Alex’s Top 10 Albums of 2016
What’s ironic about 2016 is though it was a terrible year in general by most standards, it was a great year for metal. So good in fact that it was very hard to even come up “a list.” Like many of you, I keep an internal running tally of my favorite releases throughout the year. But this year that list pushed way past the two dozen mark, which made it very difficult to weed it down to just the ten records you see before you. I think that’s why to some extent many of the lists from all my favorite metal sites are so varied this year, with only a few common records between them. A good indicator that 2016 was indeed a fine year for metal.
With respect to Metal-Fi proper, this year saw the site really gain some traction. This was the first year where we dominated Google’s front page if you typed the words “metal-fi” which up until fairly recently we shared with a few corporate websites specializing in metallurgy. I’ve always got a kick out of that. Speaking of hits, we doubled our readership in 2016, and Dave and I are hoping that in 2017 these pages as well as the Metal-Fi forums will become the defacto place on the web to discuss high-fidelity metal. I can not thank all of you enough for continuing to make Metal-Fi one of the most intelligent and insightful communities on the web. You are the life blood of this site. So again, I thank you!
Despite all of my misgivings about this record’s production, there is no doubt in my mind that Mithras‘ On Strange Loops is still one of this year’s best. Leon Macy’s choppy riff work coupled with his spacey synths offer up an extremely enjoyably yet atypical death metal experience that sounds something akin to if Gorguts and Morbid Angel had a love child. And not to belabor the point too much, but again, if this record was mixed and mastered to even mediocre industry volume levels it might have well been my album of the year. Nevertheless, Loops remains an absolute must buy for any real death aficionado.
By infusing a fairly prototypical tech death metal foundation with a sense of the epic, Virvum have crafted one of the best death metal records of the year with Illumiance. There isn’t really a dull moment on this record to speak of and the title track is an absolute stunner. But a big part of Illuminance’s magic is not in its technocratic details, but its heavy reliance on its proggier side. Instead of just trying to shock and awe you with superfluous embellishments and arpeggios, the bulk of Illuminance is heavily melodic, offering up one catchy riff after the next that allows you actually rock out to many of these songs in addition to marveling at their virtuosity. Even if you are not traditionally a big tech death metal fan, I assure you that Vivrum‘s Illuminance offers something for everyone.
It’s very hard for me to get into progressive metal these days. Not because I don’t like the subgenre. On the contrary, it’s all I listened to when I started my adult metal career (post my obligatory teen thrash phase). So now it takes a progressive metal record of the highest ilk to get my attention, but Haken’s Affinity is exactly that. Not only is Affinity by far and wide the best progressive metal record of the year, but some of the best progressive metal I’ve heard in a very long time. In fact, the track “1985” is not just my favorite song of the year but one that my wife can now identify after hearing it so many times (note: that is actually not necessarily a good thing, trust me on this). Simply put, I love this record from soup to nuts and it has been on my rotation ever since it was released. Like all great masterworks, there isn’t a bad track on Affinity, with top notch instrumentation throughout and the whole thing flowing seamlessly from front to back. If there is just one progressive metal record you absolutely need to listen to from 2016, Haken‘s Affinity is it.
I have to admit I had a little help finding Tid‘s’ Fix Idé. Jean-Luc Ricard’s great review is what tipped me off and I highly recommend that you read it for a full breakdown. However, the short of it is that this record is the best damn Rammstein album since Mutter. In fact, the only reason why this isn’t my album of the year is it’s just too damn short. As JLR also critiqued, if you don’t count the intro and outro tracks, you barely have enough material to call Idé a full-length with a straight face on. Still, it’s hard to deny just how potent Tid‘s combination of industrial and post-metal is. Couple that with a stellar production job and you have one of the best records of the year even if it is a bit terse. The way to solve this issue though is to just put Idé on repeat. Works for me every time.
