Here we are again, at the end of another year, and a list has to be made. And what do I do? I spend so much time deliberating and being indecisive that I’m late sending it in. Apologies to my MetalInsider colleagues for my lack of expediency. That said, this year was a great year with a lot of excellent new music. There was a lot that I wanted to listen to that I didn’t get to, and there was a lot that I did listen to that I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on. I’ll come right out and say that both Mastodon and Kvelertak fall into the first category, and that’s why I stand alone among Metal Insider writers for not including them on my list. Who knows? Maybe my list will change once I listen to them (although I can promise my top four will stay right where they are). Regardless, here are the ten albums that impressed me the most in 2011, along with a few others that I feel deserve attention.
1) Scar Symmetry, The Unseen Empire (Nuclear Blast)
Scar Symmetry is one of the bands most responsible for the growth and expansion of melodic death metal in recent years, and on their second album with vocalists Roberth Karlsson and Lars Palmqvist, they’ve taken their place as the new leaders of Sweden’s melodic death metal scene. Going beyond the Gothenburg style into uncharted realms of beauty and brutality, The Unseen Empire demonstrates just how impressive melodic death metal can be when it’s not confined to a particular established sound. No album since Slaughter of the Soul or Colony has changed the genre as much as this one has. From the gorgeous refrain on “The Anomaly”, to the blistering speed and ferocity of “Seers of the Eschaton”, to the sheer and immense power of “Alpha and Omega”, this album has it all.
2) Machine Head, Unto the Locust (Roadrunner)
Many critics said that The Blackening could never be topped, and some still say that it hasn’t. But Machine Head’s follow-up to their 2007 Grammy-nominated masterpiece is also a masterpiece in its own right. While the musical approach has grown to include more ambient sections within the groove-thrash hybrid sound, the lyrical composition is much more intensely personal, as if the words were torn from Robb Flynn’s very soul. With these factors combined, Machine Head has created an album that cuts to the very heart of each of us and gives us strength. Where The Blackening was the physical brawn of Machine Head brought to life, Unto the Locust is the internal fire and spirit of Machine Head awakening to consume the weak utterly.
3) Unearth, Darkness in the Light (Metal Blade)
Of the countless metalcore bands around the world, Unearth is one of the few groups that clearly understand what their style requires in order for it to work. And on Darkness in the Light, they’ve delivered every aspect that they needed to include – aggressive riffs, technical solos, the occasional mosh-worthy breakdown, intelligent lyrics, and just enough melody to keep things interesting. Not since Unearth’s 2004 album, The Oncoming Storm, has a metalcore record come together so perfectly, and Unearth remains one of the only bands able to deliver a pure representation of the genre on a full-length album. If there is such a thing as a perfect metalcore album, Unearth has delivered it for the second time of their careers.
4) Times of Grace, The Hymn of a Broken Man (Roadrunner)
On the surface, Times of Grace is a reunion of current and former members of Killswitch Engage. At its core, Times of Grace is the realization of a dream and the return of one of the best singers in modern metal. This album defies genre classifications and challenges all preconceptions in its bold and progressive sound, while simultaneously delivering powerful messages of hope and perseverance through struggle. However, this album is also a statement about the incredible talent of the two men responsible for it. No voice could fit this album better than that of Jesse David Leach, just as no songwriter could have composed more appropriate music than Adam Dutkiewicz. I sincerely hope this is more than a one-shot side project for these two, because the potential is nearly limitless.
5) Amon Amarth, Surtur Rising (Metal Blade)
Amon Amarth has never rested on the laurels of success. The veteran group has always sought broader musical horizons and loftier heights of metal excellence, never compromising their stringent, high-quality standards. Surtur Rising is just the latest step of Amon Amarth’s quest for legendary status, and it’s a big step in the right direction, too. Regardless of how many critics say the band isn’t truly Viking metal, there isn’t a single band active today that can equal the ferocity and lyrical excellence that Amon Amarth consistently create. Packed with technical riffs, mind-blowing solos, and enough Viking imagery to burn a small village, Surtur Rising raises the bar once again for all others wishing to refer to themselves as a Viking metal band.
