This is always fun, and because the year’s only (just about) half over, you always know there’s more to come. The last six months have brought a host of really stellar releases, and the whole time, it’s felt like just when you’ve dug your heels into something and really feel content to rest with it for a while, there’s something else to grab your ears. So it’s been for the last six months, bouncing from one record to the next.
Even now, I’ve got a list of albums, singles, EPs, tapes, demos, whatever, waiting for attention — some of which I’m viciously behind on — but it’s time to stop and take a look back at some of what the best of the first half of 2013 has been. Please note, I’m only counting full-lengths here. While I’ve heard a few killer EPs this year — looking at you, Mars Red Sky — it doesn’t seem fair to rate everything all together like that. Maybe a separate list.
If you’ve got a list of your own or some quibbling on the numbers, please leave a comment and be heard. From where I sit, that’s always the best part of this kind of thing.
Here we go:
10. Endless Boogie, Long Island
Released by No Quarter Records. Reviewed Feb. 19.
The third Endless Boogie album on No Quarter was basically the soundtrack to the end of my winter, with smooth grooving cuts like “The Artemus Ward” and the classic rock shake of “On Cryology” providing a soundtrack as cool as the air in my lungs. It was my first experience with the longform-jamming improv-heavy foursome, and a CD I’m still stoked to put on and get lost in, having found that it works just as well in summer’s humidity as winter’s freeze, the off-the-cuff narrations of Paul Major (interview here) carrying a vibe unmistakably belonging to the rock history of the band’s native New York City. Was a sleeper, but not one to miss for its organic and exploratory feel.
9. Magic Circle, Magic Circle
Released by Armageddon Shop. Reviewed Feb. 18.
Proffering righteous traditional doom and misery-drenched atmospherics, the debut full-length from Massachusetts-based Magic Circle hit hard and showed there’s life yet to the old ways. It never quite veered into the cultish posturing that comprises so much of the trad doom aesthetic these days, and from the grandiose riffing of guitarists Dan Ducas and Chris Corry and the blown-out vocals of frontman Brendan Radigan, it found the band carving a memorable identity for themselves with clear sonic ideas of what they wanted to accomplish. Out of all the bands on this list, I’m most interested to hear what Magic Circle do next to build on their debut.
8. Kadavar, Abra Kadavar
Released by Nuclear Blast. Reviewed April 9.
Berlin trio Kadavar had a tough task ahead of them in releasing a sophomore answer to their self-titled, which I thought was the best first album of 2012, but when Abra Kadavar surfaced as their debut on Nuclear Blast, it was quickly apparent that the retro heavy rockers had put together a worthy follow-up. Cuts like “Come Back Life” and “Doomsday Machine” underscored the straightforward triumphs of the prior outing, while late-album arrivals “Liquid Dream,” “Rhythm for Endless Minds” and “Abra Kadabra” gave a sense that Kadavar were beginning a journey into psychedelia the results of which could be just as rewarding as even the most potent of their choruses. Their potential remains one of their biggest appeals.
7. Devil to Pay, Fate is Your Muse
Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed March 19.
It wasn’t without its rough edges, but at the core of Indianapolis heavy rockers Devil to Pay‘s fourth record was an unflinching songwriting quality that quickly established it among my go-to regulars, whether it was the quirky doom hook of “Ten Lizardmen and One Pocketknife,” the darkly progressive riffing of “Black Black Heart” or the suitably propulsive rush of “This Train Won’t Stop.” The double-guitar four-piece didn’t have much time for frills in terms of arrangement or structure, but by building on the developments over the course of their three prior releases, Devil to Pay delivered a slab of deceptively intricate standouts that made hard turns sound easy and demanded the attention it deserved.
6. Beast in the Field, The Sacred Above, the Sacred Below
Released by Saw Her Ghost Records. Streamed in full June 5.
Unfuckwithable tone set to destructive purpose. Immediately upon hearing the unsung Michigan drum/guitar duo’s fourth album, the impact of The Sacred Above, the Sacred Below — overwhelming though it is at times throughout the album; hello, “Oncoming Avalanche” — refused to be denied. Beast in the Field haven’t gotten anything remotely close to the attention they should for this devastating collection, but it’s one I absolutely can’t put down, cohesive in theme and full of skull-caving riffs as dynamic as they are brutally delivered by the instrumental twosome. If it’s one you missed on CD when Saw Her Ghost put it out in March (as I did), keep your eyes open for a vinyl release coming on Emetic in the next couple months. Really. Do it.
5. Black Pyramid, Adversarial
Released by Hydro-Phonic Records. Reviewed April 12.
Massachusetts trio Black Pyramid quickly dispatched any doubts of their ability to continue on after the departure of their previous guitarist/vocalist, bassist Dave Gein and drummer Clay Neely joined forces with Darryl Shepard (Hackman, Blackwolfgoat, Roadsaw, etc.) to reinvigorate their battle-ready doom, and whether it was the extended jamming on “Swing the Scimitar” or the surprisingly smooth riffing on “Aphelion,” the results did not disappoint. Regardless of personnel, I’ve yet to hear a Black Pyramid album I didn’t want to hear again, and though I’ll freely admit they’re a sentimental favorite for me at this point, Adversarial is a suitable dawn for their next era. Long may they reign.
