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Metal Stuff’s 2016 Review: The Year in Metal

2015-2016 has been an unprecidentedly good time for metal. We’re in the middle of a “metal bubble”, the market is saturated with excellent material. Not sure how long it’ll last, but (seeing as there isn’t anything really incredible slated to release in December) I thought it would be a good time to sum up Metal Stuff’s best releases and biggest dissapointments in metal: 2016 Edition.

Metal Stuff’s “Top  15” Best Releases of 2016

15) Vivaldi Metal Project – The Four Seasons

vivaldi

This one hit me out of nowhere. I saw something about the release of the album on facebook, checked it out, and BAM. Blown away. Probably one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve experienced this year.

It’s an all-star lineup of metal musicians in a modern (and metallic) interpretation of Antonio Vivaldi’s masterpiece “The Four Seasons”. And by All-Star I mean they have members of Symphony X, Testament, Unleash the Archers, The Scorpions, Helloween, Within Temptation, Stratovarious, Savatage, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Soilwork, and a whole fuckload more.

I really can’t say enough good things about these guys, this is a piece I would reccomend to metalheads, fans of classical music, and just about evreyone inbetween.

14) Scorched – Echoes of Dismemberment

scorched

I first heard this album through my side gig doing reviews for Hard Attack Magazine.  No bells, no whistles, no frills. Just excellent (old school style) death metal with horror b-movie samples. If you’re into old school death metal – be sure to pick up a copy.

13) Rob Zombie – The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser

zombie-electric-warlock

Have to admit, I was pretty eagerly anticipating this album. I participated in the crowdfunding effot they put forth to make the album happen, I went and saw them live twice in the year leading up to it’s release. And I wasn’t dissapointed one bit.

This is easily his best work since “Hellbilly Delux”, and while he hasn’t completly strayed from the hard rock sound, the band certainly went in a more metallic direction. This is the first album the band’s put out in years that I can listen to from start to finish without skipping a single track. If you’re a Zombie fan, you won’t be dissapointed.

12) Blasphemer – Ritual Theophagy

blasphemer

Kick ass album, read my full review here. Brutal Italian tech death that doesn’t sacrifice on the low end (or become riff-salad). Very highly recommended, this album melts faces.

 

11) Insomnium – Winter’s Gate

insomnium_wintersgate

Sooooooo fucking good. Adding layers of atmosphere to melodic death metal seems like a pretty big risk, but these guys took it and the result was (in this author’s humble opinion) a huge fucking success. I would go so far as to say this is the Melo-Death version of the album Opeth should have released. I’ve always liked the band, but they were never really at the forefront of my musical collection. This album changed that a bit, I’ll be keeping an eye on these guys now for sure.

Proggy and ambient, while still managing to retain the soul of melodic death metal – I highly recommend this album to anyone who will listen. And a few people who won’t.

10) The Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence

devin_townsend_project_-_transcendence

I’ve been a fan of Devin Townsend’s work for over a decade now, but I had never given this side-project of his a listen before this year. And I’m glad I finally did, the man’s a fucking genius. His mix of electronic/ambient music and metal is flawless. Transcendence is a fucking masterpiece from start to finish.

9) Anciients – Voice of the Void

anciients-voice

This album was another pleasant surprise for me in 2016. They ran an (apparently) successful Facebook advertising campaign for months before the album released – so when it dropped that whole “name brand recognition” thing they talk about in advertising took effect. I checked them out just to see, and boy am I glad I did.

Excellent prog metal that ranges from melancholy to borderline brutal, with cleans and screams for days. I’ll be adding this album to my vinyl collection shortly after the holiday season ends (when I actually have money again).

These guys fucking rule.

8) Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep of Reason

meshuggah-the-violent-sleep-of-reason

This one was no surprise, I’ve been listening to these guys for about 2 decades now (since Destroy, Erase, Improve was released in 1995).

I have to admit, I was nervous about this one. I’m not a huge fan of Koloss or Catch 33, and I thought there was a good chance they’d continue in the “artsy” direction of concept albums and slow songs. Boy was I wrong, this is a return to Chaosphere-level heaviness.

