Rounding out an entire year in a few short paragraphs is rather difficult. As I write this, I'm scouring through all the reviews I've written this year alone (quite a few..feels good man), and I can safely sum 2011 up in one word: silly. In one year I have never seen so many stupid, polarizing events in the music world. From the public's TMZ-like obsession with Jef Whitehead's personal life or the outrage over Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's faux-philosophical Scion interview, it seems that metalheads, who seem to pride themselves on being "counter cultural," are preoccupying themselves with people rather than music. Why? Legal accusations and attempts at exclusivity via manifesto don't change the music at all, mutating the "why?" into a "why even bother?" Here is hoping 2012 imbues a little more class onto the general public.
Enough about silly, polarizing, trivial things in the metal spheres, because 2011 was pretty awesome for music. With labels like Handmade Birds, 20 Buck Spin, and Music Ruins Lives (among many, many more) churning out quality, personal releases. As far as I'm concerned, labels like these who take a personal stake in every single one of their releases are a positive sign of things to come. Such special attention given to smaller, otherwise unnoticed artists could (and probably will) lead to a greater public appreciation for original, heartfelt music made and produced by some of the most passionate individuals in the music scene. Major labels, take note, because this is how it's done.
A treatise on year-end lists: You will only see the word "crusty" used as an adjective in The Inarguable if and when the band I am describing is a crust punk and/or crust punk related group. It is a shame to see such a delightfully disgusting, genre-indicative word become a "flavor of the week" descriptive term. A word to the wise, Autopsy's new album isn't "crusty," it's fucking death metal. Stop it.
Now that I've bitched for far longer than I should have, here are my favorite releases of the past year.
I waited four long, impatient years for this album, and, goddammit, the duo of Shane Church and Andy Krupinski delivered. Crooked Neck's unique blend of dreamy, subdued post-punk, pop, and black metal sensibilities is absolutely brilliant. A glimmering light in the "post-black metal" genre, in which I don't think Crooked Necks should even exist, Alright Is Exactly What It Isn't is one of those near-perfect, introspective albums which will never get old, or leave my record player, for that matter.
Dallas, Texas duo Garry Brents and Chris Francis, with help from Phobia guitarist Dorian Rainwater, have unleashed a passionate, enraged monster with Cara Neir's sophomore album, Stagnant Perceptions. Brents's awe-inspiring fusion of dark, melodious hardcore with black metal is nothing short of masterful, and when paired with Francis's unabashedly pissed-the-fuck-off vocals, Cara Neir's excellent mix brings "blackened crust" to new, progressive heights. Brents and Francis's fearless, self-released masterpiece is proof that you don't need a label to successfully release a monumental album.
I might not have been super into the more-or-less "traditional" bluesy sludge leanings of A Glorious Piece of Blue-Sky, but Chicago heavyweights The Atlas Moth have more than left an impression with An Ache For The Distance. As much doom metal as it is psychedelic pop, AAFTD is an exercise in taste, whether it be the three never-colliding guitars, the massive, yet easy-to-follow atmospheres, and the heady arrangements which make this album something to behold. I expect great things in The Atlas Moth's near future.
Just a few days ago I was completely sure that Low's C'Mon wouldn't be one of my absolute favorites of this year. I found myself disappointed in their Neil Young-inspired folk rock direction, but, they're still my absolute favorite band of all time, so I felt extremely conflicted. Revisiting the album due to guilt, I suddenly realized I had absolutely every element of the album memorized. Memorized. Odd, I know, but I realized at that exact moment just how much I adore this album. Alan, Mimi, and Steve craft delicate, emphatic pop songs dealing with misery, uncertainty, and veiled references to Mormonism. A friend did them justice when he described them as "lullabies for adults." Gorgeous.
Multi-instrumentalist A. Tolonen's triumphant return to the music world after the demise of his former project, Nest, Syven delves into shaman-like, naturalistic territory. Paired with extraordinarily talented vocalist A. K-S., this Finnish/English duo have unleashed the musical equivalent of Finland's deep pine forests. Mystical, haunting music, influenced by old shamanic rituals and Finland's ancient history. A necessity for any fan of neofolk or "ritual ambient," Aikaintaite has rekindled my love for the folkier side of music. Play this album through a good stereo, light some candles (or incense, if you're into that) and let Aikaintaite envelop you.
Oh look, another duo! Esoteric, extremely prolific Finnish duo Circle of Ouroborus take black metal to a new realm with Eleven Fingers. The murky, bloated, underwater post-punk-meets-black metal sensibilities of Eleven Fingers sets Circle of Ouroborus apart from the crowd, drawing comparisons as distant as Boards of Canada or dreampop/post-punk favorites Lowlife. Eleven Fingers's round, unassuming sound and complacent, half-spoken vocals leads to a near-relaxing listen, which is a rare feat for black metal. Another stellar release from the band who never seems to sleep, Eleven Fingers is merely a sign of things to come from this cult project.
