the-best-metal-of-2016

The Best Metal of 2016

Adrien Begrand celebrates the best heavy metal of the year in all of its thrilling diversity.

Artist: Voivod

Album: Post Society

Label: Century Media

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Voivod
Post Society

The first release since the departure of original bassist Jean-Yves “Blacky” Therieault, this 30-minute EP by the Canadian progressive metal innovators proves, once again, that they’re still full of ideas. Alternately echoing the idiosyncrasy of classic albums Dimension Hatross and Nothingface and the d-beat speed of Discharge and Motörhead, the foursome tear through five blistering tracks, highlighted by the epic “We Are Connected” — featuring some phenomenal guitar work by Dan “Chewy” Mongrain — and the unabashedly joyous and creative cover of Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine”.

 

Artist: Oceans of Slumber

Album: Winter

Label: Century Media

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List number: 19

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Oceans of Slumber
Winter

Featuring powerhouse singer Cammie Gilbert, Houston’s Oceans of Slumber delivered a stunning debut album with Century Media Records, one that delves into the more progressive side of extreme metal with astonishing discipline and song craft. Like the Gathering and Witch Mountain, the band puts an original spin on what defines heavy metal singing, as Gilbert creates a wonderful dynamic between strong, forceful vocals and a more sensitive side. The end result is a progressive doom album with heart, whether on the stunning title track or the daring, haunting cover of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”.

 

Artist: Gorguts

Album: Pleiades’ Dust

Label: Season of Mist

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Gorguts
Pleiades’ Dust

In a year where much of death metal spun its wheels, Canada’s great Gorguts continued to show incredible breadth and creativity in 2016. Arriving on the heels of 2013’s landmark Colored Sands, the spellbinding 33-minute composition “Pleiades’ Dust” continues Luc Lemay’s career-long experimentation with melody and atonality within death metal. Again, he has been aided by bassist Colin Marston and guitarist Kevin Hufnagel — as members of Disrhythmia they are no slouches themselves — and along with drummer Patrice Hamelin the foursome crate an ebb and flow over half an hour that shows, like so few in the genre have dome as of late, just how much range this harsh form of music can have.

 

Artist: Vektor

Album: Terminal Redux

Label: Earache

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List number: 17

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Vektor
Terminal Redux

Easily one of the most wildly inventive new bands of the last five years, Arizona’s Vektor are evolving at a rate that often seems dizzying, putting a unique spin on thrash metal. At the same time, though, that ambition and boundless energy had led to a pair of very busy albums that would benefit from a little editing. However, just like 2011’s Outer Isolation, the 73-minute Terminal Redux is impossible not to admire. Little hints of 1980s thrash are scattered throughout, the virtuosic musicianship echoing the likes of Sacrifice, Voivod, and Annihilator, but coupled with the beauty-in-chaos style of Chuck Schuldiner of Death, the band catapults a rigid sound into the 21st century, sounding vibrant and highly original.

 

Artist: Oranssi Pazuzu

Album: Värähtelijä

Label: 20 Buck Spin

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Oranssi Pazuzu
Värähtelijä

Three years after the revelatory Valonielu, Finnish avant-garde stalwarts Oranssi Pazuzu continue their exploration of spacey, psychedelic, and krautrock-inspired sounds within the confines of heavy metal. What they’ve always done so well is use black metal as a springboard towards other, less restricting experimental sounds, and that combination of trebly black metal riffs with jazz fusion freakout guitar solos, Hammond organ, and oddball time signatures makes this new album, whose title roughly translates as “resonator”, a marvel from start to finish.

15 – 11

Artist: Grand Magus

Album: Sword Songs

Label: Nuclear Blast

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Grand Magus
Sword Songs

Perennially underrated, the Swedish trio have been consistently releasing album after album of simple, catchy melodic heavy metal, especially over the past decade. Grand Magus have evolved from a rather doom-oriented band to one that celebrates the vintage sounds of Judas Priest and Viking-era Bathory, and true, some albums are better than most. Eighth album Sword Songs is a nice improvement over 2014’s somewhat complacent Triumph and Power, benefitting from a much stronger sense of conviction and energy. Sure, the chorus of “Viking metal” in “Forged in Iron — Crowned in Steel” is as goofy as it gets, but it’s crucial to never forget that metal is inherently goofy, and Grand Magus celebrate that fact, in style, every time out.

