(DGR created year-end lists of great length. He wrote many words about each listed item. Your humble editor feared that the site would collapse beneath this great leviathan of words if it reared its bulk in a single post, and therefore decided to split it up, with one part appearing each day this week. Follow these links for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)
You knew this was coming, or you would if you had been around here the last few years. It’s been a long-standing tradition here at NCS that when the Listmania series happens, I take the filter completely off and just produce a gigantic screed of words that is occasionally interrupted with album art, music streams, and album titles with little numbers next to them. This year is no different.
In my attempt to rationalize an enormous year of music, I’ve capped my list at fifty albums, ranked in order of whichever numbers my fingers were closest to on the keyboard. On top of that, I have my usual small collection of not-metal stuff, some fun stuff, my list of shame, a likely happy face where number 8 should be because I’m a moron and put the numbers in front of a parenthesis and WordPress translates that into an emoticon, and my personal favorite award that I hand out each year.
The 50-album list continues today, continuing the countdown through No. 11:
20) Obscura – Akróasis
We move from the organic and forest-strewn world of Oak Pantheon at No. 21 to the hyper-polished and super-clean world of tech-death to touch bases with Obscura and their album Akróasis. It surprised me just how often I listened to it despite my initial hesitancy after the passage of so much time and the constantly rotating collection of band members within this album’s writing cycle.
I was curious to see just how Obscura would approach writing a new disc because, all things considered, their name was at the forefront of the tech-death scene. You could argue that the group’s album Cosmogenesis was one alongside a small collective of others that helped popularize the genre. Just what they would do between their last album Omnivium and this one was a matter of interest, because within that time it felt like there had been an explosion of groups in that genre, a lot of them starting to sound very similar in approach.
The difference that saves Obscura, though, is that while they are a very technically-minded death metal band, full of sweeping guitar segments and complicated drumming, an album like Cosmogenesis and now Akróasis shows that the band have also been very melodically minded. Every song isn’t just a wall of low-end, complicated riffing and hammering drums; there’s always some sort of melody to lock your mind on to and help carry you through the requisite musical pyrotechnics.
So in a way, Obscura removed themselves from the arms race and instead created a solid collection of songs — some with infectiously catchy choruses and others with closing segments that worm their way into your brain despite the opening sounding right out of the chugging, old school death metal playbook (talking to you “Ode To The Sun”). Either way, I won’t lie and say that this is an entirely critical choice, as I do have a soft spot for Obscura and their ilk and was genuinely excited that Akróasis turned out good, adding another solid batch of songs to an overall strong collection.
19) Sarcoptes – Songs And Dances Of Death
The hometown represented strong this year as Sacramento’s Sarcoptes unleashed their new disc Songs And Dances Of Death in the back end of April. A black metal band with some very light symphonic elements, the group actually tread in a realm similar to that of Darkend, a few albums up on this list. Sarcoptes are a little more guitar-riff-heavy and as such are a little more headbang-friendly and traditionally black metal.
The band have their fair share of sweeping epics (“Barbarossa”, for instance, is thirteen minutes long) but most of the music here is within a quick-moving five- to six-minute range. Sarcoptes make good use of a talented drummer (Garret Garvey), having him serve as the battering ram behind a horde of driving guitar riffs and galloping bass segments.
Sarcoptes prove themselves to be quite the infectious black metal band and one of the many I am highly recommending you give a listen to. The opening song alone is enough to leave you with whiplash, and the next five that follow are just as good. The minor orchestral stings really help to punctuate the music contained within an already solid core. Songs And Dances Of Death is worth the time.
18) Be’lakor – Vessels
It took a little while to click in my brain that Vessels had an overarching theme to it and that the band weren’t just constantly going back to the same motifs. Vessels, the latest release by Australian long-form melodeath writers Be’lakor, sees the band going about as traditionally prog as they have ever gotten, this time adding in some serious synth work to the group’s already strong knack for guitar leads and great riffs.
I’m not exactly the choosiest person when it comes to Be’lakor, so when Vessels started to seem like it was lining up alongside its old siblings Stone’s Reach and Of Breath And Bone, I was rather excited. Be’lakor have mastered the art of making a long-as-hell melodeath track feel like no time has passed at all. Maybe it’s their proclivity for a ton of synth work, maybe it’s because the guys somehow have a million different guitar parts to choose from. Either way, Be’lakor’s trademark seems to be making songs into worthwhile journeys, so that you come out at the end of each one feeling like you accomplished something.
Vessels as a whole is only seven actual songs and one intro track, so it feels a tad shorter than its older siblings, but it still has a ton to offer musically and is one of those discs that exposes a new part to you in each listen. It’s that constant sense of discovery that has kept me coming back to this one, and the fact that it slots in perfectly alongside Stone’s Reach and Of Breath And Bone just served to make it that much better.
17) Rotten Sound – Abuse To Suffer
We now hop in the car and journey from some of the masters of long-form songwriting to some of the masters of the short form, as longtime grind stalwarts Rotten Sound put out a disc in 2016 entitled Abuse To Suffer that’s about as heavy as a Rotten Sound disc has ever been.
