We’re finally here. As we do every year, we finish off the year by being the final word in metal in terms of these lists, which are often hastily arranged by scribes webwide. There I go digressing again. Ah well. As it happens, there are no last minute changes to this, although UK d-beat legends Doom have shocked and gleefully surprised us all by putting out a new record on 23/12/2013 via their Bandcamp page which I will be reviewing and will be putting up a review early in January. However, now we must look back on 2013 and be thankful for what the year has given us in rock and metal.
This year has been a tough one for me in terms of keeping up – my interests have built up outside of We Must Obey – in particular running and soon other athletic pursuits – and work and family life have kept me busier than ever. So it would be unfair of me to say the overall standard of albums this year has been lower, a case I very much doubt. More that I’ve missed a great deal and that I’ve been harder to impress this year than normal. Metal is forever getting busier, more so for the speedy delivery of albums that seem to come day in day out – there’s an excellent piece by Keith Kahn-Harris over on Invisible Oranges you should all go read once you’re done here – I’ve posted about it on the social networks and will hopefully give you an insight on how much I and indeed maybe all of us as metalheads struggle with keeping up these days, and finding that something special.
Nonetheless, I feel without question that this list makes up the definitive top 10 albums for this calendar year. Each album has had me grinning like the Cheshire Cat, rocking like the Seattle Seahawks stadium, leaving my jaw dropped in a state of melancholic consciousness, or just generally getting me going ‘fuck yeah’! So to thee I present the ten finest releases to have rocked our ears this year, and on that note, see you in 2014!
10. The Bronx – The Bronx (IV) (White Drugs/ATO)
Finally putting away the sombreros, the guitarrons and the flamboyant outfits that their alter, mariachi revivalist egos Mariachi El Bronx made popular again in the last few years – and in non-gimmicky fashion too – The Bronx returned to the style that delivered three excellent albums previous, all titled ‘The Bronx’. The fourth chapter of their self-titled career was an excellent return to form. It wasn’t as raucous as some of their earlier work but it kept their excellent melodic streak alive and gave us all manner of modern punk anthems, be it the abandon of ‘Too Many Devils’, the hooky nature of ‘Style over Everything’, and indeed the slightly more restrained approach in songs like ‘Torches’. The penultimate track ‘Life Less Ordinary’ proves they can translate their sombre siesta experiences into full on wonderful lo-fi regret. It’s good to have them bringing the noise back.
9. Nails – Abandon All Life (Southern Lord)
Three years feels a long time between records, particularly when a band such as Nails recorded ‘Unsilent Death’ back in 2010. Fast forward to 2013 and they’ve now recorded ‘Abandon All Life’, which lost none of the band’s uncompromising ferocity and featured ten new slamming tracks that felt like one punch after another to the face. Aside from ‘Suum Cuique’, the band’s longest song to date at over five minutes in length, the majority of this record simply blasts and barrages from one song to the next, but keeps it just about varied enough to remain interesting and scornfully aggressive. And for that, ‘Abandon All Life’ succeeds in smashing you to pieces, be it its faster moments or the more imposing slower grooves and headbanging moments heralded in ‘Wide Open Wound’ and the title-track’s huge breakdown. Nice.
8. Obliteration – Black Death Horizon (Indie/Relapse)
We didn’t quite get around to reviewing this one – it came out fairly recently and I’ve had the chance to stream it a few times but couldn’t find the time to give it the appropriate justice it deserves. However, Obliteration have been hailed as one of death metal’s premier acts-in-waiting having delivered an old school black diamond in ‘Nekropsalms’, and on ‘Black Death Horizon’, they stepped up their game again. The Kolbotn, Norway are delivering on their potential here and ‘Black Death Horizon’ was seven scorching tracks of old-school DM spells and sorcery. Obliteration play the slow/fast game perfectly, be it ‘The Distant Sun (They Are the Key)’, the lightning quick ‘Sepulchral Rites’, and the glorious and portentous title-track. It closes with the proverbial volcanicity of ‘Churning Magma’, which seems an appropriate way to close an album with some rather horrid black volcanoes for its art. Sure it plays to the band’s influences – early Death, Possessed, Dismember, for example – but they play it true and extremely well.
As we didn’t review this, you can stream it below, and you can buy it here.
