10. The Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation
Leave it to The Dillinger Escape Plan to write their own eulogy. Of course, considering that the band had already assembled one of the most stunningly cohesive discographies of any band in the last few decades, Dissociation being an excellent record from start to finish was effectively a given.
But where one may have expected the band’s most polished effort yet for their very last offering, especially in light of their musical trajectory leading up to it, Dillinger instead deliver unto us what is perhaps their rawest and most furious release; a record whose chaos may not exceed that of Calculating Infinity, but one drenched in so much raw emotion the listener is left with hairs standing on end throughout. Where 2013’s One of Us Is the Killer sharpened Dillinger’s calculated attack even further, even going so far as to be their most accessible album at times, everything about Dissociation feels stripped back down in the best way possible. Vocalist extraordinaire Greg Puciato shrieks and croons alike through the cacophonous instrumentation, his lyrics more personal, painful, and self-reflective than ever before, while also forming the basis for the dozens of instant-classic moments scattered across the album (“All your secrets/Never shared/Programmed into me”).
Dissociation’s title track and closer, however, deserves extra special mention. Instead of constituting a progressive opus with a massive chorus along the lines of Ire Works’ “Mouth of Ghosts”, “Dissociation” has Puciato softly lamenting the band’s own dissolution, and what is effectively the closing of a chapter that has dominated the band members’ lives for almost two decades. There is no grand finale to the song; no explosive moment at the end to drive the point home. It just stops, leaving the listener in stunned silence, contemplating what on earth they’ve just experienced. A more fitting end to the Dillinger Escape Plan is hard to conceive of.
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9. Wormed – Krighsu
The perfectly executed followup to 2013’s landmark brutal-tech-slam-whatever death metal album Exodromos, this year saw Krighsu undeniably cement Wormed’s place in the canon of extreme music. Their first release, Planisphaerium, was a decent-to-good brutal death metal record that showed a promising young group with a tendency towards the genre’s more technical end; a decade later, we were graced with Exodromos, an album that perfectly fused hypercharged, light-speed techdeath and the bludgeoning heaviness of brutal death metal into an irresistible combination that didn’t toe the line between the two subgenres so much as take each to its logical extreme and then smash any border separating them. Krighsu is where anomaly becomes manifesto: the group has shown themselves not only capable of replicating their sophomore album’s magic, but of taking this genre fusion and turning it into a sound wholly its own.
For a band so obsessed with high-concept science fiction and technology beyond our wildest imaginations, Wormed have always maintained an impossibly organic sound, even when they’re rocketing across entire galaxies in a matter of minutes. There is no clunky “here comes the slam” part of any track on Krighsu; songs just naturally evolve, constantly wavering between technical insanity and monolithic grooves. Both parts bolster each other, too: Wormed switch so fluidly and consistently between 300 bpm fretboard frenetics and ultra-chunky breakdowns that neither manages to leech any power from the other, instead seeing their momentum transfer perfectly so that the fast parts always feel lightning-quick and the heavy parts hit like a speeding semi every time.
This marks the second album where the sheer power and skill that Wormed exude have threatened to rip apart their sound at the seams, but the band knows how to operate on a compositional level just as much as on a technical one, and so the unstoppable explosion of outward force that defines the 30-minutes-and-change running time of Krighsu is never too much to handle. As an exercise in blending two disparate ethe within the same structure, Krighsu is a masterful achievement; as a death metal album, Krighsu is an instant classic.
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8. Obscura – Akroasis
One trap technical death metal always falls into is getting entangled too much in the execution of musicianship and forgetting about the art of music. While there is value to both, albums that can combine both can be truly exceptional. Obscura have always been one of the most important bands in the genre, with their unique style and their perspective on lyrics. With the departure of key writing member Christian Munzner and Hannes Grossmann, the future of the band was in jeopardy. However, with the addition of the wizard-genius Tom “Fountainhead” Geldschlager, the band was able to reach new heights.
