The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2013 // Part One: The Songs

And farewell to another year that’s flown by too quickly. Of course that means its time for anyone and everyone in metal writing, print or digital, to indulge their egos a bit and draft up their end of year lists. Now most writers will never own up to it but I’m a rather shameless sort, and will freely admit that I love creating these lists. I put an inordinate amount of thought into drafting them and end up changing around the entries and numerical ordering countless times before I ever hit publish. Self-indulgent? Absolutely. But I also hope that people who in anyway remotely enjoy reading what I write will check out my lists as a way to get into bands or albums they’ve not heard before. That’s ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing about music, expressing your enthusiasm and passion for something to others and hoping they’ll hear what you hear.

 

As you can see from the title, to make everything more readable, I’m separating the best songs and albums of 2013 into separate articles (the albums list is on it’s way soon). Of course, some bands will overlap on both lists, with undeniable crowning jewels from great records being represented, but doing this separate list for just songs alone allows for a spotlight to be shined on those songs that were gems on releases that may not have necessarily made the best albums of the year cut. Anyway to quote Marti DeBergi, “Enough of my yakking”!

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2013:

 

1. Darkthrone – “Leave No Cross Unturned” (from the album The Underground Resistance)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0tsFqTulM8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

The extent to which this song towered over the rest of the tracks from Darkthrone’s excellent The Underground Resistance is such that whenever I think upon that album, the monstrous, cyclonic riff that anchors this battleship of a song is the ONLY thing that comes to mind. This song, more than any other released this year by anyone else epitomizes to me the pure, untarnished, unapologetic, hell bent for leather spirit of metal as I know it and have grown up loving. Its not just the King Diamond-esque vocals from Fenriz that encompass so much of this thirteen minute long epic, or the brutal series of incredible, bone shaking riffs one after another courtesy of Nocturno Culto seemingly on a mission to destroy, or the slammingly heavy midsection bridge at 4:24 —- its everything all together. I contend, with some expectation of hatred at the very idea, that this is Darkthrone’s heaviest song to date.

 

Its typical of Darthrone’s contrary spirit then that this song could only come now, many albums past Darkthrone’s turning of their backs on the traditional black metal sound. They’ve also moved on past the crust punk/black n’ roll they dabbled in for some years and have seemingly embraced traditional heavy metal. Gone too are the murky, muddled productions of past albums, replaced here by a crispness and clarity never before heard with Darkthrone music. There are some out there that speculate that these guys are taking the piss, purposefully trolling the black metal fans with their current musical incarnation. I reject those notions out of hand not only because the band have come across as rather earnest about their current direction in interviews, but simply because music that sounds this genuinely in love with heavy metal in all its ugly glory doesn’t know the meaning of irony.

 

 


2. Amorphis – “Hopeless Days” (from the album Circle)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdKt1aw4BK8&w=560&h=315]

 

The shining gem on Amorphis’ 2013 effort, “Hopeless Days” is everything you’d want in a song built in this particular style of depressive, melancholic metallic hard rock. There were quite a few good songs on that record, but none as powerful and churning with dramatic ache as this one. Powerful percussion ushers you along over a bed of building riffs that explode in a supremely catchy chorus all whilst elegantly tinkling piano plays underneath —- a subtle yet brilliant juxtaposition. Vocalist Tomi Joutsen delivers his best vocal and lyric during this emotionally stirring moment: “I was born a captive / A captive of the night / In between / Hopeless days”.  Gotta love the scale climbing guitar lines that kick in during and after the solo —- Esa Holopainen might just be the most underrated guitarist coming out of Finland right now. When Sentenced called it a day in 2005, I was worried that my supply of this type of rock inflected metal would dry up, but there seems to be a strong contingent of bands working in the same medium, Amorphis amongst the best of them. My iTunes count says I’ve played this song alone 79 times while the rest of the album’s songs sit at 30-40 (sometimes I wonder if the iTunes play counts of writers from taste maker websites would really back up their best metal of the year lists). Play count 80 starting…NOW!

