Best of 2011: 10-6

10. VASTUM, “Carnal Law” (20 Buck Spin): San Francisco death metal outfit Vastum tackled a fairly well-examined topic in the world of metal – sex and eroticism – and managed to put whole new spin on the subjects. They borrowed from ideas expressed by Georges Bataille and psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, approached the material with a more cerebral line of thinking, sprinkled in other matters such as psychic disfigurement and death and created one of the year’s most interesting efforts in “Carnal Law.” The band – it’s made up of members of Acephalix along with guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf of Hammers of Misfortune and Saros, who also handles a share of the vocals — has a grasp on crusty, old-school, blood-and-guts death metal, but the lyrical content leaves your brain churning as you ponder these topics that are taboo to so many people or simply give folks a level of discomfort discussing. Yet they’re very human subjects, are they not? So why are we so shy?

The six-track effort, originally a demo recording, is brutal and musically satisfying, and the dual male/female vocals, that you likely won’t be able to tell apart from each other unless you know one or both of the voices really well, creates a nice dichotomy of male and female perspective even if that isn’t necessarily the intent. Musically, this stuff is remarkably well-played, and while it can be sooty, seamy and splattering, it’s as heady musically as it is philosophically. It’s a record that sets up shop within you the more you hear it, and for those who miss when death metal was ugly and rough around the edges, this platter will make you smile. And probably blush.

To buy “Carnal Law,” go here: http://www.20buckspin.com/store/product_info.php?cPath=1&products_id=861

9. WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM, “Celestial Lineage” (Southern Lord): Much like Liturgy, who appeared earlier in this list, there has been much hang-wringing over the Pacific Northwest black metal band, their farmstead lifestyle, their adherence to nature and their refusal to just fall in line and be like everyone else. Wolves always have been something of a mystery, and they frustrate so many people, who bristle at the mention of the band’s “Cascadian” style, and it all amuses me, really. All this fuss, and for what? Do these people even listen to the band’s records? If so, they’ll know just why Wolves are revered by many listeners (myself included) and why those same people appreciate the group’s spiritual cleansing, soulful metallic emissions, and natural, instinctual rage.

“Celestial Lineage,” the closer of a trilogy that started with excellent “Two Hunters” in 2007 (my top album of that year) and continued with decent “Black Cascade” in 2009, bursts open with heart-cleansing beauty and savagery on “Thuja Magus Imperium,” a song that greets you with the lovely calling of regular collaborator Jessika Kenney before launching full bore with Aaron Weaver’s rhythmic pounding behind the kit and Nathan Weaver’s adventurous and scorching lead guitar play and primal death growls. The band weaves in some well-placed interlude-like pieces to set moods and allow breathers, and they totally lay waste to heady mashers “Subterranean Initiation,” “Astral Blood” and powerful closer “Prayer of Transformation.” This is a beautiful, crushing record that solidifies Wolves in the Throne Room’s place in the U.S. black metal movement, arguably ion the throne itself.

To buy “Celestial Lineage,” go here: http://www.southernlord.com/store.php

8. CORMORANT, “Dwellings” (self-released): Are you sick of hearing about the new Cormorant record yet? Well, too bad, because we’re going to go on about it again. Granted, I’m not sure what I can say here that I haven’t already, and I stand by the opinion that this is one of the most though-provoking, intelligent and emotionally effective albums of the year, and it sure doesn’t hurt that this band knows how to keep things fresh on a long-player. I keep going back and forth concerning what my favorite song is on the album, and at times my choice has been opener “The First Man,” that focuses on the plight of the Aborigines, spooky cosmic closer “Unearthly Dreamings” about the controversial first Cosmonaut death, and current preference “Funambulist,” about high-wire artist Philippe Petit who dangerously walked between the Twin Towers in 1974. It’s a story you may have heard before, but perhaps you’ve never thought about it in quite the same way as lyricist/bassist/vocalist Arthur Von Nagel. I particularly like the line “crime as art,” which encapsulates the feat beautifully.

Cormorant took a significant step forward artistically from their 2009 debut “Metazoa,” itself a really strong offering, and the band’s mix of prog, thrash, death, post-rock and even some black metal makes for one wild adventure. No song sounds the same, yet everything on “Dwellings” is true Cormorant. They leave every bit of themselves in these pieces of art, and they express themselves in a way many people fear to do in our sanitized society. I’ve said so much already about this album that all I have left to offer is just go buy this thing. It’s impossible you’ll be disappointed, and if you are, I’m sorry, but you’re just wrong.  And I mean that in the nicest way possible. Still friends?

To buy “Dwellings,” go here: http://cormorantmusic.blogspot.com/

7. DEAFHEAVEN, “Roads to Judah” (Deathwish Inc.): I always feel like when I describe a metal album as gorgeous, which I’ve already done a few times during this list, that someone’s going to ask me what size dress I wear and if I want any tea. But what are you going to do? If the word fits then it does, and I defy you to listen to Deafheaven’s debut full-length offering of post-metal shoegaze and black metal eruption and tell me you don’t sense the absolute beauty in the music. It sometimes feels like a rush of tears to the face, it’s that affecting, and over the summer when I was dealing with some really raw emotional turbulence, “Roads to Judah” often came along with me when I could take no more. Something about it helped connect with the hell in which I was immersed, and I feel like it helped me get over the speed bump a little bit. That doesn’t even really match the lyrical content, that deals more with self-destruction, regret and its aftermath, but sonically, it helped me soar a little just when I needed to do so.

The band began as a duo – vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy – but since has blown up to full ranks to play live. And they’re quite the behemoth, as they leveled the Smiling Moose here in November and probably will need to play somewhere larger next time they come around. Just so whatever building they play doesn’t collapse. The four songs on their debut full-length can go from serene and thoughtful to obliterating in a manner of seconds, and their cascading sound sometimes has been described as screamo. I don’t hear it, but they do share some of the sonic tenets as that genre when it began. It has nothing to do with the homeless, education-starved child that music has become. Actually, who cares what it’s called? “Roads to Judah” is a quaking debut album from a band that should have a major role in shaping domestic black metal to come.

