Monday, January 27, 2014

The State of Metal 2013: Judge Dredd's Dreaded Top 10 of 2013

Listen, I’m Judge, that’s what you call me - or El Dredderino if you’re not into that whole brevity thing.  I have a very particular, humbug taste in Metal.  If a band is only trying to sound as br00tal or as kvlt as possible, then chances are I will not like said band.  I will also echo Sergeant D in saying that I’m really tired of all of these bands just retreading old ground.  Sure, there are bands like SubRosa who expand and experiment with the worn-out canvas of Proto-Metal.  However, 99% of these bands coming out now doing Old School Death Metal or Proto-Metal I find to be incredibly unnoteworthy (*yaaaawn*).  The proverbial dead horse being beaten.
That said, if a band has a distinct style, writes memorable songs, or has some emotional depth (or any combination thereof); chances are that I will enjoy them a great deal.  If I don’t enjoy them, I will at least have a lot of respect for them.

After 2012’s blowout of amazing albums, I was fairly certain that this year would be a relative letdown.  And…it kind of was, to be perfectly honest.  But I mean, c’mon…almost all of my favorite bands released albums in 2012.  It was almost unfair that 2013 really even existed (maybe it didn’t and we’re all just in the Matrix…?)

Well, enough of the whine fest, here is my Top 10 for 2013:

Best of the Best

10. Glorior Belli - "Gators Rumble, Chaos Unfurls"

Glorior Belli’s 2011 effort, “The Great Southern Darkness” (TGSD), was my second favorite album of that particular year.  Not only were the songs on that album memorable and (gasp!) even relatively catchy at times, but they were able to mix Black Metal and Southern Metal without sounding pastiche. 

For some reason, even after hearing a pre-released track from “Gators Rumble, Chaos Unfurls” (GR, CU), several months ago, I had completely forgotten that they were due to release a new album this year.  Having now listened to it in all of its southern-fried, whiskey-soaked Satanic glory, I can now safely name it as one of my favorite albums this year.

Glorior Belli more or less continued the same sound on "GR, CU" that they had on "TGSD".  However, there are glimpses of a melodicism that was not on "TGSD".  After having listened to both albums more or less back to back, I can safely admit that "GR, CU" has just as good of songs as its predecessor, if not better.

9.  Carcass - "Surgical Steel"

2013 marked the 20th anniversary of the monolithically influential album, "Heartwork".  An album conjured by The Original Gods of Grind and Gore themselves, Carcass.  I think it's safe to say that everyone was waiting with held breaths; expecting a massive letdown with their comeback album.  However, "Surgical Steel" proved to be just the opposite.  There is not much that hasn't already been said about this album, so I will refrain from my typical loquaciousness and merely say this is one of the best Death Metal albums I have heard in a very long time.

Keep on rotting in the free world, Carcass!

8.  Locrian - "Return to Annihilation" 

THIS was the biggest surprise for me this year.  I've only heard some of Locrian's material here and there.  Not being a fan of sparse, minimalistic music in general, I had quite frankly written them off.  It wasn't until "Return to Annihilation" was featured on Invisible Oranges that I decided to give them another shot, and oh my, am I glad I did!  

Tracks like "Two Moons" (a reference to "1Q84", perhaps?) are otherwordly, while tracks like "Return to Annihilation" conjure the anxiety and dread of bands like SWANS.  

An incredibly well done album. 

7.  Dillinger Escape Plan - "One of Us Is the Killer"

While "Calculating Infinity" will always be my favorite DEP album (as well as my top 10 all-time heavy albums), there has not been one year in which DEP have released an album that they have not made my top 10 list for said year.  

Probably not the best explanation for why they made my top 10 list this year, but hey - it's FUCKING DILLINGER.  Expect quality.

6.  Deafheaven - "Sunbather"

When I heard the title track, I knew almost immediately that this would be one of my favorites of 2013.  Loads has been written about this particular Post-Black Metal gem, so I will refrain from echoing what has been said by hundreds of other reviewers.  I just want to say this was a huge step up from 2011's "Roads to Judah" in terms of musicianship, emotiveness, and sound exploration.  For me, they are really expanding on the American Post-Black Metal sound with this album, and I hope other bands will follow suit with their own expansions of the unspoken Post-Black Metal rulebook.
An emotional and epic audio journey. 

