We wrote a pretty big check to ourselves when we closed off 2015. Publishing not only a list which proclaimed the triumph of 2015 but also a whole editorial dedicated to the idea of “The Golden Age of Metal”, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Like the rest of the music establishment which, in numerous places implicit and explicit, was apparently ready to join in the social lynching of 2016, we were well positioned to find it a sobering, dreadful, faith shattering year for music in general and metal specifically. Except it was nothing of the sort and we cannot stress our amazement at metal/music journalism’s reaction so far. 2016 was an absolutely fantastic year, building on the trend of solid and often groundbreaking releases from established acts and simply astounding, out of left field releases from virtually nameless bands. Sure, it had its disappointments for us from huge bands we had expected more from (although signs of their demise were certainly forthcoming) but, overall, it was a year which will surely be remembered in our circles as one of the best years for music in general.
Yes, there are plenty of other reasons to be distraught, confused and worn out as 2016 ushers itself out. But music is not one of them. In general, we think it’s possible to summarize the disappointment from music in 2016 into three distinct camps. The first is the most deplorable and the easiest to hand-wave away: this camp bungles up music with the rest of the tumults of 2016 by bringing in Donald Trump, rampant social inequality, Syria or any other “social disaster” into the mix, directly comparing it to music. Yes. There’s even a legitimate trend of comparing metal to Donald Trump. While music is obviously intrinsically connected to social issues, these direct comparisons are simply absurd. They always cut away so much of the nuances and complexities that are embodied within metal (and music in general) to serve whatever contrived simile the journalist has conjured up at the moment. They’re baseless and crude and as such, deserve this somewhat baseless and crude response: come on.
The second and third camp are a bit more complex and founded in reality and thus deserve a more thorough answer. We’ll start with what we call “The Meta” camp. This group of writers, thinkers and industry figures look at 2016 as the year when either musicians, fans or critics of metal lost their “path”, giving into laziness, commercialism or both. They attack the metal journalism community for being too shattered or too cohesive, often at the same time. They claim that metal musicians no longer care about the craft and the suffering inherently contained therein or that fans have become jaded to “true” artists. To the former, we’ll be drafting an answer very shortly in the form our industry aggregate list, wherein we create a “meta” list from all metal websites and analyze it. Look for it next week. To the latter we are currently working on an answer in the form of our “Endless Sacrifice” on-going editorial. Look for our answers to these criticisms there (spoiler: we don’t think they hold too much water).
The third and final camp will be answered here, in our summary. This camp claims that innovation has died within metal and that everyone is reiterating the same ideas. It points towards releases by established names and their monotone nature, obsessed with the past, their own sound or “trend hopping” as these bands tend to be. This camp claims that enough of metal is infected by this derivative effort to proclaim the entire genre dead, defunct, extinct. Gone to join the choir invisible. To which we say: you’re not looking hard enough. Look (WARNING: masturbatory analysis of music journalism detected ahead), music journalism is hard. It really is a full time job even if it doesn’t look like one. A good music journalist spends hours challenges themselves with new music, constantly pushing themselves further and further out from their comfort zone. They must, by force, listen to hours and hours of music a week from various recommendation sources, outlets, and styles if they wish to stay relevant, to innovate and to bring truly fresh music to their audiences.
Sadly, it would appear as if many metal journalists just don’t do that. This is what enables so many establishment lists to include albums which are just fine on their end of year lists, some of them even in prominent or even #1 positions. Sure, opinions differentiate and they just might really, really love those albums where we didn’t. But when you look at the entirety of their list, you see the limitations. You see the absence of whole swaths of young, challenging music happening today (sometimes by “old” and veteran musicians). You see the patterns which led them to settle for something merely nice instead of the sheer excellence that 2016 gave us, both in “traditional” releases and in cutting edge works. And, finally, at the end of this ramble, we are here to talk about this excellence as a form of ultimate answer to all three camps. How can you look at this list, chock full of so much amazing, mind-blowing and in some cases, truly classic music and tell us that 2016 was a bad year for music or metal? We simply can’t comprehend that.
