Grim Kim’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2013
This is my fourth or fifth year writing one of these for MetalSucks. Every year, Axl adds a stern reminder that we’re not meant to try to sneak in any honorable mentions or extras, and this year was no different. I mean, just because I happen to mention that I’ve been listening to the debut Rituaal 7” on repeat all day or am waiting anxiously for the Radioactive Vomit/Column of Heaven split to drop or am furious with myself for not getting ahold of the new Flagitious Idiosyncrasy in the Dilapidation album earlier doesn’t mean I’m trying to flout the rules, right? Surely a girl can casually add in that she only discovered Blackrat’s killer new album last month or just heard Argentinum Astrum’s phenomenal new LP? It can’t be untoward to note how difficult it was to chop my top twenty down to a sleek fifteen and offer apologies unto Usnea, Grave Upheaval, Magic Circle, Cosmic Church and Oranssi Pazuzu, or to bands like Falkenbach, Summoning, and Blood Ceremony, who I’ve loved for so long but just couldn’t quite fit. I mean, I’m just sayin’.
…I swear he’s on to me.
Anyways, releases from my trusty favorites 20 Buck Spin, Nuclear War Now! and Iron Bonehead dominated my listening habits this year, but this list ended up being a bit all over the place: lots of black metal, some death, not very much doom, and more grind than even I was expecting. Yes, I know the new Carcass rules; so does everyone else, which is why there’s no need for me to write about them. Yes, I know I left off like a billion awesome records, but, rules is rules (as much as I try to break them).
So here are fifteen of my favorite releases from 2013, listed in largely arbitrary order. Let the games begin.
The refined chaos found on these Northern Californian black metallers’ third full length is utterly compelling. Closely entwined with Ash Borer and Ruin Lust, to quote myself, “the trio carefully drums up momentum, cresting ghostly waves of urgent tremolo that soon spill over into a blur of rhythmic, fuzzily distorted riffs and subterranean howls. Even as the intricate melodies they employed on earlier recordings fall gently by the wayside, Fell Voices artfully build upon drone’s tidal motions with black metal’s manic intensity while refusing to sacrifice the grit or gloom of either medium.” Simply put, this band is one of USBM’s finest.
Oakland death/doom quartet Lycus enthrall from the first desolate chord, fulfilling the promise of their excellent 2011 and surpassing it by grace of experience and focus. In the grand tradition of funeral doom, Tempest is heartbreakingly sad – palpably, undeniably miserable, yet couched in moments of overwhelming beauty. To quote myself, “Punctuated by mournful violins, each of the album’s three compositions flows beautifully into the next, allowing for a force of movement seldom seen within the style. Melancholia reigns, yet there is no gnashing of teeth or soot-smeared wails permeating the monolithic riffs. They are better than that.” Indeed, they are better than most.
Listen: “Coma Burn”
Characteristically of this secretive, singular Finnish entity, Clandestine Blaze’s latest album surfaced quietly, without any fuss and very little fanfare. The project’s history of obscurity rattles against the accolades heaped upon Mikko’s other band, Deathspell Omega, but makes sense; this kind of lo-fi orthodox black metal will not appeal to everyone. Clandestine Blaze embodies black metal in a way that has become harder and harder to find, and Harmony of Struggle is the band’s strongest output in years. Raw, powerful, and uncompromising.
Listen: “Autumn of Blood and Steel”
These Swiss newcomers (their only other release, the Roman Acupuncture demo, also comes highly recommended) have managed the seemingly impossible, and released an extreme metal record that is at once wholly innovative, perversely strange, and immensely satisfying. There is a reason this EP sold out ages ago (…goddamnit). Aura is atmospheric black/death of the highest quality, done brilliantly and imbued with an alien quality that sets it miles apart from all other comers; complex, dissonant, yet bizarrely grandiose in the vein of a young Morbid Angel’s weird flashes of brilliance and Czech black metal’s eerie anomalies. You really just need to listen.
Listen: “Entranced by the Wolfshook”
Of course the new Inquisition album rules – was there really any chance that it wouldn’t? Obscure Verses… is even stronger a record than 2011’s Ominous Doctrines… and exemplifies the duo’s curious skill at staying completely true to their original vision while pushing boundaries far beyond the next nebula over. Inquisition’s sound is pure second Wave… by way of Saturn. Their stripped down, hypnotic approach to cosmic Satanic black metal has no business being this catchy or attention-grabbing, but try telling them that.
Listen: “Force of the Floating Tomb”
These UK lads have struck gold on their first proper full-length, and it’s about time. Referring to a band such as this as “atmospheric,” “occult,” or, uh, “caverncore” becomes meaningless and arbitrary until you’ve spent some time with Odori Sepulcrorum roaring through your headphones. To quote myself, “The unavoidable truth is that while many of the modern death metal bands have carried on plugging away, dredging up bargain basement Azagthoth riffs, and listening to Onward to Golgotha on repeat, these four Englishmen have focused their energies into creating something that is, simply, better. The quality of songwriting found on Odori Sepulcrorum stands a considerable height above every other death metal album released this year, and has cemented its creators’ fate as one of the genre’s most important new bands.”
