Album Reviews: The Music of 2023

It is that time once again, when I gather together the music that I have liked over the past year, and give a brief explanation of why I like it.

This year feels like a good year, and that is because most of the albums I’ve included feel like they may just stick around longer than the time it took to get to know them well enough to talk about them. Other of my year-end lists do include entries that never made much impact beyond the listening and inclusion; as much as I thought I liked them at the time, they ultimately made no lasting impression, which is not what I hope for. This year, either the albums are better, or I have made more of an effort to exclude the ones that might be short-lived. Or both. Still, there are a handful at the bottom end of this year’s list that are unlikely to be long-term players, but that do have some good songs, so hopefully I will continue to sample them. 

There are fourteen albums here that represent a relatively narrow set of genres compared to other years. There is a fair amount of prog, or at least a fair amount of music from bands with a proggy reputation, which might be a bit of a surprise if you know me. I do not consider myself a fan of modern prog and do not seek it out, mostly because I find the vast majority of it tedious and entirely predictable. However, there are a handful of bands who fall under that (admittedly rather broad) umbrella who can manage to sound fresh, so I can’t write the genre off completely. A few of them released pretty good albums this year. There is some industrial/industrial-related, some post-rock, and straight-up rock. No metal or post-metal this year, and no oddball genres. 

In terms of the ranking… I’ve put numbers on them but except for the three or four at the bottom, those numbers don’t mean very much. It’s crowded at the top. There are some clear distinctions among some albums, but there are also places where making a choice is largely arbitrary. 

Let’s go.

13. Peter Gabriel: I/O

Peter Gabriel is one of those musical legends whose impact cannot be overstated, but who for me personally has been hit-and-miss. I have almost all his solo albums up to So, and after that I pretty much lost interest: I find that he has great songs, but not great albums. It has been twenty-one years since his last album of original material, but to be perfectly honest I didn’t miss him. 

I/O is huge: there are 12 tracks, and two mix versions, Bright-side, and Dark-side. Listening to the whole thing in one sitting will take over two hours. Most of the album was slowly released as singles, and there was some strange conceit around releasing one single on the full moon with the alternate version released on the new moon, or something like that, I have no idea. I tend to pay little to no attention to the various rounds of hype when new albums are released: either I like the album and will buy it, or I don’t. 

The songs on I/O are indisputably by Peter Gabriel. The music, his ageless voice are unmistakable. Weirdly, though, it’s as if he had somehow gone into suspended animation around 1985 and was just woken up this year: the album sounds as if he hasn’t moved on at all. 

I find that I/O follows the pattern I’m used to: there are a handful of very good tracks, and the rest are rather more pedestrian. I have no real preference for one mix over the other. The best songs – “Panopticom”, “The Court”, or “Olive Tree” for example – are solid offerings, and feel like they would not be out of place on early albums. However, they also do not have the power of the old Gabriel when he was at the top of his game: there is nothing on I/O that evokes the primal emotion and chills of songs like “Rhythm of the Heat”, “Digging in the Dirt”, or “I Don’t Remember”. It’s a bit disappointing, really. There is little reason to play this album beyond the fact that it is by Peter Gabriel, and one should play it. 

 

12. 3Teeth: EndEx

This is a great example of an album with some really strong tracks scattered amongst a lot of meh. I was disappointed in the previous album, so singles like the skull-crushing “Slum Planet” promised a return to the dirty, powerful industrial metal 3Teeth are perfectly capable of making. Unfortunately the best tracks were released as singles, which left the rest of the album struggling to catch up, and it couldn’t manage to do it. The best songs on here are done in collaboration with video-game composer Mick Gordon: they have a solid direction, flow, and real power compared to the others, which are heavy but aren’t particularly memorable. 

 Anyway, I think they are touring in 2024, so I may go see them, if my ageing skeleton will let me. I’ve seen them twice before; they are monstrous and brutal and well worth the live experience.

 

11. DieHumane: The Grotesque

I haven’t changed my opinion of the album very much since I wrote about it in July, so I’ll summarize: this album is the audio version of Everything Everywhere All At Once. There are some strong moments but they get lost in all the posturing and self-indulgence.

While it definitely has ambition and a few killer songs, overall the album is just too — obvious. And too long. And too deliberate. A bit too much of everything, really. It is clear that the guys wanted to make an impact with this first album, showcasing their collective experience and chops, but it does have the feel of a band that is just trying too hard.

The best, most interesting tracks are early on, before all the tricks and tropes wear thin. The headbanging intensity of “King of Nothing (the Bruiser)” and “Shell Shock” brutalize the senses, the bleak and heavy ballad “Oblivion” is the best of the slower tracks (which otherwise come across as rather pedestrian). It could have been a much better album if it had been about five songs shorter.

