what to expect, and Lock Up delivered.
37) Wormrot
      Decibel Flexi Series EP
      [Earache Records]
This release is a paltry 111 seconds long, but so much raw aggression was fit into it that it is well worthy of its place here. With such a short length, there is little opportunity to do much evaluation, but I assure you this is classic Wormrot, with more of an Abuse style vocal approach than this year's (excellent) album Dirge. It's perfectly alright to simply stick this on the end of one of the two aforementioned albums as 'bonus tracks', but listening to it on its own can produce the most exciting two minutes of your life. If only there was more of it...
36) Tom Waits
      Bad As Me
A fellow contributor to this blog described Tom Waits as 'namedrop by the water cooler' music. Yes, his music is popular among the whole Pitchfork crowd, but as has been shown a lot recently, being liked by hipsters does not necessarily preclude music from being good. This shows all aspects of Waits' talented musical brain, from softer country parts like 'Talking At The Same Time' to the raucous bluesy goodness of the title track and 'Hell Broke Luce'. The consistent top quality that is part and parcel of his music is once again demonstrated here.
35) Nightbringer
      Hierophany Of The Open Grave
      [Season Of Mist]
Dissonance and technicality have been very popular in black metal recently, almost to the point of over-saturation of the style, but this is an album that stands head and shoulders above the crowd. USBM is often criticized for being overly concerned with histrionics, but this cuts to the chase well without forgetting the need for structured musicality. The main aspect which really sets this apart is its cohesiveness as an album; tracks flow from one into the next without ever sounding the same, something that is difficult and rare to achieve.
34) Fuck The Facts
      Die Miserable
      [Relapse Records]
Fuck The Facts are a band who have continually made good, but not great albums... until now. You see, previously, a late 90s metalcore element was a little too prominent in their music, which was somewhat jarring with their other death and grind influences, but here they appear to have replaced that element with a simple songwriting and tempo sensibility. Catchy from start to finish, this has Fuck The Facts really maturing into a band who could soon be a major player not only in deathgrind but in metal in general.
 33) Devil
       Time To Repent
       [Soulseller Records]
It seems that the retro-rock resurgence won't be falling down any time soon, which is good, as it is continually producing albums of this quality. Devil mix this with some blatant worship of the likes of Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath, which is quite welcome - and seeing as they obviously harness the power of the riff very well, not to mention some damn fine choruses, we can only hope that the scene, and indeed Devil themselves, manage to produce more of the same quality.
32) Sonne Adam
      [Imperium Productions/Century Media Records] 
This can't be right. Dark, dank, and altogether foul death metal of this quality simply isn't released on Century Media. It seems that it is now - after their highly promising Armed With Hammers EP, Israeli band Sonne Adam (Hebrew for Hater of Man) have produced one of the best death metal records of this year with their debut album. Slowly boiling, this brings out the evil side of death metal without just sounding like another Incantation worship band. The furore around the blogosphere about this album was well-placed.
31) Nuclear Torment
      8 Bit Death EP
It's a wonder that there hasn't been more thrash written about video games. Although much of the new thrash stuff which is supposed to be 'fun' just comes across as bland and soulless (Gama Bomb and Municipal Waste, I'm looking at you), Nuclear Torment here manage to make bouncy thrash with just the slightest crossover tendency which doesn't fall flat on its face. Admittedly, I'm not sure how well this would transfer to a full-length, but the three songs here are very good for such a new band.
30) Blood Ceremony
      Living With The Ancients
      [Rise Above Records]
And so, another recent retro-rock album. Blood Ceremony didn't really impress me with their eponymous debut, but compared to that, this is simply on another level. Influences are tastefully taken from hippie, prog and proto-metal scenes, and both the guitar and flute tones are simply delightful to behold. Blood Ceremony used to be overrated; no longer, they have drawn to the stage where they achieve to the high level at which they are rated.
29) Marduk
      Iron Dawn EP
      [Regain Records]
Although Panzer Division Marduk appears to have become the most divisive album in black metal, few question the unerring quality of Marduk's recent output, at least since 2007's Rom 5:12. On Iron Dawn, Marduk have produced some of their catchiest material ever, whilst remaining firmly within the confines of black metal, and without losing their trademark blastbeats galore. Here's to a new album hopefully this year.
28) Disma
      Towards The Megalith
      [Profound Lore Records]
Although the sheer saturation of Incantation-worship bands at the moment makes it somewhat difficult to enjoy any of them seriously at the moment, Disma are somewhat different for two main reasons - that they are quite original in their riffing structure and horror, and that they feature Craig Pillard - you know, the guy who sang on Onward To Golgotha - on vocals. This year's been an excellent year for death metal, and still Disma stand head and shoulders above most of the output.
