The Best Albums of 2016: A List

So, seeing as I’ve started to expand this blog to politics recently, I thought I may as well take a stab at music too, and expand it thereon into whatever I want to talk about. So, much like the 2016 Reading Round-Up, I thought I’d do a rundown of my favourite albums released in 2016. Here goes nothing.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Blackstar – David Bowie: a superlative, artistic and strange tour-de-force that fueled conspiracy theories after his untimely death. Taking influence from some of the most avant-garde modern bands, it’s a fitting swansong from a man who single-handedly transformed the musical landscape forever.
  • Blues of Desperation – Joe Bonamassa: The man who brought the blues to a new generation continues to forge his rock-infused niche within the genre, experimenting with backing vocals arrangements, and pushing his guitar skills ever further.
  • Viscera – Haunted Shores: A mix of frenetic and melodic rock and metal from Misha Mansoor and Mark Holcomb of Periphery, combining every metal subgenre you can think of into one insane album, with welcome cameos from Devin Townsend and Jørgen Munkeby.
  • 4 1/2 – Steven Wilson: Ostensibly a demo album, the prog-genius does nothing by halves with this 37 minute work featuring various songs that didn’t make the cut from his last two albums, and a gorgeous, new version of the Porcupine Tree classic Don’t Hate Me.

 

The Top Ten:

10) Magma – Gojira

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Gojira’s
sixth studio album was released to widespread critical acclaim, but received a mixed reception from fans. It’s an understandable reaction, as the proggy French death-metallers move away from their signature sound into a more artistic realm, experimenting with ambient noise, instrumental sections and swapping the growls for a hefty dose of clean singing.

That said, for the most part, the experiment works. The singles Stranded and Silvera deliver a mix of catchy hooks, thunderous riffs and more considered instrumental work, title track Magma is led by a haunting pinch-harmonic riff and possesses an ethereal je ne sais quoiPray goes back to the roots of what makes Gojira great – a riff that makes you want to grow long, metalhead hair so you can windmill like a lunatic; and penultimate track Lowlands is a mature and considered meditation on the passing of the Duplantier brothers’ mother, to whom the album is dedicated, inexorably building from quiet and contemplative to a brutal conclusion.

“While you drift away/From all the plagues of this world/You’re put out of misery, giant monster”

At times, Magma can be a little turgid, artistic and pretentious, but it has an honest heart and builds experimentally on the foundations of what makes Gojira great. It’s an intriguing evolution in their career and a bold move by a band with such an established sound. It may divide fans, but creativity often does and metalheads can be rather petty. Magma is a nuanced, artistic statement that dares to move away from the band’s roots, and, though it’s not perfect, you can’t help but admire that.

 

9) Statues – Black Peaks

Black Peaks are a difficult band to describe. In trying to explain their sound, I went to Wikipedia, which seemingly has similar issues in pinning down their genre: “Black Peaks have been described as progressive rock, hardcore punk, heavy metal, math rock, post-rock, alternative rock and sludge metal and have been compared to the likes of MastodonOceansizeSystem of a DownMuseTool and The Dillinger Escape Plan.” That sounds like far too disparate a range of comparisons to mean anything, but, somehow, Black Peaks manage to blend the influences of all those bands at once, and simultaneously sound fresh.

img_4094A lot of this is down to the versatile voice of singer, Will Gardner who switches from high-pitched screams, brutally low vocals, falsetto singing and everything inbetween effortlessly. The fantastic single Saviour sums up this band with five-and-a-half minutes, running through every sound you can imagine – frenetic math breakdowns, ethereal sections, bellowed hooks over sludgy riffs. This is a band with versatility – from the punky Glass Built Castles, to the contrasting considered verses and screamed choruses of Say You Will, to Statues of Shame which goes from a Deftones-esque alt. rock sound to full-on Dillinger Escape Plan insanity. There’s a lot to enjoy on Black Peaks’ genre-defying debut and, though it can be somewhat unfocused at times, Statues is a highly satisfying first release from one of the most exciting bands to emerge in 2016.

