2016 has rolled in to a close at last. Though we can’t say that this year quite reached the intensity of 2015 when it came to new releases, there were nevertheless a few positive surprises in there that managed to pique our attention. So without further ado, here are our staff picks for 2016!
AW: There were three contenders for this award for me this year. The first was Blind Channel’s debut, Revolutions, which is a stunning first album full of great songs and great energy (though not strictly “metal” if we’re being fair, as there is so much more to it). The second is Insomnium’s epic, Winter’s Gate, which is a beautiful and haunting concept that perfectly captures the story, start-to-finish. Lastly, we have Machinae Supremacy’s last-minute entry into the game, Into the Night World. Insomnium won’t take it because I consider Winter’s Gate to be a ‘mood album’ in that, I won’t just listen to it casually. It’s sort of an event to put it on, and you have to fully immerse in it.
And that puts it down to Blind Channel and Machinae Supremacy, which I thought was an easy choice, but the phantom harassed me a great deal about this, questioning my ability to judge objectively. If we were facing off simply based on which of these albums or bands I’d rather listen to, I’d give it to MaSu because they’re one of my all-time favorite bands and I personally would rather listen to them. Objectively, however, Blind Channel has written a perfect album, while at the same time creating an awesome new genre, so they deserve the award for that, undoubtedly. On the other hand, while MaSu’s newest album fumbled one song, I’m very impressed by the experimental sound and how far Robert Stjärnström’s voice has come even in a mere 2 years’ time, as well as their ability to make me cry in two songs – that hits an emotional level that BC didn’t. Ultimately, they both have their merits, but because they’re entirely different merits, I’ll have to award this to both of them.
VK: Every year there’s usually one album that’s worth a 10/10 in my books, and this time it was Theories of Flight by Fates Warning. I wouldn’t change a single thing about this album, as every song is great, the production caresses your ears, the playing is superb, and Ray Alder sings better than ever. The fact that my favorite song on the record has changed so many times is a testament to its brilliance: at first it was “Ghosts of Home”, then (while writing the review) “White Flag”, and now I think “The Light and Shade of Things” is the best one. This is one of the things that makes it so rewarding to go back to Theories of Flight time and time again: it’s all killer, no filler.
LL: No questions here, Insomnium won this from me with Winter’s Gate. I’ve rambled about my thoughts on it in length in my review, but I gathered here some sort of afterthoughts, now that it has a few months of mileage behind it. Rarely have I come across an album that grips your attention full-force time after time, but which you can also just put on and let it spin a few times without even noticing any time has passed. It’s a perfect meditation album in that sense, and I can’t bring myself to get bored of it. Impressive, ambitious, and utterly gorgeous, I believe here’s an album that will endure time better than most records – however good at this point in time – that come out this day and age. It’s a classic in a time that does not look for classics.
AW: I spent a great deal hemming and hawing over this, as there were a lot of really great songs this year. Again, “Winter’s Gate” is legendary. Machinae Supremacy’s “Into the Night World” is probably my subjective personal favorite song of the year. Blind Channel’s “Deja FU” was holding this spot since its release due to its fantastic construction. However, if we’re going to combine song construction/progression with vocal quality, musical quality, and incredible feeling, I would like to award this to Machinae Supremacy for the ballad, “Remember Me.” The song is simply perfect and emotionally heartbreaking. The dynamics are phenomenal. Even though I wouldn’t even call it my favorite from the album (because I like my music a little more lighthearted), the song is flawless and I believe it deserves this award.
VK: Steven Wilson only released an EP this year, but “My Book of Regrets” alone made it worth the price of purchase. In 9½ minutes the song brilliantly captures the crowded yet lonesome feeling that living in a big city can give you, and it was my favorite part of the show in Tampere this year. Wilson has been on a roll lately, and hopefully it will continue in 2017 with his next album.
LL: As you well know, technically, “Winter’s Gate” is one 40-minute song, so guess what, I’ll name the whole damn thing. I’d assume I wouldn’t have to explain the pick anymore at this point, but then again I like talking about WG. I was quite disappointed with Spotify chopping the album to seven parts, and have refused to listen them separately because that’s just not how you’d really listen to it. You wouldn’t read a book by taking a chapter from the middle, one from the end, and one in between, would you now? Of course it is possible to cut it at logical spots, but listening to them separately? No, just… no. I know I’ve said this before, but what I love so much about “Winter’s Gate” is the seamless flow that makes the album into the one beautiful song it is. The story roams on without tripping and stumbling, and justifies it being just one whole. And hey – how many times you can top the official album chart with one 40-minute death metal song?
BEST FOLK ALBUM
AW: I can’t say there were many albums of interest in this category this year, but even if there had been, chances are Moonsorrow’s Jumalten Aika would’ve taken this category either way. Some might have considered Insomnium’s Winter’s Gate to be a folk album, but I wouldn’t necessarily say so. I think the death and melodic elements to their music are more important to their sound, so as folk is the third layer of their genre at best, they don’t really qualify in my books. However, Moonsorrow is one of those bands that I adore, and while their second-last album had one of my all-time favorite songs, “Huuto”, I didn’t really care for the rest of the songs on the album. Jumalten Aika manages to be consistently good throughout all of its long songs, with highlights that move and shift based on your mood each time you listen. A worthy victor in this category!
VK: I didn’t listen to any folk this year, so I’ll leave this one blank.
