Every year when I start putting together my list of candidates for the best metal albums of the year, I find myself asking some familiar questions: Is a record I listen to and enjoy more inherently better than one that’s, for instance, more ambitious? When does it make sense to include hardcore and noise rock? And what about a really pretty album with growling on it? You’ll find that in my ranking of the best metal albums of 2023, I generally found favorable answers to these questions, though not always. It typically comes down to gut feeling, something that simply makes sense in the moment. There are artists who challenge these assumptions all the time, like The Armed, who made my 2021 list but whose latest album—which I very much enjoy!—isn’t on this one, simply because it didn’t feel metal enough. Similar cases can be made for bands like Sprain and Flooding, which you’d find on my overall best albums list, but however noisy and intense their music might be just didn’t quite make sense on a list of metal albums. That said, they’re awesome and you should listen to them anyway.
I’d be lying if I said this list wasn’t highly personal to me—I’ve been compiling these for over a decade and the number keeps creeping up from 10 to 20 to 25 and now, for a couple years, 30. These are the albums that bowled me over and continue to resonate—some of which I anticipate getting something new out of for months or even years to come. These are the best metal albums of 2023—play ’em loud.
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30. Thin – Dusk
There’s something invigorating about a band that can muster up a level of intensity such that enduring just 14 minutes of it begins to test the listener’s limits. New York mathgrind outfit Thin make the most of those 14 minutes with a series of songs that veer between ominous warnings and violent outbursts, nimble instrumentation and musicality that suggests a whole world of possibilities beyond speed and brutality. From the opening roar of “Bastard” to the noise-rock screeches of “Den” and the more melodic screamo surge of “Liminal,” Thin offer a staggering range without ever coming anywhere near overstaying their welcome. Last year I named a grindcore album as my metal album of the year, so this is squarely in my wheelhouse, but most bands in the genre stack their albums 20 songs deep. Thin leave you wanting another 14 minutes or more, just when you’re able to find your footing.
29. Auralayer – Thousand Petals
While it’s true of all forms of metal, it’s particularly tricky (and sticky) to attempt to break new ground with stoner metal. I’m not even sure that’s the point, really—Sabbath nailed it in 1971 with Master of Reality and every driver of a custom van with an airbrushed wizard mural on the side wouldn’t have it any other way. South Carolina’s Auralayer have the tropes down pat, but they’re not load-bearing. The band’s groove is ever-shifting, their riffs both hedonistic and aggressive, and all it takes is one listen to Thousand Petals opening track “The Lake” to hear just how much damage the trio’s capable of. Engineered by Kylesa’s Philip Cope, Auralayer’s debut carries more than a little of that now-defunct Savannah band’s psychedelic sludge spiral within this eclectic and endlessly fun set of songs, from the vintage psych rock of “Shelf Life” to the atmospheric boogie of “Peacemonger” and the rusty cage rattling closer “Monstrum.”
28. The Night Eternal – Fatale
The Night Eternal will probably remind you of another metal band you love, perhaps the greatly missed post-punk-meets-trad-metal group In Solitude or the more recent gloom reapers in Unto Others, in spirit if not always in musical palette. But Fatale, the German group’s sophomore album, is the strongest hybrid of gothic rock and traditional heavy metal I’ve heard this year—and that’s a field that’s been growing steadily over the past decade. Fatale finds the band riding a unique balance between darkness and flamboyance, their over-the-top overtures underscored by a cloak of shadows. The riffs are on point and the energy is unrelenting, but it’s the craftsmanship of their songs that makes them stand apart, as they intertwine threads of hell-bent-for-leather hesherdom and nocturnal mystique on standouts like “Ionean Sea.”
