Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Best of 2012 in Death Metal

This last year I really got back into death metal and caught up on many of the happenings of the past couple years as far as the old school scene goes. After listening to probably 50 albums over the course of the year within the subgenre of OSDM, I've decided to organize my judgments of those releases into a "best of" list.

I will not rank releases relative to each other with any kind of rating system, I will just identify which albums were essential listens in my mind and which were valiant efforts that deserve an honorable mention but fell short for one reason or another.

Essential Releases:

Horrendous - The Chills

This was an awesome melding of Swedish death with Dutch death that resulted in something sounding quite unlike anything released before it. If the cover art can't convince you this is going to be an imaginative take on OSDM, then you suck. Horrendous' music is very melodic, about as melodic as death metal can get without treading into that vacuous and cliched genre known as Melodic Death Metal. This album explores a wide range of the genre's spectrum of expression without varying too wildly in songwriting style between tracks - a sign of mature songwriting. The Chills offers a massive amount of variety and straight up fun over nine tracks, complete with some shorter and extremely catchy songs (Fleshrot), a nice interlude (Sleep Sickness), and an epic closer (The Eye of Madness). This is an album with a consciously designed structure that never ceased to enthrall me and which makes it extremely listenable. Everything comes together beautifully on this album while treading some new ground in the genre. A future classic.

 Necrovation - Necrovation

I know I just praised Horrendous' cover art for their album, but Necrovation's cover art is easily the cover art of the year in my mind. Not only is it beautiful but it is perfectly suited to Necrovation's new sound - a remote oceanic storm under a grey smoking sky hanging over the nearly lifeless husk of a world. This band's first album was a landmark in OSDM when it was released back in 2008 when this scene was still picking up speed. "Breed Deadness Blood" didn't tread any new ground on a purely musical level, but it was a consummate effort that captured and brought out the best aspects of combining old-school songwriting with new production methods and technologies. "Necrovation" on the other hand is a completely different album that stands in a class of its own. The band still plays "death metal" but that's about where the similarities to the first album end. This self titled effort is a step forward in death metal songwriting and forges its own sound within the confines of the genre - an impressive feat. There are strange riffs and even stranger combinations of riffs happening on this album, with some extremely imaginative transitions that ooze confidence and keep the listener's ears peeled for the next development. The vocals are probably my least favorite aspect of the record, but they can be overlooked (if you can't overlook vocals then you haven't listened to extreme music) in light of all the interesting things going on here. Like Horrendous' release, "Necrovation" is an album crafted and designed to be listened to in full. It is certainly darker and more monochromatic music than what is on "The Chills", and combined with the inherent complexity of certain aspects of the songs I think it is far less accessible and so has been largely underrated by many reviewers in the metal world who were anticipating "Breed Deadness Blood" part 2. In time people will come to see this as a classic and an emphatic step forward.

Ataraxy - Revelations of the Ethereal

More awesome cover art, though it bears a striking resemblance to Horrendous' cover art at least in terms of color choices. "Revelations of the Ethereal" is a beautifully produced album that takes cues from the Finnish scene; a gargantuan slab of churning death metal encased in an oppressive and enthralling atmosphere carrying the winds of an abstract but not alien sense of melody that gives (a very strange) life to the music. The lead and clean guitars on this album are what give it so much character. We've seen the same sort of judicious layering innovated by classic bands like Disembowelment, but it still sounds quite different on this album because the production is so different from those old albums. The pace and feel of the rhythm section is much more like the Finnish legends of Rippikoulu, Abhorrence and even Convulse; and it does travel all the way across that spectrum and back. From the plodding doom of Rippikoulu to the chainsaw crushing of Convulse. This immaculate set of influences is expressed through satisfying songwriting and a production job perfectly suited to give the band as tall and wide a sound as possible. It is important to note the distinction between the expression of modernized Finndeath on this album and what other great bands like Funebrarum have done. "Revelations of the Ethereal" is more content to bask in its atmosphere and shroud the listener in its odd sense of melody and doom than Funebrarum's "Beneath the Columns of Abandoned Gods", which is more akin to peering down into a bottomless pit and hearing the ancient echoes of foreboding and doom emanating upwards, or their last album "The Sleep of Morbid Dreams" which is more like being dropped into that pit, hitting the bottom and being the unfortunate visceral witness of that prophetic chaos. Ataraxy's music is less morbid, but no less interesting on its own terms. A unique and excellent expression of Finnish influences that will be a landmark from the perspective of the future.

There were certainly other cool releases in 2012 like Drawn and Quartered - Feeding Hell's Furnace, Desolate Shrine - The Sanctum of Human Darkness, Ignivomous - Contragenesis, Wrathprayer - The Sun of Moloch, among others, but I think these were the absolute best and the releases that will leave the largest marks on the genre moving forward.

Also there were some great releases outside the narrow confines of OSDM; in terms of hip-hop El-P's Cancer 4 Cure was an album I thoroughly enjoyed all year. Check that shit out.

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