To buy “Roads to Judah,” go here: http://deathwishinc.com/estore/category/DEAFHEAVEN.html

6. HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE, “17th Street” (Metal Blade): San Francisco’s Hammer of Misfortune always made really good, quite listenable albums that could be described as prog-metal, classic rock, just plain rock, what have you. They always did so with class and grace, and they stood out as sort of a rarity in today’s extreme music world. They could pull fans from any number of genres to their work, and their records always were well-played, excellently crafted and a modern standard of times gone by, when the album was something to behold. Having said all that, the John Cobbett-led band needed to make an all-time classic because the potential was there and it would cement Hammers of Misfortune’s greatness. After some further roster shuffling, that included the arrival of Leila Abdul-Rauf (her second appearance in the Top 10) on guitar and vocals and Joe Hutton on vocals, Cobbett hit on his most fluid lineup yet and, not so shockingly, made that classic in “17th Street.”

The album is a loose concept piece about the big city, how people function, get lost, get consumed, get got. It’s Anytown, USA, and it’s not pretty what goes on there. It’s told amid nine incredible songs that spread over about 50 minutes and just reek of rock glory. This album should be a gold standard for rock and roll songwriting, as it’s tight as hell, and some of the band’s best songs ever are on this thing, including the raucous title track, bombastic and Queen-like “The Day the City Died,” “Romance Valley” and astonishing ballad “Summer Tears.” But standing above all that is “The Grain,” my choice for best metal song of the year. It’s one of those tracks that builds unassumingly over its verses and just floors you with an emotional, caterwauling chorus that’s shockingly simplistic but overwhelming effective. “17th Street” deserves to be heard by everyone, be it metal fans, classic rock listeners, modern rock drones, and everyone in between. This band and this album are special, and 2011 will be remembered as the year when this band truly matured into the unstoppable machine that it is. Go get this. Now.

To buy “17th Street,” go here: http://www.indiemerchstore.com/item/12639/

Best of 2011: 15-11

15. BLUT AUS NORD “777-Sect(s))/“777—The Desanctification” (Debemur Morti): French black metal experimentalists Blut Aus Nord had a pretty aggressive game plan for 2011, that being releasing three records that all tied together that examine humankind’s place in the universe, a disconnect with a higher being and where that leaves us all in the cosmos. They came damn close to getting it done. We got the first two offerings in the story, each diametrically opposed sonically from each other, with the third now scheduled for release next year. I’m assuming we can go ahead and save a place in the 2012 list for “Cosmosophy.”

It may seem lazy to lump these together, and if I had to pick one, I’d go with “The Desanctification” as the better record, but each relies on the other for its very existence. You can have no second chapter without the opener “Sect(s)” that begins the tale and sets the stage for what comes later. So I’m basically looking at this as one piece broken up into two parts, thus its dual inclusion. “Sect(s)” is the heavier, more violent of the two records, while “The Desanctification” is more nightmarish, thought-provoking and daring musically, mixing in elements of post-rock and trip hop (it works, don’t worry). I worried that this was going to be too much Blut Aus Nord music for one calendar year and that it all might grow tried or sound the same. What a fool I was. As strong as Blut Aus Nord’s back catalog is, these two records could be their finest accomplishments yet.

To buy either album, go to: http://www.eitrin.com/search.php?mode=1&match=1&search=blut+aus+nord&action=

14. THE ATLAS MOTH, “An Ache for the Distance” (Profound Lore): “A Glorified Piece of Blue Sky” was a really promising debut album for Chicago’s The Atlas Moth that seemed to indicate their best work was ahead of them. I didn’t think it would only take one more record for this band to realize what they truly were capable of accomplishing, but holy hell if they didn’t tear past that blue sky and into the stars on “An Ache for the Distance,” their unbelievable sophomore album. They went more of a rock route this time around, though the album is still metal as hell, and they took the druggy tendencies they already showed and amplified that a million times. The first time I heard this album, I was iced up with painkillers from an injury, and this thing made me see shapes and colors. It’s just as good in a clear frame of mind, by the way, in case you’re wondering.

There is a lot less screaming on this record, and the clean vocal work is worlds better than what they unleashed on their debut. The songwriting is solid as hell, and each track is memorable and catchy. It’s a record that, if it was exposed to mainstream rock radio listeners in between their doses of modern crap and shitty Metallica songs, it might gain an audience because it’s so much smarter sounding and genuinely exciting. But we wouldn’t want to wake up the drones from their slumber, would we? This is an incredibly inspiring accomplishment from the Atlas Moth and, frighteningly enough, things should just get better from here.

To buy “An Ache for the Distance,” go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com//index.php?option=com_ezcatalog&task=detail&id=782&Itemid=99999999

13. TOMBS, “Path of Totality” (Relapse): Speaking of bands that trumped their past glories this year, Brooklyn unit Tombs absolutely demolished every piece of work they put out in the past with “Path of Totality,” their second full-length for Relapse. This record has pretty much been universally embraced and topped a ton of other charts. Makes me feel like a jerk for only putting it at 13, but it’s my list, right? Anyway, these guys already had given us a pretty good collection a few years back with “Winter Hours,” one of my favorite releases from 2009, but this thing just blew me away from the start. It’s a collection indicative of a band that refuses to do the same thing twice and probably will sound totally different, yet no less awesome, in half-decade’s time.

