Best of 2016: Zyklonius’ List

Nine Circles Best of 2016 Standard

I am writing this intro blurb on Christmas eve, on Lemmy’s birthday and almost exactly a year after his death. Today, the largest newspaper in Finland published a fascinating article discussing Lemmy’s life (unfortunately in Finnish). The article’s lead paragraph notes the failure of humanity to carry on without Lemmy and the shockwave his death created, paving the way for 2016 in all its depressing grimness.

People loved Lemmy, the article argues, because he was the only unwavering thing in life you could trust and rely on. While empires fell, Lemmy stood tall on stage, under the microphone in his own inimitable style. History marched on, but Motörhead plowed on with the same blueprint and outrageous volume levels.

Metal did not stay unchanged like Motörhead. Before and after Lemmy’s death, it continued to evolve, expand to new realms, delve into introspection, and explore external and internal space, pushing the limits of the genre into countless different, often weird directions. I waited years for it to happen and it finally did in 2016: metal went cosmic and psychedelic, and seethed with increasing otherworldly rage. Part of me wants to think that these were the long-gestating seeds planted by Lemmy during his time in Hawkwind, seeds that suddenly started germinating everywhere after his death.

At the same time, metal continued to pummel with the bulldozer finesse that Motörhead introduced early in its career, finding new inventive ways of increasing volume, density and aggression. While the civilized world — if there ever was one to begin with — turned into a cesspit, metal provided catharsis, a conduit for righteous outrage and a rallying cry for resistance.

My day job entails addressing the root causes and consequences of the worst humanity has to offer on a global scale, so metal provided inspiration and strength to deal with all that grime. While the world at large descended to regression, hatred and lies, a beacon of optimism and friendship was lit by the good folks at #MetalBandcampGiftClub. Hell, had I not befriended metal brothers and sisters living and breathing metal under that banner, I would not be writing and posting this as part of the merry Nine Circles crew.

I’d like to go on record saying that 2016 was the best year for metal in recent memory, a continuation of the past few years of a golden age where both quantity and quality bordered on overwhelming. But man, it sure was great, with a cornucopia of newcomers entering the fray with absolute stunners, bands that rewrote or abandoned the usual playbook, reinvented themselves or reached excellence in myriad other ways.

On the production front, I was heartened to notice increasing numbers of bands challenging the loudness war and demanding high dynamic range. Thanks to enlightened production wizards like Colin Marston, Dan Swanö and Leon Macey, an increasing number of bands and fans realized that you do not need oppressive compression to have a sonic impact at the expense of aural bliss. Many of my favorite albums this year had audible bass, often with a killer tone that would have made Lemmy grin.

Without any further ado, I raise a goblet of mead, sharpen my warblade and adjust my loin cloth to venerate the best 30 metal albums 2016 offered (in clusters of advancing excellence, within each in alphabetical order) and brace for battles to come. Metal in 2017 better make Lemmy proud.

Honorable mentions

11Paranoias – Reliquary For A Dreamed Of World

Downfall of Gaia – Atrophy

Fallujah – Dreamless

Lesbian – Hallucinogenesis

Lycus – Chasms

Martyrdöd – List

Negative Voice – Cold Redrafted

Nucleus – Sentient

Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä

Ragehammer – The Hammer Doctrine

Urfaust – Empty Space Meditation   

Veilburner – The Obscene Rite

Vektor – Terminal Redux

ZAUM –  Eidolon


Top 30-26

Cruz – Culto Abismal

Cruz - Culto Abismal

“How would you like your riff fries, honey?” “Crinkle-cut, crunchy and chunky.” Cruz’s crust-infused OSDM rolls with the forward momentum of a rampaging steamroller with an acute case of bloodlust. Utter devastation, no survivors.

Listen here.

Deviant Process – Paroxysm

Deviant Process - Paroxysm

Punchy and funky like a gorilla entering the boxing ring with James Brown as entrance music.

Listen here.

The Morningside – Yellow

The Morningside - Yellow

Heartfelt with hushed melancholy, there is nary a moment on Yellow where beautiful guitar leads are not soaring and flowing harmoniously into each other. A gorgeous mixture of melodic doom, progressive metal and post-rock with a dash of black metal and 70’s rock.

Listen here.

