Metal 2000: Best albums

Posted on December 30, 2009 by agentrickard

Well, looking at this list, it seems that 2006 was the clear winner. Same rules as last time, only one album per band, and here I'm looking for things that I thought were really surprising, records that I listened to over and over again, or ones that brought new bands to my attention. In all cases but one, I know have the entire back catalog of every band on this list. And some of them, like Agalloch, moved me into other directions.

As I finish writing this, I'm listening to the top ten tracks list that I made. And it reminds me that I still like listening to enture albums, front-to-back. The transition from one track to another (by a different artist, in a different style) is jarring.

10. Ashes Against the Grain, Agalloch (2006).
I started to put The Mantle here, but went with Ashes because it is a little heavier. A great, unique sound, filled with lots of empty spaces. It's like ambient death jazz metal. Nice grooves in the rhythm section, lots of tasty acoustic overlays and probably the best use of feedback effects going. Check out the final track, "III - The Grain" or "This Mountain on Which You Will Die," for example. "Falling Snow" and "Not Unlike the Waves" are the album highlights. Heavy, moody and melodic at different times.

9. The Novella Reservoir, Novembers Doom (2007).
I just learned (on that this Chicago band toured with Agalloch in 2004. They've been around since 1989, though Paul Kuhr is the only original member and the driving force behind the band. They write great big powerful riffs and catchy, if depressing songs with big hooks. Nice alternation between growled and clean vocals, and Kuhr has a great singing voice. There are some nice acoustic elements here, though they can go a bit too far ("Twilight Innocence" for example). Still, there are some huge tracks on this one, notably "Drown the Inland Mere," "The Voice of Failure" and "Dominate the Human Strain." And the opening drum/riff combo on "Rain" is one of the great starts to an album.

8. The End of Heartache, Killswitch Engage (2004).
I really respect KSE. As musicians, they show how far metal has come in 30 years, because they do things effortlessly that seemed impossible. (Compare, for instance, the snap-rhythm time shifts of "A Bid Farewell" to early Metallica or other 80s thrash bands that were audibly trying to play as fast as they could.) I picked this album as their best, just barely beating Alive or Just Breathing because Howard Jones is a better vocalist. The problem I have with KSE, though, is that for all the great power riffs, precision drumming and great sense of melody, they just go over the same lyrical territory over and over. We get it. There is loss and remorse and hope and unity. But these are too often just vague notions, with no real lyrical weight. That aside, there are some really good tracks on this one, and the "World Ablaze," "And Embers Rise," "Wasted Sacrifice" section at the back of the album is dead on good.

7. LD 50, Mudvayne (2000).
Yeah, this made the list. I really, really like this album, and with each successive release, the band seems to move further from its sound. When I first heard "Dig," it took me about ten listens to get into it, because it was big and stunning, and I couldn't tell if I liked the vocal line or not. But the growls and half-raps on that track don't carry over to the entire record, which features a great, complex vocal (sometimes on a single track, like "Death Blooms" or "Severed"). And this one has probably the best bass parts of any album on the list.

6. Waves of Visual Decay, Communic (2006).
A late entry, and probably ranked too high because I just got a copy after listening to Payment of Existence a whole lot this summer. But this, their second album, is superior. It manages to weave together long, proggy concept-album tracks with thunderously big riffs. Some weird lyrical choices here (probably because they are Norwegian): "Frozen Asleep in the Park" has moments that sound like they are being recited from a newspaper report; "At Dewy Prime" makes no sense (but is a great album-ender); "My Bleeding Victim" is a horrible title, but a great track, too. My digital copy also includes two bonus demo tracks ("Conspiracy in Mind" and "Ocean Bed") that extend the album to a full 80+ minutes. If you like proggy heavy metal (or bands like Nevermore, who Communic displaced from this list), pick up a copy.

5. Traced in Air, Cynic (2008).
Simply stunning. For a while, I considered putting this #1. Florida's Cynic went something like 15 years since releasing Focus, and then this. It can't really be #1 because it's only 8 tracks and 34 minutes, but it is like nothing else I've heard this decade (ok, maybe it's an interstellar version of the pagan Agalloch). Spacy, trippy, complex and jazzy, featuring vocoded falsetto vocals (!). Not a huge riff band, but exquisite guitar and bass work, and some of the best drumming around. Take a listen over at Cynic online, because I don't think I can explain exactly what makes this album so great: melody? technical precision? inventiveness? I dunno. Just go listen to "Evolutionary Sleeper" or "Adam's Murmur."

