Metal provided a perfectly agitated soundtrack to an agitating year, whether the frustration was Meshuggah's oblique commentary on Europe's inability to treat refugees humanely and Megadeth's dystopian vision of a "Post-American World"; or something more existential, like James Hetfield sneering "We're so fucked" and Neurosis declaring "the end is endless." Dread and anger were expressed in the unpredictable hyper-spazz seizures of the Dillinger Escape Plan, the jazzy off-time menace of Virus and the seismic pummel of Crowbar. Here are 2016's best.
Everything about The End is an anomaly. It's a CD-only collection of four previously unreleased castaways from the sessions for Black Sabbath's stellar comeback LP, 2013's 13, along with a handful of live recordings; and it was only available to concertgoers who attended their farewell tour. Most surprising, though, is that it's excellent: Any of these songs could have – and should have – come out years ago. Opener "Season of the Dead" contains one of Tony Iommi's doomiest riffs in decades, and its middle section fuses the fantastical grooves of the band's late Seventies recordings with the locomotive riffing of their Eighties Dio years. The grim "Cry All Night" contains a brilliant, bluesy guitar solo; "Take Me Home" pairs Flamenco guitar with guttural, distorted riffing; and "Isolated Man" approximates Beatles psychedelia through the band's dark filter. It's Black Sabbath saying goodbye while twisting the knife – from the sound of these songs, they ought to record more. K.G.
On 40 Watt Sun's second effort, the British trio, led by ex-Warning singer and guitarist Patrick Walker, make a definitive break from the doom-metal tag they were saddled with following their 2011 debut, The Inside Room. The new album's six often-very-long songs are cleaner-toned, less densely arranged and more expansive than anything on Room, resulting in something more aching and melancholic – not to mention beautiful – than doom-y. This is metal in name only, heavy in sentiment rather than sonics, with Walker's ever-so-slightly fuzzed-out chords and watery single-note lines hovering weightlessly over the rhythm section's spare and deliberate accompaniments. The results are particularly stunning on something like "Another Room," which incorporates what feels like chasms of empty space between each instrumental accent. And throw a guitar solo into the elegiac 16-plus-minute opener "Stages," and you'd have something resembling a post-metal version of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer." R.B.
There are moments on Memento Collider, the fourth full-length from Norwegian avant-garde weirdos Virus, where it sounds as if each of the band's three members are bearing down on three different songs. It's to the trio's credit that the music never spirals out of control, instead weaving a tightly coiled web of frenetic, jazzy drumming, darting bass lines and clanging guitar dissonance into a spiraling, propulsive whole. The musical touchstones here are varied – Voivod's apocalyptic oppressiveness, Talking Heads' stabbing angularity, Neu!'s motorik drum thrust – and it's all topped by leader Carl-Michael Eide's impressionistic, half-spoken lyrics, which occasionally come off like the rantings of a slightly unhinged poetry-slammer. R.B.
Twenty-six years in, and Crowbar sounds more like being killed by a gorilla than ever. On their 11th full-length album, the NOLA sludge-metal quartet returns to form with a pessimistic beatdown that recalls the glory days of classics like 1998's Odd Fellows Rest. Riff master Kirk Windstein shrieks and groans with snarling vigor, while his chugging guitar parts sport renewed heft due to the return of founding bassist Todd "Sexy T" Strange. Certain metal bands, like cast-iron pans, only get better with age and elbow grease. C.K.
When Luc Lemay writes a record, he goes deep. With 2013's Colored Sands, the leader of veteran Quebec death-metal band Gorguts crafted a dauntingly technical yet profoundly moving concept album inspired by Tibet's troubled cultural history. On this follow-up he tackled another PBS-worthy topic: Baghdad's House of Wisdom, which housed the world's largest library before it was destroyed during a 13th-century Mongol siege. The guitarist/growler traces the center's rise and fall in an enthralling 33-minute suite that ranges from white-knuckle blastbeat barrage to atmospheric prog breakdowns to ominous ambient soundscapes. In Lemay's hands, what could have been a tedious history lesson became a passionate and – in keeping with Gorguts' boundary-pushing back catalog – radically unorthodox vision of extreme metal's potential. H.S.
Once a shadowy figure in corpsepaint, Darkthrone's Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell has settled comfortably into his role of affable metal DJ, historian and tastemaker. But the drummer's strongest statements still come in musical form. On Arctic Thunder, he and vocalist/co-writer Ted "Nocturno Culto" Skjellum delivered their latest jolt of triumphant retro bliss, a record that evokes Heavy Metal Parking Lot as much the cult black-metal aesthetic the duo helped define in the early Nineties. No blastbeats here, just sinister, skull-rattling riffs – recalling legends such as Motörhead and Celtic Frost as well as more obscure Fenriz favorites like Dream Death – delivered in gloriously crunchy boombox fidelity and topped by Skjellum's cold rasp. No other metal album this year rocked harder – or gave less of a fuck. H.S.
