10 Best Metal Albums of 2011

December 30, 2011

This list was surprisingly difficult to finalize this year and for a good reason–there was simply a lot of great, diverse, creative heavy music made in 2011. Metal usually produces its best variety and quality when it’s not in the spotlight, and the first two decades of the 2000s thus far have kept most metal bands playing to their core of devoted followers with little care for mainstream attention. Yet there was plenty of metal made this year that could appeal to a variety of music fans, many who usually eschew “harder” material. Albums like The Hunter will appeal to ’90s alternative grunge devotees, Anvil offers much for those refusing to leave the terrain of 1980s metal, and Junius should work for Smiths fans, progressive rock fans, indie rock kids, and metalheads alike.

10) Mastodon – The Hunter

Mastodon scrapped their usual concept-album approach with The Hunter and just delivered solid individual metal songs. “Curl of the Burl” is the most radio ready single of their career (despite it’s blood feud caveman ethos) and “Black Tongue” isn’t far behind. There are more complex and less accessible tracks later on the album, but for at least the first-half of the record Mastodon showcase fully accessible post-grunge stoner metal. “Blasteroid” is practically a pop song for it’s first half buried under sludge metal, before the intense push-the-envelope chorus kicks in. There’s not much more to add that I didn’t cover on my full album review of this one back in the summer, which you can read here. The Hunter isn’t the opus akin to Leviathan or Blood Mountain, but it’s a solid outing from the best progressive metal band bending the mainstream ear these days.

9) Children of Bodom – Relentless, Reckless Forever

Like the American band The Black Dahlia Murder, the Finnish metal band Children of Bodom are excellent at making “extreme”  metal that is consistently catchy. Unlike many of their Scandinavian Metal peers, Children of Bodom are totally unafraid of having a good time and never take themselves too seriously (for example, of their many off-the-wall covers, they recently covered Eddie Murphy’s craptastic “Party All the Time”). They cram synthy keyboard riffs into many of their songs, insert White Zombi-ish film samples, and make “scary” metal sound like hair metal. Much of this sounds like what many would find to be negative things, but Relentless, Reckless Forever is unabashed metal fun for any who still understand that is a key part of what makes Metal worthwhile in the first place. Sure there’s room for venting aggression and exorcising stressful emotions, but Children of Bodom find a way to do that while being almost tongue-in-cheek goofy…and the songs here are really good.

8) Insomnium – One For Sorrow

Insomnium have “epic” down pat. Huge, soaring sound is what One For Sorrow is all about. It’s the little rays of hope that are tucked in the forlorn hopelessness that sets this work apart from its competitors. This band has found a way to make Death Metal sound inspiring and contemplative. This is expansive and exciting stuff, music that plays for almost any emotion you bring to it. “Through the Shadows” is one of the best metal songs heard all year.

7) Junius – Reports From the Threshold of Death

Junius push the thresholds of metal, really. This is fully emotional, ethereal, experimental, intelligent heavy music. Many a music critic has exclaimed that Junuis is “like The Smiths gone metal,” as if they were the first to make such a comparison. I’ve read dozens write so as such; but it’s understandable because that is a pretty apt comparison. The Smiths made post-punk pop/rock that was highly original, fully literate, and unconventionally unique. Junius does the same for metal, and the singer does have that Morrissey vocal earnestness about him. Reports From the Threshold of Death sprawls and invites you in; it’s perfect headphone music, songs that piece together an eternal contemplative of highest things. These are songs that increase in enjoyability with each replay, songs that take time to fully sink in but reward you all the more for allowing them in. They also display the incredible amount of room there is in the metal genre for variety, progression, and intelligence.

6) Anvil – Juggernaut of Justice

The title track of Anvil’s 14th record made my “25 Best Songs of 2011,” and that’s because it’s a microcosm of the awesomeness that is this entire record and the band’s work as a whole. This record is pure fun, cowbell clanging, heavy riffing, heavy metal. Sure it’s sometimes (probably unintentionally) cheesy; but it’s so much fun to root for the underdogs, especially when they make it so easy by making such good music here. These are feel-good heavy metal songs, performed by a band that plays like an uber-talented real-life version of Spinal Tap. What’s not to love here?

5) Havok – Time is Up

Thrash Metal is the genre that kick-started the next generation of Metal, as well as the careers of genre icons like Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Yet as extreme metal diversified, it was Death, Black, and various forms of Progressive that began to carry the torch and garner the most followers. Recent Thrash revivalists have too often made music heavy on the cheese; sure the purpose of Thrash is to jump start the mosh pit (or party), and lyrics are really second (or third) in the line of importance, but when the material is too cheesy it simply gets in the way. Add that to the fact that too many modern Thrash bands are ridiculously redundant and uninspired, and you have the makings for a sub-genre past its prime. Thanks to bands like Havok though, there is modern proof of the potential vitality of Thrash Metal. Havok do interesting and subtle things with Thrash, whether it’s play with lyrical conventions enough to make a song titled “Killing Tendencies” be not about murder but about something that kills potential in one’s own life or a song that recognizes the evil potential in religious distortions and misrepresentations without blanketing an entire population of adherents with false accusations (“The Cleric”). But most of all, Havok just play great fist-in-the-air headbanger songs. The anti-drunk driving “DOA,” the Testament style “Prepare For Attack,” and the frantic title track all speak to the pure energy Thrash has to offer; outside of the ever-onward approach of Testament and their fellow stalwarts, Havok rank at the top of those carrying the bounce-around-the-pit flag of Thrash.

