Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Best of 2013: Top 40 - 31

In my last post, I said that I would be breaking down my favourite albums this year out of the nearly 300 that I've had the pleasure or misfortune to listen to. So let's get to it. My Top 10 is already available on Last Rites, where I am an author, so check that out once you've explored these picks

40. Darkthrone - The Underground Resistance

I sometimes debate with myself whether the Darkthrone of the 2000s ought to even be considered the same band as the Darkthrone of the 1990s, since their music is so different. But that's a fairly irrelevant debate when the music continues to be this rocking and rolling. With The Underground Resistance, Darkthrone step outside of the crust punk line they've been following and reach back to even earlier 80s metal. Sure, Darkthrone has always drawn from Celtic Frost, but never has it been so baldfaced. The near 14-minute "Leave No Cross Unturned" is guaranteed to stick in your head for days. The album was in pretty constant rotation for me for about a month, but after that it dropped off considerably, resulting in its relatively low position here.

39. Cultes Des Ghoules - Henbane, or Sonic Compendiuym of the Black Arts

A solid hour of impenetrable black metal, Henbane is scary like heavy metal ought to be. The sheer length of these songs makes the second full-length from these Poles a challenging listen, but it's a rewarding one. Steeped in witchcraft lore, you could consider the album cheesy and/or historically inaccurate. Or you could stop listening to the Wiccans and other modern witch apologists and get with the black magic vibe. Subtle additions of flutes and bells as well as spoken word samples add to that medieval eerie feeling. Consider that the band is named for one of the most powerful black magic texts in the Cthulhu Mythos, and you'll have to admit that they're doing something right.

38.  Deafheaven - Sunbather

Practically the opposite of Cultes Des Ghoules, Deafheaven have created a piece of black metal that completely rejects all the old stereotypes. This is music for indie music nerds who wear yellow skinny jeans and thick black glasses. Including plenty of shoegaze and post-rock elements, Deafheaven is just as influenced by Explosions In the Sky and The Album Leaf as by Mayhem or Darkthrone. More so, perhaps. Sure, it's easy to make fun of the fucking pink album cover, but try to get beyond that to the music itself. Deafheaven has picked up where Alcest left off. The fact that it finds itself so low on this list speaks more to my tiredness with post-metal in 2013 than its lack of quality. Sunbather will likely be the poster child for intelligent metal for some time to come.

37. Argus - Beyond the Martyrs

Another victim of my melancholic tastes this year, Pennsylvania doomsters Argus are back with their third full length, and it's just as rollicking and heavy-metal-tastic as their previous two. This is the sound of a band playing great traditional metal with no pretensions. The rock-solid bass of Andy Ramage gives a heft to this album that you sometimes forget about when you listen to black metal all the time (like this critic does), and the guitars draw direct from the blues and rock classics like the Allman Brothers and Thin Lizzy as much as from Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. But the hands-down MVP of this album is Butch Balich's soaring vocal delivery. Argus is still criminally unrecognised, and I suppose I'm not helping them nearly enough.

36. Norma Jean - Wrongdoers

Norma Jean's status as "a Christian band" has likely lead to them being overlooked by a vast number of heavy metal fans. As a kid who grew up on dc Talk, however, Norma Jean were one of my first truly aggressive bands. Over the years, they've only improved their noisy post-hardcore delivery, and their recent departure from long-time label Solid State Records has only been a benefit to them in the musical department (if not in album sales). Despite a number of line-up changes, Wrongdoers feels like a more band-centric effort than 2010's Meridional. Wrongdoers has a stronger second half than its beginning, so I encourage listeners to give it a couple full spins and not give up early.

35. Scale the Summit - The Migration

Creating an instrumental metal album that doesn't just sound like brainless wankery these days is a difficult undertaking. This Texas quartet somehow manages it while still more than fulfilling anybody's guitar virtuoso quota. I think this is because of how much their songs depend on melody and instrument interplay and not just on sweep arpeggios like many modern bands display. Believe me, they're still doing plenty of things that you can't play—witness the tapped intro to "Atlas Novus." But nothing ever feels like "now I'm going to shred a million notes." Rather, the profusion of notes feels like a natural part of the song and every player has his heart right in the melody. Don't pass this one up just because it doesn't have words.

34. Watain - The Wild Hunt

Here's one that has been hotly debated by the black metal community, I think needlessly. I've never been a huge Watain fan, but nobody can deny that they've made some harsh-edged Satanic music that stays true to the essence of black metal. I think that this time around Erik Danielsson and company are taking more influence from Bathory and the pagan metal scene and less from Emperor or Marduk. If  you want to denigrate them for that or say that somehow they've "lost the spark," Watain doesn't give a shit. Nor should they. Songs like "Black Flames March" and "Sleepless Evil" sit just fine alongside "The Wild Hunt" and "They Rode On." And as far as this idea of black metal ballads being unTRVE, you can fuck right off. Watain's first ballad may be no "One Rode to Asa Bay," but this is how progress is made.

33. Satan - Life Sentence

This is not what I would expect a band named Satan to sound like. But I guess I don't get to make that judgement, because this particular Satan (there are seven bands named Satan listed on Metal Archives) wrote a New Wave of British Heavy Metal classic called Court In the Act back in 1983. And now they're back, thirty years later, with Life Sentence (they did also put out an album in 1987, but that's not the point). Life Sentence sounds like it came straight out of a time machine. It's difficult to believe that this album was put out by a group of guys probably in their late 50s. Judas Priest doesn't sound this fresh. Black Sabbath doesn't either. If you like melodic and speedy harmonized guitar lines, this is for you. If you like heavy fucking metal, enjoy your Life Sentence.

32. Lycus - Tempest

In a complete about face from the last album on the list, here's a piece of funereal doom. Hailing from California, this new band puts together low tempos and cavernous growls in a truly beautiful way. This is the best example I've heard of the style since Ahab released The Divinity of Oceans in 2009. It's just three songs, yet it's forty-two minutes long. The title track clocks in a twenty minutes, making it an absolute epic. This is appropriate for this style of music, as movements in and out of aggression and sorrow are the hallmarks of funeral doom. Additionally, Paolo Girardi created one of the most absolutely drop-dead gorgeous album covers of the year. When you consider that Tempest is a début, the album becomes even more amazing. Lycus has a dark but beautiful future.

31. Carpe Noctem - In Terra Profugus

Hailing from Iceland, this quintet studied long at the altar of Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega. The result is a twisting, demented début that burbles, splashes, and boils out of the ground like Eyjafjallajökull.In Terra Profugus is dense, and furthermore is practically unknown, having come out on the obscure Code666 Records in September to zero fanfare. The sound of  Tómas and Andri's dual guitar attack seems to echo off an empty sky while Helgi mixes up the skinwork in an impressive slurry of blasts, fills, and grooves. Whoever miked the cymbals should receive an award. I've grown sick of muddy drums in black metal and as Portal proved in February, adding clarity to something unsettling can often make it more unsettling. The album oozes seamlessly from song to song with a great hissing and buzzing; the entire project is a picture of desolation. I'm excited to see if Carpe Noctem will grow out of the shadows of their French influences. For now, though, In Terra Profugus is mandatory for anyone who lives on the experimental edge of black metal.

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