(After a considerable absence, we welcome Daniel Barkasi back to NCS, with the following 2023 Top 20 list to start, and more to come.)
Well, well, well, it’s been a minute. Well, other than an interview that meant the world to me with Serge of Selfgod in 2022, it’s been seven years. Why so long? Well, as the cliche goes, life happens. Burnout, mental health, huge life changes, job stuff, and many other things can derail the time and drive to write about all things heavy. No, the earth’s gravitational pull is just fine (I hope), and yes, get used to dated references and bad puns. Get used to that, or don’t, and detest my Seinfeld-obsessed self. Your call!
What the hell has this scribe been up to (as if anyone really gives a hoot)? Moving from Pittsburgh to Tampa with my absolutely perfect wife, spending lots of time with our near literal zoo of pets – the count of which is up to eight cats, three dogs, and a large number of snakes and tarantulas – and obsessing over Liverpool FC / Borussia Dortmund, for a few things.
Without question, this beautiful kind of music you and I hold so dear is a constant in our often hectic and way too quickly moving lives. The uncontrollable passion for which leads those of us who have an insatiable need to talk and write about it back to doing just that. Spitting out the written word at Blistering and a few other now defunct locations in the past, for Dead Rhetoric since its inception ten years ago, to starting a metal-related podcast soon, and obviously right back here again at NCS. It’s an esteemed privilege that I don’t take lightly. Thanks, Islander, for the opportunity to jump back into this fine locale of the best music in the universe. I’ll be penning a monthly column of under the radar albums that I’ve been taking in, and hopefully you’ll find something that you’ll enjoy in the process.
I want to use this end of year list as both a celebration of a packed 2023, and a bit of a (re)introduction to what kind of music tickles this guy’s fancy. As an individual who’s an analytical, completist lunatic, the composition and pain of putting this list together was both a labor of love and agony. Especially with the incredible stuff that didn’t make this list, as this was an amazing year with a metric ton of albums that both brought something new and exciting, and veterans who both showed they still had it, and in some cases, put out the best work of their long careers. The amount of young bands who conjured jaw-dropping works that were either first or second full-lengths was surprising and heartening to witness. Heavy music is in good hands.
Without further rambling, here are my top 20 albums of the year:
20. 71TonMan – Of End Times
What a fitting band name. 71TonMan dishes unbelievably heavy doom/sludge on Of End Times that you feel in your weary bones. A fuzzy, malicious guitar tone that bows down to the almighty riff drives this record, and it packs the force of, well, see band name.
Blast any of the mammoth four tracks on offer, and get to stomping. One can only imagine how heavy these gents are in a live setting. The walls don’t stand a chance.
19. Nightmarer – Deformity Adrift
Dissonant death metal has become much more prominent in recent times – thanks to bands like Ulcerate leading the way – and Nightmarer have proven to be one of the most innovative. Deformity Adrift is dense, thick, and powerful as it drags you into the horror that is their thick wave of death metal insanity.
They even dropped an alternate version of the album that is absolutely worth checking out, which is a more stripped down “Reformed” edition that is a different kind of take on an already masterful record. No matter which version, you’re in for a crushing.
18. Decipher – Arcane Paths to Resurrection
There’s something in the tirokafteri (try it, it’s delightful) in Greece, as their black metal exports are nearly always top of the pile. A recent standout example is Decipher, whose black metal onslaught and titan-sized death metal forcefulness holds nothing back.
Right from the outset of Arcane Paths to Resurrection, an infectious riff grabs hold, and before you know it, you’re fully engrossed and ready to buy the t-shirt (totally did). This first album is only the beginning for this new powerhouse.
17. Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze – The Fractal Ouroboros
Ask me in six months, and this may have ranked higher, as The Fractal Ouroboros from Colorado black metallers Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze is an intricate marathon of an album that contains so many little details that more will reveal themselves with each listen.