Released as a rapid Bandcamp sensation in late 2015 but repressed in a small-run bonus-track-appended CD, pan-continental tech-scuzz combo Frontierer prove there's still bloody steps to lurch beyond Dillinger Escape Plan and Meshuggah. Besides their brain-boggling mathcore fireworks display, Frontierer coat their debut, Orange Mathematics, with a disgusting, distorted level of grit closer to noise and power electronics. Guitarist Pedram Valiani has a unique approach to his instrument, making it whine and drone and divebomb and whirr like power tools and hang in the air like tinnitus. Who knows where they may go after this turbulent 52-minute ride to an uglier, heavier, more extreme metal: Frontierer picked up a drummer and in 2017 will soon play their second show ever. C.W.
After splitting with black metal pro-wrestler lookalikes Immortal and losing the rights to the band name, badger-painted son of northern darkness Abbath followed in Ozzy and Diamond Dave's footsteps by making a solo album that proves frontmen aren't just there to look pretty. The singer's self-titled debut offers a cooked-down combination of Immortal's patented buzzsaw sound and that of Abbath's icy thrash side-project I, replacing Norwegian hellfire with straightforward razor-edged heaviness that draws in new fans while pleasing those klassic kvltists who still love old-school riffs. Though the album provides uncompromising listeners with plenty of blastbeats on cuts like "Fenrir Hunts" and "Eternal," it's dynamic tracks like "Winter Bane" and "Ocean of Wounds" that could make Abbath a player in less extreme circles. C.K.
On their third album, Californian trio Nails focuses on expressing a singular feeling – anger – and does so as purely and intensely as sonically possible. The result is 10 short shocks of death metal-damaged hardcore, most coming in under two minutes in length, each a potential knockout blow. What makes the record more than just an exercise in blunt-force trauma, however, are the hooks: Singer, guitarist and songwriter Todd Jones has long proven an uncanny ability to make the crushing catchy, and on You Will Never Be One of Us he outdoes himself. "Violence Is Forever" is a hyperspeed roar-along, and relatively epic closer "They Come Crawling Back" is a grooving, atmospheric swamp-march that targets the headbanging reflex as well as any metal song this year. B.G.
The sophomore album by Denver's Khemmis showed that there are still depths to be plumbed in stoner doom. Rather than regurgitate Sabbath classics about war and witches, this intrepid quartet created an ambitious monolith of twisting guitar harmonies and skull-shattering drums that relies on fury rather than fuzz to channel the members' devotion to old-school heavy metal. Songs like "Candlelight," "Three Gates" and the sprawling title track are effortlessly huge, packed with enough magic and menace to keep the record grounded in modern times. C.K.
"Good times, bad vibes" goes the bumper-sticker-ready slogan by which Atlanta's Whores. describe themselves, and their debut full-length plays it out, well, goldenly. Two EPs have honed the trio's scuzzy, Amphetamine Reptilian noise-rock, cranking up the swagger and the snarl, and also the sardonic, self-deprecating wit. "Where's the money? Where's the fame? I was told by now they'd know my name," singer-guitarist Christian Lembach laments, Lizard tongue firmly in cheek, on furious opener "Playing Poor," while on the excellently titled "I See You Are Also Wearing a Black T-Shirt" he gently pokes the poseurs. But for Whores., the joke is ultimately on them — they know it and relish rubbing salt into their own wounds. "You can call it a trophy/I call it only the hole I poured my life into," Lembach spits on the lurching "Participation Trophy." We hope they have similar irreverence for their inclusion here. B.G.
When Swedish post-metal band Cult of Luna embarked on writing their collaborative album with Brooklyn-based singer Julie Christmas, they were inspired by the concept of "a journey into the unknown." Each of the record's five dynamic cuts bring out new shades in both the band's long-form ambient metal and Christmas' elastic vocals – ranging from Björkian squeals and whispers to harrowing screams, as displayed previously in groups Made Out of Babies and Battle of Mice. Unlike the group's kinsmen Neurosis who, on their joint album with Swans' Jarboe, offloaded vocal duties to her, Cult of Luna keep roaring on Mariner, meshing their bellows with Christmas' croons and cries in a way that make her feel like a true member of the band, not a onetime guest. When the tight interplay reaches its climax in the upward-spiraling crescendo of closer "Cygnus," it's hard to deny that this journey into the unknown has landed somewhere revelatory. B.G.
Celebrated French prog-metal quartet Gojira abruptly changed directions on their sixth album, dialing back their technical excesses in favor of a more streamlined, straightforward approach. The uncharacteristically groove-oriented results – and the Pantera-meets-Pink-Floyd sound of songs like "The Shooting Star," "Silvera" and the title track – certainly alienated some longtime fans. But the visceral, hard-punching music turned out to be a surprisingly apt vehicle for Joe Duplantier's cathartic vocals and emotional lyrics (reportedly inspired by the illness and death of his mother), while the atmospheric epic "Low Lands" and the spare acoustic instrumental "Liberation" closed the album with a nod to the possibility of a greater cosmic truth beyond the grit and pain of earthly existence. D.E.
