Swatty's Top 15 Albums of 2012

Tue Jan 29 2013

Twenty twelve has been a very busy year for me, musically.  According to the database of my complete music collection, my 2012 query has revealed that I have purchased 90 new releases this year.  This, as far as I know, has given me a greater amount of material to digest and filter through than any year prior.  As such, I can only needlessly worry that I will be omitting something that will undoubtedly re-blow my mind at some later date.  But as I recently discussed with a very close friend, these lists are constantly in a state of flux, and are at best a paragon of ephemerality.  It is truly rare that we encounter those albums that have been impervious to the passing of time and place them permanently on the mantle of our reverence.  This became a constant theme for me as I assembled this list, and while I am comfortable with the inclusions listed below, I can’t help but assume their order will most assuredly change.  All that being said, here are my top 15 albums of 2012.

15. Fear Falls Burning, Disorder Of Roots

Drone has always held a special place for me.  I suppose I have SunnO))) to thank for opening my eyes to the wondrous worlds of minimalist soundscapes and oppressive atmosphere, and on some level, Fear Falls Burning also channel this methodology.  Previous albums (with the exception of 2008’s Frenzy Of The Absolute) have seen mastermind Dirk Serries contain all of his compositions with a Les Paul guitar, a small handful of effects pedals and an Echoplex.  By altering the tone and timbre of his simple melodies and then layering them over and over to create infinite waves of melodious destruction, he achieved distinction amongst his peers, showing that drone does not necessarily have to bludgeon you with repetitive ideas, but rather can caress you and be the reassuring whisper in the dark.  On Disorder Of Roots he has once again enlisted the talents of several percussionists (Tim Bertilsson from Switchblade makes another appearance for this go-round).  But rather than just applying a simple unwavering beat to his waves of guitar ether, he uses a more jazzy approach, creating actual songs (structure-wise, that is) that utilize at times fairly intense counterpoint and melodic development.  Because of this I find myself relating to his music on a much more personal level than before and am still discovering new nuances with each successive listen.  This record is a magnum opus for the drone movement as a whole, and even if you haven’t been able to get into that genre before, I believe this album will be a perfect gateway into it.

14. If These Trees Could Talk, Red Forest

One aspect of 2012 I found very surprising was a true resurgence of post-rock/metal/whatever bands.  Granted, although my hatred of “post” being a descriptor for anything is well known (lazy and just inaccurate; what comes after post?), the music has always spoken to me on a personal level.  I consider myself lucky that I have been alive to experience the true greats of the genre such as Isis’ Oceanic or Mogwai’s Rock Action, and while it is doubtful that any work in said genre will overthrow those albums from the pantheon, it fills me with hope to see young bands such as If These Trees Could Talk take on the role of the next generation to elevate the genre even more.  Sadly, I had not heard of them prior to this year, and they have released a few albums prior to Red Forest, but on said album, they sound just completely natural and the many melodies presented over layers and layers of guitars are both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, a hallmark of the genre.  There are no vocals but that’s just as well as it would simply distract from the organic quality of the music itself.  This is definitely a true highlight in waiting-for-something-to-happen-metal.

13. The Gathering, Disclosure

Anneke Van Giersbergen.  Hearing or reading that name alone makes me weak in the knees, and I have carried on a not-so-secret obsession with her for almost 20 years now.  She is my Helen of Troy, beautiful beyond reason, possessing a voice that could cause heaven itself to melt and fall from the sky.  Naturally, when it was announced that she was leaving the band, I was heartbroken and ready to write off anything The Gathering would do post-her.  Their first statement after the split was 2009’s The West Pole and featured the vocal musings of Silje Wergeland, formerly of Octavia Sperati which was one of those godawful operatic doom metal bands (Les Miserables-metal if you will).  Surprisingly, there were some very good tracks on it, but I just wasn’t sold on Silje’s vocals.  This is what makes Disclosure so unexpected for me; her vocals simply soar from beginning to end, and the music is as personal and as heart-wrenching as anything The Gathering ever did with Anneke.  Tracks like “Gemini I”, “Heroes For Ghosts” and especially the positively sublime “I Can See Four Miles” cement The Gathering as a member of the elite in terms of songcraft.  Not only that, but Wergeland has officially made the transition from a vanilla, one-dimensional singer into an artist of great depth and character.  While she will never replace my Anneke, she has at the very least earned the position of worthy successor.  This album has been a mainstay in my rotation and still elicits goosebumps and wonder.

