Retrospect: My favorite album of 2011, and why it saddens me.

Liturgy’s Aesthethica is my favorite album of 2011. It is an awesome piece of work that is wholly original and genre-defining, regardless of any purist complaints. This is an album that has stayed steadily in my rotation since it was released, and the last time I listened to it was yesterday, from start to finish. It isn’t the perfect album, but it’s full of more energy and determination than anything I’ve heard this year. This band, along with Animals as Leaders, is a young act that is crucial to the evolution of heavy metal in the upcoming years. 

Aesthethica depresses me. When I was in my early 20’s I used to listen to Darkthrone and Philip Glass records back to back. Upon doing this I realized the similarities between black metal and minimalist classical music. Another thought occurred to me: what if black metal was played in a major key? I bought a cheap Tascam and recorded several guitar tracks with dual harmonies. It sounded awesome and revitalizing.

Regretfully, I never followed through with this idea I had; at the time nobody wanted to play black metal. Now I’m watching time pass me by, I’m 30, and another band has discovered this concept and made something great out of it. This retrospect isn’t a declaration of my jealousy towards Liturgy for taking an idea I had, because neither of us knew each other, and to be honest I think they did a much, much better job than I ever would with “transcendental black metal”.

What I’m getting at is no one in Baltimore ever wanted to play black metal with me.

Currently I’m the lead singer in an unspecific heavy metal group. We cover bands such as Judas Priest, Type O Negative, and Avenged Sevenfold. Before that I played drums in a post-hardcore group, and while doing such I also backed our lead guitarist on bass in a blues trio. Before that I was in another generic heavy metal group, and when I was a senior in high school I played in some garage band like everybody else. I’ve always accompanied music that was written by someone else rather than music I’ve written myself. Perhaps it has something to do with an introverted personality, but in all honesty I think it has to do with the fact that I desperately wanted to play music, and would play anything with anyone.

I don’t regret playing in any of these groups. I had decent success in the post-hardcore group and we had a strong following; our music even made its way to Northern Europe. The current band I’m in is ready to start playing shows and everyone is a dedicated musician and some great things are coming out of it.

If you’re an aspiring musician and you’re looking to play your own music, I wish you the best of luck and success. Sometimes it’s easier to say the hell with it and play in a cover band or a band that is completely irrelevant to your personal musical endeavors. If you’re looking to play for the sake of playing, you’ll have to compromise. In the end, there’s nothing like being on a live stage and performing the results of months and years of strenuous practice.

However, if you’re more ambitious and want to have your creations head to the masses, compel yourself forward. Just know it’s a tough road ahead and you should never back down from a great idea. Hunter Hunt Hendrix never did, and the results of his concept have led to a strong following and the best thing I’ve heard all year. Cheers to your group of merry men.

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Review: Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage

Album: Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage

Release date: 9/13/2011

Label: Southern Lord Records

This new movement of American black metal continues to intrigue me. Wolves in the Throne Room is no exception, and Celestial Lineage, their fourth studio-length album, is as Norwegian of a record as any American native can get. Celestial Lineage is a very raw, yet organically produced recording that harkens to the symphonic qualities of Emperor and the unrelenting ambiance of Darkthrone.

The emotion put into Celestial Lineage gives it an almost post-hardcore quality to it that fans of Isis (Aaron Turner contributes some vocal pieces to the album) and Red Sparrowes will appreciate. However, it is very far from being an experimental fusion the way Liturgy’s Aesthethica was. This is a more conventional black metal album that pays tribute rather than redefining something stagnant. Songs stretch an eternity with blackened fingers and sustained keyboards, guitars and vocals, and the album’s high level of distortion emphasizes its ambiance by octaves. There are layers of moods here.

Kvlt elitists will appreciate this work as a peace offering for what Aesthethica may have disrupted in its unconventionality. Celestial Lineage is a luscious piece, calculated in spirit and surging with emotion. A great effort.

Favorite track: Astral Blood

Star Rating:

8 out of 10 stars

Archive Review: Isis – Oceanic

Album: Isis – Oceanic

Release date: 9/17/2002

Label: Ipecac Recordings

 

My first experience with Oceanic came in late 2002 when I came down with a 103 .1 fever. It was the last time I had ever been so sick I hallucinated. As I laid in bed shivering and my bedroom started enveloping me, I listened to this album on repeat for two days straight, letting its waves cascade and entomb me as my mind wandered aimlessly through each seamless transition. Truly this is a remarkable piece of work and I do not suggest hallucinating by any means while listening to it, but the experience in doing such while ill allowed this album to have a more significant impact on me than if fully conscious and sober.

