Jon Rosenthal’s Top Albums Of 2016
Make good art – please don’t half-ass whatever you do and then send it to my poor, poor GMail inbox. I’ve listened through what amounts to just shy of fifteen days’ worth of new music on an individual basis, and that’s not including material I’ve streamed through YouTube or Spotify. Aside from a few instant, heart-melting favorites, how would I even begin to tackle such a ridiculous task? Well, for a while, and this is something I’ve learned in graduate school, I just didn’t do it. Of course, and this is something I learned in elementary school, “just not doing it” makes it harder, but stress makes certain decisions so much easier. Have you ever flipped a coin to make a decision? Your choice was already made while the coin was in the air, and so, under duress, I tackled a ton of music…and you know what I discovered? There was a lot of music, most of it released independently (which is neat, go home team), but most of it (even the cool, groundbreaking stuff) lacked any real staying power.
A thought, and stifling creativity is the last thing I want to do, so bear with me: let your art gestate. You don’t need to release everything you record, nor do you have to release something new every year, or even every other year. Yes, there are bands who do that, and some of them pull it off fairly well, but the people behind those bands are inhuman. Don’t pit yourselves against them. Please. Because then I become Atlas and carry all your demos. Practice a lot. Record multiple drafts of stuff. Ask your friends for advice or constructive criticism. More importantly, do all of this without adding your new draft as a rehearsal on Encyclopaedia Metallum or putting it on Bandcamp. Accomplishment is a great feeling, but accomplishment over time feels so much better. It isn’t a race, nor can you win music, so stop trying to run laps around each other.
Now that you’re all probably furious with me, and a guy can really hope that you are, here are my top picks of 2016, fueled entirely by stress and cheap beer. These are overall picks, too. Compartmentalizing my taste seems so sophomoric and unnecessary. Why make a “metal only” list because metal is included in the myriad of styles to which I listen? Taste is built on an individual level, so here is my individually-constructed list. Here’s hoping 2017 results in people slowing down (and not sending me music via social media).
Oh, and to pre-answer the perennial question, “Where is *album* by *artist*?”: apparently it’s on your list. Enjoy the rest of 2016, and don’t be a goddamn bigot.
20. Grok – A Spineless Descent (EEE Recordings/Tour de Garde/Cloister Recordings US, United States)
19. Wędrowcy~Tułacze~Zbiegi – Światu jest wszystko jedno (Devoted Art Propaganda, Poland)
18. ColdWorld – Autumn (Cold Dimensions, Germany)
17. Palace of Worms – The Ladder (Broken Limbs Recordings/Sentient Ruin Laboratories, United States)
16. Virus – Memento Collider (Karisma, Norway)
15. Forgotten Spell – Epiphaneia Phosphorus (Angel, God, or Insanity) (GoatowaRex, Germany)
14. David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia, United Kingdom)
13. Pogavranjen – Jedva Čekam Da Nikad Ne Umrem (Arachnophobia, Croatia)
12. Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts (Peaceville, Sweden)
11. Cultes des Ghoules – Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love (Hells Headbangers/Under the Sign of Garazel/Of Crawling Shadows, Poland)
For such a young style, black metal is steeped in traditionalism. Not the worst thing in a world, musical genre have historically spent generations finding a solid footing and identity, but there is still a world of creativity into which most of these artists who play riffs Varg wrote 20 years ago have yet to really tap. Don’t get me wrong, a really solid, Burzumic black metal album can really get the blood moving, but albums like Vlk’s Of Wolves’ Blood which have a strong footing in second wave black metal’s roots and branches which reach into outside spheres are the exciting undercurrent of black metal’s deliberate evolution. While undeniably existing in a similar sort of sound-world to the epic, folkish triumph of Graveland’s Thousand Swords and the more aggressive moments in Bathory’s earliest flirtations with Viking-based imagery, Vlk’s strong, nearly post-punk rhythmic feel and occasional teasing at the simple, albeit resonant chords of neofolk (no doubt an outside influence of RB, JS, and VD’s own works in neofolk outside Vlk) work in harmony with the band’s concise, powerful style. There are many bands whose attempts at punctual equilibrium within black metal offer intrigue and demonstrate the style’s versatility, but it is important for stylistic mastery to exist. Vlk aren’t attempting to reinvent the wheel, but their stride is lean and practiced, and that is much more satisfying.
