2013 offered an embarrassment of riches to metalheads and dilettantes alike, with a surprising number of records that went Hulk-smashing through genre walls. Thanks in part to the cross-over appeal of metal-rooted anomalies like Deafheaven, The Body and Kvelertak, we’ve seen mainstream coverage of death metal or doom records blossom, and as loudly as the purists may howl, it's an undeniably positive development for the form. Keeping that in mind, we’ve complied a taster’s menu of the best of what 2013 had to offer those whose palettes lean more toward the harsh and metallic. Here are five standout albums with the potential to charm even the highest of the highbrow while keeping their crusty core audiences more than happy.
Agrimonia, Rites of Separation (Southern Lord)
Featuring members of Miasmal, Martyrdöd and melodic death metal legends At The Gates, this Swedish supergroup has always fit squarely into the “brought an assault rifle to a knifefight” territory, but it took this year’s incredible Rites of Separation to really make a broad range of folks sit up and notice. A recent North American trek with Arizona extremists T.O.A.D. introduced fence-sitters to their intense live performances, and left us wanting more. The brilliance of Agrimonia lies in its inclusivity; as one familiar with the band’s cross-genre membership might suspect, on the band's third album, shades of crust, d-beat, doom and death metal swirl and flow together. A focus on powerful melodies provides the connective tissue, creating a triumphant, arresting coalescence of sonic fury. Not since Nux Vomica’s 2009 masterwork, Asleep in the Ashes, has melodic death and crust cleaved together so harmoniously.
Inter Arma, Sky Burial (Relapse)
The second LP from Richmond, VA five-piece Inter Arma has ruffled all kinds of feathers, and for good reason; Sky Burial is a gorgeous piece of musicianship, moving gracefully through prairie and precipice to offer a breathtaking panoramic view. The band channels Neil Young’s windswept Americana as often as it references Neurosis’ shuddering, evocative roars, playing with tension and dynamics in a way that feels as natural as the setting sun. Doom metal lies at the core of these epics, but Inter Arma spills whiskey, love letters, and blood all over that blue print, smears it around and holds it aloft, improved. When intensity and grit are required, Sky Burial delivers in spades, but the album’s real power lies in its delicate, studied touches. Nothing is accidental, despite the wild feel of epics like “Destroyer,” and each note is set carefully, reverently, into its proper place.
Yellow Eyes, Hammer of Night (Sibir Records)
With Deafheaven’s continued success, the general music-consuming public has shown its willingness to get a little dark—not too dark, mind you, but several thousand leagues below the Top 40. Those who were drawn in by the gossamer melodies and post-rock meanderings on the California band’s breakout album, Sunbather, might have felt less of a connection with the serrated metal riffs sprinkled liberally throughout; however, if those moments alone were what spoke loudest to you, the next logical step into the void will lead to Brooklyn’s Yellow Eyes. The band’s Hammer of Night LP sums up everything that makes American black metal great in 2013, and is unafraid to experiment with the melodic elements that constitute many of their peers' bread and butter. Songs like “Light Has Fallen” build upon the frantic, fragile beauty of bright, chiming chords with storms of tremolo and hoarse, ragged cries, cloaking its shining core in clouds of deadly fallout.
Lycus, Tempest (20 Buck Spin)
Doomhounds first caught wind of Portland outfit Lycus with the release of their jaw-dropping, 2011 demo, MMXI. With their first full-length and second-ever release, the band (now a quartet) delivers on that early promise and then some. Following in the heavy footsteps of Skepticism, Thergothon and Asunder, Tempest travels down a dark, melancholy path, offering up three mammoth tunes that pull together the brutality of death and the clouded darkness of doom. The graven tempos on Tempest ask much of a listener’s patience, but they're worth the effort. Shot through with threads of wiry melodies and narrated by disembodied echoes, the album sees Lycus trawling the murk of desolation, only surface forty minutes later, gasping for air and clutching at fragments of sunlight that dance just out of reach.
Bölzer, Aura (Iron Bonehead Productions)
Bölzer is something special; even a cursory listen to the Swiss newcomers’ second release, the Aura EP, makes that dead apparent. The name itself is a mangled Germanic portmanteau, one the band partially defines as “a chaotic strike of energy," and if that’s not a succinct description of what Aura offers, I don’t know what is. Black/death metal as a rule tends to toe its own party line fairly closely, eschewing experimentation in favor of tradition and gut-punching savagery. Bölzer pays its respects to that mode of thinking, but then takes off running wherever the band's twisted, collective consciousness may lead. They jot down notes from space-metal tyrants Voivod, countrymen Celtic Frost, Early Morbid Angel’s stranger diversions and forward-thinking war cult Order From Chaos, then add their own take on progressive song structures and dark cosmic atmosphere. A chaotic strike of energy, indeed.