 

10. Various Artists: Tribute to Rammstein

I think a lot of reviewers don’t bother with Various Artists albums, but sometimes you can get a solid compilation, and this is an example of when it works – probably because it has a definite theme. I’m not sure what motivated the creation of this particular album, but it brings together a great collection of new and old-school industrial artists, including Front Line Assembly, Jah Wobble, 69 Eyes, Priest and more, to pay tribute to another of the icons of industrial music (I am not a particular fan of Rammstein for various reasons, but I know icons when I see them).

 I like this effort a lot. It gives me a chance to listen to some decent Rammstein without actually… . Well, all I will say is this: money may not buy you happiness, but enough of it can make certain kinds of problems disappear.

 

9. Klone: Meanwhile

The French progsters returned with their seventh album, released early in 2023. I first heard them with 2015’s Here Comes the Sun and liked their lush and darkly atmospheric sound, but I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about their last album, Le Grand Voyage (2019); it isn’t a bad album by any means, but it sounds very much like Here Comes the Sun, and I feared that here was yet another band who had found a formula and was determined to stick with it. I’m not interested in bands that want to essentially release the same album over and over, but I thought I’d give them another chance with this new one. 

They are surprisingly heavily guitar-driven for a prog band, but manage to create a hugely melodic, melancholic soundscape nonetheless, anchored by Yann Ligner’s distinctive vocals. For Meanwhile, they seem to have ramped up that sound to a new level, and infused it with anger and even more heaviness, and it works well. It did take a few plays for the album to kick in, but one day I suddenly realized how much I liked it. It sank a bit in the roster though because overall it lacks variability, and other things have grown on me. 

Key tracks: “Elusive”, and “Disobedience”. 

 

8. Katatonia: Sky Void of Stars

Katatonia has been a band who’s never bowled me over or blown me away or hooked me in some fundamental way, but I mostly like them. They are reliably melodic, decently heavy, with a few excellent tracks scattered across their discography. All in all, in the decade or so that I’ve known them, they have delivered albums that have been eminently listenable and that I’ve never regretted owning. Sky Void of Stars falls right in with the best of their stuff, on the heavier end so that suits me just fine. I think it has taken some time to grow; I’m enjoying it more these days than I did when it was first released. It has steadily moved up in the list, so I guess that says something. 

 

7. Music Inspired By: Music Inspired by Slavs

I reviewed this album back in May, shortly after its release. It is lush and folky and atmospheric, and still a pleasure to listen to. Its only fault is that it is front-loaded with the best stuff, which leaves a sag at the end. You can read the full review here. 

 

6. Tuber: Joyful Science

Tuber is a Greek instrumental post-rock/post-metal quartet who released their last album (Out of the Blue) back in 2017. I liked 2013’s Desert Overcrowded quite a bit, Out of the Blue less so, and then I lost track of them. They popped up quite suddenly in late November with a new single, “Joyful Science”, and announced that a new album would shortly follow. 

Well, the single was such a stoner/post-rock monster, I instantly pre-ordered the album. It is short, five songs and not quite forty minutes, and I think that is a good length for an album like this. The songs are mostly heavy, some a bit contemplative in parts, but all are built on a pattern of repeated melodic themes that shift and coil about, and are dense with guitar and keys. Along with the title track, I find “Eau Rouge” to be pretty solid. If the album was any longer it could get repetitious, but by keeping it short each song has a chance to shine. I’m pretty happy that they are back; I hate it when good bands just vanish. 

 

5. Rival Sons: Lightbringer

This must be the year of two-fers: not only did Peter Gabriel opt to release the same album in two different mixes, and Mariusz Duda give us two of his musical worlds, but Rival Sons decided to release two separate albums. Lightbringer is the second one, released in October. 

Neither album is very long, but I suppose that makes some sort of sense if you plan to release more than one and try to keep the good songs. I don’t want to spoil too much, since Darkfighter is still to appear on this list, but the fact that this one is lower down suggests that I don’t find it to be as strong an album. There are individual tracks that are giants: “Darkfighter”, which opens the album, is a massive CSNY-infused powerhouse, all the more ironic given that the first few times I played it, I didn’t like it at all. Boy was I wrong. “Before the Fire” (it is interesting that these song titles reference other albums of theirs) is another monster track. The album loses some points though because the quality overall is rather variable. 

 

The Top 

From this point on, the albums are clustered very tightly together, and I’m tempted to make excuses for the final order. I won’t deny that sometimes plain old sentiment is as powerful as musical quality. Take that for what it’s worth.

4. Steven Wilson: The Harmony Codex

This album has ranked higher in the year-end list than all the other SW solo albums I’ve reviewed: none of those ever cracked the top 10. The new one made it this far because it is, at least in intention, a better album than all those others. This is what happens when you stop trying to Make A Grand Statement, or be A Prog Legend, and just write some damned music. He always was capable of it, and used to do it routinely with Porcupine Tree, but somehow it got lost in a weird kind of performative self-absorption that made The Message and the Hype Machine for each album seem more important than the music it contained.  

It’s nice to see him back.

