Fun note: We wrote these blurbs covering our favorite black metal records of 2023 during a bomb cyclone that had my home averaging a balmy -9 degrees Fahrenheit for nearly five days.
The only setting appropriate for praising the year’s frostiest. Hail.
Another year, another list of absolute bangers. Feast on the flesh of 15 of the darkest, grimiest, and most frost-bitten black metal records of the year, and sound off in the comments on your favorites. There’s plenty of tremolo-picked nastiness to go ‘round.
We appreciate your allegiance. We couldn’t do this without you. Stay frosty.
Best of 2023
Ash Prison - Future Torn
Thanks to the magic of alphabetical order, I’ve been bestowed some prime digital real estate to celebrate the most non-black metal black metal album in our 2023 end-of-year lineup. Future Torn is a multigenre tornado incorporating industrial electronics, hardcore punk, and black metal. Think noisy, heart-pounding, and oddly danceable black/industrial metal.
The chaotic and crushing mix stems from Future Torn’s conspiracy of progenitors: Matt Auxier of electro-industrial act 6th Circle, J. Thompson of darkwave cult Child ov Night, and M. Alagna of Abstracter and Somnolent. Driven by Alagna’s raw intonations, Future Torn channels the evil of black metal into blown-out jams that wouldn’t feel out of place at a rave. The driving intensity of punk and metal feed on each other like a toxic relationship, further pushed into insanity by Future Torn’s bleak atmosphere and crunchy industrial ferocity. Pulsing electronics straight from the 1980’s, and suddenly Ash Prison has you transported to a rainy night in a dark city street.
Blut Aus Nord - Disharmonium - Nahab
It’s hard to imagine that many bands that get up towards fifteen albums deep into their discography can say that they’re at the top of their game, but the enigmatic and avant garde Blut Aus Nord are in the midst of the most exciting period of their career with the Disharmonium series, the second and latest of which, Nahab, compelled us at the tail end of summer to kick spooky season off the right way.
I’ve said it before around here, but in recent years, these Frenchmen have refined their sound into what can be best described as ethereal wooshing. Around the time of their 2019 album Hallucinogen, Blut Aus Nord have really dialed in with the cavernous yet cinematic onslaught of bleak and icy atmospheres, and they continue to perfect the sound in various modes. While both distinctly Lovecraftian in their aural depiction of unimaginable psychological horror and existential dread, Nahab is much darker and more bleak than the previous year’s comparatively Tim Burton-esque Undreamable Abysses, taking on a blackened dissodeath slant that is genuinely frightening. Through it all, Blut Aus Nord remain strangely unique in an ever widening field of atmospheric black metal and dissonant death metal, reminding us of the fact that they’re partly responsible for the phenomenon in the first place.
Decoherence - Order
Black metal is often drawn into purist realms of raw sound, fiercely clinging to its underground roots, DIY ethos, and harsh mastering. The unfiltered aggression and time-tested ferocity is why many of us have been steadfast fans of the genre for years. But occasionally, an artist breaks the mold so thoroughly that old standards begin to fade. United Kingdom black metal futurists Decoherence achieve this to a mind-melting degree on their third full-length album, Order.
Decoherence resist the pillars of black metal to such an extent that “black metal” feels like an utterly incomplete description. Avant-garde black metal, perhaps, or post-industrial dissonant black metal. Whatever label fits, Order is a devastating scream from a catastrophic future. Distant howls echo across a bleak and withered soundscape. Whether they’re a warning, a cry for help, or a condemnation, we’ll never know. But the haunted void left by industrial and electronic clashes in the distance hardly sounds promising. Decoherence manage to channel dissonance and noise into a cavernous echo that’s deceptively atmospheric and deeply eerie, trading in-your-face aggression by volume for a more subtle, pulsing ferocity that’s just as potent. Order feels like a dystopian vision from the future, if only we’re wise enough to heed its warning.
Krallice - Porous Resonance Abyss
Another year, another installment of “is this even black metal?”. At this point, the doors holding what classifies as black metal in check have been blown completely off their hinges, as the genre has expanded to sonic realms that would probably make Dead roll in his grave. Good. Metal is a subversive space of music that should not only scare the parentals, but also push its own audience to new and invigorating places. Krallice’s utterly unexpected and genuinely incredible 12th full-length record does just that, dropping listeners into a billowing, reverberating synth space that only barely grasps onto its black metal roots but creates some of the most dynamic and truly mesmerizing results of the year. This record is a masterclass in experimentation and I’m all the way here for it.
