2009: The Year in Metal
by Tyler Munro
February 4th 2010 | 82 Comments
The last year in metal was largely predicated on consistency. By and large there were no grandstanding revolutions that took place within the genre. We had progression, sure, and we had gimmicks (which we'll touch on later), but metal as it was stood pat for much of the year. This is a good thing. As we've seen throughout the past decade, new trends and 'supposed' revolutions within metal often cause little more than dissent and frustration. What began with nu-metal slowly evolved into what was initially pegged as “the new wave of American heavy metal” but slowly progressed into what dilettantes and posers would decry as “metalcore”. While I'd like to avoid petty genre bickering and a cumulative wrap on the decade, I'd like to enforce that the brand of metal, the oft-referred to “American” brand of “new” heavy metal, was not metalcore. It was just metal. I'm not sure how the 'core' label got attached to it, and I'm not sure I care enough to dig and find out. The point is that the trend was mostly a passable one in hindsight. It raised the stock of metal while in turn compromising its supposed integrity.
Continuing the idea of trends, metal then felt its bandwagon chug into what is now labeled, again without any real merit, as deathcore. Still at its over-saturated peak of breakdowns and animal noises, deathcore is but the latest in a never ending cavalcade of ill-advised buzzwords and soon-to-be-passé fads. Actually, the pitch may already be shifting (pun intended), as it looks as though we're slowly plummeting towards a world of crabcore; to the laymen, that's a sub-genre named after the perplexedly stupid dancing of scenesters Attack! Attack!, who can be seen squatting and lunging profusely in the video for their largely irritating song “Stick Stickly”. As stupid as a word Crabcore may be, the music is far worse. Imagine this: the swooping haircuts and feminine denim of ill-brandished, scenester-core blended in with underdeveloped, misplaced techno loops lifted almost directly from the Fruity Loops trial edition sample library. Here's hoping it never catches on.
All in all, this is a largely circular way of saying that orthodoxy had a hand in making metal such a success in 2009. It was a year whose successes fell, for the most, under a blanket of consistency and convention. Again, this is a good thing. The newest “trend” in metal, if you can call it that, is a revitalization of “old school” death metal. More specifically, young bands are growing out their swoops and trying to figure out whether they're going to bite Immolation, Incantation or Entombed. Either way, they're starting to leave synths and squeals out of it. A fad is a fad, but they aren't all evil.
Now onto the reason you clicked.
Surprises can be taken in more than one context. You can be surprised when a shitty band puts out a good album, or when a good band puts out a shitty one; in Mastodon's case, a once great band coming off of a shitty album that managed to put out a good one. Then there are more literal surprises: a new sound for an old band counts, but more specifically I’m referring to something you didn’t expect because you weren’t aware it existed. To relate back to an older feature, we can call it “Under the Radar”. We’re big on allusions here, especially when satellites are involved. The point is, sometimes it’s an easier way to look at what worked and what succeeded throughout an entire year, an entire genre, if you narrow the scope. And sometimes it’s more fun to talk about what most people aren’t, at the very least in the context and scheme of SputnikMusic itself. So with that being said, bear it in mind that it’s highly likely that you’ve heard of a lot of these albums or artists, but with that said, bear this in mind: we’re a surprisingly big community and just because you’ve heard it doesn’t mean the next five readers have. The point here is—and I really can’t reiterate this enough—to look at things that flew under the radar; not things that avoided it altogether.
