Favorite Albums of 2015

I was tempted not to do one of these this year. These lists are so subjective and depend on my mood and how much I listened to an album and the order I relisten to them. Anyway, I decided to do it just because I have found some good stuff from seeing other lists that have albums I like on it, so they do have some benefit sometimes.

Top 5 (in alphabetical order):

Cóndor – Duin
Misþyrming – Söngvar elds og óreiðu
Sickening Horror – Overflow
Spectral Lore – Gnosis
Upsilon Acrux – Sun Square Dialect

Honorable Mentions:

Intronaut – The Direction of Last Things
Irreversible Mechanism – Infinite Fields
Kjeld – Skym
Krallice – Ygg Huur
Leviathan – Scar Sighted
Mosca Violenta/Mombu – Hunting Demons

My goal for 2015 was to write more consistently. I tried to put something out every Friday, and according to the stats, I only missed maybe 3 weeks. I’d say that was a success. This was probably not the best goal overall. I put out a lot of lazy and low quality reviews just to make sure I had something. My goal in 2016 is to write less frequently but do a better job. I’ll still try for once a week, but I won’t force it if I feel rushed.

Mosca Violenta/Mombu – Hunting Demons

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may recall that Mombu made the shortlist for best albums in 2013. They are truly a one-of-a-kind band. They play jazz-influenced, African rhythm metal music on mostly acoustic instruments (bari sax). The sound and energy of their 2013 album blew me away.

On Hunting Demons, Mombu have teamed up with Mosca Violenta. This EP only clocks in at around 23 minutes, but I’d rather have 23 minutes of excellent music than 46 minutes where half of it is filler. The combination of these two bands fills out the sound a bit more with the electric bass and alto sax.

The songs on the whole are a bit more downtempo than the previous release. This works quite well with this type of sound. For instance, “Trnka” works because the power comes from a slow, big sound in octaves and occasionally breaks up into power chords. It also has one of the most experimental free jazz sections. This, too, works well to dissociate the listener before returning to the main riff in its biggest form.

The track “Laamb” is a return to their previous sound. If I had heard this in isolation, I probably would have thought it had come from their last album. I like that they haven’t completely abandoned what worked so well. They’ve pushed in new directions on some tracks and given fans what they were used to on others. For some bands, I’d call this “safe,” but there is nothing safe about what these two bands are doing.

This EP is as fresh as ever, even on tracks that feel familiar. They still use complex, driving rhythms. They have moments of all-out assault whether it be through surprising use of metal or of powerful acoustic playing. They also have interesting slow sections. All of this happens in such a short space while still maintaining a constant and clear aesthetic.

Overall, this album is a hidden gem. The fact that it has been so overlooked is terrible. I hope both these bands continue to make music in the future. I give it a 9/10. Here’s a sample:

SikTh – Opacities

This is a short EP, so I’ll keep the review short. It has been so long since their last release that I barely remember what it sounded like. I remember it fondly as an engaging and interesting mix of crazy technical playing, vocal experimentation, and good melodic sensibility to give it structure. This memory prompted me to spend some time with their new one.

It is true that all these elements are there, but they don’t blend as well as I remember. Let’s start with the melody. Most of time it is unoffensive and goes by pretty much unnoticed. This isn’t a bad thing. It acts like glue in the song and isn’t necessarily meant to be the forefront. There are places (track 1?) where it really shines. There are times where it is cringy, like “Philistine Philosophies.” I don’t think breaking up a pretty heavy sound focused on rhythm with a super cheesy anthem hook can ever work, even conceptually.

The vocals aren’t nearly as experimental as I hoped. There’s a lot of cleans and some not so much. Overall, they are pretty much what you’d expect from a djent band (not that I’d put them into this category). The choices are safe. This eliminates one of the defining features of SikTh: the use of vocals as an extension of the rhythm section. They do come back to this idea briefly, like on “Under the Weeping Moon.”

The best part of this album is how the pieces fit together. They still take a bunch of styles and ideas and are able to piece together a song out of them. There are definitely moments of brilliance when two contrasting ideas come together and fight each other in just the right way to create tension and release. “Under the Weeping Moon” is one of my favorite tracks for this reason.

The elephant in the room is “Tokyo Lights.” I’d say this is their only bit of trying something unsafe. Except that it is an exact replica of what they did on The Trees Are Dead & Dried Out Wait For Something Wild. The difference is that the spoken poem on Dead was the last track. It basically worked there. On this EP, which is already short, the music gets broken up by it. This is a huge failure in album flow. I never want to even continue when I hit it, even if I press skip.

