As noted in the Introduction (which I hope you read first, link here), I have not actually ranked these albums, they are listed in alphabetical order. They do not differ from each other enough for a ranking to even make sense. They are albums that I play reasonably often, and/or have qualities that make them interesting, enough that others might find them worth pursuing (in fact some already have — some of these albums rank pretty high in other people’s lists). And fully seven of the ten here are instrumental.
Dead Letter Circus: Dead Letter Circus
This Aussie post-punk/indie bunch burst onto the scene in 2010 with a powerful first album, which contained some thoughtful, heavy tracks and a lot of promise. Alas, they never really seemed to be able to live up to that promise. Their second album, The Catalyst Fire, quite frankly was a mess, while the third, Aethesis, was about halfway listenable.
This, their fourth, finds them converging towards shorter pieces that are focused on their strengths: intense melodic rock, nicely-constructed, very consistent, even if the tracks begin to sound a bit the same towards the end. If they continue in this direction they may finally come up with the album they are capable of making.
I might not have had much luck finding interesting stuff this year, but that doesn’t mean other people had the same problem.
“Hm,” said one friend in a review. “I keep coming back to this album. Except I don’t like the singer much.”
Okay, thought I, let me check it out.
I keep coming back to the album again and again as well. And again. And I like the singer just fine.
I had been vaguely aware of the name “Osada Vida” for some time, but I had no idea who or what the entity was, or where they hailed from, let alone what they sounded like. Just one of the many references to musicians that pass through my newsfeed on a daily basis, too many to really be able to pursue. As it turns out Osada Vida is a Polish outfit who have been around for over 20 years, with a handful of albums and various changes of personnel; the current lineup includes a new singer/lyricist, Marcel Lisiak. I will confess to not yet having checked out the back catalogue, so I don’t know how he compares to the last guy — or how Variomatic compares to anything else they’ve done.
What I can say is this: whoever they are, they bring a ton of songwriting and musicianship chops to the table. The album is essentially keyboard-and guitar-heavy prog, but it also showcases a variety of other influences: a bit of folk, a bit of jazz-rock, a bit of classical — all intertwined with consummate skill. A showcase track for this is “The Line”, which over its 6 minutes moves from heavy to a smooth instrumental break, ramps it up again, and finally finishes with a little funky fusion. This is a marvellous piece, and essentially is a microcosm of the whole album. Lots of ideas swirl around but they are assembled and presented with confidence and care; melody is honoured. Lisiak’s light, accentless tenor (he sings in English) does fit well with the songs. I don’t know how it would come across live, but it works in the studio.
Variomatic is an album of immense sophistication and nuance, impeccably executed, as smooth as the smoothest single-malt, accomplished and as smart as hell, and a joy to listen to every time I put it on. It just makes me feel good to hear it. That being said, I suspect this album will not get anywhere near the attention it deserves. It is an outstanding offering, and is likely to see a lot of future play from me. If I am going to listen to prog, this is what I want to hear: something that sounds fresh and new and doesn’t rehash the well-worn tropes that so many modern prog bands seem to think is necessary. I hope I can convince some other folks to give this album a try.
Erik Martensson: Lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Magnus Ulfsted: drums
My Fear and My Faith
Because of Us
Walk Me Through the Fire
New Life Begins
The Final War
Rock’s Still Rolling
The Best Thing I Never Had
Back in 2016 two old pros of the nordic hard rock scene: Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids (Denmark), and Erik Martensson of Eclipse (Sweden) joined up to make the first Nordic Union album. It turned out to be a decent, listenable amalgam of the two bands, with one or two great hard-rock stompers (notably the track “Hypocrisy”). It was good enough that news of a follow-up was welcome.
Three singles were released and two of them showed some serious promise; alas the third was a slow moving and unabashedly political take-down of Donald Trump. I didn’t much like it, and it remains my least favourite track on the album.
At any rate, the album also has a lot of slower, more ballady numbers, and while Atkins has a real talent for those kinds of songs they are not my favourites, I prefer the face-melters. So I was prepared to be disappointed again, for the most part. Two or three good rocking tracks and an okay batch for the rest of the album…but somehow, I kept listening. And somehow, the whole album started to dig its way in. I realized after about a week or so that I was listening to this album – all of it – pretty relentlessly. It was also supplying way more than its share of my daily dose of earworms.
