Instead of genre breakdowns, and given the impossible task of boiling down the hundreds of albums I reviewed this year down to just 10, I have opted to make 3 to cover our 3 ratings scales and also broke the year into two halves. This particular list is for albums in the second half of 2016 that show some moxy when it comes to sounding different and pushing boundaries while still creating an engaging listening experience. Be sure to also check out my list for the FIRST half of 2016 and also the lists for Musicianship and Enjoyability (Friday)..
Tides of Sulfur are a death/sludge trio from South Wales. Their debut LP, Extinction Curse, the style jumps drastically around between sludge, doom, death and black metal. . These aggressive waves of distortion are further layered with psychodelic, effects-laden leads...and then without warning an explosion of crusty death metal. Ominous feedback and a few doomy sustained chords give way to a powerhouse of groovy riffs punctuated by ferocious snare hits and wretched shrieks not unlike Charlie Fell's work with Lord Mantis. It's an an unpredictable torrent of hellfire, a boiling pot of resentment... and it's starting to bubble over.
Mona is the debut release from Austin, TX band Death Will Tremble. This release was a pleasant surprise, because I have yet to encounter another band that sounds quite like them. They were first introduced to me as playing a number of styles, but it seemed like doom was kept in the forefront of the descriptors. While there is some doom influence in that the band is pretty downtempo and some of the riffs (like the opening track) just ooze such vibes, the comparisons stop there. Instead, Death Will Tremble strike me as one of the most unconventional death/rock/post-hardcore bands I have ever heard. Beautality with bouts of Touche Amore, Meshuggah with Hendrix solos. This one is as fresh as they come.
Orae is a progressive, avant-grade black metal project from Germany. I have listened to a lot of black metal this year, or particularly the past 3 years, but something like this only comes around every so often. A band comes together to experiment within the lesser-explored, dark tunnels of the genre, and in doing so manage to build something that is simultaneously dissonant and chaotic, yet still quite listenable. The band has a number of different modes ranging from jazz-infused 2nd wave to instrumental drone. I find myself thinking about acts like Imperial Triumphant, Krallice, and Howls of Ebb. The songs have a similar twisting, contorting, serpentlike quality that comes through in both noise and technicality. It's impressive what an ear the members have for organic progression despite all of the eclectic inspirations.
Veilburner has definitely crafted one of the weirder releases I have heard this year. The most dominant style at play seems to be blackened death, but it has been bastardized with experimentation beyond recognition. Industrial, progressive, tech death, and other avant-garde touches all creep into the mix like a virus. The resulting fever dreams and convulsions are quite impressive. I'm racking my brain for a strong comparison. The best I can think of is Ur Draugr, but even that fails to express all of the ins and outs. I think that when Veilburner is in the zone and focused solely on proggy, discordant riffs and primal howls (see much of "Vagterchen"), the parallel stands firm. However, when the audio samples, campy synths, theremin(?) and other experimentation start creeping in it wanders into unknown territory.
All female, Siberian black metal trio brave the cold to bring you an amalgamation of Russian folk tunes with punk, surfer rock, and Darkthrone in the form of Царица (Queen). I really appreciate how well they have blended the influence of Fenriz and Nocturno with so many other styles. Kind of a Siberian version of Peste Noire. LOVE the accordian and other regional instruments. Your first impulse might be to give up early on this one. Please don't. While it is a bit harsh on the ears, I assure you that there is more than enough to take in and enjoy from this album if you give it a fair chance. Also, it's name your own price, so don't be a prude.
The anticipation for a release such as this could have easily killed my reaction due to hype, but Vlad has once again proven himself to be one of the most essential figures in today's black metal lexicon. I am not being hyperbolous when I say that Infernal Vlad and company should go down in metal history with the same esteem as figures such as Euronymous, Dead, Fenriz, and Varg. But enough praise for the flesh. It is the music that will stand the test of time. The Middle Eastern influences and sitar have returned once more, perhaps even more lush and mysterious than before. "Chinnamasta Mantra" is particularly gorgeous. Like the goddess on the cover, the band summons energies that are as awe-inspiring as they are terrifying. Download this and their entire discography free HERE.
Italy-based progressive, avant-garde metal band Syk unlock the secrets of insanity with their new release from Phil Anselmo's Housecore Records. I-Optikon is an artsy, unconventional fusion of Meshuggah guitar and drumwork with off-kilter clean vocals from one Dalila Kayros. She bares a similar nihilistic approach to melody as Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Hers is a bit more aggressive, but I can't think of a single more appropriate comparison. Compositions are quite technical, and the results are unlike anything else I have heard. If you can accept the thrilling vocals for their quirky genius, you'll find yourself swimming in a most excellent sea of technical groove.
Youdash is Polish progressive, technical death metal with the mind-bending chaos of Gigan, Gorguts, and Mr. Bungle. These compositions are biz-onkers. Not only do the tech death portions rip through some truly righteous riffs and drumming, they also purposefully derail into some strange and uncharted territories that rarely detract from my enjoyment. Variety is the spice of life, and with Youdash the spice flows freely. A year in review isn't over til it's over, and Youdash were strong enough contenders as both innovators and musicians that I had a last minute change of heart: I dropped Mithras in favor of this album. They have crafted quite the metal Rubik's Cube.
Are they a little weird? A little off-kilter? Sure, but so is Sigh; and those guys managed to claw their way to a pretty presentable position in the metal community. I hadn't really noticed until I started listening more to this particular album, but Aenaon have some stylistic similarities to their Japanese counterparts. "Tunnel" in particular, with its almost zany explosion of guitar solos had me thinking back to the same feelings I had listening to Graveward. And perhaps more obviously, both bands' penchant for epic saxophone solos is apparent. In any case, there's plenty strangeness to enjoy from sax to sitar. Vocals definitely run the gamut as well. If you enjoy eclectic progressive music grounded in a certain black metal aesthetic, Aenaon and Hypnosophy are for you.
Any release that manages to top out all 3 scales is one truly deserving of special accolades. So it is with much respect and pride that I am able to bestow this honor on a relatively small and unknown group of musicians, Ukraine's Balance Interruption. The songs on this release are not only fast and mathmetically complex: the compositions manage to boil all of this chaos into something extremely listenable. From the guitars and electronic beats to the wailing saxophone, the writing is on point and the performances are alive. The fusions of electronic, avant-garde, and black metal are ones that defy logic at times, and truly do "upset the balance." And returning to the idea of score overlap, few achieve such bizzareness while still maintaining tracks that are highly digestible even after a single sitting.