Another year, another year-end roundup blah blah blah… NO! Not going to treat this like any other year. Not at all. Because for a multitude of reasons, 2016 was far from ordinary, or even within the realms of perceptible reality. Losing all of those iconic musicians and artists hurt, but it all feels kinda insignificant next to the moment in history through which we are passing, with fascism not only taking root again in The West, but growing its branches far. If you are at all disturbed by modern goings-on, get involved. Donate, volunteer, write and call your representatives, whatever you can do.
Like many folks, the national and worldwide events of 2016 incited more than a little fear (sense of impending doom) and depression in me. If my personal life had not included some of the most important moments of growth, reconciliation, and clarity, it would have been far worse.
During times like these, we reach to art more than ever; at least we should. Great film, music, visual art, etc. should be sources of comfort, escapism, empathy, and catharsis. It helps to be able to escape from time to time, but art is a crucial element of expressing both individal and society-wide fears, anger, and hopes. Metal can and should be both escapist and very real. And while there’s a part of me that thinks there were Bigger Things than losing artists in 2016, I get it. Great artists are our avatars, and they become permanent parts of our lives. Losing them feels like losing parts of ourselves.
Strictly on the subject of New Music, 2016 was special. Every year provides us with a bounty of great ear candy, but something about 2016 was different. I actually felt a slight bit of guilt at leaving a few albums off of my list, which is silly, considering how arbitrary these things are and how quickly they become out-of-date. But hey, it’s important to me, you know? More than ever, it was a struggle to pick only 20, as so much stuff brought out the warrior within or moved me to the verge of tears or simply got the air guitars moving.
This is a long way of saying this: 2016 was the best year for metal and heavy music since I started this here blogging gig back in the last decade. Full Stop. Here are my favorite albums of 2016, which are very similar to the full staff’s favorite albums of 2016, because I’m painfully ordinary. Enjoy.
But first things first… EXTRA GIANT HONORABLE MENTION LOGO CLOUD, ENGAGE!
THE BACK TEN
20. Imperium Dekadenz – Dis Manibvs
• Lords of melancholic, atmospheric black metal, Imperium Dekadenz improves on each release. “Volcano” will melt you.
19. Spiritus Mortis – The Year is One
• One of the best epic doom albums in ages. Every element is nailed, particularly the sublime vocal performance of Sami “Albert Witchfinder” Hynninen.
18. In the Woods – Pure
• The 90s masters of avant-garde return with an album that naturally sounds nothing like their old stuff. Call it “In the Woods of Ypres,” if you will.
17. Forteresse – Thèmes pour la Rébellion
• While you get caught up in the dreamy tremolo riffs and sweeping melodies, Forteresse will imprison you in their intensity. Doubly captivating.
16. Khthoniik Cerviiks – SeroLogiikal Scars (Vertex of Dementiia)
• Thiis band iis on a cliingy-clangy trajectory of blackened-blastiing Voiivodiianugliiness that iis iirresistiible. Riiffs on top of riiffs on top of riiffs.
15. Chthe’ilist – Le Dernier Crépuscule
• 2016 saw a heap of Demilich– and Timeghoul-inspired, mostly-throwback-but-very-fresh death metal. Chthe’ilist brought it best for me, because it’s funkay.
14. SubRosa – For This We Fought the Battle of Ages
• Not as immediate as More Constant than the Gods, but possibly deeper. Their heaviest, bleakest work yet, and as strangely soothing as ever.
13. Helcaraxë – The Last Battle
• In inspiring this album, The Wheel of Time finally added some value to the world. Give me all of the Crimson-rooted melodeath, please.
12. Mare Cognitum – Luminiferous Aether
• Immediate in its engrossing galactic black metal aura, but rife with nuance and details. Jacob Buczarski is one of the brightest young minds in black metal.
11. Mithras – On Strange Loops
• Technical, brutal, sci-fi, robotic, organic, melodic, ethereal, maniacal, progressive. If nine years between full lengths results in this, bring on 2025.
10. INSOMNIUM – WINTER’S GATE
Speaking of Crimson-rooted melodeath… well, kinda. Insomnium didn’t so much copy Edge of Sanity’s sound for Winter’s Gate as they did the single-song-as-album scope, and it resulted in the best album of their career. The heaviest moments rule, but the album’s true worth is in its extended passages of proggier, lighter work, extending the mood out and really upping the payoff of the peaks. No one expected this album from Insomnium in 2016.
