Onto the third week of /Countdown/2023 on amodelofcontrol.com, and this week I’m looking at the best albums of the year. As I’m sure I’ve explained before, I treat the “year” as 01-December to 30-November, to allow me a cut-off point, and to allow this to be done and dusted before Christmas so that I can take the usual break from writing over most of the holiday period..
/2021/The Anchoress /The Art of Losing
/2020 /I LIKE TRAINS /KOMPROMAT
/2019 /Boy Harsher /Careful
/2018 /Promenade Cinema /Living Ghosts
/2017 /Seeming /SOL
/2016 /KANGA /KANGA
/2015 /Dead When I Found Her /All The Way Down
/2014 /3 TEETH /3 TEETH
/2013 /Front Line Assembly /Echogenetic
/2011 /This Morn’ Omina /L’Unification Des Forces Opposantes
/2010 /Edge of Dawn /Anything That Gets You Through The Night
/2009 /Alice In Chains /Black Gives Way To Blue
/2008 /Aesthetic Perfection /A Violent Emotion
/2007 /Battles /Mirrored
/2006 /In Strict Confidence /Exile Paradise
/2005 /Cyanotic /Transhuman
/2004 /Rotersand /Truth Is Fanatic
2023 has been a year of flux. We’re increasingly seeing shorter albums, and an ever-increasing number of younger artists that are (rightly) upending expectations and norms in terms of style, sound and genre. But the flood of releases never abated, and I’ve somehow managed to keep this to fifty out of hundreds of releases that I heard this year. If I missed out your release, I’m sorry. Maybe next time…
A few intriguing statistics. Firstly, once again, forty-two of the fifty albums here are available on Bandcamp this year, and there are artists from ten countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. Women and non-binary people are not greatly represented again, though (21 out of 127 band members), which is a lesser proportion than last year. As I note every year, I do not aim for any bias in my choices – everything here is on merit – and the stats continue to confirm that much of the music that we listen to in the “alternative” side of things is still biased in favour of men.
While I still try and keep the broad focus of the music covered here to the wider sphere of industrial music, I also listen to other music and thus the spread here is perhaps a bit wider than you might otherwise expect. You know what, though? Try some of this music. Especially the stuff you don’t recognise or don’t know. Go for it – I love hearing new music that someone else has enthused about, trying to understand what’s so awesome about it. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it will take days or weeks to click, and hopefully, something here will do that to you.
Time to cue the music. You can listen along on Spotify or Youtube. Links to the right.
One of the most surprising release announcements of 2023 was that a fifth Sparklehorse album was coming – especially seeing as Mark Linkous took his own life in 2010. As it turned out, Linkous had recorded a good proportion of this album before his death, and some years later his brother Matt and sister-in-law Melissa took on the work of completion before release, I’m usually pretty cynical about posthumous releases, frankly – as all-too-often those doing the curation and completion add too much of their own ideas, but here Matt and Melissa had contributed to Sparklehorse work before, and the result here is a magical album that genuinely feels like a continuation of what we had. There are moments of delicate beauty, of riotous joy, but also of deep darkness and sorrow. Mark Linkous was a complicated soul, and he wrote extraordinary songs. That we have this at all, and that it is as good as it is, is enough for me to celebrate it. And, if it introduces a new generation to the beauty of his music, even better.
/Brutalist Architecture In The Sun
Going very much against the grain these days, the latest Brutalist Architecture In the Sun release is an hour long, and with fourteen songs is perhaps a tad longer than it needs to be, too. But that minor gripe aside, this Medway Towns-based duo make stark, bleak synthpop that fits their name neatly. Their songs drip with the experience of living in grey, suburban towns in Britain, and while the (many) dancefloor-bound tracks here are impressive, when they head into ballad territory they are even better (such as on the lovelorn Walls, the best song on the album). This is synthpop with one eye on the eighties, where synths were more primitive, and the songs were uncluttered, but don’t see this as a tribute to the past. The present is just as a depressing place to be, as this duo know only too well.
/Sins of the Future
This year hasn’t exactly been short of good industrial music, but a relative newcomer released an excellent album to add to the listening list this year. An American-Danish duo, Emergency Sequence provided a solid album of modern electro-industrial, not so much in thrall to the past as using their influences as a springboard to create something distinctly modern. In fact, too, there is also a feel of a kinship with long-time amodelofcontrol.com favourite Slighter on some songs (particularly mid-album highlight Poison, where they slow the tempo down and fashion dark, alluring atmospheres. Also of note is their impressive cover of Savage Republic’s 1938, a song that sadly remains all too relevant.
/Integrated Tech Solutions
New York rapper Aesop Rock released his ninth album this year, and based it around a subject I see a lot of: consumerism, corporate speak and promises to change your life – even to the extent of, hilariously, opening the album with a plausible sounding advertorial for a fictional company Integrated Tech Solutions. Oh yes, this theme goes deep. So there are critiques of this era of billionaires promising you the world while literally breaking everything, but there are also touching moments involving meeting Mr T., drawing pigeons, cooking and eating comfort food, the joy of rivers, rethinking appreciation of Van Gogh (and thoughts on the concept of failure!) and supporting fellow aspiring rappers. There’s an awful lot going on here, and the laid-back nature of the beats allows for Aesop’s verbose (to say the least!) flow to be fully heard, and it’s a joy.
