Clichés be damned — this really was a good year for metal. I had a harder time organizing a Top 10 in 2010 than ever before. Ditto the Top 20. It was such a good year that I went overboard and shifted my usual Top 30 to a Top 50. (Sure, the different between No. 1 and No. 49 is a big one, but even No. 50′s notable.) I’m not sure why these past 12 months managed to birth so much great stuff. I don’t want to say “Renaissance,” because it’s always been there, but it does seem like more people are pushing themselves into increasingly ambitious territories, especially in the realms of black metal, doom, crust, grind, etc. (Ditto death, but I tend to like it best when folks go backwards and mash the past with the present a la Dead Congregation or other bands with a ton of atmosphere and no click tracks.) I definitely have plenty of love for the orthodox and vintage, but this seemed to be the year of bands like the Body, Kylesa, Sailors With Wax Wings, Alcest, and Kvelertak, groups who weren’t afraid to fuck with genre definitions in different ways. (Of course, others kept it admirably old-school, managing to add their own angle to the classics.) I’ve been yowling about American black metal for years — this past year birthed some of my favorite examples of the stuff. (Since I started championing USBM, or whatever you want to call it, it no longer feels like a scruffy underdog in need of championing.) It’s interesting to me, too, how many old favorites pop up annually.
If you’ve read Haunting The Chapel consistently (or even inconsistently) this past year, you might not be all that surprised at my No. 1. The position’s held by a group who put out another amazing album in 2006, one that ended as my No. 2 that year. This time nobody came too close. Actually, the Top 5 did, but I No. 1 was really the only position I didn’t have to hem and haw about too much. Otherwise, lots of remembering and re-listening. I’ve already spent a lot of time talking about the band and albums: I wrote new blurbs for the Top 10; otherwise, clicking on band names with hyperlinks will take you to past writings on that album and group. Because of all the material, I decided to go away with Guest Lists. I was hoping you would post yours instead. Check out what I liked then let me know what I missed.
50 woe – Quietly, Undramatically
49 Negură Bunget – Maiestrit
48 Black Tusk – Taste The Sin
47 Winterfylleth – The Mercian Sphere
46 Abscess – Dawn Of Inhumanity
45 Withered – Dualities
44 Year Of No Light – Ausserwelt
43 KRIEG – The Isolationist
42 Sorgeldom – Inner Receivings
41 Bastard Priest – Under The Hammer of Destruction
40 Salome – Terminal
39 Profanatica – Disgusting Blasphemies Against God
38 Yakuza – Of Seismic Consequence
37 Melechesh – The Epigenesis
36 Immolation – Majesty & Decay
35 Akitsa – Au crépuscule de l’espérance
34 Urfaust – Der freiwillige Bettler
33 Alcest – Écailles De Lune
32 Cathedral – The Guessing Game
31 Enslaved – Axioma Ethica Odini
30 Ash Pool – For Which He Plies the Lash
29 Kvelertak – Kvelertak
28 High On Fire – Snakes For The Divine
27 Electric Wizard – Black Masses
26 Christian Mistress – Agony & Opium
25 Atheist – Jupiter
24 Coliseum – House With A Curse
23 The Secret – Solve Et Coagula
22 Nachtmystium – Addicts: Black Meddle Part II
21 Sailors With Wax Wings – Sailors With Wax Wings
20 Unearthly Trance – V (Relapse)
19 The Body – All The Waters Of The Earth Turn To Blood (At A Loss)
18 Locrian – The Crystal World (Utech)
17 Castevet – Mounds Of Ash (Profound Lore)
16 Ghost – Opus Eponymous (Rise Above)
15 Darkthrone – Circle The Wagons (Peaceville)
14 Lantlôs – .neon (Prophecy Productions)
13 Triptykon – Eparistera Daimones (Century Media)
12 Harvey Milk – A Small Turn Of Human Kindness (Hydrahead)
11 Watain – Lawless Darkness (Season Of Mist)
10 Burzum – Belus (Byelobog Productions)
Varg Vikernes’ first album in 11 years is one of his strongest (his post-Filosofem return to form). Across eight tracks Vikernes offers an updated take on the raw one-man Norwegian black metal he pioneered in 1991 (aka “The Year Punk Broke”). As far as the “update,” there’s a new approach to his vocals (some spoken, chanted), different layers in his guitars (a deeper sense of melody), and a new (but still raw) catchiness. I wouldn’t say it’s a “pop” album, but for all the brutality, it’s a smooth, entrancing collection. Maybe it’s all that New Order, Cure, and Dead Can Dance + balalaika he mentioned listening to in our interview. Speaking of Varg, the person: People who discounted Belus as rehash, outmoded, or unimportant let the outside, non-song politics clog their ears.