This is a shame, because the album closes really strong with two of the best tracks. Melodic sensibility with the combo of technical playing hits its apex on these.

Overall, this is still SikTh, but it is also safe. Any fan of the band will enjoy this. They were on hiatus for a while, and I’ll attribute some of the negatives as “getting back into the groove.” I will definitely check out their next release to see if they push into new territory.

I’ve gotten plenty of enjoyment out of this one. I’ll give it a 7/10. Here’s a sample:

Intronaut – The Direction of Last Things

It is no secret that I love Intronaut. My first time through their latest album was not a pleasant experience. I had my suspicions that this was something I would end up liking. They shifted their sound away from interesting jazz progressions to something more like djenty nu metal. Had they abandoned everything that made them great to cash in on the latest (dying) trend?

Already on the second time through, I started to notice the old Intronaut peek through this more intense and aggressive sound. The first track alone had a huge extended jazzy vamp building up to the climactic ending. The vocals layered in extended chords over the guitar riffs. I had somehow zoned out during all of this in my horror the first time.

The next track brings back their cleverness in playing with time. It is easy to write off the repetitiveness of the pattern as excessive, but it constantly turns around. First, it is a hemiola (the pattern itself has a length that doesn’t sit perfectly in the time signature). Then the time signature itself seems to keep changing if the drums are to be trusted. It is quite the achievement, and I found myself enjoying listening to how the pieces fit together once I realized it wasn’t as simple as mere repetition.

The album as a whole did come off as a bit formulaic. Start with some heavy djent inspired stuff. Transition to a long jazzy or proggy section. Then build up to a climactic ending that returns to the opening idea with some of the middle ideas layered in. I have no problem with this, because it is quite an effective formula. It lets you experience the pieces separately which makes it easier to appreciate them when played together. They deviated from this on “The Pleasant Surprise,” but I actually felt a little cheated that it stayed fast and hard the whole way through.

One of my favorite tracks will probably be most people’s least favorite: “The Unlikely Event of a Water Landing.” It starts very different with some creepy sampled spoken word stuff under weird synthesized sounds. The song stays pretty down tempo the whole time and vamps on a pretty simple idea for a long, long time. This also does some weird time stuff.

I didn’t take the time to figure it out, but I think it is a combo of 3/4 and 4/4 measures and the band isn’t playing them at the same time creating a 3 against 4 effect. The long, mesmerizing effect can pull you into a nice meditative state if you let it do its job. That guitar solo is really good, too. I thought it was cheesy the first time, but I’ve come around to it.

Overall, this is a great effort from Intronaut. I still have my suspicions on the direction their sound has headed, but that well-composed songwriting is still there. I give this an 8.5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Spectral Lore – Gnosis

Spectral Lore has been on my radar ever since they released the epic III. That album stayed with me for quite some time as a great blend of traditional melody and black metal, yet highly experimental in other aspects. Earlier this year Voyager released, and I didn’t review it because I couldn’t get into it at all.

Gnosis provides a return to the melody and experimentation I loved on III, yet there are significant departures from it. Most of the melodies are influenced by Middle Eastern scales and melodies. Thankfully, this doesn’t come off as a gimmick. Unlike the recent Nile release, these ideas are blended so seamlessly into the music, that it doesn’t sound like it could be any other way.

The tracks run 8+ minutes, but the album as a whole is only 5 tracks long. This makes for a nice total length. The long form of the songs don’t feel too long, because there is steady development throughout. The tracks are instrumental and through composed, so there isn’t a bunch of tedious recycling like many modern long form black metal albums.

One of the “experimental” aspects of the album is that there are lyrics despite no vocals. I’m not sure if I’m just missing them somehow. It is more like a jointly released music/poetry project. My guess is that this is somehow a commentary on how you have to read the lyrics for most black metal anyway to understand what they are.

Overall, this album is a slower and more patient album that III. Every song is mid to slow tempo, and you won’t find much fast technical work or blast beats. A lot of the complexity has been stripped to bring greater focus to the melodic work.

