Thursday, May 13, 2021
It might be easy to forget if you weren't around at the time, but back in Grave Miasma's heyday they were a Big Fuckin' Deal. The term "caverncore" has fallen out of favor in recent years (likely because it sounds like a pejorative, though personally I use it value-neutrally) but when that style was first really blowing up about a decade ago, Grave Miasma was one of the earliest bands to really show how to do it well. Heaps of influence from Incantation, murky production, chaotic songwriting, particular attention paid to atmosphere, all the tropes were codified in part by these guys back when the wave was beginning to swell. Their debut full length, Odori Sepulcrorum stands as a classic in the little microgenre they occupy, so their long awaited followup, Abyss of Wrathful Deities, has been one of the most anticipated albums of the year for death metal fans.
I'm five or six listens down at this point, and what this has really done has reaffirmed my belief that Grave Miasma was always the least interesting of these early studs. Obviously they can't sniff the socks of Incantation, but when it comes to their peers, the two they are most often compared to outshine them in every way. Dead Congregation and Cruciamentum seem to be spiritually tied to Grave Miasma, all three of whom are examples of early bands showcasing this new breed of Incantation influence and having an agonizingly slow release schedule, but the former two are a hell of a lot better when it comes to crafting memorable experiences. Dead Congregation throws curveballs all the god damned time, never tipping their hand as to what the next section of music is going to bring, lurching frantically between fast and slow moments and clobbering you over the head with morbid nastiness at every turn. Cruciamentum hunkers down into vicious grooves and rides out musical anxiety attacks with razor sharp riffage cutting through the thick atmosphere. Grave Miasma, on the other hand, is just that, a miasma. It's thick and noxious and just kinda floats around without any real purpose.
It's a shame because obviously I really enjoy bands that are very similar to this idea, it takes very little tweaking to change an album like Abyss of Wrathful Deities into Graves of the Archangels, but those tweaks haven't been made here. There's very little actual excitement to be found on this album. I personally hate the argument of "it all sounds the same!" because it's almost always said by somebody who has no idea what they're even looking for, but man it's true this time. Like, sure there are tempo shifts across and within songs but they all somehow sound like they're the same speed. "Rogyapa" starts with an incredibly intense drum fill before flying into a screaming Kerry King style solo, but the riff underneath is just some walking tremolo patterns while the drums technically fire away with high speed double bass, but the snare and cymbals are placed very far apart in the pattern, giving the illusion that the section is moving much slower than it actually is. This could be a neat effect but it feels so woefully misplaced when the rest of the album is actually as slow as this particular section feels. It's rare that the tempo truly feels above mid paced, instead meandering between strolling and trotting and as a result the whole thing just drags. It feels like it's holding itself back whenever it tries to break free. It turns the album into a hazy slog where thirty minutes can pass by without me noticing a single interesting thing happening.
Grave Miasma is the type of band to focus on atmosphere above riffs, and while that isn't necessarily my preference, it's still totally valid and can produce some excellent shit (see the other bands I've namedropped here). The problem is that the atmosphere on display here is very monotonous. This is the same fuckin' problem I have with Ulcerate, we do not need 53 minutes of the same damn idea in a row. The actual elements change of course, they aren't literally playing the same riffs in the same order at the same speed on every track, but when the effect of each song is functionally identical then they might as well be. My old analogy about a long rollercoaster applies here as well; there may be a lot of twists and turns and starts and stops but at the end of the day you're really just doing the same loop-de-loops on the same track over and over again. I'm always worried when every track on an album is basically the same length for this exact reason and that's the case here as well. Of the eight non-interlude tracks, six of them are within the six minute window, while one is ten seconds short and the other ten seconds over. They wind up playing with the same ideas with the same tempos for the same general length of time on each track and holy shit why should I be invested in that for nearly an hour?
I wish I liked this, because I adore Grave Miasma's peers and influences, but they've always managed to whiff the execution for me, and eight years after Odori Sepulcrorum I find myself up against the same problems again. This is overwhelming in a negative way, just the same brown air languidly wafting back and forth for an extended period of time with no actual punch to direct it in any real direction. And that's just really, really, really fucking boring.
Tuesday, May 4, 2021
A trendy move, but a good one
It always takes a few years for new trends to catch on, and I think we've recently been seeing the ripples left by In Solitude's third and final album, Sister, becoming a roiling surge years later. Shortly after their abrupt left turn from Mercyful Fate styled heavy metal to a dark, downbeat gothic rock/metal hybrid with heavy influence from goth staples like Bauhaus and Fields of the Nephilim, we saw Tribulation abandon death metal to hit a similar sound, and in the years since we've seen more and more bands adopt the style. The biggest one is undoubtedly Idle Hands/Unto Others in my circles of the internet, but I can only foresee more burgeoning into the spotlight as it becomes more comercially/artistically safe.
Of all the bands to hop on this trend, I don't think there was a better candidate than Lunar Shadow. I'm using the term "trendhopping" in a value-neutral way here, despite knowing that it's typically a pejorative. What Lunar Shadow did here was shift their sound to more closely emulate a style that is trending positively, that is a trendhop, pure and simple. The reason I'm not upset with it this time is because it turns out this is exactly what Lunar Shadow needed to do to properly play to their strengths. Unlike high profile shifts that I vocally hated, these Germans didn't abandon their strengths with the shift, and instead directly enhanced them. Enforcer traded being the best speed metal band in the world to become an average glam metal band. Skeletonwitch traded being one of the only consistently relevant American thrash bands that didn't form 40 years ago to become the ten trillionth mediocre atmoblack band. Lunar Shadow, on the other hand, traded being a mediocre trad metal revival band that simply "had potential" to become something that fully unlocks said potential. That's the key difference here.
