There’s a scene in the also-ran ’90s teen film Empire Records where one of the titular music store’s employees sorts through the CDs snatched by a just-caught shoplifter. The clerk is appalled that said juvenile criminal would only be jacking rap and metal and encourages him to listen to some jazz.
The passive suggestion in that scene is that obsession over those genres is best suited to 14-year-olds who haven’t yet grown out of their age of aggression. If that’s true, then I am undoubtedly regressing, as I spent roughly 79 percent of 2013 listening to fantastically guttural hip-hop and ultra-intense metal.
Luckily, metal’s constant shape-shifting and envelope-pushing provide a multitude of approaches and attitudes. The six albums listed below all fall under the heading of “metal,” but no two are the same. The only thing they share is a fundamental intensity that taps into something pure and primal. This year wasn’t as great a year as 2012, when stalwarts Baroness, Converge, High on Fire, and Gojira all hit remarkable peaks. But there was still plenty of shredding majesty and genuflections before darkness.
So enjoy my picks for the six (the most evil number) best metal albums of 2013. Apologies to Watain, Skeletonwitch, Kvelertak, Tombstoned, Amon Amarth, Ancient VVisdom, and Avatarium, all of whom made metal records I loved and just missed the cut for the top. Try ‘em all, and play ‘em loud.
1. Ghost B.C., Infestissumam
A tip to sound like an insider: The group of Swedes known as Ghost have to add the “B.C.” in the United States for legal reasons, but nobody really ever calls them that. With that out of the way, you can fully embrace the supreme weirdness and unbending intensity of Infestissumam, the band’s second album. Appreciating Ghost means buying into the gimmick lock, stock, and barrel, and few bands have crafted so thorough and fun a universe in which listeners can play: The identify themselves not by their names but as “a group of nameless ghouls” (though the frontman goes by Papa Emeritus II), they play ritualistic live shows in striking robes and make-up, and their sound combines the drone of doom with spookily melodic flourishes. The scenario comes across best on “Ghuleh/Zombie Queen,” which begins as a dreamy after-hours hum and morphs into a thudding epic. On balance, Infestissumam is probably the “softest” album on this list, but it’s also the metal release about which I kept discovering new things with each listen. What they lack in brutality they make up in depth, and Ghost’s full-throated commitment cannot be denied.
2. Kylesa, Ultraviolet
There must be something about Georgia that produces staggeringly great stoner sludge. Is it the water? The middling sports teams? The number of Waffle House locations? Whatever it is, the Peach State is currently home to some swamp metal titans: Mastodon are from there, as are Baroness, Black Tusk, and Kylesa, whose 2013 album Ultraviolet is a fierce, fuzzy blast of riffs and wreckage. Kylesa manage to make churns like “Grounded” and “Steady Breakdown” sound spry, mostly because of the expert use of feedback and the lovely interplay between vocalists Laura Pleasants and Philip Cope. They can kick it up a notch too, as “Vulture’s Landing” provides a deeply solid backbeat for top-shelf headbanging. Produced by Cope, Ultraviolet sounds both raw and refined and finally manages to capture the exposed-nerve thrills of the band’s transcendent live show.
3. Carcass, Surgical Steel
For sheer, unadulterated aural violence, few do it as grandly and as efficiently as Carcass. These Brits’ first new album in 17 years showed no rust, and the title could not have been more apt, as the trio blows through 11 tracks with scalpel-sharp precision. It should sound disjointed, with most of the straight-ahead grind up front and some more melodic, arena-sized moments at the back, but instead it comes across as a band honed in on exactly what it does best. The sheer aggression of “Thrasher’s Abbatoir” and the near-anthemic quality of “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills” are bound together by the ghostly barks of Jeff Walker and Bill Steer, two veterans who have incredible charisma on record. Walker’s guitar is especially remarkable, somehow sounding both exacting and chaotic. Metalheads would have been happy to have anything at all by Carcass, but Surgical Steel is the sound of a band who refuses to rest on its reputation and would rather shred its laurels into fine white ash.
4. Darkthrone, The Underground Resistance
Another welcome return from a pack of game-changing veterans, Darkthrone were one of the finest black metal acts to emerge from Norway during the genre’s peak in the mid ’80s. Their last few albums had fully embraced the brisk grime of crust punk, but The Underground Resistance found them walking back to their roots a bit. For older bands, backslides like that tend to be a sign of a lack of ingenuity, but The Underground Resistance is the rare return to form that also has a forward thrust to it. It’s as pure as metal gets: Punishing riffs, jackhammer rhythms, and singer Nocturno Culto’s zombie growl. It’s a throwback that hints at the possibilities of what’s to come—in that respect, this is Darkthrone’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind (except, you know, really loud).
5. SubRosa, More Constant Than The Gods
As noted in last year’s roundup, underground metal label Profound Lore Records churns out a steady stream of twisted sounds that explore metal’s thickest sludge. Pallbearer’s Sorrow and Extinction was a remarkably strong delivery in 2012, and this year saw the arrival of SubRosa’s More Constant Than The Gods, another oozing opus. Hailing from the decidedly non-metal Salt Lake City, SubRosa use Sabbath-style riffs as foundations for giant towers of ambient keyboards, prickly electric violins, and singer Rebecca Vernon’s possessed wail. Every track on this six-song album runs over seven minutes, but at no point does it drag. Rather, SubRosa feed off anticipation and surprise, all the while keeping everything super heavy.
6. Deafheaven, Sunbather
This San Francisco band’s second album has been hailed as something of a crossover album for non-metal fans. And while it is blinding in its beauty and is committed to melody (especially on the instrumental interlude “Irresistible”), it also doesn’t stray far from its black metal roots. But the guitars rather than gush, the guitars shimmer, and singer George Clarke’s throaty yelp gets lost in the thick, shiny atmosphere of tracks like the swirling “Sunbather” and the pulpy “Vertigo.” The album’s greatest achievement is the closing track “The Pecan Tree,” which begins as an end-of-the-world double-timed pound and morphs into a spacey exploratory jam before resolving as a hands-in-the-air anthem. Suffering never sounded so sweet.
What are you favorite metal albums of the year? Sound off in the comments!