Best Of 2023: Josh Heath – The Spirit Of Extraterrestrial Radio

Some years are better than others. Thankfully, 2023 was good to me. I got married, started a podcast, started writing alongside the fine folks here at Last Rites, and last but certainly not least, my assumptions were proven correct: aliens exist, and they are visiting us. And better yet, they’re potentially a threat—did you pick up the sarcasm there? I’ve had the intel on good authority for years—my friend Travis at the local watering hole—that these beings are up to no good. Well, and there was that whistleblower who testified before Congress just a few months ago.

Nonetheless, I have been preparing for this for many years. I’ve spent countless hours watching Star Wars, Star Trek, Starship Troopers, Stargate, and every other “star” movie for consumption. 

But before I dive back into the essential matters, I do want to thank you for giving all of us at Last Rites time out of your days and your attention throughout 2023. I know I’m new, but there’s an incredible community here, and I’m so glad you’ve all welcomed me with open arms. The least I can do is offer you a few lame pieces of advice I’ve learned over the years that I hope you can take with you into 2024. So, from one dorky music fan to another, here are my—probably cliché—words of wisdom:

  1. Do not compare yourself or your life to the ones you see on social media. Remember, the lives people portray online just aren’t real. No one gloats about the negative aspects of their life. And remember, life is a journey, not a race.
  2. Reach out to that friend or family member you’ve thought about reconnecting with but just need to make the time. You’ll be glad you did.
  3. Be patient. I struggled with patience for many years, but as the adage says, it’s a virtue. I spent so many years wishing time would speed up, but now I realize I was doing myself a disservice. As hard as it may seem, it’s essential to stop and find the beauty in life.

Anyway, as for the alien invasion, whenever that may come to fruition, be on the hunt for my pirate radio station, where many songs from the following albums will surely be spun. To paraphrase the most incredible viral video of all time—the Leroy Jenkins World of Warcraft clip from the 2000s—time’s up, let’s do this: BESTTTTT OF 2023!!!!

THE NIGHT BEFORE THE FINAL BATTLE (20-11)

Once our intergalactic nemeses enter our atmosphere, it’s game on. But this playlist for my pirate radio show is strictly for the night before the final battle. Conduct a light workout, throw back a few pints, and take it easy. Tomorrow awaits.

20. VHS – Quest for the Mighty Riff

Quest For the Mighty Riff | VHSCampy horror movies, fantasy, and death metal go hand-in-hand. With numerous horror-themed records on their resume, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada-based outfit VHS vanished into the realm of sword and sorcery on their 2023 full-length album, Quest for the Mighty Riff. Swords, wizards, dragons–they’re all in there. VHS is a death metal band with the spirit of a power metal group, and immersing myself in this record was some of the most fun I had listening to music last year. Not to mention, alongside Wise Blood Records, they released one of the coolest cassettes I’ve ever seen with a shameless nostalgic nod to the Super Nintendo.

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19. Mork – Dypet

The thingDypet | Mork | Peaceville I love most about Thomas Eriksen’s work in Mork is his ability to capture the spirit of traditional, primitive black metal but his fearlessness in terms of not letting the compositions and cliché rules of the genre confine him to a point where the listening experience becomes too repetitive. Today, it’s clear his goal is to let the listener lose themselves in the atmosphere rather than remaining trve to the genre, and he did just that with Dypet. He also demoed this album in Norway’s mountains, fjords, and forests. As a result, the essence of nature is more palpable on this one compared to previous records, and I honestly feel like this is his best work since Isebakke. Nonetheless, Dypet is another excellent release from the mighty project hailing from Halden, Norway. 

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18. AARA – Triade III: Nyx

The mysterious Swiss atmospheric black metal band AARA creates art within art. Triade III: Nyx is the third and final part of their interpretation of the 19th-century novel Melmoth the Wanderer. The albums are built on eerie, high-pitched screams, menacing riffs, electrifying drum performances, and masterful songwriting. The Triade trilogy is powerful in creating tension and perfectly tells the tale of its main character, first with Triade I: Eosthen with Triade II: Hemera, and now with Triade III: Nyx. The band creates a cinematic experience and understands how to draw you in with a true ebb and flow of emotion. While Triade III: Nyx may be the best of the three, the Triade trilogy is a journey worth embarking on.

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17. Fabricant – Drudge to the Thicket

Drudge To The Thicket | FABRICANT | FabricantI understand tech death isn’t for everyone, but Drudge to the Thicket is a remarkable debut that plumb the depths of technical death metal but will keep you enthralled from start to finish. Fabricant’s ability to seamlessly blend chaos and structure and exceptional musicianship elevate this album to a standout position. It’s an intense, dark, and mesmerizing journey that leaves an indelible mark, with riffs that will continue to echo in your ears long after the final note dissipates.

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16. Weald & Woe – For the Good of the Realm

For The Good of The Realm | Weald and WoeRemember that moment in Gladiator when Maximus runs his hands through a wheat field, signaling the end of his battle-ridden life? Those images were conjured up once I dove into Weald & Woe’s For the Good of the Realm. Much like their castle metal purveyors in Obsequiae before them, Weald & Woe release sounds meant for medieval battles. This record has some beautiful melodies and the vocals howl in the distance like a warrior taking their final breath. I was captivated by the production and songwriting on this one. It still feels fresh with each listen, and that, my friends, is the sign of an excellent record.

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15. Starer – Wind, Breeze, or Breath

Wind, Breeze, or Breath | STARERThe solo project of Kentucky black metal connoisseur Josh Hines, Starer’s Wind, Breeze, or Breath is a symphonic atmospheric black metal record that teeters on the edge of the natural and dream worlds. Hines does a phenomenal job of creating a holistic listening experience. Each song coincides with the moments leading up to falling into and returning from a slumber—drifting, crossing, shaping, witnessing, vanishing, emerging, and returning. Filled with primitive ’90s black metal vocals, haunting melodies, and perfected pacing, Wind, Breeze, or Breath is truly a spectacle in modern black metal songwriting. It’s a record that deserves and demands your attention.

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14. Tomb Mold – The Enduring Spirit

The Enduring Spirit | Tomb Mold | 20 Buck SpinThe Enduring Spirit represents Tomb Mold embarking upon a new, distinct cosmic journey that weaves together the intricate threads of the progressive and jazz-infused metal spectrum. Yet, this departure from the familiar does not obscure the essence they are renowned for. Beneath the surface, the unmistakable presence of old-school death metal lingers, but it does so with a gaze set firmly toward the future. There was a lot of hype around this album—even with it being a surprise drop—but rightfully so. Up to the point of The Enduring Spirit, Tomb Mold always delivered. So, it wasn’t a surprise to hear them provide another phenomenal release.

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13. Alghol – Night Eternal

Night Eternal | AlgholCreated in the dark woods of Portland, Maine, Alghol’s Night Eternal is a black metal record meant to be listened to while throwing back a few pints in a haunted tiki bar. Based on the concept of the Demon Star, Alghol’s sole member, Pete Rodway, created an album that blurs the lines between raw and clean. In the follow-up to his debut full-length, The Osseous Key, Rodway continues the concepts built on that record and takes you on a mad journey filled with groovy riffs, hypnotic synths, and a punishing rhythm section. At its core, Night Eternal is a love letter to ’90s and early 2000s black metal. Oh, and it’s a blast reading along with the lyrics to this one. So, if you’re a nerd like me and love concept records, throw this one up on your “must-check-out-immediately” list. And free advice: crank “Out From the Jungle” up to max volume when you make it to that track.

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12. Woe – Legacies of Frailty

Legacies of Frailty | WoeAllow me to be serious for a moment. While Chris Grigg’s previous Woe releases displayed strength, Legacies of Frailty surpasses them all. On Legacies of Frailty, technically speaking, Grigg’s multi-instrumental talents allowed him to construct songs that forced us to feel something. In a world where music often serves as mere entertainment, Legacies of Frailty is a profound departure—a contemplative and unapologetic exploration of humanity. Through every haunting riff, every passionate vocal delivery, and every moment of introspection, Woe’s latest release compels us to confront the abyss within ourselves and the world—or lack thereof—we leave behind.

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11. Fleshvessel – Yearning: Promethean Fates Sealed

Yearning: Promethean Fates Sealed | FleshvesselIt’s true; a lot is going on here. But the folks in Fleshvessel figured out how to make this thing work. Made up of some classically-trained musicians, Fleshvessel’s latest opus is the perfect record for someone—like myself—with ADHD. Weirdly, I think even those who don’t consider themselves fans of the avant-garde could appreciate this one. Again, there are plenty of layers to peel back here, yet it all feels unified. On paper, with so many instruments and unique moments, it would have been easy for things to come across as a bit pretentious, but Fleshvessel was somehow able to steer far from that. Instead, it’s a cohesive work meant for a holistic listening experience. How could you not love an extreme metal album with violas, harps, flutes, ocarinas, and a juicy fretless bass?

