The Best Metal and Hard Rock Albums of 2011
I have long theorized that music in general works in cycles of twenty to twenty-five years, and that what's old can continually be made new again, like doctoring up that potato salad for one last go-around. To wit, in the 1990's, Pantera, Alice in Chains and the rest of grunge listed their influences as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and the classic rock of the 70's. In the 1970's, Led Zeppelin and their cohorts listed their influences as Chuck Berry, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and the blues and rock musicians of the 50's. In the 1950's, those musicians listed their influences with ragtime, southern gospel, and other influential early forms of popular music.
As such, we should now be coming around in the cycle again, as twenty years have passed since the heady days of grunge, and twenty five since the beginnings of popular thrash. Following a solid 2010, metal and hard rock appeared poised to break out into a monumental 2011, and I'm pleased to say that what's old is becoming new again. Music tends to cannibalize and is highly nostalgic by nature, but as opposed to the cycle of cinema which is relentlessly feeding on itself, music serves only to benefit from this trend. It had become the norm for me to scrounge around, desperate to find ten albums I thought were truly worthy of a Top Ten list, where more than one song was worth a damn.
Now, for the first time, I found myself neck-deep in a positive deluge of good albums! I actually had to cut this list down from about thirty semi-finalists to sixteen finalists (sorry Warbringer and Blackguard, that's where you both fell,) but I can't begin to explain how thrilled I am about that. Perhaps music is turning the corner. (Yes, I know Justin Bieber still exists, but I'm putting my fingers in my ears and continuing with my blind optimism, thankyouverymuch.)
First, one small clarification. For the purposes of the Top Ten Albums of 2011 list, there are a few small rules:
1) No re-releases (sorry, Cirith Ungol.)
2) No collections (sorry, Behemoth.)
3) No live albums (sorry, Soundgarden.) All entries must be honest-to-goodness original studio compositions.
Really, when it came down to it, there was just one simple criteria upon which all albums this year were judged; what album did I enjoy the most? For all we talk about technical expertise and intricacy, genre definition and a lot of other (admittedly) sometimes vacuous buzzwords, I felt it was important to place emphasis in the ratings on what music I simply enjoyed the most.
I want to take a moment to give an honorable mention nod to the Two-Little-Albums-That-Could from 2011. Shroud Eater released the punishing, deliciously dire "ThunderNoise," a hostile collection of unapologetic sludge metal that is equal parts thunder and lightning. Selfish Needy Creatures pumped out the pugilistic "The Hard Way," a crushing, relentless rock and roll metal assault that invades your personal space and cranks into both ears at full blast. Both of these albums represent what's possible in DIY music in the modern era, and are a solid reminder that big names and big labels are not necessary for big results. Both of these releases deserve attention in their own right, and are completely, 100% worth your time.
10) The Foo Fighters – "Wasting Light"
Best Track: #1 "Bridge Burning"
R.I.Y.L.: Boston, AC/DC, Saliva, modern hard rock of almost any type.
"Wasting Light" stands on merit, but not for any of the wistful reasons that Nirvana revivalists would have you believe. Yes, Butch Vig produced it, and yes, Krist Novoselic played bass on a bunch of tracks. Ultimately though, this is a Foo Fighters album, a full-bodied creation out of the mind of Dave Grohl, not an album that clings to the frayed strands of nostalgic memory. Following his work with supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, Grohl was seen to say that it inspired him to produce this latest Foo Fighters effort. Whether the resultant product is borne of superior influence or the simple act of screwing one's head on straight, "Wasting Light" represents all that is still right with rock and roll in 2011. It is loud but accessible, emotional but simple, straightforward but not generic. There are some forgettable cuts on "Wasting Light" but the album just barely edges out several worthy contenders for the last spot on this list on strength of tracks like "Rope," "Arlandria" and the melodic, rounded-out "Burning Bridges."
9) PAIN – "You Only Live Twice"
Best Track: #3, "The Great Pretender"
R.I.Y.L.: Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Zombie, Hypocrisy, metal that defies a single genre.
Frontman Peter Tägtgren said in early press for "You Only Live Twice" that he was ready to compose an unforgettable album that would turn his side-project PAIN into a household name. The only thing that holds this vanity album back from being higher up the list is the fact that it lacks a single, unified identity. Seemingly come alive from some kind of heavy metal chemistry set, every part of Tägtgren's (Hypocrisy) album under the moniker PAIN is a solution of other aspects of heavy metal. Blending the elements of high-ceilinged European metal with high-impact American metal, PAIN creates an atmosphere that is refreshingly unique without actually being unique. Fans of almost every type of metal can and will find something on "You Only Live Twice" that appeals to their ear, and Tägtgren's passion is all too evident. He can go to sleep knowing that his most recent album is a blockbuster.
