My Top 10 Metal Albums of 2016

2016 was a pretty good year for metal. Say what you will about everything else, buttloads of talented acts released albums jam-packed with quality material. Distilling the year’s releases down to my ten favorites wasn’t easy, but I didn’t lose any sleep over it.

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Album Review: Metallica – Hardwired… to Self-Destruct

I’m going to start by talking about Star Wars. Please bear with me.

When The Phantom Menace released in ‘99, it kicked off nearly two decades of disappointment. But the prequel films were honest, if mostly underwhelming; they were original and underivative, made with (probably) good intentions, even if they weren’t what longtime fans wanted.

When The Force Awakens came out last year, fans got a film much like the ones they fell in love with. To that point, some have said it was too similar, that Force Awakens followed too many of the same story beats as its predecessors, and depending how you looked at it, that point of view could be bad or perfectly acceptable.

Album art for Metallica's Hardwired... to Self-Destruct.

Hardwired… To Self-Destruct is very much Metallica’s Force Awakens — a return to a familiar form that should satisfy the yearnings for that old-school vibe but ends up treading a lot of previously covered ground. But what makes Hardwired different from my obnoxious analogy about space opera is the ground it covers is from the period Metallica fans have, historically anyway, liked the least — Load and Reload. Oh, there are a handful of good — I’d venture to say even great — songs, but the majority of the album is like if J.J. Abrams plopped Jar-Jar Binks in Force without any of us realizing it and gave him a significantly large (and appropriately tragic) amount of screentime. The plodding, unwanted Load-iness of tracks like “Dream No More” and “Now That We’re Dead” is baffling when other cuts like “Moth Into Flame” are kicking such ass.

To its credit, there’s no prequel-esque visionary departure on Hardwired; it sounds distinctly Metallica, the feel-good, Mom’s apple pie Metallica. No trash cans and cracking voice here, no’m — Lars is still holding things down behind the kit (despite every internet comments section wanting his head on a platter), and Kirk is still wanking away on his whammy. And of all the ‘Mets, James is sounding better than ever.

Metallica shouldn’t be above a little criticism, and neither should Star Wars; neither Hardwired or Force Awakens are perfect, and I don’t need them nor expect them to be. I gladly take the good (the Reys and Finns to the “Spit Out the Bone”s and “Atlus, Rise”s) along with, well… everything else. There’s nothing so offensive as a Jar-Jar here in Hardwired, so at least we can thank Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett, and Trujillo for that.

I like that this isn’t a throwback album; the different styles of songs on display here show their willingness to accept the flaws in their DNA. After all, you can’t take the Load or St. Anger out of Metallica anymore than you can take the Hero’s Journey out of Star Wars. Those are fundamental building blocks to the final product we still get to enjoy to this day.

Buy Hardwired…to Self-Destruct here.

Album Review: Ulcerate – Shrines of Paralysis

I don’t know who I can recommend Ulcerate’s Shrines of Paralysis to, but maybe that’s the point. I thought Anaal Nathrakh’s latest would have won Ugliest Listen of 2016 by a landslide, but Shrines dropped trou and shit all over that ill-fated notion. The whole thing, all 57 minutes, 44 seconds of it, is a fucking glorious mess, with a fuzzy guitar tone that isn’t so much atmospheric as it is asphyxiating, and drum production that’s drier than a 24 oz. can of cold Asahi.

Album art for Ulcerate's Shrines of Paralysis.

As for the songs themselves, I admit I struggle to identify the structures as simply ultra-technical; Ulcerate seems confident, comfortable even, regarding simple verse-chorus patterns as paltry and juvenile, the playthings of lesser bands. Still, I find it hard to talk about Shrines on a single-song basis, as all the tracks do kind of meld together — if I saw Ulcerate live I’d have trouble distinguishing one song from another — but like Anaal Nathrakh, Ulcerate isn’t just spewing noise; it’s calculated chaos. Monstrous vocals roar over muddy, distorted guitars, which only halt their frenzied tremolo-picking for frequent dissonant melodies. But even that isn’t all dicks out, either; they know how to hold back and lay down some tasty layers, as the gorgeous latter half of “Yield to Naught” proves.

I can already say Shrines of Paralysis won’t be making my Top 10 list this year, but I think it may be the most sonically impressive thing I’ve heard all year. Sure, I can try forcing it into a coveted slot, but what I really want is to just give up, call it “art,” and put myself at the mercy of these Kiwis pummeling my ear canals.

Standout track: “Chasm of Fire” – Every song on Shrines feels like a fucking journey, but “Chasm” encompasses the full range of Ulcerate’s terrifying talents. A buildup of intense blast beats and sublime, awe-striking rage culminate in a final minute and a half of sheer ferocious beauty.

Support Ulcerate and buy Shrines of Paralysis here.