Far from Light and The Smokeless Fires were both novel curiosities to me. They were rollicking heavy metal in the typical Cruz del Sur vein, but there was always something a little more interesting/frustrating about them. Both albums were great and terrible at the same time. Great riffs but bad vocals, cool atmosphere attached to songs that didn't really suit it, production that was interesting but not exactly good, touches of black metal influence that never really got to shine or recontextualize the songs, et cetera forever. Max always struck me as a great guitarist with great ideas but was constantly saddled with shitty vocalists and couldn't seem to get his cool ideas to manifest in a way that worked. And that's why Wish to Leave works so well. It turns out the problem all along was that he was simply writing in the wrong genre. The atmosphere was always so damn strong on those first few albums so it makes total sense to shift to a genre that focuses much more on atmosphere in the first place. The riffs were always cool and melodic but never really went anywhere, but that's not a problem here since this dreamlike wateriness allows the riffs to breathe and wander freely while clean arpeggios over the top keep things grounded. The vocals always kinda sucked but that's fine this time since they're less a focal point and more of a background element that adds color to the atmosphere instead of distracts from pummeling riffage. The Smokeless Fires sounded like a decent album that was unsure of itself but Wish to Leave sounds like a definitive statement by a band that finally found their calling.
The majority of the album is very laid back and cool-toned, but there are a few elements of fire near in the back end. "And Silence Screamed" is the obvious example, starting off with double bass and a very twisty Iron Maiden style melody that used to be the band's bread and butter, but after four tracks of more relaxed psychedelia it hits pretty hard and feels like a fun diversion from the mopey sadness that the album had been wallowing in, despite lyrically following the same threads. This is also where the album's biggest flaw shines through to a degree though, and that's that the new approach has led to a very soft guitar tone and distant, echoey drums, which works excellently on tracks like "I Will Lose You" and "To Dusk and I Love You", but is shockingly ill-suited to galloping heavy metal riffs. It feels like an odd but intentional aesthetic choice on "And Silence Screamed", but there is a random heavy bit that pops up occasionally in "Serpents Die" and it sounds hilariously dinky there. "The Darkness Between the Stars" should be the worst offender in this regard since it's the lone track where their sparse black metal influence unexpectedly returns, but the blasting comes from out of nowhere and thanks to the very wide open snare drum sound it winds up sounding overwhelming and dramatic instead of incoherent and confusing. The fact that Lunar Shadow didn't go whole hog and just rip off Idle Hands completely despite that being a very obvious influence here is fantastic and helps a lot when it comes to my previous point of them enhancing their strengths. The odd off-genre bits used to be cool but weren't effective, whereas this time they saved them all for the final song and it ultimately works beautifully and turns the song into the most monumental one on the album.
Idle Hands is an obvious comparison since they were such a surprise hit two years ago and Lunar Shadow is obviously aiming for that same crowd here. Basically every issue I had with Mana isn't a problem on Wish to Leave. Instead of the weak vocals being the focal point and vessel to deliver every hook, the wimpy vocals are mostly a textural element that shines occasionally but usually cedes ground to the atmosphere. Instead of the riffs being contractual afterthoughts they're quietly creative in very evocative ways. Instead of the lyrics being dumb sophomoric poetry that made my 15 year old self cringe, the lyrics don't even matter to me because the music is actually fuckin' interesting and paints a perfect picture without the need for words.
tl;dr - Lunar Shadow finally got it right by completely shifting their approach to songwriting. Of all the bands I was expecting a hit from, these guys weren't on the list at all. Wish to Leave is by no means perfect (it tends to blur together and the songs typically don't stand apart from each other all that well, and the vocals do still suck, they're just less prominent and easier to ignore now) but I am very pleasantly surprised.
Saturday, March 6, 2021
Two elephants I've gotta knock out right away:
1) "Why the fuck are you talking about this band?": I like ADTR, sorry yo. I've racked up hundreds of plays over the years, they're one of the few bands my wife and I both like, they were a highlight of Riot Fest 2012, they're just a damn fun time and I've enjoyed them ever since I first heard "Downfall of Us All" like a decade ago. I know now that "easycore" was a short lived scene back in the day helmed by acts like The Wonder Years and New Found Glory, but the first time I heard a band hopscotch between Killswitch Engage and Yellowcard my brain just couldn't comprehend it. It's such a compatible blend and I'd never even considered it. So naturally I'm gonna latch on to the first I heard, and that just so happens to be A Day to Remember. Also let's be real, my production has been super slow this year and this is one of the few albums I heard and immediately had something to say.
2) "This album fucking sucks, there is only one heavy song this time!": Well, yes and no. I may like the band despite them clashing with what most readers know me for, but there's really no way to sugar coat it, You're Welcome is really fucking bad. However it's not a pure pop album like a lot of disappointed fans are claiming. Don't get me wrong, it's far and away their lightest and least beefy album, but it's kinda natural that the band would soften over time since they've always had soft influences in their music and they undeniably hit their peak in popularity when they released "All I Want" as a single, which at the time was the most radio friendly pop punk type song they'd written up to that point. Let's not act surprised that they've been chasing that dragon for a decade. But back to the original point, this is much closer to What Separates Me from You than any given album in the Millennial Monogenre*. The parallels are actually pretty hilarious because it seems like they're deliberately trying to strike that same lightning in a bottle. "Last Chance to Dance" is the only song that's heavy most of the way through, but "2nd Sucks" was the only song that was heavy the whole way through on that 2010 album. They only had two other songs that amped up the metalcore portion of their sound, those being the opener and one more near the end, which is uh, exactly what they did this time too. The actual quality across the board is much lower here, but people bellyaching that they've abandoned their old style are both dead wrong and way behind on the times, because you're never getting another For Those Who Have Heart and you weren't going to get another one at any point since 2007.
