Best albums of 2012

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We’ve finally reached the end of 2012, and my has it been a blast. The greatest year in the UK’s sporting history. A supposed prophecy that was never realised. A glorious year for rock and metal and all its various forms.

The music this year has been so exceptional that its been harder than ever deciding on the final ten. As such, honourable mentions must go to the following:

Ginger – 555% (Round/Pledge Music)
Dope Body – Natural History (Drag City)
Eagle Twin – The Feather Tipped the Serpent’s Scale (Southern Lord)
Burning Love – Rotten Thing to Say (Southern Lord)
Every Time I Die – Ex Lives (Epitaph)
Napalm Death – Utilitarian (Century Media)

All of which are records which you should check out, if you haven’t already, and they only missed the final cut by a whisker. Damn, if 2013 is better than this we will truly be spoilt.

Without further ado, we present our top ten albums of the year.

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10. Deftones – Koi No Yokan (Warner Bros)

The Sacramento crew continue to impress on album number seven, despite, for me, not reaching the stratospheric heights of ‘Diamond Eyes’ on this occasion. From start to finish its another wildly esoteric ride reaching soaring heights and dark depths, creating a new set of anthems that Deftones fans will sure echo throughout cavernous arenas well into 2013 and beyond. Tracks such as ‘Romantic Dreams’, ‘Entombed’ and ‘Tempest’ are absolutely lush, and there’s not many bands these days who can create the level of atmosphere around a song like Deftones can. There’s simply no stopping them right now. 

 

wpid-898529953-1.jpg9. Krallice – Years Past Matter (self-released) 

In a year which has seen Felix Baumgartner skydive from the stratosphere, and in a year where Voyager 1 is reached the interstellar medium, I have wondered what soundtrack would best embody a human odyssey into the far outer reaches of space. And no, I’m not talking about the Voyager Golden Record. Now a human venture going that far is not likely to happen in our time, our offspring’s time, or the next generation, or the next generation…but if it did, and we can preserve a vinyl pressing of Krallice’s ‘Years Past Matter’, then that voyage will go beyond anything what even Carl Sagan imagined. Maybe that’s an overexaggeration. But still, ‘Years’ is without question Krallice’s finest vision yet, where all out speed subsides slightly to a more bombastic and expansive approach. The artwork alone should tell you what a vast journey this is, and it doesn’t disappoint, whether it’s the propulsion into the interstellar void (‘IIIIIIIII’) or the thrilling closing 16-minute epic (‘IIIIIIIIIIII’).

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8. Gorod – A Perfect Absolution (Listenable)

I was perhaps one of the few slightly disappointed by French tech-deathers Gorod’s previous album ‘Process of a New Decline’, so I was particularly impressed by the results shown on ‘A Perfect Absolution’. Don’t mistake their inclusion in their list for one of mere marked improvement, because Gorod have never lacked the quality – there’s just something about this album in particular that had real oomph. In a year where people went nuts for The Faceless’ ridiculous aping of more celebrated progressive greats, Gorod put on a technical masterclass in death metal, knowing when to bring on bursts of speed, when to usher in groove phases, even shaking with a bit of flamenco that won’t have gone amiss to, say Athiest or Cynic. All with excellent skill and precision. Lyrically, it all centres on 10th Century Kiev. Jolly good! All in all Gorod ought to be a bigger name in these circles, and it’s their noticeable inclusion on next year’s Bonecrusher Fest (with Job for a Cowboy) that has got me excited for 2013 already.

wpid-Converge-All-We-Love-We-Leave-Behind-album-cover.jpg7. Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind (Epitaph) 

After the guest-laden ‘Axe to Fall’, which for my liking didn’t fire on all cylinders, Converge returned with the excellent ‘All We Love We Leave Behind’ to the widespread critical acclaim they’re surely used to by now. A searing block of molten anger, despair and reflection, the desperate on-the-edge approach to their craft is what continues to set Converge apart from everyone else. I truly felt like I’d gone seven rounds with Ballou, Newton and co after the first three tracks, and how the rest of the album developed delivered knockout punch after knockout punch, even during the ocean drift of ‘Coral Blue’. A superb record from a band still unashamedly as energetic as when they began. Youngsters, take note.

