End of the year, ladies and gentlemen. The time when lists flow like liquor at an office party, where the online community comes together as one gargantuan digital animal to do what it does best: nitpick, subtweet, and throw so many accusations of pandering, overrated and “hipster” picks that come December 31st we’ll all be sick and tired and never want to do this shit again.
Until next year, of course. When we’ll do it all over again.
At least I will. And I’ll do it with pleasure, because at the heart of it building a list is more than an opportunity to share music with you. It’s a chance to engage, to have a dialog with each other and share something of ourselves. The end result should be more than coming away with a couple new bands and albums to check out (although that’s always great). It should let us come away with a better understanding of ourselves, and how we relate to each other. I get it: the Internet’s a big place, and we want to be heard. But sometimes we get so stuck on shouting to raise our voice over the din, to ensure what we think is “best” (whatever that means) gets noticed, we forget all we’re really doing is just talking about ourselves. Because make no mistake: when you or I or anyone says “This is the best of the year,” what we’re really saying is “This is what matters to me. This is a representation of my self.”
So in that spirit, consider this a representation of what mattered to me in 2016. If we’re defined by the art we consume, this is the flesh that sustained me.
Let’s dig in.
The Outer Circle
Demos, EPs, and Honorable Mentions
Arrebol – Arrebol: One man black metal outfit out of Seville, Spain emphasizing melody and melancholy wrapped in the warm gauze of blackgaze. Think early Alcest with less of the Cure influence. Listen here.
Brunt – Blackbeard: Instrumental doom served up with a side order of massive groove. It swings like the pendulum arms of some towering creature intent on smashing your town and eating all your barbecue. Listen here.
Cadaveric Fumes – Dimensions Obscure: French death metal gets technical without being too progressive or wanky for its own good. Fast, angular riffs merge with atmosphere to produce a sweet mini LP that never gets tired. Listen here.
Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner: I’ll just reiterate what was said in our review of the record in April – this feels like the culmination of everything Cult of Luna has done, and is an artistic high point for metal in general. Listen here.
Dead Wretch – fuck it: Is it a joke? A side-project from Void Ritual’s Dan Jackson? It’s both, but it’s also ridiculously brutal, faster than fast, and completely on point skewering tired metal tropes and singing the praises of early Witchery. Listen here.
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation: So long, old friends. You saved your best for last, in my humble opinion. Listen here.
Gatecreeper – Sonoran Depravation: Nothing to see here, folks. Just pitch perfect death metal from the school of Entombed and Dismember with enough groove to keep your head thrashing. Now to dig out my old HM2… Read it here. Listen here.
Ihsahn – Arktis: I can’t believe this isn’t on my main list. The former Emperor frontman fires on all cylinders here, taking the left turn previous album Das Seelenbrechen made and straightening the path without sacrificing the experimentation. Read it here. Listen here.
In Mourning – Afterglow: This satisfies my craving for Still Life era Opeth without sounding like a complete clone. Progressive and heavy and and top notch production make for a consistently great listen. Read it here. Listen here.
InnerWish – InnerWish: I have very particular tastes when it comes to power metal, and Greek metal masters InnerWish fulfill them all. Heavy guitars, great solos, and vocals that have some grit but still soar when needed. Listen here.
Latitudes – Old Sunlight: Beautiful and haunting post-metal that hangs between breaths, resolving into some gorgeous atmosphere that recalls Isis and The Ocean in the rise and falls of each song’s mood and tone. Read it here. Listen here.
Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä: Another one I can’t believe isn’t on the main list. Liberally infusing its black metal core with jazz, psychedelia and classical music, Värähtelijä only gets more complex and inescapable upon repeated listens. Read it here. Listen here.
Polyptych – Defying the Metastasis: My death metal pick of the year. Echoing our review earlier this year, Polyptych is “technical, forward-thinking death metal that is not short on brutal riffs, unorthodox songwriting, and an inventiveness that establishes them as a distinct voice in a very crowded (but excellent) scene.” Listen here.
Sarastus – II-Torinen Tuleminen: Someone has to carry the torch for traditional black metal, and this Finnish duo carry it nicely. There’s a little thrash influence mixed in but this is cold, buzzing black metal at its finest. Listen here.
Sivyj Yar – The Unmourned Past: Hands down one of my favorite releases this year. Two tracks of atmospheric, melodic black metal that isn’t afraid to travel different roads. Read it here. Listen here.
