2011 has undoubtedly been one of the greatest years for music in recent memory. But with so many musical gems on offer, we gave our journalists the challenging task of choosing only three releases as their favourites from the past twelve months. This is what they came up with.
1. Woodkid – “Iron” EP
Alternative Rock, Indie Rock
Chief among this elite sonic cadre has to be the EP ‘Iron’ from Woodkid. Monumental orchestration, a profound lyricism and exquisite vocal treatment combine perfectly here to create an intense and provocative portrait of the world, highlighting the haunting beauty that breaks through the darkness of reality. For sure no other record this year has delivered to me such an astonishing and compelling aural experience. ‘Iron’ comes alive in a rare and brilliant way.
2. Current 93 – “HoneySuckle Æons”
The most highly anticipated and thankfully rewarding album of my year was definitely Current 93′s ‘Honeysuckle Aeons’. With its incredible performers, uncharacteristic sound and delirious visionary atmosphere, ‘Honeysuckle Aeons’ sees Current 93 move in a beautiful and welcome direction, taking the best elements from the two previous releases to create a sparse and passionate arrangement of the agonies of existence. I was with grateful relief to find one of my favorite groups back at the top of their game.
3. Hedorah/Marlee Matlin – Split
Among my most visceral listening experiences of 2011 has been a tape split between the ambient black metal outfit Hedorah and spazzed out samplecore insanity band Marlee Matlin. I couldn’t help but feel like this record had been created specifically for me. It made me feel truly uncomfortable, this music unsettled me, wormed its way under my skin. I felt like I had a stalker that lived inside my mind and had a band too. Over repeated listening, I warmed to this feeling that my world comes with its own custom telepathic madness radio, appreciating the brutal beauty of how language, music, art, and thought manifest reality. Obsession or magick? This year I keep bouncing back and forth between both, this tape and this year have been gifts from the universe that it took me a bit to recognize as such.
Comment: 2011 has been a year of unexpected mental and physical traveling and personal growth. I was feeling dead and empty for a while but over the course of this year my inner worlds have been manifesting my frozen psyche back into love and life. Time travel, aeonics, and the sometimes overwhelming interconnectedness and malleability of reality have been vital companions of late, instructing me with tools and opportunities designed to help me thrive in our rapidly changing time.
This year I focused predominantly on music from the past in my listening to gain a clearer, more solid understanding of the foundations of the music being created now, but there have been a number of startling and alluring records that demand attention despite the overwhelming and inexhaustible back catalog legacy left for me to mine.
1. Rome – “Die Æsthetik der Herrschaftsfreiheit”
Rome have always been purveyors of a sincere musical experience. Each album is a dense and richly layered accumulation of ideas and aesthetics. The latest three part release takes the seemingly inexhaustible vision of Jerome Reuter into overdrive. A trove of soulful and heartfelt musicmanship; poetry of rage, love and violence as well as soothing interludes, ecstatic exeunts all served alongside Jerome’s fantastic paternal voice, every syllable of which defies any idea of whimsy or superficiality.
2. Primordial – “Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand”
Celtic ardour, reverence of the past and a measure of man against the greatness and tragedy of history all play into the sustained power of this band and the continued force behind every release. It is music that evokes a peculiar, nebulous romanticism that cannot be pinned down and is music that drives a person to action, a sudden illumination of archaic principles and the unexplainable desire to redeem ones petty actions in the eyes on ones great forgotten ancestors. To call it epic would be to trivialize it. One would instead attribute to it power and the ability to evoke dormant faculties, a catalyst for the revival of a simpler yet more potent mentality of tribe and tragedy.
3. Grails – “Deep Politics”
Proof that a solid album does not have to delve into our deepest emotions or ideas. “Deep Politics” seems to be a contradiction of its name, with the ease in which it pulls off compositions that at first may strike one as simple and straightforward, but upon a second listen will impress with just how impeccably put together they are, how self contained they are and what a simple joy it is to listen to the album all the way through without anything seeming out of place or abrasive. These are instrumental jams at their finest, toe-tappingly fun at times and just mere euphorically pleasant at others.
