Top Ten albums:
o Mayhem – Grand Declaration of War
The world’s most notorious black metal band has historically also been the most overhyped, since their musical output has never been as big of a draw as their non-musical affairs. Apparently Mayhem was sick of this situation, so they decided to do the impossible: create an album that would instantly make everyone forget about their past and say “Holy crap, these guys can play!” It’s still black metal, but taken in an entirely new direction (quite a difficult task in today’s crowded post-black metal scene). Production is perfectly clear and powerful, but still cold and grim. Riffs and rhythms are insanely complex and precise, but still create a feeling of chaos. Drums are incessantly creative and intricate, but still blast away with blackened fury. Vocals are sung and spoken, but still the tortured screams remain. Lyrics are intelligent and even form a concept, but still present black metal ideals. Simply one of the most progressive (in both senses of the word) and surprising releases this year. Too bad not enough people understood this achievement.
o Iron Maiden – Brave New World
Even through the much-maligned Blaze years (which produced some of my favorite Maiden material), Iron Maiden always knew how to write songs that would catch my interest. Things are no different with this one. Not every song is pure genius, but it never is with a Maiden album, and it doesn’t have to be. The return of Bruce and Adrian was fairly inconsequential for me from a musical standpoint; they’re plenty good but I don’t feel anything was lacking without them. This is still Steve Harris’s band, and he’s still doing things the way he wants them done. “The Thin Line Between Love and Hate” is easily my favorite song of the year.
o Einherjer – Norwegian Native Art
Many Einherjer fans didn’t much like their second album “Odin Owns Ye All” (which I loved) because it was “too happy” or not heavy enough. Well, Einherjer must have listened, since they made their most aggressive and in-your-face album yet. It’s still epic Viking metal at the core; the biggest changes are more due to the production than the songwriting. The drums are heavier, faster, and more complex. The guitars have much more bite, but are also now playing some pretty proggy riffs. Vocals are also darker, and a range of styles is present, from black rasps to clean singing; however, the majority of the vocals are halfway between the two. The keyboards are pretty unique and play an important role in creating melodies. The cover features the band looking all wet, dirty, and really pissed, and that sets the tone for the album perfectly. Unfortunately this didn’t see wide distribution, so not nearly enough people have heard it.
o Primordial – Spirit the Earth Aflame
I didn’t much like the last Primordial album (“A Journey’s End”), as it was a bit too dreary and depressing for my tastes. Apparently Primordial didn’t like it all that much either, since they returned with a mighty and epic slab of burning and smoldering metal. Everything about this album suggests “power”, and when listening to it it’s hard not to become suffused with that power. I don’t mean the kind of power that makes you want to jump around; rather, it’s a power that makes you stand and raise your arms spread wide in a defiant challenge to anyone who may oppose you (like your mother telling you to turn your stereo down, for example). I’ve always found this band somewhat similar to Borknagar, with the pseudo-black riffing style, mix of vocal styles, and their ability to give a slight folk-ish flavor to things without going overboard or using non-standard instruments. On this album, all that exists, but these Irishmen have also managed to capture a glowing fire that’s quite a contrast to the iciness of their Scandinavian counterparts.
o Ayreon – The Dream Sequencer
In my estimation, people I know (especially those into more extreme metal) have greatly preferred this half of the “Universal Migrator” 2-CD set. That was a bit unexpected as it’s the other one that’s supposed to be “metal”, and “metal” is what’s supposed to be good. Well, this proves that a lot of people find songs more important than musical style and big names, which is pretty nice to know. Anyway, there are just some fantastic songs on here. “My House on Mars” with Johan Edlund is the highlight for me, but there’s plenty of other great ones (“One Small Step”, “Dragon on the Sea”, “And the Druids Turn to Stone”) to keep my interest high for the whole thing. In contrast to the “metal” CD, I think the songs here just have a lot more room to breathe, and thus to show off their melodies as well as the skill and character of their vocalists. And while the lyrics/story may be cheesy as all hell, listening to the songs makes me want to read the lyrics, which is very rare for me these days.
o Source of Tide – Ruins of Beauty
This one is hard to describe. Since it comes from Norway and has some instances of grim vocals, I tend to associate it with black metal, but it’s really not. It’s basically symphonic heavy metal, with a lot of creative songwriting and originality to it. I originally called it “gay beauty and the beast metal”, since it’s somewhat similar to a band like Tristania, but uses theatrical, operatic male vocals to carry the majority of the melodies instead of the now-expected female vocalist. Anyway, the point is, it’s good enough to be in my top 10 of 2000, and it would make a good starting point for someone starting to get into more extreme and darker music.
o In the Woods… – Three Times Seven on a Pilgrimage
This is a strange CD to have in a top 10 list since it’s not an album of new material. It’s a collection of ITW…’s three 7-inches (3×7, get it?), which were recorded over the course of their soon-to-be-ended career. “Omnio”, their second release, remains their masterpiece, but since this release culls material from all portions of their history, it has plenty of moments of brilliance on its own. Three of the songs are covers, but I wouldn’t know it if I didn’t read the liner notes, since everything fits so well together as an album. At this point, I suppose they pretty much play psychadelic prog-rock, but given their black metal background, I always hear it as something more than that.
o Borknagar – Quintessence
Once promoted as a black metal “supergroup”, Borknagar has proven over the course of four albums that they’re much more than just a flash-in-the-pan thrown together by a greedy record company. Of course, they’re still a supergroup of sorts (not really black metal), although the members are almost completely different. This is their finest release yet. The characteristic Borknagar guitar sound still exists, but by now they’ve completely abandoned the folky influences of “The Olden Domain”, and have gone for a more dense and somewhat futuristic vibe. The impassable wall of guitars on this CD may take some getting used to, but in the meantime you can focus on the amazingly creative multi-multi-tracked (clean and grim) vocals of ICS Vortex, and the Solefald-ian keyboards brought in by Lazare.
o Enslaved – Mardraum
I’ve never been able to develop an interest in Enslaved before this album, mostly due to their frequent use of extended blast beats. On this album they toned the blast beats down a bit, but in all other respects, unleashed a monster. This is more death or heavy metal than it is black metal, although it’s still quite epic, and contains a lot of excellent clean vocal passages. There is also a lot of psychadelic guitar noodling and soloing effortlessly interspersed with jackhammer riffs. In a day when a lot of metal songwriting consists more of rearranging old riffs than creating new ones, there are a surprising number of times on this album where I say “where’d they come up with THAT?!?” This one could easily move up in the list, but I’ve only gotten it recently so I don’t want to rate it too high just yet.
o Nightingale – I
Dan Swano’s dark rock project returns once again with an album significantly different than the previous one. The songs here are much more direct and focused than they were on the darker “The Closing Chronicles”. In some ways, that’s a disappointment, but some of the songs are so good that the disappointment is easily forgotten. Excellent vocals throughout, and excellent melodies. And that’s about all there is to say about an album like this.