BEST OF 2013 — 1. ATLANTEAN KODEX, ‘The White Goddess (A Grammar of Poetic Myth)’ (20 BUCK SPIN)

VOLGatefold

Sometimes, you just know. It hits you right in the heart, squeezes, and never lets go. That’s how I feel about every record that ends up my favorite of the respective year, and I had that overflow of emotions from the first time I experienced Atlantean Kodex’s unbelievable second record “The White Goddess (A Grammar of Poetic Myth).” The emotions I had were overwhelming, and with each subsequent listen, my love and devotion for this record grew like a raging fire. It is the best metal record of the year, so say we. Really, as much as I love everything from 2-40, nothing could topple this.

The first words I started to hear about “The White Goddess” came from their North American label 20 Buck Spin and how proud they were to be handling this release. It made it sound like this was going to be a landmark record, and that certainly is not an understatement. This is a glorious collection about dark, oppressive, sometimes infuriating subject matter, and they make each song feel like they’re taking you with them to soar through the stratosphere. Their epic, true heavy metal isn’t exactly in style, yet extreme music listeners the world over embraced this album and band because sometimes you have to acknowledge and praise true quality, trends be damned. And this band of Germans destroyed any guidelines developed by tastemakers by reminding people that the power of classic heavy metal is alive and well, and people who dig bands such as Bathory, Helloween, Iron Maiden, Dio, While Heaven Wept, Candlemass, you name it, could find a group that wasn’t afraid to trumpet the sounds that made this genre the powerhouse it has been for decades.

Building off the momentum they created on their debut “The Golden Bough,” this great band–vocalist Markus Becker, guitarists Michael Koch and Manuel Trummer, bassist Florian Kreuzer, and drummer Mario Weiss–upped the ante in a huge way. This record is like a huge, rich, epic movie, rising up with a breathtaking “Sol Invictus (With Faith and Fire)” that has a rousing chorus that’ll stick in your head forever; heading into the seething “Heresiarch (Thousandfaced Moon)”; boiling over into a dramatic, sobering history lesson of ballad “Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown (An Anthem for Europe)” complete with Winston Churchill’s words opening this stunner; to the epic climax of “The White Goddess Unveiled (Crown of the Sephiroth)” that brings this majestic story to a close. This is a modern classic, a record that should live through the ages, and the album that hopefully reignites people’s interest in the power of heavy metal. Nothing is as true as this album to that lasting spirit, and we celebrate every awesome second of “The White Goddess,” a record that makes me feel young and vibrant again.

Our thanks for Manuel Trummer for taking time to answer our questions about this record, the band, their lyrical influences, and when you might be able to see them live and in the flesh. All hail Atlantean Kodex.

atlantean-kodex

We are naming “The White Goddess” the No. 1 album of the year. It’s a true adventure, an epic document that never fails to move, and in our opinion, it’s far and away the most impressive record of the year. How do you feel about it now that’s it’s been out and you’ve had time to digest it?

Manuel Trummer: Thank you, it’s really amazing to hear that. Actually we’re still quite overwhelmed by the positive feedback we’re getting, even three months after the records has been released. We knew “The White Goddess” was a big step forward from the previous album, but we didn’t expect it to be received in such a amazing way in the wider heavy metal media and scenes. It still feels pretty strange though. I still can’t really explain it, because our music is so far away from the mainstream. You know, lyrics about neolithic fertility rites and song lengths of 12+ minutes aren’t exactly what I‘d call “radio-friendly.”

Obviously the record is very European, both in musical style and lyrically. What was the aim as you were sitting down and getting ready to create?

MT: Well, that doesn’t really come as a surprise. We’re Europeans after all. I’m convinced that a real piece of art or a real heavy metal album always reflects the personality of the artist behind it. It not only shows his interests and sorrows at the time, when the album was written, but also his cultural background and values. So, I can‘t really say that it was our aim to create something European; it came quite natural. “The White Goddess” basically is just our beliefs, interests, and cultural roots brought into sonic and visual form. I can’t deny, though, that the mythology of Europe has always been one of the main themes for Atlantean Kodex.

What is the meaning behind the title “The White Goddess”?

MT: The White Goddess is a deity which shows up in religions, mythologies, and folklore all over Europe. Almost always she’s connected to aspects of life, love, and death. Traces of this threefold White Goddess can be found, for instance, in the fate-weaving Norns of the Nordic mythologies, in the figure of Virgin or Mother Mary, or in the cult of the goddess Kybele at Attis. Her pan-European scope and the way she embodies life and death made her a perfect metaphor for our album, which deals with questions of downfall and rebirth of nations, individuals, or civilizations.

“Sol Invictus” is a song that just grabs you by the ears and takes you on a spectacular journey. The song is inspired by J.G. Frazer’s idea that all religions come from the same source, and if you’re not totally paying attention, you might think it’s a rousing Yuletide carol. Talk about what’s going on with this song and the message it’s hammering home.

MT: We were also joking about “Sol Invictus” being our very own Christmas carol, but you already got the message right. The lyrics are playing with Frazer’s idea that the folk customs and a lot of the religious holidays we’re still celebrating today are far, far older than the Christian church. Frazer thought that you could find traces of fertility cults in some of our European rites which actually go back as far as the Neolithic age. We found that a fascinating idea and started playing around with it. It’s a great, atmospheric narrative.

Another great song is “Twelve Stars and the Azure Gown.” I love the guitar textures in that one, as it really takes me back to the glory days of epic and power metal. And then there’s the emphasis on Europe. What is the message behind this, and how do you feel about the power this song packs?