27. Boris & Uniform – Bright New Disease
In the three years since they last appeared on my annual best-metal list, Boris have released five albums, including a Merzbow collab, a Wata-led ambient pop album and the third installment of their Heavy Rocks series. Their commitment to continued creative exploration and simply nonstop creation is both admirable and seemingly insatiable, but it’s when they release something as immediate as Bright New Disease that they’re often at their most rewarding. Pairing up with prior tourmates Uniform for a set of thrashy rippers, industrial-rock grooves and occasional forays into drone and doom, Boris and their creative partners provide a reminder that heavy music is often at its best when it aims for no-frills, adrenaline-surge fun.
26. Adzes – Inver
Adzes first caught my attention with 2020’s No One Wants to Speak About It, a dark, industrial-tinged sludge metal album that paired a fairly pessimistic outlook with Godflesh-style machine-grind. Its follow-up, Inver, is a prettier and more accessible album, balancing moments of brawny guitar roar with passages of post-rock grace and post-hardcore dynamics. Adzes explore greater swaths of space on Inver, maintaining a raw heaviness as an anchor even while the melodies and textures feel less tied to more conventional metal tropes, drifting into the upper stratosphere on “Strange Warmth of Decay” or riding a serpentine groove on “Rainhammer.”
25. Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean – Obsession Destruction
It’s somewhat endearing that Massachusetts sludge outfit Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean wear their influences on their sleeves, drawing a name from a Thou song and paying homage to the likes of Clutch and Soundgarden with their merch. Which doesn’t quite do justice to the fact that they’ve created some of the year’s most refreshing sludge—and for the record I love how oxymoronic that looks on paper. Theirs is a spectacular hybrid of graceful melancholy, sludgy groove and caustic riffs, adept at wallowing in the murk and the mire while often transcending it, stretching their sound to triumphant heights on standout moments like “Ten Thousand Years of Unending Failure.” Though this is only the band’s second album, arriving six years after their debut, their growth is on full display, a document of a band stepping well beyond the shadow of their influences.
24. Dryad – The Abyssal Plain
Iowa City black metal rippers Dryad spin thematic threads and visual aesthetics from something as potentially unknowable and harrowing as hell itself—the depths of the sea. They’re hardly the first to do so—and it was nearly 20 years ago that a Moby Dick-inspired sludge metal album brought about something of a, erm, sea change in metal coverage—but their crusty, blistering sophomore album The Abyssal Plain is more of a relentless gallop than a vertiginous plunge. These 35 minutes are among the most searing and direct of any black metal record this year; more importantly, they’re highly effective. Dryad don’t let a single moment go to waste, whether they’re bashing away or steeped in a swirl of gothic ambience.
23. Tribunal – The Weight of Remembrance
One of the most promising doom metal debuts this year, and indeed one of the strongest debuts in any corner of metal, belonged to Vancouver’s Tribunal. Gothic and ornate, crafted with a genuine appreciation for the more beautiful aspects of metal, The Weight of Remembrance emerged as an early winter standout, flecked with snow and melted candle wax. Soren Morne and Etienne Finn are stunning foils, gorgeous clean vocals juxtaposed against deeper growls, grounded by haunting minor key melodies and a finely honed songwriting sensibility. With just their first album, Tribunal sound seasoned, achieving a kind of effortlessness that can take most bands many years and many albums to reach.
22. Drain – Living Proof
This year brought out some of the best in progressive, conceptual, avant garde metal, and it also gave us straight-to-the-dome, no bullshit bashers in equal measure. Drain’s sophomore album Living Proof is the latter, a chugging hardcore/crossover thrash record that takes Converge’s self-deprecating badge of being “hardcore kids with leftover Slayer riffs” and turns it into a badge of pride. There’s no better compliment I can give this album than that it’s endlessly fun and infinitely replayable, a raw and immediate drunk-at-the-beach hardcore record for getting loud and weird in conspicuous places.
