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 #26: Summoning


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
26. Summoning (1,154 plays)
Top track (86 plays): Menegroth, from Oath Bound (2006)
Featured track: Ashen Cold, from Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame (2001)

Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth might be the most inspired musical retelling of any of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works to date, but no band has crafted an atmospheric sound to capture that world quite so convincingly as Summoning. With a sound that would just as soon excite fans of video game music or “new age” artists like David Arkenstone as their orginal black metal fan base, Summoning have forged a truly unique musical path. While their first studio album, Lugburz (1995), was relatively standard for the synth-laden black metal of its day, they nearly finalized the sound that made them famous on Minas Morgul, released later that same year. Since then, the only perceptible change has been a slow decline in the use of tremolo guitar; the quality of the songwriting and the imaginative world it invokes has remained pretty consistently superb.

For me at least, Summoning and Tolkien’s fantasy world have become nearly inseparable. The echoing, tribal drums paint vast landscapes cast dark by distorted vocals and guitar. The synth speckles the scene in a light that, never breaching the world of full orchestration, retains a fantasy aspect through its unnatural sound. The lyrics enliven the music with the spirit of an epic tale–whether it be the dramatic narrated loop on on “South Away”–“By the crowns of the seven kings and the rods of the five wizards!”–the water god Ulmo’s bold proclamations on “Farewell”–Who can tell you the age of the moon? But I can! Who can call the fish from the depths of the sea? Yes, I can! Who can change the shapes of the hills and the headlands? I can!–or the spirit of perseverance on the track here featured–“Though his body is not tall and his courage seems small, his fame will take long to fade.”

Tolkien’s greatest achievement was to craft a fantasy world so vast that imaginative minds ever since have managed to forge a place within it. Summoning have done so with a level of excellence nearly unrivaled, and they continue to today. There might have been a seven year gap between Oath Bound (2006) and Old Mornings Dawn (2013), but their new release is in every way on par with the rest. It’s a bit of a wonder that they’re only ranked 26th on my decade-spanning last.fm charts. I suspect that, another ten years from now, they’ll be much nearer the top, because their music takes me to a place that is eternal.

Opeth and Summoning: Music for October (part 7)


October has always been my favorite month. It marks the beginning of a seasonal reclamation of man by the world, in which civilization’s mask of sensibility begins to slip away. Tasteless architectural symbols of control over nature digress to their more appropriate forms, as frail refuge against forces beyond our control or comprehension. It is, to misappropriate Agalloch, “a celebration for the death of man… …and the great cold death of the Earth.”

Last year I posted a six part series on some of my favorite black metal, folk metal, and related genres for the season. I had intended to do something similar this year, but time just did not allow for it. I never got around to coming up with a central concept on which to focus. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the two bands I have listened to the most this month, Opeth and Summoning, both defy all standards of classification.

I would like to showcase both, but I can’t imagine doing so properly without embarking on a project way beyond the scope of my time and desire to write at the moment. So I will keep this short and sweet, featuring only Opeth’s Orchid (1995) and Summoning’s Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame (2001), and perhaps in the process still introduce you to some amazing music you had not heard before.


Opeth – The Apostle in Triumph

Everyone has heard Opeth, right? Their fame is fairly unprecedented among metal bands that are actually worth a damn. Yet, out of touch with what is and is not popular today as I am, I still get the impression that what I think of as Opeth is just as relatively obscure as it had been when I first heard them well over a decade ago.

Opeth as a popular band, in fact, is entirely foreign to me. Their first album to make the US charts, Damnation, came out right around the time I stopped listening to them altogether, and long after my interest had begun to wane. I was introduced to Opeth, like everyone around the turn of the century, via Demon of the Fall. My Arms Your Hearse was one of the most emotionally charged and breathtaking albums I’d ever heard. At the time, if you wanted to hear more, you had to look backwards, to Orchid and Morningrise, both of which were very different beasts. With them, if no one reminded you of the distortion and growled vocals, you might forget, amidst Akerfeldt’s soft, subtle lamentations, that you were listening to metal at all.

It took both a long time to grow on me. It’s not that they were inaccessible, but that peculiar teenage ability to focus in on a single masterpiece with no appreciation whatsoever for its surroundings had hold of me. There I was covering My Arms Your Hearse from start to finish on my new guitar (sure wish I could still do so now), and I’d listened to Morningrise maybe five times. Orchid never broke through the cellophane. I finally turned to them just barely in time to soak them up before history left them in the dust, a last minute love affair I was conscious of at the time. They ended up becoming my two favorite Opeth albums, and still are.

Even though My Arms Your Hearse was, alongside Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth, easily the most influential album in my life, Orchid and Morningrise are the two I look back on most nostalgically, and their melancholy beauty always reverberates the sensation.


Opeth – The Twilight is My Robe

So maybe Orchid isn’t really Opeth’s best album. Perhaps I am biased beyond reconciliation. But at any rate, my obsession with it certainly isn’t some subconscious desire to show I am an “old school” fan–the sort of accusation I tend to see on those rare occasions that the album is mentioned at all. Whether you find my placement of it at the top of Akerfeldt’s discography unjust or not, I encourage you to give The Apostle in Triumph and The Twilight is My Robe long hard listens. Agalloch being a decidedly winter-oriented band, I have experienced no music which captures the melancholy side of the autumnal season better than this.


Summoning – A New Power is Rising

I obsessed over The Hobbit as a child, the Lord of the Rings as a teen, and The Silmarillion in my earliest adult years. J.R.R. Tolkien pretty well haunted most of the formative years of my life, and I am forever indebted to him. A few months ago I picked up one of his books for the first time in perhaps a decade, committed to reading them all, but time simply did not allow for it. As with all undertakings though, it influenced my taste in music for the time at hand. I spent much of the summer re-exploring Summoning–a band I’d never actually encountered until Oath Bound in 2006. Thus they were readily at hand at the start of October, and since then they’ve comprised over half of everything I have listened to.

I dare say no single author has had more impact on music than Tolkien, and while I will always regard Nightfall in Middle-Earth as the greatest relevant triumph, Summoning’s discography is a close second. The one band I know of which has taken Tolkien as their lyrical and musical muse pretty much exclusively, they have forged an entirely new style of music over the years that captures that feeling I always got reading him to perfection.


Summoning – South Away

Summoning emerged from black metal, but from the very beginning they stood apart. By Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame in 2001, my favorite album of theirs, this connection had dwindled to little more than the vocals and some tremolo guitar. The constant use of keyboards (often set to replicate brass) and the heavily reverberated, slow drumming are what characterize them best, along with frequent spoken vocal loops.

Perhaps they intend to sound fairly sinister, with lyrics focused more often than not on the darker forces of Tolkien’s tales, but the effect for me is nothing of the sort. The drums paint a vast, diverse landscape of mountains, forests, rivers and plains that are entirely neutral–dangerous to be certain, but more enticing than aversive. They beckon you out to explore the unknown, steeped in mystery–a fantasy world which is here Middle-Earth, but could just as soon be your own back yard on an autumn day, when the changes at hand call on you to leave humanity behind and wander off into the amoral wilderness.


Summoning – Runes of Power

I love black metal, horror, and everything of the sort, but I think the word “neutral” best describes what I have been tapping into this Halloween season. No real glorification of evil for its own sake, nor any embrace of bygone cultures and values here. Orchid and Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame both tap into the individual’s relation to the world absent civilization’s presumptions and impositions–to the mystery of nature and the manifold possibilities within it which mundane daily life denies–be the experience melancholy or thrilling.