Syberia – Resiliency

Syberia - Resiliency

Resiliency is a true antidote to the depressing facepalm and reality rage fest that 2016 was. Tracks like “Taunus” and “Herboren” radiate optimism and an adolescent sense of wonder, exploration and endless possibility that is notably absent in much of metal.

Listen here.

Panzerfaust – The Lucifer Principle

panzerfaust-the-lucifer-principle

A caustic wall of sound exploring the human condition and man’s inescapable inherent desire to destroy one another. Immensely dark and all-engulfing, The Lucifer Principle sounds like the death rattle of humanity.

Listen here.


Top 25-21

Départe – Failure, Subside

Departe - Failure, Subside

On its debut, Départe conjured a massively emotional and achingly personal apocalypse with a heartbeat, building tension to the breaking point before releasing the pressure to achieve pure catharsis. Come for the crushing wall of sound, stay for the dreamlike, velvety embrace of the syrupy sludge filling your lungs before you are reborn.

Listen here.

Inquisition – Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith

inquisition

Cosmic black metal guitar heroics galore. ‘Nuff said.

Listen here.

[Full review]

Kosmokrator – First Step Towards Supremacy

Kosmokrator - First Step Towards Supremacy

Have you ever wondered what kind of a baby would result from copulating while Bölzer, Batushka and Irkallian Oracle played in the background? Wonder no more. Esoteric and oppressive to the bone, Kosmokrator spelunks with grueling intensity and plows with spiritual affirmation.

Listen here.

Vainaja – Verenvalaja

Vainaja - Verenvalaja

A prime example of finding a perfect balance between foreboding atmosphere and monolithically heavy pounding, further complemented by a morbid backstory and blood-curdling bellows. Verenvalaja deserves extra kudos and praise for a stellar production with a dynamic range unheard of in modern metal.

Listen here.

Virvum – Illuminance

Virvum - Illuminance

Melody and aggression soar hand in hand with poise on Illuminance, an album overflowing with captivating movielike splendor. A perfect specimen of the musicianship and songwriting on display throughout the album, the self-titled track impresses with scintillating guitar leads and harmonies backed with lush synths, recurring and evolving motifs, and beautiful syncopation.

Listen here.


Top 20-16

40 Watt Sun – Wider than the Sky

40 Watt Sun - Wider than the Sky

40 Watt Sun delivered the melancholic and minimalist gut punch of the year, despite remaining only tangentially metal. Despite eschewing distortion and density, Wider than the Sky is crushing and seeps raw emotion. Normally albums this slow and sparse fail to garner my full attention, but every time I listen to Wider than the Sky, I feel compelled to drop everything else and engage in wistful contemplation and deep saudade. It is a vivid reminder of how music can still have a profound emotional impact in this era of sensory overstimulation and resulting lethargy.

Listen here.

Blood Incantation – Starspawn

Blood Incantation - Starspawn

Many of the bands on my list drew inspiration from deep space and the exploration of uncharted quadrants, and had a chromatic, nigh-neon aesthetic and sonic sheen. In comparison, Blood Incantation’s brand of cerebral psychedelia has a more muted color palette and muddier tone, but is no less inventive or awe-inducing. Unsatisfied with mere stargazing or surfing the glittery cosmos, Blood Incantation charges through dark portals and builds suspense with whirling progressions, uncanny leads and constantly mutating songwriting. Alien DNA is required to write music as unsettling and catchy as Starspawn.

Listen here.

[Full review]

Crator – The Ones Who Create : The Ones Who Destroy

Crator - The Ones Who Create : The Ones Who Destroy

This is fury incarnate, with the air full of incandescent shrapnel unleashed with breakneck velocity, post-human precision and demigod-level musicianship. Discordant and caustic yet catchy and spellbinding. Colin Marston’s fantastic production job exemplifies how music this intense and dense does not need to be compressed to sterility.

Listen here.

First Fragment – Dasein

First Fragment - Dasein

Dasein bubbles with joyful neo-classical fretboard acrobatics and delicious songwriting. Riotously fun while also tremendously brutal, the immaculate musicianship and elated interplay of band members is beyond belief. The songs explore wild, uncharted places with absolute confidence and provide a soundtrack for celebrating the anniversary of the first time you and I grabbed our air guitars.

Listen here.

