Thursday, December 31, 2020

Arthalos' Best Albums of the Year [2020]

All things considered, with the the entire world warped in the Covid-19 pandemic chaos, this was a fruitful year for metal music, but then again it always somehow is. In the end, the leading theme, by an enormous margin, was traditional speed/heavy/doom and classic hard rock. Even though bands with a retro style commemorating the late the 70s and 80s have always drawn me in, this year was a particularly veritable cornucopia of such releases, as represented by my top 20 picks, and many other good albums spilled over into my top 50. Old school won the day. Indeed, in my top 10 alone I have 6-7 releases that can instantaneously trace their lineage back to the sounds of disco and Cold War mania. The Chronus sophomore might be a slight outsider among that motley crew of releases, since they have a much more updated take on trad metal, with quite a few nods to their more infamous countrymen Ghost, but regardless, it was a stellar late entrant into my list. I think I consumed a larger and broader quantity of music this year than the 2-3 years before (although I have no way of accounting for it) though surprisingly this hasn't necessarily enlarged the variety of genres and styles that are always represented to some degree in my picks. 

If anything, this was a rather dull year for innovative, experimental, idiosyncratic metal music in general. Strange and avantgarde acts like Imperial Triumphant, Ulcerate, Old Man Gloom, Mountaineer - bands who gained considerable attention both in the mainstream and in underground circles - failed to impress me, and mostly exhibited a further marriage of metal and post-hardcore elements as the new frontier for envelope-pushing within the genre. That statement obviously excludes Eden in Reverse though, a dizzying exercise in kraut, space rock, black metal and alien shrooms. Perhaps not my favorite by the Greek mavericks - that would have been a tall order - but certainly an apt contender for the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I probably browsed more RYM lists than any previous year, and hopefully I was able to at least touch upon the bulk of releases that represented their respective sub-genres. Death and black metal acts (as well as black/death hybrids) seemed to dominate extreme metal enthusiasts' lists, and this is certainly well-earned. There was an enormous quality of solid black and death, though in the end there were only a few that were particularly remarkable for me. UK veterans Anaal Nathrakh and Napalm Death continue to annihilate and terrify with their distinct, by now well-matured panoplies of brutalizing grindcore and industrialized malice, respectively. Meanwhile totally new bands like Ossaert and Serment made lasting impressions with enveloping, icy atmospheric black records. Heavy/doom is well-represented, with LuciferSpirit Adrift and Pallbearer blazing trails for a newer, more melodic generation. The Hallas record isn't strictly speaking metal, so it could go into either of my lists below, but it was not only a natural refinement of their debut, but also a fantastic journey across the cosmos with a medley of haunting, psychedelic, synth-driven soundscapes that sounded like the lovechild of Hawkwind and Gentle Giant. Finally, the Bütcher record stands out as the most outlandish of the bunch, but it's retained its delicious speed and manic intensity throughout the year, and deserves a spot on the top 5. 

When push came to shove, though, I think there was only one record that shone through and came the closest to perfection in 2020. The Sölicitör debut was just that, a sublime and unreal merger of equal parts Holy Moses, Vicious Rumors, and Exciter with a fittingly dilapidated production to boast. What an amazing record, channeling everything I love about all those bands at their respective career peaks and more, an absolute ass-kicker from start to finish. No other record this year - and, indeed, few records in the few years - made me want to strap on spikes and leather and cascade the empty streets of my city more. And it's the band's debut? Insane.

Edit (January 2021): Added Ulthar's Providence and Valdrin's Effigy of Nightmares, pushed back the Necrophobic album. 

As always, YouTube links have been embedded below.

I've also made a longer list of my favorite 50-60 metal albums of 2020, in non-hierarchical, order over at RYM.

** Top 20 Metal Albums **

Runners-up: TIE Eternal Champion (US) – Ravening Iron  | Pallbearer (US) – Forgotten Days
High Spirits (US) – Hard to Stop
19Hail Spirit Noir (Gr) – Eden in Reverse
18. Anaal Nathrakh (UK) – Endarkenment
17. Orbit Culture (Swe) – Nija
16. Vader (Pol) – Solitude in Madness
15. Armored Saint (US) – Punching the Sky 
14. Ossaert (Nl) – Bedehuis
13. Ulthar (US) – Providence 
12. Valdrin (US) – Effigy of Nightmares
11. Serment (Ca) – Chante, ô flamme de la liberté 
10. Midnight (US) – Rebirth by Blasphemy
09. Napalm Death (UK) – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism 
08. Cirith Ungol (US) – Forever Black 
07. Enslaved (No) – Utgard
06. Hällas (Swe) – Conundrum
05. Lucifer (Int) – Lucifer III
04. Chronus (Swe) – Idols
03. Bütcher (Be) – 666 Goats Carry My Chariot
02. Spirit Adrift (US)  Enlightened in Eternity
01. Sölicitör (US) – Spectral Devastation 

