Ragnarök: 2013 Gloomy Awards: The Most Interesting Metal Albums of 2013

[17 December 2013]

By Craig Hayes

Contributing Editor

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.)

Tribulation: The Formulas of Death (Invictus)

Back in 2009, Swedish death metal four-piece Tribulation released its debut, The Horror, which contained 30 minutes of pulverizing death metal. That album made for a solid-enough start, but Tribulation’s follow-up, 2013’s The Formulas of Death, utterly transformed the band’s repertoire, and its reputation. 

The Formulas of Death contained songs from Tribulation well above what was expected, and likely above what was even imagined possible. Cleaner guitars cut icier pathways, as thrash, psychedelic, black, progressive, and traditional metal were woven through technically breathtaking, prog-worthy songs. There was no lack of ambition or lack of masterful musicianship to be found on The Formulas of Death. Tribulation threw caution to the wind, and the result was an artistically stunning album, spilling over with both courage and creativity. (See also: Ævangelist’s recent Omen Ex Simulacra, or Antigama’s cosmic crusher, Meteor.)

 
Manilla Road: Mysterium (Shadow Kingdom)

Guitarist and vocalist Mark ‘The Shark’ Shelton has been leading stalwart Manilla Road into battle since the late ’70s, and 2013’s Mysterium offered another bountiful harvest of the band’s tried and true traditional metal. It has to be said that Mysterium also featured the same rough-and-ready production issues that have bedevilled Manilla Road’s entire recording career thus far; but at this point, that’s all just part of the band’s expected charm.

Mysterium was a straight-down-the-line, hugely enjoyable gallop; sticking to the halcyon-days formula that Manilla Road gnaws on like a tenacious hellhound. A few tracks featured bites of balladry, but in the main, Mysterium provided what all the best Manilla Road albums have—an unshakeable old-school stance, built on riff-tastic fortifications. (See also: long-in-the-tooth Saxon, with Sacrifice, speedier Swede Enforcer, with Death by Fire, and Germany’s Stallion, with Mounting.)

 
Denouncement Pyre: Almighty Arcanum (Hells Headbangers)

Australian black/death metal trio Denouncement Pyre released its sophomore album, Almighty Arcanum, back in January 2013, and its audio violence was so vastly entertaining that it’s stuck around the top of my playlist ever since.

Denouncement Pyre plays to a rulebook written by the likes of Bathory, Marduk, and innumerable old-school German and South American henchmen. Black metal sat in the driving seat on Almighty Arcanum, while death metal provided plenty of navigational aid, and there were grisly and thrashing hooks aplenty to get snagged on. While you’d hardly call Almighty Arcanum refined, as such, it was exceptionally well produced, with the transitions from hellfire rhythms into inferno leads being clear and corrosive throughout. (See also: the works of Australian extreme metal citizens, with Portal’s Vexovoid, Temple Nightside’s Condemnation, Grave Upheaval’s Untitled, and Nocturnal Graves’s ...from the Bloodline of Cain.)

 
Sacriphyx: The Western Front (Nuclear War Now!)

Speaking of Australian metal, discovering death metal duo Sacriphyx this year was a true highlight. The band’s full-length debut, The Western Front, contained war metal par excellence, but it didn’t come with the usual sense of glorification. Sacriphyx’s lyrical themes circled the experiences of troops on the frontline, with the despair, horror, and slaughter being the narrative focus.

Sacriphyx threaded forlorn passages through rampart-thick riffs on The Western Front, and the album featured truly sublime songwriting. Merciless death metal onslaughts transformed into sweeping melodic epics, before diving back into the trenches with seamless expertise. Doom metal brought dramatic swells, black metal provided the gas-cloud chills, and thrashing dirges strafed the lot. The overall result put Sacriphyx into a class of its own, with the evocative imagery and sounds of The Western Front making for a formidable release. (See also: the hammering death and doom rumble of Coffins’ The Fleshland, and the battle-ready Hail of Bullets, with III: The Rommel Chronicles.)

 
Gris: À l’âme enflammée, l’äme constellée… (Sepulchral Productions)

Black metal’s never lacked artists short on self-confidence; see Dødsengel’s fantastic two-hour-plus Imperator from 2012. This year, it was the turn of Quebec-based black metal duo Gris to produce one of 2013’s grandest releases, with the band’s 80-minute symphony, À l’âme enflammée, l’äme constellée….

