The Top Ten Metal Albums of 2016

Putting aside much of what happened politically in 2016, this has been one of the best years in recent memory for metal. There were many, many albums I loved this year, far too many to squeeze into an end-of-year list. So I have limited myself to picking my ten favourite albums, as well as five ‘runners up’. And by imposing this particular format on myself I had to think quite carefully about my choices and what it is that makes that particular album stand out to me. And really what it comes down to, most of the time, is whether an album moves me. If an album inspires some sort of reaction from me on an emotional level – whether that’s in an emotionally resonant song or idea, or by crafting such a rich and powerful atmosphere that the listener is transported away from their everyday life – that’s what really makes an album stand out to me. So there were many albums which I enjoyed but which you won’t find on this list precisely because, even though they might have some great riffs or something else, if I didn’t connect with it then it’s not something that’s going to figure into my list of the best metal albums of the year.

There were many albums I wish I could have included in my list. We had great albums from Plebeian Grandstand, Wode, Khemmis, Insomnium, Blood Incantation, and many others. Terra released a new album (review and interview here) which I’m currently loving, but I simply haven’t had enough time to digest it to feel comfortable including it in the list. Nonetheless, make sure to check it out. These didn’t quite make it onto my list, but are all well worth checking out. And looking beyond just metal, there were many really stunning albums this year. But I didn’t feel that this post would be an appropriate place to list them and have them compete with the metal albums. Perturbator‘s album is one of my favourite this year in any genre, while Wolcensmen, ScHoolboy Q, Danny Brown, Touché Amoré, and others have released some incredible music this year. They deserve their own celebration, so I will likely be putting together a list of some of my favourite non-metal releases of 2016 in the near future.

Please have a read through the list that follows. I’ve decided not to bother making distinctions between full-length albums and EPs. Firstly because there have been EPs this year far better than many of the full-length albums, and secondly because many EPs this year have blurred the lines between ‘EP’ and ‘Album’ in a way that I think makes it fair to evaluate and compare them.

Honourable mentions:

  1. Naðra – Allir vegir til glötunar (Fallen Empire Records)
  2. Uada – Devoid of Light (Eisenwald Tonschmiede)
  3. Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy of Molten Bones (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)
  4. Auroch – Mute Books (Profound Lore Records)
  5. Oathbreaker – Rheia (Deathwish Inc.)

Chthe'ilist Le Dernier Crépuscule10. Chthe’ilist – Le Dernier Crépuscule (Profound Lore Records)

This Canadian death metal band draw on the legacy of Demilich and Gorguts without being totally derivative. Their thick, heavy sound is some of the most unsettling you’ll hear all year. You can practically feel yourself in the damp cave this album was probably recorded in, which makes it all the more surprising that it’s so Goddamn catchy and groovy. The rumbling guitars are great, with some incredibly catchy riffs and groove-oriented moments, but there are so many individual moments that make this album such a delight, like the creepy, hymn-like vocals on ‘Into the Vaults of Ingurgitating Obscurity’. Without a doubt one of the albums that has most consistently kept me coming back for more all year. Listen here.

Skáphe²9. *Skáphe – Skáphe² (Fallen Empire Records)

I’m aware it’s rather bad form to edit an end of year list once you’ve already published it, but stepping back and reflecting on the releases I really admired and felt engrossed by this year, it struck me that Skáphe’s second album really did deserve to be on this list. A collaboration between Alex Poole of Krieg, Esoterica, Chaos Moon, and other projects, and D.G. of Misþyrming, Naðra, and more. It’s an abrasive and challenging listen, the unsettling dissonance of French black metal drenched in immersive and terrifying psychedelia. Eerie guitars writhe in the murk, sometimes allowing fleeting melodies to break through to the surface; a contorted, twisted hellscape. D.G.’s demented howls and roars are terrifying and unsettling, cries from the abyss that speak of anguish and pain. It’s one of those albums that draws you into its cold embrace and refuses to let you go. It could be the brightest, most beautiful summer day outside, but when you are listening to this album you’re on a journey into the depths of hell. Listen here.