21. Lamp of Murmuur – Saturnian Bloodstorm
Los Angeles’ Lamp of Murmuur seemingly called to me like a siren’s song in 2021 with Submission and Slavery, an outstanding hybrid of gothic rock and black metal that suggested stellar things to come from this enigmatic artist. That Lamp of Murmuur’s central musician and songwriter M. mostly moved away from deathrock with Saturnian Bloodstorm initially seemed like cause for disappointment, but it more than makes up for that diminished element through a set of epic and focused black metal with attractively ghoulish overtones. With a boost in production values and a punchier presence of both guitar and drums, Saturnian Bloodstorm perhaps polishes away some of the DIY charm but instead showcases just how badass these songs really are.
20. Dream Unending/Worm – Starpath
Under ordinary circumstances, two bands responsible for some of the best metal of 2022 taking a victory lap on a full-length split into progressive metal nebulae probably wouldn’t be enough to land a best-of-year slot. Starpath is, however, anything but ordinary. If Dream Unending have proven anything with their two full-length albums, Tide Turns Eternal and Song of Salvation, it’s that they’re a singular and rarefied band in doom metal, crafting achingly gorgeous dirges with progressive flourishes—which guitarist Derrick Vella has likewise translated into his other band, the awesome Tomb Mold. Their two compositions on Starpath are no exception, showcasing the intricacy and beauty of the duo’s songwriting and musicianship, to the extent that Justin DeTore’s growls are increasingly the most metal thing about them. By contrast, Worm deliver some of their spookiest death-doom from a towering fortress of ghouls, masterfully executed and suitably grim. As awe-inspiring as midseason tag-team matches get.
19. Fleshvessel – Yearning: Promethean Fates Sealed
It’s funny to see the entirety of this list and reach two undeniable conclusions: 1. This has been a great year for no-frills, no-bullshit rippers; and 2. 2023 has also been a great year for wildly ambitious progressive/avant garde metal. Fleshvessel’s debut is unmistakably the latter, the Chicago band doing away with tried-and-true progressions of riffs and grunts in favor of something enigmatic and often terrifying in much more puzzling ways. Yearning: Promethean Fates Sealed is a bizarre and ornate piece of work, not something easily absorbed in a single listen, or even a half dozen. There are so many moving parts, so many unexpected trapdoors and vortices that invariably leave you somewhere that can’t be found on a map. Fleshvessel’s bizarre netherworld is a harrowing yet breathtaking place to visit—good luck finding your way back out.
18. Enforced – War Remains
Virginia’s Enforced have yet to release an album that doesn’t whip ass, but their third, War Remains, feels just a little bit more intense—hits just that much harder. The group’s hardcore-infused thrash pulses with the blood of giants—Slayer, Sepultura and in more recent history, Power Trip—which they funnel into a muscular and taut riff machine, roaring and surging with steely resolve. Even though they’ll occasionally let a more restrained rhythm take over, however briefly, there’s nary a moment on War Remains that sounds like it won’t kick your ass.
17. KEN Mode – VOID
Only a year after delivering one of 2022’s best metal albums, NULL, Winnipeg sludge/noise rock vets offered up a companion to that murky and punishing triumph. Written and recorded in conjunction with its predecessor, VOID is no less ominous or excoriating, but it’s steeped in more of an atmospheric darkness, showcasing the subtler end of the group’s approach in standout moments like the gothic cascade of “These Wires” or the synth-driven eeriness of “We’re Small Enough.” That they can still deliver chugging riffs that hit like a steel pipe on moments like “I Cannot” was never in doubt, but the haunted spaces in between those explosive climaxes only make their impact feel that much greater.
16. Full of Hell & Primitive Man – Suffocating Hallucination
Suffocating Hallucination is one of a few collaborative albums on this list, and one of two collaborative albums to come from Full of Hell just this year alone. Which says a lot about how much strength that noise-driven grindcore group draws from community. But their piercing high-end assault combined with the guttural lows of Denver’s Primitive Man amount to a perfect balance of frequencies in pursuit of peak sonic antagonism. Dense, raw and vicious, Suffocating Hallucination is somehow both bleak and inspiring, the two groups pushing each other into more experimental territory, covering a wide spread that comprises everything from grindcore to ambient, more melody-friendly doom metal and sludgegaze majesty. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the feeling that they could just as easily keep going along this path and uncover one surprise after another, two bands pushing each other just a little bit farther each time on their journey toward the highest caliber of cacophony.
