Columnus Metallicus: The Best Metal Of 2016
, December 20th, 2016 09:17
ALL HAIL Louise Brown, Kez Whelan and Pavel Godfrey as they dig up the highlights in thrash, doom, crust, black, death and classic metal from the past 12 months. HORNS UP! The Body photo by Megan Holmes
With 2016 rapidly hurtling towards an end, it's time to take stock and make sense of all the chaos. While it's been a pretty horrendous year in the news, in terms of new records, bands and festivals, we've been spoilt for choice, to the point that it can be pretty overwhelming to try and take it all in, so allow us to do the hard graft for you…
Seeing as you've probably already had your fill of endless end-of-year lists we thought we'd do something a bit different. Of course, with metal evolving and mutating at such an alarming rate and certain bands smashing black, thrash, death, doom and grind into one another like particles in the Hadron Collider, you could argue that the idea of genre is becoming increasingly obsolete, and you'd have a point – the jury is still out on whether Inter Arma's Paradise Gallows was the best blackened post-sludge metal album of the year, or the best sludgy post-black metal album, but with the metal landscape looking more diverse than ever, there's still something to be said for erecting sign posts to help you find your way. So, let's guide you around, shall we?
If there's any unifying trend in the death metal of 2016, it's a growing consensus that the murky, reverb-laden “caverncore” sound has run its course. That's not to say you can't make a good album in this style anymore; Irkallian Oracle released a second album that reworked their amorphous rumble of into punchy, driving downtempo riffs. But this summer, Temple Nightside and Grave Miasma revealed the limitations of the subgenre by succeeding all too well at it, generating unique atmospheres at the expense of compelling riff action. Between that, the closely related bestial black/death scene and the overwhelming influence of bands like Ulcerate and Deathspell Omega, it's not entirely clear what death metal means anymore. So, let's focus on releases that skirt the more angular regions of the genre while embodying death metal's core impulses – sick riffs, creative mastery and compulsion to make the most crushingly heavy music possible.
Ruinous' debut Graves Of Ceaseless Death seemed like an effort to span the vast gulf between Cool Leather Jackets death metal and Baggy Cargo Shorts death metal, and to do it with the greatest of unifiers – CHUG. As veterans of Funebrarum, Disma and Incantation, these guys have impeccable old-school pedigrees, but here they seize every sonic weapon available, including the crisp production and punishing mosh breaks of the modern brutal death scene. And for those with a strong preference for cargo shorts, there's the first side of Defeated Sanity's new self-split release, Disposal Of The Dead/Dharmata, which showcases rhythmically intricate, gut-busting slams alongside Kreator-esque blast barrages.
Of course, there's also a venerable tradition of death metal that seeks more than brutality. Finland's Scum have come roaring up from the dark past to release their third full-length, Garden Of Shadows, some 20 years after its original recording. Scum's elegant but rockin' medievalism is at a complete tangent to the major trends in death metal, and yet coincides with an increasing interest in songcraft and melody. On their second EP, The Cursed Travails Of The Demeter, Vircolac set out to write death metal songs, delivering four distinct and gripping sonic narratives that reimagine the possibilities of “old school death metal”. The record begins with rolling toms straight out of '80s deathrock and culminates in brawny octave riffs that sound like High On Fire. On their debut LP Starspawn, Blood Incantation emerge as heirs to both the ambition of Nocturnus and the Warhammer 40K carnage of Bolt Thrower (R.I.P). These songs feature gorgeous, cold Space Guitar, and yet the underlying riffs are so solid that the leads and textures are just a bonus. Blood Incantation are joined on their journey to the stars by UK heroes Mithras, who broke nine years of relative silence with an epic, jubilant, and almost kosmiche album.
Album of the year is Mylingar's Döda Vägar, which inflicts maximalist destruction with minimalist rigor.
