Black Metal & Brews’ Top Picks of 2016 So Far

We’re halfway through 2016. Your favorite website dropped the ball and never really did publish a list of the best black metal of 2015. Now that it’s far too late to even think about doing one of those, I’m making up for it by giving you not one, but TWO separate “baker’s dozen” type lists about 2016. The first thirteen albums are my top picks of the year so far that are not metal but are still worth your time. The other thirteen are metal releases of any subgenre I see fit. Even if you’re an all metal all the time person, I urge you to at least read my descriptions of every album listed here on the off chance something might appeal to you. Trust me, it’s healthy to broaden your horizons and examine things you thought you’d hate. That’s how I learned that Blind Guardian actually does rule. Without further rambling, I give you (in no particular order) the best things released between January 1st and June 30th of 2016.

Secret Boyfriend- Memory Care Unit

With Memory Care Unit, Secret Boyfriend demonstrates that subtlety is not always peaceful or calm. There’s a sense of tension running through the improvised loops throughout this album. On a low volume or as a background listen, this almost sounds welcoming and friendly, but with headphones or as a late night album, it takes on an otherworldly sense of haunting and regret.  This is the soundtrack to insulating yourself from a world of anxiety and stress, even while songs like “Little Jammy Centre” provide temporary reprieve and bliss. It’s almost comforting but the pressure outside hasn’t gone away, it just can’t be seen at the moment. I’m positive I haven’t got the right “music critic” vocabulary for this, but it’s one of the most essential things I’ve heard in 2016 to date.

David Bowie- Blackstar

I’m not even sure what words I could use to describe the impact Blackstar has had on me. Sure, not every song is as dark or emotionally charged as the title track or “Lazarus,” but the entire thing is bursting with the creativity of a man who knew he was on borrowed time. Highs, lows, and beautifully bizarre shifts are all here. If this is what looking back at a life full of art is like, then it’s a thing of beauty. I could talk about this forever, but really I’d rather just urge you to listen and see for yourself.

Youth CodeCommitment to Complications

Industrial music has many faces and shapes (see Puce Mary below for a completely different take on “industrial”) yet Youth Code hits me with the same feelings I felt when I first heard Skinny Puppy in high school. While the aggression of earlier Youth Code is absolutely present here, it’s married with bursts of melody at times and the effect is stunning. Songs like “Anagnorisis” and “Lost at Sea” are regular features on my radio program at this point for a very good reason. I can’t get enough of this act and I hope they’ll embark on a headlining tour soon, as their recent trek with Baroness was a bit pricey for folks on a writer’s income.

Listen to the full album stream courtesy of self-titled mag.

Venetian Roses- Erosion of Love

I fell down a YouTube hole one day and came across Russian label Perfect Aesthetics. Within a week I’d managed to make one of my Scavengers’ Sunday posts about how much I loved this particular release. Two songs of subtle beauty and solemn peace. This is a brief listen, but it’s one that keeps me coming back for more. I really hope this act becomes as prolific as some of the others on the label, as this teaser alone endures and impresses.

Tollund MenAutoerotik

After years of demos and EPs, one of my favorite bands finally blessed us with a full-length and it’s amazing. Hazy, minimalist murk with clear influences from post-punk but no real genre I can list? I’m so into it. It’s gloomy without being pathetic and it’s rhythmic without being danceable. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Long sold out, but easy to find and listen to out there on the big, glorious internet. I’ve never heard anything else quite like this act, so genre and band touch points are a challenge, but isn’t that half the fun? Listen to something new.

AnohniHopelessness

Passionate, desperate electronic music that verges on “pop” but feels way too heavy and relevant to give such a broad tag. Anohni first came onto my radar when Antony and the Johnsons shared a split with Current 93. Her voice is instantly recognizable and painfully human, propelling these simple yet urgent songs into otherworldly places of suffering and compassion. This is catchy as hell but ultimately somber and important social commentary. Listen with an open heart.

Wounded Knee- No Fun in Heaven

Bandcamp lists this as being released in 2015 but I’m pretty sure it’s off by a year. If not, oh well. I got this tape this year and it’s damn good. Cold, strict synthesizer music that isn’t quite industrial but feels intense enough to ward off casual synthpop and techno listeners. It’s glitchy and unsettling while circulating around constant pulsing beats with songs like “Hypothetical Terror” mesmerizing and disturbing the listener at the same time. Dance your way through the darkness and go mad in the process.

Caerula/Klizaljka/Vostok Setras- Opposite of Lovers

Just a few blurbs ago on this very list, I wrote some nice things about Venetian Roses. This three-way split is where my YouTube spiral took me to get me into the Perfect Aesthetics label. This is a nice blend of minimal synth, darkwave, and post-punk sounds from three groups I would’ve never heard of without this tape. The tape is sold out but with only three euros for a download, you’d be foolish to ignore this vital release. Grab it now, thank me later.

Contagious Yawns- Some Places Aren’t Around Here

This was one of two mystery tapes released by Spring Break Tapes, which only had album art available (no artist name, no description, nothing) at the time it went up for sale. This tape, the debut of Contagious Yawns, is a crucial slab of eerie beauty. It draws inspiration from the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but even before I learned this detail I was lost in its vastness. These synth-driven songs don’t necessarily follow similar courses, but they all feel larger than the sum of their (often simple) components. If “Nature of Force” isn’t one of the spookiest jams of the year, then I must be losing touch.

Various Artists- Love Manual, Vol. I (released by Plush Organics)

I was really torn between including this compilation and Gloga’s Material Hangover from the same label, but decided that the sheer number of artists here made this worth selecting, especially since I’ve already given serious love to that album on this site. There are so many different sounds shared here, mostly electronic but with a heavy helping of noise, and only a few of these artists were known to me before I heard this. Pairing heavyweights like Purple Light and Korean Jade with new names is a surefire way to get my attention and it works so well. From start to finish, I can’t think of an artist on this tape that shouldn’t pop out a full album for the world’s betterment. Yeah, some of these tracks have appeared elsewhere before, but do you really have all the original tapes? Probably not. Check this out and be the first to know.

Vatican Shadow- Media in the Service of Terror

Everybody knows Dom Fernow by this point. While the lines between the abrasive Prurient and the more dance-oriented Vatican Shadow have blurred slightly, Media in the Service of Terror is a serious contender in the electronic world right now. It’s creepy without being overtly dark and it’s dance-worthy without feeling mindless or simplistic. I really don’t have the electronic vocabulary to describe why this hits the way it does, perhaps it’s the pairing of imagery with music, but this feels highly evocative and well worth repeated examinations.

Puce Mary- The Spiral

Is noise becoming a “thing” now? I sure hope so. While many in underground communities get up in arms about the mainstream press clinging to releases and artists we love, I’m glad to see Puce Mary garnering greatly deserve attention for The Spiral. It’s a scathing yet fascinating chapter in a career full of successes. It’s unsettling without “gotcha” moments and it’s nuanced in a genre where many artists lack anything resembling subtlety. This is what the future of horror soundtracks should be, even though it’s highly unlikely we’ll see such a shift.

UlverATGCLVLSSCAP

It’d be easy (and true) to accuse me of being an Ulver fanatic. This does not make them beyond critique for me. If anything, I’m the first to call out an artist I love when they release something less than wonderful. With ATGCLVLSSCAP (named for the signs of the Zodiac), Ulver has managed to marry the free spirit of live improvisation with the focus and form that has guided all their work to date. In my interview with Kris of Ulver earlier this year, he touched upon the recurring theme of all Ulver’s music being “night music” at heart. Ever since that chat, this has been a regular evening listen. Blissful and expansive without restraint.

Book of Sand- Occult Anarchist Propaganda

I’ve been waiting for years for lefty black metal to actually sound like black metal and not like some strange bastardization of crust. Book of Sand has come through brilliantly with this vicious and evocative album that quickly became a favorite. If it’s your first experience with them, there’s no better place to start, but I urge you to take an afternoon and dig through more of this band’s discography than just one album. Top quality from start to finish with a few little flourishes of surprise. My review is a bit more thorough, if you’re into that sort of thing.

 

KringaThrough the Flesh of Ethereal Wombs

I found this gem of an album (EP?) thanks to JT from Symptom posting about it obsessively on the internet. He’s long been a trusted source of awesome underappreciated black metal and doom and one of the first people in the Portland music community to reach out to me in any way. This one is one of the coolest things I’ve heard in ages. It’s intricate and beautiful in a classic way, so don’t expect any “post-” leanings here, just traditionally structured black metal with a strong sense of melody from a band with a fully developed identity. This feels unique while playing on familiar sounds. Highest recommendation possible.

VirusMemento Collider

If you’ve been following Virus for any amount of time, Memento Collider isn’t really a surprise in any way. For most bands, this would be a bad thing. For a band like Virus, listeners know to expect something that can’t quite be grasped, which makes this album another brilliant addition to a catalog of quality. The band has long transcended all other associations and is now freely creating some of the strangest, most cohesive music around. I recently conducted a brief interview with frontman Czral for Noisey that should sum this up rather nicely. Enjoy.

Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas- Mariner

I haven’t kept up with Cult of Luna in years. It’s not that I don’t care what they’ve done, it’s just that I didn’t even hear about most of their material after Somewhere Along the Highway until the band toured the US last year. When I heard that Mariner was being released, I was a bit skeptical. Collaborative albums can be brilliant, but they can also be easy cash-ins for bands who lack inspiration or direction. This is not a cash-in by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, both parties seem to be at creative peaks here, working in tandem as if this were the natural state of things. Christmas is at her most emotionally evocative since the monumental Battle of Mice record and Cult of Luna sounds as potent as ever. This is a long listen but each song hooks the audience in a way that makes it feel concise and direct.

