Hello! It is once again that time to take a look back at a year that has died and recount the many brave tales of albums released during it! To be honest with you, I've grown quite fond of the exercise; it seems that, like in many other things in life, I had to go through a period of cynicism and doubt in order to truly embrace the End of Year list. Don't get me wrong, I still think the way most places do it (ranked, with those albums that you'd expect on it) is completely superfluous. Ranking remains a completely alien and bizarre exercise to me (the list below is sorted by alphabetical order) and not using the "event" of the end of the year to shine a light on releases that are less well known, but excellent, seems like a waste to me.
Which is not to say the list below doesn't have "big" albums on it! But rather that we once again tried to synthesize the broad networks of the blog's staff to create a varied, complicated list that draws on multiple sources, scenes, and styles for inspiration. The end result, I think at least, is one of our strongest lists to date. Another revelation - I usually really disagree with the inclusion of at least one or two albums on these lists. Of course I bow to collective will and they're included anyway, because the staff voted for them. But I shake my head while doing so, not really understanding what others, and so many others, find in these albums.
This year, there are zero albums like that on this list. Not every entry is my favorite of course; some of these I've barely listened to. But there's not one album on this list that I don't "get" - all of them have at least some quality, some excellence, within them that I can relate with and understand the appeal. And that's a great thing, meaning that this is one of the lists that's easiest for me to stand behind.
So, stand I shall! Scroll down below! Check out these excellent, mind-boggling, delightful, powerful twenty-five albums and let us all prepare for 2024, another year that will probably suck but which will contain fantastic music.
I love you. Thanks for reading.
A Constant Knowledge of Death - Dissecting a One-Winged Bird
You ever watch something slowly get created or metamorphose into itself? You ever watch true potential arising from a project you’ve been paying attention to for years, the strength you always knew was there finally coming forth? If you haven’t, I can tell you that it’s quite an experience. It’s happened to me a few times over my decade with the blog (but more on that in my summary post) but the absolute best example of it is A Constant Knowledge of Death. From an excellent but primal post-rock/metal project, through a multi-album in a year band-wide experiment, and all the way to the most caustic and cathartic blend of death metal, sludge, grind, and post-metal of 2023, it has been a true joy to follow the main phases of A Constant Knowledge of Death.
Dissecting a One-Winged Bird does, in some ways, hold true to the cliche that it contains more than the sum of its parts. If you’re an avid fan of the band like I am, you can probably point to passages that mark each step in the journey that brought us here. But the album also brings a fury and expressed pain that is at best only hinted with previous release, contorting the progressive and hectic elements that in the past were used to convey a wide range of emotions into singular derision. It does that without compromising on intricacy, delivering an album that’s interesting in its complexity but absolutely essential in its immediacy. It feels like listening to our current state in 2023 condensed into music; it feels like listening to growth’s end point, unveiled. It feels like a punch to the stomach. It feels fucking great and miserable at the same time. It feels like metal.
Afterbirth - In But Not Of
It’s not every day that a band reforms after almost 20 years and releases their full-length debut, but that’s exactly what Afterbirth did when they reformed in 2013 and released The Time Traveler’s Dilemma in 2017. Since then, Afterbirth has released two more full-lengths: 2020’s Four Dimensional Flesh and 2023’s In But Not Of. While the band’s three full-lengths have gone from creative strength-to-strength, and Four Dimensional Flesh was the harbinger of their progressive characteristics to come, it’s In But Not Of where the band has really started to experiment in earnest and to boldly go where no brutal death metal band has gone before.
Despite the brutal death metal tag, with all of its atonal riffing and belligerent blastbeats, there are moments on In But Not Of that are positively beautiful, ethereal, and spacious. It’s a dichotomy that many other bands of the same ilk would not be able to balance well, but Afterbirth’s songwriting and smart album sequencing allow the progressive and spacey tendencies to gradually bloom and then flourish. The first glimpse of their more spacey, melodic approach occurs at the end of “Devils with Dead Eyes”, in which the tempo is sharply reduced toward the end of the song with the rhythm guitars holding out ethereal open-note chords while a gorgeous melodic solo plays over them.
But once “Hovering Human Head Drones” starts, toward the middle of the album, it’s clear that the band is doing more than throwing in progressive parts here and there. The track starts with psychedelic segment that includes a 7/8 drum beat aided by auxiliary percussion, a subtly undulating bass line, and airy synthesizer chords. The track briefly breaks into a simple, tom-heavy chug with Will Smith’s characteristic deep gurgle before returning to a heavier version of the opening segment. A similar segment dominates “Time Enough Tomorrow” toward the end of the album. The title track, “In But Not Of”, is much less riff-based than the preceding songs, and starts with a 4/4 groove that gradually and dynamically builds up with an ascending chord progression before breaking open into the very heavy ending. Most death metal bands, particularly of the “brutal” variety, simply do not have the musical vocabulary to create a song like that.
With In But Not Of, Afterbirth has convincingly transcended the boundaries of brutal death metal by accessing and opening up other musical dimensions. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is joining them on their continuing interdimensional musical journey into the vast unknown reaches of progressive death metal.