4. Ghost Reveries, Opeth (2005).
Where to start? OK, there had to be an Opeth album on this list. probably the most stunningly original band on the list, these guys are capable on anything. Clean harmonies? Death growls? Heavy riffs? Gentle acoustic passages? Check. Check. Check. Check. And the drumming stops on a dime, keeping pace with the swirling bass and guitar. Go listen to "Ghosts of Perdition" right now. This list can wait. Back? OK, now go listen to "The Grand Conjuration" and sit in awe of that slinky bum-BUM-bum, bum-bum-BUM, BUM-bum-bum riff that winds through the track, building and shifting until the entire band finally explodes. Now that's metal.

3. Crack the Skye, Mastodon (2009).
Maybe it's time to admit that I have a problem with heavy prog. Well, it doesn't prevent me from working, etc., so it can't really be a problem. Mastodon garnered a ton of critical praise for each album, and this is probably the best, a multi-layered concept album about the Czars and Rasputin and who knows what. I might even rate it higher than #3 on purely technical merits, but the two rankled higher are in my playlist more often. Anyway, back to why this album rules. Let's start with the opening guitar line to "Oblivion." Let it sink in and build volume, as the bass and drums come in and the second guitar line starts. Got chills yet? Waiting for the rest, and then here is comes. Multiple shifts, moves and grooves, and they never lose the power, not until the end of the entire album. Great vocal mix, with 3 (or is it 4) band members taking turns on lead vocal, adding a range and dimension most bands can't match. They've largely given up the growling style for a cleaner, more articulate vocal sound, which I really dig. And the riffs just keep coming at you until the end of "The Last Baron."

2. 11 Dreams, Mercenary (2004).
Surprise? Maybe. But the Danes take this spot on the virtue for crafting big, shattering hooks (vocal, rhythmic and riff) into their songs. They also bring a huge wall-of-sound approach that just overpowers. One of the few albums to get a 10-out-of-10 review from Brave Words (love the Martin Popoff quote: "This deserves Mastodon-like hype"), it has something for everyone. Mercenary records can be hard to find in the US, and this album made me hunt for their entire catalog (hell, Architect of Lies took nearly a year to be released in the US). The addition of Mikkel Sandager on vocals gave them the kind of push that Iron Maiden got from Bruce Dickinson, pushing them near the top of the metal heap. Great vocal performance, outstanding guitar and drum work, and precision songwriting make this a classic. Also the best keyboard work on any album on the list; always present, but never unwanted, little bits of piano (and one piano-driven track (!)) make the guitar sound even bigger. Just a great record.

1. With Oden on Our Side, Amon Amarth (2006).
What was I saying about heavy prog? Well it doesn't apply here. I probably listened to more Amon Amarth than any other band in the last 5 years. Really. Once you get past the lyrical convention ("we're gonna sing about Vikings, dammit") and notice that it's a conviction (unlike, say, Manowar-style posturing about how bad-ass and 'metal' the band is), then you can start to enjoy the power and force of Amon Amarth. There were actually three albums I could put here: Versus the World, which contains a unfortunately Manowar-like title track but great tracks (especially what would be side 'B' of an LP, tracks 5-9, all of which rule in slightly different ways), and Twilight of the Thunder God, which is equally good and has two of my current favorite songs on it. On overall song strength, though, I'll take this one. Lots of groovy tempo shifts from track to track (though normally not within a single track), we go from full-speed-ahead thrash ("Asator") to melodic epics ("Under the Northern Star," "Prediction of Warfare") to straight-ahead metal ("Cry of the Black Birds," "With Oden on Our Side"). And they do great layering of melodic, sweeping leads on top of thunderingly heavy rhythms. Long labeled a melodic death metal band, largely because of Johan Hegg's deep (but nuanced) growls, I'm just going to call Amon Amarth a modern version of Iron Maiden or Judas Priest: they are the prototype metal band for the decade. You want to know what metal means from 2000-09? Listen to Amon Amarth and you'll know.

Ten more albums that I really liked, but had to leave off the list.