“Path of Totality” is a riotous mix of black metal, doom, post-rock, goth rock and punk, and as weird as all of those things may sound together, it works beautifully. Mike Hill still can howl in a way that can level mountains, but his dark, deep croon that surfaces on songs such as “Vermillion” and “Passageways” remind me of a meeting between Tom G. Warrior, Peter Steele and Peter Murphy. It’s such a cool new element and really sounds like it was inspired by early ’80s alternative rock such as the Cure and Bauhaus. This is Tombs’ most complete recording to date, and it has gotten a ton of airplay in my house this year. In fact, I’m listening to it right now. This also should keep Tombs heavily in the conversation as to who is today’s most exciting, inventive metal band.

To buy “Path of Totality,” go here: http://www.relapse.com/path-of-totality.html

12. DARK CASTLE, “Surrender to All Life Beyond Form” (Profound Lore): As we continue today’s trend of band’s making giant leaps in creativity, duo Dark Castle stepped their game up in a huge way on sophomore release “Surrender to All Life Beyond Form.” It’s growing very difficult to classify this band, damn it, which makes life tough on lazy writers who need quick reference points. They still revel in sludge doom, which is muddy and filled with roots and rocks, but they go even further into psychedelic regions, helped mightily by guitarist/singer Stevie Floyd’s use of Eastern scales. In fact, that element becomes sort of a thread through the record, tying all the songs together nicely and making this have a true familiar album feel.

“Surrender” is actually a pretty short record at just 34 minutes. But that’s OK. Some of the early great thrash and death metal records were about this length, and I sometimes wish bands would put out more compact collections because they often go down a lot better. Dark Castle get in, make their thunderstorming statement, and get out, leaving you both wholly satisfied and wanting a hell of a lot more. What they do give you are songs that’ll pummel you but also cause you to take a spiritual journey alongside them, which you’ll find out from visiting the hammering opening title cut, vicious “Seeing Through Time” (my favorite song on the record), “I Hear Wind” and change-up acts “To Hide Is to Die” and “Spirit Ritual,” that contains YOB leader Mike Scheidt offering his droning chants. Dark Castle exceed all expectations on “Surrender,” something I imagine will become a trend for the band as they venture into their future.

To buy “Surrender to All Life Beyond Form,” go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com//index.php?option=com_ezcatalog&task=detail&id=752&Itemid=99999999

11. BARGHEST, untitled (Gilead Media/Howling Mine): Spitting lo-fi hell, espousing hate and misanthropy, and capturing a vibe most modern bands never quite realize come Barghest, a Baton Rouge-based black metal band that has no other intention than to spread their vile disease and remind pretenders what this stuff is supposed to sound like. This band is covered in soot as they kick out the seven songs that comprise their awesome full-length debut, and if you don’t quite understand the infernal magic of this thing on first listen, definitely give it time to germinate. I liked it first time I listened, but it wasn’t until I committed to subsequent journeys that this thing took its hold. It’s majestic, though it doesn’t announce itself as that. It’s glorious, though that might be hard to realize amid all the muck. It’s violent, which you’ll realize right away. Barghest are pretty damn upfront about that.

The band’s untitled album is a pretty great guitar record, too. That’s also something you may have to dig through layers to discover. That’s not to suggest it’s going to make Malmsteen solo enthusiasts piss their jeans. But if you live for the power of the riff, you’re going to find a lot to chew on this album. It rollicks and rides like power metal battling death metal, with both going the distance before they both collapse from exhaustion. And the grimy and seedy black metal that rises from the ashes seeks to choke you out, but not before it rubs your face in your own wounds. Nothing positive spiritually comes from this. It makes you realize what a cesspool our world has become. We live in a vile, evil place, and Barghest are more than happy to point out this fact. The fact they do so as triumphantly as they do just makes our annihilation a little more tolerable.

To buy the album (it is out of stock currently), go here: http://www.gileadmedia.net/store/

Or here: http://noladiy.org/howlingmine.html

Best of 2011: 20-16

20. PRIMORDIAL, “Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand” (Metal Blade): Ever since their debut album in 1995, Irish black metal/folk band Primordial have been making some of the most emotional, gut-wrenching music in the genre. You can’t hear any of their albums without wondering if they left pools of blood and tears on the studio floors. Each of their releases examines humanity’s darkness, the effects of history on our world (especially events that have impacted their homeland), people’s faith and how that affects their natural inclinations to just live, and now with their latest album, death.

“Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand” is a tour-de-force, which probably seems an obvious description when discussion Primordial. From the glorious opener “No Grave Deep Enough” to dark and ominous “God’s Old Snake” to the bruised inspiration of “Bloodied Yet Unbowed” to the hammer-smashing “The Black Hundred” (the most similar to their nastier older material) to the sometimes lush, often volcanic closer “Death of the Gods,” the band puts forth another spirited, gut-wrenching effort, spearheaded by singer Alan “Nemtheanga” Averill’s unmistakable voice. He makes you believe and question yourself, which is the sign of great, thought-provoking material. It’s another astonishing, moving chapter to the band’s collection, and it’s one of the most melodic and tragic yet. There’s no doubt Primordial are one of this era’s greatest metal bands, and there’s no sign of quit in them.

To buy “Death at the Puritan’s Hand,” go here: http://www.indiemerchstore.com/item/11882/

19. DARKEST ERA, “The Last Caress of Light” (Metal Blade): It’s kind of funny that Darkest Era would follow Primordial in our list of favorite records of the year. This band embodies many of the same qualities as do Primordial and also hail from Ireland. So there. Their first full-length is a raucous, energetic collection of tried-and-true classic heavy metal. That’s the best way to describe it. Yeah, there are some thrash, folk, power and black metal elements, but in the end, it’s just a great heavy metal record. It’s one of those efforts that makes you perceive the genre in a completely different way. Oh, and if you want some off-the-wall bands that I sometimes hear in their music, try these: Journey and Boysetsfire. Weirded out? Don’t be. That’s just how diverse the band’s sound truly is.

