Last word on 2011: Things I missed

In the past weeks since my year end list was posted, I’ve been enjoying a number of albums released in 2011 that I either overlooked, under appreciated at the time of release, or simply didn’t realize were out until recently. Although this tends to happen every year, I’m no less agitated by my oversights — it seems to suggest a failure on my part to be with it, to have the pulse of what is really great in metal at the moment. But on the other hand, I can only listen to so much at once, especially when I find myself drawn to repeated listenings of a few albums in a particular period of time. To counter this deficiency I listen to a few metal radio streams and select favorite metal radio shows, as well as sifting through the numerous best of 2011 lists to alert myself to music that may have missed my radar. Sometimes just seeing an album that I had ignored earlier reappear in a year end list will get me to give it another listen. Here’s the best of what I missed:



Moonsorrow – Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa:

Credit for this one goes to the Angry Metal Guy and his Top 10(ish) of 2011 list. I was vaguely aware that Moonsorrow had released a new album through the half-remembered mutterings of a friend, but I was not moved to check it out. Its not that I didn’t enjoy Moonsorrow, my first real Moonsorrow experience was seeing them live a few years back and I thoroughly enjoyed their show, thought they sounded great and proceeded to pick up a copy of their then new EP Tulimyrsky at the merch booth. What I loved in the live setting was not translating through on the recording, nor was anything from their 2007 album Viides Luku – Hävitetty. I suspect now it must’ve been a case of being in the wrong mindset — I wasn’t in the mood for ten to thirty minute long songs from a band that I (erroneously) perceived as supposedly being a blacker and bleaker Ensiferum. However, when AMG places an album at number one on his year end list, I tend to stow away any misgivings I may have had about a band, shut up and check out the album. Am I glad I did. I love this record, from start to finish, love it. I won’t do any personal year end list revisions, but had I heard this album before I contemplated my 2011 favorites I’d have no doubt that it would rank somewhere in the top ten. The standout track for me that had me hitting repeat over and over again was “Huuto”, whose main melody is introduced at the onset through chiming acoustic guitars. I’ll avoid an album review here (instead referring you to AMG’s review ), but instead will suggest to someone unfamiliar with Moonsorrow that this album is the perfect point of entry into their back catalog. The songs are trimmed down in length a bit from their past few releases, and while they are more immediate, they do not lack in songwriting quality or depth in the arrangements. Its an album with passionate blackened vocals, dark folk touched melodies, cinematic keyboards that drive the melodies, and overall epic scope. Enjoying this album has opened up the band’s past few releases for me, including the two mentioned above, and I’ve been enjoying those as well. Its a recurrence of what has become a theme for me lately: rediscovering bands I’d previously been unable to get into. I think that as a listener, your mindset and the timing of when you first listen to a band might have something to do with it, but more important than that is having the right point of entry into a band’s recorded output.



Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand:

Well I’m gonna have a hard time explaining this one. As with Moonsorrow except on a slightly more severe level, I could never get into Primordial despite all my best efforts through numerous listenings of random tracks on youtube, sampler cds, etc. over the years. I recall always enjoying the musicianship and arrangements, but the vocals were my stopping point. I just could not get into them. A few weeks ago, I took a listen to a few tracks from their 2011 release and found myself running into the same problem — that is until I put Alan Averill’s vocals into context. I started thinking about how he reminded me of Flogging Molly’s Dave King, who I’ve been a longtime fan of. I know it sounds stupid, but it worked. All of a sudden Averill’s vocals weren’t a problem, in fact, if anything they became more of a draw to me than the music because it reinforced to me that hey, this is an Irish black(ish) metal band, a true rarity. His vocal approach is unique, and in moments of clarity he sounds distinctly Irish in accent. I don’t know if my earlier attempts at enjoying this band’s music was just scuppered due to misplaced expectations or perhaps because I subconsciously wanted them to sound like Riverdance-meets-black metal. This is a good record, but I’ll have to say that I now prefer its predecessor To the Nameless Dead overall. While Redemption is not quite the point of entry record that Moonsorrow’s new one was, its standout track “Lain with the Wolf” is by far the band’s best song – one to You Tube if you’re at all remotely curious about this band. If its steady, churning build doesn’t move you, check your pulse.