Equal parts somber and relentless, the sense of balance is remarkable. The band also has a great message to go along with their musical qualities, which makes this writer even further bought in. This will take you on a journey that you’ll want to repeat.
16. Moonlight Sorcery – Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle
Combining the robust energy of power metal and searing black metal in theory is a recipe for either an absolute disaster, or something truly magical. Mother nature is a mad scientist, Jerry, and Moonlight Sorcery have found the right formula. Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle contains all the flair of Gamma Ray, the technical bombastic nature of Children of Bodom in their heyday, all in a blackened wrapper.
We dare you to listen to “The Secret of Streaming Blood” and try not to smile. This record is just so damn fun and scorching all at once. All hail the horned lord.
15. Terra Builder – Solar Temple
Besides winning the award for most wonderfully unreadable logo of the year, Germany’s Terra Builder have hit the proverbial ground sprinting at an immeasurable pace via their gritty debut, Solar Temple. Think death/grind with a fair dose of tremolos, add a pinch of chilly atmosphere, and you’ll have the basic ingredients of this spicy mixture.
What takes this beyond their contemporaries is the finely dialed-in execution. Each song is precise and demonstrably brutal, resulting in a merciless debut that sets a high standard.
14. Sulphur Aeon – Seven Crowns and Seven Seals
The penultimate Lovecraftian-inspired death metal act, Sulphur Aeon has not so quietly been one of the best examples of forward-thinking death metal since their inception in 2010. Ever evolving, Seven Crowns and Seven Seals is unsurprisingly experimental, with expanded usage of clean vocals and psychedelic licks that take their sound into new realms.
Eclectic songwriting and haunting atmospheres are still Sulphur Aeon’s calling cards at heart, and they have excelled yet again in these and every other category. Cthulhu is pleased.
13. Serpent of Old – Ensemble Under the Dark Sun
Quite possibly the debut of the year for these ears, Serpent of Old is a Turkish Delight of blackened death metal bliss. As visceral as Ulcerate and as desolate as Abyssal, this quintet has conjured a special record in Ensemble Under the Dark Sun that envelops the listener with a blanketed disparity.
Boasting a maturity and accumen nearly preposterous for a new band, it’s almost scary that they’re just getting started. What a discovery by Kunal at Transcending Obscurity.
12. Blackbraid – Blackbraid II
Some may say Blackbraid has been overhyped, and while true that Sgah’gahsowáh’s melodic black metal project has received an incredible amount of buzz, it’s been earned by hard work and the quality of the music presented. The project’s focus on indigenous and nature-related subject matter stitched together with cutting, low-frills black metal continues on Blackbraid II, with songs that are tighter and compositionally more complex than the debut from last year.
Tracks such as the earnest “Moss Covered Bones on the Altar of the Moon” and the forthright “The Spirit Returns” display a band who has become increasingly comfortable in their approach and aesthetic. Simply put, Blackbraid II is a searing black metal album that’s also thought-provoking, hitting the right notes on all fronts.
11. Deadly Carnage – Endless Blue
Once being a much more straightforward black metal band, Deadly Carnage have morphed into a melancholic blackened post-metal phenomenon. Having carved a unique style that reminds slightly of Alcest’s later work, but brimming with beauty and optimism instead of forlorn sadness, their latest Endless Blue is a carefully crafted, emotive masterwork.
Guitarist/vocalist Alexios Ciancio’s alluring delivery is the best he’s ever sounded, and the compositions are smooth with an unimpeded flow that make the album a true experience. Tied together by a concept based on Japanese folklore that provides a sense of place, and even whale song to tug on the heartstrings, Endless Blue is glimmeringly exquisite.
10. Afsky – Om hundrede år
For those who seek depressive, soul-sapping black metal, there’s none better than Afsky. Being the solo project of Ole Pedersen, he’s perfected the art of portraying grief and sadness in a woeful tremolo-driven cloud like no other musical endeavor. His latest, Om hundrede år, takes every aspect to a higher sadder and more pronounced level than one could imagine, considering how emotionally draining Ofte jeg drømmer mig død was.
