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Friends, foes, and fellow imbibers of the heavier fare, welcome to Ragnarök’s 2013 Gloomy Awards. This final column of 2013 is nothing more than an unashamed rant about a horde of great albums released this year, but don’t go looking for any ‘top this’ or ‘best that’ rankings. There no winners or losers at the Gloomy Awards. Instead, collected here are some of the more interesting examples of sonic carnage that you may have missed or misplaced in your wanderings this year.


Included are kvlt desperados, death metal delinquents, a few sludge and doom reprobates, and astro-navigators orbiting out on the fringes. I also snuck in a few of my favorite examples of murk and murder from the year, releases that you’ll no doubt be familiar with already, and I blatantly cheated by placing plenty of ‘see also’ albums that are well worth tracking down, too.


However, the all important component to this list, your contribution, awaits in the commentary box below. Please, feel free to let me know about the albums you feel were overlooked, mislaid, or underrated this year; I’m always keen for another helping from the nastiest banquet. 


I hope you all have a very happy anti-Christmas. So, without further ado, let’s dig into the naughty list…


 
Pyres: Year of Sleep (Granite House)

Every few weeks, John Winston, the overlord of US label Granite House, drops me a message on Twitter to alert me to a new discovery he’s made on Bandcamp. Nine times out 10, he’s found a band overloaded with riffs. So, when Granite House deemed the debut from Canadian sludge band Pyres worthy of release this year, my ears perked up.


Winston wasn’t wrong when he said you’d best have a deep and abiding love of riffs, riffs and more riffs to fully appreciate Pyres’ Year of Sleep. On the album, the band swung a sonic sledgehammer of the size wielded by Red-era Baroness or Leviathan-era Mastodon. Pyres blended their sludgy metal with traces of murkier hardcore, and everything about Year of Sleep was huge. Huge bellowing vocals. Huge build-ups. Huge percussive crashes. And huge pummeling riffs exploding from Pyres’ dual guitar attack. Year of Sleep was, unsurprisingly, hugely impressive. (See also: fuzzed-out Twitter recommendations from the year, with Brain Pyramid’s Magic Carpet Ride, Cheap Wines’s Mystic Crow, and Hawkeyes’ Poison Slows You Down.)


 
Haken: The Mountain (Inside Out)

Everything you could possibly love about progressive rock and metal was found in abundance on The Mountain. The third full-length from UK-based Haken brimmed with the full-fledged plumage of a prog giant soaring, and with pristine arrangements—onnor from the metal scene, but its sorrowful tone would resonate with any open-minded fan. A Misleading RealityThe Mountain was masterful display of eclectic neo-prog at its finest.


Haken’s two previous releases, 2010’s Aquarious and 2011’s Visions, featured a glorious blend of melodic pop with a diverse range of musical styles, and The Mountain refined that fusion to perfection. Jazz, funk, rock, and metal looped around each other in serpentine movements, while Haken vocalist Ross Jennings explored the heights of prog passion. Haken has all the requisite strengths of the golden-age of UK progressive rock, with creative brilliance threaded through passages of invigorating inventiveness. (See also: Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing, and the neo-prog of Big Big Train’s English Electric, Moon Safari’s Himlabacken Vol.1, and the Tangents’ Le Sacre Du Travail.)


 
Thrall: Aokigahara Jukai (Moribund)

Australian band Thrall is one of the most fascinating entities lurking in the black metal underground. The band has previously released two punishing full-lengths, and Thrall’s latest album, Aokigahara Jukai, was a similar shock to the system. Exploring themes around the Japanese suicide forest of the album’s name, macabre conceptuality met musical monstrousness on Aokigahara Jukai, with Thrall setting out on grim cultural and musical journey.


Thrall’s blend of orthodox black metal with a thick layer of crust, doom, and death metal cut to the heart of the multi-dimensionality of despair. The band strangled its anti-human and wrathful aesthetic in piercing feedback on Aokigahara Jukai, with the result being ghastly and vivid images of spiritual decay, hopelessness, and the ice-cold pits of finality. (See also: the heartless assault of A.M.S.G’s Anti-Cosmic Tyranny, or Pest’s The Crowning Horror.)


 
Nocturnal Poisoning: A Misleading Reality (Disharmonic Variations)

Of all the depressive black metal bands, Xasthur stands out as the most soul-destroying. The one-man band, founded in the mid-’90s by Scott Connor, was laid to rest a few years back, and while Connor’s subsequent doomgrass project Nocturnal Poisoning has little to do with Xasthur musically, a sense of desolation remains.


On Nocturnal Poisoning’s 2013 release, A Misleading Reality, Connor wound finger-picked guitar around darkly strummed harmonics, with his tales of discontent featuring grim folk vocals from Robert Nesslin. The acoustic fare of Nocturnal Poisoning deliberately distances Connor from the metal scene, but its sorrowful tone would resonate with any open-minded fan. A Misleading Reality certainly qualifies for this list, because, like Xasthur, its eerie tenor leaves a heavy heart in its wake. (See also: fascinating ventures on Wardruna’s Runaljod – Yggdrasil, Helen Money’s Arriving Angels, and Hexvessel’s Iron Marsh EP.)


 
Lycus: Tempest (20 Buck Spin)

Tempest was the first full-length for funeral doom four-piece Lycus, of Oakland, California, and it was unquestionably one of the most powerful debuts in recent metal history. Featuring three monumental hymns, Tempest brought 40 minutes of devastating dirges, but its über-down-tuned bombardment was both demoralizing and dazzling.