09 Horseback – The Invisible Mountain (Relapse)
Horseback’s second album offers ambient, minimal, patiently repetitious Southern black metal drunk on imagined emotional and masculine Cormac McCarthy landscapes, the Blue Ridge, those dark Americana elements of Coalesce’s Ox, and main-man Jenks Miller’s unique vision for original American music: From “Invokation” to the 16-minute closer “Hatecloud Dissolving Into Nothing,” muscular psych rock, blues chords, OM-like trances, dusty drone, and harsh howling vocals unfurling over a Deep West soundtrack spinning like a tumbleweed. The Invisible Mountain was initially released in a limited-edition of 500 by Utech in 2009 and then as a limited vinyl version by Aurora Borealis in early 2010 before Relapse gave it an unlimited CD release, but you could release it again in 2011 and it’d still sound like nothing else. (Miller and I started an ongoing, appropriately epic interview via email in August. Look for us to finish in time for The Invisible Mountain’s companion album Half Blood.)
08 Drudkh – Handful Of Stars (Season Of Mist)
Ukranian black metal quartet Drudkh’s Microcosmos landed at number three on my 30 Best Metal Albums Of 2009. As I said then, and as you can always expect from the band: “The smallest details are accounted for … deep weirdly seafaring bass sound, darkly cascading guitars (and masterfully patient solos), massive dynamic shifts, subtle keyboards … It feels effortless, but remains deeply thought.” Eighth album Handful Of Stars is especially masterful, patient, even painterly. As expected, the experimental, melancholic piano/keyboard, and gauzy “shoegaze” elements pissed off purists, but Drudkh continually squeeze more emotion, ideas, and icy melodies into certain tracks than lesser cardboard-cutout black metallers eke into entire oeuvres. Handful Of Stars is a decent title, but the name of the opening intro, “Cold Landscapes,” better suits what Drudkh constructs across these 42 seamless minutes. (Really, you won’t hear progressive black metal done better than the collection’s four core tracks.) Also of note: Drudkh, whose politics have come under fire, are one of two largely “anonymous” bands in my top 10 who still refuse to do press photos, interviews, etc.
07 Kylesa – Spiral Shadow (Season Of Mist)
Perennial year-end favorites Kylesa’s fifth full length weaves layered Doug Martsch-like guitars into the Savannah band’s crusty, anthemic double-drumming psychedelic sludge. You don’t get the full effect with individual tracks: Spiral Shadow works best within its own snowballing context, each song adding to an overall, escalating anthem. It’s amazing how natural all of it sounds, too. It’s not often a longstanding band can continually pull off minor genre-shifting miracles — stuffing extracurricular angles into a template without blowing out their stuffing — but the move from 2002′s Kylesa to 2005′s To Walk a Middle Course and my other favorites Time Will Fuse Its Worth and last year’s No. 4 Static Tensions to the present is a path of pure exhilaration. Nothing ponderous or silly or over-though here — it’s smart ambition rendered with punk breathlessness.
06 Dawnbringer – Nucleus (Profound Lore)
Four years ago I suggested Dawnbringer’s third album In Sickness and In Dreams had the best sounding guitars of 2006. With Nucleus he has nine of 2010′s best all-around songs. In that older piece I mentioned In Sickness and In Dreams was one of the most overlooked record of the year: Chicago multi-instrumentalist Chris Black, aka Professor Black, aka the man behind Dawnbringer, Superchrist, High Spirits, Nachtmystium lyrics, etc., remains a largely unsung American metal hero, but I’m glad folks are finally taking notice. Especially now: His fourth album is his best example of smart, straight-up classic heavy metal. Metal my older, stuck-in-the-’80s sister would love. Metal you’ll be singing along to after one listen. Metal worth the effort of digging up a lighter. That, and the guitar solos should make just about everybody weep. As I told the Chicago Reader when they asked, “Virtuosic traditionalists like Chris Black and Slough Feg’s Mike Scalzi … are our contemporary Priests and Maidens.” This year Black was sorta both.
