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Best of 2013: The Year's Top 13 Horror-Friendly Albums

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In the realm of dark musical delights, 2013 has been quite a historic year: legends in their respective genres returned and/or reunited, while others marked the swan songs of their careers; iconic artists turned out some of their finest work, while some innovative up-and-comers set loose fresh and evil earworms on our collective brains. Honestly, it was damn near impossible for me to narrow the list down to just thirteen entries – a mere Top 10 was out of the question – and cutting names felt like chopping off my own extremities (which I'll admit would be an impressive journalistic statement, but could lead to unpleasant side effects I'd rather not deal with). Still, I found a way to make it work. Well... okay, I cheated, actually. More on that later. But for now, let's cycle back through 2013 – definitely a banner year for scary sounds!
 
[Be sure to click on the titles for full album reviews.]
 
2013_Maniac
 
 
If you associate old-school electronic music with horror movies from the late '70s and early '80s, you'll love the chilling and hauntingly tragic motifs summoned by French composer Rob for Franck Khalfoun's astoundingly excellent slasher reboot. Rob perfectly captures that vintage vibe, but Maniac doesn't play like a nostalgic retread; there's an emotional core to these melodies that extends far beyond the faithful recreation of an era. It's genuinely soulful, which actually enhances the tension. Add to that an impressive vinyl release by Mondo (itself treated to a superb remaster), and you'll be transported to a golden age of lo-fi grindhouse horror. No question, Maniac is this year's best horror album.
 
2013_NIN
 
 
While Trent Reznor took a lengthy hiatus from his legendary band, forging a successful career as a film composer and launching the excellent group How To Destroy Angels (their album Welcome Oblivion nearly made this list), he never really strayed too far from his field. Hesitation Marks is case in point, combining the sleek pulse of his debut Pretty Hate Machine with the gritty production of The Fragile and the dark ambient experimentation of Ghosts. Trent also manages to pull off a delicate balancing act between accessibility and emotional rawness, which for me represents the very essence of Nine Inch Nails.
 
2013_WitchHouse
 
 
Rock opera is really tough to pull off without stumbling into pretension, and I think the only way to really make it work is to go as crazy as possible with the material. You wouldn't think Lovecraft's prose would lend itself to a blend of Broadway-style musical and European gothic metal, but this team must have struck a deal with the Elder Gods, because this is some seriously epic shit. The narrative sticks closely to the source tale, and a huge lineup of international talent brings the madness to life, aided by bombastic sound effects and surprisingly poignant moments of drama.
 
2013_P9
 
 
I'd long feared that Psyclon Nine, one of the most evil-sounding bands ever to enter a studio space, had signed off forever after their epic release We the Fallen... so I was overjoyed to learn they were returning for one last dip into the plasma pool. Founder/frontman Nero Bellum has endured a rough few years, and his personal anguish splatters all over this album, laid bare by a leaner production style that favors grit and grime over the more grandiose, cinematic style of their previous work. But Nero and company still compose on an apocalyptic scale, and after playing this album you'll be tempted to check outside to see if the rest of the world still exists.
 
2013_DR3
 
 
This may be the first game soundtrack to make the “Year's Best” cut, but it wasn't a close call; the score to the latest installment in the epic zombie game franchise is supreme in every way, even in a year of excellent game music. Not only is series composer Oleksa Lozowchuk joined by Brian Reitzell (30 Days of Night) and Jeremy Soule (Elder Scrolls), a host of talented cyber-rockers (including regular FEARnet fave Celldweller) also join in the fun, resulting in a massive 40-track collection representing virtually every musical moment from the game. Extra props go to Sumthing Else Music Works for a downloadable version clocking in at over five hours.
 
2013_SkinnyPuppy
 
 
Another of my all-time faves returned this year with one of the finest releases in a long and illustrious career. This pioneering electro duo never disappoints, but they returned to their roots for their latest studio album, which fuses their early-era song structures with their highly topical postmodern experimentation, wrapped in a shroud of horror imagery and dark-future atmosphere that has always been the band's greatest strength. That skill for blending haunting moods with intense emotional content has kept SP's music fresh, shocking and relevant for over thirty years, and I'm already stoked for their next offering.
 
