The 2010 best/worst/weirdest heavy metal short lists

I have been putting off my 2010 recap, primarily because I thought 2010 was a pretty rotten year for metal.

Sure, there were some good releases, even some great ones. But for me, the year was overshadowed by the deaths of Ronnie James Dio and Peter Steele. Instead of listening to new music, I spent much of last year blasting the Dio-era Sabbath albums and spinning TON’s “Dead Again” over and over.’

Buried deep in my funk, I didn’t exactly listen to every single new album that came out, or even came my way from the record labels. But I did hear a few … so this is my rundown of the albums I heard, mostly in alphabetical order.

Agalloch

Agalloch: “Marrow of the Spirit” – Pacific Northwest black metallers Agalloch can do no wrong. While the wait between albums is often agonizing, “Marrow” was more than worth the long hiatus. “Marrow” was beautiful and cathartic and I love every note. This wasn’t my favorite album of the year, however. That designation goes to …

Alcest: “Escailles de Lune” – No other album released last year compares to this masterpiece. France’s Alcest creates a form of black metal that combines long passages of beauty with fleeing moments of icy black metal rage. Considering the limited amount of strict “black metal” on display on “Escailles de Lune,” you could argue Alcest isn’t “black metal” at all. But the best black metal no longer conforms to the Norwegian template set by Mayhem, Burzum and Emperor back in the early 1990s.

Alcest

 I’d argue black metal is more about feeling than having the “right” musical touchtones, so in that regard, Alcest is definitely black metal. Sad, beautiful and gloriously chilling, “Escailles de Lune” is epic from beginning to end. I can’t praise this album enough.

Dimmu Borgir: “Abrahadabra” – I respect what Dimmu Borgir is attempting to do here: After a big public split in 2009 with Vortex and Mustis (during which Vortex claimed Mustis wrote most of the music), Shagrath, Galder and Silenoz swung for the symphony hall box seats with this big, bombastic album.

For the recording, the band hired a full orchestra and a choir, rather than just relying on a keyboardist to provide the orchestral parts. The results are … mixed, really. Musically, “Abrahadabra” is interesting … but it’s nothing you haven’t heard Dimmu Borgir do before. Frankly, they’ve done it better, too. While “Abrahadabra” is certainly better than “In Sorte Diaboli,” it’s not up to par with “Death Cult Armageddon” and doesn’t touch the power of “Stormblast” or “Enthrone Darkness Triumphant.” Again, I admire the effort here, but the end result was a bit underwhelming.

Enslaved: “Axioma Ethica Odidi” – Perhaps I’m about to commit some form of blasphemy here, but I’ve been cooling towards Enslaved for some time. The band’s last release, “Vertebrae,” made almost no impression on me. And before you start yelling that I ditched on Enslaved because “Vertebrae” was released on Nuclear Blast (a “major” label in metal), I’d counter by saying “Ruun” hasn’t held up well in my estimation, either. In fact, I’d say the last Enslaved album I found really essential – and the only one I still listen to on a regular basis – is “Isa.”

Enslaved

“Axioma Ethica Odini” has good musical moments to be sure and very much has the trademark Enslaved “sound” … but it just didn’t grab me, even after repeat listens. Even now, when I writing about the album, I’m having a hard time remembering specific songs. “Forgettable” is not what a band shoots for when making an album, but that’s exactly how I’d describe “Axioma.” Sorry guys. We’ll always have “Isa” and “Below The Lights.”

Exodus: “Exhibit B: The Human Condition” – After a seemingly endless wait, the thrash legends returned with a blazingly good album. While not as brilliant at “The Atrocity Exhibition: Exhibit A,” I have to say “Exhibit B” has some really fun moments.

The opening track, “The Ballad of Leonard and Charles,” grabs listeners by the throat and smashes them against the furniture in an evil thrash frenzy that’s almost as fun as “Bonded By Blood.” Other standouts include the very funny “Burn Hollywood Burn,” “Class Dismissed,” the Slayeresque “Nanking” and the closing barrage, “Good Riddance.” Gary Holt and Lee Altus are still incredible guitarists and, despite what Baloff or Zetro dead-enders think, vocalist Rob Dukes is a perfect fit for the band. If it’s not as good as “Exhibit A,” it’s because nothing on “The Human Condition” is a breathtaking as “A” tracks like “Funeral Hymn” or “Children of a Worthless God.” But still, a very enjoyable effort by an old thrash favorite that has stood the test of time. The band’s tour documentary, “Shovel Headed Tour Machine,” is also a major hoot.

