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SPECIAL FEATURE: Best of 2016 – Chris Dahlberg (TO Staff)

2016 has been a year of ups and downs, but one thing that has been consistent is the amount of incredible music available.  Last year I did a top 15 list, but this time around I had to expand it to 25 because of how much material I was able to listen to.  And even then I’m leaving out a number of noteworthy releases in a variety of different genres.  Having recently celebrated my one year anniversary of writing for Transcending Obscurity, I’ve had the chance to write about and be exposed to more metal and related genres than ever before.  Anyone who says there isn’t a lot of good new music out there in 2016 either isn’t looking hard enough or isn’t open minded enough to try new things, as I could have easily made a top 50.

As with most personal lists, I’m sure you’ll find some picks to disagree with or albums you think should have been included, and I’d love to hear your comments so we can debate.  Look for more best of material from the rest of the TO staff, which is sure to include a lot of different bands from my list and give you some exposure to some other worthy efforts.  –Chris Dahlberg

Eternal Champion- The Armor of Ire25. Eternal Champion- The Armor of Ire (No Remorse Records)

Had I come across ‘The Armor of Ire’ closer to its September 27th release date, it’s quite possible it would’ve ended up higher on my list.  But after seeing lots of praise for Eternal Champion’s full length debut a few weeks back (including a glowing endorsement from Fenriz), I checked out what the Austin, Texas based heavy metal band had to offer and it bumped a few other albums out of my best of 2016 list.  Eternal Champion may be a bit more straightforward than some of the other heavy metal acts I heard this year, but that focus allows them to make every song deliver sweeping guitar leads and solos that give off a truly epic feel.  There are hints of Manilla Road and Iron Maiden, with the tempos tending to stay towards slower, galloping leads and soaring build-ups.  Jason Tarpey’s vocals occasionally hit some falsettos but stick around a mellower high pitched range that lets these tales of heroism and fantasy instantly suck you in.  Even when ‘The Armor of Ire’ heads towards ballad territory it doesn’t lose its hooks, and its proof that a newer band with a retro sound can still do this type of epic, galloping heavy metal justice without coming off as a mere clone of somebody else.

Beelzefuzz- The Righteous Bloom24. Beelzefuzz- The Righteous Bloom (The Church Within Records/Restricted Release)

Maryland is known for its doom scene, and being a resident of the state I’ve gotten to see quite a few of the groups that call it home live.  Beelzefuzz is no exception, though I have yet to see them since they broke up for a short period of time and then got back together with a slightly altered lineup.  This reunion resulted in ‘The Righteous Bloom’, which is an album I couldn’t stop listening to for the majority of the summer.  Simply calling it doom is a bit of a disservice, as Beelzefuzz pulls in a lot of rock influence as well and offers up an incredible amount of variety from one song to the next.  There’s everything from sweeping psychedelic guitar leads to bottom heavy grooves that recall some of the best traditional doom has to offer, and plenty more that blurs the lines between doom and hard rock.  Supplementing the sweeping guitar melodies is singer Dana Ortt, whose voice expands outwards over the songs and sucks you in to each and every word.  With so many bands of this type focused on gruff, raspy singing, Beelzefuzz’s emphasis on soaring vocal lines and a softer, warm sound makes them truly stand out and they’re currently one of my favorite groups based out of Maryland.

Uskumgallu- Rotten Limbs in Dreams of Blood23. Uskumgallu- Rotten Limbs in Dreams of Blood (Vrasubatlat)

When fall came around I started looking into releases that had gone under my radar so far in 2016, particularly when it came to ones that weren’t being promoted to webzines or sent through the usual channels.  This led to me discovering the Vrasubatlat collective, home to some of Portland’s underground talent.  Out of their releases this year, the one that stood out the most was Uskumgallu’s debut ‘Rotten Limbs in Dreams of Blood’.  Its two members also play in bands like Ash Borer, Dagger Lust, and Triumvir Foul, but this group distinguishes itself by writing some of the most grimy and genuinely unsettling black metal around.  A lot of black metal tries to encapsulate genuine darkness and nightmarish elements but Uskumgallu achieve this in a way that seems effortless, letting eerie melodies build into dense blasting that feels like it’s going to suffocate you.  R.F.’s vocals are what really put this one over the edge for me, as his screams and growls sound truly unhinged and psychotic in a way that made my skin crawl the first time I heard it.  Songs like In Tombs of Lust are a perfect example, with the eerier lead hanging over the song like a specter before the intense blasting and hellish vocals come in to finish you off.  Crank this one up and turn the lights off.

