20. Haken – Affinity
Haken’s Affinity takes listeners on a voyage to the future of the past by breaking new ground in revisiting previous glories of progressive rock and not staying locked in the 70s, like many of their neo-prog cohorts.
The 70s: it was a heady time when Peter Gabriel was still leading Genesis through intricate epics and Yes led everyone to some sort of New Age absolution through increasingly long and convoluted epics grounded in the European classical tradition. A time when artist Roger Dean illustrated musicians’ dreams. A time that ended when punk was created specifically to stomp this sound into submission.
The 80s: dinosaur bands like Yes and Genesis had recovered from the civilization-killing asteroid of punk and refined their sound into shorter songs that hid the intricacy of the playing behind a pop sheen on insanely listenable albums like 90125 and Abacab. Haken has taken a similar path on Affinity: though the songs aren’t shorter than their previous 70s-rooted masterwork, The Mountain, they are painted in the synth-driven tones and accessible melodies of the 80s. Any doubt is erased by song titles like “1985” and the color scheme of vocalist Ross Jennings clothes and glasses on the ensuing Affinitour. Their guided tour of the genre rolls through the album, and one of the highlights, “The Architect” featuring harsh vocals from Einar Solberg of Leprous. The path from the 80s through Dream Theater through the Opeth-led turn of the century is clear: let Haken be your guide.
19. A Sense Of Gravity – Atrament
A Sense of Gravity’s debut album Travail was far and away the most pleasant surprise to come out of 2014, combining every single good thing about progressive death metal in a neat, cohesive package; be it brilliant twin guitar harmonies, soaring vocals, or even stunning keyboard solos. Topping a debut like that is no easy task, however, especially after a fair amount of lineup changes. But on Atrament, A Sense of Gravity maintain the spirit that made Travail so great, easily meeting the high standards on the debut with a ceaseless onslaught of jaw-dropping musical passages.
With the addition of second guitarist Morgan Wick particularly invigorating the band’s songwriting, Atrament covers even more musical ground than its predecessor, rendering the final delivery often almost cinematic in its scope (which is perhaps to be expected, given guitarist Brendon Williams’ background in film scoring). Carving out space for himself over the dense instrumentation, vocalist C.J. Jenkins impressively reins in the chaos, roaring through the riffage while occasionally doling out hooks left and right for good measure. Atrament is a breath of fresh air, and yet another stunning release by one of the best and most promising young bands out there today.
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18. Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy of Molten Bones
2016 proved to be an excellent year for black metal, seeing a large number of releases from a wide array of notable bands. However, no year could truly be marked an “excellent year in black metal” without France’s own occult masters of black metal, Deathspell Omega, unleashing a new slab of unholy terror onto the world.
The Synarchy of Molten Bones, the band’s sixth studio album, plays on many of the key elements that have led them to be held in such high acclaim in the first place. For the most part, this largely revolves around Deathspell Omega’s mastery of contrasts. Ferocious black metal is counter acted by ghostly choral arrangements, gelling together instantly, but also feeling as if they are worlds apart. It truly seems as if for every moment of intense disarray and chaos the band presents, blasting through them all with a high level of technical proficiency, they are able to meet it with an equally as impressive moment of relative-calm. Even more interesting is when they do both at once, such as on “Famished for Breath”, when the vocal screeches and blasts of the drums are met only with a highly melodic, seemingly distance riff. Of course all of this is what Deathspell Omega has been doing since Si Monvmentvm Reqvires, Circvmspice, but when they pull it off this flawlessly every single time it’s a bit hard to find any reason to complain.
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17. Clipping – Splendor and Misery
2014’s CLPPNG was a wildly experimental thrill ride, combining all sorts of mind-boggling sampling with MC Daveed Diggs’ unbelievable technical skill. Between rapping over constantly shifting time signatures, an alarm clock, and even just a single sustained high-pitched note, there seemed to be no limit to what the three-piece made possible within the realm of experimental hip-hop, and CLPPNG appropriately found a comfortable spot on our Best of 2014 list.
