2020 will certainly go down as a year to remember. The devastating effects of Rona-19 on music scenes across the world have taken a severe toll. Already in a precarious position for many years, many small to mid-sized venues have been forced to closed. Abandoned by a system that insists that underground music is a ‘nice to have’, and not an essential component of society’s cultural lifeblood.
Recorded music on the other hand is in a much stronger place than ten years ago. Now a less brittle beast, able to quickly adapt on a micro level thanks to revolutionary leaps in technological development, and no longer so brutally resistant to long term trends. Home studio technology has brought massive benefits to new artists, able to record and distribute music without the prying fiscal hands of major record labels. This has also proved massively beneficial in maintaining a presence with fans during our hibernation. Long term, it’s way too soon to tell what the lasting effects of 2020 will be on underground ecosystems.
But for now we’ll sidestep the temptation to offer yet another end of the year best of list. Instead we’re going to carry out the most rigorous test on recorded output there is: the unforgiving march of time. So let’s travel back ten years, and see if we can make sense of the year in metal that was 2010. Taking a cross section of releases, can we determine which albums endured? And more importantly, why they endured? Or, perhaps the most pressing question: what the hell happened?
(Point of order: I’ve used Metal Archives to piece this together. Whatever your views on MA, its uses as a resource for facts and figures on metal are unparalleled. But it should be noted that there’s only one of me and – according to Metal Archives – 4,497 metal albums that came out in 2010. So I’ve stuck to full length albums because…there’s one of me. Pouring through over 4,000 metal releases was an ill-advised exercise in self-flagellation as much as it was a trip down memory lane.)
Even in 2010, a promising trend could be faintly discerned in the underground. A selection of artists too disparate to be called a movement, but nevertheless exhibiting a similar spirit and intent in their works. They called back to an earlier form of extreme metal, as it was before the strict genre demarcations fell into common usage and defined its evolution throughout the 1990s and beyond. Some were clearly more death than black, or influenced more by grind than thrash; but more important than genre quibbles was the melding of these older traditions as a means to surpass the general ennui that underground metal found itself in throughout the 2000s.
For instance, Desecresy emphasised the inherent minimalism present in a lot of older mid-paced death metal found in the likes of Bolt Thrower and Demigod. They then melded this to an industrial aesthetic on their debut LP Arches of Entropy. A unique brand of short-form death metal they have been honing ever since. Austria’s Tristwood also took the industrial aesthetic and applied it to the grind influenced end of black metal; their LP Dystopia et Disturbia furthered this project.
The incomparable Into Oblivion from Canada released their second LP, Creation of a Monolith. It’s a work that saw them take the overt complexity of death metal riffcraft, unpacked all its inherent layers of nuance, and thrust this through the ambitious and epic scope of black metal. Taking the title of the work literally, these musicians created a work that outdid many bigger artists of the time for ambition, many of whom were busy making a song and dance about ‘smashing down musical boundaries’ with little output of substance to back up such claims. Into Oblivion remain quietly single minded in this quest.
A Transylvanian Funeral also released their second LP The Outsider. Although not the most original work going, it restated the idea that black metal in its purest form was still a realm of boundless musical scope, along with releases such as Plutonian Shore’s Ave Mysterium and Prosanctus Inferi’s Pandemonic Ululations of Vesperic Palpitations. Diocletian also set a new bar of ambition for war metal, forcing it into something both atmospheric and nihilistic in equal measure on War of All Against All. All small yet utterly promising signs of life in the engine rooms of underground DIY metal.
State of the disunion: black metal in 2010
What’s more remarkable – but also more typical of black metal – is how far some of the old guard of the second wave fell from grace when compared to their death metal counterparts. It’s easy to forget how many god-awful homages to ‘old school metal’ Darkthrone churned out before the god-awful homage to old school metal that was Circle the Wagons. At the other extreme Rotting Christ were in danger of going full Disney power metal with the release of Aealo. They attempted (and failed) to temper accusations of tackiness with a Diamanda Galás collaboration tacked on the end of this album. Veterans of poor taste, Disney’s Dimmu Borgir created another collection of random ejaculations in the form of Abrahadabra. Ihsahn solidified his intention to become black metal’s prog daddy, bought himself an eight-string guitar and released After. For all its flaws, it’s an album that at least boasts some focus, a general thrust of a mood and atmosphere carried from start to finish…unlike those exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect in-musica: Enslaveeeed, who released another desperate attempt to grab the respect of contrarian coffee house dwellers in the form of Axioma Ethica Odini.
