Welcome back to my annual music countdown! Last year I went overboard with more than fifty album reviews, and the process made listening to new music into more of a chore than I’d like. Thankfully, I did indeed tone it down this year, keeping at a far more manageable 19 new albums this time. I didn’t listen to a whole lot of new bands this year, instead spending the first third of the year obsessively listening to Mechina, and then spent most of the rest of 2023 catching up on 90s and 2000s bands I missed out on at the time. I expect that 2024’s countdown will likely have more entries than this year. Still plenty to get through though, so let’s get to the rankings!
19) Lighting Up the Sky, Godsmack
When Legends Rise was one of the biggest surprises of 2018 for me, being the first Godsmack album to be anything more than a guilty pleasure. It had me excited to see where the band would go in future, but Sully Erna and company had another surprise in store for me when it was announced that Lighting Up the Sky would be their final album release. I had hoped they’d pull out all the stops for this big send-off, but Lighting Up the Sky is a painfully mediocre, wet fart of a finale. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the worst album they’ve ever put out – I used to give Faceless that dubious honour, but for all its dreariness, at least it has some good songs and sticks to the winning Godsmack formula. Lighting Up the Sky, in comparison, doesn’t have any tracks that resonated with me at all. In fact, as a non-American, I’m kind of annoyed by “Red White & Blue”, which takes an idiot centrist position on all issues and says “Yeah but all that matters is that I have freedom of speech and that I support America no matter what!” Wow, such a brave and intelligent stance, Sully… I swear I didn’t rank this album so lowly because of that song, but nearly every track doesn’t get any sort of reaction out of me. “Truth” is the one good song on here, but it’s not nearly enough to save the album as a whole, not to mention that even the worst Godsmack albums tend to have more than just one good song. Godsmack are still going to be touring for the indefinite future, but I just can’t see any of these tracks getting crowds excited (other than, y’know, “Red White & Blue” for a certain audience). It’s too bad, I was really hoping for a great send-off for a band which could never quite “get there”, but I’m still thankful for all the work they put in over the years.
18) 72 Seasons, Metallica
There’s a solid idea at the core of 72 Seasons, with each song telling the story of a boy’s journey from birth to adulthood (18 years being the titular 72 seasons). Conceptually, there’s a lot to be mined from this idea, but in execution this is an absolute slog of an album. Metallica always over-deliver when it comes to an album’s runtime, which is great when they put out good material, but when they don’t… well, we get 72 Seasons. This is such a baffling album, it’s like Metallica have completely forgotten how to make songs that sound distinct from each other or have any sort of interesting sound to them. I’m not even a latter-day Metallica-hater either, I enjoy Death Magnetic and I think Hardwired… To Self-Destruct is the best original studio album they’ve put out since The Black Album, but 72 Seasons is just plain dull.
17) World on Fire, Sovereign Council (Bandcamp)
It has been a long time since we saw Sovereign Council on IC2S, a local band whose guitarist was a neighbour of mine and whose vocalist, Alex, went to school with me. However, in the intervening eight years, they’ve gone through yet another major lineup change, losing Alex in the process. This was an intriguing change: on the one hand, one of Sovereign Council’s biggest assets was the contrast between Alex and Lisa’s vocals, but on the other hand, Lisa’s a great vocalist, so seeing how she can front the band solo is an interesting prospect. Right out the gate, you can really feel how all the changes have really shifted the feel and tone of Sovereign Council. Their first couple albums had an epic sound to them, and I’m realizing that was partly due to the layering of multiple guitarists, vocalists, etc. World on Fire‘s line-up has been stripped back to basics and this makes Sovereign Council’s sound feel smaller in comparison. One thing which hasn’t shrank though are Lisa’s vocals, which are better than ever here. “Of The Ashes” is probably the closest they come to recapturing that epic feel, and hopefully that’s the sort of feel that Sovereign Council can harness going forward.
