The 2011 best/worst/weirdest heavy metal short lists

It’s time again to look back at what was good, band and ugly in the metal world for the year. I didn’t hear every last album, so let’s start with a list of what albums caught my attention.

Anthrax, “Worship Music” — This was easily the best album, and biggest surprise, of 2011. After recording a full album with vocalist Dan Nelson, Scott, Charlie and the other members of Anthrax gave Nelson the boot and wooed former vocalist Joey Belladonna back into the fold (after vocalist John Bush, who sang with the ‘Thrax in the 1990s and early 2000s, refused to rejoin).

So, a band re-recording an album with a vocalist that quit/was tossed from the roster 20 years ago? Really? “Worship Music” had disaster written all over it … so it’s hard to overemphasize my surprise when I discovered the Belladonna “Worship Music” wasn’t just good; it was the best album of the year.

Put aside for a moment the whole, “who is better, Belladonna or Bush?” debate and the “why didn’t the band release the Nelson version of ‘Worship Music’ screed, and what you’ll find is that Anthrax is the freshest and most vital member of metal’s “big four.” There’s not a single filler song on “Worship Music;” every song a powerhouse, from the opening barrage of “Earth on Hell” to the remixed hidden version of “Revolution Screams.” This is a band that is still writing great songs.

As for Belladonna, the songs sound like they were written specifically for him. There’s not a hint of “last-minute replacement vocalist here;” Belladonna sounds better now than he did in the 1980s and he absolutely slays here. Instead of being washed up, Anthrax is at the pinnacle of its career. Jeeze, who would’ve believed it one year ago?

Arch/Matheos, “Sympathetic Resonance” — This was a reunion, of sorts, of the early ’80s-era Fates Warning, with Fates guitarist Jim Matheos coming together again with vocalist John Arch and guitarist Frank Aresti. After Fates Warning released its 1986 progressive metal classic, “Awaken The Guardian,” Arch was booted from the band because the others feared Arch’s heart wasn’t in the intense tour-record-tour rock lifestyle.

After 25 years (interrupted by a two-song EP Arch and Matheos cut around 2003), I was curious to see if the old “Guardian” era magic could be resurrected. In short, it could; Arch still has a glass-shattering soprano and Matheos and Aresti shred their fingers off. The songs are long and complex, with multiple movements on “Any Given Day (Strangers Like Me),” “Stained Glass Sky” and “Neurotically Wired.” There are beautiful moments, as well as some stellar playing by all involved (including current Fates Warning members Joey Vera and Bobby Jarzombek). This is a fantastic album that deserves to reach a much larger audience.

Blut Aus Nord, “777 Sect(s)” and “777 The Desanctification”

Ugh what disappointments. In 2009, France’s Blut Aus Nord released “Memoria Vetusta II: Dialogue with the Stars,” the best freakin’ black metal album since, well, since Enslaved’s masterpiece “Isa.” “Memoria Vetusta II” was a series of incredibly beautiful yet cosmically frozen compositions that stretched the boundaries of black metal while retaining the genre’s isolation and cold. It’s still one of my favorite discs.

So, bluntly, what the hell happened to Blut Aus Nord since then? On “Sect(s)” and “The Desanctification” we’re assaulted with endlessly looped riffs instead of compositions. There are no “songs” on either album and even the best moments get run into the ground by the repetition. The albums are indistinguishable from one another because, really, one jumble of minor-chord fretboard runs sounds much like another.

Actually, nothing happened to BAN; the band is known for its constantly shifting musical moods and the heavy industrial riffs of the “777s” have been heard on previous BAN albums. So the fault is not the band’s — it’s mine. I like my songs to have melody and the tracks on “Sect(s)” and “Descantification” not only lack melody, they don’t hold together as “songs” at all. I gather that Blut Aus Nord has something big to say (why else do a three-album cycle) … but it’s hard to discover the meaning when the medium is so jarring it keeps throwing me out.

There’s a third “777” album in the works for 2012. The new one may, again, be completely different from what came before on “Sect(s)” and “Desanctification.” I still am intrigued enough in the band to want to hear the new disc when the time comes … but I’m not holding out much hope that I’m going to find anything there I’ll appreciate.

Inquisition, “Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm” –This was my black metal album of the year. Croaking vocalist/guitarist Dagon and drummer Incubus hammer out the intricate, Immortal-inspired anthems to Satan with nasty (yet polished) power.

The band grabs the listener by the throat from the opening barrage of “Astral Path of Supreme Majesties,” but Inquisition isn’t afraid to slow to a zombie lurch on “Desolate Funeral Chant.” Every track is great, but “Cosmic Invocation Rites” is my favorite black metal track of the year.

