Daniel Barkasi Best-of 2023

Thursday, 4th January 2024

Pictured above: Myself with one of our kittens, Akasha, who’s absolutely mad in the best way.

Another year that blasted by very quickly, and here we are, with another year end list. What a crazy year it was. There were natural ups and downs, and some very sad moments that took a personal toll. There have been significant losses that have been difficult to cope with. We lost our beautiful cat Minki, which has been one of the most difficult moments I’ve ever encountered. A lot of awful things happened in the world; to senseless and preventable tragedies, to people inexplicably losing fundamental rights, to horrible wars where everyone loses.

Thankfully, there have been some big positives that came in 2023. Personally, we have three new cats that brings our grand total to eight (yes, I know), to add to our trio of dogs, and numerous snakes/tarantulas of which I don’t have an accurate count on. I spent a full year back as a regular contributor here at Dead Rhetoric, which has felt like coming home. I’ve gotten to review a ton of albums, and have enjoyed the opportunity to take on some added responsibilities, which I’ve relished and look forward to contributing further in the coming year. Thanks to David E. Gehlke, Matt Coe, and Katarina McGinn for the continued trust and partnership – it means more than you know.

Regular touring schedules returned, and we attended more concerts in a single year than I can recollect in quite some time. That resulted in being able to do a lot of live show coverage, which has been heaps of fun diving back into, and look out for more of that in 2024! Being able to partner up with my wife Brittany has been incredible, and she’s captured some damn fine photos. It’s been great to welcome her to the staff here at DR, as well as our other fine new contributors who have brought their own flavor to the site. This is a great group of folks who deeply love this music, so thanks to everyone!

As some know, I’m a nerd for numbers and analytics. The relevancy here is that I track the number of albums that I listen to yearly with an overly complex spreadsheet. However silly that may be, it does make the task of conjuring up a year end list (minorly) less of a mad scramble, though the numbers even surprised me. I’ve taken in 812 albums this year, which is approximately 2.2 unique albums per day. That may be a personal record, or it may not be. I do know that’s a lot, and it’s quite obvious that the music hardly stops flowing in this household. We wouldn’t have it any other way, truly. Within that 812, there was a lot of quality, to which made this list a slog to narrow down. There are truly some deserving bands who have earned recognition for their contributions that didn’t make it, of which we’ll include a few later in this article.

To all of the readers of this fine site, my most heartfelt thanks. It’s because of your readership that a nitwit like me has been able to opine on music for 20 years now. For that, I’m beyond grateful. I hope that we’ve been able to encourage you to check out something you otherwise may not have found, and added some enjoyment to your music listening. If I can help one person discover a great band/album that they may not have found otherwise, then all of the hours of effort have been worth it.

Thanks for reading my manifesto – if you scrolled past it, no blame whatsoever – and may everyone have a wonderful 2024. I present to you with great pride, pain, and loss of blood and/or tears, my end of year insanity.

15. Terra Builder (Transcending Obscurity Records)

Unmitigated violence is a good descriptor for Terra Builder and the raging beast they constructed with their debut album Solar Temple. This mean bastard will reconfigure your face and enjoy it with a perfect blend of blackened death/grind. As stated in my review of the album, the Alien quote “In space no one can hear you scream” fits this 33 minute tale of chaos.

14. Sulphur Aeon – Seven Crowns and Seven Seals (Ván Records)

Cthulhu is back to celebrate their favorite death metal band Sulphur Aeon, who return with their fourth full-length Seven Crowns and Seven Seals. The band always takes chances; this time with more of a focus on atmosphere than abrasiveness, and a bit more dabbling in clean vocals and elaborate song structures. Devoid of hope, and absolutely alluring as it is destructive, Sulphur Aeon still stays a step ahead in creating illustrious death metal.

13. Serpent of Old – Ensemble Under the Dark Sun (Transcending Obscurity)

Burgeoning talent in heavy music comes from all over the globe. Emerging black/death metal reptilian horde Serpent of Old hail from Turkey, and have happened to produce an outlandishly impactful album in Ensemble Under the Dark Sun as their first release ever. This thing is so good that it would be the highlight of most veteran band’s discography, and this is only the beginning. We’re in good hands with Serpent of Old.

12. Blackbraid – Blackbraid II (Independent)

Quickly following their breakout hit first album, Blackbraid is back from the Adirondacks with Blackbraid II. Following an album that garnered the level of acclaim and prominence of Blackbraid I brought enormous pressure, and thankfully, Sgah’gahsowáh was up to the task. Blackbraid II won’t convince any of the doubters, but for the rest of us, it’s a melodic black metal feast that’s more intricate and mature, while not losing any of the raw energy and important message that made this project so intriguing.

11. Deadly Carnage – Endless Blue (A Sad Sadness Song)

An album that we came across late in the year, Deadly Carnage’s Endless Blue scratched an itch that we had been admittedly hard to satisfy since Anathema’s unfortunate split. Many standouts in 2023 were chaotic and crushing; Endless Blue is a gorgeous, heartfelt musical journey. Based on Japanese folklore, emphasized visually via beautiful artwork featuring a transformative whale (completed by perfectly placed whale song throughout the album), and musically being a lush and flowing work that makes one think of Alcest with a hopeful atmosphere. Artistic and endearing, this is Deadly Carnage’s high water mark thus far.

10. Afsky – Om hundrede år (Vendetta Records)

Depressive melancholy has always been the calling card of Afsky, and for that feeling of dreadful loneliness, nobody portrays it more profoundly. If you thought Ofte jeg drømmer mig død tore out your soul, Om hundrede år does so in a more penetrating, achingly mournful manner. Ole Pedersen Luk makes the listener feel through his downtrodden tremolos, wrenching screams, and misty-eyed atmospheres. Black metal can be many things, but Afsky makes it with unmatched disconsolate sorrow.

