Best of 2015: Conor’s Top 50 Releases of the Year

Best of 2015 by Conor Fynes
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40. Spettri - 2973 La nemica dei ricordi

Spettri have one of the most obscure band histories I have ever come across. As a band, they technically formed all the way back in 1964 between brothers Ugo and Raffaele Ponticiello. Jumping on the progressive hard rock bandwagon at the turn of the 70s, they recorded a self-titled debut in 1972. This album, however, never saw a real release until 2011, when Black Widow Records dusted off the cobwebs and finally gave it the release it had lacked for decades. In other words Spettri really are the sort of band we shouldn’t have even had a chance to talk about. For the longest time, they were ghosts in the Italian progressive rock scene very few even knew still haunted the 70s.

I actually listened to Spettri‘s debut when it was finally unveiled in 2011. Though there was definitely some part of me that was hoping for a truly obscure gem to leap out at me, Spettri left no impression on me outside of the fact that it sounded amateurish and only intermittently promising. Considering over 40 years have passed between now and the time that album was recorded, I would have never expected to hear a second album out of Spettri, let alone one that hits as hard as 2973 MMCMLXXIII La Nemica dei RicordiSpettri‘s second album was the follow-up no one was expecting nor truthfully excited about, but it comes with a vengeance I’ve seldom heard in other heavy prog released this side of the new millennium.

Italy’s progressive scene has remained stalwart in large part because they’re one of the very few that have widely embraced their own heritage as part of the music. Even beyond the Italian-spoken lyrics with Spettri, there’s a rich taste of Italy in their music. The organ-laden heavy rock of bands like Deep Purple or Uriah Heep are a good place to start thinking of Spettri, but that may be best seen as the structural foundation to a sound that above all embraces Italy’s own progressive traditions, which for those who have not yet dived into legends like Premiata Forneria Marconi or Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, tends to sound like British symphonic prog forcefed through the overtly theatrical lens of a Fellini film.

To a major extent, Spettri are playing progressive rock that would have befit the 70s; mind you, this is frightfully common amongst artists in a genre that once had right to claim it was pushing boundaries. A truly retro sound doesn’t bother me like it used to, especially when it’s in capable hands such as this, and I don’t think the past few decades of music have crept beyond Spettri‘s gaze either. The atmosphere throughout the album is rather dark, and they’ll occasionally weave riffs into the framework that don’t sound a world away from metal. Spettri‘s composition may impress me more riff-for-riff than in terms of their overall songwriting, but there are plenty of these ideas that stuck with me from the first listen onward. Matteo Biancalani’s saxophone leadwork is consistently brilliant in the way it’s woven in, at times downright reminding me of Van der Graaf Generator between the jazz interference and foreboding atmosphere.

Spettri enjoys the presence of some other RPI scene stalwarts. Stefano Corsi (of Whisky Trail) administers some Celtic harp here as a refreshing change from their heavy mainstay, and Elisa Montaldo of the ever-brilliant Il Tempio delle Clessidre lends her voice here for a brief but memorable moment. Between these guest spots and the longstanding support with Black Widow Records, it sounds as though Spettri have brought themselves away from the brink of obscurity to take active part in a scene that doesn’t get near as much regard today as it deserves. 2973 isn’t such a fresh-sounding album stylistically, but it sounds like such a far cry from the primitive dabblings of the archival self-titled that I cannot help but feel surprised and impressed with what they’ve accomplished here.

39. Abandoned Palace – Abandoned Palace

Like so many emotions, the ‘beautiful gloom’ of melancholy has been pursued in music to the point where it may as well be a codified entity, living amidst soundwaves. Happy songs may be bright and include references to going to the beach, maybe taking the last dance with your best girl at the prom or some such idiocy. Angry songs seek to be offensively loud and aggressive– the list goes on; there are a thousand different feelings available for human consumption, and with one comes an individual expectation we’ll have regarding how it’s manifested in music. Considering how inherently un-extreme and mixed melancholy is, it’s surprising that metal (a genre commonly, but not exclusively defined by its relative extremity) has taken such a liking to it. Make of it what you will, but a band like Canada’s Abandoned Palace stands in my mind as an embodiment of that feeling; like melancholy, the music is timid and bleak, but for the life of you, you can’t seem to shake it once it hits.

Abandoned Palace define their music as “grey music with black and blue edges.” While this is probably a less helpful description of this project’s sound than accurately pegging it a gloomy black/death/doom hybrid, there is a certain sense in approaching their work from a subjective viewpoint. It’s a style of music we’ve heard now from a hundred other similarly ‘grey’ or ‘dark’ metal bands, and discussing Abandoned Palace as a fusion of genres would imply their sound is less pure than it is, or that it’s been arrived at from more than one psychic origin. Like the band’s most apparent influences (My Dying Bride, early Katatonia and Anathema standing highest among them) an experience of Abandoned Palace‘s debut recording will be made or broken based on how far the listener is willing to open themselves emotionally to it. While their chosen road to gloominess may be familiar and arguably even overused these days, the four songs carry a melancholic infectiousness and sincerity that serves to elevate these recycled elements towards an eloquent and memorable experience of their own.

