Dr. A.N. Grier’s Top Ten(ish) of 2016
And so another year comes to an end. The US elected a new President, people are more offended than ever, and amazing musicians, like Leonard Cohen, got out while they could. But, in general, I can’t complain. It has been a decent year. My responsibilities at AMG Headquarters have increased (securing me a yet-to-be-built private bathroom), new blood has smeared the hallway and cubicle walls of the office, and some surprises have surfaced on my 2016 top ten. Some thought it was a great year for metal, some thought it was shit. Scores were argued, jokes were made, unicorns were harmed, feelings were hurt, and the loudness war continues. This may not be 2015, or 2014 before it, but it sure did pan out to be just another year on this spinning ball we call Earth.
One obvious difference between 2016 and the last two years is a true top ten list from yours truly (as long as no one deletes it). A couple years ago, I released a rather typical list—the result of a year from hell and zero ability to keep up with anything more than my own reviews. The second year writing for AMG brought a list more to my liking. One that sported a range of records from a variety of genres; some that many agreed with, others that I loved alone. But all were picked with the greatest care. Yes, even that silly Jørn record we mocked for months on end [Who dared mock it!? – Steel Druhm].
As it was last year, my 2016 picks secured their spot via regular listens. If I haven’t stopped listening to it, then it probably made my year-end list. It doesn’t matter if it’s black, death, thrash, doom, or black/death/thrash/progressive doom/technical death/post-metal/not-actually-metal, it’ll get a spot. The best part of this time of year is the opportunity to stack unrelated albums against each other. There’s no back-catalog comparisons, no criticism of a band’s newest work, and no genre-based judgment. None of that. If it made my head bang, if it made me smile, if it made me cry, it’s here.
And, I have AMG, Steel, Madam X, and YOU to thank for all of this. For allowing me to write here and the opportunity to write this list. Thanks for reading and, please, never stop. We all work our asses off knowing you’re out there reading our bad puns, anti-HR humor, compound curse words, and quality Jørnisms. I want to thank you all for making angrymetalguy.com what it is and I want to thank all my fellow writers for the endless inspiration. You guys are the best.
(ish) Them // Sweet Hollow — Before everyone gets mad at me for my first selection, let me just say this: I don’t give a fuck what you think. I’ve already taken a bunch of backlash for this pick, but, in keeping with my 2015 tradition, my “ish” pick is my funnest and most listened-to album of 2016. At this point, it is no secret that I am the biggest (and greatest) King Diamond fan of all time. So, in that way, this makes sense. But, you might be asking, how could I adore this blatant piece of King Diamond plagiarism? Because I have a sense of humor. Give it a spin and you’ll find that it isn’t a copycat at all (King does it way better). It’s got good riffs, a silly fucking story, and King-like and not-so-King-like vocals. Plus, choruses like the one in “Down the Road to Misery,” will stick to you like a household poltergeist. One day King will drop another album on the world, but, for now, Them works.
#10. Theocracy // Ghost Ship — Christian metal has been a running joke of mine for years. Having grown up around Christian-rock fans as a child, I’ve developed the perfect smirk for those that bring up anything Christian. But there’s no ignoring God metal. It popped up a lot in 2015 and it hasn’t let up. Having spent a few weeks with Narnia‘s self-titled release, I can’t deny the passion behind the songwriting. It doesn’t matter if a band writes about God, Satan, or dragons, if the music is passionate, I’ll get behind it. But, of all the Christian metal bands out there, Theocracy has to be the best. And (thank God) they released an album this year. It may be damn-near impossible to follow-up an album like As the World Bleeds, but Theocracy is one of those band that has never released a bad album, and Ghost Ship further solidifies that. It’s quality power metal at the surface and standard Theocracy at its core. What does “standard” Theocracy mean? “Fucking good” Theocracy. That’s what it means. But, savor it while you can. This will, undoubtedly, be the last time you see a Christian metal group on my top ten.
#9. Darkher // Realms — I’ve been trying for months to comprehend my love for Realms. If you have also found a home for it in your 2016 top ten, then you may not understand my dilemma. Not that it’s dilemma, but something so simple shouldn’t be so addictive. Or, maybe, that’s exactly why it belongs here. It also helps that Darkher have similarities to one of my favorite bands of all time: Ava Inferi. It’s not a perfect match, but the vibe sure does bring on the nostalgia of Onyx. Realms would seem to be one of those albums that doesn’t work unless you are in the mood. But that’s not true. This doomy, gloomy record puts you in the mood. The question remains: is Realms metal or not? Honestly, who gives a shit? Metal or not, Realms pulls me under like any great metal album would; refusing me even the tiniest glimpse of light. And the moment I think I can see a distant glimmer of hope at the end of this dark passage, Wissenberg’s voice extinguishes it once and for all.