I think some of their marketing strategies were a little campy (a delux edition of the album that includes a vinyl mask?), but as far as I’m concerned this album was pure fucking gold.

7) Saor – Guardians

saor-guardians

Admittedly, I have some very strong (and sometimes conflicting) opinions when it comes to the style of black metal known as “post black metal”. I’m hesitant to embrace “post” anything, and (at least in the US) the post-black metal scene is nothing but a bunch of whiny hipsters aping black metal music to seem edgy, when in reality all they’re doing is playing shitty alt-rock with a few black metal elements thrown in.

Saor, to me, embodies the exact opposite of this. It’s a solo project hailing from Scotland, and let me tell you this guy is a fucking artist. He’s the real deal, and a wicked cool guy to boot. He nails the black metal aesthetic and combines it with traditional celtic instruments to create soundscapes that are melancholy and ambient, without sacrificing some of the pure fucking rage at the heart of real black metal.

This guy is pretty much single-handedly responsible for making me redefine what I consider “heavy music”. Nothing but good things to say about this band, and this album simply cements him as a consistently solid and groundbreaking artist.

6) Wormed – Krighsu

wormed-krighsu

This album will rip you a new asshole. Then it will rip your new asshole a new asshole. I think you can see where I’m going with this. By the end of the album you’ll be shitting yourself out of your asshole’s asshole’s asshole.

This album doesn’t let up for a goddamn second. Full on brutal tech-death. Who the fuck knew Spain could produce (basically) the perfect death metal band? Holy fuckshit. I want to buy two copies of this album – one to listen to and the other to leave unopened for posterity. I’ll be telling my fucking grandchildren about how brutal these guys are.

So fucking good.

5) Infant Annihilator – The Elysian Grandeval Galèriarch

ia-cover

Yo dawg, I heard you like blastbeats. So we put blastbeats on your blastbeats.

In all seriousness, no human on earth has any business playing as fast as the drummer does. This British teen duo actually makes deathcore tolerable. Scratch that, enjoyable. Not quite as good as their first album, but still one of the best albums this year.

4) Fallujah – Dreamless

fallujah-dreamless

Not going to front like I’m some O.G. who’s been listening to them since “Harvest Wombs” – I came across this band by chance right after their previous album, “The Flesh Prevails”, was released. I was just surfing YouTube and liked the album artwork (Totally a valid way of finding new music, it’s scary how good YouTube has become in recommending things you might like). I didn’t listen to anything else for a week, and turned a few of my coworkers on to the band.

When I heard they were releasing a new album I was super fucking stoked, and I wasn’t dissapointed. Every track is pure fire, and I still listen to this album at least once a week. I love the fact that they retained the ambient/brutal sound while making sure that each album has it’s own unique sound, atmosphere, and identity. Easily one of my favorite bands period.

3) Sabaton – The Last Stand

sabaton_the_last_stand

I’ve been a fan of this band since I was street teaming for Nuclear Blast pre-2006, and I have to admit I find it pleasantly odd/surprising that a band I’ve listened to for years is becoming as popular as they are. Sabaton is easily the fastest rising band in metal, and they deserve it. These guys are relentless road dogs, with a solid live show. The fact that you learn more about history from a Sabaton show than you do in an entire year of public school in America is just the icing on the cake.

Plus, they wrote a song about the Scottish battle of Bannockburn (that pays tribute to William Wallace and Robert the Bruce) – what’s not to love?

2) Dark Funeral – Where Shadows Forever Reign

dark-funeral-album

These guys are hands down my favorite black metal band. Every album they release is consistent while remaining stylistically fresh and distinct. “Where Shadows Forever Reign” is, in my opinion, their best material to date – and they’re gaining a lot of well deserved international attention because of it. This includes their fair share of controversy – earlier this year they garnered a lot of attention due to members of a local Romanian government announcing they would allow a church-based political group to vet which bands would be allowed to play in the area (in direct violation of the Romanian constitution). This was a direct response to Dark Funeral’s show at Bucovina Rock Castle.

I don’t think a lot of people realize that bands like Dark Funeral and Behemoth are bastions of free speech in that part of Europe, as many Eastern European countries are firmly in the grip of a very conservative church (the Russian Orthodox Church, especially, seems to be radically motivated against heavy metal music).

