The older you get the harder it is to fathom how fast time seemingly moves. When I look back at all the amazing metal albums released in 1996 I have a hard time comprehending that they are each celebrating their silver anniversary this year. Yet here we sit. Twenty-five years ago I was putting in an exorbitant amount of time at my college radio station and attending more shows than I can even remember. Despite what the mainstream press was continually saying it was a great time to be a fan of extreme music.
Heavy metal as a genre in 1996 was careening off into a million different, and often interesting, directions. It was the beginning of what I have since dubbed “The Great European Mellowing” as seemingly every band from across the pond began to soften (and at times darken) their sound. The second wave of black metal was cresting, the death metal flavor at the time was ‘melodic’, and while hardcore bands became a dime a dozen there were several that were just as heavy as anything being played by the kids in denim and long hair. Not to mention the winding paths that grind and doom were treading, while thrash and traditional metal seemed to just be treading water.
With that said I thought it would be an apropos time to look back on 1996 and come up with a list of my favorite albums from that year. I hesitate to call this a ‘best of’ list, but this is certainly a list of albums I probably spent the most time with all those years ago.
Acid Bath – Paegan Terrorism Tactics
If you were to ask me to name some of the most criminally underrated bands in metal history, New Orleans’ Acid Bath might be at the top of my list. Their blend of doom, sludge, and hardcore/punk was drenched in atmosphere. The track listing waffled between blasts of cacophony and serene moments that could often be tear-inducing. Featuring a dual vocal attack and some of the meatiest riffs to slide out of the New Orleans swamps, Acid Bath could be wholly unpredictable in the best of ways. Paegan Terrorism Tactics was their second and final album as sadly their bass player was killed by a drunk driver right around the time of the album’s release. After a couple hometown shows (which through a stroke of luck I was able to attend) the band called it quits, admirably not wanting to continue without their fallen mate. Twenty-five years later this is still one of my favorite records, and yet will always fill me with a little ‘what could have been’ for this band.
Acme – …to reduce the choir to one soloist
I knew virtually nothing about this band before purchasing this album, except that they were German and they were supposedly heavier than a sack of hammers, or at least I was told. I was hooked right from the opening sample from the film Full Metal Jacket, so much so that the second the album came to a close I went back to their distributing label, Edison Recordings, and ordered an Acme hoodie that I wore pretty much all the time and which still hangs in my closet to this day. This album really was (and may still be) the heaviest hardcore album I had heard up to that point. Double bass, tremolo picking, utterly terrifying vocals, this album held my attention with its sheer brutality in ways that very few hardcore records ever have. Even twenty-five years later there are still moments on this record that give me chills. This album was their only full-length and is actually comprised of their entire recorded discography dating as far back as 1993.
Arch Enemy – Black Earth
When you start talking about ‘melodic Swedish death metal’ there are a handful of albums that immediately come to mind, and this is one of them. This was the band’s debut album, with Arch Enemy being formed by the Amott brothers after Michael Amott left Carcass. Black Earth may be the band’s heaviest effort as they pull from various corners of the death metal landscape, specifically what their native Sweden had been churning out the previous six or so years. As my tastes evolved and I once again started to look for death metal that was heavier and faster, I essentially stopped following this band at the turn of the century. That said, I fully stand behind the first three Arch Enemy albums.
Bethlehem – Dictius Te Necare
If you asked me what’s my favorite black metal record, within seconds I’d be mentioning the groundbreaking Dictius Te Necare from German act Bethlehem. I can remember dropping the lights and putting this on the headphones for the first time. Rarely has an album given me such and overwhelming feeling of dread the way this record did (and still does). What I love most about this album is what sets it apart from almost everything else that got lumped into a black metal label in the 1990s. At times it’s as much a doom record as it is black metal. The entire album is soaked in riff-heavy atmosphere and it’s at its most effective when everything is slowed down to a funeral doom-like pace. It also features one of the most ridiculous (in a good way) and frightening vocal performances in metal history. It makes no difference that the lyrics are all in German, when Rainer Landfermann screams you will absolutely feel his pain. They really are the godfathers of what we now call suicidal/depressive black metal, and twenty-five years later this still stands as one of the most unique and influential extreme metal albums the ’90s ever delivered.