The EP begins with a lackadaisical slow-to-mid-pace tempo and never shifts. While Abandoned Palace‘s songwriting and atmosphere are at least predictable, it could never be said that the music lacks life; the performance between vocalist Void and multi-instrumentalist Von Warugi has injected life into the work that the compositions might have lacked otherwise. While the musicianship is unpretentious and focused entirely on the arrangement, there’s clearly skill that went into its realization. The guitars sound akin to the rich-but-raw tones Katatonia were prone to use circa Discouraged Ones. Although Von Warugi is as close to an anonymous Transylvanian warlock as any we’re bound to see in the modern world (if anyone has any clue as to his identity, please let me know!) it’s been speculated that his extensive drumwork with prog rockers OmnisighT has lent him some considerable expertise in the realm of percussion. Nonetheless, the drums here are programmed, using samples from his own kit no less! While a lot of the metal musicians who use programmed drums only do so out of necessity (not least of all the fact they can’t play the fucking instrument) there is a certain coldness to sampled percussion that a human performance to too imperfect to capture.

If there is any part of this formula that I’m not entirely sold on, it would be the implementation of vocals. Both as a clean singer and growler, Void is a strong vocalist, and the harsh vocals (particularly on “The Instrument” and “To Ghosts of Old” are fantastic. When it comes to the cleans however, it’s almost as if they are too clean for their own good. Surrounded by fuzzy gloom, the timid vocals sound straight-laced in their execution. It does work well with the overarching melancholy on this album, but the somewhat sleepy integration of vocals is something Abandoned Palace could improve upon on future exploits.

Once the EP introduces its style, there is little in the way of twists or surprises, and yet each of these four songs feels uniquely imagined and sculpted. Considering all are crafted from the same gazey (read: sleepy) style of riffing and homogeneous mid-tempo, this is a particularly impressive feat. Although we’re still talking about a relatively narrow variety, there’s the sense that each subsequent song becomes a little more riff-focused and energetic than the last. “The Instrument” is the most atmospheric and spooky of the four, with a meticulous synth arrangement behind it that recalls similar orchestrations I’ve heard in dungeon ambient and black metal. By the point of “To Ghosts of Old”, it becomes clear that Von Warugi has let his penchant for Swedish melodeath come across; the song still takes the same gloomy tempo and atmosphere, but the uncharacteristically anthemic chorus has clearly been inspired by something other than Abandoned Palace‘s go-to doomster influences.

Discussing Abandoned Palace from an objective, stately perspective would work for nil. The music may be quite a bit better executed and arranged than many of its likesounding peers, but Abandoned Palace ultimately speaks to the heart moreso than the mind. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the four songs are undoubtedly intelligent in their design, but the greatest impression I’m left with is emotional. For all of their stylistic predictability, Abandoned Palace have seen fit to conjure up old ghosts of melancholy. They may have the objective elements down pat, but it’s that alchemic effect that is the most promising. I do wonder if their overcast disposition will carry enough dynamic to engage a full-length offering, but if this EP is any indicator, there are great and evergreater things ahead in store.

38. Midnight Odyssey – Shards of Silver Fade

Shards of Silver Fade: Two and a half hours long, four years in the making, and clearly born from countless nights’ imaginings.

In the era of 70-character-or-less instant messages, five word tweets and dollar store clickbait, Dis Pater’s prospect of creating a two-and-a-half hour long epic took some considerable amount of balls from the start, and that would be true regardless of the music’s actual quality. While many are no doubt frustrated with the expansive shallowness of modern culture, so few in this day and age seek to create art that demands patience from its listeners as much as any other value. Suffice to say, Midnight Odyssey limits itself from a lot of potential fans, by sheer effect of the track listing; twenty minute epic after fifteen minute epic after twenty minute epic. Like Swans‘ To Be Kind from last year, it is one album where there might have been two in its stead; nevertheless, this is the way Dis Pater wants his music to be heard: In a massive stretch, a rebellion against the popular swell of impatience. The experience of Shards of Silver Fade is largely coloured by this particular fact, but the question of length shouldn’t deter from the cosmic beauty enshrined in the music.

