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)

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