The bands that made 2016 a special year for metal

A photograph of Steve Harris on stage
(Image: © John McMurtrie)

The newcomer

Will Gardner is still stunned by Black Peaks’ incredible rise

his time last year, only the most clued-up music fans were aware of Brighton’s Black Peaks. But 12 months on, they’ve become one of the most promising bands in the country, with a string of high-profile shows to their name. So meteoric has their rise been that even frontman Will Gardner struggles to comprehend what’s happened. “I think most boxes, in terms of life, have been ticked off in one year,” he laughs today. “It’s been exhausting, but the best year that we’ve ever had. It’s nice to be back and have time to reflect. We’ve been back for two weeks after the tour with Heck – we went to Ukraine, Czech Republic, Holland… all over the world this summer. We’ve done Download… the list has been ridiculous.”

But in among all this, one event stood out: the band’s frankly show-stealing performance at Wembley Arena supporting Deftones. Six months on, Will is still coming to terms with the magnitude of that night. “So crazy,” he says, with a shake of his head. “I remember the drive up there, we got caught in traffic, and it was quite stressful. Then you get through the gates at Wembley, and all of their trucks and flight cases are there. That was when we went ,‘OH HO HO! FUUUUUCCCCKKKK!’ They were in the middle of soundcheck when we got there, and that’s when it felt real. I think the word coming offstage was ‘elated’. It was such a rush. But it felt like a dress rehearsal – I want to do it again…”

But none of this would have been possible without Statues, one of the strongest debut releases from a young British band in living memory. The response to the album has been the foundation of all of 2016’s success. “It’s been amazing, and it’s been great to see other bands that we look up to enjoy it,” nods Will. “I mean, we saw Architects in a photoshoot, and they were wearing our shirts. For a band that was such an influence on us… it’s such an honour. And to go to a place like the Ukraine and have 1,000 people singing back all the words to, not just singles, album tracks… so insane.” If this momentum continues, it’s only going to get more insane for Black Peaks.

There’s no stopping the rise of Black Peaks

There’s no stopping the rise of Black Peaks
(Image: © Derek Bremner)

The veteran

Steve Harris was elated to see his Maiden bandmate back in fine form

It’s just wonderful to be back playing!” beams Steve Harris, when we ask him about Iron Maiden’s 2016. It’s the kind of sentiment most bands would happily trot out, but in this case it’s particularly pertinent: this year saw Iron Maiden hit the road for the first time since Bruce Dickinson’s cancer scare. While any music force as far into their career as Maiden will always have to fight off doubters as each touring cycle looms – ‘Can they still hack it?’ ‘Can they still cut it?’ – there were almighty doubts over Bruce’s ability to bounce back from a disease that could have taken his life, let alone his career.

“We didn’t know how long it was gonna take for Bruce to get better,” admits Steve. “All the decisions were down to him, but he wanted to do this recent tour, and you just have to hope and pray that he’s gonna be alright for that amount of time. You just never know. We didn’t know if he’d come back 100%, but he seemed to be fine!”

While showing a few understandable signs of ring rust during Maiden’s earlier shows on this run, Bruce seemed to be in fine form come the metal legends’ stellar headline set at Download in June – all which bodes well for their UK tour next May. For now, Maiden are thrilled to look back on a year which proved, perhaps more than any other, that there really is no stopping them.

“We’re just happy to be here after Bruce’s scare,” Steve affirms. It’s fantastic to have a future again. It was a bigger gap than normal this time after everything that happened, and everything is sacred these days.”

Johan Hegg

Johan Hegg
(Image: © Mick Hutson)

The pillager

Johan Hegg took Amon Amarth on a successful rampage

From supporting Iron Maiden, to setting fire to Download festival and the Golden Gods, to releasing Jomsviking – their first-ever Viking concept album based on a film script written by frontman Johan Hegg – it’s safe to say Swedish barbarians Amon Amarth slayed metal in 2016. “It’s so hard to pick a highlight,” says frontman/warrior Johan Hegg. “It’s been amazing, but I’m especially proud of our achievement with Jomsviking. Lyrically, it’s our most ambitious album, and we pulled it off exactly how I envisioned. I think we’re in a better position now than we’ve ever been.”

The maverick

Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt sang from his own, proggy hymn sheet

After 25 years spent warping the boundaries of heavy music, Mikael Åkerfeldt’s 2016 turned out to be his biggest and best year yet. Opeth’s 12th studio album, Sorceress, emerged to near-universal acclaim in October, and if further proof were needed that progressive metal is more popular than ever, the Swedes’ triumphant headline show at Wembley Arena in November felt like a significant milestone. “We’re enjoying this more than ever before,” Mikael tells us. “I feel like we’ve crossed a line, and it’s almost like we can keep going forever now.” Prog on, you crazy diamonds.”

