Once again we complete another revolution of the crazy merry-go-round we call life. Plenty got on, an enormous amount got off, and even more threw up all over themselves as the gears began to stick and we frantically oiled them with our ever-depleting reserves in a desperate attempt to stop everything from falling apart as we’re all flung in opposite directions into the far reaches of the cosmos. It’s been a harrowing one, but we’ve had a damned fine soundtrack to accompany it.
Our writers have spent the past two weeks grinding their teeth as they try to whittle this year’s releases down to a tidy five-point list. Those lists are presented here with Facebook links and YouTube videos so that you can acquaint yourselves with the bands and sample their wares. Alternatively, you can listen to this Spotify playlist, featuring tracks from our favourite albums, where they have been made available:
On with the show!
5. Violent Magic Orchestra – Catastrophic Anonymous
This almost went completely under my radar if not for a truly bludgeoning performance at the Camden Underworld in late December. Featuring the combined arms of Pete Swanson and members of Vampillia, amongst a litany of guests, Catastrophic Anonymous is a cacophonic expedition of black metal crushed through an industrial dance dirge. It manages to combine so many disparate elements that it no longer sounds anything like its constituent parts – what is left is a bizarrely listenable self-destruct button that delights as much as it leaves you broken-boned. The fear would be that the album would not match their devastating live show, with dedicated hype man, but those fears are soon left murdered – replaced instead by Saturday Night Fever on krokodil.
4. Milk Teeth – Vile Child
The strength of the British metal movement is founded on a wave of exceptional quality seemingly exploding from the woodwork this year – Black Peaks, Creeper, Puppy, Zoax are only a few of the bands ready to make a real scene all of their own that people deserve. My pick of the crop though has to go to Milk Teeth, with a heart warming punk rock attitude forwarded by songs that are catchier then flu at a comic convention. For a debut album, it’s genuinely scary how fully formed and no nonsense the songs are – filled with a revitalized 90s aesthetic that at turns reminds you of the best of the 90s sound whilst bringing a whole hew of new ideas to the table. A band that can have such anthemic songs as ‘Brain Food’ and ‘Kabuki’ in the same breadth is something to be very very excited about.
3. The Dillinger Escape Plan – Disassociation
What a closing statement. What a brilliant, consuming and fuck you statement that is totally and utterly Dillinger. It’s going to be sad to see them go, but it’s hard to be sour when they leave on possibly the best work of their career. Adding new versatility and tenets to their litany of powers, Disassociation is less of a ‘best of’ culmination of their abilities but rather a last fist to whatever glass ceiling anyone attributed to them. As an album that scatter guns career best performances it’s hard to define what is so intrinsically magic about Dillinger; with the eponymous track ‘Disassociation’ perhaps once and for all dispelling the myth that Dillinger’s strength lies as a technical violent powerhouse. Once and for all they have shown bare the brain, heart and soul that keep the Dillinger machine beating. A beautiful swansong to one of metal’s defining bands.
2. Oathbreaker – Rheia
Rheia is emotionally exhausting. Hearing the heart shattering cries of Caro Tanghe amidst the giant expansive driving metal prongs of the instrumentation often threatens to swallow you whole. But from this hardship comes near infinite reward. The whole album seems somewhat subterranean, as if a gateway into the body itself with the beauty and ugliness that entails. Oathbreaker has used their extreme metal background as a launching pad to soar high above those restrictive black clouds. Even when placed in the realms of the ‘blackgaze’ extremity of bands like Deafheaven, Oathbreaker very much carve their own distinct character using a scalpel on a still beating heart. It’s an album that will stick with you long after its run time; no matter how uncomfortable and vulnerable that may make you feel. I expect this album to only become more essential with age.
1. Cult Of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner
This is going to go down as a classic post-metal album; a defining moment of two genius artists colliding to create one great work. An expansive opus, Mariner breathes at an astral plane and exhales with the purple bite of Julie Christmas’ transformative vocal performance. If I was enamoured with this album before, which I was, then the album became even more essential during its brief live run – where reports of people left spellbound with tears in their eyes were plentiful. Will this moment ever be repeated? Should it be? I doubt anyone knows. What we are left with then is a singular lightning strike, of two creative forces creating something as scientifically astral as it is mystically celestial. For an album so transformative and temporal it’s a great honour to have it stick around. If this is the last time Christmas and Cult Of Luna meet together, then they can rest easy in achieving all that they could have achieved. In finding each other – they managed to find themselves.
