The Monolith’s 2013 in review – part 5!
If I may say so, 2013 has been the best year for music in quite some time. Quite a few bands put in excellent debut and sophomore releases, and all five of my most highly anticipated albums from bands that hadn’t done anything in years were absolutely awesome. Not to mention more than a few albums from this year will certainly be among my favourites all time years down the road.
Because of this supreme crop of music, I decided to do something a little different with my list this year. Rather than publish a singular ranked list, I decided to divide by genre somewhat. Anyone who knows me will know that prog rock/metal and black metal are my two favourite genres, so they each get their own top 10, and then I will be doing a top five ‘other genre’ list, along with honourable mentions for each. The idea is that it’ll make it easier to rank, since I always have massive trouble trying to rank black metal on the same list as progressive metal, since I enjoy both for very different reasons. And one top five because I can’t leave out something just because it doesn’t fall into one of those two camps. The reasons make sense in my head, shut up!
Hoo boy, this is one intense release. For those that like their progressive metal heavy, fast, technical, and melodic, Persefone from Andorra are for you. This newest release is possibly their finest work to date, building lovely progressive melodic death metal laced with clean vocals and superb melodies. In a year where Dream Theater released a massively disappointing album, Persefone have taken up the technical side of that mantle.
Spiritual Migrations is a mind journey that takes the listener through some seriously cool song structures. Songs like “Majestic of Gaia” and “Zazen Meditation” as well as the “Consciousness” suite weave rhythmic loops around the listener but also have time for more sensitive moments. The clean vocals don’t appear often, but when they do they sound really nice, adding that extra dimension to the release.
Best songs: Majestic of Gaia, Consciousness pt 1 and 2
9. Omb – SwineSong
This is a very strange record right here. Omb is an Israeli band formed by Yuval Kramer who is also in Amaseffer and Reign of the Architect (who also released an album this year). However, SwineSong is a very different album from those other projects. It is definitely flavoured with avant-garde leanings, and the album never seems to re-use any ideas. If I’m being completely honest, that actually kind of worked against the album a bit. I love hearing new interesting ideas, and this album is absolutely loaded with those, but a little bit of repetition goes a long way.
Vocally, this album is as diverse as they come, with growls, falsettos, raspy strangled cleans, and operatic cleans all making appearances. They’re all used to great effect, each at the perfect point in the music. The way the vocalist switches between styles, sometimes going only halfway, is absolutely wonderful. I really would like to see this kind of diversity used more often. SwineSong is an excellent debut album from this project, but there is also certainly room (and hope) for improvement,
Best songs: An Ordinary Caveman Sings Ode to Obsession, Someday My Prince Will Come, Oh Mrs Wade! You Shouldn’t Have
I received this EP in my inbox back in August with a request for a review. Little did I know what I would be getting into. The Death of the Day is a near perfect example of trippy, ambient, experimental prog touched by the cold bleakness of un-reality. The electronic elements are what really put this over the top for me, being robotic and ethereal all at the same time, and when combined with the acoustic guitar chords, it brings it all together in a really nice and strange package. The occasional addition of vocals serve to make the music feel more isolating and less peaceful, but still excellent.
The only thing that kept this from being higher on the list is the fact that this year had some absolutely amazing releases ahead of it. Battlestations are a young group and definitely have some interesting years ahead of them if they keep up this stellar output of sonic majesty.
Best song: Dawn Of A Forgotten | The Adverse Reaction | There’s Only So Much You Can Hear In A Sigh | While We’re Still Here | Fractured
7. Riverside – Shrine of New Generation Slaves
Riverside are one of those progressive rock/metal bands that have never really gotten their due. They have released some seriously good music with a couple wonderful albums in Anno Domine High Definition, and Second Life Syndrome. This year saw the release of their newest album, titled Shrine of New Generation Slaves (SONGS). A lot of bands seem to forget the ‘rock’ part of ‘progressive rock’ but not Riverside, as this album absolutely rocks. Full of heavy riffs that allow you to bang your head, but it also does have its more proggy moments, such as “The Depths of Self Delusion.” Then there are songs like the lead single “Celebrity Touch” which just fucking rocks hard. That main riff is one of the meatiest, catchiest, headbangiest riffs of the year. Lyrically, it is quite emotionally profound, dealing with varying social themes such as celebrity culture and the modern world.