Hail of Friggin' Bullets

Hail Of Bullets: “On Divine Winds” – The only major new death metal album I purchased in 2010. I’ve reviewed “On Divine Winds” previously (you can read the review here), so I won’t bother with a recap. This is an album that grew on me with repeat listens. While not as spectacular as “… Of Frost And War,” I enjoyed “On Divine Winds” very much, especially “Tokyo Napalm Holocaust” and “On Coral Shores.” I find myself spinning “… Of Frost And War” more than this album though, so I’m not sure how much staying power “Divine Winds” has yet.

Heaven & Hell: “Neon Nights, Live In Europe” – Yeah, I know, this is just another H&H live album, full of songs we’ve all heard before. Well, so what? This is Ronnie James Dio’s last live hurrah with Tony, Geezer and Vinny Appice, and Dio sounds great.

His delivery on Sabbath classics “Children of the Sea,” “Neon Knights” and “Die Young” is impeccable and rest of the band is flawless.

 It’s a shame there won’t be more new music, but at least we have this last, soaring Dio performance.

 

High On Fire: “Snakes for the Divine” – Often, when a band returns to the sound of a previous album, we talk about it as if it were a disappointment. With “Snakes for the Divine,” High On Fire did go back to the straight-ahead metal of early albums like “Blessed Black Wings” and “Surrounded By Thieves.” While “Snakes” is not as interesting as the band’s last album, “Death is this Communion,” it certainly is not a disappointment.

While “Death is this Communion” was very psychedelic and trippy in places (“Death” filled with seemingly improvised lengthy jams and very stoned-out rock), “Snakes for the Divine” is hard-charging almost from beginning to end. Only one track, an instrumental, has any kind of psychedelic feel; the rest of the album thunders along at break-neck speed. Matt Pike is a great guitar player and his positively ugly vocal style fits the barbaric songs perfectly. Drummer Des Kensel is more than Pike’s match in terms of ability and bassist Jeff Matz … well, Matz doesn’t get much opportunity to stand out, but the bass is certainly up in the mix. While not an improvement over “Death is this Communion,” “Snakes” is a fun, high-powered album that I still enjoy spinning, almost one year after I purchased it. In short, is “Snakes” new No. Is it good? Yes. So there.

Holy Grail: “Crisis In Utopia” – Holy Grail? Holy sh*t, these guys bowled me over when I saw them open for Exodus last September. Talk about a band with potential and promise. “Crisis,” the band’s first full-length album, lives up that promise; the first three tracks, “My Last Attack,” “Fight To Kill” and “Call of Valhalla” are freakin’ amazing. While the entire album can’t maintain that intensity, I find there’s only one song on “Crisis” I regularly skip. This is worth purchasing for the twin guitar work alone. I hope these guys have a long and prolific career. I can’t wait to hear what they do next.

Iron Maiden: “The Final Frontier” – An album I almost forgot I owned. While the album does pick up dramatically during its second half, the first few tracks on “TFF” are pretty much filler. The title track is OK, but nothing you haven’t heard Maiden do better in the past, “El Dorado” is the typical IM “sympathy for the devil” song and “Coming Home” is a practically a power ballad. Like I said, the second half of the album is a huge improvement and tracks like “The Man Who Would Be King” and “When The Wild Wind Blows” are terrific … but the end result is still only half an album. Oh well.

Ishahn: “After” – Compare Ishahn, if you will, to Dimmu Borgir. Both came roughly out of the same time and place; Emperor (with Ishahn as vocalist, co-lead guitarist and primary songwriter) was doing its best work about the same time fellow Norwegians Dimmu Borgir were starting out (Dimmu’s “For All Tid” was released in 1994, the same year as Emperor’s “In The Nightside Eclipse”). Both bands were playing what can only be described as symphonic black metal. But while Emperor – and later Ishahn – departed wildly from the black metal format, Dimmu stuck to the trademark symphonic black metal sound.

The difference is apparent on “After,” Ishahn’s third solo album. While Dimmu sounds like the same-old, same-old, “After” finds Ishahn experimenting with a wide variety of sounds and styles. Ishahn is not tied to one musical style or identity, but in terms of musical “philosophy,” the man is definitely “black metal.” A recommended release by someone who was, and continues to be, a musical innovator.