MT: Regarding the music, we were quite unsure whether to put it on the album at all. We feared, it might sound a little too cheesy. But now – to our surprise – it’s probably the song on the album people love the most. I guess we found a pretty good balance between these melancholic, ultra-melodic leads, and the powerful and epic chorus. The music somehow also reflects the lyrics, which are pondering the downfall and crisis of Europe in a very melancholic, one could also say nostalgic way. But on the other hand they spend a lot of hope, courage, and strength. Despite the huge melodies, the song has a lot of power on many different levels, I‘d say.

It also should be noted the special edition vinyl package is a stunner, with the full-sized booklet that looks like an old folk book. Whose idea was this, and how do you feel about how it came out?

MT: Yes, the booklet is created in the style of an early medieval illuminated manuscript, for example the Book of Kells. The hand and brain behind it is Ben Harff, an incredibly talented artist from Cologne, who also happens to be a fan of our band. When he showed me what he had in mind for the artwork, we were all blown away and agreed at once to let him do it. It’s still pretty mind-blowing to me, every time I look at it. Be sure to check out his illuminated version of Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” as well!

You used “Der Monch am Meer” painting as the cover art. It’s a fascinating piece that seems to hint at both isolation and the hugeness of the world. Also, seems to be a religious connotation. What was it about this painting that made you decide to use it for the cover? What does it say to you?

MT: I think the painting is working its magic on many different layers. I love the transcendence which Caspar David Friedrich managed to capture in the painting. On the one hand you‘ve got the monk, rooted firmly in the sand and the earth, while facing infinity all the time. It’s not only a wonderful illustration for the album’s main theme – life, death and resurrection – but also a wonderful (comment) on life itself: we humans as pilgrims between two worlds. We’re forced to wander through this material prison, while we’re all facing death and infinity each and every moment. The White Goddess is always at our side, giving us life, passion, and leading us home to that acosmic place we were born from.

The record is out on 20 Buck Spin in America. How did that relationship come about and how do you feel about it? The label really has gotten the message out about the album and clearly loves the record.

MT: Since “The Golden Bough” didn‘t get a lot of PR in Northern America, we thought it might be a clever move to have an American label handle the release in the USA and Canada. As far as I can remember, Enrico (Leccese), the owner of our European label Cruz del Sur, proposed Dave (Adelson) and 20 Buck Spin to do it. We wrote a few mails back and forth and the chemistry was really good, so we just did it. I can already say now, that we’re very happy with 20 Buck Spin. Dave and his PR guys have really given us a lot of exposure in the American media. It’s a huge improvement compared to the first album. So, thumbs up for 20 Buck Spin.

What do Atlantean Kodex have in store for 2014? Live shows planned? Any chance we could see a U.S. tour, even though the band’s shows are fairly spaced out?

MT: Yeah, we’re gonna play about a dozen or so live shows all over Europe. No tour, just select festivals with bands we wanna see ourselves, for example Hell over Hammaburg, Dutch Doom Days, or the legendary Keep it True festival. So far there hasn’t been an offer from promoters in the U.S. or Canada. But we definitely would love to play for you guys.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.atlanteankodex.de/

For more on the label or to buy the album, go here: http://www.20buckspinshop.com/

Best of 2013 — 2. WOLVSERPENT, ‘Perigaea Antahkarana’ (Relapse)

12 Jacket (Gatefold - Two Pocket) [GD30OB2-N]

Taking mental and spiritual journeys with music can be one of the most satisfying experiences one can have with music. At least I feel that way. Putting on a record and getting immersed in the sounds and ideas they’re trying to create is most rewarding. The ones that can spark that very experience every time you hear the album, no matter how many times you visit, are the ones that stick with me for the longest periods of time and become something like lifelong companions.

I’ve always been a major fan and supporter of Boise, Idaho, duo Wolvserpent, comprised of guitarist/vocalist Blake Green and violinist/drummer Brittany McConnell, from their early days as Pussygutt and into their transformation into Wolvserpent. Their second record under this moniker, the expansive, destructive, and lovely “Perigaea Antahkarana” is a total revelation, and even as someone who followed this band’s pathway, it threw me for a loop. Not that I didn’t think the band had this in them, because they always did. In fact, the hints of what was ahead were present and accounted for on their 2012 preview demo “Perigaea” that they offered as a free download. There, they revealed the early formations of the songs that would end up comprising this incredible new record, and it was clear from there they were operating on an entirely different plane as every other band out there doing the style of music they make. The final versions confirmed that.

Wolvserpent’s music is incredibly hard to describe to a newcomer, but to make it as simplistic as possible, they combine elements of doom, drone, sludge, post-metal, and woodsy folk, melding them perfectly, and blending the colors in a way where they make one shade, but you can still see the swirls. I urge you, if you haven’t experienced this band yet, do so now. Especially if you’re in the States and dealing with the wintry weather, put this on, open up your curtains, and stare off into nature while the music trickles all over you. And the only true way to absorb this record is to take on all 82 minutes without break. It’s a total picture and isn’t understood properly in small doses. Trust me, you’ll be better off for it. Blake Green graciously took time to answer our questions about the record, how they create their unique sound, and what the future holds for them. I know his words gave me some new introspection into their album and the band, and I’m thrilled to present his answers to you.

Wolvserpent

We are naming “Perigaea Antahkarana” our No. 2 metal album of the year. It is one of the most imaginative, immersive experiences of the year, and for a listener who loves to get lost in music and go on mental journeys, this record never fails to deliver. What were you trying to achieve philosophically and musically with this album?

Blake Green: Thank you so much. Really glad that you guys appreciate this work. Some of the positive responses to this album has been overwhelming! I think you kind of nailed it. It is an album for people who like to get lost in imagination, meditation, visions, and musical journeys. One of my favorite experiences listening to music is when I can go into the world created by the music and have an experience. Like the first time I heard (Stravinsky’s) “The Rite of Spring.” It’s not drone, it’s dream.

