If you’ve seen a live Deafheaven show, you know how terrifying this disarmingly beautiful band can be. Rising to prominence in the wake of Liturgy’s buzz-heavy landing, but with much more substance and a hard-nosed touring ethic to back it up, Deafheaven is that rare not-entirely-black metal band which your hipster friend, the crust punk down the street and a post-rock nerd have probably all tripped out to together over a beer or more serious substance. While they weren’t the first band to combine black metal with Slowdive-referencing shoegaze, Sunbather has helped them easily exceed all except subgenre creator Alcest (who they do surpass live) as the best band to pin down and define metalgaze while pushing it to the front of the underground. “Dream House” and “The Pecan Tree” are this year’s best opening and closing tracks on any album, but the lines between ghastly blackness and haunting, chiming sheets of sound are blurred into a near seamless mix throughout Sunbather. Where Alcest seems to have peaked with 2010’s similarly otherworldly Ecailles de Lune, Deafheaven has grown tremendously and shows no signs of stopping, even after this mind-bending second album that fully deserves all of the breathless accolades it’s been receiving. Sure it gets a little bogged down in Godspeed-like atmospheric melodrama at times, but strip away the pretentiousness, and the weight under it is skin-searing.
It’s often the polarizing records and artists that have the deepest impact. Ghost was almost universally acclaimed when Rise Above released Opus Eponymous back at the turn of 2011, but two years, an added B.C. abbreviation to keep the copyright lawyers happy and a major label jump later, the metal underground had decidedly mixed opinions on Ghost’s daring experimentation as seen on Infestissumam. “Year Zero” is the metal single of the year, but it also has elements of disco. “Ghuleh – Zombie Queen” is the centerpiece of the album, yet it has a winking surf rock break that’s perfectly tongue-in-cheek. But that’s the secret to Ghost; seductive, subversive and Satanic all at the same time, their ability to flip from Mercyful Fate-inspired blackened rock to 60s and 70s psychedelia combines with their onstage theatrics to bring pure pulp fiction to life, designed to upend the metal elitists as fully as mainstream sensibilities. Ghost is hoping that their fans are in on the concept, and with this kind of songwriting, it’s hard not to be. No metal artist had a greater cultural impact than Ghost this year, and in fact, it’s tempting to attribute the sheer influx of amazing retro-minded rock-leaning metal records this year in part to Ghost’s ripple effect over the past three years. It feels completely new and envelope-pushing while still containing impeccable songs, and if not for how hard the first half of this record outstrips the second, it would be my unquestioned favorite from this year. As it is, it’s the one metal album from 2013 we’re guaranteed to be talking about ten years from now, and that’s almost as thrilling as whatever this brilliant band can think up to do next.
Surgical Steel is a weird beast for me. At least four songs from this album – “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System,” “Noncompliance,” “Unfit for Human Consumption” and “316L Grade Surgical Steel” – are among the best tracks Carcass has ever recorded, to the point that they’re where I reflexively skip to with every listen. Yet there’s also a ton of moments that I don’t remember as well, plus I’m a full-on Mike Amott fanboy that can’t help missing his presence despite Bill Steer’s throne-watching, all-world melodic death guitar performance here. But as I tried to puzzle out what was missing for me, I realized two things: a.) I’ve worn this Carcass shirt three times in the same month, and b.) my only real issue is that this isn’t quite as good as Heartwork, which is an impossible standard for almost any band to hit, including Carcass with two remaining from their classic lineup 20 years later. That said, it’s still the best death metal record of 2013. It’s not the world-capsizing record some have made it out to be and some of it feels stuck in old B-side cruise control (especially in the middle stretch), but it’s a damn good Carcass album, and I’d be hard-pressed to ask one of my favorite bands of all time for anything else.