The Ferret's Ferretlicious Picks For 2011

I know, every year someone makes the overblown statement 'this has been a good year for music,' and depending what musical circle you're in it usually is for someone, but this has been an exceptional year for metal. Legends have reformed, Sigh and Chthonic have made ambitious entries, Project Hate have proven the worth of their new vocalist, the announcement of a re-release of the infamous 'Ambeon' album and Stephan Forté coming out with a dazzling solo masterclass with a number of other guitar wizards lending a helping hand.

But more than that, it's been an exceptional year for progressive metal; Redemption making their best album in years, Opeth re-inventing themselves, Von Hertzen, Dream Theater and Symphony X all making waves, not to mention a plethora of new contenders in the scene. It should also be known as the year that saw the rise of British Mathcore; genre pioneers Tesseract finally releasing their coveted debut, Sikth bassist announcing his return in the new up and coming band 'Aliases,' and more new talent springing up out of the woodwork than I've managed to listen to, carving out their debut efforts amidst a flourishing scene. But through all the gems, just what were the albums that shouldn't be missed? Say hello to my greatest 15 discoveries - 10 metal and 5 non - laid bare.

15) Gargoyle - Kisho (Progressive Thrash)

Well I suppose this list ought to include as many genres as possible, so welcome to my thrash entry. Gargoyle are the only thrash band I ritually follow these days, largely because they're the only thrash band that seem to be doing anything different. Every musician knows their trade, the solo's remain breathtaking; it's everything I could ask for from a thrash band and more. They always manage to find a way of infusing a certain sense of groove to the proceedings; give things a fun tone whilst keeping the spirit of the genre alive, and whilst it may pale slightly in comparison to their last album, Kuromitten, to my mind we're comparing two fine hand-crafted cheeses to the crap that comes in a can. Their work is simply on a different playing field to most of the material being released today.

14) Project Hate MCMXCIX - Bleeding the New Apocalypse (Experimental Industrial Death Metal)

Now entering their third era - each era defined by the choice of female vocalist - their sound has entered a new arena; no longer adhering to their conventional tone, the void for softer passages left by Jonna Enckell's departure has seen the rise of classical influences in their music, orchestration breaking things up and lending a new twist to the proceedings. All the whilst the classic mid-paced composition has rarely seen better days, playing vocalists off one another in an energetic performance that maintains the momentum. Dark and brooding Death/Doom contrasting the powerful vocal performances; they've expanded their sound, included new ideas and worked them in a way that never betrays their past. TPH have met worried faces with a sinister smile, as they already knew the apocalyptic sounds about to befall them.

13) Negative Plane - Stained Glass Revelations (Experimental Black)

I'm not above looking at other peoples lists to see what they've recommended - though the amount of Death and Doom on peoples lists this year is somewhat saddening - but nonetheless, this is one release others spotted that had eluded me up until now, and what a shame that would have been. Negative Plane are a band that I'd never even heard of and yet somehow they've snuck under the radar with a release that sounds like it could have been a lost "Mayhem" tape, discarded for fear of doing a "Celtic Frost" and getting just a little too weird with one another. There's no denying it's still very much Black Metal, but there's something else about them; a psychedelic meandering to the guitars that never use too much tremolo riffing, balancing a raw tone with dark atmosphere and melody. It seems so simple, and yet so unique at the same time, multi-layered and rich, this is one band I'll be looking out for in the future.

12) LIL - Synchronize (Japanese Electropop)

Well anyone who knows me knew there had to be some J-pop in this list somewhere, but certainly this isn't an album I expected would see me this far. I only picked it up on whim at someone elses recommendation, wanting new music for my travels, but whilst wondering what the hell I was thinking, I was still mentally mocking it when I realised it was already spinning for a second time. It's cheesy but so incredibly varied; instrumental tracks amidst ballads and party anthems, rapped vocals contrasting the autotuned - and it's non-excessive usage, she actually can sing fairly well and isn't just trying to hide the fact she can't - and yet throughout the one thing that remains a constant is that every song remains catchy in it's own way. This is precisely the kind of music I despise but what began as a curiosity ended up as an addiction, and now I'm in love. Shit.