Hammers of Misfortune – 17th Street:

Credit where credit’s due, this was an album and band that I was introduced to through Lars Gotrich’s NPR Best Metal of 2011 list. Yes, despite my reservations about his and other similar year end lists, I did go through and take a listen to everything on it and this fantastic album by (the Metal Pigeon’s childhood hometown) San Francisco’s Hammers of Misfortune was the clear standout, an album that grabbed my interest because it touches upon the cornerstones of what I love in music in general. Namely, great songwriting, passionate vocals, and inventive arrangements. The hook-in was the track called “The Grain”, a song built around a soaring chorus that is immediately followed by an awesomely crunchy outro. Its simply one of the best songs I’ve heard all year. While the album doesn’t provide any other tracks that live up to its incredible standard, it does offer the widest variety of styles and approaches that I’ve heard on an album recently next to Nightwish’s Imaginaerum. The influences are pronounced; at times Thin Lizzy, Queen, and old Metallica blended through a prog filter into something that really does remind me of the Bay Area. The end result is a hard to categorize sound that is also difficult to describe in terms of relating them to contemporary bands, but that is the likely triumph here. Its therefore a bit pointless to try to talk someone into liking this record, just give it a chance and see if you like anything about it. You’ll need to give it multiple listens before it sets in as a whole album, and I can understand how some people will be unable to see the appeal. Its by far more rooted in a classic metal/hard rock approach than anything modern-ish, yet sounds more modern than most stuff out there today (if that holds any importance to you). A uniquely satisfying album.



Vintersorg – Jordpuls:

I have no excuse as to why I slept on this in 2011. This is an incredibly enjoyable, and fun(!) to listen to album. I actually obtained it upon release, gave it a cursory listen and never went back to it again. This is strange behavior for me because I actually am quite the Vintersorg fan, and above all his projects his solo albums are the treats I crave the most. Looking back now, I suspect that perhaps my initial indifference to Jordpuls was silently informed by my disappointment with the last Borknagar release (in case you didn’t know, Andreas Hedlund aka Vintersorg handles their vocals). I rather enjoyed Vintersorg’s 2007 album, Solens Rötter  (“Roots of the Sun”), as it marked a return to Swedish lyrics and his Scandinavian folk influenced roots. This was a breath of fresh air after the utter proggy weirdness of the two albums that preceded it (good albums both, but bonkers weird). He sounded comfortable and at ease once again, the songs flowed better, and the shift towards simpler arrangements allowed his knack for excellent melodies to shine through again. It seems that with Jordpuls (“Pulse of the Earth”), he is building upon the foundations laid down with Solens Rötter and now has a better understanding of how to weave in the prog tendencies he loves in a more natural sounding way. I suppose this only makes sense if you understand what a jarring transition it was to listen to 1999’s Odenmarken’s Son, only to be greeted with the abrupt changes presented in its successors, 2000’s Cosmic Genesis, and 2002’s Visions From the Spiral Generator. Here’s hoping the upcoming Borknagar album can impress me just as much.



High Spirits – Another Night:

Thanks to Joseph Schafer from Invisible Oranges for this recommendation. What an awesome record. It reminds me of the Scorpions (yes goddammit that’s a great thing) mixed with a cornucopia of 70s and 80s guitar rock. Hell even the cover, with its  juxtaposition of classic looking band and album logos against a black framed scene of the Chicago cityscape at night, depicts the very scene I imagine when I hear the German legends’ “Big City Nights”. Apparently this is a one man project at its core, by a fellow named Chris Black who I’m led to believe handles all the instrumentation as well as vocal duties(?). Correct me if I’m wrong on that, but regardless, these are great songs played with a hard rock/metal spirit that seems to elude many of the new bands out there who are actively attempting to emulate the past. After reading Schafer’s write up of on Another Night and his earlier interview with Chris Black, I get the impression that this project exists for the simple reason that no one is making new music that sounds like this anymore. That’s a good enough reason as any to make a record that is more rockin’ (spelled as intended) than anything else I’ve heard in donkeys years. Good thing too, the mighty Scorpions are retiring soon, so someone needed to step up and continue to offer advice on what to do “when the daylight is falling down into the night”. You Tube “Full Power”, “Another Night in the City”, and “Do You Remember” — they’ll sell you on the record.

