Thursday, December 19, 2013

Durf's Top 15 Albums of 2013


Hard to believe it's already December and time to look back on the past year, reflecting on the changes we've made, the adventures we've had, and most importantly, the albums we've listened to and really, really enjoyed.  Below are my Top 15 Albums of 2013; if you correctly guess which album is Number One before looking, I will mail you a cookie.  And don't forget to agree/disagree/tell me how full of shit I am in the comment section!

15. Arsaidh - Roots

My list starts off with a band which, like most of the new music I find, I discovered over at the wonderful No Clean Singing.  Roots is the debut album of Scotland's Arsaidh, and much like last year's twin debuts of Pallbearer and Ne Obliviscaris, it's an incredible showcase of a band that's worth watching.  Blending traditional Scottish instrumentation with black metal, Roots moves from the bleakness of the moors to the rage of a battle cry and back over four stunning tracks; aside from the interlude-ish "Saorsa," all the songs are over thirteen minutes.  There's plenty of time so soak in all of the epic things going on here, and for that reason, Roots really isn't a background listen.  It deserves your undivided attention.

Favorite Track: "Carved in Stone"

14. Obscure Sphinx - Void Mother

Every year, it seems like I take a flyer on an album I only recently discovered and throw it in my Albums of the Year list, because the album has grabbed hold of me and hasn't yet let go.  This year, that album is Void Mother.  Obscure Sphinx I had never heard of, but when I listened to the title track of this album, I knew I was in for something fun.  Blending a whole slew of genres together (I've seen "post-death metal" thrown around a bit), Void Mother is bleak without being despondent, intense without being savage.  There are some riffs that hearken back to ObZen-era Meshuggah, and some dreamy atmospherics that bring to mind Mouth of the Architect.  Lead singer Zofia "Wielebna" Fras deftly moves from harrowing screams to soft, nearly-whimpered vocals with ease, imbibing the album with an additional personality.  A pleasant, unexpected surprise.

Favorite Track: "Waiting for the Bodies Down the River Floating"

13. Windhand - Soma

A splendid doom album that creates a somber atmosphere without ever wallowing in self-pity, Soma is a phenomenal introspective listen.  The dual guitars of Asechiah Bogdan and Garret Morris bring desolate melodies to life, while the rhythm section of Parker Chandler and Ryan Wolfe bring a thundering crunch when necessary; all the while Dorthia Cottrell's vocals cauterize the parts together, melding them into the searingly heavy, devastatingly slow thunderclap.  The band is never stronger than on "Evergreen," an acoustic number that moves along at a dirge's pace; Cottrell hauntingly harmonizing with herself on pleas of "Stay evergreen" are not to be easily forgotten.

Favorite Track: "Evergreen"

12. Deafheaven - Sunbather

Let's just get this out of the way now: in my near decade of being a metal fan, I never thought a record like Sunbather would be a crossover hit with mainstream audiences, becoming arguably the most "popular" metal band in the country in the months after its release.  But I'm wrong all the time, so there's that, too.  With music that suggests Sigur Ros listened to a few Bathory albums on the way to the studio and vocals that are pure, unadulterated black metal shrieks, Sunbather is a fantastic album, a cousin of sorts to Alcest's more shoegaze-inspired black dreamscapes.  The album opens with a roar ("Dream House") and closes with a soothing melody (the end of the sublime "The Pecan Tree"), and in between is an hour of raw passion oozing out of every note, every shriek, every lyric.  The argument about Deafheaven being a "hipster" metal band or not "kvlt" or "trve" is irrelevant; when a band puts this much honest to Dio catharsis into an entire album, it's worth listening to repeatedly.  Get off the computer, stop caring so much about what Pitchfork says, and listen to one of the best albums of the year.

Favorite Track: "The Pecan Tree"

11. Ghost - Infestissumam

Nope, it's not a Blue Oyster Cult record with a Satanic twist.  Yep, this band that seemed like a one-trick, gimmicky costumed pony had some more ideas up its sleeve, resulting in one of the most incredible pop-rock albums.  And yeah, that's probably why a lot of metalheads had a problem with it and a lot of non-metal fans enjoyed it.  But we've already gone over that with Sunbather, and make no mistake: if you skip Infestissumam because your hipster cousin mentioned it to you, then you're missing out.  Papa Emeritus and the Nameless Ghouls return, less riff-dependent and catchy as... well, hell.  Tracks like "Secular Haze," "Body and Blood," "Depth of Satan's Eyes," and "Idolatrine" wouldn't sound out of place in a Dick Clark's Rockin New Year's Eve from the 60s, albeit darker and more Lucifer-focused than anything of the time.  Despite every incredible, catchy song on the album, the bigger take away is that Ghost, a band who's phenomenal debut, Opus Eponymous, was derided for being a gimmick, broke those shackles and made an album without fear of critical or fan reception.  Infestissumam is an album that doesn't give a fuck whether you like it or not, and because of that, Ghost has progressed further as a band on their second album than many bands do in an entire career.