5. Marionette – Propaganda
This is complex, synthesiser-drenched melodic death metal made to inspire revolutions. The artwork for this album, created by former vocalist Axel Widén, is a colourful insight into Propaganda‘s world of uprisings and ideologues.
Propaganda is crowd-pleasing and inspiring metal which I need to see live. Its relentless energy is an incredible asset and Marionette back this up with fine musicianship and attention to detail. The result is a massive, almost symphonic sound.
I also really appreciate the effort Marionette have expended on pushing melodic death metal beyond its typical, simple and short song structures. Maybe producing longer melodeath songs isn’t quite so impressive in a year where Insomnium released the forty-minute Winter’s Gate, but you can hear that every song on Propaganda is a complete labour of passion.
4. Sylvaine – Wistful
Sylvaine is a solo project which produces Alcest-y post-black metal (Alcest‘s Neige plays in Sylvaine‘s live band) which is so good that it has stolen Kodama‘s place in this list. Black metal’s extremity stands out in her sound, but it slips in and out of Wistful‘s reverb-driven atmospherics so elegantly. It’s like an Enya show where no-one is questioning why Abbath is crab walking onstage every other song.
As well as playing all the instruments on Wistful, Sylvaine is an incredibly talented vocalist – equally able to build blissed out choral walls of sound and smash through them with her harsh shriek. This combination gives ‘Earthbound’ and ‘In the Wake of Moments Passed By’ really powerful shifts in their dynamics, but the completely sung ‘Delusions’ shows just how great Sylvaine can be even when she sticks to the chill side of her palette.
3. Numenorean – Home
One of the few positives of 2016 being an unrelenting series of atrocities is that it’s been a good year for DSBM. New material from Harakiri For The Sky; ColdWorld; An Autumn For Crippled Children; Violet Cold and the Moonlover rerelease have all been excellent but Numenorean stands above all of these.
Clear production and excellent guitar melodies make Home‘s ten-minute-plus songs rush by in the same way that Deafheaven managed with New Bermuda. That’s not a comparison I would make lightly – Numenorean‘s disciplined songwriting means that nothing drags or overstays its welcome.
I love the poetic language which Deafheaven use to express depression, but Brandon Lemley uses a Ghost Bath-like, effusive delivery to give his blunt lyrics (“Give me. My. Comfort./Where? Is my? Mother?”) immense power. Home is a cathartic and challenging album which feels genuine in a way that few can achieve.
2. Architects – All Our Gods have Abandoned Us
Created with remarkable maturity and insight for someone faced with their own mortality at such a young age, All Our Gods… is about living a life which will produce works which survive death. Even at a time when it must have been tempting to retreat entirely into the personal, Tom’s lyrics keep an anticapitalist, political edge. Closing track ‘Memento Mori’ makes the album’s message clear – “Was your life worth dying for?”
The music behind this is also a career best for Architects. Weighty guitars provide a perfect foundation for complex electronics, strong melodic leads and choruses which are more compulsive listening than anything this heavy should be. All Our Gods… is a worthy monument to the whole band’s talent and will keep Tom in metal’s collective memory for a long time.
1. Oceans of Slumber – Winter
Winter is beautiful. It’s a deep, meandering album built from the progressive metal bleakness of Opeth and the death-doom of My Dying Bride and Katatonia crossed with Cold Specks’ doom soul. Oceans of Slumber aren’t shy about displaying their inspirations, but the resulting combination is unique. They retain their predecessors’ complexity and powerful lyrics about loss and add strong rock sensibilities which make them catchy even at their heaviest and most esoteric.
The only vocal performances better than Cammie Gilbert’s contribution to Winter I’ve heard this year are when I’ve seen her live. She has an emotive, powerful voice which makes her solo ‘Lullaby’ one of this album’s many highlights. ‘Suffer The Last Bridge’, which supports Cammie at her finest with Dobber Beverly’s hyper-paced drums, is just the best song heavy music produced in 2016. Winter is not only a triumph in its own right, it shows immense potential. It’s so exciting to imagine how Oceans of Slumber will develop their style beyond this.
5. Metallica – Hardwired… to Self Destruct
After eight years of apparent studio inertia, a period that saw endless cash-grab tours, a weird concert-film hybrid that no-one wanted to see (Through the Never) and a one-off single that no one wanted to hear (‘Lords of Summer’), the Bay Area heavy weights returned. And the wait turned out to be worth it. While releasing three of the album’s strongest moments in advance meant that on the full release there was less to get stuck into on first listen, when the dust settled fans and casual acquaintances alike had plenty to cheer. Recent ‘tallica has often been hard to connect to emotionally, and so it’s a real delight to discover a sincerely raw undercurrent to Hardwired… (even if it takes a few spins to get there) not seen at least since the underrated Load or possibly even their all-conquering ’80s output.
