I have chosen to forego the genre lists this year in favor of reinforcing our three ratings scales: enjoyability, musicianship, and innovation. This particular list is focused on the latter: albums that have shown new growth and maturation for the band, exciting directions for a particular style or genre, or perhaps redefine what it means to be "music" in general. These are the top 10 creative albums for the first half of 2016. Note these are creative albums that I also enjoyed. I am aware there are some even more out-there albums this year like from Virus, but if it's not on here it's because I didn't particularly enjoy the outcome. For the other two parts: ENJOYABILITY, MUSICIANSHIP
Few blend black metal and post-rock so effectively and without pretension. What works so well for Entropia is the union of a firm black metal foundation with the other elements. Even stripped bare of any innovation, Ufonaut would still be an impressive gut-punch. The layers of savage tremolos are increbibly powerful, evoking everything from fire and brimstone to floating amongs the clouds in the moonlight. But there are a few surprises in store as well: atypical electronic approaches, unusual instruments, new melodic heights. Additions are simple, tasteful, and a little difficult to describe: and yet they add up to something that is paramount to hearing it and saying "this is an Entropia album."
Yüth Forever incorporate djent, hip hop, hardcore, and electronic music into something more unique a la Horse the Band. From the first bouncy notes of "Suicidal Pistol Grip Pump," a backtrack that sounds like it could have been on a Dizzee Rascal album, it is clear that this LP is going to be anything but by the book. Not since last year's Brutopia from The Hell have I heard something so off-kilter and yet so strangely enjoyable at the same time. If you're into stuff like We Butter the Bread with Butter, this is totally for you. Leading single "People Pleaser" sounds like half Blood Brothers half Primus. And lyrically this may be one of the most cynical albums I have had the pleasure of listening to this year.
If you came to hear more music in the vein of The Flesh Prevails, you won't be dissapointed. San Francisco's Fallujah ranks pretty highly in in terms of both innovation and technical musicianship. Rather than presenting your standard tech death, Fallujah is built on a perfect duality of ethereal beauty and progressive heaviness. The heavy, death metal side is preoccupied with proficient guitarwork that picks and crunches its way through a union of technical and progressive styles. Riffs and drum patterns play with time signatures and rip through some killers solos while lead vocalist, Alex Hofman, delivers some powerful deathcore growls. From the other end of the spectrum, songs are consistently backed by a dense atmosphere of sound that at times is not dissimilar to the work of Dark Tranquillity's Martin Brändström. Brutality has never been so gorgeous.
Thy Worshiper gestated in Wroclaw, Poland before relocating to Ireland and over time growing into a 6-piece band that includes ocarina and jew's harp in addition to your standard guitars and drums. The new album, Klechdy ("tales"), is a complex and at times unnerving experience; utilizing pagan, tribal, and atmospheric elements to portray the concept locked within. Compositions are grand in scope and always haunting. Several band members make contributions to the vocals, adding to the already layered experience. Ululated, Middle Eastern influence dominates the clean singing in addition to the tempered death growls and group chanting. This is almost certainly the type of music that could only be recorded in and inspired by Irish landscapes.
If you like musicals, epic tales of woe, and soaring vocals all set to the backdrop of metal music, Maestro should be right up your alley. The compositions are very strong, and outdone only by the performances themselves. Every musician seems to be in top form on this recording, and I feel the end result is a much stronger one than more popularized acts in a similar vein from Fleshgod Apocalypse to Blind Guardian. I get truly wrapped up in the feeling of the story, much like with A Forest of Stars or Dionysos. Winterhorde make every minute count. Between the incredible musicianship and melodrama, the album gets downright epic.
Kadingir is the pendulum swinging between violent night terrors and eerie visions. The album is a pretty even 50/50 ratio of exquisite dark ambient tracks and more straight-forward black metal aggression. This results in a fair amount of dynamice and a truly immersive experience. The harsher parts seem harsher while the quiet moments all the more anxiety-inducing. As a result, it is best played from start to finish. I have said time and again that presence is crucial when it comes to crafting a black metal release that stands out in the sea of pretenders. Titaan lives up to its name in this respect.
The new Swiss black metal masters return. This album is absolutely breathtaking. Though perhaps not as complex or impenetrable as Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, Schammasch maintains a similar ability to captivate its listener and create something that transcends metal into art. Triangle is actually three albums covering a unifying concept in different ways. I must say, it's a ballsy move turning a large chunk of your magnum opus over to instrumental and dark ambient, but it works. Clear your afternoon and get to streaming below.
SPEKTR is a BM duo from France, the land of the avantgarde elite. Like Dendritic Arbor's Romantic Love, and perhaps a bit of Leviathan's latest album, The Art to Disappear knows how to package some truly vile, mind-contorting stuff into an oddly listenable experience. Songs will start off with those shrill blackened tremolos and minor chords we have known and loved since the early days of Gorgoroth and Immortal. But at the drop of a hat we'll either get a pace change a la Norse, or be left completely adrift in a limbo of Twin Peaks audio samples and electronic warbling somewhere between ambient, house music, and early dubstep. "From the Terrifying to the Fascinating" is a perfect (and perfectly-titled) example.
Arktis returns to Ihsahn's previous harsher sound while maintaining many marks of his continued maturation. From the get go, "Dissassembled" sets a strong tone. Blackened harsh vocals, powerful clean singing, and proggy riffs all draw comparisons to his Norwegian brethren Enslaved. Throughout the course of this album you are going to hear a lot of different sounds and styles. Organ accompaniment on "My Heart is of the North," strange and almost danceable electronics on "South Wind"and "Frail," smooth jazz fusion on "Crooked Red Line"; one minute its black metal Radiohead, the next a powerful musical. And yet there is a unifying concept that somehow brings all of these elements together into a cohesive work.
Mock me if you must for choosing something that isn't exactly the most "extreme," but I think Eths' Ankaa is the only album I have heard this year that doesn't sound remotely like anything else. Rachel brings a certain folk-like, regional quality to the music at that is quite unlike any other vocalist in the genre. The bass in the guitar tone matched with the mathy, cataclysmic nature of the riffs leaves devastation in its wake. There is so much groove, but one that is always equally matched in proportion with clever songwriting and able performances. Where else will you find an album as hard-hitting as this that takes a trip into Tryptikon territory on the whispy "Sekhet Aaru"? Or the Middle Eastern-sounding vocals and subsequent appearance of near-EDM on "Nihil Sine Causa." The only other group of similar style that treads such diverse territories so adeptly is Dillinger Escape Plan.