Dead and Dripping - Blackened Cerebral Rifts
I have a confession: I’ve been listening to this album since the first single dropped six months ago and I only just realized the name is Blackened Cerebral Rifts, not Blackened Cerebral Riffs. In my defense, the latter perfectly captures the sound of Dead and Dripping. Their proggy and impressively technical take on brutal death metal is clearly the unholy offspring of Wormed, Defeated Sanity, and Demilich, resulting in an addictively ugly and aggressive album that will break your brain and your ears.
Blackened Cerebral Rifts is the music you *want* stuck in your head, but is so twistingly brilliant your brain can’t comprehend it enough to do so. It’s like the most ignorant brutal death metal made an honest attempt at catchiness, then earned a doctorate in physics. Each song has tantalizing moments of head-banging beauty - the riffs closing out “Tragic Ascent of Absurdity’s Pale Moon” or the vaguely surfy bass on “Humanoid Statues Parading Condescending Gestures” - are guaranteed to hook listeners in the first 10 minutes, only to cascade into an alternate universe where everything is just slightly off. The familiar soul of death metal is there, but Dead and Dripping have once again twisted it into a terrifying beast ready to devour you whole.
Euclid C Finder - The Mirror, My Weapon, I Love You
11 songs in 18 minutes. This should tell you what kind of record we're talking about here. Euclid C Finder don't take any prisoners on their debut album (is 18 minutes long enough to be considered an album?). Recorded at God City by Zach Weeks and mastered by James Plotkin, this is a slab of insanity wrapped in a straight jacket of what-the-fuck. It blew my mind on the first listen and continues to pummel the soggy pink mush that used to be my brain on each outing.
Imagine Calculating Infinity era Dillinger Escape Plan spliced with Discordance Axis and The Locust then you’re kind of getting near what these guys sound like. One of the reasons this album resonated with me so much was that it transported me back to that early noughties heyday of mathcore and grindcore, such as Inalienable Dreamless and Plague Soundscapes.
Just when you think you've got Euclid C Finder sussed they throw another surprise at you, whether that be a chunky beat down on “Math is Murder”, a burst of jovial clapping on “Fran Bow”, or the jazzy finale to closer “Yauwee Yowly Ya, no, Australian Bigfoot”. It's creative as hell and dare I say it…damn good fun!
They pack so much into this album that you can't help but press play again as soon as it finishes just to check what you might have missed. I've definitely listened to this five times in a row on a few occasions, and if math/grindcore is your thing, you should too.
Fires in the Distance - Air Not Meant For Us
2023 was blessed with many albums that just sound like nothing else but Fires in the Distances’ Air Not Meant For Us probably eclipsed them all in sheer uniqueness. It’s a weird blend of melodic death metal and doom, overlaid with the some of the most prominent and richly produced synths of the year. Doom metal’s slowness allows that richness to interact with the soaring guitar riffs and create something truly epic and fully fleshed out, picking out the melodrama in the band’s riffs and setting them ablaze. The final piece of the puzzle is the deep but measured vocals, which inject everything with a brutality and force of delivery that works absolutely brilliantly with the other elements mentioned here.
If you’re looking for an overlooked metal album that will immediately arrest you with how it sounds, look no further than Air Not Meant For Us; it’s one of the best takes on melodic death metal that I’ve heard in years.
fromjoy - fromjoy
I’m old enough to be deeply upset by the Y2K revival, but if there’s any silver lining to the repackaged trends that dominated 2023, it’s the wave of incredible mathcore/cybergrind/metalcore that evokes the fun and weirdness of the MySpace era. Houston-based fromjoy has erupted into a torchbearer of this revival with their self-titled album, which oscillates from punishing slam to alt-metal to vaporwave in a delightfully harsh bundle.
Shrieking, emo/black metal vocals cut across a mind-boggling array of musical influences, including nods to beatdown and slamming brutal death metal (fuck yes), shimmery vaporwave and sythwave (also fuck yes), and a brief appearance by a saxophone (weirdly fuck yes). It’s a wild mix tied together by the skill and enthusiasm of fromjoy, who tackle every aspect of their metalcore-slash-everything sound with earnestness. If you need to get a sense of fromjoy (the band and the album) is less than three minutes, listen to “docility” featuring gore-riddled beatdown crew PeelingFlesh for a devastating metalcore mashup, which injects gutturals into skronky electronic beats...only to bleed into the synthy, vaporwave bliss of “Eros.” Super weird, and honestly should not work, but fromjoy makes the weirdness fun again.
Haken - Fauna
I believe a large part of the enjoyment in Fauna is that it is a return to Haken's exploration of individual ideas. Haken's ability to take an idea and give a fairly mainstream structure, and then give each song a feeling of exploration and completion within an averaged 6:30 minute runtime is an achievement in context to bands of a much larger and legendary status where songs can still feel lacking at double the length.
While some of the more progressive arrangements on Fauna do not reinvent the wheel that these legacy prog-metal acts have been spinning for decades, Haken have found their own process for keeping things interesting. With more modern and less atypical (but not completely gone) song structure, Fauna brings its ideas to full potential by offering quick and heavy variations of all its choruses, verses, and riffs at every possible moment.
