There’s a few ways to go with this. We could talk about catharsis and how the world (or what’s left of it) needs metal’s emotional purge now more than ever. I could also climb up on the old high horse and bitch about the lack of it I’ve seen on the lists of music media pillars who espouse diversity, equality, and objectivity up until the point their UVs fall off and the section editors are sent out to pasture.
But in the interest of positivity—feigned or otherwise—let me just say this: It was an incredible year in extreme music, thanks in large part to bandcamp and a small coalition of labels run on blood, sweat, and pennies who continued to expand the cultural borders of metal from Iceland to Indonesia and back again. With each new blast beat, breakdown, and battle cry, the conventional “metalhead” archetype (white/male/myopic) fades further from view, and although that makes the task of selecting 10 records from the rapidly diversifying horde next to impossible, it’s a trade worth taking, year in, year out, until it all goes black.
10. Martyrdöd – List (Southern Lord): In the year Lemmy died and the world went to shit, it seems only fitting to kick things off with List, a record that took up the punk-metal torch and started swinging it like a flaming fucking hammer. Forged in the dueling fires of d-beat and Swedish death metal, the Scandinavian vets’ 7th full-length is as infectious as it is unrelenting, with brooding melodies—from the title track’s meth-Celtic breakdown to “Harmageddon” and its sprawling coda—adding some much-need nuance to the bludgeoning. You could argue that Kvelertak were more fun and Magrudergrind more core, but in 2016—as legends fell, cities burned, and a wax idol became a false god—the rabid melancholy of Martyrdöd was just right.
9. Eternal Champion – The Armor of Ire (No Remorse) / Sumerlands – Sumerlands (Relapse): While slipping two albums in here is a clear violation of list ethics, Eternal Champion and Sumerlands—who shared members and stages alike in 2016— require simultaneous acclaim. Propelled by the influence of forgotten Ozzy axeman Jake E. Lee (see: “Bark at the Moon”, “Shot in the Dark”, et. al), these glorious vintage revivals stormed the palaces of the Upper Crust this year, emerging with a fresh army of followers marching beside them. If you’re looking for the classic metal falcon cry of the pair, The Armor of Ire is your steed, while Sumerlands’ more urbane take offers an easier point of entry for contemporary metal fans. It’s together, however—as either sepia-toned time capsule or heavy metal harbinger—that these two elicit their biggest impact.
8. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust (Season of Mist): 25 years into one of the most progressive careers in metal history, Luc Lemay is still finding new ways to splice the death metal gene, trading mp3s with his NYC contingent this year like some alternate-reality Postal Service writing a single LP-length jazz-death masterclass about the bloody struggle to preserve knowledge in 5th and 6th century Sumerian culture. In short, Pleiades’ Dust—including essential contributions from local avant-metal legends, Colin Marston and Kevin Hufnagle—is simply more of the same from a monument of modern metal. And when said dust settles, what more can you possibly ask for?
7. Nails – You Will Never Be One of Us (Nuclear Blast): Between the shocking Billboard success, the Harvard gentlemen’s club album title, and frontman Todd Jones’s cyber-bullying antics, no metal album was as divisive this year as Nails’ 21-minute alley fight, You Will Never Be One of Us. If you strip away all the extra-curriculars and focus on the music—a froth-mouthed beatdown that will have you spitting out teeth like Tic-Tacs—it becomes immediately evident, however, that this one, even in a great year for grindcore (Magrudergrind, Weekend Nachos, Gadget, Rotten Sound, Full of Hell/The Body, etc.), is meathead and shoulders above the pit. You don’t have to listen to it and you certainly don’t have to support it, but you can’t fucking deny it.
6. Vektor – Terminal Redux (Earache): In space no one can hear you scream…unless you are Philly prog thrashers Vektor, whose third LP, Terminal Redux, roared through the underground metal scene this year like the last gasp of a dying sun. A concept album about a missing military astronaut who rises to power after returning from deep space with the chemical key to immortality in his back pocket, Terminal Redux is one part Alien, one part 2112, and five parts completely over-the-fucking-top, warp-speeding through its (slightly bloated) 70-minute runtime with mind-bogglingly dexterous abandon. Until now, the narrative surrounding Vektor had always been “they sound like Voivod!”, but Terminal Redux leaves such comparisons in the proverbial space dust.
