Steel Druhm’s Top Ten(ish) of 2016

steel druhmWell, it looks like we made it to the end of another year of music, mayhem and interweb tomfoolery! And while 2016 kicked most of our asses in unpleasant ways, it was an outstanding year for metal music. In fact, I think it was the best overall since I joined the AMG meat grinder way back in 2010. So good was the quality of material released that I ended up with a shocking yearly rating average just shy of 3.3. That’s obscene and scandalous for someone who prides himself on being a tough reviewer, but what could I do? I was looking to hand out brutally bruising scores, but the albums that landed in my bin were mostly good to great and few were my opportunities to bash, mash and malign1. That means I’ll be approaching 2017 with a mighty chip on my shoulder and woe to the bands that incur the wrath ov Steel.

Website-wise, we launched a massive growth initiative and hired a boatload of young, hungry and masochistic new writers who we’ve been slowly beating into shape via the AMG Gauntlet (metalcore, sleep deprivation and hobo wine). With all the new bodies, we’ve been able to cover more material and increase our post rate, and our readership has grow accordingly. Changes are inevitable with a labor of love endeavor like this, but we always try to uphold the AMG brand and keep the writing quality sky high. For assisting in this crusade I owe a hearty hail to all the newbies who stepped in and accepted the Yoke of Editorial Judgment with good grace and a minimum of rebellion while producing quality content.

Further horns go out to our senior staff who continue to deliver excellent metal journalism at cut-rate prices. And no year-end reflection would be complete without a big thanks to the man who made all this possible – AMG Himself. Though his career obligations often render him an absentee overlord, this is and always will be his dysfunctional monkey farm, and we just work here tending the filthy monkeys. Here’s hoping circumstances allow for a bigger serving of AMG’s cynical tirades in the shiny new year.

As for our wacky audience, your continued readership is appreciated as always and your insightful, humorous, 99.67% troll-free comments and rampaging unicornery (and post-unicorn penguining) are especially cherished. Stay golden, ponyboys and ponygirls. Now on with the highly subjective Listeria.

(ish) Redemption // The Art of Loss – When it came to classic prog-metal, Redemption really pushed my emo buttons with the ginormous and ambitious The Art of Loss. This is the prog “super group” at their best, with poignant, compelling songs piled one atop another. The thick blanket of introspective melancholy covering the album is almost too much to bear, but the song craft and palpable emotions cannot be denied. This is an album to lose yourself in after a crushing loss so you can experience kinship with its downcast beauty. As dark as this is, the songs are enormously catchy and extremely well arranged, and even at a stunning hour and 15 minutes, the album works and Ray Alder gives a particularly noteworthy performance, sounding care worn and world weary throughout. After a year of constant replays, I realize I should have scored it higher, but that run-time is daunting.

#10. Northern Crown // The Others – One of the real surprises of 2016, Northern Crown rode from out of the wastelands and trampled me under with their Kamelot meets Candlemass meets kitchen sink style. The way the album leaps from style to style keeps the listener off balance and gives what is essentially a traditional doom album a refreshing unpredictability. The combination of what is expected and what isn’t made this an album I had to spin for other AMG writers just to gauge their reactions. Best of all, the epic doom is epic, the heaviness is there and it’s all wrapped up with a healthy dose of class, polish and 80s arcade sound effects. You heard me!

#9. Insomnium // Winter’s Gate – What can you say about a band that writes a 45-minute song you can listen to again and again? If they were out of prove something, they certainly did. This is one of the best melo-death outings of the past few years and it restored my faith in Insomnium just as I was thinking of taking the first tentative step off the band wagon. They succeed by following the footsteps of their inspiration – Edge of Sanity’s mighty Crimson opus, and incorporating ideas outside of their usual palate. One can hear traces of Ahab, Anathema, Iron Maiden and Pink Floyd as the song ebbs and flows like the tide, always keeping you aloft and engaged without ever losing the band’s core sound. That’s quite a monumental accomplishment.

