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/