Bloodlet – Entheogen
I recently had a discussion with my 14-year old about hardcore music and the ‘scene’ back in the day. One thing that he quickly noted was how heavy all of my favorite hardcore acts were. Bands like Integrity and Coalesce were always top of mind for me and I’d lump Florida’s Bloodlet into that category as well. This band had a way of bending and stretching riffs to their will, creating this sludgy, dark and atmospheric brand of hardcore that often went over a lot of kids heads, especially those looking for the three-chord/punk end of the hardcore spectrum. Entheogen was their first full-length of new material (after their label Victory Records issued the Eclectic compilation of pre-Victory tracks the previous year).
Cavity – Drowning
Speaking of compilation records and brutally heavy bands from Florida, 1996 also gave us the first CD release from the criminally underrated Cavity. Cavity was born out of a vibrant Florida hardcore scene and would often share stages with punk and hardcore bands, but these guys were sludge metal through and through. If you had no idea who they were and threw this record on you’d swear it came stumbling out of the same swamps as Eyehategod and the aforementioned Acid Bath. Drowning featured previously released tracks, including the Human Abjection LP that was released the year before, but as I mentioned this was the first Cavity release to get the CD treatment and therefore was the first that a lot of future fans got to hear. Members of this band would go on to be involved with/form other highly influential acts such as Floor, Torche, and Black Cobra, but Cavity remains a powerful influence unto themselves.
Converge – Petitioning The Empty Sky
By the time this album was released it was already pretty obvious that Converge were head and shoulders above just about every other band they shared a stage with. They were heavier, more violent, and more willing to experiment with their sound than almost all of their contemporaries. This was the album that made me fall in love with this band and being they hailed from the Boston area I was lucky enough to see them obliterate several Connecticut stages before and after this album’s release. We can dither all day about their most recent output but for my money this album is still completely untouchable. (*Link below is to the 2004 reissue which includes several bonus/live tracks.)
Cradle of Filth – Dusk and Her Embrace
Thanks to the success of the film Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice’s books in general, and various vampire-themed role playing games, I can distinctly remember vampires being the sort of monster of choice for a lot of kids in the metal scene by 1996. There was possibly no other band in the world that encompassed that ‘vampiric cult’ aesthetic like England’s Cradle of Filth. Dusk and Her Embrace was their second full-length album, and their first for Music For Nations, which meant their first album with proper distribution in the U.S. I can remember the promo push their U.S. label offices put into this record. It was insane, complete with a special coffin-shaped edition of the album. All the fluff aside, this album is a symphonic black metal fan’s dream. The entire thing has a cinematic/horror movie vibe that I think both the band and the symphonic black metal scene has been chasing ever since with extremely mixed results. No matter what it’s spawned though it shouldn’t detract from how exceptional this record still sounds.
Crisis – Deathshead Extermination
One of my absolute favorite bands from this era was New York City’s Crisis. Mixing elements of hardcore and punk with doom, sludge, and even some thrash, there really was no one like Crisis at the time of this album’s release. Killer riffs, a thundering rhythm section, and vocals that existed in almost every octave, made Crisis an absolute force to be reckoned with, especially in the live setting. Deathshead Extermination was the band’s Metal Blade debut and for a lot of metalheads their first taste of this band. I’m not sure Metal Blade really knew what to do with this band, nor unfortunately did most of the metal scene. They were definitely too esoteric for a large swath of the metal world, yet looking back now their influence can be felt in a lot of different corners of the metal universe. (Not the least of which was the path that their front woman Karyn Crisis blazed for future female extreme vocalists.) It’s a crime this band didn’t get the recognition they deserved when they were still active.
Crowbar – Broken Glass
By the time their fourth full-length album hit the streets New Orleans’ Crowbar were already a household name in the metal scene, thanks in part to having multiple videos show up on MTV. Broken Glass though might be their most complete album up to this point in their careers. It’s the trademark heavy sludge that Crowbar has always been known for but the riffs are thicker, the entire band plays it tighter and the production was the best they had to date. All these years later this still stands as one of my two or three favorite Crowbar albums.
Cryptopsy – None So Vile
While most of the death metal world was trying to figure out how to get more melodic Canada’s Cryptopsy was continuing to throw up as many middle fingers as possible to the trends of the day. Picking up where the brilliant Blasphemy Made Flesh left off, None So Vile is an explosive album packed with some of the most brutal and technical death metal of the day. There’s about ten thousand riffs jammed into this thing and enough virtuoso soloing and crazy time signature changes to keep even the most finicky of metalheads happy. Add in some of my favorite belched/vomited vocals and you’re left with an absolute death metal classic.