“Last Caress” is full of melodic wonder, with well-written songs, heart-surging emotion and killer clean vocals by Dwayne “Krum” Maguire that’ll make you think of a time when the great vocalists such as Dickinson, Halford and Dio ruled the roost. The first time I heard opener “The Morrigan,” one of my favorite tracks of the year by anyone, I knew I was captured. Things just keep blowing up from there as we travel to “An Ancient Fire Burns,” “Heathen Burial” and “To Face the Black Tide.” This is one of my favorite debut records of the year, and I cannot wait to hear more.

To buy “The Last Caress of Light,” go here: http://www.indiemerchstore.com/item/11713/

18. LOCRIAN, “The Clearing” (Fan Death): You need a lot of money and one hell of a large CD/tape/record shelf in order to own all of Locrian’s work, but it’s worth the time and space-clearing if you choose to pursue this goal. If you’re new to the Chicago experimentalists, it wouldn’t hurt to start with their latest output “The Clearing” that, as far as I can tell, is the band’s only release in 2011. You might not get the idea of how the band’s art has shifted and transformed over the years, and perhaps the dreamy, droning wonder will make you think the band has traveled mostly this path, but that would be misleading. This is one of their least abrasive efforts in their canon (which is not to suggest it isn’t damn mighty), but they dial back some of their black metal roots and sort of let their noise ooze and gaze. It’s awesome and enrapturing, and I listen to it, at least, a couple of times a week.

Tacking “The Clearing” means taking on a spacesuit, giving in to weightlessness and letting yourself be immersed in their cosmic headspace. It’s a record that, quite bluntly, you’ll probably like even more if your brain is soaked in chemicals. You’ll probably see shit. But that’s cool, and part of what makes this record so inviting is that it gets under your skin, into your blood and numbs you for the adventure. Even when some savage, barbaric howling comes into play on a track such as “Augury in an Evaporating Tower,” it’s more or less there to keep you alert and participating fully. I always leaned toward “The Crystal World” as my favorite Locrian album, but the more time I spend with “The Clearing,” the more I wonder if that’s still the case.

To buy “The Clearing,” go here: http://fandeathrecords.com/

17. RWAKE, “Rest” (Relapse): Arkansas maulers Rwake always gave off hints that they were a band that had one of those really special, genre-defining/defying albums in them but just needed to get to that point. Well, this is the year they did it. “Rest” easily is the band’s best record to date, and it’s going to be awfully difficult to top because it is that impactful. The band uses its mangling sludge and filthy doom to expand into the deepest depths of your psyche. They challenge you. They make you ponder difficult questions. They dangle your very existence over a cliff. And even though they let you live, they make sure you’re pulverized for having gone the distance with them. I’ve yet to be able to listen to “Rest” more than once at a time, and it’s not because it isn’t an excellent collection. It’s because I literally need rest once it’s over. It’s a lot to absorb and understand.

Dual singers CT and B meld perfectly as usual, and you can’t ever tell their difference in sex when both are howling wildly. The band packs a wallop with some slow-slithering doom, muddy pounding and often star-hoping exploration, almost as if they’re going from one new orb to another, leaving dead planets in their wake. No pun intended.  Opener “It Was Beautiful But Now It’s Sour” is an emotional, psychedelic, philosophically charged opener, “An Invisible Thread” mauls and gallops like Mastodon used to, and astonishing closer “Was Only a Dream” is set up by interlude “Ti Progetto,” dressed by Arthur C. Clarke’s words from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Most fitting, and most terrifying. What a triumph this all is.

To buy “Rest,” go here: http://www.relapse.com/rest.html

16. VALLENFYRE, “A Fragile King” (Century Media): It’s redundant to say a death metal album is about death, but in the case of the first effort from Vallenfyre, there’s no better way to describe it. The band’s creator Gregor Mackintosh, who most know as the lead guitarist from doom institution Paradise Lost, was inspired to create not only “A Fragile King” but Vallenfyre itself after experiencing the anguish of watching his father wither away and die from cancer. In fact, the origins of the idea came from writings that were used as grief counseling, and only afterward did he realize what he’d recorded on paper could be the makings of quite a tribute to his father. Some time passed, he immersed himself in the idea of turning this whole thing into music, and after consulting with guitarist and Vallenfyre member Hamish Hamilton Glencross (also of My Dying Bride), the thing started in earnest.

While the bulk of “A Fragile King” is a straight-up tribute to Mackintosh’s father, there is other subject matter touched upon such as politics and war, and all of it is packaged in a wondrous old-school death and doom package. And that’s not just tossing about a much-abused description. These guys all lived in the era when death and doom was at its zenith in the early ’90s, and they all had roles in making the music of that era what it was. There’s no certainty to this band’s future. Mackintosh said that one of the keys to Vallenfyre remaining a unit is that all members are having fun and enjoying what they’re doing. As long as they are, the band will go on. If not, we’ll only have “A Fragile King” and their EP “Desecration.” If this is the band’s only full-length output, it’ll be acknowledged as one of the greatest, most satisfying one-off efforts in heavy metal history. No matter the case, surely somewhere the elder Mackintosh is smiling.

To buy “A Fragile King,” go here: http://www.cmdistro.com/Item/Vallenfyre_-_A_Fragile_King/39591

Best of 2011: 30-21

30. BOSSE-DE-NAGE “ii” (Flenser Records): Easily one of the most bizarre metal bands in the world, Bosse-de-Nage returned with another batshit-nuts collection of artistically inclined black metal that probably made the bulk of their audience feel lost in the fog. But the kicker with “ii” is that it’s way more approachable than their full-length, self-titled debut from last year, even if the lyrical content will have the gears in your brain grinding to a smoking pile of ash. This is a perplexing, confusing, off-putting band in the best possible way, and no matter how hard you try to figure out what they’re going to attempt next, Bosse-de-Nage do their best to rake the eyes your expectations.