For my non-metal picks, I tried to be a bit more structured this year. I think there was enough interesting material across a swath of genres for me to eke out a top 15. A lot of these albums found their ways into my ears in the last 3-4 months of 2020, and indeed they were quite refreshing to hear after dozens of static black/death metal spelunking. There's a metric ton of 80s-inspired synthpop there, which is what  I suppose my interests lie towards when I'm on the look for something moodier. The production standards on some of those records were insanely gratifying. Other artists (Dool, Ulver, Myrkur) received widespread attention in metal circles due to their associations with the scene, despite, in a lot of cases, having completely evolved from their metallic origins (I'm looking at you, Bergtatt). Never a bad thing. Besides the synthpop frenzy, an eccentric bevy of electronic, pop and rock releases round out the bulk of the list. Honorable mentions include Korine's The Night We Raise and Squarepusher's Be Up a Hello

 *Top 15 Non-metal Albums*

15. Jessie Ware (UK) – What's Your Pleasure? (pop)
Rian Treanor (UK) – File Under UK Metaplasm (electronic)
13. Myrkur (Dn) – Folkesange (neofolk) 
12. Dool (Nl) – Summerland (occult rock)
11. Riki (US) – Riki (synthpop) 
10. Ulver (Nr) – Flowers of Evil (synthpop) 
09. Everything Everything (UK) – Re-Animator (art pop)
08. Blaqk Audio (US) – Beneath the Black Palms (synthpop)
07. Black Nail Cabaret (Hu) – Gods Verging on Sanity (synthpop)
06. The Birthday Massacre (Ca) – Diamonds (synthpop)
05. Wailin Storms (US) – Rattle (doom rock)
04. Ludwig Göransson (Swe) – Tenet: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
03. Molchat Doma (By) – Monument | Монумент (post-punk/darkwave)
02. Phantogram (US) – Ceremony (electronic)
01. Assemblage 23 (US) – Mourn (electronic/industrial)

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Arthalos' Best Albums of the Year [2012]

This was a pretty varied year, and I'm happy to say both records from bands that have achieved cult status by now and some more mainstream selections are distributed fairly equally. This was the year I started the blog, so naturally I started delving really deep into underground territory, and there are also plenty of great demos and EPs from this all across doom, death, black, sludge and traditional metal that shouldn't go unnoticed by obscurantists. The Sigh album was the first album I heard by them, a seemingly rudderless panoply of metallic oddities strewn together in one of the catchiest patchworks the band has ever made, probably my favorite by them after the flawless Imaginary Soniscape. A lot of  great retro death metal as well, and a longer list would have had even more to show in that regard. Clearly, though, the Necrovation sophomore ranks the most engrossing in that department, a blistering, almost beautiful, at times melodic ode everything you love about old school death metal, finessed to just the pitch where everything feels familiar but still pulsating and fresh. Bands like Dawnbringer, Anthem, and Pharaoh represent a solid heavy/power balustrade, a sign that while traditional heavy and power metal are not as prominent as they were in the 80s, many bands, old and new, are still keeping the style in the present. Some later additions include Carved into Stone, Kentucky and Eremita, all by artists which I came to enjoy in later years, and I'm glad to say they all pop more often in my yearly favorites once I started to weed through their discographies.

**Top 20 Metal Albums of 2012**

20 HeXen (US) – Being and Nothingness
19 Gojira (France) – L’enfant Sauvage
18 Spawn of Possession (Sweden) – Incurso
17 Panopticon (US) – Kentucky
16 Burning Shadows (US) – Gather, Darkness! 
15 Hail Spirit Noir (Greece) – Pneuma
14 Altar of Oblivion (Denmark) – Grand Gesture of Defiance
13 Horrendous (US) – The Chills
12 Hooded Menace (Finland) – Effigies of Evil
11 Prong (US) – Carved Into Stone
10 Anhedonist (US) – Netherwards
09 Ihsahn (Norway) – Eremita 
08 Pharaoh (US) – Bury the Light
07 Dawnbringer (US) – Into the Lair of the Sun God 
06 Necrovation (US) – Necrovation
05 Trial (Sweden) – The Primordial Temple
04 Tiamat (Sweden) – The Scarred People
03 Anthem (Japan) – Burning Oath
02 Enslaved (Norway) – RIITIIR
01 Sigh (Japan) – In Somniphobia

