Christ, what a terrible terrible terrible year. I’m glad this one’s behind us. Between the deaths of so many greats and the interminable American presidential election, 2016 was an insufferably brutal year. (Let’s not speak of what’s to come for us Americans in the next four years. Let us only hope that 2016 was the worst of it. Fingers crossed.)Still, in the midst of the maelstrom, while the world seemingly self-destructed around us, there was great metal, and that’s really what we’re talking about here. When all is dark, when everything goes straight to hell, there’s always music to carry us through, to lift us up, to bring us together. At the end of the day, I can’t say much more than this: Here are some of the albums that kept me afloat in the darkness, and maybe some of them did the same for you, or maybe some of them will in the days to come.
Next year is a new year, and no matter how dark it seems, there will be years after these. Let’s all work together to make the next years better years than this one.
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TOP TEN 1: THE TOP TEN-ISH:
20. Gadget – The Great Destroyer
• These Swedish grinders returned after a decade-long lay-off, right back at full explosive capability. Tracks like the title track, “Pillars Of Filth,” and “Violent Hours (For A Veiled Awakening)” — that last one with its brief Barney Greenway cameo — showed that Gadget is still both great and destructive indeed.
19. Wake – Sowing The Seeds Of A Worthless Tomorrow
• Well, isn’t that title just cheerful? The music is, too, if head-cracking grindcore is the kind of thing you find cheerful. And if it isn’t, it should be. Remember, kids: tomorrow won’t be half as worthless if you spend it listening to Wake.
18. Sumerlands – Sumerlands
• Trad and power metals kind of got left behind for me in 2016, but a few winners cracked through the haze, like this debut from the doom-inflected Sumerlands. Vocalist Phil Swanson (of Hour Of 13, as well) imbues just enough sadness to balance the traditional metal riffs, and the whole thing just simply rocks.
17. Discharge – End Of Days
• One of the last bands I thought would drop a good album in 2016, the kings of UK82 did just that. Three of the classic era remain, and the new blood serves them well. The End Of Days is not all that different from the beginning, and that’s a good thing.
16. Seputus – Man Does Not Give
• I’m a fan of Brooklyn death metal weirdos Pyrrhon, so this death/grind/crust side project had my interest piqued from the beginning. Driven creatively by drummer Steve Schwegler, Seputus is a bit more normal than that other group, and yet, wonderfully, perfectly, brilliantly not normal at all.
15. Asphyx – Incoming Death
• There will always be room in my world for straight-up death metal done well, and Asphyx has been just that (with elements of doom, of course) for decades. Returning with a bomb-blast for Deathhammer four years ago, Asphyx shows no signs of wear.
14. Opeth – Sorceress
• I’d wandered off the Opeth reservation about two albums back, so all the complaints about them not being metal anymore or going full-prog or whatever… well, I didn’t pay any attention to those. Sorceress got me back on board, and that’s enough to know it’s a worthy album.
13. Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence
• Speaking of getting on board, well, here’s a train I figured had left me behind ages ago, a band I just simply did not GET. But damned if this one didn’t somehow click, and though it didn’t drag me into the love affair with all things Devy that some of my comrades share, it did give me more appreciation for his oddball brand of prog-ish fun.
12. Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows
• And while we’re talking about bands I never cared about before, here’s another one who upped their game enough in 2016 to cross my radar and stay there. I won’t pretend that I spent as much time with Paradise Gallows as I probably should have, but I find it a work of depth and grace that deserves all the attention it gets. Inter-Arma-da-vida, babeeee…
11. High Spirits – Motivator
• Chris Black is just The Man, and that’s all there is to it. Putting all the fun back in classic-sounding metal, High Spirits continues to rock like I want bands to rock — it’s like that’s their business, and business — like Motivator — is very, very good.
