My Top 10 Metal Albums of 2013

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!

Ten Years #21: Emperor

Decade of scrobbling countdown:
21. Emperor (1,301 plays)
Top track (119 plays): I Am the Black Wizards, from In the Nightside Eclipse (1994)

I don’t know that I would call Emperor the most influential band in black metal, but Ihsahn and Samoth’s brainchild definitely ranks among the top 5. Without ever abandoning the sinister, aggressive atmospherics, nor dropping the tremolo guitar, blast beats and double bass, or shrill, shrieking vocals standard for the style, Emperor managed to infuse black metal with a level of technical expertise and creative song structure that appealed to listeners far beyond the isolated genre. Their progressive rock and classical flares drew in a broad fan base that never had the time for Bathory’s viking tendencies or Darkthrone and Mayhem’s bm in the raw. They were certainly one of the first black metal bands that caught my eye, at a time when their contemporaries just sounded like noise to me. It’s no wonder that at this point they’ve ascended to 21st on my decade-spanning chart.

Talent and attention did not necessarily go hand in hand in early 90s black metal. Mayhem’s music left a lot to be desired, and Burzum’s discography bears some major flops. Emperor are more the exception than the norm in that they achieved a fairly professional level of quality while actively participating in Euronymous’ circle of murder and arson. Part of that, I suspect, stems from Ihsahn’s ability to keep his hands clean in the midst of it. Ihsahn managed to say out of trouble–or at least not get caught–while Samoth, Faust, and Tchort were all doing time. Persistent similarities from In the Nightside Eclipse all the way to Ihsahn’s most recent solo works suggest that he might have done the lion’s share of the song-writing all along. (Their final album, Prometheus, was composed by him exclusively.) Whoever wrote it, the refreshing originality of Emperor’s discography has had significant consequences. They didn’t set the standard for what black metal in the 90s ought to sound like, though plenty of bands copied them. Rather, they set the standard for how the genre might progress. Emperor took a very formulaic split-off from thrash and demonstrated time and again that it could be one of the most diverse, open-ended genres of music on the market.

Review: Ihsahn – Eremita

Vegard Tveitan released his fourth solo album this year, giving “Ihsahn” a discography almost as extensive as Emperor’s. Eremita offers the eclectic and exquisitely well-executed sound we’ve come to expect from him in recent years. What it does not offer is very much in the way of black metal. This was a predictable turn, as his sound continued to evolve and incorporate more and more progressive elements. Eremita continues from the major shift taken on After.

Arrival, the album’s opening track, is something of a caricature of everything I don’t really like about Eremita. (Considering the almost total lack of Eremita references on youtube, I have no doubt this video will be removed pretty soon for some copyright nonsense, but the guy who shared it’s account is still active for the time being if you want to go explore the album more thoroughly before buying it.)

The power of the driving opening riff is obviously lost in a youtube sample. Don’t let that be a turn-off. But it’s still a relatively unvaried chug-a-chug, with Ihsahn’s unique distorted vox intermixed with soft, sung breaks. Shortly after the 3 minute mark the song explodes into a pretty wild 30 second guitar solo, and then it’s back to what we started with. I do think Ihsahn’s eclectic guitar doodling is pretty impressive. That’s something I’ve yet to tire of. The getting there, however, is kind of a tedious path for me. Prog bands so often lose focus of the importance of creating an overall vibe, and I fear that “Arrival” too runs the serious risk of amounting to little more than a stereotypical build-up to wankfest. Pretty consistently throughout this album I struggle to get into the moments where not much is going on. I never had any such issue with After, despite its equally drastic break from black metal.

On another note, I loved Ihsahn’s vocals when he was doing black metal. Something about their lack of depth always came off as exceptionally more sinister than the stylistic norm. But when they’re taken out of that context, they just seem to clash with the rest of what’s going on. When he layers them it tends to work, but the single vocal track that characterized a lot of The Adversary does not function as well here. It’s an odd comment coming from a black metal fan, but I really wish there was a lot less screaming and a lot more singing on this one.

That being said, I think Eremita starts off with one of its weakest track. The aspects that make me yawn are somewhat less prevalent further in.

