Dave Mustein’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2013
2013 was a complicated year, both for me personally and for the world at large — to say nothing of the metal world. As a result, I found myself drawn to accordingly complex music. Controlled complexity often breeds the most interesting results, and 2013 was no exception, delivering an unforeseen number of phenomenally unique releases. None of the music on this year’s list strictly conforms to any one genre – it’s all got combined, multifaceted elements, evocations of atmospheres that refuse to settle, constantly provoking new ideas and interpretations. These artists’ music doesn’t sound like any other’s, and these albums all provide me with new insight (musical or otherwise) nearly every time I listen to them.
Bandcamp truly is an amazing tool: without it, there’d be little opportunity to discover gems grown in bedrooms, like Australia’s (nearly) one-man project Plini. Sweet Offerings is an ideal meshing of Guthrie Govan, Cloudkicker, and Gru (who actually has a guest solo here) – sparse but lush, dense but spacious, with virtuosic guitarwork that provokes thoughts of space and time. Most importantly, guitars aren’t the only element worth paying attention to here. Plini’s grooves and melodies are artful and multilayered, allowing us to view any one song through myriad rhythmic lenses. Though undeniably brief, Sweet Offerings is some of the most evocative, soulful, and simply beautiful music I’ve discovered in the past year. You’ll have to try hard to avoid keeping this one on repeat.
“Delicate” is the last adjective anyone would use to describe brutal death metal, but it’s applicable to Wormed’s Exodromos, the band’s first full-length since 2003. Brutality abounds, but it’s far from one-dimensional: atmospheric chords and thoughtful dissonance nestle in alongside the Cryptopsy-esque whirlwinds of gutturals and pinch harmonics. Over the last ten years, it seems that Wormed have been incubating life: Exodromos is every bit as virulent as Planesphaerium, but it’s got a newly organic element to it, which renders the album a little cleaner, a little more modern, and significantly more resonant. The brevity of the album prevents it from wearing out its welcome, while it’s still long enough for its eerie blend of slam and space to make a permanent impact.
Listen: “Xenoverse Discharger”
It seems like Hacride’s latest was passed over by most people, which is a damn shame considering how awesome this album is. It’s prog metal of epic proportions, focusing on atmosphere and refusing to succumb to the temptation of excess technicality. Hacride ride their grooves like stallions, letting them reach breakneck energy before reeling them in at the last second and turning their songs into something we’d never expect. It’s unrelentingly heavy and never degenerates into senseless chugging, supplementing its weight with rich, celestial keyboards and melodies.
Listen: “Edification of the Fall”
On paper, The Botanist comes across as a deranged hermit (ok, he is), but contrary to most expectations, his music is no gimmick. There have been numerous occasions when this folky, botanical black metal has been the only thing I want to listen to. It’s music that sounds like it grew straight out of the ground, with muffled, hazy drumwork and the verdant echoes of hammered dulcimer. Bizarre, indistinct vocals cement Mandragora as one of the strangest yet surprisingly listenable releases of the year.
Listen: “Mandrake Legion”
It’s funny that clean vocals still piss a lot of people off in 2013 when they’re often the one thing that can separate artists from the masses (when done properly, of course). In the case of Voices, formed from the remnants of Akercocke, ethereal vocalizations mesh with unpredictable tonalities over a framework of modernized death metal sensibilities. Angular, disconcerting fragments are forced into place rather than slotted neatly in order. It’s recorded with one of the most addicting guitar tones I’ve ever heard – punchy, tight, and thoroughly modern. So yeah, Voices may be pretty far from kvlt, but that doesn’t make the music any less compelling.
Listen: “Eyes Become Black”
Nobody could have expected Deafheaven to reach the kind of popularity they’ve attained this year. It’s all due to Sunbather, a refreshing amalgamation of melancholy and hope that has managed to invigorate a format that’s been beaten to death a million times. Sunbather isn’t a lopsided portrait of smiles and rainbows; it’s a thoughtful, self-aware sketch that’s filled in with the appropriate emotions in appropriate doses, stretching genre boundaries like Silly Putty. It slides back and forth between empathetic and apathetic, with dense swirls of tremolo enforced by a broad palette of drumwork.
My list is loaded with black metal this year, but the filthiest, darkest record on here is by far Primitive Man’s Scorn. It’s the heaviest album of the year, built from bowel-quaking distortions and iceberg-calving vocalizations. The sky gets darker when you listen to Scorn; it’s like diving into an isolation chamber where the silence is replaced by thousand-decibel bursts of static and narcotic agony. Simultaneously mesmerizing and incapacitating, it’s not for the faint of the heart, but is an incredibly powerful and rewarding listen for those who can bear its weight.
