Top Albums of 2016, by Courtney Iseman
With the high concentration of black metal and classic metal that I listen to, I constantly feel pressure–just from myself–to seek out other subgenres and twists to shake things up a little and also get a better feel for what’s happening in metal as a whole. I found 2016 to be a good year because it delivered everything I love and everything I was looking for (at least, what I knew I was looking for), from straightforward black metal to different approaches like folk-meets-black metal to the return of several icons. 2016 had a strong classic metal vibe for sure, thanks to Anthrax, Megadeth, and an assortment of live/covers/previously unreleased tracks/etc. from the likes of Black Sabbath, Ace Frehley, and Motörhead. There was a lot to listen to and a lot to like, so the below are just the ones that really stood out and remain constants in my rotation.
There are so many different sounds happening with this record; it really keeps a listener on his or her toes and has that movie-like quality of unexpected twists and turns. Yet it never feels chaotic or messy—I live for an album that takes risks and experiments with new approaches, but hate when it doesn’t feel cohesive. Sourvein’s signature of southern sludge stitches all of the band’s ventures together: it’s always Sourvein, but it feels fresh.
I love the Tarantino-esque quality to the melody of “Bermuda Sundown.” I love the classic metal drive that mingles with a Bush, Stone Temple Pilots quality for “Avian Dawn.” I love the good old fashioned, mosh-worthy pummel of “Ocypuss.” I love these interesting explorations so much that I can get past the vocals–the screaming, when it does occur, is fine, but the singing is so nϋ metal to me that it keeps this album from being further up my list of favorites. Every now and then, T-Roy channels Scooter Ward doing an impression of Marilyn Manson–not the best. But all of the instrumentals and the musicianship can effectively counteract that cringe factor.
I’ve never been able to get into ambient noise, which is why Black Funeral lost me a little there in the middle. But Ankou and the Death Fire is a clear and purposeful return to the old-school black metal Michael Ford and his band had started championing back in 1993. And now, the nods to ambient noise weave themselves into the intros and endings of the onslaughts of each track, which takes me back to the delightfully unsettled and disturbed feeling I got when I first started listening to Abruptum. The title track offers just the right amount of the creeps.
The entire album strikes the perfect balance between black metal’s signature lo-fi sound and high enough quality that one can appreciate every chord change and howl. This seems especially important for songs like opener “Shadows of Obour,” which plays like an opera in its musical storytelling and dramatic complexity. This release had me–and still does–totally wrapped up in the tales each track has to tell yet the indulgently icy, evil black metal voice it uses to do so.
Head of the Demon
If ever one needs proof that all metal sounds can be traced back to a founding father like Black Sabbath, there’s Head of the Demon. The Swedish outfit is ritualistic worlds away from straightforward Birmingham darkness, yet these common metal roots are evident in Head’s moody, early doom-sludge melodies. I love a familiar tie-in like that, especially when in stark contrast to the decadent weirdness of this kind of band, so I therefore love Head of the Demon’s second album, Sathanis Trismegistos. There’s a classic-feeling yarn spinning through the base of each horror-themed track, but then chanty death-meets-black vocals turn the morbid drama factor up to a level 11. When a doom melody already acts as a foundation for layers of macabre storytelling, trippy but tauntingly slowed-down riffs and indulgently black metal vocals, the sound is actual a whole new world of doom. It actually can make a listener feel utterly doomed, but in some kind of compelling, irresistible way.
I’ve found it a controversial thing to say, but I was never a huge fan of Isis. I dug the way they swirled sludge, doom and hardcore into a new sound, but I need music to move more than some of their more ambient-leaning tracks. It might seem lazy to compare Aaron Turner’s newer project, Sumac, to Isis, but I can’t help it because what defines Sumac for me is that it contains all of the things I liked about Isis and none of the things I didn’t.
Yes, the tracks on Sumac’s second album, What One Becomes, tailspin out into deconstructed drones that seem improvisational, the post-rock-meets-metal form of a jam band. But the effect doesn’t thin out so much that it feels like noise—it’s somehow still tight even its most wandering moments. Guitar patterns might be conjured up on the fly here, but the pace is purposeful, and when it’s unwinding, it’s an intentional punishment for the listener. This is the album to let go and enjoy the ride on, to let the band take us places we never even imagined at the start of the song.
I’ve always been especially drawn to Crowbar’s brand of sludge because it really drives, and The Serpent Only Lies is a strong example of that. It might sound like a far-flung connection, but bear with me: I get a Cramps vibe from a lot of Crowbar’s music. It’s down, dirty, ready to raise hell, and swampy (maybe that’s their New Orleans origins).
Crowbar is never going to be the kind of band that packs a surprise wallop in every new album; fans can rather count on this outfit for consistency that is never repetitive. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But do find intriguing variations on it for ten different tracks so listeners can sink their teeth into the slow and steady drums and the deep and windy guitar riffs of songs like “Plasmic and Pure” and “I Am the Storm.” This album also gets bonus points here for Kirk Windstein’s vocals–they seem more pronounced and honest than ever, like he’s got something to say.
