I won’t begin to say that I listened to all that 2012 had to offer in the metal department. Given the genre’s ever-increasing popularity, listening to every demo, split, EP, LP, or live album would have taken more time than the year itself had to offer us. It’s tough to say I would even want to listen to it all, especially since I honestly thought that 2012 could have used a few heavy-hitters that never materialized. Expectations can be a bitch, so when I go into a year with high hopes I set myself up for failure. It’s good, then, that I entered 2012 with a bit of trepidation, not sure what was going to be a success or what was going to flop.
I’m sure that if I had made a comprehensive list of all of the albums I was going to listen to this year and wrote what I thought each would turn out like, the answers would be almost the polar opposite of how it all ended up being. Who, honestly, would have thought that Katatonia would release their best album since Brave Murder Day? Why did Time I not suck immensely? Did I really just put a Mount Eerie album on my top of 2012 list? These are strange questions for strange times, especially in the veritable cage I lock myself in by being a metal fan.
That isn’t to say that all of the albums I liked from this year were metal, but as you may have guessed the genre comprises most of my top albums list. Instead of giving in to apathy and simply providing a list of my top 10 from 2012, I think instead I’m going to approach this with a different point of view. I’ll be the first to admit that there was maybe only two or three albums that really impressed me this year, so giving you a traditional ranking won’t really do the good albums justice, and will maybe give a bit too much credit to the albums that just made it onto the list. I don’t know if I’m becoming more cynical in my music critiques or that the year was a bit lackluster (for lack of a better, softer term), but compared to past years I have a hard time naming even five or ten albums that were truly exceptional.
It was nice to see Neurosis keep with their daunting streak of great albums, because by the time Honor Found in Decay rolled around I wasn’t sure what to expect. Kelly and Von Till provide one of the most pleasant yet intense performances this year, producing aural excellence in tracks like “Casting of the Ages”. Meanwhile, Katatonia’s Dead End Kings was a placid, darkly uplifting affair that caught me completely off guard in the wake of Night is the New Day, giving me hope for the future in a place I would have least expected it when I looked ahead to 2012 last January. Aside from being easily my most-listened to album of 2012, Dead End Kings was the definition of my expectations being flipped upside-down, a trend which continued as the year went on, and Ensiferum’s Unsung Heroes came and went with little more than an annoyed exhale of supreme disappointment.
Such was the trend with the lighter side of the genre, so to speak, with In Mourning climbing back from the lackluster Monolith with The Weight of Oceans, an album as immense as its title suggests. It is here that my most listened to song of the year is from, and “Colossus” is the essence of what is good about In Mourning, hearkening back to songs like “The Black Lodge” in both sheer enjoyment and replayability. Anyone who was sure that Wintersun’s Time I would even be released – let alone be good – would have been lying, so it was a bit of a double surprise to see the album actually come out, and have it actually be enjoyable. The synth-laden epic from Jari Maenpaa was an earful, but it was Wintersun through and through. Moving even further with this motif is the band that everyone loves to hate: Alcest. It’s easy to see why many scoff at Neige’s work – I was one of these people when Alcest’s debut came out – but he is beginning to focus into the whole amalgamation that is shoegaze/black metal (or “blackgaze” if you really want to be one of those guys who makes up genre tags). Les voyages de l’âme was undoubtedly a very strong album; perhaps it wasn’t up to the standards set by Écailles de Lune, but then again Écailles didn’t have an equal to “Autre Temps”, a track that is the very definition of Alcest’s whimsical and airy sound – not to mention the best track Neige has ever recorded.
Not all in 2012 was flowing and bright, though. Aldebaran debuted on none other than Profound Lore Records with their second LP Embracing the Lightless Depths, an album that was my favorite doom release of the year, continuing where Dwellers in Twilight last left us, but this time unleashing two 25+ minute leviathans sandwiched between three instrumentals. Keeping with the crushing and churning, Evoken and the venerable Worship put out damn fine records as well, and despite the noisy production of Evoken’s Atra Mors and the thought of Worship releasing another full length without Max, both ended up being quite pleasing and keeping with tradition. Doom metal has had quite a few great albums over the past few years, and in 2012 things continue as they have been with these three acts pulling their own weight and then some. The year also brought about the debut release of British death/doom act Abyssal, who dropped Denouement seemingly out of nowhere to make waves in the scene with the quality, breadth, and ferocity of their very first release. 2012 is supposed to be the year of the apocalypse, so why not welcome it with Abyssal’s take on the destruction and decay of society?