LL: By human mistake, I almost left this blank – I recalled Brymir’s Slayer of Gods had come out last year already, but look! It hadn’t! To be completely honest, I’ve always enjoyed Moonsorrow live more than on record, so it would’ve been cheating to even consider naming Jumalten aika here. I remember seeing Brymir at the long-gone Myötätuulirock festival some years ago and liking what they had going on there, but somehow didn’t pick up their first album when it came out – so, I had two to indulge this year. What fun! But on to why I choose Slayer of Gods – it’s been a tad frustrating to be so unimpressed by the old folk favourites I could not bring myself nominating any of them this year (or the last, as I went with Amorphis who are not that widely considered as folk), so I am more than happy to be able to go with a up-and-coming troupe such as Brymir. While they haven’t exactly done anything ground-breaking and completely new, they’re pleasant to listen and have a great atmosphere in their music. Would definitely spin while beating the hell out of Skyrim or Lord of the Rings.
BEST FEMALE-FRONTED ALBUM
AW: Which female-fronted bands released an album this year… Lacuna Coil, Amaranthe, Delain, End of Aeon, Dakesis, and Epica. Not too many of the big names, but certainly plenty of material nevertheless. While Epica had the best of the big names, I’m going to take a big step outside of my comfort zone for this one and hand this willingly to Trees of Eternity for their final recording with their late vocalist. While I wouldn’t consider this a style or genre that I prefer, I think the quality of the album, both its vocals and technical construction, is far above anything else in this category this year. A worthy finale for a talented girl who is sorely missed.
VK: I’ve been a little out of the loop when it comes to bands with female vocals, as I didn’t listen to the new Delain or Trees of Eternity until fairly recently, so I can’t really comment on either yet. Therefore I guess Lady in Gold by Blues Pills wins by default – not that it’s a shabby choice. The songs sounded really good live, and there are more soul influences on this record than on the self-titled debut, which I see as a good thing, as they further separate BP from the other retro bands that are around at the moment. Rock albums can still count in a metal list, right?
LL: Frankly, I don’t want to pick between Delain and Trees of Eternity. Moonbathers and Hour of the Nightingale are two completely different, beautiful albums, so I will have to call it a tie. Delain has taken curious, exciting steps forward (and to one side, to another, and here and there) on their last couple albums, and Moonbathers is no exception – leading lady Charlotte Wessels’ vocal performances especially are more exciting on each new record (for example, “Danse Macabre”). Moonbathers at the very least makes Delain a household name in not just Dutch, but European melodic metal. Trees of Eternity, on the other hand, released the only album they ever will release, and with it left a lasting mark on the atmospheric and doom metal scene; it’s hard to believe there will ever come another voice like the one of Aleah Stanbridge’s to the genre in this lifetime. That alone would make Hour of the Nightingale one of a kind, but the music and overall performance by the band seal it the spot her memory would deserve.
MOST EPIC SONG
AW: I’m a little conflicted about this. If I’m being unfair, this award undoubtedly go’s to Insomnium’s “Winter’s Gate” because it is literally a glorious 40-minute epic. But really, who can write an average-to-long song that could even compare to such a success? So because I don’t think it was a fair fight, I’m going to bring in a second winner to this with Sonata Arctica’s “White Pearl, Black Oceans pt. II: By the Grace of the Sea” because that lovely piece of music is everything I’ve wanted Sonata to do in an epic that they haven’t yet done. Plus I just adore the hint of Nightwish in there. Sequels to popular songs are hard to succeed at, but I think these guys totally nailed it. Both are top songs in their field, so both deserve to be mentioned here.
VK: This was a great year for long songs for sure, as Steven Wilson, Witherscape, Fates Warning, Haken, and Maschine all released excellent epics. Since I already named “My Book of Regrets” the best song of the year, I think it’s fair to give “The Ghosts of Home” by Fates Warning some appreciation too, given how well-written and cohesive it is considering the 10½-minute length and the various mood changes. One hell of a journey!
LL: Any guesses what I might say? Of course it’s “Winter’s Gate”. Duh. It’s got everything that counts as epic [SPOILER ALERT]: Vikings (yay, Vikings!), mystery hidden treasure stuff, deadly huge-ass lethal creatures, oh and also ETERNAL GRIM AND FROSTBITTEN TRVE KVLT WINTER IS COMING TO KILL US ALL. BOOM. Oh yeah and it’s one damn great song, too.
BEST SLOW SONG
AW: A no-brainer here. The moment I first listened to Into the Night World, I thought, holy hell, Machinae Supremacy has a straight-up ballad! Not only that, the song is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Those piano lines, those lyrics, the passionate and emotional solo, and the high switch Stjärnström takes in the vocals in the last run through the chorus… goddamn. It’s been 2 months now and I still tear up every single time I listen to “Remember Me.” If this gets song of the year from me, it undoubtedly gets Best Slow Song as well.
VK: Witherscape’s “Marionette” is a fantastic mix of melodeath, doom, shoegaze and AOR, so it wins hands down. It’s a bit of a deviation from the standard Witherscape sound, but Dan Swanö’s vocal performance is impressive, and the solo at the end is majestic.
LL: I had to wrack my brains a little bit for this, but I’d be damned if I did not put Psychework’s “Barricades Won’t Fall” here. It’s a bit debatable as to whether it’s actually a slow song, per se, but contextually speaking it’s definitely a power ballad of the finest rank. Knowing under what conditions the lyrics were written, you are already tuned into being moved by it somehow; however, it shouldn’t be overlooked in any way that in this, Antony Parviainen’s lyrical skills get to truly shine. Extracting it from the original context, it’s a beautifully constructed message to pick you up whenever you drop down and consider letting go – like a gentler version of Turisas’ “Stand Up and Fight”, yet just as powerful. As you know, sometimes it’s not a kick in the butt you need, rather than a hand to hoist you back to your feet.