1349 – who were shaping up to be honest-if-a-little-dull bastions of standard, riff-based black metal – took a sharp left turn in 2009 by releasing a Thorns album in ‘Revelations of the Black Flame’, much to the fury of…somebody, apparently. 2010’s follow up Demonoir is notable insofar as its function as a lacklustre return to form/apology to…somebody. My two cents on this notable anomaly? Black metal was still in a weird place in 2010. Larger established acts still held sway over the creative direction of the scene. Regardless of artistic success, some of them were willing to take some risky decisions, even if they were ill-advised or symptomatic of decline. In the hyper reality brought on by increased fan scrutiny, the twists and turns of an artist can be rather dramatic and undignified at times. And for an artist as big as 1349, once their ship was righted, and steered back to safer waters, the magic never returned. The underground has since wrested back creative jurisdiction, and quality output that is also adventurous (how novel) has shifted in the right direction as a result.
Did someone say adventurous? Let’s not forget Sigh. Although harmless enough in themselves, they became a compulsory nod to the Japanese scene in accounts of Norwegian black metal. A modern-day shibboleth for fans that like to see themselves as open minded. Sigh, being from the land of the rising sun and unbearably weird, are something of a two-for-one in this regard for pasty Western basement dwellers collecting culture points. Scenes from Hell demonstrates just how far experimental metal had declined since the days of ‘Infidel Art’.
Aaand of course, dear Varg put out the first Burzum album of what would be a streak of post-prison releases. With hindsight, Belus was the strongest effort in this chapter of Burzum. Once his release from prison was announced along with news of a new album, and all the caveats offered, after so much speculation, hoping against hope, Belus was probably the best we were gonna get. Before 2010, the concept of a solid Burzum album didn’t really exist. They were either utterly sublime, or they were ‘Daudi Baldrs’. Average was just not in Varg’s playbook.
There was an easily recognisable symptom in a lot of this output. Many of these artists were simply showing signs of a midlife crisis. It’s doubly interesting to look at these older artists at this point in their history, already with significant discographies behind them. On the one hand it illuminates their individual quest for relevance and meaning, but it also illustrates their own views on contemporary trends within a genre they helped to define. And this general weariness spread well beyond the Norwegian set.
For instance, Austria’s Abigor had long abandoned the chaotic symphonics of their first three albums by the release of *deep breath* Time Is the Sulphur in the Veins of the Saint – An Excursion on Satan’s Fragmenting Principle. Taking the modernisation of black metal literally, they instead favoured a mixture of cyber-black metal in the vain of Thorns and Blasphemer era Mayhem, and smashed this together with a heavy Anaal Nathrakh apocalypticism.
Krieg released The Isolationist, which saw them finally manage to blend elements of American post black metal into the unbridled primitivism of their first clutch of albums with some success. A pleasing if bland listen. Sticking with America, Black Funeral put out Vukolak, which saw them conclude a chapter of releases defined by harsh, static minimalism guaranteed to divide opinions. After this point they went on to embrace conventional melody on more recent offerings. Vukolak itself feels like Black Funeral giving itself an ultimatum. Their style to this point had always been defined by melding raw black metal with industrial and occult aesthetics. This album is a final, harsh reckoning with this most polarising of styles.
Blood of Kingu, a product and continuation of the Ukrainian outfits Drudkh and Hate Forest et al released Sun in the House of the Scorpion. Much like Hate Forest, it’s a distinctive, imposing, instantly recognisable wash of dissonance, utterly grim and flowing atmospheres, and trancelike repetition. Sadly it has not seen much advancement since this time, with the project now resurrected as Precambrian in 2020 still manipulating the same three basic compositional levers. Creative exhaustion reigns.
