Time for a retrospective on the year that was 2023 in Rotten to the Core certified music. I took over as editor of this column part way through the year, so a big thank you to everyone reading this who has stuck with us and appreciates our hot takes and praise for some of the most divisive subgenres in heavy music. I’ll try to break this out by subgenre, but the lines between them continue to warp and bend as bands experiment with more and more outside influences to the benefit of us all. The world is still shit, but at least we have riffs, moshing, and breakdowns.
I don’t know if a metal genre had a better year than metalcore. From the metallic variety to the melodic, the old-school, djent and mathcore, there was plenty to satisfy whatever your taste was. Showing some bias here, but the more math and metallic side of things does seem to be where the most compelling compositions are coming from lately, where we had the likes of Chamber, END, fromjoy, Soulkeeper, Burner, Euclid C Finder and the newly reincarnated megazords of Better Lovers and Many Eyes all bringing some barn-storming heat with their own creative touches. The labels DAZE and especially 4ephyra deserve a shout here for carrying the torch for throwback 90s and 00s influenced sounds, with notable releases from the likes of Thus Spoke Zaruthustra, A Mourning Star, Balmora, and Razel Got Her Wings.
The progressive metalcore/djent scene has been consistent arguably to the point of stagnation, however we saw Unprocessed return to a heavier form, asking what if Meshuggah got really into Polyphia. Meanwhile, Polaris, Invent Animate, and Silent Planet continue to emerge as the new faces of this alternative-djent metalcore sound behind some busy touring schedules, while Periphery and Veil of Maya are still doing their thing at the quality we've come to expect. I’d be amiss not to mention the global phenomena that is Sleep Token right now, where they managed to make a djent-alt-pop album the most streamed metal~ album in the world. Even if it’s not for you, it’s hard to deny the cultural impact they’re having and new audiences they’re likely introducing into this scene.
Despite the growing apathy for Dance Gavin Dance, other bands like Hail the Sun and pulses kept the "swancore" flag flying strong. And more sludgy, midwest-emo and noise rock takes at post-hardcore from the likes of Great Falls, Glass Bones, and Buice respectively, have kept things in this genre fresh. Shooting off from that I continue to be wowed by the modern screamo/skramz renaissance, with veterans like Jeromes Dream and Loma Prieta showing they’ve still got it, while some new faces that I’ll touch on below have really emerged to push this often misunderstood genre to new levels.
Rounding it out on the heavier end with grind and deathcore, we’ve seen more and more experimentation with prog, post-metal, black, death, and the whole spectrum of electronic music (shoutout Big Money Cybergrind). Be sure to peep JD’s list below for some of the top-hitters in grindcore. Deathcore seems to be struggling a little for an identity with the modern straight-forward approach from established acts like Thy Art Is Murder and Chelsea Grin waning in quality. Some of the most enthusiasm and attention I saw on social media in the genre was for the brutal throwback energy of Psycho-Frame. I’ve been apprehensive about the whole “blackened" (see: symphonic) deathcore scene, but more bands are finally incorporating genuine black metal into their songcraft as Mental Cruelty and Mélancolia had formidable releases this year. And finally Humanity’s Last Breath and The Acacia Strain showed they’re still two of the best at what they do, and we even got Dragoncorpse experimenting with the beguiling fusion of deathcore and power metal.
That's a lot of music. Heavy Blog’s tagline for sometime has been “documenting the golden-age of metal” and I’d argue in no place is that truer than in the greater -core realm. There is simply something for everyone right now among these genres and it’s been a pleasure to cover this year. Here’s to another great year, support your local scene, and I hope you enjoy our top picks from 2023.
Ostraca - Disaster (screamo, post-metal)
Ostraca cemented themselves this year among the forefront of the modern screamo movement with their masterpiece of a new album, Disaster. The Virginia-based three-piece have adapted a heavily post-metal meets powerviolence approach to their songwriting, resulting in an oppressively heavy sound that will also destroy you emotionally. They tap into the sort of raw aggression you can only get from a band that bears every ounce of their being into the performance in the most punk and screamo way possible. You can feel the blood and sweat dripping into their distorted walls of cacophonous fury, yet these explosive outbursts and legitimate breakdown of the year contenders feel so utterly earned. They take time to create this anxious, desperate tension that’s just full of existential dread. It’s visceral and devastating, yet so fucking beautiful.
Dreamwell - In My Saddest Dreams, I Am Beside You (post-hardcore, screamo)
If you had to pick one other band that rivalled Ostraca for the 2023 screamo crown, it would have to be the Rhode Island-based Dreamwell. Approaching the genre from a more post-hardcore and metalcore based sound, they capture the same levels of raw passion with a little more angst and bittersweet melodies. Softer, almost twinkly Daitro riffs and clean vocal emo anthems are juxtaposed with frantic metalcore breakdowns and panic chords as they seamlessly move between fun, catchy, and viscerally devastating. Part of why this album feels so easy to connect to is how honest and vulnerable it all feels, and if you’ve been fortunate enough to experience them live that truly transfers there with their energetic and frankly violent live show.
Like Ostraca, they also draw from some brooding post-rock with their song-writing, but here it’s more ethereal and unpredictable with touches of blackgaze oozing into their dynamic sound. While tracks like single “Obelisk of Hands” stands on its own, all of these shifting moods, bait-and-switches, and bold use of atmosphere and tension-building drama lend to a journey of an album that’s best experienced in full. I thought their 2021 debut Modern Grotesque would be hard to top, but Dreamwell have shown they’re beyond just promising upstarts, but one of the best post-hardcore and screamo bands on the planet.
Dreamwell guitarist Aki McCullough (also part of two other great albums this year from A Constant Knowledge of Death, and Victory Over the Sun) was kind enough to offer a guest list of her own top picks of the year.
Fromjoy - Fromjoy (metalcore, mathcore, vaporwave)
Fromjoy are one of the most interesting outcomes of this increasing trend in recent years of ‘nu’, industrial and electronic elements seeping into metalcore. They’ve been busy since their underrated debut It Lingers in 2021, which was a fairly ground-breaking fusion of mathy metalcore and the electronic genre drum and bass. They quickly followed that up with another EP in 2022 which introduced more breakcore into their sound and was arguably more of an electronic album than a metalcore one. Now in 2023 they’ve returned with their most complete album to date and aptly a self-titled one. I’m not sure if this is a statement of a full-realization of their sound, which has continually been evolving, but it certainly has put them on the map.
The biggest shift in that evolution on Fromjoy is the introduction of the ethereal retro sound of vaporwave. The shorter “Helios” which I’ve semi-sarcastically labelled as “thallwave” due to its Vildhjarta-esque breakdowns, even makes generous use of a crooning saxophone melody. They match that vapor aesthetic with some relatively raw production where the drumming and snare especially shines. The addition of soothing clean vocals elevates this even further. But unlike their last EP, this is truly a metalcore record at its heart, and the heavy hitting riffs, ominous atmosphere, and pained and passionate harsh vocals remain the foundation of their song-writing. Those riffs move from bending angular “thall” djent tones, to chuggy Chamber style mosh-calls, to frantic Frontierer “how is a guitar making those sounds” madness. It’s really a melting pot of most of my favourite things in modern metalcore, with that genre-bending electronic fusion just pushing this even further. It’s almost a marvel for something to come along these days that truly sounds like nothing else, and that’s exactly what Fromjoy has accomplished.
Lotus Eater Machine - Prisoner To Seven Demons (deathgrind, mathcore)
Chamber - A Love To Kill For (metalcore, mathcore)
Pupil Slicer - Blossom (mathcore, post-hardcore)
EYES - Congratulations (metalcore, noise rock)
Endless, Nameless - Living Without (sasscore, math rock, post-hardcore)
Telos - Delude (mathcore, blackened sludge)
Svalbard - The Weight of the Mask (post-hardcore, blackgaze)
An Album You Might Have Missed
Inertia - The Human Element (progressive tech-deathcore, mathcore)
December releases sadly often fall through the cracks of both listeners, and publication year-end lists (especially those who insist on publishing them in November for some reason). Anyway, I’m using this header to shine light on a banger of a release from a little New York band who gained some underground critical praise among the prog/tech scenes back in 2018 with their debut Teratoma. Now 5 years on, somewhat out of nowhere they’ve launched their follow-up LP The Human Element. This release is a continuation of the mathcore meets tech death meets math rock sound from their debut. Hyper-fast tech riffs are juxtaposed with thundering chugs and brutal gutturals in a very Between the Massacre way, with moments of manically unpredictable mathcore riffs akin to Ion Dissonance or Psyopus.
The standout element of their song-writing however is the contrasting verses of soft contemplative beauty, with obvious influence from post-rock and math rock similar to how The Contortionist operated on their progressive deathcore classic, Exoplanet. The whole thing comes together for a memorable and rewarding listening experience from start to finish that feels like it really has something to say, with more substance than flash.