Départe Failure Subside8. Départe – Failure, Subside (Season of Mist Records)

Départe’s ‘Failure, Subside’ is one of the most impressive debut albums I’ve ever heard. It draws on the successes of black metal and death metal bands such as Ulcerate, Gorguts, and Deathspell Omega but then uses it to carve out their own niche in the genre.

The atmosphere is dark and suffocating, and the band are often more content to rumble along at a steady, lumbering pace rather than an all-out blitz of dissonant guitars and blastbeats. The melodic, unsettling guitarwork is where the personality of much of the music derives, reminding me of a more melodic and depressive Ulcerate, but the vocals also have a lot of personality. Not only are the harsh vocals varied and passionately delivered, the inclusion of clean singing – a risky proposition on an album like this – works superbly, and in fact constitute some of my favourite moments on this album, and indeed on any album this year.

And while the music’s aesthetic is gloomy and bleak, there is always a kernel of hope contained within. The lyrics are based in the Christian faith of the band’s vocalist and guitarist, but don’t come across as preachy or corny; in fact he has a very dark, quite beautiful poetic style, and more often than not seeks to show how faith can offer some hope, and respite from the decay and troubles of the world around us. One of the most cathartic albums of the year. Read my review and interview here. Stream here.

Alcest Kodama7. Alcest – Kodama (Prophecy Productions)

Alcest are a band that mean an awful lot to me. Their previous shoegaze album Shelter was pretty much the soundtrack to much of my first year as a student at university, while their earlier albums served as my gateway into black metal. While their previous album saw the band shed their metal influences in favour of a shoegaze/dream-pop style, Kodama sees Alcest returning to those heavier, more abrasive metal dynamics, delivering their most darkest, most intense album in years. Winterhalter’s drumming is a particular highlight, consistently creative and diverse, and mixed well into the overall sound. Kodama continues to show that Neige’s grasp of the importance of dynamics and tasteful contrast is unrivalled, and the emotional potency of this album is a testament to the skill of the craftsmen behind it. Listen here. Full review here.

Krallice Hyperion6. Krallice – Hyperion (Independent)

Krallice have long been one of my favourite bands. Last year’s album Ygg huur was one of my favourite of that year, with bandmembers Colin Marston and Kevin Hufnagel clearly growing immensely as musicians due to their time in Gorguts. That album drew heavily on death metal sounds and ideas, and then applied a rigid level of self-control, cutting all fat and reducing the album to a lean, mean 35 minutes of dazzling, dizzying death metal. Hyperion was a surprise when it was released on January 1st this year, and according to the band was originally recorded in 2013 for a split release that never came to fruition. Stylistically it sits somewhere between 2012’s dense black metal opus Years Past Matter and Ygg huur. Densely written despite consisting of only three songs, with complex layers of tremolo-picked, dissonant guitars and winding song structures, it nonetheless feels absolutely focused from start to finish. The 10 minute closing track ‘Assuming Memory’ is an expansive, melodic black metal landscape filled with moments of devastating catharsis and ferociously heavy passages like only Krallice can deliver. It’s emotionally compelling, deeply atmospheric, and an utterly breathtaking listen. Listen here.

Wormot Voices5. Wormrot – Voices (Earache Records)

The Singaporean grindcore of Wormrot went through a whole lot of shit in order for this album to see the light of day, but five years on from Dirge, it’s here. Drawing on the melodic innovations of contemporaries such as Gridlink, Wormrot have added some real depth to their sound on this album. Highlights such as ‘Hollow Roots’, ‘God’s in His Heaven’, and ‘Shallow Standards’ are utterly furious assaults that pulverise and eviscerate with a hardcore punk fury. But Rasyid’s guitarwork is catchy and melodic, complex and interesting to listen to and admire. They even draw influence from traditional screamo bands like Orchid, upping the emotional investment and piling on the cathartic fretwork. I’m incredibly glad that Voices came to fruition, and that it came together so well in one of the most gripping grindcore albums I’ve heard in a long time. Listen here. Full review here.

