MetalBite's Top 10 Albums of the Month - December 2023
Welcome back to MetalBite's Top 10 Albums of the Month! It was a bit of a thin month and we were all collectively recovering from our holiday hangovers, so this is coming out horrendously late, but never fear, we've still got a bit of love to give to those neglected December releases that tend to get shunned from year-end lists. Let's cut the shit and get to it.
Dwelling Below - Dwelling Below
If you're familiar with Acausal Intrusion, who offer some delightfully weird, angular death/black metal, this will likely appeal to you as well - and not just because it's the same guys behind Dwelling Below. The winding tower of nightmarish soundscapes, carefully tense dissonance and barely organized chaos still takes shape here. The musicians involved are ridiculously prolific - Jared Moran alone has dozens of projects to his name, and though some of them are inevitably similar, Dwelling Below retains its own distinct character, mostly owing to the drudging death/doom and restrained leadwork that pops up in songs such as 'Emergence Sublimation'. Recommended if you hate anything melodic.
Embryonic Devourment - Prime Specimens
I'm not sure why Unique Leader dropped these guys - maybe they didn't want to put out another album so soon after the one before it or something? I can't claim to fully understand the inner machinations and motivations of record labels.
It also surprises me because this reminds me more of Deeds of Flesh than anyone else on their active roster. This is stupidly technical, with constant scatterings of discordant (but cleanly played) guitar leads, a constant maelstrom of rapid-fire drumming, shifting time signatures and snaking motifs, and a general "fuck you, try and make sense of this" vibe that it puts onto the listener, with constant curveballs. They definitely didn't go over-budget on the production job, as the drums in particular are notably clicky and thin, with the vocals being reduced to a background trace, but on the flipside it does highlight just how ridiculous the riffs and drum patterns are. If you're the type that isn't too persnickety about your albums having the thickest guitar tone possible, you'll get into this fine.
New guitarist Donnie Small seems to have reinvigorated this band - he must have some hand in writing, as they've composed two full-lengths since he joined in 2021 when their last full-length had come out eight years before that. Perhaps this signals a new, abundantly productive era of this band - which I'm here for, because Embryonic Devourment play a style of technical brutal death that's been neglected in the internet metalsphere in recent years - even the very label that helped to establish the style seems to be turning its back on it.
Winterhorde - Neptunian
I first became acquainted with this grandiose, all-encompassing progressive extreme metal group through their album Maestro, which still makes its way into my listening rotation every now and then despite me being pretty picky about albums in the style. They just nailed everything they attempted on that album: soaring, elegant clean vocals, powerful and flowing structures that covered a wide breadth of textures and emotions, and a general air of classines and intelligence that makes you refer to an album as being "composed" rather than "written". It feels like the kind of thing I actually wouldn't mind hearing in a proper old-school concert hall with a full backing orchestra (doesn't mean other bands should try - I'm looking at you, Sepultura…)
Neptunian has the difficult task of following up a masterpiece, and to throw an extra curveball into the mix, there's been a huge lineup overhaul in recent years, with a new drummer, guitarist, clean vocalist and keyboardist all providing contributions. The end result is, admittedly, not quite hitting the mark the same way Maestro did for me - there's just too many new cooks in the kitchen that aren't fully acquainted to the recipe yet - but by the same token, the folks that have been here since the beginning have been doing this for over 20 years and know what they want Winterhorde to be at this point. The approach changes a bit as well because to my knowledge, unlike the previous release, Neptunian isn't a concept album - or at least doesn't have prevalent themes that span multiple tracks, which does actually affect how long I want to listen to it.
It's hard to not compare Neptunian to the masterpiece that came before it, but it's still a very strong and capable extreme prog album by a very underrated band, so I'm still comfortable recommending you check this out - even if it's not typically the style of music you're drawn to.