4. All Them Witches – Dying Surfer Meets his Maker
Ok, so this one may be a slight cheat as it saw the light of day in the US, at least, in late 2015, but it hit the UK properly this year, and it’s more than worthy of the attention. If you like your metal country-tinged, desert burned and mystical, this Nashville quartet’s third album should be a go-to for 2016. ‘Open Passageways’, for example, blends elements of Zeppelin with Wovenhand‘s spiritual zeal, and a couple of instrumentals like the acoustic ‘Mellowing’ stake a direct claim upon the heart. When the band takes the foot off the brake, as with the scuzzed-up, driving ‘Dirt Preachers’, or the eight-minute slow-motion eruption of ‘El Centro’, it’s time to let go and get swept along in the dizzying melee.
3. Deftones – Gore
Another album that takes several visits before a real impression emerges, Gore‘s largely mid-pace takes a little getting used to, but it’s worth the wait. From the crushing, thrash-tinged ‘Doomed User’ through the typical modern Deftones sound of lead-off single ‘Prayers / Triangles’ to the shimmering choruses of the likes of ‘Rubicon’, it’s an album full of beauty and wonder that’s unafraid to take its time and explore the spaces. Chino Moreno’s vocal performance rivals anything the band has put its name to since White Pony while Stephen Carpenter’s guitar work finds new shades of light and dark (despite the guitarist’s apparent initial antipathy towards the record’s direction) and a crystal clear production balances the delicate and the blunt.
2. Black Crown Initiate – Selves We Cannot Forgive
A hair’s breadth off the top spot, the Pennsylvanian progressive death metallers really did themselves proud on album number two. What makes this collection so thrilling is its seemingly effortless blending of disparate elements in a way that does justice to each while creating an entirely edifying whole. Searing growls and taught clean vocals feed off each other, spidery guitar work and heavier than lead riffage share the same space, and intricate layers provide a backdrop for some world-class shredding solo moments. With at-times breathtaking musicianship on display and a very human, emotional pull throughout, this should put heavy hitters like Opeth and Mastodon on notice that the genre’s top table is about to get a little more crowded.
1. Toothgrinder – Nocturnal Masquerade
One of the first albums to hit the shops at the start of the year has been a firm fixture on the Fogarty 8-track ever since. Every listen brings something new to find in this dense, sprawling and chaotic collection from the New Jersey prog metallers, that hits as many math metal touchpoints as it does prog. One of the things that sets this apart from some of the other releases this year is the way it deftly walks that fine line between heavy duty musicianship and a sense of humour. An unbridled glee permeates the likes of ‘Lace & Anchor’ and ‘Coeur D’Alene’ that augments rather than diminishes the assault on the senses. More sensitive fare like ‘I Lie in Rain’ and ‘Diamonds for Gold’ are matched by raging stompers like ‘Blue’ and ‘Schizophrenic Jubilee’, and it’s never anything less than compelling.
5. Alcest – Kodama
After cleansing their sound of all semblance of metal and going full on shoegaze with 2014’s brilliant Shelter, Kodama was a welcome return to the duo’s roots. Their black metal influences hang a lot closer to the surface this time out, with tremolo picking and shrieked vocals aplenty. The guitar parts also overlap moreso than on previous releases, building each song into a busy collage of colour and influence. Buzzsaw riffs sear away beneath clean strings, all steeped in heavy reverb, which gives it that spiritual quality that is unmistakably Alcest. Kodama is much darker than their other works, but maintains that bright, airy characteristic that makes them so atypical of the genre.
4. Countless Skies – New Dawn
If, like me, you’ve been despairing at the current state of the UK melodic death metal scene, you’d do well to pick up a copy of New Dawn. Firmly characterised by its soaring and triumphant layered leads, its attention to melody is its defining trait and what makes it such an identifiable and enjoyable listen. The lead vocals sound effortlessly savage, while the rhythms make heavy use of stop-start riffs – a largely underused component of most melodic death metal, and one which has been used to great effect here. The clean vocals – courtesy of Bassist Phil Romeo – are almost operatic in their power and their sparing use makes them all the more effective. With their debut album, Countless Skies mark themselves out as the brightest beacon for UK melodic death metal.