Vektor‘s Terminal Redux single-handily redefined for me what progressive thrash could and should sound like. In fact, I almost feel bad putting this record on my list since it seems to be on everyone’s list, landing the top spot on quite a number of them. Justifiably so though since if there is one record that absolutely blew my mind, it’s this one. Vektor‘s unique brand of sci-fi thrash is some of the most complex and cerebral metal I’ve heard to date, and it takes multiple listens to pick out all the rhythmic subtleties that this record has to offer. My only complaints are that it is a) way too long and b) has a shoddy production job. With respect to the later, it’s a shame too since Earache have been responsible for a great number of FDR releases and I don’t understand why this record couldn’t be one of them. Regardless, Terminal Redux is simply the finest thrash metal record of the year.
Ever since Alcest‘s genre defining classic, 2010’s Écailles de Lune, came out, I have been waiting for Neige to craft a proper follow-up and Kodama is that release. This record is an absolute return to form, with Neige finally embracing his dark side and accepting his place in the metal world. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just how well produced this record is as well. Measuring DR8 and sounding the part, Kodama is not only a great record in its own right but a great sounding record to boot. My only complaint is that like the Tid record above, Kodama feels a bit short. Regardless, if you jumped off the Alcest wagon after their last two releases, now is the perfect time to hop back on.
Do you remember Yellow Eyes‘ Slick with Bloom last year? Well, Yellow Eyes guitarist Will Skarstad started his own one man metal side-project under the moniker Ustalost, and its debut, The Spoor of Vipers, happens to be one of the finest slabs of black metal released all year. Consisting of six unnamed tracks, Vipers is a hybrid mix of old school Burzum and Drudkh all wrapped into this lo-fi, very cavernous sounding package. To some extent, this record was made for the purists, harkening back to an age when the boundaries of what is and isn’t black metal were a lot simpler. It’s ironic though that arguably the best pure black metal release of the year (perhaps alongside that Uada one) was recorded by a guy who lives in Brooklyn. Proof positive that 2016 was indeed an odd year to say the least.
Meet this year’s Sorrow and Extinction. But what really separates Khemmis‘ Hunted from the rest of the pack though is just how so damn catchy it is despite its long-form approach – not one of the five odd tracks on this record, including the thirteen plus minute title track and finale. wears out its welcome for even a single second. Simply put, this is an almost forty-four minute non-stop roller coaster ride that is equal parts crushing as it is captivating. Couple all that with the fact that it took less than a year for Khemmis to release Hunted after their already well-received 2015 debut, it is no wonder why the metal world is at this point star struck with these Denverites. I’m not sure how they can top this album but I will be waiting with baited breath to find out.
It seems year after year, there is always at least one record to come out of Iceland that demands to have a place on my year-end list. 2016 was no different and Zhrine‘s Unortheta is that release. Truth be told, there is nothing on this record that is even remotely novel, but its execution of the blackened death aesthetic is pretty much flawless. Every single track on this album is extremely tight, with the band doing a superlative effort of self-editing to make sure Unortheta‘s overall ebb and flow is fluid and exceptionally dynamic. Speaking of dynamics, this record clocks in at a very healthy DR8, and a long with that Rimfrost release, also happens to be one of the finest produced black metal records of the year. That’s also a big part of why this record is so damn easy to get through in just one sitting – despite it’s constant barrage of blast and buzz, your eardrums don’t suffer for it. This album was very close to being my album of the year. It’s that good.
Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas are a match made in post-metal heaven and work in tandem to weave an aural tapestry that is both sinister and cold yet at the same time beautiful and in many respects, life affirming. Mariner is a record that is not only meticulously crafted in its own right, but leverages Christmas‘ amazing vocals to their fullest to create a sound that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Although Christmas isn’t the most versatile vocalist technically, emotionally she is off the charts, and imbues Mariner with an incredible amount of emotional depth throughout. Sounding innocent and vulnerable at first, Christmas soon devolves into a cathartic frenzy by album’s end yet still manages to supplement Mariner’s masterful post-metal foundation perfectly. Couple all that with its stellar production job, Mariner is my favorite record of the year and one that I know I will be surely coming back to for many years to come.