It’s that time again. In spite of 2013 being pretty much the worst year of my life, I found it a lot easier to select a top 10 list than in 2012. Odd-numbered years almost always seem to produce a wider selection of good music, and I can confidently state that each of these at least border on excellence. Here goes:
10. Ihsahn – Das Seelenbrechen (track: Regen)
There was never a bad Emperor album. Ihsahn’s solo career hasn’t been quite as consistent. The Adversary was an outstanding start, but I barely noticed angL. After was a blast, Eremita something of a bore. Well, what do you know; the cycle continues, and Das Seelenbrechen is outstanding. Eremita seemed all about rhythmic grooves and eclectic interludes, neither of which painted a grand picture for me to take hold of. Das Seelenbrechen, without reducing any of the progressive rock peculiarities for which Ihsahn is famous, reinvests its tension in song structure and the subtler stuff of atmospheric appeal. At times it delves heavily into the world of drone metal, with Tobias Ørnes Andersen pulling off his best Atsuo impression and Ihsahn showing that his unique vocals are pretty well suited for the genre as they stand. The most impressive track on the album might be “Pulse”, if only for the fact that Ihsahn was able to stray so far from his comfort zone and still pull off an excellent song, but my personal favorite has to be “Regen”.
9. Ash Borer – Bloodlands (track: Oblivion’s Spring)
I missed out on Ash Borer’s acclaimed 2011 debut and the 2012 full-length to follow, but the Bloodlands “EP” (it’s still 35 minutes long) found itself well embedded in my subconscious this year. Like many of my selections, I never really sat down and gave it my undivided attention from start to finish. It was a busy year, and most of my albums were experienced as background music rather than a main event. I was kind of surprised to find just how many times I’d listened to this album throughout the year. It was never really on my radar, but I kept playing it time and time again. A twisted, bleak, highly atmospheric recording, Bloodlands successfully captures a traditional black metal vibe that is neither overly passionate nor distractingly aggressive. It’s a pleasant break from the otherwise welcome trend towards a less sinister, more humanizing approach to the genre.
8. Westering – Joy (track: This Will Quiet Us)
Joy is definitely the weirdest album I’ve heard this year that actually worked. Bryan Thomas’s second release as Westering is a cracked window peering into folk, industrial, and maybe even 80s pop scenes, sensible to melodic appeal yet firmly rooted in black metal tradition. To label it another “shoegaze black metal” album would hardly do it justice; the warbling walls of distortion don’t angelicize the metal, but rather demonize the more direct pop elements, creating a final product basked in darkness yet awkwardly catchy and familiar.
7.Ensemble Pearl – Ensemble Pearl (track: Island Epiphany)
It’s sad that this album has gone almost completely unnoticed in 2013. It’s sad that people regard it as another Boris album, or as “Boris and Sunn O))) Part 2”. Because, while it shares much in common with Altar, the cast is quite different and the end product surprisingly even better than its predecessor. While Atsuo Mizuno and Stephen O’Malley reunite, Takeshi and Wata are out, as well as Greg Anderson. Michio Kurihara steps up to the plate along with a fellow I’ve never head of–Bill Herzog–to complete the lineup. The sound these four have managed to assemble is flawless. Smooth as glass and black as night, Ensemble Pearl is a compelling example of music’s capacity to paint a scene more vivid than sight can ever offer.
6. Paysage d’Hiver – Das Tor (track: Macht des Schicksals)
Like Ash Borer, Paysage d’Hiver provided ideal background music for me throughout the year. With a similar appreciation for late 90s/early 2000s atmospheric black metal aesthetics, Das Tor presents a significantly noisier, more trance-inducing break from current metal trends. I fell in love with this album’s capacity for endless repetition as the backdrop for work, reading, and just about any other activity that requires concentration. This particular style of black metal has always really zoned me in and helped me to focus, and Paysage d’Hiver’s take on it is substantially better than most.
