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Heathen Harvest’s Best of 2016

Since the reincarnation of Heathen Harvest we have annually asked our journalists to contribute their top three albums of the year in preference order. For wont of a new format in the latter half of the 2010s, we decided to do things slightly differently and order the list by genre: we asked our journalists to submit three albums with no order preference and let the list form itself. This way, we get a rounded and ordered breakdown of the albums and styles that we felt were most relevant to the underground in 2016.

Surprisingly most albums in this list only received one mention, which is testament to the varied and discriminate tastes of our reviewers. Only two albums received more than one mention: Horse Cult’s Day Dreams and Night Mares and Haus am Rand’s Meel, which deserve special acknowledgement as a result. Overall, our Best of 2016 exists to serve the reader with recommendations which will have passed them by, and to offer thanks to those artists who inspired us enough to write about them here. Thank you for giving us these special musical markers to remember 2016 by.

A word about genres: genres are slippery things. What one may categorise as being in a particular genre, another may feel should be categorised elsewhere. In addition to this, music fans can disagree about which subgenres fit inside others. We feel that the categorisations in this article are the most accurate and fair they can be. For some albums it was easy, for some not so, but this is an unbiased – and hopefully informative – spread of what we think the top end of the underground has to offer.

JUMP TO GENRE

Ambient
[ambient, dark ambient]

Classical
[neoclassical, medieval]

Darkwave
[darkwave, neoclassical darkwave]

Electronic
[electroacoustic, electro-industrial, synthwave, witch house, vaporwave]

Experimental
[industrial, martial industrial, power electronics]

Folk
[neofolk, dark folk]

Indie
[slowcore]

Metal
[black metal, death metal, doom metal, folk metal]

Pop
[art pop]

Punk
[post punk]

Rock
[post rock]

Ambient

Ambient

Biosphere – “Departed Glories”

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Ambient

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A near-total departure from Biosphere’s signature Arctic drift, Departed Glories may be evidence that Geir Jenssen can make a masterpiece from anything, even— in this case— old Polish field recordings and deliberately confusing music apps. To describe the end result as haunting would be boring and simplistic; Jenssen processes folk memory and renders it into impersonal single tones and amorphous choirs. Any individual voices that might crawl out of muddy pools of sound are mercilessly tamped down into a larger hum. Departed Glories unfolds slowly, and the atmosphere it invokes is so thick you can almost touch it. Drawing inspiration from atrocities ancient and modern, it’s an exquisite example of how time and technology and intent can bury hurt and memory, or transmute these things into something else entirely. Rebecca Brooks

 Irezumi – “Thirty”

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Ambient

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Loss, aging, and fear of the future are the lines that underscore Irezumi’s first album in eight years. Dedicated to the artist’s late brother, it’s an exercise in restraint that still manages to evoke a full range of emotions. Far from background music, Thirty is immersive: it’s ambient music you can’t help but be drawn into, writing your own story as you listen.  In case you haven’t cried enough over the past year, give Thirty a listen. There are plenty of tears to found within, but a surprising amount of hope as well. Rebecca Brooks

Dark ambient

Apocryphos – “Stone Speak”

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Dark ambient

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When the claim was made last year that Robert C. Kozletsky was a veteran dark ambient artist, a few people may not have been fully convinced. Yet, a year later Robert’s main project, Apocryphos, has truly proven itself to be indispensable. Fresh off the release of the collaboration with Atrium Carceri and Kammarheit, entitled Onyx, Robert returned earlier this year with his sophmore Apocryphos album, Stone Speak. Stone Speak was lauded by many as an instant classic. The subtlety is only equalled by the voracity of the sounds on this opus. Apocryphos focuses on the theme of ghost towns and the stones which are left to tell the tales of forgotten times. Stone Speak will be particularly pleasing to fans of Scandinavian dark ambient artists like Northaunt and Kammarheit, yet there are enough quality soundscapes here for any fan of dark ambient to find something they like. Michael Barnett

The Human Voice – “Silent Heart”

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Dark ambient

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Hærleif Langås, the man behind Northaunt, The Human Voice, and Therradaemon, has delivered yet another brilliant addition to the dark ambient catalogue this year. Silent Heart is the second album by Hærleif’s side-project, The Human Voice. Hærleif has gone to lengths to make Silent Heart a polished gem, with much more depth and atmosphere than on the debut Exit Lines from 2008. Silent Heart is melancholic, dark, lonely, bleak, and any other adjective that would describe the forsaken atmosphere of his music. Yet, unlike Northaunt, The Human Voice is heavily focused on the use of piano. The end result leaves us with an album that is perfect for those late lonely nights. The attention to detail throughout gives Silent Heart an extremely high replay value. Michael Barnett

Nihil / In Slaughter Natives – “[Ventre]”

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Dark ambient / Modern classical

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The last two years have seen the return of In Slaughter Natives – one of the most influential of Cold Meat Industry’s artists. Ventre, which was created as the soundtrack to a book, is dominated by dark ambient pieces filled with the terror and menace that we would expect from In Slaughter Natives. Nevertheless, it does manage to explore some interesting new territory, with a Middle-Eastern excursion and the avant-garde, cinematic final track demonstrating that Jouni Havukainen still possesses the spirit of experimentation. Colin Robertson