Over the past two albums, Dis Pater’s Midnight Odyssey has amassed a pretty staunch reputation for its extraordinary space-themed black metal. Funerals from the Astral Sphere again gained notoriety for its similar length, but even outside that fact, the music had an undeniable grasp of atmosphere, indeed helped by the mastermind’s self-imposed liberation from time constraints. While I don’t think Shards of Silver Fade is quite as strong overall as Midnight Odyssey‘s last album, I find it difficult to think of another album this year that takes the listener on such a journey. Kamasi Washington‘s The Epic, perhaps? For its own intents, Midnight Odyssey rests in a league of its own, in more ways than one. While other bands like Mare Cognitum and the legendary Darkspace seek to exploit space for its more horrific traits (e.g. cosmic predators, absolute loneliness and isolation, having your eyeballs explode from pressure etc) Shards of Silver Fade uses astral themes to a more uplifting, surprisingly optimistic effect. It’s pretty easy to get lost inside Midnight Odyssey‘s atmosphere, and for once you’ll come out of it feeling more upbeat about life than you were when you went into it.

Shards of Silver Fade‘s hinging on repetitive, minimalist use of ideas is pretty implicit from the project’s common labelling as atmospheric black metal, it doesn’t feel like there’s too much filler on the album to wade through. Most of the 15-20 minute tracks on the album are built around one or two repeating motifs, but the way they’re gradually built up gives the music a consistent feeling of direction. The composition takes its precious time to get anywhere, and while this should have the effect of tuning restless listeners out early on, there’s a mighty sense of release any time an idea changes. Take “From a Frozen Wasteland” for example; as the album’s extended intro, it isn’t until about fifteen minutes into the song that Midnight Odyssey gets out of the ‘intro’ stage. Echo-laden vocals, symphonic fanfare and soft ambiance colour the first minutes of Shards of Silver Fade, and it lasts long enough to have a listener forget they might be listening to black metal.

Effects like that are contingent on Midnight Odyssey‘s unprecedented focus on expansiveness, but it wouldn’t mean much if Dis Pater weren’t such a skilled composer. In his hands, the most minimalistic structures can sound engaging throughout. “Hunter of the Celestial Sea” is arguably my favourite, melding together a plodding rhythm with celestial ambiance and screeched vocals echoing around overtop. The first band I thought of listening to it was actually Summoning; much like those Hobbit-obsessed Austrians, Dis Pater knows how to get the most out of his musical ideas. Some of the minimalist builds here are proof of brilliance, and the dynamics are fluid enough that his motifs don’t wear out their welcome before their time is up.

Ultimately, enjoyment of Midnight Odyssey‘s music depends on the love of atmosphere. As strong as Dis Pater is as a composer, I don’t think Shards of Silver Fade would keep interest without its ambiance. Listening to the album, it’s sometimes easy to forget it’s black metal to begin with. Synthesizers stake a bigger claim to the sound palette than the guitars. The drums are cold and moderate. The vocals, however aggressive they were when they were recorded, lose most of their bite through the everpresent waves of echo and reverb. Such an ambient-heavy direction makes Midnight Odyssey more suited to specific moods than others, and the sense that it’s a greater part Tangerine Dream than Mayhem probably serves to limit the project’s appeal even further.

Dis Pater seems to have done everything he could to make this release challenging and inaccessible without resorting to typical dissonance, but I can’t fault him for it. Barring a flat production that honestly sounds far too digital to accommodate so much sound, Shards of Silver Fade almost transcends proper criticism. I might not be fully convinced that such a punishing length was entirely warranted in this case, but it does get a strong message across.

37. Obsequiae – Aria of Vernal Tombs

Even if there were nothing else to praise about Obsequiae, I think their grip of style would be enough to sell the band on its own. There is little wonder why so many black metal musicians are drawn to the Middle Ages; and scarcely surprising that so many of amongst them have tried to incorporate that aesthetic into their own work somehow. The reason Obsequiae stand out is the sheer extent they’ve incorporated Western Medieval musical tradition into their music. Generally speaking, they really do sound like a chamber group, drawn from some castle hall a thousand years removed from our own world, and amplified a hundredfold with the excesses of modern sonic artillery.

Even with such a great formula in their hands, a unique style can quickly become a gimmick without the substance behind it. Obsequiae proved with Suspended in the Brume of Eos that they were far from a gimmick; rather, their songwriting inferred a powerful understanding of Medieval musical tropes going far beyond the surface level. If you’ve heard the name Obsequiae before, it’s near-certain you’ve heard them spoken of with a certain reverence that’s usually only reserved for longstanding legends. When all’s said, Suspended in the Brume of Eos was the kind of album that wholly deserved that reaction. Obsequiae‘s style is too exact, specific and otherwise nichey for them to have any real competitors, so all that was left was to see where they would be going thereafter.

As the Medieval chamber ensemble Vox Vulgaris lovingly mocked in the title of their own debut The Shape of Medieval Music to Come, historically-bound styles don’t tend to evolve much over time, so the fact that Aria of Vernal Tombs draws from many of the same tricks isn’t surprising. The way Obsequiaeuse those tricks may have shifted slightly, but the fact stands that their second album conjures much of the same atmosphere and experience as its predecessor. Again, I’m impressed by how deeply the band are able to induct themselves into their source material. Unlike so many would-be folk-black metal projects, Obsequiae cannot possibly be distinguished from their extracurricular inspirations. Aria of Vernal Tombs doesn’t shine quite so brightly as its predecessor, but nonetheless this album has an easy time standing out amidst its contemporaries. This is Medieval black metal done right, and nothing more or less than that.