Dark Funeral – The Secrets of the Black Arts
By 1996 black metal had already started to water itself down a bit as all scenes tend to do as they grow in popularity. However there was still a lot to be excited about, including the debut full-length album from Sweden’s Dark Funeral. While a little more polished and having better production than a lot of their second wave contemporaries, Dark Funeral certainly didn’t lack in the songwriting department. This is a fierce album that takes its cues from several of the forefathers of the genre while helping to push black metal out of the shadows into more accessible territory. I know that’s supposed to be the ultimate sin for a black metal band, it certainly was at the time, but I defy anyone to try and tell me this album isn’t a black metal masterwork. (*Link below is to the 2013 Century Media reissue which includes an entire second disc of the original Dan Swano mix of the album – which their original guitarist Blackmoon apparently hated.)
Deadguy – Screaming With the Deadguy Quintet
Doing most of my growing up in New Jersey I can safely say that one of my birth state’s proudest heavy music exports is hardcore act Deadguy. After their brilliant Fixation on a Co-Worker album the band splintered, losing their vocalist and guitar player (who would go on to form the equally amazing Kiss It Goodbye). The rest of the band would pick up the pieces and in 1996 delivered their final release Screaming With the Deadguy Quintet. Bringing in the guitar player from Human Remains to play bass and having the album produced by Today Is The Day’s Steve Austin, you can totally see the influence of both those acts on this release. These songs are much more discordant and technical than any previous material and the shift in sound turned off some of their original fan base. I could never completely understand why because I’ve always thought this was some of their best stuff.
Dimmu Borgir – Stormblast
If you like your black metal fast, pissed, as frost filled as a Norwegian winter night, and completely kvlt (I certainly do) then Dimmu Borgir was probably never going to be a band you wrapped your arms around completely. There was really never a point in their career when they couldn’t be considered a symphonic black metal act, and Stormblast is filled with synths and mid-paced romps. But before this band decided to lean extra heavy into their symphonic elements their first handful of albums, this being the finest among them, had enough frostbitten atmosphere to be wholly engaging. It should also be noted that this is the final album where the lyrics are in their native Norwegian, which which seems to add a little extra in the atmosphere department.
Eyehategod – Dopesick
It’s entirely fitting that this band is getting ready to release one of 2021’s most anticipated metal albums, because twenty-five years ago they dropped easily one of the best albums of the year. I’m of the mindset that Eyehategod is one of those rare bands who has lasted more than a decade and never put out a bad record. If forced to choose a favorite though my mind is immediately drawn to Dopesick. This is a record that takes all of their punk-induced aggression and both amplifies it while running it through a swampy grinder. Some of the best riffs and overall performances this band ever put to tape exist on this album and the last time I saw them live (which had to be at least ten years ago now) they were still rightfully pulling tracks from its listing. When I think “sludge metal” this is absolutely the first album that comes to mind. (*Link below is to the 2006 reissue which includes remastered/bonus tracks.)
Gorgoroth – Antichrist
Long before this band was known for various controversies on and off stage, Gorogorth were one of the more heralded of the second wave black bands to emerge from Norway in the mid-1990s. Out of all their pre-Nuclear Blast era material, Antichrist seems to have held up the best. It’s a blistering, frosty blast of black metal not unlike what you’d hear from such storied acts as Darkthrone and early Bathory. In a year where black metal started to spread its blackened wings into unknown territories it was actually refreshing to have a band like Gorgoroth around to keep things ‘trve kvlt’.
His Hero Is Gone – Fifteen Counts of Arson
There aren’t many examples of bands who didn’t stick around long, yet left a lasting impression the way Memphis crust punk/d-beat act His Hero Is Gone did. For a band that only released three full-length albums over the course of three years, this one being the first, they’ve spawned about 8,000 imitators at least. This was one of the last albums I can remember tape trading for, which in and of itself gives it nostalgia points for me. But beyond the novelty of tape trading for it, this album had a profound impact on me at a time when my own political views were becoming more and more agitated. It was the perfect album at the time for so many reasons, and not the least of which is because it was one of the angriest records I had ever heard up to that point. The catharsis was real when you listened to this album, and it still is.
In Flames – The Jester Race
Within the realm of melodic death metal was the “Gothenburg sound”, named so after the bevy of bands that called Gothenburg, Sweden home. One of the pioneers of this sub-genre within a sub-genre was In Flames. Long before this band would go completely off the rails they’d spend the ’90s putting out some quality melodic death metal releases. The Jester Race was their Nuclear Blast debut and the album that really broke the band to bigger audiences, especially in North America where they would eventually wind up playing the famed Milwaukee Metalfest shortly after. While I wouldn’t call this their best album it was one I spent a lot of time with and still enjoy to this day.
