The Best Metal Albums of 2013: #10 – 1

band0110. Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, Mind Control (Metal Blade)

Mind Control isn’t so much a faithful rendering of the first two albums as a careful expansion of Uncle Acid’s musical palette, sequenced first with the most familiar sounds to fans, but then quickly taking several turns that surprise, confuse, and enthrall. The seven-minute “Mt. Abraxas” kicks off the record with its by-the-book Sabbath jams, its approach more understated than powerful thanks to its deliberately muted lo-fi tone. “Mind Crawler” is the kind of sinister rock ‘n’ roll that made such Blood Lust cuts as “I’ll Cut You Down” and “Over and Over Again” such instant classics, its simple riff and cruising groove immediately memorable, the riff in the coda a fitting climax. The contagious “Poison Apple” returns to that characteristic Uncle Acid swing, while “Desrert Ceremony” downshifts once again, this time going for something more lysergic than weed-fueled, featuring spiraling guitar solos.

After that, though, the worm starts to turn. “Evil Love” is the band’s most insistent rocker to date, Abbey Road colliding with the faster moments on Paranoid, Starrs taking on an unmistakable Lennon affectation in his voice. Continuing the Beatles thing, the creeping “Death Valley Blues” references George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way”, but makes a point of feeling more unsettling than merely wry, while the similarly Harrison-esque raga “Follow the Leader” delves more into Indian territory while the lyrics feel more Anton LaVey than Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Although the thudding, imposing “Devil’s Work” closes the album on an enthrallingly murky note, the real climax of Mind Control is the disquieting “Valley of the Dolls”. A return to the mournful doom sounds of “Mt. Abraxas”, but this time awash in dreamy mellotron, Starrs delves deeply into the seedier side of 1969 pop culture, referencing Sharon Tate “Just like a china doll / Her face was glazed and clear”) and then Charles Manson (“I sent them off in the darkest danger night / Into the piggy trough all dressed in vinyl white”). The wordplay of the chorus (“Valley of the Dolls / Valium blood walls”) is particularly unsettling, the song subtly segueing from Jacqueline Susann melodrama (“Valley of the Dolls”) to twisted Russ Meyer sickness (“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”), the crashing cymbals and power chords completing the journey from blissed-out to pure horror.

Mind Control might not have the same immediate impact as Blood Lust did, but it does show Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats are willing to venture out into the sunlight a little more, show some more creativity, and make music that can be just as confounding and intriguing, even though everyone knows who they are now. Its delights aren’t as immediate – you really have to dig underneath the surface – but they are there, and this is one memorable follow-up as a result. (MSN, May 14)

 001tag9. Darkthrone, The Underground Resistance (Peaceville)

If you know Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell at all, you know he’s an incredible student of the history of heavy metal, with a tremendous ear for discovering new talent as well as underrated classics from the 1980s, so when you hear the way he and his longtime collaborator channel the music of their youth, it’s not so much jarring as feeling inevitable. It fits Darkthrone like an old shoe.

After “Dead Early” sets the tone immediately with its combination of extravagant riffs and d-beat section – more Motörhead than Discharge actually – “Valkyrie” shifts from a forlorn doom intro to full throttle speed metal, Fenriz singing the most flamboyantly we’ve ever heard from him. No, he’s no Halford, but you hear the sincerity in his voice, and you can’t help but embrace it. The overall feel of The Underground Resistance is just that: it revels in its energy, any hint of sloppiness never taking away from the power of the music, which it has in spades on this record.

With its buzzsaw guitar and hi-hat intro, “Lesser Man” immediately evokes comparisons to Mercyful Fate’s “A Dangerous Meeting”, eventually alternating between fast tempos, slow movements, and cruising, headbang-inducing grooves. The Priest-like (think Sin After Sin) “The Ones You Left Behind” and the surprisingly multifaceted, eight and a half-minute “Come Warfare, the Entire Doom” merely set the stage for the mother of all Darkthrone finales, the towering “Leave No Cross Unturned”. A deliriously devilish homage to Mercyful Fate and Celtic Frost (from falsetto wails to those Frost-ian “Ooh!”s) the 13-minute song masterfully shifts gears between all-out speed and more menacing, lumbering tempos, never for a second coming off as tedious. It’s as if Fenriz and Nocturno Culto decide to keep playing the song because they’re just enjoying it far too much to quit. With so many reference point identifiable throughout the song – a little Tank here, a little early Bathory there – it’s the kind of track that anyone who grew up on heavy metal 30 years ago will immediately identify with. Yours truly included, transported back to the days of stacks of Banzai Records cassettes and Metallion magazine in Canada, reminded of just what was so damned appealing about this form of music in the first place. When you churn out the new music with as much regularity that Darkthrone has, once in a rare while you catch lightning in a bottle, and that’s exactly what they’ve done on The Underground Resistance. It is heavy metal perfectly embodied: energetic, joyfully sloppy, bombastic, and never lacking for passion. (MSN, February 26)

kodex8. Atlantean Kodex, The White Goddess (20 Buck Spin)

What a strange sight it was seeing a stubbornly traditional heavy metal band like Germany’s Atlantean Kodex attract great praise from writers and publications who normally pay more attention to the genre’s more “extreme” sounds. But good for them for picking up on a truly great heavy metal album, one that balances the epic scope of Manowar and Viking-era Bathory, the melodic sensibility of power metal – singing, imagine that! – and a tremendous grasp of European history, which permeates this entire ambitious record. We need more bands like this. Badly.

 001tag7. Ghost B.C., Infestissumam (Loma Vista)

In the wake of an ascent that saw Sweden’s Ghost impress with ‘Opus Eponymous’ in 2010, quickly gain popularity, and land a lucrative deal with Loma Vista Recordings, follow-up ‘Infestissumam’ arrives with much fanfare. For a release on a mainstream label, though, it turns out to be a startlingly bold album loaded with ideas that contrast with the conventional, pop-infused songs on ‘Opus Eponymous’. First single ‘Secular Haze’, with its surreal Weimar cabaret waltz, threw many for a loop, and the rest of the album follows suit, venturing into darker, more eclectic territory, but done so with tremendous restraint. ‘Giggalo’ is built around a descending walking bassline that lends the music some swing, the majestic ‘Ghuleh’ features plaintive piano and a synth melody nicked from Goldfrapp’s ‘Utopia’ before morphing into a multihued rocker, while ‘Idolatrine’ is bolstered by Middle Eastern melodies.

Ultimately, the most appealing aspect of the Nick Raskulinecz-produced ‘Infestissumam’ remains the gleefully sinister way Ghost incorporate Satanic rhetoric with incessant classic hard rock melodies. Only this time, the ideas are more fully fleshed out and delivered to devilish effect on such standouts as ‘Depth of Satan’s Eyes’, the theatrical ‘Monstrance Clocks’, and the stupendous ‘Year Zero’, which combines hooks and atmosphere as brilliantly as ‘Con Clavi Con Dio’ did three years ago. Peculiar, haunting, and deliriously catchy, ‘Infestissumam’ is a huge surprise; by throwing its audience one hell of a curveball Ghost has proven that there’s a lot more to this band than savvy marketing and rubber masks. (Terrorizer magazine)

aop6. Altar Of Plagues, Teethed Glory and Injury (Profound Lore)

While no one could have predicted just what direction their third full-length would head in, Teethed Glory and Injury is the exact kind of bold statement I’ve been hoping for from Kelly and his band all this time. Audacious to the point where you wonder just how much Kelly is enjoying trolling the black metal purists out there, the album approaches black metal in a fashion quite similar to Liturgy’s Aesthethica and Deathspell Omega’s Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum. Not that it’s at all like those records musically speaking, but its mindset is very much the same. The new songs avoid conventional song structure altogether, while Kelly experiments with dissonance and unorthodox cadences, and even strips down the music to the point where it resembles Suicide more than a black metal record, a perfect example being the stirring, experimental “A Remedy and a Fever”. Melody, atonality, contemplativeness, and savagery all intertwine throughout this record, and the way it creates a sense of unease in the listener, never allowing them to know what’s lurking around the next corner, is extraordinary.

Ultimately what makes this album work so well is how that unease eventually gives way to much deeper emotional resonance than your usual extreme metal evokes. Teethed Glory and Injury might be very unsettling, but although it seems like it’s keeping you at an arm’s length at first, immersion in the music eventually reveals a stark beauty you rarely come across in the genre. Never mind the fact that Kelly does not bother to include the lyrics; his anguished screams tell you all you need to know. It’s not exactly cool to use the word “transcendent” when writing about metal these days – it now leads to Hunter Hunt-Hendrix-referencing scorn – but great metal records do achieve a sort of transcendence in their own way, and Altar of Plagues have done so in spectacular fashion, exceeding expectations, completely outdoing their past work, surpassing their peers, and creating music that’s genuinely moving in a genre not exactly known for doing so, and is bound to appeal to anyone who enjoys experimental music outside the metal realm. That, kids, is true musical transcendence. (MSN, April 30)

band015. Oranssi Pazuzu, Velonielu (20 Buck Spin)

Ever since Euronymous asked Conrad Schnitzler of Tangerine Dream to compose a track for Mayhem’s ‘Deathcrush’ EP, black metal and krautrock have complemented each other nicely. After all, both seemingly disparate forms of music are built around the idea of transcendence through repetition and groove, and even though one is a lot more hostile and harsher than the other, the idea is the same. It’s only been in the last 13 years, as the post-Napster era of music consumption has made diversity common among music fans that musical diversity in black metal has become similarly the norm, and Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu have emerged as one of the most exciting examples of black metal experimentation.

