The ebb and flow of musical calendar years is a fascinating thing. In addition to annual best-of-year spreadsheets, I keep a running tally of the all-time greatest albums, always eager to find new things to add to that fold. I also assign scores on a 0-100 scale (which very rarely dips below 80 because why would I intentionally listen to bad music?). A score of 95 is my cutoff for distinguishing between ‘really, really good’ (94) and ‘potentially all-time great’ (95). Some years are just better than others: 2013 saw not one, but two top-ten all-time releases (Kayo Dot‘s Hubardo, 99; Skagos‘ Anarchic, 98) plus a third outstanding contender (Persefone‘s Spiritual Migration, 96). Conversely, 2014 saw not a single all-time great, with Seven Impale’s excellent prog-jazz debut City of the Sun (94) winning my personal award. 2015 rebounded with the second-best album ever released (Kamasi Washington‘s The Epic, 99) and two more exceptional albums (Dreadnought‘s Bridging Realms and Arcane‘s Known/Learned, each 95). I kept waiting for an all-time great this year, but I never found it, so my album of the year award will once again go to something I rate at a 94 – which, to be clear, is nothing to sneeze at. I do not begrudge this album for not being ‘good enough’ to be the best.
Not only was the cream of the crop less creamy this year, but the runners-up had a hard time separating themselves from the pack. Last year, I published a personal top 30 on facebook with plenty to say about each album. This year, in compiling my top ten, I debated who was worth putting in the tenth spot for so long that I considered leaving it vacant out of protest. Since our editor was very liberal with guidelines for our personal lists, I decided to give a tie out for tenth. Eighth and ninth places were contentious but ultimately proved themselves to be worth the spots, while my top seven are a batch I do feel quite confident in.
Blackened hardcore has been a rising tide the past couple of years, and I’ve followed it quite earnestly, enjoying bands like Balaclava, Cult Leader and Immortal Bird. But I found an absolute gem in Plebeian Grandstand‘s False Highs, True Lows, who twist that dissonant, recognizably-French black metal approach together with grinding hardcore, bleak emotion, and relentless ferocity. Focus your audial lenses on drummer Ivo Kaltchev’s mind-bending blast beats and double bass, which stop, start, and shift with mechanical precision. A healthy diversity pervades the album, with noise and sludge balancing the breathless assault of the heavier parts. This is hands down the year’s best album to listen to when you need a kick in the teeth.
This is hands down the year’s best album to listen to with your car window down and your hair blowing in the wind. The synthwave/outrun bubble is absolutely exploding right now, but synthwave – much like, say, djent – is a brew made with very basic ingredients, and is therefore easy to make but very hard to master. The low bar for entry has seen the genre suffused with knock-offs, pretenders to that crown of 1984-in-a-bottle. There’s quite a bit of ‘meh’ to wade through, all of which is inoffensive and pleasant to the ear, but very little of which truly captivates the senses. Dan Terminus is the master of the ‘heavy’ side of synthwave (apologies to Perturbator, who is far more widely lauded but not my cup of tea); The Midnight own the other end of the spectrum: the relaxed, sax-laden, neo-noir film score approach to nostalgia. This album is brimming with catchiness, from the cassette-simulating opening to the chorus of ‘Sunset’ to the cool female vocals of ‘Jason’ to the sensual sax of ‘Vampires’ to the vocoder calisthenics of ‘Nighthawks’. This was definitely one of my three most-played jams of the year, so it would be disingenuous for me to leave it off my list.
Continuing the theme of highlighting a genre which got kicked off a couple of years ago and is gradually getting saturated, I call this album my favourite Ulcerate album of the year, a nod to the New Zealand outfit’s signature spin on dissonant, vicious death metal. There were a few contenders for that title in 2016 – Ulcerate themselves, Karmacipher’s more traditional variant, Colosso’s deathcore-slanted version, and Départe’s atmospheric and emotional debut – but Setentia‘s balance of tension, space, and brutality hit the sweet spot that kept me coming back for more. There are solos here, chug-riff homages to the classic death metal sound, soaring expansive highs, punchy and bombastic machine gun percussion – all encased in slick and effective production. This album was a pleasant reminder that Blood Music hasn’t given up on metal.