3. Fallujah – Dreamless
Dreamless achieved an impressive feat this year, managing to be simultaneously the heaviest and the most delicate metal album released in 2016. With its female cleans, layered guitar effects and heavy use of programming, there’s something incredibly serene, ethereal and otherworldly about this album – almost as if there’s a ghost in the speakers. When it’s heavy it maintains a fine balance of groove and technical dexterity, which rage along beneath what is quite easily the most distinctive lead guitar playing in any sub-genre of metal. This is one of those albums that has to be heard to be comprehended.
2. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate
“Our next album is going to be a concept album; one 40 minute song,” – the words that every music fan dreads to hear; the last words that a musician speaks before he disappears up his own arse on a quest of self fellatio and personal enlightenment as his music career fades into obscurity. Not so Insomnium. Shrouded in dense swaths of atmosphere and ambience, Winter’s Gate takes the listener on a journey that maintains symbiosis with the story upon which it is based. From triumphant stomping riffs to bleak leads that weep with fear and despair, Insomnium’s melodic, moody compositions meander through frostbitten paths of black metal and languid rivers of doom all while maintaining that signature melodeath sound. Eloquent and artistic, Winter’s Gate is a fine example of the creative potential of melodic death metal.
1. Amon Amarth – Jomsviking
Jomsviking has demanded the most repeat listens this year, despite my initial protests. You’ll find none of the mythology or character references from the sagas that have, until this point, been the Swedes’ bread and mead. This is an album based purely in storytelling fantasy, and the dark, sinister accent to their riffs has been replaced with a bouncy jauntiness that courses through each of its songs. It’s an album that capitalises upon their gimmick and almost parodies itself, and I’m somewhat loathe to admit that it does a damned fine job. It also features some of the catchiest, most energetic riffs of the band’s career along with a number of harmonised guitar melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place in Iron Maiden’s back catalogue. Gustafsson’s drumming is absolutely sublime (all due respect to Fredrik Andersson), echoing the guitar parts and imbuing the songs with an extra Viking stomp. This album cannot be played loud enough.
5. Crippled Black Phoenix Bronze
Bronze doesn’t take long to seduce you with its genre-crossing compositions and before long you will find yourself immersed in its murky atmosphere. Crippled Black Phoenix have managed to create music which provides the perfect soundtrack for all those moments when you feel overwhelmed by feelings that can’t be defined. Some may argue that not all of the tracks on the album are equally strong. However, judging every track of this album individually would never be the best way to convey its overall impact with carefully balanced highs and lows. Bronze lets you come up for a quick gasp of air before it drags you back down; just surrender and let it work its way into your ears and mind.
4. Downfall of Gaia – Atrophy
The promo blurb for this album from Metal Blade read, “A record about the absurdity of life and of human existence, an album about the constant dialog between life and death.” And boy, did they get it right! The German quintet returned with their fourth full-length album Atrophy, caught somewhere between the uncertainty of non-existence and the pain of life. The soaring melodies and pained vocals of Atrophy will lead you to succumbing to its whirlpool of distilled misery in no time. Raspy vocals which turn into dissonant cries, gut-splitting bass lines, trembling guitar riffs and solid drumming piece together one of the best releases of this year.
3. – Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder
Sometimes you need to lock yourself in a room and just listen to music, loud enough to rip your ear drums apart and to suppress every single cell in your body slowly replacing the blood in your veins with riffs. Arctic Thunder is just the ticket for that kind of endeavour. Apart from showcasing some solid songwriting, Darkthrone’s latest offering also proves that these guys are still around because they simply enjoy producing great music – nothing more, nothing less and it’s this honest and direct approach that makes Arctic Thunder unique. Yes of course the album is full of metal goodness, it’s Darkthrone we’re talking about here after all, but it’s the fire in their hearts that makes it all so much more appealing.
2. Dark Tranquillity – Atoma
If, like me, you are a sucker for melodic death metal then look no further. With Atoma, Dark Tranquillity manage to push their musical boundaries even further while staying loyal to their trademark sound, an achievement in itself. Atoma carefully tiptoes between gothic and death metal without ever outstaying its welcome on each side of the line. The album’s lyrics and harmonies ooze darkness, building a wall of ice and noise packed with muddy melodies that invite the listener to gradually melt it down over 49 minutes. A mission you will never regret embarking upon.
