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Best of 2016: Metal

2016 has ended, to much celebration. In spite of the fact that the worst ramifications of 2016 will manifest themselves in 2017 and beyond, people are looking to the new year in hopes of an upswing.

Not everything in 2016 was terrible, though. Some stuff was great. I am going to make a few Best of 2016 lists. We’ll see how far I get with them.

This list is the first one, and features what I consider to be the best albums (and EPs) in 2016 which fall under the general umbrella of “metal”.

Best Metal Album of 2016

Cobalt - Slow Forever

The contest was basically over before it began. Slow Forever came out in March, and nothing else really came close. This is just an amazing melting pot of extreme metal. Cobalt becomes less tethered to black metal on this album, pulling from blues, Americana, hardcore, Tool, psych, prog, and hard rock. And Charlie Fell comes roaring in like he was shot out of a fucking cannon, just spitting fire in what is hands down the best extreme vocal performance of the year.

The Rest of the Best

(in no particular order)

SubRosa - For This We Fought the Battle of Ages

I said “in no particular order”, but I put this one at the top because, if not for the Cobalt album, this would have been my #1 metal album of 2016. Doom metal has been enjoying a spike in interest, with a ton of bands churning out excellent but derivative albums. SubRosa is one of the bands moving the style forward, incorporating chamber music elements (similar to a number of post-rock bands) and Americana folk into something far more diverse than the “Praise Iommi” crowd produces. (Although, still, praise Iommi). The expressive, emotive sound they crafted on their earlier albums is perfected here, though really it was perfected on the last album. The atmosphere is simultaneously dark and beautiful, and the band flows from prettiness to harsh catharsis and back. The dual violins sing and then scream. The lyrics are often weighty, best illustrated by “Troubled Cells”, which is essentially a protest piece against the Mormon church’s treatment of LGBT people (frontwoman Rebecca Vernon is a practicing Mormon). This is a band at the top of their game, and the top of whatever subgenre one wants to label them.

Cult of Luna + Julie Christmas - Mariner

All of my sex dreams involve Julie Christmas screaming at me. She’s not even the one I’m having sex with, she’s just there for ambiance. The queen of my fear boners teams up with excellent Swedish post-metal band Cult of Luna. As much as Julie Christmas’s strangled-cat screaming freak outs make me melt, her level of restraint on this album works in its favor. It’s probably the most subdued I’ve heard her on an album. While she tends to be the focal point on her former bands’ records, here she’s a peer with the band, as Cult of Luna are too strong for her to overpower. Cult of Luna posted something interesting on their Facebook page after touring with Julie in support of this album, referencing how they “had no idea of how Julie and Andrew would be on a personal level” and how touring sometimes “takes out the worst in people”, but that they were happy with how well everyone got on during the tour. Reading between the lines, it sounds like Julie might have a reputation for being difficult, which is something I’ve suspected (Made Out of Babies basically went on to form a new band with all of their members except Julie). Fortunately, that didn’t seem to rear its head for Cult of Luna.

Oranssi Pazuzu - Värähtelijä

Another favorite from early in the year. It’s like krautrock black metal, which is awesome if you like krautrock, as I do. Unlike earlier releases from the band, though, the black metal influence isn’t dominant, but is part of an ever-shifting stylistic mix. The band creates melodic ambient grooves, which it then uses as launching pads to go into various freak-out excursions, and then uses them as the landing pads upon which they bring it back down and flow back into the steady groove. Some people (AMG reviewer and commenters mostly) have complained about the production, but it’s a thick boomy sound that brings to mind early Pink Floyd (which works with this material), and not that stereotypical shrill made-for-cassette black metal production. In fact, I would argue that the relative lack of “dynamic range” is part of what keeps the album from falling into that loud-soft-loud post-rock trope.

Inter Arma - Paradise Gallows

This album is just massive, both in sound and in running length (71 minutes, not including the hidden track after ~20 minutes of silence on the digital release). It took me some time to fully absorb, as it’s a difficult one to take in as background music during work. It’s an expansive, encompassing mix of sludge, prog, and doom, just a record to get absolutely lost in. The group consists of a number of multi-instrumentalist musicians, and they put their flexibility to use in creating a wide sonic palette with which to build these staggering, cavernous pieces. The cover art is some of the best of the year, with the collapsing ship being overtaken by the sea, and is befitting of the force-of-nature power conveyed by the music.