05 Inquisition – Ominous Doctrines Of The Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm (Hells Headbangers)
After a three-year pause, Seattle satanic black metal duo — one of the most essential, idiosyncratic USBM groups — Inquisition’s fifth album appeared at the 11th hour and blew me away. Dagon — keeper of that claustrophobic, oddly mannered post-Immortal frog-croak chant — churns out some of the best, elegant, bent, star-melting guitar riffs over Incubus’s mesmerizing, chaotic “war drums.” As always, it’s a weird mix of cult black metal atmosphere and stadium-sized heavy metal hooks that pushes them over the top. Inquisition have already released a couple BM classics — Ominous is their most far-reaching, frantic, ambitious, all-consuming, and inspired to date. (It helps knowing that there are songs called “Cosmic Invocation Rites,” “Upon The Fire Winged Demon,” “Crepuscular Battle Hymn,” and “Hymn For A Dead Star.”) If you’ve seen them live, you also know the twosome pulls off this dense sound without helpers. I booked them in 2008 — their performance remains one of the best shows I’ve seen this decade.
04 Ludicra – The Tenant (Profound Lore)
Female-fronted San Francisco crusty black metal quintet Ludicra’s excellent followup to 2007’s Fex Urbis Lex Orbus is their most complete, captivating, and genre-blending album to date. It’s tr00 American black metal, if you want to go that route: The group, featuring members of Hammers Of Misfortune, Agalloch, Impaled, etc., fold-in shaggy non-black metal grooves, acoustic guitars layered beneath the electric, complex harmonies, punk (and prog) elements and energy, etc. (Is it possible to listen to “Clean White Void” without wanting to rip something apart?) It’s also the first black metal album I know written from the “perspective of a person living in a city, in a room” and looking at homelessness, un-tenancy, evictions, tenants’ rights. Drummer Aseop Dekker told me in an interview, “We hold opinions and political views but Ludicra is not a forum for them, we tend to keep it very insular and personal.” The personal’s a large part of what makes this so powerful, but the brilliance lies in its execution.
03 Thou – Summit (Gilead Media)
Baton Rouge sludge crew’s Summit is sweaty and humid — I put it on repeat once the weather got colder. The 51-minute Summit’s filled with crusty, funereal doom shot through with a DIY political bent that grounds even the airiest passages. At almost an hour, and within a strict frame, it never lags. It’s some of the most beautifully constructed and heavy (in all senses) shit I heard all year. I joked via Twitter that if you went to a 2010 funeral and they didn’t play Summit from opener “By Endurance We Conquer” through closer “Voices In The Wilderness” you should ask for a better way to mark your loved one’s death. Not because Summit’s depressing. Not at all. There’s something so gorgeously positive about the way this album never backs down, how the waves continue building without crashing: Basically (and immensely), Thou’s found a way to make their sludge invigorating, ecstatic, and life affirming. Cue the subtle piano and horns.
02 Deathspell Omega – Paracletus (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)
I reviewed this a couple weeks ago (click on the link above), but to reiterate: French avant black metal group Deathspell Omega’s fifth full-length Paracletus is their most rabid — 49 minutes of layered, technical, violent black metal that doesn’t let you catch your breath. They’ve re-focused the post-rock elements — it’s not so much about moments of spacious Slint-esque fathoms (or even Lustmord ambiance); instead, we get unrelenting, sharp, overlapping angles, the 10 songs working as one, an overall, interlocking collage that ups the intensity. It’s a slippery listen, one that has real teeth, though, as well as hooks that slowly find their way into your head — motifs are repeated, threads twist in on themselves. It’s one of their slickest sounding albums, but maybe their most challenging musically: Excise the choirs, clip the ambient breaks, remove silence by creating coils, and end the “metaphysical trilogy” with an asphyxiating climax.
01 Agalloch – Marrow Of The Spirit (Profound Lore)
I’ve already gone on (and on) about this one as well (click on the above link), but it’s worth repeating: After forming in Portland 15 years ago, Agalloch went and created their strongest, most moving collection of nature-inspired dark metal to date with fourth album Marrow Of The Spirit. It’s a sprawling, endlessly epic, daringly progressive, flat-out gorgeous example of where you can go with “black metal” when you decide (and have the ability) to shatter the template. Inspired by Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, it has a cinematic feel as well as a traceable, felt narrative arc, complete with climax and resolution. As airy, vast, and romantic as it gets, though, new drummer, Ludicra’s Aesop Dekker, brings a heavier, more aggressively punk feel that keeps things scruffy and pushing the guys beyond 2006′s also incredible Ashes Against The Grain. Really, from the transition of the bird songs, water, and strings of instrumental opener “They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness” to the furious opening of “Into The Painted Grey” and onward to patches of naked piano with cricket accompaniment (the end of “The Watcher’s Monolith”), Moog surfacing amid backwoods electro-acoustics, Haughm’s most haunting vocals to date (especially on the 17-minute “Black Lake Nidstång”), and the spiraling bursts of fuzzy, off-kilter/elegant noise (and ebbing bodies of water) on instrumental closer “To Drown,” Marrow Of The Spirit is as close to perfect as anyone got this year. After countless listens, as familiar as it gets, it still surprises.