Katatonia – Brave Murder Day
One of the bands to lean hard into the “Great European Mellowing” in the years immediately following 1996 was Sweden’s Katatonia. However, much like their British counterparts in Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, and Anathema, Katatonia would start out as a Gothic-tinged death/doom outfit. There were clean vocals and clear signs of the progression they were making with their sound, but Brave Murder Day was the last truly heavy album this band would release before completely shifting to a more progressive alt rock style. If you are like me and prefer the heavier stuff it stands as their best release to date. Interesting note about this album: Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth did the harsh vocals as their own vocalist could no longer perform them due to medical issues.
Mortician – Hacked Up For Barbecue
There are two things you can always count on with a Mortician record – unrelenting brutality and lots of amazing horror movie samples. Hacked Up For Barbecue is chock full of both. If you’re looking for anything that falls even in the same stadium as melodic death metal you are barking up the wrong corpse with this band. Mortician has prided themselves on being one of the heaviest and most extreme bands in the metal underground since their inception, and this record certainly helps cement that legacy.
My Dying Bride – Like Gods of the Sun
If you’re a reader of this site you may already know that my personal favorite metal album from 2020 belonged to none other than British doom legends My Dying Bride. I’ve been a fan of this band for over 30 years now and as their sound started to fade from death doom into more Gothic territories I was absolutely down for the ride. Like Gods of the Sun picked up where the previous year’s The Angel and The Dark River left off. The growling vocals were nowhere to be found and the keyboards continued to find prominence. Unlike a lot of their contemporaries though My Dying Bride’s shift in sound was much less dramatic at this point as evidenced by the number of killer, doom-laden riffs woven into this album. The whole thing is soaked in ethereal aesthetics and Gothic atmosphere and if I had a dollar for every time the lights went down and I allowed this album to reach my inner moody Goth I’d be a very rich man.
Neurosis – Through Silver In Blood
I think you would be hard-pressed to find an album on this list or any other as influential as Neurosis’ masterwork Through Silver In Blood. A million bands have tried (and often failed) to imitate not just Neurosis, but this album in particular. While previous efforts saw the band work up to this moment, this is the album that saw them shed much of their hardcore punk roots in exchange for the esoteric sound that would come to define the last twenty-five years of their existence. This album also had a profound impact on me personally as well. It literally changed my views not just on heavy music, but music in general. I had never heard anything like it and to me it was the aural equivalent to the end times. I could imagine the world crashing down in spectacular fashion and this album playing as the soundtrack. I still can actually. It would not be an understatement to say that this is one of the most important metal albums the 1990s produced.
Opeth – Morningrise
While Mikael Akerfeldt was moonlighting as Katatonia’s harsh vocalist, his own band was piecing together one of their finest albums. I sometimes feel like Morningrise gets lost in discussions about Opeth’s back catalogue because it’s sandwiched between two of their most critically lauded albums – 1995’s Orchid and 1998’s My Arms, Your Hearse. In actuality it’s the perfect bridge between the two and an album that could easily stand upon its own merits. Originally consisting of only five tracks clocking in at a whopping 66 minutes in length Opeth certainly held nothing back in composing songs that were as cinematic as their sound would take them at that point in their career.
Satyricon – Nemesis Divina
Hands down one of my favorite albums to come out of the Norwegian black metal scene is the third offering from second wave legends Satyricon. Nemesis Divina was head and shoulders above their two previous albums, and you could make a very compelling argument that to this day it remains as one of the greatest and most influential releases the black metal genre has ever scene. This was one of several albums that cemented my love for black metal and one that I find myself still revisiting to this day.
Type O Negative – October Rust
Last but certainly not least is the only record on this list that I know of to go certified Gold here in the U.S. This album saw the “Drab Four” shift their sound away from their heavier doom roots to a sound that was much more accessible to the masses (which makes me wonder why it didn’t sell more records in all honesty). There were actual ballads scattered all over this album, a raucous Neil Young cover, and it was the first time they had moved away from this sort of Goth/vampire motif they had going on their previous releases. Yet at the same time this album features some of their most depressive works and even the ballads are brimming with dread, loneliness, and misery. I fell in love with this album the second I heard it and it still stands as one of my absolute favorite Type O records. If pressed to name the album I’ve listened to the most since 1996 it very well could be this one.