The song I’m going to give as a preview isn’t representative of the album’s sound, but I think it gives the best idea of how carefully constructed these are. The rubato, the dynamic contrast, the use and non-use of instruments in meticulously chosen locations, and the melodic development and counterpoint with the bass all show how Spectral Lore think about constructing songs on this album. These elements of songwriting are present on other tracks, but are harder to hear because of the louder metal sound.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to Gnosis and expect it will be one of my top albums of the year. I’ll give it a 9/10. Here’s a sample:

Panopticon – Autumn Eternal

Autumn Eternal is Panopticon’s third album in his bluegrass/black metal trilogy. I’ve reviewed them all so far, and I’m always pretty disappointed while remaining optimistic for the next one. I feel like a broken record, so this will probably be the last time I do one of these reviews unless the next album totally blows me away.

I love the concept. He takes black metal and tries to combine it with American folk. From an instrumental standpoint, this is a great idea. Instruments like banjo have a very harsh, metallic sound, but can also portray a deep sadness. Lots of folk songs are about tragic events like coal miners doing backbreaking work only to die in a cave in. This is the essence of black metal.

Unfortunately, when you pull the two ideas apart and merely shift back and forth between folk instruments and black metal it creates an uneven and partitioned album.

I don’t think the songwriting has evolved as much as some people say. As usual, the folk parts are excellent. The opening track has multiple melodies played in counterpoint, a beautiful blend of instruments, and interesting rhythm section. It is complex yet simple in the right ways.

The black metal sections remain a mystery to me. For example, take the end to “Into the North Woods.” It is an extended and repetitive fully synthesized outro. Nothing about this makes sense in the context of the song. The synthetic sound is cringe inducing and completely changes the aesthetic. It goes against all that the album stands for in its nature themes. The repetition makes me want to hit skip after almost a minute. What is the point of this outro? The album is long enough that there is no need for the filler. This same type of thing happens on future tracks as well like “Sleep to the Sound of Waves Crashing.”

He also introduces a very clean melodic lead guitar on most of the metal tracks. This also feels out of place and is again the wrong aesthetic. It is most noticeable in “Autumn Eternal” and is pretty much the only thing I can think about during that track. The prominence might just be a mixing issue.

In the next track, the melodic clean guitar works a lot better, because it gets integrated into the overall sound. And this basically sums up how I feel about it. The album is a highly inconsistent collection of ideas and aesthetic choices. This is disappointing because of how promising the ideas are.

There are some great moments to be sure. But there are also some Deafheaven-esque post-metal poppy progressions that ruin those moments. Overall, I give this a 6.5/10. Here’s a sample:

Mgła – Exercises in Futility

Mgła is a band people have been telling me to check out for a while. Their latest album has received rave reviews and many are calling it black metal album of the year.

At first, I didn’t like this album at all. It seemed very simplistic, formulaic, and repetitive. Every song is built out of some pretty short motifs in repetition that builds in intensity until they hit the climax, usually right at the end of the song. The album has more of a riff structure from death metal than the melodic focus of black metal.

This rubbed me the wrong way. These motifs aren’t very interesting on their own. There are brief moments of melody, but these are few and far between and de-emphasized. Even Krallice uses full melodic structures. Anyway, I decided to take my own advice and stop worrying about what the band ought to do and figure out if what they actually do works.

I’m glad I did this, because I’ve come around a lot on this one. I like that they named their tracks “Exercises in Futility” I-VI. It makes it sound like these really are six exercises in futility. The effect would be lost if they went down the path that some bands go nowadays with titles like “My Naked Body Became One With the Earth Under the Gaze of the Moon” or something.

I think the first few tracks do suffer quite a bit from the extreme repetition of pretty uninteresting ideas with little-to-no change. Each song gets a bit better, and by the end of the album, they’ve hit upon how to make the formula work. Much how Ulcerate takes almost nothing and builds intensity through layering, texturing, and dissonance, so does Mgła.

I’m actually baffled that the earlier tracks don’t use this. The only explanation I can come up with is that they wanted an album-long descent into intensity and dissonance (not that they really ever get super dissonant). But it isn’t worth this sacrifice.

The drumming is pretty wild on this thing. Sometimes it has a bit too much going on for the simplicity of the rest of the song. For instance, on the fourth track these weird ride symbol flourishes cut through everything, and it is all I can think about. Other times the drumming transitions into a standard rock beat. Most of the time it serves the song well, but a few moments it takes over to ill effect.

Overall, I definitely liked this album, but there are some serious flaws. There is no doubt this is a band to watch. If they can really pin down this formula, they could make a really great album. Also, I love the last two tracks. That’s where they got it right. I’ll give this a 7.5/10.

Here’s a sample: