Otep, the L.A.-based metal fusion quartet led by singer/poet/self-described "mental pugilist" Otep Shamaya, released one of the most dense, disturbing debut albums in the history of metal with 2002's Sevas Tra, a fiery confessional wherein Otep screams about being raped by her father against a searing sonic backdrop of eerie minor guitar chords and fist-pounding rhythms. The followup, House of Secrets, lacked the LSD-laced-exorcism feel of its predecessor but still packed plenty of vocal intensity and dark poetics. But Otep's third album, The Ascension, is definitely their best yet, and easily one of the best records of the year. The hard-edged metal mashups explode with primal screams, battering-ram rhythms, and vocal vitriol, from the politically charged rap-metal of "Confrontation" to the "lovesick anorexic" anthem "Milk of Regret" to the face-peeling fury of "Crooked Spoons." However, it's the songs where Otep's screaming less and singing more that really stand out, like "Noose and Nail," where her sick and sultry voice wraps itself around lines like "Jesus needs his prescriptions filled/Buddha's using too many pills/Allah promises endless thrills/in volatile bottles marked RELIGION KILLS." Then there's "Perfectly Flawed," a beautiful self-affirmation ballad decorated with piano and bells that sounds like the band's first real shot at a "hit," despite the morbid undercurrent of someone talking themselves out of suicide ("Don't you do it/You're not even you yet"). The first single, "Ghostflowers," boasts a catchy, exotic-sounding guitar riff, and some badass bridges and breakdowns where bass player Evil J's booming five-string sounds super-fat and funky. For all its eclectic elements and genre-mating, The Ascension flows like a smooth ride on a raw nerve, and there's not a bad track here.

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