So, it’s that time of year when we get bombarded with many things, not least with lists that definitively identify the best records of the year. Now, while I must admit that I find the notion of listing cultural achievements in league tables a touch reductive, it can certainly be productive to collect your thoughts on the music you have enjoyed through the year. In that spirit, here is my review of 2023 and ten records that helped to define my year.
Musically, things kicked off in a much more restrained manner than would typically be the case as I was entranced by the shimmering austerity of A Culture Of Killing’s (ACOK) third full-length, Dissipation Of Clouds, The Barrier. Here, languidly beautiful instrumentation is juxta positioned with energetic call-and-response vocals, resulting in a captivating reinterpretation of anarcho-punk, and one imbued with a healthy pop sensibility, with nods to Billy Bragg and The Cure along the way.
Intriguingly, fellow Italians, Spirito Di Lupo (Wolf Spirit / SDL) emerged several months later with their equally transfixing debut LP, Vedo La Tua Foccia Nei Giorni Di Pioggia (I See Your Face On A Rainy Day). Taking similar kernels of inspirations as ACOK, SDL take them in a very different, but equally successful, direction. Brilliantly layered dual vocalists clash and complement in tandem with scuzzy, distorted anarcho-punk to fashion a highly effective ethereal aggression that was a stand-out of the final-ever Static Shock Weekend in September.
And, in the spirit of innovation, a third LP that continues to surprise with its unexpected twists and inspirations is Obsolete Bodies by Slow Ends. Featuring members of Archivist, Slow Ends brilliantly fuse bristling, industrial-tinged hardcore with darkly melodic shoegaze which erupts into soaring choruses and achingly beautiful melodic hooks as the band explore the commodification of modern life. The breadth of influences that the band integrate without losing even a sliver of coherency is an impressive and undeniably infectious feat.
Things then took a rather more metallic turn. First up was the arrival of Dawn Rayd’s fourth and, it turns out, final album, To Know The Light. And while I had always been a huge fan, they reached new heights with this LP. Every aspect of their sound was taken to new levels of intensity as they deftly intertwined blast-beat fuelled black metal and haunting violin-driven folk. The result is an album that sweeps seamlessly from brutal rage to mournful melancholy as it lays down a fierce lyrical challenge to the engrained socio-economic inequality that defines modern Britain.
Morrow were also reaching a milestone of their own as The Quiet Earth completed their trilogy of albums exploring a future born of environmental and technological catastrophe. As with Dawn Ray’d, Morrow forge a genuinely organic interplay between melancholic cello and violin with their core sound of furious d-beat fired crust. Dual vocals, with multiple guest vocalists partnering with Alex CF, complete the sonic onslaught and one that burns with a palpable defiance.
Now, death metal is a genre that I have only skirted in recent years – the technical excesses and lyrical preoccupation of many contemporary exponents do little for me. But there does seem to be a renaissance underway of bands seeking to harness the hardcore intensity that defined the pioneers of the genre. And the stand-out for me in this regard is Neolithic’s Shattering Vessels. With a keen eye for pacing dynamics, roared vocals, down-tuned guitars, and slab-like riffage are deployed to impressive effect on this, their debut full-length. A thoroughly modern reimagining of the legacies of Bolt Thrower and Entombed.
Reinvention was also a theme shaping Parallel Worlds’ first LP, In The Comet’s Path. Emerging from the ashes of the Young Conservatives saw the band broaden their musical palette while retaining an undiluted political vehemence. Still very much hardcore punk but with fuzzed-out yet burly guitars and chunkier bass lines as gruff, semi-shouted vocals astutely dissect issues ranging from social conflict born of precarity and the myth of Britain’s meritocracy, to the desolation of the deindustrialised cityscape.
Less expansive, but certainly no less effective, were two bands honing hardcore down to its absolute core essentials, albeit at very differing stages of their lives as bands. Stingray landed the first of these shattering blows with their debut full-length, Fortress Britain. Savagely roared vocals are in barbarous synchronicity with metallic guitars (the opening riff to Trench Demon is utterly immense), while searingly heavy groove-laden breakdowns and wildly surging solos ensure that the ferocity never relents. This is not empty, performative anger, but rather a ferocious denunciation of the malformed priorities that are hollowing out our city.
And while Famine may herald Paint It Black’s twenty-first year, their rage is just as tangible. At this stage you think you know what to expect from the band but on this release, they have succeeded in distilling what feels like their very essence, whether the lingering, dissonant feedback, the resonant bass tone, or Dan Yemin roaring in impassioned solitude. It is such a lean and tightly wound record that every surge in pace, every flourish of melody, lands with a ferociously amplified intensity.
And last, but absolutely not least, in our review of the year is the split LP from Habak and Lagrimas. The key to the success of this release is that while both bands deal in politically charged emotional hardcore they harness their core attributes of viscerally cathartic explosions and passages of haunting melody, of harsh, roared vocals and sombrely engaging spoken word, in quite distinctive ways. Lagrimas deal in fiercely crafted, tightly honed eruptions, while Habak are more expansive in allowing the ebbs and flows of ambient melody to shape their songs. The result is an album of remarkable musical and lyrical coherency.
Every year, I am surprised by the sheer volume of high quality hardcore that is released, whether taking us in unexpected new directions or revitalising sonic expressions of the past. And at the same time, consistently exploring ideas and themes that help us to better understand and engage with the world around us. By any metric, 2023 has proven quite the musical year.