Honorable mentions

Charon (Germany) – Sulphur Seraph
Nekromantheon (Norway) – Rise, Vulcan Spectre
Chaos Inception (US) – The Abrogation
Bauda (Chile) – Euphoria… of Flesh, Men and the Great Escape
Yurei (Norway) – Night Vision
Draumar (Germany) – Gebirge (EP)
Black Table (US) – Sentinel (EP)

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Arthalos' Best Albums of the Year [2019]

In the final product, I'm happy to say most of the major genres receive some form of exposure and representation on this list. A reflection, as with most years, of the diversity and excellence that different artists can channel across different metal-isms. Death metal gets minimal representation on this list (though the Coffin Rot debut very nearly made the cut) but that doesn't mean there was a shortage of gruesome, choppy material hailing from both Europe and the States. My preferences naturally tilt towards the old school, so the Inferi record feels a bit disjointed within the mix, not least when it was considered among the 'poppiest' death metal albums of the year. Frankly, it was a great exercise in memorable melodic/technical death metal, and somehow made the double snarl/growl vocal formula work. Dreadlord, on the other hand, was easily the Dutchmen's best effort to date, a brutal, scathing panoply of riffs and morose Dissection-esque throngs of melody that cemented it as one of the best the genre had to offer this year, period.

But the broader story here is doom metal and prog. All of Crypt Sermon, Capilla Ardiente, Spirit Adrift and Green Lung delivered bouts of crushing, hazy, epic excellence that should hold a candle to some of the genre's forebears of the 80s and 90s. There were also a handful of solid releases that didn't make the cut to the top but which nonetheless fueled several hours' worth of headbanging back at the pad. Some of my favorite artists on earth like Arch/Matheos and Opeth made career apexes, and the Scandinavian express a la Borknagar and Soilwork was not too shabby either, displaying forth a committed continuation into their renewed artistic paths.

Besides these, there was a swarm of black metal records that proved Guillermo del Toro's aphorism that evil always gestates; but never disappears. While albums like Ilmestysket remained as unfazed monuments to the winter solitude bands like Darkthrone have been conjuring up since time immemorial, Par le sang versé, for instance, uprooted the traditional aesthetics of the genre and embedded it into a seemingly archaic palette, woven together through an impeccable assemblage of melodious tremolos. It was pretty gratifying to be reassured that black metal in 2019 is still the genre stylistically the most mercurial while quality-wise the most consistent.

My last 5 or so picks are somewhat interchangeable, since they were all absorbing, if not wholly bordering on perfection. More generally, however, although there were quite a few enjoyable (and sometimes surprising) releases, the lion's share of extreme metal that reached my ears tended to be rather dull and generic. This is not a novel trend, and it's perhaps a product of the metric shit ton of records that found their way to my iPod. For a more comprehensive list with individual commentaries on each album, please refer to the RYM list I curate annually. I've downsized my list to 50 choices this year to lock on the quality. Compulsive listening remains the key criteria.

YouTube links to the albums embedded below.

Update (January 2021): Added Bethlehem, Vargrav and Mo'ynoq, pushed back the Vulture, Tanith and Gardghastr records. 
08. Bodyfarm [Netherlands] - Dreadlord 
07. Idle Hands [US] - Mana
06. Soilwork [Sweden] - Verkligheten 
05. Borknagar [Norway] - True North
04. Spirit Adrift [US] - Divided by Darkness
03. Arch/Matheos [US] - Winter Ethereal
02. Crypt Sermon [US] - Ruins of Fading Light
01. Opeth [Sweden] - In Caudia Venenum

Non-metal albums

I had a pretty limited exposure to non-metal releases from 2019, since most of time was spent spelunking in metallic excess. So if I were to write up a list of non-metal stuff I enjoyed, in no particular order, it would be fairly concise...

Blanck Mass [UK] - Animated Violence Mild (Electronic)
Boy Harsher [US] - Careful (Synthpop)
Brutus [Belgium] - Nest (Post-Hardcore)
Chelsea Wolfe [US] - Birth of Violence (Neofolk)
Demon Head  [Denmark] - Hellfire Ocean Void (Goth Rock)
Diplodocus [Finland] - Slow & Heavy (Dungeon Synth)
Mega Drive [US]- 199XAD (Synthwave)
Moth Tower [Denmark] - Clavitasian Threshold (Dungeon Synth)
Power Glove [Australia] - Playback (Synthwave)
Ringo Sheena [Japan] - Sandukoshi (J-Pop/Art Pop)
The Black Wizards [Portugal] - Reflections (Stoner/Blues Rock)
TR/ST [Canada] - The Destroyer I (Synthpop)

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Cream of the Crop: Arthalos Picks His Best of 2018

Top 25 Albums of 2018****

25) Evoken (US) - Hypnagogia
24) Golgothan Remains (US) - Perverse Offerings to the Void
23) Horrendous (US) - Idol
22) Behemoth (Pl) - I Loved You At Your Darkest
21) Ghost (Swe) - Prequelle 
20) Sulphur Aeon (Ger) - The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos
19) Stam1na (Fin)- Taival
18) Lucifer (Ger) - Lucifer II
17) Haken (UK) - Vector
16) Khemmis (US) - Desolation
15) Graveyard (Swe) - Peace
14) Judas Priest (UK) - Firepower
13) Kontinuum (Is) - No Need to Reason
12) King Witch (UK) - Under the Mountain
11) Satan (UK) - Cruel Magic 
10) Uriah Heep (UK) - Living the Dream 
 9) Sigh (Jp) - Heir to Despair
 8) Ihsahn (Nr) - Àmr
 7) Saxon (UK) - Thunderbolt
 6) Voivod (Can) - The Wake
 5) Rising (Dn) - Sword and Scythe
 4) The Night Flight Orchestra (Swe) - Sometimes the World Ain't Enough
 3) Madder Mortem (Nr) - Marrow
 2) UDO (Ger) - Steelfactory 
 1) Amorphis (Fin) - Queen of Time

YouTube links to sample songs have been embedded above.

Honorable mentions

Wytch Hazel - II: Soujourn
Angra - OMNI
Bane - Esoteric Formulae
Gorod - Aethra 
Summoning - With Doom We Come
Usurpress - Interregnum
Necrophobic - Mark of the Necrogram 
Striker - Play to Win
Witherfall - A Prelude to Sorrow

This was an insanely prolific year for aged veterans, especially those coming from the British Isles, whether it's triumphant continuations of their already amazing compendium of 21st century releases from bands like Saxon and Satan, or just straight up shockers from Uriah Heep and Judas Priest... it's almost as if the entire cadre of geriatric rockers decided to make a few last statements before calling it quits (even relative unknowns like Heir Apparent and Fifth Angel made notable, if not particularly great, comebacks). At any rate, these records are all fantastic additions to some of the most legendary discographies in all of heavy metal, and serve as a surefire kick on the face for all the countless agglomerations of oafish retro stuff that's being churned out ad nauseaum by newer generations. But the veteran aesthetic is prominent across plenty of genres here, with melodic death, black metal and progressive metal variants generating all sorts of lofty impressions thanks to Ihsahn, Voivod, Madder Mortem, Sigh, Behemoth, and Amorphis. The Behemoth record might be questionable choice for two reasons: firstly because the band fails to explore any uncharted territory as they did with their groundbreaking 2014 opus The Satanist, and secondly because it feels like a B-side to its predecessor at times. Yet despite the controversy surrounding it, it was a well-balanced and fabulously produced record with a good few tunes that will definitely stand the test of time.

At the same time, there is disconcerting side to this list in the relative absence of any 'new' bands; in fact there are probably around 5-6 bands here which I would or have not included in any of my yearly lists at any point in time. This isn't all bad, though, and I was greatly elated by further solid outings by some of my favorite 'newsprint' acts, like Ghost, Sulphur Aeon, Khemmis, Haken and, most notably, Horrendous, who at this point have cracked the formula of penning compelling, melody-driven old school, splatter-thrash-induced death metal that channels anything from Finland's Sentenced to early Death. Beyond these, I was pleased that a list largely bearing the odor of classic heavy, power and progressive stuff could incorporate some genuinely resolute, unbridled evil and despair towards the tail end, and indeed there was also had a metric ton of archaic and mesmerizing death metal to boot, even if these weren't the crème de la crème as far as the entire glut is concerned.

