2012 will not see end of the world, or extreme music for that matter. However, if this was the end of Metal and Hardcore as we know it, the year 2012 would make quite a grand finale. So many great records came out this year that I decided to stretch this article to a more obnoxious comprehensive list of 25. If it weren’t for the amazing power of Spotify, I don’t know how I would have kept up. As with my list last year, this list is unordered, as agonizing over competing slots for #9 and #10 would miss the point of the exercise. The point being: out of all the music I heard this year, the records listed below represent what I enjoyed the most. I hope some readers get some benefit from seeing this list and check out some records they may have missed, or that others will have some to name that I may have overlooked myself.
With all of the praise I’d heard for Koloss, I approached it with a degree of caution. Even though I certainly revere classics like Nothing and Chaosphere, Meshuggah had never quite found my musical G-spot to carry me through an entire album’s worth of material. With Koloss however, that all changed. I think it's the most accessible record the band has ever released, and perhaps the finest expression of everything that gives Meshuggah their visionary reputation: low, syncopated tin-can riffs, insane drumming, and Jens Kidman’s madman vocals. On Koloss, the band has found the right-sized combination of technical skill and compositional finesse. In fact, if someone wanted to get into them for the first time, I'd tell them to start with this record.
Highlight Track: The Demons Name is Surveillance
Black Breath’s first record, Heavy Breathing, left me a little flat. I'm not sure why, but for some reason the Entombed-core sound took awhile to grow on me. So when I first listened to Feast of the Damned, I knew I’d finally been pushed over the edge and was hooked. Aside from having a wonderfully clever title in Sentenced to Life, Black Breath has assembled the ultimate concoction of fuzz-pedal chug with the power of a pounding rhythm section and Neil’s tailor-made-for-metal guttural vocals. Sentenced to Life has a great mix of mid-range headbangers mixed with many faster numbers, with plenty of riffs and solos along the way.
Highlight Track: Sentenced to Life
There are simply too many bands out there, which leaves some of the best to slip under one’s musical radar. And on the day you finally check them out, you say, “Wow, I’m an idiot.” This was definitely the case with Anaal Nathrakh’s simply incredible, Vanitas, a masterpiece of violent black-grind infused death metal. The band catches some flak apparently for last year’s Passion, and I can sort of see why, in comparison with this record. I like just about everything about this band, from Dave Hunt’s horrifying shrieks, to the ground-shaking riffs and blast-beating drums. Counterbalancing Dave's shrieks of terror are his clean vocals, which somehow manage to be epic without having the cringe-inducing stupidity of many power-metal acts, as these clean sections almost add to the horror of it all. If I’d chosen to number this list, it’d be difficult not to name this record of the year.
Highlight Track: Forging Towards the Sunset
And sometimes there are bands that simply become one of your all-time favorites upon first listen, a band that manages to take so many things you love about heavy music and fashion them into a singular statement: Vision of Disorder. Like I mentioned in my review of this album, I owe a ton to Sergeant D for writing about this band, and I know that with a comeback comes the risk of going from “underrated” to “overrated” almost overnight. However, if a band can blend Hardcore, extreme-Metal, and Grunge to make Loveless, Set to Fail, and Skullz Out, then I think Vision of Disorder has laid at least one curse to rest.
Highlight track: Loveless
An endless pit of hatred and negativity, Death is the Only Mortal is a horrifying beast of an album. I feel like The Acacia Strain wanted to give its listeners night terrors and seizures, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this actually happened. It's a huge improvement over 2010’s Wormwood and the band has taken their sound to its logical and streamlined conclusion. Songs like Doomblade, Brain Death, and Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow prove how high The Acacia Strain stands above the passing fray of death-core acts that followed them- like bringing a chainsaw to a knife-fight.
