Mike’s Top 10-ish Albums of 2016

This past year has been one hell of a ride for heavy metal music.  This year saw the release of new albums by 4 of the 5 “Big 5 Thrash Bands”, Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Testament.  Hell, even Metal Church put out a new album!  Really the only classic 80s band missing here is Slayer, but they were represented last year.

In addition to the classic 80s bands, some of my favorite bands from the 90s released new material too.  I’m talking about Dream Theater, Dark Tranquility, Hammerfall, Katatonia, and Opeth.

It wasn’t an all retro year for metal, as many bands I’ve gotten into in the last decade or so released new material such as Amon Amarth, Be’Lakor, Omnium Gatherum, Orphaned Land, and the Devin Townsend Project.

Of course, this is supposedly a Top 10 list, so these can’t all make the list, and there has to be some new bands that came out of nowhere too, right?

Read on for what could possibly be one of the most difficult “Best Of” lists I’ve made.

ish. Dynazty – Titanic Mass  I had only heard of these guys once before and their silly spelling of their name seemed like perhaps this wasn’t a serious band, but then I saw them play live in Sept 2015 at ProgPower USA in Atlanta and saw that they were quite talented.  So when I saw they had a new record this year, I snapped it up and upon first listen was mighty impressed.  It’s probably no surprise this is straight up power metal.  Theres not a lot of originality here, but what the band does do, they do very well.  It’s really hard to make a power metal record these days that stands out, but Dynazty pulled it off.  “Titanic Mass” is chock full of great hooks, excellent solos, catchy choruses, and memorable tracks that you’ll be humming days after listening to them.  Lead singer Nils Molin has a perfect voice for this style of music, not too high, not too low, not too polished, and not too rough.  He has that perfect balance of intestinal power, while still being able to hit all of the necessary high notes.  Dynazty is definitely an underdog and a band that’s not likely to appear on many year end best of lists, but I don’t care, I love this album.  Stand out tracks are the opener, “The Human Paradox”, “I Want to Live Forever”, and “Crack in the Shell”.

Listen: The Human Paradox

ish. Testament – Brotherhood of the Snake  I think it is finally time to call it.  When it comes to the big 5 thrash bands of the 80s, Testament takes the cake.  We all know the directions that the other 4 went, and to be fair, each band has had its fair share of highlights in the 3-plus decades since each band formed, but none have consistently kicked as much ass as Testament, and frankly, they show no sign of slowing down.  “Brotherhood of the Snake” absolutely picks up where the band’s two previous albums left off.  In fact, the opening track of the album is the title track and its an instant classic.  This is Testament at it’s finest.  Every band member is firing on all cylinders, singer Chuck Billy’s voice is as powerful as ever, and Alex Skolnick’s guitar work cements him in the echelon of the greatest metal guitarists ever.  The music sounds fresh, urgent, and powerful.  Sadly, the whole album isn’t as good as the opener, but that’s actually not as bad as it sounds.  For as good as this album and Testament are, the one knock I have of them is that it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate one album from another.  It’s that reason, and that reason only that this album is barely (and I mean BARELY) outside of the top 10.  But I guess that’s a good problem to have where your music is so great that it sounds like your other great stuff!

Listen: The Brotherhood of the Snake (full album)

ish. Borknagar – Winter Thrice  Borknagar is a band I have always liked, but always felt I could like more.  I’ve been a fan of Vintersorg’s music in many of it’s various incarnations, and Borknagar seems to be the most successful of his many projects.  The band’s 2012 album “Urd” was quite good and the only reason it never made it onto my year end best of list is that I didn’t hear it until a year or so after it’s release.  I didn’t make that same mistake this time, as I picked up “Winter Thrice” shortly after it was released.  Describing the music simply as “epic, blackened, folky, progressive metal” doesn’t do it justice as anyone who has heard a Borknagar album knows that its so much more than any label could be given to it.  While the music is excellent on every track of this disc, the singing of Vintersorg, Garm, and ICS Vortex, plus the various other backing and guest vocalists have always been the hallmark of every Borknagar album in the past.  One would be forgiven if they assumed that this album had 7 or 8 different singers, but there’s just so much diversity from just a couple of guys.  The album starts off with a bang as the first 3 tracks are my favorite on the album and while the rest of the album is still quite good, it doesn’t maintain the same level of interest to me, which is why this album does not appear higher on this list.