Oranssi PazuzuVärähtelijä

Oranssi Pazuzu is one of the most impressive live acts I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t even catch the entire set. With Värähtelijä the band has delved farther into murky, bizarre waters than ever before and managed to come up with something that still translates well. It’s got a ferocity that should satisfy fans of black metal yet there’s an uncompromising uniqueness displayed heavily on songs like the seventeen-minute masterpiece “Vasemman Käden Hierarkia.” This won’t make sense on the first few listens, but there are enough moments of note to eventually make the whole thing come together. Trust me, it’s worth it.

NaðraAllir vegir til glötunar

Melodic, aggressive, and impassioned are the words that come to mind when listening to Naðra, whose ferocious black metal was one of the highlights of my Roadburn experience without a doubt. To be honest, this full-length and the EP that followed it just a few months later are some of the most exciting black metal I’ve heard in ages. It’s pummeling without being outright brutal and it’s melodic without anything flowery or “safe” about it. Some people get their “riding into battle” fix from decidedly more meaty bands, but this is what’s doing it for me. Get into this now. These guys are set to rule the world.

Dagger Lust- Dagger Lust

As part of the highly prolific collective of bands on the Vrasubatlat label, it’s no surprise that this recent demo has already been followed up with a sequel. This might be the most chilling of the label’s releases to date. I can’t give it words beyond what my review earlier this year detailed, so check it out and listen below. And, if you didn’t notice, they’ve got another tape out already that’s so new it doesn’t meet the criteria for this list. Grab it while you can.

Eight Bells– Landless

Eight Bells is the kind of band that is almost intentionally impossible to pigeonhole. They’re subtle without being gentle and intricate without dissolving into masturbatory shredding. While I love strong musicianship, most things that are remotely “progressive” tend to sound like the rock’n’roll equivalent of a bunch of barbecue dads high-fiving. Eight Bells gives hope that complex and challenging heavy metal can exist without collapsing under its own weight or feeling contrived on any level. I’m so lucky that these folks are Portland locals. If you haven’t heard Landless yet, you’re missing out on one of the only albums on this list with actual mainstream (in the good way) potential. My review is even more complimentary.

Tomb Mold- The Bottomless Perdition

What happens when folks known primarily for experimental noise and punk make a death metal tape? Surprisingly enough, something amazing. Those who know me on any level know that most modern death metal holds little interest to these ears. Tomb Mold’s debut demo is a strong exception and pays homage to classics without stooping to outright plagiarism. Plodding, filthy, and potent in its brevity, The Bottomless Perdition starts on a high note and never relents. I can’t wait to see what comes next now that they’re signed to Blood Harvest and promising another demo AND an LP.

 

ForteresseThemes Pour La Rebellion

2016 is a year with a new Forteresse album. They still deliver some of the most stunning riffs on the entire North American continent. I could say more, but it would just fall short. It’s not just “more of the same” but fans of the band’s prior work will fall in love with this and I hope this will broaden the audience due to its high visibility.

PogavranjenJedva Čekam Da Nikad Ne Umrem

Pogavranjen’s newest serves as something of a kindred spirit to the Virus album featured above, yet it carves its own path quite nicely. This is some of the stranger music to hit my inbox this year, yet it was instantly up my alley. While the opening track has hints of dark ambient horror, the rest of the album treads dark territory with haunting vocals that are somewhere between a chant and actual singing. It’s not quite black metal but it’s not quite anything else either. If you want to straddle genres in a dizzying and thrilling fashion, you’ll find the skeletal instrumentation and creepy delivery here essential. More evidence that experimentation can pay off brilliantly when a band makes no compromises.

Ustalost- The Spoor of Vipers

Ustalost is the solo endeavor of Will from Yellow Eyes. If that sentence alone isn’t reason enough for you to immediately go out and purchase The Spoor of Vipers on cassette, then I’ll be happy to share more. Basically, this is a distillation of all the guitar-worshiping glory that’s made Will’s other work so noteworthy yet it’s ambitious enough even for those familiar with his other work. Ustalost is one of the most promising new artists to emerge in 2016 and I really hope this is not just a one-off.

A Pregnant Light- Rocky

I saved this for last because what sort of music could possibly follow a statement of bereavement and love such as this? This isn’t the first time Damian Master has crafted a song over twenty-minutes long under the A Pregnant Light moniker, but nothing will ever touch this tribute to his own father. This is beautiful, tragic, and emotionally stunning. Not a moment feels needless or overindulgent, despite the genre-bending approach here. The tapes sold out almost immediately, but the digital edition will still stir your emotions. I can’t imagine this not ranking highly come the end of the year. Heavy material for heavy subject matter.