15. Jesus Piece – …So Unknown
Five years have passed since the release of Jesus Piece’s outstanding Only Self, but the Philly metalcore group made the most of that half-decade interval, signing with Century Media and getting a bit weirder, heavier and meaner. The band sound beyond pissed off on …So Unknown, an album at once more immediate and experimental than its predecessor, and above all more visceral. Jesus Piece open up their approach to allow in more noise and atmospheric terror, with moments like the tension of “Tunnel Vision” and the dissonance of “Gates of Horn” showcasing the ways in which they’ve progressed both texturally and technically. But I wasn’t exaggerating about the seething rage on this thing. Jesus Piece’ll fuck you up.
14. Ulthar – Anthronomicon & Helionomicon
One can’t help but marvel at the audacity and ambition of a band who releases not a double album but two separate albums intended as parallel companions. Think Use Your Illusion or Opeth’s complementary Damnation and Deliverance—neither of which actually provides a fitting precedent for the latest searing diptych from Oakland’s Ulthar. Anthronomicon and Helionomicon are neither dramatic stylistic divergences nor gluttonously overstuffed studio flexes, at least not unless you consider the two 20-minute tracks of the latter overindulgent. Are those songs long? Yes, and given that the former comprises eight shorter tracks, it seems a wise gambit to separate them as such. But is it too much? Hell no; this is death metal we’re talking about, roaring and raucous, galloping with unctuous glory, riffs ablaze and alien tentacles flailing. With these twin stunners, Ulthar deliver just enough of too much.
13. Khanate – To Be Cruel
Unlikely as the reunion of Khanate might have seemed, 14 years after their last release and with no indication of resharpening harrowing noise-sludge, that the album marking their return would be their best seemed even less likely. And yet here we are with To Be Cruel, an hour-plus foray through the group’s most avant garde tendencies in which low simmering drones and the subtlest hints of melody can prove just as unnerving as the most piercing peals of feedback. No Khanate album can be fully explored or understood on a first listen, but To Be Cruel is more of an ongoing journey, a band thriving on more than abrasion and antagonism but a more thoughtful and at times gracefully nuanced approach.
12. Agriculture – Agriculture
After one sole, self-released EP, Los Angeles’ Agriculture crashed the gates with a one of the year’s best black metal debuts. The group’s self-titled album is fairly concise, but they pack a lot of ideas and an innovative, progressive approach into just over a half-hour of surging, hypnotic black metal reminiscent at times of Liturgy or Krallice at their most direct and visceral. But that only tells part of the story, with moments in between showcasing twangy post-rock instrumentation, an appearance from prolific saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi, even one brief song that kinda-sorta scans as indie pop. Not that I’d hold that against them. While I don’t think it’d be controversial to say there’s a lot of growth ahead of them, Agriculture have arrived upon an emotionally resonant and stunningly captured form of black metal that shows a young band already hitting their stride.
11. Geld – Currency//Castration
Geld don’t consider their sound “atypical” for hardcore, and they’re not necessarily wrong: It’s loud, fast, heavy and intense. But on Currency//Castration, they wield a unique sort of chaos, opening a gateway to hellacious menace every time Cormac Ó Síocháin’s guitar riffs begin to swirl into an effects-laden screech. Their Discharge- and G.I.S.M.-influenced gallop is streaked with psychedelic-tinged noise rock squeal, which only serves to make even their most direct power-chord rippers feel as if they’re about to go wildly off the rails. Whether it falls outside the norm for a particularly metallic strain of hardcore is perhaps a matter of perspective, but their swirling, scorching approach is among the best I’ve heard all year.