Killswitch Engage's Jesse Leach

Killswitch Engage's Jesse Leach

The explorer

Killswitch Engage’s Jesse Leach set sail on a voyage of self-discovery

It’s been a trying but rewarding year for Killswitch Engage frontman Jesse Leach. In January, the band released their seventh album, Incarnate. It was, as Jesse told us at the time, the most personal record of his career. He’d been on ‘vision quests’, where he’d walk through woods and mountains, digging deep within his psyche to come up with lyrics.

“It’s quite liberating for me looking back on that record,” says Jesse. “Now I’m out of it, I can see how important it was for me to release all that stuff. I was definitely trying to work out where I was and what headspace I was in. It’s the most open and honest interpretation of a person trying to find themselves – that’s what that record is about.”

He is so proud of Incarnate, he hopes to include more of its material in future shows. “I still feel really good about it,” he tells us. “In fact, I wish we were playing more songs from it in our live set. We’re pretty divided in our camp in that respect. But it was the most growth that we’ve experienced together as a band, and I want to carry on that momentum.”

Jesse is continuing to grow as a person, as evidenced by his plans for the future. After sorting out his own demons on Incarnate, he hopes the next Killswitch Engage album can sort out the rest of the planet. “The next record will focus more on the world at large,” he says. “I’m looking forward at the current situation the world finds itself in, and I think it’s gone to shit.” With a refocused, confident Jesse Leach back in business, things have never looked better for Killswitch Engage.

The conquerer

Su-metal has led Babymetal to ever-bigger stages

Clearly unaware of April Fool’s Day, Babymetal renamed April 1 ‘Fox Day’ and released second album Metal Resistance, before storming Wembley Arena the next day. But it was their two-night stand at the 55,000-capacity Tokyo Dome in September that revealed how far the idol/metal mash-up crew have come. During power ballad The One, light-up neck braces worn by the crowd created a dramatic backdrop. “That was the best moment,” says Su-metal. “The whole Dome was lit up. It was very moving to think that every light in the audience represented someone who came to the venue just for us.”

But the singer’s personal favourite moment came when they performed with metal legend Rob Halford, running through Painkiller and Breaking The Law. “Everything about standing onstage with the metal god was exhilarating, stunning and really fun!” she smiles.

The last 12 months have proved to be such a whirlwind for the band, who have played countless concerts at home and have swept through the States, that Su-metal once forgot where she was. “During one show, I shouted out the wrong city name when calling out to the audience,” she recalls. “It was so embarrassing. I don’t want that to ever happen again!”

As momentum keeps building for this fast-rising phenomenon, she’s easily forgiven. Ending 2016 with a high-profile, mainstream- busting slot supporting the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, she’s aware her band are blazing a trail for other Japanese artists. “I’m really glad that people from outside Japan have become interested in Japanese music, with Babymetal opening the door for them,” she says. “During the tour, I’ve realised that we have to continue pressing forward through uncharted roads.” All hail the road of resistance.

(Image: © Justin Borucki)

The trailblazer

Ben Weinman dissolved Dillinger and smashed his ambitions

Even by their own absurdly wild standards, 2016 has been crazy for The Dillinger Escape Plan. To announce their forthcoming split while simultaneously releasing their finest album, Dissociation, was typical of their unpredictable nature. “It was really difficult to get done, but we’re really happy with it,” guitarist Ben Weinman tells us. “We’ve had an overwhelming response.” It was also a banner year for Ben, who focused on his Party Smasher label and released Broken Lines, the debut album from his supergroup, Giraffe Tongue Orchestra. “It feels like I’ve had so many goals over the last 10 years that I’ve achieved in 2016,” he says. “There’s a theory that every seven years, you make a change, both physically and spiritually, and that feels like this year.”

The optimist

Beartooth’s Caleb Shomo finally exorcised his demons

After years of battling depression, Beartooth frontman Caleb Shomo finally conquered his demons, admitting to feeling happier and more stable in 2016. Second album Aggressive rages at the precious time he lost to mental health problems. “It can get a little intense when I’m alone in my basement making songs that are all pissed off, but this record was worth it,” he says. “I will always have stuff I’m angry about, and Beartooth will always be my outlet for those things. But I have done a lot of moving forward as a person.”