À l’âme enflammée, l’äme constellée… was a beautifully bleak release, mixing melancholic black metal with classical and folk instrumentation. The album was a hellish/heavenly affair, in that way that depressive black metal can be so majestic and cruel. Piercing shrieks and wrist-lacerating guitars nestled alongside elegant acoustics, all cradled in anguished passages, and À l’âme enflammée, l’äme constellée… was an album made for listening to in its entirety. If you’re of a mind to wallow in orchestral and atmospheric black metal, then Gris will certainly scour your soul, and fill it with desolate treasure. (See also: labelmates and Quebec comrades Sombres Forêts, with La Mort du Soleil, and Monarque, with Lys noir.)

 
Bölzer: Aura (Iron Bonehead)

Swiss duo Bölzer released a mesmerising EP with Aura this year. The titanic songs therein stand as a staggering achievement for the young band, and Aura’s combination of monolithic mass with captivating creativity was astounding.

Aura‘s three tracks were a seething roil of blackened death metal, with a slight avant-garde accent. Low-end grimness ensured the atmosphere was thick and sinister, while guitarist and vocalist KzR’s coiled frenetic riffs around glacial dissonance. Aura’s tremolo-heavy complexity brought plenty of mystical inflections too, with Bölzer tapping into something deeply prim(evil). With Aura, the band proved it’s entirely possible to retain death metal’s cavernous peril while searching outside the sub-genre for menacing inspiration. Based on the evidence here, Bölzer has all the potential to be one of death metal’s most innovative and important bands. (See also similarly adventurous pursuits on Mitochondrion’s Antinumerology, and Ulcerate’s Vermis.)

 
Ramlord: Crippled Minds, Sundered Wisdom (Hypaethral Records)

There are always times in life when music that channels our anger and provides catharsis becomes all the more important. Ramlord’s Crippled Minds, Sundered Wisdom is an album made for leaning on in hard times, and the band’s blackened d-beat, sludge, crust, and powerviolence is exactly the kind of noise needed to strengthen your resolve.

However, Ramlord didn’t just bolster the defenses on Crippled Minds, Sundered Wisdom this year. It was an album as horrific as the worst problems filling our screens every day, but in Ramlord’s grotesque depictions of a world in flames came the crucial sense that we are not alone in our own struggles. Crippled Minds, Sundered Wisdom powered up the determination, and handed out the armaments to combat life’s difficulties, and when Ramlord roared, it roared for every one of us raging against the world. (See also: Unkind’s Pelon Juuret, Enabler’s Flies, and LavaOvcum’s anarcho-grind on IRA.)

 
Magic Circle: Magic Circle (Armageddon)

The self-titled debut from Magic Circle was one of the finest underground doom albums this year. The five-piece band’s occult-reeking songs rang loud with Sabbathian weight, thickset traditional riffage, and vocal wailings—all of which sealed Magic Circle’s authentic temperament. 

It was somewhat surprising then to discover that Magic Circle didn’t feature the expected old-school tokers in its line-up, instead being formed by a bunch of Massachusetts hardcore thugs. Of course, in the end, it didn’t matter at all where Magic Circle came from, only where it was headed; and that was deep into the downtuned dungeons to conspire with demons and wizards. The band’s lumbering forays called to mind greats like Pagan Altar and Witchfinder General—with a flicker of NWOBHM to liven things up—and Magic Circle’s 100 percent classic doom should appeal to fans young and old. (See also: the excellent retro pursuits of Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats’ Mind Control, Kadavar’s Abra Kadavar, and Cauchemar’s Tenebrario.)

 
Fell Voices: Regnum Saturni

Label Gilead Media released four black metal albums that took different pathways to the netherworld this year, and all are recommended. Most recent of all was the misanthropic murk of second-wave worshipper Hexer, but earlier in the year Gilead Media released a stunning debut from UK-based experimental black metal band Lychgate, and a powerful new EP from Ash Borer.

Best of all was Fell Voices’ third full-length, Regnum Saturni. The album was an uncompromising artistic statement, with its lengthy feedback-soaked tracks seeing cyclones of elliptical black metal plummet into tunnels of noise and drone. Fell Voices maintained an intensity throughout that other bands could only dream of, and the fact that Regnum Saturni was recorded entirely live in the studio only increased the connection to the journeying the band undertook. Through pain we find strength, and Regnum Saturni was a brutal album loaded with transformative potential. (See also: three of the absolute finest avant-black metal exhibits of the year, with An Autumn for Crippled Children’s Try Not to Destroy Everything You Love, Spektr’s Cypher, or Altar of Plagues magnificent finale, Teethed Glory and Injury.)

