Joshua Overbey Best-of 2014Saturday, 20th December 2014
Many different factors play in to making a good song, and some of these components can be broken down rather scientifically. However, great songs cannot always be dissected into such easily discernible bits. Instead, these standouts possess a kind of indescribable appeal that just sits right with and stirs the emotions of listeners, an it factor as they call it in pro wrestling.
Naturally, such songs are innately divisive as their real weight depends largely on listener interaction to complete the puzzle. The songs that follow represent the ten tracks that keep me coming back because they appeal to something more than just the ear or widely accepted aesthetic values. Some are rather progressive and strange, while others are so conservative and straightforward that one might be tempted to call the songwriting timid. Nevertheless, each contains a kind of soulful expression, a faint flicker of inspiration and enlightenment just barely visible amid the roiling, cacophonous darkness that surrounds it (if you don’t mind me getting too hippy-trippy on you), that either brought me to moments of reflection and contemplation or, at least, elicited a powerful emotional response greater than any other tunes this year could. Again, this is my unique perspective, but I urge you to try these songs out if you haven’t already because they might just provide that creative spark you’ve been looking for.
1. Triptykon – “Tree of Suffocating Souls” (from Melana Chasmata)
“Tree of Suffocating Souls” kicks off the record with several riffs that would sound at home on Celtic Frost’s Monotheist, as doom-laden and bleak as you get. A few old-school Frost riffs pop up here and there for good measure, and right when you’re expecting a searing guitar solo, you get instead a clean guitar tone amid the distorted tumult that sounds as if it’s imitating a sitar. It comes from out of nowhere, but it works, perfectly. There couldn’t be any greater foreshadowing for the musical journey that follows, as the rest of the record is full of surprises and unanticipated turns, and “Tree of Suffocating Souls” lays the groundwork for every one of them.
2. Triptykon – “Breathing” (from Melana Chasmata)
Yep, I’ve gone and done it. I’ve included two tracks from Triptykon’s Melana Chasmata on my top ten songs list. Mind you, though, that this is not because of Tom G. Warrior’s iconic status in the extreme metal community, but because this latest offering is just that good. “Breathing” is everything one would want from a Tom G. Warrior track. Thrashy? Yes. Dissonant? Yes. Groovy? Oh yes. Tom’s anguished cries bind together riffing styles as disparate as thrashy tremolo and vintage two-step picking. After some wicked soloing and the final chorus, which listeners anticipate capping off this already-mesmerizing track, Tom launches a groove-laden WMD that’s nearly as potent as the classic riffs of “Procreation of the Wicked.” When it’s all finished, the listener has no idea what hit them. All they do know is that they want it to hit them again.
3. Emblazoned – “Perception” (from Eucharistiae Sacramentum)
Emblazoned’s Eucharistiae Sacramentum didn’t quite make my list of the top ten albums of the year, but that isn’t to say that the record is without some pretty epic songs. While most of the album speeds along with a death/grind vibe, the midpoint bruiser “Perception” slows everything down for a plodding, crunchy soundtrack for dismemberment. The groove is undeniable and the aggression palpable. Serving as the only track of its kind on this record, “Perception” doesn’t just provide the rest period listeners need at halftime but also stands out as one of the most memorable tracks on the album. Something about its straightforward delivery and almost primitive songwriting style keeps me coming back for more.
4. Fornicus – “Into Obscurity” (from Storming Heaven)
Fornicus’s debut record, Storming Heaven, while certainly a unique offering in its own right, also plays like a huge homage to the group’s black and death metal forebears. Some songs sear like the early work of Darkthrone, while others simultaneously groove and pummel with the prowess of Morbid Angel, but “Into Obscurity” focuses on atmosphere, melody, and dynamic pacing, calling to fore classic BM bands like Emperor and Immortal. Showing that they learned the appropriate lessons from the masters of the genre, Fornicus crafted a lengthy tune with multiple twists and various ups and downs, creating a true BM odyssey that transports listeners back to the glory days of the style.
