The Black Market: The Month In Metal – December 2013
In the essay that preceded our list of 2013’s 50 Best Metal Albums, I said — with some emphasis — that in my opinion, we were concluding what had been metal’s strongest calendar year of this millennium (so far). I was using “this millennium” as an arbitrary endpoint — if I were to extend my scope indefinitely, I’d probably say 2013 was metal’s strongest calendar year since 1995: a year that brought us At The Gates’ Slaughter Of The Soul, Darkthrone’s Panzerfaust, Dissection’s Storm Of The Light’s Bane, Immortal’s Battles In The North, Morbid Angel’s Domination, and Opeth’s Orchid, among others. Obviously it’s hard to accurately quantify or contextualize something so recent — and, also obviously, not everyone will agree with my assessment anyway — but at the very least, I’m comfortable and confident stating this much as fact: 2013 was a great, great year for metal.
At the close of 2012, though, no one could have predicted such a result. Lots of people — including us — went into 2013 looking forward to Deafheaven’s Sunbather, but did anyone expect it to achieve such heights? (According to Metacritic, it was “the best-reviewed major album of 2013,” with an aggregate score of 92/100.) Plenty of publications included Carcass on their lists of 2013’s most anticipated albums, but at this point last year, Carcass weren’t even signed to a label — and there was ample reason to suspect their new album, if it ever did arrive, would be a disappointment. (Those same publications also included bands like Behemoth and Godflesh on their most-anticipated lists — bands whose albums, in fact, did not arrive in 2013 — along with many more bands who released 2013 albums that didn’t live up to the anticipation.) And I can’t find any sites that named Gorguts on their most-anticipated lists in December 2012. Yet here we here, in December 2013: a month during which Deafheaven, Carcass, and Gorguts were inescapable, whose 2013 releases were seemingly at or very near the top of every single publication’s list of the year’s best metal albums.
Those are just three examples of what made 2013 such a great year for this music; there are dozens upon dozens more where those came from. But they serve to illustrate my point, which is: The future is totally unpredictable. The metal year we experienced in 2013 could not have been anticipated in 2012. It was metal’s best year in nearly two decades! That’s not blind luck, mind you — after all, as the sabermetricians will assert, “Luck is the residue of design” — but a certain serendipity is at play here. I would not bet on 2014 being a better year for metal than was 2013 because serendipity is a fickle, fleeting thing — not something on which you risk your money, unless you’re especially eager to part ways with that money. But, again, it must be said, the future is totally unpredictable. Here’s one thing we do know:
Recording for AGALLOCH album #5 begins today.
— Profound Lore (@profound_lore) December 12, 2013
That was posted two weeks ago; by now, much if not all of that recording is complete. I’m told the album is due in early spring. You certainly don’t need additional reasons to be excited about metal in 2014, but if you’re serious about betting real money on next year being better than the last, you can now make that bet with slightly more confidence. As I’ve said before, as far as I’m concerned, Agalloch’s last album, 2010’s Marrow Of The Spirit, is the best metal album to have been released this millennium (so far) — the best, probably, since Weakling’s 2000 LP, Dead As Dreams. Do I expect LP5 to be better than Marrow? No — it would be greedy and gluttonous to even ask for that, much less expect it. But here’s the thing: Even if it’s an order of magnitude worse than Marrow, LP5 still has a strong likelihood of being great. Honestly, it could be the worst item in Agalloch’s catalog and still be a strong contender for the best metal album of 2014.
Just the same, however, if you happen to be in Vegas and you want my two cents, I would tell you not to wager on Agalloch’s LP5 ending 2014 as the year’s best metal album. People who gamble on sports know you never bet on one team to beat the field: No matter how good that one team may be, the field has the law of averages on its side. And that’s especially good advice in a case like this, when the field includes Wolves In The Throne Room, Tombs, Pallbearer, Triptykon, Leviathan, the Atlas Moth, Morbus Chron, Gridlink, and Trap Them. That right there is a list of very, very good bands with well-developed sounds, all at or near their creative peaks — and all those bands will release new albums in 2014. Furthermore, the aforementioned Behemoth and Godflesh albums we didn’t get in 2013 are officially scheduled to arrive in the first half of next year — along with the long-delayed Thurston Moore-assisted Twilight LP — and bands like High On Fire, Mastodon, Slayer, Immortal, and Opeth will very likely drop new ones, too. And while it probably won’t actually arrive till 2015, there’s an outside chance Metallica will release an album next year — they’ve suggested, at least, they’ll start work on a new one in the spring. Of Metallica, of course I know better than to expect another Ride The Lightning, but I also think the next Metallica album will be better than Death Magnetic, and “better than Death Magnetic” puts that album in the top half of Metallica’s catalog, an outcome with which I will very happily live.
