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