Saturday, December 31, 2016

Skull Fracturing Metal's Top 30 of 2016

2016 marked a significant step up from the somewhat disappointing year that metal had in 2015. Though things got off to a slow start (especially compared to how 2017 is already shaping up), it did not take too many months for there to be an overwhelming number of excellent releases. As always, I'm still behind on quite a few albums that could have made this list (Dynazty, Thornbridge, and Helion Prime come to mind), but it was nonetheless a great year for metal.

The big surprise of 2016 was that thrash rebounded in a huge way, and while there were a ton of impressive releases from the old guard, it was actually the younger bands that put out the most compelling records. There have been hundreds of modern thrash records since 2008, but most of them sound identical and offer little in the way of memorable songwriting. This was not the case this year, and it resulted in some of the most classic thrash albums since the late 80s. Power metal had another strong year (even if it did take a few months to really get going), but dominates my list less than year than in the past couple of years. Both death and black metal remain largely absent this year; there were some decent records, but I didn't unearth any gems like in prior years. Traditional heavy metal had another respectable year, but didn't overwhelm, as there were only a couple of standout releases. All in all, the resurgence of thrash metal (in conjunction with another impressive year for power metal) made 2016 fantastic. 

Disappointments were few and far between in 2016. The obvious letdown was Twilight Force's sophomore effort, but it wasn't because of the quality of the record, but rather the shift in the band's focus. A more frustrating release was Gruesome's new EP, which showed the band moving from a tribute group to one that is essentially using Death's riffs. Aside from these two records, there was little to complain about in 2016. Even the overdone trend of sci-fi death/thrash metal managed to offer plenty of good music (including underrated bands like Teleport and Euphoria) this year. Overall, 2016 marked another stellar year for heavy metal! My top 30 releases of the year are below, and as always, full reviews of all 30 of these albums can be found on SFM!

30. Suicidal Angels - Division of Blood (Greece, thrash metal)

The 6th album from these Greek thrashers is another faithful effort of devastating riffs, high-impact drumming, and pure aggression. The addition of Gus Drax on lead guitars has taken their shredding to another level, and the quality of their songwriting continues to improve on each new album. While other groups tend to experiment more with slower tempos or increased amounts of melody, Suicidal Angels is only focused on unleashing absurdly fast riffs and wearing out some necks.

29. Eternal Champion - The Armor of Ire (USA, US Power Metal)

"The Armor of Ire" was easily one of the biggest hype releases of 2016 and it was completely deserving. This record captures the spirit of the 1980s better than almost any other release in decades. The riffs are truly powerful and the vocals redefine what it means to be epic. Whether via the anthemic "I Am The Hammer" or the speedy title track, Eternal Champion always manages to sound unique, despite the use of popular USPM tropes.

28. Freedom Call - Master of Light (Germany, Power Metal)

This album may rank amongst the worst of 2016 when it comes to the cover art, but it is a different story musically. Though it doesn't live up to the band's previous effort, "Master of Light" is still exactly what one would hope for in a Freedom Call album: excessively happy melodies to the point where it's embarrassing to admit you even like this band. "Hammer of the Gods" can stand tall against anything else in the band's discography, and there are more than a few other impressive tracks. 

27. Exumer - The Raging Tides (Germany, Thrash Metal)

Exumer was a band that always had worthwhile songwriting, but modern production has really taken the band to the next level with both 2012's "Fire & Damnation" and this year's "The Raging Tides". Songs like the title track and "Catatonic" are made immensely heavy because of the brilliant crunch of the rhythm guitars. Lead vocalist Mem Von Stein still has one of the more unique rasps in thrash, and the end result is a convincing record that can easily stand up against "Possessed By Fire". 

26. Megadeth - Dystopia (USA, Thrash Metal)

Megadeth had gone too long without a lineup change, so "Dystopia" marks yet another new incarnation of the band. Bringing in Angra shredder Kiko Loureiro was a brilliant move, and it appears to have inspired Dave Mustaine to write another great album after two weaker records. This isn't the strongest Megadeth record in the last couple of decades, but it is certainly among them. At times, Dave gets a little too close to his old work for comfort (the title track being a retread of "Hangar 18"), but there is still a lot of original, thrashy riffing. It's insane to think Megadeth could ever match their past classics, but "Dystopia" remains a great effort.

25. Lost Society - Braindead (Finland, Thrash Metal)

"Braindead" marks a significant shift in character for these Finnish thrashers. Instead of loading up on short, punchy songs, this record shows Lost Society exploring more experimental songwriting with somewhat complex song structures. This record is divisive because there are a number of songs where the band misses the mark completely ("Riot" and "P.S.T. 88" being the two main offenders), but the rest of the record thrashes so hard that it's easy to overlook. When looking back on Lost Society's career in 20 years, this will be the record they are judged by, and more patient listeners will definitely be rewarded by the thrashing that lies within.

24. Serious Black - Mirrorworld (International, Power Metal)

Ignoring the mishandling of the standard version of this album by Serious Black's record label, this is still a momentus effort. The band's blend of power metal with modern hard rock is incredible, and makes for a record with plenty of diversity. "Castor Skies" shows the band unleashing their fury with frenetic shredding, while other tracks like "Dying Hearts" and "Mirrorworld" recall the first record with their more laid-back approach. The sheer number of tracks does get overwhelming, but there really isn't anything awful on the album.

23. Symphonity - King of Persia (Czech Republic, Power Metal)

Like "Mirrorworld", "King of Persia" is not without its flaws (mainly the fact that Olaf Hayer was pushed into the background on this record), but it remains an album filled with songs that will stay with you forever. Both vocalists are among the best in power metal, and while their talents could probably be put to even better use, they definitely carry this record. Still, there are a lot of great riffs and quality leads. For a band that has been missing for 8 years, "King of Persia" is a very welcome follow-up!

22. Sodom - Decision Day (Germany, Thrash Metal)

Germany's second most reliable thrash band (behind only Tankard) once again returned with another rage-fuelled album. "Decision Day" somehow amps up the intensity even further than the band's last few records, with songs like "In Retribution" and "Caligula" managing to be as memorable and as crushing as anything the band has done in the last 25 years. Much like with many other older thrash bands, they won't reach the heights of "Agent Orange" again, but Sodom is certainly putting out better records than many of their peers at this point.

21. Testament - Brotherhood of the Snake (USA, Thrash Metal)

My interest in Testament always seem to wane every few years, as they were never really a band that played harder or faster than anyone else, and their live shows are unspectacular. However, every time this happens, they come back with a new album that reminds me why they are such a revered thrash band. "Brotherhood of the Snake" shows them utilizing more speed than they have in a while, and with all-out thrashers like "The Number Game" and "Centuries of Suffering", Testament is still a force to be reckoned with. The increased usage of melody on this album is another added bonus, resulting in both Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson shining on this album.

20. Death Angel - The Evil Divide (USA, Thrash Metal)

Out of all of the old guard, nobody has more to prove than Death Angel. Their 1980s records were decent, but not as legendary as people seem to remember them being. Fortunately, they are continuing on the warpath towards embarrassing all other old-school thrash bands, as "The Evil Divide" is both the best record of the band's career and the best thrash album from any older band this year. Much like with their older music, Death Angel lets the songwriting do the talking, rather than simply playing as fast as possible. Even a mid-paced headbanger like "Lost" manages to be a highlight. "The Evil Divide" is the gold standard for thrash metal in 2016 from any band whose legacy won't change.

19. Nucleus - Sentient (USA, Death Metal)

Nucleus is another hype band this year, and yet another deserving choice. Their twisted brand of death metal is overflowing sideways riffs that would make groups like Immolation, Demilich, and many others proud. Though "Sentient" is a relatively short release, it no doubt makes an impact very quickly. The musicianship is stellar, but you might not even notice because this album has a lot of really wild stuff going on that takes many listens to comprehend. Despite this, it is an essential listen, and by far the best old-school death metal album I heard in 2016.

18. Sinbreed - Master Creator (Germany, Power Metal)

Vocalist Herbie Langhans was everywhere in 2016, but Sinbreed is his main project. On this release, he channels Jorn Lande, as he primarily uses a gruff singing style. The music is likewise aggressive, making "Master Creator" a lot heavier than other power metal. It certainly isn't lacking in great melodies, but it also isn't afraid to crush you with riffs. "Across The Great Divides" remains one of the best examples of power metal being at its best when it is grounded in pure speed, and the rest of the album is overflowing with brilliant tracks as well.

17. Fleshgod Apocalypse - King (Italy, Symphonic Death Metal)

Nothing about this album makes sense. Whether it's the absurd blast beats, the opera singing, or the wailing clean vocals, "King" is a complete mess. Or at least, that's what it would have been just one album ago for Fleshgod Apocalypse. Instead, the band finally learned how to make their unique brand of chaos into some of the most brilliant music ever created. This album shouldn't work quite as well as it does, but the eclectic mix of songwriting techniques, including an excellent diversity in tempos makes an otherwise overwhelming album a brilliant listen. "King" gets better with each subsequent spin, and is the ultimate realization of the vision the band began with earlier this decade.

16. Axxion - Back In Time (Canada, Speed Metal)

Axxion's second full-length record followed the path the band set with "Wild Racer". This is another album filled with exciting, charging riffs, high-pitched vocals that are almost too high at times, and virtuosic soloing. The album is a little uneven in the songwriting department, as it actually manages to get better as it goes on, closing with the 3 most lethal tracks. Regardless, it never really strays in its approach, always offering authentic, 80s-sounding speed metal.

15. Sabaton - The Last Stand (Sweden, Power Metal)

At this point in their career, Sabaton is a machine. Like clockwork, the band releases a new record every 2 years filled with pop hits. The overall quality of each album seems to vary slightly, with "The Last Stand" eclipsing 2014's "Heroes" due to having much more substance beyond just the singles. The only flaw this band has is that they're starting to get far too close to ripping off their own riffs. Sabaton may not be original anymore (though that ship sailed after "The Art of War"), but they still write plenty of killer songs!

14. Sunburst - Fragments of Creation (Greece, Progressive Power Metal)

Every year there is one band that comes out of nowhere to impress. In 2016, it is the Greek power metal band Sunburst. This album sounds like a combination of Nevermore's riffing with a Kamelot-esque vocalist. I've never really liked the former band, and am just warming up to the latter group, but Sunburst easily eclipses both. Every single one of these songs is absurdly catchy and features the most jaw-dropping lead guitar playing of any band this year. The occasional use of growling is also a nice touch that isn't overdone. It does feel a bit modern, but it still manages to flawlessly display the best elements of power metal.

13. Vektor - Terminal Redux (USA, Thrash Metal)

"Terminal Redux" was perhaps the most hyped-up release of 2016 prior to it coming out. Of course, Vektor is widely-hailed as the best new thrash band, and while I don't agree, it's easy to see why people love them. This album rivals "King" for the most ridiculous and over the top release of 2016. There is so much going on throughout this release that even after 10 listens, you wouldn't be able to properly evaluate it. The use of choirs is a nice touch, but Vektor is at their best when unleashing thrash riffs at warp speed. The ballad, "Collapse", shows the band successfully exploring new territory, and is serious highlight for all music in 2016.

12. Striker - Stand In The Fire (Canada, Speed/Heavy Metal)

Though Striker's brand of speed metal has changed minimally since the debut (with the slight exception of adding in some AOR/hard rock-influenced songs), their albums tend to be somewhat inconsistent in terms of quality. "Stand In The Fire" marks the band's second best effort to date, only behind the brilliant "Armed To The Teeth". This album shows the group experimenting with more pop-driven songs ("Too Late" and "One Life"), and even injecting some saxophone solos into their songs ("Out For Blood"). The end result is an album of memorable tunes that are incredibly fun jam out to live and on the record!

11. Blazon Stone - War Of The Roses (Sweden, Speed Metal)

No year-end list would be complete without at least one of Cederick Forsberg's projects breaking the top 15. While my 3 favourite projects of his were less productive this year (and now partially defunct), Blazon Stone did manage to put out another album, and once again, it tops anything Running Wild has done in over 20 years. Whether it is the high-velocity opener "Born To Be Wild", the painfully catchy "By Hook or By Crook", or the epic closer "War of the Roses", this album continually manages to remain interesting and relevant, despite there having been so many efforts at replicating Running Wild's sound by other bands. 

10. Exmortus - Ride Forth (USA, Thrash Metal)

While Vektor's music is technical because it fits the band's spacey atmosphere, Exmortus' music is technical simply for the sake of being technical. The musicianship on this album is so impressive that it makes me want to quit playing guitar. The classical influences are still prevalent on this record (particularly on the opening crusher "Speed of the Strike"), but not as common as they were on "Slave To The Sword". Relative to this previous effort, "Ride Forth" tends to be more consistent, but with fewer major highlights. Nevertheless, tracks like "For The Horde", "Let Us Roam", and the wild instrumental "Appassionata" are still some of the band's stronger work. Conan's death metal-esque vocals further help differentiate Exmortus from the crowd, and their impressive songwriting continues to keep them towards the top of the modern thrash pack.

9. Condition Critical - Extermination Plan (USA, Thrash Metal)

With their second record, Condition Critical made a serious leap forward. This album perfectly explains why the band is so often considered to be a clone of the legendary Demolition Hammer, and while "Extermination Plan" can't quite rival either of Demolition Hammer's classic records, it does put up a significant fight. The riffs are consistently bludgeoning, and the band rarely relents. The appearances from John Kevill (Warbringer) and Tom Martin (Lich King) only make this album cooler, but it is the band's ability to write an endless number of neck-snapping riffs that put Condition Critical among the thrash elite in 2016. If you ever have the chance to see the band live, they will drive this point home even further! 

8. Untimely Demise - Black Widow (Canada, Thrash Metal)

Untimely Demise is another band that improved significantly with their 2016 effort. "Black Widow" combines intricate playing with both pure brutality and more thought-provoking melodic sections. Influences like Death and Megadeth are both incredibly obvious throughout this album, but Untimely Demise still manages to sound completely original. There is no band in thrash (old or new) that sounds like them, and the most puzzling part of this release is that it hasn't blown up even more. Like many of young thrashers discussed above (Condition Critical, Exmortus, Vektor), Untimely Demise is another band I saw in 2016 that just laid waste to the stage, and with the new tunes on "Black Widow", they should continue to ascend in thrash history!

7. Ripper - Experiment of Existence (Chile, Thrash Metal)

Thrash metal may have been mostly dominated by the US (and Canada) in 2016, but there is one contender from another country to the thrash throne of 2016: Ripper. Few band names in metal have ever captured a band's sound as accurately as Ripper's does. This is death/thrash of the highest order. Opting for a slightly less technical sound than Vektor and Exmortus, Ripper still has super loud bass playing amidst a flurry of complex riffs. This album grabs you from the opening notes of "Magnetic Solar Storms" and simply does not let go until the end. There are some albums where you can see why people might not like them, but it is impossible to be a thrash metal fan without digging "Experiment of Existence"; it's that good!

6. Game Over - Crimes Against Reality (Italy, Thrash Metal)

Europe (and most notably Germany) are eerily absent in a year overflowing with great thrash metal, but Italy's Game Over are undoubtedly the winners when it comes to thrash in 2016. They don't do anything special relative to a lot of these other bands; they certainly aren't as brutal or as fast, but they write great songs. The band's debut record showed a lot of potential with instant classics like "Dawn of the Dead", "Another Dose of Thrash", and "Tupa Tupa or Die", and the second album was a decent follow-up, but "Crimes Against Reality" catapults Game Over into the thrash elite. "Neon Maniacs" should send even the tamest metalheads into the pit. "With All That Is Left" is a ballad that is actually good! This is largely because Reno, the band's frontman, has an impressive singing voice that he doesn't often get to show with his more typical vocal approach. Game Over also ventured to the US for their first tour West of the Atlantic, and it was truly a sight to behold. These guys have a ton of energy, and "Crimes Against Reality" makes that immensely clear.

5. Primal Fear - Rulebreaker (Germany, Power Metal)

Primal Fear has been on a tear since 2012's "Unbreakable" record. They're one of less than a handful of classic power metal bands that can truly claim they are better now than they have been for most of their career, and "Rulebreaker" continues this streak. This album is less immediate than "Delivering The Black" was, as cuts like "We Walk Without Fear" and "Rulebreaker" take a little longer to click. Once they do, however, it immediately becomes clear that this album features several of Primal Fear's best songs to date. Ralf Scheepers' voice is still in perfect form, as he continue to embarrass almost every other heavy metal singer. The melodies the band uses are not the most unique, but they are as potent as ever, particularly the infectious "In Metal We Trust". There really isn't a major fault with this album, and Primal Fear has once again created another stellar power metal record!

4. Twilight Force - Heroes of Mighty Magic (Sweden, Power Metal)

Twilight Force's debut record remains one of the 10 greatest power metal albums of all-time. For obvious reasons, "Heroes of Mighty Magic" would never be able to live up to the hype, but the fact that the band all but abandoned their Rhapsody-laden version of power metal to instead focus on re-writing Disney songs is a disappointment. The worst part about this is that it is completely brilliant. There's absolutely no reason for this album to be any good, but the songs are undeniably catchy. Both of the epics are two of the best songs the band has ever written, and though the remainder of the album is a bit bloated, it still has numerous anthems that should be live staples. It's unfortunate that both the band and their fans bought into the hype after the debut to make this album as gimmicky as possible because it is likely that Twilight Force can only go down from here. Even if that happens, however, "Heroes of Mighty Magic" will still have unlimited replayability.

3. Cauldron - In Ruin (Canada, Heavy Metal)

Cauldron are the leaders of Toronto's very crowded heavy metal scene, and rightfully so. With each new record the band puts out, they continue to solidify their legacy. They never reinvent the wheel or change their sound significantly, but there is the occasional new quirk mixed in with their impressive ability to write instantly classic heavy metal. No band can do slow or mid-paced songs as well as Cauldron, and "Hold Your Fire" marks another great example. Both the title track and "Empress" are two more songs that should never leave the band's live set (I saw them 3 times in 2016, bringing my total to 7!). Even deeper cuts like "Santa Mira" and the unbelievable instrumental "Delusive Serenade" rule just as much as the songs that kick off the album. Cauldron is a hugely misunderstood band, as they're often cast off as being boring since they aren't as flashy as a lot of other bands, but they are one of the few metal bands outside of extreme metal that can create brilliant atmosphere. The hypnotic tunes on "In Ruin" are once again proof of this, and fortunately, Cauldron shows no signs of slowing down!

2. HammerFall - Built To Last (Sweden, Power Metal)

2014's "(r)Evolution" put HammerFall back on the right track, as they were once again singing about Templars and delivering upbeat power metal. With "Built To Last", HammerFall has shown that they are going to continue this path for the foreseeable future (much to the delight of most fans). Though this album can't necessarily match records like "Glory To The Brave" or "Legacy of Kings", it does have a couple of songs that rank against anything the band has ever put out: "The Star of Home" and "Dethrone and Defy". Beyond these tracks, "Built To Last" is littered with classic fist-pumping anthems. The speedy "Stormbreaker" shows some of the most impressive tempos since "One of a Kind", and rockers like "The Sacred Vow" and "New Breed" would sound right at home on some of the band's mid-era ("Crimson Thunder" through "Threshold"). The only slight weakness on this album are the ballads, and the fact that you can't actually obtain the bonus track anywhere digitally; it's a great song, but it's not practical to bust out the 7 inch every time I want to hear it. Nevertheless, HammerFall have once again put together a consistent power metal offering that should please old-school fans of the genre. Forget the prog and hard rock tendencies that are infecting this subgenre these days; this record is pure power metal!

1. Avantasia - Ghostlights (Germany, Power Metal)

It's unfortunate for every other band releasing music in 2016 that "Ghostlights" came out. This album is so far ahead of everything else going on in the music world. This isn't just the album of 2016; it's probably the best album in nearly a decade. There are a couple of missteps ("Seduction of Decay" in particular), but this album is so long and has so much music to offer that they're quickly made up for by the brilliance of songs like "Lucifer", "Draconian Love" and "Let The Storm Descend Upon You". This album has been in constant rotation since its release in June, and getting to see the band again this year (but for the first time with Tobi, Kiske, and Jorn together!) was unreal. There isn't too much to say about this album that wasn't said in my initial review, but it's worth re-emphasizing that 11 months later, "Ghostlights" remains just as potent as it was on day 1!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Terrifier – Weapons of Thrash Destruction

Upon first glance at the title “Weapons of Thrash Destruction”, one of two thoughts will form in your mind. If, like me, you appreciate the juvenile themes of thrash metal, then Terrifier's second record will have immediate appeal (let’s be real here; nobody really wants to be an adult anyways). Alternatively, should you cling a little too tightly to the underground, then this album will be another drink coaster along with the discographies of Municipal Waste and Warbringer, among others.

This means that “Weapons of Thrash Destruction” is exactly what you would expect it to be: competent modern thrash that stays true to the subgenre’s roots. The album is an insane amount of fun, and though it doesn’t have the staying power that some of the aforementioned band’s records do, it is still an enjoyable listen. Terrifier tends to get a bit more extreme than a lot of modern thrash bands, as they are not afraid to use blast beats often (one listen to the opening song “Reanimator” will make that quite clear). These guys also like to shred and inject heavy dosages of lead guitars all throughout the album. Sometimes things get a bit chaotic, but the playing is always tight enough to overlook any truly cacophonous sections.

To complement Terrifier’s extreme approach, their vocalist also leans towards the more aggressive side of thrash vocals. Bands like Kreator and Morbid Saint are good points of comparisons, but there is a slightly more modern edge to these vocals, as there is a bit of a bite on the end of each vocal line. In this respect, a band like Hatchet might be more comparable vocally. Nevertheless, Terrifier’s singer shouts his guts out, and, when combined with the maximum riffage this band delivers, it results in a satisfying product. 

As you may have determined by now, one of the strengths of “Weapons of Thrash Destruction” is that there is absolutely no compromise. Most of this album is blazing fast, and it only gets a little slower at times to unleash stomping, whiplash-inducing riffs (there are some clean guitars on "Riders of Doom", but this is your classic ominous, old-school thrash interlude). Forget ballads, groove, or half-thrash riffs; this album presents the weapon of mass destruction known as thrash metal, and it does it well. There is room for improvement in the songwriting, but sleeping on this record would be a major mistake!

Be sure to check out and like Terrifier on Facebook!

"Skitzoid Embolism"
"Drunk As Fuck"

Final Rating
4.25/5 or 85%. 

Written by Scott