Listen: Winter Thrice

10. Harakiri for the Sky – III: Trauma  Perhaps the strangest name for a band on this list, this Austrian duo is sometimes classified as melodic black metal, but for me, this is just a hell of a great progressive melodic death metal record.  I hear bits and pieces of Rapture who is one of my all time favorite bands who has sadly been dormant for over a decade.  I didn’t know what to expect when I first heard these guys, but man, am I glad I did.  Like The Vision Bleak later in this list, this is the other “new” band that I’ve discovered in 2016 and I am eager to hear where the band goes from this.  This whole album is excellent from start to finish.  While the majority of the singing is semi muted death metal screams that are often lower in the music, not unlike some post-metal, the occasional use of clean singing is welcome and in no way feels out of place.  The entire album has an excellent production, the drums, bass, and guitars are all easily discernible and nothing seems to be overpowering the other.  Despite the loudness of the music, I don’t get that feeling of a brickwalled production.  It’s run-time of of 75 minutes is quite long and my one nitpick is that this album can be difficult to swallow in it’s entirety.  I don’t know that there’s any filler tracks that need to be omitted, but perhaps on future endeavours, the band could do some self editing to make an even more powerful, and easier to digest album.  Even if they don’t, I really am looking forward to volume IV!

Listen: III – Trauma (full album)

9. Manimal – Trapped in the Shadows  Come on, this is a joke right?  There’s a band called “Manimal” and its number 9 on your best of the year?  It’s no joke.  While the band’s name leaves a bit to be desired, I can honestly say this is the best Judas Priest album that Judas Priest never made.  I’ll go one step further and say that this is beyond a Priest album, this is the best 80s power metal album not made in the 80s.  Starting with the opener “Irresistable”, you almost immediately hear the Rob Halford comparisons in lead singer Sam Nyman’s soaring vocals.  This album is chock full of classic tracks like the title track, “Screaming Out”, and “Psychopomp”, but truly, I have enjoyed this one from start to finish.  What makes this album so great is the familiarity with music that I already love, yet there’s just enough freshness that it stands on it’s own and not just as a tribute album to the band’s influences.  I really hope this disc isn’t just a flash in the pan, and the band can build upon the success of “Trapped in the Shadows” and release some quality material again.  Even if they don’t, this is an album I’ve come back to many times so far in 2016, and will continue to in the years to come.

Listen: Trapped in the Shadows

8. Dark Tranquility – Atoma  Once most bands are around for more than 20 years, they generally fall into one of two categories.  The first is a band whose sound has changed or evolved over time to where they no longer sound like they used to (Anathema, Opeth).  The other are those that never change and keep releasing the same album over and over again (Amon Amarth, AC/DC).  There are good and bad examples of both types of bands, and just because one band does or doesn’t change, it doesn’t make it a bad thing.  Dark Tranquility is the rare exception of a band that kind of has done both.  Current DT sounds little like their early 90s output, but then in 2001, they released what I consider to be their best album, “Projector” and although they shifted towards a more traditional melodic death sound in the albums that followed, they continued to go back and forth between the semi-goth, keyboard infused sound from “Projector” with their more straightforward melodeath.  The band seems to have fallen into a rut with their last few releases, so when I saw “Atoma” had come out, I was skeptical, but upon listening to it, I can say that this is probably the best followup to “Projector” they’ve ever made.  The album starts out with what appears to be a run of the mill, classic DT track, but beyond that, back are the emotional clean vocals that I loved from “Projector”, and in the case of the albums final two tracks, they also brought back heavy goth influences and some amazing keys.  This is a great album from start to finish, with highlight tracks being “Atoma”, “Faithless by Default”, “Forward Momentum”, “Clearing Skies”, and “The Absolute”.  Although 2016 had quite a few surprises (see the bottom of this article), Atoma was the biggest surprise that was also worthy of being in my top 10 of 2016!