7. Wheelchair Wheelchair Wheelchair Wheelchair – Tales of Bonnie Scotland (self-released)
Scotland is one of the hotbeds of quality grind and powerviolence. I’ve been saying it for a while now and Wheelchair Wheelchair Wheelchair Wheelchair are one of its finest exponents. Often hilarious but unquestionably brutal, ‘Tales of Bonnie Scotland’ is their patron album to their home nation, with the duo going through an adventurous romp through fourteen rounds of beautiful, unconventional and manically grinning tartan lust, an extreme music representation of ’50 Shades of Grey’. Not a foot is out of place, from the bagpipes present in the album’s theme and its outro, to the blistering first half, topped with the stop start blitz of ‘Aroused Moorhen’, to the slightly more striding second half with the passionate thrust of ‘The Lady of Loch Throbbing’, and the magnificent closing coupe of ‘The A9 to Houghmagandie’ and the brilliant grind/stoner rock/bagpipe doom of ‘Commanding Views of Loch Vulvula’ which brings back the album’s central theme in a fantastically heavy epilogue. Yes, it might seem I’m making several deliberate double entendre and as such exposing a gimmick. In actual fact, Wheelchair x4 are more than capable of sending things up without much assistance and for all the lyrically frolicking, ‘Tales of Bonnie Scotland’ is the grand romantic love letter from the Perth duo’s home country that should capture that heart of yours while pounding you senseless.
6. io – Our Disintegrating Museum (Grammatical)
There are few bands out there who can take the attributes of mainstream hard rock and groove metal, forcibly prog them up and smatter in all manner of experimental ways, and while Birmingham’s io might not be the first to try it, ‘Our Disintegrating Museum’ is the definitive statement of why they should be worthy not just of greater attention, but your attention. The starry end to ‘The Lost Cosmonaut’ is but the beginning of a musical journey that is as much about…than it is big riffs and huge grooves, and as a whole is a rare record of its ilk that seems to get better and better with every listen. Aside from the album’s fifth track, the interlude-ish ‘Horse for a Particular Course’, io manage to pack several ideas coherently into the same song time and again, and it’s a thoroughly entertaining journey – the wonderful ‘Vultures of the Arctic’ eschews from its piano-led intro into a near ten minute progression through math rock and post-metal, and the horn section that suddenly drops into ‘I’ll Need a Diagram’. A cracking experimental hybrid that it’s creators can surely evolve on grander scales with unburdened vision and scope.
5. KEN Mode – Entrench (Season of Mist)
Like the finest boxer, KEN Mode have made their punchy and adrenaline-infused hybrid of noise rock and hardcore something of an artform. It was difficult to consider how they could possibly top their Juno-award winning ‘Venerable’, but two years on from that album, they’ve quite possibly done that. There’s elements of progression in their sound – the post-metal quiet-loud of ‘Romeo Must Never Know’ and the powerful instrumental closer ‘Monomyth’ show they’re becoming more than just angry men – but for the most part, ‘Entrench’ is the cheated monster, the embodiment of all apocalyptic rage and KEN Mode are never afraid to release this beast into their music. ‘Your Heartwarming Story Makes Me Sick’ features the best breakdown I’ve heard in a long time, and ‘Figure Your Life Out’ riffs and rolls like the finest Queensbury rules pugilist picking you off with shot after shot before unleashing the haymaker chorus. Yet another quality addition to the KEN Mode discography.
4. Carcass – Surgical Steel (Nuclear Blast)
As a recent UK ad campaign for a certain brand of oven chips proclaimed, we paraphrase this to be ‘comebacks as comebacks should be’. Who would have forward when Carcass put themselves into cryogenic state back in 1995 that we would have even seen them again, let alone put out a new album. But having reformed back in 2007, the time seemed right for Messrs Walker and Steer to bring the core back to the studio to create ‘Surgical Steel’. With Trigger the Bloodshed drummer Dan Wilding recruited to fill the seat left vacant by the paralysation of original drummer Ken Owen, Carcass found the surgical precision required to make an album that wasn’t at all a mindless money-grabbing cash-in, but a realisation of what made them such a force to begin with and with that, catapulting into the 21st century with the consummate ease that first got them to where they were.