The album features some of the bands best songwriting to date, no doubt in help to being released from the shackles of a double concept album and the infusion of new-but-old blood in their returning founding member keyboardist. I personally believe that Beneath The White Rainbow is worthy of singling out because of its ability to make you feel like you just listened to 14-minutes of capital P “Progressive Metal” in just 6:45.
If you want some highly digestible proggy goodness that has an infusion of everything from djent to pop-rock, then Fauna is what you're looking for. Haken has found their lane. Let's hope they don't carve it into a rut.
- Brandon Klemets
Horrendous - Ontological Mysterium
2023 was a sneaky great year for death metal. Actually, I take that back. There wasn’t anything sneaky about it. Death metal of all shapes and forms busted our chops for a solid 12 months and it’s been a minute since I can recall this sheer breadth of quality across a year-long span. I’m elated to see so many death metal records represented on this list, and Horrendous’ latest release absolutely deserves to be here. It’s an absolute banger, and potentially the best of their already storied career.
Ontological Mysterium feels like the full progressive eruption that Horrendous has been priming themselves for their entire career. As is customary with this group, the instrumentation, production, and vocal performances are tremendous. But what sets this record apart from the band’s previous work is its full allegiance to the progressive death metal ethos. While Idol certainly dabbled in this space, Ontological Mysterium goes in an unequivocally progressive songwriting direction that pays off big time. Tracks like “Preterition Hymn”, “Chrysopoeia (The Archaeology of Dawn)”, and fiery album opener “The Blaze” are among the most ambitious and enjoyable the band have yet written, cementing this latest creative evolution as both a smart move by the band and a successful one. Front to back, Ontological Mysterium hits.
While Horrendous’ fifth record is unlikely to convert detractors, fans of the band’s steady evolution should be more than pleased with the resulting product. It feels like Horrendous, sounds like Horrendous, and contains the consistent quality Horrendous is known for while simultaneously presenting something relatively new and muscular to their already excellent death metal aesthetic. Ontological Mysterium is an absolute gem of a record that we can recommend wholeheartedly.
Katatonia - Sky Void of Stars
You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Sweden’s kings of melancholy came through right at the start of 2023, becoming one of the first truly great albums we’d hear in 2023. Somehow it feels like forever ago (by the time this list drops, it’ll be a year!). Fortunately, Katatonia’s twelfth full-length has held on in our top spot throughout 2023, and for a band that’s been around as long and with a discography as deep as Katatonia says a hell of a lot about the band and their consistency through the decades.
Sure, Katatonia have long-since streamlined their sound, settling in on the alternative-goth-prog hybridization they’ve been perfecting since they transitioned out of doom metal in the early 2000’s. A lesser band would have fizzled out, but not Katatonia; they’re allergic to making a flop despite making no major changes or stylistic shifts in the better part of two decades. They’ve perfected songwriting for their style; progressive tendencies, yes, but pop song structures with minimal meandering, incredible choruses, and tight grooves keep these records spinning year after year, decade after decade. God I love Katatonia.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - PetroDragonic Apocalypse; or Dawn of Eternal Night: An Annihilation of Planet Earth and the Beginning of Merciless Damnation
It took until PetroDragonic Apocalypse for King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard (KG&LW) to finally connect with me, and now I count myself as a fan of the band’s entire spectrum of styles that they explore from album to album. However, when I first heard Infest the Rat’s Nest, the KG&LW’s first completely “heavy” album, I thought it sounded exactly like it was: a non-metal band playing metal, with obvious nods to bands like Motörhead, early Metallica, and other 80s thrash bands. To this writer’s ears, Infest the Rat’s Nest simply did not sound inspired. But with PetroDragonic Apocalypse…, it seems as though KG&LW has taken those same aforementioned influences, added a healthy dose of stoner and progressive rock, and really made a metal album that is much closer to being their own.
The characteristics that define KG&LW’s musical vocabulary, such as their use of shifting time signatures and polyrhythms, are imprinted onto the metal framework of PetroDragonic Apocalypse. Opening track “Motor Spirit”, for example, takes the driving motorik rhythm that the band’s epic psychedelic jams are known for and lays a High on Fire-inspired pentatonic riff over it. After a few minutes, the band puts the breaks on the tension that the motorik rhythm had built up, and that tenion is released with a percussive-heavy, Tool-inspired section. The track continues to twist and turn through a variety of versions of the main riff with radical but barely noticeable shifts in rhythm and time signature, which, again, is another musical characteristic of KG&LW. The middle section of “Converge” makes a similar left turn into a meditative, percussive-heavy polyrhythmic section before building back up to a driving metal pulse.
Despite the songs, such as the aforementioned “Motor Spirit” and “Converge”, snaking their way through multiple intertwining sections over the course of five to ten minutes, the songs are immediately accessible. There are enough catchy, memorable riffs here to make Mastodon green with envy. And even when the band grooves in 5/4, they really groove in 5/4, which is not an easy feat to accomplish.