  • Probot, Probot (2003)
  • Reise Reise, Rammstein (2004)
  • Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, Slipknot (2004)
  • Toxicity, System of a Down (2001)
  • Lateralus, Tool (2001)
  • Praises to the War Machine, Warrel Dane (2008)
  • Dead Heart in a Dead World, Nevermore (2000)
  • Death Cult Armageddon, Dimmu Borgir (2003)
  • In the Absence of Truth, ISIS (2006)
  • Dethklok, The Dethalbum (2007)

Metal 2000: Best tracks

Posted on December 29, 2009 by agentrickard

This is the first part of the best of 2000 series I'm planning to write. Here, we're after the ten best metal tracks of the last ten years. And for individual tracks, I prefer memorable riffs, big vocals (or at least, memorable vocal lines) and things that surprise. Some notable bands (ISIS, Crowbar, Agalloch) aren't on the list simply because they don't have that one big, memorable song I find myself wanting to hear in the middle of the day.

From this list, you'll get a pretty good sense of what I like, I suspect, and I'll try to explain why each track made the list. if your favorite's not on the list, go make your own. The only rule is that each band can only appear once.

10. "Paschendale", Iron Maiden, Dance of Death (2003).
OK, let's establish our baseline right here. I'm an old-school metal guy, and I like big, epic sweeping tracks. And it's "Paschendale" that let me know that Maiden were back in form (I actually went back and picked up Brave New World, too. Gets really good after the solo breaks at the 5:30 mark or so. Wish the production were a little cleaner, so the guitar riffs had the punch they really deserve, otherwise, this might be ranked higher.

9. "Drown the Inland Mere", Novembers Doom, The Novella Reservoir (2007).
The biggest riffs, a mix of growled and clean vocals. Tempo shifts. This one and "Dominate the Human Strain" fight for a spot on the list. "Drown" wins because of its crisper opening.

8. "Death Blooms", Mudvayne, LD 50 (2000).
I had to have an early-decade "nu-metal" track on the list. I picked up this album, White Pony and Toxicity around the same time. This is heavy, tasty, complex stuff, with a multi-dimensional vocal style that they have largely given up. If I had to select a most disappointing band of the decade, this is it. I hoped for more songs like this, and they've steadily moved in a more mainstream direction. I almost put SOAD's "Aerials", Deftones' "Digital Bath" or Drowning Pool's "Bodies" here, but couldn't remove this one.

7. "Fooled by the Serpent", Communic, Waves of Visual Decay (2006).
There's a lot going on here. Melodic lines, acoustic elements, a keyboard background and epic vocals. This times in at 9:00, and features massive drum fills, some heavy, jazzy riffs, and enough speed changes to keep rolling for the entire duration. Plus the core riffs are nice and meaty.

6. "Judas Rising", Judas Priest, Angel of Retribution (2004).
The Priest is back, and with double kick drums. I saw these guys live in 1984 (on the Defenders tour) and it probably warped my musical tastes for life. If this album had been released in the 80s, it would be lionized. As it is, it's a great, fun metal record. And Rob Halford's vocal on this track is made of metal.

5. "11 Dreams", Mercenary, 11 Dreams
Wall. Of. Sound. And one of the best clean vocal performances of the decade. From the Danes comes this massive blast of classic power metal. Not for every taste, and probably not even their best song ("Soul Decision", "Loneliness", "This Black and Endless Never"), but this one got under my skin and stayed there. Great vocal, nice interplay of keyboards with the massive guitar sound, and some big, driving drumming. Everything about this track is huge, and the pre-chorus just plain rules. These guys made some great records. If you like your metal over the top, check out Mercenary. Now.

4. "The Last Baron", Mastodon, Crack the Skye (2009).
Twists and turns and riffs for days. This one clocks in over 13 minutes (and four major sections). And it is made of awesome. What's it about? No idea. But the choruses soar, the guitars swirl and the drums rule.

3. "The Grand Conjuration", Opeth, Ghost Reveries (2005).
Massive. I think this is the first single I have ever bought in 30 years of collecting. There are other great Opeth tracks ("Porcelain Heart", "The Baying of the Hounds"), but this one track captures all that is great about Opeth in one dose. And really, a great underlying riff.

2. "Disciple", Slayer, God Hates Us All (2001).
For pure, unadulterated hate, you've got to go with Slayer. The chorus alone gets it a place on the list, The riffs are huge and the drums will batter you senseless. Tom Araya is in fine form. If you're in a bad mood, got some crap going on in your life, this is the track. Just crank it, let it out and then get on with your day. The idea of seeing this live, with a thrashing sing-a-long mob is pretty scary.

