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Axl Rosenberg’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2013

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Axl Rosenberg 2013

The people are repeatedly wrought to excitement and take sides most enthusiastically in trials of skill, and the public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived. It is for this reason that I value songcraft above all else. At least for the time being, there is no automation which can write righteous riffs and contagious chori, nor produce, as though from thin air, empathy and ablution.

Agrimonia - Rites of Separation15. Agrimonia – Rites of Separation (Southern Lord)

Agrimonia redeem Sweden for all the Sonic Syndicates and Deals Deaths that have sullied that once-mightily-metallic nation’s good name. Remember when it seemed like every Swedish metal album was larger-than-life, authentic, and designed to dig a permanent home in your brain? Rites of Separation is that kind of album. It’s telling that my brain keeps registering the title of the song “Hunted” as “Haunted.” You know how I know Rites of Separation is really good? Every song on the album is like a month long, and it never, ever gets boring.

Listen: “Hunted”

Russian Circles - Memorial14. Russian Circles – Memorial (Sargent House)

Somebody PLEASE just hire these dudes to score a movie already. These dudes aren’t just musicians — they’re storytellers. Few bands can create images with sound the way Russian Circles can; Memorial requires no iTunes visualizer. It’s also a significant demonstration of the rather odd fact that sounds can actually manipulate human emotions: bookends “Memoriam” and “Memorial” (he latter of which features ghostly guest vocals by doom chanteuse Chelsea Wolfe) are so affecting that I sometimes can’t even bring myself to listen to them.

Listen: “Memorial”

Meek is Murder - Everything is Awesome Nothing Matters13. Meek is Murder – Everything is Awesome Nothing Matters (self-released)

As the album’s title would suggest, Everything is Awesome Nothing Matters is an act of psychological self-reassurance and relief. Born of a particularly difficult period in the life of guitarist/vocalist Mike Keller, Matters seethes with genuine anguish and offers honest catharsis. The music, appropriately, is more schizophrenic than ever; the last predictable element of Meek is Murder was the structure of their songwriting, and that structure has now been defenstrated. Keller’s guitars are more rubbery and piercing than ever before, and drummer Frank Godla and bassist Sam Brodsky are the aural equivalent of strategically-placed pipe bombs. Madness! Pure madness, I say!!! 

Listen: “More Always More/Less is More”

Stomach Earth - An Invocation12. Stomach Earth – Stomach Earth (Black Market Activities)

Ever had a friend recommend a movie with the caveat that you probably shouldn’t watch it at night if you’re home alone? This long-awaited funeral doom offering from The Red Chord guitarist Mike “Gunface” McKenzie is metal’s answer to that movie. It’s downright unsettling, the kind of thing which will make you afraid of your own shadow and totally paranoid that someone is watching you. AND it contains some of the year’s tastiest elephants marching riffs, which counts for a lot.

Listen: “Haunted by the Living”

Cult of Luna - Vertikal11. Cult of Luna – Vertikal (Indie/Density)

The exact opposite of what the cover would suggest — Vertikal is saturated with vivid colors and multifaceted textures. It’s also dark, weird, and intimidating in all the best ways. Basically, Vertikal is what The Strangers listen to every night when they’re tuning. We’re all just residents of Cult of Luna’s ant farm. They’re not screaming because they’re angry; they’re screaming to make sure us dummies down here on the ground understand them. I do not mind admitting that I strongly suspect it may be 2023 before I fully grasp Vertikal‘s particular brilliance.

Listen: “I: The Weapon”

Nails - Abandon All Life10. Nails – Abandon All Life (Southern Lord)

It’s already eight seconds into album opener “In Exodus” before Todd Jones screams “GO!”, and by then, his warning has already come to late, and there’s no time to hide. Abandon All Life is as nihilistic and psychopathically vicious as its title would suggest, the filthy, crazy dude on the street who throws acid in your face abruptly and for no discernible reason. “Wide Open Wound” is also one of the best elephants marching riffs of the year, which, again, counts for a metric fuckton.

