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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…


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Best of the year 2011

I was going to leave this until January, but everyone else is doing them now. And, let’s face it, there’s only a handful of days left until the end of the year and they’ll be filled with various consumerist festivities. So…

Books
As of 15 December, I had read 156 books in 2011, which I suspect will mean a total on 31 December of slightly less than last year’s 178 books. But then I probably wrote more this year than I did in 2010. Of my reading, 4% were anthologies, and 12% non-fiction… which means of the remainder that 28% were books by women writers and 56% by male writers. I still need to work on that. Genre-wise, 44% was science fiction, 16% was mainstream, 8% was fantasy, and 16% were graphic novels.

Of those 156 books, I have picked six which were, for me, the best I read during the twelve months. They are:


Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002), should come as little surprise as I raved about when I read it back in April. Initially a Crowlesque fantasy, it takes a peculiar turn halfway through which makes it something weird and wonderful all of its own.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968), is another work by an author who continues to astonish me with each novel of his I read. This one has the most beautifully-handled non-linear narrative I’ve come across in fiction, not to mention one of the best-drawn female protagonists in science fiction. I honestly don’t know if this book is better than The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe or merely just as excellent. I wrote about it here.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), suffers under a somewhat forced title, but who cares. Because it contains loads of photographs of amazing Modernist buildings from the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Not all of the buildings still exist, and many of them have weathered the years badly. But there they are, captured in all their glory in this book.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), was published to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, and of all the books published at that time this one is perhaps the best-looking. Chaikin went through the many thousands of photographs take by, and of, the Apollo astronauts, and picked out ones that had rarely been seen before. And then he married those photographs with the words of the astronauts themselves – taken from interviews, transcriptions, etc.

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010), was a book I read under a misapprehension. Though it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction, many complained it was partly fictional – inasmuch as it told its story using a cast of real and invented people in a threaded narrative. However, I’d mistakenly understood that Red Plenty not only covered the years of the Soviet Union’s existence but also extrapolated it into an alternate present in which the Soviet system had succeeded. That would the be the “sf” part of the BSFA Award, you see. Not so. But never mind, I still loved it.

Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011), I pre-ordered because I’d thought Gilman’s 1998 novel, Halfway Human, very good, and because a write-up of the plot sounded as though it would appeal. And so it did. A fantasy, but not in the traditional epic/heroic mould. I wrote about it here.

Honorable Mentions:
There are a number of these this year, more so than usual. First, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War and Infidel, a very strong debut with some very interesting elements, and some that didn’t quite work for me (see here and here). Eric Brown’s Wellsian The Kings of Eternity is his strongest work for a number of years, and he deserves to be read more than he is. Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years is an excellent anthology that does exactly what it says on the tin and introduced me to several authors I’m determined to read more (see here and here). Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge (see here) and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (see here) were the best two novels from my challenge to read twelve books during the year by female science fiction writers. Stretto was an excellent end to L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, and Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer managed to make fascinating a topic in which I have zero interest, John F Kennedy’s presidency. Finally, a pair of rereads are worthy of mentions: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Films
By 15 December, I had watched 183 films. That’s including seasons of television series watched on DVD. Twenty-seven of them I reviewed for VideoVista.net and The Zone. Only one I saw at the cinema: Apollo 18. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction film or television, though I will happily watch them. This may well explain my choices for my top six of the year:


Moolaadé, Ousmane Sembène (2004), is Senegalese director Sembène’s ninth feature-length film, and the first one by him I’ve seen. It is set in a small village in Burkina Faso, and revolves around the refusal of three girls to undergo the traditional female genital mutilation. They are protected by the wife of one of the village’s important men, who herself refused to let her own daughter undergo the same disgusting procedure. This leads to a revolt by the village’s womenfolk, but it ends badly.

Mammoth, Lukas Moodysson (2009). I very much liked Moodysson’s earlier films Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål), Together (Tillsammans) and Lilya 4-Ever, but thought the experimental Container was pretty much unwatchable. Mammoth, however, is not only a welcome return to form, it is a superb indictment of the West’s exploitation of the East. Judging by some of the comments the film has generated, I may the only person to see it in that light. Ah well. Gael Garciá Bernal is astonishingly good in the male lead role – and that’s in a cast that is uniformly excellent.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), is a Norwegian spoof. The title may have been a bit of a giveaway there. It posits an alternate 1980s in which Norwegian traitor Arne Treholt was not a spy for the Soviets but the head of a secret royal force of ninjas. As a spoof of late 1970s / early 1980s action films, Norwegian Ninja is pitch-perfect, but it is its use of real-life footage, and the way it neatly twists real history, that turns it in to a work of genius. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (2010), was not a film I expected to appeal to me: a noir-ish thriller set among the hillbillies of the Ozarks. I not only enjoyed it, I thought it very very good indeed. It takes place in a world peopled by some of the scariest people I’ve seen depicted on celluloid. And they’re not scary because they’re psychopaths or sociopaths, they’re scary because they need to be to survive in that culture.

