2011 In Review: The Year in Tech-Death
Technical music has had a complicated and busy year in which death metal was pulled in three directions. Technical thrash flourished, bringing to mind the late '80s and early '90s heydays. Djent and instrumental metal had their best years ever. And, as they always seem to, the metalcore, deathcore, and brutal/slam subgenres coughed up a few quality albums as well. In this article, I'm going to examine each subgenre's best album of the year and call attention to other high-quality efforts. The best album has a YouTube video embedded with it. After that will be a YouTube playlist with the other notable efforts. Trust me, they are playlists, so just use the next button in the video to skip between songs, or wait for a song to end, and the next one will start. If you want to choose a specific song, I've also included a link to the entire playlist. Enjoy!
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I mentioned the ways in which death metal was pulled, and one point in the death metal triangle was the old school death metal movement, comprised of bands that saw death metal's future in death metal's past. The old school wave was comprised of bands like Disma, Maim, Entrails, Mausoleum, and Gravehill. If a triangle could have opposite sides, the opposing side of old school metal would be technical and progressive death metal. The third point in the death metal triangle, the one which keeps the technical and old school movements from actually opposing each other, is plain old death metal. Azarath, Krisiun, Vader, and Exhumed all released brilliant albums that were a welcome alternative to billion BPM technicality and trudging murk.
As a listener, I see myself as sitting in the middle of death metal's triangle, but I am always drawn towards its technical side. Origin has consistently released quality albums, but they really surprised everybody with 2008's Antithesis. It was by far their best album due to the songwriting, and many fans, myself included, wondered if they could equal it, let alone top it. While in my opinion they didn't top Antithesis, Origin managed to equal it with Entity. Describing the album is difficult. It had melodies, but the riffs did not ingratiate or beg for acceptance. The busy percussion, the velocity, and the guitar work's technicality make the album a difficult listen. It rewards close attention, repeat listens, and demands to be accepted on its own terms. A recent trend with technical death metal has been to douse the music with melody. Decrepit Birth for example did it with Diminishing Between Worlds. Origin refused to follow that trend, and so Entity is both technical and brutal in the way Suffocation and Cryptopsy's classic albums are.
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Origin - "Swarm"
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While Origin garnered most of the attention this year, another seven quality albums came out that received little to no attention. Each of these albums was nearly as good as Entity.
Archspire, All Shall Align - Catchy and technical in equal measures.
Burning at the Stake, Nefarious Campaign - Channels Man Must Die and Decapitated's pre-Organic Hallucinosis albums.
Devolved, Oblivion - Californians by way of Australia. High speed, intense rhythm guitar work, a bit like old Decapitated's palm muting patterns. Oozes passion.
Vile, Metamorphosis - Like Decrepit Birth and Deeds of Flesh, Vile (meta)morphed from focusing on brutality to focusing on melody. Not as technical as those bands, however.
Neuraxis, Asylon - A concept album about an alien invasion. Unlike Vile, Neuraxis became faster and more ferocious, though they still retained a lot of melody.
Faeces, Upstream - Catchy riffing and bouncy, lyrical bass work. Approximately the millionth obscure band that shouldn't be unsigned.
Decapitated, Carnival is Forever - Forever the chameleons. Are they tech-death, or Vader clones? Adding Meshuggah to the mix expands the inquiry rather than answering it.
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The lack of attention towards tech-death's great year is largely due to progressive death metal stealing the limelight in the metal media, and rightly so. Gorguts demoed new material, and their impending return is timely; their influence can be heard in many of this year's best progressive death metal records. Ulcerate sat at the middle of the maelstrom, an appropriate position because of how The Destroyers of All sounds. It's unlike anything else we've heard before, a swirling, churning blast. It's claustrophobic, it's angular, and it's dissonant, but it never feels minimalist. Above all, it's overwhelming and exhausting to listen to. It feels like a slow descent to nothing, like a head held in hands, like a catastrophic ending. No words can really do it justice, and no single song fully communicates the album's whole. Listening to only this clip is a form of theft, and so you're advised to give the entire record a few spins. Even if you don't like it, it'll affect you.
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Ulcerate - "Dead Oceans"
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Progressive death metal isn't only about dissonance and angularity. Prog death got its start with bands like Atheist, Pestilence, and Death, bands that incorporated jazz, intricate melodies and whatever else they felt like utilizing. In that sense, Obscura's Omnivium was the equal of Destroyers. There is life and breath in the album's melodies. It feels natural rather than rigid or percussive. Frankly, its got quite a bit of groove, but it's subtle and sophisticated groove. Above all else, it is neither tedious nor masturbatory. The contrast between Destroyers and Omnivium is startling. Zen is sometimes said to mean the ability to either flow around something, or to simply flow over it. Omnivium flows around the listener. Destroyers on the other hand is quite content to run right over us as it buries us in the depths.