 
Shallow Grave: Shallow Grave (Self-released)

A few weeks ago, I watched Shallow Grave deliver a mind-liquefying set that was somewhat akin to seeing Neurosis lock into a bulldozing groove while jamming with Khanate—all mixed at half-speed by Sunn O))). I wasn’t the only one in the crowd left speechless that night, and thankfully, Shallow Grave’s self-titled debut from this year captured much of that same energy.

Shallow Grave was an hour’s worth of amplified malevolence, where chemically fuelled and bastardized sludge hurled itself into the bowels of eternal damnation. The band mixed psychedelic undercurrents into its subterranean drawl, and the resulting low-low-low-end dirty drones could be measured on the Richter scale. Shallow Grave’s compositional depth registers at an 8.9 in magnitude, somewhere around the point where topography looks likely to be reshaped, and the structures of the mind are in danger of decimation. (See also: the magnificent cavernous lurch of Mosquito Control’s Destroyed Beyond Redemption.)

 
Horna: Askel Lähempänä Saatanaa (World Terror Committee)

Askel Lähempänä Saatanaa, the eighth full-length from long-running and black-hearted Finnish band Horna, isn’t its best work. However, the band has been plying the traditional black metal route since the early ’90s, and while guitarist Shatraug is the only original member left, Horna’s latest venture still managed to sound like it was recorded right around the time of the band’s debut.

For other bands, that refusal to budge might be an issue, but it’s Horna’s saving grace (although, obviously, any sense of ‘grace’ is entirely absent from the band). Askel Lähempänä Saatanaa contained plenty of the lo-fi raggedness, and while Shatraug has roles in many other bands, including Behexen and Sargeist, he still had fiery passion left in the tank for the album. Askel Lähempänä Saatanaa had a lot to offer with its quintessential crooked melodies and septic riffs—all delivered, obviously, with a church-burning grin. (See also: the vintage bitterness of Svartsyn’s Black Testament and Sonic Reign’s Monument in Black, as well as the lo-fi bite of Blackrat’s Whiskey and Blasphemy.)

Light Bearer: Silver Tongue (Halo of Flies)

Light Bearer was formed in 2010 as a means for band vocalist Alex Bradshaw to explore his Æsahættr Tetralogy narrative in musical from. His expansive atheist/anti-theist tale aims to dismantle doctrines that should have been “abandoned before the dark ages”, and while that’s a considerably mammoth goal, you can’t fault Light Bearer’s dedication to the task.

The band’s 2013 release, Silver Tongue, weaves philosophical radicalism through a theatrical mix of post-hardcore and ambient, sludge, and progressive metal. Multi-layered, with hymnal and hostile passages borne on fluctuating time changes, Silver Tongue saw mournful orchestral swells slam into fevered metal blasts. Vastly operatic in scope, Silver Tongue was 80 minutes of kaleidoscopic severity and serenity. It was a powerful and altogether impassioned declaration, with the album’s dynamism and zeal offering myriad colors, textures, and revolutionary ideas to explore. (See also: the progressive brilliance of Leprous’s Coal.)

 
Domovoyd: Oh Sensibility (Svart)

You’re spoilt for choice in picking a fantastic Svart records release in 2013, with great albums from the likes of Speedtrap, Goatess, Oranssi Pazuzu, Tombstoned, and Jess and the Ancient Ones. Any one of those is worthy of a bombastic word or two, but I’m going with Domovoyd, lest the quartet become lost in the crowd.

Domovoyd’s debut for Svart this year, Oh Sensibility, featured ’60s and ’70s psychedelia all smothered in the amp-melting miasma of Sleep or Electric Wizard. Giant lysergic riffs tumbled through sinsemilla fields on Oh Sensibility, but plenty of dark clouds gathered when Domovoyd dropped into reverb-ringing pits. What Domovoyd brought most to Oh Sensibility were long-form hikes into the hinterlands of cosmic doom, and for astral obsessives, Domovoyd’s rocket-riff voyages made for some of 2013’s trippiest. (See also: toke-friendly pursuits on Cathedral’s The Last Spire, Orchid’s The Mouths of Madness, and Kröwnn’s Hyborian Age demo.)

 
Äänipää: Through A Pre-Memory (Editions Mego)

In February 2014, a hugely anticipated collaboration between sound-explorer Ulver and earthshaking drone demon Sunn O))) is set to be released, but late in 2013 we were gifted an extraordinary collaboration between Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio and Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley via their Äänipää project.

