Thursday, 2 January 2014

The 2013 End of the Year List

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Heavy Metal Spotlight end-of-year list, which, once again, has a completely different format to last year, which itself was a bit different to the one previous. Perhaps we'll stick to this format next time - perhaps not.

As much as I like to try, I never quite manage to get my feelers around every single metal album of a given year by the time it comes to the Heavy Metal Spotlight album of the year, and the last two years have thoroughly educated me to this fact. To this day, I continuously stumble upon records from 2011 and 2012 which I would, without a doubt, have placed in my top-ten, but too late. This, of course, is the flaw with the album of the year; not only can a year never be summarised by a single album, just as metal itself cannot be, but on top of this, I just can't listen to all of the albums - it is, in fact, impossible to really construct an album of the year short-list which can account for everyone's taste. The solution? I'm not going to try, haphazardly - perhaps even condescendingly - to cater to everyone's taste; instead, I'm going to offer a more personal list of the albums which have really hit my ears hard, delivering the music I love, with fantastic gusto, originality, power, finesse, or a terrific blend of all of these things. And so, as another year of metal - and not a bad year, if you ask me - has passed, it's time to take a look at the records which knocked me sideways, before I can get on with the business or enjoying them forever, and looking forwards to what next year has to bring... I hear Vader are doing something.

And without further ado, in no particular order;

Master - The Witchhunt: I own a Master hoodie - the sleeve reads "Underground Survivor". It is, I would suggest, something of an understatement - with records like The Witchhunt, Speckmann and company certainly demonstrate their ability to perpetuate an ongoing, consistent and utterly crushing death metal. The band don't survive. They thrive. No two Master albums are identical, but a consistency is spread through the band's discography stronger than almost any other death metal act I can bring to mind - and I've been listening to more death metal this year than ever before. Bolt Thrower will always feel like the benchmark for integrity, but Master aren't far behind.

Atlantean Kodex - The White Goddess: It's wonderful to see a band which was charging forward with some momentum already, truly begin to grow wings and soar. Soaring is a damn appropriate term for what Atlantean Kodex are doing; with this record, the band has really moved towards the very helm of the epic doom genre, gloriously. There's something very satisfying in seeing a band you have followed for a long time grow to be something of a phenomena, and that is precisely what this record caused the band to do - suddenly, the band took its place on end-of-year lists, and had their name on the lips of anyone with even a passing interest in epic metal.

Mammoth Grinder - Underworlds: Old school death metal is, nine times out of ten, my favourite, and Mammoth Grinder fit the bill exceptionally well with their latest record, Underworlds, which thunders through in under half-an-hour, leaving destruction, grime, and spent D-beat casings in it's path. Mammoth Grinder represents the real millstone edge of the genre at it's most impolite, loud and roaring, while retaining riffs and structures which are, as opposed to being gratuitously so, only as primitive as they need to be. Hammers have not changed for centuries, and that's because they're already perfect for their job; applying force.

Toxic Holocaust - Chemistry of Conciousness: When you're going for thrash, Toxic Holocaust stand as testimony to the fact that you should trust the guy in the Bathory shirt, and not the Metallica one. Gritty, ferocious and thoroughly legitimate, Chemistry of Conciousness shows that Toxic Holocaust is an outfit which is maturing well, and while they aren't new kids on the block, by any means, the band's sound still oozes with Joel Grind's ever-reliable venom, spit and respect for the underground. Chemistry of Conciousness is refreshingly different from the rampaging pizza-thrash of our time, and isn't afraid to show it, while still delivering the goods which thrash is loved for.
Skeletonwitch - Serpents Unleashed:  The real award for "thrash not like other thrash" is probably the property of Skeletonwitch this year. A true amalgam of diverse influences, Skeletonwitch are both unconventional and unique - unapologetically so. Serpents Unleashed is another milestone along a consistent and ever-impressive road which the band seem to be travelling with no end in sight, and the record is every bit as good as those before it - showing that the best albums need not be the exception, but ones which affirm the rule - which, in this case, is that Skeletonwitch are truly a force to be reckoned with. It should come as no surprise that the band which have done no wrong yet, still haven't.

Solstice - Death's Crown is Victory: As much as I enjoy them, I tend not to factor EPs into lists like this - however - for Solstice, one of my favourite bands ever, I would make the exception, albeit only for an excellent EP indeed. Fortunately, that is precisely what the band did. Monolithically slow in terms of releasing albums though the band may be, this EP certainly proves that when they do create material, there are no bands within the epic doom genre which can hold much of a candle to their work. Is this the vanguard for a larger record soon to come? Hopefully. Nobody seems certain, but one thing is such - it doesn't need to be, to be a fantastic collection of music in it's own right.

