For my personal list, I’ll write about the albums that struck me and that still evoke something when I hear them, or even when I only see their cover art. It’s a very subjective and eclectic list, and shouldn’t be taken as an objective best-of. Instead, I’ll tell you a bit more about what albums I still like, and try to explain why. This list isn’t ranked either; it’s only ordered in alphabetical order of the bands. Let’s move on!
Black Peaks really impressed me, with Statues, which came out in early 2016. And what surprised me even more was the lack of hype from the metal community. I still listen to this album occasionally: it’s powerful, catchy, beautiful, versatile, and simply a good deal of fun! The singer’s great clean voice is emotional without sounding whiny, and his harsh side sits perfectly in the alternative post-hardcore sound of the band. The album itself has quite a lot to offer, at over fifty minutes in length, and not one outright bad track. Sure, not all are on the same level as ‘Glass Built Statues’, but they are all utterly enjoyable on their own. It’s an album I wish would’ve seen more exposure, and it’s part of the reason why it’s here. It’s catchy without being generic, and it’s consistently good!
This album will melt you completely. I recurrently shed tears, listening to it. The Black Queen‘s Fever Daydream is The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato’s solo project’s debut album, and it’s the polar opposite of this sentence: beautiful! Few expected the mathcore band frontman to be working on such an intimate, emotional, and fragile project, and fewer still expected it to be this good and lasting. Not being a fan at all of his other side project – Killer Be Killed -, I was pleasantly surprised to see Greg move towards a darkwave aesthetic. Each song here is special on its own, and is carefully written, recorded, and produced to make a rather perfect end product. There’s not much more to say.
I unfortunately didn’t have the chance to let Car Bomb‘s newest masterpiece, Meta, sink in. It came out when I had little free time and a lot of new music was coming my way. But, right upon listening to it the first time, I thought to myself ‘This is one of the best albums of the year’. Not only because of the band’s stellar track record, but because they keep improving, challenging, and renewing themselves. This makes Meta superior to w^w^^w^w, itself a huge improvement over Centralia, which was already one of my favourite albums. If you want to know where djent was originally meant to land, this is the answer.
Coma Cluster Void have been teasing us for quite some time before their album, Mind Cemeteries, finally dropped. First, it was with pictures of the ten-string guitar, then with names like Mike DiSalvo, and then with musical teasers. It would have been quite easy to miss the mark, in front of such high and intense expectations, but the band more than delivered on their promises, and surpassed what most thought to be unfeasible. The album sets a new bar for rhythmic and harmonic complexity in metal, and it does it so effortlessly, it seems, that I can’t envision anyone challenging their place on the throne anytime soon.
Corima was an unknown name to me, before their release of 天照 (Amaterasu). At the same time, the band single-handedly awakened in me a love of Zeuhl, a sort of extremely progressive art rock. I still don’t know any Zeuhl group that even comes close to Corima, in my eyes. The two multi-track songs on this album are fresh, unique, different, intricate, and enjoyably challenging. To this day, it’s still an album that I find daunting and impressive. I have the utmost respect for the musicians behind it, and it will remain in my heart – and in my head – for years to come.
Yup, it’s Dance Gavin Dance. I know it’s not the usual band you’d find on this website, but I’ve enjoyed Mothership so much that I simply have to put it here, if I want to remain honest. The prog-ish, math-ish, post hardcore band has a history of being quite inconsistent in and out of its releases, but their newest delivery is good all the way through. That album is just damn catchy and dosed just right so it’s the perfect easy-listening jam. I truly believe they haven’t sounded this tight since the departure of their former singer.
On the other side of the listenability spectrum, we find dMu‘s Synaptic Self. Yes, it’s very challenging – and perhaps the least listener-friendly album of the year -, but, once you go beyond the initial shock and begin to slowly digest it, you’re rewarded with something so intrinsically unique, so otherworldly, so free, and so raw! It would be quite difficult to find something similar to this elsewhere. It’s also possibly the best album to recommend to other people when you want to aggressively demonstrate your superior tastes to your friends, or lack thereof.
Esperanza Spalding is one of my newfound inspiration on bass guitar, and in music generally. While her previous albums were amazing jazz albums in their own rights, they were pretty tame and, if you ask me, unoriginal. Emily’s D+Evolution is a totally different beast, however. Infusing into her compositional process some psychedelia, and a lot of progressive/art rock was a brilliant move, executed perfectly. The odd, theatrical concept album evolves from song to song, never overstaying in one place, and succeeds in everything it aims to do beautifully. It’s immersive, entrancing, memorable, and exquisite.
She Sleeps, She sleeps is the first album, this year, from the two-headed entity known as Fire!, the other one being Fire! Orchestra’s Ritual. While I also upholds Ritual as one of the best albums of the year, I chose this one over it because it’s the one through which I became acquainted with the group. The forty-five-minute, four-track album represents a seldom-equalled mastery of jazz. All the elements are in the right place, and played so just that you actually wonder how it can be real.
Chorus 30 from Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead is both a mouthful and an outstanding chamber-music-meets-math-rock, twenty-nine-minute song separated in nine movements. It’s the first I hear of He Was Eaten by Owls, the ensemble behind this work of art, and, trust me, it won’t be the last. I’m already well aware of a new album in the works! Underneath the quite unassuming cover art hides an eclectic and hectic album that can but blow your mind. So many different people and instruments are used here that it’s almost akin to an orchestra, and they blend so perfectly into each other that they’re often inseparable from each other. There’s no question as to why this album is here.
