The 50 Best Metal Albums Of 2013
In our May Premature Evaluation of Deafheaven’s Sunbather, I compared the album to Agalloch’s 2010 LP, Marrow Of The Spirit. In my opinion, Marrow is the best metal album of the millennium (so far), the apotheosis of what had also been, I believed, the best metal year of the millennium (so far) — perhaps a supernova moment for modern metal, in fact. The genre enjoyed very fine, well-above-average years in 2011 and 2012, too (and I presided over lists here and here attesting to just that), but they felt to me like the slow descent from the peak of Kilimanjaro. As of May, I believed 2013 would also fail to match the heights of 2010, but I was excited and encouraged just the same, by a lot of the records I was hearing, but in that moment, especially so by Deafheaven. “Sunbather is not a better album than Marrow Of The Spirit,” I wrote, “but it is the most successfully ambitious album to emerge from the wreckage left behind by Marrow.”
But as the year progressed, I found myself almost overwhelmed by the volume of truly extraordinary new releases vying for my attention: from new bands like Inter Arma and Lycus and Vattnet Viskar and Bölzer, as well as established acts like Gorguts and Skeletonwitch and Aosoth and Darkthrone. On September 17, Windhand’s Soma was awarded Stereogum Album Of The Week honors (the third metal album in 2013 to achieve that status, following Kvelertak’s Meir in March and Kylesa’s Ultraviolet in May). Also released that same day were outstanding new records from Carcass, SubRosa, Grave Miasma, Wolvserpent, Pinkish Black, Grave, and Ulcerate. It might have been the single-best release week for metal ever. It was on that day, I think, that I realized 2013 had surpassed 2010 as the best metal year of the millennium (so far). And from there, the stakes only got higher. Over the next few months, bands like Inquisition, In Solitude, Oranssi Pazuzu, and Castevet released records that could easily vie for Metal Album Of The Year honors. It was, by any definition, a boom time. It was an embarrassment of riches.
The Year That Was produced a few capital-E Events, some via bands that brought us the year’s best albums — such as Deafheaven and their aforementioned Sunbather — and some others that merely made the year’s best albums look better by comparison. Among the latter group was Infestissumam, the disappointing sophomore album from Swedish opera-metallers Ghost B.C. That band’s fantastic 2010 breakout debut, Opus Eponymous, was such a terrific smash that Infestissumam would have been a big deal (and a big letdown) even if it weren’t the band’s first release on major label Warner Bros., with whom Ghost B.C. signed for the insanely exorbitant reported sum of $750,000 last May — but that fact did add additional depths to the album’s narrative arc. Another high-profile dud was 13, the Rick Rubin-produced Black Sabbath album, the first new work in 35 years from a Sabbath lineup featuring original members Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, and Geezer Butler. Ultimately, though, 13 was more notable for the band’s choice to exclude original drummer Bill Ward from the project than it was for its songs, which were flat and forgettable. Both those albums arrived with great fanfare (and extended tours, and in the case of Ghost, um … a butt plug), but were met with mixed reviews. Neither was included on our list, and neither would have been on this list if it collected the 100 best metal albums of 2013 instead of only the 50 best. Neither was bad, exactly, but both were badly overcooked, and over-covered, and in the best metal year of the millennium (so far), they were exceedingly poor ambassadors for the genre.
Another pair of Events — these yielding much better results — were the highly publicized returns of ancient death metal legends Gorguts and Carcass, both of whom released their first new albums in 2013 after absences of 12 years and 17 years, respectively. Both represent not just successful comebacks, but artistic and psychic triumphs. Gorguts effectively ceased to exist after the 2002 suicide of drummer Steve MacDonald. The band’s mastermind and only core member, Luc Lemay, retired the name and announced he was leaving music to focus on his work as a self-taught furniture maker. But in 2008, Lemay hooked up with a handful of musicians whose careers he had helped to inspire — Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston (both of Dysrhythmia; Marston also of Krallice), and John Longstreth (of Dim Mak and Origin) — and reclaimed the Gorguts name. That version of the band spent five years playing together and working on new material before finally releasing Colored Sands this past September, and it was, at once, a landmark.
Carcass, meanwhile, broke up in 1996, only three years after releasing one of the most important and most successful death metal albums of all time, Heartwork, but several months before releasing one of the most reviled death metal albums of all time, Swan Song. Secondary guitarist Mike Amott had quit the band soon after Heartwork, and primary guitarist Bill Steer sort of admitted he should have done the same thing, as he was no longer interested in playing heavy metal (hence Swan Song). Bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker and drummer Ken Owen started a new band, Blackstar, playing hard rock; Steer formed a blues-based rock band called Firebird. In 1999, Owen suffered a brain hemorrhage, ending his musical career. But in 2007, a reunited Carcass built around Steer and Walker started playing select headlining dates internationally. Six years later, they went into the studio, dug up some old unused riffs, and on September 17, 2013, released Surgical Steel — perhaps the best album of their genre-defining career.
The returns of Gorguts and Carcass also tie into one of the year’s other major Events — although it’s more of a capital-T Trend — the bold resurgence of death metal. Most of metal’s great successes in recent years have been black metal-derived (such as Agalloch, and Wolves In The Throne Room, and Krallice …) or sludge-derived (Mastodon, Baroness, High On Fire …), or doom-derived (YOB, Pallbearer, Witch Mountain …), but in 2013, raw, brutal, ugly, uncool death metal ruled. There were the awakened gods (again: Carcass, Gorguts), the technical masters (Ulcerate, Wormed), the old-school originals (Immolation, Autopsy) and revivalists (Vastum, Entrails), as well as the entire “cavern-core” microgenre, which was most prominently represented by England’s amazing Grave Miasma, but included dozens of other bands playing dank, suffocated, ambient death metal. That’s not to say the genre was invisible in years prior to 2013 — or even that other metal genres flagged in comparison — but in 2013, death metal was a more dominant force than it had been since … well, probably since 1993, the year Carcass released Heartwork.
The final Event demanding inclusion here is a deeply sad one: the loss of Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who passed away on May 2, of liver failure, at the age of 49. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hanneman was one of modern metal’s prime movers. He wrote nearly all Slayer’s best-known (and best) songs, including (but by no means limited to) “Raining Blood,” “Die By The Sword,” “South Of Heaven,” “War Ensemble, and — perhaps most notably — “Angel Of Death,” arguably the single most important song in the history of extreme metal. I can’t count the number of concerts I attended in 2013 at which Hanneman was paid tribute by the band on stage, nor can I count the number of lovely remembrances and eulogies I read in the days after Hanneman’s death. Two of those were written by my good friend (and occasional Stereogum contributor) Justin Norton, who wrote Hanneman’s obituary for the great metal magazine Decibel, and soon afterward, penned the cover story for Decibel’s Hanneman tribute issue. I was especially moved by — and honored to publish on Stereogum — Doug Moore’s eulogy to Hanneman, which beautifully illustrated Hanneman’s influence and legacy.
Doug was also involved with one of my personal favorite metal events (lowercase-e) of 2013: the launch of Stereogum’s new metal column, the Black Market, which he, Aaron Lariviere, Wyatt Marshall, and I kicked off in February, and produced on a once-monthly basis thereafter. I certainly don’t think our work here played a role in making 2013 the best metal year of the millennium (so far), but it was a joy to cover that year so closely, with such good friends. It was a greater joy still to connect with a readership that seemed to appreciate the column, and heavy music, and an opportunity to discuss heavy music on Stereogum. Throughout 2013, I was overwhelmed by the response to the Black Market. For logistical reasons, the column fell into limbo for the month of October (and technically the month of November), and during that hiatus, I was contacted on a near-daily basis by readers, through a host of channels (email, Twitter, Stereogum’s comment section) asking after the column and its future. I shared all that correspondence with Aaron, Wyatt, and Doug, and I can say without qualification that we were, to a man, humbled and moved.
