Mark Z’s Top Ten(ish) of 2016
I’ve recently come to the realization that, all other things being equal, every new year is probably going to be worse than the last. Another December means I’m a year more jaded, a year more tired, a year closer to living off Cialis milkshakes and bitching when Wal-Mart won’t accept my expired coupons. Unfortunately, things in 2016 weren’t equal to past years — they were quite a bit shittier. Even talking solely about music here, 2016 was where everything seemed to splinter into a daunting level of obscurity for me, where I checked out way more albums than ever before but so much less seemed to stick. Fortunately, it also marked the return of a few old stalwarts who continued to deliver the goods, along with a couple new faces whose eclectic works at least showed some promise for the future.
On a personal note, 2016 marked a huge transition for me. Thanks to my job I once again had to pick up everything and move hundreds of miles away to a place where I didn’t have any family or friends. More than any other year, 2016 caused me to reflect and really discover myself for the first time, a process which has been alternately rewarding and extremely difficult. But even during the toughest points, it was albums like these that let me forget all that and get lost in the wonderful world that only a truly great metal record can create.
But before I get into my list, I’d like to extend a heartfelt “thank you” to the editors and fellow contributors here at AMG, as well as you all for being the greatest group of readers and fans a writer could ask for. You truly make this website a special place that I’m honored to be a part of. If nothing else, hopefully this list introduces you to something new that you’ll end up falling in love with.
(ish) Kryptos // Burn up the Night — Indian heavy metal, you say?! This quartet’s fourth album took me by storm back in September with its cruising Judas Priest influence and raspy Kreator-esque vocals. For someone whose tastes often veer toward the more extreme end of things, tracks like “Full Throttle” and “One Shot to Kill” were so catchy, lively, and well written that I couldn’t help rocking out like it was 1985 and “Like a Virgin” was blasting on the radio. While a few tweaks in the pacing would have helped, front to back Night is a damn fine record worthy of any metalhead’s time.
#10. Destroyer 666 // Wildfire — Seven years after Defiance, Australian badboy K.K. Warslut finally returns with new recruits to remind me once again why I’m so hopelessly in love with his hooky, riotous blackened-thrash. Sure it doesn’t surpass their previous works, but Destroyer at their worst are still better than most bands at their best. And, as shown with the teeth-gnashing catchiness of “Live and Burn,” the instant-classic “Hounds At Ya Back,” or the soaring Bathory-esque closer “Tamam Shud,” Wildfire is far from Destroyer at their worst. Just leave your thoughts on the whole racist controversy at the door.
#9. Inverloch // Distance | Collapsed — Disembowelment were arguably doom metal’s greatest “what if.” After releasing 1993’s Transcendence Into the Peripheral, the band dissolved and left in their wake that one seminal work whose melding of droning death/doom and otherworldly melodies was never matched. Until now. Inverloch shows Disembowelment’s former drummer and guitarist still have that same spark 23 years later, and in many ways Distance | Collapsed feels like the Transcendence follow-up we never got – albeit dragged into the modern age and fitted with a more polished production. In 2016, other doom just couldn’t compete.
#8. Départe // Failure, Subside — I originally dismissed this Australian quartet because of the countless sponsored advertising I saw for Failure every time I logged onto Facebook, proclaiming it as the “new wave of post-black metal” or some crap. It wasn’t until Kronos started dropping comparisons to Ulcerate and Altar of Plagues that I decided to give it a try, and boy was that the right call. Mixing the crawling dissonance of the former with the piercing climaxes of the latter, Failure is a gripping debut whose successful integration of clean vocals supplements the band’s knack for writing songs that punch you right in the gut, seething and exploding at all the right moments. These guys have a bright future ahead, and you’d be well advised to get on board.
