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)