Sucks To Be You: Emperor Rhombus’ Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2016
On December 28th in the Year of Our Selves 2015, I was getting shitfaced with Lily Domash at a bar in Brooklyn that I would later find out makes a stylistic choice of not stocking Jack Daniels (I’m not going back). We were having a good time, laughing like cretins. Then I got a text from my friend Alex. It was one word: “LEMMY?!” Two thoughts crashed through the fog of booze in my head: Oh no, and What now?
2016 opened with the metal world burying Lemmy, and, subsequently, Motörhead. For me, the loss was monumental. I mourned for all of January; on the 9th, I wept like a bitch at Trve Brewing watching Paul Inder, Lemmy’s son, eulogize the Great Man, and then spent the rest of the month working my way through the handle of Jack I’d bought in his honor. How could this be? Lemmy was a constant. Motörhead was the reliable band among reliable bands. There was none more metal, none truer. Was I next? Was this a sign that I was too old? Should I hang up my bullet belt?
Instead, my year turned out to be a surprising reminder of the Death card’s true meaning. Unlike last year, when I had to find and cherry-pick good albums amidst a cesspool of boring nonsense, 2016 overflowed with terrific metal, including both rad new albums from old-guard defenders and impressive output from bands I’d never heard of. My list is full of new faces. Lemmy is gone, but in his wake came a deluge of awesome music that made me bang my head and pump my fist. The universe is always there to flip the record when Side A runs out.
Sadly, of the many albums that graced 2016, I can only pick fifteen for this list, so with apologies to such incredible acts as Gatecreeper, Spirit Adrift, Sodom, Fleshgod Apocalypse, Monster Truck, and Desaster, here are my favorite albums of this year. March or die.
Crunchy, kinetic, and coated in grime, Stockholm’s Exoskelett blew up this year with the two EPs that make up this full-length album. Merging crust, thrash, grind, and first-wave black metal, these guys’s music is noisy and evil in the most basic and satisfying of ways. Theirs is the sound of a local band you’re watching who rehearsed for weeks before the show and then got shitty on beer before walking onstage. No one else is doing sweaty and gross this damn well.
Australia’s Sewercide have a name that needs to be lived up to, but their 2016 release proved that they’re more than worthy of the foul moniker. The band’s mix of jangling riffs and dizzying solos hearken back to death metal’s birth, but their abrupt injections of Slayeriffic thrash and junky pinch harmonic-filled breakdowns make them an unusual and much-appreciated hybrid of classic and modern sensibilities. On the one hand, they’re extremely unpredictable, but on the other you’re getting exactly what you asked for. As such, Immortalized might take a few listens to full seize you, but once it does you’ll be spinning it for weeks on end.
Oh, the horror! While many bands push the envelope, VHS just fill it with an OSDM mix tape and ask you to send the stamps back. This band’s horror-themed junk food metal is lo-fi, to the point, and full of all the nostalgic good times that their name suggests. If you’re one of those anuses who takes metal super-duper seriously, you’ll probably hate this album of fast and loose death metal classics, but then again you can also fuck way off. Sometimes, all you want is a light beer and a movie where a high school senior gets fed her kidney.
Any good Best Of list should include a record that Axl hates, and mine is no different. Avatar’s concept album about an owl going to war with the dawn is as strange and beautiful as that story summary suggests, filled with influences of melodeath, nu-metal, power metal, prog, and groove thrash. The band’s fun, infectious rhythms and massive sing-along choruses make them hard to ignore and easy to bounce along to. Do I want to adore a fairy tale concept album by a Swedish band fronted by a clown? No. But I do, without shame or regret, and those albums are always the best. More fun than the circus.
In stark contrast to the album above, Cursus Impasse is not fun, nor is it pleasant or hopeful or in the business of making anyone bounce. Instead, this ugly, atmospheric slab of unholy experimental black sludge is the soundtrack to the panic that sets in during severe blood loss. Full of echoing guitar groans, horase gurgling vocals, and disturbingly tinny drums, Howls of Ebb’s second studio effort is a humorless plunge into chilly depths of sonic horror. If you value typical song structure and a sense of unity with your fellow man, look elsewhere. If you’ve ever had molluscum, you’ll understand what’s going on here.
What sets Sulphur’s 2016 masterpiece apart from the rest is its long reach. While the band plays what could be lazily described as black metal, they also manage to get their tentacles into NWOBHM, thrash, and power metal, using the many influences that originally gave black metal its dynamism (and which the musicians who made all the great black metal truly love) and utilizing them to their fullest extent. As such, Omens of Doom is as much studded denim as it is ceremonial cloak, reminding both cult believers that it’s okay to have fun and party animals that they too can be envoys of Satan. Listen to this album while lighting some black candles.
