On Soundtrack to A Vacant Life, Benn Jordan seemed like he was on the verge of death. All but consumed by emotion, bleak and foreboding, his 2008 LP was intriguing in its dark soundscapes and irking ambience. Flash forward to 2010, and is The Flashbulb coming back to life. Infused with energy and spunk, Arboreal is an active listen. The artist mixes up a cascading string movement, a little melancholy piano piece, and a choppy electronic sample simultaneously, and the outcome is more organic, perhaps, than the clear-cut emotional platitudes of Vacant Life. The transitions, like always, are holy. Jordan’s ability to create beauty from a chaotic mess of disparate elements has never been this forthright, as he weaves and bends together the many aspects of the music like an artisan. Long-hailed as sit-down, concentrate, absorb-with-tender-ears kind of music, The Flashbulb manipulates this axiom of the genre into an album teeming with life. Some longtime fans expressed surprise, disgust even, at Benn Jordan’s new artistic aims; but I couldn’t be happier that The Flashbulb has found a new spring in its step, and is crafting more impressive music to complement this newfound atmosphere. – SeaAnemone
With Have One On Me, Joanna Newsom made the transition from writing divisive “indie music” to composing songs that are genuinely accessible. On paper this isn’t obvious, Newsom’s trademark harp playing and vocals still present as ever. However with her 2010 release, she diverted from the distinct and meticulous sounds of Ys and managed to create music that had a soothing, warm effect that allowed the listener to both absorb themselves in the songs, yet completely ignore them. This is partially due to the length; usually two hours worth of music would be a nightmare, but the formatting only provides a gentle playground full of inviting tunes to get lost in. Another is due to her varied and relaxed approach with the production. Throughout the album, Newsom mixes in a variety of subtle instrumentation, may it be the beautiful violins of ‘In California’ or the chilled out piano work of ‘Easy’. While the songs peak, the calm vibe throughout the album works equally effective in a lulling manner, charming the listener with stunning lyrics and soft harp-picking. In essence, Have One On Me is some of the most engaging background music ever put to record. – Enotron
Noisia have been sending shock waves through dancefloors and nightclubs ever since their emergence in 2003, each release only building on their explosive and dynamic approach to neurofunk, giving drum & bass a much needed kick in the pants at every turn. Be it when they turn their subsonic bass laden approach to more friendlier fare like house and breaks, or stay true to their d & b origins, their blitzkrieg-like attack on the nightclubs of the world commands attention. An LP long in the making and heavy in anticipation, Split The Atom is nothing short of being one of the grandest and diverse electronic releases of the year. Mixing in all of their varying styles with bold efficiency, the album cycles through ruthless drum & bass pummel on ‘Shellshock’, blurs the identity of breaks with the off-kilter ‘Alpha Centauri’ (a track jaw dropping in its example of how far sound can be bent and broken); it cranks up the the temperature on electro house’s already burning condition with ‘Red Heat’, and breathes life into the old school vibes of yesteryear with ‘My World’. The bass is almost otherworldly, so dense and thick, the reverb hitting harder than a ton of bricks. Wisely though, Noisia sacrifice nothing for potential commercial appeal as their ruthless ‘Stigma’ returns in all its glory, and ‘Machine Gun’ detonates its catchy hooks in a merciless cloud of murky wobble. The three headed monster that is Noisia have crafted the ultimate eye-opener of the year and secured their place at the top of the pile, a position that they are going to be holding onto for years to come. – Deviant
The release of This is the Warning saw Dead Letter Circus’ popularity skyrocket, and it’s no wonder why. Their debut seamlessly melds Kim Benzie’s incredible vocals with Rob Maric’s delay infused guitar and a huge rhythm section, producing an eclectic set of songs that will ensure the band will only get bigger. Moving through the thunder of ‘Here We Divide,’ to the pulsing electronics of ‘Cage,’ to ‘Big’s infectious chorus, Dead Letter Circus have successfully expanded their sound while still remaining inherently catchy. The welcome inclusion of electronics in songs such as album standouts ‘Cage’ and ‘The Drum’ only furthers the claim that as Dead Letter Circus expand their sound; they are only going to get better. Especially if This is the Warning is anything to go by. – Vooligan
