This is embarrassing. Here it is 2013, and my 2012 collection consists of only 38 albums, the majority of which I’ve listened to twice at best. I never heard the new Neurosis. I never heard the new High On Fire. Hell, forget metal, I didn’t even listen to the new Shins and Godspeed albums. I can’t offer an experienced, informed opinion now the way I could at the end of 2011. But I’ve been posting up some sort of album of the year list somewhere for over a decade now, and I’ll be damned if I let the fact that I didn’t really listen to any albums in 2012 stand in my way.
Or something like that. Here we go.
10. Dawnbringer – Into the Lair of the Sun God (track: IV)
It’s not often I get into a standard heavy metal album, but Dawnbringer did everything right in 2012. The songs rock along with a bit of an Iron Maiden drive to them, the power and black metal tendencies are tastefully incorporated to enhance the drive without altering the vibe, and the vocals know their limit. If it sounds a bit generic, don’t let that fool you. Not too many bands can pull this off without giving into the temptation to be more “epic” or “extreme” than they really are. Dawnbringer pull it off without the flare–without ever going over the top–and their accessibility places Into the Lair of the Sun God among the best of the year.
9. Korpiklaani – Manala
I wouldn’t say Hittavainen was the heart and soul of Korpiklaani, but he was an essential component. The band would be at a total loss without Jonne Järvelä, and their consistent line-up over the years has contributed enormously to their success, but Juho Kauppinen’s accordion aside, the folk instrumentation was almost all a product of Hittavainen. When he left due to health issues after Ukon Wacka in 2011, I feared it was the end of an era. Korpiklaani never missed a beat recovering from the loss in 2012. In addition to picking up the highly qualified Tuomas Rounakari as their new violinist, Jonne Järvelä stepped up to fill in the void by recording the mandolin, flute, and whistle tracks. I think I can hear some nuance differences between his and Hittavainen’s playing style, but it might just as well be in my head; Manala sounds like a Korpiklaani album through and through. I don’t like it as much as Karkelo and Ukon Wacka–it’s a bit heavier, too much so for my taste in folk metal–but in the greater sphere of Korpiklaani’s discography it is certainly composed and performed to par.
8. Ensiferum – Unsung Heroes
Ensiferum took a lot of slack for this album. I think a lot of people wanted to hear the over-the-top bombast that worked so effectively on Victory Songs, but in my opinion that was already growing stale on From Afar. Unsung Heroes is down to earth in a way they haven’t been since the 2001 self-titled debut, and I love it. They’re heading in exactly the direction I’d hoped for, and with the exception of the ugly mistake that is the album’s 17 minute closing track, Power Proof Passion, Unsung Heroes does not sound at all like a band past their prime. If they continue to push in the direction of tracks like Pohjola, they’re in position to trump Victory Songs and follow up Unsung Heroes with their best album to date.
7. Wodensthrone – Curse
I wish I’d taken the time to review this album earlier in the year, because I haven’t listened to it since the summer, and their flavor of epic black metal isn’t the sort of thing you can fully absorb in a quick last-minute listen. This is an album that can move nowhere but up in my charts over the months to follow, but for the time being I am content to place it somewhere in the middle. While busting out black metal that’s just as grim and unforgiving as the 1990s greats, Wodensthrone manage to infuse a tremendous amount of emotion that speaks of something beautiful hidden beneath the chaos. It’s buried a bit deeper than say, Femundsmarka by Waldgeflüster last year, but the feeling is similar.
6. Vattnet Viskar – Vattnet Viskar EP (song: Weakness)
If someone were to ask me what black metal sounded like in 2012, I might hand them this EP. It’s kind of cool getting to say that, because one of their members is a regular at the music forum where I get most of my recommendations. I wouldn’t have guessed back in March that they would be signed to Century Media by the end of the year, but I’m stoked to hear it. The whole notion of post-black metal has taken on a number of different flavors in these formative years, and Vattnet Viskar expand the genre by incorporating a lot of the all-encompassing guitar tones I associate with post-rock acts like Mono and This Will Destroy You. Top-notch stuff that’s really at the forefront of an emergent genre I’ve been anticipating for years.
5. Enslaved – RIITIIR
How Enslaved have aged so well is beyond me, but their last three albums have been their best three albums, and 22 years after the formation of this band they remain at the forefront of metal. Their viking-infused progressive black sound of late has done as much to shape the future of the genre as any new-found participant in the current popular trend towards black metal that has been taking shape over the past four years. RIITIIR is another outstanding output by the one classic early 90s black metal band that has managed to weather the ages unscathed.
