Issue 80 - The obligatory top 25 of 2004 countdown


cheating the polygraph
Apr 29, 2001
dead between the walls


Greetings, devoted readers, and welcome to the rite of passage known as the top 25 list. The format is simple: a quip about the band’s style of music that rock critics like to precede reviews with (and the label in parentheses just like in the corporate magazines!), a brief overview of the album’s contents and qualifications for inclusion on the list, the best songs from the album, and when necessary a bizarre development, which to me means anything about the album or the artist that defies logical explanation. A brief disclaimer: none of the blurbs are intended to be negative, this is a best of 2004 list after all.

And now with no commercial interruption, here is the ubiquitous countdown:

25 – paatos – kallocain (inside out) – anneke van bjork music

Not afraid of an abrupt style change from their classic prog stylings of their debut, Inside Out showed they are willing to take chances on this release. Anchored by Petronella Nettermalm’s warm vocals, this was a dark but inviting album. The brooding opener Gasoline gets things off to a great start, and the slow trip-hop pulse of Reality and the acoustic underpinning of the ironically titled Happiness are other major highlights. Other than the too sugary by half Look At Us, highly recommended.

Best songs: Gasoline, Reality, Happiness

24 – jag panzer – casting the stones (century media) – more songs about tanks and Shakespeare

The American power metal vets continue their successful comeback phase with another album that sounds timeless in its execution, played with boundless respect to the giants of metal. Maiden gets saluted on the divebombing The Mission, there’s a miniature epic in Achilles, Chris Broderick gets many chances to show his skills on guitar, and the entire album is loaded with slashing riffs and soaring vocals.

Best songs: The Mission (1943), Starlight’s Fury, Legion Immortal

23 – mithras – worlds beyond the veil (golden lake/candlelight) – morbid angel tours the astral plane

I’m going by the “didn’t get widely discussed until 2004” rule here. A rave review sent metalheads rushing to hear this highly touted album, and most of us were not disappointed by the combination of raging death metal and cosmic atmospheres, the extended intro track being the first sign this was not another display of rote brutality. The riffs here are crushing enough to rival just about anyone, and most importantly the album projects an aura unlike any other recent death metal release.

Best songs: Worlds Beyond The Veil, Lords And Masters, Search The Endless Planes

Bizarre development: “The best British album ever” quote proved to be rather embarrassing for Terrorizer.

22 – my dying bride – songs of darkness, words of light (peaceville) – hot and steamy doom metal seduction

Following the successful comeback of The Dreadful Hours, the doomiest of England’s famous trinity released another album highly reminiscent of their classic period, but this wasn’t a mere copy of Swans or Dark River. It’s one of their more consistent albums, and Aaron’s performance here is among his best, even the growls that I once regarded as a liability are but to great use on Catherine Blake’s stunning conclusion. The opening track’s downward spiral structure enthralls you, the “commercial” My Wine In Silence was an eerie lullaby, and the owed-to-Yngwie And My Fury Stands Ready contained one of his trademark doom sermons.

Best songs: Catherine Blake, The Wreckage Of My Flesh, My Wine In Silence

21 – fates warning – FWX (metal blade) – strategically engineered for perfection?

Regarded as a disappointment by some fans, the curtain call for Mark Zonder is let down by a few underwhelming attempts at modern hard rock, but the more progressive tracks were as superlative as ever. Left Here and Heal Me sound like instant classics with all of the necessary elements in place, including excellent use of electronic textures on the former. There’s also a pair of resonant ballads in Another Perfect Day and Wish, and the stunning River Wide Ocean Deep sounds like nothing else in their catalogue.

Best songs: River Wide Ocean Deep, Left Here, Heal Me

20 – riverside – out of myself (the laser’s edge) – bipolar prog hope for the future

This album came out of nowhere initially and soon generated huge buzz in both prog and metal circles, unusual considering the album contains a few songs (the longer ones and the two-part instrumental Reality Dream) without obvious hooks and slowly developing arrangements. Upon further listens, this is an often mesmerizing album, names like Anathema and Porcupine Tree were thrown around repeatedly but it sounds more like a modernized Floyd than anything. There is enough heaviness to draw metal fans in, the instrumental prowess is understated but considerable, and there are plenty of delicate emotions impressed, In Two Minds being a moving ballad. The muted closer reaches a curious finality: “there is darkness in my mind…okay.”

