Friday, December 16, 2016

Mick's Top 15 Albums of 2016

Well, another year has come and gone. Given the events that happened this year, it seems like 2016 is a year that most of us are wanting to end sooner rather than later. It's not all doom and gloom, however. We here at Brutalitopia experienced a record year in terms of readership and for that we will be forever grateful to you and all the other fine folk who give our site a gander every now and then. We promise to keep up with what we can in 2017 and beyond.

But now for the good stuff. Read on after the break to see what some of my favorite albums of the year were!

Honorable Mentions:
Vorvaň - Once Love was Lost
Bhavachakra - Bhavachakra
The Morningside - Yellow
Blood Incantation - Starspawn
Sedna - Eterno

15. Ihsahn - Arktis
Ihsahn is one of the best examples I can think of in which a musician hits a creative stride, equal to or greater than their most commercially-acclaimed musical act (Emperor). Switching from traditional black metal to progressive rock/metal obviously leaves a lot of room to expand your horizons. So much so that each release he’s come out with couldn’t have yielded more polarizing reviews from both fans and critics. People are either totally on board with the experimental angle or they think it’s way too over the top and out there. But to Ihsahn’s credit, that’s the upside to doing solo work. His previous album, Das Seelenbrechen, was quite possibly his most experimental output to date, but one that I loved. With Arktis, Ihsahn has taken these adventurous ambitions and bridged them gracefully with heavier rhythms and screams. Tracks like “Mass Darkness” and “In the Vaults” feature more European influences, where as the choruses are driven by grandiose guitar lines and operatic vocals, making them feel larger than life. Many other tracks on the album, however, take advantage of pianos, acoustic guitars, electronic effects, and saxophones to incorporate melody into the mix in interesting and unusual ways. Arktis is a fun album in that you’ll come out of it in the sonic haze elicited by great riffs, while also feeling just as confused and challenged by the composition and presentation.

Favorite Tracks: “South Winds”, “Frail

14. Revocation - Great is Our Sin
Ever since seeing videos of Dave Davidson thrashing and soloing like crazy on his guitar during Revocation’s earlier days, I’ve desperately wanted to latch onto a Revocation album that I can jam from front to back without hesitation. Each successive album, without fail, would dish out a track or two that were fantastic, but the rest of the album would fall short of what I was ultimately hoping for. With the release of Great is Our Sin, my journey has finally come to an end (mind you, some eight odd years later). This album demonstrates how thrash can keep all of its speed and attitude without sacrificing dynamic song structures filled with enough guitar melodies to keep your attention from front to back. Let’s also not overlook that this is Revocation’s heaviest work to date. Right from the opening bell, “Arbiters of the Apocalypse” comes out swinging with a barrage of riffs and growls that will surely get the adrenaline coursing. They’ve been around long enough that you probably already have an opinion on Revocation, but trust me that you owe it to yourself to check out Great is Our Sin regardless of that opinion.

Favorite Tracks: “Copernican Heresy”, “Cleaving Giants of Ice

13. A.M.S.G. - Hostis Universi Generis
Far and away, the most abrasive listen I had this year was the latest from Canada’s A.M.S.G. (Ad Majorem Satanae Gloriem). Even though Hostis Universi Generis ups the production level from their previous full-length effort, there is still an ever-present rawness to the music. Angelfukk Witchhammer’s (no, I am not shitting you) vocal shrieks are steadfast in keeping a high-pitch throatiness, but they also have a certain power behind them that sounds like he’s belting it from the core. Accompanied with outbursts of inexorable mayhem, this album delivers an experience that often borders on unhinged. But while raw black metal is being blared around screams and spoken word passages that are constantly conveying bleak images of existence, the album also knows how to lure you into a false sense of security. “Divine.Madness.Transcends” is a great example of a track that takes advantage of echoing clean guitar chords, piano, and even saxophones to temporarily remove you from the chaos with a single riff. Hostis Universi Generis is an album that virgin metal fans and die-hards alike should take notice of. Bridging extreme black metal and well-constructed melodies is no easy feat.