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THE FATE OF HUMANITY IS AT STAKE (10-1)

This playlist is for the day of battle; humanity lives or dies. I’ll be stuck at my undisclosed location, blasting tunes via radio signals to help us win the War of the Worlds. Sorry, I won’t be there in the flesh (bone spurs), but I will be in spirit. Good luck.

10. AUTOPSY – ASHES, ORGANS, BLOOD AND CRYPTS

Dude, c’mon. It’s Autopsy. In all seriousness—and I understand I may not be the best person to speak on this due to my extreme Autopsy bias—it’s hard for me to be let down by these fine death metal masters. I will say, however, that just a year outside of Morbidity Triumphant, which I loved, they topped that record with this skull-splitting doomy return. How much was reinvigorated by Grammy-nominated producer and bass extraordinaire Greg Wilkinson’s presence on the last two releases? Well, it seems like quite a bit. And the old guard of Chris Reifert, Danny Coralles, and Eric Cutler is as strong as ever. I’ll see you on my next top 20 list, Autopsy. Your friend in gore, Josh.

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9. DØDHEIMSGARD – BLACK MEDIUM CURRENT

Somehow, I knew from the moment I finished listening to this album for the first time it would be on my year-end list. I admire the weird, OK? At one point, I thought it might take the top spot, and for good reason. While that changed, it’s still a phenomenal work, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for making it the toast of their 2023. I spoke with the band’s frontman and mad genius, Vicotnik, earlier this year, and we took a deep dive into the album. Sonically, this record has a spiritual element that expands past our mortal existence. That’s such a dorky way of putting it, but something here feels spiritual in lightness and darkness. The haunting keys, the transitions between black metal and classical music moments, the vocal performances and cadences, and the rhythm section’s weight create a full plate that may take a few spins to digest fully. But in the end, it’s a lovely meal recipe mixed with ingredients from the darkest corners of life and death.

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8. CH’AHOM – KNOTS OF ABHORRENCE

Knots of Abhorrence | CH'AHOM | Sentient Ruin Laboratories

I nearly grind my teeth to dust each time I spin this album. On top of some killer lead playing and bone-crushing riffs, this blackened death metal album throws in some hypnotic, tribal, almost psychedelic sounds that simply work perfectly. Based out of Essen, Germany, Ch’ahom has its finger on the pulse of something special. Perhaps akin to a bad trip, the vocals breathe down your neck like evil DMT machine elves. Again, riff-wise, you’ll have plenty to work with here and sink your teeth into before you ground them to their roots backed by some breakneck drum patterns that’ll eventually sever your brain from the spine. Do yourself a favor and give this a spin if it flew off your radar this year.

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7. VALDRIN – THRONE OF THE LUNAR SOUL

Throne of the Lunar Soul | Valdrin

Paraphrasing from my review: Valdrin is old school, but not just in a sonic melodic death/black metal sense; it’s old school in that so much thought is put into its themes and storylines and how those work with the atmosphere of the musicThat said, Throne of the Lunar Soul isn’t just an album; it’s an extreme metal voyage topped with symphonic and dungeon synth-y moments that add yet another layer to the ambiance of the story of the main protagonist, Valdrin Ausadjur. Valdrin’s heroic work goes beyond the usual genre constraints, creating a piece of art that hits deep. It brings fresh air to a scene often stuck in the same sound. The tracks are lengthy, but the quality is so high that time slips away without notice.

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6. AFTERBIRTH – IN BUT NOT OF

At this point, you’ve probably, ad nauseam, heard us here at Last Rites rambling about the monstrous album from Afterbirth, In But Not Of, but it’s for good reason. From start to finish, it’s such an innovative piece of art that is like a rotten, grotesque onion that once you peel back the vast quantity of vomit-inducing layers, you’re still wondering what you just encountered. On the surface level, it’s a phenomenal, brutal death metal effort, but once you dig into the intricacies, you’re met with moments of post-rock and music for the cosmos (shout out to Carl Sagan). It’s one of the catchiest death metal records I’ve heard recently. And on that same note, it’s one of the best damn death metal records I’ve listened to in the last few years.

