Let’s just put this out there: Metal had a pretty bad 2016. Maybe this is specific to my country, America, which also had a pretty bad 2016. Maybe I’m projecting a little bit. Maybe you live someplace where everything is going great, and maybe where you live, metal is going great, too. If that’s the case, I’m jealous, I can’t lie. But I also can’t lie about how things appear from my vantage. And right now, where I’m at, things look kinda bleak.
There’s the big, blaring, obvious stuff, of course, the stuff we want to ignore: the fact that metal topographically bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a certain kleptocratic Manchurian Candidate president-elect of questionable integrity. It’s often boorish, vulgar, sexist, suspicious of outsiders, possibly illiterate, and white as a sheet. There’s also the fact that a fair-sized number of metal fans tend to fall into one of two fundamentally oppositional but equally repugnant demographics: (1) shitkicking separatists who like to listen to loud music while they lift, and (2) soft-ass woke bros who would nonetheless prefer to keep politics removed from a form of entertainment they see as a role-playing respite from their desk jobs.
I’m not implying that describes all metal fans, or even a majority of metal fans. I’m definitely not implying that describes you — in fact, if you’re here, I’m pretty sure you aren’t part of either of those factions. I just think it would be kinda weird to deliberately look away from all that at this particular moment. I’m also a big First Amendment proponent, and I think metal bands, and fans, and everyone else should have the inalienable right to say whatever the fuck they want, irrespective of how I feel about the content of their speech. But that “everyone” includes me, and here’s what I want to say: I’m not here for either the rage-stewing sewer rats or the big-baby boys who are too delicate to deal with reality. If that makes me unfit to write about metal anymore — and maybe it does — then so be it. I can’t say I’ve done more good than harm here. I’m OK walking away from this battle, because there are plenty of others that need soldiers.
But I’m also not here to make sweeping generalizations aimed at easy, self-drawn strawmen. I prefer to take a holistic view of complex ecosystems. So let me be clear: I’m not saying the entirety of metal, the music itself, was universally or even uniformly bad in 2016. The genre is far too vast and diffuse for such a thing to be true today, and anyway, the list we’ve compiled below would immediately belie such a statement. If you take any sort of macro view of the subject, however, it’s hard to pinpoint any real positive gains, and all too easy to identify negative developments and trends. Metal never had the strongest center in the first place — by nature the music exists in constant conflict with itself — but in 2016, much of its recently gained traction was lost, almost invisibly.
Here’s an example of what I mean: This past summer, metal-friendly music editors Ben Ratliff and Brandon Stosuy moved on from their respective posts at The New York Times and Pitchfork, leaving behind fairly immense voids of metal coverage that would be difficult to fill even if those publications made the genre a top priority. Metal has thrived over the past decade precisely because it’s had such benefactors: fierce champions with identifiable voices and far-reaching forums. The effects of their absence will be unquantifiable, but in the short term, at least, undeniable.
Here’s another example: In July, the organizers of America’s biggest extreme-metal gathering, Maryland Deathfest, announced that their annual event would be altered considerably in 2017. Next year, there will be no outdoor element to MDF. The entirety of the four-day festival will take place in two clubs: the 1,500-capacity Rams Head Live and the 700-capacity Baltimore Soundstage. Removed from the proceedings is the massive Edison Lot, the open-air space that had served as MDF’s central grounds for the past few years. According to MDF’s organizers, the decision was a bottom line-based necessity:
Not using Edison Lot may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you, but to make a long story short, the cost of production to use Edison all weekend is too much to justify using it again next year … We know that many of you will form your own opinion about what we should do, but please know that this decision was necessary for MDF to continue for years to come.
Maryland Deathfest is not gone, but minus an outdoor component, it will be less of a destination, less of a mecca. It will still draw a crowd, because its lineup is still outstanding, but it will necessarily be a much smaller crowd. The grand-scale MDF gave America its own version of European giants like Wacken and Roadburn; it was a place where far-flung fans, friends, and colleagues converged and communed. The scaled-back iteration will surely still be worthwhile, but it won’t be quite so essential.
Last one, and then we’ll move on. This past May, the great Pacific Northwest-based progressive black metal band Agalloch broke up — and in truly spectacular fashion. Now, bands break up all the time, but the loss of Agalloch is a big one, in part because the band was still very much at the top of its game, and in part because Agalloch were one of the few extreme-metal bands on the planet that just about everyone agreed on. They were a point of consensus in a genre that basically lacks consensus. They were a metal band whose new work was guaranteed to be reviewed (and, almost invariably, received well) by nearly every music-covering media outlet in the world. They also helped to keep the lights on at Profound Lore Records, arguably the best metal label in the game today: According to label head Chris Bruni, as of May 2014, Agalloch’s 2010 LP, Marrow Of The Spirit, was PFL’s all-time best-selling title. You can’t just wish into existence a replacement for Agalloch. The band built its unassailable reputation and dedicated fanbase over the course of nearly two decades. You also really can’t say for sure how much they’ll be missed. But make no mistake: They will be missed.
These may sound like minor developments, and maybe taken individually they are minor developments. Maybe they’re not even that. Maybe, in fact, you could frame all these things as net positives. You could say that the losses I point to above are merely examples of extreme metal regressing to its niche mean: a style of music that does well as a DIY underground culture but can’t sustain itself as an element of the mainstream.
• Maybe metal never belonged in places like The New York Times or Pitchfork (or Stereogum) precisely because ubiquity and unity don’t suit the music.