Neurosis - Fires Within Fires

I did not know what to expect from a Neurosis album in 2016. The previous album had released right before the last US presidential election, and the members have been so busy with solo projects and side bands. Neurosis remains as powerful as ever, but their sound has taken on a sense of age, of weariness. The shaman leading the rituals has become acutely aware of the fact that he’s an old man. The lyric “we will never, ever get to rest” during the climax of album closer “Reach” always hits me square, as it perfectly encapsulates what Neurosis sounds like today: old, wise, tired, but unbroken.

Ulcerate - Shrines of Paralysis

Although not blessed with the same caliber of album title as 2009’s [i]Everything is Fire[/i], Ulcerate’s avant-garde death metal still burns everything the fuck down. I loathe to refer to Ulcerate as “tech death” for the same reason there’s a number of bands I hate to refer to as “prog metal” - both of those labels bring to mind guitars playing as many notes as possible, like 4 people simultaneously pounding on a Rock Band guitar. Make no mistake, Ulcerate often plays at a breakneck pace, but much of that is in the blistering rhythms more so than any tweedly-deedly-dee shred king wannabe guitar wankery. In fact, it can take a careful listen to recognize the guitars are often holding and sustaining notes longer when the drums kick into full speed.

Sumac - What One Becomes

Aaron Turner’s best will always make my list. This has to make any list of best-produced metal albums of the year - recorded in an empty church, the reverberations feed back into the massive, overwhelming sound. That is, if you call it metal. It’s too heavy to call it anything else, really, but the band tosses traditional song structure aside. It’s just heavy avant-garde music. It’s definitely an album that can try your attention span, as that lack of structure makes it less accessible than a classic ISIS album - it’s more like Turner’s work with Old Man Gloom taken to a new stylistic extreme. The weirdest thing about this album is that it released on Thrill Jockey, which I still associate with post-rock and indie-jazz-rock bands like Tortoise, Isotope 217, and The Sea and Cake.

Lycus - Chasms

This one just barely released in 2016 (Google Play annoyingly continues to mark it 2015, but it was January 2016). Lycus doesn’t turn the funeral doom formula on its head, so much as they incorporate other elements to avoid predictability. Peppered throughout are trem-picked black metal screech-outs, which nicely break apart and mesh with the slower funeral doom marches, rather than clashing. The addition of cello adds more texture and dimension to the low rumbling sound. It’s the band’s shifts in tone and tempo, which work in service to the relentless doom march rather than derailing it, which make the album. Absolutely delightful, and I am still crushed that I had to choose between seeing Baroness or them at Psycho Las Vegas (and, as fun as Baroness’s set was, I think I may have made the wrong choice).

Mantar - Ode to the Flame

Oh yes. Mantar cooks up blackened sludge and delivers it in repeated gut punches. Ode to the Flame is a little less straightforward than the band’s debut album, and that makes all the difference. They pull bits from other genres into their mix, from doom to thrash to crust punk to groove, but with a persistent coat of grime layered on top. This is another one of those albums this year that delivers catchy songs in an extreme metal style, and it got a lot of great reviews but doesn’t seem to have made anyone’s best-of lists the way some of those others have. Well those lists are wrong, Mantar blows those other releases away.

Best Metal EPs of 2016

Gorguts - Pleiades’ Dust

If there were anything right in this world, Gorguts’ existence would spawn an identifiable new subgenre, a sort of Metal in Opposition update to the Rock in Opposition (RIO) genre of Henry Cow, Univers Zero, etc. On this EP, Gorguts puts avant-garde death metal into a multi-movement modern classical style of composition, culminating in a continuous 33 minute piece of music. And it demands to be listened to in a continuous 33 minutes of time, as it flows between ambient atmospherics and crushing experimental death metal bursts.

Tombs - All Empires Fall

Tombs has added synthesizer/electronics player (and second vocalist) Fade Kainer, which brings some new industrial and gothic elements into the mix. This EP is clearly the band experimenting with this new elements. It features sections of ambience that were hinted at with the track “Severed Lives” on 2014’s fabulous album Savage Gold, but Kainer’s presence greatly aids in the execution of these moments, adding the necessary texture to make them interesting. When not exploring these more subdued areas, the band kicks in with the same kind of propulsive metal that made Savage Gold so good.

