If there’s anything you can say about “metal in 2016,” it’s that there’s no one definitive thing to say about metal in 2016. There is no galvanizing movement in extreme music capturing the attention of the majority of its listeners. Sure, we got a new (and pretty good) Metallica album this year. But the great four horsemen don’t represent a fresh movement driving new listeners to this music. They, like many of the other acts that continue to sustain the genre, are a legacy band. Metal has not had an attention-uniting movement since 2012, when “djent” was at its peak and the various "-core" genres still drew thousands of young listeners to screaming vocals, blast-beats and breakdowns. Since then, the “big events” in metal have been more about arguing one another to death (e.g. Ghost, Deafheaven, Babymetal) than a reason to pack arenas.
Maybe that's okay. No art form can maintain its peak novelty status forever (early-1991 in the case of metal). There are enough passionate listeners discovering this music every day to keep it alive for years to come. From an economic perspective, the music industry has begun to stabilize around streams and vinyl sales, which could help yield a steadier/healthier cash flow for metal and hardcore. On the flipside, more and more musicians are coming to terms with the fact that day jobs are a necessary part of surviving while playing a specialized form of music. This allows artists to take greater creative risks, without feeling the squeeze of fad-driven market forces. And as the knowledge of classic black, death and doom metal bands flourishes among the metal audience, the quality of the scene increases with it.
So with that in mind, here are my favorite albums of 2016. Most of my listening clustered around black metal and grind-influenced hardcore (as usual). Add an alternative heavyweight here, an unexpected death metal ripper there, and you have my year in music. As with previous years, I’ve attached a list of five songs to call out as favorites, even if I found their albums "good" rather than "great."
Want an easy way to listen to all of these great albums? Check out my 2016 Spotify playlist! If you were looking to me for some insight/comfort/cynicism around the non-metal events of the year, I'd redirect you elsewhere.
15. Winterfylleth – The Dark Hereafter
Selecting number 15 might actually be more difficult than the top choice, as it involves the painful matter of deciding what bands to cut off from any change of inclusion. In this case, however, it was hard to resist including one of the beacons of atmospheric black metal. The sub-genre, one of my favorites, is indeed experiencing a golden age – but along with any great harvest comes the risk of overabundance. The metal world is seemingly dripping with bands with pine tree album artwork and stories of a lost past. But Winterfylleth are experts are taking this art form and making it dramatic, compelling and memorable. Also, huge props for the English translation of Ulver’s classic “Led Astray in The Forest Dark.”
Favorite song: “Ensigns of Victory”
14. Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
You know, I originally wasn’t going to include this record. I wasn’t even going to mention it. When I first listened, I thought it was boring, like Last Fair Deal Gone Down and Night is the New Day thrown into a blender. But after multiple listens, I came around to the power of this record. Katatonia’s “prog” tendencies have been cooled here in favor of heavier guitars and more shades of alternative rock. In a more just world, radio stations could easily binge on several songs here the way they did on similar styles in the mid-1990s.
Favorite song: “Takeover”
13. Ravencult – Force of Profanation
Straightforward d-Beat-infused black metal. Though this album hasn’t gotten a lot of buzz from other writers, it hits a certain sweet spot with my current listening. For those of you who like to throw Gorgoroth, Bathory, Venom and Marduk onto the same playlist as Driller Killer, Toxic Narcotic and Skitsystem, this is the record for you.
Favorite song: “In Macabre Triumph”
12. Deftones – Gore
Nice to see a familiar face. A solid new Deftones record is like hearing from an old friend you haven’t seen in years, and yet when you talk it’s as if nothing’s changed. In many ways, the Deftones sought to remain contemporary on this album while still retaining their core sound. While this carries some risks for established bands (see: Cold Lake), the Deftones do a great job on tracks like “Prayers/Triangles,” “Acid Hologram” and “Geometric Headdress.”
Favorite song: “Prayers/Triangles"
11. Inquisition – Bloodshed Across…
Alright everyone, let’s say the entire title all together, take a deep breath: Bloodshed across the Empyrean Altar beyond the Celestial Zenith. Yeesh. Anyway, this excellent release gives you what you’d expect from Inquisition, perhaps with more atmosphere and fewer hooks than the last album. It’s cheesy, but in a way you can still take seriously (see also: #7 on this list).
Favorite song: “Wings of Anu”
10. Nails – You Will Never Be One of Us
So wait, what exactly happened to Nails? I mean, us fans aren’t owed anything. Whatever happened is strictly the band’s business. But, after a record as crushing as this, I’d like to know if we have more in store. Anyway, as I stated in my review of the record, You Will Never Be One of Us is a record for extreme music fans to all unite around: death metal, grind, hardcore, thrash, punk. There’s something for everyone to rage to here.
Favorite song: “Life is a Death Sentence”
9. Kawir – Father Sun Mother Moon
Among the greats of Greek black metal (e.g. Rotting Christ, Necromantia, Varathron), Kawir is an unrecognized giant. This is deeply unfortunate. It’s like learning about Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite and Ares without ever knowing about Hades. Kawir excels in creating grandiose, epic compositions that retain their power to captivate the listener. And this record is a great example of using history and mythology for extreme metal in a way that engages your imagination, rather than make you chuckle in amusement.