Favorite Track: "Monstrance Clock"

10. Mouth of the Architect - Dawning

Another stunning release from Mouth of the Architect, Dawning finds the band treading on familiar ground with a newfound sense of urgency.  The smoky, expansive soundscape contains harmonious vocals among the tortured pleas of "Enough is enough" on "Lullabye," while squealing guitar lines emerge from the haze on "It Swarms."  Mouth of the Architect has been chugging along for over a decade now, but even with numerous lineup changes, the band proves resilient, and you can tell they haven't lost any of their passion for what they do.  Dawning is a smoldering piece of stoner post-metal that entrances you repeatedly over multiple listens.

Favorite Track: "Patterns"

9. Pelican - Forever Becoming

One of the most aptly-titled albums I've heard, Forever Becoming finds Pelican playing the sum of their stylistic endeavors while also moving forward into new, unexplored territory.  The riffage of newer releases What We All Come to Need and City of Echoes is meshed with the atmospheric power of The Fire in Our Throwats will Beckon the Thaw and Australasia, providing an album that is as powerful as it is thoughtful.  Tracks like "Immutable Dusk" showcase a band that has reached a new creative zenith.

Favorite Song: "The Tundra"

8. Gorguts - Colored Sands

The first of two long-awaited albums on this list, Colored Sands is Gorguts' first release in 12 years, long enough that the excitement for this record was hard to contain for most fans.  It didn't disappoint, as Luc Lemay brought back that signature Gorguts sound.  Colored Sands is expansive, genre-bending death metal that isn't content to rest on its laurels.  "Le Toit du Monde" kicks things off with a bang, followed by Gorguts ripping and shredding through a frantic hour's worth of music (with the exception of "The Battle of Chamdo," and incredible string composition in the middle of the album) with enough energy that you feel exhausted listening to it.  As a bonus, the album is a concept album about Tibet, which I had no idea about until the other day; it's a subtle inclusion that gives the album a myriad of layers to search through.  Lemay recruited Colin Marston, Kevin Hufnagel, and John Longstreth to round out the lineup on Colored Sands; here's hoping they stick together.  The world needs more Gorguts.

Favorite Track: "Forgotton Arrows"

7. Clutch - Earth Rocker

A rip-roaring bevy of pure rock fury, Earth Rocker is one of the most fun Clutch albums to date.  With the exception of the bluesy slow ride down the Mississippi "Gone Cold," every one of Earth Rocker's tracks live up to its title.  Neil Fallon's vocals dance in a way that suggests he's having the time of his life, and while political and social lyrics still abound, they're scattered among stories of speedy motorcycles and booze.  Earth Rocker is a party on a record, highly recommended for anytime you want to amp up the energy and get the people rockin'.

Favorite Track: "D.C. Sound Attack"

6. TesseracT - Altered State

After what seemed like an eternity spent searching for a new lead singer, TesseracT finally returned with Altered State, the group's first album with new vocalist Ashe O'Hara.  After so much time between their impressive debut album, apprehensions about the band's sound were certainly merited.  Once you started the record, however, these fears were a moot point.  Altered State is a groovy funhouse of a record, a melodic metal album that takes tropes from djent and flips them on their head.  There's not a bit of harsh vocals from O'Hara, but his soaring clean singing never leaves you feeling disappointed.  If I have one critique of the album, it's the the songs sort of blur together (intentionally?) at certain points, leaving me struggling to describe one song or another to people (or pick a favorite...), but it's a minor flaw when viewing Altered State as a single complete piece of music.  Here's hoping O'Hara sticks around for more than this one outing; if he does, TesseracT could very well become a progressive metal powerhouse.

