Contrary to what many other sites and publications would have you believe, 2016 is, in fact, still not over yet. So while the first major wave of year-end lists has hit us this week, we’re here to tell you that there are still a bunch of recently-released albums that you seriously need to consider before settling on your own favorites for the year. It’s certainly true that by the time November rolls around the pace of high-profile and superb albums tends to drop off, especially compared to the September/October rush. There was some truly great music that came out this past month though, and the fact that all of it and any music released next month will be automatically disqualified by default from most end-of-year lists is both annoying and completely shitty for those bands. You’ll hear us talking about the problems and merits of end-of-year listmaking plenty in the coming days and weeks, but for now let’s just give a moment to some bands who will inevitably be shafted and discounted by far too many.
Aenaon – Hypnosophy
There are few things that are as simultaneously thrilling and aggravating for us here at Heavy Blog than late-year out-of-the-blue stunner releases. Just when you think you have your end-of-year list in pretty good shape and at least think you know what few remaining albums to expect that could find a place on there, something comes along that completely throws your assumptions into total disarray. Such is the case with the experimental/progressive black metal of Aenaon and their third album Hypnosophy. We have fellow editor Noyan – who we’ll be putting out a full review of this album from later today – to thank for just happening upon their Bandcamp recently and introducing us to them, and I truly do thank him because this album is incredible.
Hypnosophy is nothing short of a gift from the progressive extreme metal gods as Aenaon manage to combine truly experimental and genre-defying musical strokes with an incredible flair for the dramatic and mastery of hugely addictive riffs, hooks, and choruses. Pinning the band to any particular strand of extreme metal is both difficult and somewhat counter-productive as they manage to deftly weave in plenty of elements from black, melodic death, classic progressive metal, and elsewhere. The easiest comparison may come from some of Dødheimsgard’s more experimental and theatric black metal work, but Aenaon, for all of their more knotty and avant flourishes, seem to be far more concerned about putting together something far more accessible and, dare I say it, entertaining. That cognitive dissonance is on display throughout, but nowhere is it as evident as third track “Earth Tomb,” which at its heart is a huge, dramatic slab of melodeath – complete with one of the most fun choruses to sing along to that I’ve stumbled upon this year – that could’ve easily strayed into ultimate cheese territory were it not for their other elements and deft instrumentation providing an interesting context for the rest.
Speaking of instrumentation, this wouldn’t be a proper entry from me if I didn’t mention the aspect of this album that drew me in initially, which is the band’s fantastic and full integration of the sax. Unlike most of the bands I’ve highlighted recently for including sax in their music, Aenaon don’t use it much as a solo instrument but more as a full extension of the band’s overall sound. You can hear it get its own melodies and riffs throughout the album, though for my money it doesn’t get much better than the sax/guitar unison riffs throughout “Fire Walk With Me,” which culminates in some excellent teapot squeals by the end. Sax, of course, is just one of many aspects and touches throughout this album that really makes it excel, but its strength comes as something much greater than the sum of its disparate parts. The year’s not over yet, and albums like Hypnosophy are proof in why it’s so important to always be searching for something great regardless of when in the year it falls.
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A Sense of Gravity – Atrament
By now, A Sense of Gravity are a common feature in the skies of Heavy Blog and with good reason. Progressive metal is an easy genre to give up on and most of our staff members have done so repeatedly. It’s just so replete with navel gazing and repetitiveness, coupled with hard to swallow cheese, that it’s super difficult not to get frustrated with the wasted potential. However, A Sense of Gravity, on both Travail and Atrament, manage to connect deeply with the core elements which make progressive metal great, introducing some much needed freshness to the all too common tropes.
As we’ve said before, Atrament is more focused and concerned with cohesion than Travail was. As such, it’s last far-ranging but this more single minded approach also enables it to dig deeper into progressive metal and what makes it tick. Once it finds those core beliefs, it reiterates them again and again, driving its point and aesthetic home. Thus, it appeals intensely to the convinced who might have “fallen off the wagon”, bringing them into the fold of progressive metal once again. This is exemplified mostly by the composition and structure on the album, more readily accessible to listeners from all walks of life.
