THKD’s Top 20 Metal Albums of 2012

2012 has been more stressful than a motherfucker; probably one of the most all-around stressful years of my life. Buying a house + assorted family and work-related issues that I wouldn’t even dream of getting into here managed to turn the year into a goddamn pressure-cooker. I’m pretty sure the only things that kept me alive were my wife’s unwavering love (and limitless patience) and an avalanche of incredible music. In 2011 I was feeling pretty jaded and dissatisfied with the state of heavy metal, this year I found myself feeling better about things than I have in years. That isn’t to say there weren’t great albums released in 2011, there were, but in 2012 I felt like there was so much greatness that I couldn’t possibly keep up with it all.

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Early Graves – Red Horse (No Sleep Records, 2012)

If you were to listen to Early Graves’ Red Horse without knowing anything about the band’s history, you’d probably never guess that this is a band that has risen from the ashes of tragedy.  This is not a band that sounds broken down or beaten; this is a band that sounds lean, mean and hungry, ready to raise Hell and rip some fucking heads off.  It is a testament to Early Graves’ intestinal fortitude that they were not only able to recover from losing their original vocalist in a horrible accident, but to write, record and release their definitive album (so far) in the process.
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Early Graves @ Vaudeville Mews, Des Moines, IA 10/21/12

The last time I wrote about Early Graves, it was with a heavy heart. A planned review of their 2010 album Goner became a lamentation of vocalist Makh Daniels, whose life had been taken in a van accident while the band was out on tour. I assumed it was to be the first and last time I would write about the devastating young quintet who had shown so much promise. However, the remaining members of Early Graves regrouped, making the undoubtedly difficult decision to soldier on with new screamer John Strachan (also of The Funeral Pyre) at the helm, proving the old cliche that you just can’t keep a good band down. The result is Red Horse, a snorting, stomping, snarling beast of a recording that’s beyond a shadow of a doubt the San Franciscans’ most potent statement to date. The album isn’t out until October 30th, but Early Graves are already hitting the road hard, bringing their patented brand of pure Hell to the stage.

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But Life Goes On…

It’s been hard not to think about death in 2010.  I’ve seen two of my old friends pass away this year; one from a heart attack, the other chose to take his own life.  These were both people I had unfortunately lost touch with, people whom I always assumed I would reconnect with somewhere down the line.  Maybe I’d run into them at a bar or on the street or at fucking Wal Mart… maybe they’d call me out of the blue and we’d meet up for dinner or a beer to catch up and fill in the gaps.  After all, my life has always been an endless stream of people coming and going (as I’m assuming most people’s is), why should it be any different with them?

But it IS different with them now.  That phone call out of the blue will never come.  I won’t run into them at some random event.  The memories I have of them are finite, there won’t be any more.

I’m listening to Early Graves‘ Goner as I write this.  As all of you know by now, vocalist Makh Daniels died tragically on Monday, August 2nd.  It’s strange listening to the album, so full of crackling, goddamn electric energy, knowing the man with the violent, throat-shredding roar that’s driving this musical beast has been snuffed out before his time.  I didn’t know Daniels personally, and up until recently I was only mildly familiar with his band in their previous incarnation as Apiary.  However, I had heard plenty of good things about Early Graves, and they were on my version of the seemingly endless list kept by every metalhead  of “bands I need to check out”.

It just shouldn’t be this way.  Instead of discovering this young band with a world of potential and watching them grow and develop, we’re left with a finite discography, an artistic statement cut painfully short.  We should be writing reviews talking about Early Graves being a “band to watch”, but instead we’re left to speculate about what they might have achieved had this tragedy not taken place. Mr. Daniels should be out there somewhere tearing up a stage, not being lamented by his friends, family and fans.

I don’t want to associate such a snarling, vicious motherfucker of an album with real life death.  Goner is the sound of five men raging against the inevitable end with every ounce of blood, every drop of sweat.  As Johnny Cash once said, “It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

In some weird way, I feel the same about my two friends.  What else could they have achieved had they not been taken from this world before their time?  Where would their lives have taken them if they somehow could’ve avoided their respective untimely fates, staved off the grim reaper for just a few more years?

As fans of extreme music, we are inundated with death.  From Goner itself to early documents of the genre such as Left Hand Path, Morbid Tales and beyond, bands have been grappling with life’s eternal question.  It has never made me feel numb or desensitized, rather it makes me super-aware of death as an integral aspect of our lives and culture.  Even bands like Cannibal Corpse, with their over-the-top gory lyrical bent never seemed to be glorifying death; I always took their approach as a kind of black humor. We all find different ways to cope or try to make sense of it all.  Only death is real.

But we cannot dwell on the negative aspects of death forever.  We can’t spend forever contemplating what might have been.  Not as friends or family and not as fans.  What we can do is be eternally grateful for what we’ve been left with.  I’d rather have a finite amount of Early Graves to listen to than live in a world where Mr. Daniels never got a chance to step behind a mic and scream his guts out.  I’d much rather have wonderful but finite memories of my two friends than nothing at all.

For Jubal and Scotty B.