The band’s name could not be more fitting: oranssi, Finnish for “orange”, or “tangerine” if you will, and Pazuzu, that lovable demon we all grew up to know from ‘The Exorcist’. And that combination of the psychedelic and the demonic permeates the mesmerizing, richly varied third album ‘Velonielu’. Sinister, crusty riffs mesh with sedate keyboards and jarring blasts of noise (‘Vino Verso’), tribal drums underscore grooves reminiscent of Can and even the Fall (‘Tyhja Tempelii’), while motorik beats and tremolo picking feel like perfect bedfellows on the standout ‘Olen Aukaissut Uuden Silmän’. Capped off by the towering, 15 minute closing epic ‘Ympyra on Viiva Tomussa’, which echoes towering Norwegian black metal and the Stockhausen-influenced side of krautrock, this is not only a near-perfect marriage of genres, but a statement by a major force in experimental metal. (Terrorizer magazine)

001tag4. SubRosa, More Constant Than the Gods (Profound Lore)

Two years after making a huge impression with “No Help For the Mighty Ones”, the Salt Lake City band sounds a lot more comfortable and confident on this superb follow-up. Firmly rooted in doom metal, SubRosa is unique in two ways. First, violinists Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack are central, creating stirring melodies that fill the place where a lead guitar would normally be used, as well as letting loose searing, haunting atonal drones that heighten the tension of the music greatly. In a way it echoes Americana, and indeed the music is imbued with a strong influence of the darker side of American folk music, and coupled with an expansive quality that reflects the vast, unforgiving western environment, the violins bring a rustic, forlorn quality to doom that no other band has ever equaled in the past. The second crucial aspect to SubRosa’s music is singer/guitarist/son​gwriter Rebecca Vernon, whose vocal style is unique for metal, more a reflection of 1990s indie rock and ‘80s goth, and on this record her singing is more assertive, displaying more range than on “No Help”. Adding gravitas to this already haunting and viscerally powerful record is the highly personal quality of the lyrics, as Vernon delves deep into her own moments of tragedy – namely the death of her mother – which only makes the listening experience richer. Led by such tracks as “The Usher”, “Cosey Mo”, and “Ghosts of a Dead Empire”, this is an astounding album – one of the year’s very best – and in so doing SubRosa immediately establish themselves as a true American original. (MSN, September 17)

band013. Shining, One One One (Prosthetic)

After the stunning evolution on Blackjazz, you couldn’t imagine where Shining could possibly go next, but the long-awaited follow-up packs just as many twists and turns, even though there’s not much deviation from the core sound. Much like what Mastodon did on their album The Hunter, Munkeby and Shining have compressed their extremely ambitious music into the conventional pop music template, and find liberation through such confinement. Instead of free-form, the songs on One One One follow traditional verse-chorus-verse structures, with the longest track clocking in at a mere 4:39. Consequently, although the level of surprise that Blackjazz delivered isn’t there – and won’t ever be matched – the results are no less spectacular, and in some ways, are superior to that landmark record.

By confining the band’s sound to such strict structures and lengths, there’s an immediacy in Shining’s music that’s never been there before, not to mention a hookiness, as unconventional as those hooks are. “The One Inside” launches into a grove so contagious that any doubts about the song’s surreal blend of styles flies out the window, even when the blastbeats and sax solo kick in. Dubstep-style noise infiltrates “My Dying Drive”, but is put to inspired use, accentuating the lurching riff and crazed vocal performance by Munkeby. “Paint the Sky Black” is so equally catchy and intense you can envision huge most pits erupting in visceral response, Munkeby’s screaming tenor sax, always a highlight, dominates the crazed “How Your Story Ends”, while “Blackjazz Rebels” and “You Won’t Forget” are the closest Shining has ever come to straight-ahead, rampaging rock ‘n’ roll.

At 35 minutes, One One One wastes no time, from start to finished a crazed, ebullient, careening ride through too many musical genres to mention. With a sound that’s easily identifiable yet near impossible to pin down, Shining never fail to surprise and impress, no matter how familiar they become with each new record, and they’ve come through with yet another stunner to add to their already stalwart discography. Only this time around, their music has never sounded so genuinely fun. (MSN, May 28)

band012. Carcass, Surgical Steel (Nuclear Blast)

When Carcass announced they were in the process of recording their first album since 1996’s “Swansong”, all fans wanted was a record faithful to the band’s sound enough to stand respectably alongside their best work. Two years removed from the disaster that was Morbid Angel’s “Illud Divinum Insanus”, any apprehension at the prospect of another attempted death metal comeback was fully warranted, but somehow, miraculously, the exact opposite has happened, as “Surgical Steel” is not only a very worthy effort from Jeff Walker and Bill Steer, but it ranks as some of the best work Carcass has ever done. A sleek combination of the savagery of the groundbreaking “Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious” and the refined melodies of the classic “Heartwork” – this despite the absence of Michael Amott, whose contributions to “Heartwork” were crucial – “Surgical Steel” delivers, in spades, everything that has been missing from metal as of late: power, melody, personality. Starting off with the supreme confidence of overture “1985” and opener “Thrasher’s Abbatoir”, the album builds momentum more and more as it goes on, culminating in a sensational second half highlighted by “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills”, “Captive Bolt Pistol”, and “Mount of Execution”. Of course, this is all carefully constructed to evoke feelings of nostalgia among fans, but it’s done with verve. The band is clearly having a blast – Walker’s trademark snarl, as well as his delicious lyrical wit are in fine form – and the feeling is palpable in the music. This is as joyous a death metal album as you will ever hear, and every bit as spectacular a comeback as Iron Maiden’s “Brave New World”, Celtic Frost’s “Monotheist”, and Accept’s “Blood of the Nations”. (MSN, September 17)

band011. In Solitude, Sister (Metal Blade)

As strong as In Solitude’s The World. The Flesh. The Devil was, one thing people had to remember was this Swedish band is still a work in progress. Their devotion to classic heavy metal aesthetic was endearing on their first two records, but there was still plenty of room for improvement. After all, a band can only play Mercyful Fate homages for so long until people start saying, “Enough already.” While they could nail that circa-1983 aesthetic as well as anyone, if they truly wanted to make a lasting impression they’d start to take those influences and actually do something original with it.

What makes Sister so exciting is just how they do so in much more striking, mature fashion than expected. Songs might meander past the six, seven, eight-minute mark, but there’s a sense of purpose in the arrangements. Controlled and restrained, songs like “Lavender” and “Sister” slither around listeners rather than attack. The guitar tones are striking, hearkening back to the rich sounds of Uli Roth-era Scorpions and at the same time daring to echo a little vintage gothic rock on “Pallid Hands” and “A Buried Sun”. And Pelle Åhman steps a little further out of King Diamond’s shadow with a much more confident vocal performance. You feel his persona coming out vividly in the music, and the same can be said for the rest of the band. At heart In Solitude embodies all the best elements of heavy metal: flamboyance, melody, theater, escapism, menace, power. All are on masterful display on Sister, and the rest of the metal world has been served notice. (Decibel magazine)

The Best Metal Albums of 2013: #20 – 11

001tag20. Audrey Horne, Youngblood (Napalm)

Instead of churning out yet another album of tepid modern hard rock, a band decides to change things up a little by writing the kind of music they used to listen to as kids, and whaddya know, not only does the end result sound far more genuine than anything they’ve put out before, but it turns out to be one of the best albums of the young year.

That’s exactly what happened with Norwegian band Audrey Horne. They’ve been coasting along as a fairly popular band in Norway for a few years now, but after deciding to go back to their roots and start playing music they truly love, they’ve emerged with an album that hearkens back to the glory days of Rainbow. Every track is deeply indebted to Ritchie Blackmore’s band, but it always feels more like an homage than a rip-off, whether it’s the furious, prog-tinged mini-epics that echo Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll (“This Ends Here”, “The King is Dead”), to the more pop-oriented fare that will remind many of Down to Earth and Straight Between the Eyes (“There Goes a Lady”, “Redemption Blues”, “Youngblood”). Whatever the direction the music takes, each song is vibrant and very catchy, led by singer Toschie, who is in full-on Joe Lynn Turner mode all the while.