MOST CHILLING SONG
AW: Ahh, it’s time to break out “Winter’s Gate” officially. Even if you were to break the album up into parts (incidentally – DON’T), this album is chilling because the story is chilling – the haunted, mysterious folklore gives the story exactly the sort of mysterious edge it needs to send cold, dark fingers up your spine to set your skin on edge.
VK: I’m going outside the box with this one by picking David Bowie’s “Lazarus.” It’s a mellow and jazzy song, so you can chill out to it, but the meaning of the lyrics makes it literally chilling, as it’s essentially a farewell message by Bowie, though few knew it when it was released. For these two reasons, I feel like it’s the only right choice for me in this category, though it’s not metal.
LL: Because no-one can stop me from putting “Winter’s Gate” here, I could. But lo and behold, I will not give this honor to Insomnium – there are two other pieces that chill me to the bone and move my very core every time I hear them, and therefore deserve the title. Both of them tell story of a battle, one that was eventually won and one that was lost. To remain and to pass on – the fine thread that finally separates the living from the dead has been thinner than it’s been for a while this year, or so it feels, cut short one time after another. It’s near impossible to predict who will leave today or tomorrow, and even when you can see the end coming, you wouldn’t want to see it finally reach anyone. It feels perhaps more appropriate than ever to be with your loved ones and light a candle to those who have sailed on to undying lands – I raise my glass to them all. With these words, I name Psychework’s “The Dragon’s Year” and “Gallows Bird” by Trees of Eternity.
BEST FUN-TIME SONG
AW: I have to tie this one yet again. First of all, I know in my review I threw a lot of shit on Sabaton’s “Shiroyama” for having stupid lyrics. It does have terrible lyrics, but that doesn’t change the fact that that song is just so catchy. It’s almost a guilty pleasure for me, because the intellectual part of me can’t condone enjoying it, but I do! I really can’t help it. At the same time, Machinae Supremacy wrote a high-energy love song called “Space Boat.” I’ll say that again. A speedy romance called “Space Boat.” If that is not the best thing ever, I don’t know what is. I can’t pick between these two. Also, special mention to “Veterans of the Apocalypse” by Thunderstone, because that song had held this category for three quarters of the year before The Last Stand and Into the Night World came out.
VK: I think this one goes to Thunderstone‘s “Veterans of the Apocalypse.” “The Path” and last year’s “Fire and Ice” were good enough as advance singles, but neither of them screamed “Thunderstone is back!” quite as much as this one. “Veterans…” is an excellent album- and show-opener, and the acoustic version that I saw them play at Levykauppa Äx was very entertaining as well. There’s some cool soloing, singalong choirs, and at the end, Atte Palokangas is just blasting away on drums. This song never fails to make me feel pumped, and as I found out in the summer, it’s great background music for bicycling!
LL: I was close to call it a tie again, this time between Blind Channel and Thunderstone. Like Ville said, “Veterans of the Apocalypse” pretty much never fails to get you to feel pumped, but if I look back at what I’ve been partying this year to, it’s clearly “Deja FU.” Not a purely fun-time song with its lyrics and all, but there’s been plenty of fun times where it was heavily involved and enjoyed.
BEST COVER SONG
AW: It’s an interesting moment when you find a cover song you aren’t familiar with, only to go listen to the original and immediately understand why the band in question chose the song in question. On this occasion, I’m referring to the Devin Townsend Project‘s cover of Ween’s song, “Transdermal Celebration.” If you listen to the Ween original, it actually sounds like a toned down DTP song, so it’s no wonder that Dev liked it and felt like it would fit onto his new album. And the DTP version is even better than the original! These two were a match made in heaven.
VK: I can’t remember a lot of cover songs from my favorite bands this year… Sonata Arctica’s rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Run to You” was pretty good, but the lyrics about cheating are sleazy as hell, and SA didn’t add that much of their own sound into the song, and hence I can’t let it win. CMX, on the other hand, managed to make pop star Antti Tuisku’s “Hyökyaalto” sound like their own with a guitar-driven rock version. I hadn’t really appreciated the song earlier, but this is yet another reminder that a good tune is a good tune, no matter what the arrangement is.
LL: While I think hardly anyone should touch Queen’s repertoire, I found Delain’s version of “Scandal” on Moonbathers rather enjoyable. It also fit the album sound, overall nice job there.
AW: For me, this is a category that I either find really easy or really hard to fill out. Either something jumps out at me immediately, or nothing jumps out at me. This year, I have to say, there were a lot of cool riffs out there. What is the best? I’m not sure. It’s hard to pick between them. So instead, I’ll give some special mentions: “Beast Engine” by MaSu has some straight-up rugged heavy classic metal riffing going on that pumps me up a lot. “Dream Sequence” from the same album has something phenomenal going on nearly consistently throughout, that gives me some serious chills. The piano line in “Remember Me” is haunting. The intro riff for “Offer Your Light” by DTP is very Devin Townsend, but kind of electronic and really energetic. Most of “Winter’s Gate” is a good riff. Sonata Arctica’s “Black Pearl, White Ocean” sequel has the most Nightwish-inspired bit I’ve ever heard and I kind of love it. So while I can’t narrow this down, I think I will give it to MaSu non-specifically because they had a lot of really inspired riffs throughout the album. If I give a separate award for a solo, it’s the one in “Remember Me” by MaSu – it kind of comes out of nowhere as the song seemingly fades out and then just kicks the emotion up to 11.