With vocalist Chino Moreno and bassist Sergio Vega (formerly of Quicksand) leading the songwriting charge, Gore leans towards the darker, artsier end of the Deftones spectrum. But lead guitarist Stef Carpenter still finds space to unleash some serious seven-string aggression on "Doomed User," and Alice In Chains axeman Jerry Cantrell stops by to wail on "Phantom Bride." An intensely moody record that often shifts without warning from hard-grooving metal to dramatic arena rock to shoegaze-y space explorations, Gore is another gorgeously textured masterpiece from a band with no shortage of greatness in their discography. D.E.
After Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine witnessed half of his band abruptly quit following the touring for 2013's more commercial-leaning Super Collider, he responded by enlisting Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler and former Angra guitarist Kiko Loureiro to record some seriously ferocious and hard-hitting thrash. Tightly crafted tracks like "The Threat Is Real" and "Death From Within" attack with neck-snapping efficiency (and feature some deliciously dazzling fretwork from Loureiro), while "Fatal Illusion" boasts Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good!-style roller coaster riffing. The guitar solo tradeoffs that populate the back-end of "Dystopia," meanwhile, recall the similarly-styled six-string sparring of Rust in Peace-era classic "Hangar 18." An unexpected and awesome return to form. R.B.
For the past two decades, Neurosis have been refining and tweaking the sprawling, riff-rattle-repeat grooves of their Nineties high water mark, Through Silver in Blood, occasionally interpolating folky textures and eerie sampled orchestral filigrees. Their latest, Fires Within Fires, is no different: It both whispers and wails with trippy koans like, "The end is endless." But what makes it a standout is it's the most concise presentation of the Neurosis Experience since 1999's Times of Grace. Its five, foundation-shaking cataclysms of sound last a mere 40 minutes – a nanosecond in Neurosis time – and it all builds to the slow-grinding payoff riff that closes end-track "Reach." The group has always aspired to making great art, rather than metal – a nuance lost on all the psych-metal copycats who've tried to ape their sound in recent years – and with Fires Within Fires, they created a work worthy of the old masters. K.G.
After nearly two decades of mathcore mayhem, Dillinger Escape Plan decided to call it a day – though not before leaving us with a head-spinning parting shot. As ferociously eclectic as anything the band has done in the past, Dissociation is a twisted turnpike pile-up of off-kilter hardcore, glitchy electronica, chaotic jazz-metal and fist-fighting hard rock, with genuine hooks occasionally poking through the carnage. And then there's the elegiac title track, which caps the album (and DEP's recording career) with six minutes of pulsing electronic beats, funereal strings and frontman Greg Puciato crooning "Finding a way to die alone" like a mantra. Less of a graceful exit than a startling door slam. D.E.
Indie tastemaker Aaron Turner has been casually exploring noisier and more ambient paths since the dissolution of famed post-metal hypnotists Isis; but the second album from Sumac, his collaboration with powerhouse hardcore drummer Nick Yacyshyn, delivers his most pummeling art-metal in more than half a decade. There's some familiarity to his previous work, with some traces of Turner's hoarse growl and penchant for repetition; but What One Becomes is defiantly experimental and exploratory, full of dissonant bursts of sludge, quick punches of math, desert-wandering Morricone metal, throbbing Swans-ian slamming and sections opened up for improvisation. Their scope seems limitless, and even extends into the excellent companion EP, Before You Appear, featuring demented electronic treatments from Emptyset's James Ginzburg, American noise veteran Kevin Drumm and more. C.W.
Bionic perfection has become second nature to Meshuggah, but in order to make their latest quantum leap, the veteran Swedish band needed to embrace their human side. For The Violent Sleep of Reason, the group recorded live in the studio for the first time in more than 20 years, getting closer than ever to capturing the sweat that goes into drummer Tomas Haake navigating these warp-speed riff labyrinths. Meanwhile, the band's famously byzantine songs have never sounded so demented or punishing: The rhythmic slice-and-dice of "Born in Dissonance" one-upped Meshuggah staples such as "Bleed," while the tumbling, endlessly winding "By the Ton" found the quintet exploring new frontiers of compositional WTF. An entire metal subgenre, djent, now builds on Meshuggah's unmistakable sonic signature, but Violent Sleep proved that the originators are still the ones setting the pace. H.S.
Although metal's biggest band has reveled in being one of the genre's most unpredictable (no one expected that Lou Reed collaboration), Metallica are always at their best when they allow themselves to just be Metallica. Their 10th album, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct – a two-act psychodrama of sorts about the devolution of humanity – finds them indulging the sounds of their first few records: machine-gun tempos, crushing riffs and apocalyptic lyrics delivered in drill-sergeant barks. The breakneck lead track, "Hardwired," presents James Hetfield's fatalism at its most dramatic ("We're so fucked!") while closing track and album standout "Spit Out the Bone" is an epic indictment of technocracies. Echoes of the group's landmark Black Album and Master of Puppets resound throughout, as do formative influences like Black Sabbath's groove, Mercyful Fate's orchestration and Iron Maiden's theatrical flair, making it the best representation of the Metallica experience in years. Best of all, they didn't even bother writing ballads. K.G.