Listen to our Best of 2011: Metal playlist on Rdio by clicking here.
1. KEN Mode
3. Fuck the Facts
4. Wolves In The Throne Room
5. Today is the Day
7. Hammers of Misfortune
10. Brutal Truth
11. Graf Orlock
12. Black Tusk
13. Helms Alee
15. The Atlas Moth
1. KEN Mode Venerable (Profound Lore)
"It has been exactly what we wanted it to be, as a statement for the band. For the time and place that it was done, it was the perfect version of KEN Mode." Jesse Matthewson doesn't pull his punches ― 2011 wasn't the year he hoped that it would be, but Venerable is one of the things he still believes in. When Exclaim! interviewed him in March, KEN Mode were on the verge of their longest tour in years, a leap into the unknown on the strength of the best record of their career. Then, their bassist quit. Again. "We've had different bassists on almost every tour this year," Matthewson says. "I would have to train a new person before every tour, and we'd have to get used to the quirks of a new bassist every time. I'm not happy that that's how we had to do it, but we got it done." KEN Mode clocked over five months across North American and Europe following the album's release, and Matthewson was optimistic that they could power through a gruelling DIY schedule on Venerable's strength. They couldn't.
"I have lost a fair amount of optimism," he says. "Touring North America non-stop will do that to you. It's taken its toll on my life in general. I'm not in a very good place right now." It's a telling sentiment from the creator of an album listed here as this year's best. KEN Mode are a far cry from a Warped Tour-ready metalcore act, and critical acclaim doesn't fill bars or basements. Like too many great heavy acts before them, the band's well-earned recognition may be slow to catch on. Matthewson might not be optimistic, but he's not giving up. "Not a lot of bands are willing to take that chance. We took it. We learned from it. There is no killing this band." He pauses. "You can kill the bassist, but you can't kill the band."
2. Mastodon The Hunter (Reprise)
Much has been made of the fifth album from these Atlanta extreme proggers, and most of it has focused around its shocking simplicity. But now that a bit of time has passed and we've been able to process the mind-numbing awesomeness of simple ragers like "Curl of the Burl," we realize that The Hunter still has tons of the band's labyrinthine, drum-fill-led journeys into a sonic land of confusion: "Blasteroid" is one big drum fill, for example. But, yes, the album as a whole is far more streamlined, simple, less conceptual and more focused on rocking out. To be frank, after the overreaching Crack the Skye, it was just what the listener needed to reconnect with this juggernaut of modern metal. Songs like "Dry Bone Valley" are basically what Ozzy should be doing today to carry on his '80s legacy, while "Thickening" has the more atmospheric and progressive elements that the band are known for… before the tambourine and 4/4 beats kick in. "The Sparrow" ends the album off perfectly, exploring the band's mellow tendencies, a respite after so much rocking out. With enough underground metal cred to keep them firmly rooted in popularity down in the trenches, and enough Queens of the Stone Age-esque cool factor to launch them to new levels of popularity, The Hunter is a vital album in this increasingly important band's canon. Plus, it's fun to listen to, which counts for a lot sometimes.
