Any kind of album-of-the-year vote is never going to be a fair thing. Heavy Metal Spotlight, as you probably know already, is not a democracy. However, it does seem to be a little unfair to take all of the albums which I've loved, or that I perceive to be excellent, this year, and lump them all into one category. Debut albums by less known bands are going to have trouble going up against the likes of Overkill and Enslaved, but at the same time, I feel there are a great number of such albums which deserve recognition.
To try and make this a little more interesting, I've made two shortlists; one for the "Heavy Metal Spotlight album of the year", and another for the "Underground Lord", which will cater to the bands which truly embody the underground, and the gems which can come from it. The shortlists are below, and the polls are at the side of the page. Enjoy voting!
Album of the Year Short-list
Woods of Ypres - Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light: Woods 5 is an emotional album not just through it's unique atmosphere, but for it's context. It's the final album by the band, released after the death of David Gold, the mastermind behind the music. While it's up to you whether this is the album of the year, I can safely say it's an album which feels genuinely special. Soothing but unsettling laments for life, love, and musings about death, wrapped in a blanket of beautifully melodic black metal, doom metal and post rock, combining to create something unlike anything else which has been released this year.
Cattle Decapitation - Monolith of Inhumanity: Cattle Decapitation, in one word, are savage. Not quite in the same straight-forward and unrelenting way of most modern death-metal, but instead razor-sharp, twisted, and thoroughly technically adept. Incorporating groove-laden sections, elements of grind, and a real maniacal and dynamic sound, the album certainly received buckets of attention when it arrived earlier this year. It's without question one of the most brutal items on the short-list, but at the same time manages to be un-cliched about it's heaviness, goriness and rabid misanthropy and anti-human sentiment.
Pharaoh - Bury the Light: Speaking of not being clichéd, Pharaoh's latest, Bury the Light, is a textbook example of the bands ability to unleash power metal which is progressive, fresh, and genuinely exciting to listen to. Absent are the flowery flourishes of European power-metal, and in their place, once again, Pharaoh boast excellent musicianship, thoughtful song-writing and a sincere feeling which power-metal really needs more of. Bury the light is Pharaoh's fourth album, of a career which has spawned nothing short of excellent material every time, and many are holding this one as their as the best yet.
A Forest of Stars - A Shadowplay for Yestardays: A Forest of Stars are another band to really take black-metal and do something new with it. Sophisticated and gentile, "A Shadowplay for Yesterdays" is a solid collection of what can be safely described as "Victorian" black metal, with reeling psychedelic and folk influences, and an outright unique sound of its own, which really takes the album out of the realms of comparison to any of the band's peers and influences, and into a whole world of it's own. Without a doubt one of the stranger albums on the list, but it doesn't lose any catchiness or flow to be such.
Candlemass - Psalms for the Dead: Candlemass are widely regarded as the founders of epic doom-metal as a sub-genre. It's always enjoyable to see such a band continuing several decades on from their birth, with equal beauty, passion and strength. Psalms of the Dead is an album which very much demonstrates the band to still have the capacity to make excellent material, in fact, aside from a few periods, the band has barely stopped since the mid-eighties, which is always admirable. Psalms for the Dead is a memorable, crushing and beautiful work of epic-doom, and well worthy of a place on this short-list.
Anaal Nathrakh - Vanitas: At the other end of the tempo spectrum lies the rabid and vicious collection of enraged spewings most recently created by Anaal Nathrakh. A dynamic and balanced album, Vanitas is a real showcase of what the band can do, whilst not being devoid of a character of its own. Everything from industrial influences to nigh-operatic choruses which are instantly memorable, with everything in between. Perhaps it's the case of a band doing what they do best, and while sometimes this can become stale very quickly, Vanitas is as good as anything the band have done.
Overkill - The Electric Age: Overkill have always been one of the most explosive bands in thrash, but it's especially enjoyable to witness them becoming more explosive as time goes by. "The Electric Age" marks the second album in a row of vigorous, venomous and ballsy thrash, which hurtles along at ten-thousand miles per hour, with the band as energetic and solid as ever, and a superb tone, with perfect production-values holding the whole thing together. "Ironbound", the previous album was a comeback. "The Electric Age" proves without question that the band have managed to stay back.
Black Breath - Sentenced to Life: Another explosive one, Black Breath's "Sentenced to Life" is a novel compound of thrash, hardcore, crust, crossover, and just about every other genre conceivable. As the artwork might suggest, the album hits you like a hammer-blow; Decimating, world-crushing riffs, with an intensity and tone which could level civilisations. Sentenced to Life is a continuation of the unique blend of styles which Black Breath have been unleashing for a long time, and perhaps the most savage album that the band have released so far. The artwork sums up the music far better than I can.
Asphyx - Deathammer: Asphyx are an oldschool death-metal institution, and their vocalist, Martin Van Drunen has one of the most discinct voices in the genre, a hoarse scream, which coupled with monstrous riffs, intense but varied tempo, and a thoroughly oldschool sound both in terms of song-writing and production, is a recipe for success. I'm pleased to say that Asphyx are another of the bands on the list who have a huge legacy to live up to, and have. As Van Drunen Screams at the beginning of the music video; "This is true death metal, you bastards!".
Enslaved - Riitiir: Last, but perhaps not least, Enslaved are easily one of the most prolific band to emerge from the early Norwegian black-metal scene. Nowadays, their sound is far removed from the black-metal of their past, but manifests itself as beautiful and genuinely forward thinking progressive metal, while retaining a wonderful black-metal edge. Riitiir is the latest in a long line of such albums which each bring a new sound to the table, while at the same time develop what is becoming the trademark Enslaved sound.