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TOP TEN 2: THE TOP TEN-EST:
10. HELCARAXE – THE LAST BATTLE
For the most part, I couldn’t give two squats about melodeath, but if that’s the description someone wants to apply to New Jersey’s Helcaraxe, then I may have to up my concern by at least three-quarters of a squat. (Keep in mind: As good as Helcaraxe is, there’s still the dreadful likes of In Flames and Arch Enemy dragging down the name of melodic death metal.) This particular band of Tolkein lovers came storming into the big leagues with Red Dragon a few years ago, and The Last Battle refines their brutal-meets-melodic attack. It’s simply epic death metal mastery, now with cinematic synth strings and bells and whistles to ratchet the whole thing up to the next level. Helcaraxe remains one of the least heralded gems in all of metal…
Released: independent, August 30th
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9. ROTTEN SOUND – ABUSE TO SUFFER
As much as I love grindcore — which is generally quite a lot — I didn’t spend as much time with it in 2016 as in years past. I have no good excuse, just one of those things, and when I listen to Abuse To Suffer, I’m reminded of that. Going into this year, this was probably my most anticipated grind release, especially among the genre’s heavy hitters, and I certainly got what I wanted. Of course, Rotten Sound never disappoints, so this one’s another in a string of absolutely shredding Swedeath-indebted grinders, just pure blasting rage, furnace-bellow vocals, and gnarly buzzing guitars. It’s not their best record, but it’s still damned good, and it’s the strongest of the grinders I did hear this year.
Released: Season Of Mist, March 25th
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8. MARTYRDÖD – LIST
I mean, what’s not to love? List is d-beat punk fury meets black-ish epic melody, all fired up and soaring, just pure undeniable energetic spirit. Maybe it’s not as good as 2014’s Eldopp — and hell, maybe it is; who really cares? It’s awesome either way. Martyrdöd is six albums in now, and every damned one of those discs is killer, so there aren’t any surprises left, only pure punk metal mayhem. List is another Martyrdöd record, and that’s exactly what I want out of… a Martyrdöd record. And honestly, it’s what I want out of a lot of other records, but let’s face it: This band owns what they do. At this point, any further failure to fully appreciate that is on you, not them.
Released: Southern Lord, November 25th
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7. METAL CHURCH – XI
So last year, I heard a rumor that Mike Howe was back in Metal Church, and to say that I was excited was perhaps a slightly embarrassing understatement. Because, you see, Mike Howe fronted Metal Church on the two Metal Church records that I hold dearest, two records that are very important to my development as a metalhead. Flash forward a year or so, and I held in my hands the next Mike Howe-fronted Metal Church record, and it was all the glorious I expected it to be, better than Hanging In The Balance (thankfully), the return to form I absolutely wanted. Not long after this album came out, I had the absolute honor of watching Metal Church perform, standing beside our own Michael Wuensch, and despite some random stranger insulting my penguin hat (puffin? up yours, dude), it was one of the finest metal shows I’ve seen of late. If real church rocked like this Church, then I might’ve gone more than twice.
Released: Rat Pak, March 25th
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6. HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE – DEAD REVOLUTION
My year of prog rock rediscovery continued with this one, an absolutely brilliant work by a band with whom I’d previously only flirted with fandom. There’s a stately perfection in Cobbett and company’s blend of crunchy riff and melodic psychedelia, the crossroads between the classically progressive likes of Deep Purple or Pink Floyd and the more metallic-ally progressive stylings of traditional metal. Joe Hutton’s vocals are so warm and smooth, you want them wrapped around you at all times, and that omnipresent organ just colors everything in such a timeless, nearly spiritual hue while new drummer Will Carroll pushes the whole of the Hammers to a new level of energy. Like I said, I’d been a casual fan before, with the last album (2011’s 17th Street) being my favorite before, but now I’m fully on board.
Released: Metal Blade, July 22nd
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5. VEKTOR – TERMINAL REDUX
Between Terminal Redux and the Blood Incantation debut (which just edged out this one for a higher spot, you’ll soon notice), 2016 had a nice little spate of futurist and yet classicist metal, albums that harked backward to the greats at the same time that they pushed forward in their own ways. Now three albums in, Vektor‘s trajectory should surprise no one, and neither should it be particularly astounding that they just continue to kick ass. Sci-fi thrash of the highest caliber, filled with complex but not showy arrangements and plenty of killer riffing, Terminal Redux is another feather in the Vektor cap, even if it does suffer a few vocal shortfalls in the slower numbers…
Released: Earache, May 6th
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4. BLOOD INCANTATION – STARSPAWN
Death had a banner year in 2016, so maybe it’s no real surprise that death metal did also. Amongst the sea of great death metal, Denver’s envelope-pushing weirdos in Blood Incantation stood tallest, with this twisted and twisting collection of atmosphere-laden riffs, their first full-length after a strong start with last year’s Interdimensional Extinction EP. The unholy child of so many death metal greats — from Morbid Angel to Incantation to the always-underrated Timeghoul — Blood Incantation is one of the rare new bands that truly captures not only the sound of Ye Olden Days, but also, the ever elusive spirit of it. These riffs go in every direction but where you think they would, bending and spinning around, used and discarded, the whole of it a non-linear trip through Blood Incantation’s own brand of space oddity. Starspawn is not just a retread, rehashed, rewarmed homage — it’s the real deal, and it’s damn near perfect.