Highlight track: Brain Death
It's inevitable that most fans will set this album against Jane Doe or Axe to Fall, but I think this misses the point of enjoying All We Love… for the achievement it is. Converge did exactly what they needed to do- continue to be Converge and do it well. There is a sense of longing on Aimless Arrow that makes it a contemplative listen, that is until Trespasses and Sadness Comes Home blow the doors off. Like a machine that never breaks down, Converge is like the little engine that could- if that engine had no breaks and was on fire.
Highlight Track: Trespasses
The smartest grindcore band on the planet, and the best grindcore album of 2012. While I don’t quite share Axl Rosenburg’s gushing ecstasy at everything Pig Destroyer related, I loved this record. Especially strong is the mid section, through the riff and blast-beat wastelands of Machiavellian, White Lady, Iron Drunk, Dirty Knife, and so on and so on. Also! Don’t forget to check out the bonus disk, Blind, Deaf, and Bleeding, full of covers including The Misfits’ Wolf’s Blood and Negative Approach’s Can’t Tell No One. Pig Destroyer- a great band with great taste.
Highlight Track: Dirty Knife
And the best un-ironic use of cookie monster vocals goes to…! If you don’t believe me, listen to Invert the Idols, the opening track of the outrageously brutal 2012 release from Dying Fetus. For any fan of classic Death Metal, Reign Supreme is the perfect modern take on the old standard. Tough, lean, and packed with loads of explosive riffing, Reign Supreme plays like a greatest hits album: Invert the Idols, Subjected to a Beating, Second Skin, and Dissidence all rip and tear the listener to pieces- with no filler or waste to get in the way. In short: "C is for Cookie…uuuuuuurrrrggghhh!!!"
Highlight Track- Invert the Idols
The spine-splitting leviathan returns. When I saw them this summer, Cannibal Corpse opened with Demented Aggression, the perfect opener to their set and an equally fitting start to their latest record, Torture. I gave the album some high marks when it came out, and upon revisiting it, could only find more to like then when I first listened to it- particularly Sarcophagic Frenzy. Cannibal Corpse has had a long, sometimes uneven career, but Torture shows the band’s formula brought to success in all its blood-soaked and explosive glory.
Highlight Track- Demented Aggression
I don’t like to begrudge a band for trying something new, but I do when that “something new” falls flat on its face, hence- The Unspoken King. Not that it was absolutely awful, but something about it just felt anti-climactic and unsatisfying. So with their new self-titled record, I’m happy to say that the old Cryptopsy has come roaring back- including the return of Jon Levasseur, who had originally joined the band in the Blasphemy Made Flesh-era and left in 2005. Matt McGachy may not be Lord Worm, but he seems to be carrying the legacy on with the required guttural style. Always the awe-inspiring technical wonder, Flo Mounier shines brightly on Cryptopsy, as does new bassist Olivier Pinard with his randomly appearing bass solos (a requirement in classic death-metal style). Pulverizing.
Highlight Track: Two-Pound Torch
But then again, some band's take the "doing something new" and do great things. Darker Days Ahead surprised me when I first heard it. Not because it was good, I already expected that, but because it didn’t sound like Tragedy. What I expected was a really good Hardcore-Punk album. What I got sounds much more like a really good Incantation-style Death Metal album. Not that Tragedy haven't dabbled in this area before, 2002's Vengeance has the traces of the grim, dissonant incarnation of the band as well. The muddy riffs and throaty growls play like the soundtrack to the fall of humanity, if not its funeral. The lyrics are equally cheerful: "To the earth their power fades, like a dying prayer,
almost silent Whispering"- pessimism distilled into the very waves of sound.
Highlight Track: Close at Hand
Oh, and since we’re on that topic, here is the new Incantation record. I held off finalizing my list until late November when Vanquish in Vengeance came out. From the first track, Invoked Infinity, I knew I’d be a fool not to put this album on this list. Incantation’s style of low-end dirges and pinch-harmonics has been incredibly influential in all facets of death metal, and on Vanquish, the leaders have returned after a very long absence to re-claim their own mortal throne of menacing, evil Death Metal.