 

Artist: Amon Amarth

Album: Jomsviking

Label: Metal Blade

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List number: 14

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Amon Amarth
Jomsviking

Having become one of the most popular live bands in the entire genre, Amon Amarth have shown admirable resilience and longevity, outlasting trend after trend while building their fanbase with every new album. The key for these Swedes is how they’ve been able to subtly evolve from album to album while still remaining loyal to the melodic death metal sound they forged for themselves 20 years ago. What Jomsviking does so well is incorporate more melody than ever before, without compromising the visceral power of their music. Two fine examples are the unabashedly fun “Raise Your Horns” and the elegiac “A Dream That Cannot Be”, which features the great Doro Pesch. Still, though, the aggressive moments deliver wonderfully, as on “First Kill” and “The Way of Vikings”.

 

Artist: Anciients

Album: Voice of the Void

Label: Season of Mist

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Anciients
Voice of the Void

After a longer-than-expected wait between albums, Vancouver foursome Anciients returned in 2016 with a second album that comes closer to realizing their enormous potential. Having found a very unique middle ground between mid-2000s Mastodon and 1990s Opeth, it’s very impressive — not to mention gratifying — to see these guys keep their hyper-ambitious arrangements concise. It’s all about the discipline on Voice of the Void, as these tracks never slip into self-indulgence. Instead, every choice they make serves the song, and the end result is a collection of tracks that leave an immediate and lasting impression, whether it’s the barnstorming opener “Following the Voice” or the daring, Tool-esque “Ibex Eye”. Toss in some very impressive singing by guitarist Kenny Cook, and you’ve got a supremely confident album that’ll have many excited to hear what this band has up its sleeves next.

 

Artist: Aluk Todolo

Album: Voix

Label: The Ajna Offensive

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Aluk Todolo
Voix

It’s easy to lump French band Aluk Todolo and Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu together; after all, they both combine black metal, krautrock, and psychedelic rock to create highly unique hybrids. And indeed, Voix succeeds in exactly the same way that Värähtelijä does. When comparing the two, though, the slight edge goes to Aluk Todolo, whose fourth album is so remarkably concise and immediate, achieving its goal in 43 minutes as opposed to 63. The shorter length allows the music to sink in faster, and the way the trio crafts and molds the music into an amorphous yet shockingly solid whole is fascinating to hear. Drones soar and weave amidst a hypnotic, kraut-inspired rhythm section, atonal cacophony slowly metamorphoses into a coherent and alluring melody.

 

Artist: Psalm Zero

Album: Stranger to Violence

Label: Profound Lore

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List number: 11

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Psalm Zero
Stranger to Violence

Avant-garde musician Charlie Looker turned a lot of heads with Psalm Zero’s 2014 debut album The Drain, which combined the punishing industrial metal sounds of Godflesh and the more meditative sounds of Katatonia. The follow-up mixes the two sides even more confidently, but even better is how a very strong Depeche Mode influence creeps into the music. The end result is a darkly exquisite contrast between harshness and beauty, as Looker and former collaborator Andrew Hock create a constant push and pull between two seemingly disparate sounds.

10 – 6

Artist: Sabaton

Album: The Last Stand

Label: Nuclear Blast

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Sabaton
The Last Stand

The reigning kings of power metal rebounded from 2014’s decent-but-underachieving Heroes with an eighth album that plays to all the Swedes’ strengths. The gimmick has not changed one bit — war-themed songs with the crowd-pleasing shtick played up to a cartoonish degree — but Sabaton have proven to be so consistent when it comes to writing catchy, fist-pumping anthems. “Last Dying Breath” and “Blood of Bannockburn” are two stellar examples from this record, and by the end of this brisk, rousing album, you can’t help but feel caught up in the joy of it all.