#8. Spiritus Mortis // The Year is One – In a year steeped in great doom, long-running second tier act, Spiritus Mortis somehow found it within themselves to rise up and hang with the best of the beasts. The Year is One is like a new band entirely and they put on a doom metal clinic, stealing from all their ancestors as well as acts like Grand Magus, Warning and Ghost to arrive at an addicting collection of rocking doom monsters. “I Am a Name on Your Funeral Wreath” is one of the best doom songs of 2016 and there’s plenty more goodness where that came from. If you thought Khemmis was the only doom game in town this year, you need to join with this album. It would be wise, my friend.

#7. Witherscape // The Northern Sanctuary – Dan Swanö built this! So stellar and prolific is the man’s storied career, saying more seems like a waste of keystrokes. The second collaboration between Mr. Man and Ragner Widerberg is another progressive melo-death masterpiece full of memorable hooks, stellar musicality and first-rate writing. There’s a healthy nod to Crimson running throughout, but this is bigger, bolder and more fully realized than even that timeless classic. Swanö continues to evolve and improve as a vocalist and though his dramatic cleans are a dead ringer for Michael McDonald (Yah Mo Burn This Place to the Ground), there’s no denying the man’s talent. And his pal Ragner is a multi-instrumental Viking to be feared in his own right. His wild guitar-work borders on Symphony X levels of WOW-wank and together the pair create emotional and melodic music heavy enough to satisfy the discerning melo-death snob.

#6. Sumerlands // Sumerlands – In a year where I rarely had to wear a business suit, I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to “sport coat metal.” Yes, Sumerlands is a shameless throwback act seeking inspiration from the “thinking man’s metal” of the late 80s and early 90s, but wow did they nail the sound and feel of the period! Songs like “Seventh Seal” and “The Guardian” exist at the confluence point of Savatage, Wicked Maraya, Sanctuary and Ozzy’s early solo works, but they weave in an interesting doom element to make everything feel more serious and dark. The atmosphere the music generates is truly inspired and Phil Swanson (Hour of 13, Briton Rites) gives his best vocal performance ever, channeling Ozzy and Warrel Dane in eerie ways. This is a short, sweet blast from the past with something a bit magical going on that’s hard to put into words. Retro fan or not, hear this.

#5. Anthrax // For All Kings – 2016 saw many 80s thrash acts getting their shit back together and releasing great material, but none could touch these Brooklyn/Queens chuckleheads. Sure, 2011s Worship Music was a promising return to form, but it’s For All Kings that truly ushers in the new era of Anthrax. Sounding like a band reborn and back in their classic groove, most of this material feels like it should have arrived between Among the Living and Persistence of Time instead of 2016. That in no way lessens the awesome sauce, as this is the most instantly lovable Anthrax outing in decades. Sharp, edgy yet always catchy-as-hell, this is the Anthrax I grew up with, full of punky, New York attitude and more hooks than the meat packing district. If not for an overlong run-time padded with a few B-cuts, this would be the perfect metal album.

#4. Dark Tranquillity // Atoma – If there was any lingering doubt who was the best of the “Gothenburg sound” pioneers, Atoma puts all speculation to rest. After a few less than stellar outings, Dark Tranquillity reset, regrouped and released this treasure trove of classic DT material. Atoma isn’t so much a direction shift as it is vets hitting their tried-and-true formula harder and more accurately than they have in a years. Every cut is loaded with DT’s timeless cold, isolating feeling and the writing is as slick, vibrant and accessible, all while retaining plenty of death metal heft. So good is Atoma it’s hard to believe this is the same unit that gave us lackluster platters like Construct. Whatever changed, I hope it stays changed!

#3. Khemmis // Hunted – This one will be #1 on many lists and it certainly deserves the accolades. I don’t know how this relatively young, inexperienced act went from a killer debut to a mammoth sophomore release in such a short time, but the music speaks for itself and the growth is staggering. Shucking much of the stoner influence that adorned Absolution, Hunted goes right for the epic doom bullseye, adopting a style in line with Pallbearer and While Heaven Wept. The result is a magnum opus of opulent and regal doom that belies the band’s experience. Cuts like “Beyond the Door” and the massive title track could be Songs o’ the Year and the quality is impressive throughout. This is doom written for doom fans, by doom fans, and though the band is hyped to Mars and beyond, the music backs it all up. These cats are already miles ahead of most in the genre and it seems they can only go down from here. Prove me wrong, please.