5.  Tribulation - "The Formulas of Death"

If someone were to ask me, "Your Exalted Dreddness, which mighty release of 2013 doth thou'st believeth to be hailed as a classic for all time?"  I would most assuredly respond, "Why, 'The Formulas of Death', you fool!  Now, to the guillotine with you for such an insolent question!!!"

Seriously, though.  As soon as I heard the first opening distorted chords after the trippy psychedelic intro, I knew that this wasn't going to be just another mediocre Black Metal release.  Oh no, this was some altogether different monster, my metal brothers and sisters.  
I think "Formulas..." was the biggest surprise for me this year besides "Return to Annihilation" by Locrian.  I had never even heard of Tribulation before I saw them at #10 on Decibel’s Top 40 Albums of 2013 list a month or two ago.  While there are some clear nods to Dissection (and vis-à-vis, Watain) in the songwriting, riffing, and vocals, Tribulation aren't merely rip-offs.  No, not by a long shot. There are influences of psychedelia and rock all over the place.  Not only are there sitar-like, middle eastern sounding passages scattered throughout the release, but there are "loud and soft" dynamics that one does not oft find in generic Black Metal.  

My only complaint is that at 75 minutes, it does drag on a little bit.  I could imagine this release being only 45 minutes, and still feeling like I had just listened to a complete product. 

Despite this feeble complaint, this album MIGHT go down as a classic in the years to come.   

4.  Anciients - "Hearts of Oak"
Well, this band certainly came out of nowhere!  Equal parts Opeth, Mastodon, and Classic/Proto-Metal makes for one fucking incredible album.  These guys are absolutely experts at crafting memorable and dynamic Metal/Rock songs. 

Not much more to say other than that!  Looking forward to hearing more from these guys in the future!

3.  Cult of Luna - "Vertikal"

When this came out at the beginning of the year, I was quick to call “Vertikal” my favorite Cult of Luna release.  After giving it some months’ time, I can still say that it at least rivals my other favorite CoL release, “Somewhere Along the Highway” (2006).  It seems as though the elongated break between “Eternal Kingdom” (2008) and “Vertikal” is just what CoL needed to expand and experiment with their established sound.

While the typical build-ups and climaxes of post-metal's (and CoL's) typical sound are still present, there is a variety of experimentation that CoL has simply not had on their other releases.  For example, intro and interlude ("The One" and "The Sweep", respectively), showcase a heavy use of synthesizers, which to me brings to mind 80s and early 90s Sci-Fi (for some reason 'Terminator' comes to mind).  Another more "out there" track is the drugged-out "Passing Through", which closes the album out simply with some filtered vocals, a single guitar line, a repeating melody on bells, and finally some synthesizer.  Quite different from the maximalist approach that the band usually takes to instrumentation.

The whole album takes on a mechanized, robotic quality, yet still retains very human emotions.  A great release from a band that has finally gone from Post-Metal wannabes to Post-Metal masters.

2.  Castevet - "Obsian"

After enjoying their 2010 debut, “Mounds of Ash”, a great deal, I had high expectations for Castevet’s sophomore effort.  Personally, I think they have far surpassed their debut with the release of "Obsian".

One thing that I’ve noticed about “Obsian” as opposed to “Mounds of Ash” is that while “Mounds of Ash” seemed to have one foot in the transcendental and one in the terrestrial, “Obsian” seems to have both feet firmly planted in the transcendental.  I’m an absolute sucker for ineffable music – music that expresses the inexpressible. "Obsian" most assuredly fits the bill.

Furthermore, "Obsian" seems much more focused as one continuous piece of work, even while the individual songs themselves seem somewhat fluid.  But this quality of fluidity is certainly not equivalent to "meandering".  I guess what I'm saying is that the structures of the song SEEM more open than they were on "Mounds of Ash".