Every shriek and scream bites with agonized fury, while simultaneously metastasizing a guitar-focused downtrodden atmosphere that permeates one’s essence. Absolutely cathartic.
9. Blut aus Nord – Disharmonium – Nahab
Vindsval can do no wrong, and has been a busy bee in 2023. Having been a major part of two standout debuts with Ershetu and Eitrin (which is already planning a second album), he shined darkest with his main project, Blut Aus Nord. Disharmonium – Nahab is the middle portion of his latest trilogy of mind-bending ambient black metal, and like it’s predecessor Disharmonium – Undreamable Abysses, it’s a lavish wall of buzzing impenetrable darkness.
Per usual, it’s a grower, requiring a few focused listens to be able to take in the little details that make the album so potent. Nuance and craftsmanship are much appreciated in these parts, and Blut Aus Nord have again provided just that in their signature twisted manner.
8. Rană – Richtfeuer
Post-black metal when done well is a potent force of equal parts serene and ferocious. Downfall of Gaia released an emphatic effort in 2023 that barely missed inclusion here, however, none struck a chord like Rană have with Richtfeuer.
Built off of a base of rich black metal and raw crust punk, the more eloquent post influences glue their sound together in a harmonious explosion of rage. Rană is comparable to a pendulum; constantly in motion, but with the wrecking ability of a sledgehammer. Richtfeuer is utterly untamable.
7. Sól án varma – Sól án varma
Iceland is a wonderful place, full of beautiful nature spots, and some of the most humble, friendly people on the globe. Oh, and it’s also home to more black metal bands than delicious loaves of hverabrauð. Now, what happens when some of the most talented of those musicians come together for a collaborative project? Sól án varma, that’s what. Started by T.Í. and D.G. of 0, Carpe Noctem, and Misþyrming, as well as five other esteemed Icelandic musicians from a ton of other awesome projects, as a Roadburn festival concoction in 2018.
What resulted is an epic black/doom fusion that melds all of the best aspects of Icelandic metal’s blackened side into an astounding, distinctive sound profile. There’s dissonant riffs, fuzzy ambiance, plodding chunks of grisly doom, and everything in between. A true super group, who unlike most collaborations of this ilk, produced a divine invocation of chilled ruination with this self-titled piece.
6. Hasard – Malivore
If ever there was a desire for an audible nightmare, Hasard has accomplished that task and then some. Twisted and macabre, Malivore is frightening and unbelievably intense. The gentleman behind this work also helms Les Chants du Hasard – an endeavor that combines classical music and black metal vocalizations. Hasard is quite different from that, instead embracing the inspirations of those classical composers, but crafting a full-on avant-garde tapestry of orchestral black metal horror.
John Steven Morgan of Wreche provides the piano pieces, which add further dimension to the already dense symphonic compositions. We think the likes of Chopin would approve of this dastardly slice of malevolence, and you may as well. Turn down the lights, if you dare.
5. Fires in the Distance – Air Not Meant for Us
The realized potential award goes to Fires in the Distance. Echoes from Deep November was an acclaimed debut, but with room to tighten up their ambitious compositions. They’ve surpassed even the highest of expectations imaginable with Air Not Meant for Us. Honing their sound into a powerhouse of majestic melancholic doom, Fires in the Distance ardently utilize the piano as a centerpiece to be a driving force in their weeping, lush soundscapes unlike anyone has successfully captured before.
Every single aspect of their sound profile and songwriting has been refined, and the results speak for themselves – from the mournful lead guitars and lush pianos on “Harbingers” to the intricate layers of melody on “Crumbling Pillars of a Tranquil Mind.” This is an album whose impassioned enormity can’t be underestimated, and these Connecticut natives have cemented themselves as leaders of the genre.
