So I wrote a thing. Sorry if it's a bit long, and if most/all of it isn't really in the spirit of this thread. I trust you'll all manage to muddle on somehow :)
For my own amusement as much as anything, I’ve taken the time to compile a list of my ten favorite albums from the new year. Mind, there’s a lot that I missed--my “go back and listen to these” list for 2016 numbers 140+--but of what I did listen to, none pleased me more than the following, presented in approximate order of preference.
10. Dead Astronauts - Arms of the Night: After stumbling across their amazing debut, Constellations, early this year, I’ve been in love with Dead Astronauts. Their smooth, almost sultry blend of Depeche Mode-esque stylings, twinned male and female vocals, and twinkling-brightness-in-the-midst-of-echoing-calm melodies are almost exactly what I want to listen to almost all the time. Arms of the Night is a fantastic follow-up, every bit as good as its predecessor.
9. Mega Colossus - Hyperglaive: A local group I ran across when they opened for Holy Grail early this year, Mega Colossus (previously Colossus--I’m glad for the name change, as they shared the original with too many other bands) are pure oldschool heavy metal done right, with shades of Maiden, Priest, and all the rest. Their latest album’s like a trip straight back to 1979, and it looks like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal’s landed squarely in North Carolina. Check ‘em out!
8. Dance with the Dead - The Shape: DwtD were one of the first retrowave/synthwave acts I came across, and they’re still one of my favorites. The Shape’s a groovy, oldschool record steeped in 80s-inspired synths, videogame-y hooks, crunchy guitar(?!), and catchy melodies--poppier than Perturbator, fuller than Dead Astronauts, played a little straighter than Mega Drive. It’ll blast you and get your head bobbing in equal turns, and I’m sure the kids might even opt to dance a little. But it’s those who grew up with new wave filling their headphones who’ll truly appreciate Dance with the Dead’s latest.
7. Epica - The Holographic Principle: A decade ago, I might have dismissed Epica as a pale Nightwish imitator. I’d also have been dead wrong. From Mark Jansen’s death growls to Simone Simons’ haunting mezzo-soprano to the pounding drumlines and crunchy, almost nu-metal-esque guitar lines that drive many of their best songs, they set their own course. I’m still not quite sure that their 2016 turn quite tops 2014’s The Quantum Enigma for me, but they do take a few new steps here and there, and seeing them live earlier this year helped cement several tracks from The Holographic Principle in my mind for the rest of 2016. Absolutely worth checking out for any fan of symphonic metal.
6. Alcest - Kodama: Similarly, if 5 years ago, you’d told me that Alcest’s latest would only rank sixth on my albums of the year list for any given year, I’d have called you insane. And to be clear, that’s not a knock against Kodama at all, which is probably my favorite Alcest album since Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde almost a decade ago. Their classic “blackgaze” wall of sound filled with haunting, transporting guitars, snare-heavy drums, and Neige’s signature elfin vocals is in full effect here, leveraged to tell a tale of man vs. nature, reportedly inspired by Miyazaki’s seminal anime masterpiece, Princess Mononoke. It’s a more complete, thoughtful record than Souvenirs by a significant margin, and showcases a lot of the growth Alcest’s sound has undergone since 2007, but hews a little closer to their classic signatures than, for instance, Shelter. If you want beautiful music to set your soul adrift in the world’s natural places or just zone out on a cold wintry morn to, you can do far, far worse than Kodama.
5. Haken - Affinity: That I’d never stumbled across prog metal maestros Haken before 2016 really, really surprises me (not least of all because one of their older tracks, “Cockroach King,” is probably my favorite single song of the year). Luckily, their latest album, Affinity, proved to be a strong introduction to their groovy, spacey, almost desperate style of prog metal that’s often more gentle than furious, and all the more powerful for it. Ross Jennings’ unique vocals spread a broad range over top the alternatingly pounding and quiet backing of expert musicians like To-Mera’s Richard Henshall, who seems to play a bit of everything on their records. Don’t let the quieter passages fool you, though--Haken can absolutely rock with the best of them. . . but don’t be surprised when a pulse-pounding passage gives way to a poppy, jazzy interlude with no warning at all. When you’re listening to Haken, all of the above is just par for the course. Should you also find yourself contemplating the interrelationship of man and machine, computers and life, and other such heady subjects along the way, then I suspect they will be quite pleased with themselves!
4. Perturbator - The Uncanny Valley: Stealing the banner of “Randy’s favorite synthwave band” from MegaDrive midway through the year, Perturbator are a glorious return to 80s lo-fi horror/scifi soundtracks, cloaking the oldschool in a neon sheen of 8-bit aesthetics, darkwave moodiness, and pulse-pounding tempos. This is music to race through the night, hair whipping in the wind and sunglasses firmly planted on your face to, my friends. While most of The Uncanny Valley trends toward the apocalyptic, angry, or perhaps even terrifying, certain tracks paint a more thoughtful, contemplative vision of the past-future that James “Perturbator” Kent seems to see so clearly.
