Thursday, December 17, 2015

Mick's Top 15 Albums of 2015

Writing a year-end list is serious business. Constant power-naps on couches  I couldn't afford were necessary. 

Here we are again, friends. Another year has nearly come to its end and with it another year-end list from yours truly. Let's hop to it!

15. Between the Buried and Me - Coma Ecliptic
Promising a "rock opera" with their newest endeavor, progressive metal stalwarts Between the Buried and Me deliver on their promise and then some. While it's not to say that each release from Btbam over the past decade hasn't offered something unique, the band did over time cling onto a stylistic formula that became predictable to a certain extent. With Coma Ecliptic, they've managed to take that formula and expand its boundaries. By no track breaking the ten minute mark, Btbam makes it clear that their ambition was to do more with less. Tracks like "Famine Wolf" feature confident and varied vocals from Tommy Rogers that bring a very welcome quirkiness to the album while other tracks, like "Memory Palace", boast majestic guitar work from Paul Waggoner that would make any fan of Dream Theater's Scenes From a Memory swoon. If you've been waiting for Btbam to become more accessible but more adventurous at the same time, Coma Ecliptic would be right up your alley.

Favorite tracks: "Rapid Calm", "Option Oblivion"

14. Hope Drone - Cloak of Ash
With Altar of Plagues calling it quits at the top of their game last year, there was immediately an opening for a band to pick up where they left off in pushing atmospheric black metal forward. Picking up that mantle is Australia's Hope Drone. Their debut, Cloak of Ash, doesn't necessarily bring anything new to the atmospheric black metal table but it does constantly remind you of why you fell in love with the genre in the first place. Unlike the last entry in my list, few tracks fall below the nine minute mark; each of them providing their own dirges of melancholy and serenity. Similar to Altar of Plagues' Mammal album, Cloak of Ash has a raw feel that cuts right to your primal instincts. Whether the music is pummeling by or transitioning into a more ambient passage, everything sounds like it's being performed in a desolate cave with the intent of seducing you into its hopelessness. In case you've been yearning for grueling black metal that also has plenty of interesting/melodic ebbs and flows, Hope Drone is a band to keep on your radar.

Favorite Tracks: "Unending Grey", "The Chords That Thrum Beneath the Earth"

13. Dreadnought - Bridging Realms
Progressive metal is a genre that often is so carelessly applied as a descriptor, that at times it seems we've forgotten what it truly means to be progressive. The aptly named Bridging Realms is here to bring us up to speed on that notion. Just about any instrument you can think of is made a part of Dreadnought's repertoire on their second album. However, while this sounds like it could very easily and very quickly go off the rails, Dreadnought takes all of these elements and incorporates them into something astonishing. Black metal and progressive rock are the two main realms that are being bridged in this daunting amalgam. With the utilization of pianos, saxophones, and clean guitar passages, plenty of nods are given to the progressive rock giants of old, particularly Yes. Yet, the throwing in of black metal elements is what makes Bridging Realms the most unpredictable release of the year by far. In addition to guitars switching gears into lo-fi distorted goodness, soft female vocals also transition into throaty shrieks shrill enough to take anybody off guard. It's clear Dreadnought's mission with Bridging Realms was to be the release coming out of left field this year. Mission accomplished.

Favorite Tracks: "Ode To Ether", "Transpiration"

12. Sylosis - Dormant Heart
England's Sylosis are no strangers to my year end lists, but let the record show that Dormant Heart is the most deserving to date. Even though their sound can be accurately described as a "thrashier version of Death", there's something to be said for the album's no-nonsense and straightforward approach to metal that is compelling from start to finish. It's the combination of these Death-like riffs mixed with the aggressive speed and attitude of thrash that ultimately makes Dormant Heart enthralling and varied. Yet, at the same time, what makes this album a great album instead of just a good album is the dark atmosphere, for lack of a better term, that encompasses the album's entirety. I wouldn't go quite as far to call it evil, but with every guitar note, drum beat and growl, Sylosis evokes a certain meanness and grit that becomes more and more palpable. For fans of riffs and thrash, Dormant Heart is a no-brainer.