Now, it is not a perfect album by any means. There is still a measure of navel-gazing (I think at this point he can’t help himself) but several of the songs seem more authentic, less focused on technicality and guest chops and more respectful of true emotion — that is, for the first time in many albums I do not feel manipulated. There are tracks that I might still want to hear years from now. “What Life Brings”, a showcase of the best of Wilson’s solo and PT chops, is the utterly brilliant pop song he’s been trying to write for years. “Actual Brutal Facts” and “Beautiful Scarecrow” are dense, dark, and edgy.

Still, it is an album I have trouble sitting through. Several of the tracks range from conventional to meh, and as far as I’m concerned the long title track is an entirely pointless inclusion: It does nothing and goes nowhere, and the narration is irritatingly distracting. I sample this album rather than play it through, but that is more than I do with most of his other solo efforts.

 

3. Mariusz Duda: AFR AI D

Duda solidifies his reputation as an artist of surprisingly diverse creativity with another addition to his electronica musical world. AFR AI D is rich and thoughtful, drawing on the musical ideas behind Lockdown Spaces but broadening their scope and taking them to the next level. It slips in ahead of Mr. Wilson because of the playability factor: maybe overall Wilson has the more technically adept album, but… I do not skip a note of AFR AI D. There is no filler. The full review is here.

 

2. Rival Sons: Darkfighter

This is the first of the two Rival Sons albums to be released this year, coming out in June. It is also the first Rival Sons album that has really caught my attention since 2014’s Great Western Valkyrie, which I liked well enough, but it was not a long-term like, and I couldn’t muster up much interest in the albums that came after. 

Imagine my surprise when this one caught hold so hard. 

Darkfighter is a raw and powerful statement – it is Rival Sons doing what they do to perfection. It is not an album that will make me rush to catch up on their back catalogue or seek out similar stuff, because I am perfectly content to let this one carry the load. At a reasonable 8 songs over 40 minutes, it is head-bangingly hard and delicate all at once, pure celebratory rock’n’roll. While the best songs are maybe not quite as good as the best ones on Lightbringer (but it is very close and I wouldn’t want to bet on my opinion in a year), the album as a whole is much more consistent and satisfying – there are no lesser tracks at all. I’m not sure I can say that about any other album in this list. 

 

Here we are at the top, and I have a dilemma. There are two albums left: Both of them are prog albums, both by bands who have been around for a long time, and who are fronted by guys who do not take a predictable approach to doing this prog stuff. 

At the same time, they are very different albums. 

I am driven in two directions: there is the album that should be at the top, because I do love it and it ticks all the boxes… and there is the album that has set its hooks deep. 

So I am going to declare a tie for the top spot. Meet Number 1, and Number 1.  

Riverside: ID.Entity

It can be hard for an album to sustain interest if it gets released very early in the year: it is all too easy for other things to overtake it and drive it from awareness. It has to be a very strong contender, and ID.Entity surely is that. However, after almost a year I have to admit that the album is a bit more variable in quality than I initially felt (or wanted to feel…), but that does not diminish the power of the best songs: “Big Tech Brother”, “Friend or Foe” – these tracks just hit on all cylinders and are mammoth showcases of what this band has always done best. While some of the songs have not stood up as well (“Landmine Blast”), or I have not come to like any better than I did at the beginning (“Self-Aware”), there is one song that I’ve finally recognized as a masterpiece, much better than I initially gave it credit for (although I have always liked it), and that is “The Place Where I Belong”. Duda has taken the traditional Riverside epic and re-imagined it, giving it space and light and a sharply-focused power: it may not be to the taste of some of the fans, but I think it is far more engaging and even progressive than another iteration of “Escalator Shrine”.  

When it comes to year-end summaries, I won’t lie – Riverside will always hold a special place in my heart. If an album beats them, that album came by it honestly.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny – when these guys hit the studio they can create magic that is just untouchable. The review for the album is here

 

Amplifier: Hologram 

Yeah, I’m surprised too. But remember that remark above about the playability factor? Hologram has it in spades. There is just something so appealingly unpretentious about this little album, with its intimate, beautifully articulated melodies, rich and sweepingly proggy in the best way – another band along with Riverside that understands how to do prog as actually “progressive”. It was released in early April, and I have not tired of playing it since then. I truly love this album. 

I discussed it briefly in my July update, so you can find that here. If anything, I have come to like it even more than I did back then. Even the chaotic craziness of “Sweet Perfume” is beginning to grow on me. And “Tundra” is absolutely my favourite song for 2023, a perfect, wistful gem of a ballad. 

So… the tie. I’ve not done this before. Yes, I recognize ID.Entity as technically the stronger album, and it sits high in my personal list of the best Riverside albums… yet which one have I played the most consistently since both were released? Which one seems to have forged the deepest emotional connection of all the albums in this list? Yep – Hologram. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why certain music grabs you the way it does, but there it is. 

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