5. Devilment – “Laudanum Skull” (from The Great and Secret Show)
It’s safe to say that despite Dani Filth’s involvement, Devilment has little in common with the frontman’s primary project. However, of all the offerings on the group’s debut, “Laudanum Skull” borrows the most from Cradle’s bag of tricks, especially with regard to the more melodic and atmospheric elements. This track oozes a somber gothic vibe that’s substantially aided by keyboardist Lauren Francis’s alluring yet haunting vocals in the chorus, which in itself is quite reminiscent of ex-Cradle backup vocalist Sarah Jezebel Deva. Multiple tracks warrant revisiting on this record, but much like the backing vocals, this particular song haunts the listener’s mind and demands more attention than the rest.
6. Killer Be Killed – “Curb Crusher” (from Killer Be Killed)
Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if, in some parallel dimension, Troy Sanders abandoned Mastodon and sang for Soulfly? To be honest, that’s an unspeakably random thought you almost certainly haven’t had, but I needed a lead-in. In any case, one of the standout tracks from Killer Be Killed’s self-titled debut, “Curb Crusher,” offers a glimpse into that bizarre scenario. Max Cavalera’s punk-inspired chorus riffs and intervening sledgehammer grooves lay the framework for what might’ve been an interesting Soulfly song, and then Sanders shows us what he can do with the material. While the group’s three vocalists switch up constantly throughout the record, something about the unique quality of this track stands out from the rest and makes “Curb Crusher” my most revisited aspect of this experiment.
7. Cavalera Conspiracy – “I, Barbarian” (from Pandemonium)
One of the more grindcore-oriented numbers on Cavalera Conspiracy’s Pandemonium, “I, Barbarian” is a fast and furious bludgeoning that attacks with the speed of light and leaves utter dissolution in its wake. Hardcore-tinged riffing and classic death metal–style trills drive this track until a Sepultura/Soulfly groove drops with the force of an A-bomb and leaves the listener’s sound system in shambles. Max and Iggor complement each other perfectly on this track and leave little uncertainty as to why they’re still such a potent pairing after all these years.
8. Carnifex – “Salvation Is Dead” (from Die Without Hope)
Kicking off Carnifex’s Die without Hope is the pummeling track “Salvation Is Dead.” Opening with the obligatory breakdown-style riffing, the song quickly evolves into a sinister force that drops twisted melodies one behind the other and sets the tone perfectly for the remaining tracks of desolation and sorrow that follow. Also showcasing some expert lead guitar work and dynamic vocals, this opening number assaults the senses and instantly shatters our memory of the group’s hiatus, putting them right back atop the deathcore hierarchy.
9. Behemoth – “The Satanist” (from The Satanist)
The title track from blackened death metal stalwarts Behemoth’s excellent early-year release is easily among the best offerings from the new album, but it may also be one of the most memorable Behemoth tracks all around. The instrumentation is quite different from what we’re used to, with almost-understated riffs playing beneath Nergal’s signature wails that ultimately give way to an infectious bridge that screams of “black and roll,” for lack of a better term. Add an extended instrumental break in the closing minutes of the song wherein blasts, tremolo picking, and all the classic Behemoth tricks come out, and “The Satanist” almost comes across as a career retrospective within a single song, but with the promise of even newer musical territory to conquer on the horizon.
10. Mayhem – “MILAB” (from Esoteric Warfare)
As mentioned previously, Mayhem’s Esoteric Warfare stands at the stylistic crossroads of their classic black metal material and their later-developed knack for experimentation. “MILAB” fits firmly in the latter camp and perhaps finds its clearest predecessor in “Illuminate Eliminate” from Ordo Ad Chao. While certainly not lacking in aggression, unsettling noises, bizarre time shifts and riff transitions, and Attila’s patented vocal style that sounds as if he’s in dire need of an exorcist drive this track into the listener’s psyche and demand to be heard again and again. Definitely a track where listeners uncover something new with every visit.
