Matt’s Albums of the Decade, Part 3: #50 through #21

Part 1: 190-101
Part 2: 100-51

50. Prince – Art Official Age (#3 of 2014)

I was very, very late to board the Prince train, only taking a real interest in his voluminous work with the 2014 dual release of this album and the tamer Plectrumelectrum. These releases came a whopping four years after his previous album 20 Ten, which is shocking because there had never been any time between 1978 and 2010 (32 years) where the Artist had allowed more than two years between releases! As fresh as ever, Mr. Nelson updated his mellifluous style with modern production sensibilities (see “Clouds” and “Funknroll”) while retaining his affection for classic funk (“The Gold Standard”) and soul (“Breakdown”). The album somewhat awkwardly crams in a sci-fi story arc across most, but not all, of its tracks, pondering the meaning and substance of love and human connection. It’s a neat idea that threads these songs together, but doesn’t totally flesh itself out into a coherent concept. Still, for the thirty-seventh album from a musician with a five-decade career, it’s unbelievable that Prince was able to reinvent himself and bring so many awesome tracks to the table. His death is one of the greatest tragedies in music history, as even after all that time, he still had so much left to give the world. Yet his legacy looms enormous and will endure for as long as the human race appreciates the art of music.

49. Alcest – Ecailles de lune (#2 of 2010)

Seminal and definitive, Neige crystallized a sound here that would go on to become one of the defining styles of the decade. This album contains everything worthy to praise in “blackgaze”, well-balanced between melodic tranquility and swirling immediacy. Part 1 of the title track keeps things mostly midtempo, emphasizing the use of blast beats for accent purposes; the second part launches full-bore into more traditional blasting before toning down. Both approaches work beautifully.

48. Shamblemaths – Shamblemaths (#4 of 2016)

Shamblemaths is, at its heart, a love letter to the heyday of progressive rock. Combining all the best elements of all the best seventies bands, from Jethro Tull to Genesis, with a sprinkle of King Crimson’s edge, there is nothing here that you won’t adore if you’re a fan of the style. Epic songs with multiple movements and recurrent themes explore every corner of the prog universe.

CTEBCM review

47. Panopticon – Kentucky (#6 of 2012)

Austin Lunn became a household name among black metal fans over the course of this decade, but for my money, his best work came on this early synthesis of black metal and bluegrass. Half the album’s songs strip away the metal entirely, fully committing to the protest folk style of yesteryear (yet whose message remains as relevant and urgent as ever), while the metal tracks burst at the seams with Lunn’s idiosyncratic guitar and drum energy. I think the full integration of these contrasting styles, each allowing the other to breathe, was critical to the success of this release, and Lunn never quite captured that again despite maturing as a songwriter.

46. Schammasch – Triangle (#3 of 2016)

Schammasch zeroed in on that driving, industrial-tinged, dissonant black metal that Blut aus Nord sounds like at their best (777, Part Ⅰ: Sect(s)), amped it up to 11, and chopped off the frills of Blut aus Nord at their most mediocre (777, Part Ⅲ: Cosmosophy). The first two parts of this album are no-nonsense, vicious, cosmic black metal that wavers between liturgical and lobotomizing. The third part is a series of expansive ambient and percussive pieces. From a flow perspective, the album might have been more effective if the third disc’s tracks were interspersed among the first two, but I understand what they were aiming for thematically. Construction critiques aside, the music here is top-notch, a relentless onslaught of surreal blast beats and hypnotic vocals. Each song tends to be based around a small set of repetitive riffs, but the multifaceted vocal deliveries and dynamic song structures assuage this to great effect.

CTEBCM analysis

45. Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It (#10 of 2018)

Rolo Tomassi stunned listeners of every ilk by demonstrating their capability in both shoegaze-tinged pop-rock (“Aftermath”, one of the most gorgeous songs of the decade) and frenzied, classic early-aughts metalcore (“Rituals”). The amount of ground covered just by the opening three tracks of this album is staggering, catching casual listeners quite off guard with its genre-jumping. The album continues to wind between these aspects and others, with Eva Spence’s dynamic vocal performance front and centre.

44. 明日の叙景 (Asu no jokei) – わたしと私だったもの (Watashi to watashidatta mono) / Awakening (#9 of 2018)

There are endless reasons to praise this fantastic album: chord progressions that draw heavily from traditional jazz, a dizzying palette of genre influences, an approach to black metal that is unafraid to incorporate screamo, pop, or musique concrète to make its point. Asu no jokei pack a lot of passion and ingenuity into a concise package here, and it remains deeply rewarding on repeated listens as its layers gradually unfold.