VK: My favorite riff this year is in the title-track of Opeth’s Sorceress. Sometimes simplicity is best, – just think of Black Sabbath – and this riff is made even catchier by the vocal melody that mimics it. It also sounds heavy as hell coming off the heels of the jazzy intro. As for solos, there are two strong candidates in “White Flag” by Fates Warning, and “Marionette” by Witherscape. However, as impressive as the playing by both Mike Abdow and Frank Aresti is on “White Flag”, I’m a sucker for big, melodic guitar leads that ooze emotion, so Ragnar Widerberg’s performance on “Marionette” takes the cake.
LL: Oh, this was a tough call; I probably used more time on this than any other category. I loved the soundscapes on both Winter’s Gate and The Dragon’s Year a ton, but wouldn’t still pick anything out of the former – thinking of the whole album as, well, a whole makes it somewhat pointless to dig out just one thing. In the end I decided to skip the latter as well, for rather similar reasons, and went with something entirely else: the riff in “Frontiers” by Omnium Gatherum. I spent at least week last winter listening mostly “Frontiers”; it’s one of those songs I have a hard time getting tired of – it might not be the most spectacular out of the bunch, but man, it is addictive in all the good ways, the riff being not the smallest factor in that.
AW: How many instrumentals did I hear this year? As much as I love “SID Metal Legacy” from Into the Night World, it might just be winning this one because it has no competition. Did I miss anything? Were there any other instrumentals this year? Well, it might have won anyway… the only other song I could think is actually Machinae Supremacy’s Koji Kondo cover of Ocarina of Time’s “Gerudo Valley” theme. Both are good in their own way – the former a tribute SID music, and the latter a tribute to the anniversary of one of the best games of all time.
VK: Riverside’s Eye of the Soundscape is 99% instrumental, only with occasional wordless vocals, so there’s a lot to choose from on that album. However, I’ll limit myself to the previously unreleased songs, because the rest of the material had been released earlier than 2016. Out of these new pieces, “Shine” is my choice, because it’s got some cool keyboard and bass work going on, and I like the Cure vibe that I can hear in it.
LL: Honestly, I’m quite useless in remembering instrumental songs (probably because I’m a hopeless lyric addict), if they’re not something rather unusual, or just unusually great. So this year mostly hits blank on that front, with the exception of ”These Grey Heavens” by Omnium Gatherum. It’s mellow with the ability to get some fragments stuck in your head, so there is definitely something done right.
BIGGEST POSITIVE SURPRISE
AW: There were actually a fair number of albums this year from bands that I’ve lost interest in that could have fallen into this category. However, as a big fan of The Days of Grays (2009) from Sonata Arctica, I found that Stones Grow Her Name (2012) to be a big disappointment, and Pariah’s Child (2014) didn’t make up for it for me the way it did for many others. With that in mind, considering how Sonata Arctica used to be one of my favorite bands, I’m really happy with the mature progression found in The Ninth Hour and I’ll happily give it this award.
VK: I was happy with the new Sonata Arctica, but to be honest, I had a feeling they had at least one more solid album in them, and it was just a matter of time before they’d get there. On the other hand, I had zero expectations for Metallica after the contrived Death Magnetic (2008), but Hardwired… to Self-Destruct surprised me with how good it was. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it sounds like Hetfield and co. are having fun again. However, I have to give this award to Haken – I used to think of them as a poor man’s Dream Theater based on the little I’d heard from them, but Affinity made me see the error of my ways with its unique blend of 80s sounds and modern prog.
LL: If we go to technicalities, I’m going to use again the loophole in this category (that it’s not just restricted to albums) – I’d like to use my space here to acknowledge the return of a couple bands that have been on a bit of hiatus: Battlelore, and Eternal Tears of Sorrow. When an indefinite break has been going on long enough, you sort of start to wait for the band to call it quits for good – and the joy that comes after they let the world hear about them again is all the bigger.
BEST NEW DISCOVERY
AW: This was a no-brainer for me. In March, I had no idea who Blind Channel was, and by June they were already on my list of favorite live acts of the year. They lured me in with their brilliant song construction and energetic stage performance before they even had an album out, and let’s face facts – their debut did not disappoint! I am seeing huge things in this band’s future and I’m glad to have gotten on board as early as I have! Since Revolutions already tied for Best Album, it takes the best new discovery without any question. Special mention to Haken though – I’m not a big prog fan, but the phantom is, and so I’ve been hearing a lot of it and can’t deny that I enjoy it.
VK: Though Maschine had already released an album before this year’s Naturalis, I’ll let them take this one, because they’re still a relatively new band, and I only heard a few debuts this year anyway. I was positively surprised at how mature the record sounded, and I’ll definitely keep an eye on them in the future.
LL: Having been aware of Blind Channel (and their domestic contemporaries mentioned here) for a couple years already, my choice falls to Phantasma, the side project of Delain’s singer, Charlotte Wessels, along with Georg Neuhauser (Serenity) and Oliver Phillips (Everon, among many others). Their 2015 debut, The Deviant Hearts, sailed under the radar for me until late spring, and I eventually came across it by chance – and hold on just a second, how and WHY? It’s easily one of the best melodic metal albums I’ve heard in this decade; an enchanting story, told by music that dances around you in the most graceful way, adorned by the voices of Wessels and Neuhauser, with a bunch of guest vocal performances to complete the palette. I recommend doing yourself a favor and giving the album a spin right away.
