Top Albums of 2016, by Andrew Rothmund
What a year for metal. Probably the best in a long time. Magic seeped out of the genre’s every little cranny: we received special winners in doom and black metal, wild new technical shit, and metal ostensibly unqualifiable, save for the fact that it is, indeed, metal. You know it when you hear it.
That’s why music “ranking” pains any fair mind, like shooting a calf you’ve given a name. We honorable musical journalists suffer and strain under the cataclysmic weight of this responsibility. We are true heroes, real rock ‘n’ roll, ready to serve you, dearest reader, at any sacrifice! This self-inflating gobbledygook notwithstanding, why can’t we pick a Number One?
You must fear one thing: the opinions of folk who obsess. Repeat a word again and again and again and the signifier separates from the signified. It starts to sound jumbled, a foreign language, something unreachable and unintelligible and absurd. And so is the garbled grunting of a soapbox madman/woman. Thank you.
(At first you recoil in horror. Then a cat’s curiosity kicks in like a sublingual painkiller. On some level you understand. You lower defenses against the crazy evangelical shit. The world is ending! You feel the way the words sound. Proselytized. You feel music. This isn’t about content, it’s about context. About capture, alien abductions, conspiracy.)
Anyway, it’s despicably sinful to play the subgenre game. Below, I play the subgenre game. I probably made up a few. So trust me not. But trust the bands, trust that the art they’ve crafted became something more than anyone could expect. Trust that these artists are welcoming to commentary, to a verbal enema, to the antigravity of analysis, knowing that ultimately they will be hoisted high above our heads in honor. Here is, like, where we hoist invisible oranges.
So I spare criticism here. And I have a lot of it. That is why there’s no Number One. Not every album listed is flawless. Maybe just a few, depending on my mood and whether I’ve had breakfast. It’s up for interpretation. The runners-up may just as well been included in the top ten. The top ten may as well be rearranged into some special demonic callsign.
The very act of me doing this is an act of discovery. Ditto: you reading it. Not an exercise in rote factual lingo and a bunch of ancillary crap you’ll never remember. More like a journey during which you take no photos. Probably because you want to escape, and a true escape isn’t an escape if all you do is try to analyze it real-time. Does heavy music hit you in the heart? Are we all on drugs?
20. Absinthius – IX (Independent, Australia)
19. Oak Pantheon – In Pieces (Independent, USA)
18. Mizmor – Yodh (Gilead Media, USA)
17. Khonsu – The Xun Protectorate (Season of Mist, Norway)
16. Cult Of Luna And Julie Christmas – Mariner (Indie Recordings, Sweden)
15. High Priest Of Saturn – Son Of Earth And Sky (Svart Records, Norway)
14. CB Murdoc – Here Be Dragons (ViciSolum Records, Sweden)
13. Sarcoptes – Songs Of Dances And Death (Cimmerian Shade Recordings, USA)
12. Lycus – Chasms (Relapse Records, USA)
11. Summit – The Winds That Forestall Thy Return (I, Voidhanger Records, Italy)
The Zenith Passage
This year’s best technical death metal (TDM) album is Solipsist. It contains every single TDM trope known to humankind. Despite this, it stimulates the brain’s wankery neurons so boredom is impossible. Dextroamphetamine. There are so many notes. This is the band that Soreption and Archspire always wanted to be. Impossible riffs yes, but also dynamic songwriting. Technique can destroy form, but not here. Plus Solipsist features guests from The Faceless and Fallujah. You also get some trendy black metal moments. Copious synth and chorus; also, soft passages (increasingly rare for TDM), sweep picking, and breakdowns. Who the frick doesn’t love a good breakdown?
This year’s best super-slow doom metal (SSDM) album is Monoliths. When you read “slow,” it means slow. Patience is a virtue. This is doom for doom, the bare mechanics of doom, so in some senses the “realer” side of doom. Start over, use caveman tools, begin alchemy, understand the basic and essential elements. You now can create art from components; an exhibition beyond the simple arrangement of simple materials. It thrusts extreme daze upon you, encasing you in granite, using the simplest tools. Doom. Monoliths puts you right there.
This year’s best hipster black metal (HBM) album is Rheia. Other HBM troupes e.g. Deafheaven get easily worn. Too flat. The dynamism here is Oathbreaker’s vocals, driven by a powerful and raunchy voice: extreme wails, spoken word, beautiful clean singing. “Second Son Of R. ” especially tingles with a human chaos. Few albums convey raw feeling without whining so much. Whining is easy. Whiners can snuff it.