Mostly perhaps, Atrament gives us hope for the rest of the band’s career. Where we might have been concerned that Travail was a single, genius flourish, Atrament tells us that A Sense of Gravity have staying power. Obviously willing to examine their identity, we hope that the band are able to merge the creative forces of their debut with the solid delivery of their sophomore effort to create the all elusive third album masterpiece. If they pull it off, we’re more than certain it will be a record for the ages. For now, we have the stylize intonations of Atrament to enjoy, exploring every part of its dense, technical tracks.
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Brutai – Born
Brutai is hopefully a name you’ll be hearing a lot of in hard rock and heavy metal circles. Having just released their first album, Born, the progressive quintet from the UK are already making waves to progressive listeners by casually subverting the genre. Their progressive stylings, from tone to construction, are infused with alternative rock sensibilities to create concise, easily-enjoyed, and readily-consumable jams that range from fun to heartfelt in the span of a ten-track album. Whether you listen to Born in pieces or from beginning to end, the experience is sure to be worthwhile.
Setentia – Darkness Transcend
The genre of atmospheric death metal continues to grow in Gorguts’ wake. This year alone we’ve had excellent entries into the field by way of Gorguts, Departe, and Ulcerate, and now we’ve been granted a late comer in the field with New Zealand newcomers Setentia. Their Blood Music backed debut album Darkness Transcend provides a nuanced spin on the style, with a focus on harmonic layering that allows a hint of emotional depth in a style that can tend to be sterile with its cold and chaotic machinations.
The tremelo-picked progressions and blastbeats incorporate a blackened element that allows for some versatility and pulling influence from Deathspell Omega (who also dropped a new record this month) and Blut Aus Nord. Darkness Transcend cuts deep with a fierce chaos, contrasted against cascading melodic crescendos and atmospheric guitar work. Pulling sounds from all directions, Darkness Transcend is a fresh take on a narrowing field of music, however recent it may be, creating a blueprint rather than a clone of established works.
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Jim James – Eternally Even
As effortless as it was to fixate on the psychedelic jams unrolled by Jim James on his sophomore solo album, I simultaneously found myself reflecting heavily on the title of album opener “Hide in Plain Sight.” Reason being? Eternally Even is the first time I’ve ever heard anything James has had to offer. This being the case, it made me wonder how I’d let James or his work fronting My Morning Jacket hide in plain sight and totally fly under my radar. Now, this assumes that this latest album is indicative of everything he has to offer, and frankly, that’ll be a project for another day. For now, I’m just thankful I pressed play on the most chilled out – and arguably best – psychedelic rock albums I’ve heard in recent memory.
High on a buzz from a cocktail mixed with booze aged from the seventies and mixers fresh from the store shelf, Eternally Even presents a strikingly relevant retro sound. A recurring but varied analog synth melody sounds like Ray Manzarek of The Doors playing psychedelic drone, and this refrain morphs around both fuzzed out rock tunes as well as more upbeat, indie-leaning cuts. There’s quite a bit of jamming on the record, especially the alluringly repetitive “Same Old Lie” and its hazy refrain of the song’s title. Lyrically, this track and others like “Here in Spirit” sport a political tone aimed at critiquing political indifference. It’s a fitting theme for a record so comfortably nestled in the sounds of the seventies.
More often than not, November and December albums have a way of grazing my attention without establishing a firm footing on my AOTY list, largely due to the short gestation period before year’s end. But as each track on Eternally Even unfolded, it not only further solidified its spot on my list, but continued to creep upward in my rankings. It may have taken a while for me to hear what James has to offer as a songwriter, but from my vantage point, it seems like I picked the perfect time to start.
Khonsu – The Xun Protectorate
Oddball releases that are hard to describe are always my favorites, but I gave Aenaon to Nick so that I can talk about Khonsu. Featuring the brother of the mastermind behind Keep of Kalessin, Khonsu can be described as progressive cyber black metal. Yeah, I invented that label and it sounds silly, but it’s totally accurate. And it’s not as cheesy as it sounds. What we have here is an utterly weird soundscape that is only achievable when one guy just goes deep into the tank and conceives a grandiose concept then dumps it into music. Weird, retro-sci-fi synths, off-kilter singing and an industrial vibe juxtaposed with a progressive black metal framework is the end result here.
