So here I am, four years after my last official list. I don’t really have a valid excuse as to why I don’t do these full write-ups on a year-to-year basis. However, I could certainly say 2013-15 was fraught with turmoil, existential crises and career roadblocks. But for the most part, those days are long gone, and now I can finally focus on the important things like these little wonderfully self-gratifying “best of” lists. Twenty-sixteen was certainly a strange year for metal in my humble opinion, as the new releases didn’t flood my ear holes nearly as much as older and more established gems in my music library. Maybe that’s a consequence of me getting older, or maybe it says something about the general quality of the modern metal environment as of late. Nevertheless, I was able to glean a few diamonds from the rough, and the list below details the reasons that made these little opuses so special. Here goes:
Spain’s Wormed have been around since 1998 but are only just getting their due recognition, starting with 2013’s excellent Exodromos. They are not your typical technical death metal band full of misogynistic gore or meta abstractions. Rather they ply their craft around a theme of cosmic terror, and boy oh boy does it work in spades. The problem with most technical death metal bands is that their albums usually become a treatise on skill masturbation. Wormed, however, use their technicality to create an atmosphere of unrest and trepidation. Their music is actually quite cinematic, and when the maelstrom of guitars arrive along with Phlegeton’s layered vocals that were gurgled up from sulfur fountains on the surface of Venus, you know you are in for a wicked alien hell ride.
I will admit, Opeth started to lose me when they shed their metal skin to focus on all their self-indulgent rock proggery. Heritage wasn’t necessarily a bad album; it just wasn’t an Opeth album, at least defined by their already well-established metrics. However, their next release, Pale Communion, saw them gleefully wave their middle finger to all their fans that had followed them the 16 years prior. Here was a band that was totally content to amuse themselves by playing homage to obscure '70s prog artists that not even the most die-hard hipster music nerds have heard of. With Sorceress, however, Opeth have started to marry their past with their uneven present. Don’t be mistaken; we don’t have a “Demon of The Fall” or “Ghost of Perdition” on here, but the title track brings a very satisfying crunchy riff after some initial aimless guitar and bass noodling. This then leads into Mikael Åkerfeldt’s soaring vocals, which only seem to get better on every album. It blows me away that he still considers himself at best an auxiliary vocalist. Any band out there would kill to have a singer of his range, expression and enunciation.
It’s hard to believe that as one of the originators of Gothenburg metal, Dark Tranquillity have been at it for 27 years now. Here with their 11th album, Atoma, they aren’t exactly breaking any new ground (which has been their status quo for about a decade now), but what they are doing is consistently writing intelligent, progressive and emotive deathy thrash metal. To be honest, the first few listens of this album didn’t really do much for me as, I thought it was just another rehashing of their storied and ongoing career. However, further listens have revealed nuances and some seriously beautiful writing that bridges the gap between the experimental and melodic goth of Projector and Haven and the more razor sharp riffage of Damage Done. True, these veterans are not going to blow anyone’s minds at this point, but they will continue to school the world on the proper sound of Gothenburg in perpetuity.
Metal’s affinity for using H.P Lovecraft as thematic source material shows no signs of slowing down. While bands like The Great Old Ones portray the majesty of Lovecraft’s alien hellscapes, Chthe’ilist fully embrace the horror and claustrophobia of it. In fact, they do so with an old-school swagger that brings a certain amount of, ahem, fun to the proceedings. Just listen to the tritone arpeggios of “Into The Vaults of Ingurgitating Obscurity” as they melt into dissonant tremolo and try not to be reminded of Sweden’s halcyon death metal days of the early ‘90s. Coupled with the otherworldly and processed vocals that sound like Chtulhu vomiting black blood, and you have a recipe for some sublime flesh-ripping sonic torment.
Substance abuse can be (sadly) one of the most effective catalysts in starting the engine of creativity for a band. While some artists write their best work while on the hard stuff (e.g. Megadeth, Metallica et al.) others do so when getting off of it. Case in point, Mouth of The Architect created some of the heaviest and most despairing post-metal of the mid to late aughts, and all of it was done while the band was suffering through inner turmoil, drug and alcohol addiction and other life issues. Fast forward a few years and MoTA have cleaned up, replaced some members and have been on an absolute tear since 2013’s Dawning. 2016 sees them going in a completely new proggy and more jammy direction, and surprisingly it works really well. Gone are the bilious vocals (well, they are still there, albeit much more sparsely used) and thunderous down-tuned guitars, and in their place reside some serious King Crimson-esque guitar noodling and clean vocals that sound like they were recorded in the next room. This all coalesces into some of 2016’s most beautiful music, and confirms that MoTA have completed their transformation from being a band born of despair to a band reveling in triumph.
