A peek at EW’s top 10 albums of the year highlights a vaguely disturbing trend: In 2012, most of the best music of the year was pretty mellow.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing; relatively low-key albums by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean handily proved that un-blustery does not equal boring.
That being said, 2012 was a particularly remarkable year for metal. Perhaps because they currently have no place on the pop landscape at the moment, heavy musicians made a concerted effort to push personal boundaries on their new releases.
In some cases, that meant exploring the limit of how much noise the human ear can endure; for others it was a bold step toward something resembling pop music. It’s that second step that made it such a weird, wonderful year.
Some of the heaviest bands on the planet used their 2012 releases to play around with the sort of musical cleanliness and melodic structure that almost always alienates the hardcores who just want everything to be as loud, fast, and dark as possible.
And yet those shifts don’t bring them any closer to the realm of “pop music” — abrasiveness remains at the forefront in a period when edges are scrubbed right off the radio. Seemingly the most rebellious thing a metal band could do is sing pretty, which is why there was so much hand-wringing over heavy acts like Graveyard and Baroness suddenly being dismissed as “too pop,” even though they would both make Taylor Swift’s skull cave in.
As both a critic and a music fan, I find the attempted balance between the brutal and the beautiful to be a fascinating endeavor. With that in mind, here are my six (because it’s an evil number, you see) favorite metal albums of 2012. Play ’em loud.
1) Baroness, Yellow & Green
Through their first two albums (the similarly-titled Red Album and Blue Record), Georgia’s Baroness proved themselves an able-bodied combo in search of a through line. Yellow & Green finally galvanized the quartet’s (then a trio) central sound—a lean mix of swampy Southern thump, hard-charging thrash, and bluesy psychedelic swirl—and also found chief songwriter John Baizley come into his own as a craftsman.
Lead single “Take My Bones Away” hit harder and popped sharper than anything on rock radio in a decade; it’s a little shocking it wasn’t a massive hit. “March to the Sea” is as gloriously arena-filling and crowd-pleasing as this type of music gets, though there was still plenty of room for dynamic, blistering workouts like “Cocainium.” Yellow & Green is the least hard of the band’s output (the second half is fantastically woozy and dreamlike), though it is undoubtedly the most heavy. By letting in a little light, the darkness was able to grow to its full, glorious potential.
2) Converge, All We Love We Leave Behind
Converge have never made any concessions to anyone. Over the course of a deceptively long career (core members Jacob Bannon and Kurt Ballou have been together since 1990), the band’s synthesis of the exacting precision of metal and the unpredictable anarchy of hardcore punk essentially invented the metalcore genre. There have been some great metalcore bands, but few have matched the sustained intensity and sonic heft as Converge, and their eighth album pumps out a 40-minute torrent of deeply complicated polyrhythms and six-string hellfire.
Production-wise, it’s a bit of a step back, as they’ve stripped away a bit of the multi-tracked sheen that has colored the group’s albums since 2001’s Jane Doe. But the rawness of the recording boosts the band immensely, as you really get a feel for the spaces between the notes. And amidst all the chaos sits the swaggering “Sadness Comes Home,” a bracing blast of fleet-fingered noise and guttural angst that was a number one hit in a parallel universe ruled by Lemmy Kilmister.
3) High on Fire, De Vermis Mysteriis
Why has High on Fire always been branded “stoner metal”? Is it because of their penchant for extended fuzz jams? Because they operate in a similar thud-and-grind as Queens of the Stone Age? Is it just because they have the word “high” in their name? Whatever the reason (and all of those are valid), they certainly transcended that designation with their sixth album. Frontman Matt Pike’s compositions always had a latent doom streak, and those urges are reflected more on De Vermis Mysteriis than on any other High On Fire album.
Though some may dismiss it as monolithic, De Vermis Mysteriis is a fantastically constructed bloodbath, a collection bulldozer riffs that pushes straight ahead with nary a break for food or water. Pike’s guitar sludge is particularly hypnotic, and his shout is at its most adroit (especially on the punishing “Bloody Knuckles”). And perhaps just for the fans who need to crank up and drop out, there’s “Samsara,” a lovely instrumental that drifts along a sea of trippy feedback and a grand foghorn of a riff.
4) Black Breath, Sentenced To Life
Black Breath is another rapidly-evolving hybrid band whose roots are in black metal but whose approach continues to exploit the surgical execution of thrash. It’d be difficult to sell anybody on the crossover potential of Sentenced to Life—it’s truly brutal. But there is an incredible artfulness to its hardcore tone, as Black Breath never falls into the cartoonish traps of a lot of dark metal acts, nor does it ever come across as overly self-seriousness (the relative efficiency of the tracks, half of which are under three minutes long, definitely helps). For anybody who wants to know what exquisitely-executed evil sounds like in the 21st century, the answer is Black Breath.
5) Pallbearer, Sorrow and Extinction
Profound Lore is one of the best labels for any genre of music working today, and the centerpiece of their unbeatable 2012 (which included an amazing album by Witch Mountain that just missed inclusion on this list) was the debut of Pallbearer, who take the Black Sabbath model of guitar sludge and slow it down even further. With that magisterial heft running underneath, Pallbearer are free to drop in some delightfully doomy vocals and flashes of orchestral swoop. Sorrow and Extinction is the sound of your brain melting one thrilling drop at a time.
6) Gojira, L’Enfant Sauvage
The other bands on this list are innovators, mixing together new turned-to-11 concoctions to see what explodes best. Gojira aren’t interested in evolving past their pummeling attack. Consider them the Ernest Hemingway of modern metal: Their range may be extremely limited, but within those narrow boundaries, they have no peer. L’Enfant Sauvage rides a double-kick-drum-fueled drag racer straight to hell, making just enough stops along the way for deceptively pretty harmonies (“The Axe”) and bonus blasts of feedback (“Mouth of Kala”) to keep the headbangers smiling. Metal means a lot of different things in 2012, but this is what most people think about when they think about metal. Sometimes being the standard-bearer is just as important as being an innovator.
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