Albums of 2010 – Bingen, Blackie… and black metal. Part I: The Present
18/12/2010 § Leave a comment
2010 was an unusual year for me. Though I spent a great deal of time listening to metal from the 90s and 80s, I think it’s true to say more effort than ever was made to experiment with new music and to mine the depths of the current release market.
Metal is not moving anywhere at a particularly fast pace. Things are still promising for those that like their metal to be ever-rooted in the traditional, but if you’re the kind of person who likes the constant flux and twists of new ever-developing subgenres, 2010 was hardly the year to serve up an amazing dish for you.
Labels are feeling the pull as well. It’s becoming more and more difficult for the smaller labels to sell records, thus more difficult for smaller bands to be signed. Indeed, a lot of artists no longer know what to do with their music when it comes to release – whether to self-finance, agree to advances, or go purely for distribution. Even Radiohead’s idea of letting the listener choose the payment, when transposed to artists such as Omar Rodriguez Lopez, saw the $0 minimum increase to $5.
At the top end Accept, Overkill, Immolation, Heathen, Seventh Wonder and the like put out fine offerings to a high standard, but there was nothing there that really grabbed me by the throat. As time goes on it becomes increasingly difficult for any album to make me sit up and take notice of it. Even the more traditional prog albums which I was breathlessly anticipating such as Allen/Lande and Star One did nothing to ignite any enthusiasm after a couple of listens. And I’m buggered if I’m going to start screwing around with more post-metal.
It’s all too easy to slag off new releases. Far more easy than to say anything constructive. So in this journal entry I will only give a run-down of what I thought were the most interesting albums this year. I won’t comment on albums which were merely good – or as good as expected – but those that went over the bar.
Phelios – Astral Unity
There were a few dark ambient releases that were decent in 2010, though they mostly trod the same paths that the genre has for a long time. Little variety or experimentation. Phelios’s Astral Unity was perhaps the only album that I kept coming back to time and time again. I’m getting very tired of cheap-sounding synths in dark ambient, these days favouring the more organic works [yes, that’s the use of “organic” in its literal sense] by the Helixes collective. However, Phelios clearly knows what he’s doing and has a realistic focus on keeping the music classy and simple. Reminiscent of mid-period raison d’etre in places and with a heavy smattering of chilled industrial-like ambience in others, Astral Unity managed to be the most interesting dark ambient album I heard this year.
Deathspell Omega – Paracletus
These days I detest traipsing over to 4chan for any reason at all, the entire website has become a thickened cesspool of idiocy. The music board is hardly an exception – however, if you can stomach it, it is worth going there every so often to see which albums are being spoken of on a regular basis. DSO’s Paracletus was extolled barely minutes after its leak with the overspill oozing into Last FM. Paracletus did a rare thing for me in that it became my entry album into black metal, a genre which I have experimented with over and over throughout the years with no success. But after Paracletus I realised why I had disliked black metal for so long – because I simply found it too repetitive.
I’ll admit to knowing nothing of DSO’s back catalogue but, after I have assaulted my senses a few more times with their latest album, I’ll delve into it. Paracletus, for its part, did something which no album has done for me in recent memory. It perplexed me. I spent the entire first listen in a state of wonder and bewilderment. The sound of the album is relentlessly chaotic and cacophonic, but in its sonic maelstrom you can tell there is organisation, there are patterns, and only after a very long time will you be able to work out what and where they are.
It’s not like DSO doesn’t throw you a lifeline every so often though. There are moments in Wings of Predation and the excellent Malconfort where there are accessible riffs which make the music slightly more easy to digest – but even these moments have an eerie and alien quality to them. DSO’s otherworldly, screeching, barbed guitar tone makes the most melodic riff unsettling to listen to but for me, this makes it all the more fascinating. Paracletus is a work of such complex and pitch-dark wonder, that each listen is like running through a nightmare you don’t want to end. Mix this with truly excellent lyrics and artwork and you have the formula for one of the very best creations to be released in the last 12 months.
Orphaned Land – The Neverending Way of ORwarriOR
Mabool was always going to be a very tough act to follow. In creating ORwarriOR, OL crafted something far more complex and inaccessible than its predecessor. For many months of 2010 ORwarriOR was quite simply the best progressive metal release, superior to the highly-rated output by bands such as Demians or Haken. ORwarriOR has colour, it has emotion, originality and fantastic musicianship.
