Matt's Top Ten Albums Of 2012
Well, it's that time of year again, and as a student I can say that the month of December is nothing short of hell on earth — which is why my year-end lists usually don't come together properly until January/February. Add to this the fact that 2012 was an absolutely incredible year with an inconceivable amount of excellent releases and you've got one fumbling, stumbling, not-ready-to-commit review writer. So in honor of the upcoming Hobbit premiere, I will leave you with this quote from one Bilbo Baggins — to all the albums of 2012: "I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve."
10. Anathema – Weather Systems
Genre: Atmospheric Rock
Label: Kscope Music
Listen: "Untouchable Part I"
"I wish they would go back to their old style" is one complaint that you will never hear directed towards Anathema — mainly because their new style is infinitely better and consistently engaging (also, did I mention the listenable production?). But I digress. In what is, as usual, a verifiable clinic on atmospheric songwriting, Weather Systems confidently and effortlessly lays out some of the bands best material to date; each song starts simple enough — a finger-plucked acoustic guitar, a gently resonating piano line — minimalistic elements that continually build upon themselves in repetition. But it works to incredible effect, and repetition is exactly what lies at the heart of this album; masterfully executed and brilliantly composed, each occurrence of a given motif brings with it a new layer of sound, a new vocal harmony, a crescendo in the drums — all working to build an immense tension that inevitably explodes in a glorious climax of ethereal beauty and shimmering spirituality. If that sounded sexual it's because it is.
9. Blut Aus Nord – 777: Cosmosophy
Label: Debemur Morti Productions
Listen: "Epitome XVII"
I've previously referred to BAN's 777 trilogy as "monolithic" and "inhuman." I still stand firmly by those words. Cosmosophy is an utterly and incomprehensibly majestic finale; the final piece to what could be the most violent and thought-provoking musical puzzle of 2012. The album is special — not only because of its juxtaposition of industrial black metal with beautiful clean vocals and cosmic melodies — but because of the sense of genuine spiritual transcendence that pervades every note. To quote myself, "…parts of this album sound like fragments of medieval church music perverted and distorted through time and space, reversed, swallowed, and vomited back up by the devil himself, only to be then filtered through the warped and schizophrenic mind of Vindsval, who really, at this point, seems as if he is merely a vessel for some otherworldly musical expression." Otherworldly, indeed. Read my full review here.
8. Alcest – Les Voyages De L'âme
Genre: Shoegaze/Post-Black Metal
Label: Prophecy Records
Listen: "Les Voyages De L'âme"
Admittedly, my first reaction to Alcest's latest was a tepid one; on all fronts, it seemed to lack the spark and the uniqueness that made their first two albums so incredibly amazing. However, as the months rolled along and as I became more familiar with the music, the genius of Les Voyages De L'âme became readily apparent — it is, for all intents and purposes, a perfect meeting point between the nostalgic dreamscape of Souvenirs… and the expansive, melancholic longing of Écailles… Here is a beautifully woven tapestry of strummed clean guitars, angelic vocals, and reverb-saturated tremolo riffs; an exercise in pure emotion held together by a pervasive sense of weightlessness. Even moreso than their previous work, this album is warm, welcoming, uplifting and optimistic; an album that dances continually before you like a glimmering ball of light that's just out of reach; the small promise of hope in a discography dominated by longing and sadness.
7. Dead Can Dance – Anastasia
Genre: Neoclassical/New Age/World Music
Label: PIAS Recordings
Many of you are probably familiar with Dead Can Dance's world-shattering requiem "The Host Of Seraphim" (you know, the song that plays at the end of The Mist), but far too few people are actually familiar with the band and their legendary back catalogue. I feel no shame in labeling the two members who comprise DCD as some of the most brilliant, original, and talented musicians on the planet — combining, as they do, elements from essentially every musical tradition ever known to man into one cohesive and enlightening project that transcends categorization. This is the band's first album in 16 years and it certainly does not disappoint; and while some metalheads will inevitably dismiss the album as too new-wavey or pseudo-spiritual, it's impossible not to sit in awe of the individual vocal performances, the seamless compositions, the waves of ethereal ambiance and ethnic instrumentation — or even, as a potential gateway for those hesitant metalheads — the dark, brooding, and almost apocalyptic nature of it all. If DCD have taught me one thing, it's that not all heavy music comes with distortion; and before it's over, I can guarantee, Anastasia will transport you to every continent on the planet and, if you allow it, to another world entirely.
6. Der Weg Einer Freiheit – Unstille
Genre: Black Metal
Label: Viva Hate Records
This one was love at first listen. Unstille is quite simply one of the most enjoyable, well-written, refreshing, and emotionally poignant albums of the year; an excellent mixture of post-rock sensibilities, black metal grandeur, classically influenced melodies and wandering bass lines — all of which are thrust forth by the ceaseless assault of blast beats and a gorgeous production job that is as clean as it is powerful. I imagine that this is what Drudkh would sound like if Drudkh were still good. However, what makes this album truly remarkable is the sheer complexity of the guitar harmonies; a myriad of tremolo riffs and soaring leads that constantly weave around each other in immaculate melodic flourishes — not unlike the type of thing heard on Dark Tranquillity's legendary opus The Gallery (bold words, I know, but it really is that awesome). I'd never heard of Der Weg Einer Freiheit before 2012, though it's hard to imagine that I'll be anticipating anyone's next release quite as much as theirs.