The process for creating the album obviously was arduous, first releasing a demo version of the tracks and then going back for rewrites. Do you ultimately feel satisfied with the end results? Anything you would do differently in hindsight?

BG: I do feel satisfied with the results. Honestly there are some things I would change. Small things like a lyric here and there. Maybe the way some of the mixing was handled.  Isn’t that the way it always is? I try not to dwell on it. It just means that I have learned more for next time. I definitely could have used some more space between the album and early interviews. I feel like my picture of this piece gets clearer as I gain more distance from its creation.

This is your first release for Relapse. How did that relationship come about, and are you satisfied calling that label home?

BG: Our demo was sent to Relapse by a buddy, and they really liked what they heard. Everybody was on board to work with us. It’s cool as a music fan to see Relapse involved in something so weird and underground. Relapse has treated us well, and we have been happy to work with them. I think they have helped us reach some new people that enjoy our music, so yeah, it has been good.

Not many bands change names during their careers, but Wolvserpent did that, going from the Pussygutt moniker to your current name? What was behind that move? Was it a matter of having something more “socially acceptable” or did the moniker simply not fit anymore?

BG: When we named that band we were teens playing punk/noise/industrial music in Boise, Idaho, and never imagined that we would become serious about our music. We definitely wanted to redefine what we were doing as the music grew and we began to take our project more seriously. At a certain point it was an entirely different project.

Describe the musical relationship you two share. It feels like, from the musical alone, there is a very spiritual connection. What is your creation process like?

BG: The creation process varies, but collaboration is key. Often times the relationship seems like two pieces to a puzzle. Our different strengths really complement each other. The music we create is certainly unique to this relationship.

Singling out one track, “Within the Light of Fire” is one of the most impactful songs I have heard all year, and it never fails to blow me away. How do you feel about that track? Do you have a personal favorite, be it from playing live or just how the song has grown on you over time?  

BG: I really like that track, and we were excited about starting a “drone” record off with that song. Really it doesn’t seem like we are playing drone or metal even at this point, so we wanted to come right out of the gate with this one and get rid of any preconceived notions. In that way it sets the tone for the rest of the record. Every song on this album is counterpoint to every other song. They only make complete sense when you listen all the way through. My current favorite song to play live is probably “In Mirrors of Water.” I really like the composition of that song and how it manages to avoid so many genres.

What does 2014 have in store for Wolvserpent? Touring? Planning any new music?

BG: We are taking a moment to regroup, but it seems that there will be a new EP and some shows in the future.

For more on the band, go here: http://wolvserpent.com/

To buy the album, go here: http://www.relapse.com/store.html

For more on the label, go here: http://www.relapse.com/

BEST OF 2013 — 3. SubRosa, ‘More Constant Than the Gods’ (Profound Lore)

subrosa album

A major running theme of our Top 40 albums of the year are bands and records that stand apart, not just from what else was released this year, but from the metal world in general. I have a major soft spot for these types of bands and albums, and that’s a huge reason why SubRosa not only is a special band to me in general but every time they put out a new record, it’s a major life event.

That’s not to suggest anything Salt Lake City’s SubRosa release is rubber stamped. The experience and the journey through their music dictates just how it affects lives and souls, and their latest album “More Constant Than the Gods” not only had to live up to the gigantic shadow that “No Help for the Mighty Ones” cast, but it also had to prove the power, tragedy, and darkness behind the material was a proper addition to the band’s canon. And wow, is it ever? “More Constant” grabs the heartstrings and the mind from the start. Their songs are more epic and wrenching than ever before, leading you through tumult and glory, heartache and injustice, tragedy and tribulation.

The band–guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon, violinists Kim Pack and Sarah Pendleton, and the newest members bassist Christian Creek, and drummer Andy Patterson–sound like the mightiest version of the band yet, and Vernon’s lyrical inspiration (a prostitute from a Nick Cave book who is murdered, historical traces of how women have been treated in society, a horrific mall shooting in Salt Lake City, and the passing of her mother, that also inspires the Glyn Smith album art) is moving and earthquaking, the stuff of a true artist who has unique ways of passing on the darkness she sees in a way that can’t help but move you, too. We cannot hail “More Constant Than the Gods” enough, so if you haven’t heard it yet, change that now. Luckily for us, Vernon has been more than gracious with her time (this is her third interview with our site) and answered some questions we had about the record, how the new songs have gone over live, and how the new formation of the band is working out. We thank her for her time and for the band for another breathtaking opus.

subrosa

We have named “More Constant Than the Gods” as our No. 3  album of the year. Of course, we felt warm and fuzzy about “No Help for the Mighty Ones,” and it feels a lot of people have had a lot of love for both. How satisfying is it to see your work embraced by so many?

Rebecca Vernon: Thanks, we are excited to hear we made Meat Mead Metal’s Top 5!

Well … it’s one thing to pour your heart and soul into an album and capture in sound waves a feeling or essence that you were striving to capture, like bottling a firefly that you can then look at for days afterwards.

But it is far more powerful to release the firefly so other people can experience it as well. I feel that having other people connect to the music you write is the most rewarding and awe-inspiring part of being in a band … having people “get it” … it’s magic.

When SubRosa played Fall into Darkness in Portland in 2012, a girl came up to me after the show and told me that “No Help for the Mighty Ones” had helped her through one of the darkest periods of her life. It’s comments like these that make all the hard parts of being in a band melt away into insignificance.

You’ve done some regional touring for “More Constant.” How have those shows gone, and how’s the new lineup working out?

RV: The regional shows have gone well, even though they haven’t been without their mishaps. Strangely enough, people haven’t seemed to notice the mishaps or haven’t let them interfere with their enjoyment of the overall set. That’s been nice, and we’ve learned from each mistake to make our live show better each time.

