Friday, December 20, 2013

Mick's Top 15 Albums of 2013

2013 has been one heck of a year for all of us...mainly because we relaunched Brutalitopia earlier in the spring and are now back in full force with a renewed sense of purpose. Thanks to everyone who's made that possible by supporting us in their respective ways.

And now time for everyone's favorite time of year...the end of it. Check out what albums I thought were awesome enough to recognize after the break!

15. Anciients - Heart of Oak
If you’ve ever been partial to the southern rock/sludge vibes given off by the likes of Mastodon and Baroness, then consider yourself obligated to check out this debut from Vancouver’s own Anciients. Effectively balancing soft melody laden guitar passages and vocals with huge riffs and shrill growls, Heart of Oak is an all-around fun listen. Short spurts of progressive guitar riffage also permeate the album, which further spice up the already catchy stoner-esque riffs. Whether you’re a fan of progressive, stoner, or death metal, albums like this are great to hear because it’s clear that fans of various genres can find something to appreciate and actively like about it.    
Favorite Tracks: Raise the Sun, Overthrone

14. Norma Jean - Wrongdoers
Metalcore is a cringe-worthy term in some circles, but genre veterans Norma Jean show that it still has plenty of good things to offer. The particular thing that makes Wrongdoers a worthwhile listen is that it doesn’t slow down for a second. Whether it’s the fast-paced, almost math-metalesque, nature of tracks like “If You Got it at Five, You Got it at Fifty,” and “The Potter with No Hands” or more traditional sounding tracks like “Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes,” every track still comes across as aggressive. For a band that’s gone through so many lineup changes, Wrongdoers is a testament to the band’s potential when they, in fact, do no wrong. 
Favorite Tracks: If you Got it at Five, You got it at Fifty, Funeral Singer

13. Rivers of Nihil - The Conscious Seed of Light
I’m not the biggest fan of technical death metal in the entire world but there always seems to be one or two albums in that arena that catches my attention each year. This year, that album comes in the form of the full length debut from Rivers of Nihil, The Conscious Seed of Light. What grabbed me about The Conscious Seed of Light was that it wasn’t technical death metal for the sake of it. Catchy grooves and rhythms are just as much a part of this album as the technicality is. While much of the technicality on this album is standard fare, the album’s strength comes from its apparent influences…..think Meshuggah meets the Faceless.  
Favorite Tracks: Rain Eater, Airless

12. Hypnos - The Fall
No album gave me the “surprise out of nowhere” more than this debut from French post-metallers Hypnos. Bringing to mind acts like Isis or Mouth of the Architect, The Fall harnesses atmospheric passages in combination with droning guitars and almost Behemoth-like vocals. The album’s soundscapes seduce you into a world of down-driven oppressiveness that offers glimmers of harmonious sedation. This is some pretty tasty post-metal, folks. Keep these guys on your radar. 
Favorite Tracks: Arrow, (H)elle - The Fall

11. Subrosa - More Constant than the Gods
Doom metal at times can leave much to be desired. There’s only so many droning guitar notes you can listen to before you need something more to fulfill your listening experience. In the case of the fourth album from Subrosa, doom metal is offered to us with a folky allure and brilliant atmospheric song structures. Droning guitar riffs are certainly abundant, but it’s their combination with passionate female vocals, violins, piano, and even flutes that help to set this album apart from the pack. Perhaps the only thing that is more constant than the gods is how hauntingly beautiful each listen of this album is.  
Favorite Tracks: The Usher, Cosey Mo

10. Ulcerate - Vermis
When I’m describing Ulcerate to new listeners of the band, the term “heavy” always comes to mind. Yet, it also dawns on me that “heavy” doesn’t do true justice to how heavy they really are. “Stupidly heavy” gets closer but still falls a little short. With Vermis, Ulcerate continues to punish listeners without any glimpse of remorse. The band uses a similar formula to what was present on their previous release, The Destroyers of All, but tighten it up to the point where you can tell they’re finding their niche. Dissonant guitar lines often build up to sections of sporadic blasting guitars, heavy vocals, and pounding drums...sounds that can aptly be described as flat-out assault. I’ve read complaints about people stating that Vermis isn’t very memorable, but once you think about it that’s not really the point of being dissonant. To steal a rather astute point from Jack, you’ll never hear someone whistling an Ulcerate track. If you’re in the mood for your ears to be punished in the best way possible, give this one a spin.