I enjoy What Separates Me from You. It's not a masterpiece by any means but they were still in their prime and tracks like "All I Want" and "All Signs Point to Lauderdale" may have had zero metalcore in them but they had incredible hooks and remain huge fan favorites to this day, to say nothing of bangers like "Sticks and Bricks". The issue with You're Welcome is half new, half old. The old problem is simply that their knack for hooks has depreciated a shitload over the years. "My Life for Hire" has been stuck in my head for a decade but after several listens I still don't remember a fucking thing about "Looks Like Hell" or "Re-Entry". They're clearly aiming for hooks more than anything else by this point, but the creativity well has completely dried up at this point. And that leads to the new problem: in the absence of breakdowns and screaming, they used to rely on pop punk tropes to get by. A lot of what they did sounded like mid-era The Offspring or the one good Yellowcard song. But now?
*-Yeah that was a psyche-out, they tap into the Millennial Monogenre so fucking much on this album that it borders on parody. Tracks like "Blood Sucker", "Only Money", and "High Diving" are so derivative and uninspired that Imagine Dragons deserves royalties from this album. The band described this as a "happier" album, which yeah I suppose that's true, but by leaning on shitty EDM cliches and Millennial Whoops they've morphed into something completely indistinguishable from any given modern rock band. If you've been out of the loop, rock music in its current form is a lot less about four people playing instruments in their garage (which is fine, that scene still exists but it isn't the popular one anymore) and is much more about super glossy anthems where the guitars take a secondary role to vocal melodies and a billion layers of production tricks. That's fine, whatever, it's not for me but it's not artistically dead on arrival. The problem with this is that ADTR has gone from being the last visibly relevant easycore band with an instantly recognizable style to just another one of a billion no-name sycophants who sound exactly like this. If not for the five or six breakdowns and McKinnon's vocals, you could have told me this was the new Fall Out Boy album and I wouldn't have questioned it. McKinnon made very clear that the band's intention was to branch out, mature, and try new things without alienating old fans by becoming unrecognizable, but holy fuck did he whiff on that goal.
The band collaborated with EDM superstar, Marshmello, a few years ago, and boy howdy did that rub off on them. The Imagine Dragons knockoffs are loaded with an obnoxious wall of synth, there's annoying thudding and plonking throughout "Degenerates", even the heavy songs get infected with this as evidenced by the bloated staticy synth mirroring the guitars during the breakdowns in "Resentment" and "Viva la Mexico". I don't necessarily hate that on principle ("Degenerates" is actually one of the few tracks where classic ADTR peeks out in the bridge) but it's pervasive and unavoidable. I mean god damn the verse of "Permanent" sounds like somebody in the studio was listening to "Shut Up and Dance" by Walk the Moon and it bled into the masters and nobody noticed. These new sounds are really hamfisted and forced into tracks where they clearly don't fit. Absolutely nobody listened to "Thrash Unreal" by Against Me! and thought it would be better if David Guetta produced it but here comes A Day to Remember with "Re-Entry" to let us know how awful it would've been anyway.
I don't touch on lyrics very often, but ADTR is one of the bands where it's kind of necessary, both because the music itself isn't all that interesting beyond what I outlined in the last two paragraphs, and because they're a massive part of their appeal. I've spoken to fans both online and offline who have cited them as the best aspect of the band and to have both inspired them and helped lift them out of dark places. The thing is... are we listening to the same band? Even on the albums I like the lyrics are absolute trash and they always have been. I think McKinnon's lyrics strike such a nerve with me because they remind me of every meathead fuck I knew in high school. For a band so famous for vulnerability and positivity they are fucking loaded simultaneously with insincere machismo and woe-is-me moaning. He constantly flip flops between how much of a badass alpha chad he is ("YOU DON'T HAVE TO LIKE ME BUT YOU'RE GONNA RESPECT ME!") and how much of a put-upon victim he is ("I hate this town, it's so washed up, and all my friends don't give a fuck") and sometimes a particularly insufferable blend of the two ("This one goes out to everyone who's lied to my face! MY HEART IS FILLED WITH HATE!"). Maybe this shouldn't bother me but holy fuck everybody knows a guy who is both somebody who swears that he's somebody you don't want to fuck with while paradoxically doing nothing but complaining. There has never been any introspection or vulnerability in ADTR's lyrics. Every single song has always been about how they're going to kick your ass or about how sad they are because of external forces. It's always their shitty hometown, shitty relationships, shitty two-faced lying fake friends, hell I think Common Courtesy is their last worthwhile album but it's undeniably all about how shitty their label is. It's never problems they need to work through, it's always something else's fault. It's the living embodiment of that dude you used to know who's favorite show is South Park and lists his biggest dislike as "stupid people". Bro, if everybody you know seems to be an asshole, that might be because you're an asshole. And he constantly contradicts himself to the point of total exhaustion. He desperately needs to escape his hometown and live life on the road but he's so proud of Ocala that he'll open an album with how great his hometown is. Most of these examples are pulled from previous albums mostly because this one is so unmemorable that I can't be fucked to learn what he's saying, but the contradictory nature of the lyrics shines here too, so it's not like he's just grown as a person and the songs have taken on a different character over time. He's completely stuck as the same person he was as a teenager and everything comes off as super phony because there's no logical consistency in the messaging. "Last Chance to Dance" is about shitty lying friends who make his life miserable while "Degenerates" is about how his friends are shitty liars but they're his friends and he wouldn't trade them for the world. "F.Y.M." is about fantasizing about coming into a massive financial windfall and giving everybody the finger as he escapes his shitty life and starts over, while "Only Money" is all about the huge moments in life he's had to miss because he's always on the road and how money is pointless compared to the memories made with loved ones. Maybe this is why I stay away from looking at lyrics too hard, holy shit I hate everything that comes out of McKinnon's mouth. Nothing is ever his fault. He's the perfect specimen and everything about him that sucks can be explained by some other individual person or place. I'm all for systemic critique but that's not what he does, he just bitches about other people bringing him down while he pulls on his bootstraps just long enough to call somebody else a motherfucker before going back to complaining about how despite his undeniable success he's still a put-upon Randian Superman who isn't king of the world because somebody else is bringing him down. Fuck this shit so hard.
