Metal/Hardcore: Year in Review 2006

Metal/Hardcore: Year in Review 2006
Photo: Ryan Russell
1. Converge
No Heroes (Epitaph)
"We just set out to make the best record we could make, with the abilities we had and the time we were allotted.” This disarmingly modest statement comes from Kurt Ballou, guitarist and back-up vocalist for metallic hardcore standard-bearers Converge. "We wanted to create a cohesive and aggressive piece of music that captured the raw, live energy of the band. We wanted to bring that feeling of a DIY basement show, or small hall show, where you have a tight, intimate, chaotic environment. We wanted to capture that visual excitement sonically on the record.”

No Heroes, Converge’s sixth full-length, takes a few steps back and to the left of 2004’s You Fail Me. Leaders in metal, hardcore and punk, the band have set new standards for the underground music community with each of their releases since unleashing Petitioning the Empty Sky in 1997. Since then, Converge have continued to evolve and grow, abandoning some of their more sonically violent roots only to return to them full-force with No Heroes.

"This record is definitely more metallic than You Fail Me and in a sense, it’s going back to old Converge. I wasn’t trying to conjure up old Converge, but I was trying to conjure up the feeling of the shows we went to when we were younger,” explains Ballou. "Not the commercial hardcore shows that happen these days but basement and hall shows — raw, sweaty and very communal.” His interest in seeing that vision translate into No Heroes’ finalised form rested heavily on his shoulders, as this record saw Ballou, an accomplished producer outside Converge, take on the role of sole engineer and mixer for the first time with his own band.

"At the end of the process, I swore it off and didn’t want to ever do it again,” Ballou says. "At the same time, I don’t know if anyone else would be able to have the same attention to detail that I had with the record. There were a few songs that we recorded a bunch of times. ‘Sacrifice’ took three attempts of totally different approaches and days and drums to get it right. I just wanted to get what I heard in my head across.”

Ballou’s vision, along with that of vocalist Jacob Bannon, bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller, was to recreate the kind of energetic sound coming out of P.A.s in Legion Halls across North America — to reflect the ideals and ethics of punk rock unsullied by the interests of business and commercialism. "The cooption of underground music means it’s moving away from the ethics of punk towards the aesthetic of punk,” Ballou explains. "When I first started going to shows, I felt like on any given day I could be watching some kid’s band and the next week he could be watching mine. We were all on a level playing field; we were all peers. That’s the idea behind No Heroes. There weren’t stars; there were just a bunch of human beings with their own skills. Someone might have been a better guitar player than me but they were still a human being and they were my peer. We’re championing a return to that in hardcore and punk rock.” Sam Sutherland

2. Mastodon
Blood Mountain (Reprise/Warner)
With Brann Dailor’s thundering drum rolls, Mastodon’s Blood Mountain kicks you in the teeth right off the bat. Blood Mountain is a monolith of mayhem that is straight-up perfection from the opening fills to the very last note. The bridge of "Crystal Skull,” the wonderful obscurity of "Bladecatcher,” the twisted opening riff of "Circle of Cysquatch” and the Josh Homme supplied clean vocals of "Colony of Birchmen” are just some of the incredible experiences provided. Add to this the fact that "Capillarian Crest” is hands down the best metal song of 2006 and you’ve got an instant classic. Bill Whish

3. Katatonia
The Great Cold Distance (Peaceville/PHD)
While every Katatonia record has its "quirks,” which grow over time to become endearing distinctions; The Great Cold Distance’s most striking attribute is its utter perfection. Katatonia’s seventh full-length offered far-ranging stylistic improvements, increased technicality and the bleakest statement the group has penned to date. Not too shabby for a group who delivered their most upbeat release with 2003’s Viva Emptiness. Dwarfing even their primary influences (Paradise Lost, Tool), The Great Cold Distance is the product of months of painstaking studio work and the culmination of a staggering career’s worth of dark, emotive metal. Max Deneau

4. OM
Conference of the Birds (Holy Mountain)
Formerly of stoner metal explorers Sleep, Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius decided to chart a parallel course for their power duo Om: mantric drone intended for journeys to the centre of the mind. Their Billy Anderson-produced sophomore effort, Conference of the Birds, has only two cuts, both 15 minutes long, and repeated listens will have fans conjuring the future while Cisneros’s finger whorls scrape against his Rickenbacker bass-string ridges. His modulated chants, punctuated by Hakius’s metronomic beats, open a portal for true musical introspection, as Conference is the year’s longest, strangest trip without the pesky side effects of hard drugs. Chris Ayers

5. Decapitated
Organic Hallucinosis (Earache)
With their latest effort, Poland’s leading technical death outfit upped the ante and sent the competition packing. Organic Hallucinosis is a seven-track masterpiece with each and every ode to brutality winding through labyrinths of mach five riffing, panoptic rhythms, bone shaking blast beats and neuroses-inspiring vocals. This kind of clinical precision characteristically eludes any sort of hallucination. Four full-lengths under their bullet belts and still only in their early 20s, metal fans can look forward to an illustrious future from these soon to be legendary thrashers. Jill Mikkelson