Ash Borer The Irrepassable Gate4. Ash Borer – The Irrepassable Gate (Profound Lore Records)

Ash Borer’s self-titled album was one of the earliest black metal albums I remember really clicking with me. They followed it with 2012’s Cold of Ages, and their 2013 EP Bloodlands, but since then we’ve heard very little from them due to their involvement in other projects such as Vanum and Predatory Light. But The Irrepassable Gate signals a pretty significant development in Ash Borer’s sound, drawing on doom metal and conjuring twisted melodic atmospheres with their black metal apparatus. Much like the phenomenal album cover, this is an album that feels grand, solemn, and ominous. Thanks to a hefty guitar tone and powerful, spacious production job, the spiralling majesty of the musical arrangements are able to tower ominously in all their terrifying glory. Listen here.

 Gorguts Pleiades' Dust3. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust (Season of Mist Records)

On paper, a 33-minute death metal song about the history of the House of Wisdom probably shouldn’t work. But in the hands of Gorguts, and Luc Lemay’s considerable songwriting talents, it’s one of the most utterly absorbing releases of the year. The interplay between the complex and highly technical instruments never feels jumbled or rushed, half-baked or dull. The trademark dissonant, surprisingly melodic style is still here, but the contributions of each individual musician pushes it beyond what even 2013’s incredible Colored Sands was able to achieve. Each piece of the movement stands on its own, but works best as part of the broader structure, which is a testament to the strength of Lemay’s songwriting. The ambition and creativity on display here is astonishing, and this release is assuredly one of 2016’s very finest. Listen here. Full review here.

Ulcerate Shrines of Paralysis2. Ulcerate – Shrines of Paralysis (Metal Blade Records)

It’s surprisingly hard to know where to begin with Shrines of Paralysis given I’ve already written a fairly lengthy, glowing review of the album. Ulcerate explore and channel some of the most deeply negative emotions humans are capable of into the most abrasive and technical death metal ever recorded. The band are operating on all cylinders. Jamie Saint Merat’s work behind the drums is as stunning as ever, and the bass and vocals have a more prominent role than ever before. Dissonant, caustic guitarwork conjures depraved majesty before crushing it without mercy.

Some artists take beauty and aim to display it in its most pure and undiluted form – Similar reasoning lay behind Alcest’s 2014 album Shelter, which aimed to be a pure and blissful experience, a ‘shelter’ from the harsh realities of the world. And that’s totally fine, it resulted in one of 2014’s best albums. ‘Beautiful’ might sound like an odd way to describe such a brutal and abrasive album, but on songs like the title track and ‘Extinguish the Light’ it really comes to the fore. The music on Shrines of Paralysis draws on the corrosion and corruption of goodness and beauty in a failing and amoral world, and it’s all the more beautiful and powerful for it. Listen here. Full review here.

Zhrine Unortheta1. ZHRINE – Unortheta (Season of Mist Records)

I’ve taken to very few records the way I’ve taken to Unortheta. Few albums as extreme as this have ever moved me or captured my imagination to quite this extent. Unortheta isn’t quite black metal, but also isn’t quite death metal, it’s something of a fusion of the two. The emphasis isn’t really on heaviness or technicality or even necessarily ‘catchiness’. The band instead focus on writing compelling songs with a powerful atmosphere, and on channelling something very real and genuine, without the façade of corpsepaint or edgy Satanism. It feels like a dark ritual, unplanned and unscripted; partly composed, partly improvised. It’s dark, ominous, and unceasingly misanthropic – but it’s also a reminder that so much of what is wrong with the world and the bleak future ahead is a result of our own actions, not of some external supernatural forces. Responsibility lies with us.

There’s darkness, hope, melancholy, anger, despair. The music conveys all these feelings in their most urgent and cogent form, while the tortured screams and growls give voice and articulation to the dark spirit at the heart of this masterpiece. Dissonant chords cascade above the rumbling upright bass and tasteful, jazzy percussion, while the patient, layered songwriting allows room to breathe and for the dynamics to shine. Above all, it’s real and powerful. Unortheta has quickly become one of my favourite albums by any band, and it is by far and away the best album of 2016. Listen here. Full review here, interview here.

So, what did you think of the list? Thanks for reading! I’ve also put together a Spotify playlist of 12 of my favourite metal tracks of 2016, which include songs from many of these albums, as well as a few others. Have a listen below!