Last week Treble observed its annual mid-year survey, the best albums of the year so far. And to date, that includes a lot of metal albums (of which we included Oranssi Pazuzu, Nails, Palace of Worms, Kvelertak and late-2015 entry Baroness). I didn’t think it was important to make a list of the best metal albums of the year so far, since it’s only going to be five months or so until I offer up my finalized list of my favorite metal albums of the year. But I did want to dive into some albums that I hadn’t written about yet, or perhaps had missed entirely (or thought deserved a second boost for the sake of those who missed ’em the first time). So, before I get to my favorite metal tracks of the month, heres my roundup of Overlooked Metal Albums of 2016.
Muscle and Marrow – Love
Not a metal album in a traditional sense, Love, the second release by San Francisco’s Muscle and Marrow, blends post-rock with doom, darkwave and black metal into one curiously beautiful concoction of darkness. Much of that beauty comes from vocalist Kira Clark, whose impressive range lends the songs emotion and drama that extends well beyond mere volume or noise. But Love is, indeed, a heavy album, regardless of whether it’s all meaty riffs all the time or not. When the band explodes into something powerful and huge, like highlight “The Drooling Mouth,” they have an undeniable weight to their sound. That they use that power sparingly merely shows that they’re about creating peaks and journeys instead of a steady campaign of obliteration.
Lake of Violet – The Startling Testimony of Plumb Lines
Lake of Violet is helmed by Andre Foisy of Locrian—a band that I’ve spent a lot of time with over the past year—so, naturally, I found a lot to like in the music they make. As much post-metal as anything, Lake of Violet isn’t a strict adherent to any one genre or subset of musical styles or techniques. It’s highly melodic and spacious, not to mention rife with heavy synthesizer layers, so in that sense, it’s not miles apart from Locrian’s best moments. The Startling Testimony of Plumb Lines is more atmospherically ominous, however, owing more to the likes of Neurosis in their foreboding rumbles and slow-moving progressions. This isn’t metal that grabs you by the throat and throttles you good from beginning to end. It’s subtler and more chilling in its ambiance, yet accessible enough that you could probably get your cousin who only listens to Tool to get into it.
Vektor – Terminal Redux
I should probably note that this isn’t an overlooked metal album for the metal community at large. The fan-rated Metal Storm Best of 2016 list has Vektor’s Terminal Redux at number three, for instance. And, hell, Treble’s Best of 2016 So Far list even features the album. So here’s the mea culpa: I missed the album. And as the guy who writes the monthly metal roundup for this site, it feels very, very wrong that I’ve done so. Not because I buy into any silly notion of what you’re supposed to listen to as a good metalhead, because clearly I don’t care about that. No, my bad feeling is simply a result of having missed an album this good. The Philadelphia prog-thrash band have truly outdone themselves on their fourth album, Terminal Redux, which blends progressive rock ambition with thrash speed and intensity, as well as the occasional excursion into black metal rawness. The first thing you’ll likely notice is the insane musicianship—those riffs are almost superhuman—but they have a melodic sensibility that makes the whole thing a lot of fun to listen to. This is one of the most ambitious metal albums you’ll hear this year, albeit with a great ear for the classics.
Astronoid – Air
A lot of bands play metal influenced by shoegaze (or vice versa), so that alone isn’t what makes Massachusetts’ Astronoid interesting. It’s how they play it, of course, which means that the inevitable Deafheaven comparisons they receive are, basically, nonsense. As if every band that’s heard Loveless needs to be compared to Deafheaven. But I digress—Astronoid are actually much closer in songwriting to Justin Broadrick’s shoegazing project Jesu, in that the band’s predominantly major key melodies feel emotionally transcendent. In fact, it’s hard not to hear some degree of late ’90s emo in what they do. “Resin” sounds like a black metal version of The Anniversary at times, while the hilariously named “Up and Atom” (“up and at them!“) is a bit like American Football shredding. The band’s metal cred isn’t in question here, though what they do might not necessarily appeal to listeners who like their metal within genre lines. That’d be a shame, though. This is wonderful stuff.
Zeal and Ardor – Devil is Fine
A lot of the great black metal projects throughout the years have been the work of just one person, be it the dark and mournful lo-fi hiss of Xasthur or the folk- and bluegrass-inspired metal of Panopticon. Zeal and Ardor leans more toward the latter than the former, crafting something strange and soulful out of seemingly disparate elements: Black metal and traditional African-American music (gospel, spirituals). It’s a combination that probably sounds disastrous on paper. It isn’t; it’s revelatory. In fact, despite New Yorker Manuel Gagneux’s adherence to Satanic imagery in his music, this is oddly uplifting metal. I included one song from this album in my picks on a past Shadow of the Horns, and the more I listen to this the more I find it one of the best surprises of the year.
