Two of the biggest and best metal releases of 2016 come from veterans. Deftones’ atmospheric and lunging Gore is the band’s first album since the death of bassist Chi Cheng and finest since “Change (in the House of Flies)” drifted across radio waves. As dense as it is urgent, Gore is rough and rich, with guitars that churn or stretch into sheets of feedback. And on “Doomed User” and “Rubicon,” Chino Moreno unfurls some of the best hooks of his career. Similarly, Megadeth’s Dystopia is the band’s most pugnacious and streamlined album in at least a decade. It’s an aggressive thrash record, all pummeling drums and sidewinding riffs. The 54-year-old Dave Mustaine barks his way through the verses and lifts off in the choruses, sounding less like a legendary professional than a pissed-off kid. Alas, that also holds for some of the lyrics’ stupid, out-of-touch sloganeering, the hidebound fault on an otherwise capable comeback.
The relatively young Kvelertak treats the past with the same post-modern magpie zeal as its mainstream contemporaries on Nattesferd. The third album from the three-guitar Norwegian sextet is a nine-song spree of perfect riffs and powerful rumble, built without allegiance to genre or concessions to purity. Its first single, “1985,” landed in March. Its mix of soft Cheap Trick harmonies, sharp Scorpions leads and strong shout-out-loud verses suggested metal’s first sign of spring. The zeal here recalls that of Gojira a decade ago, whose Magma is reliable but ultimately formulaic. Elsewhere, Kvelertak pushes its country’s black metal pedigree against power-pop impulses, hardcore pummel against arena-rock ambition. For some, Kvelertak will inevitably sound like posers. But it seems the band has realized that the best way to honor their antecedents is to break their rules. In doing so, Kvelertak have become heavy metal’s most compelling crossover linchpin and lightning rod. Sorry, Babymetal.
That same cross-genre enthusiasm propels two of the year’s best doom albums. Lycus’ Chasms and Inverloch’s Distance | Collapsed. Both LPs depend on sheer restlessness, so that their high-volume, low-paced crawl serves as a gyre for a half-dozen other genres. Distance is the debut for Australia’s Inverloch, though two members of the country’s legendary Disembowelment anchor the front and back. During the record’s first 100 seconds, its twisted sculptures of doom and death becomes clear, an ecstatic wash of radiant grays. It peaks during the 12-minute masterpiece “The Empyrean Torment,” which teases the blastbeat commotion that eventually arrives. Meanwhile, on their second album, California’s Lycus pins shoegaze solemnity and textural softness to dramatic post-rock frames, alternately filling in the blanks with traces of thrash metal and the Cocteau Twins, monastic chants and symphonic cadenzas.
On the other hand, no one will ever accuse Grand Magus’ Sword Songs of pulling from too many places at once. In recent years, the Swedish trio has locked into clocklike dependability, issuing a set of harmony-driven, laser-riffed anthems every two years. Few have been better than Sword Songs, an anachronistic distillation of Sabbath, the Scorpions, Deep Purple and AC/DC. Its best track, “Forged in Iron/Crowned in Steel,” eases open as a lighters-up ballad but then bounds ahead with whiplash zeal, emptying into an entirely perfect if completely obvious chorus: “Viking metal! Bring you to your knees! Viking metal! A warrior’s decree!” Amon Amarth‘s Jomsviking is another decent album of similarly Odin-sized fight songs, but Sword Songs is more playful and fun, shirking the more popular band’s sense of historic drudgery and obligation.
Some of the year’s best metal records have also been the most warped: There’s Vektor’s Terminal Redux, a savage shredder which feels like a game of genre pinball played at lightning speed, and Palace of Worms’ The Ladder, a grand triumph of black metal ferocity and prog gumption. Grave Miasma’s Endless Pilgrimage EP is equally daunting, as though the mission were to weld together extreme metal’s most formidable pieces into one frightening machine. And on Cobalt’s Slow Forever, the comeback album from the reinvented literary rippers, hooks crawl from a volatile mix of hardcore energy and black metal invective.
It gets weirder. Indeed, five of the year’s most intriguing metal albums are polyglot composites so vexing that they’re bound to prompt questions about exactly what counts as “metal” in 2016. Wolvserpent’s Aporia:Kāla: Ananta is an absolutely titanic 40-minute, one-track record, sinking from a Bartók-informed mix of folk music and classical grandeur into an abyss of noise and doom and drums and growls and howls so powerful that, that it makes Swans feel small. Lake of Violet’s The Startling Testimony of Plumb Lines, the debut from the new outlet of Locrian’s André Foisy, is a similarly exploratory vessel. Each listen reveals intricate new layers or patterns, whether it’s the electric Miles-like interconnectedness of “Circles in Red Light” or the lustrous synthesizer beneath the strums and drones of the closing ballad, “Please Stay Longer.” The Body’s No One Deserves Happiness may be the pair’s most riveting mix of blown-out doom and seraphic singing since 2010’s All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood. The band has gotten better at integrating its contrasting loves of the beautiful and brutal, so that the agony of Chip King’s screams and the exquisiteness of the accompanying Assembly of Light Choir newly coil into holistic horror. On the other end of the volume spectrum, Portugal’s mysterious Dead Procession released Rituais e Mantras do Medo, a quiet metal masterpiece. The band uses harmonica and harmonies, guitars that gently buzz and drums they barely beat to suggest sinister rituals. Think chillwave for the funeral doom set.
But, arguably, nothing released this year is as strange, inscrutable or wonderful than Zeal and Ardor‘s Devil is Fine, the second LP from New York’s Manuel Gagneux. Gagneux folds field recordings and soul samples, obsidian guitars and music box melodies, blastbeats and legitimate bass drops into a wild-eyed chimera. It is admittedly imperfect and unreasonable, with the genres sometimes spliced so haphazardly that the stitches show. It suggests, though, a dream world of infinite possibilities.