I haven’t gone to many shows since the election in November—honestly, I’m doing great if I make it out of the house. And over the summer I missed Ghost, Inquisition, and Rotting Christ, all of which would’ve been great. But I still saw a metric fuckton of excellent metal in 2016—the top-shelf acts that didn’t make my final five include Vektor, Obituary, Tribulation, the Melvins, Behemoth, Babymetal, Grave Miasma, Pallbearer, Cloud Rat, and Gorguts. Live metal remains one of my favorite ways to subdue the thinking parts of my brain—and given how much horrifying shit our president-elect and his grotesque minions have been shoveling into my head, I urgently need periodic breaks from the poisoned air in there.
I like to bring up Mongolian folk-metal band Tengger Cavalry (now based in New York) to persuade skeptics that metal is as international as hip-hop. I’ve been following this group for five years, which gave me lots of time to look forward to their Chicago debut this spring. Folk-metal crowds are good for jumping up and down with your arms around strangers, and the fans at this show were an endearing mix of nerdy heshers and excited Chinese people—I saw one statuesque woman wearing a chain-mail tunic. Tengger Cavalry’s energetic songs borrow the galloping feel and melancholy austerity of traditional Mongolian music, and their riffs hammer with a taut, inexorable heartbeat. You can almost see armored horsemen sweeping across the steppes, and the bloated orange corpse of Donald Trump bristling with the arrows of the Golden Horde.
Dragged Into Sunlight at Reggie’s Rock Club on July 6
In 2012, I put my first Dragged Into Sunlight show on this list. “The music roars out of a thick fog lit only by a blood-red glow and a spasming strobe,” I wrote. “It feels like a massive evil seizure—imagine being trapped inside Dr. Jekyll’s brain at the instant he turns into Mr. Hyde.” This Liverpool four-piece is still playing some of the same material from that set—noisome, misanthropic death metal that reconfigures its heaving bulk at the speed of thought, like a Lovecraftian horror that feeds on our terrified imaginings of it. But they’ve tightened their performances ruthlessly since then, so that it’s as if that tentacled monstrosity had built itself a suit of mechanized armor. It can strike with such precision and force that if you blink at the wrong moment, you might miss it pinning Donald Trump to a wall with a six-foot spike between his piggy little eyes.
In my preview of this show, I compared the lunging, turbulent fury of Yellow Eyes’ Sick With Bloom to a swift mountain stream after the thaw: cold, tightly channeled, and carrying its own broken skin of ice in a million jagged pieces. They’re even more powerful onstage, because their drummer pushes himself so painfully hard that you can hear every crack of the snare even in his most frenzied blastbeats. The vagaries of live amplification turn most black-metal percussion into a hissing wash punctuated with rapid-fire kick drum, but Yellow Eyes drive their swooping, tensely beautiful riffs with a battering barrage. The river is rising fast, chewing at the feet of the bridge—and tenderizing the bear-gnawed carcass of Donald Trump as it tumbles over rocks in the rapids.
False at the Empty Bottle on September 2
This show wasn’t just the second time I’d seen my favorite live band in American black metal—it was also the debut of Chicago’s version of Swedish festival Scorched Tundra and Oozing Wound’s first public gig with new drummer Casey Marnocha. Ordinarily I can understand so few black-metal lyrics that I never bother learning an entire song, but every so often a band has such a way with words that I go to the trouble of looking them up, reading through them along with the record, and committing them to memory. Mgła definitely qualify, and so do False. The frenzied, cathartic “Saturnalia” closes with a bleak and beautiful incantation: “For from death, comes life. And with life comes sacrifice. And with sacrifice comes our sorrow. And ever turns the wheel, over and over.” During those lines, I got a little choked up—something that’s never happened to me at a black-metal show before, and a testament to the range of emotions False can evoke. I shut my eyes and wiped away the tears. And when I opened them, a flurry of floating ash—twinkling in the stage lights and settling slowly to the floor—was all that remained of Donald Trump.
Meshuggah’s glitchy, labyrinthine death metal doesn’t just shift gears—it whips and stutters and jumps sideways into pocket dimensions. Sometimes their songs sound like slipping chains, or like somebody keeps restarting the YouTube stream. Drummer Tomas Haake loves to play a steady ride against a fractally convoluted patchwork of exotic time signatures—and following that steady, comforting beat while the rest of the song goes haywire is like trying to hang on to your constituent particles while you’re being sucked through a wormhole. Onstage, Meshuggah sync their light show to the complicated shit—dazzling detonations of strobes, pulsing batteries of colored LEDs, choreographed sweeps of spot beams. The obliterating volume and complexity of the music, in tandem with the blinding lights—which all point into the crowd, not at the band—are enough to fry Donald Trump’s rudimentary nervous system, so that a smoking black goo trickles from his useless ears and dead eye sockets. v