The Monolith’s 2013 in review – part 6!
In the last year I’ve shared the plight of many overworked students who found that they simply haven’t got the time for trudging the deep underground of their favorite music genres and keeping up with the latest and greatest. With so much to read, write, brainstorm, mechanically reproduce and swear to read and learn with deep understanding later, who’s got time for that? What’s it gonna be, doing chores and catching up with homework before bathing your dog and an early bedtime or putting a new promising CD on and spinning it several times? It would be easier if I weren’t of the opinion that background listening is Not An Option and that music’s got to be at least a little bit intriguing and hard to chew in order for me to put it on.
All of this sounds like whining to you? You’re right, it started to sound like whining to me too somewhere around October and it made me catch up with 2013 with lightning bolt speed. While it wasn’t the best year ever, I found a number of quality records worth paying attention to. Here are twenty of the best:
20. Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe
There goes my metal cred – watch it as it gooooes. Last year, Grimes seemed to be everyone’s favorite hipster skeleton in the closet, and this year probably belongs to Chvrches. Even though their genre is cool hip synth-pop revival, a dude that’s as metal as all of Birmingham introduced their music to me, and I keep running into them in metalheads’ year end lists.
There is a good reason for that: they’re adorable, their music is simple and non-cluttered and catchy and good to groove to, and Lauren Mayberry has one of the sweetest voices I’ve ever heard. She’s got a law degree and a master’s in journalism, she’s casually dismantling toxic attitudes in their fanbase via Facebook statuses, and she calls out interviewers on bullshit (I think I’m in love). Sure, the album has some filler, but when it hits you, it hits you hard.
Favorite songs: “The Mother We Share”, “Gun”, “Recover”
19. Caligula’s Horse – The Tide, The Thief & The River’s End
Caligula’s Horse kicked the collective asses of progressive metal veterans, for the reason that they took a well-established style and put some good thought and love and care into it and made it sound fresh again. When the band consisted of only one man doing everything by himself, eventually enlisting a guest singer, and they still managed to come out with a good album, imagine how good the full band sounds.
The singing is splendid; clearly not done by someone who grew up on a steady diet of Kiske and Halford with about a third of their range, and the concept is not as obvious as currently popular attempts at “rock operas”. Their music is sensible, evocative and kind to your ears. If this album were a dress, it would hit you right at your natural waist and it would have pockets big enough to fit a cellphone in, so it’s a bit of a big deal.
Favorite songs: “Dark Hair Down”
I’ve heard a lot of albums that are stylistically located somewhere in the murky “post rock and/or shoegaze + milky black metal” area. A LOT for such a tiny subgenre, so it inevitable starts sounding like “same shit, different dude”.
Grief is amazingly lush and warm and conjures up sunsets and hugs and other fluffy things, but all through a filter of heartbreaking nostalgia. Those sad, sad synths sound so, so good, and if you get Audrey Sylvain to sing on your album I’ll love you forever, so now I’m contractually obliged to love Germ forever.
Favorite songs: “Butterfly”, “Withering In Hell”
17. James Labrie – Impermanent Resonance
James LaBrie is one of the most polarizing vocalists in recent memory, but that is okay, because he’s also one of the best vocalists in recent memory – anyone who disagrees can simply try and attempt to sing any Dream Theater song written before they lost the ability to write compelling vocal melodies. I shouldn’t be burning one of my favorite bands so bad, but I am, because one of the weirdest things about James is that he invariably sounds better on his solo albums and in his guest performance for this reason.
He teamed up with keyboardist Matt Guillory forever ago and they did some great stuff together, but it wasn’t until 2010 that they tapped into some real magic when they unearthed the amazing, amazing drummer and harsh vocalist Peter Wildoer and decided they might indulge their love of harsher stuff like Soilwork and Dark Tranquillity, complete with Peter’s harsh vocals. When they made Static Impulse, it was an album no one expected of James. On Impermanent Resonance, the melodeath influence is dialed down, and the pop is turned all the way up, with some of the catchiest choruses you’ll ever hear. I guess it’s a question of how much sugar you like in your metal – I’ll take three tbsps, please.
Favorite songs: “Agony”, “Slight Of Hand”, “Undertow”
16. Bruce Soord and Jonas Renske – Wisdom Of Crowds
By including this album on this list, not only am I singing its praises, but also publicly petitioning everyone who writes dark, moody music to dabble in some dark, moody electronica. I just got into it and my appetite is huge. Wisdom Of Crowds is glitchy glitch bleepy bloopy eargasm fun bleepy bloop covered in the honey smooth vocals of Mr. Renkse and I really hope these two will be the next OSI (not that we need a successor to OSI, because they will hopefully keep writing music forever).