Riverside really should get more attention than they currently due and hopefully SONGS will help the rest of the world sit up and take notice.
Best songs: Celebrity Touch, Depths of Self Delusion, Escalator Shrine
6. Leprous – Coal
Leprous began life as the backing band for Ihsahn, and have since evolved into their own and become an excellent band in their own right. Coal was probably one of the more anticipated albums of the year, and Leprous did not disappoint. While I don’t find it quite as good as their previous effort, Bilateral, it is still a fine album for the band. It feels softer, more pillow-y somehow, with more focus on atmosphere and vocal mood rather than the harder riffing that graced previous efforts.
“The Valley” is one of the top songs of the year, and “Coal” has an absolutely wonderful vocal performance from Einar Solberg. Though they clearly want to form an identity outside the shadow of Ihsahn, they had the man himself guest on the final track on the album, one which is the heaviest and most extreme on it. Leprous are a force to be reckoned with in progressive metal, and show no signs of slowing down. The future is theirs to take.
Best songs: The Valley, Salt, Coal
5. Epysode – Fantasmagoria
I heard this band described as ‘The Belgian Arjen Lucassen,’ which immediately piqued my interest. After listening, that’s really only accurate in that it is also a project of one man who uses guest musicians, as it is fairly different musically.
What Epysode’s Fantasmagoria is, is a heavy progressive metal opera concept album. The riffs are seriously powerful, packing punches left right and centre. The vocal melodies are greatly memorable, and very anthemic. This is definitely a traditional progressive metal album; nothing necessarily really ground-breaking here, but it is done so well and in such an enjoyable way. “Morning Road” has a great chorus that has a hint of desperation to it. The production is also extremely full and rounded. The tone is dark, almost spectral, and the singers are well chosen to represent the concept. Progressive metal is living strong, and this is one the best entries of the year into it.
Best songs: The Arch, The Black Parade, Forgotten Symphony
4. Plini – Sweet Nothings
Talk about a dark horse entry on this list. Plini is the brainchild of a 21 year old Australian making some sort of prog rock/jazz fusion in his bedroom. He actually had three releases this year – two EPs and one split with Sithu Aye - but it is Sweet Nothings that caught my attention the most. I don’t think I’ve heard playing this fluid in quite some time. Every guitar line this guy plays just seems so smooth, like liquid chocolate. His composition is extremely appealing, as it has just the right amount of melody, technical ability, and rose-tinted atmosphere. Purely instrumental music generally doesn’t do much for me, but Plini has beaten the odds.
For a bedroom project, his tone and production is absolutely amazing. There really are no excuses for bad production in this day and age. His split with Sithu Aye is also amazing, and is worth checking out, and all his releases are available for free download on Bandcamp.
Best songs: Tarred and Feathered, Away
3. Ayreon – The Theory of Everything
With this newest album, progressive rock opera genius Arjen Lucassen revisits his main project for the first time since 2008’s 01011001 - and the time away from Ayreon has clearly worked wonders for his creativity, as The Theory of Everything is one hell of an album. It isn’t constructed in the conventional way, but rather contains four 20 minute epics that are each divided into smaller movements. This may be off-putting to some, but trust me, once you get your teeth into it, the wonderful music and vocal melodies will entrance you. Michael Mills and Tommy Karevik stand out to me as the finest vocalists on the album, and the keyboard solos from both Keith Emerson and Jordan Rudess are legendary. Rick Wakeman’s contribution is really nice as well, though I would have liked more from all three keyboardists. The “Theory of Everything” theme that comes back a few times is enormously catchy and I found myself tapping and humming along to it even long after I’d listened to it. I would be bold enough to say that this is one of Ayreon’s finest albums of all time, nearly on par with the superb Into the Electric Castle. Thank you, Arjen.
