Best Albums of 2016 so far (aka Editor’s Choice June 2016)
Apologies for the slight delay.
Last month I skipped my Editor’s Choice in favor of giving more coverage to Maryland Deathfest (by the way, it was great to meet so many of you there, and I’ll see you again next year!).
Since then, finding the motivation to write about music has presented a challenge. World events such as the United Kingdom’s referendum to exit the European Union, the United States presidential race, and the failure of the Paris climate agreement make things like writing about music for pleasure seem irrelevant at best and irresponsible at worst. In the face of such overwhelming possible futures, what consolation can distortion and screaming offer?
Maybe the only consolation. Metal has a unique ability to encapsulate a sense of inevitable largeness in the relatively brief confines of a song or album. Red aloud, the book of Genesis can take four hours to read; the twelve thousand and change lines of Homer’s Odyssey take around twelve hours to read. Heaven and Hell is forty minutes long, but encapsulates many of the same themes as those two books. All three grapple with the kind of monstrous dread I described above, but Dio offers more bang for your buck.
The culture of letters surrounding metal, however, plummeted in value over the past few weeks at a rate commensurate with that of the British Pound.
When I started this column more than a year ago, part of my motivation was a sincere belief that metal journalism needed more thoughtful op-eds and fewer regurgitated reviews. If June 2016 has proven anything, it’s that we all need a moratorium on op-eds. Absolutely everyone has something better to do than discuss venues dropping opening bands with shitty tee shirts, and that goes double for discussing the band Nails.
But, hell, what do I know, I’m just the editor of a humble webpage. Maybe the message might carry more weight if it came from a metal god:
When Lemmy wrote “No Class,” his message was that his rock and roll lifestyle didn’t exempt him from the need for decorum. Quite the opposite: One of Lemmy’s most germane song topics and observations was the double-life of genteel society. People in collared suits behaving like jackals disgusted him on a rudimentary level. His songs offer an alternate path, a blue collar aesthetic and hedonistic lifestyle, but a considerate manner toward other people. “No Class” doesn’t advocate shooting our mouths off at every little thing that rubs us the wrong way. Rather, it underlines how important it is that metalheads act with class in the face of a world full of jerks. So remember, guys: be Lemmy. Don’t be the other guy in “No Class.”
But you know what? In all that excitement I nearly overlooked that 2016 is half over already, which means it’s time to share our favorite records of the first part of the year. In a sense these lists seem disingenuous because there’s so many excellent records that have not been released yet (this Hammers of Misfortune, I tell ya’). Still, everything below deserves your attention.
In alphabetic order, here are my top 10 releases of 2016 so far across all genres. On any given day Goatess and Sturgill Simpson might swap places with something here, but as I’m writing it here are my feelings. We have some more year-end lists from IO staff afterward and then of course, picks for new music.
Abbath – Abbath
Aesop Rock – Impossible Kid
Beyonce – Lemonade
Cobalt – Slow Forever
David Bowie – Blackstar
Goatess – Goatess II; Purgatory Under New Management
Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust
Mantar – Oath to the Flame
Metal Church – XI
Striker – Stand in the Fire
Vlk – Of Wolves’ Blood (Tour de Garde, USA)
Goatpsalm – Downstream (Aesthetic Death, Russia)
Pogavranjen – Jedva Čekam Da Nikad Ne Umrem (Arachnophobia Records, Croatia)
Virus – Memento Collider (Karisma Records, Norway)
Palace of Worms – The Ladder (Broken Limbs Recordings/COF Records/Sentient Ruin Laboratories, USA)
Wöljager – Van’t Liewen Un Stiäwen (Prophecy Productions, Germany/Iceland)
duszę wypuścił – Przekrólewszczenie & Przekrólewszczenie Zero (Devoted Art Propaganda, Poland)
David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia/Sony Music, England)
Haunter – Thrinodίa (Independent/Red River Family, USA)
Book Of Sand – Occult Anarchist Propaganda (Mouthbreather Records, USA)
Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts (Peaceville Records, Sweden)
Wyrding – Wyrding (Small Doses, USA)
Ulaan Passerine – The Great Unwinding (Worstward, USA)
Nokturnal Mortum/Graveland – The Spirit Never Dies (Heritage Records, Ukraine/Poland)
Looking forward to new albums by Mizmor, Slagmaur, Ärid, Earth and Pillars, and more.
1. Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner
2. Tim Hecker – Love Streams
3. Marissa Nadler – Strangers
4. Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelija
5. Kvelertak – Nattesferd
6. Savages – Adore Life
7. Sinistro – Semente
8. White Lung – Paradise
9. Sun Worship – Pale Dawn
10. Spinebreaker – Ice Grave
1. Ihsahn – Arktis
While his True Norwegian Black Metal peers often either seem content to retread old ground or to leave black metal entirely, Ihsahn has remained noteworthy in his willingness to play music that is recognizably “black metal” while seriously pushing the boundary of what that label means. It’s heavy, intricate, sometimes harsh, sometimes beautiful, and always absolutely engrossing. If you haven’t checked Arktis out yet, that needs to change NOW.
2. Navajo Witch – Ghost Sickness
Tennessee doom stoners unleash a massive slab of hashishian freakout with their debut full-length, and the results are jaw-droppingly heavy. Having seen them live on several occasions, I was impressed with how closely this record captured the tangible crush of their live sound. If the main riff on “Rites of Divination” doesn’t make you look into the rays of the new stoner sun rising, then you are well and truly lost, my friend.
3. The Morningside – Yellow
After my disappointment in Deafheaven’s last release, along came The Morningside to deliver the poignant, expansive dark metal album that I’d been hoping to hear all along. Yellow balances gorgeous with heavy at the perfect plumb, and does so in a way that is honest and truly heartfelt; if Sunbather evoked summer, Yellow masterfully invokes autumn. Probably the best “pretty metal” album of the year so far, and certainly the one that best scratched my Alcest itch.
4. Gruesome – Dimensions of Horror
I really fucked up in not including Savage Land on my Best of 2015 list, so I feel that this is a bit of repentance. Either way, Gruesome knock it out of the park for the second year running with some excellent OSDM that manages to invoke classic Death without ever coming across as hackneyed. Also, the music video for the title track is awesome.
5. Atrocious Abnormality – Formed in Disgust
The long running North Carolina brutal death machine returns and the results punish. They’ve gotten the concept of “brutal death metal” just right: technical without being riff salad, slammy without being caveman-ish, AND YOU CAN HEAR THE BASS. It’s the sort of death metal that makes you feel like you just took PCP and bath salts simultaneously and are now able to throw a bus fifty feet in the air.
6. Sourvein – Aquatic Occult
When I interviewed T-Roy a few months ago about the latest Sourvein album, he told me that he envisioned Aquatic Occult as a more footloose album after the dark Black Fangs. While it’s not a carefree venture, this latest offering has more of the “Dirty South” party vibe that has come to set Sourvein apart from many of its more morose Southern Sludge counterparts. That, and the guitar has the best sludge tone I’ve heard yet in 2016.
7. Darkestrah – Turan
While Tengger Cavalry and Nine Treasures have demonstrated the durability of Mongol Metal, only Darkestrah has so far explored Turkic Metal. Here they perfect their unique brand of Central Asian black metal, adding enough ethnic elements to make their music unique while at the same time taking care not to stray from black metal into full-on folk metal territory. Recommended for fans of riding the open steppe on a fleet horse with falcons at your wrist and the wind in your hair.
8. Forteresse – Themes Pour La Rebellion
Frosty Quebecois black metal masters Forteresse return in fine form with a concept album about the Rebellions of 1837. Think Mgla, but with righteous anger instead of despondent nihilism, if that makes any sense. It’s muscular black metal, the sort of riff-heavy tremolo worship that goes great with the burning of British forts. Tabernac!
9. Ljosazabojstwa – Starazytnaje Licha
From darkest Belarus comes this crawling chaos of whirling death/black metal, like Incantation being sucked through the side of a spaceship into a black hole. That it’s so underground only adds to the murky charm; who knows who these guys are and how long they’ve been churning out these eldritch riffs in squamous solitude? This was released on Christmas that year, but since probably no one heard it before then, I’m counting it as 2016.
