The Top Albums of 2016, by Rhys Williams
Needless to say, Tuesday, November 8, 2016 hit me really fucking hard on a number of levels. When Joseph Schafer sent out the rubric for this year-end list, his only rules were “no racism, sexism or NS stuff.” Initially, I had tried to protest, citing albums like the latest Recluse as arguments in the “music not message” battle, but now?
My priorities have shifted: in these days of fear, uncertainty, and callous hatred, we must find music that expands and inspires, not contracts and seethes. Hateful messages cannot stand, music that gnaws at the soul must be abandoned for music that inspires it. With this in mind, I have crafted my 2016 list around albums that inspired true awe and reverence in me. Some of it was fearful, some of it emotional, some of it was even spiritual; however, the unifying theme was that each album lifted me, made me feel human, inspired me to think of the universe and aspire to great deeds. These are the times that try souls, and there’s no point in wasting any of it listening to nihilism or hate. Let us be strong together, let us dream together, let us be fucking METAL together.
Note that, due to such a large amount of excellent metal records this year, I have limited my list only to those releases that are strictly “metal.” I loved the new albums by Wardruna, Bastard Noise and Thorne, for instance, but since those projects are metal-influenced rather than outright metal, they’ll have to wait for my non-metal year-end list. Deep breaths, let’s begin. More life.
20. Ulcerate – Shrines of Paralysis (Relapse Records, New Zealand)
19. Coscradh – Demo MMXVI (Invictus Productions, Ireland)
18. Trap Them – Crown Feral (Prosthetic Records, USA)
17. Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia (Ignifera Records, Canada)
16. Qrixkuor – Three Devils Dance (Invictus Productions, UK)
15. Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard – Y Proffwyd Dwyll (New Heavy Sounds, UK)
14. Ljosazabojstwa – Starazytnaje Licha (Hellthrasher Productions, Belarus)
13. Gravebomb – Rot In Putrid Filth (Self-Released, Sweden)
12. Abbath – Abbath (Season of Mist, Norway)
11. Darkestrah – Turan (Osmose Productions, Kyrgystan)
One of the trends in 2016 metal was towards angular, spacy death metal that walked the line between “technical” and “murky.” On this first full-length, Quebec’s Chthe’ilist channel the spirit of such oddball death metallers as Demilich but updated through a modern lens. It’s alien and eldritch, but the playing is outstanding, the production strikes the perfect balance between murk and shine, and the vocalist must be praised for singing those occluded lyrics (how does one even pronounce the band name?). In the crawling chaos of sci-fi death, only Blood Incantation did it better in 2016.
Can we make “ritual metal” a subgenre? Since roughly the early aughts (or, really, since Agalloch), a new breed of metal has lurked along the most occluded corners of the metal world, synthesizing black metal, doom, folk metal, neofolk and dark ambient into a narcotic stew of black-clad veneration of the old gods. For a time this was solely a North American phenomenon (see: Blood of the Black Owl, Celestiial, Falls of Rauros, etc.), but as the decade has progressed European and Asian voices have begun to make themselves heard. In a way, it’s the new black metal: each new culture adds its own distinct take on the ritual blueprint. This year, Russia’s Goatpsalm loomed large over its arcane fellows, weaving a hypnotic tapestry of boreal occultism. Sounds of the vast, lonely taiga intersperse with rhythmic riffing and pulsing drums, with whispered vocals evoking foul deeds performed in damp, mossy places deep in the Siberian wilds. For all those who feel metal can be as sacramental as it is artistic, Downstream is a mandatory experience.
By rights, Oathbreaker is a band I should not particularly care for. Their aesthetic screams “hipster black metal,” and their previous records were more crust punk than anything else (and I don’t care much for crust). However, Rheia is emotional black metal perfection. It makes me think of Jesu by way of Mutilation Rites: vast and intensely emotional, but in an aggressive way, not a pitiable way. And there’s a heft to the riffs and to Caro Tanghe’s vocals; it’s undeniable that this is METAL, not “post-metal.” Beautiful and savage at the same time, Rheia was a punch to the heart that I never knew I needed.
Wildernessking have always released quality work, but it is my feeling that this latest record is their magnum opus. In some ways, you could think of Mystical Future as a companion piece to Rheia, but from a different emotional angle. Where Rheia is equal parts rage and sorrow, Mystical Future is awe and passion, the animalistic noises of young men maturing and realizing they are powerful. The riffs buzz, chug and often intertwine: the dual guitars alone make the album worth the price and then some. Shout it from the top of Table Mountain: Wildernessking know where their future leads, and have the might and wisdom to approach it head on.
