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Articles : Jonathon Besanko’s Top Albums of 2016

By on December 28, 2016

Writing an end of year ‘best of’ list and reducing it to a bite-sized amount is always a fickle thing. There’s the immediate notion of crafting a list that best represents your feelings to the metal world in a given year, and with 2016, there have been a number of releases that easily could have made it onto this list. While I sadly couldn’t fit them all, below you will find what I feel best represents the album’s that have stayed with me the most this year and the ones I couldn’t stop returning to. Enjoy!

amonamarthjomsviking10. Amon Amarth — Jomsviking

At first, when I listened through Jomsviking, I was a bit indifferent to it. I wasn’t too taken by it, but nor did I dislike it. It sat in an awkward area mentally where I wasn’t sure how to categorise it. Nearing the end of the year, this album creeped into my subconscious and I found myself listening to it a lot more frequently in the closing months of this year and enjoying it a lot more, as well. I now find myself understanding a lot more what Amon Amarth were going for by branching out into unexplored arenas for them with a concept album. Whilst not a perfect album, Jomsviking hits the high-bar a lot more than it is does the low end. With tracks that perfectly hit the emotional mark like “One Thousand Burning Arrows”, to the strength of “The Way Of Vikings” and “Wanderer”, and then to the sheer fun of “Raise Your Horns”, these are some of the best songs Amon Amarth has written in their career.

Listen to: “One Thousand Burning Arrows”

ca-feed-em-to-the-sea9. Cryptic Abyss — Feed ‘Em To The Sea

Melbourne’s Cryptic Abyss have come a long way in a short space of time. In only two short years since their debut EP, Into the Abyss, and four since they first surfaced on the scene, Cryptic Abyss have grown from Pantera-esque groove metal staples to hardened, groove-laden death metal machines. This darker, more refined style they’ve found with their debut album, Feed ‘Em To The Sea, sees the band push for a more aggressive and unfettered approach. Yet all without losing the groove-heavy riffs they’re known for. The music is sharper, demonstrates the band’s maturing lyrical talents, and comes with a hint to their less serious side with the more light-hearted tracks, “Let’s Get Smashed” and “Piggin'”. Expect to find here too some of the strongest death growls from an Aussie band today.

Listen to: “Unblinking Eye”

stormtide wrath of an empire8. Stormtide — Wrath Of An Empire

Stormtide are a relatively recent find for me, but the band’s debut album, Wrath of an Empire, stands as one of the best I’ve heard this year. Every year, new bands seem to emerge in Australia’s metal scene that push the envelope for where this country can go musically. Being a melodic death metal band utilising epic fantasy lyrics with symphonic/folk metal touches, the addition of an oriental element to the music helps make Wrath of an Empire an immersive and engaging Australian release. Branching out between gorgeous Eastern-styled samples and keyboard interludes to fast-moving melodeath passages, there is a lot here to absorb and to appreciate. It all builds to what is a musically consistent and interesting debut album.

Listen to: “Wrath of an Empire”

innerwish7. InnerWish — InnerWish

A new discovery for me, as I do with many of my bands, I found Greece’s InnerWish via YouTube. One of the better discoveries I’ve had in a while! Upon looking into them further, I discovered InnerWish have been at this since 1995, with their 2016 self-titled album being their fifth studio effort released to date. InnerWish is their first album featuring their current vocalist George Eikosipentakis, after their long-time vocalist Babis Alexandropoulos left in 2011 to pursue other interests. It is also the first with new drummer Fragiskos Samoilis, who replaced Terry Moros in 2010. The two new members, with Eikosipentakis in particular, has elevated InnerWish’s music to another height. Eikosipentakis’ range is astounding and the album itself is the perfect blend between melodic, symphonic, and heavy. There isn’t a stale moment and the record just continues to build and impress throughout. The band primarily utilise Christian themed lyrics, but it is never preachy, so it shouldn’t put off many. One of the more unique and engaging power metal releases of 2016. Highly recommended.

Listen to: “Modern Babylon”

saor-guardians6. Saor — Guardians

I’m doing something a bit different by adding this album to the list. Saor’s third album, Guardians, is not an album I was sent for reviewing or recommended to by friends. It was actually a record I discovered by happenstance on YouTube, as I have with many of my favourite records and bands in the past. It’s one that immediately stayed with me. Created by Scottish-born artist, Andy Marshall, Guardians perfectly evokes the sense of the Scottish highlands through a unique and memorable take on the genres of folk-inspired melodeath and ambient black metal. It’s a complex and unusual take, with intelligent lyrics and genuine folk instruments strung into the mix. Featuring some of the most well produced songs I’ve heard this year, listen to Guardians and go on a journey you won’t forget.

Listen to: “Hearth”

Thanatophobia-Cover-Art-1-300x3005. Omnipresence — Thanatophobia

Perhaps more so than any other album this year so far, Thanatophobia, the debut album from Melbourne’s Omnipresence is the one that has not left my mind. Omnipresence aren’t so simply a death metal band as they are an experimental outfit dealing with harsh existential topics; implementing them in both the misanthropic lyrics and music to equal effect. The creativity, imagery and auras of dread this album projects is a thing of beauty. Many bands have dealt with topics as this before, but few in recent years feel as fresh as this does. Featuring broad local talent, Thanatophobia is an honest and haunting masterwork from band mastermind, Zebådee Scott (Myridian).

