Max’s End-of-Year Recommended Albums List (Presented by Way of a Lengthy Treatise About the Actual Listening)
This year I made a resolution to dive into more new music than ever – by clicking on nearly every link on every This Toilet Tuesday playlist for the year. Every week.
“Nearly” is the operative word. It didn’t take long before I started eliminating auditions from certain categories in order to unburden the workload. (When wading through anywhere between 40 and 70 releases a week, you’ll start cutting corners. I know that’s a typical week of metal fandom for some of you kids. For me, it’s not.)
Anything which was listed but not linked on the TovH page, I didn’t bother to go looking for elsewhere. Anything labeled “lolbuttz” I also ignored, confident of TovH’s dismissal. Nor did I click on anything earmarked as a “Preview”. I figured if I was going to give a band a chance, they may as well give me a full song. Besides, they’d presumably reappear in the listings when the record actually was released.
Anything labeled Power Metal, Symphonic Metal, Folk Metal or Metalcore I soon started ignoring too – finding favour with anything from those genres has always been such a remote exception to the rule for me that I knew the probability of missing out on a gem from any of them was small enough to justify knee-jerk dismissal.
Honestly, I also could have ruled out grindcore, doom metal, speed metal, gothic metal, stoner rock, symphonic black metal, thrash, crossover, hardcore, djent, deathcore, brutal/slam, and industrial. Not necessarily because I hate those genres – I mainly don’t – but simply because they’ve never been central to my tastes. They’re all exceptions to the rule in my record collection. Doing that, though, would undoubtedly have omitted a few worthy contenders.
Right now you’re probably thinking what I soon noticed: How narrow my preferences in metal really are. I hadn’t consciously realized it until embarking upon this exercise. My tastes run pretty firmly to post-rock/metal, precious little sludge, some melodeath, tech-death, “regular” death metal/OSDM, non-symphonic black metal, some prog-metal…and that’s really about it. But it certainly speaks to how valuable genre-categorization can be for the time-poor, income-limited music consumer; despite the protestations of artists. Sub-genres, I’ve found, are by no means a guarantor that you’ll like something. But they’re a remarkably reliable indicator that you probably won’t.
Even allowing for that much exemption, I can confidently claim that each week I listened to upwards of 30-60 new releases, even if only momentarily. Some nights, it was a real slog. I usually got through an entire Tuesday list in one sitting while reading news articles; but on the numerically heavier weeks I had to tackle it in installments.
I got very behind. At one stage – not in the mood for music, busy/tired from work or more interested in giving follow-up investigations to discoveries that I actually LIKED – I was about two-and-a-half months behind on my Toilet Tuesday listening schedule. Catching up on it all was hard.
Another thing I learnt, I’ve got to say, is that there is a shit-ton of quite bad metal getting released globally on a weekly basis. Sorry, but there is. Along with the realization about how narrow my tastes within metal are, the fact that I found 90%+ of it to be mediocre had me questioning my “metalhead” status. Only the fact that my record collection itself is 95% metal already prevented me from relinquishing my badge.
Moreover, my definition of “bad” isn’t a fair one – I got pretty fussy and jaded. I developed a severe allergy to mild cheesiness, indifferent riffs, “unsuitable” production values, boring intros (though I did have to make an exemption for styles like doom or sludge that take a while to get going), embarrassing vocal delivery, fruity keyboards (always a contentious instrument in metal for me), and even lack of volume or sonic clarity compared to other releases. Judgment got quite arbitrary, I must say.
Yes – there were plentiful occasions where I wouldn’t get through more than a bar or two before calling “Next!” The overwhelming majority of bands didn’t get more than one song’s worth of my attention, if that. No matter how bad any given artist may be, I must admit I wasn’t doing any of them justice in terms of attention paid. Many were the occasions I closed the tab on the sort of death metal song which I would have gladly spent money on in younger, more impressionable times.
In my defence, let’s contextualize: Assuming This Toilet Tuesday encompasses nearly all of the heavy metal records released worldwide weekly, and assuming it was an average of forty releases per week (which at a glance it seemed to be), every week, that means we’re on the receiving end of roughly 2,100 new releases per year; or about six every day. (Some online sources I’ve read suggest it might be double that. I believe them.)
This is an outpouring of recorded music surely unprecedented in history. Assuming other genres of popular music are as prolific as ours, I’ll bet there’s more music than TV and radio commercials getting produced annually nowadays.
