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Alright, friends – things are starting to get a bit heavy around here as we continue counting down the year’s best metal albums.  Spinal Tapdance presents here, for your viewing (dis)pleasure, the second of three installments ticking off the 30 best records from across the vast universe of heavy metal.  Let us know where we’ve nailed it, and where we’ve completely fucked up and made you embarrassed to have ever even considered directing your web browser to this sad, shabby piece of disagreeable trash we call a blog.
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20.  StarGazer, A Great Work Of Ages/A Work Of Great Ages

In my review of StarGazer‘s sophomore album, I called A Great Work Of Ages “a seething, lurching, yet surprisingly sprightly beast of a musical journey that assaults the unsuspecting passer-by with dauntingly technical instrumentation that nevertheless resolves into a measured, artfully-meted out accounting of chaos.”  Thing is, that mouthful of overwrought prose makes this album sound like a chore to listen to, which it most definitely (and defiantly) is not.  There’s plenty of off-kilter structure and inventive musicianship to admire and analyze throughout this progressive/technical death metal head-trip, but first and foremost, this is an album to put on, sit back, and just enjoy.  You won’t be singing any choruses or humming along to a repeated bridge, but you will be amazed at the ability of these Aussies to play the shit out of their instruments without overwhelming the listener in a blitzkrieg of claustrophobic production and impenetrable gestures.

19.  Intronaut, Valley Of Smoke

Something about Intronaut had never quite jived with me until this album, but boy does Valley Of Smoke set me right and kick me in my ass for doubting it.  These songs are fluid compositions with impressive range, and despite the increasing prominence of clean vocals and smoothed-out texture, this ain’t no soft-ball half-metal nonsense.  It’s all about finding the right groove and sucking you down into its beguiling depths, down into that great colorful panorama of the album’s cover – whether you are the skeleton, or the iguana, or the loftily-soaring eagles is your own concern.  Valley Of Smoke injects jazz-fusion into rumbly post-metal’s environs, and comes out the other side smelling of roses and roses and roses.

18.  Kvelertak, Kvelertak

Kvelertak’s self-titled debut album is the 2010 equivalent of last year’s phenomenal Darkness Come Alive by Doomriders.  Meaning, this is a gnarly collision of all sorts of ass-kicking, party-inducing music.  You can quibble all you like about whether it’s punk, hardcore, black metal, garage rock, and anything else, but the undeniable fact is that this is just music for an all-around good time.  I simply cannot fathom the ridiculous backlash against this band, because every time I throw on this album, I just want to drink some beers and jump around in a forest on a pogo stick.  I mean, come ON, doesn’t that sound fucking awesome?  Sure, the dudes have got a jokey take on Scandinavian mythology, but honestly, if you’re sitting in a library poring over your Eddas and Kalevalas and waxing poetic about Yggdrasil while frowning at the hooligans making noise in the corridor…  Well, friend, maybe it’s time to hand in your heavy metal ID card.

17.  Nechochwen, Azimuths To The Otherworld

This Nechochwen album was one of the most pleasant surprises I had all year.  Apparently they’ve got one other album besides this one which leans more toward the neo-folk side of things, but Azimuths to the Otherworld, apart from having one of the coolest album titles of the year, strikes a satisfying balance between folky acoustic bits and rich, driving black metal.  The fact that the band pays tribute to the beliefs and histories of American Indians is a refreshing aesthetic, and makes for some different types musical influence showing themselves throughout the album, much like on Tomahawk’s Anonymous album.  The out-and-out metal sections are still relatively few and far between, but the album is all about mood, and the insistent drumming and beautiful acoustic guitar work throughout sustains a very contemplative atmosphere.  Don’t miss out on this one.

16.  Triptykon, Eparistera Daimones

So intense has been the drama surrounding Celtic Frost’s demise, and rebirth, and subsequent re-burial, that one could be forgiven for worrying that the next project of these metal giants would perish under the weight of self-doubt and ridiculous expectations.  But have no fear, friends, for Eparistera Daimones is more than ample proof that Tom G. Warrior is one of heavy metal’s original, and still greatest, alchemists, transmuting sturdy, solid riffs into tortured tales of harrowing emotional journeys.  Just as was Celtic Frost’s Monotheist, Triptykon’s debut is a dark, exhausting listen, but one from which the listener emerges feeling revitalized, having survived the trial by fire of some of the bleakest, most Gothic moments the Warrior has yet thrown her way.

