Shanbomb’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2013
Another year, so much music, blah, blah, blah, scroll down.
RIYL: Johnny Truant, The Tony Danza Tap Dance Extravaganza, Will Haven
It would appear that Spotify is getting to know me pretty well from this esoteric recommendation—but its algorithm is still full of shit. This British noisecore band doesn’t have much in common with my Swedish pals in Means End, whom they apparently sound like (check out their sweet new album too!), but RSJ are, nevertheless, pretty awesome.
I love intelligent beat-down albums, and believe me, they’re hard to come by. Danza IIII: The Alpha – The Omega was a very satisfying scratch for that itch, but I haven’t heard too many records in 2013 that make me just want to destroy shit while having the depth to warrant multiple listens. RSJ walks the line of brutality and smarts perfectly, with a fine-tuned ear for crushing riffs and menacing melodies that draw more than a passing comparison to their oft overlooked peers in the now defunct Johnny Truant and the comparably underrated Will Haven. Vocalist Dan Cook has an arsenal of frantic screams and shouts similar to that of Grady Avenell, but has a wicked ace up his sleeve in the form of a low growl that just demolishes. Higgs Boson is heavy, chaotic, and loads of fun. Don’t sleep on this one.
Listen: “Collectively We Are Tall”
RIYL: Thrice, Queens of the Stone Age, Hurt
My first of many “not quite metal, but still quite awesome” picks for 2013. O’Brother holds the distinction of being the first indie-ish band I know of to earn the coveted “Shanbomb-Hard-On” award, which is typically reserved for only the most magical, badass, and forward-thinking heavy bands I’ve come to love. O’Brother have all of these qualities, and their last record, the comparably splendid Garden Window, would have easily made my 2011 list, had I not discovered them right after submitting it.
For those not in the know, O’Brother is a band of five swampy-looking dudes from Atlanta that play sludgy, post metall-y music that maintains its accessibility with a pronounced indie/alternative sensibility. That said, the music is dark—really dark; sometimes in a smokey, noir like fashion (Come into the Divide), other times in a doomy sense of despair (Oblivion). Tanner Merrit’s menacing croons are pleasingly unusual and have a narrative quality to them similar to that of Fair to Midland’s Darroh Sudderth.
Disillusion isn’t the kind of record that aspires to sweep its predecessor under the rug or completely overwrite a good formula, but it’s a solid step forward for one of the most distinctive “heavy” bands today. The balance of melody, crunch, and style on display here is one of a kind.
RIYL: Sikth, Mnemic, Refused
So what exactly happened to these guys? I don’t mean that as in “When did they start playing rap-rock?” or “Why do they sound like a black metal band now?” It’s just that after a very well received sophomore album, 2008’s Alleviat, the reception, or overall lack thereof, for their latest record, Possession, is all around puzzling.
Benea Reach have never been a djent band, but like Textures, The Ocean, and Mnemic, they were a group that predated the trend and used Meshuggah’s raw materials in interesting ways — injecting a hint of sludge, a lot of dreamy atmosphere, and some surprisingly upbeat riffs (Refused) to excellent effect. The group also have a genuinely unique vocalist in Ilkka Viitasalo, whose range consists of low growls, pitched screeches, punky yells, and an ethereal singing voice. His talents might be a little polarizing, but gave the group a lot of character and were pivotal to the success of Alleviat.
So what’s new on Possession, and why has the metal community at large shrugged this off? Nothing monumental, but Benea Reach have succeeded in further distinguishing themselves from the 7-string worship and meatheaded-ness of the current trends. There is less of a reliance here on simple low riffs with delay guitar leads, and an emphasis on a more textured and diverse sound. So, getting to that second question, I have no clue. Possession is rock solid.