With that in mind, I don’t think I or anybody else need apologize for being very selective about what we’ll even pay attention to, let alone buy. Too much 400 Hz on the snare drum? FAIL. 8-string guitars? NEVER MORE THAN SEVEN. Readable logo? IMPACT FONT = IMPACT FLUSH.
Okay, granted, dismissing a band after the intro riff on the first song of one of their records isn’t exactly giving me a good idea of their artistic scope or songwriting capabilities. For all I know, the rest of the album might be Sergeant fucking Pepper 2.0. But like you, I’ve listened to a lot of metal records in my time, and what I also know is this:
1) The first proper song on an album – or the shortest, which I sometimes went for instead – is, invariably, one of the better ones. So if you didn’t like that, you probably won’t like the rest.
2) Records of any genre which actually get better as they go aren’t unheard of (they’re what we call the classics); but they are very, very rare.
3) The production values and instrumental arrangements on a metal album seldom change throughout the course of that album; so if it bothers you that the drums aren’t loud enough or the vocalist is annoying within the first minute of listening, chances are you’re still gonna be bothered 45 minutes later, should you persist.
In theoretical probability, with this much music being released, each of us should be able to unearth at least one record which corresponds optimally to our personal tastes on any and all criteria by which we might choose to favour it: Genre, tempo, melodic scale, production techniques, song duration, the vocalist’s voice, musicianship level, amount of distortion on the guitars, styles of riffs played, lyrics, cover art, the typesetting on the liner notes, etc. etc. etc. We should permit ourselves to be as insanely picky as we like – especially if we’re expected to wade through literally thousands of songs before finding that perfect album.
The reality, of course, is that bands aren’t perfect, and nor are we the perfect listeners. No single record can ever be 100% what the doctor ordered for any of us; and I’d hate for that to occur: Does anybody want to spend the rest of their life only listening to one album because nothing else measures up?
Nevertheless, it squares my dismissiveness into perspective: I just don’t have the time for anything less than very good. If it isn’t grabbing me, it ain’t; and there’s probably something else out there that will. NEXT.
I won’t be undertaking a regime like this next year; glad as I am to have tried it once. I’ve discovered some great stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have; but I’ve concluded it’s probably not worth the investment in time. In 2016 I’ll just pay attention to whatever various “gatekeeper” websites (basically this one, Metalsucks and Invisible Oranges) are telling me to and make my judgments from that shortlist. It’ll be interesting to see if I end up with a similar strike rate of stuff I like despite drawing from a narrower and more select pool. Because one thing I have to admit is this: When you look at my list below, and consider how much relatively high-profile stuff I’ve nominated, you’d be forgiven for wondering how different my list would really be if I’d just stuck to investigating what “higher-profile” people had suggested. (Like yourselves for example – in my universe, that’s “high profile.”)
In the meantime, for what it’s worth, here’s an end-of-year round-up, counted down, for anybody reading who might have mistaken me for some sort of authoritative taste-maker. If you click on any of this and find something to your fancy you weren’t aware of, there’s no need to thank me; but do so in the comments section anyway!
13) DISRUPTED (Sweden) – Morbid Death
Memento Mori Records; Old-School Death Metal
This mightn’t be a wheel-reinventing ground-breaker; nor even a fabulous record in its own right. But there will NEVER be an end to the sound and style that Entombed wrought (just like there’ll never be an end to the Disclones), and I’ll always have a soft spot for those carrying the tattered HM-2 flag.
Of all the HM-2 clones I’ve heard this year, Disrupted is definitely the cream of the crop. The vocalist sounds like a more monotone LG Petrov zombie (that’s a compliment); the band grinds away organically on their singular course at skank pace, firing Like An Ever-Flowing Stream riffs to match, and…well, what more do you need? Nor do the band detract from their focus with traces of death’n’roll, as many of these acts unfortunately do. Keep the fuckin’ Blue Wolverine off the Left Hand fuckin’ Path!
If you only listen to one song, make it the immortally-titled “Buried in Bowels.”
12) TRIALS (United States o’ America) – This Ruined World
Independently released; Neo-Thrash
I perceive this one as falling under a neo-thrash / groove-metal approach – the sort of record that easily could have been made in the ‘90s but for some reason never was; at least with such a relatively organic and dry production job by the standards of that style. But if you want any further description, I can do no better than to quote blogger Angry Metal Guy’s endorsement on the Bandcamp page:
“This Ruined World is an excellent record. The songs on here are razor sharp, tightly edited, written to be dense, technical, and immense—and it’s the balance Trials strikes between chugging intensity, harmony, dissonance and a fine understanding of dynamics in all the right places which makes this album stand out. Trials are unapologetically interested in cutting the bullshit and writing great songs.”