4. Cattle Decapitation – Terrasite
Without a doubt the “biggest” band on this list, and also one of the most deserving, Cattle Decapitation have always carved their own niche. Always evolving with each album, yet somehow getting better with age, they’ve transformed into a singular brand of progressive death/grind. The Anthropocene Extinction and Death Atlas especially saw an upward ascension, while never losing their edge and dead-on social commentary. Now with Terrasite, they’ve laid down the most sophisticated, abrasive album of their esteemed existence.
Proverbial vocal swiss army knife Travis Ryan inexplicably further showcases his range, traversing from vociferous growls, snarls, shrieks, and goblin voicings on a whim. There’s nothing this man can’t do with his voice, all while catching a loogie. The compositions are immensely focused and heavy to the point of hardly believing your ears, yet eclectic and progressive in structure. There isn’t a record this year that was played more in our household, and for good reason. We are the Terrasite, and while the message is damning, the soundtrack to our apocalypse is glorious.
3. Convocation – No Dawn for the Caliginous Night
This was a fine year for doom. Established acts like Ahab and Saturnus put out solid releases, while Godthrymm, Isole, Sorcerer and Of Darkness gave immense efforts that barely missed the cut. With loads of quality on offer, there was one that conquered all – Convocation.
A project of Lauri Laaksonen of Desolate Shrine and Pestilent Hex, this guy simply doesn’t know how to write uninteresting music. Ashes Coalesce was a high-grade example of the style done with precision, and we anticipated something substantial with the follow up No Dawn for the Caliginous Night, but we could never have predicted these momentous proportions.
Everything about this record screams huge. The riffs, atmosphere, scope, and the otherworldly vocal performance by Marko Neuman. The compositions are more diverse, the memorable moments are impossible to count, and the additional depth by way of using cellos and organs elevate Convocation to an unparalleled status in doom metal.
2. Majesties – Vast Reaches Unclaimed
Nostalgia is a powerful elixir. The music that many of us grew up on is being discovered by new generations, and it’s a neat thing to witness. Then, there are those who grew up inspired by this music, and are forming new projects that pay homage to said influences, while adding their own skills and interpretations. Within the melodic death metal realm, Majesties is the pinnacle of drawing from the past and putting a personal spin on it to ultimately craft an album that is exhilarating all on its own.
What has been done with Majesties and their debut record Vast Reaches Unclaimed is music that brings this writer back to those early days of discovery; hearing bands like At the Gates and In Flames for the first time, and those bands being responsible for my (and many others) foray into extreme music. This album is a note of endearment to a past that is still relevant today; putting a distinctive purview on this style of music that stands toe-to-toe with the giants of the genre.
Just as important to all of that context is that Vast Reaches Unclaimed has it all; from mesmerizing twin-guitar harmonies, to snarling shrieks, songs with ethereal flow that hit hard. Majesties have accomplished something of significance with Vast Reaches Unclaimed, and their story hopefully has many future chapters in store.
1. Night in Gales – The Black Stream
Having been an innovator from their inception in 1995, Night in Gales have never received the proper level of respect and acknowledgement. Under the radar, they’ve managed to build an impenetrable discography of impeccable melodic death metal without falling into the tropes that tripped up many. Their hot streak since re-forming in 2011 with the phenomenal Five Scars has been notable, and their latest The Black Stream may be their best since said re-formation.
It can be hard to nail(work) down, but Night in Gales possess that “it” factor. There’s a magic when they release an album, and to have been doing this for as long as they have, at this point of their career, they’re at their strongest. From sublime guitar wizardry, infectious harmonies, razor-sharp rhythms, and songs impossible to get out of this writer’s brain, there isn’t a peer that can touch them at this point in time. Entries such as “Gone Forever” transports to the heyday of movement, while “Tears of Blood” brings both melody and unforgettable riffage. This album has been impossible to put down, and it’s beyond worthy of the highest of accolades. They’ve earned their stripes again and again, and it’s well past due for Night in Gales to have their day in the limelight.