Featuring fretless guitar work and impossible solos, the band’s core sound that had already established their considerable fanbase was augmented with a different angle. A tech death band writing a new album must ask themselves: “How do we one-up our previous release”? Often the answer is either “just play faster and harder riffs”, but that is eventually going to result in diminishing returns. Akroasis has a different answer to that question: “Just go weirder”. If anything, Akroasis is slower than Cosmogenesis yet it still manages to take a step up from it. There’s a surprising diversity of tracks on Akroasis, too. Tributes to influences ranging from Cynic to Morbid Angel, fast and heavy songs, ballad-like riff fests and anything in between. The closing track, “Weltseele”, is a masterpiece that is just so odd yet works so well.
Once every few years we get an album that redefines tech death and what’s possible, and Akroasis does just that thanks to its new lineup (that didn’t last long). At times bordering on avant-garde, this album shows that you can still do a lot more within the genre that doesn’t simply involve playing fast, while also playing fast.
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7. Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep Of Reason
The inclusion of new Meshuggah is not a given on any year end list. Don’t get me started on bands that hang around to release “well received” safe records after twenty years; 2016, I’m looking at you. This wasn’t the case when the Swedish trendsetters let rip with another crushing batch of groovy math metal. The “safest” thing Meshuggah have released in years? Barely. This is not a safe album.
The punishment delivered by the tone and attack of the band on The Violent Sleep of Reason is devastating. Easily the most precise, locked in rhythms the Swedes have conjured, listeners rejoiced at the live performance of one Tom Haake. Quite rightly so. The percussionist is the leader of the band, pushing everything forward into oblivion, mechanically calculated to be as crushing as possible. Kidman’s vocals used, as ever, to punch home the groove in tracks dominated by lurching, sometimes space age guitar work. All of this and more, giving the long time fan something to laugh/cry/smile about.
People are lying if they think Koloss was better. The beast that is Meshuggah hit banging form just in time to remind people why half the world ripped them off. The music may be as straight forward as a band like this can be but the destination is Snapped Neck City, so who cares?
6. Alcest – Kodama
Alcest are perhaps the single most important act in post-black metal. Frontman and primary songwriter Niege is an undisputed icon and progenitor of the scene, and he continues to be involved in many projects that define the genre’s fierce and floaty nostalgia and reverb drenched sound. So you can imagine the collective disappointment among longtime fans when the band broke rank in 2014 with Shelter, which nixed the black metal influence entirely in favor for a purely dream-pop approach to shoegaze. The album was well-received, critically, but it was hard to not feel somewhat betrayed by the departure.
The heartache wouldn’t last long, however; 2016 saw Alcest’s triumphant return to form with Kodama, which might just be the best record the band has ever dropped. In many ways, the Shelter experiment paved the way for Kodama’s glorious rise; Kodama is informed by Shelter’s tangible and immediate songwriting, but reaches into the back catalogue of diverse sonic textures that makes for a dynamic, breathtaking, and catchy record that captures the delicate balance of upbeat atmospheric melodies and dark, blackened crescendos. Though the screams and blast beats are reigned in, their presence provides an edge that Shelter was missing. Kodama’s balance shows that the power with Alcest resides in the ability to craft propulsive, dynamic, and larger than life songs that resonate on a deeply personal and profound level, and in that regard, the band are currently at their peak.
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5. David Bowie – Blackstar
After two dozen full-lengths and over twice as many years shaping the landscape of music, David Bowie’s legacy was well established by the time he announced his 25th album. But unlike his other classic records, Blackstar will be considered a masterpiece in two completely unique contexts, the second of these periods solidifying it as the new apex of swansongs.
Bowie’s death illuminated everything I felt while listening to Blackstar on the drive home from buying the album on release day. Though it would be three days before word spread of his passing, Bowie’s raw, waning croon on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” filled me with a starkly bittersweet feeling – a premonition of what was to come without complete comprehension. His death the following Monday would bring the music world to its knees to mourn and praise a discography unmatched in the history of the art form, due in no small part to his final, triumphant statement on Blackstar.