To buy “ii,” go here: http://store.theflenser.com/product/bosse-de-nage-ii-cd-presale

29. BENEATH OBLIVION, “From Man to Dust” (The Mylene Sheath): This Cincy doom crew returned with a hellaciously heavy record in “From Man to Dust.” The sludge is sewage-tank thick, and the doom drops on you like a 70-ton curtain of steel. The songs are pretty long, and the record itself approaches double-album territory, but every moment is totally worth your time. I’ve only had a short amount of time with this album as it was just released a couple of months ago. Yet while my honeymoon period with the music has passed, I still find myself wanting to spend tons of time with it.

To buy “From Man to Dust,” go here: http://www.mylenesheath.com/catalog.html?Iit=435&Ict=37

28. FUCK THE FACTS, “Die Miserable” (Relapse): It probably sounds weird to say that a new piece of music from Fuck the Facts was long anticipated, but we haven’t gotten a full-length effort from the Canadian grindcore troopers since 2008’s “Disgorge Mexico.” Yeah, they’ve put out a ton of mini-releases in those three years, but I was hungry for a full album. “Die Miserable” hit the spot and continues to do so with each listen. Even their companion EP “Misery,” constructed of songs from the “Miserable” sessions that didn’t make the final cut, is deadly. This album didn’t get a terribly huge PR push from Relapse, which is borderline criminal because it’s devastatingly fantastic.

To buy “Die Miserable,” go here: http://www.relapse.com/die-miserable.html

27. HULL, “Beyond the Lightless Sky” (The End): Taking the structure they formed on their first record “Sole Lord” and blowing the doors off the son of a bitch, Hull returned with an absolute force of a record with “Beyond the Lightless Sky.” In a world that seeks a proper successor to the post-metal throne vacated by ISIS, Hull sure seemed to indicate they are poised and ready to assume a leadership position. This record also happens to be the best thing that The End put out this year, and they should be sure to keep this behemoth around for years to come.

To buy “Beyond the Lightless Sky,” go here: http://www.theomegaorder.com/HULL-Beyond-The-Lightless-Sky

26. AMON AMARTH, “Surtur Rising” (Metal Blade): As big an unabashed mark for Amon Amarth as I am and always professed to be, there was something about their latest record “Surtur Rising” that didn’t really resonate with me at first. Then I saw the band perform the record in its entirety, and the majesty of the thing really set into my heart. It’s even more epic than their past few albums, and while it’s not a total departure from their melodic Viking death metal template, it did provide some nice, tasty compositional turns that freshened up the whole Amon Amarth machine. Now I’m, totally on board with this heathen and have downed many a glass of mead with it playing out loud.

To buy “Surtur Rising,” go here: http://www.indiemerchstore.com/item/11748/

25. KRALLICE, “Diotima” (Profound Lore): NYC experimental black metal band Krallice never cease to amaze both with their amazing dexterity as players and their ability to make something so intricate drip with blood. The band’s third full-length album “Diotima” continues along the path of their first two albums, but with the incremental maturity and growth one would expect from a band as its members continue along their artistic path. The playing absolutely sizzles, and bassist Nicholas McMaster’s introspective, poetry-based lyrics, delivered via monstrous growl, help push these guys even further into thinking-person’s metal terrain. Krallice seem incapable of disappointment.

To buy “Diotima,” go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com//index.php?option=com_ezcatalog&task=detail&id=737&Itemid=99999999

To get the vinyl, go here: http://www.gileadmedia.net/store/

24. OLD SILVER KEY, “Tales of Wanderings” (Season of Mist): Combining the members of Ukrainian black metal unit Drudkh with Alcest frontman Neige actually does sound like a match made in some far-away fairyland, and the results of their first record “Tales of Wanderings” are as spacious and dream-like as one would imagine. You’ll feel like you were transported into a foggy, lush land of waterfalls, weird creatures and romantic wonder on the back of this band’s gorgeous post-rock/shoegaze machine. It’s probably the least heavy, least metal album on this list, and the music can be described as pretty. It doesn’t inspire much fist pumping, but it does make for a nice escape after a frustrating day or year. It’s been in constant rotation in my house for months.

To buy “Tales of Wanderings,” go here: http://e-shop.season-of-mist.com/en/items/old-silver-key/tales-of-wanderings/cd/28126

23. BOTANIST, “I. The Suicide Tree/II. A Rose From the Dead” (tUMULt): If ever there was an Occupy: Earth movement, where the world’s plant life rose and struck back against the humanity that disregards it so, metal fans likely will think the Botanist will be behind it. He’s the sole player behind dulcimer-and-drums project Botanist, and his double-album debut provided a scary look into a weird Apocalyptic future when our throats are bound by choking vines. It’s a bizarre record that sounds like no other metal album you’ve heard. Ever. It takes a while to get adjusted to the off-kilter music and Botanist’s creaky storytelling, but once you’re in, you’ll find yourself enraptured by a world you don’t understand. Yet.

To buy  “I. The Suicide Tree/II. A Rose From the Dead,” go here (be sure to search Botanist): http://aquariusrecords.org/bin/search.cgi

22. ASH BORER, self-titled (Psychic Violence): A friend of mine who’s familiar with ash borer the insect said the music on their first full-length album reminds her of the incessant, enveloping buzzing of Godflesh’s “Streetcleaner.” Metal aligned with insect noises. I can get with that. The band doesn’t sound a really sound like Godflesh (though you certainly can point at some level of influence), but their doomy, lurching black metal does make you feel like you’re being invaded by a swarm of meat-seeking bugs. Is that confusing enough for you? Anyway, Ash Borer provided a glimpse of their promising future, and their next album will be out via Profound Lore. For now, track down this hard-to-find gem in order to discover one of tomorrow’s great black metal bands. If you’re really lucky, score this and their demo as a double cassette pack.