Verwoed- Bodemloos22. Verwoed- Bodemloos (Argento Records)

I’m always impressed with solo projects that are developed enough to the point where they rival bands with four or five members.  Verwoed is a perfect example of this, as the one-man project based out of the Netherlands left a lasting impression with its debut EP ‘Bodemloos’.  Formerly known as Woudloper, this fresh start for the project delivers dense black metal that has a mysterious and otherworldly feel to it.   Initially the title track suggests that this might be another EP filled with dense, cavernous black metal that unleashes a torrent of guitar, bass, and drums raining down on the listener like hellfire, but it doesn’t take long for Verwoed to reveal itself to be a more nuanced band than that.  The tempos slow things down regularly, letting the darker melodies spread outwards until they feel like they’re leading you into a mysterious, unknown world.  It’s reminiscent of some of the approaches Swedish black metal has taken over the past decade and a half, but the songwriting on ‘Bodemloos’ keeps this material from feeling like mere imitation.  The further into these three songs you get, the more expansive the atmosphere is and at times it’s almost enough to lull one into a trancelike state.  I hope it isn’t long before we hear more from Verwoed, as I’m very interested in seeing where this project goes next.

Harm Wulf- Hijrah21. Harm Wülf- Hijrah (Deathwish Inc.)

If you’re into hardcore, chances are good that you’ve come across Blacklisted at some point in time.  What you may not know is that group’s singer George Hirsch has a solo project called Harm Wülf, which is oriented towards dark and dreary folk that manages to be just as intense as Blacklisted.  This year Hirsch released his second full length under this moniker, ‘Hijrah’.  While the debut was focused on guitar and vocals, Hirsch has added a lot of additional layers this time around.  Bursts of percussion and additional instruments supplement the haunting acoustic guitar melodies, and everything is tied together by the raspier vocal performance that is at times reminiscent of King Dude but manages to head off in its own direction.  The layers sweep over you and suck you into Harm Wülf particular variant of gloom and melancholy, and though ‘Hijrah’ may be one of the darker folk records you’ll come across in 2016 it’s also one of the most captivating.  Hirsch always delivered very personal, emotional lyrics with Blacklisted and here he’s laid himself bare, touching upon levels that some songwriters aren’t ever able to reach.  You may be reading this on a metal website, but ‘Hijrah’ delivers a gloomy and depressive atmosphere on par with any proper metal release, so give it a shot as you may be surprised at how much it resonates.

Emma Ruth Rundle- Marked For Death20. Emma Ruth Rundle- Marked For Death (Sargent House)

I know I’m following up a non-metal album with another, but Emma Ruth Rundle’s third full length ‘Marked For Death’ really deserves the spotlight.  Known for her work in Red Sparowes and Marriages, Emma Ruth Rundle’s solo releases have gone off in different directions.  This one retains some of the singer/songwriter and folk elements, but skews more towards post rock and some surprisingly heavy instrumentation.  Listen to Protection if you want an example of just how sprawling and heavy ‘Marked For Death’ can be, as softer layers spread over the verses until they build to a climax of crashing guitar riffs and pounding percussion.  It reminds me of darker folk interspersed with bursts of post rock and shoegaze, all melded together into an album that’s fragile and powerful at the same time.  Emma Ruth Rundle’s singing plays a large role in this, with softer passages giving off a haunting presence before picking up into much louder, forceful ones that command your attention.  In the past she’s been known more for her work with other bands rather than her solo efforts, but ‘Marked For Death’ should be the album that changes this perception.  There’s a considerable amount of depth to this release, and it’s worth dedicating some time to.

