Black Ivory Tower’s Best of 2016
Holy shit, guys! One moment you are kicking ass with a stream-of-awesomeness of content, the next you are put in the time-out seat by the most persistent flu in years. And just as you were plotting your website’s first serious End-Of-Year parade! Fortunately, it is now the last day of 2016, which is the best day to talk about the best releases of 2016 anyway. “Down with the sickness!” I exclaimed as I moshed my way to my desk so I could present you with the favourite three 2016 releases of each staff member, including myself. Oh, and if available, the album title will link you to its respective Bandcamp page. See you in 2017! –Degtyarov
3. Rabor — Za tridevyat’ zemel’
Rabor is a prolific Russian project that normally forays into dungeon synth and suchlike ordeals. However, for their latest album, Za tridevyat’ zemel’, they delve deeper into their folkloric roots both thematically and musically. Making extensive use of Russian traditional instruments, their sound lands somewhere in the middle between Knyazhaya Pustyn and Lesnoy Tanets, sharing guitar-based dark folk compositions with the former and colourful instrumental story-telling with the latter. Particularly Rabor’s ability to create a narrative with barely any vocals is important, as the purpose of this album is to take the listener on a journey through the arcane world of Russian fairytales and folklore. What makes this album so good that it landed itself a top 3 position is that the pacing is excellent: the atmosphere transitions seamlessly across the songs, making the album into an elegant swan dive that takes us from enchanted forests to the glorious underwater city of Kitzeh, seemingly without effort. This is easy listening crafted through the hard work of the composer.
2. Lyudi na Kholme — Nordavind
Not to be confused with the Storm‘s synonymous 1996 album about killing Christians up in the mountains, up in the mountains, Lyudi na Kholme’s Nordavind is an excellent blend of dark folk and neofolk, clad in the dreary desolation of the band’s native Murmansk. Stylistically, Nordavind reminds us of Moon Far Away‘s Belovodye, which offered us native hymns from that other major city in Russia’s far North, Arkhangelsk. Yet, rather than taking this inspiration and distilling it into something far less captivating than the original, Lyudi na Kholme have created their own niche. Much like Belovodye, Nordavind‘s bittersweet melodies dwell on Arctic solitude, but what makes Lyudi na Kholme stand out is their direct confrontation with the roughness of their native land by contrasting melancholic folk with more martial compositions. With Nordavind, Lyudi na Kholme succeed in chiseling glacial beauty out of the frozen soil of their homeland.
1. Isa — Echo
Having followed Isa since they put out their first album in 2014, it feels unfair to say they have come a long way. I still love their debut Pesniy myortvykh as much as when it came out, but at the same time it is obvious that Isa’s third full-length, Echo, has elevated this project to new heights. While still lightly rooted in black metal and ambient, Isa have by now fully embraced their niche of folky darkwave. Particularly the opening track, “Taina pri zhizni” recalls the lamentations of the late Siberian punk legend Yanka Dyagileva (perhaps not coincidentally from the same town as Isa), if not in style, then in its otherworldliness; its total detachment from everyday madness. As a whole, the album reveals that, while Isa’s compositions are still relatively simple, their instrumentation certainly isn’t. Whether it’s flutes, the bayan, the magnificent gusli or even church bells, they can be heard in Isa’s all-Russian orchestra. This music is nourishment for the spirit, and perhaps the most wonderful step yet in this band’s promising career.
3. Death in Rome — Hitparade & RIP lounge
I went on at some length about this double-disc offering of neo-folk cover songs on this very site, and its charms continue to hold up after a rather startling number of replays. Rather than self-plagiarize, I’ll commit an equally noxious blogging sin and self-quote: “[T]here are a deceptive number of onionskin layers to Death in Rome’s recent two-disc release of ‘Hitparade and RIP Lounge’. Though the band falls under the category of Deep Commitment Parodists, there is considerable humorous appeal to neo-folk covers of radio hits, given the relentlessly anti-commercial nature of this underground genre. Transposing Death in June’s Totenkopf onto the work of Miley Cyrus, Technotronic, and A-ha brings an unexpected gravity to these songs. Lyrics crafted for singability and universal emotional appeal take on a mysterious quality. Perhaps the distance between Rihanna and Rome isn’t so very far.”