Who could have possibly seen this coming? Youngblood is the sound of a chronically underachieving band finding their true identity at long last, an impassioned album that embraces the fantasy, power, and above all else, the fun of heavy metal from three decades ago. (MSN, February 5)

001tag19. Magic Circle, Magic Circle (Armageddon Shop)

What started out as a side project by a group of Massachusetts hardcore musicians has yielded the best doom album of the year so far. It doesn’t try to reinvent the style, but rather faithfully follow in the footsteps of Sabbath and their NWOBHM disciples Witchfinder General, and the results are not only convincing, but stunningly so. (MSN, June 7)


001tag18. Avatarium, Avatarium (Nuclear Blast)

When it comes to stories of how bands started up, Avatarium’s has quickly become a favorite of mine. Candlemass head honcho Leif Edling was at his own birthday party, when Mikael Åkerfeldt drunkenly suggested they start a band together. Apparently Åkerfeldt does that all the time yet never actually goes through with it, but Edling took his word for it and immediately started writing songs with Åkerfeldt’s voice in mind. As it turned out, even though his Opeth buddy couldn’t commit to the project, the new material was so good Edling decided to see this project through with some more willing participants. Enter guitarist and former Candlemass fill-in Marcus Jidell, who in turn would convince his girlfriend Jennie-Ann Smith to try singing. The end result is a brilliant debut album that explores doom metal in a way Edling can’t do with Candlemass, broadening its reach into classic rock, psychedelic rock, and even pop. Smith’s persona works wonders, at times sounding as haunting and mysterious as Jex Thoth, but also capable of entrancing listeners with genuine soul rather than keeping them at an arm’s length. “Moonhorse”, “Boneflower”, and “Lady in the Lamp” all show incredible promise, and Edling is clearly relishing this new musical direction. His ongoing Candlemass gig might pay the bills, but it’s good to see him continuing to make vital music. This new band is a keeper. (Decibel, December 4)

001tag17. Purson, The Circle And The Blue Door (Metal Blade)

After well over a year of teasing – the brilliant Rocking Horse single, the revelatory performance at Roadburn 2012 – Rise Above’s new darlings Purson have arrived with their debut full-length. Led by singer/songwriter/le​ad guitarist Rosalie Cunningham, the London band specialize in the kind of psychedelic heavy rock their label loves to unearth, but in a way that’s decidedly English, from the Fairport Convention and Black Widow influences that creep into the music, to the band’s carefully honed, 1960s London attire. Led by Cunningham’s prim yet seductive singing, it’s an appealing package, which in turn sets listeners up for Satanic themes brilliantly masquerading as playful lyrics (look up exactly what Purson is, and the song “Leaning on a Bear” takes on an entirely new meaning). Whimsical, sinister, mysterious, this is one of the most enticing debuts of the year, highlighted by such tracks as “Spiderwood Farm”, “The Contract”, and “Tragic Catastrophe”. (MSN, April 30)

001tag16. Vattnet Viskar, Sky Swallower (Century Media)

After making a massive first impression with last year’s brilliant self-titled EP, the New Hampshire black metal band continue that momentum with their new full-length, their first since signing with Century Media. On that first EP the band immediately displayed a knack for dynamics in black metal far beyond the skill of many of their peers, and that’s on full display on “Sky Swallower”, only this time it’s even more vivid. The way such tracks as “New Alchemy” and “Fog of Apathy” weave in and out, alternating between savage and contemplative, is remarkable, as Nick Thornbury delivers authoritative death-derived vocals rather than the usual token black metal shriek. In fact, the texture on this record dares to approach what audiences heard on Isis’s landmark “Oceanic” and “Panopticon”, but the way the trio shifts gears from post-rock jams to full on “cvlt” blasting keeps listeners on their toes, the production lending the music an unusual sense of warmth and intimacy. Highlighted by the towering “Breath of the Almighty”, this is an awe-inspiring, breathtaking piece of work, the most fully realized black metal full-length debut by an American band since Krallice. (MSN, September 3)

001tag15. Gorguts, Colored Sands (Season of Mist)

First of all, what you hear on “Colored Sands” is a considerable departure from “Obscura” and “From Wisdom to Hate”, but in no way is it a total surprise. Gorguts has always been an experimental project, continually evolving, and the direction the new record heads in will feel natural to longtime listeners. The atonality, the dissonance of Lemay’s playing style still remains the band’s hallmark, but this time around there’s a lot more texture and elasticity, which is where Marston and Hufnagel come in. Two extraordinary, classically trained musicians, they’re the perfect collaborators for Lemay, as they draw out more of a progressive influence out of Gorguts, but never at the expense of the death metal at hand.

The most immediate impression you get upon hearing this album is its power. It is towering, from the majesty of its riffs to Lemay’s commanding vocal performance. “Le Toit du Monde” and “Forgotten Arrows” are shattering in their force, astonishingly heavy and imposing, the unpredictability of the unorthodox song structures giving the music tremendous tension. Like any technical-oriented death metal album, though, the real strength of “Colored Sands” lies in its restraint. A supreme composer, Lemay knows when to say when, and these nine songs are extraordinarily dynamic, its more subdued moments making the more forceful passages devastating, the title track being a perfect example.

The foursome of Lemay, Marston, Hufnagel, and Longstreth shows tremendous chemistry as well, always feeling like a unified whole. The fact that Hufnagel and Marston have chipped in with their own songwriting contributions  – “Absconders” and “Forgotten Arrows”, respectively – which fit in seamlessly with Lemay’s material speaks volumes of how tight a unit this foursome has become. Tight, but very pliable as well, as Gorguts has never sounded this versatile. You hear this record, and you can envision the possibilities for this incarnation of the band as limitless. This is what technical/progressiv​e death metal is supposed to evoke, and the fact that the metal world had to wait 12 years for Gorguts to prove it speaks volumes about just how important for the genre Lemay is. This is an album to savor. (MSN, September 3)

001tag14. Voivod, Target Earth (Century Media)

Nobody ever wanted Voivod to go away, but fans knew that they would only be back if a) the feeling was right to the band, and b) the new music was worth it. Mongrain, who grew up learning to play guitar to Voivod songs, teamed up with Blacky to write the entire new record, and all they’ve done is come up with the most exciting Voivod album since 1993’s The Outer Limits. While Infini and 2006’s Katorz were very good in their own right, because the songs were based solely on simple guitar demos they weren’t able to be fleshed out more, and Voivod’s trademark progressive, experimental tendencies were put on the back burner. Not anymore, as Target Earth marks a return to the band’s more adventurous side, and is it ever a welcome return.

While Mongrain is able to replicate Piggy’s guitar tone brilliantly, he still makes this record his own. A founding member of Martyr, he knows a thing or two about genre-expanding extreme metal, and his dexterity and creativity are in full bloom on such songs as “Target Earth”, “Mechanical Mind”, and “Resistance”. And step for step with him up all the way is Blacky, whose signature distorted basslines counter those intricate riffs with a primal, hardcore-derived ferocity. Meanwhile, Away, always so fluid a drummer, is right at home delivering his challenging rhythms and time signatures, and vocalist Denis “Snake” Belanger seems particularly driven by the band’s renewed energy, putting in an impassioned performance.

Target Earth is not without its moments of pure, anarcho-punk-derived​, Rrröööaaarrr-style speed, and listeners are treated to a couple of gems in the Micmac-inspired “Kluskap O’Kom” and “Corps Etranger” (their first ever song in their native French), in which Away hammers out propulsive d-beats underneath Mongrain’s nimble picking. In the end, it’s exactly what fans wanted: a Voivod album that sounds like Voivod, but not in a self-plagiarizing way. This is a band bursting with ideas right now – final track “Defiance” is actually the first track of the new album, fading out a la Venom’s Black Metal – and after a time where their future was very much in doubt, they’ve proven that not only are they back for real, but that they’re here for the long haul as well. (MSN, January 22)

001tag13. Shooting Guns, Brotherhood of the Ram (Easy Rider)

Doom, but inspired more by dustbowl towns than industrial Birmingham. Krautrock, but more like rutted grid roads than the Autobahn. Psychedelic, but fueled more by Pilsner than acid. In two short years Western Canadian band Shooting Guns have established themselves as one of the best instrumental bands around, and the follow-up to the Polaris Prize-nominated Born to Deal in Magic 1952-1976 is another bold step forward. Monstrously heavy, capable of grooves so comfy you just want them to go on as long as possible, and always careful to let the hooks guide the music, Brotherhood of the Ram plays to the band’s strengths, yet at the same time branches out more, from the Vanilla Fudge dirge of “Predator II” to the textured heavy blooze of “Go Blind”. Highlighted by the showstopper “Motherfuckers Never Learn”, which sounds like a combination of Hawkwind’s “Master of the Universe” and Can’s “Mother Sky”, these guys are Canada’s best-kept secret no longer. (Decibel, October 16)

001tag12. Anciients, Heart Of Oak (Season Of Mist)

Vancouver’s Anciients are no spring chickens. Older than your usual Sumerian phenoms, they played hard in their city, putting on show after show, self-releasing out a promising EP and seven-inch, and several years later have been rewarded with a deal with heavy hitters Season of Mist. The end result of all that effort is Heart of Oak, one of the most fully realized debut albums since Baroness’s Red Album in 2007. An amalgam of myriad styles – one can hear doom, black metal, NWOBHM, and classic rock on a single track – the songwriting is never overtly precious. Guitarists Chris Dyck and Kenny Cook keep a level head, no matter how meandering the songs get, some of the finest examples being “Overthrone”, “Falling in Line”, and “Flood and Fire”. Heart of Oak is at its best when juxtaposing moments of ferocity with instances of genuine soul, when a song will gracefully shift into a solo break that stops you in your tracks, or in the case of the tender “For Lisa”, an elegiac melody. Big things are in store for Anciients, and it was all because they didn’t rush things. Their patience is going to pay off. (MSN, April 16)

001tag11.Vaura, The Missing (Profound Lore)

