Veteran Greek band Rotting Christ returned early in 2013 with an excellent album in Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού, and band guitarist and vocalist Sakis Tolis also contributed to another superb release this year with his long-running Hellenic horde, Thou Art Lord.
The Regal Pulse of Lucifer is Thou Art Lord’s first album in eight years, and with the band featuring a host of Greek metal warhorses, it hews close to the archetypical sound for which the scene is famed. Bathed in mid-paced riffing, and featuring plenty of spectral synth, The Regal Pulse of Lucifer was rich in dramatic flourishes, mixing melodic, melancholic and merciless atmospherics. The occult angle was sharpened to a point on the album, and The Regal Pulse of Lucifer was paced to perfection throughout. Compositionally, it’s Thou Art Lord’s most inspired album yet, showing a nod of respect to the golden-age of Greek black metal, while bringing a sense of urgency that’ll prove enticing to those new to the band. (See also: Rotting Christ’s Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού, which just hasn’t had enough praise this year.)
You’ll have noticed a lot of the blurbs on this list start with, “Such and such label had a great year”. Well, Handmade Birds had a fantastic year. Releases from Jasper TX and Black Boned Angel were superb, and the return of Lycia, with the exquisite Quiet Moments, was an absolute highlight in 2013.
Also released by Handmade Birds was a CD compilation from black metal band Dressed In Streams. Dressed In Streams makes extensive use of Indian melodies, which simmer on a bed of psychedelic synth. All of the band’s releases thus far—found digitally and on cassette via fascinating label Colloquial Sound Recordings—have been mysterious and idiosyncratic. Dressed In Streams stabbed vitriol straight into the heart of esoteric black metal on mordant songs that headed out into the cosmos. Definitely it was one of my best discoveries all year. (See also: the entire Colloquial Sound Recordings catalogue—grab them all, you’ll thank me for it.)
Beastwars’ sophomore album, Blood Becomes Fire, hung neck-snapping noise-rock hooks off towering sludgy cliffs this year. Drawing acclaim from around the globe for the substantial weight and dimensions of its sound, what made Blood Becomes Fire all the more interesting was its dark narrative delivered via the Herculean vocals of the Antipodean prophet of doom, Matt Hyde.
Built off the channels cut by James Woods’ mantle-splitting bass, Blood Becomes Fire told tales of an explorer from another time looking upon our end of days. Empires fell, and ancient alien theories were discussed, while steely dissonance, squirming melodies, and molasses-thick riffs battered all. Beastwars’ exploration of the wreckage of death, disease, religion and war brought much emotional mass, with the band’s graphic visions and sounds being highly contagious. (See also: the deep dark rumble of Ken Mode’s Entrench.)
It’ll come as no surprise—given the Sanskrit title and image of the Kali on the cover of Czech black metal band Cult of Fire’s latest album—to discover it includes a hearty amount of mysticism. However, along with those cult chills comes blistering black metal that’s nuanced enough to find a balance between maintaining its second-wave wrath and pushing against the boundaries.
मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान (Ascetic Meditation of Death) found Cult of Fire mining much the same vein of hypothermic black metal as it did on its debut, 2012’s Triumvirát, but more esoteric elements featured, with macabre synth and creepy jaunts into the celestial reaches. Think Transylvania via Titan—with the face of Saturn’s largest moon soaked blood red—and then you’ll be close to the mix of galaxy gazing and earth-bound devilry featured. मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान was everything a great sophomore album should be. It exhibited a creative spirit hungry for more evil-intentioned thrills, without losing sight of the core diabolical base that Cult of Fire established on debut. (See also: duo Death Karma’s A Life Not Worth Living, featuring drummer Tom Coroner and vocalist, guitarist and bassist Infernal Vlad from Cult of Fire.)
The best black metal band in existence is obviously Craft, I’m sure you agree, and Finnish band Arnaut Pavle has drawn its share of inspiration from the dastardly Swedish trio. Like Craft, Arnaut Pavle injected plenty of punk rock bite into the black metal bile on its self-titled demo from 2013, and with the presence of Urgehal, Darkthrone and Mayhem looming large, it was a consummate old school salvo.