But not for everyone. The late 2000s saw the UK finally find a voice in black metal that wasn’t overshadowed by Dani Filth’s empire. It seemed to come in two very distinct forms. One was exemplified by Winterfylleth, who found their feet on their second LP The Mercian Sphere. This was essentially Britain’s answer to black metal rooted in heritage and nature. And much like Britain’s heritage and nature, the music was bland, patchy, confused, and a little derivative. But for brief nuggets of time it stumbled onto something authentically compelling, as Winterfylleth were known to do.
The second variant of UKBM attempted to reclaim the gothic legacy of Cradle of Filth and hone it into a legitimate beast, as CoF looked like doing for a brief period in the mid-1990s. A Forest of Stars, on their second LP Opportunistic Thieves of Spring, perfected this style with class and restraint. They tapped into the tradition of English melodrama via the lens of Victorian obsessions with gothic horror, laced with existential despair and mysticism. Their harnessing of influences as broad as Pink Floyd and the steampunk trend of the time manifested into something that really should not have worked given the list of ingredients. But work it did, and since that time, along with the likes The Old Corpse Road, it has emerged as a uniquely British (or rather English) form of metal.
We should also note the cultural environment these albums were being released into. Because black metal was at an interesting crossroads in 2010. In a nutshell, the 2000s witnessed black metal’s decline from the top of the metal food chain. Younger fans wishing to take up the creative mantel in the new century either created inferior imitations of the past, or lifted black metal music theory piecemeal and applied it to post rock, sludge, ambient, punk etc. For all the times I decry the rise of Liturgy and Krallice et al as the sorry logical conclusion to this, there’s no doubt that by the mid-2000s black metal needed a serious fucking wakeup call.
Whatever modest but promising renaissance we’re witnessing now, 2010 was pretty close to rock bottom. And to some extent it was deserved. Deathspell Omega released their so-called masterpiece Paracletus, we await enlightenment on the purpose of that one. Xasthur, probably the most overrated of the American depressive/ambient crop, finally called it a day in characteristically clumsy style with Portal of Sorrow. Critical darlings Inter Arma and Alcest both solidified very differing interpretations of the ‘post’ format. What was a latter-day breed of alt-rock with only the most superficial similarities to black metal came to define many people’s understanding of the genre’s future direction.
One could charitably view this ‘post’ trend as another version of the gateway drug, a latter-day Cradle of Filth or Arch Enemy. Younger fans may discover and create more serious artistic statements somewhere down the line, after nurturing their artistic sensibilities in this safer but ultimately vulgar environment. The real lasting legacy has sadly been a license for indie kids to relentlessly lecture metal fans about the virtues of open mindedness, devoid of any criteria or quality filters. Sadly, scene elders like Enslaved and Ihsahn have internalised this condescension and adjusted their careers for the worse accordingly. A shaky co-existence was yet to be reached at this time.
Then we had a clutch of albums from respectable European outfits, Negura Bunget, Satanic Warmaster, Drudkh, Lustre, Nocturnal Depression, Urfaust, and we’ll lump Canada’s Forteresse in here as well. Whatever divergence in quality can be found across this output (some of it is certainly still worth a spin), all of them speak of a sense of loss. Loss of direction, of spontaneity, a sense of joyful purpose. A wake-up call was indeed overdue.
A slow death by metal
Whilst the state of death metal may not have been as lamentable, many artists responsible for the best extreme metal going had long washed up by 2010. Their output illustrates this point far more elegantly than words can. Majesty and Decay was arguably the first misstep from long time pillars of consistency Immolation, as an irksome Behemoth flavour began seeping into their sound. After a reformed Asphyx dropped ‘Death…the Brutal Way’ in 2009, the very definition of getting one’s mojo back, Atheist attempted to recreate this comeback magic. Sadly, the results fell flat in the form of the unfocused Jupiter. Sinister, Grave, and Unleashed all played their instruments and it made a sound.
It’s easy to overstate the extent of the old school revival that defined this era. For some acts steadily releasing material right the way through the late 90s and 2000s it was business as usual, but the results were certainly not always something that would go down in the annuls of history.
