David E. Gehlke Best-of 2016

Monday, 12th December 2016

Words this scribe never thought he would type: “Helloween have reunited.” If there was one classic band reunion that looked like it would never happen, it was Helloween, who dumped singer Michael Kiske in 1993 after the commercial failures that was the Pink Bubbles Go Ape and Chameleon albums. Helloween managed to trudge ahead the last 22 years with Andi Deris out front, reclaiming their position in European power metal, all the while guitarist Michael Weikath (pictured above) and Kiske traded barbs in the press over the singer’s commitment to metal, or lack thereof. However, time has been very kind to Kiske’s tenure in Helloween, most notably the twin Keeper of the Seven Keys albums, of which are universal classics. After years of denying it would happen (even on these pages), all parties have decided to play nice for a reunion tour that will take the band through 2017 and 2018. In a word: The unthinkable has happened.

Point being, anything is possible in metal. You could apply that to the various sonic permutations that have created sub-subgenres as “blackened sludge d-beat metal,” or “post-shoegaze with tinges of black metal.” (We could do this all day). Or, you could look at all of the veteran bands whose popularity spans generations (Maiden, Metallica, Priest, etc.), bands whose remarkable longevity continues to surprise even themselves. We are quite fortunate to have both legendary, mid-career, and new bands kicking around. Metal is a wild, wonderful world, with a tremendous legacy and a bright future, so it’s best we take care of it, eh? Enough out of me. Onward to the lists!

1. Imperium Dekadenz – Dis Manibvs (Season of Mist)
You could see this coming with Imperium Dekadenz’s 2013 Meadows of Nostalgia, a splendid outing of epic, yet depressive black metal. On Dis Manibvs, the Germans have whipped together a creative triumph of glorious, searing, melodic, and headstrong numbers. It’s everything black metal isn’t in 2016, which is why it stands above the rest.

2. Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts (Peaceville)
Katatonia’s post-Dead End Kings output had some concerned they would abandon metal altogether. Instead, Katatonia returned with an adventurous, multi-faceted album with The Fall of Hearts. There’s new ground tread here, but the same old melancholy persists. Soak it all in.

3. Sylvaine – Wistful (Season of Mist)
Cut from the same cloth as Alcest (Neige played drums on a few tracks here), Sylvaine operates in the dreamy, female-fronted, post-metal sphere. On her second album Wistful, she channels ghostly passages with singer/songwriter avenues, resulting in a gentle, dare we say, “wistful” outing.

4. Be’lakor – Vessels (Napalm)
The future of melodic death metal may rest with these Aussies. Be’lakor made good on their jump to Napalm with Vessels, unleashing a spry display of illustrious melodies and atmospheric guitar work. Their odd name may forever raise eyebrows, but few melo death bands are this formidable.

5. Grand Magus – Sword Songs (Nuclear Blast)
The masters of meat and potatoes metal (a phrase singer JB uttered to this scribe in 2012), Grand Magus’s Sword Songs upholds all of metal’s tried-and-tested truisms. Flanked by heroic cuts like “Born for Battle” and “Forged in Iron – Crowned in Steel,” the Swedes remain unbeatable.

6. In Mourning – Afterglow (Agonia)
“The substitute Opeth” is one way to describe Sweden’s In Mourning. Or, simply one of the better progressive death metal bands around. Afterglow, in its hefty song arrangements, soaring melodies, and innate catchiness, puts In Mourning on the spot, easily putting them in line with the band they’re so often compared to.

7. Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens (Lifeforce/Century Media)
The only issue for OG on Grey Heavens was finding a way to top New World Shadows and Beyond. Instead of heading in the same direction as the aforementioned pair, the Finns tightened up their song structures for a direct, but no less throttling listen. May their reign as one of melodic death metal’s best continue.

8. Abbath – Abbath (Season of Mist)
(Yes, totally aware that three Season of Mist albums made my list; no, I do not work for the label har-har.) Abbath’s unceremonious exit from Immortal put an end to one of Norwegian metal’s most dependable combinations. Even though Immortal has pledged to move forward, there’s no way they’re going to be able to better Abbath’s self-titled debut, a blizzard rush of the man’s identifiable riffs and Popeye vocals.

9. Watchtower – Concepts of Math: Book One (Prosthetic)
It may have taken Watchtower 27 years to release a new album, but it’s almost as if time stood still. Concepts of Math: Book One is a collection of digital singles, pulled together in EP format. While a full-length would have been preferred, the jungle-gym riff pyro that made the band near-legends on 1989’s Control and Resistance is as exciting as ever here.

10. An Autumn for Crippled Children – Eternal (Wickerman)
Easily the best blackgaze band in existence, An Autumn for Crippled Children turn in albums at such an accelerated rate that last year’s The Long Goodbye still feels fresh and radiant. Eternal may not be on the same level, but, it’s another plunge into the ugly/beautiful depths from one of black metal’s most polarizing entities.

11. Anthrax – For All Kings (Megaforce)
Slayer were the only Big 4 band not to release a new album in 2016, but even if they did, it probably wouldn’t touch For All Kings. 2011’s Worship Music still has the upper-hand, but Anthrax seems to have fully embraced the considerable vocal abilities of Joey Belladonna. A smart move. The guy is one of the best pure singers in the business.

12. Borknagar – Winter Thrice (Century Media)
As if hearing all four past and present Borknagar singers (Garm, ICS Vortex, Vintersorg, and Lars A. Nedlund) on a song (“Winter Thrice”) wasn’t enough, main Bork guy Oystein G. Brun has put together another progressive, yet wintry display of extreme metal. Even though they often remain on the periphery of total underground success, Borknagar remain as forward-thinking as ever on Winter Thrice.

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