I almost started this, um, review (excursus might be more to the point; bear with me), by calling my new obsession a “guilty pleasure” – but you know what? Screw that. I am not in the least embarrassed by stumbling on this stuff, and if you other folks fail to appreciate some of the best damned metal I have ever laid ears on, then that’s not my problem. I’m just going to try to convince you otherwise.
I checked out Pretty Maids because a good friend is a passionate fan, and I am always interested in learning what greases my friends’ musical wheels. Often the explorations don’t amount to much, but sometimes something sticks. And I am surprised, I will admit: Pretty Maids is a glam rock/hard rock/metal outfit out of Denmark, who formed up way the hell back in 1981 and released their first album in 1984: in short they have been around for more than three decades and I had never heard of them.
So: on to the actual list of actual albums of 2016. My introductory blurb is here. This year it is a Top 20, because the quality of music was just so high. In fact, unlike most years, this time I struggled with the bottom end of the list – there were a number of albums that were very close to making the cut, and it was difficult to not be able to include them (there were some no-hopers — there always are — but rather fewer this year than normal). My apologies to those who didn’t quite make it.
A real feature of the albums at the top is their staying power. Several of them were released early in the year (the Shearwater in fact was released digitally in December 2015 to those who pre-ordered), and despite the passage of time, and the tendency to focus on more recent albums, they hold up: They are as strong at the end of the year as they were when they were first released. For me, this is the true test of an album’s quality: if it gives as much pleasure or demands as much attention from me a year (or more) later as it did when it first appeared.
Van der Graaf Generator – Do Not Disturb
Is this the last VdGG album? There are hints that it might be, but on the other hand there are few musicians out there as prolific as Peter Hammill has been over his career…so who knows? At any rate, this is the old VdGG but sans David Jackson, which does remove a crucial familiar element from the music, but otherwise there is no mistaking the haunted angst, the echoes of the great band of the past.
Throes of Dawn — Our Voices Shall Remain
Throes of Dawn are a Finnish outfit that apparently at one time were black metal. They have softened and broadened their sound, but the metal hasn’t left. They are a bit derivative to my ears, but there are some beautiful instrumental moments in these songs — and whoever that guitarist is — well, it is gorgeous playing, soaring and evocative, and that is enough to slide this album onto the list.
The title track has a bass line stolen right from Editors “Sugar” — but nevertheless, I love the song.
Necro Deathmort — The Capsule
I’ve said this before: it is hard to predict what you are going to get with these guys. Relentlessly prolific, they are continually tossing out EPs and tracks that explore the landscape of ambience, electronica, drone, in myriad directions. The Capsule revisits the disquieting dark moodiness of Music of Bleak Origins, instrumental drone metal underlain with a jittery anxiety.
17. Opeth — Sorceress
Opeth is one of those bands that I have struggled mightily with for a long time, trying to hear what everyone else seems to hear, who love them so much. In the end I guess I have to say that they remain completely hit-and-miss for me. That being said, I find that Sorceress is one of their more accessible albums. I don’t love it, but I can listen to it more than most of their others. So here it is, number 17.
uKanDanz – Awo
And now for something completely different. It is hard to describe what we have here – based out of France, hard, energetic, proggy/jazzy rock, lots of guitar riffage and horns, and on top of it all the unique vocal stylings of their Ethiopian lead singer, Asnake Gebreyes. It is heavy and strangely compelling, but may well be an acquired taste.
Dead When I Found Her – Eyes on Backwards
As I noted earlier, 2016 was the year I really discovered industrial electronica, a genre I had never really explored before, having come across them completely by accident a couple of years or so ago when I found VNV Nation. But this year there seems to have been a bumper crop of the stuff brought to my awareness. DWIFH is a duo from Portland, Oregon; this album is all smooth synths and dark trance, oddly compelling and disquieting, perhaps a bit too sample-heavy for my taste, but interesting enough to make the list.
2016 … When the (probably apocryphal) Chinese sage said “May you live in interesting times”, this must have been close to what he meant. We lost so many great musicians, especially in the early part of the year, it seemed as though the music gods were punishing us for unknown sins by taking beloved people, one by one by one. There were personal losses as well…and at least one of those crossed the boundary between fandom and friendship.
