Steel Druhm’s Top 10(ish) of 2011

steel druhmWe made it through another year here in Angry Metal World. We overcame Terminal Reviewer Burnout Syndrome, careers and personal lives, just to bring you more of our self-righteous, ego-driven babbling and blathering. Why did we do it? Because we care so damn much! Now, as the year grinds us all towards inevitable doom, it falls to me to get the metal wheel a rolling and name my picks for the best albums of 2011. This was a pretty solid year, so it was tough figuring out which albums belonged where, but you demanded it, so I’m delivering the goods, Yeah!

Before said delivery, I want to extend my thanks to AMG for allowing me to share in the day-to-day trials and tribulations inherent in keeping this fantastic site alive and well. Of course, all the hard work we put into this would be pointless without you, the readers (or sheeple, as AMG secretly refers to you all). Your loyal readership and regular contributions [And thirsty demand for numerical ratings! AMG] give the site a feeling of community that many other sites lack and you’re what makes the job so damn rewarding. So, without getting too sappy, Steel Druhm loves you all (even when you don’t agree with my indisputable brilliance). Shine on, you crazy King Diamonds! Okay, enough caring and sharing, let’s get to the paring! Raise the horns for 2012 and on with the hootenanny!

#10: Ava Inferi // Onyx I owe these folks an apology of sorts. Although I gave their album a solid 3.5 and said good things, over the course of the year, this album kept growing on me and ended up getting more playtime than many albums with higher ratings. There’s something mysterious and otherworldly about it that keeps drawing me back. The melancholy writing and playing by Rune Eriksen and the haunting vocals by Carmen Susana Simoes combine to load this thing down with atmosphere and it overcame my burnout on female fronted goth-metal. Songs like “The Living End,” “Majesty” and “The Heathen Island” resonate with dark energy despite the melodic vocals. It’s that ominous vibe just below the surface that makes things crackle and hum. Although I can’t get into their previous material, Onyx clicks and is a real winner. Should have given it a higher score, my bad!

#9: Vyrion // Vyrion – These guys hit like a bolt of black lightning with a completely unheralded blast of progressive black metal and it was just what the doctor ordered to allay my chronic black metal fatigue. It’s inventive, well written blackness incorporating elements of death, doom and goth along with a fair amount of post-rock and managing to piece them all together into memorable songs. Sure, the production is cavernous, hollow and saddled with too much reverb but it doesn’t derail the impact of the top-flight material. There’s nasty, ugly stuff on here and there’s emotional, grandiose moments bound to impress. Don’t sleep on these Aussie newcomers, they’re onto something and they could evolve into something truly special, like a flesh-eating butterfly!

#8: Battle Beast // Steel – Into every life, some cheese must fall and Battle Beast is that cheddar! Another band that came from left field to shock and awe, the Beast brings an irresistible 80’s worshiping, true metal brand of histrionics and silliness. Led by the uber-metal pipes of front-woman Nitte Valo, these proud Finns blast through every metal cliche known to God and Man and its nonstop fun and oh so rockin (with Dokken). At times more loinclothy than Manowar and more Germanic than Helloween, the entire length of Steel is catchy, fist-in-the-air, brain-at-the-door metal like they don’t write anymore, and I defy you to only listen once (it’s like a musical potato chip). It also doesn’t hurt they named this thing after me, though of course, I can’t be bought and don’t play favorites. You complete me, Ms. Valo.

#7: Helrunar // Sol Very few super-obscure bands have the ability (not to mention the means) to release a double album of raw, uncompromising black metal, but Helrunar did just that with Sol. This thing is ninety minutes of caustic, sledgehammer-like blackness with heaps of grinding Celtic Frosty doom mixed in and it works like a charm. There’s tons of quality, a lot of heaviness and some interesting melodic passages as well. What amazed me was how consistently good this thing was over its long length. It’s a blackened tour-de-force and contains some of the best moments of extreme music from 2011, especially the ginormous title track, which you all should hear. Big album, big win! But how do you top it?

#6: Septic Flesh // The Great Mass – The lords of crazy-ass classical, symphonic black/death are back and man, did they make a big statement in 2011. Refining their berserk hodge-podge of elements to a razor’s edge, The Great Mass is a roller coaster ride through hell with Pinhead as your disgruntled and surly guide. The wild directional shifts from brutality to bombastic symphonics are disorienting but highly creative and well constructed. There’s a great dichotomy between ugly and beautiful throughout and it really turns the head and keeps you on your toes. Some of this stuff is so catchy, it’s shocking, while other stuff is so heavy and insane, it’s actually terrifying. Several friends asked me to turn this album off because it was “freaking them out,” so you know its gotta be good! Death metal needs these kinds of genre expanding bands. The Great Mass indeed!

#5: Pentagram // Last Rites I have to admit, it tickles me that the best doom metal album of the year came from the long-struggling, underrated geezers collectively known as Pentagram. These guys are old as dirt and have more miles on them than Amtrak, but fuck all if they didn’t find the Fountain of Youth with this MOFO. Last Rites is a throwback to the very beginnings of doom and rooted deep in the bluesy 70’s style these chaps pioneered along with Black Sabbath. Slow, thick and dirgey but melodic and steeped in world-weariness and exasperation, it could be the soundtrack for the occasional burnout we all experience in life. The care-worn, thread-bare vocals of Bobby Liebling mix so perfectly with the simplistic, haunted riffing by Victor Griffin, it’s indisputable these doom legends were made for each other. Doom to the world, the Lords have come!