Best songs: the whole goddamn thing
2. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)
When I first heard this album, it absolutely blew me away. I had high expectations, because Steven Wilson is one of the finest creative minds of this era and the lineup he assembled was beyond ridiculous, but he still managed to surpass my expectations. Marco Minneman is perhaps the best drummer Steven could have possibly recruited, and Marco repays him with a performance for the ages. Guthrie Govan, Theo Travis, Nick Beggs, and Adam Holzman are no slouches either. I believe this is Steven’s finest album vocally as well. On “Holy Drinker” he turns in a very dark and passionate performance, and his work on “Luminol” is light, airy, and sombre. Additionally, this is quite possibly the best produced album of the year, which is to be expected given that Steven Wilson and Alan Parsons were heading the engineering. The Raven That Refused To Sing is a damn fine album and, were it not for the next entry on this list, would have run away with Album of the Year.
Best songs: Luminol, The Raven That Refused to Sing, Holy Drinker
1. Haken – The Mountain
After hearing the Steven Wilson album, I (foolishly) declared that no album this year would come close to how good that one was. Boy oh boy did Haken ever make me eat my words with a side serving of soup. The Mountain is an absolutely fantastic album, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the best prog rock albums of all time. In my review for it, I gave the album a 92, but I definitely need to alter that. This album deserves a 96 or 97, it is that good. The songs flow together perfectly, and each one has something different to offer. “Cockroach King” is a strange quirky number, whereas “Falling Back To Earth” offers heavy riffs and a catchy chorus, but isn’t’t afraid to pile on the prog epic flavour. Singer Ross Jennings has massively improved since their debut. Haken’s The Mountain is hand’s down the best album of the year, and one of the best prog albums I’ve heard this side of 1990.
Best songs: Falling Back to Earth, Pareidolia, Cockroach King
Brent A Petrie
This band was originally named Àrsaidh, and from the same creative genius behind the black metal projects Askival and Falloch, Saor’s Roots is a truly wonderful album; it bestows a beauty to the genre of black metal, using traditional Scottish folk sounds underneath muted lengthy post black metal riffing. The production feels so free and wide open, like the highlands themselves. Lyrics dealing with Scottish folklore, nature, and the Highlands, and they give a really nice connection to the music. I am not Scottish, but listening to this, I get a real sense of familiarity and kinship with the tales and landscapes that are mentioned.
Even though it only contains three songs and one interlude, it is a really full album, seeing as all three songs are over 13 minutes in length, but they never feel overlong. Roots is another great release from a long-time folk/black metal force, and I certainly hope to see more from this band in the future.
Best song: Carved In Stone
Another Scottish black metal project to release its debut this year, Cnoc An Tursa’s Giants of Auld is a very different animal from the previously mentioned Saor. Whereas as Saor is in the vein of Wodensthrone and Winterfylleth - long and atmospheric – Cnoc An Tursa is blasting and angry.
A friend of mine described them as an angrier Ensiferum, which is partially accurate; Cnoc An Tursa definitely feel passion about their lyrics, and it shows in the furious melodic pagan black metal riffs. The atmosphere is there as well, the keyboards undertones a really nice. Vocally, some people might find Alan Buchan’s voice a turn off, but I find that it really fits with the mood that is set. After a nice intro, we get a scream of “Sons of Alba, rise in defiance of tyranny!” and then the album hits you in the face with its claymore. It isn’t all full speed though, as it does back off a bit, letting a few more emotional moments shine through. The Giants of Auld is a wonderful debut for this band, and I really look forward to hearing more from this band in the future.