“I’m safe here, wrapped in stone/Because your saviour saves his own”


8) Hollowed-Out Planetoid – Josh Middleton Project

The first (and hopefully not last) solo release by the Sylosis frontman sees the ridiculously talented guitarist take his art to new places and great heights. Combining his sense of melody, and thrash influences with a 70s prog vibe, Middleton channels such heavyweights as Rush and King Crimson to create a work of spacey, progressive metal. There’s a ton of riffage and soloing to be enjoyed here in a work of epic grandeur and sizable complexity. Middleton pulls it off with the help of session drummer Craig Reynolds, who approaches the task with a real eye for innovative drumwork that recalls Rush’s Neil Peart, along with shades of Marco Minneman (drummer with Steven Wilson).

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It’s a real passion project, with Middleton painting the artwork himself and handling the sales and distribution aspects too. You’ve got to admire it when an artist dedicates themselves so fully to an idea, and that enthusiasm shines through every aspect of this album. This is a brilliant work of instrumental, prog-metal, that pays homage to some of the greats whilst forging its own niche. The final solo in Returning alone is well worth the price of admission.

7) Dust – Tremonti

img_4087Mark Tremonti’s third album, Dust, continues where Cauterize left off, mixing his thrash metal influences with his irrepressible sense of melody to create a record full of blistering riffs, face-melting solos, anthemic choruses and heartfelt lyrics. Tremonti’s vocals improve with each new release, but, like CauterizeDust just can’t live up to the grandeur and splendor of his debut, All I Was.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot to enjoy here, from the gorgeous lead single with its soaring vocals, to the venomous riffery of My Last Mistake, the contrasting darkness and beauty of ballad Tore My Heart Out, and thrash anthem Catching Fire. There’s nothing bad on this third release, but some of the songs begin to blur into one, and there’s not much new to shout about. Here’s hoping that, with the next release, Tremonti  will push the boundaries of his solo project further. But in the meantime, this is a thoroughly satisfying effort.

“The whole damn thing has turned to dust/the ashes you left to bury us”


6) The Stage – Avenged Sevenfold

Probably the most unexpected release on this list, Avenged Sevenfold’s seventh studio album was originally slated for a December release. But come the end of October it suddenly dropped with a day’s warning. The title track from the album showcased a return to an older sound and I took a gamble, picking it up on the promise of this first single.

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“When did the walking apes decide that nuclear war/Was the only solution for them keeping the score?/Just wake up. Can’t you wake up?”

It’s a decision I don’t regret. Perhaps it’s thanks to being freed from their contract with Warner Bros. (resulting in a costly legal battle) or maybe it’s just the direction they would’ve pursued regardless, but The Stage is a significant return to form for the quintet. Hail to the King, whilst no means bad, was a somewhat derivative heavy metal album, although it’s final three tracks (Coming HomePlanets, and Acid Rain) were fantastic, the rest of the album was relatively mediocre and, as much as I hate to say it, a low point in their discography, attracting accusations of plagiarism of such heavy metal greats as Metallica.

However, The Stage sounds like a mix between the proggy classic City of Evil and the gothic grandeur of Nightmare. Machine-gun fire drumming, heavily conceptual lyrics, a fifteen minute long epic finale, Synyster Gates busting out luscious lead licks and sublime solos at every turn – this is Avenged Sevenfold being everything they’re meant to be. The addition of Bruce Wackerman on drums was a fantastic decision, as he ties the whole thing together with innovative and intense drumming truly worthy of The Rev’s legacy.

There’s a lot of great songs that’ll stand the test of time. Creating God is a great mid-tempo number with some incredible fretwork – there’s no denying Syn keeps attaining new levels of mastery of his instrument; Roman Sky is a beautiful ballad featuring a gorgeous string section reminiscent of the orchestral moments on City of Evil, and title track The Stage could fit neatly onto either Nightmare or Avenged Sevenfold.

The album’s real treat, however, is the epic, 15-minute long prog masterpiece Exist, which, apart from having a 4 minute intro/build-up and some superlative playing, also features a monologue on existence from eminent scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson – that’s how you end an album. A stunning return to form.

 

5) Broken Lines – Giraffe Tongue Orchestra

I don’t like the term “supergroup”. It just seems a dumb way to describe a band formed by already-established musicians by implying that a collaboration between many great artists can somehow be better than any other band. So-called “supergroups” are often disappointing: AudioslaveAxewound, or the cringeworthy Roadrunner United project all felt like lacklustre efforts that ended up trying to cash-in on the established popularity of their members.

img_4088Fortunately Giraffe Tongue Orchestra belong to the same school as Them Crooked Vultures and The Liquid Tension Experiment – bands formed of fantastic musicians who are just doing their best to create music, and have no interest in playing off their celebrity. Formed of Alice in Chains singer William Duvall, The Dillinger Escape Plan founder and lead guitarist, Ben Weinman, Mastodon guitarist, Brent Hinds, Pete Griffin, bassist of Dethklok, and Thomas Pridgen, drummer with The Mars Volta, it’s a pretty crazy line-up of disparate, talented individuals and it’s hard to know what to expect.