Listen: Forward Momentum

7. Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence  Devin Townsend is one of those guys that’s been around for so long, and has done so many projects, its hard to keep track of them all.  I was never a fan of his earlier work with Strapping Young Lad, or even his earlier DTP albums, but after reading a glowing review for 2012’s “Epicloud”, I gave it a chance and finally saw the light.  That album made it to my top 10 list that year, and it’s one that I still come back to now in 2016.  After that album’s release though, I sort of forgot about the band, until I saw that “Transcendence” had already been released.  I cautiously downloaded it and upon my first listen, liked what I heard, but it didn’t quite capture my attention like the previous album.  A funny thing happened, recently I’ve come back to this album and when making this list, I first thought it was good enough for an “ish” spot, but as I kept listening to it, I kept liking it more and more.  In some ways, “Transcendence” is more consistent than “Epicloud” was.  The ever talented Anneke van Giersbergen returned providing backing vocals on a number of tracks.  The songs tend to flow better, and there’s less tracks that sound nothing like others on the album.  While this makes for a more consistent listening experience, it tends to drown out a few less memorable tracks later in the album.  But when this album is good, it is REALLY good.  Sadly, there was a lull in quality prog metal this year, so this represents the best progressive metal album of 2016, and it’s absolutely worthy of this spot on my top 10 list.

Listen: Failure

6. The Vision Bleak – The Unknown  It’s always exciting to think of what new albums will come out in a given year by bands you already know about, and which ones will be by bands you’ve never heard of.  Despite being around since 2000, I had never heard of The Vision Bleak until this album.  After listening to the album, it wasn’t a surprise to learn that this band was founded by previous members of Empyrium.  The best way I can describe their sound is gothic doom metal, with some Type O Negative, and atmospheric influences like those from the previously mentioned Empyrium.  Regardless of how you classify this, “The Unknown” is a fantastic album, and a very interesting listen.  It’s an album I spent a lot of time with upon it’s release in June, but had drifted from my mind until I started working on this list and I am happy to say that I still enjoy this album as much as I did then.  In fact, I’d say that if I could go back in time to the late 90s and play this for myself, I would have loved it back then, and now, 16+ years later, I probably would have fondly considered this to be a classic album.  It’s not perfect, and not completely original, but it doesn’t have to be.  This is doom how it always was meant to be!

Listen: Into the Unknown

5. Beyond the Black – Lost in Forever  It’s a good thing I am not a professional music critic because I fear the inclusion of this album on this list would get me fired from that job.  Even posting it here, my metal “cred” will be challenged, but I don’t care.  When it comes to what I consider to be an album of the year, my only criteria is that I enjoyed it, and came back to it on numerous occasions.  This album I have most certainly come back to on MANY occasions.  Released in February, I have listened to this album from start to finish probably more than any other disc on this list.  This is “pop” metal.  It’s polished, its predictable, it’s easy to digest, and of course, there’s that singer.  21 year old Jennifer Haben handles most of the singing on this album.  If you’ve ever heard anything by Evanescance, Amaranthe, or Halestorm, you know what to expect…or do you?  This is one hell of a great disc, from start to finish.  It is clear this is not just some assembled group of studio musicians with a pretty face behind the mic.  (Edit: Actually it was.)  Beyond the Black fires on all cylinders from start to finish on this album.  I can’t pick my favorite track on the album because there’s so many great ones, “Lost in Forever”, “Beautiful Lies”, “Halo of the Dark”, and “Forget My Name” are all standout tracks.  What I think I like the best about this disc is how well all of the individual elements work.  The symphonics, the keyboards, the guitars, even the occasional guttural death growl all add to the music, without overpowering anything.  This album shouldn’t work, but it does, and for my money, its the best power/symphonic metal album of 2016.

Listen: Lost in Forever

4. Witherscape – The Northern Sanctuary  After a long hiatus, in 2013 the multi-talented musical genius, Dan Swanö came back with a new project called Witherscape which was one of the year’s best albums, but then in 2014 surprised everyone with a new Nightingale album which earned itself a spot on many best of lists, including my own, but for as much as I love Nightingale, I loved his other projects like his heavier stuff on Moontower and Edge of Sanity just as much.  Would he come back to that too?  For Witherscape’s sophomore effort, he did a little bit of both and made a sort of amalgam of all of what is best about Dan Swanö, mixed it together, and released an album with all Swanö-flavors rolled into one.  While I did enjoy the first Witherscape disc, it seemed to be missing something, and that “something” is present here.  The recording of this album is perfect.  The music is fresh, and includes everything including the melodic heaviness of Edge of Sanity, along with a healthy dose of 70s prog synth from the “Moontower” album, and then topped with a helping of Nightingale “goth”.  What could have become a bland “sometimes more is less” turned into a perfect balance of everything I love about everything Dan Swanö has ever done.  The Northern Sanctuary is a relatively short album coming just short of 47 minutes, it’s best listened to in it’s entirety.  I can’t pick out a single track that’s my favorite, if only because the whole album is so great and so cohesive.  I feel confident that of any album on this list, this might be the one that is most accessible to non-metal fans, while still giving an accurate representation of the kind of music I love.  If you know me, but have never really gotten into my music, but wanted to give it a shot, this would be a great start!