2. Forteresse — Thèmes pour la rébellion
Another jewel in the crown of French Canadian black metal, this collection of paeans to the Québec sovereignty movement is jaw-dropping in its utter relentlessness. There’s an immensity of sound here that balances its captivating, melodic aspects without compromising the bellicose spirit that drives this record. By the time the closing atmospheric track drifted away, I found myself exhausted in the wake of this firestorm.
1. Oranssi Pazuzu — Värähtelijä
Typically, adding the word “progressive” to any style of metal will find me hissing in dread like a malevolent woodland spirit threatened with cold iron. It’s a word that usually carries with it the scent of academic smugness and–worse yet–the spectre of freeform jazz jam sessions. In order to justify my enjoyment of this record, I’ve decided that Oranssi Pazuzu isn’t so much progressive as they are the psychedelic fringe of experimental metal, crafting unsettling odysseys that maintain tension with their sheer bizarreness. Even the most recognizably “black metal” moments of “Havuluu”–with its tremolo picking and tortured vocals–are counterposed by an intro straight out of a 1970s horror film and wailing distorted guitars that would be more at home on an occult doom record. This is a deliciously creepy journey through sinister spaces both astral and mental.
3. Earth and Pillars — Pillars I
Swapping the lush greenery of their debut Earth I for a far harder, colder aesthetic, Earth and Pillars are broadcasting from the highest snowcapped peaks, surrounded by heavy drifts and blizzards. I highly enjoyed Earth I, and was unsurprised that Pillars I more than lived up to my expectations (accompanied by the limited ambient work Towards the pillars, which is well worth picking up if still available). The sheer scale of this release alone renders it quite unique among the year’s offerings, containing four towering monuments to the great granite icy pillars that populate the band’s region and imagination, a homage to the brutal impersonal awe of the mountains. Lyrically, the album is based upon Rilke’s Book of hours, whose dreamy incantations are adapted as hymns to the mountains and the great passages of time around them. Whilst this may not sound particularly different to the thousands of snow-centric albums released each year, there is a skill, dynamism and scale in these four pieces that is particularly impressive and absorbing, not to mention unrelenting, and by god do Earth and Pillars know how to paint in shades. Each storm is played out by a breath of calm, every moraine scaled against the winds offers a plateau for contemplation, introspection… Certainly one of the most consistent, mature and serious releases of the year, not to mention transportative; it certainly made me want to dig out my crampons and copy of Meditations on the peaks.
2. Wędrujący Wiatr — O turniach, jeziorach i nocnych szlakach
To my great shame I had not come across these fine Poles prior to stumbling across this, their sophomore effort in full on Youtube (yes even a technophobe luddite such as I make use of such a thing). To my utter surprise, what emerged from the speakers was not another Drudkh clone, but a sparkling slice of folklore from the archaic Polish forests, full of light and shade, driven by a shimmering hammered instrument (a dulcimer? Answers on a postcard please dear readers), that led the melodies out of the dark forest floor and out over the vast stretches of primeval forest. I am afraid I cannot give a clue as to the subject of the lyrics in detail, however I have been assured that it is written in a distinctively archaic a local dialect of Polish, and the title translates to ‘About alps, lakes and night paths’, which is exactly what the music conjures in the mind’s eye. The melodies flow with great skill around the mixed tempos that create the album’s skeleton, whilst the presumed dulcimer chimes like a bell in each track, softening and sparkling each song, combined with precisely placed interludes of acoustic instrumentation and field recordings of pristine nature. All these create one of the most remarkable examples of black metal to emerge from the Slavic lands in quite some time. Fans of Isa take note, and that doesn’t just mean you Degtyarov!