5. Mechina – Empyrean (track: Anathema)
Fear Factory’s 1998 opus, Obsolete, was the last industrial death metal album to really blow me away. A lot of bands go there, but few, at least in my experience, are willing to fully nerd out into uncompromised sci-fi fantasy. There is something about the death metal mentality that inclines most bands to play with their nuts out, and it rarely works in their favor. Mechina don’t fall for that. They have no qualms whatsoever about employing clean vocals, dramatic symphonics, and operatic hymns to serve their end. Empyrean paints a lush vision of a futuristic world of technology and galactic combat on the brink of apocalypse. Really stellar stuff. … ha..ha… hmm…
4. Summoning – Old Mornings Dawn (track: Old Mornings Dawn)
It took Summoning seven years to release a new album. I would not be surprised if they were hard at work on it that whole time. Not quite as perfect as Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame, Old Morning Dawn is nevertheless an instant essential within the Summoning discography, never wavering an inch from the solid sound they forged a decade ago. I can’t think of too many albums I’ve anticipated for this long that didn’t let me down (Falkenbach’s Tiurida in 2011 might be the most recent exception), and for that, coming from one of my favorite bands ever, Old Mornings Dawn easily slides in towards the top of my chart.
3. Cara Neir – Portals to a Better, Dead World (track: Peridot)
I remember when I was first getting into black metal and a friend of mine was doing the same with screamo. They seemed like two incommensurable paths at the time. We’d trade the best of what we found, and I love a lot of screamo because of it, but that was his genre and this was mine. There just wasn’t all that much in common between Carpathian Forest and City of Caterpillar.
Times have changed, and much for the better. I’ve tossed around “screamo” and “black metal” in the same sentence before (Roads to Judah), but this is certainly the most raw realization of the two as one that I have heard so far. Portals to a Better, Dead World is another fine product of a new era of metal artists informed beyond their flagship genre. It might not achieve the fame of Deafheaven’s Sunbather, but the two go hand in hand.
2. Deafheaven- Sunbather (track: Dream House)
And that brings us to the most hyped metal album of 2013. Sunbather turned more heads than Roads to Judah, and certainly more than Liturgy’s Aesthethica or Krallice’s Diotima back in 2011. But while the mainstream world regrettably failed to recognize that year as the grand coalescence of heavy metal’s mid-2000s paradigm shift, on Sunbather we reap its fruits. This album is not the novelty many would like to make of it; it is an affirmation of things already come to pass, and a glorious one at that. Music seems to come in sequences of waves, the reluctant undertow of their predecessors slowly dissipating beneath the growing weight of those rushing to shore. Sunbather basks in a new era of aesthetics and ingenuity first dreamed by the likes of Ulver, pressed into form by Agalloch and Alcest, and finally swept into the mainstream three years ago. Love it while it lasts, and amuse yourself with the die-hards that will rip this to shreds rather than embrace it.
1. Peste Noire – Peste Noire
And then there was one. I proclaimed Peste Noire the best album of 2013 about an hour after it leaked back in June, and nothing since has come even close to shaking that resolve. I’ve been doing a “top 10 album” list now every year since 2002, and Peste Noire is the only band to ever take the #1 spot twice, but never mind that. Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor has absolutely nothing on what you will experience here. Let’s try “top 10 metal albums ever recorded”. I have never heard anything quite this clever, filthy, intelligent, and depraved in my life. Famine’s “black ‘n’ roll” sound has never been better, and Peste Noire can rightly be regarded as the refinement of all of the finest features of his past four albums rolled out into one.
The album is heavily enhanced by Famine’s new willingness to tell us what it’s all about. Up through the release of L’Ordure à l’état Pur in 2011, it was anyone’s guess what Famine’s peculiar album antics were all about. He was completely inaccessible as an individual, and his lyrics have always been in French. The man behind the music has since emerged full-formed as an internet personality, conducting interviews, approving lyric translations, and responding to forum inquiries in surprisingly fluent English. He’s revealed himself as an extremely culturally and musically informed character with a sardonic sense of humor that seems to abate the more offensive features of his image, and he completely reformed my view on L’Ordure à l’état Pur–an album I’d initially disregarded, but have since grown to love.
I tried to give Peste Noire a fair review over the summer, but I couldn’t quite do it justice. This article does. Skip to 20 minutes in the above video if you care to hear my favorite track on the album: “Niquez Vos Villes”.
Enjoy, and Happy New Year!