Saturday, 22 December 2012

#238 Azure Agony - India

Today, two years ago, I wrote my first review on this blog. I didn't really know how to write a full review, and I only managed a couple of vaguely coherent paragraphs. Frankly, I didn't know very much about metal at all at that point. It's fitting, I think, that exactly two years later, that I review the same band that I first ever reviewed. Conveniently, they released an album early this year that I've been meaning to listen to for a while. The band I'm talking about are Azure Agony, an Italian progressive-metal band, and their second full-length album, India.

Listening to the album, it's definitely visible that the band have developed over the years since their last release. Perhaps the most notable difference is that the band now have a vocalist in tow, a huge change from their previous album, Beyond Belief, which was entirely instrumental. I can only imagine that it's a huge and difficult step to incorporate such a change, but the band seem to have managed quite successfully. Granted, India sounds very different to Beyond Belief, but at the same time, it is undoubtedly still Azure Agony. The key features, that being instantly recognisable guitar tone and keyboard melodies which make the band noticible, are still present. Now, however, the songs are laced neatly with competent, powerful and distinct vocals, often presenting memorable vocal hooks and choruses with as much skill as the rest of the band draw the listener in with progressive musicianship. The band are certainly one which I would trust to come up with interesting new material, and they deliver it well - there's as much cleverness and intricacy within the pulsating riffs and melodies of the album as there was in the last one, and, like it's predecessor, the sound manages to blend complexity with a more honest beauty, and a straight-forward air, the latter managing not to clash with the album's intricate and subtle technicalities.

In some ways, the new album isn't, perhaps, as "heavy" as Beyond Belief, with a warmer, more relaxing atmosphere frequently shown throughout the record. There's less of a sprawling, manic feel, and as a whole, the album feels more laid-back and smooth-flowing. Like Beyond Belief, however, the band make a great show of the sheer range of experimentation, and various styles which they incorporate into their sound - everything from a rock n' roll edge in places, to continental accordion work, to an ambient feel in others. There are intense, fairly heavy songs, but also songs which soar with more delicate melodies and riffs which fly high and really give the music an elevating, elating atmosphere. The band have a great grasp of crafting both intense and calm sections, but also seem to have a talent for conjoining them - the album flows between the different styles very smoothly, and there's quite a feeling of continuity between the songs through the whole album - it certainly feels like a single, complete opus, as opposed to merely a collection of songs - it strongly has it's own character, through and through. I don't listen to much progressive-metal, I must confess, but Azure Agony's brand of the style is one which I can certainly enjoy, and India is the most complete sounding record they've recorded so far. If the band continue in this vein, I can see them becoming well known.

It can often be difficult to make a second-album which properly lives up to the quality of the début, but I think I can safely say that Azure Agony have managed to do so - it shows, perhaps, that taking a little more time than the average band can absolutely pay-off.

This is 7/10 material.

Azure Agony Official Site
Azure Agony on Facebook
Azure Agony on Myspace
Azure Agony on Metal Archives

Friday, 21 December 2012

Feature: Black Solstice: Ten black-metal classics

Today marks the Winter Solstice, and that put me in the mood for some black-metal. Fortunately, I've been thinking of making a list of some black-metal classics for some time, and there are more of those than the casual observer might be lead to believe. Today I've tried to go beyond the entry-level of the genre, and bring to you all a list of some of the lesser-celebrated, but equally deserving of recognition black-metal albums. Some are from the early nineties - even as old as the foundations of the genre, whilst others instead are more recent, but have turned heads.

Without further ado, lets venture into the cold, misty landscape which exists just beneath the dominant, and most accessible forces within the genre. That isn't to say that the bands listed herein will be obscure to a high extent - far from it, many will be known to all but the most inexperienced enthusiast for the genre. To put it another way, this list is for the fan who has listened to Mayhem, Burzum and Darkthrone, and isn't sure where to go next.


#10: Thorns - Self Titled: Snorre Ruch, the man behind Thorns is, quite possibly one of the unsung heroes of the early Norwegian black-metal scene. Under the name Blackthorn, he contributed his guitar playing and even material to Mayhem's landmark De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas album, as well as being closely tied to the scene as a whole at that time. Thorns is now Snorre's main project, and is the first experience many will have of industrial black-metal. The album flawlessly combines the neat, angular pulse and rhythm of industrial music with the cold, caustic riffs which Snorre excels in creating, which are among the finest in black-metal.