Okay so obviously I had an itch to scratch with the lyrical content, but hey, the lyrics are a big part of the band's brand and it turns out it's the shittiest part about them by a wide margin. The album itself is a mess regardless. It seems trite to loop back to it after a 1000 word rant about how much the lyrics get under my skin, but the fans are right when they say that You're Welcome is a shitty pop album, they're just wrong when they say that it's shitty because it's pop. It's shitty because it comes off as phony and taking influence from widely reviled bands, completely abandoning their signature sound in favor of becoming just another rando. I believe them when they say in interviews that this was a genuine effort to branch out, but they wound up sounding more plastic than the packaging the CD comes in. The Imagine Dragons comparison wasn't an exaggeration by any stretch. "Blood Sucker" sounds almost exactly like "Believer" and if that doesn't highlight why this album isn't worth checking out then I don't know what will. It's pretty telling that they've been getting pilloried for this album on social media and the first singles released have 20-30 million streams on Spotify, while the later ones have closer to 3 million and the rest of the album is struggling to break 3 thousand. The veil has been lifted and I'm far from the first person to realize this album is total dogshit.
Friday, February 12, 2021
I'm Bastard in the Head, and this is Trainwreckords
Skip this paragraph if you don't care about the metashit, but I want to explain my thought process here in why I'm choosing such a weird album to talk about in The Year of our Lord 2021. It's pretty apparent if you're familiar with any of my early reviews as a teenager in the late 2000s that I was a big fan of the trend of snarky internet reviewers, Spoony and Brad Jones especially. I've largely moved away from that entirely and tend to spend my youtube time with more broad, thoughtful analysis than just pointing at things and saying they suck while making wildly hyperbolic statements about how Album X makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a claw hammer and everybody involved in the creation of Album Y needs to be fed to mutated bees or whatever. However there's one from that era I still follow, Todd in the Shadows, the pop music reviewer. He's basically the only person from that era who nailed the double whammy of escaping with his integrity intact without a massive change in format. One of his occasional series is Trainwreckords, videos about albums that were so bad that they irreparably tarnished reputations and/or ended careers. Think of MC Hammer's gangsta rap album or Jewel's disastrous dance-pop sellout, that kind of thing. For about a year now I've been wanting to rip off that conceit and do a metal-themed series along those same lines. The reason the idea sat in limbo for so long is because I very quickly realized that the careers of metal bands simply don't operate the same way a pop artist's does. Almost every candidate I had in mind wound up not really working because metal bands bounce back from seemingly everything. Iron Maiden's The X Factor was loathed on release, but the band never missed a step, got Bruce back, and went on to essentially remake that album five times in a row with glowing fanfare each time. Everybody thought Judas Priest's Turbo was an egregious sellout but they just kept on trucking and wound up releasing their best album four years later. Metallica has survived like four extinction level events, Manowar had a clear dropoff but nobody can seem to agree which album was the last good one, Celtic Frost, Cryptopsy, Morbid Angel, Grave Digger, Slayer, all of them released huge bombs that they ultimately recovered from without much lasting issue. The only album I considered that wound up making sense was this one, Pantera's Reinventing the Steel.
Pantera may have never been popular in the underground necessarily, but it's impossible to overstate how much they dominated the 90s. They were the metal band (besides Metallica of course) that everybody knew, and they released four albums that decade, all massive hits with huge singles that dominated rock radio airwaves (less so with Trendkill but that one makes up for its lack of radio success by being the one Pantera album that Extremely Online Metalloids allow themselves to like), and then just... suddenly they weren't. Reinventing the Steel stands out precisely because it doesn't stand out whatsoever. I was a 90s kid that grew up loving the shit out of Pantera, some of my earliest interactions with other people on the internet come from when I was 12 years old and pretending to be 18 so I could join Metallica and Pantera messageboards on Elektra's website, and even then, barely a year after this album dropped, nobody at all was talking about it anymore. It's a strange bunny fart at the end of an otherwise very successful career that even meathead superfans with Confederate flag tattoos and Big Dog t-shirts forgot about mere months later. I want to revisit the album for the first time since Diablo II was released to see if I can suss out why.
Upon relistening, the first thing I was struck by was how fucking good "Hellbound" is. Seriously, Trendkill is remembered nowadays as the most venomous and unhinged Pantera album by a fairly wide margin and "Hellbound" kicks this swansong off exactly where that classic finished off. It's basically "Sandblasted Skin" part two, and from minute zero it acts as buckshot to the face and amps the adrenaline off the fucking charts. You'd be forgiven for expecting the spiritual successor to "Strength Beyond Strength" judging by its immediate intensity and short runtime to kick off the album, but... you'd be wrong.
As good as "Hellbound" is, it also immediately signals a huge problem with Reinventing the Steel. "Strength Beyond Strength" is meticulously structured in three parts, starting off fast and furious, downshifting into a brutally sludgy slow part in the middle, and building to a fantastically exciting climax that showers you in vitriol. It's by no means novel or unique but it knew what it was doing and executed it very well. "Hellbound" on the other hand just... kinda ends. It goes verse-chorus-verse-chorus and then it just stops and moves on to the next song. It's really jarring because Pantera is known for simplistic groovy riffs and an overall aura of lunkhead jocks headbanging on two notes, but apart from a few flukey bad songs they were never really lazy. This sounds like they simply couldn't be fucking bothered to finish writing this song but felt like it had potential to be a good opener when they started writing it so they just went down with that ship.