Let’s face it people, the expectations for this one were pretty high, right? More than they possibly should have been, and certainly higher than the qualms people had about Big Boi not being able to survive on his own. Yes we had Speakerboxxx, but we also had The Love Below to fall back on in case of emergency, and perhaps Big Boi was smart enough to leave Andre at home for this one, knowing that we were expecting the afrocat’s inclusion on at least a couple of the cuts. And we all knew Big Boi had it in him to succeed under his own steam, but I don’t think we quite expected it to turn out this magical, this boisterous and energetic. Had Kanye not pulled his sneak in from the side and steal the show routine, Big Boi’s first solo outing would probably be the hip hop album of the year. And simply because it is hip hop taken to the nth degree, ripe in its required posturing and swagger. There’s nothing worth scrutinizing over here, just excellent urban lyricism laid bare over stompin’ beats soon to be beaming out of a tricked out car near you. Leave your thoughts at the door and nod your head, this is party music filled to the brim with flirtatious beats, smooth deliveries and perfect executions. – Deviant
Agalloch have extended on their previous successes, executing them to a near perfect level and at the same time tread new and exciting ground with new aspects that make Marrow Of The Spirit shine. The album works beautifully as a cohesive unit and generally flows better than their previous work, but Marrow Of The Spirit is not their best album. But with a band like Agalloch, it is irrelevant what one person thinks is the best – there is a near equal number of people in which album is a fan’s favorite, and no doubt Marrow Of The Spirit will also fall into that formula. For what it’s worth, it’s another Agalloch album – take that as you will. The album isn’t flawless, such as the fairly bland introduction to the album which is far too drawn out and the track ‘Ghost of the Midwinter Fires’ feeling rather thin and uninspired. Rest is top notch Agalloch material, though. ‘Black Lake Nidstang’ is probably one of their best songs to date, pretty much capturing exactly why this band is as good as it is in a 17 minute epic – and with all its other successes, puts itself among the best of 2010. – DarkNoctus
Now veterans of progressive rock, Oceansize has time and time again, delivered innovative and passionate records to the admiration of their fans. Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up is no different in this regard; a technical and well-executed album that ranks among the year’s best. Oceansize’s fourth, and unfortunately final release is a powerful affair, utilizing crushing riffs and raw potency at the most fanatical of moments. What is most striking about Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up however, are the varied levels of dynamics. Shifting from the sheer brutality of ‘Part Cardiac’ to the serene beauty of ‘Oscar Acceptance Speech,’ Oceansize’s 2010 installment keeps the listener on their toes throughout, and tenders to a wide range of sentiments. Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up is a formidable record that should be remembered within a phenomenal year in music, and the final chapter of a stellar and regrettably short career for Oceansize. – mallen
Disambiguation’s earth-shattering sound was able to convince me that Underoath would not suck after replacing basically all the important people in the band (the current lineup features no original members). To be honest, they had no choice but to release this exact album. It is quite possibly their heaviest record to date, certainly their most progressive one, and it maintains a high level of accessibility and catchiness that is rare for metalcore acts. ‘In Division’ provides something of an overture, introducing the album’s potency in full and with a sense of organized chaos. Experimental tracks like ‘Paper Lung’ only augment Disambiguation’s case as Underoath’s most ambitious pursuit, with a slow-building intensity in the clean vocals over top of sprawling electric guitar riffs. They may be a new band, so to speak, but they have retained most of the elements that have always made them such a success. Immediate and full of fury, Disambiguation is proof that Underoath’s core isn’t defined by any one person in the band – but rather by the ability to overcome and a spirit of resolve. – SowingSeason