The partier

Airbourne kept the revelry going with their biggest album yet

Airbourne party. That’s what they do. But what happens when there’s a real reason to rage? Like, say, celebrating a Top 10 UK album? “When we heard the news, we were like, fuck!” says frontman Joel O’Keeffe. “It was one of those times where the cup was never empty. We drank all night.” That’s what Airbourne represent. Drinking and rocking. The clue’s in the title: “Breakin’ Outta Hell means breaking out of any shit situation you find yourself in. It’s the fist that punches through all that negative shit.” And what’s next for the band? “Tour, tour, tour,” says Joel. Excellent news.

The visionary

Chino Moreno guided Deftones through musical tensions

Before Deftones released eighth album Gore, guitarist Stephen Carpenter admitted he hadn’t wanted to play on it, clashing with the band over their musical direction. “We’ve always had different ideas about the way we approach music,” explains Chino. “We get along very well, but we’re both very intense about what we want to do. For the first part of making the record, Stephen was sitting in a corner with his hands folded. He was in his own world. That’s OK, we supported him, he supported us, and then in the 11th hour, he started to get into it. For that reason, this is the record you got.” The result was a texturally luscious representation of Deftones in 2016. “I like it,” Chino says. “Had Stef been a little more collaborative earlier on, could it have been better? Who knows.”

The humanitarian

Lamb Of God’s Randy Blythe paid tribute to his buddy

Lamb Of God surprised everyone at the end of this year by releasing EP The Duke. Its stately title track honoured Wayne Ford, a fan of the band who lost his life to cancer. ‘This world has grown too small, I can’t stay much longer. My body begins to fail as my spirit grows stronger’, Randy Blythe sings, before screaming ‘I will never die’.

“He was a really cool dude who I had a brief but meaningful interaction with towards the end of his life,” Randy tells us. “He was my friend, ya know? I felt he deserved to be remembered.”

After meeting at a show a couple of years back, the two began calling and texting each other, shooting the shit about their lives and forging a firm friendship. Wayne sadly passed away while the band were in the studio recording 2015’s VII: Sturm Und Drang, leading the band to write the song. Randy talks about their connection with the kind of dignified respect we’ve come to know him for.

“I don’t know if it’s that easy to compartmentalise the experience into some sort of Hallmark Card-esque trite summary, like ‘Life lessons with a terminal fan’, or whatever,” he says. “From afar, I was privileged enough to witness a young man face his mortality with great dignity and grace – that’s something that has to be experienced to be understood. That exact experience may not be available to everyone, but I think that a lot of people in our ridiculously youth-obsessed society could do with a little introspection about the nature of mortality – we seem to be losing touch with it. Take the time to talk to some old people about their lives and listen to what they have to say.”

As well as paying tribute through his music, Randy arranged an auction of Lamb Of God memorabilia (which included his own Ashes Of The Wake gold record plaque) to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. It’s his way of taking action against a disease that claims the lives of millions of loved ones.

“It means a concrete way to help people who suffer from blood-related cancers, and a way to help fund research for a possible cure,” he says. “So send them some money instead of going out for drinks one weekend, ya know?”

The patriot

Bury Tomorrow’s Dani Winter-Bates is proud to be repping the UK metal scene

Bury Tomorrow started 2016 by putting out the career-best Earthbound. “Releasing the record so early in the year really set us off with a bang,” vocalist Dani Winter-Bates tells us. “And we’ve been riding off its momentum ever since. Getting to play two Brixton Academy dates – one with Parkway Drive and one with Architects – it’s been pretty crazy.” They’re also aware they’re flying the flag for UK metal, with their success making them increasingly visible outside our borders. “We’re one of a very small number of British bands doing this,” says Dani. “It’s nice to be able to be held up against our US counterparts that inspired us to form a band.”

(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

The captain

Ahren Stringer steered The Amity Affliction through choppy waters

When we caught up with The Amity Affliction before the release of their fifth album, This Could Be Heartbreak, in August, frontman Joel Birch revealed the toll depression and alcoholism had taken on him during its conception. Looking back, bassist and vocalist Ahren Stringer sees it as 2016’s defining chapter. “Putting out a record is always the highlight of being in a band, but it was a bittersweet release,” he says, contemplating the drastic peaks and troughs of the year. “Joel’s bout of depression was a real low point, but for better or worse, it had to happen, and everyone came out in a better position because of it.”Not only is Joel healthier and happier than he’s ever been, putting his energies offstage into spray-painting trains rather than joining the others in the post-show drinking, the band are riding the crest of their ever-expanding fanbase’s rabid reaction to the album. It’s led to bigger shows in their native Australia as well as Europe and, crucially, the States.

“You make it in America, you make it everywhere, basically,” says Ahren, clearly elated at the band’s continued upward trajectory. “For some reason, every album we put out is better than the last, so we’re doing something right!”

