Hello, anyone reading this! Thanks for clicking on the link that brought you here. What follows is a list of albums and songs that I enjoyed this year (2013). Keep reading, and hopefully you discover something new!
Top 10 Albums of 2013 (These numbers are completely arbitrary, except for like, the top 3 or so. It's best to look at it as more of a collection than a list).
Batillus – Concrete Sustain, for being the funkiest metal album ever to be released.
KEN Mode – Entrench, for reminding me that hardcore is not dead, despite the new Black Flag’s best efforts.
Deafheaven – Sunbather, because it has a pink album cover and some angsty shit going on. And also it’s shoegaze, I guess.
Vastum – Patricidal Lust, for being the most un-sexy album ever written about sex, and for reminding me that old-school death metal is not a thing of the past.
Cult of Fire – ?????? ?? ????? ???????? (Editor's note: while the preceding letters may show up as question marks in your browser, they are actually Sanskrit characters), for teaching me more about Hinduism than six years of Hindu sunday school did, and for the best use of a sitar in 2013.
10. Merzbow – "Takahe Collage" (Handmade Birds)
I haven’t kept up with Merzbow’s extraordinarily prolific career over the past few years. I was surprised this last April when I saw an email from Handmade Birds Records detailing a limited edition release from the master of harsh noise. Inspired by the Takahe bird, this collection is an hour's worth of absorbing, ear-scraping industrial noise, but differs from his previous output in that it uses something that isn’t typical of a Merzbow release – rhythm. There’s a beating heart to these tracks, whether a deep industrial crunch (“Grand Owl Habitat”) or a drum machine (“Tendenko”).
Grand Owl Habitat
9. Wolvserpent – "Perigaea Antahkarana" (Relapse)
I could label this record as the best funeral doom record of the year, but that wouldn’t quite be correct. I could also label it as the best black metal release of the year, but that wouldn’t be right either. This is a band that has masterful control over dynamics – volume, atmosphere. In “Perigaea Antahkarana”, Wolvserpent provide a sonic template that melds field recordings, noise, drone, funeral doom, and black metal into something completely unique. The nature sounds, alongside the desolate, windswept atmospherics provided by Blake Green and Brittany McConnell give a sense of total, naturalistic immersion. Cascadia would be proud.
Within the Light of Fire
8. Dressed in Streams – "The Search for Blood" (Colloquial Sound)
Dressed in Streams are anonymous. They only release their (his? her?) music on cassette. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, open your ears to the actual best black metal album of 2013. The term lo-fi has become something of a misnomer in the music community. Indie bands often mask shoddy songwriting behind a layer of tape hiss, to give it that “grassroots” quality that seems to have ingrained itself into independent music. Dressed in Streams act to the contrary – the production is minimal, yes, but the raga-based compositions stand for themselves. These two songs are a masterclass in midtempo black metal. The wandering synths twist and turn over the visceral, menacing chaos, and when a riff finally emerges from the middle section of “No Atonement”, I experienced an auditory sensation similar to the first time I ever heard Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”. Sorry Kurt Vile, but this is how lo-fi is done.
7. SubRosa – "More Constant Than The Gods" (Profound Lore)
There must be something in the water in Salt Lake City. While my fair hometown has become known for epic black metal bands like Caladan Brood and Gallowbraid, SubRosa are a different beast entirely. Featuring Rebecca Vernon’s soulful yet melancholy vocals and two (!) electric violins, combined with the presence of a few absolutely crushing riffs, “More Constant Than The Gods” is a stunning achievement. The band doesn’t sink into the depths of funeral doom, however. Each track is buoyed up by almost hopeful choruses, that (in another genre) might encourage singing along. This contrast between fist-pumping hooks (see: the magnificent riff that opens “Cosey Mo”) and heart-wrenching melody (”Ghosts of a Dead Empire”) make “More Constant Than The Gods” a tremendously compelling listen.
6. Pharmakon – Abandon (Sacred Bones)
This was the heaviest album of the year for me. “Abandon” is, for lack of a better description, completely fucking brutal. Melding elements of death-industrial, power electronics, and adding a healthy dose of sheer aggression, Margaret Chadiet has created the best noise album of the year. The physicality that’s present in this music is incredible – the opener “Milkweed / It Hangs Heavy” opens with an eardrum-tearing screech, and then segues into a layered, dense piece replete with rattling metal, and high, uneasy synths, while “Ache” and “Pitted” open with industrial blasts of mind-bending noise. No other album this year put me on edge as much as this one did. Chadiet’s vocals are something else entirely – her tortured screams are off-kilter, throat-shredding, and frightening as hell. I can’t wait to hear more.
5. Inter Arma – Sky Burial (Relapse)
I’m a sucker for Americana. I love Springsteen and Neil Young. So it’s only natural that I love most metal projects that combine American folk stylings with the heavier side of things. Inter Arma falls square into that category. Psychedelic, mind-altering, immensely spacious prarie-tinged sludge that doesn’t skimp on acoustics or melody. What’s not to love? The best parts of this record aren’t even the metal ones (although the kick drumming on “‘sblood” is heavy as a ton of bricks) – they’re the pensive, somber meditations, rife with noise, even sometimes a theremin, that convey a mood so melancholy, so cosmically fatalistic that I can’t help but reflect on the universe. See the combo of “The Long Road Home (Iron Gate)” and “The Long Road Home” for a wistful acoustic guitar that over the course of fifteen or so minutes, evolves into a charging, blastbeat-filled finale, or the heartbreaking, wandering melody of “Love Absolute”. This is a record that shifts between western not-quite-country and incredible doom with sublime effortlessness, and that alone is reason to love it.
