Tom’s Best-of-2011

January 7, 2012 in Top Lists by blackwindmetal

With 2011 having drawn its last breath and 2012 dawning bright (and unseasonably warm) on the world, I thought it fruitful to go through a pile of 2011 music and come up with some sort of “best-of” list. I’ll be the first to admit that this was a rather silly endeavor; I won’t nearly be able to cover everything released this year, and in any case music is not nearly as subject to the year as, for example, a fine wine. But I’m going to do it anyway, regardless of the absurdity, because I’d like to give you a taste of some of the delectable metal that’s been released lately. Bear in mind that I listen to a lot of power metal, and as such there’s a lot of power metal here. As they say in Sweden, “haters are welcome.”

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Theocracy – As The World Bleeds

This may be strange, but I like to think of a “good year” as one in which two spectacular albums were released. Perhaps this goes back to my love of Helloween, as the first two Keeper Of The Seven Keys were released the same years as two other favorites of mine: Savatage’s Hall Of The Mountain King (1987) and Fates Warning’s No Exit (1988). I felt that 2010 delivered the goods quite effectively with Pathfinder’s Beyond The Space, Beyond The Time and Derdian’s New Era, Pt. III: The Apocalypse (not to mention a few other superb releases), but 2011 had me worried for the longest time. Sure, there was plenty of good material, but nothing that stood out as exceptionally good. I bought Theocracy’s album with the hope that maybe something great could still come out in 2011, only to be thoroughly disheartened upon first listen. Perhaps it simply had too much immediate appeal, or sounded too lighthearted, or had only one epic clocking in at a mere 11 minutes, but at first it struck me as a bit shallow in comparison to past works. I’m glad to report that I was horribly mistaken; As The World Bleeds may sound more lighthearted than past efforts – it’s a different “flavor” of Theocracy, so to speak – but it’s every bit as powerful.

Dragonland – Under The Grey Banner

I hadn’t heard much Dragonland before 2011’s Under The Grey Banner, but I will definitely be on the lookout for previous releases from these fellows. This one blew my mind right away and continues to do so with each successive listen. Every element is in top form here: the music is dynamically varied without sacrificing any of its power, the instrumental and vocal performances are top-notch, and the fantasy atmosphere is pronounced but never cheesy. As both this and the aforementioned Theocracy release came in November of 2011, we were close to missing a “good year,” but as they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Not only did 2011 treat us to these two masterpieces, but also to the following wealth of solid material.

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Also worthy of mention…

Arkona – Slovo

Again, this was my first exposure to a well-established band, and it was another wonderful experience. Varied, vibrant, and immersing, Slovo takes the listener on a wild journey through the forests of pagan Russia, complete with eerie chants, brutal riffing, and infectuous folky melodies.

Last Chance To Reason – Level II

Maine’s masters of video-game metal brought us something truly novel this year: an original album made to accompany an original video game. Sung from the perspective of artificial intelligence inside the violent world of video games (“this cylindrical hell”), it is certainly an ambitious idea, and the music lives up to this ambition. Perhaps as dynamically varied as the previously mentioned Dragonland and Arkona efforts, it alternates between quiet tension and absolute brutality with a disconcerting ease, in many ways similar to the great Zero Hour.

Lorenguard – Eve Of Corruption

A rock-solid debut from a new US-based symphonic power metal group, this one has received quite a bit of attention on our site lately, and deservedly so. This is an excellent piece of well-written and well-performed metal from a young band with quite a bit of talent.

Moonsorrow – Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa

Moonsorrow have again shown themselves to be masters of the epic, mournful brand of folk metal. This time, they’ve given us four long songs, punctuated with eerie sound clips of people (the last of a dying race, so I’ve read) trudging through the snow, and another heavy slab of one of the most unique, memorable, and powerful atmospheres in all of metal. The songs are relatively slow to develop, but if anything this only works to deepen the atmosphere, as if they needed that…

Morton – Come Read The Words Forbidden

In the past few years a number of stellar melodic metal releases have come out of eastern Europe, and this is perhaps the latest. Ukranian quintet Morton plays a brand of power metal without a lot of bells and whistles, but it’s by no means a boring or derivative record. Conversely, Come Read The Words Forbidden is a fresh, vibrant album brimming with all sorts of excellent ideas that keep it interesting throughout.

Serenity – Death & Legacy

An interesting concept album dealing with various important figures in science and exploration, this is another solid effort from Austrian power metal group Serenity. Apart from the conceptual aspect of the album, little has changed from earlier releases; Serenity is still playing fresh and catchy power metal with a bit of symphonic and progressive influence thrown in to mix things up.

Solar Fragment – In Our Hands

Similar in ways to the above release from Morton, this is another excellent piece of power metal that manages to be unique and memorable without adding much to the formula apart from excellent instrumental performances and superb vocals. I believe Dan mentioned this in his review, but it deserves to be mentioned again: Hansi Kürsch sings as Darth Vader on track three. If that’s not enough to make a great album, I don’t know what is…

Unexpect – Fables Of The Sleepless Empire

To end on a weird note, Unexpect has once again treated us to a bit of their unique brand of avant-garde progressive metal (which does almost nothing to describe what they actually play), and while it may not be quite as memorable as their 2006 masterpiece In A Flesh Aquarium, it is nonetheless a spectacular third effort by one of the strangest groups in music.

Thanks for reading, and here’s to another excellent year of metal!