2013, bill ward, black sabbath, century media, ghost b.c., heavy metal, intronaut, loma vista recordings, metal blade records, nuclear blast records, orchid, ozzy osbourne, the ocean, tony iommi, vertigo records, witchraft
2013 is behind us, and we even have a couple weeks of historical distance from it. Historical distance is critical, and it’s especially so for me when I’m getting to know new music, even from bands I already like. I have to let new stuff marinate for awhile before I accept it. Below is a list of six new metal albums from 2013 that I really came to enjoy this year, in no particular order. The most common theme running through them is retro sound – Sabbath came back from the grave to release their first original album with Ozzy Osbourne since 1978’s Never Say Die!, Ghost and Orchid not only sound retro but consciously emulate specific older bands, and Witchcraft is a throwback to 70s hard rock. In a sense this theme reflects my own tastes, but it’s also symptomatic of a wider trend in the genre to revisit times, instruments, and styles from a bygone era. Perhaps this is because of the ProTools-driven overproduction and regression to the mean experienced across musical genres in the last decade has sparked a search for something that sounds more analog, more alive. Anyway, here goes. Albums are linked to Spotify and iTunes if you care to sample or purchase them.
Black Sabbath – 13
When this album came out in the summer my first tastings of it struck me as “just ok.” After coming back to it over the holidays with a couple months off, it had grown on me insidiously. 13 was controversial since the original Sabbath lineup failed to reunite in totality – original drummer Bill Ward had to be subbed for Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk after various disputes. This makes me sad because I love Bill Ward and he’s been a big influence on me as a drummer, but if I’m perfectly honest I’m glad the album was recorded. I wanted a new original album with Ozzy more than I wanted it to have the exact original lineup. Ronnie James Dio long ago proved that the only irreplaceable member of the band is Tony Iommi. 13 is right in many ways. It is a relevant album in the way the old Sabbath ones were – theodicy, war, and existential angst are perennial issues, after all. The first two tracks, “End of the Beginning” and “God is Dead?” are 8-minute epics that take you through several changes of pace. The latter may be the most complete song on the album. When the riff kicks in with “Nowhere to run / nowhere to hide…” around 6:30, your head will nod involuntarily. “Methademic” adds an important installment to Sabbath’s drug-use cycle of material, and to the surprise of no one, “Sweet Leaf” will carry on being the only Sabbath track that speaks positively of drug experiences (see: Hand of Doom, Snowblind, Faeries Wear Boots, Killing Yourself to Live). This is a great album. I feel comfortable saying it’s better than Never Say Die! and Technical Ecstasy and maybe even Sabotage. Tony Iommi once said in an interview that he has thousands of riffs living in his head and it’s virtually impossible for him to run out of creative material on that front. The Rifflord has risen again – 13 is packed with killer, classic Iommi stuff guaranteed to get your head a-bangin’.
Favorite Track: “Damaged Soul.” This is the band at its best – plodding pace that lets Geezer Butler and Brad Wilk really hammer you with rhythms, bluesy vibe for Tony Iommi to shape and mold, haunting tones and themes for Ozzy to ice the cake.
Vertigo Records – 13 on iTunes
Orchid – The Mouths of Madness
Orchid does one thing, and they do it very well: sound like Black Sabbath. When you start playing the title track to this album, you will have difficulty realizing you’re not listening to Sabbath. They’re named after the Sabbath song “Orchid,” after all, and their American vocalist Theo Mindell even does a pretty good job of sounding like he grew up amidst the steel mills of Birmingham, England. “Marching Dogs of War” is a great song that echoes the eerie opening sirens of “Warpigs.” When the harmonica wails kick in later in the song, you’ll find yourself into the same bluesy lode that Sabbath tapped into so many years ago. Orchid is a great band in their own right, though. In fact, until 13 was released, it would have been fair to say that Orchid was better at being Black Sabbath than Black Sabbath was. Even the original metal masters sort of lost their creative direction after the first four years of material they produced. Orchid shows that there’s still water in that well.
Favorite Track: “The Loving Hand of God.” Part of emulating Sabbath is writing songs about theodicy. This song definitely checks that box. Its slow tempo fills you with foreboding and the subject matter is truly dark. All the right ingredients are here to create diabolus in musica and leave you wondering “should I really be listening to this?”
Nuclear Blast Records – The Mouths of Madness on iTunes
The Ocean – Pelagial
This album really hit me in the face. It’s a change of pace that I think non-metal fans might find enjoyable in parts. I hadn’t ever listened to German outfit The Ocean before I discovered it, and I was hooked from the first play. Pelagial is a concept album that takes the listener through the various layers of the ocean (you sense a theme here). The intro “Epipelagic” is a watery, atmospheric piano piece that transitions smoothly into the really incredible opening track “Mesopelagic: Into the Uncanny,” which blends strings and progressive metal together. Lead singer Loïc Rossetti has an incredible range of styles. This album feels like if early Incubus (I confess to enjoying their stuff) had ditched the turntables for a more progressive metal direction but kept their ethereal funk. As an added bonus, The Ocean released this album doubled with instrumental-only tracks. I absolutely love it when bands do this, because it becomes great work music (it’s hard for me to concentrate hard on other stuff when I’m listening to lyrical music). I look forward to getting to know this band and their back catalog better.
