(Wil Cifer delivers the second of several year-end lists, and in this one he names his top death metal albums of 2016. The first installment, which focused on doom, is here.)
Judging from my in-box this year, it seemed like there was more death metal coming out than any other sub-genre, though black metal was hot on its heels. I need my death metal to be dark and hateful. This was a dark and hateful year, so here are some of the albums that provided the best soundtrack to that.
I have gathered these from many different sub-genres, though most tend to have a blackened edge to some degree. While most of the world is crying like babies in fear of war and wanting the world to just get along, here is the death this world needs set to music.
10. Death Cult – “Beasts of Faith”
The debut from this Swiss band carries a strong sense of influence from early death metal in the raw pummeling they dish out on this album. The vocals are manically croaked rather than just growled. This places a more emotionally charged aspect to them than your typical Cookie Monster growling. It’s dark, and for death metal of this kind, shows a reasonable sense of songwriting and dynamics.
9. Wayfarer – “Old Souls”
The kind of dark brooding metal this band cranks out really makes you forget they are from the States. They are more often than not a blackened death metal band with the vocals leaning them more in the death metal direction. When the pace picks up a little toward the end, the shadowy feeling reinforces the looming black metal influence. But the entire album is coated in a great mood and atmosphere that can create the illusion of being more blackened than it is when stripped down to the nuts and bolts of what these songs are about.
8. Krypts -“Remnants of Expansion”
Even at its most cheese-filled. Finnish metal has a knack for darkness. There is not a slice of this cheese to be found on the new one from this Finnish band. They dig up all of the elements I need from death metal and put them together in one nasty package. I like the painful ache of their throb that almost borders on doom. When they speed up into the faster double-bass sections it makes more sense, as we have been shown the contrast of what this sounds like when it is not coming at us with this speed, so we can fully appreciate the shift.
7. Master – “An Epiphany of Hate”
In need of some old-school, classic ’90s sounding death metal, I jumped at the chance to give this album a shot. The first thought that hit me is they sound like a faster version of Obituary. This is in part due to the gnarly, but decipherable, growl of bassist and sole founding member Paul Speckmann. Speckmann comes from a time when no matter how heavy you were trying to be at the end of the day, it becomes all about songs . This is the case even when his growl takes on a more garbled sound that is a dynamic effect in and of itself.
6. Be’Lakor – “Vessels”
Right from the onset of the Australian death metal band’s fourth album it is clear something is different here. All too often the term melodic death metal means something is going to go very wrong, and we are going to be more concerned with clean singing and shredding than kicking your ass. I would not say this band is really concerned with kicking ass. They have the synths and the clean guitar tones, which in and of themselves if placed in the right hands (as here) can be valuable tools for creating metal. The vocals are a low growl that has been dipped in effects, which is fine by me; it gives it a little bit of a Morbid Angel edge.
5. Asphyx – “Incoming Death”
This Dutch death metal band released their first full-length in 1991 and have been storming the gates with their very manic take on the genre ever since. Their lead growler did some time in Pestilence, which gives them an edge over being just another death metal band from the ’90s. There is more of dry snarling rasp to his weathered voice. He is also the sole long-standing member of the band.
These guys are upholding a legacy of yet another band that hailed from an era where writing songs came before just being heavy. This album shows the great maturation of the band due to its restraint. When it comes to death metal. this might not not always be dark enough for me, but for straight-up no-frills death metal from the ’90s, this is your jam.
4. Ketzer – “Starless”
This German band’s third full-length is well thought-out from every angle. Well-produced without being gaudy. The vocals are the most black metal element to the album, which is otherwise melodic death metal at its heart.
It is really on a song-by-song basis as to what shade of darkness these guys are bringing. The first song is oddly upbeat from the onset, and they waste no time defying what is expected from any genre. This is followed by “When Milk Runs Dry”, which finds the band coming closer to a more Blackened Death Metal sound, but their is something about these riffs carrying a majestic air that death metal doesn’t encompass. On “Godface” the punk influence on thrash can also be felt here, making this almost feel more like black ‘n’ roll.
3. Withered – “Grief Relic”
Speaking of black metal, these guys used to think of themselves as black metal and got on black metal tours, but they are really death metal. They embrace this on their first album for Season of Mist.
Their return after a six-year hiatus roars up from the depths with a cavernous blasting. Very dense and heavy. The intensity it hits you with from the onset begs a question we ask most bands that are this heavy after the opening song plows us over… “Okay, what else can you do? Write Songs?” Yes they can, and do so with a sense of darkness and sonic heft.
2. Howls of Ebb – “Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows”
This project out of San Francisco is bringing some of the wonderment back to death metal.
Death metal all too often defaults to re-hashing what Incantation and Morbid Angel have already done. Little time is wasted digging into the meat of the metal on this one. The helter-skelter sense of groove and trippy atmosphere that make this band so awesome are all intact. The double-bass hammers harder here beneath the rubbery bass lines. There is aggression to this, but not conveyed in the manner you expect from death metal.
The guitar tone is one thing that sets these guys apart from their peers. Not as saturated in distortion, the cleaner tone has a more organic warmth. They toy with the syncopated riff in “Cabals of Molder” with effected sounds whirling around in the mix. As I’ve said, darkness is an essential element of heaviness to me. This factors into what makes “Maat Mons’ Fume” really stand out. They have more of a proggy sludge feel than death metal, however when the time comes to spazz out, the solo section leading into a burst of blast gets crazy enough to belong on a Sleepytime Gorilla Museum release, though this is all done with much more of a deadly seriousness.
1. Lesbian – “Hallucinogenesis”
Former members of The Accused formed this band back in 2007. Perhaps back then they might have been doom, but now they are proggy death metal. The vocals are varied and a good blend of sung vocals and growls. The opener has almost a black-metal-like throb to it.
I like the fact that these guys are really dark. In some ways it makes me think of what might have happened if Acid Bath had collided with Cynic. There are space-like keyboard sounds zooming out of the corners of the songs not inhabited by guitar solos. I really like the weird myriad of genres that they have combined in the most twisted way possible. Sure it’s proggy, but never awkward, and they put being mean and heavy before showing off their chops.