4. Gozu, The Fury of a Patient Man
Released by Small Stone. Reviewed Jan. 24.
True, I will argue tooth and nail that Boston four-piece Gozu should get rid of their goofball, sitcom-referential song titles, but that’s only because I believe the band’s lack of pretense speaks for itself through the music and their tracks are too good to give listeners a chance not to take them seriously. When it comes to The Fury of a Patient Man — their second full-length behind the impressive 2010 debut, Locust Season (review here) — I knew the first time I heard it toward the end of last year that it was going to be one of 2013’s best, and while I’ve heard quibbles in favor of the debut, nothing has dissuaded me from thinking the sophomore installment outclasses it on almost every level. Expect a return appearance when the year-end list hits in December.
3. Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork
Released by Matador Records. Reviewed June 4.
There’s a big part of me that feels like a sucker for digging …Like Clockwork, the first Queens of the Stone Age full-length since 2007’s relatively lackluster Era Vulgaris, but when it comes right down to it, I hit the point in listening to the album that I came around to its sheen, its up-and-down moodiness and its unabashed self-importance. I hit the point where I was able to separate …Like Clockwork from its “viral marketing” and just enjoy Josh Homme‘s all-growed-up songwriting for what it is. Would I have loved a second self-titled album? Probably, but it wasn’t realistic to think that’s what …Like Clockwork would be, and as much as I’ve tried out other spots for it, I’d be lying if I put this record anywhere else on this list but here. So there you go. I understand the arguments against it, but reason doesn’t always apply when it comes to what gets repeat spins.
2. Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Mind Control
Released by Rise Above/Metal Blade. Reviewed April 8.
I was late to the party on the second Uncle Acid offering, 2011’s Blood Lust, as I often am on records where the hype gets to din levels, but by the time the subsequent Mind Control was announced, I knew it was going to be one to watch out for. Aligned to Rise Above/Metal Blade, the UK outfit began to unravel till-then mystery of itself, playing live and developing the brazen psychedelic pop influences hinted at in the horrors of Blood Lust so that the swing of “Mt. Abraxas” and the acid-coated psych of “Valley of the Dolls” could exist within the same cohesive sphere. Between the death-boogie of “Mind Crawler” and mid-period Beatlesian exploration of “Follow the Leader,” Mind Control continues to be an album I hear as much on the mental jukebox rotation as one I actually put on to listen to again. Either way, there’s no getting away from it — the eerie melodies of guitarist/vocalists Kevin “Uncle Acid” Starrs and Yotam Rubinger are hauntingly ever-present.
1. Clutch, Earth Rocker
Released by Weathermaker Music. Reviewed Feb. 28.
Obvious? Probably, but that doesn’t make it any less genuine. To set the scene, here’s me on the Masspike a couple weeks ago in the Volvo of Doom™ with the little dog Dio, 90 miles an hour shouting along to “Crucial Velocity” at the top of my never-on-key lungs. I couldn’t and wouldn’t endeavor to tell you how many times I’ve listened to Earth Rocker since I first got a taste, but from the title-track on through the surging groove at the end of “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…,” front to back, the 10th Clutch album still does not fail to roil the blood with not a dud in the bunch. The Maryland road dogs of course shine best on a stage, and Earth Rocker‘s polished, layered production is a studio affair in the truest sense, but all that does is make me hopeful they’ll complement it with a live record soon. Clutch could easily have phoned in a follow-up to 2009’s Strange Cousins from the West and their fanbase probably would’ve still salivated over it, myself included, but by boldly pushing themselves to write faster, more concise material, they’ve reenergized one of heavy rock’s best sounds. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a brand new listener, Earth Rocker is utterly essential.
Two more records I have to mention: Kings Destroy‘s A Time of Hunting and Clamfight‘s I vs. the Glacier. I wasn’t involved in releasing the Kings Destroy, but felt close to it nonetheless, and since the Clamfight came out on The Maple Forum, it wouldn’t be appropriate to include it in the list proper, but hands down, these are my two favorite records of the year so far and made by some of the best people I’ve had the pleasure to know over the course of my years nerding out to heavy music.
Some other honorable mentions go to Toner Low, Cathedral, Church of Misery, Serpent Throne, Naam, The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic and All Them Witches. Like I said, it’s been a hell of a year so far.
You may note some glaring absences in the list above — Black Sabbath, ASG, Orchid, Ghost, Kvelertak and Voivod come to mind immediately. Some of that is a result of my disdain for digital promos, and some of that is just a matter of what I listened to most. Please understand that although release profile is not something discounted, at the heart of what’s included here is one individual’s personal preferences and listening habits.
Thanks for reading. Here’s to your own lists and to the next six months to come!