If you haven’t noticed yet, the beginning of December has given way to the annual deluge of year-end lists, publication after publication, writer after writer offering their choices of the best albums of 2013. It’s completely overdone, but still something I relish to this day, as that perpetual desire to discover great new music never ceases. However, it’s easy to forget there are still plenty of new releases coming out this month, including a few more than worthy of your attention and hard-earned cash, ones that are being ignored by genre tourists busy singing the praises of this year's token "metal" album. But hey, to each their own. In the meantime, pardon me while I go scream junior high poetry petulantly over a Slowdive album and wait for the accolades to pour in.
Here’s some new, proper heavy metal well worth checking out:
Avatarium, Avatarium (Nuclear Blast): When it comes to stories of how bands started up, Avatarium’s has quickly become a favorite of mine. Candlemass head honcho Leif Edling was at his own birthday party, when Mikael Åkerfeldt drunkenly suggested they start a band together. Apparently Åkerfeldt does that all the time yet never actually goes through with it, but Edling took his word for it and immediately started writing songs with Åkerfeldt’s voice in mind. As it turned out, even though his Opeth buddy couldn’t commit to the project, the new material was so good Edling decided to see this project through with some more willing participants. Enter guitarist and former Candlemass fill-in Marcus Jidell, who in turn would convince his girlfriend Jennie-Ann Smith to try singing. The end result is a brilliant debut album that explores doom metal in a way Edling can’t do with Candlemass, broadening its reach into classic rock, psychedelic rock, and even pop. Smith’s persona works wonders, at times sounding as haunting and mysterious as Jex Thoth, but also capable of entrancing listeners with genuine soul rather than keeping them at an arm’s length. “Moonhorse”, “Boneflower”, and “Lady in the Lamp” all show incredible promise, and Edling is clearly relishing this new musical direction. His ongoing Candlemass gig might pay the bills, but it’s good to see him continuing to make vital music. This new band is a keeper.
Cult of Fire, मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान (Iron Bonehead): Yes, that’s Sanskrit, and no, I have no idea how it’s pronounced, nor what it means. If the guys in Cult of Fire do, then good for them. Musically this second album is an even balance of rote black metal orthodoxy and bold experimentation: melodic then atonal, structured then abstract, straightforward then mesmerizing. Another incredible discovery by German tastemaker Iron Bonehead. Stream and purchase it via Bandcamp.
Also out this week:
Ævangelist, Omen Ex Simulacra (Debemur Morti): If you want atmosphere in your death metal, Ævangelist have it up the wazoo. So much so, in fact, that it comes perilously close to overwhelming the actual music at hand, and the novelty wears off after half an hour. Yes, we get it; it’s the sonic equivalent of a descent into Hell. For what it’s worth, though, the actual music is capably done, the kind of death metal that would have some describing it as striking, others calling it arbitrary. I’m leaning towards the former. But only just.
Artillery, Legions (Metal Blade): The Danish veterans don’t exactly do anything particularly daring on their seventh album, and third since their comeback, but it’s a spirited collection of melodic thrash tunes, led by new singer Michael Bastholm Dahl, who makes a strong first impression.
Ashencult/Mesphorash, Opus Serpens (Unholy Anarchy): This is a very cool 10-inch split, featuring blistering new tracks by Philadelphia black metal band Ashencult and their like-minded brethren in Sweden’s Mesphorash. Both epic songs complement each other perfectly, firmly rooted in black metal tradition: savage, Satanic, and aptly atmospheric. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Black Sabbath, Live...Gathered In Their Masses (Vertigo): You release the most heavily anticipated metal album of the year, you launch an extremely successful world tour, and you cap off a stellar year with a live release. So what better way to thank the fans than by cutting five songs off the live album? Any Sabbath with half a brain who wants a memento of the 2013 tour is just going to buy the complete show on DVD, then just download an audio rip via torrent.
Circle, Incarnation (Ektro): Wait a sec. So Finnish band Circle has “loaned” their name to other bands while they name themselves Falcon and play soft rock. Whatever floats your boat, guys. Either way, the musicians who appear under the Circle moniker on this album take the brand headlong into straight-up death metal, and do an awfully good job of it, from the unrelenting proto-grind of “Bloodstreams”, to the lurching, primal “Transcending”, to the truly strange blend of death and motorik on “Burden”.
Deicide, In The Minds Of Evil (Century Media): Glen Benton and Deicide have been on a good roll in recent years, and this 11th album once again wastes no time giving the punters what they want: good, tight, catchy death metal songs that never stray longer than four minutes, and of course loaded with Benton’s perpetual blasphemy.
Ephel Duath, Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness (Agonia): Some hear “uncompromising”, I hear an unfocused racket featuring repellent, tone-deaf lead vocals.
Falcon (ex-Circle), Frontier (Ektro): Kudos to the guys in Circle for attempting to co-opt AOR, but as earnest as this album is, it’s nevertheless too awkward-sounding to work. It almost feels like this is genre tourism, a group of experimental musicians playing music that’s beneath them, sometimes sounding sincer, other times sounding condescending. Whether it’s the hooks, the surreal lead vocals, or the song titles (“Beer and Ribs”, “Miami Tits”) there’s always something disturbingly off about this record.
