James Acaster’s 10 Favourite Metal Albums From 2016
2016 is the greatest year for music. Ever. Not our words, but those of comedian James Acaster who made it his mission to collect and consume hundreds of albums from 2016, spanning all genres and styles.
Following a breakup and subsequent breakdown, James found himself adrift in 2017, seeking comfort in discovering and listening to music from the previous year, a time when he was truly happy. This obsession soon became a full-on work project and the topic of his new book Perfect Sound Whatever, which tells the story of James’ rollercoaster year through the lens of different 2016 albums.
From Bowie to Beyonce, Kanye to Radiohead, 2016 was full of huge artists releasing landmark albums, hundreds of which are examined throughout the pages of James’ new book, but he only had room to deep dive into two metal albums. So we’ve given him the chance to speak at length about the 10 metal albums he deems the best of 2016 (aka the best year for music).
James first discovered metal through Kerrang! magazine at the age of 13, reading his friend’s copy in a caravan while on a rugby tour.
“It was something like the Top 100 Albums Of All Time, and I loved lists like that,” he remembers today. “I didn’t get into metal straight away from that issue, but shortly after that I bought Kerrang! and it was the age of nu-metal, so I was buying stuff like Soulfly, Korn and bands like that.”
James fell away from the metal scene gradually over time, not caring to pay attention to modern music in general, but credits his 2016 project as the catalyst for reigniting his passion for reintroducing himself to the world of heavy.
“When I look back at bands I used to listen to as a teenager, they feel very babyish now in comparison to bands that are getting attention these days. The only bands that really hold up from my adolescence are Rage, Deftones and Tool. What was nice about getting back into it is the amount of bands doing a much more mature version of that sound that I was more familiar with. When I get into a metal album, I really get into it, and it’ll become one of my favourites.”
So let’s get into James’ ten favourite metal albums from 2016.
Zeal & Ardor – Devil Is Fine
“I’d been searching for music for ages and reading everyone’s top lists of the year. I hadn’t seen this on any lists anywhere, and suddenly it was number one on someone’s list. Any time that happened I got quite excited; it was an album I hadn’t heard of but it was someone’s favourite album of the year, so I was intrigued by it.
“The reason it wasn’t on a lot of lists was because it was released on Bandcamp in 2016 independently with no PR whatsoever, Manuel Gagneux (frontman) just did it on his own, and it blew up. It got re-released in 2017, so some people like Ed Gamble try to pass it off as a 2017 album, but they should have gotten into it at the right time.
“I liked the music on the album, but for a while I wrestled with how okay it was that he’d done this, and then I read more about it and made my peace with it. I don’t know if people know the story behind the album, but he went on 4chan and asked for recommendations of genres he should incorporate in his music. Someone suggested black metal and another person suggested N-word music – which is a pretty horrible thing to write, but I don’t know the race of that person or if they knew he was mixed race himself. He decided to interpret that as blues but also spiritual music that was made by slaves in America, and mixed it with black metal.
“It’s two genres that shouldn’t go together, obviously. Spiritual music is very Christian and black metal tends to be very not Christian (laughs). There are sub-sections of black metal that are misogynist and racist as well, so he was kind of upsetting people on both sides in different ways, but he wasn’t thinking about it being big, he was just making this album himself. When you hear it, you can hear someone in their bedroom really getting obsessed with this new sound they’re creating, but have no idea if there’s an audience for it.”
Bologna Violenta – Discordia
“I can’t remember how I found it; I went on Bandcamp wormholes most nights during the year when I was buying this music, but I just ended up there somehow. There’s a hint of Mike Patton to it, there’s a craziness, but I also like the fact that every song is as short as it is. It’s one big unit, even though there’s loads of different songs and pauses between them, it sounds like it flows from one to the next. It gives you a little bit of rest before this really erratic, relentless, short burst of energy, then rests again – like someone is beating you up in little intervals.
“Nicola Manzan studied violin at a conservatoire in Italy and he’s also in a metal band playing guitar. He wanted to make something different that incorporated his love of classical music and for metal, and grindcore was the most abrasive genre he’d experimented with so far, so he chose that. His first album was just him with electronic drums, but this was the first with live drums – his friend tracked the drums first and sent them over, then he wrote the songs to the drumbeat.
“I love the energy of it, I love what the violin brings, and I found myself going back to it because there wasn’t anything quite like this album. I love the blend of grindcore and classical music all the way through.”
SubRosa – For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages
“This is their final record, they split up this year. I was specifically looking for this kind of music. I grew up in Kettering – which is next to Corby, where Raging Speedhorn come from – and most of the bands bar Defenestration were sludgy bands, so that’s what I’d watch a lot. I just have a real love for that sort of music.
