As 2013 wanes into the cold beginnings of 2014, it's time to look back on the records that shaped the past year in extreme music. Or, more accurately, here are the records I enjoyed the most this year, please see what you think about my selection. But before I get into my picks, I think it's worth taking stock of where we are.
2013 was an eclectic year, one which saw more new combinations of different sub-genres and the continued balkanization of the metal audience into more and more factions and categories. It's crazy to think that ten years ago, 2004 marked a huge flashpoint for the "New Wave of American Heavy Metal", arguably the last group of bands to gain some semi-mainstream exposure and unite a large swath of metal audiences.
Many of these bands are still putting out great albums (a few of which are listed below), but it's clear they have now become "legacy acts." While there is a vast universe of metal to explore, there doesn't seem to be any central "thing" happening now to bring us all into the same arena. But maybe that doesn't matter. From a creative and artistic standpoint, the possibilities are basically endless. And perhaps we're better off with 100 bands who can play shows to 500-2000 people doing what they love rather than have a few acts take all the oxygen in the room while wishing they had read their record deals more thoroughly.
Just something to think about.
Anyway. Here is my list, presented in no particular order, with a handful of honorable mentions summarized at the bottom. In case you didn't know, Spotify is a godsend; here is my 2013 Essentials list, where you can check out some of my favorite songs of the year!
Blockheads – This World is Dead
Who needs melody when you can just mainline brutality straight into your nervous system? The riffs (LOVE the guitar sound here), the vocals, and the absolutely in-your-face production… there are endless things to love about such a perfect blast of grindcore. There is something so satisfying about an album so unrelenting that it never stops screaming right in your face. Words cannot express how much I enjoy This World is Dead.
Favorite Song: “Deindividualized”
Wartorn – Iconic Nightmare
It feels good to put something relatively “punk” on this list, and I find it reassuring that stuff like this is still out there. Wartorn bring in a number of sounds once thought to be totally played-out: the incredibly violent-sounding distorted vocals, low-end death growls, and a healthy serving of Toxic Narcotic-style rapid-fire song structures. Everything from the guitars, to the vocals, to the almost frantic drumming just sounds so hostile. You almost feel exhausted after listening.
Favorite Song: “Iconic Nightmare”
Deafheaven – Sunbather
It was only a matter of time before people took Krallice and Wolves in the Throne Room and mixed them with Belong and Explosions in the Sky…just to see what happens. Who knew metal could sound so beautiful, yet still be so abrasive? Who knew one record could make you feel so energized, and yet so unbelievably sad at the same time? And who knew a band like this could get into an iTunes commercial?! It's a metal album that doesn't feel like a metal album, as it provokes a whole range of thoughts and memories that many other contemporaries wouldn't dare get close to. There's just something so piercing about Sunbather that I find myself lost in thought whenever I listen to it.
Favorite Song: “Dream House”
Skeletal Spectre – Voodoo Dawn
But never mind all of that, let's thrash! I have Grim Kim to thank for this lesser-known selection off of her "Too Soon" 2013 list from this summer. If I had to give a name to their style, I think I'd call Skeletal Spectre "Dungeon Metal": reverb-soaked blackened thrash metal with just a touch of the Entombed-style buzz-saw guitar sound. And with those raspy vocals mixed in with the crushing riffs that get stuck in your head for days, Voodoo Dawn is the real, raw thing.
Favorite Song: “Altar of Damballah”
Thrall – Aokigahara Jukai
Every once and awhile I like to check out what new releases Moribund Records ("Cold, Grim, Evil") has to offer. Though much of it is what you’d expect from the reliably black-metal focused label, that’s not really a bad thing. And it's an extremely good thing when you discover a hidden gem like Aokigahara Jukai, the third album from Tasmanian Black Metal band, Thrall (Tasmanian! How fitting, the album is rather "Devil"-ish…sorry). Within a few minutes of pressing play, you're consumed within the fog and darkness of crushing beats, hellish vocals, and guitars which are simply futile to resist!
Favorite Song: “Aokigahara Jukai”
Incendiary – Cost of Living
Incendiary kicks so much ass. I’d been a fan for a few years and enjoyed their debut, but this album is such a huge step up that it instantly became my favorite hardcore album of the year. It’s hard to argue with the heavy beats on “Zeitgeist”, the crunching guitars on “Snake”, and that rage-filled breakdown on “Primitive Rage.” While there are tons of “heavy” hardcore bands out there, no one seems to carry as much weight as Incendiary, it’s like all the concrete in Brooklyn raining down on you.