The Long Road Home
4. NAILS – Abandon All Life (Southern Lord)
Remember how I said Inter Arma was cosmic? Yeah, Nails are the opposite of that. Totally grounded, in-your-face, and with a sound that feels akin to a sledgehammer making contact with your face. This is aural violence, without compromise. “Abandon All Life” is only eighteen minutes long – for some bands, that would constitute an EP, but not this one. Nails say everything they need to say, and don’t overstay their welcome. From the huge opening seconds of “In Exodus” to the closing moments of “Suum Cuique”, Nails make a statement: a gigantic middle finger in your face and a “fuck you” to anyone who dismisses them.
3. The Body – Christs, Redeemers (Thrill Jockey)
When we spoke to The Body’s guitarist/noise wizard Chip King, he told us that his biggest goal with his music was to make his guitar sound as little like a guitar as possible. It’s safe to say he’s succeeded with this record. The Body have only gotten better at melding their unique, sample-filled sludge with rumbling noise to create a truly unique sound. That sound is at an apex on “Christs, Reedeemers”. Again featuring the haunting vocal talents of the Assembly of Light Choir, alongside a host of guest musicians, The Body paint a picture of misanthropic and violent nihilism. It also helps that it’s crushingly heavy – when I saw these guy perform, the walls literally shook.
2. TIE – Ulcerate – Vermis (Relapse), A Pregnant Light – Domination Harmony/Stars Will Fall (Colloquial Sound)
Okay, this might be cheating. But both of these records I think were better than number 3, but not as good as number 1. So it’s a tie. I hate making lists. Ulcerate are often labeled technical death metal, which I disagree with, based on the fact that their music is so goddamn good that the term “technical” does it a disservice. “Vermis” is chock full of intricate fills and hairpin tempo shifts, yes, but below all of that lurks a roiling nausea, a churning black ocean that envelops the senses and sickens the mind. Truly frightening, yet strangely listenable and an incredible testament to the power of death metal, bolstered by the mind-blowingly fantastic drumming of Jamie Saint Merat (check them kick drum triplets at the beginning of “The Imperious Weak”, and then tell me you didn’t nod in appreciation).
On the other hand, we have the phenomenal dual EP combo of “Domination Harmony” and “Stars Will Fall” by Ann Arbor “purple metal” band A Pregnant Light. The band’s mastermind and sole member Damian Master runs the excellent cassette-only label Colloquial Sound (which, coincidentally, released the Dressed in Streams record that can be found on this list). A Pregnant Light is what results from a mix of Joy Division-esque post punk and catchy guitar hooks, all wrapped up in blackened ambiance. The wispy, melancholy “Heat Helps These Flowers Grow” is a perfect example, with its somber acoustic intro and indie stylings. Ditto “My Life Outside The Party”, which showcases Master at his most poppy without sacrificing grit or intensity. There really isn’t any other band that’s making this kind of music – beholden to black metal, yes, but also not out of place on your indie friend's post-punk playlist.
1. Locrian – Return to Annihilation (Relapse)
This album took me four months to really appreciate. Locrian are always a band that emphasized atmosphere over technicality, but on “Return to Annihilation”, they’ve found the perfect balance. The wandering, starstruck drones are still present – see the title track, or “Panorama of Mirrors”. It takes a while to get into, but the scope of this album is incredible. It goes from intimately quiet to titanically huge, sometimes within the scope of the same track (see the jaw-dropping closer, “Obsolete Elegies”). I could wax poetic about the musical details, but the real reason that this was my favorite record of 2013 was because it became something personal for me. I feel a connection to each of the songs, and I’ll never grow tired of listening to them. Despite the length, they fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, creating something greater, more elegant, and more devastating than the sum of its parts. If that isn’t grounds for being the best record of the year, then I don’t know what is.
Return to Annihilation
Panorama of Mirrors
Tracks (Again, in no particular order, except for number 1)
1. Deafheaven – The Pecan Tree – While “Sunbather” didn’t quite click for me as much as it did for some other folks, this song is pretty much perfect in every way. The riff that comes in around 8 minutes is stunningly beautiful.
2. Russian Circles – 1777 – I didn’t discover Russian Circles “Memorial” until too late (hence why it isn’t on my list), but this track is absolutely gorgeous in every possible way. I think it’s the best song they’ve ever written.
3. Dressed in Streams – No Atonement - See the #8 album on my list. There’s a riff that pops up in the midsection that’s like chocolate for the ears, if chocolate were black metal.
4. NAILS – Wide Open Wound – It's as if an elephant stepped on my head.
5. Paysage d’Hiver – Offenbarung – A masterpiece of ambient black metal. Haunting, distorted, painful, depressive, wintery, mountainous, tremendous.
6. The Haxan Cloak – The Mirror Reflecting, pt. 2 – Dark ambient at its finest. “Excavation” was another record that I really liked, but couldn’t squeeze into this list. The drop that hits around the 4 minute mark is amazing.
7. Wolvserpent – In Mirrors of Water – See the #9 album on my list. I especially love the violin that dances in and around the synths. It creates this wonderfully bleak feel.
8. Locrian – Obsolete Elegies – Tension builds, releases, builds again, subsides, explodes, catharsis. The last three minutes are a purging of the soul, replete with blastbeats and a riff that descends from on high like the wrath of heaven itself.
If you got this far, thanks for reading! I appreciate it.