Saturday, August 9, 2014

Top Ten Favorite Metal Albums Ever - Part I

Time to break up the monotony a bit, and post something that I've had intentions to post for quite some time now. I want to discuss my 10 most favorite metal albums ever. Please don't misconstrue - this isn't my opinion of the 10 BEST albums, but only my favorites. These albums have made significant impacts on my life in various forms, and I'd like to share them with you fine folks.

I've been listening to metal for a significant chunk of my life, and as one can imagine, I have come across quite a few albums over the years. Narrowing down the 10 most favorite albums from such a timespan is a hefty task. So, this is why I'm posting this in two parts. This will take a bit of contemplating, but eventually it will be done. These albums are not in any particular order.

OPETH - Blackwater Park (2001)
To be very frank - this album changed my life, literally. I discovered the band (and subsequently, this album), back when it was new in 2001. I was a mere sophomore in high school. I had been dabbling in the art of playing guitar for only a year or so, and drums for about five. Around that same time was essentially the same breaking point where I discovered death AND black metal. I had listened to extreme metal for maybe a year, if that, by the time I happened upon this masterpiece of an album. I had briefly ran across Opeth's name a couple of times on the internet, so one day I purchased this CD on a whim at a music store, because I simply knew of the name. After a couple of listens, it hit me. I have discovered some of the most eloquent, beautiful, well-crafted "wall of sound" death metal I've ever heard. Up to this point, my exposure to extreme metal was fast, brutal, noisy and crushing, but never quite as progressive and astonishing. The layers of guitars adorned with the distinct yet clear enough tones that brought out the genius counterpoint and chord-blending compositions of Akerfeldt and Lindgren. The open, atmospheric drums that are set at just the right distance from the musical foreground. The music just encased me in a complete world of sound, where mental imagery of scenery never became so clear until then. It blew my mind. Being very new at the guitar then, it completely changed the way I approached playing the guitar, songwriting, and my mentality of death metal altogether. I learned that death metal didn't have to be blazing fast and crushing all the time. I learned that there is beautiful contrast to be found between the switches of distorted guitars and clean/acoustics. Clean vocals. During this time, I was already familiar with Dream Theater and the wonders of progressive metal and rock, but hearing this album at the time showed me that you can combine progressive rock and chilling death metal. I remember distinctly hearing "The Drapery Falls" and "Dirge for November", and the eerie chills those songs gave me. And to be honest, they still do to this day; especially the latter. During the verse riffs in "Dirge for November" I become so encapsulated by the dark, dreary atmosphere, it sucks me in like falling into a bottomless well. I don't feel its release until the track is over. After that, I come out of another plane of mental existence, and reality sets back in. It's a very strange but satisfying outcome of that track.

Regardless - Blackwater Park is an absolute masterpiece of an album, regardless of what genre you may be discussing at the moment. I honestly can't fathom why Mikael Akerfeldlt, the man himself, declares that the album is "alright". It was mindblowing, and life changing to myself, and probably many other listeners. In my opinion, it was the absolute prime of Opeth's career. It is a solid progressive death metal masterpiece, from start to finish. I would not change a tiny thing on this album. It is perfect. And with such an extensive metal catalog that I enjoy on a daily basis, that speaks volumes for the album.

EMPEROR - IX Equilibrium (1999)
This album - that lies in such a strong and influential catalog of work - is my favorite release from the almighty Emperor. But it also made the list of my favorite metal albums of all time, because of the significant impact it made on me. This album, alongside Dimmu Borgir's Stormblast (also on this list), were my momentous introductions to the sinister, enchanting world of black metal. I listened to this in high school, already primed and enthralled by the exposure to extreme metal. So this album already means a great deal to me for those reasons alone. Now, speaking within Emperor's discography, I still believe it holds up very well to their earlier works. Many fans disagree with that. I dare say that each Emperor album is a masterpiece in their own regards.