/I Am The Shadow – I Am The Light
Something of a side-project, this duo (Kain from Les Berrtas and Tinoc from Amnistia) released an impressive first album this year. A dark, brooding electro-industrial album, which very much is influenced by some of the more thoughtful industrial from the nineties, the stuff that wasn’t generally aiming at the dancefloor and instead rewarded repeat listens on headphones. Part of that is down to the impressive sonic depth on offer, but also because this is an album that rarely raises the tempo. And why should it? The title should give it away, although there isn’t much light on offer. There are some great highlights, too, such as the stately proclamations of Shadowlight, and the creepy, fabulous Mentallo & The Fixer vibes of Deepest Fear. Just to wrongfoot us, too, Reality & Fiction proves that can provide a perfectly good dancefloor track if they want to. A solid diversion down a rarely-trodden industrial path these days.
/Season of Mist
I was amused when I first posted about this album, one reader took umbrage with the post-punk description the band use, suggesting instead that “they are most definitely fucking goths“. They have a point: this is less a band enamoured with Joy Division, and more a band that love the Nephs. This is aggressive, hard-edged gothic rock (with a drum machine), and it’s absolutely great. Amid the multitude of nods to the past, there are great songs here, and a band that have found their own way.
/To Be Cruel
The world was a very different place in 2009, when Khanate last released an album. In retrospect, perhaps Khanate were already seeing the bleak future, judging on the towering nastiness of their music, and so their unannounced, unexpected return to that vicious outlook in 2023 was entirely in keeping with what they do. Something of a doomy supergroup, with alumni of some of the most notable bands in the sphere, it should be not surprising to find that their brutally slow music is difficult listening. But if you are interested in this kind of thing – lava-flow speed drums, riffs that chime into infinity, and a vocalist whose howls of pain sound like someone who has seen the whole future of mankind and is still processing all the information – this is a glorious album. Sixty-one minutes, three songs, and a suffocating power quite unlike anything else released in 2023.
I think it’s fair to say that, four albums in, we know what to expect from 3TEETH: grinding, heavy industrial rock that has settled somewhat into a predictable pattern. Three years of lockdown, and a fair amount of time spent in the California desert, though, seems to have at least made the band think a bit harder about what to do next. Which involved more collaborations, among other things: an excellent track with Ho99o9, and most notably, working with videogame music artist Mick Gordon. It’s clear that this latter teamup has influenced this album for the better, with a beefy sound and impressive depth to the mix, and some of the tracks here absolutely slap: the muscular moshpit-friendly, eco-nightmare of Slum Planet is one of the best 3TEETH tracks in ages, while the rolling fury of Merchant of the Void is a stomping monster. Also of note is the now traditional cover that closes the album, a surprisingly straight take on Everybody Wants to Rule the World that’s actually a lot of fun.
One of the more relentless albums of year comes from Andy Cairns (Therapy?), as well as members of Sex Swing, Petbrick and Three Trapped Tigers – and if you’re familiar with any of these bands, think of all of them playing at once and it might give you an idea of just how much there is going on here. Pulverising drums, layers of guitars, synths, noise and no little bass are combined with the familiar vocal work of Cairns, and the result is vastly more than the sum of it’s parts. Sure, these songs aren’t going to be bothering the singles charts, or aiming for Christmas Number One anytime soon, but what this is, is a hugely enjoyable and loud bit of release from four creative minds who have a surprising amount in common, it seems.
/How It Ends
/Metal Blade Records
Thirty years since their formation was marked this year by the Irish metal titans, and How It Ends was their first album in five years – and hints in the press releases seemed to suggest that it could be their swansong. But that might also be down to the subject matter, as rather clearly A.A. Nemtheanga has been looking at the world in the past few years and wondering, like many of us, that an ignominous end was coming our way as COVID swept the world. This is an album with much to say about the failings of mankind both now and in history, and Nemtheanga’s vocals here have a more strained, angry quality than even they had before (which is saying something). The band otherwise stick to their guns, too, in an era of ever-shorter albums to suit modern attention spans, this sprawls well beyond an hour but isn’t overblown or overlong. Indeed, the final, majestic kiss-off, Victory Has 1000 Fathers, Defeat Is An Orphan is one of the best songs the band have released in years, a clarion call to keep on fighting, no matter what the odds.
/Sky Void of Stars
I felt like I was alone somewhat in loving City Burials, the Katatonia album released as COVID hit, an album that saw the band explore different textures and sounds, and maybe that’s why many weren’t so happy with it. Sky Void of Stars brought the guitars back to the fore, but otherwise didn’t feel a million miles from it’s predecessor: dreamy passages combined with heavy riffs and Jonas Renske sounding like he’s at the limits of things both physically and mentally. There are – unexpectedly – nods to KISS and Swedish indie darlings Kent, but also to Paradise Lost, there are some of the best choruses the band has ever written (especially the soaring elegance of Author), and a general feeling that Katatonia are comfortable in their position of no longer having anything to prove, twelve albums in.
The companion album to last year’s exceptional NULL sees the band less raging, but no less intense. It’s probably a good thing, actually, as NULL was so vicious that it was difficult to listen to too many times. VOID is darker, and while it by no means pulls punches, brings the tempo down and that Swans influence that was present on previous songs really does come to the fore here – such as on the pummelling, relentless three minute coda to A Reluctance of Being, which adds squealing saxophone to the repetitive carnage. Elsewhere, lead track The Shrike is oddly melodic and memorable in four rampaging minutes, while He Was A Good Man, He Was A Taxpayer has a pitch-dark edge from the point of view of both sides of a death, it seems. This takes you down into the depths of human despair, sure, but it is a remarkably enjoyable and listenable trip, if you can deal with it.
