Andy O’Connor’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2013
Ok, gonna try and pucker up some confidence. Here goes nothing.
This is not just a list of the best music of 2013. This is THE list of the best music of 2013. My word is law. Simps have been put on notice.
(Note: this list will most likely be rendered invalid following the release, erm, dropping of R. Kelly’s Black Panties on the tenth.)
Inquisition, the unholy duo of riff mangler Dagon and war hammerer Incubus, are on a bigger label, have had the the (dis)pleasure of opening for Marduk, and will soon support Cradle of Filth in Europe, but they haven’t let success go to their heads. Obscure Verses for the Multiverse features clearer production than their previous albums, while their songwriting remains tighter than ever. Dagon’s vocals are a deal-breaker for some, but his monotonous croak is unmistakable. That’s something you can’t say about anything relating to a lot of metal groups. They’ve taken the opposite path of Watain – while their attention to riffs is owed to their studious reverence of old-school metal, they don’t compromise their sound. Inquisition are ready to be headliners, even if the market isn’t.
Grave Upheaval’s full-length debut doesn’t have a name. Or song titles. Their membership is largely unknown, save for Portal drummer Ignis Fatuus. These metaphorical walls may prevent a lot of people from getting into the band, but they are nothing compared to what Grave Upheaval actually sound like. There’s a very loose sense of structure, resembling a death metal version of the “free rock” style pioneered by Keiji Haino and Fushitsusha. It’s rhythmic noise where riffs are broken down and stretched to their breaking point. Deep walls of guitars and indecipherable moans make for one of the most unsettling listens in recent metal history, even by the standards set by fellow Australians. The last track in particular, which clocks in at just over 14 minutes, sounds like The Body recording their parts in solitary confinement. Some have derisively called them “caverncore,” but play this in a cave, and you’ll see stuff that isn’t really there. Blake Judd may have a band called Hate Meditation, but this more resembles that name.
New York’s Vaura features two heavyweights of underground prog-metal – Gorguts/Dysrhythmia shredder Kevin Hufnagel and Kayo Dot mainman Toby Driver – but on The Missing, they show their more accessible side. Think of it as the Moving Pictures or Signals to their other projects’ Hemispheres or 2112. Rounded out by vocalist/guitarist Josh Strawn and drummer Charlie Schmid, both formerly of avant-pop group Religious to Damn, Missing is the album Katatonia should be releasing. It has the goth sound, but also the goth hooks. “The Things We All Hide” features a bassline New Order would be jealous of, and “Mare of the Snake” displays a Studio 54-fueled drum pattern that oddly syncs with the song’s lush patterns. Vaura also weave black metal into the mix, giving songs like “Incomplete Burning” and the title track that certain charge without losing any delicacy. Also worth checking out: Azar Swan, Strawn’s industrial-pop project featuring the vocal talents of fellow ex-Religious to Damn member Zohra Swan. They do an amazing rendition of Ace Hood’s “Bugatti.”
Listen: “Mare of the Snake”
Like hardcore, but tired of guitars, B9 trolls and varsity lettering? Los Angeles’ Youth Code – two punks named Sara Taylor and Ryan George – will cure what ails you, or ail what cures you, with their self-titled debut. This is industrial dance reimagined for the hardcore set. Moves like With Sympathy, punches like Psalm 69. Your local goth night gone horribly, horribly wrong. Think you can show off your sweet Bauhaus tattoo to that special something when Taylor and George are alternating screams and skittering drumbeats at you? Think again. Three songs from their demo cassette – “Destroy, Said She,” “Sick Skinned,” and “What is the Answer” – have been re-recorded for this album, and even without tape hiss and clipping, they still sound ready to fight. If I told you they produced Kanye West’s “On Sight” after you listened to this album, your sucker ass would believe me. Hard to believe they played with Andrew W.K. recently. He just wants to party, Youth Code want to party so hard the cops come and they get called bastards all night.
Listen: “No Animal Escapes”
Speed metal with no compromise. That is the code of Finland’s Ranger. Instead of complaining about “the scene” and “kids these days” while jacking off some of those “kids” on metalgirlswithcrackingarses.tumblr.com (no disrespect to that fine blog), these dudes concentrated on making ragers. And do these songs fucking rage! Imagine Painkiller, but just the fast parts, and you’ve got the idea of what Knights of Darkness, Ranger’s 1st Ep, sounds like. Got a problem with its short running time? Play it twice in a row. That rush won’t wear off.