By now everyone should be well aware of the continuing, strangely symbiotic relationship between black metal and post-punk. Either you love it, or you’re sick to death of it. If you’re of the former opinion, Vaura’s second album will blow you away. Led by singer/guitarist Joshua Strawn (formerly of the excellent and woefully misunderstood goth band Blacklist) and written in collaboration with guitarist Kevin Hufnagel (who’s played on an incredible number of great albums in the last couple years), Vaura finds a remarkable middle ground between the two musical styles and combines them in a way that hasn’t done since the dearly missed Amesoeurs did on their first and only album. And incredibly, there’s no compromise on either side: the black metal passages go big, and the gothic melodies, which Strawn has a real gift for, go big. These aren’t shy, melancholy goth hooks like early Cure; there’s some serious, full-blown, Sisters of Mercy/Simple Minds/Gene Loves Jezebel melodrama going on here. We’re talking high-gloss 1986-’87. Gigantic melodies, which, when mixed with the metallic undercurrent, Strawn’s rich singing voice, and his propensity for provocative lyrics, makes for gloomily majestic crescendos you just want to drown in, as on “Incomplete Burning” and “Mare of the Snake”. Because it’s so black and white, so unabashedly devoted to a less “cool” period of post-punk a lot of listeners might ignore, it could be a challenging listen, but like the best metal bands, Vaura does it big, and that daring grandiosity – right down to the gorgeous art design – makes it an enigmatic yet beguiling experience. (Decibel, November 13)

The Best Metal Albums of 2013: #30 – 21

001tag30. Bölzer, Aura (Iron Bonehead)

Swiss death metal duo Bölzer – that’s right, a death metal duo – is responsible for one of 2013’s best death releases in the “Aura” EP, and they hammered out a towering set that threw the full room into a frenzy, frontman KzR’s guitar tone so massive that everyone forgot there was no bassist, while his screams felt more tortured, more maniacal than your usual death growler. The buzz in advance of the band’s set was palpable, and they exceeded all expectations. (MSN, September 24)

001tag29. Pinkish Black, Razed to the Ground (Century Media)

The Fort Worth duo wowed me early last year with their first album, and after signing with Century Media – as surreal a home for a noise/no-wave duo as you’ll ever find – they’ve quickly returned with a follow-up that builds mightily on the already highly unique sound of the debut. Dark enough to appeal to fans of vintage goth and post-punk (think Suicide, Bauhaus, and Killing Joke) yet powerful enough to have metal critics like yours truly waxing ecstatic, Pinkish Black’s music straddles genres in a way that few others can match, and anyone who likes daring music regardless of genre will be floored by this outstanding follow-up. The setup remains the same – drums and keyboards exclusively – but the sounds Daron Beck and Jon Teague coax out of their instruments make you forget just how minimal they are, especially on the pulsating title track, which feels like a krautrock interpretation of a John Carpenter movie soundtrack. Echoing Scott Walker one minute and Godflesh the next (just listen to “Bad Dreamer”), a lot more range is shown on this album yet the core Pinkish Black sound is never deviated from. Two records in, they sound absolutely commanding. (MSN, September 17)

001tag28. Motörhead, Aftershock (UDR)

What’s remarkable about “Aftershock” is how it responds to the world in typical Lemmy fashion: loud, abrasive, middle finger upraised, a defiant “f*** you” to those who think the man should slow down. There’s a snarl in Motörhead that audiences haven’t heard since “Inferno”, and I’m not just referring to Lemmy’s distinct singing. Recent records have seen Campbell bringing a little rockabilly into the band’s material, but this time around his riffs have an unmistakable bite to them. Meanwhile, Mikkey Dee throttles his drum kit relentlessly, the double-kicks often going into overdrive. Sure, Lemmy plagiarizes himself here and there – “Death Machine” nicks its riff from “Shoot You in the Back” – but new ideas were never his forte. Tracks like “Heartbreaker”, “Paralyzed”, “Crying Shame”, “End of Time”, and “Going to Mexico” are relentless in their ferocity, a pleasure to hear.

As if aware that this 14-track album would be at risk of sounding too repetitive, a couple of slower numbers have been tossed in to mix things up a little, and both are effective: “Lost Woman Blues” is a straight-ahead slow-burning blues jam that morphs into a nasty, swinging groove, while “Dust and Glass” displays a little soul to complement all the badassery. As immediately pleasing as it is, the heightened attention surrounding Lemmy’s health makes “Aftershock” feel all the more a small triumph. All he and his mates have done is put together one of their best albums in the last 20 years. (MSN, September 25)

001tag27. Clutch, Earth Rocker (Weathermaker)

When Clutch headed into to record their tenth studio album with producer Machine, their intentions were clear. The last Clutch album Machine produced was 2004’s hard rocking Blast Tyrant, and after a series of albums that saw the Maryland band exploring their blues and jam band tendencies, they’ve returned with a record that, like Blast Tyrant, explodes with pure rock fury. The blues influence is there, in Neil Fallon’s lyrics and baritone singing and Tim Sult’s understated guitar work, and the rhythm section of drummer Jean-Paul Gaster and bassist Dan Maines continue to bring the groove better than anyone, but the overall attack is more insistent, more energetic than languid. The title track and fan-favorite-in-the-​making “Crucial Velocity” kick the album off in spectacular, insistent fashion, setting the stage for a scorching run of songs, highlighted by the funk-fuelled “D.C. Sound Attack”, the rampaging “Once More Unto the Breach”, and the swinging “Cyborg Bette”. With the dark blues of “Gone Cold” showing that Clutch hasn’t totally abandoned their more brooding side, this is one rollicking good time, Clutch’s best work since Robot Hive/Exodus. (MSN, March 19)

001tag26. Amorphis, Circle (Nuclear Blast)

They might be responsible for one of the best metal albums of the 1990s in Tales From the Thousand Lakes, but if you ask me, the best thing Amorphis ever did was hire Tomi Joutsen as their lead singer. Ever since they did that the Finnish band has experienced a creative resurgence like few other bands, and Circle, their fifth with Joutsen at the mic, is their best yet. Nothing has changed with regards to the band’s formula – “Hopeless Days”, “The Wanderer”, and “Nightbird’s Song” have the band working that gothic-tinged folk metal formula to near perfection – but the songs are so strong this time, each one playing to all the band’s strengths, the best of which being Joutsen’s versatile voice, which can switch from clean melodies to a formidable death growl on a dime. Amorphis are a band that tends to be taken for granted, but not this year. This album is year-end list material. (MSN, April 30)

001tag25. Portal, Vexovoid (Profound Lore)

Even when you make two of the most harrowing death metal albums ever recorded, you still have to take your music somewhere else after that. You’d hardly expect Australian band Portal to be complacent with the acclaim that 2003’s ‘Seepia’ and 2007’s masterpiece ‘Outré’ attracted, but still, 2009’s follow-up ‘Swarth’ felt like a holding pattern in comparison with those two previous groundbreaking albums, not offering up many new ideas. It was still a very impressive album, but with its thinner tone it lacked the same visceral impact of the other records.

That’s changed with ‘Vexovoid’, as Portal has returned with an album that feels as bold as ‘Outre’ but fine-tunes the sound enough to set it apart from anything they’ve done before. Sonically the seven-track album is how a Portal album should sound like: dense, claustrophobic, suffocating, guitar, bass, and drums creating a thick, murky sound that makes listeners want to come up for air. While there’s as plenty of emphasis on atonality as expected, actual melodies also rise to the surface. Granted, those melodies are slyly inserted into the music, but it works brilliantly, drawing listeners into that dank abyss more willingly. And once they’re there, the true horror begins, as The Curator, he of the growl so bone-dry you can envision coffin dust obscuring his foetid rictus, spews lyrics that are arch, confounding, and unsettling: “Amberguity Sapient Supernumanery…Suspend…Mummified…Sculptures enmesh.” A Portal record should shake you to the core on all levels, and ‘Vexovoid’ succeeds in every possible way. (Terrorizer magazine)

001tag24. Author & Punisher, Women & Children (Seventh Rule)

Innovator Tristan Shone wasted no time putting together follow-up to last year’s shattering debut Ursus Americanus, and has come through with a record that takes the one-man industrial/doom idea – all performed on his own specially designed instruments – but expands the music even more. The breadth of this record is impressive, exploring more brooding arrangements to go along with the crushing sounds we’ve come to know, as well as the surprising inclusion of vocals. As a result, a track like “Miles From Home” packs a bigger emotional wallop than anyone could ever have expected. Shone is injecting some welcome humanity into his compositions, but even then he’s doing so in as disturbing and unsettling fashion as possible. (MSN, June 11)

001tag23. Mansion, We Shall Live (Svart)

Much like Sabbath Assembly’s treatment of the philosophy of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, there’s a level of sincerity in the four songs on Mansion’s mesmerizing debut EP We Shall Live that’s both enthralling and unsettling. Atop superbly crafted doom arrangements, a singer who calls herself “Alma” – clearly singing from the perspective of Alma Kartano – intones the lyrics with such stone-faced conviction that you’re taken aback by it. “I will carry on waiting for the day,” she sings. “We shall live; you will die. Every weakling will expire, their sins will be the wall we’ll climb out of the darkness into the light.” Is she proselytizing? Is she paying homage? Is this all tongue-in-cheek? It’s sold so convincingly that it’s impossible to tell, and that added mystique makes the songs all the more intoxicating. Musically, We Shall Live fits neatly between Jess and the Ancient Ones and Purson, but has a much stronger air of mystery. It might be only 22 minutes long, but it is unquestionably one of the best debuts of the year so far. (MSN, June 27)

001tag22. Amon Amarth, Deceiver Of The Gods (Metal Blade)

For a band known for not changing its formula one iota, yet whose new albums continue to outsell the previous ones, how far can you take that predictability before you hit that proverbial brick wall? Just how fresh can you make your music sound before the masses simply tire of you? It’s a tricky situation for Amon Amarth, which finds itself on the precipice of a significant commercial breakthrough, especially in much-coveted, fickle America, with a series of albums under its belt that have exhibited only the subtlest of adjustments over the course of the last decade. Where do they go from here?