The sum of all it parts means that ORwarriOR is a difficult work to swallow, and throughout the first couple of spins most of it went totally over my head. A truly good album should make you want to come back to it time and time again in spite of your initial lack of comprehension, and this is exactly what ORwarriOR did for me. Its complexity and variety has divided the fanbase considerably, many still opting to prefer Mabool, but for me it is certainly the superior of the two. In spite of the other releases from this year – ORwarriOR is possibly the only one I would truly call a masterwork – a term than gets used far too often these days. But here, I feel, it is certainly justified.
Cloudkicker – Beacons
I’m slightly ashamed of myself for not realising sooner that the track titles for Beacons came from snippets of black box recordings – in most cases the last words of the crew. A morbid but original idea. I’ve been following Ben Sharp’s work in Cloudkicker for quite a few years now but Beacons is by far the strongest offering he’s put out. The Discovery, while having some excellent tracks in it, did suffer from a lack of variety and finesse, through Beacons has almost entirely resolved this issue.
Beacons’ strength lies in its cohesion. It is a far better played and planned album than The Discovery. Not only this, but Sharp has pulled back on the heaviness, no longer drowning each track with grand hammer-thumps of power-chorded heaviness. Beacons relies on a classier, more elegant approach to math-metal: full of variety, excellent cross-sections, and clean production. Cloudkicker may not have needed to mature to a very large degree, but this development in the evolutionary cycle is a welcome shift.
Agalloch – Marrow of the Spirit
Agalloch are a band who I’d never quite got to grips with till now. In spite of seeing them live and listening to Pale Folklore, The Mantle and Ashes Against the Grain multiple times, they were always a group whom I had considered too dry. Too gimmicky. And though I could see the attraction of the band, it still came across as music for the easily-impressed.
Marrow of the Spirit sees Agalloch move away from a folk or doom metal trajectory and into the arena of black metal, specifically atmospheric black metal. Never had I thought I’d come out of 2010 liking not one – but two albums in the black metal category. But what makes MOTS work – and work so well – is that it doesn’t feel try-hard. It doesn’t feel unnatural. Now, four albums down the line, it feels as if the band are inhabiting a space which they genuinely belong in.
MOTS is ostensibly a journey, every point of which is meticulously plotted. The album dives from harsh sections with rasping vocals and blast beats to cool acoustic sections with clean vocals and long instrumental melodies. Special mention should be given to the sound production too, which gives each instrument its own personality, place and crispness in the music without sacrificing any of the atmosphere or natural feel of the album.
At its very centre and heart, MOTS is a long trek through a bleak, cold and dark musical landscape, but one peppered with beauty and mysticism. In spite of delving into the album time and time again, there is still much to discover and much to praise, and each time you choose to embark on the journey, there is something new to see and appreciate. The darkest Agalloch is by far the best yet.
Album of the Year:
Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles [II]
I remember when I first heard CC back in 2008, they were like nothing I had experienced to that point. I was transfixed by their debut and it became one of my most played albums of all time in a matter of weeks.
I don’t have my finger on the Pitchfork pulse as much I could, so by the time CC’s second offering had hit the internet I hadn’t even been aware that it was in the works. On first listen I was prepared for a downturn in quality or at the very least a radical shift in a less than radical direction. What I – and other critics – found to our glee, was that CC’s sophomore album was even better than their first.
If there was one thing which grated with CCI, it was the inclusion of the harsh, screeching, ‘electronic clatter’ as I remember describing it in 2008. Though there is still an element of this on CCII, it has been massively reduced, CC focusing far more on melody. CCII has more texture, more feeling and more confidence than their debut album. Its beautiful, shimmering synths have a waterlike fluidity and some of the harmonics and effects are stunning. More than anything – and what really shunts CCII into the lead for me – is that it feels fresh. It feels young, eager, energetic. It feels new and intriguing.
That’s not to say that CCII isn’t a dark album, and there are times where a grimness intentionally creeps into a number of the songs. The band, in spite of the bouncy nature of some of their tracks, have never been ones to make ‘happy’ music, and even those tunes which carry elasticity and buoyancy seem to be founded on irony and cynicism.
As much as I relish overanalsysis and picking musical holes, Crystal Castles are a band who I truly find difficult to fault. Nowadays music listeners are told more than ever what is fashionable, what is original or what is necessary – but Crystal Castles genuinely excel on each count.