It seems that with each twelve month turnover, the task we set our journalists of choosing just three of their favourite albums from the year gone gets ever crueller. But that was the challenge, and accept it they did with honour. Here are the results from the selection process, after much listening and deliberation, as Heathen Harvest presents our Best Of for the third year running.
Overwhelming in splendour and magniloquence, the Bavarians have recaptured the spirit of the glory days of epic heavy metal and married it to an intelligent discourse on the mythopoeic heritage of Europe. Listening to it in full is a legitimately humbling experience, such is the bravado of the performances and the integrity and scale of the songwriting. A masterpiece that takes metal back to its roots and finds profundity and beauty amidst the bombast and the bludgeoning.
2. Deafheaven – “Sunbather”
Deafheaven’s sophomore outing seems to have caused a schism among black metal fans due to allegations of it somehow having softened or gentrified that genre’s inhospitable sound. Balderdash. It’s a work of mercurial, abstract brilliance that generates poignancy from its reconciliation of opposites. A locus point of empathy and warmth resides within a constantly shifting aural storm, re-emerging stronger and brighter. There’s sensitivity and truth in Sunbather that bellyaching over genre boundaries can’t lessen.
3. The Fall of Every Season – “Amends”
Melodic death metal / doom metal
Amends would earn its place on my list for the transcendental “Aurelia” alone – that the other four tracks are almost as brilliant just sweetens the deal. Balmy, romantic and immersive without ever compromising its heft or delving into maudlin territory, it’s a sublime portrait of isolation in musical form. That it was the work of one man makes sense, despite being desperately unfair to other musicians.
Gorguts made a triumphant comeback with ‘Colored Sands’, which was released by Season of Mist Records in August this year. It is a musical odyssey that ventures into Tibet, and unveils a rapturous saga of the afflictions caused to its natives by China’s barbaric, communist regime. Right from the first track “Le Toit du Monde” to the album’s finale, “Reduced to Silence” the listener is engaged in an enthralling story that encompasses tales of wisdom, compassion and sorrow. Combining their trademark sound with progressive, avant-garde structures à la Deathspell Omega, Gorguts have successfully registered Colored Sands as an unparalleled album in the annals of death metal. Therefore, it deserves the top spot in my list.
2. Ulcerate – “Vermis”
Technical death metal
Auckland based experimental death metal stalwarts Ulcerate released their fourth full length album entitled “Vermis” on Relapse Records in September 2013. It is undoubtedly their most ambitious effort till date. If albums like ‘Everything is Fire’ and ‘The Destroyers of All’ were difficult to grasp at once, ‘Vermis’ is a compendium of atonal riffing and technical complexities that demand unwavering attention from the listener. No death metal band comes closer to Ulcerate in sound and vision, and even a seasoned campaigner like Luc Lemay acknowledges this truth.
3. Lustmord – “The Word as Power”
Lustmord’s ‘The Word as Power’ is an evocative, one hour long, ambient masterpiece that explores ‘sound as ritual, without dogma’. It is the first album in Brian’s illustrious discography that extensively uses vocals as the music’s driving force. Featuring the diverse and ritually inclined vocals of James Keenan, Jarboe, Sorieh and Aina Olsen, ‘The Word as Power’ marks a new dawn in Lustmord’s pioneering career which has spawned for three decades. It is a remarkable album which is bound to stay in my playlist for a long time.
Empyrium’s Into the Pantheon is a masterpiece of performance and production. In a time where live releases seem meaningless, due in no small part to the ubiquity of cameras and audio recorders in our lives, Empyrium has managed to craft a live release that truly sets itself apart. From the lineup, (including Alcest’s Neige and Fursy Teyssier of Les Discrets) to the performance, to the clarity of the sound (the last held violin stroke in “Die Schwäne im Schilf” is goose bump inducing) and the beautiful high definition filming come together in a truly amazing package. This release has allowed me to dive headlong into their back catalogue for the first time, which has been incredibly inspiring.
Empyrium is Romantic poetry in musical form. Songs like “Where the Wood Grouse Plays at Night” or “Many Moons Ago…” share the power, subtly and fragility of the works Coleridge or Goethe. To see and hear this spirit continue in our time is most welcome. Here’s to their return!