Favorite Tracks: “The Exodus of All Life”, “Broken Chains of Cursed Flesh

12. SubRosa - For This We Fought the Battle of Ages
SubRosa’s previous album, More Constant Than the Gods, was a game-changer for me. Not only was it my introduction to the band, but it also broadened my pre-conceived notions of what doom metal could encompass. Along with fuzzy droning guitar riffs and crashing drum rhythms, the combination of female vocals and strong violin presence deliver an experience that can be just as uplifting as it is sullen. While this formula stays very much intact on their latest release, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages turns up the dial on its straightforward heaviness. Featuring the band’s most aggressive vocals to date, “Despair is a Siren” and “Wound of the Warden” open up the album with an unexpected punch to drive this newly discovered heaviness home. But as is the case with any SubRosa album, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages is an emotional journey. While the album’s opening tracks showcase the band’s heavier tendencies, the rest of the album’s duration features moments that uplift and burden the listener, all before resulting in the crescendo that is “Troubled Cells”. Introspective melodic tendencies that also obliterate you with forceful riffs is not a common outcome in metal, but SubRosa is out to make that a thing. Don’t let SubRosa’s latest go unheard.

Favorite Tracks: “Wound of the Warden”, “Troubled Cells

11. Alcest - Kodama
When Alcest’s previous album, Shelter, was released, it raised a few red flags. Although it’s understandable that a band who was a key progenitor of the “blackgaze” craze wanted to focus an album solely on the “gaze”, it was hard hearing a band lose a vital piece of itself. With Kodama, though, not only did they bring the metal elements back into the fray, but they also composed the most thorough representation of their own sound to date. With elegant guitar notes that echo back and forth before transitioning into walls of full-on black metal distortion and Neige’s harrowed screams, the album’s cohesion and flow are among its greatest strengths. The true beauty of Alcest’s music, which Kodama captures brilliantly, is how the mixture of heavier elements and serene ambiance culminate into an experience that is borderline spiritual; something that simultaneously taps into so many different emotions that at one moment you’ll want to cry and at another you’ll want to scream. Like it or not, it’s important to remember why “blackgaze” became a thing in the first place. Kodama will help you realize that it may not be such a bad thing.

Favorite Tracks: “Eclosion”, “Je Suis D’Ailleurs

10. Khemmis - Hunted
If there’s any band that is completely deserving of any hype they’ve received this year, it’s unquestionably Denver’s Khemmis. I wasn’t so keen on their debut, Absolution, but Hunted has converted me 100%. What’s great about Hunted is that it takes doom and gives it a rock and roll vibe. Grungy guitar tones can quicken the pace at one point with harmonized riffs, or slow things down with guitar solos. The vocals have similarly improved this time around. Clean vocals dominate the album, but the reverb they employ delivers the perfect amount of echo, allowing the vocals to blend into the grooves forming around them. Growls are used sparingly but are effective when utilized with more quickly paced passages, while juxtaposed with anthemic solos that leave the track’s crowning moments suspended. The songs are lengthy, in doom metal fashion, but each one presents more hooks than you’ll know what to do with. The closing title track is also one of the greatest songs I’ve heard this year.

Favorite Tracks: “Three Gates”, “Hunted

9. Obscura - Akróasis
In a genre where intricate guitar solos played at blazing speeds have largely taken precedence over interesting song compositions, Obscura has always been a cut above the rest of technical death metal’s recent output. With Akróasis, the band not only continues to stay ahead of the pack but even manages to pull further ahead. While there are certainly are enough sweeping guitar solos to overload your brain, the album balances these out with catchy riffs, acoustic interludes, heavier than hell rhythms, and bludgeoning drum work. Album opener “Sermon of the Seven Suns” wastes no time in beating you over the head with a riff that will sure to be stuck with you for the foreseeable future while tracks like “Ode to the Sun” will make you wish you had hair long enough to successfully headbang. There’s no question that Akróasis is strong on the early 90’s Death/Cynic worship, but I can’t imagine a context where that’s viewed as a detriment.

Favorite Tracks: “Sermon of the Seven Suns”, “Ten Sepiroth

8. Sylvaine - Wistful
In a year where Alcest showcased a brilliant return to form, it’s hard to imagine another French band that would out-Alcest Alcest. But Katherine Shepard’s Sylvaine did just that. While Wistful focuses more on the ethereal side of things, female vocals allow for a higher range of singing that mixes perfectly with the bright uplifting nature of the music; the last few minutes of “Delusions” being a prime example. This isn’t to say that the entire album is all singing and shoegaze, though. Shepard flexes her black metal muscle on “Earthbound” which features a plethora of wailing screams that are just as dynamic as her singing. The tracks on Wistful also flow seamlessly between each other. This lack of abrupt pace changes is a huge strength to the album. With most tracks hitting the seven minute mark at least, both guitar and vocal melodies are allowed to linger and permeate your senses before eventually phasing out and allowing the next to make its way in. It will probably be among some of the easiest listening you’ll have from this year, but trust me when I say that it’s also among the most rewarding.