I'm currently working on a top 100 (non-hierarchical) list for RYM, though it's uncertain when it will reach completion. I will include a link here once it's finished. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Cream of the Crop: Arthalos Picks His Best of 2017

Albums I haven't heard yet:

The Ominous Circle (Pt) - Appalling Ascension
The Faceless (US) – In Becoming A Ghost
Wolves in the Throne Room (US) – Thrice Woven
Converge (US) – The Dusk in Us
Sarcasm (Se) – Within the Sphere of Ethereal Minds
Exhumed (US) – Death Revenge
Redemptor (Pl) - Arthaneum
Evil Invaders (Be) – Feed Me Violence
Time Lurker (Fr) - Time Lurker
Diablo Swing Orchestra (Se) - Pacifisticuffs
Black Sites (US) - In Monochrome 

I've also written up on rateyourmusic a list for my favorite 100 metal records for the year, in no particular order, with descriptions attached to each entry. You can access that list here:

Arthalos' 2017 RYM listallurgy.

Top 25 Metal Albums of 2017****

25) Akercocke (UK) - Renaissance in Extremis
24) Slægt (Dk) - Domus Mysterium
23) Selcouth (Fi) - Heart is the Star of Chaos
22) Affliktor (US) - Affliktor
21) Atrox (No) - Monocle
20) Craven Idol (UK) - The Shackles of Mammon
19) Oz (Fin) - Transition State
18) Lör (US) - In Forgotten Sleep
17) Hällas (Se) - Excerpts from a Future Past
16) Cradle of Filth (UK) - Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay
15) The Doomsday Kingdom (Se) - The Doomsday Kingdom
14) Concerto Moon (Jp) - Tears of Messiah
13) Deep Purple (UK) - Infinite
12) Kreator (De) - Gods of Violence
11) Emptiness (Be) - Not for Music
10) Dool (Nl) - Here Now, There Then
09) Air Raid (Se) - Across the Line
08) Sólstafir (Isl) - Berdreyminn
07) Mastodon (US) - Emperor of Sand
06) Firespawn (Se) - The Reprobate
05) Argus (US) - From Fields of Fire
04) Dvne (UK) - Asheran
03) Nocturnal Rites (Se) - Phoenix
02) Enslaved (No) - E
01) Nokturnal Mortum (Ukr) - Істина

Another very strong here overall, with Britain compensating for the political shenanigans in the previous year with a superb lot - both seasoned veterans and a couple of relative newcomers. A few deviants like Japan, Belgium and the Netherlands, but otherwise the list looks like a surefire dominion of American, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish panache, reaching across several distinct genres (my top 100 pickings were much more diverse globally, however). A radiant comeback synergy is prevalent, whether it's Akercocke or Mastodon or Deep Purple, although many of the more experienced bands on this list had already been producing impregnable outings for a while. The Dool and Hällas albums may seem like a cheat, but ultimately both bands come from a hesher tradition and had a huge number of very 'metal' riffs on parade, so I had to do them justice. The top three entries were perhaps the most difficult to order: while I was mesmerized both by the ways in which Enslaved turned the genre around its progressive head yet another time, and by the stellar 'pure' power metal gusto of Phoenix, the Ukrainians were too close to perfection to be pushed to the back row. A sliver away from the majesty of The Voice of SteelІстина is an near-immaculate haunt of folk, electronics and black metal, and the mere name of Nokturnal Mortum is titular enough to gladden my heart.

I won't promise that everything on the bottom 10 is there to stay, though I can promise that all of this is getting repeated listens on my iPod. Fhtagn fhtagn to everyone who's still reading, and hopefully 2018 will be more propitious for the blog. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Below - Upon a Pale Horse [2017]

Doom takes some skill to do right. So much of what goes around my ears traverses fledgling attempts at sucking the listener's emotional valves through sustained, meandering, heavy music for the sake of being heavy and morose, that I'm not surprised that the genre is so often berated for being 'slow'. Especially past a certain classic era which ended somewhere in the 90's, I find it difficult to counteract these enduring doom myths, but thankfully bands like Atlantean Kodex, Grand Magus and Crypt Sermon have proven to be persuasive arbiters of the best which their genre has to offer, combining the groove-laden moods of Candlemass, Count Raven or Pentagram which juicy, unbarred traditional heavy metal riffcraft, creating a riveting fusion of pace, melody and earthly sensation. Both the artwork and thematic plateau of Below's Upon a Pale Horse suggests something more in line with a King Diamond disc, but the assured quality and content is rather on a par with the aforementioned masters, something which only serves to further boost Sweden's retinue for streaming such excellent old-school metal from its bloodline.