Sabled Sun – “2148”

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Dark ambient

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Sabled Sun was first introduced to the world back in 2013 with the début album 2145. In the following years Simon Heath has continued developing the Sabled Sun story, even allowing it to cross over into the work of some of his label mates. 2148 takes us on a journey through the fourth year of the protagonist’s travels. This one has some really big plot twists, but I will leave that to the listeners to find for themselves. Sabled Sun started out as a side-project of Simon Heath’s, who is better known as Atrium Carceri. Yet, at this point Sabled Sun is as equal in importance to Simon and the Cryo Chamber label as Atrium Carceri has ever been. This brilliant sci-fi saga should not be overlooked by any discerning fan of dark ambient. Michael Barnett

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Classical

Jo Quail – “Five Incantations”

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Neoclassical / experimental

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Using an electric cello and a looping pedal, Jo Quail builds up intricate and beautiful compositions. Whereas her previous two albums mixed dark with light, this album is consistently and intensely sombre. The five tracks, which range from restless rhythmic pieces to solemn meditations, take us through some rather difficult terrain. The beautiful, yearning sadness in the final track is heartbreaking. Colin Roberton

Vajra Voices – “O Eterne Deus: Music of Hildegard von Bingen”

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Medieval classical music / Plainsong

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Originally starting out as a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for recording, this selection of the German abbess’s work from the 12th century exceeded its financial goal and went on to become one of the most accomplished recordings of her work produced in recent years. The female ensembles most prolific in the areas of reinterpreting St Hildegard’s music have been Switzerland’s Sequentia and the USA’s Anonymous 4, but with this album, the septet of Vajra Voices has effectively and impressively bookmarked a niche for themselves within the ever-growing codex of recordings of Germany’s great mystic. O Eterne Deus is a haunting, inspiring and worthy contribution to her oeuvre which is both heartfelt and timeless. Lysander

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Darkwave

Dernière Volonté – “Prie Pour Moi”

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Neoclassical darkwave / Synthpop

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The release of a new Dernière Volonté album was one of 2016’s pleasanter surprises. This collection of tracks exudes a dancefloor-worthy decadence, due in no small part to the project’s fascination with fin de siècle poetry. Post-punk nihilism, martial influences, French pop theatrics, and Romantic history continue to make for delightful bedfellows for mastermind Geoffroy D. Tenebrous Kate

Hypnopazūzu – “Create Christ, Sailor Boy”

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Neoclassical Darkwave, Psychedelic Folk

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My favourite record of 2016 must certainly have its origins somewhere in the star-filled depths of space. There’s something inescapably majestic and tranquil about the music born out of a fated collaboration between the geniuses of Killing Joke’s Youth and David Tibet. Things have changed since last time those gents worked together (Current 93’s monumental Nature Unveiled) – no more apocalyptic obsessions or clashing industrial beats, no more music calling upon the primal darkness in man; those have given way to yearning for balance, grandiose arrangements and cosmic bliss coming from the depth of a soul. After all these years, the music those two create retained the ability to engage minds, to make hearts pound. David’s voice sounds as sentimental and touching as ever, while his lyrics, filled with mythological references, sublime and juvenile at the same time, are a perfect match for Youth’s cinematic keyboard passages, swirly bass-lines and intricate arrangements. This is an ultimate celebration of two-fold vision and a single heart creating something that truly exists outside of the confines of space and time! Dennis Gudim

Norma Loy – “Baphomet”

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Darkwave

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After 7 years of silence, Norma Loy’s return is as unexpected as it is welcome. Abiding the principles symbolised by the album’s namesake – separating and bringing together – Baphomet successfully takes apart several genres and crafts a collection of songs that celebrate free-thinking and mystery. Both rock – and goth – elements featured on their earlier albums have been tuned down to give way to experimental nature that has always been a part of the band’s DNA. Darkwave rhythms, piano-based numbers, noisy freak-outs, nods to techno, spoken word and ambient,  even pop ballads – all of that interlaced, assembled into songs and put to work with an impressive amount of nuance. Strange and minimalistic lyrics, delivered by Chelsea (with the loveliest of French accents), contribute further to the overall mystery that saturates the record. The enigma of Norma Loy has now inhabited a new body, creating yet another ghost in the machine, and is ready to shine on those in search of enlightenment. Dennis Gudim

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Electronic

Michael Idehall – “No Man’s Land”

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Electronic / Experimental

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I knew nothing about Swedish musician, artist and author Michael Idehall before stumbling across this gem and, just a few months later, I’m wondering how empty the world must have been up to that point. Ant-Zen are definitely a label experiencing a golden age, with their recent releases going well beyond the pounding anthems for which they’d become known. No Man’s Land is a perfect encapsulation of the path the label has taken, pulling influences of early industrial music, the rhythmic industrial sound with which Ant-Zen was synonymous, the dirty textures of darker European techno music and evincing complete indifference to genre rules that once made a host of underground genres, to say nothing of the mail order process, more exciting. There’s an element to No Man’s Land that’s like listening to the internal dialogue of a haunted house, just the spirits sighing to each other in familiar, almost human ways. Bewitching. Kate MacDonald

Justin Meyers – “Negative Space (1984-2014)”

