Monday, December 25, 2006

Ü2K6: Day To Start

Christmas is finally here, and its third gift to me is insomnia. Here I sit, at 2:40 am, without sleep in sight...and you benefit! It's dark, cold, and green outside...let's find some music to fit that.

4. Cult Of Luna - Somewhere Along The Highway

While previous honorees Zyklon and Agalloch offered dark, compelling music, Cult of Luna easily takes the "heaviest album of the year" award.

My Isis review mentioned Cult of Luna as someone similar to Isis, and that is true. Both work in soundscapes instead of songs, spare lands where each guitar stroke matters...everyone knows the drill for post-rock/Neurosis-core by now. Unlike In The Absence Of Truth, there is preponderance of metal stylistic elements in Somewhere Along The Highway. Opener "Marching To The Heartbeats" plays a delicate piano arrangement off thick, distorted guitars, and this is carried forward into highlight "Finland", a tunnel of grinding, atonal riffs and bone-breaking marching drumming. Meanwhile, frontman Klas Rydberg lets out a series of gruff shouts suggesting surprise, or anger. It then trades it up for floating, pseudo-Asian strings, before descending back into the torrent of the march.

This is really the secret to Somewhere Along The Highway: that delicate balance and juxtaposition between light and dark, between heavy and soft. For their dedication to this effect, the cleaner, more doom-like segments are all the more emotional, and the heavier sections are all the more crushing. The other nice thing that Cult of Luna brings is a unique twist on the quieter sections found in post-rock: while others look for ethereal tangents, Cult of Luna delve into despair and despondency, offering up sections similar to Katatonia in the power of their dark tales.

The icing on top of all of this is the dirty, natural feeling Somewhere Along The Highway has: from the cover art to the guitar sound, the emphasis is on natural emotion and gravity, not a controlled destruction. "And With Her Came The Birds" exemplifies this, working from a near-country basis of quiet guitars and bleak vocals, carrying its despair along a long, dirt road not found elsewhere in metal.

Finally, I must note "Back To Chapel Town", simply one of the year's best songs. Why? That you'll have to find out for yourself.

3. Ihsahn - The Adversary

"Invocation". Just saying the name of the opener to Ihsahn's mighty 2006 effort, The Adversary is enough to give me shivers.

Why? To explain that, let's step you back through this Norwegian master's history. Back in 1991, a band named Emperor was formed. After releasing some extremely good material (Wrath of the Tyrant, Hordanes Land, In The Nighside Eclipse), Emperor unleashed their first masterpiece, Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk, a beautiful balance of black metal chaos and symphonic majesty. (Those bowing down at the throne of Death Cult Armageddon owe themselves a copy of Anthems.)

Skip ahead to 2001. Emperor has officially announced they're finished. Done, but they will leave a legacy. One more album. Samoth and Trym are busy with the first Zyklon album, so it's up to Ihsahn (frontman/singer/guitarist) to write the entirety of the material. Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire And Demise is Emperor's second masterpiece, a web composed of segments of some other reality, where music exists on a completely different plane, overwhelmingly complex, inconceivably progressive, and yet somehow all holding it together.

After Emperor, Ihsahn departs for his own side project: Peccatum, a gothic effort with his wife Ihriel (of the highly recommended Star of Ash). Peccatum releases their own wonders (The Moribund People EP is one of my favorite albums of all time), and then finds their own end in 2005.

Now, in 2006, Ihsahn has released an album that combines and builds upon all his previous works. The Adversary adeptly blends Peccatum's quiet emotion, Anthems' driving majesty, and Prometheus' staggering complexity. In short, it's the best metal album of the year. (Yes, you heard me: #2 and #1 are not metal.)

What does all this result in? Well, there's one more element. Previous releases (Emperor's cover of Mercyful Fate's "Gypsy", Peccatum's cover of Bathory's "For Those Who Died") have proven Ihsahn's love for the proto-black metal heavy metal bands, and this shows up on The Adversary. Songs like the aforementioned "Invocation", "Called By The Fire", and "Citizen" blend a diverse array of riffs, from just plain heavy to progressive, with singalong choruses and blasting drums. Album closer "The Pain Is Still Mine" is the closest to both Peccatum and Anthems, an ebbing symphonic epic focused solely on personal emotion.

In short, Ihsahn has created the best metal album of the year by picking up where he left off, and doing what he does best: and both of those are a lot of different things.

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