The Top Albums of 2016, by Aaron Maltz
Noise massacred 2016. Every year, it seems the media machine couldn’t possibly make room for more content, and that critical mass for public consumption threatens human sanity, but somehow a few notches on the belt get loosened to allow room for more clickbait. As a result, media participants have to follow suit, and the expectation to consistently generate meaningful content, while shaping a voice that continually meets the needs of a restless public, plods forward.
When asked to reflect on the year in metal, I found myself staring at a blank page and wanting no part in generating additional noise. Everyone could do with a little shut-the-fuck-up right about now, but the cultural vehicle we navigate, driven by media, can only move faster. It continues to invade our lives and erode public discourse and demand participation, and 2017 will produce more people generating more content using increasingly artless ways to get attention. No one has enough money to ease off the gas, or time to really absorb dense composition, and the facts show that very few of us will reach that watermark of leisure, yet we will all click the headline. So why is everyone doing this?
Despite a high ingestion of new metal, thanks to the From The Bandcamp Vaults column, my favorites for the year remain familiar to me. Krallice continues to release the most interesting music irrespective of genre, while Ulcerate, Dysrhythmia, Sun Worship, Deathspell Omega and Gorguts always earn special listening time. Outside of the inspiring, metal became increasingly boring and conservative. So many bands sounding like the same two-dozen influences, cranking out subpar material and expecting a reaction. I hope that next year pulls back on the noise and increases on the quality.
One last thought. After the election, a friend texted me a line from Morbid Angel’s, “The Lion’s Den”: “Christians standing breathless, Circus victims panic struck.” I thought that was pretty cool.
Track of the Year : Vektor – “Charging the Void”
20. Dormant Ordeal – We Had It Coming (self-released, Poland)
19. Aluk Todolo – Voix (Norma Evangelium Diaboli. France)
18. Rorcal – Creon (Division, Switzerland)
17. Foreigns – Metropolitan (self-released, Canada)
16. Helms Alee – Stillicide (Sargent House, USA)
15. Oranssi Pazuzu – Varahtelija (Svart, Finland)
14. Hail Spirit Noir – Mayhem in Blue (Dark Essence, Greece)
13. Vektor – Terminal Redux (Earache, USA)
12. Big Business – Command Your Weather (Joyful Noise, USA)
11. Sumac – What One Becomes (Thrill Jockey, USA)
Some folks see Ulcerate as a one-trick pony, but I believe they’re still one of the most powerful and original voices in modern death metal. Shrines of Paralysis doesn’t break new ground, but let’s not forgot that Ulcerate basically invented a new sound within death metal that has lasting influence. I think people who loved The Destroyers Of All expected something different in their follow-ups, and as a result have totally overlooked a few modern classics. Get over it; Shrines of Paralysis rules.
Even though I loved Drought, it left many unsatisfied with its venture into less intense territory. Where it swung and missed for many fans, The Synarchy of Molten Bones hits. It’s got all the hooks you’d expect from Deathspell Omega, but with a nod to pre-Paracletus form that so many have been whining to hear. Ian Cory wrote better about all this than myself, so read his review here.
I had the fortune to check out Plebeian Grandstand in front of less than ten people at a Portland bar last year, and had my face properly melted with their intense blend of crazy ass hardcore and black metal. IO compatriot Jon Rosenthal perfectly described them as a mix of Botch and Aosoth. If False Highs, True Lows is your first experience with the French quartet, check out their last album Lowgazers as well.
Abbath was this years Surgical Steel. Backed by performances that sound lifted from mid-era Immortal, Abbath penned a classic metal album that fit like a comfortable sweater in a sea of new sounds. From the opening moments of “To War!” one felt transported to the black metal of the early 00s.
Avant-garde black metal that incorporates free-jazz influence, complete with the occasional screeching saxophone. What’s not to like?
It’s not quite Alice in Chains meets Mastodon, but that might be the best elevator pitch to describe Ayahuasca. They comfortably combine rock, metal, sludge, psych, and progressive rock into a ball of hooks and soaring vocals. It’s a new sound built on the past, and Luke Roberts proves himself again as one of the most progressive songwriters in modern heavy music. With the release of Yin, one can hope that Roberts’ other project, Thantifaxath, will soon return to rattle the black metal world.
I’d like to think that when Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston get together to jam, they constantly blow all the power in their practice space. Realistically, it’s probably pretty standard, assuming that composing high-functioning, instrumental, art metal is commonplace. The Veil of Control pulls back on some of the heavy found on 2012’s Test of Submission, but that doesn’t make the themes any less intense. Along with drummer Jeff Eber, Dysrhythmia performs studied metal with seeming ease. The Veil of Control cements the tones of the previous two albums into a trademarked sound that very few have the ability to copy. I hope for several more amazing albums to come.
In an interview published by Free Williamsburg and conducted by This One Goes To Eleven, Colin Marston and Kevin Hufnagel described the fascinating writing process for Pleiades Dust:
TOGTE: Luc said in a recent interview with Heathen Harvest, “When I hit send and a new idea goes out to the other guys and I get something back, they nail it every time. Not a note needs to change.” Are you guys that in-sync now or is he just being nice?
CM: That’s basically true! I can remember one short wacky atonal tapping part I wrote that Luc vetoed, and certain subtleties of our parts were changed once we actually played the song together a few times, but 99% of what’s on the album are our first ideas. The drums were a little more collaborative and developed the most in rehearsal of all instruments, but again, most of the basic ideas were demoed by Luc or me before getting together to practice.
KH: It’s true. We hardly changed a thing.
Something about how casually they discuss creating some of the most complicated and sophisticated modern metal blows my fucking mind. Gorguts continue to slay with the single-track, thirty-three minute long epic about an Islamic intellectual center twelve-hundred years ago known as the House of Wisdom. Outside of everything about the album, I love how much breath the new Gorguts line-up allows in the compositions. At a few points throughout the EP, I was oddly reminded of a jam band, although certain circles would banish me for that statement. Gorguts demands your attention, and you should be so lucky to experience it.
On paper, I shouldn’t love Sun Worship, but in reality they hit all my sweet spots. The German trio spits forth unpretentious, second-wave black metal that is short on theatrics and big on impact. The hooks are that of a seasoned metal band, and their honesty translates through their performance. The desire to create something pure requires a stripping of the ego, and Sun Worship succeed with their aim on Pale Dawn.
Recorded in 2013 and released on the first of this year, Hyperion barely qualifies for this roll-call, but thankfully it counts. The brevity of 2015’s Ygg Huur threw many Krallice fans off-guard, but Hyperion links that album to 2012’s Years Past Matter. It shows them playing around with space, and makes it clear that they were looking to pivot from their previous trajectory. As always, the performances defy reason. Nick McMaster’s bass playing mimics that of the low-end in a string quartet, while Lev Weinstein impossibly interprets the communication between Colin Marston and Mick Barr with passion. It’s demanding, catchy, dumbfounding, and enthralling. It’s a Krallice album, and all’s right with the world.