Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Top 10 Metal Albums of 2016

It's been far too long since I posted on this blog. What better way to break that long silence than with a year-end list? I haven't done as good of a job keeping up with new releases this year as I have in some years past, but I've heard enough new material to compile what feels to me like a fairly solid top 10 list.

As per usual, this isn't a set of specific recommendations, nor am I claiming it to be in any way definitive. It's just my opinion that these are the 10 best metal albums that I heard this year.

Also, before I start, I'd like to talk about Swallow the Sun's Songs from the North pt. I, II, & III  for a moment. I initially had the group's ambitious triple album at #6 on my list, and I only realized as I sat down to write this that it was actually officially released late last year. I've long seen them as a band afflicted with the mixed blessing of a great debut that they could never quite equal, and with this album they finally broke out of that trap. I was excited to include them on the list, so even though I have to officially exclude them, I still wanted to mention that truly excellent record.

Okay, on with the list!

#10. Decision Day   by Sodom

Thrash is largely a dead sub-genre at this point, kept afloat almost entirely by the newest releases from various 80's masters. This year saw a colossal surge of buzz around Metallica, as well as new records by the likes of Testament, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Destruction. For me, though, the standout thrash album of the year came from the blackened, ugly hearts of Sodom. German thrash bands have always had that edge in intensity over most of their American counterparts, and that was the case again this year.

#9. Fires Within Fires   by Neurosis

The post-metal kings returned with their first album in four years, and I for one was quite pleased with the result. It's not the strongest material they've ever released, but it's a damn good record. I don't really have a ton to say about this one, but if you're a fan of the band or the lush post-metal style in general, I think you'll be satisfied.

#8. The Empire   by Vader

These Poles have been on a long winning streak, and while I haven't checked out the cover album they released last year, their previous two efforts ranked among the best death metal records of the decade. The Empire  dials back the intensity slightly, and for that it falls short of instant classic status. In a year that didn't impress me too much with old school death metal output, though, this was the best album in that vein that I heard.

#7. Jomsviking   by Amon Amarth

To the surprise of nobody, Amon Amarth's "first concept album" was pretty much business as usual for the world's most consistent metal band. Here's the thing, though: I really like Amon Amarth. I know they're not going to blow my mind, but I enjoy the hell out of every album they release. So a band that is practically genetically engineered to fill out the bottom half of my top 10 lists finds itself firmly and predictably right here in the bottom half of my top 10.

#6. The Synarchy of Molten Bones   by Deathspell Omega

If I had to choose one group to call the best black metal band in the world today, I'd choose Deathspell Omega. The French outfit bring a level of creatively intriguing yet unrelentingly violent chaos to their music that few bands can match. In their first full-length release since 2010's fantastic Paracletus, they've delivered a slightly more straightforward effort than usual. Consequently, this is a solid place to start for listeners who want to ease their way into the band's particular breed of calculated insanity.

#5. Winter's Gate   by Insomnium

These guys are the best melodeath band in the world right now, and they arguably have been for over a decade. Everything they have ever released has been good, and while this record might be a bit too polished and pretty for some folks, it's about as strong as the band has ever been. My brother maintains that this is the perfect metal album. I wouldn't go that far. Personally, I'd rank it second in their overall catalog, but with a band of this caliber, that's saying something.

#4. Dread   by Yith

One thing I love about the internet age is that unsigned bands have so many more outlets for their music now than in the past. Yith, a one-man independent project that released its full-length debut this year, is not a band I'd have ever encountered before the world of Bandcamp and Youtube. This is an awesome record that plays like a slow, doomy take on classic Burzum, and I for one absolutely love it. Like a cold, lumbering monstrosity, this hit me hard and immediately secured its place as one of the year's best in my eyes.

#3. Jumalten aika   by Moonsorrow

Moonsorrow have long been one of my favorite bands. I was excited to see that the Viking metal (or pagan metal, or epic heathen metal, or whatever the hell you want to call them) masters were releasing their first album in five years. I always expect a lot from this band, and they far surpassed my hopes. This swept me away with its magnificent scope and searing beauty while retaining a hard, biting edge. Moonsorrow have yet again delivered easily the best Viking metal release of the year.

#2. Winter Thrice   by Borknagar

There's a right way and a wrong way to do clean vocals in metal. This was emphatically the right way. Playing out like a best-of-both-worlds hybrid between Amorphis and Enslaved, these progressive black metallers have never sounded better. Of all the spots on this list, the battle between this and Moonsorrow for second place was the one I agonized over the most. In the end, the Norwegians took the edge on the basis that this was the easiest album to enjoy of anything I encountered all year. 

#1. Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows   by Howls of Ebb

First place, on the other hand, was never in question. Sometimes one album asserts itself so powerfully that it stands in a class of its own, and this was one of those years. Literally one song in I already thought this was going to be my album of the year, and as it progressed the question became less about whether it was number one and more about how far out in front of the pack it would finish. I have a deep love for weird metal, and Howls of Ebb are fucking weird. This sort-of death metal release combines the discordantly impenetrable intensity of Portal with the looming terror of a Lovecraftian funeral doom outfit and the creeping, off-kilter grooves of a couple stoned metal heads goofing around in the basement. The vocals are like the howls of a warped beast. The guitar riffs are twisted and inventive. The bass grooves and slithers, like a giant snake passing through the whole record and tying it together as it unsettles all in its path. The drums back off to create space when it's needed, and they close in when the chaos calls for them. Howls of Ebb have crafted a unique, captivating, and surprising masterpiece. Oh, and how awesome is that cover art?

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