Monday, September 18, 2017

Top 13 Metal Albums of the Past 13 Years

September 18th, 2004: a day that will forever be remembered as the day that happened thirteen years before I sat down to write this list. In the years since that fateful morn, thousands upon thousands of metal albums have been released into the world. This list, in the estimation of some long-haired dude in a black t-shirt, is a sinister selection of the best of them (presented in chronological order).

Arcane Rain Fell - Draconian (January 24, 2005)

I'm typically not a big one for gothic metal, but this album is so utterly gorgeous that my typical prejudices around the style just don't feel that important. Here we have dark, delicate passages punctuated by just the right amount of metal heaviness and arguably the most enchanting female vocal work of any metal album I've ever heard. Any time I talk shit about bands like Nightwish, this is the album I point to as a master class in how to do it right.

Above the Weeping World - Insomnium (August 6, 2006)

I have repeatedly called Insomnium the best melodic death metal band in the world today, and for my money this is still their masterpiece. A good decade after At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity, and In Flames cemented their status as the pioneering greats of the sub-genre, Insomnium added their own entry that stands beside those early classics as one of the best albums in the history of melodic death metal.


With Oden on Our Side - Amon Amarth (October 2, 2006)

Amon Amarth's career has been defined by consistent, unadventurous solidity essentially devoid of surprises or letdowns. Amidst their very even catalog, however, one album distinctly stands out to me as the best they've ever been. Slammed full of catchy, thunderous Viking goodness, With Oden on Our Side  is not only my go-to Amon Amarth record, it's one of the most enjoyable albums of any genre I've ever heard.


Vargstenen - Månegarm (May 18, 2007)

Speaking of Vikings, when I want to listen to some pure Viking metal, there are a small handful of bands and albums I turn to first. Right up there with the likes of Bathory, Windir, and Moonsorrow comes the brilliant Månegarm. In particular, their magnum opus Vargstenen  stands as one of the best entries the sub-genre has ever seen. As a side note, while many similar bands simulate their folk instrumentation on keyboards and synthesizers, these guys earn bonus points for actually playing the instruments.

To the Nameless Dead - Primordial (November 16, 2007)

For the past two decades, Primordial have quietly compiled one of the best discographies in the entire metal world. This, the crown jewel in that brilliant career, is one of the most utterly compelling metal albums ever released. When first I sat down to write this list, there were two key albums on my mind, and this was one of them. If you've never heard this unique Irish folk-ish metal outfit, I'd strongly recommend starting here.


Paracletus - Deathspell Omega (November 8, 2010)

Okay, now it's time for some black metal. While Norway is the nation most popularly associated with the sub-genre, most serious black metal fans will know that France has one of the most lush, thriving black metal scenes in the world. The kings of the castle are the endlessly inventive, defiantly idiosyncratic, immeasurably intense Deathspell Omega. They go years between releasing full length albums, but when they do, we get monsters like this.


The Aura - Beyond Creation (April 12, 2011)

Beyond Creation are a Canadian technical death metal band with just two albums under their belts. Their debut, thanks in no small part to the brilliance of former-member Dominic Lapointe (my pick as the most skilled bassist in all of metal) stands as my favorite tech-death release. It's crushingly heavy, mind-bendingly complex, and most importantly it's far more coherent and focused than albums of this nature tend to be. Overall, if you're into really fast, heavy, complex stuff you can't really do better than this.


In Somniphobia - Sigh (March 12, 2012)

This was the other album I was thinking about when I sat down to put this list together. When I think of my favorite albums in recent years, this is always the first one to come to mind. This Japanese avante-garde outfit create some of the most bizarre, genre-defying work in all of music, seamlessly moving from black metal screams to wild bongo fills and saxophone solos before transitioning back into scorching lead guitar work, often in less than a minute. This is musical mastery at its finest.

Atra Mors - Evoken (July 31, 2012)

Of all the bands on this list, Evoken were the closest to getting two entries. Honestly, even as I write this I'm still waffling back and forth between this and their equally masterful Antithesis of Light. The best funeral doom band in the world, everything these guys touch is amazing. Slow, crushing heaviness is of course the order of the day, but Evoken impart their material with a dark, powerful beauty that is virtually unmatched. My only wish is that they'd release something more often than once every five years.

