Katarina McGinn Best-of 2023

Tuesday, 19th December 2023

Despite some small personal health setbacks at a few points, 2023 felt like the year of ‘getting back to normalcy,’ for me at least. Getting back into the double-digits for live shows over the course of the year (including seeing a few bucket list acts), having enough time to seek out some new artists, and get back more fully into the writing groove, it was a nice evolution from 2022. 

As far as the music itself goes, it was a solid year though some of the strongest releases came from sources that tended to buck the norm and required a bit of digging to find. I can’t think of a year that I’ve had so few releases from the more veteran side of the equation. That said, it does make things exciting moving forward, with a frew crop of newer bands that seem very intent on continuing to wave the metal flag high, even if they may not concern themselves with the status quo that some seem intent on living/dying on.

15. Broken by the Scream – Whitewater Park (Tokuma Japan Communications)
Broken by the Scream’s most recent EP stands as being just as ferocious and left-of-center as ever. Absolutely jarring transitions that jump from blastbeat-ridded gurgling and frantic riffs to soaring, pop-drenched melodic moments, but there’s nothing quite like them.

14. Beyond the Black – Beyond the Black (Nuclear Blast)
A self-titled album that seems to re-assert a more symphonic sound than the more experimental Horizons, Beyond the Black play to their strengths without making it seem like a step backwards as well. They continue to prove they are major symphonic/modern metal players.

13. Axelight – Hydrogen (we-B Studios)
Absolutely throttling electronic beats pulsate through Axelight’s music. At its heaviest, it sounds like the mechanized attack of Fear Factory if they went through a jpop funnel and lost the harsh vocals. At their most melodic, they sound like a beautiful dream. Either way Axelight will stick in your head for days.

12. Stitched Up Heart – To the Wolves (Century Media)
Returning with a much heavier than expected sound, Stitched Up Heart continue to prove themselves as a modern rock/metal force. Mixi’s vocals snarl and soothe at the right moments while the band gives her plenty of diversity to sing through. How they haven’t broken through the mainstream yet remains incredibly puzzling considering their winning combination of elements.

11. Vexed – Negative Energy (Napalm)

Another band that managed to come back with even more vitriol, Vexed’s second album is rife with energy and aggression. One of those pissed off albums that really resonate if you want to blow off some steam. That said, it’s also full of intricate riff patterns and hook-driven moments too, proof that they are more than ready to challenge the boundaries and deliver a potent album that is as socially relevant as it is brutally heavy.

10. Babymetal – The Other One (Babymetal Records)

I’ve never been shy about saying Babymetal’s early stuff was jarring and seemed to lack direction – shock value for the sake of it. The Other One, on the other hand, is a gorgeous trip through some jmetal done right. It brings in the heavy guitars, offers up some beautiful vocal performances, and merges it all into a futuristic and fantastical story. A mature offering that should impress fans with their evolution and open even more doors for them.

9. Cryptopsy – As Gomorrah Burns (Nuclear Blast)

The first full-length from Cryptopsy in over a decade, As Gomorrah Burns captures their frenetic and relentless bouts of energy and merges it with some of their more modern elements. The result is a resounding victory for extreme metal fans. Its whirlwind chaos has yet to be diminished, yet the music is some of the catchiest they’ve come up with to date. A year when many legacy death metal acts brought forth ‘merely okay’ albums, Cryptopsy knocked theirs out of the park with style.

8. Blackbriar – A Dark Euphony (Nuclear Blast)

The siren songs of Blackbriar have always been one of the most unique in the symphonic/gothic scene. They continue to capture that ‘trapped in a fairytale’ sound, yet the levels of orchestration and cinematic flair they bring to their first major label full-length (their second overall) make it seem even more potent. They have some of the most imaginative sounds out there, and it’s great to see them finally being able to showcase even greater successes.

