If I would have to sum up the Metal Year of 2009 with only one word it'd be parity. In previous years, I've had a clear-cut favorite for Album of the Year, and I stand by those picks still today. Where 2009 differs from previous years is that to me, there hasn't been an album that has stood out like Colors (2007) or Traced In Air (2008) did. Instead it's a much more even race from top to bottom, and I greatly prefer that over albums that run away with the title. Without further ado, let's cut to the chase and hand out the awards
10. Lamb Of God Wrath
After a fairly mediocre showing in Sacrament, Lamb of God fortunately returned to a rawer and more aggressive sound in Wrath. Gone was the polish and instead it seems like they decided to anoint the entire recording with the kind of foot-pudding you find in Mark Morton's shoes after a couple of months of touring.
As nigh all other albums to make this top 10, Wrath possesses a level of quality without significant dips. It's not an album with 2-4 killer songs and then 30 minutes of mediocrity, but a focused effort which delivers aggression, power and punch over the course of it's 45 minutes. While it's fair to argue that Lamb of God took a stylistic step or two backwards in some departments, one must also note that they've expanded their sound to include acoustics, while Mark Morton has continued to explore his role as lead guitarist.
Wrath isn't the band's best effort to date, but it's still a damn fine metal album and most certainly worthy of a spot on This Year In Metal.
9. Shadow Gallery Digital Ghosts
Most critically acclaimed bands don't continue after losing their lead singer, and very few of those who do continue manage to produce an album that can stand up to their back catalogue. Shadow Gallery endured the tragic loss of their long-time lead singer Mike Baker, and then managed to produce another great album with new vocalist Brian Ashland.
Fans of bands like Dream Theater and Symphony X will probably be aware of Shadow Gallery's existence, as they've set up shop in more or less the same niche in the metal genre.
Digital Ghosts is a great progressive metal album that is full of instrumental prowess while retaining a general feeling that the guys are all working together for the benefit of the song. And what is special in this case is that the feeling is sustained for the entire 55-minute existence of the album.
8. Isis Wavering Radiant
Isis' sound is at times like a dense, milky fog. On Wavering Radiant the wonderful thing is that just before you've had enough of the fog, it dissolves and something much lighter and soothing is delivered to you. To balance these two worlds is not an easy task, but Isis accomplish just that on Wavering Radiant.
Despite the apparent thickness of the fog, the production delivered still manages to give the music room to breathe and the band manages to retain the air whilst filling it with additional instruments and layers.
At the end of the day, the apparent troubles coupled with labelling an album like Wavering Radiant stems from the music. The darkest moments are very dark, as are the corresponding light moments, yet the album manages to perform the transition between these elements perfectly, something only the sun itself can claim to do on a daily basis. And it doesn't take much of a brain to figure out that such a feat is rare in the world of music, not to mention the metal genre.
7. Obscura Cosmogenesis
Very rarely do supergroups work out, but we can't put Obscura in that category, not after this clinic in technical death metal. Cosmogenesis is the album of the year in that category, and while being brutal and technical it is also extremely tuneful and catchy.
Much of the credit for their sound must go Jeroen Paul Thesseling (Pestilence) whose fretless basswork is really the true highlight of the album. Thesseling's tasty delivery where he drifts in and out between grooving with the drums, supporting the guitars or playing countermelodies, is something you can only achieve when you completely dedicate yourself to your instrument. Obviously the other guys contribute a great deal as well, most notably Christian Muenzner (ex-Necrophagist) and his neo-classical soloing, but this is one of few metal albums where bass guitar can be the focal point for an entire album. And that does not have to be a bad thing, my fellow guitarists.
6. Swallow The Sun New Moon
They've got the potential to be great. I've thought that to myself several times when listening to albums by bands that haven't quite made it. Swallow the Sun would definitely fall into that category and while it may be heresy to some, I'd say that they've just started to realise their potential with their last two releases. Plague of Butterflies would've made it onto my Top 10 last year if it'd been an album and not an EP. Their earlier output had the potential but lacked the execution. Well, they finally hit home with New Moon.
There're albums that sound like they were tailored to fit a particular season, and New Moon sounds like a dark, rainy and cold October evening. The music is mostly rooted in doom, with melancholic melodies that would make a suicidal teen feel upbeat by comparison, but there's also a good chunk of black metal-esque sections.
Is the opening 1-2 punch of These Woods Breathe Evil and Falling World the best one this year? Highly likely. Then again, add Sleepless Swans and you may have the best opening trio of 2009. While recognizing the greatness of these songs, it should be noted that the rest of the album isn't far behind and the drop in quality is negligible.