Joining void-gazers Vainio and O’Malley on Äänipää’s Through a Pre-Memory were Khanate vocalist Alan Dubin (howling the musings of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova), Eyvind Kang (providing string arrangements), and Randall Dunn (handling the tape manipulations). Four tracks hovering around the 20-minute mark featured grim electronic and guitar treks, all set under a bitter canopy. Droning doom vibrated on the cellular level, programmed percussion pounded holes into the psyche, and Vaino and O’Malley’s minimalist menace ensured that Through a Pre-Memory dragged huge slabs of sound over fathomless glacial rhythms. (See also: Ulver’s Messe I.X-VI.X, Daniel Menche’s Vilke, and Kevin Drumm’s continued run of droning discord in 2013.)

 
Vassafor: Obsidian Codex (Parasitic Records)

Some albums are simply made to test your will, and Obsidian Codex is definitely one of those. The full-length debut from New Zealand’s Vassafor wasn’t for the faint of heart, and although it was technically released in December 2012, I’m sneaking it in here for good reason. Obsidian Codex was 90 minutes of hell on earth, all poured forth with the backlog of scorn of a band founded by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist VK back in 1997. It’s a masterwork of deeply ritualistic black metal, but due to the time of its release, it just didn’t see enough coverage in early 2013.

Obsidian Codex’s lengthy grinds across cratered doomscapes used whatever tools were necessary to smash the spirit. With a massively heavy and dense production, sombre tones shifted from creeping to crushing throughout, and the album’s musical execution was presented with an extraordinary degree of ferocious focus, something that never dropped one iota over Obsidian Codex’s running time. I couldn’t recommend Obsidian Codex highly enough. It’s punishing perfection. (See also: Sinistrous Diabolus’s long-awaited Total Doom//Desecration, and, looming on the horizon, Gesundrian, the upcoming full-length from doom cult luminary, Diocletian.)

 
Wormlust: The Feral Wisdom (Demonhood Productions/Daemon Worship)

In 2012, label Daemon Worship planted itself firmly on the map, releasing a raft of visceral and demented black metal, including one of the year’s very best albums in Svartidauði’s Flesh Cathedral. This year, the label released more antagonistic fare from the likes of Arfsynd and Perditor, but the album that impressed most was Wormlust’s debut, The Feral Wisdom.

The first full-length from the one-man Icelandic band saw psychedelic black metal propel The Feral Wisdom into a spine-chilling orbit. Much like the Kraut/space/black metal mix found on Oranssi Pazuzu’s Valonielu this year, Wormlust took bare-boned second-wave screeds and bound those tight with Hawkwindian and Tangerine Dream-like astral projections. The Feral Wisdom captured the chaos of the outer limits exceptionally well, and its left-field synth, ice-cold riffs, and blast-beat detonations ripped open the fabric of time, space and, most importantly of all, the mind. (See also: the black metal of Cosmic Church‘s Ylistys, A Pregnant Light’s Stars Will Fall, Zemial’s Nykta, and the Botanist’s most adventurous release yet, IV: Mandragora.)

 
Fister: Gemini (self-released)

Excellent releases from the likes of Sub Rosa, Uzala, and Batillus have all presented differing shades, shapes, and weights of doom this year. However, when it comes to dense and disgusting doom, Missouri sludge trio Fister served up some most putrid audio-torture with Gemini this year. 

Fister’s second full-length offered trauma-inducing songs, slathered in crust and injected with an overdose of sinister stoner rock. Think Eyehategod’s chaos and distortion combined with Buzzov•en’s indignation and you’ll get a sense of Fister’s baseline brew. Chugging guitar crawls were drowned in caustic feedback, while longer tracks presented Fister with an opportunity to lock the choke-holds on. With throat-scarring bellows, battering riffs, and intimidating levels of filthy punishment, Gemini contained perfectly sadistic tunes, for the masochist in all of us. (See also Batillus’s bruising Concrete Sustain, and the recent split release from Noothgrush and Coffins.)

 
Merkstave: Merkstave (Pesanta Urfolk)

The release of Merkstave’s self-titled full-length debut this year also marked the end of the band. The Oregon funeral doom collective featured members from groups such as Hell and Velnias, and had released two obscure demos before Merkstave mysteriously appeared in August this year. Recorded, produced, and mastered entirely in analog, the album featured three excruciatingly slow and disheartening tracks, and Merkstave was a devastatingly heavy reminder of our infinitesimally small place in the universe.