Besides Andrew Hock's mystical and fluid, yet abrasive, guitar playing, Nicholas McMaster (Krallice, et al) adds a punchy, expressive bass that really ties everything together.  Much like Colin Marston did on "Colored Sands", McMaster seems to be keenly aware of the balance between technical prowess and playing in the pocket.
An amazing sophomore effort.

1.  Gorguts – ‘Colored Sands’

And after years of dark tunnels…he came to silence…there was nothing…”

This opening line from Emperor’s swansong describes my feelings towards waiting for the new Gorguts album (but is probably more apt in describing my feelings towards a new Necrophagist album…).

After years of setbacks and unfulfilled promises, my favorite Death Metal band ever released an album that surprisingly fulfilled the years of hype.  From the YouTube rehearsal videos between Luc Lemay and John Longstreth, to the announcement that two of my other favorite Metal musicians, Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston, would be joining the newest incarnation, to the two or three pre-released tracks provided by various Metal news outlets; my expectations were at an orgasmic peak.

Nonetheless, I can honestly say that it took me a while to blow my load over "Colored Sands".  However, after I let it sink in, I think it truly measures up to their last two releases, and may even surpass them in certain ways.  It should be made clear that their last two releases ("Obscura" (1998) and "From Wisdom to Hate" (2001)) are two of my favorite Metal releases of all time, so measuring up or surpassing my opinion of these releases is no small feat.  

As mentioned earlier, one element that raised my expectations tenfold for this album was the fact that Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston would be in the new lineup.  Hufnagel seems to be following Luc Lemay's lead throughout most of the album, but Marston's bass performance is phenomenal!  While he gets out of the pocket at moments with some tasty technical lines, he comes right back into just laying it down in the pocket.  I think it really adds another dimension to the album.  

I was also impressed with John Longstreth's performance.  While he is a total maniac machine gunner of a drummer in Origin, he totally replicates earlier Gorguts drummers' styles on the new album, while still adding his own unique flair.  Additionally, he adds much more space to the music than he does in Origin.

And, of course, there is Luc Lemay.  From what I remember reading, almost all of the songs and guitar parts were written by Mr. Lemay.  Enough said.

Although I don't think ALL of the songs are as memorable or as incredible as some past Gorguts material, there is no doubt in mind that my favorite Death Metal band has returned with a vengeance.

Best EPs

I generally decline to include EPs in my top albums of the year as just a personal policy.  But this year, there were two EPs that blew me away and left me wanting more.

Fallujah - "Nomadic"

As much as I’ve strayed away from the mundane sensationalism of most Death Metal, there are still a handful of DM bands that continue to inject some emotion into their particular sound (Obscura being another example).  On Fallujah’s EP, they have ditched much of the unnecessary br00tality of their previous album in favor of a more dynamic, melodic, and emotive sound.  A surprisingly quiet ambient track is sandwiched between two great heavier tracks.  This writer, for one, is looking forward to their next full length.

Mutoid Man - "Helium Head"

Stephen Brodsky is one of my favorite musicians, and I tend to get attached to just about anything the man touches.  I know what you're thinking...but my peener is already attached to me, you silly billy!

But seriously, this EP rocks fucking hard.  It's a shame they're a "one-and-done" side project!

Biggest Disappointment:

Beaten to Death - "Dodsfest!"

What the hell happened?!  2011's "Xes and Strokes" is one of my favorite Metal albums of the last few years.  With a angular, yet oddly melodic sound attached to some crushing Grindcore, Beaten to Death are one of a kind!  However, this album just has bad production and unmemorable songs compared to "Xes and Strokes".  I have no idea where they made a wrong turn.  I guess I am the only one who thinks this way, because I've only read good reviews for this album!  To each his own, I suppose.

Honorable Mentions (in no specific order)

Batillus -"Concrete Sustain"
Inquisition - "Obscure Verses for the Multiverse"
Iron Lung - "White Glove Test"
Celeste - "Animale(s)"
Code - "Augur Nox"
Ulcerate - "Vermis"
Nero Di Marte - "Nero Di Marte"
Beastmilk - "Climax"
Nails - "Abandon All Life"

No comments: