Let’s face it, 2016 has not been the best year in human history, but it has been an exceptionally good year for music. Seemingly every week something new would capture my imagination and become indispensible. Due to the magnitude of choices putting together a year-end list became a daunting exercise.
What follows is not necessarily a traditional “top 10”, it’s a condensed selection of albums that made the most impact on me throughout the year.
Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts
The Fall of Hearts was the easiest selection for this list; its place has been secure for months. Nobody was more surprised than me as I had previously been ambivalent about Katatonia but this gorgeous, immaculately crafted album completely won me over. It’s a subtle, layered album that bears repeated listening, something I did almost daily for several months. The Fall of Hearts is their most mature and fully realized work to date, a rare instance of a band in their second decade who continue to evolve and improve their already unique sound.
Favorite tracks: Takeover, Last Song Before The Fade, Shifts
While the various factions of Opeth fans of different eras clash online, fruitlessly fighting for supremacy…Mikael Akerfeldt continues to laugh and do whatever the hell he wants. Sorceress continues Opeth’s exploration of vintage instrumentation that began with the controversial Heritage in 2011 and the more straight-forward and polished Pale Communion in 2014. Sorceress goes against expectations by going for a rawer, heavier and more experimental approach. It’s a stylistically diverse collection of songs with gorgeous folk rockers, heavy Prog epics and 70s inspired jams co-existing harmoniously.
Favorite tracks: A Fleeting Glance, The Wilde Flowers, The Ward (bonus track)
Messenger – Threnodies
This sadly under-appreciated gem was easily one of the most enjoyable albums I heard all year. Messenger had the ability to work within the sonic framework of classic Prog, the instrumentation and vibe, yet not become a slave to it. Threnodies may offer up flashes of the past via inspiration; Wishbone Ash, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, CSN&Y; yet it sounds simultaneously modern and wholly relevant in 2016. Sadly the band has prematurely called it a day, but despite that I wouldn’t want you to miss out on hearing what they’ve left behind.
Favorite tracks: Oracles Of War, Balearic Blue, Celestial Spheres
Seven Impale – Contrapasso
This thoroughly and wonderfully insane sextet from Norway was my favorite discovery of the year. Contrapasso is the type of album it’s best to just experience because describing it accurately is an exercise in futility. You’ll find elements of King Crimson, jazz-fusion, early 70s heavy metal and a love of the absurd, but that still just gives you a vague impression. The mixture of wonderfully heavy guitar and bass riffs, improvisational saxophone excursions and entertainingly theatrical vocals I find completely addictive.
Favorite tracks: Languor, Heresy, Inertia
Gong – Rejoice! I’m Dead!
Guitarist/Vocalist Kavus Torabi makes the first of two appearances on my year-end list. On Rejoice! I’m Dead! he effortlessly carries on the eclectic and joyful Gong; simultaneously a love letter to the recently departed founder Daevid Allen and a thoroughly rewarding work on its own merits. It’s a wonderful collection of brief, quirky rockers and stretched-out fusion jam bliss. I love the sound of this album so much; I can’t help smiling whenever I play it. Who says Prog can’t be fun?
Favorite tracks: Rejoice!, The Unspeakable Stands Revealed, Kapital
Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden
Our second Kavus Torabi appearance is another blast of experimentally playful fun. Knifeworld sets the tone immediately with the thoroughly addictive High Aflame, an artfully arranged pop confection that is the perfect album opener. The horn section allows them to employ voicings that you don’t often here in progressive rock circles, not that this album really fits into the general guidelines of that term. In fact I’m not sure Knifeworld exists within the guidelines of anything but their own imagination. I applaud them.
Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä
And now for something truly and beautifully frightening. This Finnish quintet has crafted an avant-garde treasure, a mixture of Space Rock, Jazz and caustic Black Metal that is supremely thrilling. The arrangements are incredibly dense, building layer upon layer of guitars, synths and scorched earth vocals that threaten to become atonal cacophony, but deftly remain right on the edge. It’s challenging, intense music, but also contains much beauty. If you’re feeling brave, I highly recommend it.
Favorite tracks: Lahja, Havuluu, Vasemann Kaden Hierarkla
Haken – Affinity
I will admit that the technical end of Prog Metal is not my preferred style. I’ve never been inspired by the Dream Theater end of the spectrum, I can admire the craft, but it doesn’t generally speak to me. Haken is one of the few exceptions, a band whose audacious personality and jaw dropping musicianship manage to always remain entertaining. This is assisted by a welcome amount of dry humor that has a tendency to display itself on occasion. Affinity is their most complex and intricately constructed album yet, maybe not quite as accessible as The Mountain but just as artistically successful. The playfulness shows itself on the epic ‘1985’, a song built entirely on the instrumental sounds of the 80s that never devolves into parody and instead becomes poignant. Haken also continue to outgrow the limitations of Prog Metal, methodically expanding their musical vocabulary into new, unexpected areas. Affinity continues their winning streak of rewarding albums; I look forward to hearing where they go next.
Favorite tracks: The Architect, Red Giant, 1985
Purson – Desire’s Magic Theatre
D.M.T. is Rosalie Cunningham’s love letter to the late 60s psychedelic and early progressive rock scene and the substances that often inspired them. What keeps it from becoming just a curio is the conviction she brings to her songs and how skillfully she applies the vintage instrumental sounds to create the required effect. The influences are plentiful; Hendrix, The Doors, Jethro Tull, Jefferson Airplane, King Crimson, Curved Air; but Rosalie has taken that inspiration and applied it to her own organic and highly enjoyable compositions. It’s a fun album that is worth investigating, with or without the accompanying substances.
Favorite tracks: Electric Landlady, Pedigree Chums, The Bitter Suite
Khemmis – Hunted
In addition to Progressive Rock and Jazz I’ve also been a Heavy Metal fan for over 30 years. I don’t listen to straight-ahead metal very often these days but occasionally I’ll hear something that reawakens that old love of chugging, galloping riffs and thunderous drums. Khemmis is a young band from Denver whose latest album Hunted kicked my ass right and proper. Their sound is a tasty mix of doomy Candlemass/Trouble riffs, dual harmony lead guitars and NWOBHM inspired attitude. Satisfyingly crushing yet consistently melodic and inspired, these guys nail all the metallic requirements with their muscular performances and above-average songwriting. My neck hurts…
Favorite songs: Above The Water, Candlelight, Hunted