9. ANAAL NATHRAKH –
THE WHOLE OF THE LAW
Speaking of the unexpected… I fully thought Anaal Nathrakh would continue to put out somewhat diluted, but still pretty good albums. What we got was their best album since at least In the Constellation of the Black Widow. Featuring a freakish collection of actual black metal riffage from Mick Kenney, and a vocal performance from Dave Hunt that is even better than his expected transcendence (more of those falsettos from “Extravaganza!,” please), The Whole of the Law might be the most fanboy pleasing release of the year.
8. MESHUGGAH –
THE VIOLENT SLEEP OF REASON
As I stated in my review, there is something loose, almost jammy about The Violent Sleep of Reason that we’ve never really heard out of Meshuggah. I also stated that this is of course relative for this band, but damn if it doesn’t create a really fun, rocking counterpoint to the intense, progressive darkness of Koloss. Peaking for over 20 years now, Meshuggah simply operates on a higher level of excellence than almost every band on the planet. I will never, ever get enough.
7. DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT –
Even I, a Devy fanboy of the highest order, has to admit that he has long been saturating his own market, sometimes with blatantly silly music (please retire Ziltoid). No matter how much music he released, my favorite Townsend albums remained the same: Ocean Machine and Terria. His relatively restrained, expansive, and introspective side was always his best, and Transcendence brought that back in full, if from a slightly different perspective. Sometimes we have to go backwards to move forward, and it certainly sounds as if Devin has found new confidence in his serious self
6. VEKTOR – TERMINAL REDUX
Thrash was the metal that got me into, you know, metal, but it has been mostly dead for ages. Bands just refuse to expand the framework, and they can’t all be as good as say, Nekromantheon in their refusal to evolve. Vektor, however, doesn’t believe such seemingly universal constants, and continues to push the boundaries of thrash while exploring their own little sci-fi playground. Terminal Redux has flaws, sure (that ballad could certainly use a real singer), but the vast majority of the album is so brilliant, so loaded with phenomenal ideas and passages that trying to contain their creative energy at this juncture would be a huge mistake. Just let these guys do their technical wonkadoodlry to their hearts’ content.
5. ORANSSI PAZUZU – VÄRÄHTELIJÄ
After delivering a modern classic in Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu did the only logical thing: they threw out the songwriting book and got weird. I mean weirder. WeirdER. Their mix of black metal, industrial, krautrock, and psychedelia was already plenty weird, but Värähtelijä has zero walls. It fully indulges its expanses, not so much meandering as allowing songs to wander. But the secret to the album is that this isn’t just a band experimenting, but one that is intensely focused. Every blip, every ambient passage, every weird bit of blackened noise–it is all part of meticulously crafted songs. Just don’t let that ruin the trippy experience for ya
4. HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE –
John Cobbett may make side quests into several different metallic styles, but Hammers of Misfortune is his centerpiece–his thrashy, artsy, progressive, mesmerizing centerpiece. Dead Revolution is thinking-man’s music steeped in art rock history, but grounded in reality; it is mournful of society’s past mistakes but not content to sit idly as we repeat them; and it is lyrically vital but never preachy. As is tradition with this band, this takes me to a place that can only be achieved through other Hammers albums, and even then, this provides a different lens through which to view this imagery.
3. KATATONIA – THE FALL OF HEARTS
After the “veteran coast mode” quality of Dead End Kings, no one really expected Katatonia to be at their best ever again. Bands run out of ideas, typically far quicker than Katatonia seemingly had. So the overwhelming mastery of The Fall of Hearts was not just pleasing to the ears, it was reassuring. Reassuring that this all-time favorite band still had new things to say. Reassuring that bands with nothing left to prove still become restless and inject new ideas into their formula. And reassuring that, on a personal level, I can continue to count on Renkse, Nyström and co. to enhance my life through sadness and comfort.
2. INTER ARMA – PARADISE GALLOWS
If I made an attempt to be truly and completely objective (impossible), I would probably label Paradise Gallows as The Best Heavy Music Album of 2016. No other band had such a grandiose vision and executed it to such perfection, pulling in a wide array of influences — Yob, Pink Floyd, Leviathan, Morbid Angel, etc. — but always sounding completely unique. Moments of overwhelming beauty, harrowing bleakness, crushing heft, and bombastic groove all combine into a 70 minute masterpiece. I was not at all sold on Inter Arma prior to this album. Now I can’t imagine a metal world without them.
1. MOONSORROW – JUMALTEN AIKA
But if I am going to pick my favorite metal album of 2016 — and that’s why we’re here — it has to be Moonsorrow. Jumalten Aika doesn’t so much add anything new to the Moonsorrow template as it does call back to all of their (very slight) variations and nail every single moment. A touch of bounce, a ton of epic, and some well-placed passages of raging black metal. It is blatant escapism, and always has been, but very few bands in metal write music that is just plain listenable as Moonsorrow, regardless of style or purpose. Jumalten Aika is an exploration of conquering one’s enemies and being conquered, of mourning the long dead and celebrating their legacies. More than anything, it’s an incredible band being completely comfortable in their skin, and making my ears really damn happy.
