Nicholas Franco's Top 25 of 2016
Music is a drug, some say. I would go a bit farther and suggest that music is the drug. Its promises are real, its delights limited only by the battery life in our phones, the electricity to our turntables, and whether or not we left the house with the jacket that has our ear buds in it. And just as electricity is needed to power our devices, the music they jettison into our brains sparks our emotions and, frankly, just gives us something to lean on. Like that loyal pet, music is there for us even when the people in our lives won't or can't be; whether we are feeling elation, sorrow, madness, joy, or desire, there's a song or an album that will help us cope.
But what makes some albums stand out from all the rest? The ones we will never forget, whose configurations of sound beat with the tempo of our own hearts; what is it that they possess? You know the albums – the ones that you pluck from among the thousands saturating the disparate scenes of our chosen heavy metal creed. They are the ones that drag us out into the light of another tomorrow, holding our doubts and fears and anxiety in abeyance; they're the ones that help us be.
Well, loyal readers, the fall of another year is upon us, and our prescription for that beautiful aural opiate needs to be refilled. Good thing, because the doctor is in and she's got her pad and pen handy. She feels your fever and she's writing you a scrip for some icy Scandinavian black metal to bring down that temperature. Got a little seasonal depression? Take four epic Norse sagas and call her in the morning. What's that? Still can't get out of bed? Drink this scorching concoction of blackened thrash from down under and put on some freakin' clothes! Whatever ails you my friends, there's something here for everyone.
Below you'll find 25 prescriptions for various ailments, but take heed. Side effects may include feelings of euphoria, a slightly higher tolerance for life's bullshit, some goddamn inner peace, a mostly empty wallet, heaps of black t-shirts, and soreness in the neck region. Enjoy responsibly.
25. In the Woods – Pure
(Debemur Morti Productions)
Dreamlike and meandering, you'll get lost in the arms of Pure, the fourth studio album by In The Woods, where riffs and the beautiful clean register of vocalist James Fogarty create an expansive listen that lulls and soothes even as it pours on the moody heaviness. 16 years between releases is a long time to wait, but these Norwegians delivered an album bursting with the spirit they conjured 'back in the day.'
24. Nervosa – Agony
Tighter than a pair of skinny jeans on a chubby dude, these ladies of thrash metal return with their sophomore effort Agony. We've been down this highway before, but Nervosa do it so well and so goddamn convincingly, their songs are impossible not to lose your mind to, particularly if you like the blade-sharp, extreme thrash of vintage Slayer, Razor, and Violator. Thrash on!
23. Moonsorrow – Jumalten Aika
(Century Media Records)
A Moonsorrow album is the sonic equivalent of the great sagas of old; brought to life in a way that is unique to this veteran Finnish pagan metal horde. Each massive strike of the floor tom is the boom of spear butts on the heaving decks of long-ships. The keys soak into the mix like blood upon the haft of the swinging ax. Adroitly creating another massive tome in their growing canon, the boys from Helsinki incorporate more folk elements along with some savage black metal blasts on Jumalten Aika, their seventh studio album. The age of gods awaits . . .
22. Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia
Its about time this band got some goddamn recognition. With Metachthonia, these maritime Canadians have melded a folk-metal heart into a blazing blackened metal soul for a listen that's as adventurous as power metal and as savage as the autumn winds off the North Atlantic. At times reminiscent of some of Blind Guardian's more memorable arrangements, the melodies flowing amid double-bass drumming and majestic sing-a-long passages are guaranteed to get you moving for years to come. Without a doubt a special and essential release for 2016 from an amazing musical collective.
21. Testament – Brotherhood of the Snake
(Nuclear Blast Records)
American thrash metal is a fickle beast. Most of its elder statesmen are alive and kicking, which is a great thing. But who sits atop the heap? The reality is that Metallica will get way more attention for Hardwired To Self Destruct than Testament will for Brotherhood of the Snake. That's a damn shame, because this album is better in every way. Billy has a way better voice – one of the best in extreme metal I'd contend – Hoglan is a Jedi Knight behind the kit, Peterson/Skolnick on guitar is the thrash equivalent of Murray/Smith, and DiGorgio on bass guitar evokes shades of Burton. Now granted, this is one man's opinion, but repeated listens of Brotherhood of the Snake show a band in top gear making top notch thrash metal songs that are wiping the floor with virtually every other one of the so-called Big Four. For my money, post millennial honors for American thrash metal belong to the Big Two – Testament and Overkill.