Listen: “Wide Open Wound”

Intronaut - Habitual Levitations9. Intronaut – Habitual Levitations (Instilling Words with Tones) (Century Media)

Wait wait wait… so you’re telling me that it’s possible to be influenced by Meshuggah without sending like an uninspired flash-in-the-pan for children? How can that be?!?!? And yet, ’tis true. The breathtaking culmination of all their previous work to date, Habitual Levitations is as massive, sophisticated, and trippy of an album as you’d hope for from Intronaut, and songs like “The Welding” and “Steps” (shoulda been called “Elephant Steps”) offer funky, peanut-butter-thick riffs that are reminiscent of a certain Swedish band with a Hebrew name, only without sacrificing any of their trademark down-hominess. Awesome stuff.

Listen: “The Welding”

Rivers of Nihil - The Conscious Seed of Light8. Rivers of Nihil – The Conscious Seed of Light (Metal Blade)

Rivers of Nihil seem to be THE hot young band everyone around the water cooler is talking about right now, and The Conscious Seed of Light more than illustrates why. Light is the most confident debut of the year, a no-bullshit skull disseminator that sounds old school without being dated or derivative. (And, as usual, Erik Rutan’s production is just mwah!) I’m sure I sound condescending, and I apologize, ’cause my heart is in the right place: these kids are very much kids, and if this is what they’re capable of now, HOLY SHIT, look out world, ’cause they’re gonna own all our asses in a few years. Death metal, meet your future.

Listen: “Rain Eater”

Fleshgod Apocalypse - Labyrinth7. Fleshgod Apocalypse – Labyrinth (Nuclear Blast)

“Epic” is a word that gets tossed around the metal world a lot — I’m certainly as guilty of it as anybody! — but it’s hard to think of a more fitting way to describe Labyrinth. It’s oversized nearly to the point of bursting, but not overwhelming, because above all else, it’s thoroughly listenable. And very likely its generation’s Death Cult Armageddon. Say… how long ’til some of it shows up in the trailer for a Guillermo del Toro flick?

Listen: “Mintoaur (The Wrath of Poseidon)”

chimaira_crown_of_phantoms6. Chimaira – Crown of Phantoms (eOne)

Shoulda called it Re-resurrection.’Cause as it turns out, the band’s almost-entirely-new line-up is just the creative shot in the arm I didn’t even know Chimaira needed. There are few bigger Rob Arnold fans than I, but the Arnold-less Crown of Phantoms must be the best album to carry the Chimaira name since 2007’s Resurrection. With grooves so deep they threaten to swallow the reader whole, it’s hard for me to imagine any longtime Chimaira fan not loving this album. But (unsurprisingly, given the line-up changes) I’ve heard a lot of people who haven’t enjoyed Chimaira in the past sing its praises, too. Lead guitarist Emil Werstler and drummer Austin D’Amond give MVP performances; they sound ADD in the best possible way, taking riffs and fills which might be “stock” (har har) in other hands and turning them into something just that much more creative and unique.

Listen: “All That’s Left is Blood”

Revocation Revocation

5. Revocation – Revocation (Relapse)

Revocation are the band for whom the second letter “Q” in the word “siqq” exists. They’re one of very, very, VERY few bands who continue to keep an entire subgenre relevant (that would be thrash), and as such, they have a whole buncha responsibilities to shoulder: they have to be new but familiar, write party songs that can be taken seriously, be technically dazzling but never masturbatory, and continue to let their sound evolve without ever ceasing to be tr00. Somehow, this pull this all off more or less flawlessly. As is befitting a self-titled album, Revocation feels like a definitive artistic statement — but it also promises the band will enjoy continued creative success.

Listen: “Invidious”

The Black Dahlia Murder - Everblack4. The Black Dahlia Murder – Everblack (Metal Blade)

In 2005, Ozzfest was like a who’s who of metal’s then-hottest up n’ comers: Mastodon, Killswitch Engage, The Black Dahlia Murder, As I Lay Dying, Shadows Fall, Bury Your Dead, and, of course, Will Smith’s Wife’s Wicked Wisdom featuring Will Smith’s Wife. If you had asked me then which one of those bands would still be as good in eight years as they were at that point, I probably would not have said The Black Dahlia Murder, and  you would have every right to call me an idiot as a result. Six albums into their career, and BDM sound as fresh and kick as much ass as they ever did, if not more.(Ask me which BDM release is my favorite, and the answer will change depending on the day. They’re just one of those bands.) What does The Black Dahlia Murder know that their peers do not?