6) Insomnium, One for Sorrow (Century Media)
Why has nobody decided to copy this band’s style yet? I am continually amazed that there are no bands, domestically or internationally, that are getting popular by playing the melodic death-doom hybrid sound that Insomnium created and have been playing for nearly fifteen years. Perhaps it’s because no band can even hope to do it as well as Insomnium does. Even after five albums of the same musical style, the Finnish group still enraptures its fans with their unique sound and songwriting genius. On second thought, maybe no one should copy this band, because they’re the only ones we need playing this hybrid style.
7) Nightrage, Insidious (Lifeforce)
Nightrage has always been an excellent band, but their inconsistent lineup and occasional inability to tour held them back for the better part of a decade. Now, with a solidified lineup, Nightrage has delivered a tremendous album that shows every facet of their sound in its full glory. Insidious holds nothing back in its assaultive and intense sound, at times leaning more towards straightforward death metal than the group’s traditional melodic death metal genre. At the same time, the occasional melodic passage adds a level of beauty and depth to Insidious that previous Nightrage albums hinted at but never achieved. If this is what Nightrage can create with a consistent lineup, then I hope they stick with this lineup for the rest of their career.
8) Threat Signal, Threat Signal (Nuclear Blast)
On their third album, Threat Signal has taken their industrial style and added even more influence from Soilwork, Dark Tranquillity, and other Gothenburg bands. The approach continues to work well for them, staying true to their roots while avoiding the perception of being Fear Factory clones. Vocalist Jon Howard somehow sounds even angrier than he did on 2009’s Vigilance, and both guitarist Travis Montgomery and bassist Pat Kavanaugh give outstanding performances that show them to be two of the best young talents in modern metal. While Vigilance had a number of standout tracks that made it one of the best albums of 2009, it is the complete start-to-finish excellence of Threat Signal that makes it one of the best this year.
9) Immortal Souls, IV: The Requiem for the Art of Death (Facedown)
There is little in life that is more profound than the death of a family member, and in the case of Immortal Souls’ Aki and Esa Särkioja, the passing of their father deeply affected the music and lyrics of the group’s fourth full-length. Instead of a pure concept album like 2007’s Wintereich or a concept-free album like 2004’s Ice Upon the Night, Immortal Souls crafted The Requiem for the Art of Death with a partial concept that appeared in some songs but not others. The winter imagery that was a trademark part of the group’s lyrics is also mostly removed, replaced by dark tales of desperation and last-second redemption. It’s a moving, insightful album that creates something positive and inspiring from the most dire circumstances.
10) Oh, Sleeper, Children of Fire (Solid State)
This metalcore group from Texas impresses me more and more with each album, mostly because they don’t fall prey to the traps that most of the peers do. Instead of settling into a single style and playing it to death, Oh, Sleeper keeps their music varied and stylistically diverse, pushing boundaries and trying new things with each new release. Children of Fire takes a more melodic approach than 2009’s Son of the Morning, featuring a lot more of Micah Kinard’s amazing clean singing voice. In fact, the song “Means to Believe”, which is acoustic and entirely clean-sung, is one of the best songs on the whole album. That’s not to say that the group doesn’t get aggressive on this album, because there is plenty of aggression to be had. Once again, the mixture is what makes Oh, Sleeper a joy to listen to.
Between the Buried and Me, The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues (Metal Blade)
Within Temptation, The Unforgiving (Roadrunner)
Becoming the Archetype, Celestial Completion (Solid State)
Anthrax, Worship Music (Megaforce)
Mercenary, Metamorphosis (Prosthetic)
Children of Bodom, Relentless Reckless Forever (Spinefarm)
Megadeth, Th1rt3en (Roadrunner)
myGrain, myGrain (Spinefarm)
Darkest Hour, The Human Romance (eOne Music)
Amaranthe, Amaranthe (Spinefarm)
Arch Enemy, Khaos Legions (Century Media)
Before the Dawn, Deathstar Rising (Nuclear Blast)
Destruction, Day of Reckoning (Nuclear Blast)
Chimaira, The Age of Hell (eOne Music)
DevilDriver, Beast (Roadrunner)
Born of Osiris, The Discovery (Sumerian)