Best of 2013
This year I’ve tried to pay closer attention to what specifically I’m looking for in my listening and what sort of themes/sounds/styles evoke the greatest emotional response. It’s made for an interesting take on the albums I’ve picked up, especially looking at how I view releases over time and my initial reactions vs an album’s long-term playability. Because of this, I’ve realized that end of year lists can be somewhat — okay, a lot — arbitrary because albums that you’ve have had 11 months to digest will clearly elicit different feelings than ones unleashed three weeks ago. That’s partly why I’ve waited as long as possible to post my choices for the best of 2013, so I ensure that I have proper gestation time for the new releases sitting in my library. I’ve already seen too many lists that hail week-old albums as the cream of the crop. All good art needs time to incubate, no matter how incredible the first impression may be.
Firm as I can be in my choices, I’ve left out anything that gave me the slightest doubt so I limited the list to 20 this year. My top picks have been solidified for some time, while other may still be slowly gaining. As it is now, here are my favorite releases of 2013.
20. Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed
Skeletonwitch have been chugging along with their brand of blackened death-thrash for a decade now. Adding only slight changes to their sound along the way, they’re a band that focuses more on consistency than experimentation. While their fifth album is hardly a change in direction, Kurt Ballou’s fancy knob-twisting finally gives them the production they deserve while the more refined riffery makes Serpents Unleashed impossible not to enjoy.
19. Fyrnask – Eldir Nótt
Fyrnask’s debut was a Bandcamp hit, but his follow-up seemed to get a little less exposure. It’s a challenging, epic journey through the densest thickets of atmospheric black metal and it’s impressive to see so much creativity and nuance flowing forth from a single brain. Those who thought Altar of Plagues’ last album a bit too experimental will find solace is this rising German star.
18. Deafheaven – Sunbather
Creating an even more massive schism between kvltists and hipsters, Deafheaven’s sophomore album is as polarizing as it is undeniably unique. They take the blackgaze movement to its logical conclusion with major chords and shimmering soundscapes that takes a frostbitten black starting point and makes it, well, pink.
17. Code – Augur Nox
While not as immediately gratifying as their previous effort, Augur Nox is still an exciting mass of black infused progressive metal. The new singer emulates Kvohst’s firebrand preacher style perfectly as the rest of the band brings an intense yet polished take on the avant-garde.
16. Inquisition – Obscure Verses for the Multiverse
The diabolical Seattle duo finally, and rightly, emerge from the black metal underground with their sixth full-length. Although it occasionally descends into mid-paced trudgery, the incessant mind-bending riffs keep the cosmic journey a shockingly good one. One of the few bands that can pull off a great-sounding album sans bassist.
15. Vastum – Patricidal Lust
As I wrote over at Metal Bandcamp, these Bay Area death crusties offer up another great slab of chugging and stomping depravity. With surprising solos, dual vocalists and ever-expanding riff patterns, fans of death metal old school and modern alike will find plenty to be unwillingly seduced by here.
14. Synkvervet – Vår Avmakt
By far the best debut of the year, these Norwegian newcomers take Emperor worship to a new level with their refined symphonic black metal. They get the keyboard tone and phrasing just right and make it fit naturally along with the rest of the band, and even pull off programmed drums that aren’t a complete distraction.
13. Noumena – Death Walks With Me
This year proved to be a bit of a melodeath revival for me. The first extreme subgenre I came to love hasn’t had all that much to write home about recently until nonstop offerings from almost all of the genre’s top contenders in just the past 9 months. But discovering Noumena is what really got me interested again with their slight tweaks of the Finnish formula raising them up to the top tier. Turns out experimentation with poppy melodies and female vocals is a recipe that works wonders.
12. Fir Bolg – Towards Ancestral Lands
I never thought I could bring myself to listen to an album with cover art so atrocious, let alone love it. The one-man French side project mixes Celtic folk sounds with Immortal-esque riffs and vocals that work surprisingly well. The hooks and upbeat choruses bring that rare sense of fun to black metal that makes you look at the genre a bit differently and appreciate it ever the more.
11. Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory and Injury
By far the most challenging album on this list, Altar of Plagues evolved their sound for what would be their final album. Dissonance reigns supreme as the Irishmen incorporate industrial influences and do away with double-digit song lengths, making this a swan song for the ages.