2. Sadhaka – “Terma”
Atmospheric black metal
Sadhaka’s first release is a vastly underrated journey of Vajrayana inspired black metal. Terma is a dynamic album, as melodic as it is harsh. The album demonstrates that Sadhaka are masters of long-form song writing. Each song has enough repetition to ease one close to a trance state, but enough variation to keep the listener’s senses piqued. Their live performance is a truly cathartic experience and Terma communicates Sadhaka’s intensity and passion like few albums are able to.
3. Wolvserpent – “Perigaea Antahkarana”
Doom metal / black metal
The concept behind Wolvserpent’s unique way of composition doesn’t seem like it would work well at first. Being a two-piece consisting of guitar and drums, they rely heavily on loops and samples to build thick atmospheres of transcendent doom-fog and produce a sound that seems much greater than one two musicians could normally create. Anyone who witnessed the band prior to the recording of this album will know that they didn’t use much studio wizardry on the recording either; what you hear is all replicated live with very little, if anything, lost.
Perigaea Antahkarana is a perfect example of unique songwriting, archaic aesthetic and use of unorthodox technology to bring it to life. As is common for many bands, Wolvserpent’s first albums serve as building points, but Perigaea Antahkarana is the kind of record they exist to make.
Mad cackling, sounds of thunder and other delightful details make for one of the most interesting albums of the year. On the field of Black Metal, one sometimes gets the feeling that it’s all been done a thousand times before- but with “Henbane”, Cultes des Ghoules proofs that there still are a couple of tombstones left to turn. With tunes fit for the insane, this album rubs my witchy cultist fantasies in just the right way. Definitely a keeper and a sure addition to my record shelf.
2. Summoning – “Old Mornings Dawn”
Atmospheric black metal
Summoning is one of those bands that I don’t ever seem to tire of. Excellent vocals, epic atmosphere inspired by the writings of Tolkien and carefully executed tracks make for great material for travelling in time and space.
With Old Mornings Dawn, Summoning takes a small step back and returns to a atmosphere that I connect more to their earlier records. Stellar tracks such as “Old Mornings Dawn”, “Flammifer” and “Of Pale White Morns and Darkened Eves” show how this release maintains the clear sound of the latest Summoning records without feeling clinical or flat.
3. Wardruna – “Yggdrasil”
Nordic folk / dark folk
The second release of Wardruna’s trilogy, Yggdrasil, stirs up further runic mysteries from the cosmic well. A variety of instruments, much of them traditional, create a very believable pagan-inspired atmosphere in the vein of ancient Scandinavia. Lindy-Fay Hella’s beautiful elven vocals awaken half-submerged memories of times gone past, and with this images begin to flash through my mind- torches, patches of sunlight on the trunks of trees, circles of mushrooms and long, dark halls where obscure figures move, clad in finery. The best moments on the album come at the end, though- as Helvegen begins with its dreamy, slow gallop, one is carried to the halls of Hel. The album ends in a always-as-beautiful quote from Havamál, contemplating the inevitability of death.
Tesseract’s “One” debut from 2010 was a step down from their EP. Unnecessarily complex and with grating harsh vocals that were more of a nod to the djent genre that their own natural sound, things could have been better for the British four-piece. Then, in a move which was sure to divide their fanbase, the harsh vocals were scrapped altogether for their 2013 follow-up in favour of a purely clean vocal sound from new singer Ashe O’Hara. The result was a tremendous step up for the band and Altered State, in tandem with much improved songwriting, came across as one of the very best things to happen to progressive metal in a long time through its mixture of fresh prog inventiveness, aggression, and constantly altering song structures which hook the listener throughout. A well-needed revision of the progressive metal ethos, Altered State was the best surprise of 2013, amassing multiple plays all through the year.
2. Fates Warning – “Darkness In A Different Light”
A new Fates Warning album was always going to be something special, especially since this band was solely responsible for igniting my interest in progressive metal many years ago. Darkness in a Different Light is their first album for nine years, and no quality seems to be have been lost in that time. FW have stayed true to the soundbase they’ve crafted for themselves over the decades, and DIADL contains no florid experimentation, no deviating from the known formula, just another excellent addition to their catalogue. The title is especially relevant since as we all gradually age and retain an obsession with dark music and art, we start seeing darkness in places we’ve never done so before. An honourable addition to the end of year list, listening to the latest Fates is such a welcome experience it’s like coming home.
