Evan Thompson's Best of 2016

Finding the Way Forward

posted on 12/2016   By: Evan Thompson

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that 2016 was hard on all of us. Here in that huge space of snow-covered land called Canada, more specifically in Alberta, we have been going through a brutal recession that has lasted two years. This recession has seen our provincial economy contract by 6.5% in that time. A wildfire in northern Alberta during the summer of 2016 consumed 1.5 million acres of land and displaced 80,000 people from their homes before being declared under control. South of the border, a populist demagogue defied all odds and won a democratic election as part of a troubling surge of extreme nationalism across the western world. As if this weren’t enough, we lost so many musical giants who have helped shape me as both a musician and a fan of music in general. I was ready to throw my hands up in defeat.

As a right-of-center Canadian, which is much more moderate than our American counterparts, and a geoscientist for “Big Oil,” I tend to keep my political thoughts to myself amongst my fellow interlocutors of the musical persuasion. Despite my political leanings, I don't subscribe to extreme views of how the world works and find myself drawn to liberals and vehemently opposed to right-wing extremists. This should tell us something. We can (and should) decouple our tendency to disagree from our tendency to dehumanize and demean others when we can’t seem to find common ground.

The fact that so many writers, with different minds, beliefs, and backgrounds could find so much to love about the body of metal music released in 2016 -- despite numerous disagreements on the absolute highs of this landscape -- can attest to this.  We will indeed find a way to move forward, but it can be difficult to obtain the quality information necessary to find where this path resides.

One of the more useful metaphors I’ve heard to describe this is one of flipping over rocks. Sometimes there will be nothing underneath them, but sometimes there will be pieces of information worth knowing, provided that you know where to look. Sometimes you may not know how these disparate pieces fit in with the rest of the quality information that enriches your life and forms the basis for your interpretation of the world. The collection and analysis of this quality information is a painstakingly slow process. It is hard work.

Exchange of ideas by open conversation is the most efficient way to expedite this tedious process of rock flipping. Disagreement on a particular topic amongst individuals who are prepared to discuss it in a productive way, is usually a good indicator that we have not reached the optimal interpretation.

With music, we often have to resist the urge to boil everything down to aesthetic relativism. It is a seductive position to take. After all, if beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, then would I bother writing a 1000-word review of any particular album, metal or otherwise? My opinions constitute noise. I think most of those reading this right now would recognize that is not the case. Clearly, there is something valuable about this process. We are fans, writing for fans, and our meaningful interactions with each other allow us to appreciate art better. These are not fruitless projects.

Below are pieces of art that resonated with me in 2016; hopefully, in a time of uncertainty, you will find them useful, as I have.

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THE BACK TEN

20. NaevusHeavy Burden
• This one comes recommended by the man, Fenriz himself (by way of his Soundcloud “radio” show). 70s fuzzed out doom á la Black Sabbath, but with more organs.

19. Red Fang - Only Ghosts
• The Portland quartet gives us another record of solid, if slightly safe, bearded, dirt rock. Crack a PBR and crank this one.

18. Anciients - Voice of the Void
• The Vancouver stoner-proggers have stepped their game up in every possible way on their new record, Voice of the Void. Louder, meaner, and leaner than Heart of Oak, this one should scratch that riff itch.

17. Sumac - What One Becomes
• A difficult yet rewarding listen from one of the most productive bands on the scene. When Aaron Turner isn’t on tour, he’s writing music which is complex, layered, and challenging.

16. Ulcerate - Shrines of Paralysis
• I’m typically not a death metal fan these days, and I consume much less of it than I used to. Ulcerate’s newest record satisfied my need for brutality while sprinkling in enough low and slow moments to keep things from getting tedious.

15. Vektor - Terminal Redux
• Who said thrash is dead? Again, not a genre that I usually partake in anymore, but Terminal Redux changed that. Big compositions, big riffs, big melodies. An ambitious record with tons to offer.

14. Insomnium - Winter’s Gate
• Sweeping, epic, and ambitious in its scope of ideas and execution, Winter’s Gate is the return to form for Insomnium that I have been waiting for. I was skeptical after the mostly lackluster performances on their most recent records, but I was pleasantly surprised by Winter’s Gate.