Spain’s Ataraxy (not to be confused with Ataraxie) brought the old-school into 2012, as the stench from their debut LP Revelations of the Ethereal was distinctly of that OSDM variety, from the swirling riffs to the outlandish album art, they brought their A-game and provided one of the most enjoyable old school death metal albums of the year. Not to be overlooked, either, was Hooded Menace, the promising Finnish band who has more riffs than Finland has lakes – I’ll just leave it there. While Effigies of Evil was not as fantastic as the singles would have indicated, it is a testament to the fact that Finnish
death metal is still present, despite a relative lack of releases being exported from the land of Nokia. Death/black metal saw two of its titans come together in my favorite split LP of the year, with Adversarial and Antediluvian bringing overflowing ferocity and ceaseless chaos to the party, with each trying to beat the other into submission by way of riff and drum. Adversarial came out victorious, if I had to call a winner, with the knockout blow being “Spiraling Towards the Ultimate End”.
Black metal was not without merit this year, and some of that merit came from surprising places. Of all the bands in the black metal realm, I was not expecting one of the better black metal albums to come from Anaal Nathrakh. Vanitas was leaps and bounds, head and shoulders – a shitload better than Passion, giving a band in cardiac arrest a second chance at life. The combination of insane vocals and ripping drums with harmonious riffs and vocal melodies was something hinted at on In The Constellation… but never fully explored, until now. Coming off their previous LP which was limited to 150 copies on tape, it was a bit weird to see Ash Borer release an album on Profound Lore, and it was even more eerie to hear a crisp production applied to their otherwise murky, swirling mess of black metal riffs and plucking dissonance. Cold of Ages was a keeper though, with that professional production showing a heaviness never before revealed on such obvious levels. Drudkh recovered from Handful of Stars with their well-received Eternal Turn of the Wheel, proving that yes, indeed, life does go on. Axis of Light gave us a raw black metal fill with their first EP By the Hands of Consuming Fire, and Torture Chain continued a discography of excellent demos with the abstract Time Is but a Doorway to the Incinerator, giving black metal a healthy underground offering this year.
Some of my favorite material from 2012 came out of the demo/EP field, and it is no wonder given the kind of talent that was releasing this kind of material. Deathspell Omega brought us to the desert with Drought, compiling Paracletus-style DsO riffing and drumming in an atmosphere quite unique to this specific release. Not surprisingly, Deathspell Omega impress, and set the stage for their next LP in an awesome way. Inverloch, the reincarnation of diSEMBOWELMENT, gave us our fill of death/doom with Dusk|Subside, which may not have been as legendary as their parent act, but still satisfied the cravings of any death/doom fan who was looking for a more pure take on the genre, not the melodic take bands like Daylight Dies (who released A Frail Becoming this year as well) pursue. Of course, it would be hard not to mention Agalloch’s Faustian Echoes, a release that I was so anxious to hear if only to determine whether or not they had continued on the path of mediocrity displayed on Marrow of the Spirit. Thankfully, they had not, but instead delved further into black metal than anything they have ever done before, and with excellent result as the atmosphere made Goethe’s tale come alive. Even Dark Tranquillity made a bit of a recovery with Zero Distance, proving that they can still riff pretty hard in tracks like “Out of Gravity” – a nice contrast to the keyboard-heavy We Are The Void.
So, 2012 was a year of wrong assumptions, it seems. It was a busy year outside of the music world for me, so I’m sure there were some excellent death metal splits or black metal demos that I missed, but I’m content really. It wasn’t the best year in the books, but it was still an enjoyable one. I’d rather have the time and space to talk about a multitude of good/great releases than spend four pages hyping one or two superb releases. It puts things into perspective, that all that is worth listening to isn’t necessarily the cream of the crop, and that there can be diamonds within the rough. Hell, there are times this year when I’ve heard an album with one or two fantastic tracks stuck amongst quite a few duds, but the fact that I sat through the entire thing to find those two gems was reward enough. Being a music critic isn’t about liking and disliking albums, it is about experiencing all albums – good and bad. I’ve done that in 2012, and I feel as if the year can conclude without hype but also without frustration (despite the fact that I’ve experienced both throughout this year) , and 2013 can roll along to start the whole thing anew.