With PetraDragonic Apocalypse, KG&LW have not only found their “metal” voice, but they have also created one of the best metal albums of the year by imprinting influences from thrash, stoner rock, and progressive rock onto their signature sound. They have also won over a whole new set of fans, this writer included.
Ne Obliviscaris - Exul
Let’s get this straight from the off: Ne Obliviscaris (NeO) are my favourite band. Portal of I and Citadel are among my favourite albums of all time, whilst Urn was enjoyable but nonetheless disappointing by comparison. With that established let’s get to two key questions: who is this record for, and how does Exul stack up to their back catalogue?
First, let’s be clear that this album will do little to sway those who are familiar with yet unmoved by NeO’s work prior output. The core framework is unchanged: progressive death metal with long songs, classical song structures, ample repetition, exceptional musicianship, intertwined clean and harsh vocals, and heavy doses of violin. In that sense, there is very little new here: the band’s previous two albums established their sound and they continue to iterate on that here. However, within that framework the accents are different - and it’s that variation that will keep existing fans coming back to this record and not just defaulting to their past favourites.
So, what are these subtle changes? For one, Martino Garattoni makes his recording debut on bass, offering a different style to his predecessors and somehow managing to take things up a notch. While there is no highlight here that can match “Devour Me”’s tapped bridge, from front-to-back this is the consistently strong bass playing they’ve had. The same can be said for the lead guitar. While the main riffs are similar to what we’ve heard before, Benji Baret’s leads are on another level here as his gipsy jazz influences come to the fore more than ever before on the likes of “Suspyre”. Throw in Tim Charles’ continued improvement in his clean vocals and the addition of middle eastern melodies in the final couple of tracks, it’s clear to see that there’s some fun twists on NeO’s classic sound here.
Finally, we return to the big question: how does Exul compare with the likes of Portal of I or Citadel? Well, from a production standpoint it’s the best they’ve ever sounded. The attempt at a rawer drum sound fell flat on Urn, but has been perfected here. Further, the mix is the most balanced they’ve achieved to date - no mean feat considering the maelstrom of sounds competing for attention. From a songwriting perspective “Equus” is the best song they’ve written in almost a decade, comfortably standing shoulder to shoulder with classics like “Devour Me” and “Plague”. The album as a whole may not quite hit the heights of their first two records, but that’s a damned high bar to clear and they come close here. In my books that’s enough to make Exul a genuine AOTY contender - and anyone with a passing interest in the genre should do themselves a favour and dive in.
Nightmarer - Deformity Adrift
To say I like Deformity Adrift may be somewhat of an understatement. It was on my ‘Best So Far’ list back in July, it featured in my ‘Rise of Dissodeath' piece, and has been on my personal AOTY list since May. Now it has made Heavy Blogs Top 25 and I couldn't be happier about its inclusion.
I had high hopes for this release, as I'd been a huge fan of everything that had come before it, but Nightmarer exceeded even my lofty expectations. These songs feel like they have been perfectly tightened and trimmed of any excess. Almost as though the band have performed a meticulous tune-up on an already ferocious V8 engine, just to see if they can make it roar even louder.
This is probably the most important Dissodeath release since Ulcerate's now essential Look into Death and be Still in 2020. Yes, it has all the dissonant death metal trademarks you'd expect, but it also feels like a progression of the genre’s sound. Nightmarer aren't afraid to experiment, slow things down or even simplify their songwriting, which shows maturity and confidence in their own abilities. “Taufbefhel” is a prime example of this experimentation, and whilst not my favourite track on the record, it's bare bones style opens up a new avenue for the band and genre in general to explore further. To these ears, it's like a dissodeath “Demiurge”. (Consider the cat well and truly put amongst the pigeons)
While only 32 minutes long, this album creates a seriously imposing atmosphere. A lot of credit for this must go to guitarists Keith Merrow and Simon Hawemann for their intelligent yet eerie structures. This isn't just a collection of riffs that are broad brushstrokes, together they build a complex canvas of intricate compositions and twisted melodies.
“Suffering Beyond Death” gets the hairs standing up on the back of my neck every time I hear it and that doesn't happen much these days. Perhaps it's Paul Seidel’s insane drumming (which is happily reminiscent of his time in War From A Harlots Mouth on this track), or the contorted stabs of squealing guitars, maybe even the chilled out but sinister as fuck final third. Whatever it is, I love it and it has made my life better for being here.
In case you missed it, I like this album…a lot, and if my waffling has tempted you to check it out then my work here is done. I will sleep well tonight.
Nithing - Agonal Hymns
This isn’t the first time you’ve read about Agonal Hymns, and it certainly won’t be the last. The debut album from Nithing, a solo project by Matt Kilner (Gorgasm, Iniquitous Deeds, Vitriol), is undoubtedly one of the best brutal death metal releases of 2023.