CTEBCM review

43. Gris – À l’âme enflammée, l’äme constellée… (#10 of 2013)

Gris’s remarkable double album transcends simple categorization; it’s métal noir québécois, it’s depressive black metal, but it’s much more too. Despite having just two members, the album is suffused with rich string orchestration using violin and cello, and expertly interweaves atmospheric black passages with complexly layered acoustic breaks. The depth of the composition is so intricate in the clean parts that they might actually outshine the metal! Beautiful counterpoint melodies combined with multiple subdued percussive layers add a dimension of craftsmanship and elevates something most bands gloss over as simply a necessary breathing-space moment into the focal point of the work.

42. Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage (#3 of 2011)

Celestial Lineage was the culmination of an already-impressive career for the torchbearers of Cascadian black metal. Expanding their signature sound with psychedelic elements (like the quasi-solo in the middle of “Thuja magus imperium”) and harsher blackness (like the blasts in “Astral Blood”), Wolves in the Throne Room reached their zenith on this album and essentially perfected the style.

41. Ayreon – The Theory of Everything (#9 of 2013)

You know what you’re getting with Ayreon: instrumental richness, loaded with synths and organ and winds; operatic vocals delivering a compelling narrative; high-calibre guest appearances in roles both large and small; and a tour de force of perfectly executed heavy progressive rock. The Theory of Everything saw Arjen Lucassen liberated from the fifteen-year story arc he had (temporarily) concluded with 2008’s career-defining 01011001, offering instead a brand new story arc revolving around a child prodigy, the lengths to which his family and friends go to encourage and support him, and the fallout of the choices for all involved. There are no particularly standout vocalists in this somewhat smaller-than-usual cast, though Arjen deserves praise for giving Lacuna Coil’s Cristina Scabbia her best context ever to operate in. Instead, the awe is duly reserved for briefer guest spots from true titans of the prog world, including Steve Hackett, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, and Jordan Rudess. It’s not Ayreon’s best work, but it certainly stands well alongside it, head and shoulders above the sea of mediocrity modern prog tends to foster.

40. Sunless Dawn – Timeweaver (#8 of 2018)

Sunless Dawn play crisp, harmonically rich, straight-ahead progressive death metal. They check all the boxes of dynamic composition and album structure, technicality, fluid key signatures, unconventional scales, and mathy time signatures. The album is dense with memorable riffs yet declines to push any envelopes. Still, this is a talented debut from a band set up for long-term success.

CTEBCM review

39. Dreadnought – A Wake in Sacred Waves (#5 of 2017)

The greatest young band of the decade turned their attention toward the seas on their third full-length, crafting four oceanic surges of melodic, progressive doom with blackened and folk influences. The breadth of creativity here is incredibly rare, and stems from the quartet’s influences and dynamic personal talents. Kelly Schilling vacillates between banshee screams, blistering tremolo riffs, and gentle flute glides; Lauren Vieira wields keyboards ranging from classical piano motifs to modern synth arpeggiations; Jordan Clancy bombards the drum kit with boundless innovation, never content to repeat a measure (very reminiscent of peak Brann Dailor), then shifts to saxophone for the more atmospheric sections. The climax of “Vacant Sea”, the slow buildup of “A Drifting Reign”, and the entirety of “Within Chanting Waters” perfectly distill the band’s brilliance.

38. An Isolated Mind – I’m Losing Myself (#3 of 2019)

The rarest of gems is an album which serves as a clear window into the artist’s soul while simultaneously showcasing the artist’s complete musical aptitude. With I’m Losing Myself, Kameron Bogges nails this balance, using extreme prog metal to demonstrate his songwriting skill (shades of acts ranging from Gorguts to Vaura to Novembre to Pinkish Black make themselves known), while raw emotional lyrics and a clever bit of album structuring take us on a journey to the limits of the human psyche. The album dabbles in black and death metal, synth-driven melodic passages, and classical influences throughout its first few tracks. But the album-closing, instrumental one-two punch of “I’m Losing Myself” (drifting, dreamlike clean guitar and piano that gradually descends into chaos) and “I’ve Lost Myself” (seventeen minutes of pure aimless ambiance) drive the themes home powerfully.

