To properly close out the calendar year, the editorial team at Knotfest assembled to piece together their collective list of the best releases from 2023. Doubling down on the current health of heavy music, the list ropes in a diverse list of entires that cover the entirety of stylistic spectrum and even manages t include a few wild cards that will almost certainly spark debate.
Here is a rundown of some of the very best albums that arrived in 2023.
When we speak about nineties metal, we’re really speaking about bands that went ‘all in’ on a musical, aesthetic and overall creative level. Code Orange are one of the few bands operating today who really seem to get this. Whether they sound like the nineties (“Mirror”), recruit a nineties megastar (Billy Corgan on “Take Shape”), or distil their bludgeoning essence like never before (“Theatre of Cruelty”, “A Drone Opting Out of the Hive”), the band has excelled itself here. Throw in Steve Albini as engineer and these fourteen tracks constitute a work as coherent and expressive of their vision as The Downward Spiral was for Nine Inch Nails. - Dan Franklin
The stroke of genius on Green Lung’s third album was to take the themes of the last two records and make them very bloody obvious. This journey into an occult landscape of standing stones, witches, ancient paths and forest churches even came with a map in its physical release. They wanted crystal-clear Martin Birch-style classic rock production for this one, and they delivered it. When they doom, they do it heavier than ever on “One for Sorrow”. But singer Tom Templar’s commitment to storytelling and the sheer Dickinsonian relish in his voice on “Mountain Throne” surprised me. Could they be a 21st-century Iron Maiden in waiting? Let’s see. - Dan Franklin
Has 2023 been a great year for metal? I’m not sure – it was a good year for smaller bands releasing decent records. In terms of big bands releasing great albums, Avenged Sevenfold stood out a mile. I haven’t been interested in them since they released “Bat Country” almost twenty years ago, but the reintroduction of psychedelic drugs and plundering Albert Camus has revolutionised their sound. I was blown away by this record. (The guitar solo on “Nobody” would probably propel it onto this list alone.) “Mattel”, as gloriously twisted and musically outré as it is, even seemed to lay the ground for the Barbie-dominated summer that followed. - Dan Franklin
At risk of contradicting the above, this was clearly the break-out metal album of 2023. Its turbulent emotional undercurrent, exceptional musicianship and sheer ambition – and of course the production of Joe Duplantier – takes the London three-piece to new heights. Just listen to “A Stumble Of Words”, particularly Angus Neyra’s incandescent guitar-playing, and revel in a band creating beautiful art out of tragedy. If you trained an AI on latter-period Death, Enslaved, Gojira and the history of human grief, it might come out with something like this. But probably not. - Dan Franklin
This is a split, and though the Worm contributions are good, I’m including it for the astonishing Dream Unending songs. “So Many Chances” and “If Not Now When” were easily the best twenty minutes of heavy music I heard this year, and maybe even the last ten years. Guitarist/vocalist Derrick Vella already played his hand with Tomb Mold’s magnificent new album The Enduring Spirit, but the audacity of these Dream Unending tracks is breathtaking. Powerful, sumptuous, guttural, skyscraping – they’re on a different plane. Along with Avenged Sevenfold, they’ve made 2023 the year of heavy-metal lucid dreaming. I’ve now awoken – and I remember everything. - Dan Franklin
When the needle drops on Baroness’ sixth record, it’s clear the band are bringing listeners on a journey they’ve never experienced. Stone successfully merges all the best sounds of their two-decade career while still somehow pushing them forward. The early, two-single attack of “Last Word” and “Beneath the Rose” is tour de force, setting the stage with Gina Gleason’s guitar heroics and immaculate vocal harmonies with frontman John Baizley – and Nick Jost’s bass work on this album? Ridiculous! – But soon the album veers into folk and Americana fused with the band’s sludge roots, offering fans that have been around since Red Album or Blue Record plenty of fist-pumping moments. (“Shine” will likely be a live set staple going forward.) Artistry, emotion, musical progression and songs that will live rent-free in your head for months? It’s everything you’d expect and more on an album from one of the best bands in the circuit today. - Jon Garcia
Six years after their last album, Atlanta’s Royal Thunder brought themselves back from the brink of dissolution to deliver the finest outing of their career. Bassist and powerhouse frontwoman Mlny Parsonz aptly summed up the magnitude of their fourth record by saying it was about trying to save her own life. Infighting and addiction nearly ripped her, guitarist Josh Weaver and drummer Evan Diprima apart, and Rebuilding the Mountain is a sonic tale of the trio rediscovering their purpose. Lead single “The Knife” is awash in yearning for change, and the three-song run of “Twice,” “Pull” and “Live To Live” is an incredible, unintentional story arc of saying goodbye to your previous self and welcoming a better you. - Jon Garcia
Scottish shredder James McBain has been serving up infectious blackened speed metal to the metal underground for years, but he’s outdone himself this time. Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags is the sound of McBain brimming with confidence, elevating his songwriting to places previously unseen while infusing Scottish heritage and folklore throughout. The fact he can weave bagpipes seamlessly with a grandiose guitar harmony on the title track says it all. There’s not a single dud in the bunch, but songs like “The Nuckelavee,” “Goat Vomit Nightmare,” “This Hissing Marshes” and epic, almost progressive closer “Mester Stoor Worm” will have crusty headbangers diving into pits for decades to come. -Jon Garcia
Heavy music fanatics might be familiar with Dorval through her work on various Devin Townsend albums and their project Casualties of Cool, but this album is a different side to her completely.
Half of The Crowned is self-produced after the pandemic interrupted her work with legendary producer Bob Rock, and its variety is its biggest strength. Dorval’s spellbinding voice deftly maneuvers through soul, electronic, folk, rock, trip hop and more, and takes the listener to smoky lounges (“Loveless”), wistful porches (“Sleeping, Stoned”) and hypnotic dance floors (“Want that Soul”). Album standout “Falling Under” is a timeless earworm that should go down as one of the best tracks of the 2020s on an album that has nearly endless replayability. - Jon Garcia
There are very few bands nowadays that can boast about having an immaculate discography, but the Finnish melodic death metal pioneers very much could. (Not that they would.) Ask 10 Insomnium fans to rank their favorite albums and you may get nine different lists all prefaced by “but they’re all good.” Anno 1696 adds to that legacy with a supernatural story set during the The Torsåker witch trials, complete with werewolves to boot. Along with a captivating short story and a companion EP (Songs Of The Dusk), the Finns weave together nearly an hour’s worth of music that uses every tool in their arsenal. You get their doomer side (“White Christ”), their moody and expansive side (“Godforsaken”/”Starless Paths”) as well as just hard-charging, melodic death metal anthems (“Lilian”/”The Witch Hunter”). Anno 1696 goes by in a flash and is a story/album best enjoyed on repeated listens, proving we’re spoiled to have a band like Insomnium. - Jon Garcia