Every year, we ask our writers and editors from all sections to vote on their favourite albums, by genre, in the hopes of whittling down each year's musical crop to just the cream. Below, find our album picks for metal and hardcore 2012.
Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Metal and Hardcore:
Vanquish in Vengeance
Though they've almost never had the same line-up between releases, Pennsylvania's Incantation are still kicking and screaming. With 20-plus releases in two decades of aggression, Vanquish in Vengeance may be their finest hour yet. Each of the ten gloriously blasphemous tracks reeks of massive road experience, thoughtful musicality, and the band's resolution not necessarily to outdo themselves, but to show fans that they still rule the death metal world. And rule they do, with guitarist/vocalist John McEntee cranking out some of his most memorable chordage since 1998's Diabolical Conquest. "Invoked Infinity" and "Progeny of Tyranny" are quick blastbeat hallmarks, and "Haruspex" is as fresh as the glistening entrails eviscerated by an ancient diviner. "Transcend into Absolute Dissolution" is a standout cut that takes a slow, deep and hard swipe at death/doom, while "Profound Loathing" borrows a few riffs from old My Dying Bride before McEntee erupts in a tasteful solo. With ominous imprecations in the background, "Legion of Dis" is a ten-plus-minute exercise in sustained chords and feedback.
14. The Chariot
Hymnal choruses, galloping romps through western territory, desperate piano ballads and freaking Charlie Chaplin speeches all surprisingly find a home amongst a bevy of noisy, chaotic metallic hardcore. Not only do the Chariot deftly manoeuvre these transitions with Between the Buried and Me-esque dexterity, they open the door for other bands to do so. Departures from the norm were formerly restricted to the realm of genre innovators, not imitators. However, the Chariot shattered that by ignoring genre conventions and devising their own path to a sonic maelstrom. After losing their bassist and deciding to soldier on as a four-piece, the Chariot have burdened themselves with the task of performing these songs live. However, given that previous albums basically served as an appetizer for the band's intense live show, it seems like a challenge the band will take on headfirst: literally.
Despite their increasing disinterest in the more abrasive side of the genre, Florida's Torche still pack a walloping metallic punch. The enthusiastic riff-slinging foursome draws from the rich lineage of psychedelic and progressive heavy music pioneers of the '70s, the positive bombast of '80s hair metal (minus the cheese) and the breakneck pace of punk on their aptly titled third full-length album. It's not just the carefully arranged dual guitar squall the title refers to; highly atypical of modern metal music, the songs of Harmonicraft are drenched in glorious vocal harmonies. Coupled with pummelling drums and the anchor of relentless throbbing bass, the resulting sonic palette is a tonally rich tidal wave of meaty glee crashing from the speakers, but one that never obscures the crystalline individuality of each sound source. It's no small achievement to bend the tools of aggressive music into the service of expressions of invigorating joy and that's exactly what Torche accomplish here. Doom and gloom are but passing emotional colours employed to create tension that enhances the exuberant cathartic release that bursts from these 13 tracks. Torche demonstrate judicious taste in letting each of their idea babies determine its own lifespan; no song feels too short, or too long. Exemplary in its efficiency and fearlessness, Harmonicraft is a metal album for anyone who likes aggressive music with a deceptive undercurrent of complexity and a healthy sheen of ear-pleasing unapologetic musicality.
Scott A. Gray
It's a rare case of a thrash band getting better over time that this latest from long-running German thrashers Kreator is as insanely memorable as it is, and more raging than ever (the insanely titled "Death to the World" lays down double-kick commands and razor-wire riffs like never before... which says a lot for this band). A case can be seriously made for Kreator 2012 crafting what is alarmingly close to a perfect actualization of what extreme music can be, the sonics finally nearing the perfection that we hear in our heads. Kreator has expressed in thrash something we can hold on to, congratulate, give a high five to and fake-punch in the gut because we don't really know how to genuinely thank it for all it's given us.