One friend said they sound like Dead Congregation, and another said they sound like a cleaned-up Blasphemy, but I prefer to think of them as a slamming modern synthesis of Bolt Thrower and Hate Forest, two bands I seem to mention in everything I write. Mylingar groove while they blast and almost blast while they groove, seamlessly flowing from primal, droning tremolo riffs into jackhammer chug. Then they unleash colossal beatdowns. Despite the connection to the most ignorant offshoots of death metal and hardcore, though, Mylingar have also created a work of serious black/death art – they're heirs to the bleak vision of their countrymen Niden Div. 187. If Döda Vägar bears comparison to any nowadays music, it's to Nihl, the withering first assault of Altarage. Hailing from Spain, Altarage play dissonant, apocalyptic riffs with a loose precision. I'd also like to recommend two powerfully austere takes on the florid black/death tradition of Sweden; Vanhelgd dismantled the sound of early At The Gates, stripped it down to bare essentials like spiralling minor-key arpeggios, and used these to build the solemn, looming forms of their third record, Temple Of Phobos. On Haruwen Airen, Chile's Siaskel favoured charging tremolo harmonies that directly recall Dissection, but cut away the neoclassical intricacies, infusing them with a martial coldness that evokes the hostile night sky of ancient Patagonia. - Pavel Godfrey
DEATH METAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Mylingar, Döda Vägar
DEATH METAL GIG OF THE YEAR: Detroit's speed-crust Japanophiles, Sekkusu. They tore it up so much it's almost death metal.
HOPES FOR 2017: More Bolt Thrower tributes.
They say crust punk and grindcore thrive as the world burns, and 2016 has indeed been a veritable feast for the blastbeat connoisseur. If ten years is a long time to wait between releases for your average doom head, for the grind fanatic it's practically a lifetime, but our prayers were finally answered this year as Gadget unleashed The Great Destroyer, the raging follow-up to 2006's The Funeral March, and did not disappoint one iota. Wormrot finally dropped their long-awaited third album Voices too, but it was difficult not to think that the change of drummer had stunted the trio's furious impact somewhat.
We also got a new record from the ever-reliable Rotten Sound, and Trap Them seemed as indestructible as ever too; both figuratively and literally, as Crown Feral served up some of their most ferocious material in years, and as vocalist Ryan McKenney broke both his feet leaping off a stack of amplifiers at Bloodshed Festival. The sight of him screaming himself hoarse while wheelchair-bound, injecting painkillers mid-set, will go down as one of 2016's most hardcore live music moments. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you've got veterans Agathocles, who turned in the most shambolic performance of the year at London's Chimpyfest. After vocalist/bassist Jan and drummer Nils got too drunk to play their instruments, bass was handled on the fly whilst Jan rolled around on the floor like a spasming kipper. Still, for anyone who could take the band seriously after that, their 13th full-length Commence To Mince was released shortly after and is fairly solid nonetheless.
Nails continued to bulldoze their way into the hearts of metal, grind and hardcore fans alike with their ultra-catchy and absurdly titled You Will Never Be One Of Us, before fooling us all into thinking they'd split up after cancelling their European tour, only to return with a split with Full Of Hell a month or so ago. Weekend Nachos went the whole hog and actually did split-up though, but not before gracing us with Apology, a fittingly vitriolic swansong for a band who've given us so much great music over the years. Vocalist John Hoffman appears on Kettering based trio Let It Die's debut full-length too, The Liar & The Saint, which is undoubtedly one of the heaviest, nastiest and most powerful grindin' hardcore releases of the year.
