Anso DF’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2013
Imagine my expression once I surveyed my own list of 2013’s best metal albums: It’s a blur of unknowns and too-knowns, bands you’d know by now (if they were worthy) and bands on whom you’ve already pronounced your verdict with a bang of the gavel (and so long ago that you’re dismayed to find them again in your courtroom). I hate that! And as a party bimbo from Mars, I’m offended also by my 2013 list’s focus on extreme, underground, unfriendly, guttural records. But my distress is your reassurance that these classics must be awesome if they monopolized the energies of a bubble-brained burner like me — all year long. Plus, I worry that my final pick appears to betray the preceding 14 picks, though it’s easily the darkest, saddest, most masterful of all. But that’s just me :) Thanks for reading!
I don’t claim to know how fans were expected to receive The Devil’s Blood’s third album. It arrived relative moments after TDB’s sudden break-up was announced in a heated internet post. Its recording never reached final stages, so what we’re hearing is demo versions. It was followed quickly by a single, EP, and album by their mastermind’s new project, Selim Lemouchi & His Enemies. So even if we resist the urge to draw conclusions from the timing and circumstances of III’s arrival (and forgive TDB for bailing on a new investment in their barely-begun US campaign), listeners might still struggle to hear III above the din of outside drama. (At 22 minutes, its opening track doesn’t exactly discourage your mind from drifting to earthly matters.) And despite Lemouchi’s defense of the album’s rawness to me in June, it could benefit from richer performances and studio sound. That’s a lot to make peace with, but given the trust and time it deserves, III delivers like a real album!
I don’t know what Watain imagined for us either. First, we might guess that Watain made a decision to progress from the monochromatic black metal majesty of 2010’s Lawless Darkness, an album that even now gets better with every spin. But Erik Danielsson and crew might seem too ambitious and kinda hasty: After two pillaging BM anthems and a deathy stomp to open Hunt, we are asked us to downshift into half-erect power metal (“This Child Must Die”) and an unhurried Cash-ian waltz (“They Rode On”). Then, again we are riled berserk by a BM superjam (“Sleepless Evil” love it), a forlorn, ancient march (title track, my ringtone), and the Watain song most likely to be heard at the mall (the intractable “Outlaw”). The time is right for a twist: One song later, we listeners have crossed a moat formed by Hunt’s second instrumental (!), and are due for a rest — say, a long, dirgy acoustic epic for the damned (“Rode”). Then we’re primed to be whipped into a gallop (“Child”) and then into a frenzy for Hunt’s massive finale (“Holocaust Dawn”). But as it is, Hunt is undermined by Watain’s enthusiasm for “Rode” (that haste we mentioned) — and by their rush to showcase examples of their range (the ambition). So Hunt can be made a classic via technology: Order its tracks 1-4, 7-10, 5, 4, 11.
For a novelist, the highest honor is to receive the Nobel for literature; to a tiny metal band, the hugest praise I can dispense is this: I disqualify Vorum from ever touring with one of metal’s awesomest bands, The Crown. That which Crown fans love — the death ‘n roll punch, the ripping pace, and the pithy refrains — Vorum does awesomely; so in some hypothetical tour pairing, concertgoers would be sated in part (or completely) before the elder, less insane members of The Crown even take the stage. That’s a compliment!
Listen: “Dance Of Heresy”
If Tony Iommi had never struck the devil’s chord, if it had been dishwashers that John Marshall opted to revolutionize, and if hard rock had never become evil metal, we heavy people would just listen to more bands like Purson. Scary with no raised voices, tantalizing without shows of virtuosity, and ceaselessly ear-wormy, Purson’s The Circle And The Blue Door can playlist beside Blood Ceremony and The Devil’s Blood — or Goldfrapp and The Sky Cries Mary. Candles optional.