Devil's Reef - The Droste Observer
The Artisan Era
There's a couple of neat little quirks about this - the gritty cleans are Alluvial-esque and provide nice contrast, and there's a surprising amount of slow builds and more midpaced, textural riffs (not quite djenty, but definitely hinting at it) that break up the flashy finger-fucker riffs, but even with those present, I find The Droste Observer struggles to separate itself from the "Artisan Era" sound that is becoming more and more typical with each new release by the label. I don't know if it's the production job, the riff selection or what, but I find this tough to distinguish from bands like The Ritual Aura, Aronious, Dessiderium, Apogean and Inanimate Existence. I suppose if you eat bands up in that style, though, you're almost guaranteed gonna like this. Being the tech-head I am, this is still a solid album and all, I'd just like a few more curveballs along the lines of Warforged and Greylotus to come out of TAE going forward.
METALBITE'S TOP 10 ALBUMS OF THE MONTH
10: Cryptworm - Oozing Radioactive Vomition
Me Saco un Ojo / Pulverised / Extremely Rotten
Us death metal folk are simple creatures. Give us some Demilich worship, skank beats and gurgles and you'll get all our disposable income without any protest or concern. Innovation is overrated - it can be just as effective to do a deep dive in a well of ideas that hasn't been completely saturated yet. Even if it is in a well-established genre, it doesn't really matter as long as the end result is a ton of fun to listen to, and that's definitely the case with Oozing Radioactive Vomition.
There's a bounciness to this, somewhat owing to the rubbery guitar tone and the wet yet papery snare tone, and it creates entrancing, catchy vibes that hit you right away and stick around even long after the album is done playing. Oozing Radioactive Vomition is more developed and has a fuller production than its predecessor, Spewing Mephitic Putridity - but with less than two years between the two albums, the end goal is still very clearly the same - catchy old-school inspired grooves with a sickening bounce. Demilicious!
MetalBite's Rating: 8.2/10
9: Revulsed - Cerebral Contamination
I always look forward to the more technical albums that this label puts out - not that I'm not a fan of the cavernous death/doom they're a bit more partial to, but because the more techy albums are less common and usually have a little extra something going on that holds your attention. Fractal Generator, Goratory, Serocs, Engulf - and now Revulsed, who have the rare distinction of being one of those bands that you can legitimately compare to Defeated Sanity, standing out among the countless bands will cite them as an influence. A younger, more spirited Suffocation isn't the worst comparison either - this is snaking, obtuse, and eschews prominent melody in place of confounding patterns, pinch harmonics and a thick low end to add just a dash of slam into the mix. The more you examine the intricacies of this, the more it reveals its surprises to you - I've given this a month to marinate and with each listen I feel like new things pop out of the riffs I didn't hear before.
I listen to every Everlasting Spew album that comes out, and this is just another album in a long list of entries that perfectly exemplifies why. They give killer niche bands the attention they deserve.
MetalBite's Rating: 8.2/10
8: Nornir - Skuld
For those who find latter-day Marduk just that little bit weak and experimental, Nornir's second full-length Skuld should provide a satisfying alternative. The Germans tear through just under an hour of savage black metal in furious style, offering the listener practically everything one could ask for from classic-sounding, orthodox black metal. The minor key melodies are as cold, grim and frostbitten as a trudge across the Arctic circle, the occasional flourishes of triumphant twin lead guitars provide just enough variation, and the vocals deliver the kind of wild-eyed, other-worldly domineering presence that Gaahl or Hoest would be more than happy with. While one can hear a significant amount of the aforementioned Marduk, and also At The Heart Of Winter-era Immortal in Nornir's sound – not least in the frequent and linear combination of galloping chugs with single note tremolos to generate a stately mid-tempo march – there is enough of the band's own personality shining through on tracks such as the superb 'Hel's Postulate' to ensure that this is not a simple retread of that which has come many times before. A worthy release, concluding 2023 in fine style.
MetalBite's Rating: 8.3/10
7: Cruciamentum - Obsidian Refractions
*Note - this did technically come out in November, but it was late November, we missed it in that AOTM list, and it's the kind of thing that takes time to marinate anyways. It's my list, I'll do whatever the fuck I want, if you don't like it you can suck it.