An easy way to start digging below the obvious is to look at just what the obvious consists of. Like I hinted at above, a band like Mastodon was a surprise last year because they went from Blood Mountain, an atrocious mess of an album, to Crack the Skye, which while not at the level of Remission or Leviathan, was actually pretty good. It had some of the dankness of those records, but it unabashedly added in some of Blood Mountain's more melodic approaches without any of its overbearing pretence. From here, we can work our level of familiarity down a notch. I liked Blut Aus Nord's early work, Ultima Thulée in particular, but as their career continued they strayed further and further into left field—the irksome keyboards that hindered Ultima Thulée became more prominent and as a result, their sound got a hell of a lot dumber. It's with that trend that I approached Memoria Vetusta II - Dialogue With The Stars with cautious optimism. I'd heard plenty of “black metal of the year” chatter, but fans of the genre don't hesitate to praise overhyped trash like Mutiilation, so I wasn't sure. I am now--Memoria Vetusta II - Dialogue With The Stars is 2009s best black metal album. What stands out about it, other than the songs being really good, is the sense of distance the production creates between each instrument: the keyboards sound like they're being played on another plane than the guitars, but somehow it all rounds together into a tight, surprisingly straight-forward black metal project. Continuing the theme, Gorgoroth returned, sans Gaahl and thus without much controversy, with Quantos Possunt ad Satanitatem Trahunt (a mouthful...shame Gaahl isn't around to enjoy it!), their best in years, even though it does falter in its later parts due to some unnecessary, unwelcome “viking” parts. Finally we have Blut Aus Nord's only real competition for black metal's best of the year: Peste Noire returned from the mess that was Folkfuck Folie to release Ballade Cuntre Lo Anemi Francor and Cobalt jumped out of the shadows with Gin. Gin is worth talking about in greater detail.
When Gin came out, I had no idea it existed. I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but I'm sure the purest of the truest of black metal fans won't hesitate to tell me they'd had Eater of Birds years before Gin was even announced. That might be the case for some but most are probably saving face. I on the other hand have no problem admitting that I'd never heard the band, but it didn't take long for me to recognize the value in their music. Gin, aside from being a good album, stood out for using the structure of more methodical acts like Agalloch or Neurosis to explore their scathing sound. The fact that lyricist, vocalist and guitarist Phil McSorley is an acting United States soldier adds a level of authenticity not often seen in black metal. I'll leave it to you to indulge in the irony of that. Axis Powers also play a brand of “war” metal. They've no Sargeant on vocals, but they do their finest Bolt Thrower impersonation and for most that's good enough. Like Cobalt, they'd existed before Marching Towards Destruction but it's their first album I really took to. It was fast, kind of thrashy and at only 34 minutes, over with before I had the chance to care about them wearing their influences so blatantly on their proverbial sleeves.
Then there were surprises that were really only surprising if you're me. In the case of While Heaven Wept, I went into Vast Oceans Lachrymose expecting a doom metal album. I didn't get that (neither did the fans...more on them in a second). Instead, I got a pretty melodramatic but also pretty worthwhile “epic” or “traditional” metal album. The songs were long, kind of synthesized at times, with the word “cheeseball” wasting no time in springing into my thoughts, but in the end it was a great album. Fans of the band wasted no time complaining incessantly about the band's supposed departure from doom metal, something I can't understand given that having now heard their previous album Of Empires Forlorn, Vast Oceans Lachrymose follows suit in the most direct of fashions. It's more likely that they're peeved with the band's choice to enlist a new vocalist to sing Tom Phillips' moody, sorrowful lyrics, but since Rain Irving is a better vocalist (with a sillier name), the change doesn't matter much to me.
One of the biggest surprises of the year has to be the release of Nokturnal Mortum's Voice of Steel. For a while the album, initially expected to see a 2007 release, was given the unfortunate distinction of being folk metal's Chinese Democracy. Luckily it only took two extra years instead of 15 and it wasn't nauseatingly terrible. It's not the same band that broke out with Lunar Poetry, but very few bands (Bolt Thrower notwithstanding) rarely stay the same for 14 years. Instead of the keyboard heavy black metal sound they played throughout their first decade, Voice of Steel continues the band's departure into a more organic folk metal sound with marketed success. They may be a heavier version of Moonsorrow at this point, but Moonsorrow's pretty good so that's no slouch on anyone. Its release reminds me of last year's Ultimate Instinct, the third album from Japanese death metal outfit Intestine Baalism. Musically speaking there's little to no similarity, and even in terms of context they differ--I didn't really know Ultimate Instinct existed until it was out, but both albums came out of nowhere and did so just late enough to miss end of year lists. That's why they get mention here: shitty timing shouldn't hurt their cause.