BIGGEST WHATEVER (MOST FORGETTABLE ALBUM)
AW: While there were a fair number of mediocre albums this year, or albums that failed to live up to their band’s good name, there was only one that truly stood out as a complete failure in terms of being interesting. In Flames’ Battles really ended up being a ‘whatever’ album, with it’s uninspired riffing, lame drums, auto-tuned vocals, and complete lack of anything that really could be considered memorable. A weak submission into the musical world and their discography, and I’ll pass them this award with a hearty “meh.”
VK: Like Amy, I wasn’t keen on the new In Flames, but I found it more bad than forgettable. As for the biggest whatever, Dream Theater’s rock opera The Astonishing is the first one that comes to mind. Where most fans either hated it or praised it as a masterpiece, I find myself in the middle, not exactly knowing what to think. The first act of the story is actually decent, and despite the cheesy Disney vibe there are some nice melodies in there, but the album becomes a total snoozefest in the second half. Due to the 130-minute length it’s hard to find the time and motivation to sit through the whole thing, but I never really feel like going back to the likable individual tracks either, because they just don’t work out of context; hence it’s easy to forget about the whole album. I prefer The Astonishing to the disappointing paint-by-numbers self-titled record, and I applaud DT for having the guts to try something different, but it didn’t work out this time.
LL: This truly is a tough pick, and looks like I can’t make one at all. Either albums I’ve listened to have not been even close to forgettable, or they have been such so badly I can’t bring myself to remember them for this category, so I will have to leave this blank.
AW: This was looking to be a tough choice for a while. There were many mediocre albums this year, but frankly, very few of them were straight-up disappointments as most of the mediocre music came from bands I had few expectations for. However, as I’ve been a potential Amaranthe fan since I bought their first single from a Kamelot show in Helsinki in 2010, I’ve wanted to like that band. While their first two albums were good but without much replay value, I had liked Massive Addictive a bit more considering it was a little different from the first two (re: not every single song sounded the same). I listened to Maximalism with the hopes they’d keep progressing in a positive way, but instead I heard a garbled mishmash of awful sounds and slack effort. I’m not far off from saying I hated that album on first impression. So while I can’t necessarily say that I had high hopes for it as I don’t really consider myself a fan, the sheer magnitude of how bad it was was certainly a disappointment.
VK: As much as I dug some of the individual songs on the album, Katatonia’s The Fall of Hearts failed to impress me on the whole. I guess in the case of Katatonia’s progressive flirtations, the chase was better than the catch, although it may also be the weird tracklist that hinders my enjoyment. To be fair, Dead End Kings (2012) was a tough act to follow, and after 4 years of waiting, anything that wasn’t at least on the same level was bound to be a disappointment.
LL: I’ll call myself fortunate – not a single album I’ve looked forward has disappointed me this year. So, surprisingly, nothing from me here.
AW: There were a few contenders this year: Leaves’ Eyes split with Liv Kristine was an epic dramafest. Eluveitie dumping Merlin Sutter and having Anna Murphy and Ivo Henzi follow him was a huge shocker. Aleksi Munter had to give up Swallow the Sun in favor of love and rest and rejuvenation. Frosttide parting ways with Joni Snoro and Lauri Myllylä was a necessary bummer, and Sirenia has moved on to yet another vocalist (how many have they been through now?). However, I will go with Peter Iwers from In Flames, because I feel like his departure was the last nail in the coffin that is that band and their music nowadays. All the rest of those bands still have a glimmer of hope, but I have officially lost interest in that band after Battles.
I’m going to throw a special mention in here as well to the death of Aleah Stanbridge from Trees of Eternity. This section isn’t meant for deaths, but members leaving bands/bands breaking up. Nevertheless, I feel like I can’t leave this year behind without mentioning this girl and her lovely voice, who is very sorely missed. And of course, Lemmy and Bowie deserve mention as well, along with Piotr Grudziński.
VK: Though this category is for line-up changes and bands calling it quits, I can’t ignore the fact that 2016 was a dark year for popular music with a lot of deaths. The one that had the biggest impact on me was the passing of Riverside guitarist Piotr Grudziński, because he was the only one I was a fan of beforehand, and he was only 40 years old. On top of that, Riverside had just released a great album last year, and it felt like they were on an upward trend with big future plans, which makes this sudden death even more tragic. Luckily the band will carry on with guest guitarists in the future, and Grudziński’s legacy will live on.
Martin Henriksson’s departure from Dark Tranquillity is the only significant line-up change I can remember from this year – maybe it’s the constant dying making splits seem little in comparison? While Atoma is a good album and DT weren’t affected negatively, it’s sad that the guy who wrote melodeath classics like “Lethe” and “Final Resistance” lost his passion for music.
LL: A lot of the mentioned splits here feel like having a necessary quality, which – to me – erase some of the sad part, and while it really is sad to see Aleksi Munter having to give up Swallow the Sun, I, for one, have the highest understanding when it comes to avoiding burnout. So, alike Amy and Ville before me, I would like to use my space here to remember all wonderful musicians we have lost this year – from big stars like Lemmy and Bowie, to less known but equally loved artists, such as Aleah Stanbridge of Trees of Eternity and Tarot’s late drummer Pecu Cinnari. May they rest in peace.
AW: It took me a while to figure this one out, because I had forgotten the obvious pick. Is it Elina Siirala in Leaves Eyes? Nah, I still get a bad taste in my mouth from that band’s split with Liv Kristine and don’t think they’ll be the same without her, even if Siirala is a great vocalist. Could it then be one of Eluveitie’s three replacements? Nope. Think, was there any really and truly inspired replacement this year? Of course! Netta Skog taking over for Emmi Silvennoinen in Ensiferum. I really like Emmi, but her live performance has been lacking life for years now. Netta played a few shows with Enska before this was announced, and with her background in folk metal (Turisas), it only makes sense that her accordion has the potential to really make Ensiferum stand out from the ever-growing crowd of Viking/folk metal bands. I’m really excited to see what happens with her on board now!