(I should also note here that Alcest’s fourth LP, Shelter, will be released in January. In the past, Alcest would be covered in a space like the Black Market, as Alcest were nominally a metal band, and Alcest’s mastermind, Neige, is one of modern metal’s preeminent artists, with a history in bands like Ameseours, Peste Noire, Les Discrets, and Mortifera. However, Shelter is not a metal record in any capacity. I say this not to be dismissive of the album but as a statement of indisputable fact. Neige himself said as much when he was recording it: “I don’t think there are any metal music elements [in Alcest] anymore.” Shelter was recorded at Sigur Ros’ Sundlaugin Studio, with that band’s producer, Birgir Jón Birgisson, and it features Slowdive’s Neil Halstead on guest vocals, and those references should give you a reasonable idea what the album sounds like. I actually love it, but to try and discuss its contents in a metal context is not just difficult, it’s dishonest. We’ll cover it on Stereogum, of course, but you won’t see it in the Black Market, and now you know why.)
And those are just the established contenders. I’ve already heard outstanding advance releases from a handful of sleepers — newer and/or smaller bands who could/should find a lot more fans in 2014: Avichi, Cult Leader (former members of Gaza), Graveborne, Psalm Zero (featuring Andrew Hock of Castevet), Indian, Artificial Brain (featuring Dan Gargiulo of Revocation), and (my favorite, so far) Woods Of Desolation. And those are just among the tiny handful of 2014 records I’ve actually heard, and it’s not even January.
Which means, remarkably, that if you’re putting down a wager, you still gotta bet the field. Doug wrote a great piece over at Invisible Oranges last week called “Don’t Listen To Everything,” sort of bemoaning the surfeit of metal with which we are forced to contend in order to make sense of the genre as a whole (to the extent sense can be made of such an ungainly beast). It’s a terrific and engaging essay, and I recommend you check it out and consider it in relation to your own listening habits. Personally, I’ve given it much thought, and while I sympathize with the sentiment, I don’t entirely agree with the thesis: I find myself excited not only by the limitless options afforded by metal today (and tomorrow), but the limitless possibilities. In the paragraphs preceding this one, I ran down a list of more than 25 metal bands who will (or probably will) release new albums in 2014 — and they are all very-good-to-great bands — yet still, according to the laws of probability, it is likely not one of them will be responsible for the best metal album released next year; in fact, there’s a good chance only a minority percentage of those bands will end up on our list of 2014’s 50 best metal albums.
So while Doug and I agree that attempting to hear everything is a clear path to insanity, the fact of the matter is, you’re gonna have to leave room in your schedule to listen to a whole lot of metal in 2014. Because while the future is totally unpredictable, I would advise you to make this bet based on what little we know right now: 2014 is going to be another great, great year for metal.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There’s still the matter of closing out the old year before ringing in the new one. For our final Black Market installment of 2013, we decided to temporarily abandon our traditional structure of aggregating and ranking the month’s 15 best metal songs. Because December produces so little new music, we chose instead to devote this column to albums we felt went overlooked in 2013. That might sound kinda batshit, I know — it’s not like the list of 50 albums we published three weeks ago lacked for obscurities. But just the same, there were things we left out: pet favorites; minor highlights; albums that were either released too late in the year or discovered by us too late in the year to be considered for the big list. Instead of merging all our picks into one list of 20 records, we decided it would make the most sense for each of us to write about five albums we personally wanted to spotlight, as this is really an opportunity for us individually — Aaron, Wyatt, Doug, and me — to dig deep and share with you the gems we found, and of which we feel most protective and most proud. Nothing included in the lists below is here to make a quota or offered without genuine enthusiasm; I actually had to make some hard choices to cut my own list down to five. No, these are some outstanding records that deserved more attention. I’m confident you’ll find much here to love, much additional evidence to support my belief that 2013 was a remarkable year for metal, much to inspire new explorations, new hunts.
Let us know in the comments if you hear anything you like, and more importantly, which 2013 records you loved that everyone else seemed to overlook. See you in the next one.