1. Urfaust — Empty space meditation
God knows what these irresistible hermits have been experimenting with, but whatever it was, Urfaust have produced a work that bottoms straight out from a gin-soaked nightmare suffered by Hawkwind. This Empty space meditation, this kosmiche darkness is more Urfaust than Urfaust, which can only be a good thing. Spiralling out from the monolithic Phurpa-esque void of the first track, “Meditation II” thunders forth on a an unusually rapid beat, borne aloft by their trademark spaced-out synths, which seem even more attuned to kraut-rocked ’70s moogishness than usual, settling into what must be an early highlight of the album, a pounding and melodic mid pace paeon to starry meditations. Lysergic communions then follow with the typical Urfaust mood, with a particularly drugged out (and blissed out?) example of psychedelic sludge in the form of “Meditation IV”, which weaves a lethargic drunken stumble across the night sky. The pace picks up for the penultimate piece, whose aggression brings an excellent dark and urgent counterpoint to IV’s monolithic yet sparking dirge. Finally, the flavour of Eastern mysticism that lurks carefully in the album’s shadows is brought to the fore in the final Meditation, which begs the question; have Urfaust been studying in Ash Ra’s Temple? Intoxication is still the name of the game here, although not solely in terms of what one might think. You’d be just as likely to choke on incense during this recording as you would pour Bruge’s best down your throat. Living up to its name admirably, Empty space meditations looks behind the frazzled visions brought on by Delerium Tremens and gives a hint at what might lie beyond, cloaked in thick luscious productions and a strong hint of Orientalism. Bong meets Beefeater, robed in cosmic worship. Essential stuff.
3. Vlk — Of wolves’ blood
I received this cassette with a bunch of others in a trade. I had picked it on a whim. The band being from Chicago, I initially did not expect much. Outside a few bands from New England, the American scene has been sorely lacking in recent years. Upon listening to the cassette, I was very pleasantly surprised. Triumphant, mid-paced black metal finding it’s niche somewhere between Bathory‘s Hammerheart, early Graveland, and Burzum. Epic without resorting to cheese, solemn without sounding contrived, this cassette surprised me in every way. The seamless blend of triumphant viking-era Bathory with atmospheric Burzum style arpeggios (not to mention a surprisingly suitable piano segment in “Winter’s warm embrace”) draws the listener into a sonic narrative across frozen lakes, snow-covered battlefields and initiates him into the rite of the Wild Hunt. This is all complimented by a visual design that takes several cues from the best of the neofolk genre. Don’t let this one pass under your radar.
2. Nécropole — Nécropole
Technically this isn’t a 2016 release. Rather, it is a compilation of demo material originally released in 2014 and 2015. Compiled and re-released by Northern Heritage this past February. This is black metal, pure and simple. Not orthodox, not atmospheric, not any bullshit gimmick labels and journalists are using to pimp the last musical whores they’ve turned out. Nécropole is currently Amertume of Caverne & Déchéance, but at the time this material was recorded, Brume handled the drum duties. The music is reminiscent of the melodic sound of the French concilium bands of the mid-nineties to the mid-noughties, but there are also hints of Burzum, Pagan Hellfire, Hades, Goatmoon and many more. Simply listing influences does not do this work justice. The riffing is impeccable, hateful, dripping with atmosphere and melody without losing its edge. The vocals reverberate the passionate (French) lyrics that bring to mind the polemics of Céline and the poetry of Pound, without losing their roots in Nietzschean morality. In fact, the lyrics alone make this release worth picking up. Pure hatred and malice towards Judeo-Christianity and the cult of human rights. This is what black metal should be in the current year. A musical invocation of Zarathustra, heralding the coming over-man from on high.
1. Ulvesang — Ulvesang
Like the previous release, Ulvesang’s self titled was technically released digitally in 2015. Being the grognard that I am, however, I do not consider a digital upload a proper release. It has since been released on CD and cassette in 2016. This trio hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia, the urban wasteland in which I currently make my home. Surprisingly enough, the sounds contained herein are more evocative of the breath-taking pine covered landscapes of rural Nova Scotia than the piss-stained concrete of it’s capital city. This is acoustic music in the vein of Ulver (Kveldssanger era) Vali, Empyrium, and Musk Ox, oftentimes reminiscent of the latter’s self-titled. However, make no mistake, this work is more than able to stand on its own two feet (or paws, if you will). There is a distinctive style on this release that makes it instantly recognizable. The pieces draw the listener into the pine-scented forests that hug the rugged coast of New Scotland, the compositions themselves painting pictures of lone lupine predators sauntering across moss-covered stones. If you’re lucky enough to live in a country that still has wild-life, find yourself a quiet cabin in the woods, and put this on while you prepare your breakfast. I guarantee that you will feel right at home.