     27) Clinging To The Trees Of A Forest Fire/Nesseria
           [Throatruiner Records]
    Two of the most exciting new bands around at the moment combine to create a split on which they complement each other perfectly. Both play a delicious combination of death metal and chaotic grindcore with a tiny bit of sludge influence, yet both are quite distinct from each other. CTTTOAFF are the slightly better band here, perhaps due to their slightly greater experience, but both have made an incredibly worthwhile addition to both their own and metal's canons here. Distinctly modern, yet still distinct.
26) Violent Pink
      Propaganda Of The Deed
      [Ilse 5 Records]
Simply put, this is the best noise output of this year (that I've heard, anyway). Filtered through a power electronics spectrum, this is strongly reminiscent of Masonna's Frequency LSD (which itself is one of the best noise releases of all time), without being wholly derivative. It is nice, and actually somewhat unusual for noise, that this does not sound like a thousand other albums out there. A strong left-wing political influence is claimed, but is not evident through the music, as no lyrics can be heard. Fans of noise, don't pass this up.
25) Gripe
      Pig Servant EP
Gripe released their very first material, this and the demo, this year. And this is exactly how this style of music, grinding powerviolence, should sound. Short, sharp bursts of punk fury, it's at times uncertain what exactly the band are angry at or whether it's just everything, but this is another fine example of why punk is not, as Crass would claim, dead. Extra props for making this available for free via their bandcamp. It breaks no new boundaries, but this is still truly impressive.
24) Trap Them
      Darker Handcraft
      [Prosthetic Records]
At least since 2008's Seizures In Barren Praise, Trap Them have become more than just a blip on the radar of both metal and hardcore punk. a position well-cemented by this, their latest. Although I was somewhat let down by the interim Filth Rations EP, this shows Trap Them back to their finest. It's the sort of music which instantly sounds like you've known it for a long time, but you can't for the life of you place it or pigeonhole it. Mixing traces of death metal with hardcore aggression without resorting to dumbfuck beatdowns, this is Trap Them's best yet.
23) Valborg
      [Zeitgeister Music]
Although Germans Valborg have been around by 2002, this was the first I've heard of them, and I've got to say I was very pleasantly surprised by the exceedingly high quality of the doom metal on here. It's mixed with influences from all sorts of other genres, and so the label 'avant-garde' is often associated with them, but they don't sound remotely like a project of Mike Patton or John Zorn's if that's what you're expecting. The riffwork is splendid here too, and the rate at which they've been producing albums means we could conceivably have another next year.
22) Deathspell Omega
      Diabolus Absconditus EP
      [Norma Evangelium Diaboli]
It should come as a surprise to no-one who's been remotely following black metal over the past few years that any new Deathspell Omega release is awaited with fervent expectations and bated breath, such is the consistent level of brilliance that they have produced since 2004's Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice. This is no exception - consisting of a single, 22 minute track, the EP twists and turns through all sorts of hellish convulsions, including some haunting female vocals in the middle, before coming full circle to end in roughly the same way it started.
21) Sol Invictus
      The Cruellest Month
      [Auerbach Tonträger]
Sol Invictus are one of the greats of neofolk, along with Current 93 and Death In June, and the former of the other two has become something of a self-parody in recent years. This is what you expect from Sol Invictus, and it's also what you want. Although neofolk supposedly falls under the 'extreme' spectrum, upon listening to some of the beautiful melodies crafted here, one has to assume it is solely based on sometimes questionable lyrical content that this assumption is made. Although the album is somewhat long, it flies by in what seems to be a matter of minutes.
20) Gripe
      The Future Doesn't Need You demo
One of two acts on here to have two releases in my top 50 (admittedly a demo and an EP), Gripe are perhaps the best thing the powerviolence scene has for its future. It has a rare quality for powerviolence in that some riffs, drum beats and vocal lines stay in the head after just one listen. This is, by a fair old distance, the best demo I've heard from this year. Highly recommended to anyone who likes their music a bit punky, a bit powerful and a bit violent.
19) Amebix
      Sonic Mass
Self-released, not because of being a small band (indeed, Arise is arguably the most important crust punk record), but because of the true punk spirit, this sees a serious move away from Amebix's original sound into a very post-punky, and dare I say it, perhaps poppy sound. No, not quite, but certainly this is a little bit more accessible than previous Amebix releases. Not that that's a bad thing. This is a true triumph; proof that a longstanding band can radically change style in a highly successful manner.
18) Wormrot
      [Earache Records]
Wormrot are one of the best grind bands around nowadays; they don't bother with overly technical shtick, they just do the job they're supposed to damn well. This is a fine follow-up to their fantastic debut Abuse, in much the same style, except perhaps even faster this time around. Its short, 18-minute runtime ensures it doesn't outstay its welcome; moreover, by the end, I found I was desperate for more. Wormrot are simply the best thing in grindcore at the moment, and that doesn't look like changing any time soon.