1. Nightwish – “Imaginaerum”
Surely no-one is more surprised than myself to see this here. With many recent releases that only skimmed the surface of my interest, NW seemed to be doing little other than chasing their own tail. But Imaginaerum sees the band putting out a deep, varied work of metal, brimming with feeling and creativity. These days it’s all too easy to miss the more mainsteam releases without remembering that some artists truly deserve the accolades for which they’ve laboured. Nightwish have realised that now, as we get ever more demanding of our music, what we really want is variety, and you’ll find not a dull moment on this 75 minute record as a result. But more than that, the band have created an aural world of dark wonder here, and Imaginaerum reminds us that music should always be uplifting, transporting, and above all, magical. It places us in a world of awe and inspiration and never lets go. As the open, snow-covered theme park gates on the artwork suggest, the singular person who this is there for is the listener: to wander in, experience and revel in the enchantments on offer. “All this is waiting for you and only you”. Stunning.
2. Blut Aus Nord – “777 Sect(s)”
France proves once again that it’s producing some of the best and most interesting material black metal has ever seen. 777 Sect(s) is a rich, cold and vicious work. Like some kind of dark fractal, it divides itself into 3 tracks of aggressive black metal, and 3 tracks of mesmerisingly dark, mid-paced guitar-led ambience; with each of the more aggressive tracks split into two more distinct, disparate halves. BAN have always been masters of darkness and ingenuity, and 777 Sect(s) sees them put out an ultimately mature effort: one with depth and heart but underlined by suffering and torment. It is an honest, thought-provoking work and one which thoroughly deserves its place as one of the finest black metal releases of 2011.
3. To Cast A Shadow – “In Memory Of”
The little-known Norwegian quartet To Cast A Shadow released this splended offering back in February, and it’s one of the finest female vocal metal albums I’ve heard for quite some time. Featuring shimmering, slow guitar work and the excellently emotive talents of Gunhild Huser, the strains herein are similar to those of early The 3rd and the Mortal, with each song being mournful, soulached expressions of inner pain. “In Memory Of” pays tribute to the 90s innovators of the scene whilst adding its own unique splash of darker hue. Just when it was needed more than ever, TCAS have put out an accomplished, traditional and strong doom metal release, and one which stands up admirably to repeated plays.
Comment: 2011 was an extremely difficult year for me personally. But it was also the year that saw some of the greatest output the metal and ambient genres have seen in a long while. The competition at the higher end was so strenuous that the very best releases were those which came across as the most honest and genuine in their execution. For me this year was not necessarily about pushing musical boundaries but raising bars on already well-established subgenres. The albums included here feel like the most heartfelt – and soulfelt – to me. In the end, and after all the fantastic new music I came across from a sea of wide-ranging talent, 2011 was about the originators rather than the innovators.
1. Current 93 – “HoneySuckle Æons”
Over the years David Tibet has managed to assemble quite the cast of musical characters for the many releases in the back catalogue, this release I’d have to say was the most sublime, and the closest thing to them becoming a true Hallucinatory Supergroup.
2. :Of The Wand & The Moon: – “The Lone Descent”
Kim Larsen is another musician of note, while not nearly as prolific as Current 93 the releases he has put out are all top-notch, and resonate on a personal level.
3. Sol Invictus – “The Cruellest Month”
Tony Wakeford and company were back with ‘The Cruellest Month’ and it was well worth the wait to have a full Sol Invictus release.
1. 156 – “156″
What really got to me about this album is that it really grabbed me by the hand and took me down into the world of Adel Souto. That is not an easy thing to do, especially with Industrial music, where one becomes somewhat desensitized to many a “metallic” timbre. I listen to this work and wish I had the access this man does to the places he does. I envy him. haha… I wonder as I listen what it takes to have the ability to put people in the exact place you’ve been. I know I don’t. Thats what I believe is the most special thing about a work like this, where the art is something tried, but as the old adage finishes, and TRUE. I can tell, though, that this work is an excellent example of applied simplicity. That can be all you need to make a lasting impression, should you know how to use it.
2. Disciple XIII – “Disciple XIII”
Like I said in the review, this is one of my favorite demo-sets of all time. This collection is pretty empowering for me because it is a very raw, but very dark group of tracks that gets itself across loud and clear. What I mean by this is that this guy knows how to throw out a vibe. I especially liked how what led up to this batch is his initial step into electronic recording arts was the use of a cell phone. I actually did this once, and it was for the first track of mine ever released. So I feel where a work like this comes from. Its dark, its messy, but it is damn good in its delivery.
3. Various – “A Sound Guide to Warsaw”
This is probably my favorite work of the year in review. I was pretty impressed by almost every offering in this compilation, most of the artists featured to represent their vision of their city did their city justice. I love how everyone was given a set of sounds from the place to aid in their composition. Again, this is something I admire because I recently have also begun working with field recordings this year, and I know what it is like to hold one sound one moment, and a few moments later, you have a gem of a track on your hands. Not only did everyone do a good job here, but they did it with style, each their own of course, but done out of love for Warsaw.