Listen: Album Preview
RIYL: Tool, The Mars Volta, Deftones
It’s not much of a secret that Karnivool is a favorite band of mine. Both Themata and Sound Awake are modern prog masterpieces to my ears. While Asymmetry definitely earns its spot on this list, I still feel a little thrown for a loop when listening to it. Like just about any band I’m really passionate about, Karnivool have embraced the sentiment that repetition is creative death, and I fully support them in that regard. But, still, Asymmetry is tough pill to swallow.
There are some fantastic things about this record that make it worth any Karnivool fan or prog lover’s time – Ian Kenny’s dashing vocals, Jon Stockman’s grumbly and rumbly bass crunch, Drew Goddard and Mark Hoskings beautiful and brutal guitar abuse, Steve Judd’s polyrhythmic mastery, and those ambitious song structures. There is a clear sense, though, that the group went out of their way in many instances to avoid the obvious—obvious hooks, build ups, climaxes, etc. That’s fine and understandable for a band looking to challenge themselves, but some of these tracks, even after many listens, don’t seem to deliver the obligatory payoff for such attentive listening. Asymmetry is still a highlight in a year of great prog and metal releases, but I don’t see it challenging Themata or Sound Awake any time soon. And if you haven’t heard Karnivool before, don’t start here.
Listen: “We Are”
RIYL: Porcupine Tree, Riverside, 3
Jolly is a band that only seems to get better, and I’m really stoked for them with the attention they’ve been getting from the higher ups in the genre and the press they’ve received on sites like this one. In the second volume of The Audio Guide to Happiness series, you can continue to give very few shits about the binaural wave hocus pocus, but love the cutting edge alt prog on display here. Vol. I was a big step up for the New York band in overall songwriting and musicianship, and, as impressive as it ways, Vol. II nearly blows it out of the water. Vol. II is just more consistent and memorable.
“Firewell,” “Despite the Shell,” and “The Grand Utopia” are all brilliant mini opuses full of gorgeous accidental-laden chord progressions, dreamy keyboard layers, heart-wrenching vocal hooks, and wild rhythms. “Dust Nation Bleak” also gives the group the closest thing they’ve ever had to an active rock radio single, while remaining true to their sound and being about 1000% better than anything you’d ever hear on rock radio today.
No band is more brutal and uplifting than Jolly.
RIYL: Karnivool, Disperse, Syqem
I have this thing against one-song albums. What appears to many bands and metal journalists to be a magnificent feat of creative dexterity and compositional skill generally comes off as a tedious fifty-minute slog for me. But taken on a song-by-song basis, Altered State is darn good record regardless.
I had the opportunity to review the work months ago, and it’s only continued to grow on me in the time since. While some people took my point about their new, less-metally approach to be irrefutable proof that I, in fact, love bro-metal, flexing in front of a mirror, and pounding Jager bombs, my initial criticism stands. I have no problem with Tesseract scaling back the chunk, but without adding another new dimension to their sound, they’ve produced a same-ier sounding release.
Oh well. Ashe O’Hara sounds terrific and the songs are still very memorable. I’m actually really pleased that these guys ventured into more refined territory. Having now shown Tesseract and their new release to a number of people who don’t like metal, or even rock, it’s been really cool to see the positive reactions this band elicits from really diverse audiences. Tesseract are one of very few bands around today with the musicianship, songwriting chops, and pop sensibility to appeal to just about anyone.
RIYL: Isis, Mastodon, Burst
As much as I appreciate instrumental metal and rock, I am really glad that Loic Rosetti found his way onto this record. While not a fine-tuned singer in a trained sense, Rosetti’s rough, grungy clean vocals and vein-bulging bellows allowed The Ocean’s music on their Heliocentric/Anthropocentric album suite to reach a new level of compositional craft. Songs actually had hooks! I don’t care if you play post metal or melodic grindcore, that shit matters. Loic’s presence on Pelagial, once again, drives Robin Staps and company’s eclectic and crafty songwriting in a more memorable and visceral direction.