#8. Spellcaster // Night Hides the World — With this year’s busy schedule, I didn’t think I’d get around to any recommendations from family, friends, or fans. But when I got my hands on Night Hides the World, that all changed. Not only that, but its effortless delivery made it the easiest review to write. But don’t take “effortless” negatively. What makes Night Hides the World so great is just that: its simplistic and effortless approach to metal. It flows like few albums can and the result is a hay hook straight to the ribs. After months of black, death, doom, thrash, and Them, songs like “Aria,” “Betrayal,” and “Prophecy” continue to haunt my playlists. No one ever said “simple” was bad. And Spellcaster proves that their stripped-down outlook on metal is their greatest strength. Want “proto” without feeling proto? Then hear the Night Hide
s the World.
#7. Ars Moriendi // Sepelitur Alleluia — Sepelitur Alleluia came out of nowhere. Not only that, but it became the soundtrack to the Grier family Halloween. Hell, the first time I spun the record, I was putting up candy-corn Halloween lights, decorating the aspens with fake spiders webs, and splitting firewood. I rarely dive into a new promo with so many distractions, but I couldn’t imagine another French black metal outfit was capable of grabbing my attention. I was wrong—dead wrong. A record that seamlessly combines elements like orchestration, haunting choirs, ripping riffs, kickass solos, and fucking trumpets cannot be ignored. Along with making my top ten, Sepelitur Alleluia will go home with my coveted Sleeper o’ the Year award. This record (and this band) came out of nowhere and I’m glad it did.
#6. Be’lakor // Vessels — When a band has been around for awhile, people will inevitably battle over which album is their best. When Vessels hit the shelves back in June, everyone had an opinion on it. Is it better than Of Breath and Bone? Is it a massive letdown from their masterful Stone’s Reach? You can, of course, make your own conclusions about Vessels, but I love this album. Like I said in my earlier blurb, my favorite part about the end of the year is stacking albums up against each other. Not a band’s entire catalog against itself, but every 2016 album against one another. And, when I stack Vessels alongside other 2016 releases, it continues to stand out. Yes, the dynamics aren’t the best, but the atmosphere, the emotion, and the vibe are there. The piano, the acoustic guitars, the emotional plods, and Kosmas’ low, leveled growls suck me in every fucking time. Regardless if Vessels is their best or not, Be’lakor are still good at what they do.
#5. Witherscape // The Northern Sanctuary — Slap Dan Swanö’s name on the cover and every metal fan, critic, and bloodsucking leech slithers from their fester hole to pen their first impression of Swanö’s new record. And I’m no different. Three years ago, The Inheritance hit me like a ton of bricks. It didn’t have the fluidity I knew the band was capable of, but it got more spins than I care to admit. It was unique, powerful, and had a massive replay value. But The Northern Sanctuary blows it out of the water. Swanö, et al. takes the style to a whole new level; unleashing riffs, atmospheres, and attitudes The Inheritance wishes it had. I have to admit that Swanö has gotten me through some tough times with his Edge of Sanity and Moontower material. With all the different bands and songs Swanö’s been a part of, The Northern Sanctuary still speaks for itself. From the Symphony X-like opener “Wake of Infinity” to the moody “The Examiner” to the epic title track, Swanö unleashes the Inner Swanö. The Northern Sanctuary is a place filled with both light and darkness, but, rest assured, this Sanctuary welcomes all.
#4. Moonsorrow // Jumalten aika — I’m going to just put it out there: Moonsorrow has never let me down. Jumalten aika proves that the age-old phrase “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” ain’t a bad way to live. This has a much different meaning when you’ve been on the top of your game for thirty fucking years. As with all Moonsorrow releases, the expectation of a typical four-to-five minute song is laughable. Moonsorrow aren’t afraid of length (take that however you want). And what they do with length makes them untouchable. How anyone can make a sixteen-minute track feel like a six-minute one is beyond me. As you all know, we at AMG have a tendency to belittle the lengthier albums. But, some albums are so well-crafted that length is of no concern. While others meander like lost puppies in their backyard—discovering their dog-bone burials ransacked and their marrow-filled treats poached—Moonsorrow doesn’t suffer from this curse. The fluidity, the structure, and the builds are remarkable. Moonsorrow ain’t no lost puppy and Jumalten aika is proof of that.