Favorite Tracks: “Delusions”, “A Ghost Trapped in Limbo

7. Ulcerate - Shrines of Paralysis
When you think of captivating music, you normally think of catchy melodies that smoothly transition from and into each other. New Zealand’s Ulcerate, however, since their inception, has been captivating listeners and live audiences through the unforgivingly relentless pummeling of their ear drums. This dissonant brand of death metal that the band continues to output remains oppressive yet simultaneously awe-inspiring due to the technicality. The drumming chops of Jamie Saint Merat, for those unfamiliar, are downright batshit crazy in the best way. Shrines of Paralysis continues down this path, but ups the production value and throws in some tasty guitar hooks for good measure. “Full speed” is the only gear that the band has. The album is full of twists and turns, but only those that go further down the spiral of despair. With the upped production value, this thick dismal haze is all the more palpable. There are plenty of bands out there that talk the talk about being heavy, but bands like Ulcerate are among the few who actually walk the walk.

Favorite Tracks: “Shrines of Paralysis”, “Extinguished Light

6. Deathspell Omega - The Synarchy of Molten Bones
The masters have done it again. Much like the band itself, plans of a new release had remained a complete mystery since the band’s 2012 EP, Drought. Once it was announced, boy  could you sense the entire metal blogosphere frothing at the mouth to dig into it (myself included). “Avant-garde” is a term that, when used as a descriptor for a band, would more likely elicit a hard eye-roll out of you (again, myself included). Deathspell Omega, however, is a band who couldn’t accurately be described without that verbage tossed around. Having output a musical trilogy of albums themed around the metaphysical relationship between humans, god, and the devil, the band intertwines black and death metal to create a final product that is a dense amalgam to be sure. With their latest EP, DSO continues to show why other bands emulate them and not the other way around. For the past 12 years, the band has done away with conventional song structuring, leaving the playing field wide open for experimentation. This is why it’s hard to highlight choice elements of a single track because there are so many necessarily entwined facets. For newcomers, DSO’s music will understandably just sound like straight up noise, but once you dig beneath the surface, the level and attention to detail that you’ll find is astonishing. The Synarchy of Molten Bones continues to deliver in that fashion, leaving the listener confused, in awe, and desperate for another listen to understand what they just heard.

Favorite Tracks: “The Synarchy of Molten Bones”, “Onward Where Most with Raven I May Meet

5. Russian Circles - Guidance
There’s something special about connecting to a local band, isn’t there? I’m sure anyone reading this can relate, but if you talked to Durf and I about Chicago and metal in the same breath, we’d probably end up telling you that bands like Pelican and Russian Circles run through our blood. There’s no way I could count how many times the hypnotic rhythms of Russian Circles have carried me through the blistering cold of Chicago’s brutal winter winds, but it has become as much of a tradition as being disappointed in the Chicago Bears. With Guidance, Russian Circles again demonstrates in stripped down to the studs fashion how less can be (WAY) more. Like the band’s past efforts, there’s a good heavy to light (read: atmospheric) track ratio, but these extremes haven’t been this on-point since Geneva. By mirroring these extremes, the band manages to seamlessly weave together the tranquil with the ominous; something that you’d be hard-pressed to find many bands pull off successfully. In Russian Circles, and especially on Guidance, you have a bassist who can deliver the thick distortion, a guitarist who can supply the heavy riffs, and a drummer who can beat the holy hell out of his kit. What more could you want?!

Favorite Tracks: “Vorel”, “Calla

4. Sumerlands - Sumerlands
I never would have imagined that an album that reminds me of 80s hair metal would end up on my year-end list, but we do have to remember that 2016 has been a year in which much stranger things have happened (including Stranger Things, am I right?). If you can dig 80s hair metal without all the glitz & glam, cock-rockiness, and, well… hair, then Sumerlands’ riff-laden debut album will be a treat. While some of Arthur Rizk’s guitar work reminded me of bands like Ratt, there’s more to Sumerlands that also brings to mind classic metal that was being made in the 80s. Phil Swanson’s vocals are reminiscent of Ozzy on numerous occasions, for instance. But regardless of who I draw comparisons to, it doesn’t change the fact that this album is tons of fun. If there was a “best album to throw in your car while driving around during the summer” award, Sumerlands would win hands down. From track to track, the guitar rhythms have an infectious energy that is heightened with lively vocals. When Rock Band was at its height, its adoring masses would’ve eaten this album up.