Favorite Track: “Mesopelagic: Into the Uncanny” if I didn’t already give that away. This song does a great job of building – from mysterious strings to soaring guitar lines to frenetic technical breakdowns.
Metal Blade Records – Pelagial on iTunes
Witchcraft – Legend
Swedish outfit Witchcraft play an infectious brand of retro hard rock mixed with classic heavy metal and psychedelic elements. Lead singer Magnus Pelander sounds like Bad Company’s Paul Rogers mixed with Tool’s Maynard James Keenan. It’s a really excellent combination. This album is listenable for both metal fans and non-metal fans alike. Parts of it are downright chill (“Flag of Fate” has a gentle tempo but plenty of sauce nonetheless), while others pummel you (“It’s Not Because of You”) or drive you (“Deconstruction”). Witchcraft is one of those bands that would be getting mainstream airplay if we lived in a sane and just world, because there’s tons to like here for a broad range of people. The band blends multiple styles that well. Do yourself a favor and give them a listen. The album artwork is even great!
Favorite Track: “Deconstruction.” This song is an absolute banger. The tempo gear-shifting, the well-written riffs, the soulful vocals – it has everything. You’ll be fist-pumping for sure.
Nuclear Blast Records – Legend on iTunes
Intronaut – Habitual Levitations
I know I already made a Tool reference, but not since Tool have I dug on a band’s polyrhythms as much as I did with Intronaut’s. If you like rhythms and grooves, you’ll like Intronaut. They go over ALL the barlines. They manage impacts and textures almost like a Djent band, but there is much more nuance on offer here. The opening track, “Killing Birds with Stones” is an 8-minute epic of layered grooves, clean and harsh vocals, moody interludes and surging riffs. When the song falls away around 3:00 and the layers of the groove start building up, you’ll be nodding along without question. Habitual Levitations is another introductory album for me, as with The Ocean. Intronaut’s grooves are so catchy I was easily hooked.
Favorite Track: “Milk Leg”. Can’t get enough of that on the beat/off the beat chuggity chug groove. The bass-line is really worth your attention as well.
Century Media – Habitual Levitations on iTunes
Ghost – Infestissumam
I anticipated this album more than any other here beyond Sabbath, because Ghost’s first album, Opus Eponymous, just floored me when I first heard it. Ghost has exploded on the metal scene in the past couple of years, even gaining mainstream attention as evidenced by their extensive collaborations with The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. The Linköping, Sweden (big year for Sweden on this list!) outfit are pure occult metal nonsense. Ghost is just fun. They sound like Blue Oyster Cult mixed with Mercyful Fate and various other bands at times – Judas Priest, The Beach Boys. Oh, and did I mention they dress up like demons and hide their identities, officially appearing only as skeleton-faced “Papa Emeritus II” on vocals and his band of “Nameless Ghouls.” Their live shows are insane – liturgical incense, cathedral arches, the works. Infestissumam (Latin for “the greatest threat”) opens with a Latin chant and transitions into a driving opening number “Per Aspera ad Inferi” (“through hardship to hell,” a play on the popular slogan Per Aspera ad Astra “- to the stars”). Infestissumam is perhaps a lighter record than Ghost’s first, but it’s great nonetheless, and it has a broader range of musical styles built in. The album loosely tells the story of the birth of Antichrist (the religious may find Ghost off-putting, sure, but it’s difficult to approach 6 men in skeleton suits with total seriousness. Tongues would be firmly in cheeks here, but all soft tissue has long since decayed and rotted away). The album’s two anthemic tracks are “Secular Haze” and “Year Zero,” while “Jiggolo Har Megiddo” and “Idolatrine” are so catchy they’ll be stuck in your head for days. Also be sure to check out Ghost’s cover of ABBA’s (Sweden again!) “I’m a Marionette,” which features Dave Grohl on drums. Did I mention this album was recorded in Nashville?
Favorite Track: I have so many, but I guess “Year Zero.” The disco-influenced, drum n’ bass on the downbeat, devil-chanting aspects of this song make a mean goulash. Any song that starts with a choir intoning “BELIAL. BEHEMOTH. BEELZEBUB. ASMODEUS. SATHANUS. LUCIFER.” will grab your attention. It’s occult metal nonsense at its best.
Loma Vista Recordings – Infestissumam on iTunes