Here we are – the final five records on our year-end list. There are actually a couple of similarities between these five records. First of all, they are all in some way pushing against the boundaries of whatever genre or subgenre one might try to put them in. The word ‘dissonant’ can be used to describe all five. None of them are particularly easy listens. Yet to my ears, these were the five best metal albums to be released in 2016.
So without any further ado…
5. Chthe’ilist – Le Dernier Crépuscule
There are a lot of elements of so-called ‘cavernous’ death metal (which I generally think sounds like I imagine it would feel to be suffocated with Saran wrap) in Chthe’ilist’s sound, but with some more progressive elements—slap bass, some jazzy drum patterns, guitar solos that wouldn’t sound out of place on a tech-death record—that elevates them above most of their peers. The songs are dense but memorable, making for a record that reveals itself slowly over several listens. This one is likely to remain on heavy rotation for the rest of the year. Bonus nerd points for closing track “Tales of the Majora Mythos Part I,” which draws its lyrical inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
4. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust
Shortly after listening to this single-track, 33-minutle long EP for the first time, I took to my social media and posted “Everybody can go home now. Gorguts has officially won metal.” I was probably being at least slightly hyperbolic when I wrote that, but successive listens have done nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for this record. It’s everything I love about Gorguts—shifting dynamics, discordant riffage, fluid time signatures—and takes them to the most extreme point possible, resulting in a record that’s equal parts challenging and engaging. I mean, just about anything Luc Lemay has done under the Gorguts banner has been pretty unfuckwithable, but this current lineup he has—which includes Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia, Vaura), Colin Marston (Krallice, Dysrhythmia, Behold the Arctopus, Withered), and Patrice Hamelin (Beneath the Massacre, Cephalic Carnage)—is the musical equivalent of that team of softball ringers Mr. Burns put together to beat Shelbyville in that old Simpsons episode. Pleiades’ Dust may well be remembered as not only the best thing Lemay’s ever done, but also as a tech-death classic. Bonus nerd points: lyrically the song is about an ancient Baghdad library known as The House of Wisdom, which was the major intellectual center of the Islamic world until it was sacked by the Mongols in the 13th century.
3. Ash Borer – The Irrepassable Gate
I have been a fan of Ash Borer since I first heard their split with Fell Voices back in 2010, and it’s been fascinating to hear them progress from a Cascadian black metal band into something far more progressive and refined. At this point, they probably have more in common with a band like Krallice in the way that they use dissonance and countermelodies to craft their epic soundscapes than they do Wolves in the Throne Room or Weakling. It’s a difficult album that requires a fair amount of patience to get through the first couple of times, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
2. Mizmor – Yodh
Lone member A.L.N. is working with familiar elements on Yodh—droning squalls of feedback, paint-peelingly corrosive doom, frenetic second wave black metal—but he combines those elements in ways that make each of them not only seem new, and the album as a whole is both deeply unsettling and unexpectedly cathartic. The highlight is the second track, “A Semblance Warning,” which opens innocuously enough with a soft acoustic section but ends in truly harrowing fashion with some of the most despondent screams I’ve ever heard committed to tape. Also, it’s kind of uncanny how the album’s artwork pairs perfectly with the music contained within—there’s something anxiety-inducing about Zdzislaw Beksinski’s painting, but at the same time I find it difficult to look away.
1. Blood Incantation – Starspawn
The debut full-length from Colorado’s cosmic death metallers Blood Incantation is probably the album I was most looking forward to this year. I was really impressed by last year’s Interdimensional Extinction EP, and the advanced word on Starspawn was so overwhelmingly positive that I was afraid my expectations going in were way too high. I needn’t have worried: Starspawn is damn near a masterpiece, straddling the line between the so-called ‘cavernous’ or old-school death metal that Dark Descent is increasingly becoming known for and something a little more technical, not unlike the Chth’eilist album from back in January. Part of the credit for the more technical sound is probably due to the fact that the band added Jeff Barrett on fretless bass, but the biggest difference between this record and the EP is that the band seems to have grown more confident as songwriters, even being so bold as to kick the record off with the nearly 14-minute “Vitrification of Blood (Part I).” The track has enough momentum and movement that it never feels anywhere near that long, though, which is also true for the album as a whole, which clocks in at a brisk 35 minutes is over way too soon. This one not only holds up to repeated listens, but also basically demands them.