BEST METAL The Best Metal on Bandcamp: January 2023 By Brad Sanders · January 27, 2023

The first monthly metal column of 2023 includes orchestral power metal from Sweden, experimental black metal from France, eccentric death metal from Minnesota, and much more. 

Twilight Force
At the Heart of Wintervale  

Did you ever go through a “fantasy phase”? I’m not talking about the agreed-upon fantasy canon—we all love Tolkien. I’m talking about any old paperback with a dragon or a wizard on the cover—buying stacks of them from a used bookstore and getting lost in worlds of might and magic for weeks at a time. You might need to have had that kind of “fantasy phase” to truly love Twilight Force. The Swedish power metal band have spent a decade and four albums spinning out the lore of the Twilight Kingdoms, their own bespoke fantasy realm populated by skyknights and fire kings and, most crucially, dragons. The dragon on the cover of their debut, 2014’s Tales of Ancient Prophecies, looks like he flew there directly from the cover of Rhapsody’s classic Legendary Tales. Their sound—heavily symphonic, full of choral overdubs and ever-ascending scales—borrows a lot from that album, too.

After Tales of Ancient Prophecies, Twilight Force began augmenting their Rhapsody-style power metal with flourishes of orchestral Broadway-pop, seemingly inspired by Alan Menken’s 1990s Disney soundtracks. On At the Heart of Wintervale, Twilight Force balances those pillars of their sound as well as they ever have. It’s bombastic and exhilarating and, yes, cheesy, often gloriously so. “Sunlight Knight” even has a passage that sounds a little like the Star Wars “Cantina Band” theme. It’s integrated seamlessly. Elsewhere, the band stage a pair of dramatic, multipart epics that stand tall with the power metal genre’s finest: “Highlands of the Elder Dragon” and “The Last Crystal Bearer.” (Both include spoken word parts that evoke Blind Guardian’s interludes for Nightfall in Middle-Earth.) By its very nature, this album isn’t going to be for everybody. But if you know who Anne McCaffrey is, there’s an excellent chance that At the Heart of Wintervale is for you.

The Fires of Heaven

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

For the Puritans who colonized New England in the 17th century, the world beyond their clapboard walls was a terrifying hell, filled with strange new devils. It’s that hell that Boston’s Malleus bring to life on The Fires of Heaven, their blazing debut. Fear of the unknown is a potent fear, and the lyrics and supplementary materials by drummer and history scholar The Relentless contend that it’s also a debilitating, society-sickening force. The primal fears of the Puritans are only a few steps removed from subtler but more insidious bigotry today. (See Robert Eggers’s 2015 masterpiece The Witch for another side of this same coin.) Musically, The Fires of Heaven is pretty primal, too. Malleus are indebted to the pungent primordial stew of black metal, death metal, and thrash that emerged from Europe in the mid-‘80s, when bands like Celtic Frost and Bathory tried to find a new musical language to express their iconoclasm. Malleus can play fast and sharp (“Prophetess,” “Into the Flesh”) or slower and weirder (“Awakening,” “Mourning War”), but whichever mode they’re in, they tap into something honest and raw. Plenty of bands worship the old school. Malleus are among a precious few who embody its spirit.


Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, T-Shirt/Shirt, Compact Disc (CD)

Minnesota’s Nothingness play death metal like they’re trying to stay warm. The songs on Supraliminal, the band’s second album, are dense, overwhelming affairs, their brain-bending riffs and pummeling fills stacked so tightly that a gust of lake wind couldn’t get in if it tried. It might be tempting to categorize Nothingness as an “atmospheric” or “dissonant” death metal band, a pair of damned-by-faint-praise descriptors that are easy to come by but hard to perfect. (Gorguts perfected both; not coincidentally, there’s a hefty amount of Gorguts DNA in Supraliminal.) And sure, songs like “Festering Abstraction” and “Beacon of Loss” deliver the beard-stroking eccentricity in spades. But what stands out is how memorable every riff is, and how committed Nothingness are to making each one pop. This is complex music, but it’s also catchy music, and a charismatic vocal performance by frontman Barclay Olson helps the band sell every note. Don’t be surprised if Olson soon finds his way onto “best death metal vocalists” lists—or if Nothingness end up headlining big tours.