#9: Sigh - Scorn Defeat: Quite possibly one of Japan's very first black-metal bands, Sigh's "Scorn Defeat" album of 1993, released on Euronymous' Deathlike Silence record label, can equal or surpass anything that Norway was managing to conjure at the time. It's darkness and sheer oozing ferocity really being a point to notice throughout the record.  At the same time, the album manages to incorporate various extraneous styles, particularly elegant synth use in places,  a sign of the avant-garde leanings which would shape the band in years to come, and would lead the band to continue to release fresh and novel releases since.

#8: Summoning - Minas Morgul: Black metal has always had a penchant for fantasy themes, particularly the universe of Tolkein. Few bands can rival Austrian outfit Summoning on the matter; with lyrics almost entirely devoted to Lord of the Rings, the bands second album, 1995's Minas Morgul is a classic, and thoroughly indicative of the bands overall style; soaring keyboards and tremolo riffs weave hypnotically around thundering sequenced drums, generating a sound which is hugely evocative and beautiful, favouring a majestic and epic style, compared to the typical darkness of black-metal.

#7: Windir - Likferd: Windir disbanded after the tragic death of Valfar, the bands mainstay. Their final album, Likferd, manages to be scathing, cold and windswept, with all of the accompaniments one might expect on an album with such an atmosphere. At the same time, however, Likferd is extremely dynamic, with a great deal of variety, and memorable melodies, from synth, guitar, and occasionally haunting clean vocals. This creates a fantastic balance of the acidic, fierce side of black metal, and it's more majestic side, evoking images of mountains, and the sound of the north wind, both harsh and beautiful.

#6: Gehenna - Seen Through the Veils of Darkness (Our Second Spell): On this album, Gehenna certainly manage to adequately encapsulate a variety of black-metal's most enjoyable styles of atmosphere, combining beauty with a dark and evil chill. Gehenna excell in creating the twisted, occult sound which can often transform black-metal from being good to being absolutely great. Seen Through the Veils of Darkness is definitely an unsung classic of the Norwegian black-metal scene, and there is no doubt that it can hold its own against any other albums released that same year, Norwegian or otherwise.

#5: Leviathan - The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide: The US doesn't have the best reputation for black-metal, but once in a while a genuinely great band emerges. Leviathan, like many bands in the US scene, are deeply rooted thematically in depression, and a human, emotional darkness, instead of in the hellish demonic clutches which many European bands lyrics are in. To put it bluntly, Leviathan's sound is truly venomous - filled with loathing and vitriol, as articulated by dynamic and heavily distorted riffs, and inventive song-writing; the album is full of surprised, but even more filled with misanthropy.

#4: Blut Aus Nord - Ultima Thulee: Blut Aus Nord are particularly known for their incredibly atmospheric and experimental albums, but sticking with the relatively pure-black-metal nature of this list, I'm focusing on the debut album Ultima Thulee, which is a fantastic album in its own right. Even in 1995, when the album was released, it was no doubt apparent that the band were going to do something unique, and the Norse spiritual exploration that is Ultima Thulee is certainly a testament to that fact, with primitive but expertly played synthesizers meeting atmospheric guitar work and an ingeniously creative ethos. The result sounds like no other.

#3: Drudkh - Autumn Aurora: Drudkh have been around for about a decade now, and have a work-ethic which is nothing short of impressive, having released nine albums in that time. Autumn Aurora is one of their early works, and is very much a landmark album within atmospheric black-metal, with a chaotic but extremely beautiful sound - distorted but at the same time carrying great tranquillity and the spirit of the forest with it. The album takes the listener on a winding and contemplative musical journey, which passes through both intense but at the same time thoughtful black-metal, punctuated by beautiful acoustic passages.

#2: Primordial - A Journey's End: Primordial are one of those bands the listening to of which is never a question of "if" but always one of "when". Combining Celtic folk music with black metal in a ratio which guarantees an epic atmosphere, with melancholy and epic songs, as opposed to merry or over-the-top ones, Primordial certainly represent the combination of folk and metal done precisely the right way. There isn't any beer or dancing in sight, merely atmosphere. Clean vocals soar hauntingly over the mix, creating a sound which, while not very caustic by black-metal standards, is extremely powerful and strong.

#1: Rotting Christ - Thy Mighty Contract: Rotting Christ are among the stalwarts of black-metal, having consistently and regularly released albums since 1993. While not as abrasive as many black-metal bands, and not exactly producing anything remotely akin to a wall of noise, Rotting Christ's epic atmosphere, memorable guitar riffs, and powerful, rhythmic beat makes them replete in majesty, atmosphere and energy. While I've not listened to the band for as long as I've known some of the bands on the list, I can safely say that with each of theirs album I listen to, the band prove themselves as a consistently reliable cornerstone of the genre.