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Electroacoustic

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I tend to be picky about my “electronic music.” Burial, yes; Aphex Twin, not so much. Thankfully, Justin Meyers released a full-length LP in the beginning of the year that’s been on steady repeat for 12 months. Negative Space (1984-2014) blends musique concrète, electroacoustic, and acousmatic traits with compositional flairs of Stockhausen, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. For compositions borne out of organ failure and hospitalization, Negative Space manages to be a relatively transcendent release; in a lesser artist’s hands, these compositions could have veered into a depressive drone, but Meyers navigates between field recordings and synthesizers masterfully. There is an overall cinematic feels to this release, with definite emotional transitions and an almost narrative arc that, personally, has made listening to the album on shuffle a literal impossibility. Yet, despite constant returns to these compositions, and in spite of the clarity and vividness of the samples and synthesizers, there always seems to be some new small detail left to be discovered, some new unfolding facet of his recovery. Thomas Boetter

Perturbator – “The Uncanny Valley”

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Synthwave

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2016 was an amazing year for the synthwave and retrowave genres. The success of the Netflix series Stranger Things catapulted the genre to the mainstream spotlight, while both vanguard bands and newcomers realized incredible releases throughout the year. Perturbator continues to demonstrate itself as the flagship project of the genre, solidified with their new album The Uncanny Valley. A continuation of the narrative from Dangerous Days, The Uncanny Valley shows Perturbator appropriating more cyberpunk and anime/Asian influence into their brand of scifi-heavy synthwave, giving it a more distinct and serious sound when compared to other genre outfits. The album alternates between fast-paced action and sombre movements, giving it a real tour de force journey. Nicholas Diak

Sunset Architects – “Home”

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Witch House

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Under-the-radar release I stumbled upon which I’ve enjoyed tremendously. Paying more than a subtle nod to the soon-to-be resurrected Michigan group Salem, this is an extremely solid album in the sometimes maligned genre of witch house. As someone who thinks that was a very under-rated sound this album was just what the doctor ordered. Certainly not overly-original, but perfectly-crafted. Patrick Duffy

Youth Code – “Commitment to Complications”

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Electro-Industrial / EBM

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For the title alone, I’m not surprised Commitment to Complications ended up being an integral part of my “soundtrack” for 2016. I can’t recall when or how exactly I first heard Youth Code, but I know it wasn’t long after that I was buying any release I could find of theirs. After seeing them for the first time in August as main support for Tribulation, I found their music was even more intense than I knew on record; only solidifying that I’m a dedicated fan now. Sara and Ryan may not have intended to be a band when they first started Youth Code; but damn am I glad that they are. Ben Manzella

Vaporwave

Haircuts for Men – “You Can Trust Me”

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Vaporwave / Instrumental Hip Hop

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From the shadows beyond the spotlight, haircuts for men has been quietly crafting some of the best down-tempo trip-hop around. Typically, h4m’s EPs run the gamut from smooth grooves to manic displays of electronic breakbeat and heady experimentation, often sacrificing consistency for versatility.  You Can Trust Me is quite the opposite, a five-track EP of head-nodding heartache focusing solely on the quieter, more intimate moments. Illustrating his smoke-wreathed portraits in hazy lines of slow-paced percussion, sepia-tinted ambiance, and minimal muted piano, haircuts for men displays mastery of the introspective side of tuned-down, urban-influenced instrumentals.  With You Can Trust Me, haircuts for men downshifts into an enviable gear, and the finely tuned engine hums perfectly. Edward Rinderle

Donovan Hikaru – “Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe!”

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Vaporwave

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I’m stretching the rules a bit here, as this is a re-release of last year’s Business Travel Bonanza, but it’s now packaged with a brand-new EP titled It’s My Company – I Can Fly If I Want To. The playful title hints at the content: Donovan Hikaru (not his real name…or is it?) creates faux-corporate electro-jazz that has its tongue planted firmly in its market-manipulating cheek.  With track titles such as “Celebrating the Merger With Lobster And Steak At Reynaldo’s By The Docks” and “Caribbean CEO Package” (along with a couple of tracks “set” in the tropical getaway paradise of San Tablos), this is an album of irresistibly catchy 80s-flavoured synth and sax, backed by a brilliantly executed concept.  The mood alternates from the energetic (“Nighttime Island Dance”) to the whimsical (“Souvenir”) to the introspective (“Mountain Dreams”) with ease, all within the framework of Donovan’s business-executive identity. Relax and enjoy the soundtrack of Donovan Hikaru’s deal-closing exploits as he rises toward world domination through the global language of profit. Edward Rinderle

Western Digital – “Lost Signal”

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Vaporwave

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Ten tracks lasting twelve minutes combined.  It’s stunning to think that an album so short on content sank its hooks into me as deeply as this one did.  Lost Signal hints at a mystery described only in the sparsest of outlines: tracks titles like “m shaped cave”, “appear”, and “dune.”  The tones, loops, and melodies vibrate with a buried, seemingly ancient quality; Western Digital has used this technique before, on the broken-transmission masterpiece Wasted Digital, but Lost Signal is stripped of any recognizable late-night-TV-sourced samples.  Only the atmosphere remains, thick with suggestion; this is a mark of ambient at its highest level. There’s certainly something going on behind the scenes, something alien and surreal, but the corner of the veil has been raised but a fraction, leaving one to wonder at the implications. In spite of its brevity, Lost Signal is the best work of conceptual experimental ambient I heard all year. Edward Rinderle