To buy the album, go here: http://psychicviolence.bigcartel.com/product/ash-borer-self-titled-lp

Or here: http://pesanta.bigcartel.com/product/ash-borer-full-length-12

21. FALLOCH, “Where Distant Spirits Remain” (Candlelight): If it wasn’t for the inclusion of Old Silver Key, the debut from Scottish duo Falloch would be the prettiest record on this entire list. The band combines folk, shoegaze, post-rock and black metal to achieve a wonderful emotional depth and songs that stick to you with no intention of letting go. This collection would sound perfect during a walk through a wooded area after a great snowfall. It would capture the scene perfectly. If you’re unfamiliar with Falloch, imagine a combo of Agalloch and Alcest and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect. I’ll follow this band’s future quite eagerly.

To buy “Where Distant Spirits Remain,” go here: http://www.candlelightrecordsusa.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=1045

Best albums of 2011: 40-31

Before we get started, let me point out that the schedule for the Top 40 I released last week is off. Instead of starting the list last week, we’re starting this week. We’ll go 40-31 today, 30-21 tomorrow, 20-16 Wednesday, 15-11 Thursday, 10-6 on Friday. Then we’ll christen the new year with the top 5, one running each day. There’s a logistics reason for this shift, as I really want to make the Top 5 presentation different, so some loose ends need tied up. We’ll get there. For now, let’s get to the Top 40.

40. TRAP THEM, “Darker Handcraft” (Prosthetic): Moving to Prosthetic for the first time, Trap Them continued their demolition with “Darker Handcraft,” a record full of more-realized, more mature songs. But that doesn’t mean they’ve quelled the violence at all. They’ve become a better, tighter band, and frontman Ryan McKenney remains equal parts Apocalyptic visionary and carnival barker for the decay of society. This record should be a positive signal for what’s ahead, which basically should be unabashed bloodshed soundtracked by a bunch of dudes who are better than we all realized. Oh, and you’ll still get your face punched at their shows.

To buy “Darker Handcraft,” go here: http://prostheticrecords.bigcartel.com/artist/trap-them

39. LITURGY “Aesthethica” (Thrill Jockey): I have been beyond amused at all the hand wringing over Liturgy. Oh, they don’t look like metal dudes. Oh, they might have hipster tendencies. Oh, they don’t sing about the right stuff. To me, metal always has been about doing whatever you want. Liturgy do whatever they want. Metal’s not supposed to have rules. It’s supposed to be rebellious. Can you honestly say Liturgy don’t embody those qualities? Their incredible “Aesthethica” is both astonishingly well composed and as jagged as can be. They’re a great band, unique, and, sorry kids, more metal than you are. This is thinking man’s black metal, and I’m all about it.

To buy “Aesthethica,” go here: http://www.thrilljockey.com/catalog/index.html?id=105276

38. CHASMA, “Declarations of the Grand Artificer” (Moribund/The Mylene Sheath): It’s all of three songs, and it lasts a little over a half hour, but Chasma’s debut offering of atmospheric, mind-warping black metal marked the arrival of a band that you need to pay attention to right now before you sound like a bandwagon jumper in the future. The songs are flushed with melody and chaos, and while it can get that dreaded (elsewhere, not here) Cascadian black metal tag if you need to affix such a description, there’s a lot more going on besides those sonic qualities. I’m really excited about this band’s future, as this is one of records I’m going to pursue on vinyl as well because I imagine it’ll only sound that much more majestic emanating from my turntable.

To buy “Declarations of the Grand Artificer,” go here: http://www.moribundcult.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?

Or here: http://www.mylenesheath.com/catalog.html?Iit=456&Ict=33

37. NEGATIVE PLANE, “Stained Glass Revelations” (Ajna Offensive): Negative Plane’s first new album in five years showed a band that was able to pummel you with power but also capture your imagination and lead you on a dark, nightmarish journey you likely won’t even remember signing up to take. Their swirling, furious black metal works that way, and “Stained Glass” was one of those records that, the first time I heard it, I stopped everything else I was doing in order to be fully enveloped by this madness. It’s a record and a band I always have a hard time explaining to people, so experiencing this for yourself is the best way to really grasp what’s going on. But prepare to be broken.

To buy “Stained Glass Revelations,” go here: http://www.theajnaoffensive.com/index.php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=shop.flypage&product_id=1181&category_id=6&manufacturer_id=0&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=31

36. YOB, “Atma” (Profound Lore): Considering their album “The Great Cessation” was my No. 1 album of 2009, their latest landing here might make some think it disappointed me. While I didn’t have quite the same experience with this that I had with “Cessation,” it’s still listed in my 40 favorite records. There was just a lot of great stuff this year, so a band as mighty and spiritually moving as YOB ranks a little lower, but “Atma” certainly is very worthy and is one of the better doom metal recordings released this year. Singer/guitarist Mike Scheidt actually croons a lot more on “Atma” than their previous records, making himself a worthy successor to Ozzy Osbourne’s now sullied throne, and considering they’ve just been named as direct support for Tool on their tour, this record could be what puts them over the top.

To buy “Atma,” go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com//index.php?option=com_ezcatalog&task=detail&id=773&Itemid=99999999

35. NECRITE, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” (Flenser Records): After years of releasing demos and destroying the Bay Area, black metal terrors Necrite finally delivered their dizzying first full-length “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.” The record will leave your head spinning, and if you whined like a baby that the new Leviathan wasn’t true enough to form, Necrite might make up for what you were missing. Their songs are long and ambitious, they leave you wondering where the band will turn next, and they always surprise you because the next twist never can be properly anticipated. They even pay homage to their drone doom heroes on the disc’s final track “Worship the Sunn ((O)).” Excellent black metal terror.