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5. MOONLIGHT SORCERY – HORNED LORD OF THE THORNED CASTLE

Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle | Moonlight Sorcery

Here’s another record I considered throwing at the No. 1 spot, and again, I wouldn’t fault anyone for doing so. As a few of my colleagues have said, this is a black metal album mixed with power metal epicness. The guitar work is phenomenal, the drums pack the punch of 3,000 Mike Tysons, the symphonic black metal approach is top-notch, and I honestly feel like diving back into my Runescape days when I hear the record (I still need that 99 magic cape). That’s enough for me to throw it in the top five. I should also mention that Moonlight Sorcery has yet to disappoint me. Their previous EPs were outstanding, so I expected nothing less from this effort, but it exceeded even my highest expectations. Horns up to Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle, and horns down to the Texas Longhorns during this year’s College Football Playoffs.

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4. SACRED OUTCRY – TOWERS OF GOLD

It would be a shame not to throw Towers of Gold on your year-end list. First and foremost, as your resident proponents of power metal in the vast seas of extreme underground music publications, take our advice when we say this is a must-listen. Towers of Gold plunges so deeply into the world of fantasy with soaring guitars and arguably the most robust vocal performance on any record in 2023 that you’ll walk away and immediately start counting down the minutes until you can dive in again. I’ll make this one short and sweet because the Captain himself did a phenomenal job tackling this in his review, so check that link out below and begin embarking on your quest for the Towers of Gold.

• Last Rites Review

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3. MAJESTIES – VAST REACHES UNCLAIMED

Vast Reaches Unclaimed | Majesties | 20 Buck Spin

In the mid-1990s, Gothenburg, Sweden, was pivotal to the shift within the death metal genre. With bands like At the Gates and In Flames, a section of the death metal scene moved in a more melodic direction. Nearly 30 years later, Minneapolis, Minnesota-based group Majesties reinvigorated the melodic death metal scene with a record that’s much more than simply nostalgic. Featuring members of Obsequiae and Inexorum, Carl Skildum (guitar), Matthew Kirkwold (bass), and Tanner Anderson (guitar/vocals/drums) created a modern-day classic with impeccable songwriting and production. What’s also cool about this record is that Skildum was able to use some riffs from tapes dating back to the mid-late ’90s, so to say they captured the spirit of that era would be an understatement. But, collectively, the band shines on Vast Reaches Unclaimed. Also, I was in the top 0.05% of Majesties listeners on Spotify in 2023. Someone send me a crown or at least a test pressing. In all seriousness, my love for Vast Reaches Unclaimed will stand the test of time.

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2. THE MOSAIC WINDOW – PLIGHT OF ACCEPTANCE

Plight of Acceptance | The Mosaic Window

The Mosaic Window is a relatively new project from the mind of Andrew Steven Brown. Brown has let it be known that the idea for The Mosaic Window came together after the unexpected death of his father and grandmother during the pandemic. Yes, Plight of Acceptance is a melodic black/death metal album, but it also allows Brown to bleed his traumas and emotions. There is a sense of mourning he’s able to create that, for me, was unmatched in 2023. The raw emotion is so palpable that the metaphorical haunting and horrors discussed on the album seem existent, but maybe that’s because they do, in fact, exist. Plight of Acceptance is filled with incredible guitar work and song construction, and again, there’s a particular spectral atmosphere to this record. And still, to this day, I have trouble explaining it and doing it justice. But for me, a few things are at least for sure: with each melancholic riff and scream into nothingness, Brown created a eulogy for those lost and one of the year’s most vital records.

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1. KRIGSGRAV – FIRES IN THE FALL

Fires in the Fall | Krigsgrav

Krigsgrav’s Fires in the Fall is simply masterful. Undoubtedly, it’s their best work in their nearly 20-year existence. At this point, the “this is the album we always wanted to make” anecdote is as overused as any. However, every so often, a band says that and then drops an album that makes the skeptic in me eat my words like holiday dinner leftovers. Fires in the Fall culminates in 10,000-plus hours put into a craft. Influenced by bands like Dissection, the melodies here are as addicting as they are hypnotizing. And much like legendary ’90s Norwegian black metal juggernauts, Krigsgrav also has an intangible knack for creating an evocative atmosphere on Fires in the Fall. Akin to the mesmerizing pacing of death/doom purveyors Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, Krigsgrav understands when to let us breathe before pulling us back in with breathtaking flurries of sound. While Krigsgrav wears their influences on their sleeves, they still have created something that stands on its own. Fires in the Fall is a special album I’ll look back on years from now, still marveling.