In the UK, Leeds continues to be the epicentre of all things fast and furious, with bands like The Afternoon Gentlemen, Famine, Lugubrious Children and Gets Worse and a host of great all-dayers and festivals to showcase them, like Ritual, Hearth Life, No Fun Intended and, of course, the mighty Damnation Festival, who proved once again that their fingers are firmly on the pulse by booking up-and-coming crusty hardcore bands like Gets Worse, Conjurer, Employed To Serve and Svalbard. Speaking of Svalbard, if last year's excellent One Day All This Will End opus was your first exposure to the band, Holy Roar Records released Discography 2012-2014 this year, doing exactly what it says on the tin and collecting all the band's previous material together in one snazzy double-gatefold vinyl – a must-have if you don't own all that stuff already. Finally, if you're after something from the crustier side of town, 2016 has you got you covered. D-beat originators Discharge released what was undoubtedly their best album since 1982's Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing in End Of Days, a snarling collection of tightly packed anthems that most certainly redeemed them for inflicting Grave New World on us in the first place. Anyone who'd written Martyrdöd off after 2014's lacklustre Elddop quickly found themselves eating their words too as the triumphant List was unleashed via Southern Lord last month. But the top two crust albums of the year have to go to Morrow's Covenenant Of Teeth...
...and Oathbreaker's Rheia, respectively.
The former a new group comprised of members of Light Bearer and Fall Of Efrafa and the latter a Belgian blackened hardcore act with ties to Amenra, both records have a powerful emotional pull amongst their crusty battery, and should be essential purchases this year for any fans of heavy music. - Kez Whelan
CRUST / GRIND ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Let It Die 'The Liar & The Saint'
GIG OF THE YEAR: Chimpyfest, for three full days of grindin' carnage
HOPES FOR 2017: More unexpected Full Of Hell collaborations would be cool, and fingers crossed the upcoming Terrorizer record will be decent – their recent live shows have been killer!
It was a fertile year for black metal, with bands tapping into its impulse to overcome the pseudo-innovations of the last decade. The year culminated in a string of strong releases by four titans – Inquisition, Darkthrone, Antaeus and Deathspell Omega. But objectively great bands like these will find their place on many Year End Lists, so here's some of the underdogs.
Panphage are a one-man project from Sweden that plays heathen BM in a broad but absolute sense of the term; steeped in Scandinavian history, rooted in the landscape itself, and driven by savage forces of nature. He sounds like a folk-trained guitarist who just happens to be playing black metal, which gives him unparalleled expressive freedom. On Drengskapr, he retells the saga of Grettir the Strong, an indomitable Icelandic outlaw who outwits and outfights his pursuers, until they corner him on a lonely rock called Drangey. The atmosphere is relentlessly grim, but never dark, brimming with hardy vitality and wild joy.
The last year has seen a long-overdue resurgence of European bands doing artistically serious BM with a loosely “pagan” feeling. Nordvis, the label behind Drengskapr, also released excellent records by Stilla and Nachtzeit. And then, of course, there is Iceland… while I'm not sold on the D.S.O.-worshiping side of the scene, I confidently recommend the new Na∂ra record, as well as the very weird, witchy folk-punk of Grafir. On a similarly weird and witchy note, Germany's Häxenzijrkell released an excellent two-song EP on Amor Fati, shaping guitar noise like Skullflower over primitive, battering goblin rhythms. In the Netherlands, Tarnkappe cranked out a great record called Winterwaker that exudes the true spirit of the early '90s, phlegm-spewing punk attack and austere majesty at the same time.
In our June column, I praised Death Fortress' Deathless March Of The Unconquerable (Fallen Empire Records), but my favourite American release this year was the Individuation demo of Sanguine Eagle, who filter the tremolo blizzard of Forest and Branikald through the stately, confident pulse of Spanish guitar music, transmuting it into a towering hurricane. I was also blown away by the new Urzeit record, Anmoksha, an acephalic ripper that doesn't so much imitate Hellhammer, Darkthrone, and Ildjarn as caveman stomp its way into their lineage.
Of course, if there is one label that has spearheaded the ongoing resurgence of true black metal, it's Germany's Iron Bonehead, and if they get short shrift here it's only because I featured IB releases like Kawir's Hellenic rampage Father Sun, Mother Moon, and Spire's disciplined masterpiece Entropy in columns earlier this year. Recently, I've relished Sacrificio's successful fusion of Hellhammer-esque Satanic bludgeoning and epic Medieval bombast.