Warped, jagged, and relentlessly aggressive, Nithing is like listening to death metal performed by a hostile intelligence in the year 2153. Given Kilner’s veteran status in BDM, it’s no surprise that Agonal Hymns is a masterclass in pacing, with equal measures of skittering, almost mathcore-esque technicality entangled with pummeling, headbanging beats. Every tenet of death metal has been re-imagined for maximum percussive force, with chugging guitars ricocheting off guttural vocals and an onslaught of drums. In contrast to fuller, fuzzier mastering inspired by the old school, every instrument has been honed to an artificially crystalline force. Guitars become so twisted in the alien machinery they resemble sirens more than an old-fashioned buzzsaw, while the drumming mutates into rocks in a blender. Every note is sharper, harsher, and all the more punishing.
Kilner refuses to allow the listener to become comfortable at any point across Agonal Hymns, rapidly shifting between jagged beats before we have the chance to adjust. The approach works extremely well with the rest of the harsh, distorted instrumentation; the overall impression is BDM refined and distilled to a collection of dissonant edges. No vestiges of beefy death metal guitars, barely a hint of melody, just pure aggression. Synths glance off blast beats, playing into the aura of ferocity, while Kilner’s growls inject just enough humanity to keep the entire record grounded. It’s Defeated Sanity fused with Putridity and warped into something alien.
Pupil Slicer – Blossom
The creative leaps and bounds Pupil Slicer has made between their 2021 debut Mirrors and 2023’s Blossom are staggering. While the former was a formidable mathcore debut, the latter displays an impressive progressive tendencies, experimental sounds, and a various song structures. Furthermore, as described in their Bandcamp interview, Blossom has a loose space rock opera narrative with “events referenced from multiple perspectives, narrative geography that spans the entire universe, [and] a main character disassociating through shifting states of mind” — sounds ambitious, doesn’t it? It is, but leave it to Pupil Slicer to pull it off in spades.
While the immediacy of the band’s more “straightforward” form of mathcore (as if any mathcore can be described as “straightforward”) found on Mirrors is not present throughout all of Blossom, the band does an excellent job balancing the complexity and intensity of mathcore with “Creating the Devil in our Image”, for example, begins with a slow groove featuring ethereal, chorus-drenched arpeggios before exploding into complicated, syncopated segments more akin to mathcore. After the track slows down around the midway mark, a slap-and-pop bass part that wouldn’t be out of place on a nu-metal album comes out of nowhere.
And that’s one of the most surprising developments in their sound: there are several moments scattered throughout the album that seem to give of nu-metal “bounce” rhythms that incorporate syncopated grooves in tracks such as “Departure in Solitude” and “Blossom”. It’s not incredibly overt, but it’s there. And, more importantly, the band makes it work!
Despite all of the complexity found throughout most of the album, there are several tracks in which the band focuses on simplicity. The majority of the first half of “The Song at Creation’s End” contains a slow-building 4/4 groove with cleanly played chords and arpeggios. The epic album centerpiece eventually veers into mathcore territory around the halfway mark, but this doesn’t happen until the last half of the eight-minute track. “Dim Morning Light” also takes a slow-burner approach, gradually building up to a climax over the span of six minutes.
Blossom shows that mathcore bands do not need to relegate themselves to complexity and dissonance. Not only that, but Blossom demonstrates how a band can take an overwhelming amount of conceptual and musical ideas and build them into something that works surprisingly well and is uniquely their own.
REZN - Solace
As time goes by, I have to find more reasons to listen to doom metal. Don’t get me wrong, I was never a big fan of just “straight up” doom, but as I listen to more and more of the adjacent, progressive, or in general just “monikered” iterations on the genre, the “vanilla” version of it becomes less and less palatable. Which is why I was blown away by REZN’s Solace this year. It’s not really a completely middle of the road doom metal album by any extent; there are plenty of wood instruments, hulkingly ambient song structures, and non-standard compositions to mix things up. But at its core, Solace is perhaps the most “conservative” doom metal album I’ve loved in ages and it speaks volumes of its quality.
REZN just seem to get what is so appealing in the low and slow variation of metal, harnessing the swagger and groove that the style is capable of when done extremely well. Their best tool in doing so is patience, allowing them to explore those aforementioned ambient and psychedelic spaces. Much of Solace might seem like fluffy build-up to the uninitiated, but if you spend time with it, you’ll see it for it truly is - contrast, backdrop, and palette. When the noisier, heavier parts of the album finally crash, they will be all the more exquisite as you pay more attention to the parts around them, as Solace emerges in full in its complexity and, more importantly, it’s well executed simplicity.
Serpent of Old - Ensemble Under the Dark Sun
2023 was a seriously good year for death metal. One of the best in recent memory. Which makes it all the more impressive that Serpent of Old beat countless contemporaries to take their place in our Top 25.
Ensemble Under the Dark Sun is a truly epic offering full of meticulously crafted death metal. Although they borrow influences from a plethora of genres (doom, black metal, technical death metal and dissodeath) Serpent of Old have the alchemy to blend it together perfectly and in doing so have carved out their own unique sound. It's utterly gripping.
If you're going to listen to one track it has to be “The Fall”, a ten minute mammoth of a song showcasing all of their impressive attributes; ferocious blast beats, ear worm riffs, intricate melodies and more time changes than you can shake a spiky stick at. It's one hell of a calling card.
