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Max’s Top Fifteen (Mostly Not) Metal Albums of 2016

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Kind of a weird year for music. Art in general feels more disposable than ever – not only is it basically irrelevant in the culture at large, but also the bands themselves seem designed for obsolescence. But on the other hand, there was a lot of stuff with real grit and heart.

Here are the albums that’ve stuck with me the most. Other than the top 4, which are my very favorites, the rest are sort-of-randomly enumerated.

15. Infinity Shred – Long Distance (Self-Released)

One of the most creative bands in electronic music put out their most cohesive release yet. If you’re a fan of big backbeats, John Carpenter, skateboarding, Vattnet Viskar (whose guitarist plays on a couple tracks), or Stranger Things, then you’ll dig this.

14. Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy of Molten Bones (Anja)deathspell-omega-the-synarchy-of-molten-bones

First to admit I’m late to the party on this band, having only heard a track or two here and there over the years. I’m still familiarizing myself with their musical language, but really enjoying how fruitful its been with this new record. I have little patience for black metal in general, but obviously Deathspell are in a class of their own. In particular, I love Synarchy‘s moments of Zappa-esque instrumental boldness, swung and off-beat rhythms, and melodic lines. What makes this album really special, though, is how loose it all is – it feels really raw and personally performed, which is super rare in this kind of music.

13. Indricothere – III (Self-Released)

I can hear almost hear Colin Marston in my head now – “you don’t actually like this, right?” But I really do. It’s “odd” music in terms of the “actual notes” that he plays on this solo project, but even odder in terms of its compositional flow. Stream of consciousness metal, which he played on the recording and I know has no idea how to play anymore. It’s actually kind of relaxing music because of this, despite it being the most “metal” thing Colin’s ever done. A nice album to put on in the background while you work.

12. Sumac – What One Becomes (Thrill Jockey)Sumac - What One Becomes

Its really refreshing to see a group of established musicians (comprising members of Isis, Botch, Russian Circles, and Baptists) come together to make heavy music that doesn’t play by the rules. This is weird, exciting, flowering music. I can’t wait to hear where they go next.

11. Guerilla Toss – Eraser Stargazer (DFA)

This band was a SXSW find for me (don’t laugh). Eraser Stargazer is distinctly not metal/punk/even rock, but it is one of the most finely produced, visceral pieces of experimental funk music I’ve heard in a long time. The players in this band have serious chops and a keen ear for earwormy effects. Its also surprisingly dissonant and atonal at times, making equal use of familiar and bizzaro intervals in the guitar parts and fresh time signature/feel change-ups. Imagine like… what Kvelertak is to Darkthrone, Guerilla Toss is to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Real shit.

10. David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)

I’ve never been a big Bowie fan, and really don’t know all that much about him other than the hits. But I’ve been interested in his last two records through his compositional collaborator, Maria Schneider (one of the most important figures in jazz today), who has taken the possibilities of his voice and persona to new and strange places. Schneider has helped move Bowie away from the cult of personality, and more towards an organic, group-based performer.

In addition to Schneider’s compositional input, Bowie really ups his game with probably the best lineup in pop music since Kimbra’s The Golden Echo. Led by Jason Lindner (one of my favs – check out his jazz bigband and prog-funk trio Now vs Now), Blackstar boasts a lineup of elite jazz improvisers and sidemen. The songs are loosely performed on analog instruments, and its performers are allowed to display their individual talents and personalities. That someone of Bowie’s stardom and iconography would go into his final album so open to granting others some spotlight speaks magnitudes about his late-life relationship to art.

As a sidebar to recording nerds, Blackstar was the final album recorded at the legendary Magic Shop Recording Studio in New York City, which shuttered earlier this year due to rent hikes.

9. Kvelertak – Nattesferd (Roadrunner)kvelertaknattesferd

Nattesferd, Or: This Ain’t Taylor Swift’s 1989.” I really dug this record when it came out. It’s fallen in favor for me a bit – the songs aren’t quite on the level of their last two – but I stand by my statement that its their best “record” yet, as a single cohesive unit. In an era of super-serious, humorless art, I’m really happy we have these guys around.

8. Trap Them – Crown Feral (Prosthetic)

I love this band. Kinda like Meshuggah, you need those bands who basically do one thing, but deliver the goods consistently. Trap Them execute their hardcore-via-Entombed-and-Carpenter/Argento with catchy, deadly precision on this new album. It’s their most listenable release front-to-back – even more so than Darker Handcraft – and easily their best yet IMO.

7. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love! (Glassnote)

Everyone’s allowed their one last-minute/surprise entry, right? I had a similar reaction to this album that Questlove did: went in expecting “millenial rap/pop,” instead got a tour-de-force love letter to Parliament/Funkadelic, Herbie Hancock, and early 70’s Detroit soul. I’m totally blown away by this thing. It’s seriously, earnestly weird music. Unpretentious, melodic, and totally anti-commercial. In our era of disposable, cookie-cutter music, I’m glad we have independent-minded young artists like Donald Glover around (and I haven’t even seen Atlanta yet, which I hear is super super good).