I think with this lineup, our live show has coalesced, and we are finally able to fully convey the pent-up energy of our music onstage. I think Kim, Sarah, and I also take the live shows more seriously now and put more into them than we ever have.

Have the audiences embraced the new songs? What has that interaction been like?

RV: Yes, they have. I have definitely noticed a difference in the way people are reacting to the live shows now than they did say, a year ago. I think there are a couple reasons for that. For example, I think the songs from “More Constant than the Gods” translate better live – they are simply heavier and more crushing to listen to live than the songs from “No Help.” I also think we have all gained more confidence in expressing ourselves onstage and put more into it.

Sadly, because people can be jerks, the band was robbed. How are you all recovering from that setback? It also seemed a lot of people reached out to help? Are you still looking for help, and if so, how can people contribute?

RV: The local news in Salt Lake City did a story on us getting robbed, and I think they did a good job of illustrating the happy ending to this bad situation (see the link below):

http://www.kutv.com/news/top-stories/stories/vid_7985.shtml

Within 72 hours, 136 people donated enough money to not only replace all five instruments that were stolen, but the cases, straps, and two backpacks with cash and personal items that were also taken. There was even enough to cover the approximately $600 cost of shipping the merchandise, cards, and posters we mailed out as thank-yous to the donators. It turned out to be an amazing experience and made us feel connected to SubRosa fans in a whole new way. I would encourage anyone who hears of other bands getting their gear stolen to help them out, too. We were lucky and I want other bands to have that same experience.

With the record out, and live shows being played, are any of the songs changing at all compositionally? Are you discovering things about them you didn’t expect?

RV: This is a good question. We made some changes in the live versions of the “More Constant” songs from the get-go, but they have not changed much since those initial decisions. For example, in the interlude of “The Usher,” we cut out the two phrases where the bells come in, and before the soft vocals start. We don’t play the bells live and that much dead space creates a pretty big lag onstage. We like to keep things moving at a steady clip live. We also don’t have a male to sing Jason McFarland’s parts on “The Usher” live (Christian and Andy flatly refuse to sing), so Kim and I sing those male parts live.  But I would say overall, we definitely play our songs very closely to how they are on the album.

One thing I discovered that I didn’t expect is that I wrote many of the vocal parts in the lower nether-regions of the alto scale because I write and sing very quietly in my bedroom after my roommates are asleep. But low alto doesn’t translate very well live (it is very hard for me to project), so I’ve had to make some adjustments with some of the melody lines for our shows.

What does the band have planned for 2014? Heard something about some shows with Deafheaven? Any plans for East Coast, I ask restlessly? 🙂

RV: We are planning to tour a lot in 2014. We know we have not toured extensively before, but that is not because we haven’t wanted to. We are planning a three-week tour in Europe in June around Hellfest and are pushing to stay as busy as possible after that for the rest of 2014. We definitely intend the East Coast to be part of that. We have two shows with Deafheaven next year – Feb. 15 in Salt Lake City and Feb. 16 in Denver. We are also playing the Treefort Festival in Boise in March. We are working on details of other touring possibilities, too, so stay tuned.

Maybe it’s too early for this, but have you thought beyond “More Constant” at all, as far as new music? Do you feel like this is the right lineup to go forward?

RV: I have finally started thinking about writing new music. I don’t write steadily and continuously, but in bursts. I haven’t written a new song in eight months and over the last two weeks, I have finally felt like working on the next album. We would like to do an acoustic album at some point, too. We do acoustic shows from time to time and thought that phenomenon might be cool to document. I do feel like this is the right lineup moving forward, and I hope everyone who is currently in SubRosa feels the same.

For more on the band, go here: http://subrosa.cc/

To buy the album, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/

For more on the label, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/

Best of 2013: 5 and 4

power trip cover

5. POWER TRIP, “Manifest Decimation” (Southern Lord) — The thrash metal revival hasn’t done a thing for me, because what I hear from almost every one of these bands is not the spirit in which I grew up. So yeah, maybe it’s some personal bias having grown up in the 1980s when thrash was at its creative apex that I have such a hard time getting into young thrash and crossover bands because they just don’t cut it for me. Not their faults, necessarily, because they weren’t breathing the same air and drinking the same water as bands like Exodus, Forbidden, Death Angel, Testament, Nuclear Assault, Metallica, and Anthrax. I don’t hold it against them that they don’t get it because, really, how could they?

Then a band like Power Trip comes along, and it feels like, finally, a young band has gotten it. The songs are fun, catchy, and violent in a great way, and they are tracks that make you want to start the largest circle pit in civilization organically, not because some macho asshole singer told you to do so. I’ve gotten as much pure enjoyment out of “Manifest Decimation” as anything else I heard this year, and if I needed something to get my juices flowing or a record to kick my ass into gear while I was running, this was the one I turned to pretty much every time.

From the blast of an opener in the title track to the impossibly infectious “Heretic Fork,” that has riffs galore, to “Conditioned to Death,” that has a chorus that should make you want to start throwing haymakers, to the insane “Power Trip,” that’s the best band-titled song to come out in two decades, this thing is a full-on riot. If this record makes you want to open up all the beers in the house, tear down the walls, break the lamps, and lie in a pile of sickness when it’s all over, then chances are you totally got the spirit of this thing too. So I guess the thrash revival isn’t a total waste because it brought us Power Trip, the band that re-ignited my faith in this style of metal living on through the ages. May there be many more from this band, the best new thrash band to come along since the 1980s. Hails, boys. (June 11)

To buy the album, go here: http://www.southernlord.com/store.php

RS Cover Final

4. FELL VOICES, “Regnum Saturni” (Gilead Media) — Are there any bands that makes you feel like they’re truly not of this world, or at least of this plane of existence? I feel that way about Santa Cruz, Calif., black metal space warriors Fell Voices, who seem to be inspired by sounds that most humans cannot comprehend and soundscapes that are beyond the capabilities of most modern artists. Their records are journeys through the body, soul, the cosmos, and time, and you have to devote yourself fully to what they do in order the comprehend. It’s a must, and if you completely engage, your life as a metal fan never will be the same again.