Quality output was not in short supply however, steady if not mind blowing. Genocidio, Cardiac Arrest, and Father Befouled certainly made a go of recapturing death metal’s relevance and arcane magic. All these artists – whilst not the most original thing going – generated underground metal of such boundless energy and conviction, that jaw-dropping innovation was of merely secondary concern for these hardworking craft masters.
Then there’s artists that just release stuff every year without fail. Despite their dense discographies however, there’s always something worth pointing out. If the trends, successes, and failures of the underground can be illustrated as peaks and troughs on a graph, then Master’s career is surely a near constant; a baseline setting of quality and consistency you could set your watch by. The Human Machine welcomed the new decade with gusto, and heralded a solid string of albums from Speckmann’s troops throughout the 2010s. Although this album did not move anything forward stylistically, there was a renewed passion from Master from this point onward, probably brought on by their suddenly being joined by newly reformed old school acts and a more crowded circuit as a result.
Then there’s everyone’s least favourite mincecore merchants Agathocles. Yes, they’re not a death metal, but they’re here in this category for ease. Famously boasting one of the largest discographies in metal, their back catalogue is more of a library of grind than a single document of an artist’s career. 2010 saw the release of what was only their eleventh LP in This is not a Threat, it’s a Promise; couched in the middle of the fifty something EPs they put out in the last quarter of that year. An artist more interesting for their very existence than any inherent musical qualities, they are included here to note the continued existence of grindcore variants sitting at the borders of where metal meets punk. Having long since sacrificed musical ideas for the sake of the raw statement, there is nevertheless some worth in delving into music like this, if for no other purpose than to jolt more sophisticated styles with a bolt of creative aggression.
Surfing the waves of death metal’s old school revival of this time, signalled by Asphyx’s ‘Death…the Brutal Way’, Swedish death metallers Entrails emerged from the aether and caught us all off guard with the release of Tales from the Morgue. A long-forgotten name when compared to the legacy of Dismember, Entombed, and Unleashed; Entrails certainly surprised some with the quality of material found on this album. A worthy if not mind-blowing addition to the annuls of Swedish death metal, Entrails have made a sad habit of slowly dumbing down this style into melodeath since that time.
Blame it on the doom
This is one metal subgenre that gained real momentum in the mid to late 2000s; in terms of popularity at least, if not creative output. As a result, festival line-ups, best of lists, and metal bars were filled with a whole lot of boring music. But despite a pronounced disparity between actual quality and endless bargain basement Black Sabbath riffs with fuzzy guitar tones, some artists genuinely attempted to raise the stakes for this, the oldest of metal genres. And this deserves to be pointed out.
For instance, Chicago’s Bongripper had been hashing out a curious yet patchy niche of instrumental stoner doom cum post rock for a while by this point. But they gained the attention of a wider metal audience with the release of Satan Worshipping Doom in 2010. They may have offered only the very minimum of bare bones templates to compensate for the lack of vocals, but on this album it was a formula that struck gold. The rewards of single-minded focus, creativity, and lack of regard for peer review.
At the other end of the scale were Cambridge’s Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, who burst onto to an already unbearably trendy UK scene with their outrageously catchy debut Volume 1. The 70s revival had reached its apex. Through a blend of garage rock, Sabbath riffage, and Zepplin groove, pop culture’s obsession with its own past had reached new heights within the metal and rock setting. But I can’t decry this too severely. I myself got caught up in this craze, and with album’s as colourful and exciting as Volume 1 knocking around, it’s easy to see why so many others were caught up too. Only after the relentless march of time had its way did these albums lose some of their lustre.
The dirty little not-so-secret about stoner doom is how richly rewarded one is for shockingly unoriginal riffcraft. It’s a style that – barring a few exceptions – plays almost entirely off the look, the tone, the colour. Italy’s Ufomammut, capitalising on this fact, attempting to meld noisy, feedback driven meanderings with Hawkwind style space rock. Finally accepting their fate in 2010 by releasing the single-track LP Eve.
There were also interesting rumbles from unexpected corners, Ukraine for example saw the emergence of an outfit known as Stoned Jesus, who had just put out their debut First Communion. In all honesty it offered little beyond fuzzy Sabbath worship, which was already tired by 2010. But it is a good representation of the stoner style at it was at the time, enjoying its moment in the sun as an acceptable, civilian friendly flavour of heavy metal.