/Minus Head Records
Sacramento-based noise-metallers Will Haven have never exactly been prolific – this is their first album in five years, and only their seventh in twenty-six years – but they’ve always been high-quality, and VII continues that trend. While they are usually best experienced live – where the sheer force and volume of the band is something to behold, as I found out once again upon their return to London in the autumn – they’ve never exactly shirked on record either. It isn’t, either, all bludgeoning force, but if you want that, the furious, chugging rage of 5 of Fire will sort you here, and elsewhere increased use of synths as texture and a noted move to standing back from the precipice means some unexpectedly measured moments in songs. For All Future Time and Wings of Mariposa both use swooning synths to great effect, while the closing La Ultima Nota is something of a cushioned landing, being mostly ambient synths and a dramatic powerchord to see us off.
For some reason, Korine’s previous pair of albums didn’t fully click with me – and to this day I still can’t tell you why. But this third album clicked immediately, and that might be down to the outstanding pair of tracks that open this album. Both Mt. Airy and Burn the World are cut from similar cloth – heartfelt, striking synthpop that does an awful lot with comparatively little in the mix, leaving Morgy Ramone’s powerful vocals to carry the weight brilliantly. The rest of the album follows suit, with a snappy ten tracks in just thirty-five minutes leaving no filler whatsoever. The other highlight here? The belting, earworm-friendly hooks of Train to Harlem, that I had in my head for hours after I saw them live in the autumn.
/Black and White
The remarkable saga that MIAB has unfolded over nearly two decades entered it’s seventh instalment on the epic Black and White – the first album of new material from the Austrian cyberpunk/electronic project in six years or so. Who knows if it is the end of the saga – the climactic events that appear to occur this time around suggest that it could be, but then we’ve thought that before. But if you aren’t invested in the story, and just want extraordinary, emotional electronic music, MIAB have you covered there too.
The trademark vocal effects and complex song constructions are still present and correct, but that experience of (occasional and triumphant) live performance has continued to influence their sound in recent years, with a more human feel to much of the material – and indeed the odd reflection of the real world in the fantasy that they have created. Best experienced, as always with this band, as a whole piece as designed.
/The New Republic
The first Terminal album Blacken the Skies got lost a bit during the darkest periods of lockdown, frankly, which was a shame as it was an excellent album that took in, by the artist’s own description, industrial, rock and glam (read more in my interview on /Talk Show Host /072). The second album is perhaps more precise, heavier and angrier – looking again at the links between US politics and religion, with the opening lyric being the attention-grabbing “how many guns would Jesus buy?“. This is an album of political rage and disgust, unpicking the failings and asking how we got here. Musically, too, it’s fascinating, the dramatic flourishes making for an artist who sounds quite unlike anyone else.
/Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags
James McBain’s Hellripper project has made waves in recent times – and for good reason – as his distinctly old-school death/speed/thrash metal project has put new life into genres that can, at times, be a bit stale these days. As we found when seeing Hellripper live last year, the galloping rushes of his faster-paced songs are enormous fun – and they are shown at their best here by the marvellously titled Goat Vomit Nightmare and The Cursed Carrion Crown, both of which are likely to do hefty neck damage to anyone moshing along in time. Elsewhere, he delves into Scottish Island folklore (the outstanding thrash and proggy workout The Nuckelavee), and goes full-on epic in a couple of tracks that bring in bagpipes (no, really) and some truly jaw-dropping guitar work. All hail the goat!
Winner of the Canadian Polaris Music Prize this year, GOOD LUCK is a hell of an album. One of the many artists these days entirely uninterested in genre boundaries, Friday’s music takes in industrial, synthpop, electro, hip-hop, R&B and the odd nudge into outright noise, but at the centre, Debby Friday is a beguiling presence. Frank and powerful, their vocals anchor and hold together every moment of this impressive album, sometimes sensual, sometimes raging. HEARTBREAKERRR is an example of the latter, the minimal beats almost the only accompaniment to the explicit vocals, while the breathless I GOT IT would easily fill an industrial club dancefloor. Then there is album centrepiece WHAT A MAN, which initially appears to be a minimal R&B piece, before an epic guitar solo and Friday’s vocal histrionics take us somewhere entirely. An album that confounds at every turn.
/Voice of the Echo Chamber
The unexpected return of Flesh Field – after nearly twenty years since their meisterwerk album Strain – was one to celebrate in 2023. In many ways, Flesh Field stood out in 2004, and they sure as hell stand out still in 2023, too, their orchestrally-enhanced, stompingly heavy industrial compositions still sounding fresh and new, and also impressively different. The album title gives a hint as to the theme of the album, too, as Ian Ross rages against the far-right and their attempted takeover of the US (and elsewhere), with songs referencing violence, civil unrest and appalling politics, and it’s clear that Ross is disgusted with what he sees. Musically it picks up where previous albums left off – the highlight being the cresting wave of Rampage that crashes like a monstrous storm. Great to have Flesh Field back.
The last Gazelle Twin album, the seething Pastoral, was ostensibly about the fear of the other in rural England that had culminated in Brexit. Black Dog is once again about fear, but it is violently internalised. Apparently inspired by fear of what might lurk in the dark as a child, and how those fears manifest in adult life, this is an album that is genuinely creepy. Elizabeth Bernholz’s trademark vocal treatments are used here to distinctly unsettling effect, amid swirls of synths that either amass like angry spirits, or simply vanish away like they were never there. Voices chatter in the distance – and even more unsettlingly, right up at the front of the mix – and at every moment, there’s that uneasy fear that a jump scare is just around the corner. The fear is real, I can tell you.
