Angry Metal-Fi: The Best & Worst Sounding Records of 2016
2016 was another so-so year for dynamics in metal, with the number of hyper-compressed, brickwalled recordings far outweighing the number of well produced ones. Yet I still remain cautiously optimistic since our little Metal-Fi community is slowly but surely becoming not so little anymore, with more and more headbangers joining the cause everyday. But even more importantly, I see many of our readers transforming their passive aggressiveness toward poorly produced metal into outright evangelism by actively petitioning bands, labels, and engineers to at least consider recording a high dynamic master in the future – even if that means just offering the dedicated vinyl master as an alternative digital download. Kudos and keep it up!
Now before I go over the list, I’d like to take this opportunity to formally thank AMG, Steel, and the whole staff at Angry Metal Guy for introducing Metal-Fi to many of you. I hope you’ve enjoyed this year’s Angry Metal-Fi series of articles and perhaps learned something along the way. I know Dave and I think of AMG as a second home, and that is a direct result of how friendly and accommodating both the staff and all of you have been to us. So thank you!
Alright, without further ado, I present to you the top five best and worst sounding records of 2016.
The production calculus here was quite simple: A7X explicitly wanted The Stage to sound as dynamic as possible without sacrificing a single ounce of its progressive glory. So they tasked two of the greatest living engineers, Bob Ludwig and Andy Wallace, to get the job done. And of course, these gentlemen delivered in spades. But even outside of this record’s obvious high caliber production pedigree, you have to give it up for A7X and their commitment to dynamics. First off, this isn’t their first dance with dynamic metal. Their last, 2013’s Hail to the King, was also quite dynamic, and really proved that you don’t have to be insanely loud to be commercially viable. In other words, The Stage’s high dynamic production wasn’t an accident. Secondly, as my interview with Mr. Ludwig revealed, A7X had several masters to choose from, one more compressed than the next since there was still some concern within the band that The Stage might get lost in the playlist shuffle if it wasn’t mastered loud enough. But the band choose the most dynamic one anyway because ultimately they wanted to release the best sounding product regardless of any pseudo-industry volume requirement, and that takes guts! Finally, A7X have been very vocal about their disdain for the Loudness War and in my humble opinion, are currently serving as the de-facto evangelists for high-fidelity metal. These guys are really committed to the cause and with The Stage, it most certainly shows. If you are looking for the best sounding metal record of the year, this is it.
Dan “The Man” Swanö. Need I say more? Not really, but I will anyway. I had the extraordinary opportunity to listen to a few tracks of Witherscape‘s latest, The Northern Sanctuary, through Sennheiser’s new $50,000 HE-1 electrostatic headphone system and I will never forget that experience till the day I die. It was fan-fucking-tastic! And even though I think you should opt for the FDR version of Sanctuary, the truth is even the standard DR8 master is dynamite too. As my A Sanctuary for Dynamics rant concluded, “You see unlike Inheritance, which clocked in at an obviously bricked DR6, Sanctuary’s standard release now measures at a brisk DR8. That makes the level-matched comparison between its standard mix and the FDR one far less dramatic. In fact, in many respects, Dan’s engineering talents here are his own worst enemy; listening back and forth through iTunes with Sound Check on, the FDR mix is only subtly better, mainly in the more aurally dense parts sprinkled throughout the album. With the FDR mix, I found that instrument separation, especially when things get hoping, sounds a lot more spacious, and it adds a bit of punch to those quiet to loud buildups on some of the more progressive tracks as well. But it’s subtle, and if you’re just a casual listener you’re probably not going to notice much of a difference (of course if you are casual listener I doubt you’re reading this anyway).” Bottom line, this is one of the best sounding metal records of the year regardless of which version you own. Period.
I could kiss Dr. A.N. Grier. I really could. In his fantastic review of Rimfrost‘s self-titled third full-length outing he concludes, “Have I mentioned yet that the production is also fucking fantastic? There is so much bass presence and openness in the master that I forgot I was listening to an old-school, Scandinavian black metal record.” The great thing about a dynamic, well-produced record is that it can really put an album over the top and I’ve got to believe this was at least partially what happened here. He even thought some of the weaker material on the record actually benefited simply because it was so well recorded. I agree, and if you are looking for probably the best sounding pure black metal record of the year, this is it. Please read Dr. A.N. Grier‘s full review for all the gory details and then head over to the album’s Bandcamp page to take a listen for yourself. You will not be disappointed.
I had a brief conversation with Moonsorrow‘s mastering engineer, Mika Jussila over at Finnvox, and found out that this time around, Mika was given free reign when mastering their latest, Jumalten Aika. The net result is not only one of the best sounding records of the year, but easily the best sounding Moonsorrow record ever. Angry Metal Guy Himself even noticed how good this album sounds in his epic review by concluding, “Jumalten aika’s epic scope and sound is helped by a beautiful and airy production. A roomy master gives ample space for the music to resonate and undulate even though the album is otherwise a sonic sibling to the band’s later material.” Though I fundamentally agree with AMG that musically this record doesn’t really add anything to the band’s already well-received canon, for me, it still acts as a step forward with respect to production. Simply put, the band has never sounded this good.