 

 

3. Orphaned Land – “All Is One” / “Brother” (from the album All Is One)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bds3FALcR7M&w=280&h=225] [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsPb1-uPIic&w=280&h=225]

 

How can two songs take one spot? Because they are to me inseparable, both in my mind as representations of my favorite moments on Orphaned Land’s surprisingly great All Is One album, and as micro representations of the core of the band’s progression through simplification both musically and lyrically. With the title track serving as both the lead off single and first song on the album track listing proper, Orphaned Land in four minutes and thirty seconds crafted a brilliant, euphoria inducing epic that perfectly encompassed their spiritual ideology (agree or disagree with it). What makes the song truly effective however are not just the direct, declarative lyrics, or the artfully done Middle Eastern instrumentation —- but the band’s embrace of clear, anthemic melodies and hair raising choral vocals ala Blind Guardian during the chorus. The infusion of that particular kind of power metal element is new for the band, as is their shift to a leaner, more direct method of songwriting, a complete 180 from the complex progressive metal of their last two records.

 

These newly embraced principles work to possibly greater effect on “Brother”, where singer Kobi Farhi’s inspired lyrics threaten to overshadow some truly great music going on underneath. The lyrics, as widely discussed by now, are intended to be the words of Issac to his brother Ishmael. Its a gutsy song for an Israeli to write, let alone record and perform on stage, as it’s lyrics essentially serve as an extended metaphor of the relationship between Jews and Muslims, brother faiths of the same Abrahamic father. Its a heavyweight topic to tackle but here its done with elegance, subtle apologetic notes, and a passionate vocal courtesy of Farhi that registers as the album’s highlight moment. The beautiful guitar interplay of Yossi Sassi and Chen Balbus that is to be found all throughout this album is the band’s best to date, particularly during the instrumental section where the guitars kick into an almost Slash-esque mellow solo. The band delivered an incredible one-two punch with both of these songs, and managed to wrangle an old fan like me back into the fold.

 

 

4. Serenity – “Wings of Madness” (from the album War of Ages)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX5jsf3v9vw&w=560&h=315]

 

Serenity stunned me this year with their spectacular War of Ages album, and this inspired lead off track (and first single) was the highest among many high points to be found on the set.  “Wings of Madness” is a complex, multifaceted masterpiece that twists and turns around the dramatic vocal duets of co-vocalists Georg Neuhauser and Clementine Delauney. The latter is the newest member of the band and the undeniable star on this particular song (and perhaps the entire album), her vocals equipped with both a light ethereal touch and a dark, rich, almost Lisa Gerrard-like quality that she can blend together at will. The song’s music video seems to suggest that the lyrics are about the infamous Countess Bathory and her blood bathing lifestyle (everyone’s got their thing). This is a band that directs its lyrical bent towards characterizations or accounts of historical figures, and as such, the quatrain in the chorus is unnervingly eerie and appropriate: “No sun is shining in your eyes / A shadow growing in disguise / I can’t stand the silence / Embracing you at night”. One of the many things I appreciate about Serenity is their commitment to a higher standard of lyricism than the power metal norm —- similar to what Roy Khan was instilling during his tenure in Kamelot.

 

 

5. Queensryche – “In This Light” (from the album Queensryche)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LGaEOP86Kc&w=560&h=315]

 

That Queensryche was able to find a viable, credible future sans Geoff Tate was in itself a remarkable feat, but their creation of an album that is worthy enough to stand alongside their first six bonafide classics is still mind-boggling. This year’s self-titled comeback record was full of the classic elements long missed from Queensryche releases, and the band found that new members like guitarist Parker Lundgren and of course, life-saver vocalist Todd LaTorre could contribute to the songwriting process from the word go. Truthfully speaking, while I enjoyed the album, I had to admit it did have an array of weaknesses mostly stemming from the album’s length, and some songs that could’ve used a few more minutes. “In This Light” however stands out as a pristine moment, a deftly penned stately rocker with a chorus that could’ve come from the band’s Empire era. I mentioned in my original review for the album that this song was “a sort of distant cousin to “Another Rainy Night” and “One and Only”. Its perhaps the most accessible song on the record, yet also the most thoughtful, its lyrics a reflective paean on despair and hope.” Its curious to me that they haven’t released this as a single yet.

 

 

6. Omnium Gatherum – “The Unknowing” (from the album Beyond)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsjHvaU5Aik&w=560&h=315]

 

These guys released a pretty solid record earlier this year with Beyond, but the highlight of the album was this singular gem, an arpeggio fueled, cinematic slice of melodic death metal nirvana. Not only is the guitar work stunning throughout in a general breathtaking sense, but they buoy a melody that is strangely melancholic and uplifting at the same time. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen’s vocals here feature an extra degree of crisp clarity that is normally buried in his obsidian delivery (an acquired taste I admit). The Finns really have something going on right now with the amazing slate of fresh takes on melodic death metal that is very far removed from the now old-school Gothenburg scene in neighboring Sweden. Insomnium also released a fantastic new song this year that I reviewed earlier which will narrowly miss a placement on this list —- but its just more mounting evidence that both these promising torch bearers of modern melodic death metal have found a way to distance themselves from the negative associations that the original melo-death sound has unfortunately found with American metalcore.

 

 

7.  Týr – “The Lay of Our Love” (from the album Valkyrja)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zd2rYcxXBM&w=560&h=315]

 

This was a bold, gutsy move for  Týr, a band whose previous attempts at anything close to balladry were blanketed by singing in their native Faroese language, about subject matter that was really anyone’s guess.  But Valkyrja is a thematic album about the role of the woman as Goddess and wife, in the life of a Viking warrior —- and to the band’s credit they are lyrically adventurous about it throughout. Not only are the lyrics in “The Lay of Our Love” essentially about a rather sentimental subject, in this case a pair of lovers sundered by impending death, but the music at work here is pure power balladry (I mean that in a good way!). I’m not sure whats my favorite part, the delicately plucked acoustic intro or the wild, passionate guitar solo mid-way through that ranks amongst the band’s best. Liv Kristine of Leaves Eyes fame is the lithe, delicate female voice you’re hearing, and her performance here is just immense. Its a shame that I seem to only be able to really appreciate her work when its in guest spots like these, but she contrasts well with Heri Joensen’s deep, soaring vocals.  Týr should continue being brave with experiments like these if the payoffs are anything close to this.

 

 

8. Avantasia – “Saviour in the Clockwork” (from the album The Mystery of Time)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USkP6pT8UYI&w=560&h=315]

 

I pointed out in my review for Avantasia’s most recent album that in the past half decade Tobias Sammet has now released nearly double the amount of Avantasia releases in comparison to his main band Edguy. At some point, both of the projects were going to start blurring together stylistically due to having the same songwriter driving each, and as expected that is exactly what is happening with both of the newest Avantasia and Edguy releases. They’re still good albums, but at this point the only musical difference between both bands is the presence of guest vocalists in Avantasia, and you’ve gotta wonder if that will be enough in the long run. Of course, if you’re like me and just consider yourself more of a Tobias Sammet fan than a distinct fan of either one of his bands then you won’t really care all that much about such details as long as he keeps delivering the goods. Well, the bad news was that The Mystery of Time is the most uneven album in Avantasia’s now vast discography. The good news is that it did contain a handful of distinctive Sammet homeruns, including this awe-inspiring epic featuring vocals from Joe Lynn Turner, Biff Byford, and of course Michael Kiske. Its got all the elements a Sammet fan wants: thundering bombast, excellent songwriting, and lush vocal arrangements particularly in the group choir vocals during the chorus.

 

 

9. Falkenbach – “Eweroun” (from the album Asa)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mA5nN65B_eg&w=560&h=315]

 

I consider it a good quality that this song conjures up the feeling of sitting by some intense campfire under the stars at midnight (… ah lets face it, I’m really thinking of Skyrim). Gone are the murky, lo-fi productions of past albums —- 2013 Falkenbach has taken a page from Darkthrone’s playbook: Sometimes the way to progress your sound forward is to fully capture it in a pristine form, not hide it under layers of hiss and microphones. Sole member and creator Vratyas Vakyas’s vocals are the selling point on “Eweroun” (translated as “Evermore”), his plaintive, spacious clean vocals ushering in the song with a vocal melody I can only describe as soothing. He sets this over a bed of warm muted riffing, simple percussion patterns, and chiming acoustic guitars. The hook is not a traditional chorus either, but simply an altered acoustic guitar figure. Vakyas apparently pens most of his lyrics in old Norse, and a look at the translation of the lyrics seems to suggest an allusion to the passage of time set against the backdrop of changing seasons. It all conjures up a rather spiritual feel, and its not much of a stretch to actually call it something close to spiritual folk metal.

