Sammy O’Hagar’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2013
One of my favorite non-metal releases this year was Yeezus. Kanye West is basically the clown prince of a pop culture world I abhor (right down to being married to its spectacularly-assed queen), but when the man brushes the bullshit aside, he gets shit done. The thing’s drenched in noise with not a goddamn radio hit on the record. It was indicative of the kind of year that could come after one that ended with a deeply disturbed guy executing more than a dozen kindergartners. And though I’ve set up lists like this in the past, it feels bleaker now. Obama finally lived up to the massive incompetence and Orwellian overreach that his critics have pinned on him since January 2009, and in what should have been a banner year for his opponents, Republicans still can’t find a way to be the lesser of two evils. People are holding food drives at their place of employment for themselves when their offensively wealthy overlords won’t pay them enough to eat. Elmore Leonard’s dead. Mrs. Krabappel/Mrs. Crandall’s dead. Lou fucking Reed is dead. Tony fucking Soprano is dead (for real this time). Everyone you love is going to die. You’re going to die. Life is a series of violent and chaotic events barely veiling the true blackness of what’s beyond, with each life taken from you like a dagger in your damn side until you get there. So fittingly, Yeezus wept.
Of course, that’s what metal’s for. And accordingly, metal was particularly great this year. But the notable thing about it was how difficult the best of it was. Records that brushed off the faint of heart before they could even get through one spin. But if you stuck around, you were better for it. The complexity denoted a richness instead of a pointless need to challenge. And while there were others that didn’t follow that template at all, the demanding ones stuck with me. If you love metal, it was a terrific year for it. I feel like next year will be just as good, as it’s morning in America, and that’s a mushroom cloud you see blooming right before the line on the horizon.
A welcome return to form for Savannah’s finest (even if that form is an ever-evolving loose set of parameters generally agreed upon as Kylesa). While it lacked the bombast of Time Will Fuse Its Worth and the effortless self-assurance of Static Tensions, Ultraviolet reaffirmed the band as a well-oiled punk/sludge/doom/indie metal machine. Laura Pleasants’ leads and vocals have never had more clarity, and Phillip Cope rose above his role as bellowing chord-pounder (well, and producer) to take the lead on “Low Tide,” providing wounded vocals over the Cure-esque coy pond of guitars. Kylesa can and have gone bigger, but Ultraviolet is a reminder that there’s still bigger and better things to come.
Symphonic metal is an inherently goofy genre that takes itself too seriously, and Fleshgod Apocalypse put everything about it way over the top. Ever since adding a 200 piece orchestra (or a very good keyboardist) on 2011’s Agony, they realized their part-silly/part-brilliant potential. Labyrinth is where it coalesced into something substantial. Yes, it’s still stuffed to the rafters with grandiosity, but the focus the band bring to the album makes it more than something to guffaw at. Labyrinth has a flow reminiscent of the classical music it’s lifting from. It’s a masterpiece in its own way: like Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s so lush and histrionic that you simultaneously bask in its cheeky hyperbole and admire its craft and effectiveness. Let the neo-classical guitar nerds pay heavy-handed tribute to Bach; Fleshgod Apocalypse understand more about Mahler and Verdi then those ponytailed dweebs ever could.
It’s no secret that I have a verbose music critic’s throbbing hard-on for Sweden’s premier post-metal unit, but Vertikal was tougher to get into than their prior material. A big part of that is that it’s front-loaded: the sequence of Vangelis-esque intro track “The One,” ”I: The Weapon” and Vertikal’s 19-minute centerpiece “Vicarious Redemption” opens the album then promptly eats up a third of its running time. In a way, that’s fatal: it’s a lot to ask even the most intensely-focused CoL fan to churn through an EP’s worth of material before the majority of the record rolls out. But if you stuck around, you were treated to predictably excellent and existential metal. It’s doused in the band’s analog doom and augmented even more than usual by fun throwback synths. It’s easily Cult of Luna’s most challenging work to date, and unsurprisingly, its most rewarding.
Listen: “I, The Weapon”
The band must have had an inkling that 2013 would be a great year to be from New England and have a beard. In a perfect world, Revocation’s sniper-precise death-thrash would have been the soundtrack to the mossy facial hair of Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes dragging 2012’s worst team in the AL East to being the best motherfucking team in baseball (granted, there were other guys who were more responsible, but those two certainly looked the most ridiculous). But alas, Revocation simply had to settle for continuing their streak as one of metal’s most reliable bands. Their fourth record being self-titled is a statement in and of itself: it’s the same parade of fret-spanning riffery while also putting more focus into their songwriting. It’s the same Revocation that was and the Revocation that will come to be. As Jonathan Papelbon used Drunk White People’s Preferred Band The Dropkick Murphys to accompany his walk to the mound, 3-out zenmaster Koji Uehara could (and should) endear himself to the region by taking the field to Revocation’s “Invidious.” Consider it his way of high-fiving New England metalheads all at once. Boston Strong, Revocation stronger.