At the same time, the music that was released was of a quality that I haven’t experienced for a long time. This is not to say that everything reached the same stellar heights but almost everything I sampled had moments of interest. I ended up investing in more new music than I have for several years, just because so much of it seemed worthy of further attention. This made the task of sorting through the list of potential year-end albums excruciatingly difficult. Therefore this list is a Top 20 instead of last year’s Top 15, which itself was a statement about the quality of music out in 2015 since normally I think in terms of Top 10. You get the picture.
Things didn’t start off so well. I look back on my first statement, in early July I think, about how the year was going. I said this:
I can’t say I have made much of an effort to find new music this year. Just way too much stuff in the personal realm has gone wrong. In fact I have been so disinterested that I may not write up a full year-end report for 2016. But a few things have managed to sneak onto the list. And I know that some stuff is yet to come…so who knows. At least a couple of albums so far have been real surprises, so I’m not ready to write off the year just yet.
Oh how things changed after that….
Speaking of the music…if 2015 was my metal year, for 2016 it was industrial electronica. Some psychedelia (but just a little). And the 1980s are definitely still a thing, since the best of the electronica has looked back to classic days. Metal and post-metal, a bit of prog and some alternative are still present of course, but my horizons are expanding. At least, the best of the stuff coming down the pipeline has been from unexpected directions. But good music is good music, whatever the genre.
There were more things to consider than just new releases though. It was also quite a good year for specialty releases: compilations, re-releases, one-off projects, and such-like: albums that could not be included in the year-end album list but that deserve mention anyway because they are just very good. So for the first time I have a separate list for those.
And this is where I will begin.
The Reissues, Compilations, and Live Albums
These are the albums that cannot really be regarded as presenting “new” material, at least for the most part, but are definitely worth the money. It was a good year for this kind of thing as well, with bands finalizing anticipated projects, or stretching out into different territory, or small labels flexing their muscle with some outstanding examples of their artists. I have presented them in reverse order of interest (to me).
Pelican – Live at Dunk!Fest 2016
One of the iconic post-metal bands, and one I’ve never managed to see live, but one day I sure hope to. In the meantime they made available their utterly fierce performance at Dunk!Fest, available as a digital download or a beautiful coloured vinyl release. Well worth checking out.
Shearwater – Shearwater Plays Lodger (live)
One of the more curious projects to come along this year. I’m not quite sure what inspired the band to do this, apart from the fact that they love David Bowie’s Lodger album…but they really do manage to pull it off.
Nash the Slash – Dreams and Nightmares
Nash the Slash (Jeff Plewman), who died in 2014, was one of those musicians who, if you knew of him at all, you were captivated. With his bandaged-wrapped face, top hat, and electric violin, he was an iconoclastic purveyor of atmosphere and electronica, both solo and with the band FM. He was a legend in Toronto and across Canada and enormously respected in the electronica community. Dreams and Nightmares is a reissue of his 1978 album of the same name; this album features the spectacular soundtrack he created for the Bunuel/Dali 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou.
Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape
This was released as a companion album to the rest of the discography, bringing together their much-beloved but still oft-overlooked forays into ambient electronica. It gathers together bonus tracks from the last two band releases, two of the bonus songs from Rapid Eye Movement II, and four spectacular new songs. It also stands as a heart-breakingly poignant tribute, because it was the last album that guitarist Piotr Grudzinski ever worked on before he died suddenly in early 2016. My review of the album is here.
Artoffact Records – I am Awesome Because I Still Buy Music
Label compilations, especially around this time of year (getting towards Christmas) are a dime a dozen. One can understand the motivation, since they bring together sample tracks from a label’s roster of artists; the problem, sometimes, is that these can be massive collections – I’ve seen upwards of 50 tracks on some of these things. Who has that kind of time?
Artoffact Records is the in-house label of the Toronto-based online shop Storming the Base, supplier of music leaning strongly towards electronica and synthpop. They have put together their own sampler, and folks, this is how it’s done. A lean and focused collection from six artists who are releasing new albums, with two tracks each, so it doesn’t overwhelm with quantity. But the quality…! The result is a monster sampler of dark wave, raucous and melodic industrial electronica/metal, compelling listening as an album on its own, and it’s free for god’s sake. And if the aim was to get you to investigate the musicians included here, it sure worked because I have bought albums from three of the six. Outstanding examples: the bleak and beautiful “Expiring Time” by Dead When I Found Her, both tracks by Toronto-based solo artist v01d, and “Shut Up” by Out Out, an incandescent statement of outrage against the faux news of Fox News.