Merry Solstice


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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

#237 Dark Forest - Dawn of Infinity

I've certainly been on something of a traditional-metal kick in the last few months, although it hasn't shown hugely in my reviews. In fact, I'm a little frustrated about how little reviewing I've been doing over all. To continue to remedy both of the above facts, I'm taking a look at British traditional metal outfit Dark Forest, who released their second album, and the one I'm examining in particular, on Cruz Del Sur music in 2011. Cruz Del Sur are a label I tend to be interested in, and have, over the years, demonstrated a tendency to back really good bands.

Traditional metal bands who have formed more recently, Dark Forest included, generally have two options; they can play traditional metal very overtly, or they can just happen to be a band who play traditional metal. Where many bands post millennium are very much the former, it's safe to say that Dark Forest are more the latter. The band sound more down-to-earth, modest and earthy than some, and certainly have more of a timeless quality to their music than one which is overtly retro - you really get the idea that the band are playing traditional metal because that's what came out of their instruments when they had their first jam, as opposed to anyone in the pub going "So... let's start a traditional metal band". Reflecting this, the lyrical themes manage to avoid the overused "metal is so fucking great" template, and actually have some narrative, telling of everything from fantasy to science fiction to something altogether more spiritual. The albums title "Dawn of Infinity" really rounds up the songs into a coherent work, in the way that bands like Iron Maiden manage to do - there aren't many Maiden albums which aren't "about something" - and this is also true of Dawn of Infinity - the album seems, for the most part, to have direction. I don't tend to pay much attention to lyrical themes - I am, in fact, quite a poor reviewer in that sense, but I was immediately taken by Dawn of Infinity's diverse themes - it really gives the album some depth and leads to an altogether more dynamic and well-rounded record than many I've listened to - it certainly feels like the band spend some time on their lyrics and themes.

Talking of dynamic, it's safe to say that this is also true of the rest of the album; the album manages to go through so many of the places explored by traditional metal, and very seldom gets tiresome or repetitive - crisp riffs are brought out from every angle, and embellished with all kinda of lead guitar. As with the lyrics, you get the impression that a lot of genuine care is poured into making the songs, and the memorably hooks, fantastic choruses and vocal lines, and rumbling riffs are really a testament to this. Every song has something good about it, some section which makes you go "yeah, that's what it's all about", and I have to emphasise my admiration for this - it really says something about the solidity of the record. The vocals also really give the album some more of the character which it really hands out to the listener. Absent is any of the pomposity or theatrical trinkets of excessively operatic power metal, and in their place a very talented but at the same time very manly frontman - delivering the sort of vocals you might expect from Blaze Bayley on a particularly good day. Consequently, what you get is a traditional metal record which really doesn't arse around - it gets straight to the point, and stays on course for it's whole running time. It's talented, solid, and thoroughly old-school, but at the same time succeeds in being fresh, and non-derivative.

Ultimately, between the riffs which soar, reverberate, trundle and otherwise propel themselves through the soundscape, and the dips, swirls and crescendos of atmosphere, and the memorable vocal lines,  there is really no time to get bored of the album - I for one found myself far too busy enjoying it, and I'd recommend it to any traditional-metal enthusiast.

Nothing short of 8/10.

Dark Forest on Facebook
Dark Forest on Myspace
Dark Forest on Metal Archives

Friday, 14 December 2012

#236 Ixion - To the Void

First and foremost, my apologies for not writing many reviews this month - I've been busy with various things, some of them apparently quite important. Anyway, I'm still writing as often as I can, and today we will be taking a trip to the four corners of the universe, and see strange and cosmic sights to which death-doom has rarely taken us previously. Everyone step aboard Ixion's 2011 atmospheric début album; "To the Void".