• Maybe dropping Edison Lot will improve the state of MDF: Detractors will point to its awful sound, dangerous lack of free water, and inconvenient location, not to mention that its sheer square-footage required the organizers to aim for bigger draws in a way that conflicted with the original audience and spirit of the fest.
• Maybe Agalloch’s breakup is a good thing, because its members have since gone on to form two new bands — Khôrada and Pillorian — and two is always better than one, right?
Maybe. I don’t see it that way, but I see the logic. Maybe I’m just feeling unreasonably pessimistic about everything right now, but it’s hard for me personally to view the aforementioned events as anything less than critical blows, especially if you understand the fragile ecosystem in which metal has slowly grown over the last decade or so. Inevitably, in the immediate future, metal’s domestic profile and economic viability will diminish, and it’s not as though the genre was making such a killing or occupying such a prominent place in the cultural consciousness to begin with.
To get an idea of how decentralized metal became in 2016, you need look no further than Decibel’s list of the year’s 40 best albums. I think it goes without saying at this point that Decibel is the most respected and vital metal-specific publication in the world right now (as it has been for about a decade), but when I saw the magazine’s year-end list, I was pretty surprised: A decent number of the selections were totally unknown to me, and I’d written off a decent number of others as more or less unremarkable. I don’t think I was totally alone in this response. There are two ways to react to such a thing, as illustrated below by two of my colleagues, Adrien Begrand and Phil Freeman, both of whose opinions on metal I respect tremendously, even when I don’t entirely agree with them.
Adrien was excited about the diversity on display, seeing it as an indication of the genre’s overall health:
How strong was metal music in 2016? Looks like only about 15 titles from Decibel's top 40 will be in my own top 40.
— Adrien Begrand (@basementgalaxy) November 17, 2016
Phil, on the other hand — unless I’m misreading him — was a bit more skeptical:
— burning ambulance (@burn_amb) November 17, 2016
I could go either way on this one, but I think I’m primarily sort of dispirited by the fact that nobody in metal appears to be having the same conversation as anybody else. (Incidentally, by my count, 10 titles from Decibel’s list are included on our own top 40 below.) I think music benefits from having ubiquitous figures inspiring universal debate. I think prominent artists push forward the entire art form. I think metal today lacks standard-bearers — and maybe even standards — and as such, it fails to meaningfully engage with the culture at large. Right now, it barely seems to understand how to substantively connect with its most-devoted community members. You can be a serious metal enthusiast and probably not give a shit about a single one of the 40 albums on Decibel’s list — or our list, for that matter. And while I understand how we got here, I think that’s ultimately probably not a great development for metal. Stereogum’s own Tom Breihan summed it up pretty damn well in his late-November review of Worm Ouroboros’ What Graceless Dawn, saying:
Underground metal is a funny thing. These days, it feels less like a genre and more like a loose constellation of vaguely connected mini-scenes … Seriously: Sometimes I think metal is less a kind of music and more a design sensibility.
It’s hard to argue with that, except perhaps to say that even the design aspect is pretty inconsistent at this point. Notably, a number of metal bands enjoyed brief periods of commercial success in 2016. Anthrax’s For All Kings debuted at #9 on the Billboard 200. Both Korn’s The Serenity Of Suffering and Volbeat’s Seal The Deal & Let’s Boogie debuted at #4. Megadeth’s Dystopia debuted at #3. Deftones’ Gore debuted at #2.
In a different world, that would mean something — those albums would be central to our collective understanding of this music. But in this world? Nah. None of those albums were included on Decibel’s list. None of them are included on our list. But, like, then you see that two of them were included on Rolling Stone’s list. So, I mean, I dunno. I’m not trying to single anybody out here. I’m pretty egalitarian in my view. Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong, but mostly, my point is, nobody’s talking about the same music.
OK, that’s not entirely true. There was in fact one metal album released in 2016 that everybody talked about. So … fuck, man … let’s talk about that one.
The first time I heard Metallica’s Hardwired…To Self-Destruct was in late September. It was at a private playback at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan. It was in an intimate room with perfect acoustics, a gigantic PA, and a small group of industry professionals flown in from around the country. Oh, and Metallica were there, too. All four of ‘em. I got to shake their hands, got my picture taken with them. For real. I normally don’t care about stuff like that — in fact, I generally prefer to not meet the people I admire, to be honest, which is something I learned the hard way — but this was different. And lemme tell you, it was such a great day. I’m not kidding; it was the best fucking day.
And the reason it was the best fucking day was not because I got to meet Metallica — I mean, not primarily, anyway — but because the music was so goddamn good. I couldn’t talk about it at the moment (I had to agree to these embargo terms saying I wouldn’t share any details of what I’d heard till November), but since it’s December, and since you’ve probably heard the record for yourself at this point, I can tell you: The thing was great. I walked out of that place thinking Hardwired was, without question, Metallica’s best album since 1988’s …And Justice For All. After more than a quarter-century fucking us all around, Metallica were unequivocally back. I was writing the review in my head on my walk back to Stereogum HQ, trying to remember details of the music even as they slipped from my grasp.
I was floored. I was so happy. I was dizzy from the whole thing. I was blown away.
Let me take a quick snapshot of that moment now, actually, to preserve it for posterity, to freeze it in amber.
I didn’t hear Hardwired again till its release, the week after my country elected Donald Trump to be its president.
If Hardwired had come out at just about any other time in history, my feelings would have been different. But at that moment, it didn’t really matter much to me that Metallica were back. I couldn’t get excited about them flexing, much less pretend their rejuvenation meant anything. The world in which this music had been created was fucking gone.