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Obscura - "Ocean Gateways"
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In all honesty, The Destroyers of All and many of this year's best progressive death metal records are barely death metal at all. I still think of them as death metal though. To me, death metal is the genre most capable of accepting outside influences without losing its essential character. The playlist below is designed to mix the melodic bands with the dissonant, angular bands so as to prevent listener exhaustion.
Gigan, Quasi-Hallucinogenic Sonic Landscapes - Unsettling, hostile and psychedelic. Blast furnace intensity. Oh, and it was odd . . . can't forget that.
Baring Teeth, Atrophy - A loving homage to Obscura, and the closest thing to that legendary record without being a mutation of it.
Pyrrhon, An Excellent Servant but a Terrible Master - Sounds like a mixture of recent Immolation and From Wisdom to Hate. It doesn't feel all that heavy somehow, but it grinds on the listener, pushing downward like The Destroyers of All does.
Flourishing, The Sum of All Fossils - The strangest of this strange bunch of albums. A swirl of every conceivable strain of death metal with many non-metallic elements mixed in. The Destroyers of All drags us down, and Fossils is what's waiting at the bottom.
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If technical death metal's best efforts flew under the radar, then technical thrash's best efforts stood out on the radar like a 747. Revocation's Chaos of Forms saw the band's sound evolving. It was still technical, fast, and complex but was also more fluid and melodic. I sometimes feel like modern thrash and death metal bands play guitar leads, but not guitar solos. In other words, the music lacks those soaring, guitar hero moments, the pieces of playing that seem to stop time and space until they conclude. Revocation is one of the few bands that practices the art of the guitar solo. Chaos of Forms is so natural and so effortless that it feels freakish to mere mortals.
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Revocation - "Chaos of Forms"
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Vektor, Outer Isolation - A total blur, spinning listeners' heads in circles. Many modern bands have identities, but not unique voices. Vektor has a unique voice- something like Voivod if Voivod were making everything as complicated as possible.
Exmortus, Beyond the Fall of Time - Featured some of the finest soloing in all of metal, but married it to riffs that would do any '80s thrash band proud.
Transgression, Cynic Verses - These guys have been around for a while, but have never received much attention. This is tech-thrash, but it incorporates some death metal elements.
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If all the grunting, growling and screaming that accompanied the bands above didn't agree with a listener, there was a wealth of quality instrumental music this year. First and foremost was a Blotted Science EP, The Animation of Entomology. The album's title is perfect. The riffs have a buzzing, insectile quality, totally unique in metal's history. Like any Ron Jarzombek joint, it was highly technical and thoroughly weird. Jarzombek came up with a 12-tone system based on groups of notes that correspond with the times on a clock's face. It's unique, and you really need to see his YouTube video to understand it. Because Animation was an EP, I'm going to also call out Mystic's Grace as co-winner of instrumental album of the year. Mystic is so unknown that they don't have a metal-archives page yet. A bandcamp page is the totality of their web presence, and I hope they remedy that soon. Like Animation, Grace is aptly named. The band brought jazz, metal, and fusion together to form a complex and liquid whole. If Omnivium lacked edges or rough surfaces, then Grace is a perfect musical sphere.
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Blotted Science – "Cretaceous Chasm"
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Mystic – "(Not Of) This World Pt. 1: Amartias"
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If 2011 was the year of progressive death metal, it was also the year of instrumental metal. My list of good instrumental metal more than doubled this year. Keelhaul and Karma to Burn finally have good company.
Christian Müenzner, Timewarp - Obscura's guitarist wasn't satisfied with releasing just one album, so he cut an instrumental album, too. It's damned near as good as Omnivium.
Scale the Summit, The Collective - Their third full length and confirmation that they are still the most listenable instrumental band in heavy metal, except of course for Mystic.
Piotrek Gruska, Cosmogenesis - nearly as good and listenable as Scale the Summit's The Collective. Spacey ambience, stellar themes, and stellar quality.
Animals as Leaders, Weightless - A slow retreat from djent. Not as heavy or intense as its predecessor but catchier while still remaining impressively technical. Better sound and a real drummer helped immensely.
Cloudkicker, Let Yourself Be Huge - A headlong retreat from djent! Gorgeous, melodic, and relaxing. Very little metallic content at all, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Paul Wardingham, Assimilate Regenerate - Djent and melodeath riffing. Ludicrous soloing. Clinical, captivating, and narrowly edged out by Blotted Science and Mystic.