“The Eagle and the Snake” is a good example of what works exceptionally well on this album. The return of jazz saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby is a huge plus, making the breaks between Ihsahn’s outstanding solos valuable in their own right and not merely means to an end. The passage from 2:30 to 3:00 is rescued by the subtle addition of a second distorted vocal track to flush out the screams and avoid the sometimes grating contrast in “Arrival”. The song structure doesn’t feel pre-determined, and the dark, jazzy vibe glues the whole thing together. Ihsahn here offers some of his most imaginative guitar solos to date, in a context appropriately conditioned to present them without feeling forced.

Ihsahn doesn’t forget about black metal altogether, either. There’s nothing on Eremita as wild as “A Grave Inversed” (which, I think, might be the best song of his solo career), but “Something Out There” definitely satisfies any cravings to hear some old school Ihsahn in the mix. Ihsahn also takes frequent dives into the realm of death metal, especially on “Departure”. To me, the really pleasant intro/outro and occasional sax appearance aside, this track runs all the same risks as “Arrival” with no epic solo pay-out at the end to reward you for listening to it. But then, there is a reason I don’t like death metal.

Right now, having listened to Eremita attentively maybe four times, I can honestly say I don’t like it. The sort of mood and atmosphere Ihsahn is attempting to create is just completely lost to me on tracks like “Arrival” and “Introspection”, while “The Eagle and the Snake” is more the exception than the norm. But except where something is exceptionally bad (and nothing on Eremita is), it is always hard to put your finger on exactly what you don’t like about it; it is not as though we are in any position to say “the artist should have done this instead”. Ihsahn is a metal legend deserving of the title, and plenty of other people seem to love this album. For me, the difficulty lies in engaging it; I struggle to sit back and give most of the songs my undivided attention without feeling impatient. Eremita lacks a consistent driving force to hold everything together.

A Celebration for the Death of Man…: Music for October (part 2)

Folk metal, pagan metal, viking metal, these terms all share a common root in black metal, starting with Bathory’s stylistic transition in the late 80s. I decided to break the rest of this down into my top 20 straight up black metal songs and this, my top 25 songs that extend beyond the genre without breaking from it wholesale. I’ve obviously taken a lot of liberties in determining what goes where. Don’t regard this as any sort of ordering of favorites so much as the order I happened to settle on after a number of considerations.

I think black metal is one of the most diverse genres to be found, and rather than trying to divide up a dozen sub-genres, I’d like to highlight through twenty five songs the vast world lying beneath blast beats and tremolo picking.

25. Ceremonial Embrace – Mysterious Fate
I know very little about this band. They appeared out of Finland in 2000 to release one fairly average album and then disappear back into obscurity. The opening track however, Mysterious Fate, is an impressive take on a sound you might associate with Windir – staccato synth supported by sweeping slower moments that focus heavily on melody without ever really ceasing to be black metal.

24. Enslaved – Clouds
One of the original “second wave” black metal bands, Enslaved (along with ex-Emperor frontman Ihsahn) really pioneered the transition from the raw style into something much more complex. I like to think of this song, off their 2008 release Vertebrae, as one of the better tracks to exemplify what you might call “post-black”, a prefix that, as in all other genres, can suggest a dozen different things and might be better seen as an approach to music than a stylistic trait. You might alternatively call this progressive black metal, though I like to restrict my usage of that term.

23. Astrofaes – Path to Burning Space
If black metal in the 90s meant Norway, black metal in the 2000s meant Ukraine. This, one of Astrofaes’s earliest works, really shows both the all-encompassing guitar and the folk elements that have come to define a lot of what is Ukrainian black metal. They weren’t the first to really capitalize on these – that credit belongs to a band I’ll be showcasing frequently herein – but in exploiting them they really helped to make “Ukrainian black metal” something distinct and recognizable.

22. Hellveto – Warpicture
When Poland’s Hellveto first started to make their mark in the early 2000s I remember hearing them described as “war metal”, a term that has since fallen into disuse. While this music would today be called pagan metal, with maybe an “orchestral” additive, at the time it was something really unique, and it still stands apart as decidedly different from the Russian bands, like Arkona and Pagan Reign, that helped pioneer the genre.

