“Top 10” lists are hard for me. I usually either cannot find 10 things to put on them, or can’t pick 10 from the giant selection available to me. I also generally don’t like to rate things, so I cheated and organized this list alphabetically! So the order in which the releases appear does not reflect how much I like one over another. In short, this is not a trve “Top 10” list. I’m following my own inclinations! So Kvlt...
1. Agalloch - “Marrow of The Spirit” [Profound Lore]
Like everyone here, I’m a huge Agalloch fan and I preordered this album as soon as I could. While I can’t call it my favorite of their releases, it is certainly a nice blending of the band’s previous work and some forward thinking experimentation. As always with Agalloch I find the artwork and the vibe of the music to be perfectly matched. I’m especially impressed by the band’s decision to go with a more raw production value (in many ways reminiscent of their demo recordings) when most bands continually look toward more polished production, even at the expense of atmosphere and character. My only real complaint with Marrow of the Spirit is that sometimes the acoustic guitars are noticeably out of tune, though it’s not much of a mar.
2. Alcest - “Ѐcailles de Lune” [Prophecy]
Obviously different than its classic predecessor, this album has gotten mixed reviews since its release early this year. I, of course, believe it to be excellent. The almost Amesoeurs-esque touch is matched nicely with the dreamy qualities of Alcest and the more “epic” elements sit very well with me for obvious reasons (to those who know me). Also for obvious reasons for those familiar with me and my own music, the all encompassing subject matter of the sea is exciting to me. Complaints of the album feeling disconnected or being too short do not resonate with me much, though, beautiful as it is, “Sur L’ocean Coleur de Fir” did come off as somewhat skeletal upon my first listen. Even “Abysses” has grown on me as a sort of segue though it seems to me it could easily have been attached as an intro or outro to another track. As with Agalloch, the artwork (provided by Fursy Teyssier) is perfect for the feel of the album and I am excited to see what both Neige and Fursy come up with in the future. Though the trends set in motion by these artists are quickly coming to be clichés, I still feel Neige and those in his circle are some of the truest artists of the day.
3. Blind Guardian - “At the Edge of Time” [Nuclear Blast]
Power metal is often given an undeserved smirk and shrug, but it is legitimate and real as any other form, and Blind Guardian have been proving it since the late 1980s. Anyone who denies that there is real passion in Blind Guardian’s world is denying themselves some of the best music ever to be made. At the Edge of Time is in many ways stronger on the whole than its admirable predecessor, A Twist in the Myth, and harkens back to all the ages of the band with a great mix of aggression, dynamics, melody and compositional talent. Each track on here could be played live right alongside any classic Blind Guardian tune and it’s a shame that they cannot simply play for 4 hours at a time. Only three tracks from this album were played live, and, awesome though they were, they were the most predictable ones. For more depth, see my review devoted to the album.
4. Burzum - “Belus” [Byelobog]
The world’s most famous musical murderous racist sociopath returned this year after a long bout of incarceration, but his creative edge had certainly not been damaged by his remarkably short stay in a high security Norwegian hotel. Varg’s creative impulses resonate with me in a way I would have found disturbing at age sixteen. Since getting over the darker facts of his life I have found a real artistic affinity with him and count Burzum as one of my favorite bands. His treatment of Nordic mythology shows genuine (if bigoted) interest beyond the prevailing “Thor told me to kill the bad guys” take on such themes. Also refreshing is the way in which Varg’s creative drive trumps his limitations in regards to equipment and resources. By not giving a damn about where his guitar was made (ironically for him, probably China) he connects directly to the art he’s creating. The only thing this album lacks is some keyboards, though the atmosphere is thick enough as it is. After two completely keyboard based albums, I guess Varg was just ready to get back to the metal aspects of Burzum—I mean “classical folk music with fuzz” elements.
5. Dimmu Borgir - “ABRAHADABRA” [Nuclear Blast]
My great liking for this album came as something of a pleasant surprise. I cannot add much to my “defense” of Dimmu beyond what’s present in my recently posted review of the album. So much artistic integrity is present here, and so much resonates with my own sensibilities that I cannot help but overlook the band’s more disappointing aspects. I suggest letting go of prejudices and just listening for this one. Then again, I’m into epic/orchestral music already...
6. Finntroll - “Nifelvind” [Century Media]
You say “cartoony” like it’s a bad thing. Finntroll has had far more of an effect on me than they have for others. Their mixture of epic folk black metal, goofy polka, and aggressive punk music was more than legitimate upon my first introduction to the band with their classic Jaktens Tid album. Trollhorn (Henri Sorvali of Moonsorrow) has become one of my favorite musicians and composers and I have no trouble mixing genuine awe with laughter when listening to his work. The way in which Finntroll handles goofiness is surprisingly serious, which is why Nifelvind is such a strong album. I greatly enjoy the darker Ur Jordens Djup album of 2007, but I felt it was lacking in the mix (where the hell are the keyboards Trollhorn was threatening John Williams with?). Those keyboards seem to all have landed on Nifelvind because it’s utterly huge. Marimbas and heavy brass compliment mighty guitars, and Vreth’s vocals, as always, destroy. Finntroll is definitely not the band for purists and people who need to prove to non-listeners that metal music isn’t fun. It is the result of a creative mind not caring what the naysayers want and painting with all the colors he has available.