Listen: The Northern Sanctuary

3. Be’Lakor – Vessels  At various points while writing this list, the top 3 albums changed places more than once.  Had this not been a ranked list, and just 10 great albums of 2016, each of the top three here could all in some ways be considered as good as each other.  Be’Lakor first attracted my attention with their 2012 release “Of Breath and Bone” and it was my album of the year.  After hearing that album, I went back through their catalog and fell in love with 2009s “Stone’s Reach” which in hindsight, I thought was every so slightly better than “Bone”.  Four years have passed since their last release and now we have Vessels.  I’ll start off by saying that Be’Lakor is one hell of a talented band and Vessels continues their streak of three completely excellent melodic death albums in a row.  The band largely sticks with the same formula that made the last two albums great.  The only real surprise here on this album is how consistent this band seems to be.  I think every song on this album is great, which makes for an experience that’s hard to jump into, since you kind of need to experience the album as a whole.  There is one standout track though, which is the last one, “The Smoke of Many Fires”.  Coming in just short of 10 minutes, this is my song of the year.  The album as a whole might be number 3 on this list, but I absolutely love this track.  It is very hard for one track to shadow an otherwise excellent album, but that’s exactly what Be’Lakor does here.  Throughout the album, this Australian 5-piece combines the best of death, doom, and progressive metal into a musical experience that flows extremely well.  There are many melodic death metal bands out there, but none that I can think of that so consistently has put out album after album of TOP NOTCH metal!

Listen: The Smoke of Many Fires

2. Khemmis – Hunted  I vaguely remember some hoopla surrounding this Colorado based band’s 2015 debut album “Absolution” but for one reason or another, it never attracted my attention, but when they released this followup only a year later and people started to lose their minds, I knew I had to pay attention and when I did, I was blown away.  If I was lazy, I would repeat what others have said and describe this band as stoner doom, but they’re so much more.  The band cranks up the distortion in a way that bands like Kyuss and Sabbath have been doing for years, but they combine it with clean singing that’s not too far from Robert Lowe’s blend of singing on recent Candlemass albums.  There is a bit of death growls here, but they are used sparingly and when they are used, they are done with great effect to emphasize the darker moments of the album.  Since I’m not being lazy, I’d say this is bluesy progressive doom with soaring vocals, chunky guitars, and one hell of a rhythm section.  I hear so many influences in this album, a little bit of Tony Iommi, a little bit of Zakk Wylde, a little bit of Candlemass, and so on.  Hunted is a relatively short album, consisting of only 5 tracks that range in length from 6:37 to 13:30 for a total run time of just short of 44 minutes.  Many music critics consider 45 minutes to be the perfect length of an album to be absorbed in one listen, and “Hunted” is definitely an album that deserves to be listened to in it’s entirety.  It starts off with “Above the Water” which is a very strong lead off track that sets the stage and tone for the rest of the album.  The surprising thing is that for as good as the first track is, the rest of the album keeps getting better, all the way to the last track, which is the album’s title track, and also my favorite.  In fact, I’d say the last two tracks on this album are barely a tad less amazing than “The Smoke of Many Fires” from Be’Lakor’s “Vessels”.  Kemmis’s 2016 contribution to this list is an album I have no doubt that I will continue to listen to for years to come.  I’m not a fan of lazy “stoner doom”, and I’d even argue that this isn’t stoner anything, its just kickass modern doom metal.  This is a truly special album and would be my album of the year if if wasn’t for…

