If I had a dollar for every album in my top ten which features morse code, I’d have two dollars. Which is not a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice. This hints at the overarching theme of the year, which was bands including interesting sonic details and a wide range of influences.
2023 had strong offerings from across the board, genre-wise, and the second theme of the year is that everyone really went for it. Be it high concept ideas, borrowing from unexpected influences, complex composition, big feelings, or just fully leaning into some silliness, I felt a hunger in metal this year, like no one wanted to hold back.
From listeners investigating unfamiliar genres to bands experimenting, this year said “life is short, let’s have some great music”.
10. Atavistia – Cosmic Warfare
What if Wintersun was Canadian, and also actually released albums? As tired as the band themselves are of this description (even making tongue-in-cheek merch about it), it is the most efficient way of describing Atavistia’s style. While they are putting their own stamps on the sound as they mature as a band, this is without a doubt for fans of that Finnish school of melodic/symphonic death metal.
“Cosmic Warfare” is Atavistia’s third full-length, following up 2020’s excellent “The Winter Way,” demonstrating that they have the chops to be consistently polished and enjoyable. They were one of my personal highlights at Hyperspace Festival in April, and I’m looking forward to seeing them play “Cosmic Warfare” front to back in a couple weeks when they headline the first night of Winterfest 2024.
Given this, I’d love to put them further up the list, but I think I need to see more of their unique style emerge first. There are glimpses of this on the horizon. Hints of cello, heavier sections throughout, and a late-album moment of truly guttural vocals are all things I’d love to see more of in the future.
9. The Privateer – Kingdom of Exiles
I’m so pleased pirate metal is having a small, though legitimately good, renaissance at the moment. I tragically discovered Visions of Atlantis after the new year and therefore “Pirates” was not on my 2022 list, but gladly I had a pirate metal entry for this year before January was over.
The Privateer is a German folk metal band with nautical themes and powermetal leanings, however there is a lot more going on by turns over the course of the album.
Vocal credits are a little unclear, but between violinist Clara Held, former member/guest artist Pablo Heist, and rhythm guitarist/backing vocalist Christian Spöri, there are a lot of vocal styles going on. Ranging from the melodeath style harsh vocals common to folk metal, to solid power metal cleans, to sea-shanty sing-along gang vocals, and even some folk-punk styling on “The Darkest Shadow of Life,” this vocal variety suits the band’s themes perfectly. It calls to mind an evening around a beach fire, or onboard a ship, taking it in turns to sing and tell tales.
Musically there’s at least as much variety, from orchestral adventure movie soundtrack vibes and classic power metal, to the aforementioned punk moments, to the wistfully acoustic “The Realm of the Forest.”
This album is a ton of fun all the way through, I highly recommend it to all fans of violin, folk metal, pirates, power metal, or adventure generally. Standout tracks are “Madness is King” and “Ghost Light.”
8. Arkona – Kob’
After 2018’s “Khram,” I was personally hoping for a return to Arkona’s previous, more folky sound. Despite that not coming to pass, this is a fantastic album. Arkona’s black metal influence is not new, and they are clearly very good at it. Title track “Kob’” opens in a way that reminds me of the beginning of “Liki Bessmertnykh Bogov,” a long-standing personal favourite of mine. This put me at ease, letting me know that older Arkona fans were still going to like what was going on here. While “Liki Bessmertnykh Bogov” was in the blackened folk metal middle of Arkona’s stylistic spectrum, here we are firmly on the pagan black metal side, but with glimpses back through the musical forest where we can easily see the path we took to get here. We are also seeing an increase in synth presence and borderline electronic influence that first made itself known on “Khram,” which lends interest in the absence of folk instruments.
With all tracks (aside from the atmospheric opener and closer) clocking in at over 7 minutes, and most hovering closer to 10, there was a danger of this album dragging in places. This is avoided with evolving sonic landscapes, surprisingly upbeat drums, and frontwoman Masha Scream’s intense vocals imparting energy, whether she’s singing, screaming, chanting, or whispering.
Some pensive pagan black metal albums are best in the background, but this one really deserves a close listen. Sink your teeth into it… or perhaps let it sink its teeth into you.
7. Shylmagoghnar – Convergence
A one man outfit from the Netherlands, melodic blackened death metal project Shylmagoghnar popped onto my radar with 2014’s “Emergence,” which has been in regular rotation since. While not an instrumental band, there are instrumental tracks and many long stretches between vocal parts, really allowing the melodies to shine as they evolve and intertwine, giving the overall sound a wistful and introspective feeling. 2018’s “Transience” didn’t have quite the staying power, but is still lovely, so I was very pleased a few days ago when I learned I’d somehow missed “Convergence”’s release in November.
I haven’t had terribly long to sit with this album, but it has made an impression. Firstly, it’s long, and it’s a slow burn. Clocking in over an hour, it’s not outrageous, but it does take its time to build up.