1. Zhrine – Unortheta
From the land of volcanic ash and icy rain, Zhrine emerged from the debris of Gone Postal and with Unortheta they will lead you down paths that may not be easy to navigate but will reward you with every twist and turn. The perfect union of post-black, black, doom, stoner and death metal creates a pandemonium of sound that demands you to get stuck in it. Every single element of this album orchestrates the perfect feeling of desolation without sounding contrived for single second. Prominent and disorientating bass lines, distorted riffs, drum blastbeats and trance-like vocals that seem to obey the music, make Unortheta the most effortlessly inspired and remarkable release of the year. Don’t try to resist Zhrine’s masterpiece; Open your arms, push your chest out and let Unortheta’s blasts consume you.
5. Dark Tranqillity – Atoma
It almost feels like Dark Tranquillity are the unsung heroes of Gothenburg melodeath at this point. At The Gates are here today, gone tomorrow; and In Flames are doing everything they can to bastardise their own legacy – yet Dark Tranquillity never seem to get the same amount of attention. Undeterred by this, Dark Tranquillity continue to slog away, and though albums may vary in quality; they are arguably the champions of the scene that spawned them. Especially when they churn out belters like Atoma.
Opening track ‘Encircled’ is phenomenal in that it sounds just as fresh and vibrant as the Gothenburg sound did when it emerged over 20 years ago. Following this with title track ‘Atoma’ is a masterstroke, as it introduces electronic elements to the mix, acting as a wicked one-two punch that forebodes things to come for the rest of the album on tracks like ‘Forward Momentum’.
It’s not the most innovative album, nor is it even the best Dark Tranquillity album. It’s really bloody good though.
4. Primitai – Night Brings Insanity
As I stated in my original review, everything has perfectly fallen into place for Primitai. They’ve taken their apparent influences, melded them with their own nuances, and now they sound like the band they’ve always threatened to sound like. And Night Brings Insanity is, frankly, just an astoundingly fun record. Hooks, harmonies and solos abound, it’s the sort of album that reminds you why you started listening to metal in the first place.
Make no mistake, this is a goddamn drinking album. Songs like ‘Power Surge’, ‘Night Hunter’ and ‘Savage Skies’ hit every damn note you want them to – echoing Pantera, Priest, Van Halen, you name it – and yet Primitai still sound fresh as a metal daisy. Somebody beer me!
3. Gojira – Magma
Whilst not as immediate as 2012’s monstrous L’Enfant Sauvage, Magma is still imbued with Gojira’s trademark raw power and emotion, but in a more introspective way. Tracks like ‘Shooting Star’ and ‘Yellow Stone’ might be the closest Gojira ever come to making Shoegaze.
The decision to lean more heavily on clean vocals also makes this the most accessible Gojira album to date, especially when coupled with songs like ‘Stranded’; which I would consider the only Gojira song to date that I could envision being played in a metal club.
An album that branches out into the outside world, whilst still remaining uniquely Gojira, Magma is yet another reason to claim that Gojira are metal’s next true heavyweights.
2. Avantasia – Ghostlights
In all sincerity, I adore this album, and have done since I first heard it wayyyyyyy back in January. Regardless of your feelings towards the inherent silliness of power metal, it has to be noted that Ghostlights is an absolute monster of a record; and one that secretes obnoxious levels of talent from it’s greasy Meat Loaf-loving pores.
From the Eurovision bothering ‘Mystery Of A Blood Red Rose’ acting as the best early 90’s power ballad that never was, and the ENORMOUS ‘Let The Storm Descend Upon You’ deftly displaying both the vocal and songwriting talents of Tobias Sammet and company, Ghostlights is glorious pomp from start to finish.
It’s like the fois gras of music. Totally overindulgent, decadent and unnecessary, but damn it all, it’s delicious.
I’ve never eaten fois gras.
1. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate
Winter’s Gate is a concept album (or singular song, really) about a Viking clan setting out to discover a fabled island as winter draws near. If you think this information is unnecessary, you are astoundingly wrong.
As ‘Part 1’ greets you with the sound of blustering wind, you become enveloped in the frigid atmosphere of Winter’s Gate – it’s a small touch, but one that deftly changes the tone of the entire album. Insomnium set out to create an atmospheric and layered story, and have succeeded immeasurably.
You can tell this was a passion project for Insomnium, as they create an absolute wall of noise that practically knocks you off your feet. There’s so much to note – the stunning harmonies of the harsh and clean vocals, the stupendous solo work, the primal and immediate drumming; it simply cannot all be digested in a single sitting.
One of the most immersive and addictive albums you will ever hear; both prodigiously beautiful and skull-crushingly heavy. Winter’s Gate is actually perfect.
(Proving that Winter’s Gate works best as a whole, this was the most singular version of it that I could find on YouTube!)