The rest of the album suffers from this same problem but in varying ways. Some songs sound like they're just unfinished (like "Hellbound", "Death Rattle", and "We'll Grind that Axe for a Long Time") while others sound like they weren't workshopped at all and just recorded the first riff Dimebag could think of with no tweaking or variation across repeats (like "Yesterday Don't Mean Shit", "Uplift", and "You've Got to Belong to It"). Dime was always good at solos and shit at riffs, but he's never been shitter at riffs than on tracks like those. Reinventing the Steel winds up being surprisingly difficult to talk about simply because so little actually happens in it. It very much stinks of a band that can't stand to be in the same room together and just wants to get recording over with. It's pretty telling that this is a good ten minutes shorter than anything else from their groove era. You'd think this would be a good thing since there's always been a filler track or two and it's hard to groove for a solid hour without getting bored, but really it's a result of the band clearly wanting to just put this behind them and get out as fast as possible.
It's impossible to truly take this album in a vacuum because the behind the scenes drama shines through so effortlessly. It's well known that tensions within the band had been running extremely high for a long while by this point, with the Phil Anselmo being a strung out belligerent junkie and the Abbott brothers wanting nothing more than to cut bait and leave him out in the cold. If the few paragraphs of Rex Brown's autobiography that I found previewed on Google can be believed, the brothers themselves were also just genuinely unintelligent meatheads, with Vinnie being a loudmouth bully and Dime being a perpetually confused dimwit who couldn't handle his money if it was glued to his hands. I get the feeling that three of the four guys (excepting Dime, who by all accounts was a very nice guy who just wasn't too bright) were giant assholes who couldn't stand each other anymore. This tension goes as far back as Trendkill, but intra-band adversity has resulted in artistic brilliance before, likely the most famous being Fleetwood Mac's Rumors but even within the realm of metal you've got Painkiller or Persistence of Time being birthed from similar circumstances. The difference seems to be that after that tortured work of stressed out genius, there's either a notable member parting ways or the band just breaks up. Pantera made the critical mistake of trying to do this twice, because Reinventing the Steel shows what happens when the album in question acts as neither a catharsis nor an exit door for unhappy members, and they try to just "stay together for the kids", as it were. Trendkill was dark and violent and explosive, Steel is just a paycheck that nobody really wants to bother with anymore.
As a result, this album sounds exactly like what you'd expect given that knowledge. The band is on the verge of total collapse, the trademark great album that can sometimes happen when these conditions are met had already happened, nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to really try. Vinnie shines on "Hellbound" and one weird off-kilter bit in the bridge on "Uplift" but otherwise he's just going through the motions, Dimebag had precisely two standout riffs under the solo on "Death Rattle" and the intro to "I'll Cast a Shadow" (the former being most well known nowadays for being featured in an early episode of Spongebob Squarepants, which might seem bizarre but it's honestly the best riff on the album by a canyonesque margin so whoever chose to include that riff is a genius) and (for the first time) zero exciting solos, Phil's vocals flip flop between strained and uninterested, none of the songwriting has that tightened polish that their earlier albums had, everything is just a dull simulacra of what Pantera used to be. "Revolution is My Name" stands as one of the only enduring tracks from this release despite not being particularly good, and I think it's because it's the most Pantera-ish song out of all ten tracks. Even though it's pretty boring on the whole and the squealy bit in the intro is obnoxious, it at least sounds like a fully thought out song with a catchy chorus that wouldn't have sounded out of place as a weaker song on Vulgar Display of Power (or alternatively, a filler song on a late-era Lamb of God album). Unfortunately most of the album is just lazy and uninteresting. "You've Got to Belong to It" and "Uplift" are some of the worst tracks Pantera ever laid to tape, "Goddamn Electric" and "It Makes Them Disappear" might as well not exist for all the adrenaline they fail to produce, "Hellbound" is promising but clearly unfinished, et cetera forever. I know it's uncool for underground metalheads to like Pantera, but I think it's telling that the underground hate is usually directed at Vulgar Display of Power or Far Beyond Driven while nobody can muster up enough bile to even acknowledge Reinventing the Steel. Pantera was divisive, but they were unmistakable and everybody has a hot take about their early 90s era. By 2000, they were, for the first time since their oft-forgotten glam era, completely skippable.
We all know how this story ends. It took three years after release, but Pantera finally split for good after this album, with Phil and Rex focusing on Down full time while Vinnie and Dimebag formed Damageplan. Any future fantasies of a reunion were dashed completely when Dimebag was tragically murdered onstage in 2004, and their legacy was firmly cemented for better and worse. Reinventing the Steel is honestly just sad. It didn't need to be released and it certainly shouldn't have been the band's swansong. It's a pitiful non-album with painfully few bright spots but is mostly droning and ugly. Like them or not, Pantera was an unescapable force of nature in the 90s, and the storm ended with nothing more than a little spittle before subsiding forever, and it turns out the old adage about it being better to burn out than fade away is entirely true.
Friday, January 1, 2021
Hey guys, you know what time it is! I've been doing this for too long now, as this is the 11th AOTY list I've posted to this blog (and they started as "unofficial" forum posts on a long-dead board back in 2005 or so so really I've been doing this for half my life now) and I just want to say thank you all for sticking with me as long as y'all have. I put zero effort into promoting myself either here or at MA (where I started writing and where most of you know me from) so the fact that I have people willing to listen to whatever bullshit I have to say warms my cockles. Thank you all. I know it'd be the obvious cliche to talk about how much 2020 sucked as a year, but I'm only going to mention it in passing to explain that due to how awful the year was, I actually spent way less time listening to music at work (where I tend to do it) and instead focused mostly on podcasts and audiobooks for most of the year. As a result, sometime around mid November I had realized I only heard like seven or eight albums that I even liked, so most of the last six weeks has seen me blitzing to check out everything I missed and get my list ready. As a result, this is probably my least solid AOTY list in a long time, based purely on the fact that many albums haven't had time to grow on me and many of the ones that had a strong first impression didn't have time to fall off if they were going to. So when 2030 rolls around and the next Album of the Decade list goes up, you can expect a lot of these to not return. Sorry I dropped the ball for y'all this year, but I'm only human. Either way, it's time for!