It turns out the burly Swedes had an idea for their ninth album. Instead of having their regular producer Jens Bogren helm the new record, they joined forces with Andy Sneap, a producer more known for his work with more melodically inclined bands than Swedish death metal. It was a masterstroke of a move, too, for Amon Amarth has come through with loads of knockout melodies on these ten new tracks, which Sneap has been able to draw out without compromising the band’s death metal roots whatsoever. The title track and ‘Father Of The Wolf’ slyly veer towards At The Gates melodeath, ‘As Loke Falls’ and ‘Under Siege’ are led by mournful hooks, while ‘Blood Eagle’ is a fun reminder of how punishing the band can still be. (Terrorizer magazine)

001tag21. Årabrot, Årabrot (Fysisk Format)

Two years after garnering plenty of attention with the daring and unpredictable “Solar Anus” and surprising many by winning a Norwegian Grammy, the experimental band is back with another peculiar excursion into the outer reaches of metal, noise, and punk. Not only does the music constantly defy categorization – a feat so rare in this age of subgenres that critics do backflips when an album isn’t easily labeled – but Årabrot is also unique in how the songs are all inspired by artists who similarly pushed boundaries: Georges Bataille, Robert Desnos, Jean Cocteau, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Grinding and churning away with the ferocity of KEN Mode, the weight of the Melvins, and with the abrasive scrape of Shellac, this is another front-to-back enthralling effort by a wildly original band. (MSN, September 3)

The Best Metal Albums of 2013: #40 – 31

001tag40. KEN Mode, Entrench (Season of Mist)

The Western Canadian band follows up the Juno Award-winning Venerable with a fifth album that continues the evolution of their distinct blend of AmRep noise, tense hardcore, and robust metal riffing. While Venerable was pleasing because the band’s songwriting had finally caught up to their incredible live energy, Entrench is an improvement on all fronts. Working with producer Matt Bayles, the Winnipeg trio has created their biggest-sounding record to date, combining vitriol that rivals Today is the Day with a thick-sounding rhythm section. As a result, that tetchiness of the band’s songs is now augmented by a punchier sound that brings out the aggression and anger even more. This is yet another huge step forward by a band that continues to improve greatly with each new release. Now you can truly say these guys are in what Henry Rollins called, “Kill everyone now mode.” (MSN, March 19)

001tag39. Kadavar, Abra Kadavar (Nuclear Blast)

Kadavar’s debut album had many of us furrowing our brows and saying, “Another[$ITALICS] Swedish retro band?” The trio hails from Berlin, it turns out, but so strong was their replication of all sounds 1970, the comparison to the current wave of like-minded bands from Sweden was begging to be made. Like the best of those Swedish acts, Kadavar have quickly created their own niche: Sabbath and Pentagram obviously form the foundation, but there’s a level of filthiness to the music that also bears similarities to Buffalo and Captain Beyond. Although Wolf Lindemann’s rather flat singing is an acquired taste, this second album is a good improvement over the last record, thanks to the swinging ‘Dust’ and the psychedelic ‘Liquid Dream’. (Terrorizer magazine)

001tag38. Agrimonia, Rites Of Separation (Southern Lord)

The Swedish band’s sound is next to impossible to pin down, but that’s a good thing. A great example is the 11-minute “Talion”, which kicks off their third album, as it veers from pensive melodies, to post-rock, to typical Southern Lord crust, to moments of sheer devastation led by vocalist Christina. The song lengths might be long, but this is very involving music, with enough of a progressive air to it that will attract those who have gotten sick of the label’s recent crust punk obsession. (MSN, April 30)

001tag37. Magister Templi, Lucifer Leviathan Logos (Cruz Del Sur)

A lazy writer would describe Magister Templi as “just another Mercyful Fate rip-off band”, but the Norwegian band brings a whole lot more to the table than just some half-handed Melissa homages. Doom, NWOBHM, and European heavy metal coalesce into a spellbinding debut album that contains many reference points, yet refuses to settle on one. You hear Pagan Altar one minute, Candlemass the next, and yet, the great Fate the next, and it’s all held together by musicians that are clearly experienced enough to not let those influences become too distracting. For an “old school” album this record is deceptively varied all the while delighting in occult/Satanic lyrical things. Tying it all together like The Dude’s rug is the brilliantly named singer Abraxas d’Ruckus, who belts out his lines in an authoritative bellow, taking already excellent compositions and catapulting them even further. “Master of the Temple”, “Lucifer”, and “Tiphareth” immediately stand out thanks to some very contagious lead riffs and d’Ruckus’s persona, while the acoustic-tinged “Vitriol” incorporates a pagan, Black Widow influence into a decidedly evil arrangement, proof that Magister Templi are much more than a retro gimmick. (MSN, May 7 )

001tag36. Powerwolf, Preachers Of The Night (Napalm)

Power metal is such a difficult genre to get right. Not only do you have to have the right amount of instrumental and vocal flamboyance, but the songs have to be unbelievably catchy al the time. Bombast is key, but that sing-along quality is as well, and the one power metal band that did it better than any other in 2013 was Powerwolf, whose latest album offered the same werewolves-meet-Catholic shtick craziness they’ve always done. As insane as these songs are, you remember them long after first hearing them. Attack. Attack. Amen, and attack.

001tag35. Grave Miasma, Odori Sepulcrorum (Profound Lore)

While Carcass deservedly attract the bulk of attention this week, fans of the more primal side of death metal will be equally elated by the arrival of Grave Miasma’s much-anticipated full-length debut. Warmly recorded by Jaime Gomez Arellano yet dense enough to envelop listeners and towering enough to evoke the kind of ominous power this form of music demands, the UK band immediately establish themselves among death metal’s elite with this album. Evoking the cavernous morbidity of Incantation’s seminal “Onward to Golgotha” yet confident and brash enough to throw their own ideas into the mix – the inclusion of Hammond organ is inspired – this foursome make one hell of a statement. (MSN, September 17)

001tag34. Locrian, Return To Annihilation (Relapse)

Consistently one of the most exciting avant-garde bands in the country, Locrian continue to evolve with each new record. The Chicago band’s latest album takes their abstract sound and molds it into something more accessible than anything they’ve ever done before. It feels like a natural progression from 2011’s The Clearing and last year’s collaborations with Mamiffer and Christoph Heemann, but at the same time pulls the rug out from under the listener with songs with definable structure like the synth-accentuated “Eternal Return” and the acoustic guitar/drone combination of “Two Moons”. Still, the band is at their best when cranking up the krautrock influence, combining it with elements from post-rock and black metal on lengthier cuts like “A Visitation From the Wrath of Heaven” and “Panorama of Mirrors”. It all comes to a head on the concluding, 15-minute piece “Obsolete Elegies”, yet another brilliant instance where conventional instrumentation (in this case, piano and acoustic guitar) mesh with haunting thuds and groans, Tangerine Dream-influenced synth melodies slowly taking the melody skyward. Crucially, this is “experimental” music that doesn’t keep new listeners at an arm’s length; it’s plenty abrasive at times, but it’s enveloping and welcoming, and this record has more than enough warmth to offset the deathly chill. (MSN, June 25)

001tag33. Jess & the Ancient Ones, Astral Sabbat (Svart)

Nine months after the release of the album they’ve put out the three-song Astral Sabbat EP, and what’s cool about this record is that it gives you the sense that there’s no complacency in this band at all. Indeed, it might come off to some as a mere stopgap release, but when you hear it, Astral Sabbat feels like a bold step by a band determined to evolve, not just recycle the same formula over and over. The new material sounds richer, as the band mines the psychedelic sound of their music even more deeply. The pulsating title track is an inspired replication of acid rock, built around a contagious bassline groove that carries the song from start to finish, as lead singer Jess takes on more of a deep-voiced, Grace Slick-style persona more than ever before. A faithful but spirited cover of Shocking Blue’s 1969 single “Long and Lonesome Road” is an excellent choice, a song that’s right in this band’s wheelhouse, but the real gem on this EP is the 15-minute “More Than Living”. “Sulfur Giants” already showed Jess and the Ancient Ones have plenty of skill when it comes to assembling a song that stays engaging for more than 12 minutes, but “More Than Living” is even bolder, expanding on the idea, gracefully transitioning from subdued, acoustic guitar/piano sections to more insistent hard rock sections. It ebbs and flows beautifully, seamlessly, the mark of a band that not only knows how to replicate vintage sounds, but put together something smart and creative in the process. The track is an inspired climax to a shockingly good EP. If you weren’t excited about the potential of this fine band last year, you should be now. (MSN, March 8)

001tag32. Jex Thoth, Blood Moon Rise (I Hate)

It had been three long years since we last heard from the Wisconsin singer and leader of her eponymous band, on 2010’s ‘Witness’ EP and Sabbath Assembly’s album ‘Restored To One’, but now she’s once again ready to share some new music, and she and her band have come through with a knockout album in ‘Blood Moon Rising’. Centered as usual on Thoth’s crystalline, dulcet singing, unlike past releases the band’s trademark doom influence is held back just a touch, allowing for more of a psychedelic influence to creep to the surface. The overall effect is seductive, resulting in Thoth and the band’s finest work to date…The new record is more about restraint, with such understated tracks as ‘Into A Sleep’ and the beautiful, seductive ‘Keep Your Weeds’ opting for a slow burn rather than a pulverizing payoff. In turn, that subtlety serves as a perfect backdrop against which for the charismatic singer to turn in an immediately memorable performance. (Terrorizer magazine)

001tag31. Kvelertak, Meir (Roadrunner)

Popular music has always been ephemeral, but in the digital age it’s becoming more and more crazed every year, where the most ridiculous, off-the-wall songs capture the imagination of millions, sometimes billions. Heavy metal isn’t exempt, either. In early 2010 an unknown band named Kvelertak became an overnight sensation among file sharers, word spreading like mad about this crazed group of drunkards singing in Norwegian and playing a raucous blend of punk rock and black metal. In fact that first album was so widely shared that most people had the MP3s by the time it was officially released in North America a year later.

Three years later, everyone including the band knows you can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice, and there’s bound to be a more measured response from listeners now that the novelty has worn off. All they can do is build from that rollicking debut, and Kvelertak do so to superb effect on Meir. Reuniting with producer Kurt Ballou, the energy is still there on such barnstormers as “Månelyst” and “Buane Brenn”, and there are loads of explosive hooks amidst the fury (“Spring Fra Livet”, “Snilepisk”), but the big difference is how much more eclectic the record is. A classic rock feel permeates much of Meir, whether it’s the Zeppelin-esque acoustic guitar heard on “Evig Brandrar” or those undeniable Stones-influenced riffs that highlight “Tordenbrak”, and in so doing Kvelertak, already a difficult band to categorize, transcend metal and hardcore, delivering a very good, often great rock ‘n’ roll record. (Decibel magazine)

The Best Metal Albums of 2013: #50 – 41

001tag50. The Cult of Dom Keller,
The Cult of Dom Keller (Mannequin)

I first learned of this peculiar Nottingham band when they shared a split seven-inch single with Shooting Guns, and that track was enough to put them on my radar. And when they released their first proper full-length album, not only was I mighty interested, but I was pleasantly surprised by its eclectic combination of ominous heavy rock and fuzzed-out psychedelia.

001tag49. Untimely Demise, Systematic Eradication (Punishment 18)

Unlike Toxic Holocaust, Untimely Demise’s brand of thrash is devoutly Eurocentric, and unlike Warbringer (see below), they know what they’re doing on their new record. Slickly recorded and performed and with a strong sense of dynamics as well as intricacy, the Canadian band take a big step forward on the follow-up to 2010’s City of Steel, coming across as a neat balance between Arch Enemy and Kreator. Songs like “Spiritual Embezzlement” and “Somali Pirates” are absolute scorchers, while “The Last Guildsman” and “Revolutions” showcase lead shredder/vocalist Matt Cuthbertson’s greatly improving melodic sensibility. (Decibel, October 30)

001tag48. Domovoyd, Oh Sensibility (Svart)

Equal parts space rock, doom, and post rock, this Finnish band creates a distinct sound that’s as hazy as it is pulverizing, with guitar work that sounds like Kevin Shields putting his own twisted spin on Matt Pike’s riffs. “By Taking Breath” and “Effluvial Condenser” are stunners. Finnish underground metal seems to be exploding right now, and this is a real discovery by the folks at Svart Records. (Decibel, October 16)

001tag47. Cult of Fire,
मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान

Yes, that’s Sanskrit, and no, I have no idea how it’s pronounced, nor what it means. If the guys in Cult of Fire do, then good for them. Musically this second album is an even balance of rote black metal orthodoxy and bold experimentation: melodic then atonal, structured then abstract, straightforward then mesmerizing. Another incredible discovery by German tastemaker Iron Bonehead. (Decibel, December 4)

001tag46. Paradox, Tales of the Weird (AFM)

True to their name, Paradox find a neat balance between the soaring, bombastic melodies of power metal and the aggression of thrash, and Tales of the Weird walks that line with supreme skill. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that guitarist Charly Steinhauer is also a very good singer, providing strong, authoritative lead vocals as well as excellent range. With Christian Münzner, who is best known for his work in Obscura, the band has a stellar guitar tandem, and those two ingredients mesh well on the title track, which kicks off the album in Iced Earth-like fashion. It’s a bold move to start off a thrash record with a nine-minute track, but the catchy “Tales of the Weird” holds up extremely well. After that, the band gets down to brass tacks with a scorching of six songs, ranging from the hyperspeed “Day of Judgment”, the darker-hued “Brutalized”, the brooding “Fragile Alliance”, and the all-out ferocity of “The Downward Spiral”. If that wasn’t enough, a brilliant cover of Rainbow’s classic “A Light ion the Black” is tacked on at the end, its speed and melody a perfect fit for this band, capping off an album that came from seemingly out of nowhere to slay yours truly. (MSN, January 15)

001tag45. Ihsahn, Das Seelenbrechen (Candlelight)

Like Eremita, Das Seelenbrechen is inspired by the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche – “breaking souls…is one of art’s mightiest effects” – but things get much more eclectic, very quickly. After a pair of songs that ease listeners into the record by staying within metal confines and not drifting too far away from the Eremita feel, the mood gradually shifts. The nimble yet restrained progressive rock of “NaCl” gives way to the gorgeously mellow electronic tones of album highlight “Pulse”, to the surreal, horn-punctuated funk of “Tacit”, to the harrowing krautrock experimentation of “See”. Unlike the manic playfulness of Devin Townsend, Ihsahn’s restraint throughout, especially on the stupendous second half, keeps this surprising and strangely satisfying record on an even keel. (Decibel magazine)

001tag44. Deep Purple, Now What?! (Eagle Rock)

What a pleasure it is to not only have Deep Purple still around performing, but making vital new music as well. Their first album since 2005’s Rapture of the Deep sees the legendary band continuing to age gracefully while still showing signs of ambition, as well as rocking mighty hard every once in a while. Guitarist Steve Morse continues to prove to be a valuable contributor, while Don Airey honors the late Jon Lord’s legacy with keyboard work that remains faithful to that core Deep Purple sound, but in the end it’s Ian Gillan’s charming persona that makes this record so winning, always showing a wry sense of humor while captivating listeners with his tasteful singing. In fact, “A Simple Song” is as good a song as they’ve written in the last 26 years, “All the Time in the World” is a surprisingly sweet ballad, while “Vincent Price” closes things in imposing, moody fashion. If this winds up being their last studio album, they’ll be going out on a high note. (MSN, April 30)

001tag43. Ranger, Knights of Darkness (Ektro)

This year’s token “traditional” heavy metal album appears to be Satan’s Life Sentence, which has been making the rounds on several lists this month. Which is fantastic, because it’s a terrific album by a band making a long, long overdue comeback, but in my opinion the debut EP by Finland’s Ranger made an even stronger impression in 2013. Devotees of the classic speed metal sound pioneered by the likes of Exciter, Agent Steel, and Helstar, these five tracks capture the over-the-top energy of that classic sound, from the dynamic songwriting to the piercing screams by bassist Dimi Pontiac. These guys are all about looking and sounding like 1984, and they do it as well as anybody. (Decibel, December 18)

001tag42. Uzala, Tales of Blood and Fire (King of the Monsters)

I was a big fan of the Idaho band’s debut from last year, but was not prepared for the kind of leap they display on the follow-up. This time around they’ve brought in the great Tad Doyle as producer, and the recording is not only better, but singer/guitarist Darcy Nutt is a revelation, delivering powerful vocal melodies to go along with the blend of doom and drone on such tracks as “Seven Veils” and “Dark Days”. At times it approaches Jex Thoth levels of majesty. (Decibel, October 16)

001tag41. Noisem, Agony Defined (A389)

I was lucky enough to have young Baltimore thrash phenoms Noisem roll through my part of the world, and while I was already an admirer of the band – Agony Defined is the best thrash album of the year – I was curious to see how their intense yet riffy brand of thrash translated live. The poor folks gathered on the floor of the club, they didn’t know what hit them. They arrived early to see Skeletonwitch and the Black Dahlia Murder, and found themselves face to face with a crazed singer who broke the fourth wall in total hardcore fashion, pacing back and forth on the floor, screaming in people’s faces. There’s none of that in metal, that’s a hardcore thing, I thought derisively, but egads did it have an effect. A few startled people drifted away, but more were drawn by the psychotic spectacle and drifted closer to the stage to experience this band’s blistering music head-on. For a 25-minute opening set it was enormously impressive that a band could summon that much energy and rage at 8:00 in front of 30 people, but Noisem did so in convincing fashion. These kids are for real. (Decibel, November 13)

The Best Metal Albums of 2013: Introduction

I could not have gotten into heavy metal at a better time. In 1983-1984, a mere 13 years into its evolution as a proper musical genre, it shifted from its nascent period to full-blown maturity. It was a perfect storm of potential being realized, youth culture, and the zeitgeist, making for a period of musical discovery a budding music fan could only dream of. Over the course of the next seven years metal would evolve at an unparalleled rate. Something groundbreaking would come out every month or two, it seemed, and for those a few years younger than me who would come of age right when the more extreme side of heavy metal truly started to take shape in the early 1990s, it was very much the same thing, an incredible rate of progression and innovation.

