The 2009 best/worst/weirdest heavy metal short lists

Well, 2009 was a great year for metal, with almost too many good albums and all kinds of weird and wacky news. Metal legends produced some fabulous new music, while new and/or obscure bands rose to the forefront with killer discs.     

So now it’s time to wrap the year up in a nice, trite little package with my 2009 short lists. Hey, two years of short lists in a row: That makes the list “annual.” So there. Let’s get rolling.       

Best Albums     

1. Blut Aus Nord: “Memoria Vetusta II: Dialogue with the Stars.” – I imagine a lot of “trve” black metallers – those who think the only black metal is the stuff created by Norwegians before, say, 1994 – hate Blut Aus Nord. Well, it’s their loss.     

In ’09, the Frenchmen’s “Memoria Vetusta II” was as bleak, scary and heart-wrenchingly beautiful as anything ever produced by early Emperor or Burzum. This is complex, transcendental music, from the opening keyboards of “Acceptance” to the final fade out of “Elevation.” Every song is an intricate work filled with equal parts cosmic wonder and deep-space indifference and cold. Brilliant.     

Here’s the song, “The Meditant: Dialogue with the Stars,” the best 10 minutes of black metal produced in 2009.

2. Wolves in the Throne Room: “Black Cascade” – Washington State black metallers WITTR took a different path in 2009 with “Black Cascade.” While the band’s previous album, “Two Hunters” contained female vocals and moments of acoustic guitar, “Black Cascade” was raw and blazing throughout.     

But “raw” does not mean the songs were uncomplicated: Beneath the amplifier roar swirled undercurrents of melody that beckoned, haunted or wept in despair. The music is tribal and trancelike. “Black Cascade” is the sound of a band both reaching for a spiritual connection with nature and a fierce rejection of the emptiness of modern existence. It’s powerful and chilling, from the first moment to the final fade. While stylistically different from “Memoria Vetusta II,” the albums have similar ambitions and are good musical companions.      

3. Devin Townsend Project: “Ki” – Devin Townsend took a major risk with “Ki.” The first of Devin’s four-album project (with each album being recorded with a different cast of musicians), Devin decided to put his softer side up front with this disc. That probably disappointed some Strapping Young Lad fans that wanted pure Devy chaos … but the end result is powerful. The album rocks in places (it’s hard to deny the “heavy Devy” moments of “Heaven Send”), but the tone for most of the disc is quiet and subdued. Townsend creates atmosphere well and many of the songs feel like ambient moments rather than verse-chorus-bridge “songs.” While SYL’s last album, “The New Black,” sounded forced to me, “Ki” is the music of a man confident enough to experiment and step outside audience expectations. I’m looking forward to hearing the final two parts of the project in 2010.     

Here’s the video for “Coast,” from “Ki.”     

4. Mastodon: “Crack The Skye” – I might be alone in believing Mastodon’s “Blood Mountain” was a meandering disappointment … but I believe it anyway. I tried valiantly to like “Blood Mountain,” but found only two tracks really memorable and the rest of the album an exercise in progginess for the sake of progginess. “Blood Mountain” was like listening to a more metal Yes – and that’s not a compliment.  

So it was a terrific surprise to find “Crack The Skye” was such a controlled album. The band is still as progressive as ever, but on “Crack The Skye,” they resisted the temptation to throw every possible idea at the wall. That sounds like damning with faint praise, doesn’t it? So let me say this: While only a couple songs were memorable on “Blood Mountain,” every song is a standout on “Crack The Skye.” Despite the recent praise for the album by publications like Time Magazine, “Crack The Skye” is definitely metal.  

Mastodon continues to push the boundaries of metal, but have learned that sometimes too much progression is simply too much. In short, “Crack The Skye” marries the heaviness of “Leviathan” with the progressive and experimental elements of “Blood Mountain” without sacrificing the heaviness of the former or falling into the excessive musical navel-gazing of the later. Instead of having jumped the shark, Mastodon created the best album of their career so far.  

Here’s the video for “Oblivion” from “Crack The Skye.”  