Even without all the controversy – this is a solid fucking album that I listen to with some regularity. Lord Ahriman is a fucking musical genius.

1) Testament – Brotherhood of the Snake

testament-brotherhood-of-the-snake

Easily the best album release this year. Probably the one I anticipated the most, my full review of the album can be found here. Heavy metal isn’t a contest, but if it was Testament would be winning. I’ll just sum my thoughts on this album up from the first paragraph of my review;

“The “Thrash Revival” has been in full effect since 2015 – it seems like every major player from the Bay Area Thrash scene is back in the studio pumping out the jams. Testament stands out among these giants – delivering, hands down, the best Thrash release of 2016. In fact, I think ‘Brotherhood of the Snake’ deserves a nomination for the best metal album of 2016, period. Considering how good ‘Dark Roots of the Earth’ was, I had high hopes for Testament’s new album. Brotherhood of the Snake not only met my expectations – it exceeded them (and then some)!”

 

Honorable Mentions

  • Abbath – Abbath (huge fan of the guy, not as good as his work in Immortal)
  • Megadeth – Dystopia (This album made me a fan of Megadeth)
  • Fleshgod Apocalypse – King (Criminally underrated band, excellent release)
  • Rotting Christ – Rituals (Not their best work, but really quite good)
  • Killswitch Engage – Incarnate (Second album with Jesse Leach back on vocals, fantastic album!)
  • Otep – Generation Doom (has a few good songs, but has some stiff competition this year for best album)
  • Aborted – Retrogore (these guys never put out a bad album)
  • Hatebreed – Concrete Confessional (If you’ve heard one Hatebreed album you’ve heard all of them – good but not great)
  • Dead by Wednesday – The Darkest of Angels (Love these guys – from the same scene as Shadows Fall)
  • Death Angel – The Evil Divide (excellent and diverse Thrash album)
  • Nails – You Will Never Be One Of Us (Quite the pleasant surprise this year)
  • Be’lakor – Vessels (Good melodeath, if a little bit stereotypical of the genre)
  • Brain Drill – Boundless Obscenity (Jesus Christ, so good)
  • Despised Icon – Beast (Triumphant return of a deathcore band that doesn’t suck)
  • Running Wild – Rapid Foray (These guys are legend)
  • Sodom – Decision Day (German Thrash, awesome album)
  • Vader – The Empire (Pure gold)
  • Starkill – Shadow Sleep (I helped crowdfund the album, was not disappointed one bit)
  • In Flames – Battles (Had a few good songs, better than their last album)
  • Metallica – Hardwired to Self Destruct (They set the bar so low for the past 30 years that even a sub-par thrash album is praise worthy)
  • Avantasia – Ghostlights (just good fun!)
  • Anthrax – For all Kings (hooray for thrash revival!)
  • Entombed A.D. – Dead Dawn (death’n’roll done right)
  • Lacuna Coil – Delirium (Surprisingly good)
  • Gojira – Magma (Good, but not my favorite)
  • Amon Amarth – Jomsviking (Awesome album, but not quite good enough to make my top 15)

 

Metal Stuff’s Biggest Disappointments in Metal, 2016 edition

Devildriver – Trust No One

devildriver-trust-no-one

Considering the lineup changes DevilDriver went through in 2015, I tried to give this album a little wiggle room when criticizing it. 2 guitarists, no bassist, half the band is green. They didn’t really have time to get together and synchronize as a band – this album sound to me like a record company rushed them to meet a deadline. It’s not bad, but to call it anything other than a disappointment would be disingenuous. I hold DevilDriver to a pretty high standard – Dez is a goddamn genius as far as metal is concerned. I hope their next album will be a little better.

Robb Flynn

robbflynn

This fucking guy. Don’t get me wrong, I love Machine Head – and their album from last year (Bloodstone and Diamonds) was fucking excellent. I just can’t take Robb Flynn seriously. He’s a fucking attention whore who tries to stay socially relevant and apes Corey Taylor to do so. He’s an mildly successful social chameleon at best, and an overreacting turncoat bitch at the worst. His treatment of Phil Anselmo in the media was fucking horrid.