There are innumerable strengths to highlight when discussing Blackstar: a skilled roster pushing Bowie’s art rock tendencies to their darkest, boldest fringes; Donny McCaslin’s expertly arranged and performed saxophone parts; and an overall theme which pristinely embodies reminiscence and courage in the face of death. But it’s Bowie himself who connects these elements to create such a masterful work of art. Hearing his voice overcome the throes of cancer speaks to his indomitable spirit, one which capitalized on the power within his strained body. This particularly elevates his singing on lyrics like “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” (“Lazarus”) and “Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent” (“I Can’t Give Everything Away”). These moments are the ouroboros which connect the initial mystery of the album’s message with the eventual illumination Bowie’s death provided.
On ‘“Lazarus,” Bowie proclaimed that with his death, “You know, I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird,” and this line captures a crucial aspect of Blackstar. The album is as much a lasting testament to music as it was Bowie’s own cleansing, self-scribed eulogy. And as we all honor him in our album of the year lists, here’s to hoping he truly has found peace.
4. Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner
There are so many ways in which Mariner, the seventh album from post-metal legends Cult Of Luna in collaboration with the powerful vocalist Julie Christmas, could have failed miserably. Collaboration albums between well-established acts coming from rather different milieus have a pretty spotty track record as both artists or groups compromise their respective strengths to the point that the result is a formless mass of almost unrecognizable mush. The most infamous of these failed experimentations is, of course, Lulu, and it’s not surprising then that CoL frontman Johannes Persson spoke openly about his fear of Mariner turning into a Lulu-like catastrophe. Thankfully for them and us though, Mariner is anything but a failure as it proved to be one of the most emotionally-powerful releases of the year and the perfect culmination of CoL’s and Christmas’s respective talents.
Mariner succeeds in large part because it is, first and foremost, a terrific Cult of Luna album. All of the deliciously grim and mammoth sludge, snarls, and cutting riffs of the band’s best work are present, and Persson does the album a great service by retaining his own powerful vocals as a pitch-black counterpoint to Christmas’s hair-raising screams and deviously clean melodies. It’s Christmas’s own contributions though that serve as the emotional locus of the entire album and elevate it to true greatness. Giving her near free-reign to write her own vocals and lyrics to match CoL’s instrumentals, Christmas took full advantage of the bubbling cauldron of the band’s energy and charged head first straight into it. The result is a partnership that displays the best of each respective party while combining to create something that stands up on its own separate from the other’s respective body of work. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just be here screaming maniacally into the void over the grim euphoria of “The Wreck of S.S. Needle” again.
3. Oathbreaker – Rheia
One thing that the post-black movement has always attempted to capture, but usually failed in the pursuit thereof – due to its foremost concern with the sublime, the celestial, the impossibly large – is human frailty. Sure, plenty of bands in the genre have found some sort of ultimately human conceit in their view, whether they’re staring at the stars or their shoes, and there are other albums that have done a fantastic job of finding the midpoint between a grandstanding existential angst that we all experience together and the personal emotional trichotillomania, that grinding of teeth and picking at scabs we can only ever know individually, but none before have so viscerally wrought human suffering through black metal the same way Oathbreaker have on Rheia, their third LP.
Two factors are chief to the Belgian quintet’s ability to offer such a personally gut-wrenching experience here. The first is a healthy mixture of crust punk and hardcore into their metal, allowing for moments that build from blast beats and tremolos into waves on waves of bone-crunching distorted guitar, letting shimmering radiance concede its presence to something much darker, dirtier, more brutal and barbaric in nature. It’s a brilliant “set em up, knock em down” trick that manages to make hair stand on end every time. A second element – and one that no band could currently seek to emulate – is the insanely talented Caro Tanghe. Her sheer clean vocal prowess alone elevates Oathbreaker to a new level (it’s not uncommon to see the criticism that she’s unable to sing thrown around, given her pitch-imperfect singing, but after watching her replicate everything note-for-note in a live setting, it’s clear she knows exactly what she’s doing), but her harsh vocals are where she truly shines. Her voice is somewhere between a banshee’s scream and the wail of the dying, with the exact throat-shredding emotional weight and piercing animalism the spectrum implies. Tanghe is, unmistakably, one of the best black metal vocalists in the game right now, if not the best.