21. Nokturnal Mortum – Perun’s Celestial Silver
Welcome to the first of many entries I’ve slotted for what I consider to be the greatest black metal band of all time: Nokturnal Mortum. To merely credit them with the explosion of black metal in Ukraine is to miss how completely unique their music still is. No one has managed this sound before or since – primitivism in its ideal. The shrill, lo-fi guitars, the violent brutality of Russian and Ukrainian that Germanic languages don’t quite encompass, a folk sound that is both beautiful and enraged… This isn’t just a statement about the past, it is a violent declaration of war on the present. It is unfortunate that the band has yet to get over their stance on white supremacy and their virulent antisemitism (this song appears as track 88, a neo-nazi symbol for “Heil Hitler”), but it is also a testament to the authenticity of their sound.

20. Drudkh – Ars Poetica
Drudkh have put out eight albums and one EP since 2003, making them one of the most prolific metal bands on the market. Were that not enough, almost every member has played a role in at least one other prominent Ukrainian black metal band during this time. They’ve had their ups and downs, and 2009’s Microcosmos received its fair share of criticism, but I struggle to find any fault in this track. Dark, intense, reverent, in Drudkh can be heard the same renunciation of the present and praise for a distant past that characterizes Nokturnal Mortum (although without the racist undertones, though a sort of guilt by association has still landed them on many a list of nsbm bands.)

19. Triglav (Триглав) – The Warrior of Honour
Like Nokturnal Mortum, Drudkh, and Astrofaes, Triglav hail from Kharkiv, Ukraine. A lesser known band of the scene, having only released one album, theirs is a pagan metal sound that owes much more to black metal than most.

18. Ihsahn – A Grave Inversed
Enough with Ukraine. I take you now to Ihsahn, former Emperor front-man and possibly the most talented musician to emerge from black metal. “Progressive” anything in metal terms conjures to my mind an obnoxious, pretentious focus on esteeming technical skill over song writing (maybe I just heard way too much Dream Theater when I was in high school), but Ihsahn’s “prog black” indulgence is a glorious and rare exception. His 2010 release, After, might be his best work to date, and this track somehow manages to incorporate a saxophone into black metal and still be fucking awesome. I have ridiculous respect for this man, and I hope upon hearing what he’s done here you will too.

17. Altar of Plagues – Through the Collapse: Watchers Restrained
A lot of what I’ve come to think of as post-black metal feels to be founded in the depressive/atmospheric styles that characterize usbm. (If I may digress, Xasthur provides guest vocals on Agalloch’s monumental Ashes Against the Grain.) Having only really taken form over the past few years, there may be much more to come. If you don’t like what follows the first two minutes of this song, don’t bother listening through it. It doesn’t return to the opening sound. White Tomb as a full album though, and especially the introduction of this track, qualify Ireland’s Altar of Plagues as one of many promising new bands in the sub-genre. This was released in 2009.

16. Nokturnal Mortum – Kolyada
This first track, on the other hand, was released much earlier. Nokturnal Mortum’s third album, Goat Horns, was released in 1997 and showcases the high point in their early sound. The band has gone through three major phases, roughly from 1995-1997, 1998-2003, and 2004 to the present. The band has even on occasion re-recorded earlier songs to fit their updated sound, Perun’s Celestial Silver being an example. (That track, of 1999’s NeChrist, originally appeared in 1995 on Lunar Poetry in a very different form.) Their middle period is my favorite and the one I’ll be primarily sticking too, but I’ve provided a second song here, their 2007 re-recording of Kolyada, in case you’re curious what they currently sound like.

15. Enslaved – As Fire Swept Clean the Earth
I here return to Enslaved for their 2003 album Below the Lights. I throw the term post-black metal around loosely, and while this song might have next to nothing in common with Altar of Plagues, such is the case in other genres where the post- tag comes into play. Enslaved are significant both in their music and in the fact that, having been around since the early 90s, a whole lot of current musicians grew up listening to them and stuck with them over the years. This song can be seen as an early example of what became more common later in the decade, and I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that this particular band wrote it.

14. Windir – Dance of Mortal Lust
Windir are so unique that I had a hard time figuring out how to fit them in here. Valfar froze to death on a mountain in Norway in 2004, and a tragedy though it may be, I don’t think the creator of this music could have been fated a more fitting end. I chose this song for its accessibility, but I encourage you to seek out his entire brilliant discography.

