The 2000s were a tedious era to be a teenager. Our youth was set to a backdrop of Star Wars prequels, that frog text alert, and Coldplay existing. It was a largely dormant zeitgeist, punctuated by terror atrocities, illegal wars, and economic collapse. For all the horrors the 2010s have witnessed, it has at least been an exciting decade. The mask has finally slipped from a world order so pervasive that we mistook it for the only possible reality. The battle of ideas that will shape the outcome of neo-liberalism’s decline is still there to be won. Dangerous, scary, but pregnant with possibility.
In the last ten years the terms on which we create and engage with culture have also passed through a watershed moment. What will the long-term repercussions of the rise and rise of social media be for music? Thriving subcultures run parallel to a largely static mainstream, the bridge between the two slowly burning away. Paradox reigns. The internet has led to a thriving underground scene internationally, yet smaller venues struggle to stay open. A wealth of new music is now at our fingertips, yet Ed Sheeran and Adele are the best the mainstream could shovel up. What was the musical movement that will come to define this decade? Or are things now too atomised for such antiquated notions?
On a personal level I started the decade believing that music was serious business. An intellectual pursuit that should be treated as such. Then life whiped the shit eating grin off my face and music took a back seat. More recently I have begun to wonder if the 21-year-old me had it right or along. Music deserves nothing less than your undivided pedantry.
This is not a best of list. Instead I’ve limited myself to one release per year for the last decade. One album that with hindsight came to define that year. I could name many more. But I haven’t.
Burzum: Belus (2010)
Good old Varg, stimulator of the fantasies of mortals, would be sage, murderer, racist, contrarian, lover of women, and fallen youtuber. Well, despite all that, he’s still the finest composer of black metal we’ve ever had. Ten years on from ‘Hlidskjalf’ (1999), the second of the so called ‘prison albums’, the announcement of his parole hearing was met with rampant speculation.
Then came the announcement that he was due to be released. Then we heard that new material was on the way, that it would be a metal album, his first in fourteen years. Then that the album would be called ‘The White God’…then in a rare moment of self-reflection Varg realised his audience wasn’t quite ready for that. The spicy hot takes he would later lay down on his youtube channel Thulean Perspective would have to wait; so the name was changed to ‘Belus’. And it became a concept album about the death of Baldr (aka ‘the white god’).
No album can survive that level of speculation. I was so excited at the time that I couldn’t really process my reactions after the first few listens, both positive and negative. But gradually I came to look upon it as a worthy summation of the Burzum story so far. Aside from the metal reworking of ‘Belus’ Dod’, there are elements of ‘Filosofem’ and ‘Det Som Engang Var’ throughout, and ‘Sverdanns’ would be well at home on the self-titled debut. And standing in the for epic ‘Tomhet’ we have ‘Morgenrode’ and ‘Belus’ Tilbakekomst (Konklusjon)’, a classic Burzum closer of repetitive, trance-like droning to lull the listener into eternity.
Varg may have found himself a man out of time upon gaining his freedom, with his own disciple’s having taken up the mantle he helped forge. But ‘Belus’ remains surprisingly fresh given the circumstances of its release, and far superior to its patchy follow ups. On a personal level it became a bookend on the musical heroes of youth. A final acceptance that they’re just people, and often not even that. Kill your idols.
Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats: Blood Lust (2011)
The early 2010s were not a particularly pleasant time. As a result I lost interest in music to an extent. Stoner metal offered some distraction. Although there is some semi-interesting music to emerge from this civilian friendly metal, there is much rough to traverse to find a diamond like Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats. Perfecting the retro revival in heavy rock at the time, ‘Blood Lust’ is a masterstroke in combining layered guitars with catchy hooks and infectious grooves, with Kevin Starrs’ unmistakable high-pitched vocals soaring above it all.
I guess the reason this album rises above the rest is the basic fucking principles of song writing. Too many stoner doom bands rely on heaviness, quiet/soft contrasts, or repetition ad-nauseum; Electric Wizard exhausted these techniques years ago, it’s over now, move on. Uncle Acid on the other hand stripped down the mix to a very straight forward 70s rock aesthetic, and then imprinted their own identity on this basic template, through a refreshingly original array of psychedelic rock riffage.
Profanatica: Sickened by Holy Host/The Grand Master Sessions (2012)
I won’t go too deep into the history of these guys. Most people are happy not knowing. But in the realms of over top, primitive black metal, Profanatica are how deep the rabbit hole goes. Beyond the sheer extremity however, there is an elegance to their music. Paul Ledney’s visceral skin bashing provides an energising foundation for outrageously simple riffs. The end result comes across as a parody of music of sorts, the once familiar reflected back at us in contorted, mutilated form.
But interesting properties supervene on this most basic of bedrocks: simple polyrhythms emerge atop the cacophony of noise; a tense atmosphere arises after each repetition of a two-chord riff.