THE TOP 13 ALBUMS OF 2020
Y'all know the rule: full lengths only. I dropped the "metal only" requirement years ago but the list tends to stay 100% metal anyway just by virtue of my listening habits. Anyway lets get on with it!
I briefly rememberGaerea being promising a few years ago with Unsettling Whispers in 2018. That debut took black metal and mixed it with the nasty heaviness of sludge, and while it's initially kind of disappointing that they've become much more "normal" BM on Limbo, it's pretty quickly washed away simply by the virtue of how much better the songs themselves are this time around. This is a very caustic and overwhelming album with an incongruent atmosphere of catharsis. Every track here feels like taking the wakizashi to your gut and letting your demons spill out on the floor. I'm hearing a lot of similarities to Mgla here but with a lot less malice involved. It tends to hit the same mood over and over for the entire runtime but this is a case where that works marvelously because it's overwhelming in a good, artistic way.
I can't explain this album for the life of me. On one hand it kinda sucks. It feels much longer than it is, it focuses very heavily on groove elements in conjunction with melodeath, perfectly playing one of the least exciting and most entry-level styles of metal on the surface, the production is very punchy but is so mechanized and inhuman that it lacks any real sense of danger, et cetera. On the other hand, I can't stop fucking listening to it and have come back to it like a dozen times since the summer so it must be doing something right. Nija sounds like what I thought Fear Factory sounded like based on description alone, or alternatively like Scar Symmetry if they had more going for them besides a great vocalist. Any album with tracks as devastating as "At the Front" or "Open Eye" is going to be a hit with me, full stop.
While it didn't rank at the time, I really enjoyed Jordablod's debut, Upon My Cremation Pyre. It took the discordant, DSO styled-jangleblack and played it with both feet firmly planted on the ground, with much less incomprehensible experimentation and ultimately sounded like one of the few albums in the niche created by humans. The Cabinet of Numinous Song completely throws that out the window and spends the lion's share of the runtime experimenting with noisy ambient soundscapes. It's by no means an "ambient" or "noise" album, but both of those influences are definitely here, intertwined beautifully with both chaotic and downbeat dissonant black metal straight from the void. "The Two Wings of Becoming" is great black metal, while the title track is mostly noise accompanied by a guitar that sounds like a screaming baby.
I so badly want Vader to stop appearing on these lists so I can stick to my ageist bullshit about classic bands needing to move on so new blood can keep the genre alive and exciting, but fuck man, Vader just can't physically stop themselves from kicking ass. This is more Tibi et Igni than The Empire, basically meaning that this is full steam ahead from the word go and stays consistently wicked. You'd think that after 30+ years they'd've slowed down at least a little bit, but no. Vader sounds just as hungry and vicious as they did in 1995 and that's unbelievable to me. Piotr is in his mid 50s how the fuck is he still this fast and angry? To still routinely pump out songs as wild and nasty as "Shock and Awe" is nearly criminal. As long as Vader lives, classic death metal will never truly die.
And now for the total opposite, my hometown heroes strike once again with yet another totally underappreciated delight of classic metal. I've once heard High Spirits described as "as light as you can get while still being undeniably metal", and while that's less true in a post-Tanith/Wytch Hazel world, they still reign supreme to me in this niche of "light metal" or whatever you want to call it. Their sound is so uplifting, unthreatening, and easy to listen to that they manage to strike a crossover into basically every other fandom within metal, and somehow they still haven't broken out as one of the "big names" in the scene. Hard to Stop is something that both a bearded extreme metal freak like myself and my dad who liked AC/DC in the 70s can rock out to together, and dammit isn't metal supposed to be all about bringing people together?
I am eternally thankful for Pest Productions for all the work they do signal boosting Chinese bands. I've always had a fascination with bands from there since it's weird to see the most populous country so wildly underrepresented in the world of metal. It's thanks to them I've been able to hear great bands like Black Kirin, Holyarrow, Skeletal Augury, and now, Vengeful Spectre. These guys have a flavor of Chinese folk in here thanks to the cool howly/whistly instruments, but the real appeal to me is how suffocatingly dense this record is. You could just flippantly describe this self titled as "just" meloblack, but the fact that every song has like two hundred riffs in them and the intensity stays so high, even during the slow parts, is out of this world. "Rainy Night Carnage" and "Wailing Wrath" are legitimately two of my favorite songs on the year.
Oranssi Pazuzu is one of the bigger names in black metal right now and for whatever reason I just never really gave them the time of day until this year. Most people I've talked to have pegged this as their least good album but really that just tells me that I have one hell of an incredible backlog to sift through. Mestarin kynsi scratches the exact same itch for me that Sigh scratched in their weird middle era. The occasional blasts of intensity that cut through the downbeat electronics and psychedelic soundscapes is exactly what I've been missing out of one of my old favorites since In Somniphobia. Sigh likely isn't the best point of comparison, but the muted trip hop elements can't help but bring them to the fore of my mind, and OP is fucking great at replicating that feeling I've been missing. Maybe this is more for me than y'all, but I adore this.