The seething Leech, released late last year, gave us a hint that the new Dream Wife material was certainly going to have teeth, and so it proved with this excellent album. There are indie-rock bangers (in particular the fabulous and hilarious Hot (Don’t Date A Musician) featured last week), there are angry tracks, there are even songs about sex club uncertainty south of the river. Yes, this is at least partly inspired by the first wave of Riot Grrrl – angry, political and sex-positive music made by women – but it is also brilliantly crafted music that never takes itself too seriously, even when tackling necessary topics.
/God Is Dead
As Twin Temple have found out, one guaranteed way to rile fundamentalist Christians and right-wing scumbags (including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones) is to sing songs about satan. Of course, also including free will, enjoyment of sex, and pro-choice into the mix, and you’re really going to annoy them. God forbid that people might have a choice to make of their own, and that it’s not their business that people choose to have abortions, or sex outside of marriage, or just have fun with their lives: goodness knows that things are tough enough for many at the moment.
Anyway, Twin Temple’s take on sixties girl group sounds – complete with appropriate production stylings from the time – with an occultist, satanic slant is enormous fun, and Alexandra and Zac Jones really lean into the fact that free will is fun. Let’s Have A Satanic Orgy does exactly what it says on the tin, Be A Slut celebrates carnal pleasures and bodily autonomy, and the remarkably catchy Burn Your Bible strongly rejects Christian orthodoxy, but with a glint in it’s eye. It’s clear that they truly believe what they do, but also, that music and performance is entertainment. And this is a hugely entertaining half-hour. Hail satan!
The first Creep Show album was released, as they noted, in a different world – back in 2018. But the collaboration between John Grant and Wrangler (Benge, Phil Winter and Stephen Mallinder) was far too good to be left on the shelf, and this second album sees them playfully exploring their common musical interests. Electro, funk and soul all make their voices heard in an endearingly chaotic album, frankly, while both Grant and Mallinder see their voices twisted out of recognition by effects as part of it (try the absolutely barking bleeps and loops of Yahtzee! to see what I mean). But maybe, just maybe, the best moments come when the singers are allowed to be themselves, such as on the catty Money Back, but most notably on the outstanding title track, where John Grant puts in his best performance in years. Sometimes these collaborations fall flat, but this is bursting with ideas and you can just tell they had fun working together once again.
/This Futile Engine
Colin Cameron’s Slighter project has long been something of an outlier in the industrial scene, leaning deep into spacey techno, cavernous dub and downtempo sounds to bring a very different approach. The latest album continues his policy, too, of bringing in carefully-chosen collaborators, and it comes together to be his best album yet. It is still pitch dark and deeply moody, but the exquisite detail in the production and elegant songcraft makes for a deeply rewarding album. Best listened to either very loud or on very good headphones: you’ll need one or both to luxuriate in this.
The first OMD album since the outstanding The Punishment of Luxury has a good many exceptional highs. The band, of course, have nothing to prove in their later years – and indeed, hinted that this could be the last album they do – and have settled into a similar pattern. There are nods to other artists here (not least Slow Train, which playfully riffs on a similarly named Goldfrapp track, and of course the pervasive Kraftwerk influence that permeates most of what they do), there are searing political comments (the majestic title track, one of the best OMD tracks in decades, reflects on past and present fighting of the far-right; the cheery analysis of overpopulation in Anthropocene, and the savage takedown of demagogues on Kleptocracy), and the lush ballads here are joyously good too. Especially the glorious Veruschka, an ode to the legendary model and cinema that becomes the towering centrepiece of the album. It’s not all perfect, but OMD at this level are still better than pretty much all of their peers.
/Goodnight, God Bless, I Love U, Delete.
This project, featuring mainly Chino Moreno of Deftones and Shaun Lopez of Far, entered a fresh phase of activity over lockdown, with a handful of singles followed by the outstanding Permanent.Radiant EP at the end of 2022. Then, clearly in a burst of creativity, they followed this up with a full album in the autumn, under the unusual title of Goodnight, God Bless, I Love U, Delete.. Their often synth-based songs inhabit a sometimes very different part of the sonic world to Chino’s main band, that’s for sure, but then at other points some songs sound like they could be Deftones songs only if they added guitars.
It starts notably differently, though, with the exceptional Pleasure being based around an industrial drum pattern and a soaring, stuttering chorus. Elsewhere, El-P from Run the Jewels and even Robert Smith join the fray with impressive results, and proving once again that Chino Moreno in particular has long since completely transcended the old tag of “Nu Metal” – there is so, so much more going on here to enjoy.
While the full force of Mark Trueman’s project Choke Chain is best experienced live (where the intensity has to be seen to be believed), his debut album has the chops to impress on record too. While earlier releases perhaps suffered from rough and ready production – not an unusual issue with early releases from a nascent project, it has to be said – there was potential there, and it comes across in spades on Mortality. Pounding EBM synth stabs and punishing beats dominate the mix, with Trueman’s savage vocals – very much in a punk/hardcore style, as befits his musical origins – the perfect accompaniment. The rampaging Burial may take the honours as the best track here, but there’s much to like elsewhere on the release too.
I first heard Joey Gonzalez’s music in a very different form – his debut album proper Tension Strategies was super-tense, experimental synthpop for the most part, and that route was quickly discarded. Instead, he relocated from NYC to Berlin, and since has kept up a relentless schedule of thumping industrial techno releases, but none have been as great as this album. It’s become a bit boring to hear “industrial techno” as a descriptor in recent years – mainly because so much of it sounded exactly the same – but Gonzalez is one of those artists that has long had their feet in both camps, and here it shows. Pummelling, aggressive rhythms see all kinds of synth effects and samples weave in and out of the mix, with some clear nods to classic EBM in particular. Not least on the reverb-heavy carnage of Chained, which features Bon Harris of EBM pioneers Nitzer Ebb and wouldn’t sound out of place in a modern Ebb live set. An object lesson in how to keep industrial techno interesting.