VRTRA – My Bones Hold a Stillness

VRTRA - My Bones Hold a Stillness

On paper, everything about VRTRA and its debut reeks of dank kvlt smoke and sweaty incense, whereas it in fact sounds massively epic and majestic. My Bones Hold a Stillness not only hypnotizes with its smothering wall of sound but also provides moments of ecstatic catharsis. Although constantly ferocious, it conveys a magnificent acceptance of despondency and disintegration. You almost smile and feel absolute gratitude when your bones and dreams are crushed.

Listen here.


Top 15-11

Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner

Cult of Luna - Mariner

Cult of Luna faced an almost insurmountable challenge after its cinematic masterpiece Vertikal: where on earth to go from there? Upwards and beyond, it appears. Enlisting Julie Christmas and her extraordinary voice in full saccharine and frenzied vivacity was an artistic masterstroke that provided navigation and fuel for Cult of Luna’s juggernaut. The end result recalls layers of billowing clouds that gradually turn to lead and smash into the ground with shockwaves that make mountains bleed and cause oceans to boil.

Listen here.

[Full review]

Deströyer 666 – Wildfire

destroyer 666 wildfire

Where previous D666 albums had left me cold, Wildfire thrashed through the gates with swaggering stadium-grade guitar derring-do and an ever-flowing stream of fist-pumping bangers.

Listen here.

Lotus Thief – Gramarye

Lotus Thief - Gramarye

I am a sucker for metal based on philosophy, literature and myths with correspondingly grand ambiance, Gramarye hit me like the entire papyrus scroll collection of the Great Library of Alexandria rained down on me. Gramarye is filled with texture as rich and beautiful as the tomes the album draws its inspiration, its self-described “text metal” containing elements of space rock, post-rock, drone and many a genre combined into a beautifully cohesive magical whole.

Listen here.

Mare Cognitum – Luminiferous Aether

Mare Cognitum - Luminiferous Aether

Mare Cognitum continued to excel in portraying the wonder, danger and beauty of exploring distant galaxies. Case in point: second track “The First Point of Aries” arrives like an abrupt jump from hyperspace into the midst of a space battle inside an asteroid belt. Deft evasive maneuvers ensue and the thrilling escape culminates in the intervention of a benevolent space god, hailed with an absolutely imposing guitar lead. Where space-oriented black metal venturing into the cosmos often focuses on the claustrophobic horror of cold, uncaring space, Mare Cognitum emits hope, optimism and excitement. Sure, there are fleeting moments of terror where deflector shields are about to fail or the gravitational pull of a celestial body threatens to overpower warp engines, but above all Luminiferous Aether is imbued with marvel and exhilaration.

Listen here.

[Full Review]

Schammasch – Triangle

Triangle hires

Nothing else released this year could parallel Triangle in terms of ambition and vision. Similarly, my feeble attempts at deciphering and describing the visionary triple album with commensurate depth and elegance are utterly insufficient when you already have Corey’s eloquent takes.

Listen here.

[Full review]


Top 10-6

Aluk Todolo – Voix

Aluk Todolo - Voix

Imagine Bohren & Der Club of Gore recording, under hypnosis, an avant-garde krautrock/black metal soundtrack for a feverish ritual involving a cornucopia of exotic deliriants and the breathless interpretive dance of interlocking bodies merging with the seducing, throbbing rhythms emanating from a dark jungle about to devour the congregation. A truly transcendental experience, Voix is where metal morphs into an atavistic psychosexual mass.

Listen here.

Balance Interruption – Door 218

Balance Interruption - Door 218

A feverish mixture of avant-garde and black metal soaked in a vat of battery acid and coated with rusty barbed wire, sprinkled with smoky electronic beats, bouncy base lines and a sultry sax, set against a backdrop of industrial decay and abandoned warehouses, Door 218 serves as a soundtrack for a Soviet reimagination of old-school Doctor Who that was never produced.

Listen here.

Chthe’ilist – Le Dernier Crépuscule

chtheilist le dernier crepuscule

Pat Tougas was on fire in 2016, delivering a hat trick with stellar releases from First Fragment, Zealotry, and Chthe’ilist. The latter’s Le Dernier Crépuscule is a swan dive into a whirlpool of primordial goop, a swampy rumble laced with eldritch croaks, punchy slap bass and deft guitar work. Dripping with ghastly atmosphere and sprinkled with guitar solos that rouse untold horrors from their deep slumber, Le Dernier Crépuscule keeps on giving and impressing.

