Superlative List-ens of 2011
People love to complain about year-end lists as if they’re some kind of lamentable cultural phenomenon that should be abolished. I can understand some measure of complaint, but we all have personally-limited cultural radars and I always get turned on to records or books or whatevers through these lists that bypassed my own. It’s also a good way for me to go back through everything I’ve encountered during the year, re-engage with it and assess how the material has held up.
At first I wasn’t going to actually rank a “top ten” but it ended up nearly ordering itself (the top seven at least). A solid list of honorable mentions also developed and while I considered doing a list of stinkers and disappointments, I decided that was a bit catty and unnecessary. If something is missing from this list it’s either because I didn’t like it or I simply haven’t had a chance to hear and process it (for example: Rwake, Deafheaven, Bosse-de-Nage). And as a companion piece to this, I’m also compiling a list of older records that I heard for the first time in 2011.
1. Helms Alee – Weatherhead
Shocker of shockers, my record of the year is not a metal record but a throwback to pre-’97 days when rock music used heavy distortion, vocals were of the “talented amateur” variety and there was a lot of that loud-soft-loud stuff still going on. This power trio has the chops to do pretty much whatever they want, though, and they get right to it. Memorable melodies, irregular rhythms, dueling male-female vocals and perfectly hot yet clean production really seals the deal for me. Drummer Hoz Matheson-Margullis comes up with some totally off-kilter beats (she’s got a weird open hand technique, too) but has a deft touch to match her thunder-induction ability. The guitar/bass interplay is also top-notch with tonal contrast to match: the range includes everything from bell-like clarity to grungy rumble. The best part is that they pull it all off live and have fun while they’re doing it.
2. Vektor – Outer Isolation
I have a proper review pending, but suffice to say I heard their first record, Black Future (2009) earlier this year and couldn’t wait for this new one to drop when I heard it was in the making. It wasn’t released until after Thanksgiving, but it’s received as many, if not more, listens as anything else here. Technically-accomplished yet incredibly fun, engrossing sci-fi prog-thrash.
3. Ulcerate – The Destroyers of All
Where to begin with this one? Kiwis have basically created an entirely new thread of possibility with their combination of machinic textural ambiance and brutal tech death. Passages give the listener just enough space to take a breath, but more often than not that space is revealed to be semi-illusory as torrents of buzz pierce the softness. One of my favorite aspects of this record is that it doesn’t sound computer-processed or overtly digital. It sounds like a mechanical insect swarm descending to ravage everything in sight. And unlike so many technical peers, Ulcerate craft pieces that reverberate in your head long after you’re done listening. I really hope that since they’ve signed to Relapse for their next record, they’ll have a budget to tour here because this is one band I urgently need to see live.
4. Yob – Atma
I had this penned as an automatic number one before it even came out, though it ultimately got nudged by those three above surprises. Still, no doom-focused record could touch this one. The production is so different from their previous releases, but it works perfectly, especially the bizarre static scratch of the guitar tone. As opposed to their solid but underwhelming reunion effort a couple years ago, Atma delivers heaviness and memorable grooves. It also doesn’t hurt to have Scott Kelly on regular “guest” vocals to provide some throaty contrast to Mike Scheidt’s unique insect-robot drone.
5. Krallice – Diotima
Of all the weird elements for an ostensibly “black metal” album to miss, a deep growl is not the obvious one. Nothing Krallice does ever comes across as obvious, however, so up until their latest the possibility of a vital lack escaped me. Nick McMaster’s increased vocal and songwriting role has exposed that missing link and opened the quartet to an altogether unfathomable level. Bits of fantasy and sci-fi were always present in the Barr/Marston scales, now the rhythm section simultaneously jazzes and brutalizes. A more pronounced skitter in the percussion and propulsion in the bass that I hadn’t noticed from them before complements (and completes, arguably) the dual guitar ecstatics perfectly. Something clicked during second track “Inhume” right when I was second-guessing my decision to place the record so high here. For a band seeking to reproduce such “aha” moments with some regularity that they achieve their goal is nothing short of remarkable.
6. Tombs – Path of Totality
As many have noted elsewhere, this album turned out to be the year’s premier “grower”. My first couple listens resulted in “meh” responses, but when individual tracks would come up during a shuffle I would find myself intrigued, checking back to see who was playing. The production is a bit fuzzed and blown-out, but that seems to have been a conscious choice, one that ultimately emphasized the bleak, stifling atmosphere. An aural painting as much as a set of songs, give it a few listens before writing it off.