A somewhat surprisingly critically-acclaimed album despite its polarizing sound, Air is at the very least a fresh breath in the metal genre. I think some of the controversy or confusion about the album comes from it being miscast; the band themselves called it ‘dream thrash’, but I would argue there’s no thrash to be found here at all. What it really is, when you step back and look at it, is pop punk riffs with shoegaze/dream pop vocals and black metal drums. It sounds like New Found Glory or Paramore with Halou’s vocalist and Deafheaven’s drummer. It’s also incredibly catchy, addictive like candy, and majestic in execution. It’s not one-note, either, with the last two tracks keeping things moving in interesting directions. Also, I’ve listened to this album at least twenty-five times, and at no point did I even remotely consider the possibility that the vocalist might be a guy. Oh, well…
At the end of the day, as much diverse and interesting music as I listen to, if you say the words ‘prog rock concept double album’, I’m going to put it in my top ten. I am a huge fan of Neal Morse’s prog side, especially in Transatlantic, so I was foaming at the mouth when Mike Portnoy lauded this album as one of the three best he’s ever been a part of. It turns out that may not exactly be true. The album – especially lyrically – is characteristically cheesy, in a particularly Morseian way, but it is loaded with beautiful instrumentation, melodic hooks, and symphonic overtures. Morse and company always make a point of using thematic repetition to bind concept albums together, but, believe it not, I think that is overdone on this album. Almost every unique riff is reused somewhere, which leads to a feeling of homogeneity by the end of the album. There are also entirely too many corny dad-rock tracks, like ‘Shortcut to Salvation’ and ‘Freedom Song’; between these and the over-repeated riffs, this probably should have been culled down to a super-solid single album. That’s an awful lot of criticism for an album I’m ranking so highly, so let me get to the good stuff: there is a ton of outstanding tracks, like the opening ‘Overture’, the heavy ‘City of Destruction’, the gritty ‘Draw the Line’, and the ‘70s-Genesis-inspired ‘The Ways of a Fool’. Morse and Portnoy are as sharp as ever in their execution (nothing sounds better than sharp Portnoy), and newcomer Eric Gillette provides Morse’s troupe with the slickest and most emotive guitar solos they’ve ever had. Each band member contributes extensive vocal work, rounding out the album’s sound brilliantly. For all its flaws and bloatedness, this album is still at the top of prog’s podium, and there just aren’t seven better albums this year.
This was one of the first new albums I heard in the 2016 calendar year, and I knew immediately it would be one of the best. A collaboration of electronic composers and Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist Greg Puciato, The Black Queen make catchy, classic-sounding darkwave with elements of synthpop and goth rock that make it hard to pin down. In a sense, one might say it’s a more atmospheric spin on synthwave, making it therefore ‘post-synthwave’ for the same reason post-rock and post-metal got their respective nomenclature. Whatever the genre, the brooding melodic framework proves to be a fertile garden for Puciato’s dynamic vocals – a better one, oddly enough, than Dillinger’s chaotic craziness. I can’t help but sing along to the banging chorus of ‘Ice To Never’ and the early-nineties Depeche Mode-worshipping ‘That Death Cannot Touch’, but equally addictive are more ambient pieces like ‘The End Where We Begin’ and ‘Maybe We Should/Non-Consent’. Dillinger but might be done, but if that leads to more of this project, it’s more than a fair payoff.
This criminally underrated album came out of nowhere; the band had eighty facebook fans when I first heard them (and have now… almost doubled that). How could two totally unheralded musicians combine to bring us such a staggering monolith of prog nostalgia? However it happened, Shamblemaths is here, fusing modern and classic ideas to create an album that sounds like the whole history of progressive rock condensed into one disc. I wrote extensively about this album back in August, so I’ll let that review do most of the speaking.
