(Andy Synn’s week-long series of year-end lists continues with his personal list of The Critical Top Ten for 2016. Click these links to see his lists of the year’s Great Albums, the Good Albums, and the Disappointments.)
For those of you unfamiliar with how this works, I always wind-up my week-long retrospective with two lists, the “Critical Top Ten” and the “Personal Top Ten”.
Now the second one is probably pretty self-explanatory, in that it’s just a list of the ten albums I’ve loved, lived with, and listened to the most this year. It’s really just a snapshot of my personal listening habits/tastes over the last twelve months.
The idea behind this one possible needs some explaining though.
You see the “Critical Top Ten” is where I try (as best I can) to remove my own personal biases and downplay any favouritism and instead attempt to name the ten albums (unranked) which I feel honestly represent the best of the best from the last year in Metal.
Of course it will always be coloured by my personal tastes a little bit, as I obviously can’t comment on albums I haven’t heard. And, to an extent, it will always be informed by the more underground-focussed perspective we have here at NCS too.
However, that doesn’t mean that we’re biased against the bigger names. In fact many of my previous entries have found me selecting a number of more popular releases as being amongst the “best” of the year.
But since we’re not beholden to our audience here at NCS (although we love our readers, we don’t write our articles to pander to them — we write what we want to write, in the hope that it will be appreciated on its own terms) it frees me up to dig a little deeper, and look a little further afield, for what I consider to be the true cream of this year’s crop, without having to concern myself that I need to include x-number of mainstream artists so as to maximise our exposure.
Now I’m not saying the albums I’ve selected below are THE ten “best” album of the year. For one thing I don’t have the authority to set down in stone what the “best” albums of the year are, as if my opinion on the matter is some sort of incontrovertible fact. And, for another, ten albums simply isn’t a large enough sample to adequately represent every nook and cranny of the many-faced and multi-faceted genre we all love.
But I am confident enough to include each one as a representative of just how good, just how great, this year has been.
One thing I’ve done differently this time around is that, instead of supplying a list of “Honourable Mentions”, I’ve chosen to pair up each of my main selections with an alternative suggestion, just to widen the scope a little, and provide our readers with something else they might be interested in checking out. Hopefully it will prove to be a change for the better.
So now, without further ado, here are my choices for ten of the absolute best albums of 2016.
WITHERED – GRIEF RELIC
Why does this album deserve to be considered as one of the year’s very best? It’s just so goddamn nasty. In the best possible way.
Now Withered have always been one of the most consistently devastating – and consistently underrated – bands in the worldwide Metal scene, and although Dualitas is possibly still my personal favourite, their fourth album is arguably their best work yet.
A cacophonous, chaotic (yet always controlled) conglomeration of blistering Black Metal, lurching Sludge, and heaving, angular Death Metal, the material on Grief Relic is both physically crushing and mentally challenging. This is an album that doesn’t play nice, and doesn’t pull any punches, and which deserves to be heard by anyone with a true appreciation of extreme art in all its glory and ugliness.
If you like this, try: The Lion’s Daughter – Existence is Horror
Speaking of “nasty”, Blackened Sludgemeisters The Lion’s Daughter practically revel in their own filth and nastiness on Existence Is Horror, whose ten tormented tracks are practically tailor-made for anyone who wants to take a walk on the wicked side.
HARAKIRI FOR THE SKY – III: TRAUMA
Vital, visceral, and positively overflowing with melancholy melody and raw emotion, III: Trauma is the sound of a band finally hitting their stride and delivering something truly special.
The eight tracks that make up this album have energy and hooks to spare, and though I still feel like “Dry The River” would have been the perfect closer, I also have to admit that there’s not a single weak moment on this album. Every single song has its own identity, its own style and soul, and every element, from the fiery, impassioned vocals, to the majestic, melodic guitar work, absolutely shines.
Of course I still have some issue with people calling the band “Black Metal” (I prefer the term “Post-Traumatic Blackened Melodeath” myself), as the tag really doesn’t fit the music these days (if it ever did), but no matter what you call it, this album is a real gem.
If you like this, try: Oathbreaker – Rheia
I’ve mentioned before that this album has been wildly overhyped by some people (largely those who wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead listening to “Black Metal”), but that’s not Oathbreaker’s fault. They just make music. Forceful, dynamic, deeply affecting music which is taken to a whole new level by the versatile, vivacious, and volatile vocals of Caro Tanghe.
OBSCURA – AKRÓASIS
Above and beyond all the backbiting and infighting which plagued the band this year there remains a simple truth – Akróasis is the most progressive, most creative, and simply the most outstandng album which Obscura have produced thus far.
Packed with more complex, inventive riffs, intricate, progressive melodies, and clever twists and turns, than you can shake a stick at, this album sees the quartet picking up the baton left behind by Cynic in the wake of the ground-breaking Focus and slipping the surly bonds of earth, burning brighter and more boldly than ever before.