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Experimental

Industrial

Ait! – “Harmony”

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Industrial

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It might have taken a decade, but there is finally a successor to 2007’s Romanticismo Oltranzista, and a very worthy one too. Harmony, is a very different beast, less forthcoming and dramatic, more like a dark and alluring fairy tale. (I think it would be the perfect sonic accompaniment to Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market.) The sound here is much more pared down, more focused on individual elements, than prior Ait! material. At the same time, it’s produced in such a way that the music seems filtered through a heavy auditory fog, or through a layer of dirt piled over your head. The starkness is something that could end up alienating certain listeners, but personally, I welcome the reminder that simplicity of sound in no way diminishes the lushness of the listening experience. Kate MacDonald

Haus am Rand – “Meel”

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Industrial / ambient

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Jan Carlekev, the slumbering Swedish giant behind acts like Sanctum, Azure Skies and Parca Pace, caught me completely off guard with this release. It’s not that I wouldn’t expect him to produce an album with this kind of dominant presence, but I don’t know that I would have expected it to seem so emotional, or so futuristic. There is a world-weariness to some of the tracks here that almost makes me teary-eyed. The tracks are beautiful and burdened, not the sort of thing that one listens to and then skips along to the next thing. I think of this as electronic music for thought and reflection, the sort of thing that should accompany the smoking of a pipe or the undeniable realizations of the darkest hour. The music is filled with the beauty that comes from quiet strength and perseverance, the most necessary thing in surviving the celestial system crash that was 2016. Kate McDonald

If you’re concerned with genre, Haus am Rand is easy enough to categorize, falling squarely into the industrial category.  What’s far more difficult to pin down is how to describe Meel’s atmosphere, constantly veering between nauseous elation and a sense of disorientation that’s nearly catastrophic. Jan Carleklev’s shimmering synths are like shattered points of light, skittering all over a blasted landscape of lumbering beats and distorted, downtrodden vocals. Meel feels like a lot of broken bits of things that have come together and formed something…well, not beautiful, not exactly, but sharp and emotionally jarring in a way that’s hard to describe; like a soundtrack to a half-remembered dream. Rebecca Brooks

Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio – “[Vision:Libertine] – The Hangman’s Triad”

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Martial Industrial / Neofolk

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Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio are still walking their strange path of kink, occultism and Nietzschean individualism, but on this double album they excel themselves, with the poetry of Tomas Pettersson’s lyrics taking a leap forwards and the collaboration with Sal-Ocin of Empusae adding some wonderfully subtle tribal percussion to the pop-tinged neofolk sound. The first disc is subdued, but the second breaks out into strong philosophical statements that are at one moment strident and proud and the next touching and melancholic. Colin Robertson

Vril Jäger ‎– Vril Jäger

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Industrial / dark ambient

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In younger years, when I was obsessed with the back catalog of Death In June and had a penchant for provocateur/noise merchant Boyd Rice (aka NON), I still felt their collaborations left something to be desired –more awkward and repetitive than the mechanical and malevolent I had in my imagination. However, Vril Jäger feels like wish fulfillment based upon such my misaligned declarations and battlefield daydreams. Comprised of Kim Larsen of :Of the Wand and the Moon: and Thomas Bøjden of Die Weisse Rose, this collaboration début hits that nail on the head, crafting a work of dark ambience and spoken / sampled word that still feels suitable within the realm of Death In June’s warfront folk. Look to “Maw of Kalki” with its jangling wind chimes, brassy horns of doom, war drums murmurs, with Bøjden’s slow-motion sinister spoken presence, or “Radio Wyrd”s spine-tingling  strings and cryptographic dialog recounting the mysterious UVB-76 radio signal just to get a taste of how adeptly these two mastercraft eerie slices of atmosphere. Vril Jager feels like an audio artefact from a long lost army expedition found frozen in some remote tundra, and definitely stands as a great new direction for two accomplished musicians. Vlad McNeally

Power electronics

Genocide Organ – “Obituary of the Americas”

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Power electronics / Death industrial

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Excellent concept album of sorts from the power electronics stalwarts. Perfectly mastered with excellent use of vocal samples. A coherent work that in many ways seemed to capture the Zeitgeist of 2016 in many way. Edges the new Con-dom release as Tesco’s best of the year in a strong year for the label in my opinion. Patrick Duffy

FFH – “Symbol To Be Forgotten”

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Power electronics

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The longer FFH operates, the more compact his work becomes. Symbol To Be Forgotten is the first release since 2013’s Make Them Understand, and is a direct descendent, topically and sonically. This cassette is all the more powerful for its brevity, which may explain why it has had so many repeat plays this year. The first track on each side is closer to 2013’s output, where harsh electronics provide a soapbox for vocal delivery, but it’s the closers that are a little more unexpected. FFH keeps the electronics far more minimal, ambient, allowing for unaffected vocal delivery to take forefront; “David” especially stands out as male and females vocals stagger, echo and overlap. These tracks tread bleak territory, examining human chattel, bunker dwellers, surveillance, social cleansing—the societal tumors of late-era capitalism. The jury is still out as to what exactly FFH means by “Revisionist power electronics,” but Symbol To Be Forgotten definitely feels like an album from/for/of 2016, regardless of who you voted for. Thomas Boetter