The impressive third album in the second life of Godflesh had a – presumably deliberate – name close to the group’s second album Pure. There are definitely similarities in composition – particularly around the use of bulldozing hip-hop/breakbeat-style drum programming – and maybe, just maybe, this was Justin Broadrick’s way of righting his perceived wrong around the production of Pure. Otherwise, this is the duo back to their formidable best, with a nasty edge to many of the songs (particularly the bruising political and social fury of LANDLORD, which leaves no doubt whatsoever as to where Broadrick sits in the debate around property, that’s for sure), and while more measured tracks come later in the album, the first half is the heaviest the group have sounded in many, many years. Sure, if you weren’t a fan before, this is not going to convert you, but Godflesh found their niche a long time ago, and it’s still a pleasure for us fans to continue on the ride.
One of the more striking acts to emerge in recent years, it’s incredible to think that Kingsley Hall used to be in The Chapman Family. The darkness hinted at in that band is rather amplified in every way here: basically spoken/shouted word agitation alongside noisy (very noisy) electronics that are at points bracingly extreme.
But the harshness of the music isn’t the important thing here, the words are. Hall is clearly disgusted by the state of the nation, and wants to talk about it. So we get songs about blithely dealing with the image of empire, the devastation of Brexit – voted for by people that were outright lied to, national image and the union flag, poverty, racism, the decline of Britain generally.
Sure, this might appear obvious stuff, but while our politicians continue to try and find other reasons, any reason, to avoid confronting the obvious problems, this is a surprisingly nuanced look at what right now feels like a bleak place from where there is no immediate escape.
The nowadays Brexit-supporting John Lydon once memorably sang “Anger is an energy”. Benefits are admirable proof of that line.
/Teeth of the Sea
Teeth of the Sea have never been a band to stand still, and so it proved once again on their first album in nearly five years. Where Wraith was all ominous electronics and cavernous bass, Hive feels so much lighter in some respects. Anchored around three pieces adapted from their Apollo’s Moon Shot live soundtrack work, elsewhere they surprisingly add vocals (Kath Gifford of Snowpony doing the honours) to the gorgeous synthpop of Butterfly House, and their trademark morose trumpets herald the experimental techno of Liminal Kin.
The best tracks, though, are where Teeth of the Sea go all in. The gigantic prog-meets-Underworld-meets-alien-lifeforms epic of Megafragma is absolutely staggering, while Get With The Program rudely interrupts the mellow atmospheres around it with brutally loud force (that opening alarm call will shock a few unsuspecting ears), and more vocals, this time from one-time band member Mike Bourne. Particularly thanks to that latter track, it doesn’t quite flow like most Teeth of the Sea albums do, but it’s still an impressive work.
/The Age of Pleasure
“I’m looking at a thousand versions of myself, And we’re all fine as fuck” opens Phenomenal, and it’s hard to disagree with Janelle Monáe. This album is less sci-fi concept album, and more about Monáe themselves. She makes it clear that she is bi, polyamorous and having the time of her fucking life on this album, which celebrates her, her life, her lovers and very much feels like an escape from the horrors of the wider world. Videos from singles on the album were just as unsubtle – mostly filmed in Caribbean sunshine with few clothes and even less inhibitions – and they fit the mood entirely. They even get Grace Jones and Seun Kuti involved, and they only help make this sound even more fun that it already was. Sure, it feels a bit fleeting at just half-an-hour, but clearly Monáe was keen to get back to the various demands of her new life and the obvious fun that she’s having. It’s hard to begrudge her that.
/I’ve Seen A Way
A very much unexpected critical darling in 2023 was Manchester-based group Mandy, Indiana. They had built momentum with a handful of prior releases, as well as powerful live shows, and for this album they were smart enough to include only material. Their sound is eclectic to say the least, as they take in roaring industrial power, rhythmic techno, experimental ambient and striking use of found sounds (and creative places to record them in), and perhaps surprisingly based on that description, this is an enjoyable, entertaining listen.
Part of that is down to Valentine Caulfield’s passionately delivered vocals in French, which adds a different edge to proceedings, but also the way that her voice weaves in and out of some particuarly bracing passages – like her shrieks as Drag [Crashed] whips up a frenzied climax, or her deadpan instructions to two combatants on the mechanic force of Injury Detail.
It is, too, very much an album of two halves. Most of the noisier, rhythmic-based material is on the first half, with the more mellow (well, to a point!) taking up the second half, and it does mean the album peters out somewhat, and would do so a whole lot quicker were it not for the clipped drum’n’noise of Peach Fuzz which provides an enormous jolt in the closing stages.
/Darkness Falls Again
Their first album in eight years turned out to be another triumph. Nowadays synthpop/futurepop veterans, of course, the trio returned with eight songs that were all quite wonderful, as they put a brave face on a dark world. The lead single Dancer in the Dark turned out to be one of the most vital, dancefloor-friendly songs of the year (listen to it once, then try and get the hook out of your head in the days that follow. Best of luck), and that wasn’t the only one, as the furious environmental anthem Burning Gasoline was just as brilliant. But as always with this band, the slower songs are great too, particularly the sad resignation of I Watch My Life On TV. Keepers of a flame, frankly – there aren’t many artists making great, melodic synthpop of this kind left, it feels like – that they remain so good is something to celebrate.