And though the band is clearly Kummerer’s baby, the contributions of new drummer Sebastian Lanser, now-departed guitarist Tom Geldschläger, and long-time bass maestro Linus Klausenitzer – whose slippery, sinuous bass lines are always a highlight – shouldn’t be diminished, as it definitely takes two, or, in this case, four, to tango.
If you like this, try: Blood Incantation – Starspawn
For a more firmly “underground” alternative to Akróasis look no further than Starspawn, the frankly flabbergasting debut from Denver denizens Blood Incantation. Mixing old-school Death Metal vibes with some more modern progressive twists, it really is an incredibly immersive statement of intent by a relatively young band (though I feel like it needed maybe one more killer track to fully seal the deal).
WODE – S/T
Sometimes innovation is overrated. Especially when it comes at the expense of potential perfection. And, for anyone who calls themselves a fan of Black Metal, auditory experiences don’t get much more perfect than they do on the self-titled debut by Mancunian metallers Wode.
Tracks like the storming “Death’s Edifice” and the dramatic, dynamic “Plagues of Insomnia”, find the Mancunian three-piece (recently upgraded to a quartet) channelling the true spirit of classic Black Metal with unflinching, unapologetic ferocity, without ever resorting to simply aping the classics themselves.
I realise I’m taking a bit of a risk in selecting this as one of the ten best albums of 2016, but quite frankly I haven’t heard another album this year which delivers the thrills and chills of pure, unadulterated Black Metal in the same way as this one.
If you like this, try: Inquisition – Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith
If that mouthful of a title isn’t enough to choke you, then the plethora of rampaging riffs spread ten-feet thick across the length and breadth of the latest, and quite possibly greatest, album by the infamous Inquisition possibly might. Just make sure to take a deep breath before you dive in.
LYCUS – CHASMS
As I said in my column yesterday, I honestly don’t think I’ve heard another album as utterly cavernous and as captivating as Chasms this year.
The sheer, oppressive weight of this album is a true sight for sore ears, every humongous, groaning riff and hoarse, guttural bellow delivered like the desperate gasps of a dying man. Each of its four songs is a colossal slab of funereal Doom and gloom, loaded end to end with ominous passages of crushing, claustrophobic intensity and sudden eruptions of blasting ferocity, punctuated by moments of desolate melodic beauty.
And yet, for all its dark, depressive density, it’s an incredibly compelling listen, with the moody cello of Jackie Perez Gratz in particular helping to conjure an atmosphere of mournful, morbid romanticism.
This is one for the darkest nights of the soul, make no mistake about it.
If you like this, try: Monolithe – Zeta Reticuli
Cleaner in sound than Chasms, Monolithe’s sixth album (and the direct sequel to 2015’s similarly stunning Epsilon Aurigae) is a cosmological journey of doomy grandeur and titanic grooves, split into three epic movements of prodigious, pan-galactic power. ‘Nuff said.
UNFATHOMABLE RUINATION – FINITUDE
It was a close-run thing between this and Krighsu for which band represented the best of the brutal this year, but the British barbarians ultimately just snatched the title from the grasp of their Spanish cousins with their savage second album, Finitude.
The funny thing is that, although Finitude is without doubt one of the most ear-bleeding, face-meltingly violent and punishing releases of the year, it’s also somehow incredibly catchy as well, overwhelming and infecting the senses like a particularly virulent strain of STDM (Sonically Transmitted Death Metal).
Chunky, churning grooves, convulsive, slamming twists and turns, blasting drums that pound and pulverise, riffs that carve and slash and slaughter – plus a sanguinary splattering of bleeding melody – are what Unfathomable Ruination deliver on every single track of this album, leaving 99.9% of their peers broken and bleeding in their dust. And that’s why it’s on this list.
If you like this, try: Wormed – Krighsu
I mean… duh? If you want an alternative slice of unremitting , unforgiving brutality – only, you know, IN SPACE – then go and get yourself some Wormed in your diet immediately.
DÉPARTE – FAILURE, SUBSIDE
Harrowing, heart-wrenching, and utterly devastating – both sonically and emotionally — Failure, Subside is not only one of the finest albums of the year, but also one of the finest debuts I’ve heard in the last decade.
Overflowing with atmosphere and armed to the teeth with a blackened cascade of acid-drenched riffs, and scalding blastbeats, these seven songs of tempestuous, twisting dissonance and spiteful, spine-tingling melody are seemingly designed to strip the listener of all their illusions and defences, exposing the raw nerves and bleeding wounds which dwell just beneath the surface of the everyday façade.
Particular credit must go to the lyrics and vocals of Sam Dishington, who practically bares his soul with every guttural utterance and mournful clean-sung passage, adding a painfully human element to the band’s apocalyptic auditory assault.
