Unmetal // 2023

Ten of the 2023's best non-metal albums, from Aesop Rock to Paramore, and incidentally, a lot of shoegaze.

2 months ago

Despite the word "heavy" appearing in the name of this website twice (this place was made nearly 15 years ago! [what the fuck]), across the writing staff, we consider ourselves fans of a wide variety of musical genres, including pop, hip-hop, electronic, country, and beyond.

The tired trope of answering "oh, I listen to a little bit of everything" when asked about what music we listen to is absolutely a cop-out nine times out of ten, but it's often true. We wanted to give respect to those un-heavy records that dominated our listening habits throughout 2023, and since they didn't fit anywhere else on this site, we put them here for your perusal. If you're open minded and ready for a venture beyond the blastbeats, give these records a go!

Aesop Rock - Integrated Tech Solutions (Abstract Hip-Hop)

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have accepted a maximalist rap album from anyone else other than Aesop Rock these days and Integrated Tech Solutions is the probably the most maximalist you can get, even for Aesop. The album, which is thinly tied by a concept about a retro-futuristic tech company/cult and their eldritch adventures, is a journey and a half, running through slower, darker, harder beats than Aesop has been using for a while now and the more upbeat and lighthearted style that the rapper has grown famous for. Both modes shine through excellently on this release but, perhaps surprisingly, the darker one stands out more, creating some of the most vicious and danceable beats that Aesop Rock has churned so far.

The absolute best example of that is the closing track, “Black Snow”, which also features Nikki Jean. From the deep, rumbling bass of the beginning of the track, through the dream-like middle passage, and all the way to the absolutely brutal drop at the end of the track, “Black Snow” drips style and aggression. That last passage, paired with the curtailed, staccato vocals, create an intensity that is perfect right at the end of the album, tying off its hazy vibes into something which reminds us of the cult being sung about - sleek, deadly, and obfuscated, in the shadows, lurking.

None of this would work without great production and Aes did most of his own here, to great results. The beats are present but so are all of the many frills and accouterments that embellish, the samples used sparingly but to great effect. Everything shines with a dark, full sheen, exactly the type of sound that this album needed. Put all of this together and you have one of the strongest releases from one of rap’s most prolific artists.

-Eden Kupermintz 

Brighde Chaimbeul - Carry Them With Us (Scottish Folk, Drone)

The less said about this album the better, as it really is one to be experienced. If you’ve forgotten since I’ve covered it, Chaimbeul uses smallpipes and her partnerships with Colin Stetson to create a whirling, deep album that you can get lost in. It’s made up of layers and layers of emotional, scintillating wind instrument sounds, tantalizing and hypnotic like only wood can be. The more I listen to this album, the more I discover, a rich tapestry of nostalgia, courage, melancholy, and introspection that transforms as you listen to it, truly containing multitudes.


Clearbody - Bend into a Blur (Shoegaze)

Clearbody take the post-grunge, HUM-inspired sound that has been so prevalent in hardcore and post-hardcore circles the past few years and, with Bend into a Blur, have created a collection of songs that goes well beyond the simplified, stubborn imitation that their peers are wont to engage in. 

Bend into a Blur comes three years after their debut One More Day, and the difference in production and composition are almost immediately evident. As for the former, the tracks here are beefier and more layered than anything on One More Day. It sounds as if a metallophone is following the higher-register guitar lines during the heavier parts of opener “Peering Through”, adding a contrasting lightness to those lumbering sections.

While One More Day contained several uptempo, punkish tracks, Bend into a Blur never reaches the same tempos. Rather, tracks such as “This Can’t Leave Us” shuffles morosely with a slow, rolling tom pattern that serves as the main rhythmic driver of the song. The verses of “New Essence” might be the most distinct departure compared to the band’s earlier material. The verse has light, twinkly guitar chords and a skipping snare beat that wouldn’t be out of place on a late-90s Smashing Pumpkins album. Despite all of these advances in the production and composition of the band’s music, Bend into a Blur retains the same pensive, dream-like qualities that make Clearbody’s sound so appealing.

Based on a note that the band wrote and pinned to their Twitter page, it seemed like Clearbody spent a considerable amount of time and energy composing and recording Bend into a Blur. Whatever the case, it’s clear that the band’s efforts have paid off because the quality of songs here are far and above what any of Clearbody’s peers are doing with the same influences.


Griefeater - For Once, Then, Something (Shoegaze) 

After weeks of deliberating top 10 and top 25 lists, one trend has emerged from my 2023 musical tastes: genre-bending across metal, indie, and pop. Whether it was a technical death metal band injecting their record with classical passages, or a shoegaze embracing dream pop and new wave, 2023 was the year of creative genre mixes. It was particularly cool to see non-metal bands adopt harsher flourishes from the dark realms of black metal and death metal.

But perhaps no band encapsulated this trend as much as Griefeater, a blackened alt-emo group from Chicago. Their second EP, For Once, Then, Something, popped into my Bandcamp feed by way of the “shoegaze” tag and quickly found its way into my heavy rotation. 