Australia’s Inverloch are for all intents and purposes, disEMBOWELMENT‘s spiritual successor, and every since their EP made my top 10 list, I have been eagerly awaiting their proper full length debut. And as expected, they delivered in spades. However, what did worry me going in was that the extremely dynamic and warm production they accomplished on that first EP would get lost on the debut. Luckily, it didn’t, as Grymm noted in his stellar review, “Produced by Skarajew and Joel Taylor, the sound is quite warm and full. Mazziotta’s drums thunder convincingly, and his cymbals shimmer without too much shine. The vocals cut through the pea soup-thick fog of the guitars nicely.” I continue to expect big things from these Aussies as they continue to evolve their already potent death-doom punch. Definitely one of the best sounding records of the year and one that proves yet again that You Don’t Have To Brick To Sound Thick™.
If you told me that Ulcerate‘s Shrines of Paralysis is their strongest effort to date, I’d probably wouldn’t argue with you. If you told me that Jamie Saint Merat is one of the best drummers in the world, I definitely wouldn’t argue with you. However, if you told me this record sounds good and is well produced, I’d offer you a ride to the otorhinolaryngologist. What’s worse is that Shrines’ sound is not the product of some miscommunication between mix and mastering engineer or Relapse stepping in and forcing the issue. Every single engineered note on this record was designed by none other than Merat himself who wanted it to sound this way. Shrines is a prime example where the aesthetic choices being made at the time of the recording were not grounded in engineering reality. Putting it another way, Merat pulled an Anaal Nathrakh [I hate it when that happens. I hate it! – Dave-Fi]. Nothing on this album sounds even remotely real. There is zero stereo image to really speak of nor any real bottom end either (Merat’s kick drums are laughable on this record in terms of impact). There is also zero definition to any of the instrumentation despite the obvious adeptness of the musicians playing them. The end result is one amorphous blob of sound that yeah, sounds oppressive, but also feels monotonous not to mention fatiguing after a while, giving the record a very short half-life. And if that wasn’t bad enough, both the high definition master found on HDTracks as well as the special edition vinyl will offer your eardrums little reprieve. It’s such a darn shame too since this would have easily been an AOTY contender for me with even a passable master.
I really don’t get it sometimes. I really don’t. Oranssi Pazuzu‘s latest, Värähtelijä, is a bloody mess production-wise and I suspect it is not finding itself on more AOTY lists because of it. If you aren’t familiar with OP, their claim to fame is taking Pink Floyd aesthetics and throwing some black metal into the mix. That’s kinda, sorta what these crazy Finns sound like. However, now imagine if that hybrid psychedelic rock/black metal mix wasn’t mastered like a Floyd record at all, but instead mastered like it was an Anaal Nathrakh one, clocking in at an abysmal DR4. That’s Värähtelijä! Does it make a slick of sense? Nope. What’s even stranger is that this is a first for OP; the overwhelming majority of records in their discography are fairly dynamic and generally sound pretty good. Why Värähtelijä came out this way boggles the mind. I also don’t know if its vinyl master suffered the same fate, but I suspect that it does.
I want to get this off my chest right now: Subrosa‘s latest, For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages, is my favorite record of theirs to date and certainly one of the best records of the year. However, its production is borderline ridiculous, clocking in at DR3! In fact, the only reason why I think this record is even listenable is because Brad Boatright of Audiosiege mastered it, and he happens to be very talented at making ludicrously compressed mixes sound halfway decent (he does dynamic too, if you let him). What’s really sad here is that out of all the records on this side of the list, Ages is far and wide the one that would benefit from a dynamic master the most. You have long, drawn out soft passages that are suppose to build tension and give way to these bouts of doom inspired fury. You have abrupt starts and stops that are clearly being played louder or softer depending on context. You have unorthodox instrumentation, with plenty of violin to go around. The truth is – Subrosa have always had production woes, but Ages is way beyond the pale. Remember, when everything is loud, nothing is, and Subrosa‘s latest is a shining testament to that fact.
Deathspell Omega is one of my all-time favorite bands so it is with a heavy heart that I am forced to place their latest, The Synarchy of Molten Bones, on this side of the list. Truth be told, DsO‘s production woes started way back in 2010 with Paracletus, where the band decided to eschew any sense of dynamics for that very compressed, stereotypical wall of sound, clocking in at paltry DR4. 2012s Drought followed suit, and now Bones as well. What’s ironic is that DsO have become synonymous with bleeding edge French black metal for quite sometime, but production-wise they are pretty much par for the course. Part of the problem here is they are trying to get their anti-Christian angst through hyper-compression and brickwall limiting instead of dynamics and transients, which would definitely serve their music well. I understand they want to sound aggressive, but bricking everything into oblivion is just silly, and like with that Ulcerate record, sounds extremely jaded after a while. Moreover, the kind of black metal DsO plays is just screaming for the FDR treatment given how intrinsically dynamic it is. Hopefully somebody over in the DsO camp will paradoxically see the light for the next go around and lay off the DRC.
If there is one record on this list that most exemplifies the totality of the Loudness War, it’s this one. If you aren’t yet familiar with Witchcraft, think of them as a doomier Graveyard or a Swedish Black Sabbath, i.e. 70s rock and doom worship at its finest. So with that in mind, why does their latest record entitled Nucleus clock in at pathetic DR5 and even in some spots dip into DR4 territory? This is a classic case of a label’s commercial aspirations for a band not lining up with the source material at hand. There is no doubt in my mind that Nuclear Blast wanted this master extremely hot given how radio friendly the music is. But it comes at a cost: none of the iconic 70s sound these talented Swedes are trying to emulate rubbed off onto this recording. No analog richness or warm tubey fuzziness here. Nucleus is as sterile as it gets and that’s because volume, not fidelity, was the driving force behind this recording. It really makes no sense either to push this record this hard. I mean for Satan’s sake, this album is louder than the last Behemoth record. Dumb.