The first full album of new material in a while from Clock DVA saw a return to the glowering, ominous foreboding that Adi Newton was always so good at. The technological future that they long since foresaw is here, and this album feels – even more than before – shrouded in a suffocating darkness. Rhythms are generally slow and stately, Newton’s vocals sound older and wiser, while other instruments and samples appear from the darkness out of nowhere. Adi Newton has always been a master of economy in his compositions, and here, the gaping maw of nothingness is ever present, daring us to look beyond what we see for the terrors of what we don’t. We never looked to Clock DVA for positivity and sunlit sounds, sure, but this as dark – and as brilliant – as it gets.
/Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter
/Perpetual Flame Ministries
It isn’t exactly news that Kristin Hayter’s music is not easy to listen to. Her work as Lingua Ignota was of scorching, vengeful power – either aimed at and inspired by those who have perpetuated appalling abuse at her or others, or later against a vengeful god who offers no respite. Hayter announced earlier this year that she was retiring the Lingua Ignota project, simply as it had run it’s course, and that it was clearly utterly exhausting both mentally and physically to play – and I was privileged to be at the first of the two final shows in London in the autumn (which was among the best shows I saw in 2023).
Her new project – under her (online) ordained title Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter – explores the idea of the Pentacostal musical tradition, and how you heal from trauma. Needless to say, even a more uplifting theme (of sorts!), that of healing and rebirth and belief, remains an extraordinary, engaging listen. Tape recordings are broken and twisted – on first listen I had to check what I was listening to wasn’t corrupted – like they are artifacts from another time, the piano that is mostly the only accompaniment is treated to all hell as well, while Hayter’s voice is not pushed to throat-shredding extremes like in the past. But it’s clear that she is still dealing with a lot, and the message here is that moving forward is not a straightforward process. Belief and hope and relationships are questioned, the sense of self is examined, but music remains an important central force. Once again, Hayter sounds like absolutely no-one else recording right now.
/(Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan)
/The Nation’s Most Central Location
/Castles In Space
One of the perhaps more surprising breakthroughs this past year or so has come from Gordon Chapman-Fox, whose retro-ambient electronics have struck a nerve. That might be because of the styling, but also the messaging – an artist reflecting on the new towns that were developed in his lifetime, and whose promise was mostly squandered. This is what I called “brutalist ambient”, stark melodies and drifting rhythms that evoke that post-war promise of renewal and rebirth, but really reflect the images of grey concrete and dank underpasses: with Chapman-Fox making his anger with the waste clear in the titles (A Brighter and More Prosperous Future, London’s Moving Our Way). A quite remarkable, and emotional album, to say that it is instrumental electronics…
The previous album, Vital, from Montreal trio BIG|BRAVE was a lot, but Nature Morte makes it feel like easy listening. The very fact that they are on the label Southern Lord should give a hint of what to expect, but if you’re expecting drones, think again. BIG|BRAVE make nerve-shredding, emotionally overwhelming rock music, in slow motion. Their songs unfold over often lengthy periods (three of the six songs here top nine minutes), and everything is held for longer than you expect. The drums and cymbals crash like earthquakes (as you might expect, this is best heard as loud as possible), but the centrepoint here is vocalist Robin Wattie, whose wracked, extraordinary vocals sound like they are extracting every inch of emotion from every moment they’ve suffered at the hands of men – and this is very much an album about women dealing with men. A difficult but necessary – and utterly brilliant – listen.
SMILE is Skindred’s eighth album in their twenty five years or so as a band, and to see them come within a whisker of a number one album in the summer was quite something. It was a success well deserved, too, as they’ve been a tireless touring band – not to mention fantastic fun live – and there’s been this feeling for a while that they might break through to bigger things.
It doesn’t hurt that this album contains one of the band’s greatest, catchiest songs: the groove monster that is Gimme That Boom. But this isn’t an album of one hit and a ton of filler. Set Fazers adds fun synths and sci-fi nods, while If I Could heads into power ballad territory for the mighty chorus – as does This Appointed Love, and of course they nail it.
It’s not all jump up metal, though, as L.O.V.E. (Smile Please) is a summer reggae anthem, while Black Stars brings in a choir as Benji Webbe bemoans the politics of today and calls for change.
The album ends on a positive note, though, as Benji stands up to any detractors and calls him and his band Unstoppable on another astoundingly catchy song. It’s hard to disagree on an album this great.
/How To Replace It
Over thirty years into the Belgian’s career, and their first album in a decade, and as is often the way, change is in the air. But then, that’s been one of the joys of dEUS: the restless energy that sees each album different to the last, as if Tom Barman and his bandmates couldn’t possibly countenance the idea of standing still.
That said, while the band sound slightly different, familiar dEUS concepts remain. Band harmonies and quirky hooks abound, and Barman still has that world weariness to his voice, as if he’s seen too much.
The overriding feel this time around, though, is one that examines endings and the passage of time. While the kettle drum led title track that opens the album has a confident swagger, as if leaving the past well behind, by the time of 1989, Barman leans into Cohen style balladry for a gorgeous lament about what could have been. And later in the album, on When Love Breaks Down, Barman sounds entirely bereft of hope.
It’s not gloom, though: Man of the House is a marvellous takedown of some awful men in social situations (and is a taut, almost funky track), while Faux Bamboo has a lightness of touch and gorgeous chorus that marks it an obvious highlight. Simple Pleasures is rather more complex than the title suggests: funky basslines accompany a shuffling beat and the chaos that swirls around them reminds me of Beck at his most playful.