Favorite Track: See Above

5. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork

When I first listened to ...Like Clockwork, I was slightly underwhelmed.  As I continued to listen, however, it grew on my brain like a fungus.  Queens of the Stone Age has always been an unabashedly sleazy band, focusing on the pillars of rock n' roll like sex and booze, but perhaps more on this album than any of their previous work, that focus comes through in the music.  Listening to ...Like Clockwork just feels like a night out binge drinking, imbibing illicit substances, and looking for that special someone to share your cab home at at last call, all while still being fantastic rock n' roll.  I'm man enough to admit that I was wrong about this one; not only is ...Like Clockwork far from underwhelming, but it merits a place in the discussion of Josh Homme and Company's best albums to date.

Favorite Track: "I Appear Missing"

4. Cult of Luna - Vertikal

Vertikal is said to be loosely based on Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a silent film from the 1920s I watched stoned in a film class once.  While I can't tell you how true that is, I can say that Vertikal is Cult of Luna's finest work to date, a dense, wholly consuming album that balances crushing force with passages that feel like an audio fog.  The album opener, "The One," manages to capture all of the impending grandiosity in a mere two minutes, while behemoth "Vicarious Redemption" stretches it out over eighteen immense minutes that leave you exhausted after listening, which is rough because it's only the third track on the album.  Listening to Vertikal straight through is essential; like most concept albums, it has musical themes that are at play in many different places.  Don't let the oppressive nature of the music scare you off; block out an hour, turn off the lights, and dive in.

Favorite Track: "Mute Departure"

3. Altar of Plagues - Teethed Glory and Injury

Teethed Glory and Injury turned out to be the swan song of Ireland's Altar of Plagues, as the band announced they were calling it quits shortly after the album's release.  This news was certainly a blow to metal, as Teethed Glory and Injury announced Altar of Plagues as being ready to join the upper echelons of metal bands.  Scaling back the epic song lengths of previous releases White Tomb and Mammal (no song on Teethed Glory... approaches the ten minute mark) without losing any of the ambiance, Teethed Glory and Injury saw Altar of Plagues perfect their blend of atmospheric bleakness and blistering black metal.  No one's called it post-black metal yet, but that's exactly what it is.  Tracks like "God Alone" and "A Remedy and A Fever" showcase the band at the absolute pinnacle of their sound, furiously raging over textured waves of sound, never ceasing to create tension.  Teethed Glory and Injury is fifty minutes of a band doing what they do best, and with all due respect to Deafheaven, THIS is the black metal album that everyone should be raving about this year, and while I commend Altar of Plagues for going out on top, they will certainly be missed.

Favorite Track: "Twelve Was Ruin"

2. Steven Wilson - The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories)

In a career full of incredible albums that produce awe and wonder, Steven Wilson may have released his best work to date.  The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories) is a collection of ghost stories that spans emotions, musical styles, and defies convention.  From the rapid-fire opening of "Luminol" to the quiet, near-lullaby album closing title track, Steven Wilson delivers an album with absolutely no weak points and impeccable musicianship.  Speaking of the music, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories) has even less in common with metal than its predecessor, 2011's Grace for Drowning, but it's hardly missed.  In fact, it isn't missed at all.  Wilson has always been adept at crafting the perfect balance between the lyrics he sings and the music he puts behind it; years of regret and deceit are backed impeccably by flute and soft guitar in "The Watchmaker," for instance, and the rest of the album is no different.  Steven Wilson is one of the foremost musical artists working right now, and The Raven that Refused to Sing is the proof.  This album could stack up against every Top Album for the Past Ten Years and come out ahead; had it not been for another masterpiece, it would have this year as well.

Favorite Track: "The Watchmaker"

1. Carcass - Surgical Steel

Like Gorguts, Carcass has been away from the metal scene for long enough that there was palpable anticipation when the band announced their first new album since 1996's Swansong.  To put it mildly, Surgical Steel exceeded every possible expectation.  This is a masterpiece of songwriting, each track intense enough to please any headbanger while also being draped in incredible melodies and riffs.  Surgical Steel feels like an album that brings about a paradigm shift; for the next decade, death metal bands are going to spring up, spawned from the sound and technique on this album.  Carcass manages to sound exactly like fans want Carcass to sound while simultaneously moving forward and evolving their sound to the pinnacle of what death metal can be.  Founding members Bill Steer and Jeff Walker haven't lost a step, and are joined by Daniel Wilding and Ben Ash to form an iteration of Carcass that will hopefully continue to create and put out music.  Whether that happens remains to be seen, but regardless, the quartet has put out something special in Surgical Steel, and you would be foolish to miss it.

Favorite Track: "Master Butcher's Apron," "The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills"

- Durf

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