Listen to: “Universal Consciousness”

whispered-metsutan4. Whispered — Metsutan: Songs Of The Void

Whispered were one of those bands that I instantly gravitated towards from the moment I first heard them on YouTube a couple years ago. It always surprised me when I first started getting into metal writing how few bands actually existed that delved into Japanese folklore and the culture’s music. Though Whispered are indeed a Finnish band, they retain the essence of that ancient Japanese spirit and do so convincingly. Whispered’s third studio album, Metsutan: Songs of the Void is the band’s most consistent and best work to date. From the emotional depths of “Sakura Omen” to the tearing power of “Kensei”, the genuine folk interludes that utilise traditional Japanese instruments allow Whispered to take their craft to a whole other level. Crossing boundaries of melodic death metal into realms of the symphonic, blackened, and folk-laden, this Finnish four-piece is easily one of the more unique and conceptually interesting bands in the genre. Filled with intelligent lyrics, haunting melodies and shredding, heart-pounding solo work with the addition of complex instrumentation, Metsutan: Songs of the Void only continues Whispered’s climb to bigger and even greater things.

Listen to: “Sakura Omen”

sabaton the last battle3. Sabaton — The Last Stand

Sabaton never fail to impress and this year has seen the Swedish soldiers release what is easily their most prestigious and varied work to date. Featuring grand choruses and hooks that’ll have you singing them in your head for hours, The Last Stand also features some of Sabaton’s most impressive lyrical content to date. What makes The Last Stand special, however, are those few areas that separate it from their previous albums and push the envelope. As with “Diary of an Unknown Soldier/The Lost Battalion”, what you hear is actual weapons firing and scraping in place of instruments (a .50 calibre machine gun in place of drums, for example; what sounds like a hi-hat is actually a bayonet cutting into flesh, etc.). It also sees Sabaton not only returning to the heavier synth days of their early career, but branching out also with things that are firsts for them, such as the use of bagpipes on “Blood of Bannockburn”. With one of the best lyrical concepts they’ve used to date, this is simply the best kind of history lesson you’re going to get from a band at the very top of their game.

Listen to: “Shiroyama”

belakor2. Be’lakor — Vessels

Be’lakor is one of those bands that is always intellectually interesting to dive into. Their music is always immersive, as is their lyrical craft. Each successive new album they release only broadens the scope of the messages they have to convey. With Vessels being the band’s first ever concept album, it also rightfully holds claim to Be’lakor’s most intelligent, musically complex and inspired work to date. As it is with the majority of their records, Vessels is an album that is far better appreciated when listened to in a single sitting. Be’lakor’s craft has been pushed tenfold, with hooks built around hypnotic melodic movements and haunting passages; the lyrics further drive home notions of sorrow and futility. The heaviness of this record is subtle, usually coming in under the main orchestral arrangements and the unsettling gutturals of George Kosmas. When it does hit, it rises up like a fountain, pushing back with great force. One of the many highlights of this album is Steve Merry’s piano and keyboard work. It beautifully establishes this atmosphere that at once feels unnatural, yet carries home feelings all too close and melancholic. Be’lakor once again prove that they are undoubtedly one of the greatest bands Australia has produced in the subgenre of melodic death metal.

Listen to: “The Smoke of Many Fires”

avantasia ghostlights1. Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia — Ghostlights

Avantasia is a band I have loved for a number of years; being, in fact, the band that introduced me to power metal. Sadly, following 2008’s The Scarecrow, they fell a bit by the wayside in terms of the music they were releasing. It is beyond pleasing to say then that Ghostlights has finally — at least for me — recaptured the magic of their early Metal Opera days. Frequent collaborators Michael Kiske, Jørn Lande, et al., all make their return here; with Ghostlights also welcoming newcomers Dee Snider, Marco Hietala, and more. And it is all the better for it. Thematically a sequel to 2013’s The Mystery of Time, Tobias Sammet feels both livelier and more daring here, and the overall production is incredible; as is seen in songs such as the Meat Loaf-inspired “Mystery Of A Blood Red Rose” and the epic “Let the Storm Descend Upon You”. This is Avantasia re-energised and revitalised and fighting at the top of their game. The band has never sounded better than they do here.

Listen to: “Mystery Of A Blood Red Rose”

 

Honourable mention:

 

espionage wings of thunderEspionage — Wings Of Thunder

I couldn’t do a best of 2016 list without giving a special mention to Espionage’s Wings of Thunder EP. Whilst its short length (with only four tracks to its name) prevented it from being a part of my main list for this year, few records have seen as much stereo-play in my car as this one did over the course of this year. Hell, even this month alone has seen me return to it again. There have been a number of bands emerge in recent years that have played off the idea of ‘traditional heavy metal’; basically a hearkening back to the glory metal days of the ’80s with bands like Iron Maiden, Grim Reaper, and so on. But few have done so as convincingly as Melbourne’s Espionage. They bring an energy and liveliness to this subgenre that is not only vibrant, but re-energises an older genre which sadly had lost a fair bit of its steam. Songs like “High Riser” feel fresh and are frankly just enjoyable as hell to listen to, whilst others like “Running Out Of Time” see the band explore new vocal horizons and heavier speed metal movements. That’s not to mention that this EP has some of the tastiest guitar licks and falsetto screams you’ll find this year. Do yourself a favour and pick this record up.

Listen to: “Wings Of Thunder”

About

Jonathon is an aspiring fantasy/sci-fi novelist and music journalist. Thanks to the influence of the music he grew up with, he has always possessed a keen interest in metal and rock. He is also a huge fan of mythology, legend, and folklore from all across the world. You should follow him on Twitter.