Sky Void of Stars  

Katatonia’s last album City Burials came out in April 2020. They weren’t the only band to release new music during the cursed days of the early pandemic, but their icy, melancholic brand of gothic metal suited the mood of the times especially well. Lockdown isolation was the exam they’d spent three decades studying for without even knowing it. Sky Void of Stars is the first Katatonia album to be written during the COVID-19 era, but the approach is much the same as on City Burials. The gloomy Swedes haven’t undergone any more radical reinventions since dispensing with their death metal roots on 1998’s Discouraged Ones, but their ongoing process of refinement continues to yield quieter revelations. Sky Void of Stars is no exception. Jonas Renkse has only grown stronger as a singer and a lyricist. Once a somewhat timid frontman, Renkse now fully trusts his rich baritone to sell the big emotions he writes about, and new songs “Impermanence” and “Atrium” rank among his career-best performances. Sky Void of Stars also sees the band further exploring the electronic textures hinted at on City Burials. “Opaline” rides an insistent lead keyboard melody, while “Drab Moon” comes as close to trip-hop as Katatonia have ever ventured. Sculpted, downcast goth-doom is still the core of the band’s sound—The Cure for metalheads is a reductive but helpful shorthand—but they keep finding new wrinkles in it.


It’s too soon to know if Funeral will end up being an aberration or a pivot point for Esoctrilihum, the avant-garde black metal project led by French multi-instrumentalist Asthâghul. Across nine full-lengths and a smattering of shorter releases since 2017, Asthâghul has mostly created warped, deliberately challenging black metal. By contrast, Funeral is relatively immediate and straightforward, with lots of hypnotic synth work and an emphasis on clean, chanted vocals. It also has the longest songs of any Esoctrilihum album, which lets Asthâghul settle deep into the pocket of each one, almost as if he’s playing drone music or funeral doom at a much quicker tempo. If keeping up with past Esoctrilihum albums has felt like information overload at times, Funeral should be a palate cleanser.

Negative Vortex
Tomb Absolute

Merch for this release:
2 x Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette

M. Feschner and Libra played together in the Rio de Janeiro death metal band The Endoparasites back in the early ’90s. Both ultimately emigrated from Brazil to California, where they reconnected and started Negative Vortex. Tomb Absolute is their new project’s first proper release (following a demo of the same name from 2015), and it bears little resemblance to the shlocky deathgrind of their former band. For one, Tomb Absolute is relentlessly dark, Immolation-style. Even when Libra sneaks in a bluesy little Rhodes piano run, or when a snaking, melodic lead guitar line emerges from the inky black, Negative Vortex keep the lights turned low. Those kinds of small moments make the album. It’s unremittingly grim, but it’s got enough personality to keep you on the hook.

The Abyssal Plain  

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette

There’s a sweaty, live-in-the-room feeling to Dryad’s The Abyssal Plain. The Iowa City band have been fixtures in their hometown’s DIY punk scene for years, and that comes through in the electric physicality of their debut LP. Frontwoman Claire Nuñez (aka Claw) plays the jagged black metal guitar and dreamlike, Erik Satie–inspired keyboards on the album, while drummer Oli LaFave and rhythm guitarist Grimmtooth root the songs in a crusty, D-beat backbone. Lyrically, The Abyssal Plain is all about the deep sea, where anglerfish generate their own light and Pompeii worms feed on the bacteria in hydrothermal vents. Creatures who thrive in those harsh environs are known as extremophiles. I propose that’s what we start calling Dryad fans.

Leper Colony
Leper Colony

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), T-Shirt/Shirt, Other Apparel, Sweater/Hoodie, Bag,

Marc Grewe sang on all three of Morgoth’s ’90s albums, which makes him death metal royalty. He’s had a handful of projects since then, but none have utilized his rugged bark better than Leper Colony. Led by the ever-prolific Rogga Johansson (Paganizer, Eye of Purgatory, etc.), the band’s self-titled debut hearkens back to the muscular, riff-stuffed death metal of prime Morgoth and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Leprosy-era Death. At 33 minutes, it’s lean, it’s mean, and it’s got Marc Grewe doing his inimitable thing all over it. What more can you ask for?

Read more in Metal →

Top Stories

Latest see all stories

On Bandcamp Radio see all

Listen to the latest episode of Bandcamp Radio. Listen now →