3. Driss el Maloumi – “Makan”
Arabic classical / world
I read one German magazine describe the cover photo for this album as ‘frumpy’, which seems rather accurate. Thankfully, this is another of those occasions where you can’t judge an album by its artwork. I fell in love with Maloumi’s oud playing after hearing his work with Hesperion XXI, and out of all the styles from the Middle East I’ve come across no-one has the same level of texture, feeling, emotion and understanding of the strings as he does. Makan is mostly an instrumental work where the oud very much takes centre stage, though the subtle darbuka percussion adds a very important, almost progressive, ingredient to the pace of the tracks here. An album full of variety, mystique – and above all – natural talent; many Autumn nights were spent listening to the strains of Makan from Maloumi and co.
Narrowing down my 3 “favorite” releases for any year is near impossible. The fact that 2013 has been an absolute treasure for music makes this year even worse. Amazing releases by old, current, and recent acts assured this was a to be a Herculean task.
So I decided to ask myself, what qualifies “favorite” anyways? Is it simply the albums I listened to most? Do the albums by bands I assumed would put out great releases take precedent? Do demos count? Re-releases? These would certainly be different lists than say one where I list my most surprising finds of 2013. So I just decided that I’d go three different routes to tell a small fraction of my soundtrack for 2013.
1. Portal – “Vexovoid”
Yet another absolute whirlwind. Punishingly heavy and off-kilter, this album is 35 minutes of sheer angular shredding and death / black terror. With brilliance being the norm, it was hard to expect anything else, but Vexovoid really triumphs where it has dialed back. This is easily the most “accessible” Portal record to date, but likely because the band has hit their stride. They’ve figured out how to augment their madness just right to achieve a sound only they could.
Hoped it would be great, and it was:
2. Lost Trail – “Holy Ring of Chalk”
If you read my review, you know I basically stumbled upon this by searching the site of a label I adore. With an arresting description, I bought without hearing and it was the best surprise purchase I made all year. Likely the most beautiful drone album of 2013; it is wonderfully haunted, hopeful, and organic. Holy Ring of Chalk is a mysterious venture into springtime rebirth in rural America.
Where did this come from:
3. Goyim – “Worthless Light”
Noise / black metal
The most recent of 3 demos released by this brand new band / project (?). I can’t find much about them except their BandCamp, but I don’t need to know much. All three demos are good, but Worthless Light steps up every noteworthy aspect of the band. Utterly insane black metal and noise fills every hissy, lo-fi second. Parts Utarm, Sutekh Hexen, and Gates, this bores into the mind and sets up shop. My absolute favorite “what IS this?” moment of the year.
For a band to be together producing music for fifteen years without ever having performed live is one thing,but to then assemble a cast of musicians: Konstanz (The Vision Bleak), Neige (Alcest), Eviga (Dornenreich), Fursy Teyssier (Les Discrets), Aline Deinert (Neun Welten) and Christoph Kutzer (Remember Twilight), to perform tracks from every phase of their career sounds a bit risky to say the least, granted all of the musicians involved are more than capable of playing their instruments with their own bands, not as Empyrium…a band that has never performed live.
Fortunately for all parties involved in the realization of this live event the stars were on their side, because from beginning to end this release, in its execution, presentation, and production lacks nothing, it is perfect from beginning to end. Clearly the world was on their side that evening. This concert is the product of professional musicians taking a risk and giving everything they have to bring a dream into reality.
2. VA/The Post Romantic Empire Ensemble –
“The Post Romantic Empire Album”
When I first read about this release, the tracks that were going to be on it and then which artists were involved I wasn’t sure what to think, except that once I saw Peter Hook, Annabella, David Tibet, Matt Howden and Little Annie Bandez on the list of artists taking part my interest was automatically piqued. Mind you there are only six songs; Love Will Tear Us Apart, Dreams Never End, The House Of The Rising Sun *, The Story Of Shéhérazade Or / Ou Le Triomphe De L’Amour Sur La Haine, Annarella, and Love Will Tear Us Apart (Elegy Version).
With The House Of The Rising Sun we also get a Woodie Guthrie favourite: Little Black Train with Little Annie Bandez cranking out some serious emotion. This is essentially a supergroup, this release could have done two things; fall on deaf ears and go unheard, or slowly gain momentum, and in turn gain a larger listening audience, one that appreciates the sheer brilliance of these assembled stars.
3. Almagest – “Messier Objects”
Experimental / Modern Classical
“Creativity, vision and experimentation are three criteria which should always be present in the arts. This triumvirate should always be supported, applauded, and nurtured, a true artist will never minimize and dilute their artistic vision and what they are trying to achieve in order to make their work more accessible to a larger audience.”
The above quote sums up why I have chosen these three releases as my ‘best of two-thousand-and-thirteen’.
New musical terrains and boundaries need to be explored, and traversed. Having a vision, as well as possessing the technical ability to bring ones ideas to fruition as an artist will allow one to incorporate and distill various genres and influences, however disparate these strains may seem at the outset, talent, technical ability and above all; artistry and true creativity will ensure that the final production develops into a cohesive whole. Music is a language, it is a language that has the ability to convey the full range of human emotions once transmitted, and received.
Almagest have realised their vision on this release and in doing so have solidified their place in the pantheon of the arts.
What came as an unexpected surprise somehow managed to dominate the majority of my 2013. Scout Pare-Phillips broke forth her own legacy with an ethereal declaration of visceral vulnerability and unavoidable beauty. Power in sorrow and purity guided the hand that crafted Fields of Ash/In The End and each song delivers a potency that forces one into submission. It is a spark of what lies ahead; however, if the spark alone can dictate such a place among the elite then what chance do we have after the spark has caught into a blaze? Let it consume through sheer touching musicality and sublime voice. Certainly, above all, brace yourselves for what must inevitably be yet to come. There are isolated pockets of confirmation that neofolk has a strong future, but the genre must mutate and evolve to stay alive. Here is living, breathing proof of its survival.
2. Lamia Vox – “Sigilum Diaboli”
It is rare that such a deep glimpse into authentic sinister practice be made available, let alone actually assume the listener into the grand scheme of a focused work. For it is through the stunning Sigilum Diaboli that Russia’s necrosophic dark ambient magickian, Lamia Vox, offers a synthesis of everything pitch black, evocative, and draconian. A powerful tension between martial triumph and ultimate self-liberation ebbs and flows throughout – one using the other as its own reflective shadow. Bombastic darkness and spectral chanting whispers from the aether to usher in a reformative metamorphosis of the inner being. Tearing through all of the restrictions of self, society, and imposed mandated spirituality is the only way to achieve this new existence. Reinforcing death on a literal and symbolic level.
3. Kinit Her – “The Poet & The Blue Flower”
Neofolk / Experimental
A formless, living example of forgotten transcendence and elation found its way into this temporal plane of existence. It is what we have come to know from the Wisconsonian olde worlde shamans in Kinit Her, but each and every offering presents another unexpected verse in a growing, esoteric body of work. Whereas 2012’s Storm of Radiance charmed with a biting darkness and profound solemnity, The Poet & The Blue Flower finds a collective of a different demeanor. This time around, the usual cacophony and frenzy lends itself to joyous celebration: a crack of levity to peer through towards the light. An exercise in beauty and serenity – an exchange for the sharp stoicism of the past, but still imagined through the utmost unique filter, undeniably Kinit Her.
Honourable Mentions: Et Nihil – Onus – Unfortunately I did not get the pleasure to hear this album in full at the time of this writing, but without a doubt it would have a place on this list; I.Corax – Cella Phantasma; Wardruna – Yggdrasil
Profoundly emotional, dramatic, and sincere, Wardruna came out of the dark to represent something with 2009’s Gap Var Ginnunga that left many fans of modern folk music stunned, if not absolutely speechless. Many of us indeed found ourselves lost for words as we were left to wonder if they would ever return with a new album, let alone top the debut. However, after a four year absence, Wardruna have effectively raised the bar once again with “Yggdrasil”, leaving the admired music of some of their contemporaries lacking in retrospect. Invoking muses from the ethereal nature of the Scandinavian landscapes and waterways, the power of the Nordic tradition, and the mystery of the Runes, Yggdrasil, in exquisite detail, perfectly captures everything that is beautiful about the Heathen roots of Northern Europe.