11) Mac Lethal - North Korean BBQ (Hip-Hop)

I said in this albums review that last year i never could have foreseen me developing an interest in hip-hop, much less find myself reviewing it. Needless to say, i certainly never expected to find a release that would turn into my favourites for the year, but such is the beauty of this work. It's as far removed from the usual expected genre cliches it's incredible; more than just talented with regards to speed and technical ability but poetic, lyrics coming across as personal. Specific. Relatable. What he lacks in eloquence he compensates for in raw, simple honesty. Credible enough to turn down major record contracts for fear of them trying to change him, loyal enough to his fans to ask for their input, and pumping out material at a phenomenal rate; if these are the off-cuts then i cant wait for the rest.

10) Stephan Forté - Shadows Compendium (Neo-Classical Instrumental Metal)

Dont you hate it when albums are released just before the end of the year? Giving you too little time to absorb but too much time to bend rules and include it in a list next year? Well this debut solo effort fits here, but I doubt it'll be a decision I'll come to regret. It doesn't take long to realise this album is not just good, its redefining a genre. Now i'll admit i was fearing more neo-classical wankery thats been pumped out since "Malmsteem" showed the world you can play the classical scales quickly and pretty much always get something sounding half decent, but Forté's style isn't just using the scales, he's taken the whole genre in all its diversity. This is classical music thrust forth into the modern age, taking influences from classical literature the world over. This is a game changer, and that doesn't happen all too often.

9) Tesseract - One (Progressive Metal/Mathcore)

For some this feels like a release that's been a long time in the making; a mathcore band that's existed in some form or another for almost a decade now, and yet in all this time, it's only now that their much coveted debut album comes to light. And what they've devised is a release that seeks to exemplify the sound that defines the genre and wrap it in a neat progressive metal package; it's complex in it's use of polyrhythms and shifting tempo's, progressing as the tracks proceed. But beneath it all lies the core; the melody that drives the music forward, that encapsulates the listener never straying too far into sounding complex for the sake of it; incredible vocal lines married to dissonant guitar work and drumming that sends the mind spinning. Tesseract had a lot to live up to and their work here promises that they're only just getting started.

8) Chimp Spanner - At The Dreams Edge (Ambient/Mathcore)

Just how does one begin to describe this band; it's an instrumental offering; the brainchild of Paul Ortiz, the multi-instrumentalist who devised this concept album with a difference. Technical and dissonant lines combine with ethereal electronic ambient interludes to create a surreal atmosphere painting a picture of a dystopian future. Managing to utilise the technical nature of the music being offered to not just complement but enhance the atmosphere, never trading one for the other but allowing them both to work in unison for the same objective. Remaining completely immersive for the albums length it flows from end to end, not exploring a particular theme but telling a story and letting your imagination fill in the blanks. Part Kalisia and part (later) Cynic, this is a debut effort that plays out like nothing that came before it.

7) Haken - Visions (Progressive Metal)

The band that made my album of the year last time around have already come out with a worthy follow up that sees them follow the same style and theme as before in an all new ambitious effort. It sees them do little to mix up the formula they've carved for themselves - perhaps the reason why I haven't found myself drawn to this one as frequently as others - but whilst it hasn't quite made the same initial impact, does nothing to soil the name they've quickly established for themselves. Some of the best vocals the genre has to offer are complemented by a plethora of instrumentation that constantly strives for a powerful atmosphere; dual guitars and dual keyboard lines power onwards and create pieces never short of epic. Whilst I hope they manage to expand their sound in future releases, I can't deny that they have once again struck on something breathtaking to behold.

6) Von Hertzen Bros - Stars Aligned (Progressive Rock)

I'll be the first to admit that this one was a slow grower for me; a band mentioned to me by a drunk Finn at a bar, I was dubious as to how long the insatiable melodies would take before they began to become tiring. And yet here I am more than two months later, and this has been one of my most played albums in that time and still shows no sign of letting up (something quite unusual for me). It's simple on the surface, taking all the instrumentation and homing in on making this as addictive as possible; layers of instruments; drum lines playing fills and shifting styles; guitar solo's harmonising with the never repetitive bass lines; vocals drifting from powerful soprano to the ethereal. Psychedelic tones break up the hard hitting rock tracks, emotional lyrics amidst the belted chorus'; to call this deceptively complex and varied would be an understatement, but it's the way it casually shifts style over the albums course that is perhaps the most impressive.