15.  Atlantean Kodex, The Golden Bough

Everything about this album screams ‘epic’.  Perhaps the best thing about Atlantean Kodex’s long-awaited debut album is that one can approach it from a wide range of starting points: from the epic trad metal of Manowar, from the triumphant Viking era of Bathory, from the pagan/black wizardry of Primordial, or from the true doom of Reverend Bizarre.  Take any of these avenues of approach, and you’ll find The Golden Bough waiting for you, patient, resolute, and steadfast.  These are songs in no hurry to get you anywhere other than right in the midst of their stately riffing and clear-voiced hymns to the myths from which we all spring.

14.  Unearthly Trance, V

Unearthly Trance’s fifth album (V, get it?) is another of those that took its time with me.  Far less direct than the band’s previous two (and decidedly more Frost-y) albums, V is an all-encompassing listen that honestly sounds like a planet being slowly torn apart by silent electric storms.  Sounds pretty great, right?  The dual vocal attack of longtime bandleader Ryan Lipynsky and drummer Darren Verni drags bile up from the depths of a city’s fetid sewer system, while riffs lumber in and decay just as soon as they’ve announced themselves.  A much more abstract style of nihilistic doom, which actually gels rather neatly with the occult slant of the lyrics.  Take your time with this album, or it will take its time devouring you.  Or will do so either way.  Whatever; doom on.

13.  Slough Feg, The Animal Spirits

If I had the luxury of titling this album myself, I probably would have called it “So Many Smiles.”  Because, honestly, it’s hard to imagine any fan of classic heavy metal not hearing this album and getting a giant, daffy grin plastered all over her face.  I don’t mean to say that this album is lightweight and unserious, but it knows how to be serious without taking itself seriously, if that makes any sense.  If that doesn’t make sense, well, there’s a whole fistful of songs here to make all the sense that my stupid words can’t: “The 95 Thesis,” “Kon-Tiki,” “Free Market Barbarian,” “Ask the Casket” – these are honestly some of the best, most memorable, and freshest sounding heavy metal songs I’ve come across in ages.  So, seriously, whatchu waiting for?  Get your Slough Feg on, and get your smiles on.  Sooooooo many smiles.

12.  The Meads Of Asphodel, The Murder Of Jesus The Jew

Okay, now here’s a band that probably takes itself too seriously.  Sorry, dudes, but it’s the truth.  Have you read Metatron’s 60,000-word codex?  Have I?  I think we all know the answer to both those questions, friends.  Thing is, no matter how seriously these English blokes take the lyrical subject matter of this concept album which purports to set the historical record straight, mercifully their music is every bit as chaotic and mind-exploding as ever.  Perhaps more so, if it comes down to it.  There’s a little bit of everything thrown in here, though the main strands remain a peculiarly English-smelling bit of crusty punkiness, Hawkwind psych and Floydian prog, plus symphonic black metal with a capital Sigh.  Sounds like a mess, innit?  Well, it works.  At times beautifully.  If you ain’t know the Meads, you ain’t know shit about freak-folk’s distant cousin in medieval black metal played by dudes in chainmail.

11.  Deathspell Omega, Paracletus


Speaking of dudes taking themselves too seriously…  Well, it actually doesn’t bother me with Deathspell Omega.  Completing a supposed trilogy of Lord knows what esoteric and orthodox black metal themes, all that’s ever mattered about this band, to this listener, is the music.  And on that score, I’m chuffed as all shit to report that Paracletus may even best Fas…, if not quite ascending to the madness-provoking heights of DsO’s breakthrough album, Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice.    Paracletus whittles the excesses of previous albums down to a concise 40-ish minutes, over the course of which the listener is plunged into a disorienting maelstorm of churning riffage and refracted shards of black prismatic light.  The guitars are clean and razor-sharp, but what really stood out to me in this album is the great diversity of vocal styles by whoever the fuck in this band does vocals.  There’s the traditional black groan/shriek, but also some clean vocals tossed in, as well as some more gut-level bellowing.  Oof.  Great, powerful, genre-damning stuff.  Stare into their abyss, ye who dare.