We had no idea at the time, but we were spoiled. The possibilities seemed limitless as metal headed into the 21st century, and as I became a metal music writer I projected many of those high expectations, a product of that 1980s metal explosion, on to a new crop of bands. As a devotee of the history of the genre, it’s always fascinated me just where the music could go next. The thing is, though, as each post-millenial year goes by, the more apparent it is that heavy metal not only has limits, but has essentially reached that limit from an innovation standpoint. After an era of seemingly perpetual invention, all the post-2000 years has yielded, music-wise, is an extended period of stasis (when I’m in a sour mood I call it “atrophy”, when I’m more optimistic it’s a “plateau”). The last true sea changes in heavy metal were the integration of metal and hardcore – Botch’s 1999 album We Are the Romans being a significant milestone – and the “math metal” direction kickstarted by The Dillinger Escape Plan and perpetuated by Between the Buried and Me and a throng of lesser talented disciples.

Since then, anything “new” and “innovative” done in metal has involved musicians stepping outside the boundaries of the genre more and more. Shoegaze, industrial, post-punk, krautrock, progressive rock, jazz, trance, dubstep. It’s been happening gradually over the past ten years, but Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather just might be the first major splintering that will eventually see “extreme music” separating completely from actual heavy metal. Although my opinion on the album has already been published and will not change, it remains the most critically acclaimed album of 2013, of any genre, marking the first time an album that has occupied that grey area between “metal” and “extreme music” has captured the attention of so many mainstream critics and audiences. Some critics still call Sunbather “metal”, but to do so is to forget what makes heavy metal heavy metal in the first place, merely clutching to the few metallic threads in an otherwise richly varied musical fabric. In reality, Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely.

From day one, every single facet heavy metal has been extreme in some way, shape, or form, from Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, to glam metal, thrash, death, grind, black, doom, math, and on and on. But contrary to what some might assume, extremity is not the most important characteristic of heavy metal. Power is. And what we’re seeing with Sunbather is extremity eschewing visceral power in favour of emotional resonance and pastoral beauty. It’s pretty, but it does not convey the sense of extravagant power that Black Sabbath set the template for in the first three notes of its eponymous song and which has since become the genre’s most important tenet. And what is becoming apparent as bands like Deafheaven widen their musical breadth is that “extreme music” is the true limitless form of music.

So perhaps this is the kind of sea change someone like yours truly have been waiting for, only not quite the one I might have expected. As extreme music leaves metal in its wake, what is left is a musical genre like the blues, like country, one that has a good niche set for itself and is still capable of thrilling music, but is essentially a relic. There is plenty of creativity on display within the confines of those genre boundaries, but the days of true innovation, recordings that irrevocably alter the genre, seem over. It might seem old news to some readers, but for me the end of 2013 was when I had to face facts and embrace that.

And that, in turn, has significantly changed how I approach new metal music as a critic. I’m no longer looking for that next great innovator, instead striving to find music that epitomizes what makes every aspect of metal so great, be it “classic” heavy metal, thrash, death, black, grind, power, goth, doom, and on and on. Does it make you feel like running through a brick wall? Does it make you feel like you’re a 15 year-old headbanger again? Does it reach insane levels of ludicrousness and silliness? Does it convey a sense of evil, dread, or menace? Does it shock? Does it make you want to pump your fist and throw the horns in a completely unironic way? When all’s said and done, it’s not about innovation, it’s not about extremity. It’s about power in that classic, weirdly undefinable sense, and of the hundreds of albums I heard in 2013, I have found 50 well worth mentioning. That’s less than five percent of what I’ve heard – the lack of quality control in heavy metal is a whole other can of worms – but whichever way your interests lean, there’ll be something here you’ll like. Or if you’re like me and prefer a “taster’s menu” from all subgenres, then prepare to feast. And don’t worry, this top 50 is 100 percent Deafheaven free.

Save for three titles, all blurbs have been lifted from my previously published reviews and features. And although I left grindcore out of the following list, albums by Wake and Weekend Nachos were by far the best grind albums I heard this year.

And while I’m at it, here are the five best new metal bands I heard in 2013:
1. Mansion
2. Bölzer
3. Night Demon
4. Ranger
5. The Oath

Best metal shows I saw in 2013:
1. Carcass/Candlemass/Girlschool @ Noctis 666, Calgary, AB
2. Black Sabbath, Vancouver BC
3. Nihill @ Roadburn Festival, Tilburg, Netherlands
4. Meshuggah, Edmonton, AB
5. Metal Church @ 70,000 Tons of Metal, somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle.

Band I still can’t believe I saw three times in 2013:
Satan’s Satyrs

Best metal record labels of 2013:
20 Buck Spin
Profound Lore
Svart
Season of Mist
Rise Above

On the rise: death metal, traditional heavy metal, ripping off Can and passing it off as black metal, singing.

On the decline: black metal, ripping off W.A.S.P. and passing it off as “ritual”, Megadeth, As I Lay Dying, citing Swans as an influence, growling.

Cassettes I actually paid cash money for:
Nihill, As. Nihill Undead at Roadburn
Shooting Guns, Spectral Laundromat
Zirakzigil, Battle of the Peak

Surprisingly awesome demo tape I was handed by a dude at Roadburn who saw my Speedwolf shirt and insisted I listen:
Scavenger Brats, Electric Death

Best compliment of a band shirt I was wearing:
“I have no idea what Uncle Acid sounds like, but that is a GREAT name for a band.” (60-something guy in Vancouver)

Worst metal album of 2013:
Queensrÿche, Queensrÿche
Queensrÿche, Frequency Unknown (tie, shame on all you guys)

Most disappointing metal album:
Watain, The Wild Hunt

Metal album that had no business being as awesome as it is:
Stryper, No More Hell to Pay

Album I wanted to love a lot more than I actually do:
Black Sabbath, 13

Album by legendary band that deserved the hype and praise Black Sabbath’s 13 received:
Deep Purple, Now What?!

Acclaimed metal album that I didn’t understand the big deal about:
Inquisition, Obscure Verses For the Multiverse

2013 album that I’ll probably regret not singling out:
Tribulation, The Formulas of Death

2014 album I’m most excited for:
Triptykon

2014 album I’m dreading:
Slayer

The 2013 Album of the Year

band01

Paramore, Paramore


Back in 2006 I volunteered to review that year’s Warped Tour compilation for PopMatters. Compilations like that were always fun, with loads of variety it was easy to put together 700+ words. Of all 51 tracks on the two disc comp was a song featuring a then-17 year-old mopped with red hair called “Emergency”, and it was far and away the most interesting there. The girl was named Hayley, the band bore the cutesy name Paramore, and the way they combined pop hooks with straightforward post-punk was extraordinary, especially when you compared it to the sheer volume of sound-alikes and young hacks that permeate the Warped Tour every year. The Nashville band was still a bit rough around the edges, but you could hear something in the music that was unique, vibrant, and fun.

12 months later Paramore released Riot!, a record that saw the young band’s formula starting to coalesce beautifully, but in its singles – “Misery Business’, “crushcrushcrush”, the glorious “That’s What it Takes” – you could envision the kids transcending the whole post-punk thing completely. It also became glaringly obvious that Hayley Williams could easily eclipse her bandmates if the wanted. Here was a five-foot-nothing girl with a powerhouse voice, tremendous charisma, and a knack for some really unique vocal phrasing, and you could tell that the pop world could be hers to dominate if she wanted.

That creative momentum came to a dead halt on 2009’s Brand New Eyes. Despite a few strong tracks, it severely lacked the energy of Riot!, the typical portrait of a young, exhausted band trying desperately to make a strong statement on the follow-up to a breakthrough record and sounding fatigued in the process. Whether it was the whole Twilight soundtrack connection – did it ever take Paramore a long time to shake that stigma – or a lack of new ideas, the band had painted itself into a corner.

When brothers and original members Zac and Josh Farro left the band in December 2010 and posted a bitter, long-winded rant about how Paramore was a major label vehicle for Williams since day one, how she was the only one signed to Atlantic, and the rest of the band were treated as hired hands. This was the tipping point, the line being drawn in the sand between “rockism” and “poptimism”, resurrecting an age-old question: Can an act that is manufactured to come across as a “band” still have artistic merit? The Farros were practically claiming Williams had sold her soul to make Paramore a brand more than a band, questioning the integrity of the whole operation. What they were unwilling, or unable to admit, however, was that they were the ones holding the band back creatively. Josh Farro’s co-songwriting had hit the wall on Brand New Eyes, and if you look a little closer, intermittent member Taylor York had a hand in two of the band’s best songs, “That’s What You Get” and “Playing God”.