Rheia is an album that grabs you instantly and refuses to let go. From Tanghe’s soliloquy at the beginning of “10:56” to the last thrumming note of “Begeerte,” Oathbreaker stays at a level of emotional resonance most bands can only dream of achieving once in their career. A depressing, beautiful, absolutely sincere manifesto of human anxiety and suffering, Oathbreaker have crafted the sort of album that only comes along once every ten years or so and totally upends its genre when it does. I mean this as the utmost of compliments when I say that we’re going to see a lot of Oathbreaker clones in the near future. And if any of those new bands are even half as good, you’ll probably see them getting just as high on this list.
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2. Vektor – Terminal Redux
Terminal Redux may be one small step for Vektor, but it’s one giant leap forward for thrash. Vektor’s third full-length, Terminal Redux is one of those rare, cosmic instances of everything going just right to achieve a slice of perfection in a universe hurtling towards entropy. With David DiSanto’s inhuman shrieks and a uniquely futuristic, alien sound, Vektor is perfectly suited for the ultra-ambitious space opera they’ve composed. The music is appropriately encompassing and larger-than-life, and despite the furious technicality, the concept album stays grounded in excellent riffing. The dazzlingly quick licks of lead guitar tell the album’s epic tale nearly as well as the lyrics. An instrumental and a well-executed thrash metal power ballad help to counterpoint the intensity. In an album filled with potent tracks, some of the best, like “Pillars of Sand” and “Recharging the Void” deserve to go down in the annals of thrash metal as some of the genre’s highest peaks.
So now the question stands: How much further can we go? It’s particularly revealing to consider this album with Metallica’s Hardwired…to Self-Destruct to see just how far Vektor have evolved from their thrash forefathers. Although they’ve been run through a Vektor-ization, the riffs on Terminal Redux remain firmly rooted in the thrash style. And yet so much of Vektor’s idiosyncratic, beautiful noise has come to rely on elements derived from black, death, and prog. But maybe it doesn’t matter if Vektor belongs on thrash metal’s Mount Rushmore – because, somewhere else in the universe, they’re building an Everest all their own.
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1. Car Bomb – Meta
What, when you get right down to it, is metal all about? The answer is, of course, many, many things, different things for different people. But if anything might be placed at its base, it should be the gut wrenching sensation, the head-in-hands wonder which besets one when they are taken by surprise. You know that moment, where the room seems suddenly larger and the music takes over your gut, sending electric signals all across your body. Meta is an album of that, a condensed state of thrill, of engaging heaviness which crashes over you, again and again.
Whether you accept the man-machine narrative which we had placed at the basis of the album earlier this year or not, it’s hard to deny how mechanical some of the sounds which Car Bomb produce are. However, somehow, they are also deeply emotional and organic, twisting around your hips and neck and bidding them “move!”. This can be traced to the fact that the album is a blend, a melange of metal approaches and influences. Equal parts Meshuggah, Gojira, and The Dillinger Escape Plan, Meta assaults you from multiple directions. Thus, when you have grown accustomed to the lows (on “Sets” for example) it hits you with fuzz and speed (in the form of“Lights Out”).
It is an unpredictable album which still manages to return again and again to cohesion. More than anything, it represents the freshness of purpose and vigor which seem to have swept through metal in 2016 and is thus our Album of the Year. Fiercely technical, deeply groovy and overall heavy and convincing at the same time, Meta is everything a metal album should be in 2016.
Here’s to many more.
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