10. Amon Amarth – Jomsviking
I’m too scared to not include this one since I don’t feel like taking a battleaxe to the head. Needless to say, Johan and co. have brought forth another rifftastic, dual-guitar heavy snekkja-load of Viking metal, ideal for enemy crushing and lamentation hearing. What’s not to love?
11. Musket Hawk – Desolate
This is the rare band that sounds like Baltimore is: filthy, aggressive, dangerous, and often quite sludgy. Can “pollutioncore” be a thing, instead of just linking together the usual “sludge-grind-thrash” labels? Because this band is pollutioncore. And it’s about time you got nasty.
12. Electric Citizen – Higher Time
Cincinnati is also a nasty town, but Electric Citizen take the opposite approach from Musket Hawk and rise above it with some seriously psyched-out ‘70s throwback proto-metal. It’s like Pentagram without the sleaziness, with maybe a touch of Witch Mountain to taste. “Misery Keeper” is definitely going on my “Easy Rider” road-trip playlist; it’s the perfect anthem to cruising the great American continent on a cool bike with an ample supply of green and beer to fuel the endeavour.
13. Nails – You Will Never Be One of Us
I haven’t even heard the whole thing yet, but if the title track is any indication, we’re in for some ridiculously abrasive HM-2-violence. I can’t stop listening to it, it sounds like someone recorded what it sounds like in my head when I have road rage (and trust me, I get road rage like a mofo). Can’t wait to split wood and do deadlifts to it!
14. Abbath – Abbath
If there was any doubt that Abbath was always the driving force behind Immortal, let that be dispelled now. This is essentially an Immortal album under Abbath’s name. Still, it’s the best goddamn Immortal album since Sons of Northern Darkness: the riffs rip, the production is top-notch, and Abbath himself has never sounded better on vocals. This was what All Shall Fall should have been, but better now than never. To War!
15. Thorne – Laudate Reverentia
So “blackened trip-hop” is now a thing. Sound weird? Not really; if you think about it, the gulf between Moevot, Lustmord, and Massive Attack is not too great to not be easily bridged. Creepy, skin-crawly, and sometimes even sexy, this record is a grower for sure, but grow it will. Eponymous bandleader Josh Thorne has admitted equal influence from Revenge and Prince and, well, this sounds like the sort of album that could be found exactly halfway between those extremes. For fans of the most melodic black metal and the darkest R&B.
Honorable Mentions for late 2015 (too late for year-end lists but too early for 2016):
Batushka – Litourgiya. Blasphemous Old Slavonic Black Metal with a full choir of faceless hierophants? Don’t mind if I do.
Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard – Noeth Ac Anoeth. If the name didn’t convince you, the riffs will, and the vocals will seal the deal.
Here’s a great place to begin. Iceland’s Zhrine made a big impression on me at Maryland Deathfest this year, although I found the experience of seeing them difficult to put into words. Like mana from heaven comes this live video of the band performing their new album Unortheta in its entirety in Reykjavik. Season of Mist seems to believe in what the band is doing: they’ll be opening for Ulcerate on their US tour this fall. Dates are, fortunately, included in the video.
I owe something to Leipzig’s Dark Suns‘ last album Orange was released, I wanted to write about it at Invisible Oranges but could not find the time. That record’s jubilant celebration of diverse sounds excited me at the time, but it was hard to find a center to hold onto. Likewise, at the time there was a glut of retro-sounding bands in a similar, though less diverse vein, and I had trouble pointing out specific examples that differentiated Dark Suns from the pack. I just sort-of knew they were different. Eventually I gave up on giving it a coherent review. I guess some members of the band have similar opinions, because their latest, Everchild is both more modern and focused, if a little less heavy than their past work. Some of that’s to be expected, the band recorded it with Yensin Jahn, who’s worked with Yo La Tengo. When the album is at its best, as in “Escape From the Sun”, I get an early-’00s Porcupine Tree/Katatonia vibe from this album. That won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but It’s a delicate and hard-to-maintain sound that the world could use more of.