Best songs: The Reality Dream sequence & the title track

Bizarre development: Proving that internet radio isn’t a waste of time, the buzz on this album originated when Delicious Agony put their demo in heavy rotation.

19 – mono – walking cloud and deep red sky, flag blah blah (temporary residence) – post rock feedback orgy

Best damn Japanese band since Sigh, hands down. Violence is nothing new to this band, their previous release was called One More Step and You Die. But on tracks like 16.12 the band alternates hushed, minimalistic beginnings with sustained outbursts of searing guitars at noise levels equal to the most extreme of metal bands, do not adjust the volume when this one’s playing. It isn’t all epic crescendos and exercises in maximum tension however, several tracks are full-on ambient and the closing elegy is beautiful. To anyone remotely fascinated by post-rock: you need this badly.

Best songs: Halcyon (Beautiful Days), Lost Snow, A Thousand Paper Cranes

18 – chroma key – graveyard mountain home (IOMA) – how to distance yourself from dream theater completely

Designed as an alternate soundtrack to a bizarre social guidance film about an adolescent coping with the death of his mother, this is one of the weirder albums I’ve heard all year. While the oddly catchy nature of the first two albums isn’t completely absent here (closing track Again Today is as close to pure pop as he’s ever got), the majority of the album is dark and unsettling, and only a handful of songs feature vocals in the traditional sense. Granted, this only sounds like an unorthodox work of genius when combined with the film and it has moments of self-indulgence (the overlong spiritual advisory Human Love), but adventurous listeners should find themselves sucked in.

Best songs: Before You Started, White Robe, Mother’s Radio

Bizarre development: The whole genesis of the project, and if you’ve seen the film, you probably can’t imagine it being shown to fifties school children.

17 – sunnO))) – white2 (Southern Lord) – amplifier torture can be musical too!

If you thought the idea of drone doom was exhausted on their previous releases or even if you’re repulsed by this band’s ethos, this album requires a listen. Consisting of three monolithic excursions into prolonged heaviness, this should not be mistaken for formless noise. All of the tracks here can get oddly hypnotic and even soothing in the right state of mind. BassAliens is a trip through uncharted space directly descended from the trippiest space rock experiments, and Decay2 is nearly a half hour auditory hallucination, the psychotic screams by Attila Csihar do much to make this an incredibly disturbing piece of music.

Best songs: there are only three here…Decay2 being the best.

16 – leviathan – tentacles of whorror (Moribund Cult) – suicidal black metal: anything but painless

A triumph from San Francisco’s largely unheralded underground metal scene, this album is equally challenging as its predecessor and presents us with some of the most evil sounding growls known to man. Like Kayo Dot last year and several other albums on this list, it drives me to question both the sanity of its creator and myself for tolerating (can’t exactly say gaining pleasure with music this bleak) it. Musically speaking, some of the more chilling moments occur when influences from dark ambient creep into the music.

Best songs: The History Of Rape, A Bouquet Of Blood, title track

If you like this: check out either of the albums Xasthur released in 2004

15 – drudkh – autumn aurora (Supernal) – haunted forest ambiance at its best, please ignore the NS affiliations

My colleagues at Royal Carnage named this album of the year, apparently more forgiving of 40-minute albums where nearly a quarter is devoted to a track which repeats the same theme ad nauseum. But the other three main tracks are amazing, a rare example in black metal of both repetition done right (especially on Wind’s closing section) and the dark forest atmosphere being nailed perfectly, right up there with The Mantle as the perfect album to immerse yourself in on bleak autumn evenings. The album is simultaneously organic, primitive, vibrant, and above all epic.

Best songs: Wind Of The Night Forests, Sunwheel, Glare Of Autumn (duh)

Bizarre development: the album was “reissued” at least three times in 2004, each time with a different cover.

14 – mercenary – 11 dreams (CM) – reaping the Harveston of progressive melodic death

Loaded with riff-heavy, musically complex songs that project a sense of immediacy and melodic strength, this is a first class modern metal album, and on songs like Loneliness and the title track, I’m tempted to call it the album Nevermore (an acknowledged influence) should have made instead of Enemies Of Reality. A parallel can be made with Into Eternity in that these guys attempted to create a third album that would be superior to its already impressive breakthrough release in every possible way, and they largely succeeded.

Best songs: Sharpen The Edges, World Hate Center, Supremacy v2.0

Bizarre development: The album included a catchy but extremely out of place cover of Music Non Stop, by Swedish poppers Kent.

13 – mastodon – leviathan (relapse) – more songs about whales and prehistoric creatures

Easily the most hyped release on this list in non-metal circles, this gained enthusiastic (and occasionally ludicrous) praise from just about everyone and lived up to it. Powered by Brann Dailor’s hyperkinetic drumming and an arsenal of devastating riffs, each of the songs here sounded carefullt constructed and raw at the same time, and recast their roots in the post-hardcore scene in a purely metal perspective. Far from a one-trick act, the album was by turns infectious (Seabeast), ferocious (Island), and even reflective (Joseph Merrick), but one song cast a giant shadow over the album, the monumental epic Hearts Alive.

Best songs: Hearts Alive, Aqua Dementia, Iron Tusk

Bizarre development: The limited edition offered some live tracks and alternate mixes, but in DVD-A format for some reason.

12 – evergrey – the inner circle (IOMA) – recreating the truth can lead to tragedy

Recreation Day did little to slow this band’s increasing momentum, but some fans accused it of sounding rushed and lacking the spark of their previous releases. They responded with their most ambitious and least immediately accessible release to date. The absence of imagery in the booklet and specifics in the album’s plot reflected a change in the musical direction as well, texture often taking precedent over the riffs. It still contained some expertly performed metal, but the band expanded their range on tracks like Waking Up Blind and the dramatic closing track.

Best songs: A Touch Of Blessing, Harmless Wishes, When The Walls Go Down

Bizarre development: The band insists the samples of a preacher found throughout the album are real…care to explain “we have to kill the baby!”?

11 – morgion – cloaked by ages, crowned in earth (dark symphonies) – this almost makes up for losing Kayo Of The Well…

The album cover showed a nondescript forest photograph with no logo and the album title in plain text, a fitting image for an album that often sounds impenetrable and only after repeated listens becomes evocative. The long gap between albums made this a highly anticipated record among doom fans, and they were not disappointed, the songs here were both crushing and desolate, and the arrangements showed some progressive touches like the long instrumental section in Ebb Tide and the counterpoint vocals in Cairn.

Best songs: Ebb Tide, A Slow Succumbing, Cairn

10 – dead soul tribe – the january tree (IOMA) – Jethro Tool (Devon’s joke, not mine, thank god)

In addition to having a weighty role on The Human Equation (see below), Devon Graves kept up the album per year schedule he’s been on since introducing this project. As usual, he played most of the instruments himself, but drummer Abel Moustafa greatly enhanced some of the tracks. While it lacked the consistency of A Murder Of Crows at points it was just as impressive on a song by song basis, opening with a series of hard rockers before branching out in different directions. The album presented an antiwar viewpoint in its lyrics on several songs, most obviously in Why and Toy Rockets.

Best songs: Why?, Toy Rockets, Spiders And Flies

Bizarre development: Not entirely uncommon, but Devon came up with the album title before writing anything for it.

9 – pain of salvation – be (IOMA) – Daniel Gildenlow’s Quest For The Meaning Of Life, the award winning off-Broadway musical!

A treatise on the relationship between God and humanity, complete with population counts and millionaires demanding roadside blowjobs. Just one of many confounding things in Daniel Gildenlow’s self-proclaimed masterpiece, which was embraced wholeheartedly by many but reviled strongly by others. The album sought to incorporate as many genres as possible (which led many to bemoan the low ratio of metal on the album): folk, theater, and orchestral music are the most dominant influences here. It did have some occasional missteps, but also some of the most powerful POS music to date and the level of ambition here is almost completely unprecedented, at least in the progressive metal genre.

Best songs: Iter Impius, Diffidentia, Nihil Morari

Bizarre development: Judging by the list of sources on the website, Daniel does nothing in his spare time besides reading philosophical texts.