A second album is always doomed to contend with its predecessor somehow; in most cases, the expectation’s that a band is going to find a way to improve upon the formula they first came out with. While it obviously lacks the refreshing shock of the debut, I think Aria of Vernal Tombs has taken further lengths towards consolidating the Medieval aspect into their sound. Where Suspended in the Brume of Eos played around with different song structures a little more, Aria of Vernal Tombs hinges on jaunting grooves, the likes of which are indelibly associated to the style and period. Tanner Anderson’s wind-laden howls may see fit to place Obsequiae within a black metal canon, but the genre-tag otherwise doesn’t seem to fit, now more than ever. The guitar tone on Aria of Vernal Tombs is one of the cleanest I’ve heard fuelling a metal album- let a lone a black metal album- and the purely consonant lilt to their melodies has an indisputably uplifting tone. While I’ve tried to distance Obsequiae‘s sound at least partly from what I already know of Medieval music, the arrangements here could easily be adapted to fit a bona fide chamber ensemble. The fusion of genres here is so evenly split and integral that looking at Arial of Vernal Tombs primarily as a metal album feels like it would be missing part of the point.

Structurally, the album is characterized by its juggling between full-bodied tracks and a series of harp interludes. This isn’t unlike the way Agallochinterspersed The Serpent & The Sphere with a host of classical guitar pieces. Given the way the songwriting here is more homogeneously upbeat and groove-oriented than the debut, it was a stroke of brilliance to make breaks to highlighted the underrated half of their sound. Much the way I felt with The Serpent & The Sphere, I would have been happy to hear an entire album full of these interludes. Vicente La Camera Mariño performs with a haunting authenticity; the recording is appropriately plain, but the resonance makes it sound like the performance was captured in the bowels of a monastery.

The ‘interludes’ are possibly Aria of Vernal Tombs‘ brightest artistic choice. In truth, were it not for the harp segments, I could see Obsequiae‘s metal traits growing too familiar sooner than they should. Ultimately, this is the sort of second album where the band has distilled their best elements and ideas down to a more refined essence; in going without their secondary dynamics and ‘unnecessary’ elements however, Aria of Vernal Tombs gets to sounding pretty samey. Most of the album is fixed on the same Medieval troubadour groove, the same use of mid-paced lead guitar, the same quasi-ambient vocals buried halfway into the mix. In terms of sheer execution, I think this new lineup has harnessed the style with even greater precision. If Obsequiae have generally improved as a band, I don’t think it’s translated into a better album overall. I don’t find myself quite as enthralled as I was with Suspended in the Brume of Eos. It’s not a matter of style here– quite the opposite, in fact. Obsequiae have amplified their niche to the point where the songwriting hinges upon it. For a band and sound as distinctive as this, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly not the formula for an album that’s going to trump a brilliant predecessor.

To put it shortly, I don’t think Aria of Vernal Tombs offers the same boldness and excitement as the debut. Obsequiae have become ensnared by their greatest strengths, and they’ve let those strengths dictate where their sound will go. If it’s a step in the right direction for this band, it hasn’t come without its setbacks. While the set of new priorities has meant the difference between an album that’s very good, and one that might have stuck in my head for months to come, I cannot ultimately hold Obsequiae at fault for anything they’ve produced here. Aria of Vernal Tombs may have been confronted with the highest expectations, and it managed to match most of them. A few months from now, this will still stand among the year’s brighter achievements in black metal, folk metal, and, certainly not least of all, the Medieval niche these guys have come close to monopolizing.

36. Imperial Triumphant – Abyssal Gods

I consider Deathspell Omega‘s ‘trinity’ of orthodox masterpieces to be extreme metal’s crowning achievement in the new century, and it nary surprises me that that band’s draws from modern classical and devotional music have been echoed in the metal of recent time. I almost cringe at the thought of relating Imperial Triumphant to DSO, or the other band that’s most compared in music of this nature: Gorguts. Even if the comparisons do ring true (and closely at that), so many bands have seen fit to draw the dissonant, puzzling potential from this framework, and for once, I don’t think it’s a trend. The avant-garde, forward-thinking and cutting-edge have been the common trend in black metal. By and large, this should be seen as a good thing, so long as artists remain true to the genre’s inherent darkness and refuse to depend on once-shocking experimentation of bands that came before them.