Favorite songs: “Pleasure”, “Frozen North”
15. Forever Storm – Tragedy
When you find a modern heavy metal band which makes you sing along and groove and headbang like you’re 15 again, hold onto them for dear life. When you find a modern heavy metal band which makes you sing along and groove and headbang like you’re 15 again that comes from your hometown, count your lucky stars for being able to see them at least once per year. It’s inevitable that bands from tiny shitty countries will get majorly overlooked, but that’s okay, because now you’ve got a secret band no one’s ever heard of that you can show to your friends who live abroad, and they’ll love it. Tragedy is empowering, thrashy and proggy in all the right places, and whenever I’ve got a craving for good meat-and-potatoes metal tunes, I put it on.
Favorite songs: “Mother”, “Nocturnal Wings”, “Paradox”
14. Persefone – Spiritual Migration
Here’s the underground band that single handedly saved melodic death metal for me this year. I resisted listening to Spiritual Migration for so long. It was so long and it just sounded so cerebral and self-contained when I heard people harping on about it and so I was always putting it off for later. Until one day I dived into it and discovered a beautiful, multifaceted, jagged-edged progressive/melodeath album. The range of influences here is so wide and the mood of individual songs so diverse that sometimes you’ll be wondering if you maybe accidentally turned shuffle on. If you still haven’t listened to it, please do.
Favorite songs: “Inner Fullness”, “Returning To The Source”
13. Any Winter – Incomprehensible
I first fell for Andy Winter’s craft in Winds – he is one great progressive keyboardist and writer, and I am weak in the knees for keyboardists with a unique presence asserted in their music. Some might call Incomprehensible difficult to digest, but it’s a part of its charm and it’s a great start to Andy’s solo career. Also, it is a huge avant-garde prog party of the best singers that have ever gathered on one album (yes, I’m challenging The Human Equation, this lineup is that fucking good). Can’t get enough of Dan Swanö? He sings on the single. Finding yourself painfully missing vocalists we haven’t heard from in a few years, such as Lars Eikind, Agnete Kirkevaag, Heidi Tveitan or Kjetil Nordhus? Yes, they ALL sing on this album. Get it now.
Favorite songs: “Somewhere Else To Disappear”, “Back To Square Two”
I listened to this album somewhere in between being disappointed with the expected lack of energy and balls in the new Dream Theater album and being painfully disappointed with the unexpected lack of energy and balls in the new Fates Warning album, so a collection of songs comprised of all energy and all balls shocked my system. They sort of dropped the core element to include even more proggy deliciousness and it’s a non-stop thrill ride. Rody could have been a professional swimmer judging by the size of his lungs and they’re probably the first band in prog metal to write about victim blaming in rape cases (I think it’s probably the Steubenville case seeing how it happened close to the album release), the bigotry of “straight pride” and similar topics.
Favorite songs: “Plato’s Tripartite”, “Clarity”
11. Dark Tranquillity – Construct
One of my favorite bands in the world excelled yet again. They combined all the hooks of Fiction and Character with the dark quirks of We Are The Void and it worked great. Maybe they are repeating themselves, but the truth is that Dark Tranquillity repeating themselves is better than a slew of bands inventing novelties that don’t seem to work, especially in a genre that’s based on a formula as rigid as the formula of melodic death metal. Fire some riffs on the unsuspecting crowd, throw some generally relatable but intelligent lyrics in the mix, form verses, form choruses that make you pump your fist in the air, spice up with synths and go home sweaty and satisfied. That’s how they roll.
Favorite songs: “The Science Of Noise”
10. Jolly – The Audio Guide To Happiness Part 2
“Great, now prog metallers are writing TWO PART concept albums and claiming it will make me happier? Can you get more pretentious than that?” Gotta disappoint ya, folks, but there is no band more down to earth and lovable than Jolly, and their prog is something else. Spiced up with grungey angst and the spirit of show tunes and djenty tones, it’s more progressive than prog, if you catch my drift. After being severely hit by hurricane Sandy (it completely destroyed their equipment and studio), they’ve gone on a few major tours, gotten picked up by the Progressive Nation At Sea tour and got handpicked by Mike Portnoy to open a few of his new band The Winery Dogs’ shows, so they’re about to EXPLODE. Get on the bandwagon, because they’re offering this album as a free download.
