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Columnus Metallicus: The Best Heavy Metal Of 2023
Kez Whelan , December 6th, 2023 10:28

Our metal columnist Kez Whelan sums up another year in heavy music, and presents his 20 favourite albums of 2023

Khanate. Photo by Ebru Yildiz

2023 was yet another great year for metal, with several heavyweight veterans like Cannibal Corpse, Incantation, Dying Fetus and Suffocation returning to deliver very solid records (even the Metallica album wasn’t total shite!). Astute readers will note none of them have made it into the hallowed halls of tQ’s end of year list however; a lot of these felt like “just another [X] album”, and whilst I’m loathe to take these legacy acts for granted in an increasingly hostile working environment for musicians, there were simply too many genuinely innovative, explorative and challenging records released under the metal banner this year for them to warrant consideration.

As usual, I spent ages deliberating over the order of the list before ultimately deciding it (whisper it) doesn’t really matter – if you asked me on a different day, I’d probably give you a totally different ranking. Looking back over past lists confirmed the suspicion; just last year I placed Chat Pile and Messa at 19 and 14 respectively, which seems crazy in hindsight. After catching both bands live earlier this year and living with both those records for a while, I’d bump them both up to top ten slots at the very least.

Given that, I’ve tried to not obsess over the order of this year’s list to the same degree. I’ve also tended towards albums I didn’t have room for in the regular column, or lesser known gems I haven’t seen much press for. It’s still been tricky, however; you’d think limiting the list to just metal releases would make it easier to compile, but then you have to contend with the nebulous and ever-expanding definition of what exactly metal is. I was very close to including Sightless Pit’s adventurous second album here, before finally admitting to myself their new noisy hip hop direction probably lands slightly too far outside this column’s remit. Besides, if I included them, I’d be tempted to include former member Kristin Hayter’s haunting SAVED!, not to mention the stunning new Oxbow album she also appears on.

But you’ve already heard how great those records are elsewhere on tQ – you didn’t come to this column to discover new electronica, noise rock or experimental Southern gospel, did you? No, you came here for the most disgusting, imaginative and unhinged metal releases you might have missed over the last twelve months, and that is exactly what you’re going to get.

20. Anachronism – Meanders
(Unorthodox Emanations)

Don’t let the band name or album title fool you; this Swiss quartet’s third full-length is an extremely focussed, futuristic slab of dissonant technical death metal. There’s a really organic, fluid feel to these songs, eschewing the complexity-for-complexity’s-sake trap many tech-death bands stumble into as the band deftly walk the line between brutality and beauty across these eight surprisingly atmospheric compositions.

19. Full Of Hell & Primitive Man - Suffocating Hallucination
(Closed Casket Activities)

Whilst Full Of Hell’s collaborations with The Body went off on an extremely abstract tangent, they’ve gone for a much more straight-forwardly crushing approach for their first outing with Primitive Man, punctuating the Denver sludge titans’ devastating slow-motion bludgeon with waves of cathartic and abrasive noise. What it might lack in surprises, Suffocating Hallucination makes up for with sheer unrelenting hostility.

18. Sulfuric Cautery - Suffocating Feats Of Dehumanization
(625/Blast Addict)

Like any intoxicant, it’s alarmingly easy to build up a tolerance to extreme metal. I remember when Slayer was still the fastest music I could even imagine; then I heard Napalm Death, then Nile, and eventually I became somewhat numb to extreme speed. This US duo are the first band in a long time to break through that comfort zone and make me think “how the fuck are they playing that fast?!”. This follow-up to their excellently titled 2019 debut Chainsaws Clogged With The Underdeveloped Brain Matter Of Xenophobes isn’t just impressive on a technical level though, with the pair’s efficient songwriting somehow rendering each of these barbed nuggets of noise as memorable tracks in their own right.

17. Dawn Ray’d - To Know The Light

Given how unexpectedly this anti-fascist black metal trio announced their break-up earlier this year, they probably didn’t know this would be their last album when writing it, but it has a distinct air of finality to it nonetheless. Forgoing the raw, stripped back sound of their earlier records, To Know The Light is their most elaborate, atmospheric and detailed album, with the band using the studio as an instrument and broadening out their sound considerably whilst retaining the righteous fury that has always made them stand out.