Released: Dark Descent, August 19th
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3. KATATONIA – THE FALL OF HEARTS
Katatonia is a band that I’ve always liked and yet one that I almost never listen to, so when an album of theirs reaches out and grabs me, it has to be because it’s better than the rest. I’ve seen this one hailed as their best ever, and I can’t argue for that either way, but it’s certainly a killer little dour sometime-metal record. In the realms of sad-metal, only Paradise Lost competes with Renkse and company, and The Fall Of Hearts is an excellent example of modern Katatonia at their strongest, all mopey melody, chiming guitars, prog-tinted rhythms, and the occasional heavy-ish riff to anchor them back to the metal of their past. I’ve virtually ignored their last few records — I hadn’t been truly hooked in since The Great Cold Distance — and it’s good to come back around to the darkness…
Released: Peaceville, May 20th
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2. FATES WARNING – THEORIES OF FLIGHT
The godfathers of prog-metal return with the best album they’ve done since Parallels, at least, maybe even earlier. After spending most of the 90s in a rut of respectable but not groundbreaking albums, and then after a ten-year hiatus, Fates Warning came back a few years ago with Darkness In A Different Light, and I’ll admit that I totally skipped that album because, by then, after all that, I guess a new Fates didn’t really elicit too much excitement. Maybe I was wrong then, or maybe they’re just right now, but Theories Of Flight changed that. It’s the most Fates Warning has felt like the classic era since … well, since the classic era, and that’s a great thing. The spark is back; the life is back; and the band is playing at full strength again.
Released: InsideOut, July 1st
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1. ANAAL NATHRAKH – THE WHOLE OF THE LAW
The generally accepted opinion around here is that the previous few Anaal Nathrakh releases were exercises in water-treading, and that’s true enough, but let’s not discount that this British duo (and guests) were always pretty damn vicious, even in their least-inspired moments. Still, when Anaal Nathrakh is firing on all cylinders, there are very very few bands who can equal their spiteful rage, and The Whole Of The Law is definitely Anaal firing on all cylinders. Between Dave Hunt’s vast and vicious array of voices and Mick Kenney’s unholy combination of carving riff and industrialized programming, the whole of Anaal’s law comes down to “Do what thou wilt if what thou wilt is to raze the ground with the most devastating of metals.”
Released: Metal Blade, October 28th
Chthe’ilist – Le Dernier Crépuscule
• Good luck pronouncing this band’s name, but really, who cares? Say it like this: AW-sum DETH MET-uhl.
Khthoniik Cerviiks – SeroLogiikal Scars (Vertex Of Dementiia)
• Zach Duvall bugged me for about six months to listen to this band, and I never got around to it — he kept saying that their mix of Voivod skronk and death metal heavy was something I’d dig. Dammit to hell, I really hate it when Zach is right.
Flotsam And Jetsam – Flotsam And Jetsam
• The perennial underdogs of American thrash classics return with an album that no one expected to be good, and damned if it wasn’t just exactly that. Finally.
AWESOME EPS: TOP 5 (IN NO ORDER):
Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust
• One of death metal’s greatest returns with a single-song, thirty-six-minute offering, and like all things Gorguts, it’s metilculously sculpted, perfectly crafted, and just utterly brilliant. Easily one of the year’s most ambitious and successful recordings…
Voivod – Post-Society
• Voivod does no wrong, so it’s little surprise that this EP is absolutely stellar. Four Voivod rippers and a cover of Hawkwind‘s “Silver Machine”… One of my regrets of 2016 is that I had the chance — and a ticket, even — to see them with Vektor at a small club in Kentucky, but real life got in the way and I had to skip it. Oh, well… Next time.
Pyrrhon – Running Out Of Skin
• Brooklyn’s avant-garde noisemakers dropped the sequel to the all-aces Growth Without End EP here, and it’s yet another swirling morass of (what sometimes is and sometimes just seems to be) free-associated riff and scream. With one actual song, two experimental madnesses, and a killer cover of Death‘s “Crystal Mountain,” Skin isn’t entirely accessible, but yet, it’s always interesting. Pyrrhon, pronounced “kick ass.”