Of course, plenty of black metal bands still pick the marrow from the bones of yore, but what Arnaut Pavle did best on its demo was tear everything down to basics for a hailstorm of rusty-razor-blade tracks. The seven songs therein were as raw as a stab wound, and like all good black-hearted retches, they didn’t hang around for long. Arnaut Pavle’s first foray is an extremely promising glimpse of an oncoming downpour of much Satanic sickness. (See also: other delightfully bloodstained demos, including Druidus’s Bestial Crust Demo MMXIII, Alraune’s two-track untitled release, Sangus Legionaris’s Vengeful Brutality, and Caffa’s putrid pile-up, Day of Disease.)
Two albums from Southern Lord’s stable featured some of the most emotionally and sonically devastating music heard in 2013. Nails unleashed an eviscerating fusillade on Abandon All Life, which contained levels of hybrid metal/punk hostility that were off the scale. However, also released by Southern Lord was Agrimonia’s equally powerful Rites of Separation.
Agrimonia features members from At the Gates, Martyrdöd, Miasmal, and Skitsystem; and the creative eruption resulting from that line-up was spectacular. Rites of Separation combined seething, crust-fueled sorties with expansive post-metal dirges, with gigantic Gothenburg riffs fusing with whatever was needed to hammer the point home. Songs descended into filthy churns, only for glistening leads to cut through the murk, and much like sonic kin Neurosis, there was aching beauty in Agrimonia’s bitterness, as souls were laid bare. Rites of Separation was a huge achievement, and an utter victory for all involved. (See also: Power Trip’s Manifest Decimation, Hessian’s Manégarmr, and Morne’s 2013 release, Shadows, which is criminally underrated.)
Obscure Verses for the Multiverse, the latest release from Inquisition, has been hailed as one of the best black metal releases all year. Guitarist, vocalist, and bassist Dagon, along with drummer Incubus, certainly deserve all that praise, and Obscure Verses for the Multiverse is the most accomplished record of Inquisition’s career thus far.
Obscure Verses for the Multiverse continued Inquisition’s distinctive interstellar excursions, with Dagon’s cosmological musings mining the heavens for all their wicked potential. Solar-wind blasts of black ‘n’ roll hit with hurricane-strength riffs as Dagon croaked with guttural relish, while Incubus’s blast-beaten rockslides came thundering down. As in the past, Inquisition’s Satanic rhythmic riots maximised all of its black-hearted craftsmanship, and Obscure Verses for the Multiverse was a wholly (and, obviously, unholy) triumph throughout. (See also: the heralded, albeit very differently flavoured, black metal highs of Yellow Eyes’ Hammer of Night, Vattnet Viskar’s Sky Swallower, and Deafheaven’s shoegaze glide on Sunbather.)
Baltimore-based Noisem’s debut, Agony Defined, revelled in the heyday of high-octane and blistering thrash metal. Of course, thrash metal throwbacks are nothing new, but the whippersnappers in Noisem followed less of a wisecracking neo-thrash-and-brews path than many of their peers.
Agony Defined’s 26 minutes were lean and mean, and probably even carcinogenic, with early years of Slayer right up front, and Nuclear Assault, Morbid Angel, and Exodus lurking in the background. The album featured squealing solos, meteoric riffs, lightning bass, and high-speed drumming, and much like Toxic Holocaust, Noisem stripped away the extraneous fat that thrash metal had accumulated over the years. Agony Defined was turbo-powered and completely infectious, and Noisem is one to watch. (See also: Havok’s Unnatural Selection, Lost Society’s Fast Loud Death, and Toxic Holocaust’s compilation,From the Ashes of Nuclear Destruction.)
Earlier in the year, I pointed out that much like the band’s simian inspiration, there’s a great deal of intelligence behind Kongh’s abundant strength. The Swedish sludge/doom duo released Sole Creation earlier in the year, and its juggernaut hauls found Kongh broadening its sound by adding lots of sinuous subtlety—which brought far more flexibility to the band’s muscle.
Kongh exhibited an astute handling of its tonnage on Sole Creation, with extra melodic intricacy woven in without sacrificing an ounce of brute strength. Leviathan riffs, and accompanying waves of distortion, meant Sole Creation was a gigantic steamrolling album, where Kongh stacked riff upon riff as it lurched between acid-dripping dirges, full-force seismic sludge, and blues. If it’s one thing metal isn’t short of, it’s monolithic riffs, and what Kongh achieved on Sole Creation wasn’t about elevating its sound to more ominous heights, it was about expanding its dimensions. In terms of sheer sonic magnitude, Sole Creation was an awe-inspiring endeavour. (See also: Church of Misery’s Thy Kingdom Scum, Salem’s Pot’s Watch Me Kill You/Run the Night single, and Eibon’s head-splitting II.)