I first heard of Ixion in passing, summarised neatly as "space-doom". In all possibility, this is the most fitting description anyone could have come up with. Very overt, soaring keyboards feature prominently in the album, and really sculpt it's atmosphere into one which utterly, unapologetically evokes space; vast, beautiful and filled with wonder, but at the same time cold, uneasy, and perhaps as much filled with melancholy and sorrow as with joy. Epic synth and guitar melodies tumble through the album, and the sound snugly fits the weightless, slow-motion atmosphere of space. The harsh vocals which predominate the vocal department seem to fit the atmosphere too - You might expect harsh vocals to be a little odd given the context, and I wasn't expecting to hear any when I first listened to the music, but this is not the case - they work very well indeed, with a cold, slightly muffled edge which continues to compliment the cosmic feel of the album - it sounds like the vocalist recorded his tracks whilst inside a space-suit. Whether this was the intention or not, it works. The clean vocals are more varied, but are equally effective, and certainly lend themselves to the theme - they sound subdued, but also floating, soaring on solar-wind. I'm dwelling on the atmosphere a lot thus far in the review, but I think there is reason to; the album has a fantastically conjured atmosphere, and one which is consistent and well deployed throughout the whole album - easily worthy of mention.

Doom metal seems to be powerful a lot of the time - certainly something which the genre does well, and, it seems, something which Ixion do particularly well; The album feels sincere, and when you listen intently, every chord and held note feels monumental - the kind of doom album which comes at your senses like waves. At the same time, I've never, although I suspect  that it is out there, heard doom-metal which escapes gravity and sounds so far from earth. Sure, I've heard psychedelic, transcendent doom-metal before, but To the Void is very different - it's not psychedelic as such, but more akin to the science-fiction of the doom-world - It doesn't sound like it's about earth-bound subjects, or that it's even from earthy musicians - more that it was what happened when the waves from some unknown galactic singularity were converted into sound, and made something beautiful in passing. Even the synth itself sounds apart from normal synth, less akin to known instruments, and more novel. I suppose that's what some of the best music is all about, in the end; taking the listener far away from where they are, to somewhere entirely different.

I'm very, very impressed by this album, and there's no doubt that I'll be listening to it again and again. I'll also be keeping an eye on what they do next. This is, I can safely say, one of the albums which has truly blown me away in recent times.

This is a 10/10... and I try not to hand those out too frequently.

Ixion Official Site
Ixion on Facebook
Ixion on Myspace
Ixion on Metal Archives

Monday, 10 December 2012

#235 Vader - Revelations

I don't exaggerate when I say that Vader are a band I've been meaning to review for a long time. There's never a very good reason why I haven't done so, and this review is no exception - I should probably have reviewed it long ago. The other day, however, Vader came up on shuffle, and I nearly spontaneously combusted remembering how powerful they are as a band, and I knew I'd be doing a review soon.

One of the important things to know when approaching Vader having never listened to it before, is that they are a bit different from the average death-metal bands which they arose at the same time as. First of, and this album is no exception, Vader are one of the more punishing bands around. Revelations is filled to the brim with furious energy, with buzz-saw riffs of a tempo which you have to hear to believe. The speed and aggression of Vader is one of the bands trademarks, and is certainly well exhibited on this album, which, at about half-an-hour in length, is a swift barrage, as opposed to a prolonged one. That's not to say that the album lacks content, however - it's just that it's at about twice the tempo most of the death-metal I listen to is, and what's more, the band haven't been afraid to let a song be short, instead of drawing it out to a greater length, which is admirable, and works well, despite making the album seem to be over very shortly after it has begun, albeit managing to cram a huge amount of utter ferocity into that time. As I've already said, the band's energy is extremely impressive, and the combination of riffs which genuinely ooze with fist pumping, teeth-clenching and convulsing energy really make you feel their presence when they roar - backed by uncompromisingly tight and insanely physical sounding blast-beats, double-kick drumming and all-round tight, appropriate and fanatical percussion.

Adding to the colossal feel of the band are Peter's vocals, which really compliment the power of the instruments. Instantly recognisable, the roars and growls sound like they might be coming from a man whose about 8ft tall at the very least. I'd certainly class them with the most recognisable vocals in death-metal, along with the likes of Martin Van Drunen and Dave Ingram. The vocals really set Vader apart from any other band I can think of, with a truly demonic, omnipotent sound to them, perhaps partly through effects, but at the same time, I get the feeling a lot of it is entirely natural, adding to what is already quite a unique recipe for death-metal. Another point of interest is how thrashy Vader are - more so than most, and certainly in a different way to the manner in which most bands would incorporate it into their sound - I've often heard thrashy death-metal which is grubby and grimy incorporated into death-metal, but what Vader do on Revelations is take the razor-sharp aspects of the genre, and create something piercing and razor-sharp. This really echoes the overall feel which I always get of the album - that is, Revelations is an album about precision and energy, and it provides both by the truckload.

Ultimately, I'm of the opinion that Vader are a band who unleash tightly-played but incredibly energetic death metal in the right way - it flows well, and it's quite memorable, but at the same time manages to be technical, unrelenting and compact.