Slaves BC – All Is Dust And I Am Nothing: Lyrically my favorite album of the year. Brutal, pummeling hardcore that bludgeons the listener into submission. The drumming on “God Has Turned His Back on Us” alone is worth the price of admission. Listen here.
Twilight Fauna – Fire of the Serpent: If there’s a more personal album out this year I don’t know it. Each new listen of this avant-garde folk appalachian black metal opus reveals new layers and dimensions. Essential. Listen here.
Vektor – Terminal Redux: Technical death metal heavily inspired by Chuck Schuldiner and Death blasts off with a superb record that has so many ideas (eh, maybe too many) you’ll black out counting them. Listen here.
Wode – Wode: The self titled debut from UK black metal band Wode was an early favorite for me in 2016, and subsequent spins haven’t quelled the fervor. This is aggressive, angry black metal that easily moves from traditional to modern and back again. Read it here. Listen here.
The Inner Circle
My Top 25 Albums of 2016
25. Earth Moves – The Truth in Our Bodies: I only got turned on to this album a few weeks ago, but the first spin punched me in the gut, and each repeated listen hasn’t lessened the impact. Earth Moves takes the best parts of Deafheaven and mixes in a sweeping melancholy. The songs are wrapped in a beautifully spare production where every instrument lives in its own air. Equal parts heartbreaking and ethereal without sacrificing any of the passion of a truly great debut.
24. SubRosa – For This We Fought the Battle of Ages: SubRosa have always been a band I respected and appreciated more than liked. More Constant Than the Gods started the slow spin in my awakening back in 2013, and For This We Fought the Battle of Ages doubles down on everything that made that album great – delicate doom accentuated by violins and other classical touches, harrowing and thoughtful lyrics, a mix that lets every nuance and dynamic in the songs stand out, and a powerhouse performance by vocalist Rebecca Vernon. Haunting and beautiful, my eyes have been opened to what the fuss was about. Read it here.
23. Ash Borer – The Irrepassable Gate: Another late entry that left me gasping for air afterwards. Following the sinister and oppressive coldness of 2012’s Cold of Ages I was expecting something similar with the new album, but The Irreparable Gate takes a different (left hand) path, putting the emphasis on more dynamics and melody amidst the maelstrom. You can check out my full review here.
22. In The Woods… – Pure: 17 years after their last album the masters of dark sorrowful metal come back and knock it out of the park. Having mastered their mix of doom and gothic black metal back on 1997’s Omnio In The Woods… put all the focus on the songwriting, making everything more accessible but still showing the inventiveness and darker shadings that made them a force of avant-garde metal back in the day.
21. Cobalt – Slow Forever: It felt like we were all waiting forever for the follow-up to Gin. Did anyone expect the mammoth dose of menace and Americana-tinged black metal that is Slow Forever? From the opening notes of “Hunt the Buffalo” to the anguish wails of Charlie Fell from Lord Mantis, everything is amped up and taken to the next level. Fell’s vocals perfectly capture the turbulence of the songs, and main man Erik Wunder ferociously expands the band’s palette to incorporate more slow, progressive parts that only make the music sound heavier, a fossilized scream of pain from the past. Read it here.
20. Brain Tentacles – Brain Tentacles: It’s difficult to get past the obvious “John Zorn’s Naked City meets Mr. Bungle” comparison, but that doesn’t speak to the more methodical approach to composition the trio of Bruce Lamont (Yakuza), Dave Witte (everything awesome), and Aaron Dallison (Keelhaul) bring to the songs here. In fact, there’s a playfulness that reminds me of Keelhaul’s great Keelhaul’s Triumphant Return to Obscurity. Tracks like “Fruitcake” and “Gassed” have a sense of exploration that is not only refreshing but a blast to play at an incredibly loud volume. Read it here.
19. Asunojokei – A Bird in the Fault: Atmospheric blackgaze mixed with post-metal and doom and some hardcore and… ah, forget it, it’s just fantastic. Hailing from Japan where jumping in and out of genres is second nature, Asunojokei effortlessly mix styles while keeping a tenuous foot rooted in black metal. There are moments of crushing doom between deceptively shimmering passages that invite comparisons to fellow countryfolk Envy. Meditative interludes break into howls of insanity and yet somehow A Bird in the Fault never lose the capacity for beauty and passion. Listening now I don’t know why it’s not higher on my list…
18. Goes Cube – Shadows Swallowed the Flood: The first time I heard “Bluest Sky” from Goes Cube’s debut LP Another Day Has Passed I knew what it meant to have a song speak directly to something primal in me. And now along comes their swan song, and the first time I heard opener “Ignore the Stranger” I felt it again. Goes Cube tread a line that Ben over at Black Metal & Brews nailed in his review: “It’s human and present and is clearly the work of musicians challenging themselves as they work harmony and aggression into something cohesive.” I can’t say it any better than that, and I don’t need to. I only need to listen to songs like “Strawmen” and “The Stand” over and over again.
17. Alcest – Kodama: I can’t pretend to be objective when it comes to a new Alcest record. Souvernirs d’un autre monde is my favorite metal record of the last 10 years, and each new release brought something different to mastermind Neige’s style of Slowdive-inspired blackgaze. Kodama rights the boat after straying too far away from the band’s metal roots on 2014’s Shelter, and tracks like “Éclosion” bring back the harsh vocals while maintaining the sense of natural expression that has been a trademark of every album. Nuanced, varied, awash in reverb and echo, Kodama is a welcome return to form.
16. Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts: You can hear the change seconds into “Takeover,” the opening track from Katatonia’s latest opus. This is a band revitalized. Maybe it took the fresh blood of Roger Öjersson on guitar and Daniel Moilanen on drums to open up a sound that had strayed to tired consistency and reinvigorate the formula. The percussion break on “Takeover” signals a clear embracing of a more progressive approach to the Katatonia formula, and Jonas Renkse’s vocals have never sounded better: there’s a looseness and freedom that only makes his singular voice stronger. This is the best Katatonia album in a decade, and that’s saying something. Read it here.
15. Oceans of Slumber – Winter: Falling somewhere in the progressive/hard rock vein occupied by bands like Royal Thunder, Oceans of Slumber plumb the depths of bluesy, doom-infused rock with a killer voice thanks to Cammie Gilbert, who makes for a towering presence leading the band. When they go the progressive route, it’s always in service to the song, showing a discipline and restraint that echoes classics like The Gathering’s Mandylion. When you can pull off a stellar cover of The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” you have me no questions asked. Read it here.
14. Anciients – Voice of the Void: Anciients fill the hole in my heart that was made when Mastodon took off for the more mainstream pastures of The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun. Heeding multiple genre calls (all of them heavy as shit) Voice of the Void shows the Vancouver band spreading their wings on extended jams like “Buried in Sand” and the steller “Ibex Eye” which highlights just how structured Anciients can be without sounding like the songs were created in a lab. Seething with ideas, this is a massive achievement from a band only on their second album. Can’t wait to see what’s next. Read it here.
13. The Great Cold – The Great Cold: More people need to embrace The Great Cold. Metal is a niche enough market as it is, but it would be a shame for something like this to get lost in another forgotten corner of the musical landscape. Instrumental black/post-metal that slowly shifts and undulates from one idea to the next, The Great Cold is the very definition of a “headphones” record. It’s one of the albums I used to lose myself this year, and it continues to be one of the best records to let wash over you since ISIS was still putting out music.
12. Lotus Thief – Gramayre: I would say the world could use more mystical space-rock doom, but thankfully the universe has provided us with Lotus Thief. Featuring the primary drivers behind the nature-driven black metal of Botanist, Lotus Thief slow things down, opting for a post-metal sound that evokes the ambiance and shifting moods of 70s art rock without devolving into spiritual and instrumental excess. Taking as their inspiration various ancient texts such as Homer’s Odyssey and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, it’s an album that is constantly unfolding, unveiling new delights with each listen.
11. Anicon – Exegeses: How is a band featuring members of Krallice and Yellow Eyes not going to make my list? Nevermind the fact I share a surname with one of the founding members (not related, don’t even know the dude) Anicon was the first band since Darkthrone I listened to and said, “I want to make music like that.” Exegeses, their debut LP after two stellar EPs is bursting with incredible riffs that show how far US black metal has come in the last few years, incorporating a plethora of ideas that take flight in songs like opening track “Toil and Mockery” and “Hallucinating Fate.” If it wasn’t for one more album on my list, this would be my black metal album of the year. Listening to it now as I write this, I wonder if I need to change the order. Read it here.
