I didn’t do my customary mid-year list this year, because house-building, but I thought I’d better quickly whip together my favorite albums to round off 2013. Yes, I am aware it is already 2014, but remember the house-building? Yeah, that’s only just finished. Full update soon.
Here they are, in no particular order. Feel free to debate my choices and add a list of your own in the comments.
1. Beastwars – Blood Becomes Fire
Ever since this album came out in April, I knew it would end up on my end-of-year list. In fact, if I’d been trapped on a desert island with only one album for company for the first half of the year, I’d have chosen this to take with me. With their sophomore effort, Beastwars prove that high-quality metal is rising from the Land of the Long White Cloud.
At once both brutal and beautiful, the music drifts from crushing, punishing riffs to melancholy instrumentation. Kyuss, The Melvins, High on Fire … you’ll hear snatches of their influence here, but molded into a sound all the band’s own. Each song is richly layered, drawing the listener in. Morose, deeply introverted and passionately moody, this band know how to create and bend emotions through music. Blood Becomes Fire is beyond sludge, beyond doom, and maybe even – forgive my pretentious verbosity – beyond metal. If you have not heard this band, then you are sad.
2. The Shining – One One One
I’ve written before on several occasions about how crazy I am for the Norwegian The Shining. Their 2010 release, Blackjazz, made my top ten list for that year, and has been on pretty steady repeat ever since. In 2011 I got to see them live at Wacken, and the saxaphone-fueled madness of that show has never quite left me.
One One One takes the psychotic space-orchestra sound they perfected on Blackjazz, and peels it back ever so slightly, creating a slicker, more accessible sound. Which isn’t to say The Shining should ever be referred to as “accessible” music – this is avant-garde at it’s filthiest and most awesome. There’s a lot more electronica influence in the music, less of the black-metal darkness, more of a computer virus eating through a synthesizer. It’s good, it’s very, very good.
3. Rotting Christ – Κατά τον Δαίμονον Εαυτού
Rotting Christ can do no wrong. Ever since 2007s Theogonia, Rotting Christ have been incorporating an increasing amount of primal elements and native instrumentation into their music. Their songwriting has continued to mature over their last three albums, reaching new heights in Κατά τον Δαίμονον Εαυτού with the richly layered infusion of bagpipes, female vocals, horns, tribal drums and other elements. My favourite song is ‘Grandis Spiritus Diavolos’ – can’t keep that bugger off repeat.
To me, Rotting Christ’s music always sounds ritualistic, the way the songs bleed together and are driven by the thundering drums. My husband and I once spent the night camping in the desert with a bedouin tribe. After the evening meal instruments were brought from the tents – mostly drums, and some stringed instruments with unpronounceable names. My husband asked if he could play with them, and the musicians played for hours while we danced. In the darkening desert, lit by a flickering fire, with the drums pounding and the deep pluck of the strings, and the way the music swelled and changed without ever stopping … it was quite magical, like a conjuring a desert beasts. Listening to the album brings back this memory, the sense of it.
4. Ghost – Infestissuman
When Ghost first emerged as this retro-melodic stoner rocky metally inverted-ecclesiastical band with Opus Eponymous back in 2010, everyone said, “OK, well, they’re kinda cool, and they’ve clearly made a lot of effort with their look, but their schtick is going to wear thin after an album or two.” I admit that I didn’t expect much from Infestissuman; it’s hard to follow something as successful an undeniably catchy as Opus Eponymous, especially when you’re kind of stuck with the 70s occult men-in-tights costume party gone awry vibe.
But colour me stunned. This is a bloody good album. It’s pretty much “more of the same”, to me, but slightly more polished and, in my humble opinion, slightly more robust, though distinctly less “metal” than their earlier offering. My favourite song is definitely the single ‘Year Zero’. Between the chanting, the rhythm and that, it just gives you a happy satan feeling. ‘Monstrance Clock’ is also a stand-out, a bit more pop, a bit more psychedelic, and a whole lot of chanting.
I’m not going to apologize for liking Ghost like so many of the other reviews seem to do. Yes, they’re successful, and yes, they are gimmicky, which are the two consonants that spell death in the kvlt metal underground. But they are fun, and the music is grand, and they have a dude in a Satanic Pope outfit. If you can’t get excited about a Satanic Pope, then I don’t know if you and I were meant to be friends.
5. Chelsea Wolfe – Pain is Beauty
What can I say about Wolfe that other writers haven’t already said a hundred times better? Her music has this sort of austere intensity, this kind of pared-back emotional fortitude that brings it into the same realm is the black metal she so admires. The L.A. singer-songwriter pulls together a unique smorgesboard of influences: classic noir, American folk music, doom and black metal, noise, and dark ambient. The result is her best album yet: haunting, emotionally draining, and utterly unforgettable.
Wolfe’s songwriting has matured since The Grime & the Glow and Apokalypsis – the drama is less overt, the emotion more stark and raw. From the thick, doomlike drone of ‘Sick’ to the haunting and sorrowful tension of “The Waves Have Come”, Wolfe entrances with melody and tone. I’m a sucker for her more folk-influenced songs, so ‘They’ll Clap When You’re Gone’ is my favorite from this album. Stunningly conceived, but perhaps not an album you’d play over a few cold ones.