Metallica were bringing the fire, but why? To my ears, Hardwired was the sound of four multi-millionaires trying to gin up a convincing simulation of rage for the sake of sounding vital in their final stretch, and it felt immediately irrelevant in a country that was suddenly ablaze with actual rage. Whether Hardwired was dealing in pretend-anger or genuine vitriol pandering to the exact people whose own misdirected anger had left us in this place, it seemed immediately antiquated and frankly a bit cynical.
I tried to find some meaning in the vague lyrics projecting undirected angst, but I couldn’t shake the sense I was searching for something that just wasn’t there. And you know what? I was right. This was clarified for me by none other than James Hetfield himself, via quotes like this one, which I stumbled upon after a good week or so of parsing Hardwired for substantive commentary:
We stay away from politics [and] from religion. That just seems to polarize people even more. We all have our own beliefs, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to connect with people, and it seems like political views don’t do that as much as music does.
And then there was this one from Lars Ulrich:
I swear to you, I talk to James Hetfield about most things on this planet, but I don’t think I’ve ever willfully had a political conversation with him. We’ve spent 35 years together, and obviously we’ve been in the same room when the conversation went toward politics, but James and I sitting down in a room and discussing our particular views on something like affordable health care? Never happened.
Here’s another one from Lars, same interview:
If you break down what Metallica does in its simplest form, it’s write — or at least try to write — fucking great rock songs. Once you go beyond that and into more specific social or political relevance, I get uncomfortable.
Regarding Hetfield’s assertion: “trying to connect with people”? That’s bullshit, man. Metallica have never cared about connecting with people. Metallica’s last album was fucking Lulu. Also, Metallica at their most relevant were a pretty political band! Justice opens up with a song called “Blackened” whose lyrics warn against the dangers of climate change! Maybe environmental concerns hadn’t been so politicized in 1988 as they are in 2016, but it’s grotesque to think that Metallica today are more concerned with “trying to connect with people” than using their platform to speak out on issues that were already urgent three decades ago.
Lars’ quotes irritate me even more. You seriously mean to tell me that two men in their 50s who’ve known each other since they were teenagers — who’ve made art together their entire adult lives, who’ve amassed vast fortunes and seen every inch of this Earth as a result of their art’s impossible success — just avoid talking about politics? What in God’s name do they talk about then? Are all their conversations focused solely on how to “write fucking great rock songs” that say absolutely nothing?
How miserable must Kirk Hammett be right now? My man is so clearly repulsed by Donald Trump and freaked-the-fuck-out for the state of the world that he’s being crushed by his own conscience. But Metallica are so goddamn scared of offending anyone that he can only say shit like this:
We want everyone to be in this together, experiencing the music together. We see politics as a completely different thing … That’s why I’ve chosen my words carefully, that I — not Metallica, but I — will take it upon myself to get involved, if there is something I see that is seriously wrong, and I really feel that it’s my job to say something, and to call out people who need to be called out … if anything happens that I’m not OK with, I’m going to be super vocal about it for the first time in my life.
What a horrible situation. What a bunch of wimps.
Now look, I GET IT: No one could possibly expect an old metal act like Metallica to have the pure and righteous convictions of hard-hitting agitprop firebrands like Katy Perry, Vampire Weekend, or Lin-Manuel Miranda. That would clearly be too much to ask. But right now, I can’t really fuck with a band that’s “trying to connect with people” by writing throat-ripping thrash tunes about the life and death of Amy Winehouse.
Are they serious with that shit? I honestly don’t know. I can see a range of possibilities, but I’ve come up with two likely ones, and neither feels particularly satisfying to me.
At best, every member of Metallica is generally on the side of decency, humanity, and democracy, but they don’t want those feelings to infect their art because they don’t want to alienate the substantial percentage of their audience that might be turned off by (or even boycott) the band for holding such views.
Now that’s pretty shitty and cynical, and while it’s basically understandable, it’s in no way admirable.
At worst, though? Ugh, man, this is not easy for me to say, but here goes: At worst, one (or more) of my childhood heroes is someone I’d consider to be a goddamn apostate: a person I’d cut from my own life without mercy or remorse; a person whose views are so intolerant and offensive that they can’t be shared with even his oldest friends.
This breaks my heart, you know. There’s a segment of the metal “community” that seems to hate Metallica more than it actually loves any other band, but I’m not a part of that group. I’m all the way on the other side. I’m the guy who stands up for Metallica at their dumbest. When I was editor of Invisible Oranges, I presided over and signed off on one of the only positive reviews of Lulu you’ll find in the whole universe. I didn’t write that review, because I don’t like Lulu, but I was stoked to share it with the world. Because I love Metallica. I want to love Metallica.
And if Hardwired had dropped in September, it would probably be on this list; I probably would have had a whole different take on the thing. Maybe it’s just a case of terrible timing — for me, anyway — and maybe I’ll come back to the album in six months or a year and be able to listen to it for what it is rather than what it isn’t. But right now, I can’t do that, which is why I didn’t vote for Hardwired among my favorite metal albums of 2016. You can call me a hypocrite, and maybe on some level I am, but right here, I’m just being honest.
Of course I’m not the only person involved in this project. As you probably know by now, Stereogum’s list of the year’s best metal albums is compiled by the same five guys who collaborate on our monthly metal column, the Black Market: me, Doug Moore, Aaron Lariviere, Wyatt Marshall, and Ian Chainey. Now, I don’t mean to go all Kirk Hammett on you here, but I should probably make a point to say that the views expressed above are entirely my own. I have a good idea of where all the other Black Market guys stand on the political spectrum — because we talk about politics, because we’re adults — and I still consider each and every one of them to be among my closest friends, but I’m in no way saying their views are reflected in my own. I’m alone out here. You can leave them out of this.
