I’ve been meaning to start a blog so that I can review music and make end of year lists for ages, and I finally get round to it in a year that I didn’t enjoy much new music. Compared to recent years 2016 didn’t offer me a whole lot of new releases to get excited about, so much so that I’ve totally failed to think up ten albums that sufficiently impressed enough me to make it onto this list. Looks like a top 5 will have to do.
Then again, there were plenty of older releases which I discovered in 2016 and really enjoyed. So why don’t we recognise those as well? You might argue that end of year retrospectives are at their best when they are detailing things that actually occurred in that year, to which I say screw you! It’s my blog!
Here we go then: the top 5 new releases of 2016, and the top 5 releases that were new to ME in 2016. Let’s start with the former. Though there weren’t as many good albums in 2016 as I would’ve hoped, these five are all cracking good albums and would be standouts in any year.
Top 5 Metal Albums of 2016
5: Cairiss- Fall
For a young independent band to make it onto a top 5 list alongside so many established names is impressive. To do it with a mere 3-song EP is truly remarkable, and should give you some indicator of the quality of the music Cairiss put out on Fall. Drawing equally from post rock, black metal and goth metal, Cairiss arrive at a sound that’s hauntingly beautiful one moment and ferociously chaotic the next. In my review for Arctic Drones I wrote how this EP captures the epic sweep and sense of gothic drama and mystery of a good fairytale, and I found myself returning to its spellbinding pages all year. This is 27 minutes of enthralling, melancholic and masterfully composed metal and my only real complaint was that there just wasn’t enough of it. Hurry up and release a full album!
4: Dark Tranquillity- Atoma
Despite my moaning at the top of the page, 2016 was undeniably a good year for the melodic death metal subgenre. I was torn between including this or Insomnuim’s incredible Winters Gate on my list, and while Insomnium crafted an awe-inspiring album with their 40-minute single song magnum opus, Dark Tranquillity edged it on the strength of their individual songs and on the sheer joy of seeing a band you’ve been rooting for for years continue to deliver the goods. Atoma is brimming from start to finish with tight, aggressive and inventive songs full of melody and mood. Mikael Stanne remains one of the best growlers in the business and stands as one of the few metal vocalists whose singing matches his screams for quality.
Every song on Atoma is instantly catchy and the full-throttle pacing and uniquely unnerving sense of melody helps lift Dark Tranquillity’s latest into the upper echelons of their discography. While all their melo-death rivals have fallen by the wayside, the venerable Swedes continue to raise the bar. Plus “Forward Momentum” has one of the coolest videos I’ve seen all year.
…Come to think of it, it might be the only music video I’ve seen all year. Genuinely can’t think of any others.
…………………..Ok Liz just reminded me that I watched some Fall Out Boy videos with her at one point. Thanks hun.
3: Pseudo/Sentai: Enter the Sentai
With two killer albums of manic, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink hard rock in as many years, Peudo/Sentai perfectly embody the hyperactive, culturally aware zeitgeist of the Bandcamp era of DIY music making. Their latest offering of scrappy, eclectic indie punk prog takes some warming to due to the sheer number of moving parts and the murky production that sounds like it’s being beamed to you from across dimensions, but the quality of the songs cannot be disputed.
Tracks like “Belle of the Cabal” and “Werewolf Casey” are whirlwinds of squabbling guitar lines and frantic gang vocals while “The Man. The Mill. The Machina.” and “Desert Dessert” are super cool rockers with campy sci-fi lyrics and earworm melodies. Keeping so many influences and sounds in their place is an incredible balancing act, and any album that features a song based on a Harlan Ellison story is fine by me. The only marks against Enter the Sentai are that it slightly drags towards the tail end and the fact that I asked the band for a promo copy after promoting the advance single, and they said they’d send it to me but never did. I guess the fact that you can download the whole album for free on their Bandcamp page softened the blow slightly.
2: Hypno5e- Shores of the Abstract Line
Hypno5e absolutely blew me away at the beginning of 2016 with their latest masterpiece of cinematic metal, and 12 months later the impact of Shores of the Abstract Line hasn’t dulled in the slightest. Unrelentingly bleak, intensely cerebral and ferociously heavy, Shores is one of the most challenging and alienating records I’ve ever heard. Despite being about as oppressive and inaccessible as music gets, the level of emotional impact and technical skill on display here are just impossible to ignore.