Lycus- Chasms19. Lycus- Chasms (Relapse Records)

Whenever the end of the year comes around and every music site starts compiling their best of the year lists, they seem to snub a lot of albums that came out in January.  For this reason I think some people might overlook Lycus’ second full length ‘Chasms’, which would be a mistake.  Though I’ve been less enthused with a lot of doom this year when compared to 2014 and 2015, Lycus’ take on funeral doom has always been enticing and they reached new heights on this album.  As you would expect, the songs build slowly, letting plodding drumming and slow riffs build atmosphere until they’ve completely overwhelmed you.  But there are some surprises here, particularly when it comes to the blast beats that sneak their way in.  Blast beats in funeral doom might sound like sacrilege, but it’s perfectly implemented here and the sudden bursts of faster instrumentation keeps the atmosphere as thick as possible.  The vocals combine low growls and somber clean singing that sound like a funeral chant, and listeners will notice that in both instrumental and vocal work Lycus provides a lot more variation than most doom bands.  Close your eyes and get swept away into these chasms, as these guys have hit a peak level of sweeping atmosphere and sheer intensity.

Gehennah- Too Loud to Live, Too Drunk to Die18. Gehennah- Too Loud to Live, Too Drunk to Die (Metal Blade Records)

Long running Swedish band Gehennah returns with their first full length in nineteen years and it’s an absolute rager.  Back in January I was sure that my favorite sleazy metal album would be the newest from Baphomet’s Blood, but only a month later Gehennah would take the crown.  ‘Too Loud to Live, Too Drunk to Die’ is filled with one high flying riff after the next, channeling old-school black/thrash with speed metal and punk influences.  This is the type of metal that makes you want to go speeding down the highway with the volume all the way up, and the catchy guitar leads are supported by prominent basslines.  Mr. Violence’s vocals are drenched in filth and sleaze, and his raspier screams are easy to understand which makes the sleazy and sometimes tongue in cheek lyrics leave a lasting impression.  Life Metal Must Die and Scumbag are my highlights with some of the catchiest lead I’ve heard all year, but the record is consistent from beginning to end and the energy never dips.  If you’re a fan of Midnight and bands of that vein but have yet to hear Gehennah ‘Too Loud to Live, Too Drunk to Die’ is a must have.  Crack a couple beers, crank up the volume, and let these sleazy guys be your soundtrack to alcohol poisoning.

 Plateau Sigma- Rituals17. Plateau Sigma- Rituals (Avantgarde Music)

Another doom masterpiece from earlier in the year that some people might have missed out on, Plateau Sigma’s ‘Rituals’ is an album full of unexpected depth.  The Italian band starts things off on the softer side, with the intro track and Palladion suggesting that you’re in for a Candlemass style affair that incorporates some progressive rock influences.  I would’ve been content had this been the case, as the lumbering riffing is integrated perfectly with the sweeping prog riffs early in the album.  But once you get to The Bridge and the Abyss, the band shifts gears entirely and delivers dense, abrasive riffing and guttural growls that wouldn’t sound out of place on a death/doom album.  Plateau Sigma’s ability to be crushingly heavy and dense as well as sweeping and melodic works in their favor, and it gives them a sense of unpredictability that is very rare in the doom world.  Even when they completely mellow out and bring their music to a soft whisper, this band is truly captivating and they reach a level of atmosphere and depth that few can match.  The fact that this is only Plateau Sigma’s second full length makes that all the more impressive, and I expect even more stunning material from this band in the years to come.

Krater- Urere16. Krater- Urere (Eisenwald Tonschmiede)

When one thinks of black metal, bands from Norway, Finland, or Sweden likely come to mind, but I’ve always found that Germany has plenty of groups on par with some of the best talent from those countries.  One of my latest discoveries was Krater, a group that has been around since 2003 and released their newest full length ‘Urere’ back in February.  These guys offer every element that has drawn me to black metal since I first discovered the genre so many years ago, as the songs are tightly written and merge hellish blasting and speed with eerie melodies that send shivers down your spine.  What stands out to me is that even with the emphasis on blasting aggression, Krater has strong enough songwriting to sustain these extended blasts without becoming repetitive.  Even when the songs skew towards the melodic the riffs have jagged edges that feel like barbed wire, making ‘Urere’ an album that truly feels like the embodiment of darkness and evil.  Abortio’s vocals also deserve to be spotlighted, as they hit raspy screams and commanding growls, often in the span of a single song.  Eisenwald has always had an ear for quality, and Krater is a perfect example.

Ill Omen- Æ.Thy.Rift15. Ill Omen- Æ.Thy.Rift (Nuclear War Now! Productions)

Nuclear War Now! had another stellar lineup in 2016, but out of their releases this year it has been Ill Omen’s latest that has drawn me back the most.  This is another one man project, helmed by IV from Nazxul and Temple Nightside, and while previous releases have had a more traditional black metal framework ‘Æ.Thy.Rift’ heads towards sprawling black metal/doom.  Spread over four songs, Ill Omen builds atmosphere slowly, with dark and sinister melodies hanging over the air with a demonic presence.  It’s slow and methodically paced, but once the layers start to build the music never loosens its grip over you as it plunges further and further into the void.  ‘Æ.Thy.Rift’ has been written as a single body of work with the songs given numbers instead of titles, and they all flow together in a way that comes across as a ritual to channel unknown entities from the depths of the Earth.  IV’s vocal work supplements this with growls that tower over the dense instrumentation and somber chanting.  I haven’t seen nearly as much talk about this album as I would’ve expected, as this atmospheric and ritualistic slab of black metal and doom deserves your attention.

Sinistro- Semente14. Sinistro- Semente (Season of Mist)

Sinistro’s collaboration with singer Patrícia Andrade in 2013 led her to become a permanent member of the band, and the resulting album ‘Semente’ floored me the first time I heard it.  The Portuguese band falls somewhere between doom, sludge, and post metal, with bottom heavy riffs and soaring climaxes that emphasize Andrade’s stunning vocals.  If there’s an album that could bring in people that aren’t usually metal fans to this type of heavy doom/post metal, this would definitely be it.  At its core, ‘Semente’ has the same type of crushing instrumentation and somber melodies that bands like Katatonia and Swallow the Sun made their trademark so many years ago, but Sinistro incorporates additional nuances that makes them distinguishable.  Estrada takes a more playful approach, with Andrade’s vocals having a looser, jazzier feel to them, while the title track utilizes electronics to create a trip hop leaning sound.  The instrumentals are more than capable of creating an entrancing atmosphere on their own, but having Patrícia Andrade as a permanent member of the band really puts this one over the top as she’s able to deliver sweeping, booming singing alongside softer, fragile ranges.

Virus- Memento Collider13. Virus- Memento Collider (Karisma Records)

Virus’ avant-garde/experimental rock and metal has always been hard to pin down, as its off-balance feel and strange vocal delivery have resulted in music that sounded downright alien.  This has continued on ‘Memento Collider’, the Norwegian band’s first album in five years.  For those that are just hearing Virus for the first time, it shouldn’t take long to realize you’re hearing something that has a feel all of its own.  The guitar work hangs over the air with delicate melodies while the prominent bass lines drive the material forward, and all of the instrumentation comes together to form a thick haze.  On the one hand it seems like ‘Memento Collider’ wants to put you into a trance with psychedelic sounding melodies, but the off-balance nature of the songs always jolt you back to attention just when you think the band is starting to settle into a particular groove.  The best way I can think of to describe it is as if Voivod and post punk collided with desert rock and dropped way too much acid.  Czral’s vocals are once again one of the most prominent elements, with his booming vocals coming through like that of a radio announcer, albeit one delivering cryptic messages.  Virus continues to chart their own direction in the music world, and I couldn’t be happier.

Astronoid- Air12. Astronoid- Air (Blood Music)

If you had told me last year that one of my favorite albums of 2016 would be a band that sounded like a post rock/blast beat driven Circa Survive, I wouldn’t have believed you.  But well, here we are as Astronoid has achieved just that.  Now that’s simplifying things a little bit, as these guys clearly aren’t just riffing off Circa Survive for the entirety of their debut full length ‘Air’, but Brett Boland sweeping vocal melodies certainly remind me of Anthony Green quite a bit.  Though it may have songs that utilize blast beats to fly by at a frantic pace, the overall tone and atmosphere of ‘Air’ is quite different from what you might be expecting.  In fact, this might be the brightest and most cheerful use of blast beats I’ve ever heard.  But it works extremely well, and the instrumentals layer warm melodies over top of each other to create absolutely stunning climaxes.  Call it post rock, post hardcore, blackgaze, or anything in between, but that’s ultimately unimportant as Astronoid is likely to hook fans of all those styles.  ‘Air’ has an overall spacey aesthetic and sounds like it’s going to send you blasting off into space smiling all the way.  Blood Music continues to have an incredibly eclectic roster, and I’m glad they are able to expose me to acts like this.