A 8/10 album, I think.

Vader Official Site
Vader on Facebook
Vader on Myspace
Vader on Metal Archives

Thursday, 6 December 2012

#234 Tenderizor - Touch the Sword

Leeches of Lore are quite possibly one of the most bizarre and unorthodox metal-bands to come up in the last decade, so it certainly grabbed my interest to be presented with Tenderizor - a band containing one of their members. I had no idea what the band's label; "Noise thrash" was going to be about, but I can safely say I found out in a lesson that consisted in about eight tracks of speaker destroying fury.

It's nice when a band sound like their name, and Tenderizor lives up to theirs quite well, in the sense that the music is something very hard and robust, which proceeds to beat you to a pulp. Fortunately, the pulp that the music renders you is a musically pleased one.  As it turns out, the term "noise-thrash" is pretty much exactly what the words in it might suggest. The music is thrashy, and absurdly chunky. I didn't realise that bands could have producton which was so brick-walled but at the same time tasteful; the sound levels can only be described as decimating - while not carrying the sort of crushing but clear heaviness some bands do, but instead a grainy, hugely amplified scream of instruments being played as loudly as they can, loud enough, in fact, to make them sound not quite as they should. If I were to take a copious amount of bath-salts and start to eat concrete-blocks, it would still be less crunchy than some of the moments on this record - the music absolutely roars, and casts an alternative light on what are otherwise vaguely conventional riffs, making them thunderous and unique-sounding. There's really only one way to describe it, and that is noisy. The album exudes sound-waves which batter and bruise whatever hardware they are being played through, with a tone which is dry, harsh, and unforgiving, but at the same time, very enjoyable to listen to.

 Fortunately, juxtaposed with cases in which such loud and rough production doesn't work, the album is far from just noise and distortion - There's a lot going on. As soon as the first vocals are heard, it becomes instantly recognisable which member of Leeches of Lore is in the band - the vocalist, whose style is similar in Tenderizor, but as far as I'm aware, unique. There are interesting melodies and harmonies all over the album, too, which remind me of Leeches of Lore, albeit generally more metal-purist. Like the aforementioned band, however, "Touch the Sword" is an album which has very clearly been written by people who like to think outside of the box with their song-writing, and while the record can largely be described as thrash, it's without a doubt one of the most unique thrash albums I've listened to in quite a while. What's more, for it's length, it certainly asserts itself in terms of content, with a generous serving of variety, with songs which are both solidly thrash-based, and others which clearly go down a more vague, less genre constrained road. Ultimately, the balance between the two is pleasant and there's certainly not too much of one or other. The album's thrash side is bolstered by the fact that it's monumental loudness can blow you away like a leaf, but at the same time, the loud, distorted character makes a place for atmosphere that a similar album, if produced, recorded, and played very differently might not manage to have.

Once again, I find myself reviewing an album which doesn't quite sound like anything else I've listened to. There's always something quite pleasing about doing so, particularly if it's an enjoyable album in its own right, which, I think I can trust myself to say "Touch the Sword" was. Anyhow, I'm off to the shop to buy painkillers to give to my speakers.

This is a 7/10, I think.

Tenderizor on Bandcamp
Tenderizor on Facebook
Tenderizor on Metal Archives

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

#233 Rotting Christ - Thy Mighty Contract

Whilst the album of the year poll is somewhat in the spotlight, so to speak, it's never a bad time to review an album which is older - especially if I feel I aught to listen to it. With this in mind, I decided to review Thy Mighty Contract, the début full length album by Greek band Rotting Christ. While the album is an undisputed classic of the black-metal genre, I've not had the presence of mind (or perhaps sense) to listen to it before now. I had no idea what to expect.

The album was released in 1993, a time when black-metal hadn't quite settled upon a signature sound yet, especially among bands on the peripheral of the scene, Rotting Christ being a prime example. This almost certainly lead to many interesting interpretations of the genre's sound, and "Thy Mighty Contract" is one such interpretation. The album has an epic atmosphere, which I wasn't expecting, and one which isn't carried along chiefly by tremolos and distortion, as would become the convention. The album is instead extremely riff-driven, with casts a refreshed light upon what black-metal can do. Eerie, occult guitar work, really emphasising individual chords in the form of dynamic riffs gives the album a dark but at the same time soaring atmosphere, the kind of majesty which I really enjoy in black metal; dark, evil, but also very grandiose. Another thing I didn't expect to appear was synth, but the album has quite a bit here and there - not enough to classify as "symphonic" perhaps, which is good, as too much synth can spoil a great album, but definitely enough for it to be noticeable, and work really well, adding to the beauty of the record, while being used sparingly enough to feel "valuable" - definitely making an impact when it appears, and giving the music a scale which not every black-metal band can reach. "Thy Mighty Contract" feels vast and powerful.

