I have sinned: I waited until the last minute to do a lot of my music-listening this year. This is partly because I spent the months of July through October trying to smash together my own full-length album, Xians, with no success whatsoever; look for it on approximately zero best of 2013 lists! Nonetheless, I dutifully managed to get an earful of everything I wanted to hear in time to write a year-end best-of list. Below are my top ten favorite albums of 2012. Click the links for some of my favorite tracks/videos!
To put it bluntly, this album is nuts. Like Meshuggah on PCP, Car Bomb rips through “chug-metal” conventions with a relentless and unpredictable collection of bizarre tunes. Brief, Deftones-esque melodic interludes serve only to enhance the confusion; nothing is ever really resolved on w^w^^w^w, and every potential moment of respite is subverted with another left-field lurch. Rhythmic puzzles, droopy bends and startling laser-beam guitar noises seem to rise up out of nowhere. Additionally, unlike many of their post-Meshuggah brethren, Car Bomb are willing to loosen the tempo at times, lending a ceaselessly elusive nature to the whole affair. Given the chance to develop their sound a bit more, Car Bomb might be poised to become the next big thing in metal; as it stands, they satisfy as a manic, gleefully profane anti-Djent.
Favorite Tracks: The Sentinel, Lower The Blade, Third Revelation, Spirit of Poison
Internet collab outfit Soul Cycle’s sophomore release offers a unique blend of early-00’s melodeath, mid-00’s metalcore, late-00’s instrumental prog and timeless guitar wizardry. In addition to the stylings of band members Mark Hawkins (lead guitar) and Chris Catharsis (rhythm), II features guest appearances by a slew of relatively big-name, fantastic axemen, including Keith Merrow, Sacha Laskow, Mr. Fastfinger, Adam “Nolly” Getgood and more. Album opener “Instar: Soul Reborn” seamlessly builds from a growling bass intro to a catchy, boomy, stutter-step groove. The soaring wah-harmonies of “Unphased” expertly invoke Clayman-era In Flames, and “Cast Down” opens with a ferocious, bare-fanged riff that’s guaranteed to stick in your head. (I also play a solo at the end of this track, for some reason). Hawkins and Catharsis have crafted a testament to their musicianship; despite the album’s inherent excess, the quality and compositional strength of each track is never bogged down by the shredfest.
Favorite Tracks: Instar: Soul Reborn, Ethereal, Cast Down, Break The Cycle
A bit more ethereal than its predecessor (2010’s Diamond Eyes), Koi No Yokan took time to grab me, but after about five listens, I started to really dig it. Chino Moreno’s sensuous melodies and uneasy whispers are what really brings the album together, and his brightest moments are generally the album’s high points. Big choruses abound; the soaring refrain of “Leathers” is one of Deftones’ most memorable moments since White Pony. Seismically downtuned guitars drive the rumbling rhythmic furor on tracks like “Poltergeist”, but elsewhere, spaced-out synths and crystalline reverb dominate the proceedings. “Rosemary,” one of the band’s most ambitious songs to date, melds the two atmospheres nicely into a seven-minute epic that characterizes Koi No Yokan quite well. It’s a grower, and worth putting in some time and energy to absorb.
Favorite tracks: Swerve City, Leathers, Poltergeist, Entombed, Rosemary
Even on autopilot, Devin Townsend is a blast to hear. While Epicloud seems like the first time in years that we find the mad maestro musically treading water, his ability to evoke a sense of size and beauty propels the album through its generally predictable songwriting. The wild abandon of “Liberation” and “More!” brings a smile to my face every time I listen, and I find myself unusually enthralled by the quiet airiness of cute love ballad “Divine.” For me, the centerpiece of Epicloud is a rejuvenated “Kingdom,” wherein Devin has freed his mightiest live staple from the shackles of Physicist’s unsavory production and supercharged it with the most exuberant vocal performance of his career. Epiclouder, a stellar bonus disc, features ten unpolished “demo” tracks that I actually prefer to the proper album. The bonus contents are far more varied and unpredictable than the album itself: bizarre, a slap-bass driven monstrosity called “The Mind WASP,” two country songs (!), and the absolutely gorgeous “Happy Birthday,” a teary jam evoking the synthscapes of Addicted and featuring Anneke van Giersbergen in her most effective co-starring role with Devin to date.
Favorite tracks (Epicloud): Liberation, Save Our Now, Kingdom, Divine, More!
(Epiclouder): Happy Birthday, Heatwave, The Mind WASP, Woah No!, Little Pig
If you’re looking for a record that’s just plain heavy, De Vermis Mysteriis will scratch your itch. The band’s usual grimy, gritty goodness is at play, full-force, delivering stoner psychedelia and thick, sludgy walls of guitar noise. Matt Pike’s riffs are as memorable as ever, especially in the slow-churning, melodic track “King of Days,” which ends with a fadeout from tasty, bluesy noodling to pounding drums. This is the first album I can remember listening to for a few years where I really considered the guitar solos a huge highlight; in particular, the Iommi-reminiscent double tracked jams on “Fertile Green” and the title track just ooze fun. This is a big, musclebound metal album made to be played loud in your shitty car as you drive it through a roadblock.
Favorite Tracks: Fertile Green, Samsara, King of Days, De Vermis Mysteriis
Meshuggah have rolled back the craziness a few notches on Koloss, but as you might imagine, the result is far from poppy. The band’s style has been rightly equated to the sound of giant robots fighting, and never has the comparison been so apt as it is here. “The Demon’s Name Is Surveillance,” the record’s harrowing second track, features a seemingly relentless double-kick pattern that opens up into a monstrous rising roar in the song’s bridge, fueled by some tricky timing and massive guitar bends. As usual, Thomas Haake’s deceptive drum patterns chop up time signatures into little puzzle pieces, simultaneously groovy and disorienting. Fredrik Thordenal grabs the drum cues stunningly with chunky 8-string syncopations and weird, spacey noodling on blue-ribbon winner “Do Not Look Down,” which may be the catchiest song the ‘Shugg have ever written. On the whole, Koloss is the most complete collection of songs from the band in years, featuring a near-ideal balance of blistering, technical tracks and Meshuggah’s signature slow, menacing pieces. It’s a shame the record peters out in the last ten minutes or so; with a stronger finish, this might have been a close contender for my number one spot.