Best songs: The Lion of Scotland, The Spellbound Knight, Hail the Lands of My Fathers
Are Inquisition the best black metal band today? It certainly looks to be that way, as their output has been absolutely massive of late. 2011’s excellent Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm with this year’s Obscure Verses for the Multiverse, the black metal duo do not fuck around. The riffs are delicious and meaty and the production is wonderful. The shifts between slower parts and faster blast beats are enough to give you whiplash, but keep you wanting more. Incubus’ drumming is furious and blistering, and tight as can possibly be. Dagon’s vocals are a splitting point on the band, but I really enjoy them, and here they sound as damn fine as ever, and the deep echo-y growls in “Darkness Flows Towards Unseen Horizons” are almost terrifying.
I am fully convinced that the duo of Dagon and Incubus make up the finest modern black metal band, and certainly one of the best all time, and Obscure Verses is just another feather in their mighty cap.
Best songs: Darkness Flows Towards Unseen Horizons, Master of the Cosmological Black, Infinite Interstellar Genocide
This is probably the most last-minute entry on my list, and probably the ‘tr00est’ release. Paysage d’Hiver are a black metal project from the guitarist of Darkspace. Their output falls firmly in the ‘trve kvlt’ area, as they literally have released only demos and two splits. Das Tor is his newest demo release, and it, while not really changing the formula at all, managed to capture my attention.
It is oppressive, cold, raw, and powerful. The drums are very much faded into the background, and the guitars are quite static-y. The keyboards offer a miasmal coating, a tapestry of winter and darkness that flows from the mouth of the Abyss. The four songs run for over an hour of frigid music, but once you get immersed into it, it feels as though time stretches, elongating until nothing but a deep cold exists. I wouldn’t really expect many outside the black metal community to really enjoy this, but I know I found it immensely listenable. Das Tor definitely deserves its place in this list.
Best songs: Macht Des Schicksals, Ewig Leuchten Die Sterne
Summoning returned after a seven year break, to bring us a brand new album full of epic Tolkien black metal goodness. Their last album, Oath Bound, is one of my favourite black metal albums of all time, so naturally, I was worried that Summoning might fall flat on following that up.
The band completely erased all their keyboard patches and guitar effects from the last album, so that they could start over with fresh ideas, and I think that paid off. There is absolutely no attempt to ape Oath Bound, or indeed any of their albums. It is simply Summoning doing what they do best; making a medieval, Tolkien-infused atmospheric epic black metal album. Old Mornings Dawn is marvellous it its atmosphere and composition. The title track is sure to become one of the true Summoning classics. Summoning are, by now, a band that you will always expect quality from. Old Mornings Dawn is a less over the top affair than previous works, but it showcases the band’s strengths really well.
Best songs: Old Mornings Dawn, Caradhras, The Wandering Fire
This release was another fairly late entry on to this list. One moment in particular really pushed into my top listens; being on the bus to work on a fairly dark and snowy day. Something about Psychonaut 4’s third of the split really worked with the tone. Happy Days and Dodsferd held up their ends as well, but it was the Psychonaut 4 songs that had the most impact on me, especially “My Despair Can’t Be Explained”. The vocals are absolutely destructive, wearing on the soul like coarse sandpaper on soft wood. One truly gets the feeling of utter depression and even hatred on this split. Dodsferd’s songs are like running naked through a winter storm in the dark, while screaming incoherently at the top of your lungs, and Happy Days are definitely the complete juxtaposition of their name.
This is not a happy split, but it is an amazing split. Six songs of hatred, despair, depression, and darkness packed into a journey you’ll never forget.
Best songs: My Despair Can’t Be Explained, Death Has Always Been the God, Serenity the Deceiver
Thy Light are one of those bands that I never thought I would see another release from again. In 2007, they released a demo tape called Suici.De.Pression, which utterly entranced me, and then appeared to drop off the face of the Earth. It was one of the best truly suicidal black metal albums I have heard.
