Year In Review: Simon Opie's Top Twenty Albums Of 2016 [Part Two: 10-1]

on Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Words: Simon Opie

Following Part One of this best of 2016 albums, featuring the likes of Sub Pop's Heron Oblivion and the now departing Dillinger Escape Plan, comes ten quite exceptional albums that really could have been placed in any order. But here they are, for the purposes of presentation, from 10 to 1:

10. Russian Circles – 'Guidance'

Instrumental post-metal beautifully produced by Converge’s Kurt Ballou, this album is perhaps Russian Circles’ best to date. Formed in 2004 this trio have worked hard to build a fan-base that now allows them to tour as headliners instead of supporting acts such as Tool and Coheed & Cambria. That’s no small achievement given the limitations of the format and the challenges of delivering it live as a three-piece. Guitar, bass and drums seldom sound so huge as on this record and the compositions are genuinely dramatic. From the pastoral tones of opener 'Asa' to the menace of 'Afrika' and the heaviness of 'Lisboa', the album lures you into its immersive world and it’s totally engaging.

Must hear: 'Asa', 'Afrika', 'Lisboa'

9. SubRosa – 'For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages'

SubRosa, from Salt Lake City, started as a project of guitarist and vocalist Rebecca Vernon and has grown to include the twin violins and voices of Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack and latterly the rhythm section of Andy Patterson and Levi Hanna. This album, their third full-length, really sees the band hitting full stride and is as confident a statement as you could wish for. The approach that blends doom laden sludge, folk melody, substantial volume and complex composition delivers a raw, tough and beautiful album. The vocals add an ethereal quality, echoed by the violins, that lifts the songs from metal sensibility to gothic splendour, and the result is very dramatic indeed.

Must hear: 'Wound Of The Warden', 'Killing Rapture'

8. Kandodo McBain – 'Lost Chants/Last Chance'

Kandodo McBain joins together Simon Price (Kandodo), Wayne Maskell, Hugo Morgan and John McBain. Price, Maskell and Morgan are respectively guitarist, drummer and bassist from The Heads, whilst McBain is a participant in the Desert Sessions scene, former member of Monster Magnet and collaborator with the likes of Carlton Melton. The result of their unusual work together is a collection of 5 songs that each exist in two versions – faster (45rpm) and slower (33rpm) – and whilst that sounds gimmicky it actually works extremely well thanks to the quality of the core material and the mixing skills of McBain, as the Bristol sound meets San Francisco method.

The heart of the album is a psych/stoner workout using tonal riffs, floating synths, repetition, fuzz & phase – all the regular tools – and from this emerges fully formed and totally engrossing layered compositions. The guitar work here is the icing on the cake and the music has a bite and purpose uncharacteristic of many instrumental jams. All in all, a unique and most impressive achievement.

Must hear: 'Holy Syke', 'Really Blowed Out', 'Holiest Syke'

7. Old Man Gloom – 'Mickey Rookey Live At London'

As far as I know, this album is only available on vinyl so apologies for that but Old Man Gloom, combining members of Converge, Sumac (the aforementioned Aaron Turner from Part One of this list) and Cave-In, rarely visit the UK so this record of a live appearance at the Scala in London, recorded in April 2014 and released earlier this year, is a real treasure.

Old Man Gloom were started by Turner and drummer Santos Montano and quickly expanded to include Nate Newton and Caleb Scofield in a sort of post-supergroup experimental metal band. Their music is heavier than a lead sarcophagus and generally the songs are short, sharp and abrasive, although just occasionally they stretch out into more atmospheric sounds. For a band that doesn’t play together all that often, they are also an exceptionally tight unit and this album captures them in really great form.

Must hear: 'Common Species', 'To Carry The Flame', 'Sleeping With Snakes'

6. Ulcerate – 'Shrines Of Paralysis'

Death Metal is an acquired taste and a difficult skill, but New Zealand’s Ulcerate exhibit a complete mastery of the medium on this album that is truly impressive. Formed in 2000, their musical approach has developed over time from technically adept to genuinely dynamic, creating dark colours and oppressive atmospheres that add complexity and interest to their songs.

Sixteen years on they are a global talent on a major label and that is no mean feat given the starting point. The eight songs on 'Shrines Of Paralysis' all demonstrate Ulcerate’s ability to be original and inventive in a genre that is often mired in cliché, and for anyone interested in extreme music that approach is most welcome.

Must hear: 'Abrogation', 'Extinguished Light'

5. The Heads – 'Burning Up With Roadburn Live'

In 2015, The Heads were designated special artists in residence at the Roadburn Festival in Holland and made two rare live appearances. This 2016 release is a record of their main stage performance, billed as possibly their final show, featuring a greatest hits set, in which they didn’t put a foot wrong. Ripping through their back catalogue of psych-rock classics and backed by tremendous psychedelic visuals on a huge screen, they seemed really energised by the occasion and played to their very best. Perhaps the most memorable demonstration is when a pulsating intensity builds through 'Stodgy (Feel The Burn)' and then breaks exactly over the top of a scorching Paul Allen guitar solo into the riff-fest that is 'Spliff Riff'.