NPR and Pitchfork: Putting their Best Metal of 2011 lists in perspective

The generous view on year-end/best-of lists of bloggers or websites is that they are often an exercise in an earnest, optimistic type of narcissism. I’ve done one myself, so I’m not guiltless in that aspect — but I’ve begun to realize that most of the lists currently being published are also exercises in varying, and scalable degrees of exclusionism. I say this because in the past two years major non-metal/indie oriented media outlets have taken it upon themselves to declare to their reading audiences what is the Best Metal of the Year. I’m referring to websites such as NPR, Pitchfork Media, Spin, PopMatters, Stereogum, Noisecreep, Frontier Psychiatrist, etc (just do a google search for “Best Metal of 2011” where you’ll see a good portion of these on the first page of search results). There are countless other minor non-metal oriented blogs and sites that have their own list up as well, and they all pretty much loosely mirror one of the examples posted above.


This is a curiously new phenomenon: ten, seven, even six or five years ago you wouldn’t find non-metal/indie media daring to touch the very idea of the “best metal” released in those years. The cynic in me wants to ask, “Did the hipsters get tired of all the garage-rock bands ironically limping around Brooklyn?” That is mean spirited I know, but part of me does wonder, how long will this new found interest last? First let me offer this: I am not attempting to argue that these sites have no business publishing best of metal year end lists, nor am I attempting to critically analyze their selections. Each of the writers of these lists have their own tastes, preferences, and the right to promote them…but after mulling these lists over for a few weeks and listening to most of the albums on them, one thing has become very clear to me: The most popular of these lists are created by a handful of very prolific writers/bloggers, and the rest stem from the templates laid out by said writers. In particular, the highly read and discussed lists from NPR’s Lars Gotrich and Pitchfork/Stereogum’s Brandon Stosuy are parroted throughout the blogosphere. In deserving respect to these two writers, they both offer their opinions with interesting takes and lucid arguments. I enjoy reading their stuff, and dislike having to single them out — however due to their popularity, I feel they are liable to be held to a higher standard.


Without delving too deeply into Gotrich and Stosuy’s lists, the most obviously striking things about them both is that they tend to lean heavily on the new crop of post-black metal bands. There are occasional death metal albums sprinkled throughout, the odd doom record, and a good bit of math-metal (I hate that label but its what everyone uses). Okay fine, I actually like a few of their selections as well, but here’s a question: Aren’t we missing something in terms of various other styles of metal? You’ll notice that traditional metal and power metal are noticeably absent from these lists. Gotrich’s 2010 list was even more narrowed down to include ambient and noise records alongside new post-black metal releases. I have no problem with Agalloch’s excellent Marrow of the Spirit taking the number one spot, but where on the list were the then new and stunningly great albums by Blind Guardian and Accept? These were widely acknowledged as some of the most brilliant work by either band, and both came as surprises completely out of the blue. In his 2011 list, Gotrich misses out on the masterful Iconoclast by Symphony X, a ferocious album that has won them more believers than anything else in their catalog. How about the woefully underrated Faroese trad-meets-folk metallers Týr and their fantastic new record The Lay Of Thrym? I could go on and on, and apply the same misses to Stosuy’s lists for 2010 and 2011. (And while we’re on the subject of black metal, how do both of these guys miss Enslaved’s Axioma Ethica Odini as well as the 2011’s excellent Taake release Noregs Vaapen, and Burzum’s defiant, shifting Fallen?)



It should be all too clear by now that Gotrich and Stosuy do not like traditional or power metal at all. To such a degree that they will willingly ignore popular, widely lauded albums that fall into those styles. To each his own right? Yes. But here’s my problem: these are two very influential writers. Their opinions as mentioned before are parroted around the web, and frankly, that’s where a lot of this type of discussion takes place. What concerns me is that these lists are being trotted out for readers and listeners not already familiar with metal in general. What Gotrich and Stosuy present to these types of audiences is a mere sliver of the many styles of metal that are actually available out there. An NPR listener might actually be capable of being interested in metal that is delivered with a clean, melodic vocalist, or be able to enjoy a record that isn’t washed out in synths and shoegaze influences (cheap shot I know). There are plenty of bands who put out quality releases that this hypothetical person could enjoy, but they might never know about them.


