Countdown: 2013: Albums

Part four of my 2013 rundown – and this was a difficult list to do. Very difficult. And for the first time in a number of years, it took until the last week to finally decide once and for all on the top five in particular.

Countdown: 2013

26-Nov: Disappointments
03-Dec: Best Compilations and Reissues
10-Dec: Best Tracks
17-Dec: Best Albums
24-Dec: Best Gigs


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Countdown: Albums

2012: Dead When I Found Her – Rag Doll Blues
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

Saying that, if there is one thing I’ll remember 2013 for, it’ll be that this was the year where Industrial Music, as a whole genre (and various subgenres), finally got it’s shit together and began to remember how fucking vital it can sound. And not only that, some slumbering giants remembered how great they can sound, too, and more importantly, the wider musical world began to start looking at Industrial again. This is something that actually began a little while back, I think, but has gained traction to the point that there seems to be a new vitality again.

Not only that, though: there were another ten or twenty albums I considered for this list (and in more fallow years, perhaps, they may have been easy pickings for it). But I have to draw the line somewhere, and this thirty where I did. What did miss out in the final reckoning? How about these for a start: Arcade Fire, M‡яc▲ll▲, Teaho Teardo & Blixa Bargeld, Autoclav1.1, Gary Numan, Covenant, 65daysofstatic, XP8, Mazzy Star, The Klinik, Death Grips, Carcass, Comaduster, Acucrack, Informatik…

On with the thirty that did make it:

Who knew that a member of long-gone goth band Rosetta Stone would end up making music as thrilling as this? One part of a veritable torrent of music released this year under the name, with a number of EPs and another album imminent, this was bleak, vocalless bass-heavy goth music, in a shroud of fog and mysticism that Porl King chose to pigeonhole as “progressiveoccvltghostwave”. I’m fucked if I know how I better describe it, actually – but what I do know is that this has a dynamism and malevolence that his previous work never, ever came anywhere near.

Go Fight
Music For Military Torture

Nothing like the title suggests, this was instead a surprisingly great album this year from ex-Die Warzau mainstay Jim Marcus. Their website gives their modus operandi: “Go Fight is pro-sex and anti war, with limited dynamic range and an overarching sense of wistful penis envy“. The end result is a fantastic, fourteen track album of groovy, danceable tunes that somehow makes the overtly sexual lyrics in many tracks avoid sounding corny or cheap, and rather than being for military torture, you could do a whole lot worse than requesting many of these tracks at your local industrial night.

An act who take electronic music where few others dare to tread – some feat to still be innovating as they are after twenty years and more in musical realm that is often so forward looking. Taking the idea of repetitive beats as a challenge to avoid or perhaps subvert, Exai has some incredible beauty to find hidden within what can at times feel like music that is explicitly set out to make things difficult. Not everything should be easy, of course, and Autechre are an act that seem to effortlessly survive at the avant-garde end of things. Yeah, so this album is really bloody long – at two hours or so by some way the longest album in this year’s list – but stick with it and it rewards endlessly.

DEP lost me a bit with their last album Option Paralysis, for reasons that I could never put my finger on. This, though, is a return to what makes this band so brilliant and unique. Forty-five minutes of scorching, furious hardcore/metal, full of the dizzying time-changes and near-pop touches we’d expect, but delivered with a conviction and bruising sense of purpose and control that will likely make this material absolutely slay live (I managed to miss the tour this time around).

Another of Frank Spinath’s “other” projects away from Seabound (and a new album is finally imminent, Speak In Storms out February), this album had a curious release in that it was released, and then this project was disbanded. Which is a damned shame, as this album deserved better. Like the first album under this name, ‘cinematic’ is very much a good description, a film noir-esque feel sweeps through these electronic songs, and each feels like a self-contained story, or maybe film scene. Gambit takes this even further, using chess metaphors as two friends appear to spar mentally over the same girl. And while the remixes are good (there is one of each track on the CD), actually buying the CD and getting the download code for the third version – the Black Version – is absolutely essential, as it strips the dark heart at the core of these songs bare.

V▲LH▲LL + M‡яc▲ll▲
Phastasma Disques

Yes, their last split release was in the 2012 best albums list, and the quality is such that they are back again (and indeed M‡яc▲ll▲’s own album HЄRЄŦłC was a contender, too). Despite being both part of the so-called “Witch House” movement, like other artists linked to the name they are spinning off in different directions, to the point where many artists now have little in common. These two, though, still do. Both make forbidding, dense and slow-paced electronics – the horror samples in particular makes M‡яc▲ll▲’s own description of “Bloodwave” very apt indeed, while V▲LH▲LL have an ethereal, ghostly style that unsettles more than it shocks. Highly recommended.

Ok, so it didn’t quite have the staying power that I’d hoped, but that doesn’t take away the fact that this is Skinny Puppy’s best album in some time (perhaps even better than The Greater Wrong Of The Right), and reminded us that Skinny Puppy can still be an unstoppable force when they put their minds to it. The vague theme of the album – gun proliferation and the violence caused, broadly – helped, perhaps, returning a political/social fire to the lyrics and resulting in two utterly scorching tracks in particular (illisiT and saLvo). But playing it straight was never the ‘Puppy’s best route, and their infamously unstable experiments of old are brilliantly rekindled in the – frankly fucking bonkers – electronic whirlwind of Tsudanama, where polyrhythms fight for space with electronics shooting all over the mix and Ogre sounds to be reporting back from the depths of a particularly bad trip. Quite how the fuck they are going to do some of this live in the new year is going to make their forthcoming tour really quite interesting.

Big, dumb fun. But what did we really expect from an album from the combined talents of Caustic and The Gothsicles? While industrial has got serious again this year (in the main, a Very Good Thing), Messrs Fanale and Graupner clearly missed the memo and went all out to release an album all-but-impossible to take seriously – and some of the tracks here in particular are fantastic fun. Examples? The complete and utter lunacy of True Tales of Made-Up Adventure, and the partysmashing of Ruin The Party. On the flipside, a frank discussion of Matt Fanale kicking the booze on (I’m Not) Functional offers some serious content, and indeed while the lyrical content otherwise is all fun’n’games, the music is top-class dancefloor-aimed electronics. Stick with the album to the end, too, as the final pay-off is a glorious nod to the Wu-Tang Clan – The Causticles Ain’t Nuttin’ Ta Fuck Wit.

My Bloody Valentine
m b v
m b v

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After all the hype, the delays, the legends, and the reminders of the past, the followup to Loveless finally appeared – appropriately enough with no notice at all early in 2013. How Kevin Shields managed to do this in the internet age quickly became apparent with the self-releasing and no release to major download sites, but the most amazing thing was how good it was. Ok, so not a lot appeared to have changed with the first few tracks, being pretty much as we expected – languid, pretty shoegaze being the order of the day. But as we approached the last few tracks, suddenly all the invention we hoped was going to be here was unleashed into an astonishing few closing tracks, culminating in the shoegaze-drum’n’bass-plus-the-kitchen-sink glory that is Wonder 2, which makes me muse on what on earth Kevin Shields may release in the future. Hopefully without the twenty-two year wait this time, though, eh?

Factory Floor
Factory Floor
DFA Records

As it turned out, the Factory Floor justified the hype and the wait after all. Having built up a head of steam over some years, with a string of brilliant singles, the album delivered the quality hoped but maybe in just a bit of a different way to that expected. This is techno/industrial, just not perhaps as many would know it, either. Live drums (and the drum work is staggeringly good) add a punch that electronic drums simply wouldn’t do, and the analogue electronics appear effortlessly improvised over them (although I’m sure that there is far more method than there first appears). Importantly, though, these trance-like grooves are left to take their own time, rather than being edited down, and this pays off in an album that flows perfectly.

Tales of Us
Mute Records

This might be one of the more contentious entries in this list. Goldfrapp’s latest album met a decidedly mixed (ok, cool) reception in many quarters, but for me this pastoral, mellow side to their sound can be just as thrilling as their electro-pop work – it just takes rather longer to appreciate it. This is languid, sensual stuff, with pretty songs taking their own sweet time to unfold. Lead single Drew gave us an idea of where things were going, with a gorgeous, sweeping orchestral backing to a song full of memories of an amorous past (with a ravishing video accompanying it), but the centrepiece and beating heart of the album is the astounding Thea, where forbidding beats and an ethereal feel drive Alison Goldfrapp to her finest vocal performance in ages.