Favorite Tracks: I am Colossus, The Demon’s Name is Surveillance, Do Not Look Down, Marrow, Break Those Bones Whose Sinews Gave it Motion
I was compelled to pick this disc up almost completely on the strength of its cover art – wow! The tunes on Harmonicraft ring with a similar sunny vibrancy, making Torche an outlier in the generally-dim, dreary sludge scene. Steve Brooks’ saccharine baritone croon reverberates endlessly over a sea of bass-heavy, fuzzed out guitars, producing a warm atmosphere that begs for repeat listens. The songs tend toward the short side – about half the tracks clock in at under three minutes – but Harmonicraft never feels musically lean. It certainly helps that the material itself is quite varied; from the snappy, punk-flavored “Walk it Off” to the slow, Soundgarden-ish stomper “Reverse Inverted,” to the weighty melancholy of “Solitary Traveler,” this album is a compact musical journey unto itself. Harmonicraft’s friendly, inviting nature makes it an ideal introduction to sludge for those with untested ears, but it features plenty of heavy moments for more adventurous listeners.
Favorite Tracks: Kicking, Reverse Inverted, In Pieces, Skin Moth, Solitary Traveler
Converge’s particular brand of mathcore/metalcore/punk/whatever is the stuff of legend at this point. The band has been at it for more than twenty years and is still serving up fresh helpings of sound and fury like this year’s All We Love We Leave Behind. While the sound of this record is much more restrained and accessible than on some of their best-regarded work like Jane Doe, any stylistic concessions on All We Love top short of nuking the unpredictable and dangerous vibe that makes listening to Converge so much damn fun. Kurt Ballou’s wrenching, stealthily technical guitar work is as exciting as ever, especially in the frenetic post-hardcore tinged opener “Aimless Arrow.” Curiously, one of the album’s high points is the semi-ballad “Coral Blue,” a weirdly melodic turn by the band that features a sing-song refrain and low, rumbling verses interrupted by ringing guitar stabs. Jacob Bannon rises to the occasion on lead vocals, forgoing his signature banshee shriek until the song’s closing crescendo. I’m a sucker for a hook, so I’d love to hear some more stuff of this nature from Converge in the future.
Favorite Tracks: Aimless Arrow, A Glacial Pace, Veins and Veils, Coral Blue, All We Love We Leave Behind
See? I did listen to something other than metal this year. This California alt-rap trio released two full-length albums in 2012, but I’ve lumped both The Money Store and No Love Deep Web into one entry on this list for the sake of space. In truth, I really can’t decide which I like more; the wildly saturated, distorted noisefest of Money Store or the stripped-back, tense No Love Deep Web. Both records share the hallmarks of Death Grips’ sound – the slurred bleating of vocalist MC Ride, loud and industrial-tinged production, and unusual earworm hooks (“I’M IN YOUR AREA!”). MC Ride’s lyrics drip with poetic anger, paranoia, and violent excess to such a degree that most other “hardcore” hip-hop seems like bubblegum in comparison, especially on the track “No Love,” wherein he convincingly threatens to teach the listener “the proper meaning of a beat-down.” Synth jockey Flatlander and noise-rock drum veteran Zach Hill provide consistently engaging, abrasive backdrops that sneak into the foreground at great moments; highlights include the chopped-up, hypnotic swirls on Money Store opener “Get Got,” and the spacious, eerie nighttime vibe of No Love Deep Web’s final track, “Artificial Death in the West.” If you’ve been sleeping on Death Grips, get noided.
Favorite tracks: (The Money Store): Get Got, Hustle Bones, System Blower, The Cage, Hacker
(No Love Deep Web): No Love, Whammy, Hunger Games, Bass Rattle Stars Out The Sky
With L’Enfant Sauvage, Gojira have provided metal bands with a case study in how to streamline sound without sacrificing its soul. Tight, concise fist-pumpers like “The Axe” and the jittery, convulsing title track showcase the band’s greatest strengths, their chilly atmosphere and monstrous riffs, without wearing on the ears like the longer and more haphazard stuff found on The Way of All Flesh. Even L’Enfant’s longer, more ponderous tunes shine; album centerpiece “The Gift of Guilt” juxtaposes a haunting hammer-on guitar vamp with atonal, pinch-harmonic soaked chugging in the verses, giving the piece a richly textured feel. The album features rock-solid performances on all instruments, especially from Mario Duplantier, whose off-kilter cymbal flourishes, jarring syncopations and furious precision stand out even more than usual in the context of simpler songs. For me, the sticking point of L’Enfant Sauvage, and of Gojira in general, is the beastly roar of vocalist Joe Duplantier. Joe’s pained, semimelodic monster-bellow lends a tactile, organic soul to the affair that differentiates Gojira from many of their more mechanistic contemporaries, and it sounds better than ever over the methodical, thumping bridge of “Liquid Fire.” Most importantly, L’Enfant Sauvage is pure, unadulterated Gojira; the band’s prog and death metal influences are less tangible here than on any of their past works, and the result is an album that defines Gojira’s own, self-made paradigm and cements the band’s place at the forefront of today’s metal scene.
Favorite tracks: Explosia, L’Enfant Sauvage, Liquid Fire, The Gift of Guilt, The Fall