Which leads us to 2013’s Paramore. If there were any doubts as to whether the Farros were dead weights in this band, they have been erased completely. Paramore is an extraordinary transformation, an emancipation of sorts for Hayley Williams, the kind of redefinition from budding young talent to legitimate star that you do not see very often. Allmusic boldly declared the album “a landmark, a genre-breaking masterwork that, like Madonna’s Like a Prayer or U2’s Achtung Baby,” and once you get over the initial “huh?” upon reading that statement and spend time with the album, the more appropriate, nay, dead-on it turns out to be. In one fell swoop Paramore reduces its previous work to more two-dimensional snapsots, as this record is so rich, so varied, built completely around the unpredictable, eclectic personality of Williams. And most importantly, it’s a prime example of how hiring genuinely skilled, professional musicians to help craft a big, grandiose pop album – instead of a bunch of inexperienced young rockers – can work exceptionally well when done properly and tastefully.

It’s so typical of Williams The Reluctant Pop Star that the album cover features her not between York and Jeremy Davis, but on the right, looking away while her bandmates stare piercingly into the camera. She’s trying to make herself invisible, but the lighting is on her. The guys look drab and greenly lit, while her alabaster face shimmers. Is it a put-on? Of course it is. Of course she wants to be a pop star. But the contrivance of the cover also hints at a certain humility in Williams’ persona. She is going to knock your socks off, but instead of doing a photo spread like her pal Taylor Swift, this 24 year-old who looked so awkward on the cover of Cosmo is much more comfortable letting the music do the talking, which it does for 63 revelatory, exhilarating minutes.

Co-written solely by Williams and York – with the exception of two tracks – and produced by Justin Meidal-Johnsen, who did such brilliant work on M83’s career-defining 2011 double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, what Paramore does so brilliantly is simply clear room for Williams. For all the efforts of York, Davis, and Meidal-Johnsen, this album is all about Hayley. Her personality carries the entire record, as she puts on display after display of stunning versatility. She can rock the hell out as well as anyone on “Fast in My Car”, “Now”, “Proof”, and “Anklebiters”. She goes all ‘80s R&B on “Ain’t it Fun” and sells it with pure joy (“So whaddya gonna do when the world don’t open uh around you?”) while a gospel choir, a freaking gospel choir, the dumbest, most pandering gimmick in pop music, brings the song to a sensational, ebullient climax. She does the whole “adorkable” thing on the ukulele interludes interspersed throughout the record. She does Go-Go’s power pop “Daydreaming”), The Cure’s influence looms over the icy, melancholic “Part II”, “Last Chance” shamelessly goes for Coldplay stadium-friendly “crescendo rock”, while she displays the tenderness of a country chanteuse on the understated “Hate to See Your Heart Break”. “(One of Those) Crazy Girls” has a classic, Phil Spector-era girl group feel to it, sold beautifully by Hayley, and as a final, jaw-dropping coup de grace, “Future” has her sounding stripped down before giving way to her bandmates, who morph the track into a near-eight-minute exercise in heavy drone that rivals Isis. Yeah, that’s right.

The album’s true shining moment is its second single, “Still Into You”. Giddy, bouncy, and adorned with little touches that gleefully hearken back to the 1980s – the new wave-ish funk beat, the muted guitar accents, that bassline, those clapclap handclaps – it’s a classic, pitch-perfect execution of the bubblegum pop formula featuring a powerhouse vocal performance by Williams. “Can’t count the years on one hand, that we’ve been together,” she sings, adding ingeniously, “I need the other one to hold you, make you feel, make you feel better.” Strife and slight self-doubt, followed by a confession over a hushed bridge (“After all this time…”), and then an explosion of emotion in one of the most adorable lines I’ve ever heard in a pop tune: “I should be over all the butterflies.” Sung with pure, unadulterated joy. Now buoyed by that admission, Williams becomes more playful – just listen to her phrasing as she sings, “Recount the night that I first met your mother” – and the song climaxes in a joyous, disco-beat driven break in which Williams sums up her sentiment so succinctly it’s oddly poetic: “Some things just, some things just make sense and one of those is you and I.”

Unlike so many mainstream American pop and rock releases, Paramore is anything but top-heavy. Sure, the first half is sensational, but the deep cuts later on is plenty rewarding, with “Proof”, “Hate to See Your Heart Break”, and “(One of Those) Crazy Girld” forming a great little trifecta. And thanks to Meidal-Johnsen, plenty of subtle touches are smattered throughout the entire record, a great example being the glockenspiel that creeps into “Anklebiters”, lending the track lightness, a putdown delivered with a cheeky smile.

Because the band started off when its members were so young, Paramore still has the stigma of being a kids’ band, and therefore not deserving of praise from music tastemakers, but make no mistake, for all its emphasis on teen-pleasing pop hooks, this is a brave, surprisingly mature album that invites instead of panders. Throughout the album are smattered lyrical references to the Farros – and note the “grow up’ written on Williams’ jacket inside the album – but Paramore is nevertheless careful to take the high road. In the end, all the drama of three years ago will be a distant memory, left in the dust of this lovable, vital, career-defining piece of work. Is it major label “product”? Of course it is. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not great art, a potential classic work of pop rock, and an easy choice as my Album of the Year.

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The 2013 Single of the Year

band01Paramore, “Still Into You”

The lead single from Paramore’s fourth album, the dark “Now”, was an odd choice, one that left many wondering if that was the best the new record had to offer. All fears were tossed aside as soon as the follow-up debuted in the weeks prior to the album’s release. Giddy, bouncy, and adorned with little touches that gleefully hearken back to the 1980s – the new wave-ish funk beat, the muted guitar accents, that bassline, those clapclap handclaps – “Still Into You” is a classic, pitch-perfect execution of the bubblegum pop formula featuring a powerhouse vocal performance by singer Hayley Williams. “Can’t count the years on one hand, that we’ve been together,” she sings, adding whimsically yet sincerely, “I need the other one to hold you, make you feel, make you feel better.” Strife and slight self-doubt, followed by a confession over a hushed bridge (“After all this time…”), and then an explosion of emotion in one of the most adorable lines I’ve ever heard in a pop tune: “I should be over all the butterflies.” Sung with pure, unadulterated joy. Now buoyed by that admission, Williams becomes more playful – just listen to her phrasing as she sings, “Recount the night that I first met your mother” – and the song climaxes in a joyous, disco-beat driven break in which Williams sums up her sentiment so succinctly it’s oddly poetic: “Some things just, some things just make sense and one of those is you and I.” By far the band’s most successful single to date, this shamelessly sweet song was a slam dunk choice as Single of the Year.

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The Best Albums of 2013, #2

001tagChvrches,
The Bones of What You Believe

Glasgow trio Chvrches was the one band that got in my head, burrowed in and didn’t leave, for the entirety of 2013. I first learned about them when the BBC announced their Sound of 2013 nominees late last year, and starting with “The Mother We Share” right before New Year’s, “Recover” not long after, and “Gun” in spring, I gradually warmed to their simple but very clever sound. If there was ever a band perfectly designed to break out in 2013, it’s this one. They play icy yet wickedly hooky electropop in the vein of The Knife, Royksopp, and Robyn, while their arrangements are just artsy enough to echo the quirkiness of Grimes and Purity Ring. But the kicker, the thing that many on the indie side are willing to admit, there’s a commitment to unabashed emotion and pop melodrama that totally parallels the approach of Paramore. While some might say Lauren Mayberry’s lyrics venture a little too uncomfortably toward overkill, it’s that very element that gives this music much-needed humanity and sincerity – is there anything that makes hipsters more uncomfortable than sincerity? – and is why so many mainstream listeners have gravitated toward it. A great deal of credit goes to Mayberry, whose singing sounds both alluring, caustic, and vulnerable at the same time, and she dominates the bulk of the record, especially the menacing “Lies”, the tender “The Mother We Share”, the rosy-hued “Night Sky”, and the deceptive “Gun”. Meanwhile, her collaborators Martin Doherty and Iain Cook (formerly of post-rock band Aereogramme, much to my great surprise) create a minimal yet very rich and lively backdrop that proves to be every bit as charming as Mayberry’s singing, the best example being the climactic synth break near the end of “Tether”, a gentle explosion of stabbed notes that pop like little fireworks atop a ferocious dance beat. And even the two tracks sung by Doherty, which initially stuck in my craw because I so love Mayberry’s voice, have grown on me a great deal to the point where they’re no longer sticking points but well-timed respites from the visceral intensity of her songs. Loaded with phenomenal singles and more potentially great ones, The Bones of What You Believe is a beautiful marriage of the mainstream and the avant-garde, indie coolness and shameless romanticism. Were it not for the perfection of my chosen Album of the Year, this would have wound up at the top of the heap.

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The Best Singles of 2013, #2

band01Chvrches, “Recover”

I could have easily chosen any of Chvrches’ four 2013 singles for this spot on my list – they were all that good – but in the end I decided to go with the second song I ever heard them do, one that’s hung around and hung around all year long to the point that I’ve become quite attached to the thing. It might seem like fairly rote electropop, but it’s smarter than you think, which is reflected in the clever arrangement, which starts with stuttering synth stabs and glitch beats, moves to a more insistent beats and more graceful synth notes in the bridge, to big, sweeping, cascading, sustained chords in the chorus. But it’s Lauren Mayberry who provides the track with gutwrenching humanity, the monosyllabic way she spits out those words sounding like a girl trying to speak in between sobs: “I’ll give you one. More. Chance. To say we can change. Or. Part. Ways. And you take. What. You. Need. And you don’t. Need. Me.” Your heart bleeds for her.

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