If there’s a theme running through 2016, it’s that this is going to be a banner year for fun black metal. While some outlets would have you believe that this is the era of Deafheaven clones, where anything remotely reminiscent of peak Alcest has momentum. For example: Ghost Bath are not only signed to Nuclear Blast but touring. Truly this is the end of days, but if these are the last times I want them to be a high velocity party, not a gorgeous montage, which is where bands like Malfeasance enter the picture. Fuck popular momentum, their Realms of Mortification EP has actual momentum. There’s more riffs in “Pyre of Pentinence” than in Deafheaven’s entire discography, and all of them come barbed like whaling harpoons, made to stick in you on impact and not come out. Fans of the recent Destroyer 666 album need to hear this immediately, because Malfeasance might be the best black thrash band in the world right now and they’ve only got two songs.
While not nearly as fast or aggressive as Malfeasance, London’s Light of the Morning Star pack about as many hooks into their debut mini LP, Cemetery Glow. This kind of melodic sensibility strikes me as uncanny, which is par for the course coming from an Iron Bonehead release. An overt gothic aesthetic separates these three songs from their labelmates. If bands like Wolvhammer and Alaric swim a couple laps in the Olympic size swimming pool that is deathrock, then Light of the Morning Star swim a 400 relay by themselves and then jackknife off the high-dive afterward just for giggles. Let’s say you’re a dyed in the wool patches-and-leather sort of person but you’re going to throw an RPG party and everyone decides they want to play Vampire: The Masquerade. In such an event, this is the album you want to play.
Who the fuck are Atlanta’s Cloak? According to Metal Archives, none of their members have done anything of consequence. Guitarist/vocalist Scott Taysom also plays in a hardcore band called Paradox, and used to be in a group called Haunting. Bassist Matt Scott also plays in Living Decay, but drummer Sean Bruneau and guitarist Max Brigham are total unknowns. None of these bands have produced more than a handful of demos and EPs. Hell, Cloak only just released their first two-track EP, but it’s a glorified rerecording of their demo from last year. I bring up the relative obscurity and low-key histories of these four musicians not to make them seem unprofessional, but to underscore just how impressive this EP is. Bands sign three-album contracts without ever producing a single song as good as “The Hunger.” I want an album of this stuff. Yesterday. Way to make a first impression, Cloak.
I didn’t see this coming. When it comes to Norwegian metal bands dipping their toes into art rock territory, Ulver and to a lesser extent Solefald get the lion’s share of the attention, but In the Woods… did it first (their sophomore album Omnio dropped barely a month before Solefald’s The Linear Scaffold). They also didn’t so much dip their toes as swandive in. Much of the pagan saturnalia currently bubbling up to the surface fails to cover the ground that this band covered on just their first two records. Now that we’ve got some context, the story takes its first twist: In the Woods… haven’t released an album in 17 years, and to my knowledge they had no plans of reforming. Then “Cult of Shining Stars,” taken from their upcoming fourth album Pure, appeared on Bandcamp and No Clean Singing. Better: the song is heavier and more guitar-oriented than most of the band’s output since their debut LP from two decades ago. Knowing this band, it may sound nothing like the rest of the album, and actually no two songs on the album may sound remotely similar, but that this exists at all is cause for celebration. Welcome back, In the Woods…
After so much self-seriousness in this column, I’d like to end on a fun note, and my music taste doesn’t get much more fun than Nuff Said. Lil’ Wayne (satan willing may I never feel inclined to type that name again) once said “Be good or be good at it.” I can’t call Nuff Said good, but they are most definitely good at “it.” What is “it”? Well, my would-be Pattons, “it” is fun. This Toronto hardcore outfit layers ridiculous gang shouts over Dangers-ish riffs to create what I assume must be a parody of Boston’s tough guy hardcore scene. Their lyrics, like the rest of the music, fixate on rough and tumble leisure activities such as hockey and violent video games. Normally I’d loathe to hear a song about Mortal Kombat, but with with tongues (I assume) planted firmly in cheek Nuff Said make me want to scour thrift stores for a working Sega Genesis. You will never forget how to perform Scorpion’s “Get Over Here” harpoon move after hearing “Back Back B.” Hardcore bands, take a cue from this and lighten up. And Nuff Said, can you call your next album You Will Never Have Fun With Us, pretty please?
I’d like to end on a reminder: Jon Rosenthal has some vacation days racked up, and we’re going to need somebody to fill-in on his Upcoming Metal Release column. If you think you have what it takes, please email Jon and myself (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) with writing samples.