Another thing which the album handles well are solos and melodies, the former of  which are, it has to be said, something of a rarity in black-metal. "Thy Mighty Contract" boasts a couple, however, and they certainly don't do any harm to the atmosphere; adding the occasional victorious moment to an album which already has more than a little hellish triumph in its sound, in the epic and infinitely memorable melodies. Reconciling the epic, and admittedly at times not-so-very-dark side of the album with the evil edge of their themes, and more generally, black-metal is, in theory, a tricky job, but the band seem to manage successfully. All in all, it has to be said that the album feels organic, but at the same time very professional - contrary to some of the bands around at the time, Rotting Christ were tight musicians, and it certainly shows - the whole thing has a strong air of competence, both in terms of musicianship and well rounded production. While the album may not be as cold or vicious as the necrosound coming out of Norway at the time, the infernal darkness was certainly present in some form - there's no denying that the album is dark music in a true sense, it's just that it's not the crushing, devious persuasion of darkness. Albums like Under a Funeral Moon, by Darkthrone, and released in the same year were invocations, but Thy Mighty Contract is more a victory march forth from the gates of hell, and into the land of the living.

I can safely say that I should have listened to Rotting Christ sooner. Once again, writing reviews has lead me to encounter a band that I'm genuinely excited at the prospect of getting into. The album is solid, memorable and unique. What more could anyone want?

There's no surprise that this is a classic - 9/10.

Rotting Christ Official Site
Rotting Christ on Facebook
Rotting Christ on Myspace
Rotting Christ on Metal Archives

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Feature: Album of the Year 2012 Shortlist

As far as I'm concerned, it's been a good year for metal again.  While I definitely can't claim to have listened to everything, and indeed, I concede that later I will hear albums from this year and thing "Shit, I should have included them in the poll", but that, I've come to see, is something which will always happen. Consequently, I can say with confidence that, already, your personal favourite this year probably isn't going to be on the list.

Any kind of album-of-the-year vote is never going to be a fair thing. Heavy Metal Spotlight, as you probably know already, is not a democracy. However, it does seem to be a little unfair to take all of the albums which I've loved, or that I perceive to be excellent, this year, and lump them all into one category. Debut albums by less known bands are going to have trouble going up against the likes of Overkill and Enslaved, but at the same time, I feel there are a great number of such albums which deserve recognition.

To try and make this a little more interesting, I've made two shortlists; one for the "Heavy Metal Spotlight album of the year", and another for the "Underground Lord", which will cater to the bands which truly embody the underground, and the gems which can come from it. The shortlists are below, and the polls are at the side of the page. Enjoy voting!

Album of the Year Short-list

Woods of Ypres - Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light: Woods 5 is an emotional album not just through it's unique atmosphere, but for it's context. It's the final album by the band, released after the death of David Gold, the mastermind behind the music. While it's up to you whether this is the album of the year, I can safely say it's an album which feels genuinely special. Soothing but unsettling laments for life, love, and musings about death, wrapped in a blanket of beautifully melodic black metal, doom metal and post rock, combining to create something unlike anything else which has been released this year. 

Cattle Decapitation - Monolith of Inhumanity: Cattle Decapitation, in one word, are savage. Not quite in the same straight-forward and unrelenting way of most modern death-metal, but instead razor-sharp, twisted, and thoroughly technically adept. Incorporating groove-laden sections, elements of grind, and a real maniacal and dynamic sound, the album certainly received buckets of attention when it arrived earlier this year. It's without question one of the most brutal items on the short-list, but at the same time manages to be un-cliched about it's heaviness, goriness and rabid misanthropy and anti-human sentiment.

Pharaoh - Bury the Light: Speaking of not being clichéd, Pharaoh's latest, Bury the Light, is a textbook example of the bands ability to unleash power metal which is progressive, fresh, and genuinely exciting to listen to. Absent are the flowery flourishes of European power-metal, and in their place, once again, Pharaoh boast excellent musicianship, thoughtful song-writing and a sincere feeling which power-metal really needs more of. Bury the light is Pharaoh's fourth album, of a career which has spawned nothing short of excellent material every time,  and many are holding this one as their as the best yet.