Favorite Tracks: Weight of Emptiness, Confronting Entropy

9. Ghost - Infestissumam
Bringing happy go-lucky satanic sing alongs to the realm of the anthemic is what elevates Ghost’s sophomore effort above its predecessor, Opus Eponymous. Ghost’s metal aesthetic and lyrical content combined with the sounds of 70s hard rock, and even surf rock, is what makes Infestissumam a bold album to be sure. But while Opus felt more like a collection of singles, Infestissumam brings a richer and more full album experience. The guitar riffs are catchier, the keys are vampier, and the choruses are more grandiose. Singing about the anti-christ has never been so much fun or so easy.
Favorite Tracks: Secular Haze, Year Zero, Monstrance Clock

8. Tesseract - Altered State
I never thought that Tesseract would be able to achieve that next level after the loss of Daniel Tompkins, but with Ashe O’Hara now taking over in the vocal department, I’m happy to say that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Altered State shows us the Tesseract that we may not necessarily have expected, but one we are certainly thrilled to see. The album’s biggest strength is its fluidity. Composed as a single piece of music, Altered State’s tracks flow seamlessly between each other and, as a result, create some rather breathtaking transitions. Tesseract’s command over melody is another huge strength on this album. Whether it’s the power in O’Hara’s completely clean vocals or the rolling guitar lines that help to shape an electronic/ethereal soundscape, there are plenty of hooks that will hold your attention throughout. Do yourself a favor and listen to this whole album in one sitting. You’ll thank yourself later. 
Favorite Tracks: Retrospect, Nocturne

7. Intronaut - Habitual Levitations (Instilling Words with Tones)
It’s always refreshing to have your expectations of an album surpassed and then some. It was going to take some doing to surpass Valley of Smoke, but Sacha Dunable and crew did just that with Habitual Levitations. Being their most progressive release to date, Habitual Levitations takes the Intronaut sound in a more atmospheric direction. There are still plenty of heavy riffs and bass lines to be found here, but they’re more balanced with psychedelic guitar work that’s super relaxing. Dunable’s vocals are almost completely void of growls this time around, further reinforcing the lax nature of the album. The band’s experimentation certainly pays off here.
Favorite Tracks: Killing Birds with Stones, Sore Sight for Eyes

6. Gorguts - Colored Sands
12 years is quite a lengthy stretch to have been the last time you’ve released any material. In the case of the revitalized Gorguts, however, Luc Lemay shows he can pick up where he left off in a heartbeat. A concept album about Tibet, Colored Sands reintroduces Gorguts to the metal world in a huge way. Even though their early work leans towards the technical side of the death metal spectrum, Colored Sands will go down as being remembered for its each absolutely massive and thunderous barrages of heaviness. Having Colin Marston, Kevin Hufnagel, and John Longstreth along in the Gorguts mix does ensure the band’s technical chops are up to snuff, but the focus of Colored Sands lies more within the overall feel of the album. Harmonics are often interlaced within the aforementioned barrages of heaviness to help set an ominous mood…one that permeates the whole album and gives it that much more weight. For Gorguts, this way more than a return to form. Colored Sands is a statement album that suggests we can expect more great things to come.   

