Countdown: 2011: Albums

During 2011 I bought an awful lot of albums. at least 75, in fact. And so many that some that might have made it in a normal year ended up being missed off this list. So there may well be a “what I overlooked” post at the end of the year, just to ensure that everything I wanted to mention at some point gets included somehow. Still, I’d rather have this problem than have too little to write about… Next week: Gigs of the year.

Countdown: 2011

29-Nov: Best Compilations
06-Dec: Best Tracks
14-Dec: Best Albums
20-Dec: Best Gigs

Playlists

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Countdown: Albums

2010: Edge of Dawn – Anything That Gets You Through The Night
2009: Alice In Chains – Black Gives Way To Blue
2008: Aesthetic Perfection – A Violent Emotion
2007: Battles – Mirrored
2006: In Strict Confidence – Exile Paradise
2005: Cyanotic – Transhuman
2004: Rotersand – Truth Is Fanatic


Ok, so it wasn’t quite at the same level as the EP that introduced the band was, but this was something of a different beast. A difficult, uncompromising howl from the suburbs of the capital, it was a complete concept that demanded listening to the whole album, rather than picking individual songs out. So true to this, despite liking certain individual songs a lot, I chose not to include any in last week’s list and instead concentrate on the album instead. So, here it is – an album that foresaw the mood of the nation as 2011 comes to a close, one where hope for the future for many is being steadily extinguished by our own Government and events elsewhere in the world. With that kind of future, is it any surprise that the music here is so ugly? Not for every taste, that is for sure, but if you have appreciated the darkest, heaviest corners of industrial and extreme metal in the past, this might be right up your street.


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Tom Waits
Bad As Me
Anti-

How on earth do I include Tom Waits in this list without resorting to all the cliches? Well, it’s gonna be tough. But really, this is business as usual for Tom Waits. So there are tales of the darker, bleaker side of life, tales of travel and wonder. And musically pretty much it is business as usual, too – so everything including seemingly the kitchen sink is included. Would we have it any other way? Absolutely not. I don’t think at this stage in his career, though, he is particularly interested in broadening his appeal – so you will either love this or hate it, I’d suspect.


GodMod’s new album was one of those I was really hoping would be good, and thankfully I wasn’t wrong. Previous album Let’s Go Dark was a dreadful mess, sounding like a spookykid parody of the band rather than the real thing. And following the cracking EP last year, this is much, much better. Rather than being “spooky”, this album is infused with a creepy malevolence, as any album about the paranormal should be. It is also stuffed with slamming dancefloor industrial, and some more thoughtful moments, too – showing that the pretenders to the “harsh industrial” crown that GodMod surely must hold still have some way to go to catch up.


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Komor Kommando
Oil, Steel & Rhythm
Alfa-Matrix

Sebastian Komor’s work, even in Icon Of Coil, has never exactly been a model of subtlety, and this album was more evidence that he works best when being entirely the opposite. A hard-hitting album of industrial-dance anthems, frankly, but with the emphasis on industrial – thundering beats, prominent samples and an entire arsenal of electronic weapons to unleash on unsuspecting dancefloors. The most forgettable moments, unsurprisingly, are those where he slows things down. Brash and fun, this might be a bit throwaway but I got few better albums to put in my DJ box this year.


Released right at the end of 2010, this was an early contender for this year’s list, and seeing as I’m still listening to the album now… Anyway, another of those artists who have been delving into the past for their influences, this is the sound of the early eighties, where post-punk started to bleed into gothic rock, but dragged kicking and screaming into the present. The sound is stark, there is unsettling droning, and the vocals are barely audible – whispers and screams lost in the dense, oppressive fog of the music. And it is all the better for it – the vocals are simply another instrument, what he is saying is entirely irrelevant. Perhaps there is more life to Goth than I thought – I was just looking in the wrong places.


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dEUS
Keep You Close
Play It Again Sam

I’ve followed dEUS for so long now that it has become expected that the band will change direction with each release – a restlessness has always been at the heart of the dEUS sound, and so it is the case here. After the spiky, post-punk moves of Vantage Point – an album I perhaps love rather more than the band, judging on how it was all-but ignored on their last tour – with this album the band moved towards more lush, grandiose songs. And while it took me a while to get into this album – as in the first airings live the songs sounded rather confused and messy – the additional work was worth it. And not for the first time, it is Tom Barman’s world-weary vocals that turn the songs from merely good to impressive, though. And when he really cuts loose, such as on album highlight Dark Sets In (with assistance from Greg Dulli), the raw emotion on display reminds me why I’ve loved this band for the best part of seventeen years.