On their sixth full-length, respected Winnipeg political punkers Propagandhi dive deeper into the obscure and the astute. But it's the complete disregard for their legacy that makes this so appealing: not only is this worlds apart from their pop-punk roots, it's worlds apart from even their last album and from any sub-genre of hardcore, metal, or punk as we know it. Instead, it's somewhere between classic crossover, political thrash, and emotionally charged dark music. It's just music, so honest it hurts (guitarist/vocalist Chris Hannah's thrashing childhood memoir "Devil's Creek"), amazes (tear-inducing dose of reality "Unscripted Moment"), and inspires (bassist Todd Kowalski's amazing "Dark Matters"). And "Rattan Cane," the craziest, best song of the year, hands down: from its Immolation-worshipping sludge metal intro to frantic hardcore middle to ballistic, barbaric breakdown finale, this is what it's all about, melodies underneath giving sly winks at the keen listener, bass line propelling unbelievably, drumming of Jord Samolesky reaching new heights of fill-laden mania. Countless listens in, this album continues to provide me with the energy needed to fight the daily fight and keep a positive outlook facing an always uncertain future. Plus, it rocks.
10. High on Fire
De Vermis Mysteriis
What does it say about High on Fire when an album as accomplished as Snakes for the Divine is considered their first "misstep"? On De Vermis Mysteriis, the Oakland, CA trio don't just re-take that step; they tear down the entire staircase. Trading in Rick Rubin crony Greg Fidelman's plastic production for Converge frontman Kurt Ballou's broken-glass sound, High on Fire sound more lucid, grimy and urgent on their fifth LP. But anyone ready to hand the credit over to Ballou hasn't allowed De Vermis Mysteriis to properly sink in. Past Des Kensel's axe-chopping drum sound and Matt Pike's sanctimonious guitar tone there's a level of pure performance and an expression of musical invention involved that clearly shows High on Fire not just guardedly moving on from their past mistakes but ferociously plodding forward with their past accomplishments. There's not a moment on De Vermis Mysteriis that slows down long enough to allow yourself to safely jump off, as Pike and co. weave together thrash metal pacing, post rock movements and stoner rock exhalations to create a piece of work that jaggedly fits together. With De Vermis Mysteriis, High on Fire represent a new breed of metal; a generation of musicians given the artistic freedom to age (and shred) gracefully.
9. Cattle Decapitation
Monolith of Inhumanity
If there's one record that undoubtedly and disturbingly articulated the notion that we've killed the planet, our future is doomed and there's no hope of rectification, it's Cattle Decapitation's Monolith of Inhumanity. The album marks the San Diego, CA death-grind band's seventh full-length and eagerly awaited follow-up to 2009's The Harvest Floor. While the new material is much more environmentally-focussed, they have also maintained their socially conscious lyrical themes that feature pro-animal/anti-human sentiments. Complementing the record's misanthropic concept is Cattle Decapitation's ever-evolving sound that combines grindcore's fast, frenzied guitar work and machine-gun drumming with death metal's heavy grooves and grotesque vocals. Travis Ryan's vocal performance is diverse throughout the album, with a combination of high-pitched shrieks, deep guttural growls and the closest the band have ever come to clean singing. Adding even more variety are guest vocalists Lenard Leal of Cephalic Carnage and Mike Majewski of Devourment, both of whom are legends in their own right, who contribute ominous intensity to their respective tracks. Unpredictable and progressive song structures, various tempos and rhythms, technical guitar work and moments of groove-laden riff mastery take Monolith of Inhumanity from being a great release to one of the best of the year. Cattle Decapitation's finest album since 2004's Humanure, this is utterly dynamic, with many different elements working together to create a cohesive, disgusting and brilliant release.
Google "haarp" and you'll be sent to the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program site, a scientific endeavour in Alaska that monitors the Earth's ionosphere. Similarly, New Orleans' dirge dealers haarp head up the Heavy Ass Aural Reclamation Project, poised to take back the doom subgenre from the monolithic, two- and three-riff knuckle-draggers that drove it into the ground. Once again, like Eyehategod and Crowbar before them, the fetid bayou air claims four talented band members, reanimates their rotting corpses, and charges them with making the most painfully lethargic, yet supremely purgative music in America. Frontman Shaun Emmons has one vocal color: anguish. His blackened gurgle, like that of Weedeater's Dixie Collins, slices through the sludgy cascades of guitarist Grant Tom like Michonne's katana through zombie necks in The Walking Dead. The lock-step rhythm section of bassist Bret Davis and drummer Keith Sierra at once propels and hinders the funereal pace. Far from the madding crowd, Tom always includes several meaningful solos within the massive 17-minute saga "deadman/rabbit," with the best Skynyrd-styled showcase lingering at the 12-minute mark. Both "bear" and "fox" further the band's High on Fire-at-33rpm vibe, cementing its place among the Crescent City's finest noise purveyors. While their brethren mix blues and feedback, haarp prefer a more direct rock-based sound, which can swing from a death crawl to Black Cobra speed in the same measure. Is Husks a soundtrack to a morbid documentary on oil tanker shipwrecks? Dinosaur carcasses? War-torn city blocks? All of the above.
