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2017, the best of the year: music

I only purchased three albums and one EP during 2017. Admittedly, they’re extremely good ones, and by favourite bands – but that’s it. that’s my top five for this year.  And it’s only four. I also went to only three gigs during the year – to see Magenta, Anathema and Akercocke – and I didn’t go to Bloodstock, after a six-year run, because it clashed with the Worldcon in Helsinki. And it looks increasingly likely I won’t be making Bloodstock in 2018 either. Ah well. I’m not entirely sure why I’ve been consuming less music with each passing year. But I have a few theories. Partly, it’s economic – as the Tories have run down this country, first with their useless Austerity and now with their criminal Brexit, so fewer bands I like have toured the UK, and of those that do tour here, most stick to the major cities – some don’t even bother playing anywhere but London. Things changed at work too. I used to wear headphones when I was working, but I’ve been so busy these last couple of years I got out of the habit. And at home these days, I’m more likely to be in the living-room with a DVD on while I’m working on the laptop, than I  am at the desk and listening to music.

Having said that, I’ve alwasy chased new music, rather than sit back and wait for the bands I  like to release new albums. A lot of the metal bands I listen too aren’t professional, they have day jobs, and they have neither the time nor the money to put out a new album every year. But there were always new bands to find. But that requires time and effort from me, and I’ve just not been up to it this last year or two. Which means that for 2017’s best of, it was pretty much me sitting back and waiting for the bands I like to release new albums. Which, fortunately, some did. One band even reformed and released new album!

albums
1 Aathma, Persefone (2017, Andorra). I’ve been a fan of Persefone’s complex progressive death metal since first hearing their album Core back in 2008. I’ve seen them live once, when they toured as support for Obituary in 2010. They were excellent. During the interval between their set and Obituary’s I wandered across to the merchandise table. One of Persefone’s guitarists was behind it. When I admitted I’d come to see them and not Obituary, he came round the table and hugged me. Persefone have not released many albums, but each one has been better than the last.

2 Renaissance in Extremis, Akercocke (2017, UK). I first saw Akercocke back in 2005, when they supported Opeth at the Forum in London. Back then, they wore suits and had long hair, and had been nicknamed “Satan’s bankers”. I’ve seen them several times since – the most recently only a couple of months ago – and they always put on an excellent show, even if the suits and long hair are long gone. I was disappointed when they split u p – although that did give us Voices, an excellent band – but very happy indeed when they decided to reform. And Renaissance in Extremis is pretty much  Akercocke on top form – it’s new, but it couldn’t be anybody but Akercocke.  The  editoin  I bought came in  a fancy hardback book, with three  CDs.

3 Beyond the Gate, Within the Fall (2017, Sweden). I came across this band a couple of years ago, and I’ve followed them ever since on bandcamp. They produce solid Scandinavian progressive death metal, and, okay, some times the clean vocals are a bit dodgy, but their guitar work is excellent. The title track to this four-track EP is especially good. The band is also surprisingly productive, althuogh they tend to release EPs rather than albums – but as a writer of novellas I can hardly complain.

4 Farmakologinen, Oranssi Pazuzu (2017, Finland). I came across Oranssi Pazuz several years ago, chiefly because their music was described as a mixture of black metal and psychadelic space rock. And it actually was that. I loved their album Valonielu, and kept an eye open for new material. But they’re not very prolific, and while I missed 2016’s Värähtelijä, I didn’t miss this year’s Farmakologinen. And it’s just like the cover art suggests – a wall of black metal guitars with spacey psychadelic organ and bleeps and bloops. It shouldn’t work. But it does, it really does.

 

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Ten essential metal albums

I don’t write about music very often on this blog, but given that my tastes in that field are just as fringe as they are in literature perhaps that’s no surprise. (Mind you, there probably is a small overlap between science fiction readers and death metal fans – certainly I know a handful of people who qualify as both.) But another reason is that, as the late great Frank Zappa once said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. And it’s only recently that I’ve starting buying books on architecture – well, books of photographs of Brutalist and Modernist buildings, and those designed by, for example, Oscar Niemeyer…

Anyway, on my way home from the Gojira gig earlier this week, I challenged a friend to come up with a list of ten essential metal albums. He’ll post his on The Mix Eclectic. We didn’t bother to define “essential”, but agreed only that we were allowed five additional “honourable mentions”. At the time I issued the challenge, I thought it would be quite easy… but, of course, such things never are. There were a few obvious picks, and they, in turn, defined what “essential” meant to me as regards this list. It means albums I always return to, ones I play again and again, even years after I bought them. They’re not necessarily seminal in their chosen genre, they’re not especially important albums in the progression of metal (death or otherwise). They’re just albums I love.

And the list goes like this…

Skycontact, Phlebotomized (1997, Netherlands) Phlebotomized were a short-lived band during the Netherlands’ brief flowering of great death metal talent in the 1990s. They recorded a pair of EPs and a pair of albums. Skycontact was their second and last album. Their CDs now go for silly money on eBay. Skycontact is elegiac, mournful, and yet quite beautiful at times. There’s even a violin in it. ‘A Cry in July’ is an especially stand-out track.

Projector, Dark Tranquillity (1999, Sweden) This is the album that introduced me to Dark Tranquillity, and made me a fan of the group. It’s perhaps their most commercial album, and certainly it shows the breadth of their music – from the crunching riffs of the opening track ‘FreeCard’ to the synth-heavy ‘Day to End’ to the near-ballad ‘Auctioned’. Despite the somewhat mordant tone to the lyrics, Projector is an album that never fails to put me in a good mood. To date, I’ve seen Dark Tranquillity perform live four times, and it’s about bloody time they toured the UK again.