In any case, none of us included Hardwired on our individual ballots. You now know why it didn’t get my vote, but here too I can’t speak for anyone else. My best guess is, all those guys loved other stuff more, and I get that. The truth is, we didn’t come to much of a consensus on anything, musically speaking. I think when it finally came time to do this thing, we were all a little unsure about why we were doing it. Was there really any value in five grown men seriously arguing over the respective merits and demerits of obscure metal albums released in an arbitrary timeframe?
We talked it over, and we finally decided there was, for a few reasons:
First, we ultimately recognized this as the culmination of a lot of hard work that we’ve done throughout the year, and an opportunity for us to celebrate the music that really moved us for whatever reason. It would be kinda disrespectful to ignore that. Second, I believe there’s an underlying and invaluable greater good being served here: Over the past four years, we’ve established a healthy, thoughtful, and responsible community in an unlikely space, and these sorts of communities will be increasingly essential in the future. More importantly, I believe metal itself has the opportunity to play a vital role in shaping our collective consciousness going forward. Few art forms are so free to speak truth to power, so apt to channel rage.
And where we’re headed, we’re gonna fucking need that.
Metallica may not feel comfortable in that role anymore, but there are countless other metal bands who recognize what Metallica have forgotten: Metal is not comfort music. And it’s not a design sensibility, either. It’s fury and sorrow and rebellion and confusion and hate and joy made sound.
Which brings me to the main reason we’re doing this again: Because even though metal had a pretty bad 2016, it still gave us a crazy bounty of great music. We loved this stuff. I loved this stuff. I’ll always love it. Because no matter how bad metal gets, it’s still — absolutely, forever — the best. –Michael Nelson
40 Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep Of Reason (Nuclear Blast)
Nine albums in, Meshuggah are just being Meshuggah. No mean feat — their iconic sound is easier to pastiche than to replicate, as their many failed imitators can attest. But it’s rock-solid songwriting and preternatural rifflordery, not technique, that make Meshuggah great, and this album proves they’ve still got it. Few acts could write a song as good as “Clockworks” after 30 years together. –Doug Moore
39 Jassa – Lights In The Howling Wilderness (Fallen Empire)
The Russian duo Jassa includes a dude from Sivjy Yar, providing a general GPS coordinate for where you’re heading on Lights In The Howling Wilderness: full-canvas atmospheric epicness, an assured pace, and all that good stuff. But then a mouth harp twangs and the blackened death gets deathlier and everything gets weightier and … hold up, a mouth harp? You bet. Wilderness’ songs tend to unfold like folktales while sweet-ass riffs rain down aplenty. And Jassa don’t need LOTR length, nor do they feel compelled to break up the awesome with goofball vignettes. Nope, you get the journey and the riffs all at once. –Ian Chainey
38 Gojira – Magma (Roadrunner)
In metal’s heyday, the genre’s leading lights pushed each other to write songs that were not only heavier, faster, and more complicated, but smarter and catchier, too. That ambitious and inclusive approach to metal has largely been abandoned, but it lives on in the music of Gojira. That’s not to say Gojira are in any way retro-minded, but there’s something atavistic about the way their stadium-size melodies and breathtaking grandeur serve as a Trojan Horse transporting innovative instrumentation, bone-breaking low end, and challenging lyrical themes. Magma pulls off the all-too-rare trifecta of being heavy, complex, and catchy, while most of today’s best metal bands are happy to pull off only two of those three things (if that). Metal is Satan’s music, of course, but make no mistake: Gojira are doing God’s work. –Michael Nelson
37 Batushka – Litourgiya (Witching Hour Productions)
Batushka’s Litourgaya made something of a splash this year, channeling arcane Christian imagery and liturgical chant into a powerful metal package. The mix of black and doom capitalizes perfectly on deeply ingrained traditions and fears — being from Poland, Batushka know all about that stuff. You can almost hear the censer swinging over the huddled masses. –Wyatt Marshall
36 Sorcery – Garden Of Bones (Xtreem Music)
Old-school Swedish death has been on life support for years, at least in terms of quality, originality, and unmanufactured ferocity, a fact lost on many of the limp reincarnations still hobbling about in 2016. And then there’s Sorcery. One of the unsung originals — formed in ’86 and responsible for the forgotten but fantastic Bloodchilling Tales LP — somehow Sorcery have resurfaced to become the best Swedish death metal band alive, firing off perfect riffs with abandon and crafting better, more memorable songs than any of their peers, young or old. –Aaron Lariviere
35 Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder (Peaceville)
In 2016, Fenriz was elected holding a cat, while Trump was elected grabbing a … sigh. Weird year, which makes the heavy metal fun fest Arctic Thunder that much more cathartic in the escapist sense. Mostly led by Ted “Nocturno Culto” Skjellum, Thunder is Darkthrone, the long-long-running Norwegian duo, gritting their teeth, getting Sardonic Wrath mean, and slathering a proto-black, ’80s stank on a series of memorable riffs. While turning away completely from reality’s blights isn’t an answer, Thunder is here to help you heal when you need a break. Take … these broken wings. –Ian Chainey
34 Altarage – Nihl (Iron Bonehead)
