(Guest writer Alain Mower returns to the site with his wonderfully eclectic list of favorite releases from 2013.)
Recommendations from a stranger regarding life-enhancing albums of the past 365 days…
…but first, some reflections on this year. I tend to have a more ‘grab-bag’ taste in music, with a little bit of everything finding its way onto my list of best music, but man was this a great year for metal – and really, music in general.
One representative sign of this has been just how diverse the music lists have been this year, even among people with similar tastes in music. For me, any of my Top 15 could have been the number one album of the year, and any of them could have competed for that slot in past years – reflecting a depth of quality that I never could have previously conceived. The only thing that kept me from having an entirely metal list of top albums is my natural indifference toward most death and blackened death metal.
There will always be regrets – for example, I still haven’t yet bought a copy of Fen’s Dustwalker or Oranssi Pazuzu’s Valonielu — and that Austin Lunn of Panopticon didn’t share his list with us until recently – that Obsidian Tongue album right?! – but, without further ado, here are albums that have been populating my sonic sphere of existence without end and will continue to better my existence through their existence.
If I felt the record has the staying power to be listened to years from now, I included it (causing my previously Top 30 list to evolve into a 50. shoot mans — I may not be into death metal, but that apparently doesn’t exempt me from being a glutton for punishment…)
50. Rotting Christ – ‘Kata Ton Daimona Eatoy’ (Season of Mist)
Easily one of the biggest albums of the year. The use of layering chants, great production, simple but driving riffs, and traditional mythical themes all combine for a truly epic listen.
49. Cult of Luna – ‘Vertikal’ (Indie Recordings)
A cyclical album with an artificial, almost alienated sound dictating huge, skyscraping movements that reach for the firmaments before crashing back down to soul-crushing reality.
48. Batillus – ‘Concrete Sustain’ (Vandetta Records)
This is an urban eulogy of lethargic sludge metal with a pinch of industrial sound just to drive the weight of the city further into the earth.
47. Celeste – ‘Animale(s)’ (Denovali)
Misanthropic, oppressive, and savagely relentless.
46. Gigan – ‘Multi-Dimensional Fractal Sorcery and Super Science’ (Willowtip)
How I never heard of this band until receiving a recommendation for their release this year, I cannot fathom. Speaking of unfathomable, Gigan is technical death metal without the feeling of wankery or needlessness. Quantum-inspired, but as straightforward as anything the genre has to offer.
45. Ulver – ‘Messe I.X-VI.X’ (Kscope)
Prolific musical geniuses, Ulver continue to flirt with electronic voices akin to Coil, but choose this time to also inject modern classical Max Richter/ Arvo Pärt-esque foundations into their genre-transcending unmistakable identity, and the result is introspective and awe-inspiring.
44. The Haxan Cloak – ‘Excavation’ (Tri Angle)
This album is about as likely to leave me huddled in a corner, paranoid about my life, as appreciating and praising the passively raw, sinister, and hostile evocations this album achieves.
43. Russian Circles – ‘Memorial’ (Sargent House)
With this extension of an already impressive body of work, Russian Circles continue to prove that they still have more to say through their music and the well of creativity that has led them to be so influential in their niche of instrumental post-metal is anything but dry.
42. Chvrches – ‘The Bones of What You Believe’ (Virgin Records)
In the era of a resurgence of female-fronted synth pop, this group distanced themselves from the field fast, alienating the others with even harder-hitting hooks carrying dark, sinister undertones, yet still appearing bright enough to entice anyone in a casual encounter; I love it.
41. Nightslug – Dismal Fucker (Per Koro)
There is nothing redeeming in this nauseating sludge effort by Germany’s Nightslug. Absolutely filthy.
40. The Bronx – ‘The Bronx (IV)’ (ATO)
Emphatic punk riffing, resounding choruses, and music that is pure adrenaline, The Bronx have created an anthem for rushing headlong into life, and I can’t help but join in.