10. Great Falls – Objects Without Pain
Seattle trio Great Falls have proven themselves as the Pacific Northwest’s most formidable antagonists through past albums such as 2018’s A Sense of Rest, but even that doesn’t feel like adequate preparation for the onslaught of hostility on their fifth album, Objects Without Pain. That it starts slow—just ominously ringing guitars and drum machine—is something of a blessing. Once Objects Without Pain kicks into gear, it plows through everything in its path with a chip on its shoulder that a bulldozer couldn’t dislodge. Vocalist Demian Johnston’s scream is the most vicious element at play—he emits a fire-breathing screech that makes my own throat feel tender just listening to it. After more than a decade, Great Falls continue to push themselves that much harder, and have made the best album of their career.
9. Horrendous – Ontological Mysterium
Horrendous have been on a hell of a journey over the past decade. With 2014’s Ecdysis they put themselves in the running for the best new American death metal band, and with each release since—including the spectacular Anareta and the epic Idol—they’ve proven both their staying power as well as their ability to build on past successes with an imagination and sense of melody that far outstrips most bands in any subgenre of metal. Death metal just happens to be their domain, but on Ontological Mysterium that comprises thrashy bouts of aggression, fusion-addled prog-metal, and various feats of avant garde sorcery. This is an album that feels colossal—an odyssey that should comprise two or more separate LPs’ worth of music. That it’s a lean 38 minutes speaks to the band’s sense of economy as well as their ability to pack each four-minute ripper with as much action and as many thrills as possible, making it seem at times like they’re simply showing off. And maybe they are, but they’ve earned it; no need to qualify it, Horrendous is simply one of the best death metal bands in America.
8. Baroness – Stone
The first non-chromatic entry in Baroness’ catalog is also the first record they’ve released to feature the same entire lineup as its predecessor. After working with Dave Fridmann for a second time on 2019’s Gold and Grey, the four members of Baroness embarked on a new chapter together, offering up the first self-produced album of their career. I count at least three firsts for the band with Stone, though rather than a wholesale reinvention, Baroness simply push themselves farther within their uniquely expanding sphere of sludgy, psychedelic, progressive hard rock. Stone‘s heaviest moments recapture the thunder of their early triumphs, like the chugging riffs of “Last Word” and its incendiary solo from Gina Gleason. Yet elsewhere they lean into the folk/Americana leanings that have always been at the fringes of their sound, and which could eventually make for an exciting full-length album prospect some day (I’m still hoping they’ll do it, but I won’t try to oversell this idea). After nearly two decades, Stone finds Baroness continuing to uncover new and exciting avenues of exploration.
7. Thantifaxath – Hive Mind Narcosis
I couldn’t fault anyone at this stage for losing patience with metal band anonymity, not when it’s become a gimmick in itself (and in certain unfortunate cases, inadvertently revealed something unsavory about the face behind the blackened void). The identities of the members of Toronto black metal band Thantifaxath might never be revealed and it honestly doesn’t matter, considering that the group has an earned sense of mystery and fascination due to their intricate compositions. Labyrinthine yet melodic, complex yet always retaining a thread of accessibility, Hive Mind Narcosis maintains a tricky balance that the band are more than capable of pulling off, both because of their stunning musicianship and care and attention to songwriting. In all likelihood, they’re probably just some dudes, but behind this veil of secrecy, they’re a force of nature.
6. Kostnatění – Úpal
The sole musician behind the uniquely eclectic American black metal project Kostnatění, D.L., draws from a more diverse range of influences and sonic palettes than most albums on this list: psychedelia, American primitivism, Turkish and North African folk, microtonalism and experimentation with alternative tunings, and, of course, some classic black metal blast (with lyrics in Czech). That’s a lot to process, and its relatively brisk 38-minute runtime doesn’t necessarily make it any simpler to grab hold of every thread he weaves through this labyrinthine set of head-spinning psych-metal. Yet Úpal is driven above all by a keen songwriting prowess that makes even its most intricate moments exciting and endlessly entertaining. This album will very likely make you rethink any outdated assumptions about black metal. It also just rips.