This is a perfect soundtrack to the end of days. So crack open a Fosters, crank your speakers up loud, and settle in to watch the world collapse.
If you like this, try: Zhrine – Unortheta
Ulcerate and Deathspell Omega comparisons aside, there’s no denying that Unortheta is one of the most fascinating releases of the last twelve months. Spacious, dynamic, eloquent, and effortless in its extremity, the fact that it didn’t make my main list doesn’t stop this being one of the year’s best albums.
MITHRAS – ON STRANGE LOOPS
What more can I say about this album? In a year full of awesome Death Metal releases of the more Technical/Progressive variety, On Strange Loops is the clear victor by a solid parsec.
The meteoric bombardment of gatling-gun blastbeats, fret-mangling solos, and utterly MASSIVE riffs on this album is an absolute delight. The vocals hit you right in the solar-plexus with an almost physical, palpable force, while the hooks dig themselves right into your brain stem.
And, despite the air of relentless forward motion which drives the album, these tracks are still brimming with atmosphere, from the proggy diversions which punctuate stunningly ferocious songs like “When The Stars Align” and “Time Never Lasts”, to the eerie ambient touches which introduce “Odyssey’s End” and “On Strange Loops”.
If you’re going to take a nearly ten-year break you have to make sure to come back with something truly special. And that’s exactly what Mithras have done with this, their new magnum opus.
If you like this, try: Fallujah – Dreamless
With a more ambient-tinged, and slightly less brutal (though still f***ing heavy) approach, ex-Tech-Death-Core tykes and now Prog-Death wunderkinds Fallujah made some serious waves this year with their third album, and for good reason. It’s a beautifully bombastic, truly fantastic release, and one which fully deserves all the hype.
MANTAR – ODE TO THE FLAME
How to describe the band’s sound? Stadium-Sludge? Doom-Thrash? Blackened Death-Punk? Who knows… and who cares? All you need to know is that no other album this year has been able to match the sheer steroidal energy and sneering swagger of Mantar.
With a sound that’s bigger and ballsier than other bands with twice as many members, the German duo kick out the jams on this album like they don’t have long left to live, spitting forth cruel, calloused hooks, knife-edged riffs, and thundering grooves with reckless abandon.
Tracks like the monstrous “Praise the Plague”, the priapic, strutting “Born Reversed”, and the brooding beatdown of “Sundowning” – not to mention the utterly contagious “Era Borealis” – are amongst the heftiest, hookiest, and most anthemic slabs of metallic vitriol produced by any band this year, and would serve equally well as the soundtrack to a drunken squat-party, a street-sweeping riot, or a meth-fuelled multiple murder spree.
And, really, what more could you ask for?
If you like this, try: Cobalt – Slow Forever
Double your album, double your pleasure? It’s a risky tactic, make no mistake. But the potential payoff is huge. And even though, as I said in my review, it’s probably a little too long for its own good, it’s hard to know what you might cut, since so much of this album is Grade-A, prime metallic meat.
IN THE WOODS… – PURE
Comeback of the year? Quite possibly. Most majestic album of the year? Most definitely.
There’s lots of words I could use to describe Pure. Sombre. Melancholy. Mature. Uplifting. Progressive. Intense. Grandiose. Forward-thinking. But not one of them or, indeed, any grouping of them, would be able to fully capture the astonishing nature of this album.
The songs are deep and enigmatic compositions, instantly accessible and yet endlessly rewarding. The guitar work is sublime, all gripping, growling riffs and soaring, spiralling leads. The drums are nimble, powerful, creative. The keys add an air of mystery and magic to every single song. And the vocals… the vocals express so much emotion, hope and despair, loss and longing, pain and pride, that it’s almost impossible not to get caught up.
Absolutely, 100%, one of the most captivating and rewarding albums of 2016.
If you like this, try: King Goat – Conduit
From one legendary act making their long-awaited return, to a band making their unexpectedly awesome full-length debut, Prog-Doomsters King Goat deserve to held up alongside the very best of the year’s offering with the borderline-masterpiece that is Conduit, which sees the Brighton-based quintet setting a ludicrously high bar, not just for themselves, but for anyone else who thinks they can follow it.
So there you go. That looks like a pretty good cross-section of this year’s best releases to me, touching base with everything from Black Metal to Sludge, from Progressive melodic musos to Tech Death titans, with some Doom, Punk, and Grind-edged brutality thrown in for good measure.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with my selections of course (chance would be a fine thing), but I can hold my head up proud and say that I truly think these ten albums represent 2016 at its absolute best.
Tomorrow I’m throwing all semblance of care or caution to the wind, and publishing a list of my ten favourite albums of the year. So, if you’re interested into where my personal tastes have been leading me over the last 365-ish days, make sure you tune in again.