Messa - Belfry#2. Messa // Belfry – I’m not even sure what caused me to sample this promo, but damn am I glad I did! This unheralded Italian act takes classic doom and adroitly mixes it with ambient drone, traces of Sun O))), trve metal and occult rock, creating a writhing, grasping monster straight from the mind of H.P. Lovecraft. The diverse moods and atmospheres are numerous and breathtaking, the fusion of styles is seamless, and there are many moments that scream “artistry” to the rafters. If you’ve yet to grapple with this altered beast, be sure to hear “Hour of the Wolf” and the mind-trip that is “Blood.” This is a band to watch closely and listen to obsessively. So good.

#1. SIG:AR:TYR // Northen – You know it’s a strange year when a black metal album ends up in my top spot but appears nowhere on other AMG lists. Maybe I’m just a sucker for Hammerheart homages, but Northen hit me like a Christmas morning Viking raid and all these months later I’m still loving it across the Nine Worlds. SIG:AR:TYR always excelled at crafting beautifully engrossing Viking metal filled with folksy richness, but founder Daemonskald surpassed his past epics with Northen. The sound is bigger, the scope is massive and the songs are fully realized and compelling. The core sound still hovers between Bathory’s pagan epic Hammerheart and the best of Falkenbach, but this is much more musical, with beautiful acoustic refrains, soaring solo-work, and stunning harmonies appearing in abundance. Despite all these embellishments the music retains that svper kvlt, one-man black metal band vibe which reaffirms their Bathory lineage. Northen makes me want to sack towns up and down the Long Island coast, and though I’ve been told to cease and desist these wanton depredations, this album simply won’t let me. Let’s drink to Thor, then drink some MAWRRR!

SIG:AR:TYR - Northen


Honorable Mentions

• Esben and the Witch // Older TerrorsLush, exquisite goth-darkwave with haunting moods and dreamy vocals.
• Eternal Champion // The Armor or IreBrilliant trve metal from some of the guys in Sumerlands. Feel the loincloth!
Dark Forest // Beyond the Veil – Rousing, energetic power metal infused with NWoBHM goodness. Here be the gallops.
Fates Warning // Theories of Flight – Ray Alder does it again, but with his main band. Polished prog done right.
Desaster // The Oath of an Iron Ritual – Slobbering necro-thrash with NWoBHM flair and a righteous love of overkill.
Metal Church// XIA highly anticipated comeback that works due to gritty writing and “Magic” Mike Howe.
Spiritual Beggars // Sunrise to SundownDirty hippie rock done so right, I may just join a commune.
Arcana 13 // Danza Macabre – Mega-catchy Ghost-doom from Italy that really tickled my tombstone.
The Reticent // On the Eve of a Goodbye – One of the most honest and emotionally raw albums you’ll ever hear.
Theocracy // Ghost Ship – The choir boys offer salvation via the best power metal release o’ the year.

Song o’ the Year

Messa – “Hour of the Wolf” – This titan ever so slightly edged out Borknagar’s massive “Winter Thrice” for the title.

Jorn o’ the Year

Jorn // Heavy Rock Radio – Sad as it is to say, I may have listened to this collection of Jornified rock covers more than anything else this year. The CD never left my truck and there’s something about the Jornster covering Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and The Eagles’ “Hotel California” that’s just too Bizarro World to ignore. Likewise, his amped up take on Paul Stanley’s obscure ditty “Live to Win” became my personal anthem for 2016. As the sage lyrics advise, “Live to win, til you die.” Profound stuff. Important stuff.

Disappointment o’ the Year

Metallica // Hardwired… to Self DestructMetallica has been dead to me since the devastating combo of St. Anger and the tragically insightful Some Kind of Monster documentary, but even I had to grudgingly admit there were decent moments on this much hyped double platter. Unfortunately, those decent moments are buried beneath reams of excess, puffery and pablum, further proving the band never met a song they wanted to edit. I’m left wondering if Lars and Co. even possess the self-awareness to realize how badly they were schooled this year by Megadeth and Anthrax (and Testament, Death Angel, etc.).

Show 1 footnote

  1. The newbies were gifted with all the crappy metalcore and post-core.
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