Chepang - Swatta (grindcore)
There may be no other 2023 grindcore album more underrated than Chepang’s ambitious third album Swatta. As I described in the August edition of the Rotten to the Core column, Swatta is separated into four distinct sections that, to this writer, evoke the journey of the monomythical hero – but in a non-linear fashion. The album begins with ten hopeful tracks that balance melodic angularity with the aggression and immediacy generally associated with grindcore. All bets are off after that as the band descends into the chaotic depths to battle grindcore demons, starting with several experimental tracks, such as “Bid” and “Ba”, with saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi (The Armed, Fuubutsushi). The band is not alone in this fight as they are subsequently joined by a retinue of other collaborators, such as Colin Marston (Dysrhythmia, Krallice, Gorguts), Bryan Fajardo (Gridlink, Cognizant), and Jack McBride (Bandit) on tracks ranging from straightforward grindcore to experimental noise and chaotic improvisation. The album ends with the struggle against demons from within as AI-generated tracks, produced by feeding an AI tool tracks from elsewhere on the album, create a sense of internal turmoil. If Swatta is not the hero’s journey of a grindcore band at their creative bravest, then I don’t know what is.
Better Lovers - God Made Me an Animal (metalcore/hardcore/mathcore)
For whatever reason, I never put in the effort with Every Time I Die (ETID). There was nothing actively dissuading me from exploring the band’s material, but I just never made the attempt. This, in spite of seeing consistently high praise for the band’s output over the course of their near quarter-century career. But, being the Dillinger Escape Plan (DEP) fanboy that I am, once I heard that ex-DEP vocalist Greg Puciato was the frontman for a new band made up of ex-ETID members and Will Putney (Fit for an Autopsy, END), I knew I had to check out their debut EP God Made Me an Animal. And what a debut it is! Despite the musical complexity on display, the EP is rife with grooves and melody, allowing Puciato’s voice space to shine in ways that the mathematically intricate music of DEP didn’t always. Opener “Sacrificial Participant”, for instance, has several catchy and spacious moments, featuring Puciato’s characteristic croon during an absolute earworm of a chorus. But the same track also features some off-kilter, southern-fried, pentatonic grooves that make headbanging almost irresistible. Considering how well the individual components make up the whole in God Made Me an Animal, as well as how much creative ground is covered, Better Lovers proves there is still a chance for successful musical marriages after bitter musical divorces.
Dying Wish - Symptoms of Survival (melodic metalcore)
Why change a formula that works so well? Dying Wish may have asked themselves that very question while writing and recording their 2023 release Symptoms of Survival. The band has continued exploring the same compelling mix of sounds that made Fragments of a Bitter Memory one of the most stunning, memorable debuts of 2021: syncopated harcore breakdowns, melodic death metal riffing, and soaring, wistful choruses. All of these elements are on display, now with a thicker, more robust production, on tracks such as “Starved” and “Path To Your Grave”. However, “Paved in Sorrow” presents a slightly new direction for the band. That track, which displays vocalist Emma Boster’s clean vocals as well as a spacious, balladesque approach to songwriting, has the lightest touch of any Dying Wish song that they have written thus far. While tracks such as “Symptoms of Survival” prove that Dying Wish have a consistent and successfull formula to work with, “Paved in Sorrow” shows that its a formula with room for growth.
An Album You Might Have Missed
Akersborg - Feelantropicoco (avant-core)
What do you get when you mix Swedish hardcore in the lineage of Refused with Mr. Bungle’s genre-hopping irreverence? Probably something like Feelantropicoco. Even with the obvious nods to the aforementioned influences, such as the 15-second “Break” bearing more than a slight resemblance to “Bruitist Pome #5” by Refused, Feelantropicoco is far from an exercise in mere copycatting. From the demented disco of “Et jävla liv vi lever” to the country train beat of “She’s Such a Burden” to the anachronistic, spoken-word narrative of “Pit Reflections”, the music transcends the band’s influences and spreads out in multiple directions. Yet, despite all of the musical paths that the album leads the listener down, there is a cohesion in the approach. And that approach is perhaps what Akersborg does best on Feelantropicoco: they take equal parts of the earnestness of political hardcore mixed with the postmodern absurdity of various avant-garde jesters. What results is a post-ironic sincerity that few artists are able to achieve convincingly. Antropicoco is playful but not frivolous. It’s ambitious but not pretentious. But most importantly, it’s an album that takes numerous artistic chances and succeeds by every measure.
Bandit - Siege of Self (grindcore)
Gridlink - Coronet Juniper (grindcore)
Ex-Everything - Slow Change Will Pull Us Apart (post-hardcore/noise rock)
Rotten Sound - Apocalypse (grindcore)
END - The Sin of Human Frailty (metalcore/hardcore/grindcore)
Great Falls - Objects Without Pain (sludge/noise rock/post-hardcore)
Organ Dealer - The Weight of Being (grindcore)