This album was a jaw-dropper and is still on regular rotation on my stereo. Highly recommended.

 

Infestus, “ExIst” — Infestus and Inquisition share a connection, in that Inquisition’s Dagon was once in Infestus with Andras. After Dagon split, Infestus became a one-man operation, with Andras singing and performing all of the music.

Musically, this is totally different from Inquisition. Where “Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm” is grounded in the Norwegian black metal sound of Immortal, “ExIst” is darker in mood and filled with acoustic melodies. It’s clear “ExIst” is a much more personal album: Dagon’s Inquisition is just giving a big “hell yea!” to Satan; but Andras’ “ExIst” was a heartfelt effort … even if the emotion Andras felt was hate.

Musically, “ExIst” is horribly depressing, yet quite lovely at moments. While not nearly as interesting (to my ears) as “Ominous Doctrines …,” I do find myself coming back again and again to “ExIst.” This is worth a listen.

Metallica and Lou Reed, “Lulu” — We’ll come back to this one later, OK?

Opeth, “Heritage” — Battle lines were drawn over this release. After Opeth frontman/songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt let it be known that he wouldn’t be doing any death metal growls for “Heritage,” old-school fans began muttering, “sell-out.” The release of the album only increased the controversy, as people who liked Opeth’s heavier music accused Akerfeldt of going completely over to progressive rock while the die-hard supporters took a “if you don’t love ‘Heritage,’ you’re not a true fan” uncompromising stance.

For the record, I agree that Akerfeldt isn’t chained to the rock of death metal  — or “metal” at all, for that matter — and that he can do whatever he likes. But I think the idea that people who liked Opeth in the past have to just loooove everything Akerfeldt does unquestioningly is pretty stupid. That’s the logic of the fundamentalist.

Also, I think there are a lot of reasons fans of the band’s older material will be turned off by “Heritage.”

The album has some great moments and some beautiful ones. In terms of musical trajectory, it’s not even that much of a departure from the past; Akerfeldt has been sprinkling acoustic songs onto his albums for ages . One of the band’s best albums, “Damnation,” is sung entirely in clean vocals and is a mostly mellow affair (I’d add “Damnation” is also the best album for intimate encounters, so if you’re looking for an album to put your honey in the mood to score, pick up “Damnation”).

Getting back to “Heritage”: After the pretty but throwaway piano opener, the album catches fire with  “The Devil’s Orchard,” “I Feel The Dark” and “Slither.” Those are standout tracks and the rest of the songs are never exactly dull or bland … but, let’s face it; nothing on “Heritage” comes close to the absolute heaviness of tracks like “Deliverance,” “White Cluster,” “Ghost of Perdition” or “Heir Apparent” and “Porcelain Heart.”

Meanwhile, parts of “Heritage” irritate quite a bit. “Nepenthe,” in particular, sounds like a song Akerfeldt wrote for “Damnation” but rightfully rejected because it was too long, too frilly and too damn weak to make the cut. “Haxprocess” is pretty, but sounds more like the ambient rock-blues soundtrack to a melancholy Swedish horror film about a haunted house than a rock song. It’s always a temptation to skip to the next track by the halfway point.

 The question I haven’t answered is this — it “Heritage” good? Yes. It’s certainly an accomplished piece of work. But what the album lacks is momentum — it speeds up and sputters down, it approaches the borders of rock and even metal and then retreats 

Do I enjoy the album as much as “Blackwater Park,” “My Arms, Your Hearse” or “Watershed”? No. “Heritage” is a good album; it’s just not especially heavy — and yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to be disappointed. I feel a bit let down and I don’t see “Heritage” becoming one of my essential albums any time soon.

Wolves in the Throne Room, “Celestial Lineage” — I get tired of the whole “hipster black metal” debate. It’s really annoying to read articles or comments on the Web from people who think they’re so “trve” because they only listen to black metal bands who name-check Satan ever 30 seconds. It’s also boring to hear over and over that black metal bands that don’t give clockwork-regular hosannas to Hell’s Unholiness are somehow making black metal safe for a wider audience — as if there’s a group of college kids out there who would turn off that college alternative rock and embrace Emperor if the band wasn’t just so darn scary.

For the record, I do think Washington State’s Wolves in the Throne Room is a black metal band; if one of the defining characteristics of the Norwegian black metal scene was veneration of nature, then WITTR uphold the tradition by writing music totally inspired by the mountains and wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. But, apparently you can only be considered “black metal” if you at least pay lip-service to evil; any bands who deviate are subject to arrest by the Black Metal Police.

But enough of that: WITTR ended their three-album cycle with “Celestial Lineage,” an album that builds on the ambiance of “Two Hunters” while certainly drawing on the psychedelic aura of “Black Cascade.” With that in mind, you might expect “Celestial Lineage” to be the best album of the cycle. But, well, no.

Despite some wonderful moments (“Thuga Magus Imperium” and “Astral Blood” are particularly powerful), the album drags in places — most particularly on “Woodland Cathedral,” a too-long religious-sounding chant featuring sung female vocals rather than scratchy screams. Again, as with Opeth, the issue here is one of momentum — WITTR build up considerable momentum, only to bring the album to a halt on “Woodland Cathedral.”

“Celestial Lineage” is a very good album. I just happen to like “Two Hunters” better. Sue me.

Worst (and Weirdest) Album of the year

 There’s only one real contender in this category, isn’t there?

Metallica and Lou Reed, “Lulu” — Metallica seemingly had it all — a dozen gold and platinum-selling albums, millions of adoring fans and even a fair bit of critical acclaim.

But it wasn’t enough; what Metallica (and I’m guessing particularly drummer Lars Ulrich) wanted was respectability; it wasn’t enough anymore to be loved by the long-haired masses and Clear Channel rock radio audience — no, that was a given, and we never appreciate the things we already have. The band’s new goal was to appreciated as artists, so they could go to high-brow parties and hob-nob with Robert Maplethorpe and the jazz critic from The New Yorker without subconsciously worrying that people were smirking the minute they turned their backs. Never again would Francis Ford Coppola walk out on one of their “S&M” concerts. Yes, respect was what they needed, truly needed — but how could they get it?

Enter, Lou Reed. Exit, old fan-base.

The apocalyptic pairing of Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett, Trujillo and Reed is surely one of the signs that the End Times are close at hand. Dreadful from the first word croaked out of Reed’s mouth, “Lulu” goes to the heights of stupidity and the depths of terrible songwriting to give us an album that would be hysterically funny, if only it were a joke.

Flowery words aside, my guess is people could only gasp, “what the #@!!” when Reed groaned out, “I could cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinsky in the dark” in the opening 30 seconds of “Brandburg Gate.” And then, incredibly, it continually gets worse. If this is “art,” Metallica and Reed can keep it.

What I’m looking forward to in 2012:

New Alcest — The new album drops later this month. “Escailles de lune” was the best album of 2010; I hope this band of French black metallers don’t drop a turd the way fellow Frenchies Blut Aus Nord did with “777.”

New Lamb of God — Perhaps Lamb of God isn’t America’s best metal band, but they’re certainly one of the most consistent. You always know what you’re getting with a new LOG disc and you know it will always scratch your itch for angry; further, you can expect three or four really strong songs on each album. I’m not the world’s biggest fan, but I respect what LOG do … and I know they’re not gonna drop a “Lulu” on me. So yeah, I’m looking forward to the new one, which also comes out in January.

New music from Ahab — These German doomsters are going into the recording studio in January, so that likely means a new album by the end of the year. I hope so; “The Call of the Wretched Sea” and “The Divinity of Oceans” are my two favorite doom albums — they’re both blisteringly heavy and yet ethereal and beautiful. These guys deserve to be heard by as many metal fans as possible.

New solo music by Bruce Dickinson — I don’t really know if Bruce and Roy Z are working on a new album, but man, I hope so; Bruce’s solo work is darker and, dare I say it, heavier than what he does with Iron Maiden. It’s been six years since “Tyranny of Souls,” so maybe it’s time for Bruce to break the silence.

New Helmet — Did I hallucinate again, or did I read Helmet was working on a new album? Helmet is way under-rated. Go, new Helmet.

Arch/Matheos tour — It would be like a classic Fates Warning tour! The band should do two sets — first, all of “Sympathetic Resonance” and then all of “Awaken The Guardian” in the second set, with “Without A Trace” thrown in as the encore. A band that released one of the best albums of 2011 ought to tour … but perhaps Arch is happy to just remain in the studio. Anyway, my fingers are crossed.

That’s all for 2011. Stick a fork in that baby and bring on 2012.

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1 Comment

  1. Dagon was never played in infestus or with this Andras bloke.Not sure where you happened upon that info but Dagon has only been in Inquisition since 1988 and before that the same band was called “Guillotina”.No side projects,no other bands and has only played with drummer Incubus since 1996. I got this info from Dagon directly and all you have to do is a little research online via websites such as “metal archives” “Last.FM” or facebook-INQUISITION official. OK reviews though my friend other than that bit of mis-information


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