My very favourite supplementary project for my very favourite Porcupine Tree album. It is no secret by this time that I am not much of a PT fan in general, I like a few albums and songs here and there. But Fear of a Blank Planet is one of my desert island albums, and IMO the four tracks that make up the Nil Recurring EP are just as brilliant. Of course the EP has been available for years, but it is great to have a silver vinyl copy of this as well, and in fact I play it pretty relentlessly.
It’s halfway through 2016, so it is time for the semi-annual roundup of where we are.
It started out slowly, a couple of releases right off the bat from Shearwater and David Bowie, and then it seemed that there was little of interest in the immediate future. However I can’t say that I was paying a whole lot of attention to the music scene anyway: it’s been a tough year personally on a number of levels. But when I started to think about music again, a few surprising things had snuck into my consciousness – albums in styles and genres that I would not necessarily have sought out on my own, but here they are.
Every year I can count on at least one act to show up that I’d never heard of and that blows me away, but this year there are several. There are surprises, and there are disappointments. Obviously the current rankings are tentative and entirely subject to change, but it is unlikely that an album currently sitting near the bottom will suddenly rocket to the top. It is still a crapshoot though: there are a couple of powerful contenders to come, and at least one anticipated release from a trio with no name, and whose sound is a complete mystery at the moment. Who knows what this list will look like at the end of the year?
Before we get into the list and mini-reviews, a quick glance at the albums I know are in the pipeline:
Russian Circles – Guidance (August)
Seven Impale second album — September
Riverside electronica – looks like October
The as-yet unnamed Maciej Meller/Maciej Golyzniak/Mariusz Duda trio album (November)
Here we go: The contenders so far, in reverse order:
Arcade Messiah – II
Complex and heavy instrumental progressive post-rock. There is no doubting the musical chops of these guys, and there are some fine moments, but the album is perhaps a bit too self-important for its own good.
Iamthemorning – Lighthouse
I’d like to like this better than I do, it is quite lovely and atmospheric, but to be perfectly honest the slow baroque-pop tends to get a little samey after a while, and the breathy vocal style wears. The title track works so well because the male guest vocals effectively play off the soprano and provide density and interest. And the last track is outstanding.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Another album I am supposed to like more than I do. It is not a bad album by any means, and the title track is a strange, compelling monster…but I feel that sentiment is not really a good reason to rank an album, and it is only sentiment that could boost this album higher than it is.
The Vliets – I – IX
These guys generally do alternative psychedelic pop, but this album, digital only, is pure ambient electronica, composed as a sonic backdrop for some art installation. It does work perfectly in that context too – excellent background music. It would rank higher if it was longer.
The first or second time I heard this I was kind of excited, because it sounded so much more interesting than the previous album. It is heavy prog metal but more metal than prog, and more than a few moments really caught me up…and then something happened. The third and subsequent times I played it…it just sat there. It lost its edge really quickly, and I find that except for a couple of tracks near the beginning, I so lose focus that I am surprised to discover that the album is over. I barely notice it.
Inspired – Music Inspired by Alchemy
There are some great, atmospheric instrumental pieces on this album, the third in an occasional series, but not enough of them. And most of them are just too damned short. See my review here.
Airbag – Disconnected
I was so hoping that this band would step outside its lush, sweeping Floyd-channelling boundaries this time around, and extend their efforts … but alas, apparently they decided to play it safe. So very very safe. Disconnected sounds so much like the previous two albums that in my mind I have trouble disentangling the songs one album from the other. It’s just more of the same. They can do better than this.
Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
Another album that is not hitting me where it counts. I was hoping for a return to heaviness, and there is some of that, but mostly they have turned to progressive metal with emphasis on the progressive. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes for an album that goes for atmosphere over kick-ass, and an album in which I cannot sustain interest over its considerable length.
Except for “Serein”. Which is jaw-droppingly amazing.