The first of two albums coming only a few months apart, this was a striking return for ADR and once again, a step forward from the releases that have come before. Once again not entirely serious in tone, but entirely serious about not giving a fuck about anything such as pigeonholing, as it truly covers as many bases as possible. From the monstrous electro-breaks-industrial You Owe Me Blood to the glorious, bruised synthpop of Ghosts, this was eclectic in the very best way.


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Encephalon
The Transhuman Condition
Dependent

One of a few Canadian bands in the list this year, this is an impressive and long-awaited debut album. I say long-awaited – I first heard this band about six years ago, and an EP only arrived last year. Obviously sometimes it takes a while to perfect a sound, and I’ve no complaints with the results of the long gestation period. Taking cues from other bands in recent times – the raw power and melodic touches of Mindless Faith and Flesh Field in particular spring to mind – all of the songs are dense constructions, with the powerful vocals bolstered by clever treatments, rather than simply to mask a crap style. And then there is a good variety in the songs, too, with it not all being one-paced 4/4 beats, although the title track reminds that the band are perfectly capable of hitting their stride for the dancefloor, too.


A dark, unsettling album that – not for the only time with artists featured on this list – came to my attention by way of a striking cover, an utterly extraordinary cover of Burzum’s Black Spell of Destruction. The album isn’t quite that extreme, but it is imbued with a scratchy, unsettling atmosphere that brings to mind the idea of this being a voice of some ghostly, tortured spirit. Needless to say, this is not happy stuff. It is pitch-dark folk music, broadly, and that it comes from the sunshine state of California makes it all the more remarkable. As for a next step? Well, a new song (and video) posted this month suggests a slightly brighter sound, although the video is still very dark in tone indeed.


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Frank Turner
England Keep My Bones
Xtra Mile Recordings

Me and “folk rock” really don’t get on, in the main. But I’m happily taking exception for this album, which has been one of my most listened to albums of the year. Which might make you wonder why it isn’t higher in this list? I’m not sure either, actually – I think plainly that there were a lot of albums that I loved this year, so competition was stiff – and to be fair One Foot Before The Other is some way ahead of the rest of the album (yes, the best track of the year). The rest of the album, though, is actually covering subjects that might be seen as somewhat unfashionable. English history, the english countryside, a generally positive and heartfelt outlook. And these have resulted in an almost old-fashioned album at points, one where songcraft wins over all, and Frank Turner is clearly singing about his life, and his dreams, and his fears. The result is a striking album that appears to have pushed him to popular attention rather than being a well-kept secret to his fans. Stardom awaits, methinks.


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Aesthetic Perfection
All Beauty Destroyed
Out Of Line

Ok, so not quite at the ridiculous heights reached with the last album – and interestingly having seen a few other reviews of this, opinion is very much divided – but for me this is something of an album that consolidates Daniel Graves’ position at the top table in the industrial-electro scene. After some years of plugging away, where dancefloors mystifyingly seemed not to take to his dancefloor-friendly, melodic and above-all interesting songs, at some point things just clicked and his band suddenly became the big name to drop. I’ll say this is more a case of “about bloody time!”, and this album should widen his audience further. Similarly to the last album, this album has an overriding theme, this time seemingly about the uglier side of people that they normally prefer to hide. As a result, this is a much angrier album than before, bristling at injustices, lies and deception. Daniel Graves has proven a dab hand previously at using this anger to drive his songcraft, and so it proves here. But in the odd moment, this hits almost parodic levels, as in the torrent of rage that is Motherfucker – suggesting that when he controls this anger, he writes better songs, and there is more then evidence of the positives here.


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Tori Amos
Night of Hunters
Deutsche Grammophon

The phrase “return to form” is perhaps overused, as if there is an exacting level that every artist much reach with every album. The reality is rather more complex than that – particularly as every critic and fan will have their own views on what is good and what is not – but in Tori Amos’ case, I think it is generally agreed that in recent albums her material has not been as great as in her nineties heyday. Maybe it was the experimentation, the concepts, that helped to distract to focus from what made Tori great in the first place – which was, of course, her striking voice, her virtuoso piano playing, and the fearlessness to tackle difficult subjects. So when it was revealed that this album was being released on a classical label, each track took a classical piece as a base, and that her eleven-year-old daughter featured on a few songs, I can’t have been the only one worrying about how this was going to turn out. We need not have worried – the stripped-back nature of the songs in particular simply focusses the attention on the brilliance of the songcraft. Even a near-nine minute examination of imagined battles between different tree species is utterly enthralling. Need I say more?


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Amnistia
Egotrap
Scanner

One of the most tragically overlooked bands in the industrial scene in recent years, at least to my eyes, has been Amnistia. They term their music “bodywave”, and the term is probably very apt. And it is probably part of the problem for acceptance in these sadly all-too-fashion-conscious times. It would appear that a band making an EBM-coldwave hybrid just isn’t wanted by many any more. But those missing out are fools, frankly – slamming beats, intriguing rhythms, and actual songs – rather than psuedo “industrial rave” bullshit and lyrics about how evil they are. Mystifyingly the latter has continued to be the big thing – here’s hoping something blows it all away in 2012. In the meantime, if you do want industrial that works just as well on private listening as well as thundering out of the speakers in clubs, you really should check this out.


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Anna Calvi
Anna Calvi
Domino

One of my first purchases in 2011, this, and it has definitely been an album that I got into a whole lot more than my girlfriend. A new solo artist that has a very distinct style, described by some as a flamenco influence, but to me it is more a female take on the likes of Nick Cave, Jeff Buckley and a bit of PJ Harvey (in her more rock phase) – elements of all three appear throughout the album, but at no point does she sound anything other than a dominant, confident character. The songs are sensous, after-dark melodies, that suggest fun times behind closed doors – but crucially Anna Calvi keeps the details hidden, letting the imagination and the music suggest the rest. An album-long tease, and all the better for it.


The third album from Canadian noise-industrial artist iVardensphere marks Scott Fox’s step up into a wider potential audience, now he is signed to Metropolis. And happily, the change to a bigger label has not resulted in any compromises in the sound, as has happened in the past – instead it has resulted in an album with a wider set of influences, and a pretty varied mix of guests, too. But the core of the music is still what made iVardensphere so interesting in the first place – a hybrid of tribal industrial and more noisy, dancefloor-aimed industrial, and unlike some albums where the guests turn songs into their own image, here they are more intelligently used so that the original concept is not obscured. So the appearance of Jasyn from God Module on Acheron simply adds to the already forbidding atmospheres, while Matt Fanale aka Caustic adds a necessary vocal touch to a storming four minutes of solid industrial rhythms. And the intriguing meeting of minds that is Of Ancient Reprise (featuring tribal-industrial masters This Morn’ Omina) is, as might be expected, a natural fit – and the result is a titanic track. Hats off to Scott Fox, here – he hasn’t compromised an inch on his sound, and the result is an album perhaps stronger than both of his previous albums.


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St. Vincent
Strange Mercy
4AD

Yet another of those artists who totally passed me by until the breakthrough album, I fell in love with this album at first listen. Although it wasn’t a song from this album that got me interested in the first place – that honour goes to this unexpectedly savage cover of Kerosene. That was my first inkling that St Vincent wasn’t quite what I might have expected. The second was the hints of an illicit S&M encounter in album opener Chloe in the Afternoon, and that kinda sets the tone for the album. An album that despite it’s bright electronics and squalling guitars, absolutely seethes with frustration and is, to put it mildly, sexually frank. And it is an album that is astonishingly strong throughout.


tPRoE have really excelled themselves here. They’ve been around for a while, of course, but for me it appears that it has taken the band a little while to forge their sound. Forge is the operative word here, as the beats hit home with a steel-honed precision – this is truly weapons-grade industrial. And all the better for it. This is very heavy industrial electronics, but curiously accessible and in the main, aimed squarely at the dancefloor. Easily their best and most consistent album yet, this is also one of the best albums in this realm all year.


Zola Jesus’s last album (Stridium II) sneaked into my albums of the year list last year, but there is no doubt that this new album deserves a higher placing. A step forward in every way, with bigger, more striking arrangements, all dominated by her unmistakeable, soaring voice. Musically it takes a step further into electronic, quasi-industrial textures, most notably on the single Vessel (which I somehow managed to omit from my tracks of the year roundup last week). Consider this a righting of the wrong – that song in particular, when played loud, sounds like it is coming at you from every corner of the room, and it is her voice (again) that takes the track to these heights. The whole album, though, is so impressive – the perfect album to soundtrack a bleak midwinter day.


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Haujobb
New World March
Basic Unit Productions

Haujobb’s return was one of the most surprising, what with the amount of other projects Daniel Myer has thrown himself into in the years since Vertical Theory. But like all his projects, it has returned as if there has been a much shorter downtime – a comfortable picking up of the baton that means that if you are familiar with the Haujobb sound, there will be no great surprises here. But it is worth noting that this is definitely less of the downbeat experimentation of the likes of Ninetynine, and more of the cold emotions of his earlier material, which results in an elegantly crafted, beautifully produced album that could be exhibited as a conceptual piece of sonic art. There is little chance of this bothering dancefloors, where punters generally want something far more immediate than this, but giving this album time and repeated listens is very rewarding indeed (it sounds amazing on good headphones, too).