5. Sorcery – Arrival At Six (Xtreem Music)
Metal loves a good resurrection story, and 2013 was a banner year in that regard. Carcass, Gorguts, Satan … each reunited and crushed reasonable expectations. Way back in January, at a time when hardly anyone had an ear out for new music, forgotten death metal gods Sorcery did the same thing, though hardly anyone noticed. But dull rumblings from the murk of the metal-blog world began to circulate: A band hardly anyone remembered came crawling back to life and dropped a fucking monster of an album… Sorcery originally formed in 1986, predating the majority of the Swedish scene by at least a year, issuing a string of semi-legendary demos followed by a single, stellar full-length in 1991. Failing to gain traction, the band fell apart and faded into memory. None of this would matter except for the fact that the early material is fucking gold, and their 2013 comeback is even better. Sorcery always excelled at the kind of hook-laden tremolo riffs that Dismember used to such brilliant effect on their earliest stuff, and that’s what they give us here. Strange as it is, few modern bands can replicate that specific feel, usually opting to chase the chunky rhythm guitar sound and d-beat drumming instead — but the second you hear the quality of Sorcery’s riffing, it’s unmistakable. Swedish death metal comes at us from every angle nowadays, from OSDM throwbacks to hardcore bands co-opting the tones (if not the tunes) — but the best stuff, as evidenced here, remains explosive.
4. Lightning Swords Of Death – Baphometic Chaosium (Metal Blade)
I wish this band was bigger. As it is, it’s strange to watch them drift along half-submerged beneath the surface of underground success, obviously too unruly for a mainstream audience, but never fully engaging the deeper USBM fans either. It’s a shame, really, when their latest album kicks this hard, though I suspect it’s at least partly by design. On Baphometic Chaosium, savage, amelodic black metal charges over and around hallucinatory washes of ambient guitar, while Autarch’s stentorian chants and rasping screams conduct the swirling chaos — but what’s most striking is the way the band shifts from heavy metal thunder to something far stranger at the drop of a hat. It can be a jarring, discomfiting listen at times, which seems to be the point as often as not. For their part, the band seems content to make us do the heavy lifting, taunting us with the tenuous threads of headbanging riffs before retreating back into the mist. There’s a stubborn refusal to over-indulge the listener — big riffs are thrown in sparingly, usually for no more than a few bars, while the band inevitably angles for obfuscation and atmosphere over immediate gratification. And yet those big riffs remain BIG, obviously meant to get fists pumping, if only for a few seconds at a time — it’s an interesting dichotomy, even while it makes them a poor choice for a cursory, half-attentive listen. Penultimate track “Epicyclarium” arrives at two separate points of cathartic release, only to pull the plug both times. Neat trick, then, to leave us hungry for more.
3. Beyond – Fatal Power Of Death (Iron Bonehead)
I could have filled this list with nothing but death metal. It would have been easy, but it wouldn’t have been fair to you — I could have just as easily given in and written only about killer new shit from Obliteration, Altars, Pentagram Chile, Bone Sickness, Demonical, Cerekloth, or any of a dozen others. Instead I’m biting my tongue (sort of, but not really) and channeling all that death metal love right here, onto what could easily be the best, least-heard death metal album of the year. You might recognize Beyond’s label, Iron Bonehead, as the guys responsible for the incredible Bolzer EP: With each release this year, Iron Bonehead proved they have a better ear for underground black and death than anyone out there, perfectly illustrated by the uncompromising brutality of Beyond. Fatal Power Of Death is colossally dense, but oddly malleable — a wall of rampaging noise suddenly reconfigures into caveman thrash, then the pendulum swings back even further as chaotic harmonies rise from the din. The production is pure abysmal filth, but it sacrifices little in the way of clarity or weight. You can’t rightly call this “caverncore,” the same way you can’t really call Grave Miasma “caverncore,” because what they’re doing here goes so far beyond a flavor-of-the-week micro-genre tag. The cover art actually does a better job of illustrating the hellish nature of the music than any description I could give, so I’ll leave it at that. Fans of death metal: We live in a wondrous age.