Six EPs (and one mini-LP) I liked a lot:
06 Fistula – Goat EP
05 Autopsy – The Tomb Within EP
04 WRNLRD – Death Drive EP
03 The Austerity Program – Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn EP
02 Altar of Plagues – Tides EP
01 Nails – Unsilent Death
I also really liked Dispirit’s Rehearsal At Oboroten demo.
Believe it or not, some Honorable Mentions: Father Befouled – Morbid Destitution Of Covenant, Cough – Ritual Abuse, Locrian – Territories, Vasaeleth – Crypt Born & Tethered To Ruin, Celestiial – Where Life Springs Eternal, Årabrot – Revenge, Iron Maiden – The Final Frontier, Ocrilim – Absolve, Black Anvil – Triumverate, Coffinworm – When All Became None, Raspberry Bulbs – Lone Gunman, Twilight – Monument To The End, Weapon – From The Devil’s Tomb, Valdur – Raven God Amongst Us, Ocean – Anthropocentric, Wolvserpent – Blood Seed, Torche – Songs For Singles, Howl – Full Of Hell, Shining – Blackjazz, Slough Feg – The Animal Spirits, U.S. Christmas – Run Thick In The Night, Ramesses – Take the Curse, Satanic Warmaster – Nachzehrer, Wolfshade – When Above…, Zoroaster – Matador, Blood Of The Black Owl – A Banishing Ritual, Black Breath – Heavy Breathing, Danzig’s Deth Red Sabaoth (yes). Update: Somehow I forgot WOLD’s Working Together For Our Privacy came out in 2010. It feels like I’ve had it for years. Definitely worth a mention.
As far as other “non-metal,” I listened to (in some kind of order) Zola Jesus’ Stridulum EP, Salem’s King Night, Crystal Castles’ II, Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor, Sun City Girls’ Funeral Mariachi, Tamaryn’s The Waves, Blessure Grave’s Judged By Twelve, Carried By Six, Daniel Higgs’ Say God, OoOO’s self-titled EP (and split with White Ring), Joanna Newsome’s Have One On Me, Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal, M.I.A.’s /\/\/\Y/\, Emeralds’ Does It Look Like I’m Here?, Antony & The Johnsons’ Swanlights, Gatekeeper’s Giza EP, the Dead C’s Patience, Frank (Just Frank)’s The Brutal Wave, jj’s jj no 3, Perfume Genius’ Learning, Glasser’s Ring, Chelsea Wolfe’s The Grime And The Glow, Killing Joke’s Absolute Dissent, and a bunch of loose MP3s from White Ring, etc. I liked the idea of Xasthur’s collaboration with Marissa Nadler, Portal Of Sorrow, more than I did the album, though parts are beautiful.
2010 is also a year I’ll remember via some shows I attended and put together. It’d get tedious to list the former, so as far as the one’s I put my own back into, favorites included WOLD’s first ever performance, Swans first show in NYC in over a decade, Watain at Santos, Alcest and Altars Of Plagues’ first in NYC, sponsoring Triptykon’s first US tour, Nachtmystium’s first US headlining tour, etc. There were also the random DJ events with good friends, the difficult, but ongoing MIRROR ME project, some soon-to-be-announced (and noisy) projects with MoMA/PS1, etc.
On a personal level, 2010 was an intense year, a dozen up-and-down months crystallized by the death of my mother on June 13th and the birth of my son five weeks later on July 16th. (It was profoundly weird how losing my mom changed my listening habits, how things took on different shades and details, how the once-grim seemed like a joke and things that I would’ve missed earlier fucked with me in new ways.) I wanted to offer up my love to her here, a great woman who went through an unimaginable amount of pain bravely, without flinching. She taught me, among a million other things, how to live and then die with dignity. That, and a mighty raise of the glass (and horns) to many many healthy and amazing years ahead to the youngest black metal fan I know, Henry Lea Stosuy. Love as well, of course, to his excellent mom, my wife Jane, even when she’s calling Watain “geeky pandas” or asking if Immortal are on their way to a D&D convention (they probably are). Her favorite metal album of the year? Ride for Revenge’s The King Of Snakes, third year running.
Looking forward to 2011.