This English (now international) group was part of a small group of flagship bands that signaled a new direction of death metal some time in the late 00s/early 2010s. I remember it with a decent amount of clarity, as that was around the time I was fully immersing my earbuds in underground metal. People were sick of modern tech-death and deathcore's oversaturation, and were reflexively turning to up and comers that reminded them more of the bands like Immolation, Incantation and Morbid Angel that got them into the genre in the first place. Dead Congregation, Disma, Grave Miasma, Funebrarum and Ignivomous could all be considered part of this "new wave of old school death metal" to one degree or another.
It started as a underrated, up-and-coming rebirth, turned popular and trendy as the heavy hitter labels started to take notice, and settled into a well-populated niche with the growth of labels exclusively dedicated to the sound - Memento Mori, Dark Descent and Me Saco un Ojo were all established in 2009-2010. Amidst the rise and proliferation of the style, Cruciamentum has quietly remained one of the best representatives of cavernous death metal, despite only having one EP, one full-length and a handful of scattered singles prior to this album.
Their riffing has always been visceral and energetic, thoroughly maintaining the cavernous atmosphere but never revealing too much too quickly, with ominous, purposeful, slow-build songwriting. Each riff is carefully thought out - not only in its own composition, but how it ties into the songs and the album on a larger scale. Though they avoid ever giving you any saccharine patterns to taste, the motifs of a song like 'Scorn Manifestation' are guaranteed to get any death metal fan's head nodding.
Despite some lineup overhaul, they transitioned into Obsidian Refractions carefully and made sure that the new contributors got the vibe before they did anything rash. There's a new second guitarist and vocalist/bassist, and both of them mesh seamlessly into the band fabric. Simply put, Cruciamentum knows how to write pure fucking death metal of the highest caliber. No genre splicing, no compromise, no adherence to trends - just steadily pushing the genre forward through grade-A riffing, well-thought out compositions and an unflinching commitment to hellish darkness.
MetalBite's Rating: 8.5/10
6: Demoncy - Black Star Gnosis
It is something of a curiosity that, originating from the primordial soup of 1980s extreme metal, the strain of black metal that has come to define the genre in the minds of many is typically the blasting and sometimes symphonic tremolo attack of the Norwegian and Swedish bands of the mid-1990s. Demoncy, a name perhaps referenced more often than listened to, make a cogent argument for their brand of black metal as being a truer, more devoutly satanic mode of delivery than the technical wizardry of Scandinavia, favouring instead the kind of churning filth, and pulverising low-end found throughout the spectacular and bleak violence of Black Star Gnosis. The most obvious reference points are Von, Beherit and Profanatica / Havohej, but although the band share something with all of these legends, as well as war metal more generally, they conjure a hell of their own across nine tracks, which mix metallic brutality with black ambient soundscapes. Demoncy hit considerably harder than one might expect, with the feral aggression of tracks such as 'Ipsissimus Of Shadows' verging on old-school death metal at times, bolstered by a thick and tar-like low-end, a stark contrast to the treble-heavy screed of much primitive black metal. The band take the linear, chromatic approach to riffing of classic Von as a starting point, but what they do with it is deeper and arguably more disturbing, with Ixithra's rasping whisper an authentically terrifying voice that exudes filth and depravity. There should always be a place for the kind of single-minded horror that Demoncy are so adept at conjuring, and Black Star Gnosis is more than good enough to ensure that this will be the case for at least a little while longer.
MetalBite's Rating: 8.6/10
5: Vargrav - The Nighthold
The Nighthold manages to fulfill the high expectations, which were briefly teased with the Encircle The Spectral Dimension EP. It is a fine album that is worth listening from start to finish, without ever losing track of what is going on and always being on the edge of your seats wondering what is going to happen next. Like I said before, Vargrav stands the test of time, and The Nighthold is both like a fine wine and a living proof that they indeed deserved their status of worship.
-Vlad (full review here)
MetalBite's Rating: 8.7/10
4: Varathron - The Crimson Temple
20 Buck Spin
Not one, not two, but three MetalBite writers reviewed this, the seventh album from one of the forefathers of Greek black metal. That's a sure sign this is worth checking out, and it's always impressive when a band can still remain this attention-grabbing this late in their career.