The band’s third album “Regnum Saturni,” a 66-minute galactic monster, is their finest work to date, combining their penchant for storm-shrouded black metal, devastating and penetrating drone, and the chaos from other eras, perhaps of times that we have not personally witnessed yet. You talk about bands that are ahead of their time, and Fell Voices qualify as that outright. Thing is, they’re doing dark arts so far and above what so many other bands are doing right now, they might not even survive as humans to live in the era where they can truly call other musicians and bands contemporaries. That’s how good they are, that’s how beyond comprehension their music is, and that’s how vitriolic and mind-blowingly creative they are as band. And let’s also take into their account their reluctance to speak to the media (the only reason we didn’t feature an interview) and relative personal obscurity beyond the carefully planned shows they play, and that level of mystery just blows into the stratosphere.

“Regnum Saturni” is comprised of just three tracks–“Flesh From Bone,” “Emergence,” and “Dawn”–that take you from front to back, and all are weaved together by an electrified noise thread that pulsates and could leave you in a trance, hardly able to snap out. On the other hand, if drone causes you anxiety, this record will wreck your life because of its heavy-handed devotion to making your eyes roll into the back of your head. The songs also are full of infernal glory, cascading melodies, and devastating shrieks and shouts that sound like they’re signaling the end of existence. This record is so massive, so great, so world-toppling, you really have to hear it for yourself to fully grasp its weight. And by the way, its vinyl treatment is one of the nicest of the entire year, and package is as sturdy and mighty as the band itself. It’s a must have for anyone who dares call himself or herself a fan of modern black metal. Or metal at all. (June 1)

To buy the album, go here: http://www.gileadmedia.net/store/

Best of 2013: 10-6

Locrian cover

10. LOCRIAN, “Return to Annihilation” (Relapse) — The spaciness and strangeness of Locrian both have long brought great pleasure to us at Meat Mead Metal, and it was about time a label like Relapse stepped up and gave this band the proper forum and push they deserve. That way, hopefully more people got to hear the band’s dreamy, sometimes savage, sometimes cloudy new record “Return to Annihilation.” This band has been developing and changing all along, which is part of the fun of following them, and this record provides moments that perhaps were easier to digest for newer listeners but biting enough for longtime fans.

The Chicago-based trio really showed an expanded version of themselves musically, flexing their experimental muscles in ways that make their music more intoxicating, setting strange moods that border on drone and psychedelic, and when the time is right, unleashing massive growls and shrieks to keep you on the edge of your seat. “Return to Annihilation” is a collection that’s perfect for the true album lover, as it’s one of those records you want to immerse yourself in, and then sink under every dark wave to see what lies under each new surface. Something like “A Visitation From the Wrath of Heaven” gives you plenty of light and dark, beats that penetrate your soul, and metallic outbursts that warp you; “Panorama” can be downright frightening; and the epic closer “Obsolete Elegies” takes you on a noisy trip to the stars. There’s almost too much to like on this album. Not that we’re complaining one bit. (June 25)

To buy the album go here: http://www.relapse.com/store.html

vastum cover

9. VASTUM, “Patricidal Lust” (20 Buck Spin) — Everyone describes death metal as scary. I do it what feels like 800 times every year, but that’s because that’s how this stuff is supposed to sound. But how many death metal albums truly get under your skin and into your brain with real-life, psychologically damaging horrors that feel like something that escaped from a psychiatric unit? Vastum’s second full-length “Patricidal Lust” is one of those records, a deranged, murderous, sexually damaged, emotionally frustrated trip that should make every band trying to chill your blood with the evils of Satan sit back and rethink their approach. Follow along with the words to the album as you listen, and you might find yourself unable to sleep. And there are no zombies, devils, or witches to be found. This is true human horror.

OK, so we’ve covered the lyrical content, but what if your real concern is the music and not what’s being howled back at you? Fair enough. This band that is comprised of members of Acephalix as well as Leila Abdul-Rauf (Hammers of Misfortune, Amber Asylum, and the way underrated Saros), who bring all of their dark influences to this thing, while Daniel Butler and Abdul-Rauf trade off vocal duties. The riffs are massive, the underbelly is purely doom infested, and their damaging death is dark but also catchy enough to stick inside your head. This is one of the grisliest death metal bands out there and, because of their lyrical journeys into the most depraved, scarring of humanity, one from which you won’t be able to escape. (Nov. 12)

To buy the album go here: http://www.20buckspinshop.com/

true widow cover

8. TRUE WIDOW, “Circumambulation” (Relapse) — There has been an ongoing theme on this site about what does and does not constitute metal, and who’s right, who’s wrong. It’s an open-ended, never-ceasing topic, and it’s one that could rise again as we discuss Dallas trio True Widow and their powerfully dark new record “Circumambulation.” Purely metal? Not really. Not metal at all? Some have argued that. But I’m totally fine listing them here, and their excellent new record is one that gets regular play in my house, just their like their previous releases. Yeah, they lean a little closer to the Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Low end of the spectrum, and they certainly are the oddball band on Relapse right now (though they fit in nicely with a band like 27 or even Locrian), but to me that makes them that much more interesting.