Vanessa van Basten is dead, but this new industrial pop/drone/metal direction taken by mastermind Morgan Bellini is a more than fitting continuation. Never fully losing itself to the meandering affectations of shoegaze, the heavy, monotonous plod of industrial metal, or the sugar of pop, The November Harvest exists somewhere in the middle. Some might recognize melodic, post-rock inspired vestiges of Bellini’s prior pet project, but he appears to focus his creativity into crafting brief (mostly – the epic, thirteen-minute eponymous closer ventures into glorious, shimmering abstraction), infectious songs. Songcraft is an art which appears to be lost on the majority of new “art pop” artists, who generally prefer to revel in the eventuality of a growing, stagnant texture, and the more “pop” leanings of The November Harvest could very well herald a return to the championing of structure over size. I defy you to resist bobbing your head along to this one.
Thick, icy, and glacial black metal ambiance of the highest order. The duo of Black Sorcerer Battle and black metal stalwart Vinterriket have unleashed hours of mystifying, grandiose music for years, and under multiple artist banners, but this first installation of the proposed Dark Dragons of the Cosmos series is Battle Dagorath’s most powerful statement. The album’s title speaks of the cosmos, but the music therein evokes visions of endless, snow-blanketed mountains and the warm euphoria felt just before freezing to death. When I premiered this album back in September, I spoke of a specific, keyboard-laden nostalgia from which this duo so eloquently draws inspiration, and that delicate balance of melodic grandeur and frost-coated immensity
Book of Sand
Each Book of Sand album is an adventure into the transient nature of experimenting with the black metal sound. Avant-garde jazz, polytonality, mariner folk songs, and modern classical music all found their place in Book of Sand’s oeuvre. But what of the black metal itself? After countless releases and almost half a decade of silence, multi-instrumentalist dcrf tests his mettle with an unbridled, unencumbered black metal performance…and it is stunning. Featuring agile guitar work and unexpected moments of gorgeous lyricism hidden beneath stylistically faded haze (some moments honestly resemble Deathcrush if just in timbre), dcrf’s tenure as an experimental musician still manages to leak through, turning the melodic grandiosity into a mass of gnashing teeth and dissonant rage.
Ekstasis’s existence recalls black metal’s now rich history of neofolk practices. Fauna, Skagos, Alda, and Vradiazei join hands in creating quiet, thoughtful, pastoral folk music. Ray Hawes and Johnny DeLacy’s guitars intertwine with Mae Kessler and Marit Schmidt’s elegant bowed strings and Mara Winter’s delicate woodwinds with spacious grace and carefully placed compositional care. Even as Michael Korchonnoff handles vocal duties, all elements remain intact as a sort of continuo, using slight improvisation over the set progression to enhance the composed melody. With so many elements, the guitar duo, the strings and woodwinds, overcomposing, or what I like to call “business,” becomes an issue, but not here; every note has its place and each member’s territory has been set without threat of encroaching. Now, I’ve been referencing “neofolk” a lot, and, while I would probably end up using neofolk as a blanket term for Ekstasis, their verdant, uplifting sound echoes artists from the ’70s – the guitar heroism of Dave Bixby and Bob Desper, the traditionalism of Steeleye Span, and the lyricism of Pentangle – than the apocalyptic sounds found within the canonical Death in June and Current 93. Regardless of category, the beauty found within Ekstasis’s infectious music (I haven’t been able to listen through just once in a single sitting) is undeniable and speaks to the now strange historic accuracy of their sonically unlikely beginnings.
