Top Albums of 2016 by Rob Sperry-Fromm
What a year, right? Lemmy’s death at the tail end of 2015 was an alarm bell: 2016 was coming for us, and it was going to take all it could get. I hardly need to recount it all, but c’mon, if I had told you that Donald Trump would be the president-elect in the same year that the Cubs won the world series…well, just, why would I say something like that?
And for me, a lot of this madness meant a retreat into metal. After the election, in particular, only the most brutal shit could tamp down my lingering anxiety and despair. There’s a beautiful contrast at the heart of heavy music, between bodily fury and brainy complexity, the punk vs. prog ends of the spectrum. Often I found that metal’s left vs. right-brained struggle, and ultimate resolution, to be something that I needed more than ever during this scattered, violent year.
My favorite records run along that whole spectrum, from pure power to nerdy digressions. A couple get pretty close to not even being metal, but that’s part of what makes the current landscape so good. The boundaries determining what’s what (and this goes for all music, not just the heavy stuff) get hazier every year, and who would complain about that? It’s a confusing time to be alive on all fronts, and that includes heavy music, which has always embraced and reflected our potential for brilliance and ugliness. Hopefully it can keep us going for a few more years at least.
Chris Black has been writing hook-oriented hard rock for a few years now as High Spirits, and Motivator, while hardly new ground for anyone, is spirited (heh) tonic for anyone with the 2016 doldrums. It couldn’t be less depressive if it tried, and the relentless positivity somehow manages the trick of seeming neither corny nor campy. And the man simply has a gift for hooks, each song having to potential to get stuck in your head for days afterwards (“Reach For the Glory” and “Haunted By Love” being among my most-hummed of 2016). This album is short and sweet, and it feels shorter and sweeter for how much fun it is.
Paradise Gallows is a demanding, enveloping, mighty piece of work from a band that refuses to conform to expectations. I wrestled with this album more than any other on my list. I still think that 2014’s The Cavern is the best, most complete thing they’ve ever done, a masterpiece of tension, release, and sheer pastoral beauty. But I think it’s to Inter Arma’s credit that they didn’t merely continue in that record’s direction like some may have wanted, instead pushing themselves into Swans-like swirls of heaviness that disorient even the most attentive listener. “Violent Constellations” best exemplifies their power here (although “The Summer Drones” is hard to top on a strictly riff-based evaluation system); it’s a prolonged flash of difficulty, flirting with doom, black, and death metal fused with straight noise and insanity, a boundary-pusher of a song that never wants to sit still. Which is a tendency it shares with the rest of this imposing, confounding, and ultimately rewarding album.
This is one of those albums that I don’t feel like I have too much to say about that hasn’t already been said about Meshuggah over the years. Yes, their formula is cemented at this point, and there is a sense in which every recent Meshuggah album is essentially a reworking of various past glories. But I find it easy to ignore those issues when I actually listen to the album, which I’ve done compulsively for a couple months now; this is potent stuff. “Clockworks” starts things off with such furious efficiency, such confidence, such a promise that left hooks and gut-punches are around every corner on this thing. Nothing is groundbreaking here, sure, and we’ve probably come to expect groundbreaking from these guys. But like Koloss, this is just a damn good Meshuggah album, and that’s better than much of I heard this year.
I’m a bit self-conscious about throwing an EP on here, but fuck, does this thing rip. Scott Hull has of course always played with sludge and doom in different formats, whether it was a sped-up Sabbath riff in the midst of furious grind or Pig Destroyer side bits like Mass and Volume or Natasha. But Arc is a glorious unleashing of gun-slinging heavy blues from one of the greatest guitarists in the heavy universe, a technical genius letting his swagger take over. And Kat Katz, who’s idea it was to go full sludge in the first place, also works incredibly in this context, her screams making her out to be a more piercing, more sober version of Eyehategod’s Mike Williams. And all that is not to mention Hull’s drum programming, which, people just aren’t supposed to be this good at that. This unquestionably provides the most pound-for-pound head bobs of any release this year, a simple cave-man delight.
40 Watt Sun
This is another record who’s inclusion here I debated, not because I don’t love it, but because I don’t really know if it’s metal. But such petty questions melt away in the face of this overwhelmingly beautiful record. Patrick Walker’s songwriting has taken doom metal’s monolithic sorrow and refined it into doom that doesn’t need to be metal. There’s a clarity here that’s disarming, displaying songwriting that doesn’t have to draw attention to form in order to be powerful. It makes me think of Codeine but without any real trace of punk, or if Low was a little more single-minded. But the powerful, raw emotionalism is what makes this record special. Any time I put it on it makes me want to cry.