Finally, I want to salute Colombia's Nox, whose Ancestral Arte Negro EP contains four absolutely perfect tracks of True Black Metal in the original Norwegian vein, slightly coloured by the noble melodies of Finland.
When album closer Esperando La Muerte opens up into a wash of keys and an ascendant lead, hailed by a chorus of inhuman howls, I feel some of the wonder I felt when I heard I Am The Black Wizards for the first time. - Pavel Godfrey
BLACK METAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Panphage, Drengskapr
BLACK METAL GIG OF THE YEAR: Eternal Warfare Fest 2016
HOPES FOR 2017: Horn's Turm Am Hang LP and the long-awaited House Of First Light compilation.
In heavy metal it is the power trio formation that is the foundation of everything we have built this many-tentacled, sprawling, multi-genred beast upon. We will say it here and we will say it once for this article will be bespoiled with tears – thank you Motörhead, thank you Motörhead, thank you Motörhead. In the power trio that is the tQ Columnus Metallicus reviews team, it is Iron Fist's weary denim and leathered editor who is most likely to gawp aghast at anything as modern and groundbreaking as an Oathbreaker or Nails album. Her album of the year is Perfect Strangers! But there have been plenty of shiny things to keep her occupied in 2016 while new bands reach evermore towards exciting new plateaus.
The big news was of course that Black Sabbath announced that they were honestly, really, calling it a day, Iron Maiden hit the road (and skies), Guns N Roses got back together (no Izzy or Adler but fair's fair), then AC/DC ruthlessly gave ol' Bri to boot and got Axl in on vocals and Ritchie Blackmore shocked everyone by being fucking brilliant at Birmingham's Genting Arena, doing a set of his greatest hits with some unknown spotlight kid on vocals.
It was the year that new bands embraced the big sounds of the big stadiums. It's been a decade since it became acceptable once again to adopt a traditional heavy metal style and the lust for old school metal is gathering pace with festivals like Brofest, Live Evil, Muskelrock and now even HRH NWOBHM – and over the pond, Frost And Fire Fest – getting in on the action. The old guard from Quartz to Vardis to Girlschool are filling rooms full of beer-bellied ex-Sounds readers and spandex-clad 20-somethings around the globe and while it's hip to admit On Through The Night is your favourite Def Leppard album we know you're lying. The “demo was better” attitude is finally being quashed with bands willing to admit they want to strive for the production, playing and professionalism of your Hysterias, Powerslaves and Slide It Ins and 2016 saw Vandallus and the unbeatable Sumerlands proudly aim for a touch of Roger Glover production, citing Scorpions, Dokken and Van Halen as inspirations – bands that all unashamedly filled stadiums and sold gold records.
Just as well, as the steam was running out for Dad's Army. Of the two bands who have genuinely nailed their comeback, Newcastle's Satan were happily touring last year's hit Atom By Atom and Angel Witch tease us with a smattering of shows. The latter gave us nostalgic gold when they brought the house down with King Diamond at London's O2 Forum but of the albums we did get from the first-time-rounders, they were sadly under-par with Diamond Head not quite hitting their stride with new singer Rasmus Andersen and long-players from Vardis, Grim Reaper and LA's Omen falling flat. Not quite a full Mercyful Fate comeback, but Fate's guitar duo Denner/Sherman were a shining beacon in a sea of mediocrity with their reunion album Masters Of Evil.