Underground, Emir Kusturica (1995), was recommended to me, and it was a good call. A black comedy following the fortunes of a pair of rogues during WWII in Belgrade and the years after under Tito. One rises high in the post-war government, while the other remains hidden in his cellar, convinced the war is still going.

The Time That Remains, Elia Suleiman (2009), is the most recent film by a favourite director, so its appearance here should not be a surprise. It’s perhaps less comic than Divine Intervention, but neither does go all bizarre and surreal towards the end. A series of autobiographical vignettes, it builds a narrative of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the lives of the Palestinians under Israeli rule. Some parts of it are a delight.

Honorable Mentions:
No science fiction films, I’m afraid. Instead: Israeli thriller, Ajami, set in the titular district of Jaffa; The Wedding Song, which is set during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia in World War II and follows the friendship of two female friends, one Jewish and one Arabic; the BBC’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing from 1984, starring Cherie Lunghi and Robert Lindsay, and the best of the Bard’s plays I watched during the year; The Secret in their Eyes, a clever thriller from Argentina, which beat Ajami to the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2010; and finally, Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, which is one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever watched.

Albums
I didn’t think 2011 was shaping up to be a good year for music, but that all changed during the second half of the year. I think that might have happened in previous years too. I bought a reasonable number of new albums and old albums. The best of those are:

Harvest, The Man-Eating Tree (2011), is the band’s second album, and it’s a more commercial and slightly heavier-sounding offering. And Tuomas Tuominen still has one of the best and most distinctive voices in metal. I suspect The Man-Eating Tree are going to be the new Sentenced. Certainly when you think of Finnish metal, it’s The Man-Eating Tree you should be thinking of,  and not Lordi.

The Death of a Rose, Fornost Arnor (2011), is this UK band’s second album and, like their first, was also self-released. Some have said it’s the album Opeth should have made this year. Certainly it borrows the Swedes’ trademark mix of crunching yet intricate death metal and accomplished acoustic parts. It’s very much an album to lose yourself in, and I’m already looking forward to the band’s next offering.

Weaver of Forgotten, Dark Lunacy (2010), was annoyingly expensive as it was also self-released. But in Italy. (And I see now it’s much cheaper. Gah.) It is… epic. There’s no other word for it. It’s melodic death metal, but of a sort to fill vast spaces. I thought Dark Lunacy’s previous album, The Diarist, was excellent, but Weaver of Forgotten is an order of magnitude better.

Brahmavidya : Immortal I, Rudra (2011), is the third of a trilogy of albums, including Brahmavidya : Primordial I and Brahmavidya : Trascendental I. The band are from Singapore, but sing in – I believe – Sanskrit as well as English. It’s three blokes making death metal, but singing about their mythology. Rudra were one of this year’s discoveries, and I now have the T-shirt.

One for Sorrow, Insomnium (2011). Apparently, the only people who don’t like Insomnium are those who’ve never heard them. Each album finds them more polished and technically accomplished than the last, and it continues to astonish me they’re not better known. Insomnium are the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom metal.

The Human Connection, Chaos Divine (2011), is one of those albums that blows you away with the first track… but then can never quite scale those heights again. Opener ‘One Door’ is a blinding song, and if the rest can’t compare, that doesn’t mean they’re not good. This is a proggier effort than the band’s first album, and it’s the better for it. Chaos Divine is a band you can tell will improve with each new album.

Honorable Mentions:
I’m sorry, I have to do it: Heritage. I’m giving Opeth’s latest album an honourable mention because, though it took numerous listens before it grew on me, it does contains flashes of brilliance. It’s totally prog, of course, with nary a growl to be heard, and that has to be disappointing… but as a warped vision of old school prog, Heritage is worth its mention. However, Of Death by Byfrost, The Light In Which We All Burn by Laethora and Psychogenocide by Nervecell all get mentions because they’re good albums which are very much in keeping with their bands’ sounds. Byfrost I first heard at Bloodstock, and I enjoyed their set so much I wanted the album. Nervecell are from Dubai and, while I was aware of them before, I saw them this year supporting Morbid Angel and they were excellent. Laethora is just Laethora. Finally, Sowberry Hagan by Ultraphallus deserves a special honourable mention for being a fraction away from sheer noise, yet still remaining powerful and heavy and an excellent listen.