BEST OF 2023 The Best Metal Albums of 2023 By Brad Sanders · December 12, 2023

This year’s list of the best metal albums on Bandcamp contains a predictably wide array of sounds, from smoldering black metal to mosh-inciting hardcore to stately death/doom. Yet among these disparate styles, a shared embrace of metal’s transportive power emerges. The 12 albums below will take you on a dozen dizzying journeys beyond the flesh, to destinations I found myself visiting again and again in 2023. Buckle up.

Shades of Sorrow

On 2018’s Downfall of Mankind, bassist/vocalist Fernanda Lira and drummer Luana Dametto served as the engine of the high-octane São Paolo thrash band Nervosa. When they left Nervosa to focus full-time on their erstwhile side project Crypta, it raised some eyebrows in the Brazilian scene. Nervosa were still ascendant, and Crypta hadn’t even released anything yet. It turns out Lira and Dametto were right to bet on themselves. Shades of Sorrow, Crypta’s second LP, is a battering ram of emotionally charged, fine-tuned death metal. Flanked by ace guitarists Tainá Bergamaschi and Jéssica di Falchi, the Nervosa expats have found a sound worthy of their considerable talents. The songs on Shades of Sorrow are muscular but rich with veins of dark melody, bludgeoning but able to make nimble pirouettes at a moment’s notice. On highlights like “Dark Clouds” and “The Other Side of Anger,” Crypta split the difference between the booming, bass-heavy stomp of Vader and the controlled chaos of early Sepultura, adding their own canny flourishes. Lira and Dametto took a risk in cutting themselves loose from their old band. Today, the sky truly feels like the limit for them.

Femina Furens

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Donna Diane might be rock’s greatest multitasker. When Djunah performs live, she plays the gnarled, noisy guitar parts with her hands while holding down the low-end with a custom bass rig she can play with her feet. She simultaneously sings in a multitude of voices, bellowing and shrieking and crooning her way through a labyrinth of imagistic lyrics—many of which began life as poems, which she’s collected in a chapbook. (Jared Karns, the other half of Djunah, drums with more than enough swing and dexterity to earn his keep.) Femina Furens—Latin for “furious woman”—brilliantly captures the physicality and intimacy of Djunah’s live show. Diane invites us to stand in the light of her incandescent rage on “Phaethon” and “Seven Winds of Sekhmet,” and she makes room for us in the darkness of “Suicidal on Christmas.” The best way to experience Djunah’s kinesthetic take on noise rock is still in a sweaty bar, with the bass rattling in your chest. The second-best way is to crank up the volume on Femina Furens.

Green Lung
This Heathen Land

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With This Heathen Land, London’s Green Lung have fashioned themselves cartographers of what they call “Occult Albion.” The witches’ covens and stone circles of pre-Christian England have factored into heavy metal since its origins, but few people have summoned the subject as compellingly as the writing duo of Tom Templar and Scott Black. This Heathen Land sees them setting their pet theme to a soundtrack of vintage hard rock, evoking Rainbow and Queen at least as much as the Electric Wizard-style doom of earlier Green Lung albums. That subtle shift pays dividends. The interplay between Black’s full-bodied guitar and John Wright’s burbling organ powers a career-best suite of songs that evoke the analog magic of the late ’70s. Tying the album together is that lyrical map of Albion, which Templar sketches with a draftsman’s keen eye. He makes connections between folk horror, Victorian literature, and contemporary leftist politics, delivering his findings with Vincent Price-like theatricality.

Lamp of Murmuur
Saturnian Bloodstorm

One of the sharpest left turns of the year came from Lamp of Murmuur, the enigmatic one-man black metal act who was most recently heard dragging the genre onto a goth-night dancefloor on Submission and Slavery. Saturnian Bloodstorm doesn’t sound like it wants to dance; it sounds like it wants to look down in triumph from the peak of some snow-capped mountain. From the bellicose opening riff of “Conqueror Beyond the Frenzied Fog,” it’s clear that we’re dealing with a new mutation of Lamp of Murmuur. The obvious guideposts for Saturnian Bloodstorm are Immortal and Satyricon, whose albums around the turn of the century put a more accessible, classic metal-inspired sheen on the icy Norwegian Second Wave sound. Yet you can also trace the sky-high ambition of songs like “Seal of the Dominator” and “Hymns of Death, Rays of Might” to metal gods like Iron Maiden and Dio, whose best work possesses an eternal, transcendental quality. Saturnian Bloodstorm is a black metal album, make no mistake. But it’s the kind of black metal album that requires no prerequisites.