Unless your party clientele consists of suicide cultists, I doubt you'll throw on New Moon to get the party started (imagine the afterparty!), but as far as emotional and melancholic music goes, it's hard to do better in 2009.
5. Immortal All Shall Fall
As far as triumphant returns go, it's hard to do better than Immortal. Seven long years had passed since Sons of Northern Darkness was released in 2002, and for good reasons the band had huge expectations to meet. After such a long hiatus from recording, it's natural that along with the expectations, a lot of questionmarks were raised.
Well, the bottom line is that All Shall Fall sounds like a full-on blizzard delivering atmosphere, aggression and even a touch of catchiness amidst all the grim riffing. What is also very pleasing is that the band understands that music like this is best delivered in short bursts and rarely does it do an album much good to continue past the 40-minute mark.
All Shall Fall is one of the best albums in 2009, one of the best comebacks in many years, and they needed just seven tracks and forty minutes to accomplish it.
4. Dream Theater Black Clouds & Silver Linings
Not many bands have the privilege to be around for almost a quarter of a century, let alone be relevant and produce great albums that far into their career. Fortunately for us, Dream Theater fit that category just nicely. After a couple of lackluster albums in the 2000's, they finally hit it big again with Black Clouds & Silver Linings.
Black Clouds differs a bit from the other albums on this list, in the aspect that it's not a very even effort. There're a handful of honest-to-Petrucci amazing songs, but also one or two songs that don't achieve much. The Shattered Fortress is an unfortunate mish-mash of older songs in the AA Saga and A Nightmare To Remember would've benefitted greatly if DT's pseudo-brutal attempts would've been cut.
So, how on earth is it that it manages to reach #4 on my 2009 Top 10? Well, the remaining four songs are among their best ever. The Count of Tuscany and The Best of Times are very reminiscent of 1990's DT, Wither is one of their better ballads since Through Her Eyes, and finally A Rite of Passage might be their best single since Pull Me Under. What it all boils down to with this album is that the silver lining stands out much more than the black clouds. And rightly so.
What is this you say? Three albums tied for the #1 spot? Surely someone on UG must've made a mistake?
No, actually it's all as it should be. All of the albums on this Top 10 are great releases and as I was reviewing the past year, I found it increasingly difficult to separate the albums and decide which one was better than the other. The closer to the top I got, the lesser the gap was between the albums. And the more I tried, the more futile it felt. So I thought Why not celebrate all three as if they were #1?, because I truly feel they are. So without further ado, the winning trio:
1. Between The Buried And Me The Great Misdirect
There is both a blessing and a curse involved when you release an album like Colors. The blessing is of course that you've created a brilliant piece of music, and the curse is that your follow-up will have to face enormous expectations.
The Great Misdirect could also be called Meeting And Exceeding Expectations 101. I always try to keep my own expectations at bay, but even I found it hard when the release date started itching closer and closer. Obviously you have by now figured out that it delivered on all fronts. Between the Buried And Me are the new Progfathers and they are here to stay.
Much like Colors, The Great Misdirect manages to take seemingly schizophrenic segments and merge them into something that makes sense, something that sounds beautiful and something that is filled with emotionwhile being an intelligent piece of music. To do it once in your career is an amazing achievement, to do it twice should be a criminal offence.
1. Amorphis Skyforger
When you talk about bands whose careers have undergone a complete rejuvenation, Amorphis should be one of them. Skyforger is their third great-to-brilliant album in a row and it's also arguably their best effort to date.
Skyforger is an album filled to the brim with hits. Just about every song on the album could be played on the radio, and every single one of them has at least one huge hook that'll lure you in. Tomi Joutsen, who took over vocal duties in 2005, delivers another excellent performance, showcasing his ability to mix brutal growls with angelic clean vocals.
On the surface the formula of Skyforger is fairly simple, but such a thing is irrelevant when the quality of the songs operate on the level that these do. Front-to-back, this is probably the most even album of the year, and when every song could be considered a hit, how can you go wrong?
1. Mastodon Crack The Skye
Every album released by Mastodon has been coupled with a fairly large shift in terms of style. With every album they've moved further and further away from their sludgy beginnings, and Crack the Skye finds them nestled in somewhere between progressive rock, classic rock and metal. What's most interesting to note is that while we're graced with their most intricate album to date, it's also by far their darkest and most melancholic offering.
Crack the Skye is also arguably their most complete effort to date, even though Leviathan might disagree. The album is truly an epic journey from the opening notes of Oblivion to the ending solo frenzy in The Last Baron. The individual songs work very well when taken out of context, but Crack the Skye truly shines when you sit down, without distractions, and just listen to the whole damn thing from start to finish. There're a lot worse ways to spend fifty minutes of your life, but few better as far as metal album released in 2009 go.