Highlight Track: Invoked Infinity
The best record Norma Jean never made. Gaza is another band that had managed to go unnoticed by me for years, even after seeing their logo everywhere at shows. Now that I finally checked them out, I fell in love with their latest album. It takes a lot of what made metalcore so popular and grinds it down into its raw and angry foundations. Gaza's sound is covered with distortion, from the guitars to the vocals, and is belted out with so much ferocity that you'd think an entire city was about to be detonated. Everything that's wrong about the world, told by a band that has their sound just right.
Highlight Track: The Truth Weighs Nothing
An angry, bitter, unpretentious slab of hardcore. With a lyric as blunt as “Everyday is going fine, going on without a hit, bit soon enough you’ll find, the life’s a fucking bitch”- I think you get the idea. if you're into bands like Incendiary and Trapped Under Ice (or if you used to get into fights on the Bridge 9 message board) Pendulum Swings is definitely required listening. I would also hope that whomever is responsible for the bookings at the Palladium will have the good sense to get these guys on the bill for next year’s New England Metal and Hardcore Fest.
Highlight Track: Just Fine
The Metal world had been buzzing about Periphery for a long time when I finally saw them at Summer Slaughter Fest. As any good live performance should, the show basically sold me to their music. Periphery has an ambitious sound (so many guitar tunings…), one that combines death metal, post-hardcore, and yes that wonderful word, “djent”. Of this cadre of bands (Tesseract, The Contortionist, ect), Periphery is by far the most accessible of the bunch. On first listen, they sound like a cross-section of Between the Buried and Me and Protest the Hero. In fact, Spencer Sotelo’s voice reminds me very much of Rody Walker’s, and probably explains the ease at which I was able to enjoy Periphery II.
Highlight Track: Scarlet
If Black Metal has a future, let Enslaved lead the way. Though I have a soft-spot for older releases like Frost and Mardraum, one cannot deny the innovative dynamism of the band’s recent work, including their latest- RIITIIR. Enslaved have crafted a sound at once grim and enlightening, brutal yet thoughtful, wrapped around Grutle and Ivar’s combination of harsh and clean vocals. Most importantly, they do this without driving the progressive train off of the tracks. Enslaved continues to retain their harsh Black Metal core while allowing it to explore and travel places many of their corpse-painted brethren would never even dream of going.
Highlight Track: Materal
On the other hand, if Hard Rock has a future, this is the band I’d choose to carry the Torche (Hah! See what I did there?). If you feel confused by their trippy album cover, think of their sound like this: members of Mastodon, Black Cobra, and The Foo Fighters decided to form a really upbeat and energetic hard rock band. Most contemporary hard rock consists of cookie-cutter post-post-post-grunge bands emulating the same lifeless formula that was already overcooked ten years ago. Hooky and upbeat songs like Kicking and Reverse Inverted feel like the first breath of living air after a long coma of stale mediocrity.
Highlight Track: Reverse Inverted
The future you say? I’ve said many times that I prefer Between the Buried and Me’s earlier, more accessible work, but on this album- they’ve managed to put their progressive aspirations in just the right place for a captivating and rewarding listen. From the glorious Astral Body to the razor-wired thrash and crunch of Telos– BTBAM once again shows there's something for everyone. And I mean everyone, just take a random sampling from different sections of Silent Flight Parliament and try to convince a new listener that its all from the same band. Hell, even I wonder sometimes.
Highlight Track: Telos
2012 was a difficult year for Lamb of God, with the almost comical court proceedings held against Randy Blythe and the months he had to spend locked up in the Czech Republic. Needless to say, it’s good to have Randy back home. Even better, it was great to see him on stage once again this November (my 4th time seeing Lamb of God). Included in the near perfect set-list were three of the best songs off Resolution: Desolation (“All that for nothing, what a fucking waste of time!”- awesome), Ghost Walking, and The Undertow. Aside from these excellent tracks, the album contains a wealth of material showing Lamb of God refining and perfecting their style, solidifying their place as the leading American heavy metal band.