True Widow dub their slow-driving, night-time-inducing music as stonergaze, and that’s a pretty ideal way to describe what’s going on here. There are buzzing, slumber-poking guitar parts, steady drumming by Slim TX, and properly hazy vocals shared by DH Phillips (guitar) and Nicole Estill (bass) who provide the proper amount of both personality and detachment to these tracks. This is the perfect record to hear after a night of drinking, when you’re fully ready to question your decision-making and wallow in your own self-loathing. True Widow, on this record, feel like that soul that won’t hesitate to pour you another if it means one more demon lets loose. This thing is foggy, alluring, seductive, and powerful, and it has further solidified my devotion to this band that is truly special. (July 23)

To buy the album go here: http://www.relapse.com/store.html

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7. ORANSSI PAZUZU, “Velonielu” (20 Buck Spin/Svart) — If you’ve followed this whole list, I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but was there another album even remotely close to the sounds Finnish black metal experimenters Oranssi Pazuzu dreamt up for their latest opus “Velonielu”? I know I’ve embraced a lot of strange, challenging records this year and celebrated how they stood out, but this one truly takes the cake. Woven into their black metal are elements of Krautrock, doom, prog, and heavy psychedelics, so it’s easy to get lost simply on the strength of one slurry guitar line or a simple explosion of synth. For example, my first time listening to this album was on the beach this summer during a really windy day. I turned my chair to the wind, put this on, and managed to stare a black hole in the boardwalk for the next 45 minutes.

The vocals are gruff all the way, so even when you’re letting yourself daydream, you’re still being ravaged. But the band tires of one style too quickly, jumping all over the spectrum and pulling in whatever colors suit them at the moment. Because of that, their sound is pretty welcoming to most extreme music fans. It could even spill over and reach people who think the deepest into your psyche you can go is Pink Floyd or the most creative a black metal band can get is Enslaved. This one will really spin their heads. It’s an amazing opus, one that opened up my thinking, and a record that wore down my turntable needle ever since it arrived at my home. This is the most unique metal experience I had all year, and part of my brain is still lying in stardust somewhere from all the frequent visits. (Oct. 11)

To buy the album go here: http://www.20buckspinshop.com/

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6. GRAVE MIASMA, “Odori Sepulcrorum” (Profound Lore) — To have as anticipated a debut album as the virgin offering from UK death metal shadows Grave Miasma, you have to be doing some really compelling things. From the praise coming from their label well before this record was even conceived, to the comments from fellow scribes, to digging into the band’s two EPs myself, so much has been building toward “Odori Sepulcrorum” that it almost seemed like the hype would be too great for this record to meet. Instead, they torched all of that advance word via the infernal power of their churning, nightmare-causing death metal, proving again that sometimes the reason so many people are talking profusely about something like Grave Miasma is because the words are true and the band can more than back themselves up.

This murky, bloody trip into death itself feels like it emanated from a deep, dark cave beneath the Earth’s surface, where the band’s four singular-letter-named members could be closest to the planet’s collection of rotting, perhaps damned souls. It’s like they sucked the remaining life and pungent rot from those bodies and breathed that back into their music, that’s shockingly loyal to the old death metal gods but also strangely modern sounding and fresh. You certainly can pull melody from these songs, as that’s there for the taking, but everything chokes on smoke and ever-present, penetrating death that all you can hope is that you’re not overcome by a world of damned souls. Grave Miasma made the wait for the first album more than worth it, and I can only imagine what terror they will unearth for album two. Luckily, we have time to prepare. (Sept. 13)

To buy the album go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/

BEST OF 2013: 15-11

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15. DARKTHRONE, “The Underground Resistance” (Peaceville) — A quarter of a century after their incredible, influential, legendary run began, Nordic metal warriors Darkthrone show no signs of slowing down or adhering to anyone’s wishes but their own. Their 15th album “The Underground Resistance” is one of their best records in more than a decade, and certainly their finest since they started heading back in time, that being toward the mid-80s when metal was still in its formative stage and bands played for the love of the music and not just to sell millions of albums. So whine if you want that they’re not black metal through and through anymore, but you can’t deny the power and exuberance of their latest opus.

With just six songs–three from Nocturno Culto, three from Fenriz– you get a nice mish mash of styles. Culto’s work is meaner, nastier, and heavier, staying closer to death metal the way he prefer it be played, while Fenriz sounds like he’s trying to recreate old Agent Steel/Celtic Frost and other banner wavers of classic metal, with his bombastic, swaggering tracks. It all culminates in the incredible 13:49-long closer “No Cross Left Unturned,” an epic ode to heavy metal’s power and glory that is another one of the best metal songs of the entire year. Knowing how this band cranks out material, there will probably be a new Darkthrone record before too long. But if not, “The Underground Resistance” is more than enough to keep me full. (Feb. 25)

To buy the album, go here: https://www.burningshed.com/store/peaceville/collection/233/

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14. WINDHAND, “Soma” (Relapse) — We already mentioned Richmond, Va., doom unit Woodhand in our best splits of the year roundup, and we’re giving them even more love now for their earth-shattering second full-length record “Soma,” an album that burns their name onto the map of great modern heavy music bands. This six-track, 75-minute beast hulks with smoky fire, drugged-out haze, and noisy melody, all driven home by the unreal voice of Dorthia Cottrell, who certainly established herself as one of metal’s brightest new stars in 2013. Not only was this a big step ahead for the band musically, but they also upped their profile signing with Relapse, who did a pretty super job getting the word out about this amazing record.

