When I wrote about Decibel’s list of the year’s best albums, I talked more about what was missing than what made it, and in a way, that was inevitable: It was a weird year for metal. I’m hesitant to call it an “off” year, because so much incredible music was produced, but the conversation was so diffuse that it seemed to lack a center; even the most prominent themes were slippery, seeming more like regressions or anti-trends than movements. For example, in July, Metalsucks published a parody post about a supposedly emergent subgenre they termed “vest metal” — basically composed of traditional metal, doom, and retro-occult metal bands allegedly being adopted by scene dilettantes — but while the coinage was silly and the tone condescending (not to mention tongue-in-cheek), the observation was apt: I heard more clean singing and fewer blast beasts on metal records in 2012 than I have in any year since the ’80s. In fact, though many of the best so-called “vest metal” albums just missed inclusion on our list (namely Christian Mistress, Graveyard, Royal Thunder, and Witch Mountain, all of which are absolutely worthy of your attention), the albums occupying both our Nos. 1 and 2 slots might fall into the subgenre as Metalsucks defines it. Both are stone classics in my opinion.
The year was defined by other oddities, too. I closed my analysis of the Decibel list with two takeaway points, both of which I’d like to readdress here in relation to our list, as well as 2012 in general:
1. Why are there so few black metal albums on Decibel’s list?
I’ve had a number of friends make the argument to me that 2012 was a bad year for black metal, and I can see where they’re coming from. Since 2006 or so, the genre has consistently made enormous strides forward every year on the backs of breakthrough releases from bands like Nachtmystium, Watain, Ludicra, Leviathan, Krallice, Cobalt, Altar Of Plagues, Agalloch, Alcest, Deathspell Omega, Wolves In The Throne Room, and Inquisition, backed up by vital releases from past masters like Burzum, Immortal, Marduk, Darkthrone, and Enslaved. This year, the only bands in the former category to release new LPs were Nachtmystium, Alcest, and Krallice, none of which felt as essential as any of those bands’ last three respective albums. Meanwhile, DSO and Agalloch released excellent but slight EPs. In the latter category, Burzum released the worst album of his career, while new albums from Marduk and Enslaved were strong but comparatively lackluster.
Still, great black metal was released in 2012: Winterfylleth’s The Threnody Of Triumph may not have crossed over as successfully as Marrow Of The Spirit or Celestial Lineage, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve to. Meanwhile, the genre’s young guns — among them Ash Borer, Mutilation Rites, Vattnet Viskar, and Lord Mantis, all included on our list — are probably one album away from a significant breakthrough.
By and large, though, the most exciting black metal being produced in 2012 had no hope or intention of crossing over: The genre’s most vital music was produced on nonexistent budgets with rudimentary recording tools and released on cassette by basement labels like Colloquial Sound Recordings, Rhinocervs, and Fallen Empire. The bands themselves were frequently anonymous or cloaked in secrecy. Our list includes a handful of releases from those bands — A Pregnant Light (from Grand Rapids, MI), Wylve (from Portland, OR, and featuring members of the equally excellent Blut Der Nacht), Witch In Her Tomb (Chicago, IL), and the Rhinocervs collective (Long Beach, CA) — but that’s a small sampling of the scene as it stands. As a movement, it makes sense: Black metal is essentially antisocial music, so its adherents are naturally and deliberately withdrawing from the mainstream at a time when mainstream interest has never been greater. (One production note here: I’d like to point out that I chose to include for streaming A Pregnant Light’s seriously fucking amazing cover of Madonna’s “Live To Tell” below, but that’s not entirely representative of the band’s sound; I’d also encourage you to listen to “Burning Basin” from their split with Obscure Lupine Quietus, and then just find all their music, because they’re unbelievable.)
2. Why are there so few Profound Lore releases on Decibel’s list?
In terms of personnel, Profound Lore isn’t much more substantial than any of the basement labels mentioned above: It’s basically just one dude, Chris Bruni, operating out of “the vast countryside about an hour-and-a-half west of the godforsaken Greater Toronto Area.” He’s not just the guy who signs the bands; he’s also the guy who works out details with the vinyl pressing plant, works out song premieres and interview requests with Stereogum and Decibel (and Pitchfork and Cvlt Nation and NPR and every other media outlet in the world), the guy who goes to the post office twice a week to ship out CDs and T-shirts. Yet since its inception in 2004, Profound Lore has established itself as the most important metal label in the world, as well as the most consistently engaging. Decibel’s list inexplicably included only two of PFL’s 2012 offerings: Pallbearer’s Sorrow And Extinction, and Evoken’s Atra Mors. Ours includes those, too, plus five more — PFL releases comprise nearly 20 percent of our whole list, four of which are in the top 10, including BOTH top spots — and I still feel we should have found space for at least four others: the Bell Witch’s Longing, Dysrhythmia’s Test Of Submission, the Howling Wind’s Of Babalon, and Witch Mountain’s Cauldron Of The Wild. And even that leaves out terrific 2012 releases on PFL from Yakuza, Menace Ruine, Occultation, and more.
But even at that, I’m selling PFL short: The label’s fingerprints are all over our list well beyond the records for which it was directly responsible. We’ve got albums on here from Winterfylleth, Agalloch, Krallice, and Hooded Menace — all of whom have released music on PFL in the past, but whose 2012 albums were released elsewhere — plus Samothrace, who share members with the Bell Witch, PLUS the Rhinocervs collective, two of whose member bands — Tukaaria and Odz Manouk — had their 2011 albums re-mastered and reissued by PFL this year (both of which would have been strong contenders for this list if they had been new in 2012, too).
The other 2012 trend I see represented on our list is an unexpected but totally welcome one: ancient relics coming back to release work that rivals their best ever, and sometimes tops it. Grave, Cannibal Corpse, Kreator, Asphyx, and Incantation have been plugging away since the ’80s, not always in peak form, yet I defy you to find for me a fan of any of those bands who will not include their 2012 releases among their finest, period. These were not merely surprises but revelations. Similarly, Pig Destroyer, Unsane, and Neurosis came back after five years off and delivered triumphs across the board. And High On Fire — whose leader, Matt Pike, has been a scene mainstay since forming Sleep in 1990 — released the best album of their decade-and-a-half-long existence.
A quick note about our methodology before I exit: This list was compiled by me with Stereogum contributors Aaron Lariviere, Wyatt Marshall, and Doug Moore. You’ll notice four albums are conspicuously absent: Baroness, Swans, Torche, and Converge. I omitted those releases from consideration. This is partly because all those albums were included on Stereogum’s big list, and I saw no reason for redundancy — this is not to say that they would have topped this list even if they had been considered, although I suspect all four would have at least made the list. However, I also chose to omit them because … are they even metal? I mean, you could ask the same question about Circle Of Ouroborus or Pinkish Black — heck, even Blut Aus Nord at this point — all of whom are on the list, but of the four ineligibles, only Converge even sounds like metal, and they’re a hardcore band!
I’ve talked a lot already, and touched a little bit on a good amount of the music on this list, yet I still haven’t said a single word about so many of my personal favorites — Secrets Of The Moon, Black Breath, and oh my fucking god Martyrdöd, among others — so I’ll just leave you to listen to them all, with the knowledge that their music makes a stronger argument than I could ever manage anyway. Because Doug, Wyatt, and Aaron went voiceless in this introduction/essay, I’ve encouraged them to contribute their thoughts in the comments. I hope you will, too.
STEREOGUM’S TOP 40 METAL ALBUMS OF 2012