(Didrik Mešiček from Slovenia made his first appearance as a writer at NCS this past September, and has given us six reviews before 2023 has ended. In the feature below he shares his list of the year’s Top 20 metal albums.)
If 2022 felt like the year in which we recovered from the pandemic, 2023 really went into full bloom for me from a musical perspective. I’ve seen around 90 bands live, which is definitely my new record (that I, of course, plan on breaking next year). On the front of new releases, however, I can’t say I found it to be a particularly impressive year and would generally rank the pandemic years higher.
The notable shift for me personally though was that there are a lot more black metal inclusions than usual. Whether this is my personal evolution or a sign of the genre continuing to evolve in a positive manner, as I do believe it has in recent years, or a mix of both, I’m not quite sure. Without further ado, here’s a list of 20 albums that I’ve found either most impressive, most appealing, or just worth pretentiously talking about for one reason or another this year.
For those less gifted in the art of reading, here’s also a link to the Best Of 2023 (only about 6 hours of material) playlist, which is made up of my picks from the albums I talk about here plus a few extra songs that were also released this year: https://open.spotify.com/album/6ePCa1DxMuRWkjddULq6GW?si=zrG_Vu2QTR6IWYOaYptR5w
20. Мещера (Meschera) – ЖАТВА
We are starting in Russia this year, with a debut from the folky Мещера, a band that I’m not even sure how I came across but it stayed with me after giving the album a spin, and as I was crossing off releases that weren’t making this list, ЖАТВА stubbornly remained. It’s another example of surprisingly good production from tiny Russian bands and a nice example of lead female vocals done right in folk metal. Alexandra Sidorova (Zmey Gorynich) uses cleans as well as some growls sparingly while more growls are also added from the band’s guitarist in a few spots throughout the record. I would have liked a bit more growls and extreme metal elements in general added in the second part of the album as well, where the album seems to mellow out a bit. Still, the band incorporates folky sounds into a modern metal sound well and this entire album is a pleasant experience.
Songs to listen to: “Жатва,” “Зимним хладом,” “Взор безликих”
19. Fortið – Narkissos
There’s been a lot of really solid black metal releases this year and I had to cut a few albums that felt close to making the top 20 but for one reason or another, this is the one that won. Fortið is a relatively unknown Icelandic band (I’m continuously amazed Iceland only has some 300k people and so many cool bands, by the way) that mixes a bit of a viking/pagan sound into their black metal. Narkissos often manages to be pretty typical bm in its drum and guitar work, yet also quite approachable and catchy, partly due to its really solid mixing. Meanwhile, on the lyrical front, the band deals with Norse mythology (shocking, eh?) and they really shine on the track “Upsskera,” which presents a rendition of that famous Nordic poem from Wardruna’s “Helvegen.”
Songs to listen to: “Narkissos,” “Uppskera,” “Rotinn arfur”
18. Grymheart – Hellish Hunt
I have an issue with a lot of modern power (and symphonic) metal in that it’s just not very innovative or interesting, but there are a few cool things happening here and there. Last year I got excited by Gladenfold’s Nemesis album and this year the newly formed Grymheart released their debut Hellish Hunt.
What those two albums have in common is how they manage to combine subgenres and involve harsh vocals, something that was pretty unheard of in power metal before. The Hungary-based outfit sings mostly about hunting all sorts of mythological beings and combines it all in a mix of folk metal, power metal, as well as melodeath. Overall, a really solid debut release and I’m intrigued to see where this band heads in the future.
Songs to listen to: “Hellbent Horde,” “Ignis Fatuus,” “My Hellish Hunt”
17. Mephorash – Krystl-Ah
Firstly, Mephorash is the coolest-looking band in metal. In line with their mysterious appearance, the music is aptly ritualistic and entrancing and the band has a habit of making these really elaborate and long tracks that run into the danger of being boring quite quickly, but with the Swedes, they aren’t. Krystl-Ah is therefore another rather long (67 minutes) release that brings out the best from this Swedish atmospheric black metal outfit. Mephorash really nails that balance between calm, meditative, ritualistic components and more hard-hitting black metal with this release. The fact that this is definitely not my usual subgenre in metal yet it kept my attention says enough about how well worked out this album is.