They capture the spirit of nostalgic teenage emo memories, then inject the angsty sadness with a healthy dose of reverb and up the ante with black metal screams. It’s a completely unconventional blend, yet one that feels like the natural next generation of emo and black metal. The emotional depths of black metal are pushed to new levels with the contrast of anxious and heartfelt emo, while anxieties and earnestness of emo anthems reach their true apex with raspy howls. Listen for the ultimate rainy day afternoon or just-cry-it-out moment. 

-Bridget Hughes

Hotline TNT - Cartwheel (Slacker Rock, Shoegaze)

The loudest show I attended in 2023 was not, as you might expect, a metal show. On the contrary, it was Hotline TNT, a band that adroitly combines the sickly sweet hooks of power pop, the crushing volume and vibrato arm vertigo of shoegaze, and the indifference and detachment of slacker rock. Since 2018, the band has released a string of EPs and one LP, 2021’s Nineteen in Love, but it’s 2023’s Cartwheel for which all of the band’s somewhat disparate influences are maxed out and come crashing together in perfect harmony. Whereas much of the band’s early work as a trio was made up of straightforwardly-strummed (but warbly) chord progressions in open tunings without much focus on dynamic variance, Cartwheel is teeming with more mature songwriting and layers. It’s not clear if this is as a result of frontman Will Anderson simply improving his compositional chops with age and experience or the band beefing up from a trio to a five-piece, allowing for more melodies and layers to emerge. But whatever the case, the repeating melodies of the intro and verse in “I Thought You’d Change”, for example, are not characteristic of the band’s early work, but they are the main contributors to making the track an irresistible earworm that you can only dig out with repeated listens.

Other noteworthy changes to the band’s sound appear in tracks like “Beauty Filter” and late album highlight “BMX”. Both songs use what sounds like analog and/or modular synthesizers, or something that emulates them, to create hypnotic, oscillating melodies and layers that add to the band’s newfound depth. But even with the inclusion of multiple new layers and the production pushing everything into the red, the component parts are all distinct from one another in the mix. While opener “Protocol” blasts off into orbit around the one-minute mark, the melody that pops up around the two-minute mark is clear and distinct from the underlying heaving mass of sound.

With Cartwheel, Hotline TNT have finally found the perfect recipe for balancing the ingredients that make their music such a unique balance of pop sweetness and shoegaze density.


JPEGMAFIA x Danny Brown - SCARING THE HOES (Experimental Hip-Hop)

I’ve been a fan of alternative and experimental hip-hop for a few years with increasing intensity, and my personal album of 2023 is the collaborative LP SCARING THE HOES featuring two of the most influential and critically acclaimed underground rappers JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown. As the title implies, this record aims to be abrasive for hip-hop standards; this isn’t as off-the-wall as some Death Grips cuts, mind you, but the challenging music is there. In the title track, Danny and Peggy trade bars about trying to find success while making experimental music over dissonant saxophone and wet cavernous clapping. When the drums kick in, the wailing saxophone suddenly clicks into place and the song’s hook sinks in deep and just makes sense. Turning an absolute mess into an earworm is the name of the game on SCARING THE HOES. 

The shining star at the center of this record is Peggy with his phenomenal production job. The instrumentals took as much care as the lyrics and flows that ride up top, with Peggy opting for using a Roland SP-404 sampling workstation instead of Pro-Tools, and he pushed the limits of the device to create some of the most engaging and creative instrumentals hip-hop has ever heard. Kanye West is clearly a massive (musical) influence on Peggy, as is Baltimore’s club music scene, building glitchy beats around pitch-shifted vocal samples, with Kelis’ ”Milkshake” being the centerpiece to “Fentanyl Tester,” the most infectious track on this album and one of my favorite songs of the year. 

Beyond the incredible music, SCARING THE HOES shows these two rappers at their absolute best. It’s so great to hear Danny Brown deliver his best work since 2016’s post-punk influenced Atrocity Exhibition. I’ve always viewed Peggy as a rapper secondary to his production a la RZA and Dre, but he goes absolutely hard here. When initially hyping this record, Danny and Peggy originally referred to this album as a Part I, and unfortunately that suffix was dropped by the time the album came out. Hopefully more collaborations between these two rappers are planned for the future, because their chemistry is undeniable. 

-Jimmy Rowe

Massive Hassle - Number One (Psychedelic Rock)

Psychedelic rock fans will already be familiar with the work of Bill Fisher, the creative force behind Church of the Cosmic Skull and an accomplished solo artist. But as if his current endeavors weren’t enough, Bill paired up with his brother Marty Fisher to unleash this - forgive me - massive album on the world. Introspective, sprawling, and endlessly engaging, Number One has dominated my non-metal listening this year.

Based on the Brothers Fisher memories of small town life in Nottingham, England, Number One embraces a wide array of genres to take listeners on an entertaining and introspective journey. We begin with soft, jazzy harmonies that blossom into hard rock riffs without losing their melancholy edge. Reflect on the passage of time, on summer days and winter’s arrival. Bluesy rock builds into heavy fuzz as we continue our voyage, bursting into doomy riffs as “Drifter” concludes. I’ll admit, multiple people have caught me dancing to fuzzy rock banger “Kneel” - if you can listen to this one without moving, you may be made of stone. The juxtaposition showcases what makes Number One so special: whimsical anecdotes wrapped in songs that just rip.