Skeletonwitch - The Apothic Gloom

This one’s so good, and it’s a shame that it isn’t getting more attention, perhaps due to being an EP. The band dismissed their previous frontman due to his alcoholism, and enlisted Wolvhammer’s Adam Clemans to take over. His vocals have more of a presence than the previous vocalist’s, whose voice on the last album tended to get lost a bit in the audio soup with the trem-picked guitars and high hats. Skeletonwitch writes tight pieces that sound bigger and longer than their runtime, and that’s on full display here with what they’ve packed into a 20 minute EP.

Goya - Doomed Planet

This Arizona three-piece has been releasing quite a bit of material of late. This year alone, they released two new EPs, a third EP of early demos, and a two-song single of Nirvana covers. This EP is the best of the bunch, featuring two long heavy tracks of desert-tinged doom, a short instrumental piece, and a Marilyn Manson cover. Great for fans of thick fuzz and clean vocals.

Honorable Mentions

Oh my god. It really hurt to keep the next 3 out of the top 10 albums.

Oathbreaker - Rheia

Hipster black metal alert! This is a varied album that moves from blast-beat black metal to shoegaze to soft atmospherics, all punctuated by vocalist Caro Tanghe. Tanghe often brings Julie Christmas to mind, both in her clean vocals and shrieking freak-outs. Really, “Deafheaven + Julie Christmas” wouldn’t be the worst way to describe the band, though Oathbreaker comes from a hardcore background that informs their style even as they distance themselves from it. What sets Oathbreaker apart is just the raw emotion that they convey, primarily through those vocals. The band breaks down the opening 8 minutes of the album in an excellent episode of the Song Exploder podcast.

Helms Alee - Stillicide

This is one of my most played albums this year, and it hurt to leave it off the 10. I almost wanted to cheat and call it an indie rock album and slip it on my Other Genres list instead. The Sludgelord describes it nicely: imagine Kylesa at their most psychedelic covering Sleater-Kinney. It’s sludge-y indie rock, driven by the vocals of all 3 members (2 female and 1 male). This album should be one of the ones getting the “hipster” indie crossover attention.

Vektor - Terminal Redux

The first couple of times I listened to this, I didn’t get very far. It’s a beast at 73 minutes long. After a little warming up, it started to click for me, scratching that same scifi-thrash itch that last year’s VHOL album so brilliantly did. I haven’t paid much attention to the album’s narrative - I don’t get much out of the “concept” part of “concept album” these days - but I get a lot out of the thrashy riffing. It’s a long album, but by the time “Recharging the Void” finishes, I’m ready to hear “Charging the Void” again.

Insomnium - Winter’s Gate

There were a few cold-weather atmospheric black metal albums this year, but Insomnium’s was the one that stood out the most. Written as a single album-length track, but broken up into parts (a la Crimson or A Pleasant Shade of Gray), this 40-minute album is intended to be taken as a whole, but does break down into separate songs much more cleanly than, say, the Gorguts EP. Everything about the compositions on this album screams “winter”. The compositions feed into the album’s winter theme extremely well, from the trem-picked blizzard winds to the soft piano evoking near-silent snowfall in softer moments like the first half of Part 5. It’s too bad I already finished playing through Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition, because this would have made a great soundtrack for those play sessions. I’ll break it out again when I play through that expansion content of Pillars of Eternity.

If These Trees Could Talk - The Bones of a Dying World

The best instrumental post-metal album this year isn’t the Russian Circles album, it’s this one. The band signed to Metal Blade a year ago, whom promptly reissued their previously self-released first two albums. The band features three guitarists that create layered melodies, making for some mesmerizing passages as the guitars weave in and out of playing separate and interlocked parts. It’s debatable whether they should fall under post-metal or post-rock, much like Russian Circles, but what’s less debatable is that it’s an excellent record, and the band should get some more attention under Metal Blade’s wing.

SUNN O))) - НЕЖИТЬ: живьём в России (NOLIFE: Alive in Moscow)

This was a quiet release, as a limited edition triple-vinyl (all sold out) and Bandcamp digital download. This is a recording of the band’s first Moscow performance, with audio pulled both from the soundboard and audience, mixed and mastered together. As quiet as the release of the album was, the audio itself is HUGE. Massive. It makes previous SUNN O))) live albums like Domkirke and Aghartui Live 09-10 (the most recent live album, itself a digital + limited physical release) sound small in comparison. It is probably the closest representation of SUNN’s oppressing live sound put to recording. (Or at least, I assume, based on reputation, as I’ve yet to experience it in person. God, please let SUNN O))) be one of the Psycho headliners this year).