That the whole thing is driven by a gloriously camp mythos about a dystopian Tokyo circa 2112 AD makes it all the better, but frankly, you could lose all that and still have one of the stand-out electronic records of the year here. And it’s got tracks, too. “Weapons for Children” is fabulous, “Death Squad” loops on my car stereo more than I’d like to admit, and damn if “Sentient” isn’t just flat-out beautiful. I’d told myself I’d only grant two music video embeds to the top three, but frankly, I’d be doing you all a disservice by not linking both of those last two below. (Note: some NSFW imagery at work here):
3. Fleshgod Apocalypse - King: Nevermind the fact that I spent at least a year getting Fleshgod Apocalypse and Septicflesh mixed up in my head. They’re two wickedly awesome symphonic death metal acts both featuring the word “flesh” in their name--I can be forgiven! But thankfully, King came around and made sure I’d never, ever get Fleshgod Apocalypse mixed up with anyone else again (seeing them in late November in a tiny, sweaty Raleigh venue didn’t hurt, either).
Mixing baroque symphonic stylings with blistering death metal rage, FA are absolutely one of the music unique acts on the scene right now, and they blend the two seemingly disparate worlds far better than you might imagine possible. That they manage to do so with furious death metal vocals growled out by Tommaso Riccardi, clean vocals howled by Paolo Rossi, and operatic vocals emanated by Veronica Bordacchini all vying for your ears’ attention is no small feat, but they absolutely make it work.
A bleak, frightful glimpse into a fictional ruler’s slow descent into madness, King is hardly pleasant listening material, but I’d consider it more or less essential for 2016. And if you get the chance to see this squad of period attire-festooned metal gods live? First off, call me and make sure I know they’re on tour. Then buy the ticket!
2. Saor - Guardians: Scottish one-man-band/mastermind Andy Marshall’s atmospheric black metal project Saor emerged as one of my favorite bands of all time this year, rocketing from unknown to constant stereo presence. Filled to the brim with pounding, wall-of-sound black metal stylings, haunting screamed and sung vocals, and a blissful harmonic wail of highland bagpipes, bodhrán, fiddle, and more, Guardians perhaps represents the pinnacle of Marshall’s considerable art (and that’s saying something, since, when I first heard it, I considered 2014’s Aura to be a perfect album).
I understand that screamed vocals aren’t everyone’s bag of tea. The idea that music featuring them might somehow be beautiful might even seem alien to you. All I can do is ask that you give Guardians an honest and contemplative listen. Close your eyes, and if you’re graced with a visual imagination, let Saor transport you to the Scottish highlands upon a cresting wave of ecstatic, glittering celebration of that place, its people, and its art. Flowing gracefully from frenetic, double-bass pounded energy (“Saor” does mean “free” after all) to contemplative, luxurious explorations of space and silence and back again, the album is filled with surprises and delights for a careful listener. I very much hope that you can be one.
Virtually every track on here is a “song of the year” contender (so the fact that it’s somehow not #1 should really tell you something about what comes next), but to the extent that I’m able, I’ve attempted to distill it down to two. For now. My favorites would probably be entirely different all over again come tomorrow.
1. Ashbringer - Yūgen: Another band I didn’t know a thing about when the clock chimed midnight a year ago at the top of 2016, Ashbringer have soared past all competition to become my absolute and undisputed “band of the year” with Yūgen, an album so absolutely and immediately beautiful that I fear I may not have the proper words to really convey it to you. Steeped in the same atmospheric, folk-inspired black metal tradition as Saor and other fantastic acts like Mare Cognitum, Drudkh, and Agalloch, Ashbringer have opted to dive whole-heartedly into black metal’s potential to be genuinely soul-stirring and eye-poppingly inspiring. When I want to genuinely feel something from a record in 2016, I’ve turned, again and again, to Ashbringer’s latest.
Masterminded by frontman Nick Stanger and brought to life by the talented crew of artists he’s marshaled to the cause like Nathan Wallestad, Ian Sutherland, Robert Northrup, and Cormac Piper, Yūgen is--to me, at least--the pinnacle of the atmospheric black metal artform. A haunting tapestry of natural imagery, bleak sorrow, nascent hope, and the deep, almost unsettling sense of something more behind it all, to call Yūgen transportive would be an understatement. Wherever it takes you, you’ll never, ever want to leave.
While, again, I recognize that Stanger’s harsh vocals may not be quite to everyone’s taste, I implore each of you to set possible distaste aside for just a moment to let the sounds of these tracks wash over you. Every single element is deeply necessary, and no note is misplaced. And if you really can’t let the harsh vocals thing go, at least give the title track a listen, as Elizabeth Redding’s otherworldly, wordless performance there is really something you cannot miss. These songs are--to me, at least--everything I need in music right now. My life would be noticeably worse without this record in it. I very much hope it can change yours, too.
Well, if you’ve stuck it out this far, you have my thanks for paying attention to my ramblings for so long. I hope you enjoyed and maybe, just maybe found a few albums you really enjoy. Here’s to another year of fantastic music we can all enjoy together, my friends!