Themes Of Carnal Empowerment Pt. 2: Deceit
Tympanik Audio

Jamie Blacker is a busy man at the moment – not only has his ESA project seen renewed activity in recent times after a few years without a release, he has also been involved with iVardensphere and also the Voster project, as well as guest appearances elsewhere. As a result, it’s remarkable just how high he has kept the quality of his own ESA releases, this being the fifth album where a distinct theme/concept has not thrown him off course whatsoever, but instead apparently driven his work to ever increasing heights. There is a grandeur here that elevates the music from simply pounding electronics, with well-placed vocal samples and additional instrumentation (even orchestral samples) that while instantly recognisable as his work, show an ever-growing maturity and confidence in his evidently formidable talent.

Just two years since they appeared with their debut EP AMEN (still a striking listen now, and not just for the brutal Swans cover A Screw (Holy Money)), their debut arrived at the tail-end of 2013 and indeed was the last album to be under consideration for this list. Like a few other bands appearing in this list, they’ve advanced a lot in a short time, too, barely sounding like the same band on AMEN at points. Lead single Seraphim was a bit of a shock, upping the tempo somewhat and clearing much of the electronic fog to reveal…well, a track with just as much malevolence but that bit more overt, while anima reminds me of eighties electronic ballads, but in a good way. Otherwise, their sonic signatures are still present and correct – hulking, lumbering beats, good use of male/female vocals as texture, gunshot samples and fuzzy, woozy electronics that never quite focus. The two older songs here – AMEN and EXU REI – fit in well, needless to say, and I’m sure they’ve been tweaked a bit, and the latter especially sounds absolutely amazing. Peak Witch House may have passed, but ∆AIMON were always far too interesting to be confined to one particular genre, and that remains the case here.

The Bones of What You Believe
Vertigo Berlin

Gun – third on my tracks of the year list last week – may have been the astonishing peak of this Scottish band’s short career so far, but they delivered a fantastic debut album in 2013 too. Packed with an arsenal of electronic pop anthems-in-waiting, there is such an embarassment of riches in just the hooks that there at least another four songs that could easily have been singles on top of the ones that were released, and Lies was almost as good as Gun, frankly. This is intelligent, brilliant pop music that deserves all the success it has had and far, far more.

Six years since their last album, and for the first time in a while Josh Homme and his band sounded rejuvenated, with an album that rocked as hard as it grooved. There was great singles (My God Is The Sun, If I Had A Tail), bizarro, sunny funk brilliance like Smooth Sailing and a general sense of a band keen to regain their crown as the coolest and best rock band around. Needless to say, they succeeded, and along the way this album became something of a soundtrack for the summer in our house.

Public Service Broadcasting
Inform – Educate – Entertain
Test Card Recordings

One of the more leftfield success stories of 2013, this band’s merger of the modern and the old clearly struck a nerve and perhaps gives hope that there are more adventurous listeners out there than we might have thought. The pitch? A band with motorik, krautrock-leanings music-wise (to my ears, anyway), but with a sense of melody that makes it more than just a tribute, use old Public Service Broadcast voiceovers to replace vocals and result in an album with a glorious sense of humanity and wistfulness. Some of the broadcasts celebrate technological advances, communication methods, others are warnings – but all adhere to the album title, what might be called a mission statement. All the tracks here are wonderful, but pride of place goes to the the majestic, soaring Spitfire – a worthy celebration of the iconic plane – and the ghostly Night Mail that weaves elements of the classic titular short film into it.

Chelsea Wolfe
Pain Is Beauty
Sargeant House

Chelsea Wolfe’s apparently unstoppable rise continued with her fourth album, and it marked something of an evolution in her sound. The pitch-dark, tense and anguished atmospheres are present and correct, but various electronic elements take her sound to some interesting corners amid other songs that retain the off-kilter, scratchy sound that had become her trademark. Some of these songs have been around for a while – the ominous, thundering drumming of opener Feral Love was first aired when we saw her first London show over eighteen months back – but all have found new shapes here in maybe her most complete album yet.

Les Revenants
Rock Action

There is absolutely no way the series that this soundtracked would have been half as affecting if this hadn’t been playing behind it. With such low-key music – no carnage like Xmas Steps or Like Herod here – they managed to help build the creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere of the series, and listening to the album again – particularly the series theme Hungry Face brings all the show’s dread rushing back. Rather brilliantly, they have the chance to do it all over again next year, as they have agreed to do the soundtrack for the second series, too…

It took me a long, long time to ever appreciate work from the Projekt label family, really – maybe when I was younger I was simply listening for something very different to what I am now. Something about this album, though, caught me on first listen. This is exquisite, slow-paced goth, going for layers (oh, so many layers) rather than power to utterly devastating effect, particularly when Mike VanPortfleet’s vocals punctuate the swirling guitars with tales of gloom, abandonment and deep sadness. Yeah, so this ticks many goth cliche boxes, but frankly this is so good I unquestioningly dived right in and wallowed in the elegant darkness.