Not only is Czech trio Cult of Fire staggering under the weight of their combined resume (past and current members of Maniac Butcher, Dark Storm, Death Karma, and Lykathea Aflame pad their ranks), they can easily trace their sonic lineage straight back to their homeland’s earliest black metal innovators, from Master’s Hammer and Root up through Maniac Butcher, Inferno, and newcomers Triumph, Genus. The savage barbarity of the latter combined with the spiritual esotericisms and experimental tendencies of the former make for a heady mixture, one that Cult of Fire stir deftly and purposefully. The addition of sultry Eastern instrumentation and playfully scattershot dynamic range (Blasts? Sure! Doomy riffs? Sure! Garbled voices speaking in tongues? Why not!) only serve to intensify the effect.
Listen: “मृत्यु का वीभत्स नृत्य”
Atlantean Kodex’s second full-length release is impressive, epic in scope and altogether triumphant. It chronicles the dark days of Europe’s rise and fall, drawing upon classic mythology and rich metaphor to paint a picture of death, glory, and the shadows in between. The music itself straddles the traditional doom/heavy metal border, galloping past blazing guitar leads and Markus Becker’s mighty vocals and onwards towards victory. To quote myself, “There are few other bands save for the Swedish trio Ereb Altor who pay such excellent tribute to Quorthon’s melancholic melodies, but Atlantean Kodex don’t just stop there. They’ve expanded an already broad palette to include swaths of classic Candlemass and even the loinclothed metal kings themselves, Manowar. (The triumphant chorus to “Sol Invictus” is as stirring as anything Joey DeMaio’s written since Kings of Metal, and that’s just the second track.)”
I don’t usually listen to this style, but this album is so good, so grand, so absolutely bloody perfect that I’d recommend you put aside any preconceived notions about so-called “epic metal” and dive in. You won’t regret it.
This band deserves every speck of recognition they’ve received, and then some. To quote myself, “On ‘Sky Burial’ (the title itself a deceptively whimsical name for the most lonesome of death rites), these Richmond boys channel the prairie dirges and dopesick Americana dreams of Neil Young and Across Tundras as often as they pay unconscious homage to Neurosis and hint towards their own bloody black roots. “The Long Road Home” is quiet, somber, and windswept, ten minutes of melancholy chords, understated drums, and wide-open spaces between the crystal-clear notes. There is no filler here; the songs are given room to grow, and breathe, and be. Inter Arma are well versed in the art of restraint; vocals are sparse throughout the record’s entirety, used for effect rather than narration. When throat Mike Paparo does choose to unleash the weathered roar and truly chilling howls he’s perfected in his black metal band, Bastard Sapling, chaos reigns, and songs like “Destroyer” positively crackle with ill portent and barely-harnessed energy.” In short, this record is amazing and Inter Arma are well on their way to big things.
I’ve mentioned this obscure Icelandic band before but never really delved into just why it has my most fervent support. Wormlust is the solo project of one H. V. Lyngdal, and is left-field black metal at its pinnacle. The Feral Wisdom is a claustrophobic, unsettling, and wholly terrifying entity on par with similar output from countrymen Svartidaudi or even Deathspell Omega. In short, this album is absolutely fucking insane. The riffs are long and languid, punctuated by alternating blasts and measured percussion, occasionally caught up into progressive meanderings, underpinned by slimy bass lines, and narrated by the mouth of Hell – the ghostly, gut-ripped vocals invoke a lost soul spiraling down into the void from oceans away. It’s in turns agonizing and haunting, ethereal and demented, thoroughly dissonant and overwhelmingly intense. Get it.
Listen: “Sex augu, tólf stjörnur”
This is one of the best melodic death metal records I’ve ever heard, and I’ve only just begun delving into this Australian band’s discography. Now, when I say “melodic,” please believe I’m not referring to sub-ATG or Heartwork worship (and definitely not porno grooves). Sacriphyx wield melody as a weapon, writing razor-sharp harmonies that feel utterly essential alongside the touches of black metal and thrash interspersed into their hooky death metal onslaught. It’s all about the mid-paced stomp and the war-torn atmosphere (and of course, the juicy melodic solos that appear amidst the slaughter on almost every song – the one that sweeps in halfway through “Famal Fromelles” kills me). Honestly, the closest stylistic match I can come up with is Arghoslent (without all the racism); Sacriphyx make for a handy guilt-free substitute while surpassing the talents of those boneheaded Virginians. Thematically, ‘The Western Front’ explores the emotional devastation and crippling despair endured by Australian fighters at wartime – there are no glorious odes or battle hymns, only horror, fear, depression, frustration, and sorrow. Their true power lies in their superior songwriting skills, and in their wholly impassioned delivery. It’s stirring stuff, especially when they wax acoustic on the miserable soldier’s lament “Damn Passchendaele Ridge.” Dig in.