There may be other successes worth mentioning for metal's 2009, but to be realistic, people are probably sick of hearing about Converge and the Red Chord and all the other bands we've been praising for months. Moreover, these are only a handful of albums in a calendar year that also saw Suffocation returning to form with Blood Oath and returns from hiatuses or silence with Burnt by the Sun, Absu, Coalesce and the Chasm shaking off their rust in as long as it takes the listener to put their headphones on. It also saw bands like Anaal Nathrakh and Municipal Waste continue their sound with adorned success. Heaven and Hell proved old dudes can still rock and Ulcerate put out the finest piece of Gorguts worship since Negativa.
The Not So Good
To start, I want to feed off of the academic notion that we're living in a 'post-ironic' age. What sounds like another pedantic buzz-word is something I came to put stock in after reading the A.V Club's justification of it—Don't Stop Believing. Journey's unavoidable, syphilitic-ally catchy smash hit was everywhere last year and it blew up with a straight face. We can blame the Sopranos all we want, but last year saw Glee knock it out of the park with a smile and Toronto's CityTV reigned in the new year with an off-broadway performance of it. Just another reason for being glad the 2009 is over. But there's real relevance to the idea of a post-ironic age to be found within the last year in metal. The easiest way to explain this is to talk about gimmickry. I'm not naive. I know metal has always been largely propelled by gimmicks. But Enuff Z'nuff. It comes back to the idea of keeping a straight face. We can say how far we've come from crimped hair and zebra striped leather pants but are the new novelties really much better?
Let's start by talking about Diablo Swing Orchestra. It isn't hugely important that Sing-Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious might have been the worst album I heard last year. What matters is that it was by far the most inane metal album of 2009. Their music is a gimmick and a terrible one at that. At this point, I'm not sure you can even call it metal. But we do, so I will.
The fact that Diablo Swing Orchestra exists doesn't bother me so much as the fact that people take them seriously. “A Rancid Romance” sounds like a System of a Down b-side with Thurl Ravenscroft and the fat chick from Cradle of Filth on vocals and as a whole the album is a mishmash of swing and stupidity; the Benny Hill theme with James "Munky" Shaffer on guitar. Their music is tasteless and gratuitous. If this is the next step post-Bungle, we might as well give up now. If this is “circus” metal, it's time to pack up those red noses and bearded ladies. Hell, let's take them the way of Old Yeller just to be safe. I'd be happy to volunteer.
[Don't] get me started on Alestorm.
I'd be happy to tell you why a self-proclaimed pirate metal band is just as stupid as it sounds, which, if you've heard them, is pretty fucking stupid. Like Diablo Swing Orchestra, it's the difference between having a gimmick and being one. You could, and should, call Running Wild 'pirate metal', but for what it's worth they were more realistically a speed metal band. Relatively orthodox speed metal at that. They sang about shanty-songs, they didn't play them. If Alestorm are so bent on faithfulness, I reckon it's time they got scurvy and went away. But don't get me started.
I guess I'm mostly taking umbrage with the fact that people no longer have to caricature metal to make fun of it. I consider myself a pretty dedicated fan of the genre and it's getting hard to defend it when bands like Diablo Swing Orchestra and Alestorm are spoon feeding its detractors. I'm not about to say they're alone in this mess but they're certainly the most explicit[ly bad] cases.
Gimmickry isn't entirely at fault for these two guilty parties as, in both cases, their terrible music stands above and beyond their terrible gimmicks. Still, it's worth expanding the distinction between having a gimmick and being one. In April, a bunch of Romanians who dress like vampires (Powerwolf) released what might be the funnest metal album of the year (Bible of the Beast), but you can't see plastic fangs through such densely layered power metal and you certainly won't hear blood guzzling in the midst of a gravelly voiced European singing about “resurrection by erection”. It's the difference between image and conception. Conversely, Ephel Duath opened the year with what some would have called a highly anticipated album, but just under 12 months later the only two things that I remember about Through My Dog's Eyes is that it was a terrible album told from the perspective of a dog. A fucking dog!
