by Craig Swatek
2006 has certainly become a special year of music for me. Not only had I purchased more new releases in one year than in any other prior, but 2006 brought more surprises than the norm on several different levels. First, through simple perusal of reviews and ubiquitous advertisements in all mediums, I had experienced the great privilege of getting to know many new bands. What makes this so special, though, is that these bands immediately became close to my musical heart and most made it into my top 15 of the year. In fact, it is because of this reason alone that I had to do a top 15 rather than my usual top ten this year. After coming up with an initial top ten, it became immediately apparent to me that this methodology would not be acceptable given the unique environment that it was gauging, and to simply lavish honorable mentions to the omissions would be too great an injustice.
So, here they are—the top 15 musical achievements of 2006:
1. Cult of Luna Somewhere Along The Highway
Jesu Silver (tie)
As is immediately apparent, this year is also unique in that I have never awarded a tie, let alone for album of the year. Upon first listen, Silver moved me in such a way that bandleader Justin Broadrick’s music has never really done before. I have been a Godflesh fan since the Pure album, but this little gem makes all of his other works seem sterile in comparison. The emotion that just explodes out of every note, every down-tuned guitar chord, every wall of surrounding ambience, is one of the greatest achievements in all of music. The fact that this is an EP and not a full-length is why I could not assign this opus album of the year status, but if this is any sign of Broadrick’s future progression, his next LP may very well be album of the decade, let alone year.
Somewhere Along The Highway also surprised me, almost as much as Silver did. Cult Of Luna has been playing catch-up to Isis since arriving with its eponymous LP in 2000. No matter how hard CoL tried, Isis always managed to soar incalculably higher with each album since Celestial. No longer is this the case. What CoL has done with this masterpiece is finally discover its own identity, and a newfound confidence in songwriting, especially when it comes to dynamics and melody. There are so many highlights on this album that to point out one would be unfair, as each piece is integrally placed in this magnum opus. Somewhere Along The Highway ebbs and flows like a huge glacial mass, each shift providing a ripple effect throughout the immense space it occupies. This is an album that everyone should hear, and listen to as a whole, as it does tell a story. While the journey may be different for each person, CoL makes sure you get there without missing any of the glorious aural landscapes that you will encounter along the way. A truly stunning achievement for both band and genre alike.
2. Negură Bunget OM
One of the lesser-known post-black metal bands on the planet, Romania’s Negură Bunget has existed for the larger part of a decade now, although it was not until 2004’s N Crugu Bradului that said country and band burst onto the musical map. Based entirely on the four seasons, the forces that propel them and the transitions in between, ‘N Crugu Bradului was absolutely stunning. You could hear the cries of the land and the blood of Negură’s heritage throughout each atonal outburst, lengthy meditation, and jarring time shift. Nobody sounds like these guys, nor could anyone try. There is such an honesty to their music which is further evolved on OM. I feel that to try to describe or dissect this album would somehow be insufficient no matter how I were to word it. This album exists in a space that is not at all familiar, and each song solidifies that fact as the melodies unfold—and this time around, there are plenty of melodies in the songs, something that was not too common in this band’s past. These musicians definitely do focus a great deal of their playing on their heritage; something analogous to Primordial in that you can almost taste the foreign soil with each bittersweet note. According to the interview on the accompanying DVD, OM is about the purification of body and soul. This album exemplifies that ideal perfectly.
3. Isis In The Absence Of Truth
This band never fails to deliver, or to progress, for that matter. This, however, is a new situation for me, as Isis’s last two albums both were album of the year, and by a long-shot at that. So in a way, this album was a bit of a disappointment for me at first. It took many listens before I could actually hear the genius at work in the band’s newfound fondness of odd harmonics and chord progressions. I would almost say that this album is a direct result of being out on the road with Tool, as I now hear a heavy Tool influence in the Isis sound, and less Mogwai in the dynamics department. Truth is still a masterpiece, and most certainly asserts my delegation of Aaron Turner being the Justin Broadrick of this musical generation. This latest is probably the most impatient Isis opus yet, and certainly the most aggressive since Celestial, but there is still a certain tenderness to it, and waves of emotion that swell and break with much authority. At the very least, this album has me completely flummoxed as to how the next one will sound, and should propel Isis into the lower sub-currents of the mainstream.