 

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6. Ufomammut – Oro: Opus Primum (Neurot) 

High things were expected of Ufomammut following their switch to Neurot Recordings, and boy oh boy oh boy oh boy did they deliver. Many people seem to prefer the second, slightly leaner part of ‘Oro’ – ‘Opus Alter’ – to ‘Opus Primum’, but for me, the longer, more intense ‘Primum’ is the power element of this couple. Every thick groove oozes through swathes of abstract elements, spoken words and psychedelic trips, further empowered by the band’s visual collaborators, Malleus whose images made ‘Oro’ even more hypnotizing. The album’s third track, ‘Infearnatural’, is particularly embodying of this description, where guitarist Urlo delivers an echoey chant before landing back into the sweet, slow, crushing doom groove. By far the most inebriating ride of the year, ‘Oro’, and in particular ‘Opus Primum’, not only lived up to the hype; it squashed it flat too!

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5. Neurosis – Honor Found In Decay (Neurot)

An album I got around to too late to publish a full review for before the turn of the year, but undoubtedly deserving of its spot on this list. Scott Kelly has immersed himself in numerous projects since the last Neurosis album, ‘Given to the Rising’, and especially so in the last year; but none is more immersive and rewarding as his main band’s latest. Everyone’s got their own take on the best Neurosis album, and while I don’t rate this as high as, say ‘Enemy of the Sun’, its still pretty darn close to their best – and that is leagues above many other bands’ best. An enthralling journey through darkness and doom, ambience and hush, there’s many a fine moment to behold – ‘My Heart in Deliverance’ in particular stands out as one of the songs of the year, not just the album itself. As always, completely encapsulating.

Woods of Ypres - Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light4. Woods of Ypres – Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light (Earache)

It was the album that was supposed to launch Woods of Ypres towards the mainstream, a new beginning. The tragic accident that took singer and founder David Gold’s life at 31 means not only a premature termination of a potentially commercially successful band, but that ‘Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light‘ feels like more than just another album. It’s doomy metal with a few less of the black metal pervading their sound on previous releases touches, but with songwriting and musicianship par excellance. Throughout the fragility of life and its tipping point into death are lyrically displayed, with a sadly prophetic feel to it all. But what a final album to end on, with tracks such as the slightly tongue-in-cheek ‘Career Suicide (Is Not Real Suicide)’ and the poignant funeral march of ‘Kiss My Ashes (Goodbye)’ showcasing exactly how great a loss Gold is to metal in general.

wpid-Between-the-Buried-and-Me-Parallax-II.jpg3. Between the Buried and Me – The Parallax II: Future Sequence (Metal Blade)

The juggernaut that is Between the Buried and Me shows no sign of slowing down, now on their seventh album barely into their thirties. And if ‘The Parallax II: Future Sequence’ is anything to go, then they’re maturing very well indeed. Those Pink Floydian-tendencies seem stronger than ever in the quintet, as ‘Parallax II’ is a space-opera deluxe from start to finish, continuing the story that began on 2011’s ‘Parallax I: Hypersleep Dialogues’ EP. Every second is thoroughly compelling, twisting through dream-like melodies, frenetic riff-fests, ambience, blastbeats, and those oddball moments which you’re either a fan of or not. I fall firmly in the first category. Everything truly comes together on this record, with ‘Silent Night Parliament’ and the reprise of ‘Goodbye to Everything’ being a fitting epic finale worthy of stadiums, not clubs. A wonderful album set in glorious spaaaaaaaaaace. 