Highlight track: Desolation
Soulfly’s Omen was one of the first records to which I dedicated a full review. Looking back at the review, I’d like to think I’ve improved as a reviewer. Looking back at that record, I’m pretty sure this year’s Enslaved blows Omen clear out of the water. If I wasn’t more thorough, I’d say World Scum would be enough on its own to put this record on the list. With songs like this or the equally vicious Revengeance and Gladiator, I’d have to say Max has done his fans right with this one. Hail Caesar indeed.
Highlight Track: World Scum
Though not a full album, Down IV Part 1 (or “The Purple EP”) contains 2 essential tracks that must not be ignored: Witchtripper and Misfortune Teller. The Curse is also a haunting and bluesy dirge that stands up to almost anything coming out in the blues/sludge metal these days. Open Coffins even grew on me eventually, though I didn't care for it much in my review of the EP. There are 2 other songs which don’t really match the rest, but that doesn’t prevent this EP from being essential 2012 listening.
Highlight Track: Witchtripper
Some records take time to develop into favorites, requiring several listens and maybe some time away. And that’s very much how I feel about Silencing Machine. At first, it struck me as a straightforward Black Metal release with some other stuff thrown in: okay, nothing to complain about. But as I let the album sit for awhile and went back to it, I could only find more things to like about it. Take your time with it, and let the scorched-earth atmosphere of I Wait in Hell, And I Control You, and the rest of the album slowly reel you in.
Highlight Track: Borrowed Hope and Broken Dreams
This was something I did not expect, a My Dying Bride record on my year end list. Don’t get me wrong, I love their music, but I just wasn't expecting something this good. A Map of All Our Failures features MDB at their best, with eerie and desolate portraits that bleed through thick layers of doom and death. The band’s strongest albums are ones where Aaron Stainthorpe uses his death growls, and A Map… is no exception. Their poetic and dreary funeral procession may be too theatrical for some, but the rich atmosphere of darkness and foreboding can be hard to resist. For me, any band that effectively employs heavy riffs again and again will be a rousing success.
Highlight Track: Kneel Till Doomsday
I arrived to the Deftones fan-club later than most people out there. And by late I mean, well…this year. But after making my way Around the Fur on a White Pony with Diamond Eyes, I was ready to approach Koi No Yokan with plenty of “new fan” excitement. After several listens, I can only add to the many cheers in the Metal blogosphere already awarded to this fantastic artistic statement. The Deftones have accomplished what so many veteran bands fail to do, take their characteristic sound and take it to exciting new places.
Highlight Track: Swerve City
Katatonia’s Dead End Kings is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of artistic maturity. But don’t let the word “maturity” scare you away. Katatonia's greatness has always emanated from the hauntingly expressive vocals of lead-man Jonas Renske and the atmosphere created by the heavy guitars, synthesizers, pianos, not to mention the rhythm section. Dead End Kings has elements of power and beauty that shine through on every song, including my personal favorite Buildings. A reflection for the year 2012.
Highlight Track: Buildings
Obviously there are a few other albums I could mention. In fact, if I had the time to explore more of the seemingly endless amount of Thrash, Death, Black Metal, Hardcore, and Prog albums that came out in 2012, I’m sure this list could reach into triple digits. But as I don’t have the time for that now, I should name a few bands that almost made the list. Black Metal bands like Lunar Aurora, Pact, and Bastard Sapling ensured that with the genre’s increasing popularity, the vitality of the style remains undiminished. The same could be said for Metallic-hardcore heroes Everytime I Die and lesser known bands like Ghostlimb. And with that I will stop. Whatever the future of Extreme Music will bring, the possibilities are wide open in all genres. And if 2012 is any preview of what to come, the future in 2013 looks bright indeed- well, provided we’re all still here.*
*Hint: We will be