13. 40 Watt Sun - Wider than the Sky
• I imagine that Wider than the Sky is what R.E.M. would sound like if they experimented with doom. I'm not knocking 40 Watt Sun, but rather it means that I can play this record when my parents are over, and not drive them out of the house.

12. Trees of Eternity - Hour of the Nightingale
• Hauntingly beautiful, melancholy, and steeped in emotion. Easy on the ears and heavy on the heart. This one is something special for us slow music likers out there.

11. Lycus - Chasms
• Atmospheric doom with touches of black and death influences littered throughout. A great young band with tremendous potential, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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10. Opeth - Sorceress

The Scandinavian prog giants stayed in my good books again with their follow-up to 2014’s excellent Pale Communion. Sorceress is an extraordinarily dynamic record that feels focused compared to Heritage’s aimlessly wandering, kitchen-sink approach to songcraft. The lead singles from the record spanned a variety of styles, from the oppressive plodding of “Sorceress” to the whimsical melodies of “Will o’ the Wisp” (along with decidedly morose lyrics). What manifested is an interesting record of diverse material that successfully pays tribute to the highlights of their career. 

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9. Mare Cognitum - Luminiferous Aether

In the world of atmospheric black metal, Tolkien is king. If not Tolkien, you’ll tend to find a paint by numbers approach of “Insert name of revered fantasy literature series here,” when it comes to artistic inspiration. Mare Cognitum, however, has seized upon the best (and by my argument, the grimmest) setting from which to draw musical inspiration for atmospheric black metal: the vacuous extent of the infinite cosmos. This record sounds just as vast, cold, and expansive as the subject matter which inspired its creation. Luminiferous Aether is just more proof that Jacob Buczarski is at the top of his game in a sub-genre that has become saturated with a lot of samey sounding reverb-soaked monotony.

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8. Darkthrone - Arctic Thunder

One of heavy metal’s most consistent bands returns in fine form. Arctic Thunder provides what I would expect from Darkthrone regarding quality but still manages to surprise me after The Underground Resistance. Fenriz and Ted are steady as ever on Arctic Thunder. Even after so many years of recording, they maintain a clear message: they are going to make heavy metal that rocks, and they are going to do it whatsoever way they damn well please. It makes for an entertaining listen, and Arctic Thunder undoubtedly sits high amongst the most recent samples of their body of work.

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7. Meshuggah -
The Violent Sleep of Reason

Another group of aligned artists who consistently produce high-quality music that never seems to surprise or disappoint. I’m beginning to sense a pattern here. This record is the muscular, robotic, driving metal that we have come to expect from Meshuggah. The Violent Sleep of Reason doesn’t add much to their established formula, but it does contrast well with the plodding pace of 2012’s Koloss. Other than that, it's business as usual. It may not be for everyone, but the rhythmic push and pull of a Meshuggah album can take you to places you did not expect to go when you let the music do the work for you.

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6. Astronoid - Air

This record was probably the most polarizing release of 2016. I haven’t yet spoken to anyone who is on the fence regarding Astronoid’s debut LP, Air. Either their brand of major-key “dream-thrash” grabbed you, or it ultimately left you puzzled. I can lay out my thoughts on this record pretty plainly. I am a total sucker for major-key, upbeat metal. Some of my favorite records of the last ten years have come from this camp. Certain parts of Baroness' Yellow and Green and Devin Townsend’s Addicted being some key examples. I had no issues with the performances of the musicians, and the production sounded great to me. I found no reason to reject this musical offering, and it is of my most played records of the year as a result.

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5. Alcest - Kodama

I expect that my selection of Kodama as one of my top five records of 2016 may raise more than a few eyebrows amongst staff and readers alike. As Michael Wuensch stated in his Astronoid review earlier this year, there is a significant chunk of the black metal community who would approach “blackgaze” as tentatively as some might a 7-11 cheeseburger hotdog.” Kodama was another record that surprised me, as I evaluated it in contrast to Shelter, which stepped completely away from black metal and ultimately left me feeling a bit confused. Kodama feels focused and immediate and strikes me as the work of an impassioned individual with a clear vision. As an interpretation of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, Kodama stands as a hauntingly beautiful piece of work, and I found its allure hard to resist.