Frankly, the 10 minute opening track is holding “Convergence” back from a higher placement. My first impression of the album was that it was different from his older work but not necessarily in an interesting way, and I braced myself for disappointment.
Thankfully, the album gets going in earnest from the second track onward. There are three tracks of classic Shylmagoghnar sound to settle in. Then things begin to evolve with “Gardens of the Erased.” We go straight in with electronic drums and synths, almost reminiscent of synthwave, in a dreamy sort of way. This leads to an ominous buildup, staccato drums becoming more prominent along the way, then dropping into contemplative synth strings before the whole track ends in static.
“Eregore” is one of Shylmagoghnar’s heavier, more blackened songs, and then we are on to “Infinion,” the second track to really show me he’s trying something new. The opening riff is a little more crunchy, almost a little bit reminiscent of early 2000s nu metal, in a good way. That drops off quickly, morse code kicks in, and lingers rhythmically under the song for a while.
By the end of “Infinion” we are back on familiar ground, but the remainder of the album has the fingerprints of this experimentation evident in the details. If this were a yearbook, I’d award Shylmagoghnar “most adventurous compared to previous work”.
I really hope this is not the conclusion of a trilogy, as the album titles suggest, because I would love to hear more of this. But, if it is, what a lovely ending.
6. Night Verses – Every Sound Has A Color In The Valley Of Night: Part 1
This year I made some efforts to expand my horizons and, with some help, discovered some treasures I would have entirely missed on my own. This is one of them.
American prog trio Night Verses has been instrumental since 2016, and I think that’s for the best. A vocalist is not missed here, and frankly would get in the way. “Every Sound Has A Color In The Valley Of Night: Part 1” is about tones, layers, and moods.
And what tones! From tingly harmonic flutterings to unnerving wails we’re wordlessly guided through both the euphoric and the harrowing. Those two moods and many between are balanced deftly. There’s a lot going on compositionally, and it could easily devolve into a mess in less expert hands. That which could become grating is balanced with the beautifully calm, and that which could become cacophonous is instead an intricate tapestry of sound. Crushing, headbang-worthy segments take turns with bass that feels like a brain massage, or little interludes that feel like floating or having butterflies in your stomach.
If you like prog, listen to this. And if you don’t think you like prog, also listen to this, because it took me by surprise. I’m known to listen to music with my feelings, and there are a lot of those here.
5. Moonlight Sorcery- Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle
I had this one recommended to me as “symphonic blackened power metal”, and that’s not quite right, but also not entirely wrong. I would say this Finnish trio is black metal with melodeath guitars and some power metal sensibilities around solos and key changes. At any rate, their Metal Archives classification simply as symphonic/melodic black metal is insufficient to describe this delightful concoction.
As Moonlight Sorcery’s debut album, “Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle” is as impressive as it is ambitious. Aside from the obvious skill on display from lead guitarist Loitsumestari Taikakallo, the band balances their combination of influences well, avoiding what could have been an embarrassingly goofy mess, or just a disjointed one. The production is also well thought out. There’s just enough crunch for the black metal, and just enough smooth for the melodeath.
As for the powermetal sensibilities, they’re probably most noticeable in “The Moonlit Dance of the Twisted Jester’s Blood-Soaked Rituals,” which is at least three times sillier than any of the other track names.
“Vihan verhon takaa,” while unfortunately short, is my track of choice for demonstrating what I love about this album. Give this a go if you like Morgul, Dimmu Borgir, Children of Bodom, Aephanemer, enjoy high fantasy vibes, or if you were a theatre kid.
4. Mesarthim – Arrival
Mesarthim has been a staple of my lists for a while now, but it’s been some years since it was one of their full length albums rather than an EP. I’m happy to say “Arrival” is a full fifty minutes of everything I love about the band.
The Australian duo is known for melding atmospheric black metal with electronic trance elements. This whooshy and raw combination of anguish and elation sounds like how I feel a lot of the time. They also combine my love for metal and for edm more successfully than most attempts at such things.
This is the album I expected to have morse code on it. Their 2016 release was titled “.- -… … . -. -.-. .” after all, and the distinctive beeping patterns have turned up in their composition before. This time around, it’s the star of “Arrival, Pt. 6,” which features a morse code breakdown, which leads into a classic psytrance buildup, which then drops directly into raw black metal screams over blast beats. It is undoubtedly my favourite moment on the album.
Mesarthim have also added some new elements and increased the presence of others this time out. Psytrance is still the core on the edm side, but influences range from subtle summer house vibes to the clicking accent sounds found in some forms of trap. Otherwise, there are some groovy guitar solos making themselves known. Final track “Type IV” reminds me of sounds as far flung as Ott, Scandroid, and Dimmu Borgir at different moments, while remaining a cohesive song.
Not only is “Arrival” entirely my jam, but it’s great to see a high-output band with a very strong signature style still grow and evolve over time.
