Let’s face it—this year has been a downer. The news sucks. Politics suck. People suck. Metal does not suck this year. In fact, the first half of 2016(66) has been full of great metal records that are turning subgenres on their faces. So let’s not waste any time, and get to the good stuff.
Sure Holy Grove’s debut full-length is a heavy rock monolithic, but the live experience is where one gets to see this band do its thing with nary a pretension, nor calculated fashion statement. Female-fronted, blues-based heavy rock is nothing new under the sun in 2016, but the members of Holy Grove have a keen sense and respect for rock ’n’ roll’s past that I haven’t heard with many bands. Andrea Vidal’s vocals are mighty, as is the rhythm section. The riffs are sharp and dynamic. And songs like “Death of Magic” and “Huntress” are heavy yet approachable, with enough demon glitter and working-class veracity to appeal to humans of all stripes.
No fancy descriptors for these Aussie metalheads…this is heavy fucking metal at its most primal and raw—the band’s name kinda says it all. Wildfire is classic thrash with black metal ambience (“Artiglio Del Diavolo”) that builds upon the band’s more than two decades of firepower. Lyrically frontman K.K. Warslut still sticks closely to classic heavy metal tropes—infernos, serpents, axe-wielding warriors—which makes you feel like you’ve walked into a Frank Frazetta painting. Mmm…that sounds nice.
Landless might be the perfect title for Eight Bells’ second full-length. The record gives the feeling of being lost at sea, the glow of the moon and ocean swells the only signs of being alive. There are no choruses to latch onto—this is a journey into the vast unknown. The vocal harmonies of guitarist Melynda Jackson (formerly of Bay Area instrumental weirdos Subarachnoid Space) and bassist Haley Elizabeth are just entrancing as their instrumental interplay. Songs like “Hating” and “Hold My Breath” are stunning pieces of ambient prog rock, where no end in sight is truly a sight to behold.
There are loads of releases this year pushing metal—and its respective glut of subgenres—into thrilling new directions, but sometimes a well-done nod to classick metal can be just as exhilarating. Gruesome follows up their excellent debut Savage Land with more Death-inspired, death metal death trips on their latest EP Dimensions of Horror. Featuring members of Exhumed and Possessed, they make no secret about their love for death metal’s first wave. Here Gruesome strikes the jugular with satisfyingly direct riffs and classic breakdowns. This is a raw slab of death, fresh atop the autopsy table, served up bloody and cold.
The newly rebuilt Cobalt pushes on, and delivers a massive, herculean beast of a double LP. The band seemed all but left for dead after Erik Wunder booted vocalist Phil McSorley after McSorley directed some ugly homophobic and misogynistic comments online toward other bands. Wunder took in Charlie Fell from Lord Mantis, and his man-on-fire vox—while too much for some—bring a horrifying intensity to Wunder’s bladed riffs. Songs like “Beast Whip” and “Cold Breaker” are both elegant and vicious, occasionally bringing to mind some of the sweeping turns of Tool. Slow Forever is its own thing—both striking and intense, and eager to swallow you whole.
One-man black metal projects, when done right, can be examples of brilliant singular visions come to life (2015 gave us Leviathan’s Scar Sighted and Mastery’s Valis). Germany’s Fyrnask—the project of one Fyrnd—is another example of this. Fórn was released quietly last month, Fyrnask’s first new material since 2013’s Eldir Nótt, and it’s another cinematic journey into dark forests and torch-lit corridors. Synthesizers creep in and out. Fires crackle. Screams go unheard. Fórn is wonderfully crafted—mesmerizing and at times horrific, and best listened to alone in the dark by candlelight. So I’ve heard.
This German two-piece came out of the gates slashing and smashing with 2014’s Death By Burning, a true testament to the effectiveness of economy. Ode to the Flame feels like a natural followup, with riffs, drums and vocals working together as one perfect bludgeoning machine. The band’s slow grind is always met with dynamic turns and riffy surprises, which keeps things interesting. Mantar’s album titles are appropriate, as this is the sound of a blowtorch peeling your face clean off your skull.
Metal can be fun. And it should be, goddamn it! Kvelertak’s third record is the perfect amalgam of fist-pumping old-school thrash, death metal, arena rock and pop. The only thing really tying all of this together is the controlled bark of vocalist Erland Hjelvik and a three-guitar attack, which is temperature-controlled by producer Nick Terry (The Libertines, Turbo Negro). The result is muscular and melodic, while songs like “Dendrofil for Yggdrasil” and “Berserkr” offer more complex arrangements while keeping under six minutes long. Kvelertak does all of this without even blinking and eye. Neither should you.
On their last two records Vektor delivered their Voivodian metal with laser precision, which distanced the Philly band from the rest of the rehashed thrash trash. Terminal Redux takes everything Vektor has done into the stratosphere. They go full nerd with the concept—a wayward astronaut comes into power for the tyrannical Cygnus regime—and the music complies fully. The drama is executed fully in the form of meaty thrash riffs and knotty dynamics. It’s enough to make your head spin. And spin. And spin…
There are a handful of bands this year pushing metal to new frontiers, but no band has meticulously bent sounds and styles quite the way Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu does. The band’s fourth album is a liquid trip into outer space so fully engulfing you may feel like you’re actually floating. Where they really succeed is the band never tries to do too much, and the journey never feels rushed. While there are hints of black metal influences in Oranssi Pazuzu’s music, Värähtelijä draws more from the space and prog rock of You-era Gong and Amon Düül II. This is the longest, strangest—most satisfying—metal trip this year.
Alice In Chains – Alice In Chains (1995)
Heart – Bébé Le Strange (1980)
Kvelertak – Natessferd (2016)
New York Dolls – New York Dolls (1973)
Ziraksigil – Worldbuilder (2016)
Mark Lore occasionally keeps mum on Twitter.