This list of the 50 Best Metal Albums Of 2013 was initially intended to serve as the November edition of the Black Market, but for purposes of editorial consistency, it’s running in the second week of December, and for purposes of archival consistency, it’s not branded as “The Black Market.” But for the many readers who reached out to us, I want to make perfectly clear that this is the Black Market — same authors, same process — and assure you, too, that going forward, the column will run on the same monthly schedule we established in 2013, starting with a new edition in the last full week of December.
This list was compiled and written by me, Aaron, Wyatt, and Doug, and though there were more than 50 albums we loved this year, more than 50 albums that deserve to be included here, I think this list does a pretty good job of capturing 2013 — the best metal year of the millennium (so far). I don’t think 2014 can possibly top this, but I wouldn’t bet against metal surprising me, surpassing my expectations.
Our list kicks off here. Thanks as always for coming out, caring about this stuff, and doing this with us in 2013.
Raspberry Bulbs - Deformed Worship (Blackest Ever Black)
About 50 seconds into Deformed Worship opener "Cracked Flesh," Raspberry Bulbs sets the tone for something unique to this list and, more broadly, metal in general: crusty, scuzzed-out, black metal-leaning punk with serious surf vibes. Raspberry Bulbs have always blurred genres, leaving some to throw 'em in with the murky lo-fi black metal legions -- frontman He Who Crushes Teeth's old band was Bone Awl, after all -- but with Deformed Worship, Raspberry Bulbs have stepped into their own pink-tinted lowlight. This is Raspberry Bulbs' most focused album to date, one that vomits forth 3-minute wonky rippers. The guitars on Deformed Worship are often synced-up with the bass for extra drive while RB pushes their atonal, stripped-down, and catchy-as-hell melodies. He Who Crushes Teeth's vocals are distant and distorted, and while they're clearly menacing, it's often hard to tell whether they are barking in rage and disgust or delight. What's certain, though, is that Deformed Worship is a hell of a fun listen. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Vastum - Patricidal Lust (20 Buck Spin)
With ties to numerous Bay Area bands -- partly due to the presence of dueling vocalists Leila Abdul-Rauf of Hammers of Misfortune and Daniel Butler of Acephalix -- Vastum carved a jagged path as much through lyrical subject matter as their actual sound: second album Patricidal Lust carries over the presiding obsession with sexual themes forced into a death metal context. What makes them truly special, then, is the depth of the material -- lyrics draw more from Georges Bataille's "erotism" than Chris Barnes' functionally retarded misogyny. Songs are constructed to draw strength from the source material: male and female vocals trade barbs over thick, pounding riffs, occasionally indulging in the timeless pleasure of a mid-tempo Hellhammer beat, while sporadic leads offer the illusion of release. Vastum walk a fine line between disgust and desire, offering the listener either option, but submerging us in lust, filth, and disease (to paraphrase Midnight) regardless. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Pinkish Black - Razed To The Ground (Century Media)
Pinkish Black's self-titled 2012 debut was a somber and disquieting no-wave take on doom metal. Its follow-up found the band going bigger and weirder still. Razed To The Ground is heavier, more melodic, and more captivating than the band's excellent 2012 release. It shifted from grinding, atonal, primal industrial-goth to bleep-bloopy space-metal to something spacious, somber, and quite beautiful. It's a perfectly appropriate companion to hallucination-inducing bong sessions, but it's also really emotionally raw and immediate in ways that previous Pinkish Black material only hinted at. --Michael [LISTEN]
Wormed – Exodromos (Willowtip)
Weird, adventurous modern death metal had a banner year in 2013, and aside from one exception, this is my favorite example. Dumb on paper but genius in practice, Wormed use thrusters of pure shred to launch slam-happy brutal death metal through the techkinox wormhole and into the cosmos. --Doug [LISTEN]
Svart Crown - Profane (Listenable)
Want to induce headbanging? Have your band suddenly and violently change tempo or rhythmic feel. It's one of the oldest compositional tricks in the 'extreme' metal playbook; Slayer are masters of it. The gambit still works today, as Profane demonstrates. It's rarely surprising when Svart Crown wrench their blackened death metal through one of these shifts, but every time they do, utter neck wreckage ensues. It helps that the riffs and production are so great, but ultimately, Profane succeeds because of its grasp on dynamic fundamentals. These Frenchmen beat Immolation at their own game this year. --Doug [LISTEN]
Cara Neir - Portals To A Better, Dead World (Broken Limbs/Halo Of Flies)
For the last three or four years, black metal dominated the extreme-music landscape, but in September's Black Market, Wyatt mused on the question, "Is 2013 the year of death metal?" Looking back now, it probably was -- 2013 might have been the best year for death metal since 1993 -- but black metal didn't merely retreat into the shadows; it cross-pollinated, hybridized, became something else entirely. Many of this year's best quote-unquote black metal albums -- from Deafheaven's Sunbather to Castevet's Obsian to Vattnet Viskar's Sky Swallower to Raspberry Bulbs' Deformed Worship -- married that genre with one or more others (shoegaze, prog, post-rock, crust punk), and produced something pretty unique and undefinable in the process. Cara Neir is an experimental duo from Dallas, and their third LP, Portals To A Better, Dead World, is equal parts black metal, screamo, and math-core, without actually belonging to any of those categories. Like all the aforementioned albums, it disrespects and ignores boundaries, and challenges existing definitions of black metal. Also like those albums, it never lets its innovative tendencies get in the way of crushing, thrilling music. --Michael [LISTEN]
KEN Mode – Entrench (Season Of Mist)
KEN Mode pushed their record more aggressively than virtually any other heavy band this year (with maybe one exception ... more on that later). They spent just a few months of 2013 not touring, which befits a band whose name comes from a Hank Rollins quip about Black Flag's "kill everything now" approach to the road. Entrench is worthy of their efforts; it's all hard edges and cockeyed pivots. KEN Mode have been working in this vein for several albums now, but still, every new song by them feels like a nasty static shock. --Doug [LISTEN]
Yellow Eyes - Hammer Of Night (Sibir)
Yellow Eyes upped their game with their second full length, Hammer Of Night, an expansive atmospheric black metal beauty that has raised the band's profile in the US black metal landscape while clinging to lo-fi underground status. If there isn't a New York black metal sound, there is at the very least a certain group of bands around these parts that play in a school whose most well-known pupil would be Krallice, I'm talking ambitious atmospheric black metal that is layered thick and overlaid with near-constant warbling guitars. Yellow Eyes nails this style by crafting songs that are as gorgeous as they are gritty and that don't top the 7-minute mark -- a big relief for the 10-minute-plus road-weary among us. Hammer Of Night puts Yellow Eyes among the top of the NYC black metal scene. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Vuyvr – Eiskalt (Throatruiner )
Given that Vuyvr are composed of survivors from talented bands scuppered by underexposure, it kinda sucks that their debut LP Eiskalt is one of the most underrated black metal albums of the year. Scrappy and mean at times but surprisingly intimate at others, Eiskalt paints elaborate portraits with a bare few shades of black and grey. Don't miss this one. --Doug [LISTEN]
Dressed In Streams - ST/Azad Hind (Handmade Birds/Colloquial Sound)
Dressed in Streams might be America's best-kept black metal secret, and it's certainly one of black metal's most unique acts, DIS is the project of an anonymous Grand Rapids musician(s?) who is inspired by World War II-era India and plays psychedelic, synth-blasting atmospheric black metal that's as beastly as it is gorgeous. What a mouthful, but what a band. Dressed In Streams' songs are long, epic affairs that surf an ever-cresting wave of trilling guitar triumph, where raspy screams are drowned under layers-upon-layers of thick noise haze. Synths soar nearly constantly in the back, more like lasers than anything else. Leave it to Colloquial Sound Recordings, at this point probably metal's premier cassette-releasing label, to dig up these gems that were later rereleased by another of metal's finest labels, Handmade Birds, as a double EP. Dressed In Streams plays outsider metal with an absolutely immersive otherworldly aesthetic, yet there's still mainstream appeal -- quite a feat. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Hail Of Bullets – III: The Rommel Chronicles (Metal Blade)