I couldn't get into Horrendous's Ecdysis when it dropped several years ago, so as a result I ignored every band that got compared to it, which is why I missed out on Morbus Chron when they were a thing. Now that they're "back" as Sweven, I'm really starting to think that this whole psychedelic death metal thing was actually right up my alley all along (see also my 2018 list where Chapel of Disease landed a spot). There's something about this vaguely extreme prog metal with low distortion, haunting melodies, and rollicking 70s rock grooves that I just can't get enough of right now, and The Eternal Resonance delivers that in spades. I think I lack the language to explain exactly why this touches me so perfectly, but tracks like "By Virtue of a Promise" and "Mycelia" just tickle an erogenous zone I didn't even know I had.
Iceland has become a surprising hotspot for metal in recent years, mostly thanks to the jangleblack scene (though I'm convinced most of those bands are decent at best and tend to get subconscious extra credit simply for being from Mystikal Volcano Island), but here we are finally giving the tiny nation some recognition and it turns out to be for incredibly precise, pristinely produced death metal. Mara reminds me of a less technical version of early Fleshgod Apocalypse with odd Devin Townsend style vocals barging in every once in a while, and it's such a strange experience that I just can't kill it. The first time I heard the quick two seconds of clean vocals in "Cosmic Maelstrom" I knew I was in for some weird shit that really shouldn't work but god dammit it works for me and this is probably the metal album I've spent the most time with this year.
Speaking of extreme metal with random operatic cleans! Anaal Nathrakh is losing their shine for a lot of people it seems, as they've been sticking with the same style more or less exclusively for like six or seven albums in a row now, but god damn it works for me. I know damn well they're gonna do that thing where they build up and then stop dead silent for half a beat before exploding with a blast beat and YAAAAAAAH scream. I don't care, that shit gets me hyped every fucking time. Despite me loving their style, they've been pretty hit or miss since Constellation but I can't deny that Endarkenment is definitely one of the good ones. This is exactly as violent and unhinged as I like AN to sound, and the fact that Hunt's clean vocals keep getting worse over the years only makes the clean vocals sound more desperate and apocalyptic. I love it.
I've probably made it clear already, but Persuader's second and third albums are two of my all time favorites and their frustratingly slow release schedule since then has been a heavy pain on my heart. The Fiction Maze had one or two incredible songs but was kind of underwhelming, so imagine my shock when Necromancy finally dropped six years later and wound up being nothing but absolute heaters and the true successor to When Eden Burns. This is everything I want out of a Persuader album, blisteringly heavy power metal with anthemic choruses that consist of three hooks at once. I've said for a long while that they picked up where Blind Guardian left off when they abandoned the rough speed metal of their early sound, and Necromancy continues to prove that. "Scars" alone should illustrate why this is peak BH metal.
The real surprise on this list is that Persuader is actually my metal album of the year. It's true! The final two are, for the first time in LOTB history, not metal albums! That's not to say metal was weak this year, it's just that Protest the Hero somehow kept their streak alive and released another stunner. Somehow each new album is their new best album, and every time I'm initially disappointed before slowly realizing every track is brilliant. Rody irreparably damaged his vocal chords on the Fortress Anniversary tour, and as such the music had to change to accomodate his new voice and lack of ability to scream as much, and god fuck did they nail it. This more overtly melodic style with added synths is life affirming. "Little Snakes", "The Migrant Mother", and especially "All Hands" only further their legacy as one of the all time greats.
AND THE WINNER IS...
I mentioned before that my actual #1 album of the last decade wasn't actually Sigh and they took the prize entirely because I made the big list metal exclusive. My actual favorite album of the 2010s was Foxy Shazam's self titled album, and their dissolution in 2014 was pretty much my musical 9/11. Basically no other band on the planet has ever really managed to replicate Queen's classic 70s sound, but Foxy fuckin' did it back then. Burn, their first since their surprise reformation early this year, on the other hand, is a stylistic whirlwind with a serious tonal consistency problem and a lot of bizarre experimentation that fans have seemed to largely balk at. However, I think anybody familiar with them outside of their two most famous albums (the self titled and The Church of Rock and Roll) should be aware that they've never been afraid to experiment and have always been fearless in playing with expectations. Burn is such an incomprehensible mess of weird ideas that all come together beautifully that even though it only came out a few weeks ago, it was basically the only album all year that I heard and immediately said "YES! THIS IS IT!" I think what makes this work so much for me is that this is the first one to find a way to accurately portray how much of a cocaine nightmare their legendary live performances are. They are notoriously high energy and theatrical, despite the total lack of actual props or massive stages. They perform like a group of ravenous madmen from the 70s on the budget of a coffeehouse indie band, pure punk energy with the sound of old school arena glam. I saw them in 2014 on the Gonzo tour, and near the end of the show, Eric Nally took a pack of cigarettes from a fan in the crowd, lit four of them at once, ate them, and then sat cross legged on the floor and sang the chorus of "Dragula" a capella. I've seen live footage of Sky White playing keyboards while crowdsurfing while Nally does a color guard routine with the mic stand using only his feet. Even during their soulful ballads they act like a bunch of space cases that took a shitload of drugs that turned their brains into Jack Nicholson's face. Burn is the first album that matches that kaleidoscopic apocalypse they invoke onstage. The new bassist is a dude who wears a mask and calls himself Trigger Warning, there are two tracks that consist of nothing but swelling ambient strings and Nally and new drummer Teddy Aitkins singing Kevin Hart jokes with heavy autotune, "Dreamer" is a wonderful power ballad that starts off like something off Kesha's Rainbow and ends invoking Queen's more climactic moments, at one point the title track throws in a random death metal roar in the background before playing the breakdown from "Raining Blood" on the trumpet, "Suffering" is the most straight ahead driving rock song on the album and gets like one word away from referencing a Sublime song for the sake of a pun, "S.Y.A.A.F." contains the line "erection of the holy wood" before a jaw harp starts boinging away, there's just... a whole lot going on. I'm probably making this sound like some r/iamveryrandom shit, and maybe it is, I dunno, but for me it perfectly showcases the steadfast defiance against stupid things like "rules" that Foxy has always proudly stood for. This is everything I ever wanted out of a Foxy album, every single track is a banger, even the bizarre cloud rap ones, and at the end of the day, this album is like seeing an old friend for the first time in years and immediately reverting to all of your old inside jokes and catching up as though you haven't missed a day. This is the exact sepia-toned warm-and-fuzzy that I think we all needed to close out the screaming rollercoaster ride down Fuck Everything Avenue that was 2020. Likely the most controversial winner of the BH Award for Album of the Year we've had yet, but if I look in my heart and ask what my favorite album that came out in 2020 was, the answer is Burn. Hands down.