8 – void of silence – human antithesis (Code666) – apocalypse in 20:16, co-starring the deliciously evil talents of that dude from Primordial

Code666 continued its winning streak with this excellent synthesis of doom metal and industrial elements, and the band scored a major coup by recruiting Primordial’s Alan Namthangea for vocal duties. The twenty-minute title track was one of the most visceral listening experiences of the year, its often genuinely frightening end of the world atmosphere greatly enhanced by Alan’s sermons about the frailty of humanity. And it was only one of three massive epics on the album, To A Sickly Child is similarly malevolent.

Best songs: Human Antithesis, To A Sickly Child, Dark Static Moments

7 – neurosis – the eye of every storm (neurot/relapse) – the godfathers of post-hardcore open themselves up…

In terms of volume, this is admittedly no match for the oppressive heaviness of previous releases, which is kept to small but effective doses, and the screaming is also largely absent. But this album is just as psychologically devastating as their previous two releases, the band’s fascination with post-rock and aural manipulation yields stunning results on tracks like Bridges and No River To Take Me Home, and their mastery of tension building dramatics is also evident throughout. Left To Wander was relatively simple but highly powerful, and the title track is an epic that should erase all doubts about their current direction.

Best songs: Left To Wander, A Season In The Sky, title track

6 – ayreon – the human equation (IOMA) – if Devy had been on as many songs as that Christian metal guy, this might be #1

Just kidding, Eric Clayton’s mechanical tone fits his role as Reason very well, and on none of his previous mega-projects has Arjen been able to assign characters to his vocalists (no point in listing them, you know who they are) with complete success. While this 21-song extravaganza isn’t perfect thanks to a few campy moments, a dumb surprise ending, and the occasionally annoying poppy songs on the first disc, it is by far the most consistent and mature of the Ayreon albums. It also contains his best songwriting, as he jumps between genres and vocal treatments, often in the same song, without hurting the narrative.

Best songs: Difficult to decide, but I’m partial to the slower ones (Childhood, Betrayal, etc.)

Bizarre development: Loser is a fucking odd song when you think about it, there’s no way it should work as well as it does. It was severely edited for single release.

5 – blut aus nord – the work which transforms god (candlelight) – silence speaks louder than growls

The winner of the “technically a 2003 album but most of us didn’t hear it until ‘04” contest. While most black metal bands attempt to create darker moods by emphasizing the primitive and/or naturalist aspect, Blut Aus Nord proved to be one of the best bands working in the opposite direction, the soundscapes here are cold and dystopian. Frequently incorporating techniques from dark ambient music, the songs here are purely atmospheric and develop extremely slowly at times, especially on the lengthy closing instrumental, but the ferocity was retained on songs like Axis and The Supreme Abstract.

Best songs: Our Blessed Frozen Cells, The Supreme Abstract, Procession Of The Dead Clowns

Bizarre development: A post on the Royal Carnage forum presented evidence that the 18-second gap before Procession is not a silent track as commonly believed.

4 – sleepytime gorilla museum – of natural history (mimicry) – King Crimson meets Mike Patton meets the evil clown from your childhood nightmares

If you think prog can no longer be dangerous or even challenging, put this into your CD player and be floored. The dissonant guitars, jarring percussion, and schizoid vocals from both Nils Frykdahl and Carla Kihlstedt combine for an unstelling listen, and the arrangements here balance heaviness with avant-garde explorations, ultimately leading to a sound I can best describe above. Highlights include the rumbling prog-metal of Donkey Headed Adversary, the monster movie-as-political allegory The Creature, and the dark epic Babydoctor. It also contained an incredibly complex and frenetic near-instrumental (Bring Back The Apocalypse) and a pair of macabre theatrical pieces (grand opening and closing tracks).

Best songs: Donkey-Headed Adversary, The Freedom Club, Gunday’s Child

Bizarre development: The album contains segments of bizarre dialogue being spoken in a thick redneck accent, spread out over the last few tracks.

3 – into eternity – buried in oblivion (CM) – released technically perfect album, lineup falls apart…blame Canada!

2004 was a whirlwind year for these guys, beginning with massive buildup for their third album, an overhaul that left Tim Roth as the sole musician left over from Dead Or Dreaming, and ended on a high note with a Progpower performance and a tour scheduled for next year. Opening with a lightning fast flurry of notes, the first seven tracks on the album are all close to technically perfect compositions combining intricate patterns and relentless playing with instantly recognizable melodies and stunning vocal harmonies. Even the death vocals were difficult to resist howling along with (Spiraling…INTO DEPRE-SSION!) It then offers the excellent title ballad and its thematic sequel, a track that brings together all of their influences.