3. Fuck the Facts Die Miserable (Relapse)
Die Miserable is the ninth studio album (amid a plethora of live records, EPs and splits), from Ottawa, ON grindcore titans Fuck The Facts, and their third on Relapse. Fuck The Facts approach the process of constructing an album as a series of experiments. Their composition process is carried out in a laboratory; they are a band of mad scientists as much as musicians. On Die Miserable, they deploy dissonance with an expert touch. Riffs can come lightning fast, shattered and dazzling, or sink into a deep, lugubrious groove. The bass lines are sometimes cavernous, almost vacant ― sometimes they are as thick and hot as blood, sometimes smooth and buttery to calm the storm. The vocals and drumming are almost in counterpoint: both are brutal, capable of incredible sonic violence and often fracture into cacophony. Both also have the capacity to reorder a chaotic track into a new shape. In the genre of grindcore, it's easy to succumb to an aesthetic of sameness and let the sheer brutality of the sound subsume the sophistication, but Fuck The Facts reject this completely, creating work that's as artful, intelligent and as well executed as possible. They don't bury their sound with speed ― the music is always vicious ― and aren't afraid to slow down and pull back. Some passages on Die Miserable are noise experiments, others are exercises in eerie atmospheric effects. Fuck The Facts pull back the curtain to reveal the underlying machinery. Never content with labels, as well as their skill levels and personal limitations (i.e., exhaustion), Fuck The Facts consistently push themselves further with every single effort. This refusal to compromise has resulted in an album as beautiful as it is brutal. Die Miserable twists and rends, grasps and torques, tormenting sound into shape with sheer muscular force. (Relapse, www.relapse.com)
Natalie Zina Walschots
4. Wolves In The Throne Room Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord)
Black metal might be the only genre of music where artists are vilified if they become too popular. In 2011, there were bands that got slammed for trying to make a name for themselves and bands that you desperately wanted to get more attention, as their music was, while an acquired taste, perfectly executed. Celestial Lineage falls into the latter not because it isn't for the faint at heart and not because it is "brootal," but because it is masterful, intense, beautiful and rich with wonder. After six or seven listens, you still find lush passages you never heard or felt before, amazed at the story that ― while difficult to articulate ― runs from "Thuja Magus Imperium" to "Prayer of Transformation." Sure the brothers Weaver live on a self-sufficient farm somewhere in the remote part of Washington state, and there are rumours that Celestial Lineage might be their last, but the band's fifth album has definitely made a lasting impression in the American black metal scene and they deserve to have a non-ironic moment in the spotlight.
5. Today is the Day Pain is a Warning (Black Market Activities)
What have you been doing since 1993? Steve Austin and Today is the Day have been making consistently mind-blowing metal since about that time. Unlike many metal bands that start off strong, only to lose their youthful angst and its accompanying inspired ferocity, Today is the Day's ninth album, Pain is a Warning, is as angry, original and skull-crushingly heavy as anything they've ever released. Despite being in a completely different place personally (Austin now has a wife and two young children) and professionally (Today is the Day's line-up has constantly changed over the years, with Austin the only steady member), Pain is a Warning proves that Austin is one of heavy music's most enduringly innovative songwriters. For a guy who enjoys a quiet family life in rural Maine, Austin can't seem to help making music that sounds like the soundtrack to a psychotic episode. Today is the Day have always been a band with a sound all their own; Austin's shattering scream and schizophrenic riffs are unmatched anywhere on the metal scene. At the same time, Today is the Day are a band that don't need any sort of sub-genre qualifiers to capture their sound. Pain is a Warning continues this tradition by keeping things simple with stunning riffs, ballistic screeching and general insanity. The label "extreme metal" can mean a lot of things, but making an album that is listenable, with hints of Southern twang and harmonic composition, and still sounding unmistakably "extreme" is no simple task. Call it what you want, but the best description of Pain is a Warning? Fucking heavy.
6. Liturgy Aesthethica (Thrill Jockey)
They don't look the part, and at times, don't sound the part; they're worshipped by hipsters and signed to the respected indie (read: non-metal) label Thrill Jockey. Perhaps most damning of all, they hail from Brooklyn. No matter how many strikes they had against them, Liturgy were one of the most talked about black metal bands of 2011. Shunning the corpse paint and sinister side of the genre (hell, their album cover is, gulp, white and they played a gig at MOMA of all places), Liturgy helped redefine black metal's boundaries with their second album, Aesthethica. "Transcendental black metal" is how they describe the music, based on an essay by leader Hunter Hunt-Hendrix that professes a new movement is on the way for the genre. The black metal community screamed bullshit, but Hunt-Hendrix didn't need to defend his theories ― Aesthethica did all the talking. By playing the role of the outsider, Liturgy have allowed themselves the freedom to flirt with math rock, jazz, minimalism and believe it or not, a cappella, producing the kind of cerebral album black metallers never thought could exist. But don't confuse their ambition for delusion: Liturgy is still black metal to the core. Just not the kind your parents listened to when they were your age.
7. Hammers of Misfortune 17th Street (Metal Blade)
The fifth studio album by San Francisco, CA-based Hammers of Misfortune (and first for Metal Blade, which has also re-released their back catalogue), 17th Street borrows and samples widely and effectively. Hammers of Misfortune draw from the driving momentum of hard rock, the aching, atmospheric melancholia of doom and the plaintive acoustic instrumentation of folk metal with equal skill and dexterity. The album is constructed of a series of successful grafts, experiments in musical hybridity, which becomes more than the sum of its parts. These innovative combinations are also executed with deftness and restraint ― the emotion is intense but never overwrought, the guitar work is astonishingly intricate but never overdone. 17th Street is an album that succeeds because the members of Hammers of Misfortune hold artistic success and aesthetic vision above ego. Joe Hutton's vocals are rich, even sumptuous in tone, capable of mellow sweetness and defiant power, forming the perfect counterpoint to Sigrid Sheie's dreamy, haunting vocal performance. Her effervescent tone adds a quality of eerie playfulness. The keyboards are light and nimble, an integral part of the sound. The molasses-rich bass lines, organic drumming and flawless guitars are equally striking. All members of the band submit extraordinary performances, and each performance is treated with equal respect in the mix. Finally, the album fits the current socio-cultural zeitgeist perfectly. There is a deep current of discontent and frustration with the establishment and bureaucracy that runs through 17th Street. The record is very much about the glory and decay of the urban landscape, the way cities both serve and fail their inhabitants. When examined as a reaction to the current feelings of cultural and political betrayal, this theme is beautifully executed and completely genuine. Uncompromising and intelligent, cathartic and moving, 17th Street is as lovely as it is merciless.
Natalie Zina Walschots
8. Opeth Heritage (Roadrunner)
The cover of Heritage was the first sign that Opeth's latest album might challenge a metal fan's more straightforward tastes. Unveiled months before the actual songs, the verging-on-ridiculous artwork pictures a "Devil's Orchard," with the band members' faces hanging like forbidden fruit from the tree in the foreground. The next clue was the Swedes' refusal to play any Heritage tracks at summer fest performances, with vocalist/guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt warning (in jest?) that hearing new songs might turn people off the band's fall tours. When the album itself could be heard, anyone paying attention shouldn't have been that surprised at its lack of growls or the complex restraint colouring its intensity. Opeth have always stood out for the progressive and jazzy currents running through their brand of death metal, somehow achieving a wide underground appeal despite the difficulty of their music. With Heritage, they've stripped away the "death" and let the progressive rock take over. The album is busy, heavy more for the multiple layers, constant movement and stark contrasts than for any kind of brutal aggression, which simply isn't there. Thoroughly weaving together classical guitar, piano, and Akerfeldt's velvety voice, guitar noodling and vintage organs, Latin rhythms and even flute, the album refuses to hold still or settle into any steady pattern. But these elements are simply amplifications of the characteristics that have already set Opeth apart. Even with a persistent refusal to break into full-on metal extremes, the riffs, melodies, harmonies and beats remain distinctively Opeth. Heritage is the work of a band whose well-proven formula isn't repetition but extension, retaining their musical identity while testing its bounds.
9. Imbroglio Sleep Deprivation (The Path Less Traveled)
The cover art for Imbroglio's Sleep Deprivation features an image of the remains of a house that had actually been burned to the ground due to insomnia; the homeowner found out his wife of 30 years was having an affair, and after being awake for a prolonged period of time, fell asleep while smoking a cigarette. This sets the tone for the album and directly correlates with its overall dark, tragic sound. Brought forth in a whirlwind of hardcore, grind and sludge, Sleep Deprivation evokes feelings of helplessness and self-destruction, accompanied by anxiety, rage and terror. Presenting one of the angriest releases of the year, Imbroglio also manage to incorporate contrasting melody within their Gaza-esque heaviness, such as on the volatile, yet suffocating "Cement Shoes." With Pig Destroyer-style visceral unpredictability and Neurosis-influenced progressive noise, Sleep Deprivation is both raw and sharp, as well as extremely scattered, yet focused. Abrasive vocals and aggressive buzzing guitar work ("Scum on Bones") interweave seamlessly with a groove-heavy bass rumble ("Dead Rain") and precise, forceful drumming ("Black Sheep"). Atmospheric instrumental track "Cellar Door" veers off in a different direction, with clean guitars, before returning back to explosive chaos, such as on the latter portion of "December." Nihilistic and moody, Sleep Deprivation is a solid and truly passionate release from a very promising band.
10. Brutal Truth End Time (Relapse)
Grind institution Brutal Truth reformed and put out Evolution Through Revolution in 2009; now these nogoodniks have followed up Evolution with this progression via regression, an album that finds the band getting rawer and more primitive, to the point of absurdity. It's all caveman drums, raw production and screamed vocals, like the most skilled of technical death metal bands playing with no triggers at the local scumbag basement house venue, even though they used to tour with big-shot death metal bands and have only gotten better with time. Well, that's exactly what this is, actually, as songs whip past going faster, faster, faster, occasionally slowing down to a sludge crawl but then racing back up again, faster, faster, faster. It's a long way from their death/grind roots but it's a perfect continuation of what this band were doing during their Sounds of the Animal Kingdom era, combining a punk attitude, insane speed, energetic weirdo riffing, and a truly over-the-top drum performance into a sound that, really, no one else even comes close to replicating. Songs like "Small Talk" rage simple and to the point, ".58 Caliber" is 55 seconds of noise, and "Warm Embrace of Poverty" brings the snail's pace beat of "Time" back to life for a second, then it's back to the grinding. With End Time, the band has topped Evolution, in part due to more memorable songs and that brilliantly loose production sound, but mainly due to the all-enveloping vibe of pure energy they've harnessed.
11. Graf Orlock Doombox (Vitriol)
Envied by all, replicated by none, L.A.'s Graf Orlock have the coolest history in the biz. After guitarist Jason Schmidt and drummer Alan Hunter were kicked out of the prestigious UCLA film school for alleged copyright infringement, they vowed to use not only movie samples to preface their songs, Killwhitneydead-style, but also to crib movie scripts as the sole lyrics of said tunes. When not contributing to the cultish metal well-being of indie bands Ghostlimb and Dangers, Schmidt also runs the Vitriol Records label and designs the eye-popping, interactive album packaging that sheaths every Gorlock release. Doombox is the apex of the band's creative achievement: the ten-inch clear vinyl is packaged with a fold-out, full-sized cardboard facsimile of a '80s boombox, plus a CD compiling the new material, plus their out-of-print, three-album Destination Time trilogy. That's a total of 42 searing cuts of prime cinematic grind. Sampling pissed-off films like Harsh Times and King of New York, Gorlock spin cathartic tales of getting back at the man, with lead singer Karl Bournze approaching the throat-shredding grandeur of Kiss It Goodbye's Tim Singer. Beginning with a quote from the Nas/DMX vehicle Belly, "New Years Eve 1999" features dual throats and Napalm Death-esque punk, while "Watts 1993; A Week Before Graduation" is graced by lumbering, Coalesce-proven grooves. Tupac's Bishop from 1992's Juice kicks off "Wrecking Crew," which joins succinct Brutal Truth bursts with the sneering, who-cares attitude of early Botch. Doombox solidifies Graf Orlock's prominent place both in the pantheon of meaningful metal and in countless, ridiculously overpriced online auctions to come. (Vitriol, www.vitriolrecords.com)
12. Black Tusk Set the Dial (Relapse)
Savannah, Georgia's Black Tusk didn't reinvent the wheel, or themselves, on their fourth full-length. But they did open up their sound, slow it down, and produce some of the best songs of their career. Set the Dial is pure Southern sludge, blasting out riffs that would be just as at home on an Eyehategod or Kylesa record. But Black Tusk are far from plagiarists ― they just know the sound they like, and have spent four years perfecting it into a deep, dark, bass-heavy rumble that shines on songs like "Bring Me Darkness" and "Resistor." The latter in particular stands out as one of the album's best, its extensive coda featuring one of the most memorable (and heaviest) riffs on the whole record. Unlike past Black Tusk outings, there's a little more vintage Sabbath here, and a feeling that pure destruction wasn't the only goal in mind. Instead, songs are a little slower, a little smarter, and a little more memorable, punishing and repeating riffs that don't just sound good at the time, but will last after the record's done playing. And for good measure, there's still the out-and-out brutality of "Carved in Stone" and "This Time is Divine," so those questing for speed with the gigantic stoner riffs won't be disappointed.
13. Helms Alee Weatherhead (Hydra Head)
Helms Alee's sophomore effort Weatherhead could have gone in two very different directions. They could easily have dropped the ball trying to recapture the sleepy, post-rock sound from their 2008 debut, Night Terror. There was also a chance they'd make an album even more pensive, transient and just plain excellent. From oneric melodies to spacey prog stylings to Spanish-guitar virtuosity to sludgy, rolling riffs, Weatherhead satisfies all kinds of musical ambitions without sacrificing the band's vision of a cohesive-sounding album. Coming out of Seattle, it's no surprise Helms Alee's brand of heavy music is closer to the kind of post-punk/alt-metal produced by early Soundgarden. The band aren't afraid to take risks on Weatherhead, moving in all kinds of different directions on the album's 14 tracks. There's a certain head-in-the-clouds quality to the aptly-named Weatherhead, a dreamy sense of trying to make something with the sounds of alternative and heavy music, while also incorporating more harmony, and all-around beauty. This Hegelian effort at synthesizing some very opposing musical impulses pays off with near perfection on Weatherhead. Part of the album's ― and Helms Alee's ― charm is the shared vocal duties between Ben Verellen's echoing, dissonant yells, and Dana James' hollow, cherubic singing. Both style of vocals complement each song's overall arch of order and harmony that gives way to noise and chaos. While Weatherhead is a great album as a whole, the first half is a straight-up game changer; each of these seven songs has an anthemic quality that could easily bring on new fans in droves. Helms Alee are a great example of what more bands in the heavy music scene should be doing: namely, taking the time to create their own sound and bring something besides more breakdowns to the table.
14. Prurient Bermuda Drain (Hydra Head)
Dominick Ferrow proclaims to make noise, not music. He's demonstrated this countless times in the last decade or so, making ears bleed and nerves quake under the moniker of Prurient. But with Bermuda Drain, his first for Hydra Head, Ferrow has undergone a rather significant transformation, one that converted the noise to music, and exposed him to a whole new audience. A number of factors could have played into this rebirth of sorts, like taking a two-year sabbatical to relearn his gear or signing to a more prominent label like Hydra Head. But it's hard not to think moonlighting as a member of Cold Cave hasn't had some profound effect on his own music. Bermuda Drain doesn't quite dive head first into Cold Cave's tortured darkwave (though "A Meal Can Be Made" comes close), but the synthesizers sound like he has relinquished some of the abuse he inflicts with Prurient. In fact, Ferrow has buried melodies all throughout the album, like in the John Carpenter-esque horror synths of "There Are Still Secrets" and the ominous droning of "Let's Make A Slave." But Ferrow knew better than to abandon everything he's built all these years. I mean, with a lyric like, "If I could, I'd take a tree branch and ram it inside you / but it's already been done," you know the same old Prurient is still alive in there.
