EDITOR’S FORWARD: When I announced the end of our 2013 LISTMANIA series, I wrote that there might still be one or two late-breaking lists that I would add later. What you’re about to read was the main one I had in mind. It could have arrived in July, and I still would have posted it. It comes from someone in Michigan’s Upper Penisula who has been a supporter of NCS since the early days. His first comment was back on May 28, 2010, and though he now appears pretty infrequently in our Comment section, my WordPress dashboard tells me he was responsible for over 900 comments in the earliest years of the site, and his interaction meant a lot to me at a time when we had few readers and even fewer commenters. His thoughts and eclectic recommendations, and occasional guest reviews, also played an important role in my own continuing education as a metalhead, and so I also figured his 2013 list would be an interesting one worth waiting for. And so it was. Plus, he can write, as you will see.
2013 was a pretty busy year. Between work, spending a good part of the summer being sick and on antibiotics a few times and short on cash a bit more often than I would have liked, I missed out on quite a bit. I was able to catch a few metal releases early on, but a lot of what I had on my radar had to wait. Then, other stuff got my attention, not all of it good. Still, without these albums (and a few more that I haven’t mentioned here), I may have lost my mind having to endure the likes of the “Single Ladies” dance, Ke$ha, “Blurred Lines”, Miley Cyrus, and bad singalongs set to Journey, Bon Jovi, and the B-52’s (hint: these all happen at weddings). (editor’s intrusion: ElvisShotJFK manages a couple of buildings, one of which is often used as a venue for weddings)
First, let’s visit a couple entries from late 2012 that caught my attention early on last year.
Old Forest – Into The Old Forest
Originally released in 1999, Old Forest’s Into The Old Forest received mostly negative reviews from the press and wasn’t able to gain enough of a following by word of mouth or the still growing internet. Thus, the band parted ways. A chance meeting years later led to the reunion of the three members, resulting in the Tales of the Sussex Weald trilogy, which got a warmer reception following its release. After completing the trilogy as a single album (the third part wasn’t made available separately), Into the Old Forest was given another chance by Mordgrimm, using Mr. Fog’s Death To Music “anti-label”.
Listening to the album today, it’s hard to tell why it wasn’t given much of a chance in ’99. Maybe it wasn’t troo or cvlt enough, maybe it was too hard to promote in the wake of black metal exports like Cradle Of Filth or Dimmu Borgir. The guitars are fuzzy, but not overly distorted, the bass is audible, and the drumming is well-executed. One can even make out some of Kobold’s vocals if you take the time to pay attention. Maybe it’s the presence of keyboards that turned people away, something which was a harder sell in the late 90’s and early 00’s than it is today. Whatever the reason(s), Into The Old Forest is a worthwhile addition to the frozen black metal landscape that still holds up fairly well today.
Xanthochroid – Blessed He with Boils
Combining the best elements of several different styles, Xanthochroid’s second release is a prime example of something being greater than the sum of its parts. Telling the tale of two brothers in a fantasy setting created by the band’s keyboardist, Blessed He With Boils picks up where Incultus left off, although it’s not necessary to have heard that to appreciate what Xanthochroid has done here (but it is worth picking up as well). Truth be told, you don’t need to follow the story if you don’t want to, allowing the music to sweep you away; some of their influences may be obvious, but Xanthochroid has come up with something all their own. Epic may be an overused term, but that’s how Blessed He With Boils sounds. Epic and awesome.
There’s only one album I’ve listened to more than this one, which will be last in my list.
Now, on to 2013…
Pensées Nocturnes – Nom d’une Pipe!
Why, yes, that is a cuckoo clock you hear. It means the show is about to begin. Sit back, relax, and try not to let the screaming scare you away. Welcome to the world of Pensées Nocturnes.
Imagine if Faith No More, Arcturus, and a calliope were to have a threeway and you might get an idea of what to expect – or perhaps not. There are many ways to describe this avant-garde breed of metal, but the only one that seems to come close is “grotesque”, which Le Grand Guignol used to describe their own breed of metal, which is similar to what Pensées Nocturnes is doing. The music is busy at times and sparse at others, an aural clusterfuck of sounds that takes a while to decipher, as opposed to the sonic fistfuck of grind. Since this is in French, I have no idea what Veroehn’s songs are actually about, but the tortured wails and screams tell me that it’s probably not about daisies and puppies.
