Best Of 2009: Hard Rock

gljohnson2MAGNET’s Matt Ryan files his year-end report, weighing in on the hits from the loud-rock end of the spectrum: Nirvana, Mastodon, Baroness (pictured), Doomriders, Alexisonfire, Goatwhore, Rancid and Nothington.

In last year’s year-end wrap-up, we griped extensively about the dearth of quality material in 2008. Fortunately, this year finds us on more fertile ground. So without further adieu, in no particular order, here is the best hard rock, punk, metal and hardcore of 2009.

NIRVANA | Live At Reading [DGC]
Take your copy of From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah—a hodgepodge of live recordings over a five-year period—and chuck it in the trash, as Live At Reading is Nirvana’s definitive live statement. Recorded in 1992, this performance hears Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl rip into 24 tracks from the early, pre-Bleach singles through Nevermind. (Only “Dumb” and “All Apologies” appear from In Utero, which would be released a year later.) Cobain famously arrived at the show in a wheelchair, feigning ill health and collapsing onstage after singing a few notes of Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” before the trio opened its set with a particularly vicious reading of “Breed.” Raw and furious fun, Live At Reading makes for a worthy bookend to Nirvana’s gentler, acoustic alter ego showcased on the equally brilliant MTV Unplugged In New York.

MASTODON | Crack The Skye [Reprise]
It would be overstatement to say that Mastodon has mellowed on its fourth record, but there’s no denying that along with more modest tempos, the vocals aren’t exclusively of rawrr variety. Many have attributed this to singer/guitarist Brett Hind’s Las Vegas beat down in late 2007 at the hands of System Of A Down bassist Shavo Odadjian and musician William Hudson, an incident that put Hinds in a coma for three days. Whatever the reasons, this is the Atlanta band’s most accessible effort to date, eschewing much of the prog/metal navel-gazing of 2006’s critically acclaimed Blood Mountain. As for the lyrics, Crack The Skye tells the story of a crippled boy who travels the astral plane, somehow ends up in the body of Rasputin, and then he goes through a worm hole and he … uh … Actually, let’s just forget I brought it up.

BARONESS | Blue Record [Relapse]
Fellow Georgians (by way of Virginia) Baroness are like Mastodon’s upstart little brother, poised to take down their musical sibling on the killing fields of thinking man’s metal. While Mastodon continued to explore greater song dynamics on Crack The Skye, Baroness upped the ante with Blue Record. Indeed, that Baroness interrupts its assault of crushing guitars and hell-raising vocals with the atmospheric “Bullhead’s Psalm,” the almost folky “Steel That Sleeps The Eye” and the sweetly acoustic intro to “O’er Hell And Hide” only makes the hammer all the more heavy when it drops.

DOOMRIDERS | Darkness Comes Alive [Deathwish]
The first Doomriders record took many of its sonic cues from frontman Nate Newton’s other bands (Converge, Old Man Gloom) but was also distinguished by elements of classic-rock boogie. Granted, such a combination sounds incongruous on paper, but rest assured it made for an entertaining ride. Alas, the Doomriders have now exorcised the ghost of Phil Lynott from their collective consciousness, as the Thin Lizzy riffs are mostly absent (or buried) on Darkness Comes Alive. Fortunately, having stripped their music of its novelty value, Doomriders have revealed themselves as a brutally efficient metal machine. Stand too close and you’ll lose an arm.

ALEXISONFIRE | Old Crows/Young Cardinals [Vagrant]
That this Canadian band’s 2006 third effort, Crisis, received more critical love than its sophomore LP is a mystery. Alexonfire’s second, 2004’s Watch Out!, dabbled in melody like Van Gogh with paints, while Crisis often flailed about without yielding any memorable tunes. Old Crows/Young Cardinals, then, is a return to form, if there is such a thing after only four records. Singers George Pettit and Dallas Green still tag team as screamer and choirboy, respectively, but to more indelible effect with the soaring “Born And Raised” and the epic “The Northern.” The latter takes a page from the Book of Revelation, but it’s unclear if the song is meant to be devotional, ironic or a mix of both. If “The Northern” has religious overtones, “Accept Crime” takes the clergy to task for their propensity to judge matters carnal. (It includes the unfortunate, teenage-diary chorus, “There’s no police between two beating hearts.” Ugh.) Lyrical stumbles aside, Alexisonfire once again delivers hardcore covered in heaping amounts of addictive, sugarcoated melody.

GOATWHORE | Carving Out The Eyes Of God [Metal Blade]
“Apocalyptic Havoc.” “Provoking The Ritual Of Death.” “Razor Flesh Devoured.” Clearly, these are not easy-listening songs of seduction, unless your significant other happens to be spawn of Beelzebub. (Sample lyric: “Who needs god when you’ve got Satan?”) Although still keepin’ it evil, Louisiana’s Goatwhore has shaken off the sludge of its earlier albums in favor of a crisper, more straight-ahead thrash-y assault, recalling Metallica during the Kill ‘Em All era, had that band been fronted by a misanthropic Cookie Monster. If you’re not already damned, Goatwhore will get you there fast.

RANCID | Let The Dominoes Fall [Epitaph]
These aging punkers don’t stomp a lot of new ground on their sixth release in 15 years, but we’ll take a solid Rancid record over today’s more popular strains of toothless “punk” any day of the week. (We’re looking at you, Paramore.) Like most Rancid records, Let The Dominoes Fall brings the old-school punk shouters (“This Place”), catchy pop rockers (“Last One To Die”) and dirty ska workouts (“I Ain’t Worried”), but in a first for the band, there’s the countrified “Civilian Ways.” Featuring mandolin(!) and slide guitar(!), the song hears Tim Armstrong, with a particularly world-worn version of his marble-mouthed delivery, assuming the guise of a weary soldier back home from the war. Like Johnny Cash before it, Rancid proves that you don’t always need three-chord mayhem to be punk.

NOTHINGTON | Roads, Bridges, And Ruins [BYO]
If there were any justice, Nothington would be the new gruff-voiced face of blue-collar punk rock, not the Springsteen-worshipping Gaslight Anthem. On its sophomore release, the band once again makes mature, heartfelt and rough-and-tumble music, heavily indebted to its forbearers in Hot Water Music and Leatherface. “Stop Screaming” is illustrative of what makes Nothington so special. With its heart-on-sleeve lyrics and kung-fu grip on melody, the song could be a power ballad if not for the crunchy guitars and gritty, vein-popping vocals. Who knew emo could have cajones?

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3 Comments

  1. Kalle
    Posted December 22, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    MASTODON’s “Crack the Skye” is the #1 album of the year.

  2. Posted December 22, 2009 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I like my hard rock with a little Prog thrown on top (or underneath?)
    My favs for the year would be:

    – Mars Volta: Octahedron;
    – Riverside: Anno Domini
    – Porcupine Tree: The Incident

    Come on guys, lets get creative with our picks!! Expand the paradigm!

  3. Russ
    Posted December 22, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    My (short) list would be:

    1) Opeth – Watershed
    2) Mastodon – Crack the Skye
    3) Porcupine Tree – The Incident

    This was actually a great year for hard rock, and all its ancillary genres. Mainstream North American magazines (I’m huddled under blankets north of Toronto) seem to pretty much ignore contemporary rock/metal bands, other than the obligatory Metallica updates. Thankfully there are British and European mags with strong circulation and solid writing that spread the word about the up-and-comers.

    Ummm…. Rancid is a superb band, but not a “hard rock” band by the classic definition, as that definition carries a LOT more than just electric guitars and distortion pedals. Give them their deserved kudos on a list they actually belong on.