Lycus exquisitely blended mammoth musicality and psychological brutality on the album. Tempest was, undoubtedly, a woebegone odyssey of colossally heavy riffing, percussion, and vocal howls. However, although the album was a sludgy crawl through catastrophic and crestfallen climes, Lycus brought a grand sense of gothic majesty, with a nuanced, poetic touch. Tempest was a breathtaking debut, and heaven help us all when Lycus returns with album number two. (See also: similarly stunning releases with Windhand’s Soma, Inter Arma’s Sky Burial, and Vhöl’s self-titled debut.)


 
Beyond: Fatal Power of Death (Iron Bonehead Productions)

German label Iron Bonehead Productions had a wunderbar year in 2013. Recently, the label released His Best Deceit, the ripping demo from Belgian black/thrash quartet Possession. However, earlier in the year, Iron Bonehead also released a couple of other fiendish debuts with German death metal berserker Beyond’s Fatal Power of Death, and Denmark’s black/death blasphemer Ogdru Jahad’s I.


Both bands’ albums were beastial soundtracks hearkening back to death metal’s earliest years, with their necro-stench and cavernous, blood-thirsty tempers. In Beyond’s case, the band launched into tremolo whirlwinds, ground through chest-crushing doom, and unleashed the kinds of frenzied speed metal melodies last heard in ’85. Every song on Fatal Power of Death was a nightmare of dissonant musical insanity, with abundant technicality buried in percussive deluges and endless squalls of abrasive guitars. (See also: the crème de la filth of death metal debuts this year, with Lantern’s Below, Vorum’s Poisoned Void, and Grave Miasma’s Odori Sepulcrorum.)


 
Bone Sickness: Alone in the Grave (20 Buck Spin)

The gold star for grotesque and ill-mannered pursuits in 2013 has to go to Olympia, Washington-based Bone Sickness. The four-piece band’s acrimonious pile of audio abuse, Alone in the Grave, saw death metal, crust punk and grindcore all mashed in a toxic mill—with the 18-minute album being about as vile a disgorgement as you could hope for. 


All tracks were onslaughts of hideousness filled with guttersnipe venom—seeing Autopsy, Napalm Death, and Repulsion having their brains smashed in, scooped out, digested and regurgitated. Alone in the Grave was one of the most concussive blitzkrieg‘s of cantankerousness heard all year, and while Bone Sickness made a hell of a bloody racket on the album, that didn’t disguise the skill it takes to make music this murderously addictive. (See also: twisted turns on Mammoth Grinder’s Underworlds, Autopsy’s The Headless Ritual, Necrowretch’s Putrid Death Sorcery, and Antediluvian’s λόγος.)


 
Locrian: Return to Annihilation (Relapse)

Ask me what I my favorite metal album from 2013 is and you’re guaranteed to get 20 minutes of humming and hawing. However, ask me what my favorite album from 2013 was and I don’t need to think about that for a second.


There’s no question that it’s Locrian’s Return to Annihilation. The album marked a change in direction for the band, with the concept release inspired by the surreal storytelling of prog-giants of old.Return to Annihilation featured delicate acoustics, majestic ’70s guitar lines, kosmische synth, monastic vocals, black-glaze riffs, and dexterous percussion—all adding layer upon layer of orchestrated menace. While Return to Annihilation was one of Locrian’s least heavy releases, the band’s use of unsettling frequencies still made for a profoundly heavy statement. Return to Annihilation was Locrian at its very best, turning the minimal into the wholly momentous. (See also: avant-garde mind-melters such as Haxan Cloak’s Excavation, Gog’s Ironworks, and the final album from Black Boned Angel, The End.)


 
Nekrofilth: Devil’s Breath (Hells Headbangers)

If you’re seeking heavy metal that’s rude, crude, and carrying a few weeping mouth sores, then label Hells Headbangers is an excellent place to visit. With releases this year from the likes of Shitfucker, with its Suck Cocks in Hell album complete with swastika-esque cover art, one thing you can be assured of with a Hells Headbangers’ release is a very unsavoury tang.


So it is with Nekrofilth. The death metal trio, founded by Nunslaughter guitarist Zack Rose in 2008, released The Devil’s Breath in late 2013, and the album was an odious blast of crossover crud. With tracks all hovering around the two-minute mark, Nekrofilth went in for short, sharp, punk/thrash shocks on The Devil’s Breath, and tunes like “Volcanic Zit”, “I’m a Degenerate” and “Junkie Cunt” give you a pretty clear indication of the general flavor celebrated. If you’ve hankered for more Dismember in your DRI, an extra dose of naughtiness in your Napalm Death, or a touch more sleaze in your Slayer, then the catchy crassness of The Devil’s Breath awaits. (See also: the necromantic antics of Impiety’s The Impious Crusade, Profanatica’s Thy Kingdom Cum, and Obliteration’s Black Death Horizon.)


 
Unsea: Unsea (Ocra Wolf Records)

Unsea’s self-titled debut was another release I stumbled upon thanks to someone mentioning the Portland, Oregon band online somewhere this year (and if that was you, cheers!). Unsea mixes black, funeral, death, and doom metal into thick, astringent sludge, and then peppers that concoction with a lyrical focus fueled by the disillusionment of modern life.


Unsea’s take on the bleakness inherent in visions of the present and future made for an emotionally-charged debut. However, while searching for meaning in a callous world brought plenty of oppressive despondency to Unsea, the only way to describe the album, ultimately, is victorious. It was a slow-motion creep across shattered dreams and the corpses of capitalism, but it wasn’t solely a representation of loss. Like the best bands painting pictures of the worst scenarios, Unsea also exorcised the wounds of modernity. That made Unsea an utter triumph. (See also: the funeral rites of Ephemeros’s All Hail Corrosion and Jucifer’s mammoth sludge and doom Russian history epic за волгой для нас земли нет.)


Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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