Blood Incantation’s style of death metal is unique, but to use the word “new” wouldn’t quite do it justice. This new millennium has more than its share of bands trudging forward into new territory, which is fine, but without a solid base, any new direction is built on shaky ground. Blood Incantation’s intersection of the “classics,” paired with the benefit of hindsight, harnesses the greatness from which death metal built its standards and put it in a kaleidoscope. Echoes of the obvious, inherent strangeness of Timeghoul, Gorguts and Morbid Angel make their way through, but as the album progresses, shades of Leprosy‘s controlled progressive edge and the blasting mania of Mithras’s Forever Advancing…Legions (which might not be as “old school,” but it’s undeniable) make themselves equally as apparent. Blood Incantation’s psychedelic take on classic death metal was more than successfully communicated in last year’s Interdimensional Extinction EP, but the strange expanse of Starspawn cements these Colorado residents as a force with which to be reckoned.
Funeral doom metal is a tricky beast to tame, and is even more difficult to personalize. When working with that much space between notes, it’s easy to get lost in minimalism, or, in some cases, do too much. Wyrding is one of those few, special cases in which a band took the funeral doom template and truly made it theirs. Vocalist Troy Schafer’s (Kinit Her, Burial Hex, Aquilius) rich croon soars above his bandmates’ smooth, lugubrious backbone.
The fact that I slept on Haunter’s debut demo last year should be considered criminal. The category of American black metal bands who delve into the strange world of experimental dissonance are slim pickings, and the few who do (ie. the above offender) take discord to its furthest extreme. Though I definitely appreciate (and even relish in) such chaos, sometimes I yearn for composed restraint. Misanthropy Records got it right in the early ’90s – I mean, they released Written in Waters, Wolf’s Lair Abyss, the classic In the Woods… trilogy, and countless other genre-redefining classics. There was this fleeting era of strangeness in black metal and it was undoubtedly considered canon, only to splinter into conservative traditionalism or complete abandonment of metal’s harsh extremes. Even now there is a dichotomy between adventurous boundary pushing on both ends of the spectrum, which is what makes Austin black metal trio Haunter so unique. Lost somewhere between the special sadness of early 2000s American black metal and the seasick avant-garde of Misanthropy Records’ golden age, Thrinodίa deftly navigates through hazy atmospheres and profound, enraptured despondency, controlling their chaos and transforming it into a greater uneasiness.
This one was an unexpected addition to my list, and I even found myself surprised at how high it ended up on my list, but The Gloaming have crafted a near perfect folk album. 2‘s sparse arrangements of traditional Celtic folk songs, all in their original Gaelic, delight in natural sustain and the traditionalism of a small ensemble. Though there are definite hints at traditional folk dances and the occasional bounce and lilt found within the often stern and practiced instrument performances, The Gloaming’s approach to celebrating Ireland’s lowlands comes in the form of beautiful, minimal lullabies.
40 Watt Sun
40 Watt Sun has changed, but it feels more like they cast off an uncomfortably warm coat rather than finding a new direction. Though this apparent “about face” has more in common with singer/songwriters Jason Molina and Damien Jurado (both of whom have been covered by either the full band or Patrick Walker on his own) than the doom metal under which 40 Watt Sun had been previously categorized, the only chief difference I can hear is the lack of distortion. The elements are all still there, Patrick Walker’s unique croon and big, leafy guitar chords, William Spong’s thick, melodic bass, and Christian Leitch’s active, jazz-influenced drumming, all wrapped in resplendent, bittersweet emotion. The only ingredient which seems to be missing is the previously ever-present distortion found on their debut. With this new concentration on clarity, 40 Watt Sun has lifted a veil from their music, carrying the same emotional weight without any added hindrance. Wider Than The Sky is an intense listen – a bitter pill to swallow which carries a hidden warmth and hope.