8) Red Fang – "Murder the Mountains"
Best Track: #3 "Hank is Dead"
R.I.Y.L.: Clutch, Priestess, Kyuss, doom of all types
This album is colored by wilderness themes, but not in the same sense that Scissorfight characterized backwoods New Hampshire. Rather, "Murder the Mountains" is a muddy, woodsy exploration of the fuzzed-out corners of sludge and swamp metal. Practically recorded in a mossy bog, "Murder the Mountains" brings it with style and rhythm. Yet, amidst all the earthy tones, there is a blossom of artistry and layering that takes multiple listens to fully appreciate and is surprising upon discovery. One part blues-metal homage and one part heavy-handed irresistible force, Red Fang hypnotizes the listener with cuts like "Wires" and the album's jewel, "Hank is Dead."
7) Powerwolf – "Blood of the Saints"
Best Track: #5 "All We Need is Blood"
R.I.Y.L.: Edguy, Primal Fear, Iron Maiden
Sometimes, an album transcends not because it is musically ornate or particularly groundbreaking, but simply because it is enjoyable. It is in this spirit that Powerwolf's "Blood of the Saints" rings in at #7. Featuring quick, sprightly riffs and the powerful bellow of Attila Dorn (he's like the heavy metal Paul Bearer, but with fewer jowls and a less squeaky voice) the album is a fast-paced romp that ties together loose Biblical allegory, gothic European themes, and, well…werewolves. With choral arrangements and keyboards recorded in a thirteenth century German cathedral, Powerwolf's album conjured a huge atmosphere of authenticity blended with modern European power metal. In the end though, this album is a rolling good ride that quite simply makes listeners sing along and just maybe smile a little. Any of the album's first five true cuts, beginning with "Sanctified With Dynamite" and finishing with "Dead Boys Don't Cry" exemplify the kind of feeling that Powerwolf was going for. This album probably appeals less to harder-core American audiences, but if you have any appreciation at all for power metal, "Blood of the Saints" was top of the heap this year.
6) Crowned By Fire – "Prone to Destroy"
Best Track: #5 "Get Under the Dirt"
R.I.Y.L.: Black Sabbath, The Cursed, Danzig
Flying almost completely under the radar, "Prone to Destroy" is an album not to be missed. Based on the principle that the mores dictated by the fathers of heavy metal are still just as valid today, "Prone to Destroy" crushes through each cut with a kind of abandon that's almost a forgotten art. High on substance and low on style, Crowned By Fire created one of the year's grittiest and yet most listenable experiences. While not particularly rangy in style or idiom, albums like this exist because the basic tenets of blues-based, teeth grinding heavy metal will always be viable in any environment. "Prone to Destroy" may not advance the genre into new, unbroken territory, but damned if it isn't a perfectly executed throwback with embellishments. The album is a slow-footed, doom-soaked harbinger of heavy metal bent on banging your head, destroying your spine and breaking your windows. It has all the eloquence and tact of a claw hammer. And it couldn't be better.
5) Indestructible Noise Command – "Heaven Sent, Hellbound"
Best Track: #3 "God Loves Violence"
R.I.Y.L.: Pantera, Slayer, music that scares the crap out of your parents.
As accomplished as 2011 was for heavy metal, the five albums in the top of this list are bigger than this single year. Each one represents an achievement of one kind or another, and I.N.C's comeback album is no different. Allow me to try and demonstrate in words what the bodily reaction to hearing "Heaven Sent, Hellbound" is:
"GRRRRAAAAAAHHHHHH!" This guttural, primal war cry is then punctuated with furniture breaking, wild-eyed destruction and bodily harm to yourself and/or others.
Indestructible Noise Command made their comeback under the auspice of taking back heavy metal from the legion of pretenders to the throne and returning the genre to its abrasive, vulgar roots. If "Prone to Destroy" destroyed your spine and broke your windows, "Heaven Sent, Hellbound" napalmed your house with you in it. And melted your car. Then dropped a bunker buster on the slag and ashes. This album stole the title of 2011's heaviest metal album from Crowbar's "Sever the Wicked Hand" and was concurrently more pulverizing than the machine gun riffs of Five Finger Death Punch's "American Capitalist." "Heaven Sent, Hellbound" crushed all comers with a one-track mind of annihilation. What a glorious battlefield of old-school straightforward heavy metal this was.
