MetalMatters: The Best Metal Albums of December 2023

In best metal albums, Nothing and Full of Hell complete their unio oppositorum, Panopticon drive Appalachian folk through black metal and Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze decimate all.

At the buzzer, December brought in a strong end to an excellent year of releases. Death metal still reigns supreme, with Cryptworm dwelling into the sludge of the old-school, while Phobocosm take a more modern approach with their dissonant applications. And the heavier side shines further, with Abyssal Rift and Dwelling Below both slowing down the pace and indulging in some doom goodness. 

Similarly, the various facets of black metal do not disappoint. From the dark corners of the Portuguese underground, Ginnungagap unleash their lo-fi, raw, and yet meticulously crafted debut, while Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze set the stage (and the world) ablaze with their unapologetic stampede of a record in The Fractal Ouroboros. Underdark continue to improve on their post-black metal vision, while Suicide Circle stand on the side of tradition. Of course, Panopticon return with another masterful tour de force of atmospheric, folk-inspired, blackened goodness! That and much more, so dig in! – Spyros Stasis

Abyssal Rift – Extirpation Dirge (Sentient Ruin)

The solo project of Matt Auxier, mostly known for his industrial project Ash Prison, could not be your run-of-the-mill death metal, could it? Indeed, on the surface, Abyssal Rift go through the ringer with their debut in Extirpation Dirge. The early days of Autopsy are revered as “The Plague” kicks in the door. The schizoid lead work points to the early days of Slayer and the Possessed lineage, while the guttural vocal delivery channels Chris Reifert. The animalistic tendencies display a kinship with Immolation in “The Scourge,” while the infernal, slow-paced quality of “The Mourning” does not shy away from its admiration for Incantation.

It is in the latter, slow-paced, doom-infused style that Abyssal Rift thrive. It is a dimensional door that allows Auxier to play with more disparate ideas. Sure, the dISEMBOWELMENT admiration channels the extreme side of doom/death, but it is the further eerie inclusions that set it apart. The funeral perspective comes with a blackened twist, as the second half of “The Rune” suggests. It is there that the doors to psychedelia open up, as slight tinges further construct a dense and asphyxiating ambiance. “The Magister” sees this completely unraveling, as progressive elements and cinematic aspirations set it apart. The slithering bass line and the horror-informed procession create an otherworldly experience, further establishing that Extirpation Dirge drives down its own lane. – Spyros Stasis

Among the Rocks and Roots – Pariah (Cacophonous Revival)

There has always been an epic perspective for Among the Rocks and Roots. The overarching, experimental duo has meticulously crafted two exquisite works in their debut, Samudra Garda Pathe and their exquisite sophomore Raga. They carry on this tradition with Pariah, the conclusion of a trilogy, which further highlights their vision of experimental and forward-thinking music. The duo are masters of coalescing sounds and themes across different genres in a cohesive and exhilarating result. The ambient leanings travel far and wide, from the drone descents of the opener to the inclusion of violin and contemporary classical elements, all the way to the folk suggestions of “Love” and jazzy infusions with the ending of “Pariah”. They even contort a heavy, more decadent trip-hop motif to fit their atmospheric needs.

This is just one facade, however, as the duo travels into heavier territory. Here, they are defined at times by a tribal element. The percussion takes over and morphs into a disfigured Godflesh-like motif. At other times, it is the post-rock grandeur and overwhelm that prevails, as is the case with the Godspeed You! Black Emperor invocations in “Triumph”. But, where they feel most comfortable is within a noise rock, by way of no-wave, setting. The Swans-ian methodology delivers the goods in “III” while the free rock improvisations of the opener feel only natural. It makes Pariah a wonderful successor to the exquisite Raga, and it showcases all the potency and bravery of Among the Rocks and Roots. – Spyros Stasis 

Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze – The Fractal Ouroboros (Independent/Fiadh)

For anticapitalist, antifascist bands like Colorado’s trio Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze, their political and ideological discourse is not just a convenient companion to the music but a vital narrative that frames everything else. It’s unsurprising, then, that their sophomore release, The Fractal Ouroboros, unfolds almost like a treatise—”a brief on occult liberation in seven parts”, as the band put it—encircling bits of absolutely buzzing, gut-wrenching, and heart-breaking black metal with passages of somber spoken word and post-rock like ambiance. As such, the album is best listened to and understood as a whole by letting it absorb and devour you. All the suppressed dilemmas and cognitive dissonance of failing capitalist societies and the reality of a fast-approaching climate collapse are brought front and center until they can no longer be ignored. Another devastating statement by a unique group. – Antonio Poscic 

Cryptworm – Oozing Radioactive Vomition (Me Saco Un Ojo)