Underground Lord Short-list
Ketzer - Endzeit Metropolis: Ketzer are a promising up-and-coming black-thrash act from Germany. Instead of the filthy, raucous sound of many of their peers, Ketzer unleash a relatively clean, genuinely dark and heavly black-metal edged assault. Ketzer are among the most fresh black-thrash I've heard in the last few years, and Endzeit Metropolis is an album which really brings their particular style to the fore. Not only a worthy follow-up to their debut, but a solid, razor-sharp, technical tremolo exuding beast of an album, really epitomising the talent which the underground has to offer, and hence, is a very worthy candidate for this list.
Natur - Head of Death: Speed metal is something which can really encapsulate what heavy-metal as a whole is all about; Fun, memorable and extremely catchy, but at the same time dark and edgy, perhaps macabre. That is precisely what Natur manages to do; Rock and rolling riffs with a rough, untamed tone, conjuring songs which can be both belters and atmospheric, with great melodies as well as infectious riffs and choruses which are nothing short of massive. Natur truly demonstrate speed-metal, and heavy-metal in general's ability to kick your ass all over the place. "Head of Death" is a ballsy, but at the same time anthemic chunk of good old fashioned heavy metal.
Horrendous - The Chills: 2012 has been a superb year for young bands, releasing distinctly old-school sounding death-metal albums. The first of two on the list, Horrendous combine crushing guitar with superb melody, creating a very atmospheric and perhaps a little twisted take on the old-school death metal genre, and more than ensuring that the band sound oldschool, but also bring something new to the style. Horrendous aren't even slightly akin to a clone band, or a cheesy revival act. Horrendous are what they are, and they play death metal as well now as they would have if they had been around in the late eighties.
Razorwyre - Another Dimension: The second speed-metal band on the list, and one which is rather more thrashy, with tumbling and fist pumping riffs, and a monumental energy and, as I said when I reviewed it, an air of "fuck-yeah!" accompanying the whole thing. Another Dimension is intricate, rock-solid, and has the wherewithal to be a classic a few years down the line. In theory, if the nation of New-Zealand were asked the question "speed metal?". Razorwyre is their answer, and a well-rounded answer it is indeed. The cover art, depicting, and juxtaposing, a traditional metalhead with the epicness or the roaring void behind him, sums up what this record is about.
Altar of Oblivion - Grand Gesture of Defiance: Altar of Oblivions second album isn't as long as you'd expect for an epic doom album, but it makes up for it in terms of content. Powerful, operatic vocals meet synth, memorable riffs, and digestible-length songs, and while the album clocks in at about half-an-hour long, every song on it is entirely without filler. Everything from beautiful solos to vigorous, tough riffs are present in force, topped off by fantastically memorable and frequently very powerful choruses which really cause the songs to fulfil themselves. Some of the most fist-pumping epic doom in recent years.
Wilds Forlorn - We, the Damned: Only being a 2012 album by the tightest stretch, having been released on January the first this year, "We, the Damned" is a downward spiralling journey - a narrative album which, while absolutely modern in terms of productions, emits a black-metal symphonic majesty which strongly caught my attention. A beautiful but also deeply dark and sad album, "We, the Damned" may be one of the less known on even this short-list, but it one nonetheless entirely worthy of being recognised. Upon the albums conclusion, I felt genuinely as thought I had been taken on a journey, and that is perhaps one of the best things an album can do.
Leeches of Lore - Frenzy, Ecstasy: Probably the strangest album of the year, let alone this list, Leeches of Lore's "Frenzy, Ecstasy" combines speed/thrash metal with just about every other genre concievable, and is a truly surreal, but deceptively well constructed, listen. Seldom will I describe an album as completely nuts, but that is precisely what Frenzy, Ecstasy is, albeit with a huge helping of method in the madness - The album at the same time manages to sound fantastic, despite a mindbogglingly varied and unpredictable approach.
Binah - Hallucinating in Resurrecture: If you've ever wondered what the apocalypse might sound like, there's a good possibility that Binah can provide the answer. Some of the riffs in "Hallucinating in Ressurecture" have a truly explosively apocalyptic quality, with nods to early Bolt Thrower, and to Incantation. Like Horrendous, however, there is no doubt in my mind that Binah are their own band, and have their own sound, and that sound is one bedecked not only in a strong, enveloping atmosphere, but also a heaviness so extensive that looking at the sound-waves represented on a piece of paper could still make someone band their head.
Jute Gyte - Senescence: A one-man black-metal project, Jute Gyte actually released two albums this year, and picking between them was quite a decision. Both albums capture the projects "non-euclidian" sound, with twisted, tangled and furious sounding discordant black-metal tearing the fabric of musicality apart, while at the same time being imbued with a real mechanical beauty. It's impossible to explain Jute Gyte's music to someone who hasn't heard it. Senescence is purported to be the final album the project releases in the style, and I personally consider it to be the best.
Panopticon - Kentucky: Finally, we have Panopticon, whose latest album, Kentucky, once again black-metal, but rather different. Golden, almost nostalgic soundscapes are generated in Kentucky, with a blend of traditional American folk, and black-metal, creating a sepia-tinted and even slightly happy strain of the genre. Panopticon takes black-metal to somewhere that it hasn't been before, and it's a fantastic place to listen to. It's not black-metal about the darkness, or demons or frost and snow. It's about people, and the reconciliation of music and people is admirable.
For both categories, from here in, the winner is defined by you. Please vote in both, and if you discover some new music to listen to, all the better!