War-themed death metal (don't call it War Metal will always hold a special place in my heart. Bolt Thrower, or the greatest band in the history of great bands, invented the style --pairing working-class riffs and a lyrical obsession with war, weaponry, and warlike qualities such as honor, and pride. Even though they don't record any more, their singular contribution to the halls of death metal will forever reign. Anyway. Hail of Bullets frontman Martin van Drunen -- a legend in his own right, having fronted two of the best death metal bands of all time, Pestilence and Asphyx -- played in Bolt Thrower at one point, filling in for a tour but never actually recording. The time served must have rubbed off. Here, with death metal supergroup Hail of Bullets -- featuring other old men from Asphyx, Gorefest, and Thanatos -- he funnels his own obsession with history through the lens of Bolt Thrower and comes up roses. III is the third album to draw inspiration from World War II, this time focusing on the epically badass German tank commander Erwin Rommel. Dude apparently conspired to overthrow Hitler, who was his direct boss (imagine that, seriously), but opposed assassinating him for fear that, in death, Hitler would become a martyr for a lasting cause. Once Rommel's role in the conspiracy was uncovered, he was forced to kill himself with a cyanide pill lest his traitorous ways serve as a blow to German morale, adding endless mystique to his own legend and making him an oddly awesome choice of subject matter for a death metal record. This thing packs riffs, too. -- Aaron [LISTEN]
Aksumite - Return (Colloquial Sound)
Aksumite's been around for a couple of years at this point, bringing lo-fi black metal punk (as Aksumite puts it, "blood cult metal punk") to a devoted underground following that's snatched up the band's limited-edition tapes like they're going out of style (which they most certainly aren't, btw). Those fans knew something that a lot of people didn’t: Aksumite is totally unique -- and one of the best hardcore punk/metal bands operating. The band's named after and sings about a northeast African empire from the first millennium AD — a first for sure — and plays 3:30-or-under stripped-down stompers that go from chaotic to anthemic on a dime. Damian Master (also of A Pregnant Light) fronts the trio, riffing-out, hard, while releasing blood-curdling bellows. Aksumite's sound is organic — raw to the bone — and the three-piece rips and lurches as one. There's an interesting aesthetic here, one that's as big on punk pedigree as it is ancient crusading African warlord, if you can imagine that. A few months ago, Aksumite made their live debut at St. Vitus, Brooklyn’s metal venue of record, when they played the Invisible Oranges official CMJ showcase. They leveled the place. They brought this tape, Return, a collection of Aksumite's previously released sold-out demos. This one disappeared just as quickly as any other Aksumite release, but there's always Bandcamp. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
VHOL – VHOL (Profound Lore)
Supergroups involving members of active bands can be a dicey proposition, but VHOL are off to a roaring start. Guitarist John Cobbett (Hammers Of Misfortune, Ludicra) rounds up old comrades -- bassist Sigrid Sheie (HOM) and drummer Aesop Dekker (Ludicra, Agalloch) -- to back up the wild-man vocals of YOB frontman Mike Scheidt. Together, they plunge into the analog-toned void between black metal, thrash, and traditional '70s riffage. --Doug [LISTEN]
Woe – Withdrawal (Candlelight)
By this point Woe are practically considered veterans of the burgeoning New York City black metal landscape, and they've anchored their place in the city's often experimental scene with a damn good, straightforward-but-modern take on the genre. Withdrawal came out early in the year, so perhaps some might need a reminder that this album, Woe's best, destroyed when it arrived. Woe excels with riff-forward songs set to blast, and mastermind Chris Grigg has a knack for crafting catchy, groove-rich breaks. As cool as it is to have so many bands experimenting with weird takes on black metal, it's just as exciting to hear a fresh take on the classic sound. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Cult Of Fire - मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान (Iron Bonehead)
Dabbling in folk music traditions is hardly a fresh trick, especially in black metal. As with so many acts in the genre, Cult Of Fire's genius lies in their execution. They're higher-concept than some, going as far afield as the Indian Subcontinent for their inspiration. Their vocal drones and sitar lines are a salutary red herring, though -- this is primarily a powerful exercise in classic, riff-oriented black metal. --Doug [LISTEN]
Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats - Mind Control (Rise Above)
Whenever a band chooses to resurrect a non-contemporary style of music and wear it as a mantle, their success invariably depends on one thing: authenticity. Some bands throw on bell-bottoms and reek of bullshit before you even hear a note. Others just have it. Uncle Acid certainly look to the past without shame, but they do it quietly, focusing on the art rather than the outfits. You never stop to question whether the songs are actually old, because they reproduce the spirit just as well as the signifiers. The songs are solid gold to boot, blending the spooky side of early Black Sabbath with a dose of brown-acid psychedelia. Someone with too much time on their hands could probably write a thesis on what it takes to transcend imitation and arrive as a fully formed tribute to the past, but frankly, who cares? We hear sweet riffs and we nod along. Nothing else matters. If retro-horror maestro Ti West ever decides to make a prequel to The House Of The Devil , he needs these guys on the soundtrack. In the meantime, we get Mind Control all to ourselves. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Sadgiqacea – False Prism (Candlelight)
More bands should be this inventive. Sadgiqacea of the unpronounceable name -- or as I like to call them, the Sacagawea of kitchen-sink sludge -- manage something of a minor miracle here on their debut LP, swallowing every influence in their path and shitting out a cohesive brick of gold. As a journey, False Prism travels far and wide: they cover more musical ground than most festival lineups. Progressive sludge veers into tribal drone, only to swerve off on a tremolo-picked tangent before tearing a hole in the sky with some volcanic doom. And they do it with such seamless fluidity you have to lean back just to take it all in. Some of the strongest moments appear in the connective tissue: clean, black-metal-sounding arpeggiated minor chords ease the passage of much heavier riffs, but it's the delicacy of the arrangement that sticks with you. Psychedelic sludge isn't exactly new, but it's rarely this enthralling. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Gris - À L'âme Enflammée, L'äme Constellée... (Sepulcral Productions)
It's a shame that more people didn't hear À l'âme enflammée, l'äme constellée... this year, and for that matter, it's a shame that more people aren't familiar with Gris, the two-man atmospheric/folk/orchestral black metal band from Quebec. The songs on À l'âme enflammée, l'äme constellée... are, first and foremost, gorgeous, and, secondly, perhaps more intricate than anything else that came out this year. They are orchestral in the sense that it would take a small orchestra to play them. Each of the four 10-minute plus "cornerstone" tracks on Gris is preceded by a string (violins, guitars, cellos) intro track; these give way to some of the most massive, epic songs this genre's seen in some time. À l'âme enflammée, l'äme constellée... is what would happen if Hollywood let some black metal wizard with a degree from Juilliard soundtrack a Braveheart/Lord Of The Rings crossover universe mash-up. For as gorgeous as À l'âme enflammée, l'äme constellée... can be, the album doesn't skip out on the riffs one bit. À l'âme enflammée, l'äme constellée... rips, hard, and the vocal performance deserves special note ‚Äî Gris vocalist Icare doesn't scream or rasp, he howls in anguish. À l'âme enflammée, l'äme constellée... is just so damn ambitious, and Gris nails the delivery with precision and force. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Fyrnask - Eldir Nótt (Temple Of Torturous)
