Even with the hundreds of albums we come across every year, let’s face it, we still sleep on things. Especially with a large group such as ours, even if most of us on staff have listened to and obsessed over a particular album, it’s inevitable that at least a few of us won’t have jumped on the hype train. For a variety of reasons, we either dismiss certain albums when they come out, can’t properly give the time to them at first, or were simply unaware of them until someone recommends them. With that in mind, we’ve decided to make a fun new addition to our annual end-of-year lists, which is one comprised entirely of our favorite albums we heard for the first time this year or learned to love that weren’t released in 2016. Though most of these have been released in the past 5 years, there are a few that are far older, all the way to the most classic of thrash. Being a music enthusiast means constant discovery, and that includes digging back through the annals of music history. We encourage you to share your own favorite non-2016 “discoveries” this year, but in the meantime check out some of our staff’s top picks below.
Misery Index – The Killing Gods (2014)
Sometimes, missing an album has nothing to do with how much you’ve heard about it. We’d like to imagine that albums we’ve missed were ones we hardly heard of, some sort of deficiency in our communities rather than in our own habits. However, you can often be bombarded by countless people whose opinions you appreciate, all telling you to listen to an album, and you just don’t. Why? Who knows. Humans are dumb. I’m dumb for never listening to Misery Index’s The Killing Gods when it came out in 2014.
Back then, it was constantly portrayed to me as some of the best death metal in years, featuring not only a great concept but also amazing drums, breakneck riffing of the best kind and amazing vocals. Geoff Smith, then a more active member of the blog, even placed it in the number one slot for his Album of the Year. I’ll be honest with you; he wasn’t too wrong. When I finally spun the album this year, I was blown away by how fresh such classically old-school death metal could be, perfectly modern while style harping on all of the best tropes from the genre.
What brought me to listen to the album was a mix between a recommendation I couldn’t overlook and my mood being perfect for the occasion. Noyan is in a unique position when he recommends music for me to listen to; since we record the podcast, he can challenge me to listen to albums and then follow up on that challenge. Couple that with a truly annoying week where I was feeling super aggressive and in need of outlets and you get the dozen or so listens this album received from me during that week. This only goes to show that, sometimes, it’s not about the quantity of the recommendation or even its quality, but rather a question of personal context. And the tenacity of Noyan.
A Dark Orbit – Inverted (2015)
Honestly, the first time I listened to Inverted, when it came out in 2015, I thought “Yeah, this is pretty cool I guess” and then shelved it to listen to other stuff that came out around the same time (and that part of 2015 was not wanting for amazing release). This was dumb of me, as Inverted is one of the most atmospheric, heavy and diverse albums of 2015. Playing the kind of groovy laden, low-tuned deathcore (that’s not the greatest genre to file them under but it’s the best I’ve got), the band’s debut album is a melting pot of dark, heavy musical ideas that end up gelling better than you think they would on paper. It’s a fantastic example of this genre done well and taken above and beyond the milquetoast “dissonance, chugging guitars and screamed vocals” formula that so many other acts seem content with.
A Dark Orbit are a real standout band in a crowded genre that’s often incredibly derivative. Frontman Chad Kapper’s vocals go a long way towards establishing the band’s distinctive sound, his intonation and timbre sounding quite different from the typical vocalist in this genre. Combined with the excellent guitar playing, ranging from groovy chug riffs to melodic clean chords, A Dark Orbit do a lot to make themselves stand apart from their peers, and it’s a shame they’re so comparatively underrated. Don’t be an idiot like I was, go check this band out.
Elder – Dead Roots Stirring (2011)
Last year, Elder’s Lore graced our best of 2015 list, and for good reason: a phenomenal combination of classics-influenced bluesy stoner metal and progressive rock, it breathed new life into the old guard – bands like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin – whilst lighting a (probably weed-related) fire under their asses and kicking them headfirst into the 21st century. Motivated to explore their back catalogue by the extreme prowess the heavy psych trio displayed, I found myself face-to-face with an album that has now become one of my all-time favorites.
