Sunday, January 11, 2009

The 1st Annual Stavers Awards Presents: The Top 12 Albums of 2008

Well, it's taken nearly a month to construct, write, neatly package, and deliver it, but here it finally is: The 1st Annual Stavers Awards, and the Top 12 Albums of 2008! Each entry has earned its place through the exceptional demonstration of songwriting, muscianship, and generally being fun to listen to, but keep in mind that these elements have been judged solely by me, the writer. If the list seems biased in any way, that's because it technically is. So if you disagree with the placement (just know that the race was pretty tight, especially towards the top of the list) or if you think I missed an important contender, then...well, that's what the comments section is for!

So here's how this works: each album will be accompanied by a miniature review containing the reasons for why it was selected, along with three informational subcategories. The first, Reccomended First Listens, lists the songs I believe serve the best for being introduced to the sound of the album (important to getting used to the more extreme stuff on the list). Stavers' Top Picks, meanwhile, are the songs that I have chosen to be the best of the lineup, the elite ones that demonstrate the best that the album has to offer. Finally, there are the Bonus Achievements, tiny awards given for special provisos the album gives us (please, don't take them too seriously). Oh, and you may be wondering, "why twelve, of all numbers?". And I have a perfectly good answer to that....
.... with that all explained, we can start this countdown of awesome! The envelope, please...

12. Jeff Loomis – Zero Order Phase

Why the public has yet to embrace instrumental music has always puzzled me; given the general abhorrence of respectable lyrics in mainstream culture one would think it would make a perfect fit. For those of us who can appreciate a break from the human voice for a little bit, the guitarist from Nevermore made a nice little solo project entitled Zero Order Phase. There’s no real meaning behind the titles of either the songs or the album itself; all the emotion is spurred from the music itself, which is obviously done quite well. One could argue that the entire experience cycles around Loomis’ mastery of sick guitar licks, and that’s essentially an apt ideology. Still, the guitar-work alone is some of the best 2008 had to offer, which makes Zero Order Phase more than eligible for a spot on the list in my book.

Recommended First Listens: Azure Haze, Sacristy, Departure
Stavers’ Top Picks: Jato Unit, Devil Theory, Miles of Machines
Bonus Achievements: Devin Townsend Award for Solo Project Achievement, Yngwie Malmsteen Award for Exceptional Shredding

11. Meshuggah – obZen

Imagine that a rogue supercomputer from the future broke some circuits, engineered unfeasible weapons of mass destruction, and started eliminating human life with all the precision and speed mankind’s technology could muster. That, in a way, is like listening to Meshuggah’s obZen, an album which overwhelms you with its dense, mechanical orchestration of dark energy. It lands low on the list mainly for being just that, not much more than an outright metal attack, yet it remains notable for having done it so well. The drumming on songs like Bleed, for instance, will have your mouth gaping, likely due to the coma induced by the guitarist’s and bassist’s desire to numb your senses with wicked experimental lines. Repetitive, sure, and largely inaccessible, certainly, but never say it’s not without benefit.

Recommended First Listens: Combustion, Electric Red, Lethargica
Stavers’ Top Picks: Bleed, obZen, Pineal Gland Optics
Bonus Achievements: Worst Cover Art for an Actually Good Album Award, David Lombardo Award for Drumming Prowess

10. Jedi Mind Tricks – A History of Violence

Family reunions are generally awkward processes, ones where you stand in the corner hoping to your deity of choice that no one approaches you to inform you that they are a long-lost aunt or uncle with a lifetime of boring stories to make you suffer through. That’s why JMT’s seemingly natural reunion with former hip-hopper Jus Allah on A Histroy of Violence deserves such praise; it manages to reincorporate the old elements that he used to bring into the path JMT has followed in the years since his absence. Those expecting the reunion to have resulted in an older-school release like Violent By Design will scuff their feet in the dirt, but the rest of us will know we’re getting a quality product. Yeah, the vocal patterns are getting a little rusty with repeated used, and the lyrics still border on the nonsensical at times, but the production and beats are as perfect as ever, Vinnie Paz is still on of the most pissed-off rappers in music, and Jus Allah’s return provides some greater variety to the whole mix. Resident hip-hoppers will surely want to check this out.