Songs to listen to: “Gnosis,” “Mephoriam”
16. Primordial – How It Ends
Primordial left us waiting five long years to release a new album after Exile Amongst the Ruins, which I don’t necessarily mind as bands with yearly releases seldom have anything too impressive to show for themselves. The Irish, lead by A. A. Nemtheanga, have certainly carved out a place for themselves with their unique, fairly undefineable, blackened folk metal style and How It Ends continues in that vein, but it also showcases something that, I find, has been a typical problem with Primordial releases – inconsistency. The album features a few incredible tracks with typical emotional and hard-hitting poetic, storgic lyricism but then also doesn’t maintain that same level of quality throughout. Still, when the band gets it just right, it’s pretty special and therefore I can’t omit this release.
Songs to listen to: “How It Ends,” “We Shall Not Serve,” “Nothing New Under the Sun”
15. Katatonia – Sky Void of Stars
It’s 30 years since Katatonia’s first album was released and the band has presented us with its twelfth full-length release this year. While I’m not generally a massive Katatonia fan, it’s clear the band has matured really well in recent years and their work is well-rounded and appealing. Sky Void of Stars is a gentle and romantic 50-minute release that lets Jonas Renske’s voice drift you away while there’s also a good amount of proggy elements to appreciate. As with most of the band’s work, I find the album to be a bit up and down in quality but the good tracks are really great and elevate the album to something that’s overall a very solid release.
Songs to listen to: “Austerity,” “Birds,” “Atrium”
14. Uada – Crepuscule Natura
Uada became one of my favourite extreme metal bands this year and I was looking forward to this album quite a bit. With Crepuscule Natura the band slightly changes their vibe from a forest ritual to one of a cosmic exploration but the drums still go just as hard and their deliberate rawness in the vocals works well, although I really miss Jake Superchi’s insane and desperate-sounding high screams on this release, which is actually a big reason I don’t rate this album as highly as their previous two. But that same energy and the melodic, rhythmic style that separates Uada from other bands of the genre is still very much present and done really well.
Songs to listen to: “Crepuscule Natura,” “The Dark (Winter)”
13. Insomnium – Anno 1696
Another band that’s just consistently very good, the biggest exporters of the Finnish big sads are back with Anno 1696, which is based on Niilo Sevänen’s short story (much like their earlier release Winter’s Gate). Insomnium doesn’t really do anything revolutionary to their melancholic melodeath sound with this release and if you’ve liked their previous work you’ll like this as well. They do, however, showcase two guest appearances early on in the album, Rotting Christ’s Sakis Tolis and Johanna Kurkela and they definitely add something to the album, especially the latter, with her feminine touch to “Godforsaken.”
This may not be an album with really stand-out songs such as the Finns have had in some previous releases but it remains solid throughout, showing real skill and the band’s comfort in their own unique sound.
Songs to listen to: “Godforsaken,” “Lilian,” “The Witch Hunter”
12. Stam1na – X
Despite popular belief, I can almost definitively confirm this album wasn’t named after Elon Musk’s renaming of Twitter! The Finnish thrash metallers continue pumping out quality releases and each of their albums has a unique style. X straddles the middle path between the calmer version of the band and the outright thrash madness they’ve delivered before, most recently with some songs on the predecessor Novus Ordo Mundi. The band hits the line between including just enough growls as well as cleans really well again and their music always feels much deeper than typical thrash metal. Of course, they also get extra points for continuing to stick to writing solely in Finnish as well.
Songs to listen to: “Vereen piirretty viiva,” “Taivas,” “X”
11. Arkona – Kob’
The second of three Russian albums that made the list this year, Kob’ has a bizarrely long intro but then goes straight into its titular song (which also has a fantastic video by the way) and it’s clear the band has reached a maturity with this release as they fully moved into black metal waters from their previous folk metal origins. Arkona hasn’t completely foregone its folky touch though, as there’s a clear Slavic energy in their music, but it’s subdued in mysticism and mystery and layered over with harsher and more melancholic music and the band’s vocalist, Masha Arkhipova, absolutely shines in her ritualistic role.
The one downside to this album is that I didn’t really find it impressive live, whereas the band’s earlier folky work got a much better reception from the crowd, but for listening at home this album is a work of art.