As Jon Rosenthal said when discussing this album’s anticipated release, “music doesn’t always have to frown with a furrowed brow.” Some original Darkthrone fans have already long abandoned keeping up with new efforts and cling to the band’s early, more strictly black metal days. Others—I fall into this camp—are just happy Darkthrone is still making new music, happy to hear whatever they’ve got. Sometimes it’s okay to have fun listening to a band you’ve loved forever. Right off the bat, Arctic Thunder’s name makes me think of that saccharine Irish pop group Celtic Thunder, and this amuses me to no end.
But in all seriousness, pop this is obviously not. Some genre-founding bands will forever remain just that, and some bands will never stop evolving–there is space and need for both. Darkthrone has proven itself the latter. Arctic Thunder still keeps one foot in the black metal space via guitar, but lets the other foot set off into territories of death vocals and thrash tempos. Really, this album feels like a tribute to metal as a whole.
Admittedly counterproductive for someone who writes about music, I’m a creature of habit. As much as almost nothing seems as exciting as discovering a new favorite band, it is also just irresistibly easy and comfortable to retreat into the familiar embrace of old favorites. For that reason, I find it such a rare treat when one of those old favorites releases an album that’s true to its sound yet adventurous.
Anthrax’s For All Kings is the Anthrax I know and love, but there’s not a moment where I felt bored or like a song sounded like an older effort. The intro to “You Gotta Believe” taps into the same part of my brain that Game of Thrones does: I’m stoked on the drama and choose the good old fashioned escapism of a little bit of cheesiness over the instinct to be a snob and deem it as, well, cheesiness. On that note, it’s easy to suspend any predilections for snobbery and just enjoy the hell out of “Breathing Lightning,” “Suzerain” and “Evil Twin,” too.
It’s so satisfying when a band with a gimmick can actually play to back it up. That’s one of the reasons I’ve long loved Ghoul. Their brand of thrash is tight. It respects the old school but infuses personality through madcap lyrics and wonky riffs. In this evolution, I’ve found July’s Dungeon Bastards to be one of Ghoul’s best. It demonstrates this band is actually bettering itself with each effort.
Opener “Ghetto Blasters” is in the perfect position. It gets wild with a snakey guitar riff that winds around a punishing rhythm guitar and drum pairing. That becomes a theme: the guitar is a second lead singer here, injecting another, exploring layer of melody into more straightforward thrash rhythm sections and death metal riffs. It does so on “Ghoulunatics,” an unrelenting yet earwormy song with a self-deprecating chorus chant. While each song neatly wraps up thrash, death and Ghoul’s ridiculous story in a frantically energetic way, the star track is arguably “Word of Law,” one of the band’s heaviest and most early-days, Big-Four-esque songs to date.
2016 was a shitty year for things like losing legends, but it threw us a couple of bones. One was Bowie’s Blackstar, of course. Another was Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression. I should mention that Iggy Pop is pretty much my everything, and in that way, this year was swell. We got this album, his tour, and I’m still high off seeing Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger. I revere Iggy so much that I was hesitant to listen to this album—how would this hold up in my idol worship of Jim Osterberg? And with Josh Homme as producer, when I’m not a big Josh Homme fan?
The result, however, is why I’m putting this album in a list I mostly kept to metal in order to reel it in and not have a list of my 30 top albums, and why I’m putting it so high up. Sure, I can hear Homme’s influence, but who would have guessed that sound would actually be one that now seems made for Iggy? Even the tracks that veer loungey smack of his seminal punk darkness. “Sunday” is soulful and ends in a bizarrely well-matched orchestral moment, and “Gardenia” transports the listener to a grimy 70s Miami where everyone’s drinking white Russians. This is the Iggy I know and love, and also proof he’s immortal (fingers crossed).
I’m a sucker for cinematic music, and Darkestrah goes there right in Turan’s first track, “One with the Grey Spirit.” Chills. This expedition starts out painting a scene of some faraway land with unsettling sounds of tragedy flickering through somber chants. Then it swells to orchestral proportions. Finally, it explodes with ferocious black metal that is still hauntingly melodic, like the devil showing up to claim responsibility for whatever disaster was dying down in the song’s beginning.
With its world folk slant, Darkestrah has been the band to listen to in order to expand one’s musical horizons without ever having to leave the comforts of metal since its debut in 2004. Turan does not disappoint. These six songs, all packing Darkestrah’s original blend of ethnic folk and black metal, tell a new story, the sonic version of a page-turner. This album isn’t one to listen to while mindlessly pecking away at a keyboard in a cubicle. It’s too hypnotizing, too upsetting, too captivating, too complex—it demands all attention, all the time.