Friday, December 15, 2006

Ü2K6: Blame It On Life

As far as weeks go, this has been one of the worst from a productivity perspective. My apologies for the delay, but I've spent much of the time I normally spend blogging curled up in bed or ministering to ailments. Now, Tuesday through Friday...

14. Enslaved - RUUN

The best space rock album this year is not by any of the conventional names in the subgenre; no, it is by a black metal band from Norway.

In all reality, Enslaved's Ruun has little to do with conventional space rock - there's few passages featuring keyboards, the lyrical subject matter is Norse mythology, not science fiction, and there's lots of experimental guitar work. Okay, maybe there is a bit of a connection to space rock (as shown in opener "Entroper").

What really pushes this album into the space rock category is the general feeling of otherworldliness that is carried through the entire album. Even the more conventional songs carefully use spacy elements (Gothenburg-style galloping guitars, keyboards) to promote this feeling, while others play around with space and openness in arrangement (such as "Api-vat", which takes a new spin on the band's mastery of marches, such as in "Violet Dawning" from 2004's Isa).

Long-time Enslaved fans may be familiar with the feeling of otherworldliness on previous albums, but RUUN really keeps it together: it's less icy than Isa's cold tones, and more controlled than 2003's Below The Lights. For those of you not familiar with previous efforts, Enslaved's recent albums (the last 3 to 5, depending upon who you ask) have mixed prog rock and black metal, keeping prog's meandering solos chained to the black metal gait while using it for its mastery of texture.

So why should you pick up this album? If great guitar work and wonderful songwriting is your thing, accompanied with a wonderful mood focus from an unusual source are your thing, then Enslaved is your thing.

13. Celtic Frost - Monotheist

Reunions/revitalizations seem to have been metal's thing for the past two years, with a lot of old acts either reforming (Death Angel, Emperor) or releasing their best material in years (Iron Maiden, Deicide). Celtic Frost is one of these, a mighty early 80s juggernaut that set an very early, very high bar for experimentation on the seminal Into The Pandemonium (not to mention high standards for individual musicianship on such essentials as "Procreation Of The Wicked" from Morbid Tales).

16 years after their last album, Celtic Frost triumphantly returned in 2006 with Monotheist, yet another groundbreaking work. Categorizing Frost is interesting in that their sound predates a lot of subgenres, and was crucial to many of them, but the best-fitting modern label to stick to them is doom metal, as that's evident on Monotheist in spades.

What's on tap here is caustic, dark, and malevolent. There's so much distortion on the guitars, there's no real riffing to speak of - just a wave between two noises that your brain innately recoils from. The bass is monstrous, a mountain's rumbling below the crash of percussion. Songs do not resemble in any way something happy - they are laments, dying rages spat bloodied from the throats of their shells. This is a very sparse album - when another element appears, like the clean vocals on "A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh", it completely changes the feeling of the piece.

Make no mistake - from a listening standpoint, this is a harsh pill to swallow; venomous and filled with dark emotion, a blackened hulk, this is the most depressing album of the year, but if you can take the noise, take the anger, there is beauty in the abyss.

Celtic Frost return, and prove that they are still a major contender at the game they created.

12. Distorted - Memorial

Usually, the best death metal comes from Europe or North America, host to countries with their own individual stamps on and playgrounds fenced in of death metal. Israel's Distorted seek to change that, and they do a pretty good job of putting their homeland on the map.

They do this through balancing melodic death with a goodly quotient of doom, and throwing an unusual pair of singers up: a competent male growler, and Miri Millman, a woman who sings operatically in a style you find far more often in power metal bands like Nightwish. Like Nightwish, most of the songs revolve around Ms. Millman's contribution, but the real attractor here (and what catapults this to number 12) is the wonderful, wonderful songwriting skills shown here. The band shows a knowledge of pacing and time changes that greatly outstrips their years (this is their full-length debut), and uses this to effectively make songs, not just sections of doom or sections of melodic death (in comparison to previous honourees, like To-Mera. It's additionally notable that this also removes them from a lot of other melodic death metal bands: while the style of a lot of the riffs is unmistakably Swedish, the construction and assembly is new and unique).

In short, they're blazing a new pathway, they write great songs, and this sounds excellent - what else could you want?

11. Draconian - The Burning Halo

In a year filled with excellent doom (seven albums involving elements on the top 25, heavily weighted towards the higher-quality end), Draconian offer some of the best. They're easily the most gothic of the high-quality doom merchants this year, working with dark romantic imagery and baroque emotion. Their specific type of doom is slow, and ponderous, accented with flourishes of melody and keyboards - unlike Celtic Frost's caustic anger, or Distorted's majestic rebellion, Draconian are for elegies, wakes, funerals (albeit, not as funereal as, say, Pantheist), mourning. When they turn from remembrances to quicker moments of anger, the emotion is all the clearer and deeper for it.

That's really why Draconian have earned themselves spot 11 - they have perfectly and completely captured the essence of the emotions they convey, to the point where the vocals seem near obsolete, even unnecessary.

Now, if you'll please excuse me, I need to listen to "The Dying"'s perfect expression of the stages of grief.

Next: The best soundtrack of the year.

1 comment:

Roland said...

Nice work, as usual. Thanks!

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