Meshuggah - The Violent Sleep of Reason

Much better than Koloss. So much better. Meshuggah style changes are always subtle movements within a relatively small area, like a quarterback shifting around in the pocket. They’re immediately identifiable as Meshuggah, yet people certainly identify different styles as favorites. For me, the best Meshuggah has been the more hard-charging Meshuggah on Chaosphere and ObZen. The Violent Sleep of Reason doesn’t quite keep pace with those releases, but it’s certainly closer than some of their more deliberately paced recordings. It’s also less repetitive than some of those other albums. It’s probably my third or fourth favorite Meshuggah album (depending on where I feel like putting Destroy Erase Improve), which is a pretty damn good ranking for an album.

Deftones - Gore

This is the first Deftones album that really landed with me. This is what “alternative metal” should be. It’s like an album from an alternate timeline, where the alternative metal of Faith No More, Helmet, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden continued forward, and never took that right turn into nu-metal (which, yes, is an ironic idea given Around the Fur). As if there was a plague that was constrained to only wiping out the Family Values Tour ‘98. Gone is the preening nu-metal Fast and Furious ‘tude, and in its place is a mature, textured album, with some of the best songwriting the genre has seen of late.

Aluk Todolo - Voix

Oranssi Pazuzu isn’t the only krautrock black metal I got to enjoy this year. Unlike the Oranssi Pazuzu album, this one is entirely instrumental, and it leans more towards focusing on extended hypnotic grooves a la Neu! or Tago Mago era Can (the best Can). As is a theme of many albums this year, the 43 minute length plays out as a single unbroken piece of music, divided up into six tracks named simply I through VI. Hypnotic really is the best word for this, as it’s very easy to get lost in. One particular late-night coding session of mine this month involved me with headphones on and this on repeat, and repeatedly hitting the end of the album and wondering where the time went. It’s enveloping, and relentlessly forward moving. Even softer parts, like IV, have an undeniable steady forward momentum. This will remain in my rotation for a long time as coding music.

Gojira - Magma

People call this Gojira’s “Black Album”. The Grammy nomination seems to lend some credence to that claim. But while Gojira may have turned down their heaviness, that’s in comparison with themselves. There’s no “Unforgiven” or “Nothing Else Matters” here, not unless you count the album’s instrumental outro. This is still a hard hitting metal album, and what they’ve traded down in heaviness and instrumental complexity, they’ve gained as songwriters. It’s not quite my ideal direction for them - I would have loved an album that uses these more song-oriented pieces in-between a couple of longer complex pieces, giving a taste of both worlds. While that’s not the way they went, I am satisfied with their final result. Just as long as the next one isn’t Gojira’s “Load”.

Khemmis - Hunted

Hunted is a sublime mix of traditional doom metal, jumpstarted with some Iron Maiden energy and guitar noodling. It’s another band that’s not satisfied to just slug out some slow riffs and wallow. (Although, again, praise Iommi.) What’s amazing is just how approachable the whole thing is. I could send this album to my dad, even though it’s ostensibly a doom metal album with track lengths that average nearly 9 minutes. (And it is an album that I repeatedly played in the car with my wife, to no complaint.) The compositions aren’t overly technical, but they also avoid staying in one place too long, deftly moving to new melodies without overwhelming the listener. Clean, emotive vocals dominate, with some doom growls joining the mix as additional texture. It’s easy to see why this got so much love on best of lists. Whereas the Helms Alee album is one I think should cross over to indie rock fans, this is one that should cross over to classic hard rock fans.

Russian Circles - Guidance

I still very much enjoy a bi-annual Russian Circles album, even if the formula becomes recognizable (pretty, gentler intro track, second track that kicks everything up a notch, etc). If there’s a knock on the album, it’s the existence of the group’s strong, similar back catalog. It’s hard to be mad when they consistently deliver such a high quality, and when so few other groups can deliver the same thing in the same sort of space.

Revocation - Great is Our Sin

I was surprised to see the slightly cool reception that this album received. The reviews were positive enough, but I don’t recall seeing it on many (if any) best-of lists, even as an honorable mention. I think this falls into the same issue as Russian Circles: they’ve been steadily prolific and maintained a high level of quality, but a formula is emerging. This album doesn’t depart very far from what they achieved on Deathless. That said, to me, this is Revocation at their most melodic and fluid. It’s a subtle maturing, but it feels like the rest of their package catching up to their technical acument. I think part of the issues with the cool reception is that the first track feels very Revocation-by-numbers, and first tracks have a way of sticking out the most and coloring opinions. It’s with the second track, “Theatre of Horror”, where the album begins in earnest.