6. Ulcerate – Vermis
There are few underground bands that I feel are truly underrated, but Ulcerate is one of them. After The Destroyers of All topped practically every best-of-2011 list, these guys should’ve
Although many of the tracks, including “Confronting Entropy” and the title track “Vermis”, picks up the dark, decaying characteristics of The Destroyers of All, these are juxtiposed (hah, can’t write a top ten post without using this word!) with more introspective, ambient (if indeed anything from Ulcerate can be called “ambient”) passages. The song “Clutching Revulsion” is a prime example of this, as it swings between sludgey darkness and malice-ridden, intense tech death.
To me, technical death metal has gone a bit mental over the last few years, with bands seeking to prove their chops via overly complex compositions and instrumentation, at the expense of that core essence that defines death metal: the dark heaviness that makes you want to bang your head. Ulcerate bring it back home, with an album that will astound you with it’s complexity and entrance you with it’s sheer brutality.
7. Omnium Gatherum – Beyond
Finland is home to pretty much all of the world’s best melodic death metal bands, including my personal favourites, Kalmah. So when a friend recommended Omnium Gatherum to me in early 2013, I figured it was probably a safe bet. After getting acquainted with their back catalog, including the beautiful New World Shadows, and realizing they are probably my new band crush, I got my hands on their newest album, Beyond, and we’ve been inseparable ever since.
To me, Omnium Gatherum take everything I love about European power metal, delete all of the cheesiest parts, and mesh what remains with everything I love about death metal, adding their own unique spin on top of that. They pile melody atop melody while chugging out powerful, catchy riffs, all under a mantle of that Finnish darkness that is in equal parts depressing and captivating.
If you loved New World Shadows, then Beyond will be just what you’re after, as many of the songs sound as if they could’ve fit on that record. My favorite song is “formidable”, with it’s thrashier riffs and slow, haunting melody, and the quiet verses lifting into the heavy, singalong chorus. I challenge anyone to name a better melodeath album from 2013.
8. Inquisition – Obscure Verses for the Multiverse
I’m not going to lie – if you were looking for some kind of innovative re-invention of black metal, then this is not the album you need. Inquisition have been releasing their brand of raw, unrelenting USBM for the better part of fifteen years, and they know what they do well. You still won’t miss the bass.
I was lucky to see Inquisition when they played in Auckland in 2012, touring their Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm album. Live, their ritualistic, animalistic sound comes into it’s own, the music like a trance or a voodoo spell. And, while it’s hard to recreate that same dark magic on an album, they come bloody close. No atmospheric intro, just straight into the bloody onslaught that is “Force of the Floating Tomb,” one of my favorite tracks from the album. “Joined by Dark Matter Repelled by Dark Energy” and “Master of the Cosmological Black Cauldron” are the true standout tracks, and the latter in particular I really hope to experience live some time in the future, because holy fucking shit, is that brutal and amazing.
There’s something funky going on with the production on this album, that gives it a slightly muddier tone than previous releases, which I’m not as keen on. But if you love Inquisition and everything they stand for, you should be pretty stoked with Obscure Verses for the Multiverse.
9. Volbeat – Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies
I confess, there is probably not much this band could do that would make me stop buying their albums. Maybe they club seals, or make tasteless jokes about burn victims, or park in disabled spaces. But if they just keep making albums this good, I forgive it all.
Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies is VERY mainstream, and not even remotely as heavy as their earlier efforts, but you know what, who the fuck cares? It is awesome – well-executed, catchy, fun, groovy – everything you want in a Volbeat record. As one of Denmark’s most loved modern bands, they are clearly embracing more of their radio-friendly appeal, although songs like “Room 24”, which features King Diamond, remind us of their metal roots.
The heavier songs on this album, such as “Room 24” and “Dead but Rising”, are my favourites, but there is lots of variety here, with the elements of country, blues, rock, punk and rockabilly making up the majority of their sound. Vocalist Michael Poulsen continues to conjure up memories of Load-era James Hetfield (complete with “YEH-HEEH!”‘s), which, growing up in 90s-era Metallica, I totally dig. Volbeat have managed to create a sound that is both popular and unique, and I encourage anyone who hasn’t heard this band to give them a go.
10. Atlantean Kodex – The White Goddess
Bathory will always and forever be one of my favourite metal artists, and so, when I hear people talking about a band with a sound that melds the melodic, doomish sensibilities of Solitude Aeturnus, with Hammerheart-esque Viking story-telling, well, I’ve got to give it a shot.
I was pretty skeptical, and was seriously not expecting to like Atlantean Kodex, but colour me impressed. The album opens with waves crashing, which … well, how can that not be meant to invoke the Bathory-inference? But then the opening track, “Sol Invictus”, is thrust upon you, with relentless, galloping riffs, soaring vocals and some seriously impressive songwriting. Listen to “Twelve Stars And An Azure Down” channels old Fates Warning with the doomish vocals, and “Heresiarch (Thousandfaced Moon)”, which gets that doomy heaviness just right, while still being clean and fresh and interesting.
This album contains exactly 0 shite songs. I call Atlantean Kodex the biggest surprise of 2013 and definitely my favourite new discovery.
Interestingly, despite power metal being one of my favourite sub-genres, I didn’t think there were any really noteworthy releases in 2013. So it’s been a bit of a hipster year for me.
What were your favourite albums of 2013?