Recommended First Listens: Deathbed Doctrine, Heavy Artillery, Godflesh
Stavers’ Top Picks: Monolith, Trail of Lies, Butcher Knife Bloodbath, Death Messiah
Bonus Achievements: Angriest Hip-Hop Award, “Family Reunion” Achievement Award, Best Beatz Prize

9. Radiohead – In Rainbows

Paradox, thy name is Radiohead. They have a vast army of loyal followers to put China to shame, yet they still exercise the freedom to expand their music into continuously different territories without losing them. That freedom took us to a strange world on the very first day of 2008 when In Rainbows was released to critical acclaim. However, I cannot in good spirits place this new experimental opus above something along the lines of OK Computer or Kid A. There’s a level of consistency on those albums, an unbreakable thread that sews songs together that made them work flawlessly, and it just seems missing on this release. Not to mention, there’s a certain wide disconnection between how the band’s members described the album and how it personally effected me; “terrifying”, for instance, is a strong word, and I would not have used it to describe the rhythmic hand-clapping and children’s cheering that accompanies the album opener 15 Step. But hey, it’s still Radiohead, and the strangeness and openness they always carry with them from album to album still remain. It’s disappointing in some ways, but In Rainbows deserves a place on the list nonetheless.

Recommended First Listens: Bodysnatchers, Nude, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, House of Cards
Stavers’ Top Picks: All I Need, Jigsaw Falling Into Place, Videotape
Bonus Achievements: Highest Indie Band Survival Rate, “Black Sheep of This List” Award

8. Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

Alright, I’ll admit it: this one surprised me. Heretic Pride’s simplicity and seemingly infallible joy belies some pretty interesting folk-rock techniques, even if the linearity of most tracks makes them a little more predictable than usual. The poetic lyrics – and subsequently the strange voice of a one John Darnielle – are really the star here, mixing surreal visual treats with some very affirming life lessons (How to Embrace a Swamp Creature being a good example of both). I’ve heard some critics say that the album covers little ground that the Mountain Goats hadn’t covered before, but for the amateur such as myself, the album is instantly accessible while still being phenomenally well-balanced and varied. It couldn’t bring itself to compete with the more boisterous candidates on the list, but it is easily worth a glance.

Recommended First Listens: So Desperate, How to Embrace a Swamp Creature, Tianchi Lake
Stavers’ Top Picks: Sax Rohmer #1, San Bernardino, Heretic Pride, Lovecraft in Brooklyn
Bonus Achievements: Most Joyous, Creepiest Lyrics

7. Arsis – We Are the Nightmare

Combining melody and technicality has been a task that few in the music biz seem to undertake…or care about. Arsis (from Virginia, who knew?) have instead taken it upon themselves to accomplish that goal thrice in succession, with the latest victory being entitled We Are the Nightmare. In doing so, the formula does prove to be somewhat repetitive as you move from start to finish, but the mighty riffs and excellent drumwork reciprocate your patience with some truly commendable songwriting. If perhaps the lyrics seem overwrought by comparison, then it takes little to ignore them while you bask in the glory of the album’s melo-tech hybridization. It’s essentially the musical equivalent of having a perfectly-engineered power drill accurately flossed through your ear canals…although that does make it sound bad, so try to imagine that statement through the perspective of a masochist, yes?

Recommended First Listens: We Are the Nightmare, Sightless Wisdom…and if you don’t like those, then there’s no hope for the rest of the album.
Stavers’ Top Picks: Overthrown, Progressive Entrapment, A Feast for the Liar’s Tongue, Failure’s Conquest
Bonus Achievements: Most Technical, Best Attack Tool for Metal Elitists

6. Equilibrium – Sagas

Oh gee, I’ve never seen this before. A symphonic folk metal band with blackened elements that fuses guitar with violin and pan flutes melodies, singing lyrics about old Nordic stories exclusively in German? How utterly predictable.

Ok, so in all seriousness, it's really the sheer uniqueness that makes this one stand out. Everything about the musicianship is really spot-on (except for maybe the screechy black-metal vocals), but all of the folkandish touches make the songs complete. Most of them sound European in nature, fittingly enough, but traces of Latin and even Australian aboriginal culture make an appearance along the way as well. The result is an album that is truly epic; the word may get thrown around a lot these days, but it really does seem designed for the sheer girth of this album’s sound. If you can handle some extreme vocals and don’t have a problem flipping through a Germanic dictionary to understand lyrics, then this record was made for you.