The front half of “Soma” contains songs that’ll drill a hole in your brain for their majesty and overall catchiness, from the excellent opener “Orchard,” to the kick-ass album highlight “Woodbine,” that has a chest-punching chorus that seems to have been playing on a loop in my head ever since getting the record. Then things change with the folk acoustic “Evergreen,” where Cottrell’s voice takes front and center, and the dual mammoth closers “Cassock” that runs 14 minutes and “Boleskin” that goes for a massive half-hour.This is another record that keeps on giving the whole year through, and what’s scary is Windhand and their albums only should get better from here. (Sept. 17)

To buy the album, go here: http://www.relapse.com/store.html

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13. PORTAL, “Vexovoid” (Profound Lore) — There are none more black than Portal. One of the most bizarre, mysterious, churning death metal bands in existence proved that statement true yet again with the release of the massive fourth record “Vexovoid.” This gut-wrenching release by these shrouded Aussies was, strangely, one of their most obviously melodic to date, though it’ll still sound like a hornet’s nest of chaos to the untrained ear, and it’s a little easier to pull out the nuances and brilliance buried beneath all the madness. That or I’m just getting a lot better at deciphering the charnel noise this band puts out and their confounding approach to death metal that has spawned more than a few disciples. But none do it quite a well as Portal.

Pretty much perfectly paced at seven tracks and 34 minutes, this terrifying band will spin your brain for a loop, with the dizzying, yet virtuosically played guitars, the murky, cement-thick bass, and the mind-crushing drums, and that’s not to mention the hell cavern hisses coming from vocalist the Curator, one of the scariest figures in metal who continually spits his diatribes from behind a masked costume. If you never heard this band before and want to get it on the darkness, “Vexovoid” is a pretty good place to start. But be wary. Their music will damage you psychologically, almost like a strange voice that eats into your brain, forcing you to do unspeakable harm to yourself and others. They’re the ghoulish face staring back at you on your wall as you try to sleep. They’re the slashers in the night. And they’ve never sounded quite this deadly before. (Feb. 19)

To buy the album, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/

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12. AGRIMONIA, “Rites of Separation” (Southern Lord) — Gothenburg, Sweden, is known for its rich history in melodic death metal, not quite as much for producing bands as diverse and genre-defying as Agrimonia, who made a gigantic impact with their third full-length album “Rites of Separation,” released by Southern Lord. D-beat, hardcore, sludge, punk, thrash, and sure, death all make up this incredible record that never ceases to amaze no matter how many times I hear it. They do have a member of At the Gates, by the way, so that connection back to the town sound is still there to an extent. All of the songs get stretched to the very limit, with every detail they can muster thrown in for good measure, yet it all works so perfectly and fits together so magically. On top of that are vocalist Christina’s throaty, guttural growls and screams, giving this album an even more menacing edge than it already had. It’s like she just wants to punch you.

As mentioned, the songs are epics. The shortest on here is the 6:44-long “The Battle Fought,” and two of the tracks easily top the 15-minute mark. But they’re engaging experiences, the whole lot of them, and they go from sound to sound almost as if each song has a sequence of movements. That way, you’re never thinking about how long the song is (not that I would be anyway), and instead you’re wondering what colors they’ll splash at you next. Every crushing high has a textured low, and each burst of metallic energy has swatches of beauty that make everything whole. Agrimonia already were a band that intrigued me, but “Rites of Separation” made them one that demanded and grabbed my undivided attention. They crush. (April 30)

To buy the album, go here: http://www.southernlord.com/store.php

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11. ALTAR OF PLAGUES, “Teethed Glory & Injury” (Profound Lore) — Talking about Altar of Plagues’ third record is something of a bittersweet affair. Yes, they released one of the most surprising, expectation-toppling metal records of the year. Hell, of the past five years. But with that came news that this band would be no more, and that following a group of live shows this year, this unreal group would dissolve. It proved to be one of metal’s great tragedies, because for the scary fact that bands that really make you think, really make your blood flow, and cause you to sit up and pay heed are growing shockingly scarce, we can’t really afford to lose the ones we have that do. Yet, that’s what happened following the release of the beast that turned out looking and sounding like nothing else in the Altar of Plagues catalog, and perhaps cements the road perfectly for singer/guitarist/keyboardist James Kelly to pursue his other band WIFE full time.

Many of us grew used to the band’s sprawling, epic doom/black metal dirges from albums such as “White Tomb” and “Mammal,” so surely heads turned violently when opening track “Mills” struck, setting into motion an industrial-laced storm that leads into “God Alone,” my choice for best metal track of the year and one of most brilliant examples of building terrifying momentum I’ve ever heard. If you’re not convulsing emotionally by the time this one is over, you just don’t get it. Over the rest of the album, the band hammers home anguish, terror, fury, and mental imbalance ideally over songs such as WOLD-like “Burnt Year”; the post-metal-style exploration of “Twelve Was Ruin”; and “Found, Oval, and Final,” that sounds like “God Alone’s” equally deranged twin sister. It’s heartbreaking as a fan that this band is no more, but this final epitaph is so stunning, it just might soothe that pain forever. (April 30)

To buy the album, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/

BEST OF 2013: 20-16

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20. PINKISH BLACK, “Razed to the Ground” (Century Media) — Just about everything about Dallas-based duo Pinkish Black is disturbing, from the origin of their band name, to their penetrating drone that can cause your head to spin, from their doomy darkwave that, while not inherently metal, still belongs way up there in the discussion. The music on their second full-length “Razed to the Ground,” their first for Century Media (one of their most surprising, yet intelligent, signings to date) can chill you and spook you out in ways even the most evil and bloodthirsty black metal bands could ever dream, basically because these guys weigh in on your psyche and on matters far more tangible in daily life. How many of us ever are really going to see a baphomet? How many of us have been in a fucked up relationship, not necessarily romantic?