2. Kongh – Sole Creation (Agonia)
How these guys have managed to escape full-blown popularity is beyond me. While everything else on my list handily qualifies as extreme listening (i.e., no clean singing), these guys went ahead and bastardized doom and sludge in the catchiest way possible. Much of what made Pallbearer so successful last year is on display here—gloomy Sabbath-style crooning set against long-form odysseys of doom — but Kongh cast a wider net into darker waters. Epic doom strikes a balance with stonerisms borrowed from YOB and Electric Wizard, while the outer edges swing from crystalline clean all the way to surging sludge. Limits are largely ignored for the sake of exploration: It’s surprising, and surprisingly satisfying, to hear the occasional burst of black metal rip through the fat clouds of doom chords like lightning, in the form of tremolo-picked leads. While the backbone of the album feels comfortably familiar, the assembly of disparate ingredients is so seamless you won’t bat an eye even as they plunge into some truly strange shit: On the fourth (and closing) track “Skymning,” we open with a trickle of clean guitars while singer/everything-but-drums dude David Johansson pushes his vocals into harmonized Layne Staley territory. It’s a trick that pops up a few other places on the record, but none so clear as here, and it works wonders to elevate Sole Creation from a bruising pleasure to a sadly overlooked, absolute must-listen.
1. Torture Chain – Mutilating Astral Entities (self-released)
Extreme metal was born out of tape-trading over 30 years ago — funny then, as time and technology march on, we’ve found our way back to the start. I first heard Torture Chain last week, when Sean Reveron of CVLT Nation posted his Top 6 Black Metal Albums of 2013, and put this on top. It might be the best thing I’ve heard all year. For the sake of preserving the experience I had while first hearing this and hopefully passing that along to you — call it a “virgin listen”, an experience probably not unlike getting a mystery tape in the mail from a weirdly enthusiastic metalhead on the other side of the world — I won’t overanalyze the music or do anything to dispel the mystique of the musician responsible for everything here, who goes by the name “Torturer”. It’s more fun going in blind. If you need convincing: this is epic, oddly expansive black metal fed through a crust punk grinder, and it’s a lot better than that sounds. I first sat down with the intention of hearing a song or two, frankly not expecting a whole lot—60 minutes later I came up for air and started it over from the beginning. The anonymity of the project means you can imagine these songs however you like, untethered by reality. When the lead guitar suddenly doubles and launches into a skyward harmonic suite, you’re free to imagine something awesome and impossible, like a Frank Frazetta painting of Quorthon decked out in spikes and leather, swinging a battle-ax, maybe. That’s what I see, if only briefly, before my imagination runs away again. If you take the time to google Torture Chain and explore some of the deeper discussions on the subject, you can find out all you’d care to know about “Torturer,” but again, the mystery is more satisfying. Of course, it’s up to you—even demystified, these tunes fucking slay. Since you can’t find these songs for purchase—the limited edition cassette has long since sold out, and they were never made available digitally — do yourself a favor and stream the entire thing, then pass the link along to a friend. Just like olden times.
5. Caladan Brood – Echoes Of Battle (Northern Silence)
Echoes Of Battle is an acquired taste, but anyone who’s ever been amped up by the 8-bit glory of Summoning’s epic black metal owes it to him or herself to give it a spin — you might have a new favorite band. The Summoning comparison is inevitable and obvious, and Caladan Brood seems to invite the comparison. The hallmarks are there: drumbeats that often sound like they were created by someone showing massive restraint on a drum machine, simplistic keyboard melodies, and an exaggerated black metal rasp. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this subgenre should be called Siege Metal. Caladan Brood is a master of Siege Metal, and gives off medieval/fantasy vibes even more than Summoning does. The whole album rules — I’m a fan of each song for different reasons — but a particular highlight begins around the 12-minute mark of the final track, “Book Of The Fallen,” and culminates with insanely epic group vocals that should be etched into the side of a mountain somewhere in a cold climate.
4. Obliteration – Black Death Horizon (Relapse)
A lot of great death metal from big name bands came out in 2013, so perhaps attention was focused elsewhere when it came year-end list making time, but Obliteration’s Black Death Horizon was a top-notch album. (We included it in September’s Black Market.) What drew me to Black Death Horizon was its raw, unbridled energy and its warped riffs. This is old-school, chaotic death metal with a singer so frantic he sounds rabid — no technical wankery here, just pure unbridled hate, speed, and spikes. Obliteration’s from the same town as Darkthrone, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say there are DT influences on Black Death Horizon — after all, Obliteration is a Fenriz-approved band.