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2. High on Fire – De Vermis Mysteriis (E1 Music)

2012 was in many ways the year of Pike – specifically for his recorded ventures and rereleased material, if not specifically the spell in rehab from which he has emerged victorious. Pike’s pre-HoF band Sleep were being celebrated by the rerelease of ‘Dopesmoker’, and indeed the early HoF days were being relived through the rerelease of ‘The Art of Self Defense’, but if ‘De Vermis Mysteriis’ showed anything, it was that Pike and his crew are more than capable of recreating that superb form. Previous High on Fire Records have ranged from anything to brilliant, to…well, alright I suppose. ‘De Vermis Mysteriis’ was something else. The most varied HoF record yet, it drew heavily on the fictional grimoire authored by Robert Block and picked up by H.P. Lovecraft, styled on an idea Pike derived about the Immaculate Conception and time travel, and featured many a centrepiece moment, whether the Jeff Matz-led instrumental ‘Samsara’, so evocative of the great Cliff Burton, or the truly majestic ‘King of Days’, one of Pike’s finest vocal performances to date. The traditional power drive of the band is always present, but the varied approach to their latest record makes it their most essential since ‘Blessed Black Wings’.

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1. Panopticon – Kentucky (Handmade Birds/Pagan Flames)

We already saw evidence in 2011 of US black metal coming to the fore with acts like Wolves in the Throne Room providing undeniably transcending moments and Liturgy shaking things up with their divisive take on the genre, along with the Krallices and Nachtmystiums of America doing very well indeed. This year, it has further aged into a fine creature, showing it is capable once again of further breaking any shackles that confined the genre. No one act – or indeed, one man – showed that more than Austin Lunn, aka A. Lundr, aka Panopticon, on the breathtaking fourth album ‘Kentucky’. 

Folk and metal may not be unusual bedfellows any more, but to take a further strain of folk, bluegrass, and to attempt to meld it to black metal is daring by anyone’s standards. To truly pull it off requires a masterstroke. Lunn does that, and so much more. It’s the ultimate love letter to his home state, from the two bluegrass instrumentals that bookend the album, every bit as beautiful and evocative of the images of Blenheim Forest contained in the vinyl releases, to his depiction of the issues that Kentucky struggled with through its history – the massacre of Cherokee Indian women and children at Ywahoo Falls (‘Bodies Under The Falls’), and in the main, the story of the toil, the uprising, and the demise of coal miners in the 1930s. The heavy songs appear between the traditional miner songs that are covered here, and you’d be a soulless individual not to want to sing along to ‘Which Side Are You On’. It absolutely nails the passion of the miners in that time period – partly achieved through samples – but more to the point, it becomes utterly flooring. The sprawling ‘Killing the Giants as they Sleep’ combines with a truly haunting rendition of ‘Black Waters’ that will emotionally drain you, leaving just the title track jam to pick you back up as the credits roll.

Its testament to Lunn’s ability as a multi-instrumentalist that he doesn’t sound sloppy at all, not on one single instrument. He can match any extreme drummer for speed and ability, adds a hardcore-esque buzz to those guitars that distinguish it just slightly Panopticon’s sound away from traditional black metal, and the flute that he plays over the top of the heavier tracks completely works, every time. Admittedly, this heavy brew won’t be for everyone, and no doubt there’s some smug so-and-so’s out there who won’t be able to get off their elitist pedestals long enough to truly appreciate this. Their loss. ‘Kentucky’ is unquestionably the boldest statement of creativity in 2012, a fantastic snapshot of the Bluegrass state, of how far metal has progressed, and what it has achieved over the course of forty plus years.

Peter Clegg

Panopticon – Kentucky

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Panopticon
Kentucky
Handmade Birds/Pagan Flames

Black metal has always been a Scandinavian game, littered with themes of nihilism, death, religion, every bit as cold, grim and dark and it pervades to be, almost always staring into the abyss of hell, or at the cold night sky. That in recent years the Americans have not just finally got black metal, but they’re having a damn good go at reinventing it too. The country that gave us McDonalds, Jack Daniels and George W. Bush have in recent years given us Liturgy, Nachtmystium, Wolves In The Throne Room, Ludicra and more, all stamping a different mark on the movement that wasn’t supposed to evolve. Nothing is resistant to change, but arguably no one country has done more to evolve black metal’s brazen, cold image than the United States.