Participation Ribbon

Abbath - Abbath

It was cool seeing Abbath on the Decibel Tour this year, playing a mix of his new solo album and some Immortal favorites. The solo album doesn’t stray far from what Immortal did well, which isn’t much surprise given he was that band’s primary composer in addition to being the frontman. It probably helps that Immortal took such a long break (only 3 albums released in the 2000s), because this would probably feel a lot more tired if the were 7 albums between Sons of Northern Darkness and this, instead of only one. Instead, it feels like Abbath had plenty of ideas left to explore within the general style Immortal perfected on that album.

Helion Prime - Helion Prime

Vektor isn’t the only band with a hard-drivin’ space metal album this year. Helion Prime’s debut album is a fun, cheesy chunk of space-themed power metal. Power metal is rarely my go-to, usually relegated to occasional change-up status, and this album isn’t going to be the one to change that. But it is a good time, helped in large part by the female not-at-all-operatic vocals. That vocalist has left the band, but in an interesting turn of events, Witch Mountain’s Kayla Dixon has been tapped to be the replacement. That makes two bands that Kayla fronts without appearing on any of their released albums, but hopefully both bands change that in 2017.

Kvelertak - Nattesferd

This album sounds like an extreme metal band covering classic hard rock songs from a parallel timeline. The songs sound familiar, like they’re forgotten hits from that mid-70s-to-early-80s period of arena rock, bar bands, and punk. Songs that, if sung and produced in clean fashion, you could easily imagine alongside Thin Lizzy and Ted Nugent, alongside Van Halen and Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Ramones. It’s like a classic hard rock album from a reality where growled vocals tagged along with fuzzy overdriven guitars when they went mainstream.

Sumerlands - Sumerlands

Sumerlands is a music geek’s love letter to late ’80s American metal, written to mimic that style but without the imperative to stick closer to radio-friendliness. It’s got that Fates Warning, Queensryche thing going on, which were some of my entry points into the genre. I think the album is great, but what I’m not certain of is if there’s a band-sustaining theme there, or if this is just better as a one-off.

Gatecreeper - Sonoran Depravation

Apparently retro is in, because here’s another one. For Gatecreeper, it’s classic Swedish, maxed-out-HM-2-pedal death metal. Sonoran Deprevation is their debut full-length, and at just under 31 minutes, it’s a lean and dialed-in assault. There’s no fat here, just a straight-ahead riff delivery device. Not a lot in terms of originality, but it stands out for just how well it does what it does, and for how directly it achieves it. That economy makes this a great one to throw down for some immediate, unencumbered ass-kicking.

BABYMETAL - METAL RESISTANCE

The “metal” in BABYMETAL faded pretty hard over the course of their debut album after a strong start, which made me wonder if the band was ultimately going to just be J-Pop with distorted guitars going forward. Instead, they doubled-down on metal for the second record, pulling in power metal and djent and stomping on the gas pedal. This time around, only one song in the second half really dials down the metal (“No Rain, No Rainbow”), but it is bracketed on each side with balls-to-the-wall \m/ \m/. In the end, it is still a tad gimmicky, and the band (while good) is mainly notable for meshing disparate sounds and styles together more so than crafting new ones, but it’s a fun album that doesn’t lose its edge halfway through like the debut (and is also, wisely, a tad shorter at 53 minutes).

Borknagar - Winter Thrice

Borknagar’s 2012 album Urd was like their version of Kurt Warner’s Super Bowl season with the Arizona Cardinals - a recapturing of quality the band had enjoyed during their previous peak (which I would argue was the 98-00 period with The Archaic Course and Quintessence albums). It was a tall order to expect them to maintain that level, and unsurprisingly, they fall a bit short here. But the album is notable in that it’s a getting-the-singers-all-back-together effort, with vocalist Garm joining Vintersorg, ICS Vortex, and Lars Nedland, albeit in a guest capacity on a couple of tracks. Stylistically, this doesn’t deviate much from Urd, outside of not being quite as consistently good. Leaving a couple of tracks from the 50 minute running length on the cutting room floor would have helped the rest of the material stand out.