A Forest of Stars - A Shadowplay for Yestardays: A Forest of Stars are another band to really take black-metal and do something new with it. Sophisticated and gentile, "A Shadowplay for Yesterdays" is a solid collection of what can be safely described as "Victorian" black metal, with reeling psychedelic and folk influences, and an outright unique sound of its own, which really takes the album out of the realms of comparison to any of the band's peers and influences, and into a whole world of it's own. Without a doubt one of the stranger albums on the list, but it doesn't lose any catchiness or flow to be such.

Candlemass - Psalms for the Dead: Candlemass are widely regarded as the founders of epic doom-metal as a sub-genre. It's always enjoyable to see such a band continuing several decades on from their birth, with equal beauty, passion and strength. Psalms of the Dead is an album which very much demonstrates the band to still have the capacity to make excellent material, in fact, aside from a few periods, the band has barely stopped since the mid-eighties, which is always admirable. Psalms for the Dead is a memorable, crushing and beautiful work of epic-doom, and well worthy of a place on this short-list.

Anaal Nathrakh - Vanitas: At the other end of the tempo spectrum lies the rabid and vicious collection of enraged spewings most recently created by Anaal Nathrakh. A dynamic and balanced album, Vanitas is a real showcase of what the band can do, whilst not being devoid of a character of its own. Everything from industrial influences to nigh-operatic choruses which are instantly memorable, with everything in between. Perhaps it's the case of a band doing what they do best, and while sometimes this can become stale very quickly, Vanitas is as good as anything the band have done. 

Overkill - The Electric Age: Overkill have always been one of the most explosive bands in thrash, but it's especially enjoyable to witness them becoming more explosive as time goes by. "The Electric Age" marks the second album in a row of vigorous, venomous and ballsy thrash, which hurtles along at ten-thousand miles per hour, with the band as energetic and solid as ever, and a superb tone, with perfect production-values holding the whole thing together. "Ironbound", the previous album was a comeback. "The Electric Age" proves without question that the band have managed to stay back. 

Black Breath - Sentenced to Life: Another explosive one, Black Breath's "Sentenced to Life" is a novel compound of thrash, hardcore, crust, crossover, and just about every other genre conceivable. As the artwork might suggest, the album hits you like a hammer-blow; Decimating, world-crushing riffs, with an intensity and tone which could level civilisations. Sentenced to Life is a continuation of the unique blend of styles which Black Breath have been unleashing for a long time, and perhaps the most savage album that the band have released so far. The artwork sums up the music far better than I can.

Asphyx - Deathammer: Asphyx are an oldschool death-metal institution, and their vocalist, Martin Van Drunen has one of the most discinct voices in the genre, a hoarse scream, which coupled with monstrous riffs, intense but varied tempo, and a thoroughly oldschool sound both in terms of song-writing and production, is a recipe for success.  I'm pleased to say that Asphyx are another of the bands on the list who have a huge legacy to live up to, and have. As Van Drunen Screams at the beginning of the music video; "This is true death metal, you bastards!". 

Enslaved - Riitiir: Last, but perhaps not least, Enslaved are easily one of the most prolific band to emerge from the early Norwegian black-metal scene. Nowadays, their sound is far removed from the black-metal of their past, but manifests itself as beautiful and genuinely forward thinking progressive metal, while retaining a wonderful black-metal edge. Riitiir is the latest in a long line of such albums which each bring a new sound to the table, while at the same time develop what is becoming the trademark Enslaved sound.


Underground Lord Short-list

Ketzer - Endzeit Metropolis: Ketzer are a promising up-and-coming black-thrash act from Germany. Instead of the filthy, raucous sound of many of their peers, Ketzer unleash a relatively clean, genuinely dark and heavly black-metal edged assault. Ketzer are among the most fresh black-thrash I've heard in the last few years, and Endzeit Metropolis is an album which really brings their particular style to the fore. Not only a worthy follow-up to their debut, but a solid, razor-sharp, technical tremolo exuding beast of an album, really epitomising the talent which the underground has to offer, and hence, is a very worthy candidate for this list.

Natur - Head of Death: Speed metal is something which can really encapsulate what heavy-metal as a whole is all about; Fun, memorable and extremely catchy, but at the same time dark and edgy, perhaps macabre. That is precisely what Natur manages to do; Rock and rolling riffs with a rough, untamed tone, conjuring songs which can be both belters and atmospheric, with great melodies as well as infectious riffs and choruses which are nothing short of massive. Natur truly demonstrate speed-metal, and heavy-metal in general's ability to kick your ass all over the place. "Head of Death" is a ballsy, but at the same time anthemic chunk of good old fashioned heavy metal. 

