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)