One-man black metal acts are, generally speaking, not the most outgoing folks, and as such, covering (or even discovering) those projects can be unusually difficult. Take, for example, Fyrnask: the musical identity of a German guy named Fyrnd -- just Fyrnd, which Google-translates (from Icelandic) to "statute barred" or "archaic quality." In September, Fyrnd released his second album as Fyrnask, Eldir Nótt, which followed a 2011 LP, Bluostar. Forget anything like touring; he'll probably never even show his face in photographs (this is as much as you'll get). Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the mystery -- especially considering the degree to which social networks have eliminated any wall between artist and audience -- but with almost no earthly or virtual presence to speak of, it can become awfully easy to lose a band like Fyrnask in a consonant-heavy swirl of other one-man black metal bands: Fyrdsman, Frykt, and so forth (fyrth?) ad infinitum. And that would be a fucking sin because Eldir Nótt is an absolute revelation. Like Wolves In The Throne Room or Altar Of Plagues circa Mammal, the album feels like a thing of nature itself: like Big Sky country in pre-dawn hours, like a flash flood in the desert, like walking headlong into a blizzard. It is, at points, quiet and placid, but even in its fury it feels like a spectacle to behold rather than a flurry of blows by which to be beaten down or charged up. It's got a rich, full, powerful sound, similar to other obsessive one-man auteurs such as Blut Aus Nord or later Leviathan. It's just one of the year's best pure black metal releases, period, and irrespective of its author's intentions, it demands to be noticed. --Michael [LISTEN]
Noisem - Agony Defined (A389)
If you've been following the metal press this year, you've heard of Noisem, the Baltimore thrash five-piece whose members' ages combined barely enter octogenarian territory. They've been buzzed about for the age thing, but also for the fact that they're really good. Noisem's debut, Agony Defined, showcases a brand of thrash that is no-fucks-given rage, punishingly fast but kept on the rails. The technical chops are there, but it's the earnest enthusiasm that bleeds through the speakers. I caught Noisem at St. Vitus a few months ago to see what the hype was about and encountered five hair windmills thrashing around like maniacs. They were LOUD. They were pissed off (though they seemed like perfect gentleman offstage). And, most importantly, they were great. They held a group of (relatively) old-ass dudes (and a few ladies, per usual) enthralled for their 30-or-so-minute ripper of a set. Thinking about how good they are already, it's scary to think how good they're going to be in ten, even five years. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
TOAD - Endless Night (Comfort Point Records)
TOAD came out of (seemingly) nowhere this year to burn the fucking house down, and they did it with their own brand of black 'n' roll that's as stylish as it is abrasive. Big, cattywampus riffs and dual guitar dueling drive TOAD's all-too-short first full-length, Endless Night, a tour de force that blends retro psych, death metal, and good old fashioned metal to awesome effect. Note that organ, not an afterthought or an effect, but an integral part of the aggressive yet playful songs that seem to grin as much as they grimace. The anthem here is "Howling House," where group vocals go back-and-forth with front man Andy Labarbera's throaty bark, but any one of Endless Night's five tracks could be the album's single. Endless Night is arguably the catchiest and most adrenaline-pumping album of the year, and it's certainly one of the best. --Wyatt [LISTEN
Ruins Of Beverast - Blood Vaults : The Blazing Gospel Of Heinrich Kramer (Ván Records)
Alexander von Meilenwald's Ruins Of Beverast has been one of black metal's best-kept secrets, a one-man master class in dark atmosphere and epic riffs. With Blood Vaults, Meilenwald waded into some harrowing territory: the concept album. Adhering to the "Go big or go home" philosophy, Blood Vaults is a concept album that follows Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer at work. The commitment to storytelling means that Blood Vaults largely forsakes a traditional album format -- there are lengthy ambient scene-setting breaks (something Meilenwald's always been fond of), and songs are regularly interrupted by spoken-word bits from a cast of characters that includes what sounds like a demon, our pal Heinrich, and a witch. While the tracks on Blood Vaults aren't always typical "songs," Blood Vaults has more than its share of serious fucking black metal grandeur, for instance, track 3, "Malefica," is an achievement that anyone that calls him or herself a fan of the genre should hear. Guitars are thick, vocal delivery is purely demonic, and cryptic accents, a plucked guitar here, a growl from the depths there, a chanting choir, are the work of a master pushing the limits of black metal. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Cultes Des Ghoules - Henbane (Hells Headbangers)
Every note of Henbane sounds like it was dipped in shit -- from the rumbling, bumbling bass guitar to the basement-shriek vocals -- yet some kind of dark energy keeps this thing alive. What might be bog-standard embryonic black metal in the hands of a lesser bunch of buffoons instead straddles the fine line between kvlt and camp as well as anyone. As evidence, I offer this press photo, in which aptly named vocalist "Mark Of The Devil" locks lips with a human skull, despite the apparent absence of the dead thing's lips. Meanwhile, the music, as sloppy as it is, conjures an actual atmosphere of menace. Spooky, inchoate riffs gather power and swirl into something surprisingly intense ... until our man Mark creeps in and cackles like a maniac, dragging us back to the realm of the absurd. Henbane makes as little sense as most low-budget horror movies -- for whatever reason I picture this scene from Basket Case every time I hear it -- but it succeeds for the same exact reason. Hells Headbangers, one of the best labels running, excels at this stuff. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Agrimonia - Rites Of Separation (Southern Lord)
When the first wave of American musicians got their hands on the "Gothenburg Sound" -- the style of crunchy, fuzzy, melodic death metal made famous by a million Swedish bands from Entombed to Arch Enemy to In Flames -- they fused it with screamo, created a genre called "metalcore," did brisk business at Hot Topic, and forced upon us deep cultural fissures that can never be healed. Not since Warrant had metal been so embarrassing to the metalhead! But over the past few years, the Gothenburg sound has been reclaimed by the likes of American producer/Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, who has found new life in the HM2 pedal working with artists such as Trap Them, Kvelertak, and Black Breath, among many others. Still, it's nice to hear actual Swedes doing something with the sound that isn't either a retread or a misstep. Agrimonia features Martin Larsson of death metal gods At The Gates and Pontus Redig of rad crust-metallers Martyrdod (both are also connected to Swedish crustpunks Skitsystem) playing a style of melodic metal that feels like it could not have been born anywhere but Gothenburg. In a good way! The band's third LP, Rites Of Separation, is cleaner and more expansive than anything produced by At The Gates or Martyrdod, but the sharp hooks sink deep, as the album varies styles and tempos, never losing direction or force. The vocals are delivered by Christina (no last name, apparently, per the band's quote-unquote bio), who guides the richly layered guitars with a harsh, blood-raising roar. --Michael [LISTEN]
Imperium Dekadenz - Meadows Of Nostalgia (Season Of Mist)
In all seriousness, friends: I know it's tempting to pass this over once you see the album cover. Stopping to imagine an actual meadow of nostalgia doesn't help, but we can probably write that off as a foible of ESL. Hear me out. Imperium Dekadenz specialize in gorgeous, widescreen grandeur -- playing epic black metal by way of Disintegration. Yet it's as if every element of their presentation is designed to downplay their actual sound, which is nothing short of huge: guitars arc and soar across a landscape of emotion, and the powerfully clear production could level a mountain or two. Melodic riffs and drawn out song structures allude to depressive black metal, a style more often played in bedrooms and drowned in cassette hiss, but Meadows sounds monumental thanks to a pristine mix and some surprisingly tasteful guitar heroics. Imagine Immortal playing a tearjerker with a straight face. It's funny to think how far black metal has come since its inception -- despite the presence of loud guitars, there's nothing truly raw here besides the abraded vocals. Instead we get a thing of beauty played at maximum volume, to maximum effect. (And they went and named it Meadows Of Nostalgia!) --Aaron [LISTEN]