Narrow Head - Moments of Clarity (Alternative Rock, Shoegaze)

Narrow Head, with their 2016 debut Satisfaction, was one of the first bands I heard that was reinterpreting HUM’s and the Deftones’ mix of alternative rock and shoegaze for a modern audience. Seven years later, there are a bevy of other bands presenting their own versions of the same sound, a style now often referred to as heavygaze or grungegaze (please refrain from rolling your eyes until the end of the entry), but Moments of Clarity has confirmed that Narrow Head are leaders of the pack.

While the band’s last full-length, 2020’s 12th House Rock, lacked the focus, energy, and potential that their debut promised, Moments of Clarity serves as a solid creative rebound. Narrow Head have become adept at writing succinct verse-chorus-verse structured songs without many of the heady or meandering compositional structures that their peers tend to produce. The compact song structures, quality songs, and thick, punchy production style that permeates the album, allows each song on Moments of Clarity to stand on its own while also being component parts of a soundly sequenced whole.

Tracks like opener “The Real” contain ethereal choruses that become immediate earworms. On the other end of the spectrum are songs such as “Trepanation” and “Gearhead” shed the wistfulness and instead indulge in more straightforward aggression. The influence of the Smashing Pumpkins is also much more prevalent in this collection of songs compared with their previous albums. “Breakup Song”, for instance, sounds like it could be a B-side to “Today”. And not only does “Caroline” feature moments of Billy Corgan’s nasally snarl, but it also features a guitar solo that captures the same fuzzed-out classic rock stylings of Corgan’s leads.

If you’re looking for a solid gateway into the current wave of bands combining 90s alternative rock with shoegaze, then look no further than Narrow Head’s excellent Moments of Clarity


Paramore - This Is Why (Post-Punk Revival) 

I took the long way around in loving Paramore. I didn’t allow myself to enjoy any of the prevailing emo-pop in high school, so MCR, Paramore, Jimmy Eat World and related acts came later into adulthood when I shed the shame of guilty pleasure and genre and scene divides. In the years since finally letting go and accepting poppier music into my life, Paramore became one of my all-time favorites, and I finally got to see them live in 2023 on their tour in support of This Is Why. Tears were shed, and it was a wonderful show. 

The album itself? A clear maturation and evolution in the Paramore sound, who increasingly hinted at new wave and post-punk influences as they developed in and out of pop punk, post-hardcore, and emo pop. In the long six years between the New Wave-leaning After Laughter and This Is Why, it’s evident that the band’s growth into post-punk revival by way of influences and references to 2000’s heavy hitters in Bloc Party, Arctic Monkeys, and Interpol all the way back to some very clear Talking Heads energy. It’s a good look for Paramore and all the aging fans who put the hair dye away in favor of pain relief patches on the lower back and knees because those concert floors don’t hit like they used to. 

This iteration of Paramore is slickly produced, intricate, and often subtle. The tight-knit trio of Haley Williams (who remains an absolute goddess and powerhouse vocalist), multi-instrumentalist Taylor York, and drummer Zac Farro is the best lineup the band has ever had, and their command of songcraft on This Is Why makes it one of their absolute best. They’ve since wiped their social media profiles after announcing their completed record contract and noting that their future is uncertain, but here’s hoping that Paramore can once again skirt disbandment and continue to elaborate on this style. It’s a good look for them. 


Temple of Angels - Endless Pursuit (Dream Pop) 

It’s a beautiful, special thing to see a band truly arrive. They’ve discovered their sound, manifested their creative vision, and delivered everything with skillful execution. Some bands take a few albums to reach this moment of perfection, others may never get there at all. A rare few gems nail it on their first full length.

Few releases capture this phenomenon more than Endless Pursuit by Temple of Angels. Born as a shoegaze band, Endless Pursuit finds the Austin, Texas-based quartet experimenting with ethereal dream pop, 80’s-style new wave, and synthy post-punk wrapped in a gothic atmosphere. There’s a number of threads to pull here, but Temple of Angels brilliantly weaves their diverse range of influences into a gorgeous record that’s equal parts haunting and cozy. 

Dive into the title track “Endless Pursuit,” which is one of the best Cocteau Twins-inspired songs I’ve heard in ages, then savor the effervescent delight of “Tangled in Joy.” Post-punk energy infuses “When the Shadow Smiles Back,” sung by drummer and vocalist Patrick Todd. Side note: the dual vocalists in Temple of Angels, Bre Morell and Todd, only adds to the richness of Endless Pursuit. Morell delivers dream pop perfection, while Todd brings a slightly mournful energy to post-punk and new wave numbers. Not quite shoegaze, not quite dream pop, Temple of Angels has found a stunning hybrid that’s all their own. 


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Published 2 months ago