Lost in Kiev- Nuit Noire11. Lost in Kiev- Nuit Noire (Dunk!Records)

‘Nuit Noire’ may just be one of the darkest post rock albums I’ve heard this year, and it’s also one of my favorites.  I hadn’t heard anything from the French group prior to this, but Lost in Kiev was able to make an incredible first impression.  Like some of the best post rock, the material on this album is able to tell a narrative through layers that build up naturally over the course of each song.  But here this idea is taken to an entirely different level, with sound clips woven into the instrumental narrative.  The sound clips aren’t overbearing and flow seamlessly with the rest of the music, and they set the stage for the narratives that the instrumentals see through to their conclusion.  Compared to some of the other post rock bands out there Lost in Kiev places a larger emphasis on synthesizer work and bottom heavy arrangements, giving their material a darker, heavier feel.  It’s the perfect album to put on late at night and zone out to, pondering the mysteries of life.  For those that might tell you post rock is plodding and boring, give them ‘Nuit Noire’ to listen to with its driving tempos and engaging narratives and you may just change their minds.

Dawnbringer- XX10. Dawnbringer- XX (Ektro Records)

Yes, I’m aware that High Spirits also released material this year, but I haven’t been able to spend much time with it yet so Dawnbringer’s five song EP ‘XX’ will have to represent Chris Black on my list this year.  Released independently back in February, ‘XX’ was given an expanded release courtesy of Ektro Records this month and it’s yet another example of how damn good Chris Black’s writing is.  Why Would You Leave Me starts things off in an unexpected direction, as it’s a mellow ballad that has a very somber feel and very prominent bassline.  From there Into the Maze delivers what might be one of my favorite Dawnbringer tracks ever, as it entrances with a hazier guitar lead but is supplemented by very muscular riffing.  The rest of the EP is no slouch either, providing sprawling instrumentation that has a flair for the epic and some straight up rocking moments.  Black’s vocals also once again impress, reaching higher and softer ranges than some of his other projects.  Thanks for Ektro for bringing this to my attention, as I almost went through the entirety of 2016 without realizing that this EP existed.

Sumerlands- Sumerlands9. Sumerlands- Sumerlands (Relapse Records)

Along with Eternal Champion, Sumerlands’ self-titled debut is the other heavy metal album that generated a considerable amount of buzz.  All it should take is one listen to see that’s fully warranted though, as these guys channel all of the best elements of old-school heavy metal without feeling like a retro retread.  The recording is warm and inviting, while still allowing the power of the riffs and drums to stand out.  What puts Sumerlands at the top of my list for heavy metal is the amount of variety this album offers in its short half hour run time.  There are slow burning tracks where the melodies take center stage and weave around your ears alongside hard rocking songs with high energy grooves.  It’s reminiscent of a whole slew of heavy metal bands, both well-known and obscure, yet the songs never emulate any of them too closely.  Plus you have another standout performance from Phil Swanson, who has continued to impress me in every project he’s been involved in.  His main pitch has a melodic yet slightly gruffer sound, but there are some well-placed falsettos on songs like The Guardian that are sure to instantly grab you.  In the past few months I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve listened to this album, and I hope it’s just the beginning for Sumerlands.

Antaeus- Condemnation8. Antaeus- Condemnation (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)

Ten years between albums is quite a long time, but ‘Condemnation’ makes it seem like the gap between Antaeus releases was much shorter.  For those wondering what the follow-up to 2006’s ‘Blood Libels’ might have to offer, it’s an all-out attack of jagged riffs and pounding, warlike drumming.  That is to say, it’s Antaeus doing what they’ve done best since their formation in 1994.  ‘Condemnation’ hits extremely hard, and even when the blasting subsides for a few brief moments the listener is met with dark, twisted melodies that feel like they’re going to sear through your skin.  Plenty of black metal albums try to come off as evil or unrelenting, but ‘Condemnation’ achieves this with ease and does its best to leave nothing behind but scorched earth.  Despite the emphasis on blast beats and speed, there remain enough nuances to the songwriting to make the songs distinguishable, and the subtle melodies that seep in play a large role in this.  MkM demonstrates once again why he is one of the black metal vocalists I am drawn to the most, as every word is razor sharp and rage filled.  With Aosoth his vocal work blended in with the layered instrumentation, but here it’s direct and continuously in your face.  A must have for fans of some of the most jagged and destructive black metal around.