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4. Subrosa - For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages

Despite the fact that most of the compositions clock in at the quarter-hour mark, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages presents great melodies that stay with you long after the music stops. This LP is deeply filled with lots of textured instrumentals. The sonics will creep into your psyche, enveloping you in bleak and sometimes oppressive soundscapes. This record can go from soothing to bludgeoning in a heartbeat. I had a great moment with this record when I played it at my house, and more than a few people just had to stop the conversation to ask, “What is this!? It’s great!” I have to agree with them. Give this one album a try; you owe it to yourself.

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3. Devin Townsend Project - Transcendence

Another pick that divided the Last Rites staff. Hevy Devy synthesizes the best parts of Ocean Machine with the best parts of his post-Strapping world. Devy’s production style just gets better and better with time, and new interpretations of the old material feel fresh, in this case being a new version of Infinity’s “Truth.” Using his highly developed skill set on more subtle compositions relative to the sonic insanity and bombast of Epicloud and Z2 is welcome. Transcendence may do more than any other of his recent albums to bring skeptics on board with his vision. It may be “Low-Mid Tier Prog Metal,” as the self-deprecating tour merchandise proclaims, but I’ll be damned if it’s not infectious. Plus, they cover Ween, enough said.

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2. Inter Arma - Paradise Gallows

A close runner-up for my record of the year, Inter Arma’s Paradise Gallows is an album with a staggering amount of scale and scope to it. As I mentioned in my review earlier this year, it is a more effective strategy to lean back and consume all of the moving parts as a stylistic whole. Unlike other members on staff, I had no idea what to expect from Inter Arma, as it was a totally new band to my ears, and I was taking a chance on listening. After digging into their back catalog, I am thankful that this record formed the basis for my initial impressions. It is handily the most fully realized vision of their stylistic choices to date, and one of the finest records of the year.

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1. Moonsorrow - Jumalten Aika

There was really no question that Jumalten Aika would be my number one pick of 2016. The more I look at my top ten list of 2016 records, the more I realize that consistently producing quality art is often just as important as being groundbreaking. Of course, it’s just about impossible to generate new ideas that are always venturing far into uncharted waters. A big part of maintaining a successful career is recognizing your strengths and producing a body of work that is aligned with those strengths. It’s hard to think of a band who does this better than Moonsorrow. The music is deceptively simple, it’s sweepingly epic in scope, and combines just enough key ingredients to keep me coming back for more. From pagan firelight rituals to raging rivers of black metal savagery, to plodding battle marches evoking times long past, it's this kind of consistent songwriting that keeps me coming back for more. A Moonsorrow playlist is often a staple of my camping trips to the mountains, where friends gather around the fire to share stories, both old and new. The sharing of our stories is such a huge part of what makes us human, we would do well to celebrate it.

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Biggest Disappointment

In Mourning - Afterglow
• After thoroughly enjoying 2012’s outing The Weight of Oceans, Afterglow left a lot to be desired. The music here is competently written and performed, but it's hard to shake the feeling of monotony that sets in almost immediately after the first song ends. Here’s to hoping they get back on track with the next one. 

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Top 5 Non-Metal Releases (No Order)

Death GripsBottomless Pit
• When it comes to Death Grips' blend of hardcore grit with hip-hop, you are either in or out. Bottomless Pit won't convert the uninitiated but definitely satisfies for those already on board. 

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
• The most impressed I have been with a Radiohead record since Kid A. A Moon Shaped Pool is a melancholy love letter to long-time fans of the band. 

Dynatron - The Rigel Axiom
• Danish musician Jeppe Hasseriis delivers a meaty EP of evocative sci-fi, space-faring synth wave. Throttle up.

A Tribe Called Quest - We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
• 18 years after their last record, A Tribe Called Quest proves they are still the real thing in hip-hop with this very relevant record. No part of this feels like a nostalgic cash-in.

Kendrick Lamar - untitled remastered
• At this point, I feel like Kendrick Lamar no longer has anything to prove to audiences as a force to be reckoned with in modern hip-hop. This subtle collection of tracks will affirm that status for years to come.

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Final Thoughts

This monstrous look back on 2016 marks the end of my first full year as a contributor to Last Rites. Thanks to everyone here on the staff for bringing me on board to nerd out about metal. It has truly been a wild ride so far. Bring on 2017.

- Evan