Recommended First Listens: Prolog Auf Erden, Blut im Auge, Heimwärts
Stavers’ Top Picks: Unbesiegt, Snüffel, Mana
Bonus Achievements: Most Likely to Be Used in a World of Warcraft Montage Video, Most German

5. Scar Symmetry – Holographic Universe

There are some people out in this world (I like to call them “elitists”) who have already gone ahead and declared the entire genre of melodic death metal “dead”. The frequency with which Holographic Universe has appeared on many end-of-the-year lists such as this one seems to have shut them up pretty well, I daresay. This is because Scar Symmetry has put out nothing but high-quality of the melodeath genre up to now, and Holographic Universe is simply their most polished effort yet. The entire guitar-keyboard partnership that drives the album works tremendously well, but its really the vocals of Christian Älvestam tha push it over the top. It’s a shame that his unwillingness to cooperate with the rest of the band resulted in his eviction from the group shortly after the album was made, because his powerful death grunts and soaring singing voice are so well done here. Plus, the album takes its sci-fi theme very seriously, as the song titles and great lyrics reflect. Some of the riffs are occasionally quite samey, but that hardly derides the entire experience. Get this, if only to prove those Gothenburg-hating heathens wrong.

Recommended First Listens: Morphogenesis, Timewave Zero, Ghost Prototype I – Measurement of Thought
Stavers’ Top Picks: Artificial Sun Projection, Trapezoid, Holographic Universe, Ghost Prototype II – Deus Ex Machina
Bonus Achievements: Best Use of a Theme/Concept, Creed Award For Having a Band-Threatening Vocalist

4. In Flames – A Sense of Purpose

I could probably write entire analytical tomes about these legendary Swedes if possible, but I’ll have to cut to the chase (relatively) in the name of brevity. A Sense of Purpose brewed up quite a storm as far back as late 2007, under the watchful eye of fanboys and musical cynics alike. More than likely it was because it followed Come Clarity from 2006, an album that returned the band to its metal roots after half a decade of questionable experimentation that tore their fanbase in two more violently than perhaps any other band in metal history. So, we all wondered, would the next release take the band even further back towards their humble beginnings? Was the guitar-driven sound of Come Clarity a one-time deal? Could In Flames surprise us with a masterpiece that made their classic The Jester Race sound like Miley Cyrus? The answer, as it turned out, was “no” on all counts.

Instead, A Sense of Purpose was an apt blend of everything In Flames had done thus far, freshened up and injected with cautious but successful experiments up the wazoo. In losing the rushed pace and outright aggression of Come Clarity, it regained the warmth, addicting melodies that defined the band. Yet it didn’t all make itself apparent immediately and instead unraveled with multiple listens. The strange new approach has led some to call it the worst album in the entire In Flames catalogue, while others consider it the best. The most reasoned of In Flames fans such as myself reside somewhere in the middle, for there are certainly flaws to pick at; the lyrics, namely, have taken a rather unprecedented dive in quality in some songs, demonstrating that band vocalist Anders Friden may have finally plumbed the wells of “social cruelty lyrics” completely dry after a decade or so. Apart from that, the band sounds better than it has since Clayman, with Jesper Stromblad’s guitar riffs flowing like wine once again, not to mention the best drumming the band has ever seen.

Undoubtedly the best aspects of ASoP lie in the increased variety it brings to the table after Come Clarity’s blurred line-up. The setlist ranges from short-and-sweet metal anthems (The Mirror’s Truth), spastic thrashers (Sober and Irrelevant, March to the Shore), and even largely keyboard-driven moments (Alias). Some parts even indulge in the Swedish-folk acoustic guitar interludes that sound plucked straight from the band’s debut Lunar Strain. But no one could prepare for In Flames’ most risky experiments, and indeed one of their most beautiful songs ever; The Chosen Pessimist, an eight-minute-long epic of the progressive rock mold that demonstrates just how far Friden’s clean vocals have come, evoking sounds and emotions more like those of Radiohead than At the Gates. Plus, those of you willing to search for the Japanese edition or shell out extra for the accompanying EP will find three absolutely awesome bonus tracks as well, and the luckiest will obtain one of the rare box sets that comes will a frickin’ pinball labyrinth game. Awesome.

Granted, In Flames will always have their detractors, but that’s to be expected from a group brave enough to flip their established sound upside-down over the course of just a few albums. Besides, you have to love a band that pokes fun at itself; one of the banners that advertised the album prior to its release stated “In Flames don’t follow trends…they create them!” And you know what? That’s absolutely right. They may have a long way to go to win back the hearts of those they scorned, but this new album proves that even after 14 years of twists and turns, In Flames are still not obsolete, and instead march forward with “a sense of purpose” of their very own.

Recommended First Listens: The Mirror’s Truth, Disconnected, Condemned, Drenched in Fear
Stavers’ Top Picks: Sleepless Again, Alias, I’m the Highway, The Chosen Pessimist, March to the Shore
Bonus Achievements: Most Undeserved Hatred, Best Cover Art, Most Addicting, Jesper Stromblad Award for Having Jesper Stromblad

3. Gojira – The Way of All Flesh

There isn’t much to say about The Way of All Flesh that wasn’t covered in my previously written review, but I must reinforce the notion I made earlier about this album being a “grower”. On further examination over the past few months, the differences between this and 2005’s From Mars to Sirius expand ever further; the newer release is less organic (the production has been kicked up quite a dozen notches), yet eliminates the monotony and adds innumerable new angles to the songwriting. The vocals are fuller and more powerful, the drum-work god-like, and the innovations clever. When you get right down to it, TWoAF may be the apex of the path these Frenchies have strode since their first album, which makes it all the more interesting to see where future years will take them.

There’s another reason I have had yet to touch upon that takes TWoAF to the near-peak of the list, too: it once again proves that Gojira produces music for a discernable reason. That doesn’t sound impressive when phrased so bluntly, but think of all the tired, bloated rock stars or corporate-controlled prissy pop princesses who cough up new records for sheer profit or to imitate a semblance of activity. In short, Gojira aren’t in the music business for the money, but for the music, for the power that the musical medium provides in spreading the word of noble causes and spiritual beliefs. And that’s especially notable when their enviro-friendly nature contrasts so heavily against the back-drop of their hellraising sound in a way that is both ironic and distinctive. For these reasons and more, you will never find another band like Gojira, nor another album like The Way of All Flesh. Brilliant, in all possible respects.

Recommended First Listens: Oroborus, A Sight to Behold, The Silver Cord, Vacuity
Stavers’ Top Picks: Toxic Garbage Island, Adoration for None, The Art of Dying, The Way of All Flesh
Bonus Achievements: Best Lyrics, Most Likely to Rupture An Organ Through Sheer Ferocity, Best Death Metal Album to Be Made in Fran…on second thought, gimme that last one back. It’s practically a freebie.

2. Cynic – Traced in Air

Some of you may have wondered, perhaps in the black depths of a subconscious dream, what genius sounds like. Or perhaps that was just me. In any case, Cynic would be a perfectly acceptable answer to that. Their 1993 debut Focus was the first, and for a while only, proof of that, combining technical death metal with jazz fusion and progressive elements to form an instant underground classic many still regard as one of the greatest releases of all time (myself among them). In just one year thereafter the band split, however, and all of their work on the follow-up was seemingly lost. Then the impossible happened; the band reformed in 2007, and all the material that was once thought lost to time has resurfaced 15 years later. There are few albums I could consider to be worth waiting more than a decade for (you hear that, Chinese Democracy?), but I can assure you that Traced in Air is one of them.

The most important thing to know going into Traced in Air if you are familiar with Focus is that it has little resemblance to its forbearer. Undoubtedly that has left some feeling scorned, but there is no reason to fret. TiA is a nearly perfect album in its own regard, because it explores territory left unexplored not just by themselves, but by the musical community at large. Vocalist Paul Masvidal’s robotic vocoder-backed vocals return much improved, forming glorious melodies that layer perfectly on top of one another, and amongst the technical beating of Sean Reinert’s drums and the guitar’s cyclical, melodic loops. Largely less aggressive and fast-paced than Focus, it instead ensnares you in a steady, flowing river of sound, one that’s willing to burst in rapids or gently caress the shores as it deems appropriate. And if that sounds more than a little trippy, its probably because the space-age sound of Traced in Air is one of the most difficult albums I’ve ever had to explain in words. My sole complaint, and it is a minor one at best, is that at a meager 35 minutes or so, TiA ends far too soon. Nonetheless, the once-in-a-lifetime experience of closer song Nunc Stans helps ease that wound, and the general quality of the album already has me in peak anticipation of what Cynic will possibly create next to continue their legacy.

If you need any more endorsement of Traced in Air than I can provide, of course, I think Paul Masvidal does a better job than I ever could:

“We've been on an amazing journey discovering this new music and soon it will be yours. Expect the unexpected. The album is an intensely concentrated mosaic of internal and external energies, from the deepest peace to the purest aggression. There's an acquired taste that comes with a record of this density, but once your ears wrap themselves around the language at work, everything falls into place and suddenly you'll feel a sudden urge to sing, scream or maybe even cry. The album has a beginning, middle and end. The story will reveal itself after numerous listens and then you may not want to let go…”

So very true. Buy this album right away.

Recommended First Listens: Nunc Fluens, The Space For This, The Unknown Guest
Stavers’ Top Picks: Evolutionary Sleeper, Integral Birth, King of Those Who Know, Nunc Stans
Bonus Achievements: Longest Delay, Highest Payoff, Best Use of Vocoder a.k.a. Only Good Use of Vocoder, Midget Award for Being Too Short

Surprise! The #1 album gets a full review next time!

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