39. Wardruna – ‘Yggdrasil’ (Indie Recordings)
From the hand-made instruments, to the emphasis on throat-singing, to the steeping in atmosphere and ritual, for me there is nothing more primal than a Wardruna release; this is a breath of air from an era long past, but never forgotten.
38. Steven Wilson – ‘The Raven That Refused to Sing’ (Kscope)
One of the best song-writers of my time continues to innovate on the shoulders of giants – specifically incorporating much more jazz leanings – to create something full and realized and his own.
37. Run the Jewels – ‘Run the Jewels’ (Fool’s Gold)
Take the magnificent production from El-P, diversify the sound with someone as well-versed as Killer Mike, and you get this jewel of a modern hip-hop album; run with it.
36. Jon Hopkins – ‘Immunity’ (Domino)
Effortlessly likable, John Hopkins continues to streamline his process with age and experience, and the result is unmistakable. The listen is at times fathomlessly spacious, at others littered with a cluster of mind-tugging and haunting sounds, but always present.
35. Worms – ‘Worms’
An interesting and refreshing take on a sound and genre that I didn’t think could still showcase such an achievement. Worms are an unsigned punk rock band who have chosen to get lost down the path less traveled without sacrificing identity.
34. Grouper – ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ (Kranky)
This album comes across as a Dragging a Dead Dear Up a Hill companion, overlapping the more roots-driven tape and sound textures, and that’s because that’s exactly what it is; and at the end of the day, I would never ask for anything else.
33. The Ocean – ‘Pelagial’ (Metal Blade)
I’ll preface with the fact that I’ve never been a huge The Ocean fan, but man, this band should set out to make instrumental albums and then add vocals more often.
32. Inter Arma – ‘Sky Burial’ (Relapse)
The Destroyer EP they released last year definitely hinted at something special, but I’m not sure anyone could have expected this progressive, spanning sludge metal masterpiece. An album that will always keep you guessing at where it will go next, it’ll never fail to be an intriguing listen.
31. Gris – ‘À l’Âme Enflammée, l’Äme Constellée…’ (Sepulchral)
Orchestral, ambient, and folk-driven, but always unmistakably black metal at the core, this is a true undertaking, massive in scale and scope, and it will not disappoint any who are seeking larger-than-life music.
30. True Widow – ‘Circumambulation’ (Relapse)
Heavy and dark without being overbearing or dense, this is a record to listen to on a stormy night.
29. Black Boned Angel – ‘The End’ (Thrill Jockey Records)
As consistent a band as any — there are no surprises on this album. Very few groups can pull off the intricacies of doom/drone and still allow space for their own identity, and this is one of them. The only downside to this album is that it is purportedly the band’s final release; I guess it is a fitting name then, and no one could have asked for a more fitting record.
28. Junip – ‘Junip’ (City Slang)
Unencumbered and innocent, I can’t help but view the world through sepia lenses while listening to this album and recalling a time before awareness.
27. Seidr – ‘Ginnungagap’ (Birdrune Recordings)
While Austin Lunn is a part of this project, anyone who goes into this album expecting a Panopticon album will certainly be surprised, as it is not that. What it is, however, is equally dynamic on an existential scale – a macro view of the universe and our place, and the relationship between.
26. Woe – ‘Withdrawal’ (Candlelight)
High energy, melodic, riff-heavy black metal that will not leave space for you to breathe, that is what this album is.
25. Ash Borer – ‘Bloodlands’ (Gilead) | Bölzer – ‘Aura’ (Iron Bonehead)
I promised myself I wouldn’t put any EP’s on the list this year, but these releases were so great that I couldn’t help myself – two EPs are basically a full-length, right? Not related at all, except for how exceptional they are, both offer more than any self-respecting EP should, ending right when you can’t bare them to. (Honorable Mention: Malthusian – ‘MMXIII’)
24. Kongh – ‘Sole Creation’ (Agonia)
This Swedish sludge three-piece is what High On Fire would be if they turned down the path less traveled.