Koufar – “Minority Report”

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Power Electronics

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Long live Koufar. Last year’s Lebanon For Lebanese graced so many “best of” lists that any follow-up would have to work twice as hard. Where Lebanon… focused on history, place, events, Minority Report zeroes in on Alexandre Chami’s experience as a human; as Lebanese; an Arab; a Maronite Christian. Longer audio samples break up tracks of more “traditional” power electronics, mixing jagged electronic rhythms with Koufar’s signature blend of clean vocals and on-the-fly processing. With track titles like “Sand Nigger,” “September 11 2000,” and “What Are You Looking At White Boy,” it’s practically impossible not to get a glimpse of his world. There’s a period of awkward hilarity as an interviewer asks numerous people what they know about Arabs, and most of the answers range from “I don’t know” to “they’re from the desert.” What Minority Report leaves behind is a portrait of a man who stands in more than two circles, whom the perception of is altered by the point of view. Repeated listening grants greater understanding. Thomas Boetter

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Folk

Leonard Cohen – “You Want it Darker”

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Chamber folk

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I’m not going to act like I’ve listened to all of Leonard Cohen’s recorded catalogue of music, or even that I’ve been aware of him for very long, but the almost mystified power attribute to his music is something I definitely believe exists. I bought this record the night before I completed a week of working on a photo project in Paris and this particular project was quite heavy emotionally; As I sat for my second portion of travel and began listening to this record, and almost instantly felt like I’d been cracked open. The vulnerability and age in Mr. Cohen’s voice is staggering, it has such an intrinsically human quality about it. An incredibly mortal record from a songwriter in a category that is very much his own; this is a beautiful final record from a man who will not likely ever be forgotten. Ben Manzella

Neofolk

Horse Cult – “Day Dreams and Night Mares”

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Neofolk 

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It’s not every year that a fully independent artist is able to top one’s list as album of the year, but here we are.  Horse Cult recall the best moments of the Espers catalog (for which II took up its fair share of solitary evenings for me years ago – see “Moon Occults the Sun”), but take the production down a notch to a more realistic, truly folk-spirited effort.  There are no production tricks in the works here: this music is as pure as it comes, and they pull it off with the most remarkably tight performance in recent memory. If you haven’t gotten acquainted with their music yet and you’re a fan of neofolk or psych folk, I’d suggest running to their Bandcamp and turning “Blacksmith” on immediately. Sage

In the later 2000s, a remarkable phenomenon begin to happen in the neofolk world: the European scene lost significant market share to a burgeoning American scene. Nowadays, American neofolk isn’t just confined to a few iconic old guard bands, but has blossomed into regional flavours such as Cascadian-folk, Appalachian-folk, and a smattering of bands operating in between. Horse Cult, a Pacific Northwest band, made their début with Day Dreams and Night Mares and what a strong début it was. Immaculate production values, traditional songs mixed with new compositions, and a sound that was surely “folky” yet different: dark-folk without being apocalyptic, and hints of psychedelia, but fully accessible. A milestone release for the American scene. Nicholas Diak

Rome – “The Hyperion Machine”

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Neofolk

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Jerome Reuter and his project Rome are hardly strangers to the readers of Heathen Harvest and it was to be expected that his new album The Hyperion Machine might end up on some of these lists. But Reuter had big footsteps to fill, namely his ingenious record A Passage to Rhodesia, which is perhaps the best and most coherent work of art he has ever composed. In consequence, The Hyperion Machine can only lose when it comes to a comparison with its predecessor. However, Reuter did the only thoughtful thing and did not try to craft another conceptual album per se, but rather constructed The Hyperion Machine as a loosely connected conglomeration of individual songs whose influences range from the post punk and industrial phase of his project’s earlier days to Rome’s typical works in the realm of chanson noir. “The Alabanda Breviary”, for example, features not only a memorable refrain and strong drum work, but also a lead guitar in the last third of the track, while “Die Mörder Mühsams” (a song about the German anarchist writer and political activist Erich Mühsam) is basically an ambient song with a lot of samples. One could therefore say that The Hyperion Machine is as well a lyrical as a musical journey through the history of Rome’s musical phases. And while this is a dangerous path to walk, mainly because it’s easy to get lost and to simply repeat oneself, Jerome Reuter actually manages to fuse everything together and create something new and exciting. Jonathan J

Dark folk

Wardruna – “Runaljod – Ragnarök”

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Dark folk / Nordic folk

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The final chapter in Wardruna’s rune trilogy is a fitting climax to trio of releases that redefined Nordic ambient music. While lacking the presence of Gaahl of Gorgoroth for this chapter (a touch ironic considering its cataclysmic and properly black metal themes), it is nonetheless feels like the chapter where the project finally had the full tools to properly convey maestro Einar Selvik’s venerable vision. Laden with multiple vocalists, harps, lutes, drums, lures, and even a children’s choir during the epic “Wunjo”, Selvik seems more a conductor here than a solo artist plus guests. The field recordings of grunts and snorts in “UruR” (roughly ‘wild ox’ when anglicized) when mixed with the steady thrum of drums and cavernous warrior and Valkyrie choirs is instant proof of Warduna’s cinematic vision; no wonder why Selvik was tapped to help authenticate the soundtracks of the popular Vikings television show. Ragnarok is a bookend to a glorious trilogy that really should be digested as a whole; that said, this is a proper ‘final battle’ that leaves me wondering with the inevitable and promised rebirth where Selvik will steer this project next. Vlad McNeally