Imperial Triumphant will instantly bring to mind the progenitors of ‘weird’ (read: post-2000s) extreme metal but they’re also one of the few in this fast-growing legion that actually strides the full mile towards sounding authentically weird, not merely technical and vaguely Penderecki-influenced. And though this growing style is ever complicated by the fact that each band participating seems to view themselves as geniuses in their own right, having heard enough of them in my time, only a few ever push past the given boundaries beneath the surface where it counts. I wouldn’t say Abyssal Gods affirms Imperial Triumphant as a truly style-pushing group, but of the bands I’ve heard that are playing within the genre’s confines, they seem to strike harder, weaponize the ‘high art’ more than their dawdling contemporaries. Abyssal Gods is familiar, but it hits hard.

If I might cave and define Imperial Triumphant by means of comparison, it wouldn’t be a misstep to think of Deathspell Omega‘s orthodox pomp and technique, mingled with Immolation‘s gutbursting riffs and Portal‘s overwhelming atmosphere and vocal presence. For the most part, Abyssal Gods rests on the comfortable end of the avant-garde, though the familiarity with this brand of dissonance doesn’t keep the music from hitting just as hard. Imperial Triumphant‘s brand of calculated chaos is indeed borrowed, but their strongest accomplishment on Abyssal Gods is the way in which they make said chaos feel relevant and meaningful. The big thing that’s kept me from ever liking Portal is the lack of context or dynamic in their death metal noise; their fans would disagree (and I hope I do too someday) but the ear is quickly desensitized to the madness when there’s little to contextualize it. It’s to Imperial Triumphant‘s credit that they’re bringing in legitimate sounds of jazz into the mix, not just in the predictably atonal, rampant performance (framed in a strong production by Colin Marston) but in their authentic jazz breaks. The oft-discussed ragtime break in “Opposing Holiness” never loses its charm, and the loose deconstruction of urban jazz at album’s end with “Metropolis” is an appropriately jarring close to an effectively uncomfortable album.

Whether Imperial Triumphant are truly great songwriters is still a question that’s on the table as far as I’m concerned. They know how to pack their music with bold ideas and make these controlled experiments sound appropriately adventurous, but all but a few of their best seem to flood together as one. Of these highlights, “Dead Heaven” may be the best. The frustratingly short “Abyssal Gods” does a fantastic job with Thantifaxath-type ‘falling’ vocals, and “Opposing Holiness” is deadly. There are moments listening to Abyssal Gods I’d like to call it one of the strongest black metal albums of the year; with others, the fact that this avant-garde band has still widely borrowed ideas from ‘bigger’ bands without sounding like something truly fresh seems to keep them from joining the forefront, at least not yet. With the professionalism they’ve demonstrated on this album however, I wouldn’t be surprised if they go on to do something groundbreaking in time.

35. Infernal War – Axiom

When all is said, I appreciate Infernal War most for the facts that, a) they channel a violence few others can compare with, and b) they do so with a straightforwardness in perfect keeping with the hatred they exude. There was a shift in modern black metal at some point this decade; it now seems to take more gusto to stay true to form than to cave into being the next post-oriented art event of the week. In the case of Infernal War, the ‘tried and true’ should never be confused for a ‘tame’ approach. They’ve returned with Axiom following a years-long silence, and the hiatus has come at no cost to their vitriol. If a conventional hands-on style of black metal is sometimes hard to get excited about, it’s only because there are so many out there that don’t feel the hate quite as powerfully as Infernal War. To those that have heard their past works Terrorfront and Redesekration before: Axiom brings the same assault, now refined from a near-decade of added experience. To those who haven’t, well, you’ll be hard-pressed to name many bands that sound as legitimately pissed-off as they do.

This is the sort of impression I’ve been looking for in black metal lately; I just didn’t know where to find it. If the impression of hatred is like the sound barrier, most black metal bands who seek it fall just short of Mach 1. There is no room for doubt when you hear a band who is truly, unabashedly hateful. It makes you feel the sort of vitriol the music inspired the first place. Sadly, outside of Antaeus and a few choice war bands, it’s been difficult finding truly visceral sonic assaults. That is why Infernal War comes in handy, particularly in a year for black metal that’s proven artsier than most others. Like their compatriots in Mgla (of whom their frontman Mikolaj Zentara actually produced AxiomInfernal War are most definitely impelled above all by a sense of dream-crushing nihilism. Unlike Mgla, however, they’re not content to leave it in purely philosophical terms. There’s little potential to interpret the sound of Axiom as anything other than a call to war. Biting riffs, ravenous drums, lyrics not-subtly calling for the death of the world– you know the lot.