1. Putridity – “Degenerating Anthropophagical Euphoria”
Brutal death metal
The Italian quartet Putridity means it serious – they have put out the most brutal and relentless album in Brutal Death Metal this year. Nonstop drumming + thick fat bass lines + ½ of fast and ½ of slam riffs + pinch harmonics in abundance on top = the ultimate madness unleashed right from the fiery pits of Italian hell!
2. Ulcerate – “The Destroyers Оf All”
Brutal death metal
This New Zealand based act has released its third album. The music has evolved from straightforward Technical Brutal Death to the more viscous and psychedelic stuff though not losing a gram of brutality. “The Destroyers Оf All” is a nice refreshing walk in a desert under the scorching sun of complex dissonant riffs against the never ending wind of fast technically elaborate drumming.
3. 7 H. Target – “Electric Tools For Electric Human”
Brutal death metal
These guys hail from Nizhny Novgorod, Russia with their first physical release. Slamming Brutal Death in its utter technical form crushes everything – and then revives the crushed with the unstoppable energy put into the ultra-heavy Slam riffs mixed with experimental chaotic guitar, bass and piano lines. This is really a breakthrough and an eye-opener!
1. Sangre de Muerdago – “Sangre de Muerdago”
Sangre de Muerdago is a currently unknown project that will soon be sure to blow up in the neofolk / dark folk underground. This short album was released in a DIY edition of some 200 odd copies. The Spanish turned German artist has created with this release one of the most genuine, heartfelt, and original sounds to come out of the neofolk genre in a number of years. The fact is, if we had enough funds to back a release right now, this one would be out on a Heathen Harvest label immediately. One half of the project recently passed away unfortunately, but Pablo will carry the banner into the future. It would be impossible to give enough praise for this release, and frankly, I never thought that I’d be putting a self-released effort at the top of my end of year top list.
2. Vradiazei – “Vradiazei”
In similar incredible harmonious majesty and pure folk-laden prestige to the top album of this year, Vradiazei create a stellar minimal atmosphere that invokes sounds and animistic incantations similar to those heard on fantastic Stone Breath albums on the Dark Holler label run by Timothy Renner. This release was put out on Pesanta-Urfolk, which any vinyl collector of dark folk music will immediately recognize for its quality.
3. Rose Croix – “Rose Croix”
Rose Croix is a brand new project making their debut with this release on Brave Mysteries. This one made my list at the last minute, having only just heard the release last week. Beautiful female vocal melodies pair up with strong belting lines similar to that heard on Murkrat’s debut on Aesthetic Death in 2008, while Eastern vocal influences filter into the mix a la the darkest moments of Rhea’s Obsession vocalist Sue Hutton. Combined with ritual ambient under-layers (which are heavy on cymbal play and bombastic percussion), Rose Croix create a unique atmosphere that is the female shadow to Kinit Her members’ “other” project Wreathes, minus Troy Schafer’s violin work. However, its a shame only a few souls will hear this incredible piece of work as it’s limited to a mere 100 copies. All the more reason to act fast and show support.
1. Sol Invictus – “The Cruellest Month”
Sol Invictus’ most recent moody piece of art reflects why they are still at the forefront of this genre, and establishes the band currently at the top of the Big 3 of neofolk. Tony and co. have crafted a strange juxtaposition between undeniably English folk songs and dark post-industrial cynicism. The Cruellest Month is bombastic when it has to be, profound and touching in the right places, more instrumentally diverse than ever before, and still manages to express Wakeford’s cheeky distain. Often reaching a fever-pitch of swirling, diverse layers of instruments, the music achieves a new level of song writing in this too often simplistic genre. “Songs” don’t do the justice that these audio pieces deserve – I’m inclined to say these are truly compositions. There is a much more organic feeling to this recording than recent Sol Invictus offerings, and despite the dense sound that the multi-instrumentation provides there is room for everything to exist and breathe. Wakeford and Andrew King’s exceptional vocal delivery are probably two of most unique voices put to record, but they weave tapestries of vivid tales and images. After this journey takes the listener through its ups-and-downs, one is left with a feeling of blissful relief and total satisfaction. Every story told through these words and sounds paints an elaborate portrait on every listen (and believe me … there have been many!).