The Knife
Shaking The Habitual
Rabid Records

Well, if they wanted to shed some fans once they’d become popular…I’d have thought Tomorrow, in a Year should have done the job nicely (music for an avant-garde opera), but this album seemed to go for quite extreme lengths to ensure that only serious fans were left by the end of it. A extraordinarily long, two CD album, containing punishing dancefloor epics, seemingly never-ending drone tracks…and remarkably, the opening three songs are utterly enthralling and blast past (despite lasting for nearly half-an-hour between them). Not an album to be taken in small doses, this is an album that grabs you by the throat and practically demands you sit through the whole thing. Ok, so absolutely not for everyone, but god, The Knife remain way ahead of any other band who think they can challenge their listeners, especially any that broken through to the mainstream. We should have known – Shaking The Habitual was as apt a title as it could possibly be.

As I noted last week in putting Carried Mask high in my top tracks of the year, the success of Youth Code was perhaps something of a surprise. But sometimes it takes unexpected music to bring a genre to wider attention again, and this act’s startling combination of punk fury and EBM punch was just the right thing. Not only that, this was an album that understood brevity can have just as much an impact – this said everything it needed in half-an-hour or so. What it said included tough-as-nails dancefloor tunes, scorching industrial noise, and slower grooves too, and running through the whole thing was an outpouring of rage that certainly made it stand out from other industrial acts looking toward the dancefloor this year. Also, as great as this album sounds at normal volume, crank it up LOUD and it sounds fucking amazing.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Push The Sky Away
Bad Seed Ltd

Nick Cave hasn’t really been away, he’s just been spreading his work across different projects, but his return to the Bad Seeds for the first time in a while this year was an utter joy. And from this elegiac, more restrained collection, the only conclusion to be drawn is that Cave is the finest balladeer of the age, with not only Jubilee Street‘s astounding character sketch being of note, but also the marvellous humour of the epic Higgs Boson Blues and the unexpectedly restrained first single We No Who U R.

Last album Consume Adapt Create was, I thought, Daniel Myer’s peak as Architect. Well, it was – until Mine arrived. Architect’s highly technical industrial soundscapes of the past have not been totally discarded, but here move into more soulful realms (just check the electronic soul music of Closer, for a start!), with less emphasis on heavy electronics and instead a lean towards an icy elegance – hell, there are even acoustic guitars here. Of the various collaborators featured, Comaduster and HECQ are the most important pointers to where this is going. There is, yes, a glitchy/dubstep tinge to certain tracks, but getting beyond that there are some jaw-dropping emotional peaks even in the instrumental tracks (opener Altitude is fucking amazing, while the closing rework of it featuring Comaduster runs it a close second), and everything comes across as exquisite electronic art. This is music to be admired as much as it is enjoyed, and perhaps in future will be ranked as one of the greatest and most successful changes of direction ever seen in industrial music.

Six By Seven
Love and Peace and Sympathy
Borrowed Tune Motion Pictures

As I noted last week in putting album centrepiece TRUCE at #2 in my tracks of the year list, the furious return of Six By Seven this year was something to behold. Their career generally is perhaps a lesson of the fickle nature of the music press, feted as they were early on (and rightly so, for the intense, cryptic rock that dominated their first couple of albums), before tastes and fashions changed and rather left the band in the wilderness. This return was rather unexpected, for a start, but saw the newly reconstituted band roar back with a fire and purpose that I’d not seen from them in a long time. No bad songs – this is all killer – and a good mix of dark, reflective ballads and uptempo rock tracks, all held together by Chris Olley’s brilliantly caustic lyrics make for the most satisfying body of work from Six By Seven since The Closer You Get.