This year’s best technical thrash metal (TTM) album is Terminal Redux. It opens with a nine-minute long powerhouse, “Charging The Void,” a bonkers explosion of high-pitched screaming and saucy blast beats. Terminal Redux nerds out. It blends pump-you-up vibes with scarred and ugly thrash: mean and chock full of hooks. Technicality hides underneath nothing, exposed bare and slapped repeatedly; pink gives way to red, as bloodshot as high eyes which dance over rainbows of esoteric soundwaves.
This year’s best post-doom metal (PDM) album is Belfry. This is where doom and beauty meet. An incredible vocal performance shapes the entire impact of this album. Even the songs are well arranged. It’s a journey of ups and downs: morose musings and lighter-in-the-sky heavy metal. This music is the kind which floats above your head and rains down. Or, this is music for floating. Evocative at the same time. This album sounds fucking incredible on LP.
This year’s best progressive technical death metal (PTDM) album is On Strange Loops. There’s just nothing like it. A nine-year wait completely paid off. Stupendous climaxes pepper every song; every song a sui generis emotional outburst, gut-twisting highs maintain themselves through volume layering and space-going double bass. The intro to “Between Scylla and Charybdis” is nothing short of magnificent. Möbius strips are awesome. On Strange Loops is dialogue, dimensional, the unseen confidence (indifference) of cosmic law: organic re-morphing and unexpected twists stimulate the intellect and the soul. Check out “Invoker.”
This year’s best throwback epic metal (TEM) album is The Armor Of Ire. TEM is a dreadfully trite subgenre, littered with copykitties. Yet Eternal Champion’s opaque modernity copies not. But… but… Sabbath vocals? Sabbath vocals fuckin’ rule, and they’re actually done well here. Power chords rule too, and so do bombastic solos and mind-boggling triplets. These are ‘The Essentials’, and that’s okay. It’s a subtle dark atmosphere separates Eternal Champion from peers. The Armor Of Ire totally avoids cheesiness. It conducts serious business: serious metal, serious power. Akin to white-knuckle speeding. “Epic” is a loaded word, but works here. Riff-focused songwriting (and these are some truly metal riffs) keeps all ears on point.
This year’s best for-the-most-part instrumental black metal (FTMPIBM) album is The Art To Disappear. It features god-tier black metal riffing, mechanized drumming, and symphonies of discordance. Truthfully, vocals would destroy it completely. FTMPIBM stands against the perceived necessity of a human’s voice, that primal beauty. Humanity is damned, eradicated by the gnashing of titanium gears, the crushing of skeletons under steel tracks, a mechanized war machine programmed for total annihilation. “Kill Again” is an especially fitting track. People suck.
This year’s best psychedelic-experimental metal (PEM) album is Värähtelijä. PEM should always gush with atmosphere, the cerebral variety, compounded by spacey screams and copious synth. It needs to illuminate progress, a left turn or entirely new direction for heavy music, typically involving non-heavy passages as juxtaposition. Värähtelijä nails every single PEM point, as if crossing off a checklist. They shall have their own subgenre. In all the cosmic psychedelia and abstract noise, the listener never loses grip, and that’s the beauty. It generates colored and luminous mindscapes, inducing synesthesia, closed-eye visuals, etc.
Slice the Cake
This year’s most poorly named band (MPNB) is Slice The Cake. Despite this nomenclatural defect, they’ve birthed what’s indisputably one of the most accomplished metal albums. Odyssey To The West explores unknown terrain and takes incredible risks. It is the definition of intrepid. Counting its 28-minute long appendix album Odyssey To The Gallows, this dual-wielder spans 103 minutes and approx. 50 subgenres. It was written over a three-year period and marked the death of Slice The Cake as we (now) know ’em.
Basically, Slice The Cake write savant music. It is impenetrable, virtually unlistenable, fastidious and frustrating. Intellectual, elitist. Call it hyper-progressive. Frantic and unstable: music pursued to its very core, a search for the nexus of sound and heart. A trillion screams and infinite mass and eternal depth and devastating poetry, chest-clutching, this is atmosphere. Oceanic frisson. Odyssey To The West humanizes its musical (and lyrical) journey: they sought to capture it all, despite the certain odds. Fearless explorers with no return ticket.
Odyssey To The West is avant-garde and melodically morose, tinted with sad beauty. It inflicts the actual pain of separation, of breakup, of one last flailing attempt to rectify the the unrectifiable. The album moves so gorgeously, head-first into its own certain doom, dramatic by definition; a confrontation so terrifying, yet the exhilaration overcomes your fear and you sweat beads and clench your fists and actually yearn for the sordid dirge of emotional bloodshed.
The sheer scope of Odyssey To The West is unmatched this year. Also unmatched are the bareness of its emotionality and the rigor of its discipline. An outlier for sure, the disregarded point far above the arc, weird by definition. It bleeds right on you. Running around with an out-of-control amygdala. Obsessive tendencies.