The five-year gap between full lengths (the group had an EP in 2013) did absolutely nothing to slow (hacha! get it!) the band down in any way. Abuse To Suffer basically picks up right where they left off with Cursed: a sixteen-track, sub-thirty-minute blastfest with almost no room to breathe. Rotten Sound stick to their roots for a good bit of Abuse To Suffer. Most of the songs stay under a minute thirty and the sub-one-minute songs like “Intellect”, “The Clerk”, and “Slave To The Rats” all prove to be a ton of fun.
“Retaliation” at a minute and six is basically made to get a crowd swirled into a giant pit. That they follow it with something of a slower, death metal groove riff for the opening of “Inhumane Treatment” keeps things interesting, but it doesn’t take long before the Rotten Sound crew seemingly throw their hands in the air during that part, say fuck this noise”, and blast it all into utter oblivion. A lot of Abuse To Suffer is built around that crashing circle-pit opening before spilling into a relentless and ultra-tight blastbeat-fueled bit of chaos.
Rotten Sound come off angrier than hell on Abuse To Suffer and the destruction they create during a listening session is an event to behold.
Plus, because I am a child, the opening song being called “Lazy Asses” makes me laugh.
16) Insomnium – Winter’s Gate
Welcome to the “pretty” doom section of the list, though to be honest Insomnium have long since left that realm behind, transforming into something more akin to a traditional melodeath band with a taste for melancholy.
I’ve often joked that every once in a while we ought to hide an embed of Patrick Star from Spongebob Squarepants yelling “FINLAAAAND!!!”, as often as the country seems to represent here on NCS, and I’m certainly not breaking the trend with Insomnium’s latest disc, Winter’s Gate. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about Insomnium is their tendency to get literary, and basing their new album on an old short story one of the band members wrote is about as literary as can get. The band even jumped down the one forty-minute-song rabbit hole (though the album breaks it up into seven parts) — because, as I stated before, that’s just the thing to do this year.
I reviewed Insomnium’s previous album Shadows Of The Dying Sun for this site (as well as this one… I think?) and I liked it a lot. But even in that review I felt like I was recognizing that this was about as far as the band could take that particular formula. Hell, I think it finally metastasized in the fact that I thought the best song on Shadows was the one they left for the bonus track — “Out To The Sea”. Winter’s Gate is a different beast from the get-go, as the main musical arc that the band play with is very blast-beat-heavy, and from there the group often transition into a pretty solid melodeath one-two riff.
Insomnium do a great job creating a ton of atmosphere throughout Winter’s Gate, and musically you can almost envision the chill cloaking the mountain portrayed on the cover art. What really made Winter’s Gate stand out is the same reason why I enjoyed Necrosavant and Gorguts, who appeared earlier on this list: Although it is one intensely long song, the band still manage to keep things interesting all the way through. In the case of Winter’s Gate, the music gets very grand and triumphant as you reach the back half, as if you as a listener are concluding some sort of journey to a victory fanfare.
As something of a complete sidestep compared to what the band had been doing traditionally, the gamble Insomnium took on Winter’s Gate worked out surprisingly well.
15) Novembre – Ursa
While we’re vacationing in the land of melancholy, why don’t we trek from Finland over to Italy (who by the way, did pretty well for themselves this year) and check in with Novembre and their 2016 release Ursa, their latest album after nine years following the release of The Blue.
Now, I would argue that Novembre actually did put out a fucking good album in Ursa this year, but its placement on this list requires some personal context. You see, many moons ago there was a younger version of DGR for whom Novembre was a pretty important band to that sad sack individual (alongside, now that I think about, a pretty impressive collection of depressive rock and doom groups). Of course, time passes and that individual changed, so surely that large fandom for the band might keep things in perspective, right? Nope.
Basically from the start, it felt like both Novembre and I were returning home. It was hard not to feel comfortable with what the guys were doing during “Australis”, the opening of Ursa. It is a mostly clean-sung album, but the band still saw fit to break out the screams for this one, to really exacerbate the light depression that Novembre have used as a weapon for some time now.
Ursa is packed with great songs — the aforementioned “Australis”, “The Rose”, “Easter”, “Umana”, the mostly instrumental “Agathae”, “Bremen”, “Annoluce”. Yes, Ursa is kind of front-loaded, but it is undeniably an enjoyable disc, and hearing the guys again — lightly distorted with echo effect and all — was enough not only to trigger a nostalgia trip, but also to remind me that Novembre are a damn good band.
14) Abnormality – Mechanisms Of Omniscience
Now, I can hear you from here: “Alright pretty boy, enough with the textured landscapes, and the atmosphere, and the not-downtuned guitars — where the fuck is the metal? Where’s the brutality? The technicality?” — to which I say, “Fuck you, prick”.
But also: May I introduce you to Massachusetts-based death metal group Abnormality?
The group’s 2016 album, their Metal Blade debut Mechanisms Of Omniscience, made absolutely no compromises in sound whatsoever and instead was just Abnormality doing what they do best. It’s a hyper-fast, technically terrifying and brutal death metal festival of sound that came packed to the gills with a variety of shrieks, growls, and gurgles just to really polish off the ugly stew that was the album as a whole. Add in the occasional electronic pulse of distorted industrial ambience and season with a pinch of hatred and you have the next album with which to bludgeon your in-laws to death.
