December 14, 2008

Top 11 Metal Albums of 2008

2008 was a big year in metal. Numerous highly anticipated metal releases finally saw the light of day (we’re not just talking about Chinese Democracy here), and a bunch of young bucks made their mark on the scene. Metal is back. See which albums made our year-end list.
Korpiklaani - Korven Kuningas
11. Korpiklaani - Korven Kuningas [Nuclear Blast]

Remember the unforgettable scene in This is Spinal Tap, when Spinal Tap is playing the epic “Stonehenge,” and the two dancing dwarves almost crush the tiny Stonehenge replica on stage? If you can recall the folky part of the song that accompanies the dwarves’ dance, it is pretty much the building block for the style that Korpiklaani specializes in. One of the first-ever bands to focus entirely on what is now known as ‘folk metal,’ this Finnish six-piece somehow manages to rock just as hard as their metallic counterparts throughout their latest release, Korven Kuningas. And another reason why Korpiklaani’s music is so appealing is that there is an element on display throughout that is often sorely missed from other metal acts - it sounds like they’re having fun. This is especially evident on such songs as “Paljon on Koskessa Kiviä [The Rapids Has Many Rocks]” - a song that’s custom-made for drunken barroom sing-a-longs. And for those select few who aren’t fluent in Finnish, Korpiklaani means “Forest Clan.”

Boris - Smile
10. Boris - Smile [Diwphalanx/Southern Lord]

You’ve got to love any band that not only lists the Melvins as a prime influence, but also goes as far as to name their band after a Melvins song! The Japanese ‘experimental metal’ trio, Boris, has been issuing albums at a rapid fire pace since 1996 (every so often, going so far as to issue several within a year), and they continue to push metal’s sonic boundaries on their latest, Smile. Picking up an important piece of advice from metal godfathers Sabbath and Zeppelin, not all metal albums have to be ‘cranked to ten’ from beginning to end - in fact, soft detours only build anticipation towards the next riff monger. And Boris has learned well - for every metallic rocker ("Buzz-In," “Laser Beam"), there is a psychedelic detour ("My Neighbor Satan,” “You Were Holding an Umbrella"). With the arrival of Smile, Boris is officially the most rocking Japanese outfit since Loudness.

Along Came a Spider
9. Alice Cooper - Along Came a Spider [SPV]

Let’s face it - while he still puts on impressive live shows, Alice Cooper has had quite a tough time issuing an album that stands up to his early-mid ‘70s winning streak (after which the Alice Cooper Band dissolved). And while it’s not exactly going to replace Killer, Billion Dollar Babies, or Welcome to my Nightmare as the greatest-ever Alice studio album, this year’s Along Came a Spider is a step in the right direction. Like Judas Priest’s Nostradamus, Alice’s latest is a concept album - which tells the grizzly tale of a serial killer named ‘Spider’ who goes around hacking off people’s legs. And although the storyline possesses more than a passing similarity to season one of Showtime’s Dexter, the concept album route works well for the Coop, and the production-duo of Greg Hampton and Danny Saber creates a sound that harkens back to the days of Billion Dollar Babies, especially on such standouts as “Wake the Dead” and “I’m Hungry.”

Cheat the Gallows
8. Bigelf - Cheat the Gallows [Custard]

Is Bigelf prog, metal, or retro rock? Well, as evidenced by their latest release, Cheat the Gallows, the answer is all of the above, my friend. While they may not be exactly ‘reinventing the musical wheel,’ Bigelf proudly wear their influences on their sleeve. For instance, “Gravest Show on Earth,” may be the most bombastic album-opening track since the days of when Queen’s Freddie Mercury proudly displayed his black nail polish and white ballet suit. And you can even find a nod to the early electric organ-heavy daze of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow on “Hydra.” But Bigelf’s metallic tour de force is unquestionably “The Evils of Rock & Roll,” which features unmistakable Iommi-esque guitar riffing and Ozzy-like vocals, before wrapping things up with a musical bit lifted directly from the Diamond Head classic “Am I Evil?” (as popularized by Metallica). Although not a pure metal release from front to back, Cheat the Gallows should please fans of the aforementioned classic metal bands.

Gods of the Earth
7. The Sword - Gods of the Earth [Kemado]

Since the beginning of time, one of the most important - and instantly identifiable - sonic prerequisites for a good metal song is the almighty guitar riff. And The Sword certainly obeys this rule throughout Gods of the Earth. On their second full length overall, these stoner/doom metal-loving Texans have offered another set of mammoth riffs, Thunder God vocals, and song titles that would make any meat-hungry warrior proud - “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” “How Heavy the Axe,” and especially, the greatest metal song title of 2008, “Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians.” Expectedly, the music matches the striking song titles, especially “Hyperzephyrians” and “The Black River,” both of which come off sounding like a meatier Blue Cheer. And the metal masses are starting to take notice, as Gods of the Earth was the first album by The Sword to crack the Billboard 200, while an opening slot has been confirmed on Metallica’s just-launched U.S. tour.

