Ragnarök: 2013 Gloomy Awards: The Most Interesting Metal Albums of 2013
Every year a slew of great albums from the louder spheres are missed, misplaced, or overlooked on those end of year lists. Ragnarök's Gloomy Awards seeks to redress that imbalance.
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)