3. Jesu – Everyday I Get Closer to the Light from Which I Came (Avalanche Recordings)
Between this and previous album ‘Ascension’, Justin K Broadrick became a father for the first time and it reportedly shaped his latest effort. I don’t want to dwell on that too much though it was directly an influence on the epic fourth track ‘The Great Leveller’. The fact is this: Under the moniker of Jesu, Broadrick has delivered his most definitive album within the last few years. The man hasn’t gone through a great stretch making mediocre records – far from it. Its just that ‘Everyday…’ is one of those great albums that explores our very cores, our hearts, and indeed, our minds. It reaches staggering emotional depth and strikes at us with remarkable stature. Its an album we can admire purely on a critical level or indeed, at our weakest, when we’re at our most vulnerable and reflective.
2. Kylesa – Ultraviolet (Season of Mist)
Kylesa have been making enough great albums that they’ve threatened to do something really special for a long time, and ‘Ultraviolet’ is it. Founder members Laura Pleasants and Philip Cope lead the charge for change as they take you on a journey through stoner, sludge, coldwave and bloody thunder over eleven tracks. Lyrically it’s a discourse of despair, bitterness and vitriol, which serve to compliment the many riffs held within – whether the sweet riff in ‘Grounded’ that I could repeat for hours, or the furious ‘We’re Taking This’, ‘Ultraviolet’ is as much a barbed wire mace taken to the detractors and the sheeple that irritate them as much as a forlorn reflection on things lost. And I don’t think there’s another pair of songs this year that encapsulated the feeling of loneliness for me than in the form of the near-resignation of ‘Low Tide’ and the closer ‘Drifting’, which Pleasants sings over an echoing guitar before the song explodes in the final 90 seconds into a climactic finale. ‘Drifting’ captures that feeling of being all alone for miles, in the cold light of day, or the cold dark of night, as that which was once there disappears into the proverbial void. All in all, ‘Ultraviolet’ is heavy, its bloody, its personal, and its beautiful.
1. Cult of Luna – Vertikal (Indie)
Deciding this year’s number one was an incredibly close one – I could have chosen any of the top three to be the number one on our list for this year, and in the end I have decided upon the record that provided the ultimate listening experience. It was a bold move for post-metallers Cult of Luna to go with a conceptual theme based on the 1927 classic movie ‘Metropolis’, and what a masterstroke it was. It is one thing to create a work of dystopian vision. It is rarer to feel part of that dystopia. Yet ‘Vertikal’ does exactly that.
The band set out to create an album that thematically imagines cities and machinery, with strong emphasis on repetition, atmosphere, and cold hard labour. Opener ‘The One’ sets the tone through its minimal, lumbering opening, before the groove of ‘I: The Weapon’ strides across the land, keyboards puncturing the sky and soundtracking the surveillant divide. From then on it really sets about what it really aims to do. Tracks such as ‘Synchronicity’ really put you in the zone where machines power the land, the divide between the high rise of the haves, and the choking smog and tension among the have nots never clearer. It’s marching riff and drum beat are occasionally broken up by the whirr of synths and the buzz of the conveyor of monotony. ‘In Awe Of’ was slightly more straightforward but no less challenging and Teutonic in its consistent, engaging riff, before the savage starkness of abandonment that is ‘Passing Through’, as though the factories have emptied and loneliness is now stepping through the vast, cavernous corridors and shop floors.
And to sum up this particular record wouldn’t be right without discussing its centrepiece – the 18:50 length ‘Vicarious Redemption’. A track that seemed to divide critics, one or two even begging for it to be remixed – a plea that the record label apparently exerted all too strenuously on the band, who eventually caved in and put their faith in Justin Broadrick to deliver a suitably faithful remix to conclude this particular concept. I remain firmly on the side of not fixing what’s broken. Not to stain Broadrick, who did a fine job. But why, exactly, should be it condensed? If Sabazius can get away with an eleven hour plus album, or Krallice stick out a 16 minute jam of their own, nobody cries out for something shorter. They are what they are. And ‘Vicarious Redemption’ is true to Cult of Luna’s vision for this record. Perfectly paced, stalking at time like a cat, crushing like an anvil from above, creeping with equal trepidation and poise. It shifts from one phase to the next in fluid motion and plants you firmly in the world they seek to project.
The execution of that track and indeed ‘Vertikal‘ as a whole is why it sits here as our number one album of the year. It is one of the band’s finest works to date, a fine example of a concept album done right, an austere and at times atomically heavy work that draws you in, captures you, and releases when, and only when, it’s chewed you up and coughed you back out into the cold, and at times not too unfamiliar reality of our own cold world. You can’t argue with the results – they took a bold risk and delivered on it handsomely and authentically. I don’t feel you can ask for better than that in which ‘Vertikal’ presents.