Wolcensmen – “Songs from the Fyrgen”

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Dark folk / Neofolk

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If you’ve heard the ridiculously impressive new work from Winterfylleth, The Dark Hereafter, then you’re already acquainted with the work of Dan Capp (whose name you’ll likely remember as a Heathen Harvest contributor as well, but if you’re a folk fan and you listen to the album, you’ll hear that all bias is successfully avoided here  it’s simply amazing).  Subtle, sombre, atmospheric folk combines with impressive acoustic leads and anthemic vocals to create a sound that hovers somewhere between the bare emotion of Ulver, the uniquely gold-tinted metal-influenced folk nostalgia of Crown of Autumn, the raw, rural youth of Courage of Others-era Midlake, and the fierce English spirit that Forefather conjured when they performed “When My England Died.”  It’s soul-crushing in the best of ways. Sage

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Indie

40 Watt Sun – “Wider than the Sky”

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Slowcore

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Perhaps this truly has been a year of doom, for all three bands on my list are related to the genre, yet in completely different ways. 40 Watt Sun used to be a doom metal band called Warning, than they changed drummers, and toned it down a bit, still retaining that classic doom sound. Than, this album drops, and it shows that music is not the format in which it is played, but the emotions and aesthetics it creates. Wider than the Sky is completely free from the confines of metal in any form, and that is exactly what I love about it. There is no doubt in my mind that not a finer album has come out not only this year, but few over the last decade. It is a daunting album that freezes you with how real it is, and it will destroy any notion of defining yourself by the style of music you listen to, which I think is an excellent thing. Patrick Bertlein

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Metal

Black metal

Cultes des Ghoules – “Coven, Or Evil Ways Instead of Love”

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Black metal 

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Ambitious and sprawling, Cultes des Ghoules’ black metal “play” immerses the listener in atmospheric evil for over an hour and a half. This inverted folk horror nightmare of a young woman seduced (or liberated?) by the Devil balances subterranean rawness with sophisticated song composition. The has mastered a narrative form of music that drives this massive work through to its climax. Moments of savage tension with searing guitar work and galloping rhythms that give way to sinister, down-tempo passages, maintaining the listener’s focus. It’s a ghastly wonder of an album that demonstrates the life still left in more traditional forms of black metal. Tenebrous Kate

Jute Gyte – “Perdurance”

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Black metal / Avant-garde metal

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Another deeply complex, dark and experimental release from Jute Gyte which sounds unlike any other artist I know of. This is arguably stronger than last year’s excellent Ship of Theseus and while some sections sound similar compared with that last release, careful and repeated listening reveals depth, subtlety, and surprising order in the chaos. My overall favourite album of the year and one anyone with an interest in experimental music should try. Patrick Duffy

Liber Null – “I – The Serpent”

italy

Black metal

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Liber Null is a name not yet known in the world of black metal, but after their recently released debut I – The Serpent this might change. That is because the three musicians behind this entity – drummer Thorns is well-known for his work with Acherontas, Blut aus Nord and Fides Inversa – have managed to craft a coherent, atmospheric and authentic album. Granted, starting I – The Serpent with a quotation of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche concerning the death of God is not the best or most innovative choice, but Liber Null’s first long-player grows with each song and each spin in the record player. There does not only lie a certain strength in the guitar riffs, which are by the way definitely the heart of I – The Serpent, but the whole album demonstrates real charm. Even a common song-structure as the one found on “Dereliction”, which also shows the typical slow and chanting middle part, somehow manages to not sound cliché, but instead fierce and passionate. And when Liber Null start calmly and acoustically on “Unholy Cosmogony” the listener immediately gets sucked into the universe of their sound. In consequence, one can see and hear where the strengths of Liber Null lie, namely in their ability to evoke a coherent atmosphere throughout all of the songs and in the fact that I – The Serpent manages to reproduce the same passion and quality as the Norwegian black metal releases of the early 90s. Jonathan J

Master’s Hammer “Formulæ”

czech

Black metal

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Master’s Hammer has always been a bit of an oddity. Since their reformation in 2009 the band has been consistently perfecting and modifying the formula of their own brand of experimental black metal. In 2016 the weirdness-valves have been turned way up, resulting in the brilliant exercise in eccentricity aptly titled Formulæ. Metal-elements have seemingly been trimmed to fit with the band’s over-the-top-antics, while quirky experimental and techno-industrial elements become more pronounced. Topped with the cleanest and punchiest production to date, increased use of exotic instruments, characteristic raspy vocals and absolutely insane lyrics, the album makes quite an impression. There is plenty here to make a common metalhead to raise an eyebrow, however it is this crazy all-defying enthusiasm and outlandishness, that sounds so magnetic to these ears. It is good having this bunch of weirdos still do what they do best – dragging their listeners barefoot through the jungle of their deranged imagination on a quest to discover new music terrains. Dennis Gudim 

