As I compiled my long list of metal albums that kept me the most captivated in 2013, I noticed something about my growing tastes in the genre, which happen to nicely correlate with trends in metal overall. While the top 10 below features two excellent traditional heavy metal records, overall the list is primarily dominated by releases that don’t fit purely into one subgenre. Some of these albums eschew genre altogether (see #6) and others take surprising angles on tried-and-true formulas (see #13). Though I came to heavy metal after being a diehard fan of classic rock (one might say I started listening to metal chronologically in that sense), over time I’ve found myself less enamored by purist takes on styles. (When traditional/purist takes become refreshing is after a relative dearth of a particular style for a decently long period of time (see Dawnbringer’s majestic Into the Lair of the Sun God from last year.) The 20 albums that make up this list reflect metal’s increasing ability to outgrow people’s conceptions of it, in the process making progress not just for itself, but all the other genres it’s come to challenge.
N.B. Where titles of albums are hyperlinked, the band has provided a full stream via Bandcamp.
20. October Falls—Plague of a Coming Age [Debemur Morti]
19. Norma Jean—Wrongdoers [Razor & Tie]
18. Wartorn—Iconic Nightmare [Southern Lord]
17. In the Silence—A Fair Dream Gone Mad [Sensory]
16. Author & Punisher—Women & Children [Seventh Rule]
15. Lycus—Tempest [20 Buck Spin]
14. Orphaned Land—All is One [Century Media]
13. Deveykus—Pillar Without Mercy [Tzadik]
12. Dead in the Dirt—The Blind Hole [Southern Lord]
11. The Dillinger Escape Plan—One of Us is the Killer [Sumerian/Party Smasher]
The Top 10
10. Noctum—Final Sacrifice [Metal Blade]
It’s quite difficult, particularly as metal has grown immensely since its inception, to peg specific irreducible qualities that “make metal metal.” Of the few that come to my mind, The Riff is one of them. There’s something more to a metal riff than a rock riff, though the two undoubtedly arrive from similar camps. The veritable riff-fest that is Noctum’s sophomore LP, Final Sacrifice, is a tribute to that great facet of metal, incorporating positively wicked grooves (“Liberty in Death”) and even some ’70′s Aerosmith swagger in the fantastic instrumental “Deadly Connection.” Like Dawnbringer in 2012, Noctum show that it’s still entirely possible to purvey in old-school styles without devolving into pastiche. Fans of metal’s ’70′s-’80′s halcyon days would be foolish to pass on this one.
9. Mansion—We Shall Live [Svart]
As certain periods of metal’s history will make a little more than obvious, heavy music hasn’t often taken kindly to Christianity, a fact that inspired a particularly hilarious Christmas gift idea. The Finnish quintet Mansion, however, don’t represent your Joel Osteens and your Rick Warrens; mainline Christianity of any stripe would probably find Kartanoism, the sect Mansion affiliate with, to be insane. Extreme asceticism, self-flagellation, lengthy prayer sessions culminating in feverish speaking in tongues… this ain’t your garden-variety Jesus worship. All of those things are, however, prime motivators for heavy music, which Mansion delivers in spades. We Shall Live is spellbinding, moody doom metal at its highest caliber, and proof that maybe the devil doesn’t have all the good music after all.
8. Jucifer—There is No Land Beyond the Volga [Nomadic Fortress]
Jucifer isn’t looking for anything approaching “accessibility” with its eighth studio record, за волгой для нас земли нет (“There is No Land Beyond the Volga”; others have dubbed it “The Russian Album”), a concept album about the Volgograd told from the perspective of its people, including those that occupied it when it was known as Stalingrad. Already, the conceptual bar is set high; added on top of this is the music itself, which unlike the more atmospheric iterations of doom present on this list is abrasive, rough, and sludgy. It’s the latter of the three that comes through most strongly on Volga; much like the Russian landscape it depicts, the music is harsh, frigid, and often desolate. Jucifer’s feat here, as with their previous concept album about Marie Antoinette, L’Autrichienne, is taking intimate knowledge of a subject material and transforming it into a work that positively bleeds of it. On their Bandcamp page, Jucifer boasts that it is “notoriously nomadic” and that its members “live in their tourbus.” If the group keeps making music this good, that bus will start racking up the miles quick.
7. Darkthrone—The Underground Resistance [Peaceville]
In 1992, the Norwegian natives of Darkthrone caused the now ubiquitous Blaze in the Northern Sky. Twenty-one years later, black metal is still ingrained into the band’s DNA — in what other genre would one find a song called “Leave No Cross Unturned?” — but with The Underground Resistance, Darkthrone embrace old-school metal in all its glory, with galloping riffs, theatrical clean vocals, and a real spirit of fun and conviviality at full blast. The Underground Resistance isn’t a comeback album in the technical sense; after 2006′s The Cult is Alive, Darkthrone has begun a process of differentiation from its black metal roots. Fenriz and Nocturno Culto have been alive and kicking for some time. But they haven’t sound this revitalized in awhile; to hear metal luminaries such as these perform at such a high caliber after their golden age is a rare treat.