Seldom do bands come along that release such bold, creative music that truly speaks to the soul the way Isis does. If Isis has taught us anything within their past three albums, it’s that an album can be more than an album. In fact, this review will ultimately reference the band’s album more than the band itself, as it has become an entity all its own. Oceanic, the middle child of the band’s three glorious full-lengths (Celestial being the first and Panopticon being the third) is the quintessence of such an idea. Much like being caught in an undertow and drowned into the abyss before resurfacing, Oceanic captures the listener in a thematic journey that reaches over an hour of epic proportions. Oceanic is a tsunami of sound; an orchestra of guitars, vocals, and drums that gradually melt into one another and become an oxymoronic, droning staccato that carries the listener through a plethora of emotions. Like a rolling wave, the music is almost always on a crescendo, starting on a simple note that is continuously built on before crashing into forte. The album’s end takes each sub-theme previously built upon and triumphantly explodes into a C chord that echoes into infinity.

The majesty of Oceanic fails to capture the right vocal expression to best describe itself. All I can do is reiterate how truly bold of an experience this album is. Metalhead, prog-nut, art-school kid, classical-genius, throw away all classifications; this is a recording that everyone must hear, at least once. You’ll never see things the same. Oceanic is the clinic of the everlasting power of music. Oceanic is my favorite album ever released.

Best track: Weight (10 minutes of surreal magnitude)

Star Rating:

10 out of 10 stars

Review: Deicide – To Hell With God

Album: Deicide – To Hell With God

Release date: 2/15/2011

Label: Century Media Records

Following a string of mediocre-to-average recordings, To Hell With God is probably Deicide’s best album in 15 years. The perfect and quintessential death metal album, Once Upon the Cross, has since become a relic; a fairy tale from decades past. The new album from the Florida quartet delivers to the patient.

This is a different band playing To Hell With God. Deicide has since parted ways with the original guitarists, the Hoffman brothers, in 2004, and has since brought in Kevin Quirion (Order of Ennead) and Jack Owen (Cannibal Corpse, who else?) to fill their shoes. Both men do an excellent job in shredding thick-and-tremolo riffs, the signature Deicide guitar tone, although the songs themselves do have an obvious neo-Cannibal Corpse influence. Steve Asheim still blasts on drums, and Glen Benton still barks his anti-Christian doctrines like an unchained hellhound.

With different guitarists come different styles of playing, and although Owen and Quirion are excellent replacements, their presentation of the material doesn’t seem to compare to the unholy trinity of the first three albums: Deicide, Legion, and the aforementioned Once Upon the Cross. I don’t think that many death metal albums do; Deicide’s ability to structure a perfect, conventional verse-chorus-verse death metal song/album has been part of the reason they’ve been a gateway band for new metalheads. If I were to initiate a new recruit to this genre, would I play this, or Once Upon? Most likely Once Upon; it’s a superb work that has aged like freaking Cher.

I’m not saying To Hell With God is bad, in fact it’s great. I think I’ve been spoiled by the early-Hoffman era of Deicide and it’s very difficult for me to break that mentality. I also blame Vital Remains, a band that had taken off with Deicide’s concept post-Once Upon the Cross, and their amazing ability to write epic death metal sagas. Should you buy this album? Sure, just don’t expect Dechristianize.    

One word review: Better.

Star Rating:

7 out of 10 stars

Archive review: Bolt Thrower – In Battle There Is No Law

Album: Bolt Thrower – In Battle There is No Law

Release date: 1988

Label: Demo (self-released)

It’s hard to fault a first attempt at anything. Therefore it’s difficult for me to review In Battle There is No Law, because a part of me wants to rip it to shreds and another part of me wants to shrug its shoulders.