I’ve followed this band for pretty much thirty years, since that first hearing of Suds and Soda, and they are a rare band whose new material always excites, and they remain a band who just do their own thing rather than following trends. This quite wonderful return very much does that, as well as providing much to think about as I too get older, and consider my own past.
/Death Folk Country
Dorthia Cottrell is better known as the vocalist for doom/psych band Windhand, but on her second solo album, she revealed a very different, more intimate-sounding side to her compositions. Without the distraction of walls of fuzzed-up riffage, her extraordinary vocal talents become clearer. This album is basically her and a guitar, and is, to put it mildly, pitch-dark folk music. These are songs examining the darker corners of human nature, of desire, of death, and of despair, and it’s absolutely enthralling.
/Desire, I Want To Turn Into You
Easily the best “pop” album of 2023 came from Caroline Polachek, who decided that rather than stick to one style, she could try all of them, and somehow, it worked. Things kick off with the joyously brilliant Welcome to my Island, as Polachek sets out what to expect and when the song lifts off with an outstanding chorus out of nowhere, you know you’re going to be in safe hands.
Elsewhere there are sunny spanish guitar melodies, gentle drum’n’bass beats, trap beats to songs about escaping content, even guest appearances from Grimes and Dido (on the same song, even if they are totally put in the shade by Polachek). Even better, though, are two extraordinary ballads. Crude Drawing of an Angel is sublime enough, but the peak of the album is the swooning desire of Butterfly Net, where Polachek’s vocal talent – already clear enough on the rest of the album – truly shines like the star she should be. Her magnum opus.
/Loma Vista Recordings
Yes, this was released after 30-Nov 2023, it breaks my self-imposed rule, but it’s so fucking good that I couldn’t not include it, right? And anyway, I usually break my rules around these posts at least once each year, so let’s do it for something really good, like RAT WARS. The HEALTH of 2023 is very, very different to the HEALTH I first encountered in, what, 2007 or so. They’ve evolved their sound so much, with less noise and more everything else, and on RAT WARS, it feels like they’ve absorbed elements of all of the collaborations they’ve done in recent years, honed their own sound and released the best version of themselves. The glorious opener DEMIGOD is a case in point, with Jake Duzsik’s distinctive vocals a soothing presence over a chugging rhythm, before it evolves into a thundering industrial monster to close, with the kind of epic scope that few other bands could match.
Elsewhere, they continue their collaborations with ripping techno banger HATEFUL bringing in SIERRA, while the much-vaunted SICKO is less a collaboration with Godflesh than using their immortal Like Rats as a springboard into a new level of brutality. Yes, there are moments to draw breath, but this is HEALTH going all out on what makes them great, and they even prove they can do teutonic industrial better than Rammstein in the form of DSM-V, which is better than anything the German band have done in years. One of the best industrial metal albums in years, and I don’t think I’d ever have expected HEALTH to have released it.
A true joy this year was an album that took us back to the eighties: but not as a pastiche, instead as a sincere love-letter to eighties pop that over thirty-five breathless minutes delivered banger after banger (a point proven by their scene-stealing set at Cold Waves in September). While the singles Heartbeat (as featured last week) and the searing Heat are the obvious thrills, the joyous mall-pop of Wildlife is a heck of a rush, Get Closer slows things down a bit before a spiralling, fucking fantastic coda takes up residence in your head. But there’s more, as the title track turns the energy level right up (and with yet more gigantic hooks), and it’s only the closing ballad Heaven that finally takes the foot off the gas. Some saw this album as a bit samey, but I disagree – this is the best purebred “pop” album to come out of our scene in years, and I absolutely love it.
The third album from Karin Dreijer under their nom de guerre Fever Ray is, in some respects, treading now familiar ground. Well, in that you know it’s going to be off kilter electronics, and it’s likely going to be weird. It is all that, yes, but it’s also human. As the title suggests, this is about love and connection, but most obviously about the queer experience, which sadly to too many is still a radical concept that they can’t deal with.
Here, Dreijer reminds that the perils and pitfalls of finding a partner and/or love are somewhat universal. Such as on the staggering Shiver (one of the first four songs on the album recorded with Olaf Dreijer, making it something of a reunion of The Knife), where all they are looking for is that spark, that moment where you know it’s right. Kandy takes us further, the languid beats apparently soundtracking part of a bedroom scene, where maybe the right choices in Shiver were made. By the time of Looking for a Ghost, though, we’re back to the trials of finding someone, but they are “asking for a friend, who’s kind of shy“…
There are other collaborators here that make quite a mark, too. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross assist on the savage revenge fantasies of Even It Out, and it sounds exactly like we always hoped Fever Ray and Nine Inch Nails collaborating would do.
The album peaks, figuratively and literally, with Carbon Dioxide, as Vessel assists in sculpting a skyscraping, at least partially euphoric dancefloor banger that gets across, in musical form, the excitable highs of love and lust. Who knew an album about rediscovery and the difficulties of finding love in your late forties could be so life affirming, and so damned brilliant?”
Unlike many of my friends, I’m not someone steeped in folk music history. I like some of the music, and have a passing interest in certain elements, but I certainly have no interest in folk dancing of any kind. But what does interest me are the experimental ends of folk music, where artists twist and shift familiar ballads into new forms, and when I first heard the seismic power of False Lankum opener Go Dig My Grave (a shocking, pitch-dark reimagining of The Butcher’s Boy), I was utterly hooked.