2. Cult of Youth – “Cult of Youth”
As a fan of Sean Ragon’s musical output since his first few notes on A Stick To Bind, A Seed To Grow it has been an absolute pleasure to watch the band flourish into the force it has become. While I was sceptic of the shift to a fully functioning recording band, with Ragon at the helm there is really nothing short of brilliance to come. Cult of Youth’s statement of arrival is a rocking, militant declaration of entitlement. Their punk infused neofolk proves that this is a band that deserves to be heard – so stand up and take notice! Ragon’s shouted commands reverberate over the driving acoustic guitar and attacking bass lines, while almost tribal drums wander and stomp at once. String mistress Christiana Key provides the extra mystery via her shrieking violin passages. It is clear that the band wanted to capture their live energy on an audio recording and to a great degree they have succeeded. As a long time listener, I missed the multi-layered songs of the one-time studio band, but they managed to entrance me with the new incarnation. The touch of perfect came when I witnessed them perfectly executed these songs live and seal the deal forever.
3. Lost Tribe – “Lost Tribe”
Not to pat Sean Ragon on the back too much in this recap, but he certainly has an ear for quality and power! Released on Ragon’s label Blind Prophet Records, Lost Tribe’s self titled full length is a dark and angst ridden jackboot to the teeth. Describing this sound is best illustrated by my initial reaction: “It’s like Danzig and some members of Youth Crew decided to play some early deathrock”. Lost Tribe is a punk rock band through and through, an eerie and smoky clan of punks but still undeniably punk! I get images of the old Bat Cave inhabitants when I listen to this record: black charged hair, makeup, smoke and lights, fishnets, and macabre sentiments all around – but filled with more attitude and aggression. The ever present organ droning in the background gives Lost Tribe the horror music vibe that they are clearly shooting for. There is a seamless flow between all goth conventions and all hardcore punk conventions at once. Surprisingly, this album snuck right in and claimed itself as worthy of my top 3 right at the end. And what is more surprisingly still, I am not necessarily much of a punk fan to begin with. Lost Tribe is indescribably addicting and manages to cross all barriers to the dark music fan.
1. Elffor – “Unblessed Woods”
Unblessed Woods was a darker more aggressive approach of Eöl’s visionary atmospheric black metal and the re-release by Northern Silence was a blessing to those still unaware of this rather obscure but heavily underrated black metal mastermind. A veritable goldmine for lover of dark epic and aggressive ambient black metal.
2. Jeremy Soule – “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim -
Original Game Soundtrack”
When it comes to composing music larger then both life and legend Mr. Soule truly delivers. Few albums I’ve encountered have conjured so many overwhelming feelings of dreams and wonder. This album took me by storm the moment it first flowed out of my speakers, truly this is a symphonical masterpiece of epic proportions.
3. VoidWork – “Basement”
Basement is a story woven into the very fabric of music itself, a tale born aloft on winds of harmony and despair. The tale of a strange man in a weird town is not only in itself a fine saga of horror from beyond, it is also a threshold that can bring the listener into new depths of imagination and horrible visions of a distant reality.
1. Nordvargr – “Re-Awaken”
If you really must have a reason why this is on the top of my list, here it is: “Awaken” happens to be my favourite album from one of the most significant, pioneering and unpredictable artists in the dark ambient genre, whose work has exercised a tremendous personal influence on me. It also happens to be a masterpiece of grim, unrelenting black ambience, organic sounds and infernal atmospheres. An unparalleled descent into the nether regions of the soul, and a portrayal of the suffering required for the transmutation of the vulgar to the divine. “Re-Awaken” is the improved version of that masterpiece, containing two extra tracks apart from the originals. The gates of the abyss are reopened! Do you dare enter?
2. Anemone Tube – “Death Over China”
Before listening to Anemone Tube I was slightly prejudiced against noise and its derivatives. I didn’t understand how it could be used as a medium to provide the listener with a completed expression of a concept. After my experience with this project the mechanisms of anguish and despair, imprinted on a highly unconventional musical form have become apparent. “Death Over China” is comprised almost entirely of field recordings taken in Nanjing and Shanghai during the artist’s trip there in 2007. They are used for the construction of massive walls of rhythmic industrial, agonizing screams of raw noise, haunting fragments of everyday life, in a layered, complex sound tapestry where the past is evoked in the outlines of the present, and all is ruled by the almighty, annihilating presence of Death. The message couldn’t be clearer or more powerful, as you are sure to find out for yourselves once you give it a listen.