It’s really a pity that The ArchAndroid never quite realized its massive crossover potential, but that wasn’t really a surprising outcome for such an ambitious and self-assured debut. Janelle Monae’s ability to flit ably between different genres on this delightfully promiscuous record is nothing short of astonishing; hell, it would be showing off if it wasn’t so goddamn blissful. Singles like ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Cold War’ were loaded with hooks that left the listener breathless, while more contemplative cuts like ‘Oh, Maker’ effectively displayed the impressive emotional depth of Monae’s voice. The (admittedly fabulous) futuristic conceit aside, this was one of the most musically satisfying and diverse albums of the year, made all the more exciting by its inherently likable nature, namely its lack of the self-aggrandization that accompanied the antics of higher-profile female pop stars like Lady Gaga and M.I.A. And besides, Monae could give both of those artists a run for their money with her undeniably dynamic personality. As she sings gleefully on ‘Tightrope’: “I’m calling you to dinner / yeah, you know exactly what I mean.” Boom. – ConradTao
To put it simply, Blue Sky Noise is both a bold step forward, and the perfection of the Circa Survive sound. Everything about the band has improved. Every single aspect has been incredibly polished, making this the most solid effort to date. While maintaining their alt rock, indie-prog sensibilities, the band has managed to seriously put some life into their songs. In previous releases, energy and life were two things seriously lacking. They may have put up a decent front, but underneath the peculiar sounds and interesting tempos, Circa Survive were simply flat. However, we now find the band pulsing with life, and full of incredibly palpable energy. Blue Sky Noise is a beast of an album. While on the shorter side, it still manages to pack one hell of a punch. So full of life and energy, Blue Sky Noise is without a doubt the band’s most well rounded, and accomplished work to date. – Xenophanes
A very strong debut album. Using an intriguing marriage of black metal and harcore punk, Kvelertak have created an excellent record that sounds fresh and never lets up from the first chord to the last. The lyrics are all in Norwegian, so most listeners won’t understand what they’re saying, but every single song is full of catchy yet hard hitting riffs and hooks that many established hardcore bands would be more than proud of. Fun, melodic and totally exhilerating, this is an album that deserves attention from a band that could prove to be something special. – AliW1993
Daryl Palumbo + Claudio Sanchez + Poison The Well + Hopesfall + jazz rhythms = mega fucking win. There are so many awesome moments all over this record it’s pointless to list them. letlive definitely have a pastiche of influences, some more obvious than others, but put them together masterfully into their own sound better than a lot of their peers. There are a few metalcore-by-numbers tracks, but nothing really dips into bad quality. Anyone who likes any of the aforementioned singers/bands/genres should make listening to this a big, big priority as it’s definitely one of the strongest records out this year so far. – StrizzMatik
Anathema’s transition from their early doom beginnings into their current alt rock form is a source of great derision for many of their long term fans. While the metamorphosis was a sudden one, the divisive nature of the transformation lies in the fact that Anathema have a habit of never fully delivering under this new guise. From Eternity all the way up to 2004’s A Natural Disaster, their atmospheric brand of Radiohead and Pink Floyd pilfering have only managed to work in small bouts. For every great track they’ve managed to pull off, half formed and semi realized ideas have followed closely behind. Luckily the seven years spent in the shadows have been kind to Anathema as We’re Here Because We’re Here is their most fully formed album to date.
With Steven Wilson guiding the way, Anathema have taken their gothic rock tendencies and expanded upon them ten fold, resulting in their most cohesive outing yet. Their subtle prog tendencies glide along at a silken pace, as do the lush atmospherics and bleak underpinnings. At times it’s almost a sunnier Anathema, the gloom they’ve embraced for nearly twenty years now ever so slightly more restrained. The time off has allowed the group more confidence to step away from the limitations they’ve imposed upon themselves, and the payoff for us, the faithful and patient fan, is exponentially greater than anything we could have hoped for. New life has been blown into the dusty skeleton of Anathema. – Deviant