Take a look for yourself.
50. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
Atrocity Exhibition is Detroit MC Danny Brown’s magnum opus. It takes the energy and oddity that have made him a household name and places them over production that is more experimental and twisted than anything that came before. On the album, Danny takes the time to rap about money, drugs and outlandish antics all while subverting expectations of the listener. Not only does he touch on topics such as these, but he’s often talking about his own life, pain and struggles when doing so. Being personal is nothing new for rappers, but the pictures Danny paints are impressively vivid on top of being abstract and strange.
The album has no set mood or tone, either. You can go from a song about Danny being on a bender for days on end trapped in his house to a song that talks about licking a woman’s clit, causing her to do the Macarena. You can go from a sad, deranged version of Danny Brown to one that exudes confidence in his craft and himself, all in the same song. That, combined with the album’s easily digestible length of 46 minutes and some change, is what makes this album worth listening to. It’s not afraid to take you to a lot of different places in a short period of time, even if you might not always feel particularly comfortable with where it’s headed. Danny knows that when the people want a show, you’ve got to give it to them, even if it can get a bit messy or out there along the way.
49. SubRosa – For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages
In what proved to be another triumphant year for doom metal, few albums stood as tall as SubRosa’s For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages. To be fair, anything the band releases at this point is bound to stand out, by the nature of their blueprint alone. Though less monumental in stature, it can be said that SubRosa are to doom metal what Godspeed You! Black Emperor are to post-rock. Apart from the musical similarities between the two (e.g. the prominence of violins), they also tread the same path of refusing to bow to their genres’ conventions while staying true to their ethos. From this standpoint on the very outskirts of doom, SubRosa have honed their unorthodox sound over four releases in the past ten years. All of which culminated in 2016’s Battle, a sprawling opus that dazzles with both the complexity of its themes and the simplicity of its atmosphere. With its sense of grandiosity, painstaking attention to song structure, and stellar performances from each band member, Battle is clearly a labor of love – and a brilliant one, too.
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48. The Body & Full of Hell – One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache
Pain. Loss. Sorrow. Suffering. The Body and Full of Hell touch on all this and more in one of the most challenging, abrasive and cathartic releases in recent memory. From the very beginning, this album batters the listener with shrieks, wails and walls of feedback and noise, pulling back every so often to let the music breath before plunging you back into the maelstrom. The Body are at their peak in the eye of this storm, the duo so used to this kind of music it must be second nature by this point.
Full of Hell, meanwhile, spend this release demonstrating just how much they’ve grown and matured as a band in a short period of time. This is the best and most interesting music they’ve ever composed, and the album is different enough from The Body’s usual fare that it’s a safe assumption that Full of Hell were responsible for quite a bit of it. One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache is a difficult album, sonically and emotionally, but if you’re in the right mindset it’s an experience worth having to hear two of the most interesting and vital acts in extreme music collaborating together to make the kind of art you just can’t get anywhere else.
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47. Periphery – Periphery III
One might expect that a band releasing three albums worth of material within a span of a year and a half would be overstaying their welcome. It’s been argued that there’s some merit in having your audience miss you a little bit between albums, and I tend to agree. However, while lesser acts have fatigued audiences with an overabundance of material, Periphery have proven that there’s plenty of worthwhile material left to explore between their six songwriters. Periphery III is a ridiculously catchy record and has a hook-to-track ratio higher than any Periphery album to date, making it a nonstop spin. The spotless production, impeccable attention to detail, tight songcraft, and technical performances are all on point, and by some measures places PIII as a contender for best Periphery record to date depending on who you ask. Sure, there are no prog epics like “Racecar” or recurring motifs to tie the record together as a cohesive unit, but as a collection of songs, PIII is undeniably Periphery at the top of their game. While it definitely wouldn’t hurt for the group to take a little break and leave the fans wanting more, they’re certainly capable of being consistent and regular hit makers.
46. Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence
It wouldn’t be a Heavy Blog top 50 without the man himself: Devin Townsend! Actually, it’s more than just him this time; It’s his whole project that’s along for the ride on this list. It’s been The Devin Townsend Project for years, but, Transcendence sees Devin loosening his grip on the reins and letting his bandmates take a bit more control of the direction of the carriage. Like it or not, Devin is getting older and just can’t do everything like he used to, but Transcendence makes a case for why the band are more than capable of pulling their weight and then some, while still staying true to Devin’s core vision.
This album takes a feeling that Devin explored on Epicloud and refines it down to a science. That feeling is filling the listener’s heart to the brim with emotion and this is the reason Transcendence has a real soul to it that comes through track after track. This is not to say that Devin’s previous works don’t have a soul, but that this one has a very unique presence in his discography. Many albums after Devin said he was going to end the DTP, we’re sitting here talking about this record and though this incarnation of the band may be coming to an end soon, this is a high note to go out on. It’s a product of perseverance, dedication and most importantly, it’s a product of individuals instead of just one man. When you remove the weight from a man’s shoulders he can transcend what he previously thought was possible, and in this case, Transcendence sees Devin letting go enough to be lifted by his bandmates to heights unknown to us mere mortals.
45. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate
Somber, elegant, impassioned, and engaging. Insomnium have a penchant for the dramatic in all the best ways, and they did not fall short with this year’s opus Winter’s Gate. The album is draped in ambient atmospherics and soaring melodies that tear at the heartstrings, a staple of their sound to be sure but irrevocably fused within the context of the “story” of Winter’s Gate. This matters when comparing to past efforts like 2014’s brilliant Shadows of the Dying Sun, a cohesive collection of tracks rather than one big song, as Winter’s Gate is so unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you ask) laid out. The story element of the vikings battling against the elements to find their lost brother is so masterfully delivered through the vocals and music, lending those aforementioned atmospherics a heightened level of credibility rather than just being attached to some cool songs.
The problem is, this writer was introduced to this album on a streaming service, which had the tracks neatly broken up into bite sized bits, making for an easy digestion. Others did not have such a nice time, but the very notion of easy digestibility within broken up tracks suggests that the one song format is potentially unnecessary and hindersome to the music and concept for some. No matter the case, the music is so masterfully written, performed, and produced that it’s worth the effort to ingest the album in whatever format is available. The middle acoustic passage into the dense and lush vocal layers crying “Still I bear the flowers of pain, of solitude” is worth the entire cost or stream of the album alone.
44. Explosions In The Sky – The Wilderness
On their seventh studio album, Explosions In The Sky have never sounded this vibrant since their 2003 masterwork The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place – which is saying a lot given their tendency to always produce quality. The Wilderness is up there with the best work in their almighty canon so far. Retaining the raw, emotional and evocative power of their previous work while adding new, exciting and creative touches to their arsenal, you could say that it’s given the band a new lease of life. “Disintegration Anxiety,” for instance, is quite catchy and playful; if the album’s title alludes to being out in the wild, this is the track which boasts the thrill of the adventure.
The Wilderness might not provide the grand scale, epic soundscapes of old to the same degree they’ve strived for in the past, but that doesn’t mean the album isn’t just as emotionally enriching either. However, what it does do is prove that this is not a band defunct of creative ideas either; it’s the Explosions we know and love already… only different.
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43. Nails – You Will Never Be One Of Us
In the words of their longtime producer Kurt Ballou, Nails is a wild animal. You’d be hard-pressed to find another band in any extreme subgenre of metal and hardcore with a sound as caustic, suffocating and overtly nihilistic. What makes You Will Never Be One of Us, the band’s third and longest LP to date (a whopping 22 minutes!) truly one of the most exciting and memorable pieces of music this year is just how instantaneous it is. It’s truly amazing how easily Nails is able to make such abrasive music sound so accessible without losing any of Unsilent Death’s initial intent of obliterating all speakers in its path. In a lot of ways, this album takes the best facets of the band’s first two LPs and mashes them together into what is arguably the band’s most cohesive work to date.