Blackwater Park, Opeth (2001, Sweden) This may well be the high-water mark for Opeth. It’s the first album by them I bought and I still consider it their best. The preceding album, Still Life, is excellent, but its songs don’t quite gel in the way Blackwater Park‘s do. This album has the perfect mix of Opeth’s trademark complex heaviness and acoustic interludes. The title track alone is a work of genius. I’ve seen Opeth live four times to date, and will be seeing them again later this year. They usually put on a damn good show.

Still At Arms Length, The Provenance (2002, Sweden) The Provenance disbanded in 2006 after four albums. Still At Arms Length was their second. It’s a hard-to-describe mix of death, gothic, doom and progressive metal. With a flute. Like some other Scandinavian metal bands, vocals were shared between male and female, with the male vocals often sung as growls. But there’s something about The Provenance’s songs which lift them above others of their ilk. They were more experimental – in their sound and their song structures – than their peers. And like all the best death metal bands, they could play a mean and heavy riff. I regret never getting to see them perform live.

Worlds Beyond the Veil, Mithras (2003, UK) I forget where I first heard Mithras, but I remember being immediately captivated by the combination of spacey ambient synth and furiously insane guitar and drumming. They’re probably the most science-fictional death metal I’ve ever heard – or rather, there’s something about their music which speaks to me of the best of science fiction. Which is probably why I used the lyrics to this album in a short story – originally published in Jupiter magazine, but also posted on my blog here. I’ve seen Mithras live twice – the first time at the Day of Unrest mini-festival in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden; and I remember being exhausted after their set just from listening to the music. They have a new album due out later this year, On Strange Loops; and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone, Akercocke (2005, UK) I first came across Akercocke in 2005, when they supported Opeth at the Forum in London. I vaguely recall being impressed by the sheer noise they made, and the fact that they all wore suit and tie on stage. (They were sometimes called “Satan’s bankers” because of their stage attire.) However, it wasn’t until I saw them perform in the small room at the Corporation, supporting their Antichrist album, that I became a fan. I saw them once more before they split up. Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone is my favourite of their albums (and has a great title, too), with its abrupt changes from furious blackened death metal to slow and mournful acoustic parts. The opener ‘Verdelet’ is probably my favourite Akercocke track, too.

Red for Fire + Black for Death, Solefald (2005/2006, Norway) This one is a bit of a cheat as it was released as two albums, though the band wrote it as a single project. It is based on an Icelandic edda about Bragi, a court poet who dallies with the queen but is forced to flee when it is discovered. The album is a mix of post-black metal, Icelandic poetry, and even some jazz fusion. It’s the sheer variety that appeals as much as the individual songs.

The Diarist, Dark Lunacy (2006, Italy) Metal is well-suited to concept albums, and this is true of death metal as much as any other branch of the genre. The diarist of the title is a woman trapped in Stalingrad during the siege by the Nazis. The tracks successfully evoke the time and place, though without losing sight of its musical genre. There’s an epic quality to Dark Lunacy’s music which I think this album showcases especially well. I have never seen the band live but I would very much like to.

A New Constellation, NahemaH (2009, Spain) I was tricked into buying a NahemaH album. The label had put a sticker on the cover of the band’s second album, The Second Philosophy, which likened it to Opeth. Thinking that might appeal, I bought it. And listened to it. And discovered it was nothing like Opeth. But I hung onto the CD because I suspected it might be a grower. And so it proved. Within a few months I was listening to it constantly. And everything that was good, and that appealed to me, about The Second Philosophy is just more so in A New Constellation. It’s a death metal / prog metal wall of sound, accomplished and complex. I really want to see NahemaH live.

Annihilation of the Wicked, Nile (2005, US) I wanted Nile to be in this list of ten, but I couldn’t think which album to pick. In the end, I plumped for this one because it best displays their fusion of Ancient Egyptian themes and relentless US death metal. It’s like exploring the pyramids while suffering from a heart attack. The track ‘The Burning Pits of Duat’ allegedly features drumming at 320 bpm. Which is astonishing. Nile are a fixture on the death metal scene, and for good reason. I’ll get to see them for the first time at this year’s Bloodstock festival.

For my five honourable mentions, I picked:

Reflections of the I, Winds (2002, Norway) A mix of classical music and progressive metal by a side-project of four members of other metal bands.

Mabool, Orphaned Land (2004, Israel) Death metal, prog metal and Middle Eastern music in a concept album about the Flood.

Shin-Ken, Persefone (2009, Andorra) A polished mix of death metal and progressive metal from Andorra’s finest musical export. It’s a concept album too.

Leviathan, Mastodon (2004, US) Another mix of metal subgenres, and another concept album. There seems to be a pattern here…

Sowberry Hagan, Ultraphallus (2011, Belgium) It should sound like sheer noise, but it doesn’t. An astonishing musical balancing act.

There were so many other albums I wanted to pick, like As Night Conquers Day, Autumn Leaves (1999, Denmark), wihch is a favourite album, or something by Anathema (but I couldn’t think which of their albums was especially typical), or Themes, Silent Stream of Godless Elegy (2000, Czech Republic), which provides an excellent sample of their sound but does include a couple of duff tracks…