“It’s not like they told us/And now they can’t hold us/The lines are all broken/We’re taking over now”

The project ultimately ends up being a limitlessly satisfying and highly catchy rock band, incorporating occasional flourishes of their constituent parts. It’s mostly Duvall’s vocals and Weinman’s punky guitar holding the project together. They’re not tearing down any genre walls down or trying to create a hybrid of their respective bands’ sounds. This is a new work in and of itself, taking punchy, anthemic rock in strange new directions. It’s not the most innovative thing ever, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable – from facemelting opener Adapt or Die to the profoundly weird yet singalong closer Broken LinesGiraffe Tongue Orchestra’s debut album is an entertaining and rocky adventure, hopefully the first release in a long career that could go in any number of strange and original directions.

 

4) To Be Everywhere is To Be Nowhere – Thrice

No matter what you think of Thrice, To Be Everywhere is To Be Nowhere is the album we all needed in 2016 and, of any of the albums on this list it’s without doubt the most timely.

Their first release since 2011’s Major/Minor, the album continues on the path its predecessor carved out, but amps up the anger into a raw work of solid, impenetrable, hard rock. There’s no bullshit, no messing around, this is 42 minutes of unadulterated good music. Kensrue’s voice has become even more gravelly, the guitars are somehow more distorted, the drums are hitting harder. It’s Major/Minor but on steroids.

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But what I really love about this album is how contemporary it is. A lot of music is about abstract things. To take the examples on this list, Devin Townsend’s Transcendence is, broadly speaking, about Devin trying to learn to be less controlling and be comfortable collaborating with others in the creative process, The Stage is a concept album about Artificial Intelligence and mankind’s hubris, Dissociation deals with a band’s past, present and disbandment (these are somewhat gross generalisations but their the underlying themes in all cases). But in this album, Thrice are really dealing with contemporary issues and current affairs.

Lead single Black Honey is a metaphor for America’s wars in the Middle East and the terrorism that has consequently come about, Blood on the Sand is a damning indictment of gun violence in America, and opening track Hurricane just seems to sum up the sheer awfulness of 2016: “It’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain until the levy breaks/a tidal wave of fear and pain washes us away/I’m gonna fight into the night until nothing else remains/How do we find harbour from the hurricane?”

3) Fever Daydream – The Black Queen

a1373092198_10When people heard that The Dillinger Escape Plan frontman, Greg Puciato, was going to be fronting a new band, they probably weren’t expecting this. Far removed from the intensity and chaos of metal’s most cerebral group, The Black Queen is an electronica outfit composed of Puciato, Joshua Eustis of Puscifer and Nine Inch Nails, and Steven Alexander, former tech for Dillinger and Nine Inch Nails.

Mixing ambient noise, 80s electro-pop, and the taste for avant-garde that all the members’ respective former outfits have held in spades, Fever Daydream manages to pay tribute to the giants of ambient, electronica and synthpop whilst creating something original and exciting in and of itself. Whether it’s the sexy stomp of Secret Scream, or the cool vulnerability of Ice to Never, or the ominous minimalism on Distanced, or the omnipresent wall-of-sound on Apocalypse Morning, the tracks always hit their mark and display astonishing diversity for a debut album.

“I feel your secret scream next to me/I need to see you open up for me/I need to get you inside of me”

The production is sublime, Puciato demonstrates a natural affinity for clean vocals – whether whispered or delivered in a sensual rasp – that contrasts completely with the work he’s known for, and Eustis and Alexander consistently give Puciato amazing soundscapes over which to work his vocal magic. It’s a consistently surprising gem of an album, and one can only hope they release further superlative works in future.

2) Dissonance – Dillinger Escape Plan

The swansong of one of the most innovative, energetic bands of the last twenty years, Dissociation is a fitting end to The Dillinger Escape Plan’s incredible career. Uncompromising and raw, yet possessed of a dark vulnerability, their sixth and final album continues in the same aggressive, dissonant vein as the rest of their work, but takes it to another level. It’s hard to believe a band can do so much with angry noise, but Dillinger continue to raise the bar for themselves with each release. Less accessible than 2013’s One of Us is the KillerDissociation is more stream-of-conscious, more firing off on random synapses, more experimental – it takes everything about the band to its logical extreme.