Oathbreaker – “Rheia”

belgium

Blackgaze / Sludge metal

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From the sixth track, “Immortals'”-“the world drained me of kindness; drift words can only mean as much. I was nothing, I didn’t matter, You ate my heart out, I am stone; I didn’t matter”. After first seeing them play a small art space in August of 2014, Oathbreaker very steadily became a band that I considered a favourite of mine. When the first announcement for Rheia was made; to say I was thrilled would be an understatement, but I could’ve never prepared for what I’d hear this past September. A clear growth in ability as musicians; Oathbreaker presents their third LP as a defining step forward, establishing themselves as a band with staying power when music is being made to feel the most disposable it has ever been. I said it immediately after hearing the first single, and I’ll say it again; this was, no question, my album of the year. Ben Manzella

Oranssi Pazuzu – “Värähtelijä”

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Black metal / Psychedelic rock

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Like a rogue mutation, this Finnish collective diverts from the longstanding and respectable legacy of the orthodox black metal written and performed by many of their countrymen to explore their foreign and unsettling aural territories. Oranssi Pazuzu masterfully bends and blends genres to create their latest stunning success. This band creates sounds so otherworldly, so harsh and ghostly, that they are able to ignite the sleeping neurons of the brain. Only the vocals harken back to “traditional” black metal styling. Swirling, alien landscapes can give way to dense foggy non-rhythms. Then the music switches to feature tribal syncopation and processed, discordant melodies. Listeners are taken on an unpredictable journey where traditional instruments and vocals conspire to build a stark and isolating fortress of sound, which is then adorned with layers of maddening weirdness. Expect to love this marriage of the organic with the manufactured. M.A. Spiro

Ravencult – “Force Of Profanation” 

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Black metal / Thrash metal 

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Ravencult writes the kind of music that initially enticed me into the dark realms of black metal. These Greek shredders travel the well-worn path of black thrash – mapped by groups like Venom, Midnight, and Aura Noir – and pioneer new territories filled with blood, fire and death. They own the music’s trademark reckless rhythms, guitar-driven melodies and furious, razor wire vocals by creating songs packed with memorable riffs, hooks and twists. The sound is familiar but not trendy or derivative. Although the band has been cranking out tunes since the early 2000s, they may be relatively unknown to some. Practically every album has come out on a different small label. This last recording landed on Metal Blade, perhaps giving the band the promotional boost they so richly deserved. If you crave what is ‘trve’ and desire to hold court with the “black metal elite,” then Ravencult should be your new favorite band, and this album should be a benchmark for the subgenre’s potential for excellence. M.A. Spiro

Teloch – “Thus Darkness Spake”

fin

Black metal 

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Some bands manage to surprise, and sometimes a seemingly unimpressive album lands in one’s record player and, unexpectedly, never stops rotating in there. Thus Darkness Spake, the second album of the Finnish black metal band Teloch, is such a release. It might actually seem problematic to choose this record as the strongest of 2016, because there is hardly anything innovative or specifically artistic about it. Thus Darkness Spake is simply a strong black metal release which shows a lot of talent when it comes to song-writing skills and the inclusion of the bass guitar as a memorable element of the music. Songs like “Obliteration” convince the listener with its melodic, yet powerful riffs and the chanting vocal lines during the middle part, while tracks à la “Towards Perdition” focus more on the aggressive power of this musical genre and have some very well crafted drum-lines to offer. The highlight of the album is, without doubt, the ten minute long “Hymni Tulelle” with its general variety of elements, its epic passages and the well-done interaction between the instruments – it is indeed an organic and flawless composition. However, the main reason why Teloch’s album is one of the most important releases of 2016 is simply because the band does not promise anything the musicians are unable to keep. Thus Darkness Spake is everything it wants to be – a typical, well-composed and atmospheric black metal release. And that’s the reason while it will be considered a classic in the future. Jonathan J

Death metal

Obscura – “Akróasis”

germany

Technical death metal

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Blackened technical death metal outfit Obscura exceed all expectations with this release. Well-crafted songs with complex jazzy and sweeping riffs will please the most discerning tech-death snob. In a subgenre of metal that is prone to overproduction and grandiose cheese, Obscura are kings of subtlety and restraint.  This album is an extraordinary and terrifying monster, no doubt, but it is not unwieldy, cold or navel-gazing tech death. At the heart, these are simply excellent rock and roll songs with solid hooks and meaty “chuggah-chuggah” rhythms for all your cargo short wearing wind-millers. Outside of a few forgiveable pinch harmonics and the occasional robotic vocal effect, these German metal masters maintain a soulful authenticity in tandem with technical precision by incorporating heart pounding tempos and poignant bends of the fretless bass. They round out their offering with a few tracks featuring symphonic or acoustic passages. These additions complete a rich musical landscape that never feels out of place, it only builds to the album’s logical and magnificent conclusion. M.A. Spiro

Doom metal

Clouds – “Departe”