Cultes Des Ghoules - Henbane: As an album which contains a track entitled "Vintage Black Magic", Henbane by Cultes Des Ghoules describes itself far better than possibly I can. Henbane forsakes the tried, tested and at times tired roads which many black-metal bands propel themselves down these days, and instead creates a rich, earthy sound from primitive and narcotic ingredients. Henbane is raw, deeply atmospheric, and ritualistic in a way which makes you feel like you're in the presence of legitimately dark, forbidden music, and I've always felt that black metal of this sort should be able to do that.

Rotting Christ - Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy: Rotting Christ were one of the bands which 2013 brought to me in general; not just a new album, but an appreciation of their discography at large. Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy, however, was definitely one of the albums which showed me what the band had to offer - and the offering in question was good. The atmosphere is intricate, elaborate and extremely grandiose and, in the genuine sense, epic - the songs are stirring, beautiful, and exceptionally atmospheric, with a extra generous helping of multicultural folk elements which make the album as diverse as it is glorious.

Satan - Life Sentence: One of the most fantastically old-school records of the year, Life Sentence is Satan's first album in well over twenty years, but sonically, the band have not skipped a beat - this album sounds like it could have been released two years after the last one, and not twenty, but - perhaps more importantly - it sounds amazing today; the fantastically memorable traditional metal, complimented by natural production which will never age is a winning combination, and there is little doubt in my mind that Life Sentence is among the finest traditional metal records of the year, if not over an even larger time-period than that.

Hail of Bullets - III: The Rommel Chronicles: Hail of Bullets can always be counted on to deliver, and for the third consecutive time, they have. Perhaps more viciously and energetically than ever before. The album follows the accustomed old-school Bolt Thrower style death metal approach which we have come to know and love from Hail of Bullets, and it does the job especially well, with devastating riffs, memorable songs, and a superb bouquet of tempos and stylistic influences. A step up from the second album, The Rommel Chronicles is, as far as my ears seem to reckon, easily on a par with the best work the band have ever done, with some songs destined to become Hail of Bullets classics.

Summoning - Old Mornings Dawn: Another example of a band who have always been good, managing to continue to do so comes in the form of Old Mornings Dawn. Summoning's first record in seven years, this record is perhaps one of the most long-anticipated records on the list - and by god Summoning managed to live up to the hype which escalated around the albums imminent arrival. Old Morning's dawn has everything which a Summoning album should have - mystical synth work dominates the majestic, legitimately epic soundscapes which the band weave from the very fabric of middle-earth itself, once again to great effect.

Cathedral - The Last Spire: Cathedral may be ending their time, but The Last Spire represents the band truly going out on a high note - and a damn low tempo. Crushing HM-2 laden doom-riffs writhe and rumble through the record, with deeply memorable hooks and a rafter-rattling tone. A doom record of this calibre is a fitting end to one of the bands who truly made doom a household name, and while the genre has become many-tentacled in the time Cathedral have been around, this album stands as a testament to the fact that Cathedral were, are, and always will be one of the best doom bands out there, whether they are active or not.

Darkthrone - The Underground Resistance: Darkthrone have gradually been making the move from black metal through crust-punk right along to old-school metal. The music on The Underground Resistance is memorable, and a truly worthy homage to the early-eighties speed, thrash and traditional metal from which it draws its influence. Equally noteworthy, however, is the uncompromising attitude which Darkthrone have exhibited on these records - truly aiming at the heart and soul of the metal which they clearly love, while still carrying the essence of Darkthrone itself, as well, instead of forsaking it completely as the direction changes. 

Paths - Death of the Sky God: Perhaps more akin to a demo than a studio-album, Death of the Sky God, and I Turn My Body From the Sun are still both extremely interesting one-man excursions into psychedelic, hypnotic black metal which lends the listener a truly mind-altering,mystical journey through soundscapes characterised by transcendent synth and resolutely scathing black-metal undercurrents, which allows the music to remain dark for all of it's beauty. I can bring to mind no black-metal record which sounds especially similar to this one, leading me to think that, while a recognisable formula, Paths also has a unique indeed.

Caladan Brood - Echoes of Battle: I was unsure whether to include Caladan Brood on the same list as Summoning, in the name of variety. Caladan Brood are clearly huge fans of Summoning, and it shows in the recipe of their album - huge, grandiose, and either a superb homage to, or blatant clone of, Summoning, depending on who you ask. Whichever of the two it is, the fact that I've listened to this record more than the new Summoning record certainly seems to suggest that it deserves a place on this list. Echoes of Battle is easily one of the most prestigious d├ębuts of the entire year, and has succeeded in causing quite some rumpus in the underground.

Happy new year! I have every intention of carrying on reviewing material in the coming year, hopefully with some new content on its way by the end of the week!