4) Children of Bodom – "Relentless, Reckless, Forever"
Best Track: #9 "Northpole Throwdown"
R.I.Y.L.: Children of Bodom. (What can I say, they're unique.) Melodic death metal of all types.
Almost any other year, this album would have been a clear contender for #1, but 2011 was that rare exceptional year that locked it out. Heavier on guitar (if that's possible) for Children of Bodom and less keyboard dependent, "RRF" creates an entirely new textbook on guitar soloing for death and speed metal. Alexi Laiho banged out one piece of incredible virtuoso guitar work after another, crafting a satiating, encompassing, dynamic flow that actually borrows from so many guitar legends old and new. Nowhere does this culminate in finer fashion than the back to back masterpiece solos of "Was it Worth It," and "Northpole Throwdown." The former is a brilliant piece of blues-channeled scale rocking, while the latter is pure speed metal fury by an emerging master. While its true that "RRF" takes a couple listens to find the album's ultimate value, those willing to absorb the initially thinner sound were rewarded with an intricate weaving of heavy metal standards and innovations. A masterpiece.
3) Lazarus A.D. – "Black Rivers Flow"
Best Track: #9 "Eternal Vengeance"
R.I.Y.L.: Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica, Corrosion of Conformity, Alice in Chains
At this point, everyone is probably well-acquainted with my fandom for, and support of, Lazarus A.D. You know the arguments. Dan Gapen is a guitar genius. The band draws from the best possible inspirations in an attempt to resurrect (along with Wabringer, not seen in the Top 10,) the classic thrash sound. They represent a revival of all that was truly metal in the late 80's, but without the denim and poor fashion choices. If you have cast this album aside without actually hearing it, you do not know what you are missing. As a fan of any and all types of heavy metal, you must hear this album. You will enjoy it. It is infectiously rhythmic and powerfully groovy all at the same time, complete with headbanging anthems, imaginative riffs and catchy breakdowns. Find it. Buy it. Crank it. Relish it.
2) Graveyard – "Hisingen Blues"
Best Track: #2 "No Good, Mr. Holden"
R.I.Y.L.: Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, rock and roll and blues of all varieties.
Magnificent. One of only two albums this year that actually produced a physical reaction from me. This album seeps into your body, drips into your muscles and bypasses your heart, instead soothing the tense, stressed out nerves of your soul. "Hisingen Blues" is so steeped in the classic structures of blues that it is the smoothest album in at least a decade. The album has no harsh edges, even in the most rocking of tracks like "Rss." Coming from the unlikely home of Sweden, Graveyard has crafted a tapestry of rock that appeals to the senses of classic rock aficionados everywhere. This album would have felt equally at home in 1973 on the shelf next to Led Zeppelin, and is a glorious throwback to a time when music didn't need to scream at you or survive on a minute by minute basis. After probably a hundred listenings, I am simply out of superlatives about this album. Just relax, summon your inner blues rock fan and let this record take over. Amazing.
1) Turisas – "Stand Up and Fight"
Best Track: #8 "End of an Empire"
R.I.Y.L.: Heavy Metal, Vikings, History, Opera (no, seriously.)
So many would simply call this album "power metal," but to apply so pedestrian a label to an album such as this is a disservice. "Stand Up and Fight" rises far beyond the scope of any genre identification and embraces inspirations both common and obscure. Another work based on the history of the historically forgotten Varangian Guard (which spellcheck doesn’t recognize as a word, that's how forgotten we're talking about,) Turisas blends elements acoustic, electric, orchestral, choral, brass, stringed and operatic to create a rousing, almost impossible sense of gravitas. The only word that can accurately encapsulate the size of this album's sound seems like a gross understatement. That word is "big." This is a BIG album; larger than life, unrestrained, gargantuan. For all the gallop riffing of a roiling cut like "The Great Escape," or the thunderous, rallying stomping of "March of the Varangian Guard," the track on this incredible album that blows the doors off is "End of an Empire." Capable of redefining epic in a way not seen in music since Iron Butterfly, "The Wall," or the "Song Remains the Same" video, "End of an Empire" is perhaps the closest thing metal will ever experience to a crossover opera. It, and the entire album, is/are instant classics, memorable upon impact, accessible to the discerning ear and just plain fun. This is an incredible album, and the greatest album of 2011.