For years, I have doubted Aaron Turner, finding Isis boring and Old Man Gloom decent at best. But with Sumac’s sophomore album, I can no longer deny his strength as a musician. What One Becomes builds on the decent sludge metal stylings of last year’s EP The Deal, expanding outwards into an epic of blunt force and hard corners. Turner is as terrifying as ever on vocals, his hoarse bellows as demonic and grating as those of any modern death metal singer. Meanwhile, drummer Nick Yavyshyn makes a sharp and infectious racket that confronts the listener while keeping them interested. An impressive record from a band that will hopefully continue to do more, louder.
8. Ravencult – Force of Profanation (Metal Blade)
While so much of black metal struggles to wade through the mire of progressive influences and tacked-on ambience, Greece’s Ravencult charges through the night in a blaze of fire and lightning. Force of Profanation is a blistering black-thrash album that wastes no time before crushing the listener with barbed riffs, vicious blastbeats, and throat-rending shrieks, all while keeping things fun and catchy. I find it impossible to listen to this album without eventually raising the horns; this would be a problem at work or on the bus if it wasn’t for the No Fucks Given tone of these tracks. Just raw satanic power, served up neat.
Sometimes, you see a band name/album title combination and know you’re in for something good. Such was the case with Brutally Deceased’s Satanic Corpse, the death metal album of the year. Rather than try to imitate old-school bands with fuzzy production or recycled riffs, the Czech quintet reminds listeners of the glory days of death metal from Tampa to Sweden with their relentless, punishing drive and their unapologetic lyrical tone (“How can you think of your comfort zone” indeed). A killer album that stands above its peers on pure talent and vicious enthusiasm. I could listen to this shit all day.
On their 2016 five-song EP, Tombs pack all the depth, darkness, and punch that so many bands out there trying to be evil seem to miss entirely. All Empires Fall touched on every aspect of the band that makes them great, from rattling industrial ambience to grinding demonic force. The album also showcases frontman Mike Hill’s exceptional vocal range as he swings from Celtic Frostian sacred intonations to crushing guttural growls. Rather than focusing on overkill or taking hard turns in strange directions, Tombs has whittled its sound to a deadly point that skewers anything in its way.
5. Not Blood Paint – Believing Is Believing (self-released)
On my Best Of lists, I generally try to avoid albums which are only sort of metal, but Not Blood Paint’s 2016 release is just metal enough that I’ll allow it, and anyway it’s so damn good that it would be a shame to deny it to anyone who might discover it from this list. Bursting with energy, bravado, and danceable bass lines, Believing Is Believing is about as good a record can be without being a full-on metal album, and has elements to it which bring more menace and creeping shadow than any album I’ve heard in years. This is the kind of record that elevates bands to the next step of their careers, the kind that Tool and Mastodon used to make. Get on board.
When I interviewed Khemmis last year about their stunning debut Absolution, I remember thinking, Damn, these guys are going to make a truly great record. And if Hunted is the band’s last album, I can rest easy knowing I was right. Where so many doom records try to be a collection of obvious influences, Hunted is a monster wholly its own, an ambitious intermingling of ecclesiastical singing and satisfying pagan riffs that provides a treat for every breed of metalhead and reveals something new to the listener every time they listen to it it. In a bloated genre full of pretenders whose hearts aren’t in it, Khemmis has given us an album that amazes, impresses, and just fucking rules, man.
Because of their horror-punk tendencies, their blood-drenched live show, and their bizarre back story, it’s easy to think of Ghoul as nothing more than lighthearted fun. But Dungeon Bastards is a firm reminder that the boys from Creepsylvania are a cutthroat thrash band whose gross-out lyrics come second to their destructive riffs. More so, Ghoul have struck a beautiful balance here with their mythos–those who enjoy their insane narrative now have a dark new tale deeply embedded in the band’s psychotic world, while those who could care less can still enjoy some of the best thrash metal out there.
2. Rebel Wizard – Triumph of Gloom (Independent)
What happens when you crossbreed black metal’s harshness, power metal’s versatility, thrash’s fun-loving riffage, and a sense of pervasive nihilism? Negative metal, the chosen genre of Australia’s impressive Rebel Wizard. From start to finish, Triumph of Gloom is as delightful as it is utterly destructive, proving unpredictable in its strange hybrid sound but never swerving from the mission of ruining everyone’s good time. This album is a total banger that will ring true with anyone who’s ever wished Judas Priest could be a little more like Darkthrone, and vice versa. A massive Fuck Yes right here.
Occasionally you hear a record and know, instantly, that it means something to you, and that you’ll remember it forever. This is how I felt when I first heard Devoid of Light — love at first spin. From the rugged sorcery writhing through the opening riff of “Natus Eclipsum” to the melancholy coronation of the solo that closes “Black Autumn, White Spring,” Devoid of Light is an absolute pleasure to listen to for those who live and die by darkness. Uada draws power on black metal’s checkered past and many dark corners, and then wields it with strength, finesse, and genuine emotion. On their debut, they have mastered both the outward grandeur of their genre and the very core of the thing, emitting a cry of agony and catharsis that shakes the shadowy hall of the ancients to its very rafters.