In my eyes, universally-loved hardcore outfit Dangers needed to switch little in their equation from between Anger and Messy, Isn’t It?. There’s nary a “transition” or “shift” towards a different sound in their most recent output. Instead, Messy, Isn’t It? is all the more impassioned for it. Dangers don’t change their scope, they’ve just focused more and had more time to get pissed off about things like idiot teenagers or whatever Al’s gotten so livid again. As far as the more intense side of 2010 is concerned, no album quite matches the fury of Messy, Isn’t It? The hardcore album solidifies itself near the top of the year’s best records by yelling and struggling with an ugly ferocity, evidenced first by the perturbing album cover and last with the closing chords of ‘The El Segundo Blue Butterfly Habitat Preserve’. In between, Dangers prove Anger was anything but a fluke. The Southern California band makes it evident that they’re able to deliver the same unrivaled passion as their seminal LP, while freshening it up with a frenzy of fresh ideas. The gang vocals, the fervent, memorable one-liners, Dangers exemplify their ability to incorporate these aspects near-flawlessly yet again without making the result sound trite or tired. Messy Isn’t It? displays Dangers still screaming about impromptu, coat-hanger abortions and the like which may not be your cup o’ tea, but the band’s refusal to yield their passionate cries or even slow down a tad is certainly an endearing trait we could’ve used a little more of this year. – SeaAnemone
On Illinoise, Sufjan Stevens had crafted these subtle, arty folk tunes that were digestible enough to leave way for him to amplify his personality over. The odd transitions and celebratory, orchestral instruments would suggest different on paper, but they were never overbearing and could always be reduced back to mere instrumentation. The point was that these songs left space for Sufjan to soar over, create a personality and tell a tale with enough room. Instead, he chose to dwell in the folk undertones of the album, delicately whispering odd prose and masking his undoubtedly huge personality through obscurity. Throughout his entire discography, this sort of linearity between the vocals and the music has always been present.
This is why Age of Adz is such a massive fucking record. Throughout the album, Sufjan constantly pumps out unexpected sounds and interweaves things one would never imagine to work, electronic beats and sweeping traditional orchestration, minimalist acoustic chordings with heavily processed vocals. The songs progress and build without ever loosing touch with precision, yet they sound disconnected from order, a laissez-faire experiment. The secret to this sound is that it’s all an extension of Sufjan’s insane mentality, and the thought of every big-band flourish and electronic meltdown being controlled and manipulated by him in the background makes it all the better. While the ambitious production would leave one expecting Sufjan’s vocal performance to fall under, the man actually manages to sound huger than his compositions. The vocals soar and croon huge cinematic tales, yet capitalize on every right moment to embrace basic human desires. From his panicked cries of “Ordinary people are everywhere” to ‘Impossible Souls’’ ending chant of “Boy we can do much more together, it’s not so impossible“, Sufjan manages to sound relatable in his own warped way, a frontman of some sort. Age of Adz in all its convoluted glory, is a basic celebration of life, Sufjan’s most outgoing, beautiful LP yet. – Enotron
In all the chaotic moments within Paracletus, the fuming riffs and noxious vocals never seem to cease their unrelenting concentration on atmosphere. What Deathspell Omega accomplished in over an hour on Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice, they have surpassed in a tidy forty-two minutes on Paracletus, an accomplishment that is the most admirable of all the praises thus far. This condensing of material; the tireless sifting through old ideas and fresh inspiration for the best of the best, and combining them with a steady focus and more potent songwriting than ever before is what makes Paracletus the sweetest fruit from Deathspell Omega’s already respectable repertoire of unorthodox black metal. The fury of highly technical and often mind-boggling riffing is contrasted by immensely atmospheric movements that roll along with incredible mass and fluid ease. It has a distorted sense of melody while be fundamentally harsh; beautiful and ghastly all at the same time. As engrossing a listen as any black metal album I’ve come across, Paracletus is simply a reaffirmation that Deathspell Omega are among the most dynamic and talented black metal artists around today. – Crysis
As I listen to Foreign Tapes more after initially regarding it as another indie album that will get lost in 2010’s shuffle of brilliant music, I find that the album is truly an original gift. Comparisons to a more dynamic and tender late-career Minus The Bear come to mind: throw in some airy production and you have Parades. Foreign Tapes is extremely varied, needing multiple listens to eventually have a grasp on the album and all its wonderful changes in songwriting. While Jonathan Boulet and Daniel Cunningham’s sultry, low key vocals complement the serenity of their music, it’s the little moments where guest female vocalist Shave appears that gives Foreign Tapes an entirely new, worthwhile dimension.