Just a quick reminder that this is the Turkish quintet's debut album. A lot bands could be together for decades and never dream of releasing anything this accomplished. Immerse yourself in this album and succumb to it's dark charms.
Sleep Token - Take Me Back To Eden
Sleep Token hype was unavoidable in 2023, with their new album Take Me Back To Eden marking a monumental turning point for this previously obscure progressive metalcore band, seeing this cryptic act crossing over into headlining arenas, magazine cover stories, and massive TikTok virality. If you thought we would be too good for this record, you’re unfortunately mistaken. We tried to resist its clutches, but the band’s intoxicating blend of djent and art pop, and alternative R&B was able to convert enough of us to wind up in our collective year-end list.
The arguments against Sleep Token are valid and compelling enough; the aesthetic is overdone, the concept is pretentious, and oh, the overly affected British melodrama. It’s Imagine Dragons for dudes. Despite it all, Take Me Back To Eden is whimsical, endearing, and enchanting with its experimentations with genre and prog-pop songwriting beyond all the post-metal ambiance and drop-tuned guitars. The back-and-forth of somber piano ballad and club-ready banger “Ascensionism” is haunting and daring, with picturesque bars about lines of coke, blood, and broken glass — the type of vibe you’d get out of your average The Weeknd hit, were it not for the metallic crescendo. “DYWTYLM” is a simple piece of indie pop that channels The 1975 — which may lose some, sure — but this writer absolutely adores. Finale “Euclid” is in the ballpark of Elton John, wearing a particular “Tiny Dancer” influence on its sleeves.
I’m not here to convince anyone other than myself, because an album this controversial has had minds made up for months now. This is a fun record that has a lot of replay value for those with no sense of shame and broad tastes. If you’re listening to both SZA and Katatonia this year, Sleep Token is there to bridge the gap, and they’re riding that wave to sold out arenas near you in 2024 and beyond.
Stortregn - Finitude
The unlikely marriage of flamenco and technical death metal hasn’t gotten old just yet, by the grace of God. It’s a trope we’ve seen many times before, from Gorod on through First Fragment, Equipoise, and others. It just works, and it’s an immaculate and triumphant vibe. Switzerland’s Stortregn, who have built an incredible discography building up to this moment exploring all manner of melodic, technical, and progressive blackened death metal, may have perfected the fusion with Finitude.
Of course, that’s but one small aspect of the band’s expertly developed and rich variety of sound, and that’s what makes Stortregn so incredible. They’re expert songwriters for the style, and keep songs feeling tight and memorable even as the average song length creeps up towards six minutes. Their baseline of soaring melo-black carries a neoclassical melodicism and soaring guitar technicality that’s epic without the cheese. In fact, Finitude is absolutely slick the way it switches gears between the brutality of your death metal fare of vicious growls, palm muted riffs, and blastbeats, neoclassical shred prog, and exotic acoustic passages without compromising flow or tonal consistency. Look no further than the album’s centerpiece “Rise of Insidious,” which is absolutely stunning in its brilliance.
Stortregn always had promise, but Finitude is undoubtedly their best work to date. One might go as far as to say that this record deserves to be in the conversation with other extreme prog metal classics such as Colors, Blackwater Park, and Planetary Duality. Time will tell, but at the very least, fans of those classics will undoubtedly love Finitude.
Teeth - A Biblical Worship of Violence
Extreme music, at its core, is a collection of sounds that make the general music-loving population uncomfortable. It’s a wide net of genres and sounds, to be sure, but most likely the Swifties in your life are not going to appreciate Cannibal Corpse as much as you do. We tend to pride ourselves on the discomfort we can endure for the sake of extremity, but every once in a while there’s a record that even seasoned vets of extreme music scenes sit back and stare at in awe. For this grizzled old timer, those records were Nithing’s outstanding debut (covered elsewhere here) and the out of nowhere slab of audio violence generated by Teeth. A Biblical Worship of Violence sounds exactly as brutal as its title suggests, and we fucking love it.
Not to be mistaken for the equally excellent LA-based death metal group of the same name, this particular set of Teeth hails from Ontario and is built specifically to punish your ear holes with merciless intensity. Featuring a collection of tracks that feel like Every Time I Die and Norma Jean stripping away all light from their sound and replacing it with pure animosity, Teeth takes a hardcore aesthetic and shoves it directly down your throat for 15 minutes of pure and utter mayhem. This EP is VIOLENT in a way that too few records in this space are. There’s little focus on melodic interlude or artful instrumental breaks to soften the haymakers being thrown. This is audio punishment on an elevated plane that has zero interest in taking mental prisoners. Take the most horrifying breakdowns found in Knocked Loose’s incredible A Tear in the Fabric of Life EP and blend it with the relentless intensity of early Cult Leader and you’ll have some idea of how merciless this thing is. It’s biblical.