#4: Arch/Matheos // Sympathetic Resonance This quasi-Fates Warning reunion project had my anticipation factor set for nervous breakdown and it didn’t disappoint one iota. Anytime vocalist extraordinaire John Arch (one of the best voices to ever grace metal) returns to music it’s going to be something special, but when teamed with his old Fates compatriots, pure magic results. It’s proggy, technical as hell, surprisingly heavy and made instantly accessible by Arch’s unbelievable pipes and vocal placement. The man’s one-of-a-kind voice soars over some very convoluted music and everything somehow gels. Huge props for the lyrical tribute to Fates classic “Exodus” in the beginning of “Stained Glass Sky.” A progressive masterwork, not to be missed. Hail the golden Arch!

#3: Voyager // The Meaning of I – Proggy heavy metal from down under and one of the most addicting listens of 2011. Featuring an odd blend of traditional, power metal and A-HA (yes, that A-HA), this is an album overflowing with impossibly catchy earworms of the most unkillable variety. Listen to songs like “Stare Into the Night,” “Iron Dreams” or “Fire of the Times” and you’ll see what I mean. Despite the catchiness, the songs have real substance and this is an excellent album through and through. While the cold, overproduced over-modern mix can put some people off, the songs speak for themselves. The few times I didn’t have this on, various friends demanded to hear it. It has a way of infecting anyone that hears it. It’s an aural epidemic!

#2: Riot // Immortal Soul I’ve said it a bunch and I’ll go to the grave saying it, Riot’s 1988 Thundersteel album is one of the best metal albums ever written. I slavishly play that thing to this day and it never gets stale. When the revered Thundersteel lineup reunited last year to record a new album, I didn’t dare to hope they could come close to rivaling that sacred golden cow. Well, Immortal Soul landed late in the year and it comes as close as possible to equaling it in quality and addictiveness. Featuring the still amazing pipes of Tony Moore and the always dazzling fretboard gymnastics of Mark Reale, this thing is a big ole fistful of catchy, melodic but raging metal and I love every minute of it. Every single song blisters with Painkiller-esque leather and chrome and there’s one HUGE chorus after another to trip over. The only reason this didn’t end up in the #1 spot was its relative newness and that its staying power hasn’t been fully battle-tested yet. This is the biggest comeback of the year and a HUGE win for a legendary metal band. Welcome back Riot, I missed ya!

#1: Omnium Gatherum // New World ShadowsThis was the shocker of the year for me. Though I liked their previous album, I never expected anything from them THIS good! Virtually jump starting the entire melo-death genre single-handedly, New World Shadows is a monsterpiece of art and balance, deftly blending true death metal vocals with a cornucopia of glossy, often frilly melodies. Taking the best pieces of the Gothenberg ethos and technical flare of vintage In Flames and fusing them into a power metal construct loaded with keyboards and clean vox simply shouldn’t have worked this well. Songs like “Everfield,” “Soul Journeys” and the title track are jaw dropping in their power, scope and beauty. This got far more airtime than anything else this year and it holds up exceedingly well. Kudos, OG, you win the heavyweight title for 2011!

– ish: Anubis Gate // Anubis Gate – Since AMG gives me an “ish” as well as a top ten, I had to give it to these great Danes. It seems every release by these prog-power champs ends up somewhere on my end of the year list and this one is no different. Despite changing singers, they kept the quality intact and this eponymous opus is pure melodic gold from start to finish. Every song is prog-power as it was meant to be and several songs were candidates for my “top ten songs of the year” list. While there’s a slight change in musical direction, it’s very palatable and Henrik Fevre’s vocals make them sound a lot like Vanden Plas. “The Reformation Show” alone makes the album a worthwhile investment, but there are lots more goodies besides and this is one very listenable, engaging jaunt through melodic metal. Simply put, they have the “ish” factor.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Sinister Realm // The Crystal Eye – A no-bullshit, stripped-down epic/doom metal ass kicking.
  • Hate Eternal // Phoenix Amongst the Ashes – The album Morbid Angel decided not to give us.
  • Draconian // A Rose for the Apocalypse – The year’s best “beauty and beast” album also features great doom.
  • Aurvandil // Yearning – One of the most atmospheric black metal outings in recent memory.
  • Loss // Despond – Crushing funeral doom that manages to be oddly catchy.
  • Toxic Holocaust // Conjure and Command – Shamelessly fun throwback mid-80s thrash.
  • Argus // Boldly Stride the Doomed – Old timey epic metal with loads of doom and balls of lead.
  • Before the Dawn // Deathstar Rising – Brilliantly heavy goth-tinged death from Finland.
  • Black Sun Aeon // Blacklight Deliverance – Brilliantly heavy death-tinged doom from Finland.
  • Belphegor // Blood Magick Necromance – I told you they’d make it! Great blackened death.
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