Avatar – Feathers and Flesh

avatar_feathersflesh_cover

Maybe I was hoping for “Hail the Apocalypse Part II”, but this album fell flat for me. Which sucks, because they’re a very cool band who’s been underrated for the majority of their career. This album just didn’t clique for me, there wasn’t one song I can honestly say I enjoyed – just a massive disappointment.

Solution .45 – Nightmares in the Waking State II

solution-45-nightmares-2

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this album just didn’t feel right to me. Like, maybe it was a bit too rushed or under-produced. Which sucks, because Christian Älvestam is my favorite metal vocalist – the guy’s easily the hardest working man in metal and super talented. From Scar Symmetry to Svavelvinter, Torchbearer, Miseration, Quest of Aidence, and all the fucking songs he’s lent vocals to – this guy is the fucking man. He shits excellence, except this album. I feel like he should have spent a little longer perfecting the songs, and not rushing to release a double album.

Whitechapel – Mark of the Blade

whitechapel

It’s sad to see a halfway decent band on the downswing of their career. They tried to stay relevant by releasing a song bashing “metal elitists”, and ironically that’s what seems to have tanked their career. Maybe the elitist ones were correct.

Chelsea Grin – Self Inflicted

chelseagrin

Bands like this are the reason I despise Deathcore. They have one tolerable album, and if I’m completely honest it’s only 50% tolerable (the first half).

Steel Panther

I’d rather let this speak for itself.

Sumerian Records

From every single band on their roster, to the act of completely selling out the image of the Summer Slaughter tour to sell a movie starring the lead singer of the Blackveil Brides, the continued existence of Sumerian Records bothers me. Apparently, in the metal scene money = credibility in some circles. Puke.

Hipsters and Social Justice Warriors

I don’t make it a secret that I fucking hate hipsters. They seem to have the innate ability to ruin anything. I can’t wait till hipster metal is no longer a thing.

Opeth – Sorceress

opeth_sorceress_promocover_revised

I respect when an artist or band wants to branch out, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Opeth has earned the right to do whatever the fuck they want, but that won’t stop me from getting my hopes up (and consequently having them dashed on a rock to the point of near death) every single time they get ready to release a new album. The band even signed to Nuclear Blast and were allegedly down-tuning for the record. I was so hyped. I heard the first single, “Sorceress” – SO EXCITED! Then the album dropped, and what transpired afterwards can only be referred to as one of my biggest disappointments of 2016. Fucking artsy prog from a band that had (at it’s peak) some of the best fucking death metal vocals ever.

The Dio Hologram

dio-hologram

Christ, stop capitalizing on the metal god. For fucks sake, he’s dead. Let him rest. It sounds cool, but I really dislike the idea.

As opposed to the Lemmy hologram at the Rainbow that randomly offers you cocaine and compliments your appearance when you walk by. That’s probably the most fitting tribute ever.

So, that’s about it for 2016 in metal.

Musical Fission and Fusion: A Response

First and foremost, I feel the need to thank a peer and comrade at arms in the ongoing quest for intellectual discourse and discussion in the arena of metal and heavy music. Hornsofaradia wrote an excellent article detailing arguments for the inclusion of rock music in the metal family tree. Thank you very much for the kind words – I hope to continue to live up to them.

Rock v.s. Metal

So, this is a rather large topic to tackle – and I guess the best place to start is the beginning. I don’t believe there is a way to accurately include all of rock and roll into the metal family tree because of the incredible amount of diversity between the two genres.

They’re unique and distinct, with some areas that overlap. For example – it’s a genre that includes bands like Ghost, Rob Zombie, Godsmack, and Disturbed. Every single one of these bands has been referred to as a “metal” band at some point in their career – in fact the latter three self identified as metal until what is commonly referred to as the “New Wave of American Heavy Metal”. At this point there was a mass shift in the collective mainstream musical consciousness, and these bands were “relabeled” as hard rock. It was a slow process – and if you weren’t really paying attention it was easy to miss. An argument can be made, at the very least, that they all (to some degree or another) play what could be referred to as “metallic hard rock” or “hard rock with metal influences” – this is an area where the relative fluidity of genre labels can be a bit frustrating. Whatever you want to call them, there is at least a little bit of metal in the DNA of these bands.