3. Ephemer – Notre Honneur Immortel (Spectre Sinistre)
What’s quickly become one of my favorite releases of the year snuck out the day after Thanksgiving and was only available for purchase at Montreal’s awesome Messe Des Morts festival (I went; it ruled) as a cassette limited to 100 copies. So there were barriers to entry, to say the least, to hearing Notre Honneur Immortel. Ephemer is made up of two-thirds of the incomparable Quebec black-metal masters Forteresse (fingers crossed for new material in 2014), and plays a similar style of driving atmospheric black metal. Melody shapes the EP, with a near-constant guitar lead right up front in the lo-fi but clear mix. The vocal performance is incredible — more yelling than rasping, and, like Forteresse, Ephemer does this ominous proclamation-speaking-voice-thing sometimes that works particularly well when mixed with those layers of guitars and galloping beat. Each of the four songs on Notre Honneur Immortel are anthemic — epic for days.
2. Sivyj Yar – The Dawns Were Drifting As Before (Those Opposed Records)
Not a lot of Russian black metal makes it across the Atlantic, but I’m sure glad a couple cassette copies of Sivyj Yar’s The Dawns Were Drifting As Before did. If I were to nerd out, I’d say Sivyj Yar is a folk-inflected atmospheric black metal one-man band that would appeal to listeners of bands like Agalloch and Drudkh. All those qualifiers relegate Sivyj Yar to pretty obscure territory, and it’s unfortunate that hardly anyone has heard The Dawns Were Drifting As Before, because it’s got a lot of crowd appeal. Melodies are sweeping and melancholic but still pack a punch, vocals are in the form of a throaty DSBM howl, and some surprisingly active and audible bass lines spice things up with a little prof-friendly action. When we included Sivyj Yar in our September Black Market, I said I thought the band deserved a lot more attention — I’m glad to have another opportunity to reiterate that.
1. This Station Of Life – World Dies Laughing (Colloquial Sound Recordings)
I don’t think anyone wrote a word about This Station Of Life’s awesome World Dies Laughing EP this year, and that’s a damn shame, but it probably didn’t help that it came out as a tape limited to 39 copies (it’s now available digitally). World Dies Laughing is 10 minutes of absolutely corrosive hardcore-influenced black metal. Vocals are a throaty distorted mess (in a good way), bass is thick, guitars are flanged-out. These songs blast as much as they brood, and average out around two minutes in length. Some might note similarities to Nachtmystium, here, but This Station Of Life is an uglier, rawer, punkier cousin. Fans of A Pregnant Light and Aksumite take note: This Station of Life is another Damian Master joint, and he recorded World Dies Laughing (but not all other TSOL material) solo.
5. Kauan – Pirut (Blood Music)
Though Kauan has five albums under their belt, they’re effectively a new band. Frontman Anton Belov is the only remaining original member of the lineup that produced Pirut, which sees the band add just enough doom metal to their pastoral approach to qualify for this list. Black Market commenters have occasionally pointed out that our tastes lean toward harsh vocals, and my prejudice is probably the most pronounced of the four of us. But Pirut is a gem that easily transcends bias. Its stately blend of doom, neofolk, and post-rock both soothes and thrills, thanks in no small part to Belov’s emotive singing. Communicating so much feeling across a language barrier (the lyrics are in Finnish) takes a real gift.
4. Beaten To Death – Dødsfest! (Mas-Kina Recordings)
Idiosyncratic guitar tones are increasingly rare in heavy metal — they’re being gradually squashed by the easy availability of ‘pro’-sounding modern gear and software. As the genre converges toward big, thick-sounding guitars, weirdo tones stick out more and more. Beaten To Death have capitalized immensely on this fact. Dødsfest! stands out from the grindcore pack on the strength of its guitar tone alone, which is a low-gain, Telecaster-bright clatter instead of the usual beefy chugging. (It doesn’t look like many other grind records either — that cover art!) And fortunately, Beaten To Death put that odd tone to good use. These guys are excellent songwriters who nail weirdly empowering melodies to the backdrop of rickety blastbeats and gurgle vox.