Songs to listen to: “Kob’,” Ugasaya,” “Razryvaya plot’ ot bezyskhodonosti bytiya”
10. Skálmöld – Ýdalir
The second Icelandic entry this year and I’m delighted they are back with another album as well as back on tour after a short break. Skálmöld really fills a unique place in folk metal, and after their more sombre and bleak albums, Ýdalir once again circles back a bit to their earlier releases such as Börn Loka (which is still one of the best folk metal albums ever released).
While their sound on this record is probably a bit more appealing to a wider audience there’s still that majestic growl from Björgvin Sigurðsson that has always made the band sound somehow more primal and authentic than certain more popular bands with a similar theme. My folk metal folder is fairly empty this year, but this is definitely an album that saves it and I can’t wait to see them live again.
Songs to listen to: “Urður,” “Ratatoskur,” “Skuld,”
9. Soen – Memorial
What a thoroughly frustrating album. There’s a case to be made for Soen being my absolute favourite band and their two previous releases were basically perfect, but with this one my expectations weren’t really very high and I can’t say I’m disappointed with Memorial but I am a bit annoyed.
What elevated the band in previous releases was this special touch they somehow managed to have that turned complex and difficult ideas into songs that were easily appealing to most people. However, if you delved deeper, you found so much more in their music and their lyricism. With this release, Soen feels a bit watered down and perhaps simplistic. If this were any other band I’d be pretty impressed but I know what these lads are capable of and this isn’t their best work. But it’s still a damn good prog metal album and it wasn’t too much of a dilemma whether it would make this list.
Songs to listen to: “Hollowed,” “Memorial,” “Vitals”
8. Ne Obliviscaris – Exul
This is a funny inclusion because I still don’t truly love Ne Obliviscaris personally. But it’s also abundantly clear to me that this is a release absolutely brimming with quality. The mixture of prog metal with a heavy emphasis on symphonic elements, notably the violin, shows true artful expertise. It feels like something one of the more extreme classical composers would be playing if they were alive today. As the Australians really seem to think through every little part of their songs, and the vocals are also beautifully complementary of each other as the soft cleans from Tim Charles and the harsh, somewhat muffled, vocals of Xenoyr weave the tracks together.
Exul isn’t an album for the casual listener and it will take attention and several listens to really understand and appreciate, but these albums tend to become the ones I appreciate the most as, much like with people, the complex ones might require a bit more work but are ultimately the ones you want in your life.
Songs to listen to: “Equus,” “Misericorde II – Anatomy of Quiescence,” “Suspyre”
7. Nebelkrähe – Ephemer
Another one of those lovely hidden gems comes in the form of Nebelkrähe – a German black metal band. However, this is so much more than just another black metal band as Ephemer includes really elaborate songs and the band isn’t afraid to include cleans as well as various traditionally non-metal instruments such as the tuba, a saxophone, a cello, and more. This is a very modern take on black metal that moves away from stereotypes and manages to be haunting in new ways, presenting stories that are far more real than classic Satanism. This is the band’s first album in ten years and I’m glad the lads took their time if it meant delivering such a beautiful piece of underground extreme metal.
Songs to listen to: “Nielandsmann,” “Ephemer,” “Dornbusch (Im Norden kein Westen)”
6. …And Oceans – As in Gardens, So in Tombs
The earliest release on this list comes from one of the many bands fronted by Mathias Lillmåns and I basically knew this was making the list ever since the first single back in 2022. This is the second album for …And Oceans since their resurgence and it’s a delightful onslaught of symphonic black metal, something that quite a number of bands try to do, but very few actually succeed in combining the symphonic orchestrations with extreme metal and turning it into something majestic. As in Gardens, So in Tombs is a bit top-heavy, although the latter half does begin with its arguably best song, “Cloud Heads.” Overall, this is one of the best symphonic death/black metal releases in recent years and I’m excited to see how …And Oceans continues.