Even the second wavers, the bands who really kicked off this resurgence in the late 2000s, found themselves flailing. Starting the year with a horrific bus crash, Cauldron proved to be heavy metal's survivors but new album In Ruin sounded a bit like a band wondering if they should give it up. It's hard to be so vehemently dedicated to something for a decade and still not catch a break. We can't lose bands like them to apathy. Grand Magus didn't get beaten down, they're too hardy. They have the glory of Manowar in their veins and new album Sword Songs put some power back in tired carcass of classic metal. In fact it was power metal – real, solid, cheesy power metal – that lifted our spirits in the Lemmy-shaped void that was 2016 with Twilight Force, Hammers Of Misfortune, Dark Forest and Eternal Champion lighting the fire and proving that life goes on and metal will never say die. - Louise Brown
HEAVY METAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Sumerlands Sumerlands
GIG OF THE YEAR: Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow
HOPES FOR 2017: A new album from ol' Ricardo would be smashing
Perhaps more so than any of metal's other tendrils (with the exception of black metal), doom seems to be constantly reinventing itself at an alarming rate. SubRosa and Wolvserpent's cinematic, almost orchestral take on doom on For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages and Aporia:Kāla:Ananta, respectively, were two of the year's highlights, whilst The Body continued to tear up the sludge rulebook with No One Deserves Happiness, an incredibly atmospheric record that saw electronic, industrial, noise and even pop elements sitting sit by side by some of the year's most evil riffs and harrowing shrieks.
40 Watt Sun opted to forego distortion almost entirely on Wider Than The Sky, allowing their wistful, world weary songcraft ample to breathe and take on new forms. The flag for traditional doom metal was still held high this year though, with great records from both old hands and the influx of younger epic doom acts that seem to have followed in the wake of Pallbearer's resounding success last year, like The Temple and Khemmis. Cough's Jus Oborn-produced Still They Pray provided all the malevolent, psychedelic filth you'd need in the absence of a new Electric Wizard record, former Count Raven and Reverend Bizarre members gave us another gloriously mournful Lord Vicar record and ex-Gates Of Slumber guitarist/vocalist Karl Simon hit a home run with his new band Wretch's self-titled album; a fantastically well-crafted debut that reeked of The Obsessed in their prime. Speaking of which, with Wino out of Saint Vitus once again, he's had more time to devote to The Obsessed, who have a new album geared up for next year – and judging by the frankly fucking massive tones on the re-recorded version of Sodden Jackal they contributed to the Adult Swim Singles Series this year, it's going to be pretty damn heavy indeed.
There's no stopping the UK doom scene at the moment either, with stacked sludgy all-dayers packing out venues up and down the isle, and younger bands like Boss Keloid, Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, Haast's Eagled, Elephant Tree and Kroh all reaching much wider audiences with their uniformly excellent releases this year. The old guard have hardly been slouches either, with new records from the likes of Conan, Slomatics and Slabdragger, whose triumphant second album Rise Of The Dawncrusher was certainly worth the five-year wait from debut Regress, taking the form of a dense, hour-plus concept album about space pirates, evil reptile overlords and drilling giant holes through planets. 11Paranoias, Ghold and Palehorse all released their most fully realised records to date too, though unfortunately for the latter, it's to be their swansong. They may be gone, but as anyone who caught Ghold and Palehorse's joint headlining tour earlier this year will attest, their memory is no danger of being forgotten. Thankfully Ghold are still ploughing ahead, sounding heavier, weirder and tighter than ever with the addition of Oli Martin on guitar and vocals, rounding out their sound nicely.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg, really; it feels like every time a band splits up, their members splinter off and two more bands appear in their wake. Sure, this year we waved goodbye to Oxford's Undersmile, but half of them are now in the gloriously filthy noise-rock outfit Drore alongside Crippled Black Phoenix members; London's own masters of misery Dead Existence called it quits, but you'll find two of them in the dusky, doomladen Grave Lines alongside ex-Throne and War Wolf members, and speaking of War Wolf, their rhythm section are now in blistering grindy hardcore outfit Watchcries alongside former Torpor vocalist Nats Spada. It's heartening to see so many metal musicians open to collaboration, and it's resulted in three of the year's finest records too. The combo of post-metal darlings Cult Of Luna and former Made Out Of Babies vocalist Julie Christmas on Mariner proved better than we even expected, with both parties bringing out an additional intensity in the other; The Body's collaboration with Full Of Hell, One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache, went far beyond the simple fast-slow-fast-slow mash-up it could have been and delved deep into power electronics, bowel-rupturingly uneasy soundscapes and a particularly terrifying rendition of Leonard Cohen's 'The Butcher'; and Monoliths' self-titled debut saw members of Bismuth, Ommadon and Moloch joining forces to produce an incredibly satisfying exercise in riff worship.