Horrendous - The Chills: 2012 has been a superb year for young bands, releasing distinctly old-school sounding death-metal albums. The first of two on the list, Horrendous combine crushing guitar with superb melody, creating a very atmospheric and perhaps a little twisted take on the old-school death metal genre, and more than ensuring that the band sound oldschool, but also bring something new to the style. Horrendous aren't even slightly akin to a clone band, or a cheesy revival act. Horrendous are what they are, and they play death metal as well now as they would have if they had been around in the late eighties. 

Razorwyre - Another Dimension: The second speed-metal band on the list, and one which is rather more thrashy,  with tumbling and fist pumping riffs, and a monumental energy and, as I said when I reviewed it, an air of "fuck-yeah!" accompanying the whole thing. Another Dimension is intricate, rock-solid, and has the wherewithal to be a classic a few years down the line. In theory, if the nation of New-Zealand were asked the question "speed metal?". Razorwyre is their answer, and a well-rounded answer it is indeed. The cover art, depicting, and juxtaposing, a traditional metalhead with the epicness or the roaring void behind him, sums up what this record is about.

Altar of Oblivion - Grand Gesture of Defiance: Altar of Oblivions second album isn't as long as you'd expect for an epic doom album, but it makes up for it in terms of content. Powerful, operatic vocals meet synth, memorable riffs, and digestible-length songs, and while the album clocks in at about half-an-hour long, every song on it is entirely without filler. Everything from beautiful solos to vigorous, tough riffs are present in force, topped off by fantastically memorable and frequently very powerful choruses which really cause the songs to fulfil themselves. Some of the most fist-pumping epic doom in recent years.

Wilds Forlorn - We, the Damned: Only being a 2012 album by the tightest stretch, having been released on January the first this year, "We, the Damned" is a downward spiralling journey - a narrative album which, while absolutely modern in terms of productions, emits a black-metal symphonic majesty which strongly caught my attention. A beautiful but also deeply dark and sad album, "We, the Damned" may be one of the less known on even this short-list, but it one nonetheless entirely worthy of being recognised. Upon the albums conclusion, I felt genuinely as thought I had been taken on a journey, and that is perhaps one of the best things an album can do.

Leeches of Lore - Frenzy, Ecstasy: Probably the strangest album of the year, let alone this list, Leeches of Lore's "Frenzy, Ecstasy" combines speed/thrash metal with just about every other genre concievable, and is a truly surreal, but deceptively well constructed, listen. Seldom will I describe an album as completely nuts, but that is precisely what Frenzy, Ecstasy is, albeit with a huge helping of method in the madness - The album at the same time manages to sound fantastic, despite a mindbogglingly varied and unpredictable approach.

Binah - Hallucinating in Resurrecture: If you've ever wondered what the apocalypse might sound like, there's a good possibility that Binah can provide the answer. Some of the riffs in "Hallucinating in Ressurecture" have a truly explosively apocalyptic quality, with nods to early Bolt Thrower, and to Incantation. Like Horrendous, however, there is no doubt in my mind that Binah are their own band, and have their own sound, and that sound is one bedecked not only in a strong, enveloping atmosphere, but also a heaviness so extensive that looking at the sound-waves represented on a piece of paper could still make someone band their head.

Jute Gyte - Senescence: A one-man black-metal project, Jute Gyte actually released two albums this year, and picking between them was quite a decision. Both albums capture the projects "non-euclidian" sound, with twisted, tangled and furious sounding discordant black-metal tearing the fabric of musicality apart, while at the same time being imbued with a real mechanical beauty. It's impossible to explain Jute Gyte's music to someone who hasn't heard it. Senescence is purported to be the final album the project releases in the style, and I personally consider it to be the best. 

Panopticon - Kentucky: Finally, we have Panopticon, whose latest album, Kentucky, once again black-metal, but rather different. Golden, almost nostalgic soundscapes are generated in Kentucky, with a blend of traditional American folk, and black-metal, creating a sepia-tinted and even slightly happy strain of the genre. Panopticon takes black-metal to somewhere that it hasn't been before, and it's a fantastic place to listen to. It's not black-metal about the darkness, or demons or frost and snow. It's about people, and the reconciliation of music and people is admirable. 

For both categories, from here in, the winner is defined by you. Please vote in both, and if you discover some new music to listen to, all the better!