Listen: “Raped in Hatred by Vines of Thorns”

Gorguts - Colored Sands3. Gorguts – Colored Sands (Season of Mist)

Given Luc Lemay’s brilliance and the jaw-droppingly-awesome line-up he put together for Gorguts’ latest iteration (that would be guitarist Kevin Hufnagel, bassist Colin Marston, and drummer John Longstreth), it’s really no surprise that Colored Sands is good. Still, not sure I anticipated that it would be this good. I mean, it rendered all of 2013’s other tech death releases irrelevant. That’s because, holy shit people, this is what tech death is supposed to sound like!!! It doesn’t have to tell anyone that it has the biggest dick in the room because it has the biggest dick in the room. A near-perfect blend of great writing and hero-worship-worthy musicianship.

Listen: “Absconders”

Carcass - Surgical Steel2. Carcass – Surgical Steel  (Nuclear Blast)

The arrival of Gorguts’ first album in twelve years could really only be overshadowed by the arrival of Carcass’ first in seventeen. I’ve heard some people complain that Surgical Steel has a “greatest hits” feel to it due to the way it incorporates a hodgepodge of sounds from the band’s previous albums (Swansong is sadly unrepresented — we don’t ALL hate it, y’know), but I have no idea why in the world you’d ever consider that to be a bad thing. Every riff is a homerun, Bill Steer’s guitar solos may be the best of his career, and there’s just something about knowing that Jeff Walker is legitimately and sincerely one of the most misanthropic human beings in the world today gives all his vitriol a nice dash of extra fuck you. This is more than a sentimental favorite — it’s a worthy addition to the already-tremendous body of work this band has produced.

Listen: “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System”

1. The Modern Age Slavery – Requieum for Us All (Pavement)The Modern Age Slavery - Requieum for Us All

This one goes to eleven.

Eight original songs, one Pasolini-filled interlude, and the most intense goddamn Sepultura cover you’ll ever hear, this Italian band’s sophomore effort is barely a full-length. So it speaks to the magnitude of the band’s riff-writing abilities that I spent more time with — like, by a LOT — than any other album released this year. No joke: this shit has not left my playlist since I first discovered it in March.

The trick? Well, for one thing, it’s mercilessly barbarous, hitting the ground with a Hulk-sized smash and refusing to relent all the way through the final moments of the aforementioned “Arise” cover. Requiem for Us All is not interested in providing you with a breather, and it isn’t going to get off of you and stop punching you in the head; you’re gonna hafta either fight your way out from under it or die.

For another thing, the album actually has shit on its mind: Italy is currently suffering from its worst recession since World Ward II, and as a result, the album’s political-mindedness and calls for the proletariat to, y’know, “Arise,” both feel immediate in a way that, say, screaming about being a serial killer might not.

But most importantly, Requiem for Us All is simply impossible to get outta your head. You will hear it everywhere you go, and no matter how hard you try to stop hearing it… forget it, you’re still gonna hear. Suddenly, simple, every-day words, like “obedience,” “reflect,” and “icon” will automatically incite Requiem for Us All to begin ringing in your ears again.

And that Reign in Blood-esque running time? Yeah, that only encourages repeat, and sometimes consecutive, listens. All the better to savor the small details, too: no release this year has sicker guitar growls, a more relentlessly pummeling drum performance, or as awesome-sounding a loogie-hock as the one on “Opiate of the Masses.”

I didn’t even know who The Modern Age Slavery were a year ago, but having now listened to their debut album — 2008’s Damned to Blindness — I can tell you that Requiem for Us All isn’t just a rabid fucking beast, but also a quantum leap forward for this band. I hope it’s not another five years ’til their next release. I can’t wait to hear what they do next.

Listen: “Icon of a Dead World” 

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