TOP TEN EPS
10. Astrophobos – Enthroned in Flesh
• Nice little Dissection-worshipping follow-up to their Dissection-worshiping LP.
9. Au Champ Des Morts– Le Jour Se Lève
• A fully formed debut sitting somewhere between Alcest and Wolves in the Throne Room.
8. Pyrrhon – Running Out of Skin
• Great teaser for the next album, and a monster cover of Death’s “Crystal Mountain.”
7. Maligner – Demon
• Throwback death/thrash rippery, awesomely gruff vocals included. Party like it’s 1989.
6. Spectral Apparition – Manifestation
• “Hey, I like this cosmic death thing, but I want some blackened splinters tossed in with that space ooze.”
5. Sky Shadow Obelisk – The Gift of Light
• Going even farther down the rabbit hole finds grunge, doom/death, black metal, and more, all delivered with a deft hand.
4. Valborg – Werwolf
• Last release full length: ultimately ambient. This very brief EP: ultimately heavy.
3. Cross Vault – Miles to Take
• Primordial– and Bathory-influenced doom, and utterly gorgeous throughout.
2. Voivod – Post Society
• Target Earth saw Voivod returning to true greatness. Post Society might be even better.
1. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust
• No-brainer here, right? Luc Lemay is a genius, and Pleiades’ Dust is one of his greatest single achievements.
RANDOM CLOSING THOUGHTS
- The collaboration between Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas was both thrilling and frustrating. How do you get one of the most talented, singular vocalists in all of music and only feature her on 3/5 of your album? I didn’t just dock them points for this, I removed them from my ballot. I’m sure they’re devastated. (But those three Julie-centric songs… wow.)
- The new Metallica was also a double-edged sword. Never before have I heard a band sound so absolutely in-the-zone on certain tracks, and completely lost on the others. Still, seven of these 13 songs are keepers to a certain degree, and in 2016, I’m more than happy have seven pretty-good-to-great new Metallica tunes.
- Mare Cognitum didn’t just release one of my favorite albums of the year, but also my favorite split: Resonance: Crimson Void, with Aureole. Both bands nail it, and it has the rare quality of working as an actual album, not just two sides.
- The “modern” brand of doom that fancies itself equal parts Warning and Candlemass is played out, at least in my mind. None of these bands have a vocalist possessing as much talent and nuance as Patrick Walker, or a songwriter as gifted as Leif Edling. Pallbearer was a decent disciple of both styles, but now we’re getting copies of a copy. I would call this whole trend a product of folks not knowing about real, great doom, but that would only make me sound like a bitter old fan. Screw it, this whole trend is a product of folks not knowing about real, great doom.
- Didn’t hit a lot of shows this year, but damn, there were some good’uns. First and foremost was Guns N’ Roses, who killed it (eat it, haters). I don’t care if it was all for cash, Teenage Zach was never that happy as an actual teenager. Also got to see Absu again, and it was a totally stupid idea for the Metal Threat Fest to have Inquisition try to follow them. Sorry, but Dagon’s “move from one mic to the other” stage presence looked silly after all of Proscriptor’s unmatched showmanship. Finally, I went way out west to catch Frost and Fire in Cali. High Spirits, Slough Feg, andMidnight were as massively great as expected, but Visigoth was the real surprise, turning their pretty good album into a monster set. (I also remembered that I don’t like Cirith Ungol all that much.)
- As usual, I don’t have a comprehensive list of favorite non-metal music, but two albums stand out in my mind: the last from David Bowieand the latest from Nick Cave. Both were not only excellent, but saw each master at his darkest and most harrowing. Black Star was a weird, avant-jazz-rock platter, unbridled in its reflection of Bowie’s illness, while Skeleton Tree found Cave in almost darkwave mode, with little instrumentation to hide the haggard quality of his voice. Perhaps I am reaching for some connection, but I found it regardless, and love these two albums as a back-to-back listen. Choose your own order.
- And speaking of Bowie, yes, we lost a lot of good ones this year, including both the greatest pop star ever and the greatest country western singer ever. Plus many more. But instead of grieving and hating on 2016 as if it is some celebrity-murdering entity, celebrate the lives of these artists. Their music makes them immortal, so share it, now and forever.
Thanks for reading, dudes and dudettes. Love and support each other, and party on.