3. Hermanos Menores — Entonces vi dos medusas
In the interest of transparency, I will begin by saying that this EP was made by a man (Daniel Piedrahita) whose friendship I have enjoyed for nearly a decade, and whose music I have admired from the moment we met. However much that may colour my personal interest in the project I hope it does not put into question the sincerity of my recommendation. Though there are many lo-fi guitar ambient projects like it out there (and it certainly fits into that category quite neatly), Entonces vi dos medusas is successful where many others fail, due mostly to its impeccable flow. Through soft, post-rock style drones and an imaginative flurry of guitar effects, Piedrahita creates a transparent work of strange intimacy, akin to a stream-of-consciousness Woolfean meditation, urbane isolation and turmoil packaged beautifully into a nearly baroque tripartite curve, which makes everything seem just right for the EP format (2016 may be the year I fell in love with the EP). Influences abound, and they are often quite clear (later period Earth being particularly present), but the music’s strong individuality prevails and endears. For a style as fervently stuck as this brand of guitar-based post-rock/ambient has been for so many years, the capacity to use old tools to great emotional effect is an exciting achievement.
2. Eternal Champion — The armor of ire
In what was undoubtedly a great year for traditional heavy metal (Wytch Hazel, Spellcaster, High Spirts, Dark Forest, etc.), The armor of ire captured me beyond all others. The songwriting revolves mostly around the classic Manilla Road method of shaping a small narrative around one strong riff, and allowing the lyrics to decide the riff’s connotations and the colour of any contrasting sections. An album like that can only work when the main premise or idea behind tunes is convincing and the band itself sounds convinced of it, and The armor of ire is captivating every single time. From the opening ode to badassery and the oddly melancholy melodicism of the title track to the closing duo of finely crafted mini-epics “Invoker” and “Sing a last song of Valdese”, every song on this album knows what it’s about from the outset and pursues it with a single-minded tenacity that manages to be refreshing and exciting despite the style’s unapologetic atavism. The armor of ire glows with all the iconoclastic brilliance of the American ‘weird fiction’ that inspires it, and Eternal Champion are among the glorious few who have kept true heavy metal alive against all odds.
1. Sangre de Muerdago — Os segredos da raposa vermella
An EP for which, in a different timeline, the term ‘neofolk’ may have been invented. Sangre de Muerdago, like many others, have long used folk instrumentation and melodic sensibilities from their native Galicia within their music. On Os segredos, they have additionally assimilated traditional folkloric methods of performance and adaptation, ‘covering’ traditional Galician tunes and interspersing them with original compositions in a poutpurri typical of folk groups, in which the originality of the compositions is secondary to the cohesiveness of the experience. These sensitivities make for a good combination with the innate feeling for flow and proportion, both at the level of individual songs and of the entire recording. As contemporary recording artists bred within ‘album culture’, they have managed to craft an EP that combines their trademark sylvan melacholy with the delicate transparency and tragic innocence of their traditional Galician sources. The aesthetic and emotional effect of this juxtaposition of worlds is largely unparalleled in either traditional folk or neofolk, being comparable in intensity perhaps only to the great Shirley Collins recordings, or early Bulgarian ethnographic audio experiments, both of which seem to have an accidental component in their final outcome that Os segredos lacks entirely. Whether or not Sangre de Muerdago choose to pursue this course, and whether or not anybody else chooses to continue exploring its possibilities, is yet to be seen, but the rare moment of crystalline beauty that this EP provides, is by itself enough to make it the year’s crowning jewel for this author.
From those I hadn’t heard of before, I like Nécropole & Isa. Hence, thank you for this feature!