The always consistent Borknagar have returned to gift us another album of pastoral, folky proggy black metal goodness. While the previous two entries into their catalog (2010’s Universal and 2012’s Urd) are a good amalgam of their entire trajectory, Winter Thrice really feels like a tribute to one of their watershed albums, 1997’s The Olden Domain. Two of the most obvious reasons for this comparison are the return of Ulver’s Garm (he does vocals on two songs) and the album title being a lyric on The Olden Domain’s excellent “The Dawn of The End.” Naturally, it wouldn’t be Borknagar if they didn’t have their trademark layers upon layers of synths and Øystein Brun’s disjointed chord progressions. In some cases, they are used to wondrous effect (see the one-two punch of album opener “The Rhymes Of The Mountain” and “Winter Thrice”, which has syrupy smooth vocals by Garm), and when combined with their three-headed vocal attack (Vintersorg, ICS Vortex and Lazare) the end result is just staggering. It’s refreshing to see that this band can so reliably produce quality albums 20 years into their existence.
One of the biggest surprises of 2016 for me was the explosion of synthwave. For those of you scratching your heads, synthwave is a keyboard/synthesizer-based form of music that is very cinematic and uses simple '80s-esque electronica beats. Many artists in this genre are heavily influenced by John Carpenter, and Perturbator makes no bones about wearing that influence on its neon sleeves. I’m a sucker for all things '80s, so I suppose it was only natural that I would embrace an album like this, but to just leave my infatuation at that would be a disservice. The Uncanny Valley takes the skeleton of Carpenter (i.e. simple 4/4 meter and three- to six-note melodies) and fleshes it out with layer after layer of beautifully anachronistic synthesizer magic. It’s hard to listen to an album like this and not think of it as being the soundtrack to some retro-futuristic '80s sci-fi movie.
Being one of the torchbearers of the dissonant and technical death metal movement (i.e. Gorguts, Dodecahedron, Pyrrhon, et al.), New Zealand’s Ulcerate have been trying to up the ante with each successive album since their 2007 debut, Of Fracture And Failure. However, their previous release (2013’s Vermis) seemed to almost go too far in the technical direction at the sacrifice of creating anything memorable (for classical purists out there, think Alban Berg versus Iannis Xenakis). While there were moments of sheer sonic terror that I really appreciated, overall the tracks seemed kind of same-y. This appears to have been corrected on Shrines of Paralysis, as the riffs now have time to breathe and coalesce into something almost graceful. Don’t get me wrong–they haven’t toned down their ferocity one iota, but instead have allowed it to intermingle with riffs that are doomy and downright catchy. This newfound ability to create actual melody has made this album one of their greatest triumphs and I am totally excitebike to see what their next album will bring.
Italy’s greatest export of sun-kissed shoegaze are back after a long eight-year sabbatical to grace our ears with some truly moving saccharine sonic ether. It would seem that this eight-year gap has mellowed Klimt 1918 out to the point that some of the tracks on this ambitious double album are nearly drone-esque (funeral gaze?), and all of it is just heart-breakingly beautiful. They even do a gorgeous ambient cover of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” (I’m such a sucker for that cheeseball of a pop song, even though it always makes me think of the lovemaking scene from Top Gun) that is quite stunning. The only downside is that this double album is a little front-loaded, as Sentimentale is just shoegaze perfection from start to finish and Jugend, while still excellent, isn’t quite as memorable. Nevertheless, both of them together are a work of wistful longing and a powerful statement by a band that proves there are still plenty of coals burning in their collective creative fire.
It is a goddamned tragedy that English purveyors of funeral doom Eye of Solitude are not more recognized by the metal “mainstream.” They have been tirelessly toiling in the DIY scene since 2010, with each album being released in limited quantity and even less promotion, but to great fanfare. They exist more on the Shape of Despair side of the funeral doom coin–this means music that is slow and low and heartstring-shattering, but also eminently melodic. While there are moments of aggression here, especially on the titular opener, it is the gloriousness of their crestfallen melodies played at 45 beats per minute that are the biggest selling point. Frontman and Romanian ex-pat Daniel Neagoe is also very impressive here, as his impossibly low vocals enunciate and punctuate the suffocating despair the rest of the band brings to the table. At times I think he is growling even lower than fellow countryman Greg Chandler's (Esoteric) inhuman register. By and large, this all translates into some of the finest slo-mo dirges out there.
Teutonic black metallers Imperium Dekadenz have always existed on the folkier side of the BM spectrum, and though Dis Manibus carries on this tradition, you can hear a profound confidence coming from this band. Here they proudly skirt the provinces of several genres all within the confines of a single song, and when it works, it does so with a sense of awe. Album opener “Only Fragments Of Light” demonstrates this modus operandi perfectly. It starts off with your typical tremolo-picked riff, transitions into a Killing Joke-esque chord progression, bridges off into a folky and regal-sounding section replete with liturgically sung vocals (think of a choral version of The Ruins of Beverast’s cleans), and then back finally to the opening tremolo-picked and blastbeat-ridden riff. This is some seriously gorgeous and ambitious stuff, and if you are a fan of Agalloch and/or Fen you need to do yourself a favor and put this in your collection immediately.