With my stated feelings about album-long song cycles notwithstanding, there is a demonstrated diversity within The Ocean’s repertoire that is alive and well in this release. Want Blood Mountain-era Mastodon metal? Check out “The Wish In Dreams.” Want epic alt metal in the vein of Tool and Alice in Chains? Give “Let Them Believe” a spin. If crushing sludge metal is what you seek, the closing pair of “Cognitive Dissonance” and “The Origin of Wishes” will more than suffice.
The Ocean have always had a remarkable ability to traverse stylistic boundaries with the greatest of ease, and they preserve this tradition with poise on Pelagial.
Listen: “Hadopelagic II: Let Them Believe“
RIYL: Fair to Midland, The Mars Volta, Coheed and Cambria
There isn’t much left to say on the topic of Dead Letter Circus’s great sophomore record that I haven’t already parsed out in the review I did for the album not so long ago. Bottom line: Dead Letter Circus have done it again!
Listen: “Stand Apart“
RIYL: Strapping Young Lad, Scar Symmetry, Darkane
What kind of band loses their primary songwriter and then goes on to make a double album that stands up to the best works in their career? You see where I’m going here. Trying circumstances not even considered, The Living Infinite is ridiculously good. The eighty-five minutes of music produced by these six gentlemen from the extreme south of Sweden takes everything they’ve done well over the course of their lengthy career and creates a luscious 20-course meal out of it with an open bar and lots of hot babes (see interview). Björn Strid is a man on a mission, with an endless well of inescapable choruses, and whether thrashing, grooving, or progging out, the rest of the band bros hard, especially new guitarist David Andersson, whose leads and solos are sure to delight.
Unless you’re that kind of metal head who will only listen to black metal recorded through a 90’s era Talkboy, I don’t know what you’re doing not listening to The Living Infinite.
RIYL: Glassjaw, Refused, Every Time I Die
I have a serious soft spot for certain genres (Mallcore -W00t!). For me, few things are better than some great post hardcore. Unfortunately, with Glassjaw’s output getting ever closer to Tool’s level of prolificness (read: very low), Refused still being Fucking Dead, and Thrice not being a post hardcore band anymore, options have been limited. With that being the case, letlive.’s third album is a real catch.
While I enjoyed their last record, Fake History, the band seemed a little too caught up in many of their genre’s standard tropes to really stand on their own creative feet. The Blackest Beautiful corrects this problem nearly in full. Vocalist Jason Aalon Butler has always been one of the group’s foremost assets, but in previous albums he sounded a little too much the part of the standard fare screamer/tenor emo singer. On The Blackest Beautiful, the uniqueness of his range and stylistic personality are fully apparent with his powerful and soulful clean tone, that occasionally even calls MJ to mind, and his manic screams, which are some of the more crazed yelps you’re bound to hear in the genre. The band, as a whole, moves farther away from the idea of just being a punk or hardcore band, bringing a much stronger sense of groove and dynamic diversity into the fold. And man are these tunes catchy. Not metal by any means, but if you like any of the bands listed above, this will be your new listening addiction.
Listen: “The Priest and Used Cars“
RIYL: Periphery, Karnivool, The Contortionist
The idea of having this Australian band with the extremely lame plural noun name on my year end list, let alone, at the coveted number five spot, would have been an absurd notion to me, prior to hearing their debut album, Infinitas. On paper, Circles are a perfect Shanbomb band: they sound like an Aussie alternative group filtered through Sumerian Records. For whatever reason, though, their first EP, The Compass, made no frickin’ sense. Transitions were not a part of this group’s vocabulary, and sections were so nonsensically strung together, that they often produced lawlz-worthy moments.
Imagine my inner-turmoil and surprise after hearing Infinitas. Damn, these guys got their shit together. The production is a little more tunetrack-y than I would prefer, but suffice it to say that Circles have achieved their not-so-hidden potential. If the idea of Periphery-like djent grooves with Karnivooly/Coggy vocals and those holy-ballz Contortionist lead climaxes are of any interest to you, you’ll be missing out hugely if you pass on this record. Congrats Circles, you have given this writer a Shanbomb-Hard-On.