16) Rated R, RED
Declaration was easily my favourite album of 2020 and I’d still expect it to end up in my eventual “Best Albums of the 2020s” list in 7 years or so. Knowing this, it should probably go without saying that I was excited to see what RED were going to cook up next. However, my excitement was somewhat tempered, because RED have a bad habit of swinging wildly in quality between albums – their first 2 albums were great, then their next 2 were very mediocre. Then of Beauty and Rage came out and ended up being their best album ever, only to be followed up by the very mediocre and forgettable Gone. Then Declaration came along and was another incredible album. And, as much as I hate to say it, Rated R keeps up the tradition, being another painfully mediocre follow-up to a masterpiece. There’s not a whole lot to say about the tracks here: musically, they harken back to their sound on Innocence & Instinct, but the songwriting feels uninspired and the tracks aren’t given enough time to breathe (the album itself is 10 tracks and barely gets over the 30 minute mark, so that should give you a good idea of just how brief these songs are). That said, the second half of the album is a bit better than the first, with tracks “The Suffering” and “Still Bleeding” injecting the album with a bit of soul and energy, although it isn’t quite enough to save the album as a whole. Well, if nothing else, I guess this means that the next time RED releases an album it’s going to be amazing… right?
15) Crypt of Ancestral Knowledge, Wolves in the Throne Room (Bandcamp)
Primordial Arcana was, for most of 2021, my favourite album of the year until Moonflowers and God is Partying snuck in and took the crown from it. Crypt of Ancestral Knowledge acts as a sort of stop-gap epilogue to that album, giving us a handful of tracks which mostly stick to the atmospheric black folk metal sound Wolves in the Throne Room had established on Primordial Arcana. It can go a bit beyond just sticking to the same sound though; “Twin Mouthed Spring” lift riffs directly from Primordial Arcana and they even have an instrumental reinterpretation of “Spirit of Lightning” (renamed “Initiates of the White Hart”), which strips out the black metal and instead becomes a clash between folk and industrial music. It’s interesting, but it’s also kind of indicative of Crypt as a whole – there’s certainly some ideas here, but I wouldn’t have been left wanting if they had just waited until they had a full album ready. As-is, Crypt of Ancestral Knowledge kind of feels like a Primordial Arcana b-sides EP and doesn’t do much to provoke interest on its own merits and lacks the meticulous craftsmanship that Wolves in the Throne Room usually bring.
14) Volume IV, September Mourning
Holy shit, now that the NFT fad has cratered, September Mourning finally decided to get around to releasing Volume IV two years late. I hope that the NFT bullshit was worth it for them*, because now that it’s here, Volume IV is a bit underwhelming for me. It’s basically more September Mourning: uncomplicated pop-metal with little in the way of evolution since they established their modern sound on Volume II back in 2016. Fans will enjoy it no doubt, but September Mourning’s sound is so simple that it might be downright unimpressive to those unfamiliar with them. For my part, the music here is fine, but it doesn’t have the same sort of impact that Volume II did for me back when I first heard it. I dunno if that’s due to disillusionment after all the NFT bullshit, but I do not think so. For what it’s worth, there are a couple songs which do stand out, “Empty” and “Kill This Love” easily my favourite tracks of the bunch; if you haven’t listened to September Mourning before, maybe check these out.
*Seems to have been, a few months after putting out Volume IV, they released a single to promote some other NFT project…
13) Interludium, Powerwolf
God forbid Powerwolf go a year without finding a way to milk more money out of their rabid fanbase, this year’s annual release is a bit of a strange beast. Featuring six original tracks, three re-released B-sides, and a French version of “Beast of Gévaudan”, I’m tempted to call it an over-glorified EP masquerading as a full album. Powerwolf are really good at making music, so the new tracks achieve that baseline quality you’d expect from them. However, when you’ve already heard two tracks on this album years ago and they happen to be the highlights of the album, it’s fair to feel a bit underwhelmed.
It wouldn’t be a new Powerwolf album without meaty bonus discs, including an orchestral version of each track from the main album, and the real feast, Communio Lupatum II. I’m always super interested in these Powerwolf cover albums, because while most of the songs do not work when taken out of Powerwolf’s signature style, there always end up being a couple diamonds in the rough. Luckily, Communio Lupatum II happens to be the best Powerwolf bonus disc since Metallum Nostrum way back in 2015, with several solid covers, including “Reverent of Rats”, “Stossgebet” and “Night of the Werewolves”. Particular highlights are “Dancing With the Dead” and “Venom of Venus”, which both transform the original work in interesting ways and easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Powerwolf originals. All-in-all, Communio Lupatum II is a more interesting album than the actual album it’s a bonus to and it’s a nice change of pace that there are more hits here than misses for once.
