Top Albums of 2016, by Andrew Sacher
If you’ve been following along with these top albums lists on IO, you’ve read enough intros on how metal has been a place of solace during this not-so-great year, so I’ll keep things short here and get right to the music. (If you read Stereogum, perhaps you’ve read former IO editor Doug Moore’s lengthy piece on metal as escapism vs metal that confronts the world’s injustice. It’s a much better take on this topic than I could give you.)
My taste generally leans towards the punk, hard rock and psychedelic side of metal, so you might see some stuff here that’s “not really metal” and you won’t see, like, Wormed. There are plenty of familiar names on the list, but hopefully you come across something you might’ve missed.
20. Sumac – What One Becomes (Thrill Jockey, USA)
19. Blood Incantation – Starspawn (Dark Descent, USA)
18. White Lung – Paradise (Domino, Canada)
17. Alcest – Kodama (Prophecy Productions, France)
16. Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä (Svart, Finland)
15. Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows (Relapse, USA)
14. Deftones – Gore (Reprise, USA)
13. Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death (Sargent House, USA)
12. Cough – Still They Pray (Relapse, USA)
11. Neurosis – Fires Within Fires (Neurot, USA)
It’s not always good news when heavy bands start getting more accessible, but Arabrot pull it off excellently on The Gospel. They managed to make what’s nearly a pop album while still retaining everything that’s powerful and creepy about them. Main member Kjetil Nernes made the album with members of Swans, Killing Joke, Sunn O))), Serena-Maneesh, and Kvelertak; with a group like that, you know you’re getting something wild. The Gospel has bits of noise, sludge, industrial, goth, and more. Kjetil’s pained-yet-catchy vocals are the driving force of the album, and there’s a ton of stuff going on instrumentally too. Not that The Gospel doesn’t have a ton of distorted guitars, but the “riffs” here come from sinister piano melodies.
Pillars of Ash, Black Tusk’s first full-length album in five years, is bittersweet. Before it was finished, bassist/co-vocalist Jonathan Athon tragically died in a motorcycle accident, and the band completed the album without him. It’s the last time we’ll ever hear Athon’s voice (this is sadly and strangely a trend this year), and it also may just be the band’s best album to date. Black Tusk’s Georgia sludge neighbors are either venturing into prog (Baroness), mainstream rock (Mastodon), or indefinite hiatus (Kylesa). Black Tusk remain the speediest, most intense one of the bunch. Pillars of Ash is as much a hardcore record as it is a sludge record. The mosh-ready rhythms and the desperate shouts have Black Tusk at their most urgent and most purposeful yet.
Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas
It looked for a minute there like Cult of Luna was on the verge of hiatus, but instead they came back with something unlike anything they’d done before. Mariner is a collaborative album with Julie Christmas (who fronted the truly absurd band Made Out of Babies), and it’s a collaboration that worked out way better than you might have guessed it would. Lyrically, it’s a concept album about space, and space is a good metaphor for what it sounds like too. Not that it sounds like Hawkwind or something, but just that it has no boundaries that the human eye can see. Julie’s clean vocals can be genuinely pretty, but her screams can be blood-curdling. Cult of Luna offer up droning ambience one minute, and crushing sludge the next. The album also does something I appreciate more and more given our shortened attention spans in the internet era: Mariner‘s best song is the last song, which clocks in at over 15 minutes. That song is a serious trip, and the ending — which was one of metal’s catchiest moments this year — is the climax that CoL and Julie were building towards throughout the whole album.
Snake Church is yet another reminder that Ringworm really don’t get enough credit. They’ve influenced a huge handful of metallic hardcore bands over the past 20 or so years, and their new music is still better than most. Ringworm never sound content with living off past achievements. On Snake Church, they sound inspired, like they’re still working towards something they haven’t found yet. They’re still refusing to fit neatly into metal or hardcore, with the flashy solos of the former and the breakneck speeds and short songs of the latter. Those things rarely came together in a more fun way in 2016 than they did on this album.
No shade to Deafheaven, but how is Oathbreaker not the black metal band that hipsters are latching onto? Like Deafheaven, they tint their BM with post-rock, shoegaze and post-hardcore, but Caro Tanghe’s sung vocals give them a beauty and an accessibility that Deafheaven have yet to approach. She also expresses so much emotion, and has so much range, that it’s impossible for Rheia to ever become background music. Her singing voice nears Bjork levels of weirdness, while her screams are as angered as the most political hardcore bands. It’s an astonishing album, and it makes everything they’ve done before it sound downright straightforward in comparison.
NOLA sludge greats Crowbar have basically been doing the same thing since the ’90s, but something about The Serpent Only Lies feels extra classic. Maybe it’s because original bassist Todd Strange is back in the fold for the first time since 2000, or maybe it’s because Kirk Windstein said he revisited the music that influenced the early Crowbar records while writing this one. Whatever it is, it’s a serious treat to get an album this purely enjoyable from a band this far into their career. As far as badass, no-bullshit sludge goes, Serpent rivals Crowbar’s own classics, bands they’ve influenced, and bands that influenced them. The title track even goes into clean-vocal territory in a way that could non-cheesily rival radio-friendly grunge (or grunge lovers Baroness). Most bands can only hope to feel this fresh 25+ years in.
When classic rock heads say there’s no good rock anymore, you have to assume they’re not listening to metal. For music with the soaring lead vocals, beefy riffs, and ambitious prog tendencies of the ’70s, you didn’t have to look much further than For This We Fought the Battle of Ages in 2016. It’s six songs, most of which are over ten minutes long, and it sounds like Black Sabbath meets Jethro Tull meets Fairport Convention. How do we get this in the hands of every ex-pothead baby boomer? Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack’s voices and electric violins intertwine beautifully throughout this album, as the rest of the band give the songs serious weight. A lot of bands mixed the heavy with the pretty in 2016, but no one else did it quite like this.
List, Martyrdod’s third album since adopting a more melodic style on 2012’s Paranoia (and sixth overall), is never content to stay in one lane. The rhythm section is usually playing like a punk band but the guitarists are off playing NWOBHM and thrash-influenced leads. Mikael Kjellman’s harsh screams pull from black and death metal, while the riffs are a pure sugar rush. It’s virtually impossible to sit still and not smile when this is on. Even if you’re not entirely sure what Mikael is singing, this is shit to headbang at your desk to, and just lose yourself in the riffs. In 36 minutes, Martyrdod churn out more thrilling guitar work than some bands do in an entire career.
Cobalt’s Slow Forever is one of the year’s weirdest success stories. It all came together after the duo’s founding vocalist Phil McSorely left the group, leaving only multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder. McSorely was replaced with Lord Mantis vocalist Charlie Fell and they arguably made Cobalt’s best album yet. A rather far cry from Cobalt’s earlier black metal albums, Slow Forever has hints of art rock, hardcore, and some of the best damn riffs I’ve heard all year. It’s an album where I can never decide if I want to yell along or hum the riffs. The contrast between the two is also constantly thrilling. While the instrumental arrangements are tight and structured, Charlie’s feral screams have him sounding like he’s gonna explode any second. If you see Cobalt live — which is something you can do a lot more frequently than when Phil McSorely was in the band — Charlie Fell comes off even more like a maniac.
Kvelertak already made two of my favorite metal records of the current decade, so if they were gonna go ahead and make one that bests everything else they’ve done, of course it’s gonna be my #1. I didn’t have this much fun listening to any album in any genre of music this year. On certain days, I feel like it’s all I can really ask for from rock and roll. Hummable, air-guitar-worthy riffs, full speed ahead rhythms, fist-pumping choruses, shredding solos… isn’t this what rock and roll and heavy metal is all about? I used to describe Kvelertak as classic rock radio and extreme metal in a blender, but on Nattesferd, the only thing they sound like is Kvelertak. It’s their first album that doesn’t have Kurt Ballou producing, and without him, they opened up their sound in new ways. They sound bigger and more singular than ever before.