To be frank, Below's effort here does not stack up an exceeding height to a body of already impressive recent heavy/doom offerings from bands I've already laid out, chiefly memorable among which I would cite the dazzling Crypt Sermon debut. The band gets the 'epic doom' tag from Metallum, a curious intimation with the original specters of the sub-genre, such as Candlemass, and one that I can't entirely agree with. The opener ''Disappearing into Nothing'' showcases a strong tact for tasteful riffing and harmonious, atmospheric choruses that explode with moving momentum; similarly, much of the rest of the songs follow such a course, whereby the sheer and dark Candlemass-esque pulsations are curtailed with a more pronounced proclivity for melancholy, injected through occasional arpeggios and low-ebb verses. All this, however, is not at all to detract from the band's capacity to churn out strong crafts of melody and musical narrative. There is also a fair bit variety in the pacing. ''Suffer in Silence'', my favorite from the album, begins with a harried diminished chord attack, and come chorus unveils with another killer, moving chorus the band seems to have such a knack for. ''The Coven'' could certainly have been a cover for Mercyful Fate, with its somber leads and Gothic vibe. Despite the evident comparisons, Below doesn't have the same saturnine weight as the Swedish legends Candlemass, because the compositions sail more elegant, albeit still convincingly poignant, waters, and the augmented fleshes of melody and harmony certainly serve as ear-catchers on the mast of the ship.

Vocalist Zeb is no virtuoso, but he does a fine job in reconstructing the Bruce Dickinson timber, sometimes sporting this grainy haughteur that's more reminiscent of some of Bruce's creepier moments, with the early Maiden records or as on some of his solo records, and the choruses and chants are nothing if not vibrant and memorable. Production is close to perfect: the drums cling on loosely but patiently in the background like sleepwalking candle-bearers in an abandoned attic, witnessing a sacrificial ceremony, the guitars, both while clean and distorted, hover with organic, if slightly sinister precision above the dim lights, - here's where the Candlemass comparisons really get their due - and the vocals, all told, are sufficiently resplendent to carry out the emotional wave of the record forward. The riffs never offer a copious endless variety of funereal meatiness, but as far as I'm concerned they're groovy and crushing enough to elude the caveat of 'bored metal' for the good +45 minute duration of the album. Tip to toe, I'm happy to say this is an accessible record, a fairly delectable 21st century yarn for Candlemass fans like myself, perhaps not the most forward thinking piece of music you're likely to hear in 2017, and certainly not an impregnable morass of lugubrious horror a la Esoteric or Skepticism, but a highly listenable, inspiring gauze of melodic doom nonetheless. Retro and maudlin, a luminous contender in a sea of colorless mourning.

Suffer in Silence
Disappearing into Nothing
The Coven

Rating: 77%

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Cream of the Crop: Arthalos Picks His Best of 2016

This year I managed to expand my cream of the crop to 25 pickings, as a lot of great but not absolutely riveting works tend to get dismissed when lists are severely downsized. If anything, I thought 2016 offered an even more motley platter of goods when you look at the overall span of the records I enjoyed, but their year-on-year qualities are roughly on a par, which is a definitely a positive when I look back to 2013 and 2014. The latter two were not 'bad' by any means - not by a mile - but I think the surge of quality has been upped by a healthy pinch with the last two years. Moving on.

As always, my top crop is a shapeless mesh of different genres and tastes. Since some of my favorite avantgarde artists had released records last year (Arcturus, Sigh, Solefald, DHG) this year was somewhat devoid of their clownish, gonzo black metal expressionism, but to cover up there was a fairly large plate of progressive-tagged servings. I am not the biggest progressive metal devotee (Dream Theater and Opeth do get unabashed ticks in my book but that's a good given for many metalheads) so it seems strange that six out of my top ten have overt 'progressive' tendencies, be it Ihsahn's idiosyncratic mold of Emperor-isms and amplified 70's prog rock, Stam1na's unique brand of proggy groove/thrash, or Votum's 'chugressive' (see here for reference). It's simply loaded. Nevertheless, every album here occupies a distinct sector of sound within metal. No two are even relatively similar.