Altarage, a mysterious quartet from Spain, are what would happen if a cavernous death-metal dweller decided to crawl out and get all High On Fire. Full-length debut NIHL manages to be heftier than a mutant Hefty bag that just ingested James Harrison, complete with all of the requisite drowned-vocal, suffocating atmospherics. Peak murk. But it also has, clear as day, RIFFS. “Drevicet” drops a classic after a blast clears the deck. That’s the first minute of the first track. Lots more incoming. –Ian Chainey
33 Worm Ouroboros – What Graceless Dawn (Profound Lore)
Equally lush and spacious, ethereal and funereal, What Graceless Dawn is probably the saddest record of the year and also one of the most comforting, thanks to the expressive warmth of the individual performances. Skirting the lines between funeral doom, death-rock, and dream-pop, the result is otherworldly mood music, or the perfect soundtrack to drag us through ever-darkening days. –Aaron Lariviere
32 UXO – UXO (Reptilian)
Direct from the wistful daydreams of ’90s noise-rock fanboys comes UXO, a supergroup pairing Today Is The Day frontman Steve Austin with counterpart Chris Spencer of Unsane. This album didn’t enjoy the critical oxygen it deserves — these songs are gravelly, hooky powerhouses that capture both men’s considerable musical strengths. “RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES” is the best Steve Austin refrain ever. –Doug Moore
31 Kvelertak – Nattesferd (Roadrunner)
Nattesferd is an immediate departure for Kvelertak: It’s their first album not produced by Kurt Ballou; their first not to feature cover art by John Baizley. Those developments could suggest disappointing results; instead, Nattesferd is Kvelertak’s most consistent album, and from front to back, their best. There are some songs on here — like the album’s title track or “Svartmesse” — that are point-blank better versions of the old Kvelertak sound: catchier, crazier, more thrilling. There are others — e.g., “Ondskapens Galaxe” and “Heksebrann” — that are simply beautiful in ways never before attempted by the band. It’s still celebratory music, but it feels more serious, more spacious, more ambitious. –Michael Nelson
30 Tardigrada – Emotionale Ödnis (Fallen Empire)
Emotionale Ödnis is an immersive atmospheric black metal wonder, a melancholic journey with a militaristic edge that, as soon as you get comfortable, will alter its trajectory. A feeling of malaise predominates on the album, which moves at a mid-tempo or slower pace and bears impressionistic qualities — shapes tend to shift, lines aren’t so clearly defined. And though beauty rears its head time and again, it is never without a more regretful or sinister pullback. That’s when the absolutely anguished vocals come in, the rants of a man losing his mind. –Wyatt Marshall
29 Internal Suffering – Cyclonic Void Of Power (Unique Leader)
Now located in Spain, this Colombian quintet came to blast. And do they ever. Cyclonic Void Of Power sacrifices all in praise of speed, enlisting the squelches of tech to help accomplish the mission. But it’s also pleasingly loose, brimming with the kind of humanity that is sometimes lost by robo-slammers. Power’s best parts are things only humans could deliver, forgoing logic for the spoils of freaking ridiculousness. Consider the reoccurring exclamation point found in the lyrics totally earned. –Ian Chainey
28 Violet Cold – Magic Night (Tridroid)
No album on this list is prettier than Magic Night, a soundtrack to a wonderful dream delivered by Azerbaijan’s best one-man metal-ish band. Black metal runs in the DNA here, but this instrumental work is something else. Piano and eliding synth pull Magic Night into the realm of ambient electronica, zipping past genre convention to some other world. –Wyatt Marshall
27 Dawnbringer – XX (Ektro)
It’s pretty close to impossible to keep up with the recorded output of “Professor” Chris Black, the Chicago-based trad-metal genius behind High Spirits, Superchrist, and Aktor, to name a few of his many musical associations and identities. Black’s best-known alias is Dawnbringer, and under that handle, Black has released six outstanding LPs. Still, I’m not sure the band has ever done anything better than 2016’s XX EP. Black’s work can sometimes sound overtly retro — it’s part of his approach and his appeal — but XX feels absolutely of-the-moment, while still drawing from the genre’s archetypal artists. When he’s on his game, the dude writes the best riffs and pairs them with the sickest melodies, and this right here is peak Black. –Michael Nelson
26 Jute Gyte – Perdurance (Self-Released)
The reigning king of hermetic black metal experimentation continues his glorious rule. Microtonal guitars, spasming electronics, procedural composition techniques, and some of the nastiest vocals you’ll find anywhere conspire to amplify your every reasonable neurosis on Perdurance. For an hour-long noisefest devoted to abstract Schopenhauerian pessimism, this album is an impossibly soulful listen. –Doug Moore
25 Sumerlands – Sumerlands (Relapse)
Back in September, I described these guys as “pure testicular thunder,” possibly my favorite descriptive phrase ever, much better than “pure priapic punishment” or “like a cold steel codpiece thrusting into the night,” which were some alternates I considered. Regardless, Sumerlands’ debut is explosive in the best way — easily the best traditional heavy metal record since Dawnbringer’s Into The Lair Of The Sun God, which is no faint praise. –Aaron Lariviere
24 Palace Of Worms – The Ladder (Broken Limbs)
Even if genre-hopping experimental black metal is par for the course in 2016, The Ladder goes further than most by wrapping its schizophrenic tendencies in perfectly wrought pathos. Songs shift and uncoil in fits of imagination, weaving together passages of sludge, doom, black metal, crust, and even chorus-drenched post-punk. Taken together, it’s feverish and entirely unpredictable, yet it never ventures from the unifying melodic thread. Palace Of Worms have given us one of the strangest albums of the year, carved like cancer from an unhealthy mind, a fractured masterpiece of outsider art. –Aaron Lariviere
23 Wode – Wode (Broken Limbs)