7. Mares of Thrace
In Greek mythology, the Mares of Thrace (also knows as the Mares of Diomedes) ate men. Capturing them was the eighth labour of Hercules. They were notoriously wild, unbroken even by the giant who owned them, and kept bound to a bronze manger to keep them from escaping. With The Pilgrimage, Canadian noise/doom/sludge duo Mares of Thrace honour their namesake. Not only did the album earn rave reviews and a Polaris prize long list nod, but is by far and away their most devastating offering. The record follows a loose narrative, tracing the journey of a series of mismatched and grotesque characters that loosely parallels Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. These pilgrims are all monsters, to one degree or another, each with their own lurid and broken story woven into the larger whole. "The Goat Thief" begins with a brooding, surreptitious skulk before swelling into a brutal crescendo. "The Three-Legged Courtesan" is an ecstasy of frustration and longing, drawn to the breaking point and thrashing in pain. Throughout the journey, another doomed narrative is interleaved as well: a retelling of the Biblical romance between David and Bathsheba, told from her perspective, as initial attraction flowers into a sick and swollen obsession. Heavy, complex, thick with emotion and dripping sweat and sludge, The Pilgrimage has the emotional impact of having all four limbs tied to wild horses.
Natalie Zina Walschots
Sorrow and Extinction
The achingly slow development of Pallbearer's first full-length record, Sorrow and Extinction, identifies this as quintessential doom. Opening track "Foreigner" begins sparsely, with widely-spaced acoustic guitar chords and individual notes, gradually adding first drums and amplification, then a wall of scuzzy distortion and a singing reverb-drenched guitar lead. Male vocals, sunken amidst the roiling waves of the record's tumultuous momentum, ease their way in just short of the four-minute mark, echoing with the classic haunting whine of early Trouble and the more timely plaintive croon of 40 Watt Sun, and breaking into doleful harmonies now and then. The relationship between melody and riff, vocal and instrumentation, is an ideal aural metaphor for the emotions titles like "Devoid of Redemption" aim to evoke. But what makes this album so near doomy perfection is Pallbearer coherently melding the best impulses of the genre into one cathartically churning mass. Sorrow and Extinction alludes to the psychedelic meanderings of stoner doom without the self-indulgence. It grooves without losing its weight and gloom. It's melancholy and melodic, even with the atmospheric swell of synth textures, but without the fastidiousness or ornamentation of the gothic. It's mournfully funereal without becoming ploddingly self-destructive. And it does all this in five tracks, none under a delightfully agonizing eight minutes. Pallbearer don't just know doom; they exude it.
No Absolutes in Human Suffering
(Black Market Activities)
Salt Lake City, UT's Gaza set a high standard, not only for themselves but also for aggressive music. The four-piece band continually surpass expectations, evolving their sound into darker, more corrosive territory. They are one of the most difficult acts to categorize, as their progressive sound mixes in different elements of grind, hardcore, sludge and doom into something that is fresh and completely their own. With their third full-length, Gaza have further refined their musical approach, taking it to the next level while maintaining the dense intensity from 2009's He Is Never Coming Back, and incorporating the erratic dissonance that's especially prevalent on 2006's I Don't Care Where I Go When I Die. Misery and anguish seethe throughout No Absolutes in Human Suffering, as Mike Mason's unpredictable guitar work and heavy riffs merge with drummer Casey Hansen's fast, crushing beats and bassist Anthony Lucero's suffocating low-end grooves. An unrelentingly dark, caustic atmosphere is layered over the record and Jon Parkin's despair-soaked, roaring vocals command full attention, as he gutturally screams nihilistic lyrics. The record's deeply honest, thought-provoking themes particularly resonate with a disenfranchised generation and add to the cataclysmic impact of the album, with dark commentary and reflections that challenge religion, corporations, politics and an apathetic society. As Gaza continue to progress and evolve their complex sound and further develop their songwriting skills, they also hone their musicianship while their aggression multiples, making No Absolutes in Human Suffering their best offering to date.
