Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of 2013: Challenging the Orthodoxy

Gorguts - Colored Sands

Here's an honest confession: I bought Gorguts' Obscura when it came out, and didn't understand it for years. I appreciated it for its strangeness, and I sung the album's praises to anyone who would sit still long enough to listen, but Luc Lemay's intent and execution were beyond anything I'd heard or could wrap my head around at the time.

Likewise, on Colored Sands, Gorguts present a death metal album quite unlike any that have come before it. It's a work of astounding depth and craftsmanship, taking preconceived notions of prog, tech, and brutal death and throwing them out the window to attain a unique and mature vision of the genre that will stand as a high water mark for years to come. I'm not going to pretend I'm any closer to fully understanding Gorguts, but I've never been so at peace with befuddlement.

Highlights: An Ocean of Wisdom, Enemies of Compassion, Absconders

Deicide - In the Minds of Evil

Deicide has been wildly inconsistent since their 90's heyday. Like a formerly great fighter alternating between wins and losses, you never know what you're going to get from their albums these days. Well, I'm happy to report that their latest is solidly in the "win" column. In The Minds of Evil spices up the meat-and-potatoes approach of the band's early years with vicious hooks and just a hint of experimenting with new sounds. Other than that, it's fucking Deicide, unabashed haters of Christ and servants of Satan. What more do you need?

Highlights: Beyond Salvation, Even the Gods Can Bleed, Kill The Light of Christ

Dark Tranquillity - Construct

At this point the most long-lived and dependable of the Gothenberg bands, Dark Tranquillity continue making stellar albums that take their love for florid melodies into new directions. Boldly entwining keyboards and Michael Stanne's New Wave-ish vocals with their melodic death metal, Construct is a treat for those of us who have both Kreator and Depeche Mode on our iPods.

Highlights: Endtime Hearts, Uniformity, Immemorial

Ulcerate - Vermis

Like Gorguts, Ulcerate have deconstructed the death metal paradigm to arrive at a vision that keeps some of the genre's intrinsic hallmarks (blastbeats, growling) and ignores its more obvious cliches. Vermis shows that death metal's territory is too vast to be policed, and heretics like Ulcerate roam its far borders challenging the orthodoxy. Let the retro bandwagon take heed and be wary.

Highlights: Vermis, Weight of Emptiness, The Imperious Weak

Cult of Luna - Vertikal

Cult of Luna have been solidifying their position at the top of the doomcore heap for almost a decade now; Vertikal is an accomplished work with elements of kraut rock, prog, and psychedelia adding texture to its sombre and oppressive palate. Whatever influence Cult of Luna took from Isis or Neurosis in the past, they are now those bands' equal.

Highlights: I: The Weapon, Vicarious Redemption, Synchronicity

Necrophobic - Womb of Lilithu

Necrophobic have been an undeniable (if largely unsung) pillar of black metal's second wave, with solid releases stretching over two decades. Womb of Lilithu expands on their hallmarks of blistering speed and frozen melodies with a symphonic flourish that occasionally makes the album sound like a Satanic metal opera. While most eyes were on Watain and their traveling E-Coli sideshow, Necrophobic snuck in with the best black metal album of 2013.

Highlights: Astaroth, Furfur, The Necromancer

Demonical - Darkness Unbound 

Sometime last year, for the first time since Entombed introduced the 15 year old me to the wonder of Swedish death metal, I had had enough of the style. The onslaught of second rate bands flaunting their HM-2 pedals and lack of creativity seemed to mark the end of my interest in the NWOOSDM, and few recent albums seemed to interest me. Luckily, Demonical reappeared to remind me why I loved the style so much. Driven by hooks and a blackened strain of melody, Darkness Unbounds wisely makes sure the Riff holds more importance than any distortion pedal. With no clear successor to Dismember in sight and their peers overly comfortable with wallowing in old school pandering, Demonical deserve to rise to the top of the heap.

Highlights: Healing Control, Contempt and Conquest, Hellfire Empire

deafheaven - Sunbather

The black metal album all your indie friends are talking about. The post rock and shoegaze elements may endear deafheaven to Pitchfork types, but don't hold that against them. Mixing shoegaze with black metal is not exactly new, but where deafheaven really shine is the way they use those elements to create atmosphere. Like the best black metal albums, Sunbather takes you on a journey, one with unexpected twists and turns.

Highlights: Sunbather, Vertigo, The Pecan Tree

Sepultura - The Mediator Between Head and Hands
Must Be the Heart

It can't be easy for Sepultura. Somehow Derrick Greene hasn't accrued the same kind of defenders as, say, Dio-era Sabbath, and the band's popularity has waned except with the die-est of die-hards; and even those would prefer a reunion with Max and Igor back at the helm. Once one of the most important metal bands in the world, the albums since their infamous split have alternated between decent and disappointing, with few memorable moments. Maybe that's why The Mediator is such a surprise; somehow finding a way to make the cerebral death-thrash of Arise co-exist with the wild experimentation of Roots, Sepultura came out swinging at naysayers with possibly their heaviest album in years. The writing may be on the wall for this iteration of Sepultura, but the band seem unwilling to go gentle into that good night, and I for one couldn't be happier.

Highlights: The Vatican, Obsessed, The Age Of The Atheist

Sabazius - The Descent of Man

I probably spent more time listening to this album than any other released this year - and I don't think I listened to it all the way through more than once. No other extreme metal band strove to challenge the status quo and top their past accomplishments like Sabazius. At over 11 hours long, The Descent of Man is less about catharsis and more like an endurance test, taking doom and drone to misanthropic, mind numbing depths. Part performance piece, part musical prank, it's the apex for slow and heavy music. For now.

Highlights: Cranking the volume to make your neigbours think they have tinnitus. Causing music critics to rethink their profession. Listening to the whole thing in one sitting and emerging from the other side with your sanity intact.