Many of us have cursed 2016. First, it was Brexit with Farage and Johnson in front. Then president-elect Donald Trump… You wake up in the morning and realise that your life resembles a comedy, a very dark one. Yet you don’t laugh. A tragic meltdown of humanity in Aleppo. Grim prognosis on climate change… The death of Leonard Cohen… And the list is surely far from exhaustive.
A retreat, a shelter, a refuge, so indispensable to keep oneself together. Music it is. With its healing and transcendental power, music helps me (us?) to survive 2016. In fact, the year was so generous with releases! Hence, it wasn’t easy to pick the top 10. But here it is, my subjective top of 2016 (biased towards Belgians).
1. Cult of Luna with Julie Christmas – Mariner
COL is kicking around for almost two decades now and Julie at least for a decade. Check out Battle of Mice and Made out of Babies and you'll see that Julie and COL have been a natural fit for each other for a long time.
'Mariner', nominated for the Swedish Grammy best Hard Rock / Metal album of the year, is certainly ground-breaking! Incorporating electronics, melodic moments, Scandinavian atmosphere, the album washes any classifications away. I was blessed to experience Mariner live in Damnation, where the album that was never intended to be played live felt even more majestic and triumphant.
2. BARST - The Western Lands
BARST is the biggest discovery of 2016. The Western Lands is the first full-length album by Bart Desmet (Belgium). The Western Lands is a complex, layered journey that embraces the best of drone, post-rock, ambient and electronica. As tracks develop you are left astonished by the range of instruments - guitars, synthesizers, a violin, a saxophone, a variety of drums (also looped). It is hard distinguish, which are digital, which are “real”, so seamlessly they are blended in. BARST confuses you with layers of misty vocalise and howls, percussive effects and erratic pulsations. The confusion is a pure pleasure though! The Western Lands sounds so integral and fluid, yet diverse. Plunging into a blackened well and lifting up, it features guest artists such as Mike Armine (Rosetta), Treha Sektori and Mathieu Mathlovsky (Mathlovsky).
3. The Body - No One Deserves Happiness
No One Deserves Happiness was released in March but I’ve already known that it will be one of the greatest albums of 2016. The Portland experimental metal outfit mess with your brain. Genre or subgenre don’t help – simply immerse yourself into the insanity of No One Deserves Happiness and experience it. And just to make you more curious (or shocked) - the track Two Snakes builds around a Beyoncé-inspired bass line.
4. SubRosa - For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages
Americans SubRosa is another band that is hard to pigeonhole into a particular genre. Pushing the boundaries of metal, For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages tells an uneasy but bewitching story. 6 tracks lasting more than an hour comprise this epic and very doomy album.
Subrosa also premiered a video for Troubled Cells, which is not only a cinematographic chef-d-oeuvre filmed in the Mojave Desert but also a political statement of support for LGBTQ. Troubled Cells raises awareness about the injustice LGBTQ people face in the Mormon community.
5. Syndrome - Forever and A Day
Forever and A Day is the second solo album by Mathieu Vandekerckhove, the backbone of Amenra. It took nearly 4 years from his first release Now and Forever but you’d agree it was worth the wait. Forever and A Day is a meditative journey, meticulously crafted with an acoustic guitar. Loop after loop, wave after wave, it reinvents the concept of heaviness. “Are you afraid of your own darkness?” – whispers Mathieu and delivers a highly intensive, dark, yet emotional set that captivates you for good 33 minutes. His guitar and almost blood-curdling voice give you goosebumps like riffs of bands such as Amenra or Year of No Light would.
6. Oathbreaker – Rheia
Rheia was decribed as a metal- revolutionising album by critics. Brutal and vitriolic, yet emotional and melancholic it is certainly the best album by Belgians so far. Poetic passages of Caro Tanghe adds to this multifaceted and at times challenging record.
7. Neurosis – Fires Within Fires
Neurosis need no introduction. Fires Within Fires lifts you up and tears into pieces intermittently. The transcendent, both apocalyptic and cathartic album by the “godfathers” is something you don’t want to miss out on.
8. CHVE – 10910
CHVE, the vocalist of Amenra, set the bar high with Rasa, an introspective and very intimate solo album. 10910 is a live recording of Rasa, or I should better say, the documentation of the evolution of it. Recorded in an old tram, 10910 takes you to a dream world, where Colin’s haunting voice, a hurdy gurdy and a bodhran achieve immortality.
9. Swans – The Glowing Man
The final album by Swans explores life and death. Spiritual, shamanistic, hypnotic, The Glowing Man is a majestic conclusion to Swans.
10. Downfall of Gaia – Atrophy
Atrophy, a grim and vitriolic album by Downfall of Gaia, could be a soundtrack for a horror movie. Interspersed with post-rocky melodic elements, decorated with a piano finish, Atrophy is a masterpiece reinvention of black metal.