#3. King Goat // Conduit — First off: no, I don’t like King Goat because they have “King” in their name. I’m not that bad. Instead, I chose Conduit because it fucking rules. With a ray of Candlemass over a sky full of brewing clouds, this doomy debut had me hooked the moment it opened. However, I discovered that “Flight of the Deviants” was only the beginning. “Feral King” followed. Then there was “Conduit.” And then there was “Revenants.” And, finally, “Sanguine Path.” What the fuck?! How can one band—how can one album—contain so many great hits? There’s Trimming’s rasps and cleans, there’s the guitar tone, and there’s the progressive songwriting. Around every corner is a riff, a melody, and an outstanding vocal performance that have me replaying songs mid-album just to soak them in. Many of the picks on this list have long songs and short tracklists, but, like the others, Conduit works. It never feels long, it never feels forced, and never bores. Hands-down, Conduit is my Debut Album o’ the Year.
#2. Rimfrost // Rimfrost — I’m not going to lie, I felt alone with this back in March. As I said in the review, Rimfrost rounded out my Abbath and co. fix with their brand of Immortal metal. Abbath brought I to the party and Rimfrost brought Immortal. But, somehow, Rimfrost did it without completely copying these icy kings of the North. Instead, the band brought an energy equal to Sons of the Northern Darkness with an approach that can only be described as Rimfrost. Just as it was back in March, songs like “Saga North” and “Dark Prophecies” continue to get regular rotation. The riffs never age, the builds never bore, and the attitude never ceases to amaze me. I can’t completely explain my infatuation with this record (and this band), but it’s real and I won’t complain. Rimfrost is a treat every time I put it on and it takes top dollar for my Black Metal Album o’ the Year.
#1. Mistur // In Memoriam — In Memoriam is one sneaky motherfucker. Having achieved runner-up of the runner-up in April (though unreviewed somehow), I only casually gave notice. The first impression was good, but I walked away from it, blinded by the albums of May. I rarely answer to the name of “fool,” but that’s exactly what I was that day. Appearing to be nothing more than another Windir-like example of pagan black metal, this album wasted little time proving me wrong. Whether it’s the beautiful melodics of “Distant Peaks,” the neck-breaking Samael-like riffs of “Firstborn Son,” or the crushing beauty of “The Sight,” In Memoriam is the epitome of aggressive beauty. The details are indescribable and the layers are lush with black, doom, Viking, and melodic death influences. On the surface, it would appear to be a bloated affair—sporting an hour long runtime on a six-song foundation—but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If I can offer any life advice, dear reader, learn from my example: follow the advice of our Fearless Leader, “don’t sleep on Mistur.”
- Far Beyond // A Frozen Flame of Ice — If only there was another slot in my Top Ten(ish), A Frozen Flame of Ice would own it. Hell, it’s more majestic than Christmas itself. So, what’s one more pick?
- The Vision Bleak // The Unknown — Did I say one more pick? I meant two. Weren’t there like twelve wisemen or something on Christmas day, anyway? Fine, there were three. Shut up.
- Thrawsunblat // Metachthonia — OK, nevermind, a Top Thirteen(ish) is more than necessary. Metachthonia is pure Gold (get it?) and is a powerful record that, regardless of a couple shortcomings, is impossible for me to ignore.
- Spirit Adrift // Chained to Oblivion — It’s a one-man doom band, starring one cool dude from the one-and-only Arizona. Of all the single digits, one is the easiest to count to. Why fuck with that?
- Suidakra // Realms of Odoric — Spell your name. Now spell it backward. Now make a band out of it. Now try to write better music than Suidakra.
- Uprising // Uprising — Yep, it’s another one-man black metal outfit. But, with so many one-man/woman outfits landing on top ten lists this year, one more can’t hurt.
- Abbath // Abbath — Abbath is a-myth chock-full of a special kind a-wrath—forging a-path. Do the a-math. These guys know WHAT THE FUCK they are talking about.
- Northern Crown // The Others — Add “WTF” to “DR12;” sprinkle it with Ms. Pac-Man®, while leaving out Nicole Kidman, and you’ve got… well, I don’t know what the fuck you’ve got. But it’s good.
- Alcest // Kodama — I use to love Alcest. Then I stopped loving them. Now I love them again. Godfuckingdammit, I’m such a poser.
- Death Angel // The Evil Divide — What once was 14 years old is now 47 years old. I don’t care how you do a-math, it’s still better than Metallica.
- Inire // Cauchemar — What do you get when you combine Pantera, Throwdown, and Lamb of God with Quebec? A Canadian Lamb–Throwing Pantera, of course. Is it really worth an honorable mention? Depends on how much Jäger you’ve got.
Disappointment of the Year
Serious Black // Mirrorworld — After making Serious Black‘s debut a top pick last year, I was more than a little excited for their follow-up. But, Mirrorworld was almost as disappointing as it could get. As Daylight Breaks was an ocean full of dangling hooks; no matter how hard you tried to avoid them, they would sink in. Mirrorworld, on the other hand, proved to be a couple bobs floating on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. There’s a bite every once in awhile, but nothing seems to snag. I don’t mean to bash, but Mirrorworld was a huge disappointment.
Song o’ the Year
Mistur “The Sight” — This song is an eleven-minute rollercoaster of shredding riffs, melodic interludes, and an outro as heavy and unforgiving as any I’ve heard this year. Goddammit, I can’t stop listening to this!
El Cuervo’s Top Ten(ish) of 2016
In all personal regards, this year has been characterized more by what it hasn’t had than what it has. My youthful vigor? Gone. Free time? Gone. Long-term relationship? Gone. A despicable number of brilliant musicians? Gone. I’m due to adopt even more adult responsibilities in 2017, too. I found myself lingering over Alphaville‘s “Forever Young” at the year’s end in some introspective haze of self-obsession. And this list is at least partially a nostalgic gaze at styles which I discovered in my first forays into heavy metal. In sum, this year has felt like the end of my childhood.
And yet I look forwards. As one phase passes, another one begins: I’ll be challenged in new ways in my profession and relationships, using what I’ve learned in overcoming my trials this year. But, more pertinently, I also hope to experience new things in the music that I love. While I look on some with wide-eyed fondness, there are albums here which would not have been past favorites. They’re heavier and weirder. For this I can only thank AngryMetalGuy.com and its myriad writers who have influenced and diversified my tastes.
I would tentatively suggest that this year has been the weakest since I began here in 2014. There’s been plenty of good releases but I found my rolling shortlist of excellence only bore 11 names at the end of the year. There was no difficulty in narrowing this list, only in adjusting placement. I found myself retreating to past favorites and trawling other websites in search of the next great thing in lieu of accidental promo-based revelry. Nevertheless, what follows is still a selection with which I’m satisfied: I’m glad that doom metal only occupies 3 spots on what initially seemed an unbalanced year and 4 picks were unveiled through my wider searches (even if they went on to receive reviews). But the list must commence. Deny my narcissistic desire to discuss myself by indulging my narcissistic desire to have my work read. Pour yourself a glass of your favorite beverage (beer, wine, milk) and bask in my humility.
(ish) Hyperion // Seraphical Euphony — A victim of its release date more than anything else perhaps, Seraphical Euphony just slipped over my list’s precipice at the year’s end. It had time to strike me, grow on me, then fade to a level of comfortability. I remain nonetheless impressed by its searing riffs, tasteful symphonic elements and involving song-writing and you should absolutely hear this if Dissection is your jam.
#10. Vainaja // Verenvalaja — Vainaja is surely one of heaviest fucking bands making music at the moment. The chords are thicker than a redwood’s trunk, the growls harsher than a rabid bear’s and the atmosphere as overpowering as The Mountain. But more than these compositional elements, I love the band’s concept: the documentary of cult behaviors and practices of rural Finland in the 1800s. While Kadotetut concerned a forgotten religious text, they here describe the work of a twisted preacher. It creates a fantastic aura but supporting this are snappier riffs, more expansive song-writing and a beautifully dynamic master. In short, the perfect sophomore release.
#9. Sylvaine // Wistful — I promise this is my only non-brutal selection. Taking an Alcestian core but stripping out almost all of the metal, Sylvaine‘s gentle waves and alluring croons weave together to form a stunning post-rock album. Her performance of all instruments is exemplary but it’s the intangible emotional qualities which elevate this to its entrancing heights. “Wistful” is indeed a fitting title – the over-arching sensation of longing elicits dreamy reflections on times gone by. Delicately constructed but truly powerful.
#8. Plateau Sigma // Rituals — Now this got me excited. I’m a fool for doom metal underpinned with passages of subtle acoustics and smooth clean vocals — see The Fall of Every Season — and Rituals executes this with aplomb. Its interludes are simply exquisite. The heavier surroundings are arguably undermined by this greatness but it’s still tough to deny this mid-paced, rocking, emotive slab of doom. Plateau Sigma started slowly but have continually honed their song-writing. They’re a testament to hard work and I’m thrilled to shine some light on their underground development.
#7. Saor // Guardians — It’s tough to describe exactly what Saor gets so right. Guardians‘ victory is an emotional one so my response is therefore vague and subjective. The best I can manage is that my heart soars. It’s substantially heavy as black metal but the folksy melodies draped over are light and so addictive. While stylistically identical to the 2 preceding albums, this one has the most emotive melodies and the climaxes and all tracks wring out every ounce of grandiosity and majesty. It’s an assured refinement and unmissable for fans of folk or atmospheric black metal.
#6. Départe // Failure, Subside — As referenced above, I keep an ongoing RotY shortlist through the year with albums I enjoy constantly in rotation. Those which endure become my top 10. Départe were the last entry but this isn’t a mere attraction to the newest, shiniest music. Not least because this is an unnerving and dissonant interpretation of black metal, drawing lightly on death metal, which necessitates a period of gestation before its twisted genius unveils itself. It’s writhing and vitriolic but also darkly beautiful: pristine clean singing arises at oh-so-perfect moments to gild the savagery with subtle hopefulness. Failure, Subside may have climbed higher given even more time.
#5. Witherscape // The Northern Sanctuary — The Northern Sanctuary shocked me. Not just because it’s so enjoyable but because it’s so much more enjoyable than The Inheritance. The song-writing is tighter, the solos tastier and its enthusiasm infectious. It’s idiosyncratic in its diverse range of influences including melodeath, prog and classic rock but each strand is woven into a seamless, rich tapestry of great songs. It strikes that perfect balance between continuity and memorability where each track is outstanding without standing out. The masterful production only encourages my addiction.
#4. Zhrine // Unortheta — The underground has been taken of late by Icelandic black metal. Brandishing dissonance, moody atmospheres and furious intensity, it’s a formidable sound. But by a long shot Zhrine‘s brilliant Unortheta has rightly arisen to the pinnacle of this scene. More measured than their compatriots, it’s better characterized as brooding and deliberate than ferocious. Ambiance and gradual tempos frame the mind-bending heavy passages and the creeping atmosphere almost evokes doom more than traditional black metal. It’s a record just as fascinating to unpack as it is engaging to hear which is a recipe for compulsive listening.
#3. Haken // Affinity — The Mountain is quite the epic to follow. But rather than attempting to match that emotion-laden landscape, Haken adjusted the lens. They refocused on the 1980s, amassing synths, catchiness and a sense of fun. The result pays tribute to the 80s without abandoning the diversity and detailed song-writing with which they’ve developed. Varied songs are balanced well which is quite the feat when the unbelievably cheesy “Earthrise” is paired with the prog mammoth of “The Architect.” These are 2 of the year’s best songs (see below), alongside the beautifully serene “Bound by Gravity.” It seems impossible for these guys to put a foot wrong.
#2. Uada // Devoid of Light — I knew within moments of clicking play that Devoid of Light would be one of the year’s best. Black metal often merits absorption time to encase its listener in dark atmosphere but no such delay is present here. The opening riff is an absolute ripper (is it acceptable to reference Dissection twice in one list?) and this quality is preserved throughout. A digestible run-time, clearly distinct melodies and bright production engenders one of the most accessible second-wave records that I’ve heard. If you’re an energetic and cheerful type but still enjoy sacrifice- and arson-based hobbies, Uada is essential.
#1. Khemmis // Hunted — I know right? What a dull pick. Tying into my introduction, what this year has also lacked is a clear número uno. My past years here were obvious; indeed, Wilderun‘s Sleep at the Edge of the Earth has arisen to one of my favorite records of all time. But Hunted shall suffice. Its rampant list popularity must mean something! Sporting the grandiosity just hinted at on Absolution, I’ve heard few doom records with such scope and memorability so ingrained. The 13-minute closer is one of the most arresting long songs I’ve heard and I’m delighted that the doomy wellspring from which Khemmis have drawn was gushing for 2 great releases scarcely a year apart.
- Sabaton // The Last Stand
- Deströyer 666 // Wildfire
- Oak Pantheon // In Pieces
- Spirit Adrift // Chained to Oblivion
- Goatpsalm // Downstream
- Moonsorrow // Jumalten Aika
Disappointment o’ the Year
Serious Black // Mirrorworld — Serious Black wrote one of my favorite power metal albums — one which attained the second spot on my 2015 list — and followed it with the most generic and unexciting 36 minutes they could muster. It lacks the diverse inventiveness and unbelievably catchy choruses of its predecessor, leaving just 1 track which I actively enjoyed. I would honestly rather they hadn’t released Mirrorworld and if that’s not a disappointment I don’t know what is.
Song o’ the Year
Haken “Earthrise” — Look, I get that this is cheesier than Rick Astley riding a wheel of Camembert into a technicolor 80s toy advert: the bright synths; the forced optimism; the melodic chorus. But I didn’t have such fun listening to anything else this year. The vocal delivery in the verses is amazing and that chorus… Catchy scarcely does it justice. Buy this album when you can but hear this song as a matter of urgency.