12. Les Discrets, Ariettes Oubliées…

Alcest and Les Discrets are essentially the left and right arms of shoegazey black metal.  While Alcest are content to channel rainbows and sunshine along with a hefty dose of nostalgic juvenilia, Les Discrets are something much darker.  On this, their sophomore album, they have transcended the precedent laid down on 2010’s Septembre Et Ses Dernières Pensées.  This time around, they have simplified the songwriting a bit and have added a heavier focus on Audrey Hadorn’s vocals, which constantly shadow the voice of mastermind Fursy Teyssier.  It is this dichotomous quality that conjures echoes of Slowdive and, to a degree, My Bloody Valentine.  As such, it all works beautifully and sounds so fragile and tragic, but at the same time, at peace.  I really enjoyed the confidence of this album and the accompanying artwork is also quite amazing.  Fursy has been quoted as saying that to really appreciate the full experience, you need to digest the visual medium as well as the audial, so if you’re gonna listen to this, be sure to get the entire package.

11. Wodensthrone, Curse

My, my, my, what is it with all the heritage metal bands popping up lately?  It would seem that ever since Drudkh and Negură Bunget have flirted with the mainstream (well as mainstream as you can get in this style of music), lots of bands are really playing heavily into the whole nationalistic-heritage thing.  Hell, on its previous outing, Loss, Wodensthrone even enlisted the help of Negură Bunget to produce the album and give that misty mossy forest sheen to the effort.  Fortunately for us, Wodensthrone have not only shed the pretentiousness that pervaded the last album, but also a few members as well as their tie-in to a certain Romanian band.  As a result, the music is much more streamlined and aggressive.  Another thing I have noticed is that their music exemplifies the Primordial-esque aesthetic of tragedy and might.  The Greg Chandler (of the mighty Esoteric) production is truly massive and not surprisingly has an absolutely scathing tone to both the guitars and drums.  He even has a stellar guest vocal appearance on closing track “The Name of The Wind”. Provided they maintain this newfound focus on aggression and soaring melody, I truly look forward to future Wodensthrone endeavors.

10. Blut Aus Nord, 777: Cosmosophy

Well it happened: Blut Aus Nord has made an album of love songs.  That concept should seem even more disturbing than the band’s ultimate opus of sickness, MoRT.  But once again, BaN has shown the world that it can succeed and excel at any genre of music.  In fact, at this point, I wouldn’t doubt ringleader Vindsval’s ability to eclipse the best R&B and dubstep artists out there, should he decide to go in that direction.  Who knows, maybe the next BaN album will be a collection of country Christmas songs.  But again, even if it is, I am sure it will be the best collection of country Christmas songs ever crafted.  You see, it is this preternatural talent he possesses to create music of any variety that is quite esoteric, but also mundane just enough for the everyman to find something to relate to.  Granted, I did like the previous two entries in the 777 saga much more (especially The Desanctification), but there is still something so attractive about Cosmosophy.  From the albeit awkward flourishes of spoken word to the heavy use of clean vocals that wouldn’t be out of place on an 80s goth album, this opus is probably the most grounded thing BaN has ever crafted.  As always, the guitar melodies glide above in the stratosphere, creating unexpected and heavenly harmony.  I don’t think I will ever understand how Vindsval can create something as sick and otherworldly as The Work Which Transforms God or MoRT, rife with the smell of burning sulfur and the gnashing of teeth, and then create an unabashedly melodic masterpiece like Cosmosophy.  In classical terms, it would be like Beethoven penning an atonal Schoenberg piece after writing his Moonlight Sonata.  It should not occur in nature.

