(So far this week, NCS writer Andy Synn has provided his lists of 2013′s “Great”, “Good”, and “Disappointing” albums, and now he identifies his “Critical Top 10”. To understand what that means, read on…)
Now the idea behind doing a “critical” top ten (as opposed to the “personal” top ten, which will appear tomorrow) is for me to try my best to remove as much personal bias as possible. Obviously the list will reflect my tastes to an extent, but every year I do my very best to try and whittle the list of critically “Great” albums down to the top ten releases that I fervently – and objectively (relatively?) – believe embody the very best of the year in metal.
So what hints can I give you to prime those aching fingers, ready to unleash electronic vitriol at me for my gall and audacity? Well for one thing it was INCREDIBLY difficult to reduce this year’s plethora of “Great” albums down to a mere ten. I struggled and strained to bring it down to 14… then spent several days and nights in deep, soul-searching meditation trying to finalise the ultimate list.
Ok, so maybe it wasn’t that extreme, but there was certainly very little in it between a lot of these entries – which really stands as testament to just how fantastic this year has been. However, rules are rules, and four of those albums had to go.
I’m sorry to say that you’ll find no Carcass in this top ten, as ultimately the record DOES have a few (very) minor weak points, which I couldn’t stop from niggling at me. The Ocean also didn’t make it, nor did Suffocation, both of which caused me almost physical pain to cut as they’re both such phenomenal records. But there we are. I suffer so you don’t have to.
Hardest of all, though, was forcing myself to cut the fantastic comeback album from Extol, as I’m simply too close to that album to call it fairly. Expect to be hearing more about it tomorrow though…
What else… what else… There’s not just one, but two double-albums in the list, along with two spectacular “comeback” albums, one debut album, and one bittersweet swansong. Also (if I’m reading things right) every one of these bands comes from a different country (at least originally).
Anyway, enough waffling… time for the main event!
10. In Vain – Aenigma
Proud recipients of a Synn Report in their honour earlier in the year, the Norwegian prog-metal maestros released their third album to what should have been massive acclaim. It’s unfair how little attention it got. It truly is a mesmerising listen. It was actually a close-call between this and Persefone’s Spiritual Migration for the best pure-prog metal album of the year, but for me In Vain take the title due to their more restrained and mature approach (and ability to go stunningly heavy when it calls for it). If there’s any justice, the band’s name will certainly be spoken of in the same breath as legends like Solefald, Borknagar, and Vintersorg from now on.
09. Celeste – Animale(s)
The first of two double-albums to make the list (which probably gives you a hint as to what the other one is going to be), Celeste’s latest ups the ante in terms of progressive, grinding, blackened depravity and rabid, relentless, hardcore insanity. Always bleak, always brutal, always difficult, this one pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. Dense and claustrophobic, there’s a subtle art at play just beneath the surface, and one can find surprising beauty in the unflinching brutality of every contorted riff and grinding drum salvo. Warped, nasty, and quite possibly bad for you, in the best possible way.
08. Progenie Terrestre Pura – U.M.A.
The debut album by these Italian cybernauts is a thrilling, hypnotic ride through a futuristic dream world of chiming ambience, pulsating energy, and colossal vistas of sound and shape. Founded in the fundamental elements of black metal, yet augmented by an aura of glorious and unabashed creativity, this album is 5 tracks of resplendent atmosphere and blossoming creativity, weaving light and shade into a titanic tale of pure progressive power and nuance. A musical experience quite unlike any other I’ve found this year.
07. Eye of Solitude – Canto III
An hour long doom record based around Dante’s Divine Comedy you say? That’s ambitious! Can they pull it off? Why yes, they most emphatically can. These six humongous tracks of crippling, overwrought doom and bleak, bleeding melodies tell the sort of story that it’s impossible to pull yourself away from. The sheer weight and gravity of the album seems to slow time to a crawl, yet it never seems to drag. And pretty soon you’ll find yourself lost, without even Virgil as your guide, in this musical maze of tumult and torment. Epic in size and scope, and executed in exemplary style.