Listen: “Steel Dawn”
Juicy J’s had a trippy 2013 – you’ve likely heard “Bands A Make Her Dance” blaring out of a club or car stereo. He’s even on the new Katy Perry record. Juicy’s been cranking out solo material like mad, which made some wonder what his cohort in Three 6 Mafia, DJ Paul, was up to. Well, Paul reassembled Three 6 Mafia sans Juicy – sort of. Da Mafia 6ix brings back a lot of Three 6 veterans, including Crunchy Black, Gangsta Boo, Lord Infamous, and Koopsta Knicca. On their mixtape 6ix Commandments, they go back to the Memphis rap institution’s grimy roots. Satanic references, minor key piano beats, brooding synth strings, and another version of “Break Da Law” – they’re all here. The production’s better here than on Mystic Stylez, but the gangsta-slasher-movie vibe is still intact. It’s a deliberate contrast to Juicy going after molly-popping EDM kids. Also, in the grand tradition of Three 6 Mafia, Paul advertises various Mafia-related recordings in the outro, but this time, he also shouts out his barbecue sauce and spice rub. Looks like Cashing Checks is never coming out, though. Light up some Bin Laden weed and prepare to tear da club up.
Listen: “Stash Stop”
Dance music’s supposed to sleazy, right? I mean, isn’t the point of going to dance clubs to find someone to fuck? The lesbian sex scene from Black Swan demonstrated as much. Vulgar Fashion, a new goth-dance unit from Denton, TX, also exploit this sentiment to the fullest on their self-titled EP. This is the underbelly of dance clubs exposed and placed on the DJ’s altar for worship. Vulgar Fashion’s visual aesthetic recalls the grittiness of VHS tapes, and their music has that same off-kilter off-color feel. You can feel mascara smearing when you dance to “Golden Showers” and “Pact With the Devil,” even if you didn’t put on makeup. “Krystal Tearz” is this year’s come-down jam, the sound of every hangover, every trip to buy Plan B, every conversation about your choices, every realization you’ve had about everything. Sing it like Diamond Dave: dance your life away!
Listen: “Krystal Tearz”
People Magazine’s Sexiest Man in Black Metal lives in Grand Rapids, MI, and his name is Damian Master. Under A Pregnant Light, his solo black metal project, he’s released a flurry of cassettes, with Stars Will Fall being his finest work yet. He calls A Pregnant Light “Purple Metal,” but this has nothing to do with Houston. Rather, this is black metal through the brain of a dude raised on hooky punk. He’s been able to refine himself in such a short amount of time, which is why a song like the title track can go from your tried-and-true tremolo to a clean break to a total raise-your-fists break seamlessly. Side B contains “My Life Outside The Party,” lives in a weird space where downer songs can be uptempo; in another dimension, it’s A Pregnant Light’s encore banger. Damian lives outside the party, and his celebrations are better anyway. If you’re skeptical about cassettes, you can buy MP3s from Colloquial Sound’s (Damian’s label) Bandcamp page.
Listen: “Stars Will Fall”
Damian doesn’t just release his own stuff on Colloquial Sound. Dressed in Streams, a mysterious group whose members (member?) aren’t known, bend black metal conventions on their tape The Search for Blood. For one, weird electronics move in and out of the band’s songs. They’re more akin to psychedelic power electronics than any standard keyboard fare. Combined with the droning tremolo of the guitars, they give Blood a very Krauty feel. While the electronics give the album an edge, they’re not the only standout aspect of the tape. 6:18 of “No Atonement” features some righteous riffage that wouldn’t be out of place on the aforementioned Ranger release. “History Vanishes” has that peculiar combination of solemness and pomp in its riffing, not unlike John Gossard’s works. And when it comes to smothering the listener with its atmosphere, as any good headphones black metal record should do, nothing else compares this year.
Listen: “No Atonement”
Death Grips were nearly reduced to a punchline this year, thanks to the continued fallout from Epic dropping them over leaking No Love Deep Web, as well as the group canceling a series of shows including Lollapalooza without offering a rational explanation. That was, until they put Government Plates with little notice just weeks ago. Death Grips use hip-hop, hardcore, and noise, but are moving beyond all of those things. Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett’s lyrics are de-emphasized compared to previous releases, but pure id makes up for that missing space. You feel his vocalizations, even if you can’t make out what he’s saying. Zach Hill’s drumming has become even more primitive, and Andy “Flatlander” Morin’s electronics are decomposing out of control. Plates has two halves: everything up to “Birds,” which is excellent, and everything after, which is like traveling through the world of Blade Runner at warp speed. “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching),” the last track, not only sums up the albums, but will knock you on your ass if you’re not bolted down. Don’t give in to groupthink: Plates is the cut.
“Blackened hardcore” usually falls short on either side of the equation. Most hardcore dudes don’t have a proper appreciation for black metal, and not enough black metal folk can loosens themselves up enough to adapt to hardcore. Not France’s Celeste. Animale(s) is a “double album” that’s really just two EPs released together in one collection, but even at just over an hour, it’s still immensely overwhelming. After listening to this, you’ll feel exhausted, but that exhaustion that come with triumph. Three years separates this from their last effort, Morte(s) Nee(s), and while the group’s core sound hasn’t changed, Animale(s) is their most intense effort yet. There’s releases of tension, but anxiety comes back in at the same pace. No emptiness of sound. Everything is more hateful, everything is heavier. Even if you can’t make out the French lyrics, every word Johan Girardeau says is like a swarm of razor blades. How has Southern Lord not snatched them up yet?