VK: Anders Iwers seems to fit nicely into Dark Tranquillity, and I’m glad they finally got someone to fill the bassist spot after playing with backing tracks for a couple of years, so he’s the only one I can think of. As a random fun fact, Atoma is the first time since In Flames’ debut Lunar Strain (1994) that Iwers and Mikael Stanne appear on the same album, so it feels like a circle has become complete in the Gothenburg scene!
LL: Netta Skog joining Ensiferum after Emmi Silvennoinen is one that initially comes to mind, and I, like Amy, couldn’t think of a better pick for the band.
BEST COVER ART
AW: This was a genuinely hard pick for me. I’ve always enjoyed the female-centric focus of Machinae Supremacy’s albums, and I particularly love the girl in the background on this one and the muted colors that go with it. As well, with the “Last March of the Undead” on the cover, it seems only fitting to have these phantom-esque beings zombie-walking towards the viewer. Sonata Arctica’s The Ninth Hour wasn’t perfect, but I like the steampunk complexity of the album art with its dystopian village and contrasts between nature and civilization. I suppose I should give this to Sonata Arctica because it has the greatest artistic complexity, but I’d honestly be happy to give this award to any of these covers.
VK: I’m going with The Ninth Hour as well, because I like the symbolism behind the cover, and it’s been executed beautifully. I haven’t seen the vinyl version in stores yet, but I bet it looks glorious!
LL: This wasn’t an easy pick for me, either – a lot of intriguing covers this year, from bigger and smaller bands alike, and nearly all of my favorite albums have had really nice album art. In the end it was a choice between Stam1na’s Elokuutio and Hour of the Nightingale by Trees of Eternity, and out of those two I go with the latter. The minimalist storybook style and muted tones fit the album beautifully, and the artist’s style is just so lovely. It’s not grand or impressive, but brings me joy.
WORST COVER ART
AW: No album that I listened to’s artwork struck me as particularly awful this year; in fact, most of the album art I saw, I rather enjoyed. There were a few questionable decisions in there, but nothing straight-up awful. The closest thing to “bad” art was the disappointing cover of Psychework’s debut. I just think they should’ve done so much more because of the concept and the final product is pretty lackluster and honestly kind of ugly. I wasn’t going to award it to these guys, but in the end… yeah, I really don’t like that art.
VK: Although Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is a surprising return to goodness for Metallica, I still think the cover art is horrendously bad. Album covers with band members’ faces are pretty lame anyway, but Metallica take it to the next level with the ugly-effected and colored jumbled faces that makes Queen’s cover art for The Miracle (1989) look like Mona Lisa.
LL: I hate to name this one here, I really do, but if I’m completely honest, the cover for Psychework’s The Dragon’s Year was something that made me think that they could’ve done so, so much better. Can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that puts me off – maybe it’s just the drawing style, it doesn’t feel fitting for the album.
BEST LIVE SHOW
AW: Before I give out the award, I want to say that this should go hands-down to the Lahti Symphony Orchestra doing Score: Orchestral Game Music. They deserve it simply based on how utterly unbelievable they were; however, this is 2016 in Metal and that’s not even close to metal, so they don’t qualify. With that out of the way, we can discuss the real contenders, of which there were three. The first was Blind Channel and Ember Falls for the former’s debut release gig at Virgin Oil – a perfect energy and performance combination from both bands; next, Amorphis with Anneke van Giersbergen at Huvila-teltta for the An Evening with Friends show where they played Under the Red Cloud in full; and of course, Iron Maiden at Kantolan Tapahtumapuisto on their Book of Souls World Tour. Strengths and faults? While Blind Channel and Ember Falls both put on their best shows of the year, the former’s setlist wasn’t in the best order as compared to the album itself, which brought a song or two down a notch. Amorphis’ show was the best I’ve seen from them as well, though they squandered their time with Anneke van Giersbergen by using her in only two songs and, in hindsight on rewatching the show online, I honestly didn’t think she was used all that well in “House of Sleep.” That leaves Iron Maiden, who, like the others, I’ve seen many times now and this was again the best show I’ve seen from them. It’s a little unfair, but Iron Maiden has a bigger budget to put on a better show, and unlike the other two (no matter how minuscule they were), there were no real fumbles in the performance that I can think of. It feels a little cheap to award it to such a big band, but frankly, I genuinely think Maiden earned it. Also, a special mention to both Avantasia and Ghost at Tuska this year – both bands genuinely shocked me with how great their performances were!
VK: Oh man, this is like having to choose between your children, since I saw so many fantastic shows this year! However, Steven Wilson deserves the victory just like last year, because the sound at Pakkahuone was absolutely perfect, I enjoyed the visual stimulation (aka video screens) very much, and getting to hear a longer setlist with a few more Porcupine Tree classics was awesome. Honorable mentions go to Amorphis at Juhlaviikot and Black Sabbath and co. at Monsters of Rock – Amorphis played the best show I’d seen by them, while MoR had a great line-up and Sabbath was… well, Sabbath!