The self-titled debut LP from Wode offers an astonishing, addictive surplus of NWOBHN-via-Gothenburg hooks. In that respect, the album has a lot in common with Horrendous’ world-conquering 2015 LP, Anareta. However, while Horrendous are part of a death metal lineage that includes Death, Pestilence, and At The Gates, Wode’s DNA is dominated by melodic Scandinavian black metal bands including Dissection, Watain, and Taake, with recessive elements indebted to the seminal doom of Cathedral or Candlemass and the timeless thrash of early Metallica or Megadeth. It draws from classic stuff and it feels like classic stuff, but not many classic black metal bands worked as many adrenaline-boosting earworms into their songs as Wode do here. –Michael Nelson
22 Aureole – Aurora Borealis (Fallen Empire)
Aurora Borealis is an otherworldly smear of highly atmospheric black metal awash in fuzz and howling wind to the point of drowning. At times it’s almost disorienting, but guides emerge when needed to pull you from the void: a sad, trilling guitar, a muted keyboard, croaking vocals from another dimension. The work of Markov Soroka, who has created a fantastical lore for Aureole, Aurora Borealis contemplates portals from this world to the beyond and what, if anything, remains of those who make the fateful leap. –Wyatt Marshall
21 Furia – Ksi??yc Milczy Luty (Pagan)
Poland’s Furia are patiently experimental. On two different releases this year, the EP Guido and the LP Ksi??yc Milczy Luty, the quartet take their time breaking the rules, particularly on the latter. Where most black metal is frantic, Ksi??yc is measured. Here, Furia favor a sludgy lumber along with reverbed guitars that shoot heavenward like weather-balloon tethers. The comparative space between strums means you’re reflecting on progressions as they play out. Neat effect, lending a growing familiarity to the songs as they unfurl toward the fringes. –Ian Chainey
20 Vektor – Terminal Redux (Earache)
Riffs ripped through the veil of space-time, like a last-ditch transmission shot through a wormhole at ludicrous speed, piercing the heart of the sun and tearing out the other side — sound transformed into perfect destructive force. Forget the cosmic hyperbole, this is just unreal progressive thrash, light years beyond the rethrash competition, with flash and technicality to spare but channeled into actual songs with actual earworm hooks. The results are progressive, explosive, awesome. We haven’t seen extreme thrash this vital in decades. –Aaron Lariviere
19 Aluk Todolo – Voix (The Ajna Offensive)
Voix, Aluk Todolo’s fourth full-length, bristles with post-punk energy over six connected tracks that were recorded live. The instrumental French trio calls this stuff “occult rock,” which is a mix of black metal’s feel with the looping yet frenetic energy of krautrock. All instruments crash and chime and soar and dive, recalling This Heat or Laddio Bolocko. That said, Todolo make this racket their own. There’s a grimness to the grime, the sort of unsettling nastiness that throbs beneath what city planners try to obscure. Dark alley music. There’s someone else here music. –Ian Chainey
18 High Spirits – Motivator (High Roller)
Chris Black’s High Spirits have become a reliable source of pure joy over recent years, keeping an eternal flame of classic heavy metal burning with righteous anthems of the highest caliber. Amidst so much death and black metal, Motivator is a testament to the power of a timeless heavy-metal truth: sick riffs, slick licks, big drums, and the innate urge to rock will never die. –Wyatt Marshall
17 Martyrdöd – List (Southern Lord)
I remember seeing Martyrdöd at Maryland Deathfest 2015 — this was my second time seeing them; I also caught them at the Acheron in Brooklyn in 2012 — and thinking: “This is everything I want in a band.” Can I quantify that? I mean, I can give it a shot. The Swedish quartet play a sort of melodic-death/d-beat/NWOBHM hybrid reminiscent of countrymen Disfear, but they go heavier on the sweeping, epic, humongous guitar solos. The band released their sixth album, List, a couple weeks after our disastrous election, and thank fuck for that, because the moment required music just like this: righteous fury, slaughterhouse riffs, and violent aggression. Martyrdöd were everything I wanted in a band last May, and today, they’re everything I need. –Michael Nelson
16 Hammers Of Misfortune – Dead Revolution (Metal Blade)
Dead Revolution proves you can speak to the present using the language of the past. Rooted in ’70s progressive rock and ’80s metal, Hammers Of Misfortune nonetheless gaze at the tech-bro-ravaged state of their native Bay Area with a more jaundiced eye than any death metal band’s. The instrumental workouts in “Precipice (Waiting For The Crash)” may be their best ever. –Doug Moore
15 Plebeian Grandstand – False Highs, True Lows (Throatruiner)
The most frightening band on this list. Plebeian Grandstand draw on France’s famous wellspring of dissonant black metal riff mayhem to sculpt constantly shifting, terrifyingly novel nightmare shapes — False Highs, True Lows crushes like death metal and spits in your face like gnarly hardcore. No album captures the gnawing anxiety that haunted 2016 the way this one does. (Full disclosure: My band toured with Plebeian Grandstand this past summer. They are a truly great live act.) –Doug Moore
14 Alcest – Kodama (Prophecy Productions)
Even at its earliest and ugliest moments, black metal always had the capacity to be beautiful and wondrous. But Alcest were the first black metal band to make beauty and wonder the whole point. Alcest followed that road to its logical conclusion on 2014’s Shelter, an album that was simply very pretty without any of the menace or nastiness required to still be called “black metal.” Having reached that terminus, they had to choose a new direction. So what did they do? They turned around. And in doing so, they found something altogether new and fucking AMAZING. Kodama is arcing and graceful and glimmering, yet it roars like a cavalcade of Harleys and blasts like a January hailstorm. When I first came to Kodama, I was preparing myself for a minor work, a variation on the previous theme. I did not expect them to come out with this. There’s no fucking way I could have prepared myself for this. –Michael Nelson