Favorite Tracks: "Indoctrinated", "Mercy"

11. Steven Wilson - Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Hand. Cannot. Erase., the fourth solo album from Steven Wilson, continues giving us insight into Wilson's unrestrained progressive sensibilities. What's unique about Hand. Cannot. Erase. is that, unlike Wilson's past solo releases, which comparatively were a hodgepodge of musical experimentations that had less conceptual structure, the album has distinct shifts in mood in noticeable relation to the overarching theme. It is very much an album of two halves. Based on the true story of Joyce Vincent, the album focuses around the idea of human isolation and the harrowing possibility fading out of existence without others realizing. Warm and upbeat tracks like "3 Years Older" and the title track are balanced by tracks like "Routine" that bring the obscenely morose to the forefront. "Ancestral" could also very well be the best track Wilson has created during his solo career. Individual tracks from Hand. Cannot. Erase. may not pack the same punch as some from his previous efforts, but the album overall demonstrates Wilson's continued mastery over crafting a narrative through the paradigm of progressive rock/metal.

Favorite Tracks: "Routine", "Ancestral"

10. Pyramids - A Northern Meadow
Along with Dreadnought's Bridging Realms, Pyramids' A Northern Meadow is an album that I know I love but still feel like there's something more to be discovered because of how truly unique it is. Taking black metal and incorporating it in an industrial framework is something that's not new but something that Pyramids does have an interesting take on. The drum beats are encompassed by other electronic sound effects that are subtle yet effective. The guitar rhythms have a tinge of this electronic feel but still keep true to the tremolo picking traditions of black metal. These anterior elements alone make for an interesting mix but what binds them together are the vocals. A Northern Meadow is dominated by clean vocals. Much like Chino Moreno's vocals from Deftones, these clean vocals have an ethereous nature that allow them to drift smoothly into each other as they echo through your ear canals. Even though the album primarily consists of clean vocals, there are also small outbursts of yelling here and there. What makes these outbursts interesting, though, is that, much like the guitars and drums, they are digitized to the point where you can't immediately tell whether it's actual yelling or just another sound effect. It's very easy to get lost and zone out to A Northern Meadow but I couldn't recommend it enough.

Favorite Tracks: "The Substance of Grief is not Imaginary", "I Have Four Sons, All Named After Men We Lost to War"

9. Intronaut - The Direction of Last Things
Intronaut's Habitual Levitations album from two years ago saw the band take a turn towards the more progressive elements of their palette. The Direction of Last Things continues on in that same spirit of forward thinking but also makes sure that we have plenty of thick guitar tones and bass lines that provide plenty of memorable moments. Right from the get go with "Fast Worms", we find that Intronaut takes its Meshuggah rhythm stylings seriously but structure them within the contexts of stoner metal guitars as opposed to falling down the slippery slope of djent. In addition, the band sets off these heavy hitting riffs with progressive instrumental segues that share more with free form jazz than anything else. Sacha Dunable's vocals are also much improved. As opposed to the band's previous release, Dunable uses deep growls to further drive home the heavier moments. At the same time, his clean vocals blend in as seamlessly as they ever have. The Direction of Last Things is a honing of Intronaut's craft; a craft that never ceases to impress or captivate.

Favorite Tracks: "Digital Gerrymandering", "Sul Ponticello"

8. Scale the Summit - V
V, the not so surprisingly fifth album from this instrumental outfit, represents a pinnacle for Scale the Summit. The band doesn't step too far outside it's comfort zone, but it's also apparent that they are self-aware of what they do well and set out to better themselves in those areas. Whether it's triumphant guitar riffs, mind-numbingly fast guitar solos, softer ambient passages, or lively bass grooves, everything is so well balanced that it makes dauntingly technical musicianship easily digestible and enjoyable. All tracks are evenly balanced and assorted such that your attention never detracts from the action. What's never ceased to impress about Scale the Summit, and with V especially, is how every riff and rhythm feeds off the previous and beautifully transitions into the next to create warm and organic sounding music that never leaves anything to be desired. It is this overall tonality of V that will further cement Scale the Summit as front runners in the current progressive metal scene.