Infernal War‘s sound is narrow and predictable, but that doesn’t rob it of any of its visceral force. “Coronation” (the album’s opening track) almost instantly hit me with a surge of adrenaline. The rest of the album follows suit in near-identical fashion. What I find interesting (if not totally surprising) is the way Infernal War manages to sound so violent with a relatively ‘modern’ production sound. Though not a war metal band by the traditional rubric, they have a lot in common with those bands’ ravenous, barbaric determination. That bands of the Revenge and Teitanblood variety choose to go lo-fi seems fitting and intuitive. In contrast however, Infernal War‘s relative clarity actually affords them a stronger force. Whether Axiom‘s atmosphere is more punishing than Terrorfront remains up for debate, but Infernal War stand as a reminder that a modern production can sound punishing, so long as it’s in the right set of hands.

Axiom largely coasts along on its atmosphere of hatred. Really, it’s hard to fault art that knowingly propagates the feeling that inspired it. Infernal Warsound violent as ever, even in spite of the time they’ve spent focused on other things. If I said Axiom lacks much in the way of essential, memorable songwriting, I would be right; the samey, unbecoming songwriting is what distinguishes this from the ultimately superior Terrorfront. But in the end, how much does it really matter? A lack of great songwriting manifests itself as a sagging middle of the album, but for a greater portion of the album, the band’s real and bloodthirsty mindset can really be felt in the music. If Axiom isn’t technically doing anything new, it’s still one of the rare cases this year where a violence-oriented black metal album rally seems to practice the thing it’s preaching.

34. Krallice – Ygg huur

I have never quite understood the backlash against Krallice. Their airy contemporaries are rightly accused of missing the point when it comes to circumventing the black metal genre’s essential darkness, but I don’t think Krallice have ever shied away from discomfort. Quite the opposite, in fact– the band’s exceptional degree of technical musicianship has opened new routes to stifling anxiety that would have remained closed to a more stylistically ‘pure’ outfit. Sharp, angular tech riffing, like something out of one of Penderecki‘s worst nightmares, sounds all the more jarring when it’s dropped in the context of a genre that tends to favour pairing its longer song structures with minimalism and introspective atmosphere. With that said, I can definitely see Krallice as not being a band for everyone, particularly those who have struggled with the bandmembers’ other projects– namely Orthrelm and Behold the Arctopus.

At the end of the day, Krallice has always struck me as a progressive metal band first and foremost; one that decided to don the blackened veil and roughly adhere to the customs of black metal. The penchant for technically challenging and cerebral music has remained a constant, but it hasn’t been until Ygg huur that Krallice sound like they’re finally dropping the black metal pretence, showing themselves as they really are. The layman may ask: Is it still really black metal? Regardless whether it is, or whether Krallice are now better described as prog or tech metal, it is clear that Ygg huur marks a change of pace for a remarkably consistent band.

While Krallice‘s career marked an audible shift towards increasingly sophisticated leaps in composition, I feel like Ygg huur shows the band switching tracks in more ways than one. Krallice now sound more along the lines of Gorguts (for whom Krallice‘s own Colin Marston has played a significant role these past few years) than the ‘angular black metal’ tag I had them pegged for. Roughly half as long as any of the meaty albums that came before it, Krallice has meant to condense the same number of ideas into a fraction of the time. This shift comes as a surprise, but if you listen for earlier moments where the band’s true passion lay, it is fairly easy to see this as a continuation of what they’ve been up to in the past.

When all is said, Krallice has become more like the other bands these musicians are part of. Between OrthrelmBehold the Arctopus and the comparatively restrained Dysrhythmia, these guys are no strangers to jarring, calculated compositions. Don’t be fooled by the album’s length; not one minute of Ygg huur‘s thirty six are wasted on getting to the point. The songwriting is starts and stops abruptly, and the music is fiendishly dense. Indeed, it’s sometimes hard to know when one song ends and another begins. Ygg huur is forged on a common frequency of anxiety-inducing technique and claustrophobic atmosphere. Normally I’d hold it against an album for being relatively ‘samey’ (especially when the style is unwelcoming by default) but there’s the sense with Ygg huur that Krallice have placed each and every note where it is with careful forethought.

Most technical music is impressive by default in a vaguely cerebral way, but the real quality is distinguished by how a listener’s appreciation will kindle or fester given repeated listenings. In this, Ygg huur represents a strong case of an album that had me sold from the first listen onwards and has held my appreciation at a relatively consistent level from there. It’s not that Ygg huur doesn’t benefit from extra time or even patience, but Krallice‘s tightness is instantly evident to an nigh-overwhelming degree. The band’s musicianship is easily the best thing on Ygg huur, and even if their compositions lack the twists and turns to make them memorable unto themselves, there’s a palpable chemistry here you very seldom hear in a metal band. Marston and Mick Barr are a symmetrical hivemind of a guitar duo, whose tangents always sound finetuned to echo one another. Lev Weinstein’s drums are appropriately busy, and Nicholas McMaster’s thick bass presence virtually begs for a slew of tech-death comparisons.