Overall Second Coming is much more consistent than the first album; I find the songwriting to be more mature and confident, which I suppose is to be expected with the experience these guys bring to the table. Even the slower tracks have a satisfying heaviness. “It Burns” is still not great, but it is easier to overlook now. Lots of melody here, lots of thick guitar, and of course Atkins’ mighty sledgehammer vocals. The standout tracks for sure are “Walk Me Through the Fire”, and “Because of Us”, both relentless hard-as-granite headbangers, and I have an inexplicable fondness for “The Final War”. Ronnie Atkins’ Christianity is not a thing I have ever heard him say a single word about, but it is clearly evident given some of the songs that make their way onto Pretty Maids albums. This track is explicitly The Book of Revelation’s End of the World with a pounding beat, and to be quite honest if we are all to die in a conflagration of good versus evil (which these days does not seem so farfetched), it may as well be to a heavy metal soundtrack.
Mariusz Duda: vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piccolo bass, banjo, guitar solo on “Lament” and “Wasteland”
Piotr Kozieradzki: drums
Michał Łapaj: keyboards and synthesizers, rhodes piano and hammond organ, theremin on “Wasteland”
Maciej Meller: guitar solo on “Acid Rain – Part 2: Dancing Ghosts”, “Guardian Angel”, “The Struggle for Survival Part II – Battle Royale’” and “River Down Below”
Michał Jelonek – violin on “The Day After”, “Lament” and “Wasteland”
Mateusz Owczarek – guitar solo on “Vale of Tears”
The Day After
Acid Rain: Part I – Where are we now?; Part II – Dancing Ghosts
Vale of Tears
Struggle for Survival: Part I – Dystopia; Part II – Battle Royale
River Down Below
The Night Before
If you have been reading reviews for Wasteland, you already know how they tend to start, so I will not repeat all that. In summary: Wasteland is probably the most fraught album in Riverside’s career, awaited with enormous anticipation, apprehension, trepidation…and so on. As fans, we all know why.
The big question is: Did the decision to continue as a trio, with no permanent replacement for the beloved Piotr Grudziński, actually work? Did they pull it off? The responses have ranged from enthusiastic “absolutely!”s to carefully worded versions of “nope”, and everything in between. The only thing we knew for sure about Wasteland was that it wasn’t going to be the same as the previous albums, but Mariusz Duda always says that. I did have a hint of the sound to come, hearing something early in the spring albeit in an unfinished form, and I liked it very much; but auditory memory being what it is (bad), I wasn’t willing to bet the farm on that few minutes of a demo heard once.
Three singles were released in the weeks before the album hit. Promotion, marketing – it is an understandable practice, but it is fair to say that for the most part, these songs caused more consternation than relief among the fanbase. I was certainly among those consternated. The first, “Vale of Tears”, despite some interesting moments, came across as a rather cliché poppy mashup of … well, everything. What on earth was that all about? There was a gradual improvement with the next two such that by the time “Lament” appeared, folks had gotten their hopes up again…but still, doubt had been sown.
Catherine Morgan, Chris Brierly, Mark Pharoah, Robert Woollard: strings
Mark Barratt: trumpet
Eden on the Air
Eat it Up Worms Hero
Fiery Gun Hand
Insect Hooves on Lassie
Fairy Mary Mag
A Horse’s Tail
Wireless/Peril on the Sea
Flap Off You Beak
Quiet as a Mouse
Red Fire Coming Out of His Gills
Nurses Whispering Verses
Once upon a time, I watched a YouTube video. It featured several middle-aged, somewhat grizzled gentlemen and a younger man with wild black hair, playing various instruments and videoed from rather odd angles. The bass player sat, substantial and impassive, wearing nothing but a small pair of underwear.
What I saw (and heard) is hard to describe – I barely understood it the first time through and had to immediately watch it about six more times. Whatever these guys were doing, it was like nothing I had ever heard (or seen) before. Imagine a slightly psychotic pop song, except with more rhythmic shifts and time-signature changes and sudden breaks and mad musical ideas packed into four minutes than most artists can fit on an entire album, pulled off by guys who looked like the sort of guys who get together to jam on amateur night at the local pub. And pulled off absolutely flawlessly, tighter-than-tight, with maniacal skill.
The band was, of course, the Cardiacs, and the video was “Jibber and Twitch Rehearsal”. This review isn’t about that video, but it illustrates the basic process I went through while listening to Sing to God. Which I believe (but honestly don’t remember) was my next real foray into the labyrinthine musical miracle that is Tim Smith and Cardiacs, after poking around on YouTube and ending up overwhelmed.
