Year-in-Review: 2016 Metal

Alright, since the Oscars are done, and 2017 is well on its way, there’s not a better time to look back into the metal releases from 2016. In these clickbaity times, it really is cathartic to reflect on and respect the music and musicians that still blaze upon the untrodden path, and from time to time, provide solace. To be honest, metal in 2016 didn’t really parallel much of the world’s affairs where the motifs seemed to revolve around “wild-swinging extremes” (not to mention the climate either). On the flip side, most of the releases seemed to be more measured and gradual in their appeal. Don’t get me wrong, there were some excellent records put out this year - it was actually quite the delight to let these slow-burners grow on you. Without further ado, here are my top fifteen metal albums from last year with two-to-three García-Marquez-style sentences (only in length, not in substance) that detail my thoughts. Click on the album cover for YouTube links:

15. Subrosa - For This We Fought the Battle of the Ages

Potential production issues notwithstanding, Subrosa, I think, have managed to rival More Constant than Gods with this release, where they still employ droning riffs, sullen melodies, and hypnotic vocals to lure you into their premise, but have really amped their game when it comes to maximizing the catchiness-to-bizarre ratio, making sure that their haunting themes latch on, and in a cohesive manner that makes each song on the album familiar, yet distant. It’s still an exhausting record to listen to, violins and all, like all of their previous releases, but the depth of this album combined with its tenacity to get stuck in your head, definitely makes this one of the better albums of 2016.

14. Fuath - I

For me, the debut album from these Glaswegian black metallers is the answer to 2015’s Luwte by Fluisteraas, when it comes to the forward march of (non-hackneyed) atmospheric black metal, especially in an arena where one can potentially default into saying “Burzum (or Drudkh) already did that”. Fuath manage to hit the right balance between melodic, tremolo-picked throwbacks to Satyricon’s Mother North or Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Wolves in the Throne Room/Ash-Borer-lite Cascadian black metal and still sound fresh.

13. Aborted - Retrogore

This effort from Aborted is quite the enthralling death metal affair right here, replete with campy samples, relentless throwdowns, unabating double-bass, and sickening vocals. Marginally, Divine Impediment, shines through as the song of the album, with its shimmering Mortal-Kombatesque intro and subsequent sludgy slowdown that is par for the course for most of the album. 

12. Necromancing the Stone - Jewel of the Vile

Who’d have thought that band members from (the admittedly lackluster) Black Dahlia Murder, Arsis, and The Absence could join forces to put out an incredibly catchy, strictly-heavy-metal record that is filled with riffs that simply rock out. There are obvious hooks that salute Mercyful Fate and King Diamond but are done so in a manner that is not contrived nor derivative. Jewel of the Vile is retro-metal done right! 

11. Fallujah - Dreamless

Dreamless is easily the best effort from these San Franciscan death metallers that everyone loves to hate (hey, I even enjoy Deafheavan - come at me!). An incredibly memorable album with songwriting that doesn’t curb on emotion for the sake of technicality, Dreamless, is a natural progression. The propensity of songs to follow similar structures is certainly a detraction, but Dreamless in its entirety, which clocks in a little under an hour, keeps you engaged with riff after riff of relentless neoclassical-infused technical death metal that refuses to wholly conform to anything you’ve heard.

10. Spiritual Beggars - Sunrise to Sundown

Despite being an old Spiritual Beggars fanboy from their early days, I still scrutinize every release with a fine comb, but when it comes to Sunrise to Sundown, there’s not much you can go wrong with here! I cannot really describe it more than a smashing hard rock album from 1974: face-melting solos (courtesy Michael Amott), anthemic passages, groovy basslines, a flawless Hammond sound, and surprisingly poignant lyrics. Recommended!

09. Gygax - Critical Hits

Speaking of the 70s, here’s an out-of-nowhere album that shot to my top ten after only a couple of listens. Gygax, named after the Dungeons and Dragons’ creator, are also firmly entrenched in analog hard rock from the 70s that stand as a tribute to Thin Lizzy and Deep Purple with acceptable flares of power metal here and there. 

08. Kvelertak - Natteseferd

I really like this direction that Kvelertak’s taking: a summery trajectory tinged with nostalgia, full of audaciously catchy heavy metal riffs, sludgy guitars tones, and raspy vocals. The strict connections to black metal get thinner and thinner as they progress, but Natteseferd sees Kvelertak not particularly caring about this aspect and quite simply rock out without many worries - highly entertaining!