#7. Ancst // Moloch — Crust and black metal collide on this German quintet’s full-length debut. Like country-mates Thränenkind, Ancst specialize in desperation-ridden riffs overlaid by throaty, hardcore-esque bellows. But whereas Thränenkind revel in introspection, Ancst are all about clenched-fist aggression: expect relentless and pummeling blastbeats, twisted tremolo riffs, and lyrics which explore themes of social injustice. In terms of sheer conviction, not much else from 2016 came close.
#6. Seven Sisters of Sleep // Ezekiel’s Hags — There’s rarely a time when I’m not in the mood for grimy, nihilistic sludge, and Ezekiel’s Hags scratched that itch better than anything else this year. Heavy, oppressive, dense, unforgiving – this third album from the California-based quintet was all those things. But what really sold me was the sense of power created by moments like the monolithic chugging in “Ud-Nun,” the melodic doom riffs in tracks like “Denounce,” or the tortured bellows throughout the record, which sound like someone accidentally swallowed Drano during an opium binge. Hags‘ weirdly addictive, bleak aura really won me over, and Eyehategod fans should definitely take note. Just don’t expect any respite or room for breathing.
#5. Sektemtum // Panacea — My surprise of the year! This French trio’s sophomore album shows these Doctor Livingstone members taking a searing black metal foundation and adding a healthy dose of “we’re too cool to give a fuck.” What begins conventionally enough soon takes an unexpected turn with the incorporation of clean singing, hard rock riffing, old school punk elements, and streaming neon-light melodies. Yet at no point does the genre-mashing feel obnoxious or forced, and it doesn’t hurt that songs like “Le Crepuscule des Idoles” and “Ebony Grand Master” are also pretty damn catchy. Panacea is a record that conveys bleakness but feels modern and even hip, like staring into a puddle at 2 a.m. after all your friends have gone home from the bar. Weird? Yes. Compelling? Even more so.
#4. Mithras // On Strange Loops — Adding another to the list of triumphant returns, Loops shows Leon Macey and Rayner Coss coming back after nine years to improve on everything I already loved about the English duo’s brand of cosmic, Morbid Angel-inspired death metal. Apparently six years in the making, Loops is easily the group’s magnum opus – replete with Macey’s superhuman drumming, particle storm soloing, and blunt riffing, and tied together with a concept about time and the purpose of human existence. For me, death metal in 2016 just didn’t get any better.
#3. Vektor // Terminal Redux — It’s impossible to talk about 2016 in metal and not mention Vektor. People were raving about Terminal Redux upon its release back in May, and for good reason – in today’s scene the Philadelphia quartet’s brand of spacey tech thrash is absolutely unparalleled, and Redux is arguably their most ambitious album yet. Relentless in its delivery, Redux is a concept album that unfolds like a grand space opera, with mainman David DiSanto introducing new elements like clean singing alongside the group’s typical head-spinning thrash riffs and Destruction-esque yowling. It’s not often a progressive thrash album can be well over an hour long and still work, but Vektor pull it off like it couldn’t have been done any other way. In a world where a bajillion sludgy grind bullshit bands are clogging up Bandcamp, it’s albums like Redux that remind me true greatness is still alive and well.
#2. Thränenkind // King Apathy — Normally when I first listen to an album, adjectives rush to my head, an idea for an intro appears, and I whip out my iPhone to begin jotting down notes for my review. Not so with Apathy. Pushing play on this German quintet’s sophomore album was the emotional equivalent of a shotgun blast to the chest. Apathy sounds like someone distilled the most gripping aspects of crust, post-metal, black metal, and post-rock, and then seamlessly combined them in a way that was free of melodrama or jarring transitions. With interludes that recall early Agalloch and climaxes akin to Harakiri for the Sky, Apathy features one jaw-dropping idea after another, and it doesn’t hurt that the concept of struggling to live without feeling or purpose held some personal resonance as well. Anyone with even the slightest interest in the styles combined here should definitely give this a listen.
