You know what? I can’t do it. I can’t pick a favourite. It’s not within me. There’s usually one stand-out album for me, but the albums I have enjoyed most this year have been so diverse in genre, method and execution that I just can’t choose.
But you know what? I’m the boss, so I don’t have to!
Instead, what follows is a list of my absolute favourite releases from 2012, in no order other than alphabetical. These are honestly the ten records that best represent my musical year; that gave me a certain feeling, and that I have come back to again and again, and will continue to do so long into 2013.
In truth I don’t even want to rank at this point, as to do so would lessen the love I feel for these ten records. Hidden within are both albums and EPs, as I see no difference between the two other than length (indeed, I often prefer them), and no need to differentiate.
Without any further ado…
Anathema – Weather Systems
With Weather Systems, Liverpudlians Anathema‘s ninth studio album, the transformation from doom pioneers to soaring prog grand-masters is truly at a zenith – one I sincerely hope continues.
Rich in both transcendental heuristics and pure naked emotion, Weather Systems displays almost flawless guile in manipulating the listener on its affecting journey of love, loyalty and loss. It keeps this up for fifty-five minutes, yet it never feels draining, thanks to the beautifully constructed melodies and incredible talent of the members. Female vocalist Lee Douglas is a particular highlight for me; her light-as-air voice like a lullaby at times, raising hairs I didn’t even know I had.
The rising swells and delicate respites that litter and flow through of the entire piece lend to a feeling of breathless majesty that I has not been matched – to my ears – for a long time.
Black Breath epitomise everything that is good about contemporary hardcore punk, and with Sentenced To Life, their sophomore LP, they have refined their sledgehammer sound into ten songs of toothy, thrashy goodness.
Whilst the other albums of this style on my list may be slightly more experimental, Sentenced To Life brings the most important elements: the speed, the riffs and angry attitude of punk to the fore, and mould them to their own end. The Motörhead-esque sensibility combines with gang shouts that crash over thick, sometimes black-metal-esque staccato riffs, altogether with furious drumming and the pissed-off vocals of Nate McAdams.
“Endless Corpse” is a gem, opening with all the atmospheric reverb of Neurosis before notching the dial up to eleven with some seriously super-speed execution, before segueing neatly into the equally breakneck “Mother Abyss“.
Black Breath are quickly becoming one of the absolute highlights of their scene, and with the production of Converge‘s Kurt Ballou behind them, they will undoubtedly go one stronger on their next release.
Code Orange Kids – Love Is Love // Return To Dust
It warms my icy heart that every year, without fail, a debut album makes it to my list. It’s most likely the ‘new’ factor; the novelty of a band making me sit up and take notice. Everyone likes coming across something brand new and awesome, right? Being the miserly scrooge I am it hasn’t happened a lot this year, but of those with whom is has, this is definitely one of my favourites.
Although it’s not the only, or even the purest hardcore record on my list this year, Love Is Love // Return To Dust is hardcore done right, and it’s ever more impressive given the average age of Code Orange Kids is just eighteen. At eighteen I was still picking my nose and wondering just how much of my wage it was acceptable to spend on Magic: The Gathering cards on eBay, never mind being in the right headspace to be touring North America for much of the year and writing an album good enough to get me signed to a major label (Jacob Bannon’s Deathwish Inc.).
The album itself is all dirty, throaty vocals, rumbling low-end and distortion, and it’s compacted into twenty-seven-odd minutes, and for that there’s absolutely no fluff. Worth at least a try, if not a buy.
David Maxim Micic – Bilo 2.0
For the most part, David Maxim Micic‘s EP Bilo 2.0 is instrumental, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the most interesting instrumental releases put out this year. We’ve had your Chimp Spanners (All Roads Lead Here, which deserves a special mention) and a variety of excellent post-rock releases, including ones from Mono, Balmorhea and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
What sets DMM apart from the others is a wonderfully free sense of composition that is both fun an unique. Combining elements of electronica, guitar work and, when used as it is so sparingly, majestic vocals – which are often not in English (understandable given Micic’s Serbian heritage), and are so much more effective for being so ‘rare’.
Each track is very different to the last, showcasing a variety of songwriting facets, and ultimately leaves you with a sense of buoyancy, which is no bad thing given the tough times we’ve all no doubt faced over the past twelve months and beyond.