17) Sabbat
      [Iron Pegasus Records]
Japan has a reputation of being pretty spot-on when it comes to extreme metal, and Sabbat have always been one of the country's finest exports when it comes to it. This is another fine addition to the near-faultless Sabbat legacy, with riffs, speed, and just generally thrash galore. The highly distinctive vocals courtesy of Gezol only add to the experience, and this set of songs can be easily liked by any metal fan worth their salt. Posers avoid this for sure though.
16) Ulver
      Wars Of The Roses
As surely as my back is going to itch on any given day, a new Ulver release is going to be any/all of the following: spectacular, panoramic, innovative, beautiful, thoughtful, avant-garde, piss off fans of Nattens Madrigal and Bergtatt. It seems that with each passing album, Ulver piss off fans of their previous material yet more, or at least those who can't adapt to non-raw black metal music. This album takes influence from sources as wide as The Beatles, Roxy Music and Tchaikovsky, yet still manages to come together as a beautifully coherent album.
15) Pensées Nocturnes
      Ceci Est De La Musique
The mysterious French black metal entity known as PN has created top-quality albums time and again, and this is just another example. Whilst most metal albums which claim to have classical influence usually just have a cheesy keyboard melody or some major-key shredding, this is evidently genuinely influenced by neoclassical music. This band is one of the few to be making actual strides forward in black metal of late rather than reverting to being 'raw' or 'orthdox' - it's excellent stuff, and stuff that all black metal fans should hear.
14) Toxic Holocaust
      Conjure And Command
      [Relapse Records]
Toxic Holocaust has been around for a long time, considering it's widely seen as a 'new' thrash band - indeed, this is mainman Joel Grind's fourth full-length under the Toxic Holocaust moniker - and it's his best yet. Every riff is well-crafted, there's more variation in tempo than on previous albums, and of course, the album has its standout, unbelievably awesome track in 'Bitch'. If you like blackened thrash, there's no reason for you not to like this album.
13) Steven Wilson
      Grace For Drowning
Regular readers of this blog will know that I don't usually have much time for prog, especially of the woefully insipid variety of Wilson's main band Porcupine Tree. So why do I like this? Simply put, it gets rid of many of the unnecessary frivolities which plague most prog and replaces them with pretty damn good songs. Admittedly, upon listening to both discs at once, the album becomes boring three-quarters of the way through, but if you listen to the discs one at a time, it's wonderful. Relaxing and beautiful music.
12) Vektor
      Outer Isolation
      [Heavy Artillery Records]
Vektor revolutionized modern thrash on their debut full-length (the band regards Demolition as a demo) Black Future in 2009, and although this is more of the same, it's even better. Whilst retaining that technical flair and attention to detail, the length of the album has been cut down a little, which made Black Future drag at times, and there has clearly been a little more attention paid to songwriting, and less on simply confusing the listener to the point of submission. If Vektor continue like this they'll make as good a case for an expansion to a 'big 5' as any.
11) Ramlord
      Stench Of Fallacy EP
I haven't yet heard the split with Condensed Flesh, so that could be up here too, but Ramlord are simply the best new blackened crust band of this year - and let's face it, there's been a few. They manage to seamlessly blend the most desolate-feeling parts of the two genres (and the feeling plays a major part in both) without it sounding forced like many of their contemporaries. With socially revealing lyrics to boot, Ramlord could conceivably within a few years be on the same level as the likes of Skitsystem and the late Disfear in the crust world.
10) Decrepitaph
      Profane Doctrines Unburied
      [Razorback Recordings]
It really has been a good year for death metal - Decrepitaph are just one of the best of a fantastic bunch. The sense of emergent doom emanating from this album's every orifice is not in the slightest bit original, but it is damn well done. Taking influences from the likes of Asphyx, Incantation and Carnage is always a good idea, especially when you can back it up with a well-structured album like this one. Death metal is supposed to sound like the soundtrack to a particularly gruesome horror film, and Decrepitaph pull it off here with aplomb.
9) Altar Of Plagues
    [Candlelight Records]
Altar Of Plagues shocked the metal world with quite how stunning a debut album White Tomb was back in 2009, and this improves on even that. Although they still hold the core atmospheric black metal aesthetic, what is clear here is the band's movement into the Neurosis/Isis axis of post-metal to quite a large degree. Still, that is only beneficial to the shimmering soundscapes which pervade through this album, and it is only to Altar Of Plagues' credit that they have made such a stylistic improvement for their first major label release.