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Atmospheric Doom Metal

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I came across Clouds’ Doliu one day while browsing the web, and literally my reaction within the first minute was “woah”. Only a few weeks later, they serendipitously announce a new album, and while I was still freshly getting into Doliu, Departe ends up in my hands and I have been listening to it on repeat ever since. Featuring members of such prominent bands as Shape of Despair and Pantheist, they have taken atmospheric funeral doom to its logical level. The mix of cleans and growls is perfect, and the emotional weight of this is, well, the complete opposite of light as a cloud. Sorry, had to. If you like your doom with synths, full of depression, and absolutely brilliant song writing, this is one of the single most important albums within the genre for you to check out: besides Doliu, of course, whose track “If These Walls Could Talk” might be one of the finest songs I have ever heard, although “In the Ocean of my Tears” certainly gives it a run for its money. Patrick Bertlein

Temple of Abandonment – “From Outer Spheres… Death”

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Funeral doom metal

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A few times a year I come across a band that is truly shocking. Temple of Abandonment was one of these, and while this is considered a demo, it is still longer than many full lengths I have owned. This single track clocks in at just a bit over half an hour, and it has been one of the most addictive songs I have heard this year. The cover features a drawing of a man in a noose, and it certainly fits that image. Make no mistake about it, this music will make you feel completely hopeless, but the good news is we can hope for more from this new band in the near future, who will be sure to make their mark on FUNeral doom for many years to come. I have been anxiously hoping they would make it a bit closer to my neck of the woods for the better part of the year, and hopefully, pun intended. 2017 will let me witness their crushing devastation live. Patrick Bertlein

Folk metal

Alkonost – “Песни белой лилии”

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Folk metal

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Arguably one of Russia’s oldest folk metal exports, Alkonost’s tenth album is a rapturous, modernised take on the genre. Unlike other bands who use a multifarious array of traditional instrumentation, Песни белой лилии [Songs of the White Lilly] is more ‘metal’ than ‘folk’ in its line-up, but the folk influences make themselves very well known in the melodies. In this way the album is highly contemporary, with its Slavic folklore presenting itself, phantomlike, in the lyrics and cadences, with the later acoustic version of the tracks “Русалка” [Mermaid] and “Птица-печаль” [Sorrowbird] being fascinating insights into how folk music became metal and the fundamental links between the two art forms. The true stand-out, however, is Ksenia Pobuzhanskaya’s assured, clear and sultry alto vocals, which glide through the enveloping, water-thick production seamlessly. Песни белой лилии is a naturally profound offering, showing the human closeness of intents that makes folk metal such a fascinating fusion genre. Lysander

Moonsorrow – “Jumalten Aika”

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Folk metal / Pagan black metal

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Folk and metal music seem ever more relevant as the digital age increases momentum, not necessarily to humanity but in their humanity. Our increased obsession with virtuality seems only to demand further homage and harking back to ancient ways lest we lose connectivity with our essence. Pagan metal is making its firm branding on 21st century extreme music, and Moonsorrow’s seventh album, Jumalten Aika [Age of the Gods], only further refines a reverence to the old ways whilst simultaneously making them all the more appropriate. Moonsorrow’s veins run with the iron of both blood and metal, and Jumalten Aika’s epic animalist/animist mixture of the organic with the metallic feels dark, historic and spiritual. There is something deeply familiar to Moonsorrow’s sound, companionable even, as if the literal, ethical and emotive messages uttered here are retransmitted genealogically – with exponential potency – from lineage to lineage. It is to these, and to our true selves, that we connect in listening. Lysander

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Pop

Porta Vittoria – “Tales of Fallen Heroes”

italy

Art pop

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Porta Vittoria made their first appearance back in 2013 with Summer of our Discomfort and have just recently released their sophomoric effort, Tales of Fallen Heroes. The Porta Vittorian sound is present, yet it feels more shaped and focused. The atomic-industrialism and more brash elements of the debut have been subdued as Tales of Fallen Heroes embraces a more affluent, perhaps even ritzy sound. The multi-genre approach to vocals has also been streamlined to a more dark David Lyncheon night club approach. The album’s poetry and subject matter remains as literate and well versed as ever. Through technical acumen and artistic proficiency, Porta Vittoria has been able to combine industrialism with high-class sentiments with unique and amazing results. Nicholas Diak

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Punk

Alaric – “End of Mirrors”

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Post-punk

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The past several years have seen the establishment of a welcome common ground between deathrock and metal. For those curious to know what a more muscular Christian Death or a virtuosity-infused Joy Division would sound like, look no further than End of Mirrors. It’s dark, unapologetically emotional, and occasionally psychedelic, complementing bass-driven goth compositions with the doom and aggression of metal. There’s no light to be found here, psychologically or musically. Tenebrous Kate

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Rock

Worm Ouroboros – “What Graceless Dawn”

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Post-rock

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The only well-known on my list, I can’t imagine what I could say about Jessica Way, Aesop Dekker, and Lorraine Rath’s work that hasn’t already been stated elsewhere in more prominent journals. They’ve been a staple of the doom underground since 2012’s Come the Thaw turned so many heads, and the follow-up, What Graceless Dawn, only worked to continue the tradition of critical acclaim for this trio.  With Agalloch’s demise and Dekker’s time freed from what I’d presume was his most demanding project, I can only imagine that whatever comes next for these three will be what catapults them to the front of the pack – that is, if What Graceless Dawn didn’t already drag them across the forest floor to their rightful spot. Sage

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