37. Inter arma – The Cavern (#2 of 2014)

It turns out Inter arma are at their best when they are proggiest, and they achieved that better on this single-track, forty-five-minute release than on any of their massive proper albums. They still stretch riffs and musical themes to their breaking point, not rushing from idea to idea before the time is right. There’s a gentle intro, a massive sludgy first movement, a dizzyingly technical guitar part in \(\frac{7}{8}\) that evolves into something even more complex and hard to count, then a atmospheric post-stoner-meets-Americana bridge with guest vocals by Windhand’s Dorthia Cottrell, then they gradually work their way back through these parts to recap the original sludge part but way slower. It’s the finest example of progressive sludge ever, and it’s the best thing Inter arma’s ever created.

36. Seven Impale – Contrapasso (#2 of 2016)

Somewhere in the intersection of Jaga Jazzist, King Crimson, and The Mars Volta lives this Norwegian jazz-prog sextet. Contrapasso showcases a band confident in their core abilities and willing to explore new frontiers. Opening track “Lemma” has a psychedelic momentum, something perhaps appealing to King Gizzard aficionados, while “Languor” and “Helix” play with darker scales with powerful consequences. The overall demeanor of the album is a bit heavier than their debut, and without quite as many deeply memorable moments.

CTEBCM review and interview

35. White Ward – Love Exchange Failure (#2 of 2019)

Love Exchange Failure pushed Ukraine’s White Ward into the greater mainstream consciousness and gave them a credibility that they should have already had based on their incredible debut. On this follow-up, they sound kind of like a mix between their old style and Deafheaven, which secured their mass appeal. They seemed content to segregate the jazz and black metal elements rather than blending them further together, which I think was a mistake, but they nevertheless produced a long album chock-full of memorable riffs and beautiful melodies.

34. Dodecahedron – Dodecahedron (#5 of 2012)

This Dutch group, cut from the cloth of Deathspell Omega, transcend this comparison by distinguishing themselves with uncommon techniques. From the opening moments of the album, Dodecahedron make clear both what they are and what they aren’t, with layers of sickly melodic guitars swirling around jazz-tinged drums, pausing briefly to allow a moment of preparation, then launching ahead into a cascade of blast beats and dissonance with harsh, rasping vocals as the perfect companion. The drums are truly the highlight of this album, as Jasper Barendregt perfectly fuses his pinpoint blasts and double bass with jazzy technique. The first three tracks cover blistering black metal and crushing doom, then the eerie “Descending Jacob’s Ladder” serves as the interlude before the three-part “View from Hverfell” suite takes the listener home. The guitars in the outro deserve particular commendation, providing one of the best album endings in the black metal sphere.

33. Entropia – शूत्य स्थान (Shoony sthaan) / Vacuum (#7 of 2018)

All psychedelic black metal needed was a little bit of swing. Who knew? Turns out Entropia did, and on Vacuum they melded Oranssi Pazuzu’s patient, immersive blackened-psych approach with frequent forays into droning swing grooves, conjuring up something fascinating and unique. There are plenty of moments where they steer into the heaviness as well, like the galloping blast section on the title track.

CTEBCM review

32. Patrons of the Rotting Gate – The Rose Coil (#8 of 2013)

As a solo artist myself, I am always drawn to other solo artists who really nail the ethos of what it means to be a single-handed music creator. Andrew Millar therefore earned an enormous amount of my respect with this staggeringly fleshed-out debut of dissonant black metal brilliance. Drawing from progressive and death spheres of influence as well, Millar packed a dizzying array of ideas into this release. The blasting intro of “Tři závěti” roils through to its churning sludge breakdown, which feeds into the technical rhythm intro of “Carnassial”, establishing a pattern of tracks flowing together (great compositional technique), giving a grounded feel to this otherwise fluid and ethereal voyage. Later songs reference musical themes from earlier in the album, another classic compositional virtue. It is deeply unfortunate that we didn’t get more out of Millar, who once had concepts for multiple future albums in queue but evidently has not had time or passion to pursue the project further to date.

31. Imperial Triumphant – Vile Luxury (#6 of 2018)

It takes all of five seconds for the brass quintet that opens “Swarming Opulence” to convince you that something special has been accomplished here, but it’s not until you hear how frequently and seamlessly those horns are fused with the dissonant blackened death metal that you know for sure the band has wrought a true masterpiece. Choral vocals and piano even show up down the road. More lo-fi than Dodecahedron, Imperial Triumphant dig at the grit beneath the fingernails of opulent society to produce a sound every bit as discomfiting as that metaphor implies. This album is what dissonant death metal was made for.