2. Ulver with the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra –
Modern classical / ambient
Ulver have truly become a legendary and unpredictable beast. Emerging with a new mask with every album, Ulver have never ceased to amaze their fans through every new guise that they bear, always maintaining an outstanding level of quality despite how defiantly different one piece may be from its predecessors. Though their collaboration with the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra may not be a sound that has thus far been completely foreign to the project’s many experiments, it offers an all new, orchestrated approach and atmosphere that is every bit as devastatingly emotive as Shadows of the Sun and arguably just as inspired. This is one of the most important artists of our generation, and twenty years later, they are still capturing my heart and imagination in ways that few others even come close to.
3. Sigur Rós – “Kveikur”
Was anyone else really that surprised that after the departure of Kjartan Sveinsson and a seemingly endless (and ultimately well-founded) compiling of complaints regarding the project’s 2012 release of Valtari, Sigur Rós would be back almost immediately with renewed vigor? The static and unsettling opening feedback swells and percussive accents immediately told us that we were about to enter into a new era, and from the moment that the words to “Brennisteinn” rolled off of Jónsi Birgisson’s frozen Icelandic tongue, I once again felt the embrace of their haunting, now strangely rhythmic, otherworld. It wasn’t so long ago that I feared that Sigur Rós were facing their final days — little did I know that they were simply shedding their skin; an incredible rebirth.
Honourable mentions: Vàli – Skogslandskap; Position Parallèle – Néons Blancs; Darkwood – Schicksalsfahrt; All my Faith Lost… – Chamber Music; Kinit Her – The Poet & the Blue Flower; En Nihil – The Approaching Dark; Worms of the Earth – Azal’ucel
A few lost and forgotten songs proved to be the dawn of something bloody amazing. Aura Negativ is another proof that ambient music can be so much more than meets the senses. With a minimal yet majestic atmosphere and melodies so laden with feeling they could almost soar, Eöl enchants the listeners with yet another amazing album of dark and fantastic music. The journeys inscribed in these songs bring you through endless dark spaces under the mighty Aurora’s bleeding light and never once do you look back upon what you left behind. The end of the year draws near and Aura Negativ is a given companion to the Yuletide meditation.
2. Chris Hülsbeck – “Turrican Soundtrack Anthology”
Video game OST
What would my mad Yuletide top three be without a kick ass soundtrack on the list? What begun as a spontaneous crowdfunding project ended up to be one of the most awesome anthologies in the history of man. The videogame music of today has gone into a more epic live orchestrated formula but if you worked as a composer in the frosty unforgiving 80s or 90s you had a gritty synthesiser, a limited sampler and your own ingenuity to aid you. Chris Hülsbeck is one of the pioneers in this area and his work on the Turrican soundtrack the stuff of legends, a legend that was reignited in this 4 album anthology of pure win. This album weaves joy and wonder to my heart. It is an overdose in digital, catchy as hell music that weaves a nostalgic web over an aged cyberpunk such as me. An excellent album to enjoy while a robotic kill team break down the door to your suburban bunker in search for survivors of the first synthetic rebellion.
3. Pouppée Fabrikk – “The Dirt”
Pouppée Fabrikk is one of Sweden’s most well-known electronic acts and their new album The Dirt was a fresh blast from the past. This is a wave of pure unrelenting electronic body music in its most primitive form, nothing more, nothing less. It is an unleashed and blooded beast of an album that really sweeps away all challengers with its volatile beats, brutal melodies and caustic vocals. This is the perfect soundtrack when you are grinding yourself through the reeking human cesspool that is civilisation on your way to another day’s slavery in the pits. A much needed comeback of a titan from the olden days to challenge all the stagnation that is modern arena house. Bring back the ways of old!