Listen: Hunted

1. Anciients – Voice of the Void  Man, this was hard.  As I said earlier, the top 3 albums on this list changed places more than once, and arguments could be made that each album could be number one on this list, but as Connor MacLeod said, “there can be only one”.  “Voice of the Void” by Canadian band Anciients is my album of the year for 2016.  What is especially amazing is that Anciients’ last album “Heart of Oak” was my album of the year for 2013.  Even more impressive is that these are the only two albums this band has ever made.  There is no sophomore slump here.  I cannot think of any other combination of a band’s first two albums that I adore as much as these two.  “Voice of the Void” picks up exactly where “Heart of Oak” left off.  I could sit here and type every reason I love this album, but it’s just going to be me gushing.  All 66 minutes of this album, from start to finish are truly spectacular.  There’s not a single stand out track on this album, only because they’re all so great.  It’s like a single album filled with 9 straight stand out tracks.  This is music I enjoy listening to at work, in the car, on the computer, at the gym, etc.  There’s a level of urgency and delicacy, with crushing and overly melodic guitars, pummeling drums, clean singing and screaming, all the same time.  As I’ve listened to this album from start to finish over the past few weeks to confirm it’s place at number 1, I cannot find a single complaint, nitpick, or anything negative to say about it.  This is simply great fucking music!  How Anciients managed to top an album of the year, with a second album of the year is something I may never understand.  Will they ever do it again?  God, I hope so!

Listen: Voice of the Void (full album)

Best Non Metal Album – Long Distance Calling – Trips  I can’t remember how I discovered this band, but boy am I glad I did.  In some ways, this is a nice companion to last years “Best Non Metal Album” by Perturbator, as it blends 80s science fiction soundtrack music with a heavier and darker quasi-metal vibe.  From what I gather, Germany’s Long Distance Calling started out as an instrumental post-rock prog band, and while a large majority of Trips has long instrumental sections, they wisely sprinkle some great vocal performances throughout the album.  If you’re uncertain about what kind of music this is, just listen to the album’s first track “Getaway” below.  It has a truly terrible video you can stream on Youtube, but the song itself has a familiarity I can’t put my finger on, yet doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before.  I realize I am doing a terrible job of explaining what this sounds like, but Ill guess that if you just take a chance and check them out, you’ll understand why.  If you’re a fan of progressive hard rock, science fiction synthesized music, and a touch of radio friendly alternative, this album is for you.

Listen: Getaway (this video is terrible, just listen to the song)

Best Album of Cover Songs – Heaven Shall Burn – Wanderer  I am kind of cheating here as “Wanderer” is actually a new album full of new tracks, but it came in a 2 disc version where disc 1 was all new tracks, but disc 2 was entirely covers.  I have never been much of a fan of Heaven Shall Burn’s own material as their sound is a little to metalcore-generic to my ears, but based on the track choices for disc 2, they clearly have some of the same influences as I.  One of the most surprising covers is My Dying Bride’s “The Cry of Mankind”.  They take what was a 12+ minute long drawn out epic doom track and turned it into a seven and a half minute long death metal song without destroying what was great about the original.  Hearing this cover, I am still transported back to 1997 when I first heard the original.  Other covers include Tiamat’s “Whatever that Hurts” from their 1994 classic “Wildhoney”.  The only song in my entire library with the phrase “overfilled toothpaste tubes” is an oddity for sure, but HSB’s cover hits every note with perfection, and they update it to a 2016 track with ease.  Other brilliant covers include Blind Guardian’s “Valhalla” with guest vocals by Hansi Kursch himself.  You would never know this was originally a power metal song, the cover changes it into a heavy and fast death metal track with double kick drums and an urgency not present in the original.  Finally there is an outstanding cover of Edge of Sanity’s “Black Tears” which ironically was done as a ballad by the original band, HSB turns it back into a melodic death metal track that would have fit perfectly on the song’s original album.  There’s a few other covers here I don’t recognize, but based on the strength of these 4 covers, I can already declare “Wanderer” as the best cover album of the year!