23. Eight Bells – ‘The Captain’s Daughter’ (Seventh Rule)
Reminiscent of the forward-thinking prowess displayed by Cynic, yet this isn’t an album that can be compared to anything but itself. The album artwork might just be the music’s best description, and the only downside is that just over thirty minutes of music isn’t anywhere near enough to satisfy the intrigue this piece inspires.
22. Tim Hecker – ‘Virgins’ (Kranky)
A synesthesia inducing foray into the auditory battle of allegorical light and darkness, this album somehow manages to be an organic bridge across a chasm of human disconnect and is a meticulously crafted piece of art.
21. Ulcerate – ‘Vermis’ (Relapse)
‘Technical Death Metal’ is honestly a horrible moniker for this original gem, instilling thoughts of wankery or efforts towards technicality; no, what really defines Ulcerate is “uncompromising”. A challenging listen that will meet any attempt at comprehension head-on with a commitment to unrelenting progression.
20. Benoît Pioulard – ‘Hymnal’ (Kranky)
When it comes to folk-driven sound, no one I’ve encountered is more innovative than this Seattle musician. Art Pop arm in arm with ambience and drone, this is a comfortable passive listen, though also one that reveals much and more to those who seek to explore and engage.
19. Aosoth – ‘IV: Arrow in Heart’ (Agonia)
When I listen to this ambitiously complex black metal showcase, I’m not present enough to blink, breathe, exist. Each song undergoes gloriously huge cyclical transitive movements that expose the listener to the revelation of the full panorama of a ritualistic consciousness.
18. Chelsea Wolfe – ‘Pain is Beauty’ (Sargent House)
With each successive release, this songstress dubbed ‘doom folk’ continues to prove that she is not content to rest on laurels and will constantly continue to innovate, experiment with, and push her sound to its limits. An emotionally entrancing listen that’s near impossible to pull away from.
17. In Vain – ‘Ænigma’ (Indie Recordings)
This album felt like a realization — everything this Norwegian group had tried to achieve on their previous two releases culminates in a pinnacle of achieving the conceived. Think modern Enslaved meets Vintersorg.
16. The Sun Through a Telescope – ‘I Die Smiling’ (Mutants of Monsters Records / Dwyer Records)
I could – and will – listen to this album a million times, and I’ll still be no closer to being able to explain it. My closest attempt would be an unhealthy mix of Caïna, Akercocke, Sverte Greiner, and Jesu? Regardless, it has more movements than Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ being performed through interpretive dance.
15. Rafael Anton Irisarri – ‘The Unintentional Sea’ (Room40)
This minimal modern classicist hailing from Seattle does everything right on this album. Far from a generic dark ambient release, the progression throughout the album always prevents me from straying far from where I’m meant to be. Retro, funk influences meet modern mechanisms and sleekness.
14. The Dillinger Escape Plan – ‘One of Us is the Killer’ (Party Smasher Inc. / Sumarian)
In my opinion, there has never been a more complete, cover-to-cover Dillinger album than this. Huge hooks, killer leads, classic DEP structures & rhythms, and striving for intransigent innovation bleed from this album.
13. Darkside – ‘Psychic’ (Matador Records)
I was a huge fan of Nicolas Jaar’s solo album Space is Only Noise, so it should come as no surprise that this slightly more accessible, yet still minimal, electronic house album consistently left me wanting more. How something can be this catchy…
12. Gorguts – ‘Colored Sands’ (Season of Mist)
If you thought this Gorguts release came out of nowhere, you’re somewhat right; past releases by the band had proved to be polarizing, and grabbing the two primary members of Dysrhythmia to fill out the lineup should have done nothing to diminish this. Easily one of the best-sounding albums of the year, I was surprised at just how smooth a listen this album proved to be: quick to grow on you and full of discordant, complex riffs, it has proved to be a brilliant, and finally somewhat universally heralded, piece of Gorguts history.