Wolvserpent - Perigaea Antahkarana (Relapse)
Boise, Idaho duo Wolvserpent play a doomy derivation of drone, not black metal, but even so, the band does warrant some comparisons to Cascadia's finest USBM brands: Agalloch and (especially) the similarly lupine-monikered Wolves In The Throne Room. Like those bands, Wolvserpent deal in sky-spanning, marathon-length epics that are inspired by and invoke the American wilderness. Perigaea Antahkarana is Wolvserpent's second full-length, following 2010's two-song LP, Blood Seed. At five tracks, Perigaea Antahkarana is comparatively infinite, especially considering that four of those five songs exceed the 16-minute mark, and the whole thing clocks in right around 82 minutes total. But Wolvserpent fill that oceanic space with life, letting tracks build slowly, from nothing, hypnotically, so that you almost don't realize you've been transported from placid ambience to furious blast. And it really is transporting. You have my word: I would not ask you to spend almost an hour and a half of your life on a drone record if it wasn't fantastic. This one is really fucking fantastic. --Michael [LISTEN]
Vattnet Viskar - Sky Swallower (Century Media)
Last May, metal powerhouse Century Media Records signed New Hampshire's Vattnet Viskar on the combined strength of the band's 3-song 2012 debut EP, released via micro-indie Broken Limbs Recordings, and their live show. Both these presentations were startlingly powerful and assured, belying the band's relative youth. Both also, though, suggested tremendous untapped upside. It was an unexpected left turn from the label home of trad heavyweights like Deicide, Napalm Death, and Watain, but a welcome (and wise) one: Vattnet Viskar were seemingly born with fully formed big-league tools, yet their nuanced and bold approach to heavy music made them feel like a band ready to blaze trails, kick down doors. This past September, the band released their first full-length album, Sky Swallower, which provided an immediate reward (artistically, anyway) on Century Media's investment. Vattnet Viskar are nominally a black metal band, but that appellation captures only a fraction of their sound's massive scope. In many ways, they recall two great (and similarly undefinable) NYC bands: Krallice and Tombs. Sky Swallower is an album of athletic power and grace. When it is quiet, it is patient, placid, near-still; when it is heavy, it is as breathtaking as a skyscraper demolition. And the band's use of balance and tension to maximize the effects of those extremes is dazzling; it's a visceral experience. --Michael [LISTEN
Satan - Life Sentence (Listenable)
How many of you saw the Metallica movie? It's worth watching, especially since it comes loaded with nerdly delights for the metal faithful -- not the least of which was getting an IMAX 3D look at James Hetfield's battle jacket. Before I double-digress into a plot summary I'll just spit it out: James has a sick Satan patch on his breast pocket, proving our one time lord and metallic savior still has fantastic taste after all these years. Speaking of years: Satan released only two albums in the mid-'80s and were never hugely successful. But those records -- holy shit. They used lead guitars differently than anyone before or since, chasing circles around the song without succumbing to excess, launching off at strange, squirrelly angles only to return to fall in line with a vocal harmony. I could nerd out over the guitars forever: one song on the new record has a quick shred break that sounds like Richard Thompson covering Van Halen, wiry and fiery at the same time. One of the hallmarks of a good Satan song is that you never know where it's going -- bridges are unpredictable, choruses make no sense on paper but come alive on tape. The debut, Court In the Act , holds up as one of the best of the classic NWOBHM albums, on par with untouchables like the self-titled Angel Witch debut, but weirder and more inventive than most anything their peers were doing. After struggling for a few albums with a band name that never quite fit the music, they tried a few unsuccessful name changes before hanging it up. The various members went in different directions ; singer Brian Ross and drummer Sean Taylor split off to play in Blitzkrieg, and guitarist Steve Ramsey and bassist Graeme English started a little band called Skyclad. The legacy of Satan lay dormant for years, until now. Life Sentence skirts every expectation for a reunion record by continuing exactly where they left off, with the entire original lineup showing up smarter and sharper than ever, with a stronger batch of songs. Purists will argue, because that's what purists do, but Life Sentence is not just the best traditional metal album of the year, it's probably the best album of Satan's career. Follow that point to its conclusion and this may well be one of the best NWOBHM releases ever. Yet, like everything that came before, nowhere near enough people will hear it. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Kvelertak – Meir (Roadrunner)
Outside of maybe Ghost B.C. and/or Deafheaven, no heavy band's sophomore album came into 2013 with more anticipation or conversation than Meir, from Norwegian black 'n' rollers Kvelertak. The album's terrific first single, "Bruane Brenn," only further stoked that excitement, but Meir more than delivered on its initial promise. Meir feels less anxious than the band's self-titled 2010 debut, more confident (both were recorded with Convege guitarist Kurt Ballou). Again, Kvelertak blend their world of influences -- black metal, D-beat hardcore, classic rock -- but here, that blend feels more organic, and quite a bit more epic. Occasionally, that manifests itself in songs of expanded length -- the album's second half featured three consecutive tracks that exceed the six-minute mark -- but more often than not, the band keep things compact, building upward, not outward. Album opener "Apenbaring" raises my pulse and sharpens my focus in much the same way Fucked Up's "Son The Father" did on The Chemistry Of Common Life -- it's a gateway into a consciousness-altering experience, but just walking through that gateway is a hell of a ride. Much of Meir recalls Fucked Up, in fact. Like that band, Kvelertak bring together melody, speed, and volume in totally new and entrancing ways, producing a stunning display of fury and might, but something blissful and joyous, too. The album's eponymous closing track is one of the catchiest songs of 2013; it offers an exit from the thrilling universe created by Meir, but it's really an invitation to re-enter, to again get carried away, lost, delivered. --Michael [LISTEN]
Darkthrone - The Underground Resistance (Peaceville)
Along with Mayhem and Burzum, Darkthrone created and defined second-wave black metal. But the band hasn't really dealt in that style since giving birth to it. The last few Darkthrone albums -- starting with 2007's F.O.A.D. -- have been mid-tempo, meat-and-potatoes riff-fests, with drummer Fenriz taking over more vocal duties (borrowing notably from King Diamond). The Underground Resistance continues down this path, but it also crests to an apex: The Underground Resistance is not so much retro-minded as it is elemental; it is a library of music crammed into six explosive songs. Fenriz's vocals -- especially when he reaches for the falsetto -- appear to invite LOLs, but they're no more ridiculous than any such vox from any trad-metal screamer, and after a few spins, the novelty is gone and all that remains is their immediacy and humanity. The Underground Resistance sometimes feels like a lost treasure, an obscurity from another era that has somehow turned up to be shared and discussed among metal nerds; it sometimes feels like the ur-metal album: an essential document from which the genre was born. Lots of recent bands -- including the Fenriz-approved likes of Ghost B.C. and Christian Mistress -- have adopted a retro-chic approach to writing and production, trafficking in sounds more appropriate for 1983 than 2013, but Darkthrone's rich, resonant new album belongs distinctly to the moment, as much a statement on the here-and-now as a history lesson. --Michael [LISTEN]
Altar Of Plagues – Teethed Glory & Injury (Profound Lore)
Musicians are highly sensitive to influence from their physical environs. New digs can radically change a band's vision, as it did for Altar Of Plagues. Main man James Kelly moved house from rural Cork to London, forcing him to shift his creative process mostly onto his computer. As a result, Altar Of Plagues largely dropped the pastoral post-black metal approach they had previously relied upon in favor of jarring, mechanistic compositions. Gears grind and bones break with each out-of-nowhere change in tempo or feel, but well-placed static washes keep the larger organism functioning. This is one of the most adventurous metal albums of the year; shame that Altar Of Plagues dissolved almost immediately afterward. --Doug [LISTEN]