CTEBCM review

30. Tangled Thoughts of Leaving – No Tether (#5 of 2018)

I mentioned earlier that it takes a certain calibre of instrumental music to earn even the slightest measure of my attention. Once I gave No Tether that inch, it took several miles. There are elements of post-rock, math rock, noise rock, ambient drone, film score, and more, yet none of those things encapsulates the bewildering palette of styles at work here. Guitars, piano, drums, and noise layers flit in and out as songs roil with decadent intensity and wistful restraint. The higher-intensity songs, like “Signal Erosion” with its sludge-noise climax and “Binary Collapse” with its head-spinning keyboard melody, showcase a level of creativity that exceeds any other instrumental act.

29. Between the Buried and Me – Automata (#4 of 2018)

Ever since Colors redefined extreme prog a decade ago, Between the Buried and Me has maintained absolute consistency in their regular releases. 2016’s Coma Ecliptic saw the band take a turn for the marginally less extreme, perhaps the effect of some of vocalist Tommy Rogers’s solo material bleeding into the larger group’s compositions, but even that had its charm and genius. The combined half-releases of Automata in 2018 saw a return to metallic ferocity, along with the ever-present incorporation of novelties; in this case including atmospheric melodic rock on “Millions” and unabashed Diablo Swing Orchestra worship on “Voice of Trespass”. The longer pieces—“Yellow Eyes”, “Blot”, and “The Proverbial Bellow”—instantly join the pantheon of great tracks from years past, like “Ants in the Sky”, “Swim to the Moon” and “Telos”. BTBAM is far from stagnation, still delivering fresh and proficient material deep into their long career.

28. Baroness – Yellow & Green (#4 of 2012)

Baroness achieves hard rock mastery through diversity on “Yellow & Green”. The anthemic jams that pepper this dual album often feel like they were produced by completely different engineers and recorded with completely different gear, yet without the finished product feeling incohesive. You get to rock all the way out on the killer “Take My Bones Away” and “Board Up the House”, indulge in the slippery riffs of “Little Things” and “Collapse”, and brood with the haunting acoustics of “Twinkler” and “Stretchmarker”. Every song has something new, so the album holds up exceptionally well to repeat listens.

27. Pensées nocturnes – Grotesque (#1 of 2010)

Before Vaerohn took this project completely off the deep end into avant-garde, carnivalesque performance art, he unleashed Grotesque, the perfect marriage of depressive black metal with insane orchestration and cursed circus energy. The complexity of the arrangement here is almost too genius to believe it came from one mind, until you remember that classic composers do this all the time. Still, it’s not a level of intricacy you see within the metal world very often. Every instrument complements each other while carving out its own space, all serving the broader function of soundtracking the listener’s descent into madness.

26. Fen – Dustwalker (#7 of 2013)

We finally reach Fen’s pinnacle here. This is careful, patient, forward-thinking black metal, a tapestry of blast beats, clean harmonies, acoustic picking, and some of the most prominent and proficient bass ever utilized in the genre. The production is full and thick, giving appropriate space to all the instruments. Fen play around with a plethora of time signatures, including \(\frac{7}{8}\) (“Spectre”) and \(\frac{13}{8}\) (the beginning of “Walking the Crowpath”). They waste no time entering metal territory, kicking the album off abruptly with “Consequence”, as if interrupted mid-thought, but quickly scale back the intensity with the soft, warm graces of “Hands of Dust” (which spends five minutes building a hypnotic atmosphere before daring to venture into metallic space) and “Spectre” (which spends its full nine minutes developing a sort of evolved take on Opeth’s classic pace-breaker “Harvest”). They frequently add acoustic layers to their metal parts, a hallmark of the similarly underrated Italian masters Novembre. There are so many brilliant musical ideas on this album, it’s almost unfair to the rest of metal. I mean, the swirling guitars, plodding bass, and trippy drums near the end of “The Black Sound” are just otherworldly. It’s rare for a band to have a unique sound, yet be able to develop that uniqueness into a myriad of different ideas. With Dustwalker, Fen did exactly that.