9. Blut Aus Nord – Disharmonium – Nahab (Debemur Morti Productions)

The ever efficient Blut Aus Nord returns with the second installment of the Disharmonium trilogy, Disharmonium – Nahab. This was all while Vindsval worked on two other projects in Eitrin and Ershetu, and though those two projects released stellar works in their own right, his avant-garde atmospheres were most potent with his long running Lovcraftian monstrosity. Expect bleakness in a dense package of which requires a time investment to understand fully, but once it hits, there’s no denying the mysterious aural void.

8. Rană – Richtfeuer (Breath:Sun:Bone:Blood)

Germany’s Rană have merged all of their influences, from walls of crust-infused post-metal to fiery blackened angst. By putting that myriad of styles together, they’ve formed a sound so potent that one simply needs to sit back and acknowledge mastery when it’s heard. Emotionally tinged, violent, and meticulously constructed, the band’s first full-length Richtfeuer builds from the principles of their preceding EP Armament to new levels of lavish ferocity. Rană challenges the listener, and those up for it will reap the rewards.

7. Sól án varma – Sól án varma ​​(Ván Records)

Roadburn curated collaborations are that of legend, resulting in some truly staggering releases – the latest of which is one of the best yet in Sól án varma. Taking the upper echelon of what Icelandic black metal had to offer from an amalgamation of said esteemed artists, this album is a black metal masterpiece that combines that unique foggy Icelandic sound with elements of doom and offbeat melody, stitched within a fastidious framework. Simply put, Sól án varma captures everything that makes Icelandic black metal great in a stunning display that’s undeniable.

6. Hasard – Malivore (I, Voidhanger Records)

Black metal is supposed to be frightening, but we never thought we’d come across a piece of music that was such an imposing nightmare made real to be blasting through our speakers. Due to Hasard‘s debut Malivore, we have just that – a dark, orchestral black metal realization of fright and maliciousness. The brainchild of the curator of Les Chants du Hasard, this offshoot doesn’t make symphonic renderings of classical music with black metal atmospheres, but instead concocts a fresh sound that’s the most cinematic and twisted thing you’ll hear in who knows how long. This album imprinted itself in a manner that we hadn’t experienced before, and nothing can properly prepare for what Malivore has in store.

5. Fires in the Distance – Air Not Meant for Us (Prosthetic Records)

Melodic doomsters from Connecticut Fires in the Distance made a lasting impact with Air Not Meant for Us, much to our delight. There was no shortage of high caliber releases of this ilk in 2023; from Shores of Null, Mariannas Rest, Tribunal, and others, the quality is undeniable. Yet, Fires in the Distance stands tall as leaders on the back of an album that was brilliantly written, ambitious, and executed masterfully to the most minute of detail. From smooth pianos combining with mournful leads, to balanced by crunchy rhythms and thick atmospheres, Air Not Meant for Us has a bit of everything. A true achievement.

4. Cattle Decapitation – Terrasite (Metal Blade Records)

San Diego’s prime metal export Cattle Decapitation continues to innovate and stay far ahead of their contemporaries, yet again reaching a new point of their evolution with Terrasite. All of the previously thought untouchable moments of the immense Death Atlas have inexplicably been enhanced. Vocalist extraordinaire Travis Ryan finds new ways to gloriously twist his vocal chords, and the band’s mindful progressive death/grind stylizations find new and damning places to explore. Always sobering in subject matter, with a musical assault that fits the theme’s weight and importance, Cattle Decap continues to be the soundtrack of choice for humanity’s downfall.

3. Convocation – No Dawn for the Caliginous Night (Everlasting Spew Records)

Earlier in the year, we thought that releases like Saturnus’s first album in over a decade and the new Godthrymm would be insurmountable, and while said albums were unsurprisingly great, Convocation has ascended to the top for these ears via No Dawn for the Caliginous Night. Songwriting-wise, Convocation has never been so monumentally imposing, while also making their compositions more grandiose. Much credit to the clever infusion of cellos and organs to mark the rise to their creative pinnacle (so far). These moody atmospheres are gripping from beginning to end, and there isn’t an element out of place in the epic feat that is No Dawn for the Caliginous Night.

2. Majesties – Vast Reaches Unclaimed

Majesties hit the sentiment button with Vast Reaches Unclaimed, taking anyone who grew up on the classic melodic death metal sound of the early 90s on an unforgettable trip down memory lane. Yet, this wasn’t simply a carbon copy of what the forefathers of the genre created, but an exquisitely written homage that also harkens to the creators other projects Obsequie and Inexorum, giving a blackened and sometimes progressive edge to the twin harmonies and deathly screams that are such important facets of the style. Majesties is the result of care for a movement that now has been given a new flavor via Vast Reaches Unclaimed – a rifftastic work that stands toe-to-toe with giants.

1. Night in Gales – The Black Stream

This statement has been made by yours truly multiple times over the years, and it still rings true: the most underrated band in this long and storied history of melodic death metal is Night in Gales. A band who has not only been an innovator since their 1995 debut EP Sylphlike, but have had the best career renaissance of any band in metal when they returned with Five Scars twelve years ago. Their latest The Black Stream very well may be their best since reuniting, standing ever close to the level of Towards the Twilight. Slick melodies, guitars that annihilate without prejudice, a rhythm section that pulsates and blasts with precision and heft, and a vocal performance from Christian Müller that is a marvel to behold. Big claims, sure, but the proof is in the SpätzleThe Black Stream is undeniable, and hopefully Night in Gales gains the reverence they’ve earned.

Continue on to page 2 for my top 15 songs of the year, a bunch of honorable mentions, show of the year, label of the year, and finally some musings on the new year.

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