12) Last Days EP, Impending Doom (Bandcamp; note that this EP is not on their Bandcamp page for some reason)
Last Days is an extremely slight release from Impending Doom, clocking in at barely over 10 minutes. Consequently, it probably doesn’t help that the three tracks here are just more of their signature deathcore sound with basically no innovation or particularly interesting hooks. That’s not to say that Last Days is bad, it’s perfectly enjoyable, it’s just uninteresting. Given that the band’s last release was also an EP, you could maybe mash this and Hellbent together for a longer listen. Oh and the band has still managed to not go on an anti-woke tirade in their lyrics, so I consider that a win as well.
11) Obliterate Me EP, Coping Method (Bandcamp; note that the EP is here, but as a series of separate singles rather than a single collection)
Coping Method came up in one of my random mixes on Spotify so I thought I’d check them out. They’re primarily a metalcore band, although there is some electronic/EDM fusion here, especially evident in “Hypomania” (which is probably the highlight track of the EP). For the most part though, their sound is solid but not enough to put them over the top for me into really enjoyable. Definitely worth a listen, especially “Hypomania”, but not one that will likely stick with me over a long period of time.
10) Die About It, Bad Wolves
I feel bad for Bad Wolves: they showed a ton of promise on their first two albums, being one of the most exciting bands in hard rock/metal at the time. But after their extremely bitter breakup with former frontman Tommy Vext, and their subsequent album, Dear Monsters, being rather mediocre, that excitement has been completely dampened. Understandably, I went into Die About It with a lot of caution. What I got wasn’t quite what I expected. Dear Monsters really played it safe, with lots of radio-friendly hard rock. Die About It doesn’t shy away from that kind of music, but it’s also extremely scatter-shot in terms of sound and musical variety, akin to the shotgun-blast approach that defined their debut album, Disobey. We’ve got full-on metal tracks like “Bad Friend”, rap-metal on the title track, heart-felt ballads like “It’s You (2 Months)”, a full-on moody sax solo in “NDA”… like I said, they’re all over the place on this album. I’m not even sure I particularly liked a lot of the tracks on the album, but they go in so many directions that it’s at least constantly interesting and a step up from Dear Monsters. I’m still nowhere near the enthusiasm I had for Bad Wolves before 2020, but Die About It at least charts a more intriguing future direction for the band going forward.
9) Cenotaph, Mechina (Bandcamp)
Venator was one of my favourite albums of 2022, and a big reason why I listened to way less albums this year is because I spent about half of the year listening to Mechina’s entire discography on repeat. They are powerhouses, putting out a new album nearly every year, all telling one epic sci-fi tale of war and revenge. Their music has also undergone some major changes over the years, starting as full-on death metal and slowly getting to the more melodic, industrial metal sound they demonstrated on Venator. Going into Cenotaph, our heroes have declared war on the tyrant Enyo and the first battle is to be waged… and, somewhat unfortunately, Cenotaph doesn’t really live up to how exciting that premise is. Cenotaph has far less energy to it than Venator did, and now that I’ve seen how heavy Mechina used to be, it makes Cenotaph stick out even more. That’s not to say that it’s a bad album by any means, in fact it’s far more musically-diverse than Venator, but its slower, softer tone is a bit disappointing. It helps that this album was released on the first day of the year, because it has given me some time to come to appreciate it more – if it had released much later in the year, I probably would have ranked it much lower.
That said, a special mention has to go to a massive single Mechina released halfway through the year, “Blessings Upon the Field Where Blades Will Flood”. It’s not really in contention for its own entry since it is just a single, despite being 18 minutes long (!!!), but this is exactly what I was hoping to get out of Cenotaph, musically. It’s far heavier and has a faster tempo, with some actual roared vocals to complement and contrast Melrose’s angelic voice. This track caps off that chapter of the story well and leads into the future, promising a massive showdown to come. I’m hoping it’s also a sign that Mechina are aware of some of their fans’ criticisms about their musical direction, so with any luck the next album will sound a bit more like this. I know I’m crossing my fingers excitedly.
8) Godmode, In This Moment
In This Moment have been one of my favourite bands for nearly a decade now and I would say that they haven’t had a bad album in all that time… Godmode really tested that devotion though. When I first listened to it, I really did not like it. As I was listening to it I kept feeling that it was uninspired (probably doesn’t help that some songs, like “Skyburner”, are straight-up rehashing lyrics and themes from prior albums wholesale). However, after a few listens, Godmode really grew on me. The main evolution here is that In This Moment are steadily working more electronic elements into their sound that we’ve been hearing since Mother and Blood 1983. On the plus side, they’ve at least restored some of the heaviness that was missing in those two albums, but it took me a few listens to really appreciate tracks like “Army of Me”, “The Purge”, and “Sacrifice”. All that said, I instantly loved “Damaged”, featuring Ice Nine Kills’ Spencer Charnas. Like all of In This Moments’ duet tracks, “Damaged” is awesome, bringing a sudden shot of adrenaline to the whole album. I’d still put this as my second least favourite In This Moment album overall, but I’m glad I gave Godmode a few chances, because I’m legitimately enjoying it now and I think it stands well amongst the rest of their discography, even if it isn’t the most distinct album they’ve put out by any means.