While the band’s Mass Cathexis 2 - The Kinetic Infinite (also excellent) may present a more black metal-oriented feel, Porous Resonance Abyss eclipses it in my estimation due to its adventurousness and thoroughly superb execution. The entire album flows seamlessly and beautifully across its 43-minute runtime, ebbing and flowing through 70s influenced synth soundscapes and black metal blasts and tremolo sections with grace and conviction. All of the music in this 4-part epic is beautifully performed and written, and the production is as always on point, but the reason Porous Resonance Abyss succeeds so dramatically is actually fairly simple. For all of its sonic uniqueness as a whole within the band’s catalog, no one is surprised that this is a direction Krallice would set off in. Their entire catalog has featured moments similar to those found in this record, so while an entire instrumental record featuring this type of sound exclusively may be a surprise, its execution is not. Krallice is really good at this shit, and has been for a long time. Now they’re just doing it in long form and it’s thrilling to witness.
If there are any lessons to be gleaned from Porous Resonance Abyss, the principal among them is that experimentation deep into a career can be accomplished when the sounds you are diving into have a history in your catalog. Whiplash changes to established sounds often find a more divisive audience reception, but when your catalog includes a host of sounds that have been building slowly to this explosive moment, the results are often less focused on the new emphasis of sound and more on its execution. In the case of this record, Krallice’s foray into what has always seemed like an integral but peripheral aspect of their aesthetic is a rousing and complete success. It won’t be for everyone, but those who’ve followed Krallice this far should be delighted by another adventurous and superb outing from a band that refuses to sit still.
Laster - Andermans Mijne
Laster’s sophomore record Ons vrije fatum was among the first I reviewed for the blog, and thousands of albums heard and hundreds written about since then I still vividly remember it. Laster is genuinely like no one else in the black metal space. Part art rock with a sprinkling of post-punk and a notable slathering of black metal blasting, Laster have carved out a particular niche for themselves in the extreme music world, joining bands like Oranssi Pazuzu, Imperial Triumphant, and Mamaleek in the blackened pantheon of acts that sound like absolutely no one but themselves. Their third full-length offering Andermans Mijne is another incredibly entertaining and artistically adventurous step band and on all counts their most gripping and excellent record yet.
It’s kind of hard to describe everything that’s going on in Andermans Mijne if I’m being honest. Imagine a post-metal/rock band that listened to a lot of Interpol and Talking Heads records, with a few Emperor tracks sprinkled in here or there and you’ll come close to the sound this record is peddling. It’s a slippery, slithery piece of work that holds thoroughly to a post-rock aesthetic as a cornerstone while allowing each other facet of their sound to make bold appearances at the appropriate time. Probably the least blackened of their records, the presence of black metal still abounds, and makes appearances in all of the right ways at all of the right times. “Poetische waarheid” is one of the best examples of this balance, juxtaposing and interchanging post-punk barking and gyration with black metal aggression with such artful ease that it’s often difficult to determine where one style of music starts and another begins. Which is a principal reason why Laster and Andermans Mijne are so exceptional. This isn’t a conglomeration of trendy sounds mashed into an album and called art. This is an extremely thoughtfully composed and performed work that genuinely understands the threads that tie its various influences together, creating a piece of art that is as calculated as it is wilfully transgressive. It’s genuinely shocking how well all of these sounds blend together when shepherded by hands and minds this capable.
Laster isn’t for everyone, but those like me who grew up on a blend of progressive rock and metal sounds will find a veritable treasure trove to be pilfered within the hallowed halls of the band’s thoroughly unique catalog. Andermans Mijne is their most impressive and cohesive work to date, and one I can recommend easily and heartily. There’s grace and power in this music, and I could not be more impressed by what Laster accomplished here. A truly transcendent record.
Liturgy - 93696
Hot take: Liturgy are unfairly maligned in the world of black metal, and are one of the most important creative acts in the genre. Granted, nobody ever called black metal purists respectable, but even moving beyond the bigoted takes levied towards Liturgy and bandleader Haela Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix, her philosophical and spiritual musings on black metal and esoteric branches of Judeo-Christianity can be off-putting as pretentious and self-important to some. Whatever qualms you have on that front can be surely forgotten given the band’s output as a stunning creative force in avant garde music in the way they fuse black metal, noise rock, and modern classical. Whether you like them or not, Liturgy are artful in the way they push boundaries in music, and on 93696, they’re at their peak creatively.