9. Switchblade, Switchblade [2012]

So with 2012 comes the sixth self-titled Switchblade effort, and this time, it sees the minimalist doomy Swedish trio reduced to a duo.  It’s no secret that I was a total fanboy of their 2009 masterpiece which in this writer’s ears, may actually be the heaviest fucking thing ever recorded (seriously, that record could obliterate worlds).  So given my fascination and adoration for them, I was a bit skeptical of how well the reduced group would translate practically.  As it turns out, my worrying was for nothing.  While it is true there is no bassist, Johan Folkesson has now split his guitar signal into a massive bass amp in addition to the guitar amp.  The result is an earth-shuddering apocalyptic tone that is better than I ever could have expected.  What is more surprising than that is the inclusion of several guest vocalists, including the return of one Lord Seth, which Katatonia diehards will recognize as being none other than vocalist Jonas Renkse with his old Dance Of December Souls moniker.  And truth be told, his performance on this album outshines the other guests.  I just hope he didn’t blow his voice out again recording this.  Also showing up on this album is ex-Opeth keyboardist Per Wilberg, whose Hammond tones give a very retro and fuzzy feel to the album.  It certainly isn’t quite as destructive as their previous effort, but is a masterpiece of heavy minimalist doom that will no doubt appeal to a wider group of people than any prior opus they have penned.

8. Daylight Dies, A Frail Becoming

Probably the best melodic American death metal band out there today, Daylight Dies returns after a four year absence to give us a depressive masterpiece of sublime tones and colors.  Honestly, I was a bit shocked at how unabashedly musical this album was after 2008’s return to halcyon days Lost To The Living.  Not that the band has ever been shy with melodies; rather, its music has always relied on unexpected key modulations all over the place with plenty of dissonant intervals in the interplaying guitar lines to supplement the minor tones.  This time around, the songwriting is a bit more restrained, and allows for the ideas to fully breathe and mature.  Highlights like “Dreaming Of Breathing” and “Hold On To Nothing” show supreme confidence in the band’s songwriting as well as a very profound sense of artistic honesty.  I must admit, I still get all teary during the aforementioned songs and have come to the conclusion that this is the best thing they have ever written.  Every fan of depressive doomy death metal needs to listen to this masterpiece posthaste.

7. Shining, Redefining Darkness

It appears the Shining machine has no intent on slowing down its pace of releasing a new album just about every single year.  This time around sees the band dropping the Roman numeral prefix from the title (though if they did keep doing it, we would be on VIII), as well as a refinement of its sound that started with 2009’s VI – Klagopsalmer.  In fact, Redefining Darkness is a very appropriately titled record as the entire package this time around sees Shining strip off any pretentiousness or expectation.  This time it is a full-on frontal assault; the guitars sound as nasty and malevolent as ever, and Niklas Kvarforth’s vocals are absolutely menacing.  Also, for the first time since 2002’s III – Angst, Självdestruktivetetens Emissarie, there is a blatant ripoff of the main theme of a movie soundtrack.  With III it was John Carpenter’s Halloween on “Svart Industriell Olycka”; on Redefining Darkness it is 28 Days Later with second track, “The Ghastly Silence”.  However, in both cases it absolutely works and is just crushing.  Also unexpected this time around is the prevalence of English vocals, although again it makes sense if Shining really is making a concerted attempt at mass appeal.  It seems strange to these ears to hear a very distinct commercialism in the sound now though, since prior to this Shining had been anything but.  It all makes sense though, since Kvarforth has recently been quoted as saying he desires to be bigger than even Dimmu Borgir (a meaningless statement outside of Scandinavia I reckon).  Nevertheless, if you like some incredible solo guitar work while you’re cutting yourself, then look no further than Shining.