10. Aluk Todolo – Voix: The best review I’ve read of Aluk Todolo’s massive achievement Voix comes from a random user on the album’s Bandcamp page, who says, “Imagine if Pink Floyd listened to some black metal before recording “Live in Pompei” and then decided to make it an instrumental album.” By limiting the information to just the music (the song names are simply the length of each song) this French trio puts everything on the notes, which slide in and out of time signatures like shadows. The easy comparison is to Oranssi Pazuzu (which is why I’m making it) with the jazz and psychedelic elements, but there’s something primal about Voix and the way it plays with dynamics that keep bringing me back, happy to get lost in its dark folds again and again.
9. Hammers of Misfortune – Dead Revolution: If anyone asks why I put Hammers of Misfortune so high on my list, I’ll direct them to “Here Comes the Sky,” the fifth track on Dead Revolution. John Cabbett & co. have shown time and again you can’t pigeonhole them, and nowhere does the emphasis the band places of 70s prog as a touchstone shine more than in the King Crimson meets ’66 era Beatles vibe that permeate every fiber of this song. It’s one of my favorite tracks of 2016, and it’s surrounded by songs that revel in each turn of phrase and mood. The keyboards on the title track signal the rush of blood to my head whenever I listen to it, a clarion call to an outstanding album.
8. Schammasch – Triangle: Does Schammasch translate to “ambitious” if you ask Siri? Over 100 minutes of modern, progressive black metal divided across three discs, each a separate movement comprising a larger theme: a meditation on the human condition, focusing on the pain and loss of death. There’s a similarity in scope and execution to previously mentioned bands like Aluk Todolo and Oranssi Pazuzu in how the music is constantly shifting, incorporating so many elements from metal and classical music yet retaining a cohesion that instantly identifies this as black metal. It’s a commitment to get through the entire thing, but then so is the pain and loss of life and death, no? Scope, ambition, execution…everything comes together to make Triangle the best black metal release of 2016. Read it here.
7. Astronoid – Air: With so much emphasis on dark, depressing music this year, it’s nice to shift gears a bit and talk about the happiest album of 2016 for me. I don’t mean lyrically: you don’t have song titles like “Violence,” “Homesick” and “Trail of Sulfur” and get to wear the happy hat. But the music Astronoid makes – a combination of death metal technicality a la Death and blackgaze, emo, even pop – sticks right in my heart. Soaring harmonized vocals, shimmering guitars and major chords are still metal, man. And when it all comes together in a song like “Tin Foil Hats” I can’t help but beam and turn the volume up.
6. 40 Watt Sun – Wider Than the Sky: 40 Watt Sun is the sound of sorrow and solace. It’s where you find grace in regret, and in the best pieces of Wider Than the Sky (“Stages,” “Pictures”) everything comes together with Patrick Walker’s stunning voice perfectly complementing his plaintive chords. Things are a little less dour than previous LP The Inside Room, where the tone was perhaps a little too even from song to song, inviting a feel of claustrophobia. Wider Than the Sky provides a glimmer of hope, the mix opened up to let the rest of the band stand out more. Which is fantastic, as Wider Than the Sky makes it even more evident how essential the contributions of William Spong (bass) and Christian Leitch (drums) are. It may not be metal, but it’s my pick for the most beautiful record of 2016.
5. Opeth – Sorceress: Here’s my dirty little secret about Opeth — I love the new direction. LOVE IT. Opeth took their singular brand of progressive death metal as far as it would go on Ghost Reveries, which stands as one of one of my favorite metal albums of all time. Say what you will of Watershed: it was dipping a toe into the waters rather than the reinvention that would come a few years later, and it’s telling that the best tracks on that album really dive into the moods and tones they seemed to have nailed with Sorceress. With the sinister moog riff on the title track and stunners like “Chrysalis” and “Strange Brew” Åkerfeldt & co. have found the heaviness in the songwriting they lost when they dropped the overt death metal elements. It’s telling when my favorite track off the album keeps changing (it’s currently “A Fleeting Glance”); for the first time since Ghost Reveries I can listen to an Opeth album from beginning to end and not get tired or bored. I await the inevitable shift to country a few more records down the road. In the meantime I’m thrilled to have albums like Sorceress for another decade. Listen here.