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I can hear you all out there, licking your chops for the third and final installment of Spinal Tapdance’s extravagant end of 2010 recitations.  Be patient, gentlefolk, and while you’re at it, how am I doing so far?  Anything egregiously left off the list so far?  Any predictions for the top ten?  Anyone out there find their way to this site, thinking it was some snarky alternative-style tapdancing academy, and now becoming more and more enraged at the incessant talk of things like “riffs” and “metal” and “things and people being taken not enough or too seriously”?  I can hear you too, you shiny, clackety-shoed mouthbreathers.

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A few random bits about the Meads Of Asphodel, that utterly bizarre (and unmistakably British) metal beast (and blessed, it ought to be stressed, with one of the most pleasant names in years).

Random bit the first (1st):

Mel Gibson, eat your heart out

Their new album, The Murder of Jesus the Jew, is really quite good.  I say this not out of surprise, because I’ve been a fairly staunch supporter of the Meads since their debut album.  The only truly unforgivable offense thus far has been the abominably ill-conceived cover of Louis Armstrong’s classic tune “What a Wonderful World,” back on 2006’s (? – too lazy to look up at the moment) Damascus Steel.  Complete rubbish, friends – avoid at all costs.  To the extent that you, fair reader, are able to take any of this music seriously, this new album (building off of the previous major-bummer-fest LP) is a far more serious affair.

More serious, at least, when compared with the band’s first two albums, the acoustic jam session The Mill Hill Sessions, the Christmas song they did for Terrorizer magazine, the punk covers (+ Kinks cover!?) on their side of this year’s split with Old Corpse Road, etc., etc.  Anyway, while I do find this new album a delectable platter of strangeness – some sideways-fucked brew of Hawkwind psych rock, Floydian prog, clatterly British crust-punk, and Sigh-meets-Cradle-Of-Filth black metal sheen (Hawkwind and Sigh, at least, are clearly no mistake, if you’ve followed the band’s parade of guest musicians) – I can’t help but feel like a bit of the fun has been drained.

Make no mistake, a Meads Of Asphodel album still packs more grin-inducing moments than most anything else out there.  Nevertheless, I kind of miss the carnival/Casio-esque keys of the early demos, the completely unwarranted and random jaunts into strangely trance-y drum ‘n bass.  Despite remaining firmly planted in the off-kilter and avant-garde, the Dudes of Asphodel are playing things a little too straight for my taste.

And as a final addendum to this random bit (the first), a message to the band: Metatron, please, for the love of all that is holy and chain mail, quit it with the ridiculous spoken word bits.  I know it’s kind of like “your thing,” but the passages you choose to gargle out cleanly on this album are the most cringe-inducing faux-Dante’s-Inferno-punishments and they just bum me out.  For real.
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Random bit the second (2nd):

The band has posted a 35-minute documentary film at their website, the beguilingly simple www.themeadsofasphodel.com.  It comes in three parts, the first of which I will post here:

I post this, however, having only watched the first seven minutes of it, after which I felt compelled to do almost anything else.  It’s not that this is bad, necessarily, but that I have an exceedingly low tolerance for this kind of nostalgic “Ah, let’s cast a long gaze over the history of the band and have a bunch of ugly metal blokes wax fondly about things that happened, I don’t know, eight years ago.”  The primary argument in favor of this “in-depth” (honest, I’m not trying to be an asshole here, but the whole thing seems a bit stilted, innit?) documentary is that, for years, the Meads were intentionally shrouded in mystery, what with the stage names and the chain mail and the lack of widespread performances.  So, I don’t really need to see this.  And maybe it’s not for me.  Maybe I’m just some jaded asshole on the internet, and maybe this film was made for Me when I was eight years younger.  Whatever.  Watch it, or don’t.  See if I care.
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Random bit the third (3rd, and final):

In a horrendously obnoxious heavy metal songwriting trick that is not the exclusive province of the Meads, but which I have noticed most recently on the new album and which never fails to drive me totally fucking bonkers up the wall, is the doubling of a line of lyrics in a sort of call-and-response fashion.  Or, rather, what specifically drives me batshit crazy is not a call-and-RESPONSE (indicating a variation), but rather a call-and-REPEAT.  It’s.  So.  Fucking.  Stupid.