Favorite songs: “Dust Nation Bleak”, “Firewell”
All aboard the hype train! Doesn’t it feel weird to you that everyone and their aunt is doing post-punk now? Do you want to know who does it best? Beastmilk, no doubt. Climax is 40 minutes of exhausting dance-offs that combine Joy Division and The Sisters Of Mercy and The Sound and everything gloomy and delicious. When the apocalypse finally comes, post-apocalyptic parties are going to look like this: gas masks and dingy basements and “Genocidal Crush” on repeat 24/7.
Favorite songs: “Genocidal Crush”, “Death Reflects Us”
8. The Ocean – Pelagial
There’s probably several thousand words written about this album on The Monolith alone, and if you haven’t heard it you should probably be ashamed of yourself. That’s it, that’s my writeup.
Favorite songs: “Abyssopelagic II: Signals Of Anxiety”
7. Amorphis – Circle
Amorphis are probably the best Finnish band ever, because they’re getting Phoenix-like genre rebirths with great regularity, and they’ve been excelling in death metal, folk metal, melodic death, progressive rock and this amorphous, melodic mixture of genres no one dared to put a tag on that they’re playing now. Circle’s got the folk dial turned a little up, the melodic dial turned a little up, and the suck dial glued to the bottom, where it should belong. They worked with Peter Tägtren and he made Tomi Joutsen do black metal vocals. Peter Tägtren is magic and they should work with him every time.
Favorite songs: “Enchanted By The Moon”, “Into The Abyss”
6. Shineback– Rise Up Forgotten, Return Destroyed
Simon Godfrey from Tinyfish made a prog electronica side project and wrote a double album about deep mind palaces, childhood abuse, chaos, mayhem and murder. And you can both dance and cry to it. It’s literally a whole new genre and the possibilities to explore are endless – I hope Simon will be the leading man in the endeavor.
Favorite songs: “Crush Culture”, “Fears Aren’t Toys”
5. Leprous – Coal
My darling avant-garde progressive geniuses are back, and they’re writing music that’s intensely explorative and deep and personal. The wacky genre hopping of Bilateral has given way to slow, thoughtful buildups and variations on a theme, the brutality has given way to subdued anger, and everything seems to have taken a bit of a back seat in order to let Einar Solberg’s crystalline voice shine.
Favorite songs: “The Valley”, “Echo”
Hope, love, loss, sunshine, sunsets, the endless flow of waters, a whole universe of new, radically different philosophy and poetry – Paraiso could be your own personal paradise. That is, if you’re into gentle prog. There’s more to follow, so watch this space.
Favorite songs: “A New Reliance”, “A Giant Leap Of Faith”
3. Witherscape – The Inheritance
If the news of Dan fucking Swanö making a new album hasn’t made you open a champagne bottle, we can’t be friends. This project combines all the best sides of his dark prog project Nightingale and the groundbreaking albums he did with death metallers Edge Of Sanity. The soul, the hooks, Dan’s serenades, THE MOOGS, this album really has it all, and might be his best work yet. Seamless transitions in between genres abound, and everything is drenched in excellence in this Swedish god’s perfectionist credo.
Just in case you haven’t noticed, I like Dan Swanö a lot.
Favorite songs: “Astrid Falls”, “The Math Of The Myth”
2. Kayo Dot – Hubardo
What can you say about an album that starts off in almost eleven minutes of painstaking stop-and-go play with grueling growls and drum fills? It’s like it’s trying to drive away the impatient and draw in people who have endless capabilities of surrendering. For the next hour or so, Toby Driver will make sure your capability is all used up and your very brain gets sweaty and you’ll press play again and subject yourself to avant-garde madness and then you’ll remember you wanted to pee 150 minutes ago. This is your life now.
Favorite songs: “The First Matter (Saturn In The Guise Of Sadness)”, “And He Built Him A Boat”
1. Riverside – Shrine Of New Generation Slaves
Riverside have got to be the rulers of my heart by now, what with their capability to never misplace a single note nor word and all. S.O.N.G.S rocks dirty and progs hard, and Riverside have mastered delayed gratification (or climax, if you wanna go all out with the sexual innuendo) in 2013 and used it mercilessly. The track ordering is immaculate, with each track showing the ones surrounding it in best possible light, and by the time it gets to the decidedly uplifting “Coda”, I can’t help but wonder if these guys will ever fuck up and how will I catapult myself from this wretched planet if it ever happens. “Escalator Shrine” has even beaten “Second Life Syndrome” as my favorite Riverside epic, and this was an all-occasion album for me – I’ve listened to it on bus rides to happy places and to sad places, while walking in the rain and sunshine. For this reason, it is my album of the year.
Favorite songs: “Feel Like Falling”, “Escalator Shrine”