It may only be semantics, but I’d feel a little less agitated about Gotrich’s list if it wasn’t simply titled “The Best Metal of 2011”. What should it be called? I don’t know exactly, perhaps throw in the word “extreme”, as in “The Best Extreme Metal of 2011”? That would at least be a little more adequately narrow, or at least less inaccurate. Perhaps I come across here as being far too judgmental, but this is what blogs are built for right? Someone could exasperatedly chime in at this point to say “Look, its just a goddamned list, get over it”. Well I also see it for being more than what a casual reader may take it as — and that is a concerted effort to make metal appealing to the indie and culturally hip audiences of NPR and Pitchfork. There is a trend developing within the ranks of American based non-metal media, as well as some metal based media outlets (I’m looking at you Decibel) to intellectualize a certain set of subgenres and plant their flags upon it as if to signal to hipsters everywhere, its okay to listen to this particular brand of metal. Any metal not within the confines of these designated genres is to be considered dumb, sophmoric, and dated music for neanderthals who wank about guitar solos, drink beer, and act like idiots at metal festivals like Wacken. Am I taking this a bit too far? Maybe… but deep down I suspect I’m right about the motivations here. I’d love for Gotrich and Stosuy to come on here to refute me and make me eat my words somehow. They’ll be sent links to this.


My accusations of blatant exclusionism against these two writers in particular is supported by the fact that there is a host of metal oriented websites and blogs, many of whom have been in operation for well over a decade, that offer completely different takes on what is the best metal of 2011. The fifteen year old web zine Metal Rules placed the aforementioned Accept and Blind Guardian albums at the top two positions of their 2010 list, respectively, and they have an even more varied and cross-subgenre based list for 2011. I may not find myself agreeing with many of the choices on their list, but I do appreciate the fact that it is coming from a website that reviews any and all subgenres within metal. Check out their reviews section and you’ll find that many of the bands on both the NPR and Pitchfork lists are reviewed in depth. There many other metal oriented sites out there that share a similar open minded viewpoint, such as the Angry Metal Guy, one of the best places to get informed opinions about metal across the board. Check out the tireless efforts of Stone at Metal Odyssey, the always unique takes of Dan DeLucie at Heavy Metal Power, and the often hilarious yet always informative work at Metal Sucks. Two Cleveland metal legends, Officer Metal and Doctor Metal, offer experienced, informed opinions about the more melodic side of metal through their excellent college radio shows the Metal Command, and the Metal Meltdown, respectively. There are so many more, too many to list actually, that offer wildly different takes that are often informed from a more centrist metalhead perspective. What is unfortunate is that none of them are as popular as NPR and Pitchfork.


It may sound as if I’m angry about all this stuff, well, not really. Disturbed yes, annoyed even more so because so many of the bands that I’ve enjoyed over the years fall into those categories that would not fit in with idea of metal that the non-metal oriented media wants to talk about. It affects me personally when these bands I love decide to pass on touring the United States due to lack of perceived popularity in our country. They can’t get decent press, record sales never grow adequately, and they decide to do the smart thing and stick to Europe, South America, and Japan for financial reasons. Some of the gutsier bands try their hand at building a niche fan base in the States, such as the Swedish power metallers Sabaton, who by this coming April will have passed through my city of Houston three times in one year(!). I’ve heard them speak with my own ears about the uncertainties of touring in the United States — they admit, they aren’t sure if they can pull it off half the time. A great, truly amazing band both live and on record like Sabaton gets no American press except from the depths of the metal underground, while hosts of tastemaker approved bands get viral online attention (a good many of which are studio projects, or bands that tour only in limited fashion). Something is wrong with this scenario, and its disappointing that nothing will change.


Two Fridays ago I enjoyed listening to the long running metal radio show Metal on Metal based out of Cleveland by another one of that city’s metal legends, Bill Peters. His end of the year list was created by requesting listeners’ votes for their top three choices of 2011. The list that was compiled was interesting to behold; over one thousand listeners contributed and the final two were neck and neck. It ultimately finished with Anvil’s 2011 release Juggernaut of Justice getting the top spot over Anthrax’s Worship Music. Not Blut Aus Nord, or Cormorant, nor (dear me) Liturgy — but Anvil and Anthrax. When we get lost in the myriad depths of blog comment fields and the hidden realms of web forum discussions, we often shutter ourselves away from the reality of what is actually happening in the world. This applies to metal, and to its appreciation as a form of topical discussion. As seen here in Metal on Metal’s listener compiled list, what large samples of metal fans are actually listening to is far removed from what sites like NPR and Pitchfork prescribe. With all due respect to the bodies of work and the talent of the artists on those lists, I can’t imagine the majority of them taking to the stage at the metal community’s international proving ground of Wacken Open Air. There really is a silent majority in metal. The audience for this type of music is massive, but the portion you see online is a small, fragmented mosaic. Tens of thousands of people bought the new Megadeth record in its first week of release — they did not look to the web for a recommendation.

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