Anyway, the Meads do it on the new album’s third track, “Apocalypse of Lazarus,” with Metatron calling out poetic gems like “The dragon and beast cast into Hell” or “Death into the valley of Jeheshophat,” which are then echoed by, I dunno, some other dude caterwauling in the background.  Drives me fucking nuts.  If you’re thinking, “Yeah, that bugs me too, but where I have I heard – and hated – this technique before?” then I submit for your perusal and (presumably) displeasure, the one (and only) true misstep on Megadeth’s nevertheless untouchable masterpiece (fuck you) Rust In Peace:

“Five Magics” is otherwise a fantastic song, but starting around the 4:00 minute mark is where they bust into that dumb-ass call-and-repeat business (“He who lives by the sword…,” etc.).  So, the moral is: If you’re out there, writing in a band, and you’re thinking, “Wow, what a boss way to fill out a song,” I just…  I just pray for the future of humanity.  Don’t do this.  Don’t be That Guy.
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The Murder Of Jesus The Jew is out now on Candlelight Records, and, I swear, despite my cantankerous ranting, I like it quite a bit.

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I haven’t yet figured out if there’s a good way to avoid this, but I’m quite certain that I’m far from the only one out there who follows a whole mess of music rather closely, and begins to feel more than a little overwhelmed.  Of course I can’t really speak for the faceless masses of internet blips and pixels, but I imagine that many of you have your own little accounting systems, or organizational schemes for dealing with new music.

Maybe you anticipate upcoming releases by keeping little lists of noteworthy titles on the horizon; or by following a blog or a dozen that tend to report news from the genres you follow; or maybe you download hundreds of gigabytes of music from all the errant spaces of the world and then feel slowly gnawed away by guilt, not because of any qualms over copyright infringement or any such square nonsense, but because there’s just so much of it, and you’ll never ever listen to it all, and so eventually it shuttles its way between a download folder and that much-used twin, the recycle bin; or, better yet, maybe you’re not completely neurotic like I am, and you just listen to some music that you like and have already stopped reading this shiftless bourgeois tripe.  Good for you.

All of this, really, is just by way of prelude to saying that, sometimes it’s liberating to just sit down in front of the ol’ music collection (or ol’ computer, really) and listen to whatever seems to be calling out to you; no real agenda, no obligation, just, y’know, whatever feels right.  Weird, isn’t it, that as a listening culture we (or at least some of ‘we’) have found ourselves in such a predicament?  I guess, actually, it’s probably not that different from finding yourself at the grocery store, trying to pick out a box of cereal but oh, what’s that, decision-making-part-of-my-brain?, I can’t quite hear you over the sound of 17,000 brands of dried crunchy things with sugar.

The petty tyranny of choice meets an over-saturated consumer culture.

Playing the role of desktop Napoleon today, then, here is what I’ve been putting in my ear holes…ere I saw Elba:

Ghost, Snuffbox Immanence

This Japanese folk/rock/psych group can kick out some pretty hot jams, but unlike their countrymen in the Acid Mothers Temple & Melting Whatever Freak-Outs, I actually prefer it when they stick to the mellower side of the rock and roll continuum.  Which they do, on this release, with consummate ease.  Check out Hypnotic Underworld and In Stormy Nights for even better distillations of this magic, which seems more easily wrought over a longer running-time.

Keep of Kalessin, Reptilian

Finally gave this record the first listen today.  Although, to be fair, I only bought my copy last week, meaning I’ve been experiencing far less of the aforementioned gnawing guilt as with, say, the new Nightbringer which I’ve yet to play, or the new Watain, which I’ve only run through once (though, in my defense, goddamn is that thing loooong).  Anyway, something about their last one, Kolossus, never quite sat entirely right with me.  Armada was a massive beast of a record, and Kolossus‘ main fault, I think, is that it sounded more or less like Armada Redux; so, while it was a reasonably satisfying blast of ultra-classy, shined-up melodic black(-ish) metal, it didn’t have any real standout tracks like “The Black Uncharted” or “Crown of the Kings” from Armada.  First listen to this dragon-obsessed follow-up, then, is an improvement on that front, inasmuch as there is definitely a marked change from both Armada and Kolossus; yet to be determined, however, is whether this is a good or bad change.  In my only casual perusals of the metallic corners of the internet, I have seen nothing but scorn heaped upon early single (and Eurovision entry!) “The Dragontower,” and while that track’s first impression was definitely much more that of a pop song grafted onto a web of heavy metal signifiers, honestly folks, it wasn’t that bad, and it’s not as though Keep Of Kalessin have been, until now, your uncompromising bulwark of everything that is true and kvlt in metal.  In other words, ‘Norsk Arisk Black Metal’ they ain’t.