Crushing atmospheres, monstrous riffs, swirling basslines and strangled shrieks of existential horror share song space with angelic Latin influenced melodies, bilingual singing, film excerpts and Charles Bukowski poems in a sound that defies any attempt at explanation or definition. This is a harrowingly dark, nihilistic and anguished album that somehow manages to be beautiful and uplifting even as it drags you down to the depths of the frigid ocean. Fun times all round.
1: Witherscape- The Northern Sanctuary
For much of the year I didn’t think that anything could de-throne Hypno5e from the top spot on my list, but the latest offering from heavy metal Institution Dan Swanö proved that all it took was tight songwriting, kick-ass riffs and some good old heavy metal spirit. On The Northern Sanctuary Swano and wingman Ragnar Widerberg prove that death metal can indeed be fun with a stellar collection of hooky, raucous and incredibly well constructed tunes that pack more punch than Hellboy’s right hand of doom.
Straddling the lines between melo-death, classic metal and progressive rock, Witherscape’s sound is just impossible not to get swept up in. Incredibly played, brilliantly produced and featuring a show-stopping vocal performance from Swanö, The Northern Sanctuary never left my playlists all year. This is far and away the most enjoyable album of 2016 and a testament to the joys of heavy metal done right.
Top 5 Albums not from 2016
Can’t believe it took me this long to notice Wintersun, one of the touchstone metal albums of the 2000s. A breakneck gallop through soaring melodic guitars, symphonic atmospheres, death metal screams and power metal sing-along vocals with brilliantly cheesy high fantasy lyrics, Wintersun is one of the most spirited and infectiously fun albums I heard all year. I think “Death and the Healing” is the song that spent the most time in my head during the past 12 months- my poor wife could probably sing the main melody given the number of times I’ve hummed it while driving.
I’ve been on board with Australia’s coolest prog metal band for a while but according to Spotify 2016 was the year I added the majority of their latest album V to my metal playlist. (fun fact: my metal playlist on Spotify was wittily re-named “Country Music” by Liz and I have kept it that way in the hopes that someone will see it and ask to hear some cool new country music and get treated to a blast of Beaten to Death.) V is not as good as Voyager’s previous album The Meaning of I but in my mind there are only maybe two albums in the world that are, and V is still a groovy, melodic and brilliantly unique slice of modern prog metal. It’s also become my default album to listen to while doing the washing up.
Skyharbor- Guiding Lights
Every now and then when I’m bored I Google “best prog metal albums” for a given year and see what I can find. One of my more successful discoveries has been the Indian/American project Skyharbor, and their 2014 album Guiding Lights is indeed one of the best albums I’ve heard in a while. The beautiful, dreamy colours of the album cover (chosen as the featured image for this article simply because it was the prettiest) accurately reflect the music within- this is an album of lush post-rock atmospheres punctuated by crunchy guitars and beautifully poppy vocal melodies. For all the polyrhythms and elaborate guitar parts the best thing about Guiding Lights remains their ability to tug at your heartstrings with their emotive melodies and Daniel Tompkins’ heartfelt vocal delivery.
Anthropia- Non-Euclidean Spaces
How could a French progressive power metal concept album about H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos not end up one of my favourite albums of the year? Brilliantly rich songs, great interplay between male and female vocals and a bassist who clearly thinks he’s the main melodic player in the band make for a highly exciting listening experience. Anthropia’s labyrinthine song structures and weird chord changes effectively conjure up the fantastical, otherworldly atmosphere of the Lovecraftian universe and the lyrical content actually pays a pretty good homage to classic horror tales like Call of Cthulu and The Dunwitch Horror. Fans of classic monsters and kick-ass music about the same should give this a listen.
1: Akphaezya- Anthology IV- The Tragedy of Nerak
I can’t remember the last time I was so blown away by a new band’s sound as I was with this. Akphaezya’s music is freaking bonkers. But what separates them from all the other avant garde goth metal jazz fusion circus music Greek tragedy bands out there is the quality of their songs- the creativity and imagination on display here are off the charts but each song remains focussed and incredibly catchy. There were so many moments in this unpredictable and deeply emotional album that took my breath away, from the awe inspiring vocal harmonies at the climax of “A Slow Vertigo” to the heart-breaking acoustic ballad “Dystophia” and the sheer funky insanity of “Utopia”. This is a staggeringly original album where each band member gets to shine, although special mention has to go to vocalist Nehl Aelin for stealing the show with her warm, seductive clean singing and truly bone-chilling growls. I discovered these guys back in October and I doubt their music will leave my daily listening list for a long, long time.
There you go. The top albums that took up most of my listening time in 2016. The fact that 30% of them are French troubles me somewhat. Give them a listen and let me know what you think, and don’t forget to share your favourite albums in the comments!