When I wrote about Cryptworm’s debut, Spewing Mephitic Putridity, in March 2022, I described the Bristolian outfit’s music as “a slimy, filthy, and utterly malevolent sort of death metal.” Aside from a few lineup changes–drummer Jamie Wintle replaces Joe Knight, bassist Joss Farrington makes his first official appearance—the band’s basic formula has luckily not been altered. The music is still as brutal and gnarly as ever. Imagine Suffocation meeting Cannibal Corpse and early Carcass for some wild fun in a club hidden deep within labyrinthine catacombs, neighboring decrepit ossuaries, and oozy sewer pipes. Regardless of whether entertaining slower, groovier cuts like “Necrophagous (Postmortal Devourment)” or slithering, spiraling, and ripping like a coked out sewer alligator on “Miasmatic Foetid Odour” and “Engulfed by Gurgling Purge Fluids”, Oozing Radioactive Vomition is a demonstration of supremely disgusting yet oh so yummy death metal. – Antonio Poscic 

Dwelling Bellow – Dwelling Bellow (Transcending Obscurity)

Guitarist Nicholas Turner and drummer Jared Moran of avant-death metallers extraordinaire Acausal Intrusion—check out the stunning Panpsychism if you haven’t already—join bassist Nathan Wheeler to create the most intense and dissonant vision of doom-death metal imaginable. The four lengthy, meandering tracks on their self-titled debut trace an irresistible back-and-forth between eerie post-metal atmospherics and crushing, utterly brutal trampling of doom and death. The music is at once nimble as a cheetah and massive as a mammoth, maintaining a towering, awe-inspiring poise even as its flesh falls apart and disentangles in one moment, only to mount a sharp, inescapable attack in the next. While the tracks alternate between doom (“Swallowed”) and death (“Sheltered Acceptance”) inclined shapes, the overarching mood consistently encompasses imminent collapse and despair. – Antonio Poscic 

Full of Hell / Nothing – When No Birds Sang (Closed Casket Activities)

Sure tempos might not be on the same pace, and views of heavy music diverge, but it is difficult to argue that a common point of view does not exist between Full of Hell and Nothing. The first’s noise integration in powerviolence and the latter’s invocation of heavy shoegaze form this common thread. The result is When No Birds Sang, a collaborative work that pushes and pulls between two sides. Take “Like Stars In The Firmament,” a track that at first feels solely like Nothing’s work. But, as the track progresses, the meanness of Full of Hell gives a further push. Spikey noise joins, but it never goes over the top.

Similarly, Nothing and Full of Hell balance between different takes on ambiance. “Wild Blue” sees a restrained approach, moving away from the standard rock instrumentation. On the other hand, Full of Hell take the lead on the latter part of the opening track, building on top of the heavy atmospherics with their power electronics injection. However, where this record shines is when these two bodies align. The industrial and electronic take in “Forever Well” sees the dreamy aspect being infused with a grind-derived identity.

Even more so is the case with the epic closer and the record’s highlight, “Spend the Grace”. It is a remarkable opus that balances between the heavy melancholy of Nothing and the nihilistic perspective of Full of Hell. Even though the overall structure works and Whne No Birds Sang takes its time and showcases the various sides of both acts, it is the potency of these moments that pushes it over the edge. It would be interesting to see if this is something they revisit. – Spyros Stasis

Ginnungagap – Helical Arising (Signal Rex) 

A member of the Portuguese black metal underground, the mysterious Aldebaran cycle, Ginnungangap are releasing their debut record, Heliacal Arising. Like many of the other acts in their cycle, Ginnungangap derive their black metal from the Scandinavian tradition, something obvious from the kickoff. They further rely on the awkward, primal, and repetitive beatdown, a minimalistic approach that brings dark angst to the forefront with the title track and “Perpetual Winter Reign.”

As Helical Arising unfolds, there is the influence of one particular act that stands out. The early-day guidance of Emperor is pivotal, allowing for a majestic approach to infuse the black metal foundation. “Majestic Throne In The Sky” shows as much, and once the inclusions of the synths and strings join in, the procession feels complete. It is an extensive palette that they call upon in the likes of “Mysteries of the Primordial Moon” and “Polar Solitude III,” and it also opens up additional pathways. The pensive tone of “Herminius Mons” and the downtrodden quality of “Forest of Hyperborean Evil” display a reclusive form.

Similarly, the otherworldly ambiance of the former brings in an unsettling and otherworldly effect before the minimalistic black metal of “Helical Arising” lays waste to all. It ends up making Ginnungangap’s debut a very interesting and torn record. At times, it feels raw and uncompromising, and yet beneath the surface, it appears to be more refined and fine-tuned. – Spyros Stasis

Inculter – Morbid Origin (Edged Circle)

Norway is known for its black metal, obviously, but in recent years, it has also been the home for a very interesting rejuvenation of thrash metal. Do not get the wrong idea; this is not just about the black/thrash that acts like Aura Noir ushered in, but rather a more traditional take on the genre. Case in point, Inculter, the Fusa-based act that turns back the clock to the 1980s with their third full-length, Morbin Origin. The ferocity of “Death Reigns” signals this onslaught, the progression and lead work all pointing towards giants of trash. The pristine guitar sound points to Metallica, with that crisp sound cutting through steel in “Chained to the Void” and “Perennial Slaves”. 