Schammasch zeroed in on that driving, industrial-tinged, dissonant black metal that Blut Aus Nord sounds like at their best (777-Sect(s)), amped it up to 11, and chopped off the frills of Blut Aus Nord at their most mediocre (777-Cosmosophy). The first two parts of this album are no-nonsense, vicious, cosmic black metal that wavers between liturgical and lobotomizing. The third part is a series of expansive ambient and percussive pieces. From a flow perspective, the album might have been more effective if the third disc’s tracks were interspersed among the first two, but I understand what they were aiming for thematically. Construction critiques aside, the music here is top-notch, a relentless onslaught of surreal blast beats and hypnotic vocals. Each song tends to be based around a small set of repetitive riffs, but the multifaceted vocal deliveries and dynamic song structures assuage this to great effect. I heartily recommend this as the year’s best in black metal.
Another masterpiece I’ve already praised thoroughly elsewhere, Contrapasso is as successful as a sophomore album could hope to be. Seven Impale walked the tightrope by maintaining their established, unique sound while incorporating new elements and expanding their musical territory. They’re tighter, they’re heavier, they’re proggier, they’re more experimental, and they’re more ambitious, over the course of this over-an-hour journey. They’re not perfect, by any stretch – the album closer, ‘Phoenix’, hasn’t quite grown on me – but the four-song combo of ‘Lemma’ through ‘Languor’ that opens the album is unimpeachable. No other band fuses prog and jazz in such a balanced way.
I am not a thrash fan. I am a Vektor fan. This is because Vektor is so much more than thrash: their technicality, intensity, and creativity are unparalleled in the genre. Don’t come at me with those ubiquitous comparisons to Voivod or less so to Obliveon and Аспид. Those bands perhaps marginally deviate from traditional thrash in ways that opened the door for Vektor, but Vektor steamrolled through that door and tore the house down. I was intrigued by their past two albums, but knew they had even greater potential. On Terminal Redux, a five-year labour of love that evidently splintered the band at the end of the year, they actually lived up to it. Blindingly technical and frantic, this seventy-three-minute magnum opus contains enough riffs for a double album, winding through complex speed riffs, melodic interludes, and even acoustic elements. It is a chore to get through the whole album in one listen because of the unending barrage of breakneck brutality, but the experience is rewarding. This is truly one of the highest examples of quality-plus-quantity metal has ever seen. All the hype is deserved. Terminal Redux is the greatest thrash album of all time.
Post-metal is a genre very near and dear to my heart, from lesser-known acts like Crib45 (criminally underrated!) and Rosetta (named my daughter after them!) up to the big three: Neurosis, Isis, and Cult of Luna. There’s no denying that the genre peaked in the early to mid 2000’s, with titanic albums like Oceanic, Panopticon, Somewhere along the Highway, and The Galilean Satellites. Most bands who’ve stuck with the genre into the modern era have tried to evolve it by infusing other genres or atypical instruments. Cult of Luna, for their part, have mostly stuck with the classic formula, aside from the increased incorporation of electronics. Their previous effort, Vertikal, was a good album, but ultimately seemed a little tired, so Mariner wasn’t really on my radar this year because I figured the collaboration aspect would be gimmicky and detrimental. I could not have been more mistaken. It turned out that Julie Christmas’ dramatic vocal performance was exactly the kick that the Vertikal sound needed. The result is a shockingly fresh and breathtaking album, and might go down as the finest in Cult of Luna’s laudable discography. From the opening plodding of ‘A Greater Call’, the successfulness of the marriage is evident, but the payoff isn’t complete without the climaxes of ‘The Wreck of S.S. Needle’ and ‘Cygnus’, the latter standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the best buildup-to-epic-climax songs in the genre (Rosetta’s ‘Au pays natal’, Huldra’s ‘Ursidae’, and Crib45’s ‘Borderlines’). This album is huge, important, and wholly worthy of this year’s highest acclaim.
Honourable Mentions, in Alphabetical Order
Black Crown Initiate
Legion and the Thieves
Thank You Scientist