Listen: “Fatal Fromelles”
Yellow Eyes are one of the finest black metal bands in New York City, but their dearth of live gigs and introverted ways mean that not everyone’s figured it out yet. Hopefully the trio’s superb sophomore album Hammer of Night has changed that. To quote myself, “Punctuated by pained howls scraped from an unwilling throat, the surprisingly melodic riffing echoes the clear, clean sound that is so often found glinting up from modern black metal’s murky depths and coiled around shoegaze’s darker moments. It’s a sound that’s uniquely American in conception, but European in execution. Manic tremolo picking and intricate, studied compositions intertwine and evolve together, creating something that is indisputably black fucking metal, but still a little strange.” USBM is full of bands that blend atmosphere with severity, but, much like Fell Voices, Yellow Eyes’ approach is particularly engrossing. They’ve already started work on a new EP and hopefully booking some live dates, but for now, surrender to the Hammer of Night.
Listen: “Many Long Fingers Bent in Pain”
This album was perhaps my most anticipated release of the year, and happily, surpassed even my highest hopes. The Ruins of Beverast (steered by sole member Alexander Meilenwald) returns with a massive collection that offers well over an hour’s worth of entrancing extremity. To quote myself, “The record is an ambitious effort, and the nine-minute “Daemon” is especially imposing. Choked with mouldering death and foul black vomit, the song both flagellates and intimidates its rapt listener. A measured interval of keys float regally above the mire before coagulating back into the polluted black, death, and doom amalgam from whence it came. The Ruins of Beverast sheath their malevolent black metal leanings in an occult darkness akin to what Necros Christos or Grave Miasma offer, slowing it all down to an ominous crawl.” The album may feel a bit overlong to some, and as much as I like stumbling doom tempos, it wouldn’t have killed the man to bring in a bit of his past work’s dynamic diversity; in spite of its flaws, though, I’ve found myself taken in by its unrelenting, near-ritualistic excess. It’s suffocating, a velvet cocoon spun from oxidized silk and poisoned ash. Meilenwald is remorseless in his mission to completely overwhelm his listener, and in the process creates hybridized black/death/doom of such density and oppression that escape seems nigh impossible.
It took awhile for this record to really hit me, but once it did, it felt like I’d gone a couple rounds with a methed-out Will Rahmer. Moksha is a dark, dark record, spurred on by vocalist Madison’s brutally personal, insidiously poetic lyrics, written as they were in the shadows of a city’s violent death throes. Delivered in her paint-stripping, caustic screech, they hit hard. Beyond its emotional charge, Cloud Rat’s furious grindcore filters in a truly diverse array of outside flavors, from swaths of shoegaze and ominous doom to eerie electronics and the gorgeous vocal harmonies on “Infinity Chasm.” Their Neil Young cover works beautifully well, retaining the resigned pathos of the original while blending virulent howls with gentle, sad melodies. Far from being a novelty or awkward experiment, this Michigan trio’s version of “The Needle and the Damage Done” feels raw; the desperation feels real. The rest of the album is no less affecting. When all of their disparate elements ad influences coalesce, it’s blinding in its brilliance. Their support for “Veganism, Radical Feminism, Anarchism, Paganism, GISM and other relevant –isms” just makes me love them more.
Listen: “Side B”
My favorite album of 2013 should come as no surprise to anyone who keeps an eye on what I get up to on this here website. Swedish supergroup Agrimonia take the top honors for their third LP, Rites of Separation, a monumentally fantastic release that I cannot heap enough praise upon. Dark hardcore, crust punk, melodic death metal, black metal, doom, and post-rock cleave into a final product that is about as close to perfection as any imperfect being could wish. As I’ve said before, Agrimonia take the “epic” tag seriously, it seems; this is one hell of a long album, especially for a punk/hardcore band, but each note and chord feels absolutely necessary. The final and most ambitious track, “Awaiting,” starts off with a woozy, industrialized drone (courtesy of Miasmal/Martyrdöd guitarist Pontus’ ominous keyboard work) and dares the listener to navigate its treacherous terrain, wandering through fiery hardcore and icy black metal while accompanied by heavy nods towards pure metallic crust and circling a gloomy, doomy central passage. The song fades out on another strong, complex melody and ends with a few airy moments of piano and acoustic guitar. It’s a lot to take in, but well worth the effort. Rites of Separation is a truly marvelous work of art, and will hopefully receive the recognition it deserves as one of 2013’s great triumphs.” Trust me.