Listen here.

[Full review]

Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard – Y Proffwyd Dwyll

Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard - Y Proffwyd Dwyll

Those chuckling at the name of the band are struck down with the first note of this psychedelic bulldozer. Hot on the heels of 2015’s excellent Noeth Ac Anoeth, MWWB marries tectonic slabs of crushing riffs with Jessica Ball’s ethereal vocals and spacy electronics on Y Proffwyd Dwyll and launches the listener into a cosmic voyage through nebulae. It combines the density of a black hole and the impact of an orbital bombardment with celestial beauty, never to the detriment of any aspect of their winning formula.

Listen here.

Mithras – On Strange Loops

mithras-on-strange-loops

After being away for nearly a decade, Mithras made a triumphant return with multiple PhDs under its studded belt to defy and redefine laws of astrophysics with the monumental On Strange Loops. Packing enough energy to bend time and rip through the folds of the universe. On Strange Loops is the sonic manifestation of eternal recurrence, all grace and harmony, fueled by warp speed drumming, ethereal leads and planet-smashing riffs. I heard Galactus hungers and is looking for a new herald. With On Strange Loops in its CV, only Mithras need apply. Special kudos to Leon Macey for releasing a full dynamic range edition of the album and for showing how proper production further enhances the listening experience without any detriment to sonic brutality.

Listen here.


Top 5-1

Forteresse – Thèmes pour la Rébellion

Forteresse - Thèmes Pour la Rébellion cover

On Thèmes pour la Rébellion, Forteresse becomes a force of nature, the sonic equivalent of a cavalry charge crashing into enemy lines. Bolstered with muscular production, the unrelenting drumming and razor-sharp riffs provide a propulsive foundation for epic leads that glide in breathtaking fashion as fierce vocals cry havoc. Themes is a masterpiece of furious intensity and atmosphere with which Forteresse claims its rightful place in the throne room of black metal.

Listen here.

[Full review]

Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows

Inter Arma - Paradise Gallows

Sublime incarnate, Paradise Gallows is a soundtrack for a peyote ritual held on a remote prairie where ancient gods go to die and are reborn to the tribal rhythms of pounding drums and hypnotic riffs. It pulsates with primal energy coursing through veins while civilization burns to the ground. Witnessing the band perform live on the day the album was released was a transcendental experience that further solidified the immaculate glory of Paradise Gallows.

Listen here.

[Full review]

Obsidian Kingdom – A Year With No Summer

Obsidian Kingdom – A Year With No Summer

Aiming for a more accessible sound with your sophomore release while jettisoning the more extreme elements of your lauded debut is not a gamble many metal bands can pull of successfully. But fans of Mantiis should have known that Obsidian Kingdom is not your regular band too shy to throw a curveball. A Year With No Summer is unabashedly vulnerable yet triumphant, with a confident pulse despite the album’s carrying themes of resignation, loss and disillusionment. The grandiose musical narrative and suave mélange of genres conjures visions of an alternate timeline where Peter Gabriel went metal with glorious results.

Listen here.

Setentia – Darkness Transcend

Setentia - Darkness Ascend

It is not often that a newcomer unseats the reigning champion, but that is exactly what Setentia did with its stunning debut of suffocating dissonant death metal that flows with effortless grace and a masterful sense of dynamics and warped yet gripping melody. The whirlwind of punches from every direction remains cohesive, while progressive elements uplift the utter devastation to dizzying majestic heights before violently crashing down and destroying everything in its wake. With the tour de force of Darkness Transcend, Setentia released a blast wave that will resonate through ages as a master class of extreme metal at its absolute pinnacle.

Listen here.

Youdash – Astrophobia

Youdash - Astrophobia

In my recent review, I declared Youdash’s Astrophobia “a stunning game-changer” and “a dropkick to the solar plexus.” Remember the exact moment of awe and jubilation when you heard Dillinger Escape Plan, Meshuggah or Mr. Bungle for the first time? By listening to Astrophobia, you will experience the sum total of those respective moments and witness the birth of something transcending and overtaking its sonic relatives.

Listen here.

[Full review]

– Zyklonius

3 thoughts on “Best of 2016: Zyklonius’ List

  1. Jimmy McNulty December 26, 2016 / 12:12 pm

    Well hey there Zyklonius! Received your letter and am going to be reading this on my lunch break today 😉

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