4. Mouth Of The Architect The Ties That Blind
Holy hell, where did these guys come from? Well, as far as I know, they came from Ohio, to render my own rhetoric useless. I first heard the band back in 2004 when Translation Loss released its debut, Time And Withering, which in essence was just a glorified re-recording of the group’s demo. While there were parts on that album that were quite enjoyable, and even at times brilliant, there was a certain immaturity to the composition of the material, as well as a struggle to find identity in this rapidly growing Neur-Isis-core sub-genre. It was enough for me to warrant a purchase, though, and to keep my eye on MotA’s future output. Earlier this year the band released a split with Kenoma (incidentally, members from both bands made up the short-lived Rune, an acerbic, scathing tech-death band) where its only contribution was one 17-minute song called “Sleepwalk Powder.” Immediately, I could hear the massive progression and shift in style from the debut. This one-off release served as a transition to what would follow several months later…and my God, did these guys gel into something special with this album! The Ties That Blind is a masterpiece in every definition of the word. I could not believe that I was listening to the same band that released Time and Withering. This new creation sounded the like the result of years of veteran playing and composing. Part of the unique charm of this collection is the progressive leanings of the guitar. At times, you could almost imagine Robert Fripp in the studio nodding his head in approval. Again, this is another album that must be listened to as a whole. Each piece is filled with such fury and resignation that I was immediately lulled into a depressive catharsis that would not loosen its hold until the conclusion of the album. Despite the strange name, and the youth of the band members at hand, there is a special pathos here that is absolutely hypnotic, and must be heard by all fans of the genre.
5. Blut Aus Nord MoRT
France’s finest exports have returned with another masterful work of Silent Hill metal. Being a huge fan who is still endlessly awed with 2003’s The Work Which Transforms God, my expectations for this album were very high, perhaps unreasonably so. After all, where could they go from there? Well, not far as it turns out. MoRT sounds like a logical progression from TWWTG and its follow-up EP, Thematic Emanations Of Archetypal Multiplicity. The songs are a bit more uniform in texture this time around, and due to the many layers of noise/ambience and utter lack of any melody or tonality, one could be forgiven for not hearing much difference between pieces, which are all untitled, making that person even more forgivable. After the second or third listen, however, the bloody, rusty hooks and chains of the album have got you, and with each subsequent listen, you discover something new, and are even more disturbed. It is the psychology of the band’s intent that makes the delivery that much more disconcerting. This is not a comfortable album to listen to at all, as it will take you places you will definitely not want to be, but it is this ability to unnerve that is the band’s genius. It takes advantage of man’s natural curiosity of things dark and unseen to conjure unspeakable images. This is certainly one album to be taken seriously, and is suggested to only the most open-minded of metal listeners.
6. Grails Black Tar Prophecies: Volumes 1, 2, and 3
This is one of those albums that appear and sound completely unexpected. I was always a fan of Grails’ earlier two albums, Redlight and The Burden Of Hope. I thought of the group as kind of a folk version of My Dying Bride, as Grails also had a violinist, and its music was certainly maudlin, albeit played through more of a folk post-rock medium. I absolutely adored the contemplative and very natural, organic playing, but after a lineup change, a major shift in style manifested, again paralleling My Dying Bride (34.788%…Complete), although in the case of the former, the results are spectacular. BTP is actually a compilation of a limited edition vinyl-only two-volume series called Black Tar Prophecies, which comprises the bulk of this release, albeit in a different track order and with two new songs, “Erosion Blues” and “More Erosion.” As stated previously, this collection is simply amazing, and sees the reduced troupe exploring more psychedelia and jazz than ever before. The title suits it perfectly, as all the songs sound like they are resonating through a thick, black fog. The folk elements are still here, of course, but they now coexist with waves of ambience, dark electronica, avant-garde jazz, and psychedelic swirls. This album has to be heard to be believed, and should attract fans of all sorts of genres.