SubRosa have ascended to “best doom band on earth” contender status with this album, a stunningly assured and engaging piece of long-form majesty. They’ve always been really good, but to me this is their first capital-g great album, the album where they put it all together. SubRosa write long, detailed songs that hang together, that keep the listener on the edge of their seat, that can crush you with heaviness or bring a tear to your eye with an effortless turn of melodic phrase (often both at once). I can’t think of another working band that gets so much out of simple loud-quiet-loud dynamics, and that’s because they pack these songs with so many jump-out-of-your chair moments. I’d like to pick a favorite song but they’re all marvels. The vocal melodies, the riffs, the still-unique use of strings, it’s all just perfectly aligned here, a great band operating at peak effectiveness.
Kvelertak’s first two albums were both about as close to perfect as I thought they could ever really get and nearly identical in a lot of ways. On Nattesferd, they really surprised me. They retained everything that’s always made them so fun but they funneled it in a different direction. As strange as it sounds, leaving Kurt Ballou’s production behind was actually a great thing for the band. Even though a band like Kvelertak is inherently limited by the endless quest for fun, this feels like they’re pushing themselves and expanding in flattering new directions. There’s a sense of texture here that makes the band feel more timeless than their influence-heavy sound ever has. There’s a self-confidence and a trust in simple material to deliver the goods. And there’s less reliance on the face-punch as musical delivery system, an understanding that a subtler change in feel can be as viscerally effective as another towering riff.
All of this adds up to some of the greatest musical rushes a band has provided me with this year. The soft-rock third section of “Ondskapens Galakse,” the acoustic rhythm-guitar overlays of “Nattesferd,” the out-of-nowhere groove that takes over halfway through “Beserkr;” these are the straight goods, moments of fuck-it, we’re a rock and roll band alchemy that only this band can deliver right now.
This is an album that keeps yielding goodies all these months after its release. An album that feels stuffed full of everything, long without being long-winded, dizzying in its virtuosity and well-wrought in almost every facet. Vektor want to give you everything you could possibly want from a prog album, and that they mostly succeed is a kind of miracle. There are so many prog or math bands that can play this well, but, and it feels weird to say for an album this gleefully over the top, so few of them have the requisite taste to pull it off on such a grand scale, without leaving the audience feeling like they’ve been given too much of a good thing. The opening trifecta of “Charging the Void,” “Cygnus Terminal” and “Liquid Crystal Disease” are almost an album’s worth of ideas on their own, and that they continue without retreading things for the rest of this exhausting, exhilarating thing is something to behold. By the time you get to the final duo of “Collapse” and “Recharging the Void,” you feel, cornily enough, like you’ve been fired through space and learned the (emotionally satisfying) meaning of existence. It’s full of such contagious energy, as if Vektor are challenging themselves: go faster, more complicated, more catchy, more joyous.
Hammers of Misfortune
This is another album that just feels filled to the brim with great stuff. John Cobbett’s songwriting has become so refined, and this album is such a pleasure to pore over. It’s full of detail in such a way that never gets in the way of a kind of melodic simplicity that carries the listener through an album that’s so dense with invention. The basis here is NWOBHM, but it feels somehow more baroque and fantastical, a star-gazer of an album rather than a hell-gazer. In a lot of ways that’s what I love about it, that it feels unbound by the formal reverence that a lot of metal clings to. It borrows sonically from a lot of places and yet the songwriting voice is so clear that it never sounds like anything other than itself. It’s an organically timeless-sounding piece of music, it feels like the product of a single, entirely unique voice. And that feeling is shockingly hard to come by in metal these days.
This might seem like an obvious choice, but from the moment I heard this album, it seemed unlikely to me that it would be topped by anything that would follow this year. It was hard to believe that Erik Wunder could ever top Gin, but he has, and easily. Slow Forever is breathtakingly ugly and majestically imposing, an examination of the time-tested American tendency to glorify and intellectualize lizard-brained behavior in the face of suffering. Thematically, this album’s invocation of Ernest Hemingway rings out in its treatment of substance abuse and depression. But it seems fitting musically as well. There’s a gestural economy here that’s the mark of a really gifted writer, a grip on the finer points of musical language that makes showiness seem unnecessary, even vulgar. The strains of black metal, doom and hardcore are diamond-sharp and hard to identify for how coherently Wunder just conjures his own sound. And enough pixellated ink has been spilled over the match-made-in-hell that is Wunder and new vocalist Charlie Fell, but what a range of feral motion this guy has, able to make rage and fear and sorrow and menace bleed into each other like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
For my money, the centerpiece here is “Cold Breaker,” which is a blistering addiction piece that goes from the hardest of hardcore riffs to the closest thing that this record gets to prettiness, letting the full emotional range of that transition hit in a way that feels gloriously cinematic. That’s the kind of word that comes to mind with this album: cinematic, literary, clear and devastatingly powerful. It’s the best thing I heard all year, in any genre, and it’s not terribly close.