Two great experimental Greek black metal albums (Hail Spirit Noir and Aenaon) and a much-waited Virus record round up a small but addictive bastion of insanity and boiled freakishness that compensate for the larger lack of avantgarde; Lovecraftian old school death metal tribulations a la Chthe'ilist and Howls of Ebb carry the banner of appendage-laden antiquity for a genre that was starting to pale out in the last couple of years; retro heavy metal searching back into anything from Thin Lizzy to Iron Maiden and Manilla Road gets its due (Spell, Eternal Champion, Attacker); black metal shows in a myriad forms why it isn't even close to running out of season (Nordjevel, Winterhorde, Eldjudnir, Anaal Nathrakh, Khonsu, Oranssi Pazuzu); and even the sludge/doom niche, something I usually don't look forward to listening to, let alone push so high up among my preferences, gets some representation with the new Khemmis. The only travesty among this potpourri seems to be the Avenged Sevenfold record: an admittedly difficult choice for me, but trust me when I say I fervently listened to the shit out of The Stage, a fantastic transformation from an otherwise negligible outfit. And so high up, too? My conviction remains unchanged.

My pickings come full circle as the greatest diadem went to Terminal Redux. No other record felt so complete, so epic, from its magnificent lyrical narrative to its compendium of titillating technical thrash riffs, although the top 4-5 records did come close. It was sad hearing three of their four members departing after the tour.

I've also decided, for a change, to make a brief pool of records I haven't got around to listening yet, particularly those which received a lot of internet media buzz. Because I'm a terrible person and often prefer discovering obscure lumps of black metal via Mortuus instead of checking the freshest Metal Blade releases. So this is pretty much a list of albums I want to hear in the near future. Don't be surprised if you see some of the below names cropping up randomly on my top 100 list in the ensuing weeks.

The Dillinger Escape Plan - Dissociation
Wormed - Krishgu
Krypts - Remnants of Expansion
Lesbian - Hallucinogenesis
Zaum - Eidolon
Fates Warning - Theories of Flight
Schammasch - Triangle
Wildhunt - Descending
Insomnium - Winter's Gate
Messa - Belfry
Trap Them - Feral Crown
Ravencult - Force of Profanation

Bear in my mind also that my top 25 does NOT include EP's and demos, as I've reserved those for my larger, non-hierarchical grain storage of 100 metal on RYM, which you can access here. The list has brief commentaries on each entry in case you were curious why I thought those were among the best albums of the year.

YouTube links have been embedded in the list below.

Top 25 Metal Albums of 2016****

25) Eldjudnir - Eldjudnir (Independent)
24) Attacker - Sins of the World (Metal on Metal)
23) Anaal Nathrakh - The Whole of the Law (Metal Blade)
22) Khonsu - The Xun Protectorate (Jhator Recordings)
21) Oranssi Pazuzu - Värähtelijä (Svart)
20) Eternal Champion - The Armor of Ire (No Remorse)
19)  Virus - Memento Collider (Karisma)
18) Witherscape - The Northern Sanctuary (Century Media)
17) Winterhorde - Maestro (ViciSolum Productions)
16) Aenaon - Hypnosophy (Code666)
15) Khemmis - Hunted (20 Buck Spin)
14) Opeth - Sorceress (Moderbolaget)
13) Hammers of Misfortune - Dead Revolution (Metal Blade)
12) Dark Tranquility - Atoma (Century Media)
11) Nordjevel - Nordjevel (Osmose Productions)
10) Howls of Ebb - Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows (I, Voidhanger)
09) Primal Fear - Rulebreaker
08) Haken - Affinity (InsideOut Music)
07) Avenged Sevenfold - The Stage (Capitol)
06) Votum - :Ktonik: (Inner Wound Recordings)
05) Hail Spirit Noir - Mayhem in Blue (Dark Essence)
04) Stam1na - Elokuutio (Sakara)
03) Mouth of the Architect - Path of Eight (Translation Loss)
02) Ihsahn - Arktis. (Candlelight)
01) Vektor - Terminal Redux (Earache)

Unlike last year, there won't be any feature length non-metal list, as I was able to find less time research other music when preoccupied with metal in general. From what little I did hear, however, new albums by White Lung, John Carpenter, Phantogram and David Bowie are all extremely worthwhile. I might add an extra splash of names to that list later on in 2017, but no promises.