16. Yellow Eyes - Master’s Murmur

You could argue Yellow Eyes’ first foray into industrial folk isn’t quite metal enough for this list, but even though it’s a clear departure from their usual sound, I would steadfastly disagree. There are still blastbeats, chilling tremolo riffs and throat-shredding shrieks aplenty, albeit in a significantly different context. Master’s Murmur successfully blurred the lines between neofolk and black metal in a manner I don’t think I’ve ever really heard before.

15. Closet Witch - Chiaroscuro
(Zegema Beach)

This Iowa quartet’s distinctive blend of grindcore, screamo and noise rock sounded even more abrasive than before on this second album. Even shorter than their stunning 2018 debut, there’s not a second wasted here – but the masterful pacing and razor-sharp songwriting keeps the whole thing feeling longer than it is, in the best possible way. If you’ve ever doubted the emotional resonance of grindcore, give this one a spin.

14. Thantifaxath - Hive Mind Narcosis
(Dark Descent)

It may have taken almost a decade, but the follow-up to this mysterious Canadian black metal outfit’s debut Sacred White Noise was certainly worth the wait, taking their bizarre sound to even more unnerving places. The production is surprisingly polished, allowing each nuance of the band’s twisted sound to really get under your skin. Avant-garde black metal is in rude health currently, but Thantifaxath still sound utterly unique, like a warped, alien take on the genre beamed directly from a dimension we were never meant to encounter.

13. Autopsy - Ashes, Organs, Blood And Crypts

This year saw new releases from numerous death metal legends, but to my ears, Autopsy’s latest is by far the most robust. Despite how frequently they release albums these days, each new Autopsy album still feels like an event in itself, and this one is no different. A little moodier, doomier and more atmospheric than its predecessor, it’s arguably the Mental Funeral to Morbidity Triumphant’s Severed Survival.

12. Atomçk - Towering Failures
(SuperFi/Eggy Tapes)

This is the album I’ve always wanted Atomçk to make. This isn’t to disparage any of the UK grind institution’s previous records, which just got better and better as the years went by, but Towering Failures feels like their most complete, well-realised and satisfying outing to date. Bolstered by new bassist Barthur and a crushing production courtesy of Ian Boult at Nottingham’s Stuck On A Name Studios, it sounds absolutely huge, and the songwriting is sharper than ever, feeling progressive and adventurous without ever losing sight of grindcore’s brevity or primitive power.

11. Ragana - Desolation’s Flower
(The Flenser)

Ragana’s unique fusion of sludge, black metal and gloomy 90s slowcore (just check out the heart-wrenching ‘Pain’) continued to evolve on what could be their most personal and impassioned album to date. Desolation’s Flower found power in minimalism, with the simple, stripped back arrangements and stark, fiery lyrics creating a really evocative, haunting atmosphere whilst also delivering an extremely direct, hard-hitting critique of America’s current political landscape. When Maria yells “death to America and everything you’ve done” on the incendiary ‘DTA’, it hits like a tonne of bricks.

10. Underdark - Managed Decline
(Church Road)

Underdark’s second album found the band pushing their distinct sound into even more aggressive, visceral territory whilst retaining the shimmering post-rock influence that made their early work so touching. Combined with both hefty, memorable riffs and hard-hitting lyrics exploring the generational effects of neoliberalism, Managed Decline was emphatic proof that atmospheric shoegaze-inspired black metal can still be sonically visceral and thematically potent in 2023.

9. Tomb Mold - The Enduring Spirit
(20 Buck Spin)

Having released an album per year between 2017 and 2019 and firmly established themselves at the forefront of the new wave of murky, Incantation worshipping death metal, Canada’s Tomb Mold were evidently keeping busy over the last four years of relative silence, as their fourth album felt like their biggest statement yet. Taking their sound out of the shadows with its proggy song structures, crystalline clean guitars and gorgeous jazzy leads, it’s easily the most unique record they’ve released yet, and one of the most enthralling and forward-thinking death metal records of the year.