3. Twilight Force – At the Heart of Wintervale
The last few years have all had that one power metal album providing vital, structural, emotional support. This year it’s Twilight Force. There’s dragons, there’s skyknights, there are delightful little melodies which sound like a lovechild born of Vivaldi, Christmas, and an Irish jig.
Optimism oozes from every note of this album. I have not previously been into Twilight Force, and I think that is probably because I was taking myself too seriously. Most bands could not pull off this sheer level of cheese, narrated interludes and all. I think Twilight Force manages it for two reasons.
The first is they’re not obviously mocking either themselves or the listener. We are here to go on an adventure, and it’s fun, but we’re going to be sincere about it. I’m starting to appreciate how much of a difference sincerity makes.
The second is that Alessandro Conti (or “Allyon” to use his Twilight Force stage name) on vocals really sells it. He doesn’t use too much falsetto or sound pinched, but still injects the right amount of whimsy.
“At the Heart of Wintervale” is what happens when a group of very talented musicians pull off a very silly thing. Handel’s Messiah is musically referenced more than once, as is Star Wars, and at one point there’s a festive samba. Why have they done this? Who knows? Not me! But I’m having a wonderful time!
My personal stand out track is “Dragonborn,” an excellent addition to any playlist of instant cheer-up songs.
2. Green Lung – This Heathen Land
In a just world where we are not bound by the tyrannical hierarchy of consecutive whole numbers, this would also be album of the year, but here we are, having to choose.
Green Lung hails from England and has captured the essence of the psychedelic hard rock and early stages of metal that emanated from those isles in the 1970s, and were subsequently passed on to me via my father. In modern subgenre parlance, they’re stoner metal and occult rock. I’d recommend them to fans of Black Sabbath, Ghost, Devil Electric, and Orchid, but those comparisons frankly feel limiting.
A deep dive into the occult lore and folkloric holdovers of Britain, “This Heathen Land” feels both comfortingly familiar and refreshingly new. There are riffs and grooves aplenty, with catchy, storytelling vocals which will have you singing along without noticing, as if bewitched. There is a sense of the massive timescale of human habitation, placing first person lyrics and modern happenings in this context older than the hills.
From the vintage documentary style “Prologue,” to recounting a visit to a stone circle, every aspect of this album speaks to the fabric of a living history, stitched together, reinterpreted, embroidered, and passed down over the centuries. It is perhaps very different from what it once was, but it is rich, and living.
I find myself returning over and over to “One For Sorrow.” “One for Sorrow, two for joy” is the start of a nursery rhyme, sometimes called the Magpie Rhyme, but many also apply it to crows and other corvids. There are also myriad versions, as noted by Terry Pratchett in the introduction to The Folklore of Discworld. Reimagining it again in 2023 is simultaneously the most modern and most traditional thing one could do. All this is layered in a song which speaks to a personal sense of being followed by sorrow, something to which I think many of us can relate. This melding of the folkloric and the personal, the academic and the intimate, is so beautiful. It’s one thing to study history and culture, and it’s quite another to personally engage with it.
Listen to “This Heathen Land” if you want extremely catchy riffs and a surprising number of emotional layers for such a focused sound.
If I had to start picking favourite tracks, I would first tell you to listen to the whole thing, but I’d have to go with “Forest Church,” as the most on brand for me, “Maxine (Witch Queen),” as the most fun to sing along with, and “Song of the Stones,” as a beautiful, folky, meditative track.
1. Ignea – Dreams of Lands Unseen
Third studio album from Ukranian melodic metal band Ignea marks significant growth, both in songwriting and in fanbase. “The Realms of Fire and Death” in 2020 drew a lot of attention, and “Dreams of Lands Unseen” as a follow-up has solidified their place among excellent international acts.
Partly inspired by their inability to tour during the pandemic, Ignea chose to focus on exploration as a theme, but vocalist Helle Bogdanova swiftly found herself drawn to one explorer in particular. This album is based around the life and adventures of Ukranian photographer and travel writer Sofia Yablonska from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s. Each track is crafted around a different element of her life, either an event, a location, or a personality trait.
Due to Yablonksa’s extensive travel, Ignea has also expanded the variety of folk influences they add to their progressive style, giving each song a strong and unique sense of place. The attention to detail is stunning, with my favourite example being the camera sounds hiding in “Camera Obscura,” mimicking the camera Yablonska used while talking about the suspicion and superstitions she often faced for taking pictures.
This was my most anticipated album of the year, and I was not disappointed. This album has the heavy hitting “Дaлекі обрії” and the wistful “The Golden Shell.” The extremes really showcase Bogdanova’s versatility in both clean and harsh vocals.
To avoid a detailed history and track by track breakdown, I’ll leave you with this. “Dreams of Lands Unseen” is heavy and beautiful, personal and historical, varied and cohesive. Give it a listen, especially standout track “Dunes.”
And with that, I’m off to read everyone else’s lists and find out what I missed! Happy Listening, and Happy New Year!