Favorite Song: “Primitive Rage”
The Dillinger Escape Plan – One of Us is the Killer
After several missed chances, I was lucky enough to see Dillinger Escape Plan twice this year. So it was with this same sense of glee that I picked up the vinyl of One of Us is the Killer. One one record, you have vintage Dillinger tracks like "Prancer" and "When I Lost My Bet" sitting side-by-side with melodic rockers "One of Us is the Killer" and "Nothing's Funny." Not that it's an entirely either/or experience, as "Understanding Decay" seems to blend the best of both worlds together. Maybe one of us is the killer, but when it comes to this record, I suggest we all become listeners.
Favorite Song: “Nothing’s Funny”
Vorum – Poisoned Void
Anything that smacks of low-end Incantation-style riffs tends to win me over rather easily, and Poisoned Void is no exception. Throw in a dose of Deathspell Omega and perhaps a tiny bit of Goatwhore and you should have a good idea of what Vorum sounds like. Vorum have somehow blended black metal atmospherics with a death metal mastery and made this mixture sound fresh all over again. But far from being simply derivative, Vorum’s ensemble of dark, heavy riffs, along with the pounding rhythm section and mid-range growls stands very much on its own.
Favorite Song: “Impetuous Fires”
Deicide- In the Minds of Evil
Man, what wonders Jack Owen has done for this band. Before finalizing my list for this year, I made sure to hold out for Deicide. Just look at that album cover: such a subtle, yet perfect way to depict the blasphemeous bludgeoning on songs like “Thou Begone”, “Beyond Salvation”, and the answer to that age-old question, yes, “Even the Gods Bleed.” I realize this won't be on many other best of lists and will probably be dismissed as “just another Deicide album”, but don't let that stop you. In the Minds of Evil is one of the most satisfyingly brutal albums of the year.
Favorite Song: "Thou Begone"
Exhumed – Necrocracy
For gore enthusiasts, the Exhumed back catalog is absolutely essential. For anyone looking for a more straight forward macabre-themed death metal album, Necrocracy is the album for you. I was actually kind of surprised at how subtle the gore element was on this album. I guess you can only take so many pictures of body parts strewn on the kitchen floor. By the same token, you can only write so many songs about ripping into someone's internal organs with a chainsaw before you're ready to start talking about decomposing corpses instead. It's only logical.
Favorite Song: “Sickened”
Gorguts – Colored Sands
If you're not predisposed to love highly technical stuff, tech death can be a little trying on your patience. But when done just right, a band like Gorguts gives you that one record that you can keep coming back to and still find something you hadn't noticed before. It's one of those rare moments where there's so much going on, and yet the listener is still able to follow along. With their first album in nearly 12 years, Gorguts have made one of the most enthralling, intelligent, and rewarding listens of 2013.
Favorite Song: “Forgotten Arrows”
Carcass – Surgical Steel
Speaking of comebacks. In all honesty, I almost didn't include this on my list, as the first couple listens left me kind of flat. But just before finalizing my selections, I gave it one more try and slowly realized how much of a moron I'd be for not correcting such a grave error. There's just such an amazing wealth of brilliant riffs and well-structured grooves, it's like Necroticism and Heartwork got together and had a kid, and we finally get to see how well he's grown. For making us all a little less cynical about comebacks (perhaps giving us hope for At the Gates), three cheers for Carcass!
Favorite Song: "Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard"
All Pigs Must Die – Nothing Violates this Nature
Along with Nails and Black Breath, All Pigs Must Die are one of the leading bands in the Converge-meets-Entombed style of metallic-hardcore. This time, the band takes a decidedly blacker turn. I always liked APMD, and was impressed when I saw them back in 2011, but I thought their music was kind of indistinguishable from the other Entombed-core bands out there. Nothing Violates this Nature has completely turned this around. I love how the band has integrated black metal into their sound, as it gives songs like "Aquim Siege" and "Primitive Fear" that extra dark edge while still retaining the bombast of their hardcore origins.
Favorite Song: “Primitive Fear”
Weekend Nachos – Still
What a band, what an album…what a name! If you don’t feel the urge to slam dance to songs like “No Idols and No Heroes”, “S.C.A.B”, and “Watch You Suffer”…you're probably a really boring person, dead, or some combination of the two. If I had to sum up Still in a single thought: Imagine if When Forever Comes Crashing-era Converge met up with Violence Violence-era Ceremony and had a party, and you’re invited! Pretty sweet deal, right?