If Lore is a fantastical flight over cloudy, towering crags, Dead Roots Stirring is a trudge through the swamps far below, trading in fast, angular stabs of guitar and percussive footwork for a much more bludgeoning bluesy sound. And when Elder is on, they are fucking on: the band works themselves into and out of nasty groove after nasty groove as vocals cut through the murk and smoky haze and drums pound like a war march to provide some sort of outside context. The bass slinks and slithers like some crocodilian menace, surfacing to bite and rumble before disappearing once again into the water to accompany its compatriot instruments. That’s not to say there isn’t time for virtuosic shenanigans, though, seeing as all three members of Elder are masters of their respective noisemakers, so even their slowest, simplest grooves are tempered with switchups and fills. Guitar solos shriek and hiss like fuzzed-out, flaming globs of tar, dispelling the smoke for a little while to light the way to each song’s next massive riff and blasting groove.
The hulking, monolithic juggernaut swagger to Lore’s nimble tapdance, this album is altogether slower, muddier, and far less overtly intricate than its younger sibling, but it’s drawn me in all the more for this far less obvious approach. Hidden beneath mountains of fuzz and distortion, there are some of the most cleverly-written tracks that stoner metal has ever borne witness to, and for that, Dead Roots Stirring is an album any doom fan should be happy to check out. Don’t be me. Don’t sleep on this record.
Tesseract – Altered State (2013)
Being the colossal (and at the time quite pretentious) Meshuggah fan that I am, I didn’t take too kindly to the burgeoning djent scene that was taking hold circa 2011. At the time, British up-and-comers Tesseract were unfortunately a casualty of that attitude, and I turned up my nose to both One and Altered State where the rest of the scene actively celebrated them. I felt there was a fundamental disconnect in the two big elements of their sound; atonal Meshuggah-style riffs simply could not be made to work with clean melodic vocals, and the band was clearly forcing this blend where it did not belong.
Come 2015 and I decided to give the then-newly-released Polaris a quick spin: predictably, I remained largely unimpressed, if somewhat intrigued by just how far the band seemed to be stretching their formula (and the stellar production job was also a big plus). But several emotionally taxing months later, something pushed me to Altered State in particular, and it delivered hard. As it turns out, the trick was to stop focusing on the low end for once. Tesseract create incredibly lush soundscapes on the album, masterfully using shimmering overdubs and keys to complement then-vocalist Ashe O’Hara’s voice as it soars across the instrumentation. The lyrics are suitably heavy-handed and personal, with songs like “Retrospect” and “Singularity” in particular being some of the most emotionally heavy performances I’ve ever seen come out of anything approximating metal. Ultimately, there are very few albums within metal that are nearly as immaculate as Altered State, with every single aspect of its delivery crystal clear, expertly done, and frequently a near-surgical punch straight to the heart. With just those elements in place, we already have an instant classic of an album; the solid grooves and breakdowns, of course, are merely the cherry on top.
Leprous – Coal (2013)
Having been largely musically ignorant until 2014, I have huge gaps in my musical education and upbringing. I’d never even listened to giants like Metallica or Iron Maiden, let alone mid-sized or underground bands, and so I simply couldn’t check out each recommendation I got, no matter how strong the endorsement. And the endorsements for Leprous’ take on progressive metal were pretty damned ubiquitous amongst those who’d listened to them. When I joined the blog in 2015 I had an increased responsibility to listen to albums released within the year, and so The Congregation served as my introduction to them. I thought it was a great record, placing at at #25 in my personal top 50 for the year. Yet, the blog as a whole had it placed at #2 and, despite enjoying it, I couldn’t quite understand the hype.