If the above has piqued your interest and you’ve yet to give this EP a fair shake the final two tracks, “Drip” and “EyesHornsMouth”, are a one-two combo that’s utterly unassailable for extremity hounds. But in all seriousness just hit play from the beginning and let this thing melt your brain again and again. There are no weak points in this tight, relentless opening salvo from a band that I desperately need a full-length from. Excellent stuff.
TesseracT - War of Being
I have been steadfastly keeping an eye on TesseracT, waiting for them to once again explode into the brilliance I knew the band was truly capable. It’s not that all of the albums after my beloved Altered State were bad as such; it was more that I was waiting for them to hit me on the same emotional scale, to really set my heart ablaze as their original releases had. I started thinking it was something about me; perhaps I had grown older, more jaded to TesseracT’s melodrama and flair. But then I played War of Being for the second time (not the first, since it had bounced off of me the first time) and I was completely hooked. Here was the band that I remembered, writ large in riff and scream.
Especially scream! It’s pretty fair to say that Dan Tompkins is high up on the list of best living metal vocalists and War of Being is, somehow, his best release yet. His voice sounds both more haggard and strained, in the best possible of ways, tight with emotion, and clean and effectively delivered at the same time. War of Being contains some of his best performances, whether he claws for the sky with his upper register or plumbing the depths of aggression with his more abrasive tonality.
Add in some of the best and most inspired songwriting of the band’s career, creating sprawling and complex tracks which still contain many memorable riffs, and you’ve got yourself a winning release. And win it does, ranking extremely high in my personal end of year list and snatching at least the top three slot in all time favorite TesseracT albums. Welcome back TesseracT! I’ve missed you.
Tomb Mold - The Enduring Spirit
Year after year, it seems that there’s always that one death metal record that is deemed the chosen one by music outlets, transcending the underground and getting its flowers within the collective narrative of The Year In Music. This year, it’s Tomb Mold’s turn, with their metamorphosis into prog finally coming to a head with The Enduring Spirit. Bolstered by its surprise drop out of a (more or less) four-year silence, it was easy to get caught up in the hype of Tomb Mold’s return after the initial COVID-19 years seeing primary songwriter Derrick Vella exercising his epic death doom influences with two Dream Unending records. That break from Tomb Mold was unheard of (if not deserved) given their precedent for dropping at least one release each year since 2016. Fortunately, it was well worth the wait.
Throughout their discography, hints of prog and a general sense of weirdness increasingly became apparent – I mean, just compare 2017’s relatively straightforward but effective OSDM of Primordial Malignity with 2019’s more technical and spacious Planetary Clairvoyance just two years later. As alluded to previously, they’ve now gone full bore into the progressive death metal sphere with The Enduring Spirit, and the group are at their absolute best, standing in league with contemporaries in weird death metal Horrendous and Blood Incantation. Granted, Tomb Mold play it a little more subdued than the latter act’s 20-minute synth odysseys, but all the fun pieces are there. Highlight track “Will of Whispers” nods towards Cynic’s sense of psychedelic tone and mystical melodicism to establish its musical themes before barreling into brutality and back again, making for one of the greatest metal songs to be heard all year.
The Enduring Spirit is a high-water mark not just for Tomb Mold, but the scene of weird and cavernous death metal they occupy. It’ll be exciting to see where Tomb Mold could take their sound beyond this record, but they’ve yet to misstep in their career thus far, so it’ll surely be another absolute banger of a death metal record. Hopefully it won’t take another four years before we get to hear it.
Victory Over the Sun - Dance You Monster To My Soft Song!
It’s well understood the Heavy Blog staff aren’t the types to shy away from a challenge, so it makes sense the mictrotonal madness of Victory Over the Sun’s 2021 release, Nowherer, quickly became a favorite. As one of those enchanted by project mastermind Vivian Tylinska’s fresh take on avantgarde black metal, I still felt as though this project had something special to unearth with an approach that requires a touch less …calculus. Is it bad form for me to hope that some of the most impressive forward-thinkers in extreme music get hit with an epiphany to dial back on the technical musical nerdiness in favor of something a touch more accessible? Maybe. But Dance You Monster To My Soft Song! confirms my suspicions and makes the case that there’s some utterly wonderful magic to be found when similar challenging musical ideas are skewed to a more conventional palate.
Take for example the massive, uplifting theme from opener “Thorn Woos The Wound.” Here Tylinska captures a heart-filling and Deafheaven-esque anthemic surge complemented by orchestral flourishes, elsewhere pivoting to Liturgy-adjacent mathy ruminations, desolate post-rock and, jazzy sludge, and a bizarrely friendly and odd-metered resolution that wouldn’t be out of place on an early St. Vincent record. Where Nowherer’s microtonal restrictions created a barrier, DYMTMSS’s microtone-less approach is comparatively much more tuneful.
It’s also much more binge-able. There’s a variety here that makes the experimentations both curiosity inducing as well as satiating, and the pensive moments both weighty and fleeting. It’s so much more dynamic in terms of style and energy that it evokes a whole new line of “holy fuck what is next” line of thinking for me. “WHEEL” dives into a crushing industrial soundscape, “The Gold of Having Nothing” melds proggy and brassy psych rock in beautiful tandem before climaxing with a perfectly jarring sludgy outro, and the glare of dancy synths shines through murky progressive black metal and nu wave punk in “Madeline Becoming Judy.” Elsewhere, Tylinska finds room for noise rock, dissonant death metal, and classical flavors, creating different appeals to open-minded listeners of diverse backgrounds. If there are any progressive or avant- leaning bones in your body, DYMTMSS will find ways to tickle ‘em.