5. Ahab: “The Divinity of Oceans” – Germany’s Ahab specializes in “Nautic Funeral Doom” metal that is both impossibly heavy and yet infused with ethereal beauty. It’s also incredibly spooky music.

     

“Divinity” is a concept album based on the tragic (and true) story of the whale shp Essex, which sank, leaving the sailors to face slow starvation and cannibalism as they attempted to reach the distant coast of South America. It’s a horrible tale and Ahab captures the terror and futility with vicious, melodic and occasionally epic, doom metal. From the opening acoustic moments of “Just Another Raft of the Medusa (Pollard’s Weakness)” to the ghostly interlude of “Tombstone Carousel” and the suffocating blast of “Gnawing Bones (Coffin’s Lot),” Ahab wraps the listener in an unrelenting aura of woe. But there’s more than traditional doom happening here – guitarists Daniel Droste and Christian Hector tweak their melodies with discordant notes and twists that remind me of old-school Slayer. Yeah, there’s beauty here, but the Slayeresque grace notes give the disc a jagged edge. While I enjoyed Candlemass’s “Death Magic Doom,” “The Divinity of Oceans” is the doom album of the year.     

6. Heaven & Hell: “The Devil You Know” – Look, I respect Ozzy Osbourne’s contributions to metal … but the man has been living off his past glories for ages now. What was the last good Ozzy album, anyway? “No More Tears”? “Bark At The Moon”? Beats me. Frankly, Ozzy is a shadow of his former self.     

Meanwhile, the man who replaced Ozzy in Black Sabbath, Ronnie James Dio, has only gotten better with age. Love or hate Dio’s out-there lyrics, but you have to admit the man is still in total command of his craft. On “The Devil You Know,” Dio and former Sabbath mates Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Vinny Appice – now regrouped as Heaven & Hell – rain down some serious hellfire and damnation … and sound just as solid and perfect as they did when they recorded the album “Heaven & Hell.”      

Iommi’s riffs are so huge they shake the walls at any volume while Dio sings and screams his “sacred heart” out: On “Bible Black,” Dio’s performance is so intense it’s scary and the man will make shiny happy people everywhere fall down and weep in awe and terror on “Follow The Tears.” Not every track is stellar (“Eating The Cannibals” is entertaining but silly), but power on display is unmistakable. These boys still have what it takes.     

7. Megadeth: “Endgame” – Maybe I’m just being nostalgic here, but hearing a shredding, blazing riftastic blast from Dave Mustaine was just what the metal world needed in 2009. “Endgame” slammed me back into my seat from the opening riff of “Dialectic Chaos” and only got better as the album progressed. If I cared about singles, I’d call “Headcrusher” the metal song of the year.     

Dave’s a madman and musical monster: The riffs on this discs are stellar and the songs are captivating and strong throughout. Mustaine shows he can still be a great storyteller (“44 Minutes”) and write a blazing anthem (This Day We Fight,” which is everything Mustaine had hoped “Crush ‘Em” would be so many years ago) … but mostly, he just kicks your ass with tracks like “Headcrusher.” As everyone has said by now, “Endgame” is the best Megadeth album since either “Rust In Peace” or “Countdown To Extinction,” depending on which you prefer. Home run, Dave.      

Here’s “Headcrusher.”     

8. Edguy: “Tinnitus Sanctus” – In my heart, I know that power metal is the kissing cousin of hair metal. But I look at it this way: If you have to kiss your cousin, at least kiss the hottest one imaginable.  

(At this point, it seems important to report that I have never kissed any of my cousins. Thank you.)  

If you accept my premise that power metal and hair metal are related, then hopefully you’ll also agree that power metal is vastly superior because: A) The musicianship is worlds better; B) The performers aren’t all talentless Hollywood jokes like Motley Crue or Poison, and C) Most power metal bands are from Europe, which just makes them cooler than the glam bands by default.  

Tobias Sammet is at the top of the power metal pyramid, with not one but two bands: Edguy and Avantasia. In 2009, Edguy released the most fun album of the year with “Tinnitus Sanctus.”  