10. Acrimonious – Sunyata
As I wrote towards the beginning of the year, these Greeks’ psychedelic nods make their style of blackened witchery a monument to behold. It’s rare to find black metal that’s both this forward thinking and blazing with Hellenic fire.
9. Enforcer – Death by Fire
Essentially Kill ‘em All 2013, this album never left my stereo during the summer. The perfect mix of infectious riffs, aggression and downright fun, it’s a template for young speed metallers everywhere. Enforcer prove that although the genre may not have much new to offer, that doesn’t mean strapping on your leather pants and rocking balls-out ever goes out of style.
8. Arsis – Unwelcome
After their disappointing Starve for the Devil I was apprehensive about another Arsis album, especially considering the band had gone through even more lineup changes and even temporarily left James Malone behind. But the new crew ended up writing the best album since their debut and even pulled off a classic new wave cover alongside their blistering anthems.
7. Kalmah – Seventh Swamphony
As one of the bands that got me into extreme metal, Kalmah quickly lost my attention after their initial trio of blackened melodeath classics. I decided to give them one final shot with this horribly titled album, and I’m glad I did. The Kokko brothers’ masterful interplay is better than ever and the songs are an upbeat and headbangable treat. A true return to form for a band that desperately needs to tour the US.
6. Thrawsunblat – Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings
Fusing black and bombastic folk metal, Joel Violette continues his uber-Canadian project with fantastic results. The album follows Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, screaming a metallic tale of a hero on an epic adventure that both embraces and transcends the best of modern melodic metal.
5. Blood Ceremony – The Eldritch Dark
Leaning more towards occult rock than anything metal, these Torontonians take their Tullisms a step further into the folk land as they explore the witchwood. The men of the group hold things back a bit and let Alia O’Brien’s flute and organ take front and center, casting an unequaled enchanting spell.
4. Inter Arma – Sky Burial
This monolith of black-tinged sludge is so massive I’m still wrapping my head around it and discovering nuances nine months later. Epic in scope and delivery, these Virginians add a few Americana nods through the swampy foray that makes us this year’s best multi-genre assault.
3. Satan – Life Sentence
I’ve never been that much of a traditional heavy metal fan, and this album made me realize how stupid I am for that. Absolutely addicting, these reunited middle-aged Brits released one of the best NWOBHM albums in history after over two decades of hiatus. Their twin guitar assaults and tight-as-leather songwriting make for one of the easiest aural binges of the year. No band should be able to recover from a quarter century break, but Satan rise above all odds with an album that puts most 80s classics to shame.
2. Vreid – Welcome Farewell
The Norwegian black ‘n’ rollers keep getting better with age as they fully become riff-centric phenoms on their sixth full-length. With painfully good solos and abrupt tempo changes, they prove that the power of the fjords holds a never-ending supply of musical inspiration. I was lucky enough to sit down with songwriter Hváll on their tour bus earlier this year and ask him how their magnum opus was formed.
1. Tribulation – The Formulas of Death
With such a heaping of praise given to their debut, it would have been easy for these Swedes to stick to their guns and shoot out a damn good sophomore effort. Instead, they opted to change course and experiment with their thrashy death roots by adding in a heaping of psychedelic and progressive flourishes and came out with a masterpiece. There isn’t a single moment on the album that isn’t perfectly placed or written. Seeing the band open for Watain while wearing women’s clothing and gothic makeup only made me love them more, as it became clear they know exactly what the hell they’re doing. Tribulation have managed to break free of the the bonds of Swedish Death Metal while taking control of their country’s much-lauded scene.
2013 wasn’t as initially hard-hitting as 2012 but it’s had a lot of slowburners that gain momentum over time and helped shape the way I process the music that I buy, and for that I’m thankful. It’s also been a year that shows the subgenre world is in a transitional period. While this site will always be dedicated to the promotion of atypical black metal, a few disappointing releases made me realize that the “post”, “Cascadian” and “gaze” bubbles have essentially burst, and there isn’t much more to be desired in those realms. But intriguing melody and otherworldly influences will always find their way into black metal, no matter how deep they’re hidden. My goal in 2014 is to explore more older influential acts while still keeping up with newer innovators. It’s going to be an exciting time to do so, as just the first few months of the new year already have over a dozen high-profile releases from some of the world’s best acts. As always I’ll do my best to cover those, as well as any surprises that pop up along the way.