Merkstave’s voyage into the abyss saw bleak melodies bleed into voluminous drones, opening huge gulfs of sound for an immersive experience overall. It is, of course, a tragedy that Merkstave has gone after such a magnificent display of life-sapping doom on debut; but then, given the band set out to crush spirits, that situation couldn’t be more apt. (See also: the recent live release from Hell, Tour Through Hell, which collects 60 minutes of punishing dirges, and the upcoming split between Hell and Mizmor in January 2014.)

 
Aosoth: IV: An Arrow in Heart (Agonia)

Paris-based black metal trio Aosoth has yet to release an album that’s anything less than a demoniacal delight. And while I had my doubts that the band could better the unrepentant and unholy rite of 2011’s III: Violence and Variation, I was deliriously happy to have been proven wrong with Aosoth’s 2013 release, IV: An Arrow in Heart.

IV: An Arrow in Heart seethed with Satanic hostility as Aosoth deftly wielded its Mephistophelian melodies more potently than ever. The hallmarks of the band’s black metal traditionalism (intricate icy tremolo, and MkM’s howling Hades vocals) surged through blasphemous atmospherics, while clawing shifts in tempo on long-form, cyclical compositions wormed their way under the skin. IV: An Arrow in Heart was magnificently corruptive, and while it favored the past sonically, there wasn’t anything antiquated about its message. For Aosoth, Christianity is a plague to be wiped out, and the band committed to that goal with utter fervency. (See also: Gevurah’s EP, Necheshirion, and the wolf-pack ferocity of Arckanum’s Fenris Kindir.)

 
Anagnorisis: Beyond All Light (self-released)

Beyond All Light, the sophomore release from Kentucky-based Anagnorisis, was an album that set out on an epic journey, but maintained an intimate and introspective heart. Split into two parts, with each act featuring three mammoth songs, Beyond All Light offered 50 thunderous minutes of evocative black metal, with Anagnorisis’s classical influences ever present.

Anagnorisis mixed sweeping, symphonically styled black metal with a dash of death metal’s snarl on Beyond All Light. Drudkh or Agalloch would be reference points—at least in Anagnorisis’s ability to sculpt vast cinematic scenes. Beyond All Light featured saxophone, mandolin, violin, and varying folk instrumentation, all blended with dynamic tremolo picking, on the band’s mini-symphonies. Anagnorisis kept the overall ambience grand, but it launched into scorching sections of bleak black metal throughout, with the band melding a raft of influences into a unique vision. (See also: fascinating flavors of epic black metal including Lake of Blood’s Omnipotens Tyrannus, Thrawsunblat’s Thrawsunblat II: Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings, Skagos’s Anarchic, Caladan Brood’s Echoes of Battle, and Cnoc An Tursa’s The Giants of Auld.)

 
Torture Chain: Mutilating Astral Entities

Since 2008, US black metal enigma Torture Chain has released a demo a year building up to the (one-man) band’s ‘official’ debut on 2013’s Mutilating Astral Entities. Like a lot of Torture Chain’s lo-fi, sawtoothed, and punk-informed kin, the line between demo and debut is exceedingly thin, and Mutilating Astral Entities certainly continued Torture Chain’s reign of releasing impressively hideous and toxic noise.

Mutilating Astral Entities contained that very same element that has made the work of punk/black metal hybrid Bone Awl and sludge/doom miscreant Hell so enjoyable—namely, a fiercely underground DIY disposition. Mutilating Astral Entities featured torrents of black metal dunked in vats of boiling acid, with guitars corrosively slashing on an album that teetered on the edge of collapsing into a vortex throughout. If the notion of black metal’s end times celebrations wrapped in a bloody punk rock cowl sounds attractive, then Mutilating Astral Entities is exactly the kind of ugly, shrieking, and macabre album you’ve been waiting for. (See also: the existential punk/metal worship on Raspberry Bulbs’ extremely enjoyable Deformed Worship.)

Thou Art Lord: The Regal Pulse of Lucifer (Nuclear War Now!)

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.)

 
Dressed In Streams: Dressed In Streams (Handmade Birds)

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: Blood Becomes Fire (Destroy)

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.)

 
Cult of Fire: मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान (Iron Bonehead)

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.)

 
Arnaut Pavle: Arnaut Pavle (Vlad Tapes/Fallen Empire)

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.)

 
Agrimonia: Rites of Separation (Southern Lord)

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.)

 
Inquisition: Obscure Verses for the Multiverse (Season of Mist)

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.)

 
Noisem: Agony Defined (A389)

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.)

 
Kongh: Sole Creation (Agonia)

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.)

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.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/176883-ragnaroek-2013-gloomy-awards/