Vince Neilstein’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2013
When putting together these lists I always ask myself whether I should go on strict play counts or some kind of abstract artistic merit. If I listened to an album a lot, surely I’d call it the “best,” right? But there’s seemingly more to it than that. Or is there? No idea. In 2013 my list ended up using a little of both as factors in the final ranking order.
All that said, here we go:
15. Shining – One One One (Indie Recordings / Prosthetic)
Sax-wielding mainman Jørgen Munkeby and his troupe of black-clad blackjazzers return after a three-year hiatus with another bang-up rock and roll album that’s musically advanced enough to impress even the most jaded musician. The industrial and jazz elements have been dialed down a touch since 2010’s Blackjazz but the core of the sound is the same, and this time around the emphasis is on tightly focused, catchy, hook-laden songs even more than it was before. Catchy catchy catchy. The songs are so compact and lean here I’d venture to call this pop, except nah, this shit is way too fucking weird for that. Let’s just call it “good” and leave it at that.
Listen: “How Your Story Ends”
No one does this style of visceral, technical death metal better than Gorguts, and it’s SO good to have them back after twelve freakin’ years. Luc Lemay has always been the creative genius here, but what the new members bring to the table is invaluable, especially Colin Marston’s trademark punchy low-end. We all need a little more Gorguts in our lives now and again to remind us that DEATH FUCKING METAL.
Listen: “An Ocean of Wisdom”
They’ve only released two albums to date but this Brooklyn trio is really onto something. It’s rare that you hear a new band so focused, refined and original so early on in their career, but then again these guys are vets of the trade and presumably knew exactly what they wanted going in. “Original” being the operative word: “prog” and “black metal” are not often phrases that go well together, but they do so seamlessly on Obsian. Drummer Ian Jacyszyn’s magnificent work makes this whole engine go while guitarist Andrew Hock and bassist Nick McMaster (also of Krallice) create a deep, deep sense at atmosphere that is uniquely Castevetian.
Yeah, yeah, the banjo thing, whatever. Can we talk about how these Boston gentlemen (And I do mean gentle. Ask drummer Phil Dubois-Coyne to tickle your balls next time you see him) just keep getting better and better at both playing their instruments and writing songs? It’s pretty remarkable if you zoom out and look at Revocation’s career from 2009’s Existence is Futile through the present day: basically the same, just more refined and more focused with each passing release. It’s like these guys are master whiskey distillers who just keep learning new tricks with every batch. Wait for that 10-year single barrel release, gonna be wicked.
2013 was a huge year for Norma Jean: they showed that they belong in the modern metal scene once and for all after many had started to doubt them (or had long since given up). It started with a performance at South by South Death 2013 that brought the house down and turned even the most jaded of heads. The band was able to parlay that into a slot on Summer Slaughter at which they did the exact same, and they brought it all home with Wrongdoers, an album that mostly leaves behind their chaotic Botch worship of yore for something more palatable — and, dare I say, hard rock — but no less Norma Jean. The flavor is still there even if the core isn’t, if that makes sense, and the band is all the better for it IMO. Songs for miles.
Listen: “Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes”
Sleeper pick of 2013. If this band had been active and touring for the past seven years I guarantee this album would’ve gotten more attention, because FUCK, it’s a prog-lover’s dream. It’s a little Enslaved, a little Pink Floyd, a little Meshuggah and a whole lot of Extol. The band’s longtime fans, of course, know well what the latter means. Extol is an enjoyable listen all the way through, full of great musicianship and even better songs.
9. Rivers of Nihil – The Conscious Seed of Light (Metal Blade)
Rarely have I ever seen a band’s debut album so buzzed about not only in the press but in those ever-reliable barometers of metal opinion: metal blog comment sections. Everyone seems to love this album, and with good reason. It’s like an old school death metal album – think Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, maybe Decrepit Birth (a touch newer but old in spirit) — filtered through the prism of more modern bands like Decapitated or The Faceless, with none other than Erik Rutan to absolutely nail the hell out of the production and mixing. Shit, Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster named it one of his favorite albums of 2013; need I say more?
Listen: “Mechanical Trees”
Protest the Hero did it! We all know about the $340,000 they raised via Indiegogo, but when you think about it that’s quite a lot of pressure to live up to — how do you show fans that it was worth it? By writing some of their best songs in years, for one, definitely a step up from 2011’s Scurrilous. By not only delivering the custom stuff you promised to the project’s backers but by making that stuff absolutely stellar (example: the limited edition artwork). By providing loads of content to all fans in the way of studio updates, funny music videos, etc. By being completely transparent about it all, and by being their usual charming, Canadian selves. That’s what I mean when I say Protest the Hero “did it:” they lived up to everything anyone could have expected of them.