Listening to Obsian feels a little like watching a time-lapse of a decomposing mammal. The whole of the organism is there, at least at the beginning, but as time passes, its shape and dimensions warp into unexpected forms and give birth to new elements that certainly weren’t there in the first place. Yet at the end of the process, even though we end with a shallow, shell-like representation of what we started with, we’re still aware of the continuity, the circular nature of life’s productive and destructive processes. Obsian is a murky, harrowing journey, but its gorgeous tangents articulate optimism amidst the gloom. It’s a complex, distinctive listen that takes a little time to digest, but it’s definitely worth it.
Listen: “The Seat of Severance”
Stoner metal is one of the most flexible of all metal genres, so it’s no surprise that Habitual Levitations sounds radically different from 2008’s Prehistoricisms. Harsh vocals are almost entirely cut out, clearing the path for the band’s inventive harmonies. The individual sounds here are just so interesting – tone and timbre cover all ends of the metal spectrum. Dissonance swims through a bog of thick, groove-ridden melodies before diving into placid moments of tension and apprehension. It’s the kind of album where you notice new minutiae with every listen. Its songwriting is both intelligent and catchy, mutating constantly without losing sight of its original trajectory, making Habitual Levitations an album worth listening to over and over.
Listen: “The Welding”
It’s tough to justify one EP on a year-end list, let alone two, but Song of the Crippled Bull is so thoroughly enjoyable that there’s no way I can pass it up. One of my most-listened-to releases of the year, it dabbles in all my favorite areas of metal while somehow managing to avoid either diluting or saturating us with any one element. It’s death metal, certainly, but it’s so much more than that – technical, progressive, emotive, and cohesive, all without getting caught up in its own complexity. Imagine a grisly hybrid of Meshuggah and Fallujah, with the added impact of gorgeous clean vocals. Seriously, listen to this band.
Listen: “Stench of the Iron Age”
You never know what you might miss when you don’t check underfoot. In the case of Slugdge, their brand of, uh, slug-themed blackened death metal is both literally and figuratively underground. It’s a frenetic blend of doomy death and blackened chords, interposed with spectral vocal flurries and downright hilarious dramatic lyrical content. Songs here are exceptionally well-written and beg for multiple listens, especially through their use of uncommon phrasings and harmonies. The raw production is more aid than deterrent, coating the record in a slimy, shimmering trail. All hail Greatfather Mollusk!
Listen: “All Shell Perish”
The demise of The Berzerker left me aimless for a while, but I was fortunate enough to stumble upon yet another psychotic, industrialized Australian outfit in The Amenta. They’ve been around since 2002, but 2013’s Flesh Is Heir finds the band focusing their sound and riffs into an unstoppable beam of concentrated, blackened energy. The venom contained in Flesh Is Heir will ossify your body before the unrelenting rhythms shatter it into a million gritty little pieces. It’s an otherworldly confluence of coursing black metal and searing, grinding death metal, topped up with industrial smog that renders these 11 tracks demoralizing and hopelessly powerful.
Listen: “Tabula Rasa”
Ovid’s Withering provides a near-perfect balance of everything I want to hear in my extreme metal. Technicality seamlessly weaves into a tapestry of symphonic theatrics, but the music doesn’t overcomplicate things and never forgets its sense of rhythm. There’s a sense of furious optimism powering the album forward, giving the music natural contours and and allowing it to develop as an involved narrative rather than as a mere collection of riffs. Miniscule elements make magnificent impacts here, like the new-school keyboard screams over the bottom-heavy grooves. Ferociously massive and refreshingly unique, Scryers of the Ibis is a not a debut album to pass up.
Listen: “Oedipus Complex”
What’s up with bands getting back together and making albums that are even better than their earlier material? Between Carcass and Gorguts, the trend of bad comeback albums seems to be reversing. Call me naive, but Colored Sands is my personal favorite Gorguts release. Between the production, the all-star crew of musicians alongside Luc Lemay, and the fascinating historical content, I haven’t been able to stop running through the album. With Colored Sands, Gorguts have sculpted a conscious monument of eerie, perfectly incongruous harmonies, backed by some of the most impressive drumming John Longstreth has ever recorded. It’s amazing that such mysterious, disconcerting music can be so addicting.
Listen: “An Ocean of Wisdom”
I’ve covered nearly everything I want to say about Pelagial in my review earlier this year, and my opinion has barely changed since then. A cohesive aural manifestation of a journey to the sea floor, Pelagial is the most worthwhile listen of the year, dipping into fascinating territory both musical and conceptual. It might take years to dissect everything that’s going on here, from the buried submarine samples to the subtleties of the basslines. One-song albums are hard to pull off, but the transition is nearly flawless, descending through a recursive stained-glass spectrum rather than traveling linearly downward. On top of the instrumentation, Loic Rossetti’s spectacular vocal performance transformed what was originally an instrumental album into a fiercely dynamic and blindingly creative archetype of everything that modern metal should be.