Ikarus is an avant-garde scat jazz band from Germany. I fell completely under the charm of their previous album, Echo. Much to my surprise, they are coming back with another album in relatively quick succession in the form of Chronosome. Complex rhythms are stacked on top of each other seamlessly without being a detriment to the approachability. Just being a worthy heir to Echo‘s legacy would be enough to warrant a place on the best albums of the year, but Chronosome builds upon this, explores new avenues, tweaks the knobs a little, and sounds clearer than its predecessor, making its presence on this list an inevitability.
Josh Martin’s frescoes on guitar might be the most immediately impressive thing to go down in Little Tybee, and it’s the reason why I know the band in the first place, but the indie math folk band is much more than this. Behind him are five other talented musicians who perfectly know their place in the play, and execute their roles flawlessly. Little Tybee is also an unbelievable improvement over For Distant Viewing. Unbelievable because the latter was already quite high up, in my head, in terms of quality and how much I enjoyed it. It’s an album with a young heart and a mature mind, and it’s adorable.
If Mammoth isn’t everything you’d ask for in an instrumental progressive rock band, you’re wrong. They’re technical, yet their compositions don’t forgo emotion and feel; they’re jazzy, and not in a simplistic manner; they make good use of polyrhythmics and polymetrics, and modulations of all kinds, and they do this to augment their music instead of trying to cram theory without regards to taste and enjoyability. I know the band since 2014, when Polymorphism came out, and I’m glad to say that it evolved so much, during these two years. While I had a few dampeners for it and last year’s Innate, I can wholeheartedly say that Deviations is mind-boggingly accurate. Don’t let it slip by!
The Mercury Tree is one of those bands I point out when arguing that progressive rock still has a bright future ahead. This applies, in this case, to their most recent album, Permutations, but also to their previous one, Countenance. It’s quite a rarity, nowadays, to find progressive rock that’s still forward-thinking, and doesn’t fall into the traps of derivativeness or of too much worship of classic prog. The Mercury Tree bring in some refreshing ideas, like using microtonal keyboards in an otherwise dodecatonal environment. This creates, perhaps, a sense of unease that’s even stronger than when microtonal sits within a microtonal habitat… It doesn’t seem to belong. However, this isn’t abused, and is merely one example of the levels of creativity sprouting from this Portland-based act.
öOoOoOoOoOo – or, if you’re not a fan of ASCII art, Caterpillar -, is a new French avant-garde rock project with proven musicians and masterminds. Samen‘s cover art spurred some very futile controversy, featuring – Oh dear! -, a female breast, but that only drove the conversation away from the actual music, which is some high-grade and innovative rock. The band intertwines heavy metal parts with the occasional chiptune, samba, and others inside a sort of pop rock frame. That gives a very eccentric but damningly catchy product that has a lot of character, of personality, and that is just so easy to like.
Forgotten Archives impressed, but Fashion & Welfare totally killed it. Coming from the Swiss band Öz ürügülü, the progressive jazz fusion, hourlong album does something different with each of its tracks, and it nails it on every occasion! I’ll always remember when ‘Tarkatan Rush’ goes from rock fusion to all-out country music through a chicken unisono. That’s only one of the strange idiosyncrasies of the band, and other explosions of character include the abrupt change to extreme metal in ‘Rabbit’, the very Oriental ‘I Am the Fungus’, and the atmospheric djent of ‘Garlic Venus’. Overall, it’s a fun, joyful, and colourful album – despite the greyscale cover – that will contaminate you with its silly mood.
Doom, black, drone, Satan. Those are the four words in Rorcal‘s description on bandcamp, and it’s all you need to know. Κρέων (Creon) is based on the deaths of four Hellenic characters in Sophocles’ play ‘Antigone’. These are told in four eponymous tracks that are so dark you will forget what the light of day feels like, totalling almost an hour of material. Since Világvége, and even before, the Swiss band has perfected the art of aggression and storytelling. The result is 2016’s blackest and best doom metal album.
Everytime I’m thinking of Triangle, I’m literally speechless. I don’t know where to begin, the emotions rush through… This is such a special release, such a perfect trinity. We sometimes critique bands for having too many fillers on an eighty-minute album, so it’s almost impossible to thoroughly enjoy a double album. There will almost always be at least one track that should’ve been left behind but was included anyway, bringing the whole thing down slightly. But, can you imagine a black metal band not only doing this, but completely succeeding, every step of the way? Schammasch did. Triangle‘s three albums are not eighty minutes each, however, but this hardly undermines the scope and ambition of this hour-and-a-half, three-part release. Each part, ‘The Process of Dying’, ‘Metaflesh’, and ‘The Supernal Clear Light of the Void’ exploits a different sound of the band, ranging from avant-garde black metal to ambient world music. Everything on there is pitch perfect, and if I had only one album to choose for 2016, it would be this one.
Along with the aforementioned The Mercury Tree, Shamblemaths is another band giving me hope for the future of progressive rock. Hailing from Norway, this project is, first and above all music for and by intellectuals. The counterpoints, fugues and canons abound and serve to develop themes left and right, top and bottom, inside monstrously long songs, particularly the twenty-seven-minute opened ‘Conglomeration (or: The Grand Pathetic Suite)’. This isn’t a band that completely avoids eye-contact with the pioneers of progressive rock. Instead, it looks them straight in the eye, decorticate them, and take the parts it needs to ameliorate itself, while carefully leaving behind those that would be unhelpful. So, you get a weird vibe of Canterbury prog, from time to time, but it’s tied to this avant-garde progressive rock Hecatoncheir. Truly a masterpiece of the modern prog scene.
That’s it! It’s done. Here’s my personal list of best albums of the year. I tried hard to keep it relatively brief, but there are plenty more albums that were release and that deserve your complete attention. You can start by this list, and then move on to the fifty monthly recommendations we made through the year, and keep your eyes opened because other writers of CTEBCM will be posting their own personal lists as well!
On that note, cheers!