What’s amazing about Heart of Oak is not that Anciients have mixed seemingly disparate sub-genres like Floyd/Rush-esque prog rock, stoner metal and death metal, but that they’ve done so in a way that’s cohesive and listenable. Tour with Death To All? No big deal. Tour with Lamb of God? No big deal. Opening for Tesseract and Scale the Summit? NBD! Grind it out on the road in bars and clubs for months on end? Also no biggie. Anciients’ own brand of metal thing seems to appeal to everyone all at once, yet no one type of person in particular. It’s wonderful.
Listen: “Falling in Line”
To call the Heliocentric / Anthropocentric album set a disappointment would be an overstatement. It’s just that what we want and expect from The Ocean is pure awesomeness 100% of the time, and those two peas in a pod fell just a bit short despite having their moments. So thankfully The Ocean delivered the goods with Pelagial, an album that gets heavier from start to finish as it thematically dives from the surface of the sea to its deepest depths. Heady subject matter aside, the songs and execution on this album more than deliver; I mean, the concept is pretty cool and all, but what good would that be if the music sucked? Also, can we please all agree that — at least in this one isolated case — I was wrong about vocalists in metal? Loic Rossetti does such a fantastic job here, and I can’t imagine the album without his voice on it. The instrumental version of Pelagial released simultaneously with the vocal version is cool too, for its own reasons, but Rossetti definitely brings a lot to the table.
NYC doom outfit Batillus have been pedaling their thunderous industrio-sludge with great promise since 2009, but Concrete Sustain felt like the moment when they matured from earnest teens into full-on manly men. Call it their Doom Mitzvah. The band’s rhythm section (aka all the dudes with instruments) finally found a way to incorporate vocalist Fade Kainer’s tripped-out, heavily effected vocals into their sound without is feeling like an obvious mashup, and the results coalesce wonderfully into some of the best songs this band has ever written. Concrete Sustain packs a hell of a punch in just six songs, each of which has got something to latch onto.
Listen: full album stream
Jaded metalheads everywhere (cough cough) said it couldn’t be done. “Reunion records always suck. They never live up to the hype.” Color us dead wrong. Surgical Steel delivered, and then it delivered some more, reminding everyone once and for all why Heartwork was such an influential release and proving that still, nearly twenty years after the fact, no one does melodic death metal better than Bill Steer and Jeff Walker. Songs for miles and miles and miles… every single track is a winner.
Did anyone see this coming??? On their ELEVENTH album, the long running Greek outfit left all but trace elements of their black metal past behind and wrote one of the best melodeath albums to hit our earholes in years. Of course it’s not just any old melodeath album; it’s distinctly Rotting Christ, and it’s distinctly Greek, some way, some how. Lush instrumentation, expert arrangements and Jens Bogren’s crystal-clear mix provide the engine for that all important bastion of music — the songs — every one of which has a memorable hook, if not four.
Listen: “P’unchaw Kachun – Tuta Kachun”
In a year where Ulcerate, the kings of churning, atmospheric, visceral, dissonant death metal, provided a massive let-down with a release chock full of unmemorable songs and sub-par production, one of 2013’s very first releases — Nero di Marte came out in early March — scooped up that genre’s crown with aplomb. Throw in a dose of Intronaut-esque psychedelia and you’ve got a winner: this is a band that knows how to ratchet up the intensity with blast beats, Gojiran pick-scrapes and smash-face brutality but also knows when to dial it down with dreamy, ethereal passages for the sake of dynamics. The clear but raw mixing job highlights the beyond stellar musicianship, proggy riffs and sprawling arrangements.
1. Byzantine – Byzantine (self-released)
NOBODY BEATS THE BYZ! Long-time superfans of this criminally underrated band (for better or worse, superfans are the only kind of Byzantine fans) knew that their reunion record was going to be good, but we didn’t know it was going to be this good. How are the riffs so fucking tasty?? What makes the guitar solos so ridiculously sweet?? How are the songs so epic?? How is it possible for a band to be this awesome and for so few people to know??? The mind boggles. Musicians the metalverse over seem clued in, but nearly everyone else is oblivious.