Homewrecker – Extinction By Design
• This Ohio hardcore band has always been rock solid, with thrashing riff and swaggering groove to spare, but their bashing benefits a bit from the shorter format. Get in, knock a few heads, get out: That’s the name of the game here.
Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Arc
• The first in a proposed series of solo EPs from each member, Arc is all Kat Katz and Scott Hull, and it sounds nothing at all like Agoraphobic Nosebleed. But the unexpected shift from cyber-grind to sludge is transcended by the raw emotion in these tunes, all inspired by the decline and ultimate death of Katz’ mother, and buoyed with some solid riffing from the ever-dependable Hull. Outside the ANb box, for sure, but still damned good.
AWESOME NON-METAL: TOP 5 (IN NO ORDER):
David Bowie – Blackstar
• If I had to put into words what David Bowie means to me… well, I probably couldn’t. Only one band’s music means more to me than that of Bowie, so to lose him this year was absolutely painful, and my only consolation was that he went out on his own terms, relatively quietly, and leaving us with a parting shot that is without any doubt a work of artistic brilliance. But then again, I would expect no less. I will miss him. I do miss him.
Anderson / Stolt – Invention Of Knowledge
• I’ve been a prog fan for nearly thirty years now, but I’ll admit that I’d strayed away. This album brought me back, in full force. The combination of Yes master Jon Anderson and Flower King king Roine Stolt is simply godly, the perfect match-up, and it captures the spirit of classic Yes alongside some absolutely beautiful arrangements. Prog dominated my listening for six months, and this is why. Perfection.
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
• Opening his version of his own rock hit, Kristofferson once proclaimed something to the effect of, “Well, if it sounds like country music, that’s ’cause it is.” And Sturgill Simpson almost embodied that pure country ethos… at least until this record, and I guess this one’s still country, maybe. Hell, I don’t really know, and I really don’t care. I do know that it’s not the radio-ready treacle Nashville churns out daily, and it’s not your grandmother’s countrypolitan, but I think it’s still country, dammit, and it still rules. Horns, maudlin Nirvana covers, funky beats… It’s all here, and it’s all honest, and that’s really all that matters.
The Cult – Hidden City
• After the weakness of Born Into This, The Cult came blasting back strong with Choice Of Weapon a few years back, and though I don’t think Hidden City is quite as good as that earlier effort, it’s nevertheless a damn fine record from one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll bands around. While the primal beat of “Dark Energy” is prime Cult, Hidden City succeeds on the strength of its moodier numbers like “Bird Of Paradise” or “Deeply Ordered Chaos,” proving that the goths-turned-arena-rockers still have their penchant for the quasi-mystical.
Marillion – FEAR (Fuck Everyone And Run)
• Concurrent with my mid-year total re-immersion into prog rock nerdery, I finally got into this band, the cultest of cult bands within the prog world, and arguably the nerdiest of the nerdy. A huge part of my summer was spent listening to Marillion in all their incarnations, catching me up just in time for this album to drop in September. Mostly comprised of three multi-part suites, FEAR marries the bands’ trademark lite-prog arrangements to a range of subjects, from the political to the personal, and it all results in the likely the best Marillion album of the new millennium.
The American People – Election 2016
• Seriously. No one ever went broke underestimating us, and not to get too political, but we really pulled a full-on face-palm this time, didn’t we?
ETERNAL THANKS AND GOODBYE TO:
Four of the greatest to ever walk this Earth, whose influence on me and countless others can never be overstated:
Also, final hails to:
Dale “Buffin” Griffin.
Keith Emerson and Greg Lake.
Sir George Martin.
• • • • •
Today marks my ninth year with Last Rites. I was a long-time reader first; I came here to read about metal, and I stayed here for a reason. I can only hope that my reason is the same reason that you’re here now: Because at Last Rites, we write about metal from the perspective of the fans, because we all are, first and foremost, fans. I love heavy metal as much now as I did then, as much as I ever have. Thanks to all my fellow writers and staff members, past and present, and eternal thanks to each and every one of you who read any or all of the things we do — you are us and we are you, and that’s what’s amazing about metal. Hails to all of you. May we raise a drink together one day.