6. KEN Mode
Reprisal (Escape Artist)
Colossal beats and thundering riffing have never sounded this sexy. Winnipeg powerhouse KEN Mode rolls through 11 mammoth tracks of dexterous mayhem with the iron clad will of a rock’n’roll tank ploughing down villages as homage to the balls out spirit from whence it came. Each song traverses fields of tumultuous grooves and mountains of quirky hooks, all underwritten by sweltering bass manoeuvring and an affinity for destruction. Considering the complexity with which Reprisal proceeds, it’s no wonder it took four years to materialise. These guys are the new overlords of elephantine aural punishment. Jill Mikkelson

7. Voivod
Katorz (The End)
While many laud Katorz simply because it features posthumous tracks from guitarist Piggy, the record deserves respect for so much more. Original singer Snake finally settles into reinstatement, bassist Jasonic (Newsted) finds his own groove and the riffs prove Piggy realised the band took a left turn at the aptly titled The Outer Limits. Katorz steps back into "classic” Voivod territory, seamlessly bridging the gap between Nothingface’s mature techno metal and Angel Rat’s subtle orchestration. Voivod step back onto solid ground with strength thanks to energetic, driven songs such as "Mr. Clean” and "Dognation.” Keith Carman

8. Agalloch
Ashes Against the Grain (The End)
Though it begins with a piercing tone that cuts like a siren’s call through the fog, Ashes Against the Grain is more slowly unravelling wonder than instantly gratifying rush. Still drawing upon the doom-y and blackened intonation of dark metal, Agalloch’s third full-length pushes the bounds even further, flowing between seamless textures and atmospheres until the lines dividing the evolutionary development of rock, folk, electronica and metal lose sense and significance. Sometimes Ashes Against the Grain works below the surface, winning you over without your conscious consent, at others, it claims your full attention until you realise you’re one of the converted. Laura Wiebe Taylor

9. Genghis Tron
Dead Mountain Mouth (Crucial Blast)
Perhaps it was the brush with death in their nasty tour van crash that inspired them but Dead Mountain Mouth exceeds all of the heavy expectations last year’s brief but brilliant Cloak of Love EP set for this genre-defying debut album. A schizophrenic blast of hair-raising death/thrash and spastic electronic freak-outs, Poughkeepsie’s finest proved their intense metal experiments could survive and conquer the full-length test. Pulverising grind one second, green ambience the next, it’s as unpredictable as a rabid animal — and about as ferocious as one when it needs to be. Give in to the wrath of Tron. Cam Lindsay

10. Napalm Death
Smear Campaign (Century Media)
Forget the doldrums the mighty UK grind pioneers sunk to a decade ago — these guys are back with a vengeance. Smear Campaign continued the onslaught, with more experimentation than the last couple discs, reprising the interesting elements of their more left-field albums like Fear, Emptiness, Despair, but mainly just kicking grindcore ass like last year’s The Code Is Red… Long Live the Code. Raging, blasting and with a political purpose, Smear Campaign was one of 2006’s most inspiring and refreshing releases. Greg Pratt

Swimming Up Mainstream

Though metal and hardcore’s presence in mainstream music have been conspicuously expanding over the past several years, the level of success many aggressive acts enjoyed on the charts in 2006 spoke to exactly how much its significance has grown. While genre pioneers and stalwarts Slayer debuted at number five on Billboard, many younger and lesser-known acts also made their mark with relatively massive sales. Lamb of God’s latest effort debuted at number eight with a staggering 62,000 copies sold, while Mastodon, Trivium, Hatebreed, Lacuna Coil and Bleeding Through all debuted in the top 50. Even comparatively esoteric bands like Converge, Between the Buried and Me and Strapping Young Lad cracked the top 200.

The charts aren’t the only place metal is rearing its ugly head. Mastodon recently appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, while High on Fire was showcased on Jesse James’s Monster Garage, both reaching millions of viewers each broadcast. Can this momentum be sustained? Long-time listeners may point to the fleeting nature of mainstream attention; based on historical precedent, this popularity could be interpreted as yet another passing phase. The mid- to late ’80s saw a wave of hair "metal” bands churning out a succession of hits, while a decade later, nu-metal commanded a dominant presence on the airwaves. There were a few anomalous successes in between but aggressive music’s aggrandisement seems to be cyclical. Cookie cutter fad mongers create backlash, returning metal to the underground, allowing novel versions cemented in previous manifestations to evolve, free of big label demands and large fan base expectations. How much longer the current level of mainstream notoriety will persist or grow remains to be seen, but one thing is certain — aggressive music’s strong and dedicated core will continue to perpetually rejuvenate the genre. The spotlight may come and go but all things brutal will progress with or without a spotlight. Jill Mikkelson