5. Protest the Hero - Volition
If you’re a sucker for melodic hooks, whether it be through guitar riffs or clean vocals, it’s only a matter of time before you get reeled in by the new crowd-funded album from progressive metallers Protest the Hero. A much needed step up from Scurrilous, the band’s previous album, Volition showcases Protest the Hero doing what they do best and pushing it further. The guitar work is as impressive as ever, Rody Walker continues to show off his outstanding vocal range, and Chris Adler steps in on drums. The musicianship is top notch and every song has some riff or some vocal line (usually a combo of the two) that will be stuck in your head for days. Only time will tell if I end up liking this more than Fortress, but it’s certainly made a strong first impression.
Favorite Tracks: Yellow Teeth, A Life Embossed, Skies

4. Russian Circles - Memorial
If where you currently live during this time of year is bitterly cold, no album will cut to your core more than the fifth album from the Chicago natives in Russian Circles. Memorial certainly brings a familiar formula to the table for well-versed Russian Circles listeners, but never has an album of theirs sounded as cohesive and as well polished. The use of guitar riffs that relentlessly grind with crusty tones, backed by unsurprisingly powerful drumming from Dave Turncrantz, gives the album a dark tone that is chilling to say the least. To vary up the emotional peaks and valleys presented on Memorial, however, other tracks harness acoustic guitar passages along with distant ambient guitars to almost lull the listener into a false sense of security before again returning to head-bang worthy walls of sound. While I have many other albums on my list this year that make their impact with their technically proficient playing, Memorial is a perfect example of how sometimes simplicity is key. It’s hard to deny that these grooves aren’t among the most infectious of the year.    
Favorite Tracks: Deficit, Lebaron

3. Deafheaven - Sunbather
Deafheaven certainly aren’t the first ones to think of marrying shoegaze and black metal together, but with Sunbather they have certainly fitted the style to their own mold…and damn does it sound good. It’s the emotional ups and downs of Sunbather that makes it an album worth listening to. Whether it’s the traditional black metal guitar tones, the unrelenting blast beats, the clean shoegazey guitar passages, or the harrowing screams of George Clark, this album is haunting and uplifting all at the same time. The bottom line that makes Sunbather awesome is that it makes black metal more accessible. While the widespread coverage of this album has been making everyone point fingers and call each other the “h-word,” there’s really nothing cooler than a black metal album that can reach a large audience.
Favorite Tracks: Dream House, The Pecan Tree

2. Steven Wilson - The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories)
This album probably belongs more to the world of progressive rock rather than metal, but there are plenty of things about Steven Wilson’s latest offering that are as heavy and dark as any other release this year.  Wilson also continues to prove he’s one of the most gifted songwriters of our time. Stylistically, The Raven that Refused to Sing is more or less an homage to the progressive rock bands of old. Acoustic guitars, flutes, saxophones, this album has it all. What should really be admired about the instrumentation of the Raven, however, is that it makes technically proficient playing seem effortless. In addition, the lyrical themes of ghost stories add another dimension to the mix. The combination of the two create a listening experience that, much like the previous entry, is both haunting and touching at the same time.   
Favorite Tracks: The Watchmaker, The Raven that Refused to Sing

1. Altar of Plagues - Teethed Glory & Injury
I can’t say I’ve been so torn about a band announcing their end. I say torn because on the one hand…I as a listener am greedy and want more Altar of Plagues, but on the other hand…they decided to leave on one hell of a high note. Teethed Glory & Injury, the latest album from these Irish black metallers takes the #1 spot on my list because it’s the perfect example of a band that continued to push their own boundaries on their own terms. Altar of Plagues made their name by creating ambient black metal that stuck to longer drawn out song structures, Mammal perhaps being the best album representing that. On Teethed Glory & Injury, however, the longest song caps at about eight and a half minutes with most of the other songs landing in the four to five minute range. Despite this, Altar of Plagues managed to encapsulate the same amount, if not more, of atmosphere that they’re traditionally known for. This atmosphere includes subtle electronic background noises, ambient guitar riffs, tortured vocal screams, blasting drums, and ever building ambient sounds. This is an album that knows when to hit hard and when to scale it back. It’s an album that’s full of power and emotion. For all of these reasons, I salute Altar of Plagues for leaving us with this masterpiece to remember them by.  
Favorite Tracks: God Alone, Found Oval and Final, Reflection Pulse Remains

That's it for 2013, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks to everyone who joined us on our adventures and we look forward to doing it all again in 2014.

- Mick 

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