MetalBite's Rating: 8.8/10
3: Bull Of Apis Bull Of Bronze - The Fractal Ouroboros
This is a more developed album than the promising, intriguing full length Offerings Of Flesh And Gold - the production feels fuller and warmer, the songs aren't afraid to hold a theme for a few minutes at a time, and the bridges between the disparate parts feel more cohesive. For the uninitiated, Bull Of Apis Bull Of Bronze is modern anti-fascist black metal with a high-minded, ritualistic bent - think Ash Borer and Skagos if they were more inspired by the ill effects of capitalism than the lush landscapes of Cascadia.
My ADHD-ridden brain doesn't often gravitate to 1+ hour-long albums, but this band is a notable exception. Partially because atmo-black warrants it, but also because of the way this band doesn't have to do a lot to hold your attention. Even the ominous choral effects in the breaks between songs hint at a greater purpose and keep you interested in what's going to happen next. The stark and stoic ritualism meshes perfectly with long streams of vaguely discordant tremolo. It brings you back to that feeling when you were first getting into black metal and every band seemed to be made up of esoteric recluses who held seances on a weekly basis.
MetalBite's Rating: 8.8/10
2: Phobocosm - Foreordained
Dark Descent Records
This sounds like death. That should be more common than it is in a genre called DEATH metal, but turns out it's not a given a band is going to be able to channel an acute sensation of your imminent demise, even in a genre almost entirely focused on doing that. Phobocosm always sounded like they had the right idea, but never quite got the execution down on Deprived and Bringer Of Drought. Those are solid, interesting albums, but I always get the sensation when listening to them that the best is yet to come - the Quebec voidgazers have long been trying to find the proper tools to convey their otherworldly inspirations, and it's only on Foreordained that I feel that all-consuming completeness in their sound. It sounds like they finally developed the right chemistry and are creating the music they always wanted to for themselves.
The vocals are a subterranean, cavernous rumble that ritually urges the riffs forth, which themselves are sustained tremolos that give you a taste of melody, but never the full piece of pie. Each song is a long, treacherous march that builds to a climax with a slow trickle, and once you finally reach the summit, there's an all-consuming totality to the layers of noise and a cathartic release that feels like the last gasp from your lungs before all goes dark. There's an element of beauty to it, but it's also legitimately unsettling because you feel like you're coming to terms with your mortality in audio form. Simply put, this is not easy to do, much less so when you want to retain an element of musicality to go with it.
I can't really say that I enjoy Foreordained - it's more that I brave the experience of it. I get nervous to start, but once I do, I know i'm locked in for the ride, and I come out of the album a more focused and realized individual. That might sound pretentious as fuck, but I don't care. Listen for yourself and see what I mean.
MetalBite's Rating: 9/10
1: Geistaz'ika – Midnatsbøn Ved Djævelens Port
Denmark's Geistaz'ika's second album, Midnatsbøn Ved Djævelens Port, is an enthralling and captivating work. The brief, folky introduction gives little indication of the forthcoming blizzard of blasting drums and trebly guitars that will ensue, but it serves to set the tone beautifully, immediately evoking the classic strains of Ulver and Abigor, while also bringing a medieval feel and sensibility to the band's sonic palette. The first metallic track, 'Bestaenkt Af Syndens Vievand' takes this feel and runs with it through forest and fjord, mesmerising with its epic length and balance of brutality and melody. It is a sound not unfamiliar to fans of key second-wave acts such as Setherial, early Enslaved, and Blut Aus Nord, but the unorthodox interplay between the expected black metal elements and a number of other compositional touches elevates their music well above conventional Norsecore. In particular, the off-kilter production that occasionally prioritises the chanting of the Moonsorrow-like clean vocals, together with the insertion of sometimes incongruous synth and string sounds is especially pleasing, and showcases the fascinating spectacle of a band that cannot quite control the elemental forces with which they are working. Geistaz'ika have found a real niche here, offering thoroughly memorable and majestic black metal, delivered with an utterly esoteric approach, with rich rewards in store for those who choose to venture deep enough to find them.
MetalBite's Rating: 9.1/10
Thanks for sticking with us and stopping by. If you're interested in catching up on 2023 releases, the links to all the previous AOTM lists are below:
|Rites Of Regress