Top 10 Metal Albums of 2013

Top 10 Metal Albums of 2013

by Connor Brown and Jeff Terich; photo by Saul Torres

For each of the past four or five years — maybe longer — it’s been tempting to say that metal has achieved a new peak. And in each instance, it may very well be true. Don’t mistake that as irreverence toward the classics; Reign In Blood and Paranoid and British Steel and Transilvanian Hunger and Jane Doe are all well embedded in the pantheon. But metal has expanded and been molded, shaped and reinvented so many times that the possibilities of what heavy music can be span well beyond what one single listener can conceive. And the listening experience is that much richer for it. This year, our selections for the best metal albums of the year have one thing in common — they don’t adhere to any traditional definition of metal. The closest would probably be death metal titans Carcass, but in 1993, their melodic death metal masterwork Heartwork divided some fans as well, reminding us that every generation has its groundbreaking acts and iconoclasts. Metal has always been about challenging conventions and pushing extremes, and these 10 albums certainly did that. They also rocked like hell. Enjoy our list of the Top 10 Metal Albums of 2013.

Carcass - Surgical Steel10. CarcassSurgical Steel (Nuclear Blast)
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Carcass has been around long enough to make you do a double-take at seeing them here, but we are pleased to inform you that Surgical Steel more than lives up to its ranking. This record is a case-in-point for why it is foolish to reflexively write off musicians decades into their career, because it may very well be one of the best that Carcass has ever recorded. Seriously. The title, Surgical Steel, is a typically suggestive metal phrase, but it is also more than that: an accurate description of the music on the album. If “steel” represents the downright heaviness of these tracks, then “surgical” can only describe the incredible precision of Carcass’ instrumentation in their slightly advanced age. Last I checked, advancing a few more years doesn’t necessarily hinder your ability to play guitar, and if you don’t believe me then Bill Steer would like a word with you. – CB


Oranssi Pazuzu9. Oranssi PazuzuValonielu (20 Buck Spin)
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As we pointed out in our initial review of Valonielu, Scandanavia seems to produce quality metal artists at a truly disproportionate rate. This year, while Kvelertak was working on some “black n’ roll” over in Norway, Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu found inspiration in less traditional rock sounds, i.e. psychedelia. Similar to Nachtmystium’s Silencing Machine last year, the psychedelic black metal of Valonielu is utterly terrifying and awe-inspiring in equal measure. But Oranssi Pazuzu goes even further than Nachtmystium in flaunting their psychedelic influences, crafting long-form compositions (particularly notable is the 15-minute closer, “Ympyrä on viiva tomussa”) that recall Can more than Mayhem. In a year where so many ambitious artists broke out (Deafheaven, Inter Arma, etc.), this album simultaneously fits the bill and throws the bill out altogether. Take heed, and keep an eye on Finland. – CB


In Solitude - Sister8. In SolitudeSister (Metal Blade)
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After a low-profile debut released in 2008, In Solitude came into their own in 2011 with the dynamic, powerful The World. The Flesh. The Devil., a vintage-sounding heavy metal album that leaned heavily on the influence of Mercyful Fate. For me, that was all I needed to hear to decide that the Swedish group was one of my favorite new metal bands. But with third album Sister, In Solitude have surpassed that sophomore triumph, building on the classic metal sound of their first two records with a gothic/post-punk influence that shed new light (or darkness?) on their songwriting abilities. The band still excels at riff-heavy anthems such as “Death Knows Where,” but when delving into stylistic variants like the opening goth-unplugged ballad “He Comes,” or the Disintegration-through-Marshall stacks thunder of “Pallid Hands,” In Solitude offer a more complex, sophisticated sonic experience. With Sister, a great band grew even better. – JT


SubRosa - More Constant than the gods7. SubRosaMore Constant Than the Gods (Profound Lore)
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Doom metal comes in a few varieties — bleak, epic, droning or caked in decades of bong resin. But it’s not as often that its sprawling darkness is made breathtakingly gorgeous, or even — wait for it — catchy. Salt Lake City’s SubRosa, however, aren’t just about creating atmosphere, they’re writing honest-to-goodness melodies that transcend genre or aesthetic. The first three minutes of “The Usher,” the first track on new album More Constant Than the Gods, doesn’t even really sound like a metal song. It slowly creeps and moans, not a glimpse of distorted guitar in sight. And when it finally picks up, a rush of volume and power may very well take over, but the strong melodic core remains, and only grows stronger through the duration of the album. The band offers up slow-motion grooves on “Ghosts of a Dead Empire,” a Nick Cave-inspired gothic stomp on “Cosey Mo,” and a sickeningly terrifying psychedelia on “Affliction.” If there’s a limit to what you can do with doom metal, SubRosa haven’t found it yet. – JT


Castevet - Obsian6. CastevetObsian (Profound Lore)
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Someone had to combine prog-rock, post-hardcore and black metal eventually — you can find plenty of combinations of at least two of those three — but even in the abstract, that mixture never seems as interesting as New York’s Castevet makes it. The trio, which now features new bassist Nick McMaster of Krallice, builds on the breathtaking dynamics of their debut album Mounds of Ash to deliver a massive, intricate opus on Obsian. The power is still there, of course; guitarist/vocalist Andrew Hock still feels like a one-man tornado ripping through structures to create a storm of dazzling debris. But there’s a stronger concentration on feats of musical acrobatics, be it on the graceful dissonance of “The Curve,” or the rhythmic tumbling act of “As Fathomed by Beggars and Victims.” Every time I listen to this album I hear something new, and five to ten years from now, that may very well still be the case. – JT