For those not in the know, David is also part of Destiny Potato, a Belgrade-based six-piece signed to Century Media.
Every Time I Die – Ex Lives
From the moment I first heard opening track “Underwater Bimbos From Outer Space” I could tell that, for the sixth time in the last decade and a half, Every Time I Die were about to hit us with another gem. I was not wrong.
Ex Lives hearkens back to the band’s earlier, crustier albums; the sound of Hot Damn! in particular is tangible, with its unbridled fury evident in tracks such as “Holy Book Of Dilemma” and “A Wild, Shameless Plain“, but it’s tempered with the confident southern rock sensibility of their later efforts – and as always, frontman Keith Buckley is on form both vocally and lyrically, exhibiting the kind of poetic verve we’ve come to expect from him.
I’m not sure this is their best ever, but it’s damn close, and it’s everything you could want from an Every Time I Die album; it’s energetic, it’s meaty, and it’s incredibly fun to witness live – the arena in which these guys thrive.
Whilst I am unable to pick favourites this year, I will admit that this album gave me strong cause to crown it my champion of 2012; to hang my favour from its lance and let it joust for my honour and my hand in marriage.
Tree Of Tongues was one of those recommendations I sat on for far too long. The friend in question who kept telling me to pull my finger out was tenacious enough with me, and upon a gambit of describing them as something like The Dillinger Escape Plan meets At The Drive-In in a blender with Alice’s Mad Hatter.
From the opening break in “Pharmakokinetic” (a branch of pharmacology, for those interested), I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’ve been waiting for an album like this for years – an album that understands the art of what I like to call the “long build”. What I mean by this is that where some bands rely on immediately satisfying but sometimes vacuous breakdowns, a band like Exotic Animal Petting Zoo will craft a section of a song – sometimes entire album sections – with the purpose of teasing the listener. You may not be aware that they are building, or what they are building to, but when it hits it yields so much more for having made you wait. Not since These Arms Are Snakes‘ This Is Meant To Hurt You (an EP which feels like the sole purpose is to lead you to a break at the climax of the sixth and final song) has it been handled this well.
Sonically, it switches from frantic post-hardcore – all desperate screaming and agitated guitar lines – to soaring soundscapes of the highest quality. Guitarist and lead vocalist Brandon Carr is a massive factor in this; his ability to cut between shrieks and his gloriously buttery croon is impressive to put it lightly, and adds shine to an accomplished musical battery which displays its complex mathcore cojones with style. Time signatures and effects about-face at the drop of a pick, and it’s all carried for forty-seven minutes with few abberations. A true unsung gem of the year.
It sure was nice of GAZA to take time away from writing, touring, and presumably screaming obscenities in hospital nurseries to hand us No Absolutes In Human Suffering, their third album, and an absolute tour de force of pure vitriol and caustic rage.
The visual quality of Jon Parkin’s lyrics is flawless. From the opening track, which describes dragging the decaying corpse of a once-proud race horse around a back yard, to scathing anti-religious and intellectualist sentiment, his choice of words is concise and at all times pointed and economical; a venomous tongue in a barbed wire throat.
Musically, No Absolutes inflicts aural suffering in only the best way. Frantic riffs pound into agitated buzz, and pace-setting drums batter away with urgency. Be under no illusions: this is one of the year’s most eye-gougingly morose offerings, so don’t expect to be uplifted in any way, but for unabated catharsis you won’t find much better.
Canadian post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor slipped this, their first album in about a month short of a decade, into the world with all the hype and fanfare of a ninja convention in a library.
That didn’t stop its covert release at a rare show for the band subsequently gaining a massive amount of attention worldwide, and causing this humble writer to collapse into a numerous happy, fifty-three minute coma-bubbles.
The band’s 1999 opus Slow Riot For New Zerø Kanada is my favourite piece of music of all time, and whilst this has not surpassed it, it is certainly one of their stronger releases since.
‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is often as bleak as the rest of the band’s catalogue; a quivering, plague-ridden soundscape, replete with droning strings, yet the brighter clutches soar as only Godspeed can. You really have to hear it to appreciate its majesty, but it’s a welcome return to the world for certain.
A post-metal band of serious quality, Latitudes have spent the last few years honing their craft and touring the shit out of the UK, and as a result they’ve been able to concoct Individuation, their finest record to date; an absolute rumbling behemoth of an album.
