In the metal scene, 2008 was about rebirth more than anything else. New blood re-energized the flailing subculture, but the biggest news was of old masters rising from the ashes, in one way or another, to deliver their best albums in years.

Metallica made the biggest blip on the mainstream’s radar, releasing its long-overdue apology to thrash metal fans in the form of Death Magnetic. While not a masterpiece by any means, the LP restored some much-needed faith to thousands of lapsed Metallicans.

But the most surprising, though much less known, return to form was mounted by the long-dead band, Cynic. Fifteen years after the breakup that followed the band’s first album, Traced in Air finally saw the light of day in ’08. While drawing on jazz-fusion like its acclaimed predecessor, second album Traced in Air took the band’s sound to new extremes.

Other industry mainstays appear to be stuck in their own respective ruts. It’s hard to still care about pop-metal bands Slipknot, Disturbed and Mudvayne, none of whom have sounded fresh since the turn of the century. Critic’s darlings Meshuggah and Opeth treaded water this year with new albums that just ripped-off their own decade-old masterpieces.

On the cutting-edge of metal, something altogether different is happening. Drone, ambient black metal, post-metal and funeral doom are all combining in the same avant-garde constellation (nay-sayers claim the music sounds like a symphony of refrigerators).

The Monolith Deathcult’s Triumvirate points toward another trend: the increasing use of synthesizers in metal. Like Dimmu Borgir and Rammstein before them, the band uses the guitar as just another instrument in their operatic compositions. They use tribal chants, strings, squelchy synths and other samples to great effect on the LP.

Metal’s purity is breaking down as the old estates of thrash, death and black metal begin to lose their identities. Increasing hybridization means that metal as we know it might someday dissolve into other genres, its core lost forever. Metallica claims that old-school metal is still relevant — it’s too bad that these best albums of the year suggest otherwise.

Arghoslent – Hornets of the Pogrom

Appropriately, this band sounds just as angry as its name suggests. Their achievement on this album was their successful use of major scales in their relentless death metal attack while avoiding the cheesiness of melodic death metal or power metal. Keen songwriting sensibilities and lyrical solos help ensure that it will remain one of 2008’s most compulsively playable albums.

Skepticism – Alloy

If you have to pick up one funeral doom album this year (God forbid), look no further than Skepticism’s latest disc. As expected, the band plays up the cinematic scope of its plodding but fascinating epics. Sweeping chords accented by organ blasts create the feeling of attending a twisted and demonic religious service.

Sculptured – Embodiment

While Sculptured also exploits the sounds of organs, their music is fast, furious and unpredictable. Non-harmonic tones crash against complicated riffs while impassioned, clean vocals take over between growling sessions. Imagine King Crimson joining forces with Mastodon, and you’ve got half the picture.

Cynic – Traced in Air

Traced in Air is a bit of an enigma. Even when it bangs and thrashes, its vibe is decidedly chill. The sparkling production and processed robo-vocals spread out what would otherwise be an impenetrable wall of sound. Complex riff cycles will satisfy purists, and the utopian sci-fi trappings will entrance outsiders.

Dir en Grey – UROBOROS

J-rock superstars Dir en Grey have always been experimental, but never like this. The band makes use of Indian quarter-tone scales and dissonant chords to populate their haunted sonic mansions. Lead singer Kyo’s vocals channel Faith No More’s Mike Patton, from slithering croons to rabid scat. They’re the last band on Earth that still does nu-metal right.

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