Favorite Tracks: "The Winged Bull", "Blue Sun"

7. False - Untitled
This album completely blind-sided me and was a late addition to this list but was I ever glad I stumbled upon it. If Angela Gossow fronted a black metal band, it would sound like False. Grueling guttural female vocals are matched by equally grueling black metal ferocity with this one. Sludgy guitar riffs swirl around each other at a speedy pace, constantly upping the energy of the album. For an overall vibe that is mostly pissed off, Untitled also demonstrates a strong maturity in introducing melody to break up these pummeling sections. This melody comes in the form of slow building guitar riffs that eventually blossom into more unrelenting segments of primal savagery. The combination of these melodic and brutal passages form an overall soundscape that is unlike any other. It's a soundscape that is bleak and ugly yet reveals patches of hope; hope that is triumphant and even anthemic. Want to headbang like never before but also want some major guitar hooks to liven the experience? If yes, False has got you covered with Untitled.

Favorite Tracks: "Entropy", "Hedgecraft"

6. Ghost - Meliora
Whether you're on the hype train or not, Ghost's popularity and quality of albums are growing at an exponential rate. Meliora is without question a less ambitious endeavor than Infestissumam was. But where Infestissumam may have self-indulged beyond its means, Meliora corrects these side-tangents into a more focused and complete version of what the band intends to achieve. What does Ghost intend to achieve you ask? The answer is writing tons and tons of hooks. From front to back, Meliora is jam packed with vocal melodies and guitar/bass riffs that will be stuck in your head for the unforeseeable future, the track "Cirice" being a prime example. Because of Ghost being more to the point this time around, the album is considerably shorter than its predecessor. While this may be a gripe for some, it only ensures that Meliora is neither front loaded nor back loaded. This current incarnation of Ghost is the fullest vision of what we all thought could become reality after their introduction into the scene with their 2010 debut of Opus Eponymous.The hype trains keeps on a rollin'.

Favorite Tracks: "From the Pinnacle to the Pit", "Cirice"

5. Deafheaven - New Bermuda
Certainly no strangers to being the focal point of asinine criticism or blind adoration, Deafheaven is back continuing to not care what you think, but still putting out fantastic records. New Bermuda distances itself from the warm and bright sophistication that permeated Sunbather, the band's previous release, and instead gears itself towards darker undertones that are driven by more clear-cut guitar riffage. It has the rawness of Roads to Judah and the charm of Sunbather but makes it all sound a whole lot meaner. George Clarke's screams sound as gritty as ever, making a perfect accent on the intensity of the other instruments enveloping it. With in-your-face blast beat drumming and shredding guitars changing pace at a moments notice into slow transitioning sections of soft shoegazey guitar notes, the blue prints of New Bermuda are business as usual for Deafheaven. Where this album surpasses the previous two, though, is that all facets of the aforementioned blue prints have a certain attitude about them that feels less manufactured. Where previous efforts may be more raw in terms of the sound of the music, New Bermuda is more raw in relation to the emotional output. Everything just rings truer. Take a vacation to new New Bermuda, folks. It's well worth your while.

Favorite Tracks: "Brought to the Water", "Come Back"

4. Horrendous - Anareta
I still have yet to listen to Horrendous' debut album, The Chills, and thought their follow up, Ecdysis, was a smidge overrated, but with Anareta, I can finally understand the hype. Accessibility is not a term one would commonly associate with death metal, but Anarerta incorporates just that into the band's early-90s death metal foundation. Don't misunderstand accessibility for clean vocals, though; there's nothing but throaty high-pitched screams reminiscent of the great Chuck Schuldiner to be found here. By accessible, I mean that this album is an absolute riff-fest. Riff after riff is pulled from some place in the ether that seems like it should only be accessible to the death metal gods themselves. Album opener "The Nihilist" rushes out of the gate with an all-out assault on your ears where tracks such as "Sum of All Failures" and "The Solipsist" utilize clean guitar sections to break up the madness. Anareta is such a well written album that is has something offer to for all fans of metal, not just death metal fans. Time to put those air guitars to good use.