93696 is a tour-de-force of avant garde songwriting and production. Choral and chamber orchestra arrangements swirl and glitch into catastrophic metallic intensity. Meshuggah-esque rhythms stutter under ornate synths, regal horns, and heart-rending shrieks. The emotional and spiritual angst of Hunt-Hendrix is palpable. The orchestral “Angel of Individuation” is a moving piece of music, and to have it followed by the intense and often horrific and gorgeous 14-minute epic “Antigone II” is masterful album curation. 93696 is a masterwork, and sure, it might not be strictly black metal, but those shrieks, blastbeats, and tremolo picked guitars underneath the choirs and orchestra are unmistakably grim.
Moonlight Sorcery - Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle
Black metal has a tendency to be incredibly self-serious. From its history of church burnin’ transgressiveness to its outright flirtation with extreme right political sympathies for either shock value or sheer malice, the genre has been a bastion of neck-bearded weirdness for good and ill over the past few decades. So it’s a really nice surprise when a record comes along that understands and reveres the genre’s musical roots while injecting a sense of camp into the proceedings. Kvaen and Stormkeep have struck this balance incredibly well over the past few years, and now we can add Moonlight Sorcery to that short list of bands who fundamentally understand that black metal can be simultaneously kick-ass and fun. Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle is as effective a debut as one could imagine and I’ve spun this thing into the ground over the last few months. It’s unabashedly enjoyable black metal at its very finest.
There’s no way to describe this record other than massively enjoyable. Front to back Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle is a pure delight, chock full of incredible riffs and wildly catchy moments that I can draw to mind at will. This might be the most earworm-heavy black metal record I’ve ever heard, with each track containing an almost pop sensibility when it comes to hooks. But make no mistake, this thing goes hard. The songwriting here is a masterclass of knowing exactly what to do and when to do it in order to achieve maximum enjoyability without ever sacrificing intensity or traditional black metal aggression. Whatever incantation this band executed to make this album a reality worked, because this thing just absolutely SLAPS. The first two tracks on the record are among my favorite in any genre this year, and there really isn’t a dull or weak spot here. The bottom line is this: If you like black metal, this is for you.
I really wish more artists would take the approach that Moonlight Sorcery does here. Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle just begs to be listened to on repeat not because of its insanely complex compositions or overwhelming weirdness, but instead because it’s just so damn enjoyable without sacrificing substance. This is one of the most delightful surprises of 2023 and one of my favorite black metal records to be released in quite some time.
Oak Pantheon - The Absence
The Absence has to be one of the most underrated albums of the year for me, in black metal and otherwise. On it, Oak Pantheon decided not to rest on their laurel leaves and continue pushing forward, moving away from their very “American” style of folk black metal and towards a more progressive, eclectic style. As a result, The Absence has tracks on it that run the gamut between death metal, black, progressive metal, and even grunge. While I can see why the mix isn’t for anyone, there’s a lot to be said about the courage and dedication that creating such an album requires.
Besides, it also has some of the best tracks of Oak Pantheon’s career, divorced from any grand narrative about their progression as a band. “Silence We Plead”, a track I’ve already lauded on the blog before, is probably the one I love the most; it’s excellent guest vocals, overall structure, and rousing delivery evokes Devin Townsend and Anneke van Giersbergen more than any black metal artists. But the Oak Pantheon excellence and thrust are still there, driving home the epic scope that their music always held. If you’re looking for a release in the black metal spaces that’s not afraid to do things differently, and is also great at doing those things, then look no further: The Absence is the album you need.
Panopticon - The Rime of Memory
Panopticon has evolved into a truly exceptional beast over the past decade. With dozens of emulators popping up on the regular attempting to mimic the one-man project’s distinctly American folkish approach to black metal, it’s remarkable how with each new release Austin Lunn continues to push himself into even greater spaces of creative mastery. Sure, the core sound of Panopticon has evolved slowly and is pretty easy to decipher once you’re invested in one of his records, but no one just… feels like Panopticon does. There’s a deeply emotive core that has only grown more pronounced as this project has matured, with Lunn’s messages before each new record hitting closer and closer to home as I approach middle age. Lunn has a story to tell, emotional haunts to grapple with, and a clear-eyed perspective on how to process. The Rime of Memory may be the project’s most emotionally resonant and scintillating treatise to date, and it’s probably my favorite record Lunn has yet produced.