Listen: The Cry of Mankind

Biggest Surprise – Megadeth – Dystopia  If there’s one guy in hard rock/heavy metal that is known to be a world class asshole with a borderline personality, that person is Axl Rose (more on that later), but if there’s two, that man is Dave Mustaine.  Mustaine has been living in a self created shadow of his short stint with Metallica in the early 80s and has been chasing his own demons ever since.  The odd thing is, Megadeth not only has more albums than Metallica, but they also have more GOOD albums as well.  I can honestly say I liked albums like Youthanasia and Cryptic Writings much more than anything Metallica made past the Black Album.  But the late 90s and most of the 21st century has not been kind to Dave.  A revolving door of band lineups, stylistic changes, breakups, medical problems, and record label changes has diminished the once great Megadeth into a parody of their former selves.  2013’s “Super Collider” was one of the worst albums of the year, and received constant criticism from press all over the world.  So, when it was announced that the band would return in 2016 with yet another revamped lineup and a new album, you can imagine expectations were low.  But then a funny thing happened.  Holy shit!  This was unlike anything Mustaine & Co. had delivered since the Rust in Peace era.  The album starts off with perhaps the best track of the album, “The Threat is Real” has an 80s thrash opening riff that is straight off the band’s best albums.  If you would have told me that Marty Friedman was on this track, I would have believed you.  The old paranoia of Dave Mustaine is still in full effect on this album, but this time, it’s just the right amount of paranoia.  The next track is the title track, and it reminds me more of the Youthanasia sound, but this is still quality Megadeth.  I’m not kidding when I say this is the best the band has sounded in over 20 years.  The rest of the album does have some filler, and it’s not as consistently as good as the first two tracks, but nowhere on Dystopia does the band stoop down to the cheesiness and desperation of “United Abominations” or “Endgame”, so while as whole, it misses the mark of making it into the Top 10, this is still one hell of a solid album, and without a doubt the biggest surprise of 2016!

Listen: The Threat is Real

Biggest Surprise #2 – Retro Metal  Every year it seems that some band from the past re-emerges with a surprising new record.  In years past, we’ve seen great new releases from Black Sabbath, Queensryche, and W.A.S.P.  This year, however something strange happened, Metallica, Megadeth, Testament, and Anthrax all released new albums.  That’s 4 out of the biggest thrash metal bands of the 80s, and in their own way, each album has merit.  Beyond the classic bands, we see newer bands releasing quality material with vintage influences.  You could argue that my top 3 albums of the year, Anciients, Be’Lakor, and Khemmis all have a bluesy, Sabbath, retro vibe intertwined with their brutality.  Heck, even some not so vintage bands like Novembre and Wolverine kind of came out of nowhere releasing music well past their peak.  While I always look forward to what new music I will hear in a new year, 2016 was definitely a year where some bands got back to the sound that made them famous alongside some other great newer bands releasing material that honors back to the classics.

Biggest Surprise #3 – Axl Rose Holds His Shit Together  My childhood friend Dan and I made a pact nearly 2 decades ago that no matter where we were in our lives, even if we hadn’t seen each other in years, if Guns and Roses ever got back together with both Axl and Slash and they toured, we’d go.  When word got out of a GnR reunion with both key members (plus Duff), Dan and I knew we had to go.  The Chicago show was the 4th on the US tour and we felt pretty good that if Axl had a meltdown and everything imploded, we’d have a decent shot of still getting to go since we were early in the tour.  As it turned out, not only did a meltdown not happen, but the entire show and tour went off with amazing success.  There were reports in every city of how well the band members, including Axl, got along.  Stage crew, the lighting guys, management, they all sang the praises of a totally different Axl Rose.  This all wouldn’t count for much if the show wasn’t any good, but I can say, the show at Soldier Field was outstanding.  Definitively a top 10 show in my mind.  For as great as the show was, and how excited I was at the possibility of a new album coming, I can’t help but be saddened that if these guys could have gotten past their differences and gotten along this well 20 years ago, how many great albums we might have had during that span.  In any case, while this doesn’t really qualify as an album for this list, I can’t mention music in 2016 without commenting one of the best comeback tours, by any band, ever.