11. Queens of the Stone Age – ‘Like Clockwork’ (Matador Records)
For me, QotSA will always embody rock and roll for my generation. Everything Josh Homme has ever touched has resonated with me on a deeper level, and this album proves to be no different.
10. The Ruins of Beverast – ‘Blood Vaults (The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer)’ (Ván)
Never one to make listening to music a casual endeavor, Alexander von Meilenwald (sole RoB member) continues with his uncompromising track-record. Harrowing black metal that borrows as much from history as from funeral doom.
9. Carcass – ‘Surgical Steel’ (Nuclear Blast)
I’m still not convinced that this whole album wasn’t recorded during the Heartwork sessions and just sat sealed in a time capsule in some abandoned hospital for the past twenty years. If that isn’t a testament to how great this post-hiatus album is, I don’t know what is.
8. Anagnorisis – ‘Beyond All Light’
The band’s name, Greek for ‘self-realization’, is an apt moniker for this Kentucky Black Metal quintet as their release this year is the antithesis of realized. Having added a keyboardist during the writing process of the album, I find the at times Emperor-esque synths, and at other times dark and foreboding atmospheric transitions to be exactly what was needed to achieve the catharsis that is this album.
7. Raum – ‘Event of Your Leaving’ (Glass, House)
A collaborative project that takes the best of members Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Liz Harris (Grouper) to create a lucid interpretation of dreams and memories, resulting in musical imagery-spanning guitars, pianos and keys, and voices and tapes to get lost in.
6. Fyrnask – ‘Eldir Nótt’ (Temple of Torturous)
I was musing with a friend recently about the possibility that the glories of one-man black metal projects that have so captivated the sub-genre for so long may start to become a thing of the past. Then, I was turned onto this German gem. Ritualistic and unrelenting, this is a demanding album layered thematically and sonically that is immensely rewarding for those willing to achieve total immersion.
5. The Body – ‘Christs, Redeemers’ (Thrill Jockey)
Their EP that proceeded this album was the first time I came upon this sludge metal duo, and it caught me hard, wrapping me up with ‘Do Not Cross’ tape until nothing but my ears showed through. Then The Body released this album, and as soon as the needle hit, I thought the whole world had ended. The use of choral accompaniment creates brilliant juxtapositions and adds a new dimension to this dense, but rewarding album.
4. Deafheaven – ‘Sunbather’ (Deathwish Inc.)
Their previous release, Roads to Judah, still gets playtime on my turntable, and it was during their tour with Alcest that this band truly captivated me with a live performance like I had never witnessed. Sunbather is a beautiful album, conveying true emotion, and a piece of art when seen live. Where it falls in the scene, I could care less. The art is what matters, and this is a masterpiece.
3. SubRosa – ‘More Constant Than The Gods’ (Profound Lore)
There is something equally primal and modern in this doom album by the Salt Lake City native SubRosa. The use of vocal and violin melody lines over a sprawling and, at the right times, crushing foundation takes the listeners through intangible worlds found in the sound. NCS Exclusive Interview!
2. Wrekmeister Harmonies – ‘You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me’ (Thrill Jockey)
Fortune led me to stumble upon this masterpiece. Composed by JR Robinson to accompany a film centered around desolation and decay, this album feels it. The reflective exploration of drones and waves is forcefully entrancing, and the collaborations on the album by Jef Whitehead (Leviathan), Mark Solotroff (Anatomy of Habit), Jaime Fennelly (Mind Over Mirrors), Sanford Parker (Twilight, Nachmystium), Bruce Lamont (Yakuza), and Fred Lonberg-Holm are felt throughout the piece.
1. Locrian – ‘Return to Annihilation’ (Relapse)
This not quite black metal or drone or post-rock or noise, but somehow has managed to take all these influence, steep them in Popol Vuh kraut, and create the soundtrack to urban enlightenment through apocalypse. Wonderfully unique, and the best the band has ever offered, nothing is sacrificed; all is brought forward on this record.