Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011: 5-1

5. Altar of Plagues, Mammal

Pitchfork's Grayson Currin couldn't have hit the nail much more on the head when he wrote that "Altar of Plagues suggest a Wolves in the Throne Room cousin more focused on frailty and struggle than majesty and grandeur." The atmosphere the Irish quartet creates on Mammal is just as massive as that of their Cascadian brethren, but instead of ancient oaks looming like gods over a pastoral landscape, their trees are all dead, casualties of humankind's obsession with conquest. The post-apocalyptic world isn't celebrated here; it's mourned. Each of the four long songs on Mammal is a funerary march, and the polarizing "When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean" includes a field recording of a Gaelic keening ritual – the sound of a woman wailing into the sky in bereavement. Beowulf's funeral pyre is called to mind, where a Geat woman keens over the burning corpse of her nation's mythic hero. Our poet's response is simply "Heaven swallowed the smoke." Altar of Plagues embraces this uncaring natural order, even while placing the blame on human shoulders ("We create this death, we create this entity"). They swallow the smoke without reflecting any of it back as light. Monolithic riffs, pained vocals, and a dark, filthy production job help the band undermine the positive black metal vibes emanating from American shores. The darkest album of the year is also one of its best.

Best Tracks: "Neptune Is Dead," "Feather and Bone," "All Life Converges to Some Centre"
Best Moment: The riff at 8:15 in "Neptune Is Dead." Ho-ly fuck.

4. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

"It’s a little ironic that the PJ Harvey record with the mellowest instrumentation is also the darkest one. These 12 harrowing tales of World War I lyrically recall the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and in what may be her best performance ever, Harvey’s clarion vocals soar above the mix like an artillery shell over no-man’s-land." (Originally printed in WEEKEND, Dec. 7, 2011)

Best Songs: "Written on the Forehead," "The Glorious Land," "All & Everyone"
Best Moment: The disruptive battlefield fanfare at 0:19 in "The Glorious Land" that does to the song's beat what war does to life.

3. Hammers of Misfortune, 17th Street

No one was sadder than me when Ludicra, the excellent USBM band behind my favorite album of 2010, The Tenant, broke up earlier this year. Had I known that the next album John Cobbett had up his sleeve was 17th Street, I wouldn't have shed a tear. This is simply the best traditional heavy metal album of the last decade. Just as he did on The Tenant, Cobbett has successfully channeled a whole slew of 99-percenter problems into the kind of productive frustration that makes for great metal. By combining the prog-rock elements only semi-successfully integrated into 2008's Fields/Church of Broken Glass with rollicking, Slough Feg-infused metal guitar, the San Francisco natives forge something that feels, if not altogether unique, wonderfully inspired and – most importantly – more fun than almost anything else to come out all year. There's a shortage of modern metal that causes listeners to throw the horns without a hint of irony, but Hammers of Misfortune stands at the forefront of the small movement.

Best Tracks: "The Grain," "Summer Tears," "Going Somewhere"
Best Moment: The emotive twin guitar leads that take over for the piano at 0:14 in "Summer Tears."

2. Wolves in the Throne Room, Celestial Lineage

2011 may go down as the Year Black Metal Broke, and Washington's Wolves in the Throne Room has as much to do with that as anyone. Celestial Lineage, the band's fourth and best full-length album, was the first black metal album to earn the Best New Music tag on Pitchfork, and the rarely metal-enthused A.V. Club gave it an unprecedented "A" rating. Critics rightly praised its expansiveness, its unparalleled ability to create an atmosphere and its potential to bring neophytes into black metal's fold. What was missing from the narrative of its importance was how incredibly good the damn thing is, and what it means within the context of an already impressive career. Wolves in the Throne Room's Weaver brothers have been toiling in relative obscurity since a little-heard 2004 demo, and Lineage is a culmination of all they've worked toward rather than a sudden flash of greatness coming out of a void. This album is the band's best because they pull out all the stops, choosing to not only focus on hypnotic riffs (Black Cascade), progressive song structures (Diadem of 12 Stars) or atmospheric flair (Two Hunters) but all three at once. What could have come off as ambition overcoming ability turned out to be the best black metal album of the year, not to mention – Liturgy be damned – its most important.

Best Tracks: "Thuja Magus Imperium," "Astral Blood," "Woodland Cathedral"
Best Moment: The emotive groundswell of lead guitar at 5:05 in "Thuja Magus Imperium" that slips back to the ether from whence it came almost as quickly as it erupts.

1. Fucked Up, David Comes to Life

"In a genre as ostensibly bent on upsetting the system as punk rock, the most subversive act of all is revolting against punk itself. Toronto’s Fucked Up did just that with the brilliant rock opera David Comes to Life, which sees the band’s knacks for wall-of-guitars melody and abrasive D.C. hardcore colliding more effectively than ever." (Originally printed in WEEKEND, Dec. 7, 2011)

Best Tracks:
"The Other Shoe," "Remember My Name," "Serve Me Right"
Best Moment: Seriously, dude? All of them. Read my post about how this is my favorite album of all time if you don't believe me.

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