Texas is the best state for barbecue, and it’s also becoming the best state for thrash. Iron Age will forever remain the best post-Black Album thrash band, but since they won’t release a new record any time soon, Dallas’ Power Trip has picked up the slack. Chris Ulsh played on a lot of killer records this year, notably Mammoth Grinder’s Underworlds and Hatred Surge’s Human Overdose, and Manifest Decimation, where he’s on drums, is the best. The production is heavier than a triple Whataburger on Texas toast, and Riley Gale’s reverbed vocals give this a weird vibe no other thrash band has. Of course, it all comes down to the riffs, and it’s all crossover glory here. Do not listen to “Crossbreaker” if you are pregnant, have a heart condition, are near lots of china, are prone to writing editorials against moshing, or if you are wimp in general. Wendy Davis: please urge Power Trip to write a song for your campaign.
3. Prurient – Through the Window (Blackest Ever Black)
That whole “dance sleaze” talk I jabbered on about earlier? Dom Fernow is really, really into that. Prurient, his main project, has long been about ear-ravaging noise, but with 2011’s Bermuda Drain, he made a sharp left turn into bizzaro black noise synthpop brilliance. Through The Window, which was supposed to be released through Hydra Head before they stopped putting out new albums, is a continuation of his experimental dance, but he’s taking on industrial techno this time. It’s comprised of two long tracks with a noise “break” in the middle – yes, the nosiest part is when you’re supposed to “powder up” in the bathroom. Everywhere you look, there’s menace behind the enthralling beats and synths. Someone’s watching you and jacking off. A bad coke deal’s about to reach its conclusion. What did he slip in her drink? What did she slip in his drink? “You Show Great Spirit,” the last track, should be playing at a goth club right now, whether it’s regular hours or after-hours. This party won’t stop, because some of us can’t stop partying until we’re dead. One last note: Fernow’s released two other great records this year: the militaristic techno of Vatican Shadow’s Remember Your Black Day and the subterranean ambient of Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement’s Folklore Venom.
Listen: “You Show Great Spirit”
2. Deafheaven – Sunbather (Deathwish)
Roads to Judah, Deafheaven’s first album, was a fine effort. Sunbather, their followup, is a record that will make our children try to steal our vinyls, CDs, and hard drives containing it fifteen years from now. They’ll ask us what it was like when it was released. This, like the Inquisition record highlighted earlier, is another example of doing what one does best, only even better. However, Sunbather also suggests a band moving towards a new path, something uncharted, something we don’t quite a have name for yet. Black metal? Yes, it’s certainly influenced by Weakling, but Kerry McCoy works in a whole host of other influences, and George Clarke is too earnest of a vocalist. Shoegaze? This is the most gorgeous sounding record of the year, but it’s much more propulsive and dynamic. Even if Sunbather makes you nostalgic for something, you can’t reminisce fast enough to keep up. Post-metal? This is ahead of the curve, and it’s for sure ahead of some assholes wanting to be another Isis. We’ve been looking for our massive sounding cross-over-to-the-other-side record, and Sunbather is it.
1. VHÖL – VHÖL (Profound Lore)
VHÖL’s self-titled debut is metal. No, let me repeat that. VHÖL’s self-titled debut is METAL. You cannot call it anything else. You cannot attach other words in front of metal, because none of them will do. VHÖL embodies the spirit of fearlessness in metal, and it does by incorporating familiar sounds in very unfamiliar fashions. This is the sound of metal moving forward, telling revivalists and conservatives stuck in their ways to FUCK OFF AND DIE, while retaining all of what makes metal…fucking metal. John Cobbett’s supreme riffing from Hammers of Misfortune gets twisted with blackened production and Aesop Dekker’s d-beat groove. How does he wield his axe? Like a deranged graft of Euronymous, K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, and our fallen brother Jeff Hanneman, and even that description can’t quite do his skill justice. Mike Scheidt lets out his inner Rob Halford, King Diamond, and Nocturno Culto without missing a step. “Grace” moves like Voivod, but even Vektor would listen to this and say “Fuck this. We can’t hang.” Even when the band goes for their “radio hit,” which comes in the form of “Arising,” the boys aren’t back in town cause VHÖL ran their asses out of the city. Tell you what. You don’t like this record? You think heavy metal died with grunge? Burn your records. Burn your metal shirts. Move to the suburbs, if you haven’t already. Drop out of life however you see fit. WE DON’T FUCKING NEED YOU.
Listen: “The Wall”