06. Inquisition – Obscure Verses for the Multiverse
If there’s one thing you can always depend on Inquisition for, it’s riffs – massive, multiplicitous, stinging, swarming, bludgeoning, berserker riffs. And this album is packed to bursting with some of the best that have ever come storming from whatever dimensional portal the band stepped out of. There’s enough hooks here to snare a shoal of killer whales, and enough explosive drumming power to cripple a battleship. And those riffs… again… those riffs! Black, shining, obsidian riffs which flow like liquid shadow, woven together into an unholy offering to the many-angled gods of chaos. This album truly is a perfectly formed monster of scathing sound and fanatical fury.
05. Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory and Injury
Unforgiving. Challenging. Obtuse and angular. As epitaphs go, they don’t come much more memorable than this, the band stripping down and remoulding their old, familiar aesthetic in one of the year’s most striking and unexpected transformations. Yet despite all that has changed, the same spirit remains. Relentlessly imposing, endlessly experimental – poised and patient at times, ravenous and raging at others – it’s the sort of album a band only makes once in their career, when they know that they can truly cast off all shackles and limitations, when the expectations and demands of others are truly rendered meaningless, in the face of one final, rapturous burst of suicidal creativity.
04. Soilwork – The Living Infinite
Who could have predicted this one? I’m sure I’m not the only one who faced the prospect of a double-album – not least a double album without the band’s two main songwriters – with trepidation, if not outright despair. But my god, they pulled something really special off here. The hit rate on these songs is phenomenal. Everyone has their favourites, and yet I don’t think there’s a single song that’s universally disliked. Every band member clearly brought their A-Game to this one, packing it to the max with blazing solos, rapid-fire riffage, vocals that go from scorching to soaring in the blink of an eye, and some stupendously, superfluously scintillating drums. That’s twenty tracks of pure, refined Soilwork at their very best.
03. Byzantine – s/t
By way of contrast though, somehow these West Virginian boys have managed to cram something for almost everyone into a mere nine tracks of perfectly formed proggy post-thrash goodness. These guys positively bleed metal, inflecting their music with touches of death, thrash, groove, and melody that coalesce into something far greater than the mere sum of its parts. A true underdog story in many ways, the real appeal of this album lies in its near perfect mix of clarity and concision, passion and precision, energy and execution. Every song is perfectly crafted, yet never once feels contrived, packed with clever riffs and soaring, emotive melodies, laced with subtle touches which linger long after the album ends.
02. Gorguts – Colored Sands
An utter revelation and quite clearly the comeback of the year, this is one of the finest examples of the death metal arts I have heard in a long, long time. The sheer talent and technique on display here is nothing short of astounding – dwelling right on the cutting edge of technical skill and progressive intellect – but is matched by an astonishing ability to weave captivating order out of calculated chaos. Tense, tangled riffs twist and turn like a nest of vipers, coiled and venomous, beautiful and dangerous, while dominating drums wheel a whirling dervish of devastation and looming, leviathan bass lines constrict and contort in the throes of agony and ecstasy. Through it all the thundering tones of Luc Lemay, mastermind and ringmaster, conduct the frenzy and fury with herculean might and dramatic flair. A true masterpiece.
01. Cult of Luna – Vertikal
So, best album of the year? I know many won’t think so, but I do have my reasons. Ultimately I believe it’s the one album that both epitomises, and even seeks to go beyond, the best of what metal has to offer. Crushingly heavy in parts, achingly tender in others, it breathes and broods like something alive. Progressively inclined, and intelligently designed, it stretches the boundaries of the band and their sound like never before, without sacrificing the raw and wounded edge of crippling catharsis which they have always possessed.
It’s the one album that I would say is almost “more” than a metal album. It perfectly captures its concept in microcosm, whilst also promising more with every unexpected upheaval or graceful metamorphosis. It smashes the preconceptions of what metal is, whilst redefining the horizons of what it could, and should, be.
So there you have it. The ten albums which I would hold up as the shining examples of what I consider the absolute best (although not necessarily my favourite) of what metal has had to offer us in 2013. If I were ever asked to defend the music I love, these would certainly be the albums I would call upon from this year, as the very pinnacle of the genre.
You may disagree… hell, I know that you will. But really, this list – like the rest of those published by the staff here at NCS – is more designed to let you get to know more about the site and its stalwart crew — both as “critics” and simply as metal fans. They show you what we like, what we dislike, how we think, how we feel, and hopefully help you to understand what we look for in the albums we love.
So on that note, stay tuned for my Personal Top Ten of 2013, which should be coming out tomorrow. It reflects much more closely – and much more unapologetically – my own personal tastes and preferences!