Anagnorisis - Beyond All Light (Self-Released)
Anagnorisis' Beyond All Light might seem an unlikely contender for best black metal album of the year. The band's from Kentucky (big shout out to fellow Louisvillian black metaller Panopticon, whose Austin Lunn formed Anagnorisis before leaving to go solo, again, with Panopticon), and it's been six years since their first full-length which, I think it's safe to say, passed a lot of people by. So Anagnorisis came from relative obscurity to blow us all away with Beyond All Light, a masterpiece of epic proportions that breaks a lot of the rules that somehow have come to shape modern US black metal. Opener "Eulerian Path" shows Anagnorisis' ability to both blast and brood with precision, and you'll notice something else: keyboards. Anagnorisis isn't afraid to skew symphonic, and keys play an integral role across Beyond All Light. Along with layers upon layers of guitars and a near-constant double kick, synths create a foundation that is both triumphant and sorrowful. A violin, mandolin and even a sax make appearances, too -- not very Black Metal these days, but damn if it doesn't work. An incredible vocal performance by also-bassist Zachary Kerr, whose distorted screams grate over gorgeous guitar leads, is a Jekyll and Hyde for the ears and deserves special recognition. "Abyss" shows Anagnorisis can slow it down, and "Forever Night" shows the band knows how to write one hell of a closer, building and playing with tension on the way to an epic culmination. With Beyond All Light, Anagnorisis leapfrogged to the top ranks of American black metal. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Various Artists - SVN OKKLT Compilation (Fallen Empire)
Not too many mp3 download blogs -- you know, the kind that for the most part were obliterated when Mediafire got thrown under the bus (RIP Cosmic Hearse) -- get their own physical, true-to-touch compilations. SVN OKKLT did, and it took the blog's two operators almost two years to make it happen. The wait was worth it. For their compilation, SVN OKKLT reached out to a collection of their brightest alumni: English whirlwind of fury Axis Of Light; the incomparable Indian-themed, cosmic and atmospheric Dressed In Streams; lo-fi soundscape genius Xothist; and punked-out noise manipulators Witch In Her Tomb, to name just a few. These bands are obscure and lo-fi and their material is mostly available on hard-to-find limited-run cassettes. SVN OKKLT's compilation did a huge service to the under-underground and brought all these disparate gems to one double cassette (and pay-what-you-will download). When I had the privilege of premiering a stream of the SVN OKKLT Compilation over on Invisible Oranges, I called SVN OKLLT a "treasure trove of obscure lo-fi black and death metal mp3s tucked into a dusty corner of the web." It still is. For those looking for a good place to get a handle of the underbelly of Internet black metal, SVN OKKLT remains as valuable a resource as ever -- and their download links still work. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Nails - Abandon All Life (Southern Lord)
I wrote about Nails' second album in the very first edition of the Black Market way back in February, and I'm still spinning this thing on the regular. Even if you hate the band it's impossible to talk about them without sounding hyperbolic, so I won't try: Abandon All Life is the "heaviest" record of the year, without question. Nails serve up a master class in extremes: airless grind butts up against surly death and doom, and in the space between they sound something like Dismember playing hardcore. Paired with Kurt Ballou's angriest production to date, we get a record that feels painfully loud at any volume. When Rick Rubin cranked the mix on Death Magnetic to unlistenable levels, this is what he was aiming for. But despite all the disgusting noise, Nails are a quietly brilliant band, especially in the way they sequence their albums. Both sides of the LP close with a gut-busting slow song, granting release right before you tap out from all the blasting. At only 18 minutes, Abandon All Life does exactly what it needs to and gets the fuck out. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Lycus – Tempest (20 Buck Spin)
Funeral doom, at its best, taps into something deeper than ordinary metal. These bands live and die by their ability to harness heavy emotion: sadness, longing, hopelessness, failure. It has a smothering effect -- the weight of slow, stagnant rhythm guitars with strains of Aeolian leads that hang in the air like mist -- it's all meant to drag you down, hit you where it hurts, and force you to feel something. One of my favorite, and least common, funeral doom tricks comes when a band flips the script, letting the clouds break for a split second (which in funeral doom time means, like, three minutes). For a fleeting moment you get a glimpse of something resembling hope, a flickering light, perhaps the possibility of escape -- and the feeling, the palpable sense of release, is monumental. It's that moment of cathartic victory right before everyone dies at the end of a Senecan tragedy -- awful, but somehow satisfying. Lycus achieves that here, painting in blood across a cosmic canvas. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Aosoth - IV : An Arrow In Heart (Agonia)
People usually reserve metaphors of strength and power for death metal, but Aosoth's black metal deserves them too. Listening to IV: An Arrow In Heart is like being crushed by a really catchy python -- the pressure they apply is gradual and oppressive, but thoroughly musical. Great production on this one, too; the snare sound is one of the year's best, despite the fact that it may not come from the hand of a human player. (The band does not credit anyone for drums on this album.) Rarely do 56 minutes pass so quickly. --Doug [LISTEN]
A Pregnant Light - Domination Harmony and Stars Will Fall [Self Release]
A Pregnant Light's Domination Harmony and Stars Will Fall were two of metal's catchiest releases this year. The pair of EPs, which were released on cassette first and as digital downloads later, hold a special place on this list -- they don't really sound like anything else we're featuring. Sure, there's black-metal blasting at A Pregnant Light's core, but the massive pop hooks and general punk-bred palette move A Pregnant Light a bit left of your typical metal band. APL is the project of Grand Rapids, Michigan's Damian Master (also of Aksumite) and this band has provided more reason for celebration with each release over its three-year, 11-EP existence. Domination Harmony and Stars Will Fall opened a new path for APL, though -- a self-fashioned "purple" one that embraces hummable melodies and clean vocals in addition to lo-fi maximum riffage and buried screams, spawning the no-fucks-given self-titled genre tag Purple Metal. A Pregnant Light was quietly defining a new type of American black metal all along, and with Domination Harmony and Stars Will Fall, APL has built on that vision to create music that is personal, pained, and just as heavy as anything Evil with a capital E. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Castevet - Obsian (Profound Lore)
Concision is something of a lost art in metal, which is a shame. Many of the genre's foundational albums -- Master Of Reality, Reign In Blood, Overkill -- are well under 40 minutes long. Castevet, too, understand the value of brevity. Obsian is only 36 minutes long, but it does not lack for content. It's among the densest metal albums of the year, not in terms of technicality or speed, but in terms of engaging compositional detail. The band's relentless push/pull songwriting and Colin Marston's painstaking production make Obsian a gem for late-night headphone listening. When it ends, push play and spin it again. You've got time. --Doug [LISTEN]
Bölzer - Aura (Iron Bonehead)
Celtic Frost aside, Switzerland hasn't historically been the biggest destination country on the European metal map, but while our attention has been focused elsewhere, Zurich's two-man band Bölzer has emerged fully formed with a vicious brand of blackened death metal unlike any other. Bölzer draws from a different palette than most, with songs that buzz with otherwordly weirdness at much as they rip, thanks in large part to a warbling guitar tone and keyboards that push out big atonal and symphonic blasts (I'm reminded a little of the incorrect chords on the skeleton organ in The Goonies). The vocal performance on Aura is excellent, too, with frontman KzR delivering both a deep and murky growl and desperate, clear cries. Listening to Aura is like entering a warped atmosphere, a drunken look through a kaleidoscope with a blast beat foundation. "Entranced By The Wolfshook" anchors the three-track EP, an all-too-short introduction to a band that has great things ahead -- after all, it's not just any band that gets booked near the top of the Maryland Deathfest 2014 lineup on the strength of a 3-track EP and a tape demo. --Wyatt [LISTEN]