Ozzy Osbourne: “Scream” – While it’s hard to dislike Ozzy, there’s not much to hold onto with “Scream.” The sorta-title track, “Let Me Hear You Scream” is fun but is as insubstantial as cotton candy. “Soul Sucker” and “Let It Die” are pretty good in a “hear it on the radio, bob your head while it’s playing and forget it the second it ends” sort of way, but that’s not a rousing endorsement, is it? New guitarist Gus G is good and Ozzy can still belt it out when he wants. Decent overall, but not “Blizzard of Ozz.”

Soilwork: “The Panic Broadcast” – If you like this sort of thing, and I do, you won’t be disappointed. Guitarist Peter Wilchers returned to the Soilwork fold and belted out another speedy and precise blast of pop-oriented Swedish melodic metal. There’s a reason these guys are imitated so much; in their particular genre, they’re the best at what they do.

Things I fully expect to (not) see in 2011:

1) Dave Mustaine and Lars Ulrich kiss and make up during the “Big Four” U.S. show. Look guys (Dave especially), it’s time to bury the hatchet and not in one another’s skulls. But instead of a public reconciliation, I fully expect either Lars or Megadave to shoot off his mouth prior to the show, thereby starting a whole new round comment wars on Blabbermouth.

2) Anthrax finally releases “Worship Music,” which is the greatest album we’ve ever heard. Does anyone expect this to happen? Look, Joey Belladonna did one really great album with Anthrax, but that was more than 20 years ago. The John Bush-era stuff was much more interesting, IMO. But the ‘Thrax is riding high on all the pub from the “Big Four” tour, so it’s likely we’ll hear some version of “Worship Music” this year. How good that will be is anyone’s guess: After all, we’re talking about songs that were written for Dan Nelson, who was a cross between a John Bush knockoff and a Phil Anselmo wannabe. How Belladonna is gonna handle those songs is anyone’s guess … but my guess is it will be a train wreck.

Things I hope to see in 2011

1) New Opeth – The band is back in the studio, so it’s possible we’ll have a new disc on our players by year’s end. I don’t want to get too excited, but it’s hard not to wanna do the happy dance at the thought of new Opeth. “Watershed” was a fantastic album, raking along “Blackwater Park” as one of the band’s best. Mike and the boys proved they could make a brilliant album, even after the departure of longtime members Peter and Lopez. I’m hoping they can do it again … any maybe do a slightly larger U.S. tour this time.

2) New albums by Blut Aus Nord and Wolves in the Throne Room. Jeeze, I’m greedy, aren’t I? I haven’t finished jumping for joy over Agalloch’s “Marrow of the Spirit” and Alcest’s “Escailles de Lune” and I’m already wanting more new black metal? Well, I can’t help it; both BAN and WITTR will have to work hard to top their 2009 releases (“Memoria Vetusta II: Dialogue with the Stars” and “Black Cascade,” respectively), but if any bands can do it, it’s these two. Two more blasts of genre-defying black metal would just make my year.

3) The John Arch/Jim Matheos project – Arch, who hasn’t recorded a full-length album since he, Matheos and the rest of Fates Warning released the classic “Awaken The Guardian” in 1986, returns with a new, full album. Even better, Arch is being  joined by Matheos and most of the “Guardian” era FW players, so it’s an 80’s FW reunion of sorts. Really, “Awaken The Guardian” is perhaps the best progressive metal album of the 1980s, and Arch’s 2003 ep, “A Twist of Fate,” was really exciting. This is my most-anticipated album of 2011. This album can’t arrive fast enough.

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Have you read Dave Mustaine’s biography yet?

I bought my first Megadeth album (“Killing is my business … and business is good!”) shortly after it was released, somewhere in the middle 1980s. While I can’t remember exactly why, I imagine I bought it because – like everyone who was a Metallica fan and read metal magazines back then – I knew Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine had been an early member of Metallica before getting booted in favor of Kirk Hammett.

I don’t own “Killing is my business” anymore, but I must have liked it, because I bought the band’s next two albums (the epic “Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying” and the uneven “So Far, So Good, So What?”). I skipped “Rust In Peace,” but I bought copies of the classic “Countdown to Extinction” and underrated “Cryptic Writings.” Since then, I’ve skipped everything but “Endgame,” which is without a doubt a very solid, well-played, shredding album. I’d even say “Endgame” was one of the best albums of 2009.

I still like Metallica better, though. Sue me.

So, being a fan with a familiarity with much of Dave Mustaine’s work, I was intrigued when I ran across Dave’s biography, aptly titled “Mustaine,” at the local library. Not knowing much of the band’s history, I was curious about the early days of Megadeth and  how Mustaine had written classic albums like “Peace Sells …But Who’s Buying?” and “Countdown.”

