It’s no secret to people that know me that I love heavy metal, and 2016 was a momentous year for it. As much as I love death metal, black metal, thrash, and other sections of metal’s rich offerings, this list ended up being dominated by some of the best heavy metal by both quality and quantity that have came out in years. It really is incredible that an album like the new Eternal Champion that may have been my album of the year if it came out in 2014 or 2015 didn’t even make my top ten cross-genre cut this year. Exclusions were many and hard to make, and I’m glad for it- I’d much rather have a bunch of tough exclusions than a few easy inclusions. It’s also no secret that I’m terrible at describing music, despite writing for a music blog, so bear with me.
Agatus – The Eternalist
Mesmerizing and multilayered traditional metal from a band better known for years of stalwart Hellenic black metal output. Incredible melodies, sometimes odd song structures, heavy use of synths on some songs, and one that may well be the first and only symphonic heavy metal song that I’ve ever loved. As dense and ambitious as modern metal comes, The Eternalist is an exercise in exploring the glory of all of the things that make heavy metal great. Soaring vocals over gorgeous melodies and riffs from the Greek epic metal handbook combine in a variety of styles that somehow still works all the way through. I haven’t been able to put this one down; it’s absolutely wonderful, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Demon Bitch – Hellfriends
Ripping heavy metal from unhinged maniacs from Detroit that mixes in a faint neoclassical touch to changing sections of absolutely frantic speed metal riffs to slowed down doomier parts, with more great solos than just about any other recent heavy metal album that I’ve heard. The vocalist isn’t always in tune, or necessarily even matching what’s going on with the riffing, but his passion is obvious and more than makes up for any lack of technical skill. As much as the album occasionally recalls some classic albums, it stands apart as being totally unique. Demon Bitch had their own voice from their very first demo, but this is where it all came together. One of the best heavy metal or USPM releases I’ve heard in recent years, especially for a debut, and one that I played over and over and over again, far past any of the other releases on my year. If I have to pick a firm album of the year, it’s this one, if only because I’ve listened to it more than twice as much as my next most listened choice.
Lethal Steel – Legion of the Night
The sounds of the ‘80s Swedish heavy metal scene are disappointingly unpopular with modern Swedish heavy metal musicians, so, despite the high volume of great heavy metal coming out of Sweden every year, relatively little of it (that’s good, anyways) sounds like it could have came out alongside Heavy Load, Mindless Sinner, or Gotham City material. Lethal Steel reject that and without ever for a moment sounding derivative forge their own sound in that same vein, knocking out incredibly well constructed songs that are catchy, melodic, and interesting at all times. Lethal Steel really stole the show out of 2016’s heavy metal releases with this one.
Mortem – Deinos Nekromantis
Peruvian legends Mortem returned in 2016 with another amazing addition to their flawless discography. Fast and aggressive, Deinos Nekromantis blows through thirty six minutes with as much talent and energy as they’ve ever had. For such a well established band, there’s not much to say here that hasn’t been said before, so I’l refrain from commenting further except to say that if you’re not familiar with Mortem and are into death metal, you need to listen to them.
Predatory Light – Predatory Light
I had never listened to Predatory Light (despite frequent harassment from friends pointing in their direction) until I saw them open up for Italian legends Mortuary Drape. I was totally blown away; Predatory Light is melodic, depressing, sometimes psychedelic, and always evil; disgusting mid-paced black metal turns into Iommi-esque trills and wonderful melodies in perfect time, with never a dull moment to distract from how amazing the album is. I don’t know if I’d like it as much without being blown away by their live show, but I was, so I do.
Quicksand Dream – Beheading Tyrants
A perfect and seamless combination of the epic metal stylings of Quicksand Dream’s first album more than a decade and a half ago and some additional doom metal influence, Beheading Tyrants gives an introspective and atmosphere-laden take that improves on their already stellar earlier work. Göran Jacobson’s vocals have improved with every bit of material that he’s ever released and perfectly suit the beautiful (if short) album that Quicksand Dream have put out. Catchy basslines, captivating leads, and emotional vocals intertwine here to put out something that exceeded my high expectations in every way.
Ravensire – The Cycle Never Ends
Portuguese epic metal veterans Ravensire put out the anticipated followup to 2013’s We March Forward this year and easily met or exceeded any expectations with it. Following their established tradition of worshipping similar bands before them, Ravensire carve out a place in my list not with unique flair but with such incredibly well done callback to tradition that I can’t help but adore it, much like a couple of other albums on my list. I’m a sucker for their for similar bands and Ravensire continue to deliver great melodies bouncing above their driving and simple working man riffs, with vocalist Rick Thor, formerly of Ironsword, providing incredible gruff singing that perfectly matches the entire aesthetic that Ravensire craft so well. Stripped down and no less the killer for it, Ravensire have delivered one of the better epic metal albums in recent memory with this one.
Sumerlands – Sumerlands
Sumerlands has enough modern talent packed into it that they’re almost a supergroup; featuring supermusician Justin DeTore on drums, two members of Eternal Champion on guitar, and the amazing Phil Swanson on vocals, you’d look at Sumerlands and expect it to be fucking amazing, and you’d be right. One of the best songs on the album is Haunted Forevermore, and haunting is a great description of the album as a whole; lyrics call out death, loss, and insanity as Swanson soars above tight guitarwork that I feel is unfairly described as being rehashed Sabbath and Priest riffs when it really evokes so much more than retro clonery. Vibrant with life and with a haunting call for the beyond, Sumerlands is one of the most enthralling albums I’ve heard from recent traditional metal.
Tarot – Reflections
Will Fried of Heavy Chains Records fame has been putting out great stuff under a couple of different band names for years now, and pulled off what could be his best album yet with Tarot’s Reflections. Dreamy, psychedelic, and with a mystic charm rare in recent years, it evokes Uriah Heep, Pagan Altar, and the most calm and beautiful moments of Deep Purple, effortlessly sounding like it originated in the mid-’70s without sounding like Tarot were ripping off any particular band. Haunting synths and gorgeous organs entwine with Fried’s soaring vocals to create a package of retro heavy psych that straddles the line between metal and rock without ever boring its listeners. Reflections is an incredibly relaxing experience to listen to, and is so well crafted that it’s stolen some of my listening time from the greats to make more time to be captivated. As an aside, I have to the gorgeous album art provided by the talented Karmazid for what may be my favorite album art from my top ten albums.
Wretch – Wretch
Formed from the ashes of The Gates of Slumber, the modern doom heroes continue to put out catchy, groovy and thick doom metal in this surprisingly short debut album. Cathartically calling out the band’s sorrow at life and death (in particular, the death of former The Gates bassist Jason McCash), Wretch is simple, direct, and hard rocking at times and dirging at others, returning to The Gates’ roots of Vitus and Sabbath and eschewing the epic flair that albums like Conqueror espoused extremely effectively. Glad to see these guys continuing to make great music following the dissolution of the band they’re the best known for.