7. Katatonia The Great Cold Distance
In a way, I feel guilty having this release this far down on the list. It wasn’t too long ago when a new Katatonia release was an automatic album of the year. Everything changed with Viva Emptiness, however; a love of Tool and A Perfect Circle along with some of the extreme American nu-metal acts like Slipknot became ever more apparent. It was an extreme statement that their days of shoegazer Slowdive metal were quickly and quietly over. While the melancholy was still there, it was easily apparent that this was a much happier Katatonia, at least by the band’s own standards. While I liked Viva, I didn’t listen to it nearly as often as I had to their previous releases. The Great Cold Distance makes some effort to marry the two styles together, and does so beautifully. While this is still another progression into the American metal realm, it is a fine achievement, filled with very provocative melancholy and a certain resignation that resonates much more deeply than anything on Viva. Songs like “Soil’s Song” and “July” will easily be two of my favorites, right up there with the best material from any other Katatonia album. The Tool worship is even more obvious in album opener “Leaders,” but I think Katatonia has begun to master marrying that influence to its older styles to create something completely new and wonderful. At the very least, The Great Cold Distance solidifies Katatonia as one of the world’s best songwriting collectives, regardless of genre.
8. Sunn O))) and Boris Altar
Wow. When I heard that these two bands were going to collaborate on an album, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, the two bands play styles that are as polar and disparate as they could be. Somehow, though, the end result is just breathtaking. Altar sees Sunn O))) at its most melodic and, dare I say, organic. There are real drums on this album! Real drums! On a Sunn O))) album! Who’d’a thunk it? Well, at any rate, it still has the best drone you’re likely to find, but there is so much more of a human element to the sound due to Boris’s influence. Each song has its own identity and, again, serves as a piece of a bigger whole. My personal favorite is “The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep),” which is just quiet, serene beauty with guest vocals being provided by Jesse Sykes. Fans of either band will love this album, and I challenge any drone-hater out there to listen to this masterpiece.
9. Red Sparowes Every Red Heart Shines Toward The Red Sun
It’s pretty amazing that what started out as just an instrumental side project of members of Neurosis, Isis, and Halifax Pier has blossomed into such a widely listened to and appreciated act. I really did enjoy the group’s debut, At The Soundless Dawn, even if it sounded a bit misguided at times. The songs were really all spectacular in their own right, but lacked a solid direction. That issue seems to be cured on this latest release, as the songs all flow seamlessly into one another and tell the story that the combined song titles make up quite well. Apparently, the album gives a condensed explanation of what China did in the 1950’s by exterminating the sparrow population to terminate the birds seed stealing. This, of course, opened the door to locusts, who feasted on the crops and caused mass starvation, causing the deaths of millions.
The music even got a bit heavier on this one, with the occasional power chord making an appearance every so often to reinforce the melody at hand. The use of steel guitar on this album is also quite masterful, even a little underused. It complements the Sparowes’ style of playing beautifully and I would love to see more of it in the future. On its own merit, though, Every Red Heart Shines Toward The Red Sun sees the Red Sparowes continuing to improve and leaves me anxiously awaiting the next release, whenever it may arrive.
10. Russian Circles Enter
Here is an example of what I was talking about in my introduction about discovering new bands. I discovered this one through a recommendation on Amazon (of all places). After downloading and listening to this instrumental band from Chicago, I was blown away. I bought the album the following day and have been listening to it ever since. It simply amazes me that this is a debut album, as all the members play their instruments with much technical virtuosity. What makes these guys so special is their eclectic take on instru-metal. They easily blend elements of post-rock, hard-core, math-core, shoegazer, and riffs that would make even the most die-hard Slayer fan bang his head in ecstasy. And that’s just in one song. This is one band that will make the jump to a more mainstream current sooner than later, and one that demands to be listened to by all fans of instrumental music.
11. Celtic Frost Monotheist
What the hell have Tom G. Warrior and company been doing over the last 14 years? With the strictest attention to detail, monumental structure, and massive walls of crushing sound, one wouldn’t be too pressed to believe that these guys were working on this album the entire time. While it is no secret that Warrior is most certainly an egotist (just read the liner notes to the songs) and full of pomposity, he is without a doubt a masterful composer. Monotheist is the culmination of ten-plus years of songwriting, and it shows, as each song is so organic and so oppressive, you can’t help but be mesmerized by its exotic harmonies and absolutely crushing wall of guitars. While Vanity/Nemesis was good, it wasn’t good enough to make fans forget that Cold Lake ever happened. This one is. A true masterwork of metal art.