Being new to black metal at the time of giving this an initial listen, I was immediately captivated by the bizarre production. The drums are impacting, energetic and fierce, and yet they are portrayed in a very distant, large-sounding production element. The guitars are harsh, gritty and merciless, and are accompanied perfectly with the also-distant keyboards. During this time, I have never quite heard anything symphonic and refreshing. It just drew me in. After "Curse You All Men!" ended, I was lured in even further with "Decrystallizing Reason" and its increasingly prominent keyboard work. After fully absorbing this album, I realized a side of metal that I have been missing out on for so long. I was hooked after that. This album opened the gates to such a sinister new world of metal to me, and I am grateful for it.

DIMMU BORGIR - Stormblast (1996) 
This album was the other culprit, right alongside IX Equilibrium, that spiraled me into black metal. I was 17 years old when I first heard this album; a meager sophomore in high school. Just a very short time period after delving into the world of extreme metal. Actually, thinking back on it, I heard this album before Emperor's IX Equilibrium. So technically, this album is THE first divebomb I took into black metal. It made a great impression on me. Starting off with a very wintry, distant piano intro, then flowing into a very unique-sounding, raw heavy section. The drums and guitar tracks have a very strange, wooden production quality - even stranger by today's production standards. Their use of symphonic elements was never overused in any portion of the album. They knew exactly what to do with them, and when. The organs at the end of "Alt Lys Er Svunnet Hen" is such a great moment in any symphonic black metal track, for example. It fits extremely well, and it has proven itself to be timeless. Moments like these are exactly why this album as a whole is timeless to my ears. This album was a great start to discovering a whole new world of metal, so I will always have a soft spot.

METALLICA - ...And Justice For All (1988)
I think it would be a pretty fair assumption that classic Metallica would be on any metalhead's top lists of favorites. My case is no different. I discovered this album through a friend after I even listened to their later works, such as ReLoad. This was the step into hearing what Metallica "used to sound like". This album captured me with the awesome, instantly identifiable guitar tones and riffs. The music was mechanical and energetic. Back then, I had zero knowledge on what goes into mixing and production. All I heard was fast, tightly executed thrash metal with angry-as-hell vocals, and I fell in love with it. The drums were punchy, and the kick drums were unlike anything else I have heard at the time. Honestly, I would almost say that still holds true. And also to this day, I still love the odd production. They did a great injustice (pun not intended) to Jason Newsted by practically eliminating the bass out of the mix, but of course that was 26 years ago so I won't go into that beaten-to-death topic. Regardless, this album is an absolute classic to my ears. Even if those old farts don't record music to this caliber anymore, they are responsible for timeless records in metal, and that is quite alright with me.

ZYKLON - Aeon (2003)
The discovery of this blackened death gem came a good bit later in my life, marginally beyond my high school days. I can't remember exactly the time period when I found it, but it made a significant impact on my metal catalog. I heard it first from when someone linked a video to "Psyklon Aeon" on a guitar forum, so I gave it a spin. My face was melted pretty quickly. The drumming sounded quite familiar to me. After some quick research, I found out it was none other than Trym Torson of Emperor fame. Not only that, he was accompanied by his brother in metal, Samoth, also from Emperor. By the time I heard this album, I was already a long running fan of Emperor, so that boosted this album to greater glory in my eyes. These guys brought forth a perfect blend of black and death metal, with punishing instrument performances and an equally punishing production. It's definitely not crystal clear, but it presents the violent nature of the music quite well. "An Eclectic Manner" is a track that dabbles a bit into the industrial side of things, and honestly is a perfect album finisher. The track sounds straight from the soundtrack of some post-apocalyptic, dystopian epic, and it closes out the punishing music flawlessly. This album had a great impact on my guitar playing as well, with combining black and death metal riffs to near-perfect ratios. Aeon is a fantastic record, through and through, and it will stick with me through the rest of time.

Alright, that's as far as I will go with this top ten list. I will post the next five albums in the near future. I may even make a third list as close runner-ups, because it is extremely difficult to narrow down a list down to a mere ten favorites, when there are so many albums out there that have spoken to me so strongly. Check back often for more updates!

- Vhyle