Power Trip - Manifest Decimation (Southern Lord)
With killer contributions from young upstarts like Noisem, old but still kinda new upstarts like Iron Reagan, and even the Canadian psychopaths in Besieged, 2013 was a banner year for thrash -- despite the fact we're 25 years past the genre's best-by date. But in stomps Power Trip, emerging from the hardcore scene to deliver one of the best metal records of the year, handily taking the thrash crown for themselves by delivering what is, in essence, the perfect crossover album. Drawing on the spirit of classic crossover acts like Nuclear Assault and Cro-Mags, and lifting some untouchable riffing (but thankfully none of the vocal tics) from Vio-Lence, Manifest Decimation comes fit to burst with 'bangable riffs, all in a package so perfectly executed it makes most of their forebears sound puny (with the exception of those Vio-lence riffs -- endless respect). I wrote about "Murderer's Row" back in June, calling it "a pelvic thrust to the skull." Now I just call it "song of the year." --Aaron [LISTEN]
Grave Miasma - Odori Sepulcrorum (Profound Lore)
Of 2013's most-employed metal tropes, few were more popular than "cavern-core," the term used to describe a host of death metal bands who prized verite ambience over technique and/or structure, bands whose music sounded (and in fact often was) deliberately vast and abrasive to the point of near-total disfigurement. Perhaps no cavern-core-identified album got more press than Odori Sepulcrorum, the very long-awaited debut LP from England's Grave Miasma. But applying that microgenre distinction to Odori Sepulcrorum does a disservice to all parties: Where most cavern-core bands deal in a style that seeks to cloak in darkness the details of the actual music, Grave Miasma recorded Odori Sepulcrorum on vintage equipment at London's Orgone Studios (where Sweden's Ghost recorded their gorgeous-sounding debut, Opus Eponymous, by way of reference). And while Odori Sepulcrorum does prize sound above song, never does that sound distract from the performances on the record; instead, it provides a stark and stunning backdrop for Grave Miasma's unusual influences, song structures, and technical prowess. And while cavern-core will be forgotten by the this time next year, Odori Sepulcrorum will remain vital and enthralling for many years to come. --Michael [LISTEN]
Inter Arma - Sky Burial (Relapse)
It's increasingly common for metal fans to complain that there's nothing new under the sun -- that bands aren't coming up with new ideas, but just creatively recombining old ones. Maybe that's true. But if the results are this good, who cares? It's easy to pick out Inter Arma's component influences : Neurosis, Leviathan, early Mastodon, Pink Floyd, et cetera. These influences nonetheless form a remarkably consistent and distinctive whole on Sky Burial, replete with a gorgeous production, brainy songwriting, and my favorite vocal performance of the year. This band could, and should, get huge. (If they keep working as hard as they did in 2013, they probably will; they dueled with KEN Mode for the "most rabid road dog of 2013" award all year.) --Doug [LISTEN
SubRosa - More Constant Than The Gods (Profound Lore)
It's fun when a band takes a while to win you over. SubRosa's last album, No Help For The Mighty Ones, didn't do a ton for me -- it swung hard at every pitch, but whiffed on all but a few of them. This album, though, slaps several out of the park and a few more into the corners for dramatic triples. SubRosa is not a perfect band; guitarist/vocalist Rebecca doesn't always hit her target notes, and the songs run long (More Constant is almost 70 minutes). That's OK, though. SubRosa's tendency to strive against their limitations amplifies the emotional power of their compositions, which rumble along with a sorrowful momentum that their last batch of tunes often lacked. If you want a companion to commiserate over the sorry state of the world with, you couldn't do much better in 2013 than SubRosa. --Doug [LISTEN]
Windhand - Soma (Relapse)
In April, psychedelic doom quintet Windhand issued a split LP with fellow Richmond, VA residents Cough, Reflection Of The Negative, and if that had been Windhand's only 2013 release, they still would have likely found their name on this list. But in September, they bested that achievement with their sophomore LP, Soma, an album that is both ominous and inviting, pairing skyscraper-size guitars and the ghostly wail of frontwoman Dorthia Cottrell with sticky Southern riffs and melodies. It's got a lot in common with Pallbearer's Sorrow And Extinction, the album that topped our list of 2012's best metal albums, except where Pallbearer tend toward instrumental and structural complexity, Windhand favor a spare, churning drone, massive in size (both aural and temporal; album closer "Boleskin" clocks in at 30:30) but simple, focused, unflinching. It's not all assault -- "Evergreen" is as delicate and haunting as an early Low track -- but it's all deeply hypnotic and overwhelmingly powerful. --Michael [LISTEN]
In Solitude – Sister (Metal Blade)
Hype is a two-edged sword, no question. With it comes backlash, expectations, and what must be an unbearable amount of pressure. But it also presents a hell of an opportunity if one has the balls to grab it. In Solitude -- who recently graced the cover of Decibel magazine, and who released their third record in September, after coming to international attention on the strength of their last -- have no shortage of balls. One of the three modern bands to reach prominence playing what has been labeled "Occult Heavy Metal"(along with Ghost and the Devil's Blood), these guys hew closest to the source material from which the entire microgenre has sprung (we speak of Mercyful Fate, of course), though the new album, Sister, comes as a perfectly timed sidestep. Whereas Ghost's second album fell apart under its own weight, and the Devil's Blood gave up the ghost by imploding before their third record, In Solitude here take their sound and pull it all a little closer to the chest -- songs are darker but more intimate, the arrangements moodier but ultimately more rewarding. But what's most striking is singer Pelle Ahman's emergence as one of the most exciting frontmen of his generation: Whether crooning or howling, his presence haunts the entire record, imbuing it with the kind of tangible feeling you rarely get listening to metal -- in any other genre you'd call it "soul." --Aaron [LISTEN]
Carcass - Surgical Steel (Nuclear Blast)
Carcass' return to the fray this year was the highest in profile among a number of notable death metal reunion efforts in 2013. It was also on the receiving end of the most before-the-fact stink-eye. Not without reason, many Carcass fans have never accepted their early-'90s turn away from grindcore and toward clean-toned melodic death metal. Given Carcass' divisive catalog, the nearly universal praise that Surgical Steel has earned says a lot. The main thing it says is: These tunes are insanely well-written. This record doesn't move far beyond the sound Carcass established 20 years ago with Heartwork, but it also doesn't lose a single step on the songcraft front. Heartwork is one of the best and most influential death metal albums ever recorded, so yeah, these aging sluggers could've done worse. Flawless performances, massive tones, and timeless riffs -- this is what heavy metal is all about. --Doug [LISTEN]
Oranssi Pazuzu - Velonielu (20 Buck Spin)
Set the controls for a dying star and let yourself go. That's the image stuck in my head as I listen to this thing. We're drifting through space, stuck in an underpowered tin can with all manner of spooky space shit clattering around outside, ricocheting through an asteroid belt only to float off and die somewhere on the cosmic horizon. Oranssi Pazuzu is Hawkwind refracted through black metal: dark, interstellar psychedelia with a mechanistic motorik bent, and only the slightest terrestrial tether in the form of grating black metal screams. It's hard to explain this band in normal terms since they exist so far out on the fringe -- extra-dimensional krautrock death march? Angry transmissions from a radioactive moon? The music summons a jumble of hypothetical, evocative gibberish. I'm listening all the way through for the third or fourth time today, for probably the fiftieth time this year, and I realize I could play this thing forever in a loop without ever tiring of it. If any album this year is a mind-altering experience, this is it. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Inquisition - Obscure Verses For The Multiverse (Season Of Mist)