12. Agalloch Ashes Against The Grain
I didn’t catch on to this band until The Mantle, which I instantly fell in love with. It quickly became a part of my daily playlist, even though it is over 70 minutes in length, as well as becoming one of my favorite albums of all time. Its folky character and oppressive melancholy resonated deeply within me, and created unrealistic expectations for their follow-up. While Ashes is another masterpiece of eclectic metal, it just does not quite live up to its predecessor, thus its exclusion from the top ten. There are some pretty spectacular moments on this album, and these guys solidify that they are masterful songwriters, but the overall focus is much heavier this time around. I would almost call this an avant-garde black metal album, which is a far cry from the largely acoustic The Mantle. Even so, fans of the band will still eat this up, and I suggest it to all fans of anything metal. There’s something for everyone to love on this one.
13. Battle Of Mice A Day Of Nights
Again, holy hell, where did this band come from? Another addition to the amazing Neurot roster of bands, Battle of Mice features Josh Graham of Neurosis and Red Sparowes, and is fronted by the lovely screamstress Julie Christmas. This woman is an amazing and powerful singer, and you can feel all the rage, depression, angst, and even hope just emanate from her unique singing and screaming delivery. At times, she reminds me of Ani DiFranco in the way she just completely lets herself go into the music and the pathos behind it. She is in another band called Made Out Of Babies which has released two albums, also on the Neurot label; the most recent of these is entitled Coward and was released this year. MOoB is much more aggressive and has more of a punk vibe than Battle Of Mice, which is why I prefer the latter as it is more eclectic and moving than the former. Remember the name Julie Christmas, as I promise we will all be hearing more about her in the very near future.
14. Burst Origo
Now here is a Swedish band that has been around for nearly a decade, and one that I avoided because of reviews comparing it to acts like Since By Man. But then Prey On Life came out and I was hooked, and angry that I denied myself this band’s genius because of ill-preconceived notions. While the band did indeed start out as something of a hardcore/metal hybrid, it eventually evolved into something far more complex and organic. With Origo, it has launched itself into the elite of this post-hardcore genre. Origo is an album full of spiraling and complex guitar riffs that give way to more quiet and contemplative acoustic moments. Vocalist Linus Jgerskog does a great job of conveying the passion behind the songs as well, exercising great restraint and letting go when it counts the most. Honestly, this album more than likely would have made it into the top ten had there not been such stiff competition. This is a band that is constantly progressing with each release and definitely one to keep your eye on.
15. Envy Insomniac Doze
With the explosion of the whole post-metal sub-genre catapulted largely by Isis, there are many cookie-cutter imitations. So when a friend of mine suggested I listen to this Japanese post-metal band, I felt a bit of trepidation. That was quickly extinguished after the very first listen, however. Apparently, this band has been kicking for around a decade as well, and started off as your typical aggressive run-of-the-mill hardcore band. With each successive album, they have been introducing more and more melody into the mix, and have revealed in the process that they too are ace songwriters when it comes to crafting a melody that truly tugs at your heartstrings. All of the lyrics are sung in Japanese, which makes some of the softer moments a little incomprehensible due to my limited lingual ability. The booklet does have pretty good English translations, however, and after consequent listening to Insomniac Doze, it just wouldn’t seem right if it were sung in English. These guys are truly fantastic, very passionate, and craft songs that are just full of tear-jerking moments. They are also supposed to be one of the best live acts around, so if by some miracle of God they make it over to the U.S., do yourself a favor and watch them. Or, at the very least, purchase this album, and be prepared to be moved in some pretty major ways.
So there you have it, my top 15 albums of the year. I appreciate that you took the time to read it and hope in some small way that it may encourage you to check out some of the bands listed. 2006 has been an incredible year for music, after a pretty stale 2005. And with all that is scheduled for 2007, at least that I know of, it should be just as interesting. At any rate, I hope you had as much fun reading this as I did writing it. Take care, my great friends, and have the happiest of New Years.
by Craig Swatek