15. The Atlas Moth An Ache for the Distance (Profound Lore)
The Chicago band's second album is, among other things, why more folks should pay attention to extreme music: the daringness to take risks, to meld musical genres that on face value, wouldn't make any sense, but on An Ache for the Distance, they make it work. While this album isn't perfect, it is worth a listen because it is unique, beautiful, ugly and messy all at once. There are outlets that would categorize Atlas Moth as American black metal, and at face value, perhaps, but they are more than that. Experimental at best, meandering at their worst, the dual vocals of Stavros Giannopoulos and Dave Kush make their music interesting; the layers and textures, especially on " Gemini" and "Horse Thieves" sound lush and full. In an earlier review for Exclaim! it was mentioned that at times there was too much texture, but it is the creativity that led the quintet to be where they are. What is also, and probably just as, if not more interesting is that melding of American black metal, jazz and blues music, which in thinking about the rich culture of music in Chicago, is a great representative of the city, of being (relatively) young and soaking it all in and applying it as a muse. There is an honesty in their music that is refreshing.
16. Flourishing The Sum of All Fossils (The Path Less Traveled)
There's grind and then there's Flourishing. The NYC trio take the genre to an unforeseen, boundary-pushing level with their progressive death metal approach. The Sum of All Fossils, the full-length follow-up to their outstanding debut EP, A Momentary Sense of the Immediate World, not only lives up to expectations but surpasses them. With a variety of song structures, the record is a crushing, cacophonous masterpiece. Opener "A Thimble's Worth" sets the mood with raw, layered Godflesh-style industrial tones that shift to fast, tech-death guitars and signature grindcore volatility. "In Vivid Monochrome" is a mesmerizing track that features unorthodox tribal-esque drumming, while "Summary" is a gnarly, aggressive death-grind onslaught from start to finish. Standout track "By Which We're Cemented" showcases a classic Napalm Death-influenced roar of intense clamour that turns to erratic, piercing guitars and savage, bellowing vocals from Garett Bussanick (also of NYC's Wetnurse). The aptly-titled "As if I Bathed in Excellence" is a dissonant track that adds some melody to the release without compromising its harsh brutality, making for a dark, emotional ambience. One of the most captivating albums of the year, The Sum of All Fossils is simply a genre-defying record that either confuses or amazes most listeners. But for some, it does both, which is exactly what Flourishing set out to accomplish.
17. Retox Ugly Animals (Ipecac)
When Justin Pearson makes a record, you should probably be paying attention. The shrill-voiced brain-trust behind genre-melding bands like Swing Kids, Head Wound City, and the Locust, Retox is the latest project from the San Diego native, a devolution into bare-bones, frenetic hardcore. Paired once again with fellow Locust Gabe Serbian, the band are a deliberate shift away from the layered, atmospheric sound that pair had previously been honing, shifting the band back towards their earlier works and committing a seriously brutal album to analog tape in the process. Where the Locust were all about lightning-fast technicality, using keyboards and walls of effects to build and release tension, Ugly Animals is about flat-out destruction, made dirtier by the classic recording techniques used. If you were a fan of early Daughters or any of the bands spun off from Swing Kids' defining sound, this is an album you'll want to check out. It's not easy to listen to, but Pearson's bands rarely are. Ugly Animals is like some horrifying scene of human destruction that begs you to look closer, look longer. But clocking in at just over 12 minutes means that you'll need to be eyeing your record player like a hawk to keep the music coming.
18. Tombs Path of Totality (Relapse)
Despite his rugged exterior and his seemingly permanent emotionally vacant demeanour, with Path of Totality, it was evident that the founder Mike Hill not only wears his heart on his sleeve, but also his inner turmoil. The third album from the Brooklyn trio is their best, filled with their signature sound consisting of a unique blend of blackened metal, '80s noise rock and sheer emotion that only comes with the weariness that only age can bring, but was met this year with an infectious vigour. One could chalk it up to stellar production and incredible drummer Andrew Hernandez, and Hill's first (and successful) attempt on clean singing on "Silent World." The title track, with its incredible, heavy riffs, makes you realize that you don't need frills to get your point across. Outside of the dark lyrics, and there is a heavy simplicity that hunkers down and urges the listener to temporarily enjoy the dark elements in life, but slowly gives you a way out.