6. The Black Queen – Fever Daydream (Self-Released)

This is a record that’s only risen in favor for me over the year. The electronic / LA pink-noir / whatever you want to call it that’s come out of the minds of Greg Puciato (Dillinger Escape Plan), Joshua Eustis (Telefon Tel Aviv, Nine Inch Nails), and Steve Alexander (former longtime DEP crew) at first felt to me like a fun, but pretty familiar experiment. The more I listen to it, the more I’m impressed by its tunefulness, style, and vulnerability. I am really, really excited for Greg to have more time for this band.

5. Dysrhythmia – The Veil of Control (Profound Lore)

Dysrhythmia are one of those “on the down-low” bands that, even though they really have little to do with metal and the scene in general, are among the elite handful of actually exciting bands this music has to offer. Each of their albums pretty radically redefines their formula, and The Veil of Control adds a number of exciting new ingredients to their brew: lush 12-string guitars, more in-sync parts, and textural, melodic bass lines.

4. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust (Season of Mist)

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As is the case with some other artists on this list, I’ve already said enough about them. If you’re dying to know my thoughts about an iconic Canadian-New Yorkian technical/neoclassical/avant-garde death metal band, see my review, my Party Smasher profile of Colin Marston, and my mini-documentary about the writing and recording of this album.

3. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)

Politics aside, I love Tribe’s simultaneous reunion/closing chapter because it’s proof that great music has nothing do to with “innovation” as per most critics. Great music is just great music – well plotted, dreamt up, and executed. In the midst of a ferocious onslaught of social and political opinions from everyone we know on social media, Tribe deliver a sensitive, nuanced, and thoughtful musical response.

2. The Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation (Party Smasher Inc.)the-dillinger-escape-plan-dissociation

I said basically what I wanted to about this band in my appreciation of them back in August, when they announced their breakup, so I won’t babble on.

I will just follow that article up with this – although I’m not sure Dissociation one of “the greatest” albums ever made in the genre, it is for sure one of the most honestly performed albums in the collective histories of metal, punk, prog, rock, etc. music. That’s basically all I can really say with confidence at this point – DEP’s music isn’t easy to digest, and its secrets don’t tend to reveal themselves until long after their records have had time to stew. Some critics, who basically view the band as the band that does “insanely technical” music, have been quick to overlook and underhear this honesty, instead leaning on a quick article fix that Dissociation is a “solid entry” that closes their career “appropriately.”

But to my ears, it’s a simultaneous opening and closing of pathways for them, which adds up to something that sounds more like a fever dream of a Dillinger album than one they actually wrote. The experimentations in more subtle and hip-hop/R&B-influenced rhythmic foundations, the sloppily delicious Mahavishnu Orchestra jazz fusion, a total embrace of Appetite for DestructionSlave to the Grind – style feral energy – DEP’s swagger is all there, but its meaning in the wake of their breakup is something we haven’t really seen before in music.

Dissociation was made by band known for trying harder than anyone else, letting what they love slip from them beat by beat. The sound of them giving up is on a level that most bands, trying their best, don’t have the imagination to even dream up.

1. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Real Enemies (New Amsterdam)

Jimmy Page’s definition of “heavy” had nothing to do with a scale, guitar tone, or song structure: it was about an attitude. There was no one set “way” to access this attitude, but it did involve honest expression, sensitivity to both the present and past states of music, and a precise articulation of musical ideas. By this definition, Real Enemies, a progressive bigband jazz album by an 18-piece orchestra, is both the heaviest, and hands-down best, album of the year.

Though it was written long before the presidential campaign began, Real Enemies is ensconced in our increasingly paranoid political climate. It’s a concept album about the history and historiography of conspiracy theories – from the Iran-Contra Affair to Area 51, from the Red Scare to Edward Snowden. Real Enemies looks forward, backward, and inward, to the very stuff that makes up the dark roots of paranoia.

The music, written entirely using 12-tone theory a la conspiracy thrillers like KluteAll the President’s Men, and Zodiac, fiercely engages with the musical stylings of each individual conspiracy’s era, reinterpreting them through composer Argue’s mind-befuddingly heavy lens. Bigband swing, 1980’s Los Angeles electro-funk, Afro-Cuban and latin jazz, chaotic mathcore, the experimental free-jazz of King Crimson and Herbie Hancock, the paranoid dissonance of David Shire, the grooves of Lalo Schifrin, the dragging tempos of doom metal – decades of musical expression are summoned at will.

Even if you’ve never listened to bigband jazz, or don’t care about conspiracies, I’d eat my foot if your head doesn’t bop along to the first few tracks of Real Enemies – in-time or out, depending on the time signatures. If your mind isn’t fully melted by the mathy closing chaos of “Never a Straight Answer,” then, uh, you’re crazy, man.

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