Favorite Tracks: "The Nihilist", "Stillborn Gods"

3. Mgła - Exercises in Futility
There's something about seeing an album performed live that makes you realize that a great album may actually be a transcendent one. I didn't see Exercises in Futility be played in its entirety, but witnessing half of it was enough to realize that Poland's Mgła struck gold with their latest release. The thing about Exercises is that for an album that paints such a dreary and oppressive picture, as the album title would suggest, it's simultaneously uplifting to hear an album that's so tightly constructed. This cohesiveness is mostly apparent through the maturity of the album's pacing. While there are sections that blast by with lightning fast drum work and blaring riffs, there are just as many mid-paced elements Mgła uses to keep the listener's undivided attention. It's also refreshing to not have to hear a band use guitar solos as crutches. Following in line with more traditional black metal, Mgła harnesses the power of the riff to enrapture; the best example of this being the track "V". The riff (you'll know which one I mean when you listen) on "V" tears holes through other dimensions and is not to be taken lightly. Mgła's stock continues to rise with Exercises in Futility. Time to buy in.

Favorite Tracks: "Exercises in Futility I", "Exercises in Futility V"

2. Tempel - The Moon Lit Our Path
The fact that the #2 album on my list is instrumental but impresses in an entirely different way than the #8 entry does is a testament for how much room the instrumental metal genre still has to grow. The Moon Lit Our Path, Tempel's second album but first on a record label (Prosthetic), proves that "instrumental black metal" can be a fruitful endeavor and not just two random genres you slapped together to see how it would look on paper. Like other instrumental acts that have made names for themselves in the metal sphere, Tempel crafts an enticing atmosphere on The Moon Lit Our Path. What sets this album apart from the pack, however, is how it creates this atmosphere; through riffs. But not just through super technical solos or ambient reverberating riffs. We're talking huge titanic riffs that feel so large it will make you question whether their existence on your computer's hard drive is making your computer physically weigh more or not. Granted, Tempel takes advantage of acoustic guitars and some reverberating effects to mix it up at times, but these gnarly notes shredded and chugged out of an 8 string guitar are the life-force of this album. There's not a single track on The Moon Lit Our Path that I'm not headbanging for at least half of. The mixing pot of these riffs eventually churn out moments of pure exultation for the listener, further making The Moon Lit Our Path an album that would be downright foolish to pass up on.

Favorite Tracks: "Descending Into the Labyrinth", "Dawn Breaks Over the Ruins"

1. Leviathan - Scar Sighted
Scared, confused, disturbed, and awe-struck. These are but a few emotions I can recall simultaneously feeling after listening through Leviathan's Scar Sighted for the first time. All the previous entries on my list have elements about them that are fairly easy to single out and analyze as to why I enjoy them so much, but it's a different story with Scar Sighted. There are so many different elements at play with this album that it's by far the most dense album I've listened to not only this year but perhaps ever. It's moreover classified as black metal but all aspects of this album are in so much flux all the time, you could easily make a case for just about anything else. What I am 100% sure about this album, however, is that whatever it is that's confined within this album is evil.....damn evil. Jef Whitehead's vocals start the album off as deep as something you'd expect from funeral doom, but subsequent tracks will vary between black metal shrieks and regular singing that isn't so much singing as it is the wailing of a tortured soul. The track "Dawn Vibration" best represents this and is an early tell of how eclectic and jarring of a listen Scar Sighted is as a whole. Something else about this album that stuck out is how unapologetic it is. When I mentioned that the album is evil, I mean that it the album is evil throughout its entirety. It doesn't let up for a second. The constant shifts in song structures often feel as though you're listening to the soundtrack of your unraveling sanity; something that's more enjoyable than it sounds at face value, trust me. The album is also capped off beautifully by "Aphonos", a track that will leave you utterly speechless after enduring the insanity of the rest of the album. Scar Sighted is an album that is so tightly knit together with so many different facets that you're guaranteed a unique listening experience every single time. I still hear new things I never picked up on any previous listen. Leviathan absolutely nailed it with this album. As unsettling as it may be, you owe it to yourself to experience Scar Sighted.

Favorite Tracks: "The Smoke of Their Torment", "Within Thrall"

With that I bid you adieu, 2015. It was a gas, but here's to looking forward to what 2016 will bring.

- Mick

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