Whether it’s the insanely-catchy riff that backs the refrain of the title track, the way “Savage Intolerance” weaves between unadulterated Slayer worship and 2016’s nastiest breakdown, or how “In Pain” brings some of the most unabashed punk rock influences in the band’s history, You Will Never Be One of Us is an album that simply begs for dozens of replays. Don’t be surprised when that replay comes right after you just finished having your head ripped off by the hate-stompin’ chugs of “They Come Crawling Back” either. Nails have blown up a ton in this past year and for a damn good reason. If you’re looking for an album that feels and sounds like a roller-coaster ride that’s on fire while also being trampled by a thousand steel-toed boots, you can end your search right here.
42. BADBADNOTGOOD – IV
Though I’ve technically followed BADBADNOTGOOD’s career since high school, the band hardly resembles their early days as an instrumental jazz trio covering Nas, Joy Division and the Legend of Zelda. These playful renditions helped establish the now quartet as a burgeoning group of musicians, currently comprised of Matthew Tavares on keys, Alexander Sowinski on drums, Chester Hansen on drums and Leland Whitty on saxophone and guitar. But after one play through of IV, it’s clear that BBNG’s true calling lies in composing eclectic, electronic-tinged blends of hip-hop and jazz that effortlessly push both genres forward. Seriously, if you generate more buzz with a solo album than a collab you just dropped with Ghostface Killah, you have to be doing something right.
Of course, there’s a reason one of Wu-Tang’s greatest members chose to work with a jazz quartet from Canada, that being BBNG’s flawless integration of every guest artist that hops on their songs. From the lush lounge background they lay down Samuel T. Herring (Future Islands) on “Time Moves Slow” to the phenomenal sax interplay between Whitty and Colin Stetson on “Confessions Pt. II,” every feature on IV feels entirely unique while simultaneously contributing to the album’s cohesive quality.
Speaking of Whitty, BBNG’s newest full-time member makes incredible contributions on IV, which leads one to wonder why he wasn’t promoted from his guest musician spot sooner. Just listen to the band leap into full-on jazz mode on the title track for the full-range of what Whitty has to offer. Then again, he and his bandmates are constantly pushing themselves and their music throughout the record, to the point where it’s difficult to pick either a weak moment or a single key highlight. Now that the quartet has truly come into their element, there’s no telling what heights they’ll reach on their next record. BBNG ain’t nuttin’ ta fuck wit.
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41. Ulcerate – Shrines of Paralysis
Ulcerate is undeniably one of death metal’s – if not the entire metal spectrum’s – most intriguing acts as they continue to push the limits of what can be acceptably described as death metal. The New Zealand trio is commonly labelled as a technical death metal band but their output isn’t at all what one would expect from most bands with the same label. Ever since the band’s inception in 2002, they’ve continuously forged their own unique sound in a genre that is plagued by copycats. Their use of dissonance, odd structures and perpetually shifting time signatures within in a relentlessly aggressive death metal framework has created what some describe as atmospheric or post-death metal.
This year saw the release of Ulcerate’s fifth studio album Shrines of Paralysis, a fifty eight minute assault on the senses that nearly clouds one’s judgment with its pulsating intensity and crushing heaviness. The intensity ebbs and flows throughout Shrines of Paralysis and it’s mostly a factor of what each instrument is doing. Interestingly, the vocals are integrated in such a way that they almost sound like an additional instrument and not really standing out with a clearly comprehensible form of language. Shrines of Paralysis doesn’t necessarily showcase Ulcerate discovering something new but it is a remarkable step forward for a band that has carved out a niche for itself in metal’s proverbial no man’s land and that is a clear sign of class.
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-Aly Hassab El Naby