The four years between Contaminating The Hive Mind and Mechanisms Of Omniscience were not wasted one bit. The almost insectoid “Swarm” kicks things off (it’s the second disc on this list to feature a “Swarm” song to open the festivities, the other being October Tide’s Winged Waltz way up in the rafters of this list), and then the six minutes of death growls that make up “Vigilant Ignorance” show that Abnormality don’t really have time to fuck around. They have one speed, which throughout Mechanisms Of Omniscience the band demonstrate as being somewhere between “holy shit that’s fast” and lightspeed.
Long story short, Mechanisms Of Omniscience is one of the albums that served as an absolute neck-snapper in ye olde’ 2016. If the major label branding scared you away, don’t let it. Abnormality put out an album heavier than a two-ton weight, and if you’re the type that enjoys whiplash brutality, then Mechanisms Of Omniscience needs to be in your collection.
13) Teethgrinder – Nihilism
Keeping it high-speed and just a tad grindier, Teethgrinder step up to the plate with a very late entry of absolute hellfire in their new disc Nihilism. Nihilism was one of those albums for me that seemed to hit in the right place and at the right time, having trimmed away some of the fat from the group’s previous album Misanthropy (which I still enjoyed quite a bit), with the high vocal shrieks of the Teethgrinder crew backed by a wall of blast and an inferno of guitar noise.
Misanthropy seemed to ruminate on its subject matter; while it was still very fast-moving, there were times when the band just let things boil for a bit before finally unleashing their next ball of vitriol. It let its hatred simmer and fester. 2016’s Nihilism does fuck-all with that, instead going for the more direct punch-you-right-in-the-throat approach. The moment the band hits “The Soil Has A Thirst For Blood”, Teethgrinder are in a frighteningly high gear, and that spills over into the rest of the disc like molten metal being poured onto someone.
There were a few moments spread throughout Nihilism when, despite all the heavy metal and grind and various other genres that I’ve heard this year amongst the mass of 2016’s music, I still found myself uttering “Holy shit”. One of those moments is the opening of my personal favorite song on Nihilism, ‘The Pain Exceeds The Fear”. Of course, this is amplified by the usage of a sample from Mr. Robot in the previous song “Isolation” — the “what is it about society that disappoints you so much” monologue.
Basically, what sold me on Nihilism is the fact that it never lets up. It is just one missile launch after another. Believe me, since its release Nihilism has been getting a ton of play in DGR land and you should not let this one slip by you.
12) Ulcerate – Shrines Of Paralysis
It actually wasn’t that long ago that I was able to sit down and review Ulcerate’s latest soundtrack to the end times, Shrines Of Paralysis. At this point in their career Ulcerate have become the masters of their cavernous brand of death metal, and each disc since Everything Is Fire has felt like a different permutation on the theme: Destroyers Of All lived up to its title and sounded like an outright warzone, Vermis was like drowning, and now Shrines Of Paralysis comes along and it sounds like a combination of the two. A little bit warmer, a little bit fierier than Vermis was, but just as heavy and oppressive as before.
Shrines, of course, benefits from its recording job, too, this time around, as the Ulcerate crew actually come across surprisingly clear; though it is still like listening to the band recording in a cave, now (as I stated in the review) you’ve been granted the minor pity of actually having earplugs.
Somehow Ulcerate also manage to choke the occasional melody out of their form of metal and it really helps to enhance the quality of “There Are No Saviours” and “Extinguished Light”. The rest of the album has Ulcerate at their heaviest though, and they remain terrifying for those minutes. The near three-year wait between discs absolutely paid off.
11) Witherscape – The Northern Sanctuary
2016 was the year the Witherscape experiment finally came into its own with the release of The Northern Sanctuary. The prog-death flavorings of Dan Swanö and Ragnar Widerberg really matured into their own beast this year and gave us one monster of a disc — an album full of glorious sing-along choruses, death growls, and guitar and synth leads galore.
Yes, Witherscape do their fair share of getting kind of cheesy and overwrought on The Northern Sanctuary, but there’s just enough camp within it to enjoy it. Like a lot of discs on this list, it’s a little bit weightier up front, with tracks like “Wake Of Divinity”, “In The Eyes Of Idols”, and “Rapture Ballet” all making sure that you’re liable to hit the repeat button and never hear what track four sounds like. But even then you have some straightforward balladry in “Marionette” to help carry you through.
Even the “Fuck it, we’re Opeth now for a bit” songwriting of the title track is fun as can get. “The Northern Sanctuary” song eventually proves itself to be one of the highlights of the album as a whole, as it is part theatrical, part rocking, and part death metal. It’s one of those songs that constantly morphs and changes as you listen to it, and the metamorphosis from the beginning to the end makes the thirteen-minute journey worth it in its own right, not discounting the seven great songs leading up to it. Witherscape really went above and beyond this year and absolutely killed it.