Meshuggah is the rare band that created a subgenre and has maintained a singular sound from album to album without following into the “it all sounds the same” trap. Personally, I find their latest offering, The Violent Sleep of Reason, to be among their best work to date. Most of the hype over this album has been that it was recorded live, a rare departure for a band that has often used studio magic to its full potential (see: Catch-33). This in itself is impressive, but more than that, it’s just a fucking excellent Meshuggah album. Everything you want is here: Tomas Haake evokes a malfunctioning clock but the rhythm section always keeps up. The guitar tone is deep and chunky, but not in the super-scooped manner of so many modern djent bands. And Jens, as manic as ever, has not lost any vocal power since 1998. That this band is approaching thirty years in existence makes this accomplishment all the more remarkable. Maybe Meshuggah should be considered in the same breath as Neurosis: prog-metal titans who have never let anything, be it age or attempts to pigeonhole their sound, interfere with producing engaging work that only gets better with time.
Le rois du Quebecois metal noir retourne, but with far more bombast, melody, and aggression than I’ve ever heard from them. Now, Forteresse are not Oathbreaker or Wildernessking, they’re traditional black metal, but here they have brought the production quality to match the epic nature of their songs. Thrashing, blasting and ripping through forty minutes of truly frosty black metal, Forteresse have built themselves into the mouthpiece for Quebecois metal. Play this album on a cold, windy November night and you can almost hear the fires take shape in the distance. One of the signs of a truly outstanding metal band is its ability to evoke a sense of place through music alone. Forteresse has done this and then some. The bards of the north, here to sing songs of triumph and glorious defeat.
Navajo Witch is the platonic ideal of a doom metal band: massive, fuzzed out guitar tone, huge Sabbathean riffs, a predilection for Native Americans, witchery and cannabis. It’s the perfect package of stoner doom, and the songs get it right too. They’re long and often run along a foundational riff, but never get boring or lost in their own ponderousness. Navajo Witch combine heft with economy, crafting a singular monolith of stoner doom that points the way to the riff-filled land. I’d drop out of life to this album in a heartbeat.
I’ve always liked Ihsahn’s post-Emperor output because he, unlike many would-bes, understands what “pushing the boundaries” really is. For example, Arktis is most certainly a black metal record, but one which moves the subgenre to it’s heaviest, most intricate extreme. It’s not your standard Northern Kvltism, it’s engrossing, impossible to pin down, a wild ride through deconstructing and rebuilding black metal tropes not unlike being caught out in an Arctic blizzard. Abbath’s self-titled was a lot of fun, but out of the OG black metal dudes making music in 2016, I feel that Ihsahn ruled the roost, hands down.
As I said in my Chthe’ilist entry, only Blood Incantation performed more memorably in the category of “2016 weirdo space sorta-tech death.” But fuck, does Starspawn rip. Total angular, crushing extraterrestrial death metal, all squamous abomination and rugose horror. The production is top notch, and in many ways that compounds the horror in the same way as Vexovoid back in 2013: once you can hear those tortured dual guitars and those frenetic, huge, slightly askew riffs, you can’t remove it from your corrupted headspace. It’s almost like early Morbid Angel on a bad acid trip: that same pulsing convocation of crawling chaos writ large across the galactic plane. Seeing these guys live was the icing on the cake: brandishing matching Ironbirds and backed by a wall of amplifiers, they brought their death gamma-ray burst right to one’s face. You couldn’t look away. Starspawn similarly defies attempts to turn away, and in so doing sets itself as the metric by which sci-fi death metal will be measured for years to come.
If Goatpsalm dominated “ritual metal” in 2016, then Batushka virtually introduced and then owned “liturgical metal” in 2016. First off, the conceit was brilliant: a band that approached blasphemy and theistic Satanism from a Russian Orthodox perspective instead of the usual Catholic/Hardshell Protestant axis, and in so do brought a beautifully sacriligious aesthetic that turned Orthodox imagery on its head. From the faceless icon adorning the cover of Litourgiya to the band members’ adoption of hieroschemamonk garb but with the crosses inverted, this band hands down won the prize for best aesthetic this year. More than that, though, even before I actually saw what Batushka was doing, I was floored by the music. Allegedly Batushka contains members of MGLA but at least are fellow Poles, and their music evoked from me images of Mgla if they venerated rather than disdained. The guitars are heavy but clear and the riffs monumental, and the band can move and groove as only the possessed can. And those vocals, oh the vocals; the best black metal screams of the year layered smoothly over the baritone rumble of Russian liturgical chanting. I remember Cosmo Lee once described Ted Kliman’s art as “capturing the terror of religious ecstacy.” On Litourgiya, Batushka have perfectly captured that terror both aurally and visually, and no other album, none at all, carried the spiritual punch for me that Litourgiya provided. Rejoice, and take comfort in the death of the world.