It’s easy to get creeped out by the band’s sounds. The synth-drums setup might make some think of Zombi, and there are some sonic similarities, but there are a lot of psychedelic nightmare-scapes and doom drubbings to set them in their own stratosphere. Daron Beck (keys, vocals) and Jon Teague (drums, synth) do a great job creating dark, creeping, but ultimately catchy songs that should turn on the dreariest of doom fans but even those who dig bands such as Sisters of Mercy, the Cure, and the Cult. This is a deranged, yet stunning record that may take some time to find its proper audience, but once it does, everyone included is fucked. (Sept. 17)

To buy the album, go here: http://www.cmdistro.com/index.aspx

desfheaven album

19. DEAFHEAVEN, “Sunbather” (Deathwish Inc.) — What could very possibly be the most positively embraced metal album of the past decade, “Sunbather” blew up even before the record hit the streets. Writers, including me, heaped praise on this mix of black metal, post-rock, indie rock, hardcore, you name it, and nearly half a year after its release, it still more than holds up and still packs the punch it did on first listen. From the emotionally tormented vocals from George Clarke, to Kerry McCoy’s music that runs the gamut of second wave black metal to Slowdive melodrama, “Sunbather” really has everything a scarred human being could want.

As with anything that gets this much praise and hype, there has been some backlash. There are questions as to whether Deafheaven’s music is even metal at all (it totally is, by the way) or if it’s just some hipster shit (it’s not, and please stop that one), but doing that just ignores the human tragedy and anguish contained in these seven tracks. The album is not a tough guy, beat-your-ass listen, or some sort of Satanic diatribe. It’s a collection of sometimes scathing, sometimes gorgeous music that embraces the highs and lows of life, realizations that suffering for your art might involve scraping by to even exist, and even the relationships with those people who are supposed to be closest to you that never really come to fruition. It’s a very human record, and maybe that’s another reason it has touched so many people. I called it a modern classic in my June review, and I stand by that with great conviction. (June 11)

To buy the album, go here: http://store.deathwishinc.com/category/new.html

blood ceremony album

18. BLOOD CEREMONY, “The Eldritch Dark” (Metal Blade/Rise Above) — There were plenty of bands that took gigantic steps ahead creatively in 2013, but perhaps none did so more effectively and convincingly as did Toronto band Blood Ceremony. The band always had a knack for dark, ritualistic doom metal and rock, but on their third record “The Eldritch Black,” they reach out even further to adopt a larger coven, mixing in classic rock and English folk to make them a bigger, more explosive band, and one capable of more sounds than you and I thought possible. This eight-song record is paced just right, contains just enough material, and really could find the band playing on rock radio on stations where their playlists aren’t corporately controlled. My guess is their audience would swell and they’d become one of Metal Blade’s biggest bands.

Maybe the best way to describe Blood Ceremony’s sound on this third album is occult rock, though that’s just scratching the surface of what they do, and so many of these songs are just incredible pieces of songwriting, from the great, Heart-friendly opener “Witchwood,” on which singer Alia O’Brien just sells the hell out of the thing, to the incredible folk ballad “Lord Summerisle,” their tribute to “The Wicker Man” that is suing by bassist Lucas Gadke, to the Decemberists-style rocker “Ballad of the Weird Sisters,” that has some of the most raucous guitar playing on the album. This is such a great record, such a gigantic leap toward their future, that there’s no telling what this band will conjure next. (May 28)

To buy the album, go here: http://www.indiemerchstore.com/item/19486/

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17. THE BODY, “Christs, Redeemers” (Thrill Jockey) — Armageddon and worlds being torn apart is as much a part of metal as guitars, volume, and devils, but perhaps no band expresses the horror of seeing existence blown to pieces better, and more frequently, than do Rhode Island duo The Body. Their music is pure terror, an assault that might make some people’s ears bleeds and insides explode, but if you get their mission, then chances are you spent many a bloody hour with the band’s new record “Christs, Redeemers,” their first for Thrill Jockey. The sludge doom menace created by guitarist/vocalist Chip King and drummer Lee Buford isn’t for the weak of heart, and might not even be for all metal fans, but there’s no question of their heaviness

As usual, the band is joined by the Assembly of Light Choir, who add their angelic voices to this smoking pile of destruction, perhaps leading you down a misleading path before King and Buford blast in with their mucking punishment, views into hell, and messages carried by the shrill shrieks and growls that sound downright inhuman. With each release, The Body increase their vitriol and come away with something scarier than what they offered up before. If they manage to top the bone-crushing chills they achieve here on “Christs, Redeemers,” the next album might literally make people’s hearts stop. (Oct. 15)

To buy the album, go here: http://thrilljockey.com/thrill/The-Body/Christs-Redeemers#.UrIPwfRDuSq

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16. WOE, “Withdrawal” (Candlelight) — Woe is a band that has grown in scope and sound ever since the 2008 debut “A Spell for the Death of Man” all the way up to their explosive, excellent latest album “Withdrawal,” released earlier this year. While the band remains a relentless black metal machine, there is more atmosphere, punk rock, and even proggy moments on their latest opus, and if you’ve followed this band’s trail, you might have sensed this was possible. This time around, Chris Grigg collaborated with the lineup assembled for this record, making for the liveliest, richest experience in the Woe catalog and hopefully stands as an indication that growth is something we can expect going forward for the band.

Grigg’s mangling screams remain a centerpoint for the band, as he often sounds like a man on the edge or just someone releasing every ounce of human trauma, and the music on “Withdrawal” is both nightmarishly dark and unapologetically heavy and melodic. These songs just flow by, and before you know it, the record’s over, making you wonder where these 43 minutes have gone. Lyrically, “Withdrawal” is more personal, more societal, more human meltdown than ever before, perhaps even giving Grigg that extra emphasis to go on and just go for broke vocally, and he also happens to have the best Woe music to date behind him to give each song added depth. I can’t say enough good things about this record. I loved it from the moment is arrived, and it gets played pretty regularly around here. This is Woe’s greatest achievement so far, but hopefully it’s just the beginning of a cataclysmic next step. (April 22)

To buy the album, go here: http://www.candlelightrecordsusa.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=1593