Though far from being an easy listen, Nom d’une Pipe! isn’t as difficult to digest as Vacuum or Grotesque before it. Veroehn seems to have gained a bit of focus this time around, something which can elude many a one-man band/project, especially when it’s this complex. Some will absolutely hate it at first, some may absolutely love it, while the majority of listeners will probably be unsure of what to think about what Veroehn’s done. If you have eclectic musical tastes, Pensées Nocturnes could prove to be an interesting addition to your collection. However, if your metal has to be METAL, you will probably be disappointed and overwhelmed.
Falkenbach – Asa
Sitting somewhere between the conquests and the drunken partying of some of Pagan/Viking/folk metal bands lies Germany’s Falkenbach, long considered a pioneer of the genre. With multiple styles present, Asa sounds atmospheric and epic, Vratyas Vakyas putting forth excellent performances in everything he’s done with this album. The contrasting vocal styles are well done and may rival some of the best bipolar voices in metal, but the use of acoustic guitar may actually be the highlight of the album. I can envision Asa being what campfire stories at night would sound like with backing guitars and drums as others go forward to to do the deeds being sung about back home. Though some may feel differently about the previous release Tiurida, Falkenbach remains one of folk metal’s standard bearers, Asa showing exactly why.
Litvintroll – Czornaja Panna
Heading a bit further east, we settle down in Belarus, home to Litvintroll. After their debut in 2009, the band went through lineup changes, heading back into the studio in 2012 to record their followup. The story of Barbara Radziwiłł and her death is part of the inspiration for the album and is the subject of the title track, translated as “The Black Lady”. While still working on the album, their bassist Aleh Klimchanka died on stage in September during the Mass Medium festival. Even with that tragedy, the band decided to complete the album they had worked so hard on and continue on. The eight songs on Czornaja Panna have no real connection to each other, each telling a different story, and as with some other folk metal bands, the music gets quirky at times, especially in “Kamarova Smierc (The Mosquito’s Death)”. Aleh’s death does hang over the darkened atmosphere of the album, but it doesn’t all seem to be doom and gloom. Any death is going to be hard to overcome, but I think I’d like to see Litvintroll keep on going in spite of the circumstances for their fallen friend.
Fleshgod Apocalypse – Labyrinth
Come on, you had to see this coming. Fleshgod Apocalypse is one of the handful of bands greeted with a Pavlovian response from many readers here at NCS, and for good reason. Now four releases in, these Italian titans have crafted an album that builds upon all the strengths of its predecessors, all the while honing their tools and improving the few elements that weren’t quite “right”. The orchestrations are pushed further than before, the operatic vocals are more daring, and the band has become comfortable with more than one speed setting. Labyrinth is a juggernaut of an album and can be overwhelming for the unprepared, but when it’s all over the only thing left is to give it another listen, all the while hoping to avoid a brain aneurysm.
Subterranean Masquerade – Home
Tomer Pink may not be familiar to most here at NCS, but Paul Kuhr’s name, if not his voice, should be known to some here thanks to his fronting of Novembers Doom. Over the years, he’s become a bit clearer and even added some clean vocals to Novembers Doom’s work, while his clean voice is utilized more often in Subterranean Masquerade’s offerings. For those who take “No Clean Singing” as a must, there’s no need to worry, as Kuhr still provides his rumbling (yet mostly intelligible) vocals.
Originally released as a 7” featuring one original song and one cover, Home is not exactly the best way to become acquainted with Subterranean Masquerade; I think I’m more excited that the band has released something new than I am about the actual release. Since the limited run of records (300 total) were pressed and shipped out from Israel, Home was given a digital release, adding “That Night”, a song cut from Suspended Animation Dreams and recovered by Kuhr. Recording for the next album is well underway, so this EP serves as an appetizer for what is soon to come.
