Rather than going by genre this year, I've decided to reinforce the differences in our three ratings categories. This list focuses on the 10 most enjoyable albums I have heard so far in 2016. These are albums that were simply fun and continue to exhibit a lot of replay value. FYI, I'm counting Be'lakor for the second half of the year. For the other two parts: INNOVATION, MUSICIANSHIP.
The style of Mortichnia is a clever and signature mixture of post and black metal that goes well beyond a simple genre fusion. I hear elements of countrymen Altar of Plagues on their final album, but ultimately the guitars and atmosphere more closely resemble that of Ulcerate. Riffs have the same tenuous grip on both melody and dissonance, though tempered with the thoughtful simplicity of Tool. Vocals favor a somewhat distant, reverb-tinged shriek; as if the vocalist is screaming from infinity. It's an approach fairly familiar to groups like Ghost Bath and Deafheaven, but I argue making it a successful one is a careful management process.
Ever listened to Helmet and said, "hm...this is great, but could it be heavier"? Well wonder no further. West Virginia's Left Behind are a metallic hardcore band that seem to represent an alternative timeline branching from 1990's Strap it On. The band keeps the groove and some other stylistic hallmarks, but really plays up the loudness factor both in instrumentation and vocal delivery. The vocals are deep, abrasive howls not dissimilar from The Apex. Rather than just pairing death and hardcore, the delivery is a perfect mixture of the two. Neither genre manages to overpower the other, keeping a righteous balance of metallic punk ethos with commanding brutality.
UADA, seem far more comfortable keeping things grim a la Pale Chalice and Absu than playing with the typical West Coast USBM tropes. In fact, the group is so convincing in their passionate howls and completely ruinous runs of tremolo as to conjure images of an act that in a past life hailed from Norway or Sweden. If you are a fan of groups like Skeletonwitch, Taake, or Corpus Christii, Devoid of Light is definitely something you should check out. The album carries the lamentation of ghosts, often igniting into a fire of vengeance. And I am pleased to say that they are just as good live as on record.
Somewhere in between Beautaly's Einfallen and Trapped Within Burning Machinery's The Filth Element exists a new masterpiece called Light the Way. Tucson, Arizona band, North, mixes the light and darkness as if they were elements you could simply put in a bowl and whisk. Big, brooding power chords crunch through thunderous grooves and depressive doom riffs in time with the emphasis of each strike of snare and cymbal. Yet all the while I am levitating in a cathartic energy brought forth by the post rock and post metal lead guitar. As the surging weight of the world is carried by the gruff-but-powerful screams and rhythm section, I am watching it all from a safe distance above; acknowledging, accepting, transcending.
Cult of Luna is a Swedish progressive/post-metal/sludge band that has been making waves for some time with several studio albums already under their belts. Julie Christmas is a bad-ass woman known largely for her solo album The Bad Wife along with a number of collaborations with artists all over the spectrum. The guitars waver between various moods of post-metal, from the dark and doomy to the serene and spacey. They really tease you on the opening track, "A Greater Call," taking their time to slowly light the fuse. But when it erupts we get an ever growing avalanche of sludge. But it's Ms. Christmas who steals the show. From her meticulous choices of melody dripping from her sultry tone to the explosions of screaming fury, She is the driving force behind almost every minute. I'm banging my head to these crushing riffs, but 90% of my attention is following every rise and fall of her voice.
Hollow Bones is a New York metalcore and post-hardcore band. It is clear from this self-release, Lionheart, that this is a band with passion and commitment, with plenty of talent to carry a very personal message. This album definitely hits a soft spot for me, because it totally takes me back to melodic metalcore bands like Underoath and It Dies Today. We get two stellar vocalists to work with on Lionheart: Patrick Anthony and Sharon Malfesi (who is also on guitar). Patrick handles the majority of duties with peircing screams and a few spoken word outbursts a la August Burns Red or early Killswitch Engage. Sharon provides a strong counterpoint to Patrick, screaming occasionally, but more often engaging in beautiful sung melodies a la A Day To Remember.
Wolf King, at least for me, came out of nowhere on 5/13 with their new album Into the Infinite. This Bay Area blackened hardcore band ripped out of bondage and through the gates with a vengeance, expecially upon the release of their music video for lead single "Deathless." Reportedly influenced by bands such as Converge, Circle... Takes The Square, and The Number Twelve Looks Like You, Wolf King is here to claim the throne for the genre. The inclusion of old school DM vocals add an extra layer of brutality to the band's already abusive and confrontational hardcore snarls.
Hot on the heels of other American peers like Wilderun, Cinncinati, OH band Winterhymn are here to bring the sword and shield to battle with the best of them. There is plenty in common on some of these guitar parts to Ensiferum, but the end result feels less campy (no disrespect from this fan). The approach to violin and some of the melodies also leans more towards a Celtic vibe than anything else. In any case, Blood & Shadow is a lush, immersive experience that takes the listener to windswept hills on horseback. "There's blood on the ice and there's ice in our veins!"
From St. Louis, Missouri, The Lion's Daughter cracked me over the head with its new album, Existence is Horror. Blackened, wretch vocals, swampy bass, and alternations of sludgy groove with discordant chord strikes are a destructive force. The slow burn into powerfully grim arrangments of chaotic drumming and driving guitars are cause to turn more than a few heads. This album is full of crushing riffs, pitiless vocals, and bone-breaking work on the kit. Matt Bryan may have said it best in his review of the show: "haunting," "visceral," "pummeling." High On Fire meets Lord Mantis.
The opening three tracks, beginning with "Collapse" are some of the angriest and heaviest peices of music I have heard from the group to date. Technical, djenty riffs rip through the speakers with a sense of immediacy and violence. The only thing perhaps more righteous in their fury are the vocals; which tear through the vocal chords bypassing the body straight from the soul. The metalcore roots have always been firm with After the Burial, but their level of technical showmanship and sheer intensity always led me to feel they would be more appropriate on stage along Meshuggah than Killswitch Engage. "Mire" is perhaps my most jammed track so far this year.