I don’t buy that there was anyone who wasn’t initially underwhelmed by this one. It took Spain’s foremost brutal sci-fi slam metal band (and, um, as far as I know, its only one) a decade to follow up the classic Planisphærium, and in that time, slam both rose to surprising prominence and experienced a less surprising decline. But while squiggly sci-fi tech death bands like Gigan (who also put out a stupendous record this year) have continued to carry the torch, nothing could touch hearing something new from Wormed themselves. All that buildup took some of the punch out of Exodromos’ initial spins, but man, did it ever burrow its way into you like… some kind of invertebrate. Even in the decade since their debut, Wormed’s brand of precise-yet-groovy brutal death metal sounds distinct. Even if we don’t hear more from them until 2023, whatever comes next will pull the rug out from under a complacent metal scene and subsequently knock us all on our asses. Again. If this is the last of Wormed, “Techkinox Wormhole” will probably go down as one of the heaviest things anyone anywhere has ever done ever.
Speaking of brutal death metal grooves, Suffocation sound even more vicious now despite a few of their founding members downshifting to part-time status or quitting the band altogether. After the death-mosh of Blood Oath, Pinnacle of Bedlam put the “technical” back into “technical death metal,” producing a tighter rendition of the band’s grind sprints and some of the best guitar leads of their career. Bedlam is the kind of Suffocation album that sticks to your damn ribs, with all the requisite slow parts held together by nimble odd-time signatured riffs. Former drummer Dave Culross proves himself a terrific replacement for current former drummer Mike Smith, and makes the band into a tighter, angrier, and faster unit than they’ve been in a while.
Listen: “Eminent Wrath”
…and speaking of career-best lead work, these limey sons-of-bitches extended one of metal’s biggest middle fingers to the thousands of hand-wringers who thought another Carcass record could be disastrous. They proved us completely wrong, providing a fitting sequel to the iconic Heartwork that would have been canonized had it come out in place of decades-old punchline Swansong. Jeff Walker’s snarl sounds like it had been preserved in amber, while the rest of the band provided some of the best melodic deathgrind in recent memory, let alone for Carcass. And with some of the best leads of their career (if you disagree, I direct you here), they hint that future Carcass releases could provide positive evolution into something even more essential than they were before they called it quits. But if they do keep going, no more songs about voting. Just congealed clots of blood and thrasher’s abattoirs.
Listen: “A Congealed Clot of Blood”
A big theme of this year, as mentioned above, was dense extreme metal records that were simultaneously offputtingly complex and oddly intriguing. Even for a band like Ulcerate, Vermis was a hard nut to crack. But where this could seem like it was a lackluster followup to 2011’s stellar Destroyers of All, it eventually revealed itself to be otherwise. The “hooks” the band trotted out on the album prior to Vermis would feel condescending in this record’s context. Shattered glass chords, relentless tech-death drumming anchoring endless moaning and bending riffs, and bassist/vocalist Paul Kelland’s mid-range growl presented an appealingly uneven terrain. Once you’re clued into the language of Vermis, there’s a ton to pick apart. Not for the faint of heart, even more so than before.
Listen: “Clutching Revulsion”
In which Intronaut became as good a band as everyone insisted they were. They’ve always been a phenomenal live act, and while vocals added much-needed focus to Valley of Smoke, they were weak, monotone, and ultimately forgettable. Unsurprisingly, as Intronaut just seem to be more highly evolved human beings, they could sense all that and tightened, polished, and expanded everything for Habitual Levitations. Packed with great fucking songs, interesting asides, functional vocals, and some of the best musicianship you’ll hear anywhere, the album is a pivotal step forward for the band. Instead of fun fusion-prog metal wankery, Intronaut now sound like the force of nature they can and should be. Habitual Levitations (Instilling Words with Tones) is the album where Intronaut finally got it, and where even the most prog-averse will come around to getting into Intronaut.