6. Ihsahn—Das Seelenbrechen [Mnemosyne]
Much like Scott Walker’s impenetrable Bish Bosch, an album whose influence on this one is near undeniable, Das Seelenbrechen (a Nietzscheian phrase meaning “the soul breaking) takes a great deal of time to get into. Its first four cuts are a natural extension of what Emperor founding member Ihsahn has been doing with his past several solo outings: “Hilber” and “NaCl” are A-grade prog-metal, “Pulse” is an orphaned Katatonia cut, and “Regen” is probably one of the best symphonic metal songs in recent years. After “Pulse” concludes, however, things get weird. “Tacit 2″ experiments with dissonance and tempo-free drumming. “Tacit” follows that up with a random horn section straight out of the Mingus playbook. “See” is pure post-1995 Walker. Love Das Seelenbrechen or hate it, it is true that these halves are disjointed. What unifies them is Ihsahn’s daring and his inability to compromise; just when you’re lured into thinking this is as another experimental prog-metal affair, out comes the rug underfoot. It’s a risky sort of thrill ride, for sure, but it’s an ultimately rewarding one.
5. Kvelertak—Meir [Roadrunner]
Meir isn’t just an incredible metal LP; in its dizzying array of genre exploration, it feels more broadly like a tribute to all things great and heavy. AC/DC finds spiritual succession in the surefire crowd chant of “Kvelertak.” Highlight cut “Spring Fra Livet” throws black metal tremolo picking and blastbeats, blues riffs, and dueling guitars into a pot, stirs them together, and comes out with one of the year’s most memorable metal songs. In its native Norwegian, Kvelertak means “stranglehold,” and that’s precisely what Meir (say “more”) feels like, though not just in riffs and double bass. Meir‘s mile-deep display of heavy metal knowledge is indicative of amazing things to come from these guys.
4. SubRosa—More Constant than the Gods [Profound Lore]
One would need only play the part when the riff kicks in on “Cosey Mo,” the third cut off the Salt Lake City-based doom-metal collective SubRosa’s More Constant than the Gods, to know why this record kicks as much ass as it does. For its past three studio albums, SubRosa has flown comfortably under the radar, captivating those lucky enough to be caught in the tumultuous waves of its amplifier feedback. With More Constant than the Gods, the group expands its sound tenfold, and not just because four of this LP’s six songs run over 10 minutes. This is, after all, the band that included in its last outing, 2011′s No Help for the Mighty Ones, an a cappella version of the folk standard “House Carpenter”; sitting comfortably on laurels is not one of this band’s pastimes. From the low-end heft of “Cosey Mo” to the piano-led dirge “No Safe Harbor,” More Constant than the Gods enthralls at every turn. Also, much like Mansion, SubRosa proves that the best doom is more often than not fronted by women, a considerable achievement in a genre whose fanbase is, to put it mildly, over-saturated in Y chromosomes.
3. Shining—One One One [Prosthetic]
Blackjazz, Shining’s 2010 creative breakthrough, is a record no band, no matter how good, would ever envy having to top. With One One One, these Norwegian provocateurs haven’t topped their now-signature sound, but they have reformulated and expanded it, which as One One One makes apparent is just as good as the former. Pop music isn’t exactly the next logical step from Blackjazz, but, then again, one can only imagine what Shining conceives “logic” to be. In any case, the result is entirely thrilling: lead single “I Won’t Forget” is just as good as any Billboard-topping track in 2013; “How Your Story Ends” finds frontman Jorgen Munkeby doing a helluva Sexy Sax Man impression, and the groove on “Paint the Sky Black” is a fine reminder that these guys got their start in the knotty interplay of ensemble jazz. Metal has never seen a pop album quite like One One One, nor has pop seen a metal album like One One One. This is hybrid music at the edge of the form.
2. Deafheaven—Sunbather [Deathwish, Inc.]
If one is talking about “that” metal album from 2013, it’s probably Sunbather, the sophomore album by the Bay Area metalgaze outfit Deafheaven. The band was blessed by a major critical push headed up by Pitchfork and an advertisement shout-out from the folks at Apple, which propelled it to international attention. (Deafheaven recently announced their first Australian tour.) For all the good it can bring to a young band, however, it’s hype that is the most frustrating thing about Sunbather. It’s a fantastic, provocative record that shows just how punishing metal can be even as it crosses over into the dreamier, poppier elements of shoegaze. But it never feels as it if it itself is insisting upon that project; founding members George Clarke and Kerry McCoy have talked about trying to expand their sound with Sunbather in promotional materials, but never any genre sea changes. Perhaps that’s what makes Sunbather so powerful in the end, though: come the year’s end, its genuine greatness has transcended its hype.
1. Russian Circles—Memorial [Sargent House]
Post-metal is exciting at its best and utterly boring at its worst. Hallmark works of the genre, such as Isis’ Panopticon, inspire greatness where by-the-number instrumentals (e.g. anything Pelican has done following What We All Come to Need) lull listeners to sleep. Amidst the rise and fall of major post-metal acts over the course of the late ’00s, the Chicago trio Russian Circles steadily rose, putting out sleeper records (2008′s Station in particular) that gradually built upon their predecessors. With 2011′s Empros, it seemed a peak was reached, but no — the world had yet to see Memorial then. Memorial is Russian Circles’ shortest LP to date, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in emotional resonance, gorgeous melancholy, and prodigious instrumentation. Chelsea Wolfe’s airy, transcendent vocals on the title track, which rounds out the album, add a whole other dimension to this group’s sound — but if the seven songs that precede her guest spot indicate anything, it’s that Russian Circles are one of those rare bands that need no words to say all they need to say. In years to come, I suspect Memorial will come to be seen as the genre cornerstone that it truly is.