Sweven - Morbus Chron (Febuary 24, 2014)

There is a small, wonderful subset of death metal that I would describe as "chill." Ethereal, dreamlike, and oddly calming for music so heavy, this album slots right beside the criminally underappreciated Gorement masterwork The Ending Quest  as one of the absolute best albums ever released in that style. Sadly, these guys broke up after releasing only two full-length records, but before they went they gave us one of the best pieces of death metal to come out in recent memory. 

Citadel - Ne Obliviscaris (November 7, 2014)

With Opeth now a straight-up prog rock band, the progressive metal throne stands vacant. The best contender to fill that seat is the Australian outfit Ne Obliviscaris. This, their second release, built on the promise of their debut and more. Unfortunately, like Beyond Creation, these guys had one of the best bassists in metal but no longer do. His work on this is some of the best metal bass ever recorded, in my opinion. Special mention also goes out to Tim Charles for probably the best use of a violin in any metal album.

Songs from the North I, II & III - Swallow the Sun (November 13, 2015)

For a long time, the death-doom group Swallow the Sun seemed like they'd be one of those bands with one great album they'd never quite match again. Then they came out with this monumental triple-album, and that all changed. This is one of the biggest, most ambitious, most wonderfully executed metal releases I've ever encountered. Listening to this is a breathtaking journey through darkness and light.

Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows - Howls of Ebb (April 15, 2016)

Here, on the other hand, there is no beauty or tenderness to be found. This is ugly, warped, bizarre, horrifying, and absolutely amazing. From the slithering creep of the bass to the discordant chaos of the guitar work, the inhuman vocal work to the looming sense of cosmic dread, this is likely impenetrable and even un-listenable to many, but every bone in my body screamed with excitement when I first listened to this wildly unique, deformed monstrosity of an album.

So there you have it: these are the best metal albums of the past decade plus three years, says me.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Summer Metal Purchases

Over the course of a couple trips to my local record store, I recently picked up 8 new metal albums that have come out this year. Now that I've taken each of them for a spin, I've decided to set myself the arbitrary task of ranking them from worst to best. I haven't had a lot of time for these to marinate, so this will be more a series of quickie first impressions than a real set of proper reviews. Also, note that since these are all albums that I actually went out and bought on CD, there's a certain baseline assumption of quality that you may not find in reviews of free online material. None of these are outright terrible. Some of them are just distinctly less good than others.

Anyway, let's get to it, shall we?


#8. "The Forest Seasons" by Wintersun
When Wintersun alienated half of their fan base by stringing us along for 900 years with the Chinese Democracy-esque production cycle of "Time I," I stood up and defended the album as much better than many gave it credit for at the time. At this point, it's becoming harder to keep making apologies for Wintersun. I can't say that I hated this, but it was weak. There were some cool moments here and there that genuinely grabbed me as they reached for the epic scope and vital energy that this band once showcased. Those moments were the exceptions. Disappointingly, though somewhat unsurprisingly, far too much of this just felt like a mediocre Children of Bodom knock-off in sparkly pajamas.


#7. "Berdreyminn" by Sólstafir
Are Sólstafir even a metal band anymore? I mean, they've been drifting further and further into this atmospheric post-rock style for a while now, and at this point it feels like they barely have any connection to their roots. I have no problem with bands experimenting with their sound, and if Sólstafir don't want to play metal anymore, that's fine. They can still be a good band. The thing is, while this was nice and pretty and perfectly pleasant to chill out to and all, it was also kind of boring. I'd play it in the background if I just wanted something mellow to fill in the silence, but that's about it. This is not something I can see myself putting on to actually listen to unless I'm in a really weird mood.


#6. "Wrong One to Fuck With" by Dying Fetus
I'll admit right up front that I've never been a particularly big fan of these guys. That said, I actually think this is better than most of their material that I've heard. They definitely embraced the technical side of their style, and the musicianship on this is razor sharp and ultra clean. Too clean, in fact, for my taste. I accept that this is a personal preference, but I like a little dirt in my death metal. This felt like watching a doctor perform complex, delicate heart surgery in a sterile operating room. What I want to watch is a maniac with a rusty meat cleaver hacking his victims to pieces in a tool shed. Still, this is a strong release worth checking out if you're the kind of death metal fan who would rather listen to Origin than Incantation.