3. :Golgatha: – “The Horns Of Joy”
After a long and very successful course :Golgatha: come to the peak of their creativity with “Horns of Joy”, which brings out all their best elements in an amalgam of assertive musical strength. Acoustic neofolk, ritual atmospheres, neoclassical melodies and the echoes of war fascinate and compel, but also invite to a deeper understanding. To an illumination of the principle of cause and effect, and the perpetuating conflictual dynamics inherent in the microcosmic as well as the macrocosmic plane. It is in this understanding that the various elements are truly melded, where mysticism meets history, and ritual meets war. “Horns of Joy” is all about the interaction of opposites, and staying true to its purpose it expertly unites musical excellence and inner meaning.
Comment: Having been given the impossible task of choosing my three best albums for 2011, I soon realized that certain limitations would have to be applied in order for the list to be completed. So the list includes recordings I have reviewed so far, that made the most profound, memorable impression on me, on a personal level but also in terms of execution, maturity, originality and meaning. The passing year was rich in exceptional releases, and if my criteria were different or the list longer, more albums would definitely be added to it, such as “Inade – Antimimon Pneumatos”, “Triangular Ascension – Leviathan Device”, “New Risen Throne – The Loneliness of Hidden Structures”, “Aythis – The New Earth”, “Sonmi451 – Star Atlas”, “Moljebka Pvlse – Sadalachbia”, “Haujobb – New World March” and many many others that I omit to list here, for fear of ending up with something resembling a telephone catalogue. Music is principally an affair of the heart for me, and these are the albums that got closest to it in 2011.
1. Deutsch Nepal – “Amygdala”
I think it’s safe to say that whenever Deutsch Nepal puts an album out it’s going to be ranked pretty highly by me. “Amygdala” continues in the broad vein of Der General’s dark, hypnotic psych-industrial while adding new and unexpected twists like a full-on martial/neofolk style opening track and creepy orchestral vamps complete with xylophone. A few tracks also hearkened back to older releases, putting me in mind of “A Silent Siege” in places. Long Live Lina!
2. Folkstorm – “Folksongs”
One-man Industrial …er… industry Nordvargr has returned to his PE project Folkstorm and reinvigorated it with some neat new twists and turns. Without losing the aggressive power of the music he’s incorporated brooding analogue/electro beats, bringing a very different style (and even a new one for any Nordvargr project as far as I know). This is a tough album; electronica-influences aside it still has a steel toe-capped kick to it.
3. Throbbing Gristle – “Second Annual Report”
I think that TG’s debut is easily their least accomplished studio release. It’s not even my favourite TG album – my personal choice would be “D.O.A.”. However this single slab of vinyl began the movement that brought us all here. It was the opening shot of Industrial music, the manifesto and the template that sadly became slavisgly copied by too many wannabes. The series of re-releases are valuable visitations to times past, a window into just how much we all owe to Throbbing Gristle. “Second Annual Report” should replace “Never Mind The Bollocks” in the record collections of anyone who’s ever listened to electronic music.
1. Cult of Youth – “Cult of Youth”
This is a band going from being followers of a movement to leading their own way within it. The expansion of Cult of Youth from a one man project to a band has given an amazing album vocally and musically. It was complimented by the brilliant Devil’s Coals single which serves as a perfect companion to the album.
2. Testing Vault – “Cities of the Red Lights”
Blues/Brass & Military/Latin
Testing Vault has delivered many good records so far, working with some great names along the way. Here he has stepped forward as a vocalist rather than a voice in the background and began to break down his own sound to reveal a wealth of exciting possibilities. I’d recommend anyone to start collecting TV as the glimmers of greatness are showing more frequently with each release.
3. Iron Fist of the Sun/Burial Hex –
“Actaeon / Grown Under English Ice”
I read in one article in this months Wire about the “collapse of noise as a genre”, after seeing Iron Fist of the Sun live and hearing this LP I had a good chuckle at that article. Burial Hex’s long journey over two tracks and Iron Fist delivering four knockouts is one of the most perfect slabs of vinyl I have heard in a long time.
Comment: 2011 was an intense year, in my mind I’d given up art to do courses to apply for three different postgraduate university courses to retrain in my job; it was a decision that did not lie comfortably. My current job has been difficult with many lows and some highs; I didn’t get on one course and uncomfortably wait for the others. I had no choice but to draw again and my artwork ended up on the back cover of Ciril’s Sick Surreal album. Due to all of this Cult of Youth’s self titled album and its acoustic intensity made perfect sense to these times of uncertainty. Iron Fist of the Sun and Burial Hex’s split LP was like a massive electric shock, backed up by the live performance of IFotS Lee Howard, amazing. My long obsession with Testing Vault has delivered many gems; his new Album City of the Red Lights seemed to be another but was even more of a surprise by his breaking down current sounds and revisiting some of his old methods to reveal many new exciting possibilities for the future.