L'Autrichienne
6. Jucifer - L’Autrichienne [Relapse]

How does a band comprised of just two people sound as massive as Jucifer? That’s sure to be a common question among metalheads after giving L’Autrichienne a spin or two. While heavy metal is the style that singer/guitarist Amber Valentine and drummer Edgar Livengood return to time and time again on the album, Jucifer is one of most musically varied bands of the scene, as they tip toe between Sabbath power riffing ("Blackpowder"), death metal ("Thermidor"), noisecore ("Fall of the Bastille"), and even non-metal elements, such as P.J. Harvey ("Champ de Mars") and psychedelia… sung in French ("To the End"). And through all the musical shapeshifting, Valentine proves to be quite a versatile singer - there are few vocalists in the world of metal that can handle just about any musical style thrown their way. L’Autrichienne is highly recommended to those who like their heavy metal with a hefty dose of variety mixed in.

Nude with Boots
5. Melvins - Nude with Boots [Ipecac]

One of the first bands to slow down punk’s rapid fire pace to a slow-as-a-tortoise crawl, the Melvins have been terrorizing unsuspecting audiences for over a quarter century. And they continue to offer prime cuts of metallic sludge, especially on Nude with Boots. The second studio album to feature the expanded line-up of longtime Melvins members Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover with a pair of chaps who also issue albums on their own under the Big Business moniker (Jared Warren and Coady Willis), Nude with Boots just may feature the most succinct songwriting from the band since their 1993 classic, Houdini. And thank goodness the Melvins’ penchant for coming up with gloriously absurd song titles remains very much intact, as evidenced by the arrival “The Kicking Machine” and “The Stupid Creep.” And oh yes, musically, the Melvins are as riff-happy as ever on “Dog Island,” and get downright melodic on the title track.

Motörizer
4. Motörhead - Motörizer [SPV]

It’s a modern day miracle of health that Motörhead‘s unmistakable lead croaker/bassist Lemmy Kilmister is not only still above ground, but also continues to front the group and issue albums as ferociously rocking as Motörizer. Joined once more by long-time cohorts Phil Campbell (guitar) and Mikkey Dee (drums), Motörhead continues to rack up impressive albums decades past what many critics initially predicted would be the band’s shelf life. Forget all the other wishy washy veteran hard rock/metal acts that have to rely on outside songwriters in hopes of winning over a young audience - Motörhead still turns a blind eye to outside trends, and as a result, have an album full of tunes that would sound absolutely scintillating being blasted on a concert stage - “When the Eagle Screams,” “Buried Alive,” “The Thousand Names of God,” etc. Want a nice, tidy and polite little rock record? You’ve come to the wrong place with Motörizer.

Black Ice
3. AC/DC - Black Ice [Columbia]

It was eight long years between 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip and this year’s Black Ice - the longest AC/DC have ever taken between studio albums. Which is puzzling, as part of what makes AC/DC so darn appealing in the first place is that you can always count on the lads to come up with an album that sounds almost identical to the previous one (in other words, it’s not like there was any chance of a complete stylistic overhaul). Hooking up with super producer Brendan O’Brien, Black Ice certainly harkens back at various points to the heady Back in Black period, especially on “Big Jack,” which compositionally and sonically could have easily fit on the aforementioned 1980 classic. Elsewhere, you’ll find some tasty patented ‘DC boogie on the title track, while the lead-off single, “Rock n’ Roll Train,” is the album’s prerequisite ‘night out with the boys’ anthem. An eight-year lay-off is a tad too long to say Black Ice was worth the wait, but by this point, any reemergence of these dirty old men is a most welcomed one.

Nostradamus
2. Judas Priest - Nostradamus [Epic/Sony]

A double disc, heavy metal concept album that chronicles the life and times of a 16th century French prophet. Sounds like a perfect blueprint for the next Spinal Tap album, eh? Well, everyone’s favorite leather-ized British metal band, Judas Priest, has beaten David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls to the punch with this year’s Nostradamus. Long in the making (news of the album first broke in early 2006), the album is everything you could ask for from a Priest album - K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton’s fierce leads, Rob Halford’s Metal God vocals, Scott Travis’ superhuman drumming, and Ian Hill’s non-existent bass. And although guitar synthesizers, keyboards, and string sections rear their head throughout, no need to fret metalheads, this is not Turbo II, as such standouts as “Prophecy,” “Visions,” and especially the title track, prove. The wait was certainly worth it, as Nostradamus is easily the most musically all-encompassing releases of Judas Priest’s entire career.

Death Magnetic
1. Metallica - Death Magnetic [Warner Bros.]

Each new Metallica studio album is greeted with perhaps more scrutiny than any other metal band nowadays - especially after the St. Anger stink bomb. So who knew what Metallica ‘08 was going to end up sounding like? But with the arrival of Death Magnetic, the group accomplished the damn near impossible - they issued the first Metallica album in nearly a decade that you won’t be ashamed to admit you own. Hooking up with producer Rick Rubin and the studio debut by new bassist Robert Trujillo has worked wonders for the band, as they sound the most focused and ferocious since 1991’s Black Album. Standout cuts are a plenty, as evidenced by “That Was Just Your Life,” “Cyanide,” “The Judas Kiss,” and the group’s first instrumental in a dog’s age, “Suicide & Redemption,” with very little filler detected (OK, OK - besides “The Unforgiven III"). Death Magnetic is the sound of Metallica reborn.

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