 

Artist: Katatonia

Album: The Fall of Hearts

Label: Peaceville

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Katatonia
The Fall of Hearts

As sublime as Katatonia’s transition from classic death/doom to sleeker, melodic gothic metal has been, 2012’s Dead End Kings took things too far, placing more focus on softer sounds to the point where every song bled into the other. The contrast between heavy and melodic has always been the Swedish band’s forte, and thankfully they return to that sound on their majestic tenth album. It’s a pleasure to hear them turn the guitars up once more, and coupled with Jonas Renkse’s understated buy powerful singing, it marks a very welcome return to Katatonia’s classic form of 2001-2009.

 

Artist: Cobalt

Album: Slow Forever

Label: Profound Lore

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Cobalt
Slow Forever

Seven years after the instant-classic Gin following up one of the most acclaimed metal albums of the 2000s was already a tall order, but even more so when vocalist Phil McSorely parted ways with longtime collaborator Erik Wunder. In McSorely’s place, Wunder brought in former Lord Mantis vocalist Charlie Fell, and the resulting double album Slow Forever, not surprisingly, is a very different beast than Cobalt’s past work. Part of it is Fell’s own persona and vocal style, which is less confrontational than McSorley’s, but most crucially, Wunder’s songwriting it a lot more well-rounded, less raw. Touches of Americana creep into his already unique mix of progressive metal and black metal, giving the music an elegiac touch, yet at the same time it never comes at the expense of the music, which as “Hunt the Buffalo” and “Beast Whip” prove, is just as raw and primal as ever.

 

Artist: Khemmis

Album: Hunted

Label: 20 Buck Spin

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Khemmis
Hunted

Part Candlemass, part Witchfinder General, part Maiden, Denver band Khemmis was a revelation a year ago when Absolution seemingly came from out of nowhere to the surprise of many. They wasted no time putting the follow-up together, and Hunted is already a big improvement on a very cool sound. Unlike Pallbearer, who transform classic doom metal into a meditative progressive rock hybrid, Khemmis steer their sound more towards a New Wave of British Heavy Metal direction, offsetting slow, mournful passages with thunderous gallops and twin harmonies. Best of all, it’s pulled off with a sense of authority: there’s no hint of caution nor trepidation, just supreme confidence. The band sells it well, which is why this album is guaranteed to please the old-school metal crowd, and likely surprise even more new listeners this time around.

 

Artist: SubRosa

Album: For This We Fought the Battle of Ages

Label: Profound Lore

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SubRosa
For This We Fought the Battle of Ages

The Salt Lake City, Utah band turned in — dare I say — one of the finest doom metal albums ever released three years ago with More Constant Than the Gods in 2013, and the greatly anticipated follow-up delves even deeper into darker territory. Once again, the core of the band’s unique sound is the interplay between Rebecca Vernon’s sludgy riffs and the dual violins of Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack, and this album, which was greatly inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We, leans hard on that instrumental give and take over the course of four gargantuan compositions. The coup de grace, however, is closing track “Troubled Cells”, in which Vernon confronts her Mormon upbringing with unflinching courage and sorrow.

5 – 1

Artist: Gojira

Album: Magma

Label: Roadrunner

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Gojira
Magma

The French band achieved a significant commercial breakthrough with 2013’s very good L’Enfant Sauvage, unveiling a more streamlined sound that played up their strengths in a much more accessible way than before. For album number six, though, that unique sound, which has always owed a great deal to Meshuggah, is not so much sleek as it is stripped down. Songs have been diluted to their simplest form, in which the guys often stick to one very catchy and very powerful guitar riff and ride it with exacting precision and discipline. In addition to some excellent melodic vocals by Joe Duplantier and plenty of astonishing drumming by brother Mario, this is a new high water mark by one of the best metal bands in the world right now.

 

Artist: Opeth

Album: Sorceress

Label: Nuclear Blast

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Opeth
Sorceress

The winding musical journey of Mikael Åkerfeldt continues to make its way through classic progressive rock on Opeth’s 12th album, which undoubtedly annoyed plenty of fans who wish he’d return to the doomy death metal of old. His decision to walk away from what fans wanted and toward what he wanted was the best decision Åkerfeldt has ever made, as three albums into that transition he has Opeth sounding more vital and varied than ever before. The heaviness of Opeth’s music remains, but it’s more along the lines of classic Deep Purple, Rainbow, and Uriah Heep, and besides, Sorceress is actually more rewarding the further off the metal grid he wanders. All the while it still feels like an Opeth record, still capable of plenty of moments of dark, haunting beauty and majestic guitar work. As strong as it is, it’s also another reminder of how heavy metal is plenty capable of deriving its power from melody and restraint than simple extremity for extremity’s sake.

