This is the concluding part to my Best Albums of 2016 list; you can read Part I (#10 – #6) here
Again, this list is to celebrate the most fantastic albums from 2016, and I highly urge you to check them out if you haven’t done so already – you may end up loving these as much as I do!
#5 – Vektor – Terminal Redux (Thrash Metal / Progressive Metal)
Thrash metal isn’t exactly a prosperous genre nowadays; whilst ‘The Big Four’ are still alive and kicking (albeit frailly), their latest efforts have fallen short of their former glory. At least that’s the general consensus, but I’ve never been a thrash fan to begin with and I never thought any album could turn me round.
Cue Terminal Redux, and the explosive intro to ‘Charging the Void’; painting the cosmic canvas of an album that’s set to hyper speed from the word ‘go’. Vektor’s third album is a seamless trail of memorable, heavy riffs for well over 70 minutes of constant high energy; even the relatively gentle closers, ‘Collapse’ and ‘Recharging the Void’, ooze with gravity with the gravelly choruses or wailing female vocals. Like Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas’ Mariner, Terminal Redux is the soundtrack to an immense space-faring journey; one a little more exciting than No Man’s Sky (though the soundtrack for that is superb, too).
I’d wish for an extra pair of arms just so I could simultaneously play air guitar and air drums along to all of Terminal Redux; it’s grossly enjoyable and, dare I say, fun? Even the guitar tapping solo in ‘LCD [Liquid Crystal Disease]’ sounds like spaceship lasers flying across the galaxy. It’s a shame that most of Vektor left the band towards the end of 2016, but frontman David DiSanto is confident that Vektor will continue going on strong; and given how sound Vektor’s track record is, I have no doubt about that.
#4 – Colin Stetson – Sorrow: a Re-imagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony
(Contemporary Classical / Avant-Garde)
Avant-Garde bass saxophonist Colin Stetson made waves with his collaboration with Sarah Neufeld back in 2015 with their exquisite album Never Were the Way She Was. In 2016, the two reunited, along with a plethora of other musicians, including Liturgy drummer Greg Fox, to perform an inspired rendition of Henryck Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, otherwise known as “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”.
With Stetson’s rasping sax leading the beginning of the first movement, instead of bowed double basses, it’s clear that this interpretation is going to be something different instrumentally. The inclusion of drums and guitars seems questionable, but when the first movement swells, the black metal-esque cacophony is so imposing that it’s breath-taking. Strings playing the rising and descending motif towards the end of ‘I.’ pierce through the wall of noise like a solemn beam of light in the gloom, and is easily my favourite moment in the album.
Mezzo-soprano vocalist Megan Stetson is a critical player in Sorrow, with wavering highs being utterly captivating, especially in the second movement, ‘II.’. Though in Polish, the sombre delivery of each movement’s mourns for mother’s losses convey the emotion behind them beautifully.
Whilst the magnificence of the album is more attributed to Górecki’s original composition, there’s a lot to admire with Colin Stetson’s rendition of his symphony. It’s not so much a reimagining in the sense of renovation, but of instrumentation – Colin Stetson molds the symphony to his own aesthetic, and does so without sacrificing the fragility of Górecki’s work. Sorrow, revolutionary or not, is certainly one of Colin Stetson’s finest works, and is a more than worthy rendition of Górecki’s 3rd symphony.
#3 – Lemon Demon – Spirit Phone (Synthpop)
Lemon Demon is the musical alias of Neil Cicierega – ring any bells? No? You may know of his parody mash-up albums: Mouth Sounds, Mouth Silence, and most recently Mouth Moods; or from his ancient YouTube skits, such as Brodyquest or Potter Puppet Pals. Whether you know him or not, Lemon Demon’s latest effort is certainly one to remember.
Spirit Phone proves his abilities as both an entertainer and a serious musician with an hour of enthralling poppy tracks that narrate short stories of the sci-fi, the strange, and the supernatural, without being distasteful about it. Never before has singing along to themes of cannibalistic confectionery (‘Sweet Bod’) and trans-dimensional love (‘No Eyed Girl’) felt so right, and so good.
Neil isn’t the best vocalist on the planet, granted, and possibly the least proficient on this list; but his attitude, his weird delivery and the odd to beautiful vocal harmonies work perfectly, especially in each songs context. The album plays on 80’s synth pop and 90’s nostalgia, without the dated production or heavy-handed ‘only 90’s kids remember’ pandering, which makes the album even more entertaining.