LL: I’m on the verge of calling this a tie between Delain and Psychework here – as I predicted in the beginning of the year, the latter held up quite impressively throughout the length of it, and it was no slouch of a year on the grand scale of live shows. There was the utterly entertaining Sakara Tour show at Espoo Metro Areena, and some very pleasing festival shows – like the return of mighty Ajattara – but in the end none of them managed to top the “whoa mama!” and sheer astonishment that ran circles in my head the whole show as it did at Lutakko last January. So I actually had to wait almost a full year to find a worthy contender for the title, and oh dear what a contender that was! I’ve described Delain’s 10th anniversary show at Paradiso, Amsterdam elsewhere as “a goddamn confetti bomb of awesome”, and that sums up what went down rather well, even though it’s sometimes extremely hard to put feelings that you go through at shows into sentences. But I will state that the concert DVD from Paradiso will be a gigantic, unapologetic dose of crazy, happy, goodtimes with some brilliant visitors. But the title for the best live show? You know what, I will still give it to Psychework. If a band can pull off a first show like that, they are capable of nearly anything in this genre.
BEST LIVE ALBUM/DVD
AW: You might think, considering how much I love The Human Equation and how much I loved The Theater Equation that I’d be all over the DVD release of the show for this award. However, I feel as though this project deserved a higher budget for video quality and since I was there for the real thing, the live DVD does not quite compare to the memory of seeing it in person. That leaves really only one band who could possibly sweep this – Nightwish’s Vehicle of Spirit. We saw the screening of the DVD in advance, and we were present for the show at Ratina (which was my runner-up for best show last year, second only to The Theater Equation), so it’s pretty obvious that if Ratina was one of the best shows of 2015, its DVD release would be the best of its kind in 2016.
VK: I’ve always loved live DVD’s, but somehow I didn’t buy any new ones this year. Rush released Time Stand Still, but it’s a documentary, and I haven’t received my copy yet anyway. At the Hollow also released a live CD recently, but I’ve yet to check it out. However, I did enjoy the bonus DVD that came with Blues Pills’ Lady in Gold, and Opeth had a couple of cool audio tracks from their orchestral show in Plovdiv on the bonus disc of Sorceress.
LL: I have to confess that I’ve yet to see Vehicle of Spirit (but which I will have seen by the time this blog post is out), so again a year has passed without me seeing any new live DVDs. I will have to fix this the upcoming year, for sure, once Delain releases the recording of their anniversary show at Paradiso. (Also, I haven’t lost my hope for the Kiuas DVD. Yet. Because there needs to be one. It’s not the DVD we deserve, but definitely the DVD we want.)
BEST MUSIC VIDEO
AW: I honestly haven’t paid much attention to music videos this year. Blind Channel’s live shots from their tour with Simple Plan for “Deja FU” were pretty good, but nothing noteworthy or unique by any means.
VK: Most metal videos these days are generic as hell, with the band playing in an empty industrial hall, maybe with some (usually totally unrelated) conceptual footage thrown in. However, a few videos did have an impact on me, “Forward Momentum” by Dark Tranquillity being the best one. It’s got an apocalyptic vibe, but the perspective is very human and down-to-earth, which goes along nicely with the song, as both seem to convey the simultaneous sadness of leaving something behind and determination to carry on.
LL: I agree with Ville on “Forward Momentum” – anything Vesa Ranta touches that is audiovisual or drumming-related turns to gold – but along with that I have a PSA for you: Viivi Huuska is a video directing genius who should do every video Vesa Ranta is not doing. Also, her video to Pete Parkkonen’s “Kohta sataa” is a glorious example of bringing some sexy gender equality to music videos – it does exactly what Ikinä failed to do with their “Magic Mike” vid, and therefore more than deserves the spot here. Oh, right – it’s NSFW (and as far as warnings go, if mainstream hit chart pop/rock isn’t your cup of tea, you might want to mute the audio). Extra points for a nicely showcased Stam1na tattoo. No, that’s not a euphemism. Although it could be.
AW: Another no-brainer for me. I discovered Blind Channel and Ember Falls around the same time this year, so since Blind Channel put out an album and Ember Falls didn’t, Blind Channel gets to take home Best New Discovery and Ember Falls, without a doubt, gets Most Potential. Their debut music video is one of the best music videos I’ve seen in ages (and easily would have won that category last year if I had known about it then) and their live performances have assured me that I will be a fan of their debut album when it comes out next year. Guys, don’t keep me waiting much longer!
VK: Okay, unlike the discovery category, I think this award has to go to an actual debutante… The Mute Gods is the brainchild of Nick Beggs, who plays bass in Steven Wilson’s band, and his debut Do Nothing till You Hear from Me proved that he’s a very capable lead singer and songwriter as well – I especially enjoyed his lyrics. A sophomore album – which reportedly will be heavier than the debut – has already been announced for next February, so Beggs and his partners in crime have been very productive. I’m looking forward to hear how the various dark events around the world in 2016 will manifest themselves in their music.
LL: I’m with Amy here; my last year’s statement on Arion still stands and the two singles that have come out since have matched my expectations – which are admittedly higher than high with that band – but with them it’s more like knowing what you get at this point (as is the case with my other pick, Psychework). However, Ember Falls is right now an intriguing wild card we haven’t seen pulling out their biggest guns – yet. And they will get to that sooner rather than later. Heck, I’m glad I stumbled upon this band back in the day they operated under the name of Mekanism, it makes me even more eager to see what they’re up to now that they’re finally “getting there”, whatever that holds.
AW: While 2016 wasn’t quite as overwhelmingly great as 2015 was, it’s great to see that there were still quite a lot of ties in there this year, at least on my behalf. I am glad to see that there was a little break in the classic bands sweeping it – In Flames has more or less tanked, Devin Townsend (one of my all-time favorites) got a measly award for a cover song, Sonata Arctica made a partial comeback, and all of the familiar female-fronted bands took a backseat to a band I’d never heard of prior to 2016. I’m mostly happy that Machinae Supremacy managed to set the bar even higher than they already have – their last few albums have been tough acts to follow, but they pretty much nailed it. It wasn’t a year of all-the-classics-in-the-making like 2015, but it certainly had its goodies nonetheless.