To buy “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” go here: http://store.theflenser.com/product/necrite-sic-transit-gloria-mundi-cd

34. 40 WATT SUN, “The Inside Room” (Metal Blade): If you had a miserable year dealing with personal relationships and feel like no one else possibly could understand your frustration and pain, then you might need to sit down with 40 Watt Sun’s debut. The project of longtime Warning leader Patrick Walker is soulful, depressing, longing and just dripping with pure pain. It’s one of those records that, as much as I love it, pains me to think its creator had to experience this much anguish in order to see through his vision. It’s melancholic and melodic, and Walker’s vocals help make this a modern doom classic. Definitely go grab this one, but prepare to search your inner turmoil thoroughly.

To buy “The Inside Room,” go here: http://www.indiemerchstore.com/item/12219/

33. EARTH, “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1” (Southern Lord): Long-running drone/doom pioneers Earth have changed their sound quite a bit over the last few recordings. The changes have been fantastic. The band digs deeper into Midwestern roots and makes music that can please a Neil Young fan as much as a Sunn 0))) patron. The first of their two-part “Angels of Darkness” dropped and continued along the same path that they walked on “The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull.” It’s nicely textured, full of humanity, and amazing to experience during a mild natural disaster. I was listening to this record at Rehoboth Beach this summer when an earthquake struck. Can’t wait to see what kind of chaos the second helping brings.

To buy “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1,” go here: http://www.southernlord.com/store.php

32. ALDEBARAN, “Buried Beneath Aeons” (Parasitic): Portland, Ore., sludge/doom crew gave us but one song in 2011, that being the title cut of their excellent EP “Buried Beneath Aeons.” They’ve stayed busy live, of course, taking on a Western U.S. jaunt with Mournful Congregation, a band with which they share a lot of common sonic qualities, and even though it seems their studio output was meager, think again. This nearly half-hour track is a stunning adventure, making like it’s three or four songs rolled into one hulking creature, and it’s one of those offerings that always seems to end way too early, just as I was getting into the thing. Leave them wanting more, right? Well, they got me, and here’s hoping for way more from this awesome, under-the-radar band in 2012.

To buy “Buried Beneath Aeons,” go here: http://parasiticrecords.blogspot.com/

31. DISMA, “Towards the Megalith” (Profound Lore): The term old-school death metal is bandied about a hell of a lot these days, but so few bands actually get it right. Disma hit the puss-filled, blood-encrusted nail on the head as well as anyone, and they have the personnel to keep this thing hissing well into the future. Former Incantation (as well as millions of other bands) frontman Craig Pillard is your infernally growling host, and he’s backed by doom and death veterans from bands such as Funebrarum, Assück, Seraphim Lament and Abysmal Gates, among others, so you know you’re getting the good stuff. This is doomy, scar-infested, slithering death metal goodness the way it’s supposed to sound.

To buy “Towards the Megalith,” go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com//index.php?option=com_ezcatalog&task=detail&id=767&Itemid=99999999

Best of 2011: Notable, mangling metal albums that didn’t make the Top 40 cut but destroy nonetheless

A Storm of Light

I didn’t realize just how many metal albums I thoroughly enjoyed from this year until it came time to do my Top 40 list. It was really difficult to do this compilation, mostly because I kept coming up with albums that I would pit against each other for inclusion on my list. I’m happy that it’s over because I don’t have to do this for another 12 months and because I’m satisfied with what I devised as my final list.

So there were some really good records that didn’t make it. It may seem a lot to list 40, but that’s such a tiny, tiny number. It’s not nearly enough. But you have to stop somewhere, right? Because of that, we’re going to shed some light on albums that didn’t make the final count but that certainly are worthy of your attention. I take very seriously when I buy someone music for holidays or birthdays or whatever, and I won’t buy someone music that I think isn’t worthy of my money. I’m a jerk that way. But I would gift anyone I know with these collections and do so knowing I’ve given someone an incredible work of art that will stick with that person for a while.

A Storm of Light have been one of my favorite bands since they debuted many years ago with their debut full-length “As We Wept the Black Ocean Within” on Neurot, and ever since that time, the Josh Graham-led band has captivated my imagination with their sprawling post-metal explosiveness. As much as I love ISIS and Neurosis (Graham is their artistic and visual director), I like this band even more. So it was with their record … deep breath to get all the words out … “As the Valley of Death Becomes Us, Our Silver Memories Fade” that they delivered their first assault for Profound Lore and reimagined their sound in a way that was surprising at first but ultimately enthralling. It’s a little more streamlined and rock-oriented, and if their previous work was a too harsh for you, this record might fit you better. There’s some Bay Area thrashing, but there’s also come really cool stoner-style rock as well. It’s a really neat mix of styles. I really dig this new direction, and if this is the path they choose to travel in the future, I’m right along with them for the ride.

Another note of interest is the band just added former Howl guitarist Andrea Black to their membership, and I’m excited to hear what she contributes to their studio output. Go check this out, and don’t download it, damn it. Part of the experience is the packaging, which is always the case with any band in which Graham is involved. It’s worth parting with the cash to get the full experience.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.astormoflight.com/

To buy “As the Valley of Death Becomes Us, Our Silver Memories Fade,” go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com//index.php?option=com_ezcatalog&task=detail&id=739&Itemid=99999999

For more on the label, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/

I’m not sure there was a scarier slab of doom metal than the new one from Indian. “Guiltless” made me shake in my shoes, and they sound flat out mean on this thing. They always had something of a menacing sound before, don’t get me wrong, but shit, man. What happened with these guys to make them so surly and bloodthirsty? No matter what it was, it made for a really killer record and should set them up nicely as one of Relapse’s go-to bands in the future. The vocals are flat-out nasty and raked with glass, while the music pushes a mound of mud over your mouth and holds it there until you start writing your own will in your head. It’s vicious, nasty, volatile, and one hell of a great record. Go grab this and scare the holy hell out of your grandmother over the holidays. It won’t work on my grandmother, though. Nothing frightens her.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.indiandoom.com/