Vastum – Patricidal Lust
Sufficiently old-school sounding death metal that doesn’t go for the gratuitous reacharound on death metal’s pioneers, Vastum’s Patricidal Lust comes as a bit of a surprise. The album was nearly lost in the wake of the death of Jeff Davis, producer and friend of the band. The music was recovered, but had to be painstakingly assembled, while Vastum was still going through lineup changes. Looking at the song names or the album cover (photobombing rat-faced bat included) may be enough to give an idea of what to expect, but once the ride begins, you may find yourself in unfamiliar territory. While some bands toss around sexual subject matter casually and others gleefully wallow in the filth, Vastum have taken a more involved, personal approach to the lyrics that explores the darker side of eroticism, delivered by the voices of Daniel Butler and Leila Abdul-Rauf, who also provides crushing guitar riffs and can put together a decent solo, giving Vastum much of its impact. Apart from the lyrical approach, there’s not much new here. When it’s this competently hammered together and then force-fed, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to get the job done.
Sepultura – The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart
When Max Cavalera left Sepultura, a lot of people lost interest, not giving Derrick Green a chance. Personally, I had started to lose interest before that when Roots came out (I got it used from a classmate and later gave it away to someone else). What I’d heard from Sepultura since then didn’t really interest me until the release of Kairos a few years ago.
The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart has not been a disappointment, showing the Brazilian titans still climbing back toward the top of the heap. Inspired by (but not exactly based on) Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, this is probably the best album they’ve put out with Derrick Green, and the heartbeat provided by new drummer Eloy Casagrande is a big part of that. They sound more like Sepultura of old without trying to recreate too much of what they’ve already done; they don’t need to recreate the albums up through Roots and they shouldn’t have to. Sure, some still hope that Max returns to the fold someday, but truth be told, Sepultura doesn’t need him any more than he needs them at this point. Will it happen? My guess is that it may happen at some point, even if it’s a one-time deal. But until then, Derrick Green is the man.
Blåhø – Through Sinister Nightfall
Named after a mountain in Norway’s Trollheimen mountain range, Blåhø had been hard at work since 2008 working on their debut, struggling through lineup changes along the way. For Through Sinister Nightfall, Blåhø was helped by half of the lineup of Quadrivium and two drummers. Grim’s dual vocals remind me of Vintersorg’s work, both in Borknagar and his eponymous band, while musically the work of Disme and Anders is a masterfully crafted slab of melodic, powerful black metal that rivals that of the usual suspects. The final two songs in Norwegian were originally planned for Gnipaheller, a side project of vocalist Odd Arne, who had expressed interest in doing a split with Blåhø. Though a bit different from the other tracks, the inclusion of these two songs as proper Blåhø offerings still works. They’re currently working on Sliungxstadom to follow, with Grim formally added to the lineup, plus an appearance from their previous vocalist.
Moth – Endlessly In Motion
It would be easy to mistake Endlessly In Motion for a new, unannounced Gojira album at first, but to call this band a clone of the French masters would be a gross disservice to the band. Moth’s take on proggy death metal may call to mind several different bands, but these four have put together an album that sounds like that of a veteran band that’s gone through several phases over the years and kept the best parts. Though not without flaws, Moth’s debut is a worthwhile opening salvo from a band poised to claim greatness.
So Hideous – Last Light/First Poem
With a shortened name due to legal reasons and now packing the Last Light Orchestra (a group of classically trained musicians), this New York quartet have returned with one hell of a debut full-length album. While I’m not really sure where they ”fit” in the musical spectrum, I’d say it doesn’t really matter if they’re black metal, post-black, shoegaze, or whatever other genre/label descriptors may be dropped when talking about the band or who may have inspired them. Simply put, what matters is the album itself, a blackened concoction of several elements that has moments of beauty that stand out, only to crush you in the end. A bit shorter than I’d like at just under 32 minutes, but a very impressive release nonetheless.
Carcass – Surgical Steel
Over the past few years or so, several bands have come back from long periods of inactivity to perform live and record new material. Most have done well, a few haven’t. For a band who set the bar high for nearly everyone else to reach for, including their peers, expectations were understandably quite high for Carcass’ return after 17 years. Fortunately for fans new and old, they did not disappoint, delivering the kind of album that hundreds of bands have striven to make over the past decade and a half. While nostalgia may play a part in some fans’ reception of Surgical Steel (myself included, Carcass’ Heartwork being one my earliest experiences with death metal that I didn’t hate), that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great album from one of metal’s greats.