On the flip-side you’ve got bands like Coldplay, Radio Head, Nickelback, The White Stripes, and other bands that have exactly zero overlap with metal – culturally or sonically. These are bands and cultures that are completely dependent on the music industry, and are more akin to pop (and other artificial art forms) than they are to metal.

Then there’s Metallica’s “Black Album”. If we were to include rock into the heavy metal family – it would negate the premise that Metallica sold out when they made that album. The big problem people had with that album is that Metallica was playing hard rock (and had abandoned metal). This, by itself, to me illustrates the relative difficulty of accepting rock into the metal fold. Actually, this scenario would perfectly illustrate the analogy of fission v.s. fusion. With fission – a large amount of energy is released – but it’s nothing compared to the destructive force of fission. The amount of negative energy released just in the realm of Metallica discussions would probably break the internet.

Regarding the Current State of Rock Music

You know, it’s funny. Hornsofaradia actually broached a few topics I’ve been mulling over in my head for a while now (with the intent of blogging my thoughts on them in the indefinite future). The current lack of a market in the rock category (specifically hard rock) and the reasons for it is a major one, as well as related topics (i.e. what caused it, what will happen to rock culture moving forward, etc).

Essentially, I think what made rock so huge ended up being it’s downfall. The relative simplicity coupled with incredible marketability made it a staple of the music industry. The inherent bureaucracy of the industry essentially slit the throat of rock and roll and slowly bled it out for all it was worth. This combined with the current trend of the “indie” rock bands playing feeble, weak, boring music and labeling it as rock are – in my opinion – why you don’t see a lot of “up and comers” playing straightforward, hard hitting rock music.

Metal Culture’s Silent Support of Rock

There are a number of reason I think that there shouldn’t be too much concern about the current state of rock.

First and foremost – as I outlined in my post about the two faces of metal, there is a certain vein of the metal community that already considers “mainstream” metal nothing more than hard rock. There is a lot of validity to this argument – especially when you look at it in terms of generations of music listeners.

Today’s “mainstream” metal is tomorrow’s rock and roll. Hair Metal, Grunge and Alternative, and a lot of Nu-Metal bands (including but not limited to Disturbed, Godsmack, The Deftones, and Linkin Park) were considered heavy metal while the scenes were active. However, in retrospect these are the bands currently on rotation on mainstream hard rock radio stations. I contend that these patterns will hold true in the future – and bands like Avenged Sevenfold, Deafheaven, Liturgy, and the like will be relegated to the “rock” category as time passes.

In regards to the cultural impact of rock music – I do agree that the position of societal rebellion formerly held by rock music has been usurped by metal. This, I think, is the greatest connection metal has to rock music. When compared to most metal, rock music seems rather tame – in large part because it has been tamed by embracing the music industry. Not entirely – but metal continues to push the envelope (musically, lyrically, etc) while rock and roll stands still and stagnates.

So, in regards to a lack of a viable pool of bands to be inducted into “rock royalty” – the model has changed since the 90’s. Most rock bands aren’t initially considered rock bands anymore. They’re referred to under the umbrella term of “hard rock and metal” put forth by the record industry.

Why is this? I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Partly because people from previous generations won’t accept newer “rock music” being categorized in the same group as Zepplin and Hendrix. Partly because mass perception of rock music (especially in the USA) is predominantly neutral to negative. People would rather identify as listening to metal than rock in most cases. I fucking hate it, personally.

Guns and Roses aren’t metal, Nirvana isn’t metal, Motley Crue barely makes the cut, Avenged Sevenfold aren’t metal, Disturbed and Godsmack aren’t metal, Rob Zombie kind of strides that line between rock and metal (but most of his stuff is just hard rock), KISS isn’t metal. These are all hard rock bands that were considered “metal” by the mainstream at the peak of their careers and their respective music scenes. Of course, my definition of metal is the music that, even 30 years later, won’t make it to mainstream radio. You’re never going to hear “Raining Blood” on KROCK, or any Slayer for that matter. So I’m not saying it to be mean, or an “elitist” in the derogatory sense that most people use it – I’m saying this because once a mainstream’s “metal” phase has panned out they get relegated to hard rock. This, as a rule, has held true since the fragmentation of metal culture in the 80’s (and in scattered instances beforehand – it’s hard to categorize metal bands before the thrash/glam split because they’re still very closely associated to hard rock).