3. Grayceon – Pearl And The End Of Days (The Flenser)
Grayceon cellist/vocalist Jackie Gratz is mentioned most often in the context of her many collaborations and guest appearances; check out her Metal Archives page for a truly impressive résumé. In recent years, she has concentrated her energies on her two main bands: this project, and the great prog-sludge unit Giant Squid. When metal bands overtly draw on European classical music, they usually dive straight for its complexity and virtuoso musicianship, which typically produces lame shred-hero types like Yngwie Malmsteen. Grayceon are so great because they’ve internalized the style’s focus on structure and dynamics too — very few metal bands can write such long, busy songs without losing the thread. (They don’t drop the virtuosity though; all three band members shred.) Gratz’s increasingly prominent vocals were kind of a sticking point for me on Grayceon’s last album, but she absolutely nails it on this 28-minute EP. The vocal hooks on “The End Of Days” are real tear-jerkers.
2. Gigan – Multi-Dimensional Fractal Sorcery And Super Science (Willowtip)
At one point in the comment thread for our 50 Best Metal Albums of 2013 post, Mike characterized the variance across our collective tastes by saying (among other things): “Doug is the only one who listens to Gigan.” There’s a reason for that — Gigan play insanely complicated, super-noisy death metal with a heavy emphasis on trippy digital effects. You have to be a special kind of nerd to enjoy this sort of thing, and friends, I am that kind of nerd. But under the psychedelic shrieking and hyperactive blastbeats, Gigan are weirdly crafty songwriters with a knack for building and releasing tension. If you liked the new albums by Portal and Gorguts this year, you owe it to yourself to give these guys a listen; they’re easily one of the strangest and most creative death metal bands in the game today. Also worth noting: their grade-A Death Metal English lyrics of the space-themed variety. It doesn’t get much more fun than “Electro-Stimulated Hallucinatory Response” and “Bio-Engineered Molecular Abnormalities.”
1. Circle Takes the Square – Decompositions: Volume Number One (Gatepost Recordings)
This isn’t technically a 2013 album; the band released it on the winter solstice of 2012, thereby basically ensuring that it would not receive significant coverage pretty much anywhere. (If you are in a band: Do not release your album during year-end-list season.) But because it’s their first full-length album since their great 2004 debut, As The Roots Undo, and since it never got its day in the sun when it came out, it merits a spot on this list. I have a thing for ambitious heavy bands, and it doesn’t get any more ambitious than these guys — the songs carom frantically between hardcore, grind, post-rock, screamo (of the intense ‘skramz’ variety), and weird vocal rounds. Sometimes the band redlines into a gibberishy blur, but even these moments can be unpacked and appreciated with some patience. That’s how it goes with albums as maniacally inventive as Decompositions: It exacts a price of time and effort, but it rewards you for paying it in equal measure.
5. Occultist – Death Sigils (Primitive Ways)
Richmond, VA has been home to one of America’s best metal scenes for decades, the birthplace to bands ranging from GWAR to Lamb Of God to Pig Destroyer to Municipal Waste to great newer acts like Windhand, Inter Arma, Cough, and Bastard Sapling. Occultist are among the city’s youngest bands, yet you can hear a history of metal in their music. It’s based in roiling, primal blackened crust, but every song on their debut LP, Death Sigils, has anthemic, melodic hooks with NWOBHM DNA, and the deft playing of guitarists Ken T. and Jim R. (no last names here) owes a lot to classic thrash and even early death metal. For her part, vocalist Kerry Z is a frenetic fire-breathing punk screamer who punctuates these songs with big vocal hits a la Tom G. Warrior. (She trades off occasionally with one of the guys in the band, who does a guttural death-doom bellow, giving the whole thing a Jeff Walker/Bill Steer quality.) The song I chose to include below, “Iron Distort,” opens Death Sigils. It’s not the best showcase of the band’s impressive chops (check out the rest of the album for that) but I just love that chorus.
4. Sarke – Aruagint (Indie Recordings); Nocturno Culto’s Gift Of Gods – Receive (Peaceville)
Nocturno Culto’s primary band, Darkthrone, were responsible for one of 2013’s best albums, The Underground Resistance, but Culto also took part in two other noteworthy projects this year. In September we got Aruagint, the third album from Sarke, the band masterminded by Thomas Bergli (Khold, Tulus, ex-Old Man’s Child), for which Culto sings. Then, in late October, Peaceville released Receive, the debut EP from Culto’s solo endeavor Gift Of Gods. The two bands are notably distinct, for obvious reasons: Sarke’s punky, pubby black ‘n’ roll is overseen by Bergli, with Culto only contributing vocals; meanwhile, Culto reportedly spent years putting together Receive, on which he plays every instrument. But both records deal in different strains of the same celebratory trad-minded metal that Darkthrone delivered with such insane glee on The Underground Resistance. The YouTube embed below includes all of Receive, but if you’re in a hurry, I encourage you to scroll ahead to 14:41, to hear Culto’s cover of “Looking For An Answer,” by ’80s Swedish hair-metal obscurities Universe. Culto’s version is great front to back, but what makes it especially gripping is Culto’s clean, textured, melodic vocal, an approach I don’t recall hearing from him in the past, and something I’d love to hear him do more of in the future. Sarke will perform an exclusive U.S. gig at Maryland Deathfest 2014, which will mark the first time Culto has ever played in the States. There are dozens of reasons to be excited about MDF, but that should probably be pretty close to the top of the list.