Mariusz Duda: bass and acoustic guitars, piccolo bass, keyboards, percussion, programming, vocals
Wawrzyniec Dramowicz: drums
He Av En
Under the Fragmented Sky
Rinsing the Night
The Art of Repairing
“And it’s going to be the best story of your life….”
The tracks from this short album/EP/however you want to call it, were written during the Fractured sessions, but clearly did not fit that with album’s feel or direction. However, they were good enough (and I think recognizing how much of a departure from LS Fractured really was), that Mariusz Duda decided to gather them together into their own release.
In fact, I submit that Mariusz Duda had no choice but to release this album. Under the Fragmented Sky is an astonishing collection of music, so deeply evocative of everything Lunatic Soul as an idea stands for that I wonder whether LS really is an entity unto itself and Duda can only bow to its demands for life. I barely dared hope for something even half as good (especially after the disappointment of Fractured).
Or the tl:dr version of the previous paragraphs: Under the Fragmented Sky is a miracle.
Sometimes an album comes along that reduces you to awed silence – there is so much to say about it that you actually have no idea what to say about it. This album is one of those.
Seeming consists of a couple of academics: Aaron Fuleki, a software and application technologist and designer, and musician (obviously) from Denison University in Ohio, and Dr. Alex Reed, professor of music at Ithaca College. Reed seems to be the main driving force: composer and author and musician and performer and clearly stuffed with so many ideas that he can hardly keep up with himself. Along with the album Sol are accompanying EPs that provide different mixes of the tracks, and some additional background context for the development of the ideas in Sol. Since all of that is too much to take in for one year, I will stick with the main release.
Sol is a masterpiece of dark post-industrial pop-rock, richly lyrical, sweeping and chunky and ironic, and so incandescently intelligent I’m surprised my speakers have not burst into flames. The main theme of the album seems to be about human transformation — it is time for humanity to move on, to change from the creature we are now into something more transcendent, or at least less harmful to the environment, other species, and ourselves. Those are the broad strokes. Every song presents this existential dilemma in a different manner; I could fill this entire review with nothing but quotes from lyrics of the songs, but best you hear them for yourself. As with most philosophy, everyone will have a somewhat different take on what Reed is trying to say here, and a different favourite song that conveys it.
The album relies profoundly on its lyrical content, so vocals take centre stage: Reed has a very good voice, rich and powerful at times if not particularly distinctive, well-employed and well-articulated – a lyric sheet is almost unnecessary. Around those words swirls music that ranges from dense and relentless post-gothic industrial (“Let’s Talk About Bones”) to delicate electronic pop (the poignantly ironic “Citizen”) to beautiful ballads (“Wildwood”), to broad orchestral sweeps of sound (horns included) in “Doomsayer”, and remarkably each track blends seamlessly into the next, despite their differences.
It is hard to pick out one outstanding track – each one possesses a slightly different identity, a unique shift in style, a surprising twist of construction – somehow apt given the theme of the album. However, I gravitate towards “Doomsayer”, the monster opening track that pummels with breathless declaration of obsession, shifts towards delicacy and then pounds one again with an electronic hammer – I recall the first time hearing it, with my jaw hanging open. Between the words and the music, it was all too much to absorb in one sitting.
In the end, the best I can say is: Sol: A Self-Banishment Ritual really is an astonishing album and this review doesn’t come near to doing it justice. Simultaneously challenging and accessible, it rewards repeat listening—hell, it demands repeat listening– because between the music and the lyric ideas there is so much going on that it is impossible to take it all in at once. It is sing-along thinking-man’s music for the future of us. If we are lucky.
While I was jotting down notes and observations for my To the Bone review, I decided to revisit what I wrote about Steven Wilson’s previous album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. I was struck by how similar my thoughts about that album are to the new one. I could probably just copy/paste chunks of that review here and change the song titles. I won’t do that, of course, because they really are not the same, but clearly it shows that the albums are consistent in their effect, if nothing else. (See the review for Hand. Cannot. Erase.here)
It is needless to point out that when Steven Wilson announces a new album, the fanbase excitement level heads into overdrive. This time Wilson released four tracks before the album itself hit, and the overall reaction to them was mixed, to say the least – enthusiasm, puzzlement, and dismay all rolled up into one roiling ball of internet pandemonium, especially around the unapologetically pop “Permanating”. This was a direction that seemed new, or at least a substantial swerve away from what many people expected him to do. Steven Wilson apparently was releasing an album of pop songs.
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.