I didn't do a lot of writing about music this year. I've been working on a large-scale writing project that's subsumed a lot of my free time and, frankly, I'd kept the music crit candle burning too brightly for too long. The wick, as they say, was growing short. But in between manic, protracted binges of of murky ambient, witchy dub and dark jazz -- the interstitial soundtrack to a collaborative science fiction novel that will hopefully see the light of day sometime mid-2013 -- I managed to sneak in a few hefty helpings of heavy music that served both as an audial palate cleanser and a motivating kick to my brain's ass. Below are a few of my favorites from this year. I expect I'll see you 'round these parts here sooner or later. Until then, take care and listen to Mercyful Fate.
After 2009's hit-and-miss Evisceration Plague, Buffalo's finest are back, carving out a standout entry in their already storied career. With age comes wisdom, and Torture benefits from the latter in spades -- songs are tighter, riffs more economical, direction more focused -- without sacrificing any of the gleefully vile and bloody filth that makes Cannibal Corpse, well, you know. Want proof? Just listen to the crawling chug of "Scourge of Iron" (a particular favorite) or the throwback jackhammer assault of "As Deep as the Knife Will Go." Do u even lift, bro?
Ever since Tragedy launched themselves rudderless into an endless, Amebix-worshipping sea, Sweden's Martyrdöd have run up the slack, delivering the D-beaten, twin-guitar crusctore epic of the year. Kudos to Lord Greg for picking up these skinny, raw-throated punkers, despite the hard-sell of an album sung entirely in Swedish -- they deserve the wider exposure, regardless. And if there's one thing that's been proven over the last 40+ years, it's that headbanging is its own universal language. Skål!
The Howling Wind
[Profound Lore Records]
With Mr. Crowley's Scarlet Woman guiding their (left-hand) path, guitarist/vocalist Ryan Lipynsky and drummer Tim Call have crafted a challenging yet surprisingly human slab of frost-bitten black metal that owes as much to Norway's Second Wave as it does to the duo's individual main projects, namely the psychedelic doom of Lipynsky's Unearthly Trance and the utter, crawling dread of Call's masterful Aldebaran. Of Babalon is yet another feather for Profound Lore honcho Chris Bruni's already decorated cap.
Three & Seven
[Profound Lore Records]
A couple witchy broads tossing off some half-baked retro rehash -- been there, done that, right? Wrong. The two lasses (and lad) in Occultation sound unnervingly committed in ways that some of those other trend-riders could only dream of sounding. Featuring Negative Plane mastermind Nameless Void on guitar, Three & Seven is a truly creepy, Hammer Horror-ready miasma of reverb-drenched proto-doom and occult psychedelia, woven through with spidery, Dick Dale-on-acid surf guitar licks, sepulchral organ runs and ghostly vocal harmonies. Play this at your next Halloween party. (Seriously.)
[The Ajna Offensive]
The other Surf Black Metal album on my list this year, the cheekily(?) named Occult Rock is, to say the least, an odd beast. France's willfully obtuse Aluk Todolo are a black metal band in only the loosest terms, having more in common with Can or Amon Duul II than, say, Immortal, but this sprawling, 82-minute double-disc opus is raw in all the right places and infinitely addicting, each track revealing a more fractured version of some strange, depraved vision that demands return visits.
The year's most-anticipated album dropped with all the grace of a lead brick to the forehead. Grind is, by its nature, a very un-subtle art, but riff wizard Scott Hull, electronicist Blake Harrison and new skinpounder Adam Jarvis have concocted a modern blasterpiece of noise- and sample-heavy mini-shredfests that underpin a plethora of vocal provocateur J.R. Hays' scary/smart short stories. The meaner, metal little brother to El-P's hyper-literate space boom-bap, Book Burner nails all of 2012's misdirected fears, frustrations and fantasies to the motherfucking wall.
With Hearts Toward None
In the four years since 2008's weird and wonderful Groza was released, Cracow black metal duo Mgła (pronounced "Mgwah," "fog" in Polish) have only gotten better, slowly constructing a landmark rebuttal to orthodox black metal's stale dogma and strict genre piety. For one, it's incredibly melodic -- compared to the atonal, buzzing roar of many of his contemporaries, guitarist/vocalist M. riffs in a singular thematic voice that's more Dissection than Deathspell -- and drummer Darkside's ride cymbal swings like groovy chick in a pair of tight-fitting bellbottoms. With Hearts is as khold as they come, but shot through with blood-warm humanity and real emotion. Song No. 2 (they're all named "With Hearts Toward None" and are sequentially numbered in Roman numerals) is so good I want to throw up.
[Handmade Birds/Pagan Flames]
The story is almost too good to be true. Dude mixes traditional Appalachian bluegrass with absolutely shredding black metal and everybody shits their pants because who would have ever dreamed to put the two together, much less to such stunning results? And he played all the instruments himself? AND THEN he donates the bulk of the proceeds to local Kentucky anti-coal nonprofits? I'll put it to you this way: if Austin Lunn ever starts a newsletter, I'll be the first to subscribe.
Sorrow and Extinction
[Profound Lore Records]
This is the FAQ I have written for first-time Pallbearer listeners:
Yes, this album is as good as everyone says it is; Yes, it is their first record; Yes, they are from Little Rock, Ark.; Yes, like Bill Clinton; Yes, they are very nice and funny guys; No, it's not my problem you don't like doom metal; Yes, I mean like Black Sabbath-type metal; Yes, that kind of music is pretty slow; Um, '70s prog, '80s power metal, Candlemass, Ozzy, panel vans, beer, cheap weed; Yes, this is "one of those records that sounds better on vinyl in a dark room under a black light;" Yes, I mean that as a compliment; Yes, they kill live; Yes, the whole thing is pretty incredible.
Cancer 4 Cure
[Fat Possum Records]
Vatican Shadow - Kneel Before Religious Icons