6. Paradise Lost, Tragic Idol

Honestly, is there any Paradise Lost fan out there who thought they would make a return to the sound of their early days after hearing new wave pop ejaculations like 1999’s Host and 2001’s Believe In Nothing?  Not that I am complaining here.  You see, I have been following this band with hardcore rabid fanboyism since 1991’s genre defining Gothic.  Every release up to 1995’s Draconian Times (my personal favorite album of all time for a number of years) was an exercise in depressive doom perfection.  No other band on the planet sounded like PL nor did any band sound anywhere near as depressed and self-loathing.  In fact, it was after that aforementioned magnum opus that most magazines in Europe hailed PL as the new Metallica, so it was with some disappointment that they shed their metal roots for electronic wankery.  Nevertheless, starting with 2002’s Symbol Of Life PL has been steadily making progress to return to the sound that put it on the map in the first place.  There was so much hype for this album before its release that I honestly began to worry that my expectations would ruin the actual album experience for me.  All this talk of returning to Draconian Times glory was hollow propaganda to me, but when I finally listened to Tragic Idol for the first time, I could actually hear references to that sound.  Sure, the music was dark as ever, but it contains a sort of swinging rockiness to it not so unlike Draconian cuts like “Hallowed Ground” or “Once Solemn”.  In fact, first single “Honesty In Death” has a main guitar line that haunts the entire song like a specter from Icon.  This album could have been album of the year for me, but I just can’t get too much into Nick Holmes’ lyrics any more.  In the 90s, his lyrics were profoundly meaningful.  Symbolism and supreme ambiguity were pervasive through all his literary output.  But starting with 2005’s self-titled album, they just seem lazy and uninspired.  I suppose being married and in your 40s will remove some of that acerbic self-loathing bite, but still, I can’t help but wonder why he just doesn’t spend more time honing those ideas.  That being said, everything else on this album is flawless and it should appeal to not only PL fans, but all metal fans.  This is definitely the group’s best album since the 90s.

5. Gojira, L’Enfant Sauvage

The mighty French juggernauts have returned to crush our skulls with lots of melody and groooooooooove.  After 2008’s experimental The Way Of All Flesh, this latest work sees the Frenchmen returning to a more straightforward sound and a refinement of the ideas presented on 2005’s From Mars To Sirius.  One of the most striking idiosyncrasies of the Gojira sound is the vocals.  Joe Duplantier has a style not unlike Darkane’s Jens Broman, which is a singing scream.  The vocals certainly are über-aggressive but also tonal enough to either follow the cantus firmus or add an interesting countermelody to it.  Additionally, all the crazy guitar harmonics (i.e. pinch and pick harmonics) are very key to the Gojira style, and on this outing, Duplantier and Christian Andreu have taken them to the next level in terms of their placement and role in song development.  As a result, songs like “The Gift Of Guilt” sound very mature and have an emotional heft that was previously only hinted at in prior releases.  Additionally, drummer Mario Duplantier has given us a career-defining moment on this album.  The man’s beats are simply flawless and precise, almost like a robot at times, but also adding the perfect amount of polyrhythmic flourishes throughout that would have even the most diehard Meshuggah fan smiling in approval.  I am absolutely in love with this album, and if any non-metal person were to ask me for a real metal band to check out, then Gojira would be the perfect gateway.  This album is undoubtedly a proud achievement for the whole of metal.

4. Neurosis, Honor Found In Decay

I think 2012 finds the members of Neurosis at their most content.  More so than any album prior, there seems to be a massive amount of restraint on this latest collection of songs.  I read a review several months back (wish I could remember the author so I could cite him here) that suggested before, Neurosis were the harbingers of the apocalypse, but now they are sun-beaten men that have come inside from working in the fields all day, and with grimy cracked hands, pick up their instruments and play.  This is all too accurate a metaphor, as songs like “My Heart For Redemption” and “Bleed The Pigs” are very paced, laid-back, and methodical in their execution.  By no means does this take away from the massive gravity that always inhabits a Neurosis album; for sure it is still there, deified and constant, but now that gravity is intertwined with a sense of sweet, reverential musing and reflection.  All the usual trademarks are still there, however, and the album sounds great, backed once again by an awesome Steve Albini production.  While it is true we will never have another Through Silver In Blood or Times of Grace, it is still comforting to know that this group of ragged men are still tapped into that same primordial spirit, channeling whatever energy it gives.

