10. ‘Exercises in Futility’ by Mgła
Kraków, Poland…Black Metal leaning melodeath
Gothenburg revolutionized the concept of melodic death metal during the mid-’90s, and hence melody has, as an adjective, remained attached to that subgenre. Melody has always suited the epic tendencies of Black Metal better, however, and Polish guitarist Mikołaj Żentara harnessed them into riffs approaching those of Sweden’s melodeath fore-bearers. Melody doesn’t make At The Gates an apt choice to put the kids to bed to, and Mgła only makes the musical concept all the more uncomfortable. Melodic vocals make a lullaby, not melodic guitars. Those guitars offer a sheen for Żentara’s nihilism, however, like a layer of snow of rugged terrain.
9. ‘Contrasts’ by Imber Luminis
Mons, Belgium…Black Metal leaning Shoegaze
Many of the groups dotting this list are well-known to metal devotees, and a few are admittedly gems that I’ve been fortunate to fish out of the internet sea. Of those gems, none reach the heights of Imber Luminis and Contrasts. Fond of concept albums, the Belgian one-man act dedicated this release to Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage.” The poem spends much of its time tied to standard, cynical black metal fare…the unfortunate nature of mankind’s earthly existence. It differs, however, it’s Baudelaire’s belief that greatness awaits beyond death and Déhà goes to impressive lengths to embody that hope, his “blackgaze” backing triumphant.
8. ‘Northern Chaos Gods’ by Immortal
Bergen, Norway…Black Metal leaning heavy
Immortal’s title characteristic came into question when, at the end of a strangely corporeal series of events, the band’s longtime frontman, Abbath, left following a legal battle. Founding songwriter Demonaz had been providing concepts and lyrics from behind the scenes ever since tendinopathy ended his guitar-playing days, but to simply replace perhaps the most acclaimed guitarist in the subgenre’s history provided a stiff challenge. So, fresh from surgery, the band’s founder picked up his axes (both real and slang), to lead the hordes of Blashyrkh into battle again. The band’s continued epic existence demanded perfection, and so it was.
7. ‘Nightmare Logic’ by Power Trip
Dallas, TX…Thrash Metal leaning Hardcore
Power Trip dug its way into the American metal conscience the old-fashioned way: through the basement. Mentions throughout this countdown allude to the doors it opened for other acts who shared its punk background and thrash metal foreground; among the most cliched ways for publications to describe the band was that it was “making thrash fun again.” The genre had always been fun; it just took a few hardcore kids to show snobbish critics that whammy bars still rip. Riley Gale’s death during 2020 may have marked the end of the band as “Power Trip” but one can only hope that the band’s remaining members reconfigure for something else extraordinary.
6. ‘Bestial Burden’ by Pharmakon
New York City, NY…Industrial leaning Noise
Margaret Chardiet’s music, by the mere meaning of being music, has surpassed the experimental noise scene that bore her. The next neighborhood that Pharmakon could bleed into is the trve industrial wastelands of Einstürzende Neubauten. “Bleed” fails as a verb for the majority of artists in either of these two genres, the intended inhumanity of it all. Chardiet, however, invites the anatomical, covering herself with butcher-shop leftovers on the cover. And why shouldn’t she? Bestial Burden explores the most complex of machines, the human body, and — more specifically — its sudden malfunctioning, an experience that inspired this collection.
5. ‘Luminiferous’ by High on Fire
Oakland, CA…Heavy Metal leaning death
Where some bands on this list obviously put countless hours into crafting concepts and structures, High on Fire’s operations present as muscle memory…Matt Pike’s wrists producing riffs more by instinct than intellect. The act requires less wherewithal from him than simply putting on a shirt, where he is batting much lower. The production method has made his signature project the most consistent group in metal, never failing to satisfy. Yet even among its discography, a few Fire collections coalesce tighter and, although it may seem crazy to say so, rock harder. Luminiferous burns brighter than anything outside of the immortal Death Is This Communion.
4. ‘New Bermuda’ by Deafheaven
San Francisco, CA…Black Metal leaning Shoegaze
Deafheaven had set itself up to be the scapegoat for “hipster” black metal when its previous album had been among the most celebrated releases of any genre during 2013. Pushback, accrediting its nastiness, came with New Bermuda, an album that conceptually covered similar ground to the last LP, albeit with less of a post-rock sheen. The shoegaze elements that made them the decade’s most critically-acclaimed metal act remained, but it was punctuated with calculated chug, the fingerprints of previous Bay Area thrash bands that were spiritual forefathers for the complex, progressive metal that Deafheaven championed decades later.
3. ‘Sulfur English’ by Inter Arma
Richmond, VA…Heavy Metal leaning Black
Inter Arma spites the legions of metal bands that set their music in Tolkien landscapes, creating fantastic landscapes in its music that cast shadows on even Mordor. By all accounts, the other half of Middle Earth is kind. Those who walk into the woods of Sulfur English find lands that truly howl, uncharted paths through forests that either ring out with noise to unsettle, or lash out with intent to dismember. Live, the group presents as a traditional storytelling outfit, the musicians gathered in a circle, cult-like in their focus to the impending soundtrack, while Mike Paparo shrieks, wide-eyed, at the audience.
2. ‘Starspawn’ by Blood Incantation
Denver, CO…Death Metal leaning Prog Rock
Death metal has increasingly reached to the cosmos as it seeks, based on Blood Incantation’s sound, to move from simply desecrating human bodies to ripping apart entire galaxies. Starspawn represents the movement’s peak, even beyond the band’s subsequent release, because it couples the group’s astronomic songwriting ambitions with an ever-flowing fount of old-fashioned death metal fun. Even the 13-plus minute opening track doesn’t lose momentum as it bridges a seemingly bridge-less song with old-fashioned chugs and wails, building an unfathomable song structure from tangible, embraceable parts, comfortable in its lofty belligerence.
1. ‘Sunbather’ by Deafheaven
San Francisco, CA…Black Metal leaning Shoegaze
Sunbather’s audacity shocked the music world…the major-key shoegazing philosophy of Alcest employed to build an aural world that was big, beautiful, and terrifying in that breadth and beauty. The metal world was shocked that such unapologetically warm music had flowed from the burnt churches of Black Metal, no longer fuming in nihilistic fury. The music world as a whole was shocked that its favorite album was Black Metal; Metacritic confirms it as the best cumulatively reviewed release of 2013. Those seeking to deny the band and this album’s place in metal lore no doubt suffer from the same existential fears that George Smith populated this landmark with.