Releases by Bands I Need to Stop Getting My Hopes Up For – Dream Theater – The Astonishing, Opeth – Sorceress, Metallica – Hardwired…To Self Destruct  I fully realize that even the best bands can’t be great forever.  Sometimes a band changes too much that their later music is unrecognizable to their earlier work, sometimes bands don’t change at all, and every album just sounds exactly the same like the ones before it.  I don’t even know what is required of a band to stay “fresh” and relevant decades past their prime.  Each of these three bands have in the past made some of the best music I’ve ever heard in my life.  “Awake”, “Blackwater Park”, and “Master of Puppets” will be three of my favorite albums until the day I die, yet as with each new release, I grow more and more distant.  I can truly say that none of the three albums released this year by any of these guys were bad.  In fact, both “The Astonishing” and “Hardwired…” have some of the best material by Dream Theater and Metallica in a long while, yet, I just can’t stomach either album from start to finish.  To Opeth’s credit, the band is intentionally headed into a new direction, trying new things, and that’s not a bad thing.  I often wonder how I would have enjoyed each of these three albums if they were the first I had ever heard by each band.  Sometimes the past “taints” current opinion of a favorite band.  Still, I get excited when I hear a long time favorite has a new release, but I set myself up for disappointment, and I need to just accept that I’ll likely never love an album by these three bands, or Iron Maiden, or Savatage, or any of my other previous favorites, ever again.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order)

Amon Amarth – Jomsviking  Sometimes you you feel like a nut…sometimes you don’t…and other times you feel like rocking out to some Viking Metal turned to 11 and that’s when you reach for the nearest Amon Amarth album.  This is a band who has never made a bad album, and that continues with Jomsviking.  The opening track “First Kill” is as good as any song the band has ever done, yet, here it is at in the Honorable Mention section.  Why?  I think it’s just because, Amon Amarth has turned into the metal equivalent of AC/DC in that if you want to hear the newest album, just listen to the last one on Shuffle.  Make no mistake, this is a good album, it might even be a great album.  It’s just that I’ve heard this before and it’s hard to rank this any higher with the massive amount of quality releases of 2016.

Avantasia – Ghostlights  I love Edguy, and I love the work of Tobias Samnet.  Avantasia is the power metal version of Ayreon, a supergroup that makes grandiose and epic concept albums.  “Ghostlights” features the vocals of none other than Jorn Lande, Michael Kiske, Dee Snider, and Geoff Tate.  While the last two there might seem like strange additions, both Snider and Tate’s tracks are quite good.  I’d even say that “Ghostlights” is my favorite Avantasia album, but like everything that this group does, I’ll have to agree with Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus” here and say “too many notes”.  Ghostlights is a difficult listen, especially from start to finish.  The entire album is like the huge downhill part at the beginning of every roller coaster, except, it doesn’t stop, for 75 minutes.  Maybe I’m getting old, but in small pieces, I love this album, but I haven’t been able to consistently keep coming back to it like other albums on this list.

Baphomet’s Blood – In Satan We Trust  Keeping with one of 2016’s biggest surprises, Baphomet’s Blood is as retro as retro gets.  It’s fitting that this album came out in the same year that Lemmy passed away as lead singer Necrovomiterror (yes, that’s really his name) has a chain smoker’s raspy voice just like Mr. Motorhead himself.  This album is a non stop ride of vintage guitar solos, Kill Em All era and Tyrant’s Reign era urgency, and drumming that would have made Dave Lombardo jealous.  Had this album been recorded on an analog 8 track reel to reel, and played back on a cassette in 1985 Chevy Monte Carlo, you’d swear this album is straight out of the 80s.  I can’t really tell how serious these guys are with all of their Satanism, but this album hits all the right spots of what would have terrified the pants off the PMRC back then, I can’t help but smile while listening to this album.  I doubt that was the intent of the band members, but nevertheless, this is a fun album.

Insomnium – Winter’s Gate  I really feel like I’m missing something with this album as it has all of the elements that should make for one of my favorite albums of the year.  I loved the last two albums these guys made, and this time around, Winter’s Gate is a concept album that is supposedly based of a short story written by Niilo Sevänen about a group of Vikings who set out to find a fabled island west of Ireland, despite the treacherous winter drawing near.  It’s a single 40 minute song meant to be listened to in it’s entirety.  The band even admitted that Edge of Sanity’s classic album, “Crimson” was the inspiration to make this album.  So, what went wrong?  I honestly don’t know.  40 minutes isn’t that long and well within the length of an album to listen to in a single listening.  Sometimes it takes me a while to get into an album, and as I write this, it’s December, and I’ve had this album since September and it still hasn’t drawn to me.  This is an example of an album I know is good, and perhaps in time, I will grow to appreciate it more, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t stuck with me.