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Opening track Limerent Death is everything we’ve come to expect from the unrelenting quintet: Weinman’s schizophrenic discords and Puciato’s guttural vocals unleash their expected hell and build to an incredible ending where the tempo launches off, building faster and faster as Greg’s warcry of “I gave you everything you wanted/you were everything to me” draws on more and more rage until it becomes incoherent screaming – sheer aggression, bottled and sold. Second single Symptom of Terminal Illness is the radio-friendly choice, but a fantastically catchy and dark song demonstrating Puciato’s lyrical prowess; instrumental Fugue explores the dark-ambient electronica vibe that reigned on Ire Works; the rest of the album consistently delivers on the band’s trademark beautiful chaos: switching from visceral rage to jazzy interlude to heartfelt crooning.

And then of course we get to album closer DissociationDillinger have always delivered on their hauntingly gorgeous ballads: take Mouth of GhostsParasitic TwinsWidower and One of Us is the Killer. All tap into that eerie Nine Inch Nails-style ambience without losing what it means to be a Dillinger song. The Dillinger Escape Plan’s final song (okay, they’ve announced they might release more material from the Dissocation sessions, but we’re talking in an “official” capacity) doesn’t disappoint. Mournful strings give way to an Ire Works-esque sinister electronica vibe, and Greg offers some gorgeous ethereal vocals much like those he delivers in his new band The Black Queen.

“Finding a way to die alone is better than what I was shown”.

Dillinger’s final album is a metalyrical exploration of their own career, with many of the songs dwelling on the metaphorical death of the band – what it means to stay fresh, to be a unit, to fight, to worry; it cuts right to the heart of what it means to be a group who started out as a novelty, who changed line-up many times, who fought and argued and hated, who had to deal with personal demons, who grew from a niche presence to a genre-defining group. It’s a fantastic summation of one of the most interesting and innovative bands to grace the scene.

1) Transcendence – The Devin Townsend Project

Anyone who knows me won’t find this surprising. Devin Townsend is my favourite musician ever (even though I only discovered him two years ago). He’s got about 25 albums to his name and the majority are really damn good. He has a unique style that infuses everything he does – whether it’s an ambient folk album or a work of insane prog metal. Transcendence had a lot of expectations to live up to, especially as some fans were beginning to worry he’d lost his mojo with a couple of weaker recent releases. Their worries were unfounded.

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Transcendence is a work of superlative, enjoyable Townsendian genius, drawing on the pomp and poppyness of releases such as Addicted! and Epicloud and marrying them to his old progressive style as found on Ocean Machine: Biomech and Infinity. There’s a lot to enjoy here, as well as some themes and background to immerse oneself in.

The album kicks off with a rerecorded version of Truth from the 1998 album Infinity, before jumping straight into the epic Stormbending which features a gorgeous tapped mid-section and an ending that sends chills down the spine as Devin operatically declaims: “All we’re offering is a chance to be loved”. After this come Failure and Secret Sciences which continue in the prog-pop vein, with a couple of awe-inspiring solos and singalong choruses, the nine minute epic Higher takes the listener to all sorts of places without ever sounding out-of-place, there’s a video of Devin mixing the enjoyable Stars on YouTube if you’re interested, title track Transcendence marches along inexorably building to its wall-of-sound conclusion, Offer Your Light provides some Addicted!-era style relief, before From the Heart which reimagines a song Townsend heard at yoga, and topping off the album is a cover of Ween’s classic alt. rock anthem Transdermal Celebration.

It’s a brilliant album from start-to-finish, every track fitting neatly into the collective whole. It’s also the first album on which Dev has relinquished creative control, allowing the input of his band members to tap into previously untapped potential, and their flourishes add to the whole of the work. And if you get the bonus disc version, part two, Holding Patterns, features a collection of demos that didn’t make the final cut. Of course, this being Dev, the demos are impeccably produced, fully-realised songs, some of which are just as enjoyable as the main album, particularly Celestial SignalsTime Overload and Lexus which are all great additions to his overall body of work.

It’s Devin Townsend being Devin – a fantastic summation of his variety and sense of grandeur. He’s still got it.

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