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:
3. Night Demon
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:
Best metal record labels of 2013:
20 Buck Spin
Season of Mist
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, 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:
2014 album I’m dreading: