Don’t Panic Records & Distro’s Top 10 Black Metal Albums of 2016

Danny Brawlins and Steve O - January 23, 2017

Black metal is an interesting genre. On one hand, it gets a rep for being extremely traditional, for having to stick to established parameters. The trve kvlt doctrine if you will, where if it deviates in any way, then it ceases to be black metal. On the other hand, the one we clearly favor, black metal is potentially the most variable metal genre out there. You can take some basic elements, such as the blast beats, the tremolo picking, or the raspy, shrieked vocals, and apply them just about anywhere. It’s like your ear bones. If you’re like me, you’re a human and those bones (the malleus, incus, and stapes) form a part of your ear. But if you’re a bird or reptile, those bones are a part of your jaw. If you’re a fish, you’re looking at an element of your gills. Too abstract? Maybe, but since a bunch of these records don’t sound like each other, yet we can still categorize them alike, maybe there’s something to it. Regardless, there’s a bunch of records here that cover the whole spectrum that we call black metal. Dig in and enjoy.

10) Skeletonwitch – The Apothic Gloom [Prosthetic]

The responses to this new era of Skeletonwitch have been divided, as The Apothic Gloom marks the debut of new vocalist Adam Clemans, whom you may (should) know as the vocalist of Wolvhammer. Clemans brings a different feel, but honestly, these four songs bring a bit of a different feel, and this should be taken as a whole package, not just a judgement on the new vocalist, as many that have been wont to do. So what do these nearly 21 minutes bring us? A Skeletonwitch on a more epic and grandeur scale – album opener “The Apothic Gloom” would stand as the longest Skeletonwitch song if it weren’t for the epic closer “Red Death, White Light.” Ending with the grand chant, “ignite / the flame / born anew,” which combined with the escalating sense of urgency in the music and the perfect delivery by Clemans (which they also pull off live to an incredible effect), reinforces the idea. This is a new era of Skeletonwitch, darker and grimier, and they’ve gone charging into it masterfully. Can’t wait for the follow up. -SteveO)))

9) Naðra – Allir Vegir Til Glötunar [Vánagandr / Fallen Empire / Signal Rex]

Allir Vegir Til Glötunar (All Paths to Oblivion) kicks off at breakneck speed and pummels you from start to finish. Hailing from Iceland’s flourishing black metal scene, Naðra marks its debut with Allir Vegir Til Glötunar. All in all, the record is characterized by a pretty traditional black metal sound but with more modern production which proves beneficial to the five-piece. Overall, it’s singer, Örlygur Sigurðarson’s anguished vocals that make this album for me. Naðra quickly followed up this full-length with a two track EP leading me to hope for a fruitful career from the band. Looking forward to the next release. -Danny

8) Oathbreaker – Rheia [Deathwish]

I caught Oathbreaker over the summer while they were on tour with Skeletonwitch and Iron Reagan. Completely oblivious as to who they were at the time, they still managed to steal the show for me. I decided to look them up soon after. It seems that their latest album, Rheia, is a bit of a turning point for the band whose first two albums seem to be more centered on hardcore punk and black metal. With this release, Oathbreaker juxtaposes very pretty and mellow indie with violently aggressive black metal. I was pretty into M by Myrkur last year but Rheia has me rethinking that… -Danny

7) Rotting Christ – Rituals [Season of Mist]

2017 marks the 30th year of Rotting Christ, and the Tolis brothers have perfected their art. While no longer blasting away with the raw, blasphemous black metal of their early 90s records, they developed a unique new take on the Greek feel of black metal that they helped found. And for the past decade plus, they’ve crafted a take on black metal that stands out as much as their antagonizing name. Combining chants, an endless parade of guest vocalists and instrumentalists, (Rituals lists 12 different voices contributing in some way, not counting main man Sakis Tolis, whose dark rasp mixes wonderfully with some of their guests), expanding musical technicality, and multiple languages (we’ve got Greek, English, French, and, I believe, Sanskrit) with dark and gothic influence to their black metal background, Rituals is different from everything else on this list. Listen to songs like “देवदेवं (Devadevam)” or “Ἄπαγε Σατανά (Apage Satana)” and try to compare it to anything else here. There’s more mid tempos than blast beats present, but songs like “Του θάνατου (Tou Thanatou)” and “Ἐλθὲ κύριε (Elthe Kyrie)” still have that heavy, blackened bent. If one of the elements of black metal is the emotions and atmospheres that are presented, Rotting Christ have mastered that element in a sound distinctly their own. -SteveO)))

6) Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder [Peaceville]

Darkthrone has really hit a stride in recent years; heavily playing on their influences, trying out new sounds and most of all, just having a lot of fun. This Norwegian duo put out some of black metal's most influential and genre defining albums in the early 90s. Since then they seem to be out to prove that they can dominate just about any other style of metal from crust punk to speed metal (results vary). With Arctic Thunder we get a heavy dose of stoner metal mixed in with the band's black metal roots. It's somewhat reminiscent of the band's mid-career albums (Ravishing Grimness, Plaguewielder, Hate Them) but more inspired and overall more interesting. Certainly not the greatest Darkthrone record of all time but it's them doing them and giving a big middle finger to the trve kvlt diehards that want them to recreate Transilvanian Hunger again and again. -Danny

5) Uada – Devoid of Light [Eisenwald Tonschmiede]

Devoid of Light is Uada’s debut recording, but quickly into opener “Natus Eclipsim,” the realization that this sounded eerily familiar came quickly. Those haunting vocals, that sometimes sound like they’ve been shouted from the distant end of a murky forest. Those crisp, cutting riffs, with that occasional pinch. Those blast beats, buried but nearly ever present. That dark, dripping atmosphere, with those melancholic parts where everything seems to drop out or slow down, are set forth with the devastation indicated on the cover and a band name that is Latin for haunted. Uada’s vocalist and guitarist is Jake Superchi, who for nearly 20 years(!), went as Lord Serpent and/or The Witcher as one of the masterminds in Ceremonial Castings, an absolutely phenomenal symphonic black metal band out of Washington state (whose discography you should totally go listen to now). But Devoid of Light doesn’t just ride along on those coattails. It stands fantastic as it is. In fact, despite the feeling that something was familiar, I had been listening to Uada for a bit before I made the connection. Clocking in at nine and a half minute, closer “Black Autumn, White Spring” brings in all of elements, building and escalating to the grand finale. “No dusk without dawn / Nor creation without doom.” SteveO)))

4) Ecferus – Pangaea [I, Voidhanger]

With the release of a full-length, two EPs and a split, Ecferus proved to be quite prolific in 2016. Pangaea, Ecferus’ second full-length, is a concept album described as telling “the story of a planet at war with its occupants.” The concept itself is unique and interesting with ALP, Ecferus’ sole contributor, writing from the perspective of Pangaea as it is being physically torn apart by the Earth while simultaneously being destroyed by a burgeoning civilization. Musically, Pangaea conveys a dark and aggressive sound that manages to be lo-fi while still allowing melodies to come through clearly. The album consists of four metal tracks separated by an ambient intro, interlude and outro. It is reminiscent of early Leviathan but layered in more technical tremolo riffing. Pangaea is a solid album all the way through. And from a guy in Indiana nonetheless! Almost makes me want to take back all the horrible things I’ve said about that state. But I won’t. -Danny

3) Void Omnia – Dying Light [Vendetta]

Dying Light is the first full-length from the Oakland based five-piece, Void Omnia. This was my introduction to the band. I’m not sure how I stumbled across it (very well could have been the artwork), all I know is that I couldn’t stop listening to it throughout 2016. While a lot of newer bands are doing that “post-black metal” thing with gracefully crafted songs and over-produced recordings, Void Omnia deliver a refreshingly raw style of black metal firmly rooted in the past. High shrieks accompanied by death growls and synchronized tremolo picked riffs layered thickly over blast beats; this record is exactly how black metal should sound. -Danny

2) Abbath – Abbath [Season of Mist]

Compared to some of their peers, Immortal was pretty squeaky clean. No church arsons, no murders, and, due to their own lyrical world of Blashyrkh they didn’t draw the Satanist accusations. Which makes their crumbling more surprising. For over twenty years, Abbath was virtually everything in Immortal. While Demonaz wrote the lyrics, Abbath was the principle songwriter. And so, with the ensuing legal issues and Abbath’s subsequent departure from the band he helped found, we have more evidence that nothing lasts forever (except those immortal puns). While we have yet to see Immortal’s first post-Abbath foray, Abbath, the band also featuring King Ov Hell (ex-Gorgorth), have fired the first shot with an absolute masterstroke. Abbath doesn’t sound like a far cry from All Shall Fall, the latest Immortal release. Yeah, there’s less Blashyrkh, but let’s be honest, who listened to Immortal for those storylines anyways? All the elements you loved in Immortal are here. Abbath’s raspy croak, blazing, blackened riffs, drums that mix blast beats with an ominous marching tone, and King even throws in some pretty sweet basslines (see “Winterbane”). These songs also have more of an epic feel to them, closer to At the Heart of Winter than anything else Immortal’s done. Just the way the songs are structured gives this feel of trudging over mountains through blizzards. Wait for the next snow, and then blast Abbath. Just like the Immortal catalog for which Abbath was largely responsible, it’s a perfect winter record. –SteveO)))

1) Anaal Nathrakh – The Whole of the Law [Metal Blade]

I like to imagine what the reaction would be of someone who has never heard any extreme metal before upon listening to Anaal Nathrakh. If you’ve grown up with rock radio and hold Black Album-Metallica as your metal standard, what do you make of this? There’s the tension builder of the intro, then about 30 seconds of “Depravity Favours the Bold,” before all hell breaks loose. It’s pure fucking chaos, I don’t know how else to describe it – Dave Hunt’s manic vocals, shrieking and guttural (sometimes he sounds like 5 different vocalists—he even busts out a King Diamond falsetto in “Extravaganza!”), Mick Kenney’s instrumental creativity; blast beats, buzz saw guitars, the sampling, all buried in layers upon layers of everything fucking happening at once, going a million miles an hour. I fucking love it. But to our hypothetical neophyte, it’s probably terrifying. Can’t you just picture the sheer horror on their face, recoiling in some combination of fear and disgust? Then there are songs like “Hold Your Children Close and Pray for Oblivion,” “We Will Fucking Kill You,” “On Being a Slave,” and “Of Horror, and the Black Shawls.” What’s going through their mind? Apocalyptic visions of the entire world being devastated by sheer brutality and chaos? Anaal Nathrakh take musical aggression and turmoil to a whole new level. It’s absolute insanity. And how about Dave Hunt’s clean, nearly operatic vocals? In some instances it would just seem cheesy, but in relation to everything else that’s going on here, it’s a stroke of genius. Tastefully placed, take a look at “On Being a Slave;” they definitely help define the uniqueness of Anaal Nathrakh. If you’re unfamiliar with this, you never see it coming – and then, like the eye of a storm, everything is calm and peaceful, before the unrelenting pandemonium continues. The Whole of the Law basically forces you to acknowledge it, to recognize its barbarity and bedlam. And we haven’t even mentioned covers of “Powerslave” (Iron Maiden) and “Man at C&A” (the Specials), and how cool it is to hear those songs done Annal Nathrakh style. From start to finish, The Whole of the Law completely pulverizes you, in the best possible way. Brutal and chaotic, The Whole of the Law stands as one of Anaal Nathrakh’s best. A spectacular album from an amazing and unique band. You have to hear it. –SteveO)))

For over fifteen years Anaal Nathrakh has been consistently putting out raw fucking black metal. Their newest album, The Whole of the Law, is no different. The songs may be better developed but with its lo-fi production, the album fits nicely into Anaal Nathrakh’s existing catalogue. Not to say this album is repetitious of the band’s previous work; they change things up a bit by playing on their influences, mixing elements of heavy metal, industrial music and grind into a potent concoction of blaring extreme noise. By doing so, they prove capable of taking a fresh approach to a genre while still paying proper homage to its roots. I’ve never been a fan of industrial music but this band mixes it in so well that it works for me. Oh shit, and that Specials cover at the end? I never thought I’d hear a metal cover of a ska song without it being a kitschy gimmick but goddamn! There it is. This album is fucking great. Turn it up and fucking smile when your ears start to bleed! -Danny

Honorable Mentions:

Bewitcher – Bewitcher
Deströyer 666 – Wildfire
Mesarthim – .- -... ... . -. -.- . .