7. Deathspell Omega- The Synarchy of Molten Bones (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)

Not only did Antaeus resurface in 2016, but Deathspell Omega released a new album ‘The Synarchy of Molten Bones’ (with both coming out shortly after their initial reveal).  It’s a bit shorter than their previous full lengths at just under half an hour, but the French black metal crams in plenty of continuously changing, technical instrumentation in that period of time.  The band is still at the top of their game here; with the instrumentals creating so many different layers that it can be hard to keep up.  It’s a maelstrom of darkness and despair, with the technical riffs occasionally subsiding to let some ominous, unsettling atmosphere into the mix.  In some ways Deathspell Omega feels a bit more streamlined here than on previous recordings, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any more accessible for the uninitiated.  The final song Internecine Iatrogenesis demonstrates this perfectly, with the riffs and drum beats only seeming to get faster and even more manic as it progresses.  ‘The Synarchy of Molten Bones’ is dense, unrelenting, and never stops changing gears, which is what Deathspell Omega has been doing perfectly for over a decade now.  A welcome return to the sweeping darkness and unpredictability that only this band can offer.

Bölzer- Hero6. Bölzer- Hero (Iron Bonehead Productions)

Bölzer’s full length debut has generated one of the most divided reactions to a metal album I’ve ever seen, as it seems to be the type of release listeners either love or hate.  I fall into the love category, though it did take a few times through to orient myself with what the group was going for with this release.  Elements of their crushing black/death metal from the EP’s are still there, but a lot of the riffing gives off more of a sludge vibe to my ears and everything is written to have a sprawling, spiritual feel.  ‘Hero’ still has plenty of muscular riffs that will hit you squarely in the chest, particularly on The Archer and Spiritual Athleticism, but there’s an equal emphasis on hypnotic melodies and repeating song structures that suck the listener in.  KzR has also changed his vocal style, utilizing a lot of cleaner ranges that give a somber, moodier feel to the recording alongside the harsh screams and growls.  No matter which camp you fall into for this album, there’s something to be said for a band that is fully devoted to their craft and pushing it in the direction they see fit.

Soft Kill- Choke5. Soft Kill- Choke (Profound Lore Records)

In recent years I’ve gotten really into post punk and started exploring everything it has to offer.  So it’s appropriate that not only did a post punk record crack my top five, but that it happens to be one that came out on a record label usually associated with death and black metal.  ‘Choke’ is Soft Kill’s third album and one of the most engaging releases in the genre that I’ve come across from this decade.  The instrumentals brilliantly layer somber, melodies over a driving beat that makes me want to dance along to the despair and gloom.  Compared to some of the others I’ve heard this year, Soft Kill is able to switch things up a bit more frequently and while each of their songs has sad melodies that wash over you they all feel just a bit different.  Tobias Sinclair’s deeper voice booms over top of the instrumentals with a commanding presence, and the grit of his performance is sure to draw you in just as much as the guitar leads and synth work.  While it may not have topped my best of list, ‘Choke’ is an album I’ve listened to almost every day for the past three months and that says a lot about the level of quality.

SubRosa- For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages 4. SubRosa- For This We Fought the Battle of Ages (Profound Lore Records)

Profound Lore is usually responsible for a couple of the albums that I consider to be the best of the year, and this time they land sequentially in my list.  ‘For This We Fought the Battle of Ages’ is SubRosa’s fourth full length, and it finds them delivering material that’s captivating from beginning to end.  Considering that the majority of the songs are between ten and fifteen minutes long, that’s certainly no easy feat, but the sprawling nature allows them to create some truly stunning climaxes.  I had a friend ask me earlier in the year how to describe this band, and the best way I could think was “sprawling doom with an emphasis on strings”.  The songs here expand naturally, rising from soft, fragile moments to extremely dense, heavy climaxes where the guitars and violins are swirling about.  SubRosa’s vocals skew towards the clean side with some growls making an appearance at key moments, but they’re some of the most haunting and emotionally affecting I’ve come across this year.  With each album this band has refined their ideas further, and they’ve reached the point now where there are few other groups that can reach the same level of atmosphere and tension.