7) NÄE’BLISS, Red Cain (Bandcamp)
I really enjoyed Red Cain’s Kindred duology, so I was excited when news of a full-length follow-up came out. NÄE’BLISS iterates on Red Cain’s epic dark fantasy metal sound, but for the most part this is a somewhat heavier version of what they were doing in Kindred. That is far from a bad thing though, as every track on this album stands out and feels like a piece of a greater whole. They have said that this album is inspired by The Wheel of Time; I haven’t read the series myself, but this lack of context didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment of NÄE’BLISS. Really, my biggest complaint is that the album art is either AI-generated, or it’s so surreal that it’s indistinguishable from AI… I haven’t been able to get a straight answer, but it’s a pretty bad look for up-and-coming creatives to be utilizing these sorts of tools (especially since Kindred‘s art was so good). There’s a basis here for some rather evocative imagery, but knowing that it’s probably AI-generated makes it orders of magnitude less interesting.
6) Delain, Dark Water (Bandcamp)
I got really excited as soon as I saw the cover for this album – I mean, just look at it! I need more good, non-Alestorm pirate metal in my life and Dark Waters delivers. Calling it “pirate metal” is kind of a misnomer though, this is firmly a symphonic metal album with pirate-themed lyrics, and it sounds just like what you’d expect from a symphonic metal band – operatic female vocals, not too heavy, etc. That said, there are some really good tracks on here, like “The Quest and the Curse”, “Invictus” and “Underland”. Dark Waters is not treading any new ground, but it’s well-made and happened to find me at a time when I was looking for something exactly like this, so it gets some extra points for that.
5) OMNI: Part 1, Project 86
I spent half of my review of Project 86’s prior album, Sheep Among Wolves, trying to make excuses for Andrew Schwab’s transphobia in album-closer “Metempsychosis”. Project 86 had been one of my favourite bands for a decade at that point, so it was hard for me to admit that they had done something shitty. Well, I came to terms with it very shortly after publishing that review and, honestly, the realization has completely soured my relationship with this band, to the point where even the announcement of their farewell album left my bitter heart with nothing more than hope that they wouldn’t tarnish their legacy even more. However, through the development of this final album, Andrew Schwab continued shitting the bed with an email implying that they wanted to get into NFTs and then platforming reactionaries with “just asking questions” bullshit on his podcast. All of this was said to tie into the final album’s themes, so you can expect that my anticipation for OMNI: Part 1 was at absolute rock-bottom through this entire year.
However, you can see that OMNI: Part 1 is not at, or near, the bottom of this list, which should be an indication that I give a fair shake, even to projects that I am strongly biased against going in. Honestly, Andrew Schwab’s problematic politics don’t really shine through in OMNI, which is more concerned with how social media is ushering us into a corporate autocracy (best exemplified with “Virtual Signal”… which, yes, is a bit too analogous to “virtue signal” for me to not side-eye it). Oh, and also some weird, apocalyptic Antichrist shit.
In spite of all the baggage, Andrew Schwab is still a fantastic lyricist and this is easily the heaviest Project 86 album of all time, pushing into full-on metalcore territory at times. This was a very pleasant surprise as my own tastes have gotten heavier over time, so it’s not even as jarring as it may otherwise have been (for that matter, an old friend of mine who really likes Project 86 did not get on with this album very well because it was harder than they would like). It’s not really an album where individual tracks stand out to you, it’s more about the overall listening experience, and in that regard OMNI: Part 1 delivers much better than I expected. However, it does suffer somewhat from the litany of extended interlude tracks, especially towards the second half of the album, where we get interludes longer than some of the actual songs. These do help set the dark tone, but the sheer number of them make the listening experience drag eventually. All that said, while my relationship with Project 86 is irrevocably soured at this point, but I’m glad to see the band go out with their dignity intact. Part 2 comes out next spring, so I’ll be sure to cover it as well in 2024.