3. Sandrider – Godhead (Good To Die)
I wrote about Sandrider here and here, but due to bad timing, we never covered them in the Black Market, which I regret. The band’s fucking great sophomore album, Godhead, came out in late November, and if I’d had more time with it, I can pretty confidently say it would have been somewhere on our list of the year’s best metal albums, and frankly, I would have had it somewhere on my ballot of the year’s best albums, period. That’s because it’s not always metal, exactly — generous sections of Godhead strongly recall noise-rock gods like the Jesus Lizard and Mclusky, and even at its metal-est, Godhead is more Kyuss or High On Fire than, say, Gorgoroth. Still, heavy music is heavy music, and Godhead is one of the heaviest records I heard this year. The Sandrider song I initially wrote about for Stereogum, “Scalpel,” is the band at their fastest and most pugilistic; to contrast, below, I chose to share Godhead‘s opening track, “Ruiner,” which is a sludgy, slow-building circle pit of guitar skronk, shotgun-kicking rhythm, and monstrous riffs that get bigger and more enveloping as the song reaches its magnificent climax.
2. Bombus – The Poet And The Parrot (Century Media)
Bombus feel like sort of an outlier here — we covered them in the Black Market and they’re signed to metal’s biggest label, Century Media, meaning they weren’t exactly overlooked by us, and there’s no reason they should have been overlooked by others. Yet somehow, they were. Like Norway’s Kvelertak, Sweden’s Bombus are spiritual descendants of the great Turbonegro, playing riff-y, bombastic, mid-tempo metal that is meant to be enjoyed with friends and beer (or, at least, while on the treadmill). It’s the type of music that, I think, metal needs more of, delivering the same fist-waving, head-banging thrills of primogenitors like Motörhead or Poison Idea. It’s accessible and unpretentious, but neither doltish nor arch. Since the late ’80s, metal has been sort of self-conscious about being portrayed as party music, growing ever more evil (or technically inclined) to distance itself from the good-time hard rock of Poison and Mötley Crüe, and later, the bar-rousing grunge of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden (and the post-grunge/pseudo-metal inspired by those bands). But metal is, at its core, celebratory music — Valhalla, remember, is a beer hall. And Bombus’ roaring anthems would provide an apt soundtrack for such a feast.
1. Cloud Rat – Moksha (Halo Of Flies)
I first heard Cloud Rat in November, when my friend Kim played them on a podcast for which she was being interviewed, and immediately, I felt like I had slept on something pretty notable. In fact I had! The Michigan band released their sophomore LP, Moksha, in January, on the excellent Milwaukee-based indie Halo Of Flies. Cloud Rat are nominally a grindcore band, but their sound is so rich and varied that it’s hard to find any label that sticks: You can hear some tough-guy hardcore in here, some HM2-core, some screamo, some noise-spazz stuff, but there’s almost a lushness, or vastness, to the sound that I can’t place; it feels utterly at odds with the brutality, but it makes everything hit that much harder, especially the white-knuckled screams of frontwoman Madison (again, no last names). There’s one song on Moksha‘s A-side (“Infinity Chasm”) that sounds like Yo La Tengo circa Painful until it goes thermonuclear for the last 30 or so seconds. Rather than single out any individual song, I chose to share below all of Moksha’s B-side: It’s only 16 minutes total; the first three songs are my three favorite songs on the album and they run into one another as if they were one song anyway; and then, the fourth song is a cover of Neil Young’s “The Needle And The Damage Done.” You should listen to all of it, and then go listen to the rest of it. Moksha is one of the best metal albums of 2013, and even though I got to it late, I’m glad I didn’t miss it altogether. You shouldn’t miss it, either.