13 MURG – Gudatall (Nordvis)
Last year, Murg delivered a frigid and blistering debut album, and in the waning hours of 2016, we got hit with another crack of the Swedish duo’s icy wrath. As subgenres continue to sprout from the 20-year-old (but still-fertile) ground of second-wave black metal, Gudatall, with its stomping aplomb, is as close to perfect as we come to a pure black-metal album in 2016. –Wyatt Marshall
12 Spiritus Mortis – The Year Is One (Svart)
Crawling around since the late ’80s, Finland’s Spiritus Mortis got a boost in 2009 when Sami “Albert Witchfinder” Hynninen grabbed the mic following his decade-plus of exemplary dooming in Reverend Bizarre. There’s some crossover: Both outfits share a similar aesthetic of getting lost in Cathedral’s forests and finding Leif Edling. But the Maijala brothers’ Mortis really nailed the frequent costume changes on this one. The Year Is One is like a classic doom sampler plate, kicking out eight downer jams that alone are better than most main courses. Variety is nice, songwriting is better. Slow, but no snooze. –Ian Chainey
11 Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä (20 Buck Spin)
It’s fun to take a trip, put acid in your veins. Art-damaged black metal, krautrock in space, progressive psychedelia, all of it and more, distilled to a sonic serum and mainlined so hard you’ll see stars, or worse yet, the infinite space in between, that yawning void that swallows us all in the end. Oranssi Pazuzu write drug music for drugs no human could survive. –Aaron Lariviere
10 Mesarthim – .- -?.?.?. .?.?. . -. -?.?-?. . (Self-Released)
Mesarthim’s .- -?.?.?. .?.?. . -. -?.?-?. . (Morse code for “Absence”) sports not only one of the strangest album titles of the year but also perhaps its grandest, most-sweeping melodies. .- -?.?.?. .?.?. . -. -?.?-?. . is atmospheric black metal of the space kind at the pinnacle of the form — it’s loaded to the brim with lush keyboards that paint awestruck pictures of distant galaxies. But the album, a missive from an ultimately doomed probe into the farthest reaches of the universe, also bears a heavy heart. It signs off with Morse code, announcing “The Great Filter approaches.” –Wyatt Marshall
9 Virus – Memento Collider (Karisma)
Virus are not only inimitable, it’s hard to imagine anyone evening knowing how to imitate them. Memento Collider is the heavy music equivalent of a David Lynch flick — a seesawing balance between disquieting vibes and wry humor, alienating and thoughtful and goofy all at once. Not the kind of populist affair you’d expect to inspire dancing, but with those disco beats, it could happen! –Doug Moore
8 Harakiri For The Sky – III: Trauma (Art Of Propaganda)
I played this record more than any other this year, almost compulsively, because it delivered something I didn’t realize I needed. It’s just … affecting in a way music rarely is, never mind metal. As our culture drifts closer to a permanent state of detachment, it’s become lame to frame music in nakedly emotional terms. Yet that’s exactly what this record offers so plainly — open displays of pain and vulnerability, sadness and disappointment, every raw feeling we swallow back on a daily basis blown out in a 75-minute wave of catharsis — and that’s why I reach for it week after week. Writing in June, Mike described it as “black metal of a very particular variety: melancholic and bombastic, rigidly constructed and almost mathematically precise, with elements of folk and post-rock and hints of melodic death metal.” He’s spot on, and the result outweighs the constituent parts: crystalline guitars and a rush and a push of rhythm and feeling. –Aaron Lariviere
7 Astronoid – Air (Blood Music)
Astronoid’s debut LP, Air, is an album for people who would love Deafheaven if only that band sang instead of screamed; an album for people who would be really into Mew if that band just kicked ass instead of being super goddamn weird so much of the time. If Air had been recorded on a four-track, it would resemble Woods Of Desolation … BUT it was recorded by two guys with sound recording degrees, and it sounds like a million bucks. If its vocals were delivered as a ghostly howl, you might compare it to the music made by Agalloch … BUT Astronoid deal exclusively in clear, textured clean vocals, high in the mix and rich with harmonies. If the band’s instrumentation were less aggressive, Air might sound like Sigur Rós … BUT this music is powered by a dynamic three-guitar assault and some pummeling double kick drum. Air sounds a little bit like a bunch of other stuff, but it doesn’t really sound like anything else in the world. It is nothing less than a delight, a triumph, a revelation. –Michael Nelson
6 Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust (Season Of Mist)
The standard-bearers for experimental extreme metal go hard to the prog well with a Tarkus-style 33-minute supersong, to incredible effect. Most metal bands eat shit if they stray past the 10-minute mark for a song, which makes this towering, emotive feat all the more impressive. Pleiades’ Dust is Gorguts’ most melodic recording to date, highlighting an essential and little-appreciated facet of this legendary band. –Doug Moore
5 Mare Cognitum – Luminiferous Aether (I, Voidhanger)
Mare Cognitum’s Luminiferous Aether is handily this year’s best example of atmospheric black metal, a style that demands its practitioners meet two distinct challenges: on the one hand, to bang your head; on the other, to transport listeners to a compelling foreign world and make them feel something. No other band this year so expertly and convincingly did both. Luminiferous Aether explores the far reaches of the universe, and through mastermind Jacob Buczarski’s vision, we witness the birth and death of stars, map the contours of monumental interstellar clouds, and watch as showers of comets burn through the atmosphere and beat a planet’s surface until it’s torn asunder. Buczarski’s acrobatic playing brings these types of events vividly to life, with both guitar tones of dulcet alien frequencies that dance in arpeggiation as well as pummeling drums that bring muscular urgency. This isn’t a sightseeing trip. What’s beyond Earth’s atmosphere may be wonderful, but as Buczarski notes, it is also impossibly cold and indifferent. –Wyatt Marshall