I’ve reviewed this album before, so I won’t bother with the full recap. But “Tinnitus” shoots out of the gate with a roar on “Ministry of Saints” and then heads for trippy stoner land with tracks like “Sex Fire Religion,” “Dragonfly,” and “Speedhoven.” It’s maybe not as “power metalesque” as some would like (although the double-bass drums roll on “The Pride of Creation”), but the band is growing outside the traditional power metal formula, so give them credit for that.  

I suppose “Tinnitus Sanctus” is not brootal or whatnot … but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than much of the super-brutal stuff I heard this year. Sue me.  

Honorable Mentions Candlemass “Death Magic Doom; Nile “Those Whom The Gods Detest;” Pelican “What We All Come To Need.”   

Biggest Disappointment     

Queensrÿche: “American Soldier” – I reviewed this album earlier this year (which you can read here), so I won’t bother with an extensive rehash. Let me just say this: Geoff Tate and the boys took a good concept and strong research (Tate interviewed veterans from a number of conflicts to gather song material) and completely wasted those strengths on music that was lackluster at best. Only a few songs have any fleeting spark and many sound like soft rock. I’ll stick with “Rage For Order,” thanks.     

Weirdest Moment      

There were several candidates in this category. Was the strangest moment with Dallas Coyle quit God Forbid, practically the second after the band released “Earthsblood”? Or was it when Shagrath, Silenoz and Galder of Dimmu Borgir fired bassist Vortex and keyboardist Mustis?     

Or was it when Poison frontman Bret Michaels somehow managed to hook up with another reasonably-attractive-if-somewhat-skanky horde of women on “Rock Of Love”? Those are all valid choices … but the weirdest moment IMO has to have been when Anthrax fired vocalist Dan Nelson.     

Dan is gone with the wind

While the stars weren’t exactly aligned for a great Anthrax comeback, the band at least seemed on the right track. Nelson and the boys had written and recorded “Worship Music” (with plans to release the album in 2009) and the band’s shows were getting mostly favorable reviews. Then, suddenly, Nelson was out.     

Of course, both Nelson and the remainder of Anthrax told different stories. Nelson said he was fired and band guitarist Scott Ian said Nelson had quit after forcing the band to miss shows. Rumors abounded. I’d repeat the funniest tale here, but since is 98 percent likely to be horse hockey, I’ll just spare myself a libel suit and keep it to myself.     

In the end – with the Nelson version of “Worship Music” in the toilet -Ian and Charlie Benante felt compelled to beg former vocalist John Bush to rejoin the band. Although Bush has played some festivals with the band, his status in Anthrax is still somewhat obscure … perhaps because Bush is recording an album with his old buddies in Armored Saint and doesn’t feel compelled to immediately hitch himself back to Anthrax.     

Personally, I hope Bush rejoins the band … but I’d also like to hear the Nelson version of “Worship Music.” I’d be surprised if Bush records new vocals for the album as well: Bush has his own career, so I doubt he wants to spend his time doing Nelson Karaoke. We’ll see.     

Best Comeback     

A lot of artists I thought I’d never see again resurfaced in 2009, while at least one established artist put out his best work in decades. Immortal, resurfaced after a long hiatus with the blistering “All Shall Fall,” Devin Townsend brought himself out of retirement with the Devin Townsend Project and Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine hired an awesome new shredder and released “Endgame.” I’ve already addressed “Engame,” so I’m just gonna say this: I like Metallica better than Megadeth … but the riffs on “Endgame” are much, much, much better than those on “Death Magnetic.” There, damnit, I said it – are you happy? I’m gonna go cry now …     

So who had the biggest comeback in 2009? Heaven & Hell gets my vote. Tony, Dio, Geezer and Vinny hadn’t recorded a new album together since the 1980s … and while Dio has never lost his fire, years of touring on classic Sabbath material on the Ozzfest circuit made me wonder if Iommi had the drive to make new music.     

Back in Black ... oops, I mean Heaven & Hell (don't sue, Sharon!)