Pink Floyd, Meddle

Truth be told, I think I’ll always prefer Wish You Were Here, even though I know for many Meddle is the connoisseur’s Floyd album.  Granted, the second side of Meddle, taken up entirely by “Echoes,” completely owns early 1970s progressive rock, and the album’s first track has that great spooky, driving momentum that I could listen to all day.  “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” still edges out “Echoes” by a hair, though, for long-winded, multi-part prog odyssies, and the rest of the more straight-ahead rock songs on Wish You Were Here are a bit more memorable (hello, “Welcome to the Machine”) than those on Meddle (although the jaunty “San Tropez” is fun).

I think the reason I had it in my head to listen to Meddle today was because I had been listening to the new Nachtmystium album, which, I know, I know, is probably coming one album too late for getting in on the psych/freak-y Nachtmystium; seems like for this second volume (which is excellent, in case my snark is confusing the issue), they ought to have called it Black Unknown Pleasures or some such thing, but I digress.

Clutch, Blast Tyrant

Most anything Clutch does is worth your time, but their latter-day records are where I spend most of my time.  Sure, the self-titled album and Pure Rock Fury are pretty much all class, but Blast Tyrant, Robot Hive/Exodus, Beale St, and Strange Cousins are the friggin’ shit.  This album, especially, is just a wonderful combination of seriously muscular blues, some of Neil Fallon’s most bad-ass stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and a bunch of completely fucking righteous RIFFS.

On the subject of those lyrics, see:

“Genesis and Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers /
Gideon is knocking in your hotel while you slumber”

OR, in honor of Dio’s recent passing:

“Holy diver, where you at?
There’s a woman on the hill in a wide-brimmed hat /
With a shotgun, .44 /
And a big bloodhound in the back of a jacked-up Ford”

I mean, GODDAMN if that isn’t some FUNK.

Negura Bunget, Om

As long as we’re cataloging my recent music-related shames, I ought to let it out that despite receiving my copy in the mail a far while back, I still haven’t listened to the new post-breakup Negura Bunget album (the title of which, since I am too lazy to pull up the accurate spelling, is something approximating Virstele Pamintului; or anyway, that’s my closest guess).

I’ve pretty much tried to avoid following any of the acrimony surrounding the split of the core members, with some of them (maybe only one?) continuing on with the name, and others forming a new group, whose similarly Romanian name also escapes me at the moment.  Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like this ever reached the sublimely ridiculous heights (or lows, depending on your perspective) of the Gorgoroth Affair, so when I do get around to listening to the new one, I’m hoping to do so without much contextual baggage.

Still, whenever I do listen to it, and as I’m sure everyone else and their grandmother has noted, it’s going to have some mighty big shoes to fill.  Om is an absolute monster of a record: expertly paced and sequenced, loud and brash when it needs to be, meditative and melodic whenever it wants to be.  I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but something about listening to Om seems incredibly intuitive, like it doesn’t require a long apprenticeship in the dungeons of heavy metal lore to understand this music on a visceral level.

Looking over this list, I was also struck by just how masculine-dominated most of these rock genres are.  Of course, to really do that topic justice would require several tortuous essays and much hand-wringing, so instead I just reminded myself that I was also listening to Arch Enemy’s Wages of Sin (their first record to feature current growler Angela Gossow) earlier today, and that I’ve got a recently-acquired copy of Gillian Welch’s Hell Among the Yearlings in the docket.

But ah, there’s that damnable docket again, and it’s brought its friends, Guilt and Obligation…

Still, hopefully up soon:
– Reviews of the Pyramids & Nadja collaboration and Devin Townsend’s Physicist
A rant about stoner metal, and all its spurious accusations against my listening faculties
– A brief essay on the furniture department of Macy’s

Cheers, &c.,
d

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