8. Dødheimsgard - Black Medium Current

Dødheimsgard’s musical evolution has taken a number of strange twists and turns over the years, weathering the original Norwegian black metal explosion before venturing into more industrial and psychedelic realms. The more I listen to Black Medium Current though, the more I think it could be their best; it’s certainly their most mature, tying together all their disparate influences in a much more streamlined, masterful way. The atmosphere of their early black metal material is still present here, but the proggy, space-faring tangents this album veers off on reveal whole new dimensions to the Dødheimsgard sound, feeling less like an album and more a travelogue beyond the stars.

7. Urfaust - Untergang

After two full decades of creating some of the most unique, intoxicating black metal around, Dutch duo Urfaust went out on a high this year with their most focussed, potent and evocative album in recent memory. Untergang seemingly distils every era of Urfuast, from the eerie darkness of their early work to the soaring melodic stomp of their last few albums, into one particularly heady brew.

6. Wallowing - Earth Reaper
(Church Road)

This long-awaited follow-up to sci-fi obsessed blackened noise-doom psychnoauts Wallowing’s 2019 debut felt like a big step up. An even more sprawling, elaborate affair, it found the band both honing their sound into tight, explosive anthems (‘Flesh And Steel’) and pushing it out into the depths of the cosmos, as on the gargantuan twenty-minute title track. The sonic world-building here is staggering; it feels like Wallowing continue to exist in a universe all of their own.

5. Sarmat - Determined To Strike
(I, Voidhanger)

This New York outfit’s debut album is, simply put, one of the most extraordinary fusions of technical death metal and avant-garde jazz I’ve ever heard. It’s a slow boil; the first two tracks lull you into thinking this is just going to be an extremely ambitious psychedelic tech-death record, but much like The Stooges’ Fun House, there’s an increasing horn presence as the album progresses, until it lapses into full blown jazz skronk before its thrilling conclusion. The band is laser-focussed throughout, coming across like an Ornette Coleman helmed Demilich in their unwavering dedication to such a bizarre, singular sound.

4. Godflesh - Purge

If A World Lit Only By Fire perfectly summarised Godflesh’s past, and Post Self their future, then Purge feels like something of a sidestep, a secret transmission from an alternate universe in which the band’s late 90s, hip hop indebted Songs Of Love And Hate sound was allowed to blossom into a far more belligerent beast. Purge never feels like simple nostalgia however, instead reimagining Godflesh’s most rhythmic period as an imposing, jet-black behemoth crushing all in its path.

3. Torpor - Abscission
(Human Worth)

Recorded in rural Wales during a period of heavy personal turmoil, you can really feel the sense of isolation seeping out of this London post-metal trio’s third album, certainly their starkest, darkest and most haunting to date. Their signature crushing grooves are sounding weightier than ever (captured expertly by Pet Brick’s Wayne Adams), but Abscission also pushes the Torpor sound into both more aggressive, abrasive territory and eerie, ethereal ambience.

2. Bell Witch - Future’s Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate
(Profound Lore)

Time will tell how well The Clandestine Gate works as the first part of Bell Witch’s ambitious, infinitely looping Future’s Shadow trilogy, but taken as a singular listening experience in its own right, it’s incredibly successful, unfolding patiently with an otherworldly grace. Despite the extreme length, the pair’s songwriting feels incredibly focussed here, with recurring themes cycling around at a glacial pace, all building to an immensely satisfying finale. There’s something really cinematic about The Clandestine Gate, and the album fits firmly into the lineage of classic doom metal whilst simultaneously pushing against the genre’s boundaries and reimagining it across a much wider timescale.

1. Khanate - To Be Cruel
(Sacred Bones)

When it comes to pushing the boundaries of doom metal, however, Khanate were always prepared to venture way farther out into the wilderness than anyone else. Their sorely needed return felt like metal’s biggest event in 2023, and whilst it’s tempting to say To Be Cruel picks up exactly where they left off, that’s not exactly the whole story. After over a decade of explorative, non-Khanate related sonic adventures, the quartet return to the project much wiser, sharper and seemingly more embittered with the state of the world than ever before, resulting in both the most venomously acerbic and sublimely spacious Khanate release yet.