In 2013 though, they activated again, re-releasing their demo on a bigger label. Then came news of a new album, to be called No Morrow Shall Dawn. Further news of a guest appearance by black metal lord Tim Yatras (and he’ll appear on this list again) on the title track gave me even more reason to be excited, and Thy Light did not let me down.
Despair is the dominant feeling here, the music is utterly drenched in it right from the beginning. “No Morrow Shall Dawn” perfectly uses Tim’s guest appearance, but the real standout is “Wanderer of Solitude” The guitar solo in it is harrowing right to the core, and the piano feels like it aches in longing. This whole release is a fantastic work of depressive black metal, one that certainly tops their debut.
Best songs: Wanderer of Solitude, No Morrow Shall Dawn, The Bridge
The French-Canadien black metal scene is quite possibly the best in the world right now. It is sparkling with creative and intriguing music, and no band better represents that then Gris. Their second album, 2007’s Il était une forêt…, was an absolutely wonderful work of sombre depressive black metal one that showed trends towards a far more complex artistic direction.
Six years later, and they finally released their third effort, À l’âme enflammée, l’äme constellée…, and it is a stunning realization of what they hinted at on their last release. It is a beautiful, dark, and complex album, enough that it seems almost a shame to simply call it black metal. There is a large amount of classical influence here. Violin, piano, and acoustic guitar all dance alongside the dark brooding black metal riffs and vocals. The sprawl of this double album works for it, allowing each idea to be fully developed into something wonderful and introspective. Gris have truly become one of the finest black metal duos in music today.
Best songs: Les Forges, Dil, Igneus
Caladan Brood are a band that came out of nowhere to release one of the best Summoning-influenced albums – one that in fact is even better than the album Summoning themselves released this year. With lyrics inspired by the fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen (a must-read for any fantasy fan), the tone on Echoes of Battle is slightly different than Summoning use. It feels like it stretches far back into some primal past, serenading forgotten empires and dead legends. The piano and keyboards are beautiful, and the clean vocals have the appropriate amount of wistfulness to them, and the drums are programmed really well.
The choirs that open “Book of the Fallen” are absolutely gorgeous, and in “City of Azure Fire” as well. Echoes of Battle is a truly wonderful debut for the band, one so good, I literally bumped it up a spot while formatting this list. Keep an eye for an upcoming split with Emyn Muil which will see release in early 2014.
Best songs: A Voice Born of Stone and Dust, City of Azure Fire, Book of the Fallen
1. Germ – Grief
I told you Tim Yatras would appear again on this list. The man is a true black metal genius, being able to masterfully create a strange wistful sound that is interlaced with an almost uplifting feeling. Sorrow is his stage name, and sorrow is his game, bringing that element hard to the forefront on this newest Germ album, Grief. The keyboards and orchestrations are like none I have ever heard in this genre of music before. The melding of black metal and depressive rock is at its absolute pinnacle here.
As he did with Austere and depressive black metal, Tim Yatras has made what might possibly be the finest release in the depressive rock/black metal sound. Songs like “Stain of Past Regrets” “Butterfly” and “Blue As The Sky, Powerful As The Waves” draw the listener in with haunting passages and soulful vocals both clean and harsh.
Best songs: Butterfly, Stain of Past Regrets, Blue As the Sky Powerful As the Waves
Altar of Plagues
Cult of Fire
One of two side-projects to be formed this year by Primordial main-man Nemtheanga, Twilight of the Gods is his heavy as fuck true metal band. His voice is supremely powerful, and works really well with the blood-pounding riffs and lyrics that are paired together. “Fire on The Mountain” is one of the best heavy metal songs this year. There are one or two songs on this album that are kind of stale, but there is enough good material to put it on my list here. Meaty, heavy riffs, along with Nemtheanga’s soaring vocals are a really good combination. His range is wonderful, and he has actual power behind his voice, unlike some singers in this genre.
Maybe there are better albums, but I still enjoyed this one quite a bit.