25. Mega Ran & Lost Perception – Black Materia (#2 of 2011)

Nerdcore hip-hop has become quite a force over the decade, but in 2011 it was still quite nascent. One of the major breakthroughs in the style saw Philadelphia native Random, aka Mega Ran, dropping his sick flowing narration of the Final Fantasy Ⅶ storyline over Lost Perception’s beautifully produced rap beats incorporating the iconic game’s all-time great soundtrack. With more than enough talent to live up to this audacious ambition, Ran tells us about the adventures of Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Sephiroth and more with a little help from some of his gamer/rapper collaborators. Ran and crew carry us from the singalong chorus of “Avalanche” (also featuring Ran downtuning his voice for a memorably gritty verse as Barret) to the upbeat triple verses of “Absolute” to the social commentary thoughtfully injected into “Don of the Slums” and “Cry of the Planet”, connecting the game’s themes of capitalist exploitation and ecological crisis to their real-world analogs. My only critique of the album has to do with the fact that some of the early verses spoil later bits of the story, breaking the otherwise carefully structured narrative flow of the songs. But there’s no better subject matter for a gaming-minded hip-hop album, and Mega Ran must be lauded for pulling off such an incredible feat.

24. Extol – Extol (#6 of 2013)

Eight years after they dissolved-slash-morphed into Mantric, we were blessed with a new Extol album, by the core Extol members, with the audacity to self-title the album. That establishes a high bar right off the bat; they’re inviting the listener’s critique and judgment, as if to say “Taste and see that this is truly Extol.” This was not a given, as each member had been involved in various non-metal projects, from acoustic pop to jazz fusion, during the band’s downtime. The first track they gave the public was “Open the Gates”, the album’s second song. It was clearly metal, very slick and modernized, almost (frighteningly) a little too djenty at times. But it had those Extol hallmarks—it was largely in \(\frac{5}{4}\), blended Peter’s screams (a glorious return to form, landing somewhere between the intensity of Undeceived and the yelling of Synergy) with Ole’s melodic singing, and featured some of those signature riffs that only Extol can write. The album’s other tracks sounded more classically Extol and less desperately modern, and remarkably, they truly managed to conjure up the sound of every single past release, despite their broad differences. The counterpoint guitar work that opens “Wastelands” brings us back to the band’s debut, Burial; “Ministers” launches us into the spiritualized tech-thrash of Synergy. We may never get another album, but Extol served as a beautiful capstone on the career of Christian metal’s greatest act.

23. Big Big Train – English Electric: Full Power (#5 of 2013)

Big Big Train sounds like if you froze 1977 Genesis in carbonite, unfroze them in 2009, and put them in a modern studio. The two-part English Electric album appropriates the best of Wind & Wuthering’s pastoral, poetic prog rock and updates it with just enough modern sensibilities to give it a contemporary flair, adding edge without losing the genteel beauty of the classic British sound. Greg Spawton and David Longdon share ideas and build off each other as well as any prog duo ever have, and bring a bevy of instruments into the fold including mandolin, flute, banjo, vibraphone, Moog, and accordion to provide a deep spectrum of colour for the band’s immersive sonic palette. As such, even the less engaging tunes like “Uncle Jack” and “Upton Heath” have a certain nostalgic quality, while the real highlights like “Summoned by Bells”, “A Boy in Darkness”, “Judas Unrepentant”, and “East Coast Racer” brim with enchantment and mystique.

22. White Ward – Futility Report (#4 of 2017)

This outstanding debut from Ukrainian sextet White Ward takes post-black metal and stretches it wide enough to comfortably accommodate melodeath, industrial, jazz, and even tasteful metalcore elements in a natural, cohesive, and fluid way. You’ll hear Lantlôs’s brooding noir ambiance, Shining’s jazz-metal hybridization, and Soilwork’s sizzling guitar solos, sometimes within the same track. Every song reveals a new facet of the band’s sound, a savvy bit of album construction that makes it feel much longer and richer than its forty-minute runtime.

21. The Tea Club – Quickly Quickly Quickly (#3 of 2012)

On the best pure progressive rock album of the decade, The Tea Club brought together everything good about the classic art-rock spirit of the seventies and all the best modern twists and ideas that could be wisely incorporated into that framework. Quickly Quickly Quickly achieves the near-impossible feat of sounding in the 2010s like what prog rock must have sounded like in the seventies. It is familiar, yet new; nostalgic, yet forward-thinking. Each of the album’s four tracks unfolds in a different way, providing multiple viewing angles into the minds of the virtuosic McGowan brothers and their cohorts on this record. The seventeen-minute opener “Firebears”, far and away the crowning achievement of the band’s career, dances between catchy synth and vocal hooks over dynamic guitar and bass scaffolding, fluidly bending time and tempo as it swirls through its diverse movements. After this masterpiece, we get the playful and poetic “The Eternal German Infant”, the dark acoustic “Mister Freeze”, and the patient drama of “I Shall Consume Everything” (more reminiscent of the band’s sound on Rabbit) to complete this magnificent record.

On March 11 2020, this entry was posted.