Friday, December 16, 2016

Here It Is - The Best Albums of 2016

Okay, so this is the culmination of the musical year, the part everyone wants to read because it satiates our two great needs – subjective, arbitrary rankings of art and numbered lists.  If this were the internet (hey, wait…) I might be so inclined to toss in a “Number 7 will shock you!” but because I respect the intelligence of those reading this, I won’t stoop to such a facile attempt to patronize your greater sensibilities.

Not much in the way of introductions needed here, because first of all, the headline pretty much covers what you need to know going in and if you wanted a more in-depth, analytical look at the year at large, well, you’ve likely already read the extended exchange of intellectual diatribes between myself and my esteemed cohort, Chris.

So real quick, let’s blast through the rules.  Pretty easy, there’s basically only one.  To be eligible, an album must be composed of original studio material.  Which means no live albums, no re-releases, no compilations.  You follow?  Good.  On we go.

One quick preamble before we sojourn further (and I know I promised no lengthy introductions.) As the year progressed, I kept a running tally of albums that I thought might prove their mettle enough to be included on this list.  In the end, there were thirty contestants, all of which I enjoyed, so just because an album does not appear here does not diminish its value.  So, with a tip of the cap to Black Wizard, Surgical Meth Machine, Jinjer, Dark Forest, Red Tide Rising, Prong, Deadlock and a fistful of others, let’s get to the awards:

Honorable Mention – Gypsy Chief Goliath – Citizens of Nowhere
As if anybody had any doubt about the future of baseline, sludgy blues metal, here comes Gypsy Chief Goliath to put all those fear to bed.  A stunningly powerful and at times abrasive album, the band also weaves some classic rock style songwriting into their mix, creating a much fuller and more robust experience.

11 – The Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell – Keep It Greasy
As eclectic and bizarre as ever, The Shovell returns to the halls of this list having once previously submitted the album of the year.  There was an effort in between that one and this one that didn’t make the grade, but the gents return to form on this record, combining their…unique…themes and visions with their penchant for writing catchy, old-school riffs that undulate with that glorious distortive factor that so characterized the most memorable experiences of rock in the ‘70s.

10 – Devil to Pay – A Bend Through Space and Time 
This is as much a vote for the entire Devil to Pay catalogue as it is for this specific album.  Every DtP album is different from its predecessor, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, this one being no exception to that remarkable pattern.  As I look back over the list, it’s probably a reflection of personal preference that the first three albums we’ve talked about today are all muddy reproductions of rock-as-we-remember-it, plucked from the tree of Black Sabbath and given to take root in the furnace of modern metal.  Anyway, “A Bend Through Space and Time” keeps the gears churning with that Midwest flair that Devil to Pay trades so well in, crafting a rolling, roiling listen that never rests.

9 – Red Eleven – Collect Your Scars

C’mon people, let’s help this band out.  They deserve to be on a world tour immediately.  Sometimes you hear new music and you just know that a band has ‘it.’  Red Eleven is one of those bands.  This is one part European metal precision and one part pure American grunge design.  There are few bands operating now who seem to want to admit they took their inspiration from the ‘90s, but Red Eleven is in that company, and leading the charge.  “Collect Your Scars” showcases the band’s smooth songwriting and easy composition while juxtaposing that against their aural power.

8 – Blood Ceremony – Lord of Misrule
And of course, right after we make one trip to a band influenced by the ‘90s, we crash right back into bands that have a public love affair with the ‘70s.  Or in some cases on this album, the ’60s.  Even more than their previous efforts, Blood Ceremony goes to great efforts to craft an experience that synthesizes their intimate knowledge of flower rock with the dread and occult of traditional heavy metal.  Top all this off with the siren song of Alia O’Brien and it makes for a can’t miss experience.

7 – The Browning – Isolation
Finally, I break my own pattern by including a record that shares nearly nothing in common with any of the others records on this list.  A unique mix of hardcore and edm, this is the logical extension of industrial metal as we’ve long thought of it, a pure give into the depth of electronic music.  At the time of review I said that this album possessed distinct flaws, and nothing about that has changed, but this is one of those glorious moments where the insight and uniqueness of the product overshadows the shortcomings.  Whenever I wanted something different in my speakers this year, this is where I turned.

6 – Death Angel – The Evil Divide
Thrash, when done right, is still a genre of malice and power.  Many of the hallmark bands of the once proud genre have strayed from that message or forgotten it entirely, but Death Angel is still carrying the banner, standing on the precipice and shouting to all those who would hear that thrash is alive and well.  Yet for all the shredding riffs and glass-chewing tones, it’s the emotional affectation of “Lost” that helps separate the album from the rest of thrash’s contenders this year.

5 – Red Fang – Only Ghosts
Only Red Fang can simultaneously sound like six different bands and yet still sound exclusively like Red Fang.  That’s an incredibly hard balance to strike, but Red Fang continues to exist at the unlikely crossroads of Clutch, Black Sabbath and Queens of the Stone Age.  One of the tricks of this album that makes it work so well is that no matter how far afield the songs get, there’s always a big chorus around the corner to bring everyone back into the fold.  It’s a critical talent, once that we’ll see again later on this list.

4 – Lacuna Coil – Delirium
Another record that works as a product of its emotional mix, “Delirium” sees Lacuna Coil tune down their radio-friendly metal chops and focus it into a sharp metal point that showcases fear, hope and anger in equal mix.  For the first time in a long time, the star of this album isn’t just Cristina Scabbia, but the play of her sanguine vocals laid against the harsh grunt of Andrea Ferro.  The return of that dynamic to the fore speaks louder than any other elements on this record, marking a new phase in Lacuna Coil’s already storied career.

3 – Texas Hippie Coalition – Dark Side of Black
As I talked about briefly in my discussion with Chris, some of what makes this album stand out is that I think THC fans were pretty sure we knew everything there was to know about the band’s musical acumen.  Then this album drops, taking their game to the next level both in ferocity and craftsmanship.  Big Dad Ritch confessed that the album was written and recorded quickly, an intentional effort by the band to release a record that shows some seams, while still showcasing the brilliance of Cord Pool, their guitarist who was finally involved in the writing of new material for the first time.  The band’s swagger is still ever-present, but there’s not genuine malice woven into the brew.

2 – PAIN – Coming Home
Heavy-handed proof that side projects need not be discarded.  All of PAIN’s records have been competitive against the established track record of Hypocrisy, but this one takes that game to a whole new level and challenges Peter Tägtgren’s main act to live up to this record.  “Coming Home” is a multi-faceted beast, one that showcases the power of rock, metal, weird samples, bizarre lyrics and straight-up tight songwriting.  The riffs, as ever for PAIN, remain the star.

1 – Destrage – A Means to No End
…and what else could it be?  The Italians top the list this year (after falling just short to Red Eleven a couple years back,) by bringing their full arsenal of musical mastery to the fore and combining all of the ingredients seamlessly before our eyes.  Destrage succeeds because they locate the sound they want, then acquire it, regardless of how far outside the bounds of what’s ‘metal’ they need to go.  Almost like a prog band, this group of artists can find and blend the best parts of rock, metal, hardcore, prog, grunge and maybe even some lounge material in such a skillful fashion that the listener never feels lost.  Much in the same vein as Red Fang, this is a band that knows how to craft a catchy chorus and always keeps one in the back pocket to bring everyone back together once the song has meandered too far.  Their talent is both undeniable and irresistible.  If you want to step outside the box a little, and really see what metal can do at the same time, there’s no better opportunity in 2016 than to hang out with Destrage’s new record.

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