1. "Live for the Kill", Amon Amarth, Twilight of the Thunder God (2008).
OK, when the liner notes indicate a cello solo in the middle, you start to worry. But the delicate counterpoint of the string break really highlights the strengths of Amon Amarth. These guys are brutal, one of the modern bands that remember that the mighty riff rules all, but they have a melodic undercurrent that really sets them apart from the hordes of death-obsessed growl bands. There are probably four or five Amon Amarth tracks I could have chosen here ("Across the Rainbow Bridge," "...And Soon the World Will Cease to Be," "Cry of the Black Birds", "Twilight of the Thunder God"), but this one is shockingly good.

So there is it. This list was actually pretty hard to put together. Except for "Disciple" and an Amon Amarth track, I had to spend an afternoon browsing through my collection. Here are 20 other tracks that almost made the list, but, for one reason or another, dropped off.

  • The Space for This, Cynic, Traced in Air (2008)
  • Progenies of the Great Apocalypse, Dimmu Borgir, Death Cult Armageddon (2004)
  • The Hollow, A Perfect Circle, A Perfect Circle (2000)
  • The Emerald Law, Probot, Probot (2003)
  • Amerika, Rammstein, Reise Reise (2004)
  • Bodies, Drowning Pool, Sinner (2001)
  • The Day That Never Comes, Metallica, Death Magnetic (2008)
  • Kill Control, Skrape, New Killer America (2001)
  • The Blister Exists, Slipknot, Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses (2004)
  • The Crestfallen, Soilwork, Stabbing the Drama (2005)
  • Aerials, System of a Down, Toxicity, (2001)
  • More Than Meets the Eye, Testament, The Formation of Damnation (2008)
  • Schism, Tool, Lateralus (2001)
  • All There is Fear, Venom, Resurrection (2000)
  • Divine Sun, Voivod, Voivod (2003)
  • August, Warrel Dane, Praises to the War Machine (2008)
  • Digital Bath, Deftones, White Pony (2000)
  • Procrastination on the Empty Vessel, Napalm Death, Time Waits for No Slave (2008)
  • Coming Down, Crowbar, Life's Blood for the Downtrodden (2005)
  • The Element of One, Killswitch Engage, Alive or Just Breathing (2002)

Best of the decade lists

Posted on December 27, 2009 by agentrickard

I've been seeing a bunch of best-of-the-year and (hard to believe) best-of-the-decade posts around the web. So I think I'll give it a shot.

I can think of three obvious posts, and I'll try to knock them all out before the end of the year.

  1. Top metal tracks of the decade
  2. Top metal albums of the decade
  3. Top metal bands of the decade

Each post would cover music released from 2000-09, and the ground rule would be that only one selection by a band can be included in any list. I think the lists will tilt towards traditional metal, with nods to bands I think are doing interesting work. Right now, I'm trying to decide if I need the new Woods of Ypres release.

Mercenary line-up changes

Posted on December 2, 2009 by agentrickard

So my Danish informant tells me that the mighty Mercenary parted with their singer, keyboardist and drummer last month. [Read the statement here]. That sucks. Architect of Lies was a very strong record. The dreaded "creative direction" debate killed this version of the band lineup.

Mercenary as you know it is now dead and buried. Rest assured, however, that René, Martin and [Jakob] will continue Mercenary in the best way we possibly can and with a newfound sense of integrity and purpose. So far we have had an immensely fruitful songwriting process with lots of mutual inspiration, understanding, synergy – and most importantly – good, plain, old fashioned fun, which is what it all ought to be about. We feel that we’re finally all in agreement about the future direction of the band and that this will be the strongest and most united incarnation of Mercenary ever. In terms of creativity, motivation and the everyday-practical-getting-shit-done-aspects, the band remains fully intact. The new Mercenary will be back to shatter everybody's balls in 2010.

Well, they (mostly) survived the departure of founding member Kral, so here's hoping they keep it together. Of course, here in the States, we won't know about it until late next year, I suppose.

The \m/etal

Posted on November 29, 2009 by agentrickard

This section of the site is new, and gives me room to talk about \m/etal. Big, loud, heavy metal.

I've been hooked since I was 12. And my tastes just keep getting louder. (Well, maybe that's not true.) Currently, I am kicking myself for not getting the Opeth back catalog sooner. Listening to "Damnation" and "Orchid" while doing the site upgrade. Tasty stuff.

Hopefully, I'll add some reviews and such to the site. Until then, here is a quick list of the top 5 albums of the last year or so. (I just noticed I don't have many from 2009, strange).

  1. Mastodon, Crack the Skye
  2. Cynic, Focus
  3. Mercenary, Architect of Lies
  4. Amon Amarth, Twilight of the Thunder God
  5. Warrell Dane, Praises to the War Machine

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