Myrath – Legacy  Hailing from Tunisia (I’ll wait a minute while you get a map), Myrath is new to me, but the band originally started in 2001 and started out performing Symphony X covers (how cool is that!).  This is the band’s fifth full length album.  A generic label for the music could be progressive power metal, but there is a very strong middle eastern influence to the music, not unlike Orphaned Land.  I feel as though the band has all of the right elements to put together a really great album, but this one falls ever so slightly short.  The albums first proper track, “Believer” is an outstanding track, and had I been making a top 10 songs of 2016, this song would have definitely been on it.  But hearing the excellence this band is capable of, the rest of Legacy does not live up to this one track.  The band even managed to put together an excellent video for “Believer” that is very professionally done with Hollywood quality special effects.  Hearing what the band is capable of, if they can release another album that maintains that level of excellence, they have a very bright career ahead of them.  They’re close now, but just not quite there yet.

Novembre – Ursa  Keeping with the theme of surprises from 2016, when I heard that the same Novembre who had released the albums “Classica”, and “Novembrine Waltz” in the late 90s was back with a new album, I was super excited.  The band last released new material in 2007, but it had been since around 2002 that I last heard anything from them, so with a 14 year hiatus, how would the band hold up?  I’m pleased to say that the new stuff is pretty good, mostly.  Chock full of melody and emotion, the band has definitely embraced the melodic side of their sound.  The music is quite good with tracks like “Australis” and “Annoluce” being excellent examples of the album, theres something about lead singer Carmelo Orlando’s clean voice that drives me crazy.  It never bothered me before, but despite the great music on this album, I find that I can only listen to it a little bit at a time.  I actually prefer when he uses his death vocals.  This album might have appeared higher on this list if the vocals were all screaming.  Maybe I just need more time with it, but it’s hard to really get excited about an album that you are forcing yourself to listen to.  This is a good album, no doubt, and I’m excited to hear the band is still making good music, its just not an album I’ll listen to often.

Orphaned Land – Kna’an  Orphaned Land is a hard band to understand.  Sometimes they take 8 years in between albums, sometimes 6, sometimes 3.  “Kna’an” follows 2013’s “All is One” and while the overall sound of the album is very similar, there’s less standout tracks here than last time.  I’ve always found at least a couple of great tracks on every Orphaned Land album that I can really latch onto, and that just isn’t the case here.  The thing is, I still think this is a really good album.  I have always loved Orphaned Land’s unique blend of traditional middle eastern instruments and styles, combined with western heavy metal.  Had this been my first exposure to the band, I probably would have liked it much more since it doesn’t sound like anything else out there, but as it is, I’ve heard them do better.  Maybe they need a minimum of 6 years in between albums to put out something truly spectacular!

Wolverine – Machina Viva  Like November, Wolverine is a band I discovered in the late 90s and became a huge fan of their earlier work, before losing track of them for over a decade.  Unlike Novembre though, “Machina Viva” was not the first album I had heard from them in 16 years and also unlike Novembre, I didn’t seem to be bothered by any one element.  Wolverine’s music is barely metal.  This is more like atmospheric progressive post-rock.  At times I hear a lot of parallels to modern day Anathema, but to say they’re a copy is unfair to both bands.  “Machina Viva” an excellent album to chill out to, and what I would call “headphone music”.  The mixing on this album is done incredibly well and you can hear layer after layer of music in each track.  Despite not appearing in my Top 10, this is my chill out album of the year.  It’s a really well made album, and one I’ll likely appreciate more in time.  There simply aren’t a lot of bands making music like this today.

Conclusion

2016 was a really crazy year.  We were filled with a larger than usual number of celebrity deaths, Britain exited the European Union, Donald Trump was elected president, snipers killed a gorilla, and Samsung phones (and washing machines) were exploding everywhere.

Despite the chaos of the “normal” world, as a fan of metal, we were treated to some really great releases.  This list was difficult to make and as I was writing it, I moved around some of these releases a couple of times.  If I were to do a best of 2016 list 6 or 12 months from now, the order would likely be different that it is here, but thats just how these lists go.

Hopefully for anyone still reading this, you’ve found at least one interesting album or band you want to check out.  I always look forward to recommending new music to people who will listen to it.  I hope you enjoyed my list, and I’ll see you again in 12 months as I write my best of 2017 list!

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