That’s pretty much it. It does take a bit to grow on you songwriting-wise, but I fell in love with the guitar sound instantly. I’m struggling for more ways to describe it…I did hear some occasional similarities with O.G. neo-thrash luminaries The Haunted, although I think I much prefer this.
If you only try one song, make it the relatively un-thrashy, partial blast-fest “Digging My Own Grave.” And then, if you do like that, give any other song a chance; because there’s quite a bit of compositional variety here. (I mean, the song after that even sounds a bit like Gorjira in parts.)
11) KRALLICE (U.S and A) – Ygg Huur
Independently released; Progressive Black Metal
Krallice is a band I’ve been meaning to devote attention to for some time now, and Ygg Huur seems as good a place to start as any.
A couple of years ago I could have said the same thing about Gorguts – the initially generic Roadrunner/Morrisound act from Canada who went on to assume the deserved mantle of tech-death godfathers. By the time I began paying attention to them, they’d released Colored Sands, which is a record I still haven’t gotten sick of two years later and which I easily regard as my favourite extreme metal release of the last decade; perhaps longer.
I bring this up because being so relatively green to both acts – and considering Colin Marston’s pivotal place both within his own band and with Gorguts‘s record as engineer-producer and bassist – Ygg Huur really strikes me as the “sequel” to Colored Sands. And if you liked Colored Sands, that’s hardly going to be a bad thing, is it?
I don’t think it’s as spectacular as that; but it’s got the same remarkably-easy-to-digest-despite-the-complexity feel to it. It also has the same sound, but perhaps a bit less polished and more live. Actually, that’s a mark down in my book because the one thing lacking from Colored Sands for me was the slightly crisper production I thought it required.
Not that it was a bad production job; and nor is this: Marston seems to have gone for what sounds like a band recorded in real-time using ambient room mics instead of a close-mic’ed, individually multi-tracked method. I could be totally mistaken about this but that’s my impression. Despite this, you can always discern exactly what each musician is doing; which is important when there’s barely a single moment on the album when the guitarists are playing the same line. So I call that a win.
If you only listen to one song, make it “Wastes of Ocean.”
10) RETALIATORY MEASURES (Finland) – Levels
Independently released (I think?); Death Metal.
(Primarily) mid-paced death metal, Retaliatory Measures are one of those bands who invest all their capital in the power of their riffs as a selling point. Fair enough, too – because there isn’t really a single bad riff on this mini-album. The guitars are very front-and-centre in their sound; meaning that the drums are mixed quite a little low. But it’s still a great listen, with skillful thrashing and some nice counterpoint melody. This is a band who deserve to be better-known than they are.
If you only try one song, make it: “Perdition” and wait for that counterpoint chorus!
9) BEATEN TO DEATH (Sweden) – Unplugged
Mas-Kina Records; Grindcore
From Enslavement to Obliteration by Napalm Death. World Downfall by Terrorizer. And Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses by Brutal Truth. These are the three grindcore records that have prevented me from ever much investigating the genre further. Why bother when you’ve got this holy trinity at your beck and call?
Well, in Beaten to Death’s Unplugged, I’ve found something that just may well put an end to my dogmatism on that score. It’s a grindcore record unmistakably in its ethos; but it’s one utterly unlike any of those in its music. It has emotive melody, progressiveness, dynamics, and even a dialed-back, Fender Telecaster-ish guitar tone that would be more at home on an indie rock or emocore (as in Fugazi, not some modern permutation of the term) outing than on an extreme metal album. By fuck does it work, though. I’d hate for grindcore to sound like this all the time, but we can definitely use a grind band like Beaten to Death.
If you only listen to one song, make it “End of an Error”.
8) DEAFHEAVEN (United States o’ America) – New Bermuda
Yeah, I’m one of those who thinks Deafheaven have musical merit. Coming from somebody who pretty much gave up on black metal after the original early-mid ‘90s renaissance, I genuinely think Deafheaven are one of the more interesting things to happen, even if I’ll agree that they’re not strictly bringing anything new to it. Well, nothing new that couldn’t be previously imagined, anyway: For anybody who grew up on a diet of grungy, indie fare like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Swervedriver before discovering metal, the crossover of black metal and shoegaze was a long time coming, thanks to some musicological similarities.
