To supplement this year’s Pazz & Jop launch, Sound of the City asked a few critics to expand on the reasonings behind their voting. Up next is Toronto writer Laina Dawes, whose ballot is a study in the year’s best extreme metal offerings.
I first got turned on to Tombs, whose Path Of Totality ended up topping my albums list, at 2010’s Maryland Deathfest. Out of a plethora of black, death and grindcore bands playing that long weekend, I walked away from the Brooklyn band’s set thinking that while their mélange of blackened metal, ’80s noise rock and raw emotion (courtesy of singer/guitarist Mike Hill) wasn’t my personal cup of tea—I was there to check out Eyehategod and Converge—it was something unique. With Path of Totality, the trio dug in their heels a bit more and created a masterpiece of swirling rage with venerable notes of raw honesty that was backed up with some incredible production skills and the satisfaction of staying true to themselves.
Path of Totality had a firm hand in shaping not only how I listened to music as a critic for the rest of the year, but also who else ended up on this list. I admire great production work—as a Black lady who spent her formative years in love with house music and rap I love me some bass—and I want to feel it, my skin puckering in excitement as rhythm and, dare I say it, soul should never be buried in the background, or presented as an afterthought. I was drawn to albums in which great care was taken with how the music physically resonated with the listener.
While many metal vocalists are not necessarily known for Mariah Carey-like singing, I loved records where the vocals worked as an instrument and added texture to the music’s aggression. Mastodon’s The Hunter fit this bill; the quartet, while clearly creating music that satisfied them before anyone else, created a kick-ass album. Sure, metal purists had something to say about their slow descent into Jambandland, but the improvement in song structure and vocals (drummer Brann Dailor fucking slayed), as well as their mix of beautiful harmonies with freaky time signatures and straight-ass weirdness, worked. Same with Portland’s Yob, whose masterful Atma was simply glorious, and both bands incorporated Neurosis / Shrinebuilder’s Scott Kelly, who rough exterior gave way to vulnerability on Atma‘s incredible “Before We Dreamed of Two.”
Red Fang’s almost-poppy Murder the Mountains and the slow and heavy Set the Dial from Savannah’s Black Tusk are both likely to cross over into Williamsburg’s and Bushwick’s bars a la Mastodon. Both albums were simply well-produced and a hell of a lot of fun to listen to, and they had singles that were radio-friendly enough to broaden their audiences. Along with these albums was new music from UK’s Electric Wizard, who released Black Masses to a small, yet rabid following of stoner/doom enthusiasts. Listening to “Venus in Furs” can put you into a mystical trance, making even straightedge folks feel like they had just taken a righteous bong hit.
I must confess to a few pre-ballot-casting moments when I wondered if, as a music critic who (sometimes) gets paid to write reviews to compel others to peruse, I should be beholden to only writing about music found on record-store endcaps or advertised in my weekly email blast from iTunes. But I quickly got over that when I thought about Hail!Hornet’s Disperse the Curse; this “supergroup” of members of North Carolina sludgesters Buzzov*en, Weedeater and Sourvein produced a kick-ass album filled with some incredibly raunchy, southern-fried metal meets East Coast-style hardcore with a firm foot in Delta blues.
My ballot represents not only my choices for the best extreme metal music in 2011 but for the best albums released this year, period. I hope in 2012 people will forget about the physical aesthetics of certain female pop artists; that suburban teenaged kids will find respite from their boring middle-class lives in something other than fictionalized black pathology; and that we all stop chasing music simply because we want to name-drop bands who invent an exclusionary philosophy to validate their shitty music.