3. Sigh, In Somniphobia

Sigh returns to us in 2012 once again as the ultra-experimental and genre-hopping form, similar to the band from 1997’s Hail Horror Hail and the 2001 masterpiece Imaginary Sonicscape.  This was about the best thing I could have ever expected from these guys.  It’s not that I didn’t like their recent foray into neo-Romantic classicism with 2007’s Hangman’s Hymn or 2010’s Scenes From Hell; in fact, both of those albums still sound good today.  It’s just that they are always at their best when Mirai Kawashima gets his weird on.  In many ways, In Somniphobia is the spiritual successor to Imaginary Sonicscape (they also share the same acronym, a fact that’s surely not lost on the band) and sees the band transitioning with ease between epic power metal, old school thrash, sleazy blues and even carnival-esque nightmare jazz.  I’ve always said that Sigh was the Mr. Bungle of metal, and this album only continues to support that theory.  Like Mike Patton, on this album, Mirai has essentially written an homage to the whole of music.  Of all the albums on my list this year, I have probably spent more time with this one than any other.  There is just so much going on, and I honestly can’t think of a better combination of getting blitzkrieged on some illicit substance and listening to this.  Seriously, go listen to the dirty lounge tones of “Amnesia” and thank me later.

2. Zatokrev, The Bat, The Wheel and A Long Road To Nowhere

Though they may not have taken the prize for album of the year, they certainly have done so for most awkwardly titled album of the year.  I’m sure it is just a result of something getting lost in translation, but there is nothing confusing about the music.  I stated earlier that Switchblade’s 2009 album may be the heaviest thing ever recorded.  Well, there are moments on Zatokrev’s latest that definitely give that album a run for its money just in sheer weight.  Honestly, listening to this album is a workout from beginning to end.  The guitar tone just absolutely crushes and on songs like “Rodeo With Snakes” (my personal favorite), it sneers and rapes everything in its path.  I am embarrassed to say that I have not really checked out Zatokrev before this release.  The band was unfairly lumped in with all the second-tier post-metal bands of the mid-aughties in my mind, so shame on me for that (my consequent exploration into their back catalogue has also revealed some real gems).  Zatokrev in 2012 bears very little resemblance to anything post-metal and occupies more of a doom sphere than anything else, but it is so much more than that.  There are moments of real tenderness on the album, and then there are moments of soul-raping ferocity.  This is by far THE heaviest album of the year, and I can only hope that somehow this relatively unknown Czech band leapfrogs into the mainstream.  Every metalhead needs to hear this album to be reminded what “heavy” really sounds like.

1. Katatonia, Dead End Kings

No one is more shocked than I am that I picked this to by my album of the year.  After coming up with the final form of my list, I looked and rechecked things over and over again to be absolutely certain this was right.  I’m sure it will undoubtedly earn me the ire of some of my peers and diehard Katatonics, but I don’t care.  To be honest, when I first heard this album, I was completely underwhelmed.  I didn’t feel the depression or self-loathing that I used to hear in every Katatonia release.  It just seemed…..grey to me.  However, subsequent listens revealed some very clever melodies, and closer inspection of the lyrics show Jonas in his finest form since 2001’s Last Fair Deal Gone Down.  But it wasn’t until I saw the band live that the album really clicked with me.  Even what I thought was the weakest track (“Dead Letters”) ended up being a complete gut-check live, and what I thought were bland nu-metal musings like “Buildings” or “Leech” ended up taking my breath away.  The greatest achievement on this album though is arguably the lightest track, and that is “The Racing Heart”.  I knew I liked this song a lot before, but seeing it live with Jonas performing it with his inimitable style just brought me to tears.  Now every time I hear it, I can’t help but sob a little because of its incalculable beauty.  “Ambitions” is another great song on the album and sees Jonas the most depressed he’s sounded since “Soil’s Song” from 2006’s The Great Cold Distance.  All in all, Dead End Kings is a sublime and patient masterpiece, not content to share all of its secrets in the first few listens.  But if you open yourself up to the sorrowful grandeur this album has to offer, then you will reap the greatness that is truly 2012’s top album.

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