Mustaine (along with co-writer Joe Layden) gives you some of that in “Mustaine.” But what he mostly does is chronicle the years/decades of drug addition suffered by him and his various band mates.

Now, decadence and depravity have been rock bio staples since Stephen Davis set the standard with the Led Zepplin bio “Hammer of the Gods.” Since then, every rock biographer has been trying to outdo Davis’ tales of smashed TVs, trashed hotel rooms, drug-addled mayhem and over-the-top sexuality. So when Mustaine writes of drugs ingested, tour pranks played and groupies plowed, well, it’s expected.

But what’s surprising about “Mustaine” is how honest the man is about the demons that sent him to rehab 17 times. Drunk, stoned and stupid may have sounded fun to a point in “Hammer of the Gods,” but Mustaine’s trip, as he describes it, is hardly glamorous. Instead, Mustaine describes himself and ex-bandmates Chris Poland, Gar Samuelson, Nick Menza and others as often too smashed to care about much of anything except the next fix. As a cautionary tale, “Mustaine” succeeds, because it’s hard to read his tales of cocaine and heroin addition and feel like it was fun. Mustaine’s descriptions make them sound more like living death.

Again, that’s great as a cautionary tale … but it’s not much gawddamm fun to read. Indeed, the litany of coke and smack-laden woe becomes difficult to take at points. Periodically, I felt myself wanting to reach into the book, grab Mustaine by his red locks and yell, “what do you mean you relapsed again? Get off the damn junk, already, idiot!”

Of course, Mustaine does recover when he finds Christianity … which is nice for him. Thankfully, Mustaine doesn’t spend the entire book trying to covert the reader to his beliefs. If I wanted evangelism, I’d go read the book by that guy who used to be in Korn.

Mustaine is honest about the dark side of his addictions, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he was being exactly truthful in his depictions of others, such as the members of Metallica. To hear Mustaine tell it, Lars Ulrich was a plotting little Caesar from the day he met the 17 year-old Ulrich at Ulrich’s parents’ house. James Hetfield doesn’t come across as any better; Mustaine describes him as a cowardly figure, letting Mustaine bail him out of fights while he’s stealing Mustaine’s music.  Kirk Hammett, surprisingly, is hardly mentioned, except for a story about Mustaine bedding Hammett’s girlfriend sometime before Mustaine was booted from Metallica.

 Lars looms large at times throughout the book, always as the boogeyman – ambushing Mustaine with cameras during an interview that ended up in the documentary “Some Kind of Monster,” criticizing Mustaine’s work with Megadeth, not letting Mustaine be on stage when Metallica entered the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, etc. Mustaine still holds a grudge.

The most Mustaine will say about his actions prior to being fired from Metallica is, essentially, “I was a mean drunk and Lars and James weren’t.” While Mustaine deserves credit for at least admitting that he was part of the problem, he comes back again and again in the book to how victimized he was when Metallica (mostly Lars, Mustaine writes) fired him. The hurt feelings, from a guy who has sold millions of albums with Megadeth, gets a bit old … and when Mustaine brings it up again during the book’s epilogue, you’ll want to roll your eyes.

(And, as an aside, Mustaine pretty much discounts anything Metallica created after he left the band and places all of the band’s success on the songs he wrote with them. Now, “The Mechanix” (aka “The Four Horsemen”) is a pretty good song … but is there anyone out there who thinks it compares to, say, “Blackened,” “Master of Puppets,” “Fade To Black,” “For Whom The Bell Tolls” or even “Nothing Else Matters”? For Mustaine to suggest Metallica would be nothing without him is a little disingenuous on Mustaine’s part. And somehow, I don’t think the fact that Megadeth and Metallica both used the “now I lay me down to sleep …” prayer in songs around the same time is evidence Metallica was still ripping Mustaine off … although, to be fair, Mustaine says he doesn’t know which song came first).

Would I recommend this book to you? Well, it’s exhausting, to be sure, and I found myself wanting to skip sections when Mustaine talked about relapsing into addiction again and again. And, if you’re a big fan of many past Megadeth members, you’ll be put off by how Mustaine describes his bandmates (greedy, drug-addled, unreliable, juvenile, bickering, etc.) . I read every word, but I find I’m not much better informed about Megadeth the musical unit. As far as Megadeth the drugged-out self-destruction machine, I now feel like I’m an expert.

Recommendation: For super-duper, hardcore, Megadeth fans only.