Hear me out here: Inquisition is to black metal as Wormed is to death metal. Both take unfriendly metal subgenres, increase the drama-per-riff factor, top the results with flat-affect vocals and nonsensical lyrics about space, and then use towering productions to blow the whole mess up to vast proportions. Both bands earned considerable acclaim for their efforts this year, but Obscure Verses For The Multiverse appealed to the sympathies of metal nerds from across the spectrum of taste in a way that almost no other album in 2013 managed. (It was the only album to place high on all four Black Marketers' ballots.) This fact is instructive. Black metal as a genre is as off-putting as they come, but Inquisition are fundamentally an inclusive band. Underneath the abstruse lyrics and weirdo vocals, they care about whether you like them, and they want you to have fun when you spin their album. Listen to "Joined By Dark Matter, Repelled By Dark Energy" or "Inversion Of Ethereal White Stars." Some of those riffs could've come straight off a Smashing Pumpkins record, and yet Obscure Verses is as thoroughly metal as albums get. How does that work? I'm not sure, but by nailing this counterintuitive balance, Inquisition have crafted the most endearing thoroughbred black metal album of 2013. --Doug [LISTEN]
Gorguts - Colored Sands (Season Of Mist)
Regardless of subgenre, most metal in 2013 cleaves to one of two disparate camps: on one side, there's the old guard, happy to exist within established genre boundaries. This group includes long-running legacy acts and the youngsters who worship them (not a bad thing by any means). And then there are the restless innovators, the ones who indulge every progressive tendency in the quest for new sounds and endless expansion, letting genre tags fall where they may (also see our No. 1 pick). In 2013 we see both camps operating at full strength, but with little interaction between the two -- besides when they all show up at Maryland Deathfest for a weekend bender. Gorguts occupy a unique slot in both worlds, as one of the early '90s Roadrunner death metal bands (back when the name Gorguts made sense), who still get tapped for throwback events like last year's Death To All tour, and simultaneously as the definitive originator of the experimental movement. Their 1998 noise opus Obscura reinvented the game, inspiring a generation of bands like Portal, Ulcerate, Deathspell Omega, and Krallice to shred their way to the outer rim while never failing to fuck with expectations. Sole remaining member Luc Lemay has always been the driving force of the band, but here he surrounds himself with a dream team of young-blood collaborators, like Colin Marston of Krallice (and, like, every other band), Kevin Hufnagel of Dysrhythmia, and drummer John Longstreth of Origin. The results are predictably awesome, but they're more than that: Colored Sands dives into the specific tonality made popular by bands like Ulcerate -- a dissonant style of riffing originally distilled and extrapolated from Obscura in the first place -- then funnels it back into a new type of arrangement. Lemay has mentioned listening to a lot of Opeth while writing these songs, and you can hear a different kind of guiding principle pushing these songs forward, almost to the point of accessibility. Mindfuck brutality has come full circle. Imagine what they do next. --Aaron [LISTEN]
Deafheaven - Sunbather (Deathwish Inc.)
I'm neither proud nor ashamed of this, but I'm confident in saying I wrote more words in 2013 on the subject of Deafheaven than did any other writer -- a large number of those words coming in our May Premature Evaluation of Sunbather, in which I called the album "a masterpiece." But no matter how much I say about the band and that album, I find there is still more I want to say, and six months after writing that review, I am even more impressed by Sunbather. Initially, for instance, I considered the album's shorter, quieter tracks to be simple interludes, but my understanding of them has since evolved: Even if they are intended to serve as connective tissue between the longer, heavier songs (all of which are woven with short, quiet sections themselves), they are nonetheless elegant, and detailed, and distinctive, and purposeful. And powerful. It would be missing the point to declare "Irresistible" or "Windows" one's favorite track on Sunbather, but at any given moment it would not necessarily be wrong.
But those other songs, the longer, heavier songs: "Dreamhouse" and "Sunbather" and "Vertigo" and "The Pecan Tree" ... Jesus Fucking Christ those songs are momentous. I've read a lot of criticism of Sunbather -- e.g., it covers ground already broken by Alcest and Envy; the vocal approach doesn't mesh well with the instrumental performances; it's too pretty or unchallenging or bombastic or opportunistic or something -- but none of it seems to contend with (or care to contend with, anyway) the actual music. And no matter how intently I confront and challenge and even doubt my own notions, none of it has managed to diminish Sunbather in my estimation. I'm still blown away by the thing, thrilled by it, awed by it.
There are some neat parallels (and perpendiculars) between Deafheaven and the other band about whom I wrote more words in 2013 than did any other writer: Darkthrone. Both are duos made up of two very visible, recognizable members, and those members seem absolutely integral to their respective band's identity and artistic process. Musically, both bands start with a thing called "black metal," but from there, they bring so many other influences and ideas to the music that when it is complete, it no longer really resembles black metal. On Darkthrone's recent albums -- and especially so on this year's outstanding The Underground Resistance -- the Norwegian duo have stripped away all progressive elements from the genre they helped to create, and built a raw, anthemic, atavistic sound with ingredients borrowed from metal's earliest practitioners, many of whom have otherwise largely been lost to history. Deafheaven, meanwhile, have set up camp on black metal's lushest, loftiest terrain, and amplified the aspects of the music that borrow from or resemble shoegaze, dream-pop, post-rock, and slow-core, to the extent that Deafheaven's music at points becomes shoegaze, dream-pop, post-rock, and slow-core.
Of course, Darkthrone are the very definition of a black metal band -- perhaps the very definition of a metal band -- while Deafheaven are, at best, a new definition of what a metal band might be, or at worst, a metal band for dilettantes. Oh, I'll just say it: a hipster metal band. When I saw Deafheaven in Brooklyn on the Sunbather tour, they played to a packed room, but as far as I could see, I was the only person in that room wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of a metal band. That doesn't happen at metal shows. Furthermore, the only people I recognized at that show were either other bloggers or publicists. That also doesn't happen at metal shows. That night, that bugged me a lot, and I left, irritated, before Deafheaven finished their set, before they played my favorite song from Sunbather, "The Pecan Tree." In a very real and important way, metal, for me, is about community. And as much as I love Deafheaven, my community was not in the room that night.
To that end, I found myself oddly touched a couple weeks back when Deafheaven announced a 2014 tour supporting North Carolina metal band Between The Buried And Me. Not because I have any special fondness for BTBAM, but because I knew those rooms would be full of metal logo-bearing T-shirts, and I knew Deafheaven knew that, too, and I suspected they saw this slot as an opportunity to connect with some of those metal fans who've been suspicious of the band thus far. A crossover metal band trying to cross over to a metal audience, trying to be part of this community: I can't imagine that's an easy proposition, and I'm encouraged to see Deafheaven making those efforts, trying to build and grow, even more than they have already, and in unexpected ways.
But I digress, as I often do when discussing Deafheaven. What comes next year has no bearing on what occurred in 2013, and great music is great music regardless of who's in the room listening alongside you. Sunbather is the best metal album of the year not because it pushes boundaries or topples walls or crashes gates, but because it is a mesmerizing and absorbing and invigorating work of art, a thing that demands and deserves the passion it inspires. It is -- still, wholly, legitimately -- a masterpiece. --Michael [LISTEN]