Fast forward a few months and I found myself returning to The Congregation more and more. The angular riffing, weird melodies, irregular song structures and angelic vocals kept pulling me back, as I sought to understand what on earth was going on. And then one day it clicked, and retrospectively it would have been in my top 5 albums for 2015. Thus, I knew it was time to delve into their back catalogue, and I began my journey with their preceding release; Coal.
Much like The Congregation, I found Coal to be a real slow burner. At first I didn’t think it to be spectacular. Yet, like its successor, it just finds a way to keep pulling you in for more. You don’t even know why you go back to it, but you do. And eventually it clicks, and you find yourself playing one of your favourite albums; period. “The Cloak” is arguably the greatest ballad I have ever heard, Einar Solberg at the absolute top of his game as he nails every single aspect of his performance. The lyrics, the melodies, the execution; it’s all done exceptionally well, and it doesn’t hurt to have such a stunningly beautiful voice. Album closer “Contaminate Me” features the signature rasps of Ihsahn, his vocals a perfect addition to what was already an outstanding track. Such is my love for Coal and The Congregation that I’m yet to delve further into their back catalogue, and yet I already count them amongst my favourite bands. One Leprous album a year sounds like an achievable feat for me though, given how long it takes me to fully appreciate each and every aspect of them, and so I might be writing a similar piece on Bilateral in 12 months time.
Slayer – Show No Mercy (1983)
This is what I thought Slayer was supposed to sound like when I first listened to Reign in Blood. Slayer has always had the darkest and most disparate sound among the thrash Big Four, and I was never able to get into them as much as I wanted to. “Rain in Blood” was and will forever be a sterling classic, but I’ve always preferred a more traditional thrash approach in the vein of Metallica’s Kill ‘em All.
So it was quite the happy surprise to learn that Slayer’s first album was a more straightforward thrashfest than their later discography. The riffs are fast and crushing. Araya sounds like a crazed madman, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. And the solos. Wow. As one of Heavy Blog’s most unabashed solo enthusiasts, Show No Mercy is a promised land of fret-flying goodness. Nearly every song has a memorable solo, but “Die By the Sword” takes the cake. The crazed shift into high gear about halfway through that solo will forever rock my socks off.
Even today, among the mire of over thirty years of thrash inspired by albums like this, Show No Mercy sounds fresh and exciting. There’s something about being on the forefront of a burgeoning genre that gives seminal albums an infectious passion and honesty. With each song, a new boundary is set or exceeded. I can only imagine how it must have felt to hear this in 1983 – but I know how it feels to hear in 2016. It feels absolutely rad.
Mike Patton – Adult Themes For Voice (1996)
Honestly, I’ve never been a big Mike Patton fan. The metal community often deifies him and puts him on a pedestal of musical virtuosity, which makes liking him even harder. His vocal range is, supposedly, enormous, yet he never really shows all that he could do on any of the Faith No More releases I’ve listened to. Like Aidin Vaziri writes in his review for General Patton Vs the X-Ecutioners: “You get the feeling Mike Patton did his time with major label bands like Faith No More and Mr. Bungle merely as a way to fund the stuff he’s really into.” Yet even his projects outside of FNM, like this year’s Kaada/Patton release, was, for me, more disappointing than anything.
Now, before you start sharpening your pitchforks and lighting your torches, hear me out: I never said that he was a bad vocalist. Frankly, I just haven’t been looking in the right places. If you want to see Patton at his full insanity, I highly recommend you listen to just about anything that he’s done for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, including Adult Themes For Voice, his debut solo album. Part of Tzadik’s Composer series of albums, Adult Themes is quite literally Patton on his own, doing just about everything the human vocal cords are capable of. Each track contains samples culled from recordings that Patton took in his hotel rooms during concert tours, and is spliced and inserted into the studio. Some of the effects he uses are so insane that you wonder if it really is his voice on it.