And now for something completely the same!
Expander - Neuropunk Boostergang: I love it when a band completely bucks the accepted aesthetics of their chosen genre, and Expander does that phenomenally with their Dan Terminus style album covers giving way to meaty thrash instead of busy synthwave, and even then it's not the hypertechnical excess that you'd expect from sci-fi themed thrash like Vektor or Watchtower, instead beefing up their sound with a ton of crusty grime and landing somewhere closer to Power Trip or Black Breath. Neuropunk Boostergang makes this sonic mismatch work even better than the debut, simply being both tighter and more epic in scope. The term "metalpunk" is often used with these guys but I need to stress that it's less the Motorbastard style and instead strikes a much more literal definition of crossover that sees them throwing in big heaps of noisy hardcore, and it rules.
Nyktophobia - What Lasts Forever: It's been nearly fifteen years since the last truly great Amon Amarth album, and I think a lot of fans like me have been yearning for a return to their more driving and pummeling early sound. Nyktophobia finally delivers the spiritual sequel to The Crusher that I've been wanting for decades.
Temperance - Viridian: On the whole, I could take or leave most of the bands from this 3rd wave of power metal that has been mixing the classic genre with arena rock hooks and danceable beats. Y'all know how I feel about Sabaton, Battle Beast and Dynazty have been steadily getting worse and worse, et cetera. Temperance finally made the jump to this style with this album and it was a beacon of genuinely stupid fun in a sea of albums that are offensively stupid and unfun.
Atramentus - Stygian: There's usually one funeral doom representative on these lists, either in the main thing or in the dooblydoo down here, and here it is for 2020. Any band Phil Tougas shows up in is going to get some positive press by default, but the difference between him and other known mega-prolific guys in metal is that most of the albums he touches are really good, and Stygian is no different.
Stalker - Black Majik Terror: Most throwback speed metal fans this year seemed to gravitate towards Solicitor or Traveler, but man Stalker is the exact kind of brainless energy that I just lap up. It's unabashedly corny and I love that about it.
Dynazty - The Dark Delight: Maybe this is my fault for simply wanting this album to be something that it never tried to be, but god damn do I miss when Dynazty was cranking out chest beating arena anthems on speed. Firesign may have signaled the shift to this 3rd wave style but it still had some great songs like the title track and "Follow Me". The Dark Delight has absolutely nothing. I don't fault the band for simply changing their style to better suit where they are as songwriters, but it's a damn shame that we traded the band that wrote monsters like Renatus and Titanic Mass in order to get a second rate Amaranthe knockoff. It's not the worst album of the year or anything, but it definitely has the least amount of good in it.
Enslaved - Utgard: I never really talk about them, but I like Enslaved a good amount. It took me a while to warm up to their new direction since I'm just not much of a prog fan, but Below the Lights and Axioma Ethica Odini are both great albums, and I don't have too many bad things to say about In Times either despite not thinking it's particularly phenomenal. Utgard on the other hand feels like pure autopilot. All of that creativity I like so much seems to have finally dried up, because this is just bland as hell from a band that usually does much better.
Sodom - Genesis XIX: This one barely qualifies since I think Sodom hasn't been truly good in a decade at this point, but I had several people I trust insist that this is a worthy addition to their discography and proof that they still have some left in the tank. Yeah sorry, I still don't hear it. They haven't had a new idea in eons and Angelripper is really showing his age.
Seven Spires - Emerald Seas: This wasn't even a bad album really, just much less exciting than Solveig and I'm kinda bummed that Adrienne Cowan is following the Jorn Lande path of being an incredible vocalist constantly stuck in kinda underwhelming bands. She needs to front something with some fuckin' power behind it, please, her voice is begging for that energy.
Wytch Hazel - III: Pentecost: Again, not even a bad album necessarily! This is just an example of an album that had a lot of hype behind it that just didn't connect with me. This "soft metal" niche is pretty cool and all but it just doesn't hit me like the more aggressive styles do and I was really hoping this one would change my mind.
Uhhhh - Ehhhh?: Every year I talk about how I plan on getting rid of the disappointments section because I get disappointed less and less each year, and that's how I feel again. I only kept it in this year because I didn't listen to enough demos to do that section again and nothing sucked nearly as much as the Aftermath and Ministry albums from the previous years so I felt no need to highlight anything as the worst. Yes I know I gave Imperial Triumphant a 0% review this year but it wasn't necessarily a disappointment and unlike the aforementioned albums I don't think it was an artistic failure. I get the appeal, I just hate it. And now I'm dragging this out because I have nothing else to say and I feel like this was a very short post this year, and George Soros pays me by the word so I've gotta stretch this shit like goatse. Screw Flanders.
And that's it for 2020! I always end on a note of hoping you all had a great year but let's be real here, unless you're a hermit crab you probably had an awful year. To everybody who made it, I'm proud of you and I'm glad you're here. If you're about to be evicted around the time you read this then you would be morally correct to beat your landlord to death. To everybody who didn't make it, I'm sorry the people in power failed you and I hope we can make the world better in your memory. To everybody who voted for Mitch McConnell, promptly fuck yourself with a railroad spike.