Fortune is fickle in the music business and The Heads have most certainly not received the recognition – or the record sales - they deserved. This recording is a tremendous souvenir of a brilliant set played by the UK’s best rock band of the last 20 years, and the only sadness is that it’s unlikely to be repeated very often.

Must hear: 'Cardinal Fuzz', 'Widowmaker', 'U33'

4. Sumac – 'What One Becomes'

Aaron Turner formed Sumac only a couple of years ago and already they have produced two albums (this one and 'The Deal' which made last year’s list) of great quality. The trio of Turner, Brian Cook (of Russian Circles) on bass and drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) have turned a part-time gig into a touring and recording machine of huge potency.

This album seems to exhibit more of a group mentality than on 'The Deal' with Turner backed by a superbly adept rhythm section that fully justifies the term Power Trio. Their music explores the theme of anxiety and its existential effects using a format defined by discipline and precision, which consequently creates inherent contradiction and tension – and therein lies the real interest in the music. A process most accurately demonstrated by extended track 'Blackout'. Sumac have gathered quite a following in a short time, supported by impressive live shows and maybe it’s unlikely to remain just a side-project for long.

Must hear: 'Image Of Control', 'Clutch Of Oblivion', 'Blackout'

3. Cobalt – 'Slow Forever'

Cobalt came to prominence in 2007 with a quite stunningly original and confrontational album called 'Eater Of Birds', followed in 2009 with the equally challenging 'Gin'. The roots of Cobalt’s music are in US army operations in Iraq and elsewhere, where founder member and former vocalist Phil McSorley served tours of duty, and the context is evident. Since 2009, a long silence has ensued during which McSorley and multi-instrumentalist and the remaining band member, Erik Wunder struggled to reconcile differences.

In 2015, Wunder announced that McSorley was no longer in the band and that a new album was in production. 'Slow Forever' is that album, made by Wunder and newly recruited vocalist Charlie Fell. Less overtly avant-garde than previous work, this album takes the blasted heath that Cobalt inhabits and populates it with familiar shapes twisted by the stresses of violence and angst. Wunder brings his folk sensibilities to bear on the narrative, Fell brings energy and focus to the vocals and the music is robust and elemental. Cobalt rarely tour but they are planning to take this album on the road and I for one plan not to miss it.

Must hear: 'King Rust', 'Ruiner', 'Slow Forever'

2. Cult Of Luna & Julie Christmas – 'Mariner'

The match between Swedish post-metal, battle-scarred warriors Cult Of Luna and semi-retired American vocalist Julie Christmas was not perhaps an obvious fit, but it succeeds well beyond expectations. Both parties have in common an appreciation of the struggle necessary to succeed in the job of making music and both are vital and talented artists. But it is the epic nature of this space odyssey that is so compelling and provides the scope for all involved to enjoy a freedom of expression that is rather rare.

Cult Of Luna are massive favourites from my Simon Says column and their blend of post-metal technique, dark thematic exploration and complex musical structures makes their work memorable and hugely satisfying. Their back catalogue is really unequalled but this collaboration has stimulated them to raise the bar even higher – the ferocity, intensity and sheer scale of the music is striking. Christmas in her turn brings clean vocal lines and a focus on melody that makes an excellent counterpoint to the band’s natural tendencies. Her participation results in Cult Of Luna avoiding any temptation to over-complicate and the ‘less is more’ strategy delivers a piece of work that has clarity and strength. It is also a massively entertaining listen.

Must hear: 'Greater Call', 'The Wreck Of S.S. Needle', 'Cygnus'

1. Architects – 'All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us'

In her recent seasonal capacity as one of BBC Radio 6’s Three Wise Women, Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes, advised listeners not to start a band unless they had something to say. It’s very sound advice and a perfect encapsulation of why this album claims the number one spot in the face of incredibly fierce competition.

When I first heard the album, I had no idea of its immense significance but I recognised that it was an amazingly strong set of songs that faced the issue of mortality and death full on and had something deeply worthwhile to say about it. Three months later I learned with dismay of the death of lead guitarist and primary composer Tom Searle from cancer and the true significance of the record really hit me. I was also very much impressed with the dignity with which Dan Searle, Tom’s brother and Architects’ drummer, publicly addressed the awful truth of the situation.

Since then I’ve returned to the record many, many times and I think it’s almost impossible to imagine an album that might have more to say than this one. More than that, it says it with articulacy and great skill – the whole band play with energy and precision – and a deep musicality. All in all, it’s a remarkable and courageous achievement and a very worthy album of the year, 2016.

Must hear: 'A Match Made In Heaven', 'All Love Is Lost', 'Momento Mori' (Play it all of course!)

ICYMI, Read part one in full here.

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