There’s no way to tell the story of The Rime of Memory without tying its creation and execution directly to a deeply felt philosophical and autobiographical context. Lunn is incredibly explicit in his intent for this record, and that conviction bleeds through in every single track. But none more pronounced than “Cedar Skeletons”, clocking in at a whopping 16 minutes and carrying the emotional weight of a megaton bomb. The musical shifts, revolutions, and diversified instrumentals contained in this track are a world unto themselves, and it would not be too far fetched to state that this track contains more ideas on its own than many full-length records in this space. But the thing that makes it so exceptional (which can be extrapolated to the entire record) is that each unique and punishing new wave fits seamlessly into the tapestry of the entire track, leaving you with the sense that you’ve just completed a really good novel rather than a single track. Take that songwriting prowess and place it across an entire album and you have something close to a true masterpiece. Which is what The Rime of Memory is.
I don’t really have a favorite Panopticon record. I’ve enjoyed each of the project’s releases and find myself drawn to different albums at different times. But none of these excellent records held the emotional gut punch contained in The Rime of Memory for me, and I’ve found myself being drawn to it for entirely different reasons than with Lunn’s previous work. This is an exceptional record of deep yet simple philosophical wandering and one that I can relate to on a level black metal rarely provides. It’s a record I’ve grown to deeply love and respect that will be in near constant rotation for years to come.
Thantifaxath - Hive Mind Narcosis
There were moments when I thought we would never get another Thantifaxath. Canada’s premium purveyors of off-kilter, borderline batshit (yet weirdly melodic) avant-garde black metal lit my world ablaze with their 2014 debut Sacred White Noise, and sent me once more into the stratosphere with their haunting, genuinely fantastic EP Void Masquerading as Matter in 2017. Then the years rolled on and… nothing. Radio silence from one of the most interesting black metal bands on earth. It took seven years for whispers to emerge… hints at a new record and my hype level went full nuclear. Hive Mind Narcosis was my most anticipated follow-up of the year by a wide margin, which left plenty of room to be utterly crushed by disappointment. But then the record release and much to my shock it wasn’t as good as Sacred White Noise. It was better. In every way.
Hive Mind Narcosis is an exceptional record for fans of strange and unorthodox black metal. It’s off-kilter to a degree that will require some initial reorientation to engage fully with, and I’m not going to lie it took me a few listens to really get into the groove of what Thantifaxath were trying to do here. But once I found myself invested in the album’s odd circular rhythm I was fully transfixed. This is a record that rewards repeat listens more than any I’ve heard in ages, unfurling its delights slowly and deliberately through a woozy, whirling cloud of atonal textures and jagged, seemingly incongruous melodies. “Solar Witch” is one of the most initially bizarre opening statement to an album I’ve heard in a minute, and the strangeness doesn’t abate in the following track “Surgical Utopian Love”, which is equally deranged. But just as it feels like the wheels are about to come off the track opens up in truly sublime fashion, with a finale that sent me straight into orbit. It took a few minutes, but the hook was fierce and firm. I was befuddled and enthralled throughout the rest of my listening experience and several spins later I can emphatically state that Thantifaxath is here to stay. What a truly majestic, spellbinding record.
In a world where access to music is instantaneous, sticking with a record can feel like a more arduous task than usual. I implore any black metal fans who’ve given this record a cursory listen to give it more chances to connect. The rewards contained in those repeat listens are many, and one of the few instances where I can confidently state that those who heard it once are missing out on one of the best and most creatively bold records of 2023. It was worth the long wait, and is absolutely worthy of the time investment it takes to let its rich tapestry of sounds unfurl. Just brilliant.
Victory Over the Sun - Dance You Monster To My Soft Song!
This may well be your first ever exposure to Portland’s Victory Over The Sun, and what a first impression to make. Dance You Monster To My Soft Song! is a triumph of avant garde black metal, frequently moving from elegant and cinematic whimsy to visceral expressions of torment and agony. Comparisons to Liturgy are easy even beyond the visible trans songwriters at the helm of both acts, with Victory Over The Sun echoing a similar blends of rhythmic intensity and chamber orchestrations, but Dance You Monster couldn’t be a more different listening experience than Liturgy’s latest 93696. Dance You Monster feels more unpredictable and varied in its experimentations, with forays into new wave, industrial, surf rock, and more.