2013_Sabbath
 
 
The only musical event that came close to eclipsing the return of Nine Inch Nails was the long-awaited (and constantly delayed) reunion of the original grand masters of dark rock. While the failure to bring original drummer Bill Ward back into the Sabbath fold caused much distress among the faithful, founding trio Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Ozzy Osbourne not only managed to summon the dark and bluesy spirit of the group's earliest albums, but infused the new songs with a lively, jam-session vibe that I totally wasn't expecting... especially after all the commotion in the run-up to this release. It was well worth the wait.
 
2013_DOA
 
 
Industrial-metal mastermind Kristof Bathory brought forth this highly-anticipated and most welcome release – Dawn of Ashes' first full-length studio album since their overtly metal release Genocide Chapters (they put out a couple of excellent interim EPs hinting at a new creative direction) and tapping into the extreme terror EBM elements that dominated the first phase of their career. The result is a demonic hybrid of everything that has worked best for the band over the years, and represents their most focused, intense and truly terrifying output.
 
2013_Autopsy
 
 
Reuniting in 2008 after a 16-year hiatus and celebrating their 25th anniversary last year, the pioneering death metal quartet continues to prove they've still got that old black magic. Their sixth full-length studio album is even darker and more sinister than 2011's critically-acclaimed Macabre Eternal, and they've truly embraced their horror influences with this release, wrapping a raw and gritty package of death, thrash and doom in spectacularly gruesome promo art, including zombified portraits of the band that are just screaming for poster-sized editions.
 
2013_MidSynd
 
 
The Halloween music masters topped themselves this year with a gorgeous tribute to monsters of the silver screen. Not only did they secure official images of Universal favorites, they crafted old-school symphonic compositions and 3D soundscapes that transport the listener to Frankenstein's laboratory, Dracula's castle and the misty moors where the Wolf Man prowls by moonlight. Much like their innovative release Carnival Arcane, Monsters of Legend puts the emphasis on storytelling, creating a full-scale sense of cinema and casting you as the protagonist in a classic horror film. One of the best lights-out listening experiences of the year.
 
2013_GWAR
 
 
The ultimate monsters of metal chose to stick together following the death of guitarist Cory Smoot (a.k.a. Flattus Maximus) last December, and I think it was ultimately the right thing to do. Battle Maximus became a twofold landmark in the Scumdogs' three decades of debauchery: it honors Smoot's musical legacy (it was recorded at the new Slave Pit Studios, which he helped design), and hails the arrival of new axe-man Brent Purgason in the role of Pustulus Maximus, taking his own place in the mighty GWAR canon. Stylistically, it represents a solid union of the band's blistering punk/thrash roots and their darker, thicker post-millennial mode.
 
2013_Ghost
 
 
The sophomore release from the acclaimed Swedish occult rockers follows seamlessly from their amazing debut Opus Anonymous, with the enigmatic team delving even deeper into the same vintage style. The hooky, pop-infused rock melodies still create a shocking counterbalance to their blatantly satanic lyrics, but this time they're augmented with slightly darker tones, more complex song structures, and expansive production that includes symphonic and choral passages. The fact that the band carries off their flamboyantly satanic approach with zero irony makes me appreciate them even more... and damn, these songs are catchy.
 
2013_RobZombie
 
 
No list of horror rock would be complete without an entry from RZ, and thankfully his fifth full-length studio album is a winner. Released on RZ's own label Zodiac Swan, Venomous Rat is something of a Zombie time machine: where his previous release Hellbilly Deluxe 2 sequelized his most popular and career-defining solo release, this project recalls key moments from the earlier White Zombie years, while drawing more heavily on the raunchy, bluesy tone that highlighted 2006's Educated Horses. It's also one of the most fun releases in the Zombie catalog,  proving that Rob and his team still have some imaginative tricks left in their collective hats.
 

As I mentioned earlier, it was almost physically painful to narrow this list down to just thirteen entries... so I totally cheated and tossed in thirteen runners-up. Just like the titles listed above, these picks cover the full spectrum of dark music genres from horror metal to dark pop, and again include some legendary names alongside indie artists who deserve big-time props. Unlike those above, however, these are sorted in alphabetical order (I had to draw the line somewhere), but all are quite worthy of praise, and you can read more about them by clicking on the titles.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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