Cultes des Ghoules- Coven3. Cultes des Ghoules- Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love (Under the Sign of Garazel Productions/Hells Headbangers Records)

You may see ‘Coven’ listed as a 2017 release in some places, as this appears to be when the North American release from Hells Headbangers is set to come out.  But the album initially came out from Under the Sign of Garazel in October, and that makes it a definite candidate for one of the best of 2016.  For their third full length, Poland’s Cultes des Ghoules wrote a play.  This wasn’t clear from the press material I received for the album, but the digipack CD release has the lyric book presented like a play and breaks out all of the scenes accordingly.  It’s an ambitious body of work, and at an hour and a half in length demands a lot of effort from listeners to fully absorb.  But if you’re a fan of black metal it’s definitely worth it!  Each song is lengthy and provides plenty of twists and turns throughout, with the final 28 minute track almost feeling like an entire album in itself.  Cultes des Ghoules continue to favor slower passages where the guitars layer dark, mysterious melodies to create an atmosphere that feels evil and occult.  But there are also plenty of up-tempo moments as well that whip the sound into a frenzy and deliver that cold blast of intensity.  The vocals are also some of the most unique the genre has to offer, with the screams varying in pitch and intensity to truly deliver on the play’s narrative.  I don’t want to spoil the narrative though, so you’ll just have to experience this one for yourself.

Behexen- The Poisonous Path2. Behexen- The Poisonous Path (Debemur Morti Productions)

Behexen’s latest was my pick for album of the year when it came out back in May, and seven months later it’s only slipped to the number two spot which should tell you just how good it is.  ‘The Poisonous Path’ is one of the densest, bottom heavy black metal albums in recent memory, with the tonality sometimes heading so low that it sounds closer to a death metal album than what one might associate with Finnish black metal.  I’ve already described some of the other releases on this list as evil and unrelenting, but that applies to ‘The Poisonous Path’ as well and it may just be the best example of it you’ll find in 2016.  The riffs are often so gnarled and dense that it sounds like they’re going to cave in on themselves, and the drums batter you into submission with little breathing room.  It’s overwhelming in the best possible way, and as Behexen begins to layer icy and twisted melodies over top of this bottom heavy base you start to feel just how powerful they truly are.  Hoath Torog’s vocals are stronger than ever, with his growls towering above the recording in a way that is genuinely intimidating.  Even twenty years after their formation, Behexen is still finding ways to get even more evil sounding and powerful and that’s truly impressive.

Urfaust- Empty Space Meditation1. Urfaust- Empty Space Meditation (Ván Records)

Urfaust has been busy in the years since 2010’s ‘Der freiwillige Bettler’, releasing a number of splits and singles.  But it wasn’t until this year that the Dutch duo released another full length, ‘Empty Space Meditation’.  This is another album that I’ve seen fairly divided responses for, but it clicked with me in a way that no other release this year did.  From beginning to end Urfaust’s latest achieves a hazy atmosphere that seems to be hinting at the mysteries of life and the unknown.  It opens with a sparse melody that has a spacey, otherworldly feel to it that draws you in before unleashing a wall of harsh riffing and tortured vocals on the second track.  While the second track might suggest that the band is going to orient themselves towards faster blasting with spacey melodies layered over top of it, the rest of the album slows things down considerably.  The further in you get, the more methodical and ritualistic the material becomes and as the layers expand outwards you can’t help but be put under the band’s spell.  IX’s vocals utilize his operatic singing style once again alongside the harsher screams, and they’re delivered in a way that sound like he’s channeling spirits.  ‘Empty Space Meditation’ connects at an emotional level while also venturing out towards the unknown mysteries of the human psyche, and I can’t stop listening to it.

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