Saturday, December 31, 2011

Jack's Top 15 Albums Of 2011

Constructing these year-end lists always feels like an exercise in complacent futility. Especially in a year as monumental for heavy music as 2011, cherry-picking fifteen of the best albums is akin to playing that game at the county fair where you're blindly throwing baseballs at milk jars; even when you miss wildly and hit the poor sap working the stand in the jewels, you're still having a good time. Simply put, there's no way myself or my brothers-in-arms here at the 'Töp are gonna cover everything we enjoyed, period. We're guaranteed to have missed one thing or another, and we'll be the first people to call ourselves out on it once we wake up and smell the napalm. The fact of the matter is this; there were an obscene number of great release this year. You'll notice some diversions in my list as compared to Mick, Nate and Durfee, but that's simply because I'm either a) a hipster, b) a douchebag or c) both. Deal with it. What it really stands testament too, however, is how good releases were all over the board this year, from death to doom to prog. It doesn't matter how you look at it, 2011 had something for everybody.

Before I get to the goods, echoing Mick is in order; it's been a huge year for us here. Whether it was interviewing musicians we look up to, reviewing records we enjoyed or just attending shows, the 'Töp took a big step forward in 2011. And the future is still very bright. I've made a promise to myself to get at least four reviews in every month in 2012, cause if I haven't penned a gushing appraisal of Meshuggah's new record by the time the world ends in December, I'll be permanently punching myself in the testicles in the afterlife. But who knows, maybe they have the interwebz in the afterlife, and I can finish it there. Whatever... I need to get off my ass and write ya'll. Hold me to this!

So here we go, my top fifteen albums of the last calendar year...

15. Trap Them - Darker Handcraft
Equipped to the teeth with kevlar and semi-automatics, Darker Handcraft is a pit-ready ass kicker. The obvious comparison to turn-of-the-century Converge has been made plenty of times before, but this is a refined Trap Them simply at the top of their craft and paving paths on their own terms. It's curb-stompingly angry, which is just how we all like our metallic hardcore, and I can't help but think of Stallone pumping lead into bad guys with two .50 cals when Darker is in my ears.
Favorite Track: "All By The Constant Vulse"

Tombs - Path of Totality
Tombs are like the "5-tool" baseball player of the current metal landscape. Their complex blend of black, sludge and post-metal is rare in its genius, which is probably the reason it feels wrong to shoehorn them into any category they may fit. At once evoking every style Darkthrone has tinkered with and liberally sprinkling the ferocity of Eyehategod, Tombs could easily be considered the honey badger of heavy music. They don't give a shit, and they will take what's theirs.
Favorite Track: "Cold Dark Eyes"

Disma - Towards the Megalith
If memory serves me correctly, "oh, holy shit" were the first words that came out of my piehole upon first listen to Towards the Megalith. The is blunt-trauma-with-a-ship-wrench death metal at it's absolute pinnacle. Bloodthirsty, sordid and heavier than Satan's bowel movements, the Jersey quintet chokehold us back to 1989 when this sort of album would've worn out the needle of LG Petrov and Dan Swano's record players. From whiplash-inducing blast passages to breaks that Unicron throws on his Walkman while annihilating the universe, the hallmarks of brutal death are all here in spades. What you're left with is a stench and layer of muck so profuse that your pumice stone will sprout legs and run away.
Favorite Track: "Vault of Membros"

Cave In - White Silence
The renaissance men of American metal have done it again. After years of tweaking their sound more than Black Veil Brides tweak their hair in a day, White Silence is the product of Cave In finally coming full circle. All the previous sounds Stephen Brodsky and co. have explored are whipped together with a stunning precision, a feat in-and-of-itself when you consider the breadth of their work, and we can finally come out thinking "Aah, Cave In..." not "So now they're trying out sludge metal."
Favorite Track: "Sing My Loves"

Russian Circles - Empros
Unfortunately, this is the only tip of the hat to the incredible year Chicago-based metal had that you'll see here. But it's fitting that Russian Circles are the band to prompt the mentioning of Windy City's burgeoning metal scene. Empros is another step forward for these "instrumetalists," delivering an even more diverse mix of tempos and interludes than heard on past efforts. This is the kind of record perfect for a February walk along Lake Michigan; a harsh and blistering experience, but one with unmistakable charm and elegance laced throughout.
Favorite Track: "309"

Deafheaven - Roads to Judah
Out of the litany impressive American black metal releases this year, previously nondescript Californian outfit Deafheaven wowed the most. There's a certain lack of pretension and deliberate motive on Roads of Judah that is at once enticing and perplexing, but that's what makes it all the more brilliant. While Wolves in Throne Room make their woodland, folky atmosphere obnoxiously clear, Roads to Judah captivates with subtle intricacies and a sense of pent-up emotion that doesn't outwardly push you to any sort of mindset. It's the sort of atmospheric black metal record that you're glad doesn't come out more often, cause the last thing we need are more Pitchforkians downtuning and learning dissonance. I'm looking at you, Liturgy.
Favorite Track: "Tunnel of Trees"

Rwake - Rest
Turn your lights out, enjoy whatever vice puts you in a sedated state and close your eyes to this livid, misery laden masterpiece. It puts you in a place few records can. The sludginess is top notch, but it's the expertly intertwined noodling that send Rest to another level. The word atmosphere is thrown around quite a lot when great albums are discussed, and Rwake has this exact issue figured out. Rest's cohesiveness and complexity walk arm in arm, and make it almost possible to focus on the craftmanship rather than the utterly desolate landscape it paints.
Favorite Track: "The Culling"

Symphony X - Iconoclast
Thanks to my obsession with Maiden, I've got a very soft spot for expertly made classic and power metal. Iconoclast qualifies as such. I'll take whatever shit you throw at me for that gladly, cause if you actually listen to this dynamic and wonderfully melodic triumph (potentially the group's best release) and can't windmill your head, you should be forced to take a steaming poop on the Egyptian flag in the middle of Tahrir Square and see how it works out for you.
Favorite Track: "Iconoclast"

Mastodon - The Hunter
This one took me awhile. I'm hopelessly obsessed with the maddeningly progressive Crack the Skye, and The Hunter is essentially Crack if you threw it through a Dark World portal. It's catchy, straightforward and full of hooks. It's almost like the the boys in the 'Don said, "ok, lets make the exact opposite of Crack." And even though I had to let it grow on me, they succeeded resoundingly. And to be honest, the only thing missing from a Mastodon setlist were three or four fresh, go-to melodic anthems. Hunter has at least seven.
Favorite Track:"Octopus Has No Friends"

Demonic Death Judge - The Descent
"Who?" you say? Prepare your ears, peeps. The new masters of stoner-doom have arrived from... Finland? It's true, Demonic Death Judge, while still relatively unknown, absolutely wowed with their first full length, a record just begging to snuggle up next to the nearest bong or hookah. It's only a matter of time before these dudes catch on, and if there is some sort of good in the metal world, they'll catch on in a huge way. The record centers around an absolute monster of title-track that clocks in at 14:38, and will have your neck begging for forgiveness. Actually, this whole damn thing will wreck most of your upper spinal column.
Favorite Track: "The Descent"

Ulcerate - The Destroyers of All
Grab a crowbar, fashion a Molotov cocktail and head over to the junkyard with The Destroyers of All as your soundtrack. Do so, or else your loved ones will suffer the consequences of where Ulcerate take you to on their third full length. Nuclear holocaust likely has these New Zealanders on speed dial whenever it needs its soundtrack, and it's doubtless that they would deliver masterfully. Can we call this pitch-blackened death metal? Cause this is blacker than black in it's callousness.
Favorite Track: "The Hollow Idols"

Helms Alee - WeatherheadThere's been a fair amount of gnashing of teeth over whether post-everything wonderkids Helms Alee are really metal or not. For the umpteenth time, I don't concern myself with asshattery like this. The seemingly hundreds of styles the trio (of which 2/3's of the members have ovaries!) samples on Weatherhead fit together with remarkable aptitude, and they don't have to stoop to the depths of nintendo-core to pull it off. Imagine that!
Favorite Track: "Pretty As Pie"

Revocation - Chaos of Forms
Shred. City. Dave Davidson and his thrashpatriots had a lot to live up to following '09s Existence in Futile, and their follow up Chaos of Forms did not disappoint in the slightest. Their unmistakable brand of technical-death-twinged neo-thrash took the step forward that metalheads everywhere hoped it would, and they even dared to throw in cow bells and french horns into their nerd-prog interludes that they've become infamous for. As timeless as Back to the Future is to this day, it really would be complete with Revocation blaring from Marty McFly's DeLorean... think about it, these Massholes introduce classic themes and approaches with completely next level musicality and aggression. The future, and the past, are both here in synchronous perfection.
Favorite Track: "The Watchers"

Yob - Atma
Is there a band that uses open notes better than Yob? That's a rhetorical question, so don't bother answering. The crushing heaviness of Atma is matched by its ethereal abnormalities, making it more and more interesting with every spin. Album opener "Prepare the Ground" is as wild and bone-crushingly massive as anything the trio have ever released, and prove that they're still a big part of the discussion when it comes to the torch-bearers of American doom/sludge.
Favorite Track: "Prepare the Ground"

Red Fang - Murder the Mountains
I've always been a firm believer in the theory that whatever release you enjoyed most often in whatever calendar year immediately qualifies as your #1. We're operating under that assumption yet again, and Murder the Mountains takes the cake in a rather one sided race. I can't tell you how many times I nearly blew out my car speakers listening to the glorious stoner anthem "Wires" and how often the beer in my fridge rattled like those weird cubes in Super 8 when "Throw Up" droned out of my home stereo. Red Fang are simply my kind of band... Innovative, yet traditional; blisteringly fast and heavy, yet catchy and fun. This is drinking music for drinking people, and if you can't jive with it, then leave the tallboys and the jamz on Murder the Mountains to those of us that do.
Favorite Track: "Throw Up"

Near Misses/Honorable Mentions:
The Human Abstract - Digital Veil
Absu - Abzu
Wolf - Legions of Bastards
40 Watt Sun - The Inside Room
The Atlas Moth - An Ache for the Distance
The Black Dahlia Murder - Ritual
Origin - Entity
Animals as Leaders - Weightless
Scale The Summit - The Collective
Krallice - Diotima
Lifetime Achievement Award: Devin Townsend
You'll notice that neither Ghost nor Deconstruction ended up on my list. I'm an admitted Devin freak, but I simply felt like I couldn't judge the two final installments in his DTP project on the same playing field as everything else. They were just too out there... to Devin. He truly achieved his own level, which I suppose is exactly what he set out to do from the beginning. Mission accomplished, you wizzy, poopy creature. 

Most Anticipated Releases of 2012:
Meshuggah tops the list, but definitely Gojira, Orange Goblin, Neurosis and many others. 

Happy New Year, everyone. Horns up.
- Jack

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