4) The Forgotten EP, Orbit Culture (Bandcamp)
Orbit Culture have had quite a year. They already released a full-length album in 2023 and then, surprisingly, four months later put out an EP as well. Based on the title and release window, I assumed that The Forgotten was just a series of b-sides, carved off and sold to fans for an extra dollar. While $1 for some b-sides would actually be a decent (if unremarkable) deal, The Forgotten does not feel like an after-thought. Rather, it feels like a proper release in its own right and easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its full-length sibling.
First-off, The Forgotten is a meaty EP, clocking in over 18 minutes long across three tracks (which is no mean feat, considering that the album which came out four months earlier was nearly 50 minutes long in its own right, and Orbit Culture’s music is fast and aggressive, so filling out time is harder for them than some other bands). That wouldn’t mean much if the music wasn’t good, but there are some really solid tracks here. “While We Serve” is deliciously heavy and demonstrates how Orbit Culture love to build up tension across the track’s runtime before changing tempo and becoming even more heavy as they change up the track’s sound. I was headbanging the entire time, it was great.
Meanwhile, “The Upheaval” starts out strangely, spending the first minute or so with a heavy sound, but an intentionally-delayed tempo, before letting loose and going back to their usual fast and aggressive tempo. It’s relatively short at four and a half minutes, but each minute takes you on a journey to a new soundscape.
Unfortunately, the closer, “Sound of the Bell”, is pretty disappointing. As Orbit Culture’s longest song, I was hoping for something akin to “A Sailor’s Tale” off of their previous Shaman EP, but the track takes about six and a half minutes to really get going, and then when it finally does get going, it doesn’t escalate any further and instead just peters out. It’s not an awful track by any means, but it is a limp way to end an otherwise stellar EP. If “Sound of the Bell” was a bit better, this could have actually been my album of the year, but alas.
Overall, The Forgotten is a bite-sized distillation of Orbit Culture’s sound and the elements which make them such an enjoyable band. They’re not doing anything different or revolutionary with their sound here, but considering the turn-around time and the price you’d pay for this album, not to mention the actual quality of most of the music here, it’s another fantastic release in a banner year for Orbit Culture.
3) Convinced, Anberlin (Bandcamp)
After waiting eight years for new music from Anberlin, I wasn’t really expecting more new music from them quite so soon, but I am not going to complain either! For the most part, this is just more Anberlin. That would be fine on its own, but the whole package is elevated significantly by “Banshee”, a fantastic track which stands strong amongst the best songs Anberlin have ever put out. Once again, Convinced is another rather slight collection that leaves you wanting more, but Silverline is still recent enough that it makes for a good double-feature, almost like a full album released in two parts over a year.
2) Dethalbum IV, Dethklok
After 10 long years, Metalocalypse fans finally got the finale we’ve long been waiting for in 2023 and, frankly, never thought we’d receive. Even more surprising is that Army of the Doomstar is about as strong of a finale as fans could have reasonably hoped for, especially considering how inconsistent the series’ quality can be. As a cherry on top of all this, we’ve also gotten Dethalbum IV, which I’m also shocked and pleased to find is far better than I was expecting. So many albums from my favourite bands this year have been disappointing and it’s left me wondering if I’m just getting grumpy and old, but as soon as Dethalbum IV got underway I was flooded with excitement. This album is classic Dethklok through-and-through: energetic, epic, hilariously over-the-top death metal that you can’t help but crank the volume up on and headbang along to. Like any good Dethklok album, the music stands on its own and can be enjoyed even if you don’t watch or like Metalocalypse. Every song on here is solid, but I really loved “Gardener of Vengeance” and (unsurprisingly) “Murmaider III” is probably the most epic of them all.
1) Descent, Orbit Culture (Bandcamp)
Orbit Culture screamed their way into my heart with 2021’s Shaman, with their mixture of heavy, aggressive death metal instantly winning them a devoted fan. Descent has been probably my most anticipated album of the year and Orbit Culture did not disappoint. If you’ve listened to Orbit Culture before, then you’re not really going to be surprised (and if you haven’t listened to Orbit Culture, then do it, goddammit!). This is very much the same sound they have been refining for years now, but why reinvent the wheel when it’s still working? On Descent, Orbit Culture are still delivering great, catchy tracks like “From the Inside”, “Vultures of the North” and “Undercity” that make you want to scream and headbang along. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s quality, and sometimes that is more than enough.