To buy “Guiltless,” go here: http://www.relapse.com/search_result.php?search_by=all&q=indian&x=0&y=0

For more on the label, go here: http://www.relapse.com/

The metal world is pretty lucky it even got a new record from Poland’s Decapitated, much less one that’s this good. The band’s fifth full-length “Carnival Is Forever” came on the heels of the band losing its drummer Witold “Vitek” Kieltyka in a tragic bus accident, and incident that also left their vocalist Adrian “Covan” Kowanek in a coma. It seemed for a while the band would fade along with them, and surely no one would have questioned why. Instead, guitarist Waclaw “Vogg” Kieltyka picked up the pieces and forged ahead, mourning a lost brother and horribly wounded bandmate. He found amazing replacements in new drummer Kerim “Krimh” Lechner (who does Vitek way more than proud with his play) and vocalist Rafal “Rasta” Piotrowski to round out the new lineup and came out with a menacing, passionate album that puts a whole ton of heart into the sometimes stuffy technical death metal genre. It’s a triumph in every sense of the word and is a great sign for all of us who hoped this band would live on into the future.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.decapitatedband.net/

To buy “Carnival Is Forever,” go here: http://store.nuclearblastusa.com/Search/decapitated

For more on the label, go here: http://www.nuclearblastusa.com/en/

I’m not always terribly proud of the Pittsburgh music scene. Actually, check that. I’m not excited about the scene the local media chooses to celebrate. It’s boring and stodgy. It’s NYC five years ago. We’re backward like that. But the metal/punk/hardcore scene, which pretty much gets totally ignored in these parts, is alive and well, and there is no better proof of that than with Heartless and their album “Hell Is Other People.” Released by Southern Lord, a label that’s done a lot for the underground hardcore scene the past few years, this record rips your head off from the get go and doesn’t let go. Heartless have destroyed many a local venue here in Pittsburgh, and you get the idea of how furious they can be just by listening to this album. I am so proud to say they’re from my hometown, and I’d put them up against any band from any other area that thinks they’re the toughest around.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.myspace.com/heartlesspgh

To buy “Hell Is Other People,” go here: http://www.bluecollardistro.com/southernlord/product_info.php?products_id=6459&cPath=956_958&store=0#.TvS7P9TOW8A

For more on the label, go here: http://www.southernlord.com/

We’re going to hear from Austin Lundr against when we go over the Top 40 albums of the year, but before we get to his other piece of work from 2011, let’s look back at “For Winter Fire” by Seidr. It’s fittingly titled. It sounds like something that, if you were to venture outside in the snow for a nice hike, you wouldn’t mind bringing this along with you. It’s pretty and atmospheric in many, many places, burly and gnarly in others. It has its doomy moments, its post-metal edges, and its full-on rage. It sounds nothing like Lundr’s other project Panopticon, which is a one-man operation, and Seidr’s music certainly lets you breathe a lot more freely. If it even snows again here in Pittsburgh, I’ll probably go right to this record and immerse myself in the glorious wonder of winter. Until then, I’ll just let this record set up its own fog and mist in my head and let it take me on a nice journey into imaginary hillsides and mountain peaks.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Seidr/167176866665923?sk=info

To buy “For Winter Fire,” go here: http://store.theflenser.com/product/seidr-for-winter-fire-cd

For more on the label, go here: http://theflenser.com/

Woods of Ypres’ David Gold passes away


What an awful piece of news to learn upon waking up this morning, but we’ve lost another incredible musician whose time expired far too soon. David Gold, who most referred to as David I. Ypres, the mastermind behind Woods of Ypres, was killed Dec. 22 in an accident near Barrie, Ontario.

Obviously this is horribly sad news regardless, but this comes at a time when Woods of Ypres were about to make a huge push, having just signed to Earache and completed their stunning new record “Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light,” due in February. In fact, I’d been listening quite a bit to the album as of late, as Earache sent me (and many other journalists) a digital copy a few weeks back. I was really excited about their future and thought this album might really break them to a larger audience. And it still might, but sadly, Gold won’t be around to see this thing he worked so hard to build come to fruition.

Gold’s approach toward his lyrics and vocals are what stands out most to me. He was blunter than many other writers, sometimes sounding a little un-poetic in the process, but that was by design. He captured his emotion, sorrow and pain artistically in a way that anyone coming across his music easily could understand. It made Woods of Ypres’s music even more human. Vocally, he always reminded me a bit of Peter Steele, another one who left us way too soon, and the band’s music often sounded more friendly and approachable than what was being expressed, providing a strange backdrop for Gold’s dark words. It was perfect in that sense in that you often didn’t feel beaten about the brow with murkiness, but if you paid close attention, you realized what was lying beneath.

This may seem a little strange to do considering the circumstances, but I’m going to include a link below to buy their albums. The band’s music deserves to be heard, and they should have exploded to the next level. If you have a little extra money sitting around and you’d been mulling picking up some new music, definitely grab anything in the Woods canon. My sincere condolences go out to his family, his friends, his fellow musicians, and anyone else who was touched by his art or his friendship. Life is just pain and piss indeed, but Gold deserved to wring more out of it than he had a chance to do. Rest in peace. The metal world is a better place because of your contributions.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.myspace.com/woodsofypres

And here: http://www.ultimatemetal.com/forum/woods-ypres-386/

To buy their albums, go here:  http://earache.com/uswebstore/advanced_search_result.php?keywords=woods+of+ypres&osCsid=4nbj4gcarp5efrnt8bekq0cqn4&x=0&y=0