As trends come and go, gimmicks become distant memories we use to laugh at ourselves. Save yourselves the trouble of self-deprecation and avoid this tripe at all costs. Alestorm, Diablo Swing Orchestra...you should be ashamed.
|Great article Tyler.... where are the comments at?|
|Nice, but how was Blood Mountain 'a mess of an album?' I thought it was fantastic!|
And yes, where are all the comments?
|right here. great write up, coke.|
|there should be more staff write ups like this|
i don't even like metal and i enjoyed it
|What do you mean where are all the comments? It just went up today. The first one is from me when I was putting it up a few days ago. |
|Funny how it went a whole 5 days without a single comment besides his own.|
|Crysis, it wasn't actually published until today. |
|Ahhhhhh gotcha, thought it was originally put up on the 3rd.|
Props for Nokturnal Mortum btw
|We obviously disagree about Diablo Swing Orchestra lol. Great article though. |
|just noticed this. obviously have no interest in much of what you were talking about haha but very well-written and kept me engaged and pretty fascinated the whole time. pirate metal sounds absolutely ridiculous. nicely done|
|Alestorm is as ridiculous as they sound.|
|One of my friends loves Alestorm. Never heard them myself but it sounds incredibly dumb. |
|heres something under the radar: Goes Cube; another day has passed (LISTEN NOW), Along with The Catalyst; Swallow your teeth. Listen... do it!|
|Alestorm is fucking retarded.|
|I thought you would have mentioned Augury in the "good" section....|
|hi guys what is this "metal" i keep hearing so much about?|
plz fill me in thnx
|Lakers in 6 |
u heard it hear first =]
|I would have mentioned Augury only I didn't. |
|Props on alot of these. Especially Cobalt. That Fox interview of the vocalist was completely random yet...awesome.|
|It wasn't random at all. Red Eye always does stuff like that. |
|Excellent write-up. I haven't heard any of what you wrote about on the bad side - I guess I got lucky.|
|Well you may actually like Diablo Swing Orchestra Trey. They have female vocals lol. The Butcher's Ballroom is better than the one Tyler mentioned. |
|Didnt know what that is until now. Figures. |
|Diablo Swing Orchestra sound like Korn and the Brian Setzer Orchestra playing at the same time with a fat girl on vocals. |
|Great work coke.|
there is a typo with Gorgoroth
|How was Blood Mountain a mess?|
Good work, though.
|fixed the typo haz, thanks for pointing it out. |
|"the fat chick from Cradle of Filth"|
that made me giggle
|Fun read. Didn't realize there was another "pirate metal" band besides Swashbuckle.|
|I think Alestorm came out before them, actually. |
|Great read, but I still have a soft spot for Alestorm|
|alestorm makes me laugh because its so stupid. at least its consciously stupid though|
|Oh, had no clue. Doesn't sound like I'm missing anything though lol.|
|is it really that bad that i actually enjoyed DSO's album???, great read ty, and i agree on everything|
|I'm sorry to say it, and do not say something like this very often, but the author of this article is a complete and utter retard, degrading the Alestorm and Diablo Swing Orchestra records in such a fashion. I own both of these and do not regret their purchase for one moment, due largely to the brilliant MUSICIANSHIP on both records; a factor completely ignored in the article.|
|yeah you caught me, i'm mentally retarded. i dont know if i'm an utter retard, though; that's just mean.|
|oh and i didn't talk about their musicianship because you can be good at your instrument and still be worthless musically.|
also, this isn't a review. i'm not dedicating more time than i already did to terrible records.
|I love reading metal articles like this. Thank you for your continuing wisdom Tyler into all things great, and not so great about metal.|
|I very much enjoyed that introduction regarding the "New Wave of US Metal". Good article.|
|[quote]Blood Mountain, an atrocious mess of an album[/quote]I didn't know an atrocious mess of an album was worthy of a 3 Cocaine.|
|Shit, forgot quotes didn't work in this.|
|I didn't know an atrocious mess of an album was worthy of a 3 Cocaine.|
hahaha, glad Cobalt got a mention.