I suppose the best comparison of this scenario would be to Cannibal Corpse’s Eaten Back to Life, an album poorly conceived but deliciously, cannibalistically fun. But for some reason, I don’t feel mirthful when I try to rock out to In Battle. I don’t know why. The energy is definitely there. This is a spasm of an album played as fast as possible with reckless abandon. A bit Kreator, a bit Carcass, a bit Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower’s freshmen effort is one of the lesser-known but just as important albums to sit alongside Pleasure to Kill, Reek of Putrefaction, and Scum, respectively. And like those albums, it is thinly produced and poorly executed. Yet unlike those albums, its lasting power has somewhat diminished. The riffs are pretty good but you can’t tell by listening to this. This isn’t Honour Valour Pride and this isn’t Mercenary. This isn’t mid-paced, thick riffing in signature Egyptian scales.

So, of course it’s the odd card out of the Bolt Thrower library, one that is often cited as every song and album sounding the same. Every song sounds the same on IBTINL but the overall effect is different than anything the band will later produce. This is unpolished, prepubescent filth. If you like bad, DIY (do it yourself) albums and demos, you’ll like this. Just remember that all your favorite death metal bands sounded this bad back in the late 80’s.

Favorite track: In Battle There Is No Law (very chant-worthy!)

Rating:

4 out of 10 stars

Review: Pathogenic – Cyclopean Imagery

Album: Pathogenic – Cyclopean Imagery

Release Date: 8/21/2011

Label: Self-released

 

The result of a one-night stand between Meshuggah and Symphony X, Pathogenic’s Cyclopean Imagery is an ultra-technical, polyrhythmic exercise of not only music theory, but of the listener’s stamina. The question is not how long the album is, but of how your brain can formulate the complexities of progressive metal.

Of this strange hybrid of band influences, Cyclopean Imagery sounds less like Symphony X playing Meshuggah and more like Meshuggah playing Symphony X. The result is a severely technical recording, filled with insanely meticulous patterns, start-and-stop time signatures, and blistering atonal riffs. It is clear that Pathogenic has put a large emphasis on quality throughout the recording, as it sounds and feels great being played on a good car stereo.

This New England 6-man group has existed since 2004, and before this album there was only one other recording in existence, an EP from 2005. The band looks much younger than its musical capabilities, which are far more experienced than most bands out there today (alongside Animals as Leaders). The lower rating I’ve given Cyclopean Imagery (begrudgingly) has nothing to do with the energy and technicality this band displays. Unlike Animals as Leader’s excellent self-titled recording from last year, the diversity from track to track on Pathogenic’s release is non-discernable.

This is a tired but true complaint for most heavy metal albums, and one that is difficult to shake. Every song feels like a stack of polyrhythmic beats layered atop alternations of (very good) clean and dirty vocals. However, the fact that each song sounds like this is amazing; how Pathogenic can separate and memorize one song from the next reaffirms an appreciation of progressive metal, and the people who play it. This is a very good, yet pigeon-holed album you may or may not understand.

Best track: Fish Frenzy

Star Rating:

 

7 out of 10 stars

 

Archive review: Darkthrone – Transylvanian Hunger

Album: Dark Throne – Transylvanian Hunger

Release date: 2/21/1995

Label: Peaceville Records

“This album sounds like it was recorded through a tin can.” If you’ve ever had a discussion about Transylvanian Hunger you’ve probably heard this phrase at least once. That’s pretty much the truth of it.

This is a good black metal album. Great, in fact. It’s nowhere as awesome as A Blaze in the Northern Sky (my all-time favorite black metal album) or De Mysteriis Dom Satanas, but it’s still a definitive album in its genre. In its sheer minimalism it harkens back to the days of Gregorian music when melodies were simple, tonal, non-harmonic. The result is an ambient experience that is nearly completely ruined by choice of recording.

Transylvanian Hunger is the album to really start the trend of Nordic-poorly recorded works. It’s an intentional choice by the music makers to make the album as ambient as possible. Apparently this was recorded in the forest and mixed with a Fisher Price boombox, because it certainly lives up to its premise. This is virtually unlistenable. If you can make out anything other than high range guitar tone, I applaud you.

I think I sort of understand the black metal ethic. I understand stereotypes that it is “kvlt” to paint your face like a corpse and go out forest-lurking, or church-burning or whatever black metallers do with their spare time other than cooking delicious pastries. Transylvanian Hunger is its own detraction: a borderline work of art marred by odd decisions and disregard for quality.

This rating reflects what other people would think of this album upon first listen. My actual rating of the album would be much higher but I can’t possibly recommend it to anyone who isn’t a masochist for this type of thing.

Best song: I couldn’t tell you.

Rating:

3 out of 10 stars