5. Body Void – Atrocity Machine
When I spoke to Body Void’s Willow Ryan earlier this year, they said they approached new album Atrocity Machine as they would a horror movie. Indeed, this album is terrifying in every conceivable aspect, from its theater-of-pain absurdity of a nation that thrives on cruelty to the noise and power electronics production—with production from Uniform’s Ben Greenberg—that renders each scene of violence with unrelenting, abrasive menace. Atrocity Machine is awe-inspiring in its dense strata of crushing sludge and penetrating high-end frequencies, not necessarily an easy listen but by all means a stunning one. Body Void have constructed a masterpiece of impeccably crafted terror.
4. Ragana – Desolation’s Flower
Decade-plus veterans in DIY black metal, Oakland duo Ragana have built up a catalog full of stark and powerful cries of darkness and hope since making their debut with 2012’s All’s Lost. In offering their first release through The Flenser with Desolation’s Flower, however, the group enter into a new phase, one that kicks off with their greatest recorded work to date. Emotionally and sonically devastating in its depiction of wounded world in need of healing, Desolation’s Flower intertwines apocalyptic retribution with natural beauty, slowcore grace with moments of bombastic surge. Though it’s not a radical change of course, it does find the duo refining and sharpening their work to its most beautiful and scorching alike. They speak an incantation to queer and trans ancestors, interrupt their own searing compositions with the sounds of protest, and sing hymns to a future waiting to be constructed from the rubble.
3. Gridlink – Coronet Juniper
Gridlink weren’t the first band I expected to release new music this year, but the arrival of their first album in nine years is the best kind of reminder that they’re one of the greatest grindcore bands to ever do it. On Coronet Juniper, everything locks into place as the group unleashes an onslaught of streamlined, efficient, technically precise yet somehow wildly progressive grindcore that maintains an emphasis on melodic songwriting even when everything’s moving at roughly 3,000 BPM. The band’s abilities seem almost superhuman, though throughout there’s thread of approachability—a relative term I will concede—that sets it apart from some of the most belligerent grindcore out there. Coronet Juniper is a spectacular feat of songwriting and musicianship, regardless of the genre.
2. Big|Brave – nature morte
When Big|Brave recorded their sixth album, nature morte, they rethought their approach to what forms the core of their music. It retains some of their signature minimalism, employing as much resonance and sustain as possible in creating a sound that could crack open the earth’s core. But there’s so much more freedom to move on nature morte—folk-influenced melodies, dirtier grooves, songs with more than one chord, even. What was once a unique if intentionally limiting conceit behind the band’s music has given way to a more naturally evolving avant garde heaviness, its beauty more apparent than ever even as their sound takes on a greater sense of mystery. With nature morte, it feels as if Big|Brave have entered a new stage as a band, one where the possibilities are only beginning to unfold, and what might only be the beginning of the journey is nonetheless their best album to date.
1. Tomb Mold – The Enduring Spirit
Tomb Mold’s capacity to deliver album-of-the-year worthy death metal was never in doubt; 2019’s Planetary Clairvoyance very nearly took that crown on the strength of its increasingly melodic and complex songwriting and unabashed proficiency. The Enduring Spirit is a vast leap from that already stellar plane, siphoning off some of the pristine beauty of Derrick Vella’s other band, Dream Unending, and repurposing some of that gorgeous, progressive approach in service of some of the year’s most ambitious death metal. If, four years ago, I were to hear a song like the twinkling, jazz-fusion-influenced “Will of Whispers,” with its nimble guitar work and clean tones, I might not have guessed this was Tomb Mold, but the Toronto group have grown from the rawness of their early material into something exploratory and imaginative, achieving awe-inspiring majesty in 11-minute closer “The Enduring Spirit of Calamity.” In past years I’ve compiled this annual best-metal list without knowing for certain what the number one album was going to be. This is not one of them—Tomb Mold have delivered the best metal album of the year, and one whose rewards seem likely to unspool as time goes on.
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