Last Year’s Leftovers
by Gary Spencer

With many good records from all over the world, 2011 was a righteous one for metal . I had a hard time keeping up with it all and still have unfinished business with last year. The following reviews cover a selection of records that could have made my Top 20, were released at the end of the year, or are just things that slipped through the cracks somehow.

Absu, Abzu (Candlelight)
Plano, Texas’s Absu has been an American black metal mainstay for 15 or so years now, and the band’s musical evolution has been fascinating. From their humble death metal beginnings to creating what quite a few fans consider to be one of the best black metal albums of the modern millennium with 2002’s Tara , Absu has never been afraid of expanding their musical palette. Surprisingly, not too long after the Texas trio unleashed Tara, the group disbanded. However, the demand for Absu’s self-proclaimed “mythological occult metal” remained high, and drummer Prosciptor McGovern subsequently reformed with new members and released an eponymous album in 2009.

Two years later, Absu is back with Abzu, the newest installment of their rebirthed musical saga. Despite some aesthetic and production value similarities, Abzu is quite a different beast than their previous album. While Absu was a mid-tempo melodic affair with a liberal use of keys, Abzu goes for the jugular from the word go and only occasionally lets up its breakneck pace over the course of 36 minutes of play. The twisted song structures and nasty, throaty vocals are what keep Abzu from turning into a thrash record, and much like Tara, this new platter has a dark and sinister aura. However, Abzu makes for a great companion piece to its predecessor, like an aggressive, violent brother. Once again, Proscriptor and company deliver in spades and it’s hard to be pleased with the results.

Amebix, Sonic Mass (Easy Action)
Amebix should need no introduction. This is a band who practically defined the British crust movement of the 1980s with an indelible mix of gritty punk rock and heavy metal elements. Many followed their example, but few came close to reaching the zeniths of this band’s mighty musical accomplishments. Sonic Mass comes tas the first full-length collection of new music from the band since 1987, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the sound of it. The band is armed with energetic new songs, and Sonic Mass is far from a rehash of older sounds Amebix has given us in the past. While featuring elements for which the band is known, like rolling drums, chugga-chugga guitar and bass and thought-provoking lyrics, there is still a clear progression of the musical style and a maturation of songwriting compared to the band’s older material. This is far from a bad thing, as most of Sonic Mass’ songs are not only instantly memorable ,but also affect a listener’s psyche almost immediately upon listen. In the year 2011, Amebix is no longer concerned with hardcore punk credibility but with the matter of making artistically intriguing music that scratches the itch of both naturalistic headbanging and forward-thinking intellectual entertainment in one neat collection of songs. With a couple of acoustic, cleanly sung tunes and a wealth of thick rockers, Sonic Mass may not just be one of the best albums of 2011, but one of the best records that Amebix has ever produced.

Arckanum, Helvítismyrkr (Caroline/Season of Mist)
Shamaatae, the Swede behind this one-man band is back with his seventh full length album under the Arckanum moniker, Helvítismyrkr. This time around, the production is cleaner and bigger han what longtime fans might expect, and the songwriting takes a more straightforward black metal approach than in the past. There are no full-fledged epics here—the longest songs barely bruise the six-minute mark—and the whole record plays in just less than 50 minutes. Helvítismyrkr brims with galloping drums and gurgling guitar tremolo-chugging reminiscent of classic Burzum. While it isn’t quite the artistic endeavor for which many longtime Arckanum fans may have hoped, Helvítismyrkr easily fills the void for those wishing the year was 1994 instead of 2011.

The Browning, Burn This World (Earache)
Oh boy, where do I begin? Burn this World is arguably the biggest curiosity of this past year. After seeing so much close-minded sub-critical dirt thrown in the direction of this record, I decided to give the album a fair shake. The Browning’s sound is a marriage of crunchy, staccato guitars, vocals that are alternately delivered with growls and barks, and elements of electronica, techno, EBM and even dubstep. I if I had read that description myself before ever actually hearing The Browning, I’d probably think “fuck that shit, that’s gotta suck!” The difference is that I’d never heard of or read anything about this group before hearing an Earache Records sampler last year. The band’s contribution, “Standing on the Edge,” stood apart and immediately caught my attention. To say the least, I was intrigued by what I heard.

Burn This World is memorable, although the stop-start, chugga-chugga guitar work can become a little redundant if listening to this platter from beginning to end in one sitting. I know I’m supposed to hate this record, but I just don’t. Whether metal listeners want to admit it or not, one could do much worse The Browning, and the hatred should be reserved for more deserving acts.