I absolutely love country music, and, if it were up to me, everyone would at least enjoy it. North Carolina "alt-country" group Mount Moriah, boasting vocalist Heather McEntire (formerly of Bellafea) and guitarist Jenks Miller (Horseback) among its ranks, have undoubtedly released one of the finest albums of 2011, even beating out Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, a personal favorite. A strong mix of foot-tapping folk rock and downtrodden, lovelorn ballads, Mount Moriah is one of those albums which will definitely stand the test of time. Absolutely brilliant, memorable music made by lovely people.
Maybe it's the music nerd in me, but I absolutely cannot get enough of this album. Chief songwriter Faith Coloccia's expertly crafted, piano-led music runs the gamut from post-rock to scholarly, heady modern classical music and Tuvan throat singing, all while retaining a flowing, thoughtful sound. Mare Decendrii is one of those albums you can listen to over and over again without ever losing interest; deliciously dark, but with gossamer strands of light shining through the cracks. As I had stated in my review way back in April, Mare Decendrii is a labor of love, and my sentiments haven't changed. A true artistic success.
As far as I'm concerned, Yob is one of the absolute pinnacles of doom metal, and Atma only furthers that. Atmospheric, riffy, heavy, and wonderfully raw, Mike Scheidt's Yob has proven itself to be like a fine wine, ever improving with age. Atma's aggressive nature smashes the listener with an almost religious power. There is no other band like Yob and I doubt I would be the person I am today without their music. Yob will forever be one of my absolute favorites, and Atma has proven itself to be one of the absolute best albums of 2011.
I can't get enough of this album. An absolutely perfect mix of downtrodden post-punk and heavy, doom-laden metal. With their debut album, Alaric has proven themselves to be the proverbial dark horse this year, capturing many hearts (including mine) with their unique brand of music. Filled with infectious hooks and mighty choruses, Alaric is the soundtrack to the later years of a depressed, former punk-rocker. Alaric is, in my opinion, the uncontested champion of 2011. If you haven't heard it, you have absolutely no idea what you're missing.
1. Mournful Congregation - "The Book of Kings" [20 Buck Spin Records]: The kings of funeral doom lay waste to pretenders to the throne. Emotional, uncompromising, and incredibly crushing.
2. Panopticon - "Social Disservices" [Flenser Records]: Panopticon's finest hour, Social Disservices is a scathing social commentary on the shortcomings of government-implemented social services. A black metal masterpiece.
3. Heinali and Matt Finney - "Ain't No Night" [Paradigms Recordings]: A gorgeous marriage of "doomgaze" and despondent, self-loathing spoken word. Like anti-depressants, I would advise against mixing this with liquor.
4. Anatomy of Habit - "Anatomy of Habit" [Self-Released]: Another Chicago favorite, underground supergroup Anatomy of Habit's excellent mix of post-punk with experimental doom metal (more on the doom metal side for this release) has proven itself to be one of my favorite local releases.
5. Negative Plane - "Stained Glass Revelations" [The Ajna Offensive/Invictus Productions]: Is it death metal? Is it black metal? Who cares, it rules. Hail Satan.
Best demos/EPs/re-releases of 2011:
Since I don't really include the aforementioned release types in "Top ##" lists, here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:
Pg.99 - "Singles" [Robotic Empire]: The absolute kings of screamo/dark hardcore's singles get revamped by soundmaster James Plotkin. Naturally, it turned out great.
Thou - "The Archer & The Owle" [Robotic Empire/Gilead Media]: I wasn't too into Summit, but Louisiana's prolific doom squad did more than impress with this compilation of Summit session recordings.
Circle of Ouroborus - "Armon Keitaalla" [Self-Released]: This triple-cassette box sold out within two hours (and I didn't get one!). Heralds back to the more metal-oriented recordings found on their split with Urfaust. Circle of Ouroborus never fails to impress.
Locrian/Horseback - "New Dominions" [Utech Records]: The finest in the US's experimental scene team up to create one of the weirdest, coolest collaborations ever. Get this one if you can.
Locrian - "Dort ist der Weg b/w Frozen in Ash" [FlingcoSoundSystem]: A doomed cover of a Popol Vuh song makes perfect sense for Chicago trio Locrian, and the power electronics-meets-black metal-meets-folk B-side is even cooler.
Swamp Witch - "Gnosis" [Gay Scientist Records]: Tripped-out death/doom of the finest caliber with a surprisingly fun B-side. Keep these guys on your radar.
Wreck & Reference - "Black Cassette" [Self-Released/Music Ruins Lives/Flenser Records]: Initially true to its release namesake, this EP was re-released on CD by Music Ruins Lives and LP by Flenser Records. Eagerly awaiting this "electronic doom metal" band's debut full-length on Flenser Records next Spring.
Planning for Burial - "Late Twenties Blues" [Music Ruins Lives]: Excellently gloomy demos from this ambitious New Jersey-ite. If these are just demo takes, the next Planning for Burial album, tentatively titled Desideratum will be absolutely flooring.
Wanderlust - "The Glory of Memory" [Self-Released]: Riffs, and lots of them. You like early Satyricon? Well, you're in luck.
Botanist - "The Suicide Tree/A Rose For The Dead" [tUMULt]: Emotionally vacant black metal performed entirely on hammered dulcimer and drums.
THAT TOOK A LONG TIME TO DO.