VK: While 2016 was a pretty bad year around the world in general, musically it was better than I’d expected. Maybe there weren’t as many highs as in 2015, but not a lot of disappointments either. Plenty of great new releases and unexpected returns to form from seasoned veterans, a bunch of solid sophomore albums from young bands, a couple of promising debuts, and lots of great shows – what more can you ask for?
LL: The year was not half as bad as I expected, if not quite reaching the heights of the last. 2015 was an extraordinarily great year overall, in terms of both live shows and albums, but 2016 ended up being a solid, good, above-the-average basic year. Some utter gems, not many low points – if last year was hovering between 9.5 and 10, I’d give this one a fairly firm 7. The year has given music and moments that have rendered me speechless, made me laugh and cry equal amounts, and although some of my very favorites made the lists here, there’s a few left that deserve a mention.
First, Thunderstone’s Apocalypse Again was a warmly welcomed return of some of my childhood heroes, whereas Blind Channel’s Revolutions is a glorious showcase of what the young guns are capable of. Omnium Gatherum, Stam1na, In Mourning, and Dark Tranquillity all delivered solid, good albums, and for what’s bubbling under, I’d like to give a shout out to Marianas Rest and End of Aeon.
When it comes to 2017, I couldn’t be more excited: new Arion, new Ajattara, new Wolfheart, Ember Falls’ debut… what’s not to look forward to?
Best Album: Machinae Supremacy – Into the Night World / Blind Channel – Revolutions (AW); Fates Warning – Theories of Flight (VK); Insomnium – Wintr’s Gate (LL)
Best Song: Machinae Supremacy – “Remember Me”; Steven Wilson – “My Book of Regrets”; Insomnium – “Winter’s Gate” (LL)
Best Folk/Viking Album: Moonsorrow – Jumalten aika (AW); n/a (VK); Brymir – Slayer of Gods (LL)
Best Female-Fronted Album: Trees of Eternity – Hour of the Nightingale (AW); Blues Pills – Lady in Gold (VK); Delain – Moonbathers / Trees of Eternity – Hour of the Nightingale (LL)
Most Epic Song: Insomnium – “Winter’s Gate” / Sonata Arctica – “White Pearl, Black Oceans pt. II” (AW); Fates Warning – “The Ghosts of Home” (VK); Insomnium – “Winter’s Gate” (LL)
Best Slow Song: Machinae Supremacy – “Remember Me” (AW); Witherscape – “Marionette” (VK); Psychework – “Barricades Won’t Fall” (LL)
Most Chilling Song: Insomnium – “Winter’s Gate” (AW); David Bowie – “Lazarus” (VK); Psychework – “The Dragon’s Year” / Trees of Eternity – “Gallows Bird” (LL)
Best Fun-time Song: Sabaton – “Shiroyama” / Machinae Supremacy – “Space Boat” (AW); Thunderstone – “Veterans of the Apocalypse” (VK); Blind Channel – “Deja FU” (LL)
Best Cover Song: Devin Townsend Project – “Transdermal Celebration” [Ween ] (AW); CMX – Hyökyaalto [Antti Tuisku] (VK); Delain – “Scandal” [Queen] (LL)
Best Solo/Riff: Machinae Supremacy [riffs], Machinae Supremacy – “Remember Me” [solo] (AW); Opeth – “Sorceress” [riff], Witherscape – “Marionette” [solo]; Omnium Gatherum – “Frontiers” (LL)
Best Instrumental: Machinae Supremacy – “SID Metal Legacy” / “Gerudo Valley” (AW); Riverside – “Shine” (VK); Omnium Gatherum – “These Grey Heavens” (LL)
Biggest Positive Surprise: Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour (AW); Haken – Affinity (VK); return of Battlelore & Eternal Tears of Sorrow from hiatus (LL)
Best New Discovery: Blind Channel (AW); Maschine (VK); Phantasma (LL)
Biggest Whatever: In Flames – Battles (AW); Dream Theater – The Astonishing (VK); n/a (LL)
Biggest Disappointment: Amaranthe – Maximalism (AW); Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts (VK); n/a (LL)
Saddest Farewell: Peter Iwers [In Flames]; special mention to all of the musicians who passed on this year
Best Replacement: Netta Skog, Ensiferum (AW); Anders Iwers [Dark Tranquillity] (VK); Netta Skog [Ensiferum] (LL)
Best Cover Art: Machinae Supremacy – Into the Night World / Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour (AW); Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour (VK); Trees of Eternity – Hour of the Nightingale (LL)
Worst Cover Art: Psychework – The Dragon’s Year (AW); Metallica – Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (VK); Psychework – The Dragon’s Year (LL)
Best Live Show: Iron Maiden @ Kantolan Tapahtumapuisto (AW) [special mention to Score: Orchestral Game Music with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra]; Steven Wilson @ Pakkahuone (VK); Psychework @ Lutakko (LL)
Best Live Album/DVD: Nightwish – Vehicle of Spirit (AW); Blues Pills – Lady in Gold bonus disc, Opeth – Sorceress live tracks (VK); n/a (LL)
Best Music Video: n/a (AW); Dark Tranqillity – “Forward Momentum” (VK); Pete Parkkonen – “Kohta sataa” (LL)
Most Potential: Ember Falls (AW); The Mute Gods (VK); Ember Falls (LL)
To all our readers, happy new year!