Listen: “Verum Infiniti“
RIYL: Textures, The Ocean, Klone
I seem to pride myself on some obscure level for knowing about Hacride far longer than anyone else I know and plugging them at any chance I get. I’ve loved every single record they’ve put out and appreciate their perpetual insistence on always evolving. Whether in their techie days of yore, or their “more epic than thou” post metal prog of recent, they’ve always been a band capable of reinventing themselves while staying comfortably ahead of the trends.
Despite losing half of their veteran lineup, Hacride plugs forth with a familiar creative wanderlust. As mentioned above, the band’s shift from Amoeba to Lazarus was a movement from Meshuggah-worn-on-sleeves prog metal to grittier and more expansive sludge-influenced epicness. Back To Where You’ve Never Been draws elements from both eras of Hacride’s sound, while consolidating them into punchy and pithy songs in the three-five minute range. This works extremely well. While their fifteen-minute epics are awesome, it’s cool to hear the band thinking small for once, but without losing that spark that has always made them special.
RIYL: Pantera, Opeth, Nevermore
Byzantine’s self titled record was the biggest and most awesome surprise for my ears in 2013. Prior to this past February, I would say I was vaguely aware of this ridiculously underrated group of West Virginians, but not to the extent that I really had any idea what they sounded like. Byzantine came out of the blue and knocked my dirty socks off. This record is fabulous, through and though. There is, indeed, something special about a nine-track album—it means no filler, and that’s exactly what you get here.
All nine tracks are pure metallic bliss. Every song is memorable and contains at least one drool-worthy moment of guitar-weeping beauty, total badass riffing, or righteous groove. Much like Hacride, or The Ocean, Byzantine has that remarkable ability to move fluidly between numerous schools of heaviness: they have the Southern-fried “power groove” of Pantera, the dynamism and menace of vintage Opeth, and the guitar heroics and overall virtuosity of Nevermore — truly something for everyone. And the cherry on top is Chris Ojeda’s chameleon voice which moves flawlessly between Phil Anselmo and Chris Cornell-like displays of talent.
Listen: “Which Light Shall Never Penetrate“
RIYL: Shai Hulud, Botch, Defeater
On an entirely different note, Absent Light is the record I most assuredly expected to be awesome, and, sure as shit, it was. No hardcore/metalcore band gets me half as excited as Misery Signals does, and boy did they make me a paradoxically happy camper this time around. On their first release in five years, Sigs do what they do best—fuck shit up, in the best way possible. The group’s technical prowess has reached a frightening level, which nicely complements the sense of malice that courses through much of this disk/digital download.
As with these other top picks, Absent Light is entirely devoid of filler. Every song just kills- emotion, mood, diversity, musicianship; it’s all there. To learn a little more about this awesome, awesome release, check out this interview we did with guitarist Ryan Morgan.
RIYL: Bacon, Sex, Win
Ahhh, Sevendust. HATE, HATE, HATE. Whatevs, if you like these guys, you know how good this record is; if you’re a reasonably opened minded person, I still say you give this a chance. If you’re an unreasonable person, I don’t know, go be unreasonable! Long story short, Sevendust have done a bang-up job on their latest and, possibly, final studio album. The group’s longstanding excellence in the melodic, groovy, and rhythmic departments has been honed to a degree none of these modern day djenteers or elitist favorites can even touch.
On that last note, Denisovich, of Heavy Blog is Heavy, recently summed up a view I’ve long had on this band and their relationship with the modern metal movements they’ve never quite fit in with. The point he makes is that the current strain of downtuned, polyrhythmic, melodic metal, that has been so popular as of late, owes about as much to Sevendust as it does the oh-so-trendy Meshuggah, and I couldn’t agree more. The first time I heard Icarus Lives, I liked it because it sounded like Sevendust — or a new, techie, modern incarnation of the band.
7D will never get the credit they deserve, but it’s telling that over fifteen years into their career, they still sound fresher and more relevant than most bands in the current metal landscape.