“I was deliberately looking for doom and sludge, but in that genre, finding a vocalist I like can be quite difficult. There’s no real rule about what vocals I like, I think you just have to sound distinctive. I love Rebecca Vernon’s vocals on it, she’s an incredible singer. I love the strings on the album, it just blends in with the overall sound and feel of the album, which is a very sad, cinematic one.
“In a genre where you’re slowing everything down, you can spot plagiarism easily, but with their riffs – even though it’s incredibly simple – they just do it so much better than other bands of that genre, which is difficult when you leave yourself so exposed and vulnerable.
“Those first two albums I write about in the book properly, but this one I really wish I wrote about in the book. I named a chapter after it, it’s about me shitting myself in a steakhouse.”
Head Wound City – A New Wave Of Violence
“There are other hardcore albums from the year that I really love, but I group this in with the rest of the albums here because there’s something about Jordan Blilie’s vocals being really metal anyway. Plus it’s an album I don’t think gets enough attention, so if there’s an opportunity to do a list for Kerrang!, I’m going to chuck it in there.
“I love all the different bands that it comes from – The Blood Brothers, The Locust, Yeah Yeah Yeahs – they’re all bands I’m really into and they’ve all done at least one album I think is a classic. This project brings what I love about their individual projects and just puts it all together in a way that is just so satisfying.
“I always loved The Blood Brothers’ vocals but on some projects maybe it was too mainstream for my tastes, I’ve always liked the anger and chaos of The Locust and I’ve always been a fan of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I’ve always wanted to hear each individual member do something a bit weirder and out there, and I love the meeting of minds on it, I don’t think there’s a bad track on the album.”
Cult Of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner
“This was on (comedian) Ed Gamble’s list – he always does a 20 Best Albums Of The Year list on Twitter – and I didn’t know it and just gave it a listen. It’s one of those ones where straight away I’m like, ‘Oh please let the vocals be something I like,’ and as soon as Julie Christmas’ vocals came in I loved it.
“The whole album is about space exploration, and you do feel these expansive instrumentals to everything have a bludgeoning quality to them as well. The beauty of it being five songs, as soon as you like the first song, they’ve got to work really hard to fuck it up (laughs). The law of averages should be on their side.
“I’ve seen interviews with them and I think both artists were getting bored, and you can really hear them inspire each other and reawaken each other’s creativity on the album. It ends with this track that’s meant to feel like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s nice to listen to that track and visualise some of the crazy visuals at the end of the movie.
“With all of their records, Cult Of Luna have a theme, but with this one it marries so perfectly with Julie Christmas’ vocals as a space exploration thing – she sounds quite weightless with her voice. It was one of the earliest records I got into; again I regret it not being in the book properly.”
Nails – You Will Never Be One Of Us
“I don’t think I’ve recommended this to anyone (laughs). I think if you’re going to do this type of music then you need to go all-out and just be horrible and brutal with short violent songs. Those vocals have to hit a certain mark where they’re gruesome but not unlistenable or making me want to cry, but still sound pretty merciless.
“One of the lists I looked at was The Needle Drop’s list on YouTube, this was his favourite metal album of the year I think. I love the title, I was drawn to it straight away. A lot of the things I was thinking about when I was buying all these albums was isolation and togetherness; I was having an isolated year and thinking a lot about connecting with people. I was listening to a lot of albums about togetherness or people feeling lonely, but no albums that were like, ‘Fuck off, we don’t want you’ (laughs). I like that there was a band who did that kind of album with a message that fed into what I was thinking as a whole, but with a different angle to it.
“I was getting into albums of all different genres that seemed like they were trying to piss people off. I bought another album from 2016 by a band called Sleigh Bells; they’re really obnoxious pop music, and I bought that because the singer of Nails (Todd Jones) recommended it on What’s In My Bag? on YouTube. He said, ‘This band are doing what we do in pop music,’ and wilfully winding people up by going really hard on one genre. That helped me understand both bands.”
The Body – No One Deserves Happiness
“I bought it and was surprised at how much I liked it, or how much I liked the first track. I didn’t know there was a female vocalist, I thought it was all Chip King doing these tormented torture noises – I don’t want an album of that, fuck that. When Chrissy Wolpert started singing I really loved that, then every time it went to Chip’s vocals I was like, ‘Oh no, this is really upsetting, this doesn’t make me feel nice,’ but every time her vocals would come back in they would have more power because it felt like you’d been literally tortured in her absence.