#1. Astronoid // Air — After I heard King Apathy, I thought I was done. I thought my Album of the Year spot was decided. But just over a month later, scrolling through metal blogs late one summer night, that I stumbled upon a Youtube stream of Air. If love at first sight can occur with music, that’s pretty much what happened with this Boston-based quintet’s debut. Air is one of those things you didn’t realize was missing from your life until you experienced it for the first time. A combination of Deafheaven’s uplifting blasting, Devin Townsend’s breezy playfulness, and Coheed & Cambria‘s pop-punky vocals, what Astronoid produced here flies in the face of every ‘grim cvlt’ metal cliche from the past 30 years. Yet songs like the fluttering catchiness of “Up and Atom” or the rocketing finish of closer “Trail of Sulfur” possesses such a timeless innocence that it feels impossible to hate. More than just crafting a fresh style, Astronoid have created a record where every track is a highlight, where the melodies are familiar yet fresh, and where the blissful atmosphere is simply mesmerizing. Most notably, this record sounds happy, serving as a reminder that even in a genre renowned for its darkness, it’s okay to smile now and then. With just a few listens, there was no question I had discovered my favorite record of 2016, and this is undoubtedly something that will be remembered for years to come.
- Euphoria // Operation: Genesis — The year’s “other” space thrash album. Imagine a sharper and less proggy version of Vektor. Genesis floored me when I first heard it, and with more listens this probably would have ranked even higher.
- Harakiri for the Sky // III: Trauma — Melodic post-black done right. Terrific melodies and songwriting, with “Funeral Dreams” easily my favorite song of the style from 2016.
- Whispered // Metsutan: Songs of the Void — Melodic death samurai metal? What’s not to love?
- Uada // Devoid of Light — This record unequivocally proved one thing: the world needs more bands that sound like Mgla. Also, that guy from Ceremonial Castings has some of the best black metal vocals ever.
Song ‘o the Year
Nails – “You Will Never Be One of Us” — Meathead music? Maybe. But this is a fucking catchy song in its own right, and offers what’s likely the most savage 90 seconds that 2016 had to offer. If nothing else, the resulting Todd Jones Lambgoat memes were probably my favorite thing on the Internet this year. Seriously, fuck Harambe.
Diabolus in Muzaka’s Top Ten(ish) of 2016
2016 seems to be about as well-liked as an anthropomorphic plate of chopped liver and onions that’s obsessed with obscure Japanese anime. But, in all honesty, I’m with Frank Sinatra in spirit on this one: it’s been a very good year. The icing on the cake is being given the great responsibility of compiling my very own solo year-end list, which has given me pause and forced me to seriously consider my picks herein and make something truly respectable, insightful, and inclusive. Upon consideration that idea flew out the window and now this list in its current form aims to please, appease, or otherwise cater to absolutely nobody. That said, if you’re reading this introduction you’re probably going to read or at least skim this list, and whether you do so happily, angrily, neutrally, drunkenly, on the toilet, or however else you please, know that I’m humbled and grateful that you’re reading.
Having been largely absent as of late, I’d like to take this time to thank all of you for reading, commenting, discussing, unicorning, and every other–ing you in the AMG community took it upon yourselves to do this year. It’s been an honor and a privilege to count you as readers and interlocutors, and you’ve been pivotal in making AMG the vibrant and vital place that it is. Without further dallying, let’s take one of our final looks in the rear-view mirror before turning our eyes forward once more to the bright dawning sun of the New Year.
(ish) Vulvodynia // Psychosadistic Design — Big, boorish, and unparalleled in effrontery, Vulvodynia have jumped the slam shark so ludicrously with Psychosadistic Design that they up and did a 900 over it on their jetski while juggling chainsaws and throwing back cans of beer. Psychosadistic Design revels in excess; non-stop slamming, lyrics that are content to just give up on being intelligible (actual lines from the actual booklet: “Bree x 30” and “?????????????????”), what sounds like Stephen Hawking saying “brutal slamming death metal” to start the closing song, over fifty minutes of material, and nine guest vocalists? Vulvodynia knows exactly what they’re doing, and they do it well.