Listen: “The Contract”
For fans of low-profile death metal, it helps to follow the clues that lead to a rotten, reverby classic: its trustworthy guests or producers, its snappy album title, a heads-up from MetalSucks and friends, etc. But discovery gets easier when you find yourself in sync with the decision-makers at a little record label or two, for you can usher their releases to the top of your in-box, no research necessary. That’s how I came to innocently click on Lantern’s debut Below and be flummoxed by its strutting, fearless ’90s DM — and later, its suitably uncontained production and deceptive structures, its nods to the past and winks at the future, its sustained thrust and its sudden plummets. Look out below!
Imagine the timeline of heavy metal rendered as a Mad magazine fold-in: Use your right hand to make a crease at 2013, then pull and tuck the fold under your left thumb at 1993. Smush the page’s right side firmly and voila! now 1993 is followed directly by this year, the real and actual 2013, in which Carcass and Voivod released defining new albums. In our new timeline, every event from the two decades between still happened (in about five percent of the actual time), so Surgical Steel and Target Earth aren’t emissaries from the ‘90s, but modern, crystalline productions of metal in its fifth decade; it’s the vibe, momentum, and hunger that haven’t been allowed to molder or disperse in our jury-rigged quantum leap. (And fans need not revive or rediscover their interest.) For these albums are not the work of paycheck workers or aged glory hounds, nor are they undercooked or auto-piloted; Surgical and Target are new classics borne of winking expertise and heedless confidence — two traits not native to praise-drenched, executive-aged metal pioneers but bubbling angrily in the younger men who authored their genre-creating landmark albums. Weird. Truly time has folded onto itself.
The day I first heard Inquisition’s new album, I was feeling powerless. You see, I was trying to re-watch an episode of my favorite primetime TV show from the previous night, the Spanish-language soaper Marido En Alquiler. It was my turn to revisit the evening’s spicy drama and dark humor, and then report to the rest of the gang on the finer points we missed in the Spanish-only broadcast. But suddenly, on the network’s website, gone was the fancy video player and its sweet English subtitles; in its place, a junky player and no captions. Over on the network’s youtube channel, I found the episode’s first segment — with subtitles marred by gobbledy gook and outright lapses — but that was no solution. Nor was the network’s shit-ass awful app. Why! I wailed. People were depending on me. How now would I decipher the details of Teresa Cristina’s war against Griselda, her ex-husband Reinaldo, their daughter Patricia, Patricia’s estranged bf Antonio (Griselda’s son), and gosh pretty much everybody in her proximity. Now what!? I bellowed. Sweaty and beaten, I threw up my hands and clicked on the new Inquisition, freshly arrived in my email. Two songs later I forgot why I was all frustrated and how to blink.
It’s weird that this Katatonia album — in its original form — appeared on this list last year. Its second rotation, this time as a featherweight art-folk yarn, is weird too: Neither an “unplugged” neutering nor a repositioned “remix” album, Dethroned is ballsier than its heavier version Dead End Kings. This time, Katatonia isn’t straddling two genres, so listeners can settle in to one dynamic and feel out its richness. That is, this album never sounds like a attempt to smuggle moments of yoga music into a metal album; it cops fully to its foofiness. Its touching, tearful foofiness.
Listen: “Dead Letters”
It was cool that organizers of Montreal’s Heavy MTL festival booked a few homegrown acts (Slaves On Dope, Unexpect, Augury) for their mainstream metal fest. But that made at least one festgoer (me) kinda long for sets from less profitable but ascendant Quebecois acts — grimy unknowns with big potential, like young Neige Éternelle, whose DGAF black metal would sound great performed atop Heavy MTL’s lighting rigs, swarmed by fist-sized swamp bugs, and safe from counter-attack by those upon whom they vomit black slime and blast blizzard roars. Next year for sure!