Finally, we all know doom fans are patient people, but waiting 13 years for a debut album is a piss-take, even by those standards. For an album as good as Graves At Sea's misery soaked 'The Curse That Is…', though, it was more than worth holding out for, as the quartet delivered over 70 minutes of all the sludgy riffs and Burning Witch-esque screams they're known for, but with a sharply tuned focus that meant none of its running time was squandered or felt flabby, resulting in infectiously catchy epics like 'Waco 177'. - Kez Whelan
DOOM ALBUM OF THE YEAR: The Body - No One Deserves Happiness
GIG OF THE YEAR: The Palehorse/Ghold tour
HOPE FOR 2017: I would do unspeakable things for a new Samothrace album, especially given how good they were on this year's European tour
If the old guard of heavy metal disappointed on the recording front in 2016, the thrash pack came out all guns blazing. Perhaps we're seeing a turning of the tide, like we did back in '86. The 'eavy metal baton has been passed. 2016 was an all-star cast of thrash and it weren't 'alf bad. Testament's album? Blinding. Under Attack by Destruction? Barely off the stereo. Voivod's new EP? Take us to your leader, Away! And Anthrax, Megadeth and Metallica all proved there was life in the old dogs yet. They've had their ups and downs (personally I think Lulu is a future classic), but all three pulled out all the stops to prove they are relevant in the here and now. It was Hardwired... To Self-Destruct that got the most column inches, in and out of the rock press, and it saw the Four Horseman gallop back into our cold dead hearts. Surprisingly for a band containing Lars Ulrich the only real WTF! moment was the video for ManUNkind, shocking everyone with a clip from Jonas Åkerlund's soon-to-be-folly Lords Of Chaos. Everything from Dead's corpsepaint to the stickers on Euronymous' guitar smacked of authenticity, but this Mayhem biopic is going to be horrific no matter how painstakingly accurate the famed video director makes it.
While the Big Four were busying themselves with new music, a new underground was being forged and they that will surely not tolerate black metal's legacy – and ultimate tragedy – to be dressed up for a Hollywood elite. In 2016 metalheads were divided and boundaries pushed and it was on the thrash frontline that these battles became more bloodied and more fractured. Best thrash album of the year? With it's break neck pace, and attitude, and a touch of glam guitar's virile thrusting, it's gotta be Deströyer 666's Wildfire. Hands down. Controversial? Clearly! It lit a match that drove bands of that unrepentant, orthodox brotherhood into the flames to forge a new scene. Black thrash (no gods no) masters Nifelheim played in Glasgow last month and the gauntlet was thrown down. You're either with the new underground, or against it and it will be interesting to see how the new clash of the titans plays out in 2017.
Inspired in part by Deströyer 666 and Nifelheim, it seemed speed metal was king in 2016, and new blood-thirsty bands like Dungeon, Vulture, Occult Burial and Bat all turned up the dial a notch or 20. The latter feature members of Municipal Waste and DRI, so that's not surprising. Talking of the party thrash mob, with half playing in speed merchants BAT and the other half in the increasingly busy crossover crew Iron Reagan, there's a question hanging in the balance over their next move. Alongside politically-outspoken thrash bands like Iron Age and Powertrip, it's Iron Reagan we're looking to to guide us through the next few months. It was thrash that provided the soundtrack to the Reagan and Thatcher years and so it's thrash we need in 2017. The new Reagan Youth... it's over to you. - Louise Brown
HEAVY METAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Deströyer 666's Wildfire
GIG OF THE YEAR: Nifelheim's polemic appearance at Caledonian Darkness
HOPES FOR 2017: For us all to get along and live happily ever after??