Favorite Tracks: “The Guardian”, “Lost My Mind

3. Zhrine - Unortheta
If you’re a fan of the overwhelming heaviness of a band like Ulcerate but could use less technicality and more atmosphere, the debut album from Iceland’s Zhrine is just the cure for that itch. Unortheta mixes together black and death metal in a way that creates a listening experience that can be as calm and expansive as it can be crushingly heavy. Tracks like “Spewing Gloom” and “The Syringe Dance” feature shrill screams and faster tremolo picked guitar sections whereas the album’s back-half asserts lower cavernous growls and thunderous guitar riffs. It’s the seamless incorporation of all these various elements that makes Unortheta an album that sounds familiar, but feels equally as invigorating. Throw in passages of clean, and sometimes discordant, guitar notes that will endlessly echo throughout your head, and you have an album that draws you in deeper and deeper. Unorthetha is an album that you’ll want to get lost in just as much as you’ll want to headbang to until your neck snaps.

Favorite Tracks: “Utopian Warfare”, “Empire

2. Gevurah - Hallelujah!
It’s interesting how many of the albums towards the top of my list don’t necessarily fall far outside the proverbial box, but rather take a simple formula and execute it flawlessly. The full-length debut from Canadian black metal duo Gevurah is no exception. By taking the forces of traditional black metal and driving them home with an immense amount of ferocious energy, Hallelujah! creates an atmosphere that is all encompassing. This isn’t to say, however, that the flavor of black metal presented here would fall under the atmospheric black metal umbrella. There’s no question that Gevurah dishes out straight up black metal, but it’s done in a way that is more seductive to the listener than the usual cold and grating abrasiveness of traditional black metal. Especially on the last two tracks, Hallelujah! takes simple riffs and constantly build and layer over them as songs progress, eventually building this lush soundscape that is near impossible to not be addicted to. Acoustic instrumentals, ominous whispering over crackling fires, and Gregorian chants are also nice touches harnessed to give this album even more life. Hallelujah! is not to be missed. Consider this one your top priority in rounding out your black metal listening for 2016.

Favorite Tracks: “Dies Irae - Lacrimosa”, “הַלְּלוּיָהּ

1. Anciients - Voice of the Void
Anciients’ debut album Heart of Oak barely cracked my top 15 back in 2013, but my, oh my how much difference three years can make. The maturation between Heart of Oak and Voice of the Void is truly staggering. Keeping true to what made their previous release great, Voice of the Void is an absolute riff-fest, a la Leviathan-era Mastodon. While Heart of Oak featured great riffs, they ultimately felt too few and far between. On this new release, you can tell Anciients made a conscious effort to make each track pack in as much melody and hard-hitting guitar as possible. The album effectively acts like a sequence of Russian nesting dolls for riffs; each note rolls off the other fluidly and constantly unraveling into a new one. The vocal performance is also on point. Much like Khemmis’ release from this year, the clean melodic stylings were more refined and well placed this time around, which opened up a more dynamic range and made the growls feel more powerful. Speaking of, the growls are used in a particularly well-crafted manner, but when they are unleashed they bring to mind the Mikael Akerfeldt of yesteryear. Anciients doesn’t necessarily do anything groundbreaking, but you have to love and appreciate an album that does so many different things extremely well. For as much as I tried to venture out and make sure I was sampling as much of 2016 had to offer, Voice of the Void is where I always ended up coming back to and that’s why it’s my #1. Expect more great things to come from Anciients. They’re poised to make it big after releasing an album like Voice of the Void.

Favorite Tracks: “Following the Voice”, “Ibex Eye

- Mick

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love this album. Your favorite tracks are also the two that I think are simply phenomenal, even though the rest of the album is no slouch either. It's a shame about the production though. It's really bad, and the drum cymbals are just really sibilant sounding, and it doesn't seem to matter what source it's run through either.