Krallice have shown their true colours here, I think. Any reservations someone may have had towards their place in black metal may be somewhat justified, if only for the realization now that Krallice sound so much more like themselves once they’ve done away with the most apparent traits of that sound. Ygg huur‘s singular focus on cerebral technique is, in a way, more limited than the sprawling format of past albums, but it’s nonetheless impressive to hear a band highlighting their best strengths as such. I hesitate to name another band in recent memory that lends an equal sense of weight to their own technical manoeuvres. Krallice took a calculated risk with Ygg huur. To my satisfaction as a fan of the band, it paid off.

33. The Clearing Path – Watershed Between Earth and Firmament

Though The Clearing Path is a solo act (and a new one at that), you wouldn’t think it listening to this debut. Watershed Between Earth and Firmamenthas all the signs of one man’s amalgamated influences, but the performance is full-bodied, well-rounded. On most of these one-man black metal acts, the mastermind involved is usually proficient in only one instrument, if any. In multi-instrumentalist Gabriele Gramaglia’s case, had I know nothing about the project going in, I might have suspected the album was the work of a hardcore band who decided one day to try post-black metal for size.

Watershed Between Earth and Firmament is a short album by modern standards, but it leaves the promising impression of a post-black act that actually knows how to bring the energy along with the atmosphere. ‘Post-black metal’, in this case, refers to the gazey trend that, for better or worse, has exploded in the past five years. While the atmosphere and musicianship is usually on point with bands like Fen and everybody’s favourite pop darlings Deafheaven, it’s actually pretty rare that a band uses the alternative influences to an energetic effect. The only other ‘post-black’ album I’ve heard this year that’s managed to retain the violence in its sound has been Bosse-de-Nage‘s All-Fours. The fact I’m comparing Watershed Between Earth and Firmament to one of my favourite albums of the year bodes well for this new project. If Gramaglia’s already managed to do what most of his contemporaries seem to fail with or overlook, there’s ample reason to think The Clearing Path could have a powerful future ahead of it.

The album’s half-hour runtime is somewhat underwhelming, though easily preferable to an album that runs past its welcome. While I would have liked to have heard more material on the album, The Clearing Path covers an impressive range. “Holy Waters” is indicative of the project’s fusion of black metal, post-hardcore and sludge; the production is rich and sounds like it was recorded off-the-floor– an impressive feat for one man performing all instruments himself! Frantic, sludgy riffs often gallop alongside or between cleaner guitars, carrying with them a strong post-rock ambiance I quickly associated with Fen. “Atop The Throat, My Glance Cautiously Surveys the Depths” functions as the album’s entr’acte, an interlude that may have escaped beneath the radar, had it not brought The Clearing Path‘s most gorgeous dive into Gramaglia’s latent, but ever-present shoegaze and post-rock influences.

Most surprising of all is the album’s closing track. Hearing “This River Will Carry Me Towards the Grandest Light” depart from sludgy black metal to jazz-tinged progressive rock almost sounded like another project had usurped control of the album. Stylistic shifts like this certainly aren’t unheard of on the forward-thinking side of any genre, but I get the feeling I wouldn’t have heard such a stark change in tone, had this project’s musical direction been tempered by more than one person. While Gramaglia carves out a strong sense of identity on this home, he demonstrates he’s not afraid to go against his own conventions.

I do think the post-black metal trend needs more bands like The Clearing Path if it is to survive. While this debut draws upon very familiar dynamics, the energy lends new life to the style. I feel like Watershed Between Earth and Firmament is a hint at great things; there’s not a lot of material to bite into here, and there was probably room to take this sound even farther than he did, but I’ve been left eager to hear more from this project. If that is the general goal for debuts, I’d say this one has met its ends admirably.

32. Clandestine Blaze – New Golgotha Rising

31. Pseudo/Sentai – Bansheeface

I think there is something to be said for the kind of ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ progressive rock that seems to have fallen out of favour over the few years, provided it’s in the hands of musicians who know how to wield it. Moreover, I’m most often impressed when a band dares to imbue pop sensibilities with a nigh-overwhelming complexity or attention to detail. Of the bands who come to mind at moment’s notice, Queen is probably the best example who, in spite of having brilliant hooks worthy of being hummed along to enthusiastically by any soccer mom in between morning Zolofts and driving the kids to practice, earned some degree of infamy for the meticulous design of their arrangements and general snail’s pace with which they produced their work. Given that Bansheeface has been a work-in-progress for the past five years, it’s safe to say that Pseudo/Sentai deserve a share of some of this notoriety. And yes, while the music is undeniably experimental (occasionally taunting avant-prog territory), their music’s always carried a strong melodic sensibility, no matter how chaotic it first appears. Bansheeface is, without a doubt, the most ambitious, layered and eclectic release yet from the young provocateurs, but so too has their strong pop essence benefited from the time and effort Pseudo/Sentai have invested in their craft this time around.