4. Blut aus Nord – 777: Cosmosophy
The review I wrote of 777: Cosmosophy last month was one of the most thorough I’ve done all year, and there is nothing I care to say about the album that I haven’t said already. It is outstanding in its own right, but it does not feel like an entirely complete finale to their already classic 777 series. The first and third tracks, breathtaking though they may be, don’t seem to sufficiently progress from where the second album in the trilogy, The Desanctification, left off. The second track moreover, Epitome XV, is the weakest link on all three albums. The last two tracks compensate greatly by concluding in proper form, and I certainly think Cosmosophy is excellent. It can only be said to have “shortcomings” in so far as I expected it to be the best album of 2012. Fourth place isn’t too bad.
3. Torche – Harmonicraft (song: Reverse Inverted)
Calling Torche metal at this point is really pushing the limits of the definition. Since their early days writing crushing stoner anthems, they have evolved into a bizarre amalgamation equal parts metal and pop. But it’s not just the uniqueness of the happy, smiley-face hammers Harmonicraft beats you down with that makes it so appealing. Torche have become by all rights the heirs of the 1990s. These guys have more in common with the Smashing Pumpkins than they do with any of their stoner metal contemporaries. This is the sort of thing that 15 years ago we could have just labeled “alternative rock” and gone on enjoying without any need for classifications. While forging an entirely unique, original sound of their own, Torche have managed to capture a song-writing ethos that has been dead for a generation, and Harmonicraft is the cleanest breath of fresh air I’ve inhaled in years.
2. Krallice – Years Past Matter (song: Track 2)
Krallice is my favorite band making music today, and I dare say last year’s Diotoma might be my favorite album by any band ever. Seldom if ever has a band followed up such a masterpiece with something of equal worth, and I was shocked that Krallice had the energy left to release anything at all this year. Years Past Matter is an outstanding post-black metal outing in the vein of Dimensional Bleedthrough. The tracks took longer than usual to grow on me, and usual for Krallice entails dozens of listens, but the payout is always worth the time, and the slow process of appreciation is enjoyable in its own right. Mick Barr and Colin Marston’s dual tremolo is the grand ultimate ear-candy, and so long as they never compromise their commitment to that they will probably remain my favorite band. (Track 3 is my favorite song on Years Past Matter so far, but it was not available on youtube. Track 2 is a worthy substitute.)
1. Panopticon – Kentucky (song: Killing the Giants as They Sleep)
The fact that I didn’t review this album is almost embarrassing, because much like Aesthethica by Liturgy last year, it is an album that absolutely demands a thorough investigation to properly appreciate. I can’t easily tell you why I placed it this high, because frankly I don’t know yet myself. When I first read that a Louisville, Kentucky-based band called Panopticon had released a bluegrass black metal album, all sorts of thoughts ran through my head. Kentucky sounds like none of them. Do ignore the cliche “blackgrass” labels; while Austin Lunn listened to plenty of bluegrass in the process of recording this, he does not actually incorporate the genre as we might think of it. Instead he interweaves traditional Appalachian folk–not bluegrass particularly–as distinct tracks separated from the black metal. What folk does emerge in the bm is more akin to Waylander, and certainly far from “bluegrass”. That’s not a bad thing, just an–I think–important distinction to be made, because otherwise we might be left searching for genre stereotypes which simply aren’t present here. What Kentucky really accomplishes is a merging of a musical themes which perfectly juxtapose a beautiful landscape and a totally destitute human condition. The first half of “Killing the Giants as They Sleep” for instance generates landscape imagery with a degree of effectiveness similar to Femundsmarka by Waldgeflüster. (Have I referenced that album twice now? I think it’s time I paid it another visit.). You take a look around, take a deep breath, and really appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds you. About half way through the dialogue begins, and the explosion around 9:15 serves to draw you fully into the atrocities taking place here, both in the exploitation of workers and the desecration of the environment.
I don’t think Austin Lunn intended to make any sort of political statement here, but in succeeding so comprehensively to depict elements of Appalachia and its outskirts, he effectively did so. At a time when the working class of America is inexplicably becoming staunch supporters of big capital, this album hits a bulls-eye on all of the thoughts that have been forefront on my mind of late. His bleak renditions of union anthems like “Which Side Are You On?”, recently covered with such optimism by the likes of Dropkick Murphys, strike me as a painfully realistic reminder that the entire notion of equality as an American ideal is becoming antiquated.
But that might be seen as secondary. Wherever our ideas may lead us, Kentucky is the sort of album that inclines us to form them. It’s an album that makes me think. Like Aesthethica by Liturgy and Diotima by Krallice last year, it forces me to set aside my mundane daily routines and really engage the human experience. That alone, all other considerations aside, suffices to render it my favorite album of 2012.