4) The Black Dahlia Murder – Ritual

Ritual was the front-runner in this category for awhile, and it ranks so high primarily because it’s ridiculously catchy. For an American Death Metal band who mine the gold of worldwide extreme metal, The Black Dahlia Murder are excellent at funneling that intensity into straight-forward, approachable material. Such a skill might earn them a bit of scorn from “purists” or underground fans who hate their once favorite artists the minute they have a fan-base larger than what can fit into a single living room, but it has worked to make Dahlia a popular metal band for metal kids and lifelong fans around the country. Ritual is the most cohesive and fulfilling work the band has done yet in a rather solid career; it represents them being them better than anything thus far. Lyrically the band traverses the depths of horror and shock that they seem to feel must accompany such styles, and at times that (in my opinion) hurts more than helps (in the same manner as the artist at the #1 spot, a factor which is the subject of a forthcoming post). Horror, scare, and narrative are one thing whereas shock, banality, and irresponsibility are another–music more than literature or even film faces this line as a very fine thing. Ritual most often comes down on the side of art, heavy and metal mall-kid influenced though it may be, and that causes the few lyrical lapses to be overlooked. If trying to be the most “metal” they can be by emulating their global influences in ways that sometimes miss the nuances and inspirations hurts the band occasionally in their lyrics, it really works well for them musically. There are intense riffs, blast-beats, and sonic explosions galore on this album; but what really seals the deal and stands them apart is the way that they can take such pure metal inspiration and produce it in an amazingly melodic way. Vocalist Trevon Strnad finds ways to make even the most ear-piercing screech or the most bass provoking growl to be hook-worthy. The rest of the band pound out Death-heavy riffs in a way catchy enough to challenge Power or even Hair bands for pure listenability. Songs like “Moonlight Equilibrium” are some of the best of not only metal, but of all popular music in 2011.  There’s an unmistakable sense of fun present in songs like “Conspiring with the Damned” that is absent in the work of most of the band’s Black and Death Metal peers, and the pieces of this album fit so well together that it’s hard not to finish the entire thing once you listen to just one song.

3) Machine Head – Unto the Locust

Although there’s some metalcore qualities to Machine Head, for the most part they play straight-forward Metal free of any particular sub-genre label or excessive qualities. Unto the Locust contains only seven songs, but aside from one all are six-to-eight minutes long. The vocals are clear and undistorted and they’re unafraid of a hooky chorus. The pattern of the songs can get predictable with their often acoustic and gradual introductions giving way to increasingly heavy rock and guitar riff solos. But nothing here gets boring, and every song practically begs for replays as they grow on you. “Be Still and Know” “Locust,” and “Darkness Within” are just beautiful, resonant pieces of metal that should appeal to anyone who’s ever really been a fan of the genre.

2) The Human Abstract – Digital Veil

This is a work whose only fault is that it’s over too soon at a short 36 minutes. For some metal albums, 36 minutes is just right (or too long), but this is so varied, interesting, and captivating throughout that it’s sad to hear it fade away at half an hour. Of course, that just makes you play it again and a band is usually at their best when they leave you wanting more. Digital Veil pulls so much scope and easy-handed experimentalism into some really great songs; there’s a huge classical music element, a genre which a lot of the best metal acts owe a large debt to, more so than any other rock subgenre. “Complex Terms” hits right after the orchestral “Elegaic” introduction, and it immediately grabs you and hooks you. Classical music filtered through mosh pit intensity, a give and take/up and down exchange of guttural growls an earnest crooning, a shifting techno influenced skitter of guitar work that makes industrial noise sound like pop melody with a bit of almost jazz like sensibility, headbanging guitar break sections, pianos which interrupt just to prepare the next burst of metal…this five-minute song would be enough to warrant the entire album a spot on this list. But the band lets you know they won’t tiredly repeat the same thing over and over as the following title track song shortens things up to Thrash measures by way of progressive Death Metal. The vocals get sharper and more confrontational, the drum-beats more tribal, a perfect mosh of a three-minute song. “Faust” is a more progressive-rock feeling song, with some noticeable “emo” qualities, but closer to first-wave emo rock when it was literate and not mall-kid; but the chorus is all global heavy metal. “Antebellum” is a softened, melodic break. A very, very impressive record.

1) Skeletonwitch – Forever Abomination

This record made the cut onto my “Best Albums of 2011” list at the #9 spot. You can read it here.

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2 Responses to “10 Best Metal Albums of 2011”

  1. dewanada said

    Absolutely COB is the Best
    Great Post 🙂

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