7. As Everything Unfolds – Ultraviolet (Long Branch Records)

Metalcore/modern metal masterminds and up-and-comers As Everything Unfolds know how to make songs that just embed themselves in your brain for an extended period of time after just a listen or two. Ultraviolet is an exercise in changing your favorite song as you listen to the album as they fight for space in your memory. Utterly addictive, and incredibly balanced when it comes to merging heavier and more melodic moments.

6. PassCode – Groundswell EP (Universal)

The only thing keeping this one from moving further up the list is that it’s only four songs. Groundswell has captured all of the best facets of PassCode and ramps them up to 11. Bouncing and lively synths, clean/harsh vocal dynamics, punchy breakdowns, and a high energy sound that never stops. Each song stands out on its own, really putting the listener through all the motions of wanting to start a mosh pit, happily dance around, or raise your fist, or just enjoy the music happily.

5. Dying Wish – Symptoms of Survival (SharpTone Records)

A step-up in every way from their already solid debut, Dying Wish quickly rise to the elite of the metalcore bunch with Symptoms of Survival. It’s visceral and bludgeoningly heavy at times, yet they are able to sprinkle in some beautiful melodies without turning the whole thing into a sappy mess. In short, it’s everything one could want from the genre. It honors the past, while wrapping it with a modern bow to keep it interesting. Dying Wish seem more than capable of carrying the genre forward as they continue to evolve.

4. Conquer Divide – Slow Burn (Mascot Recordings)

Despite being released in September, Slow Burn got a massive amount of listens from me (and that’s not even counting the pre-release promo listens). Similar to Dying Wish, the step up that Conquer Divide displayed, as well as maturation, with their sophomore effort is stunning. Slow Burn has so much diversity, from radio-friendly rock tracks to scorching metalcore jackhammers, and everything in between. It’s an easy album to listen to on repeat, probably due to its masterful balance of poignancy and copious amounts of fun/energy to be unleashed.

3. Viscera – Carcinogenesis (Unique Leader)

Invoking the ‘major step up’ concept on a sophomore effort once again, Viscera shattered all expectations with Carcinogenesis. It’s heavier and more aggressive, yet at the same time, the melodies that they employ are more rich and elegant. It’s a sweeping sound that feels epic and abrasive all at once, it’s a thrilling listen that will leave you breathless at many points. Out of all of the extreme metal releases this year, it seems Viscera really had the most to say with their output – Carcinogenesis is a beacon of innovation and brutality all rolled together. It’s a shame the community isn’t abuzz with this one. They are doing it better than anyone else currently.

2. Isiliel – Moonbow Genesis (Setsuzoku Records)

While Himari Tsukishiro isn’t a new name for fans of alt idol music, this is her first solo effort, and Isiliel is a momentous debut. Truly an album that feels unique and fresh, Moonbow Genesis manages to capture Eastern and Western influences and turn them into something more than fans of either could have expected. It’s beautiful, haunting, and adrenaline-pumping at various moments – the sort of thing that leaves you exhilarated to see how it all comes together. All in all, it’s simply spectacular to absorb. Even if you haven’t heard of Himari, if you enjoy metal that moves in directions that buck the norm, Isiliel should be on your short list of groups to check out.

1. Hanabie. – Raise wa Ijin! (Sony Music)

What else can I really say about Hanabie. that I haven’t already said repeatedly? Raise wa Ijin! is a masterpiece of rousing chaos and soaring melodies. They take such a wide breadth of influences into their music and manage to make it completely coherent, heavy as hell, and extraordinarily fun. It’s also the type of music that feels uncompromising, yet you can offer it to people outside of the metal realm and chances are they can easily get into it. Hanabie. has such a massive presence to them and their music, it’s very hard to ignore. Seeing them now blow up following their US tour just proves how on point their sound is. The most impressive part is that as incredible as Raise wa Ijin! is, it feels like Hanabie. is still showing the potential that they can push their sound in even more directions to craft an even larger masterpiece in the future.

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