This is essentially a compilation of re-recordings of the older material of Profanatica and Havohej, and it lends a welcome breath of life and depth to these early works.
Queens of the Stone Age: Like Clockwork (2013)
The first rock album I ever truly engaged with was ‘Rated R’ (2001) upon its release, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this band got me through my teens. But after the wobbly ‘Era Vulgaris’ (2007) and the dad rock circle jerk that was the ‘Them Crooked Vultures’ (2011) phase, I had long since dismissed Josh and the gang as has-beens. Then we heard that a new QOTSA album was due in 2013, six years on from ‘Era Vulgaris’. One could be forgiven for scepticism after reading the list of guest musicians, including Trent Reznor, Elton John, Dave Grohl, Mark Lanegan , and Jake Shears. Surely this would be another on-trend self-indulgent love-in.
And to some extent it is. Long gone are the loose stoner grooves of Kyuss and the self-titled debut, or the heavy rock epic that was ‘Songs for the Deaf’. But in ‘Like Clockwork’ we find all this replaced with undeniably well written pop rock that is both technically precise and emotionally raw. One of Josh Homme’s talents has always been finding the pop hook within heavy music, but here the heaviness is largely stripped away, and beneath it is revealed a musician capable of writing intelligent yet heartfelt music. Nearly dying during a knee operation also led to many introspective ballads to sit alongside tracks like ‘Smooth Sailing’, a garish sex romp that sadly seems to be a mainstay of QOTSA albums now.
This release also caught me at a turning point of sorts, having finally put to rest many anxieties of an earlier era, life seemed to be acceptable once more. ‘Like Clockwork’ was the soundtrack to the summer of 2013, and even the fact that follow up ‘Villains’ (2018) was such a none album cannot take away from those memories.
Winterfylleth: The Divination of Antiquity (2014)
This is the first album on the list that I would not rate all that much on a musical level. But it represents the music I attempted to listen to at the time. 21st century black metal underwent something of an image change. Gone is the corpsepainted goblin, enter your average dude next door. One who claims that image is not important, it’s the music that matters, all the spikes and negative posturing is a distraction. Band photos are usually pictures of blokes in jeans and t-shirts, looking for all the world like they’re off to the pub to watch the footie.
I’m thoroughly against this. Black metal is a go hard or go home genre (see Profanatica), where camp theatrics and a healthy dose of melodrama is entirely appropriate. Even if we set that aside and accept the claim that the music is all that counts, we’ve yet to see any music that actually counts from these New Wave of Bland Black Metal artists. They certainly ain’t competing with the majority of albums released during black metal’s heyday back in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, there was a period when I attempted to engage with this new trend, dragging myself kicking and screaming into the modern program. And most of it is forgettable, but Winterfylleth – for all their flaws – are certainly a cut above the rest. Their fourth LP ‘The Divination of Antiquity’ saw them combine a sense of melodic progression, and thus a sense of purpose to their fluid approach to black metal. The major problem with this style is the lack of narrative, the lack of structure. It’s pretty to listen to, but devoid of substance; like a repeated wallpaper paper pattern when compared to an intricate mural. TDOA, however, saw Winterfylleth hint at something beyond this, and point their music in a more intellectually stimulating direction.
A Forest of Stars: Beware the Sword You Cannot See (2015)
Black metal, but steam punky, progressive, and a bit psychedelic. No…no no no, this really should not work. But it does. Although billed as these things, A Forest of Stars’ first two LPs were more along the lines of depressive black metal, albeit with more tension than the usual snoozefest fair of that maligned subgenre. Then on 2012’s ‘A Shadowplay for Yesterdays’ they clipped away the extended intros and ambient interludes making for an album richer in musicality. 2015’s ‘Beware the Sword You Cannot See’ saw them develop these themes further into a wonderfully cohesive album that – although made up of separate tracks in their own right – works perfectly as one complete piece of music.
For the shear abundance of ideas and influences that AFOS put to work this is an impressively focused album. Take note Opeth, this is how progressive metal is written; coherence, it’s important Mikael.
The Victoriana does shine through above the black metal, but AFOS never make the mistake of indulging in humour, and for that reason avoid the pitfalls of a tiresome novelty act. Although aesthetically this is very stylised, the sheer joy and talent behind the compositions and their execution carries this album to thrilling heights. I have loved and followed these guys as a shining light of British extreme metal ever since, and this was the album that made me really take notice.
Condor: Sangreal (2016)
‘Sangreal’ is a near perfect marriage of death doom with neoclassical leanings from these Colombians. This was Condor’s third LP, and each one has exhibited a sure and steady development upon the last, gradually expanding their compositions in scope and ambition.