Fast forward two years with a Hamilton stint in between, and we’re presented with Splendor and Misery. A brilliant concept album with heavy Afrofuturistic underpinnings, it’s probably not the sequel to CLPPNG anyone expected, but arguably all the better for it. Trying to summarize the extent of Splendor and Misery’s story in a short blurb like this one is more or less a fruitless endeavour (and Eden’s already done a stellar Clipping-approved three part job of analyzing it) but rest assured Diggs and co. expertly navigate through time and space, weaving the gripping tale of a lone slave on a ship that’s more alive than it seems. There’s lots of unpack within the depths of the album, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any other 2016 release that rewards attentive revisits quite like Splendor and Misery does.
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16. If These Trees Could Talk – The Bones Of A Dying World
If These Trees Could Talk typify post-metal at its absolute best, and third album The Bones of a Dying World is a thunderous and soaring triumph which encapsulates the raw power the genre beholds. Although carefully crafted and impeccably performed, it’s the transcendent qualities of the album which make it – to borrow an overused term – epic.
Passages of ambient soundscapes take float along like a mellow breeze before roaring guitars and percussion come crashing down like lightning storms. It has all the hallmarks of post-rock/metal, but it’s executed with such finesse and urgency that it serves as a reminder of why it’s a genre so many of us can’t get enough of. That said, The Bones of a Dying World is an album with layers and considerable depth, and despite its bleak title, it’s anything but a gloomy experience. Take “The Giving Tree’’ for example, which is considerably upbeat and evokes feelings of hope. On the other hand, “The Here and the Hereafter’’ sounds sad and reflective, but beautifully so. The album encapsulates a range of moods, tones and emotions, and that’s what makes it such a rewarding and impactful listening experience.
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15. Thank You Scientist – Stranger Heads Prevail
When New Jersey progressive outfit Thank You Scientist announced their sophomore follow-up to the incredible Maps Of Non-Existent Places earlier this year, and, furthermore, that that album would be released on Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria fame’s Evil Ink Records, our mouths salivated to an almost dangerous extreme. For many of us here and elsewhere, Maps was one of the, if not the best, releases of 2013, and expectations could not have been higher. For many bands this kind of pressure would create the kind of second-guessing and compromises that so often mar sophomore releases from promising bands. But Thank You Scientist have no time for such trifles. Stranger Heads Prevail not only is a worthy successor to Maps in every way that the previous album succeeded, but the band’s commitment to pushing themselves creatively and fundamentally reaped enormous rewards in ways few of us could’ve predicted.
From the harder edge of tracks like standout “Caverns” to the humongous choruses of “Mr. Invisible” and “Blue Automatic,” the more intricate and beautiful horn and string arrangements on tracks like “A Wolf In Cheap Clothing” and “Need More Input,” and whatever the fuck the jukebox shuffle of “Rube Goldberg Variations” is, Stranger Heads Prevail is more daring and experimental than what came before it without sacrificing any of the aspects that made them so fun and addictive in the first place. It’s with great pleasure to see the band finally getting the kind of wider-spread recognition they deserve, and needless to say, we cannot wait to see whatever they manage to concoct next.
14. Astronoid – Air
Had the term not been unfortunately co-opted by the terribly oxymoronic Christian death metal genre, Astronoid’s exhilarating full-length debut, Air, might appropriately be described as “life metal.” The album brims with positively beautiful high-speed riffing, and the cherubic sounds of Brett Boland’s high-pitched, emotive vocals. Air comes out of the gate with the clever “Incandescent,” which serves to introduce each element of the band’s sound by adding it on top of the cascading riffing. Though much more riff-oriented than My Bloody Valentine, the legendary alt/noise rockers are arguably the most obvious antecedent for Astronoid. Like MBV, Astronoid relies on an absolute wall of guitars, a technique similarly co-opted by spiritual brethren Alcest, though these two bands’ music lies on opposite ends of the spectrum of introspection. By time the blast beat kicks in for the end of “Incandescent,” it’s a feeling similar to getting to the top of the first hill on a roller coaster and knowing it’s all thrills from here on out. This feeling is confirmed by the intricate riffery that opens the second tune “Up And Atom” (oh these punsters!). Other highlights include “Tin Foil Hats” and the closer “Trail Of Sulfur.” A band to watch in upcoming years, as their mix of an original sound and great songwriting is a recipe for success.