4 Wormed – Krighsu (Season Of Mist)
Krigshu, this Spanish quartet’s third full-length, zooms around like a brutal death starship. Where terrestrial peers are borking about slasher sequels, Wormed zaps books on physics, cybernetics, and space to fuel its BPM engines. Processed by lesser CPUs, this would sound like that guy in the public library who prints out forum posts on Tesla. However, Wormed knows its way around a hook. And Krigshu has got ‘em. Tons. But, they may sound strange on spin number one. If you’re new, it’s like hearing a stream of bits sent BREE-crypted across the wire. 01010111.01010100.01000110. It all ends up computing, though, because \/\/0RM3D.exe intelligently sequences packets. Like a good app, Wormed excels at the small, structural stuff such as writing killer standalone riffs. After all, great riffs tend to be cohesive because they’re memorable, pulling surrounding elements to them thanks to the gravitional-like forces at play when you relive them later in your head. Wormed gets that and that’s what helps make Krighshu the future of techy brutal death metal. Of course, that’s “future” in the sense that it’s going to take other outfits many moons to catch up. Enjoy it before a Series 800 successor inevitably crushes your skull while this blasts out its cranial-mounted speakers. –Ian Chainey
3 Blood Incantation – Starspawn (Dark Descent)
Drawing on the twin themes of space and death, Blood Incantation stare into the void and tear through the fabric of reality, carving impossible riffs into one of the best and most inventive records of the year. Across 34 minutes, Starspawn shreds expectations, blasting off in a hundred directions at once, from the long-form progressive insanity of 14-minute opener “Vitrification Of Blood (Part 1)” to the analog space madness of instrumental “Meticulous Soul Devourment,” and that’s not even accounting for the (relatively) straightforward cosmic death that makes up the rest of the record. Screaming leads cut a swath through the churn of atonal rhythm guitars, blending the bright melodicism of late-period Death with the alien tones of Domination-era Morbid Angel and more than a whiff of Timeghoul’s astral aggression. When the stars align for a melodic crescendo on the closing track, Blood Incantation touch down in the same rare air as a band like Horrendous, which is to say this record fires on every possible cylinder. Stellar production, insane arrangements, and headbanging riffs like no other — this was my favorite album of the year, hands down. –Aaron Lariviere
2 Cobalt – Slow Forever (Profound Lore)
In 2009, Cobalt released their third LP, Gin: one of the 10 best metal albums of the last decade, as far as I’m concerned, fusing blackened death metal with noise, doom, crust punk, and post-metal. The duo’s follow-up to Gin came together at a glacial pace, in part because Cobalt vocalist Phil McSorley was an active Army officer whose ability to write and record his tracks was limited by his tours in Iraq and South Korea. McSorley was a black-metal lifer, while Cobalt’s driving engine — multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder — drew from influences like Swans, Neurosis, and Tool, and that dynamic resulted in music of unparalleled scope and vision. In 2014, though, McSorley was kicked out of Cobalt for “spewing misogynist/homophobic slurs on Facebook to other musicians.” Still, Wunder continued work on the band’s long-gestating fourth album, and in June 2015, enlisted a new vocalist: Charlie Fell, who’d been kicked out of his own band, Lord Mantis, only three months prior. It coulda been a trainwreck; instead, it was a minor miracle. Slow Forever is very much an extension of Gin, an expansion of Wunder’s evolving vision. Fell is more than an adequate replacement for McSorley — here, he delivers a performance that is more technically adept than those offered by his predecessor, but no less unhinged. Slow Forever isn’t just a worthy follow-up to Gin; it’s pretty close to a masterpiece in its own right. –Michael Nelson
1 Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows (Relapse)
We spend a lot of our metal-coverage airtime untangling metal’s infuriating web of subgenres, so it’s both fitting and ironic that Paradise Gallows would land in the top spot on this list. Inter Arma’s gift for weaving together just about every ongoing stylistic thread in heavy music — death metal, black metal, sludge, post-rock, prog, even noise rock — is paradoxically both essential to their awesomeness and beside the point, as the final product is utterly singular. But as smartly conceived as Paradise Gallows’ labyrinthine compositions are, they only achieve such a powerful effect because of Inter Arma’s godlike execution. On top of their distinctive songwriting approach, Inter Arma have a viscerally unique sound, in the literal sonic sense — a massive, echoing, leaden resonance, like a boulder crashing through some submerged cave. Honed to perfection over the course of approximately one bazillion live appearances (go see them), this epic sense of scale allows Inter Arma to make massive aural sculptures out of even their most restrained moments. There’s a lot more to say about this phenomenal record, about its delicate balance between truly gruesome heaviness and world-weary reflection, about its myriad compelling details that reward each listen more richly than the last, but you’re better off just listening to the damn thing if you haven’t yet. Metal’s too multifarious for any one album to represent its “future,” but Paradise Gallows certainly represents the emotionally charged, ambitious direction I’d like to see it move in. –Doug Moore