#5. "Blight Upon Martyred Existence" by Impetuous Ritual
This is the point where we enter into the albums I really liked. Unfortunately, one of them has to be the bottom of the really good stuff, and by a razor-thin margin Impetuous Ritual loses out to their Profound Lore label-mates in 4th. This is an intense, chaotic, go-for-the-throat death metal release from a band that shares two members with Portal. Teitanblood and Diocletian were the names that kept running through my mind as I listened to this, and while these guys don't really do anything that those bands don't, that's hardly grounds for complaint. This is a really strong record that hits hard as hell. As an incidental, petty aside: the album cover is so obnoxiously dark that you have to put it under bright light just to read the band name and song titles. That doesn't really matter, it just kind of annoys me. Regardless, this gets my hearty recommendation.


#4. "Horizonless" by Loss
Doom bands usually have one of about four directions they can go. They either try to be super crushingly heavy, super stonerifically groovy, super beautifully mournful, or super Black Sabbath-y. Loss go for the achingly beautiful, mournful approach. They really excel at creating an atmosphere of tragedy and, well, loss. Musically, I'd say they're up there with the likes of Ahab on the funeral doom spectrum of greatness. The one gripe I have is that the vocals are just kind of quiet and weak. They are mostly there for atmosphere, so it's not the end of the world or anything. It's just that the human voice is obviously a tremendously effective tool for evoking emotion, and since that seems to be the name of the game here, it would be nice to see them get a little more mileage out of their vocal performances. Honestly, though, I really enjoyed this album and I expect I'll listen to it plenty more times in the coming months. Also, since I already brought up album covers once, I'd like to point out that this is my favorite cover art of the year so far.


#3. "Abreaction" by Svart Crown
Have you ever listened to an album, enjoyed the hell out of it, then when it came time to describe why you liked it, all you could seem to muster was "umm, I liked it because it was good"? Well, that's sort of where I find myself with this one. This French blackened death metal outfit is new to me, so while they've released several albums, I don't really know how this stacks up within their discography. What I do know is that it's energetic, catchy enough to be fun, heavy enough to be satisfying, and overall strong enough to leave me with nothing to complain about when it finished. I just had a really good time listening to it, and at the end of the day, I think that's all you can reasonably ask for from an album.


#2. "Heartless" by Pallbearer
Since they burst into the metal world's collective consciousness in 2012, Pallbearer have asserted themselves over the slow, heavy end of spectrum to such a degree that it's almost impossible to argue against them as the best doom band in the world right now. Evoken are probably the only group who are capable of surpassing them in that sphere, and those guys haven't released an album in 5 years. On this newest record, Pallbearer step into some fresh territory. The basic core of what has always made them work remains, but they've adopted more melodic elements and really excellent lead work into their sound as well. Traditionally, doom bands in this vein sound like heavier versions of Black Sabbath. There were times on this album where it felt like I was listening to a super heavy version of Pink Floyd instead, complete with some awesome David Gilmour-style soloing. All in all, it's a great album from a great band.


#1. "Desolate Endscape" by Phrenelith
Remember earlier, when I said I like some dirt in my death metal? Well in their debut album, Phrenelith gave me that in spades. (Hur hur, I make joke). All I knew about these guys going in was that they were supposed to be somewhere in the vein of Incantation and Disma. Those are some damn good names to pull out if you want to sell me on a death metal release, and Phrenelith did not disappoint. If anything, I'd say this Danish crew bring a little more variety to the formula than either of those bands, which helps keep this album fresh while still staying heavy and guttural and wonderfully filthy. There are points that slow down to murky, Autopsy-like crawling. On the other end, there are a few pretty high-energy, intense moments. Home base, of course, is in that cavernous slow-to-mid-range groove with drums providing a rumbling drive under churning tremolo riffs and Craig Pillard-esque demon growls. The common complaint with this type of death metal is that it's unadventurous, and honestly this isn't particularly groundbreaking. What it is, however, is an absolute masterclass is how to do this brand of death metal right.

So there you have it: given their incredible proficiency in one of my absolute favorite styles of metal, Phrenelith sit atop the pile of my recent album purchases. Thank you, and good night.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Konosuba (Anime Review)

So I just finished watching season two of Konosuba, and I have to admit that the show has left me puzzled. I'm not confused by the plot or themes or anything; the show is about as deep as a mud puddle. Rather, I'm confused about why I enjoyed it as much as I did. It felt like watching a version of Fairy Tail with a slightly dirtier mind, and I got bored of Fairy Tail within the first few episodes.

Since I finished the show, (what exists  of it at present, anyway) I've been imagining a conversation about the creative process. It sounds something like this...