Kvelertak - Meir5. KvelertakMeir (Roadrunner)
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Many of the records on this list achieved excellence due to their bold experiments in atmosphere, style, and songwriting. In the meantime, Norway’s Kvelertak opted for a very different experiment of their own: more rock. To say that Meir (“more”) succeeds in this mission and lives up to its name is an understatement, which is why we’ve done it justice by ranking it among the best metal albums of the year. With Kurt Ballou behind the boards again, ‘tak expands their palette of sounds (just listen to the QOTSA-on-steroids romp of “Bruane Brenn”) without losing any of their intensity (“Trepan” should evince that rather well) or anything at all, for that matter. Yeah, I have to agree with Kvelertak here: more is better. – CB


Altar of Plagues - Teethed Glory and Injury4. Altar of PlaguesTeethed Glory and Injury (Profound Lore)
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As you read this, Altar of Plagues is no longer a band, having announced their dissolution just months after the release of what turned out to be their best album. It’s a shame, but it’s also a hell of a way to go out. The Irish black metal band never adhered too closely to black metal orthodoxy, and on their swan song, they obliterated boundaries altogether. It’s as much an electronic album as a metal one, and as much post-rock as electronic. There are elements of shoegaze and industrial, and at few points does the band ever commit to one narrow definition of what metal is. That’s to be expected from a group of musicians who rank artists like Björk, Kate Bush and John Coltrane as being as influential on their sound as Darkthrone or Emperor. And the exploration on the album reflects that diversity, from the dark drone of “Mills” to the gothic pulses of “A Body Shrouded,” on up to the black metal reconstruction of “Reflection Pulse Remains.” If the book on Altar of Plagues had to close, then at least it ended in triumph. – JT


KEN Mode - Entrench3. KEN ModeEntrench (Season of Mist)
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If you want brutal, KEN Mode is here to oblige you. With Deafheaven and Inter Arma above them on this list, one might be tempted to assume that KEN Mode do not offer something as fresh on their fifth release, Entrench. Instead of giving into that temptation, we recommend that you just spin Entrench; what you’ll find is a truly stunning clinic in metal-by-noise-rock (one that rivals even Converge in intensity). With appropriately heavy track titles – “The Terror Pulse,” “No; I’m In Control,” “Your Heartwarming Story Makes Me Sick” – the Winnipeg trio tear through eleven tracks (even offering some friendly advice along the way in “Why Don’t You Just Quit?”) with punk weight, harrowing force, and acidic wit. What more could you ask for in a metal album?- CB


Inter Arma - Sky Burial2. Inter ArmaSky Burial (Relapse)
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With all due respect to Sunbather, the most unclassifiable metal record released this year came from the East (not the West) coast in the form of Inter Arma’s Sky Burial. This quintet from Richmond had already made a significant statement to the metal world with their debut, Sundown, but Sky Burial is an animal of much greater ambition. With a liberal fusion of several different types of metal, Inter Arma can absolutely bring the noise – which they do on standout opener “The Survival Fires” – but perhaps the most striking thing about Sky Burial is its overall amorphousness. Instead of committing to a consistent heavy assault, Inter Arma opts for a more experimental approach, i.e. metal-by-Brian Eno. The resultant balance, along with top-notch compositions throughout, marks Sky Burial as an easy choice for this spot. – CB


Deafheaven - Sunbather1. DeafheavenSunbather (Deathwish Inc.)
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The increasingly popular trend of bands playing their classic albums live, front to back, is an idea built on nostalgia. The more familiar an audience is with an album, the greater the reward for hearing it performed as a piece. But it’s rare that a band would apply the idea to one of their new albums — without the familiarity, something is lost in the experience. Deafheaven’s Sunbather was only out for two months when the band made a tour stop in San Diego, but without announcement or fanfare, the album itself became the setlist — a seamless, powerful sequence of music made stronger through their thematic connective tissues. Sunbather, the San Francisco band’s second album, is actually pretty spectacular on a song-by-song basis, but as a whole, it’s a singular experience. Building on 2011′s Roads to Judah, Deafheaven didn’t just take their sound to a new level — they took it to a new world. George Clarke’s throat-shredding vocals still carry the menace of classic black metal, and drummer Daniel Tracy does dive into a blast-beat at the album’s most blistering moments, but Sunbather encompasses a vast mixture of sounds and textures. Ultimately, Sunbather is a compilation of transcendent moments: the triumphant shoegaze march of “Dream House”; the psychedelic riff that opens “Vertigo”; the dreamy, almost Built to Spill-like outro of “The Pecan Tree.” These moments all form a lengthy chain that guides the listener from the album’s adrenaline-pumping beginning to its exhilarating end. Deafheaven put everything they’ve got into this majestic statement of a record, and it shows. Metal album of the year? Absolutely — and then some. – JT