The Doomstar Requiem: A Klok Opera
One of the year’s most surreal metal experiences, The Doomstar Requiem follows the season four finale of Metalocalypse, telling a tale of prophecy, revenge, redemption, greed, family, and more. Far from being another Dethalbum, this is like a mad mix of an off-Broadway musical and a prog rock opera; think of it as a soundtrack that features Dethklok’s shredtastic breed of metal, some of the show’s metal satire-meets-tribute humor, choir, and orchestrations by Bear McCreary.
The beautiful voice of Raya Yarbrough in “Abigail’s Lullaby” joins Brendan Small’s clean singing of Pickles, Skwisgaar, and Black Klok leader Ishnifus Meaddle. Small also provides harsh vocals for Magnus and Nathan, The Masked Assassin is again voiced by Corpsegrinder, and Murderface doesn’t get many lines (not that I don’t like the character). The likes of Jack Black, Mark Hammil, Malcolm McDowell, and Mike Keneally round out the rest of the vocals (Hammil and McDowell don’t sing their lines). The musical format doesn’t give a lot of time to work with on individual songs, the only drawback I can come up with; “Magnus And The Assassin” and “Depths Of Humanity” are highlights that could have been even better had they been longer, while the trio of “Some Time Ago”, “The Duel”, and “I Believe” come together with about the right amount of time.
The soundtrack is good enough on its own and has a couple extra tracks, but watching The Doomstar Requiem at least once or twice may be necessary to fully understand what’s going on here. If you’ve never seen Metalocalypse before – or don’t like it – this album (or soundtrack, if you prefer) is not for you, and the musical approach may turn others away. There have been numerous concept albums from death and black metal bands, while some progressive metal concept albums have featured growls and grunts, but Brendan Small has created what may be the closest there is to a death metal rock opera.
GWAR – Battle Maximus
GWAR honored fallen scumdog Flattus Maximus (aka Cory Smoot) by retiring the “character” and continued on with Battle Maximus, Cannibis Corpse guitarist Brent Purgason stepping up as Pustulus Maximus to fill the void. Unfortunately, many are going to automatically dismiss anything GWAR does, unable to look beyond the costumes, goofiness, gore, cheese, and all that comes from Antarctica’s least favorite sons. Bohabs know better.
Orphaned Land – All Is One
Orphaned Land’s All Is One is a great album with some dark themes, but lacks some of the lasting appeal of its predecessors. Both sides of Kobi Farhi’s voice have gotten better over the years (his clean singing more so), but his impressive growls and roars have mostly been left behind this time around, only coming out for “Fail”. As much as I’ve liked this album, I find myself wanting something more. Since they traveled to Sweden to work with Jens Bogren at Fascination Street Studios on this album, maybe they can go on the road again and enlist the help of someone like Peter Tägtgren or Dan Swanö to embrace their heavier side, yet keeping the message and themes intact. It’s a really good album with a few of the songs joining the band’s best, but Orphaned Land is capable of much, much more.
And now, last but certainly not least…
I’ve always had a hard time coming up with a rating or grade for something I’ve reviewed (and I’m glad NCS doesn’t have them), nor am I easily able to rank albums. However, there is one album I’ve saved for last for good reason. It’s never easy to single any one album out as “album of the year”, but one release has captured my attention more than any other 2013 release, beating out Blåhø and Xanthochroid, either of whom could have easily taken “…of the year” honors.
Drumroll blastbeats please…
Ovid’s Withering – Scryers Of The Ibis
A djent-centric mashup of multiple elements, Ovid’s Withering sounds like the bastard offspring of Fleshgod Apocalypse and Meshuggah. Scryers Of The Ibis starts by grasping the throat and shaking violently to get your attention, then backs off and gives you a reason to pay attention. Like Xanthochroid, Ovid’s Withering is a fine example of being greater than the sum of its parts, utilizing multiple instruments and styles with ease to create something that’s theirs. Orchestral elements are used to great effect, never overpowering the songs or becoming the main feature. The riffs never become tired or too repetitive and the multi-faceted vocals work surprisingly well. Again, epic is overused, but here it fits. Another word that fits is masterpiece.
Get this album. Do it. End of story.