Songs to listen to: “As in Gardens, So in Tombs,” “The Collector and his Construct,” “Cloud Heads”
5. Cattle Decapitation – Terrasite
One of the coolest and most unique bands in extreme metal has delivered once again. If Death Atlas dealt with and called for the plague, Terrasite really focuses on the idea that we, the humans, are that plague. It’s profoundly misanthropic, musically inventive, and thought-provoking. From the catchy, “We Eat Our Young” and “Scourge of the Offspring” to the closing, surprisingly emotional, 10-minute piece “Just Another Body,” Cattle Decapitation has really evolved from just a deathgrind band to a cohesive unit of musical and lyrical complexity that flirts with prog death and doesn’t compromise in its brutality, while the band, with Travis Ryan as a frontman, presents one of the most vocally impressive and diverse albums in recent years. Quite simply, Terrasite is a delight in every way and is definitely one of those albums that need to be listened to even if it may not be your usual kind of music.
Songs to listen to: “We Eat Our Young,” “Scourge of the Offspring,” “Just Another Body”
4. Бѣсъ – Ѿ ЛукáвагѠ
Is it weird that a Satanic black metal album makes me happy? This release has no right being this entertaining but simply I cannot be still listening to this, which isn’t usually the first thing one correlates to extreme metal but Ѿ ЛукáвагѠ absolutely nails this sort of deranged, chaotic, and very energetic black metal. This album is far from just Satanic craziness though. There’s actual depth to the music and to the lyricism while the production is way better than you might expect from such a small band as well.
Definitely one of the most pleasant surprises of the year from this Russian outfit that sadly faces a lot more problems simply due to their geographical location than most other rising bands would. Oh, and the song titles are in Old Church Slavonic, so now you get to brag to your friends about listening to Satanic songs in a dead language for those extra kvlt points.
Songs to listen to: “Сма́гомъ вра́жꙋ, кро́вїю и́льщꙋ,” “Свѧтохꙋ́льство,” “Чертополо́хъ”
3. Finsterforst – Jenseits
I’ve never included an EP on my year-end list before but as it clocks in at almost 40 minutes it really is basically a full album, and given how amazing it is, I truly can’t not talk about it anyway.
Jenseits is, in reality, just one song, divided into four sections, which deal with different parts of a journey from a utopian freedom to facing reality and its problems and the eventual cathartic ending. This is a truly artistic, and even quite philosophical, release that doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout its entire run time. Musically, Finsterforst stays faithful to their blackened folk metal sound from their previous, also very impressive, release, Zerfall, and expands on it with more complexity. The Germans have already had a pretty loyal following and have been highly appreciated in certain metal circles but Jenseits is undoubtedly their best work yet and it captures the majestic and epic idea of the band beautifully.
Songs to listen to: All of it, it’s one song.
2. The Ocean – Holocene
It took me so long to understand and get into this album but I had a feeling it would happen eventually. The first half is extremely soft, and while these post-metallers have been known to include soft and tame passages, it was still a surprise to me and I kept wanting more to happen. However, listen after listen, it all made more sense to me, and then seeing the songs live cemented my love for the album.
Following up Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic was never going to be simple but the Germans did it really well and delved into the human period of history with Holocene. The Ocean is becoming a special kind of beast more and more, one that toes the line somewhere between prog metal and post-metal with absolutely fantastic lyricism and complex musical structures that really require listeners to delve deeply into their music as it takes quite a few listens to truly appreciate them. Lastly, their live shows are just out of this world and, I think, they’re actually my all-time favourite live band.
Songs to listen to: “Atlantic,” “Subboreal,” “Unconformities”
1. Shores of Null – The Loss of Beauty
So many times the albums I find by sheer coincidence become some of my most favourite in a given year. I wouldn’t have listened to this record were it not for the band coming to play a show in support of Swallow the Sun, but as I started listening to the Italians I was pretty quickly mesmerised and ended up actually looking forward to seeing them more than the other bands that night. Their live performance, even if short, definitely did not disappoint and I ended up falling in love more and more with this record.
From the opening words on the album being, “Another failure for my lonely heart” to just their general doom/death vibe and of course Davide Straccione’s vocals, which range from deep growls to romantic and soothing cleans, Shores of Null truly delivers. On the instrumental front, the band isn’t overly complex but the guitars shine through really well and evoke the feeling of melancholy that befits the band’s style, while the drums range from just being nicely rhythmic to stepping up when the band flows into a more extreme metal sound at times. Being musically extreme isn’t the point of this album, however, instead it’s the poetic and melancholic delivery that really makes it the #1 pick for 2023.
Songs to listen to: “Destination Woe,” “The Last Flower,” “Darkness Won’t Take Me,” “My Darkest Years”