The Xun Protectorate is almost the 70s science fiction counterpart to the 70s fantasy aesthetic of Keep of Kalessin. And while Khonsu’s sound is not as polished as the recent output of their brother band, that lack of focus also lets them take chances on less conventional elements. Sometimes it pays off, other times it doesn’t, but either way it’s so fascinating that the end result is something that is impossible not to be drawn to for fans of the genre.
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Saor – Guardians
This is such an overused these word these days, and I hate having to draw on it in any capacity, but the only proper description for the project that is Saor is “epic.” Andy Marshall, the mind behind the music, draws from a deep well of folk, black, and death metal inspiration to craft a sound he calls “atmospheric Celtic metal,” a musical celebration of the cultures of the pre-Christian cultures of Scotland, England, and Wales that brings together the best parts of extreme metal into an apotheosis of the naturalist sound many in the genre work towards tirelessly. At times reminiscent of Summoning or Windir in his pursuit to conjure up sweeping, beautiful images of the grassy, fog-covered slopes of Great Britain, at other moments more similar to the honed-in, all-out battle anthems of Eluvietie, bagpipes and flutes piercing through the thick, crunchy guitars and pounding drums, and sometimes using enormous, soaring, somewhat-folky melodies that seem straight out of the Insomnium playbook, Saor brings together the best in these genres to form a sound that is at once wholly its own and intimately familiar.
In my opinion, Guardians is the best album so far from the project, but there’s a pretty strong case to be made for both of the previous albums as well, 2014’s Aura and 2013’s Roots (released originally as an album by Arsaidh, a project which turned into Saor the following year). Neither of the previous two, however, have captivated me as much as the frosty soundscapes this one offers up. There’s beautiful tranquility to be found here, a Romantic return to a landscape much greater than ourselves, a sense of grandeur and purpose that can’t be emulated anywhere else. Saor takes you on a journey to Marshall’s primordial stomping grounds, and you’ll return better off for having taken the trip.
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Other Notable Releases
Atsuko Chiba – The Memory Empire (post-rock/hip-hop/fusion)
The Memory Empire is Montréal’s Atsuko Chiba‘s second release in 2016. Though a follow-up to Figure & Ground, the sonic and stylistic differences, from the production to composition, differentiate this post-rock endeavor from its predecessor. Infused with cleverly-implemented hip-hop grooves and thick bass allures, the spacey guitars and clever drum accents craft a fun, poppy experience that stands apart from other releases in the genre.
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Blueneck – The Outpost (post-rock)
The veteran UK post-rock outfit returns with an album that is a bit darker at times and plays around with more electronic flourishes than their previous output but is just as brilliantly moody as ever.
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Burial – Young Death/Nightmarket (ambient/dubstep)
The reclusive London producer hasn’t released any solo material since 2013’s stunning Rival Dealer EP, and though Young Death/Nightmarket is only a 2-track single release, both songs are more than enough to remind us why there is no one out there operating at the level he is and why he can continue to surprise us time and time again.
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Okkyung Lee & Christian Marclay – Amalgam (experimental classical)
Amalgam poses a question most avant-garde listeners never thought to ask – what the fuck would a cello/turntable collaboration sound like? The answer is a nearly 40 minute foray into one of the most unique sonic hellscapes you’ll experience this year.
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Tumbleweed Dealer – TDIII – Tokes, Hatred & Caffeine (stoner metal)
Take a splash of post rock, add to it stoner and math rock, and you get this record. It’s equal parts groovy, heavy and fuzzy, channeling the best of three worlds to create a unique and convincing instrumental experience.
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Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy Of Molten Bones (black metal)
Despite their sound beginning to fatigue, it’s still a good year when Deathspell drops new music. After the group’s immense body of work to date, there band can only take their sound so far while staying fresh. After the group’s brief fling with the vaguely hardcore-leaning Drought, The Synarchy Of Molten Bones takes a swing back to a style more reminiscent of Paracletus. Longtime DSO fans will find much to love; the only pain is the short runtime.
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Metallica – Hardwired… To Self-Destruct (thrash metal)
It’s a new Metallica album! It’s impossible not to talk about this one in some capacity. They’re back, and they’ve still got it. While the album is longer than it should be, this is some of their best material since …And Justice For All, which is quite impressive given the band’s storied career.
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service (hip-hop)
The Men – Devil Music (garage rock)
Trees of Eternity – Hour of the Nightingale (gothic metal)
Vicky Chow – A O R T A (experimental classical/solo piano)