Sing a song of seasons! 

Something bright in all!

 Flowers in the summer,

 Fires in the fall!

– Robert Louis Stevenson

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TWO MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT (EPs, DEMOS AND SPLITS)

Considering the very real possibility that we’ll lose the war against the much more advanced extraterrestrial foes, here are five short and sweet EPs and splits I’ll throw out on the airwaves as we wait for the metaphorical clock to strike midnight, signifying our doomsday.

5. Dream Unending & Worm – Starpath

Starpath | Dream Unending & Worm | 20 Buck SpinOK, this one may not be short, but it is sweet. More than 44 minutes of death/doom and black metal by two of the biggest up-and-coming names in the underground should be enough of a selling point for anyone to check this out if they haven’t already. There’s a noticeable split here between the real and surreal. On the Dream Unending side, there’s more of a reality-based presence in not just the subject matter, but the overall melancholic atmosphere sparked by the songwriting of Derrick Vella and Justin DeTore. With Worm, there’s a paranormal, more so vampiric presence conjured up by the enigmatic funeral doom master, Phantom Slaughter, and the uber talented Phil Tougas. Nonetheless, both sides consist of some phenomenal musicianship and kickass tunes.

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4. AVOWD – AVOWD Vol. 1

This is what night terrors are made of. AVOWD released some straight up dissonant, chaotic and addicting Chicago-based black metal in early 2023. Musically-speaking it’s pure aggression and evil, as you’d expect (or hope) to hear from a black metal project. These dudes do it right.

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3. Reign A.D. & The Oracle – The Mountain Peaks of Prophecy

The Mountain Peaks of Prophecy | The Oracle / Reign | Repose RecordsReign A.D. and The Oracle created something special with this unique take on a split record. With The Oracle kicking off the release with a few dark electronic tracks, Reign A.D.’s black metal side still feels like a continuation of those soundscapes and atmospheres. The split also has a cinematic quality to it, loosely based on the prophecies from The Bible’s Old Testament and Book of Revelations. It dropped late in 2023, but still made its way onto my year-end list. It’s that good.

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2. Fluisteraars – De Kronieken van het Verdwenen Kasteel – I – Harslo & De Kronieken Van Het Verdwenen Kasteel – II – Nergena

The first two releases of this soon-to-be three-part series … uh … yeah. I’m still in awe. There’s quite a bit of weirdness going on here, but I love it. These two releases display the genius that is Fluisteraars. They’ve really nailed down this whole atmospheric black metal thing, huh? However, I think it goes deeper than that; there’s something borderline spiritual about these two that, once you’re really neck deep into the music, you find yourself on a totally different plane of existence. There’s some cool alt-rock moments here for your consumption, too. Overall, stellar releases from our friends from the Netherlands.

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1. Lunar Chamber – Shambhallic Vibrations

Shambhallic Vibrations | Lunar Chamber | 20 Buck SpinThe debut EP from Lunar Chamber was nothing short of spectacular, but what else would you expect? I mean, the band comprises members of Tómarúm. You know, the band that released one of the best black metal albums of the last few years, Ash in Realms of Stone Icons? Here, they take on a progressive death metal approach to their sound with some tasty fretless bass lines, gorgeous riffage, technical lead-playing, and of course, some deep, hollowed vocals that sound like my sleep paralysis demon. Ironically, it’s a pretty enlightening album, lyrics-wise. But whatever is in store for Lunar Chamber in 2024, whether it’s a full-length album or another EP, I’m waiting with baited breath.

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THE GREAT BEYOND

Before I sign off the pirate radio airwaves one last time and enter into the great beyond, I’ll thank you for listening to me ramble on about the music I love. But for now, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read this horrifically long rundown. Here’s to 2024, and hoping the ETs allow us to live just a little longer, or at least until we get that new King Diamond album.

Hannah (@Hanzebelle) / X

Posted by Josh Heath

Taller than Glenn Danzig, but shorter than a funeral doom LP. Lover of riffs and cheesy horror films. Hot wing connoisseur. Host of the average extreme metal podcast, Lost in the Catacombs. On Twitter or X, whatever: @CatacombsMedia

  1. It’s been so fun catching up on all the great releases from this year with the help of these lists. Cheers!

    Reply

  2. First time seeing Mork on a year-end list. I just became aware of this band last year, then had the chance to see them and they were excellent. Hypnotic.

    Reply

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