Favorite song: “To the Sovereign Sun”
8. Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder
At long last, Darkthrone has made a post-black metal era classic. When listening to this record, you get the feeling Fenriz and Nocturno Culto wanted to “get serious” and create a cohesive heavy metal record. Much of what they’ve made since Sardonic Wrath has been fun and interesting, but not in a way that’s worth several spins and recommending as Darkthrone at their best. But here, Norway’s finest export is in excellent form, mixing flavors of their black metal past with those of Accept, Raven and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
Favorite song: “Boreal Fiends”
7. Abbath – Abbath
Speaking of Norway. This was another case of low expectations on my part. I didn’t think Immortal’s All Shall Fall was that bad, but it didn’t necessarily make me hopeful. On Abbath however, every metalhead’s favorite meme subject has crafted a swaggering romp through his former band’s latter classic territory. In other words, if you love In the Heart of Winter and Sons of Northern Darkness, you’ll find a lot to love here as well.
Favorite song: “Winterbane”
6. Grave Miasma – Endless Pilgrimage
One problem with end-of-year lists is that they’re subject not only to the author’s bias, but also the limits of his or her attention. And because of my own limits, death metal has been given something of a shaft this year. However, I was delighted by the dark, cavernous brutality present on Grave Miasma’s Endless Pilgrimage. Heavy, ominous riffing, combined with thrashing drums and reverb-soaked vocals. Sign me up.
Favorite song: “Glorification of the Impure”
5. Wormrot – Voices
Disclaimer: ordering my top five was very difficult, as any of these five could easily be called my favorite record of 2016. Second disclaimer: uuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrggghhhhhhh!!! You’re favorite Singaporean planet crushers are back! As the band who crafted my favorite record of 2011 (Dirge), they basically can do no wrong. In this case, they actually found a way to introduce new, almost melodic and punk-tinged chord progressions. This added a welcome level of depth to the otherwise reliably insane grind-fest of numbers like “Descending into the Unknown,” “Forced Siege” and perhaps the best titled song of the year: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Grind.”
Favorite song: “Descending into the Unknown”
4. Weekend Nachos – Apology
A brash, furious and shall I say…unapologetic slam to your face. After a few listens, Weekend Nachos previous album wasn’t as great as I’d thought. But here, the band’s farewell album, they surpass all expectations. Blast-beats and hardcore romps blend in seamlessly with hateful vocals and some of the best breakdowns I’ve heard in years. There are virtues to bowing out gracefully at your creative best. Case in point: Apology.
Favorite song: “Judged”
3. Arkona – Lunaris
This selection from the masters of Polish black metal begins the trio of black metal albums that round out this list. Arkona, not to be confused with the Russian act of the same name, bring a unique approach to the well-worn style of symphonic black metal. The key here with Arkona is the rawness of the music and the sparing use of orchestral and synth sounds, employed at just the right moments.
Favorite song: “Droga Do Ocalenia”
2. Forteresse – Themes Pour La Rebellion
Well, we may not have gotten a new Sunhöpher record this year, but a new Forteresse will do! Blast-beats and tremolo riffing are now old and well-established tropes of black metal. We can’t possibly use them in a way that sounds fresh and engaging anymore, right? It’s not worth listening to unless it makes some disingenuous nod to indie music, right? Wrong, gloriously wrong. The music on this record has a power most bands can only fantasize about, invoking themes like longing, sorrow, triumph and pride with an unbelievably tight execution.
Favorite song: “Là où nous allons”
1. Sorcier des Glaces – North
And that power would guarantee Forteresse the number one slot, where it not for the similar yet more varied character of their fellow French-Canadians in Sorcier des Glaces. For those who don’t know, Sorcier des Glaces is actually a veteran of the scene, having released the classic Snowland back in 1998. Sorcier des Glaces plays a very familiar, orthodox style of black metal, but on North, that sound has a more atmospheric touch. This is not a "new" or "innovative" record, but it's one that takes my favorite style of metal and hones it to perfection. The use of mid-range clean vocals on parts of the title track even remind me of Agalloch! Though I’m not sure how the band would feel about that, I am pretty confident about this being one of the best metal albums of the year.
Favorite song: “North”
This year brought a lot of records from some of my favorite bands. Some of them were great! Those are listed above. Some of them were good, but had a few great songs on them. Those are listed below. Every time I Die basically put out my favorite song of the year with “The Coin Has a Say.” Killswitch’s “Strength of the Mind” has everything I love about them in one song. Dark Funeral has a very predictable sound, but one that worked out very well on their new album’s title track. Anaal Nathrakh continues to rupture whole continents with “Depravity Favors the Bold.” And finally, the ultimate satisfaction of low expectations: the new Metallica album. The 2nd disk leaves feels like filler, but the first disc is pretty solid, especially “Moth Into Flame.”
Every Time I Die “The Coin Has a Say”
Killswitch Engage “Strength of the Mind”
Dark Funeral “Where Shadows Forever Reign”
Anaal Nathrakh “Depravity Favors the Bold”
Metallica “Moth Into Flame”