However, any assessment of a Condor album cannot ignore the demo quality production. The majestic, epic style that Condor reach for is one that would really benefit from the studio treatment. Upon first few listens one must become accustomed to the shoddy sound, and get over the shock of thinking…’this can’t be it’.
But such is the power and character of Condor’s music that it transcends these limitations, and lends it an almost dreamlike quality, an undeniably unique atmosphere. Like the artwork for their albums, it seems to be emanating from an alternative reality born of childlike imagination, a dreamlike world unsullied by the brutal demands of modern life.
The Ruins of Beverast: Exuvia (2017)
This is the fifth LP from this German outfit. The brains behind The Ruins of Beverast is ex Nagelfar drummer Alexander von Meilenwald, and he doesn’t seem to be running out of rope when it comes to creating idiosyncratic blackened doom metal. Each album is uniquely different but unmistakable as a Ruins album. Both 2009’s ‘Foulest Semen of Sheltered Elite’ and 2013’s ‘Blood Vaults – The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer’ (dem titles), whilst boasting some truly massive moments, needed the length trimming down somewhat (both clock in at nearly an hour and twenty apiece).
2017’s ‘Exuvia’, although nearly as long, moves with such elegance that one feels as if no time has passed in the listening. The building crescendos and releases flow into one another like a dance of shadows. It’s a truly massive album, operatic in scope and ambition, one that must be experienced rather than enjoyed. It also restored my conviction that extreme metal is still a viable art form, showing no signs of slowing as the 21st century plods on.
Black Moth: Anatomical Venus (2018)
Watching these guys go from playing the back rooms of pubs across Leeds to playing packed out festivals up and down the land has been an absolute pleasure. Their early material was a dark, fast take on psychedelic rock, before they dropped the keyboards and revamped their sound to a more stoner doom approach. Debut ‘The Killing Jar’ (2012) was the result, and it demonstrated a knack for couching those catchy hooks within deliciously heavy grooves. On Follow up, 2014’s ‘Condemned to Hope’ they accented the blues and pop rock elements to their sound further, whilst retaining some laboured doom numbers in the mix.
And then they gave us ‘Anatomical Venus’ in 2018. This album married the disparate elements that Black Moth excel at and intensified them; from grunge to doom to blues to metal. It is simultaneously their heaviest album (Istra), their darkest (Severed Grace), yet riddled with banging choruses (Screen Queen), melancholia (Tourmaline), and homages to their psychedelic routes (Moonbow). Its release in the wake of #MeToo was prescient. The lyrics captured the rage and defiance of the moment perfectly.
It’s a damn shame that Black Moth are throwing in the towel this year. But ‘Anatomical Venus’ is a fine way to conclude a discography with no weak spots. So long guys, and thanks for all the noise.
Mefitis: Emberdawn (2019)
For 2019, I toyed with choosing Sometime the Wolf.’s majestic debut ‘From Here and Earth’ to celebrate the thriving UK goth scene; or taking a closer a look at Rammstein’s self-titled, their first release in ten years…for nostalgia’s sake. But no, we’ll end this decade the way we started, back in the underground metal scene. This extreme metal masterpiece from California’s Mefitis is one of those rare albums that really raises the stakes for the genre.
I’ve given a more in-depth analysis of this album here. But for now I would simply say that underground metal is far from death or stagnation. Not because of a glut of fresh new artists, but because albums like this are still possible. Never settle for less.
I have never been much of a musician, but like most metalheads the magpie-like obsession with this music has to express itself somehow. Those who enjoy discussing and reviewing music are essentially celebrating (or attacking) works produced by minds with a closer instinctive connection to the thing itself. Music chat is a by-product of the art. For all the flowery words we can commit to an album like ‘Emberdawn’, we must eventually step aside and let the music itself do the talking.
So that’s about it. I began the decade believing that music made life worth living; until real life announced itself with all its troubling demands. But for those committed to underground music it’s important not lose sight of its value.
I started Hate Meditations three years ago as a way to organise some rants. It quickly became more than that and some people actually started reading it. So thanks for that. But at the end of the day it exists because I can’t play and compose music as well as the artists I discuss. So thanks to them more.
Underground metal is by nature a small but committed community. So special mention to the below for the work they put in, and for giving us stuff to talk about:
La Caverna Records for supporting some truly original new artists, Pendath and Mefitis for some of the best extreme metal I’ve heard in years, the guys in Condemner for ‘Burning the Decadent’ and for all the recommendations (keep them coming), Dave and World Downfall Photography, Cosmic Realm Promotions, and in no particular order the following artists: OND, Megalith Levitation, Nattsvargr, Irillion, Condor, Sadistic Drive, Pallas Athena, Black Moth, Cryptic Shift, Necronautical, Slimelord, Insurgency, Tides of Sulfer, Nocturnal Abyss, Siete Lagunas, and many more to come in the new decade (if humanity lives that long).