Falloch, Where Distant Spirits Remain (Candlelight)
Falloch is a two-man band from Glasgow that almost immediately upon their founding in 2010 managed to gather a great deal of hype and interest from record labels. Candlelight was the lucky label, and the fruit of this union comes in the form of the band’s first LP, Where Distant Spirits Remain. What one finds upon spinning this disc is a 50-minute collection of metal tinged with folk elements and influenced by post-punk and shoegaze. Sounds complicated? It really isn’t in the hands of the Falloch duo. The songs ebb and flow between controlled blasts of tremolo-picked fury and pretty undistorted guitar melodies that will stick in most heads after just one listening. The lead vocals of Andy Marshall are sweet and cleanly sung for the most part, which may put off some listeners. But if you’re not a snobby metal elitist and can enjoy grand melodies mixed with the occasional smatterings of strings and acoustic guitar (in addition to full-on black metal fury), this album should be a favorite. Where Distant Spirits Remain is an artistic piece of post-metal that should endure the ages.

Noothgrush, Live for Nothing (Southern Lord)
In the years since the band’s demise in the early 2000s, San Jose’s Noothgrush has become an underground legend. With the records the band made in the ’90s often hard to track down, Live For Nothing is a welcome compilation of two live radio broadcast performances—one from 1996 and one from 1999—that showcases the state of Noothgrush’ sludge at the time these recordings were made. Musically, there’s not much difference between the 1996 and 1999 performances. They’re both chock full of smoldering, nauseous guitar fuzz, plenty of low-end, gnarly vocals, and drums that make the pace that turtles crawl at look like a sprint. There is little overlap between the two setlists, but even so this is probably more sludge than most can take for 75 minutes. Live For Nothing exists as a document of previously unheard versions of familiar Noothgrush tunes and as a suitable introduction to sludge newbies looking to find out how this storied band got its reputation. Noothgrush also gets cool points for the cover of the Celtic Frost classic, “Procreation of the Wicked.” I just wish the sound quality was better. Oh well.

Omit, Repose (Secret Quarters)
Omit may hail from Oslo, but if you’re expecting Trve Norwegian Black Metal you may be disappointed. This Scandinavian quartet’s sound is a far cry from their fellow blastbeat-driven, tremolo-picked brethren, and the proof is all over the two-disc, 85-minute magnum opus Repose. This funereal doom metal possesses all the pomp and circumstance appropriate for the death of someone of great import and endearment. The epic length songs (the shortest track is 14 minutes long) never relinquish their torpid pace and are about as fun as burying a loved one at that. However, there is a pastoral beauty to the songs on Repose. The band drenches their every component in reverb to create a massive wall of sound and mezzo-soprano Cecilie Langlie’s singing coveys genuine woe. And Omit isn’t afraid to adorn their sullen sonics with macabre synths and strings to further add to a kind of heaviness than what’s usually associated with metal. The album is a grand expression of sadness and longing that will pull the strings of even the most hardened of hearts.

Rwake, Rest (Relapse)
The newest LP by Little Rock sextet Rwake, Rest deserves to be mentioned amongst the cream of the crop of last year’s metal releases. It is a forward-thinking juxtaposition of sounds and styles that never grows tiresome or old, even over 55 minutes of sonic rapture. At Rwake core is doom metal, but the band isn’t afraid of kicking up the pace when the moment calls for a more immediate bashing of the senses. Guitars pile on like an avalanche but also on occasion weave in intricate, chiming melodies and tasteful solos where every note seems to hit at the right time. The vocals are shouts of misanthropy, but also peppered with layers of indecipherable, distorted shrieks of static. There’s also a considerable amount of well-placed melancholic acoustic guitar and keyboard atmospherics that makes the songs on Rest greater than the sum of their parts. The songs themselves are minor epics, with more than a couple breaking the 10-minute time barrier. But due to the superb journeyman songwriting exhibited herein, none of the cuts ever get tiresome. In short, Rest is a wooly mammoth of an album that might leave you speechless.—and that is a good thing.

Squash Bowels, Tnyribal (Selfmadegod)
As you can probably tell by this Polish group’s name, Squash Bowels are perpetuators of ore-obsessed grindcore. But if you think that’s all she wrote about these guys, you’ve got another thing coming like Judas Priest. This reissue of the band’s year 2000 debut LP, Tnyribal, is loaded with surprises as well as blistering, wound-festering grind. The meat and potatoes of Tnyribal of course is Squash Bowels doing what they do best: squashing eardrums with flesh-ripping guitars, gut-wrenching bass, bowel-imploding drums and dual vocals that alternate between esophagus tearing high end and deep vocals straight from the lowest reaches of the lower intestine. However, the band weaves in lots of experimental elements like ominous keys, mechanized drums, static, backmasking, and even a song built around a lengthy drum solo that seems to attract more and more noise and electronics as it progresses. Yes, there are a lot of industrial elements present, but they help make Tnyribal memorable and Squash Bowels stand apart from their gore-grinding peers.