7. Dark Castle – Surrender To All Life Beyond Form
I’m disappointed in how little I’ve seen this record on any year-end lists, but I’ll be a mite controversial and chalk that up to misogyny. When it first dropped commenters all over blogs bloviated about how it was only notable because a female was involved, which only reveals how far the metal world still needs to come before it rids itself of such noxious attitudes. Not only was it one of the most experimental and risky records of the year (particularly as bass-less duo), Stevie and Rob absolutely crushed it live when they toured with Yob. They’ve made huge strides since Spirited Migration and I can’t wait to see what kind of material they put together next.
8. Gigan – Quasi-Hallucinogenic Sonic Landscapes
Has Florida bequeathed the world anything worthwhile besides amazing death metal? I can’t think of anything, but maybe it’s exactly that void-liness at the root of such musical innovation. Taking cues from Atheist (whose 2010 reunion album, Jupiter, exhibited such traits) Gigan has gone all out psychedelic in its version of death metal: flangers, phasers, wah-wahs all amok in the mix. As much as I’ve enjoyed all the doom and blackness so in vogue, it’s refreshing to hear a new(ish) take on death metal. For such a precision-based form, hyperactively-left field signal processing seems an odd choice, but these guys lay it right out in the album title and deliver. Not only a weird and technically-aware album, it’s also really fun.
9. Death Grips – Exmilitary
You weren’t expecting a rap record to make this list, were you? I saw the video for “Guillotine” on the ostensibly literary blog HTMLGiant and immediately wondered where this type of unhinged wordsmithing had been for so long. The last time hip-hop caught my interest was with via Anticon and the label’s related acts, but that was nearly ten years ago at this point. As far as I can tell, Death Grips is just a super underground dude from Sacramento who has that look in his eye.
10. Altar of Plagues – Mammal
Oarsmen rhythm put a trance on. The culturally-appropriate cliché to use here would be “peaty” or “boggy”. Call to battle drumfills to open the flood on “Feather and Bone”. Vocals are a kind of screeching tortured Robert Smith deal that I can dig. A lot of sickness all over this record. Is also a great demonstration of the failures of this musical BCS bowls system. It’s ended and I’m still sitting here thinking about grass.
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Antediluvian – Through the Cervix of Hawwah
Though perhaps not as enthralling as Mitochondrion’s 2010 release, Parasignosis, these Australians still outdo their countrymen Portal for sonically-insane, horrifying brutal death metal. There is actual songcraft, pacing and semblance of narrative to be found here. I came to this rather recently, though, so hasn’t received as many listens as others listed here, but it kicked my ass from the off, so I had to include it.
Aosoth – III
For whatever reason(s), the French really seem to have innovative black metal on lockdown right now. I debated for a while and probably would put III as my #11 (depending on day and mood it’s superior to Mammal, however it’s narrower in focus and feel). The guitar squall is so thoroughly captured that it feels like no segment of the sonic spectrum is missing here, drums gallop and pummel alongside crisp cymbalwork and you can feel the mucous stripping from MkM’s throat. It’s difficult to convey how much raw power is released on each track yet it never loses momentum or gets stale like so many grindcore records do. Forty-six minutes of unceasing terror, more if you consider what it may have taken mental to create such a record.
Blut Aus Nord – 777 Sect(S) / 777 The Desanctification
I couldn’t really include this above without having given the latter installment due time to settle, but the fact that I got a total non-metal listener into this band via Sect(S) should say something. What, exactly, I have no idea. Industrial-influenced black metal is not easy to pull off and, honestly, others should not be encouraged to try their hand at it. If I was to host a blood-soaked, bowel-throttling dance soirée this would play all night.
Craig Taborn – Avenging Angel
An oddball among this list, Taborn occupies some bizarre, beautiful liminal space between jazz and classical piano. The closest approximation I can muster to anything else I’ve ever heard is György Ligeti’s piano études performed with the air, the atmosphere of Olivier Messiaen. Taborn also happens to know his metal, however, as evidenced by this interview he did earlier this year.
Morbus Chron – Sleepers in the Rift
Taking a different route to create psychedelic death metal are these Swedes. Where Gigan is technically adept and run through with bells and whistles, Morbus Chron have a more “Autopsy”-ian flavor with hints of the proto-stoner rock of the early ‘70s. It’s grimy and a bit bluesy, which is very odd for death metal, but gives one an impression of what a death metal Matt Pike outfit would potentially sound like. Another fun record that just rocks.
Vozrozhdeniya – Atmosphere
Finally we have a project I know very little about other than they are Mexican and have a Russian name. The album title is entirely appropriate, regardless, as this is straight up ambient music without any new-age-y gobbledygook. I’m cool with ambient stuff being musical wallpaper as that’s pretty much what it’s for, but this ranks right up there with the early Aphex Twin ambient works in quality. Frankly, I needed that because I’d needed something new for when I’m just chilling and reading.