On paper, an 80’s style synthpop album filled with horror and sci-fi B-movie concepts, all made by an internet personality sounds like it should not work, under any circumstances. But it does, and so well at that too. Whilst Spirit Phone isn’t the most technically elaborate or emotionally heavy album in this list, it’s a record that’s infectiously fun, conceptually enthralling and grounded enough to be musically upstanding, and such an album is rare.
Quite simply, it’s the most fun I’ve had from listening to an album from 2016; Spirit Phone has me dancing better than any alcohol can, and believe me, I’m a great drunk dancer.
#2 – The Great Cold – The Great Cold (Post Metal / Atmospheric Metal)
As soon as ‘EOS’ kicked in, I knew The Great Cold was going to be something special.
German metal band The Great Cold sit between the lushness of post metal and the desolation of atmospheric black metal, without being excruciatingly long ‘crescendo-core’ or having poor production quality. Their eponymous debut is a beautiful instrumental record that conveys a magnificence that many bands could only dream of doing.
Most songs have similar cycles between delicate, black metal onslaughts; addictive, head-banging riffs, and gentler, post metal passages. Where ‘CHIONE’ and the intro to ‘NEPHELAI’ learn towards the band’s delicate side; ‘AURAI’, ‘OREAD’ and the rest of ‘NEPHELAI’ are unrelenting and triumphant in their heaviness, yet are still distinct in their own right. ‘AURAI’ is the most ‘progressive’ song on the album, being easily the most fun and memorable, whereas ‘OREAD’ is all-anticipation before the chilling climax; the highlight of the album and possibly my favourite ending to a song in all of 2016.
Sadly, there are a few extended passages in ‘ORPHNE’ and ‘ASTERIAI’ which, whilst great, pale in comparison to the rest of the album’s sheen. If The Great Cold was trimmed to its best songs, it could have been perfect. Regardless, there’s not a single song on the album that doesn’t have my arm hairs standing on end during at least one moment.
It’s an album that justifies its title and tapestry, if not exceeding them. It’s a 40 minute soundtrack to an arctic expedition of a lifetime, encompassing everything from the aurora to the great cold. Like the tundra, The Great Cold give us an album that’s beautiful in its emptiness: there’s no unnecessary frills or trimmings; no vocals; no gimmicks to differentiate tracks, nothing that doesn’t need to be there. But what is there is beautiful.
#1 – David Bowie – Blackstar (Art Rock)
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried:
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar
Are you surprised? I hope not.
Blackstar has appeared in, if not topped, nearly every major publication’s ‘Album of the 2016’ list, and rightfully so. David Bowie’s parting gift to us is undeniably a monumental record, emotionally and musically; it’s a standing testament to his legacy as both an artist and as one of the most revered music icons in history – but I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that.
To deny Blackstar’s dependence on Bowie’s death would be a lie. The panging yet enigmatic tracks: ‘Lazarus’, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ and ‘Dollar Days’, where Bowie dwells on his legacy and accepts his mortality, were realized a few days after the album’s release – it is utterly crushing to listen to Bowie sing his own obituary, even a year on; ‘Dollar Days’ still gets me crying.
But even before his death, Bowie’s 25th album felt like his strongest in decades. From the wild saxes and shrieks in ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ to the grunginess of ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’, the album is unfaltering and not a second is wasted. Instrumentally, the title track remains the most impressive on the album, with its boggling amalgamation of jazztronica, drum and bass and eerie, Gregorian moans – and that’s just in the first two minutes. It’s utterly otherworldly, but it is the more emotionally charged tracks that make the album so untouchable.
Honourable Mention: Skanktral Ska Hotel – In the Aeroskank Over the Checkered Pattern (Ska / ???)
To end the list on a lighter note, In the Aeroskank Over the Checkered Pattern deserves an honourable mention for being so gosh darn stupid that it’s hilarious. Words cannot describe this atrocity further, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
If you don’t love In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, you’ll hate this. If you do love that album, you’ll probably hate this, too. I’m sorry.
And so 2016 can finally be put to rest, at least for me, anyway. There’s still a lot of albums out there from last year that need listening to, but for the time being, let’s look to the future and what 2017 has to offer us: new Aryeon, new Mastodon and potentially a Trump / Kanye mixtape.