5. Mesarthim – .- -… … . -. -.-. . (Independent): Not even the internet knows a lot about Mesarthim, an anonymous post-black metal duo from the far-flung reaches of Australia whose second full length—and third of four 2016 releases—is titled in morse fucking code. It’s thus a testament to the breadth of contemporary metal, the power of bandcamp, and the sheer sky-cracking power of .- -… … . -. -.-. ., that such an obtuse piece of music is ever discovered in the first place. Yet here we are, caught in its looping crest, a six-part crescendo of space-grade blast beats and far-out keyboard melodies that would rather hop the flame-tailed hurtle of a falling satellite than reinvent the wheel. And if that doesn’t sound like a ride worth taking, Mesarthim—who are shilling this one for a $1—probably won’t care.
4. Cobalt – Slow Forever (Profound Lore): There are some very real questions about the practicality of a double album in a modern music clime where you can stream some Des Moines-based 16-year-old’s critically acclaimed bedroom recording straight to your brain with the press of a button, but damn if Cobalt didn’t just about pull it off. On a very literal level, Slow Forever, the first new music from Erik Wunder in five years, is an 84-minute blackened sludge epic that rewards endurance (and patience) with several song-of-the-year contenders, a quiver of incredible guitar tones, and the re-application of former Lord Mantis shrieker Charlie Fell. As a metaphorical/physical experience, however, it is a Revenant-esque spirit quest shambling blood-drunk toward enlightenment, hypothermia, or some shuddering combination of the two. Whichever way you just choose to hear it is up to you, the only requirement is that you do.
3. Astronoid – Air (Blood Music): Around these parts, we find release through circle-pit catharsis or a similarly fucked-up shoulder to scream on. Sincerity is a farce, clean vocals are for virgins, and accessibility is a four-letter word if you fudge the numbers a bit. And yet, as Brett Boland croons midway through Air, “I’d rather be ignored than insincere”, and so goes the driving mantra of Astronoid—the gorgeous cryo-freeze progeny of some bizarre Ihsahn- and Jonsi-helmed lab experiment. From school project to internet myth to AOTY-contender over course of just four years and 15 songs, the media-ready narrative is certainly in place, but the acclaim the Boston quartet have enjoyed this year boils down to something far more simple and far more essential: Astronoid are the feel-good metal band of 2016 and Air their bleary-eyed Monet—a daily call to turn and face a sun that is coming up tomorrow whether you like it or not.
2. Palace of Worms – The Ladder (Broken Limbs): Within the realm of pop music, the singer-songwriter occupies an intensely unique position—a bastion of total control, startling intimacy, and devoted fandom rarely found in the egalitarian band setups that dominate the musical landscape. In metal, however, the role of eccentric, individual auteur belongs instead to the one-man black metal act, a niche spearheaded this year by The Ladder—the latest batch of psyche warfare from Bay Area scene vet Balan and his lauded solo project, Palace of Worms. A self-professed “fortress of self-loathing”, The Ladder is a seamless synthesis of New and Old World char, sinewy death metal, and downcast post-punk that—when stripped of its disfigured skin suit—reveals a creature of surprising beauty. As the work of a band, it would be an achievement, but as the work of an individual it is a revelation—a journey to the darkest, dankest reaches of self-discovery for which we are granted witness.
1. Blood Incantation – Starspawn (Dark Descent): There’s an unspoken agreement amongst music writers that debuts don’t win these kinds of things. Maybe the requisite “dues” haven’t been paid or perhaps the best is yet to come, but whatever the reasoning (or lack thereof), Blood Incantation‘s cosmic death metal opus, Starspawn, kicks it into airlock and flicks the release switch. While the Colorado outfit’s 2015 demo, Interdimensional Extinction, demonstrated real promise, their first full length, Starspawn, is a hyperdrive leap to the forefront of underground metal, grinding the collected histories of psych, prog, and death into an intoxicating (and likely fatal) space dust. So fuck the politics and leave the preconceptions at the door. If it’s a “best-of” list you want, the “best” record—the one that pushed its genre farthest and in the most captivating ways—should win. And thanks to Blood Incantation, justice has been fucking served.