Nevertheless, the pagan and folk elements of the genre were still traditionally Scandinavian, but are being incorporated more and more by proponents of the USBM movement, and no one man appears to be pushing this boundary more so than Austin ‘A. Lundr’ Lunn, aka Panopticon. On fourth album ‘Kentucky’, he shifts his previous focus for Scandinavian subject matter into a focus on his homeland. On this album he firmly displays his affinity for his home state and tells the story of the struggle of the 1930’s coal miners dispute, through an initially inconceivable concoction of atmospheric black metal and bluegrass (which some have quickly taken to label ‘blackgrass’). Indeed, anyone expecting to have their faces melted by a scorching riff will be taken aback by ‘Bernheim Forests in Spring’, which sets the tone for the next fifty-one minutes with its distinctly backwoods flavour, three minutes of fiddle and banjo. As it closes, ‘Bodies under the Falls’ enters, with said scorching guitars, blasting drums, and the sound of a flute playing over the top of the riff. This unorthodox approach is quite something at first, but it totally works, and it emerges that as it progresses, Lunn’s work here is nothing short of spectacular. The main riff has such a buzz to it, not too dissimilar to what you’d hear from a hardcore or punk guitarist at times, yet still distinctly black and bleak enough to evoke what Lunn is going for. Six minutes in, it fades out to allow the banjo to return with an ascending three-step riff, before returning to the song’s main furious blitz.

Panopticon – Black Soot and Red Blood

The album flips between folk and bluegrass anthems and progressive swarms of blackened metal, the former on display emphatically with ‘Come All Ye Coal Miners’ and ‘Which Side Are You On?’, both covers of traditional coal miner songs, either of which you could hold a barnburning hoedown to, yet convey the story of the Kentucky coal miners’ struggle perfectly. As rallying as these songs are, the flipside is the surge of raw guitars, rough howls and desperation that pervades Panopticon at its most aggressive. And the desperation and anger of the coal miners rises during ‘Black Soot and Red Blood’, which is at one point dubbed with a sample of a miner talking about the oppression and the struggles of their work, ending with the sound of a protest about to be shut down, when a “91-year-old” woman says to the security forces ‘I’m ready to die, are you?’.

The album closes with a powerfully-charged one-two of ‘Killing the Giants as They Sleep’ and ‘Black Waters’, the former another slab of frenetic and atmospheric black metal that six minutes in begins its descent into the depths, careering into the end with samples and whistles, before plunging into a desolate cover of another old coal miner song, leaving room only for the self-titled instrumental bluegrass track to lift your spirits at the close following that run through the proverbial wringer.

The notions of solidarity, sacrifice, of social and political pain and unrest, come well and truly to the fore, but Lunn’s dedication to his home state also pays homage to Kentucky’s natural beauty, its backwoods, its cypresses and swamps, Appalachia, etc – the artwork’s itself possesses Bernheim Forest as its backdrop, with the ghostly image of a coal miner faintly present in the same picture. The forest is heavily featured in the vinyl’s artwork as well, displaying all aspects of its amazing plumage. It all adds up mark how truly special this album is. Currently this album is vinyl-only on a legal basis – though there are plans to release it on CD and digitally too.

If there’s any one thing to nitpick at, you could argue that the flipflopping of styles isn’t truly merging black metal with bluegrass, and hence the ‘blackgrass’ tag is a bit of a mis-sell. But then, it is only if you believe in genre-listing every potential new musical style that comes to pass. And fuck everyone who puts the hipster tag on this. Nobody’s forcing you to listen. It’s you who are missing out. Yes that brigade will seek to put down, and the traditionalists will decry it and seek to maintain status quo. The rest of us will surely appreciate Lunn’s boldness, vision, and indeed execution, in carrying forward a genre not necessarily in need of change, yet all the more refreshed for its progression.

Peter Clegg 

Buy ‘Kentucky’ here (2x gatefold vinyl)

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