Lankum come from Dublin folk traditions, but being younger and clearly having something of an alternative/experimental background, have found the confidence of their own voice – and by unusual use of pipes and effects, pretty much have found their niche as (very loud) drone-folkies.
But even that is selling them short. Even at the mellowest moments of this album, it roils like a black, stormy sea, ready to suck you into the depths at any moment. A case in point: the delicate sounding ballad Clear Away in the Morning sees the dreams of escape and solitude by the protagonist dashed by mother nature having other ideas, while the rollicking The New York Trader tells of a ship cursed by virtue of carrying a criminal captain, and the terrible trade-off the crew must make to survive.
Even the instrumentals are something else: Master Crowley’s sounds like a jig in hell, and the Fugues that pepper the album and ensure continuity are ever darker.
An absolutely remarkable album, that is shrouded in a deep darkness – and, to a point, sadness – as the band consider their place in a messy, difficult world, and use the music of the past to inform their way forward. It’s a hell of a road.
/The After Effect
Regulars in the upper reaches of /Countdown lists, are Cyanotic, and with good reason. Sean Payne has been making complex, sample-laden tech-industrial for the best part of two decades, and he’s still released even a middling-album: part of that is down to his meticulous production skills, but also an ability to know when to stop with any given release. Frankly, that The After Effect saw release in 2023 is reason to celebrate enough, after the traumas he experienced during the year.
Even more reason to celebrate is how damned good the album is. In just eight songs, we see all sides of Cyanotic. The stomping industrial monsters are present and correct (Crash Override, And Still Nothing Changes, the thundering Sound the Alarm). Are We Still Alive is a ripping, seven-minute dancefloor destroyer, too. But then there are the more reflective moments, like the shimmering textures of Building Better Worlds which feels like hope has been extinguished, but the crowing moment is the gorgeous Anastasia Ascends, clearly a wordless tribute to his late wife Stacey, and one that I cannot imagine was an easy song to create. It’s certainly a difficult song to hear as a listener (especially one that had the pleasure of meeting Stacey in 2022).
Out of great tragedy has come a defiant, excellent release.
/...out flew reason
The second of two albums in this list that, for different reasons, should have seen the light of day many years ago. Regular readers of this site will know how much this band means to me: the domain name of the site comes from Vertigo by the band, and I’d long since given up hope that I’d ever hear this second album properly.
It was meant to have been released in 2001 – and indeed it got to the stage of promo copies of single Strangers and Madmen reaching radio stations for airplay – but the label pulled the plug. Sure, bootleg copies of some of the songs have circulated for years online (and yes, I have them), but the news that members of the band had got together to complete this album and release it was quite the shock, especially when it was then suggested that actual new material might follow too.
If you know Twenty Twenty Sound, the first album, this album won’t be a surprise. It follows the same blueprint – loud and bright psych-rock that feels lit by the fairy lights they were infamous for onstage, with vocalist and guitarist Bic Hayes smearing his guitar and vocals like neon over the pitch dark, dub-influenced low end. But somehow, the songs are that bit sharper and with less emphasis on epics, as if they knew they were working to a ticking timer.
We really shouldn’t have waited twenty two years for this, that’s for sure. Now, about some live dates…
Eric Kristoffer has been releasing music for a while under the unitcode:machine name, but nothing he’s done before comes close to the utter brilliance of this album. Produced by Christopher Hall of Stabbing Westward and mastered by Eric Oehler of Null Device, the result is a tight, clean album of industrial/futurepop that is stacked with memorable songs, hooks and an emotional delivery that screams from the rooftops just what this means to Eric. Despite the bright sound of the melodies, there is no doubt that this is a dark, deep trip into some difficult concepts, but a deep empathy with those feelings are not necessary to enjoy this.
And yes, opener and previous single Cold is the best thing here – and likely the best song Eric will ever write, frankly, it’s that good – but it is followed by an album that has absolutely no weak moments. The idea of pop in industrial has been claimed by a few frankly unworthy artists over time, but here Eric Kristoffer makes his case to take the crown, and succeeds spectacularly.
/Randolph & Mortimer
/The Incomplete Truth
Sam Evans has become a prominent fixture of industrial scene over the past decade, with a slew of impressive singles and EPs that culminated in an excellent debut album. Like many such artists, life and other commitments away from music has got in the way over time, meaning that their relentless live shows have been in short supply (and judging on the ecstatic reaction to every show – such as the footage from Terminus in Calgary last year – there’s a whole lot of pent up demand for more), and this second album took a while.
But it was undoubtedly worth the wait. Eight tracks which pull in a number of fellow industrial techno artists along the way to assist, but at no point is the core R&M sound diluted.
If you’ve been here for the past work, cool, but here’s a primer for those that don’t. A techno artist in his own right, Evans dug into his formative industrial and EBM influences, as well as distinctively progressive and left-wing politics of his Sheffield roots, to create a sample-heavy and dancefloor-friendly project.
Tracks here lean into techno/EBM, or full-on industrial, and indeed also nod to Sheffield legends past (the outstanding Yuppies is an overt nod to the Cabs), while Everything Was Forever is a slower-paced, rather elegant lament, and is that a nod to Kate Bush in the closing epic Becoming Operative?
In an era where it feels there isn’t much hope, politics continues to shift to the right, and we continue to see poorly-judged behaviour in our scene, it’s a breath of fresh air to listen to an artist trying to do and say the right things, and shed light on issues that need talking about. Not to mention, providing the most endlessly satisying, powerful industrial album in some time. Randolph & Mortimer was the frontrunner for album of the year by this site for months now, and so it is: The Incomplete Truth is a worthy album of the year for 2023.