Keith Merrow, Awaken the Stone King - Not as dedicated to chugging as Assimilate, and the guitar leads aren't quite as complex, making it an easier but equally worthy listen.
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I've been working in the D word, and so it's time it's time to talk about djent and the other iconoclastic subgenres, metalcore and deathcore. Born of Osiris stunned everybody by changing from deathcore also-rans to deathcore giants with The Discovery. Breakdowns used to be means to an end within hardcore and metal, rather than the entirety of a song. Deathcore happened and that all changed. The Discovery has breakdowns, but it wasn't all breakdowns. It was riffs and melodies cut with breakdowns, not the other way around. It had the herky-jerky grooves that define -core bands, but it also had synths, keyboards, and ambience. A piece of criticism I've heard about metal is that a metal album is often the same elements combined and recombined with the expectation that the message will be different. The criticism is largely true, except for the part about the message differing (the criticism also doesn't address quality either). Every now and then, an album will happen that defies the criticism's root concept. The Discovery is one of those albums. Along with All Shall Perish's Awaken the Dreamers, The Discovery will go down in history as one of those albums that transcends genre tropes.
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Born of Osiris– "Recreate"
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Djent might be a trend that will soon die, or it might be a subgenre that is here to stay. Either way, it's interesting, and it had a banner year. As a genre, metalcore has been steadily evolving from its thuggish, brutal roots, while deathcore continues to separate itself into two categories: mosh junk and art. This year showed those trends continuing.
Circles, The Compass - Features beautiful singing over equally heavy riffing. Really, I mean that: the singing is beautiful.
The Human Abstract, Digital Veil - Catchy songwriting and huge vocal hooks? Not surprising in the least.
Last Chance to Reason, Level 2 - A concept album. Like The Discovery, it combines everything from synths and clean vocals to jazz and downtuned riffing into a masterpiece.
Textures, Dualism - Their most melodic album yet. They are prodjenitors, but they are also slowly backing away from their old djent sound and identity.
Uneven Structures, Februus - Feels almost like a metalcore album in the way that it jumps from brutality to melody and back. The band put a lot of time, effort and thought into this, and it shows.
Vildhjarta, Måsstaden - Djent's core principle is that melding Meshuggah and melody will yield interesting results. Måsstaden rarely bothers with melody, but sells itself on heavy chugging and catchy rhythms.
TesseracT, One - They survived a change of vocalist, and One lived up to all the promise of the preceding EP, Concealing Fate. More melodic and less intense than any of the other bands on this list, and yet somehow...cold.
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Back in the day, Suffocation were brutal and technical, so no discussion of this year's technicality would be complete without some brutality. Benighted's Asylum Cave had a nonsensical title but was easily their best album yet. Brutal death metal has a tough task in attracting listeners. Tech death and prog death garner fans amongst music nerds who are drawn to complicated, technically inclined music. A band like Benighted has no such draw. They exist to assault, crush, and destroy, and they make no concessions to listener comfort. Despite all the hurdles in their path, Benighted managed to craft an album with actual hooks. Be warned, though, because Asylum Cave does have pig squeals and bree-bree vocals. But also be warned that this album has the year's best vocal hook for all of death metal: "Let the blood spill . . . between my broken teeeeee...eeeeth!"
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Benighted - "Let the Blood Spill Between My Broken Teeth"
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Disfiguring the Goddess, Circle of Nine - Slammed its way into my heart with low vocals and lower guitars. This album has one audio frequency, and it's down in the basement.
Abacinate, Genesis - Terrible cover art but brilliant riffing, and it was a great send-off for their recently deceased vocalist, Jason Sica. Largely brutal death metal, but there are deathcore, slam, and technical elements in play.
Monumental Torment, Elemental Chaos - Their debut, and a catchy mix of tech, slam and old-fashioned brutality.
Syphilic, A Composition of Murder - And a solid composition it was. Catchy and sickening. This band is on such a roll.
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Josef Stalin once said that quantity had a quality all its own. Well, 2011 offered technical music in both quantity and quality, including a few classics. Just think about it: people will still be talking about Chaos of Forms and Outer Isolation a decade from now. Ulcerate's Destroyers of All is going to go down as a classic, and Omnivium might as well. The Discovery and many of the djent albums, both instrumental and with vocals, will also go down as classics, at least within their respective genres. Technical music is all about discovering what the mind and body can do. Set aside your preconceptions, put a little effort into, and you'll surely find something in the playlists above that will challenge and expand your mind.
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