So, in this sense, metal has been silently keeping rock and roll on life support for over 30 years. Every generation or so the “gateway bands” (mainstream metal) are used as an organ transplant to keep the hard rock machine alive and ticking (along with legions of new fans who never progress to the harder stuff) – while metal reaps the benefits of an ever expanding base.

Moving Forward – the Future of Rock and Metal

Also, kind of an interesting aside is metal artists who have hard rock side projects. This seems to be more of a European phenomenon (I notice they make much less distinction between rock and metal, or at very least embrace a ridiculous amount of diversity on a tour/festival ticket). Bands like the Gentleman Pistols (with Bill Steer from Carcass) or Spiritual Beggars (Michael Amott, ex-Carcass/currently in Arch Enemy) demonstrate metal artists love of rock. Labels like Nuclear Blast have a strong rock catalog, and continue to sign new rock artists from around the globe.

So, while I understand (and agree with) your concern regarding the apparent death of rock and roll – I think it might be helpful to take a step back and look at musical patterns throughout history. The industry has raped and pillaged hard rock for decades – so there is a necessary “incubation period” where rock and roll needs to go back underground and reform as an organic culture. It happened with metal – after the “thrash revolution” extreme metal went almost fully underground (with a few bands like Pantera carrying the flag through the 90’s) for nearly a decade. It re-emerged, slowly at first, with the “New Wave of American Metal” – which in turn sparked a metal revival. We’re still feeling the effects of this revival – with a lot of the classical forms (death, doom, black, classic, etc) experiencing revivals across the world. I hope rock will experience a similar pattern of revival – but even if it doesn’t, they get to draft a new swath of yesteryear’s mainstream “metal” bands into the fold with regularity.

Considering the often symbiotic relationship between hard rock and metal, I don’t think metal culture will ever allow rock to die out completely. Something a lot of people don’t talk about is the fact that becoming a metalhead is a multi-faceted process, not just a black and white event. You don’t just pick up a CD and suddenly become a metalhead – (almost) nobody starts off listening to Cannibal Corpse and Behemoth. You start off with rock, and eventually that doesn’t “do it” for you any more. Then you step up to hard rock, and get a taste of mainstream metal bands. I call this the “coffee drinker” model – you start off with a lot of sweetener and (generally) lower levels of caffeine, and then over time you adjust and start drinking stronger coffee – until eventually you’re drinking double-stuff black coffee with a shot of espresso.

In this sense, rock and metal will always be linked – because you have to start somewhere.

Conclusion

In keeping with the elderly relative analogy – I completely understand the comparison to with rock and metal. And I agree wholeheartedly with the components of the analogy. Rock, for all intents and purposes, is the elderly parent of metal – and is in trouble right now. But I disagree with the concept of needing to adopt the parent on a few levels.

First, I think that the baggage that comes along with rock music (fanbase, relationship to mainstream media, etc) is more than metal will allow – in fact, it’s a big part of the reason they split off in the first place.

Secondly, I think it’s a disservice to the inherent dignity of rock music. Like a proud, accomplished parent – the inherent independence of rock music is one of the qualities that keep it going. And for metal to adopt it into the fold would be to remove this sense of independence and dignity, and in the process would accomplish the exact opposite of the original goal. It would make rock music completely dependent on metal culture.

Like relatives that don’t get along (mostly because they’re so similar) – I think metal and rock are akin to family members who occasionally badmouth each other in public, but maintain a subtle relationship. Rock keeps sending new fans to the metal scene, while metal silently supports rock in subtle ways that allow rock to save face and retain a semblance of independence. If rock needed an organ transplant, metal would be the mysterious “anonymous donor” – they’ll save rock and roll, but won’t take the credit for it. Thus, the relationship can be viewed as a form of mutualism – a symbiotic relationship that benefits both parties (as opposed to parasitism, which I feel would be likely to happen with the induction of rock into the metal family tree).

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