13. Emperor – The Tongue of Fire
By the final Emperor album, in 2001, it becomes difficult to think of them as “mere” black metal, or anything else for that matter. At this point Ihsahn was writing their music fairly independently from the rest of the band as I understand it, and you can here hear the full amalgamation of his black metal days and his transition into something far more complex.

12. Drudkh – Eternity
Blood in Our Wells, released in 2006, is my favorite Drudkh album, and this my favorite track on it. Their earlier albums receive more praise, and I encourage you to listen to them, but for me this is the apex of their accomplishments.

11. Klabautamann – October
If you’re thinking “this isn’t black metal at all”, you’re probably right, but in the context of the album it concludes it ought to be regarded as such. Der Ort was released in 2005, two years after Enslaved’s Below the Lights, and whether there was any direct influence there or not, I think Germany’s Klabautamann accomplished in this song the most beautiful thing to yet emerge from that extension of black metal.

I’ll be posting the remainder of this list, along with a few others, throughout the month. Hope you enjoyed.

Slava for great justice…

Necrosomethingorother here, I’m going to be doing periodic album reviews for a while. My first one involves some rather controversial material, but hey, it’s what’s new in the metal world.

As I write I am acquainting myself with Nokturnal Mortum‘s sixth studio album, leaked Christmas day when I was too busy to notice. The Voice of Steel starts off where the Eastern Hammer EP ended, hurdy gurdies blazing in a mind-blowing intro, and then slowly transitions into some weird amalgamation of pagan nsbm and spacey Pink Floyd guitar solos. It’s still got some battlecry sopilka breakdowns of classic Nokturnal Mortum, the intense tribal drumming that first greeted us on To the Gates of Blasphemous Fire’s Cheremosh, the violin over epic synth that characterized Weltanschauung…
But it also has clean vocals and Pink Floyd guitar solos, and I’m just not sold on them yet. The Voice of Steel is in some ways amazing, in others irritating. It’s a decent album, no doubt about it, but it sure wasn’t what I was hoping for. Nothing would have made me happier than a whole album of the Eastern Hammer remake of Kolyada, and that The Voice of Steel is certainly not.

The album has some real gems, notably Shlyakhom Sontsya. It also has tracks like Moei Mrii Ostrovi that would fit in a lot better on an Amorphis album and just clash entirely with the group’s extremist views. They’re trying to mature musically, but they have to mature mentally first to really pull it off.

Extremism has produced some amazing music over the years. Wrath of the Tyrant, Det Som Engang Var, NeChrist, they all share in common a level of passionate convictions taken so far as murder, arson, or white supremacy. Obviously I don’t have to condone these acts to appreciate their origins, but the musicians have to come to terms with them eventually. Ihsahn seems to recognize his youthful escapades as a childish outlet for his anti-Christian views and now writes more mature music effectively. His album After, another new release, is pretty damn impressive. He can still frown on the Christian culture of servitude without letting it consume him and his innate musical talents. Meanwhile you’ve got Varg writing dissertations on the likelihood of Aryans being an advanced race from outerspace, and I have pretty low expectations of his forthcoming album.

I hear in Knjaz Varggoth’s new music a reflection of this Vargian state of depravity. Their old songs embodied folk, and they believed in it so thoroughly that they took on extremist views, but that was only the lyrical focus. NeChrist was packed with anthems to what the band barely understood, aggression married to mysticism, white supremacy only a catalyst. The aggressive desperation with which they summoned a bygone era made their music a mirror into the past. It was as though the songs they played were ancient melodies shouting, screaming to be heard once again over the clamor of modern rock by any means necessary. I can’t expect another masterpiece like NeChrist, maybe not even something as good as Weltanschauung, but a stylistic evolution means a mental one too, and I hear in songs that combine clean vocals and Gilmour guitars with cries for the motherland the path of Varg, not Ihsahn. It’s hard to appreciate music that’s neither passionate nor mature. The Voice of Steel is not culture triumphant, it’s more like a methodic racial manifesto. Come on Knjaz, either sustain your fire or light a new match, don’t slump into dogma.

For a far more heartfelt nsbm album, check out Temnozor’s 2010 offering, Haunted Dreamscapes.