 

Artist: High Spirits

Album: Motivator

Label: High Roller

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High Spirits
Motivator

After a year that saw the world seem to collapse into turmoil, metal fans in search of new music in 2016 desperately needed something to smile about. Well, this metal fan, anyway. Thank goodness for the great Chris Black, whose latest High Spirits album (one of many projects he has on the go) remembers that it’s perfectly okay for heavy metal to smile, to have fun, to love life. Derived from the classic 1980s sounds of Y&T, Dokken, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Blue Öyster Cult, High Spirits is a shameless tribute to the glory days of 35 years ago, but unlike Steel Panther, this is not a joke. It’s metal of steely-faced conviction, where you sing about strength, passion, glory, and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all in the delivery, and on this gloriously exuberant album you can practically envision the sparkle in the man’s eye as he spouts that tried-and-true metal rhetoric. At just under half an hour, it’s a distillation of everything that’s great about this music, perfectly executed.

 

Artist: Meshuggah

Album: The Violent Sleep of Reason

Label: Nuclear Blast

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Meshuggah
The Violent Sleep of Reason

With only eight albums over a 30-year career, every new Meshuggah release is an event, primarily because this most innovative of metal bands is still as capable of blowing the competition out of the water now as they were when they started. And indeed, the Swedish greats achieve a new high water mark on The Violent Sleep of Reason, which at the same time combines different aspects of previous albums and creates something altogether new. The churning, massively heavy riffs plow along with mathematical precision and complexity, punctuated and propelled by Tomas Haake’s nimble and throttling drumming, while Jens Kidman barks surreal lyrics with power and Fredrik Thordendal weaves shockingly beautiful solos like gossamer threads around a colossus. “Clockworks” is particularly jaw-dropping, arguably their best combination of complexity and adventurousness since 1998’s Chaosphere.

 

Artist: Metallica

Album: Hardwired… to Self-Destruct

Label: Blackened

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Metallica
Hardwired… to Self-Destruct

Longtime fans of Metallica, those of us who go back to the 1980s, wanted this to happen, but that doubt was always there. Going back to side two of the Black Album the band has been sloppy, either cramming albums with filler, or even worse, failing to put out a product that lives up to their monumental ‘80s legacy. It wasn’t until bottoming out with St. Anger and starting from scratch on 2008’s Death Magnetic that Metallica began to rediscover some of the old magic, but even Death Magnetic, great as its highlights were, was riddled with subpar deep cuts.

Double album Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, remarkably, turns out to be a very focused piece of work, 77 minutes of a band in full command at long last, playing to their great strengths. James Hetfield’s singing is his strongest in ages and his rhythm riffs sound as muscular as ever. Lars Ulrich, whose drumming has always been unfairly maligned, excels, especially when deep in the pocket of a groove. Kirk Hammett’s lead guitar shows impressive range and expression. Robert Trujillo’s supreme skill on bass is finally allowed to shine through like it did with Suicidal Tendencies more than a quarter century ago.

In the end, though, it’s all about the album’s 12 songs, which have been arranged into two crisp, tidy halves. The first disc contains the more immediate fare, highlighted by the swinging “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth Into Flame”, two tracks that dig deep into the band’s early 1980s heavy metal fandom, evoking equal parts early Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. The second disc requires a little more time to settle in, but “ManUNkind”, “Am I Savage”, and “Here Comes Revenge” lead the sneaky charge into your subconscious.

Bookended by a pair of wicked thrashers in “Hardwired” and “Spit Out the Bone”, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is a welcome, long-overdue statement by Metallica. Aside from Black Sabbath, no metal band has had more of an influence on the genre, and heavy metal is always better off when its most important bands are making vital music deep into their career. There were a lot of doubters, including yours truly, but it’s a pleasure to say this is Metallica’s best album since …And Justice For All, and a dead cinch for the best metal album of 2016.

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