07. Inter Arma - Paradise Gallows

I remember seeing Inter Arma around ~7 years ago when they were still a fledgling band, but even back then, I thought to myself that, surely, these guys are going somewhere! Two full-lengths and a pummeling number of riffs later, Inter Arma’s Paradise Gallows seems to be their finest offering yet in my ears, where they effortlessly infuse Altar of Madness like chaos with sharp, cutting riffs reminiscent of Deathspell Omega at their most polished, all the while wrapped in a blanket of warm sludge from the tutelage of Neurosis

06. Khemmis - Hunted

I think KhemmisHunted is one of the most massive and advanced traditional doom metal albums put out since Ancestor’s Of Sound Mind and Hunted easily rivals that one too! This is the sound of ’traditional’ doom metal marching onwards and upwards into the modern era. Mammoth riffs, rising vocals, plaintive leads, and a slow, dirgelike drumming to make your heart soar: a masterclass in doom metal execution.

05. Cobalt - Slow Forever

Despite its seemingly conservative blueprint, black metal undoubtedly remains one of the most progressive of metal subgenres, constantly evolving and enmeshing diverse genres, although this generally happens under the constant gaze of the genre’s roots. Cobalt’s Slow Forever is a resounding success of such progression, bringing in a wide array of musical styles to a fundamental black metal template that portrays an atmosphere of absolute grit with a backdrop of Americana influences. To my ears, this is the rust belt’s black metal album - seeing Cobalt in summer last year was a highlight! 

04. Graves at Sea - The Curse That Is

The Curse That Is by the monolithic Graves at Sea, their debut full-length despite being around since 2003, is an album that is polished, well-produced, measured, and structured, and at the same time is simply filthy. Graves at Sea tread a dark corner of doom metal that is sordid and unreservedly caustic, offering abrasive, repetitive slabs of sludge-riff after sludge-riff where the songs twist and turn menacingly with a wall of sound caked with grime. Graves at Sea fill that void that was left by Kowloon Walled City (left by Iron Money (left by Electric Wizard (ad infinitum… 

03. Revocation - Great is Our Sin

The technical death metal addict in me couldn’t keep away from this latest Revocation album. Although it certainly isn’t the raison d’être of complex death metal, Great is Our Sin has some precise, cutting-edge, and extremely catchy metal on display that isn’t afraid to flex its technical muscle. There are elements of Warp Zone era Martyr, Anata, Spawn of Possession, and Capharnaum, fused with melodic and thrashy segments that remind me of early Megadeth or Nevermore albums, which together, make for an intricately-woven, tight package that is immensely enjoyable and memorable.

02. Inquisition - Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith

On and on, the Inquisition machine simply stomps forward obliterating anything and everything that comes in its path. Bloodshed... is their latest effort and after several listens, I think this might well be Inquisition’s finest effort to date and my favorite album of theirs, even surpassing the enormous Ominous Doctrines. For Bloodshed, Inquisition has focused all their ritualistic fury and dole it out through sharper structures, more jagged riffing, and slightly longer songs with plenty of room to breathe. No other band has that unmistakeable otherworldliness that shrouds Inquisition’s occult sound, which to be fair, encompasses a wide range of influences, incorporating classical notes, doom metal pacing, bizarre melodies, and scorchingly fast tremolo picking. Where do they go next? 

01. Vektor - Terminal Redux

A space opera written in the language of technical thrash? Shut up and take my money! From the album cover to the lyrics to the production, and ultimately to the riffs, Vektor has really outdone themselves where Terminal Redux simply quells all notions that the revival of thrash metal never materialized. There’s not one dull moment to be had here as soon as you buy what Vektor is selling: a complex, sci-fi concept album that borrows generously from many, many genres but at its root, is unabashed thrash metal across its spectrum: from its most frenetic to its most languid. Of course, Voivod, Coroner, and Watchtower come to mind as previous practitioners, but I don’t really know if any of those bands have taken up a project this ambitious in its scope (Collapse is a ballad for crying out loud!) I’d be hard pressed to believe that any heavy metal listener would not find something that he or she resonates with on a complete listen of Terminal Redux. For me, it gets better with every spin.