Voyager - Fearless in Love
I've written elsewhere, multiple times, about the "meta" of Fearless in Love, the place it holds in Voyager's discography and my journey of exploration with them. Here, I want to go back to the most important thing - how this album makes me feel. While Voyager is famous for writing catchy, mostly uplifting beats, the thing I love the most about Fearless in Love is the melancholy and introspection which runs through the album like a second thread. Perhaps this is what sets it apart from its former albums; the sadness, the hope for the future mixed with trepidation which purrs like a grumble in the undercurrents of this album gives it an edge and a force of impact that the previous Voyager releases lacked.
Once again, I must shine a special light on the closing track; from its evocative main guitar lead, like a scream of anguish cutting through the night, or the emotive, drawn out vocals, "Gren (Fearless in Love)" best exemplifies this melancholy. This makes its heavy central riff and synths all that more powerful, creating immense catharsis at the close of the album. It's like the full thing given expression in one track, a sort of raison d'etre for this current era of Voyager - to capture the complexities of life and the emotions that come with it in a sleek, groovy, heavy, and expressive in a form made of the full colors of the palette.
Wayfarer - American Gothic
Metal is full of gimmicks. One could argue that the entire genre and its multitude of branches and variations is in itself one big fat send-up of traditional rock archetypes. Sure, that’s reductionist as fuck, but still. Metal history is littered with enough over the top antics and thematic extremity to fill up a library worth of glorious corniness. But every so often a band digs into a theme, an aesthetic, that is perfectly executed in tone and content. Colorado’s Wayfarer is one such collective, and their fifth American folk-infused black metal record is an absolute gem that proves that a group of musicians fully invested in a theme can elevate metal into new and daring places.
The American West and metal are not strangers to one another in 2023, with albums pulling thematic or musical context from this period of American history in ways that are both fun and serious. Think SpiritWorld’s DEATHWESTERN on the former spectrum with Blackbraid and Pan-Amerikan Native Front on the latter. While definitely leaning toward the more serious side of the American West with American Gothic, Wayfarer also elevates their music to an almost mystic plane, addressing the fabled American West as allegory and mythology with tremendous results. The music here is suitably epic in scope and execution, with the band’s songwriting elevating itself to glorious new heights by creating more lean compositions and trimming down some of the fat found in their last (still excellent) release. Which is not unexpected given the band boasts members of Blood Incantation, Stormkeep, Lykonon, and Cobalt. It feels both like the band’s most focused and ambitious project to date, with a second half that delves deep into more experimental waters without ever losing a sense of urgency or fire. Themes and all, it’s a truly terrific work of black metal art.
It’s so nice to listen to a record so drenched in a particular (often considered “unserious”) aesthetic present a wildly proficient and uniformly moving portrait of a time and place, all while thoroughly exceeding musical expectations. American Gothic is an essential listen for fans of atmospheric black metal, as well as anyone who appreciates the folk infusion into the style by bands like Panopticon and Wolves in the Throne Room. I’m unsure how many times I’ve listened to it at this point, the only thing I’m sure of is that there will be many more.
Xoth - Exogalactic
If you’re a death metal fan that somehow didn’t latch on to the wonders of Xoth’s 2019 release, Interdimensional Invocations, you can catch up in a heartbeat with this stunning follow up. Where their previous made a statement with a unique brand of mindwarping thrash-forward tech death, Exogalactic pans from that space out further, showcasing a fully-fleshed and more refined version of the band — the sound of a band solidifying their signature sound — and they still got a lil’ something for everyone.
There’s no secret this is a decidedly melodic affair: acrobatic leads everyfuckingwhere, ear-grabbing harmonies, and riffs that are as anthemic as they are catchy in a way that’s amost power metal-like in how invigorating and spirited they are. The production offers a polish that squeezes the most from the hyperactive guitar work, while the propulsive rhythm section bursts forth with clarity. It’s hyperactive without being too demanding for casual listening, but also consistently wowing. I’m always impressed by the stupid amount of flashy guitar play, but even more so that they can unload this in such a tasty package.
Still, Exogalactic doesn’t quite hit me like many other lesser melodic technical death metal bands. The songwriting is still lean by their thrashy nature, hedging any overindulgent or wanky moments. The vocals are greatly varied, ranging from GWAR-like bestial hollers and scabby, Skeletonwitch-y barks, lending a great amount of color and leaving behind any cringy clean singing. Yet, they’re able to shift gears through all of these components, whether dazzling, engaging, or storytelling in a way that’s hardly fathomed in these genre. Ultimately, Xoth bring a vibrancy and enthusiasm I haven’t heard in a tech-forward melodic death metal release since Revocation’s Chaos of Forms.