Highlights in metal, 2023


December 31, 2023

Whatever else one might think about it, 2023 has been a great year for metal, the best in several years by my reckoning. With so much on offer for fans of the genre, I can’t resist recording some of my favorites. So here, in no particular order, are my top ten metal albums of the year.

Dødheimsgard - Black Medium Current
First formed in the mid 90s, Dødheimsgard have outdone themselves with this late career release, seamlessly blending black metal with electronic, experimental, and even poppy elements. I am reminded at times of genre classics by Arcturus but that is just to give a point of reference. Dødheimsgard have found a unique sound in Black Medium Current, which somehow manages to stay engaging through all of its nearly 70 minute duration. In certain obscure corners of the web, this album has garnered considerable hype. It is every bit deserved.
Panopticon - The Rime of Memory
While Austin Lunn is undeniably talented, I haven’t always been able to appreciate his work under the moniker Panopticon. Especially in the last few albums, the production has been so muddy that I just can’t tell what’s going on, and I’m no stranger to bad production jobs on black metal albums. I am pleased to report that with its much improved production, to say nothing of its wonderful compositions, The Rime of Memory is among the best Panopticon releases yet, on par with another of my favorites, Kentucky. The gloomy, wintry theme and integration of classical instrumentation call to mind Agalloch’s Marrow of the Spirit, which for me is high praise.
Wayfarer - American Gothic
Wayfarer are not the first to fuse black metal with Americana and Western folk music but they have perfected the formula. The closer “False Constellation”, which would have worked in the soundtrack for Westworld, is among my favorite songs of the year. I can’t decide whether I like American Gothic or the previous release, A Romance with Violence, better. Both are excellent, though noticeably different in style.
Demoniac - Nube Negra
Though responsible for metal’s breakout popularity in the late 80s, thrash metal has long been in a bad place, an evolutionary point between classic hard rock/heavy metal and modern extreme metal with seemingly no room to grow on its own terms. Building on their outstanding 2020 release, So It Goes, Demoniac have proved again with Nube Negra (“black cloud”) that thrash still has life left in it. The experimental flourishes, which include flamenco guitar and clarinet passages, are tasteful and effective, but Nube Negra also delivers on the essential ingredient of any thrash album: riffs, plus the obligatory guitar solos. A perfect blend of the novel and the familiar.
Bergfried - Romantik II
Romantik II was a pleasant surprise. With its lo-fi sound, dangerously close to the chiptune/dungeon synth style that so irritates me, Romantik I didn’t work for me. Happily, for their second EP, Bergfried have ditched most of those elements in favor of a better produced and more traditional heavy/power metal sound, while retaining enough of the synth-pop influence to keep things fresh. This is an irresistibly fun and catchy album, bolstered by a charismatic vocal performance from frontwoman Anna de Savoy.1
Trhä - al​ë​ce i​Ω​ic
I am continually amazed that eccentric one-man black metal project Trhä can be so prolific while maintaining any degree of consistency. Of the three full-lengths and countless splits and EPs released this year by Trhä, I could have put several on this list, as I just can’t get enough of their otherworldly brand of keyboard-driven black metal. My favorite of the full-lengths is al​ë​ce i​Ω​ic, although I like the EP av​◊​ë​lajnt​◊​ë​£ hinnem nihre perhaps even better. If all this stuff turns out be generated by an AI, I promise I will become a true believer. But where would you find a training set to produce music that sounds like this?
Hanging Garden - The Garden
Well worn though it is, I always enjoy the melodic death/doom style, especially when accompanied by the signature “beauty and the beast” vocals. While not quite rising to the standard of, say, Draconian’s best work, both The Garden and its predecessor, Skeleton Lake, are strong contributions with their own recognizable style. Hanging Garden deserve more attention than they’ve received.2
Dymna Lotva - З​я​м​л​я П​а​д Ч​о​р​н​ы​м​і К​р​ы​л​а​м​і​: К​р​о​ў
Moving and sorrowful, this album is classified as doom or post-metal, but has much of the aesthetic of black metal, and not just due to the striking vocals. My appreciation for the album is enhanced by knowing something of its origins: for protesting against the dictator Lukashenko and the trial of a fellow musician, the band was banned from performing in their native Belarus. To escape arrest, one band member fled to Ukraine and later, following Russia’s full-scale invasion, to Poland, where both members now reside. Critics of metal have sometimes complained that the genre glorifies war, but no one could say that of Dymna Lotva. Theirs is an album about war that contains only melancholy.
Austere - Corrosion of Hearts
Apparently the return of a band from a nearly fifteen year hiatus, the release of Corrosion of Hearts was the first I had ever heard of Austere. It made an impression on me. The album won’t be for everyone—it is repetitive and hypnotic arguably to a fault, and the opening and closing tracks are far better than the middle two—yet I still think it one of the best pieces of atmospheric black metal I’ve heard in some time. There is a majesty to Corrosion of Hearts that just compels me.
Nithing - Agonal Hymns
Since those bells first tolled in Black Sabbath, people have asked of metal albums: “Is this music?” It would thus be rather quaint for me to ask the same of Agonal Hymns in 2023. Nithing take brutal death metal to preposterous new heights, but what makes this album work is that, unlike so much of the standard fare in brutal/tech death, it has recognizable compositions and even a certain amount of variety. It also helps that, at less than twenty-five minutes in length, the album doesn’t overstay its welcome. So if you’re looking for something bonkers to shake up your day, give Nithing a try. Who knows, you might even find it strangely listenable.


  1. In this connection, I should also mention the band Smoulder, whose singer contributed to two tracks on Romantik II. Smoulder’s own album this year, Violent Creed of Vengeance, is a more standard but still highly enjoyable piece of heavy metal.↩︎

  2. Honorable mention to Hinayana’s Shatter and Fall, another solid piece of downtempo melodic death metal that I expected to like better than The Garden but, in the end, did not quite. Both releases far exceed this year’s entry from genre favorite Insomnium.↩︎