4. Departe | Clouds
Eye of Solitude frontman Daniel Neagoe makes another appearance in this list (first time I believe an artist has ever appeared twice in one of my year-end lists), this time with his other funeral doom band, Clouds. What separates this band from EoS is that Clouds are absolutely unabashedly melodic from beginning to end. Sure, the abyssal growls and down-tuned guitars still reign supreme here, but the overall music is completely consonant. Daniel has been quoted as saying that this is funeral doom that focuses more on the grief of loss than any other depression-trigger, and it is quite easy to see that in the songs themselves. The inconsolable pain is certainly present here, but so is a sense of peaceful acceptance. See middle track “In The Ocean of My Tears”, as it is a perfect microcosm of what they represent–a hymnal that starts off with a funereal woodwind lamenting the loss of a loved one, followed by a wash of melancholy guitars and female vocals that convey a sense of barely holding on. Tears are the fuel here, and this album does its job of effortlessly eliciting them.
Will there ever be a year that Katatonia releases an album where it won’t be in my top five? [No. –ed.] As a diehard fanboy of the band since 1996’s Brave Murder Day, I have idolized these masters of musical despondency. Though their works of the mid-aughts have shown an increased predilection for Tool/A Perfect Circle-esque progressiveness, previous album Dead End Kings stripped back the technicality and focused on a more commercial and softer (but no less melancholic) sound. That particular style has been completely upended on this latest opus, however. It almost seems like Katatonia have rediscovered their passion for doing this as each one of these little ditties are bristling with a labyrinthine complexity in the counterpoint. None of these songs are going to have an immediate effect as there is just so much going on. Repeated listens, however, are going to reward the listener with a profound sense of pathos, especially in the lyrics of frontman Jonas Renkse, as well as his delivery, which grows more confident and impressive with each successive album. This is a masterstroke for Katatonia and is easily their best album since 2006’s The Great Cold Distance.
The world is such a better place with Gorguts in it. The complexity and grace of mainman Luc Lemay’s compositions are a gift to the world of extreme music. Being a professional student of classical composition for a number of years, he developed an affinity for 20th century composers like Shostakovich and Arnold Schoenberg, and he proudly presents that influence with all of his recent works. Previous album Colored Sands was a monument to composition itself, not just in terms of extreme metal. With that album, Lemay invented and utilized a completely new form of counterpoint, one not so concerned with key or dissonance but rather embracing a freedom from both (definitely an unintended homage to 20th century composer Busoni’s idea of Young Classicism). Pleiades’ Dust continues this tradition and explores the nuances of this kind of advanced counterpoint even further. It is also a concept album, and here for the sake of laziness I will quote the Wikipedia page:
Pleiades' Dust presents a historical narrative about the House of Wisdom, an ancient library that stood in Baghdad from the 9th-13th centuries. The library contained and protected much of the world's knowledge until it was destroyed by the Mongols in 1258 C.E. According to lyricist and lead songwriter Luc Lemay, "The lyrics of the song start with the fall of Rome around 500 A.D., then go to Baghdad in 762 when they founded the city, then the Mongol invasion in the 1200s, when the library was destroyed."
Aside from all the intellectual esoterica, the actual music makes for a jarring listening experience. Our ears are trained to expect specific key resolutions, meters and cadences, and Gorguts completely eschews these expectations. They are pioneers of an unknown sonic frontier. You should do yourself a favor and tag along.Negură Bunget’s use of folk structure and instrumentation, Alcest’s use of shoegaze, etc.), but Oranssi Pazuzu’s excursion is more psychedelic and somehow just feels more foreign. This album is jammy to the nth degree–so much so that it becomes an example of what I would picture a jam band playing after taking some horrendously bad acid while Eraserhead plays on a giant projector screen in the background. Take opener “Saturaatio” for example: It starts completely off kilter with the drums driving a 5/4 rhythm while the guitars melt away with about every effect permutation in the book. Then out of nowhere a violent ascending chromatic chord progression nearly derails the whole damn thing before it settles back into the same uneasy 5/4 rhythm. I have heard this album probably over 20 times now, and each and every time I am still discovering some hidden nuance that laughs at me as it has so obviously been there the entire time. This, my friends is the hallmark of great music, and Värähtelijä is a monolith to the avant-garde and sonic sleight-of-hand. Take your favorite illicit substance, turn on, tune in and drop out.