Best songs: Beginning Of The End, Splintered Visions, the Buried In Oblivion/Black Sea Of Agony two-parter

Bizarre development: The first verse of Black Sea finds Tim & Chris Krall singing in what appears to be a faux Jamaican accent.

2 – isis – panopticon (Ipecac) – the hype police have you under surveillance

The aerial photography on the cover matches the aura of this record, a hovering beast that makes its presence known in intangible ways. While it retains the band’s experimental bent as all seven tracks feature lengthy instrumental sections, lack obvious hooks, and dispense with the verse/chorus format, it is more dynamic and disciplined than just about anything with the dreaded -core tag. The tracks definitely wander, but rarely come across as being aimless or repetitive, and often achieve a hypnotic quality. Backlit and especially Syndic Calls fused post-rock to metal brilliantly, and Wills Dissolve and In Fiction build magnificently from their lengthy intros.

Best songs: The stretch beginning with In Fiction and ending with Altered Course

1 – orphaned land – mabool (CM) – Lord, here comes the flood…

Why is this my choice for number one? The best way to answer that question would be to list some of the elements that make Mabool such an extraordinary album. It’s their first album in eight years and the band is from an anomalous market. It represents a welcome risk by Century Media by signing a unique and hard to categorize band. It is a concept album with omnipresent biblical and spiritual themes, yet manages to avoid preaching to the listener. It refuses to acknowledge a distinction between Middle Eastern music and metal and treats them as a single entity, whether by using a lengthy vocal chant (Kiss Of Babylon) or building a song around a traditional melody (Norra El Norra). It has an epic scope that rivals just about anything in metal and is truly progressive in its arrangements, using a wide variety of instruments and the lyrics are in multiple languages. Its pacing is superb, Birth Of The Three opens the book in grandiose fashion and each song drives the story forward before culminating in the amazing final sequence: an acoustic interlude, the flood’s arrival being represented by the album’s heaviest track, the aftermath being expressed by a hugely emotional solo, and the peaceful epilogue.

Best songs: Halo Dies, Ocean Land, and above all the last four tracks

honorable mentions:

enslaved – isa (tabu) – if this had made the deadline, top ten for sure

megadeth – the system has failed (sanctuary) – good comeback, even with one of the most hypocritical songs ever

(The song of course is Something I’m Not, a self-serving Metallica putdown.)

threshold – subsurface (IOMA) – best band frequently accused of being a DT soundalike ever

mechanical poet – woodland prattlers (code666) – anyone who puts comic book artwork on an album this dark deserves credit

esoteric – subconscious dissolution into the continuum (season of mist) – in a word, DOOM

Morphia may very well be the heaviest song I’ve heard in 2004.

angra – temple of shadows (sanctuary) – the power metal tribe hath spoken

cea serin – where memories combine (heaven cross) – scratching the surface of all things to find one of 2004’s best debuts

(alternately, best use of tap dancing in a metal song ever)

guapo – five suns (cuneiform) – instrumental avant-prog to scare your neighbors by

This band has the distinction of recording for three famously uncompromising labels (Cuneiform, Neurot, & Ipecac).

the hidden hand – mother teacher destroyer (southern lord) – wino swings to the left

necrophagist – epitaph (relapse) – carnivorous technicality

May have been higher if not for the sameness of the tracks and the 32 minute running time.

fall of the leafe – volvere (rage of achilles) – Katatonia on acid?

May have been higher if the songs were a bit more coherent.

winds – the imaginary direction of time (the end) – not to be confused with Age Of Silence

vintersorg – the focusing blur (napalm) – not to be confused with Borknagar

Amazing list Demonspell. The amount of cd's I bought this year is probably the smallest of the last 6 or 7 years, but your list once again makes me want to order a stack. I barely know anything on it, it makes me feel quite out of the loop.

I am pretty surprised to see no mention of the new Nightingale, which I think is one of Swano's best ever.
Nice work Demonspell. I like your top 5, but never heard any Sleepytime... so I should check them out I guess.

Orphaned Land owned 2004, no doubt.

P.S. Did you get the PM I sent you? Let me know your thoughts....