Maggot Heart

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A lot of Maggot Heart’s appeal hinges on an intangible filth factor. A signature song for the Linnéa Olsson-led trio is called “Gutter Feeling,” and its title describes their abrasive, metallic post-punk well. Their early albums sounded like getting on the Berlin metro late at night after a couple drinks too many; hair matted, makeup smeared, regret in the offing. If the music occasionally felt rough around the edges, it was merely doing its job. On Hunger, Maggot Heart take on the daunting challenge of sanding those rough edges while retaining the essential, glorious grime at the core of their sound. It’s a rousing success. Maggot Heart haven’t lost their nasty streak, but they’ve certainly never sounded better than they do here. Olsson’s vocals still snap with venomous recoil, but she also moves gracefully through dramatic, melodic passages that reveal new contours of her voice. Album highlights “LBD” and “Archer” find the band augmenting their typically spartan setup with a bouquet of gorgeous new instrumentation, letting tenor sax, trumpet, and piano carry the songs for long stretches. Always a gifted lyricist, the Swedish-born Olsson turns out some of her most evocative phrases on Hunger, mingling defiant strength with more vulnerability than she’s shown on past Maggot Heart releases. (A favorite line of mine: “Skin is turning yellow and blue/ Yeah, I’m showing my colors/ A Scandinavian bruise.”) Even the production feels sharper and more tuned into the subtleties of the band’s efforts. Hunger is that rarest of albums, one that feels like a refinement, a stakes-raising, and a leveling up all at once.

The Fires of Heaven

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Malleus are interested in the raw, untamed beginnings of things. They’re obsessed with the earliest wave of extreme metal, when bands like Hellhammer, Venom, and Bathory reached beyond the margins of music history to create something that seemed to throb with genuine evil. They’re also fascinated by the moment when the first Puritan colonizers set foot in the longed-for New Jerusalem of New England, only to be confronted by vast, unforgiving wilds and understandably hostile indigenous people. Those two interests collide on The Fires of Heaven, the Boston band’s debut album. Taking cues from both the searing directness (“Into the Flesh”) and the formal experiments (“Mourning War”) of those foundational black metal bands, Malleus summon a terrifying vision of Puritan life in colonial America. If Robert Eggers had commissioned a metal score for The Witch, it would probably sound a lot like The Fires of Heaven.

The Mosaic Window
Plight of Acceptance

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It’s been a fast-moving couple of years for The Mosaic Window, the melodic black metal project helmed by Los Angeles-based Andrew Steven Brown. Consumed by the dual specters of grief and pandemic ennui, Brown launched the project in 2021 with the self-produced Hollow EP. Two years later, he followed it up with Plight of Acceptance, a full-length album that quickly got him signed to Willowtip Records. It doesn’t take a seasoned A&R rep to hear why that venerable label was interested; Plight of Acceptance is an unqualified triumph. Eschewing the raw sound of Hollow for a robust mix and master by Damian Herring (Horrendous), Brown cranks through seven songs of soul-stirring black metal in 37 consistently gripping minutes. One key is the album’s variety. Plight has heartrendingly poignant moments and moments that sound like the celebratory cracking of a beer. It’s ostensibly a melodic black metal album, but it’s as likely to remind you in flashes of King Diamond or Nile as it is Dissection. Brown is an omnivorous metalhead, and he puts his wide-ranging fandom into the music. That means Plight of Acceptance feels fresh on every playthrough, be it the first or the inevitable thousandth.

Sacred Outcry
Towers of Gold

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Piraeus, the Greek city that Sacred Outcry calls home, has a maritime history dating back to the 5th century B.C. It was a crucial trade port for neighboring Athens during the city-state’s fabled Golden Age. During the classical period, it was a stronghold of sea power, housing hundreds of triremes for the Athenian navy. Today, it’s the fifth-largest passenger port in Europe. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Sacred Outcry’s seafaring concept album Towers of Gold is one of the finest power metal records in recent memory. It’s in their blood. The album tells the story of a band of travelers who cast out to sea searching for the legendary titular towers, only to succumb to horror and despair at the voyage’s end. It’s Greek myth by way of Ray Harryhausen and H.P. Lovecraft, with hearty nods to Blind Guardian, Warlord, and Helloween. Bassist and songwriter George Apalodimas wanted to make the kind of record that he would have obsessed over as a kid, and he succeeded in that, crafting an ornate power metal masterpiece that has as many emotional twists and turns as it does jaw-dropping musical moments. Plenty of those moments come courtesy of Daniel Heiman, the former Lost Horizon singer who drapes his six-octave range all over Towers of Gold. It’s common practice to compare any metal falsetto to King Diamond. Heiman’s highest notes here sound more like Mariah Carey’s whistle register. Metal albums as audacious as Towers of Gold don’t come around often. They’re almost never this much fun.