If that’s over-thinking it too much for you, try the simpler justifications: 1) Based upon what I’ve read of him, Euronymous – already evolving into a black metal contrarian by the time he was killed – probably would have liked Deafheaven, had they existed in his day; pink album covers and all. 2) If these guys looked like Immortal instead of extras from Girls, so would the tr00hordes; who in my zine-reading experience usually have remarkably low standards about what constitutes “good” black metal provided there are sufficient bullets, axes, pine trees and invisible oranges somewhere on the packaging.
I’ve probably raved too much to convince anybody. All I know is that despite some filler, it’s got everything I liked about Sunbather, with a bit less of what I didn’t, plus a few new tricks. The drumming has really improved, for example. Can’t argue.
One song only? Try “Gifts For the Earth.”
7) SECTORIAL (Ukraine) – We Are the Titan’s Rising Ashes
Noizr Records; Black Metal (ish)
Fuck knows what the title of this album is supposed to mean; and for that matter, fuck knows how Encylopedia Metallium’s categorization of “thrash/grindcore” is supposed to accurately portray what these guys are doing unless they’ve done a massive bandwagon-jump subsequent to being archived there. On the basis of the guitar tone, riffage, Slavic fury, and occasional use of folky-type elements, it sounds pretty black metal to me (though I get less sure about that the more I listen).
Well, if it was a bandwagon-jump, they did themselves a favour. Because although it doesn’t hurt that they can play their asses off like furious beasts with a precision mastery that any death metal band would be proud to boast, they have that unmistakable Oskerei-running, wolf-howling backdrop vibe we all know from the better works of Burzum or Bathory (but in music far more advanced).
Unfortunately there’s a fair bit of cheese dialed in, too. Sectorial make frequent use of Jew’s harp and recorder (or perhaps flute) which can occasionally put them into hey-nonny-no Stilton territory. Listening to the beginning of single/video “Tree Eater”, you’d think you were in for a bout of some ghastly, “world music”-tinged power-/folk-metal hybrid onslaught; and in fact you pretty much are. If that was the first song I heard from these guys I would’ve rejected them out of hand. Even initially exposed to more favourable parts of the album, I maintain that some of the material does get a bit Borat-metal in places.
But when they’re good, Sectorial are frankly world-class. If you only listen to one song, make it “Autumn Silence is Covered With Ice.”
6) HATE ETERNAL (United States o’ America) – Infernus
Season of Mist Records; Death Metal
There are plenty of death metal fans who can’t stand Hate Eternal, hearing only a riff-salad blast churn that can make it difficult to get through a single song, let alone an album. Well, that was certainly my experience with Fury and the Flames, which I couldn’t get into at all. I sit on the fence with I, Monarch, which has some great stuff but is also not a record I can often overcome in one sitting.
But that’s not a problem with Infernus. It’s just as fast and bludgeoning as any of their earlier efforts, but something about the songwriting approach this time has made it a lot easier to get into, and the production job – though fairly typical of Rutan’s sound; he’s always had a pretty cloudy signature guitar tone – has also somehow assisted in providing a coherence that Hate Eternal often lacked. Put it this way: there’s a difference between sounding heavy and sounding angry. This time, Hate Eternal have generally managed both instead of just the former. And there’s at least as much variety on this as on any earlier effort. You’ll even have some of the songs stuck in your head afterwards, which, for this band, is breaking new ground indeed. I’d really look forward to seeing some of this stuff live.
It’s funny, though: I’ve never heard a Hate Eternal album that got the sequencing to my liking. They always seem to start with a song that’s too full-on and presumptuous to be an opener; usually followed immediately or soon after by a song that would have served perfectly. And there’s usually a potential spectacular closer buried somewhere in the middle. Whatever.
If you only try one song – just for something different, make it the instrumental “Chaos Theory.”
5) KLONE (France) – Here Comes the Sun
Pelagic Records; Rock.
I’d hesitate to class this as metal or even hard rock. They once may have been, but they’ve since moved in a softer, slightly alternative direction. Which isn’t a problem as long as you write good songs, which they are capable of doing.
I only like five of the ten offered here, but those five are real ear-worms, and made the CD enough worth buying for me. Klone’s vocalist has a rather similar voice to Kurt Cobain’s, which does deter some people; although I can’t honestly see why when the music is so different to Nirvana’s. Impeccably played and lush, Here Comes the Sun also features one of those rare but wonderful production jobs where copious amounts of reverb don’t make the band sound less crisp or more distant.
If you only try one song, make it “Gone Up in Flames.”