Basically, Foreign Tapes works because it’s the culmination of many different ideas which come together in such a way that is memorable and enjoyable throughout, never losing focus on a signature sound while still maintaining large amounts of variation. Whether it’s an ambient background over a fast-moving drum machine and soothing vocals from the 3 precipitants in “Invaders” or the slightly distorted, calming “Springboarder”, or the brilliant and beautiful “Lung Full Of Light”, Foreign Tapes threatens to take off into the heavens. Parades have certainly created one of the more enjoyable and promising debuts of 2010 with Foreign Tapes. The album is extremely varied but keeps a hold on the listener through a signature sound, one that is highlighted by gorgeous piano melodies and Shave’s guest vocals. Whether the album is rocking out or soothing with ambience and quiet conviction, Foreign Tapes makes Parades a band to watch for in the future. – Chambered89
I suppose a band so indebted to a particular genre (or catchphrase as the band would lead you to believe) have a lot to answer for when they turn their backs on a sound that was so obviously identifiable in their work. But for Rosetta, currently sitting in that lonely section known as “post nothing”, A Determinism of Morality is the ultimate declaration to make music with no ties. Representing their most cohesive work to date their third LP loses that major payoff so intrinsically wrapped up in that genre revitalizing prefix, that of the buildup, and instead keeps that always escalating momentum as an absolute constant. Moments of intensity are rivaled by even more ferocious bouts of exuberant destruction, but this time around it comes across as more of a transition that a musical elevation. But Rosetta’s first outing as a rejigged “space metal” outfit does still hold more than a few jubilant odes to their drawn out brethren, with almost everything on offer here meticulously crafted and refined into massive and atmospheric pieces ripe with sensory overload. There isn’t a single moment where anything feels slight or overshadowed, everything is epic, major and expansive, like sound caught in a vacuum. Rosetta, orbiting a galaxy near you. – Deviant
With Majesty and Decay, Immolation has crafted their most accessible record. I realise that the term ‘accessible’ certainly can have negative connotations, especially with music like this and a critic like myself. However, the point that is being conveyed is that Immolation have done the unthinkable, yet have still managed to create an excellent death metal record, one that remains firmly engaging and will appeal to both veteran Immolation and death metal fans, as well as bringing in a horde of new ones. The band has rethought their compositional approach after the last two albums, which were nothing more than exercises in mediocrity. With five excellent records under their belt, it was either go bust completely or somehow make a comeback – Immolation went down the latter path, and did it in style. From the very beginning, songs like ‘The Purge’ establish the rhythm-heavy and almost catchy playing method that is associated with Immolation. The highly dissonant and ululating melodies that characterise the group’s mid-era have been somewhat eased, but this is not to say the music has become inferior – it’s just a little more condensed, with the band’s signature ‘structured-chaos’ a little more structured and a little less chaotic. The Immolation ‘charm’ is still here, and that’s what makes this an excellent record. Tracks like ‘Token of Malice’ and ‘A Glorious Epoch’ are menacing yet highly catchy and attentive, key ingredients to the album’s success. If you are a fan of death metal and actually haven’t heard this yet, I would call you a liar. – Rasputin
Appearing right at the end of the year and just in time to make everyone’s “pat on the back” end of year lists almost entirely redundant, Italy’s greatest export since round bread represent something of an oddity in the metal world. Their unique hybrid of metalcore, post hardcore and post metal is an amalgamation that comes off entirely convincing rather than dreadfully forced. Be it when they merge Define The Great Line‘s tendency to mix and match their opposing vocalists over wall of sound landscapes, or when they shift into Isis mode and attack with molten thick guitar lines and unrelenting percussion, there isn’t a moment on here when it doesn’t feel 100% sincere. And it probably doesn’t help matters when the vocalist sounds as if he’s trying to split the heavens asunder, and it really only makes matters worse when the music gives off the feel that he’s actually achieved that somewhat remarkable feat. Aside from the album’s brief reprieves into calming passages of ambiance there really isn’t a great deal in the way of breathing room here, each song moves through cycles of pummel and clatter, each cycle only evolving into something inextricably more destructive. In lesser hands this could all appear trite and gimmicky, but in the hands of this ragtag sextet of European delinquents it works so destructively well. There isn’t a single moment here when your senses aren’t being completely invaded; and to think, this is only their debut album. Expect big things from these boys. – Deviant