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13. Fallujah – Dreamless
While Fallujah have been rather prominent for a while now, 2014’s The Flesh Prevails was a watershed moment for the band, as it saw them combine their tech death sound with a heavy atmospheric sound and creative usage of the whammy bar on guitars for lead playing. While this idea was so fresh that its existence was enough to put the band on a whole different map, the execution was sometimes lacking coherence, with the band almost seeming like two separate compositional entities mashed together. Dreamless sees the band seamlessly blending these two separate aspects of their sound, and building on it.
Dreamless is so cohesive and so well made. The heavy sections with all their trem picking and blast beating lead perfectly into the smooth leads and electronics. The band have adapted a dreamgaze flair to act as the glue, and it works perfectly. There are even a few songs that are barely metal, and they somehow manage to not sound out-of-place with the rest of the album. Fallujah have learned that buildup and release are essential to make their songs have lasting impact, and the set of varied tools they have on Dreamless give them the ability to do this with brilliant ease. Dreamless is fantastic, in every sense of the word.
12. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust
Gorguts has always been known for their ability to push the boundaries of death metal to their furthest point, so it came as little to no surprise when they announced their newest – and perhaps most ambitious – project; the 33 minute long Pleiades’ Dust. However, what is so impressive and what makes the track so captivating (and yes it is a singular track) is not its length, but the level of consistency and intrigue it manages to maintain throughout. There are definitive “movements” to it, well defined sections that help to give the track enough variety to maintain the listener’s interest, but it is easily discernible as one continuous track.
This feat is commendable on its own when looking at just about any genre of music, but becomes even more so when viewing it through the “death metal” genre tag that Gorguts has often become associated with. Death metal is, after all, recognizably less tied up in atmosphere and epic feel than its sister genres of black and doom metal. Often it is short and to the point, packing a punch in a neatly wrapped package. Death metal is all about quickly made points and shock value, making it akin to the slasher horror movie. But if the average death metal record is akin to the slasher horror movie, than Pleiades’ Dust is the psychological masterpiece that keeps you turning on every light switch for weeks. It is an expansive masterpiece, captivating the listener from the get-go and erasing any preconceived notions that a 33 minute death metal track may be a chore to get through.
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11. Ihsahn – Arktis.
Arktis. by the legendary Ihsahn is one of the greatest progressive albums we’ve had this year, to the point that it borders on being a masterpiece. There are two reasons behind why this album works so damn well. The first is that each of the ten tracks has its own unique characteristics, to the point that the record is a veritable mini-encyclopaedia of rock and metal. Blues, classic rock, 70s era prog, black metal, death metal, classic heavy metal; this is just a taste of what we encounter. We have the intertwining of harsh and clean vocals, prominent synths, bluesy guitar riffs, twin guitar leads, eerie atmospherics, pummelling drums, gorgeous harmonies and so much more. Guest spots abound, with the angelic vocals of Leprous’ Einar Solberg, the crooning saxophone of Shining’s Jurgen Munkeby, and the excellent guitar and vocal work of Trivium’s Matt Heafy.
“South Winds” manages to combine subdued black metal vocals with electronic beats and synths, commanding you to move your body. It’s pretty simple: when Ihsahn commands, you obey. Finally, this masterclass of an album concludes with a lesson in how to write an album closer, with “Celestial Violence” meeting and exceeding every lofty expectation that the album had hitherto established. I’m not even going to bother describing it, this is a song which needs to be heard (in context) to be believed. Now we started by saying there are two reasons that this album works well, and it’s time to share the second reason. Despite the disparity of sounds and genres to be found, this record somehow manages to flow beautifully as a whole. It shouldn’t work, and it shouldn’t make sense, but Ihsahn is a mercurial man and he manages to pull it off. If you’re a fan of progressive music, then you’re doing yourself a serious disservice by not checking this record out.