The best metal tracks of July 2016
Helms Alee – “Tit to Toe”
One of the reasons I’ve long been a fan of Helms Alee is how they blend non-metal elements with their heavier tendencies. “Tit to Toe,” the first track released from their upcoming album Stillicide, often leans more toward post-punk and post-hardcore than metal, its complex melodic structures sounding a bit like a heavier Jawbox or Shiner, with traces of Joy Division and The Chameleons lurking in their arpeggiated riffs. Yet there’s an impressive amount of power backing all of these intricate stylistic blends, proving that there’s still a hell of a lot of raw muscle at work. The greatest power in the track comes from their least metal element, however: Their vocal harmonies. Metal is so often more about screaming than singing that this sort of talent often goes overlooked or, worse, demeaned entirely. But if you have the pipes—and Helms Alee’s three members most certainly do—why not use them?[from Stillicide, out September 2; Sargent House]
Hammers of Misfortune – “Dead Revolution”
John Cobbett made an appearance on my favorite metal albums of 2015 list with his other band, VHÖL, and their album Deeper Than Sky. Well, there’s a good chance Cobbett & Co. will show up again, as the title track from the new Hammers of Misfortune album, Dead Revolution, is a soaring masterpiece of psychedelic heavy metal. The riffs, as always, are as fiery and on point as ever. And Cobbett has long proven to be invested in metal’s melodic strengths rather than simply pushing the limits of how gnarly you can sound. Here, there’s plenty of shred and not a lot of gnar, instead backing up a towering Maiden-like progression with a layer of organ, bridging the gap between summertime road trip metal—which this almost certainly is—and Halloween, where this will still be right at home. It’s a lot of things I love about metal in one epic track, and a strong showing ahead of one of the most highly anticipated metal albums of the year.[from Dead Revolution, out July 22; Metal Blade]
Psalm Zero – “Pay Tomorrow”
It’s a damn shame that Castevet broke up after only two—excellent, must-listen—albums. They essentially called it quits before most people had a chance to hear them, though before long that band’s Andrew Hock had started up a new project, Psalm Zero, focusing more on post-punk and industrial metal sounds than black metal. Their first album The Drain was a pretty good start, but by all accounts its follow up Stranger to Violence is shaping up to be something even stronger. “Pay Tomorrow,” the first single, is a heavy yet highly approachable slice of goth-industrial rock that’d fit in nicely alongside vintage Ministry or Sisters of Mercy. It’s certainly still loud enough to be metal, but the fact that you can sort of dance to it renders that description confusing, if not outright misleading. But it’s one of the best things I’ve heard in heavy music this month for sure, and enough to make me forget how much I miss Castevet, for now.[from Stranger to Violence, out July 15; Profound Lore]
SubRosa – “Key of the Eidolon”
Salt Lake City doom metal outfit SubRosa haven’t yet shared any of the tracks from For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, their upcoming follow-up to 2013’s More Constant Than the Gods. But just wait until they do—they’re colossal, crushing, aching pieces of music as heavy as they are elegantly written and crafted. What they have shared, however, is a non-album track via a Decibel magazine flexi-disc, which is sort of a companion piece to their upcoming album. It’s much shorter than most of the songs on the album, and as such perhaps a little bit more accessible. It is, however, still true to their forceful and detail-oriented songwriting style, with an almost shoegaze-like density and gothic grandeur that proves SubRosa is a force to be reckoned with, even in their outtakes.[from Decibel flexi-disc, out now]
Anicon – “In Shadow and Amber”
The intense rush of classic black metal that comes flooding through in the opening blast of Anicon’s “In Shadow and Amber” isn’t entirely a red herring, but it’s also about as straightforward and old school as the track gets. With the intro out of the way, the blast beats slow to a syncopated groove (at least for a little while) and the virulent black metal tremolo picking turns to an accessible, highly melodic sound. To say the New York black metal outfit stumbles upon something “catchy” might be a bit of an exaggeration, but as the song progresses, it feels increasingly more heroic. Were Krallice—whose drummer Lev Weinstein plays with Anicon—to tap into their inner vikings just a little bit more, it might sound something like this. It’s metal to climb mountains and pillage townships to.[from Exegesses, out July 15; Gilead]
Piece by piece
The best metal releases of the month.
Gevurah‘s Hallelujah!: I’m not one to dive into the particulars of black metal theology because—I’ll be honest here—it’s not why I listen to black metal. That being said, there’s something more interesting and compelling in Gevurah’s left-hand-path metal than, say, a band that tries to pass off a swastika as a “sunwheel.” Cough. Anyhow, there’s dark, intense stuff happening at the heart of their music, and while I’m not qualified to give you the Hebrew translations (though Langdon Hickman, who reviewed it for us, did a bang-up job on that front) I can tell you it’s a furious piece of work. (Profound Lore)
Nails‘ You Will Never Be One Of Us: Grindcore and powerviolence are genres that tend to have a limit as to how far an artist can really take them. There are exceptions, of course, and Oxnard’s Nails have proven their versatility with this blistering set of pure rage. What drives the band may well be the same thing that drives them to antagonize music writers on Twitter, but prickly personalities aside, this album kills. (Nuclear Blast)
Sumac‘s What One Becomes: There’s an interesting contrast between the intensity and rawness—sometimes excruciating and difficult—of Sumac’s music and the profound message of hope at the center of it. Metal is a genre that thrives on catharsis, without question, but Sumac takes that a step further, the band’s Aaron Turner pursuing a path of self-improvement and acceptance, as he explained to me in an interview recently. Massive, challenging and incredible stuff. (Thrill Jockey)
Swans‘ The Glowing Man: Swans are closing a chapter in their career with this album, the last that’ll see their current lineup on tour (though Thor Harris has recently dropped out due to a much-needed break from the physical exhaustion of it). That being said, it’s a huge album to close the current incarnation of the band. It’s not a metal album, I should note, but it’s one of the biggest, heaviest things you’ll hear all year. It’s a difficult listen, for myriad reasons which Liam Green put best in his own review, but the rewards are there for those who seek to endure them. (Young God)
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.