4. Metallica – Hardwired…to Self Destruct: Talk about synergy…I just happened to have written about what Metallica means to me and how Hardwired…to Self Destruct is the best album from the band in ages. It’s a further refinement on the process of self discovery they started with Death Magnetic, only here it’s evident how much fun they’re having ticking off their influences in riff after riff after riff. Everyone is playing at their best here: Kirk Hammett sounds like a new man, incorporating new tricks into his signature wha-heavy solos; Robert Trujillo’s bass expertise is (rightfully) further up in the mix; James Hetfield found the middle ground between the tuneless roar of the early albums and the too-whiny singing of the later ones, and is on fire with great performances all around. And Lars? I never had the hate for him others have, and here he is completely on point, his unique style of playing holding everything together but never relegated to the back of the line. “Atlas, Rise!” might be the best song they’ve done in years — in fact the entire first disc is a powerhouse. Things swing a little more on the second disc but the strength of the whole does more to remind me of what made me love metal in the first place than anything else on this list. Period. Listen here.
3. Zeal and Ardor – Devil is Fine: Where do you begin with this seemingly random concoction of black metal, spiritual hymns, delta blues and hip-hop? If you’re like me, you start at the beginning, work your way through, then immediately go back and do it all over again. Everything works toward the lyrical themes of history and oppression, upending Christianity and singing the praises of ol’ Scratch himself. What becomes immediately apparent listening through is how disparate all the parts are, and how fragile are the strands holding them in place. But they are held in place: the point is in seeing the recklessness and fragility and viewing the whole through the shakes and trembles of the architecture. I don’t know how much mileage Zeal and Ardor can get out of this idea, but it won’t matter when we have something as beautifully violent as Devil is Fine. Read it here. Listen here.
2. Fates Warning – Theories of Flight: Another dirty little secret: I prefer Ray Alder to John Arch when it comes to my Fates Warning. I love me some Awaken the Guardian, but I’ll take Perfect Symmetry over it any day of the week. And for my money, Theories of Flight is the best Fates Warning album since that one. After 2000’s okay Disconnected and 2004’s frankly disappointing FWX some serious course correction was needed, and just like my #4 pick Fates Warning refine and improve everything that was started on 2013’s Darkness in a Different Light and they sound like a band on fire. Opener “From the Rooftops” imbues the classic progressive sounds from Perfect Symmetry with the more mainstream leanings that came to the fore on later albums. Then that odd-time guitar riff slowly fades in and the goosebumps start to rise on my flesh. And Ray Alder is a revelation again, finding a new maturity in his incredible pipes as he pierces with “There’s nothing that time can’t end.” The same thing happens in the chorus to “The Light and Shade of Things” when he exclaims “You’re nowhere now” – when they’re on point no one can touch Fates Warning for stirring emotion. And having now fully recalled how to rock out they are back to being the force they deserved to be for the last 30 years. Listen here.
1. Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder: Over 5,000 words ago I talked about lists as a tool to examine ourselves, to understand not only what we like, but why we like it, and what that says about us. Getting down to the end of this thing, I can begin to see an over arching theme to what I loved about metal in 2016, and what that says about my own life. It’s finding yourself. It’s remembering who you are after being lost and finding a path forward that is yours. Listening back over the course of building this list so many of the bands and albums have taken a similar road: facing and reconnecting with the past, to embrace what was — whether cherished or reviled — and reclaim it.
Darkthrone have spent their entire discography boldly acknowledging, shaping, and mutating the influences that drove them to make music, and we’ve reaped the benefits. Arctic Thunder either puts a final coda on the period that began with The Cult is Alive or signals another shift in direction, albeit one that sees them resurrecting the grimmer aspects of their catalog. “Tundra Leach” crashes out of the gate with a vicious and dirty riff, modulating up before resolving into a dirge-like tremolo picked melody, Nocturnal Culto’s rasp stabbing into the cold. His voice ties the entire album together as it launches into Celtic Frost and Bathory worship, but like everything else they’ve done it’s never just that: along the way Arctic Thunder touches on punk, thrash, and 70s proto metal. The 1-2 punch of “Burial Bliss” and “Boreal Fiends” rage and doom in equal measure, and the title track punches you squarely in the face with its stomping riff.
By willfully embracing everything they’ve done for almost 25 years, Arctic Thunder feels like a summation, the long and winding conversation you’ve always wanted to heave with Fenriz, a cooler full of beer and a warm fire in the middle of the woods lighting the conversation about how the past is constantly captured in the present. Darkthrone was the band that made me think I could sit down with a guitar and create something I could share that was uniquely me. They’re the band that taught me more about the history of extreme metal than almost anyone else. And they’re the band that most closely echoes the path I’ve been walking these last few years as I try to reacquaint myself with the things that made me who I am.
Which is why for so many reasons they hold the spot for the best metal album of 2016. Preview here.