4) THE ORDER OF APOLLYON (France) – The Sword and the Dagger
Listenable Records; Death Metal
Whoa. Imagine Morbid Angel with a darker, more brooding vibe, more linear songwriting, less diversion, and a heightened melodic sensibility which leans toward Voices-like blackened death (or perhaps even Misery Index); capped off with a vocalist who sounds like pre-Turn Loose the Swans Aaron Stainthorpe of My Dying Bride and you’re kind of there with these guys. (Or you could do yourself a favour and listen rather than going by my half-assed descriptions.)
The clean production perhaps is a little ordinary; there’s a real hint of Superior Drummer and Axe-FX (I shouldn’t make such bald assumptions in an age where there is no real way of determining the circumstances of an album’s recording just by listening to it). But such sterility is quickly accepted when the strength of the songwriting and very well-balanced orchestration/mixing is taken into account. Although there are a few standard death metal tracks offered, there is also some real stand-out material: The program doesn’t let up from tracks 3 through 9; whether each is a total blaster or a mid-paced workout (or both). What I was praising in the development of Hate Eternal‘s approach above, this band has in spades, with nearly equal the brutality.
If you only listen to one song, make it “Hold Not My Peace, O God of My Praise.”
3) IZAH (Netherlands) – Sistere
Nordvis Records; Sludge Metal, perhaps – a bit wide in scope to be given a single category, really.
“Bringers of Doom” said the strapline – No fucking shit! This 70-minute, 4-track opus is monstrous. To me (and others here on the Toilet), it somehow wraps traces of black metal, indie rock and perhaps even industrial(ish) into a death-doom marathon which is surprisingly listenable from start to finish considering the attention demanded. Pretty bleak stuff, but also very passionate. The last, half-hour song is a prolonged ordeal – and I mean that in a good way – wringing out every last drop of your devotion. After several listens I did eventually start omitting the third song, which still left me with an hour-long album.
If you only try one song, make it “Indefinite Instinct.” BUT – don’t click away until you’ve finished the whole thing!
2) ARMAGEDDON (Sweden) – Captivity in Devourment
Listenable Records; Melodeath
I won’t say too much about this one since we’ve dealt with it extensively on TovH earlier in the year (justifiably), but yeah – among the more compelling of melodeath records that gets released nowadays. Kicks the SHIT out of parent act Archenemy.
If you only try one song, make it “The Watcher.”
And my Album of the Year is…
1) FRANK HERBERT (United States o’ America) – Dune
Gollancz Publishing; Science Fiction.
While studying Shakespeare’s Othello, my English teacher once taught us that in 19th century European theatre, audiences – caught up either in the Bard’s timeless prose or the emotive action before them – were often moved to heckle the actor playing the moor with heartfelt warnings of Iago’s treachery: “Don’t listen to him, Othello! He’s lying! She loves you!” – even though, of course, they all knew the outcome of this canonical tragedy.
Classic works of narrative art sort of have that effect on people sometimes. It occasionally happens to me when I watch Episode IV – A New Hope. I’ve seen that film literally scores of times over my life, and just occasionally I’ll still catch myself wondering if perhaps Obi-Wan will be triumphant against Vader after all, so that he could join the others on Yavin and get involved with the Alliance again.
But it happens to me most vividly when I read the sci-fi masterpiece that is Frank Herbert’s Dune. Every time I read it, I encounter a scrap of dialogue or scene description that I’d forgotten about, which makes it seem as though a slightly different version of the story is being told to me; and thereby holding out the possibility of an alternative outcome – one where Duke Leto survives the treachery of his physician, or where the evil old Baron Harkonnen learns that Muad D’ib is actually his grandson. Quite how it does this to me is a difficult process to describe, but it does.
To borrow a quote you’ve no doubt encountered, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. And so perhaps it follows that thinking about metal is like living in a sci-fi adventure – one populated by beings with extraordinary powers acting out a labyrinthine, wheels-within-wheels plot. The best heavy metal albums, by the best metal bands, share something – however obtusely – with the masters of storytelling like Tolkein or Frank Herbert: The complete visualization of an entire world, with its own peoples, cultures, history and implications. A world you fully immerse yourself in as easily as leaving this one behind, if only for a brief time. The more you look into it, the more you discover; for the rest of your life.
That’s why Frank Herbert’s astonishing novel Dune is this year – as it is every year – one of my favourite metal albums. Available in paperback from any reputable bookstore, or try the library. Play it loud.