Honor Found in Decay
While in 27 years they have transitioned from a punk outfit to an introspective "post-metal" band whose tastes and previous collaboration choices have stretched their music from an expression of visceral anger to more of a slow, unrelenting burn, Honor Found in Decay is a continuation of a sound and perhaps a philosophy found within the excellent Given to the Rising (2007). Here, the pain cuts a bit deeper, but so does the journey to the other side; the glimmer of hope beyond the torment is more palatable. Using the same foundation, the ambience is more powerful, crisp and clear, but this album symbolized something different out of many of the releases in 2012: a perfect example of how music can be created to lay bare human vulnerability, and how with age, comes resilience. "At the Well" emotes a weariness but also a sense of endurance and strength from the band, enduring painful experiences that have weathered skin and shredded their vocals raw. Simple but carefully applied nuances are the key here, and the synths of Noah Landis are of great importance in shaping the texture. The band has crafted this song and others, such as "We All Rage in Gold" employs the trademark Neurosis sound but there is exploration between the riffage, an underlying meaning that might take a few listens to comprehend.
3. Dragged Into Sunlight
Widowmaker is one of those rare albums that absolutely must be swallowed whole. While each of the three massive tracks (simply referred to as "Part I," "Part II" and "Part III") certainly has weight and depth, when taken together they shift from facade to edifice, fitting together to form something larger. There is more to Widowmaker than can possibly be conveyed by a discussion of the tones and techniques. As they did in their debut full-length Hatred for Mankind, Dragged Into Sunlight employ haunting audio clips and samples, though far more sparingly. "Part I" takes the form of a 14-minute, atmospheric built, a gradual increase on tension and anxiety towards a crescendo so awful that the violence of what comes after seems like a sweet mercy. The tone is soot-black and disdainful, the overall emotional timbre masterfully complex and yet soaked in disgust. The drumming conveys both the throbbing misery of the galley slave or the seething heat of a blast furnace by turns. But none of those individual elements can properly capture or convey the meanness, the profound revulsion at its core. Dragged Into Sunlight would feed you molten lead if they could, but since they have guitars and drums instead of a foundry, these sounds will have to do.
Natalie Zina Walschots
2. Pig Destroyer
Book Burner, this year's stellar release from Pig Destroyer, is the comeback record fans have been hoping for. It has been five years since the grindcore masters released a full-length, having been faced with their first line-up change in over a decade, and going through three different drummers in the course of a few years, setting their writing process back multiple times. For Book Burner, their fifth album, Pig Destroyer have returned to their roots, after experimenting with their sound on their previous record, 2007's Phantom Limb, which saw the band venture into longer, catchier song territory. With 19 songs in 32 minutes, Pig Destroyer have brought back their short, blistering grind, as Book Burner features visceral, whiplash-fast tracks that encompass machine-like drumming and blazing guitar work that is both precise and unpredictable. Now featuring Misery Index drummer Adam Jarvis, the band have utilized his inhuman drumming skills, which meld perfectly with songwriting guru Scott Hull's classic, yet innovative, guitar work. Fiery aggression permeates the record, which is filled with traditional grindcore's customary pithy, vicious spats, and also features moments of visceral punk rock influence, as well as intense, Brutal Truth-meets-Slayer riffage. Throughout, vocalist J.R. Hayes spits his hatred-filled bile, featuring interpersonal lyrics that are at once poetic and disturbing. Although including elements of their past, Pig Destroyer display a band moving forward with Book Burner, offering the perfect balance of tradition and progression.
All We Love We Leave Behind
All We Love We Leave Behind's artwork features 23 phases of the moon, not including the invisible new moon and dark moon phases. This is appropriate considering 2012 is the 23rd year of Converge — a band whom, much like the phases of the moon, looks (or rather sounds) a little different at each interval. And with All We Love We Leave Behind, Converge manage to show a different side of the beast they began crafting in 1990. From the almost cock rock leanings of "Sadness Comes Home," to the sludgy "Coral Blue" — complete with a hook so strong it verges on being an anthem — the band managed to expand their already diverse soundscape. Too often evolution is praised when a band quite literally writes off their past, which is fortunately not the case here; even the curve balls are noticeably Converge, while all other songs are even more sonically familiar. "Tender Abuse" and "Sparrow's Fall" deliver a predictable (read: chaotic, but still cohesive and well-written) Converge sound, while "Trespasses" and "Predatory Glow" push Converge to even heavier depths by sidestepping chaos in favour of a more direct bludgeoning. If Converge should ever choose to "Leave Behind" the music they masterfully craft with "Love," at least the confining walls of heavy music will have shifted, if not been obliterated completely.