20. Winterfylleth – The Dark Hereafter
Keep on keepin' on. Words to live by for this busy English group, as Winterfylleth bestows an album that, though a bit shorter than we're used to, nevertheless continues in a style that is one of the more singularly breathtaking advancements of the trem-picked, ice-cold majesty of Emperor albums today. Dark and dreaming contemplation on the sprawling 'Green Cathedral' stands as counterpoint to the rousing riff-storm that is 'Ensigns of Victory' and the title track. Their unique re-imagining of an Ulver classic at the end helps put this album into the upper echelon of pagan black metal releases you will hear this year.
19. Old Corpse Road – Of Campfires And Evening Mists
The atmosphere of horror is not an easy one to conjure. Delight in textures of atmosphere and eldritch tales read by firelight, bewitched by the fears of prowling ghosts and what dwells behind reality. Old Corpse Road is an avantgarde jewel from northern England, little known outside the realms of the deeper underground. If you long for the classic era of Cradle of Filth sans the commercial slickness, and enjoy your metal with a bit of storytelling and distinctly British flair, Of Campfires And Evening Mists is the perfect soundtrack to those lengthening autumn nights.
18. BAT – Wings of Chains
For dirty D-beat thrash look no further than BAT, which features Ryan Waste (Municipal Waste) behind the mic and the four-string, as well as former D.R.I. sticksman Felix Griffin and guitarist Nick Poulos (Municipal Waste, ex-Cannabis Corpse). Wings of Chains is a down-n-dirty offering of neck snapping kinetic energy, but underneath Ryan's robust bellow there is superior musicianship driving these quick, punk-length stormers forth with perfect precision. Play it loud and rev up the circle pit.
17. Hammers of Misfortune – Dead Revolution
(Metal Blade Records)
Why don't more people love this band!? It is absolutely insane to me that Hammers of Misfortune are not a bigger player in the trad metal/power metal scene. Dead Revolution doesn't deviate from previous works, but it is a tremendously energetic kick to the ass compared with their last album, 2011's 17th Street. Five years later, the songwriting is sharper, the riffs more frequent, and the result is an absolute killer album.
16. Ihsahn – Arktis
The mind of the man behind some of the most accomplished Norwegian black metal nowadays has more in common artistically with Devin Townsend and Solefald than he does with corpse-painted church burners, and that is fine by me. While there are plenty of bands playing excellent black metal, there are not too many artists daring and skilled enough to make heavy metal this zany, unpredictable, and yet, in the case of Arktis, coherent and smooth and (gasp) even pop-esque. If prior Ihsahn releases left you feeling too weirded out, Arktis rights that ship.
15. Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder
Darkthrone has done their fair share of meandering since they took life as a death metal band back in those early days. They are the godfathers of lo-fi black metal, but nevertheless you cannot predict what you will get from the indomitable duo of Fenriz and Nocturno Culto. On Arctic Thunder, its more of the black-n-roll variety of riff-heavy domination. A clutch of mean, memorable tunes done the old way, the right way, with no frills and 150% dedication.
14. Uada – Devoid of Light
From the Pacific northwest out in Oregon, USA, comes this debut album Devoid of Light from elemental black metal horde Uada. F**k me, these guys are good. Cavernous vocals, both rapacious screaming and deep otherworldly bellows, resonate among stellar songwriting and uplifting melodies. The riffs are delicious, trem-heavy, and at times remind me of NWOBHM leads from the good old days. This mix of classic metal with the fury of Cascadian darkness strikes one hell of a chord. The future is very bright for Uada.
13. Waldgeflüster – Ruinen
The spirit of melancholy, of feeling an entire universe open up within the microcosm of a forest dying into autumn, is difficult to capture on an album. Waldgeflüster, the mysterious German purveyors of atmospheric black metal grandeur, strike even deeper with Ruinen than they have with their past works (all of which are tremendous). Songs that grow like the twining roots of old oaks take hold, rushing by like swift northern summers despite their flowing length. Harsh vocals, distorted guitars, and the blackened metal medium rarely generate this much longing and beauty . . .