Listen: “The Welding”
I am loathe to include this as part of my Best Metal of 2013 list, because even in its heaviest moments, I wouldn’t necessarily call Earth Rocker metal. Clutch sound like what the textbook definition of “hard rock” should be in 2013, not the Wrangler Jeans icons like Alter Bridge, Nickelback, Shinedown, Flyleaf, Three Days Grace, Flrnbortle, Merkleborn, or Mumbleyeah. But even despite the handicap of them not being that metal, the band put out one of their all-time best this year, condensing everything to love about Clutch in one wonderful place. It’s all blues rock riffs under Neil Fallon’s bearded rail-rider witticisms. Not hunkered down by pretentious concepts or, ugh, rapping, Earth Rocker rocks out with Clutch’s respective cocks out. It’s all whiskey, sativa, session ales, and hazy sunsets, no matter the time of year. Fun and remarkably substantive.
Listen: The Wolfman Kindly Requests…
It’s been a rough few years for the tr00est in black metal’s ranks: the hipsterati’s fondness for the genre has led to endless stylistic mashups and pretentious apologists making up for boring reiterations of past Scandinavian glories. Deafheaven blew the whole fucking thing wide open, though, using black metal mainly as a structural template to sneak in the defining characteristics of post-hardcore, shoegaze, and noise music. Taking what genre interlopers like Alcest do one step further, Sunbather finally delivers on the fascinating promise of the band’s demo (and makes up for the fundamental meh-ness of their first full-length). Deafheaven make sad, beautiful, and hopeful music, paying no respect whatsoever to black metal’s roots. But this is a great thing: better to use grimness to the best of your ability instead of paying awkward tribute to the weird, lanky guys burning churches 20 years ago. Black metal is an afterthought on Sunbather, but it wouldn’t be as great as it is without it. One of the year’s most fascinating and unique albums by a wide margin.
Throwing “Southern” in front of your band’s style usually means adding a few groovy pentatonic riffs into whatever the hell else you were doing. It allowed your fans to sip PBRs and nod their heads to some ironically reappropriated riffcraft. But akin to Southern lifers like Down, ASG take time to understand the spirit of Southern rock before weaving it into their sunsplashed heaviness. Blood Drive is full of ballsy Allman Brothers riffs, and Jason Shi packs in as many Skynyrd-esque vocal hooks as he can. The result is an honest, evocative, and simply decent Southern metal record. ASG defined summer 2013 better than “Blurred Lines” or “Get Lucky” ever could.
Listen: “Blood Drive”
In which metal’s scariest band attempted to relate to you, and were even more pant-shittingly terrifying in the process. Vexovoid spends its second half drifting in and out of consciousness, leaving the mind to wonder what kind of nightmares a band like Portal has to have when they’re already so unsettlingly monstrous in the waking world. Perhaps a career best, or the ominous indicator of something more magnificent and horrible to come.
The fact that Carcass won’t get Comeback Record of the Year speaks volumes of the greatness of Colored Sands. Admittedly, Gorguts are a different case: the band broke up and reformed several times before and after Obscura, their landmark abstract tech-death album, saw the light of day. But founding member Luc Lemay made sure every hour of the wait between their (ahem) swansong From Wisdom to Hate and Sands was completely worth it. By packing the reformed band with ringers like Dysrhythmia’s Kevin Hufnagel and Krallice/Behold the Arctopus noodler Colin Marston, Lemay provided a bridge between his past and the bands who built themselves up from Gorguts’ ashes. The results are astounding: toxic whirlpools of disjointed chords and the occasional leviathan death metal riff, all draped in lethal ambiance. You could make an argument that there were albums much heavier than Colored Sands in 2013, but there wasn’t a single one that was heavy quite like this.
Listen: “Forgotten Arrows”
Teethed Glory and Injury is exactly the album we’d been waiting for Altar of Plagues to make. After several records and EPs of expansive, Weakling-esque black metal, the band abandoned all pretense of putting out another release made up of epic-length, contemplative black metal songs and instead pruned everything to its basest elements. The results were genre-destroying and genre-faithful, simultaneously. Teethed Glory and Injury is stunning from front to back, tremendously bleak and evocative. Its dedication to noise music made it a hard listen, but the ache beneath the static and clatter was so profoundly human that it transcended what typically presents itself as offputting and made it part of a horrifying tapestry. It perfectly captured the darkness and sadness the band had always meandered around, so they decided to call it quits. There will be no attempts to sully the album’s greatness, and Teethed Glory and Injury is the definitive statement of what Altar of Plagues were supposed to sound like. Their previous releases are immaterial now. The band blew open an entrance into a vast, uncharted world, and are leaving it up to us to plod around in it alone indefinitely.
Listen: “Scald Scar of Water”