The Storm Within

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Saturnus like to move at their own pace. In their 30 years as a band, the reigning saddest bastards in Copenhagen have released just five albums, each one full of the sculpted, elegant death/doom they’ve made their signature. The arc that stretches from 1997’s classic Paradise Belongs to You to this year’s The Storm Within is one of remarkable consistency. They’ve never made a bad album, and given their preternatural command of this formula, they likely never will. Even so, The Storm Within merits special commendation. Frontman Thomas A.G. Jensen sounds terrific, both in his roaring death metal register and his plaintive, spoken vocals. (His duet with Novembers Doom’s Paul Kuhr on the piano ballad “Even Tide” is an easy highlight of the album.) Even more impressive is the gloomy, crystalline guitar work by Indee Rehal-Sagoo and Julio Fernandez—both new to Saturnus as of The Storm Within. It’s a testament to the power of the band’s house style that two new members could step in and write brand-new Saturnus songs that already feel this timeless.

Hive Mind Narcosis

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Thantifaxath’s Hive Mind Narcosis is steeped in unsettling atmosphere. It feels like something from the dark recesses of the subconscious mind that shouldn’t have been dug up, something we’re now being forced to confront. (Skinamarink [2022] didn’t work for me, but Hive Mind Narcosis fills me with the unnamable dread that film was going for.) The anonymous Canadian collective plays black metal with a pronounced avant-garde streak, given to dissonance and deconstructionist songwriting. Riffs dissolve and reappear without warning; time signatures are constantly shifting underfoot. Whole songs are swallowed in fogs of synth and hissing feedback. A lot of Hive Mind Narcosis plainly sounds wrong, but the wrongness is what makes it so compelling. Like Blut Aus Nord and Portal, Thantifaxath know how to make metal—often regarded as scary but rarely able to live up to that reputation—into something truly frightening.

Tomb Mold
The Enduring Spirit

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Given its genre appellation and gore-obsessed origins, it’s a strange quirk that some of the best death metal of all time is luminous and life-affirming. Cynic’s Focus, Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence, Death’s Symbolic—all are stone-cold classics that took death metal’s constituent parts and reshaped them into something vivid and bright. Tomb Mold’s The Enduring Spirit belongs in that same canon. After taking a break following 2019’s Planetary Clairvoyance, the shapeshifting Toronto trio returned this year with the next phase of their evolution. The Enduring Spirit retains the tricky structures and dexterous playing of Planetary, but it’s also openhearted and richly melodic, basking in the reflected glow of those prog-death classics of yesteryear. Guitarists Derrick Vella and Payson Power still know their way around a crushing death metal riff, but they’ve invested real time and energy into improving their lead work. Every song on The Enduring Spirit is home to at least one inventive, lyrical guitar solo. Vella’s bass parts are just as expressive, and the way they meld with Max Klebanoff’s drumming conjures visions of Lee and Peart. Indeed, the spirit of death metal endures.

Year of the Knife
No Love Lost

Among young American fans, death metal and hardcore have spent the last several years running full-speed into one another, Wall of Death-style. The cream of this recent crop of hybridizers might be Delaware’s Year of the Knife, a straight-edge group whose vicious hardcore has been picking up more and more death metal elements as the band has gone along. No Love Lost—probably not named for the Carcass song, but you never know—is the culmination of their growth. The band’s sophomore album is a 20-minute vortex of mosh-ready, death metal-infused hardcore that hits with gale force. The riffs are tight and punishing; the grooves are enormous; and vocalist Madi Watkins sounds intense, bordering on deranged. A devastating van crash this summer has kept Year of the Knife off the stage, but when their injuries heal, the songs on No Love Lost are primed to rile up any crowd worth their salt—hardcore or death metal.

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