To a surprising degree Bansheeface still bears the proudly experimental imperfections that went a ways to defining Pseudo as early as the first demos, but whereon past work there was a clear gap between where they were and where they wanted to be, it feels as if Bansheeface is the first time the band’s vision has been realized in a significant way. This is not to say that Pseudo/Sentai‘s EPs or debut It’s Always A Fucking Problem weren’t engaging, but the jarring aspects of their music often felt less like the vital side-effects of experimentation, and more along the lines of structural faults that the band had yet to rectify. Glorious, self-aware imperfection is what defined so much of P/S‘s music up to this point, and I do mean that in a good way. If my memory serves, Jon Poole of Cardiacs (whom Pseudo/Sentai‘s guitarist Greg Murphy admires as much as I do!) was quoted as saying something along the lines that perfection was repellent to him. Imperfection, by contrast (especially in experimental music) is often surprising and stimulating. There were technical issues I had with the earlier stuff, true, but Pseudo/Sentai‘s plain-weird fusion of modern prog with everything under the sun kept me on my toes.

That same gloriously imperfect experimentation is here on Bansheeface, but this time it’s been coated with a level of polish and intention I’d never have thought to hear from them. If you need a basic idea of what Pseudo/Sentai sound like, think of what Coheed & Cambria (circa The Second Stage Turbine) might sound like if Claudio Sanchez had spent a year listening to Gentle Giant and wanted to make progressive rock of a similarly complex and eclectic nature. It wouldn’t be out of line to associate P/S among the likes of so-called ‘alt-proggers’ like The Mars Volta and The Dear Hunter (and Coheed, of course) but that would only be scratching the surface of their style. The sheer eclecticism Pseudo/Sentai exhibit is naturally hard to pin down; they’re not beyond echoes of 8-bit chiptune, flashes of metal and even noise (as heard in the would-be interlude “Trap of Assassination”). I think the thing that defines Bansheeface the most is the grappling sense of urgency and busyness; it takes little time to get started, and once it’s gained momentum, it doesn’t let up. Frantic guitar lines and multi-layered production (engineered by Colin Marston of Behold the Arctopus fame, no less!) give the impression of a whirlwind for the first handful of listens, though it’s not long before that pleasant sense of familiarity sets in, thanks in large part to the album’s lively hooks.

While it’s a far cry from the quasi-grindcore microtracks that comprised There’s Always A Fucking ProblemPseudo/Sentai still relies on shorter tracks to express their point. I’m aware that these should be seen less as songs than as chunks of a seamless album-length composition, but the fact remain that Pseudo/Sentai take little time to make their point. The density of the band’s music is one of their strongest selling points, though I found myself wondering while first listening to the album whether Bansheeface may have benefited from exploring a few of its better ideas at a more relaxed pace. Unsurprisingly, the most standoutish tracks are the more fully developed songs; “Black Matter of Machinations” is a fantastic example of what P/S can do when they lean on the conventional art of songwriting. Taking a driven route to atmosphere, Scott Baker’s vocals (sounding close to some of the earlier mentioned alt-prog references) are finally given a chance to breathe amid the stifling arrangements- close comparisons could be drawn to their fellow East Coast proggers in The Tea Club.

The impression of fully fleshed songwriting tends to be an exception on Bansheeface, although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like many excellent experimental acts, Pseudo/Sentai have thought it best to hinge their music on great ideas and moments over necessarily great structures. The album’s Cardiacs-ish intro “Quantum Cardboard” is not only the best example of this but possibly my favourite bit on Bansheeface overall- the moment the drums light up over the quirky electronics is one of the most satisfying musical moments I’ve come across in recent months. Alas, other parts give me a strong opposite reaction. The pseudo-rapping at the beginning of “Immaculation” is close to fucking unbearable (think Weird Al doing a Nintendo-themed Hip Hop album). It’s thankfully an unmatched low point on the album- Bansheeface otherwise remains a respectable consistency with the success of its experiments. Even when I’m not altogether loving an idea of theirs (the noise-prone “Traps of Assassination” really feels out of place in the album’s flow, for instance) Pseudo/Sentai have put enough meat on the bones of this album to keep me interested throughout.

For a band that’s trying to do so many different things with an hour of music, I’m not surprised that there are parts of Bansheeface I don’t care for. What matters to me is that I get the impression that the zany experiments Pseudo/Sentai have mustered were done so with passion and vision. Bansheeface achieves the fulfillment of vision I struggled to find on Pseudo/Sentai‘s past output. In doing so, I think it’s safe to say the album marks a new stage in evolution and maturity for the band.

By the way, did I mention it’s a concept album? Some wacky shit about alien political intrigue, man-eating Selkies and the eponymous Bansheeface, whom I might have been able to write a bit about had I understood a splinter of what the fucking story’s about. Ripe material for a graphic novel to go along with the special collector’s edition, I suppose?

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