A: So what's this new "Konosuba" show going to be about? 
B: I thought we could take a nerdy highschool otaku guy and suddenly surround him with cute, quirky girls.
A: Oh my god, that's brilliant! Why has nobody thought of this before? Where will it be set? 
B: Okay, now this is pretty out there, but imagine if we took this guy, who of course is from modern day Japan...
A: Yeah?
B: Yeah, and we, now bear with me here...
A: Mhmm...
B: We put him in . . . a video gamey version of a fantasy world. Like if he were inside an RPG.
A: . . . . . . . .
B: I know, it's-
A: HOLY FUCKING SHITBALLS! I haven't heard of such an original setting since the damned genius who thought to put a romance anime in a Japanese highschool! This is amazing! You're on a roll my friend, what else? Tell me tell me tell meee!
B: Wow, I'm glad you like it so much. Alright, well I was thinking we could make the whole thing kind of a satire. Like, you know how RPG logic and real world logic are so different? I think it would be fun to explore that.
A: I love it! I have never seen one single show or comic that is a spoof of an RPG fantasy setting, so I think we'll really break some new ground with this. How about the main character? Tell me more about him.
B: Okay, well, first of all I think we should remove any stakes or sense of danger by making him easy to magically resurrect over and over.
A: Of course...
B: Also, despite the fact that he spends most of his effectively immortal life casting magic spells and having assorted watermelon-sized titties bounce around in his face, I think he should whine endlessly about how hard he has it. You know, to make him relatable.
A: Naturally, I agree.
B: I also think it would be a good idea if he kept complaining about how he doesn't get to lead a life of adventure, while simultaneously shooting down every attempt his companions make to get him to fight monsters or do anything adventurous.
A: Alright, it sounds like we've got the perfect protagonist lined out, any little finishing touches?
B: Just one. He should constantly get caught in awkward sexual situations where he acts embarrassed about the possibility that people will think he's a pervert, but he should also actually be a total pervert who endlessly sexually harasses the girls. 
A: Ah, one of those types that gets played off as a "boys will be boys" character?
B: Exactly.
A: Alright, awesome. Now what about the girls?
B: First of all, we need an assortment of heights, ages, hair colors, and breast sizes. 
A: All impossibly thin and sexy though, right?
B: Yeah, we just need to make sure no male fantasy is left unfulfilled. 
A: Good point. What about personalities? 
B: Does it matter? 
A: Ha! I suppose not. Still, just for fun...
B: Oh, alright. Ummm, let's make one a dumb, self-centered girl. Like, the unattainable cheerleader goddess type.
A: Oh yeah, that's hot. 
B: Another we'll make . . . ummm . . . Oh! I know! We'll make her be all orgasimically turned on by physical abuse. You know, do a whole angelic face with a super kinky dark side thing.
A: Oh god yes, I'm getting hard just thinking about it.
B: What else? Well, we need at least one girl to be like 13 so all the pedos can have their fun. We'll have to make her tits smaller, but that's just the price you pay I guess.
A: *panting heavily* 
B: I think that about covers it. Of course we'll have tons of other chicks with massive cleavage and exposed midriffs running around, but that should be enough for the core group.
A: Yeah . . . that's, mmmmm, that's perfect.
B: I think so. Tell you what, I think I've got enough to get started, so I'm going to go start some preliminary sketches, then we can reconvene to talk about logical inconsistencies, like how tons of new adventurers have gone to that fantasy world from ours with their memories intact, yet nobody there seems to have heard of Japan.
A: Sure thing, just toss me that box of tissues before you go.

I know many of Konosuba's fans dismiss criticism of the generic setting and situation since the point of the show is to be a satire, but frankly, at this point fantasy RPG satire is such a well worn path that mockery of those conventions has become almost more generic than the conventions themselves. Also, the main plot basically plops the characters in their fantasy setting in the first episode and then fucks off to a bar or something. It pops back up from time to time, but at least half of the show feels like a collection of amusing but irrelevant filler episodes.

The funny thing is, for all the problems I have with it and all the reasons I feel like dismissing it, I did like watching it. The characters aren't particularly deep, but they are (mostly) likeable and fun. The setting isn't unique or original, but it's solidly executed. The humor is pretty juvenile and obvious, but it did frequently make me laugh. I may be able to tear into the show for what it does wrong, but I also marathoned 20 episodes in a day and a half so clearly it was doing a lot of things right, too. At the end of the day, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

So that's Konosuba. Do I understand why some critics are calling it a masterpiece and saying that season one was the best anime of 2016? Absolutely not. But did I watch and enjoy it all, and will I continue to watch it if a third season is confirmed? Yes.