As is my tradition, I’m marking the midpoint of the year with a top 10 list. The second half of the year is already looked stacked, so expect a good deal of change between now and my AOTY list in December, but for now these are my picks for best of 2023!
First up, seven albums I loved that haven’t quite made the top 10 cut:
(Left to right, top to bottom)
Deathgrave – It’s Only Midnight, some of the best deathgrind I’ve heard in years
Fires in the Distance – Air Not Meant for Us, progressive and mournful melodic death/doom
Nightmarer – Deformity Adrift, bonecrushing dissonant death metal
Never Ending Game – Outcry, Detroit beatdown that hits a bunch of surprisingly emotional beats
Olkoth – At the Eye of Chaos, fast and fiery death metal madness
Liquid Flesh – Dolores, a conceptual death metal story that takes place in riff city
Serpent of Old – Ensemble Under the Dark Sun, swirling dissonant meditations of pure evil
And now for the top 10!
10 Krallice – Porous Resonance Abyss
At this point in Krallice’s career nothing should really surprise us anymore, and yet I found myself absolutely floored by this newest effort. It’s goddamn LUSH with synth melodies and creeping 70s soundtrack textures, atmospheric and engrossing without ever leaving the black metal framework. And it’s not just the heavily featured synth that rocks; the interplay of drum and bass at points is some of their finest work. Porous Resonance Abyss is a whole experience, not just an album. They’ve pushed their sound so far that they’re miles away from anything that anyone else in black metal is doing, and the results are increasingly impressive.
9 Paroxysm Unit – Fragmentation // Stratagem
Back to back Colin Marston appearances here, well-deserved for one of the most talented people in metal. This long-awaited debut LP (read: first release since an outstanding demo in 2021) is everything hoped for and more from the mega-technical brutal death aliens. Every time I listen to this I catch new and cooler things I missed on previous spins, and I don’t expect that to stop because Fragmentation // Stratagem is outrageously dense with preposterously complex fretboard-scaling licks. The accessibility bar is on the higher side, but once these meter-shifting, rhythm-twisting, black hole-heavy riffs get in your ears you won’t be able to put them down.
8 Blindfolded and Led to the Woods – Rejecting Obliteration
At its best, dissonant and avant-garde death metal can embody a spirit or a feeling while simultaneously delivering all of the bonecrunching goodness that we love from death metal. BaLttW have mastered this, with Rejecting Obliteration’s human elements shining through its oddball riffs. Uneasiness and manic energy juxtaposed against a search for beauty amongst violence and rage, this album feels remarkably like a portrait of a struggling mind. Daring and eccentric but grounded, this one will crush you in more ways than one.
7 Fardeaux – The Den Has Become an Abyss
This one was a hell of a surprise, an on-a-whim listen that I tried with no background at all. Hailing from France, this duo have delivered a menacing yet thoughtful take on black/death here on their debut LP. Philosophical paragraphs of prose and dialogue make up the highly narrative lyrics, full-throated vocals roaring above swirling, driving, hard-edged tumult. There are moments of surprising beauty and even some powerful clean vocals, but most of The Den is ominously dark and quite striking. Looking forward to more from Fardeaux, hopefully soon.
6 Anachronism – Meanders
This, though, was the biggest surprise of the year for me so far. The Swiss trio’s third LP is an absolute stunner, with a fitting name: Meanders describes so much of their vision and sound, riffs and lines flowing and crawling across one another like rivulets and streams in a rainstorm. It’s exploratory and organic, impressively technical, and helped along by home-recorded(!) production that feels visceral and present, perfectly suited to the music. Twisting brutality gives way to shimmering progressive calm and improvisatory noodling and more thick tangles of riffage; you simply have to hear it.
5 Firienholt – White Frost and Elder Blood
In the surprisingly sizable landscape of Summoning-core there are many bands that feel suitably epic and warlike. What so many forget to include is the warmth and magic that make fantasy realms so appealing. Firienholt, though, imbues every moment with folksy charm and a myth-like warmth, so that even the iciest passages of black metal influence feel exciting and enchanting. White Frost and Elder Blood is easily my most-played album of 2023 so far because it’s just so goddamn delightful, the kind of listen you can endlessly return to, losing yourself in its melodies and folk rhythms.
4 Nothingness – Supraliminal
I don’t think anyone disputes that this album is very good, but I feel like I’m a good deal higher on it than some others in the online metal sphere. I just don’t know how you could not have Supraliminal among the very best of the year, with its explosive package of enormous ugly riffage and hideous audio violence. Nothingness riffs balance groovy chunk against vicious spurred barbs and spacey tendrils. The songs are memorable and never feel samey. The production is spot on. There’s more threatening dissonance than your average death metal, and the tracks feel meaner as a result. Replayability off the charts! Put some respect on Nothingness’ name.
3 Afsky – Om hundrede år
I’ve found Afsky on the later side, stumbling across them in 2020 when Ofte jeg drømmer mig død came out and falling immediately in love and exploring the older EP and debut LP. Om hundrede år is easily Ole Pederson Luk’s finest work yet, though; nobody does this style of hazy, folk-influenced black metal better. The overall sound is nothing short of picturesque, but it’s the simple things that make this so great. The mournful bits of acoustic guitar and the way the riffs organically grow from one another. There’s a triumphant moment in “Tak for alt” that swept me up so unexpectedly I got choked up. The album is exquisite.
2 Victory Over the Sun – Dance You Monster to My Soft Song!
Remember when I said Krallice is miles away from what anyone else in black metal was doing? Vivian Tylińska’s Victory Over the Sun is equally far out there, just in a different direction. Pulling from a massively diverse array of influences snd weaving in non-standard instrumentation through wide-scope progressive song structures, it’s mindboggling that the album works so seamlessly, and yet it does far more than just work. This is true avant-garde, exploratory music that doesn’t simply push the boundaries; it reaches beyond those boundaries and moves the soul.
1 Ulthar – Anthronomicon / Helionomicon
Just refer back to my review of these bad boys for the nitty-gritty, but in a nutshell: Anthronomicon and Helionomicon are twin masterpieces, showcasing a large-scale yet focused vision through opposing approaches to song composition. They feature outstanding performances, intricate yet brutal and efficient songwriting, and flawless production on 80 minutes of riffs so alien you could never mistake them for another band’s material, but that somehow feel organic and grounded enough to pulverize. I can’t find a single nit to pick on either record, and I can’t find a way to put one ahead of the other, so here they sit together. They’re a monumental achievement, and it’ll be a lofty task for the releases of 2023’s back half to topple Ulthar from my AOTY pillar.