5) Anthem - Heraldic Device (Heavy/Speed Metal)

A band I'd begin following once again when I realised they'd decided to come back a vengeance with their flawed but nonetheless impressive "Black Empire," this year they continued to rock my world with what is probably their best album since their "Hunting Time" all those years ago. This album isn't just 'retro' but pretends that the last couple of decades have never existed, creating hard hitting metal anthems that relive the glory days of the genre. Solo's galore and chorus lines that stick in your mind; this is an album that'll have you go from zero to headbang mode before the first track is out, will dare you not to sing along to the only slightly broken English, and doesn't let up until the album is finished. Who said Traditional Metal is dead?

4) Once a Wolf - Advent (Progressive Mathcore)

Debating whether to include this in this at all due to it being a EP (screw you! It's my list!) I decided I couldn't fail to mention this little known unsigned band. Packing more riffs per minute than any other I can think of, each epic track contains so much that even at its short length has a far greater replayability than full length releases. This is the genre at its absolute finest; growls amidst epic clean passages; calm contrasting the chaos; technical juxtaposing the melodic; compositions just don't get much better than this, and if they continue to write music of this quality, then these young new stars to the scene still look to have a long career ahead of them, one which I will be avidly watching to see just what they can come up with next.

3) Thy Catafalque - Rengeteg (Avant-Garde Metal)

Given that this album was released only last month, and that these crazy Hungarians have been flying low on the radar of many, it's little surprise I've found little mention of them else where. I was a big fan of their last release, though it received only a fraction of the attention it deserved, they've now returned for what can only be described as another leap in the quality of their output. What was once rooted in Black now feels more free-form, moving in and out of folk-like passages, still filled with a darkness; an icy cold perfect for the winter months, but coupled with more epic lines, electronic interludes and ethereal dream-like passages, mixing lo-fi noise with precision, creating a chaotic wall of sound only to break to a controlled passage. Is it some sort of Dark Heavy Metal? Some form of Industrial Blackgaze? Progressive Ambient Folk/Darkwave? Agalloch meets... hell I don't know, Arcturus maybe? All I know is I'm loving it.

2) Redemption - This Mortal Coil (Progressive Metal)

No stranger to these sorts of lists, since 'The Fullness of Time' they've earned their way into many fans list of bands to keep and eye on, and now it feels as though they've been given their reward. Combining epic guitar solo's, vocal lines with perfect diction, and some of the greatest lyrics the genre has to offer, they've reinvented themselves and done more than just write an album. 'This Mortal Coil' is a journey of emotion, depression, anger, fear and anxiety coalescing in a personal voyage of staring death in the face. For a time I thought this was going to be my number one release this year, but then came along...

1) Leprous - Bilateral (Extreme Avant-Prog)

A relatively late discovery, this is one of those rare releases you cant put down, and has been dominating my listening above all others. The seamlessly combination of aggression and placidity is one that not only feels completely unique but has yet to even begin to feel tiring. Every musician knows more than just how to wield their weapon but how it can be used to create an atmosphere, to harmonise with the rest of the band, and how to shift tones in a rapid manner without feeling jarring. For all my difficulties ordering the rest of this list, the number one spot has never felt so secure. Leprous may be avant-garde but it never feels 'weird;' its like nothing you've ever heard yet feels nothing less than perfectly natural.

Live Performance Award: Gama Bomb

Initially I had a long list of other accolades to add to this list, but I soon realised it was little more than an excuse to mention this band. Every time they come out with a new release, it gets mentioned as 'one of the better of the retro-thrash acts,' which is usually intended as something of a backhanded compliment; their Exodus-style high-speed thrash is nothing particularly new or original, never tackling serious subjects, but what it does all mean is that what they lack in the album format they cover for in their live performances. The jovial atmosphere creating a party like feel filled with cheering, drinking, on-stage antics, banter and jokes; getting the audience to do things they never normally would in the name of having a great time. This year was the second time I've seen them and they proved that it wasn't a fluke; Gama Bomb genuinely do put on the most energetic, fun-filled live performance I've ever seen, and even if they never again release more than a mediocre album, so long as they keep touring I'll keep on coming back for more.