There is still room for Inculter to wiggle, at times calling upon an epic facade. The mid-tempo approach of the title track showcases this methodology, even reaching towards a doom aesthetic and a slight Black Sabbath-style injection. They are also able to traverse outside of the US thrash scene, invoking the early days brutal progression of Sepultura with “Children of Demise”, or the mean streak of Kreator with “Extinction”. They even traverse further back in time, relishing some of the traditional aspects of metal.

The NWOBHM influence in the lead work is undeniable, shining both in “Extinction” and in particular through the solo work in “Age of Reprisal”. While in many ways Inculter rely on a sense of nostalgia, their composition and execution are no mere rehash. They are true to thrash’s origin, so what they do not fulfill in originality, they make up in passion and love for the genre. – Spyros Stasis

Panopticon – The Rime of Memory (Bindrune)

Panopticon’s style of fusing American folk with atmospheric black metal produced more than a few bands that tried to copy their style, but none ever came close to the sublime appeal, poetic sensibilities, and delicate world-building style of the original. With The Rime of Memory, multi-instrumentalist Austin Lunn continues a string of albums that nourish a primordial beauty, where folk music and black metal don’t coexist as separate concepts—one burdened by the other—but instead mesh into a singular entity. This is a lengthy album that nonetheless feels featherweight as each second and passage is necessary and earned, with furious black metal attacks that burn bright like signal fires emerging from the most gorgeous fiddle phrases and mountainous swirls of Appalachian folk. – Antonio Poscic

Phobocosm – Foreordained (Dark Descent)

Having released their last full-length, Bringer of Drought, in 2016, it has been a minute for Phobocosm. During that time, the Canadian death metal act displayed a darker approach, bringing them closer to the likes of Portal. Their return in Foreordained refocuses them towards their other major influences in the modern interpretations of Immolation. Some of the more straightforward death metal parts, in the beatdowns of “Informorph” and the blastbeats in “Revival”, suggest a further dedication to this traditional take of infernal death metal. 

On one hand, Phobocosm are very comfortable in turning down the pace and moving into a doom/death space, something that is undeniable with the introduction of “Premonition”. The early invocations of Incantation and the esoteric moments of Dead Congregation rise through the abyss before chaos ensues. In this mold, they find the space to explore the volatile black/death of Ulcerate, stellar in the kickoff of “Prima Dread”.

The bizarre rhythmic structure and vicious demeanor are dead giveaways, while the inharmonicity further establishes this kinship. Especially in the likes of “For An Aeon”, Phobocosm go full throttle on the discordant quality, letting in this damned, slithering progression. It is a cohesive result, making Foreordained a very well-designed and executed modern death metal record, even though it does not necessarily break new ground. – Spyros Stasis

Suicide Circle – Bukkake of Souls (Osmose)

A prominent figure in the French black metal scene, Meyhna’ch is most known for his original solo project Mütiilation. Through the years, he has participated in several black metal acts, most famously being the vocalist of Hell Militia until 2013, but he has been most active in the 2020s through his Suicide Circle project. Their 2021 debut, Shotgun Stories, was a brutal offering of decadent black metal. The combination of the genre’s traditional songwriting with an unspeakably harsh guitar sound was excruciating. However, the sophomore full-length, Bukkake of Souls, makes many changes.

The Scandinavian influence is still strong, the trademark riffing defining tracks like “The Highest Spheres”, while the manic progression of the title track reveals this relentless streak. However, there is a further descent into the grand and majestic aspects. Do not expect full-on synthesizers or anything of that sort. Instead, Suicide Circle drop the pace in the likes of “The Star Spawn”, enhancing the track with a catchier tempo, even resembling the likes of Slagmaur, especially in “For Nothing”.

It even gets to a point when the whole endeavor takes doom characteristics, as the second half of the title track and the aptly named “Prince of Darkness” suggest. It further enhances the atmospheric aspects of the work, the industrial-inspired moments of “The Highest Spheres”, the inverse ecclesiastical ambiance of “The Advent” or the martial progression of “Any of You”. It is an interesting new chapter for Suicide Circle, and it is worth your attention. – Spyros Stasis

Underdark – Managed Decline (Church Road)

Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze, Panopticon… Underdark! It makes sense to round off this month’s triptych of Red and Anarchist Black Metal with Nottingham’s Underdark. While I appreciated the group’s 2021 debut, Our Bodies Burned Bright on Re-Entry, predominantly on the strength of their ideas and promise—both lyrical and musical—Managed Decline sees that potential come to fruition. It’s a better release in almost every way, from the purposefulness of the songwriting to a welcome flair in the playing, but above all else, the album is elevated by a sense of urgency and the presence of earnest fire in its belly. The songs finally feel real and lived in, informed by a palpable pain and desire to fight for a better and more humane tomorrow, as they frantically switch from bouts of skull-crushing black metal furor to post-hardcore’s melodic cries. Critical stuff. – Antonio Poscic