5. The Great Old Ones – Al Azif
Genre: Atmospheric/Post-Black Metal
Label: Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions
Listen: "My Love For The Stars (Cthulhu Fhtagn)"
In all honesty, these are the types of bands I live for; soaring, triumphant, melodic, emotional; blast beats for days, tremolo riffs around every corner, atmosphere on tap — it's bands like this that give me the much desired feeling of being suspended in time, transported to some inconceivable corner of the universe, caught in the tumult of some great emotional uprising. In a world of entirely too many sub-genres, it's bands like this that have given meaning to the term "post-black metal." Here it doesn't seem like a superfluous label, but rather a statement of intent — The Great Old Ones, in their worship of all things Lovecraft, would like to create for you a world in which his cosmic abominations actually exist; they'd like to keep you in the brief moment before those monsters descend from the sky. And that moment is ostensibly a beautiful one. Al Azif is everything a post-black metal album needs to be; experimental, melodious, transcendental and evocative.
4. Aquilus – Griseus
Genre: Atmospheric Black/Death Metal/Classical
Listen: "The Fawn"
While this album saw an independent, completely digital, and relatively low-key release in December of 2011, it didn't get a proper release until May of this year — in other words, I feel completely justified in adding it to my list. Back in May I proclaimed that it was the first masterpiece of 2012; 7 months later and that title is still appropriate. Monolithic, expansive, unpredictable, Griseus is the product of one man with an unparalleled vision; it is the collision of black metal aesthetic and the colossal, shifting movements of a classical symphony. To quote myself, "imagine a pre-Blackwater Park Opeth dabbling in the dark majesty of black metal. Mikael's clean vocals are replaced with the layered chants of a folk metal band. Saturate that with sweeping symphonic compositions, uninterrupted for minutes at a time; equally lengthy and minimalistic piano sections, and a sense of pantheistic grandeur that is both deeply intimate and powerfully expansive. Elsewhere on the internet people are saying it's like Ennio Morricone meets black metal. Did I sell you yet?" Read the full review here.
3. Wintersun – Time I
Genre: Symphonic/Progressive/Melodic Folk Metal
Label: Nuclear Blast
Listen: "Sons Of Winter And Stars"
The first review I published of Wintersun's Time I was, admittedly, a gushing fan-boy rant devoid of any critical analysis or objective opinion. And while I originally projected it to be my album of the year, (many) repeated listens have finally forced me to acknowledge its slight faults — most notably, it is explicitly one half of a whole album, and most of its tracks (both instrumentals and the lackluster "Land Of Snow And Sorrow") are over-indulgent and really nothing to write home about. That being said, this album can and will survive on the strength of its ineffably brilliant first and last songs. As I've pointed out previously, the album, though melodic folk metal at its very core, is comparable to an epic movie score, one with "Thousands of notes and melodies, an endless wave of synths and strings, choirs and horns, all perpetually shifting in unison; one cohesive sonic soundscape made of a million independently brilliant pieces." And really, this is no exaggeration; Time I is easily the most heavily layered piece of music I have ever heard. Which, of course, makes it all the more breathtaking. Despite its flaws, this is truly a work of inimitable genius, and my anticipation for the second half could not be any higher. Read the full review here.
2. Katatonia – Dead End Kings
Genre: Depressive Rock
Label: Peaceville Records
Listen: "The Racing Heart"
To start with a quote from my previous review: "I have never heard Katatonia as I hear them now; this is the band in penultimate form. Every subtle nuance, every musical intricacy, every aspect of their sound that has ever been is present here; and so the grandeur of it all seems both effortless and natural, a lush and vibrant mesh of sonic opposites…" In other words, this may very well be Katatonia's finest hour; a flawless record from top to bottom; the culmination of everything they have ever been — Dead End Kings is intelligent, atmospheric, crushingly heavy and perfectly paced, both experimental and entirely familiar. All this — and it's also catchy as hell? Sign me up. Read the full review here.
1. Ne Obliviscaris – Portal Of I
What can I say — Ne Obliviscaris, in their debut album, have done something incredible, something monumental, something beyond words; for the first time in what seems like forever (really, since the first time I heard their 2007 demo) I can say that, truly, I have never heard anything quite like this. Equal parts Opeth, Cynic, At The Gates, and Emperor, held together by Tim Charles' soaring violin leads and a deep appreciation for the avant-garde and the experimental, NeO are more of a living, breathing, and perpetually shifting musical palette than a conventional metal band; an amalgam of styles that all culminate in this masterful and uncategorizable work of genuine art. I'll quote myself one last time here: "…sheer and incomprehensible musical vastness; this is an album of infinite texture and constant juxtaposition, a masterfully woven fabric of sound and expression. It's dark, complex, and violent; beautiful, cathartic, atmospheric; deeply melodic, grandiose, emotional beyond measure. Much like its breathtaking cover art, Portal Of I is a maelstrom of abyssal darkness and vibrant color, an intricate deconstruction of both sorrow and joy, and above all, a window to the soul of its musicians." Hands down, no questions asked, above and beyond the best release of the year, in all aspects of musical content, vision, execution, composition, originality and anything else you want to throw in there. Simply a masterpiece.
Ahab – The Giant
Dragged Into Sunlight – Widowmaker
Agruss – Morok
Kontinuum – Earth Blood Magic
Swans – The Seer
Be'lakor– Of Breath And Bone
Evoken – Atra Mors