Latitudes are all about the slow roll, so if you’re looking for speed here you’ll be sorely disappointed (except perhaps on closer “Individuation (Telos)“). What you do get, however, is a thundering soundscape that moves at the pace of an olyphant, but is more nuanced than many of its post-metal contemporaries. As well as the crushing riffs and near-constant drone that threatens to overwhelm at any moment, the band employ a myriad of tools to engage the listener.
“Metabolic Pathways” finds them throwing out a diverse lone piano intro into which the song-proper breaks powerfully, but for me the crowning glory is the sparse use of ‘guest’ vocalist Adam Symonds. Known in the past for his work shredding vocals chords at the front of Eden Maine, here he lends his absolutely haunting falsetto to the proceedings. At times so delicate it’s barely discernible, but it’s incredibly evocative and lends just another facet to an already accomplished record.
Grind The Ocean, from UK tech-metal newcomers The Safety Fire, was certainly this year’s grower for me. I absolutely adored Pre-release track “Huge Hammers” as soon as I heard it, but the sheer originality and brazen ingenuity of it – as well as the fact that I had played it to death – meant that the rest of the album, with its equally ambitious but unfamiliarity, left me impressed but not enamoured.
Something kept teasing me back though. I’m not sure if it was the characterful quality of Sean McWeeney’s vocals, or the highly technical aspect of the music – whose idiom encompasses lots of interesting weedly riffs and dexterous drumming – but with every fresh listen, and every time I progressed past the opening track, I began to appreciate the true genius of Grind The Ocean: the subtle tones; the floor-opening solos; the - and before long I was playing it back to back just to hear those skilfully applied bent notes and harmonics again.
Each track is memorable for its own reasons, and so the entire piece has longevity beyond the normal ’stand-out’ tracks – yet it still displays cohesion.
The time and effort it took to create this record is plain to see, and these guys have a bright future ahead of them.
The following releases were super fine, and for that reason I think they deserve at least a mention, if not a medal or something.
Balmorhea – Stranger
I got into this one late, and so haven’t fully had time to digest it, but these Texans are masters of experimental post-rock, and I can’t wait to see them on their European tour in 2013.
Chimp Spanner – All Roads Lead Here
The man who holds the banana-shaped crown for djent-centric instrumental metal put out a fantastic EP this year that swirls around various sci-fi concepts without ever uttering a word. Fantastic.
Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind
Anyone who knows me and my adoration of Converge will be surprised to see them omitted from the main list. AWLWLB is a fine record, but it hasn’t yet grabbed me in the way its predecessors or contemporaries have. Nevertheless, expect me to be eating my words by summer.
Devil Sold His Soul – Empire Of Light
DSHS continue to build their *ahem* empire with another strong release that focuses more on Rocky-inspired positivity, and sees frontman Ed Gbbs develop his clean vocals even more. Crushing and delicate in equal measure.
Skyharbor – Blinding White Noise: Illusion & Chaos
India announced its intent on the world stage with a staggeringly good take on the djent genre, and features the ever-incredible Dan Tompkins (ex-TesseracT) on vocals.
Sylosis – Monolith
Our namesake, our friends, and our colleagues, Sylosis put out yet another cracking album that embodies the term ‘metal’ only a few months ago. Well worth picking up, and not just because their guitarist built our site.
Thrice – Major/Minor
The final studio album from the highly regarded Californian quartet took a little bit of getting used to, but it’s quality Thrice through and through. Big riffs and the inimitable vocals of Dustin Kensrue combine for a force majeure of brilliant post-hardcore.
Watsky – Nothing Like The First Time
I don’t really listen to rap or hip-hop, but native San-Franciscan George Watsky dominated my non-metal listening habits this year, and capped it all with a fantastic show in London over the summer. Taking his skill as a spoken word poet, he puts together songs that are devilishly clever, markedly poignant, and often hilarious. A real free-love kinda guy, and someone who has a fantastic career ahead of him.
(see also: Watsky & Mody, a bluegrass folk hip-hop album featuring nods to O’ Brother, Where Art Thou and The Graduate)
So there you have it: my 2012 in a nutshell. It was a good year for me – admittedly for me it wasn’t as strong as the past couple, but nevertheless, I’m looking forward to 2013.
Until next time, bring on the next apocalypse!