Best songs: Fire on the Mountain, Sword of Damocles, Preacher Man
4. Locrian – Return To Annihilation
This was an album I was pretty excited for, and my expectations for it were more than met. Locrian have proved time and time again that they are one of the best experimental/drone bands in the world. Their newest release, Return to Annihilation, should be mentioned in the same breath as Sunn O)))’s Monoliths and Dimensions, and Earth’s masterpiece, Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull. It is a blissful, dark journey through the endtimes, one that gives glimpses of a world where mankind has been completely eradicated. And it is a tranquil world, yet you are beset by unease at this utter peace. The guitars are fuzzy and warped, and keyboards are hallucinogenic, and the drums ripple through your spirit like waves on a pond. This Chicago duo has reached masterful levels of composition on Return To Annihilation. It is really too bad that this kind of music gets put by the wayside most of the time.
Best songs: Two Moons, Exiting the Hall of Vapor and Light, Panorama of Mirrors
Talk about an EP that came out of nowhere. Germany-based Bolzer’s Aura EP broke into the underground metal scene like a juggernaut, turning heads everywhere. Their odd and unique brand of death metal, laced with maddened clean vocals and killer riffs made many a year end list, and definitely has a place on mine. I was lucky enough to see them live in September, and they were entrancing, which was especially impressive for a two piece. “Entranced by the Wolfshook” is a ridiculous song, and strangely catchy for this type of music, and the other two songs on this released are just as heavy and cosmic. The growled vocals are terrifying, and the clean vocals ring with a strange insanity. Bolzer are certainly headed for big things in the near future if this record indicates anything.
Best songs: Entranced by the Wolfshook, CME
True heavy metal will never die. Enforcer’s last album, Diamonds, proved that there was life yet in the true metal sound, and Death By Fire gave it an absolutely awesome release to hang its hat on, despite lineup changes that happened since their last release. The album opens with a piano intro, and then the opening power chord of “Death Rides This Night” hits and speed is the name of the game. Singer Olaf Wikstrand sounds better than he ever has, reaching new heights of power and charm. His scream in “Mesmerized by Fire” is truly mesmerizing indeed and the guitar riffs that he and co-axeman Joseph Tholl create are packed with fire and energy and their solos are break-neck and razor edged, showcased nicely on the instrumental song, “Crystal Suite”. Everything about Death By Fire screams “fuck yeah, metal!” This is truly the Swedish band coming into their own, and it definitely earns its spot on my list here.
Best songs: Death Rides This Night, Mesmerized By Fire, Take Me Out Of This Nightmare
1. Gorguts - Colored Sands
My first listen of this album elicited only one response; woah! The legendary Canadien death metal group returned for their first album in twelve years and it did not let anyone down. Coloured Sands is absolutely massive, with huge behemoths for riffs and desolate growls for vocals. Luc Lemay may be the only remaining original member from the classic era after resurrecting the band in 2008, but that made no difference. Twisted riffs and an unholy atmosphere make it feel like Gorguts never even left. The finest moment might actually be the strange orchestral interlude, “The Battle of Chamdo” followed by “Enemies of Compassion”. Seeing this band live was also an amazing treat, one that probably did factor into my enjoyment of this album. This is certainly the comeback album of the year, perhaps even of the last few years. Hail the creators of technical death metal!
Best songs: Battle of Chamdo/Enemies of Compassion, Forgotten Arrows, An Ocean of Wisdon
A few albums I didn’t get enough of to fully assess their place on this list:
Kirlian Camera – Black Summer Choirs
The Luna Sequence – The Day the Curse Grew Stronger
Ascension – Far Beyond the Stars
Eye of Solitude – Canto III
Atlantean Kodex – The White Goddess
Will of the Ancients – To Our Glorious Dead
And that’s all for 2013. Now we can do it all over again in 2014! A few albums I’m looking forward to include Blind Guardian, Anubis Gate, Iron fucking Maiden, The Tea Club, and a split between Caladan Brood and Emyn Muil. Until next time, eh?