In my opinion, Adult Themes is one of those albums that fucks with the definition of what music is. There really isn’t any sort of song structure, yet a certain magnetism prevails over this album’s forty-three minute runtime that makes me keep listening. I can’t say that it’s something you can just pop in the CD player and listen to nonchalantly—at least, not without some warning beforehand—but if anything, Adult Themes is truly proof that Mike Patton is one of music’s most versatile vocalists.
Beaten To Death – Unplugged (2015)
I’m writing this whilst looking out of my own asshole because that’s the only place my head could be seeing that I missed out on this until very recently. Honestly, it’s ridiculous how I’d never heard of Beaten To Death until checking the newest lineups for next years Complexity Fest. I’m almost pissed that someone might have come across this band and not instantly sent it to me with a message along the lines of “FUKN LISTEN NOOW”.
Unplugged is the pure grind album that Mr Bungle never had a chance to write. Much like their Scandinavian cousins in Piss Vortex, Beaten To Death are grind FREAKS. The meat and bones of this record are rowdy, snappy grindcore with all the attitude of a Rotten Sound or Brutal Truth; enjoy coarse, treble boosted guitars and never ending blast beats? Apply within. That doesn’t even begin to cover what’s in store for anyone demented enough to hit play on this brute. Tongues are firmly in cheek and in the most ingenious of manners. Beaten To Death inject their grind with lethal doses of traditional metal and post (yes, fucking post) metal guitars. The combination has to be heard to be believed.
I firmly believe this is one of the most important grind releases of recent times. Wormrot may have my album of the year spot for 2016 but these psycho Norwegians have cemented my belief that grind as a genre is pushing itself to the forefront of extreme metal. Experimentation is vital to keep music fresh and this is some Rick and Morty type of crazy. Am I just about to crown Beaten To Death the new kings of Avant-Grind? You bet your candy ass I am.
-Matt “Trash Can” MacLennan
Alarm Will Sound – Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin (2004)
There’s something inherently silly about learning about music (an audio medium) from reading (a visual medium). I have always enjoyed reading about bands and musicians, thru interviews or reviews. But it’s not just on blogs that I read about sounds. I enjoy actual, uh, books, too! Such was the case when I read the 33 and 1/3 volume about Aphex Twin’s head-spinning Ambient Works Volume II. For the uninitiated that enjoy reading music, I highly recommend the 33 1/3 books. Each takes a classic album and explores it: the making of it, the way it influenced other bands, or the way the sound was achieved. Though some information on the production is provided, much of the Aphex Twin volume focuses on the reception to the music: how the unnamed tracks were named and how those names made in onto iTunes, despite being release only as track numbers. It is a story of how something alien and inhuman became a bit more comprehensible for us Earth-dwellers.
But if titling the songs added a human element, chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound completed the process with flair on Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin. Exactly as the name implies, this album is orchestral arrangement of Aphex Twin compositions. This album flew under my radar when it was released in 2005. I’m not quite sure how I missed this as a devotee of Aphex Twin since the 90s, but I was glad to learn of it in 2016. I try to stay abreast of all that happens in Aphex world, especially given that Richard James, Aphex Twin himself, hadn’t released an album since 2001’s Drukqz when Alarm Will Sound hit shelves. In fact, he was dormant for a decade plus until returning with Syro in 2014.
While Alarm Will Sound tackles the Volume II track “Blue Calx” the real highlights are “Fingerbib” and “4,” both from the Richard D. James Album. It’s always been obvious that Aphex Twin is more of a composer than a DJ, and having his works played in this fashion drives the point home. There are other live bands playing electronic music (most successfully, crystal-worshipping jamtronica pioneers STS9), but Alarm Will Sound is truly next level shit. The warmth of the performances removes the humming machine aspects of the originals and highlights the prog rock tones that were always just below the surface. If the last 20 years in music have been about the rise of the machines, Alarm Will Sound is a sterling reminder that acoustic instruments have an empire of their own, and it may strike back at any time. Reading about music: no stranger than real musicians performing electronic music live.