Thankfully, he did. I’ve already written about “The Devil You Know,” so there’s no need for repetition. However, I hope Dio’s stomach cancer can be treated quickly and the man can be made healthy again, because the world needs another Heaven & Hell album.     

Biggest Disgrace – That dubious designation goes to the Norwegian criminal justice system, for letting convicted murderer Varg Vikernes out of prison after serving only 15 years of his sentence. Virkernes (of both Mayhem and Burzum), killed Euronymous – the head of Norway’s black metal scene – by stabbing him 23 times on Aug. 10, 1993 … which means Vikernes didn’t even serve one year in prison per stab. Shameful.     

What I’d most list to see/hear in 2010     

1. New discs by Opeth and Bloodbath – Opeth frontman Mike Akerfeldt said recently that he’ll be in writing mode for 2010. Meanwhile, Opeth is only planning six shows (none of which are anywhere near here, of course) to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary. With plenty of time to write, I’m hoping Akerfeldt will pen follow-ups to Watershed. Also, since Akerfeldt also fronts the nasty death metal band Bloodbath, maybe he can get tracks for a new disc put together as well. Two Akerfeldt albums in one year might be too much to ask … but I can hope, dangit.     

2. New music by Agalloch – Oregon’s black/folk metal masters are overdue. Hopefully, proceeds from their DVD, “The Silence of Forgotten Landscapes” will allow them to get into the studio in 2010. Has it really been four years since the band’s last full album “Ashes Against The Grain” was released? That’s too long.     

3. Immortal plays somewhere near Louisville or Cincinnati – So far, the band has only confirmed four shows in the U.S. and Canada in 2010. Where are the U.S. shows, you ask? Why L.A. and New York City of course. Jeeezus, why do those punks get to have all the fun? Play a show in Louisville or St. Louis or Indianapolis, already. The Midwest is waaaay more black metal than L.A.     

4. New discs by Hail of Bullets and Nachtmystium – Did you ever hear Hail Of Bullet’s killer death metal album “… Of Frost And War”? No? Well, go buy a copy now, cuz the disc will freakin’ melt your ears off and make you hungry for more. The boys in HOB released the ep “Warsaw Uprising” in 2009, so here’s hoping a full album is in the works.     

As for Nachtmystium, I know they’re considered kinda hip now: It seemed everyone was jumping up and down last year about how good “Assassins: Black Meddle Part I” was … which would’ve been hype, except everyone was right. “Assassins” was a great blend of black metal, Pink Floydisms and psychedelic weirdness. Can Blake Judd do it again? I dunno, but I’m dying for him to try.     

5. New music by Emperor – I’m totally day dreaming now, I know: There’s no plan for Emperor to do anything new, as far as I know. But wouldn’t that be sweet? Yes, it would. So there.     

6. The Scorpions world tour – This is actually happening. The band is launching the “Get Your Sting And Blackout” tour in May with seven shows in Germany. From then, the band will be performing around the world. I have to admit: I love the Scorpions – “Love At Fist Sting,” “Blackout” and “Animal Magnetism” were all fabulous albums. I’d happily drive to St. Louie or Cinci to hear “The Zoo” live. So make it happen, somebody.     

7. New albums by Avantasia – Did I mention I love me some power metal? And did you know Avantasia’s “The Scarecrow” was one of the best albums of 2008? No? Well, go read last year’s short lists. Anyway, the word is that Tobias Sammet and his cast of all-star guests will be back in 2010, with two new Avantasia albums. If they’re anything like “The Scarecrow,” they’ll likely both be on my 2010 lists. Bring ’em on.  

8. The return of Exodus, with “Exhibit B: The Human Condition” – Finally, Gary Holt and the boys are back in the studio, working on the long-awaited follow-up to “The Atrocity Exhibition: Exhibit A.” That’s great. The only way things could be better would be for Exodus to join the Megadeth/Slayer/Testament “American Carnage” tour when it plays Louisville in February. That won’t happen, alas … but “Exhibit B” is sure to kill.  

That’s all for this year’s lists. Let’s do it again next year.     

 

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