8) Per Capita
    The Damage Done EP
2011 was, for me, the year of crust, and this is the best crust release of the year. Grinding crustcore with relent only for some fantastic slower (but still pretty quick) riffs, it's a shame that the whole EP blazes by so quickly. Per Capita are truly an excellent band, even managing to make a cover of Dropdead ('Wake Of Deception') sound like their own. I imagine this is filling pits in their native Germany as you read this, such is the sheer quality of the release (also praised highly by the popular grind blog Grind And Punishment).
7) Fukpig
    Batcave Full Of Bastards EP
    [Devizes Studio]
If this had been longer than five minutes, it would probably have been my album of the year. As it stands, although it's just an EP, it's a true ripper, which does more than whet the appetite for the third full-length in January 2012. Both tracks are absolute Fukpig classics, and although this release was overlooked by many, it was unfairly done so, as both tracks are up to the standard of anything Fukpig has put out so far. If it's too short for you, the simple answer to that is listen to it multiple times. You won't tire of it.
6) Primordial
    Redemption At The Puritan's Hand
    [Metal Blade Records]
Primordial are perhaps the quintessential Irish metal band. They do not have a single dud in their discography, and this is amongst their best. Forsaking some of the more black metal elements of their earlier work for an earlier, more windswept feeling that can only come from the country of potato famine and multiple civil wars and wars of independence, this is 'folk metal' without the cheesiness. Lyrical maturity and simply crushing heaviness cannot be doubted, especially in the case of Primordial.
5) Absu
    [Candlelight Records]
On another year, one which wasn't quite so wonderfully fertile for metal in general, this could quite feasibly have been album of the year. As it stands, it is another superlative effort from the American masters of 'occult metal'. What that means is anyone's guess, but this is a primarily black metal album with strong thrash elements and just a hint of death metal to keep you guessing. One thing is without doubt - it's metal to the core and a fantastic album, perhaps on a par with their nearly undisputed best, Tara. Even a 16-minute epic doesn't sound out of place.
4) SubRosa
    No Help For The Mighty One
    [Profound Lore Records]
When one hears 'female-fronted metal', what springs to mind is the dire concoctions of 'gothic' bands like Lacuna Coil, not something as hypnotic and inspirational as this. Stoner-y doom that somehow manages to sound nothing like Electric Wizard, what really sets this album off aside from the deliciously thick bass guitar tone is the effect of the violins and the incredibly haunting vocals. Somehow they've even managed to make a folksong in 'House Carpenter' sound not at all out of place.
3) Hades Archer
    For The Diabolical Ages
    [Kuravilú Productions]
Especially for a debut album, this album is beyond belief. Absolutely ferocious blackened thrash with a good dollop of bestial black metal is the best way to describe it, but that simply doesn't do it justice. There is no such thing as a bad song on this album - imagine what a collaboration between members of Blasphemy and Kreator would sound like and you've just about got the picture of this album. Hades Archer is old-school style metal in excelsis. Fans of the old Brazilian scene (Vulcano, Sarcofago, Morbid Visions era Sepultura) will also find a lot to like here.
2) Hell
    Human Remains
    [Nuclear Blast Records]
It may have taken a long time to make and release due to the death of original vocalist Dave Halliday (suicide), but this is a modern-day NWOBHM classic. It really is up there with the likes of Lightning To The Nations and Angel Witch - and it may be a little more cleanly produced and theatric than either of those two, but this album is a nigh-on perfect NWOBHM album. Thank god for Andy Sneap's friendship with the band convincing them to reunite, for this truly is the best thing he's been remotely linked with.
1) Autopsy
    Macabre Eternal
    [Peaceville Records]
And so we have it. Album of the year. Autopsy's reunion is by a considerable distance the best of the shitstorm of reunions we've been seeing for the last few years, and here they have it, they've produced an album which is on a par with their second classic Mental Funeral (which is, in this humble blogger's opinion, the best death metal album ever). Even the long 66 minute runtime doesn't fault the album, as Autopsy, masters of the filthy riff, manage to keep up the quality throughout. Don't question Autopsy, for if any future album is of this quality we might have to reconsider Napalm Death's position as the best band ever.

And the year wouldn't be complete without some ephemeral prizes:

Best full-length: Autopsy - Macabre Eternal
Best EP: Fukpig - Batcave Full Of Bastards
Best demo: Gripe - The Future Doesn't Need You
Best split: Clinging To The Trees Of A Forest Fire/Nesseria
Worst release: Metallica & Lou Reed - Lulu (runner-up: Unexpect - Fables Of The Sleepless Empire)
Best artwork: Disma - Towards The Megalith
Best newcomer: Hades Archer
Best reunion: Autopsy
Best re-release: Death Strike - Fuckin' Death

1 comment:

  1. In my opinion you may have missed the last album from Ava Inferi, otherwise I'm glad to see Tom Waits and Ulver appearing in your top 50. Love your work, carry on!


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