|tbh most of my ratings on here are completely random and meaningless. also, opinions can change over time. It's more like a 2.|
|Very excellent, I loved the wording. I found it thoroughly entertaining.|
|thanks for introducing me to diablo swing orchestra, they are really cool. |
|You're so right about Diablo Swing Orchestra... They're so terrible.|
|omg coke doesn't check his ratings 24/7|
|WTF blood mountain?... interesting read tho...|
|needs more breakdowns dad.|
|very good article, it could've actually been even longer, but it's great as it stands|
|It was longer but had no real end, so it would have had to be even LONGER so I made an editorial decision to just cut if off where I did. I was going to do 4 parts instead of 2 in 1|
|nicely done tyler. i know that this is targetted towards those who frequent the reviews site, but even still there are a few 2009 metal albums that are sorely missing a mention. though i guess you couldn't really include everything. regardless, a good read.|
|Yeah, there's a lot I wanted to mention. Came down to timeliness, really. It's over 2000 words and I had a lot more I wanted to talk about. I'm going to follow-up, probably when we get the staff blog going, with some more lists. I just wanted to avoid lists and focus more on trends or whatever for this one. I might do one on the revitalization of osdm if i have the time. |
|[quote]It had some of the [b]dankness[/b] of those records[/quote]|
I love you.
|"I might do one on the revitalization of osdm if i have the time." Please do. Good write up btw, very interesting read.|
|Nice article about Mastodon.|
|wow, it's like your opinions are completely random|
|Well written. Couldn't get through all of it...|
|good work. this was a nice read.|
|it's missing so much that there's no point in featuring this, I can't believe people respect your taste|
|yea missing a lot of the good stuff|
|yeah this is wholly representative of my taste this is everythingi liked in 2009|
|Cool stuff, didn't see this before. Surprised at not seeing some stuff here, especially with the amount of quality osdm released last year.|
|it was some of the more 'obvious' less obvious releases. was meant more as a capsule of part of the scene last year not comprehensive. I could have written one with every great release of the year but that probably would have been 8,000+ words and nobody would read that (including me). |
Wait for the staff blog for more regular updates on good shit i cant review.
|"there is so much missing that i can't even call you a human being om om omg, whar is [obscure black metal band]" -all of the comments|
|There isn't an 'overrated' section here so no, no Cormorant.|
|a little harsh on Alestorm man, easily one of the more fun bands out there, and its obvious they don't take themselves seriously and their songs are still pretty catchy. I know its not SUPER SERIOUS wanking music that dream theater fan-boys jizz too, but tell me you wouldnt have a blast playing in a band with an album called "captain morgans revenge" with songs like "wenches and mead"? |
|An interesting article, and fairly well written at that.|
I'm interested by the DSO hate, as both of their albums have been the most innovative avante-garde (and post-metal, especially on last year's offering, despite its shameful art) pieces I'd heard to that point. While it is perhaps not as technical as most metal warrants, it is important to remember that this *is* orchestral avante-garde/post-metal. The guitars were not the focus of "Sing-Along-Songs for the Delirious and the Damned". Nonetheless, the writing is developed and mature, and it is clear that there is a high level of musicianship in each instrument. They fuse countless genres seamlessly, from metal to opera to classical, bossa nova, folk, and even electronica. Impressive, and an enjoyable listen at that.
I agree on Alestorm to a degree. Their gimmickry, while fun, seems to have earned them a bit more respect than is owed, as their writing, technical skills, and vocals are not up to par with melodeath and thrash standards. The songs are a bit overlong and lack diversity as a result as well. Still, really fun, but do they deserve my money? Not yet. Do they deserve to represent metal? Definitely not.
|Great article, easy to read and funny but really professional|
|Fantastic article, Coke. Nice job on touching on Burnt by the Sun and Absu, too. Those two are some of the more underrated albums of the previous year.|