Favorite Song: “No Idols and No Heroes”
Shai Hulud – Reach Beyond the Sun
There’s something special about being a Shai Hulud fan in that no matter how long the band has been around, they always feel like your hometown underground heroes. But beyond making you feel all cool and stuff, this album contains some of the best compositions of the band’s career with songs like the title track, “A Human Failing”, and especially "Man Into Demon." A criminally unsung band if there ever was one.
Favorite Song: “Man Into Demon”
Norma Jean – Wrongdoers
I wasn’t sure Norma Jean could make a record this great anymore. But here it is, an album I find myself going back to over and over again, one that’s easily my second favorite Norma Jean release ever. From the melodic brilliance of "Wrongdoers" and "Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes", to the crushing insanity of "If You Got It At Five, You Got It At Fifty" and "Neck in the Hemp", Wrongdoers is everything I'd hoped for and more.
Favorite Song: “The Potter has No Hands”
Protest the Hero – Volition
A couple years back, Protest the Hero became one of my favorite bands, which made me even more pumped when their crowdfunding campaign turned into a rousing success. And their victory lies not only in the triumph of money raised, but in the fantastic results evident on Volition. Sure, I liked Scurrilous, but I LOVE this record: from the catchy and soaring melodies, to the dizzying guitar work, this is Protest the Hero honed, focused, and writing at their absolute best. Along with Norma Jean's Wrongdoers, this would definitely be a candidate for my album of the year.
Favorite Song: “Clarity”
The Black Dahlia Murder – Everblack
But then again, this would have to come pretty close as well. At the very least, Trevor Strnad takes the award for my favorite scream of the year on "In Hell She Waits for Me." I simply cannot get enough of how awesome Trevor sounds on this album, and that goes for the rest of the band as well. Along with new fan favorites like "Into the Everblack", the album has a number of excellent surprises like the blackened "Every Rope a Noose." Like I've said before, The Black Dahlia Murder embodies everything a modern metal band should be.
Favorite Song: “In Hell She Waits for Me”
SPEkTR – Cypher
And now for something completely different. There’s something so creepy and off-putting about this record that you almost feel uncomfortable in parts. As one would expect, the raw aggression of black metal and the unsettling eeriness of dark ambient music make an excellent pair. Of course, being “weird” can be a trap if done for its own sake. But I think it’s clear on Cypher that SPEkTR’s weirdness is no act. Little is actually known about the band, but we do know this, somewhere in Paris there are two gentlemen who know exactly how to make us feel a little unsettled.
Favorite Song: “Teratology”
True Widow – Circumambulation
Haunting, brooding, and yes, a little quiet you could say. But what True Widow lacks in loud blast beats and brazen screams it makes up for in the spooky riffs, and softly catchy yet creepy vocals. True Widow takes the best of old early-90’s shoegaze and alternative and blends it with the attitude of stoner-metal and makes a beautiful and rewarding listen. It's one worth revisiting several times as well, to dive back into the dark mysterious waters rained down softly in the serene "Four Teeth", the hazy "Numb Hand", and the reflective "I:M:O."
Favorite Song: “Four Teeth”
Drama be damned, the new Broken Hope album was pretty sweet, especially the throat-clearing vocals! The new Clutch album should reassure anyone worried about the state of rock music today (Full Review). And while I think the next album with Jesse will be better, the new Killswitch Engage still had some catchy tunes on it. Kvelertak's Meir may not be getting as much praise as their first album, but I still have to vouch for it after a few listens.
And yes, it was ridiculous and all-over-the-place, but Phil Anselmo's solo album was so much fun, admit it! I must also tip my hat to my friends in Autolatry. Native was an excellent step forward for the band and I can't wait to hear what they do next. This year also saw me develop a new love for classical music, so it was only fitting that Ulver came out with such an excellently dark modern classical (that's a "thing" right?) opus called Messe I.X-VI.X.
On a not-so-metal/not-so-guilty-pleasure note, I'm really liking the new AFI album this year. See? Bands really can bounce back from making bad albums! Let that be a sign of hope to certain other musicians out there.
And with that, I've run out of positive-sounding adjectives to describe all the albums I enjoyed this year. So as I reach for my thesaurus, I wish you all a happy new year in 2014!