7. James Horner - “Avatar OST” [Fox Music/Atlantic]
We are “eclectic” and “enlightened” listeners here, aren’t we? This music has no affiliation or connection with the metal world other than that it comes from a sci-fi fantasy film. Upon my first viewing of Avatar I was floored. It is especially nice when a movie you like has music you like just as much. I can attribute a lot of my interest in epic, orchestral, melodic music to themes from films that I was exposed to over the course of growing up. James Horner’s score for Avatar conveys the vibe of the film and stands on its own on record, too. Of course, the stock, overproduced ballad concluding the album is out of place and boring. But that is to be expected. Most film score albums are boring or embarrassing at times, anyway. My interest lies primarily in the use of standard orchestra, synthesizers, and world elements (like the pseudo-Native American/African voices) in the actual score. The themes from Avatar, though they may strike some as predictable, strike me just the right way. I enjoy and am inspired by this music a great deal.
8. Keep of Kalessin - “Reptilian” [Nuclear Blast]
Since Armada I’ve been a huge fan of Keep of Kalessin. I feel like Obsidian C. finally found the lineup he needed to set out creating absolutely epic thrashing melodic black metal with that album and the two follow-ups, Kolossus and Reptilian expand beautifully on the ideas expressed there. Keep is a perfect example of how to mix technicality, aggression, and beats per minute with actual musical ideas. Catchy riffs are colored with skillful “flash” that is actually part of the composition rather than just tossed in to show off, and that makes it all the more impressive. It slipped by me when I first discovered them, but Keep of Kalessin takes its name from one of my favorite fantasy book cycles, the Earthsea books, buy Ursula K. Le Guin. Very few people mention this when discussing the band but it adds a bit of a new dimension when listening to their music. Their obsession with dragons, when taken in that context (however loosely based on the book material the band actually is) comes off as far more exciting. Some have expressed distain for the track “The Dragontower,” but it seems to me that it only has to do with the fact that the band won some sort of fame in Norway for it (something unimportant dealing with stamps...). Personally I enjoy the song and attribute its lowered status to its rather groovy, unconventional feel. It is unsafe to turn me loose to describe why Keep of Kalessin is awesome. I’ll simply say, they have hooks and know how to use them. The uninitiated be prepared!
9. Melechesh - “The Epigenesis” [Nuclear Blast]
This album was in some ways a letdown for me. My first few listens were certainly influenced by my expectations and left me feeling as if I had been waiting for something that simply never happened. The chanting vocals and melodic intensity of Emissaries and Sphynx had me expecting more of the same from this album. Disconnecting myself from that a bit, I have come to really enjoy it for what it is. I admire and share Ashmedi’s intelligent approach to matters of the occult and mythological. The subject matter inspiring Melechesh is intensely interesting to me and I love to experience it through their music. What the band did as far as “jam sessions” on this album did not quite work for me. I very much enjoy the unconventionality of the opening track “Ghouls of Nineveh” and the expansion of the non-metal, middle-eastern compositions with traditional instruments etc. I felt the possibilities of the final track were somewhat lost in the meandering noodling, and when the album was described as being “varied” I had expected that each composition would be varied within itself. Instead, there are fast songs and slow songs and experimental songs and I feel like this is a step toward something else, but not quite the achievement. Still, the album makes my list of favorites of the year, which means I enjoy it well enough and am discovering more and more as I acclimate to the deviances from my expectations and sift out the gold I know is there.
10. The Vision Bleak - “Set Sail to Mystery” [Prophecy]
Ah, my first ever review for the Inarguable. Here is a band that does theatrical perfectly. With a 19th century visual aesthetic and themes of horror/sci-fi taken from literature and film (HP Lovecraft, etc.) The Vision Bleak do atmospheric gothic dark metal with expertise. In much the same way that the Misfits feel right at home in their look, sound and vibe, The Vision Bleak are untouchable in their field. Set Sail to Mystery comes on the heels of The Wolves Go Hunt Their Prey with a vengeance. While the previous album had some great moments on it, it simply was not as memorable as the preceding Carpathia and I was a little afraid that the band had lost their inspiration. But this year’s album proved me seriously wrong. The fact that they have not really done anything differently and still managed to pull off an album that is fresh from start to finish has me convinced that the fire is still burning hot. I am especially partial to the intro “A Curse of the Grandest Kind,” “A Romance with the Grave” and “The Outsider,” but the whole album is equally strong as these. In this case, buying the two disc special edition is worth it because the second disc comes with “classical” versions of some of the songs produced to sound like they are old gramophone recordings; truly eerie and cool.
The only reason these albums aren’t on the list is because they occurred to me after I had finished and because a list of 10 obviously cannot exceed 10 items. Think of this more as a “Top 12” with no ranking criteria whatsoever.
1. Lantlôs - “.neon” [Prophecy]
2. Fyrdsman - “Forgotten Beneath the Soil” EP [Mynydd Du]
Friggin’ awesome! An excellent taste of promising courses to come...
Happy New Year and happy Listening!
-Bryan A. Wysopal