John Grant
Pale Green Ghosts
Bella Union

I can’t think of a more bitter break-up album being released in years, frankly. Seriously, this is devastating stuff. A gay man who has found out he is HIV positive, dealing with a clearly difficult breakup, that somehow he has managed to fashion into a glorious album that is endlessly listenable, and even amusing at points with some of the brilliant put-downs and metaphors that infuse the lyrics. Not an album I expected to like, or indeed was even on my radar until I heard the heartbreaking Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore in Fopp, and bought it on the spot and have been enjoying it for the rest of the year.

Rotting Christ
Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού
Season of Mist

Not quite letting go of their death metal roots, but this album really does take them into a different realm. A glorious meshing of chugging riffs and tribal rhythms, ancient cultures and occultism, this is frankly fucking brilliant. Death metal can get somewhat one dimensional sometimes, so when a band takes a sidestep and investigates other sounds, it can all sound a bit contrived or a work of genius. This is absolutely the latter, with skyscraping metal anthems side-by-side with Romanian folk songs and pounding, chest-beating thrash, not to mention many, many other ideas besides. It’s as if the band took another look at their twenty-five year history, and decided that despite the huge swathe of influences they’ve incorporated already, they needed to mix them in all at once…and somehow it paid off. Unquestionably the best metal album I heard in 2013.

Darkly Near
Metropolis Records

The single was good last year, this album is even better. Athan Maroulis is back doing melodic-electro-industrial after years of doing other things since Spahn Ranch, and it’s like he has never been away. This is elegant, at points lush, music, Athan’s deep and warm voice dominating proceedings through a set of wonderful songs. My Dear was in my tracks of the year last year for good reason, but Timephase (the nearest this album gets to sounding like Spahn Ranch) is glorious, and the cover of A Forest is pretty damned impressive too. But most of all, the sombre sound of this album was perfect timing as winter began to draw in. Now, about some live shows…

The Methuselah Tree
Metropolis Records

Not the only tribal influenced album in this list, granted, but this is one hell of a return for Scott Fox’s tribal industrial behemoth. I have to confess that I thought APOK was a bit light on the elements that made iV so distinctive in the first place, while diluting the sound further with a never-ending set of guest appearances, so I was impressed to find both of these righted here. Importantly, though, the club breakthrough that they’ve made isn’t forgotten by there being a few club-bound monsters here (the Daniel Graves featuring Break The Sky, for a start, not to mention the stomping The Impossible Box), as well as some jaw-dropping fusions (the quasi-Bollywood stylings of Snakecharmer work brilliantly) and some amazing tribal drum work, particularly in the earlier tracks. The best iV album yet.

I totally missed this band until a friend mentioned how brilliant they were sometime a year or so back, at which point I went and picked up their previous material, which was an impressive take on post-rock with a distinctly electronic, jazzy slant…and heavily featuring a trumpet. But nothing they had done before quite prepared for the sheer epicness of MASTER. This takes what they’ve done before, and ups the ante in every way. It marauds through the shadows, every single track containing a steel-edged darkness that is never allowed to take over fully, and at points it reaches quite jaw-dropping peaks: the mechanised beats of Reaper, the storm-clouds of rhythm that steadily build on the stupefying Black Strategy (before a looping synth elbows everything else out of the limelight and proggy guitars wail behind, and then in rips a chaotic, noisy climax). Or the amazing closer Responder, which seems to condense all of the band’s (many) ideas into one ten minute piece of brilliance. A band who couldn’t give a shit about whether they fit into one genre or another, so they pretty much tried them all, and along the way proved that they are better than just about everyone else at all of it. Miss this outrageously brilliant album at your peril.

So we’ve all got excited over recent FLA albums – but looking back, since Artificial Soldier they’ve only got better and better. Expectations were certainly high for this album after we all realised how fantastic Airmech was (that and the mention that Echogenetic was going to have “no guitars”), and all our hopes for this album were fulfilled and then some. Some of the same production tricks and glitchy styles that so dominated Airmech (and were at least partially responsible for the brilliance of it) were repeated here, but used this time to make FLA sound even heavier than before. Killing Grounds was the monstrous lead track, with beats that could double as demolition tools and a breakdown in the chorus that had jaws on the floor on first listen, while Deadened (see last week) was even better. This album, though, was about more than individual tracks. This was Bill Leeb and his band coming together to make the most coherent, enjoyable and forward-looking FLA album in an age and quite possibly opening the door to a whole new generation of fans. Their best album since their nineties heyday, and by a mile the most vital industrial album of 2013. Not to mention the album of 2013.

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