“I went away from it but it was a record I kept thinking about, I wanted to listen to it again because there’s nothing else quite like it in a year’s worth of music. It’s pretty significant that they’ve managed to do something no-one else has done. It’s a horror movie soundtrack with almost every horror movie I’ve ever seen worked into one thing; the ones where she’s singing is a more accessible horror flick, but when it’s all the noise it’s torture porn.
“It really is an album you have to listen to all the way through to properly enjoy, if you bail at any point then you don’t enjoy it. Although it isn’t a concept album, the music itself tells a story and you have to follow it through to the end to appreciate it and absorb it.”
Raging Speedhorn – Lost Ritual
“When I was a teenager and I wanted to be in bands – my life-goal was to be a drummer in a band – I was going to see Speedhorn quite a lot locally in the early 2000s. It was really exciting to have a local band doing really well, I remember The Gush being on MTV. I remember seeing them open Ozzfest and one of them was wearing a Scourge t-shirt, who were a local Kettering band, and being really excited about that.
“When the debut album came out, even the age that I was, it wasn’t what I wanted from it – it didn’t bring out what I loved about them live. I would see them at their own gigs and at a jam night in Kettering where anyone can join in, and that’s where their side-project Viking Skull formed. They were really obsessed with old-school metal vibes and blues-rock, and Viking Skull really embodied that more than Speedhorn did, but I really missed the brutal aggression of Speedhorn and I wanted a mix of the two. I feel like Lost Ritual is a mix of the two, the production is on point, it’s what I wanted them to do all along.
“Even though I’m not aware of what’s cool or not in metal these days, I kind of know that this is an album that never really got much attention, and that there aren’t loads of people talking about Speedhorn any more. But I can’t deny how much I love it. It’s everything about my teenage years and the album I probably wanted as a teenager and never got, but I finally got it in 2016 (laughs).”
Street Sects – End Position
“They’ve gone all-out and aren’t trying to sound pleasant at any point, but I’m surprised at how pleasant it is. In my head I think it’s a really horrible listening experience like someone is trying to drown you for a whole album, but if you listen to it there’s so many hooks.
“They’ve mixed all these genres together on of top of the other, and there’s something I really love about that, especially when you hear what they’ve done since. They’re not as metal as they used to be, which is fine, but for me I don’t think they’ve done anything that sounds as uniquely them since this record. But I don’t know where you go from here. To do a debut album that is so foot to the floor, like ‘We’re putting everything we’ve ever learned from music and every influence in this record and we’re doing it at 1000mph. Here’s everything we’ve ever felt emotionally, everything we’ve ever thought politically,’ then rammed in a blender and turned it on.
“I went back to it just before the book was released, so I managed to mention it in the book briefly, but I’m gutted I didn’t get into it earlier on because I’d have loved to have written about it. Every album I’ve mentioned so far I wish was in the book because I’ve got personal connections to them or they’re just relevant to what’s going on in music in general; they’re doing their own thing or doing a genre better than anyone else. I guess that’s what I’m drawn to most.”
Car Bomb – Meta
“I wanted to introduce people to new stuff rather than go, ‘I’m pretty cool because I listen to Dillinger Escape Plan and you can guys can read this and think that you’re pretty cool as well.’ I’d much rather go, ‘Maybe you’ll like this band, they’re really good and deserve more attention.’
“I love how tight it is all the way through, the way that they do staccato, grunty notes all the time – very short, rapid, little riffs. It’s like someone’s drilling a nail into some wood; I love how they just stick to that. There’s some passages where it gets a bit more melodic or more airy for a while, but it’s rare, most of it is pretty impossible to follow.
“It’s less accessible than a lot of math stuff. You really get a sense of personality from this album, and maybe sometimes that’s at the expense of memorable choruses or melodies, but I like a record where you really get a sense of who the music is as a character, not who the band are.
“It’s really intricate while being quite bludgeoning as well, but the vocals aren’t too soft or hard; it’s a perfect point where it hits a narrow mark of quite grunty but not to the point of where you might as well just listen to a goddamn pig for a whole album.”
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation
Every Time I Die – Low Teens
Oathbreaker – Rheia
It’s Not Night: It’s Space – Our Birth Is But A Sleep And A Forgetting
Macmanaman – New Wave Of British Baseball Heavy Metal
Wreck And Reference – Indifferent Rivers Romance End
Perfect Sound whatever is out now. Order your copy here.
Bassist Jim Riley has departed The Ghost Inside – read the band’s statement
On the 20th anniversary of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Rated R, we reflect on its initial impact and how it pushed contemporary rock forward at the turn of the century