#10. Nothing Lies Beyond // Fragile Reality — In the undeniably classic MLB Slugfest 2003, my go-to tactic is being the wonderfully overpowered Toronto Blue Jays (thanks largely to Delgado and Wells) and getting a bunch of triples and in-the-park homers. One recent game saw my friend, playing as the Cleveland Indians, losing 35-1 in the third inning. I didn’t hit close to everything out of the park, but I still won handily. I stand by what I wrote back in July, but my score seems rather low in hindsight with how well Nothing Lies Beyond’s debut held up with me and actually got better with age. Well-written, streamlined, memorable, and efficient melo-death, Fragile Reality has stayed in rotation consistently since the review went live.
#9. Brutally Deceased // Satanic Corpse — Non-stop quality Dismember-worshipping Swe-death; what’s not to like? I suppose if you don’t like compelling songs, earworm melodies, and a constant urge to headbang then you can find plenty to complain about on Satanic Corpse. If you happen to like the aforementioned stuff, then Brutally Deceased have released what is, for all intents and purposes, the best Swe-death record of the year. It may be a hair below great, but it’s so consistently high in quality that it ceases to matter in the long run; this is another winner that’s stayed in perpetual rotation since I reviewed it.
#8. Mercyless // Pathetic Divinity — A whole lotta death in a ruthlessly efficient package, Mercyless just nailed it here. Pathetic Divinity sounds old but not tired, vividly recalling the glory days like a few forty year olds drinking and reminiscing about college. Instead of mere tall tales over big beers, Mercyless actually lives those halcyon days again and produces pure, unadulterated quality instead of mere nostalgia. Pathetic Divinity isn’t good because it sounds convincingly old-school, Pathetic Divinity is good because it rips.
#7. Mortuary // Nothingless than Nothingness — A French band almost everyone forgot about or had never heard of depending on their age and experience, Mortuary decided that 2016 was the right year to hit us with some absurdly good death-thrash and try to make theirs a household name. This record is all about the riffs, and luckily for us those riffs are top-shelf. That the re-recorded “Morbid Existence,” a killer track from their 1990 demo Below the Marble, fits like a glove with the rest of the material here says a lot about Nothingless than Nothingness.
#6. Sum 41 // 13 Voices — Yes, I’m serious. Of the ten songs here, none of them disappoint and all of them stay in your head like popcorn stays in your gums. While this is definitely my Alestorm moment of 2016, that doesn’t negate how well Sum 41 did on 13 Voices. A comeback that’s not overrated like the dumb new Green Day record and the furthest thing from empty pop calories, this is certainly worth a spin or twenty. I didn’t expect to like Sum 41’s latest this much at first, but 13 Voices was a grower in the sense that it compulsively stuck with me instead of the usual case of the opposite.
#5. Insomnium // Winter’s Gate — A beautiful song that deserves all of the praise it’s getting, Winter’s Gate is 40 minutes of some of the best material I’ve heard Insomnium put to tape. Special attention should be paid to the closing minutes of the song, which brings everything from the preceding thirty-three minutes together into a glorious climax and then slows down into an absolutely stunning coda which never fails to leave a knot in my stomach. Insomnium clearly took influence from Crimson here, and they should hold their heads high in the knowledge that they did its legacy proud.
#4. Anaal Nathrakh // The Whole of the Law — Maybe it’s quality or maybe it’s confirmation bias, but when I saw the announcement that Anaal Nathrakh was putting new material out this year, my immediate reaction was “well, there’s a year-end list contender.” Sure enough, The Whole of the Law gives us more of the same from Vanitas and Desideratum in some spots and some of their most maniacally aggressive and maniacal material since at least Constellation. It didn’t fix what wasn’t broken, but added a new coat of paint and a couple of flamethrowers for good measure. The Whole of the Law is the record I didn’t know I wanted Anaal Nathrakh to make until it finally clicked after a few listens.
#3. Theocracy // Ghost Ship — Far and away the best power metal record of 2016 and my personal favourite collection of lyrics penned this year (with a special nod to the excellent “Paper Tiger”), Theocracy have nailed it once again. Uplifting, impeccably written, and legitimately epic, this is what power metal is all about. With the glut of mediocre anti-Christian blasphemy stretching across metal far and wide, it’s satisfying to hear a group of true believers blowing well over ninety-five percent of it out of the water. Theocracy was in the elite tier of metal since As the World Bleeds, and Ghost Ship keeps them there.
#2. Far Beyond // A Frozen Flame of Ice — When I first stumbled across this record, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I heard wound up capturing my attention in a way few records this year truly did. It’s hard to say much about this tremendous offering of melo-black here, but not for lack of interesting material. Rather, there’s so much excellence happening that I could try to put words to it like some guy writing a boring description of how beer tastes, but I think honesty is the best policy: drink deeply and chances are you’ll find what’s so special about A Frozen Flame of Ice and understand why it ranked so highly.
#1. Hyperion // Seraphical Euphony — I called this back in February and nothing has changed since. 2016 had somewhere around ten months to find something to top Seraphical Euphony and it just didn’t. This is good not only because being right about things ranks highly among my favorite hobbies, but also because it shows what an incredible job these Swedes did on their debut record. Hyperion is the best melo-black band since Dissection, and it’s quite exciting to be able to witness the birth of a truly great new band that, at the very least, will be remembered for wiping the floor with everything else in 2016. By the time 2020 hits, Hyperion’s debut will be in the top five records released in the decade of the aughts. This probably sounds fantastical and I’m well aware that reviewers are known to traffic in hyperbole like that rhetorical technique is literally going to be memory-holed tomorrow, but take it from someone who’s given a whole two records a 4.5 over two and a quarter years and has a relatively low scoring average: Seraphical Euphony really is that great.
- NilExistence // Existence in Revelation — A nice combination of what Morbid Angel’s tragic Illud Divinum Insanus should’ve been and the best and most frantic aspects of Polish death metal, Existence in Revelation is a bit long in the tooth but sharp nonetheless.
- Ragehammer // The Hammer Doctrine — A strong debut that has a ton of old-school charm, The Hammer Doctrine is raucous, vicious, violent, and a ton of fun.
- Vinterblot // Realms of the Untold — What Amon Amarth should’ve done instead of releasing the largely tepid and boring Jomsviking: an album that has a grand total of three tracks I can remember a riff or melody from.
- Hellbringer // Awakened from the Abyss — When you scream “SLAAAAYEEEER” into the abyss, the abyss screams “SLAAAYEEEER” back at you. Hellbringer like that abyss a lot and we’re better off for it.
- Architects // All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us — This is what would happen if modern Meshuggah got more energetic and interesting while taking songwriting cues from Thrice while having a standout vocal performance to boot.
- Inquisition // Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith — These guys are reliable as all get-out, and while I ultimately enjoyed the preceding two records more, Bloodshed isn’t one to be missed.
- Hysteria // Flesh Humiliation and Irreligious Deviance — This sounds like Behemoth decided to have Peter Tagtren and Kataklysm write their new record for them, and it turned out well. Not standout enough to make the Top Ten, but a very engaging and enjoyable listen.
Too Short to Ride: The Best Two EPs of 2016 that Didn’t Make it Into My Top Ten List Because of Length Discrimination and Nothing Else
- Affliction Gate // Dying Alone — I’ve said my short piece about this one already, but seriously, if you like death metal and think there’s no more awesome stuff in the genre being recorded, this is a deafening and irrefutable counter-argument.
- Dead Congregation // Sombre Doom — These guys thrive in the EP format, and if you’re feeling a bit burnt out on Incantation style death metal, Sombre Doom will remind you why you loved the stuff in the first place.
Song of the Year
Hyperion “Remnants of the Fallen” — You know what they say about first impressions: stunning melodies and a masterful buildup sure makes for a good one. This is a perfect introduction and the best two minutes of music I’ve heard this year.