Listen: “Plus Les Jours S’Avancent”
Around the six-minute mark of “Winter,” the first track on Secrets Of The Sky’s chilling debut, the howls of a wolf echo behind a marching, squeaky riff, signaling the onset of a drone of harmony guitars. In the wild, this would be a warning to give wide berth to the solitary lupine predator, but here it only rivets us to SotS’s dangerous unknowns. Will our path lead to a darkened cave home to a doom-dealing deathblob? A moonlit stream tinkling arpeggiated chords of sad post-metal? A summit from which we can bellow Ihsahn-like our song of conquest? Or to an x-ray mirror where we whimper like Tommy Rogers to face the threads of disease that girdle our solitary hearts? Answer: Yes.
“At first she was so inexpressive and indifferent that I wanted to know more about her. I envied that blankness — it was the opposite of helplessness or damage or craving or suffering or shame. But she was never really happy and already, in a matter of days, she had reached a stage in our relationship where she no longer really cared about me or any thoughts or ideas I might have had.” — Bret Easton Ellis, Glamorama
“…If I could have foreseen the hurricane, the perfect hail-storm of affliction which soon fell upon me, well might I have been agitated. To this agitation the deep peace of the morning presented an affecting contrast, and in some degrees a medicine.” — Thomas de Quincey, Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater
“Just brace yourself and enjoy the smell of evil.” — Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
Turns out it doesn’t matter that Tool remains dormant or that the new Black Sabbath is boring as whaleshit. For Void Of Sleep is adept at the former’s dark melodies and the latter’s steamroller-skids-down-ice-mountain groove, the former’s calculated lulls and the latter’s bludgeon riffing, the former’s message of empowerment and the latter’s doom foretold, the former’s clarity and the latter’s murk, the former’s resistance and the latter’s distance. The result: A dark, metal Jane’s Addiction, a slow-motion Obituary fronted by Jerry Cantrell.
Listen: “Lost In The Void”
It kinda seems like Alice In Chains’ second post-Layne album was taken for granted. In big reviews, the vibe was tolerance (“AIC is still around/No Layne Staley”) or fulfilled expectation (“We now know they still got it/Here’s 60 more minutes of it.”). And that’s cool — I too coasted on Dinosaurs for a while. Its guilelessness might be intentional, a play of possum, in which Jerry Cantrell and team front-load the follow-up to a triumph with an unwieldy title and 15 minutes of moaning, by-the-books Alice — and then raise hairs with the next 45 minutes of doom Fleetwood Mac and American dread via Gerry Rafferty. It’s easy to fall for that trick in the course of listening to a million streams each week, so don’t hate yourself for missing the first cut. But once you break through its membrane, Dinosaurs plays like a greatest-hits collection, a throwback to the album’s golden age, a staring-into-the-speakers tour de force album, one that tripods with new classics by He Is Legend and the Deftones. It’s really four albums, each three-song brick its own cycle — Dinosaurs must fill a 2xLP like blaow — and each a mini-saga about the rotten fruits of self-indulgence and the chill of isolation. But it doesn’t sound miserable. Listeners go unpunished, un-indicted, and unassailed by the feelings of the album’s creators; instead, we are bewitched (title track), cajoled (“Phantom Limb”), and warned (“Pretty Done”), or comforted by truths wrapped in melodies that should be sent back to the ’70s to set Laurel Canyon-ites gnawing on their collars (“Voices,” “Scalpel,” “Low Ceiling,” and every other song). Delivered atop a silk pillow, the negatives are an opportunity for positivity. Dinosaurs treats us to universals, a stare-down versus the two-headed beast of Regret and Recrimination. Shit happens, says Dinosaurs, but not because we are shitty or tragic, nor because life is too big to be lived bravely; we are neither victims nor criminals. It’s just that we are subject to the chaos of a universe with infinite variations. It’s the mathematics of an endless present, a disorderly galaxy, and a host of scary unknowns that startle us into fumbling stuff to the ground. Anything and everything may happen to you. Don’t run away, you might miss something; don’t prostrate yourself, somebody might trip over you lol. “All comes in time/Don’t fight it/Don’t mind it/Whatever may come.”
Listen: “Breath On A Window”