Generation Kill, We're All Gonna Die (Nuclear Blast): Outspoken Exodus vocalist Rob Dukes is back with another Generation Kill album, which turns out to be a lot more diverse than the last record, playing up the American groove metal gimmick a lot more, blatantly following the lead of Pantera and Black Label Society. For all the sludgy grooves, ballads, and general what-the-fuckery (“Carny Love”) its best moments are still when Dukes and his mates focus more on the thrash side, like on “Friendly Fire”. Sadly, there’s nowhere near enough of that on this sloppy, pandering album, leaving you wondering why Dukes was given that much creative freedom in the first place.
Hell, Curse And Chapter (Nuclear Blast): The triumphant return of NWOBHM obscurities Hell was one of the more pleasant surprises of 2011, and their follow-up continues right where Human Remains left off, even expanding on the band’s distinct, theatrical sound. Kev Bower and Andy Sneap bring loads of melodic riffs and harmonies, while singer David Bower continues to embrace his role as frontman, charismatically selling the gleefully outlandish lyrics on such standouts as “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “A Vespertine Legacy”. Bonus points for somehow paraphrasing the Fifth Dimension and making it actually work.
I Exist, From Darkness (Prosthetic): The Australian band’s take on the sludge sound – equal parts Eyehategod and Kylesa – is capably done, but you keep waiting for the band’s own personality to surface, for this record to forge an identity of its own, only to never see it happen.
Immortal Bird, Akrasia (Closed Casket): 30 seconds into the debut EP by the Chicago trio, you think you have it pegged, but the blackened thrash quickly gives way to prog, noise, and grindcore, all performed with ferocity. As confident as the band sounds, they’re still feeling their way around, which is a frightening thought. When they hit their stride, look out. The Deciblog premiered the album yesterday, so go listen to it here.
Kuolemanlaakso, Musta aurinko nousee (Svart): Finnish for “death valley” – or says Google Translate, anyway – Kuolemanlaakso bring out the mournful melodies of countrymen Swallow the Sun, only with blunter force, on this new EP. And of course, it’s sung in Finnish, just to give it an air of mystery to the bulk of listeners who don’t understand the language.
Leaves Eyes, Symphonies Of The Night (Napalm): The latest from Liv Kristine and company stays the course, dutifully delivering more of the same folk-tinged symphonic metal, but too many of these new songs fall flat, sorely lacking the warmth and charisma of 2005’s Vinland Saga, which remains the band’s best work.
Profanatica, Thy Kingdom Cum (Hells Headbangers): The long-running band has churned out yet another album of attention-seeking profanity and blasphemy, but while the artwork more than holds up its end of the bargain, the music therein feels crude and half-assed in comparison.
Rhapsody of Fire, Dark Wings of Steel (AFM): When it comes to ridiculous Italian power metal, Rhapsody of Fire are the standard bearers, and they are in prime, bombastic, frilly-sleeved form on their tenth album. While Luca Turilli brought a level of shred-happy insanity as main songwriter prior to his 2011 departure, his absence makes room for a more straightforward compositional style, which suits this incarnation of the band nicely. While the production fails to elevate the music to the kind of insane grandiosity it deserves, the songs are nevertheless involving enough to give this album a pass.
Year Of No Light, Tocsin (Debemur Morti): At its worst, France’s Year of No Light can sound as tedious as any other “post-metal” band of the last decade, but at its best it transcends that boring tag entirely. After the 12-minute title track gets things off to a sleepy start, things finally get interesting with the racing “Géhenne”, the towering “Stella Rectrix”, and the motorik hypnosis of “Alamut”.
Not metal, but worth hearing:
Beastmilk, Climax (Svart): Had this come out 11 years ago, it would have been slobbered over by the indie rock press. But in their ignorance of trends outside their own genre, metal musicians can make them look horribly, charmingly passé. Needless to say there’s an instinctive feeling of “been there, done that” upon first hearing the new post-punk project by Matt “Kvohst” McNerney. After all, it’s all been done to death thanks to such bands as Interpol, Editors, Bloc Party, Maximo Park, The Futureheads, and on, and on, and on. Like metalcore, it’s hard to generate enthusiasm for a sound that was beaten to death in the mid-2000s. However, once you let the slavish worship of Joy Division, The Cure, and Siouxsie & the Banshees settle, the more you can sense Beastmilk setting itself apart from the rest of the sound-alikes thanks to a direct, harder-edged approach. Interpol’s strength was subtlety; Beastmilk’s is pure bombast. A strong Killing Joke/Sisters of Mercy vibe runs through the entire record, a sense of Kurt Ballou-produced abrasion and gothic theatricality that indie rock was never willing to fully embrace, as well as McNerney’s Andrew Eldritch-style baritone, which makes songs like “Death Reflects Us” and “Genocidal Crush” work so well. So typical of metal musicians, there’s no trace of subtlety here – it’s ham-fisted in places – and it’s not as daring and poetic as Vaura’s meshing of gothic rock and black metal, but that’s its strength, and on a simple, instinctive level it’s immensely satisfying.