Well over four years since the astonishing, game-changing The Blackening – an album that was the sound of a band finally making the album they wanted to make, as opposed to what they thought everyone wanted to them to make – Machine Head have returned with what is, at face value, an album of more of the same. But what else did we expect? The sound of that last album suited the band so well that they were hardly going to return to the nu-metal touches of The Burning Red, were they… Anyway, expectations aside, this album immediately confounds with the use of choral vocals (!) to introduce it, before effortlessly switching to the thrash metal fury that we know and love. Once again, songs extend as long as they need – every song easily exceeds five minutes, but at no point does the album sag and become boring. In fact, the whole album is an enthralling listen – and once again an object lesson in how a band can confound trends and still sound more relevant than their supposed peers.


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Talanas
The Waspkeeper
Eulogy Media

I said back in April that it would be tough to top this as one of the best metal albums of 2011, and so it proved. A blistering amalgam of death metal and progressive metal, in the main, this was an astoundingly confident debut album, that also shows a seriously impressive level of technicality. Every musician (and that includes Hal on vocals) is at the top of their game, and gloriously the production is so good that every single track is punchy and unrelenting, with every element of the sound loud and clear, losing nothing in the mix – an important consideration so many bands miss when attempting arrangements with this much included. A bright future surely awaits.


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Fractured
Beneath The Ashes
Dependent

Probably the most daring and varied industrial release of 2011, this was a hell of a return for a band who on their first album, over five years ago, were…well, just another band who were worth the occasional listen. No such issue here, as they have released an album of such confidence, scope and accomplishment that I have been returning to it time after time this year. The bands that have been really great in the industrial scene this year have been those that have struck out on their own, been leaders not followers, and this proves this once again. There are metal elements, dubstep, IDM, synthpop, even spoken word (thanks to the ever-angry It Clings), and many quite brilliant songs emerge from the initially dazzling variety of styles on show here. In lesser hands this would be an utter mess of an album, but Nick Gorman is clearly rather better than that. An album that went under the radar a little during 2011 – if you missed it, go and try it out.


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Mastodon
The Hunter
Reprise

After some years of being lauded as one of the most technical and forward-looking metal bands, even while releasing concept album after concept album, and stretching song lengths ever longer, it must be said that The Hunter was a little bit of a surprise to start with. A sudden snap into focus, gone are the lengthy, multi-part songs, instead revelling in a snappy collection of songs that showcase all of Mastodon’s best elements. So that is jaw-dropping musicianship, catchy, melodic songs, and an ability to make music as complex as this sound interesting and accessible. This might be the clear seventies-esque, classic rock influence that rears its head more than ever on this album, but I think more than anything this is plainly and simply Mastodon’s best album yet, and the best metal album of 2011 – by virtue of having better songs, better arrangements and a better sound.


The potential brilliance of this album was trailed for long enough before it finally arrived, and thankfully it delivered on every single level. In days gone by this would have been termed “futurepop”, a description that never really made a great deal of sense. Ironically enough, here it is the perfect description. Forward-looking, confident industrial music that is just as happy taking influences and pointers from this scene as it is from the commerical pop world, the result is a gloriously snappy, accessible album that is just forty minutes long and endlessly listenable. The sound of a band making a conscious effort to transcend the nominal limitations of the scene that they come from, they deserve every success due to them as a result of this glorious album.


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This Morn’ Omina
L’Unification Des Forces Opposantes
Ant-Zen

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For the first time in a while, the decision on my album of the year was taken early, and was indeed all-but-taken by the time that I posted this review – which was only the second time I’ve ever reviewed an album and given it a full-marks (i.e. 10/10) review. A few months on from that review, and I still stand by it. This album is a sprawling, two-CD masterpiece, finely balanced between the band’s trademark tribal-industrial dancefloor attack, and more experimental electronics – and both sides of it are amazing. Another artist who has deliberately struck out on their own, creating not just a sound but a whole style that still sounds unique over ten years since they first appeared, and perhaps more interestingly their inclusion of what might be termed “world music” elements has somehow not dated whatsoever. There are incantations, there is religious fervour, there are visions of rebirth, but all taken out of their original context somewhat and chosen wisely to fit the style here. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever come closer to a religious epiphany than when I heard (The) Ruach (Of God) explode into life the first time. Album of the year by a country mile (and then some), and probably one of the finest releases I’ve heard in a few years, too.

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