Whatever the formula for Amity’s triumphs, Ahren and the band are aiming to capitalise on the momentum with a follow-up to This Could Be Heartbreak coming soon. They expect to start writing in mid-2017, but the ideas are already flowing.

“Some people say we always sound the same, and every album is a different version of the last. But we don’t take much notice of that, and I personally think every album sounds drastically different,” says Ahren. “We’re going to try a lot of new things on this next one and see what happens. I think it’ll be a surprise for everyone.”

The defender

Lacuna Coil’s Cristina Scabbia challenged the stigma of mental illness

Back in May, Lacuna Coil released eighth album Delirium, their heaviest collection of music in years. Set in a hospital and telling the stories of patients there, it reflected Cristina’s emotional struggle with having a mentally ill family member. “This year has been trying,” she says. “I had lots of personal things that challenged me. When you have family illness, it can be hard to cope sometimes. But that inspired the record, and we are so happy with how that came out. We were so excited to share this concept and this idea with people, and it feels like everyone has really bought into what we tried to do. I feel like it’s brought us a brand new audience, as well as making the fans we already had very happy. ”

The preacher

King 810’s David Gunn shone a bright light on America’s social turmoil

Metal’s most controversial band returned with a second album, La Petite Mort Or A Conversation With God, which blew minds with its densely layered intensity. Frontman David Gunn opened up even more about his troubled upbringing and the social disintegration that King 810 have defied by making such a mark on the world of heavy music. Metal’s foremost street sermoniser seemed to hit his stride this year. “All you get from me is the truth,” he states. “But on this record there is a positive message at the end. Living through the shit I’m singing about can make you stronger. It’s made me a stronger man.”

(Image: © Getty Images)

The moderniser

Jordan Fish and Bring Me The Horizon have triumphed in the face of adversity

Continuing their march as one of the biggest crossover success stories ever, 2016 was another year of triumph for Bring Me. From Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, to playing with an orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, to a massive UK arena tour, their transition to the mainstream seemed complete. But it was a debut performance at Glastonbury that really stood out for keyboardist Jordan Fish.

“We were quite worried about it,” he says. “We didn’t have any idea if it was going to be good or a complete disaster, because it’s such a different crowd for us. It was something we thought about when we got the offer – is no one going to show up, or are they going to chuck stuff at us? But it was one of the best festivals we played all summer. I feel like people aren’t so bothered by being really genre-specific as they once were.”

But away from the glowing string of professional achievements, BMTH struggled personally. “The band is the only thing that has kept us going,” Jordan reveals. “I’ve had problems with my baby boy being poorly and Oli is going through a divorce. It’s been a really good year for the band, but tough for us as people. It’s hard to get a measure of the year because it’s been so extreme.”

Next year will see he and Oli climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at University Hospital Southampton, where Jordan’s son has received treatment. “Yeah… I’m not in training yet,” he laughs, when asked how he’s preparing for the hike. “I’m kind of hoping that I can just turn up and do it. I mean, if Chris Moyles can do it! Come on!” The way things are going for BMTH, it should be a doddle.

The Messiah

Cane Hill’s Elijah Witt declared himself your own personal Jesus

When Cane Hill appeared on the scene, they were hailed as nu metal revivalists. Debut album Smile, out in July, was filled with the kind of downtuned riffs and catchy hooks that dominated our world at the turn of the century – though frontman Elijah Witt continues to dispute the label. “I still fervently believe we’re not nu metal,” he states.

The genre of the music wasn’t the only thing being discussed; lead single The (New) Jesus cast Elijah as a saviour, and they put their own version of The 10 Commandments on social media. The album reflected his views on issues such as women’s rights and sexuality, and the track Cream Pie, which features a sample of an adult movie starring a plus-size actress, led Metal Hammer to question whether his feminism left something to be desired. “I was quoted as saying that men aren’t attracted to larger women,” Elijah says. “But I was just trying to say we were using something that wasn’t commonly seen as your ideal attractive as built by societal ideas. I didn’t like that quote, because it made me seem like a dense fool.”

Elijah says he’s learning about feminism “every single day through what women can tell me, what I can read about, and what I can observe myself”, but that he wants the next album to focus less on societal issues and to be more “introspective”.

Cane Hill also supported Insane Clown Posse, in what seemed like an unexpected move, but Elijah says it came about because the bands have the same booking agent. Whether Juggalos will be receptive of the progressive message in their music, though, is something he isn’t “going to touch”.

As for future plans, he’d like to return to our shores. “The UK and Europe seem to hang on the idea that music is an art, not just a commodity or passing trend,” he says. “Everything we’ve done has gone better in the UK, and we’ve only been here once!”

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