If the long-neglected child of underground metal was reaching the height of its popularity by this point, Cathedral certainly got there before most. Having for many years fought for doom’s corner practically alone, they released the bizarre and quintessentially British The Guessing Game, further solidifying Lee Dorian’s reputation for being well and truly puddled. But this was also a time when epic doom metal was making a comeback, maybe in response to stoner’s almost universal popularity. This return was well and truly signalled with Atlantean Kodex’s ascension and the release of The Golden Bough.
2010 also saw the passing of everyone’s favourite misery enthusiast, Peter Steele. Whether you preferred the whimsical thrash of Carnivore, or the soundtrack to a metalhead’s breakup that was Type O Negative, the downbeat sarcasm that dripped through all his music boasted a mass appeal across the rock spectrum. Given his notorious drinking problems, and his ‘fake’ death in 2005, his loss was both devestating and entirely expected.
Streams of ancient wisdom
Were the founding fathers of metal still relevant in 2010? Or simply keeping the ravages of age at bay? Iron Maiden were coming to the end of a streak of attempted epics by the release of The Final Frontier, which saw them riding the waves of the new Millennium and Dickinson’s return in 1999 for all it was worth. Motorhead, already synonymous with performing the same act repeatedly and getting away with it, released The World is Yours. If Iron Maiden internalised fans’ expectations of outdoing themselves for ambition and breadth on each release in the 2000s, Motorhead took their obligation as the one constant in our lives seriously, The World is Yours is no exception. Rest in power Lemmy. Newcastle’s Raven, in a similar spirit, put out Walk Through Fire. Despite its lack of talking points, it’s hard to do albums like this down. It’s a solid heavy metal offering from an artist far older than the life spans of many of the bands listed here, and outdoes many younger artists for raw energy.
And who could forget the surrealist yarn that is Tom G. Warrior’s career? Following the shock success of ‘Monotheist’ in 2006, and what promised to be a triumphant return to the world stage, Celtic Frost packed it in once again. We know the rest, Warrior decided to continue the singular style of this latter day CF offering with the project known as Triptykon, and their debut Eparistera Daimones. Opinion is divided on its success as a stand-alone piece; and its attempted continuation of the ‘Monotheist’ template. But one thing is certain, it probably contributed to the renewed spike in interest for doom metal that has resulted in caverncore’s bizarre rise to the top of the death metal food chain.
The black magic of hindsight
It would be all too tempting to sum up the trends that ran through 2010 in a sentence or two. Maybe claim that they reached some sort of zenith at this point before a new era was ushered in. Not just because we’ve chosen to shine a light on said year, but also because it was the start of a new decade.
But the reality is that all the trends noted above were in varying stages of gestation or decay, too messy to lend themselves to a neat, fortune cookie summation. In shining a light on a particular year we are also shining a light on all those years that led up to it. Black metal was still reckoning with a sense of purpose, with pseudo musical intellectuals continuing the relentless project of stripping away its assets for cultural capital. Heavy metal was only just beginning to ride the waves of a broader cultural appetite for nostalgia, something that death metal would also cash in on in time. Whether stoner doom’s popularity was symptom or cause of this trend in metal and rock is hard to say. But speaking purely from a creative standpoint, stoner’s moment in the spotlight was all but wasted when compared to other styles of metal. Take note of this fixation on nostalgia. More than anything it will probably come to define our perception of pop culture in the 2010s, a contested legacy that has implications well beyond metal.
But looking back over these releases, and comparing them to where we are now, the most important takeaway from our perspective is that the underground scene had begun to reckon with the awesome power of the internet. Of course, forums, obscure review sites, blogs, and file sharing were nothing new. But underground metal finally began to take a more outward looking perspective. Rather than using the internet for no grander purpose than bitterly hammering keyboards into the ground in response to dissenters, many took to writing online zines, setting up labels, organising gigs, spreading the word, or picking up an instrument, and conducting these activities in harmony with the unfathomable and readymade infrastructure that the internet offered.