“Thorn Woos the Wound” top-loads the record at 16 minutes of psychedelic landscapes and vignettes of crushing metal, brutal prog, and upbeat post-punk. “WHEEL” is a lumbering, groaning industrial doom dirge, hearkening both Author & Punisher and Altar of Plagues. “The Gold of Having Nothing” is a bizarrely bright affair, somewhere between Danny Elfman and Imperial Triumphant in the way horns and violins color the song’s breathtaking climax. “Madeline Becoming Judy” pulls off some wailing guitar call-and-response like some strange blend of jazz fusion and noise rock, and “Black Heralds” serves as a compelling finale, pulling in drone and harsh noise to help conjure the record’s somber final act. It’s a harrowing and thrilling record that fans of Plebeian Grandstand’s 2021 opus Rien ne suffit will find much to love about. But in the off-chance you’re new to that one too, now you’ve got two homework assignments to take care of.
Vulvanic - ブラックエンジェルの色合い / 秘密の夜の殺人者
Peruvian extreme metal cult Vulvanic are known for their boundary-pushing live shows and demented blend of black metal, noise, punk, and psychedelia. Their sound is a caustic blend of wildly distorted guitars, snarling vocals, eerily humanoid skronks, and blistering beats. It’s a fundamentally evil, vicious call from the void.
And yet….ブラックエンジェルの色合い / 秘密の夜の殺人者 has a bizarrely infectious groove and energy that seeps into your brain until you find yourself listening to the album every day for weeks on end. The raw aggression of punk and hardcore melds with the ferocity of black metal for a sonic burst that transcends genre and simply becomes pure energy. Every note, howl, and beat is stretched and distorted beyond recognition, creating a tornado of aural assault that draws you in and beats you senseless. But in the ugliness, there is art. Listen to “Premutos” burst from a haunting sample into a blistering force of screeching, blown out guitars and vile vocals ricocheting from raspy howls to gurgling gutturals and tell me this isn’t the nastiest slice of fun from 2023.
vvilderness - Path
Path was this year’s best mix of folk and black metal. This should come as no surprise, as vvilderness has been making a name for himself as one of the most adept musicians working in those spaces. However, I feel like Path takes his skill to a whole new level, presenting a more structurally complex and varied release. Where before the project suffered from a slight lack of variety, Path is a surprising and engaging album. To be sure, you won’t find any shockers as far as overall style; this is still folk black metal played pretty much close to the tropes. But the internal structure of the album should keep you coming for plenty more, as the tracks revisit and rebuild earlier themes, iterating on the core vvilderness sound.
Wayfarer - American Gothic
For decades, the folk influence in black metal was almost strictly European, which may be obvious to anyone familiar with the sociopolical nature of the genre’s founding. But with the incredible offerings from both Wayfarer and Panopticon this year, it’s good to be reminded that Americana can – and will be – a rich well of influence on extreme metal in its various forms.
Wayfarer’s fifth LP, the aptly titled American Gothic, sees the band at their very best, perfecting their blend of atmospheric black metal, post-metal, and gothic americana in an expanding sonic universe all their own, hearkening back to the Wild West in its form and aesthetics. While surely novel, Wayfarer are no mere novelty act; this Colorado-based outfit (sharing members with other critical darlings Blood Incantation and Stormkeep) are serious songwriters who do more than throw slide guitars over blastbeats. American Gothic is teeming with rich and cinematic compositions that make a seemingly unlikely genre fusion a no-brainer.
Woe - Legacies of Frailty
Somehow, I’ve seen Legacies of Frailty make less waves than I would expect. It’s been very popular in the circles that Woe has always been popular in, namely metal journalists, but I truly feel that this release has plenty more to give. On it, Chris Grigg returns to the fundamental beginnings of Woe as a project, running its punishing-yet-expansive type of USBM into an even more epic and grand formula. Plus, it is a stirring exploration of radical politics, framing them within the overall idea palette and historical approach of black metal in an extremely interesting way. If you’re just here for the riffs though, the release has plenty of that, showcasing Grigg’s as a composer with more restraint, consideration, and skill than ever before. Give this one the time it deserves - it’s a grower.