Biggest Surprise: Shadows Fall Announces Final Tour Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised by this announcement, as in the current tumultuous musical climate, bands are hanging up their guitars and drum sticks daily. However, though I’m not the biggest Shadows Fall fan on the planet, I’ll give credit where it’s due and acknowledge they were at the vanguard of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal movement, consistently putting on tight performances, and giving little to no insight into any backstage politics or drama within the unit. With all these factors in mind, their announcement of a “final tour” kind of caught me off guard. They cite the same turmoil that virtually all traveling metal bands do after they’ve been tearing up the roadways for a lengthy period of time: they travel constantly and don’t have a chance to see their families, hence the impending wrap-up. That’s certainly a fair point, but it leaves us to wonder if there aren’t other reasons as well, seeing as how plenty of bands over the years have found ways in their later careers to at least find some agreeable balance between tour life and family life. This is either a sign that there’s some other factor in play or that times are just that tough in music now that musicians really do have to choose between family and metal; they can’t have both. In either case, it’s sad to see a well-respected band hanging up their gear. With any luck, they’ll find a way to make some occasional shows happen, but if not, I hope they settle into new lives they can be happy with.
Best Newcomer: Fornicus Hailing from the extreme metal haven of Kentucky, Fornicus recently dropped Storming Heaven, which is easily the best debut album I’ve heard in years. Avoiding the oh-so-common pitfalls of conservative songwriting and stagnant pacing that plague so many newcomers to the genre, these guys offer a solid slab of well-paced, dynamic black/death metal that establishes them as a force to be reckoned with moving forward. From Watain- and Darkthrone-inspired cuts like “We Are Sin” to more Bathory-inspired, atmospheric explorations like “The Beckoning,” Storming Heaven pushes compelling variety that won’t let the listener rest. Couple this with smatterings of Morbid Angel-esque death metal passages in tracks like “Pallium Mali” and there’s plenty worth checking out here for extreme metal enthusiasts of any ilk. You certainly owe it to yourselves to check these guys out.
Biggest Disappointment: Death of Wayne Static While I won’t try to convince anyone I’m the biggest Static-X fan in the world, it’s always upsetting when a talented songwriter leaves us behind. Static’s music was among the earliest heavy material I heard in my younger days, so songs like “Push It” and “I’m with Stupid” were in fairly constant rotation with me. Even today, after having expanded my metal horizons quite a bit, tracks like “Black and White,” “Cannibal,” and “The Only” regularly squeal through my car radio, so it’s safe to say Static’s musical vision had a lasting impact on me personally. I’m not alone, though; Static’s music was loved by many, and the man behind that music will be sorely missed.
Best Cover Art: Cannibal Corpse’s A Skeletal Domain With a new Cannibal Corpse album dropping this year, it’s no surprise they’d be in the running for best cover art. Longtime Cannibal artist Vince Locke returned for yet another contribution to the group’s A Skeletal Domain, and while it’s true that the band’s cover art has tamed down quite a bit over the years (Tomb of the Mutilated, anyone?), this particular piece is every bit as visually striking as previous Cannibal albums. Locke has a couple of skeletons looking out over a vast Mordor-ish wasteland occupied by towering, sepulchral, skull-faced monoliths (think the trees in the Living Forest from Mortal Kombat II), a crimson glow lingering on the horizon. The cover isn’t too in-your-face, but it clearly sets the horror tone and hints at even more sinister happenings to follow, namely when you start to spin the disc. Nicely done.
Most Anticipated Album of 2015: Black Sabbath My most anticipated album of this year, if you recall, was actually the new Slayer album, which has unfortunately been pushed back to 2015. Rather than completely reiterate my anticipation for that release, however, I’ve decided to speak on the possibility of a new Black Sabbath album. Frontman Ozzy Osbourne recently stated that Sabbath’s record company wants one more record out of them, and understandably so considering how genuinely solid 13 was. Like so many veteran rock/metal bands, though, Sab is pretty fond of delaying their releases, so there’s a distinct possibility this impending record will end up as my most anticipated album of 2016 as well, maybe even 2017! Couple this with the fact that label requests appear to be driving the recording decision more so than organic songwriting, and there’s a strong chance the end result will sound forced, weak, and ultimately fail to capitalize on the momentum established by 13. I obviously hope this isn’t the case, but the hit-or-miss potential of what will most likely be the final Sabbath record with 3/4 of the original lineup will keep me watching like a hawk for its release.
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