 

 

10. Lord – “Digital Lies” (from the album Digital Lies)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UR38tX6z6iI&w=560&h=315]

 

You may not have heard of Lord before, but many of you might remember Dungeon from Australia, the rather underrated power/trad metal band who in addition to building up a solid catalog of quality albums over the span of a decade  also provided us with one of metal’s great covers in their take on Toto’s “Hold the Line”. Lord then is ex-Dungeon vocalist Tim Grose’s project born out of the ashes of his former band. They launched in 2003 and have done a few decent records now, but their 2013 release Digital Lies shows the band taking determined strides towards potential greatness. This title track from the effort is one jewel among many featured on the release that crackles with the kind of excitement that is harder and harder to find with newer power metal releases (and worryingly so at that). Over a rock steady bed of aggressive, pulsing bass and pounding riffs is a striking contrast between almost Alexi Laiho-ish vocals in the verse, and Grose’s wide open, soaring tenor in the chorus. He’s always been an excellent vocalist, displaying a heft and weight to power metal vocal delivery that is so often found lacking amongst the European ranks —- but his ability to switch it up here at will is even more impressive. Check out this song, and if you like it do yourself the favor of grabbing the album, its one of the better power metal records released this year.

 

Running With the Devil: Watain’s Wild Hunt

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way here first. Yes this is one of the most anticipated black metal records coming out in 2013, a big three if you will alongside records by Darkthrone and Satyricon. Yes their last album was considered by many to be brilliant, and yes if you didn’t find anything to like about previous Watain offerings, you should avoid this like Taco Bell. Watain are what they are, either you’ll find something to like about them or you won’t, because this isn’t a band that strives towards innovation or makes a point of reinventing the black metal wheel. And yet I hate saying that, first because its a little unfair, and secondly because there will be differences in a band’s sound from album to album, simply because the most minute details can produce that change (guitar tone, mixing engineer, freaking recording studio). The question to ask I suppose with a band’s new album is what are these differences, and do they matter overall enough to change someone’s mind one way or another?

 

I’m particularly interested to hear the take of a friend of mine, who might be the biggest Watain fan in Texas. I’m sure he’ll turn into a spittle-flying maniac when we drive up to see them in Austin a few months from now. He turned me on to the band, and I’ll admit that I was indifferent… for awhile. Then I realized that every time I’d ride as a passenger in his car he would have their 2010 Lawless Darkness album insistently blasting in all its ugly glory — and I began to suspect that it was the only album he actually had in the car. I don’t care who you are or what you like, if you’re force blasted something that long, it WILL eventually seep into your brain and lo and behold, there I was, agitatedly driving home from work, unsatisfied with my iPod randomization and realized that I wanted to listen to the chorus I was hearing in my head. The chorus was from “Reaping Death”, the vicious highpoint of that particular album. And so now when I come back home from work or anywhere else feeling particularly aggravated, the Lawless Darkness has been one of a couple anger management records that I turn to as a soothing balm — like Swedish massage but black metal. That’s a thing right?

 

And so its in light of my enjoyment of their previous album that The Wild Hunt comes as something of a let down to me. Just like their fellow big three brethren, Watain have decided to mix up their formula a bit with this new album. Some of it works for sure, but there’s some rather baffling stuff going on here. First off the good stuff: Props to the band for coming up with a great album title and not self-titling their record (enjoy the artwork by the way). There’s some Lawless Darkness worthy face-ripping moments here, as on opening pair “De Profundis”, and slow (by Watain standards) stomper “Black Flames March”. The former in particular boasts the most ferocious riffs on the entire album, along with a mid-song hurtle into a vortex of some really really nasty background vocal effects and speed metal tempos. There’s a couple gems in “Outlaw”, “Sleepless Nights”, and most strikingly “The Child Must Die”, which in addition to its almost King Diamond-esque riffs and lyrics features an incredibly effective melodic intro that really catches you off guard. Vocalist Erik Danielsson is one of black metal’s finer vocalists, and he’s as reliable as ever on all of these cuts. Its when he decides to deviate from his normal gutteralic (yes we’ll make that a word) vocal approach that he begins to lose me.

 

Most reviews of this album will no doubt spend a few sentences analyzing Watain’s attempt at a ballad on this record, “They Rode On”, what the surprisingly succinct reviewer at Pitchfork aptly described as the band’s stab at a tune akin to Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”. I can see that, and look I love when metal bands try their hands at ballads. It interests me on a fundamental music level… I think that ballads are far more interesting when done by an artist who normally concentrates the vast majority of their musical output on rockin’, being loud and abrasive, and you know, heavy. Some bands can pull them off and others just don’t have the songwriting chops for it (and I’m really forgiving when it comes to ballads too). But in black metal it seems that the stylistic limitations of the genre would prevent a band from ever getting close to anything approximating balladry — perhaps the closest example we’ve seen has been Cradle of Filth’s “Nymphetamine”, but they’re not black metal as we understand it anymore, and they had to employ female vocals… so, yeah, cheating a bit. The adventurous stretch in black metal has seemingly been to attempt to get more melodic through symphonic elements as well as the introduction of clean vocals (albeit still within the context of a black metal style song).

 

I applaud Watain for going out on a limb with “They Rode On” but it fails as a song in general simply because its meandering and boring. The instrumentation is interesting for a short while, but then it too fades to a dull murmur — strummed chords that take no shape or have no direction. Its almost as if they wrote the song lyrics first and retrofit the music around them, there is no melodic through line and in a song with this much ambient space that deficiency becomes quite glaring. There’s a mildly nice, Scorpions-esque solo in the middle that is really the instrumental high point, but its not worth the price of admission alone (I could just go and listen to the Scorpions). What really burns the baking pan here is Danielsson’s woeful clean vocal performance. I realize that this is out of his wheelhouse and he’s branching out here, but you call it like you hear it and this is Anders Friden thinking he can do clean vocals live levels of bad. I’m sure a good many people will find his clean vocals endearing and to each their own, but they’re distracting to me. A good vocal melody for one would’ve gone a long way here.

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilbKGd9ezMY&w=560&h=315]

 

They also come up empty on the album closer “Holocaust Dawn” (you’d figure at this point in their career with the storied visa problems they’ve experienced that they would avoid hot words like that in their song titles but whatever), this is a song that tackles doom metal levels of tempo and is heavy on plod n’ trod, light on anything remotely interesting. Well, there is the sheer oddness of the circus theme sounding mid-section but it stops as soon as it starts. Then comes a few more minutes of meandering plodding and by the time a heavy riff does finally kick in you’d probably have skipped backwards a few tracks anyway. Its a chore to listen to and one of the more unfortunate bits of experimentation on offer. But Watain’s attempts to branch out creatively aren’t all misguided, and I feel that they were really onto something with large parts of the title track, a six minute mid-tempo grinder of a track that juxtaposes excellently done whispered vocals with choral chants. Suitably moody yet melodically informed guitars blanket these unique vocal pairings with strong melodic lines, and the guitar solos throughout are really the best I’ve heard on any Watain track to date. Also Danielsson delivers a really effective agonized clean vocal here that makes you wonder what the hell was going on with “They Rode On”. I dig the spanish guitar at the end as well — nice touch.

 

I applaud bands for trying new things and being open to experimentation within their defined sound. I mean, at the end of the day, this is still undeniably a Watain album, its just that within that framework it might not hit the same breathless pace that older records had. I know its not a competition, but if I had to make it into one I’d give Darkthrone the nod on their experimental album released earlier this year, with one major footnote, that Darkthrone’s The Underground Resistance couldn’t really be called black metal… at least I don’t think so. Watain adheres, for better or worse, to a stylistic approach to black metal that is shuttered, focused, and very steeped in tradition. You could practically call their sound a dying art. That doesn’t make an album better persay but it does count for something.

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