Update: Switched a few entries, added the Primal Fear album, pushing back the Chthe'ilist album.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Eldjudnir - Eldjudnir [2016]

Black metal's ability to constantly reinvent itself and transcend the sepsis of bland musical conformism has been, for me, one of its key assets. That is not to say every black metal band or album per se capably defies genre conventions to achieve and cultivate sounds or soundscapes that are highly divergent from the next one, but in general I don't think it's a great coincidence that the genre has been able churn out so many harrowing, innovative and effective practitioners on a level that would surpass, if not always dwarf, those produced by other genres' think-tanks. The variety and imaginative stretch, as often grim and nightmarish as it may be, (not necessarily a deficit according to my tastes) is undeniable. Yet this also invites the whole post-metal sub-genre into scrutiny, since the label is so often thrown under the black metal banner, yet features a myriad taxonomies of its own that often constitute great difficulty for the analyst's part to categorize. Boring semi-academic platitudes aside, Danish hopefuls have been one such band to offer such a caveat. While I find myself meddling over the authenticity of the atmospheric black metal tag as bequeathed by the M-A, their unique, desert-like brand of black metal has sold me consistently, spin after spin, giving credibility to my initial statement, to the extent that I no longer give a fuck whether I should term them 'black metal' or 'blackened gonzo avant-garde desert rock'.

Comparisons to the Norwegians avant-garde weirdos are justified. Granted, Eldjudnir does not swerve with the same wacky post-metal antics as The Virus That Shaped the Desert or their latest, Memento Collider, but swerve it does. Rather than the skedaddling waltzes of the Norwegians, Eldjudnir employ slow, intimate, distorted arpeggios and droning chord sequences that all fit into a mid-paced tempo. The bass lines here are fantastic: they gyrate effortlessly underneath the dissonant wave of chords, flowing out with jazzy, serpentine succor. What's unique about the Danes is that they seem to channel a sonic discordance that strikes a balance between the slower, somber undertakings of  French bands like Deathspell Omega, Merrimack and Blut Aus Nord and the crepuscular, desert leanings of Virus or DHM with their later, more progressive offerings. The album, coupled with the haunting visual of the cover art, presents this image of some antiquated train running across a lone rail track in the midst of a nocturnal, desert landscape, with derelict buildings or scraps of human development peeping about the ghost train. The Danes are certainly not industrial, but the mournful jangles of the guitars evoke such an atmosphere, leaving a trail of abandoned sickness as the tracks groove along.

Another obvious selling point for me are the vocals: they come in a scree of varieties. The more traditional, raspy black metal rasps, which are delivered with great accord to the harrowing aura of the record, are prominent, but more than those I loved the absolutely haunting cleans, these ritualistic timbers stretching across the illimitable atmosphere the Danes have constructed. The title track employs a healthy portion of both, with titillating melodies accompanying the rasps and the choruses ballasted by a choir of harrowing cleans. This goes on to show how much and how successfully Eldjudnir enjoy experimenting vocally, even when their bizarre but consistent riff fodder retains a stylistic cohesion throughout. The cleans, as on ''Mimer'', are not unlike Opeth at their best, and pull at the listener's heart's strings as though with a pair of mechanized phantom hands. On top of that, the band is brazen enough to boast a series of female vocals, like on the excellent ''Skade'', and yet their delivery does not loosen at the seams, actually proving to amplify the crippling, strange dolor of the record.

Clocking at a mere 36 minutes, Eldjudnir is an album I've found hard to break my jones for. Consistent, funereal and never really a drag; there are some sequences in some tracks where I wasn't wholly enamored, but certainly given the the brevity of each track (of which there are 7) there isn't ground aplenty to commit a lot of faults here. My biggest gripe, therefore, may simply be that I could not sink my teeth sufficiently into the plateau of ideas and musical desertification which they rather wonderfully shaped, however well it was construed, both in terms of atmosphere and production. The Danes' style is such that it can merely puncture a highly marginal niche even inside the black metal market, a small place alongside the likes of Virus, Hail Spirit Noir, DHM, Voivod, and maybe the more sophisticated dissonance of the French black metal school, but that quaint eccentricity which they espouse is precisely why I've grown to enjoy this record so much. Being so close to penning their own scripture, one that exists outside of the generic borders of black metal, I can merely wear out the humdingers on this on repeat until a third album pops into existence, out from the jarring and solemn womb of the Danes' imagination, and stamp this record as one of the finer yields of a crop that has already proved 2016 to be a blessed harvest.


Rating: 85%