12. Hyperion – Seraphical Euphony
(Black Lion Productions)
It's often said, but there literally has to be something in the water in Sweden. Pine trees, Volvos, and great metal bands; the country has these things in spades. Hyperion are relatively new to the scene, and with Seraphical Euphony they've managed to pluck a little bit of Sacramentum and classic Dissection, which, when combined with their own moxie, brewed themselves up a veritable cauldron of stunningly entertaining sonic fare. Nary a weak moment to be found – one dimensional clean vocals here or there, perhaps? That aside, this album is monstrously powerful and deserving of the regard of metal fans of all walks.
11. Witherscape – The Northern Sanctuary
(Century Media Records)
Dan Swanö should be a household name to all fans of extreme metal. The Swedish virtuoso has written and produced a heap of important albums. Witherscape combines the textured atmospheres of some of the man's more progressive moments with Edge of Sanity, reaching into the realms of prog rock and death metal to offer up a slab of truly gorgeous, memorable songs. Let me repeat: songs. Each one stands alone and yet they all work together to advance the story-line of The Northern Sanctuary.
10. Behexen – The Poisonous Path
(Debemur Morti Productions)
A place of uttermost darkness and deprivation, The Poisonous Path is the fifth album by staunch Finnish satanists Behexen. It pretty much shrivels the competition within the horned one's legions here in 2016. Each song is a lesson in battery, while epic riffing and song structures that scourge like the whips of Satan himself are led by the unholy throat of Hoag Toroth. The man's performance on this record eclipses the best work by Mortuus and Attila Csihar, ensuring his place among black metal's finest clutch of vocalists. Seriously, throw on the headphones and crank this virulent platter of aural terrorism often and proudly. It scorches.
9. Borknagar – Winter Thrice
(Century Media Records)
Bringing the vocals of Simen Hestnæs (ICS Vortex) back into the fold was a much needed boost to mighty progressive pagan metallers Borknagar, who have absolutely soared anytime he is on board. Winter Thrice sees not only Vortex, but Krystoffer Rygg (Garm) returning to contribute along with long-time stalwart Vintersorg on the mic. In case that wasn't enough vocalists, add Lars Nedland aka Lazare, of Solefald fame, into the mix. The result is a soaring epic of inspired, majestic song-craft that hearkens back to the band's first clutch of albums. The musicians who comprise Borknagar are legends, but in no way are any laurels being rested upon. A varied vocal arrangement and superior songs have birthed yet another unforgettable masterpiece to their name.
8. Skuggsja – A Piece For Mind & Mirror
(Season of Mist)
Like a heavy metal Wardruna, Ivar Bjornson & Einar Selvik have treated us to an album that blends the naturalistic folk elements of Selvik's main band with the pagan metal styling present in Bjornson's Enslaved, culminating in an album that is all of these things and neither of them. Together the elements conflate into a timeless listen that reaches out and takes hold of the listener with both hands and refuses to let go.
7. Insomnium – Winter's Gate
(Century Media Records)
Seven full-lengths into the career of Insomnium, and the Finns sit at the pinnacle of the melodic death metal heap, sharing that throne with Amorphis, Dark Tranquillity, and precious few others. This 40 minute conceptual piece storms and flows and whispers before blasting again with equal parts grace and ferocity. Like the season that bears its name, Winter's Gate can be unrelenting and at times near-silent and dreaming. A tale for the long winter nights ahead, Winter's Gate is simply a stunning album crafted to perfection.
6. Stilla – Skuggflock
Mist-ridden shapes of trees in the gloaming, concealing the murky promises of Scandinavian darkness within, grace the cover of this latest full-length by Swedish elitists Stilla. Though the band is named for stillness, the seven songs gracing this marvelous release are anything but stagnant. Perfectly capturing the classically inclined strains of Nemesis Divina-era Satyricon with enunciated growls in their native tongue, each song is a carefully composed piece of art. But this sonic sword is no ceremonial dress piece. It will still slice open your chest. Clean choral passages and acoustic strumming augment but in no way mute the merciless black metal soul pulsating within Skuggflock. It is surely one of the strongest black metal albums to see the (un)light of day in years.
5. Draugnim – Vulturine
(Debemur Morti Productions)
Swelling arrangements and howling vocals blast like wind over the snow mantled graves of long ago . . . Vulturine, album number three for Espoo, Finland's Draugnim has placed their flag firmly in the burnt soil of pagan metal with blackened roots. Each song on the album reaches for and grasps the zeitgeist of transcendence from chains, of seeking redemption in isolation amid the merciless throes of Nature. The riffs and leads divine these feelings and bring them screaming forth, stirring emotion with every listen. It is impossible to play this record and remain unmoved. Truly magnificent . . .
4. Forteresse – Thèmes Pour La Rébellion
You'd think by now the traditional epic black metal penned by bands like Emperor and Darkthrone would have seen its best creations come and go. Forteresse, from Montreal, PQ in Canada is proof that this is not the case. Soaring leads, a cavernous blast of drums, and vocals to freeze the blood augment compositions graced with long headbanging sections of Dissection-esque rocking out. Unrelenting, frigid, as beautiful as it is fierce, Themes pour la Rebellion burns with an unbreakable spirit that demands the utmost respect.
3. Wode – Wode
(Broken Limbs Recordings)
Having released but one lone demo back in 2011, the entity that calls itself Wode must have spent the past five years compiling all of the awesome, packaging it up, and have now delivered said awesome to us in the form of their eponymous debut. Hailing from Manchester, England, the four-piece nearly stole the damn show this year for me. If you are a fan of the wave of Anglo-Saxon black metal that's been taking shape over the past decade and a half (Wodensthrone, Nine Covens, Winterfylleth, Altar of Plagues) then Wode is for you. If you want to give this strain of black metal a try, Wode is a great place to start.
2. Destroyer 666 – Wildfire
(Season of Mist Records)
From the moment I heard Wildfire it was evident that this was an extreme metal classic the likes of which has not been seen in decades. Boys and girls, this is the Reign In Blood of the post-2000 world. Its that good. Each song is a leather-n-spikes storm of malicious intent, and yet, lots of bands can make that happen. What most of them can't do is craft such venomous tunes to this degree of song craft and attitude, not this year and not most years. The timing, the tension, the harrowing alarm within each track calls to mind the dangerous feeling a lot of this music simply and often lacks. Bands can weave atmosphere, loneliness, isolation, sadness, and a host of other emotions into their work, but to reach out and grab the feeling that people must have had watching Motörhead in the late '70's or Slayer in '84, that is next to impossible in this day and age. The only weak moments on Wildfire are the silences between the songs.
1. Vektor – Terminal Redux
After reading what I had to say about Destroyer 666, you might find it strange that I didn't have it at number one. Trust me, this whole list wasn't easy to compile; they never are. Vektor gets the ever so slight nod over their Australian colleagues for album number three, Terminal Redux, for the sheer angular devastation of their sci-fi thrash attack. Maturing into an entity as technically profound as they are unpredictable, their Voivod meets Rush meets Death meets Kreator dynamics are now coalescing into the genius that was dancing on their fingertips all along. Dizzying riffs and guitar solos mix in with blast beats, yet the complex results are catchy and digestible. I do not like tech-death and complex music for its own sake, which is why Vektor stuns me. They manage to go for the throat and give us an album that you can find something new in each time you hear it, yet the performances of each musician are mind-blowing virtuoso madness. The science fiction story going on in the narrative of the lyrics is all the more interesting as well. Altogether, Terminal Redux is my album of the year for 2016.
BEST ALBUM OUTSIDE OF THE HEAVY METAL REALM:
WARDRUNA – Runaljod – Ragnarok
Trance-like tales of the runes of the Elder Futhark, Einar Selvik closes his riveting trilogy of traditionally performed folk music in grand fashion. Climb to the top of a mountain and blast this into your ears.
MOST HONORABLE OF MENTIONS:
Cobalt – Slow Forever
Dark Tranquillity – Atoma
Inquisition – Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith
Nordjevel – Nordjevel